30 October 2010

A portrait of the blogger as a young philosopher-II

On the 10th of October I wrote the first of three posts describing some of the influential figures in my own coming of age. That is here. I was inspired by all the hoopla over the John Lennon anniversary, as he may well be the single most influential figure in the coming of age of many of the people who I personally know. My last post in a couple of weeks will be on the Beatle, but first I am going to veer off into the world of the the books of James Joyce.

James Joyce was the greatest Irish, if not the greatest European, if not even perhaps the greatest earthly writer of the twentieth century. If you classify Castaneda as non-fiction, he was the fiction writer we devoted the most energy to when I was in college. There were three books: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a short novel about the coming of age of a writer who we all assume is a thinly-disguised James Joyce. The hero is raised in the Catholic church; his teachers are trying to recruit him into the priesthood; the main event in the book is his loss of faith in God. My student pals were largely atheists who had formative experiences rebelling against their parents' religion. Joyce's description of the experience is personal to him and it was personal to many of us. In particular I have a memory of a Grateful Dead fan (this band was big in Berkeley in 1980) explaining to me, very seriously, that the Stephen of Saint Stephen (this was one of their most popular songs) was Joyce's Stephen Daedulus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. People can take the most ridiculous things seriously.

(As an aside I read the Annotated Grateful Dead entry on Saint Stephen. There are a lot of people taking ridiculous things seriously on that page, but nothing about James Joyce. In any case the original Saint Stephen predated Joyce but over a thousand years.)

The second book by Joyce which we all at least tried to read is Ulysses. This is a long and complicated novel in stream-of-consciousness style which is nearly impossible to pick up and read continuously in comfort the first time. If I recall correctly, the first time I tried I made it to around page 100 and gave up for months. It is a fairly grueling initiation rite to get all the way through it and we were all proud when we had. The promised obscenity near the end of the novel was not worth the effort. I am skeptical that the people who banned the book on grounds of obscenity ever sat down and read the first few hundred pages to get to the so-called dirty parts in natural sequence and, having finally gotten there, then suffered from violated sensitivity.

My classmates and I spent hours discussing this book. I am not sure any of us understood it. Years later I discovered a magic formula for reading this book easily, which I presented in an earlier post.

The third book by Joyce which nobody got far into is Finnegans Wake. On the Wikipedia page this book is described as unreadable. It is done in an unusual style which could be described as stream-of-dream-consciousness. Anybody who succeeded in reading it in Berkeley in 1980 would have been credited with divine power. It is a pity I did not know my magic formula for Ulysses and Finnegans Wake back then; it would have been interesting to see what a reputation for possessing supernatural power would have equated to in real world reward.

25 October 2010

Luck coincidence fate and fiction

On my post of 15 of October there was an odd coincidence. I had an anecdote about the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. It turns out Mandelbrot died on the 14 of October and the news was in the papers on the 16 of October, so I was writing about Mandelbrot as the world was awaiting the news of his passing. I also posted this on the LessWrong group web log, as you can see here. At least 22 of the people there read my article and gave it a positive vote and around 10 people commented on it, but nobody mentioned the coincidence about Mandelbrot being in the post. It may be weird to nobody else but it sure felt weird to me when I looked at the New York Times front page on the 16 of October and there was Mandelbrot's obituary and I was just posting about the fellow yesterday.

There is a vast literature on the whole topic of low probability events that we observe all the time. Why do people believe weird things? Apparently human reasoning about probability is naturally terrible. Leo Tolstoy might have thought my holy guardian angel guided me to the usage of the Mandelbrot example on that day. The man obviously had a horrible grasp on what is a possibility if you judge by the plot of his great novel War and Peace.

There is luck. There is coincidence. And then there is that is completely impossible to observe in a billion trillion human lifetimes, which is what Tolstoy writes about in that book. Just off the top of my head:

1.) Andre and Anatole in the same surgeon's tent at the same time at Borodino where 30 000 Russian soldiers were fatally wounded.

2.) Andre being evacuated to the Rostov's house in Moscow, then being among the ten randomly chosen to evacuate further to one of the Rostov's country houses.

3.) Nikolai foraging around Smolensk and happening upon Maria's country house at the exact precise hour her serfs were carrying out their rebellion.

Apparently you have to have the genius of Tolstoy to make stuff like this up. The probabilities here are like 30 000 to 1, 100 000 to 1, and 100 000 000 000 000 to 1. This isn't impossibly unlikely. It is fiction.

