At Home

domabookstandFor the next few blog posts, I’m going to do something a little different from the usual. I plan to walk through Chekhov’s story “Home” (“Дома“), pointing out some details and favorite parts as I go along. In this story, a father (a prosecutor by profession) learns from the governess that his seven-year-old son, Seryozha, has been smoking in his study. He now has to take up the matter with the little boy, but how? For the first post, I will discuss the story from the beginning to the boy’s entrance (“Good evening, papa!”). Subsequent posts will progress through the story. I will announce the passages in advance.

cardinal-book-propThroughout this reading, I will use a book prop manufactured by my great-granduncle’s company, the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., once located on Kent Street in Brooklyn. They were best known for the AN-6530 goggles, which the U.S. Army and Navy flight crews used in World War II. But Charles Fischer (1876-1946) invented and patented a host of other things, including a timer (Pat. No. 2,417,641), a handle for pipe cleaners (Pat. No. 1,782,871), a boudoir lamp (Pat. No. 1,639,493), a rack for boots and shoes (Pat. No. 1,603,382), a take-up spring (Pat. No. 1,578,817), a telephone receiver (Pat. No. 1,526,666), a magnetic speedometer (Pat. No. 1,467,031), a display stand (Pat. No. 1,437,837), and a telephone stand (Pat. No. 1,371,747). (The links take you to the drawings.)

The book prop has some marvelous features; it rests on the leg and clasps onto the knee, so that you can do other things with your hands; it has an indentation for the book’s spine, and it clasps the pages from below or from the sides. I don’t see a Charles Fischer patent for this device, but his company definitely produced it, and it resembles his display stand in some ways.

Charles came to New York City around age 14, with his parents and seven siblings, from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). My great-grandfather Max was one of his younger brothers. They were Jewish, and they spoke Hungarian at home. In 1900 they lived at 346 East 3rd Street, and Charles worked as a toolmaker. A few years later, they moved to Brooklyn; from there they dispersed to the various boroughs. In 1906 Charles founded his company (where some family members, including Max, would be employed for many years to come). In 1933 he was one of the charter members of the Spring Manufacturers Association.) In 1944 the Knights of Columbus named him among “public-spirited citizens who are always in the fore in striving to make our community a finer and a better place in which to live.” He died in 1946.

It seems fitting to use the book prop for Chekhov’s story. I hope you enjoy reading along.

A Harvest of Revisable Phrases

If yesterday’s post on gratitude and loss seemed melancholic, well, it was; no apologies for that! Melancholy has a place in the world. It needs no epilogue. But in this case it has a reason, among several: I finished a full draft of the book on Monday. That should be cause for rejoicing, no? Yes, but not entirely. Now the revision begins, and time rattles off its syllables. I have given myself from now until the end of April to revise the whole book. I will also be taking the second semester of the advanced cantillation course.

Why only until April? I have been invited to take part in a two-week residency at a school in Istanbul in late May. (I will say more about this later; it is a great honor and opportunity.) I return in the beginning of June, a busy month, then go in July to teach at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers.

After that, who knows. Depending on how things play out, I may be teaching again or doing something else. In any case these five months are all I can count on for revision. (That isn’t much for twelve chapters!) But I will not begin until Sunday; in the meantime, happy Thanksgiving again! On that note, see the wonderful comments I have been receiving on a post I wrote four years ago (and revised over time) on one of Pushkin’s poems. The poem itself has bearing here: “Poet! do not cling to popular affection.”

Calendar Synaesthesia Hoax (I Wish)

hulaI wish it were a hoax, because then I could cachinnate without guilt. As it is, I still laugh, but with trouble in the belly. I am sorry about the gullibility in the world.

I learned about it from Cari Romm’s piece in New York Magazine. The title grabbed me: “There’s a Form of Synesthesia Where People Literally See Time in Front of Them.” I thought: That’s quite something, seeing time! I imagined some kind of visual perception of a non-spatial continuum of events. Some sort of visible yet invisible flow.

