Thinking With Our Telephone Minds

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I think a lot about the way we think.

  • How we think
  • What we think
  • When we think
  • Where we think

I even thought about the way that wifie sometimes sounds a little bit frustrated when I forgot things, which made me feel guilty and encouraged me to try those methods that are supposed to improve your memory.

They didn’t.

I considered whether I was simply too lazy to commit things to memory. I wondered some more about what laziness really was. Then I wondered whether wondering about laziness was also a form of work avoidance.

The truth, they say, is all around us, just waiting for us to join up the dots between the different events and happenings in our life. So it was in this case, where a breakthrough did not just happen as I was stepping onto a bus, it was more like the pressure of the meaning of events squashing my awareness into the body of reality until I felt there was no escape from asking my wife this question:

‘How do you find shortcuts when you are walking somewhere?’

A strange kind of question, maybe, but allow me to wind my life back to when I was a child. I have always been fascinated by maps for as long as I can remember, and I distinctly recall standing, at age 16, on a cold, flat and misty Romney Marsh arguing with other members of my Army Cadet Force platoon about where we were on the map. They said one place, and I said another – but I could prove it by walking to the end of our sodden sheep field, whereupon a church steeple, currently concealed by a dank and raven-ridden stand of trees, would become visible. I did. It did. They felt depressed. I slipped into a rushy dyke full of water. It was that kind of day.

Several years later and I went off to university, where I learned a rather interesting fact, one that glowered at me like a damp sheep in a wet pasture among the sparkling glories of the further reaches of education, and that was I kept forgetting where the roads went in my university town went. Well, except those I used regularly. It felt strange, because until then I believed that I knew where everything was as reasonably as the next student body. For years this memory kept returning, mostly after my frequent post-student moves to new towns and cities, where I took to keeping a local map in the car at all times. I pondered whether I had fried part of my brain with all that studying, somehow, and yet my map navigation skills remained as good as ever. Eventually, after living for nearly twenty years at either end of one long avenue with too many junctions, out popped the question.

There was more, though, because my wife also hated navigating for me in the car as I could become unreasonably angry in difficult traffic, while she became unreasonably unable to read the map, or even to remember to read it. Yet she always figures out the best bus to take, the most effective shortcut. What was going on? Her answer was to buy a GPS system, a brilliant answer, but then she wanted to switch it off the moment we got back into town while I wanted it to navigate me almost to our parking bay.

The pressure just built up, until I could no longer escape it, all the usual escape routes from thinking had been cut off.

As an aside, there are two kinds of thinking. The first is more a form of pondering through our memory to find something that fits our question, such as what suit or dress to buy, while what I wanted was a question to an answer that I did not yet understand: I needed to frame an answer to call into existence the actual question that I should be asking.

I asked her the question. She looked back at me, like she was wondering whether the biscuits were finally rolling out of my packet. I could see that she could not really answer, so I asked her more directly, how did she visualise the area where she thought there might be a shortcut. She thought, and then what she then described sounded a bit like a map: she could see the route in her mind.

Now I had the stepping-on-the-bus moment of illumination.

I visualise the bit of the world I am interested in as a three-dimensional environment, with something like photographs as entry points. Click the photo, and wander around the mini 3D world within. I always assumed that everyone thought in that way, because is this not what education really teaches us, that we are all essentially the same, that one education system essentially fits all? Take the course, then take the exam. Learn some stuff, then write the stuff down. If you do not fit, then there is something wrong with you, or your IQ is too low.

My next thought was that if she had a more 2D rendering, did this mean she could hold a larger area of the city in her head? Was the amount of data we could process in our heads some kind of constant, and that what we could remember was something to do with how we processed the data?

I asked her to describe where each side road went from my problem avenue. I could keep up as far as the first junction, then as she started describing the next I could feel myself desperately, and too slowly, trying to unfurl my 3D rendering of the next junction. I could not, and she raced ahead, joyously listing where each street headed. I could only cheer, impressed by how fast her mind worked.

I still do not fully understand how she sees the world, I just know it is not the same way that I do. When we are in a place she knows, like a town or mall, she can instantly figure out the best routes to take. When we are in an unknown place or out in the countryside, she struggles, but I can visualise the valleys or the streets and predict where they go.

This is noticeably different from the idea that memory is key, because we both quickly forget stuff that other people seem to be able to hang onto for decades, like people’s names.

And the smartphones?

It goes like this: every smartphone has its own memory and processing capacity, depending on the brand and model, and as humans we can all remember and do stuff that keeps us alive. However, a smartphone typically also has space for an extra memory card, but imagine that instead there were a range of cards available, not just for memory, but we could only choose one card to install.

