Thursday, December 24, 2009

The wisdom of crowds vs. the distribution of expertise

Jason Flom has a very good brief post on 10 principles for the future of learning:

This is a good post that I'm not so much criticizing as using a springboard to illustrate a trend that I see with current epistemological thinking in popular culture: we are moving toward seeing collectively derived sources as authorities in preference to individuals, or we assume that we are moving away from reliance on authority sources. It seems as if a lot of people are viewing this as an unambiguously good thing. I'm not so sure. Culture is changing rapidly, but the evolved properties of the human nervous system don't necessarily change at the same rate, and I think there is no doubt that we do have stable social cognitive features that characterize us even when we switch technologies radically.

To me there is a classic dilemma regarding authority: we rely on it for accurate knowledge (because expertise is not evenly distributed!) and we can also be manipulated by it and rely on it too much. The currently popular philosophy of knowledge seems to be that we are sociallizing knowledge and that our intelligence and expertise are becoming a collective web of some sort. This abstract is certainly interesting and provocative, but really it is unlikely to be true at least in the near future.

The important features of individual minds don't scale to networks of humans (as far as I know!). Individual expertise and intelligence does not appear as a property of human social networks (again, AFAIK). Also, groups are subject to fallacies just as individuals are (this one I think is pretty well established in social psychology). Those fallacies just follow a different pattern.

Collective editing is not neccessarily self-correcting, it can amplify mistakes under various conditions.So we can't just make that dilemma of authority go away by saying that we are collectively the new authority source or that there is no more need for authoritative sources or pretending that social networks are themselves experts or that expertise is becoming more evenly distributed. It clearly is not.

As of right now, there are still a few people who know much more than nearly all others about each domain. I don't say that lightly. It's a fundamental scaling that results from the effort required to achieve true expertise in any domain. It's a result of expertise research, not political or social philosophy.

So I feel as if there is a serious but very common epistemological flaw of confusing wide dissemination of information with even distribution of expertise. The misused term "knowledge" seems to be used in this service, since we often carelessly use it to mean both information and expertise. Of course we should make use of collective sources like Wikipedia, but we should not make the further glib assumption that these can replace individual expertise.

That's why we really do need some of those criteria for making limited use of collectively derived sources. They don't neccessarily provide us with the best information for all uses, and our natural temptation is to just transfer credibility to them. We need to not only make better use of collectively derived sources but also transfer proportionately our critical thinking normative principles from individual authority to those collective sources and learn new principles for evaluating them.

Sometimes the crowd is wrong. And most of the time the crowd gets the least common denominator most right. That's probably good enough for a high school project, but not for serious scholarship. In my opinion. Thinking remains a property of individual minds, facilitated by the social network but not (God help us) replaced by it.

kind regards,


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science? - some thoughts

The link below is to a thought-provoking post by Daniel Loxton about the relationship of science and skepticism. My thoughts are in reply #27, and I'm also posting them here. If you're interested in such things as I am, I also draw your attention to Jim Lippard's interesting epistemological observations in reply #10.

Summarizing Daniel's heuristics ...

1) Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist, skeptics are (at best) straight science journalists.

2) Where scientific domain expertise exists, but not consensus, we can report that a controversy exists — but we cannot resolve it.

3) Where scientific domain expertise and consensus exist, but also a denier movement or pseudoscientific fringe, skeptics can finally roll up their sleeves and get to work.

4) Where a paranormal or pseudoscientific topic has enthusiasts but no legitimate experts, skeptics may perform original research, advance new theories, and publish in the skeptical press.

I'd summarize my response by saying that I think these are good categories, but we mainly know them after-the-fact. They don't really get to the heart of what it means to be an effective doubter.

My thoughts in response:

I do find the idea of having heuristics for applying critical thinking appealing, but I’m uneasy about this particular very broad set and framework. There’s some question begging that seems inevitable when we draw up neat categories for observations.

Specifically, as heretical as it may perhaps seem to some, I don’t know that I agree that skepticism means a “science-based epistemology.” I think it means more a heavily empirical epistemology: observe and guess and test, rather than theorize and predict. Clearly, theory and prediction do play a central role in _science_, but not neccessarily in _skepticism_ pe se. To me they are closely related but not the same thing.

These categories in the post seem in part based on the underlying notion that expertise and epistemic value are closely related. To me, expertise does not have a straightforward simple relationship with our knowledge of the underlying phenomena. For one thing, it takes us in two different directions at once: (1) refined expertise organizes our knowledge of a domain along very specific lines – thus its power – and this also causes us to treat true anomalies as outliers to be ignored, and (2) expertise also makes us better able to see finer distinctions that lead to new discoveries.

So to me _expertise_ does contribute greatly to scientific discovery, but expert _consensus_ does not neccessarily define the underlying phenomena or by itself merit a different approach to experimentation. It is in the areas where we have the strongest expert consensus that the most interesting anomalies arise. It is often in testing the least likely conjectures, the ones outside the expert consensus, that we make the most interesting discoveries.

Before the discovery of metamaterials, there was an almost unanimous consensus that em radiation could not be guided around objects except in science fiction. The discovery had to be made by experts who could understand the significance of the discovery and had the tools for isolating it, but still it violated the expert consensus. Examples like this are rare, but I think well established, showing dramatically the two divergent ways that expertise influences epistemic value.

Dealing with the problem of interpreting an anomaly, if we knew ahead of time what the relevant domain of expertise was, and how it affected our understanding of the observations, we would already have largely solved the problem, thus the question begging of dealing with claims differently based on their relationship to the expert consensus, especially assuming that the expert consensus renders moot the scientific value of applying expertise to studying a putative anomaly.

I would argue that skeptics are at their best domain-general observers and experts in various areas of protocol and experimentalism and avid students of past lessons learned in studying anomalous claims in general. Consequently I think they are best engaged across the board investigating the circumstances of interesting claims – making use of scientific domain experts … knowing the expert consensus and taking it as the default … but not relying on the expert consensus by assuming it always makes anomalies less likely.

As a personal preference, I don’t think skeptics should be only in the job of confirming the consensus, but also in the job of questioning it reasonably.

kind regards,

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Expected Unexpected, a review of The Black Swan by Taleb

The Expected Unexpected - or, What can we learn from White Swans?

A review of The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Review by Todd I. Stark, 12/20/2009

Link to review on Amazon.

I came to this book expecting a clever but flawed argument for intellectual laziness or superficial thinking, another popular argument for "gut" or "intuition" or "Zen." Or perhaps a slick Gladwell-esque treatment of randomness. Perhaps a popularization of postmodernism or neo-pragmatism applied to financial markets, or a "Thriving on Chaos" (Tom Peters) for the 21st century.

This book is none of those things. Instead I found myself immersed in a very intriguing and deep intellectual journey into the roots of applied statistics and empirical science that had me thinking and taking notes prolifically. As readable as it is, this is not (or should not be) a quick read. Taleb is an erudite scholar but he uses his scholarship in the service of ideas rather than to accumulate impressive footnotes. His lectures are conversational but convey great weight.

I do find his tone somewhat arrogant in spots, oddly so. The half dozen or so people he finds interesting are worthy dinner companions, the rest of the world of intellegent mortals are pretty much fools who he chooses to stereotype and parody. Anyway, that's the impression I get. Contempt for audience usually works against an author. Still, very few modern authors can combine technical knowledge, originality, and readability the way Taleb can, and this to me kept me reading even when I imagined I was one of the many targets of the author's contempt.

Enough on style and impression, the content of this book is what makes it merit five stars. The core idea here is that we are creatures who quickly and easily sort things into categories and tell stories to make sense of them. Narration comes unbidden to us, but not skillful abstract thinking. This much of course we have heard before from the heuristics and biases school and behavioral economics.

Taleb's contribution is to point out a particularly broad implication of this principle, that our knowledge rapidly degrades when rare events are consequential. We explain them away and miss their importance. At the same time, we overestimate the impact of rare events for arbitrary reasons when they really have no consequence.

That would be of mostly academic interest except for one thing. The key to Taleb's overall argument is his claim that the impact of rare events is domain-specific. That means we can learn to distinguish domains where: (a) classical risk statistics apply ("Mediocristan") from (b) those where rare events and winner-take-all competitions dominate ("Extremistan").

In "Mediocristan" domains, classical decision theory in principle should help us (although Taleb seems to feel that these domains are few and far between among things we really care about). In "Extremistan," Taleb advises, we should take steps to protect ourselves from rare adverse events and use diverse aggressive risk taking to exploit rare positive events.

The idea here is that we are betting that something rare will eventually impact us in these domains, even though we can't know what specifically it will be. The point is that in domains where likelihood can't really be calculated, we should focus our efforts instead on the impact rather than guessing at the probability. Taleb doesn't make this argument lightly, he explains the limits in our predictive ability in an understandable way yet he also takes heed of technical details in his arguments.

