I had a very curious experience recently. I discovered that I know what it’s like to be insane. No, save the obvious jokes; this is interesting.
This came about because I read a magazine article somewhere which I cannot now identify – recent, online, a relatively prestigious publication with a tradition of think pieces – about patterns in delusional schizophrenia. [UPDATE: the article was How reality caught up with paranoid delusions.] The thesis of the article was simple: though the content of schizophrenic delusions changes wildly in different cultural contexts, there’s an underlying motivation for them that never varies and produces a fundamental sameness.
In Bradley Manning Is Not a Woman, Kevin Willamson makes a case that feeling like a transsexual – that is, that one is either a man in the body of a woman or vice-versa – should be regarded as a mental illness to be treated by therapy rather than with sex-reassignment surgery.
The article surprised me by presenting a coherent case for this position that I cannot dismiss as garden-variety social-conservative chuntering. I found the parallel with what Willamson calls BIID particularly troubling. If we treat people who desire to electively amputate their own arms and legs as mentally ill, why do we judge people who want to amputate the genitals they were born with any differently? What makes one an illness and the other a lifestyle choice?
I’ve been writing about race and politics a lot recently. Now I’m going to reveal the reason: in the relatively recent past I had a very disturbing, novel, and unwelcome educational experience. For the first time in the fifty-five years of my life I found out what it was like to feel racist, from the inside.
I think I now understand the pathology behind racism better than I did before, and have some ideas about what is required to prevent and cure it. And no, my prescription won’t be any of the idiotic nostrums normally peddled by self-described “anti-racists”; in fact what I have to say is likely to offend most of them – which I don’t mind a bit.
If you read any amount of history, you will discover that people of various times and places have matter-of-factly believed things that today we find incredible (in the original sense of “not credible”). I have found, however, that one of the most interesting questions one can ask is “What if it really was like that?”
That is, what if our ancestors weren’t entirely lying or fantasizing when they believed in…say…the existence of vampires? If you’re willing to ask this question with an open mind, you might discover that there is a rare genetic defect called “erythropoietic porphyrinuria” that can mimic some of the classical stigmata of vampirism. Victims’ gums may be drawn back on the teeth, making said teeth appear fanglike; they are likely to be photophobic, shunning bright light; and, being anemic, they may develop a craving for blood…
A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me how he could become more charismatic.
Because the term “charismatic” has unhelpful religious connotations, let’s begin by being clear what he was actually asking. A person is “charismatic” when he or she has the ability to communicate a vision to others in a way that makes them sign up for making it real. Sometimes the vision is large (“Change the world!”) sometimes it is relatively small (“Become as cool as me!”).
My friend asked me how he could become more charismatic because he has seen me do the charisma thing a lot. This relates to my previous blogging on practical prophecy. A prophet has to be charismatic, it’s a requirement to get people to actually move.
Before he asked me about it, I would not have thought charisma was something that could be explained in detail. But questions properly posed sometimes elicit knowledge the person answering was not consciously aware of holding. That happened in this case; I found myself explaining four modes of charisma.
Here is what I told him.
You bait a trap for a mouse with tasty food. How do you bait a soul-trap for people too smart to fall for conventional religion? With half-truths, of course.
I bailed out of an attempt to induct me into a cult tonight. The cult is called Landmark Forum or Landmark Education, and is descended from est, the Erhard Seminars Training. The induction attempt was mediated by a friend of mine who shall remain nameless. He has attended several Landmark events, praises the program to the skies, and probably does not realize even now that he has begun to exhibit classic cult-follower symptoms (albeit so far only in a quite a mild form – trying as hard as he did to to recruit me is the main one so far).
“But Eric. How did you know it was a cult?”
Oh, I dunno. Maybe it was all the shiny happy Stepford people with the huge smiles and the nameplates and the identical slightly glassy-eyed affect greeting us several times on the way to the auditorium. Maybe it was the folksy presenter with the vaguely Southern accent spewing pseudo-profundities about “living into your future” and “you will get Nothing from this training” (yes, you could hear the capital N). Maybe it was the parade of people telling stories about how broken they were until they found Landmark.
The New York Times is carrying an unusually in-depth story “What Happened to the Girls in Leroy? on an epidemic of twitching, stuttering, and tics among the high-school girls of a small town in upstate New York.
