Archive for May, 2008

The Economist this week has two stories back-to-back in its Science and Technology section on cognitive enhancement. Not surprisingly the first one, which is about the widespread use of cognition-enhancing drugs (such as Ritalin and Provigil) to help you pass exams or improve performance, and the expectation of more to come, has been given the greater attention by the wider press. It’s a scare story about competition and cheating and raises the possibility of the need to test students as potential drug cheats. But The Economist takes a controversial tack in its editorial, likening this to “harmless” coffee and arguing it is a good thing.

It falls on deaf ears here because this is a week when I did not drink or eat any coffee, milk, wheat product, potato, rice or any refined carbohydrate excepting that contained in one bar of 85% cocoa chocolate. I drank no alcohol either. I’ve been doing this as a stricter enforcement of a paleo-style diet to help regulate my weight, but above all else to enhance cognition, and for longer-term preventative health. As far as I’m aware, it is working. With one or two qualifications. Those qualifications being a coincident virus that caused a migraine which lasted longer than I’d normally expect, prompting a little hypochondria and Googling for ideas about nutritional deficiency — to no avail.

The paleo-style diet (or lifestyle) is hard to sustain and I can tell you that it has been a lot harder in the short run than popping a few pills. But my argument with The Economist‘s view is that the brain is a complex system: don’t mess with it if you don’t need to. My own experience seems to suggest that I’m a little insulin-resistant, with diabetes in the family, so a lower-carb diet is likely to be beneficial.

But the second story in The Economist pairing owes more to my approach than the pill-popping. This other story describing research that social position can be detrimental to cognition has received no mainstream attention elsewhere, as far as Google can tell us. It has been, thus far, editorially cold-shouldered, and subordinated, and yet by far and away it is the more interesting story for self-experimenters, self-improvers, collaborationists, diversity specialists, managers, teachers, coaches and parents.

Pamela Smith and colleagues from Radboud University Nijmegen suspected that a lack of social power might reduce someone’s ability to keep track of information and make plans to achieve goals in difficult and distracting circumstances. This seems like common sense, not least because I’ve seen a number of situations, for example, where even senior executives have lost confidence and status and then suffered a quite immediate impairment. I’ve even experienced it myself at significant moments. I once had to pitch for $30 million for a management buy-out having been booked into a shoddy lower-Manhattan hotel where the breakfast was served on paper plates. Not a good start to the day. The next day, for the next pitch, I moved to a different hotel and a waterside suite — ironically for much the same price.

The Economist says:-

To explore this theory, she (Dr Smith) carried out three tests. In the first, participants were divided at random into groups of superiors and subordinates. They were told that the superiors would direct and evaluate the subordinates and that this evaluation would determine the subordinates’ payment for the experiment. Superiors were paid a fixed amount. The subordinates were then divided into two further groups: powerless and empowered. A sense of powerlessness was instilled, the researchers hoped, by having participants write for several minutes about a time when they were powerless or by asking them to unscramble sets of words including “obey”, “subordinate” and so on to form sentences. The empowered, by contrast, were asked to write about when they had been on top, or to form sentences including “authority”, “dominate” and similar words.

Not much, you might say, to induce a sense of inferiority or superiority when compared with the real-life stress of a domineering boss or other confidence-draining circumstance, but nevertheless enough to make an impact on several cognitive tasks:-

In all three tests Dr Smith found that low-power participants made 2-5% more errors than their high-power counterparts. She argues that these results were not caused by the low-power volunteers being less motivated, as they had the same financial incentive as the high-power volunteers to do well. Instead, she suspects that those lacking in power suffered adverse cognitive effects from that very lack, and thus had difficulty maintaining their focus on the tasks.

A common problem in evaluating how well someone is doing relative to their ability is the often-mentioned fundamental attribution error: a pretty universal cognitive bias where we will tend to ascribe another‘s failure in a task to their personality rather than their circumstances — largely because we will probably have more data about their personality than the circumstances. Conversely, we judge our own failures more kindly because we know what extenuates them.

What Pamela Smith’s findings suggest is that when we are judging an individual for promotion, for example, it is quite possible that their performance will be transformed once they emerge from a subordinate position, and even more so if we have failed to motivate them properly. They may have been swimming hard against a tidal flow that we cannot see.

