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.

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 …)

Building a Better Teacher

Building a Better Teacher ~ Stephens Web ~ by Stephen Downes.

Stephen comments on an article in the NY Times that claims great teaching can be taught, an issue of great interest to me and Stephen alike. In his comment (from which I declined to actually read the original article), Stephen suggests that the article is effectively a marketing blurb for a book by Doug Lemov, which in turn is promotion for his consultancy. When The NY Times implements its “subscription paywall”, this sort of book promotion will not be effective because the articles will no longer be widely distributed (many of the people who read the NY Times for free will not pay for the privilege). Stephen also notes that Lemov uses “unsurprising techniques” (ie nothing new or innovative) and there are no scholarly references to the “Lemov Taxonomy”.

I am interested in Stephen’s comments because there is subtext that jumps out at me:

1) Paywalls will discourage advertising masquerading as journalism. (Possibly a good thing about paywalls? Of course I won’t find out because I won’t pay …)

2) Where will newspapers get their pay-for content? (Implication that much of the content of newspapers is actual marketing / promotion. Can real journalism only be resurrected by making people pay to read?)

3) Lemov has no “scholarly references to it” – by which I presume Stephen means that Lemov is not cited by any papers in academic journals and that this reduces Lemoy’s credibility. I find this an interesting observation given the subtext in a lot of Web 2.0 discussion that the gate-keeping process of peer-reviewed academic journals creates an unnecessary monopolisitic constraint on the dissemination of new ideas.

Deep specialisation key to collaboration | The Australian

Couple Elizabeth Blackburn’s comments with the Climate Change Wars, and you start to see why “science” is getting a bad name. Add in the funding models over recent times (who pays for research) and it all starts getting even murkier.

NOBEL prizewinner Elizabeth Blackburn’s discoveries in molecular biology led her into cross-disciplinary research in cancer and chronic stress, but she warns that researchers first need deep specialist knowledge.As institutions are focusing on breaking down barriers to cross-disciplinary research, the University of California-based professor cautions there is a risk of researchers being shallow if they seek to generalise early.”My feeling is not to get too cross-disciplinary and shallow and spread all over the place too quick,” Blackburn tells the HES while visiting Monash University, where she is a distinguished visiting professor.”One needs to be able to bring something very substantive to the table because I can see the temptation would be to try to be overly generalised and shallowness would be the consequence.”

via Deep specialisation key to collaboration | The Australian.

My Taekwondo blog …

It is more than two years since I wrote anything in my taekwondo blog – but not because there is nothing interesting to say. In the past two years I have learned so much more about technique and application and moral culture, and it has been an exciting and challenging time to be part of USMA. Apart from my own thoughts on taekwondo, I’ve been delighted to watch my daughter’s skills develop and was very proud that she represented Australia in Argentina in the World Championships. She just missed the medal round in patterns, and performed to the best of her ability in sparring – a great effort for her first international event.

The reason that my taekwondo blog has died is a sad reflection on taekwondo in Australia – too much politics, not enough technique / application, and a seeming abyss of moral culture. To write anything about taekwondo, to question any technique, to reflect on good and bad aspects of the art form, to consider the relationship between a Korean martial art developed in a military context and modern Australian cultural context – all these are political minefields with people searching for disrespect or subversion or technical error in every utterance, rather than looking for a way forward and an open exchange of ideas to build on the wonderful foundation created by General Choi and bring it to people of all walks of life, including women and children.

When the administration of taekwondo is more about building individual business interests than serving the students of taekwondo (giving back to taekwondo in the form of leadership and instruction), the moral culture at the core of the martial art is destroyed. There will always be a very difficult path to tread through the democratic legal framework for Not-for-profit Associations versus the Dan hierarchy of a martial art, and the only way to negotiate a path through this is through plenty of discussion around common goals. Of course this is almost impossible if there are no common goals, and most parties have the goal of exerting maximum power with minimum input.