20 October 2010

How to learn Kabbalah easy and fast

I have been a student of Kabbalah for approximately ten years. My favorite authors are Gershem Scholem and Aryeh Kaplan; I own a number of their books. Some of them are challenging. Those two fellows, in particular, show that it is easy for a gifted scholar to spend an entire career studying the various topics within this vast subject area.

If you know nothing about Kabbalah and are curious, I have good news for you. It is easy to sit down and learn enough to converse intelligently with just about any adept. You may be able to do so after you spend ten minutes reading this post.

The central ideas in Kabbalah are summarized on a diagram called the Tree of Life. It has ten nodes and twenty-two line segments connecting various pairs of nodes. The ten nodes are named (in English, in order): crown, wisdom, understanding, mercy, strength, beauty, victory, glory, foundation, kingdom. These are ten common words, but they are not ordinary words. They are extraordinary words.

You can prove this to yourself in five minutes. Look up these ten words in a Biblical Concordance. You will immediately see that these are ten of the most prominent words in the good book. And you may have all of the information you will need to quickly teach yourself most of the important lessons in all of Kabbalah for you.

One qualification is needed; you must first have a basic Jewish or Christian education. There are tens of millions of such fully qualified people in the United States. If you went to church and Sunday school for a period of a few years, you have all the background needed.

Assuming you fulfill this small prerequisite, here is my recipe for teaching yourself Kabbalah easy and fast. To be more exact, what you will be teaching yourself are the most salient points of Kabbalah that apply to your own life. Take the ten concordance entries for crown, wisdom, &c. For each entry, look at the dozens of scripture verses listed and see what stands out for you. Verses you recognize, stories you recognize, books that are your personal favorite. It would take a long time to examine every entry, but it may take a very short time for you to gather an important and personal connection for each of the ten words. When you have finished this, you are done. You are a Kabbalist. You may not be an adept, but you may have a better Kabbalah education than Madonna. For sure you will have as good a Kabbalah education as Britney Spears.

I will finish with an example. The most often recited passage in the entire Bible from the compiling of the book through all recorded history and onward through all conceivable human life going forward is the Lord's prayer from the book of Matthew. The last line goes like this:

"Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever."

Kingdom is node 10 on the Tree of Life. Glory is node 8. Power (strength) is node 5. Thirty percent of your work is now done for you. When I said this is easy and fast, I meant this is easy and fast.

15 October 2010

Human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics III

(Part 3 of 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.)

Distribution of performance across the sample and the replacement-level player

The second biggest fallacy among baseball personnel managers, according to Bill James, is they do not understand how ability is distributed amongst professional baseball players. He defines the concept of replacement level player, and insists the vast majority of the fellows working in the Major Leagues are easily, quickly, replaceable. His reasoning is simple.

If you have a random selection of humans and measure nearly any measurable trait--height, weight, speed, strength, reflex time--the frequency plot will be the familiar bell shape Gaussian curve. People playing baseball professionally are an extreme non-random sample. 98% of the left-hand portion of the curve is gone, because none of those people have the physical requirements to get employment playing baseball. The resulting distribution is a truncated Gaussian distribution, with few at the highest levels, and the vast majority of participants of nearly indistinguishable quality. When performance is creamed at stage after stage after stage, little league to high school to college to minor leagues to the majors, almost all the remaining players are excellent and interchangeable.

If you are managing a corporation and you only hire candidates with golden resumes you have a truncated Gaussian distribution of talent. If in your evaluation process you shove those people into a Gaussian distribution, Bill James says you are doing it totally wrong. Another common mistake is that managers think there is something magical about "major league" talent, that some guys have it (as Thomas Wolfe referred to the "right stuff") and some do not, and they mislabel players who could help them win baseball games as not having it, due to the circumstantial variations of where the players have found themselves employed up until now. Organizations that hire top talent and pay high salaries have far more options than they generally presume. Nearly every single person working for your company is easily replaceable.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about Benoit Mandelbrot and his early preoccupation with financial market data. His questioner thought finance was a fuzzy science and hard scientific data really ought to be much more attractive to his scientific temperament. Mandelbrot explained that the great feature of studying financial data was that there was so much of it, and it was thus endlessly fascinating. Many statisticians have a similar fondness for baseball statistics. It is reliably recorded, unambiguous in definition, and there is so much of it. Many subtle statistics results are best explained in the context of baseball statistics, and there may be unknown statistical theorems sitting in the archives waiting to be extracted by clever statisticians. The wikipedia page on Stein's paradox (first published by Charles Stein in 1956) has a reference to a well-known (well-known to baseball statisticians, anyway) article from the May 1977 issue of Scientific American using baseball statistics to illustrate Stein's paradox.