"Extremistan" consists of all of the domains where scaling and nonlinear accumulations occur, or rapid deviations from small differences in initial conditions. In line with complexity theorists, Taleb finds these effects pretty much everywhere of interest to social scientists, economists, and people in general. He suggests that we might be able to use scalable non-linear maths to get a rough idea of what to expect in some domains, but that we need to remain careful of the illusion of mathematical predictive power.

Biological values like height and weight and average life expectancy are areas where the normal curve applies, and perhaps mean failure rate of parts in engineering. But when important things like money or fame or success can accumulate virtually without limit and often for arbitrary reasons like contagion, the assumptions of Gaussian distributions are just not relevant. At least that's how I understand Taleb's claim that the normal distribution is a great intellectal fraud: it is applied confidently to things where it has no place being applied.

With one strange but perhaps unavoidable exception, Taleb usually follows his own advice. He considers theories for storytelling purposes and explanation but doesn't take them seriously or depend on them for his argument. He does use storytelling quite a bit to make his point, even though his argument is largely about the unreliability of our stories. He seems to be saying that we automatically make sense of events through stories, so it takes a story to help us understand the argument against relying on storytelling.

I suppose there is a touch of the postmodernist skepticism of narratives in The Black Swan, but the possibility of having specific strategies for dealing differently with specific domains is an intriguing and welcome update to that tradition, bringing it perhaps more in line with the critical rationalism and conjectures and refutations of Karl Popper and the scientific skepticism of the classical pragmatists than with the modern cynics. Taleb is not rejecting theory entirely, but he certainly prefers direct experiment and aggressive risk taking (in strategic areas) to bland assumptions of predictable statistical likelihood and the reliability of knowledge.

For me this book ties together a lot of diverse ideas very nicely in an original and interesting way, and yet stays on target with its message.

Very impressive effort and a very worthwhile read.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: Snap Judgment - Why our money instincts are bad and how to think better.

Link to review on Amazon.

Snap Judgment is essentially a summary of behavioral finance findings. This field is an extension of the heuristics and biases research program into the realm of finance.

The heuristics and biases program is a deep scholarly literature that shows in great detail how the mental shortcuts that help us survive can also derail our thinking. Recently researchers have applied these principles and expanded the program to include a lot of specific insights into how money affects our thinking and how financial judgments are shaped by our "gut instincts."

The bottom line is very simple, our gut instincts about money are really bad. They create havoc in both our personal lives and in larger scale economies. First implication: knowing about our mental shortcuts should help us make better financial decisions individually and collectively. Second implication: we need to think more with better data and better decision techniques and rely on our gut less in making financial decisions. Third implication: knowing how people react to trends could potentially help predict "anomalies" in financial markets.

These conclusions are argued very strongly over and over again in this book with very specific and detailed examples. Perhaps this is because the gist of Snap Judgment flies directly in the face of other popular books such as Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" which seem to give the opposite message, that we need to trust our 'rapid cognition' more.

From my reading, when you look closely the evidence falls mostly on the side of the heuristics and biases program. Our gut, especially our "trained gut" serves us very well in certain kinds of decision, to be sure, such as those we evolved good instinct for and those where decisions have to be made faster than we can think effectively. But in other situations, such as when money is involved, and we have the time to make a good decision, this book shows very effectively why our gut misleads us dramatically time and time again.

The unique strength of this book is that it goes into great detail about markets and finance in various areas and applies its findings to very specific cases. This is not yet another general book on decision making, it is extremely focused on financial decisions. It covers in detail the psychology of stocks, bonds, annuities, mutual funds, gambling, CEO behavior, bank runs, and credit of various kinds. The lessons are applied very briefly to other kinds of decisions for comparison and contrast, but the focus is really money.

One small warning, if you have a general interest in decision science or cognitive science and not much interest in finance, much or this book will make your eyes glaze over because the examples are so detailed. That's also why you will find it so great if you want to know in detail how and why our financial decisions go wrong when we rely on our instincts.

If this book does its job, it will make you think when you make financial decisions, and it will help you understand better why money tends to make our judgment bad, and these are very useful lessons.

The Two Faces |Low Tech Combat

The Two Faces Low Tech Combat
A very good introductory article to the distinction between intra and inter species interactions in humans and why it is important to martial arts and combatives strategy.

The Full Spectrum |Low Tech Combat

The Full Spectrum Low Tech Combat#c2437013533776975663#c2437013533776975663#c2437013533776975663
The linked article is a good analyis, a nice starting point for a "soup to nuts" framework for modern combatives.

Alpha Male v Predatory Threat |Low Tech Combat

Alpha Male v Predatory Threat Low Tech Combat
This is a very important distinction because you prepare differently for social aggression and predatory aggression. For social aggression you emphasize defusing and de-escalation and then constraining and defending. For predatory aggression you emphasize avoiding, then defending and constraining.

A good technical article on this distinction:

Also see Grossman's book, "On Killing," which makes the argument that most violence is not of the predatory type, that preying on human beings is "unnatural" for our species, and that special training or indoctrination makes it possible.
Link to "On Killing" at Amazon:

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review: NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Amazon review link.

The recent easy availability of science news has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we get the breaking news every time someone publishes anything even remotely interesting. On the other hand, it is even harder to perceive the consensus in scientific fields. We get the feeling of things changing and new data coming in, but not a good sense of the overall patterns and how they affect existing theories, because the process of consensus building in science happens over decades, not weeks.

The scientific consensus on child development and parenting has been gradually but insistently shifting over the past decade or so. The overall picture can't easily be seen from individual news stories, so books like NurtureShock which give some insight into the big picture are very important. NurtureShock to me represents the second huge bombshell in child development theory applicable to the average person. The first was presented in Judith Rich Harris' The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated, which argued persuasively and shockingly that most differences in parenting made little difference to long term outcomes in their children's lives. Harris insisted that children instead were mostly raised by socialization in their peer groups. NurtureShock doesn't argue the Nurture Assumption viewpoint at all (in fact it is largely consistent with Harris in most respects), but it focuses instead on the areas where parents really might be able make a difference.

What is the emerging new consensus according to NutureShock? The term is intended to reflect the shock that new parents feel when the fountain of natural wisdom about caring for children that they expect to serve them just doesn't appear. Our instincts are to love and care for our children, not to automatically know the right things to do. So we often turn to child development research. What does that tell us?

NurtureShock tells us that some of our commonsense is actually right afterall, and that some of the popular assumptions made about children are wildly off the mark. In particular, two big "myths" are identified. First, children are not just small adults, and we can't just apply the same principles to them that we apply to adults. Second, there are no supertraits that confer only good things: emotional intelligence, intelligence, gratitude, happiness, self-esteem, honesty, fairness, and so on can all have their dark side as well as their positive side. Negative elements can and do co-exist with high levels of positive traits.

For example, measured analytic intelligence (IQ) appears stable in adults, but changes in fits and spurts during childhood. This has significant implications for the use of childhood standardized testing to predict later ability.

Praising adults usually helps encourage them (as long as they believe it is sincere), but in children the effect is more often paradoxical. Children praised too much or for the wrong things actually end up worse off as a result.

Similarly, the once-trendy and still popular obsession with self-esteem turned out to have very little evidential support, and bullies often turn out to have very high self-esteem. Emotional intelligence is also not the panacea that some of its proponents originally suggested. Criminals appear to have a higher, not lower, level of emotional intelligence than the general population, and they use that ability to manipulate others. Popular kids in school use their skills at empathy not so much to be sympathetic, but to play social games that improve their status.

Even insisting on honesty is a mixed bag. Kids seem to learn to lie as a natural part of developing their thinking and social skills, it is related to intelligence. But you can't just ignore it because it is part of development, or it will become a habitual pattern for dealing with difficult social situations. Parents have to learn when and how to encourage honesty. Kids faced with the constant threat of punishment lie more to protect themselves rather than less, and they learn better to evade getting caught. They are generally more motivated to be honest to please parents than to avoid punishment.

The best thing about this book is that it doesn't just promote or adhere to a standard socio-political agenda for child raising the way many books do. This isn't just rehashed progressive or conservative childrearing strategies, it reinforces some of the best elements of each of the different models. We see that threats and punishment are a particularly ineffective way of dealing with dishonesty, but setting limits and enforcing rules is crucial to helping teens know they are cared for.

We find that, perhaps unsurprisingly, teens are particularly prone to boredom and often act out as a result, and that there is not too much we can do about it. They don't respond to small or moderate rewards, but then respond in an exaggerated way to large rewards. This extreme-based decision making pattern in teens varies greatly between individuals but in many leads to the distinctive kind of risk-taking judgment that teens often exhibit. Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of advice here, just perhaps a little understanding.

Among the most important findings in this book are those dealing with thinking skills, especially metacognition and "executive function" skills. Both educational research and brain science seem to be reinforcing the importance of helping children learn the skills for teaching themselves, controlling their own attention and motivation, and evaluating their own performance. Some of these skills are general, but many are specific to particular subjects, so teaching thinking skills cannot be separated from teaching subject matter, as was sometimes mistakenly done in the past. This is a very difficult topic, not one amenable to many easy heuristics, but it is crucial to education.