Instead, the “calendar synaesthete”–one subject in a study with eight controls–could picture the months of the year in geometrical arrangement. For this subject, they took a V shape;  for a subject of a previous experiment, the shape of a hula-hoop.

The authors call their paper (published in Neurocase) the first “clear unambiguous proof for the veracity and true perceptual nature” of calendar synaesthesia. Really? This got published in Neurocase and reported in New Scientist and New York Magazine?

Synaesthesia (also spelled “synesthesia”) is the name for what happens when an event that stimulates an experience in one sensory or cognitive pathway also stimulates it in a second (and unexpected) one. For instance, some synaesthetes see sounds, associate letters of the alphabet with specific colors, or smell numbers. The phenomenon exists. But does this particular study tell us anything about it?

This is one of several experiments that led to their “clear unambiguous proof” (the quote below is from the New Scientist article):

Next they asked ML and eight non-synaesthetes to name the months of the year backwards, skipping one or two months each time – a task most people find challenging. They figured that ML should be able to complete the task quicker than the others as she could read it from her calendar. Indeed, ML was much quicker at the task: when reciting every three months backwards, she took 1.88 seconds per month compared with 4.48 seconds in non-synaesthetes.

First of all, what does any of this have to do with visualizing time? From what I can tell, it’s about recalling and manipulating the sequence of months. There may or may not be a visual component in such calculation; either way, this experiment shows no synaesthesia per se. Second, who takes 4.48 seconds to recite every third month backwards? I can do it in under 2 seconds per month, without seeing any V shape, donut, hula-hoop, or Moebius strip.

Here’s what the paper says:

In control subjects, the average RT for reciting all of the months backward (n = 8) was 1.46 s/month. For skipping 1 or 2 months – the average was 2.54 and 4.48 s/month respectively. For ML, the average RT for the same 3 tasks were (A) 0.58 s/month, (B) 1.63 s/month, and (C) 1.88 s/month (see legends in Figure 2).

There were eight controls and one subject. Yes, just one. (Nor does the study explain how the subject and controls were selected.) Their study of  a second subject, HP, was incomplete: “We then studied the second subject – HP – but for practical reasons – were only able to conduct a subset of the experiments that we had performed on ML.” (She was able to recite the months as quickly as ML, though.)

To supplement the findings, perhaps, they mention EA, a subject from a previous study:

Indeed, on a previous occasion, we had informally tested a synesthete EA, who might have qualified as a higher calendar synesthete. Her calendar form was shaped like a hula-hoop (the most common manifestation of calendar forms) in the transverse plane in front of her chest. Unlike ML, though, when EA turned her head rightward or leftward, the calendar remained stuck to the body, suggesting that it was being computed in body-centered, rather than head (and eye) centered coordinates. The variation across calendar synesthetes, in this regard, reminds us that even in neurotypical brains there are probably multiple parallel representations of body in space that can be independently accessed depending on immediate task demands.

How did they get from the hula-hoop to “multiple parallel representations of body in space”–and from any of this to “clear unambiguous proof” of the existence of calendar synaesthesia?

I do not doubt that people can picture calendars; people can picture all sorts of things, and calendars are already visual representations of a model of time. I see no synaesthesia in the ability to picture something that is already a picture.

I recognize that this is the authors’ very point: that for this subject, the calendar  is something more than a strong mental picture. Yet the experiments do not prove this.

Note: I made some revisions and additions to this piece after posting it–and deleted one sentence that in retrospect seemed excessively sarcastic. Also see Shravan Vasishth’s comment and my response. I may have been too caustic overall–but I hold to my view that the researchers went too far in declaring “proof.” See my followup post.

Happiness Surveys Actually Increase Happiness

Happiness surveys are all the rage these days–but did you know that they can make you happier? Such is the finding of a research group at the Wisconsin Institute for Scientific and Demographic Organizational Measurement. The study, currently under peer review, stands out as the most robust and extensive investigation of the question to date.

