Possession is less than nine tenths.

Walking into a library doesn’t make you literate. Owning a speedo doesn’t make you a swimming superstar. Nor does having a chemistry set make you a chemist. Sure, all of these statements make sense. It’s hard to argue otherwise. So why was I so shocked this morning when I realized that scribbling my appointments into a calendar doesn’t make me organized? That’s right, I woke up bright and early to play squash with a friend from college—I even had the decency to send a polite text message to her while heading over to the courts.

“Hemenway, I’m on my way.”

She responded with a real, voice-to-voice telephone call. Her voice was laughing, though. It looks like I’ll need to wake up, bright and early, again, tomorrow morning How can this be? My Google calendar was wrong. I was wrong.

Moral 1: Having a resource is only half the story. You need to know how to use it well, too. (The computer scientists have a phrase for this sort of situation, “Garbage in, garbage out.”)
Moral 2: I should get an assistant.

At least I got some quality practice in.

Some Mottos

I’m loathe to write this post, because I know it’s going to be short and what I’m about to write—and my essential character, therefore—can easily be misinterpreted. Still, in the last two days people have accidentally uttered things that I think could be motto-worthy. However, one of my implicit mottos, one that I will not formally list, is, “You shouldn’t have too many mottos.” After all, it’s hard enough to carry around a handful of maxims throughout the day. Many more and I’d run out of the computational resources necessary to live by my own standards.

It is my hope that once I’ve got these things committed to (metaphorical, digital) paper, I’ll be able better to organize them, combine them, and generalize them. That’s right: it’s time for a spring cleaning of my wintered philosophies.

So here they are in chronological order:

  1. You can never have too much butter fat.
  2. Treat a person like dirt and he’ll stick to you like mud.
  3. I am smarter than my genes.
  4. I am more patient than a five year old.
  5. Be the person you want to attract.

On Friday DJ accidentally pointed out that I’ve ignored the deterministic components of nurture in the old war between nature and nurture. So maybe it’d be worthwhile to add

  • I can outgrow my environment.

And this morning my aunt Robin called to discuss her responses to Carol Dweck’s book on self and motivation theories that I mentioned a long time ago. I told her that I find her receptiveness to what Dweck has to say encouraging. Her response could warrant a more permanent place in my daily life:

  • It doesn’t matter what you think if it’s not working.

Do you have any words of wisdom that I should consider introducing to my list? You know I love comments.

Hold the door, please!

Everyday each of us engages in several delicate dances with the other members of society. I secretly long for the days of learned formalities, proper ettiquette, and wide-spread manners. If someone were just to tell me what to do, things would run more smoothly. Take, for instance, the simple act of holding the door for another person.

So far I’ve only noticed one person play the situation correctly. On several occasions, I held the door for my friend Lane, who, by chance, was always a good ten yards away when I first spotted him. Lane usually acknowledged my act of kindness. He might say, “Thanks, Joshie,” but he would never speed up as I stood. The moments seemed to lag as he slowly approached the entrance to the dining hall. Once he arrived, I thanked him with full sincerity. Most people, I explained, sprint once they realize that someone else is holding the door for them. However, that ruins the favor. What sort of charity requires you to break a sweat? Lane had enjoyed my gift as it was intended, and I believe we both appreciated the exchange all the more for it.

But that sort of action doesn’t readily transfer to any other person. On Friday a stranger held a door for me, and like most people, I sped up as soon as I noticed that I was inconveniencing another person. The man beckoned me to slow down, but how could I? Then I’d come across as arrogant and entitled. I’ll make no one a doorman for me. Well, at least no stranger. And there lies the fundamental difference. Lane and I are friends. This man and I were not. For some reason it’s easier for me to take advantage of my friends than strangers. I guess that’s a good thing for society at large, though a little strenuous on my immediate circle of friends. I believe sociobiologists would have a thing or two to say about multi-level selection processes at this point, but I don’t.

