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Cybernetic Haiku September 9, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in 3QD, Constructivism, Haiku, Other, Three Quarks Daily, vocabulary.

If I have any readers left, they might remember that I used to periodically examine other blogs, sacking them for words and studying words that seemed relatively unique to them [See the “Studies on the Working Vocabulary of the Blog-O-Sphere” section of this page.]  Towards the end of that phase, I used a simple algorithm to create a Haiku out of the words that a blogger used more often than other bloggers.  Yeah, it’s kinda weird and a little too complicated to explain succinctly, but you could read some of the posts and see the project develop.  And it made sense at the time. . . 

Anyway, it bothered me at the time that I was unable to automate the process of generating a Haiku out of a bunch of random words.  It bothered me that I had to intervene in the process.  I wanted to be able to push a button and have the computer do the rest, but I didn’t yet have the skill-set that I needed.  But I do now.  So here it is.  Have some fun; click the icon below.

This project demonstrates one of my favorite things about human thought–the compulsive and unconscious ways we create meaning.  We see a string of words and our brains just automatically start making sense out of them.  Doesn’t matter that they are random.  Recently I read a blog post (I think it was in Three Quarks Daily, but I can’t seem to find it now) somebody explained a party game based on the principle (and don’t get me started on the exploitation of this quirk in hypnotism).  A person volunteers to leave the room and, upon returning, guess the pertinent details of a dream that one of the others will relate to the rest of the participants while she is out of the room.  However, no dream was told to the others during her absence.  The other participants just randomly answer the questions of the volunteer, trying to keep their answers consistent with the ones that precede them.  Thus the dream is entirely a figment of the volunteer’s imagination, and usually ends up telling the participants a little more than they want to know about the mind of the volunteer.  

Yeah, it sounds more like a dirty trick than a game.  But it is an interesting metaphor for life, too.  And I am desperately trying to tell myself that that is a good thing, these days.  If you are an optimist, you are much more likely to find happiness, because you expect to–you look for it, assuming it is there somewhere.  

Anyway, this looks to be my last extracurricular programming project until at least November, and probably even later than that, since I want to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year.  I started a new job last week and between that and the two classes I’m taking, I won’t have much time to put into this sort of thing for a while.  

When I saw that Moon Topples is blogging again I briefly toyed with the idea of setting this thing up so that it automatically posted a haiku for me each day on this site– a poor-but-efficient imitation of MTs Monday Morning Haiku posts.  But I think I’ll just ask that if any readers of this blog manage to get the machine to produce a particularly interesting poem, they post it in a comment below.


Breaking the Pattern of Thought August 19, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, Edward de Bono, how to, Lateral Thinking, Other, vocabulary, writing.

I’ve been re-reading Edward de Bono’s wonderful (if clumsily written) Lateral Thinking recently, while searching for new-but-manageable programming projects that I can do between semesters (so that I can keep learning programming skills). Naturally, de Bono gave me an idea (never fails).

Lateral Thinking‘s first couple of chapters argue, convincingly, that peoples’ thoughts run along established patterns that can make creativity difficult. The remainder of the book presents de Bono’s grab-bag of thinking tools, helpful methods for breaking out of these patterns when necessary (when the vertically-reasoned ideas are not working).

One technique, “Random Stimulation,” helps in a brainstorming process. It works like this:

Randomly select a word from a dictionary and just run with it, trying to connect it to the problem you are working on, for three minutes, following whatever chain of silly connections you follow. Hopefully, out of that massive, ill-considered spray of concepts, something emerges that will help solve the problem.

Here’s de Bono’s example:

The numbers 473-13 were given by a table of random numbers and using the Penguin English Dictionary the word located was: ‘noose’. The problem under consideration was ‘the housing shortage’. Over a timed three minute period the following ideas were generated:

noose – tightening noose – execution – what are the difficulties in executing a housing programme – what is the bottleneck, is it capital, labour or land?

noose tightens – things are going to get worse with the present rate of population increase.

noose – rope – suspension construction system – tentlike houses but made of permanent materials – easily packed and erected – or on a large scale with several houses suspended from one framework – much lighter materials possible if walls did not have to support themselves and the roof.

noose – loop – adjustable loop – what about adjustable round houses which could be expanded as required – just uncoil the walls – no point in having houses too large to begin with because of heating problems, extra attention to walls and ceilings, furniture, etc. – but facility for step-wise expansion as need arises.

noose – snare – capture – capture a share of the labour market – capture – people captured by home ownership due to difficulty selling and complications – lack of mobility – houses as exchangeable units – classified into types – direct exchange of one type for similar type – or put one type into the pool and take out a similar type elsewhere. . . .

