The enchanted loom

Symphony of Science has recently posted ‘Ode to the Brain!’:


‘Ode to the Brain’ is the ninth episode in the Symphony of Science music video series. Through the powerful words of scientists Carl Sagan, Robert Winston, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill Nye, and Oliver Sacks, it covers different aspects [of] the brain including its evolution, neuron networks, folding, and more. The material sampled for this video comes from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran’s TED Talk, Bill Nye’s Brain episode, BBC’s ‘The Human Body’, Oliver Sacks’ TED Talk, Discovery Channel’s ‘Human Body: Pushing the Limits’, and more.

Carl Sagan:

What we know is encoded in cells called neurons
And there are something like a hundred trillion neural connections
This intricate and marvelous network of neurons has been called
An enchanted loom

Wikipedia — Enchanted Loom:

The enchanted loom is a famous metaphor for the brain invented by the pioneering neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington in a passage from his 1942 book Man on his nature, in which he poetically describes his conception of what happens in the cerebral cortex during arousal from sleep:

The great topmost sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

The “loom” he refers to was undoubtedly meant to be a Jacquard loom, used for weaving fabric into complex patterns. The Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, was the most complex mechanical device of the 19th century. It was controlled by a punch card system that was a forerunner of the system used in computers until the 1970s. With as many as thousands of independently movable shuttles, a Jacquard loom in operation must have appeared very impressive. If Sherrington had written a decade later, however, he might perhaps have chosen the flashing lights on the front panel of a computer as his metaphor instead.

According to the neuroscience historian Stanley Finger, Sherrington probably borrowed the loom metaphor from an earlier writer, the psychologist Fredric Myers, who asked his readers to “picture the human brain as a vast manufactory, in which thousands of looms, of complex and differing patterns, are habitually at work”. Perhaps in part because of its slightly cryptic nature, the “enchanted loom” has been an attractive metaphor for many writers about the brain …

Oliver Sacks:

We see with the eyes
But we see with the brain as well
And seeing with the brain
Is often called imagination

‘Whole orchestras play inside our heads’ (Sagan).

Comics are in everything

Welcoming Jack Schulze to St Paul's a week ago was the realisation of a long-held wish: it is, of course, an understatement to say that Jack and Matt continually surprise and delight, prompting and pushing us on to think about, to see things in new ways.

At Interesting2007 (start at the bottom of that page, with a possible date for your diary), Jack gave a fantastic (and warmly received) talk on comics. (I blogged about Interesting here.) When we cooked up the idea of Jack coming in to talk to some of our students, I really wanted comics in the frame. Anyone who knows Jack knows how comics — their design, their playfulness — inform his work as designer.

Jack's and Matt's design work is a challenge in a number of ways. For UK schools (perhaps for a long time — but certainly now) there's far too little in the curriculum that prepares you for how they think and work. I can imagine how even the diverse influences that inform their work might seem at first bewildering, even unassimilable. Since Jack spoke here, what's struck me is how all who heard him seem to have got hold of something (and haven't readily let go) and, in some cases, seem to have understood him whole and from the start — great for any speaker/teacher to feel this quick rush of comprehension at an intuitive (I'm-on-this-wavelength) level.

Some of our students may find it helpful if I pull together some links here for the different parts of Jack's talk. In order of appearance, then: 

1) Lab-Grown Meat, 2005:

a kangaroo steak with some pickled onions 

While at the RCA, Jack took part in a brief run by Tony Dunne on the industrial future of food and lab-grown meat (a staple of the newspaper columns in 2005). This presentation comes from a two week exploration that also involved the making of replica origami food, as shown in the slides.

From Dunne’s original brief: Scientists are developing methods of growing meat in labs using animal cells. This area of research, called In Vitro-Cultured Meat Production raises all sorts of complex issues about the meaning of food, our relationship to animals (and nature), human values and behaviours, and even taboos. [...] The purpose of the project is to explore how design can be used as a medium to draw attention to the social, cultural and ethical implications of ‘cultured meat’.

2) Metal phone (Nokia Personalisation), 2005. This link takes you to all the postings about the project; you can start with Overview:

We’re working with practitioners of a number of different crafts to explore how their materials affect the mobile phone. We’re experimenting with the short-run manufacturing techniques available in small workshops and on desktops to look at, for example, the impact of Rapid Form Prototyping on phone housing.

