Sticky Notes are Zen

We have sticky notes because someone at 3M invented a glue that wasn’t very sticky. It was sticky enough to stay in place on certain surfaces, but not so sticky that it created a permanent bind or tore the material.

In other words, this happy accident occupied the Middle Way, neither stuck, nor loose. Not sticky, but sticky-ish. Sticky to an extent but not stuck in its ways. Able to stick when need be, able to unstick when the situation required it. Not too attached, not too detached.

Sticky notes are  Zen.

I believe Chuang Tzu was predicting the rise of sticky notes when he said, “If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?” When the “sticky” glue was first invented, it seemed utterly useless. Glue that doesn’t stick? That’s about as useful as an inedible doughnut. (For my further thoughts on the relationship between doughnuts and Chinese masters, see this.)

But, you see, it was the glue’s uselessness (say that fast ten times) that made it useful.

Sticky notes also reside at the pivot Chuang Tzu praised as the still-point from which enlightened action occurs. Here he is from Thomas Merton’s loosey-goosey translation. (You have to translate the Chinese Masters loosey-goosey because to be too literal and direct divorces you from the Tao and such)

He who grasps the pivot is at the still-point from which all movements and oppositions can be seen in their right relationship…Abandoning all thought of imposing a limit or taking sides, he rests in direct intuition. 

And of course the content of most sticky notes comes directly from intuition. It is instantaneous, frequently inspired, and as mobile as a hollowed-out gourd floating down the Yangtze.

The sticky pad is also empty. It absorbs all ink without changing its fundamental structure. It can be used for anything, but is ultimately useless. It is inexhaustible. There are always more sticky notes.

You don’t have to run off to a monastery to be enlightened. It can happen in your office. Your officestery, if you’d like.

They say that enlightenment is an accident, but that meditation makes you more accident prone. In the same way, Zen insight is the structure of the universe, an ever-present wave, obscured out in the open, but so what?

The sticky pad can help with this. It is profoundly good at “so what.”

It is the still pond into which the frog plops.

What is Literature?

Here is a little quiz designed to question your understanding of the term “literature.” There is no answer key.

Do Androids Dream of Misplaced Modifiers? #change11

NPR reports that automated grading systems might be better than human teachers at identifying syntax, grammar, and punctuation errors on essays. Oh, and the computer is much faster, able to to grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds.

But here’s the rub. Surprise, surprise, the computer is generally fricking clueless about anything that really matters in academic life:

What the automated readers aren’t good at, he says, is comprehension and whether a sentence is factually true or not. They also have a hard time with other forms of writing, like poetry.

Yes. Brilliant. If not for the small matter of comprehension, these computers would be outperforming us. Also, don’t forget about the facts. And poetry. And creativity. And critical thinking.

But, don’t worry, Hal is good at everything else, like spell check. And assembling bird houses.

It’s easy to forget that “artificial intelligence” does not (indeed, cannot) mean replicated human intelligence. No, it’s all together something different. It’s algorithmic. It’s partial, molecular, piecemeal. It can simulate the thousands of individual movements that create a flock of birds, without ever seeing the flock. Certainly not appreciating it, or pondering what its organization out of chaos suggests about existence.

This recent Wired article by Steven Levy describes the shift that occured in AI studies after experts realized the human brain is too complicated to be imitated. Researchers settled, instead, for something less than human:

Today’s AI bears little resemblance to its initial conception. The field’s trailblazers in the 1950s and ’60s believed success lay in mimicking the logic-based reasoning that human brains were thought to use. In 1957, the AI crowd confidently predicted that machines would soon be able to replicate all kinds of human mental achievements. But that turned out to be wildly unachievable, in part because we still don’t really understand how the brain works, much less how to re-create it.

So during the ’80s, graduate students began to focus on the kinds of skills for which computers were well-suited and found they could build something like intelligence from groups of systems that operated according to their own kind of reasoning. “The big surprise is that intelligence isn’t a unitary thing,” says Danny Hillis, who cofounded Thinking Machines, a company that made massively parallel supercomputers. “What we’ve learned is that it’s all kinds of different behaviors.”

