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Archive for the ‘analysis of behavior’ Category

I finally took the time to consume the “leaked” NYTimes Innovation Report.  (on scribd and their story on it here http://www.nytimes.com/times-insider/2014/05/30/we-met-the-story-and-it-was-us/)

It is a remarkable business and cultural document even though I found most of its conclusions and recommendations to be off the mark.  It starkly shows just how unsettled we are as a culture here in the US, especially because of media and technology.   The authors oddly make no commentary about a complete lack of engagement that majority of the population has in important topics even though the data in the report they so carefully analyzed clearly shows.   That it is this easy for media entities to lose and gain audiences is a clear indicator that no one really is doing anything other than arbitraging various mediums for traffic.

There are a few examples in there that represent important topics, such as the Snowden/NSA story (media won by The Guardian) and the Michael Sam story (which they draw out a use case).  Unfortunately they spend more time in the report analyzing and regretting how they didn’t better take advantage of that story to drive traffic.  No where is it mentioned that their mission is to drive civic engagement or improve knowledge in the population and that they analyzed their and the competition progress on those dimensions.  

I have no doubt that at the core of NYTimes there is a really big mission to do journalism that matters in ways that have the most impact.   However, this report almost demotes that concept totally.   And in doing so the report really suggests measuring and experimenting with gimmicks (SEO, social viral tricks, a/b testing image / headline selection) is more important than measuring impact on knowledge in the population and impact to policy making and the government.   You get good and stay good at what you pay attention to (measure).   Please NYTimes don’t get good at SEO above being the BEST at having an impact on the knowledge of the world.

An example that starkly shows this… the cooking/recipes work they are doing.  Why spend any time and money on that?  there are millions and millions of recipes on the web and in apps.  There are 100s of successful cooking apps out there.   What unique impact is NYTimes having by grabbing eyeballs for this “evergreen content” from the “archives”.   There is important work being done at the NYTimes so take the people working on Cooking Apps on focus on heart and sole of the NYTimes.

It’s very much a report about keeping the business growing.   Which is definitely an important thing.  However, the gimmicks of the day are not the answer.   Don’t worry about playing games trying to entice more readers into the Daily Report.  The language in the report already conditions the thinking – shows me that they aren’t yet grokking the situation.  NYTimes doesn’t have readers anymore.  It has users.

The NYTimes could be a platform, the platform for knowledge and impact.   Its competition isn’t general news media.   It’s the network of knowledge platform technologies.   The search engine and the social network and the app store – the platform technologies are what has disrupted them, not competitors with inferior products exploiting new technologies.  These info organizing, creating and sharing platforms are the technologies and services and products that are having an impact.

I’m more bullish on NYTimes than it seems they are.   I happen to believe that NYTimes has far more impact on the world than all the competition they named combined.   Getting mentioned on Buzzfeed does nothing for a person or business or policy issue.   If most of the competition they mention went away tomorrow no one would bat an eye, the Google index would easily replace the link bait with something else.   If the NYTimes went away we would lose a major cornerstone / market maker for knowledge and depth and truth.   The NYTimes still shapes the world around it.  It has the unique position, because of it’s long held mission and depth to make the platform of impact in the future.

This is wild stuff, i know.   But really… all its media competition isn’t even close in impact nor resources nor value as Google or Facebook or Amazon….  the really foundation of our information existence.

The next big knowledge platform isn’t yet here, why couldn’t NYTimes be the one to build it?

 

 

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The idea of progress is a flimsy concept.  Nothing in the universe comes for free.  So when some system or entity “progresses” in comes at the expense of energy somewhere.  It’s not necessarily a wholly destructive expense but it is an expense nonetheless. The way in which we commonly talk about society, civilization and the human race is in terms of progress.  We’re progressing from a barbaric or unenlightened state to a state if self reliance and control and technologically enhanced awareness.  But this progress is mostly an illusion.  It comes at a great expense to other species,the planet and even ourselves.

Some conflicting reports:

http://humanprogress.org/ (there’s progress!)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_progress (there’s progress!)

http://reason.com/archives/2013/10/30/human-progress-not-inevitable-uneven-and (there is a thing called progress but we’re not always on it!)

http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S445.htm (there’s progress!)

http://www.alternet.org/environment/myth-human-progress (progress is an illusion!)

http://www.vice.com/read/john-gray-interview-atheism (there is no progress!)

(Another way to think about this is that everything is competing to exist against other things that also are fighting to exist.  The better we compete the more we extract from the ecosystems.)

