Friday, December 14, 2007

Meme in Bits and Pieces

I've been tagged by Liam, which means, I suppose, that I've caught the latest Meme going around. Since I'm still finishing up my work for the semester, I thought I'd wait a little bit before posting my contribution to this splendid piece of Internet nonsense, but I couldn't help myself. So, here is part of my promised participation in the 8 Meme:

8 Songs That Mean Something to Me:

"Regret," composed by Dave Brubeck, performed by Dave Brubeck and the London Symphony Orchestra, from the album Classical Brubeck. One of the most haunting pieces of music you'll ever hear.

"Fight the Fight," by Living Colour, from the album Time's Up, though I like the version on Live From CBGB even more.

"Sliding Down," composed by Edgar Meyer, performed by Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, and Mike Marshall, from the album Uncommon Ritual. The fusion of classical and folk genres has always produced interesting music, perhaps none more than this, another haunting piece of music.

"Easy/Lucky/Free," by Bright Eyes, from the album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. A stand-in for that whole album, really.

"Intervention," by the Arcade Fire, from the album Neon Bible. "Workin' for the church while your family dies," a little too close to home for me.

"Goodnight Elizabeth," by the Counting Crows, from the album Recovering the Satellites. Another psalm of lament. I'm seeing a theme here.

"Was," by Mose Allison, from the album My Backyard. Sometime his wit is vicious, as in the classic "Your Mind is On Vacation." But, sometimes instead of the mean Mose, we get the philosophic Mose. Here he employs his sharp rhetorical skills in a reflection on mortality. A sample: "When am turns to was and now is back when/ Will someone have moments like this/ Moments of unspoken bliss/ And will there be any heros or saints/ Or just a dark new age of complaints."

"Straight, No Chaser," by Thelonious Monk, from the album Straight, No Chaser. Monk could say more in a note than most cats could in their whole lives. 'Nuff said.


Since I'm not done I ain't taggin' no one, but...

I'd love to hear what Tom, Chappy (who introduced me to like half the stuff on this list, and a whole host of maybe even better stuff that somehow didn't make the cut), Brian, Troy, and anyone else might have to say about some of their favorite tunes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

IQ Takes a Knock

While my wife is the professional in psychology in our family, I've long had a keen interest in the intersections between psychology, philosophy, and theology. My fondness of such intersections probably accounts for my love of William James - who while known for his philosophic Pragmatism and for famous study of religious experiences, was trained in psychology and saw himself as first and foremost a scientist. But it has not yet steered me wrong.

As a nineteen year-old college flunk out, frustrated by the distance between my supposedly high IQ and my dismal academic record, I started looking for new ways to think about intelligence. The first two books I encountered did not disappoint. In Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman wrestled with the same issue that drove my teenage self crazy: why some conventionally intelligent people - many of whom are quite brilliant - can't seem to navigate life with much success. To put his finding crudely, he posited a new kind of intelligence, which he called (as you might guess from the title of the book in question) "emotional intelligence." This intelligence, EQ, exists alongside IQ, and can be an even better predictor of outcomes.

Reading his book I thought, That's what I'm missing! My cognitive skills were useless given my apparent deficiency in emotional intelligence and maturity. Whether or not it is in fact the case that there is a thing we can call "emotional intelligence," Goleman's work helped me see that this thing we call intellect, smarts, is not so simple as being able to perform well on a few academic tests. Rationality is quite useful, but it is by no means the only driving force of the mind.

The other book I picked up in my teenage quest to refine my understanding of intelligence in a way that would figure out what the hell was wrong with me was neurologist Antonio Damasio's Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. In it Damasio used neurology to combat the mind-body dualism of Western philosophy. He was also especially critical of the distinction we often make between reason on the one hand, and emotion on the other. While such a distinction can be quite useful - Goleman talks about "emotional highjackings," something I think we can all relate to - it is not so hard and fast as we would have it be. There is an intimate and physiological connection, Damasio notes, between what we call "emotion" and what we call "reason."