3) Olinda, 2007:

For the past month we’ve been working on the feasibility of Olinda, a DAB digital radio prototype for the BBC (for non-UK readers: DAB is the local digital radio standard, getting traction globally). That stage is almost over now - oh and yes, it’s feasible - so now’s a good time to talk. 

Olinda puts three ideas into practice: 

  • Radios can look better than the regular ‘kitchen radio’ devices. Radios can have novel interfaces that make the whole life-cycle of listening easier. At short runs, wood is more economic as plastic, so we’re using a strong bamboo ply. And forget preset buttons: Olinda monitors your listening habits so switching between two stations is the simplest possible action, with no configuration step. 
  • This can be radio for the Facebook generation. Built-in wifi connects to the internet and uses a social ‘now listening’ site the BBC already have built. Now a small number of your friends are represented on the device: A light comes on, your friend is listening; press a button and you tune in to listen to the same programme. 
  • If an API works to make websites adaptive, participative with the developer community, and have more appropriate interfaces, a hardware API should work just as well. Modular hardware is achievable, so the friends functionality will be its own component operating through a documented, open, hardware API running over serial.

What Olinda isn’t is a far-future concept piece or a smoke-and-mirrors prototype. There’s no hidden Mac Mini–it’s a standalone, fully operational, social, digital radio.

The hardware API link above is well worth following. I'd also recommend Jack's three posts: Drawing Olinda, Olinda interface drawings, Olinda connections

4) Comics

Jack blogged his Interesting talk here — and lists the comics and authors he admires most. The slides of his talk are here. The wonderful Will Burtin image (drawn from a rifle manual) can be found in Burtin vs. Ellis/Williams, where Jack discusses it in relation to one of my all-time favourite images — page 5 of Desolation Jones #1 by Warren Ellis and J H Williams III. Warren Ellis has written about this image on his blog, quoting from the original script:

Pic 1: Surreal moment: Jones looks out the passenger-side window and there’s a thick RED LINE taking the place of the road, running alongside them – a massively magnified version of the kind of line that describes roads on maps.

Pic 3: AERIAL SHOT: The car is small in this shot, and it’s driving down a red line that describes a road, and now the rest of the map, of greater LA, is visible all around it… 

Warren Ellis 


Look at the way the red line connects the sequence. The line morphs between road markings, Indiana Jones style aerial map views and back to the light trails from the vehicle. Williams guides your eye through the page, setting the page’s pace and rhythm. Optically it is very clever, it deals with how your eye scans at speed and also stitches the cue into the content of the panels. …

Burtin and Williams both use letters and images, in a sequence, on the page, and expect them to be read in two different ways: First in overview and then in detail. They deal with arrangement, pace and rhythm with the same sensitivity and same language. 

Comics are in everything.

Finally, Jack spoke about the work of Shintaro Kago

Mr. Kago is what you’d call an ero-guro artist — that is, he specializes in bizarre and oftentimes disturbing manga with a hefty amount of blood, nudity, gore and violence. Don’t let this discourage you: I think what I find most interesting is the way he challenges paneling conventions. The idea of paneling in comics is to find the most ideal way to lead the eye of the reader in order to communicate a story. Mr. Kago pushes this to the limit. In his work “Abstraction”, Mr. Kago even goes a step further by integrating his experimentation with panels into the story in itself by making it a part of the plot. Read Or Die Weblog

image image  


My thanks to Jack for a wonderful talk. Here are a couple of bonus leads for all who came to hear him:

Warren Ellis » A Useful Quote:

“Science fiction is a way of thinking about things.” – Frederik Pohl 

Which may seem like a small notion. But it’s possibly the best working definition of sf I’ve yet come across, insofar as it does the crucial business of inviting the body in front of you to consider sf as a tool with which to understand the contemporary world.

The Pinocchio Theory » Sex + Love With Robots:

More precisely, SF (and nonfiction futuristic speculation as well) is a tool with which to understand those aspects of the contemporary world that are unfinished, still in process, and therefore (as it were) redolent of futurity. SF and futurism are vital and necessary, because they make us stop and look at the changes going on all around us, breaking with the “rear-view-mirrorism” (as Marshall McLuhan called it) that otherwise characterizes the way we tend to look at the world. That’s why I find it indispensable to read people like Bruce Sterling, Jamais Cascio, Charles Stross, Warren Ellis, and so on. The line between science fiction and futurist speculation is an extremely thin one (and some of the people on my list, most notably Sterling, explicitly do both). Extrapolating the future is necessarily a fiction-making activity; but we can’t understand the present, or be ready for the future, unless we go beyond empirical fact and turn to fiction.