Certainly we’ve increased our life expectancy on the whole and reduced violence and physical suffering in the human race. We have invented computers, figured out space flight, eradicated some diseases, taught billions to read and write.  All progress right?

To what end?  Where is all this progress going?  How is this progress measured?  Does a longer life mean a better life? Does a less violent life lead somewhere differently than a more violent one?

Perhaps even more challenging is figuring out whether we have a choice in the matter.  Are we even biologically, physically capable of not trying to progress in these dimensions and exert our competitive advantages upon or environment?  If we had some definition of how best to live in some philosophic sense and it differed materially with the progressive ways we’ve chased could we actually change?  Could we choose less technology and a culture more in balance with the environment?  And no there’s no “hippie” justification needed for this thinking.  The question is is there a way of life that is more sustainable and less extracting from the world than the way we currently live?  Or is our survival inexorably tied to dominating everything we can?

To make this very clear consider the species that have become extinct at the hands of humankind’s hunting.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_extinct_animals
Our “progress” has led in many cases directly to their complete decline.  Who are we to say whether our progress is worth it – Was worth their demise?

I’m directly asking everyone what is the point of our focus on progress.  Certainly in America we are all put on a course to progress through life.  Our goal is clear to get through high school, go through college, and begin to produce.  One production should lead to ever more important positions in this progressive society with ever increasing economic output.  We measure all facets of our culture against GDP and endowments and ROI.  We do not recognize that growth in these aspects must be paid for in other respects.

So the question remains.  What is progress? and what’s it worth to you?

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There is truth.   Truth exists.  There is a truth to this existence, this universe.   We might lack the language or the pictorial tools or the right theory and models, but there is truth.

What is this truth?  what is truth?

Things exist, we exist, there is a speed of light, the square root of two is irrational, the halting problem is undecidable, there are abstract and real relations between abstract and real things.

The truth is a something that, yes, has a correspondence to the facts.  That is not the end of it though (despite the pragmatic claims of some!).   The truth has a correspondence to the facts because it is true!   The facts HAVE to line up against a truth.   The truth exists outside of specific events or objects.   A number has an existence, if even only as an idea, and it has relations to other things.  And the description of that number and those relations ARE truth.  A computer program has its truth whether you run the program or not.  If you were to run it it would halt or not halt, that potential is in the computer program from the beginning, it doesn’t arise from it’s execution.

On Proof and not Proof but Use

We can prove these truths and many more.  We can prove through English words or through mathematical symbolism or computer programs.   Our proofs, put into these formats, can and are often wrong and set to be revised over and over until there are no holes.   No matter how fragile a proof and the act of providing proof the truth is still not diminished.  It is still there, whether we know it or not and whether we can account for it or not.  And the truth begs proof.  It begs to be known in its fullness and to be trusted as truth to build up to other truths.

BUT!

Proof isn’t always possible – in fact we’ve learned from issues in computability and incompleteness – that complete provability of all truth is impossible.   This beautiful truth itself further ensures that the truth will always beckon us and will never be extinguished through an endless assault.  There is always more to learn.

The unprovable truths we can still know and use.  We can use them without knowing they are true.  We do this all the time, all day long.   How many of us know the truth of how physics works? or how are computers do what they do?   and does that prevent their use – the implementation of that truth towards more truth?

Why?

Why defend truth?  Why publish an essay exalting truth and championing the search for truth? Does the truth need such a defense?

Being creatures with intelligence – that is, senses and a nervous system capable of advanced pattern recognition – our ultimate survival depends on figuring out what’s true and what isn’t.   If too many vessels (people!) for the gene code chase falsehoods the gene code isn’t likely to survive too many generations.   Life, and existence itself, depends on the conflict between entropy and shape, chaos and order, stillness and motion, signal and noise.  The truth is the abstract idea that arises from this conflict and life is the real, tangible thing born from that truth.  We learn truths – which processing of this thing into that thing that keep us alive, we live to learn these things. In a completely entropic existence there is nothing.   Without motion there is nothing.   In total chaos there is nothing.   It is the slightest change towards shape, order and signal that we find the seeds of truth and the whole truth itself.  The shaping of entropy is the truth.   Life is embodiment of truth forming.

