Reclaim filing

An article in today’s The Verge caused much excitement saying that students do no longer understand how files and folders work on a computer. Much of the discussion is about whether they should know how apps work ‘under the hood’. I think this is an unfortunate distraction. What is really a shame is that modern apps and operating sytems keep them away from using files and folders — from using their own files and folders.

They rob modern users of so much useful functionality.

  • Most prominently, to browse through their own savings, with the affordance of ‘I know it when I see it’, i.e., without the need to specify any search words;
  • hence, to use sloppy, short or cryptic file names, rather than agonizing over meaningful names, because the file names only need to be recognizable within the local context of the respective folder;
  • hence, to speed up capturing notes (see a video of my own practice);
  • as a side effect, to reactivate the neighboring context, with possible serendipituous findings (like Luhmann);
  • moreover, to keep related stuff together, independently of the apps that created it, such as URLs and references, rough sketches and finished diagrams, short drafted text snippets and long refined writings (see some pictures of my own practice);
  • hence, to include extremely simple apps such as Notepad on Windows, for very quick capturing of ideas, and as a distraction-free preliminary format;
  • and to include shortcuts to other folders (which are very important for me, see #4 habit, and which BTW work much better in Windows than the ‘symlinks’ or ‘aliases’ of the competitors do, because these obscure their special role and hence obfuscate a clear structure).

Bloated applications push their own organizing structure into the foreground as if there were no alternative; they are addicting prostheses rather than empowering tools for work, and this is the no longer just patronizing, but gaslighting and stultification.

An icon of a folder containing icons of  a plain file and a Firefox bookmark URL.
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Teaching Machines

I just finished @audreywatters’s new book “Teaching Machines”, and my reaction is: Wow!

Cover of "Teaching Machines: The history of personalized learning" by Audrey Watters. A smiling school-girl from ca. 1950s pushes a button.

1. It is an important book, because without such a deep insight into the history of teacherless instruction, today’s new teaching machines are probably doomed to repeat some crucial errors over again.

It is enormously impressive to follow the naivety towards snake-oil promises through so many decades, and to see that it is almost exactly the same as today.

For me, chapters 1 through 10 were often resonating with my experiences in the university computer center. How cumbersome it often was to negotiate and convince some staff of even trying things out, when obviously they just were not able to imagine the academic affordances of some new tools.

Also, the book provides a vivid portrayal of the educational mood and hopes of the time of my own elementary school, the 1960s. So now finally I know more about the historical background of my favorite children’s book :-).

But, “the book is also about issues and events beyond the machines” (p. 16). From chapter 11 it gets even more interesting. Particularly, I liked insights such as

“despite all the talk of teaching machines enabling the individualization of education, programmed instruction was more apt to strip away student agency and selfhood.” (p. 226)

and I liked the wide diverse connections that are being considered, such as the Jetsons, the encyclopaedia salesmen, Summerhill, Bruner, Freire, Papert…

Wandering through the wealth of interesting details, the reader gets inspired to ask themselves what it is that makes these machines now appear so alienating, even ridiculous and embarrassing?

2. My take is as follows.

Associated with the image of a machine, are many discomforting and uncanny ideas,

  • that we are not in control but under remote control, surrendered to an unyielding (non-negotiating, mercyless, stubborn) mechanism that compels us to predetermined outcomes,
  • monotonous, repetitive button-pushing, and small (and context-less) steps,
  • maybe a general aversion and mistrust against an optimized, business-like, utilitarian solution, perhaps with external suspicious beneficiaries,

while a human teacher — exerting the same pressure, towards the same predefined goals — seems a lot more mitigating. (At least it seems so to the teacher him/herself — while the pupil may perceive this power as similarly scary as some critics perceive the all-too mighty programmer, in particular the ‘programmer’ of inaccessible AI.)

