Ah… Love ‘Em!

On the pages Why No-One’s Noticed This Before, The Dreaded Jungian Backlash and Logical Effects I describe how the effects of spending too much time in focussed attention conspire to conceal themselves. This includes the simple truth that we don’t notice what we don’t notice, our culture’s accomodation of focussed attention by leading us to describe our work in reactive, prescriptive terms, and reduced expectations of - and reliance on - self-consistency. Most strangely I argue that groups of people trapped in focussed attention are liable to escape contradiction when things go wrong by deluding themselves. All of this fits with studies of groups under stress. We know that stress makes groups more reliant on heuristics, less analytic, less aware of context. There are elegant “choice blindness” and “conformity” experiments which reveal the surprising way that ordinary people will backfill their own memories with fantasy.

It is not my purpose to dwell on these issues. What matters is that it can happen, it’s a spiral of decline as each fantasy leads to another, and it always reduces efficiency and quality. We need to be aware this kind of thing can happen, and ensure we maintain conditions to prevent it. It’s like finding rotten timbers - the exact growth pattern doesn’t matter, we just need to get rid of it. Confusion can reach a point where we need to rule off, take a deep breath and start again. Over-analyzing each mess is of little value - unless we are studying messes!

To demonstrate how crazy things can get and provide a little entertainment, I’m going to analyze a story that’s been in the news this week. It makes no sense at all until we think about it in these terms, and then what is happening is crystal clear. Do remember that this is a good textbook example - and textbook examples are inherently misleading. Real life is rarely this clear cut. Anyway, on with the yarn…

It comes from the Chicago Sun-Times, a gem entitled Voters are told pen had ‘invisible ink’. Ahem…

Voters are told pen had ‘invisible ink’

BY ANNIE SWEENEY Staff Reporter/asweeney@suntimes.com

When it comes to election shenanigans, Chicago has been accused of just about everything.

But invisible ink?

Twenty voters at a Far North Side precinct who found their ink pens not working were told by election judges not to worry.

It’s invisible ink, officials said. The scanner will count it.

But their votes weren’t recorded after all.

“Part of me was thinking it does sound stupid enough to be true,” said Amy Carlton, who had serious doubts but went ahead and voted anyway.

As it turns out, Carlton was one of 20 voters at the precinct who were given the wrong pen to use. They were also then told, apparently by a misinformed judge, that the pens have invisible ink, elections officials said.

As a result, the votes were not counted. But officials insisted there were no dirty tricks involved.

“This one defies logic,” said Jim Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections. “You try to anticipate everything. But certain things just … they go beyond any kind of planning you can perform.”

By late afternoon, five voters had been contacted and told to come back to the polling place to vote again. And elections staff had left messages at the homes of the rest, Allen said.

Carlton and Angela Burkhardt, another voter who was told the same invisible ink story, spent a good part of the day calling and e-mailing the Board of Elections to get answers.

“I am furious and devastated and I just feel stupid,” Carlton said. “I feel so angry.”

Both women agreed that this election meant a lot. They had spent a good deal of time researching candidates.

“I have been voting since I was 18,” said Carlton, 38. “This is the most important election of my life so far.”

Burkhardt planned to go back to vote late Tuesday. She worried about those who might not be able to return.

“I worry about the other people who were there,” she said. “Maybe [they] can’t get off work. I am a person of privilege. I can go back. What if you couldn’t?”



OK. First let’s dismiss the conventional kind of explanation. The piece suggests election shenanigans, but that’s just not a good theory. For one thing the disenfranchised voters left the polling station aware that something funny was going on. We need to find another cause.

If Chicago is like most places, the election official will be a local bureaucrat, postal officer or other person renowned for behaving in a predictably focussed attention kind of a way. There will likely be a strong addiction to the kind of low level background stress that such organizations generate within themselves. This will lead to a deeply habituated tendency to defer to heuristics - a fixation on proceduralism. Now elections are important and are taken seriously. The official might even need to be sworn in, and the apparatus of the Voting Procedure will have been explained in great detail. There isn’t much to it, but the Sacred Pen, Sacred Ballots and Sacred Box will each have been considered with due solemnity. There will have been no doubt that the Sacred Pen is an integral part of The Procedure, which is given a strange, ineffable mystery because it gives its devotees a stress hit with chemistry similar to the effects of cocaine.

