Category Archives: Being and Doing

Do What You’re Told: Why the Milgram experiment still haunts me

 George on the street
I have no question that I know myself better now than I did at age 19. But it’s what you don’t know about yourself that gets you in trouble. (click to enlarge)
If you know what the Milgram experiment was, odds are that you are middle-aged or older, with a BA in the liberal arts, or even, god forbid, psychology. Less likely is that the experiment remains in your memory among your collection of cautionary tales—and you may haul it out in conversations where the topic gets round to questions of obedience, authority and moral compasses. (Why don’t we ever hear about ethical compasses? Because ethics are rules and roadmaps created by authorities purportedly to help us find our way if we lose our moral compasses. For the difference see either or

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psych professor, recruited subjects to take part in a learning experiment. The volunteer was to read strings of words to a person he thought was another volunteer, but who was, in fact, a member of the team. Each time the learner got the words wrong, the volunteer was supposed to push a button that would deliver an electric shock. The lab-coated director told the volunteer to keep raising the voltage if the learner couldn’t get the words right. And a majority of volunteers, even as they protested, followed the instructions of the director, raising the electric shocks often past the point where the learner was apparently crying out with pain. (The learner’s screams were actually tape recordings, to provide continuity from one session to another.)

“…His face was red. His eyes were bloodshot and staring straight into mine. “Don’t you ever ever to that to me again,” he shouted.”

Late last year the Journal of Social Issues published an edition reexamining Milgram’s work, what it may or may not have proved, and the controversy and questions about human nature left still unanswered in its wake. For more detail see Cari Romm’s recent article in the Atlantic.

I came across the Milgram experiment in 1968 in a psychology course in the fall of my sophmore year at Purdue University. I had flunked out as a freshman physics major, and had decided to try my luck as a psych major; a.k.a. in those days as Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The My Lai massacre had happened half a year earlier. My professor was an earnest radical stuck in an egregiously conservative midwestern university Continue reading Do What You’re Told: Why the Milgram experiment still haunts me

AirBNB Bookcase: Mi libro es su libro

dog and bookcase
The Dog, The Couch, and The Bookcase: How mysteriious it is to find my books on strange shelves. (click to enlarge)
During the past few years most of the books I buy and read end up in the memory of my electronic device. It’s a particularly dreary way to keep a library, but it’s also the only possible way to carry books with me at this point in my life when I am shuttling among five houses, on various missions of family business, responsibility and pleasure.

So last week we found ourselves renting an AirBNB room in an elderly three story house in Ithaca, NY owned by a couple in their 30s. Other inhabitants included a pair of large painted turtles in an indoor pond and a white bull terrier sporting a dark grey waistcoat snoozing on the couch in front of the fireplace. A windup Victrola stood to one side of the room, waiting to be fed from a couple of wooden boxes crammed with 78s. Alexis welcomed us with an easy smile and gave us short tour of the amenities.

All of the above would have been easily enough to make me feel completely comfortable and happy to be there. But as I scanned the room, trying to pick up details and clues about the lives and interests of the owners, I pretty much fell into a huge bookcase taking up most of one side of the room. It’s the kind of a bookcase you can’t take in standing in just one place. You have to walk back and forth, bending way over to the floor and standing on you tiptoes. You can feel the sheer physical presence of the books, probably 700-800 pounds of them.

Real books tucked shoulder to shoulder in a stack of wooden cubes 7 feet tall and more than 12 feet wide. Hundreds of books shelved with slight but not obsessive order, the kind of arrangement that leads to lucky accidents of co-location, such as the Collected Writings of Carl Jung sandwiched between Katz’ The Art of Fermentation and I Like You by Amy Sedaris.

There’s a thrill and an art in trying to divine a person’s life story from the books they keep in their cases. The condition of the books says a lot, but the clusters of topic and genre, the range of publication dates, and even the placement on the shelves speaks…well…volumes. For example, abandoned interests and hobbies usually drift down and to the side.

But that’s not what I was doing here. I was finding dozens and dozens of titles from my own library in a stranger’s bookcase in Ithaca. There are obvious reasons for that, of course. People of similar sensibilities do travel parallel paths. Still the sense that a bit of this house literally overlapped with my own house through the bookcases gave me a spooky through-the-wardrobe sort of a feeling.

Pablo Neruda, Vonnegut, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Charles Bukowski, Philip K. Dick, A History of God by Karen Armstrong, to name only a few.

Books I read many years ago, remembered fondly but will probably never read again, books I’ve been reading but not finished, books on my list to read, books I own, haven’t read, won’t ever read, but for one reason or another can’t bring myself to get rid of.

The next morning Mark and Alexis gave us a kombucha “mother” so I could begin brewing my own, and the address of a guy in Syracuse who fixes broken Victrola springs, the malady that afflicts our own family Victrola.