Instead I have a few questions. Normally we think of selfish behavior as something that individuals inflict on members outside of their group. (The ones who are selfish to those inside their group is called “cheaters” or a “defectors”.) The defectors take advantage of and therefore benefit from the cooperators on the individual level. Locally, the defectors do better. But when it comes to asking for help, it’s easier for me to ask someone I know I can trust. I’m more willing to ask my friends to do me favors than strangers. In the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, it’s in your best interest to cooperate with your partner because you’re going to see them again. If you screw them over, they’ll remember it and be less likely to help you in the future. But in many cases I impose on other precisely because I know I’ll see them again. My willingness to ask others to do things for me increases with my level of comfort with them, and I see it in others, too.

Take it up a notch and look at groups as your fundamental unit rather than individuals. People have noticed before that groups that have more (internal) cooperators do better on average than groups with fewer. That seems to make sense. If more people in your group are willing to help out others in your group, the group should run more smoothly than groups that don’t work well together. Nothing exciting there. But what happens when there’s lots of internal chaos but external altruism—can groups composed of individuals that take advantage of each other but cooperate with members outside of the group coexist given proper inter-group interaction?

Because the comfortable defectors have to act charitably when someone else calls on them, it’s a little unfair to characterize them as defectors. Maybe it’s best to call them comfortable defectors-generous forgivers. This is starting to sound like the win-stay, lose-shift strategy. Maybe the folks studying evolutionary dynamics can clear things up for me. Help me out if you can, especially if I’m already comfortable with you.

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Animal imagination

This time I have a question for you, the kind reader: can anyone tell me (or point me to a study that suggests) whether non-human animals practice their skills outside of a group?

On many a PBS nature documentary, you can find a gathering of young, fury things play-fighting one another to hone their hunting and social skills. However, human athletes will substitute physical competitors with imagined or abstracted ones. It’s common for athletes to compete against recorded times, high scores, or a mental reincarnations of a previous or idealized self during practice in the absence of a physically present opponent. And this sort of activity isn’t confined to sports like running or cycling. Full teams can visualize a routine or match performance for positive effect. Marines are instructed to imagine their hitting a target—and this sort of practice increases accuracy. These pretend opponents have real, demonstrable, and causal power. In short, human imagination is pretty powerful aid to skill acquisition, at least.

So let’s get back to my opening question: to what extent can non-human animals imagine? Please help me out if you can.

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On Connectives and Language: Some More Robots and Cartoons

After the initial post on my robot/cartoon universe, a few of my friends and I have talked out the system. It turns out that my scheme is too restrictive in its expressiveness. Here I’ve set to free up the system.

No one has argued against the robot/cartoon dichotomy. But some have pointed out that pretends-to-be is too restrictive a connective. It only captures a very narrow (albeit common) relationship between self and self-image. Others have shown me that the connective is, perhaps, too idealistic. Pretends-to-be issues a lot of self-awareness to its referent. To balance out the relationships a little, I’ve decided to add the connective thinks it is to the mix. Thinks-it-is tries to convey whatever the opposite of self-awareness is—I’m loathe to call it self-absorption or self-deception.

Just as the split between robot and cartoon begins to blur when they are connected using a connective (like pretending-to-be), you can see that thinks-it-is is not at odds with pretending-to-be. They compliment each other through their (dual) connectives cartoon and robot. When both connectives appear in a single description, a new, complex meaning emerges from their interaction. However, the new addition complicates the taxonomy in more ways that I had first imagined. You see, pretends-to-be and thinks-it-is do not, as the mathematicians say, associate. And verbal language is not well-suited for these kinds of connectives. Let me show you what I mean.

I have a friend who is most certainly ((a cartoon who thinks it is a robot)-pretending to be a cartoon). Notice how that is not the same thing as (a cartoon who thinks it is-(a robot pretending to be a cartoon)). I’ve tried to demonstrate the difference by grouping with parentheses and hyphens (to show that the phrase wasn’t just a grammatical parenthetical). See what I mean?

