Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 6, 2017
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Stats, Men Not At Work, Eggs
These past few weeks, I've read three books that consisted mostly of statistics -- both
methodology and results.
Even if you're a statistician -- which I am not -- no one can call such analyses and lists
"thrilling." Yet when good writers (which invariably overlaps with the group called "good
thinkers") give an account of careful, rigorous statistical analysis, the results are both fascinating
and reasonably reliable.
Remember that many of the statistics we're fed on the news are complete nonsense, either
because the analysis is faulty or because there was never any data to begin with.
For instance, you remember that ludicrous statistic that Super Bowl Sunday was the busiest day
of the year for shelters for battered women. It was based on, you guessed it, nothing at all. It
was just a mean thing to say about men, which always makes politically correct people feel
happy and proud.
The three books I'm talking about are:
Men Without Work: America's Invisible Crisis, by Nicholas Eberstadt
Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, by Joseph Carroll,
Jonathan Gottschall, John A. Johnson, and Daniel J. Kruger
The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L.
The second two are of great interest to a fiction writer like me, though let me tell any novelists
reading this review that The Bestseller Code does not get very specific about the list of elements
that mark bestsellers in their computer algorithms.
While such a list would be fascinating, too many writers would be tempted to deform their
stories by trying to insert "bestseller elements" that don't belong there. That's why I also
haven't recommended the book to my writing students this semester; I don't want to read the
results when student writers subvert their own vision and talent by trying to fit a formula.
(By the way, I wish you could read some of the wonderful work my students have done this
semester. And, in all likelihood, someday you will.)
The scientific project in The Bestseller Code was fascinating. The authors used data-mining to
extract from thousands of recent fiction books -- both bestsellers and non-bestsellers -- the
kinds of events in their storylines that make it possible for the computer to predict which books
will be bestsellers and which will not.
Remember, this has nothing to do with the "quality" of the books -- just the sales, as reported by
the New York Times list.
Getting a computer to "understand," from the texts of the novels alone, what is "happening" in
the stories, who the heroes and heroines are, and so on, requires extraordinarily clever program
design and execution, but the authors ended up with a powerful instrument that was successful,
at rates consistently above 80 percent, to predict which novel texts would be bestsellers.
Remember that even 90 percent accuracy means that ten percent of the would-be bestsellers
were missed -- or that ten percent of those predicted to be bestsellers were not.
I really appreciated the time the authors took to describe their methodology -- how they kept
their samples from being biased, and how their instrument, having been perfect before 2005, was
later tested on the very different bestsellers and non-bestsellers between 2005 and 2011. The
results -- even though they now included the Shades of Grey series and the Girl Who books --
were a solid demonstration of the accuracy of their instrument.
But they refuse all requests by authors to let them run their novels through that instrument. The
real interest should be centered on what we learn about human beings from the kinds of
stories that do and don't pique their interest.
As for Graphing Jane Austen, the project is even more esoteric than The Bestseller Code. Here,
the authors (who include Jonathan Gottschall, who gave us the wonderful and useful book The
Storytelling Animal) surveyed hundreds of readers, asking them to give numerical ratings to
2,000 characters from 202 British novels -- including all of Jane Austen's books.
The questions about these characters were carefully designed to create usable data. Naturally,
the characters in Jane Austen's books were far more familiar to most participants than the
characters in more obscure novels, so the resulting data were adjusted for sample size.
What emerged was a fascinating and, in many cases, fairly clear idea of the "agonistic" (dealing
with protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters) attributes and structures in these novels.
Part of their purpose was to examine the treatment of female characters vis-a-vis males, but they
were surprised to discover that, regardless of the sex of the respondents, there was a far greater
distinction between protagonists and antagonists than between male and female characters, at
least in the eyes of these relatively expert readers.
No matter how much we might like -- or love -- these novels' protagonists, the strongest
emotional responses were generated by the antagonists. We may not all love the same people,
but boy oh boy do we hate the bad guys!
