• Amuses

    What a piece of work is Man

    This is a line from Hamlet. Which I did not know about before I moved to England, coz I heard the Hair version first. Remember Hair? I suppose I am showing my age, but this was from a time when musicals were fresh and new and often provocative. I remember being mesmerised by the German version of “hair”. No idea why. Anyway, the Hair musical also does the “what a piece of work is man” as a song. It is here, if you want to listen to it. I now prefer the Hamlet version, which is here, No need to listen to all of it, just the bit after 50 seconds. This is the full quote:

    This type of thinking has an name: anthropocentric. It is when we place the human on a pedestal at the top of Creation and say: wow-wow-wow. We humans are clearly made in God’s image, more clever, more adept, than any other living creature. It is also when we look at the rest of nature and judge it by our own standards, look at animals though the glasses of our human understanding or try to understand the universe in terms of intentions and rationality and whatever else we thought up to provide a flattering backstage to our performance as masters of the universe. As George Orwell put it in Seven Commandments of Animalism in Animal Farm: “Four legs good. Two legs better”.

    I suppose you think I might be laying it on a bit thick. But I am not, really. In philosophy there has long been a sharp divide between creatures that think (us) and creatures that don’t (the rest), and it was assumed that the difference is somehow fundamental and significant. Humans think. Humans have language. Humans make tools. Humans create. Humans plan. These abilities are so fundamental to our self-image, we think they must be hard-wired, in our genes, transmitted through natural selection because these are the very characteristics that have put us in our position as overlords of creation. QED.

    Right? Wrong. Or at the very least not self-evident. This is one of the issues that lies at the root of the so-called analytic-continental divide. You might remember an earlier post about this, when I explained I never knew about the so-called divide until I started this ReMa course. In England they firmly held to the belief that anything continental was, eh, continental. Like they had “intercontinental” phone booths, for calling from one continent (the UK) to another. That was 40 years ago, before anyone ever dreamt of Brexit. But I am digressing.

    The man-as-superbeing story is a nice story, of course, comforting and safe. I was told it as a child by all the grown-ups, so it must be true. Probably, so were you. So why should it suddenly be all wrong? Well, think about it. The earth is about 4500 million years old, with single-cell organisms starting to emerge around 3500 million years ago. The first invertebrates appear around 700 million years, fishes at 500 million years and plants even later. The first mammals arrived around 200 million years ago. From these, we get primates, then great-apes and eventually humans. If you put these data on a 24-hour clock, you can see that we humans arrive in the last one-and-a-quarter minute.

    So what? you may think. Well, it takes time for natural selection to work on genes. It has taken a very very long time for complex life forms to evolve. It is therefore very unlikely that human abilities appeared out of the blue, by lightning or some other external event. It is much more likely that our special cognitive abilities are built up from old stuff, from building blocks that we share with other forms of life. This is what Cecelia Heyes says. She is a philosopher-psychologist or psychologist-philosopher and she explains it all very well in her book “Cognitive gadgets”. I am a big fan. If you don’t want to read the whole book, read this article in Aeon.

    For my thesis (yes, I am writing it), I am trying to connect up three theories on an evolutionary continuum:

    • Enactivism, based on biological evolutionary theory, Di Paolo-style
    • Cultural evolution, Cecilia Heyes style
    • Pragmatist philosophy of language, Brandom-style

    The idea is to recognise basic patterns to the emergence, use and development of cognitive abilities. Any pattern that exists as an evolutionary ground pattern, need not be explained at the human level. So let’s go down the evolutionary path and start at the bottom. With something really simple, like one-cell organisms.

    The first problem that needs solving, is how to decide that when something is alive. Biological theory (well, the variety invented by Maturana back in the 1980s, which developed into enactivism) says that any living cell will keep itself alive in two opposite ways: by shutting itself away safely behind a membrane and by interacting with its environment (bacteria will move towards a source of sugar in the water). All living organisms switch between those two modes of isolation and interaction. This switching is regulated through active homeostasis.

    Ashby’s double feedback loop

    Homeostasis involves having an extra process on top of the primary process which monitors the situation (compares it against a threshold) and responds when something needs doing. Your home thermostat is a good example. The idea of homeostasis is also hugely popular in the real world. Quality systems are inevitably based on (at least) double loop regulation. Little do they know that the concept was, well, I supposed not discovered, but formalised by Ashby in the 1940s. Now obviously thermostats and quality systems are not alive. Their homeostasis is not active, not self-regulating, not geared toward survival. It is not active. Active homeostasis causes the organism to take steps to stay alive, i.e. to regulate its isolation and interaction in such a way that not only will it survive now and today, but also tomorrow. Is this scientific? Well, yes, in the sense that it a very basic and clean formulation of what life is: striving to survive, to be free of the imminent danger of the internal system running down or the environment taking over, taking steps to ensure that survival.

    Operational closure, by Di Paolo & Thompson, 2014

    The next question is about how organisms get involved with their environment and each other, and become adapted to that interaction. General systems theory offers a basic pattern for this, with a little tweaking: the idea of operational closure. A terrible term for something rather interesting: the living system will try to say alive by extending into the environment. This is done by moving its boundaries. Literally. The inside of the living organism consists of linked up processes (the black circles). You may think of it as the inside of a cell or a bacterium. Notice how the internal processes interconnect to form a whole: the total of connections between the linked processes constitutes its border. Also note how operational closure does not require a structural barrier with the environment: it is not organisational closure. Nor it is interactional closure, because the interconnecting processes of the organism may simultaneously interact with the environment. Now the organism may further extend its borders by drawing in another process, by connecting its in- and output to the existing connections. It is not difficult to see how operational closure, in combination with active homeostasis, will allow a group of cells work together and eventually specialise, and so on, into the evolution of that organism, simply by trial and error, and without recourse to genetic change. What I find interesting is that the identity of the living system is not fixed but fluid, indeed self-generated: by drawing in new processes (or abandoning them), the living system changes not just its structure but also its identity.What a wonderful modelling problem 🙂 I think the business architects in my day job would file for mass retirement if they knew.

    The ideas of isolation/interaction, active homeostasis, operational closure and identity-generation are fundamental to what is called autopoietic enactivism, the first of three theories I am lining up. The important thing is that if a bacterium actively keeps itself alive through these basic biological patterns, there is no need to explain the why of this behaviour at every level of creation. Nor – and this is important – do we need to assume it requires consciousness or thought or intentions or any other specifically human machinery. We also do not need to ask how the bacterium knows how to respond to the outside world. It does not know. It merely tries to stay alive, i.e. keeps its processes below the robustness-threshold of its homeostasis by whatever means available to it. It is easy to see natural selection operating on the survival of the fittest bacterium.

    With the emergence of more complex life forms – perhaps fitted with a nervous system – the history of successful interactions will start to become important, allowing for the formation of habits. This is the realm of ecological psychology, which says that organisms use their environment as scaffolding. Recognition of other life-forms as agents, i.e. as organisms striving to survive through interaction with the shared environment, new types of interaction become possible. Several organisms may interact to produce a group interaction. And from that, group habits. Again, it is easy to see natural selection operating on the survival of the group with the most successful habits. No human cleverness needed for that, either.

