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Monthly Archives: June 2004

Quote #29

Sometimes it seems like we’re all living in some kind of prison, and the crime is how much we hate ourselves. It’s good to get really dressed up once in a while and admit the truth — that when you look really closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they’re actually beautiful. Possibly even me.

– Henry Miller

Writing tactics

I’m doing a lot of writing at the moment, here’s some things I remind myself – advice I’ve gathered along the way. I’m a big fan of advice, so thanks to all those who’ve offered it.

These are more tactics than principles or admonishments. I don’t always follow them, but sometimes they really help. Oh, and it’s non-fiction i’m writing in case anyone doesn’t know.

  • Andrew passed on the most important thing, as said by Kingsley Amis- The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of your trousers to the seat of your chair.
  • Dan Box said- Write in two-sentence paragraphs. Try it – you’re forced to structure your story so the direction is obvious, and structure your sentences so they are concise.
  • Tim Radford from the Guardian told me- Make the first sentence a summary of the whole article. This is for readers who don’t have any motivation except curiousity to keep reading what you’ve written . The newspaper story is top heavy, designed to be cut from the bottom- don’t have any surprises in the story outside the first paragraph, or outside the first few lines if you can help it.
  • I discovered the other day- When you’ve rewritten and rewritten until you can’t see the text anymore, put it in another application or change the font or style (or both). The superficial change to the appearence of the text really helps you read it again with something like full attention.
  • Mrs Ferris, my A-level history teacher said the first sentence of each paragraph summarises and defines what will be in that paragraph. Not only does this help orientation for people skimming what you’ve written, but it helps you structure it too. Good when writing for readers who don’t have much time (ie always).

  • Linear development

    How wierd is this- I was looking at a review paper [1] of the development of visual acuity in human infants and I plotted the average acuity measurements for the first three years of life. It’s a straight line. A very straight line.

    Not only is it testament to the experimental rigour of the studies included in the review but it’s also pretty developmentally odd- I mean what else develops linearly? Height doesn’t. Vocabularly use doesn’t. Number conservation doesn’t.

    Does anything else develop linearly? There must be so many non-linear processes involved in the neural development of vision it’s a marvel it comes out linear with respect to age.


    [1] Courage, M.L., and Adams, R.J. (1990). Visual acuity assessment from birth to three years using the acuity card procedure: Cross-sectional and longitudinal samples. Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, 67(9), 713-718.

    Acuity was measured with black and white gratings of different spatial frequencies and is shown here in cpd, cycles per degree of visual angle (this is an inverse function of the Snellen rating (eg 20/20).

    and i ride my bike

    Getting a bike in London is like getting the freedom of the city. I now inhabit the city, rather than just being here. I move through space, making it my own, joining the dots of my knowledge. I’m no longer confined to small geographical areas and tube-teleported betweem them.

    The exploration-exploitation dilemma is crucially reweighted; exploration is cheap, exploitation is fun. I get lost easily. I get found easily. I move under my own power in the streams of the city traffic; I’m part of the flow.

    And it’s probably even healthy for me in some ways (as long as i don’t get killed).

    signs of nonsense

    One of the markers of pseudoscience is unrestrained endorsement. If you don’t have the resources or motivation to engage critical facilities, then you have to simply embrace everything that is suggested that doesn’t offend your broader instincts.

    Example: New-Age eclecticism. Example the second: psychobabble; as long as it has the words ‘neuro’ (for a business audience) or ‘psychodynamic’ (for a therapeutic audience) in it, you can probably get away with it.

    I shall add this to my heuristic-toolkit for the ‘how to deal with too much information’ problem…

    tired of london

    In 1777, Samuel Johnson wrote Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. (link).

    In 1777, the population of London was approximately 800,000 people, a tenth it’s current size and a little larger than modern-day Leeds but smaller than Birmingham. (link)

    the obvious in psychology

    I mean, Christ, I’m not the first to say it, but some psychological research is just so obvious I want to bite out my own eyes. To pick unfairly, and at random, something I came across today, why exactly are we doing research like this? –

    “Women’s and Men’s Personal Goals During the Transition to Parenthood” (Salmela-Aro et al, 2000)
    Abstract: To investigate how women’s and men’s personal goals change during the transition to parenthood, the authors studied 348 women (152 primiparous and 196 multiparous) and 277 of their partners at 3 times: early in pregnancy, 1 month before the birth, and 3 months afterward. At each measurement, participants completed the Personal Project Analysis questionnaire (B. R. Little, 1983). The results showed that during pregnancy women became more interested in goals related to childbirth, the child’s health, and motherhood and less interested in achievement-related goals. After the birth women were more interested in family- and health-related issues. These changes were more substantial among the primiparous than among the multiparous mothers. Although the men’s personal goals changed during the transition to parenthood, these changes were less substantial than those found among the women. description and explanation in psychological science.

