Flashback from August 11


Almost three weeks ago, I took the GRE, and later that day, I started writing an absurdly long blog post about it. The day before, my sister had asked me to tell her what the GRE was like, and I was facetiously pretending that I could only answer the question by going into detail about everything that had happened that day. (For the record, I actually am not allowed to say exactly what was on the test. They made me sign a waiver. Really.) As it so happened, though, I was so busy that weekend that I never actually finished that blog post. I was about three pages into it and had still only gotten up to 8 AM.

I just discovered that I happen to still have that unfinished draft on my computer. Here are a few excerpts.

“This morning, I awoke at 5:18. I had set my alarm for 5:20, and even that was just a safety measure to ensure that I would be up by 5:30. But as it turned out, my alarm was completely unnecessary because my brain had cleverly remembered that I needed to wake up early. At 5:19, I un-set my alarm clock, and then proceeded to spend the first hour of my awakeness today being a complete klutz by loudly dropping my alarm clock, a shampoo bottle, my comb, and the spoon with which I ate my oatmeal. I justify this clumsy behavior on the grounds that I had not yet consumed any coffee. Then, I consumed some coffee and thus became more adept at doing things without dropping stuff all over the place. As I drank my coffee, I noticed that it tasted a little different than usual. I did not know why, and even in retrospect, the reason for this anomaly eludes me.”

“As I started my car, I was pleased to find that it was still functioning. Indeed, I had expected this to be the case, as I had no reason to doubt my car’s functionality, but it is always a good thing when one starts one’s car and finds that said car functions. However, last night’s rain had rendered the brakes wet and squeaky, and therefore, for the first several minutes of my journey, they made a loud and slightly disturbing noise every time I braked. Also, there was a misty spot in the middle of my windshield. I tried to wipe it off when I stopped at a stop sign, but in doing so, I discovered that it was actually on the outside of the windshield. At the stoplight by the campus gate, I briefly turned on my windshield wipers to remove the misty spot, and thus, this problem was solved.”

“I arrived at the testing place at about 7:20, I think. I didn’t actually see a clock. I pulled into a parking space that appealed to me, then backed out and pulled back in, for I had not parked very well the first time. I then parked the car, rolled up the windows, checked to make sure that my lights were off, and removed the key from the ignition. Following this, I proceeded to open my car door, get out, push the lock thingy, and close the door, in that order. Next, I attempted to open the door just to ensure that it was locked. Not surprisingly, it was.”

“Before I went into the testing room, they had me put my purse in a locker and then they told me to stand on the green X on the floor while they scanned me with one of those security things that they use to scan people. (If it isn’t obvious, I have no idea what they’re called. I also am not entirely sure what it is that they’re meant to detect. Metal? Marijuana? Extraterrestrial technology?)This was necessary because, for all they knew, I was a dangerous terrorist. It turns out that I am not a dangerous terrorist, which is good to know. I had been worried about that. Well, not really.”

“As all these things occurred, I narrated them in my head for the sole purpose of being able to write all of these details later in the day. Note to my sister: I am telling you all of these things because you asked me to tell you what taking the GRE was like. As I do not know which details may be relevant, I am deliberately giving you an excessive number of details so that you can decide for yourself which ones are worth knowing. You are welcome.”

That’s as far as I got, but I have decided that at this point, I would like to relate the tale of the perpetually red stoplight, which occurred several hours later, as I was on my way back to campus. I had taken a wrong turn and was in an unfamiliar area miles from where I should have been, but there was a road up ahead that I knew would take me to an interstate going in the correct direction. I pulled into the appropriate turn lane to turn left and stopped at the red light. Shortly thereafter, it occurred to me that the light was staying red for a pretty long time. It seemed as if every other lane of traffic in every direction had moved more recently than I had. I waited a while longer and determined that this was the case. The sound of my turn signal was starting to get on my nerves. I became irritated at the thought of all the gas I was burning just sitting there. The temperature slowly increased as the hot August sun shone into my non-air-conditioned car.  It occurred to me that if I did it at the right time, I could safely make my left turn in spite of the red light. However, it also occurred to me that perhaps someone was secretly watching this intersection and doing a statistical study on how drivers would react to a perpetually red light. Although that idea seemed so unlikely as to be safely dismissed, I nonetheless decided that, if it was the case, I had better not mess with their statistics. I am extremely stubborn, so, for the sake of accurate results, I owed it to science to sit stubbornly at that light and wait for it to turn green.  Furthermore, there was no one behind me, so my presence in that turn lane did not hinder traffic in any way. I waited a little longer, but the light still didn’t turn green. My concern over the gasoline I was wasting joined forces with my impatience and they argued with my stubbornness, which still insisted that I was absolutely not to turn onto that road until the light turned green. So my impatience and my stubbornness came to a compromise. I pulled out of the turn lane, drove straight through the intersection, turned around at the first opportunity, and then got onto that road using the turn lane coming from the opposite direction. I should have done that much, much sooner.

