Chilean President Wrote ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ in German Guest Book

Diplomatic Gaffe

“Deutschland Über Alles:” Chilean President Sebastian Pinera wrote his controversial dedication into the official guest book of German President Christian Wulff (left).

In a gesture of thanks for Germany’s help in rescuing the 33 Chilean miners, President Sebastián Piñera wrote the historically charged slogan ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ into the guest book of German President Christian Wulff last week. Now Wulff’s office is pondering how to remove the words.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has apologized for writing the words “Deutschland Über Alles,” a phrase frowned on in Germany because of its association with the Nazi era, into the official guest book of German President Christian Wulff during a visit to Berlin last week.

Media reports claimed Piñera had said on Monday that he had learned the slogan in school in the 1950s and 1960s and understood it to be a celebration of German unification in the 19th century under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. He said he was unaware that it was “linked to that country’s dark past.”

The first verse was dropped from the anthem after World War II because it is deemed too nationalistic. Piñera had been on a European trip to thank countries for their help in freeing the 33 Chilean miners. A spokesman for Wulff’s office played down the gaffe on Monday, saying the president had no doubt intended to express something positive about Germany.

Bild’s Loser of the Day

Piñera isn’t the only one to have unwittingly broken the taboo. Even experienced Europeans have done so. Last year, the French presidential office was so excited at the prospect that Chancellor Angela Merkel would attend the official celebrations to mark the French victory in World War I, the first German leader ever to do so, that its press department announced that the choir of the French army would sing “Deutschland Über Alles” at the event, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper reported at the time.

The mistake was spotted in time and the choir confined itself to singing the third verse which has been officially used since the end of World War II, starting with the unoffensive words: “Unity and justice and freedom for the German fatherland!”

Bild, Germany’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, responded to the faux pas by declaring Piñera as its loser of the day, a regular item on its front page, on Tuesday. “He’s better at rescuing miners,” the paper declared.

Meanwhile, “Deutschland Über Alles” continues to sully the pages of Wulff’s guest book. Wulff’s office now plans to discuss the matter with the Chilean embassy in Berlin. Piñera may get a chance to revise his entry.


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The Proto-Surrealist

Arcimboldo’s ‘Vertumnus’ (c. 1590).

The late, legendary S. Lane Faison Jr., professor emeritus of art history at Williams College, responded to over-the-top works of art with a vigorous “Hoo boy! Whoops a daisy!” He tended to reserve this evocative phrase for High Baroque extravaganzas and the apses of 18th-century Austrian churches, but I suspect he might have applied it to “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy,” the small, engaging exhibition dedicated to one of the most peculiar artists of the 16th century, on view at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. At once an exploration of a side-road of Mannerist painting, a brief survey of natural history in the late Renaissance, and an inquiry into perception itself, the show brings together paintings, prints, illustrated books, ceramics and bronzes united by their devotion to the apparently mutually exclusive worlds of nature and the fantastic.

Even those unsure about the pronunciation of “Arcimboldo” (are-cheem-BOLD-oh) will probably recognize his extraordinary “composite heads”—a genre that he apparently invented—in which sometimes comical, sometimes sinister likenesses are conjured up with clusters of fruits, vegetables and gourds, with flowers, twigs and sea creatures, and even, memorably, with books. The exhibition brings together 16 of these puzzling pictures, ranging from allegorical personifications of the elements and the seasons to portraits and witty images in which seemingly straightforward, if tightly packed, still lifes turn into heads when inverted. (Strategically placed mirrors at the National Gallery allow us to participate in the joke.) The selection includes many of Arcimboldo’s most characteristic, best-known heads, painted between 1563 and 1590—from about the time he left his native Milan for Vienna, seat of the Holy Roman Empire, to become court painter to Maximilian II, until a few years after the homesick Italian was allowed to return to Milan while remaining in the service of Maximilian’s successor, Rudolph II.

Little is known about how Arcimboldo attracted the attention of the Hapsburg court. He was, like his artist father, associated with the workshop of Milan’s vast cathedral, designing frescoes, banners, stained glass and the like. Of this early work, only a few unexceptional windows have survived, nothing that suggests extraordinary talent. He may have been known for illustrations of the natural world—a few have emerged—or else, then as now, connections helped in obtaining prestigious appointments.

