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Saturday, June 9, 2007 -- 9:38 am

Every so often I think about a conversation I overheard a few years back at an exhibit of Aztec art. A woman was saying how fascinating it was; the man said he found it depressing. When she asked why, he pointed out that Europe, during the same time, was undergoing the Renaissance; the Aztecs had nothing comparable.

At the time I resisted pointing out that the comment wasn't quite fair, since although a few missionaries and others did attempt to study and preserve Aztec and Mayan culture, whole libraries were consigned to the bonfires, and all that survived of pre-Spanish Mayan literature was a handful of fragmentary codices. Given the recently-published theory that a comet was responsible for both the extinction of the wooly Mammoth and the obliteration of the Clovis civilization roughly 13,000 years ago, I wonder whether an event in North America that long ago would continue to have effects in historical time; perhaps not. In any event, I was thinking of this again as I've been learning a little of the history of the Songhay empire and Timbuktu, and how even today there are medieval manuscripts still hoarded in chests and kept buried, from a time when libraries were burned by conquerors or, later, confiscated wholesale by European collectors.

I've commented before, albeit somewhat obliquely, on some of the cultural prejudices at work in the man's comment. I'm quite a fan of the Renaissance, actually, and think there's a lot to be learned about why civilizations like Europe's and China's adopted the course they did, and why some civilizations have managed to conquer, indeed obliterate, others. And it also shouldn't be overlooked just how richly populated the world seems to be with marginalized peoples with well-founded memories of former greatness. I doubt that contemporary Europeans had made quite the same advances as Andean peoples in metal-plating, nor did they ever develop curare or tetradotoxin or the boomerang. I would hope that, more often than not, the attitude that people would bring to these cultural intersections would be one of curiosity and exchange, but that doesn't really seem to be the case. Chocolate, chili peppers, potatos, and tomatos seem to have spread the globe pretty happily from the new world, but cultural artifacts seem to spread more by fiat than through quasi-market forces. Or is it simply that defeated civilizations can't compete with the dominant culture precisely because their technology is inferior? The influence of Greece over Roman culture would seem to be the major counterexample here, and the cultural impact of the Vikings on northern Europe (the introduction of the jury system, for example, and the founding of Novgorod) was probably more of a tie.

And there's a somewhat related issue which I believe I've commented on previously. (Note to self; next incarnation of website should include tags.) Various cultures, having come in contact with the west, having willingly abdicated certain kinds of specialized knowledge. The most prominent example in my mind, taking the text of the Icelandic Sagas at (admittedly dubious) face value, is the conscious decision of Viking sorcerers to renounce magical practices known to be effective. I believe a similar phenomenon occurred among Mayan peoples. This seems to reflect an about-face with regard to the value and relevance of certain cultural practices. I'll need to do some more research here. But I suspect there are differences to be unearthed here in what qualifies as knowledge and cultural achievement, i.e., those categories themselves may be cultural artifacts.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007 -- 8:12 pm

It's very interesting, I think, to observe the effects that one mind has upon another. There are masters of politics, influence, and persuasion treading the globe, to be sure, and I don't number myself among them. Nor would I be inclined to think there were few students of the subject -- but I don't recall coming across any thoughtful literature on it -- excluding, of course, the self-help volume of the week. But a man who needs to be told that bathing regularly will help him find a mate, which is the general caliber of advice in such books, will never master the subtle art of changing another's mind. There are different kinds of such influence, to be sure. Some people, who are generally cheerful and attractive, and radiate some kind of natural, extraverted vitality, enjoy a fast-acting charisma that inclines everyone to do them favors. Their influence seems to depend a great deal on their physical presence, and fades as they walk away. That, in my view, is nearly the least interesting kind of persuasion, animal in its mechanism and permanently unavailable to a great many of us -- second only, in fact, to the angry bully, who gets his way (or hers) through shear abrasion. I remember being impressed by one character's ability to take charge of a room, and of a dithering advesary, by resorting to an aggressive and confrontational style. But I've been at the receiving end of such treatment, as well, and have discovered that being yelled at only entrenches my former opinion of what ought to be done. I've also borne witness to masterful charm offensives -- cynical, but effective -- that have mollified jaded or agitated opponents in a matter of minutes, but that too calls for a certain kind of personality. Far more interesting to me is a subtler and longer-term form of persuasion that, I observe, shapes not so much a person's immediate actions as their characters, and through that their habits and decision-making faculties. We naturally fear and distrust strangers, I think, and find it much easier to be confrontational with them than with people we've known and interacted with over time. Familiarity does breed sympathy, and comfort, and indeed inertia. And I think that as time goes by, we can lapse into a comfortable working relationship -- even as adversaries -- that would be upsetting to dislodge because it means reawakening the hostility we all find so distasteful. It can take years to accomplish this feeling of detente, where people who think they still hate each other discover a vested interest in peacable coexistence. But it definitely can be done. I've managed to persuade severely unstable individuals to address my cordially, and have gradually eroded the rough edges of more bullying types, and coaxed a few close-minded and recalictrant folks out of their shells -- not through any great aptitude, but through an even temper, well-chosen words, and attention to non-verbal cues. It's precisely the sort of thing I would expect to find written up somewhere and disseminated as useful information in management classes, but I have no reason to believe that's the case.