    Boring? I find this stuff fascinating. It allows for another type of evolution with is not based on genetics alone, but on successful behaviour which is arrived at and extended into the future in some other, non-genetic way. Which sort of fits the data: the difference between our genes and the genes of chimps or bonobos is only 1.2%. Interestingly, there is a lot more genetic variation within chimps and bonobos than within humans: only 0.1% within humans. I would not be surprised if we killed off the most of the human genetic variants ourselves. A nasty piece of work, is Man. We probably threw the Neanderthals off the last cliff. Plus our other ‘siblings’. There is a bunch of new discoveries about our human predecessors. In the chart below you can see our brothers and sisters who did not make it.

    Source: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/the-origin-of-our-species.html

    This post is getting a bit long. I will write up the other two parts next time. I just want tell you about my tiny adventure with Continental philosophy and a French philosopher who causes my regular professors indigestion. I still had to get some ECs (European credits) and I decided on a Philosophy of Evolution course. I thought it might extend my knowledge, and expected it to be a bit like the research seminar for philosophy of language, which was (mainly) on chimpanzees. Well, it was not. It was Continental philosophy, centred around Stiegler, a French philosopher who died very recently. My lecturer is a big authority on him, so the seminar was worthwhile if only for that (he also publishes philosophical papers on shamans and the use of psychotics, so an old hippie, after my heart). Unfortunately “Stiegler and his Parisian Friends” as my supervising professor calls them, invoke impatience to the point of aggression in analytically-styled philosophers. Which I find amusing. I suppose that through my long years as a civil servant I have learned to stomach texts which are a lot more cumbersome than Stiegler’s. So I just smiled my way through (a lot of) them, and found some really useful insights. I also noticed that my lecturer was not up date on the ideas in philosophy of mind and language; just as the other (analytical) side was not. So I wrote my essay on combining ideas from both sides, I suppose as a sort of prelude to my thesis. I used the picture about the evolving chimp (above) in my essay, and had the text checked by both sides. It was well received, so I must have got it right. It is here, if you want to read it. I was allowed get out of a “group essay” – oh horror, remember my previous adventures with group work? Even if it does work out, I end up doing most or all of the work so I might as well do it on my own. But I was let off (pfft) and allowed to write an essay on my own, on the condition that I would stick to the word-limit. Which I did, with three words to spare 🙂 So the essay is not too long, but perhaps a bit technical. Judge for yourself if you are so inclined.

    P.S. If you have any comments about the biological patterns I wrote up in this post, do let me know. I am wondering if explaining the ideas the way I do, is making any sense to normal people like yourselves. I have been trying it out on Husband, but he is finally beginning to object to the timing of my lengthy after-midnight brainwaves, so perhaps you want to help me out 🙂

  • Amuses

    Trust me, I don’t know either

    Water, sea, waves, skies – I adore them. I stand in great awe of artists who manage to capture their light. Like Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky who painted the translucent waves of the picture at the top of this blog. He did many more (you can use the link to check him out). This particular one he did towards the end of his life, and is special because there are no ships, people, or shoreline. Just water and light. So breathtakingly beautiful.

    I am not quite sure why I wanted this particular picture for today’s post. Possibly I am missing the sea. In other years we usually take mini-holidays near the sea so I can walk bare-foot along the the sea line. I can do that for hours on end. If Husband would not suggest we’d better turn back, I believe I would not stop. I love wading between the little islands that form between tides. I sing to the waves and talk to the birds, but mostly I breathe and splash water with my feet. Yes, quite like a child. Adulthood is overrated 🙂

    I suppose wild water signifies opposite things to me. Beauty, freedom, light, strength, life. But also force and danger and sudden change. A bit like living, perhaps. And there is my link. I wanted to tell you about trust. Trust is risky business. I have been thinking about it in connection to language and cognition, and I developed my own little theory. Which is probably wrong, but it is my first, so bear with me.

    By John P. Weis. I have a subscription to his newsletter, hence found this delightful image in my mail this weekend.

    This is also the long-promised fourth and last instalment of my mini-series ‘studying in times of Corona’. The first wave (hmm) as it now transpires we are heading into the third. I think the Netherlands must be the very last densely populated European country to go into lockdown. But we are. From tomorrow. Not before time, either. Husband has gone out, trying to get coffee beans. It appears he is not the only one. Even though coffee is ‘essential’, surely.

    My last “big” seminar was on “folk psychology”. You might think that is people pretending to be psychologists, but it is a bit different. The idea is that we read each others’ minds. All the time. We do that, supposedly, to understand and predict each other. We know or we think we know ‘what makes other people tick’. We think in terms of belief-desire: we are rational beings that believe and want things, and that is what makes us act. The idea is from Hume, and draws on Aristotle’s de Anima. So it has been around a long time, long enough for you and I to believe it firmly. Sounds plausible, eh? Flattering too: the Homo Sapiens really got it all sussed. No wonder we are at the top of the evolutionary ladder.

    Painting by Harry Roseland. Yes, they are also reading tea leaves. Just a little joke.

    You probably saw it coming: perhaps not. This is a big debate in current Philosophy of Mind now. I wrote a very, very long paper on it, far exceeding the number of words allowed for a paper, first reviewing the various positions on the issue, and then developing a bit of my own theory. If you want the read the paper, it is here. It got me an very good grade, but I suppose I was lucky the professor wanted to read it at all, as it did not conform to any of the usual requirements. He said it was majestic, but not a paper at all, more like the outline of a book or a dissertation. Well, yes, I suppose it was. I was so excited about the topic. Still, I felt lucky to get detailed feedback. Not used to get this much attention to my work. At the office no one is in the business of improving my mind, I suppose 🙂

    I will try to tell you what debate on folk psychology is about, because otherwise I cannot explain my own little theory. Let’s take how we normally talk about each other as a starting point. We talk about our mental states a lot. About what we think, believe, feel, and why and why not. We are also very much aware of other people having thoughts, beliefs, etc. Children learn to do this at an early age, it is thought as early as 15 months. It is a fundamental ability for social interaction because it allows us to cooperate and coordinate. At all levels, in a family, in a shop, at school, at work or in government. You can see this ability at work very easily. We explain ourselves constantly in terms of what we believe and feel. And we call each other out: Why did you do that? What is the point of this? Such behaviour is characteristic of humans. Because there is little (or none, as some would have it) evidence of animals making each other justify their behaviour.

    So what is the big debate about? Well, it is not about whether we display this behaviour or whether this is typically human. It is about whether this folk psychology is an innate, genetically inherited ability. The received opinion was and mostly is, that this innate ability is what makes human special, sets us apart. Philosophers who think that, usually also think that this ability lives in the brain, as some kind of specialised module. That we read our own mental states and others, because we have special equipment to do so given to us by Evolution. At great cost, because large brains are expensive in terms of energy. But those with the best mindreading abilities survived, because clearly this provided a competitive advantage. This is called the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. It also explains our intelligence and our ability to plan ahead.

    There are some big problems with the view. One is that our reactions to other people are much faster than would ever be possible if we consciously evaluated mental states. Another one is that if you look upon other people in the third person, as agents with mental states that you can read, that leaves no room for true interpersonal experience, for experiencing together. Then there is the matter of the horse and the carriage – do our mental states explain our behaviour, do we act in accordance with our intentions? Or is it the other way around ? Cecelia Heyes, a philosopher-psychologist says that folk-psychologising is very clever, but that there is no neural basis for it. At all. It is an ability which we have discovered, fostered, taught to our children and hence transmitted across generations, through cultural learning. We teach our children from birth to respond and to learn, that is what makes us special. There are others, who say that cognition is not individual and not brain-bound; that is just an fairly recent idea which came from our own invention of computers. And so on and so forth.

