In This Grand Primordial Mess


Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.

Chicken Coop for the Egg-gineer’s Soul

These are my  former students; as for the chickens, I saw them when they were just hatched (and as they grew). What a beautiful project. If you wish to donate, go right ahead!

Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

Gradus ad Parnassum

gradusadparnassumI took this picture yesterday in Fort Tryon Park; it is one of my favorites. It made me think of a book I loved in childhood: The Study of Counterpoint, from Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. The book teaches you counterpoint through a dialogue between teacher and student. Step by step (with some leaps and longer views), you learn the principles and practices.

I am not especially systematic when it comes to learning new things or advancing my knowledge. I like to plunge in at a much-too-difficult level and figure things out. But even that requires a sequence; I find myself going as far back as necessary to basic concepts and then working toward the problem at hand. I enjoy finding out again and again that it can be done—with languages, music, mathematics, and even human conundrums.

Here is the beginning of the dialogue in The Study of Counterpoint:

       Josephus.— I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
       Aloysius.— You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
       Joseph.— Yes.
       Aloys.— But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor? You are indeed taking on yourself a heavy task, a burden greater than Aetna. If it is in any case most difficult to choose a life work—since upon the choice, whether it be right or wrong, will depend the good or bad fortune of the rest of one’s life—how much care and foresight must he who would enter upon this art employ before he dares to decide. For musicians and poets are born such. You must try to remember whether even in childhood you felt a strong natural inclination to this art and whether you were deeply moved by the beauty of concords.

Once Josephus convinces Aloysius, the instruction begins.

Today the idea of inborn talent is unpopular—but Aloysius’s point is not that talent rules over all, but rather that the hard work of music requires great and strong desire. It can’t be a passing whim or a light interest.

On the other hand, once you have committed to the ascent, all you have to do is ascend, step by step, over many years. It doesn’t matter if sometimes you rush ahead and then backtrack, or pause for a long time at a given level; even then, you lead your life on the stairs.

Literature Conference in DC!

cuaOnce upon a time, I would not have ended such a heading with an exclamation point. I was weary and wary of literature conferences that focused on newfangled theories and sidestepped the literature. Even at the best conferences, this happened a lot, or so it seemed to me.

I remember listening to someone apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” to Anton Chekhov’s work. There didn’t seem to be much Chekhov there, or even much Bakhtin.  The speaker’s voice would rise in pitch on the last syllable of “khronotop” (Russian). After a while,  all I could hear was “khronoTOP, khronoTOP, khronoTOP.” I held myself together, but as soon as the session was over, I rushed out of the hall and burst out laughing. (I admire Bakhtin but am sometimes giggly about dogmatic Bakhtinians. I have a Bakhtinian parody published on Pindeldyboz.)

Anyway, this conference is about literature. It’s the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), to be held from October 27-30 at the Catholic University of America. Panel and seminar topics include Milton, Dante and Augustine, humor, poetry translation, Irish poetry, American literature across borders, and David Bromwich’s much-anticipated keynote address, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” There will be a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren and Brad Leithauser, a musical performance, and much more.

I will be presenting two papers, reading a poem or two, and leading a seminar (in which I will present a third paper). One paper is on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” another on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s poem “Pestel Street,” and a third on Julio Cortázar’s story “End of the Game.” The seminar, “‘You Must Change Your Life’: The Gesture of Opening in Literature,” features papers by E. Thomas Finan (on Woolf), Ann Marie Klein (on the Iliad), William Waters (on Rilke), and myself.

This should be a great four days. Registration is still open; for details, see the ALSCW website.

School Visit

rehearsalYesterday afternoon I stopped by Columbia Secondary School, where I taught and advised from 2011 until last June. I stayed for a few hours, talked with many people, and dropped by a vocal rehearsal of In the Heights (pictured here). I had a chance to hear about philosophy classes, the musical, students’ college applications, and much more. I miss the school but do not regret leaving to write my book; so far it has been one of my best years. There was something moving, though, about seeing my former students in their senior year (and some in their sophomore and seventh-grade years), arrayed with new choices, ideas, and dilemmas.

I spoke with colleagues about their philosophy classes and heard about the little changes they have made to the courses. That’s the great thing about leaving a school or other place: not only does life go on without  you, but it takes new and interesting forms. It would have done so anyway, but my absence catapults things a bit, I think. The changes are subtle and make complete sense; as I listened to my colleagues, I thought, “But of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” But that’s the point: I didn’t, and they did.