From this example may be seen the way the random word is used. Often the random word is used to generate further words which themselves link up with the problem being considered. . . . The word is used in order to get things going–not to prove anything. [174-5]

O.K., so it doesn’t always work. At least I am not convinced that the “housing problem” was adequately addressed through this method. I have used de Bono’s “Random Stimulation” method, however, with excellent results.

So, I developed an online resource that loads a randomly generated word, with its definition. Just click the linked picture below.

So now you don’t have to generate random numbers and hunt for a big dictionary. Indeed, I kept the webpage very small, as well as javaScript-free, so that it can be accessed by web-enabled phones.

Books–Sixth Column, by Robert H. Heinlein January 21, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, China, Constructivism, Japan, libertarians, Other, Science Fiction.

I had been reading Hyperpat’s reaction to a recent article that mentioned Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers in an unflattering and baseless screedlet (Um, not Hyperpat, he was right about Heinlein’s book.  The New York Times, not so much), and corresponding with Hyperpat about said screedling.  And while I was doing that I realized that I might never have read Heinlein’s Sixth Column, or at least I couldn’t recall much of it.  This was a little important to me because although this is an embarassing thing to admit (Heinlein’s treatment of sexual relationships has been a repeated embarassment to me over the years) I have read pretty much everything Heinlein ever published, which is a considerable amount, and had even visited the Heinlein archives at UCSC to peruse what few scraps the Trustees of the Heinlein Estate would allow.  I considered myself an expert of sorts but could not have outlined the plot of this thing to save my life. 

So I got a copy through paperbackswap.com and tackled it last weekend.  And I was pretty surprised.  I knew that Heinlein didn’t care for this book, because he had noted his opinion publicly several times.  But I seem to recall that his objection to it was founded on the fact that the outline of the plot and main speculative elements (the idea that the other forces, the weak nuclear force, gravity, the strong nuclear force, could be harnessed and projected in various ways) were given to him by John Campbell, and that he had no real interest, just did it for the money, etc. 

But boy oh boy there are so many reasons to hate this book.  Perhaps the most offensive aspect to the book, aside from the lackadaisical, disinterested writing, is racial, I’m afraid.  The forces I mentioned above are used by the protagonists to drive the Asiatics (conquering hoards of those with “yellow” skin whose culture originated in Japan, um, apparently during the Tokugawa Era, if I had to guess) and spread as they conquered first Mainland China, then the Soviets, then, finally, in the opening page of the book, the US.  The attacks came as a complete surprise to the US, of course, (this post has nothing to do with the space weapons tested yesterday by China, by the way).  But new technologies allow the scientists to focus these different forces to distinguish people by race, so that they can aim their weapons at a mixed crowd and kill only the Asiatics, sometimes explosively disrupting the cells of their bodies, turning them into a big, messy cloud, sometimes just making them dead.  But the protagonists, hopelessly outgunned and disorganized, since they have become the slaves of the Asiatics, turn the tables by using the power of the new technology, under the cover of a new religion, to demoralize the Asiatics, forcing critical military commanders to commit honorable seppuku, ritual hara kiri.  Oi!

Yeah, so it’s pretty icky, and obviously conflicts with current understanding of race (postulating very solid and discrete biological differences), which seems to be that it is mostly socially constructed, of course. 

I don’t think of Heinlein as a racist.  He was probably as unracist as possible for a white libertarian guy born in Missouri near the turn of the century to be.  No wonder he hated this book.  It was written in the late 1940s and copyrighted in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, if I’m not mistaken, but still. . . .

Introduction to Radical Constructivism V January 18, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, fiction, literature, narrative, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism.

