Previous month:
July 2006
Next month:
September 2006

August 2006

Flow & Deception

In June, when I was blogging Wolfram Research's New Kind of Science Conference, I did a post on three books which, when read together, lead me in interesting directions. I later used the blog post as a kind of introductory set piece for a one-hour talk I gave at Readercon in July.

Lies Well, I've found another pair of books. I'm just beginning to bounce them off of one another to interesting effect. The books are: Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit by Charles V. Ford, M.D. and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The first of these two is a delightful journey through the psychological landscapes of salesmen, politicians, and lawyers, hypochondriacs and con men. It treats the subjects of deception good-humoredly, yet rigorously. While there is a fair amount of moralistic fun to be had in this book reading about the exploits of the notorious, the book also makes one conscious of the deception involved in saying "good job" to every picture scrawled in crayon and attempted cartwheel. No one gets away in this book.

Ford has a lovely epilogue that concludes:

In one of those rare instances when intellectual honesty rears its head above the ugly sea of self-deception, I must confess that others have demonstrated at least equal insight and have often communicated with greater style. It seems that we must continually rediscover the truth.

FlowFlow is a foundational book for the contemporary psychological movement that is focused on the study of human happiness and how to attain it. I'm about halfway through. "Flow" is another term for what the author calls "optimal experience."

. . . we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions when it happens, we feel a deep sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

That is what we mean by optimal experience. . . .

Csikszentmikalyi argues in the book that attaining this state tends to involve controlling the focus of one's attention, usually when working toward a self-defined goal, and that in such moments of concentration, one loses awareness of distractions. He argues that the state of flow is a tool by which one can achieve personal liberation. While the author does grant that the flow state can be addictive, that it can be attained in socially unacceptable circumstances, and that well-meaning people attaining a flow state during their work may in fact be working towards our destruction, in general he holds it as above and distinct from all other sources of human pleasure. Also, I think, he essentially argues that the flow state is a more effective way of finding longterm happiness than the usual things that motivate people such as sex and money. The author makes the usual disclaimers about flow in an of itself being value-neutral, but it is clear that he esteems the pursuit of the flow experience much more highly than the pursuit of sex or money.

This is the first time I have read about "flow" directly, though I have seen it referred to in pop-neurology books by others (Howard Gardner. I think?). And while I strongly identify with the author's descriptions of the joy of flow, and am myself strongly motivated to seek out the flow experience, I am not at all sure that he is right to set it apart from and above other sources of pleasure and objects of desire.

Regarding darker sources of pleasure, Csikszentmihalyi remarks:

. . . the underground system of forbidden pleasures run by gamblers, pimps, and drug dealers, which is dialectically linked to the official institutions, promises its own rewards of easy dissipation -- provided we pay. The messages are very different, but their outcome is essentially the same: they make us dependent on a social system that exploits its energies for its own purposes.

Why exactly flow should be expected to be exempt from exploitation by social systems seems to me an interesting question. Is any source of human pleasure exempt from that? It would seem to me that if a reward circuit exists, a way will arise for it to be exploited. Flow may be a better and more reliable source of human happiness that heroin, but why is there any reason to believe that the psychological state of flow cannot be exploited?

And here is where reading these two books together gets interesting. There is a very specific attentional feature to flow states to which Csikszentmihalyi returns again and again: a focused awareness, a narrowed concentration -- what my husband described in me as a "hawk-like focus."

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions . . .

Now combine that with all the complexities of deceitful human social interaction as described by Ford, and your protagonist is headed for a real George-of-the-Jungle moment, swinging serenely through the jungles of intellectual experience headed straight for that TREEEEEEE. "Optimal" experience carries with it specific vulnerabilities. So perhaps it also carries with it specific opportunities for exploitation.

Secondly, there are moments in these two books when it seems like they could be describing the same person from radically different perspectives. The continuing emphasis on the importance of the feeling of mastery, as explained in Flow, has unsettling resonances with Ford's accounts of the lives of impostors and pathological liars.

Also, mastery, set in the context of the narrowing of perceptions, which could also be framed as a form of self-deception, is an interesting psychological state indeed. Also, it's hard to say that what one person would call "flow" might not be called "hypomania" by someone else. Mastery, as he uses the word, seems to be an inner experience rather than something externally verifiable, the feeling of power, the feeling of control.

I'm only halfway through Flow. We'll see where the second half takes me.

UPDATE 9/1: Well, I had a go at the second half of the book, but I'm having the problem that Csikszentmihalyi seems to be trying to shoehorn most other forms of healthy pleasure into the notion of flow. Or maybe I'm just irritable and suspicious because he doesn't answer my objections. And of course the book was written years ago, so there's no particular reason to expect that he should. So I put it down and instead have been reading Robert Young Pelton's new book Licensed to Kill, which I am quite enjoying so far.

Our new book got a starred review in Publisher's Weekly!

Year's Best Fantasy 6 coverStarredpwreview_1 The Year's Best Fantasy 6, edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, coming soon in trade paperback from Tachyon, got a starred review in the August 28th issue of Publisher's Weekly. I've posted a nice shot of our starred review for you to admire.

The series moves from HarperCollins to Tachyon this year, so it is especially nice to have this review to ease the transition from one publisher to another.

Yeeeehaaaaw! David won the Best Editor Hugo!

From Rob Sawyer:

I'm totally, totally thrilled that Bob Wilson, one of my very best friends, finally got his long overdue Hugo, and that my editor and friend David Hartwell, who, with 33 nominations to date, held the record for most nominations without a win, finally got the Best Editor Hugo . . .

David won the Best Editor Hugo!

