That’s not the smell of success, your brain is on fire.

Would you mind putting out the hippocampus when you have a chance?

Would you mind putting out the hippocampus when you have a chance?

I’ve written before about the issues of prolonged human workload leading to ethical problems and the fact that working more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis is downright unproductive because you get less efficient and error-prone. This is not some 1968 French student revolutionary musing on what benefits the soul of a true human, this is industrial research by Henry Ford and the U.S. Army, neither of whom cold be classified as Foucault-worshipping Situationist yurt-dwelling flower children, that shows that there are limits to how long you can work in a sustained weekly pattern and get useful things done, while maintaining your awareness of the world around you.

The myth won’t die, sadly, because physical presence and hours attending work are very easy to measure, while productive outputs and their origins in a useful process on a personal or group basis are much harder to measure. A cynic might note that the people who are around when there is credit to take may end up being the people who (reluctantly, of course) take the credit. But we know that it’s rubbish. And the people who’ve confirmed this are both philosophers and the commercial sector. One day, perhaps.

But anyone who has studied cognitive load issues, the way that the human thinking processes perform as they work and are stressed, will be aware that we have a finite amount of working memory. We can really only track so many things at one time and when we exceed that, we get issues like the helmet fire that I refer to in the first linked piece, where you can’t perform any task efficiently and you lose track of where you are.

So what about multi-tasking?

Ready for this?

We don’t.

There’s a ton of research on this but I’m going to link you to a recent article by Daniel Levitin in the Guardian Q&A. The article covers the fact that what we are really doing is switching quickly from one task to another, dumping one set of information from working memory and loading in another, which of course means that working on two things at once is less efficient than doing two things one after the other.

But it’s more poisonous than that. The sensation of multi-tasking is actually quite rewarding as we get a regular burst of the “oooh, shiny” rewards our brain gives us for finding something new and we enter a heightened state of task readiness (fight or flight) that also can make us feel, for want of a better word, more alive. But we’re burning up the brain’s fuel at a fearsome rate to be less efficient so we’re going to tire more quickly.

Get the idea? Multi-tasking is horribly inefficient task switching that feels good but makes us tired faster and does things less well. But when we achieve tiny tasks in this death spiral of activity, like replying to an e-mail, we get a burst of reward hormones. So if your multi-tasking includes something like checking e-mails when they come in, you’re going to get more and more distracted by that, to the detriment of every other task. But you’re going to keep doing them because multi-tasking.

I regularly get told, by parents, that their children are able to multi-task really well. They can do X, watch TV, do Y and it’s amazing. Well, your children are my students and everything I’ve seen confirms what the research tells me – no, they can’t but they can give a convincing impression when asked. When you dig into what gets produced, it’s a different story. If someone sits down and does the work as a single task, it will take them a shorter time and they will do a better job than if they juggle five things. The five things will take more than five times as long (up to 10, which really blows out time estimation) and will not be done as well, nor will the students learn about the work in the right way. (You can actually sabotage long term storage by multi-tasking in the wrong way.) The most successful study groups around the Uni are small, focused groups that stay on one task until it’s done and then move on. The ones with music and no focus will be sitting there for hours after the others are gone. Fun? Yes. Efficient? No. And most of my students need to be at least reasonably efficient to get everything done. Have some fun but try to get all the work done too – it’s educational, I hear. :)

It’s really not a surprise that we haven’t changed humanity in one or two generations. Our brains are just not built in a way that can (yet) provide assistance with the quite large amount of work required to perform multi-tasking.

We can handle multiple tasks, no doubt at all, but we’ve just got to make sure, for our own well-being and overall ability to complete the task, that we don’t fall into the attractive, but deceptive, trap that we are some sort of parallel supercomputer.


We don’t need no… oh, wait. Yes, we do. (@pwc_AU)

The most important thing about having a good idea is not the idea itself, it’s doing something with it. In the case of sharing knowledge, you have to get good at communication or the best ideas in the world are going to be ignored. (Before anyone says anything, please go and review the advertising industry which was worth an estimated 14 billion pounds in 2013 in the UK alone. The way that you communicate ideas matters and has value.)

Knowledge doesn’t leap unaided into most people’s heads. That’s why we have teachers and educational institutions. There are auto-didacts in the world and most people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to some extent but you still have to learn how to read and the more expertise you can develop under guidance, the faster you’ll be able to develop your expertise later on (because of how your brain works in terms of handling cognitive load in the presence of developed knowledge.)

When I talk about the value of making a commitment to education, I often take it down to two things: ongoing investment and excellent infrastructure. You can’t make bricks without clay and clay doesn’t turn into bricks by itself. But I’m in the education machine – I’m a member of the faculty of a pretty traditional University. I would say that, wouldn’t I?