The reporter didn’t go there, but I couldn’t help noticing strong parallels to what we know about the run-up to the Salem witch trials. The symptoms reported from LeRoy are very like the “sickness of astonishment” which, in the belief context of Puritan Massachusetts in the 1690s, led to accusations of witchcraft and the torture and hanging of twenty people.
Today’s verdict on the epidemic in LeRoy matches what historians generally believe about the causes of the Salem witch trials. Mass hysteria – or, in more modern clinical language, an epidemic of “conversion disorder” in which psychological stressors turn into physical symptoms through unconscious neurological mechanisms that are not yet well understood.
What is yet more interesting, but not as closely examined by the reporter as it should have been, is the secondary illness the girls induced in the community around them. Parents reaching for explanations in Salem in 1692, living within a strongly religious world-view, seized on Satan and hostile witchcraft to explain the twitching, stuttering, and tics. The parents of Leroy, in a more secular world, instantly invented an equally unfalsifiable explanation – one which tells us a great deal about the native insanities of our own time.
Yes, it’s 2012, and trace chemical pollutants have become the new witchcraft.
There I was, within earshot of the smoker’s bench outside the front entrance of the hotel hosting the World Boardgaming Championships, when I overheard the word “Android” from the three college students sitting on and around it, who I mentally tagged the Guy, the Gamer-Girl, and the Hottie. I moved a bit closer, to polite conversational distance for a stranger, and when they noticed me asked if they were talking about smartphones.
One of them (I think Gamer-Girl) said “Yes” and within about ten seconds I learned that they all had Androids and were huge fans, and had been discussing apps and fun things to do with the device. I smiled and told them I’d written some of the code in their phones.
The Hottie, a slender but pleasantly curved redhead in a tight black dress and fishnets, sat up a bit straighter and asked me what parts I’d written. I settled as usual for explaining that I wrote significant pieces of the code Android uses to throw image bits on its display. The hottie did a silent “Oooh!” and gave me dilated pupils and a flash of rather nice cleavage.
So yes, geeky guys, Android development can pull hot chicks. Well, it was either that or my rugged masculine charm; you get to choose your theory.
I had to run off to lunch, but I did learn one other interesting thing during this interlude. When I said that I was pleased that Android is attracting such loyalty from people who aren’t techies, they assured me that all their friends either have Androids or are planning to get them.
This being WBC, my sample was probably a bit above average in IQ and likely to lean towards early adoption. Still, it makes me suspect the iPhone is losing its grip on one of its core markets.
There’s been some discussion in response to my post on A natural contemplates game on the meaning of the term “alpha male” as it applies to humans. In comments, I had this to say as a definition:
As I use “alpha”, it simply means someone who is equipped for leadership roles by psychology and temperament. You can tell you are one if your experience of life frequently includes being sucked into leadership vacuums. It’s not about having some sort of dark desire to dominate people, though of course there’s a subset of alphas that has that.
In the PUA context, “alpha” has the additional overlapping meaning of someone who has high hypergamic value to women. These two traits tend to be correlated and to reinforce each other.
I also noted this:
I don’t really know what makes alphas; I wasn’t always one myself, formerly having been what another commenter describes as a sigma [strong loner type, resistant to being in hierarchies]. In fact, for personal values reasons I denied to myself that I was an alpha until long after a third-party observer would have said so, facing the reality only when my pattern of constantly being sucked into leadership vacuums became undeniable.
I will further note that alphaness is not altogether a happy trait to have. The getting more sex part is nice, but the constant “somebody has to do it” presented by the leadership vacuums around you can be a serious pain in the ass. Especially if, like me, you have values conflicts about being an authority figure.
..there was never a lot of “reaching out” involved on my part. The damn leadership roles reached out and grabbed me. Once I realized I was stuck with them, I just tried to handle the job as competently as I could.
I’m not sure what else to tell you, except that I still think people who crave leadership roles are not to be trusted. The reason I denied I was an alpha for a long time is that I had some confusion in my head between the sort of person who wants to run things and the kind of person who can’t help doing it.
Now I will tell a story about one of the incidents that forced me to face my inner alpha.