Now, there were some books and some characters that were hard to classify. Is Becky Sharp in
Thackeray's Vanity Fair a heroine or a villain? (Correct answer: both, if you're paying
The characters were also sorted by other categories, including their motives, and the result of this
study was, in my opinion, far more useful for a writer than the results of The Bestseller Code,
primarily because Graphing Jane Austen doesn't give you any formulas and it's not about sales.
It's simply a way of examining and thinking about characters -- and writers will do better if they
understand their own characters better.
However, since Graphing Jane Austen is a scholarly book with a small audience, it is priced
accordingly. The cheapest copies are about $80, and even the Kindle version costs more than
$78. You can "rent" the Kindle edition for thirty bucks -- whatever that means.
To me, it was worth the cost to buy the Kindle version. But I'm a specialist in precisely the area
they studied, so this was, to me, like a chef buying really expensive knives. The Bestseller Code
is priced far more rationally ($16 on Amazon for the hardcover, $13 for the Kindle edition).
Or you can download for free a Kindle version of the second chapter of the book, under the title
"Becoming Bestsellers: John Grisham and Danielle Steele." Kind of a free sample, to convince
you that you're going to learn more than you actually are from the full book.
Perhaps writers wishing to learn their craft would gain more from buying and reading Lisa
Cron's book Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from
the Very First Sentence. It's based on some of the science in The Storytelling Animal, and even
though it leans a bit too much toward formulas, it provides a lot of useful and potentially helpful
Both Graphing Jane Austen and The Bestseller Code spend a lot of time doing an excellent job
of describing their methodology and showing why it is as reliable as it is, without achieving
perfection. If you don't understand how statistics work, and why some stats are reliable and
some are utter trash, both these books will demonstrate how careful scientists think about,
design, and analyze stats.
Which brings me to the third statistical book I read this past fortnight: Men Without Work:
America's Invisible Crisis, by Nicholas Eberstadt. It may be the most mind-numbingly
statistical of these three books -- but it's also the one that should be read and studied by
anybody who is making public policy at every level of government -- from school boards on up
to congresswights and White House staffers.
(Not even his biggest fans think that President Trump can or will actually read a whole book,
least of all a hard one.)
Men Without Work deals with those ten or twelve million American men of prime working
age who have opted out of employment ... completely. They aren't looking for work. They
Eberstadt mines the available data to try to figure out what they're doing with their days (mostly
watching screens; we can only guess if it's movies, documentaries, TV shows, or porn) and how
they're managing to live (many are on some kind of government assistance, but most are
dependent on the generosity and patience of women).
These are not baby boomers entering retirement. These are prime-age men who are Neither
Employed nor in Education and Training (NEETs). And Eberstadt's quest is to figure out (1)
why they are Not In the Labor Force (NILF) and (2) what, if anything, we can do about it as a
society, whether by government action or other means.
And we do have to do something, because the increase in their numbers has been pretty
continuous since 1965. Other first-world nations simply don't have this problem. They deal
with cycles of unemployment, but they don't have a problem with huge numbers of able-bodied
working-age men who have opted out of "adult responsibilities not only as breadwinners but
as parents, family members, community members, and citizens."
Because that's what Eberstadt has learned. These prime-age NILFs have a lot of things in
common. They are far more likely than working or unemployed-but-seeking-work men to be:
Not likely to be employed even if they apply
We're not talking about homeless guys who can't get an interview because they're dirty and
don't own a suit. But because they have been "un-workers" for years, employers are going to
look at their applications, see a long stretch of unemployment, and reject their application out of
This is not irrational. Being out of the workforce changes you. Eberstadt says, "The data here
suggest that something like infantilization besets some un-working men."
Now, there is a huge group of American workers who are likely to drop out of all employment
for years -- for decades -- but when they return to the workforce, they are readily given jobs in
which they are highly likely to succeed and be remarkably productive.
That group is called "women."