This is a very important book, rich with research examples and also practical examples from the authors. It will make you think twice about some of your instincts and some of the things you've accepted from popular belief, and that will in turn help make you a more flexible and skilled parent or teacher.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review: "Successful Intelligence" by Robert Sternberg. Very important ideas, but weak presentation

Link to posting on Amazon.

Leading intelligence researcher Robert Sternberg dedicates this book to the woman who turned his life around in the 4th grade, his teacher Mrs. Alexis. Bless her and teachers like her. She was the first one to have the sense to ignore his poor standardized test results and expect and encourage him to do better than the tests predicted. Sternberg's own career is a poignant and dramatic example of his own amazing discovery, that human capability is not a matter of fixed traits at all, contrary to what many have claimed based loosely on the programs of standardized testing and heritability research.

I picked up this little book in a bargain bin, and a bargain it truly was. Robert Sternberg is one of the great scholars of psychology research with a number of superb books on topics of fundamental importance like love, intelligence, success, and wisdom. These are not cute self-help books, they are mostly very readable scientific treatises that offer original technical models and expert analysis, and sometimes also include practical advice.

This book, Successful Intelligence, is not one of Sternberg's more technical books and definitely not among his best work from a technical perspective but it is one of his most relevant and important as far as its argument.

The thing I most want you to know about this book that it is a compelling argument for the importance of the dynamic ability to build on our strengths and compensate and correct for weaknesses.

The things that are fixed in human development are far less interesting and important to us that the things we can learn to build on to continually improve ourselves. If you already get that point, you may want to skip this introduction and go straight to his more technical books and others on metacognition, emotional intelligence, and so on that are in the same spirit as this book.

Sternberg's overall idea is a BIG deal because it is not now how education generally works. For example it is very much contrary to the major traditions of education in the United States: (1) the tradition of using standardized testing to predict ability, and (2) the anti-elitist tradition of presumably democratic equality that throws all students together as if they all learn the same way. This third philosophy of education is not wishful thinking, it is the result of analysis of real data about how people learn.

The book builds on Sternberg's formal triarchic model of intelligence, which sees mental power in terms of three things: analytic, creative, and practical intelligence, and our ability to make use of all three. Sternberg proposes that "successful intelligence" is the master quality that results from our learning to make best use of these three different kinds of ability. Successful intelligence is what really counts, according to Sternberg. And I think he makes his case convincingly.

Analytic intelligence is what psychometricians consider the g factor, the common factor among various cognitive subtests that tends to go up and down together. Analytic intelligence is what the application of IQ testing and other standardized testing for the prediction of outcomes is based upon. This is real, but we don't actually know what it is measureing and we rely far too heavily on it. Analytic intelligence seems to let us solve problems and judge the quality of ideas. It appears to let us perceive patterns in complexity.

Most crucially, Analytic intelligence is often used to predict further test taking ability and school performance and varyingly predicts some kinds of job performance. But what does weak to moderate predictability in these areas really tell us?

Where Sternberg agrees with the late Stephen Jay Gould's infamous critique in "Mismeasure of Man" is that correlation does not imply causation in this particular case. One of the central points of this book is the enormous gap between the very low to moderate ability these tests predict life outcomes and what people are actually able to do under the best conditions. Sternberg's emphasis is on what it takes to create the best conditions. It isn't clear that there is any way yet to manufacture enormous changes in analytic intelligence, but it is increasingly clear that boosting IQ should not be our main concern regarding human intelligence, beyond simply ensuring that we have the best developmental environment.

Then there is creative intelligence, which we need in order to formulate good problems and ideas in the first place, to ask the right questions. Standardized testing does not measure this at all.

Then there is practical intelligence, which is the rich background each of us needs in order to apply ideas and analysis effectively in everyday life. This is not measured by standardized testing either.

The last chapter of the book consists of the high level skills we need in order to have successful intelligence and make best use of analytic, creative, and practical intelligence. There are 20 of these, which are frustratingly generic and mostly should be commonsense I think, but they are not emphasized in education very much and they give a good flavor of Sternberg's philosophy. These include:

Self-motivation skills,

Impulse control skills,

Knowing when and how to persevere,

Knowing how to make the most of your own abilities,

Knowing how to translate thought into action,

Learning to focus on the products of your efforts, not just the process,

Learning to both initiate and complete tasks and to follow-through,

Learning to get past fear of failure,

Learning to conquer procrastination

Willingness to accept fair blame for mistakes


Finding ways to surmount personal challenges

Learning to focus and concentrate to achieve goals

Learning to delay gratification

Learning to see both the forest and the trees

Reasonable self-confidence but not excessive (in contrast to the dismal failure of extreme versions of"self-esteem"psychology)

Learning to balance analytic, creative, and practical intelligence in thinking.

This is obviously not a curriculum, it is a direction. This is not a great book in terms of scholarship or details but it is a compelling introduction to the ideas. A wonderful, research-based philosophy based on human success and satisfaction. And a novel direction for education.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book Review: Minsky's "The Emotion Machine: - Doing Strong AI Right?

Early efforts to model human-like thinking with machines using rules were interesting but failed in a number of ways to capture even simple ways that humans think. Marvin Minsky, AI pioneer at MIT, insists that we understand the mistakes and can begin to appreciate how the mind actually works in functional terms from the lessons we have learned. Learninig from our past mistakes, what a novel idea.

To put this into perspective, the question of whether a machine model can adequately describe a brain has long been considered in terms of either strong AI or weak AI. Most people find weak AI plausible: computers can solve certain kinds of problems better than humans. We mostly balk at strong AI however: machines can literally think like humans and solve the same kinds of problems just as well.

In The Emotion Machine, Marvin Minsky presents a very machine-like architecture that he claims actually represents the way real minds probably work in fundamental respects. That sounds pretty much like strong AI. So a lot of people will reject the concept of this book out of hand. I think that would be a mistake. Minsky has done a very good job identifying plausible specifics of why AI programs have failed to deliver on, where they have actually managed to deliver, and speculates on how we can fill in the gaps.

No, he doesn't spend time arguing against Searle's Chinese Room or other conundrums of AI, he just presents his case and gives examples in a clear, simple, accessible way. And I am persuaded that he probably gets a lot right. Probably more than he gets wrong. And that's a lot better than a lot of critics will give him credit for because it goes against both the mainstream disdain for strong AI and the mainstream love of flashy neuroscience images.

Minsky skips right on past the issue of connectionist networks vs. semantic networks and simply posits that we had to evolve semantic representations at some point. How is left as an exercise for neuroscientists. There is a lot of "details to be filled in later" sort of thinking here, so don't look to this book as a detailed physical model of the brain. This is a high level functional model of the mind and I like it.

So I claim that this is an important book that seems to promise a 21st century reboot of scientific naturalism as our guiding philosophy for the future. Minsky takes on nothing less than an overall architectural model for the mind in natural terms. It is brilliant. Too brilliant to be appreciated in its time because Minsky makes complex ideas so accessible that the biggest challenge for this book is that people will not appreciate its power. It reads like a simple AI model of a mind, but it is much deeper than that because of the amount of deep thought that has gone into it and the consideration of the weaknesses as well as strengths of previous AI programs.

We are currently in the grip of a widespread fascination with poorly understood pop neuroscience, and most readers will be deeply disappointed that this book does not attempt to wrestle with brain science at all. I think that's a strength because it means Minsky is not falling into the weird metaphysical spins that we too often see in pop neuroscience books, especially those by non-researchers and over-enthusiastic under-trained journalists.

What Minsky is doing here is simply coming up with a logical model of what a mind has to be able to do to provide the capabilities that we observe real human minds to possess. Sounds simple, right? No, not at all. The reason Minsky has accomplished something special here is that he recognizes many of the powerful fallacies we usually fall into when we introspect about thinking and rely on traditional models. We tend to think of emotions and reasoning as separate kinds of things, and then we talk about how they are both needed and how they interact. But as Minsky points out, both neuroscience and psychology seem to provide us evidence that these are points on a continuum, not different kinds of things. Minsky takes that seriously and builds on it.

The result is something amazing that looks like a simplistic mechanical model of the mind but captures some deep insights into how minds really work.

The central implication of Minsky's model is an epistemological stance that resourcefulness in human thinking is a matter of switching between different kinds of representations, each used in a different way of thinking, each of which captures something essential about specific things in our world while neccessarily leaving out other details. A mind can't comprehend everything at once. Some decisions simply don't have an optimal answer because they look different from different angles.

The key concept underlying Minsky's model is that minds as we think of them had to start with simple rules for recognizing and responding to cues, had to be able to incorporate goals in some form in those rules as well, and then eventually had to be able to recognize kinds of problem and activate appropriate ways of thinking. It makes sense to think of this in terms of logical levels of recognizers and responders, and importantly, what Minsky calls "critics" and "selectors," where each new level provides some way to resolve conflicts that arise in the level below it.

