New Leon Beyond strip for the Riverfront Times. The theme of the assignment was "Dating Dos and Don'ts."
Two original pages of mine (1, 2) are being auctioned off for Philippines Typhoon Relief, along with many other comics items. Please consider bidding, buying, and donating.
Here’s some illustrations I did for the website Narrative.ly for an article about Alan Sokal and others' skepticism about “the positivity ratio.” This ratio is the idea that you should have 2.9013 positive thoughts to every negative thought in order to "flourish" as a human being and have joy. You can read the article to get a (somewhat dramatic) account of the situation. It might leave you with some questions (I’d like to hear more about the guy becoming an “existentialist life coach”?)
This Chronicle article is also a good summary. Basically, a guy named Losada wrote a terrible paper where he acted like human emotions could literally be treated like the math equations of fluid dynamics, and acted like he understood the math, and convinced some psychologists who took his work and ran with it and convinced some corporations who now pay him to consult on ways better to exploit their employees. The takedown paper and his response to it makes him look like a big fraud, but hopefully he corrects his mistakes and goes on to flourish and find true happiness.
I have a few thoughts on this positivity ratio “affair” I want to get off my chest. (Wait, how did these thoughts get on my chest?) You can maybe figure out what those thoughts are by looking at these illustrations, but I’ll try to spell them out.
If there is a “stream of consciousness” why not “fluid dynamics of consciousness?” On a metaphorical level, maybe — but they should be careful about the wobbly tower of metaphors they’re stacking up here. This sloppy thinking should be called out, and it’s a shame it took Sokal, of all people, to do the peer-review work psychologists should have done. It seems Losada and the other fools who rushed in made some money off these mistakes, and that’s messed up, but then again people in a lot of fields make money off bad ideas all the time, so it’s not a uniquely tragic story or anything.
The whole thing is clearly based on mistaking a metaphor for more than a metaphor. Then there’s a lot of scotch-taping and hot-gluing exciting chaos mathematics onto the metaphor to make it seem more real. It’s a big mistake, and these people should be ashamed of the terrible job they did at being scholars and psychologists.
On the other hand, if we’re already calling thoughts “positive” or “negative,” or even isolating individual “thoughts” or “emotions” into objects that we can talk about and study, we’re already deep into the territory of metaphor. Nick Brown, the skeptical, literal-minded hero of all this reportedly said he started studying positive psychology because his life was “in a rut.” (And good for him! He read closely, took action, made new friends and a contribution to his chosen field.) It can be tricky even figuring out whether some thoughts are positive or negative. You fall into questions of form and content: “I don’t want to hurt myself anymore.” And now that we’re talking about it, these “atoms” and “particles” that physicists are always talking about –– those are definitely 100% real and not metaphorical at all, right?
I'm no trained psychologist, but I’m pretty sure it’s true, in a general sort of sense, that if you think more positive thoughts than negative thoughts, you’ll feel more positive. You’ll feel lighter and more optimistic. You might describe yourself as feeling better, or even happier. If we’re going to test this as a hypothesis, we’re going to have to count positive thoughts versus negative thoughts. So at this point, we’re already deep into metaphorical concepts and representations: me/not me -> thinking/not thinking -> a thought/not a thought -> positive/negative -> and numbers — once we get into the realm of numbers, and we start comparing the number of positive thoughts to negative, we have a difference, a ratio — we are basically doing math about our emotions. So why not differential equations? Well, let’s maybe not go that far — the Sokal paper gives good reasons why.
But I don’t think it’s necessary to totally throw out all of the mathematical metaphorical language for the amount of positive thinking it takes to reach the “tipping point” and become a happier, “flourishing” human being. No one is advocating exactly that, but it seems like an idea that is hovering in the background of reactions to the affair. Metaphors, like anything dangerous and powerful, should be handled carefully. Some positive psychologists have been exposed as something like con artists, but there’s confidence and then there’s confidence. We’re already in weird scientific territory when our goal is trying to figure out how to make humans happier and healthier and more confident (not to mention the trickiness of extrapolating from evolution, neuroscience, and measuring pupil dilation). It’s tricky studying human beings, and it’s tricky figuring out how to talk to them and listen to them. It’s hard to read them sometimes. They’re not open books (though it's hard to read books sometimes too). Sometimes they use metaphors, and sometimes those metaphors are also “literally” true. If you act as if you feel grateful and generous, even if you “really” don’t, sometimes you end up “literally” being more grateful and generous.