The Ghost Map: Steven Johnson and Brian Eno, 4 December 2006

In 1854 a cholera epidemic killed 50,000 people in England and Wales and become a battle between man and microbe unlike any other. At the ICA, Steven Johnson - author of Everything Bad is Good for You - will tell the story of Dr John Snow, the physician who pounded the streets of London, methodically noting the patterns in the outbreak. The conclusion he came to brought him into conflict with the entire medical establishment, but ultimately enabled him to defeat his era's greatest killer. In conversation with Brian Eno - musician, artist and co-founder of the Long Now Foundation - Johnson will explore what a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century can tell us about solving the long term challenges we face in the twenty-first century.

Produced in collaboration with The Long Now Foundation.

Click to open on Flickr
Joe Lee's great photo of Steven Johnson and Brian Eno at the ICA

In the busy weeks since the 4th, I've returned many times to this evening — there was plenty to feed off: 'They started off talking about The Ghost Map but the conversation spread its tentacles to include Second Life, neighbourhoods, modern renaissance and slums' (Paul Miller). Once again, I was left wondering why university wasn't (isn't?) this exciting (inter-disciplinary, open to imaginative combinations of ideas) — something I afterwards put to both Steven Johnson and Brian Eno. Each said they often ask the same question (with an important qualification from Eno about his experience of art school).

For anyone who hasn't yet got to the write-ups, Matt blogged it there and then, and see also: Russell Davies; Rod McLaren ; Paul Miller (see above); Sebastian Mary; photos (= more by Joe Lee). Oh, and Steven Johnson

Afterwards, it was a great pleasure to catch up with Matt, Fiona, Dan and Rod, and to meet up with Tom again (last time was Reboot 8). 


The first manifestation of the Long Now Foundation in the UK, the evening unfolded in the context of the Foundation's wider work and thinking. I've been dipping into the Long Now seminars for a while and want to watch a number of the other videoed talks available there. Stewart Brand's views on city life were mentioned by Eno and Brand's City Planet seminar is one I'd seen before the ICA evening. I remember being brought up short by Brand's characterisation of city/rural life. In the Long Now discussion page about this talk, Craig Hubley writes: 

… he betrays a strong pro-urban bias by saying "In reality, life in the country is dull, backbreaking, impoverished, restricted, exposed, and dangerous. ... What's particularly odd is that Stewart follows this up by admitting how truly "impoverished, restricted, exposed, and dangerous" city life can be: "One-sixth of humanity, a billion people, now live in squatter cities ("slums") and millions more are on the way." Perhaps that's because the propaganda is telling them that "the city is exciting, less grueling, better paid, free, private, and safe." And it's that very propaganda that makes it not so. This can be particularly tragic for women who believe that "in the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and family elder, pound grain, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children. Her independence goes up" unless of course she is exploited, enslaved, gets HIV while in prostitution. Why would she? Oh because she and her parents believe the fantasy myth about life in the city being necessarily better, of course.

Matt's notes from the evening catch the range of optimistic/positive things Johnson and Eno had to say about cities, but it was no surprise that in the Q&As slums figured prominently (Rod: 'some frisky questioning from the floor on first-world/middle-class elites vs developing-world/favelas, dismissed by Eno as an over-simplification'): are cities and their opportunities being talked up? Isn't the truth that thousands are being driven to the cities (slums) not out of choice but by mass privatisation of rural land? 

Peter Merholz, whilst travelling in Chile and Peru, has been reading Johnson's book, The Ghost Map, the originating focus for the ICA event. He describes himself as 'a fan of cities', but 'it's clear that we have to … consider the development of the modern megalopolis highly critically': 

Another thing I read while traveling was a recent New Yorker article on Lagos, Nigeria, which the author depicts as something akin to hell on earth. The author juxtaposes his (miserable) experiences with breathless commentary from folks such as Rem Koolhaas, demonstrating the disconnection from reality that urbanist cheerleaders suffer.

