Category Archives: psychology

Assembled audience

I gave a talk at Williams College last year and took a little while to visit one of my favorite museums, Mass MoCA. There’s a new installation there, by Taryn Simon, called Assembled Audience. You walk in through a curtained opening and you’re in a pitch-black space. It’s very quiet. And then, slowly, applause starts to build. Bigger and bigger. About a minute of swell until the invisible crowd out there in the dark is going absolutely fucking nuts.

And I have to be honest, whatever this may say about me: I felt an incredible warmth and safety and satisfaction, standing there, being clapped for and adored by a recording of a crowd. Reader, I stayed for a second cycle.

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Edits

New Year’s Eve is a time to think about what we’ll remember from the year about to expire, so this is a post about memory.

A few years back, Christina Nunez, who went to high school with me, wrote a blog post which included this recollection of the history class we both took:

This class was supposed to be an “honors” class, but it slowly became apparent that we were learning nothing at all outside of the reading and research we were required to do on our own. The classes were taken up mostly by two things, in my memory: watching videos about cathedrals, and listening to our teacher talk unrestrained about stuff that had nothing to do with history. Mr. C was a relatively tall, big man with a belly, a mustache somewhere between horseshoe and walrus, and a very sharp, incisive way of speaking. His way of holding forth made you feel—in the beginning—that it might be important to listen, because something was going to be revealed. He would punctuate his lectures, which often had nothing at all to do with history, with questions to the group. “Who here has ever had a dream?” he would ask, and we raised our hands, and then waited for the point.

Later, we learned not to bother raising our hands or waiting for the point.

Toward the end of the semester, a kid named Jordan had taken to sitting in the back of the class on the floor, backpack in front of him, and sleeping either slumped over or with his head lolled back against the wall. This was typical teen behavior made slightly untypical by the fact that Jordan was an academic prodigy. He was the kid who got a perfect score on his SATs before we were even supposed to take the SATs…

So when a kid like Jordan sat at the back of class sleeping, it was amusingly refreshing, because kids like us who got placed in those classes tended not to be the ones sleeping at the back of class. But it was also a little unnerving, because he was signaling a truth that was sort of scandalous for this particular track at this particular school at this particular time: this class and this teacher were an absolute fucking joke.

Mr. C tolerated this open act of defiance from Jordan for I don’t know how long before he finally got sick of it. One day, he began yelling. Jordan ignored it at first, but then he was roused to perform a sleepy, casual and yet brutal takedown of Mr. C as a teacher. It was something along the lines of I don’t need to take this class, you have nothing to teach me, I am learning nothing here that I can’t learn from a book. Et cetera. Mr. C lost it. I think spittle formed as he ordered Jordan out of the classroom. The kid picked up his backpack and walked out. I had never seen Jordan act remotely disrespectful, and had never seen a teacher so boldly—no, deservedly—challenged, and it was kind of thrilling but also a little sad. All of us, including Mr. C, were wasting our time in that room, and there was really nothing to be done about it.

That’s a pretty great story!  It obviously made a big impression on Christina, and why not?  I did something memorably crazy and out of the ordinary.

But I don’t remember it.  Not at all.  Not even with this reminder.

It happened, though.  Here’s how I know.  Because what I do remember is that I wasn’t allowed in Mr. C’s classroom.  I remember sitting outside in the hall day after day while all the other kids were in class.  Who knows how long?  I remember I was reading a Beckett play I got out of the school library.  I think it was Krapp’s Last Tape.  It never occurred to me, in the thirty years between then and now, to wonder what I did to get kicked out of class to read Beckett by myself while my friends were open quote learning close quote history.

I opened up a Facebook thread and asked my classmates about Christina’s story.  It happened; they remembered it.  I still didn’t.  And I still don’t.

It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would do, does it?  It doesn’t seem to me like the sort of thing I would do.  My memory of high school is that I followed all the rules.  I went to football games.  I went to pep rallies.  I liked high school.  Or did I?  Maybe, because I think of myself as somebody who liked high school, I’ve just edited out the moments when I didn’t like it.  Who knows what else I don’t remember?  Who knows who else I was angry at, who else I defied or denounced, what else got edited out because it didn’t fit the theme of the story?

