November 10

Bayes v freq

Ignore priors at your own risk.


 November 4


Here’s an example of successful negotiation by the ingenuous. When my daughter Stephanie (13) and I travel, I ask her to leave her laptop at home. It’s a fairly bulky Dell. I take my slenderer MacBook Pro. I am, admittedly, protective of this piece of equipment and don’t let her use it as often as she would like. For the next trip, Stephanie suggests that we take her laptop along and leave mine at home for that would solve the problem of my protectiveness. I would not need to worry about her getting peanut butter in the keyboard (which she never has). From Stephanie’s point of view, her proposal creates a win-win situation. From my point of view, new concerns arise: Will my access to computing now be curtailed? How costly are the frustrations I anticipate experiencing in the dreaded Windows environment? How bothered will I be when having to lug her heavy laptop? If I were rational, I would assess, weigh, and integrate all these variables and then decide to do whatever is best. I would not care about the fact that the proposal was Stephanie’s and that I am put in a reactive position. In fact, if I were rational, I would have had the idea myself and decided on what’s best and told Stephanie what I found.

Taking the initiative, Stephanie has made it virtually impossible for me to enforce the status quo ante. For me to now say “Sorry, but we’re taking the Mac and you will have as little access as you did in the past” would seem unreasonable und perhaps even punitive. Steph succeeded in framing the issue so that I am now under pressure to make a concession. I can either accept her proposal or I could insist on taking the Mac with the understanding that she will be allowed to use it more (like, a lot!).

I sometimes wonder why kids and adolescents are more creative (and persistent) negotiators than are adults. My experience with college students, for example, is that some of them can be highly (and unreasonably) persistent, but they are not particularly creative. Is this something we should teach (and then pay the price when they come back to extract concessions)?

My Latino friends tell me that loco parentis does not mean crazy parents.

November 3, 2012


Ah, Zen! And the master said “What is emptiness? Emptiness is the sum of everything that exists – before it comes into existence.” I almost pissed in my pants, but I was already so relaxed and mindful after 3 hours of sitting (zazen), walking (kinhin), and chanting (yes!), that I let it go. After all, what did the zen master say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything! It’s a zen thing all right. Nonlinear, noncategorical, nonsensical, and yet it feels pretty good, in a strange, guilty-pleasure sort of way. 4 hours wasted? The universe don’t care. Why should you? Or I? And who am I anyway? The ego is an illusion, a chimera to overcome. That is why the zen student returned the vacuum cleaner: Too many attachments! Of course, this is a kōan, begging the question of why the student would have ordered a vac in the first place. I kind of enjoyed kinhin, single file, Indian file, not goose stepping but penguin stepping. It’s a waddle, and it creates a reassuring sense of groundedness. In a satirical frame of mind, of course, John Cleese’s Silly Walks comes to mind. At the end of the day, I think that Monty Python was ahead of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki-Roshi and kinhin. They made us laugh (more).

Perhaps there is a reason why the word 'kōan' starts with a k. o.

I'm looking for a kōan that looks for a statistical tests with N - (N - 1) degrees of freedom. 

November 1, 2012


Today's thought is most undeep. You all have your own examples of the point I'm making. The point is that the digital revolution is advertised to provide more information more quickly and to thereby increase human welfare and happiness. Bah humbug, at least some of the time. Here's my pet peevish example. Scientific manuscripts are now managed through so-called submission portals (the term submission should tip you off). In the old days (up to the mid- to late 90s), we would print out 5 copies of the whole business and put it in the mail. Today, we enter a Dantian circle of hell. We gain access with a username and password, and proceed to provide astonishing amounts of information about ourselves, stopping short at our mother's maiden name and personal account information. Manuscripts, which used to be pieces from one cloth, are now chopped, sliced, diced, and mutilated. They have to be uploaded as N separate files, where N > 3. Add cover letters, lists of wanted and unwanted reviewers, mailing information of all co-authors, and you're almost done. Then the whole mess is re-assembled into a single pdf, which you review and approve. Answer a few more questions about your conflicts of interest, and who your father voted for in the election of '76, and you're done.