So conflicts in our instincts can be resolved by learned rules, conflicts in learned rules can be resolved by deliberation strategies, and in turn levels with different kinds of representations of the problem and eventually the problem solver and their own ways of thinking. Once the problem solver can represent themselves and their own thinking, we have the power to shape our own thinking in meaningful ways.

I'm really not doing justice to this book in this review, because it's power is in the details of his examples and how they illustrate the architecture at work. Suffice to say that I think if you find a functional architecture of the mind of interest, I highly recommend this book. I think it gives a much more fundamental understanding of how minds most probably work than any amount of flashy recent brain scans, and certainly more than untestable holistic and quantum mechanical theories will ever tell us until we better understand the functional design. Neuroscience in the future will, I believe, be filling in the details of a framework very much like this one.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Problem Solving as a Skill

Problem Solving as a Skill

What do you think of when someone uses the term “problem solving?” It’s a very common term for a very common activity. It is so common that we take it for granted. This tendency to take problem solving ability for granted is embedded in various ways in culture, which unfortunately reinforces counter-productive assumptions and attitudes and takes away from our results.

As individuals we tend to believe that we are already good at solving problems, regardless of our actual ability. On the one hand, this is in part because we associate problem solving with thinking, and we assume that thinking is a matter of intelligence. So if we are smart, we must be good thinkers, and good problem solvers. Clearly the large number of very smart people who make surprisingly stupid mistakes quite often argues against that simplistic view.

Conversely, if we don’t consider ourselves smart, we assume we aren’t good thinkers and we don’t bother trying to solve problems better. In that case we often like to say that “common sense” is what is needed. And of course we assume we are loaded with that as well. I would argue that being stupid doesn’t necessarily make us good problem solvers either. So what does make one person better than another at solving problems?

I suggest that we should question every aspect of the common viewpoint that problem solving is just thinking in general and thinking in general is just a matter of being smart. I claim that problem solving is not just thinking in general, it is a very specific kind of thinking that has focus and purpose, and requires us to learn certain specific kinds of skills in order to do it well.

So I claim that thinking is not simply intelligence in action; rather clear thinking consists largely of learnable skills for selecting and using resources. The concept of intelligence is closely associated with problem solving. The driving reason for defining intelligence the way we do is to try to measure the ability to solve problems in general. We aren’t completely wrong in this endeavor, intelligence as commonly measured does play a role in helping us select and use our tools, but it is not itself the tool, and intelligence doesn’t automatically impart the skills for using the tools. Intelligence in important, but we need more.

We all have the basic tools for problem solving, but it takes more skill to use them well than just “common sense” or intelligence. Individual differences are resources for problem solving in different ways. The responsibility for learning to use these resources effectively is in each of us.

In other words, effective problem solving in contemporary situations is not just a natural result of being clever, it is the result of learning and practicing the right skills and habits and learning to use whatever gifts we do have.

Common factors among smart people, such as a self-image of intelligence and a perceived need to protect our reputation can actually prevent us from recognizing our weaknesses. These psychological needs also prevent us from admitting when we make mistakes. They serve as serious obstacles to improving ourselves. There are a number of significant and well-documented obstacles to accurate self-perception that tend to prevent us from being the best problem solvers we can be.

Consider some of these general observations that have often been noted about intelligent people:

· The smarter you are the easier and more tempting it is to use your intelligence to defend your current viewpoint rather than explore the problem further.
· It is easier and more tempting to use intelligence to criticize an idea than to find ways to make it work.
· We tend to use intelligence to operate on information as it is presented to us rather than to envision different alternatives and contexts.
· Intelligence is associated with quick thinking and so intelligent people tend to feel they have to come to closure quickly on a problem to demonstrate their intelligence.
· Intelligence is more closely associated with cleverness than with wisdom.
· The more eloquent you are, the smarter people will assume you are, and the more highly they will tend to regard your arguments.
· We tend to assume that more intelligent people are more likely to be right than less intelligent people.

These kinds of factors are the reason why intelligence so often becomes a trap rather than the aid to problem solving that it should be in theory.

The folks who already consider intelligence and education to be overrated qualities may think themselves immune from this problem. Not so. It is our attitude toward intelligence that is the problem, not intelligence itself. We tend to have similar attitudes toward common sense if we disdain intelligence. Our criteria for what we consider cleverness or eloquence may change in different cultures but we still tend to defend our current viewpoint, criticize ideas, operate on information as presented to us, be more interested in cleverness than wisdom, consider eloquent arguments more highly than less eloquent ones, and assume that clever people are more likely to be right.

The self-image obstacle to better problem solving is made worse by the tradition in education to assume that problem solving is just a matter of using our intelligence, our expertise, and our knowledge in a straightforward way. Schools teach facts and encourage students to accumulate domain-specific knowledge and then test these things in convenient ways through question and answer tests and puzzle solving exercises. I am not arguing against the admirable goals of literacy, factual knowledge, or domain expertise. I am arguing for something else in addition that has generally been neglected; general problem solving skills.

We tend to make a big deal about tests because that seems to be the only way that we can be sure that people are meeting the objectives that we set for performance. Yet tests have limited value since the tests we use for the sake of convenience and standardization rarely if ever measure real world problem solving ability. Even when we do a good job at testing, we generally are at a loss as to what to do when people do poorly. Should we throw money at the problem? Should we change what we teach? Should we change how we are teaching it? Should we change who is teaching it? Is it something about the students themselves?

By testing knowledge, on the one hand, and intelligence on the other, we believe we are truly testing the ability of students to solve problems. So when one set of students seems to be better thinkers than another when tested on realistic problems, we assume they must be exposed to better knowledge or they must be more intelligent. What else could be the difference? What could the students and teachers who are better thinkers and problem solvers be doing differently?

Intelligence, domain expertise and knowledge are certainly useful resources for solving problems but they are not the essence of problem solving ability. How can I say this? What else is left? In short, two things: thinking skills and active learning.

My claim is that effective problem solving is in part the result of a collection of learned skills that do not depend on genius, which do not rely heavily on expertise or knowledge in formal domains like mathematics and science, and which are not just common sense. Domain-specific knowledge and puzzle solving skills in particular subjects are obviously important for specialists in those domains, but real problems also require us to do a lot of upfront work to:
· identify perceptions of the problem,
· place the problem into context,
· clarify the real objectives,
· deal with various kinds of obstacles from people, processes, and things,
· and in general to structure the problem and the information in a way that focuses our problem solving efforts and brings our best abilities to bear.

The other aspect of effective problem solving is active learning: an ongoing process of systematically seeking and accumulating experience that improves your problem solving.

To do these things consistently and well, we have to know a lot about our own pervasive biases and weaknesses as well as our strengths, and this is where we find deep blind spots in human nature.

I suggest that effective problem solving is built from a foundation of domain-general thinking skills for organizing information, directing our attention to the right things, and in general selecting and using the resources we have to their best effect. This means knowing how the human mind works, how human beings are motivated, and how to use this knowledge most effectively to build on our existing strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.

I want to emphasize again that this doesn’t replace domain-specific expertise, knowledge, or intelligence, but it makes better use of these things. So far we have generally put so little emphasis on these thinking skills that we have left an enormous gap between our potential problem solving abilities and our actual ones. That is the gap that I think education most needs to address.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Getting rid of excessive authentication prompts in SharePoint

This article pertains to WSS 3.0 and MOSS 2007 flavors of SharePoint.

There are two common issues in SharePoint involving excessive authentications:

A. Being forced to authenticate multiple times when you first connect to the portal, and

B. Being forced to authenticate when you open an Office document from the portal.

The first is a problem that can have multiple causes and requires some troubleshooting on your part, but can generally be fixed.

The second is expected behavior as of this writing, but there are potential ways to get around it to it is less annoying.

A. Excessive authentication when connecting to a portal

If you are unexpectedly or continually forced to enter your credentials (even though you have told the browser to save your password):

1. If you are logged into a server and are using the node name in the URL, try adding the node name to your list of Intranet nodes in IE: Tools --> Internet Options --> Security --> Local Intranet --> Sites --> Advanced

Note: Not having the node in your list of intranet nodes can also cause obscure problems such as the Site Actions menu not working.

2. Check to be sure the portal site is in the trusted sites list in the browser.

3. Be sure the browser is set to bypass local addresses for the proxy server

4. Set the access level for trusted sites to allow automatic login with current username and password

5. Check Control Panel - User Accounts - Advanced - Manage Passwords - to see if there are any cached passwords that are relevant to the portal. Delete these so you can start over with a new one since these will override.

The Microsoft whitepaper on troubleshooting the SharePoint Explorer view (SPSEVTSHOOT) may also have relevant information in some cases:

There are also a couple of Windows 2003 bugs that could possibly be related:

1. DCPROMO does not retain permissions on some IIS folders

2. "You receive a server error ..."