So I can’t avoid defending the truth.  I’m defending life.  My life.  In defending it, I’m living it.  And you, in whatever ways you live, are defending the truth and your relation to other things.  If I’m alive I must seek and promote truth.   While death isn’t false, chasing falsehood leads to death or rather non existence.   Could there ever be truth to a statement like “I live falsely” or “I sought the false.”   There’s nothing to seek.  Falsehood is easy, it’s everywhere.  It’s everything that isn’t the truth.  To seek it is to exert no effort (to never grow) and to never gain – falsity has no value.  Living means growing, growing requires effort, only the truth, learning of the truth demands effort.

How do we best express and ask about truth?

There’s a great deal of literature on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics to describe the world.  There’s also a great deal of literature, and growing by the day, suggesting that mathematics isn’t the language of the way the universe works.   Both views I find to be rather limited.   Mathematics and doing math is about certain rigor in describing things and their relations.   It’s about forming and reforming ways to observe and question ideas, objectives, motion, features…. It’s about drawing a complete picture and all the reasons it should and shouldn’t be so.   Being this way, this wonderful thing we call mathematics, there is no way mathematics couldn’t be effective at truth expression.   Ok, for those that want to nit pick, I put “computation” in with mathematics.  Describing (writing) computer programs and talking about their features and functions and observing their behavior is doing math, it is mathematics.

Art has very similar qualities.   Art doesn’t reduce beyond what should be reduced.   It is the thing itself.  It asks questions by shifting perspectives and patterns.  It produces struggle.  Math and art are extremely hard to separate when done to their fullest.  Both completely ask the question and refuse to leave it at that.   Both have aspects of immediate impression but also have a very subtle slow reveal.  Both require both the artist and the audience, the mathematician and the student – there is a tangible, necessary part of the truth that comes directly from the interaction between the parties, not simply the artifacts or results themselves.

Other ways of expressing and thinking are valuable and interesting.  That is, biology and sociology and political science, and so on….. these are all extremely practical implementations or executions of sub aspects of the truth and truth expression.  They are NOT the most fundamental nor the most fruitful overall.   Practiced poorly and they lead to falsehoods or at best mild distractions from the truth.  Practiced well and they very much improve the mathematics and art we do.

What does any of this get us?  What value is there in this essay?

This I cannot claim anything more about than what I have above.   For example, I don’t know how to specifically tell someone that the truth of square root of 2 is irrational has x,y,z value to them.  It certainly led to a fruitful exploration and exposition of a great deal of logic and mathematical thinking that led to computation and and and.   But that doesn’t even come close to explaining value or what talking about its value today, in this essay, matters.

My only claim would be that truth matters and if there is any truth in this essay then this essay matters.  How that matter comes to fruition I don’t know.   That it comes to any more fruition than my pounding out this essay after synthesizing many a conversation and many books on the subject and writing some computer programs and doing math is probably just a very nice consequence.

The truth’s purpose is itself, that it is true.

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The discussion of accountability and consent in anarchist and collective groups is very interesting to me. The groups are loosely organized groups that tend to impose few, if any, rigid structures and processes. Much of the point of these groups is to resist strict ways of being and supporting the safe exploration of ways to relate, live and engage. It is a set up that flat out resists explicit rule making. So when a group is confronted with an issue such as sexual assault it’s not entirely clear how the group and its members will and should respond. In a sense it provides a bit of a behavioral experimental playground much more so than more commonly organized groups of people.

In the specific case of sexual assault in these loosely connected groups the situation can be very complicated. The group doesn’t want to operate with well established rules that are marketed into its members. The group also doesn’t want to appeal to some moral or behavioral authority outside of the group. So there’s a real conflict in figuring out what exactly anyone is accountable for and what behavior to reinforce or extinguish. In some sense the lack of established processes and rules forces any conflict to always have reactive approaches rather than preventative. This doesn’t make it wrong or bad or ineffective. Consent and accountability isn’t necessarily dealt with well in a dogmatic rule enforcing set up. Often overly explicit ruled organizations create behavioral associations to following the rules rather than being attentive to others values, perspectives and personal comfort. So how should we think about consent? and respond to offenses?

The essay in IMPASSES “exploring critiques of the accountability process” mostly focuses on a synthesis and response to two pamphlets about accountability in anarchists groups. Presumably these pamphlets and others like them came about in response to specific challenges to accountability within the group. So I’m coming to my interpretation of the essay from both the context of the group’s possible issues and the general points the essay is trying to make.