Or so you thought. If all goes well, you are invited to prepare a revision, which of course, comes with detailed responses to all points raised by all reviewers, no matter how chuckle-headed. Put hey, you play along. What choice do you have. Today, I got a what I assume to be an automatically generated email from Skynet, ah, "The Journal," telling to remove identifying information (acknowledgements) from the manuscript file (as the journal does blind reviews) and to respond to the reviewers. Both  steps are "mandated" before the manuscript can be processed. Thing is, though, the paper was already accepted (by the editor who is a person).

At the level of the group (the community, society), the race for information has the characteristics of a social dilemma. Getting more information provides a small advantage to the receivers. So they grab it. This is an act of defection against those who provide the information. Exercising restraint in gathering (grabbing) information is an act of cooperation, and don't we all want more of that?

This is a tiny teapot example of a larger issue. The advances in information technology come with (not so) hidden costs. The heuristic is "More information is good, so let's collect as much as we can." The truth is that more information is not always good. It is only good if it serves a purpose and if that purpose is larger than the cost of generating that information. Unfortunately, those who want the information are not the same as those who need to provide it, and so the cost of providing it is easily ignored.

September 26, 2012

A flashing sign above Rhode Island’s Route 4 says “39 dead; 64% unbuckled.” We are invited to buckle up in order to reduce the probability of dying should there be a crash. This looks like a case of reverse inference, and we’re not given the numbers to make it. All we’re told is that p(unbuckled|dead) = .64. What want to know, though, is the probability of dying if we’re unbuckled, or p(dead|unbuckled), and we need to know if that probability is greater than the probability of dying in a car accident despite having buckled up, p(dead|buckled).

According to statistics published on Wikipedia, the probability of dying in a vehicle accident was about .0001 in 2009 for random members of the U.S. population. Let’s liberally adjust this probability to .0005 to refer to the population of active drivers. USAToday reports that in 2008, 85% of drivers reported wearing seatbelts. Questions regarding the validity of self-reports aside, let’s accept this number for the sake of argument.

We compute the probability of dying if unbuckled by multiplying the base rate probability of dying with the probability of being unbuckled if dead and divide by the base rate probability of being unbuckled: p(dead|unbuckled) = p(dead) x p(unbuckled|dead) / p(unbuckled) = .0005 x .64 / .15 = .002. Likewise, we compute the probability of dying if buckled as p(dead) x p(dead|buckled) / p(buckled) = .0005 x .36 / .85 = .0002. Comparing the two results shows us that by buckling up we reduce our chances of dying a vehicular death by a factor of 10.

September 22, 2012

In the movie I think I love my wife, Chris Rock's character says: "Well, that's how relationships are. You add how long you been together, and then you divide it by two, and that's how long been breaking up." Someone should study the reverse inference: Notice when strains first appear in the relationship, take the past length of the relationship and project it into the future, and you know when you will break up. This looks like a testable hypothesis, but there are those who will stay longer in a bad relationship just to refute it. I am less worried about those who quit sooner.

August 19, 2012

Here’s a business tactic: Force consumers to buy a minimum number N of X when they only want one X. The larger the N, the better. Back in the day and in certain states, smokers could purchase single cigarettes. The price of a single cigarette was much higher than 1/N so that sellers should have been eager to offer singles. But they weren’t. Many smokers apparently managed to regulate their consumption by buying one cig at a time. If they bought a pack, smoking one made smoking another one more likely, and boom, the pack was gone. Knowing this, the sellers lobbied the people’s representatives to make the sale of singles illegal. The result – I imagine – was more smoking for the consumers and more profits for the tobacco companies (and tax revenue for the state). The prohibition on singles also solved a game-theoretical dilemma for the tobacconists. If they had individually decided not to offer singles, any one of them would have been motivated to defect by offering singles and thereby draw consumers to his business. So the legal solution was efficient and gratifying to everyone except the smokers and those flipping the medical bills.


