August 2008

2008 08 30
Prediction: The televised Biden-Palin Debate

Palin will “win” (in the sense of coming out of the debate with more people on her side) the televised debates with Biden. This is because nothing Biden’s advisers do beforehand is going to be able to stop him from highhandedly and condescendingly lecturing her throughout the debate. He simply won’t be able to resist, and when he gives in to the sweet temptations of condescension he’ll inevitably hand the other side a real gift. It’s a good thing it doesn’t count for too much.

Howls of outrage (38)

2008 08 28
Um, DNC….

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Next time you get to create a video from scratch to sell Obama to the millions of people that’ll view it, don’t include a clip of Obama saying, “When you have the name ‘Barack Obama,’ that’s a killer.”


Comments Off

2008 08 23
Talk talk talk, all day long, talk talk talk while I sing this song.

Posted by in: Odds and ends

A friend writes with some help for McCain: “i think an effective line of attack/ridicule against the new Obama/Biden ticket would run something like this: “Obama/Biden: talking the enemy to death.”

Recalling this, I think he’s probably right.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 08 20
Recently read: “Emotions Revealed”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Paul Ekman. Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life

Paul Ekman is well-known for his work on facial expressions and emotion. You may remember him from such popularizing articles as this Malcolm Gladwell piece, back in 2002. Emotions Revealed does cover Ekman’s main area of research, facial expressions, but it also contains quite a bit on emotions in general. Ekman singles out for special attention sadness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt and a number of enjoyable emotions.

I had rather a mixed impression of this book. There are long stretches of the book in which Ekman discusses a particular emotion, or how to deal appropriately with a particular emotion, that struck me as rather banal. This passage on irritability illustrates the point, although irritability is, as Ekman points out, a mood rather than an emotion:

Everyone has a harder time controlling their anger when they are in an irritable mood. When we are irritable, we become angry about matters that would bother us if we weren’t irritable. We are looking for an opportunity to become angry. When we are irritable, something that might have just annoyed us makes us angrier, while something that made us just moderately angry makes us furious. Anger felt in an irritable mood lasts longer and is harder to manage. No one knows how to get out of a mood; sometimes indulging in activities we really enjoy, but not always. My advice is to avoid people when you are feeling irritable, if you can recognize that you are in an irritable mood. Often that isn’t obvious until we have the first angry outburst, then realize it happened because we are feeling irritable.

If you found that informative and helpful, then by all means, run and get yourself a copy of the book, since there’s a whole lot more like it. As for me, I hope it won’t look like bragging if I claim that I already knew to avoid people when I’m feeling irritable. (To be fair, some of the discussions are better on this point than others. I thought the survey of enjoyable emotions was interesting enough.)

Anyway, it’s when Ekman turns his attention to facial expressions that the book becomes really informative and interesting. You get lots of photographs of faces, with detailed discussions of the sometimes very subtle differences in expression that display emotion. These discussions were enough to keep me interested in reading more of Ekman’s work in the future.

Comments Off

2008 08 18
Mandoo party your way to a freezer full of cheap eats

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Yoon is right: a mandoo party is a great way to end up with a freezer full of yummy mandoo (Korean dumplings). If you buy in bulk, we estimate that you end up paying about 14 cents a dumpling, which is really welcome when you’re on a tight budget. And you can avoid monotony by varying how you consume them: you can put them in soups or you can fry them up.

My only concern is that if we lost our power for a long period right after filling the freezer, we’d be fucked. That hasn’t happened yet, thank goodness.

A previous adventure in mandoo-making, complete with photos, is here.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 08 17
Recently read: “Mindless Eating”

Posted by in: Books, Food

Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think

There’s so much about our own eating habits that escapes us, particularly when it comes to the factors that influence the quantity of food we consume. Although many of us think that how full we are has a lot to do with when we stop eating a meal, it turns out that we’re influenced by considerably more than that feeling of fullness. We tend to eat more when our food is framed in certain ways, for example, in larger plates. We drink more from short, wide cups than tall, thin ones. We eat more in larger groups because of a tendency to continue eating (or at least pecking away) until everyone is finished. You can feed people with no short term memory a full dinner about 30 minutes after they’ve just finished eating, and most will eat the entire thing with no objection. They’re eating because the external cues suggest that it’s time to eat, and not because they’re hungry.

Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating is an entire book about the influences that work on us, under our awareness, when we eat. Wansink studies these at Cornell, where he is a professor of Marketing and Nutritional Science. This book is a popular presentation of his more academic work, much of which takes place in his “lab,” which includes a mock restaurant where lucky test subjects eat under close scrutiny.

Before I started this book, I assumed that Wansink’s main recommendation would be to try to eat more mindfully. And it’s true that Wansink does suggest things that we ought to be aware of as we purchase, prepare, present, and consume our food. But Wansink is too impressed with the evident difficulty that most of us have in remaining sensitive to all the forces acting on our food choices to be content with simply recommending mindfulness. Rather, the same mindless eating patterns that cause us to overeat and to eat badly can be brought into the service of healthier diets. So: buy smaller plates, and you’ll eat less without noticing it. Drink from tall, thin glasses, and you’ll drink less without noticing it. And so on. These are just a few examples, of course. The book is full of them, and if you’re interested in this subject, it’s worth checking out.

Comments Off

2008 08 15
Agedashi tofu

Posted by in: Food

Yoon’s been on a real agedashi tofu kick lately:

agedashi tofu

In addition to being yummy, it’s easy to make.

Comments Off

2008 08 12
Recently read: “In Xanadu”

Posted by in: Books, History

William Dalrymple. In Xanadu: A Quest

After enjoying William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, I thought I would check out In Xanadu, Dalrymple’s first book, written about his attempt during a summer break at school to retrace Marco Polo’s travels from Jerusalem to Xanadu. I read Marco Polo’s own account of his travels when I was 20 years old, and found it more an inspiration to doze off than to travel 12,000 miles – it’s mostly very boring, as even Dalrymple admits. Dalrymple’s book is much, much better. It’s interesting, well-paced, and often very funny. The author was only 22 when he wrote the book, and occasionally it shows: he indulges a few times in some rather sweeping national stereotypes, for example.* But if you enjoy travel writing, this book is well-worth your time.

* I don’t object to this because I’m a humourless scold – though of course I am – but just because I doubt that a 20-something year old kid breezing through Asia hung around long enough to get it right.

Comments Off

2008 08 10
“less to geostrategic calculations than to . . . Putin’s cold war mentality”

James Traub has an interesting piece in the NYT about the current conflict between Russia and Georgia. But what’s up with this:

Georgia, with its open embrace of the West, thus represents a threat to the legitimacy of Russia’s authoritarian model. And this challenge is immensely compounded by Georgia’s fervent aspiration to join NATO, one of Russia’s red lines. Russian officials frequently recall that President Bill Clinton promised Boris Yeltsin that NATO would not expand beyond Eastern Europe. Of course NATO is no longer an anti-Soviet alliance, and the fact that Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its security is a vivid sign of the deep-rooted cold war mentality of Mr. Putin and his circle.

And then later on this:

People of all political persuasion now seem to get it about Russia. In “The Return of History and The End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan, the neoconservative foreign policy expert who is advising John McCain, writes of Mr. Putin and his coterie: “Their grand ambition is to undo the post-cold war settlement and to re-establish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia.” Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”

Is a Russian leader being paranoid and stuck in the past if he fears the eastward expansion of a powerful rival military alliance, after a promise that it won’t happen? It is not at all clear to me that Russia should be sanguine about NATO’s expansion. Does Traub suppose that member nations of NATO will always have the purest intentions when they deal with Russia? Even with the purest intentions, NATO countries are bound to have conflicts with Russia over a number of issues. Is he sure that the fact that they belong to a powerful military alliance will have no influence over their policies? I have a very healthy loathing of Putin and everything he stands for, but I can’t take much pleasure about seeing his concern on this point so arrogantly dismissed.

Comments Off

2008 08 10
Recently read: “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Sway takes its place among a number of similar books now on the market which popularize recent psychological research on human irrationality (much of which goes back to the pioneering work of Kahneman and Tversky). It’s a short, breezy, but entertaining survey of the literature, written by a team of brothers, one a psychologist and the other an organizational expert. The goal here is clearly to popularize, and I suspect at times the dumbing-down has gone a bit too far, but I nevertheless found the book a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

One rather central point that puzzled me had to do with the authors’ understanding of the main term in their inquiry, “irrationality.” It might be that they explained at some point what they mean by this incredibly slippery term, and I just missed it. But at different points in the book the term seemed to me to mean quite different things.

