content analysis

a muckraking blog about social problems, life, and sociology

culturally polarizing

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This weekend’s New York Times Magazine features a story about competitors in the Netflix Competition — an ongoing challenge to improve Netflix’s movie taste prediction system by 10% with a $1 million prize.  After a couple years, some people are really close; the top team has improved on the system by 9.44%.  Each step closer to 10% makes it harder to improve one’s algorithm.  

Here’s where it gets interesting: the remaining hurdles are more or less identifiable.  There are limited number of movies for which it is immensely difficult to predict someone’s reaction.  “Napoleon Dynamite” is the big one the article identifies.  Apparently, “ND” alone accounts for approximately 15% of all the unexplained variation.  That’s huge!  Unbelieveable!  

In describing the top 25 most difficult to predict movies, NYT staffer Clive Thompson writes, “I noticed they were all similar in some way to “Napoleon Dynamite” — culturally or politically polarizing and hard to classify, including “I Heart Huckabees,” “Lost in Translation,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and “Sideways.””

That’s true, isn’t it?  Those movies are culturally polarizing, but it’s more than that.  They are culturally polarizing and, yet, mainstream.  An even more polarizing movie like Von Trier’s “Dogville” is actually easy to predict because the type of people who see a movie like that tend to be of one mind.  But who didn’t see “Lost in Translation”?  What confuses me is that on a gut-level I know that those movies are culturally polarizing, but I can’t, for the life of me, explain why “The Life Aquatic” would be.  Why is that?

Written by andrewska

November 21, 2008 at 4:35 pm

an ebbing tide

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“What will happen if the next decade is not one of world growth but of world recession? If a rising tide didn’t lift all boats, how will they be affected by an ebbing tide?” –  Oxford University economist Anthony Atkinson

A new study shows the gap between the rich and poor worldwide is growing — not a surprising revelation to sociologists.  On the other hand, many sociologists have stubbornly clung to the dependency theory of globalization, which suggests that powerful countries extract wealth from poor countries (or in the language of World Systems, core and periphery countries), despite several books (including Milanovic’s Worlds Apart and Firebaugh’s The New Geography of Global Income Inequality) that have shown the action is not between countries, but within countries.  Yes, neo-liberals (see: Tony Blair) are correct when they point out that U.S. economic interventions and the influx of western multi-nationals corporations into developing nations creates wealth in those countries.  And, yes, the Naomi Kleins among us are also correct in noting how it creates new forms of poverty via sweatshops and by placing poor people on the consumer consumption treadmill.

But the trends described in Atkinson’s report are not only present in developing nations.  As we know the distribution of wealth in the U.S. is incredible … and, let’s say it, immoral.  Given the vast wealth in the U.S., solving many of America’s problems with inequality is as simple as forming the political will.  But I guess that’s hard when the poor don’t believe the progressive Senator who wants to help them.  Consider Barbie Snodgrass (“She was forty-two, single, overweight, and suffering from stomach pains”), a member of the working poor in Ohio.  She spoke to George Packer of The New Yorker about Barack Obama’s proposal to implement a more progressive tax policy.

His promise to rescind the Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans struck her as incredible: “How many people do you know who make two hundred and fifty thousand dollars? What is that, five per cent of the United States? That’s a joke! If he starts at a hundred thousand, I might listen. Two hundred fifty—that’s to me like people who hit the lottery.” In fact, only two per cent of Americans make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year, but that group earns twelve per cent of the national income. Nonetheless, the circumstances of Snodgrass’s life made it impossible for her to imagine that there could possibly be enough taxable money in Obama’s upper-income category—which meant that he was being dishonest, and that she would eventually be the one to pay. “He’ll keep going down, and when it’s to people who make forty-five or fifty thousand it’s going to hit me,” she said. “I’d have to sell my home and live in a five-hundred-dollar-a-month apartment with gang bangers out in my yard, and I’d be scared to death to leave my house.”

Sometimes, I think solving “$1 a day poverty” globally would be considerably easier than garnering the political coalition to solve American inequality.

On a wholly unrelated note, this bit from the Onion, sent to me by a Hall-of-Fame doorframe tapper, speaks to me.

Written by andrewska

October 22, 2008 at 3:03 pm

the answer

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No, I’m not talking about Allen Iverson.  Here is the solution to our entire energy crisis.

Written by andrewska

October 9, 2008 at 2:40 pm

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Tonight, the honors program and the residence hall organization co-sponsored a debate analysis event, in which clips from last night’s Presidential debate were shown and a faculty member from Communications (also campus debate coach) and I served as “expert” commentators.  We also encouraged discussion with the very smart and energetic group of students.

