Learning

In computing, algorithms are an unambiguous set of instructions like: 

  1. go in the house
  2. hang up your coat
  3. sit down

But what if I have a problem getting in the house? What if the door is locked? If/Then subroutines are context dependent algorithms allowing for variation without failure.

  1. find key
  2. use key to open door

But what if I can’t find the key? As the story plays out, deeper levels of algorithmic problem solving are exposed to rescue us from a dead end.

  1. search for key
    1. in pockets
    2. on the ground
    3. in the car

You can probably imagine further subroutines and variances to each step. And all this for something that only comes up in the rare case of being locked out of the house.

When enough such related algorithms are grouped together usefully, they can become the human version of a program or app, ready to run when needed. We all have tons of garden variety apps installed, some are innate and essential and some are highly individual choices.

Global Apps

The opening example of being locked out isn’t an app by itself but it shows one at work. I call this one the”What-If” app, and I consider it to be a part of the Human Operating System (or HOS) which is a very important sounding thing I made up one day to refer to the totality of our preprogrammed behavior. If the troubleshooting steps made sense as you were reading them it’s because you actually have this “What-If” program in your head and use it regularly. We never think of it in the abstract this way, as an always running background app. We never think of it at all because we rely upon this internalized application to appear with some answers the instant it is needed. The framework delivering those answers is as taken for granted as having a hand to pick up a cup. This program deconstructs any problem and triages potential solutions to create an “order of operations” that determines the most logical first step and then orders the cascade of “If-Thens” by logical position and least effort required to succeed. An example is the old tech support truism of starting with the question “Is it plugged in?” We briefly touch base with this app hundreds of time a day whenever “Uh Oh, what if ?” thoughts arise. Often these thoughts and the suggested reactions are so short-lived that we don’t even notice them happening. In stressful situations, we can sometimes better observe the process in action as we focus on a particular worry. A decision tree forms in your mind and the outcome branches order-rank themselves from likely success to likely failure. What-If is like an indefatigable Jeeves to our fretting Bertie Wooster. While the “What-If” app comes installed in every human being, the quality of the program varies with individual common sense and can be impacted by the “having a shitty day” phenomena, which is known to affect decision making. It is also a perfect amoral slave to any sort of nonsense or evil we are pursuing, the mad scientist and the selfless philanthropist rely on it equally to achieve their ends.

Mutually Dependent Apps

If a person had never used a key on a locked door or even seen another person use a key, they wouldn’t have the introductory example with its various sub-responses already in place. Decision trees need solid ground to grow. Our keyless protagonist has the WI program though, and it would fall back to a more general level of What-If.  What if you arrive at your destination and you mysteriously can’t enter? When What-If hits this sort of new blank problem, conscious effort and even struggle are required to establish the baseline realities and possibilities. If you had no help, coming up with the idea of a key would be comparable to a minor scientific breakthrough. It’s a good thing we have the “What the Hell is Up with That” app, aka WHUT to tinker with mysteries, develop theories about them and update those theories as needed. WHUT creates the conceptual givens that What-If needs in order to work.

Eventually, sufficient familiarity with the basics of the situation and frequent practice will transform the skill into an autopilot function that no longer requires conscious effort and doesn’t interrupt us to stop and think about it anymore. This silent efficiency is a trait of well-integrated apps. A frequent partner to What-If and WHUT is an essential global app I’ll call Gleaning Useful Information from Everything, obviously known as GUIE. This foundational human app is always adding to its database of potentially important knowledge and it doesn’t always require direct personal experience. I would guess that most of us have successfully dealt with at least one situation based on information gathered from television or the internet. This was GUIE handing off useful ideas to What-if, who shoots and scores.  One of the most essential, always on, global apps is “Endlessly Scanning for Danger” (ESD) which often triggers the “What-If” app to generate getaway or fight back plans. Usually, these plans aren’t needed as many danger signals turn out to be false alarms. Those getaway plans evaporate instantly when we get confirmation of a false alarm but just imagine how many of these survival scenarios your brain has generated and trashed over your lifetime. Global apps like these aren’t chosen, they come pre-installed as modules of the HOS because we could not function without them.

But many human skills are chosen and often for deeply personal reasons to express our souls or achieve our goals.

Specialty Apps

We can learn a huge variety of specialty programs like driving a car, performing brain surgery, cooking a dessert or dancing ballet. Continue reading

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Drones aren’t irrelevant in bee society they just aren’t really the kind of people you want to be seen with.

Drones develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid. Queens and workers develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid.