So, is the human teacher just a mitigated, inconsequential, ‘watered down’ version of the optimized machine teacher that has been prototyped during many decades? Or does our discomfort reveal something about the goal of the optimization itself — content memorization and retention — that is still largely unquestioned? To function optimally, the machines needed to focus on checkable, binary (true or false) facts for immediate reward feedback, and on atomized small steps within the isolated context of the predefined sequence. No ambiguity, no wider context, no ‘by-product’ of the content ‘McGuffin’. So our discomfort may also entail a subsurface intuition that something was wrong, was too narrow, and that an important part of education was missed.

For some, the discomforting association may also be the idea of working alone, without teacher and classmates, which is the inevitable tradeoff for the machine’s infinite patience and dedication to the pupil’s pace, and also the price for the perpetual opportunity of trying and asking, and in particular for an individual, reversed sequence of topics, guided by iterative curiosity and ‘navigating’ the connections, rather than a shared predefined path for the whole class.

A ‘shared gaze’ on the world’s topics is certainly the best option at the earliest stage of education when the infant discovers things through their parent. But if learning theories claim to apply to the whole range from this earliest learning, to the undergraduate in higher education, to the lifelong informally learning professional, they will account for different needs and preferences — and asynchronous, silent, individual work is certainly a preference of many students, as the pandemic has shown. (I, for one, loved the silent work in our two-room rural school, and I think I did benefit from, and still welcome, the independent style.)

Textbooks (and homework, which was waived in the Roanoke Experiment, p. 177) for silent, individual, solitary work can be seen as a precursor or variety of teacherless instruction, and ‘interactive’ electronic textbooks may be seen as precursors of the modern teaching machine. They are said to be more engaging, not only through immersive audio-visual material, but already through merely responding to interspersed questions. Currently in H5P open textbooks, the ‘branching’ content type seems to be the most advanced type of programmed instruction — Crowder’s “TutorText” (from 1958 !) called it “intrinsic programming”, see p. 139.

But the bulk of ‘interactivity’ consists of dialogs that just simulate the teacher, and even ‘intelligent’ textbooks are mostly limited to the paradigm of a single page (or popup) at a time, i.e., the sequential traversal of ‘programmed’ instruction. The unique affordances of independent student’s work such as juggling with concepts within rearrangeable contexts, or ‘talking to’ the text itself by annotating the striking passages with questions to the ‘later self’, are typically still omitted.

So, the limitations of the teacher-mediated instruction are carried over into the asynchronous solitary world — which seems to me like combining the worst of two worlds.

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Decentralized, Part 2

(For part 1, click here)

1. In “A Unified Theory of Decentralization” (via OLDaily), a pseudonymous author enumerates 9 problems, all of which he or she wants to be solved by decentralized solutions — a very puristic approach which I don’t find useful.

The first one is discovery and its solution is “an ongoing research topic”. For me, basic directory or registration service is a matter of a country’s infrastructure, and it is the task of a central but public operator. (A promising proposal within our current election campaign speaks of “öffentlich-rechtlich” (= governed by public law) for alternative platforms).

Maybe it is a cultural issue why some feel uncomfortable with the state maintaining a registry entry for each of its citizens and expecting them to carry an ID card. When I worked in early X.500 projects, there were different attitudes apparent, eventually prohibiting a profile of “residential person” in addition to “organisational person”, and what was left was the vacuous “internet person”.

For me, it is a given, and has been for the entire 50 years of my voter’s right, that the registry sends me, unsolicited, an Election Notification card that I can use (together with my ID card) at the polling station.

Colrored dots and arrows randomly connected, and an unconnected big black dot in the center

2. For my latest summary (see part 1) I used the imprecise title “decentralized knowledge” because I did not know a better catch-all term for what had engaged me recently. In the meantime, I read Ben Werdmüller’s post. It combines ‘centralized’ with ‘templated”, and it struck me how well these notions fit together. The latter impedes inner autonomy in a similar way as the former impedes us from the outside. And together, they cover better what I meant.

Furthermode, to think about centralistic ‘templates’ is also useful when imagining AI assistance for learning. Certainly, AI solutions based on big data can be able to align individuals with central templates such as common canons of memorized knowledge. But what about their personal goals for which there is much less data available? Still doubtful.

