Category Archives: Learning

“A Taste of Blue”: an exploration of synaestheisa.

I went to several talks during the science festival, some of which I might write about; but one which has really stuck in my mind was about synaesthesia, “A Taste of Blue”.

People with synaesthesia experience a cross over between their senses: things they see may cause them to hear something, or sounds may have a taste, or words a colour.

How they experience the world – their whole life, even – is thus very different from those without synaesthesia. It is also something I find incomprehensible, and I went along hoping to understand more.

It really was a fascinating evening. I found myself sitting next to the one synaesthete in the audience, who expressed her sorrow that most people can’t experience the world the way she does – she felt it added so much to her life.

There were three speakers: a geneticist, an interactive sound engineer, and an animator.

Kate Kucera works on the genetics of synaesthesia, and she talked about the science behind the condition. About 5% of the population are synaesthetic (other sources say about 1%, others that it is much rarer). It might be that there is a continuum in the way we experience the environment, with only those at one extreme of the continuum being synaesthetic.

Indeed, the way we respond to sounds suggests that everyone may be partly synaesthetic: nonsense words that Kucera tried out on the audience had a definite feel, with most people idetifying the same or similar characteristics to the sounds. (Perhaps onomatapoeia is in part an expression of synaesthesia?)

There is certainly a genetic component to synaesthesia: the condition runs in families. But the genetics is very complex, not surprising if one considers the complexity of our sensory systems and their processing in the brain.

The cause of synaesthesia is not understood, though it is believed to involve connections between different parts of the brain used for processing different senses. It has been suggested that everyone is born with synaesthesia and that babies are all synaesthetic – which may explain the dazzled way they look at the world! – but that most people lose the ability as their brains develop, just to enable them to adequately cope with all the sensory data they receive.

Augoustinos Tsiros looks at the way people use common sensory metaphors. This might suggest that we are all partly synaesthetic. For instance, we all use spatial metaphors to describe sound – such as “high” and “low”; we also use touch describe sound – hard, soft, rough, smooth. (I often talk about some jazz being jagged and angular.) We talk about someone having a “sweet voice”.

In experiments involving a variety of visual representations of sounds, it is easy to fit a specific sequence of sounds to an image

I’m not sure whether these are simply learnt metaphors – so common to have mass understanding – or an actual demonstration latent synaesthesia.

The star of the evening for me was animator Sam Moore. She has worked with several synaesthetes to produce an animation showing what it is like to have synaesthesia. It was stunning.

She was also full of great stories, such as one subject who had two forms of synaesthesia: colours produced sounds, sounds produced colours; but not the same sounds or colours. A red object, such as a traffic light, produced a specific sound, but that sound then created the experience of a different colour, producing a cascade of synaesthetic feedback.

Apparently a lot of synaesthetes are creative people: all of those that worked with Sam were, particular musicians. One of her subjects, a woodwind player, saw the sounds of string instruments as sludge-brown, which must have made orchestral playing unpleasant experience!

Moore’s film, “An Eyeful of Sound” was amazing. The world it visualised is how I imagine an LSD trip to be. It was gorgeous.

Synaesthesia poses a lot of questions of the way we perceive the world. We have a common assumption that share our senses – that when I see a colour you see the same thing. We have no way of knowing if that is true. Apparently synaesthetes are often not aware as they are growing up that they experience world in ways that may be greatly different their peers. Then they may learn to keep quiet about it, when as children they are told not to be stupid after describing their experience. It certainly sounds as if synaesthetes experience a richer world.

An Eyeful of Sound from Samantha Moore on Vimeo.

“Thinking Fast and Slow”

Last year I read Daniel Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow“. It took me a long time – definitely reading slow, for me – but I think that was down to his style rather than the book’s content. I read it because two people from very different backgrounds recommended it in the since of a week, and despite being somewhat hard work, bits of it have stuck: they keep recurring in my thoughts.

So I thought I’d share some of those, and recommend it, too. (I haven’t looked at the book for the last six months, and I am deliberately writing from memory. So please don’t take these examples as gospel, and before quoting them, please look to Kahneman’s original text!)

Kahneman’s work can be considered an academic counterweight to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. Gladwell set out, I think, to suggest that we should trust our intuition (albeit that many of the examples he wrote about seemed to be based around what happens when intuition goes wrong. Policemen shooting innocent men, for instance).

Kahneman, a prolifically able psychologist (and Nobel prize winner in economics, for his work on behavioural economics), sets out to describe how the mind works, describing the unconscious, instinctive, intuitive brain – his “system 1” – and the conscious, analytical brain – “system 2”. System 1 is much faster and cheaper to run than system 2, and this is why for most things we are happy to let system 1 get on with it. His book is full of fascinating stories that illustrate how system 1 can lead us to make some very counter-intuitive decisions, often his own expense.

I started the book very sceptical. Despite all the evidence Kahneman provides, what he describes just didn’t sound like me. I’m analytical, rational, sensible. But he also describes how just about everyone thinks that, too. And left to its own devices, system 1 seems to get us into several bad habits.

