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August 28, 2009 | 12 Comments

Vegetarian Swallow Balls

I went shopping in Chinatown and found these delicacies, which match well with the vegetarian intestines I found last year.

Enjoy these—hand slaughtered!—treats on one of the last weekends of the summer.

Vegetarian Swallow Balls Hand slaughtered quail!

For discussion: the strangest thing you have ever ate. How about bundagee. Silk worm pupae in soy sauce and brown sugar—a common Korean street-food.

August 26, 2009 | 18 Comments

You were right, Ted Kennedy

One day in 1973, in his squeaky, pickled-vocal-chords baritone Ted Kennedy filled the Senate chamber with these words: “Do we operate under a system of equal justice under law? Or is there one system for the average citizen and another for the high and mighty?” His intent was rhetorical, because the answer was, and always has been, obvious: of course there are two classes, low and high. And no other modern politician took advantage of this fact more than did the mighty “lion of the senate.”

Here is his tale, which is one of woe, but cushioned throughout by the fact that the mighty are not allowed to fail.

He was a princeling in the House of Kennedy, a prominent and permanent institution of the Massachusetts aristocracy, when, at age thirty, his brother, who was then ascending to the crown, gifted his Senate seat to the young Tedward. It was clear to all that the young prince would not have won this position solely on his own merits—indeed, in spite of his demerits—that he cheated at his alma mater mattered not, for example. But he could, and did, point to his royal blood.

Not long after, when he was thirty-seven, came a drunken midnight drive on Chappaquiddick Island. He crashed and left his passenger for dead. Worse, he abandoned the scene, went home, called his lawyer, and slept off whatever guilt and ethanol he could. But this did not destroy the man. The aristocracy rose as one and made the problem go away.

Much later, as brothers will, he began to envy his dead sibling and sought to mimic his better’s example and so seek the kingly office. When asked, “Why should thou be anointed?”, his answer, “I am Kennedy”, satisfied few, except those ensconced in his fiefdom. He did not win. But he was not allowed to fail and he retained his seat.

Forlorn at his bitter defeat, he embraced strongly his vices. He drank to excess and often. He took and spent other people’s money liberally. He told lies about opponents in open session. He chased, cornered, caught, and copulated with women aplenty; one famous dalliance was conducted on the floor of restaurant in full view of the commoners. All this was forgiven because he was Kennedy, because he was solid on abortion, because—and only because—he was high and mighty.

Now he is dead, but he will be lauded and remembered fondly, more because of his status than what he has accomplished. For we must recall the tale of the counterfactual: while it true that this man has produced some benefit, just as he has certainly caused much harm, we are forced to ask what better and what different could have been had he, instead of joining the Senate, been farmed out to an ambassadorship in Latvia. These necessary ruminations will not be pleasant to the aristocracy and so they will be ignored.

August 24, 2009 | 44 Comments

10 Books To Read Before You Die

G.K. Chesterton was asked what book would he most like to have with him on a desert island. Slick as ever, he said, Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. And then there was the lady who was complaining to, I think, Bertrand Russell, that she couldn’t understand why all the fuss with the Bible and Shakespeare. “They are filled with cliches,” she said.

These anecdotes were on my mind when I learned that AOL published recently a list of books that must be read before handing in your dinner pail (my favorite euphemism for death, from Pelham Grenville W.). Here’s the list:

  1. Bible — Various

  3. Gone with the Wind — Margaret Mitchell

  5. The Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkien

  7. Harry Potter — JK Rowling

  9. The Stand — Stephen King

  11. The Da Vinci Code — Dan Brown

  13. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee

  15. Angels and Demons — Dan Brown

  17. Atlas Shrugged — Ayn Rand

  19. The Catcher in the Rye — JD Salinger

When I saw these names, I first thought the roll was the result of an internet poll (regular readers know I learned my lesson here) and that the only thing missing was the, surely forthcoming, My Life by Steve Jobs, a publishing event likely to lead Apple fanboys to perpetual, unrelievable ecstasy. (I suggest that Jobs, before he cops it, farm the work out to whomever ghosted Obama’s books: gush is too weak a word to describe critics’ reactions to these entries.1) At any rate, the AOL offering is the work of one man, and more than anything, this list demonstrates the dangers and horrific consequences that can result from too much self-esteem, or watching too much television, or whatever excess it was that lead the author to such embarrassing revelations.

Incidentally, the #1 slot was given as the “Holy” Bible, fearing, as many must, that the document might be mistaken for the “Unholy” version of the same were the modifier absent. The author doesn’t say, but I strongly recommend King James’s effort for the pure beauty of the words and their, as Russell’s lady hinted, intimate familiarity.

Kahneman and Tversky’s warning about Anchoring and Adjustment is now relevant to us. We must, having read AOL’s recommendations, thoroughly purge them from our minds, lest we find they influence us in the creation of our own Top Ten. Thinking too much about the original can result in the kind of warped mental processes that lead “celebrities” to think writing children’s books are a good idea.

It is surely impossible to populate any kind of top ten list satisfactorily. No matter what is there, someone will argue persuasively that something else should have been, and many more will denounce particular choices. It’s also difficult to separate the prescriptive from the personal: am I suggesting these works to others, or are they the only books that will accompany me to a deserted isle? They must, at the least, be authors worth returning to again and again.