Because when you look at Lagos, or when I looked at Lima, I really had to wonder: are such cities a good thing? Lima is a city built on fear. It's grown phenomenally in the last half century and, in doing so, has seen a marked increase in crime, brought upon by the economic disparity within the citizenry. Everywhere you go, you see armed guards. Boring middle class apartment buildings are ringed with electrified fences. In public places, chairs have straps to latch your purse. This all comprises a literal architecture of fear. …

The growth of cities in the 20th century make their development feel inevitable, and cities are clearly the world's primary economic engine, but when that inevitability makes people feel like they're trapped in circumstance, what have we achieved?

In my notes from the ICA event, I have the titles of two books I want to read soon that take contrary views about mega-cities: Shadow Cities (Robert Neuwirth) and Planet of Slums (Mike Davis). (Eno also suggested Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts' novel about Mumbai.) 

Nineteenth century doomsayers predicted the collapse of London (then, with a population of some 2.5 million, the largest city on earth) and its survival as a much smaller entity. The nineteenth century worked out how to maintain cities of a few million and so, today, we see cities of 1-10 million as viable. Cities of 25 million are what we worry about. 

Some time in 2007, and for the first time in human history, more than 50% of the world's peoples will live in cities. For this new phase of human life, and for one of its key features, the megalopolis, what are the problems we need to address and how are these to be solved? 


Through all of the evening, there ran something else. When I got to speak briefly to Johnson after the talk, I asked him what he thought united his seemingly disparate books (Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate, 1997; Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, 2001; Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, 2004; Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, 2005; The Ghost Map, 2006). His answer —  a long-term interest in consilience. 

The OED entry for consilience (for its etymology, see consilient: from the Latin, 'consilire, con- together + salire to leap'):

The fact of ‘jumping together’ or agreeing; coincidence, concurrence; said of the accordance of two or more inductions drawn from different groups of phenomena.

1840 WHEWELL Philos. Induct. Sc. II. 230 Accordingly the cases in which inductions from classes of facts altogether different have thus jumped together, belong only to the best established theories which the history of science contains. And, as I shall have occasion to refer to this particular feature in their evidence, I will take the liberty of describing it by a particular phrase; and will term it the Consilience of Inductions. 1847 {emem} Hist. Induct. Sc. II. 582 Such coincidences, or consiliences..are the test of truth. 1861 MILL Utilit. 94 The consilience of the results of both these processes, each corroborating and verifying the other.

Wikipedia has two entries about consilience, one on E O Wilson's book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and one on the term itself, with several quotations from Wilson's book - eg,

If the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and humanities, the liberal arts in higher education will be revitalized. Even the attempt to accomplish that much is a worthwhile goal. Profession-bent students should be helped to understand that in the twenty-first century the world will not be run by those [who] possess mere information alone. Thanks to science and technology, access to factual knowledge of all kinds is rising exponentially while dropping in unit cost. It is destined to become global and democratic. Soon it will be available everywhere on television and computer screens. What then? The answer is clear: synthesis. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

Back in August, Steven Johnson spoke with Jesse James Garrett:

JJG: Back when you were running FEED, you seemed to be most interested in cultural criticism, but since then your work has taken a sharp turn into science journalism. What prompted this transition, and what do you see as the connection between these areas of interest?

SJ: The first step was that I looked up at my bookshelf one day and realized that the last 15 books I’d read had been science books. So I thought: if this is what I want to read, maybe it’s what I should write. And then I read E.O. Wilson’s Consilience and thought: I love every bit of this except for the part where he talks about culture. I thought: it would be nice to have someone who came out of a culture crit background who was genuinely building bridges to the science, and not deconstructing it. And really, ever since then, that’s what all my books have been trying to do, in their different ways — to write about culture in ways that are genuinely open to the insights of science, where they’re appropriate.

Ferdinand Mount reviewed The Ghost Map for the WSJ (reprinted on the UCLA Department of Epidemiology website):

Snow had the precious gift of consilience -- "jumping together" … That is, he could bring side by side techniques or theories from two different disciplines to make a further leap forward.

Inductions drawn from 'different groups of phenomena', 'different disciplines' … different scales. Matt:

SJ: Snow was what you might call ‘a consilient thinker’ - he was looking at things on a number of different scales. He built a theory that worked on the very small and the very large scale at the same time.