Here is one sort of irrationality discussed by the authors: It is well documented that we have a tendency to strongly bias original impressions, and to discount evidence relevant to a reconsideration of our original impression. For example, draft pick order seems to play an outsized role in play time granted to professional basketball players, when much more sensible metrics are available for judging their performance which actually seem to cut against decisions made on the basis of draft pick order. Now, suppose you could sit down a coach and explain this to him. You might be able to show that the coach’s own goals are not well served by the way he makes use of the available evidence, and you could demonstrate that his decision-making process falls into well-known patterns of suboptimal decision-making. And the coach might smack his forehead and say, “I’ve been irrational!”

Now consider a very different case, which supposedly also illustrates “irrationality.” Take two people, hand one of them $10, and explain the rules of the following game: The two are not to communicate in any way; they are strangers; they will not be playing this game again. The player holding the $10 bill gets to make a single proposal to the other player about how to divide the money. If the other player accepts the division of money, the two part with the proposed shares; if the other player rejects the division, neither player gets anything.

It is an interesting fact that most people offered less than $5 reject the offer, preferring to walk away with nothing. (Actually, it is another interesting fact that individuals from different cultures apparently make very different choices when playing this game.) Some economists and psychologists have argued that the choice is irrational, and Brafman and Brafman follow them in the description. If you’re offered $3, the thinking goes, you might as well take it, since $3 is more than $0. It appears that people really don’t like being shafted, and it matters enough to them to punish the other player that in order to impose the punishment they’re willing to forfeit what they might have otherwise gained.

But notice that if this is irrational, it’s clearly a different kind of irrationality from the one mentioned above. The kind of irrationality mentioned above involves an agent’s improper use of evidence to achieve the agent’s own goals. And once pointed out, it’s the kind of mental habit that we might resolve to avoid in the future. But I don’t see how additional evidence or explanation could get people to reconsider walking away from $3. The fact is, they don’t like unfairness; it matters to them, as well as money; and in some cases, it matters to them more than money. The preference for fairness is built into their own preference structure, and the preference for money is just one more preference within that preference structure alongside others. Indeed this is why the decision doesn’t strike me as necessarily irrational: walking away from the $3 may well maximize the agent’s carefully considered and properly weighted preferences.

I should say that the subtitle of the book, suggesting that the pull of the irrational is irresistible, is unduly pessimistic. In an epilogue, the authors quite reasonably point out that awareness of the different ways in which we fail to be fully rational might help us to make better decisions. This seems to be true. Indeed, it’s at least half the appeal of books like Sway.

Howls of outrage (14)

2008 08 09
Recently read: “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

After the scandal of Abu Grieb, the Bush administration insisted that the torture and abuse of detainees had been the work of a few bad apples. But of course the abuse was only a manifestation of a much deeper rot, for which top officials bore primary responsibility. I’ve sometimes had the impression of similar excuse-making in the attitudes of even some of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration, in the claim that the Bush administration represents a radical and unprecedented break with the past. It strikes me as naive to depict the Bush administration as a few bad apples, in an otherwise upright tradition legal and ethical conduct. On the contrary, the Bush administration seems to me part of a larger moral and legal rot that is systemic, and has unfortunately deep roots in American political culture (alongside much more admirable tendencies and traditions).

Jane Meyer’s new book The Dark Side has helped me to reflect on, and to a certain extent, modify, these assumptions. Mayer is familiar with the Church Committee, and with past American abuses of power. She doesn’t base her argument for a significant break with the past on what the Bush administration has done so much as on the legal arguments that the administration has advanced, most often in secrecy, to defend and support its policies. Much of this is new, and its long-term consequences are likely to be wretched.

A great deal of the action in Mayer’s book is, for this reason, legal. The new legal doctrines advanced by David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel for the period covered by the book, and John Yoo, among others, were fiercely resisted by other lawyers in the administration. Meyer meticulously details the legal arguments and maneuvers used by various parties to this debate against the background of events in the so-called War on Terror.

