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

Response to a Reddit Comment

A link to this blog appeared on Reddit, and a reader posted a critical comment which it’s worth addressing in detail. The big picture I’m describing is not one that readers will have seen before, and that’s a situation where it’s often necessary to allow misunderstandings to provide the structure for clarification. Please be warned that the comment contains language which is common in Reddit flames, although I would not use it normally on this blog. If vulgarity distresses you, please skip this post!

Insofar as he says everyone can program, he is a complete fucking moron. It is blatantly impossible.

I wouldn’t go so far as saying that everyone can program. There are some people who just can’t get their heads around formal syntax - they can’t get the semi-colons and other little things right, because they aren’t at all familiar with that kind of precision. Others don’t like working with keyboards and screens, and in the current generation of technology that’s a big problem. Maybe one day we’ll have some kind of gesture based immersive Squeak environment with voice recognition and inference, but for now the little things can still be a problem. When it comes down to it there are even some people who can’t cope with being indoors, and rainwater plays havoc with most current hardware!

What I do claim is that (almost) everyone who is currently working as a programmer can become one of the currently rare super programmers who deliver super productivity. They were born with the necessary faculties but background social stress, which is addictive for most people, takes those faculties offline. To become a super programmer they need support to reduce their level of stress, bring the missing faculties online, and become aware of them. Furthermore, in people who do not wish to be programmers the same faculties are important for doing other things, which I suspect include things like being able to correctly evaluate some kinds of biopsies using a microscope, and all kinds of creative arts.

In the twenty years I’ve been exploring this, I’ve met two people who I couldn’t get anywhere with even though all the conditions were right. One was a male who was unable to give up a very aggressive approach which had served him well in the usual snake pit of bombast and blame avoidance. The rest of his team were able to build authentic self-confidence and quickly got better at seeing what each other were on about. This led to a deepening and enrichment of everyone’s understanding of the technical problems they had to solve, and their project quickly transformed from the site’s greatest embarrassment to the only one that produced clean results in every one of the customer’s acceptance tests. He was trapped in a zero sum game, and every success made his nightmare worse. Everyone on a stressed-out team is something of a nutter, but this guy’s problems went way deeper. My guess was that he’d probably been like that since he was a toddler. Eventually he transferred to a sales support engineer’s job, where he did very well. He knew where he was in a stressed-out and basically distrustful context where his aggression enabled him to break deadlocks. There are some situations where the military idea that a quick decision is better than a correct one applies, and there he was happy.

The other was a female who was similarly trapped in a simple strategy that she’d obviously learned as a small child. I don’t know what became of her because I didn’t spend as long with that team, but I will say this - little girls go kind of weird when they reach 50 and it doesn’t work at all any more. What she was doing working in a local government IT department I do not know.

I’ve described these two cases because they make an important point. I am not a psychotherapist, and I’ve never made any attempt to pretend to be one. I’ve only ever been able to destress teams by giving them good reason to be self-confident in technical areas. In almost every case that’s been enough. You do not have to be a “people person” to use this approach, there is nothing “fuzzy” about it. If workers need professional help that’s their private business and not yours, but sometimes you can support them if they want to do something more suited to them as they are.

Look, I have known people who write P and not P in consecutive paragraphs. They don’t just believe in contradictory ideas, they believe in two exact negations separated by maybe 5 seconds in time. And it’s not an “error” since even after it’s pointed out to them, they don’t see the fucking problem!

I absolutely agree. It’s astonishing but it’s true. The approach I describe in this blog is no trivial thing. It includes a radical reconsideration of just how peculiar the state we usually call “normality” really is. We didn’t evolve to be stressed out all the time, and now that as a culture we’re addicted to a background level of social stress it has profound effects on our cognition. I describe this phenomenon of believing contradictory statements, even when the contradiction is pointed out, in the section Expecting Self-Consistency. When stress reduces a person’s ability to juxtapose, they stop being aware of self-consistency (or the lack of it) in any collection of statements. Tell them two contradictory things and the alarm bells of contradiction don’t ring.