Textual language handles the problem with hardly any more finesse. Parentheses and square brackets already have semi-well-defined meanings in English. The curly brace ({) is, and I’m sorry to say this, ugly in most contexts. Perhaps nested less than/greater than sign pairs would do better? My friend is a <<cartoon pretending to be a cartoon> who thinks he’s a cartoon>. Please offer up opinions and suggestions.

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Critical Thinking Journal/Weak-sene, Strong-sense, and Probabilities

That’s right. It’s time for another installment of “What has Josh been writing for class?” This week I responded mostly to an old article by Richard Paul—who, I think, bears a striking resemblance to Walker Texas Ranger: hold on to that.

He differentiates mainly between two types of styles of problem evaluation: weak-sense and strong-sense critical thinking. To paraphrase, perhaps unfairly, weak-sense is marred by an overly narrow subproblem formulation. It’s atomistic. First you take a big problem, chop it up into smaller problems, and then solve each of the bite-sized pieces one at a time. Paul rightly notes that oftentimes this method misses the larger problem that arrise from the interplay of the otherwise well-behaved subproblems. The mathematician in me has to note that the local-behavior-does-not-imply-global-behavior phenomenon has been a central theme in differential geometry from about its beginning. The same problem creeps up just about everywhere else you look for it. I’ve tried to talk about this before in vague terms relating to urban planning and chaos theory. Maybe I should try again sometime. But for now:

Journal 3 Journal 3: Weak-sense, Strong-sense, and Probabilities

I agree with Paul. Strong-sense thinking is more appropriate for lots modern problems. International conflict, curricular design, and global warming all require strong-sense critical thinking, for example. (Ordering dinner at a restaurant typically does not.) While I like Paul’s network approach to problem solving, I think the primary weakness of weak-sense thinking lies in its absolutist view of truth, not necessarily its divide-and-conquer methodology. Truth, when viewed as a certainty, is rigid and fragile. Today’s demanding social and business landscape calls for something more adaptive, fluid, and functional. (Yes, you were supposed to read that last line with an announcer’s voice.) So how do I amend his framework? With probabilities of course. Really dedicated readers will see that I’ve mostly recycled my blog entry about assumptions. But to keep things fresh, I had to add something. And you knew it would happen eventually. I couldn’t resist.

I center my discussion around a theorem from linear algebra. Gleason’s Theorem tells you exactly what the probabilistic measures on the closed subspaces of a Hilbert space are (basically they’re projection operators). And according to some, it’s central to future research in information retrieval. I use it to show the usefulness of multiple points-of-view with some scientific flare. Of course, my treatment is clumsy—but technically I’m only allowed one page per entry. How thorough could I have been? Maybe later I’ll clean this up and expand it a little. For now, it’s probably okay.


Paul, Richard. “Teaching critical thinking in the ‘strong’ sense: A focus on self-deception, world views, and a dialectical mode of analysis.” Informal Logic Newsletter, 1982.

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Critical Thinking Journals/Skills and Dispositions

One of the texts we use in CCT 601: Critical Thinking is a book that came out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education group called Project Zero—yes, it’s the same one that Howard Gardner runs. The Thinking Classroom gives the educator some very concrete tools to approach some rather abstract concepts in the classroom. The format of the book is more helpful than most: two chapters cover each chunk of material. The first of the pair always introduces the concept and gives a little justification for its relevance. The second chapter illustrates the concept in practice through a handful of annotated examples. I don’t fully agree with everything they say, but I like format. That’s saying a lot.

Anyway, it’s useful to know many of my journal entries respond (in part) to this book. We also read a lot of articles, if I get the chance I’ll put references at the bottom of each of these posts.

Journal 2 Journal 2: Skills and Dispositions

Here I continue to investigate building learning environments from the community up. In particular, I briefly examine the differences between raw skill and dispositions actually to use those skills. I decide that there really is no difference from the standpoint of culture. Instead, I propose that the schedule (or sensitivity) of practice of a skill is built into the culture through a mechanism which I call tradition. Equipped with traditions of practice, educators can instill really abstract things like intrinsic motivation and measured risk-taking in their students simply by provided the proper community, proper culture, and proper traditions.