That’s why it’s so good to see reports coming out of industry sources to confirm that, yes, education is important because it’s one of the many ways to drive an economy and maintain a country’s international standing. Many people don’t really care if University staff are having to play the banjo on darkened street corners to make ends meet (unless the banjo is too loud or out of tune) but they do care about things like collapsing investments and being kicked out of the G20 to be replaced by nations that, until recently, we’ve been able to list as developing.

The current G20 flags. How long will Australia be in there?

The current G20 flags. How long will Australia be in there?

PricewaterhouseCoopers (pWc) have recently published a report where they warn that over-dependence on mining and lack of investment in science and technology are going to put Australia in a position where they will no longer be one of the world’s 20 largest economies but will be relegated, replaced by Vietnam and Nigeria. If fact, the outlook is bleaker than that, moving Australia back beyond Bangladesh and Iran, countries that are currently receiving international support. This is no slur on the countries that are developing rapidly, improving conditions for their citizens and heading up. But it is an interesting reflection on what happens to a developed country when it stops trying to do anything new and gets left behind. Of course, science and technology (STEM) does not leap fully formed from the ground so this, in terms, means that we’re going to have make sure that our educational system is sufficiently strong, well-developed and funded to be able to produce the graduates who can then develop the science and technology.

We in the educational community and surrounds have been saying this for years. You can’t have an innovative science and technology culture without strong educational support and you can’t have a culture of innovation without investment and infrastructure. But, as I said in a recent tweet, you don’t have to listen to me bang on about “social contracts”, “general benefit”, “universal equity” and “human rights” to think that investing in education is a good idea. PwC is a multi-national company that’s the second largest professional services company in the world, with annual revenues around $34 billion. And that’s in hard American dollars, which are valuable again compared to the OzD. PwC are serious money people and they think that Australia is running a high risk if we don’t start looking at serious alternatives to mining and get our science and technology engines well-lubricated and running. And running quickly.

The first thing we have to do is to stop cutting investment in education. It takes years to train a good educator and it takes even longer to train a good researcher at University on top of that. When we cut funding to Universities, we slow our hiring, which stops refreshment, and we tend to offer redundancies to expensive people, like professors. Academic staff are not interchangeable cogs. After 12 years of school, they undertake somewhere along the lines of 8-10 years of study to become academics and then they really get useful about 10 years after that through practice and the accumulation of experience. A Professor is probably 30 years of post-school investment, especially if they have industry experience. A good teacher is 15+. And yet these expensive staff are often targeted by redundancies because we’re torn between the need to have enough warm bodies to put in front of students. So, not only do we need to stop cutting, we need to start spending and then commit to that spending for long enough to make a difference – say 25 years.

The next thing, really at the same time, we need to do is to foster a strong innovation culture in Australia by providing incentives and sound bases for research and development. This is (despite what happened last night in Parliament) not the time to be cutting back, especially when we are subsidising exactly those industries that are not going to keep us economically strong in the future.

But we have to value education. We have to value teachers. We have to make it easier for people to make a living while having a life and teaching. We have to make education a priority and accept the fact that every dollar spent in education is returned to us in so many different ways, but it’s just not easy to write it down on a balance sheet. PwC have made it clear: science and technology are our future. This means that good, solid educational systems from the start of primary to tertiary and beyond are now one of the highest priorities we can have or our country is going to sink backwards. The sheep’s back we’ve been standing on for so long will crush us when it rolls over and dies in a mining pit.

I have many great ethical and social arguments for why we need to have the best education system we can have and how investment is to the benefit of every Australia. PwC have just provided a good financial argument for those among us who don’t always see past a 12 month profit and loss sheet.

Always remember, the buggy whip manufacturers are the last person to tell you not to invest in buggy whips.


Going on.

A lot of posts today, and a lot of words, but I had to make a decision over the last couple of days as to whether I still felt comfortable blogging about things like discrimination in education and the myth of meritocracy when I am a member of the exceedingly privileged group of well-educated, comfortable, white men.

I’ve debated long and hard whether continuing to frame things as I do is an overall positive act or whether it just reinforces the idea that it is people like me who need to define what has to be done and what change has to be made. Are my ideas and writing of sufficient value to make up for the fact that I’m still the same old face on the television? Would it be better for me to stand back and let others take over the vacant space because it’s far less intimidating than having to step into a filled area?

I’ve spent the last three days thinking hard on this and I think I’ve sorted out where I am useful and where I am not, and what that means in terms of the way that this is presented.

I’ve decided to continue because I’m not trying to talk for or instead of the people that I’m not, I’m talking to try and help to make more space for those people to talk. So that more people like me can listen when they do speak. And I would never want to represent myself as an authority on much, except for knowing what it’s like to be a middle-aged man with deteriorating eyesight and bad knees, so please never think that I’m an authentic voice for the people I talk about – I’m trying to help make change, not pass myself off as something I’m not. As always, if you have a choice between reading someone’s authentic experiences and a reported view, you must go to the source. If you only have time to read one blog, please make it someone else’s and make that person someone whose voice you really want to hear.