Virtually all organisms are diploid, an original genetic mix based on sexual reproduction with a mix of genes from mom (xx) and dad (xy). The only males in a beehive are the drones and they do not participate in gathering nectar and other bee jobs, they are there purely to inseminate the queen (queen being a strange word for ovary, apparently) and drones are the offspring of unfertilized eggs.

So drones are haploid, containing no recombination of the previous generation, it is basically a flying gamete and all its sperm are identical. All those identical sperm have only source of genetic information, the unfertilized egg it hatched from. A drone is basically a clever workaround for an egg to make sperm that makes more eggs. But to bees it’s critical that there is as little genetic drift as possible.  As a result, the sister bees who do all the work are more closely related than ordinary sisters, instead of sharing 50 % of genes they share 75 %. More reinforcement for the idea that a hive is a quasi individual. And get this (pulling from wikipedia below) …

Because the male bee technically has only a mother, and no father, it’s genealogical tree is rather interesting. In the first generation there is one member (the male). One generation back there is also one member (the mother). Two generations back there are two members (the mother and father of the mother). Three generations back there are three members. Four back there are five members. That is, the numbers in each generation going back are 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, … —the Fibonacci Sequence.
bee

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Autistic characters in drama have become almost stereotypical stock roles.

Asperger’s was added to the character of Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC version with Benedict Cumberbatch and in many ways it’s a good fit. We find a form of it in earlier shows like Star Trek with Spock and Commander Data. “Rain Man” has become a phrase that instantly summons up a farther range of the spectrum, even less socially competent, more obsessive and rigid. These characters are often given an awesome savant talent, further increasing pressure on autistic people to entertain us with magical-weirdo-brain-tricks like playing any song after hearing it once or lightning calculation. Further out still are the lost children (you almost never see an adult) spinning plates and squealing.

What people often fail to realize is that this spectrum has them on it too! We are all on this spectrum even if we are sitting in the comfortable normal box.

Consider the classic issues that come up for people on the right hand side of this image.

  • Overwhelmed by social intensity. (attention, crowds, eye contact)
  • Sensitive to noise
  • Sensitive to little somatic distractions like a scratchy tag in their shirt.

The difference between you and some poor soul melting down from these isn’t one of kind but of degree. It’s just a question of the amplitude it requires to send your needle into the red. Have you ever heard of police trying to drive people out of a house by blasting music at it day after day? Or similar techniques focused on someone under interrogation? This is a conscious attempt to push people into the breakdown zone that ASD people reach with far less intensity.

We all have these same vulnerabilities but ASD people have less insulation on their wires.

Imagine yourself wearing a shirt of spun fiberglass. In a 12 hour death metal battle of the bands. Surrounded tightly by a crowd of strangers who keep staring at you and touching you.

Welcome, you have arrived at weekdays for autistic folks. Have a seat and pay attention. Don’t act up.

 

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In every class I teach, the medium is the PC. In every class I teach there is at least one student who still sucks at computing. I applaud them being game enough to choose the encounter, because it’s clearly a struggle. The problem is that almost all of these students carry their downfall into the room with them and ultimately feel no closer to their goal, or only a touch closer. 

What these students lack is Fluency. Computer Fluency is the constellation of core skills that comfortable users take for granted as a foundation into every computer task they approach. More and more, beginning computer classes are disappearing, not because they are unneeded but because curriculum planners see no market for them. Only truly humble students choose these classes and that’s too small a market to succeed. 

Here’s the real problem. Because fluency underlies all software use, if a person lacks fluency it doesn’t matter what computer course they choose, THAT CLASS will become a beginning computer class. It will just be a terrible choice for a beginning computer class. The center of gravity of that class dips to meet the skill deficit of these students. I have taught web design classes where people ask how many times to click an icon and don’t know the difference between a folder and a file. In class I am positive and encouraging but inside I’m thinking “I am so sorry you wasted your money on this class.” Because that student is probably NEVER going to get beyond their deficit to embrace the intended curriculum.  Continue reading

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Blake-TheAncientOfDays-Trans292I am in LOVE with evidence of truly complex and sophisticated systems in Biology. It makes me really happy when something strange and amazing shows up revealing higher-order relationships and systems than anyone thought. I love it because life seems more deep and meaningful in a world of higher orders of mind and connectedness. I feel that they exist undiscovered all around us, but it doesn’t seem strange to me that we have trouble seeing it.  We are locked into a level of existence and limited perception that makes it deeply challenging to learn anything beyond the obvious scope of our senses. Often these exciting results suggest something like intelligence or intent. Not always directly, just through a kind of “How in the world could that work?” feeling. I have a naturally joyous response to scientific recognition of elegantly complex systems. To me, it feels like wonderful news.

