Sunday, September 29, 2013

Unsettled Meddling

It started way back, when I was quite small
I would simply ask "why?"
one question, that's all.

I would wait for an answer,
sometimes it would come
"Because," "I Don't Know," 
"Ask your father or mum"

But it never stopped there
The questions kept coming.
And answers were lacking,
adults kept "ho-humming."

It would start out quite simply
and then get all muddled
I'd ask just one question
and end up befuddled.

Why is the sky blue? or
Why are plants green?
Why are they poor? and
Why is he mean?
Why should I be good?
Who put you in charge? 
My mind would start racing
as questions loomed large.

Why are we here?
What ought I do? 
Is there a rhyme, or a reason, or two?
Can it be learned, can I learn it, from who?

Will the answers be certain, or guesses, who knew?

My mind was unsettled, my brain never rested
But everyone moaned 
when their answers were tested.
I meant them no harm, I truly did not,
But I wanted some reasons for
"why," "which," and "what?"

Their moaning made sense
when I learned that adults
Although bigger and stronger, respectable folks
Were confused just like me,
but had stopped asking "why?"
They just didn't care,
so they just didn't try.

Or maybe they cared
and that's why they had ceased
When you care about answers,
doubt leads to unease.

The questions I asked
were very unsettling
And unsettled folks
don't appreciate meddling.

But questions are things that are meant to be asked,
Meddling's our nature, unsettling's our task.

When I got older I went off to school
To college to learn from professors who knew.
I learned about dinosaurs, classics, geology
African poetry, gods, and psychology.
But philosophy, that was the first course to show me
That questions, not answers, 
are how we keep growing.

We ask them because we're inquisitive beings
We're naturally wonder-full, curious things.
I decided that asking is what I should do
And I'd help others get good at it too!

A philosopher, that's what I wanted to be
I'd never leave college,
I'd stay here and teach.

My parents were less than excited, you see
College for them was about a degree
And degrees are just things for getting good jobs
And good jobs pay lots, oh yes money in gobs.

But philosophy isn't that kind of position
It won't earn you fame
and there is no commission.
And some don't think
teaching's a worthwhile job
"Those who can't do..."
say the ignorant mob.

For people like this life is just about stuff,
Having more than your neighbor and never enough.
For these types of folks 
it's all about fortune and fame
What pays off is good, 
what does not is lame.

So they don't, and they won't,
and they can't understand
It's wisdom, not money that makes a life grand.

So I kept pondering year after year
Up to this point with me sitting right here
A professor, philosopher, questioning type
Seeker of answers, asker of "Why?"

For questions are things that are meant to be asked,
And answers are things 
that are meant to be passed...

Passed on to the next generation of Why-er
Passed by when they're old, outdated, and tired. 

I've met many strange birds
as I've traveled this road
And some of them helped 
write the book that you hold.

These doubters and Why-ers
these fabulous scholars
Address some big questions
and offer some answers.

We begin with a huge, spectacular query
One for which all thinkers have their own theory.
The meaning of life, now we are talking
A question so big it leaves everyone gawking.
A question so big it can't fit in one mind
So I've gathered a few to help with this bind.

But the number of answers is too great to count
And the answers we've counted
are too great to mount
In the pages that follow, 
you'll just have to deal
with a brief introduction
to a very large field.

Ancients and moderns, Greek, German, and French
All play the game, 
no one's left on the bench.
They'll tell you to flourish, 
live well free of pain.
Or perish and suffer, 
and struggle in vain.

They might be quite playful or doleful and dry
But at least these dear fellows do give it a try.
We have theories and guesses and tries by the oodle
Enough twisted fellows to twist up your noodle
And when thoroughly twisted
we'll keep right on going
We'll ask about knowledge
our minds over-flowing.

"What can I know?"
And why does it matter
and how does it go?

This stuff is important for one cannot travel
The road of the wise if one can't unravel
The true from the false, the sense from the babble
The solid and firm from the dribble and drabble.

And once we can begin to get smarter on smarts
We can move ourselves on to the ethical arts.