To highlight his point Damasio starts with the famous example of Phineus P. Gage, who as a twenty-five year old construction foreman in 1848, had a dramatic accident that fundamentally altered both his personality and his ability to think. An explosion shot an iron rod through his head. As Damasio notes, the rod "landed more than a hundred feet away, covered in blood and brains." But Gage lived. This fact made him a kind of modern marvel of his time, and so there was a great deal of research done on him.

While Gage was declared cured of all injuries less than two months after his accident, he was never the same man. And not just in terms of physical abilities. His fundamental personality was altered. Where before he had been ambitious and successful, after his accident Gage was rude and angry, apparently unable to regulate his behavior. Most distressingly, Damasio notes, Gage - who before had been an extraordinarily efficient worker, characterized by his excellent decision-making - simply could not make good decisions. Damasio writes:

Gage had once known all he needed to know about making choices conducive to his betterment. He had a sense of personal and social responsibility, reflected in the way he had secured advancement in his job, cared for the quality of his work, and attracted the admiration of employers and colleagues. He was well adapted in terms of social convention and appears to have been ethical in his dealings. After the accident, he no longer showed respect for social convention; ethics in the broad sense of the term were violated; the decisions he made did not take into account his best interest, and he was given to invent tales... There was no evidence of concern about his future, no sign of forethought.

Damasio uses the tale of Phineus Gage as an entry point for a study on the relationship between emotion, reason, and the physiology of our brains. He is especially concerned with what people like Gage, who have sustained injuries to specific parts of their brains, tell us about how those parts of the brain function - especially in terms of the relationship between emotion and reason. To sum up his arguments, he notes that both what we mean by reason and what we mean by emotion can be located in our brains, and that when parts of our brain are injured, or fail to function properly, that affects both our reasoning and our emotional life.

Perhaps the most powerful and informative case study in Descartes' Error is the case of "Elliot," a thirty-something who developed a brain tumor which required the removal of his frontal lobe. From that point on, Elliot had much in common with Phineus Gage. Most interestingly, while Elliot's basic cognitive functioning remained the same - he would have, for instance, not noticed a change in his IQ - he simply could not function as a human. He lacked any semblance of social skills, and often could not make the most basic decisions.

After building a cumulative case on the basis of stories like those of Phineus Gage and "Elliot," Damasio makes a profound claim about the way in which we reason: In most of the decisions that we make, both what we mean by "reason" and what we mean by "emotion" are engage. We navigate our daily lives not by reason or emotion, as though the two were opposed, but by the two of them working simultaneously, in concert. This challenges the way that most of us think about thinking. We (especially we pseudo-intellectual types in the Western world) often think of proper thinking as reason unclouded by emotion. But Damasio argues that such an image describes not a properly functioning thought-process, but rather total paralysis.

In seminary I encountered another way of thinking about intelligence, when I was forced to apply Howard Gardner's famous theory of Multiple Intelligences to teaching in a church setting. In a nutshell, Gardner - a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and at the Boston University School of Medicine - argues that there is no single thing called "intelligence." Rather, there are several different kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical (those two are what we general mean by intelligence), musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spacial, inter-personal, intra-personal, etc. (He is forever modifying his theory to account for new kinds of intelligence, as well as new ways of thinking about previously identified intelligences.)

In Gardner's thinking - and boy can I relate to this - a gifted mechanic is no less intelligent than, say a mathematician; they simply each are gifted in different ways. Lest you think this is some way of saying "everyone is special, so let's not hurt anyone's feelings by implying some may be more or less intelligent than others," Gardner does believe that we can to a certain extent quantify intelligence within these various categories. He just doesn't think that these modes of intelligence can reasonably be pitted against each other.