I’m going to take a slight digression before unleashing Postulate III to respond at length to a comment that anxiousmofo left on this thread.  I do this partially because he has tried so diligently to answer a question that has puzzled me for years.  He made me see some aspects to my position that I never quite understood (but also, of course, because he introduces the expression “intuition pump,” which I think is pretty funny and had not heard before).  The question at hand is something like “why should one even concern one’s self with the question of whether or not there is some sort of real world out there?”  This is the “question 2” which he refers to in his comment below (initially posted as comment #5 here).  –WARNING: CONTAINS SPINOZA

To answer your question 2, here’s a thought experiment (or, more honestly, an intuition pump). Suppose that you have been happily married to someone you love for twenty years, a kind, intelligent, attractive person named Pat. One day, Pat’s doctor informs you that Pat is a philosophical zombie. Pat has no mental states at all, and only appears to love you in return. The hypothesis that Pat loves you and enjoys being with you and is committed to you is consistent with all the data and makes useful predictions about how Pat will act towards you; it just happens to be false. Wouldn’t knowing that make a difference to you? Similarly, if what I see as objects and people in the real world don’t actually exist, my life would be meaningless.

Of course, the notion that Pat (or anyone else) is a philosophical zombie is an extremely far-fetched and unparsimonious* notion, and so (I would argue) is the notion that the world we experience is unrelated to the real world, or the notion that there is no real world.

*Unparsimonious because it would require that there be at least two kinds of people in the world, those with mental states and those without.

An intriguing thought experiment/analogy.  It reminds me of a passage in Neal Stephenson’s voluminous Baroque Cycle trilogy of novels, which I am going to reproduce here, it being relevant and hoping that since I worship his writing he will forgive me.  A black man (Dappa) and a Puritan (Daniel) are meeting the Puritan’s nephew (Peer, who writes for a sort of newspaper) in a club/pub in London, circa 1715.  The scene is one of the fifteen funniest in the 3000+ page work, but I will omit some of the funniest parts to focus on what is relevant to my response to your thought experiment.

“. . . Dappa was, at a very young age, taken aboard a ship by pirates as a sort of pet.  And these pirates, being a polyglot group, amused themselves by training Dappa to spead twenty-five different languages fluently.”

“Twenty-five different languages! Peer exclaimed.

“Yes.  Including English better than you, as you just saw.”

“But . . . he doesn’t actually understand any of them,” Peer said.

“No more than a parrot does, when it squawks out a demand for a cracker,” Daniel affirmed, then let out a squawk of his own as Dappa kicked him in the shin under the table.

“What a remarkable feat!  You should exhibet him!”

“What do you think I am doing right now?”

How was the weather yesterday?” Peer inquired of Dappa, in French.

In the morning it was miserable and rainy,” Dappa returned.  “After noon I thought it would clear but, alas, it was still overcast until nightfall.  Only as I was getting ready for bed did I begin to see stars shining through gaps between clouds.  Could I trouble you for a cracker?”

“I say, the French pirate who taught him that trick must have been an educated man!” Peer exclaimed.  Then he got a look on his face as if he were thinking.  Daniel had learned, in his almost seventy years, not to expect much of people who got such looks, because thinking really was something one ought to do all of the time.  “One would suppose there would be no point in holding a conversation with a man who does not understand what he is saying.  And yet he described yesterday’s weather better than I could!  In fact, I think I’ll use his wording in tomorrow’s edition!”  Again, now, the thoughtful look. “If he could relate other experiences-such as the tete-a-tete with the Duchess–as faithfully as he recalls the weather, it would make my interview with him ever so much easier.  I had come prepared to do it all in grunts and sign languages!” And Peer gave a note-book in his hip-pocket and ominous pat.

“I suppose that whenever one speaks in the abstract–which is to say most of the time–what one is really doing is interacting with some sort of image that is held in the mind,” Dappa said.  “For example, yesterday’s weather is not here in the Kit-Cat Clubb with us.  I cannot feel yesterday’s rain on my skin, nor can I see yester-eve’s stars with my eyes.  When I describe these things to you (in French or any other language) I am really engaging in some sort of internal colloquy with a stored image inside of my brain.  It is an image I may call up on demand, as a Duke might demand that a certain painting of his be brought down out of the garret.  Once it is before my mind’s eye, I may see it as if it were there, and describe it.”

“That is all well and good for recollecting what you have gathered in through your senses, and stored in the garret, as it were,” Peer said. “So I could ask you to relocate your observations of the Duchess of Qwghlm today, and rely on your account.  But as you do not understand the conversation you had with her, or indeed the one you are having with me now, I fear your interpretation of what went on at Leicester House might be wide of the mark.” He spoke haltingly, unsure of how to converse with someone who didn’t understand what he was saying.

