An Epidemic of Listicles

I like this excerpt from Krista Tippett’s interview with Maria Popova, curator of the wonderful Brain Pickings [Thanks to the Centre for Teaching]

Culture needs stewardship, not disruption.

We seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. And there’s this epidemic of listicles. Why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the “20 Most Expensive Paintings in History?”  … there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim.

And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives. 

Derek Cabrera and Teaching Thinking with DSRP

Derek Cabrera  is an impressive character – superbright and does good social entrepreneur work.   He’s also decided that thinking can be taught with something called DSRP – Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, and Perspectives.  His new book “Thinking at Every Desk” looks interesting , especially in the knowledge that teachers like Jennifer Orr seem to be getting great results with it as do the various other people listed at Cabrera Research. Definitely food for thought.

Reinventing British manners the Post-It way

Design thinking goes like this: firstly, immersion, whereby the designers research the problem by plunging themselves into it – talking to the people they're trying to help, working with them, interviewing experts. Secondly, synthesis – whereby they gather together their findings and look for patterns. Third, ideation – brainstorming solutions to the real problems identified by stage two. Then comes prototyping, making mock-ups of solutions to try out against the problem. After that comes the product. Only at the end, at the prototyping stage, are judgments made; until then, all ideas are given equal weight.

… design thinking places the designer at the heart of the innovation process… the methodology gives a firm framework within which a wider team can work. It takes the cliché of the lone creative mind being struck with genius, and replaces it with a process that a whole team can follow. Creativity, therefore, isn't a thing that magically appears, but a process you work through.

Source: here

Umberto Eco: The lost art of handwriting

writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think…

It's true that kids will write more and more on computers and cellphones. Nonetheless, humanity has learned to rediscover as sports and aesthetic pleasures many things that civilisation had eliminated as unnecessary.

People no longer travel on horseback but some go to a riding school; motor yachts exist but many people are as devoted to true sailing as the Phoenicians of 3,000 years ago; there are tunnels and railroads but many still enjoy walking or climbing Alpine passes; people collect stamps even in the age of email; and armies go to war with Kalashnikovs but we also hold peaceful fencing tournaments.

It would be a good thing if parents sent kids off to handwriting schools so they could take part in competitions and tournaments

Source: here

Lateral thinking overrated

a number of detailed reports of scientific discovery, artistic creativity, and invention are available, including Darwin’s notebooks on the development of his theory of evolution, Watson’s report of the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule, Picassos preliminary sketches for several of his most famous paintings, and Edison’s notebooks on the invention of the kinetoscope. These examples are covered in detail in later chapters [of this book], and nothing like divergent thinking is evident in any of them. Thus, although it seems reasonable to Guilford that producing many and varied ideas through “divergent” or “lateral” thinking ought to be a cornerstone of creative thinking, this idea does not seem to be correct.

Source: here

Proof, Dodgy Theories and Disconfirmation

We’re pretty bad at theories, it seems, because we don’t really look for disconfirmation.

In Dan Gardner’s book Risk, he recounts an experiment done to show this that was conducted by Peter Watson.

The challenge is pretty simple: given 3 numbers in sequence, can you figure out what the rule is?  Participants were allowed to write down 3 different numbers to see whether they followed the rule, and try this as many times as they wanted.

So here are the numbers: 2, 4 and 6.

It seems pretty normal, so most would then ask the researchers whether these numbers fitted the rule:

8, 10, and 12.  And yes, they do.

And if they wanted more vigorous testing, they would ask whether the following sets of numbers followed the rule:

14, 16, 18 or 100, 102, 104.  And yes, both do follow the rule

So what’s the rule?  Well most said that it was “any 3 even numbers ascending by 2 each time”.  And they were wrong.  That’s not the rule.  The correct rule is: “any 3 numbers in ascending order”.

What had happened, it seems, is that people didn’t try to disconfirm the rule.  They didn’t ask, for example, whether “3,4,5” followed the rule.

As Dan Gardner says,

“most people do not try to disconfirm.  They do the opposite, trying to confirm the rule by looking for examples that fit it.  That’s a futile strategy.  No matter how many examples are piled up, they can never prove that the belief is correct.  Confirmation doesn’t work”

Something I need to bear in mind while trawling the myriad posts on Everything 2.0.  It seems it’s better to look for indications that I’m wrong rather than bask in the warm webby-goodness of confirmed 2.0 successes.  And intuitively that makes sense.  Rigour is surely preferable to comfort.

Dealing with Internet Waste

If you assume that the internet, blogosphere et al are complex systems, what might their waste be? And how might we “recycle” it better?

One of the many things I’ve learnt from Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map, is that waste recycling is a hallmark of almost all complex systems.

System Recycling
  • Composting pits used in Knossos, Crete 4000 years ago.
  • Medieval Rome built with much of the ruins of the Imperial City
  • Manure spreading helped towns grow

    This feedback loop transformed the boggy expanses of the Low Countries, which had historically been incapable of supporting anything more complex than isolated bands of fishermen, into the some of the most productive soils in all of Europe

  • Modern day bottle, plastic, paper and other recycling methods.
Human Body Calcium is a waste product of all nucleated organisms. This is turned into e.g. bones, teeth
Coral Reefs Coral lives in symbiosis with an algae called zooxanthellae. This algae captures sunlight and turns CO2 into organic carbon. This process produces oxygen as a waste product, which the coral then uses in its own metabolic cycle. And that process produces nitrates, CO2, phosphates etc as waste products all of which are used by the algae.
Tropical Rainforests One organism captures some energy from the sun, harvests it, but in the process produces waste, which then serves as a source of energy for another organism in the chain

At a more micro level, without the bacterial process of decomposition, we’d have been overrun by dead things years ago.

All of which had me wondering about internet waste.

The obvious waste is the hardware to support online life. Oxfam and others all work hard to recycle the motherboards, cables and chips that help us connect. But there’s still a huge amount left, and lots of that goes to China and the third world. [See e.g. the BBC ‘s Disposable Planet, or Salon’s article]

Then there’s the paper.

But most interesting, I thought, is what we do with all the old articles, thoughts, posts etc. I know I personally rarely look back over all the guff I’ve written. But I don’t particularly feel any qualms about leaving it up there. The amount of memory it all takes up is so small in the scheme of things I don’t really have to bother. That said, as things stand a lot of it is, if I’m honest with myself, waste. It may or may not have been at the time, but now, a few years on, it probably is.

So how best to recycle it? The easy way is just to delete it all. Alternatively, on the rainforest model, rather than delete everything, I could delete everything that had no comments/links to it. (As such, it would be much the same as an email retention policy)

I’m probably a little nostalgic for that. Part of me thinks that a yearly revisit to old posts might in itself be useful. (It’s amazing how much you can forget). And part, as I’ve said before, thinks that doing a social network analysis of your blog to look for structural holes could be instructive.

Anyroad, probably barking up the wrong tree … and perhaps in a few years time I might delete this …

Tolstoy on conversation, action and theory

From Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful Hedgehog and the Fox:

People were preoccupied by personal interests. Those who went about their ordinary business without feeling heroic emotions or thinking that they were actors upon the well-lighted stage of history were the most useful to their … community, while those who tried to grasp the general course of events and wanted to take part in history … were the most useless… because “nowhere is the commandment not to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge so clearly written as in the course of history. Only unconscious activity bears fruit, and the individual who plays a part in historical events never understands their significance. If he attempts to understand them, he is struck with sterility.”

Tolstoy’s bitterest taunts, his most corrosive irony, are reserved for those who pose as official specialists in human affairs … these men must be impostors, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behaviour, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.