Key advice part two

This thought from Chris Corrigan is a bit long for a sampler, but written on a pocket sized piece of paper so that we could pull it out and meditate on it from time to time could benefit us all:
“It’s amazing how the stories we tell ourselves perpetuate our own suffering and inability to fully participate in the world. When we think that we are in control or that we are the only ones with the answer, it doesn’t take long to discover that the world has no trouble making a mockery of us. Control and certainty are illusory. All we have is our own meager dependance on each other. The more we are related and understand one another, the safer we truly are, because we are better able to address the vagaries of the world if there are many eyes, hearts and brains making sense of a situation.”

Key advice

In one of Johnnie Moore’s more recent entries on his blog there is a piece of advice worthy of being embroidered on a sampler and hung in every living room, “Pay more attention to what is happening and less to your notion of what should be happening.”
More than that every manager should have it engrave on plaque and place on their desk where they can’t avoid seeing it. Every teacher…
I think you probably get the point by now.

Words are like sheepdogs

There is a fascinating article in the New York Times about a symposium, the Magic of Consciousness, organised by members of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. (Thanks to Abbas Raza of 3Quarks for the pointer)
Reading through it, there were a whole host of examples of how conjurers misdirect our attention to produce the illusion of magic. So at a variety points I hit something I thought I would like to write about. But the biggie for me was this exchange with Daniel Dennett:
“For years Dr. Dennett has argued that qualia, in the airy way they have been defined in philosophy, are illusory. In his book ‘Consciousness Explained,’ he posed a thought experiment involving a wine-tasting machine. Pour a sample into the funnel and an array of electronic sensors would analyze the chemical content, refer to a database and finally type out its conclusion: ‘a flamboyant and velvety Pinot, though lacking in stamina.’
If the hardware and software could be made sophisticated enough, there would be no functional difference, Dr. Dennett suggested, between a human oenophile and the machine. So where inside the circuitry are the ineffable qualia?
Retreating to a bar at the Imperial Palace, we talked about a different mystery he had been pondering: the role words play inside the brain. Learn a bit of wine speak — ‘ripe black plums with an accent of earthy leather’ — and you are suddenly equipped with anchors to pin down your fleeting gustatory impressions. Words, he suggested, are ‘like sheepdogs herding ideas.'”

Hitting that phrase, “Words are like sheepdogs herding ideas” is a great example of what he means in itself. As I read it I realised that much of my time is spent in searching for those words and phrases that crystallise the buzzing confusion of ideas, impressions and experiences bumping around in my mind that I haven’t been able to articulate.
Finding the illuminating word or phrase, for me seems to be what transforms a mess of ideas into something more coherent that I can work with. Adding Dennett’s phrase to one of my favourite quotes from George Nelson, “The connection game is a process of building patterns. Patterns make things intelligible.”, seems to sum up what I do.

Oh, to be in England…

… where even the flowerbeds rebuke us.
Shiny Happy Person,a junior psychiatrist working in the NHS, reports on her blog how, when taking a break in the hospital gardens, she heard a voice from a flowerbed saying, “this is a no smoking area. Please put your cigarette out. A member of staff has been informed”.
Nic Cohen writing in today’s Observer picks up the story and adds:
“… it is on the record that hospitals have banned smoking and some, such as the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust, have put smoke alarms outdoors to catch patients who nip outside for a quick fag.
The makers of a new generation of alarms say their trade doesn’t stop with the NHS. They are doing good business with local authorities, drug rehabilitation centres and government departments. Their Cig-Arrete (geddit?) detector provides ‘a visual and audible re-enforcement of your commitment to creating a smoke-free environment’.”

Isn’t it reassuring to know that our apparatchiks are working so hard to guarantee our well-being.

We’re all like Ethel

Charles Leadbeater writes very vividly about the later years of his wife’s grandmother and how she coped with her everyday life and how she didn’t. As you read the quote below I would like you to think about the similarities between yourself and Ethel, rather than the obvious differences. I certainly found the exercise very instructive.
“My wife’s grandmother, Ethel, was born and bred in London’s East End. She lived into her 90s, in a tiny council flat in run-down Stepney. As Ethel got older, she got smaller and frailer. By the time she died her brain was incapable of any bouts of new learning. She lived in a dream-world, in which she and her doctor were about to elope to Southend. Despite these eccentricities, Ethel was able to live a reasonably ordered life by distributing her intelligence around her. She cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, listened to the radio, by knowing where to find all the tools she needed to do these jobs. Ethel’s flat was encrusted with little landmarks and rules of thumb that she had laid down over many years to help get by. By picking up these markers and putting them back in the same place – the washing powder here, the ironing board there, the radio next to the toaster – she could get a lot done. Ethel’s brain was addled, but she could appear mentally robust because so much of her intelligence had been sub-contracted to her environment. That was also her weakness. As soon as Ethel was taken out of her flat into a nursing home, she could not do a thing. All her rules of thumb and landmarks disappeared. Her worn-out brain was incapable of putting other landmarks in place in her new surroundings. She became utterly vulnerable….”

Glimpses of the future

Every so often I get a buzz when I spot something that looks like a glimpse into the future. I had that feeling when I saw Jeff Han’s demo of a multi-touch system at TED. I got a similar buzz watching Steve Job’s demo of the iPhone with its multi-touch interface, that I believe was based on the work of Wayne Westerman and John Elias. But the biggest buzz I have had for a very long time was seeing James Patten‘s PICO. (Thanks to Andy Polaine‘s Playpen for the tip.)
So why am I so excited by PICO. Four years ago I wrote:
“I think it was Niels Bohr who said, “It’s hard to predict, especially the future”. But, driven by the number of my friends working in the interactive media industry, who complain that things have got very boring, I thought I’d venture a few predictions.
The first is that we should still expect a lot of disruptive, technological surprises to come.
The second is that network thinking, or what George Nelson called the “connections game”, is going to become a key ability in life and in business.
And the third is that analogue interfaces to digital media are going to be a hot area of development over the next few years.”

