Monthly Archives: February 2014

Wu Wei and the No. 2 Pencil

My son zones out. Eighth grade is prime time for daydreaming, but he spends little of his own time escaping into fantasy. He goes blank during tests. He won’t say just what is happening during those spells, except to insist that he is still thinking about the test. Those of us charged with his education think he is thinking about his thinking. Metacognition is the term. But metacognition encompasses too much to accurately characterize what he seems to be doing in those silent intervals. What my son does is negative in context of the testing process. Metacognition need not be negative. A little strategic consideration of the thought process is often very helpful.
For example, suppose you are taking a test which contains the question “Nitrazine paper turns blue in the presence of a base,” as a true or false proposition. You have no idea what makes Nitrazine paper change color. You set the question aside without further thought, but keep it in mind, in the background, as you continue. After a bit, you come upon a multiple choice question: “Tests for rupture of membranes include all of the following except: a) ferning b) Nitrazine test c) ultrasonography d) Ham’s test”. There’s the word ‘Nitrazine’ again, with some associated information. You know from the previous question that Nitrazine paper undergoes some sort of color change when exposed to solutions of differing pH. If you know that ‘rupture of membranes’ refers to amniotic membranes, with leakage of amniotic fluid into the birth canal, then you can ask yourself whether or not a paper which detects pH differences is a good test for amniotic fluid. In other words, does the pH of amniotic fluid differ from the normal pH in the birth canal. Amniotic fluid is, of course, baby pee (where did you think it went?). Baby pee is pretty dilute, so it is pretty close to the pH of plain water. The pH of the birth canal is the preoccupation of a small, vinegar-based industry – the douche makers. So, there probably is a difference in pH between vaginal fluid and amniotic fluid. At this point, the first question has helped you include the Nitrazine test in the group of true tests for amniotic fluid leakage in the second question. Can the information you’ve uncovered help you determine whether it is likely that Nitrazine paper turns blue in contact with a base? If you remember anything about litmus paper, that knowledge might help you out, but let’s say you don’t. Premature rupture of membranes is a bad thing. You wouldn’t want to miss it. A false positive test is more acceptable than a false negative test. Now you just need to know what color wet paper turns, and whether blue is closer to that color than the alternatives. Wet paper tends to get darker, blue is a dark color, so blue is a likely color change for a paper used to test for leakage of amniotic fluid and amniotic fluid is at least a relatively basic solution. The conclusion is no slam-dunk, but it’s better than the coin-toss which you faced moments before.
This process – reference to more general knowledge in the absence of certainty about specific answers, consideration of the available information in total, cross reference of deductions with the specific knowledge available, acceptance of a more probable answer in lieu of a flat-out guess – all might occur during a reflective pause during the test. None of this is what my son is doing. As near as I can gather, his pause involves thoughts like: I don’t know the answer to this question. Why don’t I know the answer to this question? Am I stupid? What do they mean by asking me this question? Are they trying to find out if I’m stupid, or do they want to prove to me that I’m stupid? Why am I taking a test with this sort of question? What happens if I don’t answer the question? If I miss too many questions, will they make me take another test? What is the purpose of all this standardized testing anyway?
Both the former, strategic analysis and the latter, motivational analysis come under the heading of metacognition. They are of disparate utility for the test-taker, however. At first glance, it seems that we might fix the pairing of unlike processes by getting rid of the motivational analysis. Maybe it would be better classified as a kind of neurosis. But on closer examination, we cannot entirely excise it. There is an element of motivational analysis firmly lodged in the strategic analysis. To get started on the latter, we must first conclude that test-taking is worthy of a strategy. We must conclude that test-taking is not a comprehensive, critical assessment of competence or moral character which demands certain answers or none at all. We must also decide that it is worth doing well on tests, that the people administering the test are worthy of our best effort, and that the test-makers have our ultimate educational success in mind. In short, we must conclude that a test is the sort of thing which properly motivates us to adopt a strategy.
Metacognition may have trouble encompassing the relationship in question between motive and method, but there is a term in Chinese philosophy which captures it: Wu Wei. The words have been translated in various spooky ways, such as ‘non-action’ or ‘acting without acting’. Really, the meaning is not spooky. It looks that way because, like many concepts in Chinese philosophy, it contains the basic concept and the second-order concept. In this case, Wu Wei means to characterize both our actions themselves and the relationship between intentions and actions. A better translation might be, “When preparation is done, your problem is the problem before you.” or as a prescription, “Reflect upon your actions but don’t act upon your reflections”. To de-mystify things a little more, Wu Wei means action is primarily about what is acted upon, and only secondarily about our motives. We act upon our motives primarily when we direct ourselves to a certain action. In the case of test taking, we aim to take the test as a result of reflecting on the relevance of tests to our desire to learn, earn a living, or gain the approval of others. Once the test starts, if we subscribe to Wu Wei, we are about retrieving the information to answer question number one.
The concept of Wu Wei serves the test taker better than the concept of Metacognition. But Wu Wei is not true because it is useful, it is useful because it is true. It isn’t a theory of truth, but it contains a deflationary notion and an artist’s depiction of truth; in Blackburn’s words, it maintains that “the issue is the issue”. From a certain perspective, Wu Wei commits us to a pessimistic outlook. It is bowing to the inevitable and resembles the sentiment in aphorisms like, “Call out to the Gods, but row away from the rocks.” It sounds a little jaded, a little compromised. My son certainly sees test-taking Wu Wei in a pessimistic light. He resents being made to take tests and can’t see focused action as anything but capitulation. The test is, however, about the test, the questions about the items in question, and capitulation about him and his attitude. Likewise, rowing is about the position of the boat relative to the rocks and calling out to the Gods is about the supplicant and his desire to survive. Confusing the two is best for neither. Keeping these relationships straight is what makes best in the first place. I’ve yet to convince my son to adopt Wu Wei at test time. I’m not sure that I’m capable of the lesson; considered experience may be the only teacher for Wu Wei. Perhaps if he calls out to the Gods a few more times, he’ll understand why he should pay attention to his stroke as well.