B. Being forced to authenticate when opening an Office document from the portal

This is expected behavior due to Office documents opening locally for write access in a separate process from the browser. There is a workaround. You can
Hover over the item --> Select the drop down --> Send To --> Download A Copy to read the document, which allows you to open a local copy of the document, avoiding the extra sign-in, but this is a little awkward for the user.

If you aren't satisfied with that workaround, there's a hack that might do the trick for you. It involves changing the default behavior that SharePoint uses when you click on a document library link. You change the common javascript used by all SharePoint sites to open documents so that they just download a copy of the document for reading, rather than trying to directly open the document for editing. This avoids the authentication.


There is a block of code in that article that you can insert into the CORE.JS file, without making any other changes to CORE.JS. Be sure to backup your CORE.JS file before making these changes! Do not include the [code:js] and [/code] tags themselves.

Four notes on this fix:

1. When you apply the hack, you have to close down your browser, open a new instance, and CTRL-Refresh (CTRL-F5) to test.

2. This does not work for attachment documents to lists, only for Office documents which are items in document libaries.

3. This hack has the side effect of forcing authentication on document libraries that are configured for anonymous access, rather than letting them open anonymously.

4. Even after applying this hack, you can still edit documents directly from SharePoint by using: Hover Over Item --> Select dropdown --> "Edit in Microsoft X"

Monday, June 01, 2009

Death by PowerPoint

This presentation about BAD PowerPoint is very interesting! I enjoyed this. What I got out of it is that presentations are actually not intended to involve thinking, they are intended to entertain, amuse, and be memorable. They are meant to inspire action but prevent people from thinking too much before acting. Basically, a presentation is intended to be a form of propaganda! (Well, marketing to be more gentle).

I think this is pretty much in line with how Ed Tufte the "data artist" conceptuallizes the use of PowerPoint as well, except that he casts this form of presentation in a negative rather than positive light because his goal is to facilitate clear thinking about complex data rather than entertaining people and getting them to act. See his excerpt "PowerPoint Does Rocket Science." I tend to agree with him, but I can also see the value of entertaining people to get concepts across.

The entertainment presentation view is reasonable, and supportable I think, but it makes a presentation a very speciallized form of communication that is different from the decision making or problem solving process that most people probably assume is going on in meetings, or would optimally like to happen in meetings.

Entertaining people is great, and useful, but it isn't neccessarily why a meeting is being called, and doesn't neccessarily do what needs to be done as far as getting people thinking about the right things.

Some of the "worst" slides demonstrated are actually reasonably good engineering diagrams for speciallized purposes for the same reason they are such bad demo slides, because there is so much information in front of your eyes at once. Having a complex system at a glance is often invaluable for making engineering decisions and locating problems. It is just wildly inappropriate for flashing up on the screen during a presentation where you simply want to make a point (unless the point is: just look at how complex this system is, we dare you to try to remember anything about it!). That's what makes some of the examples so ironic, they were *intended* to be "propaganda" slides to sell products and popularize ideas and instead they are deliberately emulating complex engineering diagrams. Mixed purposes to say the least.

You can't neccessarily avoid the tradeoff between being a good marketer (most useful for teaching new concepts or motivating action) and being a good presenter of dense but well structured technical information (most useful for facilitating problem solving and for facilitate complex decisions).

Very nice work, thanks to Alexei for sharing this!

Also see the related page, "8 PowerPoint Train Wrecks"


Saturday, May 02, 2009

Book Review: "The Imprinted Brain" - A fascinating genetic theory of mental illness

Book Review: "The Imprinted Brain: How Genes Set the Balance of the Mind between Autism and Psychosis" by Christopher Badcock

Review by Todd I. Stark

A bold new theory of mental illness that could revolutionize our understanding, if it is right.

[See my reviews on Amazon.]

This is a deeply fascinating theory. I gave it lots of stars because of the importance of its ideas, even though it is not a great book in literary or stylistic terms.

The relatively uncommon collaboration of a sociologist (Badcock) and a biologist (Crespi) produced a compellingly simple and symmetric theory of the biology of the human mind which remains remarkably explanatory and coherent around just a few central ideas:

1. The "selfish gene." William Hamilton's insight that genes can sometimes serve their own reproductive ends as much as or more than those of the organism they build.

2. The "imprinted gene." Some genes may be inherited by either parent but only be expressed when inherited from one parent vs. the other.

3. The clinical observation that autism and psychosis are expressed in opposite versions of the same kinds of symptoms.

4. The theory that autistic symptoms represent an extreme of thinking in mechanical terms, and psychosis an extreme of thinking in mentalistic terms, with the two kinds of illness forming a single spectrum of disorders from autistic at one end to schizophrenic at the other.

This is not one of those relatively dull or unlikely theories about how schizophrenics might really be geniuses, or how mental illness might somehow be adaptive. The speculations of the imprinted brain theory go well beyond that sort of thing, making it distinctively broad and potentially testable. Although the book has a few philosophical turns in it, the technical journal articles by Badcock and Crespi make it clear this is a scientific theory that will live or die on empirical data, not primarily a philosophical idea.

The theory itself is half about how paternal imprinted genes serve their own reproductive ends by increasing growth and testosterone and by laterallizing the brain and helping to produce thinking that is optimized for dealing with inanimate things in particular ways. The other half of the theory is about how maternal genes serve their own reproductive ends by cutting back on growth, reducing testosterone, and fostering the development of a kind of thinking optimized for interpreting human intentions.

The theory explains the symptoms of autism as an "extreme male brain" which deals well with things but poorly with people. The symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia are seen as "cancers of the mind" resulting from an "extreme female brain," the extremely fertile creation of human intentions and minds around us from little basis. The idea that the autistic end of the spectrum may be an exaggeration of what we think of as stereotypical male cognitive processes has been suggested by many others since the autism was first identified, but the possibility of the other end of the spectrum being a symmetric case of mentalistic overdrive is a little more original. It also seems to be less well supported by the genetic data so far. But the possibility that a beautifully symmetric theory like this might possibly be validated is the kind of thing theorists get very excited over.

The author put a lot into this relatively small book and made it very readable. The style however is a bit lacking and sometimes can be dull and sometimes abrasive in contrast to the fascination of the content itself. I got the feeling at various points that the author couldn't help throwing in his own editorial comments about pet peeves that might be addressed by aspects of the theory, and I think this sometimes hurt the tone of the book. With such a powerful theory it is very tempting to wield it excessively just to see what it can do.

Overall, though, this book provides a reasonable balance between technical presentation and narrative exposition. It isn't a journal article, although it is based on material that has filled a number of journal articles, and it is not a breezy introduction with award winning science writing. It is a general readership account of a technical theory that has both deep scientific and broader cultural implications ... if it turns out to be right.

The book gives a solid introduction to the patterns of symptoms in various mental illnesses and the historical interpretations that help align each of them with their theory. They introduce just enough genetics so that you can understand why they feel "imprinted genes" help explain the complex idiosyncratic inheritance pattern seen in autism and schizophrenia. They discuss the spectrum of symptoms from several different angles so that you can see just how broadly explanatory this theory could potentially be. The authors briefly discuss some cultural implications of their theory for religion, feminism, science, and so on, a deep area that they only touch on very superficially.

The end of the book raises the interesting possibility that certain exceptional kinds of geniuses may be savants at both ends of the spectrum, extreme male and female brains at the same time, capable of both the overdeveloped mechanical cognition of autistic savants and the overdeveloped intentional sensitivity that the authors hypotheize may represent "psychotic savants."

The book is scattered with supporting quotes from erudite psychotics and high functioning autistics describing in their own words how they think and experience the world.

Reading this book I got a feeling that the theory *could* very well be right and that it seemed to make sense of a lot of otherwise very diverse and sometimes puzzling findings in genetics and psychiatry. I think it's entirely accurate to say that this theory has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of mental illness, especially its genetics, and provide a coherent framework where previously we had only scattered loosely related diagnostic categories and quibbles over them.

If I were to deliberately seek out a fault here, other than the sometimes annoying cultural jabs at religion and feminism, it is that the imprinted brain theory seems to explain too much while taking too much for granted. Explaining all of the dimensions of mental illness through an all-encompassing dimension of cognitive abilities seems to explain too much about thinking and not enough about motivation. Mechanistic thinking is not just thinking about things, it is a fascination, an absorption in things, and likewise for mentalistic thinking about people. The book never really talks about how the different cognitive subsystems relate to the motivation to use them, which seems to be just as important, especially in the case of savants, who provide a significant area of data for the theory. This is a topic that I've seen addressed in Crespi's journal articles, but was not really touched on in the book very much.

As far as validation of the overall theory, I think it will depend a lot on whether both both ends of the spectrum of disorders are found to be the genetic result of a common disease pathway resulting from many different variations of rare alleles or a particular conjunction of common ones. If either end depends on rare alleles, its evolutionary significance is much less likely. The beautiful symmetry of this theory depends very much on both ends of the disorder spectrum having evolutionary significance.

