Tag Archives: life

Gail Wynand, My Favorite Fictional Character

“Gail Wynand lived with his father in the basement of an old house in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. His father was a longshoreman, a tall, silent, illiterate man who had never gone to school. His own father and his grandfather were of the same kind, and they knew of nothing but poverty in their family. But somewhere far back in the line there had been a root of aristocracy, the glory of some noble ancestor and then some tragedy, long since forgotten, that had brought the descendants to the gutter. Something about all the Wynands–in tenement, saloon and jail–did not fit their surroundings. Gail’s father was known on the waterfront as the Duke. 

Gail’s mother had died of consumption when he was two years old. He was an only son. He knew vaguely that there had been some great drama in his father’s marriage; he had seen a picture of his mother; she did not look and she was not dressed like the women of their neighborhood; she was very beautiful. All life had gone out of his father when she died. He loved Gail; but it was the kind of devotion that did not require two sentences a week. 

Gail did not look like his mother or father. He was a throwback to something no one could quite figure out; the distance had to be reckoned, not in generations, but in centuries. He was always too tall for his age, and too thin. The boys called him Stretch Wynand. Nobody knew what he used for muscles; they knew only that he used it. 

He had worked at one job after another since early childhood. For a long while he sold newspapers on street corners. One day he walked up to the pressroom boss and stated that they should start a new service–delivering the paper to the reader’s door in the morning; he explained how and why it would boost circulation. “Yeah?” said the boss. “I know it will work,” said Wynand. “Well, you don’t run things around here,” said the boss. “You’re a fool,” said Wynand.

He lost the job.  Continue reading

Let The Dying Languages Die

“What’s to be alarmed about? The disappearance of a language is not like, say, a local crop failure that augurs starvation. In other words, if some obscure language ceases to be spoken, it is not as if millions or even dozens of people will be unable to talk. All it means is that the people who would have spoken that language will speak a different language. Maybe we should celebrate the disappearance of obscure languages. Wouldn’t there be considerable positive value if everyone in the world spoke the same language? I think it is fairly typical of how the media and the scholarly world have treated the topic. It seems to assume that the disappearance of languages is a bad thing, though it fails to present much in the way of actual harm that has come. First argument: a claim that multilingual children do better than monolingual ones. Is this worth spending billions of dollars in a futile effort to keep various obscure tongues alive? Even if the data on children are correct – and I can imagine they are confounded by having smarter children or more sophisticated parents – the world only needs 2 or 3 languages, not seven thousand. In fact, the future I foresee is that there would be two or three worldlanguages, such as English and Chinese (Mandarin), and every child would learn both. Hence everyone would be multilingual. Getting rid of the other languages would just facilitate this process. There are those who care about language, and I am one of them. Putting this into practice by preserving near-dead languages on some kind of technologically boosted life support is of dubious value. Instead, we should work to conserve the effectiveness of language to communicate. This means respecting grammar, syntax, writing style, and other hallmarks of a strong, useful language, because they contribute to clarity and precision of communication.”

—Roy F. Baumeister, Languages Are Vanishing: So What?

“Losing a language is essentially a loss of data but culture doesn’t bleed, living organisms do. There is a lot of concern among anthropologists about “lost” ways of life. ( I am more concerned with “lost lives” due to poverty, malnourishment and disease.) The educated and prosperous elite sometimes lament the loss of innocence and purity among indigenous cultures. I have seen that here and in India. Mostly the people whom they wish to see hold on to their culture are poor, uneducated and their quaint way of life is a curiosity for us. I wouldn’t go as far as to draw the harsh parallel to a zoo but sometimes I wonder.”

—Ruchira Paul, Cat (or Global Forces) Got Your Tongue?

“If you have a casual knowledge of history or geography you know that languages are fault-lines around which intergroup conflict emerges. But more concretely I’ll dig into the literature or do a statistical analysis. I’ll have to correct for the fact that Africa and South Asia are among the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, and they kind of really suck on Human Development Indices. And I do have to add that the arrow of causality here is complex; not only do I believe linguistic homogeneity fosters integration and economies of scale, but I believe political and economic development foster linguistic homogeneity. So it might be what economists might term a “virtuous circle.”

