Sunday, December 31, 2006

Knowledge as a Creole

Sketching out an idea, seeing where it goes... probably shouldn't be taken too literally.


There's a type of human langauge known as a creole.

During the 1800s, there were situations where slaves from various different cultures were brought together to work on farms. They didn't speak speak common languages, so they developed pidgin langauges to communicate: simplified langauges without proper grammatical structures.

But something interesting happened when their children grew up in this pidgin environment. By themselves, the children turned the pidgin into a proper langauge with a proper grammatical structure. These sorts of languages are known as creoles.

Similar things have happened in the development of some sign languages.

In his description of creoles, the psychologist Steven Pinker says "...all it takes is for a group of children to be exposed to the pidgin at the age when they acquire their mother tongue" (The Language Instinct, pp 21 - 30)

Creoles provide signficant insights into children's language development.

Creoles emerge naturally, without explicit decision or design by the children or their parents. There seems to be innate structures and processes in the children's brains that are looking to build a language from the pidgin.

It's like the structures and processes in the child's brain have a plan already sketched out for a language design, and facing an impoverished language like a pidgin, it modifies it and fleshes it out according to the plan.

And in fact, it seems that all language is a creole, in the sense that a child learning their mother tongue is going through the same sorts of processes as those children building a creole. That is, when a child is learning a langauge, they aren't just passively taking in the linguistic elements and deriving the langauge from that, but are actively constructing one according to an inbuilt plan, and only using the available linguistic elements as raw material.

But because in normal situations the child is growing up in environments containing fully-fledged languge(s) rather than incomplete pidgeons, the langauge they build is constrained to match the features of those existing langauges.

Knowledge as a creole

I want to suggest that knowledge is also like a creole, in that the primary means by we acquire it is like language acquisition: it is automatic, happens relatively young, and it is directed by innate processes and structures.

It is primarily responsible for building the knowledge that shapes how we see the world. And like with language-acuquisition, and how we are limited in our ability to learn langauge once we have reached a certain age, our ability to change the way we see the world is limited after we have built our initial picture of the world.

If this was the case, it would help explain why people's worldviews tend to be fairly fixed, and it would also help to explain how worldviews and paradigms evolve over generations.

To see its role in the evolution of worldviews and paradigms, we need to see what happens as we build our knowledge.

Like with langauge, this knowledge-acquisition process is not a passive, simply absorbing the details out there, but is directed by innate processes and strutures that look for certain types of details and build certain types of structures. So it's really less 'knolwedge-acquisition' and more 'knowledge-building'.

To build our picture of the world, we have to integrate lots of different knowledge. This integrative process is not neutral.
Some of the knowledge may be overlapping, covering similar ground, but perhaps from different angles or at different levels of abstraction. Or it may be conflicting. To integrate these it needs to choose certain beliefs over others (not that it's necessairly going to build something that's fully consistent, though).

So in building a picture of the world, and integrating together knowledge, it has to streamline the input it receives. This can clean out dead-wood, like cleaning out beliefs that clearly don't make sense in terms of what we now know, or ad-hoc beliefs.

And this streamlining may actually may make things explicit that were only implicit in the input knowledge. When certain facts are discovered about the world, the middle-aged person who has already built a picture of the world has great difficulty to deeply integrate these facts into their picture of the world.

But the person growing up, building their picture of the world can take these facts as just part of the existing knoweldge and integrate them at a foundational level in their picture. So they may be able to, for example, make explicit consequences of those new facts that were there implicit in the data, but no one else could see before.

I suspect that this could play a role in why ideas often get invented by multiple people around the same time, and help to explain why brainwashing/propoganda efforts are so difficult to undertake in the longer-term.

And interestingly, this would mean that certain ideas can be there, latent in knowledge, for quite some time, until the next generation grows up and deeply incorporates them into their picture of the world.

Norman and Spolsky on ‘Simplicity’

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I think that the currently popular obsession with ‘simplicity’ is a bit misplaced. People's notion of simplicity is quite vague, and what they're talking is not really realy simplicity, anyway. Value attributed to 'simplicity' is often the result of other properties.

Recently there’s been a couple of articles on a similar theme in the blogosphere, one by Donald Norman and two by Joel Spolsky. I’ll take them in turn.

Norman’s article is called ‘Simplicity Is Highly Overrated’. I think highly of Donald Norman, from reading his “The Design of Everyday Things” book, but I think this article is a bit superficial. What he’s really arguing is about what people tend to want -- which he says is appliances with more features -- rather than being about the relative merits of simple or complex appliances.

Spolsky argues that what people label as ‘simplicity’ isn’t really simplicity at all, but something that is both different and more specific: specific sorts of functionality

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”
A lot of people say that iPods are successful because they are simple, and he comments on this:
I think it is a misattribution to say, for example, that the iPod is successful because it lacks features. If you start to believe that, you'll believe, among other things, that you should take out features to increase your product’s success.
To summarise his argument, he thinks that people tend to talk of simplicity as ‘minimal and focused set of features’, yet the only potentially valuable sorts of simplicity -- which aren’t really simplicity per se -- are where there’s a close fit between user model and the program model, resulting in ease of use, or where there’s a ‘minimalistic aesthetic’.
If you're using the term "simplicity" to refer to a product in which the user model corresponds closely to the program model, so the product is easy to use, fine, more power to ya. If you're using the term "simplicity" to refer to a product with a spare, clean visual appearance, so the term is nothing more than an aesthetic description much in the same way you might describe Ralph Lauren clothes as "Southampton WASP," fine, more power to ya. Minimalist aesthetics are quite hip these days. But if you think simplicity means "not very many features" or "does one thing and does it well," then I applaud your integrity but you can't go that far with a product that deliberately leaves features out.
Slashdot has a discussion of these two articles.

In another article, Spolsky refines his point a bit. He talks about the notion of ‘elegance’ meaning 'grace and economy at achieving some task', which is related to simplicity (and, though he doesn’t make this point explicit, what people often really mean when they talk about ‘simplicity’). He says that while ‘elegance’ is valuable, ‘fewer features/capabilities' -- which is often what people talk about simplicity as -- is not so useful.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Sitting straight upright is not the best sitting posture, say researchers

The best sitting posture is not sitting bolt upright, but leaning back, with a 135 degree angle between your thighs and your torso. That’s the judgement of researchers who used a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that enabled them to determine the weight-bearing strain being placed upon the spine. The study was conducted at Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Up to 25% medication errors related to illegible dr handwriting

A CNN health article from a while back says:

Experts say up to 25 percent of medication errors may be related to illegible handwriting: A pharmacist misreads an illegible prescription, one drug is mixed up with another. [...]

Also last year the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that medical mistakes overall -- including those stemming from unreadable notes from doctors -- may cause up to 98,000 deaths a year in the United States. Other researchers later termed those numbers exaggerated, but the authors stood by their report.
The article mentions handwriting seminars being given to doctors, and says the following
"It's good they're doing a seminar, but I'm surprised they're not going with automated bedside and hand-held computers, which cut the errors by up to 50 percent," Inlander said. Such devices require doctors and others to type orders into a computer system.