See also Badcock's Edge article:

and the following books on some of the less well known speculative evolutionary genetic ideas underlying this theory:

Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements

Genomic Imprinting and Kinship (The Rutgers Series in Human Evolution, edited by Robert Trivers, Lee Cronk, Helen Fisher, and Lionel Tiger)

There is some good theoretical backgound to the evolution of reasoning and what we can learn about it from autism in:

Human Reasoning and Cognitive Science (Bradford Books)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How to avoid SharePoint becoming a wicked problem

Check out SharePoint planning presentation by Paul Culmsee on SlideShare:

How to avoid SharePoint becoming a wicked problem - Presentation Transcript

“If you can tell me why you say that plan A is great, and I understand your judgments, you have succeeded in objectifying your space of judgment to me. And although I might not share your judgment and might not be convinced, I understand you now.” Horst Rittel

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved”  Charles Kettering (1876-1958)

How to avoid SharePoint becoming a wicked problem CIO229 Paul Culmsee, MCT, MCSE, CISSP  Seven Sigma Business Solutions    Author of blog  SharePoint architect, Trainer, Dialogue and Issue Mapping practitioner, author for & Reformed tech geek, Metalhead

Session Agenda Understanding wicked problems and social complexity  The “SharePoint paradox” and paths to SharePoint  wickedness The power of Issue Mapping and IBIS based  collaboration How to leverage the best of SharePoint and Issue  Mapping
Project Success/Failure Factors Failure Factors  Lack of user input  Incomplete requirements &  specifications Changing requirements &  assumptions Lack of executive support  Technology incompetence  Lack of resources  Unrealistic expectations  Unclear objectives  Unrealistic timeframes  New technology  Source: Chaos Report (1995) 

Project Success/Failure Factors Failure Factors  Lack of user input  Incomplete requirements &  specifications Changing requirements &  Lack of shared assumptions understanding Lack of executive support  of the p r o b le m Technology incompetence  Lack of resources  Unrealistic expectations  Unclear objectives  Unrealistic timeframes  New technology 

Project Success/Failure Factors Failure Factors  Lack of user input  Incomplete requirements &  specifications Changing requirements &  Also a lack of shared assumptions understanding Lack of Executive Support  of the p r o b le m Technology Incompetence  Lack of Resources  Unrealistic Expectations  Unclear Objectives  Unrealistic Timeframes  New technology 

Project pain “They don’t know what they want!”  “The requirements are too vague!”  “If only they had listened to me”  “Not another %$%$% meeting!”  “I was never consulted”  “This is ridiculous – it won’t work”  “It was in the minutes – did you read it?”  “Well if everyone actually followed the process…”  These are examples of the forces of “social  complexity” and “wicked problems”

Social Complexity The more parties involved in a collaboration, the more  socially complex The more different these parties are, the more diverse,  the more socially complex The fragmenting force of social complexity makes  communication very difficult This extends to collaborative technologies too! 
Wicked Problems  Defined by Horst Rittel in 1973  Problems in planning and social or public policy  Highly resistant to resolution  A number of “distinguishing properties” compared to “tame” problems

Wicked Problem Properties The problem is not understood until after formulation of 1. a solution Cognexus Institute
Wicked Problem Properties The problem is not understood until after formulation of 1. a solution Wicked problems have no stopping rule • You cannot prove that all solutions have been • considered Solutions differ based on interests, values and ideology • of participants

Wicked Problem Properties A wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways 1. (serving the intentions of who is explaining it) It can be hard to go back – “one shot operation” 2. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a 3. symptom of another problem There is no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked 4. problem
Dealing with Wicked Problems There is no quick fix   No “tame your wicked problems in seven easy steps” “Constrain Scope” Strategy   Have you really solved the problem if you don’t consider the solution in the original context? Authoritative Strategies   Decision is made for us and we agree to abide (Supreme Court) Competitive Strategies   Win-lose outcome (politics and lobbying) Collaborative Strategies   SharePoint?

The SharePoint Paradox To deal with wicked problems we have to collaborate  SharePoint is a collaboration tool  We use a collaborative tool to improve our collaboration  Therefore, why do many SharePoint projects have  wicked elements to them?
Strategic SharePoint Pitfalls Do not “boil the ocean” 1. “Too much too soon” is a magnet for wickedness  The organisation has to be ready to come too  Have a clear strategy 2. SharePoint should not be a “tool looking for a problem”  Do not paint with the same brush 3. Gen Y think everyone wants web 2.0  Engineers think everyone wants wikis  Record managers hate wiki’s and think *everything* should be  classified Marketing think that people will use it if it looks good  Some will never break the folder habit 

Strategic SharePoint Pitfalls Understand the inherent conflicts within application 1. requirements Records management vs Collaborative Document  management WCM vs Collaborative Portal  Branding before anything else  Account for “soft” factors 2. Organisational culture  Individual learning styles and behavioural styles  Vertical Market/Sector 

Signs of SharePoint wickedness... Arguments over accountabilities and ownership  Excessive rework of custom development  Poor performance and scalability  SharePoint mushrooms (site sprawl)  No history of modifications made  What, when, who and why  A service pack installation is a “War and Peace” effort  You have decided you should attend a best practice  conference :-)
One “best practice” to rule them all Ensure a shared understanding of the  problem among all participants “The ‘Holy Grail’ of effective collaboration is creating shared  understanding, which is a precursor to shared commitment” – Jeff Conklin
Will this solve a wicked problem?

Issue Mapping Horst Rittel created a planning/design method called  IBIS Issue Based Information System  Complex group discussion broken into basic artefacts  – questions, ideas, pros, cons Issue Mapping is crafting an IBIS based map of  discussion It makes critical thinking visible.  Shows the deep structure of an issue 

We are demonstrating the power of issue mapping over conventional techniques to manage the complex dialogue required to manage problems with wicked elements. ISSUE MAPPING IN ACTION
Benefits of Issue Mapping Simple, intuitive, adds clarity to discussion   Limited short term memory means exploration of a complex problem unaided is confusing and error prone  All participants have an organised point of reference Democratic - Acknowledges all contributions   Disarms “truth by repetition”  Disarms “grenade lobbing” (topic shift) Takes the interpersonal “sting” out of supporting or  objecting to an idea Faster - allows a group to achieve shared understanding  with much less pain

The Craft of Issue Mapping Issue maps can be sketched on paper, but  usually crafted using software  Compendium  bCisive. Issue Mapping is a craft based skill – you need  some training and practice!  Don’t fall for the panacea effect!
Issue Mapping with other best practices Maintain your other standards or frameworks   IM emphasis at the problem/requirements definition phase  Compliments any methodology or practice (PMBOK, Scrum) Leverage IM with Agile methods   Agile/Scrum is a *process* based approach that rejects the waterfall approach  Agile processes and methods implicitly support shared understanding, but IM goes beyond software engineering  IM and Agile are a great fit

Leverage IM and SharePoint Use Issue Mapping to understand the problem   Ensures shared understanding and shared commitment among participants Use SharePoint to manage and track the  solution  Documents and reports still need writing  Data needs to be managed, maintained and distributed Holy Grail - Present issue maps within  SharePoint sites  SharePoint project sites containing the latest *thinking* via an integrated issue map

Summing Up Wicked factors are very common in IT projects   SharePoint is especially vulnerable Achieving shared understanding among participants is  *paramount*  Later best practices can be undone by failure to achieve this goal IBIS and Issue Mapping are a key complimentary tool   Designed *specifically* to tackle social complexity and wicked problems When used to their strengths, Issue Mapping and  SharePoint can be a very potent combination

More Information Seven Sigma Business Solutions (    Issue Mapping and SharePoint specialists  CogNexus Institute “Designated Partner” Dr Jeff Conklin – creator of Issue Mapping (   Issue Mapping & Dialogue Mapping training and services  Book: Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems CleverWorkarounds Blog (   SharePoint Project Management  SharePoint Strategy  SharePoint Governance Compendium Software ( 

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Review: "Bozo Sapiens" by Michael and Ellen Kaplan

Erudite, wise, and delightful tour through human fallibility

A review of "Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human" by Michael and Ellen Kaplan

[See this and other reviews on Amazon]

We don't naturally think like scientists, except perhaps in very limited and specific ways. Thinking that can't stand up to scrutiny is commonplace. Why do we tend to be more wrong than right most of the time? This book is one of many recent releases that attempts to address this question through scientific experiments and theories in various fields.

At first this book looks very much like many other recent releases devoted to the quirks of human decision making. It isn't as strong on the details of neuroscience as many of the others, and there isn't as much technical coverage of psychology as others, but this book has a compelling advantage. It is more of a literary delight than the others with wonderful turns of phrase and superb summaries of the important points.

