John Barrett Robb (1942-), Self-Portrait and Autobiography

My self-identity resides much more in the workings of my mind, heart, and spirit, than in what I have done with my life—or in other words, in the process, rather than the residue of life. As for the face I present to the world, I have an actor’s view of personality (a role to be assumed), although lacking an actor’s skills, or inclination, to dissemble.

My inner psychic personality if not my full individuality, is well captured by the categories of Jungian type theory, as developed by Myers-Briggs, Keirsey, and others. For those familiar with this classification system, I am a classic INTJ, though (pace Jung) I believe that I first differentiated as an NF because I am blessed, or cursed, with the predilection to empathize with animals of all kinds—even human animals.

If I had to describe myself in one word, it would be “intellectual”—a person whose reason for living is to pursue truth and understanding in all things.

Personal Summary

My wife Maureen and I have been together since 1972, but we have no children—only cats. I grew up with dogs, but have come to prefer cats for their independence and individuality. Maureen is a talented, versatile, and hard-working editor and writer, who has recently launched a second career as a mystery novelist with her book, Patterns in Silicon. She, too, is an INTJ, and we are both libertarians in politics.

My personal life has been singularly uneventful, and I have lived much of it as a virtual recluse.

Growing Up

I was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a large lake town near Chicago, but since I was an Army brat, home was wherever we were stationed at the moment, which might be just about any area of the country or the world. The only common denominator of these places being that I was raised in a disciplined, warrior culture, and had a commanding officer for a dad. Fortunately, my parents both had wider cultural and intellectual horizons than the average military officer family, so there was some wiggle room for me in the strait jacket.

Both my parents grew up in the midwest, but both also spent some time abroad as teenagers, and both were graduates of Stanford in Poly Sci; they were contemplating a diplomatic career, but were unfortunately turned out into the world in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. Both were also brilliant.

My dad had taken ROTC at Stanford and continued with the military part time in the National Guard. After shuffling around during the 30s, doing a variety of jobs, Pearl Harbor found my father the proprietor of a saddle shop in Chicago; he had been a varsity letterman in polo at Stanford, and enjoyed working with horses. In the army, he became an artilleryman, and spent the war years with MacArthur’s Army in the Pacific, while my mother and I rusticated in a cottage on her parents’ estate in Benton Harbor. As a young officer my father helped develop the doctrine for artillery support of amphibious landings, and thereafter our family had a close association with the Navy, and many Navy friends.

After rising to full Colonel, and functioning as artillery exec of the “Big Red One” (the 1st Division) in Germany on the front lines of the Cold War, my father switched to logistics, which brought him back to Newport, Rhode Island, to attend the Naval War College—a preparatory step for general’s rank. That was the point where my history began to diverge from that of my parents because I entered my first of five years of prep school at St. George’s School in Newport that year. My father next served three years in the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff—an assignment he loathed, because of the politics.

Things took a turn for the better for my father when he drew a more interesting tour of duty. He was detailed, in 1959, to a virtually unknown country called South Vietnam, to be the commanding officer of our logistics and training program there. After his third year of this assignment, with good progress being made in preparing the country to resist the Northern Communists’ incursions, he knowingly torpedoed his career by filing an “after-action” report critical of his commanding officer—the military chief of mission for South Vietnam. I spent the summer after my high school graduation in 1960 in Vietnam with my parents, and in touring the Far East. In Saigon, I taught English to Vietnamese for a couple of months, and then returned to the states to go to college.

Passed over for almost certain promotion to general because of his honesty, my father spent his remaining three years in the military in San Francisco, as executive officer of the two agencies managing the logistics buildup across the Pacific. After he retired, he returned to the Far East as the head of the State Department’s Far East Regional Logistics Office—tasked with processing all the war junk that had accumulated in the Pacific and Korean Wars, and putting it to use in the current one in southeast Asia. After completing this task, he successfully recommended that his little agency be closed down, and thus actually managed to roll back one of the minor tentacles of Big Government.

My mother was mostly a dutiful army career wife and mother, though she went back to school in her mid-forties, earned a Master of Library Science degree, and thereafter worked occasionally as a librarian.


