27 February 2011

Six degrees of crispy bacon

On the wikipedia page for Social Network Theory they have Stanley Milgram and his six degrees separation (apparently he did not use that term) story. He did use the term small world. There are a couple entries for Milgram in my Social Network Analysis textbook, but nothing like the amount of emphasis they use there.

The current larger size of the world may be swamping the small world thing into irrelevance. The last couple times I experienced it ("oh, so you know . . ."), it got me absolutely nowhere. When I go to my professional society annual meeting there are 25 000 people there and I am at absolute maximum two degrees of separation from any one of them and the response I get from 99% of the people there is interstate highway etiquette. OK that is an exaggeration but it is not by much. I know one guy who is known by all 25 000 as he wrote the canonical textbook in the field. I wonder what he experiences when he walks through that meeting hall. Does he feel like Elvis? The last time I saw him at one of those meetings he looked bored.

The Social Network Analysis textbook is an outlier in my library. I have forgotten why I bought it. The other day I searched my Amazon purchase history and found what I bought it with and on what day. Then I went digging through my journals to figure out what I was spending my time on when I decided I wanted to own a Social Network textbook. This was twenty minutes of digging and I was still clueless when I finished. When you catch a clear view of something you do not understand, that is where you dig for gold, even though usually you find nothing. Most gold prospecters are poor. I was reminded by this of the day when I declared myself a victor in the quest to become an educated person.

When I was younger I poured myself into an avalanche of materials, feeling that some day I would know enough to not feel perpetually ignorant, and after that day my life would be fine even though then it was a mostly soulless grind. The object of my feelings that day was one Walter Benjamin, a literary critic of some note who died in World War II. I had seen his name as some sort of keystone in a number of different contexts and his book Illuminations was in that ever growing stack of books which I had to finish in order to view myself as an educated person.

One day I finally got to that book and perhaps it was my mood, but around page fifty I decided the book was crap. But not just that. There was also a reverse avalanche of cynicism as I had seen at least a dozen respectable scholars (and no way to tell at that point who they were) whose judgment I had to question for speaking so highly of the crap. So I decided there, then, I had read all that I required of myself to read to consider myself as educated. I remember the room, the sunlight coming in the window, what was in refrigerator; it was summer; Clinton was president; I was listening to lots of folk music; the woman I was dating and I seemed to have a great thing going for a while.

It was a sensation of freedom. I can remember nothing about college graduation, except I was looking forward to what I thought was a great job offer across the country.

I tossed Illuminations in the dumpster, but I may go back to it again some day. I have since learned that Benjamin was close friends with Gershem Scholem, whose books I have come to adore. What would be strange is, if I pick the book back up with a fresh brain and a generous attitude and find it is still crap to me. Maybe the fellow had some nervous tic in his writing style which is annoying to me personally.

22 February 2011

Memory Relentless

I have a memory of an interview on National Public Radio from a few years back with Maurice Sendak. In the interview he expressed a depressing view of his own life and his memories of it. The gist of this (my own memory is fuzzy enough that this is not verbatim) was that he found his memories to be relentless; that he would associate from one thing to another and it was inevitable that he would eventually arrive at something painful, too painful to escape from to a next painless association.That is not exactly what he said, but I can clearly recall his use of the word "relentless".

One of the stories which he told of his early life was unforgettable. His family was first or second generation in the United States; they were Jews who had immigrated from Poland. All of their family that stayed behind were wiped out by the Germans in the war. This was a horrible experience to be related to, but it contaminated their American life. He said his mother would not allow him to forget it for a day. If he was late to the dinner table, his mother would tell him, "your cousin Benjamin would love to be able to come to the dinner table on time, but he can't because the Nazis killed him."

Now Sendak was born in 1928. Unless they had some special inside information (possible but not likely) Maurice was 17 years old in 1945 when the full horror of what happened in Poland during the war finally became common knowledge. When I heard this story on the radio, I thought "my God what a horrible thing to say to a child." This was the tone in which he presented it. I was surprised when I looked at the dates because, although that is a horrible thing to say to a child, a seventeen-year-old is not a child; and I wonder if he was not exaggerating for effect and even perhaps he might have made the whole thing up.

The other strange thing in the interview was he said he was in psychoanalysis for 25 years and he had never been happy until just recently. It was a rather sad presentation for such an apparently successful writer and man. Perhaps those of us with less relentless memories are very fortunate.