How does a person know what’s what if at the time, they cannot detect contradiction? Instead of using their own good senses they rely on compliance. If someone else tells them X and Y, they will accept X and Y as true, and will not worry that X contradicts Y. They haven’t been told about that, so they don’t worry about it. So long as they have complied with what they have been told, nothing else matters. Just as self-confidence is a self-sustaining spiral of improvement, so the lack of trust in our own good senses is a self-sustaining spiral of decline.

It’s also an empirical fact that most people cannot handle logical syllogisms. They can’t comprehend that “if A then B, and A, then B”. And this isn’t due to lack of education because we’re talking about college students here. Hell, I have known professors teaching symbolic logic who don’t comprehend logical syllogisms. Try to wrap your head around that one.

But it might not be. How can we tell? This is the origin of long-term stressed out people’s attitude to “mere facts”. We must not be to blame, so unless someone has told us B, we should not accept it. This is why, in stressed out schools with stressed out teachers “socializing” children by addicting them to stress, children will get detentions for contradicting clearly incorrect statements made by teachers. Only compliance can save us from the unknowable chaos that surrounds us.

As to professors, likely more of them are in the grip of social stress addiction than programmers are. They stand up and go “Blah blah blah”, the students write down every blah, but the content often isn’t significant at all. I once saw a remarkable demonstration of this by a gifted Economics lecturer. Part way through a talk on classical elasticity of demand he started to talk utter nonsense. He didn’t give any “Laugh now” cues with his tone of voice or cadence, he just said that demand for products usually purchased by women did not exhibit significant price elasticity because research has shown that women’s brains are smaller than mens, and on like that. Most of the students just kept scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. The minority of students who were lucky enough to keep their wits about them in conditions of addictive social stress did notice, but it took a few minutes before their rising disquiet cued the majority that something was going on, and then they started performing the political protest procedures that they had been habituated to - also by rote.

In the modern school systems of America and the UK, the scribbling students would be called “alert” and “able to focus”, while the really alert ones would be called “unable to resist distraction”, which is often “co-morbid with oppositional syndrome”. The introspective, stress addicted worm swallows its own tail, endorses its own errors.

And to beat them all, I have known people who can’t comprehend structural identity, even after an hour trying to explain it to them. They can’t comprehend, and will not accept, that two molecules of CO2 are absolutely identical and that swapping their positions swaps their identities.

You see, they can’t comprehend the abstract concept of an abstract concept because they don’t believe in the existence of abstract concepts. Because abstract concepts don’t exist in their brains.

I think that second sentence was intended to read, “… swapping their positions doesn’t swap their identities.” After all, that’s what equivalence means. I describe this on the Logical Effects page. It’s the same as the Monty Hall problem.

A person familiar with juxtapositional awareness will be able to spontaneously notice things, in an “all-or-nothing insight” way. Therefore when they do the famous symbol based thinking, they are able to bear in mind that the symbols are a (partial) representation of an external reality. Without this experience, the symbols and the reality are confused. The map becomes the territory. So in the Monty Hall problem, the internal symbols of the initial statement of the problem don’t change when the host supplies additional information, so people can’t believe that their choice might now be improved by changing. The same thing prevents people from getting their heads round Bayesian statistics.

So they can do symbols, but what they can’t do is the reality that the symbols represent. Anything involving imperfect knowledge or external identity becomes very confusing. This returns to Dijkstra’s observation that in mathematical proofs, “The underexploitation of the equivalence, i.e. the failure to exploit inherent symmetries, often lengthens an argument by a factor of 2, 4 or more.”

Consider: Prohibition creates the market for gangsters to make huge profits. Anyone who wishes to take drugs this weekend will be able to acquire them. Therefore, clearly, the solution to the gangster problem is… more Prohibition!

It is a sorry state.

Now you tell me, how the hell is it ever possible for such people to learn to program in any environment? How is it even conceivable? You would have to be some kind of fucked up retard to deny the overwhelming empirical evidence. Evidence which is literally all around you if you will just open your eyes to it.

