Oh dear. It’s all true, unfortunately. Especially “interdisciplinary.”

Squiggly Logic


So, I’ve spent some of my free time over the holidays trying to catch up on fascinating, dissertation-relevant books that I happen to own. The rest of my free time was spent eating ham and reading The Other Boleyn Girl. I think the previous review covered “historical novels with sex in” pretty handily, so instead I’ll turn to The Complementary Nature, by Scott Kelso and David Engstrom.

The conceit of the book, which is much more philosophical than I took it for on the shelf, is that things in scientific thinking come in pairs, and even ways of relating pairs come in pairs, and that there are several ways of resolving these pairs (or pairs of pairs, or.. you get the idea). The authors come up with a method for expressing these pairs - e.g. matter~energy or part~whole - that may or may not be silly (especially since the ~ has an entirely different meaning in formal logic). As a way to indicate that dualisms are irreducible, it’s interesting. Visually, I don’t think it incorporates enough of the overlap and intertwinedness and ‘duckrabbit’-y sense that they are trying to convey, but then, I can’t fault scientists for choosing the least silly-looking option. I’m glad there is a solid philosophical foundation under the field of movement dynamics, and the concept that “contraries are complementary,” arguably the central theme of TCN, is helpful in bouncing around ideas about alignment between speakers. If contraries are complementary, then if Left is the contrary of Right (Left~Right), it should be expected that the motion or shape of Left is complementary to that of Right. If Physical~Mental is a contrary pair (one cannot be the other), then perhaps motion in the Physical state will be complementary to motion in the Mental state.

The nicest evidence that this is, in fact, the best thing I’ve read all week is not a summary of the authors’ thoughts, however, but a demonstration that reading this book has put me somewhat back in the philosophical saddle. All their talk of Aristotle, Kant, Spinoza, and Zeno has caused me to re-approach Zeno’s paradox knowing something about how language works. Or at least, how Frege thought language worked.

In order for a racing turtle to reach the finish line, it first needs to cover half the ground between itself and the finish line, right? Okay. Now that it’s halfway there, it has to cover half the ground between the midpoint and the finish line. At that point, it must cover half the ground between the 75% mark and the finish line. When it has made 6 or so of these halfway points, it will have covered about 96% of the way to the finish line. Surely, only one or two more steps to go! However, the keen minds among you will have deduced that the poor turtle will, in fact, NEVER reach the finish line no matter how many times he reaches the midpoint between where he is and where he wants to be. It is always receding inverse-exponentially away from him. He can only approximate crossing the finish line by being directly next to it in an “I’m-not-touching-you!” sort of way.

One solution to Zeno’s paradox is to make it a problem about spatial semantics. When we say to our racing turtle, “the finish line is here,” we are actually locating a line infinitesimally further away - the asymptote of the turtle’s approach, which as we all know, he will never reach. The only reasonable denotation of the phrase “the finish line” (or any other terminus) is the last point through which it is actually possible to pass before reaching the asymptote - the point exactly halfway between the asymptote and the point which is located the smallest calculable distance from the asymptote. The asymptote casts a shadow in the direction of the approacher, and it is this shadow to which we refer when we say “the finish line.” Talking about a terminus is a case in which the shadow of the thing may have more substance than the thing itself.

The Book of Night Women

So far, all having a bachelor’s degree has earned me is time to read… which is more valuable than some things and less valuable than others.  Regaining the mental patience to sit somewhere with a physical book has been a surprise pleasure.  My back appreciates leaving the laptop at home, I must say.

Last week I finished The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.  See the NY Times review of it here and the Amazon.com link here. I found this book because of The Help.  I have neither read The Help nor seen the movie, which is a decision I may at some point reverse, just not today.  I read a letter addressing The Help, (I’m sorry to say I can’t find it,) discussing how unfortunate it was that a story which should focus on the experiences of Black women in the south became more focused on a young white girl’s plucky transformation and good work.  The writer(s) made a number of alternative literary suggestions, one of which was Night Women, a story of a Jamaican plantation around 1800.  This coupled with my roommate’s not inaccurate observation that we really just read a bunch of white people (female and queer, sure, but very very white) drove me to put my Amazon Prime membership into overdrive, and the book arrived the very next day.

