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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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).
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
The past two months I spent writing and waiting. Writing papers, and waiting for my grades. I just did not want to post anything before knowing if my labouring led to anything at all. As you might remember from previous posts, hard work does not necessarily get me a good grade, particularly not with my own professor who is very critical. But this time, the work paid off. Two ‘9’ s – I was over the moon. These are not just for the papers, but the overall grade for the course- of which the papers are a major part.
“Evolution of language” paper
My paper on “naive normativity” is publishable, my professor said, if shortened. It would have to be, it was over 12.000 words (supposed to be 5.000 so it got a little out of hand). Apparently I might hand it in as a Master’s thesis, because it fits the requirements. Then, if I switched to the regular MA course, I would already be finished. But I won’t do that. I am enjoying myself, and I feel there is still so much more to learn before I can start on my PhD with any kind of confidence.
I won’t post the whole paper here, because the professor wants to talk to me about it, and I am not sure what his plans are. So I will just post the abstract below, that will give you an idea what is is about. All about chimps, of course. Did I mention I was deliriously happy when I received the feedback for this paper? I am beginning to think this adventure – the old bag back to uni – may go well. I intend to go on writing papers until I am at least hundred years old. Anyway, first things first.
Abstract of “Naive Normativity”
Kristin Andrews’ theory of naïve normativity invites us to take a fresh look at normative behaviour. She proposes a minimal definition of social norms and underlying cognitive abilities, which does not rely on mind-reading and may be applied to humans and animals alike. The first part of this paper explains her theory. The second part addresses the question on how to assess supporting evidence. In the third part, evidence that Andrews puts forward in support of specific candidate animal social norms, is reviewed. Inconsistent or irrelevant evidence is laid aside; the remainder is reviewed based on the criteria established in part two. Some candidate animal social norms pass. Most do not. The paper concludes with recommendations for further research.
Methods and Skills – position paper
I told you about my struggles with this before. I wrote a paper on metaphors early in autumn which I had hoped would be the final version. I had put so much work into it! But it turned out that the professor disagreed with me on the contents. Privately I feel that the problem was not with the contents but that I had taken on too much, combined with my professor not being quite-up-to-date on the topic. It did not help that he is so incredibly knowledgeable about everything else;he must be used to being right all the time. What we call, in my other life, an expert judgement – always extreme. This expert judgement also got me very high grades on other papers in the course, so I must not grumble. Anyway, I turned the metaphor paper into a play and made it humourous – and it worked, after submitting a second draft.. You can read it here. It is quite safe, not so heavy. You may enjoy it.
If you read it, you will come across Anna Majofski. She is inspired on the great-grandmother of my great-grandmother, who was a daughter of Theo Majofski who was an important Dutch actor some centuries ago. None of the acting or musical talent found its way into my genes! Still, it is an interesting heritage. My great-grandmother was chucked out of her chique family on account of her becoming pregnant by the local carpenter . My grandmother did not care to talk about this – pregnancy before marriage, worse, sex outside your class, was considered a big shame at the time – so most details remained hidden until records became available on the internet for me to find. Anyway, I needed a character for my little play, so I picked her. Not a lot is known about her, so I felt free to credit her with all sorts of opinions. I hope it would have amused here. The play certainly amused my professor, and during two drafts I saw him coming around to my way of thinking. A little trick I learned at the office: if there is an argument with too many voices, stop arguing and give space to the voices. Through an animation, a film, a dialogue, or as in this case, a play.
This semester I have four seminars. A big one on folk psychology, which is part of Philosophy of Mind. I already know the lecturers from last year. They are great. And three slightly smaller ones, on Ethics for Artificial Intelligence, Computational Psycholinguistics, and Kant, Logic and Cognition. That last seminar is in Amsterdam, starts at the end of March; the other three are in Nijmegen, and started last week. Seminars from 10:30 until 17:15 without a break (well, we get small breaks during the lectures) – it is quite tiring. I wasn’t particularly rested, so when I finally rolled into the Cultuur cafe to have a pizza with Husband, I was exhausted. Also, I had stupidly worn new shoes and not thought about having to walk some distance between buildings. So my heels are rubbed raw. Fortunately I still had a full package of blister-plasters – at home. Been wearing them ever since. Hopefully my feet will heal up soon.
I also need to start writing my “state of the art” paper, which is the official preparation for my Master thesis. I think I might have to postpone it until the summer holidays, coz it is going very slowly. Never mind. There is no rush. I might complete the whole course in two years (as if I were a full time student), or perhaps take another half year. It does not matter. This first year has gone well. I am amazed at how much difference the course, and my return to university has made to me, and to my life. Whatever next 🙂
I will keep you posted on the new seminars and what I learn. It is my last 6 months doing seminars before I have to start my thesis. Exciting!
