Carrots and Sticks

When B.F.Skinner wants to write, he explained to students at a dinner several years ago, he manipulates his personal environment

When B.F.Skinner wants to write, he explained to students at a dinner several years ago, he manipulates his personal environment just as he does the environment of the pigeons that he wants to play ping-pong. He adjusts temperature and humidity in the writing room to optimal levels. He dangles some reward--a meal, for instance--in front of himself and lets himself eat only when his allotted writing stint is completed. The writing of a Skinner work is the culmination of years of behavioral preparation. Skinner takes copious notes on many of his thoughts and actions and then files them in his extensive record system, a system that functions' almost as an alternate mind. He rotates the ink color for these notes annually, as an aid to the process of remembering the minutiae for later use.

Not one to discriminate, Skinner views himself, as he does all living things, as extremely complex machines. Keep the thing in tune and point it in the right direction, says he, and it'll go just fine.

But Henry Ford Skinner isn't. Despite Skinner's innovative writing techniques, the first volume of "Particulars of My Life," his autobiography, could use an overhaul. I haven't read the recently-published second half, which follows Skinner from the start of his graduate work at Harvard up to the present.

"Particulars" reads like a behaviorist lab study; in comprehensive, scientific narrative, Skinner recounts every small detail of his youth. What is amazing is how much the aging Skinner is able to remember about those long-gone days; but what is sometimes a little dull is the tininess of the details.

At the same time, Skinner hardly lacks clarity; his numerous psychological works are surprisingly good reading and pose no problem even for the lay reader. "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" brings his thoughts together to form a comprehensive philosophy and does it successfully.

If technical or academic writing's your game, Skinne would be worth checking out when he speaks on "How to Discover What You Have to Say" on Wednesday, October 19 at 4 p.m. in Science Center B. If you are a free-flowing humanist, you probably won't swallow his theories, but Skinner has enough to say that he may be worth your while anyway.

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If classes don't fill your hunger for hearing smart people talk this week, you need hardly worry. The list of lecturing luminaries appearing this week in the Boston area is impressive. I don't know what Barry Commoner will speak on this Sunday at the Alumni Auditorium, 360 Huntington Ave. at Northeastern. But Commoner's areas of expertise are so broad that he can't help but offer some wisdom. Commoner's primary field seems to be energy and the environment. He's studied the effects of things like energy price rises, agricultural shortages, and production technology in general. He's performed experiments on DNA, especially in relation to environmental adaptations. The price for the lecture is steep: $5 for students and $7.50 for student couples. But this fee gets you in free to all lectures sponsored by the Ford Hall Forum, which is sponsoring Commoner. The forum's series is worth looking into; last week, the forum had Larry Flynt, publisher of "Hustler," and many of their speakers are equally big names.

Betty Friedan is another of this week's stars. She'll speak on October 13 at Austin Hall in the Ames Courtroom at Harvard Law School at 8 p.m. (Admission: $2) Friedan is probably best known as the author of "The Feminine Mystique" and the founder and first president of the National Organization for Women.

Robert H. Ebert might be worth listening to, also. Ebert, who retired as dean of Harvard Medical School last summer, is now spending time researching medical education. Among his accolades is the founding of the Harvard Community Health Plan, a comprehensive health care delivery program that currently serves 60,000 subscribers in the Boston area. Ebert will speak on "The Doctor" at the Cambridge Forum, 3 Church St., Wednesday at 8 p.m.

Governor Michael S. Dukakis will also display his oratorical abilities at 3 Church Street (the First Parish Church in Cambridge). He'll talk about "Ethics in State Government" at 12:15 this Friday.