  • Choosing a memory card would expand our available memory, giving us blindingly good recall but nothing special in how we process the memories. Translators are a bit like this, absorbing and recalling vast amounts of vocabulary.
  • Choosing a RAM chip card would give us blindingly fast processing, but memories that could be easily deleted. I would say this describes my wife, she can load up her memory with what she wants but just as easily delete anything she does not value or wishes to avoid – like remembering to check the map. She does not forget because she is lazy, her memory is more like easily overwritten.
  • Choosing a graphics accelerator card would give us nothing special in the memory department, but we would be able to handle huge systems of data blindingly fast. This is me, and my kind of ‘poor’ memory can never be fixed by repeating someone’s name after meeting them, as there is no direct path to recall single memories, everything is in huge 3D data sets where the flow of the data is more significant than any bit of data.

Back when we were growing in our mother’s tummy, we began to use a certain set of tools in our mind to process the world around us, and have continued to use the same set for all our tasks ever since. Maybe the reason is genetic, maybe it is more subtle, but the only thing that we can be sure is, unless something like a major injury that forces our brain to boot up other, unused parts of the brain to compensate for lost functions, we are stuck with what we are born with. Yes, we can grow our knowledge as well as our skills, and even add fresh ones, but we process everything in exactly the same way, our way. Maybe this has the purpose of giving us as individuals emergency brain capacity in the event of failure and our societies access to different kinds of brains to solve different kinds of problems.

At least I know better now why I cannot remember stuff. It is not a fault, but a sign that another feature exists in its place.

So that is the brain, a better kind of smartphone, where abnormal is actually normal.

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The Embodiment of Anonymity

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What do you do better than most people?

Think about it for a moment, before continuing.

One of my best abilities is that of data analysis, best in the way that I am not just good,  I am probably better than you can imagine.

That probably sounds like boasting, but it isn’t. Let me fill you in with some background.

I have worked for many companies, and as a consequence have experienced many managers and people in business in general, as well as a whole lot of other people doing the different tasks that make up our working lives. If I was going to give one piece of advice to all of these it might be that life is not like Farmville – when one gets promoted one does not automatically power up on those skills one associates with that position. On the other hand, our ego may demand that we defend our position, that we have indeed powered up on those skills, especially if we have been in a position for some time.

I will be blunt, most people are fairly crap at analysing data in any way but in which they have been taught when working at the business level, but our ego may not allow us to accept this. However, I have lived in Poland for twenty years but I will not be writing any literature in Polish in the foreseeable future, and I can say this because I do not allow my ego to prop up my business persona. I only have one life, and I have both psoriasis and arthritis to contend with all the time, I do not need a set of fake ideals to make my life even more complicated.

So every day I watch managers deal ham-fistedly with data, and there is no resolution.

Skills have to be learned, and then practiced, intensely. Just as no one gets to speak a foreign language without specific kinds of consistent work, no one gets to speak data without a similar amount of perspiration.

Remember that I asked you to consider what you do best? And what does that blog title mean?

Right, if we allow our ego to defend our poor skills, then we are saying that those poor skills are as good as our other skills. Our good skills.

One of the hardest things to talk about with people is their good skills. They downplay them.

So: ( CrapSkill x 10 ) + ( GoodSkill / 10 ) = Mediocrity

Each and every one of us has a unique set of skills at which we naturally excel plus a set of skills at which we have worked hard to learn. These are our core skills, and these are the ones we need to be using to add quality to the processes in which we engage.What is more, just as we cannot imagine what someone thinks when they speak a really foreign language, or does some artistic work beyond our experience, then we cannot imagine what those people with other skills in our workplace see when they are applying their skills – and they cannot see what we see in our minds when we apply our own skills. We never really know how far our imagination falls short of understanding what they see.

My mind burns with a strange light when I let it go in its areas of experience, yet dies to a pale glimmer in other areas. Where does yours burn?

The classical vision is that we have all the required skills, and that if we have a superior position then we have all these skills at a similarly elevated level. This classical vision is only our internal vision – while what other people see in us is what we present, and if we follow the ‘mediocrity’ process then mediocrity is what others see. In a company with many people at a certain level following the ‘mediocrity’ process, then all the outsider to the company perceives is anonymity.

Think about this: of all the people you have seen or passed by today, how many of them do you remember? Those who you know plus some you see every day in your home or work space, plus a few more? How many of those will say anything but what you expect to hear?

Anonymity. It is all around us.

