Funny stuff

Unidentified Funny Objects 3 launched early–it’s available in e-formats and paperback. It’s now a major fetish object on my bookshelf, and I am very pleased with the reception to date. Check it out!

Also, I am very pleased to report a new sale to Nature: Futures. A Brief History of Human Intelligence will appear in Nature Physics. I’m making my way through their recently released second collection and there’s some great stuff, also worth checking out!

Oh Destro, wherefore art thou?

I just read this paragraph on CNN regarding the despicable beheading of James Foley:

As details of the cold-blooded execution of Foley emerged, British Prime Minister David Cameron interrupted his summer vacation to head a meeting of the government’s emergency committee, known as COBRA, in London.

Cobra? Are you kidding me? Is David Cameron the COBRA Commander?

Your search, your future

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) has been around for seventy years. It is one of the best studied psychometric tests and is still frequently used in forensic settings. The intriguing thing about the MMPI is that it is atheoretical, it is simply an extended battery of questions, the answers to which provide windows into one’s personality.

What does this mean? We live in an age of self-report questionnaires and checklists. They generally have questions that are obvious in what they’re looking for:  Are you sad? Do you cry? Do you feel blue? Aha, you must be depressed.

The MMPI might find out the same information differently:  Do you play with dolls? Do you ever break things? The question asked and the answer have no logical relationship to the thing being measured, they have simply shown correlation over vast numbers of people taking the test.

In today’s New York Times, there is a fascinating article that brings to mind a similar exercise only with Google searches. This would seem to me to be the next step in Big Data/government oversight/technoparanoia. In Captain America 2 or Freakonomics, there are logic-based algorithms described to find “bad” people. Realistically, it won’t be too long before arrest records and google searches start to predict things about ourselves we won’t logically be able to guess.

It won’t be “flying lessons” “bomb-making” “Allah” that will trigger some terrorism alert, it will be something as banal as “Adidas shoes” “pineapples” and “Sea Monkeys.” Self-censorship will be useless, which the MMPI solves for as well. Search terms will be transparent to so-called “fake-bad” and “fake-good” subscales–the falsely-rebellious and the guiltily-hidden.

The problem with all of this is that it will be utterly without narrative. There will be no explanation, just a prediction that will be inexplicable other than “the computer said so.” Welcome to Minority Report.

On the topic of suicide…

So Robin Williams killed himself. That is so deeply upsetting, I can barely address it.

I’ve been amazed and shocked by the overall response. As someone who lives daily in the world of people so distraught, dissatisfied, alone, sad, miserable, and/or hate-filled that suicide is the rational solution, I am shocked by the apparent shock/disgust with which the world has responded.

Suicide is outcome of many different types of mental distress combined with many different types of problem solving. I won’t address that kind of simplistic math any further. Needless to say, there are interventions for a wide variety of conditions–pharmacological, psychotherapeutic, and just plain, human.

The idea, either that this was a) a purely selfish act, or alternatively b) a failure to reach out for help, is very simplistic. Between a) and b) are many people who reach out for help and don’t find enough relief and many who (mistakenly) believe they are reducing the net suffering of the world by removing their variable from the equation.

There is something definitive that is yet to be written about the nihilism of the intelligent, empathic male. It is a category subsumed in the narratives of Hemingways and Giraldos, or Belushis and Hoffmans, and now Williamses. The man who is insightful and empathic and who struggles with the conflict this engenders.

As a psychiatrist, I think we can talk about the entity of “depression” all we want, but in truth, there are dozens of sub-types; this is one worth exploring further.

For me, Robin Williams will forever be the permissive father. The teacher/therapist who inspired creativity and rebellion, who showed a different path than the rigidity of male aggression or money or dominance.

It breaks my heart that it was only a performance.

Hannibabble

Okay, just finished Hannibal Season One.

My name is Jeremy, these are my Hannibal credentials: I read Red Dragon and Silence before the movie was made. I read Hannibal and Hannibal Rising in hardcover (!), and liked them both for what they were–love story and backstory. I even mostly enjoyed those films.

So last week, when an insect bite laid me out for the week, I queued up Neflix with a Hannibal marathon.

There is some great stuff. It’s beautifully shot–the cooking especially. I like Mads, but Hugh Dancy was really the star of the show–just a believably understated performance in what could have become campy. The arc of the season is nicely plotted, the murderer-of-the-week is moderately interesting.

