22 May, 2012

The Drought

(Everyone has complicated lives. It is just the nature of life, I suppose, to remain complicated, no matter how much one wishes to simplify it.)

It's more important than you think.
There was a period of my life that I now call the "drought years". I don't call them this to anyone in particular, because it's a title that only I really know or use. Yet it's still what I call those years that I neglected to learn anything at all. I just...sat.

I've tried to describe it once or twice, to different people, but failed each time. I tend to get funny looks, as though I were queerer than they had ever imagined before. However, I am hopeful that maybe, just maybe, I'll have a better way of explaining here, on this journal.

Before the Drought

When I was young, I loved to learn. Sure, I'd move from topic to topic, and I'd only ever get breadth instead of depth, but I nevertheless was constantly on the lookout for new things. It was my passion. I read constantly, even to the limits of what my local library had on shelf access. I learned far more outside of school than in, and I longed for the future days when I'd be better able to do and learn more.

Sure, I had my problems back then, like everyone else. Yet, at least in terms of acquiring knowledge, it was a good time in my life. I was, in a sense, quenched.

The Drought

Then, just after starting classes at the University of South Alabama, my life derailed for a bit. I choked. Personal issues overtook me. I had thought that I could make a teenage marriage work, but I was still far too immature. Amber left (rightfully so), I dropped out of college, and my mind started focusing on other things. At sixteen, still just a child, I stopped learning. I started stagnating.

My Prize Possession of the 20th Century.
Remembering this past self is very difficult for me. Before this period, my prize possession was a copy of the Feynman Lectures on Physics. I loved that set of books, and had gone through two and half of them on sheer joy alone. But the drought hit before I'd finished book three, and I never even bothered opening it again to finish the last few lectures for several years.

It's a bit hard to describe, as I imagine you're likely imagining it as a depression, or a funk of some kind. And it is true that I was depressed, and I was in a funk. Yet the drought was something on top of all that. You see, I could still get away from my dark thoughts by retreating to comedy, or reading science fiction. I still saw exciting movies, played fun games, enjoyed time with girls, ate incredible meals, and appreciated the beauty of nature. The drought refers to none of these things. Instead, it means that I just did not learn.

Maybe I overstate the case. Perhaps I'm using the incorrect word. Of course, I learned everyday things. I saw new things and experienced new concepts. What I mean is that when I went to the library, I exclusively went to the fiction section. When I relaxed, I spent my time appreciating my surroundings more than seeking out new things to understand. I know this sounds silly and trite. At the time, it did not feel like a drought. It felt right. But, after a few years, I realized that although I had experienced much, I had not learned anything new from outside my immediate sphere of influence. The Feynman lectures still sat in the corner of my bedroom, unopened in years.

After the Drought

One day, I just snapped. Classes had already started at the local college, but I didn't care. I went to the admissions of Spring Hill College and told them I wanted in. They enrolled me the same day.

My first day of classes was everyone else's second day. The first person I met was Shawn Allin, a newly hired chemistry teacher. I was the first student at SHC to talk with him outside the classroom. We hit it off quite well: we both had a deep interest in physics, and he caught me up on all the latest developments that had happened in the field since the drought had started. We talked quasars and fields,  buckyballs and standard models. We even toasted to the ill-fated SSC. That day, he introduced me to the books of Stephen Jay Gould, a writer whose works I have been in love with ever since. I borrowed one book that first day; another two days later; yet another at the beginning of the next week. At the end of every class, I'd return another book, and he'd supply me with a new one. Sure, I could have done the same at a library, but this was different. It was social reading. It was learning. The drought was over.

Pictured is a trike found by Bill, not me.
I learned a lot that freshman semester, mostly from Shawn. Sure, I took lots of classes, but they were intro classes. Shawn introduced me to several new things, not all of which I enjoyed. We had, for example, drastically separate ideas on what constituted good music. That summer, when we went on a dinosaur dig together with his archaeologist friend, we had a number of harsh words. Bill, his friend, was somewhat of an asshole, and even though it was just the three of us on site, the grandeur of finding a triceratops scapula was not enough override my distaste for spending 18 hours a day with Bill.

My friendship with Shawn was complicated, I'll readily admit. Yet the important point was that he got the drought to end for me. After Shawn, I learned on my own again. I finished the Feynman lectures. Somewhat more impressively, I worked my way through book one of Russell & Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. Later, when Shawn died, his family gave me the first book that Shawn had ever loaned me: Gould's The Panda's Thumb. I still keep it with me not just in remembrance of my former teacher and friend, but of the spark that finally ended my drought.


Technology has progressed since that bygone age. Today, there are endless podcasts, videos, and websites available to help a person learn just about anything and everything. I spend several hours of every day learning new things, and it is much, much easier than it was when I was younger. I highly doubt I will ever enter into another drought, but if I do, I will have no excuse. It's just simply too easy to learn new things these days.

So I learn.

18 May, 2012


In honor of this week's (rerun) This American Life episode on The Psychopath Test, I thought it might be interesting to take the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R) myself. Obviously, as a self-diagnosis, it is unlikely that I will get everything correct. But it's just for fun, anyway, so whatever.