Preying on this, Daniel inquired, “But how could he interpret anything if he didn’t understand it?”

This stopped Peer’s gob for a few awkward moments.

“I would refer you to the work of Spinoza,” Dappa said, “whose words are of course perfect gibberish to me, but who wrote in his Ethics, ‘The order and connexion of ideas is the same as the order and connexion of things.’  Meaning that if there are two things, call them A and B, that have a particular relationship to each other, for example, my lord Wragby’s wig, and my lord Wragby’s head, and if I have in my mind an idea of  my lord Wragby’s wig, call it alpha, and an idea of his head, call it beta, then the relationship between alpha and beta is the same as between A and B.  And owing to this property of minds, it is possible for me to construct in my head an whole universe of ideas, yet each idea will relate to all of the other ideas in precisely the same way that the things represented by those ideas relate to one another; lo, ’tis as if I have created a microcosm ‘tween my ears, without understanding a bit of it.    And some of the ideas may be records of sensory impressions, for example, yesterday’s weather.  But others may be abstract concepts out of religion, philosophy, mathematics, or what have you–not that I’d know, since to me they are all a meaningless parade of hallucinations.  But insofar as they are all ideas, they are fungible.  Whatever their origins may have been, they are all now con-fused into the same currency, and so I may speak of the Pythagorean Theorem or the Treaty of Utrcht as well as I may speak of yesterday’s weather.  To me, they are all just crackers–as you are, my lord Wragby.”

“That is quite clear,” Peer said vaguely, for he had gone a bit glassy-eyed round the point where Dappa had begun to use Greek letters.  —The System of the World, pp 168-70 (ISBN-13 978-0-06-075086-2).

So anxiousmofo’s dilemma concerning Pat is very similar to Peer’s w/r/t/ Dappawork–both being in anxiousmofo’s terms “philosophical zombies.”  And my answer is the same to both: There is no discernable, measureable difference between what goes on in Dappa’s head and the heads of others.  Peer’s sanctimonious feelings of superiority over Dappa let him fall into that trap.  Anxiousmofo notes that there is something “unparsimonious” about asserting that someone else is a “philosophical zombie.”  And I agree wholeheartedly.  After all, in the days in which Stepehenson’s novels are set they still killed one of a set of twins, arguing that only one could possibly have been born with a soul. 

N.B.: I never said that there was no “real world,” only that we do not have any access to it, and that since the worlds people construct inside their heads are so much more complicated, and so often in conflict with the ones that other people are creating inside their heads, it is useful to set aside the quest for that “real world” and focus upon the ways in which we construct our own.  I will be examining some of the advantages of this particular strategy as I continue to formalize this exposition of the Radical Constructivist worldview. 

Introduction to Radical Constructivism IV January 17, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Constructivism, Education, lojban, Memory, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.
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Postulate Number II: Verbal and nonverbal communication is the most frequent and important way that adult brains acquire information.

According to studies of daytime activities of representative adults and teenagers in the United States, we spend from 20-45 percent of the day working or studying, 4-15 percent of the day talking, eating, or daydreaming at work, 9-13 percent of the day exposing ourselves to media (television and reading, mainly–does not include going to a cinema), and 4-12 percent of the day talking or socializing.  Assuming eight hours of sleep (well, you could take better care of yourself) we spend anywhere from six hours, forty minutes (6:40) to fifteen hours, eighteen minutes (15:18) engaged in communication.*  Those of you with jobs that entail less physical work and more talking, writing, reading and other sorts of communication, and this probably includes most of the people reading this, spend more than that.

This constant communication forms the world in which we spend not only the time actively engaged in it, but much of the remainder as well, as our self-talk, coming now from our minds but originating in countless past conversations, television shows, books, movies, advertisements, shouted insults, lectures, blogs, memes, interrogations, beatings, affairs, jazz riffs, hate mail, spam, the lyrics of Oingo Boingo songs, jingles, warning flags, spankings, gestures, and such bathes us in a constant stream of images and words–messages. 

This communication, more than anything, even more than the physical constraints which seem to keep you from, say, flying to the moon or sinking to the Earth’s molten core, is the world in which your brain lives most of its waking hours.