And here's Russell Davies:

Steven Johnson talked about John Snow as a typical Victorian amateur dabbler. Which struck a chord with me. It's another definition of the creative generalist. Someone who's interested in all sorts of things, the arts and the science. And he talked about the idea of consilience and how John Snow was able to think at all sorts of different scales about the problem of cholera - the microbial one (sort of, they couldn't really see germs then), the human one (he was trained as a physician) and the societal one (he could see and understand the effects on the city as a whole).

Steven Johnson:

In many ways, the story of Broad Street is all about the triumph of a certain kind of urbanism in the face of great adversity, the power of dense cities to create solutions to problems that they themselves have brought about. So many of the issues that define the modern world today -- the runaway growth of megacities, environmental crises, fears of apocalyptic epidemics, digital mapping, the need for clean water, urban terror, the rise of amateur expertise -- are there, in embryo, in the Broad Street outbreak.

So The Ghost Map is in part a disease thriller, with some genuinely spooky and unsettling narrative turns. But it also widens its focus to tell the history of London's sewer system, the evolutionary history of bacteria, the biological and cultural roots of the miasma theory, the bizarre waste management techniques of Victorian society, and so on. It is the story of ten days in London in 1854, but it's also an attempt to tell that story at three different scales of experience: from the point of view of the humans living through it, but also from the point of view of the cholera itself, and the city.


I'm reading Johnson's book now. Next in line is Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. I see that Jenkins, in his concluding chapter, talking about how 'many schools remain openly hostile' to the kinds of new knowledge cultures he's exploring, writes that schools are 'continuing to promote autonomous problem solvers and self-contained learners'.

Consilience is about breaking down boundaries between disciplines,

Most of the issues that vex humanity daily - ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several most consistently before us - cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is … (E O Wilson)

but it's also about breaking down barriers between learners. Consilience and open, collaborative knowledge cultures are tightly intertwined. Steven Johnson, in The Ghost Map (pp225-6):

... the lateral, cross-disciplinary flow of ideas. The public spaces and coffeehouses of classic urban centers are not organized into strict zones of expertise and interest, the way most universities or corporations are. They're places where various professions intermingle, where different people swap stories and ideas and skills along the way. Snow himself was a kind of one-man coffehouse: one of the primary reasons he was able to cut through the fog of miasma was his multidisciplinary approach, as a practising physician, mapmaker, inventor, chemist, demographer and medical detective. But even with that polymath background, he still needed to draw upon an entirely different set of skills — more social than intellectual — in the form of Henry Whitehead's local knowledge.


... with consilience amongst professions, we will learn even more. Man was born to bond, to act in community. To be altruistic. To make sacrifices for his family and friends. To belong.


Looking back over this year, consilience seems to have been the name of the trail I didn't realise I was following. I want to put that together with play. At the end of the ICA Johnson/Eno evening, talking with Matt about IT portal-keepers and the familiar cries of 'thou shalt not', I said something (obvious) about how we should be trying to create space in which users can join the bits in ways they discover have value. Matt said something (to my mind much better) along the lines of letting (the) play go on. Yes: let the game play on.

Here's to a thoroughly consilient 2007.

"bloody computer games … thin gruel indeed"

The quotation is from Michael Shayer, Professor of Applied Psychology at King's College, University of London, and appears in American Scientist's Smart as We Can Get?. To begin at the beginning:

Psychometricians have long been aware of a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—a widespread and long-standing tendency for scores on certain tests of intelligence to rise over time. … Ever since Flynn published his startling results, psychologists and educators have struggled to figure out whether people really are getting smarter and, if so, why. No clear answer has emerged. And now they have another curiosity to ponder: The tendency for intelligence scores to rise appears to have ended in some places. Indeed, it seems that some countries are experiencing a Flynn effect with a reversed sign.

'a Flynn effect with a reversed sign'. Or, at least, as some of the research from Scandinavia cited by American Scientist has shown, a plateau can be reached.

Back in January, the Guardian carried a lengthy piece about recent research conducted by Shayer:

New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted by Michael Shayer … concludes that 11- and 12-year-old children in year 7 are "now on average between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago", in terms of cognitive and conceptual development.