Certainly the paintings Arcimboldo made for his Hapsburg patrons announce his mastery of the high realism for which Lombardy became known, a tradition based on close observation of nature, thought to be influenced by Leonardo da Vinci during his 17 years in the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The flora and fauna that make up Arcimboldo’s weird profiles are exquisitely and accurately rendered, their details and textures meticulously accounted for. It is believed, too, that Arcimboldo had first-hand acquaintance with Leonardo’s drawings of grotesque heads, many of which belonged to a family friend; the irregular profiles of the composite heads often have remarkable cognates in Leonardo’s distorted profiles.

Scholars find allegorical allusions to Hapsburg power in Arcimboldo’s “portraits” of the elements and the seasons, deciphering coded references to dominion over the world. Most of us concentrate on the obsessive virtuosity of the depictions of individual elements—a diagram identifies more than 60 sea creatures and a seal in the personification of water—on the shifting scale among these elements, and on the sheer strangeness of the images. (Not surprisingly, it was the Surrealists, with their taste for dislocation, who rescued Arcimboldo from centuries of obscurity.)

We struggle to see these playful, slightly disturbing images; our interpretation constantly changes. Drawn to the particulars, we try to amalgamate them into an illusionistic head, then get seduced by details again, unable to reconcile the two readings. We recognize the wonderfully painted peaches and pear suggesting the fleshy cheeks and nose of “Vertumnus” (c. 1590), note his peapod eyelids and cardoon moustache, then fleetingly manage to see this paean to abundance as a portrait of the robust Rudolph II, before losing ourselves in cabbage leaves, olives, a blackberry eye, and the glistening cherries of his protruding Hapsburg lip. Least appetizing? “The Jurist” (1566), thought to represent a famously ugly legal scholar’s scarred face by means of plucked chickens and a fish. Most improbable? “The Librarian” (c. 1566), a superb three-quarter portrait constructed with stacked and tipped books; only the picture’s impeccable provenance convinces us that it isn’t a Cubist effort.

At the National Gallery, Arcimboldo’s extravagant composites are illuminated by the presence of some of Leonardo’s bestial grotesque heads, along with drawings and illustrated books documenting the cinquecento’s burgeoning interest in the natural history of both the New and Old World, recorded with scientific accuracy. An enchanting marmot by Jacopo Ligozzi competes with Albrecht Dürer’s cowslips and the charming red squirrel of a Dürer contemporary, Hans Hofmann. Polychrome ceramic plates with high-relief amphibians and bronzes of real and invented creatures remind us that Arcimboldo’s composite heads were once displayed in kunstkammers, along with miscellanies of man-made and natural curiosities. Suddenly, the chicken/fish portrait of “The Jurist” doesn’t seem so odd.

Ms. Wilkin writes about art for the Journal.


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Goodbye Basil, Hello Pumpkin Seeds

Ten—no, 11!—delicious, beyond-the-obvious pestos to add to your arsenal

Clockwise from left: Lardo and rosemary, cherry tomato and almond, walnut, arugula and pistachio pestos

Pesto is a gift from summer—a nutty, herby distillation of a sweet-smelling, sunshine-loving herb. But fall doesn’t have to mean giving it up altogether. The classic basil version is just one interpretation of an open-ended technique: The word “pesto” has its roots in the Italian word for “pestle,” and it means the technique of using a mortar and pestle (or more often nowadays, a food processor) to make a flavorful paste combining garlic, nuts and oil with vegetables or herbs. In pesto’s birthplace, ingredients like parsley, mint and olives commonly end up in the mix. Fall, especially now when spinach and broccoli are approaching their peak, is the perfect time to experiment—and to try one of these more seasonable pesto recipes from top chefs around the country. Make extra: It’ll keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days. Better yet, freeze it in a Ziploc bag and you can stay sauced through the winter.

Arugula + Basil + Almonds


Blanch two cups arugula and three-quarters cup basil leaves separately. Shock, squeeze dry and puree in a food processor with a garlic clove, a little parsley, slivered almonds, olive oil, salt and a lot of ground pepper. —chef Matthew Accarrino, SPQR in San Francisco

Use it: Tossed with fusilli and ricotta salata

Walnuts + Grapeseed Oil


In a food processor, blend a half-cup each of olive and grapeseed oils with a half clove of garlic until garlic is finely chopped. On medium speed, incorporate a cup of walnuts. Process on high until mixture is smooth. Season with sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. —chef Marc Vetri, Vetri in Philadelphia

