This Is Your EFT On Drugs

One more graph from the EFT results to date. There are 8 prescription and non-prescription drugs explicitly mentioned in the questions, and 8 people wrote in caffeine in the Other Drugs box. The counts look like this:



And the frequency distribution of people who use each drug looks like this:



It looks to me that most drug using groups follow the general distribution. Unlike external stressors which do seem to effect EFT scores, drugs don’t have a noticeable effect - at least not enough to be obvious with low numbers of respondents in this noisy sample.

The only anomaly is the dark blue line showing SSRIs, which is flatter than the others. Only 11 respondents reported SSRI use so this might not mean much at all.

It would be really good to get plenty of non-geek respondents to balance up the sample. Friends, relatives, postal workers, doorstep evangelists, grab them all and make the do the Embedded Figures Test :-)

The updated analysis program EftAnalyzer.cpp is available.

Neuroscience, All Postings

More EFT Results

The Embedded Figures Test page provides a test which I hope will be a good predictor of other, less repeatable or automatable tests of cognitive flexibility. It invites readers to take the test, and fill in a short questionaire. There are now 226 valid entries in the database, 26 of which are from readers who have done the test twice, with some stress-reducing exercises in between. This post examines the results to date. You can download the raw data and analysis program at the end of the post.



There are 226 valid entries out of 252. Valid entries have a Before score > 100ms. 26 of them provide Before and After values. At least 152 are geeks, as detected by looking for some geekly substrings in the Occupation field. There are quite a few blank Occupations, so the actual number of geeks could be even bigger. It’s nearly all male. So this is still a sample biased towards male geeks.

First a couple of things that haven’t worked out yet, then the more interesting stuff. Here’s the distribution of respondents across 1000ms bands:



It’s a (pointy) Poisson distribution. Maybe a stingray :-) There is no evidence of the “double hump” I’d hoped to see, which might directly reveal the presence of two distinct strategies. However, the geekly bias of the sample might mean that it doesn’t contain the second hump yet.

Next, feeling nauseous when bored. Talking to many programmers over the years, I’ve got the impression that there’s a link between naturally gifted programmers and feeling nauseous when bored such as in long, tedious meetings. So I added a question to distinguish the the people who do feel nauseous (Nauseators) and those who don’t (Non-Nauseators).

Here are the two separate frequency distributions, to the same scale. There is no evidence of any correlation between feeling nauseous when bored and EFT score. If anything, it’s the non-nauseators who are more clustered into the 2 and 3 second band:





Next, age. Advancing age has a clear influence on score. This graph plots the average score and the standard deviation in each decade-long age band:



I think this matches what we know about cognitive tests in general. If it is going to be a useful workplace tool though, for example for qualifying Path. Lab. technicians before they perform tasks requiring good pattern recognition, we need to know if the evaluation should be age adjusted - or if the deteriorating scores do indicate an absolute reduction in pattern recognition ability. Perhaps there are some jobs best done by young eyes!

Now for the relationship between external stressors and score. I took each question, and scored it -2 for “Strongly Disagree”, -1 for “Disagree”, 1 for “Agree” and 2 for “Strongly Agree”. Then I compensated for negatively worded questions by multiplying their scores by -1. There are only 7 such questions, so each respondent can score between -14 and 14 of these normalized “Chill Points”. Mean and standard deviation for each chill band:



It does look like (if anything) there’s a tilt, top left to bottom right. It certainly isn’t tilted the other way. And as the respondents become chiller, the spread tends to narrow. Also interesting is that the effects of stressors are known to be greater when the subjects feel that they are not in control. The spread seems to widen quite suddenly as soon as the respondents’ perceive themselves as having nett negative chill. (I worded some of the questions negatively to stop people automatically clicking a happy or sad column, so this pattern is, I think, authentically emergent.)

Of course, we’re talking about gross external stressors here, rather than the fine grain establishment of positive self-confidence that I argue makes a big difference. But this graph is certainly enough to keep me interested in the EFT, particularly since the questions are a very crude probe of personal stress levels, and the conditions for the test are quite uncontrolled. There is no standardization of display size or cleanliness, mouse type, use of a mouse mat, lighting conditions, time of day, practice runs and so on. Better control of such factors might sharpen this pattern.

Also interesting, here’s a similar graph that only shows the entries with Before and After scores, organized by the number of destressing exercises the person did between the tests. The mean and standard deviation of the Before scores is shown in red, with the related After values next to it:



Curiously, even doing zero exercises improves the respondants’ scores, while doing 3 or more even benefits the Before scores :-) I suspect that what we are looking at here is an effect of time spent pondering the reasoning in the Introduction, or it might just be that some people misunderstood the test instructions. If they did the test twice, one straight after the other, we’d expect them to always do better the second time. If they then filled in the activities they normally engage it, the reduction of red and green scores with more stress reducers in play is interesting. Stressors make scores bigger, Destressors make them smaller.

You can download the raw data in file eft27jan2008.txt. The source code for the graph drawing program is EftAnalyzer.cpp. The program uses the wxWidgets graphical toolkit, which you should be able to download and build out of the box using any common OS and C++ compiler. The easiest way to get the analysis program building is to build the minimal sample, then cut and paste the source into minimal.cpp. It’s all in one file to facilitate this, and the existing minimal sample project files for the various compilers and IDEs will work just fine.

Neuroscience, All Postings

Obstructing and Assisting Effective Thought

This week I saw a quote from Marvin Minsky, said to be from his book The Emotion Machine (which I haven’t read yet):

… the cascades that we call Suffering must have evolved from earlier schemes that helped us to limit our injuries — by providing the goal of escaping from pain. Evolution never had any sense of how a species might evolve next — so it did not anticipate how pain might disrupt our future high-level abilities. We came to evolve a design that protects our bodies but ruins our minds.