True, I would say to Danny Hillis, but you’re missing a big point: there are degrees of complexity, subtlety, and depth in the different behaviors of thinking. For argument’s sake we’ll say there are three levels, using Gregory Bateson’s typology for learning:  Level 1: rote learning, Level 2: constructing meaning, and Level 3: transcending meaning. I’ll maybe talk about these in detail some other time.

However, for now, it seems important to point out that the previously-mentioned grading software was only capable of checking for Level 1 learning. Actually, only certain aspects of Level 1, since it fails as a fact-checker. This kind of software would be good for students as a tool similar to spell check, but it’s good for little else.

Here is my take-away: Computers and artificial intelligence still seem light years away from being able to match the sophistication of the human brain, its millions of years of evolution, and its 100,000 years of human culture. If robots want to go off and create their own literature that speaks to them (if such a communication were possible) then we should respect them. Otherwise, they have some work to do.

Finally, if you’re the kind of teacher who only focuses on grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation, you better start looking for another job because a server in India will be putting you out of work shortly.

Seek the Blank Spots on the Map!

David Brooks has a curious column in the New York Times today. (Curious is a good word. It absolves George of all wrong-doing. He is not a naughty monkey. He is simply curious. He is in love with the questions generated by the universe.)

Brooks (somewhat precociously for a conservative) thinks our capitalist ethic is inhibiting creativity:

[PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s] lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.

Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

I think David has been reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces again. I like it. He also reminds us that our emerging cultures will  be difficult to predict since true innovation rarely comes from familiar sources. Instead, renaissance results from new interpretations of the dusted-off volumes of yore.

Brooks notes how our current education climate isn’t making change any easier:

Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets.

First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Our leading cultural critics have been saying this since, at least, Ivan Illich and his “deschooling” movement in the 1970’s. I guess the forces of stasis are just too powerful and wealthy (throw in apathetic) to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, it seems, the rigid education environment actually makes it more likely that heroic wanderers will emerge with healing visions, since, after all, they have a clearly defined opposition to work against. Plant the trees in perfect rows, you say? I think I will build an asymmetrical Zen garden instead. Multiple-choice? No, I’ll assign questions with no answers at all.

“He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”    —Maurice Sendak

The Educator’s Catch-22

A few years ago, I decided to begin my Composition 2 course by asking students to explore their personal feelings about writing classes. Their essays reported a fair amount of fear and anxiety, but the number one emotion mentioned, by a landslide, was boredom. Even worse, this boredom had nothing to do with the subject of writing, per say. Instead these students were bored with the topics their instructors assigned.

Being somewhat Pollyannaish at the time, I was convinced I could cure these students. I decreed that, henceforth, students would generate topics based on their passions, hobbies, and curiosities. It was going to be the end of boredom in the classroom! No more slumped shoulders and heavy eye-lids, only engaged students powered by intrinsic motivation.

There was only one problem: no one told me about the Educator’s Catch-22.

At first, after I encouraged them to select their own topics, the students were visibly relieved. Instead of “Should the United States Armed Forces serve as policemen of the world?” they could explore subversive themes in the lyrics of their favorite rock bands. Instead of “Is social media eliminating privacy?” they could study the effects of technology on Nazi Germany, if they felt so inclined. “Follow your interests!” I said ad nauseam. Surely, letting students write about issues close to their hearts would spark creativity and quash procrastination, right?


While I might have been spouting words like “inspiration” and “fun” and commanding students to “geek-out” on their guilty pleasures, I was still saying “due date” and “grades” and handing out assignment sheets as meticulously written as mortgage paperwork. By the end of the semester, I witnessed the same old tough slog to the finish line.

This is the Educator’s Catch-22. We want to teach students that learning is pleasurable and inner-motivation is ideal. However, we must do so within a framework built on assessment, authority, and economic realities. All of this generates stress, compliance, and (you guessed it) the need for external motivation.

In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, pilots must be deemed insane in order to be relieved of flying duties. Except that, of course, if a pilot wants out of his missions, it serves as clear evidence of his sanity:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

I believe that the ultimate goal of education is to inspire students to be life-long learners. In order to do this, they must develop intrinsic motivation. However, formal education operates largely on extrinsic motivation, which often suppresses intrinsic motivation.