So rather than writing a whole lot of stuff about the exciting things that I’ve learned through training taekwondo with Sabum Cariotis and sharing my passion for a martial art with other people who might have thought of starting but did not know whether it would be okay for them (e.g., too old, too unfit, too inflexible, wrong demographic etc), I don’t write anything at all. It is a real shame, because so much of the way I think in my own professional area of cognitive science and spatial coding has been heavily influenced by my martial arts training. My discussions with Sabum Cariotis on space, time, temporal sequencing of movements, trigger points, options and decision-making have triggered all sorts of ways of understanding spatial coding, and I have also learned so much about cognitive aspects of training for expert skilled performance through watching Sabum Cariotis instruct and learning how to instruct martial arts under his guidance.

I have to say also that my eLearning blog has also died somewhat because of similar issues – universities are also becoming more focused on their business interests than on their core mission of community service through generating and sharing knowledge and understanding. I work for a specific institution and my academic output belongs to this institution as part of their “intellectual property” … such a strange concept, that “intellectual property” has a life of its own outside of any individual’s own intellect. It would be an interesting exercise to force university managers (and taekwondo practitioners) to study enough philosophy of mind to have a view of what constitutes knowledge (or skilled performance) and whether or not it can exist independently of the mind (or body) which is using it …

Doctor and Patient – Looking Beyond MCATs to Pick Future Doctors –

Doctor and Patient – Looking Beyond MCATs to Pick Future Doctors –

The investigators found that the results of the personality test had a striking correlation with the students’ performance. Neuroticism, or an individual’s likelihood of becoming emotionally upset, was a constant predictor of a student’s poor academic performance and even attrition. Being conscientious, on the other hand, was a particularly important predictor of success throughout medical school. And the importance of openness and agreeableness increased over time, though neither did as significantly as extraversion. Extraverts invariably struggled early on but ended up excelling as their training entailed less time in the classroom and more time with patients.

It is interesting to see that the personality factors leading to long term future success are different from those leading to short-term “success”. Failure to consider progress over the whole training continuum is becoming a serious “quality” issue in education. The need to  enforce more rigorous standards early in training to prepare students for later training is difficult to do when evaluation is at the wrong granualarity. (Note to self: look up the Belgian study from which the data were reported)

Educational theory and “Being Digital”

I have recently re-focused my thinking on issues arising from Ilana Snyder’s “Being Digital” project that I worked on last year. I prepared a report on some of the data from that project, available online at The interesting part for me was reading some of the literature on cultural form (particularly Raymond Williams) and digital literacy practices, and trying to get my head around the academic discourse and legitimate research methodology in non-scientific research disciplines.

Having just returned to considering these ideas, I stumbled across the work of Karl Maton and, in particular, this paper on the place of theory in educational research. I wish I had written this particular piece myself, although perhaps it is a good thing to have somewhere else to point people to when expressing similar views. Of course, this would touch on whether a published opinion can add weight to my own professional opinion without an additional ingredient of “data”, and what constitutes the legitimisation of a personal opinion into a professional opinion, and then into domain expertise. I am hoping that further reading of Karl Maton’s work will enlighten me on this in a way that triggers a whole new way of expressing the core ideas in my recent research activity.

Addendum to Stephen Downes presentation

There were two things I forgot to mention in my post about Stephen’s presentation.

1) When Stephen was introducing the concept of connectivist learning, he used an example of the knowledge that “Paris is the capital of France” to talk about symbolic versus connectivist learning. He described the propositional version of declarative knowledge, and countered with the idea that we have a cloud of connections around the idea of Paris, and around what we mean by France and that, in fact, there is not a sentence in the head declaring Paris is the capital of France, but there are instead a whole host of connections that embody that information (or something along those lines). I couldn’t help but think that the example was a poor one because to me, X is the capital of Y is quintessentially the sort of declarative knowledge people have with absolutely no other understanding of Paris, of France and of the notion of “is the capital of” (economically? politically? socially? is the biggest? is the most well known?). I know many people who know the all the captials of all the small african nations without even knowing where the country is on a map, who lives there, or anything else about the notion, because either they learnt it at school, or they know it for trivia quiz nights.