I know exactly where he’s coming from. Last week a bit of a dental filling chipped off, resulting in more pain than was reasonable for such a small thing. Something was clearly Very Wrong, so it was straight round to the tandarts (Flemish dentist) for me. Three root canals later I was nursing a wicked post-surgical insult to my jawbone, and feeling very glad that I avoid taking Paracetamol unless I really, really need it. All told I spent a week quite unfit for anything involving a brain.

This was a timely reminder that although the issue of background stress making the prefrontal cortex unavailable for programming work is central to this blog, there are other things - such as pain - that can also obstruct or assist intellectual function.

The Boston Globe recently featured an article, Don’t just stand there, think, describing studies that show clear improvements in performing a variety of intellectual tasks when the subjects were encouraged to move while performing them:

The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on - that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.

Of course, we programmers already know about this. Here’s the excellent Mr. Randall Munroe referencing it:



It’s even got a name, and a Wikipedia entry - stimming. My favourite stim involves glancing pats to the back of my head - a motion not far removed from shining a shoe. It’s remarkable that I’ve still got plenty of hair on the back of my head, really. So it’s nice to see that there is now quantitive confirmation that stimming helps thought, because it’s one of those things that reveal the strange disconnect running through a society where most of the people aren’t in a position to access their full faculties, most of the time. For example, here’s Dr. Russell Barkley, an ADHD expert who doesn’t seem to recognize anything but focussed attention, getting very worried about stimming on his ADHD Fact Sheet:

2. Excessive task-irrelevant activity or activity that is poorly regulated to the demands of a situation. Individuals with ADHD in many cases are noted to be excessively fidgety, restless, and “on the go.” They display excessive movement not required to complete a task, such as wriggling their feet and legs, tapping things, rocking while seated, or shifting their posture or position while performing relatively boring tasks. Younger children with the disorder may show excessive running, climbing, and other gross motor activity. While this tends to decline with age, even teenagers with ADHD are more restless and fidgety than their peers.

Crikey! We can’t have people tapping things or shifting their posture, can we? Where might it end? This kind of thing seems so silly, the so-called expert’s ignorance seems downright willful. This is the kind of thing which makes me think a lot of the ADHD debate is actually based in neurotic responses to healthy children on the part of adults trapped in focussed attention, and demonizing those with mismatching social stress levels as I describe on the pages The Dreaded Jungian Backlash and Other Applications. To add weight to this, it’s worth realizing that many people who technological Westerners regard as primitive encourage children to rock as an aid to study, rather than calling it a “symptom” and reaching for the Ritalin regardless of the effect. Check out this sobering bit of video which lasts for less than a minute, half of which is caption:



The really interesting thing about this is that once we know about it, this disconnect can be found in other places, allowing the possibility of understanding things which are unintelligible without allowing for it. For example, although Dr. Barkeley recognizes focussed attention but seems unaware of the existence of juxtapositional awareness as leveraged by effective programmers and artists or the motile component of effective thought, there are traditional schools of psychology which do describe these things. For example, 20th century esoteric teachers George Gurdjieff and Rudolph Steiner both continue to attract interest from many hackers I’ve interviewed over the years. They both claimed that human consciousness is the result of the interaction of three distinct subsystems, and encouraged students to distinguish the operation of each in order to improve their awareness. Gurdjieff describes three main centres:

  • Intellectual or thinking center. This center is the faculty which makes a being capable of logic and reasoning. This one is located in the head.
  • Moving or physical center. This brain is located in the spinal column.
  • Emotional or feeling center. This faculty makes beings capable of feeling emotions. This brain is dispersed throughout the human body as nerves which have been labeled as the “nerve nodes” . The biggest concentration of these nerves is in the solar plexus.

Note that the “emotions” of the feeling centre are not the base, reactive emotions such as hunger, fear, lust and so on. Those are handled by the moving centre. Instead the feeling centre is about impressions - stuff that we get in an “all or nothing, insight kind of way”. It seems to map very well to what I’ve called the juxtapositional faculty. Does the prefrontal cortex integrate processing from the solar plexus? Recently we’ve realized that a lot of processing does go on in the enteric nervous system - nerves surrounding the gut. As the Wikipedia article says:

There are several reasons why the enteric nervous system may be regarded as a second brain. The enteric nervous system can operate autonomously. It normally communicates with the CNS through the parasympathetic (eg, via the vagus nerve) and sympathetic (eg, via the prevertebral ganglia) nervous systems. However, vertebrate studies show that when the vagus nerve is severed, the enteric nervous system continues to function.

The complexity of the enteric nervous system is another reason for its status as a second brain. In vertebrates the enteric nervous system includes efferent neurons, afferent neurons, and interneurons, all of which make the enteric nervous system capable of carrying reflexes in the absence of CNS input. The sensory neurons report on mechanical and chemical conditions. Through intestinal muscles, the motor neurons control peristalsis and churning of intestinal contents. Other neurons control the secretion of enzymes. The enteric nervous system also makes use of the same neurotransmitters as the CNS, such as acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin. The enteric nervous system has the capacity to alter its response depending on such factors as bulk and nutrient composition.

It seems to me that the empirical knowledge of this stuff which Gurdjieff (apparently) gained from traditional Orthodox Christian, Buddhist and Dervish sources describes what we experience (unless we are trapped in focussed attention) and is now at least partially confirmed by modern science. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that thousands of years of study actually produced something useful!

In the Google book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How Is It Achieved? Steiner describes:

… the thinking-brain, the feeling-brain and the willing-brain.

The bizarre thing about Steiner is that he discusses the three brains in the context of clairvoyant perception! Are we talking… like… spooks or something here? I strongly suspect that the answer is no, and here we have an opportunity to resolve one of the great mysteries of the ages. Remember Barkley, recognizing only focussed attention. To him, the fruits of juxtapositional awareness which we can all enjoy if we are sufficiently destressed, and which arrive in an “all or nothing, insight kind of way” without any stepwise “working out”, are mere hallucinations. The human-normal sensibilities of people who are in a position to do juxtapositional awareness are just “procrastination”. Creative people “make things up” - probably as a result of a “failure of inhibition” (Mozart’s reams of note-perfect new music were a kind of complicated epileptic fit). This kind of model is actually quite common - is the way that ISO 9001 is usually applied anything other than an infinite regress of people standing behind other people and telling them exactly what to do?