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The Word from the Land of Absolute Relativism

“Look at all this shit!”
He waved the stack of envelopes at me.
“Look at this one.”
He held up the letter on top. It was from another hospital and marked, ‘Important: Do Not Discard’.
“These are the ones you have to be careful to discard.”
He threw it in the wastebasket, and followed it with the rest of the unexamined mail. I was far enough into my training not to be shocked by this sort of thing. I’d weathered surgeon’s tirades and soaked up jaded, callous humor in the emergency room. Still, my experience with this psychiatrist had me believing for years afterwards that, in his specialty, like sought like.
“This kind of clutter is the enemy,” he continued, opening the top drawer in his desk.
He scooped out a handful of keys.
“Look at these! I don’t know what this is for,” he said, holding up a sturdy door key. Into the bin it went.
He tossed a few more, then dumped the remainder back in the drawer with an expression of disgust.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” he declared, “better show me the case.”
I handed him the chart, with my history on top. He lingered on the assessment at the bottom of the page. Residents sometimes began to sweat when attending physicians paused too long in their documentation review. I did not in this case, because the assessment was not mine in the first place; the patient brought her diagnosis with her from the last admission. He grunted and moved on to the ancillary notes, containing the comments from psychiatric nurses who had evaluated the patient.
“Jesus Christ! Did you read this?”
Now I began to sweat. I hadn’t read the nurse’s notes. He handed me the chart with a shake of his head. I’d gotten lucky; the question was rhetorical. Curiosity displaced my anxiety and I began to read with interest. Immediately, I realized what he was on about.
At the bottom of the page, several of the nurses (a cabal?) postulated that dark forces were at work in the patient’s life. The assessment dwelt upon the young lady’s practice of witchcraft, not as an expression of alienation in a personality dangerously adrift, but as an activity with sinister efficacy. I looked up at him as I finished reading.
“How can we hope to do anything for the patients when we’re up against this kind of stupidity from the staff? Borderline,” he stated, returning to my assessment, “Do you really believe that?”
I shrugged. She had the black nail-polish sign, which every trainee knew was pathognomonic for borderline personality disorder.
“There are some people that fit the bill, but mostly the term is an epithet applied to people who we don’t like because they are frustrating. It’s the DSM used as a cudgel, and it justifies our bringing these people into the institution when their community becomes too frustrated with their behaviors. They come in for a few days or a few weeks until they’ve cooled off, then they go back out with the same problems, to the same problems. So this kind of inpatient treatment is like firing into the tree line: it’s good for keeping the enemy’s head down, but it’s not good for hitting anything.”
His words were familiar in structure and reference. At home that evening, I poured through my memory and my boxes of books, and I eventually placed them. They recalled an image from Heart of Darkness.

Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech – and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives – he called them enemies! – hidden out of sight somewhere.

The image stuck and grew stronger over the years until I ceased to see my preceptor as chief among madmen and came to see him as Marlow on the boat. He was the lone relativist in a wilderness of absolutists who considered borderline personality more than a label on a charge sheet (it is that at least, for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual which codified the term is a tool intended to itemize mental illness for billing). For his fellow wardens of the institution, there existed a borderline personality fact about certain people, caused by borderline personality pathologies and amenable, potentially, to borderline personality treatments. He saw them firing into a continent. He did not, of course, live in the land of absolute relativism, where everything is an onion made of layer upon layer of motives and relations with no pertinent core. He believed in borderline personality as a country over yonder. It recognized certain commonalities, but those commonalities arose in the villages. They accrued; they did not come down from on high.
He cared about how seriously the nurses, psychologists and patients took diagnoses, not because relativism was true. He cared because absolutes did not obtain. Worse, absolutes destroyed. On occasion, bullets fired into the tree line did hit something, and that something was an enemy by definition. Over his career, he’d seen victory declared over schizophrenia and the state institutions emptied onto the street. He’d seen the profession take a pass on intractable diagnoses, like personality disorders. He’d heard from his predecessors about neurosurgical solutions considered quite successful in their time. It wasn’t that relativism was true, it was just that truth didn’t work that way. It wasn’t diagnosis-friendly, and the truth about psychology all the less so.

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Are You Gonna Talk, or Are You Gonna Fish?

Claude Ledbetter and the Game Warden. I don’t think this is where Jerry Clower was headed with the story, but it fits so well:

Claude was the only one in the community catchin’ any fish. Folks was goin’ and they wasn’t catchin’ nothin’. Old Claude Ledbetter, he’d come with a pickup truck loaded down. So the State Game and Fish Commission of Mississippi decided they’d go fishin’ with Claude, just see how he was catchin’em. Claude told ’em – popped off – said, y’all don’t know how to do it. Y’all ought to just go with me and watch me.
Well, the game warden got in the boat with him and they took off out in the middle of the river.
The game warden said, “Alright Claude, I’m gonna see how you catchin’ all these fish when cain’t nobody else catch none.”
Claude raised the lid on the boat seat, got a big, long stick a dynamite. Lit the fuse on it. Let it go down kinda short, then drawed back and chucked it. Boom! Them big catfish come turnin’ they belly up, whoopin’ it outa that water, and Claude was just gettin’em by the tub full.
The game warden said, “Boy, that’s against the law, you cain’t do that. Don’t you know you’re breakin’ the law?”
Well, Claude done lit another big stick a dynamite, handed it to the game warden; it goin’ phsssssh!
The game warden took that stick a dynamite and said, “You idiot! This is against the law! You cain’t do this!”
Claude said, “You gonna set there and argue, or fish!”

The game warden has a coherence theory of truth, and it gets him pretty far. It gets him to Claude, into the boat and out on the river. It even survives one explosion. But it breaks down just about the time Claude hands him the second stick of dynamite, because, like all coherence theories, the game warden’s coherence theory of truth about fishing admits to one bit of correspondence at heart: its own enforceability.
Claude’s correspondence theory doesn’t serve him perfectly either. We all expect it will fail spectacularly once he gets back to shore with the warden. Yet it’s about all that does work for a man with a stick of dynamite in his hand, just as long as he doesn’t take it too far.

