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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2007/06/22
by David Steinberg

The Nature of Obsession

As those who have read all the way to the bottom of my columns know, I keep a vague sort of blog at Live Journal. Why Live Journal? Why for the most well thought out and carefully researched reasons of course. A friend had a LJ and I wanted to comment in it but she didn't allow anonymous comments. So yes, I joined solely to comment on someone else's post. Once I had a source to post my thoughts, I did take advantage of it, especially when I first created it. I posted life updates and political rants and show reviews. That's what I figured the medium was for.

Apparently though, I was wrong. While I was using the site for a journal (as the name of the site implied) another group found a different use for it. I had a vague idea that there were people who used LJ communities to discuss their love of various books and movies. If I had really thought about it, I might have even figured out that that implies the existence of fan fiction based communities. What I didn’t know is the degree to which those revolved around writing pornographic stories. Now no one who spent a large fraction of his life following a rock band around the country can ever make fun of how anyone else chooses to spend his or her life, so I’m not going to mock. What was interesting was not that people write stories that I would never read, but how I found out about it.

At the advice of a conservative website, Live Journal purged many of these communities because they expressed interests such as rape and pedophilia. The cry went out among the deleted that writing a story about behavior is not the same thing as doing it. This is true and important. However, it seems odd that they couldn’t figure out that other people might have issues with a story where popular, under aged characters might be forced into sex by their guardians. If someone wants to write these stories, I don’t care [1], but I am going to be fascinated by the structure of the community they live in.

Obviously, this is not the only group of people who live in a society like this. Five minutes with a web browser will reveal people who live in a culture that has unique shared assumptions. If you’re on the prowl for something to devote your entire life to there’s really no shortage of options from concern about the housing bubble to talking about peak oil to looking for signs that the Rapture is coming any day now.

Now obviously, I’d be the last person to say that there’s something wrong with being obsessed with something. Obsessions make the world more interesting. It’s what inspires people to have adventures and move outside their comfort zone to experience events that would otherwise be too annoying to pursue. The problem is only when you can’t understand the world in anyway outside of the parameters of your interest. The Internet makes it way too easy to spend your waking hours in the world of a subgroup to the point where a minority point of view seems to be the view of an overwhelming majority. Spend enough time on Prius Chat, for example, and you’d be convinced that $45,000 for an electric car with a 200 mile range would be a steal. [2] The readers of Slashdot are convinced that Linux will become more popular than Windows as soon as everyone understands the difference between free (as in speech, not as in beer, of course) and closed source software is properly understood.

So how do you skirt close enough to the black hole of an obsession without crossing the event horizon? Looking at the fanfiction crowd made me think about my own behavior. The one time I was really in danger of spiraling out of control was in the mid 90s. With Jerry starting to die, few interesting events happening in my miserable town, and grad school destroying all of the pleasure I had in mathematics, Phish started to become a little too much of my life. It’s not surprising that most of my weirder Phish encounters happened, both in terms of doing stupid things and collecting great stories. While that was fun for a couple years, I was getting dangerously close to being one of those people who only went to shows. While I always envied them to some degree, I also knew that I never wanted to do things that weren’t defined by Phish.

That’s probably the secret. We all have a limited amount of obsessive energy. If you spread it out over three or four interests, you’re more likely to stay sane than if you focus heavily on just the one. It’s ok to be invested in the idea that Harry and Hermione would make the perfect couple, but if you find yourself spending all of your free time pouring over the books (except for The Half-Blood Prince of course, since the Hermione/Ron relationship detailed there is obviously a sign that Rowling is losing her touch! [3]) looking for clues that they love each other, making icons about the couple, and comparing your life to theirs, it might be time to explore some different interests too, not just by finding a different couple to obsess over, but something completely unrelated to fandom. It’s ok to think that the Rapture is coming soon, but if you’re reaching the point where you’re cheering on oncoming wars because they fit your interpretation of the Bible, you might want to step back a little. And, yes, it’s ok to follow a rock band around the country for a while, but when you’re keeping detailed setlists that have the timing of each song and you create a site that tells you how many times you saw "Fluffhead" in 1992 [4], it might be time to make sure that you have another interest or two, and I don’t mean going on SCI tour. Some of my closest friends now don’t know who Phish is other that that band that I’m really obsessed with, and that’s made me a better person.

Fortunately, I managed to stop just short of the scary side of fandom [5]. As much as I loved seeing Phish, I wouldn’t trade seeing another 100 or so shows for my Master’s Degree. It might have taken twenty years and seeing my own nature twisted to a cause that I couldn’t possibly find interesting, but I now can see that not going on tour was the intelligent call. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey who just can’t handle the insanity of life on the road anymore, let me give some advice to those of you who have just discovered a band. Sure go see them thirty or forty times over the next few years, but make sure that that’s not all that you do. You can definitely discover who you are on tour, but you also can find that you are just someone who sees shows. Most of the best days of my life happened at a show, but it’s the days between that made me who I am.

[1] That’s not quite true. This subset of fanfiction does seem to have one negative side effect. Sometimes writers seem to get swept up in this world and start assuming that the audience’s main concern in their work is who is sleeping with whom; plot and characterization should be secondary concerns. Potential examples would be Buffy Seasons 4 and 6 and how the last few episodes of The West Wing spent a lot of time pairing up characters at the expense of tying some loose plot ends that they never did actually resolve.

[2] I have spent that time from when I first purchased my car and now I’m dying to find a way to make the Prius be used on roadtrips only and commute with the electric.

[3] No, I’m not making up that rant. I just wish I were.

[4] 5.

[5] Hey, I’m not claiming I didn’t come really, really, really close to it, just that I pulled myself back from the edge.

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at

He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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