When women leave the workforce to stay home and care for children, they are probably
busier than they were when employed-but-childless. Being a stay-at-home mother means
fulfilling responsibilities around the clock, and any employer who doesn't recognize that active
motherhood is an excellent predictor of workplace productivity doesn't deserve to succeed.
Being an un-working man who is not a stay-at-home dad (a very, very tiny portion of the
NILFs) gives no such preparation for future employment. On the contrary, spending days in
absolute idleness is about as debilitating, in terms of employment, as spending those days in a
marijuana or alcoholic haze. Watching screens for hours and hours is not good job preparation.
What put these men into this situation? Well, this is where things get tricky, and this book is
remarkable in the fact that it includes, within its covers, criticisms of Eberstadt's conclusions by
two other respected economists. Eberstadt knows that the data just don't exist to completely
explain why men leave the workforce.
Partial explanations are pretty plain. The portion of NILFs who are ex-convicts have run into the
nasty problem that while our society talks about rehabilitation, many employers are
reluctant to hire ex-cons. They conjure up images from prison movies and storylines from TV
cop shows, in which ex-cons routinely return to a life of crime.
And, of course, some of these NILFs might be criminals right now -- that wouldn't show up in
But Eberstadt dispels that conjecture pretty effectively by pointing out that NILFhood is not
statistically tied with the huge rise in crime that began in the 1960s -- nor with the huge drop in
violent crime that began in the 1980s.
In other words, at the very time when the number of criminals who had served their time and got
out of prison increased greatly, violent crime nationwide went down sharply. So release from
prison did not result in a crime wave, but the opposite.
Yet ex-cons have such a hard time finding work, it's no wonder so many of them become prime-age un-workers.
One of Eberstadt's critics pointed out that while Eberhardt emphasizes the continuity of men
leaving the workforce in relatively steady numbers since 1965, he glosses over the fact that each
recession, with its spike in unemployment, worsens the problem sharply.
Close examination of the data shows that recessions put men (and women) out of work, and what
increases the number of un-working men is that fewer men go back to work when the recession
But this doesn't actually help us identify the causes of un-working among men. Because women
and European men do go back to work after recessions; it's only here in the USA that such a
large number of men stay out of work and stop looking.
Nor can it be blamed on deindustrialization, because European men have faced the identical
problems and they're still working!
Maybe, for some reason, America has stopped stigmatizing un-working men, while European
societies still exert strong social pressure. Men there go back to work because they would be
ashamed not to.
But why aren't American men ashamed to be un-workers? Remember that these are to a large
extent the same men who do not educate themselves, do not marry, and survive by accepting the
financial or practical support of women they are not married to. For some reason, in America
there isn't enough of a social stigma attached to this situation to provoke these men to prepare
themselves and get back to work.
Oh, by the way: Eberstadt sorts out this problem by race and national origin, and finds that
hispanic immigrants are simply not among the un-working. But they aren't "taking" jobs
away from the American un-workers. How could they? The un-workers aren't even looking for
As for race, of course American-born non-hispanic blacks are over-represented among the
NILFs -- after all, they're also overrepresented among ex-cons and high school dropouts. But
they aren't even close to being a majority of the un-working men.
Eberstadt, who holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise
Institute, is aware of his own pre-formed beliefs, so he is self-skeptical about his tendency to
think that government handouts are a significant cause of prime-age men remaining out of the
And his critics point out that even though applications for government disability status greatly
increase with each recession, the number of approvals of such applications do not. Men don't
leave the workforce because government doles are such a bargain -- in the vast majority of
cases, any kind of work will be better, financially, than any kind of government support.
Our welfare system, in short, is not an incentive, though it is, as intended, a safety net.
I would like to add my own two cents' worth to the discussion of causes by pointing out the stats
that Eberstadt repeatedly cites but does not explore: The role of low education levels in
predicting whether a man will become a NILF.
Back when the Ophelia Syndrome was all the rage, we were schooled in the idea that women are
often demeaned or overlooked at school. There were no stats to support this view, because, of
course, it isn't true.