    The main idea, from the non-traditional camp, is that social cognition, including our mind-reading ability, is extended by language. Language is required for cooperation, specialisation and coordination. And as device for the enculturation of social memory. Not, as classic philosophy of language would have it, to express truths about the world – remember my post about Frege? No special genes, no special modules. Simply something we have learned to do well as a species. Much like to our ability to drive or play games.

    Painting by Cassius Coolidge

    You may shrug and think this new approach not a big deal, but I can assure you it is, in my little Philosophia bubble. It turns human cognition into something that is shared with other primates, which opens up a whole new vista of research. We do have to redefine the word “cognition” though, so that it does not refer to just to humans, but that should not be too much of a problem. Philosophers of language have done much worse in the past 🙂

    And now it is curtains up for my little theory. It struck me that in neither “camp” there was a true discussion or inquiry into “why”. Why do we mindread? Or pretend we do? Obviously the survival-of-the-fittest theory won’t wash, as this ability is not genetically inherited. So why? I learned from cases in psychiatry that what therapists do, is to provide consistent feedback when patients cannot do this for themselves. As if they temporarily take over the social mindreading function until the patient can do it for him or herself again. Obviously that requires trust. If you look at this from the patient’s point of view, then what you see is a form of cognitive offloading – the patient outsources, as it were, mental work to the therapist. If you look at cognition in general, this what we do all the time, outsource, offload task to our environment. To the environment, to other people, to artefacts like books, and recently to smart devices – anything to free up cognitive resources. Even if we accept information from someone, you may regard this as a form of cognitive offloading. And all of it requires trust. If you cannot rely on whatever you outsource your cognitive labour to, you are at risk.

    In a nutshut, social cognition requires constant risk management. So there. I will come back to this idea at later point, because it will be a theme in my PhD. Talked it over my professor today, and he agreed. I will tell you about the full proposal once I have written it up, but there will be a relation between felicitous conditions for speech acts, trust and what we do – in language – to compensate when we are not sure what we or who we are dealing with. Maybe I will find out something interesting. And if not, that is also of interest.

    Robots communication

    Next I will tell you about my tiny adventure with Continental philosophy and a French philosopher who causes my regular professors indigestion. And then it will be thesis time – these days called a “publishable article”. I was told today that I have already done all the preparation I need (which means my research log = state-of-the-art paper =10 EC), so I will be writing the outline in the next few weeks. Exciting. But there is also Xmas, and Husband and Son and Xmas dinner to cook and films to watch.

    I hope your Christmas will be pleasant.

  • Amuses

    Invisible tangerines

    This is supposed to be the last out of four blogs to tell you about my academic exploits in times of Corona. But meanwhile life has been catching up, and there are some other things I would like to share with you. Now preparing my master thesis. The first step takes the form of what is known as a “state of the art” paper. Yes, I have finally started. I think this paper is intended to be a place where you collect notes, insights, what-have-you about the topic you want to to you thesis on. It is not graded, just pass or fail. Mine will be on mindshaping. Yes, my professor suggested it, as I predicted, he seems to have an idea of where I am going even if I don’t.

    A goldfish jumping out of the fishbowl

    So, what is mindshaping? Well, I don’t properly know yet. It is a new word, judging by what google ngram says about it. Seems to have been invented around 2009, and its use is gaining. It is a framework for social cognition, how we are biologically predisposed to create collective behaviours so that we may cooperate better. Bit vague? Yes. In fact I am going a little crazy with trying to get to grips with the idea. It does not help that I only have a few hours at any one time – and that only rarely – to study. Ha, making excuses! I hear you think. Well, that may be so. But I am groping about in semi-darkness though. I have started a logbook, just to keep track of things. It has already shown me that my ideas jump like fish, in and out of the bowl. My professor kindly sent me some additional papers to read, but I am struggling to connect these to the topic of mindshaping. I felt like a character out of a Murakami plot, specifically one I saw a movie of, called “Barns burning”. It contains the following scene:

    As I mentioned, when I first met her she told me she was studying mime. One night, we were out at a bar, and she showed me the Tangerine Peeling. As the name says, it involves peeling a tangerine. On her left was a bowl piled high with tangerines; on her right, a bowl for the peels. At least that was the idea. Actually, there wasn’t anything there at all. She’d take an imaginary tangerine in her hand, slowly peel it, put one section in her mouth, and spit out the seeds. When she’d finished one tangerine, she’d wrap up all the seeds in the peel and deposit it in the bowl to her right. She repeated these movements over and over again. When you try to put it in words it doesn’t sound like anything special. But if you see it with your own eyes for ten or twenty minutes (almost without thinking, she kept on performing it) gradually the sense of reality is sucked right out of everything around you. It’s a very strange feeling.

    “You’re pretty talented,” I told her.

    “This? It’s easy. It has nothing to do with talent. What you do isn’t make yourself believe that there are tangerines there. You forget that the tangerines are not there. That’s all.”

    Citrus fruits

    Right. Simply forget that the tangerine is not there.

    It gives me a sense of real unreality or unreal reality that sort of suits me. As if I am floating in a sea of ideas. I have been trying to ground myself listening to audiobook detectives. In fact, I have devoured piles of them in the last few months. Not necessarily of great literary value. I love intoxicating who-dunnits that I listen to whenever I have to do some chore that allows for listening. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, cycling, whatever. To give you an idea:

    • Arnaldur Indridason, an Icelandic writer: 8 detectives (all I could get). Iceland grows on you as you listen (except for the food which is heavy and greasy and without a trace of vegetables). Quite a lot in there about Iceland’s role in the 2nd world war which was unfamiliar to me.
    • Thomas Engström, a Swedish writer. I devoured his “Ludwig Licht” quartet, which is a political thriller about an ex Stasi agent turned CIA. He tries to do the right thing in the wrong way, or the other way around. I sympathise.
    • Nino Haratischvili is a Georgian author who wrote an epos about 6 generations of the family Jashi, orginally from Tbilisi. Sovjet history is definitely not Georgian history, nothing like it, in fact. It is a huge story – 900 pages, many audiobook episodes, but this Tolstoian effort I recommend highly. Is it a detective? Well, of sorts. This kind of historical writing is a bit detective like, in the classic “who-dunnit” sense.
    • Eva García Sáenz de Urturi is a Spanish detective writer in the style of Carlos Ruis Zafon. You can hear the magic swelling through the striking lyrical descriptions which must originate from the Spanish (sadly I do not understand that language, as opposed to Son who is actively studying it). Great prose, great stories. She has published three detectives on audiobook. I am currently listening to final part of the trilogy of the White City, which is situated in  Vitoria, the capital of the Basque country, with inspector Kraken as its main character. Kraken is actually a dee-sea monster with very long arms.
    “Kraken” by KyuYong Eom
    • Finally, Pieter Waterdrinker. He is Dutch. I am not sure how well known he is, but he is about my age and spent most of his life in Moscow. A prolific writer. He writes big books, epics, and has an ink black view of society. I adore his writing. A while ago I read “Poubelle” which is (partly) about European parliament and its politics. Now I have just finished “the Rat from Amsterdam”. It is about the charity industry, amongst other things. It is just layers and layers of images until you are completed wrapped up in them. Amazing. These are who-dunnits in a very different sense, showing up society and all of us – in a bleak and compassionate manner.
    Old-fashioned compass

    Right, so this is what I do when I want to escape reality. Or when I want to escape my own foggy brain. You may have gathered that I love stories which span history and continents. Gives a sense of perspective, even if it is probably false. But then, Truth is overrated 🙂

    This week has been particularly weird, with all the media coverage in parliament of my beloved employer and Son at home preparing for exams at the same time.. And me working full time and trying to study. Whatever helps to keep us sane, right? See you in the next post, which will be the concluding post on academic exploits in times of Corona – well, the first wave, as we now know it. After that, I will move on to the here and now. I have a little theory which I want to share with you.