The essay synthesis focuses a lot of energy on questioning the prevailing language used in accountability situations – that is situations where there needs to a response to some abuse. The author of the essay wants to resist any adherence to judicial or government like processes to organize people. I feel this is in general a useful intellectual approach. The fact is a resistance driven approach to living isn’t authentic if in the face of some adversity resistance is dropped and a person or group reverts to dogmatic or traditional approaches.

I believe the author is also justly critiquing these essays as giving in way too easily to common notions of victimhood and perpetrator and guilt and innocence. The world is vastly more complicated than most of our society’s media, processes and government admits.

The idea of consent is complex. And consent is a central component of identifying abuse and obviously possible healing behavior. Relating to each other in any open way requires a lot of listening and a lot patience. Often we don’t know our own rules and boundaries until they have been crossed. In some sense developing a sense of consent and vocabulary for communicating consent takes a willingness to approach and cross boundaries.

Values come about this way – one learns what behavior is reinforcing by behaving and experiencing consequences. The confusing part is that it can be extremely difficult to understand when a response to a behavior is a negative or positive reinforcer.

Even when rules are explicitly stated the ideas of consent and abuse are murky. The fact is whether we state rules or not we all are operating under a set of internal rules and values. These aren’t unchangeable laws but they are patterns of operating we’ve learned through consequences to our behavior. These rules can be hard to articulate but we all know when we’ve had one of our own rules broken.

The main challenge in any relationship is one of communication. The issue of consent or rather avoiding abuse is discovering rules before they are violated. The challenge the essay takes on is what should we do in reaction to an abuse. In particular, how should we handle things such to create more suffering by anyone in a process of healing and resolution. My interpretation of most common processes provided in schools, society, etc is that they are woefully simplistic and formulaic and focus far too much, as the author suggests, on defining things into victimhood and guilt. Typically in society once we can direct blame, accurately or not, our processes end. Unfortunately these approaches do not heal and increase perspective.

There’s is a ton of interesting research and literature on punishment and punitive approaches to society. The works of B.F. Skinner are worth a read. There’s also a great collection of essays under the book title “Beyond the Punitive Society” that are worth a browse. I point some of this material out because I think these materials get to the heart of consent and responsibility and accountability much more so than this essay in IMPASSES.

America is very much a punitive culture. From how we discipline our children to our judicial system to our religious views almost all processes we engage in for conflict resolution are punitive. It’s efficient, I suspect… Or it feels like it is. Oddly though it does not appear to be effective long term. Positive reinforcement (not the pop psyc positive mental attitude) is by far more effective. No person who violates a rule does so because they are evil or in isolation is a bad person. In this regard I side with the author of the essay in a search for better way to think and talk about accountability and consent and to not give into established approaches that don’t appear to be that effective in creating a safe, open culture.

I do hope the author(s) of the essay publish more about what they uncover. The world has far too few discussions about fundamental and powerful concepts like consent.

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In “Tent City, Tent Tent City” we learn of the movement in Austin to create a roaming Tent City to inspire awareness and legislative change around ideas of homelessness.  The tent city uprising piggy backed a little on the occupy Austin movement due to the fact that the laws used to restrict occupy Austin activities were the same laws preventing homeless people from squatting in public places.

I wasn’t fully aware of this reality because I was so caught up in the basic ideas being reported about occupy.  I was more focused on the 1% vs. 99% message.  Which in reflection isn’t even close to the more fundamental problem of property ownership.

What is property?  What in the world are these empty parks and buildings and old alleys?  All these public spaces and abandoned privately owned spaces?  These are opportunities for the “owners” of these spaces to extract revenue.  And the essay makes a powerful point in that the revenue increases the more people are kept on the move.  The key to property value isn’t in having people inhabit it!  It’s actually about the potential to inhabit!  Creating desire to inhabit is what we call development!  As long as people inhabit a space one can’t be improving it and selling it to others.

Ultimately the tent city movement fizzled for a variety of reasons. The participants made, in my opinion, a wise choice in disbanding the movement once a point a been made and the media started to get weird.

This issue of laws against homelessness – you can’t occupy public spaces in some cities (see this great report for overviews) – and that of property as something are far too big to be tackled in one movement.  Property ownership is the basis of civilization.  Our entire world is drawn into nations, states, cities, zones, personal real estate.  Ours is a history of conquest over those who occupy property we want to claim as our own.  This history will not be easily overthrown.