After my article was nearly finished, I stumbled upon this "news" in the New York Times Sports section:

Sniffing .300, Hitters Hunker Down on Last Chances. (Here they are presenting research from a couple of economists from U. Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. The academic publication is here.)

The preceding should be of interest to anybody who is interested in the subjects of human achievement, psychometry and baseball statistics. My own interest is narrower and the lesson I personally draw is a hybrid from the sequence of lessons here. I have an ambitious scope for the company I am building. Ten thousand hours is close to the limit I am choosing for myself as the point when I will write off these lessons and losses (if they be) and go back to rejoin the American corporation employment market.

10 October 2010

A portrait of the blogger as a young philosopher-I

The google John Lennon logo inspired me to write something about Lennon and James Joyce and so much other stuff that I had to break it up into three parts. This post is about my initiation into the practice of philosophy. Coffee shop philosophy, not academic philosophy.

When I arrived in college they quickly corrected my whack notion that Ayn Rand was an authoritative philosopher. There were four essential texts that every Berkeley coffee shop philosopher was required to study in 1980. I list them in descending priority order.

Text 1 - The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

It is hard to communicate how dominating this book was in that particular zeitgeist. Ten short years earlier, Berkeley had been the center of the earthly intellectual universe; this may as well have been a hundred years ago. Hippies and love had degenerated into street people and poverty and a culture of beggars. These folks were nostalgic for something that never existed but for a few weeks back in 1967. There were a few professional academics who looked to make a permanent home there. Most of us were passing through and we really got Camus' message about the absurdity of earthly existence.

Suicide is the really the only meaningful philosophical question. Indeed. It was an explosive idea and when you are twenty it makes you feel special and especially alive to grab onto that. In retrospect I don't think many of us appreciated how sad Camus was, that Clemence in The Fall is such a pathetic instance of a literary hero. I certainly did not appreciate it then and I hope that I can do so now with clear hindsight.

Text 2 - The Way of Zen by Alan Watts.

Watts' book was the introduction to Buddhist and eastern philosophy for many of us. His ideas may not have aged well. They are not timeless as Buddhism. Most of us dabbled in meditation, did some zazen at the Berkeley Zen Center, and it was definitely a healthier route to altered states of consciousness than the available and alluring conventional ones of alcohol, cannabis, and LSD.

Pacifica radio was always playing excerpts from its library of recorded Watts lectures, and these were (and remain) delightful. One of Watts' most memorable descriptions of his work was when he said "I am not a teacher; I am an entertainer." It is not completely honest, in the same sense as Rush Limbaugh saying "I am not a politician; I am an entertainer", because the sad fact is that many gullible folks did look to Watts for religious instruction. The way of The Way of Zen is a consistent, reliable, and radically unconventional (from my point of view) perspective on the universe, our lives, ourselves, and our relations with others. I am wearing out my second copy of The Way of Zen, and it is nearly always great fun for me to read it.

Text 3 - Beyond Good and Evil by Friederich Nietzsche

There were two things that captivated us in Nietzsche. The first was his vainglorious atheism. Even today I am often struck by young people discovering that it is a quite normal option to be happy and virtuous and adapted to society and deny all religious belief. What we call an atheistic crisis may really be two crises--crisis one is when you realize there is no evidence for this God hypothesis and everything you were taught is largely fictional; crisis two comes later when you realize there are two worlds here. The believers and the unbelievers and there often is no visible marker as to which world you are in at any given moment. So much of our experience involves us interacting with people who we can not understand.

The other thing which captivated us was his life story as the lone tortured genius who was unread in his lifetime, but achieved an immortal greatness when people who were not even born when he died popularized his works. We were all lone tortured geniuses, you see, with an arrogance that eventually our brilliant written works would survive us as an immortal testimony to the madness of our time. Folly worthy of Erasmus, no doubt.

Text 4 - The Teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda.

This was before the debunking of Castaneda's anthropological credentials, about which I still have not made up my mind. This book, which was advertised as Castaneda's ethnography thesis for his degree, may be a work of fiction. If it is a work of fiction, it is still a fine book; and if Castaneda was not a fine man, he was still a fine writer.

The thing which all these books had in common was an appeal to our individualism. The truth is out there, X-files style, and we have to be ever vigilant and skeptical when we explore the intellectual landscape. I got a nifty diploma there, but this lesson was the most valuable thing I found at Berkeley.