Felix Laimingas, the lead researcher and a professor of brain eudaimonia, explained the methodology over sea salt toffee bars and tea. “We gave happiness surveys to a random sampling of 500 pedestrians in Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay,” he said. “For the control group, we approached random pedestrians and asked them, ‘How are you doing?'”

Those who completed the one-question survey (145 out of the original 500) gave their happiness level a mean rating of 7.2 out of 10 (95% CI: 6.8–7.6), whereas the control group reported a mean happiness level of just slightly over “okay,” which translates to 5.2 (95% CI: 4.9–5.5). The difference between the happiness levels of the survey takers and the control group is statistically significant at 20%.

What are the implications? “Well, we’ve got two things to think about,” said Laimingas. “First, since happiness surveys are actually making people happier, they might be affecting some of the research out there on happiness. That’s not a big concern, though, because really all they’re doing is lifting the  level across the board, leaving comparisons intact.” He paused as we each took another sea salt toffee bar, leaving none behind. “The other implication is even more uplifting. If we do lots more of this happiness survey type thing, we’ll make the world a better place. This is TED talk material.”

I expressed some doubt, since my own action research has found that healthy skepticism increases my sense of agency, which (up to a point) makes me happier. Laimingas smiled, being a happy person himself (with a nice personality type to boot). “I’m glad you questioned our findings,” he said. “That gives me a chance to prove them to you.” He offered me a survey and a pencil.

The survey consisted of two questions:

  1. How happy are you now, on a scale of 0 to 10?
  2. How happy are you now, on a scale of 0 to 10?

The first time, I answered “6”; I was fairly content with my life but didn’t want to be naive about the matter. The second time, I gave the same answer.

“Your happiness actually went up,” said Laimingas. “You see, we have to consider the law of repetitive decay. Research has shown that when survey respondents answer the same question twice in a row, they’re likely to be disillusioned or bored the second time. You stayed right at the same level, which means you counteracted the tendency to go down. This means that you were happier as a result of answering these questions.”

I was happy to hear this, since I initially worried (productively) that my duplicate numbers might come across as rude or flippant. “So you are happy with my answers?” I asked.

“Oh, very happy. Happier than ever. And validated.”

If there is bias in happiness, I thought, it’s good bias. Maybe we should have more happiness  studies. Our takeaway: The next time you verge on asking someone “How are you?” consider handing out a quick survey instead. It’s good for science and the world.

“The peacock spreads his fan”

I learned about Leonard Cohen’s death from Virgil Shaw, who mentioned it in between songs last night, during a superb show. I didn’t check my phone (and the news) until later, but there it was. Leonard Cohen is gone. Is that true? Is he gone? His music is playing in my mind, so he isn’t gone; the songs carry on in his place. What’s hitting me, though, is the knowledge  that his work is now sealed, that there will be no more new songs. Even more than that, it’s the knowledge that the person who wrote “Suzanne,” “Story of Isaac,” “Avalanche,” “The Stranger Song,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and “Hallelujah” is no longer here. Even there, it’s hard to pinpoint the sadness. He could have died earlier or later; maybe he could have lived until a hundred. At some point he would have had to go. Nor would I ever have met him, as far as I know, nor does that have anything to do with the tightness in my throat right now. What hurts is the loss of a fighter for language and song, who I trusted was somewhere breathing.

Note: I made minor revisions to this piece after posting it. It was hard to get the words right. I commented on the New York Times obituary as well; see the many beautiful comments  there.

Update: See Leon Wieseltier’s moving eulogy.

Can Happiness Be Rated?

pandaFirst, I’ll upend a possible misunderstanding: My point here is not that “so many things in life cannot be measured.” I agree with that statement but not with the abdication surrounding it. It is exquisitely difficult to measure certain things, such as happiness, but I see reason to peer into the difficulty. Through trying and failing to measure happiness, we can learn more about what it is.

Lately I have seen quite a few studies that include a happiness rating: the study I discussed here, a study that Drake Baer discussed just the other day, and a study that Andrew Gelman mentioned briefly. In all three, the respondents were asked to rate their happiness; in none of them was happiness defined.