The Book of Night Women is entertaining enough to make you feel guilty.  Lilith, our flawed, selfish, bloody protagonist, is fascinating.  And as you might expect of a rebellious black woman on a slave plantation, life does not go well for her.  It’s a very strange feeling, when you can’t stop reading, and you’re really enjoying the novel, while at the same time, you are reading about a woman who is whipped repeatedly, forced to do endless demeaning things, and takes full terrifying revenge on those who hurt her.
For me, it both helped and hurt the reading experience that I felt very distant from the ongoing action.  The narrator speaks in Jamaican patois (or the author’s excellent interpretation of it) and while I would grasp what was going on, not reading, say, the detailed graphic description of a gang rape in modern English allowed to me to continue with the story and not be tempted to put the book down and stop exposing myself to all of the suffering.  At the same time, that was also the weakness of my reading experience.  I was often NOT connected.  I do not naturally identify with the character and the writing did not necessarily compel me to empathy.  To say that, sells the amazing writing short.  This is difficult to describe but I shall try my best.  The author describes no goings on at the plantation (potential black magic aside) that were contextually inaccurate.  Nothing in the way of the treatment of the protagonist couldn’t have happened.  Much of the story was horrible, but it wasn’t painful for me.  Part of me at least wanted it to be painful.  If it’s a good sad story, aren’t I supposed to be sad while reading it?  I suppose there’s always going to be a little emotional distance in a story where you’re not especially cheering for anyone.  (Oh you can tell in this paragraph I’ll never write for the NY Times…) Nobody’s rooting for the slavemasters here, but I wasn’t exactly cheering for a bloody slave revolt either.  Or Lilith herself, who’s got a pretty high body count going already in the first 50 pages.

This is a good book.  It’s interesting, well written, well-researched, and an excellent example of an African American author competing in the modern high literature field, which is, let’s be honest, a pretty white male crowd.  I guess my thought is that I would recommend it more as great fiction than a historical experience, which, when I read the letter suggesting “Alternatives to The Help” was what I thought I was getting into.  So maybe I should say that I got into the book under the wrong premise, and came out feeling a little unsettled with it, just because I didn’t get what I came for.  Which is probably what happens when white girls go looking to literarily broaden their horizons.  Maybe my real horrible fear is that I’ll just identity wonderfully with that girl in the Help.

Social learning fuels cultural evolution, you say?

Cooperative monkeys from the Guardian

[Cooperative monkeys from a totally unrelated article in the Guardian]

This one was recommended to me by someone whose research is pretty foundational for my own, so I probably don’t have as critical an eye as I might. Also, this is a simplified summary in which I may get some ideas and concepts wrong. Feel free to point it out.

Boyd and Richerson are engaged, in this volume and at large, with putting together a plausible and relatively comprehensive model of cultural evolution that starts from biological as well as social and psychological first principles. They claim in the introduction that evolutionary psychologists shy away from biological explanations because they traditionally smack of eugenics (and more recently, I would argue, of the sort of deterministic thinking that sexism and The Bell Curve are made of). “But,” they plead, “physical and environmental factors really did impact the genesis of brains large enough to have theories of mind! Long-standing customs! Poetry, science, religion!” Well, I’m not a biologist, so I’ll just take it on faith that the geological trends of the past 2.5 million years gave rise to a rate of biome variation that privileged behavioral adaptation speeds on time scales < 10 generations (f’rinstance).

Did you see what I did there?  Hang on, you will.

So, the rapidly cycling climate changes favored big-brained mammals who, it turns out, use this great technique called “social learning” to spread new successful behaviors faster than genetic evolution would normally allow. Instead of being able to rely on a low rate of environmental variation to support instinctive behaviors’ continued success and avoid having to engage in costly experimentation (i.e. should I eat that, or is it poisonous? Let’s find out!), these new large-brained primates were already in places with high rates of environmental variation, so their large brains enabled imitation and mimicry of living and thriving others. Should I eat that? I don’t know, but that kid’s eating it and he’s not dead yet, so it must be okay.

Of course, if there’s enough variation (large x) in the accuracy of people’s individual decisions, social learning won’t work because you’ll be surrounded by a population of poisonous-berry-eaters - your best bet is to be very picky and follow your instincts. And if there’s very little variation (small x), then you’re probably not in an environment in which imitation has much advantage over individual experimentation - you can trust your senses enough to make watching what other people do superfluous. For culture to be so pervasive in one and only one species, there must be upper AND lower bounds on x, and it must be in some rule-governed relation to the prevalence of social learning. One of the interesting things this explains is how much room there may be within a given culture for maladaptive behaviors to spread. In order to do this one would have to have good estimates for variables like prevalence of imitators over experimenters, consequences of non-conformity, environmental change rate, and relative success of experimentation over imitation.

The rest of the chapter explains how Boyd and Richerson determine the upper and lower bounds of x and a slew of other variables, although unfortunately they do this by building out their mathematical model rather than offering some metric by which one can measure the innate variability of an environment and the variability in the success of individual learning trials (e.g. approach vs. avoid this berry). Later chapters presumably spell this out.

The essay leaves me with two related burning questions, which I’ll share with you, dear reader, in case you have a quick answer to one of them.