The purpose of a team is to create a group of people not with just different sets of knowledge but with different natural abilities that can cross the knowledge boundaries. The way forward to a better business team involves leaving the classical ideas behind that Qualification Z ensures that Person X is able to do Job Y, and that we should appear invincible to our team.

This has implications in our ability to choose further training, because if our ego or our lack of imagination oversells the skills we do not have, we are unlikely to choose appropriate training.

Fear, ego and mediocrity. The embodiment of anonymity.

 

Beliefs: Hate or Renewal?

via Daily Prompt: Renewal

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Apparently I am an evil man.

I used to attend the Roman Catholic churches here in Poland; no more, because hearing evil from the mouths’ of priests just left me unhappy, plus I was tired of walking out of churches mid-mass. The church-goers were not the problem, just your usual people one meets anywhere, but I considered it unfair to burden them.

The primary issue was that, apparently, all evil comes from the West, making me feel all peculiar being the bringer of evil sat in the midst of the righteous. My opinion was that all evil comes from the heart, in which case the heart lies in the West, or maybe it was that the priests had forgotten the centuries of struggle with Russia, to the East. Perhaps, though, they thought that the end of Communism would mean Poles would be free to spend all their free time in the church, freely following their priests’ lead in all things in life, when it turns out that what most people wanted with freedom was to be, well, free.

As a man of science who believes in God, I discover that to those who are also believers in Science or those who are Atheists, I am evil because I believe in God. Am I thus taking evil with me wherever I go, bringing it fresh to the Godly and the Neutral alike, one evil for the former and another for the latter?

I consider part of the problem to be books. Did I tell you that I bring evil to the world of books as well? I was once rash enough to admit that I had thrown some books out with the rubbish, although in my defense I knew at the time that some of the poor of the city regularly went through the waste, collected any books they found and attempted to sell them on the streets.

Evil is my name.

Books live in the past, beginning their lives when they are written and then growing older, like some kind of civilisation where the citizens procreate and die, only ending when the last copy is destroyed. Books of science and books of religion are very similar, in that each states what the authors believe of the world at the time of writing, a summary of the thoughts of many people. Science books can be deceptive because most are fairly new, yet that is not the same as making them true in their entireties. Science grows in two ways: by adding new content to the old, and by replacing some of the old knowledge following the twists of our understanding.

Schooling, whether dealing in religion, the sciences or whatever, has a tendency to emphasis the idea that all ideas are known. The teacher gives a problem, and the answer to the problem is to be found in a book. Again and again. Therefore books are founts of all knowledge.

As a research and development engineer I have a different viewpoint, because in this field there are no books to give the ideas. Problems are met every day, and they have to be solved by experience, comparison with similar problems from the past, looking for patterns in the data that might suggest a new reality, or blind luck. New science books ultimately come from the work of people like me, not from teachers or priests – they merely exist in an old vision of the world.

Religious books can be very old, but that is not to say that what they offer is irrelevant, in fact they are quite remarkable as they have to speak to people from all kinds of backgrounds, classes, technologies and so forth, but they also have their flaws as nothing so general can meet all specific needs. These flaws are often deliberately selected by people who do not like religion as evidence that all the religion, all religion, is invalid.

Once the current thought in science was that heat and cold were separate fluids that somehow flowed through solid materials. The idea seemed to fit the evidence, until one day someone found a way to disprove it, and science moved on. That meant that the science books of the time were flawed, and still are, we just have no way of knowing which bits are true and which we assume to be true. On that basis, books of science and religion are indistinguishable from each other, we just make our choices which of which we believe.

Or at least, we should.

What often happens is that people make the choices that suit them, them spew vile hatred of people who state that they have made other choices, using clever-clever put downs based on how wonderful their choices are.

There are people out there who want power, and to get this they find it most convenient to climb an established hierarchy that heads in the required direction. These people only believe in themselves, but they pretend to hold the values of the hierarchy, and without a qualm will shake that hierarchy to make their passage easier, and to damage competing hierarchies. Up they rise, powered by their own hot air.

Education should allow us to solve problems, and make choices that suit us and our communities, so that when a problem presents itself we can respond in an appropriate manner. Each of us has our own set of skills, so there is no need for any of us to be able to solve all problems, but if we care anything for our communities we should be able to put our unique efforts to make life better for all. If we see groups apparently attempting to remove the freedom from other groups of people, then the people to defeat are the power-garnering leaders, not the others in the group. If we simply attack the group, all we are making of ourselves is another group who wishes to remove another’s freedom. No amount of self-justification of our group makes taking the freedom from another justified – it just makes us the problem.