To such a person, an experienced professional who can look at a spec and know that there is something really difficult in there without yet being able to say exactly what it is, might as well be “clairvoyant”. But there is nothing spooky going on - just the amazing effectiveness of the neural net between our ears when it has a chance to work correctly. This also explains why some people are so keen to advance theories of how creative people “make things up”, when every creative person denies making things up, instead insisting that they just see and attempt to capture what is there. From the limited point of view of focussed attention such statements make no sense, and can be dismissed out of hand!

With these ideas in mind, it’s actually possible to make sense of some of Steiner’s writing in informational and structural terms. I’m not going to offer an example here - or even encourage you to find one - because of the other big problem with Steiner. He was writing in High German, to a very straightlaced turn of the century upper middle class audience that makes Barkley look positively funky in comparision - and the writing gains nothing in translation. Turgid, pompous, long-winded and obfuscated are just some words we might apply to it here and now. But my central proposal here, that Steiner is describing improved cognition of this reality, rather than focussed cognition of a different reality, might be of interest to some people. Of course the audience, knowing only focussed attention, took the description of improved cognition and “interpreted” it as a description of an alternate, spook reality. The relevant graph is not this one from Randall Munroe, correct though it is:



But instead this one from Dehnadi and Bornat’s fascinating paper The Camel Has Two Humps, where they show the two distinct clusters of excellent and average programmers:



Human psychology seems to be a better fit with this bit of pop culture from The Shamen featuring Jhelisa Anderson than the theories of the ADHD experts - so stim away and if Dr. Barkley doesn’t like it… it’s another reason to get rid of open plan!



Neuroscience, All Postings, ADHD, Stress Addiction

Culture Influences Brain Function?

There’s a very interesting abstract, MIT: Culture influences brain function, which says that newly arrived East Asians are better at visual tasks requiring context sensitivity than Americans, but the Americans are better at tasks requiring absolute judgement.

The authors relate this to American culture emphasizing the individual, East Asian culture emphasizing the collective. I suppose it’s possible, but there’s an obvious alternative - sadly cruder and less poetic.

The Wikipedia entry for East Asia says that culturally, East Asia consists of societies:

  • displaying heavy historical influence from the Classical Chinese language (including the traditional Chinese script)
  • Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism
  • Mahayana Buddhism/Zen-Chan Buddhism
  • and Taoism (Daoism)

Politically it consists of:

  • People’s Republic of China (including the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau)
  • Republic of China (Taiwan)
  • Japan
  • North Korea
  • South Korea

Now the Japanese gave Karoshi to the world, so we mustn’t over-generalize, but there’s a great many agrarian and early industrial people in there, as well as Buddhist, Zen and Taoist influences. It’s reasonable to assume that many East Asians have lower habituated background stress than most information age Americans (we’re back to Whybrow’s American Mania), and the cognitive differences reported would fit right in.

Neuroscience, All Postings, Stress Addiction

Seam Carving - A New Thing!

How wonderful to see something new! At SIGGRAPH last autumn Avidan and Shamir presented Seam Carving for Content-Aware Image Resizing, together with a striking video:



There’s now a GPL implementation, seam-carving-gui. It’s amazing. I grabbed an OS X Universal Binary, and was instantly goofing off. It does everything the video shows, except that you can’t stretch and shrink images interactively. Instead you type in the new size and it goes away and thinks.

I started with Trafalgar Square:



Then I crudely painted over Nelson’s Column and removed it to produce an alternate reality - Place De Le Emperor Napoleon perhaps:



Then I stretched it without modifying the appearance of the people to create another timeline with Albert Speer’s aesthetic in London:



I suppose it’s the graphical analogue of those weird boxes that beat-match tunes without distorting the pitch!

The last new thing like this that I saw was Dasher, an innovative approach to text input, back in 2002:



Why is something new such a refreshing delight? Because it’s rare. Innovation is not as common as we would like to believe. Sure, to some extent we are looking at an S curve, because a lot of traditional activities have now been automated and we haven’t thought up many new activities that require heavy data processing support yet. Facebook is hardly a paradigm shift!

A corollary of that relates to the way people just don’t worry about sizing so much any more. There came a point, maybe about five years ago, when the processing and storage requirements of a whole bunch of apps were suddenly met by standard domestic PCs. So far, humanity hasn’t generated many problems > 2GHz / 2GB RAM / 50GB disk. Even those lost UK government records were on an Excel database!

The sobering truth is that for many years, the big progress has involved delivering and incrementally improving features that I had on my Sun pizza box at BT in 1990, to the domestic market. Hats off to the materials scientists who have accomplished their repeated die reductions, but that’s the limit of the true innovation. In it’s day the KIM-1 was a solution looking for a problem, and in those days there was more innovation. Dasher and seam carving prove that innovation is still possible in the context of a single user with a PC.

I’m not the only person to see this dearth of things to be enthusiastic about. In his recent Yuletide greeting (and discussing the consumer market), 2007: The Miserable Year in Review, John C. Dvorak said, “I was not a fan of 2007. It was another crappy tech year—just the latest in a string of bad years dating back to 2000.”

As you might expect, I assign this reduction in true innovation to the effects of increasing background stress. If we can get that under control, we’ll be back on track for the Singularity. Hooray!

All Postings, Stress Addiction, Programming

Getting Unstuck

Most of us have got so stuck on a bug that we’ve had to ask a colleague to look at it. We’re halfway through explaining the context when we see the problem. Our colleague hasn’t said a word.