In this blog, I state things as if with the force of facts, things I only happen to think are true. Things I see around me and want to share. Occasionally I will report on experimental results that I find interesting or even supportive of my position. The difference is, I don’t call what I am doing Science. I am not a scientist and anyone disagreeing with me would be fair to say I am pretty much just talking out of my butt. Maybe even those who agree with me. I am just making this stuff up, but if it resonates with you, it means you see it now too!

My “theories” are true from where I’m looking. I simply observe them. I find them compelling enough to want to share but I make no exaggerated claims about how much they will change your life. One man’s revelation is another’s “Meh”. Sometimes I challenge myself to figure out and describe something absurdly big and complicated… and the best means I have found to do this is to write about it in public. When my name is on it in a place where someone might see it, I feel inspired enough (or embarrassed enough) to keep returning and improving.

But I am not in any way a creationist or intelligent design advocate. “Creation scientists” have named themselves in a way that suggests they are on par with other scientific disciplines but their work begins with tossing out the scientific method. When they teach science they are peddling a “lite” substitute.

If they want to start a church of intelligent design, by all means do, that sounds like a relatively nice, relatively enlightened  theology. But that is the only appropriate place for their efforts because they are committed in advance to an outcome without testing. Because they conflate experimental results out of proportion to the experiment. Because they start with an agenda and reject counter evidence. Because they accept low-quality research that they agree with. Scientists CAN be religious people without in any way tainting the results. They simply practice each in its own domain.

“Creation scientists” are religious lobbyists in lab coat drag.

 

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We say “Computer Program” and naturally that sounds very different than “Theater Program” but the word program means the same thing. A list of things to take place in a certain order. Computer programs are built of algorithms. The program itself is a kind of meta-algorithm. 
 
Algorithms are an unambiguous set of instructions like:
  1. go in the house
  2. hang up your coat
  3. sit down
But what if I have a problem getting in the house? What if the door is locked? A nested algorithm is waiting at that event.
  1. find key
  2. use key to open door

Continue reading

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When I’m teaching and a certain magic number of at least 4 students come together I can feel a transformation take place. Before that, I am just ordinary me,  talking to individuals one on one. When that critical mass is reached I become a different person, I am the Teacher, rather than just myself.  I put on my version of a super-suit. Suddenly I possess a remembering, performing, adapting and extemporizing mind. Suddenly I possess a confident game show host personality of almost infinite confidence and patience. It’s an instant flow state and I enjoy it very much, I’d enjoy being this guy more of the time but he is inaccessible when I am alone.

A corollary effect happens to the class students. A circuit of exchange forms between us and we are like two people pumping one of those old railway handcars together. With enough people participating and with a basic level of openness, of receptivity, there is a tipping point for them as well where they become somehow attuned to a common positive frequency that is attuned to mine and we become a self-maintaining energy flow machine. I give them energy in the form of good teaching and their attention and enthusiasm gives enthusiastic energy back to me that absolutely powers my teaching. We work together to achieve lift-off and the key in both of us is happiness, not long term, but an upbeat feeling, a positive charge.

Shared Energy is the Root of Relationship

If students come to class with the idea that this is all drudgery, beneath them, they pull me down with them. They hold onto my ankles and prevent take off. I can feel the lifeless lack of connection and my job becomes harder. I am doing all the lifting and in the end, I am not happy and energized, I am drained and flat. A bored, unreachable class is just dead weight. When the magic doesn’t start, I don’t turn into The Teacher, just a guy bailing out a stalled sailboat. When things go well though, a bigger, better me is summoned from oblivion and cheerfully possesses my body for a couple of hours. What we are is mysterious and flexible, there are unseen versions of us just waiting for a particular random meeting to be born. There are genies in this bottle.

Teaching is a highly specific instance of this kind of group energy exchange but I mention it because I imagine you’ve had this experience too and can relate no matter what side of that event you were on. This is invisible human magic, it has thousands of parallels in our lives but there is something elemental in it that everyone seems to miss. We give up a little bit of our autonomy and independence in order to cooperate, I say give up, but “offer up” is better because it is freely given, it’s a contribution. When we share ourselves, these contributions blend and there is something new to work with, an original concoction. A potluck of personalities and moods begin harmonizing and creating energy together that could not exist alone.

In a classroom, this kind of exchange is never intimate or deeply personal, we are more like random pedestrians running together to roll a stalled car out of traffic. In the classroom, we have an hour of feeling like a unified group with shared energy, intent and goals once or twice a week. When we gather we are like a very insubstantial, temporary individual made of multiple people. It pops like a soap bubble as we part company.