I’ve been away from my own bookcase in our house in NH for almost five months. Such a pleasure of connection and commonality to find a portion of that bookcase in an Ithaca living room.

A Thousand Thousand Things: Thrashing towards clarity

Shelves piled with clutter
Just because it is somebody else’s doesn’t mean it’s not clutter. (click to enlarge)
It’s been well more than a century since clutter was associated with good taste and the display of wealth. In the mid-1800s the burgeoning middle classes, giddy with the wealth produced by the machinery of the new industries of Victorian England, flocked to the department stores freshly stocked with a thousand thousand things that had never existed before, and they shopped and shopped and shopped.

They were the pioneers of conspicuous consumption, carting all that stuff back home to older houses which were designed to hold a few essential items discreetly in cupboards or closets or shelves. So the Victorians invented extravagant, exquisite clutter as interior design. An empty space on a table or shelf, a lampshade without tassels, a table leg without ornamentation, any place the weary eye could rest without being assaulted was anathema. Millions of manufactured things had broken loose into the world and claimed their places crowded into every room of every house whose owners could afford them.

During the final decades of the 19th century, quite suddenly most of the middle and upper classes on earth could, and did, acquire way, way more stuff than they needed or could actually claim to use. Before the industrial revolution human beings essentially had to make their things by hand, and so the number of hands at work placed a limit on how many widgets in a day or a year those hands could make. But machinery changed that formula forever, and there we were, millions and millions of people who for tens of thousands of years had always wanted more stuff, standing in front of the factory doors with lust for things in our guts and extra money in our hands as wave after wave of objects washed by us and around us and swept us away into the future.

Regardless of the Victorian era’s celebration of exquisite clutter, the twentieth century would continue to churn out stuff at a rate that was nothing short of relentless, if not remorseless.

And as if enough were not enough, in the past 20 years we’ve figured out how to beam up the real world of things into the digital world of virtual things. Stuff that is orders of magnitude easier to get and have and hold and store than was possible in the physical world now clutters and clogs hard drives, flash memory and server farms. If there is any difference between physical and digital clutter it may be in retrieval: it’s easier and easier to find the needle in the digital haystack with a keystroke.

I know I’m dealing with the curse of clutter when I’ve lost something to it. When I am actually needing some thing but cannot find it. Something useful, some tool, some bit of information on a piece of paper which, because I failed to put it where it goes, fell from grace and into clutter.

The verb “to clutter” now in our time comes true to its original meaning in 14th century English, “to heap up in piles, to litter”, or simply, “to clot”. Clutter does form clots; wherever it comes to rest, it finds its own, and binds together. In drawers, on shelves, in boxes, in closets, on horizontal surfaces, desks and tables and bureaus and ultimately on floors. But the clotting nature of clutter is not limited to physical objects. I am pestered and bedeviled and suffocated and confused as much by the clutter of ideas, fragments of information, memes, responsibilities, lists, lusts, fears and stalled projects in my head as by the thousand thousand objects to which I am attached by ownership, nostalgia or simple neglect. Continue reading A Thousand Thousand Things: Thrashing towards clarity

Just curious: How local?

Button on the sidewalk in Canada
A button at your feet. In Canada, we found a button on the sidewalk. It seemed like such a good idea, but it didn’t work. (click to enlarge)
I named this space Curiously Local when I first began writing here in 2009. I had come into my 60th year, and was beginning to suspect that the next ten years of my life might turn out to be considerably different from anything I could imagine. Or worse, that they might end up being more of exactly the same.

Both outcomes begged the question, “Who’s in charge here?”. It’s always a good question to consider from time to time during the course of one’s life, but since good questions are those which can easily lead to unpalatable answers, I’ve ducked the issue whenever possible. Do we really have any control over how our lives play out, or do we only have control over how powerfully we want to believe in the illusion of control. And is control really the best way to think about what life is all about?

OK, so press me and I will tell you with a straight face that I have chosen the course of my life by making decisions, little and large, daily and weekly, and often with great purpose and industry, spectacle and noise. I will tell you that after I have made those decisions I nail them down in front of me like lumber on a boardwalk across a mucky and delicate wetlands.

But as satisfying as it is to make a decision–you know, lay the board down in front of the others, bang in the nails–I am quietly troubled by my suspicion that most decisions are little more that the inevitable expression of inclinations and habits. That class of determiners which we might call “The ways I am that make me do the stuff I do”. The rut-captured routines that are imbedded so deeply in us that we would have a devil of a time calling them up and naming them, let alone parsing the bargains we’ve made so we never have to acknowledge how helpless we are to change them.

Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles: his soul for all the knowledge in the world.

My deal with my devil: my soul for leaving me be just the way I am. Continue reading Just curious: How local?