The trouble with this is that most of us will spend two or three hours tearing our hair out before we call our colleague over. It’s understandable, because they are busy too, and we don’t want to look stupid. A few years ago I was aware that my team was losing a lot of time to this - perhaps a person-afternoon per week. In those days we programmed business logic in straight C. There’s no doubt that the better encapsulation of more recent languages has reduced the number of baldness inducing bugs we create, but they still happen (and where they involve subclasses battling overcomplex superclasses they can become really nasty).

So I wanted to save that person-afternoon, and tried an experiment. I bought a stuffed toy for each team member, and issued them explaining that they should try explaining the bug to the toy as soon as they got stuck, not three hours later.

It was an utter failure. The stuffed toys didn’t help at all. (Well, they might have contributed to an exploratory atmosphere where we really don’t mind low cost failures when trying new things, but they did nothing for the debugging.)

There was an obvious problem with people feeling that they might look foolish, talking to the toy, but I don’t think that was the main problem. I’ve recently asked a few people who program at home if it helps to explain their bugs to their domestic cats and dogs. It doesn’t.

I suppose someone at UCL could try explaining their bug to Jeremy Bentham just to complete the pattern, but I suspect it will not work.

We do need an actual person to be involved.

  Quick Stuffed
Animal No No
Philosopher Yes No?

Table 1: Relating respondents’ gross properties to debugging usefulness.

Perhaps the problem is that we are hardwired to be good at imagining what our audience’s point of view will be, and looking at things from this point of view can be helpful if the audience is smart enough, but the hardware performs this complex processing on our actual environment. If we are actually talking to a stuffed and/or animal audience, that will be the internal model our clever brains set up for us.

This suggests that there might be a simple solution after all. Just email our quick and philosophical colleagues with our summaries of context and bug as soon as we get stuck. That will set up the right respondent model, where we see the problem in mid-flow we can discard the email and spare our blushes, and where we don’t we save our colleagues’ time.

Tell me, gentle reader, if it works for you, and I’ll do a follow up.

All Postings, Programming

Oh My - It Really Is A Padawan’s Hat!

So I read about a paper co-authored by Natalie Portman (who played Padme in Star Wars and the girl in V for Vendetta) under her True Name of Natalie Hershlag.

I figured that had to be worth a click, and found Frontal Lobe Activation during Object Permanence: Data from Near-Infrared Spectroscopy. They used strong near infrared light as a non-invasive way to detect blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, and showed that where infants are able to track things that they can’t see any more, the PFC is developed and active. Quite on topic! Then I reached this image:

I mean… come on:

Then it occurred to me that we can explain a lot of tales of mysterious, spooky intuitive consciousness with the idea that the full range of PFC functionality is not available to most of the people most of the time. A Jedi Master would probably be interested in monitoring a padawan’s PFC function. So Ms. Hershlag would be quite entitled to claim her apparatus really is a primitive padawan’s hat, thank you very much!

I tried to program by not thinking once. You know - like Tommy and Luke Skywalker. I was really tired and there was just one thing left to do. I had to convert an integer to an appendix designation. It’s horrible and not like proper counting. The first appendix is “A”, then “B”, through “Z”. Then it goes “AA” through “AZ”, “BA” through “BZ” and so on. The carries are all wrong. (And it might have actually mattered in service. Someone could reasonably collate a large amount of evidential material as lots of appendices.)

I didn’t have the mental stamina left to compose by iterating juxtapositional and focussed attention as I normally would, so I brought to mind the recursive printf(3) definition and went for it:

string PcmProposalImp::MakeAppendixDesignation(int Order)
{
   return(((Order / 26) > 0 ? MakeAppendixDesignation((Order / 26) - 1)
                            : string("")) +
                              char('A' + (Order % 26)));
}

It worked. How spooky is that? I don’t advocate programming with eyes closed in general, but it might just be that my PFC in juxtapositional mode is actually better at all the Obi Wan gotchas in there than my PFC in focussed mode is. I usually get that stuff exactly wrong, even when I remember I always get it exactly wrong.

Phew. Reached the end without mentioning Attack of the Clones.

D’oh!

Neuroscience, All Postings, Programming

The Kafka Shuffle

In the Introduction pages I describe how low level stress is enough to reduce working memory and access to the semantic and associative network. In this focussed attention hardware state, people can’t program or perform other tasks central to software engineering. If a person spends most or all of their waking hours in focussed attention, they’ll stop expecting or relying on self-consistency, distrust the evidence of their own senses, and develop an increasing reliance on heuristics (procedures) and their policing. They will also be conditioned to resent others who do not match their stress level, either stressing them too much, or not performing the anxiety raising social stereotypies enough to give an addictive hit of stress chemistry. Just as with drunk humour, a group of people suffering the same distortion of their thinking will produce a distorted culture. Once a distorted is established, it can sustain itself by driving newcomers into stress, and conceal itself by rationalizing or even celebrating the goings on.

Such a culture is the kiss of death to any commercial activity. It is operationally inefficient because workers aren’t alive to the possibilities for intelligent optimizations of their tasks and instead develop buck-passing skills. It produces constant, invisible opportunity costs because of the emphasis on reactive behaviours. It produces conflict with customers and business partners as dealings develop the character we call “bureaucratic” - because government bureaucracies are places where stress addicted culture can get really bad. I emphasize that a stress addicted culture will eventually doom any enterprise - those that get by doing predictable business with such a culture are always vulnerable to sudden death by innovative competition, or even trivial changes to the business environment if they cannot adapt.

In this posting I’m going to look at an example of such a stress addicted culture, showing how deep and pervasive the reality warp can get, and how it creates conflict with non-members. In a commercial context we should ask how the attitudes revealed will affect motivation, quality, efficiency, flexibility, creativity and other good things. Conversely, think about how such a culture will inevitably display the extreme rejection of improvement and hence organizational inertia I call The Dreaded Jungian Backlash, while endorsing the correctness of each member’s distorted perceptions. Consider the idea that there’s a kind of organizational hygiene that anyone responsible for leading others should be aware of, and stress addicted culture is a disease of morale that can render the wage bill worse than wasted.