 Use it: Tossed with fresh pappardelle or farro penne

Cherry Tomatoes + Almonds


Blend 2½ cups cherry tomatoes, a garlic clove, a half-cup slivered almonds, 12 basil leaves, a pinch crushed red pepper and a big pinch of salt to a fine purée. While blending, pour in a half-cup olive oil in a steady stream until pesto emulsifies into a thick purée. Season. —chef Lidia Bastianich, “Lidia’s Italy” (PBS)

Use it: Tossed with hot spaghetti

Pistachios + Breadcrumbs + Mint


Blanch a quarter-cup raw pistachios in boiling water for two minutes. Remove, cool and process with a quarter-cup breadcrumbs, three tablespoons of olive oil, two tablespoons of chopped mint, a pinch of Aleppo pepper (available in Middle Eastern markets) and a garlic clove, pulsing until well mixed and smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. —chef Chris Cosentino, Incanto in San Francisco

 Use it: Tossed with roasted potatoes or Brussels sprouts

Lardo + Rosemary


In a mortar and pestle, mash a quarter clove of garlic and a pinch of salt until a paste begins to form. Add a teaspoon each of chopped rosemary and black pepper and continue to crush. Add a quarter pound of lardo, and mash ingredients together until pesto is smooth. Season to taste. —chef Cesare Casella, dean of The Italian Culinary Academy in New York

 Use it: Spread on toasted slices of crusty bread

Marjoram + Parsley + Walnuts


In a mortar and pestle, pound three garlic cloves and a pinch of salt into a mash. Pound six sprigs worth of marjoram leaves into mix. Do same with parsley leaves until you have rough paste. Cover paste with three-quarters cup olive oil. Add half-cup chopped walnuts. Taste for salt. —chef Russell Moore, Camino in Oakland, Calif .

 Use it: Spooned over sautéed mushrooms or grilled sea bass

Rapini + Parmesan + Porcini


Blanch one bunch of rapini for about four minutes, shock in a bowl of ice water, squeeze dry and chop finely. Purée the rapini, two garlic cloves, one cup olive oil, and a pinch of salt in a food processor until very smooth. Transfer to bowl. Stir in a half-cup grated Parmesan. Sauté a third of a pound of porcini mushrooms in butter until they are colorless and soft. Cool, purée and fold into the rapini mix. —chef Ethan Stowell, Staple & Fancy Mercantile in Seattle

 Use it: Tossed with a short twisted pasta like gemelli



Purée a half-cup of flat leaf parsley, two garlic cloves, a cup of olive oil, a large pinch of salt and up to eight turns of the pepper mill in a blender until mixture is smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning. —chefs Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, Frankies Spuntino, Brooklyn, N.Y.

 Use it: Brushed on sliced crusty bread before toasting

Pumpkin Seeds + Basil + Parmesan


Blend five tablespoons of pumpkin seeds, two cups of basil, a clove of garlic and salt until pureed. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Add two-thirds cup grated Parmesan and a quarter-cup olive oil, stirring until the pesto is smooth and creamy. —chefs Tony Mantuano and Sarah Grueneberg, Spiaggia in Chicago

 Use it: Spooned over cheese ravioli

Pecans + Parsley + Dates


Pulse a half-cup pecans, a half-cup parsley leaves, a quarter-cup Parmesan, a half-cup pecan oil and a teaspoon of kosher salt in a food processor until combined, but not totally puréed. Transfer to bowl. Fold in four chopped dates and two teaspoons balsamic vinegar. —chef Alon Shaya, Domenica in New Orleans

Use it: Spooned over duck, pork or ricotta spread on grilled bread

Pumpkin Seeds + Spinach 


Blend four cups spinach and one cup parsley in a food processor with just enough olive oil to make a semithick paste (about a half cup). Add two tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds and blend well. Transfer to bowl. Add one crushed amaretto cookie and three tablespoons grated Parmesan. Add salt and pepper, and adjust oil to desired consistency. —chef Marc Bianchini, Osteria del Mondo, Milwaukee, Wisc.

 Use it: Spooned over scallops or stuffed inside an omelet

Pervaiz Shallwani, Wall Street Journal

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Poem of the week

Poem by John Cornford

Madrid during the Spanish civil war
The heartless world’ … Madrid during the Spanish civil war.
John Cornford was one of the first British volunteers for the Spanish civil war. Born in 1915, he was the son of the classicist, Francis Cornford and the poet, Frances Cornford. They christened him Rupert John in memory of their great friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, but the first name was later dropped, as his father explained, because it seemed too romantic. John Cornford joined the Young Communist League at the age of 18, and became a full Party member at 20. Newly graduated from Cambridge, with a “starred” first and a brightly promising future, he left for Spain to fight for the Republican cause in August, 1936, and joined the anti-Stalinist POUM (The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification). He fought in the battles for Madrid and Boadilla, and was killed on the Cordoba front in December, either on or just after his 21st birthday.