The overwhelming evidence is that men drop out of school and fail in school at rates shockingly
higher than women.
Women are far likelier to graduate from high school, enter college, get a bachelor's degree,
go on to do graduate work, and leave college prepared to step into gainful employment at a far
higher level than anyone who did not graduate from high school, enter college, get a degree, or
go to grad school.
America's educational system isn't "failing" boys -- it is actively driving them out. Then, when
they become "prime-age" men looking for work, these less-educated men are far less likely to
Of course we need to change our schools to be more boy-friendly -- but in all candor, this is not
likely to happen as long as the overwhelming majority of schoolteachers and school
administrators are women, or are committed to treating natural girl-behavior as "good" and
natural boy-behavior as "bad."
Boys who are pounded with disapproval for being nine-year-old boys will reach age fifteen
already at a severe educational disadvantage. Every behavior that is natural to them is constantly
disapproved, while girls thrive in precisely the culture that schools foster.
Here's where the problem of boys' disadvantages in American schools really gets bad: Since
1965, the number of jobs that "require" a college degree has exploded, even though almost none
of these jobs actually require that their workers know anything they would have learned in
My mother used to be head of the College Advisement Center in one of America's leading
business schools at a major university, and she told me repeatedly that when students come back
to talk to her after graduation, they usually reported that it took them six months on the job to
unlearn everything they were taught in business school that was simply wrong.
It's not as if the actual value of college graduates to most businesses that hire them is higher than
the value of high school grads -- or high school dropouts -- who are willing to work hard,
follow instructions, and show initiative and responsibility.
But the personnel officers at these corporations will say, The very fact that they dropped out of
high school or didn't go to college shows that they aren't willing to work hard, follow
instructions, or show initiative or responsibility.
To which I would answer, The educational system already proved to them that working hard,
following instructions, and showing initiative and responsibility did not lead to success in high
school or, far too often, in college.
Eberstadt is clear about one thing: As long as ten or twelve million prime-age able-bodied men
remain out of the work force, it is costing all of us a lot of money.
If they were working, at average levels of productivity, and earning average or even below-average salaries, it would be a huge boost to the whole economy. There would be more jobs;
everybody would sell more goods; and just imagine the relief and happiness it would provide to
the women who are at present subsidizing their idle lifestyle.
There is no government action at levels above school boards and school administrations that is
likely to improve the problem of American un-working men.
But American businesses can make a huge difference right now by dropping the college-degree
requirement for jobs that don't really require a college education -- which is most of them
outside the professions. Obviously, to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, you have to have
But to get a job as a newspaper reporter, a store manager, a fireman, a videogame designer, an
office worker, or a salesman, it's absurd to think that any college training will improve on
simply getting hired and learning the job from people who are already doing it.
Do college grads really have a better learning curve than other people when it comes to learning
on the job?
We already know how many entrepreneurs either dropped out of or never went to college before
they started making their millions (or billions). I personally know many non-college-educated
people who are doing just fine in fields that have many college grads in them.
But because they lack that completely irrelevant college degree, they are still being punished --
they often start at a lower salary, they are given fewer promotions, and bosses are still likely to
explain, "I'd give you a better raise, but you are already receiving the highest salary I can give to
an employee who doesn't have a college degree."
This is, of course, both foolish and unfair. If somebody's doing the job well, then who cares if
he had a college degree?
Since dropping out of school or not going to college are closely linked to hireability in our
absurd era, how can we ignore the probability that when school systems punish and drive out
boys for the crime of boyishness, while girls thrive in school, we are guaranteeing that men are
somewhat more likely to resort to crime, and much more likely to give up on getting any kind of
Stop requiring that your employees have college degrees to be hired or receive raises, unless a
specific college degree is actually needed. Don't use "college degree" as a cheap way of
screening applicants -- it's discriminatory against men who have already been mistreated by
Instead, go to the trouble of creating tests to show how quickly and well your applicants -- with
or without degrees -- are able to learn the kinds of tasks they will actually do if they get the job.