So am I evil? Or am I just an easy target for other people’s frustration? People too inconsiderate to care that the people reading what they write are innocent. How many innocent people have to be abused every day until the abusers realise that they are part of the problem and not the solution?

Discover Art

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If we are teaching culture then it could, I believe, be worth examining that peak of valued culture – art. If we have an opinion about art, it should surely demonstrate something about how we view the rest of culture, and maybe also the actual process of describing what we see.

So what is art?

We know this already, there are museums and galleries full of the stuff. However, just because the world exists, does this mean we understand how the world came to exist? Or, to put it more bluntly, could we produce another one? The fact of something existing is not quite the same as knowing the whys and the hows of its existence.

Here is a test – go to some library or bookstore, physically or online, and see how many books there are explaining all about the artists, types of art and methodologies. The average small bookshop will probably have dozens, while a decent library will have hundreds, all full of interesting knowledge about how to see, recognize and do art.

Now count the number of books about how to evaluate art that is freshly painted by students, and out of those hundreds of books available to us locally there maybe half a dozen on how to look at a picture and express its worth in artistic terms. Now read one of these, and compare it to all those other art books – and we will find that while most art books have an authoritative style, those for evaluating fresh art are vague. What we see here is that most people who talk about art actually know very little about how it works. Sure, we can recite history, talk about styles and technique, but the best that we can know about something is to get the consensus of some group as to whether they like it. The key questions in this revolve around what it is that they actually like, and why.

If we randomly pull a coffee table book about a field of art that we either have no or little experience with, then we will have pages and pages of new visual experiences to enjoy, although if we ignore the text we have no way of choosing between the good and the less good, other than by previous life experience (guessing) and assuming that if it has been included in such a book it must have some worth (other people’s guesses). If the subject is something we are uncomfortable with, such as abstracts while we prefer ‘proper’ images of things, then we might override common sense and call it all rubbish. Common sense being that we all like different things, and that we know that some group of experts has stated that this set of art to be very good.

One of the elements of our upbringing is the insistence on criticizing those things outside our experience: even education participates in this by forming elites, groups, subjects, and defining what is proper and what is not. Rather like supporting a specific football team, the truth is that these groupings and the resulting denigration of other people’s choices are not about quality but just the need to feel included somewhere. Those groupings are largely random – a different upbringing would have impressed the values of a different group upon us. We take this need to belong and denigrate into our adult lives, partly disabling our ability to make good quality decisions in the process.

What this tells us is that our ability to evaluate the significance of any human activity relies heavily on being involved in some way in that activity. Relying on the opinion of someone else who is not involved is no safe guide at all; therefore we and the people we trust as sources have to go out and experience things in order to have an opinion that has any kind of value. We need the results of the actual experience, and the experience in having experiences in order to value the process of gaining experience.

The benefit to us and our students is that the more experience we gain in different groups is the discovery that there are more people out there in the world caught up in other groups who share our values – we are merely blocked from reaching them by our own, artificial barriers.

Talking to the Artist

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Did you know that artists and engineers share something significant? Yes, really.

Previously I talked a bit about the teaching of culture, mostly about the question of unknown or forgotten culture. This time we deal with the fear of the unknown, or why people walk or talk away from artists and engineers.

When I create a picture people can tell me what they think it is, which is fine, or they can tell me why they prefer something else, which is fine too. If instead I talk about my pictures while I am creating them most people cannot get away fast enough. The same happens when engineers speak about what they are engineering.

So I asked myself why. Then I asked whether other people experience the same under other circumstances. Finally, does this have any relation to the teaching of culture?

I think it mostly revolves around the unknown presented in its naked form. Education kind of encourages the view that things are fixed, as in fixed answers to set questions, or that if something new does come along it will arrive in a fully finished manner – fully tested and approved, presented by proper social actors, such as magazine writers.

When we talk to an engineer the product is unfinished, raw, and there is no social actor to give their approval. Oh no, the peasants cannot live on cake. Having one’s home remodelled is noisy and dirty. Old people do have sex.

So much of culture involves concealing the grubbiness of reality, the creation of an artificial environment that is remote from reality. Cleaner than reality. Superior to reality. The more artificial we make our life the more difficult it becomes to connect with people far from our safety zone.

Engineers talking engineering is too distant, too dirty, the engineering crude until the approved product lands on the shelves.

Artists talking about their current work is too distant, unless they speak the spiel as approved by the relevant social actors.

Fellow employees talking about some innovation is too alien, even if it will improve the way we work or the product we make.