At X-mas, it came to me. Honestly. It must be because of this forced rest. My brains not being made to study 12 or more hours in a day. It is not voluntary, this rest, you understand; it is just happening. We go to bed a little later, wake up up a little later; go for a walk, meet up for coffee. Decorate the tree, watch a movie, wrap a present, prepare a new recipe, drop in on a neighbour. Study for a few hours. See the Amsterdam light festival from a canal boat at night. Prepare Xmas dinner – game one day, fish the next. Survive my own desserts – I so love limoncello. And gin with lemons. And X-mas presents.
So what came to me? You are going to find it boring, I am afraid, but I am quite excited about it. Just a little thing that I have understood, you see. I have been working on my social cognition paper, the one I did the chimp research project for and have been talking about in past posts. It is not an enormous paper – at least 5000 words ex referencing, so about 10 pages, although I will likely write a bit more. However, a paper like this is like doing embroidery: so many things to get right. I have mapped the whole thing out in my new toy called Atlas.TI (forever grateful for student software discounts). It really is a wonderful program, allowing you to code texts and then build mind-map-style networks out of codes and quotations, across however many documents you like. The only drawback is that you need a large screen. Of which I now have three(!) which interconnect, thanks to Husband’s technical skills. He is joking that I need a second row of screens, on top of the first one. Like a cockpit.
This paper is about finding the roots of social and moral behaviour – the word used in Philosophia is “normative”. I am looking at articles by Kristin Andrews, on animal cognition. Animal includes humans. I really like the way Kristin Andrews writes. She is amazingly clear and knowledgeable. I would like to think that I have found her research myself, but on second sight she is no stranger to great researchers I read articles and books by before, including my own professor. Anyway, what she says, is that the idea that humans are morally/socially superior creatures because we reason/think about our behaviour, is actually wrong. We don’t. We are very bad at mindreading or at predicting other people’s behaviour. What we do, is attribute beliefs and desires to ourselves and to others in an attempt to justify our behaviour. Resolve cognitive dissonance (you feel better if you think someone you love mistreated you for a reason because then you don’t have to throw him/her out). We do have mechanisms which make us follow norms, but these mechanisms are exactly the same as they are in other animals. It is all about in-out group recognition, group membership, following group norms if you want to belong; and sanction/restoration mechanism if a norm gets violated. It does not matter what the norm is about.
Now this may be a little hard to swallow. Which why I have posted a picture of a particularly attractive group at the top of this post. But seriously, in the past months I have seen (not literally!) enough instances of non-human normative behaviour to see this theory at work. For instance, female chimps who on migration to another tribe stop using efficient tools for nut-cracking and adopt less efficient tools. For a chimp, to relinquish easy access to food, that means a lot! It also makes evolutionary sense. Obviously humans have a great deal of learning taking place in the long years of childhood, but this is cultural learning and the development of cultural learning abilities. The underlying cognitive abilities appear to be similar across the animal kingdom, or at least in the great apes.
This theory has a number of very interesting implications. Such as (this is going to be a haphazard list):
- a moral/social issue between individuals who do not regard each other as belonging to the same group, cannot be resolved;
- there is no point in passing laws before the relevant norms are in place and accepted;
- you cannot change a group from the outside (there is something to think about for all those 3-years-in-one-job managers);
- the worst thing that society can do to itself is anonymity (internet, corporations, committees) because this dissolves group-membership.
If I look at my job-life through this lens, a number of issues light up. Some of the things I have done are absolutely spot on (like setting up a community of practice, uniting professionals), and some are absolutely useless (like explaining things to people who do not regard themselves as part of my community). Interesting. Still, I have to learn lots more before I can start to think what to do with these new found insights.
I will leave you with an anecdote. Husband and I decided to watch this film. At Xmas Eve. I thought I could take a night off 🙂 It was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the original one. The subtitles were wrong, in Swedish or something. So we spent at least 10 minutes trying to get it right – until it finally became clear that this was the first joke. On us, yes. My own fault for becoming too serious. Although it is kind of amazing that Husband fell for it too, but we won’t tell anyone.
My favourite animal in all the world is the Cheshire Cat, from Alice in Wonderland. You know the one, with the grin: “It vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin which remained some time after the rest of it had gone”. The image from the top of this post is from the Walt Disney movie. The original one is in black-and-white. Usually I prefer that one, but there is something in the vivid blue-green of its eyes that attracted me today.