2) The other example Stephen used was of flying a jumbo jet from New York to Melbourne. He commented that flying a jumbo jet was so incredibly complex that one couldn’t possibly consider it to be a set of declarative propositions (or something like that – he was way more eloquent in his connectivist description of Paris and flying jets). What stood out for me, as a result of having thought about military pilot training for the past two years, is that the airline industry is the most proceduralised industry in the world, and there are checklists and procedures for every foreseeable situation. That is to say, there has been a concerted effort to write down every step of the process of flying a jet from New York to Melbourne, including every possible error-situation or event that may happen …

Anyhow – I’m not sure that knowledge carves up neatly between declarative, procedural, connectivist or symbolic. I suspect they are different levels of analysis and apply in different contexts, depending on what entrenched position is being challenged.

Learning 2.0 with Stephen Downes in Melbourne

I noticed on the weekend that Stephen Downes, my online-learning-communities hero, was running a workshop in Melbourne. In a fit of boyish enthusiasm, I registered for the event – it felt a little bit like buying a ticket to a Leonard Cohen concert or something like that … not quite my genre of presentation (a workshop for people mostly from the “education sector” rather than from the cognitive science or web development world) but nevertheless an opportunity to see my hero face-to-face.

Probably the key things that came out of the morning for me were:

1) I’m not really a blogger as such – I prefer to consider my responses before blurting them out to the world, so I tend not to publish the first thing that comes to mind, and that is probably a blessing to my readers.

2) I don’t actually write “for my readers” – I write things that are effectively “note-to-self” rather than having an audience in mind. I publish online for ease of my own access, but also because some of what I have thought through might actually be of interest to some of my friends/acquaintances, and they can read it for themselves at their leisure.

3) Any time I become aware of a tangible audience, I find myself less likely to write because I’m then filtering what I write through what (I think) they might think of what I write … and I become more aware of potential political or personal ramifications of my views.

4) I am such a fan of Stephen Downes because he is such a prolific writer and manages to be considered and engaging in his writing on a very regular basis. His OLDaily newsletter seemed to find most of what I’m interested in in online learning and effectively saves me the time and effort of searching – it’s a lazy approach on my part but it reflects the level of interest I have in online learning (not enough interest to search for my own material regularly).

5) The more compelling reason I am a fan of Stephen Downes is because he has an academic grounding in philosophy (including a great web-site on the logical fallacies), very strong technical skills, and great visual and verbal communication skills so he has true multi-disciplinary knowledge encompassing the theory and practice of what he does. The multi-disciplinary deep knowledge is sadly lacking for many people who operate in the elearning / social networking space (evangelists for all that is new and modern, but without an understanding of what is old and traditional, and how the old transitions to the new).

6) Although the workshop itself was fairly straight-forward, the most exciting part for me was a bit of a discussion on the “Connectivism” course run by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The course itself was run in an interesting way using Web 2.0 (eLearn 2.0?) technologies and was a fee-paying, for-credit course for 22 students and was open and free for the other 1200+ (not sure of the number but lots not a few) students. There was disappointingly little discussion at the workshop of fee-for-content versus fee-for-accreditation, nor for discipline-based-accreditation versus assessment-of-understanding. To me, these should be issues that are at the forefront of educators’ minds. There was, however, a brief discussion (between Stephen and myself) of connectionism versus symbolic representation and of levels of analysis.

7) This brief discussion with Stephen spawned a whole range of ideas which, were I a more prolific blogger, would have spewed forth unedited into the world as I thunk them.