Though I do believe as we move into a more predominantly digital existence the idea of property ownership will erode.  I don’t see a short term end to property ownership because even the digital requires physical resources.  The difference though between the past and the digital future is that it is much more difficult to lay claim to digital property because it is so easily reproduced and modified and shared and expanded.  The idea of protecting intellectual property is already cracking for mostly practical reasons – it’s not physically possible to do so, even my offensive measures.   Beyond the digital I wonder how comfortable younger generations are getting with “renting” or “sharing” property.   (stats on rent/own in housing and some rent/own survey here)

The essay closes with a thought that perhaps it’s best to “keep on the move” as a means of experimentation towards a better world order.   It’s hard to argue with the idea of experimenting with ways of living that don’t include property ownership is probably a worthwhile exercise.   The way we do things currently – increasing income gaps, more punitive laws against homelessness, climate change – seems hardly sustainable for ANY way of living for lots of people.

Impasses Questions at the end of the essay responses follow.

Question 1: “How does the noting of profit involving bodies being set in motion intertwine with the idea that camps in order to survive, must be on the move?  Is this tactic playing into the profit-based motion or is it a form of subversion, a way out? Would standing ground and defending a camp be a resistant tactic, and in what capacity, to what degree?”

It’s all about the type of motion that’s inspired.  The intent to own a home or own a different home is what drives property valuation.   Simply being on the move from camp to camp doesn’t necessarily do that.  Though if we were in a fight for camps in more opportune places for survival the camps would be competing for space and thus there would be an opportunity to profit off of offering campers better places to camp.   The fact is this isn’t a new problem in the world.  It’s always been a competition for resources.  What’s changed is that people abide by various laws and/or give into various trade offs for survival.  One of those trade offs is going with the flow in society vs. subverting it.   Camping in places where it’s legally not ok to camp is subversive.  It is resistant and could be useful.  I believe the Occupy movement made a good case for taking over spaces that people in power frequent can stir a discussion that might just lead to change.

Question 2: “How do we move from homeless camps being a method of survival to a method of offensive resistance? Are the participants looking to just find a more comfortable way to live or a new way of living?”

I don’t know if there’s any relevant response to this.   The later part strikes me as nonsensical.   In either  case it’s a new way of living.   And in the former, EVERYTHING WE DO IS A METHOD OF SURVIVAL.  all of it, even resistance to existing power structures.

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The first essay presented in IMPASSES “On Questions and Answers: Some Notes on How To Do Ideas” offers a compelling call to reject all ideologies and to engage in “continued experiments in ways-of-life.” (page 23).

“Ideology is theory that has escaped study” (page 18) is an excellent working definition of ideology.   It specifically captures the main issue with any and all ideologies – a truth reduction.   Ideologies are not representative of how anything completely works except in only the most trivial of cases.   Figuring out what is a trivial case is much harder than one might think.  Take an example from mathematics – is arithmetic consistent?  Meaning is the whole of arithmetic free of any internal contradictions.   It’s still unresolved.   Yes, there are a couple of proofs of the consistency of arithmetic but they are complicated and not 100% accepted as final proof.  If we can’t be 100% sure of something as “simple” as arithmetic what hope is there of assurance of truth about concepts as vague as God, country, knowledge, etc.

As beings with finite resources (lives and means) we must take shortcuts aka make assumptions and have representations.   We wouldn’t get through a day in our life if we tried to work out the complete truth of everything around us.   Truth reductions are useful to survival in that we have to behave with imperfect information.   But truth reductions can also be extremely dangerous, particularly around complicated issues involving how we relate to the planet and each other.   We must always question and re-question what we’ve decided advertently or inadvertently as an acceptable truth reduction.  Not doing so may make it such that we miss key information about the world around us and do things that increase suffering and/or reduce the possibility of survival.   Consider that for thousands of years slavery was mostly unquestioned and that it took a massive effort in 20th century to educate the population that inhaling tobacco was generally bad for your health.

Our methods of questioning must also be critically analyzed.  For a stale approach to questioning may be as misleading as truth reductions.  A biased approach to asking questions, such as at a biased university, whose primary objective is to keep operating as a university and needs to “[produce] results that maintain the university.” (page 19)   Confirmation biases seep into a huge chunk of scientific research and policy creation (great paper here.).   Even when our research is relatively free of flaws we certainly are all guilty of not knowing what we don’t know and are likely not even asking the best questions in which to go research.   It seems like a worthwhile approach to “increase our capacity for experimentation.” (page 24).

