Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Learning and Cognition class thoughts

In my"Topics in learning and cognition: innovation and discovery" class, we've got a number of readings coming up but for tonight, we read Plato's Meno. Alex and I discussed it and he brought up much of the philosophical/spiritual information below (although not all).

In it, Socrates (as described by Plato) discusses knowledge. The first part is all about the problems of definition. What is "being good"? What is "a bee"? This brings up the problem of describing words using other words. Rule-based semantics is difficult. Definitions don't work well.

What is a chair? something with 4 legs that you sit on. Well, what if it's something with a pedestal and wheels, but you still sit on it? Is it still a chair? Do we really store definitions in our brain? Not really. It was thought at one time that we really stored the symbolic representations of things like "chair". But, not so much.

So what do we use for semantic categorization?

Two theories are prototypes and exemplars.
Prototype theory suggests that with multiple experiences, our brains naturally build up "prototypes" - the "ideal chair" for example, and that we categorize new instances based on how close they match a particular prototype. There are issues with this, but we have evidence that our brains do *some* of this. Plato and Socrates (and some Christian mystics) might have felt that we were really discovering the "ideal chair" that already existed, that we had knowledge and were just "remembering". Socrates (according to the Meno reading) believed our experiences in past lives led us to have inner knowledge that we were "remembering" like this. (This begs the question, for me, of how we built up *new* knowledge, if we were just remembering things rather than learning them.)

Another theory is that, rather than prototypes, we simply store weighted connections of properties of our exemplars, of the experiences, so that we have a lot of exemplars - instances of experiences with objects with legs or pedestals that we sit on, and most of those are called "chairs" so if this new experience also has legs and is for sitting on, it's going to be labelled a "chair". Coherent covariance, as McClelland would put it.

Rather than cached prototypes, we have runtime evaluation.

Going back to the Platonic 'where does knowledge come from' question puts it into the spiritual/philosophical realm -
Plato/Socrates might have felt knowledge was already within us, just needing to be "discovered" or "brought out". Some mystics have felt that we contain all knowledge within us - and meditation, to reduce the distractions of the external world, the mundane, will allow us "insight" to this internal knowledge. Socrates describes it in this dialog as coming from past lives. Some mystics feel that humans contains shards of godhead and that, like Saint Theresa, it requires shutting out external distractions and looking within, to realize that one is united with God, and one has always been so. Thou art God, as Valentine Michael Smith would say.

Buddhism, as Alex reminded me, has two views of this - that one can approach from sitting meditation, as mentioned, or from walking meditation. Walking meditation allows for using the external to connect the inner shard with the external divinity.

In any case, a question arises - if Plato is right and we already know this stuff, why is it not accessible? Why is it "covered up"?
Learning theory suggests that much of what we store as memories are cue and context dependent. The cues may retrieve many potential stored memory patterns, but there is interference with all the other patterns also associated with that cue. Context helps.
One reason we have trouble with free recall is because there are too few cues and far too much interference. Cued recall is better because we have reduced the interference.

Plato's "innate knowledge" also reminds me of Chomsky's contention that language is "innate".

I still wonder though - if it's innate, why? Where did it come from if it isn't the result of experience and learning? Some folks such as Jung suggest things like the Collective Unconscious. Which, to me, is just another version of the shard theory.

In any case, one of the questions we're exploring in this class is where does "new" knowledge, "insight", "innovation" come from? How do we encourage it? Can it be taught?

In my experience, insight is a process of synthesis. For me, it's the opposite of "learning". Learning, for me, is best done by giving me a framework, then fill it in - so I have context. Otherwise I feel like I have a shitload of bricks in a pile, and no idea what to do with them, and by the time I'm told where they're supposed to fit, I've lost half of them.

Insight, otoh, is a process of taking a bunch of constructs, and suddenly, forming a bridge between them, so they're no longer separate ideas, separate structures, they're a village, or a concept.

Neurologically, taking various mental representations, and connecting them - building new synapses, so that one's perceptions are changed.

So - perhaps, this is why creative people and madness are so linked. Those of us whose minds tend to 'shortcircuit' and build connections in the 'wrong places' may be more likely to build connections between memories, and semantic categories, and "knowledge" that neurotypicals (NTs) wouldn't.

Some of this relates to the Central Cohesiveness and "gist" - neurotypicals have "strong central cohesiveness" and tend to remember the "gist" of a list of words, for example. Aspies and Auties tend to remember the separate details, but may not remember the "gist" and are said to have "weak central cohesiveness". NTs are likely to generalize in cases where Aspies and Auties don't - for similar reasons.

