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.

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.


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.

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 … )

Bias in academic courses

Young Libs campaign to out biased dons (from The Australian):

“NATALIE Karam, a second-year university law student, recently changed classes because she was so uncomfortable about the ideological stance of one of her lecturers.”

Apparently this biased lecturer stated that he belonged to the Greens, and poor Natalie, a Young Lib, felt marginalised in his class by belonging to the mainstream and moved classes. It made her think twice: what if she said something he didn’t like? … Perhaps she should have thought a third or fourth or fifth time until she came to the far more sensible realisation that this lecturer is capable of distinguishing his own bias, her bias and any other bias that creeps into academic work unacknowledged. The whole point of the academy is to analyse ideas, understand different perspectives, identify what is bias and what is “mainstream” (I’m assuming that anything “not mainstream” constitutes bias in the terms of the article in The Australian), and present a range of conflicting viewpoints. This is unlikely to happen if everyone runs off to immerse themselves in the company of like-minded people who will never challenge their view of the world.

Then again, let’s imagine that the lecturer had kept quiet about his affiliation with the Greens. Natalie would not even have known how uncomfortable she should have been!! Or perhaps the lecturer would no longer have been biased? Hmmmmm – how would that work? So perhaps what she is really saying, along with her Young Libs leader Noel McCoy, is that biased (non-mainstream, Greens-affiliated) academics should not be allowed to give lectures at all? Sweet. I wonder how Ms Karam expects to practise Law if she is not able to identify, present, analyse, or assess a line of argument in a professional capacity that differs from her own views? Then again, perhaps she won’t need to present any legal arguments when she can just go to the media and market her clients as victims.

Watching your kids on the internet …

I was saddened to read of the deaths of two teenage girls in Melbourne, reported to be as a result of a suicide pact made online through MySpace. There has been a lot of mainstream media coverage of this tragedy, much of which is exhorting parents to monitor what their kids are doing online. There is an insidious element of implied criticism of the girls’ parents – seemingly suggesting that these parents were somehow negligent in not knowing what the kids were doing because they were doing it in secret on line rather than in the open spaces of the “real world”. There is a not-so-hidden implication that we are being irresponsible parents to allow our kids online for too long. As a mother of two adolescents (a girl and a boy) who each spend a reasonable amount of unsupervised time online, I am reading the coverage with some interest.

I am particularly bemused by the commentary by some of the supposed experts in adolescent psychology … adolescence is a tricky time, and one that we all hope our kids get through relatively unscathed … but I would have thought it is precisely the time when we should be allowing our kids room to explore the world. It is a world that has always had a dark side and has always involved kids exploring some of the things their parents told them not to do. Mostly they survive. Often, parental boundaries are set with the naive intention of avoiding their kids being exposed to the dangerous things they chose to do themselves as adolescents …

The thing about suicide is how unpredictable it can be – there is no way to predict what is the precursor to suicide, although there are many ways to see the evidence with 20/20 hindsight. Suicide leaves a devastating after-effect, including an increase of suicides among those affected. But surely drawing attention to the “likelihood” of copycat suicides is tantamount to giving permission to copycats to go ahead by normalising their action?

There is no doubt that when you are touched by someone’s death, it is a good time to hold your special people close and to remember to tell them that you love them. But it is not the right time to suffocate them and to stop trusting them because someone else has shown poor judgement.

The thing about the internet is how much opportunity it gives us to observe the things that would otherwise be transient and unobserved by anyone who wasn’t right there at the time. That is to say, in many ways we can see way more of what our kids are doing online than what they are doing offline … in our houses, we don’t monitor all the conversations our children have, and we don’t control who they interact with at school or elsewhere unless we take them everywhere … I even suspect there are quite a few grandparents whose main contact with their grandkids is online.

Which brings me back (in a somewhat rambling way) to the theme of watching your kids on the internet … my 15 yo son is an avid internet user and I drop by his website occasionally to see what he’s up to and who he’s “hanging out with”. My argument is that he is bringing these people “into my home” through the computer and I want to get a feel for who they are … I try not to hang around his site too much because, frankly, I don’t need to see the adolescent details of his life, just like I don’t need to sit with his friends in the school yard, or listen to the details of their conversations at parties, or read their “I’m bored” / “Me too” / “Me too me too” deep bonding (!!) … would I know if he was using drugs or deeply unhappy or doing evil and / or illegal things on the internet or in real life? I like to think so, but I suspect he could easily lead a double life without me knowing and vice versa if he were intent on so doing – he’s smart, and we just hope that he uses it for good not evil through the values we have offered him through our own example as family and friends.