There's so much one can think
o'er the good and the bad
And so many dear thinkers
and thoughts that they've had.

We'll do our best to give you a view
A snapshot or a glimpse
o'er a theory or two.

We've got Greeks once again,
and our German friend Kant
As well as a Scotsman,
thats more than you'll want.

We'll do all the theory,
apply it as well
To issues like nature
and business pell mell.

We'll give you a history
as well as some praxis
And then we'll move on
to grind other axes.

It's off to the realm of political thought
Where it isn't just personal questions of "ought."

Now we will wonder about our relations
How people should be
and what of their nations.

Contracts and property,
how to divide it
Diversity, needs,
all the ways to contrive it

And once we've wound
through these odd wiggled roads
we will find that our story has not all been told
there are questions
that still have yet to be asked
but this book isn't big enough for such a huge task.
Clearly one blog can't hold all the big thoughts
So we haven't discussed
all the whys, whats, and oughts.

This book offers a glimpse
It's merely one look
If you seek understanding
you'll need more than one book.

is fantastic read 
for those who like to think,
it's fun and witty, 
and over in a blink!

Sometimes the questions are complex,
the answers simple,
but reading this book
will leave you with plenty of examples.

You'll enjoy the ride,
the words and the inevitable Bang-ups,
following paths toward deeper understanding
and life's invariable Hang-ups.

There's a reason that Dr. Seuss's
Oh, the Places You'll Go!
is popular among scholars,
teachers and people you know. 

It speaks right to us, 
straight to our hearts, 
and requires that we contemplate
the BIG IDEAS by using our smarts. 

The places you'll go
 while you're reading this book,
will have you returning
for many a look. 

I found it funny, drôle and persuading, 
the ideas, the concepts, 
the thoughts left me contemplating. 

How does one review a book
with such grand meanings, 
with a rhyme or two, 
my thoughts kept leaning

Back to my studies, 
back to my thoughts I thought in school, 
the ones I keep revisiting,
the ones which I now use as tools. 

To decipher stuff like this 
and make it my own, 
to tell others about it
and that by reading this book 
they can get into "the zone"

A place where we think and don't let go, 
of the things we know 
and the places we can go. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Value of Wrong Answers

One of the things that stirs my mind is the notion of so-called "right answers". I view them with great suspicion. In academic environments, in professional environments, and in social environments there nearly always seems to be a "right answer" regarding the inner-workings of any given system of thinking. The "right answer" is given, discussed, analyzed, and set in stone for those wishing to contemplate the concept.

But what happens when someone offers the "wrong" answer to a question with a pre-defined "right" answer? They are told they are wrong, of course; that they did not understand the question and thus they must immediately take measures to adjust their thinking on such matters; to remember the right answer and commit it to memory so that they might instruct or nudge someone else who offers the wrong answer back toward the right direction.

The very idea of right is what concerns me. People who ascribe to the notion of right and wrong do not ask for your or my answer, they only ask for the answer.

"Only when you know the question will you understand the answer." 

We can learn more about the nuances of a concept by examining the thinking process that gives rise to so-called wrong answers. 

If anything, offering a wrong answer provides us with an opportunity to consider a different pathway in the field of inquiry. The underlining assumption that there is a right answer is used in every kind of bureaucratic form-filling agency worldwide as well as the ever-increasing examination theories utilized in all levels of the educational system, which ask people not to give their answers to a question, but to examine the various answers available within a subject and pick from them the right one.

This denial of independent thought might help us in our understanding of why the wheel goes 'round but it won't tell us why... not that the wrong answers can get us any closer, but we cannot know for sure until we examine them.

Advocating for "wrong" answers treads dangerously close to a path less traveled, away from the path of consensus; but, taking an alternate path is not done so with the aim of alienating those traveling with us, it is done with the aim of discovery in the spirit of traveling.