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My imagination of the [McGilchrist’s] left hemisphere mode and its isolating and representing, is also associated with wrapping up and collapsing. Wherever we subsume several connected real-world items into a single category or module, under a handy label, we are using a kind of ‘handle’ to better grasp these parts like a single thing; we represent them as one thing to isolate and focus on, and I think that is where the left hemisphere is at work. And this mechanism is so pervasive because it can be repeated: each representation can be combined with others and be collapsed again into another thing on a higher level, until we get a deeply nested hierarchy.

But the wrapping-up principle already applies to much simpler things such as, for example, a footnote reference, or a hyperlink in the web, which harbour behind a single label, like a loophole, another cornucopia of more and more descriptions.

By considering the nested tree structure, one can also connect to Deleuze & Guattari’s concepts of arborescence vs. the rhizome. While today, networked thinking with large zoomable graphs are fashionable, it is often forgotten that purely hierarchical maps, whether radially or just linearly arranged, are still just about things rather than relationships, because every node on the map can be identified with the “road” used to reach it from its parent. So your [McGilchrist’s] point about “things” is also about trees vs. true, non-hierarchical networks and rhizomes.

I wrote the above in a personal letter in July 2020, but the whole idea of wrapped/ collapsed/ congealed may again seem like a rip-off:

In “The Master and his Emissary”, Iain McGilchrist wrote:

“Becoming is potential, and for Being to emerge from Becoming, it needs to be ‘collapsed’ into the present, as the wave function ‘collapses’ under observation” (p. 233)

I mentioned the notion of ‘collapsed’ in Wrapping and grasping

“much of our daily life consists of collapsing (“-“) nested logical containers, or expanding (“+”) them”

with reference to McGilchrist’s general idea of “one of the two fundamental ‘modes of operation’ of our brain” but without explicit reference to his passage which I had not read by then. It was only in the narration of the introduction to his forthcoming book “The Matter with Things”) that I noticed the term ‘collapsed’ (19:06 and 21:05).

Also, in a reader’s comment on the film producer’s site, in 2017, I wrote

“For me, for example, it was particularly striking how the left hemisphere’s grasping and capturing can also be seen in our habits of packaging, wrapping or bundling, and nesting our ideas, which also help isolating, encapsulating and referencing. And then the hierarchy of nested containers, in turn, can be thought of as a ‘tree’ — much like a computer filesystem explorer with its handles for collapsing and expanding.”

again without specific reference.

Similarly, I mentioned the notion of ‘congealed’ in section #4 of Recognizing

“the vast majority of knowledge of the ordinary kind, which McGilchrist would call fixed. (Marx would perhaps call it coagulated or congealed; and …”

again with reference to McGilchrist’s general idea of “fixed results of experiences” but, of course, without explicit reference to his passage in the forthcoming book (13:59).

Since the idea has interested me for so long, I am curious if or how much it might be elaborated in the new book.

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Limit case

Finally, we are able to catch a glimpse into McGilchrist’s new book (he reads out the first 30 minutes of the introduction on YouTube). And if this were not so new, it might look like another case where my blog had stolen an idea from him: the limit case.

During CCK08, I described hierarchical structures (trees) as border case of genuine networks (webs). And a bit later I compared the difference between connective knowledge and simple assertion knowledge to the difference between a parallelogram and a rectangle (the latter being a special/ border/ limit case of the former), and noted that its conceptual connection strength was exactly one, i.e. the limit case of the more general strengths varying between 0 and 1, in the central neuronal metaphor of Connectivism.

A rectangle and 3 parallelograms with width or height equal to the rectangle's, with different colors, and all aligned at the bottom.

Throughout the years that followed, I had this distinction in my mind’s eye when I read and wrote about the complicated vs. the complex, the linear vs. the nonlinear, or later about McGilchrist’s ‘left hemisphere’ mode of attention (fixed in time and isolated in conceptual space) vs. the more real-world ‘right hemisphere’ mode.