For the past few days his Journal has had an “Emo” theme of “Going to die in 5 days” with something about it being his foray into attention-grabbing journal entries so he can say he’s tried out the genre … and his “mood” is listed as bored and, amongst other things on his profile, he watches “anything other than the news”. There were a whole string of fairly mundane comments and stuff from his friends associated with the journal entry – ie nothing other than the title to ring any alarm bells. He writes a bit of “dark” poetry occasionally along with lots of light creative things too. We talk sometimes, but not all the time, and we don’t share everything with each other although I like to think we have a healthy respect for each other.

So what is a responsible parent to do with something like that? Is it a joke? Is it a cry for help? Is it nothing? Is it something? Should I be reading his online journal (which is online and therefore presumably fair game for anyone to read including his mother (although I feel like I should knock first before entering as I would into his room if he had friends over))? And if it is something to worry about, how would confronting him be likely to help? Will it exacerbate his crisis or lead him to the sudden realisation that parental love solves everything? Should I put him on suicide watch, cancel all ground-leave, medicate him, take him to a psychiatrist, yell at him?

As it turned out (more than 5 days later … ;-)) – it was about as meaningful in terms of any imminent death as my saying “I’ll kill you if you eat my last chocolate teddy bear biscuit” … (and I leave it to the reader to ascertain the level of threat associated with eating the last chocolate biscuit in my household :-)). Since my son doesn’t watch the news or read the paper, he was completely unaware that it was an ‘insensitive’ journal entry to have made in terms of timing … It has since been edited to say “Going to HAVE A COOKIE in 5 days” … which shows just how inane the whole journal thing can be and why parents might tire of watching their children endlessly online …

So to make a long story even longer, I read the post a few days ago, raised my eyebrows, checked that my son didn’t seem too distressed or secretive and let it go at that. Then I started wondering whether I was being a bad parent, a lazy parent, too confident that I know my son, too insensitive to “see his pain” (ie see pain that is beyond what is bearable for any healthy adolescent) … and started asking myself the question of “how would I feel if I ‘missed the sign'”? … And if I be honest, I probably only asked my son about the entry because I was worried about how I would explain having “seen the sign” and ignored it … especially as a Registered Psychologist ™. But then again, maybe I should have trusted my instincts as a scientist a bit more – watching our kids too closely will also have effects, not all of which are straightforward or “good” no matter what our intent. Heisenberg or Einstein or Schroedinger or someone particularly clever with Quantum Physics said something about the nature of observations and how they relate to the longevity and well-being of cats, and I suspect, along with Kath and Kim, that it may also apply to humans …

I should now be smiling wryly and saying “better safe than sorry” but that actually misses an important point – if my son was seriously suicidal in a pre-meditated way, knew I was watching him, and did not want to talk to me about it, he would probably change his method not his mind. Sometimes we overestimate our power and influence as parents, and we misunderstand the value of our love – adolescents are not really ready to understand the nature of parental love – maybe they are completely used to it and do not actually understand its value, maybe they feel betrayed by some element of it that they don’t understand, maybe they feel smothered by it, maybe they have never experienced it … but many adolescents are betrayed or devastated or overwhelmed by relationships and experiences outside of the family which they feel they need to deal with outside of the family, and in these things we sometimes support our kids best by trusting them to be able to cope. We can not fix everything for our kids (or anyone else), bad stuff does happen, we are not responsible for other people’s happiness (although that’s not to say that we can aren’t sometimes responsible for their unhappiness …)

Suicide leaves a trail of devastation behind it, and loneliness and unhappiness can be relieved by people taking time to care for each other. But life does have ups and downs and perhaps we should embrace a broader range of life’s experience to become resilient to some of the bumps along the way. Perhaps rather than referring people to Lifeline too quickly, we can make it our own crusade to look after the people around us. I think I am understanding my grandmother’s saying “Charity begins at home” a little bit more …

Steve Irwin and Crocodile Tears

I am pleased to find I am not alone in my lack of surprise at the passing of Steve Irwin, although like Jack Marx, I extend my sympathy to his friends and family who have lost a loved one.

Steve Irwin engaged in risky behaviour, and although we are assured that he went to great lengths to minimise risk, there are inherent risks in dealing with deadly animals that cannot be eliminated. It is simply not possible to be simultaneously “confronting danger” and be completely safe – and it is surely not rocket science to understand this mutually exclusive relationship between danger and safety.

The “message to children” sent by Steve Irwin seems to have been that confronting danger is fun, exhilarating, and allows you to experience things you would otherwise not know – this message has now been rounded out by adding that confronting danger may also lead to death. It is truly bizarre how parents wish to shield their children from this rather obvious conclusion – dangerous animals are dangerous and can kill you. It’s not their “fault” – it’s what they do, and there is no moral value in play when they do it. You invade their territory, they may kill you and they don’t agonise about the right or wrong of it.

