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"