One of Socrates' tricks (esp in the Meno) was to show someone how baffling definition really is - how much people rely on assumptions and preconceptions. This is neurologically valuable - as my prof was fond of saying "memory is for predicting the present". We need to cache things, label things, categorize and stereotype and generalize, in order to have some idea how to respond to the present, to our experiences, how to perceive and interpret them. And yet, it's also far too easy, as we know, to fall into those stereotypes and not even realize where they are building concrete walls around our perceptions and thoughts and understanding, even of what we think we know.

Part of providing for creativity, then, is tearing down the walls, challenging assumptions, shredding preconceptions, so that new perceptions - meaning new neural patterns - can be created.

Unfortunately, that is a state of uncertainty, which most folks find extremely uncomfortable - not only in themselves, but in others around them. We revere certainty - and mock or fear those who are uncertain, who challenge our own certainty. Saints and mystics are best accepted when far away, or in the past.

So the question becomes, for me, how does one encourage creativity and innovation, without leaving the person unable to deal with the "real" world? And how does one teach without boxing in perceptions, without diminishing ability to form new and unusual connections?

But now, it's almost 1am, and I should sleep. And leave the discussion of Kabbalah and Connectionism for next time...

Friday, September 12, 2008

ACLU's Constitution Voter drive

Sign up at the ACLU to be a Constitution Voter

Our goal is to sign up 300,000 Constitution Voters by October 15th to demonstrate our power.

We will deliver your messages to candidates at all levels of government, all across the country. We must let our leaders know that when we step into the ballot box, the Constitution will be the first thing on our minds.

I Am a Constitution Voter

  • I believe that no one -- including the President -- is above the law.
  • I oppose all forms of torture, and I support both closing the Guantánamo Bay prison and ending indefinite detention.
  • I oppose warrantless spying.
  • I believe that government officials, no matter how high-ranking, should be held accountable for breaking the law and violating the Constitution.
  • I believe that the Constitution protects every person's rights equally -- no matter what they believe, how they live, where or if they worship, and whom they love.
  • I reject the notion that we have to tolerate violations of our most fundamental rights in the name of fighting terrorism.
  • I am deeply committed to the Constitution and expect our country's leaders to share and act on that commitment -- every day, without fail.

... and world peace.

I honestly broke up laughing watching this. I couldn't listen to it without thinking "and world peace" the entire time.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Abuse of Power

After the years of administration's abuse of power, I am horrified at the concept of another administration that considers abuse of power acceptable. Palin is being investigated for such abuses. Let's not do this again. Let's get someone who understands the Constitution into office, for a change.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This guy doesn't pull any punches

I know how he feels -- I was so disappointed with McCain. I told Alex, after the republican convention, that I guess I must seem really naive, but I hadn't realized until then just how completely unethical McCain is.

The lurkers support me in email...

I've been seeing a number of libertarian and constitutional views of Obama since I posted my plea. An example:

Monday, September 8, 2008

A plea to my libertarian friends

I remember 2000, the election between Bush and Gore - when it seemed a pointless choice between demopublicans and the republicrats, a choice between gun rights and abortion rights. I detested Reagan and Bush Sr. and their war on drugs. I hated Clinton because of his executive orders, handling of Waco and Ruby Ridge, and general lack of respect for the Constitution.

In 2000, I voted for Harry Browne.
In 2004, I voted for Badnarik.
Good libertarians, both of them. Neither of them stood a snowball's chance in hell to get elected, but I was registering my protest, standing by my principles...

And since 2000, I have seen my country and my constitution shredded in the name of a false patriotism, a "war on terror" that's being fought in the wrong place, and the rights we took for granted, e.g. Habeas Corpus, being stripped from us with barely a ripple of protest. The spinmeisters in Washington, the Cheney croneys, the Karl Roves, have told the big lies over and over, have promulgated a politics of fear to the point that my country, my people, accept these totalitarian changes as necessary evils. I'm afraid of what another 4 years will do to our children - to their understanding of what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights actually means. I fear that we've lost a generation of Americans - who already have no idea what it means to be *free*. Between the war on drugs and the war on terror, the idea of the administration having the right to do whatever it wants to, has become the status quo.

Yeah - Obama ain't my perfect candidate. He's not libertarian. He doesn't have a perfect voting record - if times were different, I might focus on his defects, his flaws, his lack of libertarian creds.

But I live in the world I helped create.

I was wrong.

When I didn't vote to defeat Bush - I was wrong.

And I'm sorry.

Right now, I'm terrified because Palin has gotten Republicans energized - that so many people heard her speak and were energized by her and let her lies stand. That people actually think she's *for* helping parents with disabilities, that she's against earmarks, that she cares about the environment. Some actually see her as a step for women's rights! This is a woman who cares nothing for the rule of law. And they're going to go out and *vote* for McCain and Palin. McCain is likely to die in office if he's elected, leaving Palin in charge, a thought which horrifies me.