  • Amuses

    If at first you don’t succeed ..

    Try, try, try again? Wrong! There are cases where you ought to consider simply giving up. For instance, when you are studying philosophy of language in the early 1980s at Oxford and you find yourself unable to understand what all the fuss is about. I remember one of the essay questions at Finals: “If Pegasus does not exist, how can he be a Winged Horse?”. Well, that is easy. Like this:

    That, of course, is not the right answer. If you must know, dive into the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here. Don’t even think of complaining about a headache afterwards. Been there, done that. It gets much worse, trust me.

    How to explain? When I first started this Research Master I ran into the so-called divide between analytic and continental philosophy. I wrote a post on the topic at the time. It is here, if you like to (re)read it. The general distinction is that the analytics think (according to themselves), whereas the continentals talk. This analytical thinking, back in the 1970s and early 1980s in the analytic nest that Oxford was, revolved about there being a a connection between language and truth, or words and the world. The idea was – ‘is’ to some- that through logical analysis of language one can know what is true and vice versa.

    I can honestly say that I never believed this. It seemed a ridiculous idea to me at the time and still does. Why should there be a holy connection between Language and Truth? What does Logic have to do with Truth? Or Language? Not that I could not do Logic. I was very good at mathematics at the time (a straight A at A-level, although I can barely count now, well, use it or lose it, I suppose). Being in my early 20s, I assumed the problem had to be with me. It may even have contributed to my decision not to pursue an academic career at the time. Why continue to study something that does not resonate? I was bored. So I did not. I went into the wild world and did my thing out there.

    Coming back to academic life and analytic philosophy this time around, I was very pleased to find that the kind of philosophy of language I want to study, now actually exists. Which is why I picked my current university, for the professor who is there and now is my supervisor. I think I told you about that encounter in a very early post. Or perhaps I only told you the result. Never mind. By the way, Philosophy of mind has also changed completely. There is no Logic in the curriculum whatsoever (or Language), it is all about Cognition and where the Mind lives. Rubbing shoulders with cognitive psychology, which was my other subject – a connection I could only have dreamt of back in the days. So for a while reckoned I had found academic Heaven.

    However, I felt a bit, well, chickenish, for not looking my old enemy in the face. I was also a tiny bit worried that I might need to reacquaint myself with the old school stuff. That was my professor’s doing, coz he said at some point that he did not want to do Logic to me “yet”. Ominous. So I took a course on Advanced Topics in the Philosophy of Language, which ran at the University of Amsterdam. This time around, I enjoyed it. I also found it very difficult. Again. The Amsterdam professor was nice and very knowledgeable, but not nice enough to make me like Logic. I diligently did all the reading though, plodded through, understood most of it, and amazed myself. At least I have an idea now, of that approach to Language and Philosophy, and what it attempted to accomplish.

    This being a formal academic seminar, there was an essay to write, a presentation to give, an exam to make. I did my presentation on my professor’s work, which is very modern, with a little bit of myself thrown in, explaining how the new approach emerged from the old school. They liked that, apparently my supervising professor is a bit of a hero, which was interesting to find out. He is a most unlikely hero. I have not told him yet 🙂 Anyway, I felt that my essay had to be on the hard core stuff. So I decided on Frege, the famous mathematician, who is the original corner stone figure of the whole language = truth approach. Frege was called out, overturned, by Russell who pointed out some fatal flaw in his reasoning which left Frege in disarray, just before retirement. Poor guy. The comic below explains what is was about. If you want further explanation, follow the link underneath the comic.

    Source: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/98

    Actually, I feel a bit bad to leave you with Frege as Voldemort. He does not deserve that. Imagine, he received this devastating blow when the second volume of his masterpiece “Foundations of Arithmetic” was being printed. So what did he do, this most honourable man?

    Source: Doxiadis, A., & Papadimitriou, C. (2015). Logicomix: An epic search for truth. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

    I did a close reading of one of Frege’s last papers, der Gedanke (1918).I also read the original German version, and checked translations. To my amazement, I found that he had changed his mind on many important issues. In fact, by 1918 Frege seems to have abandoned his entire Logic project, describing the world in terms that, believe it or not, I understand and agree with. There was only one small problem. Almost every Frege expert in the world assumes that there is a continuous line of thought from his early to his later papers, even if there is no textual proof. I myself do not have anything resembling all-encompassing Frege knowledge, and I did not dare to take on these academic giants. So in my essay, I did not come out with what I really thought, I just sort of showed it. Which got me an final grade “8” which I suppose was fine, but I felt that I had understood more and deserved a little better – but then, I should have been more clear. And more daring, I suppose. The essay is here, if you want to read it. It is called “Frege im Frage”. I regard it as a fitting end, if belated, to my dealings with the “old school” philosophy of language. I have paid my dues. At last. Bridged the gap between my old and new academic self.

    Just to make sure I don’t incur any more karma, the wonderful picture at the top of this blog is by Rob Gonsalves. There are many more, take a look.

    The story ends, this time, with the experience of a wonderful international workshop with hotshots from the academic field, on Delusion and Language, of all topics. I would never have known about if if I had not embarked on this course. It was great! Two days of constant lectures, packed full of ideas. What a diet. Only the definition of delusion itself remained elusive 🙂 More about that at some future date.

    This was the third out of four posts about my academic exploits in times of Corona, or should I say, during the first wave, as we know now. The fourth post will follow soonish.

  • Film noir detective desktop with revolver
    Amuses

    Literary detective

    The second blog (out of four) in the series “academic exploits in times of Corona”. Let me tell you about a fascinating seminar I did in Amsterdam, at the UvA. My presence was virtual, which was a pity coz my dear friend Teja lives just around the corner – just think of those tingling glasses and gastronomic goodies we had to deny ourselves. Hopefully we can make up for it at some point in the near(er) future.

    Anyway, the seminar was not what I had expected. At all. I thought I was going to learn something about the technical construction of language. Well, I suppose I did learn about a specific kind of construction. The kind that helps you to find to identify who really wrote a particular document. Or even, when there is more than one author, to identify who has written which part. For instance, some real detective work has been done on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen. Do you know about her? If not, look her up. She was an abbess, a famous composer of sacred music, mystic, philosopher, scientist, writer – and born in 1089! She must have been quite a woman. Anyway, she was a bit of a control freak. Her clerks were not allowed to change anything in her texts without her approval. But it is thought that she put a lot of trust in her last clerk, to the extent that he may have completed or even written some of her texts.

    Curious? Have a look at this documentary. I thought it was wonderful, so exciting to find out what must have happened. Of course these researchers did not just look at the writings. They already knew a lot about her, her life, the general context, other authors, so they had an idea where to look. Still, a remarkable discovery (if you have not started the documentary by now, do it soon, or I will give up you).

    Great stuff, right? But interesting as it was, I was wondering how to relate it to my research topic. And then I thought about the authorship of rules and regulations in security (my daytime job for those of you that do not know). I described the problem once to my supervising professor, at the start of my back-to-academia project. You will find it tucked away in my original problem definition, in this post. The problem with anonymous texts or texts that have been written by a “body” of people, is that it is almost impossible to get textual clarification. As I put it in that other piece:

    “There is no one to ask. There is no author to ask for clarification, nor is there an easily accessible expert group.  An additional problem is that reaching out to the publisher of the regulation or standard in question, must be done through proper channels, i.e. not something just any employee can do. Usually, the best that may be achieved is to send in a formal request for clarification – which may or may not be processed during a future maintenance window”.