There is a paradox of home: in some cases, when you leave it, you become more part of it, as though the absence were a kind of dwelling.

What Does “Predict” Mean in Research?

In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy says,

Nalini Ambady, a researcher at Tufts University, shows that when people watch 30-second soundless clips of real physician-patient interactions, their judgments of the physician’s niceness predict whether or not that physician will be sued.

This is quoted all over the place, yet I have been unable to track down the study. Maybe it is unpublished or in press, or maybe it is published under a title that doesn’t mention physicians or videos.

In the meantime, I wonder whether Cuddy might have conflated two separate studies by Ambady: one of surgeons’ tone of voice (2002), and another of soundless clips of teachers (1993).

But my greater concern is with the word “predict.” As Cuddy puts it, the “judgments of a physicians’ niceness” actually predict whether or not that same physician will be sued in the future. To determine this, a researcher would have to follow the physicians over the long term and compare their subsequent lawsuit patterns (if any) to the initial ratings.

That would be terrifically difficult to accomplish. First, doctors with malpractice litigation histories are a small percentage of the whole, so the sample size would be tiny. Second, how long do you wait for a doctor to be sued? Two years? Five? Ten? Indefinitely?

Instead, I suspect the study followed a procedure similar to that of “Surgeons’ Tone of Voice.” (If I find out I am wrong, I will post a correction.) That is, the ratings of the videos were related to doctors’ existing lawsuit history. If there was any prediction, it was retrospective; as the authors state in the surgeon study, “Controlling for content, ratings of higher dominance and lower concern/anxiety in their voice tones significantly identified surgeons with previous claims compared with those who had no claims” (emphasis mine).

Why does this matter? There’s a big difference between predicting past and future events. People are easily dazzled by the idea that a thirty-second video clip (or sound clip, or whatever it may be) can predict a future lawsuit. The idea that it might predict a person’s existing history is perhaps interesting (if it holds up under scrutiny) but less dazzling.

When it comes to doctors, I imagine those with a lawsuit history might be a little grumpier than the others. I can also see how tone of voice could affect patients’ sense of trust and comfort. But I know of no study that demonstrates that ratings of soundless video clips of physicians predict whether they will one day be sued.

To avoid turning scientific research into a magic show, use the word “predict” carefully and precisely. Also, give a little more detail when referring to research, so that those interested can look up the study in question.

Update: I just learned that Ambady died in 2013. See the comments below. Thanks to Shravan Vasishth for the information.

Another update: Thanks to Martha Smith for explaining various  kinds of “prediction” in statistics. (See here and here.)

Time and Happiness Again

What do people want: more money or more time? Who is happier: those who want money, or those who want time? Do these questions mean the same things to different people? Do they mean the same thing to the same person at different times? Do we know what we’re doing when we rate our own happiness?

A few weeks ago I commented on a study by Hal E. Hershfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea, “People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier” (Social Psychological and Personality Science, vol. 7, no. 7 [2016], 697-706; see also the authors’ NYT article). I saw possible problems with it but did not have time to read it closely. My criticism was a bit caustic and uninformed; I ended up disliking and deleting the post. I regret the tone but not the critical impulse.

Now looking at the actual study again, I find it both stronger and weaker than I previously thought.

It is stronger in its versatility. The authors considered many possibilities; they were continually revising and refining their hypotheses and tests.

But that’s also a problem. The paper’s seven studies go in somewhat different directions; in my reading, they don’t point together to a conclusion.

Here they are:

Study 1a: 1,301 participants (1,226 in the final sample) were recruited through Mechanical Turk and asked about their preference for time or money. They were also asked to rate their happiness and life satisfaction. The order of these questions was balanced among the participants (I missed this point the first time around).

More people chose money than time, but those who chose time reported greater happiness than those who chose money. The difference does not seem great to me, regardless of statistical significance (M = 4.65, SD = 1.32 vs. M = 4.18, SD = 1.38), but I may be wrong here.

Study 1b: The authors do not describe this in detail, but they claim to have replicated the results of 1a while controlling for materialism. Participants (N = 1,021) were again recruited through Mechanical Turk.

Study 2: This time, 535 participants were recruited in the train station of a major East Coast city and offered a Granola bar to complete the survey. 429 actually did complete it. They reported substantially higher income than the participants in 1a and 1b; also, a majority (55%) chose time over money, unlike the MTurk participants, who tended to choose money over time. (Did the train station setting affect this in any way, I wonder?) Those who chose time were again happier, by their own rating, than those who chose money (M = 5.28, SD = 0.93 vs. M = 4.91, SD = 1.10).

