Category Archives: psychology

OedipaVision

Like a lot of people I’m watching WandaVision, the latest Marvel show. CJ is an MCU fanatic and this show, well-acted, imaginatively shot, and legible without extreme knowledge of Marvel lore, is a good one for us to watch together.

It has settled, on the surface, into being a more “normal” MCU show after doing a lot of really interesting stuff in the first half of the season. But weirdness remains, under the surface. For example (and now the rest of this is spoilers) — the scene where Wanda magically blasts a new rendition of her dead husband Vision out of her own abdomen is clearly shot as a childbirth scene, which makes Vision both her son and her husband, so the whole thing has suddenly taken on a Freudian cast which I don’t think is from the comics. And this explains the shock of the old expert witch Agatha Harkness, who tells Wanda she’s something that isn’t supposed to exist; she is “chaos magic,” a witch with the power to spontaneously create. Witches, traditionally, are supposed to be infertile, but Wanda is not. (This is complicated, I guess, by the fact that Harkness herself apparently has a son in comics continuity but she’s presented as married and childless here.)

Isn’t the Mind Stone placed in the middle of Vision’s forehead a little like a third eye? And isn’t death by getting that eye ripped out kind of Vision’s thing?

I know, I know, sometimes a synthezoid is just a synthezoid.

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Caring about sports

When I was younger I cared about sports a lot. If the Orioles lost a big game — especially to the hated Yankees — it ruined my day, or more than one day. I remember when Dr. Mrs. Q. first found out about this she thought I was kidding; it made no sense to her that somebody could actually care enough to let it turn your whole ship of mood.

CJ is different. It has been an emotionally complicated last few years for Wisconsin sports fans, with all the local teams being good, really good, but never good enough to win the title. The Badgers losing the NCAA final to (the hated) Duke. The Brewers getting rolled out of the NLCS by the Dodgers. Of course, the Bucks, the team with the best record in the league and the two-time MVP, getting knocked out of the playoffs. And today, the 14-3 Packers losing the NFC championship to the Buccaneers. And I gotta say — CJ, while watching a game, is as intensely into his team as I have ever been. But after it’s over? It’s over. He doesn’t stew. I don’t know where he got this equanimity. Not from me, maybe from Dr. Mrs. Q. But I think I’m starting to get it from him. Maybe it just comes with age — or maybe I’m actually learning something.

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Unwarranted optimism and the new strain


Seems fitting for the first non-pandemic post to be about the pandemic.

So let me own up to a reasoning failure. I have found that I’m not really capable of expecting the pandemic to get worse. In May, I understood rationally that there could be another wave of infection, but I wasn’t really able to anticipate it. Then there it was. In September, I could have given you no reason to be certain the worst was past, but I felt that it was. But it wasn’t. The worst came back and got worse and is still with us. Maybe now cresting.

Now the vaccine is available, and is going into people’s arms; not as fast as people would like, but faster than almost everywhere else in the world, except Israel, which for some reason is lapping everybody else by a factor of ten. So does that mean it’s over? Maybe. But also there’s a novel strain, already present in the United States, which some people think is 50% more transmissible! Is there a reason to think we couldn’t have yet another period of rapid growth of cases and deaths in the months before we have time to achieve mass vaccination? There’s no reason! That could totally happen! It is right there in the interzone, neither inevitable nor impossible. And yet I can’t really bring myself to treat that possibility as real.

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Pandemic blog 25: version

I’ve always thought of myself as an extravert, but am I? I read lots of articles about the almost unendurable pain of being cut off from physical contact with friends, relatives, and just random people out in the world. I’m lucky — I don’t experience that as pain. Partly, I guess, it’s because I haven’t really been contactless. I go for walks, I talk at a distance to friends I see; or I work on the porch and I talk to people I know who come by.

There are individual differences. I took CJ to the middle school to pick up the contents of his locker; it was the first time in two and a half months he’d been 100 feet from our house. He really doesn’t need variety. Me, I take my walks, and I go for bike rides with AB. I could really do things this way for a long time, forever if I had to.

I don’t have to. The restrictions on gatherings and business are starting to lift now; cases aren’t really declining, are maybe even going up a little, but there seems to be some sense that with testing protocols in place we can afford to experiment with a gradual, carefully monitored relaxation of restrictions.

It’s aggregates that matter. Not everybody has to be perfectly sealed off, which is good, because not everybody can be. But the easier it is for you to not see people, the less you should see people. From each according to, etc.

Commutativity, with fractions

Talking to AB about multiplying rational numbers. She understands the commutativity of multiplication of integers perfectly well. But I had forgotten that commutativity in the rational setting is actually conceptually harder! That four sixes is six fours you can conceptualize by thinking of a rectangular array, or something equivalent to that. But the fact that seven halves is the same thing as seven divided by two doesn’t seem as “natural” to her. (Is that even an instance of commutativity? I think of the first as 7 x 1/2 and the second as 1/2 x 7.)

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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