Now in his new book, McGilchrist applies the concept of the limit case to a large variety of relationships: isolation vs. interrelation, motion vs. inertia, thought vs. language, explicit vs. implicit, literal vs. metaphorical, order vs. randomness/ chaos, inanimacy vs. animacy, potential vs. actual, determinate vs. indeterminate, straight lines vs. curves, linearity vs. non-linearity, discontinuous vs. continuous, independence vs. interdependence, and most prominently, relationships vs. the things related (from minute 16:56). And it’s just fascinating!

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The Extended Mind

Following Clark Quinn’s hint, I obtained “The Extended Mind” by Annie Murphy Paul.

Her section about “Thinking with the Space of Ideas” was the most interesting one for me — naturally, because the tagline of my own think tool is “Offloaded thoughts, close to your mind”. And it did not disappoint me. It reads like a promotional rationale for why to buy my tool (which you can’t buy because it’s free :-), and in particular, it explains my main point much better than I did: the limitations of trying to do all the thinking within the brain (the “brainbound paradigm”).

There are many passages that I liked very much. For example:

“[T]rue human genius lies in the way we are able to take facts and concepts out of our heads, using physical space to spread out that material, to structure it, and to see it anew.” (Kindle position 2568, bold by me)

I would even say: rearrange it, see it anew, and (then) structure it. Or this one:

“Architects, artists, and designers often speak of a ‘conversation’ carried on between eye and hand” (position 2778)

I think this is a much more powerful dialog than the simulated teacher – pupil dialog of current ‘interactive’ textbooks which merely use questions and answers to keep asynchronous learners awake.

Book cover of "The extended mind".

Of course it is arguable if this kind of thinking should be called “outside” the brain. Even more so in the other sections about “Thinking with…”: other spaces of the Surroundings (Natural and Built ones), or with Bodies (Sensations, Movies, Gesture) or Relationships (Experts, Peers, Groups). The formulation “thinking with” cleverly blends the two senses of “with”: instrumental (using tools), and the other sense sometimes called “comitativus” (accompanied by persons). But the contrast with the “brainbound” paradigm is certainly useful.

The book caused me to consult the SEP entry on Embodied Cognition, where “Extended Cognition” is mentioned as a “Close Relation”. Here, the contrast is against the traditional cognitive science “wedded to computationalism”. To me as a long-time reader of Stephen Downes, the criticism of its “computationally-inspired concepts, including symbol, representation, and inference” is very plausible.

But even more clearly I found parallels of Paul’s book to McGilchrist’s description of the two modes of the brain, for example:

“what researchers call ‘open monitoring,’ or a curious, accepting, nonjudgmental response to all we encounter.” (position 1763)

reminds me of the “broad vigilant attention”, and the cited

“two kinds of attention, wrote James in his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology: ‘voluntary’ and ‘passive.'” (pos. 1751)

remind me of McGilchrist’s “ways of attending” and the intentional focus of what he attributes to the left hemisphere.

With McGilchrist’s descriptions, it sounds very plausible to “see” the offloaded stuff “anew” (see above), because this is what the ‘right hemisphere’ mode can optimally contribute where all new information from the outside world is firstly processed, in contrast to the other mode that is often fed internally by re-presentations. (And McGilchrist himself often uses expressions like “see anew”).

So when the “Extended” and “Embodied” theories rightly criticize the limitations of the brainbound and computational approaches, I wonder if they mostly target the limitations of the ‘left hemisphere’ mode. In this case, it would not be necessary to look for the missed values from beyond in some external locations but rather in the ‘right hemisphere’ and its better contact with the outside world and space and body and and co-humans.

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Commonplace Book

Chris Aldrich wrote a very comprehensive description of the “new boil” of note-taking, a topic that has been engaging me for quite a while.

One thing expected from the note-taking tools, makes me particularly skeptical: their collaborative/ public use. I think the lifecycle of notes cannot be continuous from capturing to communication, unless I forgo the possibility of cryptic, sloppy, abbreviated shorthand meant just for the “me later” that Magdalena Böttger depicted so aptly in 2005.