“Poem,” this week’s choice, addresses the poet’s girlfriend and fellow political activist, Margot Heinemann. It owes nothing to Rupert Brooke, nor, surprisingly, to WH Auden. Cornford begins dramatically, as if to invoke some great, abstract power. His innovative stroke, the repetition of “heart” three times, is wonderfully successful. A surge of emotion is created with each repetition, and, every time, the word earns its place by acquiring a faintly different meaning, and tracing a movement from impersonal register to intimate. The “heart of the world” is certainly a romantic notion, with a Yeatsian echo, but the depiction of the world as “heartless” is closer to realism than romantic exaggeration, given the immediate context of war, and the wider background of the rise of fascism. Cornford then shifts attention finally from the general to the personal and particular. “Dear heart” tenderly singles out the addressee, and it defines the poem. This is not to be a poem centred on war and politics, like his other great literary achievement, “Full Moon at Tierz,” but a love poem.

The newly intimate tone suggests, also, a love letter. From now on the poem will be concerned with confiding immediate experience, especially inner experience. The voice is calm, candid and direct, brave but without bravado. This bravery is not wholly connected to war: it is about confronting emotion. “The pain at my side” reminds us that war’s injuries are not only physical, not only in the body. Yet the absence of a loved one is felt so acutely it’s like an accompanying physical presence.

This idea recurs in the third stanza, where the speaker suggests a childlike device by which to transcend the absence. He uses the same rhyme-word, “side”, and the sad, high-pitched sound of stanza one is repeated, but now there is “pride”, and the hope of an intense, visionary comfort. The idea that love can be communicated telepathically, and the beloved’s presence conjured by her sufficiently “kindly” thinking, is so simply and touchingly put that it seems neither arch nor fanciful. Once more, Cornford brings the addressee into the poem with an endearment – this time, simply the familiar, informal “dear.”

The second stanza expands the sense of chill introduced by the “shadow”. Those first two lines, with the fluttering rhythm and the favourite “i” sounds of “rises” and “reminds” convey premonition and sighing loneliness. That the main verb, “reminds,” is used intransitively compounds the feeling of dislocation.

With its strong, often trochaic, rhythm, the poem invites us to hear the footsteps of marching troops. Even love is like a ghostly soldier who trudges beside the poet on that “last mile.” The death that he fears is embodied almost alliteratively by name of the town, “Huesca”. Constant little rhythmic adjustments ensure there is not a trace of monotony, but the ebb and flow of complicated feeling – fear, and the fear of fear, conviction, courage, longing for comfort – like a landscape flowing past.

The passionate apostrophe at the poem’s beginning is what moves us, and draws us in, but something else keeps us reading, something less dramatic and more truthful, almost matter-of-fact. This quieter tone is sustained to the end, where the last wishes are simple, declared with exemplary plainness.

In fact, after its first romantic flourish, the poem demonstrates many of the classical virtues: proportion, self-discipline, the integration of mind and body. You feel as if you have been presented with a photograph of a young soldier’s inner life. He is a passionate lover and a passionate warrior: these qualities are held in perfect psychic balance. And they are timeless. The speaker could be one of Homer’s heroes. He could be a Spartan at Thermopylae.

It is impressive that such a stately and achieved lyric should have been written under such pressure, and by a writer still only 20. As a “last letter” it is neither raw nor prosaic, and, with or without the reader’s knowledge of Cornford’s sacrifice, it stands as one of the most moving and memorable 20th-century love poems.


Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view.

The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear.

On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.

And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.


Stories vs. Statistics

Half a century ago the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow bemoaned the estrangement of what he termed the “two cultures” in modern society — the literary and the scientific. These days, there is some reason to celebrate better communication between these domains, if only because of the increasingly visible salience of scientific ideas. Still a gap remains, and so I’d like here to take an oblique look at a few lesser-known contrasts and divisions between subdomains of the two cultures, specifically those between stories and statistics.