Of course, this applies from hiring manager to teacher, coach, and parent, and should require CEOs and other leaders to show a little more humility given the cognitive momentum their high status affords them.

While I love what the cognitive sciences are doing these days, I can’t help but be reminded of the existing literature on these matters. This one evokes the first record I ever owned: Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Ugly Duckling. And this YouTube rendering is not so different from the way I used to enjoy it nearly 40 years ago.

Take a look. And believe that you are a swan.

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Flatland: A Journey of Many Dimensions (US edition) is a short book, but I read it very slowly. It’s less than 100 pages, and it took me six weeks, I think.

Perhaps if I had studied more than school-house geometry I would not have felt the need to spend so long pondering the perceptual consequences of living in two dimensions, as the characters in Flatland do.

Flatland The Movie Then again, there is the more frightening thought that I am in fact living a single dimensional existence without realising it. To understand how stupidly comic the book makes that idea seem you’ll have to get hold of a copy. It is a book that encourages humility in our understanding and yet aspiration to higher knowledge at one and the same time.

Written by Victorian London schoolmaster Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland was a mathematically-inspired parody of the restrictions (social, intellectual and philosophical) of the era. Abbott created an alternative two-dimensional world, expounded by geometrical observation and hand-drawn sketches to attack in allegory the conventional wisdoms of that hierarchical 19th century society.

But it barely takes any imagination to transpose the ideas into our own era. For it must ever be the case that a battle is going on within society between those who want to push our understanding upward, to challenge orthodoxy, and those whose economic benefit resides in the status quo. Quite literally these days our quantum friends ask us to consider many more dimensions than most of us have the faculty to conceive of.

The main protagonist and narrator of the story is A. Square, who is…a square; this makes him a professional man, or gentleman in Flatland. The middle classes are equilateral triangles, the lower classes isosceles. And in this world the women (ladies, you’ll not like this) are straight lines.

Remember, Abbott is describing a highly structured society. Social mobility in this world is generationally dependent. Deviations, if not correctable at birth, are extinguished. Squares beget pentagons, pentagons beget hexagons,etc etc. Regularity matters above all else.

The angularity of one’s body dictates not only your station in life but is also mirrored in your IQ; the pointier your angles the thicker you are. But Abbott’s protagonist from a middling station nevertheless demonstrates, through a combination of curiosity (his own and that of his hexagonal grandson) and through the revelation of a visitor from the higher plane, that there is a third dimension (and possibly more). He ends up challenging the established order held in place by his intellectual and geometrical superiors — the top-most of which are the priestly circles.

But this is more than just a reprint of Abbott’s text because the book is republished to accompany an animated movie(US DVD version). The narrative has been updated to account for a more contemporary sensibility and bring this geometrical allegory to life for a new generation, and one very easily turned off mathematics. So purists for the old story should get over themselves and help celebrate — if they were otherwise so inclined.

The movie was an instant hit with the two knackered chips off the old hack: one 13, the other eight. So if you are a secondary or junior school teacher tasked with enthusing children with the idea of maths and geometry in particular, there could be no better investment. And don’t worry about the women being lines; that liberal poster-child Martin Sheen plays Arthur Square in the film, and the precocious grandson, Hex, becomes a girl and is given voice by Kristen Bell.

The DVD extras also provide some great computer-generated animation that shows how three-dimensional shapes would be perceived in just two dimensions, and then, by the same logic, how higher dimensional objects might present themselves in our three-dimensional world.

And pay attention for the line in the trailer here: “Oh dude, you’re freakin’ me out!”, for that is the Line King talking.

What is particularly cute to my mind about the animated characters is that, while their outward form is two-dimensional, their insides are all revealed to be Mandelbrotian fractals. Now, there’s a truth we should all ponder.

Thanks to the movie’s animator Dano Johnson for providing the above on YouTube.

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A few weeks ago, at an EBDM seminar at the London Business School, happiness economist Bruno Frey put up a slide entitled:-

Television weakens the will of active people.

I know that feeling. Professor Frey does without television completely, from what he said, as a route to optimising his own happiness function.

I asked Professor Frey if any similar research has been conducted in relation to the internet: as to whether the internet might do the opposite. He was not aware of any. It’s hard to tell from personal experience; I’m still in the process of evaluating whether or not extensive interaction on the internet is a time-sink or a route to more expansive individual productivity. No doubt there is an optimum balance, and discovering it may be more a matter of luck than judgement. The galloping growth of social media is frequently disdained by professionals in the mainstream media; the glib response, shared by a good number of ordinary friends and acquaintances, is that these social media types (to which I now increasingly actively belong) need to get a life.