Let me know what you think.

P.S.—This entry is missing a graph in the right margin of the first page where it says “Performance over time.” [I drew it in by hand on the copy I submitted in class.] The graph starts out relatively flat, dips down, and then rises up above the starting level and flattens out again.

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A few weeks ago my friend Michelle called me a little after one in the afternoon. The ring of the telephone woke me up and I stumbled across the room to answer her call. I looked down at the little display, saw that it was Michelle, and then put on my best telephone face to accept her “Hello, Joshy.”

Michelle called to tell me that she had accepted a new job—she was in need of a new one, believe you me. This was fantastic news. Usually Michelle can spot my false wakefulness, even over the phone, like one of those empaths from Star Trek (or something). But this time, her excitement—in conjunction with my keen theatrical abilities—distracted her from the reality of my slumber, which is exactly what I was aiming for.

I wasn’t, but the question still remains: could I have justifiably been upset at Michelle for waking me up? Well, yes but mostly no. It was one in the afternoon. Most people are awake when the sun’s up. So, Michelle was right to operate on the assumption “people are awake when the sun’s up.” The world is a crazy and complicated place. We have to live our lives despite only having access to a very small amount of knowledge about our environment. Therefore most of our judgments aren’t certain. Instead, they’re best guesses that approximate what we should do if we actually knew everything there was to know. Thankfully, we’re not totally in the dark.

People are very good at working with probabilities because lots of the events in the world have a high probability of certainty. That tree in the park you saw this morning on your way to work will probably still be there during your commute home later tonight. The position and function of the knobs and buttons on your stove are not going to switch themselves around when you’re not looking—with high probability. So it’s not surprising that people believe that there are certainties in life. And maybe if you were able to know everything about everything at every time, then the world would work according to a small set of fixed laws. Unfortunately, no one—as far as I know—has that sort of depth of knowledge and understanding. So, for practical purposes, we’re left interacting with probabilities.

Now we get into trouble when we confuse probabilities for certainties. Then we become locked into a stereotype. That’s right, I think stereotypes are simply misapplied probabilities. Several years ago some fledging stand-up comedian trying to break it big played the Conan O’Brien Show. He included two “postive stereotypes” that stuck with me. “All Jews can fly and Mexicans are made out of candy,” he claimed. Being (sort of) both Jewish and Mexican, I can say from experience that very few Jews whom I know can fly and even fewer Mexicans are made out of candy. So what makes his stereotypes wrong? Well, probabilistically his claims aren’t well supported.

Here’s another perhaps less inflammatory claim: men are taller than women. I bet a lot of you agree with that. But let’s hold up just a second and see just what the sentence is saying. There are a lot of words missing that really ought to be there. My claim doesn’t mean all men are taller than all women. If you cite your friend from college on the women’s basketball team who towers over everyone else in a crowd, you haven’t disproved anything. What I really mean to say is that on average men are taller than women; i.e., if you pull a random man and a random woman off the street and compare their heights, record the answer, and then repeat the experiment several times over, then in general, you will find that the man is taller than the woman.

So what are assumptions: they are the most probable results from a distribution of possible results that we adopt as fact based on our experience. Experience varies, so assumptions vary. The key is to remember that sometimes outlying events can happen, and we must be open to the possibility that they do. Most Mexicans aren’t made out of candy, but don’t let me fool you into believing that none of us are.

All that said, Michelle should’ve known, given her previous experience, that there was a high likelihood that I would be sleeping at one in the afternoon. Don’t forget that not all assumptions apply in all contexts. These things are conditional, after all. So, she’s only partially excused.

And while I’m on my soapbox, it’s worth pointing out that because people almost exclusively interact with probability distributions, probability and statistics really need to be given more attention in school curricula. Over emphasis on deterministic systems tricks students into believing that the world really operates on certain events. I can’t think of anything further from the truth.