17 February 2011

The Walden Pond Isolation Maneuver

Last August 28 I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Saint Thomas, "Religion, Mental Health, and the Search for Meaning: Bridging the Gaps" (previously described here and here). There was one sentence in the conference which has stuck with me for over five months. The speaker was a Catholic priest and he was describing a typical metaphysics problem for one of his church members. This typical church member is exhausted by the never-ending hypocrisy of the faithful and withdraws. The priest encounters the exhaustion when he calls upon people who have been missing and wants to call them back, just like the shepherd fetching his lost sheep in the parable in the bible. The priest maintains that everybody in the church, without exception, is also exhausted by the never-ending hypocrisy; they resolve to endure it, as the least unacceptable alternative. I remember this part verbatim:

"Withdrawing yourself to Walden Pond is not an option."

I almost agree with him. Since I am currently quite withdrawn to my equivalent of Walden Pond I cannot totally agree with him. Perhaps I would insert the word sustainable in between an and option.

The first time I read Walden was in school for a class and I did not enjoy it at all. I did the boy scouts camping and wilderness thing intermittently, but going to the woods to sit was not really one of my ambitions. Perhaps climbing to the top of Mount Everest or surfing the Banzai Pipeline would be worth doing, but the idea of enjoying a transcendent moment listening to the rain falling on the roof of my cabin in the woods was not something I could yet understand.

Thoreu's book is now one of my all-time favorites, and it is an inspiration to one of my major current projects. Here is an excerpt from his book which I am in the process of reproducing for my own situation at this very moment:
Boards.......................... $ 8.03+, mostly shanty boards.

Refuse shingles for roof sides... 4.00
Laths............................ 1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass.................... 2.43
One thousand old brick........... 4.00
Two casks of lime................ 2.40 That was high.
Hair............................. 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron................. 0.15
Nails............................ 3.90
Hinges and screws................ 0.14
Latch............................ 0.10
Chalk............................ 0.01
Transportation................... 1.40 I carried a good part
on my back.
In all............... $28.12+

(modified only so very very very slightly.)

This is Thoreau's expense record for construction of his cabin in the woods. I am living in an urban apartment and everything I require for shelter is accounted for in my monthly rent check, but with this small modification I am going through the exact same thing, restricting my expenses mostly to necessities and accounting for every single penny.

The benefit (as Thoreau so eloquently described) is the creation of a clearing in time and space to observe and think about the universe. Here is one small example. Last November when the first cold front blew in from the north the oak trees by my apartment started dropping acorns. This had a strong effect on the neighborhood squirrels. These rare precious tidbits were there for them in a windfall. Their behavior was energized as if they had sprouted wings and they began to fly around like cartoon squirrels, as if they had never once seen an acorn before in their life. The thing which really struck me though, is that surely this happens every November. And even though this surely happens every November, I had not seen it the three previous Novembers (when I was off to my office job every morning) that I lived here. It was only in my new reclusive mode that my mind had the time and space for me to see it and appreciate it.

Now I understand where the priest was coming from. Since he is evaluated by his superiors by how many people are in his pews and how much cash comes into his collection plates, he could hardly advise anything different. If you look in his textbook though, you see that Jesus went out to the desert and you find that Moses went up on the mountain and Elijah went out to the desert. Escaping from the routine of life's cares is an essential part of the tradition, which includes that those men all eventually returned. If the universe zaps me like that I will definitely return. I just might return anyway.

12 February 2011

Mismeasures of psychometry

My title is modified from Stephen Jay Gould's. My post is going to be a lot shorter than his book. He wrote it to debunk the intelligence test industry, and then he revised it a few years later and re-published into the midst of the Bell Curve controversy. My topic is only remotely related: I am going to write about personality tests, not intelligence tests.

It appears to me that the gold standard on the world wide web is Myers-Briggs. It has been awhile since I have read that wikipedia article on Myers-Briggs and it has grown enormously since the last time. It now is roughly one-fifth as long as the most popular book on the topic, Please Understand Me by David Keirsey. My two biggest criticisms of the test are covered in the article as it currently stands: 1.) some of the measures are unrepeatable, in that subjects will score as different particular personality types on subsequent tests; and 2.) it is completely self-reporting, with the inevitable distortion that causes. In the words of the current wikipedia article, "If respondents fear they have something to lose, they may answer as they assume they should." I have taken a number of versions of the test, variously scoring as INTP, INTJ, ISTP, ISTJ. I will give them the "I" and the "T", but my own opinion is the N-S and P-J axes are not universal, and personally meaningless.

