aTypical Joe: a gay New Yorker living in the rural South
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Another strike against free will…
...and for social influence. Coming in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine this weekend, Duncan J. Watts, professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, discusses his research on how hits - a blockbuster movie, a best-selling book or a superstar artist - are made:
Even if you think most people are tasteless or ignorant, it’s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow “better,” at least in the democratic sense of a competitive market, than their unsuccessful counterparts, that Norah Jones and Madonna deserve to be as successful as they are if only because “that’s what the market wanted.” What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market “wants” at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history: there is no sense in which it simply “revealsÃ¢â‚¬Â� what people wanted all along. In such a world, in fact, the question “Why did X succeed?” may not have any better answer than the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise best seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,Ã¢â‚¬Â� who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold well because lots of people bought it.”
What’s popular: user-generated or corporate copyrighted?
I believe it’s true:
ON YouTube, copyrighted video clips of movies and TV shows are far less popular compared with noncopyrighted material than previously thought, according to a new study.
Vidmeter, which tracks the online video business, determined that the clips that were removed for copyright violations Ã‚- most of them copyrighted by big media companies Ã‚- comprise just 9 percent of all videos on the site. Even more surprising, the videos that have been removed make up just 6 percent of the total views (vidmeter.com).
Facemash -> Facebook
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is profiled in Fast Company:
[I]t was old-fashioned breaking-and-entering hacking that spawned Facebook--and Zuckerberg was the culprit. Zuckerberg grew up in the well-to-do New York suburb of Dobbs Ferry, the second of four kids and the only son of a dentist (he has no cavities) and a psychiatrist (insert your own mental-health joke here). He began messing around with computers early on, teaching himself how to program. As a high school senior, at Phillips Exeter Academy, he and D’Angelo built a plug-in for the MP3 player Winamp that would learn your music listening habits, then create a playlist to meet your taste. They posted it as a free download and major companies, including AOL (NYSE:TWX) and Microsoft, came calling. “It was basically, like, ‘You can come work for us, and, oh, we’ll also take this thing that you made,’” Zuckerberg recalls. The two decided to go to college instead, D’Angelo to Caltech and Zuckerberg to Harvard.
That’s where the hacking episode occurred. Harvard didn’t offer a student directory with photos and basic information, known at most schools as a face book. Zuckerberg wanted to build an online version for Harvard, but the school “kept on saying that there were all these reasons why they couldn’t aggregate this information,” he says. “I just wanted to show that it could be done.” So one night early in his sophomore year, he hacked into Harvard’s student records. He then threw up a basic site called Facemash, which randomly paired photos of undergraduates and invited visitors to determine which one was “hotter” (not unlike the Web site Hot or Not). Four hours, 450 visitors, and 22,000 photo views later, Harvard yanked Zuckerberg’s Internet connection. After a dressing-down from the administration and an uproar on campus chronicled by The Harvard Crimson, Zuckerberg politely apologized to his fellow students. But he remained convinced he’d done the right thing: “I thought that the information should be available.” (Harvard declined to comment on the episode.)
Where’s that cheeseburger from?
I’m still working on my why’d I buy a cow? post. I don’t want to bore people with my cow antics. I will say that my portion of the cow included roughly 18 pounds of ground beef. Luckily I have a lot of yard parties in springtime; and it looks like I’ll be eating more meatloaf and chili in winter.
So for this morning I thought I’d share a passage from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In his natural history of four meals, the first was at McDonalds. From page 114:
Compared to Isaac’s nuggets, my cheeseburger is a fairly simple construct. According to “A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts,” the cheeseburger contains a mere six ingredients, all but one of them familiar: a 100 percent beef patty, a bun, two American cheese slices, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, and “grill seasoning,” whatever that is. It tasted pretty good, too, though on reflection what I mainly tasted were the condiments: Sampled by itself, the gray patty had hardly any flavor. And yet the whole package, especially on first bite, did manage to give off a fairly convincing burgerish aura. I suspect, however, that owes more to the olfactory brilliance of the “grill seasoning” than to the 100 percent beef patty.
In truth, my cheeseburger’s relationship to beef seemed nearly as metaphorical as the nugget’s relationship to a chicken. Eating it, I had to remind myself that there was an actual cow involved in this meal most likely a burned-out old dairy cow (the source of most fast-food beef) but possibly bits and pieces of a steer like 534 as well. Part of the appeal of hamburgers and nuggets is that their boneless abstractions allow us to forget we’re eating animals. I’d been on the feedlot in Garden City only a few months earlier, yet this experience of cattle was so far removed from that one as to be taking place in a different dimension. No, I could not taste the feed corn or the petroleum or the antibiotics or the hormones-or the feedlot manure. Yet while “A Full Serving of Nutrition Facts” did not enumerate these facts, they too have gone into the making of this hamburger, are part of its natural history. That perhaps is what the industrial food chain does best: obscure the histories of the foods it produces by processing them to such an extent that they appear as pure products of culture rather than nature - things made from plants and animals. Despite the blizzard of information contained in the helpful McDonald’s flyer - the thousands of words and numbers specifying ingredients and portion sizes, calories and nutrients - all this food remains perfectly opaque. Where does it come from? It comes from McDonald’s.