The essay itself poses a great critical question about methods of study but also confuses the matter with a muddled discussion about Politics and dualism.  While certainly useful topics to question and discuss the details covered add little to the main point of the essay other than to be examples of reductionist thinking in a pool of infinite examples.   It actually does something I believe the author specifically would like not to do – it politicized the essay a little into a bit of anti-government reduction.   There’s simply no need to single out politics as any more reductive and misleading than religion or a billion other ideology laced approaches to going through life.

Math and science as tools comes up a couple of times in the essay and with the questions at the end of the essays.  Math and science are also under constant review for their usefulness in not reducing truth.  There certainly have been many periods in history where math and science have gone through shocks calling into question their validity as truth seeking approaches.  Mathematics, in particular, was shaken very much when Godel unveiled his incompleteness theorems.   Far from destroying mathematics as a useful paradigm to form worthwhile questions and work towards useful and true solutions “incompleteness” actually enriched mathematical thinking’s capacity to ask important questions.

The questions at the end of the essay are worth a response. and offer an opportunity to “test out” the ideas of the essay and my own ideations.

1) If theory is merely a tool, how do we prevent it from becoming an apparatus (of control, of power, of ideology) like math and science?

This question seems to misunderstand the main points of the article.   The question is reducing the concept of theory established in the essay.  Labeling theory with a word phrase like “merely a tool” suggests that there’s something more useful than a tool or that a tool is mere.   Theories help us establish models and experiments in which we can go falsify or confirm and refine.   The prevention the question asker seems to seek is some prescription for not letting theories turn into ideologies (truth reductions).  And it seems the essays answers that quite clearly – always study, always question.  In other words there isn’t a single prescription.   The prevention of reduction is about re-questioning in every changing ways.

Secondly math and science CAN be apparatuses of control but that doesn’t mean they are a priori.   Math and science are various questioning and experimentation approaches also subject to refinement.

2) Academic study (and perhaps this could be said of study more generally) is oftentimes just a regurgitation of previously thought-up ideals.  Is novelty as a result of study necessary or is fluctuating between already-done ideas enough?

Again here the questioner assumes too much.   Where is the source of this novelty?   All thoughts and knowledge are the evolution of previous thoughts and/or responses to the environment.   The novelty suggested is emergent over time through the transmission and mutation of information.   It’s a non question when thought/ideas are viewed that way and it’s a confusing question period without a definition of thought and ideas.

3) Is study solitary or communal? What is the relation between “spreading anarchy” and others participating in critical studying?  Is there a set of values being set up around study whereby those who don’t participate in it (or participate in the “proper” ways) are seen as less credible, or is the questioning of this itself falling into the trap of movement-building?

This is a juicy set of questions.  Study is both a solitary and communal (and environmental activity).   We are all people within a world of other people.  I think it would be useless contradiction to define proper way of studying.   There are an infinite number of ways to explore this world.   The end goal being finding ever changing experiments on ways-to-live.   Particular methods of study might be viewed as inconsistent or improper within their method but it doesn’t invalidate them in the general idea of “studying”.   Fiction is a useful critical synthesis of the world.  So is non fiction and a painting or a music piece or a poem or science experiment.   The keys seem to be participation and being ever critical.  The more variation the more possible a real exploration of possibilities.

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As learners, Skinner said, “we are automatically reinforced when we successfully control the physical world (ibid:75).” Teaching implies the identification of desired outcomes and precise planning of strategies for facilitating “the arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement which expedite learning (Skinner,1959:15).” The educator prepares the students for situations not yet risen by bringing discriminant operants under the control of stimuli expected to occur in those situations. The child is forewarned and forearmed with powerful tools for controlling nature, the very exercise of which provides reinforcement. Because of this, the natural payoffs inherent in the subject matter are the teacher’s chief allies (Hutcheon,1996:413). Skinner maintained that educators who recommend external means of motivating learning have got it all wrong, noting that “the sheer control of nature itself is reinforcing (Skinner, 1959:102).” As he reminded us, “The motives in education are the motives of all human behavior … We appeal to that drive to control the environment that makes a baby continue to crumple a noisy paper and the scientist to continue to press forward with his predictive analysis of nature (Skinner, 1948:124).”

from a very nice paper on Piaget and Skinner.

All living things learn in response to their environments.   And living things are part of the environment.  All living things relate to their environments, even when in the same environments as other living things, uniquely.   All living things have enough genetic difference, even when in the same species and born in the same “family”, to have unique responses (developmental and learning) to the world around them.