They give typing tests to secretaries, and nobody has any problem preferring the faster, more
accurate typist -- regardless of formal education.
And, above all, don't just panic at the sight of a "Yes" after "Have you ever been convicted of a
felony?" Take the time and trouble to meet the applicant if he is otherwise acceptable. Find out
who he is, not who he was. By the early 30s, falling testosterone levels move many men out of
the category of "likely to be involved in violence," so why not give them a chance to show who
they are now?
Remember: Mean girls don't get kicked out of school. They get rushed for sororities -- while
their male equivalents, having used their fists instead of their mouths, serve time.
Prime-age men who are not working should not be ignored. They are our sons, our brothers,
our fellow-citizens -- even if they're likely not to be our husbands, our fathers, or our co-workers.
Their lives are not happy, but they've given up on trying to find a place in our society. Let's
open up some places by removing -- or at least lowering -- high walls that they can never get
The Most Perfect Thing, by Tim Birkhead, is a well-written and obsessively detailed
examination of the science of birds' eggs -- and the sad history of "scientific" egg collecting.
Mostly, the book deals with the eggs of a seabird called guillemot (pronounced GILL-uh-mott),
which lays its eggs, without a nest, on ledges on the windswept Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire. Its
eggs are varied in size, shape, and color, and there has been a lot of speculation about how the
pear-like shape might have evolved.
The most popular theory has been that the shape makes the egg roll safely in place, so that when
the parent bird flies away, the egg won't roll off the ledge. This has even been demonstrated on
television, with an "expert" showing how the egg simply rolls in place. But Birkhead debunks
this by pointing out that these demonstrations of the eggs spinning in place are always done
with empty eggshells.
As soon you try the same demonstration with an egg that contains yolk, albumen (the "white"),
and an embryo, everything changes.
Besides, as Birkhead points out, if the egg evolved its shape to prevent rolling off the ledges,
why is it so completely ineffective? Because if something loud (like a gunshot) startles all the
guillemots on the Bempton Cliffs, you get an avalanche of eggs falling and breaking as the adult
birds fling themselves into the sky in a panic.
Another myth about egg shape is that eggs have an elongated shape so that the skinny end can
lead the way through its passage out of the mother bird. A nice idea, except that actual science
shows that it's the blunt end that exits the hen first.
Some eggs seem to have evolved their shape so that they can lie most efficiently in the nest.
With the skinny ends all pointing inward, they make a more compact mass, allowing the
brooding parent to cover and warm them all more efficiently.
This has nothing to do with the guillemot egg's shape, though, because they aren't in nests and
they're only laid one at a time. As for rolling, the birds know their eggs are going to roll off the
ledge -- so when the mother lays the egg, she does a little bit of acrobatic maneuvering to keep
it from rolling as she positions herself to keep it warm.
Did you know that most birds that sit on eggs to incubate them develop a "brood patch"
during nesting season? This is a region of skin on their underside that loses its feathers and
gets a great deal of blood near the surface of the skin, so that this warmer-than-usual patch can
rest directly on the eggs without any insulating feathers in between.
And what about that bubble of air inside the egg, that gives hard-boiled eggs a dent in (usually)
the blunt end? When the chick is ready to hatch, that's the air it breathes while it's breaking
out of the shell. There isn't much air there, but it's enough for a couple of breaths, and then it's
up to the chick to get that shell cracked so more air can come in.
What about before the chick is ready to hatch? I had never wondered how embryos are supplied
with air inside the egg, but of course they need oxygen just like embryonic and fetal human
babies in the womb. Here's an answer I found absolutely amazing. Bird embryos attach to the
eggshell in a similar way to the human baby's attachment to the placenta.
The embryo then grows tiny blood vessels that completely line the inside of the eggshell.
These pass right next to the pores in the shell -- tiny air tubes that you often can't see with the
naked eye. Through these holes in the eggshell's surface, the embryo gets oxygen and
discharges other gases, so that the seemingly impermeable shell is actually a working lung, so to
The egg is an active organ of embryonic bird metabolism.