My freshman psychology textbook is Gleitman. I have the fifth edition from 2000. Myers-Briggs is not in it. They have 75 pages devoted to the topic of personality, and several pages devoted to the topic of personality testing. The preferred instrument is the five factor scale, pioneered by W. T. Norman (Toward an adequate taxonomy of personality attributes, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, V. 66, pp 574-583). Since three of their factors are explicitly social--agreeableness, conscientiousness, and (absence of) neuroticism--this test is even more subject to the distortions of incentives to erroneous or deceptive answers in the test subject's self-report. One of the most profound mysteries may be how Myers-Briggs seems to rule the web and Gleitman, et al. do not see fit to even mention it.

The issue there may be that Myers-Briggs originates in Jungian psychology, and the great doctor Carl Jung is conspicuously and totally absent from the Gleitman textbook. Carl Jung was not exactly a real scientist you see, having been seduced by the Black Tide of Occultism.

The oddest personality test I ever experienced was in a company training class on "Creative Problem Solving". This was a one-week class where I and twenty of my peers were exposed to such company-sanctioned activities as "brainstorming". Part of the class was a personality assessment test. The testers claimed they could sort for: right-brain versus left-brain, and top-brain (cortex) versus bottom-brain (limbic). They had a composite display of the whole class on one plot. I suffered the ghastly embarrassment of the teacher telling all my classmates that I was the only right-brained person in the room. The other thing I remember from that test is my perfect career match was supposedly physician or metal sculptor. There is absolutely no way that a statistically significant number of well-adjusted metal sculptors have ever taken their test.

My favorite personality tests are the ones on the OKCupid web site. My results indicated such arcane features of my testing self as:

I am an INTP (d'oh!)
I am an Enneagram type 5.
I am partial to Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
My philosophy is akin to William James.
The Looney Tune character I most resemble is Wile E. Coyote.
The Romantic poet I most resemble is William Blake.
The major arcana I most resemble is the Hermit.
The Shakespeare character I most resemble is Richard III.

OK I am going to stop with that one because it is way off. Prospero, maybe; no way Richard III. Murdering my two young nephews to legitimize my kingly succession is just not me. As much fun as the OKCupid tests were, I only took about twenty of them. I know one woman (she is a World of Warcraft player) who has taken like three hundred OKCupid tests. Alright, one last one:

The Arthurian character I most resemble is the Lady of the Lake. This dear readers is scientific proof that there are worse personality testing instruments than Myers-Briggs.

07 February 2011

Jerry Kramer on Vince Lombardi on Aristotle

Attending to the annual Super Bowl spectacle can be a tough workout for the attention span. The highlight this week was listening to the sports talk radio show and they were interviewing Jerry Kramer and the dude quotes Vince Lombardi quoting Aristotle!

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."

Which is great stuff, except Aristotle never said that. It is a misattribution as they describe it on the wikiquote page. That was not Aristotle, but Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle. The other sound bit which Kramer enjoyed telling us was that "we can achieve excellence by pursuing perfection." This was sourced as a Lombardi original. Looking up the Aristotle quotation I was reminded of that great Yogi Berra title: I Really Didn't Say Everything I said. We have a bunch of crosstalk in the library between proverbs and thinkers and I have a few of my own; somehow they got stashed into my memory and I cannot document them, but I have this conviction that certain great truths derived from certain other great thinkers. I have one I am sure belongs to Faulkner but I cannot place it, and another that I would bet came from Gandhi but I cannot tie that one down either.

The word for one of those is agrapha (or singular agraphon), Greek, not written. It makes a lot more sense for Gandi than it does for Faulkner. Faulkner was paid to write things down--you would think every memorable thing he ever came up with got written down someplace. The word for the Faulkner thing might be unindexed or not-hashed--it is there in the 70 000 or so pages of his complete works but nobody else ever took note of it, and if I want to find it again I will have to sit down and go through the 70 000 pages one by one with my fingers crossed and hoping.

The other thing which Kramer botched was his date of Aristotle. He said it came from 5000 years ago. His intentions were OK. Except that he spent most of the interview talking about how he isn't in the Hall of Fame. And this was THE HIGHLIGHT of Super Bowl week in the media I was exposed to.

