27 July 2010

What do you want to be when you grow up?

On 29 August 2006 I spent two days at the Johnson O'Connor foundation doing a full aptitude test suite. One of these was invaluable. Almost all of them were interesting. Altogether it was useful, although some of them seemed a little pointless. One of the ones which seemed the most pointless was the area in which I scored the best.

Psychometry is a quicksand swamp of muck. We may have all experienced our eyes glazing over at all the arguments regarding IQ, G factor, The Bell Curve, &c which seems like it was only a short while ago. The Bell Curve was published in 1994. Aye aye aye aye aye aye aye. I am not going to get into that at all, except I will say I am grateful that in my life so far I have had no practical application for this concept of IQ. My high school did a test which I saw the score on, but I do not believe they did anything with the information except collect it. One time a few years back when I was into joining things like the Audobon Society and the Green Party I visited with the Mensa folks. I met with them one time and neither they nor I were interested in more.

Anyway, my aptitude test experience was two days, twenty-seven tests, and an hour to ninety minutes to review the results with a Johnson O'Connor consultant. The most valuable result was the vocabulary test. It was like an SAT or GRE vocabulary test; they give you one word and four alternative closest synonyms and you pick one. As I recall there were fifty words. If you count every one of the four alternatives it was 250 possible words. When I sat down and took that test I was confident that I knew every single one of those 250 words with lexicographic mastery. Apparently I did not because I did not get the top score on that vocabulary test. I got a good score. You might think it a very good score. When I handed the answer sheet to the test supervisor I thought the score was going to come back 99 out of a possible 99 and I was disappointed when I saw the score I did get the next day.

I did not tell them this. But I listened very closely when they were talking to me about vocabulary. The fellow who founded their foundation, O'Connor, was keen on the importance of vocabulary and how critical it is for our success in life. The consultant who I talked to about my test told me that the highest vocabulary scores that they measure are top corporate executives. I have no idea how they classify a person as a top corporate executive. He made it sound like the one common feature of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs is that all those guys have killer vocabularies. In any event I have spent some time since August of 2006 working on my vocabulary and I consider that part of the test to have been useful, the most useful result of my test experience, and so useful that it alone was worth the time and expense of taking the tests.

One of their memory tests I completely bombed. It was like a "Where's Waldo?" game board with twenty or so images totally unrelated with no context and they gave you two minutes to try and memorize what all was there; then they showed you a bunch of pictures one after the other with one of the images missing and you were supposed to tell them what was missing. All the other memory tests were normal to above normal, but that one was almost my worst result of all the 27 tests.

The test I did the best on was called Foresight. Here is how they tested us for foresight on the day that I took the test. I am seated at a desk with a stack of blank, unlined printer paper, 8.5 X 11 inches, and six sharpened number two pencils. The tester says: "write anything that comes to mind for a few minutes and I will come back and tell you to stop".

I was told I scored the highest anybody ever got on that test in the current archived records of Johnson O'Connor . (The score was the number of words written in the fixed (15 minute?) time frame.) Now see, if I was truly foresighted I would have known that test was of dubious value and I would have conserved energy to display aptitude on something that could make me some money like vocabulary. The thing which I would like to know and forgot to ask is whether they tested me for vocabulary, then foresight; or if they tested me for foresight, then vocabulary. I know for sure the mental energy I was using on the foresight test was higher than on the vocabulary test. When I was taking the vocabulary test I was coasting. I was sure that I knew all that stuff. When I was filling those blank sheets of paper my brain was turning over at Formula One race car revolutions per minute.

I scored one other 99 and it was described as Ideaphoria, lumped together with Foresight in a Category (the twenty seven tests were lumped into twelve categories) labeled "Divergent Thinking". Like the foresight test, I really cannot make the connection of what psychometric protocol could be going on here. This was kind of like the Where's Waldo? memory puzzle, except they laid out playing card size pictures, 8 or 10 or 12 at a time, and I had to sort them into pairs of what is most closely related to what else. I would call this construction of abstract connection, not ideaphoria; and like whatever aptitude I supposedly demonstrated on the foresight test, I don't see see any clear connection to practical application of this clever aptitude I supposedly possess.