I’ll begin by noting that the notions of probability and statistics are not alien to storytelling. From the earliest of recorded histories there were glimmerings of these concepts, which were reflected in everyday words and stories. Consider the notions of central tendency — average, median, mode, to name a few. They most certainly grew out of workaday activities and led to words such as (in English) “usual,” “typical.” “customary,” “most,” “standard,” “expected,” “normal,” “ordinary,” “medium,” “commonplace,” “so-so,” and so on. The same is true about the notions of statistical variation — standard deviation, variance, and the like. Words such as “unusual,” “peculiar,” “strange,” “original,” “extreme,” “special,” “unlike,” “deviant,” “dissimilar” and “different” come to mind. It is hard to imagine even prehistoric humans not possessing some sort of rudimentary idea of the typical or of the unusual. Any situation or entity — storms, animals, rocks — that recurred again and again would, it seems, lead naturally to these notions. These and other fundamentally scientific concepts have in one way or another been embedded in the very idea of what a story is — an event distinctive enough to merit retelling — from cave paintings to “Gilgamesh” to “The Canterbury Tales,” onward. 

The idea of probability itself is present in such words as “chance,” “likelihood,” “fate,” “odds,” “gods,” “fortune,” “luck,” “happenstance,” “random,” and many others. A mere acceptance of the idea of alternative possibilities almost entails some notion of probability, since some alternatives will be come to be judged more likely than others. Likewise, the idea of sampling is implicit in words like “instance,” “case,” “example,” “cross-section,” “specimen” and “swatch,” and that of correlation is reflected in “connection,” “relation,” “linkage,” “conjunction,” “dependence” and the ever too ready “cause.” Even hypothesis testing and Bayesian analysis possess linguistic echoes in common phrases and ideas that are an integral part of human cognition and storytelling. With regard to informal statistics we’re a bit like Moliere’s character who was shocked to find that he’d been speaking prose his whole life.

Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled. A drily named distinction from formal statistics is relevant: we’re said to commit a Type I error when we observe something that is not really there and a Type II error when we fail to observe something that is there. There is no way to always avoid both types, and we have different error thresholds in different endeavors, but the type of error people feel more comfortable may be telling. It gives some indication of their intellectual personality type, on which side of the two cultures (or maybe two coutures) divide they’re most comfortable.

People who love to be entertained and beguiled or who particularly wish to avoid making a Type II error might be more apt to prefer stories to statistics. Those who don’t particularly like being entertained or beguiled or who fear the prospect of making a Type I error might be more apt to prefer statistics to stories. The distinction is not unrelated to that between those (61.389% of us) who view numbers in a story as providing rhetorical decoration and those who view them as providing clarifying information.

The so-called “conjunction fallacy” suggests another difference between stories and statistics. After reading a novel, it can sometimes seem odd to say that the characters in it don’t exist. The more details there are about them in a story, the more plausible the account often seems. More plausible, but less probable. In fact, the more details there are in a story, the less likely it is that the conjunction of all of them is true. Congressman Smith is known to be cash-strapped and lecherous. Which is more likely? Smith took a bribe from a lobbyist or Smith took a bribe from a lobbyist, has taken money before, and spends it on luxurious “fact-finding” trips with various pretty young interns. Despite the coherent story the second alternative begins to flesh out, the first alternative is more likely. For any statements, A, B, and C, the probability of A is always greater than the probability of A, B, and C together since whenever A, B, and C all occur, A occurs, but not vice versa.

This is one of many cognitive foibles that reside in the nebulous area bordering mathematics, psychology and storytelling. In the classic illustration of the fallacy put forward by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, a woman named Linda is described. She is single, in her early 30s, outspoken, and exceedingly smart. A philosophy major in college, she has devoted herself to issues such as nuclear non-proliferation. So which of the following is more likely?

a.) Linda is a bank teller.

b.) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Although most people choose b.), this option is less likely since two conditions must be met in order for it to be satisfied, whereas only one of them is required for option a.) to be satisfied.

(Incidentally, the conjunction fallacy is especially relevant to religious texts. Imbedding the God character in a holy book’s very detailed narrative and building an entire culture around this narrative seems by itself to confer a kind of existence on Him.)

Yet another contrast between informal stories and formal statistics stems from the extensional/intensional distinction. Standard scientific and mathematical logic is termed extensional since objects and sets are determined by their extensions, which is to say by their member(s). Mathematical entities having the same members are the same even if they are referred to differently. Thus, in formal mathematical contexts, the number 3 can always be substituted for, or interchanged with, the square root of 9 or the largest whole number smaller than pi without affecting the truth of the statement in which it appears.