All of these positions, taken together with the thousand or so other new(ish) theories of intelligence, amount to a veritable assault on our assumed notion that there is a single quantifiable thing called "intelligence," which is the basic assumption behind the IQ. This matters in part because of the disturbing phenomena of scientific racism. For as long as there have been theories of race, there have been "scientists" who would use the tools of their day to demonstrate the innate genetic superiority of their kind of people, while reducing others to various kinds of brutes. IQ has been intimately involved in this effort to scientifically codify the intellectual superiority of some expressions of humanity, and the inferiority of others. But new research into the nature of IQ has shown that cultural differences on IQ tests are just that: cultural rathe than genetic.

I just read this article by Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker. A review of James Flynn's What Is Intelligence?, Gladwell explores Flynn's observations on the change in IQ scores across generations.He argues that IQ tests measure not how smart one is, but rather how modern. Here is a most interesting passage that amplifies what is at stake with that distinction:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Most Trivial Reader Contest Ever!

With a title like that you might be expecting some sort of witty trivia contest, but I'm not quite that clever. Instead I'd like to offer you a chance to do something that has been amusing me most of the day, distracting me from studying for finals and writing my last papers of the semester. It started with two words:

Projectile Dysfunction

Somehow those two words, put together, have been an endless source of inane amusement for me. Perhaps they will be for you, too.

The contest is this:


a.) Come up with a picture that would best make use of the caption "Projectile Dysfunction," and either email me the picture or leave a comment here describing it, or

b.) Write a brief story or joke featuring "projectile dysfunction" and either email it to me or leave it in the comments section.

The winner gets...

well... hopefully not projectile dysfunction.

The winner gets...

the mythic Dave Chapman award for creative use of the Internet!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An Open Letter to Sen. Hillary Clinton

Sen. Clinton,

First, please allow me to tell you how uplifting it is to see a woman mounting a serious campaign for the presidency less than a century after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. While the playing field is by no means level - especially in light of recent studies of attitudes concerning women in leadership - you are showing us all that women can accumulate the political, social, and economic power to seriously challenge the male-dominated nature of the political arena.

I think that you have been unfairly attacked in the past, made a target by an often misogynistic right wing for your refusal to act within the constraints generally placed on women in our country. Too often you have been derisively dismissed as "Billary," a product of your husband's undeniable political skills, as though you were not as much involved in shaping him as he has been in shaping you. The double-standards of our culture weigh heavily on you, as when you exhibit traits, such as cunning and ambition, that are often considered virtuous in men, you are condemned as a "bitch" by the gender police. That b-word, incidentally, should when applied to women jar our ears as much as a certain n-word does when applied to blacks. Both are verbal slaps that socially communicate not only hatred and derision, but, most importantly Get back in your place!

All of that said, I must confess that I have some serious concerns about you and your campaign for president.

First, while we both agree on the necessity of universal health care, I fear your plan to achieve it comes complete with corporate sponsorship. I know that you were burned the last time you expressed any sort of prophetic leadership on health care before, but that doesn't excuse your coming up with a plan that does more to line the pockets of an already-too-well-fed industry. I've never understood our irrational fear of socialized medicine.

While I think a great many goods emerge from a free (or, at least, relatively free) economic marketplace, that doesn't mean that all goods should be made subject to our insatiable desire for greater and greater profits. Further, I don't think that most Americans really believe this either. Despite the neo-conservative drive to privatize everything, we are still, by and large, willing to grant that our security should be provided by the public sector. We are still, by and large, willing to grant that our children should be educated in the public sector (though I'll grant that is contentious). And we are overwhelmingly inclined to let the public sector keep on handling our Social Security.

These are goods that most Americans agree have nothing to do with dispersing profits to shareholders. And, when it is placed this bluntly, I firmly believe that most Americans would also be willing to grant that their health would be best served by those whose only goal is to care for it, rather than by corporations that are first and foremost interested in profits. And, despite vast lobbying campaigns to the contrary, this is precisely what health insurance corporations are principally concerned with.

