Category Archives: What I’m reading…

Bidding for Attention: Share it with me

Joan with tires
Joan asked for her portrait as two-tired. Is it a bid, or a turn-down to a bid? (click pic to enlarge)
I’m standing by my computer with an old hard drive in my hand. It’s the size of a small paperback book, and it’s warm because it’s been running. But it won’t boot. I pull the power connector, let the drive spin down, then plug the power back in and thump the drive on the table while it spins up. The data is in there, but the search head is stuck and can’t read the disk.

If I were writing about dementia this would be an easy analogy, but I’m writing about love.

The reason I need this drive to boot is that it may hold the only copy of the layout files I created ten years ago to publish my father-in-law’s 275-page memoir. The printing company can’t find their copy of the files. Two printings of the book are sold out, and the historical museum in his home town has just placed an order for more.

Joan is in the kitchen inventing tasty puréed food recipes for her 94-year-old father who has trouble swallowing. I’m increasingly frustrated, thumping the hard drive on the table, when I suddenly realize Joan is standing next to me holding a big spoon up to my mouth brimming with some sort of lurid green goo. Continue reading Bidding for Attention: Share it with me

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

Space, 1957: What’s up in the sky?

Barbara with toy space helmet
We were all excited abut Space in 1957. My mother, Barbara, suited up to talk about Sputnik. (click to enlarge)

In the fall of 1957 I was eight years old. The USSR had just launched a little satellite no much bigger than a fishbowl, and my parents took me out in the dark to see it, a dim point of light, barely visible against the background of stars except for the fact that it was moving. Moving! A slow, stately traverse across the arc of the sky.

I feel lucky that my introduction to space was also the world’s. We were all there, variously astonished, aghast, proud, frightened, outraged and dismissive, depending on what country you lived in and what politics you ascribed to there.

Through the next five decades of my life the exploits of men and women (and some unlucky animals) in space served as markers for me: I remember where I was when they landed on the moon. And I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up.

But I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t paid much attention to the International Space Station except to know that it’s been up there for a number of years, and there are always a few people in it. Thus it was quite a thrill to read “5,200 Days in Space,” a feature article on the space station in the January Atlantic Magazine by Charles Fishman (The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, and The Wal-Mart Effect)

Fishman pretty much takes you up to the station with a good level of detail and description about living for months at a time in zero gravity and with no way out—except the occasional spacewalk which, by the way, requires 400 check-listed items to be accomplished before the door opens. Continue reading Space, 1957: What’s up in the sky?