Is God A Behavioral Engineer?

Red Fez, January 13, 2018

Our move to this hamlet, hugging the Hudson, happened quicker than what we were ready for. With the outcome that I didn’t take to the change of settling down in a new place all too well.

And it was in those difficult days that I began reading B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two,” half-expecting it to have some wondrous elements of science-fiction—flying cars, moving sidewalks, dinners that pop out at the push of a button—to put my mind in a better frame. But far from having these thrills, the novel is more along the lines of a monograph on “behavioral engineering” that reads like a cross between Thomas Moore’s “Utopia” and Plato’s “Republic.”

Passage after passage of debate between two men at opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum—one, an advocate of pure science; another, of pure arts—makes for a monotonous, plodding read. But if one can sit through the dense dialogue, there are some mind-blowing postulates to be found at the end of it. One of which is that god is a behavioral engineer, of sorts.

Walden Two is a utopian community of some 1,000, in the middle of civilization. Its founder, T. E. Frazier, bins the philosophy that humans are innately good or innately evil and puts his faith in the power of science to regulate human behavior. They can, he reckons, be made good or bad; smart or stupid by changing the environment in which they grow.

This stems from his assumption that events in our lives fall under three tabs. To some, we’re indifferent. Others, we like and take steps to make them happen again. There are still others that we don’t like and take steps to keep them from happening in the future.

It follows then, that our habits and actions can be altered by agents external to us. And that power to direct our behavior or the stream of events in our lives is called “control.” Control, as commonly understood, has a negative connotation.

But the nature of the control that shapes the lives of the members of Walden Two has nothing to do with “force” or the “threat of force.” No one there is meted punishment or imposed a penalty or put in prison or exposed to pain. Nor do those in charge tweak peoples’ behavior directly, telling them what to do or not to do.

All they do is gently nudge their activities along a path that meets the Walden Two rules of conduct by creating conditions that they’ll either like or by removing those that they’ll not like. Doing so, they deem, increases their chances of repeating a particular behavior, a.k.a. “positive reinforcement.”

On the other hand, the society we live in is chiefly, governed by the school of “negative reinforcement,” which holds the reverse to be true. It supposes that by setting up a condition a person doesn’t like, such as being reprimanded for a wrongdoing, fired from a job, slapped with a fine, or put in handcuffs, it’s possible to change his or her errant ways.

Benevolent as the control at Walden Two is, its residents are robbed of the very essence of what makes us human, the ability to choose between different possible courses of action. The loss of “free will” is the greatest downside of the program at Walden Two.

But is it so very different from our own society? The notion of human freedom, Skinner reasons, is essentially illusory. Everything that happens in our world is outlined in a blueprint. Yet, at every stage, the individual seems to think that he or she is making choices.

“The same is true of Walden Two. [Its] members are always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do.” In reality, though, the managers see to it that they want to do only those things, which are in their own best interest as well as that of the entire group. Their comportment, therefore, is both determined and born out of free will. Paradoxically, though, they feel freer than we do—only because they’re doing what they want to do, not what they’re forced to do.

In a bombshell climax, the book pulls away from science and cultural technology and takes a turn toward religious cosmology. Frazier—who sees a curious parallel between himself and god—declares that in many ways, the establishment of Walden Two is closer in spirit to the creation of Earth as described in the Bible—that is, per a plan. Only his is the better plan. “The evolution of human intelligence may not have been deliberately planned. Perhaps we are merely reading a plan into the world after the fact. But Walden Two was planned in advance pretty much as it turned out to be.”

Walden Two operates harmoniously—as “heaven on Earth”—because its members willingly submit to being turned into the psychological equivalent of a G.M.O. product. If they’re not being fed mind-altering drugs, then the only other explanation for their cooperation is that they’re conforming out of loyalty to a hero or a ruthless despot. But Walden Two, surprisingly, has neither. In fact, no one even so much as recognizes its creator, even though he lives and walks in their midst.

A truly leaderless polity, its governance is carried out efficiently, silently, and invisibly by a bunch of men and women, some in charge of making policies; some in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the various divisions of Walden Two—but whose names only a handful know.

It surely doesn’t sound like any other place that we know of.



Who Was Enid Blyton?