But that’s not so. It comes from refrigerated trucks and from warehouses, from slaughterhouses, from factory farms in towns like Garden City, Kansas, from ranches in Sturgis, South Dakota, from food science laboratories in Oak Brook, Illinois, from flavor companies on the New Jersey Turnpike, from petroleum refineries, from processing plants owned by ADM and Cargill, from grain elevators in towns like Jefferson, and, at the end of that long and tortuous trail, from a field of corn and soybeans farmed by George Naylor in Churdan, Iowa.
A Freakonomics quiz @ Blog U: on beer & violence
Some academics (at most one out of the three is an economist) in the United Kingdom recently published a paper in a journal called Applied Economics claiming that a 1 percent increase in the price of beer in the U.K. leads to a 2 percent decline in violent crime. I don’t know how to link directly to the paper, but if you go to this Cardiff University website and scroll down, you will find a link called “Violence-related injury and the price of beer in England and Wales.” That link will take you to the paper.
The paper has sensible theory behind it, is well written, and has seemingly careful econometrics. As I read the paper, however, I had the sort of uneasy feeling that Malcolm Gladwell, in the first chapter of Blink, describes some experts having when viewing a supposedly ancient sculpture that turned out to be a fake. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the paper and went on to something else. But I was so bothered by it that I went and read it again. I think on that second reading I found the fundamental flaw in the paper.
So, here is a different kind of quiz. The first one to identify the problem I have in mind wins a signed copy of Freakonomics, a Freakonomics t-shirt if the new batch really exists, and also a Freakonomics yo-yo if those are ready. If they are so inclined, I further encourage the winner to try to get the original data, test my/his/her hypothesis and send a short comment to the journal.
Hint: there may be many other problems with the paper, but my concern is very specific and easily testable.
I’ve never been good with riddles.... I read the comments!
Atlanta & Rhiyad
The gay men I interviewed in Jeddah and Riyadh laughed when I asked them if they worried about being executed. Although they do fear the mutawwa’in [religious authorities employed by the government’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice] to some degree, they believe the House of Saud isn’t interested in a widespread hunt of homosexuals. For one thing, such an effort might expose members of the royal family to awkward scrutiny. “If they wanted to arrest all the gay people in Saudi Arabia,” Misfir, my chat-room guide, told me-repeating what he says was a police officer’s comment-"they’d have to put a fence around the whole country.”
In addition, the power of the mutawwa’in is limited by the Koran, which frowns upon those who intrude on the privacy of others in order to catch them in sinful acts. The mandate of the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is specifically to regulate behavior in the public realm. What occurs behind closed doors is between a believer and God.
This seems to be the way of the kingdom: essentially, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Private misbehavior is fine, as long as public decorum is observed. Cinemas are forbidden, but people watch pirated DVDs. Drinking is illegal, but alcohol flows at parties. Women wrap their bodies and faces in layers of black, but pornography flourishes. Gay men thrive in this atmosphere. “We really have a very comfortable life,” said Zahar, the Saudi who asked me not to write about homosexuality and Islam. “The only thing is the outward showing. I can be flamboyant in my house, but not outside.”
This strikes many Saudis as a reasonable accommodation. Court records in Saudi Arabia are generally closed, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the mutawwa’in are most likely to punish men who are overtly effeminate- those whose public behavior advertises a gayness that others keep private. [...]
The threat of a crackdown always looms, however. In March 2005, the police crashed what they identified as a “gay wedding” in a rented hall near Jeddah; according to some sources, the gathering was only a birthday party. (Similar busts have occurred in Riyadh.) Most of the party goers were reportedly released without having to do jail time, but the arrests rattled the gay community; at the time of my visit, party organizers were sticking to more-intimate gatherings and monitoring guest lists closely.
The Closeted Kingdom
To be gay in Saudi Arabia is to live a contradiction-to have license without rights, and to enjoy broad tolerance without the most minimal acceptance. The closet is not a choice; it is a rule of survival.
When I asked Tariq, the 24-year-old in the travel industry, whether his parents suspected he was gay, he responded, “Maybe they feel it, but they have not come up to me and asked me. They don’t want to open the door.” Stephen Murray, the sociologist, has called this sort of denial “the will not to know"-a phrase that perfectly captures Saudi society’s defiant resolve to look the other way. Acknowledging homosexuality would harden a potentially mutable behavior into an identity that contradicts the teachings of Islam, to the extent that Islam deals with the subject. A policy of official denial but tacit acceptance leaves space for change, the possibility that gay men will abandon their sinful ways. Amjad, a gay Palestinian I met in Riyadh, holds out hope that he’ll be “cured” of homosexuality, that when his wife receives her papers to join him in Saudi Arabia, he’ll be able to break off his relationship with his boyfriend. “God knows what I have in my heart,” he said.
Question for the hive mind: How is Atlanta like Rhiyad?