—Razib Khan, Language Is Not Value-Free

“Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of countless foreign-language self-teaching sets that are about as useful as the tonics and elixirs that passed as medicine a century ago and leave their students with anemic vocabularies and paltry grammar that are of little use in real conversation. Even with good instruction, it is fiendishly difficult to learn any new language well, at least after about the age of 15. While vilified in certain quarters as threatening the future of the English language in America, most immigrants who actually try to improve their English skills here in the United States find that they have trouble communicating effectively even with doctors or their children’s schoolteachers. Yet the going idea among linguists and anthropologists is that we must keep as many languages alive as possible, and that the death of each one is another step on a treadmill toward humankind’s cultural oblivion. Assuming that we can keep 6,000 languages alive is the rough equivalent of supposing that we can stop, say, ice from developing soft spots. Here’s why. As people speaking indigenous languages migrate to cities, inevitably they learn globally dominant languages like English and use them in their interactions with one another. The immigrants’ children may use their parents’ indigenous languages at home. But they never know those languages as part of their public life, and will therefore be more comfortable with the official language of the world they grow up in. For the most part, they will speak this language to their own children. These children will not know the indigenous languages of their grandparents, and thus pretty soon they will not be spoken. This is language death. Thus the oft-heard claim that the death of a language means the death of a culture puts the cart before the horse. When the culture dies, naturally the language dies along with it. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true. Groups do not find themselves in the bizarre circumstance of having all of their traditional cultural accoutrements in hand only to find themselves incapable of indigenous expression because they no longer speak the corresponding language. Native American groups would bristle at the idea that they are no longer meaningfully “Indian” simply because they no longer speak their ancestral tongue. Note also the obvious and vibrant black American culture in the United States, among people who speak not Yoruba but English. But let’s remember that this aesthetic delight is mainly savored by the outside observer, often a professional savorer like myself. Professional linguists or anthropologists are part of a distinct human minority. Most people, in the West or anywhere else, find the fact that there are so many languages in the world no more interesting than I would find a list of all the makes of Toyota. So our case for preserving the world’s languages cannot be based on how fascinating their variegation appears to a few people in the world. The question is whether there is some urgent benefit to humanity from the fact that some people speak click languages, while others speak Ket or thousands of others, instead of everyone speaking in a universal tongue.”

— John McWhorter, The Cosmopolitan Tongue: The Universality of English

My Book List

This is not a list of the best books of 2014, but the books I read, or reread in 2014, and liked.

—————————————–

Steven Pinker-The Sense Of Style

Alain de Botton-The News: A User’s Manual 

Antonio Damasio-Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain 

Gregory Clark-The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility

James D. Watson-The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

James D. Watson-Avoid Boring People

H.L. Mencken-A Second Mencken Chrestomathy

H.L. Mencken-Happy Days

Nicholas Wade-A Troublesome Inheritance.

David Livingstone Smith-Why We Lie

David McRaney-You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways Youre Deluding Yourself

George Serban-Lying:Man’s Second Nature

Oliver Sacks-An Anthropologist On Mars

Avi Tuschman-Our Political Nature

Paul Bloom-Just Babies

Paul Bloom-How Pleasure Works

Paul Blumberg-The Predatory Society

Arthur Melzer-Philosophy Between The Lines

Simon Baron-Cohen-The Maladapted Mind: Classic Readings in Evolutionary Psychopathology

Matthew D. Lieberman-Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

Toshio Yamagishi- Evolution, Culture, and the Human Mind

Chris Anderson-Free

Chris Anderson-The Long Tail

Chris Anderson-The Makers

Clay Shirky-Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky-Here Comes Everybody

David Weinberger-Everything Is Miscellaneous

David Weinberger-My Hundred Million Dollar Secret

David Weinberger-Too Big To Know

Joy Hendry-An Anthropology of Indirect Communication

Jonathan Glover-Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

Kishore Mahbubani-Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West

Alexander Luria-The Mind of a Mnemonist

Simon Winchester-The Professor And The Madman

David Agus-A short guide to a long life

David Agus-The End Of Illness

George Orwell-All Art Is Propaganda

Patrick French-The World Is What It IS

Graham Vickers-Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again 

Vladimir Nabokov-Pnin

Vladimir Nabokov-Selected Letters

Vladimir Nabokov-Strong Opinions

Do You Understand James Watson?

Rosalind-Franklin_2581518kI like novelistic autobiographies. James Watson’s “The Double Helix” is one of the most entertaining novelistic autobiographies I have ever read. He does not hesitate to question the motives of other scientists, and expose their pettiness—their manipulativeness. But, of course, a sentimentalist might claim that their motives weren’t as twisted as he claims them to be. Passages like this are typical:

“It was increasingly difficult to take Maurice’s mind off his assistant, Rosalind Franklin. Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost from the moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to upset each other. Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant. I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfed mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained—she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.”