The example is an often repeated Internet article written by a physician turned homeschooler called Matt James. James went on to write Homeschooling Odyssey, a well received book with the tag line, “Hour-a-day homeschooling has sent our six children to Stanford and beyond. While academic achievements are gratifying, they represent a drop in the bucket of benefits in store for families who choose to homeschool.” The most direct citation for James’ article that I’ve found is Little Manchurian Candidates, but because the model of stress addicted culture fits so well with everything he observes and expresses, I’m going to quote the whole thing here:


Little Manchurian Candidates

by Matt James
“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”
–Tolkien

Our six-year-old daughter was so excited to start school. At our first parent-teacher conference, Barb and I expected to hear the usual compliments and heartwarming anecdotes about our bright little angel. From our experiences with activities like T-ball and soccer, or dance and music recitals, we had learned that parents always say nice things about the children of others. If the compliments are sometimes unrealistic or excessive, well, parenting is tough work. We can all use the encouragement. I guess we had been spoiled. Jenny’s teacher got right to the point. She had some negatives to address. For one thing, Jenny was struggling with her reading. The teacher confessed that one of the most difficult parts of her job was deflating parents with the news that their children were simply not exceptional. Jenny was, at best, an average reader. She was not an Eagle; she was a Pony. Our job was to learn to enjoy her as a 40-watt bulb rather than a bright light. Was it my imagination, or did this middle-aged matron’s sweet smile contain a trace of malice as she related these tidings? I was confused by this assessment of Jenny’s reading abilities because it simply didn’t fit in with her prior history. She had a love affair with books for her entire childhood. We have a photograph of her at 11 months of age staring earnestly at the contents of an open book. I remember reading to her when she was three. I stopped for some reason, but she continued the narration. She knew her stories by heart. Like many other children, Jenny had learned to read at home. She was a bookworm, and she was an experienced and passionate reader before she ever started first grade. The teacher went on to explain that Jenny cried too much at school and that we needed to correct this problem with the appropriate discipline. Barb and I exchanged glances but didn’t argue. We were in shock.

I was curious about the crying. Jenny was such a happy child. I asked her that night what made her sad at school. Expecting to hear about something on the playground, I was surprised by her answer. The listening-hour stories made her sad:

Once upon a time there was a daddy duck with seven ducklings. They ranged in age down to the youngest (who reminded Jenny of a first grader). The daddy was mean. One day he demanded that all his children learn three tasks, such as running, swimming, and diving. If a duckling was unable to master all of the tasks, he would be banished from the family to live with the chickens. The youngsters struggled under the cruel eye of their father. When it came to diving, the first grader floundered and was sent away to live with the chickens.

This was the story Jenny related, in her own words, as an example. I heard it told a second time several years later, by my cousin Nancy, as a sample of objectionable curriculum. We were impressed with the coincidence, since our families resided in different states.

Jenny told me she also cried over stories in her readers. They made her sad and frustrated in some way. What a mess! In one evening we had found out that Jenny was unhappy at school, that her teacher thought she was a poor reader and a dim bulb, and that she heard mean tales during listening-hour that I wouldn’t repeat to hardened convicts. What in the name of heaven was going on at this school?

I was determined to get to the bottom of things. Since they didn’t send books home with students in the younger grades, I went to the school the following day and spent a couple of hours reviewing the elementary readers. As I read, my eyes opened wider and wider. I had assumed the purpose of the reading curriculum was to stimulate the juvenile imagination and teach reading skills. Instead, I saw material saturated with, to borrow another parent’s language, “an unadvertised agenda promoting parental alienation, loss of identity and self-confidence, group-dependence, passivity, and anti-intellectualism.”

I once daydreamed through a basic psychology class in medical school which described the work of Pavlov and B.F Skinner in the twentieth century. Their conclusions were that animal (and human) behaviors can be encouraged or discouraged by associating them with pleasure or pain. This is such an obvious fact of nature. It is amazing that anyone would bother to prove it with experimentation, as if the carrot and the stick haven’t been used since time began.

In behaviorist experiments various stimuli, such as food or electrical shocks, were used as rewards or deterrents. Over time, due to animal memory, a pattern of behavior could be established without food or shocks coming into play. This educational or training process is called “conditioning.” With enough conditioning, the dog will stop chasing cars.

As I read the stories and poems in Jenny’s readers, I was astonished to discover that they were alive, in their own way, with the theories and practices of these dead scientists. But the animals to be trained weren’t dogs or rats. They were our young students. Pleasure and pain signals were embedded into the reading material in a consistent way. Given the vicarious nature of the reading experience, and by identifying with the protagonists in the stories, it was our first graders who were “learning” certain attitudes and behaviors.

When a child-figure in the stories split away from his group, for example, he would get rained on, his toes would get cold in the snow, or he would experience some other form of discomfort or torment. Similar material was repeated ad infinitum. Through their reading, our students would feel the stinging rain and the pain of freezing toes. They would learn the lesson like one of Pavlov’s dogs: avoid the pain, stay with the group.

The stories in the readers consistently associated individual initiative with emotional or physical pain. Consider the example of the little squirrel whose wheel falls off his wagon. When he tries to replace it, the wagon rides with an awkward and embarrassing bump, noticeable to his friends, who then tease him about it. Another attempt to repair the wheel results in an accident, with bruising and bleeding and more humiliation. The cumulative effect of this and similar story lines, given the vicarious nature of the reading experience, would be to discourage initiative and reduce self-confidence in the first grader.