But a couple of weeks ago I interviewed Matt Mason whose book The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Hackers, Punk Capitalists, Graffiti Millionaires and Other Youth Movements Are Remixing Our Culture and Changing Our World (Allen Lane/Penguin) I’ll be reviewing sometime this week, alongside some interview snippets. You can get hold of the US version here. Matt recommended a new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Allen Lane/Penguin) (US version available here) by Clay Shirky.

From the following video, it’s clear why Matt is recommending Clay’s work. Clay quantifies rather neatly in an historical context what is going on in terms of shifting patterns of behaviour, and why Wikipedia is so important to understand in a more positive light than many do. Above all, in a very amusing way, he highlights why the old-media perception of this phenomenon is so often wildly misconceived in terms of how attention is distributed these days. Of course, what Clay does not highlight is the malign possibilities of this cognitive surplus combining in the wrong way.

Thanks to Dave Morin for the pointer.

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changes

15May08

Today marks 20 years since the Soviet army began withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Plus ça change, you could say. It’s not an anniversary I’m seeing flagged up in the media today. But then, we’re used to wandering the road less travelled over here at the Knackered Hack – if not completely untravelled.

Kino Concert Roll 1001

Crucial to the mounting tide of pressure that led to Soviet withdrawal was an opening up of the culture that started in early Spring 1986 when I visited Leningrad and met Kino‘s Viktor Tsoi (whom I snapped this picture of while he tuned up at a small concert in April ’86).

The song Peremen (or Changes) was an important anthem for that period, and perhaps Tsoi’s most recognized contribution to the tectonic shift in our geo-politics of the past two decades. It appeared to help mobilize Soviet youth culture toward a more democratic and uncertain future, even though accounts suggest that this was not Tsoi’s direct intention.

I’ve been very much taken with the following video of the song. The visuals aren’t of Viktor, of course, but this is nonetheless a powerful interpretation. I don’t know if he is using any recognised sign language (can anybody illuminate me?) but it certainly conveys something forcefully, whatever that something is. This was, incidentally, used as the soundtrack for a DIY, low-budget yet critically-acclaimed Russian film Dust (2005). I’ve not seen it, but this review sounds compelling if you are an art-house type.

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Having indicated a while ago that I would plump for an iPhone, I chickened out the other day and defaulted to my previous rule of thumb which was buy the best Nokia. But this also satisfied that other aforementioned heuristic, i.e. the gift-horse mouth-staring one. The cost to replace my existing pda-phone was less than zero, because they offered me a contract better than the previous one, and much better than anything I’d seen advertised on any network.

Sometimes I wish I had not bothered, because having had the device nearly a month, I have not had time to programme it or migrate contacts. And the storage card is delayed, so loading music, podcasts, portable Russian lessons and other audio joys has had to wait.

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And yet. The thing has a 5 megapixel camera in it with Carl Zeiss optics, which Apple‘s Steve Jobs is dismissive of, having made the iPhone’s camera to a lesser spec. There may be nothing to choose between the two really, but I’m strangely overjoyed and inspired to photograph any time, any place and in a way that the graininess of my old phone discouraged. I’m a fully-fledged Flickr fan.

Fortunately too, the phone has an FM radio in it, which sounds a bit retrograde in this day and age. But over the past week or two I’ve been looking for inspiration and concentration. The BBC‘s classical channel, Radio 3, has been providing it, offering as ever a wide range of frequently unfamiliar classical music of all centuries. And it stops me from listening to Pink Floyd when I’m out running. Shine on you crazy diamond. Auditory variation indeed.

Trees and woodland seem to do the same thing for me visually, and the phone camera now means that I capture some of that stimulus for posterity, and the limbic of you, my long-suffering reader. Excepting the flower, these pictures were taken Monday at Claverton Manor (AKA The American Museum) near Bath, which overlooks the Avon Valley. Topographically, I think it may be true to say that this is one of the most varied landscapes on the planet, and readers of Simon Winchester‘s The Map That Changed the World: A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemptionwill know of its crucial contribution to geological and subsequent evolutionary theory. It floats my boat.

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