So with the system boundaries and heuristics thus arranged, we arrive at the moment when a human being deferred to the authority of a broken pen. This caused a broken narrative when others also noticed, which the overly “compliant” official, filled with background fear, stress and defensiveness, subconsciously filled in with confabulation. The pen uses invisible ink! We can forget our pride in our wonderful technological society. The fantasy is funny not because it is alien but because we all recognize the poetic resonance with the Brothers Grimm!

Confabulators have a convincing certainty about them - it’s probably something to do with having suddenly reduced their fear. That, the tendency to groupthink, and likely the deluded one’s Armband of Office would all have pressured all the other workers and the voters into a textbook conformity experiment. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s important to realize that no white cats were stroked in the making of this mess. The key event - the invention of the invisible ink - occurred without conscious reflection, in a mind squeezed like a foot in a too tight shoe, at a peak of reactive fear. Unfortunately, no conspiracy is necessary for there to be damage. On this occasion the delusion has seen daylight and at least some voters have had their ballots collected, but what tends to happen is that the nonsense kicks around and causes knock-on evasive fear much worse than the threat posed by a broken pen.

I once saw a work in progress management system that was working very well, but for some reason scaled really, really badly when it produced reports. The thing was quite well structured, there were about a half dozen people on the team, and a myth that a database server was inevitably compute intensive. The business logic never directly used the database - instead there were higher level calls. There was something odd about those calls though. When I tried to understand them, at first I failed. I just wasn’t getting it. I asked around, and realized that the team members weren’t talking straight to me. There was something very funny going on.

Eventually I got to the bottom of it. The guy in charge of the database stuff had a blind spot. He obviously had no concrete mental model of what a C program does and/or he’d never done the thing of thinking things through, round and round, explaining everything to himself. He’d written some frighteningly good code by applying rote learned incantations, but there are limits to the possible. He didn’t realize that an SQL query could be assembled in a buffer with the things to search for filled in between the SELECT, WHERE, JOIN and so forth. All his queries were in hard coded literal strings. He’d got some quite clever literal strings, which worked well with the somewhat distorted database schema to implement the bizarre programming idiom. These strings would be issued to the database, and then he’d parse and filter the result sets to find the records he wanted, doing memory management like crazy while he was at it, but never cottoning on to the fact that his query strings were just char * pointers that could point to any text he wished to cruft up!

There must have been blood on the carpet at some point (I didn’t find out about that, and didn’t want to), because this whole business was a no-go area. When discussions approached it, otherwise rational people would start logic-chopping and weaseling, as they attempted to make a continuous transition from the truth to Mr. Database’s misunderstanding. The sheer amount of processing needed to support the wriggling must have detracted from their work. My job was supposed to be tweaking the database and UNIX platform to make it go quicker, but the Project Manager was a canny fellow. I eventually figured out the real reason he’d hired me was to walk in, speak the truth and then leave discreetly.

The funny thing was, Mr. Database wasn’t stupid, just fixated on a misunderstanding and without a rich enough model to get him out of it. I wrote a “test program” that prepared SQL with sprintf(3) to INSERT and SELECT some pattern data, and showed it to him along with some “timings” (which I didn’t really care about at all). As soon as he saw what the program was doing he became very excited, and immediately saw how make things go faster.

Still, I’m looking forward to the Chicago Council coming to order in their splendid new Robes of Office. Will there be webcams? ;-)

All Postings, Stress Addiction, Programming

Insight, Composition and Patterns

Another very interesting paper on the neuroscience of insight has appeared. In Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving Simone Sandkühler and Joydeep Bhattacharya monitor various brain areas with an EEG while giving subjects the usual kind of cognitive flexibility tests. They amplify the number of insight events by giving the subjects time limits and hints, and look at the EEG outputs when the subjects report insights and correct solutions.

They see the same two modes - relaxed and focussed - with insights occurring when the EEG shows states associated with relaxation:

Interestingly, we found for timeout trials that would lead to a correct solution after hint presentation, a strong alpha ERS. Increase in alpha activity is usually associated with a relaxed, less active brain, because alpha power was largest in states with eyes closed, i.e. states without focused attention.