"It's a staggering result," admits Shayer, whose findings will be published next year in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. "Before the project started, I rather expected to find that children had improved developmentally. This would have been in line with the Flynn effect on intelligence tests, which shows that children's IQ levels improve at such a steady rate that the norm of 100 has to be recalibrated every 15 years or so. But the figures just don't lie. We had a sample of over 10,000 children and the results have been checked, rechecked and peer reviewed."

I remember being stopped in my tracks when I read this article. I recommend reading it in full: it goes into some detail about Shayer's distinguished, lifelong contribution to educational research, the attendant debates and controversies.

And Shayer's most recent research, its methodology and conclusions, will be discussed widely and with passion once it is published. Anyone doubting the storm that will break then need only ponder this (Guardian):

Those likely to be particularly discomforted by Shayer's findings are people who swear by the validity of GCSE and Sats results. The idea that most children are achieving the government level 4 targets in maths and science at key stage 2 is clearly anomalous with Shayer's findings, as is the notion that secondary schools are now taking children who are two years behind developmentally and still getting them up to GCSE speed in just five years.

So how does Shayer explain this? "The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority obviously insists that standards haven't dropped," he says, "but this doesn't fit all the evidence. A-level maths and science teachers often report that their students don't know as much as they used to. And some parts of the GCSE science syllabus, such as density, have been dropped. Examiners may well be asking easier questions and marking more leniently. These things can happen unconsciously.

There is some evidence that the extra hour allocated to maths in primary schools under the numeracy initiative has had some impact on Sats scores, but there is greater evidence of teachers teaching to the tests. This means students can perform well in the tests without necessarily understanding the underlying concepts.

… I would suggest that the most likely reasons are the lack of experiential play in primary schools, and the growth of a video-game, TV culture. Both take away the kind of hands-on play that allows kids to experience how the world works in practice and to make informed judgements about abstract concepts."

American Scientist winds up, saying that 'Flynn himself is much less gloomy about what appears to be happening':

For one, he points out that the situation varies quite a bit from country to country. "All the evidence is that the IQ gains in America are still robust, " he says. And he notes that at the very time that scores were declining in the UK on the Piagetian tests that Shayer examined, British kids were making gains on a test called the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children or WISC. Flynn points out that results gathered with two versions of this test (WISC-III, introduced in 1991, and WISC-IV, in 2003) show the usual effect, a rise in raw scores over time. But he also notes that one subtest—on arithmetic reasoning—did show a decline.

Although Flynn cautions against generalizing the recent Danish and Norwegian experiences, he anticipates similar results will crop up elsewhere in the world. But he's not glum about it. Flynn is convinced that the cause of his eponymous effect has to do with changes in the environment that allow children more opportunity to exercise the kinds of skills probed in today's intelligence tests—changes like a shift to smaller family sizes, which allow parents more time to interact with each child, for example, or devotion of an ever-greater portion of kids' leisure time to abstract, mentally demanding games. He points out that in industrialized, middle-class countries (like those of Scandinavia) such influences must be reaching a point of saturation: "You can't really get the family much smaller than one or two kids." And the current craze for Sudoku puzzles not withstanding, as Flynn says, "eventually, people do want to relax."

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Being between

It's no secret that 'people who stand near the holes in social structure are at higher risk of having good ideas':

The argument is that opinion and behavior are more homogeneous within than between groups, so people connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which gives them more options to select and synthesize from alternatives. New ideas emerge from selection and synthesis across the structural holes between groups. (Ronald S Burt, University of Chicago; pdf)

David Weinberger picked up on this Boston Globe report (15 July):

A group of top Harvard University professors issued a striking critique of the university's approach to scientific research and teaching yesterday, saying its antiquated organizational structure based on powerful, insular fiefdoms has become so dysfunctional that it threatens Harvard's leadership in science. … In a 99-page report, the group calls for changes that would encourage collaborations in emerging fields … the authors suggest creating a powerful new coordinating committee, independent of the departments that hire faculty today, and give it the power to hire some 75 new science faculty for research that falls between traditional disciplinary boundaries.

David comments:

Disciplines are ways of knowing held apart by models, methodologies and the power of incumbency. Without 'em we wouldn't know how to know. But, we also recognize there's something artificial about the distinctions introduced by disciplines: The chemistry and the biology of animals are united in the actuality of the animal, as are its math, astrophysics and string theory. The space between the disciplines is useful to explore not only because it is, by definition, what the disciplines ignore, but also because it reminds us that we are the ones who have brought discipline to the unitary cosmos. We don't do so arbitrarily — astrology is not a science — but neither is there only one way that works.