Flashforward to NYC of the current time. I stepped into a McDonald’s for some fattening junk food and wanted to top it off with a cookie. The cookies were displayed in a translucent box, stacked one atop the other. The sales associate informed me that only batches of 3 would be sold. My suggestion to sell me one third of such batch at one third of the price fell on deaf ears. They just don’t do that and who would – god forbid – question policy? I wondered aloud why that policy was not extended to Big Macs. This was not regarded as funny (or thought-provoking), but cynical. I understand that, as usual, things are “complicated.” But from the armchair, we ought to be able to figure out some boundary conditions of the batch phenomenon. No one would seriously propose to batch the sale of Mercedeses of the 3 hundred series (too expensive) or to unbatch the sale of matches (too weird). But cigarettes or cookies? Why not? We can get (even without buying) single toothpicks, but then again, they are not addictive.

April 27, 2012

Here’s how you can increase the average person’s BMI (Body Mass Index, i.e., “fatness”). Make it difficult to find the stairs so that using the elevator is the default option. This is what the Courtyard Marriott in Certaintown does. The stairwells are tiny affairs, located at the far ends of the hall, and presumably to be used only as “emergency exits” in case of fire or civil war. The elevator is centrally located. You can’t miss it. Take it even if you only need to go down one level.

Continuing with the theme, breakfast is taken in a place that seems to want to be a Starbucks but rather looks like a Dunkin Donuts at the Amtrack station. They serve the kind of food that makes using the stairs an even less likely option. But then again, they do not “serve” the food; you need to walk it over to your table yourself. So perhaps there is hope. Needless to say, breakfast is not included in the room charge, which is roughly 160% above the “normal” rate during graduation week (Certaintown is a college town).

On a brighter note, the taxi driver, a plain-spoken and plain-looking man, turned out to be familiar with Smith, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, and John Nash. He shared his views on anarchical capitalism, which were confirmed by the Marriott corporation in due course.

I am learning from David Stove, the late Australian philosopher, critic, and curmudgeon, that putting “words” in quotation marks castrates them. It neutralizes – excuse me – “neutralises” their connotation. Stove discusses this phenomenon with respect to the writings of Popper, Kuhn & Lakatos, whom he considers the grave diggers of positive (“positive”?) science. Historiographically, he notes, Captain Cook “discovered” the Cook Strait. Stove’s book is called “Scientific Irrationalism: Origins of a Postmodern Cult.” Now, did I use the quotation marks to flag the phrase as a title or to neutralize the words? Or both? I don’t know and I don’t care. How postmodern of me. And what would the cabbie say?

April 21, 2012

We cannot prove that the next event will be X if all events thus far have been Xs. This is the problem of induction. We cannot infer that all swans are white if all swans we have ever seen were white. It remains logically possible that the next swan will be black. This logical limitation on induction refers only, as far as I can tell, to enumeration. In the swan example, we have nothing else to go on beyond the tally. There are no reasons to believe that blackness in swans is impossible; blackness would not violate any physical or natural law. What if we predicted that no swan – ever – suckles her young? No swan we have ever seen was a mammal, and no swan ever will be, for that would violate a law of nature and the laws of the definitional space we have set up. There are many features (another one would be speech) that a swan cannot have without ceasing to be a swan.

So Hume was half right. Yet, he may ask how these laws of nature come to be discovered, inferred, and accepted if not by enumeration of instances. It seems to me that laws of nature can also be discovered by brute force deduction and accepted by the data from a single experiment. A classic example was a study by Dyson, Eddington & Davidson (1920) that showed that the great mass of a star can make light travel nonlinearly. Einstein’s (1915) calculations were proven right (although he may have felt that the empirical test of his claim was not essential).