In the takedown paper, Sokal et al. take some pains to explain differential equations to non-mathematical psychologists and why Losada clearly didn’t understand what he was doing. They list several conditions under which differential equations can “validly” be applied and show that Losada’s observations of business meetings don’t really apply. They point out that “it is not surprising that most of the valid applications of nonlinear dynamics have arisen in physics and chemistry, where one can sometimes find systems that are sufficiently simple and isolated so that one can (a) identify a small number of relevant variables that evolve by themselves, and (b) write down the equation describing (at least to a reasonable degree of approximation) their evolution.” So in the discourses of physics and chemistry there are “sometimes” agreed upon situations, abstracted from the complexity and flux of reality, where “simple systems” can be “isolated” and math can be written down that describes this system to a “reasonable degree of approximation.” Does that sound purely scientific? Sounds like some levels of metaphors or representations might be involved. Who decides what is a “reasonable degree of approximation?”
The point I’m trying to make is the usual pragmatist one — that the modeling of reality which takes place in physics or psychology takes place in generally agreed-upon rules of discourse, where the number of levels stacked up of metaphors that are allowed in the description of objects varies according to what is reasonable and useful to the community. When someone points out inconsistencies in the discourse of a community, like the Sokal et. al. paper does, decisions have to be made about who is in and who is out, about which practices the members and institutions of the community will accept. The use and misuse of fluid dynamics that Losada etc. have introduced into psychology is one of these situations.
The Hippie and the Scientist illustrations I did are supposed to represent what I understand to be the pressures on the positive psychologist. On the one hand, if you use math and language of the “hard” sciences, you’re seen as like a “scientist” and obtain privilege and respect (as long as you aren’t called out on it). This seems like what may have tempted Losada and Fredrickson to perform like they did. On the other hand, if you only tell people, with just words, that they should try to feel grateful more often, and that this will lead to happiness, your work is "soft," therapy, and you’re like a hippie talking about peace and good vibes.
A psychological reading of the whole affair would be more interesting than a mathematical model, but there may be some difficulty agreeing on the right psychological models. Writers who study the “Positivity Ratio Affair” will certainly have a lot to argue about and uncover for years to come. The motivations of Frederickson and Losada? The motivations of Brown, Sokal, and Friedman? What psychological model should we use to understand this, in the takedown’s Concluding Remarks:
“Let us stress that our concern here is with the objective properties of published texts, not the subject states of mind of the authors (which might, however, be of interest to philosophers…). We do not, for example, have an opinion about the degree to which excessive enthusiasm, sincere self-deception, or other motivations may have influenced Losada and colleagues when writing their articles.”?
An artful use of language—saying what one is not saying, but kinda saying it at the same time... Is there a mathematics for that? And why do they say “philosophers” and not psychologists — or even artists?
Finally, it seems obvious to say this, but the whole thing about the ratio — of course it’s true that 3 positive thoughts to 1 negative thoughts is a good thing!! What are the alternatives? 2-2? 1-3? Those ratios obviously aren’t going to lead to positive thinking. Why couldn't the ratio have just been left as a metaphor for “more,” another way of saying the same thing? An illustration-in-words? Apples and oranges = apples plus oranges. “More positive thoughts leads to thinking positively.” Seen this way the whole thing seems so straightforward that almost every step in this story, the mistakes and the corrections and every dollar spent by universities for research and corporations for consultations, and every hour spent thinking and writing about this whole affair seems positively nuts.
Another thing I liked about Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution is the chance to think about how representing evolution itself evolved.* What form does the evolution of forms take? etc. It's disappointing that the author didn't try to draw a tree diagram of the evolution of tree diagrams. That seems like a no-brainer. Also there is no attempt to find or discuss a tree diagram of the evolution of trees, which also would be the ultimate for xeroxing and taping to your office door if you're a biology professor.
It’s weird that animals are shown in “tree” diagrams. Seems insulting to animals. But, an animal diagram of trees? I don’t know.
I think books which survey a variety of forms should include at least one chapter to play around and suggest new possibilities and new forms, and forms of forms. Even if some ideas are kind of dumb, as above. But obviously I’m not just talking about making jokes. Editors may frown, careful not to go “beyond the scope of the book." It’s true that Trees of Life is already 350 pages, and I’m sure many interesting tree diagrams couldn't fit. But if you're going to draw attention to forms, systems, or formal systems, etc., with this kind of history or survey, it would also be valuable to take some space to experiment at this elevated, meta-level and scope out the boundaries of the territory and draw some sketches of what you see from up there.
The form that this book (which its author, Theodore W. Pietsch, calls “a celebration”) takes is that of a standard book with chapters, notes, a bibliography and an index. The chapters consist of brief commentary on a species of tree diagram, and then examples follow, crisply reproduced. I thought the text was interesting and to-the-point, but I also wish the book was more ambitious. Not to seem ungrateful, but it left me wanting more (see above). Again, space was probably the issue. Maybe a positive way to put it would be that it opens up a lot of possibilities.