[To reinforce Postulate Number I for this specific and important way in which our brains acquire knowlege: This allows an amazing amount of potential for misunderstanding.  Partially, this is a feature of our language, any language (except Lojban, about which the jury is still out).  Partially, I think, it may come from the belief that one can reason objectively about this world of language.]

Postulate Number I: The process by which we acquire knowledge is limited, hobbled, and distorted by a number of things.

Postulate Number II: Verbal and nonverbal communication is the most frequent and important way that adult brains acquire information.

*Finding flow : the psychology of engagement with everyday life, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pp 9.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism III January 16, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Constructivism, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.

I have looked at my previous postings on this subject and they appear long-winded, flippant, and needlessly argumentative.  Indeed, I think that it is possible I have started out on the wrong foot entirely.  Postulate number one really should be something like postulate number 10.  There is too much to cover for anyone not already convinced could take it seriously. 

So let me try again, building up from smaller assertions.

Postulate Number I (revised)–The process by which we acquire knowledge is limited, hobbled, and distorted by a number of things.

Example A: Consider that our brains can process recieve something like 10,000 sensory inputs per second, but can process only a small fraction of that input. 

Example B:Consider that our brains play tricks on us, making up information about the outside world and trying to pass it off as input.

An experiment you can do at home–The Blind Spot

  1. Take out a blank piece of paper. 
  2. Draw a star in the middle of it about an inch from the left-hand side, bigger than the diameter of a pencil, but a little smaller than an IPod ear-bud. 
  3. Three and one-half inches to the right of the star, draw a dot, approximately the same size as the star.
  4. Hold the paper in front of you, about six inches away.
  5. Close your left eye and stare at the star with your right one.  (The star should be directly in front of your right eye.)
  6. Slowly move the paper away from you while staring at the star.

At a point around 10-11 inches away from your eye, the dot will appear to cease to exist.  The paper will appear to be blank in the spot where the dot was, unless you move your right eye away from the star to look at it.  You have a blank spot in the photoreceptors that receive light in your eyes.  Your brain constantly fills in these spots with information from your other eye, or if that eye is closed or missing, from your short term memory.  It constructs this picture you think of as “reality.”

Example C: Consider that when painters wish to see the “true” color of an element of “reality” that they are painting (especially when out-of-doors), they make a hole in a card, and look at the element through that hole, diminishing the effect that the surroundings have upon the brain’s perception of the element.  In other words, people look at trees and think of their trunks as brown and their leaves as green, while the light that actually bounces off the trunk can appear green, black, grey, red, or many other colors, depending on the position of the sun, the condition of the atmosphere, and, especially important to landscape painters, the distance from the painter.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism II January 11, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Constructivism, Education, Other, Philosophy, postmodern, postmodernism, science.

My apologies, SilverTiger, and others who are following this dialogue, for being so long in posting the second of this series.  The following is only a partial response to his second post on the subject.  There is a great deal there, and although I would love to respond to it all, I am thinking that it might be easier to follow this discussion if it is taken in small chunks. 

SilverTiger’s first question is a digression, probably, from the main body of this, since it originated in my personal narrative, which had perched on the razor-thin fence of relevance.  However, I will attempt to answer it, just to be fair to the spirit of this discussion. 

The “progressive historian” quoted by your professor held the opposite opinion but although he sought to interpret history in support of his opinion, do we have any reason to suspect his treatment of historical fact?

Yes.  Of course we do.   We always have reason to suspect a historian’s treatment, as well as the facts they chose, and how they were chosen, and whether they are answering relevant and valuable questions, etc.  Unfortunately, historians don’t agree on these things as a matter of course.  They don’t always agree on facts, methods, important subject areas, or other weighty concerns.  Within the profession there is a tacitly-agreed-upon canon of books and studies that form the basis of what we might call “historical knowledge.”  But every generation new and talented historians decide that other areas need to be included (as, for example, the Middle East becomes more important and the fall of the Soviet Union makes more Ottoman materials available for study).  And sometimes talented historians smash old “truths” and dispute old “facts” as well.

The next question SilverTiger poses is

The description of the pilot flying on instruments is interesting, but what does it really tell us? . . . How true is it, though?