The Third Mind or, Becoming Mr. Blobby

When any two people meet they have this encounter and they generate an insubstantial, blobby bubble self like this by interacting. A third mind is created when any two meet. This mind talks to itself, finds a mood, energy, a temperament, a personality; a self. If excitement and energy are generated, this mind can consider amazing things, dream up and risk trying new things, and entertain itself enormously. As the two contributors part, this mind dissolves though it can be remembered with love, disgust, or disinterest by its agents.

This third mind is the basic social molecule. it is the fundamental social molecule, the catalyst of everything new. The magic of interpersonal chemistry decides much of what happens next. Families start here, as do cold, indifferent workmates. The basic social molecule of two, in a way, has to be intimate, not necessarily good or welcome but intimate. One on One is the molecule of intimacy. There are things two can do that are amazing, but two cannot do everything.

As the number of people meeting rises, the new mind naturally appears, shifting and changing with the new ingredients. This self is less intimate but capable of generating different kinds of energy. The polarity of two opens up with 3 and beyond. Certain kinds of projects and tasks can be energized and tackled by small groups in a way that feels supernatural. We can taste being greater than the sum of our parts at times, we can feel the larger energy unlocking new abilities.

More Powerful, Less Stable

Complexity is still possible with small groups. The excitement of an ensemble working to put on a show or start a business can be electric. There is often a feeling of “auto-organizing” of becoming limbs and organs specializing and working in concert with the virtual body. Of course, many organizations create third-minds that are inert, jealous or contrary. The only guarantee is that SOME mind will emerge at the moment of engagement. The energy that happens when motivated minds meet, this third mind, or these “virtual creature” minds can be enormously powerful but keep in mind, the power is essentially amoral. The power will flow if the “batteries” are present. If the mind is engineering reform or art or charity or terrorism…the energy is there.

Emergent human social behavior is not all good and positive. This energy can go dark and bloody in any mob. Hutus and Tutsis would not have massacred each other without this electric build up and overflow. The Nazis couldn’t have existed without it. When a demonstration becomes a riot it is this.

One of the scariest days of my life was in San Francisco after the 49ers won the Superbowl. The streets were full of people celebrating and in a moment that felt strangely like clouds covering the sun, the mood twisted. There were transitional moments: people shouting words of happiness that sounded oddly angry, people looking a little too hard to see if you were celebrating too. At this moment it was like they were looking for outsiders, looking for something to push back against. Soon things tipped and it was like wild animals except that wild animals do nothing like this. It was like a torrent of human craziness and anger, feeding on itself and igniting like flammable gas. And all because “We won!”. Except not really. I don’t think it had anything specific to do with the winning, except that there was a kind of build-up of a charge. A critical mass of charged up, energized humans bumped into each other like pressurized molecules. This is why large gatherings of people always have a risk component and why well planned large events feature effective guidance of group energy, logistics management, and at least a skeleton of police exuding the “remain orderly” pheromone. It’s just a guess but I bet losing teams have way fewer fan riots than winning teams.

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1. A detail of a system
2. An individual
3. A “colony”
And every living thing has at least three areas of mind
1. The mind playing a role in the system (a mind we never consciously experience, because we are an element of it. Imagine the Internet as a mind, think of your actions on the web as this element)
2. The individual mind (Day to day you.)
3. The component minds (The cluster of selves and parts of selves that make us up.)
And each level is the emergent product of its components. 
ant

Tim

Take an ant. Take this one in particular. We’ll call him Tim.
1. Tim as one of thousands is how we think of him. As a detail of a system, a tiny component, necessary but utterly replaceable, below recognizing as an individual.
2. Tim from Tim’s perspective; sensing, perceiving, acting as a singular being
3. Tim as a giant colony of tiny components: The cells and microbes that make him up. His corporate essence, emergent from the syntheses of these.
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The “binding problem” is the question of how our various senses blend and synthesize into a smooth, unified flow. Nobody knows how right now. Francis Crick came up with the 40 hertz synchronization theory to explain the biological causes of consciousness but it seems very empty and thin. And unlikely.

All neurons process something. So at some level, each neuron is an experience and in a tiny way, an experiencer. We know different areas of the brain specialize in different areas and kinds of processing but these areas are not simple lumps of processing material, they are massed armies of neurons …gigantic rock concert crowds talking to each other and responding to the show on stage in front of them. When the band yells out “Hello Cleveland!” and the crowd roars back…it becomes like a single entity, made of millions.