For instance, it makes us bad at estimating things, particularly our own (and others’) expertise. Kahneman tells a story of how he was part of a team writing a new curriculum for a psychology course. After several months when they though they were making good progress, he asked another member of the team, who had a lot of experience of the process, how long it should take. The answer was something like “a good team will take a couple of years”; and when asked whether this was a good team, the answer was a resounding “no”! This was a team made up of very rational people – psychologists and educationalists – who frankly should have stopped right there and seen what they could change to achieve a better result. But instead, despite the insight they had received, they ploughed on as if nothing had changed. When Kahneman left the project several years later, it still hadn’t been completed.

In another situation, he describes undertaking leadership assessments for the Israeli army. He understandably decided to validate the process, to see whether the assessments predicted future success as a leader in the army. They didn’t. The predictions were no better than chance. And yet Kahneman continued his work assessing candidates, despite knowing that it was a complete waste of time.

His work in behavioural economics lead to Kahneman working with some stockbrokers. He looked at the firm’s remuneration and bonus structure. Analysing individuals’ results, he showed that success was random: and hence the large bonuses paid for results were completely unwarranted. He told the board, producing his evidence. The board, of course, did nothing, because their whole belief system (and the firm’s culture) was based rewarding success. No one accepted his evidence; they – the experts – knew better than the statistics.

Another story that really stuck with me it’s how bad system 1 is at assessing memories. It only recalls the last experience of something, rather than the totality of that experience. So if you’ve been listening to a piece of music on vinyl, for instance, and it ends with a scratch, you remember the scratch and not the forty minutes of pleasure that came before it. In an experiment to test this, subjects preferred an extended period of pain that ended in a reduction of pain rather than a much shorter period of pain that ended suddenly. System 1 remembers the pain at the end rather than the totality of the pain. The lessons here for anyone designing any process involving customers are rampant. Make it end with a smile!

I think these four simple stories illustrate how irrational even seemingly rational, analytical people can be. This is painful – these are people like me – but it is a valuable lesson, too.

I think the best lesson is to stop and think. This brings the conscious, rational system 2 to the fore. It is harder work, and slower, than letting system 1 determine our actions, and maybe not always appropriate. But it also leads to better, more mindful outcomes. (For instance, it may well be why people who keep “gratitude lists” report being happier – because they are bringing their conscious mind to bear, rather than letting system 1 remember only those last painful moments. There seem to be real benefits to keeping a journal or diary: it helps us to bring an active dimension to our otherwise irrational intuitive minds.)

Talking About Risk

Drew Rae gave a talk to Edinburgh Skeptics (sic) on “Dealing Reasonably with Irrational Fear”. At least, that was meant to be the topic, but his talk was more about how bad people (and that’s all of us…) are at judging and assessing risk, rather than dealing with it.

It was very interesting, though; given how we deal with risk the whole time, it never fails to amaze how bad we all are at estimating risk – and as Drew pointed out, even those whose job it is to measure risk can be several orders of magnitude out: he mentioned an experiment where professional risk assessors were asked to measure the same (risky) scenario, and the answers differed by orders of magnitude. In another experiment, it was found that experts

Much of this covered similar ground to Daniel Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow” (though in my case, reading slow, too!) in examining the biases we all have in assessing data. We are overconfident in our own abilities and misconstrue the evidence. We even make up evidence (unwittingly – I hope) to fit our beliefs.

Much of this is down to the difficulty of working with low probability events: Drew showed how our uncertainty of the probability of a rare event happening is much, much higher than the risk of the event itself.

The way we consider risk also depends a lot on the way we frame the question, and our emotional response to it. People use quick rules of thumb – heuristics – to gauge probability, and whilst these might work well in everyday situations, they let us down badly when considering rare events.

As well as “judgement errors” arising from our heuristic mental models, Drew described how even professional risk managers make large systematic errors in assessing risk. For instance, they can forget or ignore whole categories of hazard, based on their own biases, and greatly over estimate their ability to predict the categories of hazard they do include. Their overconfidence stems from a certainty that their data are correct, an over estimation in the efficacy of safeguards, and – somewhat shockingly – relying on incorrect and untested assumptions, particularly regarding the independence of unlikely events.

For instance, everyone knows that multi-engined aircraft are designed to fly on fewer engines than they have: over capacity is built into the system, so that a plane may land even if one or more of its engines fails. Which is fine, until you consider that the likelihood of engine failure may depend on the experience and skills of the person maintaining the engines; and, typically, the same engineer will do maintenance on all of an aircraft’s engines. If they screw up on one engine, they are likely to screw up on more than one: the likelihood that one engine fails is not independent of the other engines failing.

Indeed, Rae reckoned that aircraft rely on so many incompletely tested systems that our reliance on aircraft remaining in the air was largely “faith based”! He reckoned that for any one aircraft, the likelihood of an accident is one in 10,000 years – and that to get adequate data to test this, we’d need to test aircraft for 20,000 years. Instead, we are happy to fly.