My glimpse of PICO seems to have all three ingredients. It looks disruptive because I can see a potential for its analogue interface to be a powerful tool for us to do some real network thinking. Again to quote from my 2003 piece:
“In the mean time the strongest advice I could give to any individual or business is to become sensitive to where you fit in your networks, learn to think in terms of nodes and connections and the complex interactions and feedback between them, and be conscious of the dynamics of your patterns of connection. Whether you are aware of it or not, your success or failure is going to be bound up in how well or not you identify, create and navigate your networks.”
At the moment we are really bad at this. Most of us have been programmed to think in a very simple, linear cause and effect mode. The internet and the Web have helped, but for most of us our feel for the interactions within networks is still pretty primitive. The kind of physical engagement that PICO promises could help us transcend the limitations of our education and training with disruptive effects on our current models of our world and how our actions impact on it.
PICO promises the kind of conversations between human beings and computers that Gordon Pask and Nicholas Negroponte dreamt of in the 1960s. Conversations where computers do what they are good at and humans do what we are good at. A synthesis that goes way beyond AI and, just maybe, could help us navigate our way through the coming hazards that our simple cause and effect models of the world have created.

If I know where it’s going, it’s dead for me

There are a lot of good William Gibson interviews around at the moment as he roams the world promoting his new book, “Spook Country”. One I particularly like is in College Crier Online. There is a lot of interesting stuff in the interview, but the answer that really intrigued me is where he talks about surrendering control of the process of composing a novel. This seems to me to capture the space where real creativity takes place and one that frightens the shit our of the bureaucratic rationalists who want every thing predictable and tick-boxed. Read it and see what you think:
“…I don’t believe that didactic writing can be really good. If I’m figuring out what I think is going on the world, and creating a fiction to illustrate that, I don’t feel like really doing what I’m supposed to be doing. When I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, I feel like I’m sort of inviting those characters in for a cup of coffee. And if I surrendered control over the process sufficiently, I won’t know what will be there until the narrative closes. And then it will take me a while to figure it out. So when, in Spook Country , for instance, I was in that narrative for a long time. Months and months, with no idea what was in the box. I had no idea. I was hundreds of pages into it and had no idea what was in that container. Or rather, I had like a dozen different ideas of what was in the container. I had to let the narrative inform me of what it was. It’s a very uncomfortable way of working, but it’s the only way I know to write a book. In the beginning all I had was that scene that became the second chapter with Tito and the old man and I didn’t really know anything about them and I just kind of stuck with that for months. Then I got some early version of the Hollis stuff and somehow it built a bridge between the two things and this narrative started to emerge. That sense of “this is how things are” that I think you’re talking about is secondary. It may be there, but it’s secondary to the process of pulling that narrative out and finding where it’s going. Like if I know where it’s going, it’s dead for me. I can’t do it.”

Popping up like Puck

Max Perutz knew a thing or two about creating the circumstances where future Nobel prize winners would thrive:
“.. creativity in science, as in the arts, cannot be organised. It arises spontaneously from individual talent. Well-run laboratories can foster it, but hierarchical organisation, inflexible, bureaucratic rules, and mountains of futile paperwork can kill it. Discoveries cannot be planned; they pop up, like Puck, in unexpected places.”
(Thanks to the book review in the Observer Review that got me looking me for the source of this quote.)

How else is he going to get one?

Prompted by a piece on Robert Paterson’s site, featuring a lecture by Robert Sapolsky, I revisited an interview with Sapolsky at Edge. (By the way if you want an education on the impact of stress on the immune system, put aside some time to watch the lecture – it’s gold dust.) A bit in the earlier interview than didn’t really register first time round – I was more interested in the cool baboons who opted out of being Alpha males – was this bit about the relationship between the development of morality and the frontal cortex:
“Moral development is very heavily built around a part of the brain I used to ignore because you don’t find much of it in a lab rat: the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is an incredibly interesting part of the brain, since it’s the nearest thing we’ve got to a super-ego. It’s the part of the brain that keeps us from belching loudly during the wedding ceremony, or telling somebody exactly what we think of the meal they made, or being a serial murderer. It’s the part of the brain that controls impulsivity, that accepts the postponement of gratification, that does constraint and anticipation, and that makes you work hard because you will get into an amazing nursing home one day if you just keep pushing hard enough. It’s all about this very human realm of holding off for later.

The most amazing thing is that there is a dogma of neural development. The dogma is that by the time you’re a couple of years old, you have your maximal number of neurons, and all of them are wired up and functioning. But it turns out that we make new neurons throughout life, and parts of the brain don’t come fully on line until later. And, amazingly, the last area to do so is the frontal cortex, not until around age 30 or so. It’s the last part of the brain to develop, and thus it’s the part whose development is most subject to experience, environment, reinforcement, and the social world around you. That is incredibly interesting.

To put this in personal terms, my six-year-old might do something appallingly horrible and selfish and age appropriate to one of my three-year-old’s toys. As a parent you swoop in and say, ‘This is not acceptable and you cannot do that.’ But just as I (or my wife who is a clinical nurse-psychologist, and so, pathetically, we actually speak like this at home) am saying this, the other will say, ‘He can’t help it; he doesn’t have a frontal cortex yet,’ to which the first inevitably responds, ‘But how else is he going to get one?'”