Blog revival – It’s that time of year again!

Every year or two, I have a burst of creative energy during which I aim to update all my online presences and return to writing regularly. Each time I do this, I am motivated by a specific short-term goal, such as preparing for a job interview, or writing a funding proposal, or sharing the domain-specific content that is exciting me at the moment. This time, the specific driver was being interviewed by a colleague who is doing a PhD on blended learning, which resulted in me revisiting my own web content from 15 years ago, and surprising myself at how little has changed. In reviewing my own material, I also noticed that my memory of time and place is getting less reliable as distance grows – so although I first published on "blended learning" in 1996, we actually referred to it as "mixed mode" delivery. What I did was not deemed to be particularly interesting back then because all projections were that the future of education was fully online and traditional teaching would be a thing of the past. It was also not considered to be research, despite the fact that it was published, and was presented at a conference.

Revisiting the past provides a good opportunity reflect on the fact that my primary driver for engaging in online teaching was to address a budgetary dilemma – fire my sessional teaching staff or make budget cuts elsewhere (such as printing). Having gone the online path, it was then exciting to find new opportunities offered by the media and to rethink traditional delivery, i.e., to engage in reflective practice. One thing I can see is that very little has changed in terms of my understanding of teaching practice, and that technology is just part of the broader tool-set available to me as a teacher. I still see teaching as a conversation between teacher and student about the "way of thinking" embodied in the particular domain of interest.

A second driver for my return to the online space is the fact that I have a new online "mentor", Dan John, who is as prolific and readable as my first online "mentor", Stephen Downes. While Stephen Downes has a philosophy background and works in the online learning space, Dan John has a theology background (I guess it's a particular branch of philosophy) and works in strength and conditioning of athletes. Both people are my gurus because, not only do they link theory and practice, but they also have genuine expertise in both domains, as demonstrated by their own practice and by their "train the trainer" workshops. They demonstrate the type of interactional expertise described by Harry Collins, which should be foundational to educational practice.

I have found inspiration in Dan John's simple message regarding Park Bench versus Bus Bench workouts, and in his exposition of goal-setting in terms of "do this, now do that" as the program to go from Point A to Point B. The particular insight in terms of goal-setting is that Point B, the goal, is generally well-defined (even when aspirational), but the notion of Point A (where are you right now?) is mind-bogglingly unclear to most people. Furthermore, if Point A does become clear (for example, my level of strength and athleticism is pretty good for the average over-50 woman, but is at the not-naturally-gifted end of Novice for an athlete, despite the fact that I have been training for 5 years), many people are unwilling to go back to basic fundamentals required to achieve Point B.

I suspect my current obsession with Dan John's work is to help me maintain a degree of sanity in an educational context that blatantly markets the express bus to Point B without any consideration of the range of Point As that the bus is allegedly servicing. This occurs at a macro (degree) level, which in addition to ignoring Point A also ignores how much space is available at Point B for all the alighting passengers (jobs in particular industries, or even the industries themselves in an uncertain future). It also occurs at a micro (unit) level, where pre-requisites for undertaking a unit of study (i.e, formal specifications of Point A) are actively discouraged, while "learning outcomes" (formal specifications of Point B) are mandated and "quality assured".

It remains to be seen how long my burst of creative energy lasts for, but I am also encouraged by the idea that our graduate students in the Digital Technologies and Training Lab are at a stage of development that they have lots of ideas to express in writing along the way to completing their PhDs. Hopefully they will begin to see the benefit of writing short thought-pieces to help them articulate ideas, to share those ideas with an audience, and to allow them to reflect on their own work ten years down the track when they've forgotten what they were thinking now.

Marking, grading and assessment in higher education

It is disturbing to find that many people in the higher echelons of education do not seem to understand some basic aspects of marking, grading and formative versus summative assessment.

Firstly, we assess the quality of the artifact or performance, not the inherent quality of the student themselves. We are identifying that the assignment is a credit level assignment, not that the student is a credit level person, or has credit level intelligence.

Secondly, when we mark an assessed piece of work, we might begin with 100% and deduct marks for each “error”, or we might start at 0 and add marks for each relevant point. However when we grade a piece of work, we are using an ordinal scale, not an equal interval scale. If we inherently use a grading system, we need to understand the inherent qualitative properties of such a scale, and the fact that it is ordinal at best in quantitative terms. I say “at best” because within the non-passing grade category, there are a number of different ways to fail that are not all equal, and I would probably argue that a 45 – 50 based on a genuine attempt at all assessments is lower in rank than a half-baked attempt on some assessments in the 30-40 range.