Now, did you understand this passage? Yes? What was he getting at? No answer? You probably did not, even if you believe you have understood. Let me try to interpret.

“It was increasingly difficult to take Maurice’s mind off his assistant, Rosalind Franklin. Not that he was at all in love with Rosy, as we called her from a distance. Just the opposite—almost from the moment she arrived in Maurice’s lab, they began to upset each other.”

This is a fairly common psychological profile. As a writer put it, “Most people with Asperger’s are fairly ordinary people and are not necessarily either incredibly brilliant or completely socially clueless. However, there is a not infrequent form of high functioning Asperger’s whose hallmarks include various kinds of specialized intelligence in a person who, despite their brilliance, simultaneously lacks the basic ability to read basic social cues and to conform to “normal” social standards and expectations. If you have ever known a person like this, you know that part of their repertoire of survival skills is an uncanny ability to get under your skin, into your thoughts, and win a place in your life, even though they are so supremely difficult and hard to deal with. Lisbeth is just like that in the way she captures Blomkvist emotionally, to the point that he can’t stop thinking about her, even though there is no rational explanation for why he would want to remain involved with her.”

“Maurice, a beginner in X-ray diffraction work, wanted some professional help and hoped that Rosy, a trained crystallographer, could speed up his research. Rosy, however, did not see the situation this way. She claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice’s assistant.”

People with Asperger Syndrome never see any situation quite the same way others do. As Tyler Cowen observes, “A focal point refers to something we all can coordinate around without having to talk about it or plan it in advance. You might say if your boss invites you to present at a meeting of the company’s board of directors, it is focal that you wear a tie, even if no one tells you to. At Google headquarters casual dress usually is expected and thus they have a different focal point. Most generally a focal point is a commonly understood social expectation. The concept of a focal point makes me recall the words of Jim Sinclair, an autistic who writes on the web. He informs us: “DON’T TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED. Don’t assume you can interpret the [autistic] person’s behavior by comparing it with your own or other people’s behavior. Don’t assume the person can interpret your behavior.” In other words, many common focal points are harder for autistic people to use and alternatively autistic focal points can be harder for nonautistics to use. When it comes to picking up on commonly understood focal points, the  performance of autistics is below average in many contexts, as they find it harder to pick up on many unstated social conventions. This is one of the most common complaints you will hear or read from autistic people and it stems from the fact autistics perceive the world in different ways. But it would be wrong to conclude that autistics are incapable of having focal points. We are in fact seeing social conventions or focal points evolving among autistics, most of all with the assistance of web communication. For instance there is now a fairly common understanding, or focal point, that a meeting or good-bye among autistics will not be preceded by a handshake. Many autistics do not enjoy this form of contact, and some hate it, so why do it?”

“I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend.”

I think Watson is being charitable here. Passive aggressive people do not pounce on someone the day she walks into an office. This is partly because they would come across as too obvious, and partly because they want to convince themselves that they have done their best they can. Yes. Humbert Humbert tried really hard to be good. Really and truly, he did.

“By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.”

“By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities.” 

Simon Baron-Cohen had speculated that Asperger is perhaps merely an extreme male brain.

“Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.” 

Simon Baron Cohen observes, “Aside from this, he was not particularly interested in dressing up, or in assuming pretend identities, and so on. Again, little interest in imaginative play, with all its creative variability, is another marker of autistic spectrum conditions in toddlerhood.”

“There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair.” 

141201_SCI_JimWatson.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeAs a recent study noted, female faces have higher contrast. You can appear more feminine by increasing your facial contrast:“In a study published in Perception, Russell demonstrated the existence of a facial contrast difference between the two genders.By measuring photographs of men and women, he found that female faces have greater contrast between eyes, lips, and surrounding skin than do male faces. This difference in facial contrast was also found to influence our perception of the gender of a face. Regardless of race, female skin is known to be lighter than male skin. But Russell found that female eyes and lips are not lighter than those of males, which creates higher contrast of eyes and lips on women’s faces. By experimenting with an androgynous face, Russell learned that faces can be manipulated to appear female by increasing facial contrast or to appear male by decreasing facial contrast. “Though people are not consciously aware of the sex difference in contrast, they unconsciously use contrast as a cue to tell what sex a face is,” Russell said. “We also use the amount of contrast in a face to judge how masculine or feminine the face is, which is related to how attractive we think it is.” Given this sex difference in contrast, Russell found a connection between the application of cosmetics and how it consistently increases facial contrast. Female faces wearing cosmetics have greater facial contrast than the same faces not wearing cosmetics. Russell noted that female facial beauty has been closely linked to sex differences, with femininity considered attractive. His results suggest that cosmetics may function in part by exaggerating a sexually dimorphic attribute to make the face appear more feminine and attractive. “Cosmetics are typically used in precisely the correct way to exaggerate this difference, ” Russell said. “Making the eyes and lips darker without changing the surrounding skin increases the facial contrast. Femininity and attractiveness are highly correlated, so making a face more feminine also makes it more attractive.”