Arising from the belief that we are all on this pathway of life: exploring, investigating, ruminating, wondering, thinking, questioning, playing, enjoying, criticizing, rejecting, and ultimately, accepting... makes going "off road" a natural travel destination for those curious minds who recognize the "truth" inherent in a "right" answer as it pertains to the preconceived "truth" held within a system, but who ask anyway, just in case there's more that can be known or considered. 

So, the moral of this post is: If you get "wrong" answer on a test, if you make a mistake at work, if you say or do the wrong thing in a public forum, don't apologize ... question ~ which naturally allows others to question with you ... for you never know what you'll uncover. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On the subject of Hipness

Hipness from the Old English hēope, hīope; related to Dutch joop and German Hiefe refers to a type of wild aspect of something, historically speaking, the fruit of a rose. In ordinary parlance, "hip" refers to someone who follows the latest fashion, esp. in popular music and clothes, or someone who is understanding and aware: that person is really trying to show how hip they are in their understanding. 

While the term "hipster" is now associated with a person who follows the latest trends and fashions without regard for personal tastes, being "hip" historically is not about relinquishing one's sense of style or taste in favor of pleasing others, but rather knowing oneself well enough that one is hip when it comes to relating to others. 

In the context of creating one's own "hipness" (photo caption above), hipness is about being comfortable with one self and confidently (not arrogantly) having fun with it!

When we can have fun with ourselves, we are more fun to be around when others are present. This relaxed, enthusiastic nature encourages others to feel and act in the same manner. 

Could someone make fun of my picture?  Tell me that I'm not "hip" or that being "hip" is akin to being a "hipster" and thus, lame? Absolutely! Would they be correct? Perhaps. But would they be right in degrading one person's willingness to put themselves out there simply to make a point from which many others might benefit? I suppose it all boils down to how you see yourself and others; hence, the purpose of this post. 

My methods of discourse might be a bit idiosyncratic when it comes to practicing philosophy, but in all my joking, in all my ridiculousness, and in all my sincerity, there is one common thread: I know that I do not know and in this I am willing to experiment, to question ... and while doing so still be able to find happiness in my own existence irrespective the outcome. I do not need to know from whence I came (or where I'm headed) in order to be happy that I am here. 

For me, anything and everything we could possibly ever hope to know is just details upon details upon details... turtles all the way down, if you will. 

In this respect, there really is a kind of coolness or hipness if you will that comes from being okay with all that... at least, I think so! 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Raising Funny Kids 41: Transitioning Imagination to the Next Level

The Backstory

A young boy of 12-years old walked up to his Headmaster and upon noticing a button on the outside the Headmaster's office inquired whether or not there was a lift inside. 

The Headmaster in his compassion and wisdom said that he did not have a lift in his office but that his office did in fact operate in a way that lifted others when they came looking for advice. Not like a Tardis or lift, but in the same spirit.

This is a wonderful story that leaves one feeling relaxed and soothed, like a warm cup of tea. 

But, What if..?

What if that boy had already been guided toward a conceptual understanding of the basic foundations of quantum theory... how would a young mind, amply sprinkled with a little bit of chaos theory to keep that adroit imagination strong and alert, naturally travel from point A to insight? 

Traditional education typically teaches children to travel from A to B or A to Z, but it is not with deductive logic and temporal lobe strengthening alone that can deliver the mind face-to-face with an epiphany ~ it is imagination; something this young boy naturally exhibits or has somehow managed to harness in order to ask adults questions. 

Using his imagination and "status" as a child, he might be one of those very clever kids who use imagination as a tool to communicate to those adults still capable of listening that he is ready for new insights. 

Either way, by inquiring about the button, this boy is in fact giving an adult a precious opportunity to help him transition his "lift theory" (his imagination) toward a place where his ability to see something others fail to notice is rewarded in deeper insight and understanding. 

This is the perfect time to transition imagination to a higher realm of understanding. And who better to introduce that world than Dr. Quantum...

Dr. Quantum

Dr. Quantum (in my opinion) has produced 
the best introduction to Quantum theory for kids.