I’m in the process of editing a document for a technical project that is intended to be an introduction for newbies to certain fairly complex issues. While requesting feedback on the project mailing list, I realized that I had accidentally revealed a major secret of really top-grade writing, exactly the sort of thing that put The Cathedral and the Bazaar on the New York Times best-seller list.
I see no reason not to share it with my readers. So here is the relevant part of my request for feedback:
Many primitive societies believe that maleficient spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes – cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficient human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.
A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers – but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” – you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.
English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.
There’s a Zen maxim that commands this: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”
There are several closely related interpretations of this maxim in Buddhist tradition. The most obvious one is that worship of the Buddha interferes with comprehending what he actually said – that religious fetishization is the enemy of enlightenment.
While I completely agree with this interpretation, I’m writing to argue for a more subtle and epistemological one. I interpret Zen Buddhism as a set of practices for not tripping over your own mind – avoiding our tendency to bin experiences into categories so swiftly and completely that we stop actually paying attention to them, not becoming imprisoned by fixed beliefs, not mistaking maps for territories, always remaining attentive to what actually is. Perhaps the most elegant expression of this interpretation is this koan setting forth the problem: “The mind is like a dog. His master points at the moon, but he barks at the hand.”
In this sense, Zen is discipline that assists instrumental rationalism by teaching important forms of self-monitoring and mental hygiene – in effect very similar to General Semantics.
In this interpretation of Zen, “killing the Buddha” can be taken to stand for a very specific practice or mental habit. Here’s how it works:
Over the years I’ve written at least three expositions of the hacker mindset that use the form of mystical poetry or teaching riddles. Probably the best known of these nowadays is The Unix Koans of Master Foo (2003), but there has also been The Loginataka (1992, 2010) and the short Zen poem I included in How To Become A Hacker.
One of the regulars at my Friday gaming group is a Greek Orthodox priest, but an educated and broadminded one with whom I get along surprisingly well considering my general opinion of Christianity. A chance remark he made one night caused me to recite at him the line from the 2010 portion of the Loginataka that goes “The way of the hacker is a posture of mind”, and then when he looked interested the whole four stanzas.
He laughed, and he got it, and then he articulated the reason that I write about being a hacker in this form so well that he made me think about things I hadn’t considered before and probably should have. Like, what if other people don’t get it? All they’d see when they looked at the Loginataka or the Unix Koans is pretentiousness or satire.
But no. The mystical language of these works is functional in a very direct way, which the priest grokked instantly and I will now explain. It has applications beyond the way I’ve used it.
In what threatens to become a semi-regular series, I give you a plea for help that landed in my mailbox this morning, anonymized, and my response. Querent’s situation is not unique; what’s unusual is his ability to self-diagnose and his willingness to ask for help.
I have diagnosed myself with what you described (here) as ‘the curse of the gifted’. I am currently seeking advice as to how to correct this and would greatly appreciate it if you could help me.
When I was a boy, pretty much everybody would call me ‘genius’. I got top grades in school and yadda-yadda. I am now but a shadow of what people would think of me: I have really hit the point where my brains alone can’t take me any further. I have to work hard, but I don’t know how.
Problem is, I’m so far down this rabbit hole that I’m actually afraid of failure. I know I should be taking risks and doing my best, but I simply can’t. I didn’t leave my country to look for a better future in a bigger one because I was afraid to leave the safety of my parent’s house. I stick to my day job because here there are so many ways to hide from real work and real challenges. I don’t contribute to open source or even start my own pet projects because I know that at the first obstacle I’m gonna drop them.
I often find myself wishing that I still were the “genius” that I was before (which I think to be a clear symptom of the condition), thinking that If something doesn’t come smoothly to me than I shouldn’t even bother.
How to cure this? How to learn discipline? How to learn how to work hard?
In some areas of computer science, “oracle” is used as a term for a magic box that delivers solutions to undecidable problems. Or, sometimes more generally for any machine that generates answers by a process you don’t understand. One of the roles I play with respect to the Battle For Wesnoth fantasy game is as an oracle that generates plausible fantasy names on demand.
Here’s a (very lightly edited) transaction of this kind that I took part in a short while ago. There’s something going on behind it that is odder than will be immediately apparent.