Thanks for reading!

I'm not there yet but the educational impact on hair rental may one day be something I can talk about with authenticity.

I’m not there yet but the educational impact on hair rental may one day be something I can talk about with authenticity.


I Am Self-righteous, You Are Loud, She is Ignored

If we’ve learned anything from recent Internet debates that have become almost Lovecraftian in the way that a single word uttered in the wrong place can cause an outbreaking of chaos, it is that the establishment of a mutually acceptable tone is the only sensible way to manage any conversation that is conducted outside of body-language cues. Or, in short, we need to work out how to stop people screaming at each other when they’re safely behind their keyboards or (worse) anonymity.

As a scientist, I’m very familiar with the approach that says that all ideas can be questioned and it is only by ferocious interrogation of reality, ideas, theory and perception that we can arrive at a sound basis for moving forward.

But, as a human, I’m aware that conducting ourselves as if everyone is made of uncaring steel is, to be put it mildly, a very poor way to educate and it’s a lousy way to arrive at complex consensus. In fact, while we claim such an approach is inherently meritocratic, as good ideas must flourish under such rigour, it’s more likely that we will only hear ideas from people who can endure the system, regardless of whether those people have the best ideas. A recent book, “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy” by Lani Guinier, looks at how supposedly meritocratic systems in education are really measures of privilege levels prior to going into education and that education is more about cultivating merit, rather than scoring a measure of merit that is actually something else.

This isn’t to say that face-to-face arguments are isolated from the effects that are caused by antagonists competing to see who can keep making their point for the longest time. If one person doesn’t wish to concede the argument but the other can’t see any point in making progress, it is more likely for the (for want of a better term) stubborn party to claim that they have won because they have reached a point where the other person is “giving up”. But this illustrates the key flaw that underlies many arguments – that one “wins” or “loses”.

In scientific argument, in theory, we all get together in large rooms, put on our discussion togas and have at ignorance until we force it into knowledge. In reality, what happens is someone gets up and presents and the overall impression of competency is formed by:

  • The gender, age, rank, race and linguistic grasp of the speaker
  • Their status in the community
  • How familiar the audience are with the work
  • How attentive the audience are and whether they’re all working on grants or e-mail
  • How much they have invested in the speaker being right or wrong
  • Objective scientific assessment

We know about the first one because we keep doing studies that tell us that women cannot be assessed fairly by the majority of people, even in blind trials where all that changes on a CV is the name. We know that status has a terrible influence on how we perceive people. Dunning-Kruger (for all of its faults) and novelty effects influence how critical we can be. We can go through all of these and we come back to the fact that our pure discussion is tainted by the rituals and traditions of presentation, with our vaunted scientific objectivity coming in after we’ve stripped off everything else.

It is still there, don’t get me wrong, but you stand a much better chance of getting a full critical hearing with a prepared, specialist audience who have come together with a clear intention to attempt to find out what is going on than an intention to destroy what is being presented. There is always going to be something wrong or unknown but, if you address the theory rather than the person, you’ll get somewhere.

I often refer to this as the difference between scientists and lawyers. If we’re tying to build a better science then we’re always trying to improve understanding through genuine discovery. Defence lawyers are trying to sow doubt in the mind of judges and juries, invalidating evidence for reasons that are nothing to do with the strength of the evidence, and preventing wider causal linkages from forming that would be to the detriment of their client. (Simplistic, I know.)

Any scientific theory must be able to stand up to scientific enquiry because that’s how it works. But the moment we turn such a process into an inquisition where the process becomes one that the person has to endure then we are no longer assessing the strength of the science – we are seeing if we can shout someone into giving up.

As I wrote in the title, when we are self-righteous, whether legitimately or not, we will be happy to yell from the rooftops. If someone else is doing it with us then we might think they are loud but how can someone else’s voice be heard if we have defined all exchange in terms of this exhausting primal scream? If that person comes from a traditionally under-represented or under-privileged group then they may have no way at all to break in.

The mutual establishment of tone is essential if we to hear all of the voices who are able to contribute to the improvement and development of ideas and, right now, we are downright terrible at it. For all we know, the cure for cancer has been ignored because it had the audacity to show up in the mind of a shy, female, junior researcher in a traditionally hierarchical lab that will let her have her own ideas investigated when she gets to be a professor.

Or it it would have occurred to someone had she received education but she’s stuck in the fields and won’t ever get more than a grade 5 education. That’s not a meritocracy.

