Monday 27 September 2010

miserable cold

I've spent the weekend nursing a miserable cold. This improvisation reflects the mood I think. Interestingly though, the transformation in my mood (which was bleak) also was quite productive in terms of providing new perspectives on things. I 'broke down'; in Heideggerarian terms, as a result of the breakdown, the world became present-at-hand to me again. I re-found things through my state of suffering. Was this a curse or a blessing?

Since I'm very interested in the impact of the external world on my mental processes, I ought to consider those processes where biological pathologies (like colds) also impact on mental processes. What's the causal efficacy of a sneeze? What's the social efficacy of a sneeze?? If I am in-the-world with disease as well as well-ness, what is the relationship between a cold and its impact on cognition and agency? can colds be good? what about smallpox??!

I'm not certain, but I don't think these are silly questions... I'm slightly reminded of Tolstoy's short story "The death of Ivan Illych"...

Mathematical conversations

Walking to a fantastic exhibition at the Whitworth gallery with my daughter yesterday (where they've built an 'indoor forest'), we had a discussion about maths. She struggles with maths. The stress of having to get the right answer puts her in a spin and she can't think straight. She'd much rather be painting or writing. And she hasn't learnt her tables... perhaps because she just doesn't want to go to what she regards as such a 'cold' place. I don't  blame her!

But I don't think maths is cold; education manages to freeze it! In my attempt to unfreeze it, we had a wide-ranging conversation about tables, number bonds and Fibonacci numbers, illustrating it with fir-trees as we walked through the park. And the walking helped as we went through the series. Sitting people down at desks to do this stuff seems crazy... intellectual discovery comes with a discovery of the inter-relatedness of bodily movements and mental creativity.

It's interesting that I feel that I have to encourage her to improve. I can't quite rationalise my compulsion, beyond merely wanting to conform to normative expectations. But I also intuit that she has to love it; indeed, (and I'm not sure about this...) maybe she ought to love it.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Counting on my fingers

Is there an moral obligation to increase our skilled performances? An obligation to do more than just count on our fingers.. to learn multiplication tables, standard integrals, etc? Does this relate to 'right action'?

I've been thinking about this with regard to technique in art and music. When I compose, I have tended to only count on my fingers. I never much liked the sort of mathematically abstract technical tricks that are taught to aspiring composers. I'd rather use my judgement at the keyboard. But I've always worried that this isn't that effective. So here's a piece where I've tried a very simple technique to get something down which moves away from simply improvising.

I created lots of irregular time signatures and filled them with a fairly arbitrary melody. The differences in the time signatures create some interest. I then filled in some accompaniment at the keyboard (which is what's going on in the video). I then realised that accompaniment patterns related to the time signatures and could be repeated with similar time signatures. All short-cuts. And it can all be changed, but certainly the technique appeared to be an increase in my skilled performance for getting stuff down on paper!

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Morality and Machine Learning

One of the key features of Activity Theory and Latour's Actor Network Theory is the belief that technology has agency. This is obviously more interesting if we look at 'intelligent' or 'learning' machines. I think this is a mistaken view of agency.

I wonder if the agency of human beings always has a moral component. People usually act for reasons which are grounded in a sense of 'doing the right thing' from their perspective; sometimes of course, they might deliberately do the 'wrong thing'. Sometimes they might unintentionally do something harmful, but if they become aware of this, there will be some sort of corrective response. And of course, there's no reason to just talk about people: there is no reason to suppose that a cat doesn't have some sense of 'the right thing', whatever 'the right thing' might be to a cat. Certainly, pathological social behaviour in animals is much less common than it is in humans!

I'm fascinated at the moment by the extent to which a moral sense might underpin cognition. I want to know how this might work. I suspect it's got something to do with homeostatic biological relationships with material and social mechanisms. Agency (and morality) may simply be aspects that we see of things which are part of those mechanisms.