People in the stressed state can’t program. Period. We have a software industry which is like a black comedy, with projects going over budget by orders of magnitude and many other problems, because the ability of some people to program most of the time, and most programmers to program on rare occasions, has led us to believe that all programmers can program all the time.

Try the experiment of going round your colleagues, inviting them to write a simple program to say, read in a string, reverse it and output it. It is shocking to discover how few of your colleagues will be able to swing round, open a file and type in such a program.

However, as I have explained in great detail, these problems come from social background stress preventing the prefrontal cortex from functioning in a way which permits programming. If we give people good reason to be self-confident we can reduce background stress and they turn on like lightbulbs.

It seems to me that the poster of this comment has become so distressed by the stress-induced stupidity all round him, that he has not bothered to follow the directions on the page What To Do Per Individual before making the empirical observations. It’s strange that after I’ve described much deeper problems than the poster has, the poster believes that I’m unaware of problems.

Many people who are immune to social stress addiction because of a broken DRD4 dopamine receptor, or an very active DAT allele, have been driven to a state of demented despair by the seemingly cynical, dishonest, arrogant, slothful, conspiratorial, delusional and evasive behaviour of those around them, which is just like the behaviour of those who induce a delusional state by raising their dopamine levels by taking cocaine.

If you program then know this: most people do not think like you, most people CANNOT think like you, most people can never comprehend you. But you can understand them if you just learn the basic concepts that underpin their minds. Of course, if you do this, you will become elitist.

If I did not know from personal experience that it’s a matter of health, and most people have all the truly normal faculties but in a dormant state, then I would be an extreme elitist. Try the following idea, which is something which might produce feelings of either satisfaction or compassion, depending on the depth of your rage: There’s a phenomenon called the “second childhood”. In this, elderly people develop unpredictable and exploratory behaviours like dragging abandoned shopping carts out of rivers. We know that advancing age reduces the neurochemical response to stress, and retirement significantly reduces a person’s participation in the social stress economy, so they wake up and really do become more like kids, before stress addiction sets in. This exploratory behaviour is annoying to their middle-aged, stress-addicted offspring, who start describing them as mentally handicapped - as they do their non-stress addicted children.

Now there’s another strange effect associated with the “second childhood”. The elderly person find that their memories of childhood are sharp, but their memories of most of their life are poor and indistinct. This is usually described as a bizarre failure mode of the elderly people’s advancing senility, but in the stress addiction model there’s a more chilling interpretation. As children they experienced their lives fully, and they remembered their experiences in the way that human memory should work. Then, at around age 6 they went to sleep. They stayed asleep until 65, when they woke up again, old and near the end of their lives. Those shoddy memories were all they had of most of their existence.

I have concluded that social stress addiction, as exposed by studying the mysterious subject of the practical industrial psychology of computer programming and then identifiable all over the place, is the greatest curse the human race has ever suffered.

All Postings, Logical Effects, Stress Addiction, Programming

The Code and the Codebook



Look my eyes are just holograms
Look your love has drawn red from my hands
From my hands you know you’ll never be
More than twist in my sobriety
Tanita Tikaram

What does “twist in my sobriety” mean?
Dawn French

It turned out Dawn had a point. Lots of people didn’t know what “Twist in my sobriety” meant. Clearly there are millions of people out there who’ve never had a relationship with an “interesting” person!

Here’s a trickier one:



What on earth does that mean? Is it a patronizing advice to avoid prejudice, some kind of New Age encouragement to abandon rational thought, or what? In terms of the neurological factors which I argue are central to understanding why programming is hard, I think it’s a comment about the styles of cognition people use, depending on whether they are usually forced into focussed attention by background social stress or not.

Here’s a problem which can be solved easily (if tediously) by focussed attention executing a series of steps, each of which can be stated before it’s performed:

391 / 17 = ?