This is a very simple set up and yet has enough power to cover the bulk of how we all learn.     When thinking about what approaches to educating children are more or less effective I evaluate how seriously an approach considers these basic principles.  Every environment is a learning environment – it’s a matter of figuring out, and this is complicated, what is learnable in that environment.   Each person, even a young child, is a complex mix of genetics, epigenetics and environmental history.   Some environments build on this concept and others resist it.

So what is an ideal environment?   What is the best “classroom” for a child to learn?

First, it’s important to figure out what it is we want a child to learn.   And, of course, this is no easy question.   Broadly the goal of any “education” (in the formal school sense) is to provide strategies for survival (and thriving).*   Effective strategies for survival is by no means a fixed target.   As long as the world changes so will the strategies that best ensure survival.  So in some sense what we want a child to learn isn’t one particular strategy but a way to derive strategies in response to a changing environment.   We could call that critical thinking, synthesis, and problem solving.   In short, we want children to learn how to learn – to be more aware of the world around them, to be able to process information efficiently and effectively and to manipulate the environment as needed.

Is anything else needed to be taught?   No, not strictly.  There’s no need to preach a particular curriculum as fundamental.  Yes for certain paths in life and in our culture knowing a particular skill or piece of information could be beneficial.   If mathematicians make more money than other professions and making more money provides better means for survival then it is likely a child taught mathematics should survive and thrive.   That is, as long as the child finds mathematics interesting and so forth enough to actually pursue it and develop enough skill.   Even in that example one can get to the point of survival without assuming a priori that there’s intrinsic, universal value to mathematics.   Everything worth knowing is in relation to the person knowing it and their relation to their changing environment.   The essential learning necessary for a person s being able to evaluate quickly enough to matter whether a strategy is effective or not.  The strategies themselves should be viewed as experiments – behavior-response experiences to see what is worth doing and knowing.

Based on this the ideal environment is not a singular environment.  it’s not a classroom, it’s not a gym, it’s not lecture hall, it’s not a playroom.   The ideal environmentare different for everyone.   Some children do very well in a traditional classroom, others do not.  Some prefer being alone, others in nature  and so on and on.   Just as discussed in the what is worth learning, environment staging should be viewed as an experiment – contexts to see what reinforces successful strategies for survival.

Combine strategy testing and environment building and exploration and you get the whole equation of education.   For certain children maintaining a steady environment that induces effective exploration of strategies might be best.   For other children varying environments may be the key to the building up of strategies.

The goal of education can be refined from above as: increase the repertoire of behavior** in order to identify and execute strategies to survive and thrive. 

This probably sounds horribly inefficient.  Is possible to educate a family, village, country, and world of children on a completely individual basis?   Yes!  That’s exactly what happens anyway.   It is LESS efficient to make the assumption that this isn’t what is actually happening and so to be unaware how everyone responds differently.   To use the same textbooks, same computer programs, same schedule for everyone makes an assumption that it’s “optimal enough” for any given child.   Who knows what potentially incredible strategies are going unexplored.

The world has now developed a sufficiently robust set of tools to uniquely educate, without compromise, every child.   Tablets and laptops can be obtained for less than $100, be connected to a free wifi at libraries and other community zones, and provided access to millions of free books, free websites, free Ivy League virtual classrooms.  Obviously, there is more to it than a computer and the Internet.   More and more networks of volunteer organizations, sports, after school programs, book clubs, excited artists, professional musicians are available for almost anyone (in the US) to join/connect with/create.   With the social network inter-connectivity of the world with more than a billion people connected, likely by less than 6 degrees of separation, identifying communities to join, people to talk to, and new environments to join has become much more possible.

I’m not suggesting that everything is perfect and that education has been solved!  Quite the contrary.  The space of possibilities is now MUCH greater than it ever has been.   It’s not even more vital to explore this space of educational possibilities in search of better and better strategies.   There’s no right or wrong way to go about this.   There’s more or less effective strategies for you and your children.  And there’s an infinite number of strategies possible and we all have finite energy/resources/means.

I suppose if I had to conclude or provide some closure on my point here it’s that the ideal education is really whatever works for you.  And what “works” is a complicated mix of means and goals and values.   There are so many options available and yet to be created and that seems to me to be a great thing. Ideal really.

*It’s relatively straight forward to assume that’s the goal of almost any education, formal or not.  Though would could say in certain situations we are trying to teach someone to suffer and die, such as in the case of prison

**repertoire of behavior doesn’t imply a broad set of behaviors, it could be the case that become a master in a particular skill set becomes a necessary strategy.  That is, experts often demonstrate a very wide and deep set of strategies/abilities within a given discipline.