There are some points in Dr. Quantum's descriptions that can be fine tuned with respect to the subject matter for those wishing to delve deeper into the field of inquiry, but it is not necessary for spark of insight to occur. It is this Spark of Insight that we want to give a child in order to help them transition or project their healthy imagination toward a sound understanding that wonderment is essential if one wishes to explore the nature of the universe. 

It is my earnest understanding that we cannot truly know all that which we think we know; that some things might not be as they seem, but that "reality" ~ in and of itself ~ is a poignant reminder that what we think things are might not exactly be what they are at all... and it is in this understanding where a new story begins to take shape.

Did you know that...

Some people might not have ever noticed that button and connected it together with the idea of a lift being in my office. But because you noticed, I'll let you in on a little secret... very few people people notice the button, much less connect it with the idea that I might have a lift in my office. 

In fact, some people dismiss the button entirely. They might think your question is funny or ridiculous. They might even laugh or feel uncomfortable thinking that someone out doesn't know the truth. 

But this is a big world, in an even bigger universe, in an even bigger dimension ~ of which there are many, so many that there are more dimensions than there are grains of sand on all the world's beaches combined. 

This tells us that there is more that we do not know than that which we think we know or could ever learn in our entire lifetime

If you are the type of person who prefers to say, "No, there is no lift in Headmaster's office," then you would be like most people, and those people are right ~ they can prove it! They can make a fist and bang it against the wall and walk all around the room and not uncover any hidden doors like on Scooby Doo... thus proving to the world that there is no hidden door. They will be happy and rejoice in their shared understanding that some things are real and some things are imaginary. 

But there is another type of person, there is a person who sees the button and immediately connects it to a device. After all, we know that objects have three characteristics in common. They have a "form" ~ a "fit" ~ and a "function" ~ because of this, you demonstrated sound reasoning, an understanding that with a button often times follows a mechanism that would unlock a device, such as a lift. 

And what better place to have a lift but in the most important office in all the school ~ The Headmaster's Office. Even though we do not know everything the Headmaster does, we know that he is in charge of sailing the ship. 

It could be that Headmaster's button operates a hidden lift that was actually built during war time ~ a secret entrance/exit of sorts built by Scottish officers who might have used the school as a secret command center. After all, our school's history dates back to the 1800s.

Given this knowledge, the first thing we should do is examine the room for clues. If we find something interesting, we can explore it further. 

If we do not find a hidden lift, we still have the satisfaction of knowing that we looked for one. And "looking" is something we can do for our brains to train them to "discover" or "see" more than we normally might. 

This is how Einstein saw the world. His teachers did not see what he said he saw and they tried to convince him in good conscience that there was no "lift" in his school. And by "lift" I mean whatever it was he thought he saw that others did not see. 

His teachers were no doubt good people just like your teachers are, and I'm sure they cared about him the way your teachers care about you. So when they told him there was no "lift", they believed what they were saying was true. 

But what some people fail to do is pause... 

...and wonder whether or not there "might indeed" be a lift that they, in their rushing about to do all the things people rush about to do, might have mistook for a wall. Imagine!

How many people will look for the lift, just in case? 

Even if you don't find a lift, it doesn't mean that one couldn't be built! 

And this where life gets really fun! We have the ability to build and create the things we think might belong or should naturally be there... and by doing so everyone sees the lift... 

Because... you see... in all reality, the lift is already there. It just hasn't been built yet. It is only a matter of waiting for someone like you to come along and ask the question: Is there a lift?

Maybe there is...

Further Reading...

For a long time philosophers have emphasized the active nature of perception and the intimate relation between action and cognition [1], [2]. Cognitive behavior results from interaction of organisms with their environment, which "appears to be filled with regularities" resulting from past experiences [3]. 

Our environment is usually filled with a plethora of stimuli and to discover those "regularities" we constantly have to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant features. Most kids, had they even noticed the button, would have learned to dismiss the button as "irrelevant". 

Why would they dismiss the button?