    The discipline that does this kind of investigation is called stylometry. Basically, stylometry analyses measurable textual features: word and sentence length, various frequencies (of words, word lengths, word forms, etc.), vocabulary richness, use of punctuation, use of certain expressions and preferences for certain spelling variants. You can imagine that the more texts you have by one particular author, the more you get to know about his or her particular stylometric style. Such analyses also allow you to pick out texts that seem odd, i.e. do not have the characteristic features commonly found in texts by that particular author.

    What I find fascinating is that these kind of features are the ones we are not aware of: our use of little worlds like a/an/the, for instance. So disguising your handwriting or attempting to stay anonymous will not stop the literary detective from finding out who you are!

    So I thought I’d study official, parliamentary, publications by and about the Dutch Tax office. Which turned out to be a lot more work than I thought, because it is not possible to get the documents from one particular dossier in one go. But since I only wanted about 50, that was doable, so I started collecting. I found some really interesting things. For instance, the official “functional” authorship which was stated on the documents (minister of finance, secretary of state, audit chamber, Dutch tax office, ministry of finance) rarely matched the author or group of authors that – according to tools and theory – actually wrote those documents. The most amazing was a set of two letters, one by the prime minister and one by the head of the audit chamber which appear to have been written by the same person. Which is weird, considering the audit chamber is suppose to check out the government.

    At this point the seminar’s professor said that I must be very very careful interpreting these results, and perhaps I would like to do a further study and involve a data scientist. 🙂 Yes yes, I understand. This must be the n-th time where I have written something which might be a little explosive to publish. Like my paper on “naive normativity in animals”, or the piece about “artificial intelligence and profiling”. I suppose in this case – unlike the other two – there really is more work to do. After all, it was the very first time I played with these tools, and I am still not sure about their limitations.

    If you want to read my paper, it is here. It is a bit dry, because it is basically analysis, but you will get the idea. Some pretty graphs included. I also did an analysis on trustworthiness. This was of particular interest because some of the documents in recent debates were said to contain falsehoods. I ran tests to find out if any signs of untruthfulness could be found. And I found? The opposite. All of these text breathed a 1000% “you can trust me”. Which probably means that in texts, trustworthiness cannot be measured, or maybe that trustworthiness is a style which can easily be faked. Or perhaps our society is not so interested in truth anymore.

    My next blog will be about Frege. Yes, the one that sort of incidentally provided the mathematical foundation for the whole analytical philosophy of language approach which I found so very boring when I was first at university. I dared to go back into hell, and I will tell you the story. Next.

  • Amuses

    Robots have more fun

    This is the first of a series of blogs about my academic exploits in the past 6 months. It is has been quite a diverse experience, because I was more or less free to choose what seminars I was going to attend to.

    Administrative intermezzo. Where am I in my studies? If you recall, the Research Master is 120 EC (European Credits). One credit is supposed to be between 25 en 30 study hours. The last leg is the Master’s thesis, which consists of a publishable article and the PhD research plan. It is supposed to be between 10.000 en 20.000 words and good for 40 EC. The other 80 ECs I have now obtained – except for 2, which I am going to get through a short (5-week) seminar on the philosophy of evolution. The whole thing has to be accounted for as “study plan” to be formally approved by the Examination Committee. Apparently mine had been approved, but I had not realised. I had submitted it last year, but never received a reply so I thought they mislaid it. Great. I have to resubmit because of some minor changes, but I have been told that will not be a problem. So – time to start preparing for preparing my thesis. If I finish it before februari, I will have done the whole full-time Research Master next to a full-time job. I am thinking that perhaps I should slow down a bit, take the rest of the academic year. But not yet. First I will write up these blogs. Coz I promised, coz maybe you will like to read them, and anyway, it is reflection time for me now this mountain of seminars and papers is behind me. End of administrative intermezzo!

    I took a seminar on Ethics and Artificial Intelligence. This was a regular Master seminar, so quite a lot of students, I think around 70 which was a bit of a change from 10-20. The idea was to learn about how to discuss the ethical aspects of robots, algorithms, self-thinking computers and how things will develop in future. We can all see that the world is changing rapidly, and this requires new thinking about what kind of decision we – humankind- want and do not want to leave to technology. If you are not familiar with this topic, you must watch John Oliver on facial recognition – in fact, you must watch it anyway because it is true and funny.

    For the first part we studied a textbook – which was excellent, I annotated my copy endlessly. This one, if you are interested. I have noticed since that many universities use it as a set book. This was still in the pre-Corona era. We had two lecturers, one Dutch, one Italian. I was impressed by their meticulous preparation of lectures – great slides! There was an exam at the end, online, and I ran out of time, so I missed out on a few points. Never mind. It was useful to learn the stock arguments from Virtue ethics (religious virtues), Utilitarianism (democratic opportunism)) and Kantian Ethics (rules) in their application to AI, because whoever you talk to, they all have a preference, so you always need to know your stuff from each of those three ethical viewpoints.

    Next we moved on to discussing a book by Steward Russell, called “Human Compatible”. It is a best seller, which I suppose is why they wanted us to read it. The idea of the course was that we learned not only to identify and tackle ethical problems about artificial intelligence, but also how to explain them to a board of directors. Unfortunately, I hated the book. Sloppy arguing, cherry-picked facts and fear-mongering – exactly the kind of cocktail that irritates me beyond measure. Don’t read it, it is dross. We discussed this book in online-workshops. I think by the end the lecturer agreed with me – or may he had another reason for abandoning the book early 🙂

    The third part was the pièce de résistance: we were to write a research proposal to tackle an Artificial Intelligence ethical problem. The prescribed format was quite a challenge: two page spread, something an executive director can read in 6 minutes during breakfast. This is mine and it looks like this:

    Pretty eh? Thank you husband, and this time also Son, for proofreading! If you read it (it is only supposed to take you 6 minutes), you will see it is about “profiling”. I wrote it just as the storm about supposed discriminatory profiling by the Dutch Tax Office broke, both in politics and in the news. So, when my professors suggested I’d send it to a newspaper because they thought it was very good, I thought I’d better check with my team and boss if I should publish – and I was sort of asked not to attract attention. So I did not. Which I found difficult, because I firmly believe that the whole issue was horribly misrepresented, and worse, detracts from the real problem. Write to me if you want to hear more about this.

    I did decide to follow up on my own recommendation and contacted the Open Group for translating the EU guidelines for the creation of responsible EA into TOGAF (which is the methodology bible for digital architects). They are interested in a white paper, so I will try to find the time to do this, because I do think it it important. We need to be thinking about totally different stakeholders – not just the people in power, but also impact op society and future generations. Also, there is a big problem in assigning responsibility for things that robots do – because you cannot hold them accountable for working as designed.

    So all in all I am happy I took the course. At times I thought was a bit slow, presumably that was because I already had a good working knowledge of both AI and Ethics. But the seminar also taught me how to put up a decent argument and write it down so that others might understand it – not a bad thing considering how much confusion there is around this topic.

    I am leaving you now, to indulge in your – and mine – favourite pastime.