Animal dads, moms, and grandparents were portrayed over and over in various combinations as mean, stupid, unreliable, bungling, impotent or incompetent. Relationships with their children were almost always dysfunctional; communication and reciprocal trust were non-existent. A toxic mom or dad, for instance, might have stepped in to help our youthful squirrel repair his wagon, only to make matters worse and wreak emotional havoc in the process. Jenny’s heart would be lacerated by stories which constantly portrayed parent/child relationships as strained, cruel, or distant. I could see her crying with hurt or frustration.

It occurred to me that over the long run, at some level of consciousness, our daughter would have to hold us accountable for permitting her to be tortured in school. Logically, Barb and I had to be stupid, unreliable, uncaring, or impotent, just like the parents in the books. By sending her to school, we were validating the message in her readers, contributing significantly to the parental alienation curriculum. Continuing in her school-based reading series, Jenny’s relationship with us would have become tarnished or eroded, and an element of bitterness or cynicism might have crept into her personality.

I borrow the term “anti-intellectualism” to describe another dominant theme in the readers. Many of the compositions were, essentially, word salad. They lacked intrinsic interest, coherence, or continuity, and they often demonstrated a sort of anti-rationality. The stories and the corresponding questions seemed to require the student to suspend the natural operations of his intellect, such as the desire to make sense out of things or the impulse to be curious. Under this yoke, a student could learn to hate reading or even thought itself.

The following “story” and “comprehension” questions are representative of the anti-intellectualism that I found in the readers:

Once upon a time there was a little green mouse who hopped after a tiger onto a yellow airplane. The plane turned into a big red bird in flight, and the mouse turned into a blue pumpkin. The pumpkin fell to the ground and its seeds grew into pots and pans. Blah, blah, blah

1) “What color was the mouse?”

2) “Why do mice turn into pumpkins?”

3) “How do seeds grow?”

I can see children getting frustrated over material like this. It is debatable as to which facet of the exercise is more onerous, the reading or the “comprehension.” I almost incline to the latter. Among other concerns, I wonder if it is a good thing to pressure children to respond to stupid or unanswerable questions. Such a process would lead to passivity and a loss of confidence, to a little engine that couldn’t.

According to Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, repetition of unpleasant reading experiences would turn a student off to the reading activity. Predictable consequences would be a child who hates reading and loses out on vast intellectual benefits and development. In addition, his reading failure would tax his self-confidence, and he could be branded with one of society’s popular labels such as dyslexia.

I considered Jenny’s reading struggles in the context of performance expectations as well as grading and comparisons with other children. It seemed as if she faced a nasty dilemma: force herself to read alienating material, or disengage and then disappoint parents, teachers and self. What an impossible predicament for a young child. Once sunny and blue, the skies had turned dark and stormy for our happy little girl whose only offense had been to attend her friendly neighborhood school at the innocent age of six.

It has occurred to me that the cause of America’s illiteracy crisis has been discovered. It is the reading curriculum in our schools. Unfortunately, the damage to children appears to extend way beyond reading failure. One wonders if the hidden agenda in the readers has created our victim culture, a generation of withdrawn and resentful children, alienated from themselves, their parents, society, books and ideas.

I was reminded of the plight of our neighbors. The father and mother were loving, dedicated parents. He was an accountant and she was a homemaker and community leader. They were nice people, and so were their children. The two teenagers were bright but got poor grades and hated school. They hung out with the crowd and participated in the kind of self-destructive behaviors that are commonplace today. I asked these young people why they would behave in ways which would cause pain for themselves or their loved ones. They smiled quizzically and professed not to know. Maybe the ideas that moved them truly were subconscious.

We are all familiar with kids like this (Our own kids are kids like this, or they come too close for comfort). They spend a lot of time “doing nothing” with like-minded friends. Passive-aggressive with suppressed individuality, they all seem cut from the same mold. Self mutilation with tattoos and body armor is almost universal. Some of their groups are virtually masochistic cults. Sadism is the other side of the masochism coin.

That so many of these dysfunctional teenagers come from loving homes and neat families is inexplicable and shocking, until you realize that they have all been tortured together in school since the first grade. They are a batch of little Manchurian Candidates with attitude, victims of the obscure behaviorism that I found, and that others have found before and since, in school readers.

Barb and I had seen some perplexing changes in Jenny’s reading since she started in first grade. For one thing, she had stopped reading her favorite books and stories at home. Before starting school, she had feasted on Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Although she still begged us to read these to her, she now explained that she was not supposed to read them herself, according to her understanding from her teacher, because they contained big words and content in advance of her abilities. Barb and I, holding our tongues, exchanged tortured grimaces and cross-eyed glances.

When reviewing the school readers, I had noticed an impoverished vocabulary, composed mostly of three and four letter words. I brought this up with the teacher. She explained that the readers were integrated into a district policy that no more than five hundred new words be introduced to students during any grade level. The idea was to protect children from the dizzying and confusing effects of an overabundance of words and ideas. I nodded as if I understood, but I didn’t really get it.

Barb and I had clearly used the wrong approach with Jenny. We had allowed her to read anything she wanted and had provided her with a flourishing home library. Furthermore, we had encouraged her to run around in the grassy meadows and on the sandy beaches. She must have collided with great numbers of unfamiliar words and ideas, as well as a perilous diversity of flowers and sea shells. It’s a wonder she survived at all.

We considered the various elements of Jenny’s brief experience in first grade. She had a clueless teacher. She was regressing in her reading skills, vocabulary, and enthusiasm. She was being indoctrinated with character destroying qualities like passivity and group dependence. Her intellectual development was being stunted and she was being bombarded with a curriculum of parental alienation.

Judging by her crying in the classroom, she was part of a captive audience being repeatedly exposed to painful stimuli. To put it plainly, she was the victim of ongoing torture and cruelty. Along with her classmates, she was becoming, as one of her school poems pointed out, “Small, small, small, just a tiny, tiny, tiny piece of it all.”