India Currents, October 9, 2017

Raised in and out of India, I don’t remember reading too many Enid Blyton novels—barring those from the “Noddy” series. I knew, though, they were all the rage among girls—mostly girls. They’d spend hours reading them and like fish in a school, prattle about what they’d read over their lunchboxes.

So, I came to Barbara Stoney’s biography of this best-selling 20th century storyteller, “Enid Blyton”—originally published in 1974—not knowing what to expect. But in the back of my mind, I had an impression of Blyton as a matronly figure in the mold of Agatha Christie’s female detective Jane Marple—single, serene and stout.

The book’s vanilla cover only reinforced that notion. I didn’t think that I’d take to it, but contrary to my expectations, I fell into the narrative quite effortlessly and enjoyed the portrait enough to pick up one of her books.

Diehard fans would remember how long they sat curled up in their beds or by an open window, devouring one slim volume after another. And when they reached the end, they looked forward to the next—and they kept coming serially, too.

Over her lifetime, Blyton penned about 750 books, at the astonishing rate of 23 a year. Incredulous detractors couldn’t quite buy that a single individual could have this phenomenal output, fueling rumors that she’d employed a stable of ghost writers.

Sure enough, achieving this feat of creative derring-do called for boundless literary stamina—a stamina that was her own, though, developed during some of the saddest days of her childhood. Pen and paper, for her, were an escape from an unhappy home environment. A silent spectator to stormy exchanges between her parents, she took comfort in the sweet tales she herself came up with.

In Stoney’s rich narrative, there’s a turning point in Blyton’s life without which the world would likely never have heard of her—Blyton, the writer, that is. Had she not spent a short holiday with her bestie’s family on a farm in Suffolk to take a break from the tedium of the enforced piano lessons her dad wanted her to take, she’d never have become who she became. While there, she’d accompany one of the older girls—a teacher—to Sunday school. Much to her delight, she discovered that her pupils were always eager to listen to her.

It was during that holiday that she found both her calling as well as her market. In September 1916, she began as a kindergarten teacher at the Ipswich High School. Soon afterwards, she took up a writing gig with “Teachers’ World”—an educational magazine—where she wrote a wildly popular column, “From My Window.” At 25, she published her first book, “Child Whispers”: a 24-page picture book of verses that came out in the summer of 1922.

She could turn, what would seem to most, a humdrum incident, into, well, an event and channel it into her writings, such as the comings and goings of the animal life into her garden and the blooming of the flowers. Her life was a fountain of material for her work.

In fact, the lead character of the winning, 21-volume adventure series, “The Famous Five,” Georgina—a tomboy who liked to be called George—was based on herself. An editor once told her that his four kids had just formed a secret society with a password, aimed to keep out intruders from their ramshackle headquarters, a shed at the bottom of the garden. Out of this was born the 15 “Secret Seven” books.

There’s little doubt that Blyton had a fecund mind who wrote at the speed of a reckless Manhattan cab, never seeming to have suffered from writer’s block. A veritable lexical factory, in a day, she tapped out about 10,000 words.

But gift combined with opportunity. She was fortunate to have been born in an age when domestic help liberated her from household chores. She’d tell her cook what meals to prepare for the family—for the simplest of cookery challenged her—and delegate housework to the maids and sit down to work at 8 o’clock, after breakfast, if she was home.

During summer, she’d sit in the balcony, overlooking her lush garden or by the fire in the winter, but always with her typewriter, perched on her knees, not on a table. Close at hand was her red silk shawl, a color that provided her intellectual stimulus.

Her skill for producing a brand of fiction that had widespread appeal to tots, teens and young adults, everywhere, stemmed chiefly, from her ability to gauge what they’d like. Example: At “Elfin Cottage,” her starter home, she put a Peter Pan door knocker and expected it to be rapped a certain way: kids, four times; grown-ups, twice; and “the Little Folk from the woods,” seven.

Yes, Blyton connected with kids wonderfully—but only when that contact was filtered through the medium of words. When it came to her own two daughters, she was cold to them. A woman of mercurial temper, she’d fly into rage should there be the smallest of intrusions into her routine.