At the end of the debate, the Comm. Prof. — an old 60s radical — went on a little rant about how upset he is that both candidates support nuclear power, which he claimed is incredibly dangerous.  Though progressive and enthusiastic Obamaniacs to a person, the students were having none of it.  Several of them work in the campus’ nuclear research facility and touted the virtues and safety of new nuclear technology (particularly nuclear waste recycling).  Comm. Prof. held his ground and said that he’s most concerned about the transportation of nuclear waste, but he was clearly outmatched on the science.  To head off an embarrassing situation, I noted that while most of my engineer friends insist that nuclear is the only way, all of my liberals friends (including my own 60s radical parents) are scared to death of it.  I added two other notes:

1. Perhaps most troubling is that energy is not treated as a public resource in this country; it’s part of private enterprise.  As such, the nuclear power companies’ first interest is in profit.  Perhaps, if it were publicly-held, we could emphasize the safety first, making sure we protect people before we make a buck.

2. I simply do not have the knowledge to know who is right.  In the realm of science education,  I am a distinctly average American and do not know enough to evaluate claims about nuclear power (despite reading coverage of it in the Times, The New Yorker, and Mother Jones).  Many times when we talk about reforming K-12 curricula to produce more informed citizens, we emphasize improving social studies.  But I would argue that the citizen of today needs a very different science education.  Forget memorizing the periodic table — that has helped me never.  Americans like me would benefit greatly from an education on nuclear power, climate change research, and other areas of science that are genuinely relevant to our lives.

From this experience, I came away with the social goal of encouraging reform of science curricula and the personal goal of learning enough to have a position on nuclear power.  Any resources you might recommend?

Written by andrewska

October 8, 2008 at 8:52 pm

telling stories

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A quick addendum to my earlier post …
A great speech at Cal-Tech’s commencement by NPR‘s Robert Krulwich on how to translate science for the public and the importance of doing so.  Even though he speaks about natural science, of course the same should be said for social science.

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October 6, 2008 at 8:12 pm

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750 page op-ed pieces

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I went to a sociology conference last week that incorporated many applied sociologists as well as educators at community colleges and other teaching institutions.  In a session regarding public sociology, one speaker was absolutely thrilling.  He began with the mundane observation that too many sociologists today are in highly specialized trenches and are only willing to speak inches away from our empirical evidence.  Because of this, we’ve lost the tradition of bold public intellectuals (e.g., John Galbraith) who wrote “750 page Op-Ed pieces.”  We’re too bogged down in jargon and small ideas, said the speaker.  To explain only the fibula, rather than taking a stab at explaining the whole  body of society is not only overly-cautious, it also keeps us from engaging with intelligent, interested non-scientists.  To re-engage, we need to write Op-Ed pieces in newspapers, make public speeches, and write books sold in popular bookstores that make bold claims.  We cannot be afraid to take risks.  At the same time, we need to be honest and be careful thinkers even as we mount arguments (“people can sniff out dogma”).  The speaker held out Contexts as a shining example of what sociology should be (“if it ain’t well-written, it ain’t gettin’ published”).

As someone who firmly believes that sociology has insight to offer our sociology, this argument rang all too true.  The ensuing conversation pointed out that this won’t happen until the tenure and promotion structure reward these public activities.  Moreover, several critics chastised this form of bourgeois public engagement; Op-ed pieces are minimal activism and not a form of direct service.  Nonetheless, I believe that this is a course worth pursuing, alongside service-oriented public sociology.

Written by andrewska

October 6, 2008 at 3:59 pm

stack of pulitzers

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I was catching up on back episodes of the great radio show On The Media (OTM to insiders) this weekend.  In this special episode on investigative reporting, long time 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino’s character in The Insider) made the intuitatively reasonable sounding claim that as money for investigative journalism drys up, most Pulitzers are increasingly going to a small number of elite newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times).

But is this empirically true?  A quick perusal of recent Pulitzer winners suggests the following:
1. It’s not that elite newspapers win most of the prizes.  It’s just that the Washington Post wins all of them.
2. Beyond the Post, most of the winners are newspapers with a circulation above 250,000, perhaps unsurprisingly.
3. Though the majority of the awards are won by big papers, small newspapers do win things with some regularity.  And it’s not just the same few small papers over and over again.

I wonder if a longer term analysis would show consolidation of Pulitzer prizes by elite newspapers in recent times.  Contrary to Bergman’s claim, I actually suspect that while the names shift over time, Pulitzer has always been dominated by a small number of elite newspapers.  Perhaps the competition was just tighter in the past.  Has anybody done research on this?

Written by andrewska

September 29, 2008 at 4:39 pm

Posted in mass media

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