  • Herbs
    Amuses

    Herbs and spices

    I love Spring. It is the season I wait for every year. During the heatwave that – mercifully – just ended, I often remembered how wonderful it was. I can get lyrical about spring showers and emerald coloured grass and the Monet-style water lilies on the pond at the nearby castle. Oh, the smell of masses of yellow rhododendrons and singing birds and the grand oaks and the new fish in our little pond. And yes, the return of my old friend hay fever. Every year I forget how miserable those itchy eyes can be, not in the least because for me it marks the end of spring, and the almost beginning of summer.

    I don’t really have green fingers, but I enjoy our little garden. Lots and lots of roses, I add one almost every year. I have planted herbs rather than flowers, so everyday I can go outside and pick whatever I need – parsley, coriander,thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary, chives and of course mint. I have two kinds of basil this year, and one of them has sprouted wonderful pink and purple flowers. We had to remove the big rose rambler (well, Husband did all the work) because it completely overtook our garden, and the neighbours’. My fault. It did say on the wrapper not to plant in small garden … But now it is gone and fortunately the honeysuckle has already covered more than half of the porch.

    Inside the house things have changed a little because the beginning of Spring also saw Son moving back in. Combination of end-of-BA, Corona, Life and Comfort. Gone is my walk-in closet. Sniff. The three of us are embarking yet again on a quest to find things to enjoy across three generations. So far we have hit on walking, watching Lord of the Rings, politics and a communal drink after 10 pm. I make my own tonic these days, for a stiff G&T. You need some kind of bark for that, but anything can be ordered online these days.

    Moving even closer to the core of my life: my desk. Did I tell you it now sports three wide screens? That is excluding the laptop and iPad from work,and the laptop I borrow from my husband. Do I need that many screens? I certainly do. When I first went to university my room tended to be covered in open books and papers. Now it is the same, only electronically. I have treated myself to one of these fancy mechanical keyboards (called “DasKeyboard”). It is great. No more missing out on keys.

    Using this well furnished desk is another matter. Because of #Corona, the walls that I had erected between work and private and study have evaporated, leaving me somewhat bewildered. I really am no good at switching and multitasking anymore. Also, it is weird to attend an office meeting or university seminar with Husband doing stretching in the next room or Son sleepily drinking coffee in the chair behind me. Our house is not so large. So I am using fancy background in my Zoom and Webex and what have you – ranging from the Cheshire cat to apples, as a sort of shield between the world and my home. Apparently when I use the ‘apples’ background, you cannot tell the difference between my head and the apples.

    fresh red and yellow apples. Group of apples

    I suppose I should say something about the past 6 months that I have not been blogging. Things were not right, as you might have gathered. Well, they weren’t with most of us, because of the pandemic, so there is nothing very special about my particular case. But you know how it is: everyone is the centre of his or her own universe. And mine was not so habitable for quite a while. The usual pressure from work and study, plus some rather serious health problems in the family which I lost much sleep over, and to top it all, my employer, the Dutch Tax Office, managed to get itself on the wrong side of politics and people. So I have been in survival mode for quite some time.

    But: things are looking up. I have completed almost 3/4 of the research master in Philosophy and got some really excellent results back. Husband is fit as a fiddle. Son got himself a wonderful apartment and MA Law course in Leiden, which I was allowed to populate with household goods (spices!). Myself, I have changed positions at work, I think for the better. Back at the policy office, where I was many years before, and yes, still in Information Security. That will not change anymore, I think, at least not before retiring in about 10 years time. Or earlier if anyone will pay me to sit on a stone and think.

    I have many things to tell you about, because I have been producing lots of work as a result of very interesting seminars. Wide variety of topics: computational literary analysis, ethics and AI, advanced topics in philosophy of language and folk psychology. I am going to tell you about them in the next few blogs. Promise. But not now. I have just handed in my last monster-paper (some 11.000 words whereas it should have been 5000), so time to relax.

  • Amuses

    Spring!

    It has been a while, I know. Like everyone else, my life has been constrained by #Corona. Thankfully my little household (consisting of myself, Husband and a somewhat crumpled Son delivered back to us from London courtesy of digital teaching) is healthy. Many events that unfortunately did happen to other people have passed us by, so we are grateful. But things are strange. I did not feel like writing for a while. Too much hassle. Work, study, family life, all across one desk, Have been doing lots of walking though. May is such a beautiful month. It has green colours such as you never see in the rest of the year. My little herb garden is filling out nicely.

    Have a look at this beautiful video. You cannot hear the birds or smell the incredible honeysuckle rhododendron, but to compensate, Husband, who created the video, has put some very nice music with it. There is also a flash of me in there just in case that is what you really needed 🙂 This garden is our back garden (well, about 500 m from our home). We are incredibly lucky to be able to walk here every day.

    So why write this post today? Well. It’s my birthday. In Holland it is Remembrance Day, the day before the 2nd WW ended – now 75 years ago. I always avoid TV on my birthday. And there is a #Corona bonus: no social event and no travelling to work means that no one is going to tell me horror stories about what happened to their grandfather or his village during the war. Call me insensitive.

    pasta with pesto

    I have planned my own birthday dinner as a present to myself. It is a quick-as-a-flash P-dinner: Pasta, Pesto, Pecorino and Pinot. And also mushrooms (“paddenstoelen” in Dutch). And (P)olives. As for vitamins, Son has prepared a large bowl of Sangria with fresh fruit. It is sitting in the fridge positively teaming with life. Must be the cointreau and brandy it is laced with. Anyway, Son is taking a digital exam today (one of three, and then his law degree will be completed), so we must wait until he is finished before we can party. He is playing happy music so I have a feeling we won’t have to wait too long.

    I have taken the day off so I have treated myself to some papers by my Professor which I first read over a year ago and now start to understand (I think 🙂 will see what I think next year).

    Later tonight we will watch one of the Tolkien films (well, part of a part coz they are very long). We decided we did not want to watch anymore #C talkshows, so Tolkien will keep us busy for a few weeks. Oh, those beautiful New Zealand hills and those round hobbit houses, I want to live in one of these.

    I might as well tell you what I am up to these days. University has gone digital, which in my case means that I can attend lectures I could not go to before. I am doing four courses, two in Nijmegen and two in Amsterdam, but of course in practice all four are now video- and internet based.

    • Philosophy of Mind, on what they call “folk psychology” which is not what you think it is. It is about mind-reading, or what we do when we predict what someone else is going to do, say, feel etc.
    • Ethics for Artificial Intelligence. This is about how to engage in a fruitful conversation on ethics for the New Digital Era. A topic which in my day-job receives no attention whatsoever, so it is great to get handed a framework. I think it should be integrated into the TOGAF framework which guided digital architectures and have arranged, both with the Open Group and with my professors, to do a research brief outlining my ideas
    • Advanced philosophy of language. This is about “belief” statements, such as “Trump believes Corona can be cured by imbibing disinfectant”. Very technical stuff, all about how such statements can be misunderstood and why. For this course I have to redo all the philosophy of language, particularly logic, that I did not like when I was an undergraduate (and young!) and more (coz they have added stuff whilst I was away). Very good for the soul, as my Professor put it once. Yes, like medicine. But it has to be taken, I felt, to get the background I need. So I shut my eyes and think of .. well.
    • Computational linguistics. This is about how to get characteristics from large bundles of texts. Like authorship, use of emotion words, and even lies. Basically it is like doing detective work whilst playing around with tools. I am enjoying it immensely. I am planning to do my research paper on the documents the Dutch Tax Office has filed with the Dutch House of Representatives, you know, reports, answers to questions etc. It will be interesting to find out how many authors write these documents. Suppose it is only one?

