And that scarecrow costume? Also a bad decision.

8 04 2008

In today’s Science section of the New York Times, John Tierney highlights research from economist M. Keith Chen that questions reliance on the free-choice paradigm in cognitive dissonance experiments. Chen argues that cognitive dissonance researchers fail to take into account the “Monty Hall Problem”: the introduction of new information into a decision-making process that changes the odds, implying a rational (rather than rationalized) decision.

On “Let’s Make a Deal,” Monty allowed contestants to select one of three doors. Behind one door was a car, behind a second was another less spectacular prize (am I wrong, or was this often Rice-A-Roni, the “San Francisco Treat”?), and behind a third door was an adorable but widely undesired goat. Once a contestant selected a door, Monty revealed the door with the goat. If the contestant did not originally select the door with the goat, the contestant was permitted to change his/her original door selection. Tierney (and Chen) argue that such a change is rational: the odds that the original door choice was correct were only 1 in 3 on average, while the odds that the original choice was wrong were 2 in 3. Tierney offers a Monty Hall game to illustrate the point.

The article also describes the flaw at work in experiments in which monkeys are allowed to play with M&Ms until their preferred top 3 colors are assessed: red, blue, and green. Among these three colors, monkeys were first presented with, say, red and blue candies. If the monkey chose red, it was then presented with blue and green candies, and two-thirds of the time chose green, leading researchers to conclude that the monkeys rationalized their original choice of red over blue. However, the Monty Hall problem indicates that researchers failed to take into account new information that suggested that the preferences among the three colors, though seemingly comparable, were still minute — maybe the monkeys did like red and green better than blue, or even green best of all. Moreover, the selection of red over blue changed the odds — if the monkey prefers red to blue, two of the remaining three possibilities suggest a preference of green over blue as well.

Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Laurie Santos, when presented with Chen’s insight, agreed that he was correct, but pointed out that much of the research has moved beyond the types of experiments that have the “Monty Hall problem.” But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t waste at least a few minutes this morning playing “Let’s Make a Deal,” LeechBlock be damned.

So, what’s Colicchio like?

3 04 2008

Maybe I’m on crack here, but I swore I saw Mary Pattillo at the end of the table next to Tom Colicchio on last night’s “Top Chef.” A group hosted by Richard Roeper was sampling the contestants’ movie-themed food.

Worlds collide.

The camera seemed to like her and she even weighed in on the merit of the dishes she was sampling.

Thankfully, she was a normal, low-key guest on the show and did not appear in her professional capacity, because that can sometimes go awry (scroll down).

The good die young; the bad have special powers that kill the good.

2 04 2008

In second grade, I attended catechism at St. Mary’s, where my utter failure to absorb key aspects of Catholicism did not keep me from being permitted to take First Communion earlier than most of my peers.  Another early communionizer (communer?  communiss?) was Melissa, a pretty, slightly chubby girl who was almost ridiculously nice and well-intentioned for a 7-year-old.

In most of our lessons, Melissa and I were the only two kids who ever answered any of the nuns’ questions correctly.  One day, Sister Mary Something told the class that she had a set of questions for us, and whoever answered them correctly would receive a prize.  I tried (oh boy I tried), but by gum, Melissa got all the questions right and was declared the winner.  Sister Mary Something presented her with her prize, a brightly colored prayer card.  Despite the fact that a prayer card was a lot less exciting than, say, a Wacky Package, I was extremely envious of Melissa.  For her part, Melissa was oblivious to my envy.  She was just so darn nice that she quietly accepted her card without being smug or jerky or any of those other crappy things.  Still, I thought bad thoughts about her that evening, long after dinner, because I was not quite as nice as she, and my entire self-image was founded on being the smartest one, even if catechism bored me to tears and I devoted most of my time at Mass to imagining the strategies Batman and Robin would use to make it from the chapel ceiling to the altar, where they would surprise and possibly overtake Father Gentner in the middle of his lethargic reading from the Book of Somebody.

The following week, Melissa was surprisingly not in her seat at catechism.  I noticed her absence immediately, and contemplated how it would adjust her downward in the catechism pecking order once Sister Mary Something noticed it.  When it was time for class to begin, Sister Mary Something rose, and told us she had something she needed to tell us that was very upsetting:  MELISSA WAS HIT BY A CAR AND DIED.

This all came back to me as I was watching The Sweet perform “Solid Gold Brass” in an old clip.  At 2:00 in, a woman in the audience is dancing and the camera pans in on her, and to my scarred brain, she appears to have a prayer card glued to her head.

The perils of rock ‘n’ roll decadence

20 03 2008


In a tribute to the recently departed Marcel Marceau, I have gone silent lately.  No, that’s not the reason.  I had stuff to do. Lots of stuff.  Stuff people were (and are) asking about and stuff only I care about.

Though I’ve clicked around a bit on others’ blogs, I missed the distressing news that yet more bloggers are thinking of quitting.  Happily, it appears that some of my favorites have decided to keep at it.  Others, however, are still mulling it over.  I guess I have two verbose points to make.

I can see why departments might care about bloggers, for a couple of reasons.  The first is that a blogger is spending time writing the blog that could be better spent doing research and publishing papers.  It was even mentioned that one prominent researcher doesn’t read newspapers, because it’s a distraction.  With all due respect to the prominent researcher, who is not reading this unless he/she is lying (lying!), I consider the research and writing to be only one part of my job as a sociologist.  The other part involves active engagement with the social world, including the Internet, newspapers, people at the ethnic grocery store, the kid down the block, patrons at the bar, and the adolescent hockey team that pulled a Keith Moon and destroyed the hotel I stayed in last week while their parents sat idly by in the cheaply carpeted halls and drank watery beer.