    Can this be as pointless as it sounds? Women worry more about impending motherhood while pregnant, and less about other things. Hold the front page.

    Now there’s a few arguments you can make for researching ‘common sense’.

  • you confirm 99% of it, but you falsify 1% of it, and that’s the important bit.
  • common sense is just a set of circumstance-variable prejudices. Not only does ‘common sense’ contain multiple, often erroneous and/or contradictory, positions, but it’s easy for people to say that’s just common sense after the fact.
  • it might be obvious that something is so, but exactly how is it so? Women deprioritise career-goals during pregnancy – obviously. But how much do they do this? What is the variation? How does this change across demographics? Across cultures? Across generations? (this said, if this is the main justification for the research then there is a fairly major problem with the communication of it).

  • But despite this, I think we’ve missed a fairly major distinction between description and explanation here. Psychological science needs more of the latter. An explanation provides a connection between different levels of descriptions or between different phenomenon. Granted, you have to sort your descriptions to some degree first before you can do this, but come on people

    And don’t think that I’m just talking about social psychology here. The brainporn fetish of cognitive neuroscience is just as much to blame. The next time I see a functional imaging study that demonstrates that a task involving mental activity requires various different bits of the cortex I shall weep.
    The added difficulty for social psychology is that most of the concepts involved
    have already had been explored with far greater finesse and insight than science can ever manage by millennia of culture activity. If you’re going to do some research here you need to bring some added value. Here’s my provisional list of those cases in which this might be possible:

  • When we know something to be true, but we need to know exactly how true it is – the extent, the variability, the limits of the effect and the interaction with other factors.
  • When we know something to be true, and science can show that it isn’t.(eg
    graphology, people wouldn’t electrocute others just because they are ordered
    to by a scientist). [and related to this]

  • When the common sense perception of individuals is persistently biased (eg self-rating of ability to detect lies, judgements about how fast queues move, perception of sleep duration among insomniacs, etc)
  • When we know something to be true, but we don’t know how or why it is true (enter, stage right, cognitive neuroscience and recourse to explanatory primitives from lower levels of description)

  • reference

    Katariina Salmela-Aro, Jari-Erik Nurmib, Terhi Saistoc and Erja Halmesm?kic (2000). Women’s and Men’s Personal Goals During the Transition to Parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology Volume 14, Issue 2, June 2000, Pages 171-186

    Quote #27

    You don’t need to leave your room.
    Remain sitting at your table and listen.
    Don’t even listen, simply wait.
    Don’t even wait.
    Be quite still and solitary.
    The world will freely offer itself to you.
    To be unmasked, it has no choice.
    It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

    Franz Kafka

    The only true life i have is the life of my brain…

    Just found some transcriptions of Utah Philips’ Stories, from which this, a favourite of mine:

    That’s when [Fry Pan Jack] told me – you know, he’d been tramping since 1927 -he said, “I told myself in ’27, if I cannot dictate the conditions of my labor, I will henceforth cease to work.” Hah! You don’t have to go to college to figure these things out, no sir! He said, “I learned when I was young that the only true life I had was the life of my brain. But if it’s true the only real life I have is the life of my brain, what sense does it make to hand that brain to somebody for eight hours a day for their particular use on the presumption that at the end of the day they will give it back in an unmutilated condition?” Fat chance!

    fundamentalism in consumer culture

    If, like i said, social isolation is necessary to maintain ideological isolation, then here’s an extra irony to consumer culture: as The Market spreads across the world promoting Democracy and Freedom, it also extends the kind of atomisation that allows people to live in different social worlds than their neighbours and hence allows more ideological extremism.

    Ideological divergence because of more social isolation vs ideological homongenisation because of an increasingly similar macro-economic condition (ie consumer society).

    How the two forces will play out beats me

    describing systems / systems for describing

    Systems theory, like catastrophe theory before it, is a descriptive theory not a predictive theory. Which, means that it’s harder to say if it’s any use (and, indeed, you can always re-phrase any discoveries within that framework using the language of the old framework, once you have made them).

    Given this, we’d expect the most utility of systems theory to be in fields which are suffering most from a lack of adequate epistemological tools. Which is why, I guess, I’m convinced of the necessity of some kind of systems thinking in cognitive neuroscience and for social psychology.

    And why, maybe, to date the best systems theory work in psychology has been in developmental psychology

    The World Knot

    In a review by Steven Poole of Edelman and Tononi’s Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination I found this:

    …they claim that Schopenhauer called the problem of consciousness the “world knot”, and adopt this lovely image as their catchphrase. But that is not what Schopenhauer said. What he calls the “world knot”, in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, is “the identity of the subject of willing with that of knowing”. Edelman and Tononi give a remarkably rich and provocative hypothesis of the subject of knowing, but the will soars free, as yet untethered by physical explanation.

    Great image – very norse – and the identity of the subject of will with the subject of knowing is definitely a biggie, both for the psychology and metaphysics of consciousness.