“At the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfed mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained—she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.”

Mothers have an uneasy relationship with their attractive and brighter daughters. They cannot stand them growing up in a more affluent, enlightened world. Their daughters are everything they couldn’t have been. A man of Watson’s intelligence could not have missed this. Observe that Watson speculated that the unsatisfied mother “unduly stressed”, not that she “stressed”. Why would a mother do this? Sexism was supposedly in its heyday in the 50s and 60s of the US. Wouldn’t a mother stress the desirability of following her into the jaws of monogamy? An unsatisfied mother would do this only if a professional career would NOT have made her daughter happy. Watson, a broad-minded scientist who urges everyone to understand individual differences could not have missed this. And if Rosalind Franklin had Asperger Syndrome, if she had an extreme male mind, she would have seen things differently, and would have gotten there without an unsatisfied mother’s prodding.

So, What was he getting at, without even knowing it? Rosalind Franklin had Asperger Syndrome.

As he later said in an interview:

He smiles. “Rosalind is my cross,” he says slowly. “I’ll bear it. I think she was partially autistic.” He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. “I’d never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind’s behaviour. “She showed great insensitivity to Wilkins. DNA  was his problem and she just thought she could take it from him. She was clueless. John Randall [the British physicist who led the King’s College team that included Wilkins and Franklin] told her DNA was going to be her thing and she took it from Maurice. But fair play should never have allowed Rosalind to do it. So she was either not a nice person, or just clueless. I think clueless. When you knew her, she wasn’t nasty; just awkward. Francis didn’t think Rosalind was a great scientist. That was Francis at his most honest. The truth was she couldn’t think in three dimensions very well.”

Now, tell me. Do you understand Watson? When you read this passage, did everything that crossed his mind cross yours? If it didn’t, do you really understand him? While you claim that Watson should be punished for his “racist” views, remember: Everything you enjoy is a gift from geniuses like Watson—An unintended consequence of everything they accomplished. What else could they have accomplished if you had let them reach what they wanted, if you could understand them? If only you could understand them. Remember, You are not so smart. It is a very valuable form of humility, to see this. Perhaps, the only one there is.

Nabokov On Philistinism

nabokov.siNabokov’s is the most nuanced and psychologically perceptive analysis of neurotypical communication I have ever read. This fits normal human beings to a T:

“Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists. But it should be admitted that all of us have our cliché side; all of us in everyday life often use words not as words but as signs, as coins, as formulas. This does not mean that we are all philistines, but it does mean that we should be careful not to indulge too much in the automatic process of exchanging platitudes. On a hot day every other person will ask you, “Is it warm enough for you?” but that does not necessarily mean that the speaker is a philistine. He may be merely a parrot or a bright foreigner. When a person asks you, “Hullo, how are you?” it is perhaps a sorry cliché to reply, “Fine”; but if you made to him a detailed report of your condition you might pass for a pedant and a bore. It also happens that platitudes are used by people as a kind of disguise or as the shortest cut for avoiding conversation with fools. I have known great scholars and poets and scientists who in the cafeteria sank to the level of the most commonplace give and take.

The character I have in view when I say “smug vulgarian” is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity. He is the conformist, the man who conforms to his group, and he also is typified by something else: he is a pseudo-idealist, he is pseudo-compassionate, he is pseudo-wise. The fraud is the closest ally of the true philistine. All such great words as “Beauty,” “Love,” “Nature,” “Truth,” and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. In Dead Souls you have heard Chichikov. In Bleak House you have heard Skimpole. You have heard Homais in Madame Bovary. The philistine likes to impress and he likes to be impressed, in consequence of which a world of deception, of mutual cheating, is formed by him and around him.”

Read what Nabokov has to say about Philistines And Philistinism