Some people may equate happiness with pleasure, others with contentment, others with meaning. Some, when asked about their happiness level, will think of the moment; others, of the week; still others, of the longer term. The complexities continue; most of us are happier in some ways than in others, so how do we weigh the different parts? The weights could change even over the course of a day, depending on what comes into focus. Happiness changes in retrospect, too.

In addition, two people with similar “happiness levels” (that is, who would describe their pleasure, contentment, and meaningful pursuits similarly) might choose different happiness ratings. A person with an exuberant personality might choose a higher rating than someone more subdued, or vice versa.

Given the extraordinary complexity of measuring happiness, I distrust any study that measures it crudely and does not try to define it. I doubt that it can be defined or measured exactly; but a little more precision would be both helpful and interesting.

Incidentally, the search for precision can bridge the humanities and the sciences; while they will always have different methodologies (and even different questions), they have a common quest for the right words.

“Took the Northern Northern”

northern-northern

It has been an eventful past 24 hours. After finishing the take-home essay for my cantillation midterm, I went last night to hear the Dessoff Choirs perform a fantastic concert, at Alice Tully Hall, of Steven Stucky’s Take Him, Earth and Whispers, David Hurd’s In Honor of Martin (the world premiere of the orchestrated version), and Mozart’s Requiem.

In the morning I reviewed once more for the midterm, went and took it, walked over to Columbia Secondary School, talked for a while with the principal and a few others, came back home, and went to vote. Voted.

Later this week I will get to hear 20 Minute Loop play the record release show for their new album, Songs Praising the Mutant Race. The blog post title and photo are in honor of the phrase “took the Northern Northern” from their song “Hell in a Handbasket.”

I think about how a blog seems to give a sense of what a person is up to, but actually does not, or might not, more than fractionally. That got me to thinking about how my favorite literature tends to reveal how little we know about ourselves and others. There’s an illumination and humility in it. Such revelation can’t follow a formula; it takes you by surprise again and again, because of the way it stands out against the world, bursts from its frame, and lifts you up in its arms.

Beyond the Introvert-Extravert Divide

Over at New York Magazine, Drake Baer has been challenging the introvert-extravert dichotomy with vigor. “‘Introvert or Extrovert’ Is the Wrong Way to Define Your Identity,” declares one October article; an article from July has a similarly bold title (“Why Declaring ‘I’m an Introvert!’ Limits Your Life“). In both articles, and in some earlier pieces, Baer emphasizes the complexity of personality and the influence of occupation and context. I would go even farther than he does—for instance, I am skeptical of the Big Five theory of personality—but I applaud his combination of boldness and subtlety.

The introvert issue has been so overhyped that it swept other discussions into its hot air. It created a “groupthink” of its own. In 2012, a few months after Republic of Noise came out, I was interviewed for an Education Week article on introverts in the classroom (as was Susan Cain). When speaking with Sarah Sparks, I emphasized the distinction between solitude and introversion. Solitude is essential to education (in some way and in some form) no matter what your personality type. Instead of trying to make the classroom amenable to introverts (who are a highly diverse bunch, with a wide range of preferences and needs), pay attention to the subject matter. It just isn’t true that “introverts” prefer online discussion to class discussion. If you are approaching the subject keenly, your class discussion will not be dominated by table-thumping loudmouths anyway. People will have to think, because there will be something to think about. Of course you should pay attention to the students—but for their ideas and unique qualities, not their type.

But these points were left out of the article;  Sparks and other reporters continued to present issues in terms of introverts and extraverts. I have wondered why. It seems part of our country’s tendency toward polarization. It isn’t so far removed, in other words, from the climate of the election. It is all too easy to identify yourself with an oppressed group (in this case the introverts) and let someone else tell you who  you are and what you need. Someone shows up who seems to tell your story, explains how you and your kind have been mistreated, and promises a revolution.