And who knows what’s happening now that I’ll later edit out of my 2018?  Maybe a lot.  Most things don’t get blogged.  They just get lost.  You can’t have a new year unless you get rid of the old year.  You keep some things, you lose more.  And what you lose isn’t random.  You decide what to remove from yourself, and, having decided, you lose the decision, too.

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Why Men Fail

That’s the book I picked up off the shelf while working in Memorial Library today.  It’s an book of essays by psychiatrists about failure and suboptimal function, published in 1936.  In the introduction I find:

We see what a heavy toll disorders of the mind exact from human happiness when we realize that of all the beds in all the hospitals throughout the United States one in every two is for mental disease; in other words, there are as many beds for mental ailments as for all other ailments put together.

That’s startling to me!  Can it really have been so?  What’s the proportion now?

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Good math days

I have good math days and bad math days; we all do.  An outsider might think the good math days are the days when you have good ideas.  That’s not how it works, at least for me.  You have good ideas on the bad math days, too; but one at a time.  You have an idea, you try it, you make some progress, it doesn’t work, your mind says “too bad.”

On the good math days, you have an idea, you try it, it doesn’t work, you click over to the next idea, you get over the obstacle that was blocking you, then you’re stuck again, you ask your mind “What’s the next thing to do?” you get the next idea, you take another step, and you just keep going.

You don’t feel smarter on the good math days.  It’s not even momentum, exactly, because it’s not a feeling of speed.  More like:  the feeling of being a big, heavy, not very fast vehicle, with very large tires, that’s just going to keep on traveling, over a bump, across a ditch, through a river, continually and inexorably moving in a roughly fixed direction.

 

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Peter Norvig, the meaning of polynomials, debugging as psychotherapy

I saw Peter Norvig give a great general-audience talk on AI at Berkeley when I was there last month.  A few notes from his talk.

  • “We have always prioritized fast and cheap over safety and privacy — maybe this time we can make better choices.”
  • He briefly showed a demo where, given values of a polynomial, a machine can put together a few lines of code that successfully computes the polynomial.  But the code looks weird to a human eye.  To compute some quadratic, it nests for-loops and adds things up in a funny way that ends up giving the right output.  So has it really ”learned” the polynomial?  I think in computer science, you typically feel you’ve learned a function if you can accurately predict its value on a given input.  For an algebraist like me, a function determines but isn’t determined by the values it takes; to me, there’s something about that quadratic polynomial the machine has failed to grasp.  I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here, just a cultural difference to be aware of.  Relevant:  Norvig’s description of “the two cultures” at the end of this long post on natural language processing (which is interesting all the way through!)
  • Norvig made the point that traditional computer programs are very modular, leading to a highly successful debugging tradition of zeroing in on the precise part of the program that is doing something wrong, then fixing that part.  An algorithm or process developed by a machine, by contrast, may not have legible “parts”!  If a neural net is screwing up when classifying something, there’s no meaningful way to say “this neuron is the problem, let’s fix it.”  We’re dealing with highly non-modular complex systems which have evolved into a suboptimally functioning state, and you have to find a way to improve function which doesn’t involve taking the thing apart and replacing the broken component.  Of course, we already have a large professional community that works on exactly this problem.  They’re called therapists.  And I wonder whether the future of debugging will look a lot more like clinical psychology than it does like contemporary software engineering.
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Vacuum cleaner on sale

I was explaining the “regular price” scam to CJ the other day. A store sells a vacuum cleaner for $79.95. One day, they put up a sign saying “SALE! Regular price, $109.95; now MARKED DOWN to $79.95.” The point is to create an imaginary past that never was, a past where vacuum cleaners cost $109.95, a difficult past from which the store has generously granted you respite.
This is what Trump’s team is doing. They’re trying to create an imaginary past in which the last 5 years of life in America was characterized by ubiquitous street crime, unchecked terrorism, and mass unemployment. So that life in America in 2017 and 2018 will seem comparatively placid, safe, and prosperous. Look how much I saved you on this goddamn vacuum cleaner. You’re welcome.

