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.
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.”
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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. 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 🙂
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!
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.
In my last post I promised you the story of the philosophy of language research project. Well, as you can tell from the featured image on the blog, I am out there, in the woods. Intentionally speaking (this is a joke which I will explain some other time). Anyway, some serious research is really happening out there because the research project is about the evolution of language. In a nutshell, how did language happen to us, and not to, say chimpanzees. Given that chimps only differ from us in 1.2% of our genes, how come they don’t talk? Because they cannot? Because they have nothing much to talk about? Because all the important things can be expressed without language? Because … well, use your imagination. That is what we students have to do. Apart from reading stacks of research. And doing “some good old-fashioned thinking” (the professor’s famous last words).
It is a wonderful project that speaks to the imagination and can be explained to normal people. Like my 85 year old neighbour who is the queen of our little neighbourhood. As she put it: “how nice that you are doing something I can understand!”… note the unspoken “I did not have a clue what you were on about before”. Well, yes. It is a change. Normally philosophy of language would not a popular choice as a conversation piece at parties, as I explained in this earlier post. But evolution of language really is a lot of fun. Even Husband is engrossed in Frans de Waal and his chimps. Can you imagine us sitting talking late at night about how chimps may or may not show normative behaviour? We do! There is me marking the pages for the examples he has found. I want him to read much more, but he is holding back for some reason 🙂
You might think, how come she is suddenly interested in evolution? I will have you know that I have always been interested in biology. And evolution. I will quickly bandy some proofs around. I took Biology at A-level. From a Welsh teacher, who fancied himself speaking English. Imagine me fresh out of Holland, trying to understand him. A nightmare. I got a C for Biology, which was my lowest grade but also the highest grade in Biology that year, and he came up to me, saying: how on earth did you get that? Emphasising the “you”. Well, it was not for his help in having his assistants sharpening my dissection knives without my knowing about it. When, during the examination, I tested the blade on my hand I bled profusely all over my dogfish and then I still had to separate out all the nerves.
Also, I went on a Biology marine field course in Wales which must have been the best course I took in my entire life. I remember how it felt strange to be back in a world where all the lines were straight. Anyway, this was when I was eighteen. Since then, my biology-exploits have restricted themselves to participation in National Geographic gene project. I have about 4% of Neanderthal genes, and at the time they said that was a lot. Perhaps I should have my genes re-tested, because I think they know much more about Neanderthals now.
It is useful to know a bit about biology and genetics when you do a project like this. Mendel is all a-b-c to me, as are double-helix DNA structures and stuff. But there is also such a thing as “philosophy of biology” and particularly “philosophy of evolution”. Had to look into those, because I needed to clarify all concepts I came across. Took me about a week, but now I know that concepts like “species” and “fitness for survival” are not the clear concepts I took them for.
I was going to tell you about what happened in my research project. Remember, I had to ask my professor to help me sort out my group? Well, I will not bore you with all the things an elderly student may say about a younger generation. It all happened. It was not as bad and it was worse. But the curious ingredient into the mix was me.
Image. There is me who know how to run a project. I have been a project and program manager, spending millions of tax-payers’ money on projects which were not entirely unsuccessful. There is also me who is an architect. I know how to translate complex concepts into projects; manage interfaces, scope creep, stakeholders, requirements, scenarios, dependencies, the lot. Including all the tools of the trade. Then there is the student me who, unlike most of the other students in my seminar, already knows some of the important concepts because I happened to take a seminar with the professor last year.
So what do I do in my new research group? Do I take charge, outline the work, divide the labour and make the group produce results? Ah no, nothing of the sort. Of course I suggest things. I make things. I organise. I read. I explain. But when my group mates want to go off on their own track, or are plainly uninterested, I just let it go. Because I don’t want to push. After all, they are the student and I am ? Yes, there is a thinking error there.
In the end, and much too late, I showed my professor what was happening, or rather, what I could not make happen. There was a simple but sensible solution. Just go to another group. As it turns out, the other group really wanted me to join. So, there is me camping out in the woods. The chimps are out there and waiting.
The start of the new school year. I loved that time when I was a child. Everything new: new teachers, books, notebooks and a fresh set of pens and pencils (you might remember I am a stationary fetishist, from this earlier post). This stayed with me: the nostalgia of the New Year starting in September. Even if it did not, for the past 30+ years, but now it does again. Such a pity I have gone all digital. I toyed with the idea of getting some pens and paper just for the fun of it, but in the end I did not: I have so much stationary already. I did buy myself a scanmarker air, for scanning bits of text from non-digital books. With student-discount. The Dutch love their discounts and I am no exception.