Another thing I found useful is they measured color vision, rhythmic sensibility, pitch perception, handedness, footedness, eyedness, and the only thing I knew before taking their tests from this set was that I was right-handed and not color-blind. There is a difference between not being color-blind and having high visual color acuity. This is the old Wittgentstein grue game although it goes back to Heraclitus and before. My blue is your green and your yellow might be my orange. If you do not see crap designs all over the place on the web your visual color acuity might not be too hot. Some of those are painful to look at. The other day I wanted to read a story on the Rolling Stone web site, but I could not bear to look at the page it was so badly done.

Lastly I have some information which might be useful to people who are interested, but not interested enough to pay the Johnson O'Connor fee. Part of the service they provided was a set of booklets called Self-directed search, from Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc. This is not a measurement of aptitude. It is a measurement of interest; what you would enjoy as opposed to what you would excel at. A few months before I went to Johnson O'Connor, I went to the Houston Community College counseling center and they provided this exact same material for free. And they had a career counselor there who showed me what vocational certificate programs they had available which might interest me--network communications engineer, &c.

22 July 2010

arcane arcana

On the first page of my glossy brochure I have a copy of the Rider-Waite-Coleman-Smith seven of cups minor arcana Tarot image. Like this one:


This is an obscure image which means many things to different people. That wikipedia article for example, is a mess. Regardie's Golden Dawn textbook describes the card as Lord of Illusionary Success. My interpretation of the card is the simplest I have seen. To me, this card is isomorphic to the first command: Thou shalt have no gods before Yahweh. It is a caution regarding false gods, seven of which are shown which do not lure everyone; everyone is lured by at least one of the seven. In order, the false gods we are to be wary of are:

A sex object, a ghost, a snake, a palace, jewels, a laurel wreath, a dragon. The sex object and the palace and the jewels and the laurel wreath are pretty obvious. The snake to me would represent dangerous substances--alcohol, tobacco, &c. The ghost to me would represent a dead relative with an inappropriately large influence--like if you were Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is your dad, then Darth could be the ghost. The dragon is a mythological distraction. Like if you thought you were writing the great 21st century American novel or epic poem. The wikipedia article has something about wishful thinking in it. That would be close to the meaning of the dragon.

In my Tarot interpretation sheet this is my notation for seven cups: beware false gods.

If you are like most of the people who I am acquainted with, you should be wary of worshiping the number on your 401K statement, the price listings of your neighborhood housing market, and your credit rating. Obviously these are all important and affect our material well-being. They are not worthy of worship.

17 July 2010

To be like an ape man

On the Theory Attraction 26 June post I had a cherry pick rip out of the context quotation from one of the papers in Tooby and Cosmides Adapted Mind. A cheap shot. I decided to take a pass at a costly shot and did a bit of research. I read Steven Pinker How the Mind Works (660pp) and I read Jablonka, Lamb Evolution in Four Dimensions (462pp). After all of that I feel pretty mellow towards Pinker and Tooby and Cosmides, but far less mellow towards the clan of internet goofballs promoting the greatness of Evolutionary Psychology, and the findings (read: thoughtful speculations) of Evolutionary Psychologists towards the mating behaviors of men and women in the twenty-first century.

This was actually re-reading. I first read Pinker's book shortly after it was published in 1997, and I first read Jablonka and Lamb's book shortly after it was published in 2006. Both of these books were well-received, had glowing reviews in the New York Times (probably where I heard of them), &c. Both of these books reward a close reading and can give nearly anybody much to think about. The thing which I did not really appreciate before this week was how measured the authors are regarding their claims. Jablonka and Lamb believe that Pinker is wrong, but they do not believe he is a bad scientist or a crackpot or anything such as that. Pinker believes the Evolutionary Psychology claims are true, but far from proven.