Hume also wrote a brilliant essay questioning the reality of miracles. A black swan would not be a miracle. A wooden statue shedding tears of blood (or clear salty fluid) would. The former case only means that the run of enumeration has ended. The latter, if accepted as fact, would force us to topple and toss a whole suite of assumptions about how the world works. That is an expensive endeavor. Therefore, Hume argued, an observation needs support and corroboration proportionate to the changes it forces us to make throughout the entire space of our knowledge, assumptions, and beliefs.

There is a corollary to the enumeration problem, or rather an inverse or a Jungian shadow. Instead of irrationally assuming that because all swans so far have been white, all swans that may ever be seen will be white, we assume that the first black swan is just around the corner, although a gazillion of past swans have been white. This too can be an irrational expectation if it is numerically inflated or if it is up to us to choose the swan’s color.

I have taught a psychology course for 30 years and I have never failed a student (this is, I stress unnecessarily, a hypothetical example). I only give passing grades; there are no As and no Bs. By enumeration you charge that I will never fail a student. I counter that I might do that at any moment. The course is, after all, billed as pass/fail. It just so happened that all the hundreds of students who have taken the course have done passable work. You may suspect that I have set the passing threshold too low, but you can’t prove it, can you? Or you might suspect that I have no idea what it would take for a student to fail or that I have no intention to ever fail a student, but you can’t prove either inference. The students are also puzzled. They enjoy the security of the expectation that they will not fail. Once they have passed, though, they wonder what this means. They can try to reassure themselves with my assertion that the first failure may just be around the corner. But it seems like cold comfort indeed. To the passing students, the first failing student is the miracle they are waiting for.

April 18, 2012

In my research, I work on the assumption that people can be rational and irrational. I reject the view that looking only for irrationality is the best way to do this science. My goal is not to whitewash human cognition by absolving it of all irrationality. I am not, after all, an economist. I know that irrationalities are common. Take religion, superstition, and conventional morality for example: These are highly irrational belief systems, particularly for those who believe they believe out of their own free will.

Here are two examples of irrationalities from my own area of study: inductive reasoning. Both are silly rather than nefarious, and both are embarrassing because I repeatedly catch myself falling into them.

The first irrationality is the traffic light illusion. When I drive to work and something is weighing on my mind, I imagine the lights will signal to me if (that!) everything will be well. I say to myself “If I make this light, this worry of the day – whatever it is – will resolve itself. Not only do I imagine a non-existing association between light and outcome (green = good) but I also try to influence the outcome by driving a bit faster or slower, whatever it takes to make the light. What we have here is an illusion of control on top of an illusory correlation. I am fully aware of the silliness of this exercise while I am engaged in it. No matter! I am not deterred. I simultaneously believe that it works and that it does not work. This irrationality is not a classic case self-deception (in which case I would not know that I am deceiving myself). It is rather a bit schizoid. At least I can say that while I’m doing it, I am also entertaining myself.

The second irrationality is something that Seinfeld/David commented on years ago. Again, the scene is my commute to work. Rhode Island drivers are, shall we say, not skilled. My ad hoc folk psychological explanation is that drivers enter an altered state of consciousness when getting behind the wheel. Normal processing is suspended. Behavior turns stochastic. Hence, I face a lot of frustrations, getting cut off, being tailgated and what have you. When I pass one of the altered consciousnesses, I almost always look over to see the person’s face. As if that would tell me anything. As if I could say “Aha! I thought so. I knew you would look like that.” The point is that, as far as I know, there is no correlation between bad driving and any demographic variable. What matters to me is not gender, race, or age, but state. And that I can get from the license plate (nb, it is also my impression that Massachusetts [Boston] drivers are more aggressive than Rhode Island drivers). It is fascinating to me that this irrational search for admittedly irrelevant “information” does not extinguish. Is there a hidden psychic benefit?

The word of the day is "antepenultimate," the one before the penultimate.