I suppose this is the third and final part of my triptych on humanity. Today I am lamenting my feebleness. I can feel the cat disdainfully staring down at me. Such a weak human. And yes, so I am. This week I was out late on Tuesday (uni-assignment, an event I had to write a report on) and Thursday (good-bye dinner sending a colleague off to retirement). ‘Late’, for me, means, home by 22:30. I also ate out on Wednesday (pizza at the uni ‘coz we try to avoid the traffic back to Apeldoorn) and on Thursday (full dinner). I suppose it was the latter that did me in. In spite of Husband driving me everywhere. I handle restaurant food badly. It usually interferes with my CFS. I also handle staying out late badly. I need my rest. So now I am writing this draped in lounge wear feeling sorry for myself. Everything hurts. I tried to get through the day, but had to go to bed in the afternoon. I was so cold! Not fit for human consumption. I can feel the Cheshire Cat grinning at me, baring its teeth ever so slightly. Never mind.
So what can I tell you? I have been off work since the beginning of December. Belated summer holiday. It feels great, just to concentrate on studying. Had to complete the project report on chimps and language, which I told you about in my last post. If you want to read the report, it is here. My professor was impressed with the report, which was a novel experience. I have never known him to be so full of praise. Maybe he is overcome by the Xmas spirit. But to be honest, the report turned out so well because of the last-minute data-analysis. And I only did that because the professor more or less forced us to abandon our own inquiry and look into the relationship between normative behaviour and various types of coordination. I found evidence that implies we should distinguish between an animal acting as a group member (according to an existing group norm) and that same animal solving a problem in a social context. May sound obvious to you, but researchers are not currently making this distinction. If you want to think about the origins of language, it is the problem solving in a social context that is of interest, so this distinction may be important.
Silly, right? Well, not half as silly as what I nearly did. I had joked about morphing my professor’s head into a chimp and a student took me up on it. So I promised to create it, and then as I did it, felt awful about it. Husband said, you cannot send this. They won’t be able to keep it to themselves. And I suddenly woke up. What is the point of being a security architect and knowing the GDPR inside-out, and then failing to realise you cannot do things to people’s head without their permission? Let alone the head of someone who had been very supportive of me and would probably hate this silly joke. So I chickened out and offered my own head in a morph instead. Stupid woman, I can hear the Cheshire cat murmuring out there on his branch. Well, yes.
The other major thing was the presentation of the position paper. We had to do a 10 minute “pitch”. This kind of thing I did before in part II of this course, so no big surprises. The good thing was that there was a professional coach available who gave really good feedback. It does not matter how many times you have given a presentation, there is always something to learn. The pitch went fine. I put a lot of work into it, but because of my argument with the lecturer on the content (yes, he is the one the great grades before) I got nervous and blanked out for a second. Apparently no one noticed. Lots of nice things were said about the presentation. It is here, if you want to look at it. I was happy I got the Escher metamorphosis animation in, and with the way the Daniel Dennett character turned out (he is the bearded man towards the end of the presentation) coz I sort of constructed him myself in Adobe Illustrator. I love that kind of work. In my next life I want to be a graphic designer. Maybe Escher or his granddaughter. Please God, give me a little talent. Just a bit. It is such fun to create this stuff.
Currently, I am trying to solve the problem of my lecturer’s criticism of my metamorphis argument. I really do not understand what he is saying. Not even after making an appointment to see him. That is, I have understood that he wants the paper to be written in a specific format, and that what I did was much too grand. I put far too much work in to it. It needs simplification, trimming down to size. Which I will do. But there appears to be another problem. He keeps repeating that what I suggest, that you should test your metaphors before sending them out into the world, cannot be true, because I also claim that there are metaphors in every sentence we use. So therefore, as a philosopher, you cannot test for them. Too much work. It seems such a silly argument, not at all like him. I have been wrecking my brains what can be the cause. I did notice that in the Philosophy department there is virtually no knowledge of the so-called analytic side of philosophy – philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I checked with my own professor, and he said, yes, that is so. Apparently part of his job is to read to the Philosophy MA and PhD theses, so he knows. He said that recently they gave him a thesis to read on the Philosophy of Language based entirely on Merleau-Ponty. Right. That is like calling asking the Cheshire Cat to share its branch with a mouse. I teased him that he should be the next lecturer for the ReMa course, but somehow I doubt it is going to happen.