According to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, a large body of research in economics and behavioral psychology demonstrates that punishments and rewards depress internal motivation and weaken results for any task involving at least “rudimentary cognitive skills.” That is, “carrots and sticks” may lead to faster ditch-digging, but not more innovation or better critical thinking. Furthermore, external motivation can drain the joy from any task.

For example, Pink cites a study from the 1970’s where children who enjoyed drawing during free time at day care were offered rewards to complete their work. After two weeks, the rewards stopped and researchers began observing the children through a two-way mirror. Those who had been receiving rewards started showing much less interest in drawing and spent considerably less time doing so.

By encouraging my students to bring their passions into the classroom (the dreaded arena of external motivation), I ran the risk of destroying their passions, sucking the life from them. As Pink reports, rewards can have a short term effect on compliance, but the long term effect is a loss of joy in the subject matter. If I encourage Tim, a flash mob junkie, to write a paper on the positive and negative uses of flash mobs, might I risk incentivizing his interests to death?

The difficult balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is nothing new. As Pink notes in Drive, Corporations like 3M and Google give their employees paid “free time” to work on whatever project they’d like. Entrepreneurs drop out of college (the supposed responsible path) to follow their dreams and chase big bucks. Academic wanderers audit courses to obtain knowledge instead of credits.

These individuals operate in a precarious place between freedom and authority, and new paradoxes arise: Employer-sanctioned goof-off sessions.  Highly-motivated drop-outs. High-risk behavior recorded carefully in a business plan. Such behavior defies categorization, but if the business world can create these ambiguous creative zones, then the education establishment can, too.

How do we teach intrinsic motivation in a system built on extrinsic motivation? How do we escape the Educator’s Catch-22? In the novel, Yossarian’s only option is to go AWOL. This might have been the road to success for Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but most of our students work within the education system. Can we find a way to make the system work for them?


An Answer to the Hard Problem

Darned if I wasn’t just writing about the “hard problem” of consciousness here, and lo and behold (love that phrase) the NY Times Book Review Blog tries to show me up with this interview of Riccardo Manzotti, who just so happens to have an answer to the hard problem.

If you don’t know, the  so-called hard problem refers to attempts to explain how and why we seem to have conscious awareness particular to our human organisms, or how and why we experience phenomena in a way that leads us to identify with our own minds or points-of-view. We could use the phrase “subjective consciousness” but folks like Manzotti dismiss the subject-object distinction as oversimplified. In its place, Manzotti has devised the “Spread Mind,” which is not like the popular offensive formation in American college football. Instead, from the aforementioned interview, it goes like this:

consciousness is a process shared between various otherwise distinct processes which, for convenience’s sake we have separated out and stabilized in the words subject and object.

Got that? No? Then Manzotti will engage you in comic strip form. No kidding. Check out the link above. He’s also pretty suave with the metaphors. He describes his particular externalist approach to explaining consciousness (externalist essentially means that he thinks consciousness is not primarily an interior phenomenon characterized by a screen inside the brain on which the world shows up; instead, every element that shows up in experience, both interior and exterior, contributes to consciousness through a continuous process) by using a rainbow, and, I might add, quite effectively:

For the rainbow experience to happen we need sunshine, raindrops, and a spectator. It is not that the sun and the raindrops cease to exist if there is no one there to see them. Manzotti is not a Bishop Berkeley. But unless someone is present at a particular point no colored arch can appear. The rainbow is hence a process requiring various elements, one of which happens to be an instrument of sense perception. It doesn’t exist whole and separate in the world nor does it exist as an acquired image in the head separated from what is perceived (the view held by the “internalists” who account for the majority of neuroscientists); rather, consciousness is spread between sunlight, raindrops, and visual cortex, creating a unique, transitory new whole, the rainbow experience. Or again: the viewer doesn’t see the world; he is part of a world process.

I really like this, but I’m also waiting for some internalist to come along and totally shatter it for me. I’m not interested in reaching any conclusions about, well, anything. I just like the questions. I also wish I would have gone down the philosophy route with my studies. I so cherish useless conversations, and I mean that in the best possible way. Uselessness is the supreme virtue.