Thirdly, even when we use so-called objective assessments such as multi-choice tests, not all questions are created equal. There are many methods by which we could scale/rescale scores on MCQs including providing different weightings for questions of different levels of difficulty, or deducting points for incorrect answers. These methods may be much more robust than scoring each question as one point, but would most likely be very unpopular with students, and would actually be difficult to implement at a conceptual level (how do you actually rate the difficulty of each question – by performance, by expert-ranking, by whether it differentiates between “good” and “bad” students (but how do we know who these people are given that we are using the test to assess this?).

While I have always been a proponent of grading rather than marking, I have become accustomed to using marking pro-formas that define marking criteria and their weightings. I note that these rubrics tend to use grading of sub-sections of an artifact to generate a numerical score that is then combined with other scores from the rubric weighted according to the pre-defined set of weighting criteria. This allows for an acceptable spread of grades for each artifact and is apparently “more objective” than grading the artifact itself holistically. From where I sit, it is really a way of ensuring that there is a spread of marks that we can then post-hoc turn into a distribution of grades without further reference to the actual artifacts being graded.

So far as I am concerned, when we have done this, we have actually abrogated our professional responsibility to our disciplines, and become part of a credentialling factory that is obsessed with quantification of performance outcomes under the umbrella of “quality assurance” -while being oblivious to the notion that quality and quantity are inherently different constructs.

My son Tim on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Source: Tim Wise – To whom it may concern, For the past 4-5 years, I’ve…

This is a link to my son’s description of the effect that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has had on his recent life. He writes eloquently and I feel that posts like this shouldn’t be lost on, or restricted to, the timeline of Facebook. The post is public, which is good, because Tim and I are not “Facebook friends” – a decision that suits both of us and reflects more about our view of Facebook than it does about our own relationship, which from where I sit, is really good.

The slow-motion death of conservative politics

Waleed Aly makes some important points here – we end up so far down the slippery slope in what we don’t bother challenging in our leaders that it becomes hard to identify when it all went so horribly wrong. Each incremental step seems small until you look at how far we have collectively fallen in our acceptance of injustice, intolerance, corruption and greed. The problems in Australian academia reflect the problems in Australian society – so much is corrupted and wrong, but it is difficult to know how to make appropriate change from within.

It’s true in a sense that Trump has stolen the Republican party. But it’s also true it was there for the taking. There are many reasons Trump is succeeding – anger and disillusionment among a humiliated electorate is one of them. But there’s also the fact that the Republicans have been training their voters to indulge every reactionary prejudice for years. Trump simply does this better, louder, and with less varnish than his rivals. Can we be surprised when he vanquishes them? Can the Republican establishment really cry foul when he outdoes them?And is it so different here? Well, in a way, yes. A moderate is presently in the top job and the reactionary forces aren’t yet taking endorsements from former Ku Klux Klan wizards (they’ll have to settle for Reclaim Australia for now). But there’s an important commonality too: that the contradictions that were once holding conservative parties together, and delivering them political success, have now fallen apart. The most important of these is the contradiction between liberal economics and the politics of “values”.It’s hard to be the staunch defenders of family, culture and tradition while you’re also staunch advocates of things like high-skilled immigration and workplace “flexibility” of the kind WorkChoices offered. It’s hard to believe the market should be free to exploit and commodify whatever consumers will tolerate – sex, culture, children – and yet pretend we are bound together by inviolable, sacred values.

Source: The slow-motion death of conservative politics

New Technologies

It’s that time of year again – time to organise my technology world and work out what tools I’ll be using to make stuff happen at work and at play. I spent a month in Africa at the end of 2013, and for a variety of reasons, that time away involved very little use of technology and almost no use of voice/text. Given that my average number of texts per month has been around 500 for at least the past 5 years, this was quite a change, but not one that was at all difficult. I sort of liked not being at the beck and call of anyone.

I also have a few computers that have reached their complete end of life. I have a 12″ Powerbook G4 Which I purchased around 2003 when I first became a “web developer” – it was my badge of street cred 🙂 I also have a 15″ Powerbook G4 with an Intel chip purchased in 2006 when I became a bona-fide Consultant. Both computers have lasted well beyond their life expectancy – one is being used for dev work by a colleague, and the other finally met its death during the recent heatwave, when Tim left it in the car for 5 over 40 deg days.