The mistake we make in imagining neurons is seeing them as essentially passive wiring that signals are flowing along like an old telegraph or telephone system with a caller at one end and a receiver at the other. In reality, that level of transmission doesn’t require anything like the amount of neuronal population and activity we have going on. The information coming into the system has to be batch processed, and blended with information from other “departments” to derive the basic picture/sound/smell combination and this has to be refreshed at a rate that feels instantaneous and flowing to the observer. But that’s just organizing the core feed into coherent sensory information. That raw feed has to be examined for context, meaning and nuance constantly while not flooding and overwhelming the human thinking their thoughts, doing their chores, socializing and planning. This is an astounding feat especially since that same brain is the one thinking those thoughts, doing those chores, planning and socializing. Continue reading

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Stories are integral to humans, they are essential and innate.

Stories as fiction, of course, but also the way of saying anything where a subject once verbed a noun. A person born without innate language behavior, the talking and the understanding, would be as isolated from the rest of us as another species. “Talking and understanding” oversimplify the matter. Language is our medium of remembering long term, considering the future and artfully creating a new copy of that idea in those listening. Oh yes, and imagining the minds of the listeners so well, including personality, rank, bias, and weaknesses that a story can be tailored to precisely sway a single individual, then instantly repackaged in broad strokes to move a horde.

Language, as we live it, feels simple as daylight but requires an unimaginable substrate of conscious and unconscious knowledge, generating sentences in real time, monitoring reactions, bolding certain points, while hiding others in a busy crowd of details. Language lets the community imagine things being different, in the past, in the present, in the future. It allows a group to wrestle with a mystery and imagine motives for actions.
All of these complex abilities are grey matter functions. The neo-cortex REQUIRES stories to do business. Grey matter is the apartment in the human brain where “we” are allowed to live. There once was a princess, trapped in a high tower… and she is us. The neo-cortex comes supplied with libraries of story “legos”. Every hero’s journey and every fairy tale can be assembled from precursors that exist in every brain. To qualify as truly human you must be full of monsters and lost children.

What language and stories tell us is that humans are a madly, overwhelmingly social species, that nature “imagined” us as communities of extremely complex individuals. Any picture we hold of the role of stories is like imaging a little kit we take out when needed and find very useful. The reality is we are aquatic creatures in an ocean of endlessly replenished overlapping narratives. They are the enveloping atmosphere. Consider the individual and her story as the smallest discernible level, connecting to the family story, to the extended family story and the tribe story. In larger civilizations, in big cities, there are thousands of separate story communities we belong to. We have a work story, a church story, a political story, a sex and age story. And so does everyone else. A person can even be imprisoned by their own story, repeating grievances and hurts in a litany designed to preserve them perfectly.

Language is innate to humans because stories are innate to humans. Because we have to teach and apologize and convince and amuse and explain and plan, stories are innate. Because we have to imagine our own lives…Because we have to hold onto the past and anticipate the future… stories are innate. We could not be human without stories and stories do not exist without humans.
Stories are the currency of human exchange. Anything more complex than a “Hello” either IS a story or an invitation to one. These tiny proto-story beginnings: Beautiful day, isn’t it? | How are you? | Have you seen Bob?” are human equivalents to respect gestures, grooming, butt sniffing etc. and may be finished in a moment but each one can carry the participants far from the humble start and into laughter, tears, murder or sympathy.

Stories are the bridges we build to connect our lonely asteroids. At the end of a hard day of building story bridges, at last, you go to relax. What would you prefer, would you rather watch tv or read a book? Stories are food. They even open a door to escape the stories we’re fucking tired of.

Imagine campfires surrounded by the first modern humans. Humans just like us but without infrastructure or history. We know who these people are. They are us! We know the storytellers, the funny ones, the creative ones, the ones that just like attention or the sound of their own voice.  And we can imagine the audience having their say, shaping and guiding the story with their responses. Imagine the comfort of safe adventures and harmless surprises. Imagine the comfort of the retold story, the listeners touching each landmark twist with pleasure.

It is also a natural process for stories to become so deeply a part of the people listening to them that they identify their stories as reality itself; the stories and life itself are one. This is an amazing jump but it is the foundation of group identity and group identity is where us versus them appears. A little tribe of humans could not exist for long without knitting a cozy story around themselves to keep out the chill. Stories are identity; I am a part of this story and this story is a part of me. What is religious fundamentalism really, but people fixated on the particular rightness of one story in opposition to all others? Think of the Islamic phrase grouping together themselves, Jews and Christians: People of the book.

Each of us began this way “You wake up and you have no idea where you are or how you got there”. In time people began filling you in on the details. You asked questions exactly as ancient children did and someone older said: “Let me tell you a story about that.”

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