I’m sure Steve Irwin knew this, but it didn’t deter him from living his life to the fullest that way accepting the consequences of risk. Perhaps if we were not so freakishly safety conscious about things that carry small risks, we would be able to learn how to assess serious risks for ourselves and accept the consequences of our choices (safe and bored, or risky and exhilarating) rather than relying on litigation and the assignment of blame after any adverse event. And if we want our kids to make informed choices, they need information about consequences of accepting risk.

I am not generally a fan of Germaine Greer, but her comments on Steve Irwin’s death balance the accolades for his “animal-loving” “conservationist” persona.

Anti-obesity mafia

Quick, hide the chippies! – Education News –

Yet another ridiculously simplified take on childhood obesity – ban junk food, turn off the telly, regulate the junk food advertisers and the kids will become fit and healthy … the Government will be seen to be “doing something” about this terrible state of affairs – but whatever happened to parental common sense and personal responsibility?

PARENTS should only scoff chocolate or a packet of chips after the kids have gone to bed, as part of a new campaign against obesity.

Besides sneaking out of sight for a sugar hit, parents also are urged to put a two-hour time limit on their children watching television or surfing the internet …

o assist in the new campaign, a Federal Government website has had extra information posted on it, aimed at helping parents make the changes necessary to downsize their overweight kids.

Among the suggestions is that if a parent must eat junk food, it’s best to do it out of sight of impressionable children.

“Be a good role model; if you eat healthily your toddler will follow in your footsteps,” it says.

Kids are fat and don’t exercise … so are their parents. Good role models model the role – so are we teaching our kids that you can eat junk so long as you don’t get caught? That calories consumed in secret do not lead to obesity?

Perhaps the problem is precisely around the type of role models we provide as parents and teachers – if parents and teachers eat healthy food and incorporate normal exercise into their daily routine (walking or riding a bike instead of driving, playing outside with their kids, enjoying physical activity in the garden and around the house, playing sport) perhaps children will follow in their footsteps.

Balance in life does not mean balance every hour of every day, balance in diet does not mean every meal must contain all the food groups. Banning all sugar and fat is silly. Placing moral value on food items is silly. Understanding nutrition is important, but it is also important to understand the social nature of “breaking bread together” or sharing time and conversation around food. A healthy balance between nutrition, exercise, relaxation, social interaction and mental stimulation requires more than paternalistic bans on chips, chocolate bars and soft drinks (while allowing “sports bars”, “energy drinks” and other marketing rubbish …). Is it only me that thinks this approach is unmitigated vacuousness?

Continuous Partial Attention

We suffer from the illusion, says Stone, that we can expand our personal bandwidth, connecting to ever more. Instead, we end up overstimulated, overwhelmed and unfulfilled. Continuous partial attention inevitably feels like a lack of full attention.”

These concepts of “continuous partial attention” and of expanding personal bandwidth are good ones to explore in the learning domain – but it might also be instructive to look back at parallels in earlier times …

cited in Meanwhile: A tale of snail mail – Editorials & Commentary – International Herald Tribune

“Linda Stone, a former Microsoft techie, characterizes ours as an era of “continuous partial attention.” At the extreme end are teenagers instant-messaging while they talk on the cellphone, download music and do homework. But adults too live with all systems go, interrupted and distracted, scanning everything, multi-technological-tasking everywhere.

We suffer from the illusion, says Stone, that we can expand our personal bandwidth, connecting to ever more. Instead, we end up overstimulated, overwhelmed and unfulfilled. Continuous partial attention inevitably feels like a lack of full attention.”

These concepts of “continuous partial attention” and of expanding personal bandwidth are good ones to explore in the learning domain – but it might also be instructive to look back at parallels in earlier times – surely the multi-tasking capabilities of a traditional housewife (simultaeously cooking, washing, child-minding, talking to the neighbours etc) is at least at the same level of attentional complexity, as is the cognitive load of driving a carload of passengers, or of playing / coaching many team sports. I wonder whether the initially compelling idea of a problem with increased attentional load from new communications technology is an artefact of the shift in attentional focus required by adults using such technology. Adults are so used to applying continuous partial attention in other domains that they only become aware of attentional load when they have to retrain their attentional habits to different cues.

The notion of “expand(ing) personal bandwidth” is also one that is initially compelling but in the end as Stone asserts, probably illusory. I suspect that personal bandwidth is a limited capacity and that while communications technology may expand the pool of connections available to us in both temporal and spatial domains, it does not expand the communications bandwidth for sustaining meaningful communication. Our communications horizons may be expanded, but our attentional capacity is still limited in focus.