Microsoft Gets It

Microsoft seems to have realized that it exists at the pleasure of, and for the pleasure of, its customers–with the news that the new Xbox One console will be dropping several very unpopular features. As a long time Xbox user and Xbox Live subscriber, I am delighted to see this change. I’m also pleased that instead of skipping and perhaps abandoning the Microsoft console system altogether, I will be upgrading to the new console as soon as it is available.

I’d like to see more of this from companies, especially with regards to privacy. And I can hope and dream that we might even see moves in this direction from government.

Punctuation As Musical Notation

Punctuation is notation for the music of speech.

The written words themselves convey the sounds, but the punctuation gives you emphasis and rhythm. Speech that is monotone may engage the linguistic areas of the brain, but effective writing and artful writing engages much more: it engages the emotions and triggers memories and the imagination. It is a whole-brain experience.

I realized at some point (I suppose when I started reading to my son before he could read for himself) that I read silently even more slowly than I read aloud, which seems remarkable because silent reading is far less encumbered by the mechanics of spoken language. Most people, of course, read much more quickly when doing so silently.

My eyes and mind still move at a very high speed when reading silently, but there are many loops and backtracking and retracing. My mind rolls the words around in my head; I re-read some significant percentage of words and sentences. Occasionally I will re-read particular sentences or phrases many times, and go off on tangents related to the idea or way of expressing it.

For me, the experience of the art of the written word–participating in that as a reader–is as big a part of the experience as gleaning the literal meaning the writer is trying to communicate.

This means that in my lifetime of reading, I will only have read a fraction of what I would have read if I read faster. I am certainly not saying it is better, per se.

What I am saying is that when you are editing your own writing, if you read what you have written out loud, instead of just silently, and make a sincere effort to decode it as a reader would decode it–pause for the commas and don’t pause where there are none, and so on–I believe this might provide some insight for you into how to improve the music of your writing in the ears of your readers.

Immediate Genetic Impact of Relaxation

This is the second study that caught my eye showing evidence that practices that elicit relaxation response, such as meditation, prayer, yoga, etc. are changing the expression of people’s genes.

It has long been known that stress, through the action of cortisol has an immune-system dampening effect, and that is one of the ways it damages health. But it’s nice to see such potent validation of the practices used for millennia to reduce stress and improve the health of the body and mind through relaxation.

A systems biology analysis of known interactions among the proteins produced by the affected genes revealed that pathways involved with energy metabolism, particularly the function of mitochondria, were upregulated during the relaxation response. Pathways controlled by activation of a protein called NF-κB—known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer—were suppressed after relaxation response elicitation. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered.

Here’s another one, specific to yoga.

“These data suggest that previously reported (therapeutic) effects of yoga practices have an integral physiological component at the molecular level, which is initiated immediately during practice,” writes a research team led by Fahri Saatcioglu of the University of Oslo. The team’s study is published in the online journal PLOS ONE.

Open Mindedness

I have been thinking about, and writing about open mindedness quite a bit today, including a post at Forging Soul, and three comments at Penelope Trunk’s homeschooling blog. I decided to go ahead and put those comments together here, even though I would recommend checking out the original thread in it’s entirety here.

The first comment asks how far open-mindedness should reach:

Great points, especially the idea that listening to your kid helps them learn to think properly. If you never let your kid actually *ride* a bicycle they will never be much of a bicyclist. By the same token, many people think–and think most deeply–mainly by talking to others. This can be true even with introverts who, due to their intensely subjective focus, can find other people to stimulate new lines of thought.

I wondered if you would hit what I consider the ultimate test of open-mindedness: currently held scientific paradigms.

Evolution is one of those. It is incorrect to say that evolution is true. It is the best explanation we currently have. It is the consensus until a scientific revolution expands upon or overturns the current paradigm. Evolution has lasted a good while. Most likely it will be overturned in the sense that newtonian physics was overturned, by gaining a deeper understanding into the exceptions and anomalies (very large and very small and very fast in the case of newtonian physics–that spawned quantum theory and relativity). Is science, in any area, ever done? To me, no one who would answer that in the affirmative is a real scientist. Science can be settled, as newtonian physics was before it was upended by the two main fields within physics, but science–by definition–is never incontrovertible.

IF…even the bedrock of evolution can be understood as needing refinement and possibly even overturning someday, then one is in a much better position of open-mindedness to question far shakier paradigms. An example of this is questioning medical providers, who claim the mantle of science but must be examined with rigor. When you look at what it took to get doctors to start washing their hands, you see this is no science, and it never has been. It has a scientific aura, but the business of medicine is at best an art. And any art depends on the quality of the artist. There tend to be fewer good artists than poor ones at any given point.

Climate science, social sciences? Now we’re into areas so grey, so political and politicized that I believe a mindset a little beyond open-mindedness, and into downright skepticism is appropriate. Doubt first. These are also the most likely scientific areas for ideologues to promote as incontrovertible.

I note your link to defines open-mindedness as an intellectual virtue. Virtues are something that need to be cultivated. There are seeds of virtue in the hearts and minds of all children, but these seeds need conditions suitable for their growth and fruition. I believe the optimum conditions for the childhood development of all virtues is a healthy loving family. In home-schooling the family is given full force. It’s no guarantee but it is a big step in the right direction if you want to see your kids develop virtues like open-mindedness.

Then, I responded to a comment about statements by Bill Nye that it is morally wrong to teach religious ideas that conflict with science:

A person who set out to reap an avalanche of anti-science sentiment could do no better than to condemn people for exercising their constitutional right to religion, to essentially term them child-abusers. Patronizing such people is not helping either.