Aircraft are much safer than cars, though. If we applied the same standards of safety and maintenance to our cars as we do the aircraft engines, Rae reckoned we’d never drive: the processes would be far too cumbersome. In the UK, there are approximately 300,000 casualties and 3,500 deaths on our roads. I can’t find comparable data for deaths due to aircraft in the UK – perhaps a result of its rarity – but Wikipedia lists data from ACRO averaging 1,186 pa for the whole world.

Much depends on how one states risk. Figures for the USA show that an individual has 1/7,700 chance of dying in a road accident in a year, 1/306,000 chance of dying in a train accident, and 1/2,067,000 chance of dying in a plane crash. That is, you are forty times more likely to be killed in a car crash than a train crash, and over 250 times more likely to be killed in a car crash than in a plane crash.

On the other hand, in terms of miles travelled, car and trains have the same risk (1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles) and planes slightly higher (1.9 deaths per 100 million aircraft miles). So cars are either safer than planes – or more dangerous, depending on your point of view. But a caveat: these figures are for the period 1999-2004, and therefore include the deaths of those on the planes involved in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (a footnote says that the other deaths in 9/11 have been excluded from the figures). Wikipedia has rather different figures for the same measure, worldwide: death per billion kilometres travelled for air is 0.05, for rail 0.6, and for car 3.1; but neither sources nor the period covered are given.

[It has been said that more people may have died as a result of an increased aversion to flying in the USA following the airborne tourist attacks on 9/11 than in the attacks themselves: in the USA, road deaths increased by 1,500 in the year after 9/11, and it is easy to envisage that . (This paper attributes 1,200 more deaths on American roads to 9/11 in the year after the attacks, whilst this one estimates that, over time, a total of 2,170 deaths could be attributable to change of behaviour following 9/11 [PDF].) We dramatically over estimate the risk of dying in a terrorist attack. Terrorist attacks are very rare events, at least in western Europe and USA.]

We let our fears influence our perception of risk, too. Take nuclear power. There have been approximately five thousand deaths as a result of accidents at nuclear power plants (with Chernobyl responsible for four thousand of those). Coal fired power stations have result in 22,000 premature deaths each year in Europe alone. For the USA, it’s 13,000 deaths pa [PDF]; it would be fair to assume significantly more in China and Russia. Let’s be conservative and say 50,000 premature deaths worldwide from coal. But the perception is that nuclear power is dangerous.

Indeed, analysis of worldwide deaths from a variety of energy sources show that per unit of energy (terawatt hours), nuclear energy is the safest source of energy. (Wind doesn’t feature.)

There have to be caveats, of course: if the danger from nuclear waste are included – which remain hazardous for for hundreds of thousands of years (according to Greenpeace) – the picture could well be different.

Rae summarised the influences – biases – over our judgement of risks:

  • framing – how we ask the questions changes the results
  • familiarity – the more (we think) we understand something, the less risky it seems – the less scary, even – but also the more common we might think it, too
  • the extent to which the risk is voluntary – and hence how we feel we can influence it
  • percieved ability to control the risk (and 93% of drivers think they are above average…)
  • a preference to eliminate rather than just reduce risk
  • and a “dread factor” – an irrational fear: of nuclear power, carcinogenic compounds, genetic-manipulated organisms, and many, many other things.

I reckon the media has a lot to answer for. News headlines make unlikely events appear more common – headlines stick in our memories, media campaigns can last months and have a disproportionate effect.

“Making It Up” – a discussion on (and including!) improvisation

Through no design, I seem to have picked a series of talks at the Edinburgh Science Festival that effectively hang together around a theme – first play, now improvisation (and, later, innovation).

“Making It Up” gathered together musicians and a choreographer – and all of them psychologists – to explore the nature of improvisation, and got the lively audience to indulge in both improvised music and movement to demonstrate their ideas. The basis for each contributor was that improvisation can change the way those who improvise think, and can have benefits outside of the medium being improvised: how we learn, how we think, and our creativity.

I was attracted to this talk for several reasons, both professional and personal. Fundamentally, I believe that everyone is creative, and that most jobs involve creativity in one way or another. My guess is that even those in the most mundane jobs perform their tasks differently from everyone else – if business processes allow them. And those of us who work in the “knowledge economy” probably spend a lot of their time improvising one way or another. At a personal level, I listen to a lot of improvised (free) and semi-improvised (jazz) music, and I wanted to increase my understanding of what was going on in the art form.

The discussion was chaired by Martin Parker, a musician and academic. Parker said that he thought all of us improvise much of the time – our very conversations being made up as we go along; it is, he felt, a fundamental part of being alive.

The first contributor was Peter Lovatt, a psychologist and former choreographer and dancer, didn’t necessarily agree: many of our day to day interactions follow familiar patterns which we stick to rigidly, and we need to learn how to improvise; it is hard to make things up from scratch and easier to start within an understood structure. (The use of “standards” within the musical improvisers repertoire reflects this – the standard structures with which to launch an improvisation.)