In everyday intensional (with an s) logic, things aren’t so simple since such substitution isn’t always possible. Lois Lane knows that Superman can fly, but even though Superman and Clark Kent are the same person, she doesn’t know that Clark Kent can fly. Likewise, someone may believe that Oslo is in Sweden, but even though Oslo is the capital of Norway, that person will likely not believe that the capital of Norway is in Sweden. Locutions such as “believes that” or “thinks that” are generally intensional and do not allow substitution of equals for equals.

The relevance of this to probability and statistics? Since they’re disciplines of pure mathematics, their appropriate logic is the standard extensional logic of proof and computation. But for applications of probability and statistics, which are what most people mean when they refer to them, the appropriate logic is informal and intensional. The reason is that an event’s probability, or rather our judgment of its probability, is almost always affected by its intensional context. 

Consider the two boys problem in probability. Given that a family has two children and that at least one of them is a boy, what is the probability that both children are boys? The most common solution notes that there are four equally likely possibilities — BB, BG, GB, GG, the order of the letters indicating birth order. Since we’re told that the family has at least one boy, the GG possibility is eliminated and only one of the remaining three equally likely possibilities is a family with two boys. Thus the probability of two boys in the family is 1/3. But how do we come to think that, learn that, believe that the family has at least one boy? What if instead of being told that the family has at least one boy, we meet the parents who introduce us to their son? Then there are only two equally like possibilities — the other child is a girl or the other child is a boy, and so the probability of two boys is 1/2.

Many probability problems and statistical surveys are sensitive to their intensional contexts (the phrasing and ordering of questions, for example). Consider this relatively new variant of the two boys problem. A couple has two children and we’re told that at least one of them is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability the couple has two boys? Believe it or not, the Tuesday is important, and the answer is 13/27. If we discover the Tuesday birth in slightly different intensional contexts, however, the answer could be 1/3 or 1/2.

Of course, the contrasts between stories and statistics don’t end here. Another example is the role of coincidences, which loom large in narratives, where they too frequently are invested with a significance that they don’t warrant probabilistically. The birthday paradox, small world links between people, psychics’ vaguely correct pronouncements, the sports pundit Paul the Octopus, and the various bible codes are all examples. In fact, if one considers any sufficiently large data set, such meaningless coincidences will naturally arise: the best predictor of the value of the S&P 500 stock index in the early 1990s was butter production in Bangladesh. Or examine the first letters of the months or of the planets: JFMAMJ-JASON-D or MVEMJ-SUN-P. Are JASON and SUN significant? Of course not. As I’ve written often, the most amazing coincidence of all would be the complete absence of all coincidences.

I’ll close with perhaps the most fundamental tension between stories and statistics. The focus of stories is on individual people rather than averages, on motives rather than movements, on point of view rather than the view from nowhere, context rather than raw data. Moreover, stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate and literal.

In the end, whether we resonate viscerally to King Lear’s predicament in dividing his realm among his three daughters or can’t help thinking of various mathematical apportionment ideas that may have helped him clarify his situation is probably beyond calculation. At different times and places most of us can, should, and do respond in both ways.

John Allen Paulos is Professor of Mathematics at Temple University and the author of several books, including “Innumeracy,” “Once Upon a Number,” and, most recently, “Irreligion.”


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Ten of the best balls in literature

Roxana by Daniel Defoe

The high point for Defoe’s high-class courtesan is her “little ball” in her swanky London apartments. Even the king turns up, and she makes her grand entrance in Turkish dress, prompting all the Restoration beaux to chant “Roxana! Roxana!” (an exotic beauty popular from the Restoration stage). “My dress was the chat of the town for that week; and so the name of Roxana was the toast at and about the court”.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny Price cannot bloom unseen for ever. Sir Thomas Bertram stages a ball at which she will come out into society. She gets to dance with Edmund, which is nice, but has Henry Crawford at her too, with all his sexy compliments. By three o’clock in the morning Fanny is all “knocked up”, as her brother delicately puts it.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