I suppose trying to use the power of the state to limit this inalienable right might be even better for creating hostility toward science and scientists.

In short, Bill Nye is not doing science any favors with this kind of talk. It is the same freedom of belief that allows science to exist at all, that allows people to believe as their conscience guides them. Undermining that precious freedom is a step backward into darkness, not progress.

To the extent science is true, it will win people over by being true, over time, without coercion. Bigotry and tyranny do not become good things, even when they are practiced in the name of science.

So I agree, Adam, learning to disagree with civility–to agree to disagree–is a valuable lesson at any age. It’s funny how many people value an open mind so highly, right up until the moment someone disagrees with something they hold dear.

And finally, I tried to sum up my thoughts after having reflected on the 20 some comments that had accumulated this morning:

Adam, I will grant you that everything I have ever said in my life has been arguably “somewhat false” :) I only aim for having some nugget or essence of useful truth! A hard enough target.

I’m heartened by the civility of the discourse here, when as I’m sure you have seen, even a totally unrelated science blog post or youtube video can erupt almost instantly into the most imbecilic and infantile name-calling arguments between various kinds of true believers.

Your comments, and those of Redrock, Nonnie, and Daniel all have shown nuance, consideration and restraint that indicates what I think is an admirable openness of mind. In so doing, I believe you show yourselves to be true friends of science, and a productive part of the long term social process of science slowly “settling.”

I thought Cindy and Coleen, for their part, did a good job of reflecting the fact that to have religious beliefs that might seem to encroach on scientific domains is neither the end of the world, nor the downfall of society. I happen to believe in a supreme consciousness, so I sympathize with the efforts all such believers must go through to function in a modern technological society. It is a rigor that atheists like Bill Nye are spared, since–for them–there is nothing to reconcile. That rigor, that wrestling of heart and mind and struggle to resolve facts and beliefs and the heightened awareness of differences it brings, is something that gives great value to the viewpoints of many religious people–and I wish more secularists saw that value and made use of it to enrich themselves.

Our family switched a while back from watching television together to reading classics aloud (something I heartily evangelize for!) and my son started reading Sun Tzu’s Art of War aloud today. It seems to me that Sun Tzu felt the fundamental principle of war is deception. Deception allows you to bring about bad judgement in your opponent. And by controlling deception, one can guide which bad decisions your opponent makes, and thus win.

And it occurred to me that the somewhat less-studied Art of Peace has a similar fundamental principle: honesty.

For me, honesty starts with this realization, that Socrates and I suspect even Carl Sagan would heartily endorse: we do not know as much as we’d like to. Nor probably even half as much as we think we do. Nor a fraction of what we will one day. Being honest with ourselves consists of being willing to consider things we disagree with and reach rich, sophisticated answers, or sometimes break through to the simplest answers, rather than carry around a stock of straw-men that we can project on everyone who has a different point of view or belief from us.

I am sensitive to this also because I’ve been a homeschooler. An unschooler in fact. Just one of many unconventional beliefs I have strongly held. I’ve spent half my life fighting for my right to evaluate the merits as my ability allows and live based upon the conclusions I reach, such as they are. I do not require others to agree with me, just give me room to explore for myself. I’ll listen to your arguments, just don’t take for granted that I hold my opinion due to ignorance or mental incapacity, since you simply do not know that.

As I said, this discussion has been pretty encouraging. Perhaps none of us has as much to fear as we might be led to believe by the overwhelming prominence of the most strident percent or two of the internet that seems to dominate so much traffic on these subjects.

The value of teaching home schooled kids to program

I’m coming back around to blogging more actively, and I thought I would cheat a bit and post a comment I left at Penelope Trunk’s homeschooling blog.

Writing is an activity that extends from scribbling a grocery reminder, all the way to the works of Shakespeare. Coding is an activity, a type of writing, that covers a similar range.

According to Wolfram Aplpha, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has 1019 sentences.

A sentence is roughly equivalent to a “statement” of code–a complete thought if you will. By comparison, a relatively simple iPhone app I am working on right now currently has 3073 statements.

In a play, if a single line is slightly off, there might be a momentary sense in the audience that something is amiss. In an application, a single error in a single line of code makes the difference between an app that runs and one that crashes or does not even start. So, there is a different level of technical rigor. Not everyone is comfortable, or even capable, of working very long at that level of rigor.

Some are though, and thanks to them, we live in a culture where a person can transparently and unwittingly rely on millions of hours of labor by many thousands of people to reach millions of minds with their writing…and casually disparage that achievement.

WordPress, for example, is the result of 43 person-years of coordinated effort. It is the product of 45 contributors and represents 168,610 lines of code. Not only are programs such as this collaborative in their code development, they are also a product of millions of users providing feedback. There is simply no creative product in the experience of humanity that approaches the scope of a major software package such as this.

An argument can be made that software is the highest form of human creative achievement, period.

I agree with you that parents should not push their children to learn any particular skillset if they have no interest. If the topic is vital to them, the child *will* come around to having an interest in it.

And I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot clearly foresee the demands of a market a decade in the future, so we should be very reluctant to promote studies purely because of their perceived economic value.

But if the child has an interest in programming, or writing of any kind, it should not be disparaged. It should be enthusiastically supported.

The day when people capable of expressing the depth and subtlety of a Shakespeare play, or sonnet for that matter, are a dime a dozen is still as far off as it was 400 years ago. The day when people capable of writing great code are not crucial to the advancement of humanity are at least as far off.