Nearly all of her stories are set in the charming landscape of the English country. But they didn’t always reflect the reality of her environment. She had the habit of editing out episodes that were unpleasant and ugly.

In her “Country Letter” in “The Nature Lover” magazine, she wrote: “My adult cats earn their keep well, for no rat is ever allowed to creep in under the thatched roof, as often happens in old cottages.” In reality, though, her home had been invaded by an army of menacing rats who were carrying off bushels of apples or a sack of vegetables overnight and the noise of their traffic kept the whole household awake.

In 1932, she embarked on something she’d always wanted to do: a full-length novel for adults. When her agent returned it, she was crushed.

No one in Edwardian England would’ve deemed Blyton a savvy salesperson, but as I see it, judged by the lens of 21st century capitalism, she appears to have possessed a sharp knack for tapping into her readers’ sentiments. Through her columns, she was able to establish a two-way communication with them: she, keeping them updated on what she was up to; they, telling her what they thought of it by sending her postbags full of letters (which, she, herself replied to.)

She was so in touch with her base that she even polled it about what she should name her residence. When she bought a red brick house in a pleasant, tree-lined road in Beaconsfield, a London suburb, she asked her young devotees for suggestions. They were thrilled with her request. Recommendations streamed in by the truckload. “Green Hedges” got the top vote.

During World War II, paper was in short supply. And in an effort to stay afloat, publishing houses were cutting back on the volume of their publications. Still, Blyton had no trouble obtaining commissions, for booksellers had long realized that a title by her was sure to fly off the shelves.

But the most inventive plan for engaging her talent with what little newsprint was available goes to Brockhampton Press and its managing editor E.A. Roker. He came up with a clever format: strip book, six inches long; three, wide, made from off-cuts reclaimed from a discontinued magazine. Blyton was to be the writer. By late 1942, “Mary Mouse and the Dolls’ House,” printed in two colors, selling at a shilling a pop, rolled out. Its Lilliputian size endeared them at once to the little ones.

Even today, it’s hard to escape the cuteness of a small wood boy with a nodding head and a house and a sleek red-and-yellow car of his own. So beloved was he that by the mid-1950s, Noddy merch was everywhere in department stores: Noddy toothbrushes, Noddy soap, Noddy pencils, Noddy, chocolate, Noddy clothing, Noddy furniture, Noddy cookie jars.

That being said, Blyton presents a strange contradiction: how could someone who brought so much joy to so many sprogs have been a bad mom?

12 Objects That You Need To Start All Over Again, On Very Little Money

India Currents, April 4, 2017

When I washed up in South Dakota—home to Mount Rushmore—I felt as though I’d washed up on Mars. There, I had to build up a life from ground up, like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. I wasn’t sure if I’d be a permanent resident there or a serious sojourner.

So, it made sense for me not to collect too many effects, for when it was time to move again, the more their number, the more the money that I’d spend in transporting them and the greater the risk of their breakage in transit.

I decided it was best not to be burdened by the weight of possessions. I lived minimally. The brand of minimalism, encountered in science-fiction plots, set in gloriously tech-driven futures is, often, dreadfully expensive. But there are more ways than a red Knoll chair ($4,000) or a Herman Miller workstation ($1,500) or a litter of technological baubles to make an elegant, clean and Spartan pod of a home.

As a singleton, living in a one-bedroom apartment, where there’s a cap on floor area and cash, I bought a few essential objects, which would let me live elegantly, green, very economically—and remarkably, both without Wi-Fi and electricity. (I could always wardrive around town for Wi-Fi, but chances of a steady connectivity 24/7 were as fat as Ally McBeal.) Understandably, most of the stuff I bought hark back to the age of the vinyl (and beyond.)

Beans cooking in a skillet over a grill.
Beans cooking in a skillet over a grill.

Lodge’s Cast-Iron Skillet. Making dinner, to some, is a dark art, best left to a microwave oven or a domestic helpmate. And failing either of these, they order takeout. But some people, like me, enjoy cooking. When one is living solo, one needn’t have a constellation of cookware.