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This Is Going to Feel a Little Weird

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No parking on any street. Fee area. Do not walk on the ski trail.
“This belongs to Charlie,” I thought, “and Charlie sure don’t surf.”
But Charlie owns the guys who write the tickets and pack the wheel boots. My friend Tim got a ticket the last time we were in Vail. I remember it because the fine made him swear – and he’s an orthopedic surgeon. I parked where the signs told me to park, and learned to hate Colorado just a little more. I’d come back to climb, though. I had to grudgingly admit that the climbing was good enough to make the Hippie/Richie Redneck ecosystem survivable.
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I had a little more hatin’ to do as we crossed the ski trail. I was a terrible skater, but I left better tracks than those, over drifts and deer tracks no less. They needed a little de-grooming. But then we got the nice boot packed trail to the Designator amphitheater. It was worth it. The Rigid Designator was a pitted, overhanging hook-fest up the middle, but had a nice line on the left.

Left side of the Designator

Left side of the Designator


Just before we finished our second lap on the climb, I got a call from my oldest son. Cell service at the base of the ice – another Colorado aberration.
“We’re done and we’re standing at the Hotel where the gondola starts and we’re cold. Come get us.”
He is still learning the new way of things.
“Take the shuttle back to our Hotel,” I replied, “You have the key and I have food for you in the room. Do you remember which bus to take and the room number?”
“Yeah,” he answered with renewed confidence, “OK.”
He is almost there; soon I will be wishing he really needed me again.
Firehouse area

Firehouse area


Rich was a very good sport about it all. We packed up after the second lap and headed back to town.
The next day we went to the Firehouse area for some easy ice and mixed. With the rope through the anchors, however, our eyes began to stray to the scratch marks below the roofs and smears of ice. We didn’t come to Vail to top-rope, but we did it anyway despite the damage to our arms. At least hanging out in a practice area gained us some information. Rifle was in, said the guide belaying down the way.
A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.

A sample of the Rifle photo-doc.


Rifle was a bit of a drive. It made me too nervous to leave the younger boy on his own while we were climbing over an hour away. Lucky for us, he had had enough snowboarding for the time being (When his legs get sore, he stops. We should probably bring him along more often.). He agreed to be our documentarian for the day.
Final Curtain, Rifle

Final Curtain, Rifle


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Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.

Preparing to climb Stone Free. I felt the route offered some good potential for action shots, but the photographer disagreed. Plus he was working on a new high score in Temple Run.


Having climbed out Rifle, we were back to the amphitheater for the big blow-out. Rich was set on the Fang. I had no interest. It was too damned wet. I wouldn’t be short of alternatives anyway. The lads had been busy while we were away. The last time I’d been standing behind the Fang, it had been easy to sort out the clip-ups on the cavern wall. Amphibian was the one on the right and the other one was Fatman and Robin. Now we had to ask the college kids who walked up behind us, which was which. Even so, I’m not sure what I climbed. I’d always wanted to do Seventh Tentacle, since I’d climbed Frigid Inseminator during my last visit. It was kind of a Robert Frost thing – “Two routes diverged on the crappy rock..” and I always wondered what the other one was like. Whatever it was, it was steep and led to the dry, left side of the hanging ice.

Up to that point, I’d remained unaffected by my single-parenthood. But the ice was brittle and my arms were tired from the day before. My swing was just sloppy enough to shatter large plates in the ice instead of driving the pick in cleanly. Normally, I’d need three ice screws to feel like the upper section was a sure thing. I was down to my last one with about twenty five feet to go.
Right after my wife died, I promised my boys that I would never voluntarily leave them. I could make no promises about objective hazards, but the subjective ones, I would avoid. I did have more screws, clipped to the rope below me. I down climbed to the last one which would prevent a ground-fall, pulled it, and climbed back up. I could feel the vibration of Rich’s teeth grinding, but he said nothing.
“Thanks for your patience,” I told him back on the ground.

The Fang

The Fang


We took a run at Amphibian a bit later, but we were too whipped to get past the fourth or fifth bolt. I think we were just not very motivated either. Things had changed all around since the last time we were on the route. Our practice crag at Whitewood now had climbing just as hard or even harder. I can’t say we were disappointed, just a little wistful. That’s the way it is with climbing. Nobody gets an olympic medal. Maybe you win a Golden Ice Axe someday, but the next morning some punk kid will hike your prize route and then retro bolt it. And the rest of the world honors your achievement even less than that punk kid. But that’s how it should be. We’d be back to climb Amphibian for the enjoyment rather than the achievement. I knew we’d be back because I still hadn’t climbed the route down the way, Octopussy, and I wouldn’t be a real mixed climber until I’d climbed Octopussy

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