I loved this and many other wonderful facts about birds' eggs. I also loved Birkhead's strict
insistence on scientific rigor. He clearly sets out the scientific method:
1. Gather data by close observation, keeping careful, detailed records of everything.
2. Make guesses about why the behavior, processes, or structures you observe are the way they
3. Then set out to disprove your hypotheses through rigorous experimentation.
The only "proof" of causality that is ever possible is to consistently fail to disprove your
He specifically warns of the danger of taking the opposite approach -- trying to find evidence to
support your guesses. In the history of egg-and-bird research, he has more than a few examples
of false conclusions that were reached by naturalists who tried to "prove" their guesses instead of
trying to disprove them.
Of course, there are also examples of naturalists who didn't try to prove or disprove anything --
they just published their guesses as "findings," which were then repeated by others, sometimes
for centuries, before actual science was applied to the question and those guesses were shown to
Much -- perhaps most -- of The Most Perfect Thing is devoted to the history of egg-collecting
in the name of science. The collection of these eggs has been both destructive and nearly useless
over the centuries, since many of the most prominent collectors kept no records.
Birkhead has still been able to learn a few things from those long-hoarded eggshells, but it's not
as if you can revive the dodo from a fragment of its eggshell.
Do you know what determines the thickness of an eggshell? The weight of the parent bird
that is going to sit on it. Eggshells that break under the parent's weight are not going to yield
many living offspring.
Yet the young bird must be able to break the eggshell in order to get out of it. There are a few
species in which the parents help the babies break free, but in most cases they're on their own.
That's why so many birds have an "egg tooth" when they hatch -- a bony growth on the beak
that helps them break through. They lose the egg tooth within a few days or weeks, either
wearing it off or absorbing it back into the body.
I can't promise every page will be thrilling, because so much of the book is devoted to the antics
of rather dull egg collectors. My favorite humans in the book were the Yorkshire "climmers"
(climbers), who are lowered over the cliffs to collect eggs. Oh, and the Russian scientist who
used his knowledge of birds and their eggs to help a northern Russian city survive a foodless
There are enough fascinating facts, and Birkhead is such a clear and engaging writer, that I was
never tempted to stop listening to Gareth Armstrong's excellent reading of The Most Perfect
Thing, even during the less-interesting bits.
Now if only we could get the global warming hoaxters to read this book and find out how
actual science is done, since all we have from them is the guess that human activity is causing
climate change -- and absolutely no effort to test or disprove that guess. Instead, they try to use
the force of law, social pressure, and denial of grants and publication in order to foist this guess
on the public as if it were "science."
These clowns really need to try actual science. It yields such wonderful results wherever it has
Of course, they aren't always the results you want, but tough noogies, kids, if you can't deal
with disappointment, you shouldn't be in the science biz.
I told you last week that I didn't see how David Baldacci could keep his series about detective
Amos Decker series going after Memory Man. The first volume is so deeply involved with the
pivotal events in Decker's private life that I worried the later volumes would be formulaic and
nowhere near as moving.
My worries were pointless. I've now read the first sequel novel, The Last Mile, in which Decker
gets involved in the case of a Texas death row inmate who had once been a hot NFL prospect
before he was convicted of murdering his parents. A confession by a death row inmate in
another state has set this man free, but Decker, who played against him in college, is determined
to find out who really killed the man's parents -- and why they set him up to take the fall for it.
Because we really get to know the ins and outs of the falsely convicted man, this novel is just as
personal and surprising and moving as Memory Man. Arguably, because there is no serial killer
involved, it's even better.
This Saturday and Sunday, April 8 and 9, there'll be a performance of an Easter oratorio, Lamb
of God, retelling the last week of the life of Christ.
Free of charge, it begins at 6:30 p.m. at the meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 3619 Pinetop Road.
The music is good, the message is moving, the performers are excellent, and I invite anyone who
wants to experience a new musical retelling of the story of Jesus' death and resurrection.