    If I complete the above in the next 2.5 months, I will have obtained all of my 80 seminar-based ECTS except for 2 points (must get those from somewhere), Then there is only my “state of the art” paper and my thesis to go, which is another semester at least. So there is still a chance I will complete the Research Master within 2 years, but if it takes longer, that is fine too. I might need extra time coz I am starting a new job – same employer, same job, different position and also, it seems as if suddenly many more people are interested in “security”, which is what I “do”.

    I am going to leave you with a bit of virtual birthday cake. Stay safe and happy and healthy, and I will do the same for you.

    close up of lime cake on stand
    Not for me today – I gain pounds just looking at it! You can have it all.
  • Amuses

    Never mind Cassandra

    Just in case you don’t know Cassandra’s tale, I will tell it to you briefly. Otherwise you won’t understand this post. There are some variations to the tale, but they don’t matter much, and I get to pick my favourite one, as this is my blog 🙂

    Cassandra is a figure in Homer’s Iliad, the story of the Trojan War. Some say she was a daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Whoever her parents were, she also was a priestess at the temple of Apollo. As you may know, the Greek gods were much like humans. Cassandra was a pretty red-head, and Apollo the god of Art, Medicine and Wisdom. And male. So after a while they came to know each other in a (pre)biblical sense which pleased them both, and the relationship lasted for quite a while. Long enough for Cassandra to become clairvoyant – divinity tends to rub off on you. That is why Cassandra is depicted with green snakes around her head, whispering in her ears. These are Apollo’s symbol.

    Cassandra, painted by by Marc Burckhardt

    Cassandra was not supposed to talk about her relationship with Apollo. She did not, at first. Eventually, she could not resist boasting about it to her friends, or perhaps she only told her best friend and the story got around. Apollo found out and was not amused. He ended the relationship at once. He could not take away Cassandra’s clairvoyance, so he cursed her instead. She would continue to predict the future, but no one would ever believe a word she said.

    Next time we hear of Cassandra she is in the middle of the Trojan War. The Greeks have just left an enormous wooden horse in front of the city and sailed away. The Trojans are really happy that the Greeks are gone and prepare to wheel in what they regard as a peace offering. Cassandra begs them not to. She tells them to be very careful of “Greeks bearing gifts” and that this horse will doom them all.

    The Trojan Horse, by Keith Wormwood on Deviant Art

    The Trojans laugh her off and wheel in the Horse. At night, the Greek soldiers come out of the Horse. The rest is history.

    What has Cassandra to do with me? You may wonder, depending on whether you know me personally, and if you do, at what time in my life. Some of you know that I sometimes use Cassandra as an email alias. So yes, I identify with her. There is a reason for that. I sometimes see true, in the sense that a situation lights up, and I can see all the strands connecting and move into the (near) future. It is not anything magical. I think most people will recognise patterns like that. For me, usually it is about things that I have been worried about or have been looking at for a long time. Often I find myself doing parallel thinking, as if I partition off issues that are not urgent or take a long time or are painful, and leave them to roam my mind on their own. You know, when suddenly an insight hits you, and you realise you must have been thinking about it subconsciously for quite a while.

    I suppose that my years of working in information security have strengthened this already existing character trait. But even when I was very young, I had this great need to understand. This may have been amplified because my parents kept secrets. I don’t know why they did that, because it caused all sort of problems for them also, but they did. I think they just liked keeping secrets. Made them feel as if they were in a an adventure of their own making. Big and small lies. To illustrate, one big lie was about my father not being my father – he got swapped for my stepfather when I was 6. Not exactly an age when you can do this kind of thing as a parent without the child noticing, but this is what happened. The truth came out when I was 27 and no longer had any idea about this. Can you imagine? I suppose now that if one is used to telling big fibs, the small ones come easily. So I myself try not to tell even small fibs. Of course I fail, because everyone tells small lies all the time. Fortunately I blush easily so you can tell 🙂 Anyway, I was an intelligent and inquisitive child and I adored my parents. So if I happened to stumble across some inconvenient fact, or memory, or something that did not quite add up, I would – naturally – go to them with my findings. My parents would prefer to keep the secret – whatever it was – intact, and tell me I was wrong. As I believed them, this made me try even harder to see clearly, to collect the right facts, to understand better. Counter-productive, as family harmony goes, as you might imagine. But a very formative experience for me. I have to understand, I just have to. You might say that I do it to myself.

    In my adult life, my insights are sometimes about important issues nobody wants to know about. Or admit to. Life seems to throw these kind of situations at me. I must have done something very bad in a previous life. When that happens, when people do not want to know what I need them to know, things get very awkward for me. If it is the other way around, and someone points out some fault line in what I know, do, think or feel, I may become uncomfortable. Yet in the interest of humanity, friendship, love and most of all, the wholeness and coherence of my own soul, I will step over my shadow and try to improve myself. Failing that, I will admit to my deficiencies. Not because I like to, but because I don’t want someone else to pick up the tab for strain caused by me. I don’t mean to say that I am some kind of ideal person who will always recognise her own faults. But I try to. Scheming with yourself is a bad idea, you lose you clarity if you do that. Or so I believe. As a result, when someone does not want to go uncomfortable truth-diving together but gets angry at me instead, I don’t know what to do, not even how to continue the relationship with that other person. If there are conflicting responsibilities as well, I get ill. The pressure becomes too much for me. So I try to be careful but life keeps happening, somehow.

    My problem, I suppose, is that I have no intuitive grasp of why people might not enthusiastic about gaining a new insight. Maybe I am a bit simple, even autistic in my approach. Often people are very different from me, as I have found out to my cost. Some get hostile because they assume I am trying to shift some power-balance in my favour. Or worry about their own loss of power or status if some not-so-pretty fact might come out in the open. Or assume that I am trying to beat them at something. It does not matter if I tell such people that I am not interested in power, status or image. Or that I would rather not be right. That I would not say anything unless necessary. But whatever I say, I will not be believed. I think their reasoning is that if they feel bad about what I say, it must be my fault for willingly inflicting this feeling on them. As if that were my objective, to annoy or hurt them, or to show them up or belittle them in some way. When this kind of – let’s call it – mismatch occurs, it has nothing to do with the relationship I may have with that person. He or she may be my best friend, favourite family member, or even my employer, and still prefer not to know what I feel we need to look at.

    Now at this point it would be nice to tell a couple of stories, but I cannot do that here. Such stories don’t involve just me but also other people, you see? But I will give the Dutch speakers among you, one titbit (the others will get the drift anyway).

    Mail envelope with red wax seal close-up isolated on a white background.
    Enough said

    I was invited to give my views on what is wrong with the Government IT systems and post them on this website. This is a mega-issue in parliament at the moment. So I wrote a piece. If you are Dutch and you read it carefully, you can probably see what I try to say, although it is very carefully worded and may require some experience with government and IT issues. The company lawyer says I won’t get into trouble over it. Let’s hope so, and otherwise, too bad. You see, civil servants are not suppose to speak about anything work-related in public. Because our boss is the Minister, so everything gets politicised. Anyway, this piece did not materialise overnight. Imagine it as an abstract covering memo to a pile of reports that were presented over a period of say, 15 years.