But maybe this isn’t quite your story; maybe your personal oppression (to the extent that it exists) comes from many places, including the self; maybe liberation lies not in an uprising of your personality type but in good independent thought. I don’t mean that one should reject all alliances, but no alliance should demand a reduction of the mind or soul. There should be room to challenge not only the dominant train of thought but its underlying suppositions. There should be room to say, “this isn’t quite right.”

I see Baer’s articles as a promising step in that direction. A shout-out to Melissa Dahl too.

Note: I originally mistitled the first Baer article; the error is now fixed.

Friendship Undefined

cats-on-rug
What does it mean when, out of the seeming blue, an old forgotten topic (friendship) towers up and bares a crack?  Recently there has been article upon article about broken friendships, unreciprocated friendships, qualities conducive to friendship, and so on. Alexander Nehamas’s book On Friendship came out fairly recently. (I will read it; it looks worthwhile.) Could it be that friendship overall is in bad shape?

The articles point to some kind of friendship mismatch or misunderstanding. With the prevalence of Facebook, people aren’t sure how to define friendship or where to set its limits. It’s difficult to tell whether your friendships are nonexistent, circumstantial, or enduring, especially when so much communication takes place online and people are so frazzled and full of motion. To have good friendship, you need a place that isn’t shifting under your feet.

Also, despite all this friendship press, many people don’t want to take up the subject in the first place. If you talk about friendship, you get cast as touchy-feely. Yet friendship is one of the ancient subjects of poetry and philosophy, one of the oldest subjects in literature. Gilgamesh goes out beyond the land of the living to search for his friend who has died. “Ze dodi veze re’ei” (“This is my beloved and this is my friend”), says the Song of Songs. Aristotle wrote of friendship as reciprocal goodwill, where both people want what is good for the other. It must be based on virtue, he argues, because nothing else will sustain itself.

I am fortunate to have a few friends in my life—friends I have known for decades, and friends I made in the past few years. We may not see each other often, but the friendships exist in person and persist. I do not talk about them in detail online (or offline, for that matter), but at least I don’t worry about becoming friendless, even though it could happen to me as well as anyone.

I worry more about a general harshness in the air. People are quick to reject difference, quirkiness, and things they don’t understand. The topic of friendship needs attention—but without personality quizzes, confessional sessions, or anything reductive.

If there’s unspoken damage done by this election campaign, it’s the extreme glorification of celebrities, the turning of all heads toward these candidates and their every move. Yes, the election has this country on a precipice, but Clinton and Trump themselves are unknown to me, except as public figures and possible leaders, and merit my attention in that regard only.

A colleague friend reminded me today of the Enchiridion of Epictetus. I started rereading it.This was a favorite passage:

These reasonings are unconnected: “I am richer than you, therefore I am better”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better.” The connection is rather this: “I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours”; “I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours.” But you, after all, are neither property nor style.

Note: I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Facebook and Mortality: Final Post

Throughout the Facebook/mortality study published in PNAS (“Online Social Integration is Associated with Reduced Mortality Risk“), the researchers walk a fine line: they present the results as “observational” but also represent them in dramatic graphs and read unwarranted meaning into them. In other words, the patterns look much stronger in this paper than they probably are.

One of my chief complaints was that the researchers lumped all deaths together. In the last part of the study, they separate them out, so I’ll finish by looking at that. This is the “nitty-gritty” part of the study; the question is, does the “grit” actually get in the way?

They focus on death causes that are predicted relatively strongly by levels of social support: cancer, cardiovascular disease, drug overdose, and suicide. They write: “We present cause-specific estimates in order, from least expected to be predicted by social support to most expected.”

They claim to find that “the number of online friendships is not significantly related to decreased mortality due to cancer but is for cardiovascular disease (91%; 95% CI: 87–96%) and even more so for drug overdose (78%; 95% CI: 70–87%) and suicide (73%; 95% CI: 66–80%). Moreover, when we separately analyze initiated and accepted friendships, the results suggest that accepted friendships are driving the overall relationship, as we previously showed in Fig. 1.” Here are the graphs:

f3-medium

I see no reason to believe that “accepted friendships are driving the overall relationship.” Rather, the three friend-related activities (friend count, friendships initiated, and friendships accepted) are clearly interrelated. The difference in the relative mortality risk is not as great as the graph makes it seem; moreover, for drug overdose and suicide, there are all sorts of confounding factors that could affect the figures (including situations where their online access was restricted).