As with most books on human reasoning (and unreasoning) you get a list of examples of cognitive distortions, perceptual illusions, theories of decision making, and examples. Where Kaplan and Kaplan excel is in particularly well chosen, memorable, and entertaining examples, and particularly thought provoking and wide-ranging conclusions. They mention but don't dwell much on the classical examples like the Wasson test, then go on to look at the topic from a unique perspective taken from real life experience or literature. This style brings the lessons to life in a very distinctive way. The lessons range broadly over behavioral economics, game theory, evolutionary psychology, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, probability, various kinds of decision making research, and many other fields. In one chapter, "Fresh off the Pleistocene Bus," they explore evolutionary psychology, but recognize that there is something inherently anti-romantic that grates against our sensibilities about evolutionary psychology, sometimes called "the moral equivalent of fast food." There is a genuine sense of larger wisdom and balance throughout this book that helps keep it fresh and interesting.

Some of my favorites from the book:

"Consciousness brings with it a gnawing sense of exile from the world of simple certainties."

"There seems to be something fundamental about using money as the stand-in for worth that causes us to abandon common sense."

"Sound encodes the rich symbolic power of language and hte emotional truths of music; it duplicates through tone of voice many of the clues to character and mood that we attempt to read from facial expression. This may be why becoming deaf seems more a banishment from life than blindness."

"When the illusion is broken and we see the truth, the world loses a little meaning for us. We laugh as the tension loosens, but deep down we are slightly disappointed."

"Any image forms expectations; attention responds to novelty. We look at what has surprised us in what we see."

"In our lifelong journeys, we humans tend to navigate like coasting sailors, not transoceanic pilots: we look our for landmarks and invent rules of thumb. Our minds, so acute locally but wooly in general, try to concoct the best possible sense our of what life shows us here and now, rather than to develop a consistent picture of how everything fits together. Thus we are built to be interested in and judicious about the incidents and quirks of what we know well - that line of surf over the reef, that darkening of the upwind horizon - while our broader explanations so easily shade off into krakens and mermaids."

How do they wrap this all up? The Kaplans offer interesting advice:

Think probabilistically, admitting the power of the random and the unknown and take small steps testing them along the way. Make good use of the primordial urge to examine new things closely. Don't assume you can understand the complexity of situations, rather use the "straight lines of local conclusions to approximate the wider curves of probability." Culture is essentially the human urge to create fictions and it is what allows us to reshape our own expectations, to create new explanations, to enjoy finding things out, and without them ... we would have died out as victims of our own certainty. Our grand abstractions like truth and justice and free will are "neither divine powers nor personal whims" but are "responsibilities we must take on with full knowledge that they will always be greater than ourselves."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Review: "Out of Our Heads" by Alva Noe

Review of: "Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness" by Alva Noe

Review by Todd Stark, 3/30/09

An accessible and compelling exploration of the extended mind

The mind is more than what the brain is doing. The idea isn't new, but it often gets too little respect. Perhaps because people think it implies something supernatural, or perhaps because it just seems weird, but it is a very respectable argument and in Alva Noe's hands, a powerful one.

We often take for granted in brain science that the mind is implemented by things happening inside the skull. That goes against the growing findings that perception is an active process of exploration that depends on our contact with the real world and the skills we possess for navigating its structure. This book takes on the significant challenge of bringing that difficult idea accessibly and non-technically into the popular mind and I think he does an excellent job.

Although Noe doesn't talk about it specifically, Ruth Millikan makes a good related argument that substance categories are really skills. We know substances by our skills for finding and identifying them over and over, not through their intrinsic properties. Noe approaches perception in much the same way. We know the world by interacting with it, not by (or in addition to?) simulating it with detailed models inside our head.

Noe goes a step further and points out how some concepts just don't make from a detached viewpoint, so we are often forced to destroy the phenomena of consciousness, reducing them to something else, in order to study them dispassionately. This is a tough sell, I think, to habitual materialists, but he doesn't rely too heavily on it.

The implication Noe emphasizes is that consciousness is a process involving interaction of the nervous system with the world, not (just) something that is lighting up inside our neural nets. The distinction is sometimes more subtle that Noe acknowledges. He approves of Gibson's ecological theory of perception, but doesn't address the equally important work on expectancy and hypothesis testing approaches to perception, such as Richard Gregory's ideas and the experimental work done around them.

He is probably right that much of our basic perception relies heavily on active engagement with the world, but then some of it, to me, clearly doesn't. He does a good job showing limits to the feature detection approach to vision (doesn't it beg the question to say that features are "built up" toward pictures in the brain?), but doesn't have an alternate explanation for the elaborate architecture of columns and receptor fields and their activity in dreaming and imagination that seem to support at least some version of the mental representation concept in some kinds of mental activity. It seems in places that Noe acknowledges this sort of work but considers it an impoverished-perceptual or non-perceptual kind of mental activity.

Other than the excellent writing and clear arguments, the best part of this book is the skillful use of various findings regarding phantom limbs, sensory illusions, and inattention phenomena to illustrate the empirical implications of a mind extended beyond the brain case. Even if you don't buy the full externalist argument in all its details, it's hard to read those examples and not have a little light go off in your head and think "oh, so that's what he means by the mind being outside the brain!" That's a mark of good writing.

Noe mentions but does not dwell on the role played by philosopher J Merleau-Ponty in many of these ideas, and his work is worth exploring as well. A good non-technical intro in keeping with the spirit of Noe's book is: Merleau-ponty: A Guide for the Perplexed (Guides for the Perplexed).

This book is a good read, a relatively quick read, and very thought provoking.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Moving Your MOSS Databases to a new SQL Server

If you manage a single-server SharePoint 2007 farm, which is a very common configuration, there's a good chance that at some point you will want to move to a separate SQL Server. Maybe for performance, maybe to improve your infrstructure, maybe to help meet corporate database guidelines. There are lots of reasons you might want to do this. So what is involved? Is it a big deal?

The short answer is that it takes a SharePoint admin to do this (instead of or in addition to a SQL admin) and I generally allow about a day to do it if it is a machine I know well. If it is client machine rather than one of mine, and there are unknowns, I allow an additional day to troubleshoot the things that will inevitably break after the move.

So you shouldn't fear this move, but don't take it for granted either. It isn't usually trivial and sometimes can be a little painful. The obvious question in your mind will be: "what in SharePoint is directly dependent on the database server, isn't there a single setting somewhere that tells SharePoint which database server to use?" Unfortunately, it isn't quite that simple. You can't just go into Central Administration or someplace in the registry and tell SharePoint to use a different database server. You will effectively need to back up your farm, disband it, recreate the farm and restore the original content to the new farm. Then you will need to go through and check for various little things that might have directly specified database connections and so will need to be modified. Of course if you know about or can find that sort of thing ahead of time, that would be preferable.

1. The first step is preparation.

---> a. Make sure things are currently working. You don't want to find something broken after the move and be unsure of whether it was working before the move. That makes troubleshooting a lot tougher. If practical, fix broken things before the move, or at least make a note of them. Take snapshots of the most critical pages, so you can look back fondly on them as a pleasant memory if they never come back. Well, also to help troubleshoot them if they don't look quite right at the end. Yes, I've actually had to use this.

---> b. Gather the required information: the file location of the SQL database files on the old and new servers, the name and password for the SQL admin accounts, the account names and passwords of the SharePoint service and administration accounts, the old and new database names. I use a template I call a "configuration sheet" which captures all the server, web application, site collection, database, and IIS information I would need to recreate the farm topology. I recommend using something like that to be sure you have all of the informatiom you need before diving in, to avoid any panicky last second calls.

---> c. Go through Central Admin in SharePoint and make a note of the critical settings that you care about (because you will probably lose these in the move): SMTP server address for incoming and outgoing mail, alternate access mappings, accounts and permissions, yes just about everything! The fact that you have to do this tedious step is the biggest reason why the move is not as simple as you might have assumed. There are some tools that can help with this, but they cost. You wouldn't need my instructions here if had that kind of scratch. You should also get an SPSREPORT (this is a free tool used by Microsoft to capture configuration information and logs).

2. The second step is to get a good multi-technology backup (you should already be doing this routinely):

---> a. Backup your IIS metabase - not strictly neccessary but definitely recommended just in case. Sometimes you need to recreate web sites, and this will save your butt if there were IIS settings you didn't know about.

---> b. Get SQL backups of your content dbs -- hopefully you won't need them, but a good thing to have. Don't bother backing up the configuration db or admin db, you can't do much with them anyway.

---> c. Backup your web server extensions and inetpub (IIS) folders on the web server. This is not an optional step, this is essential. Most of SharePoint's content is in the database, but some things you need to properly render and use pages are in the front end web server files.

---> d. Perform site collection backups from STSADM for the site collections that are most critical to you. This will give you a way to quickly and easily recover them elsewhere to keep your business going in case of a complete FUBAR.

---> e. Perform "catastropic" backup from STSADM if you are familiar with this. If not, don't worry about it. It's just another way to recover in case of an unexpected problem.