Well, it is a workable, and somewhat functional, start to other important points of which Radical Constructivism is, itself constructed.  It is a model of the way the body and brain seem to function.  Is is true?  I’m not sure this question makes any sense in RC.  But SilverTiger elaborates further down with some additional questions.

More prosaically, the idea that we “only” receive our information about the outside world via the senses, while true, can be overstated. Put your hand on a hot plate and what happens? You move it away pretty damn quick. Are you aware of any “information” coming to you “via the senses” and “being interpreted by the brain”? Nope. You feel pain, you yell and you move, all in one. So much for seeing the world through a TV screen.

This is an interesting example of the difficulty of a scientific, rational, realist worldview.  When you put your hand on a hot plate your reflexes and reactions occur without the intermediary of the brain, pulling your hand from the plate and initiating another series of actions, an adrenaline rush, for example, and possibly an exclaimation.  What the brain does, is reorders these reactions.  You think that you yelled simultaneously with pulling your hand off.  You think that the sensation of pain came before the reaction.  It did not.  In fact, it had to be interpreted as pain, whereas it began as intense sensation along a number of nerves. 

I agree that the whole thing is nothing like seeing the world through a TV screen.  But I’m not sure how that invalidates the analogy or the point I was attempting to make, which was that our brains are locked inside our heads. 

Regarding the next question, about the Newtonian vs. Einsteinian worldviews, you seem to be saying that that I originated that distinction.  I was talking about Ptolemaic vs. Copernican models of the behavior of the Earth and the Sun–a simpler distinction.  Regardless, let me attempt to answer the questions posed below.

I too have heard that when NASA sends vehicles into the reaches of the solar system, they use Newton’s equations, not Einstein’s. What does this mean? Does it mean that the objective real world is inaccessible to us and so we can construct any world we like – or borrow Newton’s or Einstein’s – and use whichever we please because the world is merely what we think it is? No.

I didn’t use my example to demonstrate that “the real world is inaccessible to us.”  I take this as an axiom, a provisional assumption that nobody has really been able to demonstrate false to my satisfaction.  But first they would have to get me interested in the importance of thinking that the real world is accessible to us.  I have seen many of the “real worlds” asserted by others dashed to bits.  Whenever I hear somebody talking about “facing reality” I become wary.  Such a phrase usually means that they have recognized that I do not share their view of a situation and have, thus, become upset by that knowledge.  The assertion that somebody else will not “face facts” or “see the real situation” is what Nietche would have called a “will to power.”

So, does the Earth revolve about the Sun (Copernican), or does the Sun revolve around the Earth (Ptolemaic)?  This is a spurious distinction to somebody who thinks as a constructivist.  RC thinking would go more like this:  Which equations are easiest to use in order to get me up in space and return me safely to Earth? 

Regarding the question of whether we can “construct any world we like . . . and use whichever we please because the world is merely like we think it is,” I’m always a little puzzled by this assumption.  The idea that we construct reality does not mean that we do so arbitrarily.  We rely on a great deal of sensory data, millions of little experiments that we conduct and record, our interactions with others, and perhaps most important, the voices in our heads, to “construct reality.”

Most people, scientists included, will acknowledge, as SilverTiger has, that one shapes questions about the world, which, in turn, shapes the answers one gets about it.  So everyone is “constructing” their own reality.  The important questions, it seems to me, have to do with the amount of our own reality that we are constructing, the proportion.  I won’t assert that we construct all of our own reality, for the simple reason that I assume that is the case.  The more I come to grips with the process by which I am constructing my world, the more control I am able to assert over the construction process. 

I’m working hard on proposition number two.  But in the interests of the give-and-take of discussion, I’d like to ask one question first.  SilverTiger asserts that “the question . . . is whether we can in any meaningful way know this underlying real world.”  For Radical Constructivists, of course, this is not a meaningful question.  Can we know something about this thing that seems so important to you?  I don’t know.  I promise to think carefully about the answer to that, however, as soon as SilverTiger, or anyone else out there, can show me that it is an important question.

Another New Header Image January 10, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Constructivism, Lowell, Massachusetts Drivers, Other.
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In honor of the discussion that SilverTiger and I are having about Radical Constructivism, I have inserted a new header image, which I call “Contradictory Injunction.”  Luckily, there are endless examples of these sorts of messages in Lowell, Massachusetts.  A few years ago the snowplows had wiped out the paint on the Wood Street approach to this intersection, but the City repainted it in this confusing arrangement. 