The academic year started with lots of information and introductions and meetings for new Research Master students. I had missed out on that info when I started back in January. I found that by now I was fully up to date, but still, it was nice to check and make sure I had missed nothing. I was reminded we all have to write a study plan which has to be officially approved before you can complete your thesis. Also, it was fun to see all the new students. I bet they were not half as nervous as I was when I started, but still, I could tell they were. And I was not! Amazing how I have changed in just 6 months. Remember me being shaky on my first day, afraid they were all going to laugh at me and worrying if my memory would hold up? Anyway, I know all of them will turn into confident graduates soon, coz I have already seen it happen.
As I explained in my previous post, I will do two seminars and one position-paper this semester. I have spent all summer doing the background for the background for my position-paper (which is on speech acts, common ground and intentionality). A large part of that background is “consciousness” and there are literally hundreds of different theories about what consciousness is and how it works. In my time at Oxford, Philosophy of mind was about Analytic Philosophy (is there any other kind:-)?) I talked about that in a previous post. At length, because the existence of continental philosophy had passed me by completely. Anyway, these days, Philosophy of Mind is all about consciousness, starting out with generic denial of Descartes mind-body theory (Descartes claimed that mind and body are essentially made out of different stuff). To be able to say anything about the deliberate use of language, particularly if understanding language is not about mind-reading or some such psychological notion, you need to be able to say what it means to express something deliberately. I think so, anyway. So I spent a lot of time sorting out these new theories. It is all on my wiki, have a look at the topic “consciousness”. if you like. The main taxonomy is in the pink bit; every line is a separate page. It is not finished by any means: I have now started to catalogue arguments which connect and separate theories. You might notice I sometimes copy in cartoons. This is to liven things up. It is dry stuff. So let’s be thankful for existential comics.
My seminars for this next half year are: the Skills course, which is compulsory, the first part (I did the second part before the summer). The other one is a seminar on the evolution of language. That will be great I think. I know most of the students there from previous seminars. We will look at communication in apes and other animals and see how that might translate to humans. The basis is a theory by my professor, which says that language is not about expressing ideas or mind-reading others, but about cooperation and getting others to cooperate. By the way, he seems to be in a good mood, much better than last semester. He has been publishing a lot, one paper after the other, and I think his new theory has reached a stage where it is becoming widely recognised. So all the academic work is new and shiny and interesting and very much “now”. Who needs the ancient Greek philosophers?
The Skills class is taught by the Dean of our department. It turns out he was also at Oxford, a few years after me. An amazing guy: he has so much energy, such a devoted teacher and interested in everything. The Dean reminds me a bit of myself before I got CFS. Energy wise. Academically there is no comparison, obviously. Because he is so dedicated, he uses every minute of the allotted lecture time. Gone are the days when we were given the last hour off. Which is hard on all of us, because this set of lectures runs late: from 15:30 to 19:15. Everybody is so tired at the end. Except for the Dean it seems 🙂 He even wants to know about me, where I work, why I am there, what I want to do. He keeps pushing me toward this new Security centre which the university now has. So I told him I had already written to the professor there but that he not replied to my email yet. (Which is understandable because in that letter I challenged a bit of not-so-sensible advice, on Open Source, which that professor he had given the Dutch Minister of Security). We will see what happens.
Anyway, the Skills class, like last time, is a mix of things I already know, things I don’t know and things I did not know existed. In the latter category: there is a Dutch protocol for the integrity of academic research. You can find it here. This protocol directly results from academic scandal, some professors inventing research data to fit their theories. Three prominent cases happened at the Social Sciences department at Tilburg University, and the whole academic world went pale and speechless. Because there was a general lack of assurance on this issue, this nation-wide protocol was set up. Attached to this protocol is a data management protocol, which I will have to look into if I want do empirical research – which I well might.
We have already been set a small paper in the Skills class. This time, I tried to use all the big and small insights I gleaned from the feedback from my own professor back in July. I felt happy with it and it got a “very nice essay” (no grades as yet). There was just one time where I did not speak my mind because I could not “prove” it – this was about two philosophers who would probably hate each other but I did not say so. I got a remark on this, why I had not said so. So next time I will write out my intuitions too, stating that they are intuitions, I suppose.