Study 3a: This time, the researchers sought to find out why people preferred what they did.  So they recruited participants through  MTurk, asked them which they preferred (time or money), asked them to explain why, and then asked  them to rate their happiness. This time, the order of the questions was fixed.  They saw a split between using the resource to cover needs and using it to cover wants, as well as a split between using the resource for others and using it for  oneself. Something curious appears here: participants indicated whether they wanted more time in their days or in their lives. While the desire for more time (generally) correlated with happiness, the desire for more time in one’s day did not, nor did the desire for more time in one’s life. I wonder what this means.

Study 3b: This time, 1,000 participants were recruited through Qualtrics for a nationally representative sample. 943 ended up participating. As in most of the previous studies, the majority indicated a preference for more money over more time, but those who chose time rated themselves as happier. In addition, the ones who indicated that they  would spend the resource on wants were happier , by their own rating, than those who said they would spend it on needs; those who said they would spend it on others were happier than those who said they would spend it on themselves. There were some additional findings. (One interesting detail: The Qualtrics participants were on average 15-2o years older than the MTurk and train station participants; also, a much lower percentage were employed.)

Study 4a: This was the first of two manipulation checks. Participants were recruited through MTurk and assigned randomly to one of three conditions: a “wanting time” condition, in which they were instructed to write about why they wanted more time, a “wanting money” condition (likewise with a writing task), and a control condition, for which they had to write down 10 facts. Then they were asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were to indicate which they would rather have, more time or more money.

Those in the “want time” condition (randomly assigned) tended to indicate a preference for more time;  those in the “want money” condition, for more money. The difference in happiness was marginal across the groups, but those in the “want time” condition were slightly happier by their own rating than those in the “want money” condition.

Study 4b: This was the last of the studies and the second manipulation check. This time, participants (again recruited through MTurk) were assigned randomly to a happy condition (instructed to write about why they were happy), an unhappy condition (instructed to write about why they were unhappy), and a control condition (without a writing task). They were then asked to rate their happiness. Finally, they were asked questions about their resource preference. Those in the happy condition reported greater happiness (and a greater preference for time) than those in the unhappy condition.

There are some details I have left out for brevity’s sake:  for instance, the researchers included some questions about subjective and objective income and controlled for these.  But this is the gist.

Now for some thoughts:

First of all, these seem like pre-study experiments rather than complete studies, in that they deal with different populations, questions, and methodologies. It is good that the researchers were refining their questions and analyses along the way, but in the process they may have come up with explanations that they did not rigorously test. For instance, the relation between an emphasis on wants (rather than needs) and happiness seems hypothetical, even if it makes intuitive sense. There’s a flipside: people can drive themselves into a tizzy by thinking about things they want but don’t have.

Second—and this concerns me more—studies 4a and 4b suggest that participants’ preferences and happiness ratings can be manipulated by something as simple as a writing task. It’s possible that most people want more money and more time; what they think they want at a given moment may have a lot to do with what’s going on around them.

Also, I suspect that the MTurk participants, especially those completing surveys for the money, might be a financially stressed bunch. That could influence the findings considerably.

In addition, money and time are not easily separable. That is my greatest qualm. I wonder how many participants thought: “Well, I’d like to have both, but I think the money would allow me to buy more time, so I’ll choose money.”

Who, then, would choose time? Maybe people who have something important in their lives. People may desire money for all sorts of things—leisure, power, luxury, relief from debt, etc.—but those who wish for more time probably have something in the works that they enjoy or value. That in itself could explain why they rate their happiness a little higher than the others do.

But then, how accurate is my assessment of my happiness? How accurate is it ever? It can fluctuate throughout the day;  moreover, it can grow (or shrink) in retrospect. Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Virgil, Aeneid); in the translation of Robert Fagles, “A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.”

Beyond a Dream of Uncertainty

A few years ago, I wrote of a dream of uncertainty. Today I second this dream but also want something beyond it.

We live in a culture of takeaways. The quick “apply it right now” answer takes precedence over complications and open questions. So-called “scientific findings” (as presented on TED and elsewhere) are often tenuous, as the power pose example suggests. Science here is not at fault; the problem lies in the market for quick solutions (and everything feeding that market, from a gullible audience to an overhyped study).

