Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Analogous Thought: My Meandering Mind

I've accumulated a ridiculous, embarrassing amount of notes, links and ideas for subjects to write about - at least 200 broad categories of subjects - that, were I being paid for blogging, I could easily churn out five or ten blog posts a day, each on some separate topic. I've often used the acronym "FFUI" (for "free-floating unattached intelligentsia," a phrase I copped from Karl Mannheim) here at the OG; I think maybe I'm more the flaneur I mentioned near the end of my last blogspew. Or Herbert Gold's term, "magpie intellectual"? Then again, to quote Marlene Dietrich's last line from Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, "What does it really matter what you say about people?"

Benefits of Bilingualism
So yea: I was going to write on some recent articles that suggest bilingualism has some intriguing and beneficial aspects we weren't sure of only a few years ago. Then I was going to shift to the personal and talk about my ability to quickly remember 75-100 phrases in some non-English foreign language - usually the ones you'd need if you found out you were going to Country X in a week. ("Thank you," "Excuse me, but where is the ____,?" the days of the week, "Please, I'd like the (menu item)," "How are you doing sir/madam?," "Another beer please," and "How much?" are just a few of the obvious ones.)

However, like far too many Unistatians, I'm monolingual; I've yet to really immerse myself in one language and become truly conversant in it. I've at times memorized the sentence "I'm sorry, but I don't speak (the local language) very well," so well, and with an apparent accent, that native speakers have often thought I was being modest and went on, in something utterly incomprehensible to me. I've not studied the grammar of another language in depth, and the vast number of nouns needed to get by looks menacing to me.

                                 The Proto-Indo-European language family

I took a stab at Intelligence Increase a while back but barely made a dent; it turns out learning new languages has broad implications for getting smarter. The New York Times's Yudhuit Bhattacharjee recently cited studies that, rather than one language inhibiting the other in one's mental processes, it's more complex than that, that both systems are in use even when one is being used, which forces the brain to solve internal conflicts, strengthening cognitive muscles. Bilingualism enhances executive (frontal lobe) functions: planning, staying focused, and solving real-world problems. Having more than one language is linked to a heightened ability to monitor the local environment, and it also seems to make one resistant to the onset of dementia. I would consider all of these benefits to fall under the rubric, "intelligence increase."

                                        Daniel Kahneman, born 1934, still thriving, won 
                                        Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002 for work in 
                                        Prospect Theory, which annihilated the presumptions
                                        of far-too-rationalistic Econs. Kahneman came from
                                        the field of Psychology. The Econs needed this...
                                        But will they learn from it?

A University of Chicago study shows bilingualism helps eliminate certain unconscious biases and allows us to make better financial decisions. HERE's another take on this study, from Wired. Note that much of the core of these studies comes out the jaw-droppingly phenomenal work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. If you get a chance, spend an hour or two with Kahneman's recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Some people deserve more than one Nobel Prize for their work...

Then there was THIS article by Robert Lane Greene, that argues for English speakers to pick French to learn, because Chinese is too difficult, which made me wonder. I knew Chinese was hard (I was only able to recite about 15 phrases, and had difficulty), mostly because of the tonal aspects, but I thought it might make me a better musician; also: reading Chinese would totally RAWK!, and I'd have more chances to practice speaking Chinese in Unistat than I would if I spoke French. But French really does sound sexy to me.

William Bright's Multilingual Might
Speaking of difficult languages: I'm reminded of someone I recently stumbled upon, the virtuoso comparative linguist William Bright. He is the father of "Susie Sexpert," AKA Susie Bright, whose work I understand FAR BETTER than her dad's knowledge of Native American and Southern Asian languages such as Karuk, Luiseno, Nahuatl, Wishram, Ute, Yurok, Lushai, Kannada, Tamil and Tulu.

People like this I find just astonishing. It reminds me of Kenneth Hale, who died about 18 months ago. There's a story - I can't remember where I read it so I'm probably getting it wrong - but Hale was legendary for picking up new languages very easily, and not superficially like the way I do it. He could become conversant at a speed that seemed superhuman. The story I recall was he was going to attend a conference in Sweden, and he didn't know Swedish...but he learned it on the plane!

Anyway, back to William Bright: he died in 2006 of a brain tumor of the type glioblastoma multiforme, which reminded me of someone else who had the same tumor and died from it.

Terence McKenna
Terence also had glioblastoma multiforme. Erik Davis did the last in-depth interview with Terence, and it's collected in Davis's envy-provoking-for-me book of essays, Nomad Codes, but it's also to be found HERE.

I had recently been sent a brief video of Terence's words being used to encourage Occupiers. It's about a minute long. "Find the others" was a recurring riff from Timothy Leary, and I think Terence is quoting Leary here, although I'm not sure.