Owning Lodge’s cast-iron skillet does the trick wonderfully. It’s a versatile receptacle that one can both cook in—sauté, sear, bake, or roast—and eat out of. Sear a slab of steak in it, pop it into the oven and serve it directly on the table. After the meal, wash it with hot water and a soft cloth, coat it with a layer of oil and replace it on the rack. Cost: $20

Really Useful Boxes

Really Useful Boxes. The “Really Useful Boxes” are truly “useful” in keeping one’s abode organized and free of dust. I got a set of six big red and blue boxes, stacked one on top of the other, alternating a red with a blue and set it up in one corner of the living room, creating the effect of a geometric cairn.

I stowed away my quilts, comforters, and luggage in those. For squirrelling away all manner of odds and ends, I got a dozen tiny ones, no bigger than a gift card holder, in candy colors: red, blue, pink, lime, aqua, green, and purple. They took good care of everything from paper clips to loose change to IDs to a measuring tape. Cost: Depending on the volume, they can set one back anywhere between $2 and $15.

The Compass Hanger from Casamania.
The Compass Hanger from Casamania.

Valet Stand. When you don’t have a treadmill, you have a problem. You can’t prop your clothes anywhere. That’s where the valet stand comes in. It’s a piece of furniture for men, popular in the Victorian yesteryear, when sartorial choices were far more formal than today. Placed in the dressing room or the hallway, it was where gentlemen would hang their apparel and accoutrement: tailcoat, trouser, pocket watch, pince-nez, bowler, etc.

But I, a 21st century woman, felt the need to own one. I found it to be the perfect companion for arranging clothes to be worn the next day or for placing those garments that have been worn, but aren’t soiled enough to be laundered. Cost: $35

Cheval Mirror

Cheval Mirror. A kind of looking glass that can be tilted, a cheval mirror isn’t a space saver as is a quotidian mirror that can be affixed to the closet door. But it spares one sweat. As I didn’t have the resource to hire a handyman, I got a portable silver oval that I could set down anywhere without hassle (though the boudoir is the perfect stage for it.) Cost: $50

Étagère. A piece of furniture with cascading shelves, placed, typically, in the parlor, for displaying porcelain figurines, marble busts and objet d’art—all of which, of course, one wants, but doesn’t need.

But books? Yes. So, I filled mine up with as many volumes as would fit. After all, “what is a bookshelf other than a treasure chest for the curious mind?” Besides, when you have to spend your leisure hours without even a radio, what could be the most profitable way to keep yourself entertained than by immersing in a book? Cost: $25

Escritoire. For those of the intellectual bent, a writing desk is another precious possession, for you may want to sit down and pen a thought or a billet-doux on a Moleskin notebook. It also helps to recall that without the Internet, there’s no opportunity either to e-mail or to get on WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter. The only way to stay in touch then is through letters, handwritten or typewritten. Cost: $40

Futon. Hardy as one is, it’s still immensely difficult to sleep on a pallet of newspapers. A sleeping bag is a notch better, but it still won’t keep one off the hard floor. For lumbar care, you’d need something sturdier and softer. A bed is comfortable, sure, but it’s cumbersome to lug around. With a luxurious futon, on the other hand, the draw is that with the purchase of one, you also get a bed—free. A sofa by day, a bed by night, it offers a terrific return on investment. Cost: $150


Clock. Of course, one would need one of these to keep track of the passing of time. Cost: $10 or less.

A Toas-Tite over fire.
A Toas-Tite over fire.

Toas-Tite. Before we knew about the panini press, there was the Toas-Tite. This throwback is an efficient device for making grilled sandwiches. On the days that I was either too tired to cook or not in the mood for it, I’d fix myself a sandwich.

Lightly grease the clamshell-like aluminum forms, place a slice of bread in each, add a filling, close it and place it on a burner or over a campfire for a short while. Turn it over and you have a round, hot and melty sandwich. Cost: $30

Moka Pot

Moka Pot. This is a clever contraption (invented in Italy in 1933) for brewing coffee on the stovetop. The smallest pot of the series produces one demitasse of rich, velvety espresso. Cost: $14

Rubbermaid: Rubbermaid is today’s Tupperware (developed in 1946.) These airtight and waterproof plastic containers are fabulous for keeping food fresh. Cost: A 40-piece set will come to less than $10.

Candles. For a cozy fug, burn a cluster of scented candles. Cost: $10 or less.