The PCL-R is basically a checklist of factors which either apply not at all, somewhat, or fully. If a person showcases enough of these factors, then they are, by this model, psychopathic. Most in the field also use the word "sociopathic" as a synonym, but in some circles, the difference between sociopaths and psychopaths are the external rather than internal factors. In other words, on the inside they are the same, but sociopaths tend to not break laws, but only social taboos, while psychopaths tend to go as far as hurting other people in a malicious manner.

The factors exist in three categories. The first addresses personality. Sociopaths, in general, are aggressive narcissists. Most (though not all) sociopaths have narcissistic personality disorder and/or histrionic personality disorder. For the record, I have neither. Nevertheless, I expect to still score at least some points in the personality category of the PCL-R.

The second category addresses case history. Most (though not all) sociopaths live a socially deviant lifestyle and/or have antisocial personality disorder and/or a history of criminal behavior. I have no history of criminal behavior whatsoever, and I definitely do not have antisocial personality disorder. However, I do live what most would consider a socially deviant lifestyle, so I expect to also score some point on this category of the PCL-R.

The last category is a catch-all for traits not associated with case history or personality, yet are strongly correlated with sociopaths. This includes sexual choices, acquired behavioral schemes, and versatility of criminal planning. Since one of my core strengths is my capacity to acquire behavioral schemes, I also expect to score in this area as well.

The Test

I have self-scored myself a 0, 1, or 2 depending on whether each item describes myself not at all, somewhat, or fully. If you wish to score yourself as I did, you will need more information on each item in the checklist. Here are two unofficial sources you might want to consult: Narcissism Support and PsychForums.

  • Personality
    • Glibness: 0
    • Grandiose sense of self-worth: 0
    • Pathological lying: 1
    • Cunning: 0
    • Lack of guilt: 0
    • Shallow affect: 1
    • Callousness: 1
    • Failure to accept responsibility for own actions: 0
  • Case History
    • Proneness to boredom: 1
    • Parasitic: 1
    • Poor behavioral control: 0
    • Lack of realistic long-term goals: 0
    • Impulsivity: 0
    • Irresponsibility: 0
    • Juvenile delinquency: 0
    • Early behavior problems: 0
    • Revocation of conditional release: 0
  • Other
    • Promiscuity: 1
    • Multiplicity of short-term relationships: 1
    • Criminal versatility: 0
    • Acquired behavioral sociological conditioning: 1

The Results

Most people, according to wikipedia, will score a 3 or less on this test. Sociopaths generally score higher than 25-30. I scored 8. Of course, since I self-scored, my result is probably very far off. Maybe I am using a poor standard to test myself against. Maybe I consider some traits being somewhat descriptive of me when a professional would instead say that it is instead not at all descriptive of me. After all, I scored myself a 1 for some traits which held true in the past but which no longer hold true at all for me. Maybe those should have been scored as a 0. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that I scored as highly as I did. Does this mean I have some sociopathic tendencies?

As a follow-up, I also decided to take a look at my responses for the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale. I took the test on Personality Testing, which is maybe not the best place, but it's what I chose to use. My results were substantially different from the PCL-R.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I scored a 1.6 for primary psychopathy, related to "a selfish, uncaring and manipulative attitude towards others". I scored a 2.8 on the secondary psychopathy scale, related to impulsivity. My composite score was 0.8 (no idea how this number was arrived at), whereas the average score is between 2.8 and 3.0. Psychopathy correlates with scores higher than 4.6.

In other words, according to the Levenson Self Report Psychopathy Scale, I am apparently much less likely to be a sociopath than the average person taking their test. This result is completely contrary to the result I received on the PCL-R.

Of course, I really shouldn't pay either of these results any real attention. Labels tend to get in the way more than they help when you are dealing with individuals. (The usefulness of labels accrues exponentially when dealing with large groups, however.) All that matters for me is that I am myself, and that I am comfortable and happy with whom I am. I hope those few who read this will agree.

16 May, 2012

The Schmoss of My Career

Today, I received news that I'd been dropped from the selection process of the career opportunity I'd been working toward the past three months. It was, as you might well imagine, devastating news.

The Oxford job was a long shot anyway, but I certainly hadn't been treating it like one. I put a lot of effort and personal attention into the various steps of the selection process. More effort, in fact, than I'd ever exerted for any previous position. Yet it was not enough. I can't blame them, really, as I do not hold a graduate degree in philosophy. I guess I should just be proud for having gotten as far as I did with my minimal level of qualifications. .:sigh:.

At this point, I imagine you might be wondering why I'm saying this so openly on my blog. After all, it doesn't seem like the sort of thing that a person would want to talk about in a public space. Yet this is flatly unjust.

It is not just our successes that should be lauded, but our failures, too. Only by showcasing our defeats can we ever fully help to broaden society's acceptance and understanding of the fact that failures do, in fact, happen.

Nevertheless, I still feel a bit defeated. Only three short months ago, I seemed so enthusiastic:

And now, I'm left feeling a bit dejected. It's not that I don't enjoy freelancing, but this had been the only salaried position I'd even consider seeking, due to its combination of ethics, philosophy, and actionable social good. Now, it's back to writing content and creating salable code. My dreams will have to wait for the next opportunity to arise.

(The title, by the way, refers to Shelly Kagan's definition of "schmoss" in his excellently articulated philosophy of death, &, yes, this does mean my entry is quite optimistically titled.)