When reading Erik Davis's piece I thought of Unistat and some of its marginalized - because of drugs, mostly - visionary intellectuals, and how they went out, a looming inexhorrible terminus in clear sight, yet their departures were with grace and courage, and yes, a certain style. William Burroughs's last words were about love being the greatest drug of all. Leary died surrounded by friends and family, throwing one last long party, dying on his own terms (see his vastly underrated book and libertarian  Design For Dying), and, as he went out, allegedly his last words were, "Why not?" Robert Anton Wilson wrote this to his family, friends and fans before dying five days later.

Back to Terence, his tumor - which is really a nasty one and fairly common as brain tumors go, it takes out its hosts generally quickly - has recently suffered a setback of its own. From an April 17th, 2012 dispatch from U. of California at San Francisco: rather than brain surgery to remove the tumor as best as the surgeon can do, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, a vaccine that uses cells from the patient's own tumor, injected into the arm like a flu shot, extended the lives of patients for up to a few months. This technique seems promising for all sorts of cancers, and I particularly liked the term for the adversary of the cancer: "heat shock proteins."

Here's a surreal Portuguese film called The Manual of Evasion. It features Terence, RAW, and Rudy Rucker riffing on the topics of Time and Space. It's not a bad accompaniment to some choice herb. It's 57 minutes long...but according to the ideas of Terence and RAW and Rucker, "57 minutes" seems like a horribly prosaic idea!


SatoriGuy said...

I'm about 4 minutes into the video. You're right, I will have to imbibe in the devils cabbage before I go any further.

Fascinating post as usual!

Eric Wagner said...

Great blog as usual. I've suspended my daily Latin and German studies until I finish Proust, which I plan to do by Memorial Day. I too can't really express myself in another language, but I can fake my way in German.

Your blog makes me think of Sir Richard Burton the explorer who spoke something like 23 languages. He would spend a week in a village learning the language and sleeping with local females and then move on. He called his autobiography From Liverpool to Fernando Po.

michael said...

@Satori Guy: Thanks for "devil's cabbage." I will be beta-testing that with my friends this weekend.

@Eric: I wrote down "Eric to finish Proust" in the box on my calendar for Memorial Day - which, as I'm only just now realizing, is a nice pun: Proust and "memory." Get at it man! Do your woost and finish your Proust!

I remember one time you said you were interested in Sir Richard Burton the rogue intellectual, and I stumbled upon a cool article on T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame) and sent it to you; I hadn't realized I somehow mentally conflated the two guys. I've yet to really study Burton, but I did look at one of his sex manuals.

Fernando Po...where have I seen that place name before? Didn't Edward Luttwack advise Captain Tequila y Mota on how to overthrow Po?

Here's a link to Luttwack:

Eric Wagner said...

I don't think I ever finished one of Burton's books, but I became interested in him reading Phil Farmer's Riverworld books in high school. I loved the portrayal of Burton in the film "Mountains of the Moon" (I loved the book as well). Rafi Zabor, who knows much more of these matters than I likely ever will, said he found the film unrealistic.

I fear my Proust reading may drag into June as the grading crunch for the end of the school year looms ahead of me. Perhaps I will keep to my reading schedule. In any event, I plan to plug away until I finish. Cool observation about memories and Memorial. Perhaps I will make my self-imposed deadline.

Oz Fritz said...

I highly recommend The Kasidah by Burton:

He was one of Crowley's role models.

Learning new languages does seem to exponentially increase intelligence. It also earns the natives respect when traveling in foreign lands which could explain Burton's multi-lingual approach.

michael said...

@Eric: From what I've read about Burton's actual life, the very thing seems unrealistic to me.

I had "Mountains of the Moon" set to record on a DVR and a lightning storm - I assume this was the best explanation - prevented the film from being recorded.

@Oz Fritz: thanks for the link to The Kasidah! Yea, I read somewhere - Regardie's bio? - that Burton infl Uncle Al.

Gawd, the point you make about native speakers "respecting" the attempt to speak their language has borne true for me over and over again. People just appreciate that you're even trying. And I think- I'm a Unistatian - they are (maybe?) extra surprised when one of us has at least made the attempt.

In California - especially certain areas, like greater Los Angeles - it's getting to the point where a minor working Spanish is almost required.

i know an American guy who married a Hungarian woman, and he learned to speak fluent Hungarian so he could converse with her parents. Some things just impress the hell outta me.

rafa said...

Amazing how I thought about Terence and his tumor this morning and ended up reading this.

I learned english at school, started reading english novels at 17 and listening english podcasts at 24.

That's how I know about Terence McKenna and got into plants. And I've always been an amateur programmer.

My gf thinks i've too many hobbies, but somehow it all hangs together for me.

Great blog, BTW

michael said...

Rafa: Thank you!

One of my big problems: too many interests. I'm never bored.

What are you doing with plants lately? Or should I not ask?