Then something happened which seemed to blow up the society that me and my friends made for ourselves. Douglas Hofstadter published Godel, Escher, Bach and the tension between the math-science-engineering geeks and the humanities students erupted into something like warfare. We seemed to lose the ability to sit in the coffee shop and talk to each other about our bigger ideas.

05 October 2010

Thrice told tales

After a little research and consultation with a few peers, I have decided to place into suspended animation, and I may soon permanently retire a storytelling rule which I have observed for years: limit a story to three tellings.

It is a fuzzy memory at this point how I came upon this rule, but I do know there were a couple key observations of other story tellers which led me to conclude that it had value. The first storyteller was a man who participated with me in a number of Gestalt group psychotherapy workshops. This was in the late 1990's and early 2000's. The workshops were led by an experienced Gestalt therapist and they would be eight hours on Saturday and six hours on Sunday and a dozen or so people would show up and everybody would take a turn in the hot seat. If you have never done this I highly recommend trying it at least once. It is always entertaining and can be very educational.

This one fellow told the same story repeatedly. It was about an automobile accident in the desert in the southwestern United States, a fatality in his family, and an Indian witness who subsequently became a spiritual familiar to him. The first time he told this story, it was riveting; it was one of the most compelling stories I had ever heard. Every subsequent telling was flatter and flatter. Then one day I was watching Oliver Stone's movie, The Doors, and the opening scene of the movie was the same one I had seen in the Gestalt psychotherapy workshops until I was sick of it. Surely there was more than one fatal automobile accident in the southwestern United States witnessed by an Indian who made an otherworldly impression on one of the people in the crash; still the first idea that came to my mind when I saw Stone's movie was that my Gestalt group psychotherapy pal had made most of it up.

The second storyteller who was influential in my formulation of my rule about retiring all stories after three tellings was a woman who briefly came to some of the poetry shows I was involved in during the 2000's. This was a loose association of 30-40 poets and every week we would gather at an open mic and fifteen or so people would read their stuff. We had almost no restrictions, so there would always be a musician or two; sometimes dancers, or stand-up comics, or storytellers. This woman had a one-character drama about her experiences as a stripper. She was rehearsing for this dramatic arts event where they had a couple dozen short plays in one space and people would bounce around and see seven or eight of them before the night was over. So we saw her for the four weeks before her performance that she was practicing for; she did the exact same number for ten minutes for four straight weeks. We never saw her before that, and we never saw her again after that. The first time I saw it, I thought it was great. Times two through four were about as good as a re-run of Gilligan's Island that you saw ten times when you were a kid.

This is almost no evidence upon which to base so severe a rule as limiting every story to three tellings. I am sure there must have been other observations that contributed along the way, but in examining my rule these were the most obvious contributing pieces. In discussing this with others, I have heard support for the rule (or something similar) from people who described a goofy family member who told the same stupid story every Thanksgiving and Christmas for thirty years and they had heard it sixty times, but I have not had any personal experience along that line.

I took a class from the Houston Police Department shortly after I moved here. It was three hours a week for fifteen weeks and very interesting. One of the most interesting presentations was by a detective giving interrogation tips. He said you always have the person repeat the story several times. If they are telling you the truth, it changes subtly from telling to telling and hangs together. If they are lying, it is repetitious; it is practiced; the exact same phraseology occurs over and over; no new and consistent details get added the second and third and fourth and fifth times they tell it to you.

There is a nagging suspicion in my mind that part of my rule was motivated by a paranoia that too many of my stories have a component of bad faith to them and I fear being found out. Although my iron clad rule of telling no story more than three times is in suspended animation and I may retire it forever, I think the notion of not repeating a false story three times is gold.

One of the other people I discussed this with told me something very interesting. She does a lot of stage story telling and she said that there is a strange interaction between our memories of our life and our memories of stories we tell about our life. The memory researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have studied memory malleability and conclude a rather odd fact: most of what we remember is not the original event, but our most recent memory of the original event. My storytelling friend says that in looking at old documentation on her stories she has found that her memories have shifted in the direction of her vibrant stories, and there are some things in her life which she will now not use as story material for fear of polluting the memory.

In the Schoepenhauer's fate post I made a couple weeks ago I told a story that was formerly retired. The story about how I took my first job out of college is now back in my repertoire. Everybody I have ever told that story to seemed to enjoy it; it now seems silly to have censored myself so needlessly for so long.


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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.