Friday, January 16, 2004


It seems to me a fairly commonsense proposition if Australia can have access to a system that defended missiles directed at Australia from arriving in Australia, then it's something we ought to be part of.
Prime Minister John Howard on "Son of Star Wars"

I suppose it's much more humane solution than putting the missiles in long-term detention.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Culture Crimes

There's more of this lamentable sort of thing here. (Thanks to boynton for the link).

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Qantas: Definition

Yobbo Sam Ward wants help getting his his classic Qantas post onto page 1 of Google.

In the post's title, Sam gives the following succinct definiton of the word Qantas: "It's Australian for Shit".

Below the Belt

Back in the Long Gallery some of the women went upstairs to 'powder their noses'. Lady Montdore was scornful.

'I go in the morning,' she said, 'and that is that. I don't have to be let out like a dog at intervals, thank goodness - there's nothing so common to my mind.'

Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate

Twats, willies and wee-wee got a lot of blogospheric attention over the weekend. It's too soon to say that any of these topics will emerge as the BlogGeist's flavour of the month but they've been at least lukewarm topics and it's possible that they'll hot up.

Over at the Billabong, Stanley Gudgeon has turned in a first class impersonation of Mitford's Lady Montdore in commenting on this memoir of incontinence by Stephanie Bunbury which appeared in Saturday's Age. If nothing else, it confirms once and for all that Stanley is not Imre, who wrote in The Oz several months ago about his own struggles with bladder control (not available on-line, alas). From the biographical information Stanley has let slip over the past couple of years, I gather that he is numbered among those of us who look to the future with a certain trepidation for the time when it is no longer possible to achieve the Congress of the Snake Climbing the Tree without popping your plastic hip joint. One hopes for his sake that the next time Stanley bares his bum for his six-monthly grope, the doctor doesn't extract his rubber encased, KY-coated digit and announce "I think you're going to need to see a urologist. In the meantime I can prescribe something for those haemorrhoids if they're bothering you."

At Blogorrhea, Rob Schaap has posted on the subject of willy extensions and twat tucks, a theme picked up in passing by Gianna at She Sells Sanctuary. It's been a while since I got any penis-extension spam. I did succumb to visiting one of the sites that was e-mailed to me, where I was promised, among other things, that I would never have to feel embarassed walking into a locker room again. On checking, I discovered that the promised enlargement might be counterproductive, regardless of any ego-boost I might get from knowing that I could wander into any football club dressing room in the country and drop my kecks to reveal an old fella of Dirk Diggler proportions. In any case, if you're not a member of the team, the most likely response to such an act is that somebody will ask: "Who's the poofter with the long tool, then?"

"Dunno mate. You'd expect a dick that long to be thicker than that, though, wouldn't you?"

"Must have been hanging weights off it, I reckon."

If, on the other hand, you've decided on a penis extension in order to please your (female) sexual partner, you'd be better off learning the trumpet, or some other brass instrument, paying particular attention to the techniques of double tonguing and triple tonguing (this might also work if your sexual partner is male, but I'm in no position to comment on that - although I have heard that you can wreck your embouchure if you're not careful).

Afterword: after another quick visit to the Billabong, it's obvious that wee-wee will win out as flavour of the month over there.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Is this the kind of thing you were looking for?

If You're Happy and You Know It, You're Probably Wrong

I've posted before on the very common problem of people whose estimation of their own abilities doesn't match reality such as the life of the party who is anything but. I cited Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of the Cornell University Department of Psychology.

Now, via Crooked Timber I've found another interesting paper on the topic, On overrating oneself... and knowing it by Adam Elga.

Elga begins with an anecdote about his friend, Daria, who believed in astrology. Elga attempted to convince her that astrology is a load of bunk, presenting her with a lot of evidence such as studies showing that the position of the stars at one's birth had bugger all to do with one's personality or prospects. The result was:

Daria agreed that the studies were significant evidence against the truth of astrology, and that she had no countervailing evidence of comparable strength. But that was not the end of the matter. "I still believe in astrology just as much as I did before seeing the studies", she said. "Believing in astrology makes me happy."

Elga moves on to discuss a number of studies which show on a body of psychological research which show that:

... people have inflated views of their own abilities and prospects. People (nondepressed people, at least) rate themselves as better friendlier, more likely to have gifted children, more in control of their lives, more likely to quickly recover from illness, less likely to get ill in the first place, better leaders, and better drivers than they really are. And that's just the beginning. There is a great deal of work documenting the persistent and widespread positive illusions (about themselves) to which people are subject.

Some interesting questions arise when we combine this finding with the claim that research, such as this recent US Gallup Poll, shows that in general, conservatives are happier than leftists (or liberals or progressives or whatever the hell you want to call them). The Gallup Poll analysis has this to say on "The Politics of Contentment":

Even when accounting for partisan differences in marital status and household income, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats and independents to be very happy.

Happiness by Political Party ID
Republicans (%)Independents (%)
Democrats (%)

Very happy


Fairly happy


Not happy


Why Republicans are happier is not clear, but the result has been the same in nearly every asking of this measure since 1996, including one reading under former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and three under Republican President George W. Bush. Only in 1996 did Republicans and Democrats express about equal levels of happiness.