What about the two figures below? The most important point here is that the researchers distinguish, first between statuses posted and photos received, and then among photos/messages sent, photos/messages received, and photo tags received. The authors interpret the results:

Fig. 3C shows that sent text-based communications are generally unrelated to mortality risk for these causes, but received communications tend to predict higher risk of mortality due to cancer (108%; 95% CI: 104–112%) and lower risk due to drug overdose (88%; 95% CI: 80–96%) and suicide (82%; 95% CI: 74–90%). Once again, this association suggests that social media is being used by cancer victims to broadcast updates, which elicit received messages, and the contrast between cancer (a positive relationship) and other causes (a negative relationship) may help to explain the nonlinear relationship observed with all-cause mortality in Fig. 2. Meanwhile, received photo tags, our strongest indicator of real-world social activity, are strongly inversely associated with all types of mortality except those due to cancer, and the inverse relationship is strongest with drug overdose (70%; 95% CI: 64–77%) and suicide (69%; 95% CI: 63–76%).

I realized that the researchers controlled for age; even so, I imagine photo tags are more common among younger users (where the mortality risk is lower) than among older users (who may consider the practice tacky, or who may worry about privacy). The researchers state that “received photo tags, our strongest indicator of real-world social activity, are strongly inversely associated with all types of mortality except those due to cancer, and the inverse relationship is strongest with drug overdose.” But this is just one of many possible interpretations; moreover, it’s possible that we are looking at noise.

First, I question the assertion that received photo tags are “strongly inversely associated” with deaths due to cardiovascular disease; the association looks quite small in fact. As for suicide and drug overdose, once again, I suspect the presence of confounding factors; in addition, I wonder about the sample size and the distribution over age groups.

I wonder, also, whether received photo tags really indicate “real-world social activity” and whether there isn’t a severe mismatch between tagging and suicide demographics. Suicide rates are higher for older age groups (highest for 85 or older, and next-highest for 45-64)—and tagging (I suspect) much more common for younger age groups; so, even with controls for age, there could easily be some false correlations here. (Also, a lot of tagging is automated, and many people take time to remove their name from photos. The researchers didn’t consider deletions at all.)

Enough! I have had more than my fill of this study. Thanks to Shravan Vasishth for the link to two papers he co-wrote with Bruno Licenboim on statistical methods for linguistic research. They explain statistical issues clearly and sequentially, starting with hypothetical data and building up to analyses. Some of the errors they bring up seem especially pertinent here. For instance, on p. 29 of the first paper, they note that “multiple measures which are highly correlated … are routinely analyzed as if they were separate sources of information (von der Malsburg & Angele, 2015).”

A statistician would have been able to take one quick look at this study and see its flaws. I suspected some serious problems but had to take some time with the study to see what they were. This leads to the ethical question: is one obligated to read a study from start to finish before critiquing it? I would say no, as long as you are forthright about what you have and haven’t read, and as long as you focus on essentials, not trivial matters. Just as a poet or literary scholar can easily spot a bad poem (of a certain kind), someone with statistical knowledge and insight can tell immediately whether a study is flawed in particular ways. A promising study can take longer to assess.

On the other hand, it’s important to recognize what the researchers are trying to do. If their point is not to offer answers but rather to explore patterns, then one can read the study with appropriate caution and accept its limitations. Here it’s a mixture; the authors acknowledge the study’s “observational” and tentative nature but at the same time claim strong findings and back them up with questionable interpretations. It is up to the reader, then, to cast the study in appropriate doubt. I hope I have accomplished this here.

(For the four previous posts on this study, see here, here, here, and here. I made a minor correction and two additions to this piece after posting it.)