Fried mac battery

During my travels (Sudan, Tanzania, Canberra), my work laptop, a 13″ Macbook Pro housed in a hard-shelled case, suffered screen-cracking in my checked luggage, despite having been transported in a similar fashion many many other times. I use an external monitor for my Macbook Pro at work anyway, so the laptop is still very usable, and I am also trying to return to being a regular bike commuter rather than a fair-weather occasional bike rider, so I also want to reduce the weight I carry every day by not hauling a laptop with me everywhere.

To this end, I’ve been playing with a Sony Experia Android phone (big but with a 22 MP camera) as a possible alternative to an iPhone/iPad/laptop combo, and I’ve been thinking about switching from an iPad to an iPad mini and then using a non-smart phone just as a phone. What I’ve realised is that I really want a lighter but fully functional laptop and that the smartphone/iPad solution is not workable for what I do (data analysis, writing, editing, graphics). So the real answer was a Macbook Air.

The days of burning DVDs seem to be a thing of the past now that we have cheap multi-gigabyte thumb drives and multi-terabyte external drives, so the limited hard-drive capacity of the Macbook Air is no longer a consideration. I did a quick pricing of a tricked up version via educational pricing, and was a bit despondent that it came out at over 2K – money I can’t really justify if I want to travel as well.

Anyhow, to cut a long story shorter, many planets aligned when I went to ride my bike to work and discovered a popped spoke – I went to my favourite bike store in Mount Waverley so that Dicky could fix my wheel, and this brought me within spitting distance of my favourite Apple reseller. I went to look for my Macbook Air, and discovered that smaller Apple resellers find it hard to get into the Apple Educational pricing (not best pleased with that, since I want to support local businesses and they’ve been great in the past when they were in Burwood. However, I also discovered the ex-demo market and for less than my brand new Macbook Air educational pricing, I now have an ex-demo fully tricked up Macbook Air plus an ex-demo iPhone 5, both of which are mine. Very happy. (For the moment. Until I find out things like iPhone 5 and Macbook Air can’t use Airdrop between them, nor can they pair up to send files via Bluetooth. Say what????? I have to go via email or DropBox???? I could send files from my old Nokia to my old Mac so what’s going on here – it doesn’t stop piracy in any way, shape or form, but it makes it a pain in the arse to take a photo on my iPhone and insert it into my blog post!). I was able to support a local business, and in the two days that I’ve had my new toys, I’ve referred more than 10 people there too!

So, in the next few months, I am planning to ramp up my technical proficiency in a number of areas:

  • Using R for file manipulation
  • Performing analyses in R
  • Using R and Gephi for Social Network Analysis
  • Blogging effectively and regularly, trialling MarsEdit
  • Getting proficient with WordPress
  • Getting proficient with Excel (because most people who should be using databases, graphing software, mathematical software or R/SPSS are probably doing things in Excel instead
  • Having a good backup and data storage capability

So my new tools of choice are going to be my Macbook Air for anywhere, anytime work/play and my software tools of choice may well turn out to be:

  • MarsEdit – blogging tool that allows posts to be written offline and published to a blog at a later date
  • R – open source stats tool with advanced scripting capabilities
  • Gephi – network data visualisation software with some built-in quantitative analyses
  • WordPress – blogging software

I will also be exploring the different options for file sharing, as befits someone whose expertise is supposedly in Digital Technologies and Training, and as we head into the possibly-post-Facebook world 🙂

  • DropBox, iCloud, Swinburne’s netstorage
  • Flickr, Picasa
  • Vimeo, YouTube
  • SlideShare

New ideas, new blogs

Every few years, I get excitable about writing things and sharing information on the inter-web. As can be seen below, I seem to have bursts of activity every year or so in different places, and these soon peter out.

The most important aspect of blogging for me is to have something to say that will still be worth reading in days or weeks or years, and that what I have to say is not totally a product of the emotional/contextual circumstances of the time of writing. I mostly write for me, and my original motivation for keeping my material on a website was so it was easily accessible for me, irrespective of what computer I was currently using and where I was working from. The added motivation has also been in terms of sharing my thoughts without imposing them on anyone – you can come and read my writing anytime you like, and you can see my ideas on various topics if you want but there is no need for us to reach any shared consensus, and there is no need for me to make assumptions about what you find interesting, or for me to decide who will want to read my content. Similarly, I am not leaving anyone out – it’s on the web so anyone can read. Comments are limited purely because I don’t have a large audience and so there are more ads for inappropriate products that there is real dialogue.

Anyhow, my new “active” blog is the Digital Technologies and Training Lab site and the Motion Capture Lab site, which are both work-related sites focusing on digital technologies, training, cognitive skills, expert skilled performance and problem internet use. I’m not sure how much cross-posting I’ll be doing, since one of the focus areas of the expert skilled performance work involves martial arts, so all of my writing is in some sense “work-related”.