Drivers tend to read into the sign different messages.  The ones who remember when it was a left-turn only lane read the “only” part of it as confirmation.  If they have to go straight, onto the Roark Bridge, they stay in the endlessly long line of cars in the right lane.  And then they are peeved when those on the left merge into them.

I figure the only acceptable thing to do in the left lane there is to split your car in two, and I’d gladly help others with a rocket launcher, if I had one, or an axe, if they stayed still long enough.

Introduction to Radical Constructivism I January 7, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Books, Constructivism, history, Other, postmodern, postmodernism, science.

A couple of days ago I happened upon an interesting blog written by an even more interesting person called, in the blogosphere at least, SilverTiger.  I have been showering his blog with odd comments and questions and in return he has commented on my own.  Recently, if there can be anything more recent than the aforementioned “couple of days,” I commented on an interesting post he wrote about sudoku, and he, in turn, challenged me to a sort of debate on our respective blogs, about the merits and shortcomings of such a philosophical position–Radical Constructivism (RC). 

I had meant to write about this particular philosophical position before, but, well, you all know how that goes.  SilverTiger’s challenge seems like a good time to start. 

 I thought I’d start with the comment that precipitated it, which was

Interesting. I have no doubt that there is a “real” reality out there. The idea that we somehow contruct reality seems illogical to me. For example, if I construct reality, how did I construct “myself”? Or do I merely imagine that there was a time before I existed?

No, for me, the findings of science hold together far too solidly for the world to be some kind of Buddhistic delusion. The only reasonable defence seems fully blown solipsism.

If you don’t find it too much of a bore, how about rehearsing the constructivist prospectus in a post? I might then be moved to post a contrary view. Could be fun.

Well, we shall see about the “fun” part.  I’m pretty sure that SilverTiger and I will have fun.  But whether this will be interesting for others, I do not know.

I spent some time today thinking about how to coalesce RC into something that would be understandable to most people, and I found this a terribly difficult task.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, it developed independently in several different disciplines and, therefore, has several sets of jargon that make it (second) difficult even for me to explain to myself.  There are at least three excellent books on it, that I know of (and I’d love to hear of others, of course).

  • How Real is Real, Paul Watzlavick, ed.  
  • Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?, Paul Watzlavick, ed.  
  • Munchhausen’s Pigtail or Psychotherapy & Reality, Paul Watzlawick

For those who prefer the internets, the best possible paper on the subject may be found at:

Riegler, A. (2001) Towards a Radical Constructivist Understanding of Science. Foundations of Science, special issue on “The Impact of Radical Constructivism on Science” 6(1):1-30.

(For that last one, click on the title to find it at it’s current home. )

This little debate between SilverTiger and I (and whoever else would like to join in, of course, through the comments space) might take a while, because I am simply unable at the moment, to lay out a series of postulates that would do this perspective justice.  Instead, first up is a response to SilverTiger’s comments in the form of a personal narrative.

I studied History in graduate school, and one of my first graduate courses was in the field of historiography, which is the study of the writing of history.  This class was taught by an excellent teacher at California State University, Sacramento, and his name escapes me at the moment, for I wasn’t ever officially in the graduate program there, so I didn’t have to remember his name. 

At some point in the semester we read an address by an eminent American “progressive historian” who asked the people in the audience to think carefully about whether they saw history as a progression towards the perfection of humanity, or as a decline, or as a sort of spirally curve that didn’t go anywhere in particular. 

For the life of me I couldn’t understand what this guy was talking about.  And I asked the rest of the class “why are there no other options?”  The professor waited a second for somebody else to field the question and then, as no other responses were forthcoming, said “like what?”

I couldn’t think of anything, and was a little embarrased.  And yet, I knew there must be something else.  It soon (not soon enough to use in the class, but relatively soon as I beat myself up over not being able to come up with an answer, maybe a couple of years later) dawned on me that the appropriate answer was something like this: “Like thinking that that is a weird question and rejecting it out-of-hand.”  Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case in the eye of the pontificator.  This guy’s idea of perfection and mine were almost certainly different, since he was born at least one hundred years before me. 

