A Little Fable (Kleine Fabel) – Franz Kafka

“Alas”, said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

—Franz Kafka, a short story written some time between 1917 and 1923

Find what you love

“Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains. For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.” (Henry Charles Bukowski.)

Emma Goldman on equal rights

“The demand for equal rights in every vocation of life is just and fair; but, after all, the most vital right is the right to love and be loved. Indeed, if partial emancipation is to become a complete and true emancipation of woman, it will have to do away with the ridiculous notion that to be loved, to be sweetheart and mother, is synonymous with being slave or subordinate. It will have to do away with the absurd notion of the dualism of the sexes, or that man and woman represent two antagonistic worlds.”

“.. woman’s freedom is closely allied with man’s freedom, and many of my so-called emancipated sisters seem to overlook the fact that a child born in freedom needs the love and devotion of each human being about him, man as well as woman. Unfortunately, it is this narrow conception of human relations that has brought about a great tragedy in the lives of the modern man and woman.”

From over there.

GCHQ’s director’s Turing speech – a research team manual?

Just read the (4 Oct 2012) speech about Alan Turing, given by Iain Lobban, Director GCHQ, at the University of Leeds.

Fantastic stuff in there. Here are some excerpts.

On learning to solve problems

“… [Turing] reported to Bletchley Park as agreed and immediately started working with [Dilly] Knox [expert on the Enigma cypher …]. Knox’s influence on Turing at this time is immense. The older veteran cryptanalyst shared everything he knew about Enigma with Turing, who eventually used this knowledge to write the first four chapters of his treatise on Enigma […]

“…[Turing] was happy to learn from Dilly Knox, happy to use that knowledge as the foundation for what he would develop subsequently, and was diligent in recording what he had learned and how he developed that into new areas so that others could profit from his knowledge just as he had profited from that of Knox.”

Knox could only take Turing so far and his quest for experience-based understanding of the cryptanalysis of Enigma took Turing to France in January 1940…”

Team work

There are lots of different ways in which people can work as part of a team.  Turing’s way was to take in other people’s ideas, develop and build on them, and then pass the product on to other people to be the foundation for the next stage.  He took the idea of electromechanical processing of Enigma messages from the Poles but developed their idea into something radically different.  When Welchman later enhanced the Bombe with his diagonal board, Turing was among the first to congratulate him on this major improvement.  Turing was part of the team, and shared in the success of the team.”

Respecting diversity

“I strongly believe a Sigint agency needs the widest range of skills possible if it is to be successful, and to deny itself talent just because the person with the talent doesn’t conform to a social stereotype is to starve itself of what it needs to thrive.”

“I don’t want to pretend that GCHQ was an organisation with twenty-first century values in the twentieth century, but it was at the most tolerant end of the cultural spectrum.  In an organisation which valued the skills and characteristics that difference can bring, Turing’s homosexuality was less of a talking point than his insights into the complex crypt problems of the day.  When he was put on trial, Hugh Alexander, the Head of Cryptanalysis at GCHQ went, with official approval, to speak as a character witness on his behalf, saying in court that Turing was a national asset.”

Exploiting serendipity

“Geoffrey Tandy was posted to Bletchley by the Admiralty in a spirit of helpfulness: his posting officer had understood him to be an expert in cryptograms, a word still used in the Admiralty at that time to mean messages signalled in code.  In fact he was an expert in cryptogams: non-flowering plants like ferns, mosses and seaweeds.  But while this knowledge might not have appeared to be of much use, Tandy became expert in German naval Enigma and because of his work on seaweed was able to provide unique advice on the preservation of cryptologic documents rescued from the sea.”

The role of management

“Part of my job is to continue to foster that atmosphere: to attract the very best people and harness their talents, and not allow preconceptions and stereotypes to stifle innovation and agility.”

Thoughts after a talk by Michelle Dawson

Some thoughts, not yet expanded…

1. Autistic people have been shown to be more emotionally expressive than non-autistics, contrary to some stereotypes. In one experiment, they were also still less susceptible to a framing effect.

2. Seemingly narrow abilities can get one very far, e.g., spotting weird interpretations of results in papers; systematically cataloguing results. They are only “narrow” if judged that way.

3. Everyone needs to find their talents and spot and help cultivate talents in others. Autism is another more visible instance of this.

4. “Interventions” are often poor substitutes for mentoring relationships, which have been found to be so important in, e.g., apprenticeships, Oxbridge undergrad supervision, and PhD supervision elsewhere.

5. Opportunities to try things can be the best intervention.

6. Judgmental observation is a kind of interaction, as when you see something, a trait, behaviour, you assess to be negative, it’s difficult to avoid broadcasting your opinion, even if just in a brief facial expression. This affects the person you’ve just observed.

7. Verbal fluency is still over-emphasised in academia. Visuospatial processing, rapid categorisation, implicit learning – still computationally complex cognitive processes – are often undervalued.