In our state at that time, compulsory education began at the age of eight. Jenny was not obliged by law to attend school. With our various concerns, we pulled her out of school while we tried to figure out what to do.

First let’s consider the idea that the reading primer is an artifact of some sinister conspiracy that is consciously using behaviourist conditioning to stunt children’s growth. So many people have formed the impression (that is, they’ve spontaneously noticed a pattern with their juxtapositionally active prefrontal cortexes) of something like this going on that it’s a familiar idea in the homeschooling world. The trouble is, like many conspiracy theories it’s an implausibly complicated idea. The conspiracy must be huge. Even the junior grade teacher seems to be in on it.

How does it work? Do the buses go round collecting all the teachers on a Friday night, and take them off for New World Order indoctrination sessions where the sinister plans for manipulating everyone else are revealed to them?

Who does the catering? “Twelve thousand cheese rolls, six thousand classic, six thousand lite, a hundred boxes of eye in the pyramid paper napkins? Sign here please…”

It isn’t very plausible, yet the impression remains. I think popular culture has a better sense of the kind of thing that happens at times of high background stress. The junior grade teacher, along with various other people, has gone weird - and the people who have gone weird are in spooky agreement with each other!

Of course I’m not suggesting that the education industry has been infiltrated by pod people, but I am saying that it forms a closely connected social group which can run up very high levels of purely socially generated stress, so stress addiction can reach binge levels, and everyone involved will experience the same cognitive impairments. There is hostility towards those with mismatching stress levels, and a certain self-satisfied complacency that is also seen in people who have produced the same changes in brain chemistry using addictive drugs. So the junior grade teacher will exhibit a patronizing and smug malice towards those not sharing her crazy ideas.

What are her crazy ideas and where do they come from? In the posting Response to a Reddit Comment I expand on some of the logical effects of not being used to seeing self consistency. People stop expecting it, looking for it, or reasoning from it. Without being able to construct and validate their own chains of reasoning, it’s hardly surprising that they fall back on heuristics, and concentrate on demonstrating compliance as their principle tactic of blame avoidance. They become reactive, and live in constant fear of random misery coming their way. This is how background stress becomes a vicious circle, and giving people good reason to be self-confident becomes a virtuous one.

Consider the supply chain for the reading primer. The authors are probably ex teachers, or in some way connected with the education industry. That’s how they differentiated themselves to the publishers, who will be proud of their “close contacts” with the bureaucracy which will include the purchasing committee. In common with many other industries, the people involved will sometimes change employers, but stay within the same group. Teachers will become authors, committee members will go to work for the publishers, perhaps the publisher’s chief executive will chair the bureaucracy. They will all complain of how stressed they are and express pride in their “knowledge of the industry”, but not notice that they raise the stress amongst themselves with their industry practices or put two and two together. (Those that do become disillusioned and leave.)

So everyone from author to teacher has the same stress addiction warped crazy ideas, and it’s not surprising that the reading primer they deliver to children with great pride reflects those crazy ideas. Demands are random, cruel and impossible. Nothing has narrative continuity, causality disappears. Safety is in the herd, trying anything will lead to danger and worse - group mockery. From their point of view, the reading primer is a collection of worthy tales, perhaps with a vague memory of The Gashlycrumb Tinies mixed in without humour or taste.

The most powerful line in the article for me was:

I wonder if it is a good thing to pressure children to respond to stupid or unanswerable questions. Such a process would lead to passivity and a loss of confidence, to a little engine that couldn’t.

How often have I seen the “Oh just put something and get on” mentality, seen it make a shallow pretence - even mockery - of whatever simple task supposedly intelligent people have been trying to do! Humans need causality - reason - to stay sane. We are not healthy if we spend all our time in focussed attention, unable to establish context or weigh significance. Saint Bob saw this when in response to Brenda Ann Spencer’s trend setting school massacre he wrote,

And he can see no reasons
Cos there are no reasons
What reasons do you need to be shown?

There is no-one stroking a white cat. No conspiracy to damage children. The reading primer just reflects the frightened and frightening, sorry state of the people who produced it, and that state of mind has the property that it will drag other minds down to its own level if they are exposed to it for too long. But its effects are far deeper and far worse than any fiendish plan could conceive. Until we recognize and address it, this stupid socially generated disease will be in control.

It’s a state of mind that destroys firms and causes nations to stagnate as well as producing spontaneous explosions of nihilistic behaviour in schoolchildren.

Full Disclosure

I am prejudiced against claims of the world-girdling power of white cats. Twirip of the Mists has received immense investment as I try to build up “special static electricity”, but despite developing a very encouraging Gremlin impersonation she has not yet attracted a mononomative1 girlfriend, yet alone phalanxes of boiler-suited minions.

1: Having only one name.

All Postings, Logical Effects, ADHD, Stress Addiction

Low Level Stress Matters

In this posting I shall expand on the amount of stress which is needed to stop people programming, how it differs from the usual understanding of workplace stress, and how giving people good reason to be self-confident can control it.

The kind of stress that people usually talk about in workplace settings might be called extreme stress. For example, the UK Health and Safety Executive offers these bullet points on their page, Why tackle work-related stress?:

  • Work-related stress accounts for over a third of all new incidences of ill health.
  • Each case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety related ill health leads to an average of 30.2 working days lost.
  • A total of 13.8 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2006/07.

That’s serious! Clinical depression and anxiety related ill health are certainly not trivial. What we can take from this is an indication of how much stress is actually running around some sites, but it’s a far higher level than I argue is needed to stop people being able to program. Because most people maintain enough background stress to stop them programming most of the time, we would normally think of a worker who is in fact too stressed to program as “unstressed”. I’ve found almost nothing on the websites of firms who do stress management training (and there are lots of them) about the vast untapped resource of intelligence which is concealed by background stress. A notable exception is one David Lee, who talks about this on his page Employee Stress and Performance:

One obvious implication of this research is that employee intellectual functioning can be very powerfully influenced by their environment. In workplaces where employees feel helpless and disempowered, they are less likely to think in intelligent, creative ways. Another important implication, and this is born out by other research, is that perceived control plays a major role in whether a person is affected by a potentially stressful workplace. Workers in jobs with similar demands, but different levels of control, exhibit very different psychological and physiological responses. With the same demand level, workers in low control workplaces are significantly more affected by their work.