The most interesting book, to me, by far, is Jablonka and Lamb's. Their argument is very long but I think I can fairly summarize the gist of what I like the most. Evolution and genetics are only partially understood. They are best understood for the E Coli bacteria, the nematode, the fruit fly, and the laboratory mouse. Even in these four cases there remain some profound mysteries. Nobody knows how genotype produces the full complexity of the phenotype. 20 000 or 30 000 or 40 000 genes work in very mysterious ways in order to provide the complete map of instructions to make a working living organism. And there is a bunch of DNA (well over 50%) which is not part of any specific gene with any known function. Also there are proven instances of evolution which is a direct result of processes other than random genetic mutation and natural selection. Epigenetic evolution and even Lamarckian evolution are documented in modern experiments with the E Coli and the fruit fly.

They feel it is a fascinating time to be doing Biology. And I loved reading this book even though some of their examples are tough slogging in the complexity of the arguments and the technical vocabulary.

Similarly Pinker is not nearly as definitive about the greatness of Evolutionary Psychology as many of his readers are. The leading entry in his index is Tooby (36 entries). So he is unambiguously a proponent. But to be an enthusiastic proponent of something is not necessarily the same as taking an oath and testifying on the witness stand to its scientific facticity, and Pinker did not do anything like that as near as I could tell. And I looked pretty close because I really wanted to cherry pick his book for a stupid quotation. There was none to be found. You cannot write a 660 page book without some serious flaws. And Pinker's book does have some big ones. But overstating his claims is not one of them.

His biggest flaw is he seems intent on titillating. The example of the Polly Klaas killer is typical in this regard. The victim was a twelve-year old female and the killer is awaiting execution for her rape and murder. According to Pinker he has gotten far more lonely heart pen pal letters than any other notorious convict in the world. This is a great titillating fact for the National Enquirer or similar tabloid publication. For making a science argument or trying to construct nomological deductive reasoning for science issues this is poor. Pinker does this over and over. Another example. He mentions as supporting "evidence" that Solomon had 700 wives and concubines. There is no historical record of any such thing. That is not evidence for his argument.

The worst part is not his book by itself. The worst part is the ideas in it have spread far and wide and we now have a group of even looser writers and thinkers all over the internet who write as if an understanding of chimpanzee and gorilla mating behavior is all one has to have in order to understand human mating behavior. Pinker never makes that claim but he writes many anecdotes such as the above and then summarizes with some sort of remark about how ape-like it is. Then after, other folks make the claim and pretend it's science, not stupid.

One of them was in the New York Times Sunday magazine for another of his whack ideas. (He has a few whack ideas, but also some really good ideas which is why I read his blog and try to look past the whack stuff that gets put up there.) Robin Hanson is an Economics professor at George Mason U. He studies Evolutionary Psychology by way of Freakonomics. There are many interesting Psychology and Economics overlaps. Why people think airplanes are more dangerous than cars, prisoner's dilemma situations, many others. The article in the Sunday magazine was his cryonics subscription (he has a contract to have his head frozen after he dies) and his wife's complaints about it. His cryonics is nothing to me and appears to have no influence, but the point is the man is in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

My remorse over cherry picking the Tooby Cosmides book went poof when I saw Robin Hanson in the New York Times Sunday magazine. If it had been published a couple weeks earlier I would have missed out on 1000 pages reading.

12 July 2010

Astrology and Linear Algebra

There was a small exaggeration in my last post on Science (3 July) and I said religion and science are never mixed in my mind. There was actually one event of religion and science mixing. What happened was I was trapped in a situation with no graceful exit. It was after a Society Exploration Geophysics convention in a city several hundred miles away. I was flying home. I was sitting in the coach section reading my copy of Manly Hall "Secret Teachings of All Ages". Next to me was a stranger, a professional colleague, which was fairly obvious as he was reading a book about measuring the magnetism and gravity fields of Earth. Nobody but a geophysicist is likely to ever read such a book.