The New York Times informed me: 1.) neurologists are rooting for the Packers because they are more concerned about the concussion issue than the Steelers; 2.) neither the Packers nor the Steelers have cheerleaders, which is odd for a game in Cowboys' stadium in a state where parents "all want their boys to be quarterback and their girls to be head cheerleader" (This was presented as an actual quotation from an actual resident of Texas chosen by the New York Times to speak for all the millions who live here.); 3.) there is a suburb of Dallas spending 60 million to build a high school football stadium; 4.) the stunning observation that some women are attracted to these hyper masculine behemoths. (Links: 1, 2, 3, 4).

The Packers were favored. Since the Steelers apparently think concussed players ought to walk it off and get back into action, I wonder if the bettors were reading the same press I was reading. I would naively guess the playing field would favor the recklessly abandoned.

I entertained myself by timing the extravaganza. The kickoff was at 5:34 and the final second ticked off at 9:06 (CST). The box score showed there were 119 plays. If you generously chalk up six seconds per play, that means there was twelve minutes of action in a three hour, thirty-two minute period; the other three hours and twenty minutes were advertising, show business, ceremonies, and talking heads telling us how great all of this was. I suppose I could have just tuned it all out when Jerry Kramer started his spiel about his Hall of Fame campaign.

02 February 2011

Vengeance on a Dumb Brute

In the current wikipedia article on Melville they have that business about the mental constitution of the man. I have seen a lot of odd things about Melville and particularly about his novel, Moby Dick. I am not obsessed with Ahab, but I am interested. Sometimes I can believe I am the only reader who understands what exactly is going on in this novel. (That is not a bad criterion for a an effective piece of art--it leaves much of the audience feeling that they have a special understanding of the artist's point.) There is something about a working voyage on the deep sea in danger and isolation and boredom which can drive men mad.

There is one sentence in particular which I don't think I will ever forget. They are talking about the whale and Queequeg (the cannibal) offers:

"And he have one, two, three-oh! good many iron in him hide, too, Captain," cried Queequeg disjointedly, "all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him-him-" faltering hard for a word, and screwing his hand round and round as though uncorking a bottle-"like him-him-"

Well it is not exactly a sentence as somebody else finishes what Queequeg seems powerless to get to the period at the end of. This character who is not a native English speaker emits one of the greatest phrases of all: all twiske-tee be-twisk, like him-him-.

The first time I read Moby Dick it was for a class. That was not much fun. On later readings with nothing at stake I developed a love for Melville's language. The story is OK, but the color and richness in Melville's language are what make the book great. If you have had a hard time with it before and are interested in trying again, my Joyce trick has worked for me for this book as well.

Another thing which I did not appreciate in my first reading of Moby Dick is that Ahab has a black magic ritual in that quarter deck chapter:

"Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow-Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death! The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. Starbuck paled, and turned, and shivered."

Ahab pours grog into the hollow connector ends of the harpooners' weapon points and they drink libation and swear a blood oath for Ahab's vengeance upon the dumb brute. Ahab's destruction is nothing more than a representation of evil invocations returning back to their source. The law of karma. The points are of course screwed onto the harpoon shafts, all twiske-tee be-twisk.

Ahab's ravings are not the speech of a self-actualized Maslow man. This is the feature of the language of Moby Dick which can be the hardest on the reader. Melville is creating a character who is mad, and madness is never easy to follow. Melville himself had sailed with whalers, and if you have ever spent time working on the deep ocean you may know exactly what he was writing about.

On Christmas Day the New York Times published a long story about the last hours of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which was destroyed in a blowout and explosion and fire last April in the Gulf of Mexico; eleven of the crewmen on the rig died that day. The thing in the article which disturbed me most was the following sentence:

"In a few hours, the drilling crew’s 21-day hitch would be done."

I have done a handful of 14 day tours offshore, and one 21 day tour. The last day of my one 21 day tour was the longest day of my life, and the last hour of that day was the longest hour. After fourteen days my brain turned to mush. I was on seismic survey ships instead of drilling rigs but the environment is similar: heavy equipment, high pressure hydraulics, diesel engines with thousands of horsepower, flammable fluids and welding equipment. On the back deck of a seismic ship, as on a drill ship, there are a thousand different ways to die.

You are in close quarters with a bunch of other guys (mostly) but the isolation is severe when you are a thousand miles from a 911 emergency operator. If the sun is out and there are no clouds, there is a view which is spooky as Ahab's black magic curse of the whale--there is nothing in any direction but blue, blue sky above, blue water below, any direction you turn there is nothing but a uniform blank blue field in your vision. One time I was staring at it and six white storks came out of the blue and flew right over the ship. It was maybe only ten minutes from when they appeared to when they disappeared in the other direction, but that also was like an interval of forever.


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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.