Here’s another one, which cannot be solved by focussed attention, because we cannot clearly recognize the problem as a member of a specific category, so we cannot start executing a series of steps, stating each one before we perform it:

4, 9, 25, 49, 121, ?, 289, 361, 529

Of course, readers with a well-fed inner geek will try a whole bunch of possible starting points which they’ve collected over many years of doing silly problems like that. Each possibility will be explored a certain amount, perhaps learning something which will suggest other possibilities before they chuck it and try something else, and an experienced puzzler will try loads of possibilities. They might get it that way (it isn’t too hard) and they’ll get an “Aha!” moment. But if not, the puzzler must resort to the way they did it when they were kids, before they gained the experience. They’ll try various basic manipulations, while looking out for patterns. They’re still waiting for an “Aha!” moment, because it’s an “Aha!” kind of a problem.

In the neuroscience terms, they’re using the semantic and associative network - a neural net - between their ears. With the simple division problem they’re using focussed attention. Perhaps we might think of using the brain that focussed attention way is rather like running Windows 3.1 on a swish new Intel processor - the fancy stuff doesn’t get used at all.

The semantic and associative network can be forced into focussed attention mode by stress. So a person who is under stress at the time is going to find it much more difficult to do the second, series problem. The stress might come from some local annoyance, which is going to impair everyone’s performance. Alternatively (I argue) the puzzler could be unconsciously driven to generate and seek social stress, because they’ve developed a tolerance (addiction) to the skewed brain chemistry of stress.

A person who is addicted to the skewed brain chemistry will be stressed enough to keep them in focussed attention most of the time. They won’t be in a position to have “Aha!” moments, so they won’t expect them, or rely on them. They will be very expert at putting problems into categories, looking up the category/response tuple that has been drilled into them by rote, and performing the response. Sometimes, people get so engrossed in this way of doing things that when they can’t place the problem in a known category, they’ll either conclude that the problem is wrong, or if they’re stressed enough they’ll pick some category pretty much at random, be unable to perform the response, then panic and attempt to avoid blame. These are behaviours which we can frequently observe happening around us.

Now those “Aha!” moments that pop up when the semantic and associative network has done its stuff and reports a result aren’t just confined to geeky maths puzzles. When a poet compares his girlfriend to a summer’s day it isn’t a literal correspondence. He isn’t arguing that her kneecaps map to the morning coffee break in any way. Even so, his semantic and associative network has proposed the simile, and if on reflection he decides there’s something in it, he’ll start dipping his quill and scribing.

People who are fortunate enough to retain the full use of their semantic and associative network unless they are immediately (or recently have been) stressed, often get frustrated by people who do not. They assume they are looking at people with the same kind of cognition (at the time) that they are using themselves. It’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s wrong. The others don’t have access to the the hair-trigger word association football that might cause them to muse, “Mmm… kneecaps… hubcaps!”:



If the person is in focussed attention most of the time, they won’t realize that they’re limited to a categorize/respond kind of mentation, because they don’t have anything to compare it to. So the cartoonist is giving sensible advice from one point of view, which is not communicating anything at all to the people the cartoon is intended to benefit. Anyway, there’s really no need to advise people to stop seeing labels, because it’s the wrong target. If the cartoonist could reduce the intended beneficiaries resting stress levels enough, the full richness of their surroundings would become evident to them anyway.

It isn’t a matter of choice. Software engineering managers who exhort their staff to “Do better!” without showing them how are making that mistake, plus the added mistake that in our focussed attention based culture they don’t even realize that the cartoonist’s intent is correct. We can’t find solutions to complex combinatorical problems by pushing labels around. We need to drop the labels and poke around the full richness of the problem domain with our semantic and associative networks.

That’s why gelled teams, where each person does have access to their semantic and associative networks (at least in the protected conditions set up by enlightened or lucky leaders), tend to develop their own internal slang for aspects of the problem that present themselves powerfully enough to be seen or pointed out to all.

Trivia A: The sequence is the squares of primes, so the missing number is 132 = 169.

Trivia B: That Billy Shakespeare must have heavier cease and desist than Prince. Not one of his gigs are on YouTube!

All Postings, Logical Effects, Stress Addiction