And whatever else the list will be, it will be too damn short, so the numbers geek in me insists I optimize both quality and quantity. Thus, here’s my (tentative) list, wherein I cheat by including multiple books that are clearly part of one whole, or are separate but can be found easily in omnibus collections, but in any case by one author (and in no particular order):

  1. Bible — King James edition

  3. Aubrey & Maturin — The Patrick O’Brian 20-book series

  5. Rumpole — John Mortimer’s collection (say, the first six to eight books)

  7. Jeeves & Wooster — PG Wodehouse (all of the series)

  9. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Edward Gibbon

  11. Essays — Montaigne

  13. Plays — Shakespeare

  15. Collection — The thickest you can find, of Mark Twain

  17. Trial and Death of Socrates — Plato

  19. The Rationality of Induction — David Stove

Even if you despise this compilation, you can be grateful that I resisted obvious bad jokes: like including the Collected Works of Karl Marx, printed on thin paper, because toilet paper on deserted archipelagos is scarce. Or having anything by a postmodernist, like Foucault, so that, whenever tedium drove me to his pages, I would be grateful for being so far from “civilization.”

The last book is not one I recommend to everybody (it is a work of epistemology containing highly technical arguments concerning induction and logical probability), but it’s one that I cannot imagine not having read. Stove (then Jaynes) has been more influential in my professional life than any other author.

We can now play David Lodge’s humiliation: name a book you haven’t read but think others have; one point awarded for each success. Unlike Changing Places‘s unlucky professor, I have read Hamlet; but I have not yet read more than the first two volumes of Gibbon. I’ll start: with Lodge, I’ll admit also to not reading War and Peace.


1For querulous readers inclined to dispute this, I suggest your time will be more profitably spent learning What Jane Austen heroine you are. I am Marianne Dashwood (who is “impulsive, romantic, impatient, and perhaps a bit too brutally honest”); this odd quiz was linked on a page discussing the AOL list. I am Marianne Dashwood

August 19, 2009 | 32 Comments

Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences by Steven Goldberg: Part IV

This article summarizes the main statistical arguments and the one logical argument used for and against Goldberg’s ideas. To be clear: I am convinced by his arguments in the main and differ from him only at the edges, and trivially. If you have not read him, I urge you too. He writes beautifully and clearly and has given much thought to answering his critics, and has more room in his three books than we have here.

  1. Group A members are more variable than group B members : The usual implication of this is that, even if there are just as many group A and B members near the mean, more of group A members than group B members will be found at the extremes of behavior. This is only “usual” because it is possible for group A members to be more variable but for group B members to have a higher or lower average and so be found more often in the upper or lower extremes. Each trait has to be judged on its own empirical findings.

  3. Correlation is not causation: This is true. But it is also true that when there is causation, there is correlation. When causation is absent, correlation can be present spuriously or it may be absent. Too often, Goldberg’s critics acknowledge a correlation but then drag out the “correlation isn’t causation” card, as if by displaying it they have proved that causation is absent. The proof of causation is extra-statistical in the following sense: we have to look beyond the data presented and the model used and ask whether or not the causation is plausible, highly probable, and consonant with other information we possess. What makes a statistical argument worthy is if it can be used to make reliable predictions and not just that is explains previously observed data well.

  5. The SAT/IQ test isn’t correlated with success: This is false in general but potentially true when conditioning on a subgroup. Suppose you follow graduates of University A, the best in the country (in a particular subject) that accepts only the best according to the SAT/IQ test. All graduates will have an SAT/IQ test and all will go on to success and failure. In this group, any measure of success will not be correlated between the SAT/IQ score because all of these scores are high. Across the population in general, however, SAT/IQ tests are highly predictive of success (and should only be used in their predictive sense).

  7. Between-group differences are larger than within-group differences: So what? As Goldberg points out, the within-group difference of height in men or women is much larger than the between-men-women difference, but nobody is foolish enough to think this means that men and women are equally tall, or that the small between-group difference doesn’t lead to large differences both on average and at the extremes. Several very good statisticians have been caught making this error.

  9. The difference in number of genes is small: And so it is. But again, so what? The number of different genes between humans and higher primates is small but the phenotypical differences are enormous. It’s not the number of different genes that count but what those different genes do.

  11. After controlling for income, group A is the same as group B: This is true, but in using this argument, Goldberg’s opponent has agreed with him. We return to our initial question: if Sally is over six feet and so is Bill, are both Sally and Bill over six feet? And if people are paid by height—the taller receiving more—Sally will be paid as much as Bill, but on average women will receive less than men because, on average, women are shorter than men. Therefore, if you took a group of men and women (all remunerated by height) and statistically controlled for height you would find that tall women received as much as tall men. You will not have proven that men and women are equally tall. It is the tallness —the difference—that has caused the economic success.

  13. You cannot derive an ought from an is: David Hume first taught us this and it is true. It does not follow, and nobody believes it is true, that therefore there can be no oughts. It is only true that whatever oughts exist are believed without reference to external evidence or empirical findings. Thus, the oughts we believe are based on a priori evidence; that is, our intuitions. This type of evidence should not be castigated: all of mathematics, for example, is founded on the very same kind of beliefs (the axioms). Further, we might not be able to prove an ought is true but we might be able to infer it is with high probability. It is also true that all cultures hold many of the same oughts.

A corollary to the last, and what comprises Goldberg’s main uphill battle, is to convince detractors (usually on the Left) that their criticisms are founded on unspoken and unacknowledged oughts.

Please use the letter of the item in question when replying to make it easy on the rest of us.