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Dialogue and Learning Environments

During the winter session I took a class on dialogue processes. Most people are familiar with debate. We have clubs for this sort of thing after school, after all. In the standard set up, a debate has two or more opposing sides. They bat each other over the head with facts and name-calling until one of them submits and declares a surrender. Dialogue is the opposite of debate. Instead of looking for a product (i.e., winnning), dialogue focuses on a process (i.e., learning). It’s ideal in education because it nicely ties together the sometimes competing interests of knowledge-, student-, and assessment-centered learning environments by a clever structuring of its community base.

I’ve posted the final paper I wrote for this class [late]. It’s short and only very briefly describes my “coffee mug model” for the classroom. Basically, this thing is predicated on the idea that respect is the willingness to learn from another [person or thing].

I know I’ve been in situations when I know that the person who’s taking to me is much more knowledgeable than I am, that I should pay attention to what he’s saying, but that because I don’t respect the guy, I just can’t learn from him. In the classroom, I think that learning from another person is respect, by definition. Think about it. How many times do opposing viewpoints talk right passed each other? The reason is because they’re not willing to learn from the other. Chances are paying attention to your opponent can help out your cause. Sometimes, you might find that there really isn’t any conflict at all. Instead, it’s all perceived (rather than real) conflict. Golly, communication is powerful stuff.

I still owe you guys a post about assumptions. Consider this the beginning of it.

Also, if you have the time, please come to Seven Old Ladies get lost in the loo tomorrow nigth at Blanchard’s Tavern (turn down your volume before you follow the link). For those of you who don’t know it—and be ashamed if you don’t—Blanchard’s Tavern is one of the few bars around here that tries (really, really hard) to stay honest to its 18th century foundings. They serve things like loganberry wine and Brunswick stew. (You can check out the full menu for yourself.) And they’re a steal at only $3 each.

Tomorrow’s event is going to be raucous—the volunteers who run this thing promised me. So come on down. Bring a canned good or expect to donate $1 to the local food pantry. We’ll sip on General Washington coffee and sing along to old sea shanties. And if you can’t make it tomorrow, you can show up any Saturday. Every Saturday.

Do it.

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Judging Authenticity

Recently, my friend Little Lamb wrote a post about how people react to identity (gender or otherwise). Now conceptions of the self have eluded me for a while, and I love reading what others have to say about the issue. Here’s a short snipet from her article—you should read the whole thing, of course—but this will do well enough to situate my post:

Of course, we do judge the authenticity of identities like these—often identity groups to which we ourselves don’t even belong—every day. We distinguish between “normal” Muslims and violent ones, women who kiss each other at parties and dykes, “real” bisexuals and gay men in denial. But every time we make judgements like these, we imply that we are better judges of authentic identity than those who live these identities. [Original emphasis]

Before I go on, I should say that I completely agree. From an observational standpoint, when someone judges the identity of another he is as a matter of fact asserting his perception of that person onto that person, perhaps against that person’s will. The question is not whether the judge is imposing his viewpoint onto another, but whether there’s any significance in the act at all. After all, in some cases it could be very useful indeed.

I grew up in a very small, white, Irish-Catholic suburb of Boston. Now it’s important that I say Boston, because already there are tremendous differences between say a Boston Irish-Catholic community and a Chicago Irish-Catholic community, and both of them, in turn, are vastly different from Irish Irish-Catholic communities. I’m not about to dismiss local variation. That said, I’m not Irish-Catholic. According to legal documentation, I’m Mexican. And as far as the law of Moses goes, I’m also Jewish. But having grown up in an otherwise homogenous environment, what being Mexican and being Jewish means to me might very well look like what being Boston Irish-Catholic looks like to you. But that’s okay. How I feel and what I know to be Mexican is largely an accident of my youth. So, whatever I think it is, it is. It’s all a matter of perspective, right? Well, maybe.