1. Is there a more-than-arbitrary distinction between the data one gets from social observation and the data one gets from individual learning? Or is this just where the authors’ anthropocentric bias surfaces? What is it, beyond theory of mind, that makes observing a human trial of behavior N more useful than observing a canine trial of behavior N? Or is it to do with intentionality?

2. The authors claim both that “social learning involves faithfully copying the behavior of one other individual” and that “individual learning is error-prone.” What about error-prone social learning? Is it somehow less costly to make mistakes doing something you think you saw someone else do than to make mistakes figuring out how to do it yourself? Perhaps for high-risk situations, but I’d have to know more about the reasoning there. Is it that erroneous social learning leads (in some cases) to ostracism, so we’ve selected for people who have “perfect pitch” for social learning and imitation? (Presumably ostracism in this case is the technique by which selection proceeds) The variability on this spectrum, from low to high-skilled social learners, is pretty dramatic, how does Boyd & Richerson’s model account for this?
The idea that social learning is somehow less error-prone than individual experimentation, and that this is reflected in evolutionary processes, should be empirically testable: for a given metric of human social-learning ability, high scorers should by and large be heavy reproducers, either of successful, revenue-generating ideas, or offspring. Did someone say cross-cultural correlational study?

Until next time, that was… the best thing I’ve read this week.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In my previous entries, I’ve tried to write about either articles I could link to directly, or books you could at the very least pick up in your neighborhood Barnes and Noble, (you probably no longer have a neighborhood Borders) if not download for free.  However this week’s best read thing, “Interactional Patterns in Marital Success or Failure” is a chapter in Normal Family Processes, a book you’ll never own unless you take a class or a degree in family relationships or resiliency.  It’s an excellent book.  I know it’s an excellent book because not only was it my textbook for a class, but I’ve seen it on the desk of not one but two of my most respected professors in the past month.  (There is admittedly more than one book on each desk, but only one desk, so a limit to how many books there can be!)  I say all this to say that this blog entry is going to be more of a “Let me give you interesting information” article than a “This is why this article is interesting” article.

I want to tell you about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as outlined by the Gottman Relationship Laboratory.  These four horsemen are the signs that an apocalypse is probably coming sooner or later towards your marriage.  They are potential negative behaviors and argument characteristics that accurately predict divorce, and they are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

As Driver et al will tell you, everyone complains in an argument.  Complaining is common, and criticism is bound to happen.  But Criticism, as they mean it, “is more global and includes character attacks.”  When one partner describes a specific negative event, that’s a complaint.  Criticism is saying “You always do this.  You’re so _____.”  Criticism “escalates negativity and causes damage to the relationship over time.”

Contempt is more self-explanatory.  Laced with scorn and condescension, Driver et al say this is the most corrosive of the Horsemen to a relationship.  Looking down on your partner in an argument will ruin any chance of reconciliation in that argument.

Defensiveness is a natural reaction in an argument, but it typically comes in the form of a counter-attack, and escalates the fight.  “You did this!”  “Well you did this!’  “Well you’re sleeping on the couch!”  “Well I’m taking the dog!”  etc etc.  Defensiveness is deflecting blame instead of taking responsibility.  It might work in the short term, but it hurts the relationship in the long term.

Stonewalling.  Sometimes the end result of criticism and contempt.  If criticism is the stereotypical female horse(wo)man, then stonewalling is the typical man.  Stonewalling is when one partner actively ignores/shuts off the other partner during an argument.  They become overwhelmed and cease to respond or interact.  Driver states that “although the stonewaller appears to be hostile, his primary thoughts are usually self-protective.” 

If all of the horsemen are present, the researchers can apparently predict divorce in 94% of couples.  So if you see yourself displaying these tendencies in your arguments, you should take time to recognize the danger to your relationship, and openly and aggressively address the problem.

I’m not going to describe the entire article, which goes on to discuss different conflict styles of happy couples.  They’re not all the same, by the way.  Couples who fight and make up can be just as successful as couples who never fight.  But I wanted to share these insights, because I think every person, single or partnered, should examine their conflict style closely, and see which, if any, of the four horsemen they’re prone to displaying.  Nobody is perfect, and relationships can be hard work.  Articles like this give people the tools to identify areas in which they can improve.  Because people are totally capable of improving themselves.

Normal Family Processes is a big book discussing a variety of topics centering around “what is a normal family?”  What is a healthy family.  How do you measure if a family is healthy, or if a relationship is healthy?  What about all these newfangled alternative families with two daddies and such?  There’s a pretty good chance this book is in your local university library, so if you’re ever bored, you might at the very least check out the rest of this article, or look up more work by the Gottman Relationships Lab.