Percentage Very Happy, by Party ID

Republican (%)Independent (%)
Democrat (%)

2003 Dec 11-14
2002 Dec 5-859 4246
2001 Nov 8-114233
2000 Oct 6-9534445

1996 Mar 8-10
[My emphasis]

This looks pretty impressive, especially the finding that 62% of Republicans surveyed are very happy compared to only 50% of Democrats. I'm assuming, of course, that when the report asserts that "Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats and Independents to be very happy" (my emphasis again) they've at least run the data through Microsoft Excel's Chi-Squared test or something similar, rather than just eyeballing the percentages and saying "Wow! There's a good item for the press release."

In any case the statement "Republicans are significantly" (or otherwise, depending on whether that Chi-Squared test was run and what the result was) "more likely than Democrats and Independents to be very happy" is pretty sloppy; what it comes down to in the real world of verifiable results is that if you were to ask George W Bush if he was very happy, there's a 62% chance that he would answer yes, whereas if you asked Howard Dean the odds are only 50/50.

But if, in the US at present, you're more likely to find a very happy Republican than a very happy Democrat, Elga's paper points to an unhappy consequence; Republicans are significantly more likely to be self-deluding than either Democrats or Independents. Or, to translate this conclusion into the more rigorous form applied in the previous paragraph, if you were to ask either George W Bush or Howard Dean if they are self-deluding the probability that they would answer yes is zero, with a 62% chance that Bush's answer is incorrect while with Dean the odds are again 50/50. If Dean believes that he is not self-deluding he is significantly more likely to be correct (politically or ordinarily) in this believe than the Shrubster (the word significantly is employed here in the same sense - whatever that is - that it was employed in the Gallup organisation's report of its findings on "The Politics of Contentment").

If Republicans are more likely than others to be self-deluding, it's reasonable to suppose that they are also more likely to hang on to beliefs that make them happy, even if the weight of evidence is against their beliefs. Any suggestions about what these beliefs might be would be purely speculative so I don't propose to venture too far into that territory. While this line of argument might be appealing on a number of issues - such as the vexed question of whether the US would be better governed today if the Republicans had really run two short planks in the 2000 Presidential Election - it inevitably leads to unfounded accusations of arrogance and intellectual snobbery. Anyone else who is prepared to risk it is quite welcome to take up this line of argument as far as I'm concerned. There are much more interesting issues to explore.

At the very least it's possible that many of the Republicans who reported themselves to be Very Happy were in fact, Fairly Happy Republicans who had over-estimated their happiness levels. This is also true for the other political affiliations. Similarly, the Fairly Happy category for all three political affiliations probably includes a few self-deluding Not Happy people; the most trustworthy figures are those for the Not Happy category. It's unlikely that respondents who placed themselves in this category were affected to any significant degree by the tendency which Elga notes, for non-depressed people to overestimate their abilities and prospects. They may have been affected by the tendency of some depressed people to underestimate how well off they are but, if you're depressed enough to make that error, your opinion that you are not happy is probably well-founded.

Although the differences between Democrats and Republicans here look impressive, with over twice as many Not Happy Democrats as Republicans, I'm disinclined to regard them as significant. Assuming that the Chi-Squared test I referred to earlier was run, all that it would indicate on a contingency table with 9 categories is that the distribution of results between all 9 categories was too great to be attributed to random chance alone. And even to draw that conclusion you have to specify exactly how much of the variation you're prepared to write off as the result of random chance. If you're genuinely interested in the question "Are Republicans more likely to be happy than Democrats?", you need to conduct an entirely different kind of study, which supports the possibility of testing for significant differences between these two groups alone.

It's time to put aside these technical quibbles and move on to those interesting issues. For ease of later argument, I'm going to provisionally accept the following propositions as more or less true:

1: Consistent with the Gallup survey finding, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to be very happy.

2: As Elga notes, happy people are more likely to delude themselves about their abilities and prospects than less happy people.

3: Happy Republicans are more likely to delude themselves about their abilities and prospects than unhappy Democrats (this more or less follows from 1 and 2).

4: Happy Republicans are more likely than unhappy Democrats to hold beliefs in the face of strong evidence that they are false because those beliefs make them happy, just as Elga's friend Daria preferred to believe in astrology because it made her happy, despite strong evidence that it was a load of cobblers (this is either speculative or a truism).

5: The US Gallup survey finding reflect a fundamental difference in happiness levels between Lefties and Conservatives generally and are therefore applicable to other countries if you just change the names of the political parties (this is very speculative).

You might wonder what I mean by "more or less true" and "more or less follows". It's not very complicated; "more or less true" means (more or less) that the statement is, in my view, supported by enough evidence or argument to be taken as true. "More or less follows" in the case of 3 means that if you're prepared to be slack enough to accept the truth of 1 and 2 they more or less logically entail 3 and to hell with Baye's Theorem. So for the rest of this post we're just going to take it as read that propositions 1 to 4 have been established and get on with it. I can't say fairer than that now, can I? If you have problems with any conclusions I might draw later, at least you know where to start looking for the weaknesses in the argument.