    The other story is a silly story. It illustrates how touchy Cassandra is. You may dislike or denounce her, but do not doubt her integrity. I was 24 when this happened. I was just back from the UK and living on the 13th floor of a student flat just outside Amsterdam. I was trying to re-adjust to Holland. Like re-learning to ride a bike, finding out what generally accepted notions like an “acceptgiro” (money) and a “strippencard” (travel) were about. I tell you, you are not easily believed when you claim you failed to get a “strippencard” for the bus because you are stupid foreigner – in perfect Dutch. This was not a happy time for me. The man I had come back to Holland for had decided I was not sufficiently delicately mannered to be married to him, as I used my hands to get the last bit of meat from my favourite lamb chops. My friends said I made a timely escape, but I was heart broken at the time. Financially I was totally broke as I had no income or support, and was trying to get by on odd jobs. These odd jobs were soon to flourish into full time jobs – it never rains but it pours, but had not yet. My health was not good. Just explaining that I may have been a bit lonely and feeling sorry for myself at the time, so susceptible to people and things that I would have normally avoided.

    There was this guy who was interested in me, and he wanted to know my life’s story. Think: candle lit room, music, brooding presence. I cannot remember the guy’s face or name, but I remember he had the corner room, near the communal phone. I did not think my life all that interesting. I had been at Oxford where there were so many truly exotic and exciting people. So I gave him a resume of the main events as they appeared to me at the time. When I was done, he looked at me, and he said: “You made that up. That much could not have happened in your life”. I just stared at him. I had played things down, if anything. Why would he not want to believe me? Of course his designs had not been on my story at all – that was me flattering myself – he had intended to play quite a different role. But I never gave him a chance to explain. I just got up and left. Nobody, and I mean nobody, accuses me of lying. End of never-to-happen-anyway romance. Cassandra has her professional pride.

    Cassandra by Evelyn Pickering de Morgan

    Back to Cassandra. Another pretty picture of her here. Tearing at her hair before a burning Troy.

    So what happened to me to spark off this post? Well, in a previous post I told you my professor wanted to talk to me about my paper. We spoke last Friday. He said he would help me if I decided to publish, which is good to know. But there is a catch. He feels my paper should be published, because it shows very convincingly how a well-known philosopher is sloppy to the point of being fraudulent. Like citing sources that are not available or do not support claims made. But: this would be my very first publication. It would probably be published in the same journal as this philosopher published her articles in. I would very probably be attacked “in return”, by her and by other people supportive of her, because that is what usually happens. So, a lot of unpleasant reactions from very clever and experienced people. Not nice, I have seen examples. My Professor thinks that I am made of stern stuff (which is not quite true), but even so, he reckons that it is not in my interest to do this to myself.

    It made me laugh. I never imagined that I would run into this kind of problem in an academic context. Which maybe is a bit naive on my part. But I was really very surprised to find myself in this situation. You see, I had not gone looking for defects at all. In fact, I had been really enthusiastic about this philosopher’s theory – still am. I was very unhappy to find out how badly it was grounded. But once I saw a thread, I had to pull it, and then another one came out, and soon I found myself checking all her claims and all her references over three of her articles. This is me, I cannot help it. Once I see a pattern, I have to know. What emerged was nothing to be proud of, for an academic. So I can see why my professor thinks someone ought to publish my findings. Particularly because she did not respond to the helpful and friendly email I sent her in the early stages of my paper. In her shoes I would have been delighted to receive such feedback (someone checking your research free of charge and offering to point out all the things you have overlooked yourself), but she probably was not so happy at this prospect.

    The bottom line – I will not publish. The topic is quite far removed from what I want to do my PhD on. I also much prefer to publish something constructive rather that de-constructive, however supposedly brilliant. And last but not least, I am Chicken. I am fed up with having conflicts with people who are not and never will be in my universe. Not now, please. I am enjoying myself too much, on this going-back-to-university project. Never mind, Cassandra. Go and play somewhere. But if you want to read it, it is here.

    PS. I wrote this post quite late at night, and saw some mistakes the next morning. Which I corrected and then added some bits. So if you think the text has changed from when you read it before, it is not you, it is me 🙂

  • Amuses

    What goes up, must come down

    My newly revived brain cells have become a little too greedy. A serious case of overeating. Hubris even. I expected difficulties in learning new things, but I had assumed that anything I could do in my younger years, I would still be able do. Like riding a bike.

    Eh, like riding a bike? I should have known better. When I came back to Holland, after some years at high school and then university in the UK, I was no longer able to cycle. Or sit on the back of one, as every Dutch child learns at an early age. My good friend Rik took it upon himself to re-teach me. Both of us were surprised when we ended up on the ground, with the bike on top of us. Laughing. It must be our hair colour, we giggled (we were both red-heads). It took a while, but eventually I manage to cycle again. Still, I have first-hand experience of the expression “you never forget how to ride a bike” to be wrong.

    40 years old. At least.
    My school book from Prince Henry’s High School, Evesham, UK.

    So why would things be any different with maths or statistics? Given that I never used it after the psychology lab experiments in my second year? Never mind that I was good at it. Very good in fact. Use it or lose it. And I have lost it, I must admit. Still, I imagined I could easily pick things up again.

    For the seminar in computational psycho-linguistics, we were suppose to revise basic probability theory. We were provided with a tutorial , but it looked exactly like what I had been taught at school. So I took out my 40-year old statistics book (which we were allowed to keep at the end of A-level Maths, I think because they were old already). Another fond memory flashed of my friend Phillipa when we were at school. She used to sit in the next cubicle, studying between classes. Such concentration we had then! I rolled up my sleeves and immersed myself. I even did a summary on my concepts-wiki and felt pleased with myself for having overcome this little bump.

    Armed with my re-found knowledge, well, a bit of it, I went to the introductory lecture. It went fine. I had signed up for the course to learn about different cognitive language models because I wanted to learn how to model them. I thought I might use this knowledge if for my PhD I would have to process large amount of text in search of some feature or other. The lecturer was clear, I could follow everything he told us, and I felt confident things would work out.

    Two days after the lecture, I started to prepare for the next class. We were set a paper to read. I have attached it for your amusement. After three hours I started to scream silently. I could not understand it. At all. Now this happens occasionally. Usually the remedy is to find other papers on the same topic, in this case on letter and word recognition and how they interconnect. I did find another paper, and it did help – but nowhere near enough. One problem was that the paper I was supposed to understand, was full of complex-looking maths formulae. Which I might have been able to work out, if the concepts made any sense to me at all. But these psycho-linguists do not model the way that we do in digital architecture in my day-time job. It is all low-level stuff, with dials and detectors and connections and no recognisable functional design. They are not into defining their terms or describing the cognitive processes being modelled. It is all hard-core technical stuff. So there was nothing for me to grab on to. Well, there would have been, if I had retained my capacity for understanding formulae. I might have been able to work the thing backwards. But alas, that ability had gone. Forever, probably. Just live with it, you dim-witted woman.

    I did not give up immediately. I got Husband to have a look at it. He hated it as well, but together we sort progressed a tiny bit. I emailed the lecturer and he gave some directions. I spent more hours on it. Then I had a look at next week’s paper. It was just as horrible. All low level processing without any recognisable functional design and lots and lots of maths. What was I doing to myself? Not giving up for the sake of not giving up? Eventually Husband asked: “Weren’t you doing this for fun?”. Ah yes. I had sort of forgotten. I don’t even like linguistics much. It was just the models I wanted. And the models definitely did not want me.

    So, in the end I admitted defeat. Wrote to the lecturer to explain. I was commended for having tried. Yes, yes. This was something I cannot do. Alas. I signed off on the course. I am now officially out. Now I have more time to spend on my state-of-the-art paper that was going slowly. Once I stop complaining about myself to myself, that is.