Category Archives: Mike’s Posts

Try Again

So I was reading this piece in the NYT: “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.”

I have some problems with its theory of mind:

Your brain engages in the same sort of prospection to provide its own instant answers, which come in the form of emotions. The main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgments, according to researchers in a new field called prospective psychology. Emotions enable you to empathize with others by predicting their reactions. Once you imagine how both you and your colleague will feel if you turn down his invitation, you intuitively know you’d better reply, “Sure, thanks.”

Ugh. I can see why this guy is all excited about this, but he’s missing some crucial ingredients. We may be planning creatures, true, and that is important, but our ‘plans’ are made up of present judgments that come very, very quickly, and the past is constantly bubbling up to influence those present judgments. To say we are prospective creatures is to oversimpify – rather, we are present creatures with complex pasts AND futures. Ask a victim of abuse or trauma whether or not they spent all their time thinking about the future, or whether someone from a poor background and low education (that pesky past) thinks about “the future” the same as someone from a middle-class background and decent education.

Emotions are not even remotely understood, but it’s a good starting point.

This article reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is that we are in the dark ages of understanding the brain. Let me give an example.

At one point in my research in grad school I was very interested in how people read. Not how to teach people how to read, but how reading worked in the brain. An analogy might be wanting to know how an internal combustion engine worked instead of wanting to know how to drive a car.

So I read a lot of reading psychology. I was massively disappointed. I discovered that no one in the field had more than a vague idea of how reading worked. The brain was effectively a black box to them – the input and output was known, but what happened between people’s ears – they didn’t have the foggiest. Lots of theories, no evidence. We are literally sentient beings with brains and we have little idea how our brains work, at all.

I have come to find that pretty much all research into the brain is at this state. We are not much beyond poking physical regions of the brain with fingers and electricity to discover what does what. So I look upon supposed new avenues as total shots in the dark. Again, this is the dark ages.

Ultimately I don’t see any major innovations in this area until we do the very-thinkable building of an artificial brain. THEN we will know how one works – or we won’t, because too much of what a brain does is emergent. Just wedding “emotions” onto a computer isn’t going to do it.

To leap into my field for a moment, rhetoric is largely a study of how decisions are made based not on ironclad logic, but on emotions.  When Mr. Spock says on Star Trek that “it is not logical,” he is mistaken – if he were really telling the truth, which Vulcans are supposed to, he would say, “it is not emotionally satisfying to me at the present moment.” That’s not nearly as quotable, of course, and pointing out that EVERY time Spock says he is being “logical,” he isn’t, would take me all day.

Suffice to say, it’s true we are emotional creatures, but our past influences said emotions and we also make WRONG decisions very often. Frankly, the emotions are not very good at making decisions, especially when the RIGHT answer is not blindingly obvious. Self-persuasion helps, but often turns into rationalization, like Spock and his supposed “logic” when all he really has is certain values.



The best PC games of all time, 2017

There are two rules for the following list, which are – multiple games in a series are collapsed into one entry, with one representative game examined. I also cut things off at 12 and didn’t rank them.

  • Ultima (Ultima V, the Ultima entry)
  • Thief (The Dark Project, the Looking Glass entry)
  • Deus Ex (the first one, the Ion entry)
  • Half-Life (HL2, the Valve entry)
  • Pirates! (The original, not the upgrade or the remake) – Serves as the Microprose entry.
  • Civilization (Civ II) – Serves as the second Microprose entry.
  • Homeworld (for the strategy people)
  • Baldur’s Gate (the Black Isle entry)
  • Fallout (the second Black Isle entry)
  • Batman (Arkham Knight, or any of the Arkham games,  the cross-platform entry)
  • Quest For Glory (the first one, the Sierra entry)
  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown (the tactical entry)
  • Dying Light (the zombie entry)

Randomness and Teaching

Well, Trump won, and I suppose I will comment on that at length at some point. But I want to discuss something else.

I was thinking this morning about the randomness inherent in making decisions. Think of a path that forks left or right with no clues as to what follows  – what makes you choose left or right? SOMETHING does. Back when I knew something about programming – 1990? – we would use random number seeds based on the system clock if we needed a semi-random number. I have to wonder if the circadian system offers the brain a similar out.

That (random?) thought said, I am a general fan of randomness when teaching. I don’t have a lot of formal structure, usually, other than a vague ‘we are going to discuss X,’ or ‘we are going to do this exercise together to master Y,’ or ‘we are going to play a game in order to learn Z’.  I leave the creation of teachable moments to chance; I figure the friction created by me, the students, and the material rubbing together is going to create sparks that I can then turn into a fire. Once I have a fire going, then the class takes on a life of its own and all I have to do is enjoy the heat.