April 17, 2012

If you like living on the edge, or close to it, there is a term for you: Thigmotaxis. You are thigmotactic or perhaps a thigmotactician. I learned this term today from a student who had done research on zebrafish larvae, who are known for their thigmotaxis. They prefer living close to the edge of the pond for they are safer there from predators. So perhaps living near the edge is not the same as living on the edge after all.

April 16, 2012

The word of the day is contuition. I dug and found out that it refers to the simultaneous perception of opposites. Nietzsche used the word to describe Heraclitus’s method. I wonder if Heraclitus would agree that the river both does and does not stay the same. I guess a serious approach to contuition requires a zen orientation (see my notes on McGuire). If you can’t contuit the kōan, you can perhaps join me in looking for contuitive healing, feminine contuition, or contuitive spirituality.

April 15, 2012


Imagine you ride the bus and as you get off, the driver hands you a slip of paper with the url of a website where you can take a survey to express how well you were served. Perhaps you can win $50 if your number is drawn from the pool of survey takers. As you take the survey, you need to reveal a lot of information about yourself: your zip code, your mother’s maiden name (how archaically sexist), and what you like for breakfast. If not the bus driver, how about the barber, the massage therapist, or the person who cleans the commode for a pee fee (see below)?

SurveyCreep is happening and you know it. It is getting harder to maintain decorum when receiving the nth invitation to “tell us how we are doing” when the doing was a rather quotidian service or sales transaction. The Creep is a social dilemma. What if everyone did it? We’d all be overwhelmed. Hence, the Creep is not morally good. If it were (sensu Kant), we’d flourish as a society if everyone did it.

Yet, there must be an inducement for those who ask (the Creepers). What is it? The null hypothesis is that they really really want to hear from you and that they intend to respond to your complaints and recommendations. Possible but unlikely. One alternative hypothesis is that they want to gather information about you (e.g., get your email address to send you promotions). Again, that sounds all right if it remains numerically contained; it destroys the commons of your mailbox once you get alerts from every place where you ever bought anything. It’s a social dilemma all right. Another hypothesis is that they just want you to keep them in mind, in a priming sort of way. That may work at first, but it will break down when overdone, at which point it leads to curmudgeonly posts like this one.

The picture shows a section of a survey used by the Home Depot. provides a useful analysis.

April 14, 2012

When visiting beautiful Wetzlar in the Hesse region of Germany, I found this (see pic) statue of Mary and Jesus at the Dom (cathedral). Below the holy pair, there is an unholy pair: The devil and the Jew. The devil holds the Jew in kind of a headlock. The intended meaning is clearly negative, although there is some room for speculation as to what the nature of the devil-Jew association is exactly. Is the Jew depicted as the devil’s agent on earth or rather as the devil’s first victim (notice the headlock)? The Lutheran and Catholic congregations of Wetzlar decided not to remove this part of the sculpture, but instead to add a plaque to explain that depictions such as this contributed to the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages and beyond. I think this decision was the right one.


When I walk around Rhode Island, or other parts of this great nation, I am always amazed at how fat people are on average and how fat many of the people are who are fatter than that fat average. It’s a dispiriting sight to see people huff, puff, and waddle, their own body a burden to them after years of gorging on junk food. What are they thinking? That it is all a chemical imbalance? That the last “Lose 50 pounds in as many days without even trying” diet was a hoax? Are they thinking anything at all? My informal international comparisons, obtained from nonrandom traveling, suggest that obesity is an American problem first and foremost. On I found comparative data, and the result is even more striking and even more dispiriting than I had imagined (see graph). The bitter irony: America is number 1 at least in one department. It used to be number 1 in matters of innovation and progress – now fatness. Politicians and pundits ignore the issue, presumably because there is absolutely nothing to be gained politically from “thematizing” (the Germanism of the day) it. Fat people will not be thrilled by the attention called to their abject defeat; the remnants of the population that are nonfat will not be thrilled because they perceive fattitude as a moral and a private problem of the fatties, and hence not as an appropriate topic for public discourse. I predict that America will increase its lead and will remain the only supersized power for generations to come.