The oddest part about this story is that I still remember my exact train of thought even though it was nearly three weeks ago.

First Day of Classes

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A random picture I pulled from my facebook page
Although it is irrelevent, I would like to note that there are frogs who live in the area where this picture was taken. I’ve never actually seen them, but they’re sure loud in the nighttime.

Summer has come to an end.

Well, technically it hasn’t; the first day of fall is September 22, which is still a ways away. But summer break has come to an end. Classes start tomorrow. That means that the schedule, lifestyle, and general mindset that I’ve been accustomed to for the past three months is suddenly going to cease to exist. I can no longer set aside entire evenings every now and then for going outside and reading until it gets too dark, then wandering around aimlessly, listening to the cicadas and watching the fireflies until I feel like going back inside.  I can no longer ease into the day so slowly that I don’t actually get anything done until mid-morning. I can no longer decide for myself what I want to read and whether or not I want to decide ahead of time when to finish it.

Yeah, I’ve used this before, but it seemed very fitting in this particular context.

If this sounds like a complaint, it really isn’t.  I’m not going to lie and say that I absolutely love school and enjoy every moment of it, but I will say that I enjoy many moments of it and that I’m aware that I get a lot out of it. And this time of the semester, it’s easy to be motivated about academia, optimistic about grades, and excited about the opportunities and experiences of the upcoming months. Amid the frustration of paperwork, the confusion of schedule conflicts, and the constant worry about where the camaduka all the money’s going to come from, there’s still something fun about the start of classes.

I think I’m going to really like all of the classes I’m taking this semester. One of them is a dance class that I’m contracting off campus, which will be an interesting experience; I’ve never contracted a college class off campus before. I’m also taking three English classes and a logic class, so that I can be awesome like Spock. But I’m going to enjoy it more than Spock would, because enjoyment is a human emotion.

So that’s pretty much where I currently stand on the issue of school and stuff. Within the next six weeks or so, my opinions on this matter will very likely change to some extent.

There’s this Book I’m Reading, episode 2

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It’s a wonder that I was allowed to watch movies when I was little, because I would usually bombard my parents with questions for days afterwards. I would want to know why Luke Skywalker had to go back to the Death Star and fight with Darth Vader, whose voice it really was that Ray Kinsella heard in the cornfields, why Harry Beaton wanted to run away, and why everyone was so happy when Truman escaped from the Truman Show, even though they had loved watching that show so much. (These questions are in reference to Star Wars VI, Field of Dreams, Brigadoon, and The Truman Show respectively) Then, when I ran out of questions to ask about the plot, I’d want to know what the point of the movie was. I just assumed that any movie other than the most simple and banal cartoon was making some specific and philosophical point. My little kid self wouldn’t have had much of an appreciation for sappy chick flicks. Actually, my non-little-kid self doesn’t care much for most chick flicks either, although I have noticed that non-intellectual genres aren’t necessarily devoid of interesting and intelligent ideas. That’s even more true in the case of books than of movies.