Since the age of 7, I have been a reader, but until puberty I was an indifferent student who spent most of his class time tuned out. It didn’t help that there was little continuity to my early education. For example, I began 5th grade in a country school on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, continued in a school in Copenhagen, Denmark, and finished up in an overseas military base school in Munich, Germany. Most of the next year I attended a German-speaking school in Switzerland—without, initially, speaking a word of German.

Then after 7 years of drifting through intellectual fog banks, I was inserted, wholly unprepared, into the format of a challenging prep school (St. George’s School, of NewportRI), and had, for the first time, to scramble just to survive. Once I got the idea of mental discipline, I had some success there, graduating with honors, and went on to Stanford, but was bored and frustrated with much of the required lower division curriculum, and dropped out after two years. Although St. George’s was the vital catalyst, I have always considered myself essentially self-educated, since most of my education has occurred outside the classroom or other institutional confines. Even at Stanford, I spent a good bit of my time pursuing my own developing intellectual interests, rather than on the required course work—which my poor grades there reflect.


After leaving Stanford, I drifted into the novel field of data processing. After a couple of years as a punched card machine operator and board wirer, and a six month’s stint on active duty in the Army to fulfill my reserve commitment, I was sent by my employer to IBM school for two weeks to learn 1401 assembly language, and Shazam!—I was a computer programmer. Programming and systems development proved to be a natural fit for a person of my predilections and abilities—a way to get paid for something I enjoyed and was good at. I am still trying to figure out how to make a living at my second career as a professional family historian, but that is another story.

I spent over 30 years as a systems developer, since 1970 mostly on a freelance basis. The last time I went looking for a job was 1972. Since then my work has come to me, by word of mouth referral from satisfied customers. I have programmed mainframes, minicomputers, and PCs (starting in 1980), in over 30 languages, and over 50 machine/operating system environments. I have worked on the code for three different operating systems, co-designing one of them from scratch, and I designed and programmed an application-specific language for specifying computer-to-typesetting jobs—a much simplified version of the TEX system, though I knew nothing of TEX at the time. For this assignment, I had to “roll my own”, without benefit of a computer science degree or any theoretical understanding of compiler theory.

Eventually, when Microsoft irrevocably degraded the tools of my trade (co-opting the sophisticated software development tools of the late 1980s, with their own schlocky replacements), and killed innovation by locking up trivial mental inventions with software patents, I gravitated out of computers and into family history, and I haven’t written a line of code for over 10 years now, unless you count XHTML and Java as programming languages.

Hobbies, Beliefs, & Interests

Until my body began falling apart in my late 50s, I was a bicycle marathoner, and achieved one of my most important personal bests at age 49 riding up a 3700' mountain. I trained to ride “centuries”—100 miles and thousands of feet of climbing in the fastest possible time. One year in my 40’s I logged 5,000 miles. I have also broken numerous bones, including both hips, in bicycle accidents. Unfortunately, I have had to retire from athletics due to a rather bizarre neurological condition I have developed.

I have said that I was a libertarian, but I will otherwise here pass over my radical, though deeply thought out, socio-political and economic positions.

My principal hobbies and interests are intellectual, and cut across many fields, so rather than trying to summarize them, I offer the following as a sampling. Those readers who themselves have little interest in such things are excused from reading further.


“How do we know what we know?” is both a generic philosophical question, and an empirical question that ought to be raised every time we attain to new knowledge—especially if the knowledge is spoon-fed to us. Yet it is a question seldom asked, perhaps because answering it seems like too much work. I have found, though, that to habitually ask this question is both intellectually liberating, and the necessary precondition to the attainment of real knowledge and understanding.

Thus begins my essay on the epistemology of history, science, and the law, which you can read in full here.

History, Fiction, and Myth

History, like fiction, consists essentially of a story, or a set of stories, presented usually by a single critical and constructive, mind. History, unlike fiction, is constrained by facts, “the truth and all the truth”, while in fiction the facts may be made up, but the critical reader still insists that the storyteller stick to the trutha about human nature and its possibilities.

Thus both the purpose and the craft of the historian and of the novelist largely overlap, and given the tendency of most historians to merely assume, rather than to research, the facts, there is often but a fine line between their works and those labelled fiction.

Historians like David Hackett Fischer, in books like Paul Revere’s Ride (1994), construct their stories almost entirely from critically interpreted contemporary facts and eyewitness accounts, and that is the invariable practice of scholarly genealogists as well. These latter only become family and local historians, however, to the extent that they are able to place their stories within broader historical contexts, and to derive from these stories their larger themes and meanings. Even the best modern genealogists have a lot to learn from the minority of real historians like Fischer, and not a little to learn from the constructors of fiction.