Current musings

My recent favourite authors are Marshall McLuhan and Lev Vygotsky (with a bit of Zenon Pylyshyn and Fodor for good measure). I have been reading The Gutenberg Galaxy on my Kindle, and I am still trying to come to terms with the best way to capture ideas and beginnings of papers to share with myself and others. I had a recent love affair with Moleskin A5 black squared notebooks combined with post-it notes as a review/tagging system, but I have too many of them with too diverse a collection of stuff.

I have played with blogs and wikis as reading logs and I briefly considered tweeting stuff from the Kindle annotations page, but I’ve decided to stick with WordPress as a tool and I’ve reinstated my Edublogs offerings, one for me as a possible site to put class-related information, and the other as a site for my Lab to use as a shared blog.

My Edublogs blogs are:

  • Yabber – my own site, possibly to use for info of interest to students, but currently with a bit of an over-the-top theme
  • MoCapSuite – a lab site with shared authorship, named in honour of my university’s marketing team

Learning outcomes

There is a push in my academic world to focus on learning outcomes rather than learning objectives. However I was reminded by the Coodabeens this morning that paradoxically sports coaching is all about process not outcome. I will need to think more about this strange contrast given the intrinsically outcome-focused nature of sport versus the process focused nature of academic study.

Reactivating my blog – time to practise what I preach in terms of reflective journalling

It used to be that every few months, I would have a sudden burst of online activity and update my own website, or write a few things. Then it spread out to every year, somewhat like a spring cleaning activity. I just noticed that it is almost two years to the day that I have made any real contribution to my web-presence other than updating my list of publications.

I now have a number of research threads operating at the same time, and I am teaching into a number of different streams of psychology, so it becomes important to collect the tidbits of information that I’m thinking about into one easily-accessible place. The mobile technology is ripe for it, and my physical notebooks are becoming scrappier and scrappier, so I plan to write regularly on the things we are thinking about, working on and reading about. I might even try to develop an active readership for commentary and link-sharing!

In flicking through my most recent posts (ie early 2010), I was reading the things that have become part of my thinking life, things like James Paul Gee, Csikszentmihalyi, Vygotsky, Hirstein, and possibly just starting on the work of Marshall McLuhan. I had probably also delved into Pylyshyn’s work and started re-reading Fodor. I was beginning to think about relationships between attention and spatial coding in the martial arts and sports world and attention and cognitive processing in general, and I was trying to grapple with the idea of causal contact with the real world.

Now that I almost have a real lab and real technical equipment that can be used to collect real data (I’m almost back to being a real scientist!), I have also returned to the idea of finally mastering at least a small amount of maths – particularly the geometry stuff required for motion capture, and the statistical notions that match the research questions we are dealing with. But the things that will need ongoing discussion and consideration will be on how to ensure that the “real science” doesn’t get side-tracked by the things we can measure rather than the questions we want to answer.

[As always, I need to develop the discipline to write regularly in small doses on a blog so I can have a head start on the longer pieces for academic papers. Somehow, my small doses never seem sufficiently finished to post …]

Honest parents named as emotional abusers

From The Age: Honest parents named as emotional abusers.

PARENTS who have not harmed their children are being wrongly recorded as having ”emotionally abused” them because authorities generally cannot legally intervene unless a parent is found to be at fault.

This is a glaring example of the way in which documentation in the service of bureaucracy records information known to be false in order to achieve a result in the spirit of the principle the documentation is designed to uphold. If it isn’t on the form, it can’t be recorded. If nothing is recorded, we can’t receive the service. So we’ll lie now to get what we need, but the lies might come back to bite us in serious ways later.

This particular situation is also a glaring example of the Pollyanna world of popular feel-good psychology – if we love and praise and nurture our children, it will all be good: they will have happy, healthy lives, do wonderfully well at school, get great jobs and be whatever they want to be. If it doesn’t happen that way, someone must be to blame. Always, someone must be to blame.

Chocolate: how much is too much?

And now for my Easter-themed post, which in an odd way “flows” from my reading of Csikzsentmihalyi’s work. via Chocolate: how much is too much? Sadly, not much.

Not only did the chocolate eaters have a 39 per cent lower risk of heart attack or stroke, they had lower blood pressure.