Lovatt got interested in the psychology of improvisation following improvisers discussing how their perception of the world changed following improvisation – colour and sounds would seem more intense and their perspective changed. He devised experiments to test the hypothesis that improvisation did actually change the way people think. Working initially with verbal improvisation exercises and later, to remove the possibility that the exercise itself was priming the subjects for oral tests that followed, movement exercises, he found that just twenty minutes of improvisation improved people’s functioning in divergent problem solving tests. (Divergent problem solving, I learned, is where there are many several potential answers to a question – for instance, “what uses are there for a brick?” Convergent problems are those for which there is only one answer – such as “what is the capital of France?”) Clearly although improvisation might be fundamental to our being alive, it is also something that we need to practise to get the benefits.

Lovatt went on to work successfully with Parkinson’s sufferers to correct what he described as their “divergent deficit”, resulting in a reduction of symptoms lasting several days after the course of improvisation has stopped.

Raymond MacDonald is another improviser-turned-academic, and he brought his saxophone along to give us a demonstration. He also got the audience improvising music within a structure. He started off by returning to the tension between people being natural improvisers and improvisation being something that we need to practise, reflecting Parker’s earlier comments by paraphrasing Gilbert Ryle (who apparently had a lot to say about improvisation):

“a brain that is not improvising is not alive”

maintaining that improvisation itself is part of life, and that we learn from an early age by our mistakes – making it up as we go along. (Pat Kane had made exactly this point in the session on play.)

Raymond MacDonald playing in Gateshead.
Photo by Andy Newcombe on flickr, used under Creative Commons licence

MacDonald also contended that everybody is naturally musical from a very early age (if not from birth), and that everyone can be moved by music and communicates musically – even if they are not aware of it. It was at this point that he got us improvising, something which sounded surprisingly harmonious – and it was great to see the whole audience try this out, and, apparently, enjoying it!

Children improvise through play; the difficulty is that we soon learn not to as we grow up. We are taught in music classes to play the “right” notes, and that before one can improvise, one has to have complete mastery of one’s chosen instrument. (Something MacDonald took pleasure in disproving through our attempts at harmonic improvisation!) MacDonald linked improvisation and music to health and wellbeing, saying cancer patients who had been taught (or retaught?) to improvise could communicate better and felt better.

This is where Tom Cochrane came in. He wanted to investigate the emotional state – and the awareness of the mental state – that arises from improvisation. Based on models of how we perceive the world and react to it (using cybernetics and control systems), this would require feedback loops, adjusting our awareness of our state within the world; in order to improvise, Cochrane maintained we’d need three loops: the first detecting the world and responding to it (ie developing emotions from it), the second building on the response and responding to that by playing music, and the third changing the music in response to what has been played. (I think I got that right; I’d have drawn it but the drawing programmes I have just do my head in!)

In Cochrane’s models, our emotional cognition of the world is partly constituted through music, and we can improvise our emotions to become “more powerful, more graceful and more meaningful”, creating shared emotions as others react to our music.

Using sensors and – of course – computers, Cochrane has developed a programme he calls the “mood organ”. It detects the emotional state of the subject and creates sounds based on that, which the subject can then change and influence – thereby allowing anyone to improvise, regardless of their musical expertise.

He demonstrated this with Raymond MacDonald hooked up to the “mood organ”, improvising with his saxophone along to the music created by his emotional state. The effect was quite haunting.

There were of course a lot of unanswered questions arising from the session. I was curious – obviously – to know what effect listening to improvised music had on its audiences – basically, has my mind been changed through the experience of listening to improvised music? Does the nature of the music matter – do classical musicians improvising work in the same way as jazz musicians, or rock musicians, or …? Do their brains work in the same way? What if they jump between genres? And what happens to classical musicians who are playing the music as written but improvising the mood and the emotions?

I also wanted to know about the effects of improvising movement: I am sure many people make up dances in the privacy of their own homes, dancing along to the radio – does this have the same as effect as Lovatt’s courses of improvised movement?

And there was something missing about the connection between learning, improvising and creativity – though I can’t quite work out what!

“Why We Play”…

Pat Kane gathered an interesting panel for Edinburgh International Science Festival to discuss “Why We Play”: a biologist, a social scientist – and a games creator.

It was a fascinating discussion, raising lots of questions – perhaps most importantly, “what is play?” Not fully answered, if only because once you define it, it stops being play! – and giving many answers to the implicit question of why, but that’s fine – it was thought-provoking, and for me that was the point.