And from Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

Hugo Award results
Posted by Patrick at 03:28 AM * 14 comments

Our incoherent congratulations to John Scalzi, David G. Hartwell, and Robert Charles Wilson, plus many other friends and associates. Also, AAAAAAIEEEEEEEEEEE!


John Scalzi, Robert Charles Wilson, & David Hartwell

This is the first time the Best Editor Hugo has been given to a living book editor. The category was felt to so thoroughly favor magazine editors that earlier in convention there was a vote, splitting the category in two, so that book editors could have the possibility of winning Hugo Awards. David won in the last year before the rules change takes effect.

Niall Harrison remarks:

Actually, it seems to have been a year for results that go against the common complaint that Hugo voters are swayed by name recognition, at least in some categories. Sure, Locus and Langford picked up their annual awards, but David Hartwell, editor of everyone from James Tiptree Jnr to David Marusek, finally converted a nomination to a win, and in doing so became the first non-dead book editor to win a Hugo (somewhat ironically, given that his omission from the winners’ list was one of the reasons behind the motion to split Best Editor into two categories).

We are walking on air. Thank you every one who supported him!

Also, our small press magazine, The New York Review of Science Fiction, finished a strong second in the Best Semiprozine category.


The complete list of Hugo winners is up at Locus. The voting breakdown is here. Our photos from last night are up on my Flickr account.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden remarks:

I don't think it's likely that I shall ever see a happier (purely from my point of view) set of Hugo results.

Cory Doctorow & his MacBook

I tried to get Rudy Rucker to take this shot of Cory Doctorow yesterday, after the "Bloggers as Public Intellectuals" panel at the WorldCon (featuring, in addition to Cory, Kevin Drum, Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden, MaryAnn Johanson, & Phil Plait) and but Rudy didn't do it. So I took the shot myself today.

There is a better version of this to be had, but I thought it was interesting to pose.

Here's a fuzzy shot of yesterday's panel I took with my cell phone:


A Note from Geoff Hartwell: Big Distribution on CD Sampler!

Geoff asked me to pass along the following:

Howdy folks!

I'm puttin the call out to anyone who hasn't bought my cd yet- if I can sell JUST A FEW more copies through CD Baby by the end of August, they'll put one of my songs on a sampler that goes out to EVERY Cd Baby customer. That would obviously be an amazing help for getting my music out and helping the indie underdog...

So please go to Cd Baby and buy my cd! THEY MAKE GREAT GIFTS!

Buy the CD
album cover
click to order

Shifting Focus

As the world spirals into chaos amidst wars and bombing plots, I am trying to shift my focus from intrigues involving private military firms and other strange little companies, back to the larger scale issue of how to best manage information harvested from the Internet, and how to transform what one harvests into the most easily visualized format (this, using Google Earth and other tools), since we think better about what we can visualize.

This morning in a waiting room, I learned from (I think) Time magazine that we liberal bloggers have shirked the subject of the Israel-Lebanon war, and they were all ready to steer me to places that would explain why we'd turned tail. Well, gee. Just short of a month ago I did my part to try to portray in a map the destabilizing properties of Hezbollah's new weapons. And later did some other related graphics. This though I am not fascinated by war or the military or war-blogging. It being summer, I traveled for a while on a family vacation.

I look at the global situation now, and I see a dystopian world that was foreshadowed by the menacing rhetoric underlying Iran's military maneuvers a few months ago: the new Hezbollah arsenal and accompanying acctacks on Israel and the airline bombing plots were what was supposed to result from us putting a stop to Iran's nuclear program. Except we didn't put a stop to it. Not really. And the scenario is unfolding anyway. I made my contributions to war-blogging this one, but is this really a job for bloggers at all? Did my knowing this, recognizing this, as it unfolded save anyone's life? I doubt it.

So I'm going to try to shift focus to the tools that help people pick up the pieces and move on. If I can think of something to do to help in the meanwhile, I'll do it. But marveling at the wounded world so easily tips over into voyeurism; and I have no desire for a vicarious ride through Hell.

My adventures of the past year have taught me a lot about what good can be done with information and community available on the Internet. And for me, that seems the right direction to go.

Artifacts from my referrer logs: Three very very very loyal readers?

An interesting phenomenon I've noticed in my referrer logs is that just three readers, identity unknown, seem to make up about a tenth of a percent of my total traffic on the typical day:

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico (on a Mac): via comcast IP# [identified]
  • Arlington Heights, Illinois (also on a Mac): via wideopenwest IP#
  • South Weymouth, Massachusetts (on Windows NT): via comcast IP# [identified]

Frequent visits from these IP#s go back at least six weeks. Could these loyal readers be bots of some kind? Maybe. Some activity from them suggests not.

Are you are one of these very loyal readers? If so, please step forward and introduce yourself!

Another Shoe Drops: "Avery accused of raiding trust fund"

From Lisa Demer at the Anchorage Daily News Avery accused of raiding trust fund
SECURITY AVIATION: Trustees say $52 million for planes came from May Smith Trust.

Anchorage lawyer Mark Avery is being accused in a California lawsuit of raiding the trust fund of a wealthy widow for more than $50 million to finance the mysterious, rapid growth of Security Aviation Inc. and his other business enterprises last year.

Documents in the new case, filed last week in San Francisco, suggest answers to lingering questions about how Avery, a former city and state prosecutor who lived in a Russian Jack duplex as late as 2004, managed a wild spending spree last year. In just a few months, he acquired the Anchorage air charter company and started other businesses, then stocked them with transcontinental jets, surplus Warsaw Pact military aircraft, helicopters, a house, a yacht, a fleet of SUVs and at least one vintage World War II plane.

Avery was one of three trustees for the May Smith Trust but on Wednesday, a San Francisco judge hearing the lawsuit suspended Avery's powers and ordered him not to sell any property acquired through the trust.