One of the reasons I think that we’re so bad at establishing tone and seeing past the illusion of meritocracy is the reason that we’ve always been bad at handling bullying: we are more likely to see a spill-over reaction from the target than the initial action except in the most obvious cases of physical bullying. Human language and body-assisted communication are subtle and words are more than words. Let’s look at this sentence:

“I’m sure he’s doing the best he can.”

You can adjust this sentence to be incredibly praising, condescending, downright insulting, dismissive and indifferent without touching the content of the sentence. But, written like this, it is robbed of tone and context. If someone has been “needled” with statements like this for months, then a sudden outburst is increasingly likely, especially in stressful situations. This is the point at which someone says “But I only said … ” If our workplaces our innately rife with inter-privilege tension and high stress due to the collapse of the middle class – no wonder people blow up!

We have the same problem in the on-line community from an approach called Sea-Lioning, where persistent questioning is deployed in a way that, with each question isolated, appears innocuous but, as a whole, forms a bullying technique to undermine and intimidate the original writer. Now some of this is because there are people who honestly cannot tell what a mutually respectful tone look like and really want to know the answer. But, if you look at the cartoon I linked to, you can easily see how this can be abused and, in particular, how it can be used to shut down people who are expressing ideas in new space. We also don’t get the warning signs of tone. Worse still, we often can’t or don’t walk away because we maintain a connection that the other person can jump on anytime they want to. (The best thing you can do sometimes on Facebook is to stop notifications because you stop getting tapped on the shoulder by people trying to get up your nose. It is like a drink of cool water on a hot day, sometimes. I do, however, realise that this is easier to say than do.)

From XKCD #386 – “Duty Calls”

When students communicate over our on-line forums, we do keep an eye on them for behaviour that is disrespectful or downright rude so that we can step in and moderate the forum, but we don’t require moderation before comment. Again, we have the notion that all ideas can be questioned, because SCIENCE, but the moment we realise that some questions can be asked not to advance the debate but to undermine and intimidate, we have to look very carefully at the overall context and how we construct useful discussion, without being incredibly prescriptive about what form discussion takes.

I recently stepped in to a discussion about some PhD research that was being carried out at my University because it became apparent that someone was acting in, if not bad faith, an aggressive manner that was not actually achieving any useful discussion. When questions were answered, the answers were dismissed, the argument recast and, to be blunt, a lot of random stuff was injected to discredit the researcher (for no good reason). When I stepped in to point out that this was off track, my points were side-stepped, a new argument came up and then I realised that I was dealing with a most amphibious mammal.

The reason I bring this up is that when I commented on the post, I immediately got positive feedback from a number of people on the forum who had been uncomfortable with what had been going on but didn’t know what to do about it. This is the worst thing about people who set a negative tone and hold it down, we end up with social conventions of politeness stopping other people from commenting or saying anything because it’s possible that the argument is being made in good faith. This is precisely the trap a bad faith actor wants to lock people into and, yet, it’s also the thing that keeps most discussions civil.

Thanks, Internet trolls. You’re really helping to make the world a better place.

These days my first action is to step in and ask people to clarify things, in the most non-confrontational way I can muster because asking people “What do you mean” can be incredibly hostile by itself! This quickly establishes people who aren’t willing to engage properly because they’ll start wriggling and the Sea-Lion effect kicks in – accusations of rudeness, unwillingness to debate – which is really, when it comes down to it:

I WANT TO TALK AT YOU LIKE THIS HOW DARE YOU NOT LET ME DO IT!

This isn’t the open approach to science. This is thuggery. This is privilege. This is the same old rubbish that is currently destroying the world because we can’t seem to be able to work together without getting caught up in these stupid games. I dream of a better world where people can say any combination of “I use  Mac/PC/Java/Python” without being insulted but I am, after all, an Idealist.

The summary? The merit of your argument is not determined by how loudly you shout and how many other people you silence.

I expect my students to engage with each other in good faith on the forums, be respectful and think about how their actions affect other people. I’m really beginning to wonder if that’s the best preparation for a world where a toxic on-line debate can break over into the real world, where SWAT team attacks and document revelation demonstrate what happens when people get too carried away in on-line forums.

We’re stopping people from being heard when they have something to say and that’s wrong, especially when it’s done maliciously by people who are demanding to say something and then say nothing. We should be better at this by now.


Publish and be damned, be silent and be ignored.

I’m working on a longer piece on how student interaction on electronic discussion forums suffers from the same problems of tone as any on-line forum. Once people decide that how they wish to communicate is the de facto standard for all discussion, then non-conformity is somehow weakness and indicative of bad faith or poor argument. But tone is a difficult thing to discuss because the perceived tone of a piece is in the hands of the reader and the writer.