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Bad Bayesian

Couldn’t find my phone yesterday morning.  I definitely remembered having it in the car on the way home from the kids’ swim lesson, so I knew I hadn’t left it.  “Find my iPhone” told me the phone was on the blacktop of the elementary school, about 1000 feet from my house.  What?  Why?  Then a few minutes later the location updated to the driveway of a bank, closer to my house but in the other direction.  So I went over to the bank and looked around in the driveway, even peering into the garbage shed and seeing if my phone was in their dumpster.

But why did I do that?  It was terrible reason.  There was no chain of events leaving my phone at the bank, or at the school, which wasn’t incredibly a prior unlikely.  I should have reasoned:  “The insistence of Find my iPhone that my phone is at the bank drastically increases the probability my phone is at the bank, but that probability started out so tiny that it remains tiny, and the highest-expected-utility use of my time is to keep looking around my house and my car until I find it.”

Anyway, it was in the basement.

 

 

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Roger Ailes, man of not many voices

From Janet Maslin’s review of Gabriel Sherman’s book about Roger Ailes:

Among those who did speak on the record to Mr. Sherman is Stephanie Gordon, an actress who in one part of that show dropped the towel she wore. She was asked by Mr. Ailes to come to his office for a Sunday photo session and felt extremely uncomfortable about having to do this for the producer. But she says Mr. Ailes could not have been nicer. He took pictures and later sent her a signed print inscribed: “Don’t throw in the towel, you’re a great actress. Roger Ailes.” But Mr. Sherman also has a story from a woman named Randi Harrison, also on the record, who claims Mr. Ailes offered her a $400-a-week job at NBC, saying: ‘If you agree to have sex with me whenever I want, I will add an extra hundred dollars a week.”

These don’t sound like the voices of the same man.

I think they totally sound like the voices of the same man.  It’s not like someone who sexually harasses one woman can be counted on to sexually harass every single woman within arm’s reach.  Bank robbers don’t rob every single bank!  “Why, I saw that man walk by a bank just the other day without robbing it — the person who told you he was a bank robber must just have been misinterpreting.  Probably he was just making a withdrawal and the teller took it the wrong way.”

And what’s more:  don’t you think Ailes kind of could have been nicer to Gordon?  Like, a lot nicer?  Look at that exchange again.  He put her in a position where she felt extremely uncomfortable, and declined to sexually assault her on that occasion.  Then he sent her a signed print, on which he wrote a message reminding her that he’d seen her naked body.

I think both these stories depict a man who sees women as existing mainly for his enjoyment, and a man who takes special pleasure in letting women know he sees them that way.  One man, one voice.

 

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Those other parents

You know those other parents?  The ones who drive their kid the four blocks to school in their SUV?  The ones who sued the school district because their kid wasn’t labeled gifted?  The ones whose children are scheduled every minute of every day?  The ones who don’t let their kids watch Star Wars because they might find the violence upsetting?  The ones who insist that school snacks are free of gluten, genetically modified organisms, and genetically modified gluten?

How are their kids going to turn out?

As emotionally able, as complex, as kind, as outgoing, as open to experience as our kids.  That’s how.

 

The interpretation of dadbod

When I was in graduate school I read a lot of Freud (OK, I read a lot of Janet Malcolm writing about Freud and, inspired by that, a little bit of Freud) and I caught a whiff of the good old family romance when I encountered “dadbod”:

“In case you haven’t noticed lately, girls are all about that dad bod,” Pearson wrote. “The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’ ”

“There is just something about the dad bod,” Pearson continued, “that makes boys seem more human, natural, and attractive.”

OK, I thought, I’m a guy who’s read a lot of Freud, I’m probably reading too much into this.  Sometimes a trend piece is just a trend piece.  But then:

Pearson: My dad has read it. He called me this morning to talk about it. My dad is super into CrossFit. He’s super, super fit and really healthy. He actually found a comment where someone had uploaded a picture from Facebook saying, “This is her, this is actually her and her dad!” My dad looks young. People think we’re dating all the time, because he’s in such great shape. He told me that he got a kick out of it. He sent it to my entire extended family, saying, “Look how funny my daughter is!” He’s really enjoyed the comments and the attention.

Alrighty then.

 

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