So, back on track. I have taken the whole of December off, so hopefully this will give me enough time to finish all the papers I have to write this semester. Already I am back in the flow. Lovin’ it! Husband is still driving me back and forth, which is a great time-saver. Plus, it is nice to have a partner-in- crime to talk to about all the things I learn and that happen. Sometimes I think his ears must ring with all my ravings. But he is unperturbed, as always. Also, he found himself a cosy little setup in the Hortus tea garden which apparently is full of female volunteers who love to give him tea. Dozens of them, he tells me with twinkling eyes. Adventurous times ahead!
Yesterday I had my long awaited meeting with my supervising professor. You know, the grumpy one that I regard as mine. There were several things that needed discussing. Obviously my paper, which got a good but not an excellent grade; the past and the future. And some human stuff.
We had arranged to meet at a café at Utrecht Central Station rather than at the university. Husband travelled up there with me, the idea being that we would meet up later. At the station I ran into several colleagues. They were on their way to a team meeting which I should have attended too had I not been on study leave for the afternoon. I was glad I had not booked a meeting room at the Utrecht office: in my head, academic and work worlds don’t mix well. I had half an hour to spare though so enough time to get back into the academic spirit.
There was a bit of an awkward issue that I needed to discuss with him. I told you about it in previous posts: he and I are fine in a one-to-one meeting, but in a class setting where I have to take the floor, his feedback becomes rather too vicious for my taste. Particularly compared to the very careful way he handles the other students. I did not quite know how to bring this up. Fortunately, a chance opened up to address this issue right at the beginning, and it went fine. He apologised, saying that he had heard this about himself before. He had just been matching my directness which he found pleasant (as it livened up an otherwise rather unresponsive class). So I pointed out that I was just as vulnerable as the other students in academic matters; and we agreed; and that was that. Good. Relief.
My paper was next. I had reread it, and his review of it the night before, and I was glad I had left it for a while. I could now see that he had judged my paper on a different basis than I had intended the paper to be read. Which a priori means that I had not been clear. You see, it was a difficult topic, on collective speech acts, on which there is almost no research. The papers that I did review, I found to be of meagre quality. The problem was, that I had not said so explicitly. This because I felt I was not sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject to do a “deconstruction” of the work that these philosophers had done. So I had been a bit vague in my approach to compensate for not saying what I really thought. Which put the reader (the professor or anyone else) on the wrong foot. It was not so much that I should have a highly critical or argumentative stance, but rather, that there was no good story-line to my paper. That was mistake number 1.
The 2nd point was about my not being sufficiently critical. Now this is not something I hear very often! It took me a while to understand, but what I need to do, is to question every concept, approach, idea that I review and explain why I put it in the paper OR explain why I don’t question it. So my simple idea of reviewing papers and going along with the argument to see where we might end up, would have been fine, IF I had explained that was what I was doing. Which I had not. Because again I had been too shy.
The 3rd problem was that the paper was too big in scope. In retrospect, the professor said, scope-wise it would have been fit for a Master Thesis. This is because I left so many concepts and ideas to investigate. For practical reasons, I had simply accepted concepts without question, i.e. as given in literature. Had I done otherwise, my paper would have exploded, and it was only supposed to be 6000 words. So yes, I could see he was right, the scope I had chosen was much too ambitious to do well. It is either quantity or quality. There is also a style difference, I think. He works inside-out, and I work outside-in. Which means I have to read much more but that is not the worst of it. Here the difference between audiences comes alive. If I write something as a civil servant, I must avoid being too detailed for fear of losing my audience. The general consensus is that details can always be given later, in a separate paper, in a presentation, during a talk, whatever; but later. The same is not true for a philosophy paper. That paper has to be complete in itself; there is no “later”.
Problem nr. 4 took me a while. I have developed, in my working life, a habit of writing authoritatively. Because I am an authority on certain matters. Husband taught me how to do this. I cannot remember how many times I got my texts back with remarks like: you use too many words, explain too much, go into too much detail etc. Which is all very well when you are writing government or company policy, but is not a good idea when you are writing a philosophical article. A philosopher needs to explain and explain well. My professor spends a lot of time on doing just this, and it has also been a issue in the other seminars I attended, so I might have known. But I think there is more to it than that. Because Philosophia is not very well charted, a philosopher constantly needs to ring a bell, so that others may understand where he is. Think of a cow in an Alpine meadow 🙂 That means that as a philosopher, you must allow other philosophers to understand exactly what concepts you are using in what context and why. Otherwise they get lost. Or you do. Depending on your point of view.