A friend and colleague recently asked me for some advice about blogging and I think I’ve now done enough of it that I can offer some reasonable advice. I think the most important thing that I said at the time was that it was important to get stuff out there. You can write into a blog and keep it private but then no-one reads it. You can tweak away at it until it’s perfect but, much like a PhD thesis, perfect is the enemy of done. Instead of setting a lower bound on your word count, set an upper bound at which point you say “Ok, done, publish” to get your work out there. If your words are informed, authentic and as honest as you can make them then you’ll probably get some interesting and useful feedback.

But…

But there’s that tone argument again. The first thing you have to accept is that making any public statement has always attracted the attention of people, it’s the point really, and that the nature of the Internet means that you don’t need to walk into a park and stand at Speakers’ Corner to find hecklers. The hecklers will find you. So if you publish, you risk damning. If you’re silent, you have no voice. If you’re feeling nervous about publishing in the first place, how do you deal with this?

Let me first expose my thinking process. This is not an easy week for me as I think about what I do next, having deliberately stepped back to think and plan for the next decade or so. At the same time, I’m sick (our whole household is sick at the moment), very tired and have come off some travel. And I have hit a coincidental barrage of on-line criticism, some of which is useful and developing critique that I welcome and some of which is people just being… people. So this is very dear to my heart right now – why should I keep writing stuff if the outcome risks being unpleasant? I have other ways to make change.

Well, you should publish but you just need to accept that people will react to you publishing – sometimes well, sometimes badly. That’s why you publish, after all, isn’t it?

Let’s establish the ground truth – there is no statement you can make on the Internet that is immune to criticism but not all criticism is valid or useful. Let’s go through what can happen, although is only a subset.

  1. “I like sprouts”

    Facebook is the land of simple statements and many people talk about things that they like. “I like sprouts” critics find statements like this in order to express their incredulity that anyone could possibly enjoy Brussels Sprouts and “ugh, they’re disgusting”. The opposite is of course the people who show up on the “I hate sprouts” discussions to say “WHY DON’T YOU LOVE SPROUTS”? (For the record, I love Brussels sprouts.)

    A statement of personal preference for something as banal as food is not actually a question but it’s amazing how challenging such a statement can be. If you mention animals of any kind, there’s always the risk of animal production/consumption coming up because no opinion on the Internet is seen outside of the intersection of the perception of reader and writer. A statement about fluffy bunnies can lead to arguments about the cosmetics industry. Goodness help you if you try something that is actually controversial. Wherever you write it, if someone has an opinion that contradicts yours, discussion of both good and questionable worth can ensue.

    (Like the fact that Jon Pertwee is the best Doctor.)

    It’s worth noting that there are now people who are itching to go to the comments to discuss either Brussels Sprouts or Tom Baker/David Tennant or “Tom Baker/David Tennant”. This is why our species is doomed and I am the herald of the machine God. 01010010010010010101001101000101

  2. “I support/am opposed to racism/sexism/religious discrimination”

    It doesn’t matter which way around you make these statements, if a reader perceives it as a challenge (due to its visibility or because they’ve stumbled across it), then you will get critical, and potentially offensive, comment. I am on the “opposed to” side, as regular readers will know, but have been astounded by the number of times I’ve had people argue things about this. Nothing is ever settled on the Internet because sound evidence often doesn’t propagate as well as anecdote and drama.

    Our readership bubbles are often wider than we think. If you’re publishing on WP then pretty much anyone can read it. If you’re publishing on Facebook then you may get Friends and their Friends and the Friends of people you link… and so on. There are many fringe Friends on Facebook that will leap into the fray here because they are heavily invested in maintaining what they see as the status quo.

    In short, there is never a ‘safe’ answer when you come down on either side of a controversial argument but neutrality conveys very little. (There’s also the fact that there is no excluded middle for some issues – you can’t be slightly in favour of universal equality.)

    We also sail from “that’s not the real issue, THIS is the real issue” with great ease in this area of argument. You do not know the people who read your stuff until you have posted something that has hit all of the buttons on their agenda elevators. (And, yes, we all have them. Mine has many buttons.)

  3. Here is my amazingly pithy argument in support of something important.

    And here is the comment that:
    Takes something out of context.
    Misinterprets the thrust.
    Trivialises the issue.
    Makes a pedantic correction.
    Makes an unnecessary (and/or unpleasant) joke.
    Clearly indicates that the critic stopped reading after two lines.
    Picks a fight (possibly because of a lingering sprouts issue).