There are of course problems. Defining “play” seems difficult – it is one of those behaviours that we all recognise and understand the meaning of, but can’t really define. Patrick Bateson (a biologist, and hence something of a taxonomist too) laid out five characteristics of play:

  • it is intrinsically motivated – there is no or limited external reward
  • it has no immediate benefit
  • it is sensitive to wellbeing (to the extent, Bateson felt, of being an indicator of it)
  • it most common, but not exclusively so, among the young

But these don’t seem exclusive behaviours – unless one includes activities like reading and artistic endeavours in the definition (perfectly plausible – the discussion went on to discuss creativity, so maybe art is just another, “creative” form of play?). Maybe it is best not to get lost in semantics, though as Bateson pointed out, scientists (and, presumably, other academics) need to be able to define something to study it.

Mammals play (cats, anyone? Chimps, dolphins, you name it…); birds play (and learn from it); humans play. In mammals – including us – play can be social or directed at objects, as we (and other animals) learn to manipulate the world around us.

Obligatory cat photo: cats do it…

Bateson also highlighted that “play” is a homonym: as well as play itself, we play sports, playmusic and play in the theatre. We even play with data…

He also pointed out a difference – which I am not sure I really get – between rule-based play and “playful play”. Many games are structured – particularly in competitive play and sports – and the structure brings meaning to the game. Playing chess, for instance, relies on a very complex rule structure. If one could improvise chess moves, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But “playful play”, outside the strictures of games, is apparently linked with imagination and creativity.

Alex Fleetwood, a games designer who I saw speak a couple of years ago at TEDxOrenda, discussed how it is possible to use games – and play – to generate new ideas. People can use games to help them interpret and make sense of the world, and as new technologies come along – be it clocks, printing, or virtual reality – new games have come along to help us understand the technology; in turn, games can change the way we integrate this information and the way our brains work. (I couldn’t find any references for that contention!) Interestingly, many of the games Alex’s company, Hide and Seek, develop seem to use old technologies in novel ways to make us think differently about the world and explore new behaviours.

Wendy Russell took a rather more academic approach, though focussing on games and society. There are, she said, four kinds of games and play (with what I guess are Greek names…):

  • agoncompetitive games and sport
  • alea – games of chance
  • mimesismimicry, make-believe and play-acting (and, perhaps, even theatre?)
  • ilinx – dizzy play and disequilibrium

These form a continuum, she reckoned, from rigid, rule-bound games to turbulent, improvised anarchy – from order to disorder.

She pointed out that on of the things about play was its pointlessness; and if you try to impose a point, it threatens to become serious and – well, not fun. (Just think about how seriously people can take football matches!) All those people looking to “gamify” their processes, take note…

Those in power and in institutions like order and structure; those at the bottom of the pile like disorder, as a way to get away from their everyday lives. Society allows disorderly games, sometimes in a managed environment, so that people can let off steam: funfairs, carnivals, mardi gras, April Fool’s Day – all allow people to relax the usual conventions and escape for a while. The role of the fool and the jester do the same: the normal hierarchy is temporarily suspended.

British society is changing (or has changed!) the way we, and children, play. Parents seem to manage their children’s time much more closely, and seem scared to let children play outdoors, unattended; both adults and children can play more easily indoors, using modern technology, than outdoors, albeit socially. Russell said that architects are now trying to design space for play into new structures – perhaps just as interior designers are trying to build play-areas in workspaces.

The role of play in creativity was touched on by each of the speakers, but it seems hard to put a finger on it. Some creative processes tend towrds the anarchic – brainstorming sessions, for instance, where all ideas are equally valid and anyone can contribute. The burgeoning unconference movement (of which I am a strong advocate!) might also be seen as disorderly play, beyond the usual bound business strictures. Everyone felt that play – or a sense of play – is crucial to promoting creativity – without specifying how.

This Happened Edinburgh and Creative Edinburgh

Four years ago, I spent an evening at the first This Happened Edinburgh – an interesting, collaborative event where technical and creative people discussed some of their innovative projects. (I thought I had blogged about it at the time, but clearly I failed to do so!)

After a four year gap (whilst I was down in London – where there is also a regular “This Happened” but where I found it impossible to get a ticket, such was demand!), I went to This Happened Edinburgh #9 last week.

This Happened Edinburgh #1 was the first event like that I had been to: four creators discussing their projects; this time, I knew what to expect. First time around, it was in a crowded upstairs room of a pub; now it was in the much more salubrious surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Inspace gallery, a white space which may well have been designed for events such as this. Much techier, much smoother, much cooler – but much less “funky”, too, and more deliberate and knowing.

The four projects were as interesting as those four years ago – I was particularly taken with Shenando Stals examination of the emotional geography of walkers’ Edinburgh – how our emotional sense of a city is created and alters our everyday experience of place – and Gianluca Zaffiro’s description of a project involving the users of social networks managing their own data (rather than the firms running the social networks).

The mantle for the funkier side of things has been taken up by Creative Edinburgh who, amongst the other things they do, have been organising a series of irregular events called “Glug” (part of a broader programme of Glug around the UK – I do like the subtitle “Notworking”: for all the self-unemployed out there…) where entrepreneurs and artists give short talks about their projects. Loosely curated around a theme – the first one I went to was on “collectives” (from I learned that collectives come in all shapes, sizes and ideologies – and it is the people not the idea that make it work! And I meant, and failed, to write about that at the time, too); the last one, in December, was on “materials matter“, though I’m not sure the case was proven: it was the creativity and the ideas that came through for me, the materials just being the medium.