So, the problem here is first to recognize that dividing the world into realists and solipsists is spurious.  I do not believe that I am creating the entire world in my head, which would be the criticism most people levy against RC, without understanding it.  It is not solipsism.  RC simply rejects the idea that it is important to think about whether or not there is a real world. 

So, what isRC?  How about an analogy, to start things off?  Imagine that you are a pilot of a plane with excellent instruments.  You can see through a little video screen the view from any direction, and your instruments tell you all about the plane’s relationship to the rest of the world.  Maturana (Maturana, H. R. (1978) Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality. In: Miller, G. A. & Lenneberg, E. (eds.) Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought: Essays in Honor of Eric Lenneberg, New York: Academic Press, pp. 27- 63.) asserts that this is pretty much the boat we are all in. 

The only way we know about something like the rest of the world is through our senses.  The only way we know that the information we get from our senses is correct (conforming in some fashion to something we think of as reality) is that our other senses corraborate that information.  Our eyes see a table with food on it.  Our nose smells the food.  If we try to walk though the table, our sense of touch will let us know that we may not do so. 

Postulating an objective “real world” is not a problem, in this simple example.  One is unlikely to find anything to counter that perspective.  But there are many things in the objective “real world” that will throw you for a loop.  Consider, for example, that the progressive historian I mentioned earlier may (or may not) have been a racist who believed that people with dark skin were inferior to those with lighter color skin.  What, then, of his vision of perfection, or of progress? 

Any discussion involving the perceptions of more than one individual quickly begins to tax the idea of there being any objective reality.   The wonderful thing about science is that, in the experience of most people, it does not run into such problems.  But consider, for a moment, that most people are aware that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  And yet one might ask whether this heliocentric view plays any part at all in the calculations necessary in the ballistics of launching and landing the Space Shuttle.  For these calculations it is simplest, and least dangerous, to retreat to the Ptolemaic worldview.  Astrogators, in other words, set aside their knowledge of “the real world” in order to get their jobs done. 

So, this rehearsal of the constructivist position begins with postulate number one, viz: The assertion that there is an objective reality out there somewhere, while very helpful at the level at which animals interact with the world, can lead to nonsense at more complicated levels of thought, and this assertion really out ought to be the first thing tossed out the window when one is doing complicated sorts of reasoning.

So, SilverTiger, or others who wish to get involved here, any reaction to postulate 1.

Name that Blog December 21, 2006

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, bookmooch, Books, Constructivism, Education, Hipster PDA, how to, librarything, lifehack, Lowell, luck or time, Market Research, Massachusetts Drivers, Origami, Other, statistical analysis, web 2.0, writing.

Davidbdale brought to my attention yesterday, late at night, when I had already had a particularly difficult day, the fact that there is a blog called “as a blog returns to its vomit” which is run by a pastor, somewhere in the Midwest, probably.  Why did this bring me even lower?  Well, david saw this blog, which does not even have an open comment thread, in WordPress’s list of fast-growing blogs and thought that it was mine.  (No, david, mine’s the blog that’s hardly growing at all.)  And it bothered me because I really should have thought about the name a little more before I started this thing, and I should have checked for others using the name, or variants thereof.

In an earlier post I said that I was thinking about making some changes to this thing, more drastic ones than the accretive ones and annoying changes of backgrounds and themes that I normally make.  Well, let’s add a name change to the list.  The name of this blog doesn’t really reflect the content of the site, or the community that reads it, or really anything important.  And pastor whatever-his-name-is seems to have gotten the name first anyway (in March, I think.)

So I am changing the name temporarily to Pro Tempore (another nod to davidbdale, who needles me about my use of Latin).  This will not affect any links that you have made to this blog.  They will still appear as the original name and will still link here, because I am not changing the URL.  But as the name implies, this is a temporary measure.  I would really like some suggestions as to what to call this thing going forward (accordingly, I have tagged it with most of the tag categories I normally use, so that people who read this tag-surfing will get a chance to chime in here.)

So, tell me what to call this blog.  The prize will be, I don’t know yet.  Suggest something for that too.  I’d like to hear from everybody who reads it.  That means you too, Mom, Dad.  And I’d particularly like to hear from those of you with descriptive names that seem to work so well for your blogs.  That would be davidbdale, whose blog name describes exactly the content of his site, as does strugglingwriter’s, prairie flounder’s and some of the others on my blogroll.