    When you publish with comments on, and I strongly suggest that you do, you are asking people to engage with you but you are not asking them to bully you, harass you or hijack your thread. Misinterpretation, and the correction thereof, can be a powerful tool to drive understanding. Bad jokes offer an opportunity to talk about the jokes and why they’re still being made. But a lot of what is here is tone policing, trying to make you regret posting. If you posted something that’s plain wrong, hurtful or your thrust was off (see later) then correction is good but, most of the time, this is tone policing and you will often know this better as bullying. Comments to improve understanding are good, comments to make people feel bad for being so stupid/cruel/whatever are bullying, even if the target is an execrable human being. And, yes, very easy trap to fall into, especially when buoyed up by self-righteousness. I’ve certainly done it, although I deeply regret the times that I did it, and I try to keep an eye out for it now.

    People love making jokes, especially on FB, and it can be hard for them to realise that this knee-jerk can be quite hurtful to some posters. I’m a gruff middle-aged man so my filter for this is good (and I just mentally tune people out or block them if that’s their major contribution) but I’ve been regularly stunned by people who think that posting something that is not supportive but jokey in response to someone sharing a thought or vulnerability is the best thing to do. If it derails the comments then, hooray, the commenter has undermined the entire point of making the post.

    Many sites have now automatically blocked or warped comments that rush in to be the “First” to post because it’s dumb. And now, even more tragically, at least one person is fighting the urge to prove my point by writing “First” underneath here as a joke. Because that’s the most important thing to take away from this.

  4. Here is a slight silly article using humour to make a point or using analogy to illustrate an argument.

    And here are the comments about this article failing because of some explicit extension of the analogy that is obviously not what was intended or here is the comment that interprets the humour as trivialising the issue at hand or, worse, indicating that the writer has secret ulterior motives.

    Writers communicate. If dry facts, by themselves, aligned one after the other in books educated people then humanity would have taken the great leap forward after the first set of clay tablets dried. Instead, we need frameworks for communication and mechanisms to facilitate understanding. Some things are probably beyond humorous intervention. I tried recently to write a comedic piece on current affairs and realised I couldn’t satirise a known racist without repeating at least some racial slurs – so I chose not to. But a piece like this, where I want to talk about some serious things without being too didactic? I think humour is fine.

    The problem is whether people think that you’re laughing at someone, especially them. Everyone personalises what they read – I imagine half of the people reading this think I’m talking directly to them, when I’m not. I’m condensing a billion rain drops to show you what can break a dam.

    Analogies are always tricky but they’re not supposed to be 1-1 matches for reality. Like all models, they are incomplete and fail outside of the points of matching. Combining humour and analogy is a really good way to lose some readers so you’ll get a lot of comments on this.

  5. Here is the piece where I got it totally and utterly wrong.

    You are going to get it wrong sometime. You’ll post while angry or not have thought of something or use a bad source or just have a bad day and you will post something that you will ultimately regret. This is the point at which it’s hardest to wade through the comments because, in between the tone policers, the literalists, the sproutists, the pedants, the racists, TIMECUBE, and spammers, you’re going to have read comments from people where they delicately but effectively tell you that you’ve made a mistake.

    But that is why we publish. Because we want people to engage with our writing and thoughtful criticism tells us that people are thinking about what we write.

The curse of the Internet is that people tend only to invest real energy in comment when they’re upset. Facebook have captured this with the Like button, where ‘yay’ is a click and “OH MY GOD, YOU FILTHY SOMETHINGIST” requires typing. Similarly, once you start writing and publishing, have a look at those people who are also creating and contributing, and those people who only pop up to make comments along the lines I’ve outlined. There are many powerful and effective critics in the world (and I like to discuss things as much as the next person) but the reach and power of the Internet means that there are also a lot of people who derive pleasure from sailing in to make comment when they have no intention of stating their own views or purpose in any way that exposes them.

Some pieces are written in a way that no discussion can be entered into safely, without leaving commentators any room to actually have a discussion around it. That’s always your choice but if you do it, why not turn the comments off? There’s no problem with having a clearly stated manifesto that succinctly captures your beliefs – people who disagree can write their own – but it’s best to clearly advertise that something is beyond casual “comment-based” discussion to avoid the confusion that you might be open for it.

I’ve left the comments open, let’s see what happens!


In Praise of the Beautiful Machines

Some mechanisms are more beautiful than others.

Some mechanisms are more beautiful than others.

I posted recently about the increasingly negative reaction to the “sentient machines” that might arise in the future. Discussion continues, of course, because we love a drama. Bill Gates can’t understand why more people aren’t worried about the machine future.

…AI could grow too strong for people to control.

Scientists attending the recent AI conference (AAAI15) thinks that the fears are unfounded.

“The thing I would say is AI will empower us not exterminate us… It could set AI back if people took what some are saying literally and seriously.” Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for AI.

If you’ve read my previous post then you’ll know that I fall into the second camp. I think that we don’t have to be scared of the rise of the intelligent AI but the people at AAAI15 are some of the best in the field so it’s nice that they ask think that we’re worrying about something that is far, far off in the future. I like to discuss these sorts of things in ethics classes because my students have a very different attitude to these things than I do – twenty five years is a large separation – and I value their perspective on things that will most likely happen during their stewardship.