Research shows that eating chocolate can have health benefits,  and these are presumed to be due to the antioxidants in chocolate. Dark chocolate has more antioxidants than milk chocolate and is therefore better for you. And portion size is important … the emphasis is on input and output, rather than on the motivations for eating chocolate. Another distinguishing factor between eating dark chocolate and milk chocolate is that dark chocolate is generally better quality and more expensive (due to the higher ratio of cocoa product) – people who eat dark chocolate are perhaps more likely to be eating it for the delightful taste sensation which they savour rather than quaffing it in large quantities for the “comfort factor”. Perhaps it is the mindset of delighting in pleasurable food and savouring each morsel (taking the time to enjoy the moment without obsessing about cost and calories) that is more important in lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke. Eating the requisite portion of dark chocolate with a red wine chaser after a salad of pear, rocquet, blue cheese and almonds all with the appropriate balance of anti-oxidant, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients may not have any of the health benefits of selecting exactly the same food combination from the sheer pleasure of the visual presentation, aroma and taste sensation (including the anticipatory pleasure from preparing the food to achieve this outcome). It may be that it is the ability to find pleasure in each aspect of daily life that mitigates against the risk of heart attack and stroke, rather than the precise quantity of each nutrient that we ingest.

Similarly, the art of drawing free-form fine pictures with the steamed milk of a cafe latte (latte art) requires the crema of the coffee to be perfect and the consistency of the milk foam to be similarly perfect- i.e. requires a level of excellence  in the making of the coffee, that then allows the barista to “play creatively” in announcing this perfection – a joyous expression of quality assurance. And yet a misguided focus on outcome gives us production lines with automatic espresso shots, thermometers in the milk, and toothpicks to draw pictures. The end result is pretty pictures, and perhaps even a modicum of “quality assurance” (or repeatability), but the creative joy for the barista and the discipline required to achieve mastery of coffee making has been lost.

Misapplied analogies

Maybe those applying economic “theory” to areas that are not primarily about making money such as education and training (or those applying “psychological theory” to non-sentient entities such as markets …) should take heed of misapplied analogies:

Soviet biology was set back a generation when the authorities decided to apply the rules of communist ideology to growing corn, instead of following experimental evidence. Lysenko’s ideas about how grains planted in a cold climate would grow more hardy, and produce even hardier progeny, sounded good to the lay person, especially within the context of Leninist dogma. Unfortunately the ways of politics and the ways of corn are not always the same, and Lysenko’ efforts culminated in decades of hunger. (from Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p140-141, emphasis added (because it’s the line I found particularly apropos))

Science as a “job” versus a hobby (with an aside on negentropy)

I’ve been reading Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity and flow (I can do this now that Wikipedia has helpfully allowed me to pronounce his name so I can actually talk about his work!  (“cheek-sent-me-high-ee” [note by me: presumably this is the American pronunciation, which is probably the best I can aspire to but nothing like the orginal]. Originally Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈmihaːj ˈtʃiːksɛntmihaːji]).

He has many interesting things to say, and his concepts of positive psychology / optimum experience resonate strongly with how I view the world. As with Vygotsky’s work, the way his ideas are represented in educational and psychology literature (actually, more likely I’ve read text books or review articles) does not do them justice. In particular, his description of attentional processes and their relationship with flow deserves much closer examination on my part as it is at the heart of expert skilled performance. But probably most pertinent to my current area of study are his comments on formal study (extrinsically driven “inquiry”) versus informal study (intrinsically motivated “hobby”) and their influence in organising “psychic energy” (flow). (And as an aside re psychic energy: I love the idea of  negentropy or “the specific entropy deficit of the ordered sub-system relative to its surrounding chaos” which can be used “as a measure of distance to normality” – in fact, it is probably an extremely important concept to get my head around. I suspect that Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of psychic energy, far from being New Age mumbo-jumbo, provides an opportunity to understand the “Chi energy” of martial arts in terms of cognitive science … this aside should probably be a new post …)

So back to the comment on formal study (“real scientists”) versus informal study (“amateur scientists”) from Csikzsentmihalyi, M. (1009) “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience”, New York: HarperPerennial, p137-138). It is pertinent to my current way of thinking particularly as a comment on the push for output / performance metrics to determine whether or not academics are “active researchers” and quality assurance of academia by ensuring all academics have Ph.D.s. to prove their research credentials …

Is it really true that a person without a Ph.D., who is not working a one of the major research centers, no longer has any chance of contributing to the advancement of science? Or is this just one of those largely unconscious efforts at mystification to which all successful institutions inevitably succumb? It is difficult to answer these questions, partly because what constitutes “science” is of course defined by those very institutions that are in line to benefit from their monopoly.