After we had read our books for a couple hours, I asked him if he was a geophysicist. (As if I was pretending that you do not know after two hours what book the person sitting next to you in coach is reading.) Me too. Then he asked me what I was reading. I told him "metaphysics" and I showed him the cover. He asked me if there was any Astrology in the book. I told him there was. He told me he was an Astrology student when he was not working as a geophysicist. I can not usually handle such conversations with any skill and usually exit from them as quickly as possible but there we were sitting right next to each other for another forty minutes and we were going to talk about it.

So I improvised. I told him that my view on Astrology was it was like a complete valid vector basis set which spanned the space of human experience. If you do not know much Calculus, that is like a higher dimensional generalization of what x and y do for a two dimensional plane in Cartesian coordinates in high school analytic geometry. (x,y) is the basis set--the two numbers are independent and any point in the plane can be specified by a unique pair; we say x and y span the two dimensional plane. Mathematicians can take this to any number of dimensions to infinite series and infinite sets.

I told him the Astrological representation to me was like just about any other system in Manly Hall's book: Kabbalah, Alchemy, Freemasonry, Hellenistic Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, &c-- any of these systems provide a valid basis set which spans human experience in this universe--although Astrology was not one that I knew much about or was motivated to use.

Some people are really into it. I know a woman who owns 500 books, and 475 of her books are on the subject of Astrology. I know a man who I once gave a small number of Astrological chart details and he inverted the data for the day and time and longitude of the subject's birthday which blew my mind. He said, "it is just a clock, man." So I do not doubt there is a power there and I can respect it, but it is not one that I choose to use.

So we ended up having a nice conversation in spite of my lack of interest in Astrology. I have since done a few things with the Astrological system. Some Tarot workers consider Astrological data in construction of Tarot card interpretations. We are recommended to use a signifier or marker card which derives from our horoscope. The details are not really important here, but I am an Aquarius according to the Astrologers which means I should use the Knight Swords for my signifier card. Except this does not seem to work so well for me.

When I go to the fourmilab your sky website and put my birth information into the sky map widget the Sun is not in Aquarius. The Sun is in Capricorn because all the zodiac constellations have precessed a month since the standard Astrology star ephemeris was built. So I performed an experiment. I decided the ephemeris is obsolete and I am Capricorn. The proper signifier card for me as a Capricorn is the Knight of Pentacles. And as a matter of my own factual experience, since I started using the Knight of Pentacles for my Tarot signifier card about two years ago, my Tarot readings make much more sense and are far more informative than they were when I was using the Aquarius card.

This proves absolutely nothing but I found it interesting. Another thing which the fourmilab sky map is good for is to get a second opinion on this Age of Aquarius business. You can see the sun moving across Pisces and into Aquarius exactly as they map the constellation boundaries. According to their data we don't even really get close to Aquarius for another hundred years and we are all still unambiguous Pisces people. There may not be a single person alive on the planet right now who will be alive when the Age of Aquarius arrives.

07 July 2010

I was thinking about what a friend had said and hoping it was a lie

"The true lover of knowledge naturally strives for truth, and is not content with common opinion, but soars with undimmed and unwearied passion till he grasps the essential nature of things." Plato, The Republic, 490A

I have now been working for myself for a little over three months. For the most part things are pretty swell. In terms of the calories burnt and hours spent, I am now working as hard as I have at any point in my life, with focus and passion. A very big upgrade from the squeeze out at my big corporate gig. There is one tiny little sliver of doubt which is troubling. The last time I was this passionate about something was many years ago and it was my tennis game.

Tennis obsession possessed me for approximately ten years. Roughly 1984-1994, from peak Lendl time to beginning Sampras time. The time before the time before the last time I moved, I dumped roughly seventy tennis trophies into the dumpster. The time before that, I moved them all even though I had not played a single tennis match in over two years and I knew I was finished with playing, but I couldn't bear to throw the trophies away yet. I am getting to the sliver of doubt part.