I don't need to cite statistics to you; you've been at this a lot longer than I have. [For such, readers of my blog should see this post.] You and I both know that universal single-payer health care would be considerably more efficient than the plan you're suggesting, in which private insurance is secured for each and every American (the health insurance industries most fantastic wet dream). You've seen the same numbers that I have, showing that while 4% of Medicare's costs are administrative, less than 2% of Canada's single-payer system are administrative, a whopping 30% of the average HMO's costs are administrative in nature. You just - like so many of your political peers - lack faith in the American people to come on board.

I am similarly concerned about your shifting position on Iraq. I won't mention your husband's ridiculous claim that he always opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While opposing requires of one a great deal more than just private disagreement, you can't be blamed for your husband any more than my wife can be blamed for me. I certainly wouldn't want her held accountable for every ridiculous thing I've said. No, even though I suspect he said that to lend you some credibility in the anti-war crowd, I'll let him stand alone on that one.

What concerns me isn't that your position on Iraq seems to have shifted. That, to me, is the sign of a health, evolving person, who adapts their stances when confronted with new data that makes the previous stance no longer tenable. Would that our current president demonstrate that trait from time to time. No, my concern is more in your unwillingness to admit that your authorization of this quagmire was a mistake.

I know that your first few years in the Senate were dark and difficult years. We were living under a cloud of fear. While the threat of terrorism did not begin with 9-11, the public's awareness of that threat by and large did. And that public awareness, coupled with the drums of war, cultivated a climate of fear, a climate in which it was difficult to give anything less than full-throated support of any military plan. We had been attacked, and public sentiment demanded that someone must pay. And, with the Bush administration's conflation of Iraq and the "War on Terror," it is easy to see how you could have justified voting with the overwhelming majority.

But, Senator, you were wrong. Your current stance says as much. But your mouth won't admit it, and that concerns me. I know that women are held to a different standard, especially on national defense. I know that your political enemies would have painted you with the broad brush of "weakness" if you hadn't voted for the war, and with that same brush if you now admitted the obvious, that your vote was an understandable mistake, and that you regret it. But your inability or unwillingness to admit this obvious mistake, even as you now attempt to court the anti-war vote, concerns me. Perhaps it reminds me too much of the current president, who as best as I can tell has never recognized a mistake.

Alas, in a culture in which the cosmetic trumps the substantive every time, the real reason why I'm writing you today has nothing to do with health care policy or war. It is regrettably cosmetic, more of a "process" concern than a "policy" one. As fired up as I am over health care and the war, I wouldn't have taken the time this morning to write you (even if you'll never see this) if I hadn't seen this, an apparently trivial thing which, in our culture of trivializing the monumental (and especially vice versa) somehow stands for me as a symbolic act, the significance of which I reserve the right to unpack later.

I saw that you attacked Sen. Barack Obama for claiming to have not planned to run for president. I'll admit that Obama's claim, while trivial, seems disingenuous. In our culture everyone is planning to run for president, aren't they? Some of the evidence you present is even a little bit compelling, though it is offered in support of the trivial (What, after all, is at stake in Sen. Obama's claim, or in your rebuttal to it?). But what has me concerned is the last piece of evidence you offer: that in Kindergarten he wrote an essay titled "I Want to Become President."

Please pardon me, as I'm new at this whole political thing, but what the hell does that have to do with anything?!? I think I wrote that same essay, though I can now honestly say that I have no intention of ever running for city council, much less president. The spotlight shines too brightly on you politicians. I'm sure under such a bright light I'd make more than a few public blunders. But, dragging up what someone's Kindergarten teacher remembers about their political ambition?!? This is what passes for a presidential campaign?!?

No wonder as a country we are getting turned off by politics. I hate to make you a post child for everything that's wrong with the political process right now, as there are many equally compelling candidates for that. But I'm concerned about you. Try to get some sleep. Quit sweating the small stuff, and all that. One day you may have a country to run. And, if you think this is stressful...