An example. Marking someone as a failure is generally a self-fulfilling prophecy. I've recently read studies, published in Science, about the impact that even mentioning the subject of stereotypes can have on children's test scores, and contrarily, the long-term positive impact on academic performance of simply asking students to reflect, in writing, about their values. Marking someone as a failure without hope of remediation is both an appalling waste of human capital and a failure of management. I think some people just don't want to be bothered to take the necessary instructive steps, or else can't think of the proper words they need to explain what it is they want, but there's also a presumption that people, once formed, can never change. A far more effective approach is to talk to them clearly and concretely about the problems in their performance, and what specific steps can be taken to fix them. Change, if it comes, won't happen overnight, and there will need to be many such conversations. And it's equally important to point out, concretely and systematically, the reasons why you know success is within their grasp if only they applied themselves, and that with renewed determination they'll simply accomplish it and move on. Obviously this has to be communicated in a credible fashion. But these forthright and direct conversations that convey specific expectations and how they can be accomplished do much to encourage loyalty, self-confidence, and satisfaction with their role in the relationship.

I could go on with other examples, and perhaps sometime I should -- since no one else is bothering, and so many people are so ignorant on this topic. But it seems to me that all this should be obvious.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007 -- 9:30 pm

I wonder whether any of the world's traditions have refined techniques for acquiring knowledge, assimilating it, and committing it to memory. I know the ancients of the Mediterranean world had memorization techniques, such as Cicero's famous advice to associate different talking points with the different rooms of your house, and memorization is certainly an important part of it. And I know there has been substantial improvement in how information is imparted to students by teachers over centuries, most recently informed by scientific research about the importance of repetition, timing, tying in connections and context to other knowledge, and generally moving beyond rote memorization to interact with the implications of the material. But I don't feel like the American educational system has really equipped me to absorb material substantially faster than I would with the the study techniques I devised myself during my educational career. If I'm trying to get a handle on a new language, or a scientific concept, or a particular period in history, I really just have to slog through it the old-fashioned way: reading, note-taking, testing my understanding. But you'd expect after all this time that we would have more sophisticated ways of doing this -- the skill of reading a book once and memorizing its contents, for example. I suppose some people are practitioners of speed-reading, and claim that we're hampered by our tendency to read things aloud in our head rather than hurrying along as fast as the eye can take us, but I'm not convinced that's part of the solution, either. I read material a lot slower than others I know, but they seem to think I retain more of it, too. And I'm not at all satisfied with my retention rate. In my day job, it seems, there are certain things I need to read a half-dozen times before I've grasped their significance.

But I suppose I'd also be a bit skeptical of some kind of quick-fix, like subliminal tapes that purport to indoctrinate you without engaging the conscious mind. And I've also come across comments by instructors of particularly frustrating languages that increasing the intensity of instruction doesn't improve students' absorption or retention of the material, and there's something about the mere passage of time that's necessary for things to take hold. I could also speculate that although we can, by our activities (taking up juggling, say), prompt neural development, the nerves will route themselves at their own pace, and there's little or nothing we can do to speed that along. If there were a drug we could take to accelerate that process, I can only imagine that the side effects would be potentially disastrous. But I would still like to think that there's some as-yet-untapped technique, short of magic, to focus concentration, improve retention, and streamline this time-consuming and somewhat frustrating process. How else can we be expected to know everything?

Monday, June 4, 2007 -- 7:44 pm

I sometimes wonder whether there's a secret and nefarious world of bookdealing, with the same lurid details as we find (or at least imagine) in any esoteric society. Or if not bookdealing, some kind of trafficking in knowledge, at any rate. We know that the mathematicians of the Italian Renaissance, notable among them Cardano, were fierce rivals of one another, kept their equation-solving techniques virtually under lock and key, and challenged each other to algebraic duels where each posed a series of equations for the other to solve -- all to secure or perpetuate their standing at court, I suppose. We also know that some (I hesitate to count them) scientists these days have been known to forge data for the sake of a prestige they have to know is short-lived, and whose motives I find utterly opaque. (Do they think no one will notice? Or are they so convinced of the truth of their theory, but frustrated at their inability to prove it with the means currently at their disposal, that they somehow think that forging minor, interim results will get them the funding they need to prove the major results? I have no idea.) And lawyers conducting seminars hesitate to tip their hand too completely to potential clients or adversaries. But I digress -- back to the books.

I tend to being searching for books that are rather difficult to obtain, and when I learn that a copy has been placed on the market, I tend to make wagers to myself how long it can sit there before someone else snaps it up. I've had more triumphs than failures in this imaginary contest, as far as I know, but I do know there are others looking for similar material -- one book I had my eye on, but considered too expensive, was purchased by a mysterious stranger not too long ago.

And then there are the suspicious circumstances along the way, such as the book I'd been hunting for years, finally found, purchased, and then learned to be lost in shipment. Six months later another copy was placed on the market, and I pounced, but my order was canceled without explanation or apology. An active imagination need only connect the dots to trace the silhouette of a global syndicate governing the trafficking of linguistics tomes and other scholarly works, and there's the slightest flutter of panic when someone features a language I'd been hunting for a little while, as if that would trigger hordes of like-minded souls to scour the market like I do. Fortunately that hasn't happened yet, as I mentioned, but as I said, I know there are others out there like myself. It would be interesting, sometime, to compare libraries with such rivals in the comparative anonymity of cyberspace. But of course I consider the knowledge those books contain far more valuable than the mere ink on the page -- PDFs are fine.