This gets to the point of this blog.  A lot of the time, it may read as though I am not doing sociology here.  Sometimes I’m not, as when I offer up a Lene Lovich video.  Most of the time, however, even when I’m talking about recycling bins and kids who shovel snow, I’m sharing the mundane ways that sociology rears its head in my day-to-day life.  I dunno, this is kind of why I went into the field.  There are plenty of great blogs where the denizens debate complex sociological arguments.  I decided to proceed more modestly, as befits my background and general interests.

The idea that I should be producing more and ignoring newspapers or social life strikes me as preposterous, even if a very prolific scholar thinks I should.  The Ivory Tower is an easy slam, but honestly, if you’re sitting in your office churning out the work, reading only other academic work in your subfield, even if (and especially if) your work has been a great contribution, you have shortchanged us;  if you were able to contribute that much without distractions, think of what you could have contributed if you’d allowed the insights that accompany distractions into your life.  Distractions, to my mind, are where the insights lie.  My investment in remaining open to them means I work late into the night, binge write, and endure periods of deep misery where I bemoan how much more effort it takes for me to get something out than a less-distracted person.  Yet, my conversations at conferences are engaging.  I find that I move more comfortably among sociologists than tunnel-vision peers.  I have more ideas for research than anyone I know.  The time and effort I put into applying sociology to everyday life, even dealing with a repair person or a telemarketer, however dorky and waste-of-time-ish, has curiously socialized me to be a better sociologist.  

Over time, I have learned how to be more efficient, to write papers faster, to get more quickly from the insight to the research to the written word.  This will continue to improve, I hope.  And then maybe I can say I made a contribution to my field, and that I did good sociology.  Naive?  Probably.  But do not burst my bubble, as I am a delicate flower.

Longwindedly, I now arrive at the second reason departments may care if we blog.  How a department appears to other departments could have real ramifications for future recruitment, the acceptance of department members’ ideas in the field more generally, and status.  I’ve decided here to maintain some level of anonymity for two reasons.  One, I’m a chicken.  Two, if I slip and say something that could reflect poorly on my department (nothing comes to mind currently), I don’t want my department to have to bear the brunt of my decision to blog.  I made this decision.  They did not.   I want to be a positive representative of my department to the exterior world.  In exchange for the chance they’ve given me to do the work I really want to do, I agree to try not to act the fool at conferences, to hold my alcohol well (shut up), to refrain from troubling personal entanglements, and to keep my piehole shut outside the department if I disagree with decisions made.  

That said, I do think that departments may overreact to comments made on non-anonymous blogs.  I have yet to read a blog that would deter me from applying at a given department, or made me think less of its personnel.  Most blogs, including the one where the issue was raised, actually increase the profile of their departments:  If that department hired him/her, I would like to work there.  S/he is an insightful, engaged sociologist who is so into this profession that s/he uses free time to write about it.

I’m still deciding how I feel about you lot at thesocshrine, but I really did not have enough Feargal Sharkey in my life.


Client 9

12 03 2008


The mind reeled:  What sort of risky behavior did Eliot Spitzer like to engage in?  I had visions (not pretty) of Eliot wielding handcuffs while McGruff the Crime Dog-ging the poor woman for her life of disrepute.

No, in fact, having $80k worth of sex with prostitutes when governor of New York is not riskily exciting enough on its own.  It’s much more fun when you include the possibility that you will receive or pass on a sexually transmitted disease.  However high-stylin’, I knew those new hats wouldn’t catch on, even among city boosters.

Okay, let’s play a game.  Which theory of crime best explains Spitzer’s actions?  Or, asked another way, is it possible to have low self-control and become the governor of New York?  If so, does this mean self-control is domain-specific?  Or did the governor just engage in the kind of deviance anyone would if they thought they had the power to evade social control, and get away with it?  Or did he learn the behavior from his high-powered pals?  And, as a final matter unrelated to crime theory, how would you like to be George Fox, the “friend” and donor whose name he uses when he registers hotel rooms for sex with prostitutes?

Thankfully for Spitzer, even if the whole governor thing doesn’t work out, he does have a brilliant career ahead of him in gurning, as evidenced by the photo above.

(Photo credit:  Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

La Pequeña Amy Winehouse

9 03 2008

Don’t smoke, but if I did, I’d say yes, yes, yes to an egg carton ashtray.

Ashtray chic… .

This meal would be perfect if only I were being insulted while eating it.

7 03 2008

Yes, that’s what I say to myself all the time.  That’s why, when dining alone in a low-key restaurant, I opt to sit at the bar.  It’s not because I don’t want to hog a whole table at a place with few available tables, forcing some nice couple to huddle in the chill of the vestibule.  No, I eat dinner at the bar specifically so some pasty fellow can sidle up to me and hurl a mild, playful insult intended to make me think I am not “all that and a bag of chips,” and should really appreciate any attention.  Who is this mystery man who does not recognize my many fabulous qualities? 

However, there are several problems.  First, I don’t really want to talk to you.  That’s why I have a book.  However, I was raised to be polite, so I feel obliged to turn to you and laugh rather than poking you in the eye with an asparagus spear in hopes that it will send you to the emergency room to get the butter flushed out of your eyeball (thus sparing other female diners your tired shtick).  Second, I am fully aware of the Neil Strauss book, and the pick-up techniques put forth by the fur-chapeaued goofball who actually calls himself “Mystery.”  The “neg” doesn’t work all that well under these circumstances.

More importantly, however, it is 2008.  2008.  Not 2006.  Nope, nope, nope.  Not 2007.  2008.  I suggest you just try being funny and smart.   And please, for the love of all that is holy, do not pay nearly $3,000 to receive tutoring from anyone named “Moxie” or “Fader.”


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