So: a good philosopher knows the precise context in which she is putting forward her ideas (by the way, this is an example of “correct” writing, sometime during my absence from academia, they all started writing in terms of “she” rather than “he”). The problem of course is that I don’t. I am still an amateur. Which brings me to the research paper which I will be writing next term. Apparently this paper is not for a grade (it is pass or fall), but intended to allow to you prepare for the Master Thesis which has to written in the second half next year. This gives me a chance to consolidate my knowledge on a couple of topics which at the moment is only wafer-thin. The topic(s) will be: speech acts, collective acts and common ground. Right. I will enjoy getting my teeth into that. I promise you, my next paper will be like an embroidery: pretty, intricate, beautiful and state-of-the-art.
The professor and I, we parted on most amicable terms after nearly 3 hours. I was really pleased that I had been able to pick up some new insights. Also, the luxury of someone spending hours on you to improve your thinking! When does that ever happen in Real Life, I ask you?
Now came the task of finding Husband. In spite of our shared-location app, I failed. Seriously, I walked around Utrecht CS with Google Maps displayed on my phone, and kept going in circles, from one entrance to the other, up and down the escalators. After quarter of an hour, I had to call Husband and admit total failure. He had to come and get me. Yes, you may laugh. Of course, he should have foreseen this (I get disoriented very very easily), so we agreed it was really his fault. Off we went, back to the Utrecht canals to have a drink and something to eat at the waterside. Very pleasant. It was a bit like a celebration. We had a nice meal and 3 Belgium beers each. Alas, it turned out that we can no longer handle this the way we once did. Walking back from Apeldoorn station was slow; and somehow we could not keep our eyes open after 10:30. Very amusing. Nice memory though.
I received my grades! You know I was worried about them, so you are going to find this amusing. The grades were fine. But once I got used to the idea of having passed, and having passed well, I started worrying about why I did not get higher grades. Which is really, really silly. Remember how I struggled to get in and keep up, the first couple of weeks especially but actually all the way through. I was so relieved that I could do it at all. So, laugh at me, I deserve it. Husband does it too. Let me give you the figures. Dutch grades go from 1 – 10. From 8 it is cum laude territory. I got:
- 8 for my paper on “Autopeiosis as a mechanism” for Philosophy of Mind;
- 7.5 for my paper on “Collective speech acts”, which is Philosophy of Language
- 8.5 for a collection of work (papers, presentation) for Methods & Skills.
Time to party. This is an 8 on average. Which is why this post has a very cheery picture. Apart from the grades, I now have a total of 30 EC, which means that I am 1/4 through the Research Master (which is 120 EC- normal Master courses are 60 EC). Considering I did this with only 1 day off work every 2 weeks, I am allowed to be a little proud of myself. And of my husband for bearing with me and my late night studying. Driving me back and forth to Nijmegen. Listening to my rambling. Proofreading my papers.
Yet I am not entirely satisfied. Yes, you may laugh, I said, didn’t I? On both the Philosophy of Mind and the Philosophy of Language paper I lost points for not being quite clear enough about my research question. Must improve that. Also, I did something revolutionary on the Phil-Mind paper which they did not quite understand because I had flown the idea in from informatics – and had not explained it sufficiently. Oh yes, and my own professor (you remember, the beloved grumpy one) decided to deduct marks for my writing being insufficiently clear whilst the other professors were raving about my writing and giving plus marks for same. Beauty in the eye of the beholder? Probably not. This is supposed to be academia.
I am seeing my professor at the beginning of August, so I have a chance to discuss it. I really want to get to the bottom of this. I know he is a logician at heart, so maybe he wants me to be much more precise – which will be difficult to achieve if the text also has to comprehensible. Never mind. I will find out what it is I have to learn.
On a lighter note: I had to change my glasses. I developed a chronic headache and sore eyes. First I thought that was because of all the studying, and then I had my eyes checked. It turns out I have a prism thingie – basically the brain not quite matching the two pictures from the left and right eye. So I have bought myself new bifocals, and also another one for computer work. What else does one have holiday money for? These glasses are really special – I can change the frame by changing the magnetic cover. So I now have glasses in many colours – green, turtle, red, purple and even bright pink! I have tried them out at the office. Swapped the frames midway through a meeting to change the atmosphere. It amuses my colleages. And myself. I change them at least 3 times a day. Have look at the manufacturer’s site if you want to see how it looks. Poor Husband. More new-fangled nonsense for him to put up with.
I am now more of less on holiday (well, working full time, but the evenings and weekends are temporarily my own). In September everything starts again. Probably I will be doing two seminars and a “state of the art” paper, again 30 EC. But first: party time. This 1/4 is behind me now. I may now regard myself as a proper student, having finally fulfilled my own prophesy at the tender age of 23 – that one day I would go back to university. Well, it has happened and it is great.