[Incidentally, proposition 5 was added in after I had started on the next section of the post, beginning "Here are some big questions you might like to ponder a little". It's an assumption that is frequently made by other bloggers and the paid opinionistas whom they emulate. I doubt, therefore, that anyone will object to its being made. Usually it's an implicit assumption but I think it's much better if we drag it out into the open just this once. This paragraph was, of course, written after proposition 5 was added.

Later: If you're still not entirely happy with proposition 5, you're in good company. Neither am I, but it's not really my assumption. I've just borrowed it for the time being.]

Here are some big questions you might like to ponder a little. First of all, on the personal level, is it better to be a happy, self-deluding conservative or an unhappy, smart-arsed lefty? Would society as a whole be better off if everyone was a happy self-deluding conservative rather than an unhappy smart-arsed lefty? Could the human race survive a the geopolitical climate that would result, if every country implemented policies of reverse social-engineering to turn their unhappy smart-arsed lefty citizens into happy self-deluding conservatives? Is Trotsky, G. starting another bloody series that won't get past the first post or is there more of this crap to come?
On the last question, your guess is as good as mine. So let's see how many of the others we can get through, starting with the personal question; is it better to be a happy, self-deluding conservative or an unhappy, smart-arsed lefty? It's a question which leads us into the territory of ethical philosophy. It has a number of possible answers, depending on the kind of ethical theory you subscribe to.

Aristotelians would probably select the happy conservative option; this seems to be the best option if your aim is to live the good life as it is described in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. It also fits well with Aristotle's account of the virtues. According to Aristotle, virtue is found at the golden mean between two extremes of vice; courage for example is to be found somewhere on a spectrum that ranges from cowardice at one end to rashness at the other. Both extremes are bad, but somewhere in between we will find the virtue of courage.

To truly flourish we need to live in a way that allows us to exercise not just one virtue, but all the virtues that are appropriate to an Athenian gentleman whose dad just happens to have tutored Alexander the Great. As Elga notes:

... depressed people have been found to have more accurate self-evaluations [than others]. That accuracy probably doesn't help them. There is evidence associating the above sorts of positive illusions with increased happiness, ability to care for others, motivation, persistence, and the capacity for creative, productive work (Taylor and Brown 1988). Furthermore, there is evidence that at least some of the association is causal: that positive illusions help people get by.

A moderate level of self-delusion is conducive to living a good life, both in terms of one's personal welfare and one's capacity for good conduct to others. It might therefore be considered a virtue. So from an Aristotelian point of view rationality lies somewhere between totally tonto at one extreme and pedantically chop-logical at the other. The ideal intelligence is somewhere between total imbecility and too bloody clever by half.

Elga hints at a possible deontological view of the problem. He proposes this norm of rationality:

One ought not have beliefs that go against what one reasonably thinks one's evidence supports.

If we accept this principle, it follows that rationality is the deontological trump that outranks happiness. While a moderate level of self-delusion is conducive to living the good life (whether it as that of a gentleman of ancient Athens or that of a citizen of a 21st century liberal democracy) rationality is more important. Although this begs the question "Why?" it's a position adopted within some recent philosophical traditions (or proto-traditions) such as Objectivism, with its frequent emphasis on the "responsibilities of consciousness" and Jean Paul Sartre's Existentialism, with its equally frequent derision for mauvais-fois, a state of self-delusion very much like that we've been discussing. Objectivists, of course, would reject the unhappy leftist option along with the very happy conservative option in favour of the "rational producer" option or something similar. In any case, the pursuit of personal happiness as a goal becomes questionable as the evidence seems to show that to become happy requires a falling away from rationality and one would become less capable of meeting one's "responsibilities of consciousness".

Assuming that I haven't arbitrarily excluded a substantial tract of middle ground from consideration, it's a tough choice, or it would be, if we really were going to choose our political affiliations on the basis of a choice between greater personal happiness or greater rationality. Right now I can't see any good reason not to continue as a lefty. Some days, it's quite enjoyable.

Reading Matters

I was reading Raymond Chandler's essay The Simple Art of Murder on Saturday. I've got a possible post on crime or litcrit or something brewing somewhere at the back of my mind, so I wanted to look up that famous passage about mean streets. I got sucked into reading the whole essay again, because its great stuff, especially when Chandler dishes out on the English murder as a parlour game genre exemplified by by Agatha Christie. I particularly enjoyed this passage:

In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime Dorothy Sayers wrote: 'It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement.' And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a 'literature of escape' and not a 'literature of expression'. I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is; neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with.

As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics' jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently - one can never be quite sure - is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or the Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob and a juvenile at the art of living.

I do not think such considerations moved Miss Sayers to her essay in critical futility.

I think what was really gnawing at her mind was the slow realization that her kind of detective story was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first grade literature. If it started out to be about real people (and she could write about them - her minor characters show that), they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier-mache villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility.

I suppose you'll want that "mean streets" passage as well, now that I've mentioned it:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished or afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world...

The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Almost makes you want to go out and get yourself a trench-coat, a forty-five and a bottle of rye, doesn't it?

Update: here's the whole essay in PDF format.