  • connectivism versus connectionism – connectivism appears to be a new term linking learning nodes (at the level of concepts?) versus the neural connectionism that describes brain functioning. I’m not sure in a distributed cognition framework what exactly constitutes “knowledge” (some amorphous cloud of connections?) and what is embodied in an individual’s learning (7-of-9 removed from the Borg collective?). I am also unsure of what version of “network” is being mooted – network models abound, but they are not all the same, and the type of network has implications for what happens at nodes …
  • Pylyshyn and symbolic representation (there are not many people with whom one can discuss Pylyshyn!): I was questioning whether Pylyshyn’s version of symbolic representation is the same as Fodor’s (and I’m not sufficiently philosophically acquainted to know the answer, or indeed if there is an answer). I know that I disagree with Kosslyn, but I’m not sure that my reading of Pylyshyn aligns with Stephen’s. Does Pylyshyn’s version of proto-objects and indexicals in early vision embody a symbolic representation that isn’t a set of propositional statements in the visual domain – is it Fodor in vision, or is there a non-visual representational level that is neither “visual image” nor symbolic representation – or does that make no sense at all (as in, is a symbolic representation by definition glued together by propositional statements)? Perhaps a different phraseology is “is it possible to instantiate a symbolic representation in a neural network, or is the symbolic representation a different level of description of the functional outcome of the neural network – or does that amount to the same thing?. And is it possible to discuss philosophy in a non-symbolic representational form (ie not through maths/language) or does that become art/music/dance/movement). (This particularly needs careful reflection and consideration – when I think about Fodor/Pylyshyn/symbolic representation and sensory/perceptual/cognitive systems and spatio-temporal awareness, I can’t decide whether what I think is blindingly obvious but difficult to express, or whether I’m just condeptually confused – I still think that it is difficult to express non-linguistic concepts linguisticallly).
  • Somewhat less interestingly, I am still frustrated by the number of straw men in the elearning, web 2.0 domain. I’m also annoyed by the failure to distinguish between teaching and learning. My role as an academic is to teach in my discipline area. I also have an obligation to continue learning in my discipline area. Some of my learning will be facilitated by “teachers” but much will be self-directed. The further I progress in my own learning, the more the ratio of teacher-led to self-directed learning for me will shift to the self-directed. Whoopy-doo. So what? Does it mean that because my “quality learning” is self-directed, that teaching is bad? Is there any concerted effort to understand what teaching is about and how much of the teaching enterprise is about deciding what constitutes the core discipline area and about calibrating and reflecting on the discipline and the level of expertise in the discipline through the process of defining what students need to know about. The process of delivering it is less important than the process of defining it.
  • I am also frustrated by the idea that back-channels are “good” and that audience participation is always a good thing. Back-channels have always been around and are important for people with short attention-spans, but reflective commentary can shared after the event rather than during it. I was mostly well-behaved at the workshop so I didn’t ask all the questions or challenge all the ideas that I wanted to, mostly because the people attending the workshop came to hear Stephen, not me. The direction I could have hijacked the workshop towards may well have been instructive and interesting to the participants, but would not have been what they came for. They came to hear Stephen because he has thought about things they are interested in, and they know enough about the style of his thinking to feel confident of the value of listening to him. They trust his insights. They have no knowledge of whether or not my insights are based on careful analysis or years of thought, and even if I have thought extensively, whether or not my thought processes are sound. In essence, they don’t trust my insights. Presentations tend to be more focussed than chats around the bar, and sometimes we want the ideas distilled before we invest the time around the bar. They are different communication modes, and serve different purposes. They are not interchangeable.
  • In a similar vein, I’m also annoyed by the lack of consideration of timeframe and content of communication in different media. Twitter, Facebook chat, Facebook status changes are transient “conversational” modes that have an expiry date of “fairly immediate”. Discussion posts or blog posts are slightly more considered, but are also at some level “unedited”. Lectopia recordings (live podcasts of live presentations) are also somewhat “unedited” and reflect thought processes and language production in real-time. Putting such things online for people to access asynchronously is good, but allowing people to sift through the tea-leaves for hidden meaning (ie to take things out of the context of the time frame in which the original was produced) is not helpful. Like slo-mo replays in sport. Like video replays in refereeing. Like this is turning into a “real blog post” of unedited thoughts, so it’s a good place to stop …

So anyway, in the end, it was a very stimulating session to have attended, not for the content of the presentation itself, but for the ideas that have been bubbling around and probably need to be clarified into papers sooner rather than later.