There were two coaches who I employed over the years. They never once told me I had a fatal flaw in my ground stroke mechanics which prevented me from ever advancing above the small time. There were two older players at one of my clubs who told me about it. I ignored both of them. I assumed if there was really a problem one of my professional coaches surely would have addressed it, and although both of these men were skilled players they were nothing like my coaches, and I easily crushed them in any match we played so why would I bother paying attention to them?

Except they were absolutely correct. I just figured this out a few months ago thinking about the stroke mechanics in my living room. There were any number of players with the better mechanics I could have modeled who were available to me; I chose the wrong guy. What I do not know is whether my coaches knew, and refrained from telling me, or if they did not even pay close enough attention to see it. The one I spent the most time with is left-handed so I could not easily model what he was doing; but the other had exactly the ground stroke mechanics which I should have been using. In hindsight this represents a self-inflicted limit upon my experience of ten years in the prime of my life. The only ten years of the prime of my tennis life. Not totally screwed up (I still won seventy trophies) but aye aye aye aye aye aye aye what I could have done with a simple tweak.

"It's quite true what philosophy says, that life must be understood backwards. But one then forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forwards." Soren Kierkegaard's Papirer, ed. N. Thulstrup, Trans. A Hannay, IV, p.61

So now I am starting off on this quest of building my own business. My project is fascinating and with potential obscene profits. And the last time I took on a project with this much enthusiasm I screwed up and didn't even listen to two fellows who told me straight how to not screw it up. I wonder if I possess the equanimity to do my best and be satisfied with whatever result I get even if it falls short of my grandiose ambition.

03 July 2010


I read two popular science books this week: The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough and Thinking about Physics by Roger Newton. One of these books is great. Which I will get to in a minute.

First I have some remarks about Ms. Goodenough's book. It was good enough. She is a molecular biologist and some of the book is an explanation of rudimentary molecular biology with highly schematized diagrams for how signal transmitter molecules lock into cell walls and how the genes in our DNA are utilized in the building of protein molecules. Very few of the chemicals are mentioned by name--mostly common ones such as lactase. This is the part of the book which I was after, and it worked very well for me. I have not taken a biology class since high school and I have some issues I am really interested in doing some research on, particularly in the areas of health and fitness, and I need to review some remedial material before trying to make sense out of current research controversies.

I recently read, for similar reasons, How to Make a Good Brain Great by Daniel Amen. Which was interesting in some respects and a little discouraging in many others. Doctor Amen may be a great doctor, but I did not find in him a source of any useful information in how to improve my brain. He is a little notorious on the Internet, with a Quackwatch page and dirt on his Wikipedia page. He recommends approximately fifty nutritional supplements for improved brain function. I am dubious that any of them is worthwhile, and I am not a dogmatic skeptic on the topic of nutritional supplements. I take (every single day without fail) a multiple vitamin tablet and a garlic tablet, in spite of the fact that my doctor did not advise me to do this and I suspect, if I ask him, he is likely to tell me this is a waste of time, energy and money. But fifty is getting into the neighborhood of Ray Kurzweil with his 400 daily oral supplements and six weekly intraveneous supplements.

It seems crack potted to me. Anyway the most discouraging feature of Amen's menu of supplements is he has a long reference list of peer reviewed and positive findings for every one of them. I would almost go so far as to conclude that in medical and clinical publications of research, one could find a positive result for almost anything which is not downright harmful. Looking for research on personal health issues seems like it is something of a quicksand swamp.