Margaret Mitchell

Although it’s considered a great classic, Gone with the Wind isn’t exactly the most intellectually deep book. In my opinion, it’s actually quite a light read, even though it’s just as long as War and Peace, which is known for not being a light read. I’m not saying I don’t like Gone with the Wind; in fact, it’s actually one of my favorite books, and I read it about once a year. (In case this isn’t obvious by implication, I’m reading it right now) I wouldn’t even say that there’s nothing thought-provoking about it, but most of the interesting ideas it discusses are spelled out in specific detail. As far as I’m aware, there are no subtle meanings in minor plot points, no hidden metaphors in the descriptive sections and the imagery, and no room for analyzing the characters’ personalities or motives, because everything is explained specifically in the text. One doesn’t even need to wonder what the point of the book is, because Margaret Mitchell tells readers: It’s about what she calls gumption.  In my copy of the book, there’s a blurb with a quote from the author that says, “If the novel has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about people who had gumption and people who didn’t.”

Is it merely a coincidence that the author of the book and the actress who played the main character in the movie look so much like each other?

It seems to me that in that quote, Margaret Mitchell was being unnecessarily simple and concise. Her book is about a little bit more than people who have gumption and people who don’t. I think that Gone with the Wind is about the differences between people’s personalities in a more general sense. I once read a non-fiction book that used the four main characters in Gone with the Wind (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes) as examples of four distinct personality types. I’m not in favor of trying to sort people into a small number of personality types, but for the sake of that book’s argument, Gone with the Wind was an ideal example. Each of the main characters’ personalities is in contrast with all of the others’.

Gumption isn’t the only personality trait that Margaret Mitchell uses to differentiate the personalities of the different characters. The other main one is analytical thought. It’s pretty obvious because there are quite a few instances throughout the book in which Mitchell explains a character’s response to something by introducing it with the phrase, ‘Never analytical…’ Scarlett is frequently described as being ‘never analytical’. She takes everything at face value and acts impulsively. She shares this trait with her father and many of the residents of the plantations in the early chapters, but most of the other main characters- Ashley, Melanie, Ellen O’Hara, Mammy, Dilcey, Will- are very analytical. Rhett Butler kind of falls into either category, depending upon the situation. Actually, I suppose that the same could be said for Scarlett, because she’s certainly capable of being analytical when nobody else is there to think things through for her. I think it’s worth noting that, in terms of gumption and of analytical-ness, Ashley Wilkes’ personality is almost completely opposite Scarlett’s, while Rhett Butler’s is almost identical to hers.

I say almost because there’s one significant way in which Scarlett is very much like Ashley and very much unlike Rhett, at least in the first few chapters. She changes her mind about it throughout the book and has several meaningful conversations about it with numerous other characters, which I take as an indication that it’s another very central point of Gone with the Wind. It is the question of whether or not it’s important to adhere to social norms. Scarlett resents many things about the culture in which she lives and the restrictions that it places on her, but she is deeply rooted in the mindset behind them, and so she is reluctant to openly defy them. The combination of necessity and Rhett Butler’s influence persuade her, time and again, to go back on the principles instilled in her, to the point that she becomes alienated from her own culture, rather than being exemplary of it, as she appears to be in the first couple chapters. I said earlier that the book doesn’t leave many questions unanswered, but one that it does leave unanswered is which point of view is right. There are several instances where Scarlett asks someone, usually Rhett or Ashley, if she has done the right thing by rejecting societal values for survivalist ones, and they always give ambiguous answers, even though their own views are quite obvious. From the little that I know of Margaret Mitchell, I think she wasn’t entirely clear on what she thought of that question.

True love, according to the movies

One claim that I am not going to make about the point of Gone with the Wind is that it is a love story. I know that both the movie and the book (which are incidentally more similar than movies and books usually are) have been classified as quintessential love stories, but I think that’s silly. If one reads Gone with the Wind as a love story, it is a pretty bad one, because almost all of the characters are absurdly selfish. Scarlett and Rhett especially are, and they are held up as a prime example of the ideal literary romance. I could go more into detail about the selfishness of all of the main characters and most of the minor ones (with the exceptions of a couple of the slaves, Scarlett’s mother, and Melanie) but that’s not really my point. My point is that Gone with the Wind, just like pop culture in general, throws the word ‘love’ around very loosely and doesn’t really mean much of anything by it. Most of the relationships in the book, romantic or otherwise, are characterized more by selfishness or unbreakable social connections, than by anything that ought to be called love.