There are two ways that this paper is an interesting addition to the work I quote on the Neuroscience page. Firstly, this paper talks about “insight”, while the others refer to “cognitive flexibility”. But the tests are the same, the faculties measured are the same. It’s a bit like speaking of breakpoints at different software layers. The call to draw a widget uses calls to draw primitives like lines and rectangles. So by citing this paper we can get to the neural correlates of insight - a term that I’m more comfortable with than cognitive flexibility, because to get good at this stuff we have to see the causes and effects right through the stack from neurotransmitters to effects on social customs.

The second thing is that it discusses various brain areas other than the prefrontal cortex. Clearly the mode shifting between focussed and juxtapositional involves the co-ordinated transition of multiple subsystems. Here’s a lovely example of such a thing - the Gibbs Aquada:



How cool is that?

Now you might say, “This is all very interesting. If I ever need a fundamental conceptual advance to maintain the backoffice system I am cursed with I’ll remember it!”

But in fact insight is not just in play in famous examples like Einstein imagining himself riding on a lightbeam, Newton’s fruit perturbed brain cells or Archimedes famous streak. To demonstrate this, consider a screenful of code. What does it do? It’s a crazy question, because a screenful of code could do many, many things. Well, unless it’s Java or calling Win32. The fanout of possible behaviours for a program as we add syntactically correct lines is much fatter than the fanout of possible chess game states as we add moves. (It doesn’t matter that most of those behaviours are not interesting - they still fatten the state space.)

Writing a program is in essence a synthetic act, where insight suggests that a certain class or data structure can represent the problem domain and make the desired operations possible. This cannot be done by random guessing or exhaustive search. The upper bound on the effectiveness of our programming activities is how readily we can be insightful. The lower bound is fixed by how well we do all the other things that distinguish grown up professionals from script kiddies, but those other things can easily provide busy work to allow us to forget when we lose sight of how to address the upper bound.

This idea of a search space which becomes unmanageable when insight is lost can explain a persistent and specific abuse of design patterns. I once had the interesting experience of being a lab rat for a disciple of Christopher Alexander, the architect who invented the idea. I was renting an old house that had recently been refurbished - in places rebuilt. It was minimal, even more so than is customary for traditional Spanish fincas. Yet it was a warm minimalism, with niches for lights that naturally threw diffuse pools where one wanted them. I kept getting flashes of the rich vegetation on the shady side of the building, along sight lines that extended all the way across the space. It had the quality without a name, and when I eventually met the landlord who had planned the rebuild, I rather diffidently mentioned software engineering and the connection with Alexander.



He roared with laughter and said, “Christopher Alexander is the reason why I do not have a large architectural practice!” He went on to explain that when he’d first moved to the area he’d built a hut and lived on the beach, as recommended by Alexander. For three years he rebuilt his hut, until he understood why the features of the traditional architecture were as they were. “Then I was ready to build in this place!”.

He’d done very well for himself, having built the houses for all the local dignitaries including the serving Spanish Foreign Minister, but his approach took the investment of his high quality time. He didn’t have anything for architectural grunt workers to do, although he ended up employing his own team of builders, because he couldn’t communicate the importance of quality in the small to contractors.

When I mentioned Alexander the landlord was happy, because he’d felt embarrassed about spying on me in order to see how I used the space. He said that he’d already noticed I’d stretched a washing line between two trees, and wondered why I’d put it there. I explained that I’d dumped the wet washing inside the kitchen door on a clean surface and then hung it in the sunshine, and the following day the construction crew turned up to install a pair of solid mountings for the line! This went on for several months. Fortunately I had read Report On Probability A at a suitably impressionable age. While the architect was watching me, I was watching the architect…

What your Shao Lin Ninja Alexandrian actually does, practicing in the original field of application, illustrates the approach that is necessary for success. Yes, there are design patterns. They are “out there”, waiting to be discovered, and some of them recur frequently. But the discovery takes years of work, finding the vocabulary of the most common patterns latent in spaces, and even then and even for an expert, further exploration and iteration is needed in each case. The conscious involvement of a devotee is necessary. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate Alexander’s early ambition of democratizing architecture (remember 4GLs?), but it does mean that the worker needs familiarity with the idea of patterns, and the cognitive state necessary for spontaneously recognizing the patterns that best simplify, chunk, make a theory of, or compress the problem domain. However egalitarian the toolkit, there is an essential act of becoming explicitly conscious of what is needed, which must be performed somewhere, in some terms, by someone.