The bulk of what is published under the rubric of history, and virtually everything in history textbooks is best understood as myth—stories told as illustrative paradigms for the consensus beliefs of the tribe. Real history is messy, and full of unaccountable and contradictory facts. There are rules of the game, but they are not our rules. Novels that truthfully capture the human condition depict the consensus beliefs of the tribe for the artificial constructs that they are. History as myth should be of interest only to the anthropologists, the social scientists, or the historiographers (Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride is a historiography too).

Intuition, Love, and the Animal Mind

I believe that to develop a comprehensive and articulated theory of mind, we are going to have to return to the personal introspectional and observational methodologies of the classic psychologists: James, Freud, Jung, and Adler. As things stand. I think that the best observational human psychologists are the devisors of fiction—novelists, poets, and playwrights. I am none of these myself, but I am a connoisseur and critic and unbridled consumer of fiction, and my understanding of the patterns of human thought owes more to my reading (and viewing) of fictional constructs, than to the formal study of psychology, or to my paltry personal experience. And although, I am able to supplement my vicarious experiences with a certain talent for introspection and an ability to construct creative analytical syntheses of relevant scientific findings and theories, I have over the decades merely dabbled with the theory of mind, waiting and hoping in vain for someone else to take up the problem in a more systematic way.

I have always been greatly interested in what makes animals tick. I am especially interested in the way their minds work, and in the way their minds interact with their emotions. Humans, of course, have the most complex and interesting animal minds, but since the study of mind (as opposed to brain) is still in its infancy, there is some sense in focusing first on less complicated minds in our quest for understanding. Presently, I intend to further narrow this inquiry to the scope of what I will call “animal intuition”.

This essay continues here.

The Brain, the Mind, and Free Will

This essay is in preparation.

Intelligence & Creativity

Intelligence has many definitions, which provide just so many perspectives on the mind. The least interesting for the student of mind is IQ intelligence (the G factor), but since IQ (and its heritability) is the most studied individual human characteristic, no one interested in mind can afford to neglect the extensive scientific literature in this area.

Intelligence might be defined as the functional ability to successfully model and grapple with reality, and for humans I would add on the conceptual level. As for IQ intelligence, the work of Arthur Jensen and many others has clearly shown that IQ has little to do with the structure of mind. It is merely an enhancer of all cognitive activity, and is probably based on a small set of purely physiological parameters, coded for by a small number of genes. Nonetheless, efforts to measure and quantify IQ, which go back to the 1800s and the inventor of the statistical (scientific) approach to social science, Francis Galton, have taught us much about the way humans process information.

One of the key aspects of intelligence, of mind, is creativity, and while various studies have shown that creativity runs with IQ up to about IQ 120, it runs much farther with psychoticism, right up to the point, in fact, where personality breaks down (this has been shown by Eysenck and others, who have devised tests to measure at least the associational aspects of creativity). And there are many other similar components of mind that are even less well understood, like the extraordinary pattern recognition abilities of chessmasters, who no doubt also have high IQs, but then most people with high IQs are just “wood pushers” across the chessboard.

Although intelligence is thus complex and ramified, I dismiss most of Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences”, which include “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence”, and both “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal” intelligences, as category mistakes. It has long been established (although not so long settled) that in addition to IQ intelligence, which is a general factor (“the g factor”) in all cognitive activity, there are a number of subsidiary talents that both correlate with IQ, and have a certain separate variance, and it is these, and certain other drivers, such as culture, which no doubt account for Gardner’s “multiple intelligences”, but none of them amounts to an independent mode, or aspect of intelligence, as is creativity.

Teaching and Learning

Since my own mind developed in an educational setting, I have always been deeply interested in, and drawn to, the complementary and reciprocal pursuits of teaching and learning. It may be said of me, as did Chaucer of his clerk of Oxenford: “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”. And as an intellectual, my own predilection for these activities extends beyond the practice and into the theory. I am a big fan, for example, of the work of theoretician and cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner (one of Gardner’s mentors), as well as of the practical work of gifted teachers like Marva Collins, who figured out how to educo-ate without benefit of theory.


Last updated 11Jul2011
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