It started to dawn on me that with my little project on metaphors, I have landed myself right inside several heated philosophical debates. On the usefulness of Philosophia as compared to science. Because I regard thought experiments as metaphors. On the use of empirical methods in philosophy. Because I want to test for effects on real people. On the responsibility of philosophers for what they say to the public. On a philosopher’s supposed right to use language in any way he or she pleases. Plus some other things that have not occurred to me yet. So, I am in trouble. Whatever I say will be wrong. Great.
So, I have embarked on a different course. Once I had to solve a problem in the office where everybody disagreed and got rather violent about whatever they felt. The issue then was Open Source – very dangerous programming practice from a security point of view – which has the status of a cult religion. Anyway, I got around that by creating cartoon videos of the problems Open Source was creating for us. I thought I might try something like that with this. So I asked and got permission to write my position paper in the form a play. Which is what I am doing now. It is fun to write out dialogues. Hopefully it will make my lecturer smile. That might help.
Time for Nature’s remedy for everything: Tea. The Cheshire Cat grins. Never mind him. The fire place in the living room is crackling with burning wood. Nice and warm and cozy. Just what the doctor ordered.
I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post from Tomasello’s new book: on becoming human. You will have gathered from the picture at the top that this is about the evolution of humans. Us. Or, as my professor puts it, “how chimp-style communication developed into human discourse”. Why? Well, it is all in the family:
I told you about my adventures with my research groups in an earlier post. Now I want to tell you what I am learning. I will resist the temptation to tell you how much there is to read or how I felt obliged to to draw up a project charter as a structuring aid (if you do decide to visit the links, do click open all the boxes). So with that out of the way 🙂 let go for some new, well, new to me, ideas.
Because I tend to think outside-in when I am trying to make sense of something, I needed to immerse myself in the current literature about human evolution. No way I have time to read all those big books, so I have I been listening to them. Audiobooks are wonderful. I listen to them as I walk to the office, when cooking, when not being able to sleep, when waiting for the lift, when walking from one end of the office to the other (10 minutes), well, you get the idea.
These books were great. You must read them too. Seriously. Here is the list:
- Jared Diamond – the Third Chimpanzee
- Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Sapiens
- Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus
- Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse – The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story
- Silvana Condemi and Francois Savatier – A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens
- Cecilia Heyes – Cognitive gadgets
- Michael Tomasello – Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny
Well, perhaps not all. But do not miss out on the first three. Husband is smiling at this, I am sure. Because the first three books he received from me as a present, years ago. At his request, I might add. I never even looked at them. Until I devoured them last month.
So, armed with all this background I dived into the project. For the first couple of weeks I kept trying to find the beginning of an answer to the project’s question (chimp-style communication -> human conversation), but after a while it became clear that the professor wanted us to look at real data. Lots of data. We looked at over a hundred examples of “normative” animal behaviour. “Normative” is when the animal(s) in question appear to have strong expectations of what other animals should do or not do. Not just chimpanzees, but also bonobo’s, whales, dolphins, and orcas. As an example, look at this one by Frans de Waal. It is about how one monkey reacts to a piece of cucumber whereas the other one gets a grape (monkeys love sweet fruit).
Convinced the monkey is angry about being treated unfairly? Frans de Waal is. I was too, at first. But on reflection, it is not so clear what we see here. It may well be a simple case of the monkey seeing there are grapes to be had and wanting them; then expressing its frustration at not getting any. I forget who said it, but the researchers in this field are either Believers (animals are like humans) or Party Poopers (don’t believe anything until you have to). Frans de Waal is a Believer. Being a philosopher (well, a budding one), I am supposed to by a Party Pooper. Tomasello (see the beginning of this post) is a Party Pooper. According to him, chimps are wonderful animals who only think of themselves. Me, myself and I. They regard other chimps as social tools. There is no sense of “we”.
Actually, my research group found other evidence that supports this view. Empathy is correlated with low social status in chimps, but with high social status in bonobos. Interestingly, chimps have a patriarchal social structure, whereas bonobos have a matriarchy. Do we see any parallels with our own world? I would say that we humans are very chimp-like in this respect!
Tomasello is also a psychologist. Which, according to my professor, is a problem, because Tomasello keeps reading intentions into behaviour (human or animal) that are just not there. He may well be right. As I remember from my earlier studies, psychologists always attribute more importance to differences between individuals than, say, sociologists. And you find what you are looking for (expectancy bias). Still, Tomasello found that chimps cannot “share attention”. They can both look at the same thing, but they cannot look at it together.