Which made me go back to a conversation earlier this year between Peter Merholz and GK VanPatter in NextD:

GK VanPatter: What did you study in school?

Peter Merholz: A little bit of everything in the humanities and social sciences. In high school, you would have pegged me for a math and sciences nerd, but by the time I started at UC Berkeley, I had committed to the softer sciences. I began by pursuing mass communication, but gave that up in favor of anthropology. Frankly, I was more interested in physical anthropology (essentially the study of human evolution) than cultural anthropology. I don't define myself by my degree, though, because it really was just proof that I survived four years of college.

Looking back, I have wondered if the anthro degree did set me on the user-centered design path. Even though I didn't practice UCD [user-centered design] until a good five to six years after graduation (by way of multimedia production and web development), I suspect I developed a worldview that directed how I approached problems. …

In my junior year at Cal, I realized that I was ill-suited to academia. I'm a synthesist across disciplines, but academia rewards those who plumb single subjects deeply. … I have no interest in learning something "properly." Doing so suggests aligning your epistemology, your worldview, with a particular frame of thought. I feared that doing so would close me off to other perspectives. I work best when drawing from a variety of intellectual sources. …

I have no personal interest in the territorial boundaries of knowledge communities. In fact, I think such barriers are pernicious, and they are exactly why I abandoned academia. I think what we're seeing is that in this world of remix and pattern recognition, the notion of a discrete 'knowledge community' is breaking down. … I decided not to pursue anthropology seriously because anthropological practice, as I observed it in school, meant producing material for other anthropologists. There was little interest in engaging the public, or in engaging other disciplines.

Much resonance in all this with my experience.

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OD'ing on A makes Jack … dull

The Telegraph reports that Dr Geoff Parks, Cambridge University's Director of Admissions,

… cast doubt on the rigour of the "gold standard" by claiming that five or six A grades proved only that students were "pretty good" at a range of subjects. To impress admission tutors at the elite institution, students must show they are "exceptionally good" at the subject they hoped to study by attaining deeper understanding and critical thinking. Time would be better spend (sic) sitting the more demanding Advanced Extension Award papers, reading outside the curriculum, debating and working part-time, said Mr Parks.

"The truth is there is no advantage to having a string of A-levels; in fact, a student with three As can be a much better applicant than one with six As."

Libby Purves, in The Times:

… we have, in the past two decades of educational upheaval, been brainwashed into believing that the only way to ensure the effect of education on the individual mind is to keep on measuring it with formulaic tests. We have been persuaded that a certificate or diploma is the ultimate product of the process — the more certificates the student can show, the better educated he or she is deemed to be. …

All this — though he may not have intended as much — is beautifully called into question by Dr Parks with his observations on the A-level overdose. He would like to see clever 17 and 18-year-olds reading outside the curriculum, debating, thinking, even working part-time. He would like them intellectually free, excited by their subject, curious, amused, anxious to explore. English literature and foreign language students should be reading voluntarily way beyond their set books (university tutors report that they rarely do).

Mathematicians and scientists should be devouring journals, noting discoveries, debating ethics; historians should be thinking about periods and people which will never turn up in their narrow, bitter little A-level papers. As for diversity, all these people should be peering interestedly into one another’s subjects, attending lectures or classes not because they are going to be examined on them but because they are interested.

But we don’t trust them, do we? We assume that every minute we do not hold their poor noses to the grindstone of set texts and compulsory exercises they will be out clubbing, watching reality TV or falling over drunk. Only when they present us with A-grade A levels do we believe them to be scholars. Which is rubbish. The best sixth-form heads know this, and organise debates and community work and theatre trips and outside lecturers and rich exciting libraries with time to use them.

But many sad schools are so focused on exams … that they do no such thing. And it makes Jack a dull boy.

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Uncoordinated acts

Seth Godin writes about 'A great phrase coined by Glenn Reynolds': Horizontal Knowledge.