For example, yesterday I investigated ketosis, what happens in our metabolism when we exhaust our store of sugars and have to metabolize our fat. At the moment I am in my best physical condition ever, and in my workout yesterday at the peak of the thing I could smell weird aromatic molecules being secreted and I suspect that is what was happening in my system. My investigations of a couple hours with google and PubMed were completely fruitless. One expert says it is the royal road to uber fitness and another expert says you are stressing your heart and brain and other vital organs very hard when this happens and you should avoid it totally. I have no idea what the facts are, but I am definitely not going to be making a point of pushing myself like that very often. I suppose I could ask my doctor, but I doubt that most doctors know enough more about it than I do to give me a recommendation I would be more confident in than my own conclusions.

If you are ill or you are sick or you are injured or you are diseased, medicine in our modern Western Civilization is great stuff. If you are mostly healthy and you are functioning at 70% or above, my experience is it is a tower of babble. But I am digressing pretty far afield from Goodenough's book in explaining the strength of my motivation to extract as much from it as possible. I got exactly what I needed from her book, but it was not an efficient use of my time. The book is not about molecular biology; the book is about her pantheism. And she makes a large number of arguments from science to spiritual subjects and values. My own feeling is this is a logical failure. In the Constitution of the United States we have separation of church and state. In my brain I maintain a separation of church and science. I understand her sentiment. And if it works for her, more power to her. That sentiment has nothing to do with my own. My last blog post was on religion. This one is not.

Enough about Ms. Goodenough.

Roger Newton's book was a pleasure to read. I got it because it was described to me as the best modern defense of the Copenhagen Interpretation Quantum Mechanics. It is a great defense of Copenhagen Interpretation Quantum Mechanics. And more. His explanation on the necessity and impact of Mathematics and Probability on all of Physics made me think, and I enjoyed the way it made me think. I particularly enjoyed his argument against the late Richard Feynman's famous contention--"nobody understands Quantum Mechanics". That may be true, but the chapter in Feynman's Lectures on Physics where he says it was a very poor argument for it. I was gratified that Newton saw the exact same flaw in Professor Feynman's argument that I did., i. e. it is confusing to ever talk about an object which reveals itself to one apparatus as a wave and to another apparatus as a particle as either wave or particle. To minimize confusion, use all the words necessary and skip those two particular shorthand descriptions.

The best parts of Thinking about Physics were his discussions of quantum non-locality, Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, Bell's theorem, and Aspect's experiment. Newton considers the argument over for now, as I thought everybody did until I read his footnote on page 173:

"They have however not convinced everybody. Occasional arguments about the reliability of the experiments still break out."

The parts about Probability were a bonus. I recently joined a book study group on Edwin Jaynes' Probability Theory, the Logic of Science. There are 80 participants on four continents and we are doing the discussion so far on IRC, with google wave possibly to follow when we get deep into it. So far in two weeks we have done two chapters. The leaders of the book study group consider Jaynes authoritative. Many people do not consider Jaynes authoritative. The fellow who recommended Newton's book do me does not consider Jaynes authoritative, for example. He considers Jaynes wrong. This is one of those questions which I would like to have an informed opinion on some day, soon; I do not know enough yet and I have my mind open for now.

Two other points of lesser importance that stuck out for me:

In discussing the space wherein the Schroedinger equation wave function is evaluated, Newton calls it a configuration space. I love this, as I have always loathed the term hyperspace. Every time I see or hear that term I think about Star Trek and warp factor and I have an unpleasant visceral reaction to it. I blame Michio Kaku.

I am sad to say Newton uses the "butterfly effect" metaphor. It is physically impossible for a butterfly flapping their wings near the coast of Africa to cause a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. As near as I can tell, this goofy metaphor goes back to James Gleick (not a meteorologist) and his report of Edward Lorenz's (also, not a meteorologist) weather modeling in Chaos. It is true that there are a number of real world phenomena that display the behavior of huge dependence on small change of initial conditions. Much more common, numerical models can exhibit pathological sensitivity to initial conditions. When they do this, it means they fall on the other side of the Box boundary:

All models are wrong; some models are useful.

The butterfly effect is a useless metaphor. As much as I hate it, this is only a minor quibble with Roger Newton's otherwise beautiful short book.


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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.