So - I'm asking my libertarian friends, to please please, look around at our country right now. And think about the unintended consequences of letting Bush/McCain/Palin continue to ignore our constitution, continue to ignore the rule of law and treat our citizens as subjects. You hate the Nanny state, and the Police state. So do I. McPalin will turn this country into a totalitarian hell. I wish we had a free election this year, that we could vote our conscience and vote for libertarian candidates without having to worry about the consequences. But - we're not in a free state. This year, there *will* be consequences of not working against McPalin. Please - don't be so blinded by idealism and desire for perfect candidates that you don't do what you can to defeat McPalin.

This election is not about taxes, or the economy, or the war in Iraq, or even global warming.

This election is about the Constitution and the Rule of Law.

There is a clear choice between McPalin and Obama: Mccain voted against restoring Habeas Corpus. Obama voted for it.

Barack Obama actually cares about the Constitution and the Rule of Law. Barack Obama cares about the education of citizens, about the ability of people to make their own choices, and about the *rights* of citizens - Obama believes in the Bill of Rights. Is he a perfect libertarian - of course not. I'm sorry that Bob Barr or Ron Paul won't get elected. Obama has a chance to get elected and start us back in the right direction!

I believe that this year, the stakes are too high, the times are too perilous to vote any other way. I'm not sure our country can survive another 4 years like the last 8.

Together, my libertarian friends, we can fight for our country, work to get our country moving back in the right direction, so that *next* time, we'll have the choice of voting for true libertarian candidates, and we'll still *have* the freedom to speak out for our ideals. If we don't defeat McPalin, I'm not entirely certain that next time, we'll have those options.

Join with me in defeating McPalin. Join with me in supporting, this once, a major party candidate. Help elect a candidate who cares about the Constitution and the Rule of Law: Barack Obama.

A libertarian for Obama.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Palin's lies were beyond the pale

Can people really be that blind? When you can fact-check her claims in 20 seconds on Google to determine what she actually vetoed (solar and wind energy) and that Obama actually authored over 800 bills and sponsored another 1000 (

And then there's Giuliani, who was busy conflating Iraq and Al Qaeda. Ugh.

We're watching an episode of Sex and the City to recuperate. ;-)

(Edited to correct some minor typos.)

Update: And let's not forget her lies about the Bridge to Nowhere...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I feel geeky, oh so geeky...

I've been having geeky fun today.
First: playing with Google's new toy: Chrome. I am *LOVING* the interface. Haven't encountered any gubs yet. ;-) {crossing fingers}

Last: I svned from the repository a checkout of the XML versions of the book Alex and I are working on. Yay! It works. And I've been doing a lot of FTPing lately too. I know there are people who do that sort of thing every day and think I'm silly for feeling geeky about it, but... deal.

And in between, I set up a conference call, and managed to sneak Agile Methodology and Test Driven Development into the project I'm working on for school. It's even going to be a part of the grant request we're submitting! Go me!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Read this analysis

Read this to understand
what this election is really about.
What Obama's candidacy represents is a promise, not to make us a people again, but to make us a people for the first time. To those of us who believe in liberal democracy, this is a promise of exhilarating, almost unspeakable hope. To those who do not believe in liberal democracy, what it promises is a setback, and a major one.

More on politics

A few thoughts on the current situation:

Obama gave a kick-ass speech. If you haven't watched it - you should. Go google it.

McCain's timing for the announcement was intended, imho, to draw attention away from positive reactions to Obama's speech. I seriously wonder if he pushed for someone totally bizarre like Palin in order to draw more attention away. Later, he can have her "drop out graciously for the good of the party" and he can revert to someone more boring and less likely to get him news.

McCain is down in the way of the people trying to do their jobs in New Orleans. Grandstanding... Obama - is staying the hell outta the way so people can do their jobs - and asking his supporters to donate to organizations that are helping.

Obama needs to take gun-owners, hunters, and union members seriously. Gore lost, at least in part, because folks felt they had to choose between abortion rights and gun rights, and more chose gun rights. Picking Biden cuts into Obama's chances of keeping those independents and centrists - but his speech did a pretty good job of pushing away from any extremist position about guns.

Those of us who care about science have more to worry about - if Palin does gets in, we're going to lose even more support for real science - she's a creationist, doesn't believe humans have any impact on global warming, and is against stem-cell research, as many have pointed out.

This year, we need to focus on the core values and rights of the American people - and the Bush Administration is violating those, and McCain promises more of the same - with or without Sarah Palin. Democrats need to keep emphasizing the positions that Obama took in his acceptance speech on Thursday - that there are more things that unite us as Americans than divide us, and that even in the most divisive areas, we can find common purpose.