The purpose of this picture here is to add color. That’s all.

But although the people in the book don’t love each other, one other prevalent theme in Gone with the Wind is love of the land. In fact, I would argue that it is maybe even more central than the themes of personality differences and societal norms. The plantation Tara and the city Atlanta are described in such detail and are so important to Scarlett that it’s impossible to treat that point as being insignificant, and many of the major events in the plot are related to Scarlett’s love for one or the other place. Besides that, in the section of the book that occurs during the Civil War, there are frequent factual interludes that describe military maneuvers in great detail. Even though it was obviously something that the characters were aware of and concerned about, it seems a little out of place to have those kinds of details scattered throughout a story that is essentially a literary version of the ultimate chick flick. I know that Gone with the Wind is a war story and that Margaret Mitchell wanted to show the horrors of war, but she does that much better in the hospital scenes and the descriptions of the blighted countryside. The stories of the Yankees travelling through the South don’t add much to that, unless the real point is land and ownership of land. And I can think of quite a few quotes from the book (including some from the very beginning and the very end) that would back up that argument.

Thus ends my rambling and hastily written list of opinions about Gone with the Wind. And it somehow ended up being over 1500 words. I’m not quite sure how that happened.

Chicago: This one is just pictures

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Why I Haven’t Posted Anything Lately

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I haven’t posted much in the last couple of weeks, as I’m sure anyone who has been paying attention has noticed. The reason for that, quite simply, is that I’ve been busy. The other reason is that I’ve been lazy, and a third reason is that, every time I started writing something to post, I decided I didn’t like it and ended up not finishing it. I have a quite few Word documents saved on my computer that are the first couple paragraphs of what was intended to be a blog post, but I think I’m just going to scrap all of those and start from scratch.

I might not be posting anything for the next week or so because I’m going to be out of town. In fact, I will be leaving in just a couple hours, which probably means that now would be a good time to start packing. (In my defense, the reason I have not packed yet is not that I’m procrastinating. It’s because I just moved into a new dorm room and I haven’t finished unpacking yet.) Anyway, I’ll probably write one or two posts while I’m gone, so I’ll have something to post as soon as I get back.

In the meantime, here is a random fun fact: because of the differences between the ways that the two hemispheres of the brain work, one ear is better at listening to music and the other is better at listening to talking. (Of course, both ears are capable of hearing either; it is worth noting that the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain are usually exaggerated.) After I read that, I forgot which ear was which, so I tested it with youtube videos and earphones, and the answer is that my left ear hears music better and my right ear hears talking better. (I am guessing that’s reversed for left-handed people) That would explain why, whenever the left side of my earphones stop working, (which happens to me strangely often) I find it really annoying when I’m listening to a music CD, but it doesn’t make a big difference if I’m watching a DVD.  The obvious question that this raises is what would happen if someone designed earphones that made music sound fuzzier on the left side than the right, and vice versa for talking. Either it would negate the effects of this phenomenon, or it would cause an anomaly that would destroy all life as we know it. I’m guessing that the former is more likely.

There’s this Book I’m Reading, episode 1

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It seems to be a commonly accepted idea that there is a dichotomy between logic and emotion; that rational thought and instinctive decisions are opposites. Although it’s obviously true that there are different kinds of thought processes and that logical thought and emotional feelings don’t work in the same way, I think it’s an incorrect oversimplification to see them as comprising a dichotomy. I don’t think it even makes sense to imagine a logic/emotion spectrum from Spock to McCoy, because, in my opinion anyway, there is actually a relationship between logic and emotion. Otherwise, why would it be frustrating to be unable to understand something? Or why would it be exciting to learn something that you’d always wondered? Why would strategy games be so much fun, and why would schoolwork be stressful?