(I should add that Manzotti is actually trying to apply his theories to create robots; that’s far too useful for me.)

Origin of the Origin

I don’t care who created the universe. I care who created the creation myth. That’s who created the universe. The universe itself is a myth. Look at the prefix “uni-“. Pure myth-making right there.

Always ask, what is the origin of the origin? Then ask, what is the origin of that origin? Eventually you’ll see your own consciousness as a closed loop, and, like a loose wheel, your entire personality will detach from your body and roll away. Who needs it?

Did the prehistoric poet snicker when his mandrake vision was mistaken for literal truth? John of Patmos, we know, was hallucinating whilst scribbling mad tracts against the Roman Empire. Now every AM station in the Deep South takes his seven-headed dragon seriously as a sign of impending doom, as if a seven-headed dragon wouldn’t be super easy to obliterate with a bunker-busting bomb or two.

You might be institutionalized if you claim an alien probed you, but promoted to Bishop if you spot thirteen-million-and-three angels dancing the cha-cha on the head of a pin.

Of course God exists; I just don’t think He’s real. I haven’t constructed a label for this philosophical position. I’m experimenting with “transpsychgnosticism.”

If you look deeply enough into anything, past the rationale and emotion, past language and experience, past any trace of your self, past even time and space, you’ll see a small boy playing jacks alone beneath a flickering streetlight. I promise.

Quick summary of Ontology:  There was nothing once. Maybe. But there isn’t nothing now. Obviously.

What’s the Hardest Problem in Science? #change11

Surely it’s getting more students to major in science?

Okay, that’s another topic.

According to David Barash in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s the mind-body problem.

That is, what is the relationship between the experience of subjective consciousness and the physical brain? To put it in terms more friendly to current scientific consensus, “How does the brain create our experience of consciousness.” (Most scientists agree that “mind” is an emergent property of the brain, not a substance that descended from elsewhere or can exist on its own after biological death.)

Well, I’ll let you think about that problem for a while. I know the answer; I’m just not telling.

In any event, this problem may not be your cup of tea, but if you want to solve the first problem (How do we get more students to major in science?) then these kinds of problems are actually the answer.

Difficult (and important) problems inspire curiosity, innovation, and motivation. And yes, also learning.

More class sessions, courses, majors, departments, and colleges should be structured on difficult problems.

In a sense, education is about learning the problem, and learning how to provide the best non-answers.

Questions are more important than answers.

Answers are important, too.

Shakespeare was the Larry David of His Day

Shakespeare certainly had a popular audience, one that enjoyed the occasional fart joke, sex reference, and sword fight. Of course, Shakespeare also includes poetry, history, and philosophy in his work. I think the mixture of “high and low” is probably why Freud liked Shakespeare so much (although he fell for the brainless Shakespeare conspiracy nonsense about authorship).

The very presence of clowns (today’s equivalent of the crazy neighbor in a sitcom) in Shakespeare’s plays tells us that he liked a little comic relief, but also that he basically followed the contemporary dramatic format of his time. Clowns were just another convention of theater. Everyone used them. Shakespeare wasn’t so much a radical genius as he was someone who became really good at the conventional form, and made a bunch of dough in the process.

You could say he was the Larry David of his day. David took the standard late 80’s/early 90’s sitcom format and was very successful at appealing to an audience while pushing it in some new creative directions. Looking back, Seinfeld is not all that different from most sitcoms of that time. (After all, it’s a 20 minute comedy show about bumbling New Yorkers…that could describe many things on TV.) However, there’s a chance it may come to stand out in television history as a kind of breakthrough, or at least as an exceptionally well-done version of what was popular at the time.
This is all just barroom talk from me (Not literally; I’m using an idiom, Shakespeare’s chosen weapon, and I’m definitely NOT in a bar at 10:00 am. Instead I’m grading research papers, or I’m supposed to be), but I think it’s important that Shakespeare isn’t placed on a pedestal, not because he isn’t great. He certainly is, but because it obscures the context and point of his work to re-cast him as some legendary literary genius from another planet.