Vectors for Literary Contagion, Vol. I; Now With A Bonus Prediction!

The character of internet traffic can be disheartening, a fact your blogger at BriefLiteraryAbandon learned in college, where the leading source of hits to a progressive student magazine he worked with was from the Google search “safe asphyxiation sex” and the #2 and #3 biggest traffic drivers were likewise hits to the magazine’s relatively short-lived and infrequent sex column. These three specific searches made up >1/2 of the site’s search-driven traffic on most days, despite there being only a few sex columns on the whole site, and hundreds of carefully researched original articles. Disheartening. So what’s a blogger to do, to keep his hopes up, while blogging on an internet of this kind, for an audience or even? Dare he aim so high a community? (Dare, dare)

Perhaps humor is the answer. Popehat.com has a semi-regular feature called “The Road to Popehat” which looks at the search results–especially the entertaining ones–that bring traffic to Popehat.com.

Taking that feature as inspiration, here is the first installment of “Vectors of Literary Contagion.” To-date, the overwhelmingly large majority of traffic to BriefLiteraryAbandon is thanks to (and concentrated in the immediate 24 hours after) a Popehat tweet pointing to a post where I borrowed his sock puppets.

However, and the inspiration for this post, as of today, at least one internet searcher has found this blog via a Google search: “name of a parade less than a triumph.” Hail to thee, dear quester for the name of Roman parades not grand enough to count as triumphs. You did not find what you were looking for here; it is not in my review of “The Roman Triumph.” But I hope you liked the post.

I also hope your internet searches continued, and you ran across this line on the wikipedia page for Roman triumphs: A general might be granted a “lesser triumph”, known as an Ovation. Perhaps you thence proceeded to the linked full Wikipedia page on the Roman Ovation… at any rate, here’s to you, as BriefLiteraryAbandon’s first search-induced visitor. May all your searches be fruitful.

Tune in next time for “Vectors of Literary Contagion.”

And, since the title promised a bonus prediction, here are two.

Bonus Predictions:
1. How long will it be until the next installment of Causes of Literary Abandon? I predict there won’t more than five different searches driving traffic to BriefLiteraryAbandon for at least twelve more months. 
2. Having written “safe asphyxiation sex” on this page raises a second question. How long will it be until BriefLiteraryAbandon gets its first visit to this page via asphyxia-related searches, sexual or otherwise? I predict there will be no search-driven traffic related to sex or asphyxiation. The internet, of course, is famously humorless, and will doubtless not try to prove me wrong, or anything like that. 

The Dip, by Seth Godin

“The Dip” by Seth Godin is a good example of how motivational success books work. The Dip offers this list:

Seven reasons you might fail to become the best in the world [at something specific]

1. You run out of time (and quit).
2. You run out of money (and quit).
3. You get scared (and quit).
4. You’re not serious about it (and quit).
5. You lose interest or enthusiasm or settle for being mediocre (and quit).
6. You focus on the short term instead of the long (and quit when the short term gets too hard).
7. You pick the wrong thing at which to be the best in the world (because you don’t have the talent).

The Dip presents this list as part of a crisp package suggesting success (however defined) is guaranteed, if you follow the program.
Guaranteed success!? Sign me up, right?
Here, however, are seven more reasons you might fail to become the best in the world

1. You are paralyzed by analysis (and miss a critical window).
2. You have health problems that interfere.
3. You have great luck in some other category (say, parenting) that is inherently non-“best in the world” but diverts your attention. And you rededicate.
4. You avoid taking the kind of extremely leveraged positions that could result in “best” with the result that you are rewarded, but not extremely. Maybe Seth Godin would define this as being the “best in the world” at satisfying the market demand for an affordable accountant, say, if you do not become the very best accountant, or would define it as becoming the “best in the world” at satisfying market demand for a local accountant in a particular geographic market, but realistically you’re not different than the higher-priced, more highly sought-after accountant in a bigger city. You just made different choices and accepted less risk.
5. You did take a risk, say an 80% chance of becoming the best choice for a candidate for a local office, but the 20% turned out to happen in this universe, and you’re stuck with being an also-ran.
6. You succeed in becoming the best… but not before the world changes and the thing you’re best at isn’t in demand anymore. E.g., somewhere in the world is the best cab driver in the world. But given how soon we are likely to see cab services taken over by automated driving, if you set out now to be the best cab driver in NYC, and give yourself five years of aggressive work to get there… well, you’ll fail, and that’s something you and I know because we know about self-driving cars. But someone in Tegucigalpa who doesn’t know much about the venture finance money pouring in to fund self-driving cars won’t necessarily know what you know, and what I know, and they may set out to become the best cab driver in Tegucigalpa… and a fat lot of good it may do them.
7. You get sucked into a financial trap, taking on way too much student debt, via the promise of “guaranteed success” and spend the rest of your life falling behind as you have more debt to service than other people who, the wonders of education notwithstanding, are still about as smart and hard-working as you.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Here’s a short post about The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte.