There is no doubt that a layman cannot contribute, as a hobby to the kind of research that depends on multibillion-dollar supercolliders, or on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. But then, such fields to not represent the only science there is. The mental framework that makes science enjoyable is accessible to every one. It involves curiosity, careful observation, a disciplined way of recording events, and finding ways to tease out the underlying regularities in what one learns. It also requires the humility to be willing to learn from the results of past investigators, coupled with enough skepticism and openness of mind to reject beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Defined in this broad sense, there are more practicing amateur scientists that one would think. Some focus their interest on health, and try to find out everything they can about a disease that threatens them or their families. Following in Mendel’s footsteps, some learn whatever they can about breeding domestic animals, or creating new hypbrid flowers. Others diligently replicate the observations of early astrononmers with their back yard telescopes. There are closet geolgistists who roam the wilderness in search of minerals, cactus collectores who scour the desert mesas for new specimens, and probably hunderds of thousands of individuals who have pushed their mechanical skills to the point that they are vergin g on true scientific understanding.

What keeps many of these people from developing their skills further is the belief that they will never be able to become genuine “professional” scientists. and therefore that their hobby should not be taken seriously. But there is no better reason for doing science than that sense of order it brings to the mind of the seeker. If flow, rather than success and recognition, is the measure by which to judge its value, science can contribute immensely to the quality of life.

Csikszentmihalyi has many more quotable quotes and pertinent comments, and it is an interesting study in motivation to note that I only blog things when the book I’m reading and the computer (rather than note pad) are in close proximity (I also have hundreds of photos taken at each single event that I photograph, but very few occasions where I take out the camera …)

While specialisation is necessary to develop the complexity of any pattern of thought, the goals-ends relationship must always be kept clear: specialisation is for the sake of thinking better, and not an end in itself. Unfortunately many serious thinkers devote all their mental effort to becoming well-known scholars, but in the meantime they forget their initial purpose in scholarship.

There are two words whose meanings reflect our somewhat warped attitudes toward levels of commitment to physical or mental activities. These are the terms amateur and dilettante. Nowadays these labels are slightly derogatory. An amateur or dilettante is someone not quite up to par, a person not to be taken very seriously, one whose performance falls short of professional standards. But originally amateur from the latin verb amare, “to love,” referred to a person who loved what he was doing. Similarly, a dilettante , from the latin delectare, “to find delight in,” was someone who enjoyed a given activity. The earliest meanings of these words therefore drew attention to experiences rather than accomplishments; they described the subjective rewards individuals gained from doing things, instead of focusing on how well they were achieving. Nothing illustrates as clearly our changing attitudes towards the value of experience as the fate of these two words. There was a time when it was admirable to be an amateur poet or a dilettante scientist, because it meant that the quality of life could be improved by engaging in such activities. But increasingly the emphasis has been to value behaviour over subjective states; what is admired is success, achievement, the quality of performance rather than the quality of experience. Consequently it has become embarrassing to be called a dilettante, even though to be a dilettante is to achieve what counts most – the enjoyment one’s actions provide.

An addendum … and possibly why I don’t blog often. It’s the unfinished nature of blogging that concerns me – by the time I’ve “finished”, what there is to write is a full-blown paper, not a quick comment. But when I do actually blog something while I’m still developing an idea, the logical continuation of the thought keeps popping up after I’ve published the post and I add addendums like this:

The bad connotations that the terms amateur and dilettante have earned for themselves over the years are due largely to the blurring of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goals. An amateur who pretends to know as much as a professional is probably wrong, and up to some mischief. The point of becoming an amateur scientist is not to compete with professionals on their own turf, but to use a symbolic discipline to extend mental skills, and to create order in consciousness. On that level, amateur scholarship can hold its own, and can be even more effective that its professional counterpart. But the moment that amateurs lose sight of this goal, and use knowledge mainly to bolster their egos or to achieve a material advantage, then they become caricatures of  the scholar. Without training in the discipline of skepticism and reciprocal criticism that underlies the scientific method, laypersons who venture into the fields of knowledge with prejudiced goals can become more ruthless, more egregiously unconcerned with truth, than even the most corrupt scholar.

Recognising academic creativity

Here is a (yet another) cautionary tale about productivity indicators in academia – how many of the greatest discoveries in science or the greatest academic thinkers would have been nurtured (let alone employed) in academia of today? And what of the relative value of one paper that solves a puzzle that baffled mathematicians for more than a century versus 20 papers on somewhat more mundane issues that anyone could address?

via Cleverest man in the world ponders whether to accept $1 million.