Monday 20 September 2010

The cybernetics of curiosity

On my way to talk to Sugata Mitra last week, I was trying to work out what curiosity was. There's definitely an interplay of systems, it seems to me... (Kant I think was probably the first to realise that). The question is, what are the mechanisms? I'm beginning to think that all engagement with the material world is in one way or another a process of modelling another human being, of engaging with the material as we might an activity or game, as a 'safe' way of identifying the person behind it. This is what I think Mitra's children do with the strange computer that suddenly appears in the wall; they want to model him, whilst also realising the causal power of the computer on them, and thinking how they might become models for other children (there's something to do with power there which I haven't thought about properly yet!). I think Alice's curiosity when she saw the cake that said "EAT ME" was this sort of modelling.
What then when we're curiously walking through an exotic capital city? We are disrupted, coerced, exhorted... is  this like discovering the computer in the wall? does the city have a 'person' behind it that we are trying to model? What of the curiosity of walking into a forest? I wonder if there's something of 'god' in both the city and the forest. What's puzzling to me is that this recognition of a presence behind the city or the forest seems so similar to the recognition of another person.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Innovation and Divine Madness

I've been reading E.R.Dodds "The Greeks and the Irrational" about ancient approaches to madness, and particularly Socrates's 4 categories of "divine madness": prophetic madness, telestic (ritual) madness, poetic madness and erotic madness. I've been thinking about these in relation to a discussion we had today regarding 'innovation'. It strikes me that when we say 'innovation', we mean 'play' and submission to forms of madness, but we can't say 'play' because it doesn't sound economically justifiable. The whole point of divine madness is that, providing it is controlled, it produces new things: idealism of prophecy makes us think the world can be better; ritual, worship, meditation can put us in a state where new creation can take shape; poetic thinking helps us to express new things in radical ways, and Freud would argue (rightly in my opinion) that erotic madness has probably lurked behind every significant scientific and artistic advance.

But we hide all this behind cold economic values like 'work' and 'innovation'? Why? because I think we don't have a grasp on how they work. I think we could get a better grasp on this sort of thing - but only by being honest about what's really going on... I wonder if the Greeks had a better grasp on it that we do....

Saturday 11 September 2010

Piety and Perotin

Current addicted to Perotin: the composer, not the allergy-relief medication! (actually, that's Piriton.. but close enough!)
It must have seemed like an extraordinary leap to go from plainchant to Perotin's exuberance, and possibly something 'not quite proper' about it for many of the people who heard it: Perotin is seriously sexy! Certainly not 'pious' music as we might conventionally conceive of it:

I find that interesting. I'm not sure about the place of piety in religion, particularly Catholicism: my favourite catholics have been remarkably un-pious, or at least lived sinful lives to the full!
Is piety an idealisation? Can you be truly human and be pious? Or is it a 'strategic lie' to gain trust? Or is piety simply an 'emptying' which embraces everything (including sensual pleasure)? I think I would prefer that...
Improvisation (not very good) done on my keyboard at the ALT-C conference, which was very good in the end (although I wasn't enjoying it when I did this!)

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Value and Cost

It struck me in a session on the 'cost of e-learning' thinking about Marx's relationship between commodity, value and price that commodity values relate to price just as human values relate to cost.

It's not e-learning that costs; it's the values that underpin the decisions to buy it.

They cost, and not just in the finances of purchase. There's are many forms of human cost which are effected through the cost of values. training cost; morale cost; cultural cost; maintenance costs; control costs; etc...

The costs of our values are things which those values do. Might understanding the dimensions of cost help us understand the challenges of managing values within institutions?

Friday 3 September 2010

The Risk Society and Reflexivity

In some ways it's true to say that the world we have created necessitates individuals making a rich variety of communicative acts in order to survive in it. To learn to do this it isn't necessary to go to University, but it's something University tends to produce in people. What is it about the world which requires this?

Ulrich Beck identifies it as the 'risk society' where individuals constantly have to engage in high-level evaluations, often taking action appropriately, and where the risks of acting inappropriately are serious threats to their viable existence. For this reason he sees 'reflexivity' as the quality individuals require for doing this.

I certainly think there's something in this analysis - much better than the "we've got so much technology now... the kids have gotta have the skills... etc". Beck says the kids have to exercise judgement, which in many cases they can only do through skilled technical and linguistic performances.

At the same time as I'm attracted by this, I have doubts. Risk, judgement and agency are complex, and risk seems to narrow to characterise our society; judgement has always been important. But typically, judgement has been important in public life. If there is more 'risk' is it because more of us are engaged in 'public life' in some form?

Thursday 2 September 2010

Back to work

Two days back at work and I'm already feeling the need for a holiday. Technically, I've got no desk at the moment - so decamped to the alternative office of the 'Sweet Green Tavern': we should have done that years ago! Wifi could be a bit better though.

This is a year for moral arguments. Big things are happening in education, and there is a need to inspect consciences as to whether they are the right things and how they should be managed; it's not a time for sleepwalking!

Pretty violent improvisation!