This does not mean that we are doomed before we start. It is true that we can’t build gelled teams where the members are suffering the kind of stress that the Health and Safety Executive worries about, but it is possible to arrange the conditions of an individual team to reduce such stress, even if the rest of the organization continues to pass it around wretchedly.

The Dreaded Jungian Backlash can then be expected, but senior managers can defuse that by simply telling the people who are getting snotty not to worry about it, and just get on with doing their stuff. As soon as they are confident that they are not to blame, they won’t feel the need to translate the resentment they feel because of stress mismatch into microsabotage. They will no longer feel a need to “teach lessons” in case, by omitting to exercise stress-addicted sanctions, they might become “non-compliant” themselves. A few moments of strong leadership can blow this stuff away, but it’s amazing how many line managers are unable to do this because they are themselves trapped in the stress addicted organization’s climate of fear and unmentionables, and react to mounting resentment in a way which endorses and encourages it.

So just as the Health and Safety Executive say, we can back off from chronic, health destroying stress by identifying and removing stressors, and helping people organize their lives in a less stressful way. We also have to manage the Dreaded Jungian Backlash, which (as far as I know) is a novel part of this analysis.

Unfortunately we’ve still not done once we’ve got our teams sitting calmly and not having heart attacks. Even if they were the most unstressed people on their commuter train, they’d still be too stressed to be able to program (unless they happen to be a member of the lucky minority). We have to reduce their stress levels below ambient, and we have to do this without packing them off to a meditation centre in the mountains. It isn’t practical, and they’d probably object. We can’t get any further by removing stressors. Fortunately we can cut over to another trick - displacement.

By carefully working through everything a team member will need to call on, making sure they understand their job, and how it fits together with everyone else’s, and getting them to demonstrate their control to themselves, we can create the perception of control that Lee talks about. As all the self-improvement traditions say, good thoughts drive out bad ones. The worker might have a very stressful life outside, but at work they know where they are, their tools work as advertised, they know the tricks to make their libraries work. So they know they can load up a problem and get on with productive stuff, and as soon as they do that, they’re in flow. (At first, you will have to stimulate juxtapositional thinking. Use The Original Talks as a starting point - the chapters are available through the links at top right of the starting page.)

There’s another interesting point on Lee’s page that’s particularly relevant to software engineers working in open plan. He says:

One group was subjected to a loud noise in the middle of the exercise and told there was nothing they could do about it; they had to “grin and bear it.” The other group was subjected to the same loud noise in the middle of the exercise, but they were told they could have the noise stopped if they chose. The results were both fascinating and disturbing in their implications for organizational performance.

The group that had no control demonstrated a significant deterioration in their thought process during and after the noise. Their thinking became unemotional, unimaginative, and dull. It was as if they became temporarily dumb in order to endure the stressful situation. Even more interesting was the other group’s response. Although they were told they could stop the noise if they needed to, not one person chose to do so. Therefore, they experienced the same amount of unpleasant noise as the group which wasn’t given that option.

An engineer listening to CDs using earphones controls the tune and the volume. A naked engineer is exposed to the torture of waiting for the next phone to ring or conversation to start, and can’t stop them when they do. Earphones are obviously very valuable in open plan, and should never be banned. Going further, a lot of people don’t like the tiny phones which fit into the ear because they chaff, leading to the popularity of light headphones which sit on the ear. The problem with these is that they leak more sound, and this can be annoying to people who are not listening to music. Given the evidence for the debilitating effects of uncontrollable noise generated stress in open plan, I think it would make more sense to allow leaky headphones and suggest that everyone uses them.

Neuroscience, All Postings, Stress Addiction

DeMarco Sees Addiction

The picture I present on this blog has most people involved in maintaining a “stress economy”, where they wind stress up amongst themselves to fulfill a baseline addictive need. The baseline’s cognitive effects are too high to permit those involved to think effectively about programming, so we have to give people good reason to be self-confident in order to reduce their stress, and so enable them to do good work.

As soon as a team destresses with respect to others in their organization, their abandoning the stress economy will cause resentment which must be managed. Otherwise it can grow to the level of industrial sabotage, preventing the team from working where it does not create physical hazards.

This is not your normal description of what drives behaviour in an office, so I was recently delighted to see some lecture slides from Peopleware author Tom DeMarco, called Quick or Dead, where he notes how much developer time is now spent in unproductive meetings, and explicitly proposes that there is an addictive cycle at work.

I don’t know if he means us to take him literally, but DeMarco’s intuition here is exactly right, and I’m arguing that we should recognize an addictive cycle in which the wretched meetings (which often follow the same script week in and week out) produce stress, and give the attendees a hit of stress chemistry. They are literally, physiologically, addictive.

For a long time until I found the stress connection, I was convinced that social stereotypies (like having the same meeting) somehow raised dopamine, which was addictive and cognition impairing. I couldn’t find a way to get from stereotypies to changes in brain chemistry though, because I had no idea why stereotypies effected brain chemistry. I didn’t even know if it was the stereotypical behaviours themselves that did the trick, or if they worked by driving out other, novel stimulii that were essential for us to stay healthy. Recognizing that the wretched meetings work by being stressful, and stress does the rest, was the final bit of the puzzle. So it’s interesting to see someone with lots of experience of group dynamics also warning of addictive dangers in social stereotypies.

He’s right about it getting much worse too, because the background stress level is getting worse. Left to themselves, addictive loops only ever grow worse.

All Postings, Stress Addiction