If we had started planning in 1993, we probably wouldn't have gotten here by now. The Web, Wi-Fi, and Google didn't develop and spread because somebody at the Bureau of Central Knowledge Planning planned them. They developed, in large part, from the uncoordinated activities of individuals. … We didn't need a thousand librarians with scanners, because we had a billion non-librarians with computers and divergent interests. … what lots of smart people, loosely coordinating their actions with each other, are capable of accomplishing. It's the power of horizontal, as opposed to vertical knowledge. … As the world grows more interconnected, more and more people have access to knowledge and coordination. Yet we continue to underestimate the revolutionary potential of this simple fact. Heck, we underestimate the revolutionary reality of it, in the form of things we already take for granted, like Wi-Fi and Google. But I'm not a wild-eyed visionary. As a result, I'm going to make a very conservative prediction: that the next ten years will see revolutions that make Wi-Fi and Google look tame, and that in short order we'll take those for granted, too. It's a safe bet. Glenn Reynolds

Seth Godin continues:

It's best understood by thinking about its opposite: Vertical Knowledge. The stuff you get from the boss or the MSM or the person at the front of the room. Whenever I go to a conference, I learn more from the people in the lobby. And the web is one big big lobby. … Planning implies vertical, top down thinking. And in many areas, it's backfiring.

There's a lot rolling around in my head that says this kind of thing, too, and in education I have never let go of that remark I read years ago, 'regimentation and education are incompatible'. Let things shoot, grow up and develop. Be very careful with, be very wary of the top down.

Challenges for pupils … and teachers

Barb writes:

Answers that used to be difficult to find were disseminated by teachers and students were quizzed to see if they’d paid attention. Now the knowledge itself is no longer scarce — is there a sense in which we should be teaching our kids how to “pull” the information they need instead of “pushing” in advance what we think they might need to know? Is there a sense in which the always-on information field of the web may be shifting what we think of as education? What are your thoughts?

I think we are not just on the threshold of some fundamental alterations to the ways we teach, but already well down a road which will alter the very idea of what teaching is about. That this isn't necessarily clear to us, or even noticed by many, is hardly surprising. Pull, not push — we have a lot to do to show students (and colleagues) how this works and what differences it makes.

In an apparently unrelated posting, Folksonomy Definition and Wikipedia, Thomas writes:

The lack of understanding the medium of a Wiki, which is very fluid, but not forgetful, is astonishing. They have been around for three or four years, if not longer. It is usually one of the first lessons anybody I have known learns when dealing with a Wiki, they move and when quoting them one must get the version of the information. They are a jumping off point, not destinations. They are true conversations, which have very real ethereal qualities. Is there no sense of research quality? Quoting a Wiki entry without pointing to the revision is like pointing to Time magazine without a date or issue number. Why is there no remedial instruction for using information in a Wiki?

Personally, I love Wikis and they are incredible tools, but one has to understand the boundaries. Wikis are emergent information tools and they are social tools. They are one of the best collaboration tools around, they even work very well for personal uses. But, like anything else it takes understanding on how to use them and use the information in them.

Thomas' posting is important on a number of fronts — folksonomy (obviously), how to use Wikipedia — but just now these remarks about how to use wikis struck home as I was pondering the push/pull question. Yes, Barb, things are shifting in education, and amongst the pressing challenges for us and our pupils is to learn what revision means and how, in pulling knowledge, we must acquire research disciplines that have hitherto been fairly embryonic at the secondary level.

Institutions of this new century

via Pasta and Vinegar:

« My ideal XXIst century institution would appear less like an “institution” as such, than as a constantly evolving and flexible organism, or a network connecting people on a “global” mode, people who have ideas and people who act. It should be able to respond to the most varied forms of thought and media, and more precisely, to face the challenge represented by the new complexity arising from the merging of new forms of social emergency and new technologies. And while it develops it should also take in account the emergence of this other fact : the collapse of the centre of the world. »

Hou Hanru : curator indépendant in "Qu’attendez vous d’une institution artistique du XXI° siècle ?" (What do you expect from a XXIst century art institution ?). Ed palais de Tokyo. Conteners

I've always had the greatest problems with institutions and institutional life. ('Regimentation and education are incompatible' — Gerald Vann, OP.) Hou Hanru's vision is something I can understand and respond to. Nicolas Nova (Pasta and Vinegar) comments (I'm selecting and, in this instance, changing his emphases):

… it seems that this kind of definition is more applied recently to private companies in our supercapitalist days … Will private companies be organized like art groups? interactive labs?

(My son, Tom, who's studying in Paris, showed us round the palais de Tokyo earlier this year.)