8. Everyone has biases, e.g., results they want to be true, even those pointing out biases in others. That’s where debate and criticism from other folk who are less involved is crucial.

What I thought (in 2006) about examinations

What does it mean to understand something and how can you test that of others?

I expect much of it is mastery of language: using mathematical language the correct way; having experience of doing the calculational bits of maths efficiently — algebraic manipulation, etc; being able to use (and learn) the libraries of a programming language; being able to use and extract common patterns of programming — learning the semantics of loops, etc, is not enough (one of the failings of formalist approaches is emphasising this) pragmatics and idioms are also essential. I expect a lot of people get stuck in maths and programming because they insist on doing everything from first principles, to search for some non-existent meaning, when it’s essential to use analogy and to take advantage of examples and counterexamples (of code, of mathematics) wherever possible.

Here’s some stuff from Psychological Knowledge by Kusch (1999). This is in the depths of an argument about how folk-psychology (e.g. talk about beliefs, wants, desires, etc) is a social institution, but try twisting it a bit…

“To follow a practice is to be able to distinguish between right and wrong ways of going on; it is to be able to characterise actions as belonging to a given practice; it is to be able to argue with others over whether or not a given way of `going on’ is acceptable; it is to be able to sanction others if they fail to go on in the right sort of way; and it is to be able to self- adjust one’s own doing in the light of others’ feedback. […] We would not normally say that a person possesses a concept unless the person understands the concept; and we would not normally say that the person understands the concept unless that person can engage in the sorts of activities that I have mentioned above as being involved in rule following.”

I think this is more than a written exam can test. Generally, questions in an exam are very close to questions given as examples, whereas real world problem solving can often involve spending time fighting with books, getting stuck for days, asking for help. People can do exceedingly well in exams without being able to argue convincingly for and against the techniques they’ve used. There’s no opportunity to test to see how well someone will interact and benefit from interaction with others — which is surely crucial for actual practice. I don’t mean in the fluffy “people skills” way that professional practice courses try to teach: I mean learning how to ask useful questions, understanding the relativity of premises and when to modify what you believe, reasoning credulously from what someone is saying before taking a skeptical stance, spotting rhetorical devices and ignoring them, and so on.

I liked this bit in the intro to Bridges from Classical to Nonmontonic Logic by David Makinson, on how to read the book:

“Do it pencil in hand; scribble in the margins. Take nothing on faith; check out the assertions; find errors (and communicate them to the author); pose questions.

“Notoriously, the best test of whether one has understood a definition is to be able to identify positive and negative examples. Nor has one understood a theorem very well if unable to apply it to straightforward cases and recognize some of its more immediate consequences. Without this one may have the illusion of understanding, but not the real thing.

“[…] As well as exercises, there are some problems. They are more demanding. In general they require more than checking positive and negative instances of a definition or straight applications with a couple of steps of argument. Their solutions may need perceptive guessing plus the ability to prove or disprove the guesses. Both the art of making good guesses and the ability to check them out are acquired skills, and grow with practice.”

Incidentally I think a lot of programming is the art of making good “guesses”, where a guess is probably the result of exposure to lots of examples, gaining lots of experience. Then solving the problem at hand is the skill of transforming the initial guess into something that works and justifying why it works.

What students think about discussions

Earlier this year in a class which depended a lot on discussion, I asked a bunch of students for some advice on making discussions work.  Here’s what they said:

What kinds of comments do people find useful?

  • Comments which relate what you want to do to previously published work.
  • Preferably with an added “OH there’s lots of work to do in that!” — and ideas for what.
  • Preferably with a specific paper in mind, not generally suggesting that there must have been something done.
  • “That’s a great/interesting idea!” — if it was.
  • There will always be good and bad aspects to what people suggest: point these out and don’t lie.
  • Good questions can be better than advice.
  • General conversational skills stuff, like nodding, showing you’re interested, rephrasing what has been said to show that you’ve been listening, “go on… interesting idea…”

Typical unconstructive critical comments

  • This has been done before — it’s all known.
  • Nobody will be interested.
  • Too specific or too complicated questions too early!
  • Destroying a general idea by picking on one very specific problem

Coping with negative comments

  • To someone who criticises: “How would you do it?”
  • Shifting the burden of authority to elsewhere, e.g., to a published paper.
  • If a group discussion, then try to engage the other (positive) group members.
  • Be blunt!  (In cases of emergency.)  Sometimes diplomacy doesn’t work.
  • Ask the critical person to come up with a counterargument to his or her own criticism (I like this idea — I wonder does it work!)
  • “I appreciate your feedback…” “Hmmm there might be some truth in what you’re saying…” Try to compromise.

Unsuccessful strategies for coping

  • Personal attacks
  • Ignoring the person
  • Giving up
  • Getting into a shouting match
  • “I don’t care what you have to say”