Mayer book is, as far as I can tell, balanced, careful, and accurate, while rarely engaging in the pointless he-said/she-said style of reporting that so many journalists use to avoid the implications of their reporting. When an official lies, she points it out, clearly and unequivocally. A book like this is difficult to ignore, if you care at all about moral and legal issues surrounding torture and the Bush administration’s policies. If even a quarter of the book is accurate, the United States would only need to be a country serious about following its own laws for hundreds of people, from the President on down, to be put on trial for torture and other serious crimes.

Comments Off

2008 08 08
Recently read: “Learning Python”

Posted by in: Books, Programming, Python

Mark Lutz. Learning Python

When I was studying philosophy, I didn’t bother to review philosophy books here. Likewise, I don’t now intend to write much about computer books. But I’ll make an exception for Mark Lutz’s Learning Python. I was told a while back by several people that Python is a great programming language to get started with. It’s elegant, powerful, free, easy to pick up, and currently in fairly widespread use. As far as I can tell, this was good advice. I’ve certainly enjoyed the time I’ve spent playing around with Python, and I’ve found the experience strangely empowering. There are all kinds of uses for simple programs in daily life, and it’s wonderful to be able to whip them up yourself. Picking up a little programming is something that I recommend to just about anyone, including people who never thought of themselves as likely programmers. If, then, you want to dabble a bit, and you take the advice given to me to begin with Python, go get yourself Lutz’s book. It is readable, extraordinarily clear, and patient. I suspect that at times the pace is slow enough to drive someone with an actual programming background nuts, but this turns out to be very handy if you’re new to programming. Highly recommended.

Comments Off

2008 08 06
Do I Resemble Your Wife?

Okay, first things first.1 One true answer to the title’s question is: not entirely. Phew. Dodged one there, didn’t you? Not so fast, though. The answer may well be “Somewhat,” in which case it behooves you to read on to see how.

Alright, I’ll admit it. It’ll behoove me if you read on. You see, I might have gotten myself into a bit of hot water, although with some thought and an even keel, this water may turn out resemble more the palliative springs of many a television boom town than the terrifying pit at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The sitch is that I am giving a talk on Friday. My first talk professional talk post-grad school. And I’m nervous. I’m nervous for the usual reasons. These include the fear that I’ll make a fool of myself in the Q&A, and that my central argument is just not that good. But there is an additional, more idiosyncratic reason that I really want to think hard about before delivering the talk. And that’s the distinct possibility that while my central argument is fine, I have used a poorly chosen example to add support to my conclusion. This would leave me dialectically naked, even if my underlying argument remains cogent. So I want to try to extract myself for this situation as carefully as possible, and this is my test run.

Continue Reading »

Howls of outrage (8)

2008 08 06
Recently read: Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”

Posted by in: Books, Psychology

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

“Flow” is Csikszentmihalyi’s term for the mental state accompanying sustained, concentrated, pleasant activity. Think of some activity you enjoy very much, which requires the sort of involvement that lets the time slip by unnoticed. Some people find this in games or hobbies; some in exercise; some in work. “Flow” a useful term, since it helps to identify a mental state that is, all things being equal, highly desirable. All other things are not always equal, since as Csikszentmihalyi notices, experiencing flow is not a sufficient condition for an objectively worthwhile activity. A Nazi might experience flow carrying out his duties, but the activities are no better for all that. Still, flow seems to be the subjective side of objectively valuable activities, and, as such, an extremely important part of a good human life.

Csikszentmihalyi surveys a number of activities, and finds common features of flow activities. His description of the conditions for flow during physical exercise, for example, is easy to generalize to many other activities:

The essential steps in the process are: (a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; (b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; (c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making diner and finer distinctions in the challenges involved in the activity; (d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and (e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

Csikszentmihalyi is apparently responsible for introducing the notion of flow into modern psychology. And more power to him for that. Unfortunately, he’s a crappy writer, prone to limp epigrams, irrelevant digressions, and he has an annoying habit of sprinkling his favourite little quotations through his prose. His historical and philosophical digressions seem to me pretty thin, as well as unhelpful. More actual advice about achieving flow, and much less about everything else, would have been very welcome to this weary reader. While I’m sympathetic to the author’s claim that the subject is a difficult one to generalize about, and that each reader needs to discover things for herself, I have recently come to believe that there is much more in the way of useful concrete advice to be given in this area. But more on that some other time.

Verdict: Not recommended. Better to just read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Howls of outrage (2)