Here’s the definition of fatness from nationmaster: “Percentage of total population who have a BMI (body mass index) greater than 30 Kg/sq.meters. Obesity rates are defined as the percentage of the population with a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 30. The BMI is a single number that evaluates an individual's weight status in relation to height (weight/height2, with weight in kilograms and height in metres).”

April 13, 2012


The other day, Dr. Wayne Dyer did a 3 hour special on PBS, helping them in a fund-raising drive and helping himself to become even more prominent as a spiritual leader. I watched about half an hour of the program; then I had enough. What drew me in at first was the memory of Dyer’s earlier book “Your erroneous zones,” which I had found reasonable, useful, and broadly aligned with the findings of psychological science. Now Dyer plugs his new book “Wishes fulfilled: Mastering the art of manifesting.” I have no idea what the title’s byline means. I thought “to manifest” is a transitive verb. Manifest what?

Dyer’s wishes seem to have come true. He alludes to having survived a grave illness. His bald head is suggestive of chemo, but that is speculative. And he has found god. In Lourdes. [Note: People who die from grave illness can't go on stage to praise the lord.] Dyer sports a cap that he bought in that place of miracles. He has gone from psychology to a mawkish form of religiosity. God is in every other sentence. And the soul. The soul is omniscient and omnipotent and thus god-like, or, as Dyer says, “a fragment of god.” This is a primitive form of self-apotheosis, or shall we say sub-clinical narcissism? And it is easy. You don’t even need to enroll in shamanism 1o1 to pull this off.

It’s amazing how people (I recall the glowing faces in the audience) eat this drivel up. They want to be believe. They want to be god. And Dyer tells them that they are. The beauty part is that Dyer gets paid handsomely (at least in raised book sales) for his shameless self-aggrandizement, whereas the average shmuck (or god) goes home to pay the bills or look for a new job. If you couldn’t tell, I found the whole display revolting.

April 4, 2012


How much would you pay to go to the bathroom? The German autobahn system has an efficient network of rest stops. There are gas stations, mini marts, cafeteria-style restaurants (offering among other edibles huge specimens of sausage), and, of course, restrooms. To use the facility, you have to pay 70 Euro cents (ca. $1). After inserting the coins into the slot, the turnstile is released and a ticket emerges. This ticket is actually a voucher worth c50 at the restaurant or the mini mart. If you redeem the voucher, you have paid c20 for peeing, otherwise c70. Or so it feels and that’s why I suppose more people go to the mart/restaurant than would be the case otherwise. Of course, there are no items for c50 or less. Many people, once in the store, buy things they don’t want or need. I, for one, tend to yield to the allure of chocolate (Ritter Sport Alpenmilch). Why would people (and I) do that? The psychology behind the pee voucher is simple. The c50 feels like a windfall that should not be wasted – pissed away, as it were. Why would one pee for c70 when one can pee for c20? Yet, if you buy a cup of coffee for EUR 3.50 that you would not have bought if you had paid c20 for using the bathroom without getting a voucher, there might be a problem. Indeed, you end up drinking a cup of coffee that you did not want. It is a case of honoring sunk costs and it is not rational. By the way, the pee fee may be too low because the bathrooms are not all that clean. They do not compare favorably with their counterparts in Morocco – true story.