American colleagues remember his fingernails being unusually long as well as his eccentricity, and the frugality of his lifestyle. In 1995, he shocked his peers by returning to the poorly funded research institute in St Petersburg, turning down lucrative offers in America in favour of a salary worth the equivalent of pounds 120 a month.

He had been uninterested in churning out routine academic papers and was determined to focus on solving a complex maths puzzle known as the Poincare conjecture that had baffled mathematicians for more than a century. But it seems his new colleagues lost patience with him.

“Grigory did not want to waste his time [on academic papers] and colleagues voted him out. They voted out the most brilliant mathematician in the world,” recalled Tamara Yefimova, one of his former maths teachers. Embittered, Mr Perelman left in December 2005 and appears not to have worked since. In 2002 and 2003 he had quietly published the answer to the Poincare conjecture, which involved proving a hypothesis about three dimensional space and which academics believe could further our understanding of how the universe is structured.

It took four years for teams of academics around the world to check Mr Perelmans solution, but eventually they confirmed that he had cracked something that many had thought was unsolvable.

Foreign Airline Safety versus U.S. Major Airlines

This article on Foreign Airline Safety versus U.S. Major Airlines comes from Philip Greenspun via Michael’s Beebo blog (yeah, yeah – it’s from a while ago, but I don’t really keep up with blogging).

Greenspun takes issue with Malcolm Gladwell’s cultural explanation of poorer safety records of foreign airlines which he paraphrases thus:

Gladwell comes to the conclusion that foreigners are unsafe because they are … foreign. They have a strange and defective culture that prevents the first officer (copilot) from speaking up and pointing out problems to the captain. If only everyone were American, the world would be a better and safer place.

This article explores an alternative explanation: foreign airlines do comparatively poorly because their first officers have almost no pilot-in-command experience.

Commendably-written privacy policy …

In the course of following a link on the distribution of American geniuses (thanks Michael :-)), I read the OKCupid privacy policy (since they publish amusing and interesting statistics on the information provided by their users).

The privacy policy is a really good example of how to actually explain what may happen to someone’s information, including how it is archived and what would happen if the whole website changed hands … I like it!

The stats are also interesting – there are obvious issues with the self-selecting sample, but it makes a change from “the sample were first year psychology students participating for course credit”)

Harvey Norman franchising and the demise of good service

I went to Harvey Norman’s today, against my better judgement, since the last time I shopped there, I made poor purchasing decisions under the extremely persistent and persuasive sales pressure. I wanted to buy a desk lamp (Furniture), a camera cover (Electronics), some headphones and some blank DVDs (Computer). Having carefully selected all my items and carried them around the various sections, I went to the closest cashier (Computers) to pay. She saw my camera cover which was on top of the pile and said I would need to go to Electronics. I went to Electronics and my pile of goods piled up in a different order. This cashier said to go back to Computers for my computer items, and I would also have to go to Furniture to pay for my desk lamp. When I asked why I should have to go to different places to pay for different things within a single Harvey Norman store – surely they could track purchases on their computer system, I was told that actually each division was a separate franchise. I left my computer/electronics purchases at the cashier and went to Furniture to buy my desk lamp (which was the only thing I really needed). I was not very happy at this point and asked the Furniture people if I could speak to their manager to complain (no – not here on the weekend), and if not, could they give me a contact number (no – I could look it up myself).

Why am I writing about this? There are two main reasons. One is the demise of smaller specialty stores because big mega-stores can stock a wide range of things at lower prices. The other is that I find it offensive that, despite all the mantra about customer service, I need to know the internal structure of large organisations (like Optus, Harvey Normans, Westpac etc) to be able to interface with them effectively. They appear to operate as a single entity and apparently that is why I should go to them and trust them etc – but there are all sorts of things that I can’t do, or I have to go to a different department for, or get screwed up because the single organisation is not in fact a single organisation at all, but a whole lot of loosely affiliated systems that are unable or unwilling to communicate with each other. (An aside: I get regular mail from each division of Optus about the massive savings I’d get if I swapped my Landline, TV, Broadband or Mobile service to them – they are apparently oblivious to the fact that I already have these services with them)

To elaborate on small stores versus megastores: I make a conscious effort to shop at smaller, local stores where I can form a relationship with the people with whom I do business. The places I like to shop are specialty stores who stock a range of things selected by the expertise (and whim) of the store owner. I understand that smaller places may need to charge slightly higher prices because of things like buying power, but I also know that the people in the shop have decided what stock they will have to sell. I am perfectly aware when I step into or out of someone’s store and I know who is providing me goods and services at each store. If I get good service in the greengrocers, and bad service in the butchers next door, the butcher’s service does not impact on my assessment of the greengrocer. In contrast, any bad experience at a supermarket, whether it be with respect to groceries, deli items or meat, reflects badly on the whole supermarket.