I asked my students about the ethical scenario proposed by Philippa Foot, “The Trolley Problem“. To summarise, a runaway trolley is coming down the tracks and you have to decide whether to be passive and let five people die or be active and kill one person to save five. I put it to my students in terms of self-driving cars where you are in one car by yourself and there is another car with five people in it. Driving along a bridge, a truck jackknifes in front of you and your car has to decide whether to drive ahead and kill you or move to the side and drive the car containing five people off the cliff, saving you. (Other people have thought about in the context of Google’s self-driving cars. What should the cars do?)

One of my students asked me why the car she was in wouldn’t just put on the brakes. I answered that it was too close and the road was slippery. Her answer was excellent:

Why wouldn’t a self-driving car have adjusted for the conditions and slowed down?

Of course! The trolley problem is predicated upon the condition that the trolley is running away and we have to make a decision where only two results can come out but there is no “runaway” scenario for any sensible model of a self-driving car, any more than planes flip upside down for no reason. Yes, the self-driving car may end up in a catastrophic situation due to something totally unexpected but the everyday events of “driving too fast in the wet” and “chain collision” are not issues that will affect the self-driving car.

But we’re just talking about vaguely smart cars, because the super-intelligent machine is some time away from us. What is more likely to happen soon is what has been happening since we developed machines: the ongoing integration of machines into human life to make things easier. Does this mean changes? Well, yes, most likely. Does this mean the annihilation of everything that we value? No, really not. Let me put this in context.

As I write this, I am listening to two compositions by Karlheinz Stockhausen, playing simultaneously but offset, “Kontakte” and “Telemusik“, works that combine musical instruments, electronic sounds, and tape recordings. I like both of them but I prefer to listen to the (intentionally sterile) Telemusik by starting Koktakte first for 2:49 and then kicking off Telemusik, blending the two and finishing on the longer Kontakte. These works, which are highly non-traditional and use sound in very different ways to traditional orchestral arrangement, may sound quite strange and, to an audience familiar with popular music quite strange, they were written in 1959 and 1966 respectively. These innovative works are now in their middle-age. They are unusual works, certainly, and a number of you will peer at your speakers one they start playing but… did their production lead to the rejection of the popular, classic, rock or folk music output of the 1960s? No.

We now have a lot of electronic music, synthesisers, samplers, software-driven music software, but we still have musicians. It’s hard to measure the numbers (this link is very good) but electronic systems have allowed us to greatly increase the number of composers although we seem to be seeing a slow drop in the number of musicians. In many ways, the electronic revolution has allowed more people to perform because your band can be (for some purposes) a band in a box. Jazz is a different beast, of course, as is classical, due to the level of training and study required. Jazz improvisation is a hard problem (you can find papers on it from 2009 onwards and now buy a so-so jazz improviser for your iPad) and hard problems with high variability are not easy to solve, even computationally.

So the increased portability of music via electronic means has an impact in some areas such as percussion, pop, rock, and electronic (duh) but it doesn’t replace the things where humans shine and, right now, a trained listener is going to know the difference.

I have some of these gadgets in my own (tiny) studio and they’re beautiful. They’re not as good as having the London Symphony Orchestra in your back room but they let me create, compose and put together pleasant sounding things. A small collection of beautiful machines make my life better by helping me to create.

Now think about growing older. About losing strength, balance, and muscular control. About trying to get out of bed five times before you succeed or losing your continence and having to deal with that on top of everything else.

Now think about a beautiful machine that is relatively smart. It is tuned to wrap itself gently around your limbs and body to support you, to help you keep muscle tone safely, to stop you from falling over, to be able to walk at full speed, to take you home when you’re lost and with a few controlling aspects to allow you to say when and where you go to the bathroom.

Isn’t that machine helping you to be yourself, rather than trapping you in the decaying organic machine that served you well until your telomerase ran out?

Think about quiet roads with 5% of the current traffic, where self-driving cars move from point to point and charge themselves in between journeys, where you can sit and read or work as you travel to and from the places you want to go, where there are no traffic lights most of the time because there is just a neat dance between aware vehicles, where bad weather conditions means everyone slows down or even deliberately link up with shock absorbent bumper systems to ensure maximum road holding.

Which of these scenarios stops you being human? Do any of them stop you thinking? Some of you will still want to drive and I suppose that there could be roads set aside for people who insisted upon maintaining their cars but be prepared to pay for the additional insurance costs and public risk. From this article, and the enclosed U Texas report, if only 10% of the cars on the road were autonomous, reduced injuries and reclaimed time and fuel would save $37 billion a year. At 90%, it’s almost $450 billion a year. The Word Food Programme estimates that $3.2 billion would feed the 66,000,000 hungry school-aged children in the world. A 90% autonomous vehicle rate in the US alone could probably feed the world. And that’s a side benefit. We’re talking about a massive reduction in accidents due to human error because (ta-dahh) no human control.