The book begins by discussing the varieties of bracket diagrams used to show taxonomic relationships before the discovery of evolution, and then the development of varieties of tree diagram types, and on from there into boring-looking—but more densely meaningful—computer-aided trees which depend on DNA data and statistics. By the end of the book you’re very sensitive** to how the forms that diagrams take can represent and misrepresent the messy and complex reality of natural history, and you can’t help but be dissatisfied both with the limitations of ink-on-paper tree diagrams and of books.*** Obvously a 3D computer-generated tree that you could rotate and zoom in and out of would be pretty great, and it seems totally doable, too—something huge and editable with many nested hierarchies and expandable branches, like you find in mind-mapping programs.****
Other than the Quinarians, my other favorite type of tree diagram from the book is where the diagram-maker opens up the 3rd dimension. Examples are below. Dissatisfaction with the limitations of form is on display big time. I think this may be what separates us from the animals?—the working memory capacity to stick with a form and evolve it, moment to moment, sensitive to how changes of form affect functionality, or sensitive to the possibility of bracketing it or framing it or abstracting “up” or “out” to other levels, or into new dimensions, and enjoying all of this, as we enjoy a good story or a joke.
(I added arrows and highlights to show what's happening in this one.)
* This evolution-of-evolution thing is just one of those things you have to deal with if you’re going to read about evolution. No writer could possibly still think it’s a witty move? But you can’t escape it. Just be tasteful and don’t overdo it. I avoided a chance to say something about “pruning” tree diagrams later in this review—that’s just gross. (Also, the author’s name is Pietsch?! Leave it alone.) There are probably unavoidable meta-groaners in every area of study, and there’s probably a survey article in Cabinet or something.
**Not for the first time, hopefully.
***Very good, though, is the unfolding of animal and plant forms on Earth, which makes up the real subject of all of this.
****Dissatisfaction with the forms of printed-book-divided-into-chapters and mind-mapping apps is beyond the scope of this blog post.
The way it went for me was, I read Mindfulness in Plain English and it's pretty good, but it's not like the best thing ever, so don't expect that. It is a very good introduction. It resonated with me as an introvert and a person full of fear and anxiety, but it's for everyone.
The activity of mindfulness is very simple (deceptively): "be aware of what is happening, and don't get lost in thought"——so the book (and much of mindfulness teaching) can seem repetitive. It's often like, "what if you feel pain? Be mindful of the pain. What if you feel bored and annoyed? Examine what it is like to feel bored and annoyed. What if I think this is stupid? Be mindful of what it's like to think mindfulness is stupid." etc.
I think the book is available as a pdf, or you know, where you get books.
After the first time I read the book, I meditated off and on for a year, but not consistently. Then one day I decided to re-read the book and also started listening to podcasts by this guy named Gil Fronsdal (recommended by Dan Benjamin), and after listening to Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation, Part 1, I pretty much stuck with it every day since.
Here are four of my favorite podcasts from when I was starting out. Start with Introduction 1 (direct link to MP3), and then I liked Introduction 5, then Concentration Part 2, and then Meditation as a Mirror. You can find many more here.
There are other good teachers you might like more than Gil Fronsdal, though he has a genial, Mr. Rogers-like way about him I like a lot. These are all on Itunes also——search for "audio dharma."
The important thing is to actually meditate, so try to do it along with them in the "Introduction to" podcasts. On my own I started out doing it daily 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, and now I do 25 minutes, using a timer. Some days it goes well and I get concentrated and some days I sit and just think about stuff and try to relax. It's one of those things that can sometimes seem like a chore, but you never regret doing it. It gets better the more you do it, like exercising any skill.
There are different meditation techniques besides mindfulness, so you if you want to try something else, or keep it fresh, there is, for instance, "concentration," which I guess is more like focusing and moving into altered states of mind, and there's "lovingkindness" (where you sit and think generous thoughts about everything, I think?) and there's of course Zen, which is Zen. I don't know that much about any of this, so I might not have this right.
There are guided meditations which are really helpful, where they walk you through it. When I was starting out I sat through some guided meditations which were amazing, and I thought to myself, "I'm going to keep meditating for the rest of my life, because this is pretty great." I highly recommend doing guided mediations because you learn tricks for later, when it's just you on your own. There are some here.
The video mentioned in the third panel above is here.
For further views (by Westerners) of Buddhist approaches and teachings, and how it is a secular and practical way of life, I found the one on Blasphemy pretty interesting, made around the time of all the Benghazi madness, and also this one on The Importance of Questions by Geoffrey DeGraff is a kind of basic introduction to what was the deal with the Buddha.
Hey, if you have been enjoying the Bona pages
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The Half Men
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