My research group has come to a similar conclusion. Chimps are clever and social creatures. Did you know? They live long (50 years), in large groups (up to 70 animals) with a strong social hierarchy. They solve puzzles and do some forward planning. They use meaningful gestures, some of which other great apes also use. You can look these gestures up in the Great Ape Dictionary. Chimps even go hunting together. But their behaviour appears largely one-directional, from “me” to the world. They either use imperatives (groom me, play with me, have sex with me), or they broadcast (I am here). There does not appear to be any sense of “we”.
I am fascinated by this sense of “we” that according to Tomasello is an essential building block for cognition. If you do not “share” a world with someone, you will never understand the difference between subjective-objective views. Or that one word of gesture may have different meanings for different people or in different circumstances. You will also not expect the other to share your world. So you will never build a view, an idea, a project or a story together. Tomasello convincingly shows how human babies learn these things within the first year of their life, whereas the chimp never gets beyond simple gaze-following (to look where another is looking), and even that takes several years.
Assuming my professor is right, this “we” is not: shared intentions, beliefs etc. But surely it can be something hard-wired, i.e. neurological? Or social? He says, social. Maybe it is a matter of chimps not being interested in others. In which case the bonobos, who are much friendlier, should do much better. I will look for research on this. Anyway, all this to give you an impression of what I have been doing in this project. If you like, you can have a look at our work in progress. It is all here, until the end of the year at least.
Having seen how very important this “we” appears to be to human cognition (and from there, to everything human), I got thinking. How is it ever going to work with humans in the new digital world? Aren’t we turning back to the chimp world, by speaking our imperatives or broadcasts into digispace? It does not seem an improvement at all.
There were other things to learn. For instance, how difficult it is to determine whether any behaviour is “intentional”. You get a feeling that is it deliberate, but after that it may be instinctive, emotional, intentional, conditioned – we learned to give up on assigning motives. Probably just as well, because we would always be in danger of assigning human-like behaviour to animals.
Also, wonderful stories from the animals themselves. They all show amazing ritualistic behaviour around their dead, caring for them, defending them, even washing them. Dolphin mothers showing their babies how to hunt with bubbles. Whales singing to each other. Orcas rescuing a human. Chimps grooming and sharing food. And then me, searching for the origins of language. Somehow I think it might take a while 🙂
Something weird is happening to me. I am changing. I had no idea this would happen. But it is. As Husband puts it: you are turning into a normal person. Right. So I am. I really want to tell you about it, but I don’t know how. I mean, I don’t want to tell you some self-obsessed and tearful story about my mangled psyche. And some Martian in shining armour, invoked by my shiny new insight into my deepest innards, sweeping me off my downtrodden feet and carrying me off to Heaven.
Let go straight for the jugular. Hold tight. Last week, I received this email from the professor teaching this term’s Methods & Skills class. He also happens to be the Dean of our faculty. I told you about him in some previous posts.
Imagine me reading this. I was sitting at my desk and just stared at this mail. I felt as if I had been thrown from a plane. Floating in a tin can, well, Major Tom knows how (this is the music I grew up with).
You may think I am exaggerating. Not so. I had been told on several occasions that “10” were never given – just forget it, several professors had said, we never give them. Ne-ver. Not on principle, but there is always sómething that can be improved. And now I get, not one, but two!
So I went up in the air, came down, bounced about, kissed Husband, and was deliriously happy. Until I realised that I would never (yes Ne-ver) be able to top this. I might as well stop. Shit. This is terrible.
It took a couple of days to get things in perspective again. You may think that I am exaggerating about that too, but do you remember how scared I was I could not do this, back in Februari? I told you, honestly! Anyway, if you want to read them, there is one on “what is philosophy“, one on Heidegger and Plato, and one on the question of animals being persons. Just short papers. Don’t worry, I am never going to ask you about it. But they are there if you want.
I was going to tell you about how I am changing. Well, it is a bit weird. I get angry. I cannot remember when I last got angry or really lost my temper. I remember being upset, hurt, frightened, ashamed, silly, all of those things. But when was I last able to become angry? Many many years ago. Spectacularly. But not beyond 30. I have been so – I don’t know. Sad, maybe. Anyway, I am waking up. My mind is sharp again, and I am enjoying it. Somehow it makes me more courageous.
Hello world. It’s me.
PS. Husband has just read this and feels obliged to comment. I am supposed to tell you what I get angry abóut. There will be some amusing stories in posts to come …
PPS Past Performance Is No Guarantee of Future Results. My new found courage today led me into an argument with the same professor that gave me this great grades. Oops. Well, I will have to regulate my new found self 🙂 Will tell you about it some other time.