Sunday, October 27, 2013

Status report 10-27-13

Some predicted a big upset for the next Congressional election. But the media are always there to carry the water. The tacit message is: "Told ya so." This was accomplished in a matter of days. Sleepwalkers roam this burned out hull.

The Writer Illusion

Slaves of the Internet unite! by Tim Kreider

The writing and analysis in the article are unengaging, so it is not too surprising that the writer is in relatively low demand. But the topic is an interesting one. 

Most people seem to think that writing is something almost anyone can do. There is an illusion that if you can say something orally, all you have to do is write it down on paper, then--"Poof!"--you're a writer. 

What people don't seem to realize is that in conversation, context and meaning are largely conveyed non-verbally. Expressions, gestures, and the situation itself provide as much as the words themselves. Writing is the bastard stepchild of spoken conversation, not vice-versa.

I suspect that school assignments are highly responsible for this illusion. When people have been putting pencil to paper for at least twelve years of schooling, they seem to believe that writing is just something everyone can do. Call this the Writer Illusion.

It is interesting to note the difference between something like mathematics and writing. Most people do not think they are to be trusted at math. Does this mean that educational experience is not really what creates the Writer Illusion?

Perhaps the difference is that people receive much more negative feedback on their skill at rudimentary mathematics. As a result, we are less susceptible to a Mathematician Illusion. 

Yet, most students also hate grammatical rules and spelling, and think that they are not good at it. Why, then, do they nevertheless think they can write? One likely explanation is that it is claimed that grammar and spelling are inessential to writing, ultimately. Even great writers need editors, after all. The claim is that people can write even when they lack these fundamentals.

It is true that precise grammar and spelling are not necessary to be an effective writer. However, it is not true that many students are clear writers, much less effective ones. Not even close. 

Schooling creates the illusion that "anyone can write" because negative feedback on writing quality is hard. 

Unlike mathematics (or grammar) lessons, writing assignments lack an answer key. Every student's paper is different. The teacher has to provide unique analysis and feedback to every student

Furthermore, students have to have certain skills in order to so much as make sense of the feedback. Many don't. So, even if they receive feedback on the clarity and effectiveness of their writing, many students are unable to benefit from it. Many students just perceive such criticism as "pickiness" on the part of the teacher.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Video logging

Watched a Tedx Talk on the social brain. As advice, it was overstated and unclear about how most people could act on the idea. However, it was interesting in that it confirmed what I already had discovered about myself: that I need to imagine teaching something in order to really learn it best; and that a similar but less powerful effect occurs when I compose my notes on factual matters with the thought that they will be published.

Monday, October 7, 2013

"So?" "So..."

The use of the word “so” to begin answers to questions has gotten out of control. It began in earnest among researchers and other academic types, and it seems to have spread to many areas. There was a story about it on Harry Shearer’s “Le Show” from yesterday, and it made me happy to discover that others are annoyed by it.

On “Le Show,” Harry read a response from someone at NPR who speculated that “so” was a new form of “um.” This implied that it was actually preferable, since “so” is at least a word. On my reading, however, this explanation is incorrect. “So” is actually much more than a placeholder, and it is actually much more a strike against those who use it.

“So,” on my analysis, is often actually used as a way to wrest slightly morel social leverage, or “hand,” than one usually has in a certain point in conversations. Let me explain why.

The expectation in many conversations, but especially in interviews, is that if one is asked a question or asked for an explanation, when the respondent next speaks s/he is answering the interlocutor’s question. By contrast, often those who begin an answer with “so” have used the word to begin a lecture. They implicitly say something like the following:

“I am now using the occasion of your asking me a question to begin talking about things that I think need to be said. Your question has basically given me the opportunity to talk about what I want to talk about. If I hereby satisfy your desire for an answer, that is incidental what is now happening here. I have now taken the stage.”

In other words, what is so annoying about “so” users is their audacity. They have essentially subverted a subtle aspect of polite conversations, especially when it comes to interviews. They thereby reveal themselves to fall more in categories like rude, presumptuous, arrogant, narcissistic, egotistical, etc. It won’t seem like a big deal to many people that they do so. But not everyone is tone deaf to such things.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Someone in a "high-IQ group" on FB posted that Caltech is now the world’s top uni or something, and their comment was “Sorry Oxford.” I thought this was ironic and sad at the same time. It really does seem like the environment of sites like Facebook encourages only the basest levels of thinking and interacting.

Wittgenstein wrote in relatively bite-sized chunks. Does this somehow confer analogical legitimacy on media like Twitter, qua the actual quality of what is produced there? I don’t think so. I don’t think W would have tweeted the Tractatus were he alive today. Not if he wanted people to actually read it and think about it.

The problem with the form of thinking and interaction into which social media have gelled is caused by at least these two main issues: that we are influenced by the mode of the surrounding “conversation;” and that the sites encourage quantity over quality.

To expound on the first: the more users--even intelligent ones--see playground-level of interaction going on the more it is normalized for them. It may seem off-putting at first, but if they see enough of it, it becomes not only a temptation but a live option. Thoughtfulness and restraint get edged out the door.

As to the second: the signal-to-noise ratio creates a kind of internal pressure to find something good in the trash pile. You skim through everything hoping to find that one gem of an idea that makes it worth your time to read through all this. Thoughtful ideas are more likely to be found in larger chunks of text. However, over time you get burned by too many long-winded posts that go nowhere and are poorly argued. You start to skip over those too. This creates the feeling for yourself that nobody reads the longer comments and that FB just isn’t the place for them. For most people, that means the more complex thoughts will never get written, since there is nowhere online but AOL-I-mean-Facebook.