Most of us don’t actually drive our cars. They spend 5% of their time on the road, during which time we are stuck behind other people, breathing fumes and unable to do anything else. What we think about as the pleasurable experience of driving is not the majority experience for most drivers. It’s ripe for automation and, almost every way you slice it, it’s better for the individual and for society as a whole.

But we are always scared of the unknown. There’s a reason that the demons of myth used to live in caves and under ground and come out at night. We hate the dark because we can’t see what’s going on. But increased machine autonomy, towards machine intelligence, doesn’t have to mean that we create monsters that want to destroy us. The far more likely outcome is a group of beautiful machines that make it easier and better for us to enjoy our lives and to have more time to be human.

We are not competing for food – machines don’t eat. We are not competing for space – machines are far more concentrated than we are. We are not even competing for energy – machines can operate in more hostile ranges than we can and are far more suited for direct hook-up to solar and wind power, with no intermediate feeding stage.

We don’t have to be in opposition unless we build machines that are as scared of the unknown as we are. We don’t have to be scared of something that might be as smart as we are.

If we can get it right, we stand to benefit greatly from the rise of the beautiful machine. But we’re not going to do that by starting from a basis of fear. That’s why I told you about that student. She’d realised that our older way of thinking about something was based on a fear of losing control when, if we handed over control properly, we would be able to achieve something very, very valuable.


5 Things I would Like My Students to Be Able to Perceive

Our students will go out into the world and will be exposed to many things but, if we have done our job well, then they will not just be pushed around by the pressure of the events that they witness, but they will be able to hold their ground and perceive what is really going on, to place their own stamp on the world.

Balance is one of the most useful outcomes of valid perception.

Balance is one of the most useful outcomes of valid perception.

I don’t tell my students how to think, although I know that it’s a commonly held belief that everyone at a Uni tries to shape the political and developmental thought of their students, I just try to get them to think. This is probably going to have the side effect of making them thoughtful, potentially even critical of things that don’t make sense, and I realise that this is something that not everybody wants from junior citizens. But that’s my job.

Here is a list of five things that I think I’d like a thoughtful person to be able to perceive. It’s not the definitive five or the perfect five but these are the ones that I have today.

  1. It would be nice if people were able to reliably tell the difference between 1/3 and 1/4 and understand that 1/3 is larger than 1/4. Being able to work out the odds of things (how likely they are) require you to be able to look at two things that are smaller than one and get them in the right order so you can say “this is more likely than that”. Working on percentages can make it easier but this requires people to do division, rather than just counting things and showing the fraction.But I’d like my students to be able to perceive how this can be a fundamental misunderstanding that means that some people can genuinely look at comparative probabilities and not be able to work out that this simple mathematical comparison is valid. And I’d like them to be able to think about how to communicate this to help people understand.
  2. A perceptive person would be able to spot when something isn’t free. There are many people who go into casinos and have a lot of fun gambling, eating very cheap or unlimited food, staying in cheap hotels and think about what a great deal it is. However, every game you play in a casino is designed so that casinos do not make a loss – but rather than just saying “of course” we need to realise that casinos make enough money to offer “unlimited buffet shrimp” and “cheap luxury rooms” and “free luxury for whales” because they are making so much money. Nothing in a casino is free. It is paid for by the people who lose money there.This is not, of course, to say that you shouldn’t go and gamble if you’re an adult and you want to, but it’s to be able to see and clearly understand that everything around you is being paid for, if not in a way that is transparently direct. There are enough people who suffer from the gambler’s fallacy to put this item on the list.
  3. A perceptive person would have a sense of proportion. They would not start issuing death threats in an argument over operating systems (or ever, preferably) and they would not consign discussions of human rights to amusing after-dinner conversation, as if this was something to be played with.
  4. A perceptive person would understand the need to temper the message to suit the environment, while still maintaining their own ethical code regarding truth and speaking up. But you don’t need to tell a 3-year old that their painting is awful any more than you need to humiliate a colleague in public for not knowing something that you know. If anything, it makes the time when you do deliver the message bluntly much more powerful.
  5. Finally, a perceptive person would be able to at least try to look at life through someone else’s eyes and understand that perception shapes our reality. How we appear to other people is far more likely to dictate their reaction than who we really are. If you can’t change the way you look at the world then you risk getting caught up on your own presumptions and you can make a real fool of yourself by saying things that everyone else knows aren’t true.

There’s so much more and I’m sure everyone has their own list but it’s, as always, something to think about.


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