From Paul Christensen “in praise of bluffing” published in “The Antioch Review” of Spring 1999

So how was I not to bluff, if all my heroes did it, and did it well? You know the measure of your spiritual depth by how well you bluff. Cowards tell little lies and fudge a lot; poets expand the radius of the lie into illusion and allusion, and dream more. Politicians grasp the pulse of an imaginary nation and pronounce in simple boring language things that everyone should know, and the bluff is therefore stale and usually unimaginative, underreaching. Most of them have given up the bluff and gone to the pollsters to learn the trite and cliched truth. Priests bluff according to formula and repeat the doctrinal gestures and elements so often it is no longer bluff but rote habit.

No, the bluff pure and ethereal is reserved for geniuses and mad people. No modern poem ever reaches the condition of pure bluffness. The poem is a sad little grocery list with a bit of ego linking up the potatoes and carrots. Everyone wants a practical lesson in life and living, and the poor little lyric bag of syllables serves us a dim copy of that desire, as tasty as a box of Stove Top Stuffing or Hamburger Dinner. Predictability is a passion of our times, and preordained answers are far more welcome than the unexpected twist. People ask stupid and unbluffable questions and begin nodding and coaxing out the expected language before you can answer. “What’s the best car to buy, huh?” The Chevrolet Metro has the best mileage, according to the news we all watched last night, and remember partly. “Uh huh, that’s right. That’s right, uh huh.”

We cannot bluff now because we all have a uniform, slightly squared-off consciousness shaped for us by the same media exposure. We all watch the same shows, listen to NPR, The Jim Lehrer News Hour, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered, and then proceed to have, not conversations exactly, but trading sessions. I say part of a fact and you supply the rest; I was picking my nose at some critical moment of Bob Edwards’s comments and missed something, and you were sitting idly and retained it. So we talk as if we put together a rehab unit’s jigsaw puzzle: a portrait of Art Linkletter’s house at nightfall, just as Lawrence Welk begins playing an old rerun on the tube.

We all see the same movies, eat the same food, hear the same music, and read the same books and magazines, so we live in a lit circle of shared cultural noodles and broth. And the diet is so cloying and indigestible that we hardly ever want to regurgitate our nightly consumption.

By disposition the majority would prefer to remain behind the fence of such shared common shallowness, such boiled news and pre-owned food. We go along inside used and tired minds, trading tokens of consciousness that we already own in duplicate and triplicate. Maybe that’s why conversation is dead in America; what’s there to say that’s new? Nothing much. I’m okay, are you fine, too? Yeah, sure. Bye now. Bye.

In my current research, I am looking at the pattern recognition and the ability to deal with uncertain information that characterises expertise, so the notion of bluffing as a manifestation of implicit pattern recognition is appealing. It resonates with the concept of confabulation as part of a normal epistemic process as described by Hirstein (2005) in Brain Fiction, and of using simple heuristics described by Gigerenzer (2007) in Gut Feelings, among others.

TV masks a human cognitive surplus caused by having “free time”

The quote below is from Clay Shirky’s piece on “Gin, TV and Social Surplus” in which he describes how our American cousins spend 200 billion hours a year watching TV, which he equates to 100 million hours each weekend just watching the ads!!! I have no idea how he comes up with these astonishing numbers, but they sound impressive … as does the 100 million hours of human thought spent he calculates has been spent so far on Wikipedia …

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?”

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

Education, intelligence and soul

from Michael Leunig in The Age:

It is said that many people sell their souls and live with good conscience on the proceeds. I know for a fact there are rats in good schools.

But education excellence or not, intelligence suits us all, and intelligence may be just another word for sensitivity as far as I can understand.

You have to grow it whenever and wherever you can and sometimes you have to survive an education system, an academy or any web of convention, authority or conformity to do it. Life’s a long time and that’s the achievement, that’s what matters in the end — to come through, not necessarily with excellence and brilliance, but with soul.

