Monday, January 21, 2008

"Never Ask a GSer About Maps"

I [Bruce Kodish] haven't had much time to blog. Since last Thursday I've been at Read House, the home of the Institute of General Semantics in Fort Worth, Texas. Read House is located in the Fairmount Historical District of town, full of historic residences and within walking distance an up-and-coming urban area that includes one of the best vegan restaurants I've ever eaten in.

Read House now houses the complete [as far as I know] Institute of General Semantics archives. Steve Stockdale, who just resigned as Director of the Institute, put together materials, digitized at least some of the most important ones including some of the old reel-to-reel tapes of interviews with people like M. Kendig, one of the leaders in the early days with Korzybski, and other interviews that Steve conducted himself. Various archival materials, like letters, manuscripts, library books were previously scattered in various places and relatively unorganized. Thanks to Steve's tremendous efforts, the history and legacy of Korzybski and General Semantics has never been in as good a shape or as accessible.

Looking through a box of materials labeled "Ken Johnson," I found this gem from a good friend and teacher of mine, now gone. Kenneth G. Johnson, PhD was for many years a professor of Mass Communications at the University of Wisconson-Milwaukee. Here is his poem, "Never Ask a GSer About Maps" which Ken wrote and presented at the IGS Seminar-Workshop in 1990. His poem was inspired by reading Shel Silverstein's Never Ask a Zebra About Stripes.

"Never Ask a GSer About Maps"
by Kenneth G. Johnson

I asked a GSer why he was so concerned about maps.
And the GSer asked me:
Does your 'enquiring mind' feast on the National Enquirer?
Or seek answers to "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"
Do you claim to see things as they really are?
Or do you know that you abstract?
Do you lock in on first impressions?
Or do you use your process brain to process a process world?
Do you polarize your choices using simple either-ors?
Or recognize possibilities in degrees and probabilities?
Are your abstractions free-floating hot-air ballons?
Or firmly anchored in experience?
Do you trap yourself in word-made boxes?
Or prize your own uniqueness?
Do you climb mountains of seductive abstractions?
Or avoid the peak-a-boo-boo?
Are you looking for a white-robed guru?
Or a time-tested crap-detecting system?
Are you bound by the tyranny of agreement?
Or will you settle for the warmth of understanding?
Do you react categorically and dogmatically?
Or do you leave that to your pets?
Are you seeking Truth with a capital T?
Or prediction value with a small p?
And on and on and on and on
And on and on he went.
I'll never ask a GSer about maps

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Black Swan and Godzilla

From the fan art page of Ryan North's charming Dinosaur Comics

I happened to start reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan one night while flipping channels (yes, I confess to sometimes watching television while reading), and saw that the 1998 American remake of Godzilla was on. I watched the movie while I read the book—an interesting juxtaposition.

Taleb's book title comes from a famous example used by Karl Popper to illustrate his notion of falsifiability. If you say that "all swans are white" no amount of white swans will prove the statement as true. You need to see only one black swan to disprove or falsify the statement. Indeed Europeans apparently did believe that all swans were white, until the first black swan was sighted in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a prototype for every kind of anomolous life 'territory' which take us by surprise because our 'maps', expectations, theories haven't accounted for them. A 'black swan'—often unwelcome—'bites' us when we don't expect it.

Many scenes from Godzilla illustrate the 'black swan' phenomenon beautifully. I'll mention two but since the movie is basically about a big 'black swan' Godzilla just about every scene provides an example. Near the beginning of the movie, Matthew Broderick's character, a young scientist has been brought to a disaster scene in Panama, the aftermath of a Godzilla sighting. He stands on a bit of ground clueless until he sees that he is standing inside the clue, a giant reptilian footprint. 'Black Swan' time.

Once Godzilla has landed in Manhattan, an obnoxious newsman played by Harry Shearer is in his high-rise office complaining on the phone to someone about problems with finding interesting stories for the evening news. While he complains, Godzilla's tail is seen to sweep by the newsroom's picture window. The biggest story has walked right by him and he is oblivious to it. 'Black Swan' time.

I understand that the 1998 movie didn't do very well in the box office. But I liked it.

The world is actually full of 'black swans'. When we begin to look for them, expect the unexpected, perhaps we can be better prepared to deal with them. At least perhaps we won't feel so shocked when we see some Black Swan Godzilla walking down the road our way.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Another Description of General Semantics

From the notebooks of Robert P. Pula:
" General-semantics [he liked to write it with a hyphen to emphasize its use as a unitary term for the system that Korzybski formulated] offers a way for people to size things up, including themselves, in a way more compatible with what's outside their heads (so-called 'reality') so that they can better learn, better communicate with their companions, do sharper research, tell themselves less nonsense and, by being more present to those they're dealing with, experience enhanced degrees of affection."
I remember that Bob also used to say "General-semantics doesn't do anything!"

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Describing General Semantics

From the notebooks of Robert P. Pula:
"General-semantics is a method for challenging yourself. How do you know what you 'know'? Do you have the guts to self-challenge? What effect will this have in how you come across in the laboratory, in the office, in the gymnasium—in the bedroom?"

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Black Swan

Korzybski's famous 'aphorism'—"A map is not the territory" has become ubiquitous in some parts of the culture.

The analogy seems so compelling and has become such a common part of people's 'mental furniture', that many people like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, use it as part of their own formulating without any indication that they know that it came from Korzybski or constituted an important formulation of his system of 'thought'.

That's not necessarily a fault of Taleb's yet I believe that his own excellent writing would probably benefit from his knowing about Korzybski and reading his work.

At any rate, the difference between map and territory appears as a repetitive motif throughout his wonderful book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Indeed, it constitutes very much part of Taleb's theme of expecting the unexpected:
"What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined "forms," whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias (societies built according to some blueprint of what "makes sense"), even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures (an idea that I will elaborate progressively throughout this book.)" (p. xxv)
Taleb's The Black Swan goes onto my list of highly recommended 'reads' for aspiring non-aristotelians (or non-platonists).

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Start of A Life-Long 'Interest'

I was going to say "obsession" but if it qualifies as an 'obsession' I consider my interest in Korzybski and his work a healthy one, at least it has seemed mainly so to me.

I read a lot as a teenager. Sometime in the mid-sixties, looking for new things to study I found a book called The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase in a reading list in Family Circle, a magazine my mother got. The title intrigued me. I got the book from the library, read it (including his portrayal of Korzybski) and began asking all my teachers in school, "What is the referent?" I was starting to become quite a pest.