When culture is taught to people from other cultures we have to pretend either that they are in our culture, or devalue their culture, the colonialisation of their culture with ours, because the one thing that is feared is that their culture is superior to ours. More than that, learning their culture takes away our superior position of giver to the masses, to that of receiver.

Hence, if we wish to teach culture effectively, one of our tasks is to learn not to steer clear of others when they describe the processes they go through in their work, for work they we consider distant from ours or dirty. We must be able to achieve meaningful dialogue with those who produce culture – not to talk the past, our knowledge, at the, to prove our knowledge, but to talk to them with the understanding that most of the learning will happen on our side. If we, as teachers, were treated the same way as we treat the producers of products and culture then we should feel offended, as we do not expect our students to walk away or to start talking about other things. It is worth remembering that we are mere manufacturers of standard knowledge.

It is something that takes practice, as in our minds we have to realign the social system that we carry in our head from a kind of hierarchy to that of placing everyone on the same flat plane, as our equals.

After all, no matter how distant or dirty a process may seem, they all appear from the same essential material – our minds.

Culture is Dead

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Stand up if you believe things were better in the past. Good, the door is over there, we will stay because life is more interesting than that.

Culture dies – because one day everything dies, even the universe. However, if culture dies we can still make it live again, we just have to care. That is WE have to care, rather than complain that other people do not care. We can sum up culture as the sum of people caring, rather than the sum of people complaining.

When something is new it can seem interesting, then we get bored with it, pushing it to the back of our drawer of life.Sometimes, though, we are rummaging around in our past and we rediscover this forgotten thing. We buy a suit or dress, love it, forget it and then we or someone finds it and calls it retro.

  • Love
  • Forget
  • Retro

This is an important concept if we are teaching culture, because when we are at the bored stage someone else might be still at the interested stage. For years the Communist era was uncool in Poland, for example, but now people are rediscovering some of the gems from that era, like furniture they used to have. Foreigners have a different perspective: they have not been through the cycle, they are still at ‘Love’.

If we are teaching culture, what is boring to us may be very interesting to those we teach, the trouble is that we cannot know beforehand what will be interesting, because other people will never love all the things we have. And they will love things that we never did.

To make things even more complicated – we do not know some of the things that we could love, and our students cannot know everything that they could love. No questionnaire can discover the things we or anyone else do not know that we do not know. In other words questions imply that we know the question, just not the answer. However, what about a question addressing a completely new piece of technology that will appear in ten years time? We lack knowledge of questions as well as answers.

A good example is the British TV series ‘Escape to the Country’, where a couple is presented with two houses that fit the desires they list, and then with a house that goes beyond the list. The latter house is chosen more often than either of the two that fits the knowledge they brought with them to the program. The unknown element can be more interesting than the known. Questionnaires tend to question the status quo, of things in danger of slipping from Love to Forget.

Next… if we teach culture we need to experience some of it, and keep experiencing it because things keep on a-changing. We need to watch films, go to theatres, visit factories. Our students come from varied backgrounds, and they are usually polite enough to pretend that what we present is what they want. Education is often a bludgeon of compliance, preventing us from believing that things could be different, but is that our hand on the bludgeon.

Are we mindlessly programming our students with classical views that they will never really enjoy?

Are we mindlessly programming our students with culture we do not really understand?

Are we mindlessly programming our students full stop?

The argument goes something like theatres will not continue to exist unless we teach about them in culture classes. My counter-argument is that theatres do not continue to exist because a bunch of mindless teachers force the idea of theatre on students. Theatres continue to exist because actors make them interesting and interested people find the money to keep them doing what they do so interestingly, and this process picks up fresh people incidentally for the most part.

The hard truth is that not only must we experience culture to teach it, we have to accept that our way of experiencing it may not be the only relevant way, or even be close to the most interesting way.

Consider clothes shopping, a common element of modern culture. When you go shopping you might do what many people do: enter the shop, find a rack and then start going clack, clack, clack down the rack and onto the next one, looking for interesting clothes, colours and sizes all at the same time. Often people spend about 20 minutes in a shop, and see about 40 different items.

Consider my clothes shopping: I enter a shop, scan the clothes as I walk around, looking for interesting colours and patterns. If I see something interesting I approach it and put my hand on it to feel the quality. If it passes that test I might investigate further, if not I continue around the shop and move onto the next one. In 20 minutes I might see 1oo-200 items in 3-5 shops. I see more clothes, and only look for sizes if something passes all the visual and texture tests, so the chances of me finding something interesting is several times higher than the average shopper.

The point here is that we need to experience culture, and we need to do so in ways outside our previous experience. To find out how we need to experience culture with people from very different backgrounds.

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