April 2, 2012


The title “Superficial Psychology” is an allusion to a chapter Robyn Dawes (pic) published in 1976, which was entitled “Shallow Psychology.” In it, Robyn repudiated the vertical architecture of mind, as propounded by Plato, Aristotle, the Catholic Church, and Freud, inter alii. The hierarchical view of the mind suggests that the mind’s narrow point is conscious and rational, whereas the broad base is not. According to this view, it is intrusions from below that are responsible for irrational decisions and behavior. Dawes, following Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, suggested that the mind is one, and that it is shallow. When irrational thinking occurs, it is a matter of a horizontal mess-up, not a vertical intrusion. Meanwhile, Robyn and Amos have passed and Danny has gone back to Aristotle, now believing that the mind is dualistic, split between a rational System 2 and an irrational System 1. The term ‘undeep thoughts’ is a Germanism; the word ‘undeep’ does not exist in the English language, although perhaps it should. Undeep means shallow, even dangerously so. Undepths are shallows in the sea where ships may run aground. So don’t put too much stock in the thoughts shared in this space. They are meant to entertain, and perhaps to provoke some further thoughts (even thoughts of the deeper variety). What I will be sharing will be mostly spontaneous and unedited—whatever comes to mind. I once explained to a woman that I have “a primitive associative mind.” She thought I was kidding. Oh well. I did not fall in love with her because of deep thought. The word paralipomena is Greek for leftovers, or literally, “things omitted (elsewhere).” Schopenhauer used the term in the title of one his works, along with parerga (works done on the side). I like Schopenhauer. Yes, he was a pessimist, but he was smart as heck and he wrote beautifully.

A note from the lingo-nerd: A gelatomaniac (-phobic) is not someone who loves (fears) ice cream, but someone who loves (fears) to laugh (actually, being laughed at).


They (e.g., William James) say that religious sentiments are among the deepest (not undeep) sentiments humans can experience. Perhaps this explains, in part, why believers tend to view atheists with suspicion, and why atheists often feel they have to justify their lack of belief, when, arguably, it should be the other way round. Incidentally, the atheists’ presumed emotional shallowness fell apart in my own experience the other day when I checked into a hotel by the name of “Altstadtengel” (Angel of the Old City). From the outside, the hotel looked just like the kind of place I enjoy. It was a renovated historical building located in my favorite neighborhood of my favorite city in Germany. The door was emblazoned with Rafael’s angels, who, you may recall, look as pensive as they look cute. Once inside, I learned that “The Pope Room” was reserved in my name. A sign on the room’s door was more specific: “Pope Benedict XVI Room.” I still didn't realize that the bell was tolling for me. I entered the room and with a quick look around I counted six portraits of “The German Shepherd” (his words), the main one being a huge picture of Il Papa towering above the bedstead. At the foot of the bed, there was a kneeling bench, inviting the guest to pray while bowing to His Holiness. I couldn’t take it. My reaction was visceral and immediate. I felt this display of religious iconography invasive and overbearing. So I checked out, to the astonishment of the receptionist who asked if it was something she had said or done (Catholic guilt?). I reassured her that this was not the case. She countered by saying that they would have to see if they would charge me anything for the room. I reassured her that any such attempt would be futile. The rest of the story is that I found delightful quarters in a country inn, located in an historic town in a scenic river valley. They charged half as much, boasted no Pope, and provided free wifi (the oldcityangel charged by the hour). But I divagate. The lesson is that atheists have feelings too, and a right to not have them trampled (that these feelings are utterly irrational sensu Aristotle need not bother us).


The words we use tend to change when the things they refer to are too frightening to contemplate, or if they are simply disgusting. Hence, we have euphemisms. During his semi-annual inspection of the basement, the pest controller looks for fecal matter, not mouse shit. On a larger scale, we should be worried about global warming, but many talk about climate change, which doesn’t sound as ominous. Actually, this term is more accurate and thus a better reflection of ominosity. It’s not just that our planet is heating up, we also get less water where we need it and more storms where we don’t need them. An even older and scarier term than global warming is the greenhouse effect. Although greenhouses are useful when managed by skilled hands, they also evoke the notion of a radical rise in temperature, a rise high enough to let oranges flourish where otherwise only apples would grow. This brings me to my proposal. Self-respecting palaces of Europe’s baroque era featured an orangerie, a kind of greenhouse where exotic plants were cultivated for the edification of the prince. There is nobility in that. So why not refer to global warming as the "orangerie effect"?

I feel better already, and I will no longer worry about emitting orangerie gases into the atmosphere.

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