Wednesday Jan 13, 2010

The Necessity of Making Mistakes

Nice article on the brain biology behind how scientists actually create science. Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. Recognizing anomalies, making mistakes, being challenged, and engaging in conversation are all critically important elements that make science work. Context and perspective matter greatly as well. Seems all very human to me. I`m not so much interested in the brain chemistry that influences behavior in science (you can see this in partisan politics as well), but what fascinates me more is the notion that with this awareness you can dig yourself out of the natural traps that catch most people, and that can lead to new opportunities that only a few generally see.

From the article:

Modern science is populated by expert insiders, schooled in narrow disciplines. Researchers have all studied the same thick textbooks, which make the world of fact seem settled. This led Kuhn, the philosopher of science, to argue that the only scientists capable of acknowledging the anomalies — and thus shifting paradigms and starting revolutions — are “either very young or very new to the field.” In other words, they are classic outsiders, naive and untenured. They aren’t inhibited from noticing the failures that point toward new possibilities.

The "acknowledging the anomalies" bit from Thomas Kuhn is key. It may enable you to jump paradigms or start revolutions, which is very cool, but in the process it also gets you a lot of knives buried deeply in your back. So acknowledge carefully. More than a few people have ended up dead challenging paradigms throughout the ages. Granted, the deaths are at the extreme, but why go through all that if it`s not necessary. Start small. Pick off what you can. Even though most people usually can't change the paradigms in which they live, they can change the small things in their world by recognizing and resolving anomalies that crop up every day. Then, hopefully, over time the small changes add up to big changes. And when you are focusing on this process, you are more apt to spot big paradigm shifts coming along and you can jump when the opportunity is right. So, don`t be afraid to poke around and change your position and screw up from time to time. Failure is important. It helps you succeed.

Tuesday Jul 08, 2008

Different Language, Different People

Are you a different person when you speak a different language?: "People who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another, according to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research. The authors studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant levels of "frame-shifting" (changes in self perception) in bicultural participants — those who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture. While frame-shifting has been studied before, the new research found that biculturals switched frames more quickly and easily than bilingual monoculturals. -- eScience News.

Interesting report. I buy the language switching bit because I see that affect personalities every day in bilingual people around me and also in my own kid as well. But I'm not sure I buy the notion of "biculturals" that much. True bicultuals seem rare to me or superficial at best. Perhaps that's because I live in a culture that has such a low level of diversity and mixes very little with the west, I'm not sure. There are many shades of culture within cultures, too, so it's difficult to draw conclusion that apply across larger cultural differences. For instance, I think it's reasonable to say that the distinction between cultures within Europe and the United States (where this study took place) are much more narrow than the distinction between the East and West. I don't doubt the study, per say, but I just question how deep it goes. I've met westerners living in Japan for 30 years who are totally fluent in writing and speaking, yet they haven't even scratched the surface of being Japanese, and I'm told this is quite common.

Sunday Jun 13, 2004


I went to see science fiction writer Bruce Sterling -- "The Singularity: Your Life as a Black Hole" -- on Friday nite. Now, I've never read a science fiction book in my life, and I have no clue who Bruce Sterling is. But when I read Simon's post directing me to WorldChanging for more Sterling info, well, then I was hooked. Gotta go. Especially since it was just 10 minutes from my apartment in San Francisco. And more importantly, I don't want my life to be a black hole, now do I?

So, here's my take. I don't buy this notion of "Singularity" ... where in the very near future technology progresses so rapidly that life becomes incomprehensible to us. In other words, a super paradigm shift, a complete break from the past, so utterly complete, in fact, that it transcends our very understanding and ability to describe it (which begs the question, of course, how we could have so many articles attempting to do just that). WorldChanging has links to some interesting pieces on this. I skimmed 'em. Sorry. I don't buy it. Sounds like the preachers of "the new economy" and the "end of the business cycle" just around, say, mid-2000, just before absolutely everything that Silicon Valley promised collapsed under it's own hollow hype. But that's just me. To be fair, there are some interesting bits in those articles, but "the singularity" as a concept sounds like science fiction. Nothing more. Could make a good movie, I bet, but I probably wouldn't read the book.

Sterling's speech, though, was excellent. He's an extremely clever guy and a great talker. Even though I don't know science fiction and didn't get most of his jokes, I found myself laughing at every turn. He's that good rhetorically. He spent most of his time poking fun at various Singularity proponents, carefully not going too far because, really, who knows, right? The guys over at WorldChanging summed up the speech up perfectly with this once sentence Sterling uttered near the end of his talk: "The future is a process, not a destination. The future is not a noun, it's a verb." I agree.

However, driving home I found myself more and more disappointed. Sterling spent too much time undermining the Singularity only to end on the remarkably anti-climatic, "The future is a process, not a destination. The future is not a noun, it's a verb." Pretty ordinary observation, I'd say. While at the same time he dropped bombs like, "We don't know what it means to be conscious" (rough quote), and "I'm not really concerned about a singularity as much as I am with the radical manipulation of human cognition ... because those people may have very little to say to us" (again, rough quote). Audience reaction? Silence. Wow. I would have loved for him to explore those issues because it seemed to me that was the real essence of Sterling's views. Maybe next time.

Note: If I'm wrong and this Singularity thing is real, then this excellent article articulates how open source can help ensure that a Singularity occurs in a way that benefits everyone, not just the powerful.


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