Choosing Junk

May 8, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some people, many people in fact, prefer junk food. They buy it even when the food labels and the fast food outlets post the caloric counts and ingredients that tell them it’s junk 

If you assume that Google’s auto-complete reflects volume, many people also prefer junk news and information.
Andrew Gelman  links to this article comparing our media diet to junk food.  Here’s a screen shot of an excerpt, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Angry Birdbrains

May 7, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you don’t like the way the majority votes, it’s always tempting to attribute their behavior to ignorance, emotion, or some other nonrational or inferior mental state.  

Here is this morning’s Wall Street Journal headline about the election in France:

Voter Anger Sweeps Europe

Most newspapers headlines reported the French election as a matter of policy.  The voters rejected economic policies of austerity – not so illogical, since there was little evidence that those policies were working.  But the headline writers at the WSJ saw the French majority as letting their emotions get the best of them.  The WSJ story reports only on France, but the headline sees all of Europe as caught up in this contagious emotion. 

Voters do sometimes share emotions.  Hope and optimism characterized a segment of Obama voters in 2008, and there was probably systematic evidence for that description.  Two years later, the Tea Partiers were often angry (they still are).

Anger might have been the principle motive yesterday in France, but the WSJ story offers only two bits of evidence:
  • 20% voted for far-right candidate Marine LePen two weeks ago in the premier tour
  • only 81% of the electorate actually went to the polls
The WSJ writers assume that those they disagree with (LePen backers) must be voting their emotions.  The same goes for “center-right” voters who voted for Hollande.  According to the WSJ story, they were “angered by [Sarkozy's] swing to the far right.

Ah, what to do about those irrational voters?  In 1970, when Chileans democratically elected Salvador Allende, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, in a now famous quote, “I see no reason why we should allow a country to go Communist just because of the irresponsibility of its citizens.”

Unlike Kissinger, the WSJ is not underwriting a coup against the Socialists.  Not yet.

Fashion, Food, and Drink

May 5, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes the tide of fashion flows uphill. 

I heard Ruth Reichl speak at “Foodstock,” a mini-conference at Wesleyan University.  The interviewer, Faith Middleton,  asked her if food was subject to fashion.  Absolutely, said Reichl, and the fashions are always related to class.  Reichl is a wonderful food writer and editor, and I assume she knows her food social history.  The example she gave was from ancient Rome. 

After the onstage interview was over, I asked her if fashions in food, like those in clothing and names,* diffuse downward through the class system. 

Yes, she said, but sometimes it goes the other way.  Right now, chefs in high-end restaurants are drawing inspiration from the ethnic food trucks that have sprung up in the last few years.  She added that a similar trend sometimes happens with clothing – a street fashion gets picked up by trendy designers, who tweak it slightly and send it onto the runways, though with a price tag that would make the original wearers gasp. 

Right, I thought – blue jeans.  These had always been cheap and durable – qualities that made them ideal as work clothes for people who labored outdoors, or play clothes for kids.   Then in the 1970s, Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein, and others reached down through the class strata, hauled them up, tightened the fit, and gave us “designer jeans.”

Another example might be beer, long an ordinary, working-class sort of drink with little cachet.  But now we have “designer beers” – more expensive “craft beers” from micro-breweries, ales and lagers that allow sophisticated people to show off their discernment.

I mentioned this idea to Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, as we stood in line at the Ethiopian food truck.  “Is there any equivalent in wine?” I asked. 

Maybe in France, he said.  The big name wine houses will buy a vineyard or wine from a region not known for “great” wines.  So you’ll see the more ordinary wine, carignan for example, but under the a more famous label. 

I doubt that these regional wines would be considered to be “better” that the Bordeaux and Burgundies.   But in their own way, they might become more fashionable

* (Update to the previous post).  In 2010, Isabella was among the top five names in all but two states (Idaho and Utah), but just eight years earlier, only seven states accorded her that place – Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Florida, and Rhode Island.  In naming their daughters Isabella, states like Arkansas, Kentucky and Wyoming are Jacob-come-latelys.
I would guess that even within those vanguard states, the 2002 Isabellas were born to  more educated and wealthier parents.  Fashions in clothing follow a similar path.  By the time a style shows up in Target, the people who first bought it are looking for something else.

Twilight Timing

May 3, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Jacob and Isabella were the most popular baby names last year.  Some observers, even some sociologists, see this as the influence of “Twilight.”  (See here for example.) 
But Jacob, Isabella, and even Bella were on the rise well before Stephanie Meyer sent her similarly-named characters out to capture the hearts ,minds and naming preferences of romantic adolescents. 

(Click on the graph for a larger view)
The forecasters predict a bumper crop soon in Rue, Cato, and perhaps other names that are from Hunger.  Still, since the YA audience for these books and movies are more Y than A, I’m hoping for lag time of at least a few years before they start naming babies.  As I blogged earlier (here) “Splash,” the film with Darryl Hannah as Madison the mermaid, came out in 1984, but it was not until nine years later that Madison surfaced in the top 100 names. And if there’s a Hogwarts effect, we’re still waiting to see it.  The trend in Harry and Harold is downward on both sides of the Atlantic, and Hermione has yet to break into the top 1000.

Don’t look for any Katnisses to be showing up on your class lists for quite a while.