My own workflow is optimized for quick capturing, and only subsequent careful curating, as shown in this little video:

Note that such careful treatment applies only to a certain kind of my notes. While many project-related notes go straight to simple folders of the operating system, the notes that don’t fit in one of the folders, deserve special attention. I don’t know yet where I might deploy them — possibly in multiple places. Which makes them similar to “commonplace”: reusable in many places. But this connotation has led to a pejorative flavor of the German translation “Gemeinplatz” which means platitude. That’s why I prefer to call them ‘evergreen’ notes, although I am not sure if I am using this differentiation correctly.

(Via OLDaily.)

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Seeming rip-off

I just started reading a new book, and there it happened again: I became aware that some writing of mine might seem like plagiarism. Not verbatim stolen, but the idea in the book looks like it might have inspired me, and I did not cite or acknowledge it — which I would still consider stealing. But I had not read it before, so in my view I acted ‘bona fide’.

Now I’ll start a list of these instances, and I intend to update it when I become aware of more examples.

1. In ‘The Extended Mind”, Annie Murphy Paul writes about getting ideas in walking rather than sitting:

“Far more conducive to the act of creation, Gros continues, is ‘the walking body'” (Kindle position 53)

and in Distant Associations, I wrote about the feeling of the Ah-ha moment, after a long time of gradual emergence of simmering and vague hunches:

“via intuition rather than inferring and reasoning, often during a break, on a walk, away from the papers” (Section “7. Conducive circumstances”, emphasis added)

2. In “The Master and his Emissary”, Iain McGilchrist likens musical passing dissonances to Hegelian Aufhebung:

“The passing discords so frequent in Bach are aufgehoben into the wider consonance as they move on and resolve.” (p. 420, emphasis original)

and in Expectations make the difference, I wrote:

“When a chord with a ‘nonharmonic tone’ is played out of context, it sounds awful, but when we hear it as a ‘passing tone’ or as a ‘neighbor tone’, we don’t notice the dissonance — because we expect that it will immediately be resolved.”

3. In “The Master and his Emissary”, Iain McGilchrist writes, in the context of the left and right hemispheres, about tendons, longing, muscles, and joints:

“‘sinew’ used to refer to the whole elastic union of muscle and tendon.” (p. 203)

and in Mental flexors and extensors, I likened the two hemispheres to two muscles:

“we need to understand the ‘flexors’ and ‘extensors’ of brain operation, and we need to identify their respective contribution to the balance in everyday behaviors.”

(It may sound implausible that I had not read these passages before writing my stuff, given that I have so often mentioned McGilchrist, but as a slow EFL reader, I still have not worked through all of this 500+ English pages tome.)

Two lightbulbs symbolizing an idea, and a CTRL+C / CTRL + V clipboard in between.

Added 2021-07-06:

4. Lakoff and Johnson wrote about spatial metaphors:

“Lakoff hypothesises that principles of abstract reasoning may have evolved from visual thinking and mechanisms for representing spatial relations that are present in lower animals.” (Wikipedia entry Cognitive linguistics).

and in Spatial word roots are most prolific, I wrote about my unprofessional etymological map:

“If you stroll around the word roots on my map and explore their verbose definitions from my etymological dictionary, you may notice yourself that the category #3, ‘Space, Position, Form’, shows particularly many items “

as well as in Prepositions and the Funnel:

“I was amazed about how much our ancestors applied their visual and kinesthetic experience of space to all sorts of other things”

Added 2021-08-29:

5. See the below pingback from my post about “limit case” in McGilchrist’s forthcoming book.

6. Also in McGilchrist’s forthcoming book, there is a lot of emphasis on the idea that relationships are more important than the things related.