If that cognitive state is lost, the toolkit or pattern language begins to perform a different job. Instead of a bunch of sensitivity building suggestions in a sea of subtlety, they become a massively reduced search space. The Gang of Four become a firm of stone engravers, and we get a kind of system integration:



I believe that both paths are entangled in Alexander’s 1996 OOPSLA talk, The Origins of Pattern Theory the Future of the Theory, And The Generation of a Living World. For example, at one point he says:

So there began developing, in my mind, a view of structure which, at the same time that it is objective and is about the behavior of material systems in the world, is somehow at the same time coming home more and more and more, all the time, into the person. The life that is actually in the thing is correlated in some peculiar fashion with the condition of wholeness in ourselves when we are in the presence of that thing. The comparable view, in software design, would tell you that a program which is objectively profound (elegant, efficient, effective and good as a program) would be the one which generates the most profound feeling of wholeness in an observer who looks at the code.

I am without reservation quite happy with that. It remains true even if I extend the context of the statement to include every practical observation or speculation I’ve encountered as I’ve asked why there is structure to be perceived, how we perceive it, why we sometimes can’t perceive it - and even what the ancients (who spent much less of their time in focussed attention) had to say about these things.

Yet later in the same talk Alexander says:

Now we come to the crunch. Once we have the view of wholeness and centers, linked by the fifteen deep properties, we have a general view of the type of whole which must occur as the end product of any successful design process. And because we have a view of it as a whole, we are now able to understand what kinds of overall process can generate good structure, and which cannot. This is the most significant aspect of The Nature Of Order, and of the new results I am presenting to you in this Part B.

It means that we can characterize not merely the structure of things which are well-designed, but we can characterize the path that is capable of leading to a good structure. In effect, we can specify the difference between a good path and a bad path, or between a good process and a bad process.

In terms of software, what this means is that it is possible, in principle, to say what kind of step-by-step process can produce good code, and which ones cannot. Or, more dramatically stated, we can, in principle, specify a type of process which will always generate good code.

This sounds to me like a Software Factory. An organization of what the Consciousness Studies people call zombies - “a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, sentience, or sapience”. The zombies provide hardware to run an Artificial Intelligence, which is stored in at most a few MBs of paper manuals. The AI is a remarkable achievement, since it requires seconds to hours to perform a single fetch or store operation using it’s shuffling hardware, yet it can miraculously transform ambiguous requirements documents into robust systems elegantly and without error. All hail the process!

I believe the Software Factory is a revealing nonsense. The comparison with the AIs we’ve not yet built using GHz processors and petabytes of store exposes the truth. The only reason anyone ever spent all those work decades on it is that sitting in the meeting rooms, listening to the endless drone of corporate doublespeak provides an excellent source of low level background stress. To get a sense of it, glaze your eyes with Obtaining the Benefits of Predictable Assembly from Certifiable Components (PACC), an offering from the Software Engineering Institute. That’s alright then - problems solved, who’s for a beer! And when they wake up a bit for the conclusion, the celebration of process fits with the stress addicted tendency to “default to heuristics”. We’re all “a tiny, tiny piece of it all”, so no-one needs to exercise the personal awareness that Alexander starts by recognizing as essential.

The idea that our thinking about pattern languages has been trying to pull in two opposing directions, trying to be useful both to people with and without access to their juxtapositional faculty at the time, leads to the question of what would happen if we tried to do one job well. Those without juxtapositional awareness at the time aren’t going to be able to make the inductive jump to insightful solutions however they are tooled up. So what if we abandon that objective and ask how we might make pattern languages more useful as cognitive aids for those who are juxtapositionally aware. Such developments would quickly seem pointless or incomprehensible to those without juxtapositional awareness.

Could that be something to do with the growing interest in functional programming? All of the form with none of the mechanizable boilerplate, and disconnected from the busy-work that addresses the usual problems caused by the boilerplate? Perhaps the net has enabled a critical mass of people interested in having such a conversation to connect, as it has already enabled groups to leverage shared, rich models instead of managerial and process overhead in open source development. If we remove the objective which contains an internal contradiction, might we find that Scheme has been our pattern language all along?

Neuroscience, All Postings, Programming

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