BUT (and yes, capital but, here) could they not have hired a psychiatric consultant? The show was written as if we should be drinking every time the word psychopath is spoken. The endless prattling on in psychobabble is so tedious and banal, I had to grit my teeth every time Gillian Anderson or poor Caroline Dhavernas were onscreen.

“I haven’t practiced medicine in years,” said the PSYCHIATRIST!
“Dementia is a symptom. What is the disease?!” Huh?
“She’s killing people because she thinks she’s dead.” Wait, what now?

Delirium versus dementia. Sociopath versus psychopath. Cotard’s Syndrome. Anti-NMDA Receptor encephalitis. This is a show that thrives on the intricacies of mental phenomena and yet the ability to make these abstract ideas interesting and nuanced (and worthy of armchair diagnostic fetishism with which they are endowed) is next to nil.

What the Starling-Lecter dialog succeed at was the absence of jargon. Conversation as metaphor as window into psychology. This season went the other direction–metaphor as jargon as power as jargon as plot.

Still, a show like Hannibal gets me jazzed up. It encourages me to find some way to get the real intricacies and challenges of psychiatry onscreen. When psychiatrists get together we don’t talk jargon. We talk stories, the surprises, the predictable surprises, the Gordian knots of helping someone. The dance, the breakthrough, the failure, the risk.

Okay, back to work.

Mystery Writers

When I was a tween I found Stephen King. Over the next years I read everything he’d written (including Danse Macabre which, let’s face it, why did I read Danse Macabre?). This morning I was reading one of the myriad articles slamming GRRM for his private/rude/secretive relationship with his readers, and reflected on what a different relationship I had with authors 25+ years ago.

I distinctly remember going to the local library and pulling out a thick tome called Who’s Who. I looked up Stephen King. It mentioned some of his popular works, then listed some works-in-progress. I still remember how excited I was to get a glimpse into a writer’s future. I knew something that few others did–Stephen King was working on a book called The Plant. Now, as far as I can tell, The Plant never came out (or its title was changed, or it was a short story/novella and not a full novel) but I’m still connected to the excitement of that discovery. All I had were the lists of “Other Works” at the front of the paperback, and the dutiful checking of store shelves for one I’d missed.

So, back to Danse Macabre. Why did I read Danse Macabre at 12? Because the only way to connect with a beloved writer was by reading his published work, even if it was nonfiction. The writer was a person who could only be connected to by reading, like a long-distance relationship with bursts of intimacy punctuating a state of yearning, hope, and anticipation.

It’s a different world now. I read dozens of tweets a day by writers. I know their works in progress in real time. I read interviews, and op-eds, and blog posts. I know when they’re having a bad day, I know their kids’ names, I know their tastes in whiskey. Shamefully, I connect with writers without ever reading their fiction. I have also stopped reading writers’ fiction I liked because I didn’t like their politics or what I gleaned of their personalities.

This isn’t a nostalgic screed against social media culture, but it is a lament for the lost experience of surprise and discovery and covert book knowledge. A eulogy for the discovery of a unexpected book in an unexpected place at an unexpected time. I miss the hunt and the reward that followed.

So GRRM, I hope that you are planning the biggest retro-surprise in history. I hope that you drop the rest of the Ice and Fire series unnanounced. I hope I walk into a bookstore and simply find it on the shelf, sitting there without fanfare, without media storm, without the clerk even realizing what they’ve got.

And if you do that, I promise I won’t tell anyone.

In praise of Percy

The literary society at Columbia’s medical school is named for Walker Percy. He graduated from Columbia, promptly contracted TB from Bellevue and subsequently dedicated his life to healing the soul through literature.

I read The Moviegoer a decade or so ago and it didn’t really strike me one way or the other. However, when Lost in the Cosmos was discussed on a writing podcast (I can’t remember which one or I’d plug it) I picked it up. Well, after three months of inching my way through this dense, horrifying, inspiring, and quizzical tome, I must confess that I’ve been converted to his greatness.

In no way can I do the book justice, but here’s my take:

1. Our experience of the world is determined by symbols

2. We have a symbol for everything except ourselves

3. That isolation from ever understanding who we are is a dangerous tension that will likely destroy mankind

4. While mankind has traditionally immersed itself in erotic engagement with the sublime (God, forbidden sexuality, mystery), in an answer-filled, on-demand world there is no mystery left, no communion with the essence of the Cosmos; instead we turn to sex, alcohol, consumerism, rampant narcissism

5. There is no exit

Damn, I wish he’d been alive for Facebook.