What I found most striking was the way Tufte’s precision prose exemplifies the austerity-is-power philosophy he takes to graphical communications. His opening line is, “Excellence in statistical graphics consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency.”

Tufte goes on, “Graphics reveal data. Indeed graphics can be more precise and revealing than conventional statistical computations. Consider Anscombe’s quartet: all four of these datasets are described by exactly the same linear model (at least until the residuals are examined).” [Anscombe’s quartet are a set of four datasets, each consisting of eleven points on (x,y). All four sets have the same median and mode for both x and y, the same sample variance for both x and y, the same regression line, and yet, well, just look at them:

800px-Anscombe's_quartet_3.svg

Tufte’s book then makes a systematic argument for his philosophy of data graphics. Concluding different sections, Tufte offers these rules for graphical excellence:

  • The representation of numbers, as physically measured on the surface of the graph, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.”
  • Clear, detailed and thorough labeling should be used to defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity. Write out explanations of the data on the graphic itself. Label important events in the data.Show data variation, not design variation.
  • In time-series displays of money, deflated and standardized units of monetary measurement are nearly always better than nominal units.
  • The number of information-carrying (variable) dimensions depicted should not exceed the number of dimensions in the data.
  • Graphics must not quote data out of context.

I quite enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone as a bracing illustration of how a puritanical insistence on precision is a prerequisite of excellence.

A closing, enjoyable quote:

[T]he only worse design than a pie chart is several of them, for then the viewer is asked to compare quantities located in spatial disarray both within and between pies, … [g]iven their low data-density and failure to order numbers along a visual dimension, pie charts should never be used.

Edited to add: elsewhere, Tufte noted that no matter how finely a rule may cut, for every rule there will be an exception. Following on the suggestion of a commenter, I offer this as an example of the rare exception where a pie chart is the crispest communication of the relevant data:

Pie-I-have-Eaten

In which I try talking about elephants with strangers on Facebook

So, I got invited to a Facebook group with ~300 members, only one of which I know, and that one being disconnected from all of the rest of my network. What an interesting social experiment!

I was invited because of a post I’d put on a racist comment on that friend’s wall, and so I knew I was strolling into a “blue team w/ designated assholes who play at trolling and/or conservatism, but who don’t, you know, play to win” kind of discussion area. Perhaps for that reason, I just strolled confidently into one of my favorite conversational topics: elephant trauma and the implications for violence among other social mammals. Maybe it was just an instinct that fortune favors the bold.

Here’s the post:

Hi y’all. New here. Here’s a first post.

Thesis: A major driver of male violence is a failure of socialization. Societies are probably not in our lifetimes going to be able to prevent male violence entirely, but where two neighboring societies, otherwise similar, diverge in terms of one having much more male violence… well, you may not need to look further than asking if the violence is connected to the society being worse at providing meaningful social connectedness to its men.

If anyone feels like disagreeing with that thesis, well, come at me. But first, here’s a provocative question:

Would you change your mind if there were solidly documented evidence that social isolation, or nasty socialization, can make male elephants–a famously social and gentle animal–form into all-male packs exhibiting such behavior as running down, pinning, trumpeting their victory, and only then killing human beings? What about if these groups of male elephants were also running down and raping and murdering rhinos?

link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant.html

You’re confused, and a little upset. Rhinos Raped? Sounds like a Mel Brooks joke. Yes. Rhinos. Raped. Now you’re asking… How much nasty socialization does it take to make an elephant into “that kind” of elephant? What are we talking about here? Well, how about being orphaned by poachers (who took mom and dad’s tusks, but didn’t have an interest in junior, who was too small to have any ivory)? How about eventually being driven by fear and hunger into departing from a snuggle-vigil with one’s dead parents, and then being raised by an abusive all-male group of elephants?

Still not convinced this is about loneliness and love and self-expression?

What if you also learned the elephants–the rhino-rapists who like ceremonial human murder… what if you learned they got put in rehabilitation parks designed for retired circus elephants, and given time enough to socialize normally… they got better?

Better you ask? Better how?

Yes, better to the point where they are very close friends with humans, and bond so closely with one human that, the human trusts them enough to hang out with them without any fence or concrete pylon or etc. But more than that. Better to the point where the rehabilitation place released them into the wild, where they successfully integrated and started families of their own. But more than THAT. Better to the point where they followed the elephant tradition of traveling–even if it takes a hundred miles–to introduce toddler-age elephants to their grandparents. Except here, the elephants travel back to the elephant park to introduce their children to the human they’ve bonded with.

Now ask me again if this is about socialization.