“There was a sound of revelry by night”. Byron’s narrative poem re-enacts the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels before the battle of Waterloo. But the party has to end. “Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro, / And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress, / And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago / Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness”.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Thackeray’s Napoleonic magnum opus stages the very same ball. Dance, flirt and be merry, for tomorrow you may well die. Soppy Amelia’s husband is beguiled by her sexy, manipulative friend Becky and invites her to elope with him. Amelia slinks away, heartbroken.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary loves a ball but it always makes her discontented. After she and her dull husband attend a glamorous ball given by the Marquis d’Andervilliers she begins to chafe at the restrictions of provincial married life. Her ambition to consort with toffs has been awakened.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Kitty goes to a ball prepared to perform the first quadrille with Vronsky. Tolstoy seems to know not only about her feelings of excitement, but also about the arrangement of her tulle dress over her pink slip and elaborate coiffure “surmounted by a rose and two small leaves”. Everyone wants to dance with her, naturellement

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The first great set-piece of Wharton’s society novel is Mrs Julius Beaufort’s annual ball. It is a magnificent affair, for the Beauforts have a ballroom, “used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness”. At this ball, Newland Archer feels the pull of the fascinating Countess Olenska.

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Toni, a young cavalry officer, makes a mortifying blunder at a ball by inviting Edith to dance. He has not realised that she is lame and cannot walk. In the days that follow he calls on her to assuage his guilt and finds that she has fallen in love with him. But he does not love her; he only pities her.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

There are more balls in Heyer’s oeuvre than in that of any other novelist. In this Regency romance, impecunious Frederica Merriville hopes to launch her beautiful younger sister into society and enlists the help of their louche relation the Marquis of Alverstoke. At a ball for his rich, stodgy niece, the Merriville girls shine and passions begin to boil. 

Carrie by Stephen King

Carrie, the sexually repressed girl with telekinetic powers, is taken to the prom ball by nice, handsome Tommy. He and she are voted king and queen of the ball, but, at the crowning moment, Carrie is doused in pig’s blood by a nasty rival. She lives to regret it . . .


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Uncommon knowledge

Do you swear to tell the truth?

Getting kids to tell the truth can be challenging. Most parents likely think that talking with their kids about the morality of lying is the best approach, but new work suggests another way. Researchers asked kids between the ages of 8 and 16 to take a trivia test and told them that they would win $10 if they answered all the questions correctly. The kids were also told that the answers were inside the testing booklet but to not cheat, even though they’d be left in a room alone. What the kids didn’t know was that a couple of the questions had no real answers, and the experiment was being recorded by hidden cameras. After finishing the test, the kids were asked whether they had peeked at the answers. The majority of them had indeed cheated, and the overwhelming majority of those who peeked lied about it when first asked. Asking the kids to think about the morality of lying made little difference in getting the kids to recant. However, if the kids were asked to promise to tell the truth — the same approach used in the legal system — a significant number of the liars recanted.

Evans, A. & Lee, K., “Promising to Tell the Truth Makes 8- to 16-year-olds More Honest,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law (forthcoming).

If you send me to my room, the terrorists have won

Terrorism is bad enough as a security threat, but a team of researchers in Europe has found that thinking about terrorism can affect how we treat our own children. After being shown pictures of terrorism or reading or writing about terrorism, both parents and nonparents endorsed stricter parenting practices. Moreover, this pattern was confirmed with an experiment on actual behavior inside homes. After seeing pictures of terrorism, parents were more impatient, and showed more negative facial expressions, toward their children.

Fischer, P. et al., “Causal Evidence that Terrorism Salience Increases Authoritarian Parenting Practices,” Social Psychology (Fall 2010).

The case for making homework a choice

Motivating kids to learn is at the heart of education. According to a new study, there is a simple but effective way to encourage kids to want to learn on their own: give them a choice. In an experiment, high school students who were allowed to choose their homework assignments (covering the same material) reported more interest, enjoyment, and competence regarding their homework, and they scored higher on a subsequent test of the material.

Patall, E. et al., “The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom,” Journal of Educational Psychology (forthcoming).

The ‘freeze’ response

In the wild, animals are known to freeze if they sense danger lurking nearby. This behavior — including bradycardia (slowed heart rate) — has been demonstrated in humans, too. But, of course, we aren’t usually being hunted in our neighborhoods and workplaces, so researchers wondered if the same effect also occurs for social threats. Women were fitted with biometric sensors and asked to stand on a motion-measuring platform while viewing different facial expressions. When they saw angry faces, the women “froze” — their bodies swayed less, and their heart rates dropped.

Roelofs, K. et al., “Facing Freeze: Social Threat Induces Bodily Freeze in Humans,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


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