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard the idea that logic and emotion actually are more or less the same thing and the real distinction is between instinctive thought that takes place subconsciously and step-by-step thinking that takes place consciously. There’s a book I’m reading now; it’s called Blink and it’s by someone named Malcolm Gladwell, who is apparently not a psychologist, but he does get his information from experimental psychologists. He, along with the psychologists he cites, believes that snap decisions and first impressions are actually reliable because the fast-thinking subconscious process that forms them is just as rational as the slower conscious thought process. To quote from the book, “In high-stakes, fast-moving situations, we don’t want to be… dispassionate and purely rational… We don’t want to stand there endlessly talking through our options. Sometimes we’re better off if the mind behind the locked door makes our decisions for us.” (I used the ellipses to avoid mentioning the Iowa ventromedial patients, because I’d have to quote an entire two pages in order to explain who the Iowa ventromedial patients are and what they have to do with decision-making thought processes.)

The problem with reading these kinds of psychology books is that many of them are more pseudoscientific than scientific, and some are bordering on the mystical. For example, there have been multiple times that I’ve started reading a ‘psychological’ book about dreams only to find that it places an almost occult prophetic significance on them, even though the book is categorized as a scientific book. As fascinated as I am by the actual psychological theories and research behind things like personalities, dreams, the nature of intelligence, and so forth, I have realized that I have to be very suspicious of books that claim to be about those things without being based in academically factual information. I kind of expected this book to be one of those non-scientific ones; it seemed like it might be a ‘how to tap into the hidden and mystical powers of your brain’ kind of book. I decided to read it anyway. Although some of the claims it makes seem a little outlandish, they are all backed up by official scientific experiments done by official psychologists.

(I have omitted the following several paragraphs because they were going on for quite a while and it didn’t look like I was going to finish writing that bit anytime soon.  I eventually decided that since this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I don’t have to cite multiple examples from the book in order to make every point. Therefore, for the sake of brevity, I hereby skip to the last three paragraphs.)

I am finding that book very interesting, and I have no doubt that there’s something to the claims Gladwell makes, but I don’t think he’s entirely right about the reliability of instinctual thought. My instincts don’t always tell me things that lead to accurate assumptions and good decisions. Sometimes, I have a feeling that I really ought to sleep up several hours late and then spend the rest of the day playing scrabble and watching science fiction instead of going to classes. That’s not some kind of hypersentient instinct, though; it’s just me being a lazy stupidhead. Then my conscious mind has to tell me that I’m not allowed to do that. Or sometimes, I have a paranoid feeling that I’m being followed and watched by invisible evil monsters, but that’s not because my subconscious brain is picking up on subtle clues and coming to rational conclusions. It’s just because I have a very weird imagination, and my conscious mind has to figure out that my imagination is just being silly again and that I’m going to have to ignore it. I can’t even imagine what a weirdo I’d be if I always paid attention to my instincts and feelings.

Gladwell underestimates the weirdness of the human mind. Although he does acknowledge the effects of false or overly generalized stereotypes, (and discusses them at great length) I still have the impression that he is ignoring the sheer number of variables that affect thought, and the fact that a person usually can’t even tell what factors led to a certain decision or impression unless the thought process was conscious. The point of his book is that people can learn to sort out the different things that affect their subconscious thoughts and to rely upon the logical subconscious thoughts for all time-sensitive decision-making. He acknowledges the value of stopping to think things through, but argues that it isn’t necessary and isn’t often worth the time it takes. Gut feelings, he claims, are just as rational as deductive reasoning.

My point is this: I don’t think that logic and emotions are entirely separate or entirely connected. It makes sense that intuitive feelings sometimes can come from a quick and automatic but analytical thought process, but intuitive feelings and snap judgments can also be determined by completely random factors. Countless studies have shown that subtle things like the weather or the color of the walls can influence someone’s attitude or mood, and it’s obvious even without any scientific research that people’s thought processes are affected by whatever else they may have on their minds. The studies that Gladwell cites demonstrate that observation and logic also can affect our thoughts on a subconscious level, but they can’t disprove the presence of countless other variables.  I’m obviously not a scientist, but even I know that you can’t make valid scientific assertions without analyzing the variables in the experiment and considering whether the experiment conditions are too contrived to allow the results to correspond to real life. Although I think that this book is very interesting, and there may be some truth to some of his ideas, I don’t think that Gladwell’s theory is valid enough to be applicable in reality.