OR better yet, go read the article-the WHOLE DAMN THING if necessary, and yes, ermigawd, it’s like ten pages of dense NYTimes Mag writing. Suck it up. Now go post it to somewhere that someone prone to seeing the world in black-and-white, good-and-evil terms is a little more likely to come across it than here in a closed group of think-alikes.

here’s the link again: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant.html

I mean, actually, I don’t really know any of you (well, I know exactly one of you) but I’d probably love you if I met you, and you shouldn’t ever change. But you know what I mean. Don’t save it all up for private groups. Be friends with men who aren’t that good at it.

And also, if you disagree, come at me, cause that’s what this is all about.

So far, I’ve just gotten people adding comments that mostly chime in or agree–no real argument at all. Maybe I overdid it? A condition of joining the group was not to quote anything anybody else puts there without permission. I think it’s cool if I share the good links and specific ideas some people added in… which seems to be mostly just this:
http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comic/rat-park/#page-1.

There but for grace of God and circumstance…

So, a friend posted to Facebook:

What’s the best way to handle someone in conversation with you sho says overtly racist or misogynistic things? Think: taxi driver. How about someone close to you? Think family member or friend.

I had a dream about it in which mostly I just cried and then asked them to read some books I was recommending. Doesn’t seem actually effective. Would love to read y’alls thoughts.

Amid a lot of comments that aimed at commiseration, and a few enjoyable gifs like a cute kid spouting off, “that’s racist!” I responded:

One helpful phrase to keep in mind (and to get them to keep in mind, if possible) is “there but for the grace of god.” If people assume other people are mostly like them, but different because of external, historical, or other reasons, they usually do a much better job of achieving an inoffensive understanding of how the world came to be the way it is. If people don’t keep this phrase in mind, it’s not surprising that they may arrive at really offensive interpretations of the world. For one example, people who haven’t been reminded to keep “there but for the grace of god” in their minds, the default explanation for differing incarceration rates, across races, is that differences are a result of racial differences in criminal propensity.

In the same vein, there but for the grace of god, I wouldn’t have the phrase “there but for the grace of god” so nicely planted in my own brain, and so it would be me saying offensive things.

Another word for the challenge is how to cultivate sociological imagination. When we stop and think about how much of our present situation depends on forces beyond our control–good luck, or the grace of god, or whatever you call it–we tend to become more grateful and generous and forgiving.

A few days later, my friend posted this:

I hope you all take the time to read this. I don’t often write up such detailed encounters, but I think this story is so very important:

On Wednesday, as I was walking to the bus stop from my visit to Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum in Israel), I was greeted by a gentleman sitting on a bench across the street. For some reason, even though I was extremely emotionally raw, dehydrated and with low blood sugar, I decided to cross the street and engage with him. We had a brief conversation about how he’d visited Ft. Collins to speak at a church there about the ministry he runs to help poor people in Jerusalem. He said he had gone to the nearby forest to unwind. He said he liked the forest because there were no Arabs around.

Emboldened by my days of deliberation on this topic as well as my recent moving experience at Yad Vashem, I pushed back. I explained how frustrated I was with this sort of talk in Israel, that not all Arab people are bad, etc. He responded that they were dangerous. Ardent atheist that I am, I responded to this clearly religious man with [redacted name of your intrepid blogger here at briefliteraryabandon]’s phrase “there but for the grace of god.” (Aside: I personally believe in the sentiment behind the statement even if I don’t agree with the theology behind the exact phrasing.) He said that just this morning an Arab man had crossed the border and stabbed two people. I said, yes that is horrible; that is evil in this world but not all Arab people are evil. I started discussing how viewing Others in such a way is how tragedies like the holocaust occur and that I can relate because I can also catch myself doing the same thing (immediately assuming danger) in the US with our Others. But that I believe we should try to practice radical kindness if we hope to improve the world, etc.

We went back and forth like this for short while when something amazing happened: he told me I was right. That he had been wrong to say what he had said earlier; that is was mean-spirited of him. That he, a rabbi, had learned from me today. He then offered me a ride to my destination and we continued discussing a variety of interesting things along the way. He mentioned again as we neared our destination that I was blessed and that I had been his teacher during this time of repentance (we were squarely in the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and blessed him.

I have so many little stories like this (let’s call them spiritual blessings) from my time here in Israel. I sincerely hope I take the time to write more of them down so I can remember the openness and love I have felt in this time. I am writing this here now with the hopes that I can inspire at least one of my Facebook friends to keep on keeping on. Together let’s keep up the good fight for peace and love in this world even though it sometimes seems pointless. Amen.

I guess I’m recording this here, so I can point to it if anyone says nothing I wrote ever affected anyone.

Or maybe it’s because I haven’t been getting out enough lately. But, dear reader, before you judge, remember that there but for the grace of God, you too could end up consigned to advancing humanity one Facebook comment at a time.