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Why?

Last week hanging out with some coworkers in the middle of a heated philosophical conversation someone paused and asked me (paraphrasing), “Why do you ask all these questions?  why ask about what matters all the time?”    In immediate response i simply said, “It’s the strategy I’ve learned that works for me to navigate the world.”

The question stayed with me over the weekend.  While I believe my immediate response was accurate I wanted to better understand why it’s accurate – why is relentlessly asking “what matters? why does this matter? etc” an effective strategy (in my eyes) for navigating the world?

I believe the answer is FREEDOM.  not free will, not free beer.  but freedom of behavioral responses.   Asking big questions opens perspectives and opens up new patterns of behavior.   If one isn’t questioning assumptions and existing mythologies/fictions (and everything is somewhat of a fiction) then it’s hard to develop new strategies should new information come to light.    Also, power is often a result of others knowing something you don’t.   Not developing a question-based strategy gives into that aspect of power and over time it can be very deep conditioned helplessness.

I might even conclude this is the only strategy to achieve actual freedom.

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In Defense of The Question Is The Thing

I’ve oft been accused of being all vision with little to no practical finishing capability. That is, people see me as a philosopher not a doer. Perhaps a defense of myself and philosophy/approach isn’t necessary and the world is fine to have tacticians and philosophers and no one is very much put off by this.

I am not satisfied. The usual notion of doing and what is done and what constitutes application is misguided and misunderstood.

The universe is determined yet unpredictable (see complexity theory, cellular automota). Everything that happens and is has anticedents (see behaviorism, computation, physics). Initiatial conditions have dramatic effect on system behavior over time (see chaos theory). These three statements are roughly equivalent or at least very tightly related. And they form the basis of my defense of what it means to do.

“Now I’m not antiperformance, but I find it very precarious for a culture only to be able to measure performance and never be able to credit the questions themselves.” – Robert Irwin, page 90, seeing is forgetting the name of thing one sees

The Question Is The Thing! And by The Question that means the context or the situation or the environment or the purpose. and I don’t mean The Question or purpose as assigned by some absolute authority agent. It is the sense of a particular or relevative instance we consider a question. What is the question at hand?

Identifying and really asking the question at hand drives the activity to and fro. To do is to ask. The very act of seriously asking a question delivers the do, the completion. So what people mistake in me as “vision” is really an insatiable curiousity and need to ask the right question. To do without the question is nothing, it’s directionless motion and random walk. To seriously ask a question every detail of the context is important. To begin answering the question requires the environment to be staged and the materials provided for answers to emerge.

There is no real completion without a constant re-asking of the question. Does this answer the question? Did that answer the question?

So bring it to something a lot of people associate me with: web and software development. In the traditional sense I haven’t written a tremendous amount of code myself. Sure I’ve shipped lots of pet projects, chunks of enterprise systems, scripts here and there, and the occassional well crafted app and large scale system. There’s a view though that unless you wrote every line of code or contributed some brilliant algorithm line for line, you haven’t done anything. The fact is there’s a ton of code written every day on this planet and very little of it would i consider “doing something”. Most of it lacks a question, it’s not asking a question, a real, big, juicy, ambitious question.

Asking the question in software development requires setting the entire environment up to answer it. Literally the configuration of programmer desks, designer tools, lighting, communication cadence, resources, mixing styles and on and on. I do by asking the question and configuring the environment. The act of shipping software takes care of itself if the right question is seriously asked within an environment that let’s answers emerge.

Great questions tend to take the shape of How Does This Really Change the World for the User? What new capability does this give the world? How does this extend the ability of a user to X? What is the user trying to do in the world?

Great environments to birth answers are varied and don’t stay static. The tools, the materials all need to change per the unique nature of the question.

Often the question begs us to create less. Write less code. Tear code out. Leave things alone. Let time pass. Write documentation. Do anything but add more stuff that stuffs the answers further back.

The question and emergent answers aren’t timeless or stuck in time. The context changes the question or shape of the question may change.

Is this to say I’m anti shipping (or anti performance as Irwin put it)? No. Lets put it this way we move too much and ask too little and actual don’t change the world that much. Do the least amount to affect the most is more of what I think is the approach.

The question is The Thing much more than thing that results from work. The question has all the power. It starts and ends there.

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