Deeds and (Dubious) Seeds

July 30, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Prediction is pretty easy, at least about the past.* Take the case of Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben, as we all know (well, maybe not all of us, but those of us who follow important matters, i.e., the Steelers), was quarterback for Pittsburgh in two recent Superbowl seasons (2005-06, 2008-09. But has also behaved badly off the field – a motorcycle accident (sans helmet), sexual assaults.

This should have come as no surprise. The signs were all there, waiting to be read. At least, that’s the gist of the headlines in the story featured on page one of today’s New York Times sports section.
A Reputation in Ruins
Long before his recent troubles, Roethlisberger, driven by athletics, showed signs of a sense of entitlement even at a young age.
How could we not have foreseen this? According to the headlines, since childhood apparently, Ben had been a six-game suspension waiting to happen. Here’s the logic:
  • A few incidents of bad behavior show that Ben has some character/personality trait (recklessness, sexual assaultiveness).

  • Because personality is an enduring part of our psychological make-up, he must have had these traits long ago.
The trouble is that nothing in the actual story supports this idea. Young Roethlisberger appears as a very competitive athlete, constantly working on his skills, though as a red-shirted freshman in college he often skipped the 5 a.m. weight-training. He was shy with girls, very respectful of his parents, and he didn’t drink even at high school parties where others did. The worst that the article can find to say is that his competitiveness led him to focus on himself at the expense of paying attention to his teammates.

The story of Roethlisberger’s pre-Superbowl life has absolutely nothing that foreshadows what the NFL, in its suspending him, called “a pattern of behavior and bad judgments.”

Making assumptions about someone’s past may not be the fundamental attribution error, but it’s close. We start with the idea that behavior is caused by personality traits, and we add an assumption of life-course consistency – the child is father to the man. And apparently a headline writer’s heart leaps up when he beholds a chance to impose those assumptions on a public figure. The online version (“Ben Roethlisberger’s Journey to Notoriety”) carries this subhead:
The seeds of the NFL quarterback’s problems, including
accusations of sexual assault, were sown long ago.
What seeds? The story itself (by Thayer Evans), which gives no evidence of these seeds, is quite sensible. It’s the headlines that are the problem. I suspect that the headline writer skimmed the story rapidly if at all, saw that it was about Roethlisberger’s past, and plugged in the erroneous psychological assumptions, taking Roethlisberger’s unremarkable teen years and turning them into something seedy.

* “Making predictions is very hard, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra (unsourced)

Price and Consequences

July 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Penn Station news stand this morning. The young man ahead of me has stacked his two items on the counter – a book (50 Great Short Stories) and a pack of Marlboros. He shows an ID card to the cashier, an East Indian woman. He knows the drill.

She taps the Marlboro pack. “This is fifteen dollars,” she says

He pauses, then nods. “O.K.” He takes a twenty out of his wallet.

She rings up the sale. “Twenty-two sixty,” she says.

The young man seems puzzled for a moment. Then he brings out his wallet again and takes out a ten.

As I pay for my newspaper ($2), I ask, “Most people, when you tell them it’s fifteen dollars, do they still buy it or do they walk away?”

“Most no.”

“Because they’re going to quit, or because they can get it cheaper someplace else?”*

“No, I think maybe they go home and think about it.”

*The price at most places is $11 a pack. Philip Morris filed a federal suit yesterday against eight NYC retailers for selling counterfeit Marlboros.

The Kids Are Always Right

July 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In American movies and TV, the kids are usually more than all right. They are superior to adults in every way. As I tried to show in an earlier post, they are more intelligent, more sensible, and more competent.

“The Kids Are All Right” offers a variation on this theme. The film uses an old device – a stranger arrives into a group, and his relationship with each of its members makes for tectonic shifts, exposing fault lines in the group structure. In this case, the group is a family – a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and their two teenage children. The movie plot is set motion when the daughter having just turned 18, uses her new legal status, at her brother’s urging, to find out who their biological father is. So in comes Mark Ruffalo with a special relation to each member of the family. He is sperm donor to both mothers, biological father to both kids.

[For a better plot summary, watch the trailer.]

The movie isn’t “Ferris Bueller” (foolish, vindictive adults continually outwitted by clever teenagers), but here too, for the most part, the kids are right, and the adults are wrong. Brother and sister make the right decisions – each starts the film with an offensive friend, and each deals with the problem decisively. It’s the moms who can’t sort out the difficulties in their relationship. Jules (Moore) has never stuck with a career, and in the course of the movie she gives in to impulsive lust. Nic (Bening) is jealous and controlling and tends to drink a bit too much wine. Even their sex life keeps hitting snags and interruptions. Paul (Ruffalo) is cute and likable, but ultimately not much of a grown-up.

The kids are really a proxy for the audience here. Like the audience in the theater, the kids find out about all the adults’ missteps (they are constantly overhearing the grown-ups, either by accident or by design). And like the audience, even when the kids say nothing, they seem to be standing in moral judgment. The adults sense this too. If you see the movie (and it’s certainly worth seeing) try counting the number of times that the adults apologize to the teenagers.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” departs from the usual child-adult scenarios of comedy (children outwit adults), romantic comedy (children manipulate adults), or drama (children redeem adults).* Instead, the kids learn that grown-up life is complicated and that relationships and people are not perfect. Or as Julianne Moore declaims to the family at the end, just in case someone missed the point, “Marriage is hard.”

*Only very rarely do we get an American film like “Parenthood,” where kids are just ordinary kids, and our sympathy lies with the parents who must endure and try to cope with their children’s shortcomings.

Underground Music

July 22, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you get from the rockabilly of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to the doo-wop of Franie Valli? Well, if you’re in New York, you can walk uptown from Million Dollar Quartet to Jersey Boys. Eleven blocks of separation, one stop on the subway.

There are more sophisticated ways of visualizing connectedness and distance. Christakis and Fowler create attractive graphics of networks of people – they have several in their book Connected – like this one of Facebook photos of 353 students – smiling (yellow), serious (blue), mixed (green).

A fuller explanation is here.

With music, you can be less scientific and use the London Underground map.

(Click on the map for a larger view.)

To get from Elvis to Isaac Hayes, you take the Blues/Country line and change at James Brown for the Funk line. Some performers offer more connections – they are more central or nodal.

The map was created by Dorian Lynskey in early 2006, so you probably already knew about it, but it was new to me. You might have mapped things differently. Lynskey has Michael Jackson on only one line (Soul) while Basemant Jaxx spans four (Electronica & Dance, Pop, Rock, Soul) and Bjork five.

If you don’t like Lynskey’s version, you can download the map into your graphics program and make your own.