Creative Edinburgh’s Glug evenings are more entrepreneurial and less academic than This Happened; maybe a bit more social, too. Not necessarily better – just a different focus. Both present a series of fascinating, engaging talks, and I look forward to more.

“I Am Seeing Things”. Or not.

I have had many conversations over the past few years about “the internet of things” – giving any object an ability to communicate, a specific URL and putting it online – particularly with Tony Hall and Martha LaGess; their interest lay in particular in what the internet of things might mean for cities and society – a kind of “quantified self” for buildings and social structures.

I don’t get it. (Actually, I get neither the internet of things nor the quantified self!) But that makes it interesting. So when I learned about I Am Seeing Things a few weeks ago, I signed up.

It was an interesting day, though in some ways it didn’t live up to expectations: the papers were not as focused on the internet of things as I had expected, and there was a fair bit of academic dissociation from reality. (But hey, it was a symposium held in a university – clearly my expectations were off-kilter!) There was a lovely moment when one of the organisers described playing with augmented reality apps on his phone in the park; he turned to his companion, expecting her to react like ecstatic characters in a Vodafone ad – but instead she said, “You’re a sad little man!”, demonstrating the gap between virtual and physical reality!

I think that gap is crucial. There are some neat tricks one can do – or experience – by connecting everything to the internet: the ToTEM project allows people to record their stories about objects, linked by a QR code, for instance – every object could have a narrative, adding to the way one experiences the object. But fundamentally I think most people respond with a huge “so what”, and get on with their lives.

There is also something a bit too exclusive about it all – a bit too “clever-clever”: partly this is down to the use of QR codes, which I feel is currently limiting – users have to be pretty interested already to use QR codes, and you are excluding anyone who frankly can’t be bothered to download an app or find out what the pretty chessboard patterns actually mean. (As an example of how bizarrely dissociated from reality people that use this stuff – mainly marketeers, I guess – can be, I saw an advert in last week’s “The Economist” for IMD. It contained a QR code – and they want you to download an IMD-specific app to your phone, then scan the code and see what happens. Because that is so much easier than just, say, providing a URL. I mean, FFS! It’s not just me that thinks so, either.)

You are also adding to the work people have to do to get at your object, story, information or other experience – in effect pushing them away, rather than bringing them in. (As you probably noticed, I don’t really get QR codes…)

There were several interesting presentations, though some seemed only tangentally connected to the internet of things.

My reaction to Mark Shepard‘s vision for the Sentient City veered from “so what” to out and out paranoia as the ability to track things through the physical world (the internet of things apparently started up as a way to better manage logistics, using items tagged with RFID transmitters) turns into a Orwellian surveillance nightmare. The smart city could seem more like a prison than we would care to admit.

Mike Philips talked about using sensors or “ecoids” – Arduino-like systems – within the environment, detecting and managing dynamic systems: pollution, for instance, or the internal environment within a building. Such systems interact with people already – the nature of a building depends on the people using it – and tying in active monitors allows greater control and management. Including biological data from personal sensors – an extension of the “quantified self” extends the person into the environment: we are already part of the environment, not separate from it (and as Philips pointed out, we are ourselves environments for significant number of organisms – we contain more cells of bacterial than human origin!), and becoming part of the internet itself is perhaps the next step. Perhaps…

“Things” can take on a different meaning when they are connected. Chris Speed discussed how attaching stories to objects changes them. Using QR codes and the internet so that any object has its own URL, meaning can be stored in a readable database: objects can be tagged with meaning, and they can tell their own stories. (But they don’t: the stories are stored in a database; we put them there, we retrieve them; the objects are and always will be inanimate. It is our stories and our meaning we associate with them.) He reckoned this changes the value in objects – though of course this has been the case for valuable objects forever: a painting with known provenance is more valuable than one without. Most things don’t have stories attached to them – they are purely utility – and I’ll admit to remaining pretty sceptical of this.

Maria Burke and Irene Ng both took a business-view of value (a broad term!) and the internet of things: what it means for the value chain. This was a fascinating, hard-headed take on TIoT: what difference it could actually make in the way people do business. Value depends on context (as Speed had pointed out): connecting things to the internet changes both the value proposition and the relationship to the object. Value becomes more of the moment – an digitised object may have no intrinsic value until it is used, pushing value down the value chain. With the proliferation of mobile services, value becomes “on demand”.