Opinions, rigorous thinking and self esteem

I am at a loss to figure out how children will learn to think clearly, to evaluate quality, and to show appropriate courtesy and respect to others if they are not given accurate feedback about their own thought processes, opinions and behaviour. Negative feedback can be delivered politely or impolitely, sensitively or insensitively, but is absolutely necessary if positive feedback is to carry any meaning. Without exposure to negative as well as positive feedback, self-esteem has no basis, and hence no on-going value.

During the course of unpacking boxes of books (from moving house) I came across Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children, which addresses some of my concerns albeit from a slightly different perspective.

“At the family dinner table, conversation standards should be rigorous. Miss Manners will even make a major exception to the rule about not leaving the table for anything other than an emergency, in order to allow a disputed fact to be checked. (Ones that take longer must be deferred, but the volunteer researcher can usually escape helping with the dishes if he reads aloud from the reference book in the kitchen while the others are working).

Opinions, in Miss Manner’s opinion, are also subject to challenge at the family dinner table. She believes that the child who is allowed to get away with baseless opinions, or who is congratulated for mouthing a family opinion without having though it through, is destined to grow into a fuzzy thinker and a bore.

It annoys her no end to hear of children’s being credited for “discussing” possibilities, so that they can then produce the “opinion” of being against it. She would hope that the most active anti-nuclear-weapons parent would insist that the child understand that the issue is not whether one is for or against destruction of the universe – how smugly children accept congratulations for coming out against it – but how countries can live in peace and protect themselves from aggression. We all want our child to share our opinions because they are so wise. But if we want the child to be wise, as well, we will not accept his arriving at these opinions without knowing what he is saying.” (from Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children)

If Miss Manner’s droll style is not to your liking, we could go to the other end of the spectrum to highlight a lack of rigorous thinking through this highly amusing catalogue of self-esteem generated through style over substance (warning: those whose political-correctness has obliterated their sense of humour will probably be offended rather than amused … so if that is you, don’t follow this link … )

Coaching, training and teaching

A letter from LS Michaelis published in The Lancet, 1946, and just as true today:

Sir, — At a time when the resources of medical education are being replanned and expanded, it would I think be useful to define these three complementary activities.

Coaching is the assembling of knowledge in preparation for a test of mental assimilation — i.e., the examination. Coaching may follow teaching, but should never precede or coincide with it.

Training is the acquisition of techniques by practical experience: It may coincide with teaching, but should never precede it.

Teaching provides a fundamental introduction, a crtical survey, and a challenge to original thought; it promotes judgement and insight, enthusiasm, and inquiry. It should precede and accompany training, but never degenerate into coaching.

Clever young graduates, with a fund of systematic knowledge, make good coaches; able technicians may make good trainers. But teaching calls for a balanced view of the part and the whole; it demands a broad outlook and a deep insight, with scepticism for the established and an open mind for the new.

When coaching is allowed to predominate in education, the body medical presents itself as a cleanly dissected corpse. When training is given more than its due, the result is a robot. Only when teaching is given its proper scope and precedence does this body medical emerge as a growing living organism.

Sensory neuroscience revisited

In the past week or so, I have been immersed in my first sensory neuroscience conferences for 10 years (and ironically, they managed to overlap by half a day which was a bit unfortunate). The lead-up to these conferences has been somewhat frantic due to the fact that our year-long project on Simulations in Early Pilot Training required an extra month’s work to address a few extra issues.

I hope to find time to write a few more substantive posts about the various strands of ideas generated by these conferences, but the upshot was that although much has changed in sensory neuroscience, much has not. The ideas that have been percolating away in my mind while I have been occupied by elearning and simulation mirror some of the major developments in the mainstream of cognitive neuroscience, and the time is ripe for the application to training of learning principles firmly grounded in cognitive neuroscience.

It’s all very exciting. Watch this space for updates of ideas (although this always takes longer than I think it will …)

The more we learn, the less we know?