“I suggest that relationships are primary, more foundational than the things related” (13:28 in the narration of the introduction to “The Matter with Things”)

This is an idea that appears in numerous places in my own writing, perhaps most centrally in section #11 of my 2016 Recognizing page, or tersely in a former (2011) Google Plus discussion reconstructed here:

“Isn’t this the connectivist view (nodes are less interesting than ties)”

I hope I left no doubt that I owe this idea to Stephen Downes and Connectivism. Even in case I occasionally forgot an explicit attribution, it should be clear from numerous other posts that my thinking draws heavily on his work.

7. Similary, some minor mentions reminded me of points I owe to Downes:

  • homunculus (30:07) — here;
  • direct perception (“directly”, 30:56) — here;

8. See the below pingback from my post about “collapsing” in McGilchrist’s forthcoming book.

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Ungrading, my take

A yardstick, being thrown into a recycle bin.

Grading is currently discussed by several bloggers, e.g. here, here and here. My take is unprofessional but by a pupil of the 60s. I wonder why simple pass/fail results should not suffice in most cases.

Except for vanity ranking, the biggest role of grading is probably: to counterbalance a failed subject with a passed subject. This creates a lot of misdirected efforts and stress — but it allows education politics to duck out some important questions:

1. How much early and radical specialization on a few focussed subjects is desirable today? Schools just let it happen, and pupils and parents are happy to dismiss the failed subjects. And what criteria should be used to make the choice: preferences (or — heaven forbid — styles) ? Nope, just ‘ability’, measured by the questionable proxy of grades.

2. On the other hand, there seems to be still some concern for breadth, or ‘general’ knowledge and understanding — which I appreciate. For once, some important skills are often fostered by distant topics rather than just the narrow frame at hand. Moreover, experts of one discipline should be able to talk and listen to some expert of another field, not just try to sit somewhere in between. Do these benefits still occur, perhaps to a lesser extent, if the subject is failed? I cannot believe that. So, how many diverse subjects should minimally be passed, and how much should the disliked stuff be enforced? Again, the answer is escaped.

3. According to Stephen Downes, education should help the student to “become the kind of person they want”1). IMHO this also means to help them that they don’t waste time and energy with work that they thoroughly and consistently fail. Instead, there is the chance that the student themselves readjusts his or her wish about what they want to become. Perhaps a work life sitting all day behind texts and information or agonizing over decisions, is not exactly what they imagined? Or if the student’s wish was just to be a rich person without much effort, and now they see that this also entails cultivating recklessness and unsocial skills, which is not what they really want, either? Then a radical and timely reorientation might be a blessing, even though the idea of ‘drop-out’ seems to be a taboo in some cultures, especially where one has to pay a lot for education. So: what extent of mastery is minimally needed unless a failure must suggest a reorientation? By counterbalancing the passed and failed subjects, this decision can be ducked out, too.

All this ducking out, ultimately, relates to the unanswered question of what knowledge, skills and understanding are still necessary in the age of googling and AI, which I addressed in my recent post Distant associations. Spoiler: I did not duck out.

Note1) Cannot find the reference, closest match is here.

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Annotation. 2021

My latest read is Annotation, a great book by Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia. MIT Press 2021.

Book cover of Annotation by Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia

And here are some of the things I learned:

1. More on Social Annotation: “We can think of an information infrastructure as part technical system and part human network” (p. 165), which reminded me of my PLE and PLN. “[A]n author’s word is not final, and readers respond by speaking back to and constructing idiosyncratic or shared meaning within and about texts” (p. 19).

This social aspect is an important complement to my past experience with annotation tools and practices which I mentioned yesterday

2. Some detailed distinctions, e.g. “different types of annotation like marginalia, glosses, and rubrication have historically appeared as notes within books” (p.21), and “glossaries are a curated list of annotations.” (p. 30),

Furthermore, the authors “distinguish annotation from commonplaces, a related act of meaning making whereby personal notebooks record thoughts, musings, and other information often when reading another book.” (p. 20-21).

This made me think of my own practice which is probably a mixture between the two because often, my notes are not anchored to a single text passage and I “want to revisit annotation and make use of this cumulative corpus” (p. 164), by exporting and mapping them, such that my divergently sparked associations might finally converge into meaning.

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