Mike Crang took this one step further by following objects through their life to destruction and salvage. This was fascinating – the way objects become incorporated into others, attract meaning and stories (“social biographies”), and change and are destroyed. The meaning remains – “ghost stories” (or as Craig put it, “the afterlife of things”). Despite being the most functional of processes, there was real poetry here. Some people don’t want their objects to have stories or history – in the market for second hand clothes, one doesn’t normally want to know the history of the bra you’re wearing (unless it was worn by Madonna or Monroe!). But at the end of their lives, even waste materials can attract value from thoses who have been part of their history: naval vessels being scrapped attract souvenir hunters, often those who have sailed in them. Almost any removeable part can have value.

Throughout the day, inanimate objects on the internet of things seemed to develop their own identities and personalities: we anthropomorphise our objects in relation to ourselves. When discussing the internet of things, people talk about the objects tweeting, for instance. They’re not: a computer sensor, programmed to respond (still anthropomorhising…) in specific ways to particular conditions or data is doing just that. It is possible to have “Death” of an object is part of an natural (re-)cycle. But on the internet of things, the dead objects survive as digital ghosts.

Addendum: Tony Hall has directed me to this download on the internet of things: a critique [pdf] – which looks interesting!

(I also liked the artworks demonstrated by Torsten Lauschmann and Geoff Mann – but it was hard to see how they fitted into the internet of things: rather, they struck me as being digital art. I missed the connection. But here are a couple of works I enjoyed:

“Silence Is The Question”: a dialogue

I went to my first “seasonal dialogue” last week – named because there are four a year, I’m told. The group has been meeting for several years; I was invited by a friend and former colleague, who I had just caught up with after moving back to Edinburgh.

The group consisted of an eclectic mix of about ten people, though many now seemed to freelance in one capacity or another. There was no fixed topic for discussion, though the process (based on “open space“) seemed more formal and as a result the discussion more controlled, respectful and measured than other discussion groups I’ve been to: this made for a somewhat different experience – though perhaps quieter and with less excitement of exploration as others interject. (Normally I think of control as a bad thing, imposed externally to manage or manipulate; in this context, however, the control was self-imposed by members of the group, and a positive.)

In particular, we seemed respectful of the silence. One of the formalities was a “check in” question, to set the tone; and the discussion per se didn’t start till everyone had answered the check in. And people only responded when they chose to. I have never been to a Quaker meeting, but I’m guessing it might feel a but like this.

This was quite hard work: I had things I wanted to say and ask about others’ responses to the check in, and I had to bite my tongue until everyone had had their say. (I had jumped in with my response early on, eager to get going!)

Having to wait – and to listen to others – was humbling. Silence – all too rare in our connected, clouded and device-mediated times – was a good thing. The quality of listening was high: even if it was listening to the silence.

Similarly, the ease with which we disconnected from our devices and connected instead with the group was informative. Like many people, I regularly check Twitter and Facebook, write email or text messages whilst ostensibly doing something else. In the space of the dialogue group, the desire to fill the void created by the silence by getting out one’s phone and seeing what’s going on in the outside world rather than listening to what was going on in the group – albeit silence – wasn’t an option. This felt liberating and healthy.

Silence also played a major part in the discussion later on, as we shifted from one topic to another – unsurprisingly, the silence prompted introspection, and a conversation about silence itself. That silence should be an outcome of conversation sends pleasingly oxymoronic; that it should add value to the conversation doubly so.

There was much resonance with the discussion by Richard Sennett of dialogic as opposed to dialectic, adversarial debate, particularly with respect to learning. The subjunctive and empathetic approach of the dialogue group was certainly in line with Sennett’s approach. It seemed that we were mostly learning about ourselves.

(“Silence Is The Question” is the name of a piece of music written by Reid Anderson. His band The Bad Plus play it on this video.)

Personal Learning Networks: why?

I first came across the term “personal learning network” in a blog post about five years ago (possibly this one from 2008, or this one or maybe this one – or maybe not!).

The phrase was new to me, and frankly I didn’t understand it – or rather, it didn’t seem relevant. And I am still not sure if it is relevant, because my personal learning network – defined by Wikipedia as

an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…

is constantly changing. Back in 2008 I doubt I was thinking about personal learning much, and most of what I learned came somewhat randomly from the many blogs I read, through an RSS feed.

Following my move to London, that changed: I became involved with Tuttle, where I learned a lot, mostly through conversation, and through Tuttle, the School of Everything, and more specifically its offshoot, Everything Unplugged, a weekly meetup to discuss learning specifically and much else (ranging from politics to art and music) besides.

Fred Garnett, one of the many regulars at Everything Unplugged, recently pulled together others’ thoughts on the gathering, limiting us to 50 words. What I wrote was

A loosely-connected group of people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences who gather together to talk about ideas – prompted by, but not exclusively about, an interest in learning. It is essentially an ongoing, wide-ranging conversation which challenges, educates and entertains.

(Fred’s and others’ thoughts can be seen in his presentation on SlideShare.)

So Tuttle and Everything Unplugged formed part of my personal learning network. But – well, conversations are just the start. I think the internet, mediated by Twitter specifically, forms a huge part of my learning environment. Which means anyone sharing a link on Twitter may form part of my PLN. That is a whole lot of people – sufficient for it to be pointless defining it, frankly. Through Twitter, it feels like I have access to the whole world: quite a large network, and one which doesn’t benefit from mapping.