When I first started learning taekwondo, I didn’t really think of myself as a “martial artist”, I didn’t feel like part of the martial arts community, nor did I see myself as a core part of my own taekwondo school. This is not a reflection on USMA or the people within it, because it is a most welcoming school for students of all ages and from all backgrounds. It is much more about the way in which I viewed myself, my capabilities, and my reasons for being there, compared with the way in which I viewed the other students in the school on these dimensions.

The initial phase of learning for me was very focussed on the pragmatic aspects of learning sequences of movements and techniques – where to put my hands and feet and how to coordinate the most basic of actions. A blog of my “journey in taekwondo” was really a bit like a homework diary on learning something as an outsider with no particular skill at it, and recording my experience in an easily accessible place in case other people like me wanted to know some of the things a novice might need to learn (eg what are the movements in 3 step sparring? what is the student oath? etc). I have received a few emails from complete strangers asking exactly these sorts of things.

However, as I mastered performance of these physical aspects to a greater or lesser degree, I began to understand how much more depth there is in each movement than just the basic physical execution. I also started to understand some of the theoretical aspects of the martial art and to start seriously considering the philosophical underpinnings of martial arts in general. This was in the context of my own research work in cognitive science, but also in the context of teaching and learning, and in terms of my own understanding of morality and social justice.

The “journey” stopped being a purely physical one in terms of how to kick and punch and learn my patterns and perform in front of an audience, and has become much more of a philosophical one focussed on how these things fit with in with “moral culture”, discipline and ways of thinking. I also started to get to know my fellow students and to become an insider within the school. I can no longer comment on martial arts as an outsider or observer, as I am now very much part of the USMA community, and through this association, with the broader taekwon-do community. I am no longer anonymous, and my views, while still my own, are no longer *just my own* – as an assistant instructor at USMA, even my personal views will reflect on the school itself, as will my personal conduct in the rest of my life. In particular, any views I have on instruction or hierarchy or NGBs or martial arts politics will to some extent be taken to reflect on my own Instructor irrespective of whether they align with his views. In any event, in the martial arts world it is probably not appropriate for a first dan to comment on such matters publically.

At this point in my “taekwon-do journey”, I see taekwon-do as a martial art, and see a martial art as a way of life which does not neatly turn off when I leave the dojang. Similarly, my professional life as a cognitive scientist and psychologist does not magically turn off outside the office and nor does the belief system and ethical position attached to it. And I remain a mother, daughter, friend and colleague for various people whether I’m in the dojang or my office or not. The trick is how to reconcile the disparate views of the world encompassed in these various roles and relationships and make an integrated whole. The more we learn, the more we see how different ideas might relate to each other and how much more there is to know in order to understand the world. The more people we know, the more we are exposed to different ways of looking at the world.

And the more we know people, the more we know the myriad ways we can be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misrepresented despite our best intentions, and the best intentions of others. Audience matters, and although I am willing to defend most of what I say in public or private, sometimes it is important to know the motivation and intent of the potential audience.

Of course, having said that, you might well ask why on earth I would keep a blog on the internet if I care about who might be in my audience? It’s a good question, and a difficult one to answer. Probably because I think it is important to hold our views up for scrutiny, even just the self-scrutiny involved in writing them down. And the web was the tool of a much smaller (mostly academic) community when I first started using it.

More importantly though, I think that I am identifying the fact that, as taekwon-do for me has moved from being an “activity” to a “way of life”, my taekwon-do blog has evolved from being a blog about “ooh wow, great excitement, I broke a board”, and “here are 5 2-step sparring drills to remember” to a blog of thoughts about how we live, how we learn, and how we relate to each other. These are much more personal insights which at some level involve other people in my life and so require a greater level of thought in terms of how (and whether) they should be written.

Perhaps as I start training seriously for my second dan grading, my taekwon-do views will become more focused on specifics that are more publically sharable. There’s nothing like a grading to focus the mind – and, as I write, I suspect the frequency of my blog posts is actually most closely related to the frequency of gradings … an self-insight that is worth re-considering in the broader context of teaching and learning.