Once I went to college, I met lots of people who, like me, were Mexican, Jewish, and sometimes even Mexican and Jewish. (Now I’m going to start lumping Mexican and Hispanics into a single term. From now on, when I write Mexican you can assume I mean Hispanic. While I know this may sound clumsy and callous, it’s not. I’m Mexican after all, and who are you to tell me what it means to be Mexican—er, Hispanic?) However, unlike me, most of them grew up with other Mexicans or Jews. Consequently, they painted a very different picture when they described the Mexican experience. Still, due to legalities, I was accepted into the two groups, I think, as a matter of technicality. But the more time I spent doing “Mexican things,” the more sure of my heritage, and all the perks that come along with it, I became. I had always thought I liked spicy food because of my Hispanicidad, now there was no questioning it.

So, where does identity exist? Some might argue that identity is something that each individual chooses for himself on the inside. However, I don’t buy it. If I don’t think you’re a Mexican, then to me, you’re not a Mexican—even if you think you are. Likewise, I might think you’re a Mexican, even if you insist you’re not. The problem is that identity is not an objective fact. It lies somewhere between a speech act and something else. It may feel a little unsettlilng that you’re not in control of who you are. Identity is an emergent property of the way one person interacts with several, other people. Who you are isn’t entirely up to you, it’s up to us. Let me explain what I mean.

When I meet you for the first time, I’m going to assess the way you look, act, make me feel, etc.—I’m going to perceive you. Now, of course, I won’t get an exhaustive look at you. I probably won’t be able to guess that you’re favorite number is 11, or that you find global warming so scary that sometimes you can’t sleep at night. Everyone has to operate with incomplete knowledge. We fill in the gaps with likely probabilities based on our previous experience (some might call these probabilities assumptions) and do our best to form a belief that makes sense of the situation. Because of the way I treat you, you’re going to adjust your behavior. Your change will trigger me to adjust my beliefs and therefore behavior. Eventually, the way you act and the way I act will settle down—and voilá! What is identity other than a set of behavoirs that largely matches some (loosely if at all defined) generic shadow of behavoirs?

Humans are dynamic entities. We respond to our environment. The trick is, humans are also a part of their environment. So it’s easy to forget that other people are part of our environment, too. Before I talked about why Vygotsky thinks man is special: we use signs to store information outside of our brains. Our minds, in a very real sense, are distributed all over the world around us. It’s not so suprising, then, that each individual identity should be spread out all over a mass of other people as well.

Humans alter their environment—I write down ideas I have in a notebook I keep in my pocket, for example—so that later they can use the environment to alter our behavoir—say, like remembering what to write my next post about. What’s important to remember is that every interaction with our environment is a form of communication. Humans love gathering and piecing together clues. We impute intentionality on just about everything. So we don’t even require that the other end of the conversation come from another living entity. (Consider books, for example; if that doesn’t satisfy you, consider geologists who try to reconstruct the Earth’s past recorded in the bedrock.) And most interactions end up changing all the parties involved. (Leave no footprint after camping; reconcile after a fight to feel better; drink orange juice for energy and hydration.) The fact that we interact with other people means that we change others and are changed ourselves a little bit every day. Just like small changes slowly birthed Modern English from Old English, we, too, are not who we once were.

Few people would argue that they are exactly still their six year old selves. However, what some people might be slower to admit is that they largely have no say in who they are. Much of who we are, how we fit into society, is not up to us. It’s up to the caprice of the society we belong to, the rules of which are subtle and complex. So, let’s get back to the question of identity. It looks like it is impossible not to judge the authenticity of person’s identity. (If I agree with your perception of yourself [when it matters—fill out an online questionaire for your friend in front of your friend. You’ll see just how much of the same person the two of you see. Careful, it can get tense.] then I reinforce your conception of yourself and at the same time reinforce my assumptions about you.) That’s not the problem. The problem is not in judging, it is in how we judge. Maybe what we ought to investigate is not that we judge but the assumptions that guide our judgments.

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