The only times I go to places like Safeway or Kmart or Bunnings are when I want to shop efficiently for mundane consumables at a reasonable price. So back to my shopping experience at Harvey Normans. The store I went to is laid out like most department stores – open plan with no walls or doors between different departments. (Note: I’m there for shopping efficiency …)  I collected my items – and there was nothing to indicate that I should plan to group my purchases according to department, and there are no indicators to alert me to the fact that I’ve taken one department’s goods into another department without paying for them. (Note: In a normal shopping mall, I go into one shop, buy my things, proceed to the next shop, buy my things and there are alerts if I attempt to take unpurchased goods from one store to another). I was not exactly thrilled at being told to go to different places to pay for different things (inefficiently retracing my steps around the store carrying all my purchases) and I asked what sense it made to have a Harvey Norman “store” rather than going to a regular shopping mall with different shops. The somewhat aggrieved Furniture guy (who could not give me a manager or a customer service number to complain to) then spouted the value of the Harvey Norman brand, number one retailer of this and that and the other thing …

As I left the store, I was thinking that the people working there in sales are just trying to make a living and probably don’t get paid enough to have to deal with the anger of frustrated customers – but I also got to thinking that Harvey Norman have gone a step beyond other “megastores” in depersonalising and cheapening the concept of brand and of service. They have taken the idea of a “megastore” (lots of stuff, good prices, efficient shopping) but implemented it as separate open-plan “shops” (inefficiency of going to different counters for different purchases). There is no sense of individuality, no sense of each section operating as a separate entity – it has all the bad points of shopping malls and none of the efficiency of supermarkets – and none of the individuality and charm of small suburban shopping strips. It was a bit sad to see that the Furniture guy had a strong brand loyalty and pride in working for Harvey Norman rather than for the individual owner of the individual franchise (who that person is I may never know … and maybe it isn’t a person – maybe it is a nameless investment entity). It was even more disturbing that he was offended by my not be impressed by the Harvey Norman name (apparently I should be honoured to be able to give HN my money …).

It seems that 20 years ago, the idea of a supermarket invoked images of uniformity of product, cheap prices and convenience but limited personal service. Now it seems that advertising is how we know what to buy (versus discussing things with a knowledgeable store owner), and good service means cheaper prices and not having to wait in line to pay rather than knowing about the goods being sold. Loyalty means getting purchasing rewards via cards (versus having the shop-owner actually know who you are and give you occasional freebies).  The model of “best practice” and uniformity in shopping experience is now seen as something good and trustworthy, so that trust and loyalty is invested in brands rather than people and it is seen as riskier to go to a small local operator (might not be here next year) rather than a large brand name store (store will be around, albeit with different people).

And all this began with the microwave oven dying – I went to the local small electrical goods outlet that I’ve been to for the past 20 years to replace it rather than to possibly cheaper Harvey Normans for all the reasons above. Unfortunately they don’t stock desk lamps … if they did, I would not have wasted half the day writing about the demise of local shopping and customer service!

Psychology of gamers

Game guru Sid Meier explains gamer psychology | VentureBeat. (via Stephen Downes)

Sid Meier is the maker of Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, Pirates! and other such games. He notes that people don’t want to play games that are too hard, and for many things, if you make them more realistic, they become harder …

… you have to always tilt the odds in favor of the player winning, regardless of the true mathematical odds for things such as battles. If you don’t do this, players will perceive your game as too difficult and will drop it … I thought the more realistic you made a game, the more historically accurate, [the more] the player would appreciate it. In reality, I was wrong …

One example he gives of the “realism problem” is flight simulators. At first, they were simple and fun. But as they became more realistic, the controls became more complex. Fewer and fewer people could master them. And ultimately, the games became so inaccessible that the genre died out.

So although people will learn about history (or railroad tycoonery or pirating), they will get a distorted view of the level of difficulty involved in ruling the world (or the railroads or the high seas).

Maths + students = fail

This article from the ABC website documents the declining standard of maths from high school through to uni. Talk to students at schools trying to maximize their ENTER scores and start to understand that the way scores are calculated drives subject choices, rather than the actual relevance of the content …

(written on the iPhone … Not sure whether this is a good idea from an editing point of view …)