---> f. Lastly, and most importantly, perform a full backup of the farm from the Central Administration GUI interface. This (plus the web server file backup) is going to be your primary tool for SharePoint recovery in most cases). This is a kind of backup that can't be scheduled, it must be performed interactively by an administrator, and it isn't very robust for restoration, but it has some unique advantages for convenient recovery. You should use the Central Admin backup just before any configuration change to your farm.

3. Take a deep breath. You're about to dive in. Run the technologies wizard on the SharePoint server and use it to disconnect the web server from the farm.

4. Use the technologies wizard to create a new farm on the NEW SQL server (this is the key step that recreates the configuration database, which cannot be moved due to dynamic links with other things, thus the root cause of the complications). This is where all that preparation starts to pay off, you should know the right accounts to use for everything. Using the right accounts in the right places in MOSS is critical. If you don't know the rules for this, you should not be recreating the farm, go back and do the homework. No kidding. I promise that you (or someone that curses your name) will be sorry later if you take the account assignments for granted or just use the same admin account for everything.

5. Configure the Office SharePoint Search Service from Central Administration. This may allow you to restore search indexes later if neccessary. It is optional, since you could always recreate the indexes if neccessary.

6. Using SharePoint Central Admin, perform farm restore of the backup you took in step 2f. Did it work? Phew, you're mostly done. I feel your relief. [No? Well, that's why we grabbed all that other stuff before! You have everything you need for a complete disaster recovery. Good luck. Or just reconnect your original databases and try again when you figure out what went wrong.]

7. Tedious but easy: go through Central Admin and replace all of those settings you captured before. Oh, you didn't believe me that you would need them? Too busy to do all that work? Just hope there wasn't anything important in there that you can't figure out later.

8. Take the original databases offline and go through the portal and fix anything that is broken because it needs to be reconfigured or has connection back to the old databases. This is the part that may sometimes take the additional day on a farm with unknowns. Don't forget to go through and change any database backup and maintenance procedures to use the new server if neccessary.

If you can't use the SharePoint Farm Backup and Restore from Central Administration for some reason, the process gets more complicated but it can still be done.

For example, you can sometimes use the "catastrophic" restore to restore the GUI backup using STSADM. You have to get the ID of the appropriate backup and figure out all of the parameters for accounts and locations and so on, but it may work even when the Central Admin restore does not (mainly because it doesn't rely on the timer service).

If you end up having to restore from a site collection backup for some reason, notice that your sites may not work properly. That's because there are some components in the file system for IIS and SharePoint that may have been modified. That's why you took those backups of INETPUB and WEB SERVER EXTENSIONS before. First try replacing the WEBCONFIG and GLOBAL files in your web site virtual folder with the original ones. That often does the trick. If not, you may need to do some more work to track down what is different. That's another reason I plan for a second day for these database migrations.

Best of Luck to you!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Hypnosis Research Text: Hypnotic and Subtle Influence (PDF)

My text about the psychological and neuroscience perspectives on hypnosis Hypnotic and Subtle Influence is posted on Jake Shannon's "Scientific Mind Control" site.

The text is dated but I think by and large still accurate and useful. The basic concepts and research models have not changed significantly, other than to fill in more of the details.

The chapters organization is based around concepts commonly associated with hypnosis:

Imagination, Talents, Healing, History, Suggestion, Unconscious Mind, Trance, Rapport, Role-Taking, and "Frequently Asked Questions"

The detailed table of contents:

Chapter 1 3
The Magic of Imagination 3

The Power to Alter Our Own Awareness 3
Adaptive Self-Regulation 4
Altering Our Own Experience 8
What State Are You In ? 9
Emotional States 10
Activation States 12
States of Consciousness 13
Studying Human Experience in Science 13
Taking Consciousness Seriously 15
The Value in Studying Human Experience 16
Beyond Hypnosis: Principles of Hypnotic Influence 17
Four Themes 19
Actions that happen by themselves 22
Explaining Hypnotic Involuntariness 25
Review of Chapter 1 29
Summary of Chapter 1 33
The Story So Far … 35

Chapter 2 36
Talents Used In Hypnosis 36

Fantasy, Dissociation, and Cooperative Mindset 36
Hypnotizability 36
Highs and Lows 38
Fantasy Proneness and Absorption 43
Amnesia Proneness and Dissociation 46
The Cooperative Mindset: A Gray Area 51
The Three Types of Highly Responsive People 53
Review of Chapter 2 54
Summary of Chapter 2 55
The Story So Far … 56

Chapter 3 57
Hypnosis and Healing 57

Healing the Mind and Healing with the Mind 57
Illness and Healing 57
Coping with Different Kinds of Illness 57
Hope and Healing 60
Core Components of Psychological Healing 63
General Aspect of Mental Healing 63
Specific Aspects of Mental Healing 66
Review of Chapter 3 67
Summary of Chapter 3 68
The Story So Far … 69

Chapter 4 70
Western Perspectives 70

Hypnosis in Western Culture 70
Hypnosis Wakes Up 70
The Forms that Hypnosis Takes Today 75
The Very Different Views of Hypnosis 75
The Fundamental Problem 76
Suggestion: Explicit and Implicit 77
Hypnosis for Entertainment 78
Hypnosis for Healing 78
The Distinct Cultures of Hypnotists 79
The Evolution of the Concept 80
Roots in Faith Healing and Exorcism 81
First Attempts to Study Hypnotic Influence in Science 82
The “Sleep” Method of Hypnotic Influence Emerges 84
Bernheim and Therapeutic Suggestion 88
The Origins of the Concept of Hypnotic “Depth” 90
“Depth” and Involvement in Fantasy 91
Hypnotherapy is more than Laboratory Hypnosis 93
Psychotherapy Independent of Laboratory Hypnosis 94
Summary of Chapter 4 98
The Story So Far … 99

Chapter 5 100
Suggestion 100

Identifying “Hypnotic” Responses 100
What is Suggestion ? 100
A Special Kind of Communication 101
Learning Through Rhythm 103
Ideodynamic Processes and Induction 107
Review of Chapter 5 116
Summary of Chapter 5 118
The Story So Far … 119

Chapter 6 120
The Unconscious Mind 120

What Lies Beneath: Great Storehouse or Self-Deception ? 120
Into the Realm of the Unconscious 122
The Dynamic Unconscious 123
The Cognitive Unconscious 133
Attention and Preconscious Processing 134
Types of Knowledge and Memory 136
Unconscious Procedures 137
Remembered Experiences vs. Known Facts 137
The Social-Emotional Unconscious 139
Dissociated Mental Processes 148
Review of Chapter 6 150
Summary of Chapter 6 153
The Story So Far … 154

Chapter 7 155
Trance 155

The Experiential Mindset and The Elusive Mental State of Hypnosis 155
How does trance feel ? 161
What does a Hypnotic Trance look like ? 162
The Paradox of Alert Trance 163
Different Kinds of Trances ? 165
Attentional Focus and the Flow State 168
What are we measuring ? 173
Hypnosis and Relaxation 174
Most hypnosis is mostly relaxation 174
Trance as distinct from sleep or stupor 177
Measurements of Localized Brain Activity 178
Looking for the Phantasms of Hypnotic Trance in the EEG 178
Evoked Potentials 182
EEG correlates of effective cognitive pain control 183
Neuroanatomy and Hypnosis : Where is the “Unconscious” ? 184
Functional Systems and Outcome-Orientation 188
A speculative neurological substrate of goal-directed behavior 190
Hemispheric Asymmetry and Hypnosis 192
“Putting half the brain to sleep,” Is the right hemisphere the Freudian Unconscious ? 197
Hypnosis and Callosal Connectivity 200
The Brain in Trance 202
Information Transduction and the HPA 203
Triggering Fast Waves and the Orienting Response 204
The Hemisphere Shift 207
The Amygdala and the Hippocampus in Attention 208
Perceptual Decisions and the Prefrontal Cortex 212
Switching Between Cognitive Modes 215
Review of Chapter 7 216
Summary of Chapter 7 218
The Story So Far … 219

Chapter 8 221
Rapport 221

The Cooperation Mindset and the Hypnotic Dance of Intimacy 221
Hypnotic Cooperation and Intimacy 221
Imagination Plus Intimacy 223
Cooperation of a Special Kind 227
Review of Chapter 8 230
Summary of Chapter 8 231
The Story So Far … 231

Chapter 9 232
Role Taking 232

Involvement and Our Sense of Identity 232
Who I Am Depends On Who I'm With 232
Coordinated Involvement 235
Review of Chapter 9 238
Summary of Chapter 9 240
The Story So Far … 240

Epilogue to Section One: Common Questions 242

Is Hypnosis Real ? 242
Does Hypnosis Work ? 242
Will People Do Anything the Hypnotist Says ? 243
Can Someone Be "Brainwashed" Through Hypnosis ? 244
Can I Be Hurt By Hypnosis ? 244
Can Anyone Be Hypnotized ? 245
Can Hypnosis Help Me Change My Habits ? 245
Can I Control My Body Processes With Hypnosis ? 245
Can I Control Pain With Hypnosis ? 246