In Edinburgh, where I now live, there are alternatives Tuttle and Everything Unplugged – Edinburgh Coffee Morning, a huge range of meet-ups and tweetups, a dialogue group – ranging from the formal to the very informal, all based around conversation and with various degrees of learning attached.

And of course the internet is still out there, facilitating the exchange of ideas, learning and conversation (as well as cute pictures of cats).

Is there value in the concept of a personal learning network? I think if one has embarked on something with a clear learning objective – gaining a new skill our specific knowledge, or to obtain clearly identifiable learning objectives – it clearly makes sense: it would be the group of people on whom one relies to help meet those objectives. Even then I am not sure on the value of identifying (and hence naming and formalising) that network: I can’t see what is actually gained by doing so. (Though I doubt anything is lost.)

But outside of specific, structured objectives, when the whole world is available to learn from, specifying a discrete network seems almost to defeat the point. With self-directed, self-organised ad hoc – or even self-disorganised – learning, it seems beside the point.

Personal Learning Systems?

At a recent Everything Unplugged session (the Wednesday morning London meetup I went to), we discussed what systems and processes we use for learning. This struck me as being a bit too structured for me: I am not sure that my learning works like that. When I need to know something – a specific piece of knowledge for a bit of work, for example – I will either Google it (and start a trail of links, maybe making paper or digital notes as I go along) or ask someone (either face to face, on the phone, by email, Twitter or text message – indeed, whatever medium is the most appropriate for the person or the information).

Most of my learning, though, is adventitious and informal – accidental or serendipitous: things I come across in conversation or on the web, via Twitter or one of the many blogs I read. I may or more likely not record this learning: I don’t keep a record of what I read, although I do keep a pile of links I want to follow up on Twitter by favouriting (is that a verb? ‘Tis now…) others’ tweets. I also use Diigo for links I come across (and its mobile app, PowerNote) – and one can add tags and notes to Diigo (a real limit for Twitter, I think).

(Some definitions of learning require the setting of learning goals – most common in formal education and training. I don’t that on my own account: it is much more informal than that.)

I also use Evernote to write down ideas and lists of books and other things I want to follow up. (Evernote has distinct advantages to Diigo, I think – it is usable when one is not connected to the internet, and has much better text handling capabilities, I think – but Diigo is much better at bookmarking and tagging.)

I go to formal talks and lectures (the RSA has been a boon for this whilst I have been in London – I will be taking advantage of their live streaming and video channels in my new home) and have informal conversations at, say, Tuttle or Everything Unplugged which are nevertheless full of learning (and frequently more challenging than formal talks, since there is more feedback and exploration through questionning). I often blog about lectures, talks and conversations – one way I record and explore what what I have have learned – like this!

And then there are filed emails, my calendar, my (paper) diary and notebooks. (Paper has a lot of advantages for me over digital note taking: it helps me make connections and remember things better. I often make mindmaps, and those only work for me on paper; and in a lecture or a talk, using a device more sophisticated than a pen and paper distracts me from the talk itself! I can see that tablet devices – without a screen to get in between me and the speaker – might solve this; but pen and paper works just fine! I am not one of those people who can type faster than they write…)

So, not so much a system, more a random group of methods that seem to work for me in an unstructured, somewhat haphazard fashion.

Others in the Everything Unplugged group had a much more rigorous approach – indeed, Neil had come along to try out some of his ideas for developing a personal learning portfolio on us, which got us into the conversation. Using online and offline resources, for instance, one of the group has a structured workflow to manage his learning, including using Delicious as a bookmarking tool (similar to Diigo – I started to use bookmarking when the future of Delicious looked in doubt, though it now seems assured; someone mentioned a specific bookmarking service for learning, XTlearn, though I’ve not explored it) and TiddlyWiki as a note-taking tool. (TiddlyWiki looks great but I have failed to get it working properly on any of my devices – though I’m pretty sure that’s me and not the programme! Maybe I should give it another go.)

Creating a learning portfolio means that one would have a record of all relevant learning; someone reckoned that this – a summary of our learning – could be used in place of a standard CV – the summary of our experiences. Neil feels it will be able to identify matches for new roles and to examine knowledge, learning or skills gaps, which one could then plan to fill.

My main criticism was that such a record of learning shows neither the impact that something has had nor what we think of it. One may learn things which have absolutely no influence at all; other ideas may be highly influential and change the way one behaves. Simply recording what we’ve read, watched – learned – doesn’t differentiate. Maybe that is why people use CVs instead of a learning portfolio.

There are clearly some benefits to having a more structured approach to learning – not least being able to retrieve what one has learned. For long form research – writing a book, say – one would need to record all the references. But for every day, informal learning, an unstructured approach works for me: trying to codify it might make it more like work and less like fun.