I do prepare graduate courses differently than undergraduate ones, though. I waltz into undergraduate ones and lecture extemporaneously as know the material really well.  For graduate classes, even though I still know the material, I usually prepare a page or two of bullet points and questions that I want to hit. It’s more of an emergency blanket; if the class discussion slows or meanders, I have my page to lean on to restart things.

So I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I rely on a certain degree of unpredictability when teaching. I make a lot of teaching decisions on the fly and instinctively rather than planning them out. Planning is valuable, and I sometimes do a fair amount of it, but it’s become necessary for me over the years to react quickly to conditions in a class.

FYC is different, though (I mostly teach upper-division PW and rhetoric). FYC students need structure; my more freewheelin’ style doesn’t mesh well with freshmen that come to the course feeling lost technically, socially, and materially. They don’t do well with abstract thought or ethical dilemmas. They don’t necessarily know how to answer, or ask, good questions. They are not as comfortable with ambiguity as I am. So I have to adjust and break the course into discrete, predictable units. It doesn’t please my personality, but adaptability – even random – is the essence, I think, of decent teaching.


It’s 9:15 am on November the 8th. My prediction, based on my usual long-term sampling of newspapers, polls, and social media, is for Clinton.

I think the race is weird enough this year that taking a shot at the total electoral college vote is basically flipping a bunch of coins, so I won’t do so.

The Mind of the Bible-Believer

A really great book, though it suffers from 1) verbosity, and that 2) the idea that the gospels are mind-controlling is interesting, but not possible from what I understand of form-criticism, i.e. the gospel authors are largely independent. Although, in regards to 2), it might make our readings of Luke more fruitful if we consider the possibility that he is writing his gospel to obfuscate as much as to enlighten the gospels beforehand.

This book was written in the late ’80s by an Edmund D. Cohen. I would like to contact the author if possible by email, but email wasn’t a thing back then! I will see if I can find a postal address.

The Tweeting Styles of Trump and Clinton

I’m teaching a graduate course called Stylistics and Editing this semester, and I used Trump and Clinton’s twitter accounts as analysis fodder in the first two classes.

Trump’s tweets typically have a fixed style. Long sentence, short sentence, exclamation point. “Sad!” Most seem to be by his own hand, given their reactionary content, occasional use of ALL CAPS, and distinctive vocabulary. He uses graphics and video sparingly.

Clinton’s tweets are shorter, usually just one sentence, but they are always accompanied by a link to a graphic or video. Half are moderating utterances or secondhand quotations designed to make her look reasonable, and half are direct assaults on Trump. The chances of the bulk of the tweets being written by her, the class felt, were very small; they felt safe and vetted.

The larger point I was trying to make with these analyses is that style is, for the most part, highly detectable. At a glance, you can see who is who. Clinton’s team will almost never write a one-word sentence with an exclamation point, and Trump will rarely ever write anything simply stating his position, save for the very recent “Mexico will pay for the wall!”

a long time coming

I haven’t posted in awhile. I’ve been busy with vacations (to Tennessee and Massachusetts), going to RSA, raising our son, and a lot of background reading about the Japanese military in WWII, among other side projects.

What provokes me to pose today is the RNC, where Trump stands poised to seize the Republican nomination.

I have to say, this is a new low for the party.  Trump is odious. So is Pence. Neither is qualified to run a lemonade stand. And Trump beat out a dozen radical right-wingers to get here. Moderate Republicans are either dead or too scared to speak against him.

Trump/Pence appear to have the automatic 40% that any party nominees enjoy.  They will doubtlessly get a boost from the convention. Then it’s Clinton’s turn.

It seems like the stakes just get higher and higher every four years. Right now we’re looking at a man whose ego is the size of Mt. Everest – with the attention span of a gnat – who wants to have control of the nuclear football.  Unless your goal in this election is to start WWIII, there are only two reasonable, rational choices. Either sit out the election or vote Democrat.

So, Republicans, I suggest you stay home in November. I won’t ask you to vote for Hillary, but you could take a stance against feeding Trump’s ego. He’s not in this out of a sense of duty to the country. He’s in it out of narcissism, pure and simple. Hillary may not be the perfect candidate, but at least her moderate experience as SOS means she won’t fire off nukes for an ego boost.

Think about that. Temperment has always been a key factor in evaluating presidential candidates. Watch what Trump does when he is criticized.

Does he EVER admit fault? Of course not. He’s always right.

Does he respond civilly? Of course not. He goes ad hominem out of reflex. Anyone who speaks against him is a “loser.”

Does he show any evidence of being able to make complex decisions based on complex information with the aid of advisers? Hah. I listen to his speeches and I can’t even imagine him doing something thoughtful. He already has all the answers. Why bother consulting anyone?

As Clinton gears up for the general election, we’re going to see more and more of the populace become aware of these qualities, which are already in evidence, but not widespread knowledge.

Oh, yeah. Warren should be the VP pick. Clinton needs all the Sanders voters.