Most of the time, both science and life  take time to figure out. Most of the time, any understanding, any progress, requires grappling with errors over many years.

On Andrew Gelman’s blog, Shravan Vasishth posted a terrific comment (worth reading in full) that concludes:

So, when I give my Ted talk, which I guess is imminent, I will deliver the following life-hacks:

1. If you want big changes in your life, you have to work really, really hard to make them happen, and remember you may fail so always have a plan B.
2. It’s all about the content, and it’s all about the preparation. Presence and charisma are nice to have, and by all means cultivate them, but remember that without content and real knowledge and understanding, these are just empty envelopes that may some fool people but won’t make you and better than you are now.

There was a reason that Zed Shaw wrote Learn Python the Hard Way and Learn C the Hard Way books. There is no easy way.

In this spirit, I continue to dream but do not only dream. I want a society that recognizes substance, that does not fall so easily for bad science. Along with that, I want more kindness, more willingness to see the good in others (while also engaging with them in vigorous debate). But to help bring that about, I need to continue my own studies, pushing up against my own challenges and errors. So let this be a year of study, challenge, substance, and goodwill.

Kagan’s Longitudinal Study Is Not About Introverts

I have been skeptical of assertions that Jerome Kagan’s longitudinal study, begun in 1989, demonstrates that high-reactive infants turn into introverts, and low-reactive infants into extraverts. I purchased Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman’s book (The Long Shadow of Temperament) to find out. It turns out that it isn’t about introverts and extraverts, nor does it make any claims about them!

The study examines the relation between levels of reactivity in infancy (that is, reactivity to unfamiliar visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli) and subsequent levels of inhibition. Inhibition and introversion are not the same. There is some overlap between them, but one cannot draw conclusions about introverts from a study of inhibition.

Five hundred four-month-old infants were tested for their reactions to stimuli. Of the 237 children who returned for a follow-up study at age 11, only 33 percent of the former high- and low-reactives showed a temperament consistent with their infant behavior (Kagan and Snidman, p. 19). For the purposes of the study, these results are interesting; they do suggest a relation between infant reactivity and later temperament. Still, three points stand out: (a) first, while the study considers all levels of reactivity, it focuses on the high- and low-reactive infants; (b) most of the high- and low-reactive infants under study did not retain the expected behavioral profile at age 11; and (c) the profile of inhibition does not match, point by point, with profiles of introversion and extraversion. Thus any conclusions about introverts and extraverts are incorrect and unwarranted.

I imagine Kagan and Snidman would agree. They take pains to dispel any simplistic conclusions about the predictability of adolescent and adult temperament; in addition, they distinguish between inhibition and introversion. They note on p. 218 that “Carl Jung’s descriptions of the introvert and extrovert, written over 75 years ago, apply with uncanny accuracy to a proportion of our high- and low-reactive adolescents.” They do not specify the proportion, but the very statement suggests a distinction between high-reactivity and introversion.

Nonetheless, people continually cite the study as evidence that high-reactive babies turn into introverts.

Susan Cain states in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, p. 99, “For one of those studies, launched in 1989 and still ongoing, Professor Kagan and his team gathered five hundred four-month-old infants in his Laboratory for Child Development at Harvard, predicting they’d be able to tell, on the strength of a forty-five-minute evaluation, which babies were more likely to turn into introverts or extroverts.”

No, that was not the goal of the study. But that did seem to be her takeaway; in an interview with NPR, she stated that introverts and extraverts have “literally, different nervous systems.” Whether she was referring to Kagan’s study or something else, the statement needs clarification.

Others have seized on the takeaway and taken it even farther. In an opinion piece on PsychCentral, Neil Thompson claims that “Kagan found that those who reacted strongly to the stimuli were introverts, exhibiting serious and careful personalities at each age. The children with minimal reaction to the stimuli were confident and relaxed; they were extroverts (Kagan and Snidman, 2004).” It doesn’t seem that Thompson looked at the book. Moreover, he is equating introversion with inhibition.

When discussing scientific findings on introversion and extraversion, it is essential to define terms clearly, interpret the studies accurately, and apply them carefully to the topic of discussion. (I don’t mean one should be “inhibited” in this regard; one probably needs a mix of intellectual caution and boldness.)

Kagan’s study says nothing about whether infants’ reaction to stimuli predicts their later introversion or extraversion.


Note: I added a little to this piece after posting it.