Jane Austen and Red W(h)ine

I will not trouble you, dear reader, with my week.  While harrowing in my head, to the untrained (objective) eye, the general impression is one of tediousness, inefficiency, and excessive duration.  It was the kind of week that called for Jane Austen and cheap fruity reds, the former being turned to whenever a free moment presented itself, and the latter alas being applied liberally only at the end of the day.

In the past week I sped through both Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice.  I’d never read Northanger, which was her first completed novel but only published posthumously.  To be frank, it is very silly.  In Austen’s defense- it’s supposed to be.  The lead is Catherine, a silly young girl with no more sense of people’s motives than my cat possesses, and all the characters she meets are caricatures, if you’re reading with your parody glasses on, or flat stereotypical nothings if you’re not.  I imagine that if you read Northanger at its time of publishing, it was incredibly amusing.  All of the gothic romances referenced in it are still in circulation today, and I mean to try one after I’ve finished Persuasion (my favorite Austen novel).  If you were an 18 year old girl in 1817 who read books like “The Mysteries of Udolpho” it was no doubt hilarious to read a novel about a girl who also reads The Mysteries of Udolpho, gets a little too into it, suspects her future father in law of murdering the relatives, and still gets to marry the gentleman with a fine living in the end.  However for me, in 2011, the Mysteries of Udolpho is a parody of itself, and requires no meta-novel to make commentary on its readers.

Pride and Prejudice, I must admit, was more enjoyable for me, although the two go well together.  There is more than a little of Catherine in Elizabeth Bennett, who shares some of her cluelessness towards the opposite sex.  I’m afraid in Austen novels that much of the time, heroines are doomed to be a bit clueless, because as this novel is based in drawing rooms and not battlefields, the plot obstacles must be made of deception, miscommunication, and misunderstanding.  We the readers are in love with Mr. Darcy in the first fifty pages, so why isn’t she?

Yes you should read the book instead of just watching miniseries. (And definitely watch the miniseries instead of the movie.) Yes, Colin Firth is adorable, and I completely recommend the BBC’s faithful adaptation, but you miss a lot of good girly cuddly mushy bits between Lizzy and Mr. D if you don’t read the book.

It’s an incredibly fun book.  The heroines are lovely and clever and kind and the heroes are tall and stoic and mysterious.  There are balls and dancing and long walks and longer letters and you’re happy when the ending is happy, even though you totally knew it was coming.

If you have any kind of e-reader, copies of Jane Austen novels are available to you for free/.99, and I recommend, nay, command, that you sit down with one and a glass of Woop-Woop, which is my new beverage of choice.  Yes it’s because it’s fun to say.

Charlie Wilson’s War

According to Amazon.com, the running time of the film Charlie Wilson’s War is 102 minutes.  The book, on the other hand, is 560 pages.  At the end of the movie, you will be charmed and amused; at the end of the book, you will know more about the CIA’s covert Afghan war.  You may or may not be charmed.

It will quickly become obvious to the reader that George Crile was quite in love with his subjects- Gust Avrakotos and Charlie Wilson.  Not a page goes by without an anecdote on Gust’s Greek love for revenge or Charlie’s adventures on a white horse.  Crile talks about how you would be charmed by them despite yourself, because that’s obviously what happened to Crile.  Whether I would be wooed by their brilliance and hutzpah or disgusted by their drinking and womanizing, I can’t say for certain.  I always figure men like that are much better on a page than across from me at the dinner table.

The book is entertaining and informative, but it’s only my best read of the week because everything else was Statistics, Resiliency Theory, or the Republican’s rather detailed plan to destroy America.  The book might easily have been a hundred pages shorter, and the ratio of personal backstory to actual plot was horribly unbalanced.  Like many of my friends trying to tell a story after a bottle of Jack, Crile is verbose when he ought to be brief, and pithy when the situation (for instance, the retreat of the Red Army) calls for florid descriptions and detail. 

And of course, as with anyone telling a story under the influence, you still wonder how true it all is.  Crile was a reporter with CBS for over thirty years.  He won a Peabody award, and judging by his Wikipedia profile, he sure as hell had more guts than I do.  He spent a lot of time trying to bring attention to international stories people in power wanted the public to ignore- South Africa, Rwanda, Haiti, Afghanistan.. the list goes on.  He also produced “Gay Power, Gay Politics” a “documentary” found guilty by the National News Council of distorting and manipulating news/reports and stereotyping and misrepresenting the gay community.  Nobody’s perfect I suppose.

I would recommend this book as a fun way to learn about the Afghan war while on a plane to France, which is where I read it.  It’s a book you can put down and then come back to, and one you don’t have to finish if you don’t feel like it.  It gives some insight into how congress worked in the 80s and still works now.  However.  If you’re just looking for a way to wile a couple hours away, I would be much more likely to suggest the movie.  And I cannot fucking stand Julia Roberts.