The seven deep brain nuclei of the basal ganglia are involved in a variety of crucial brain functions [4] and are tightly linked to the dopaminergic neuromodulatory system, which plays a fundamental role in predicting future rewards and punishment [5], [6].

By age 12, most children have been trained by well-meaning adults to seek reward and avoid punishment. The result of this thinking delays a child's natural ability to notice the button as well as easily and quickly solve the candle test. 

Children are taught to interact with their environment, initially guided by trial and error, in a way that helps them find a mapping between states and actions that will yield the maximal future reward. 

However, how do we keep our minds open to unknown but equally relevant inputs? How does our cortex determine which additional features might be relevant for selecting actions and obtaining new rewards? 

From a technical point of view it would be straightforward to first learn the state space, i.e., extract features, and then find the mapping between the states and actions. This two-stage learning is a common approach whereby we train a simple neural network based on rewards on top of features, which before have been extracted with the attention-gated reinforcement learning model of Roelfsema et al. [7], which represents a link between supervised and reinforcement learning. 

However, learning is slower due to insufficient feedback when the child guesses incorrectly. In the case of the button-lift hypothesis, not finding a lift would be disappointing and hence the temporal credit assignment problem would not be satisfied with this approach.  

Distancing ourselves from 19th and 20th Century pedagogical models, we can look to what was referred to as "imagination" what one might call a world model [8]. The child has a map of the surrounding area which allows him to do planning. The Headmaster in the above scenario simply provides the pupil who inquires about the presence of a lift with this new information (in this case an introduction to the quantum world or the history of the school). 

The variant of navigation lies in wonderment, a place in which the child navigates towards a goal position, e.g. to perform some action like pushing the button, user interaction. A task like pushing a button usually does not require a map, but is constrained by the affordances of the goal position, at which the child often needs to arrive with a specific belief (in the possible existence of a lift or something previously undiscovered). 

Most people only rely on information that is directly available to their ocular organ. The child is supposed to learn the relevant visual features and develop sensorimotor laws based on his or her interactions with the environment. Initially, a child does not know if there is a lift in the Headmaster's office, i.e., where the target region is, and reward is only received after the final exploration or movement leads to a successful discovery. 

However, by harnessing a child's natural imagination, they can be taught to extract task-relevant visual features as well as assign adequate actions to those, in a single-step procedure and within one united architecture or sense of coherency. 

This enables a child to build upon that winner-take-all layer that considers goal-relevance from sensory input dimensions valuable, and take that to a new level whereby he or she does not automatically neglect irrelevant parts but rather utilizes a prediction error that not only modulates learning into value functions and action strategies but that also uses these to adapt the weights of the features that are responsible for learning action-relevant input associated with specific actions. 

In other words, a child might not know whether there is a lift in the Headmaster's Office, but he or she still checks just in case. 

While it might not always be time-prudent to check everything just in case, this approach is the basis upon which science is founded: 


Knowing how to explore is just as important as knowing when to explore. 
The rest is merely fine tuning. 

  1. J. Dewey, "The reflex arc concept in psychology," Psychological Review, vol. 3, pp. 357-370, 1896
  2. M. Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of behavior. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.
  3. H.R. Maturana and F.J. Varela, The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1992
  4. V.S. Chakravarthy, D. Joseph, and R.S. Bapi, "What do the basal ganglia do? A modeling perspective," Biol Cybern, vol. 103, no. 3, pp. 237-53, Sep 2010
  5. W. Schultz, P. Dayan, and P.R. Montague, "A neural substrate of prediction and reward," Science, vol. 275, no. 5306, pp. 1593-9, Mar 1997.
  6. W. Schultz, "Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons," J Neurophysiol, vol. 80, no. 1, pp. 1-27, July 1998.
  7. P.R. Roelfsema and A. van Ooyen, "Attention-gated reinforcement learning of internal representations for classification," Neural Comput, vol. 6, no. 8, 2010
  8. S. Thurn, W. Burgard, and D. Fox, Probabilistic robotics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.
  9. J. Kleesiek, A. K. Engel, C. Weber, S. Wermter, "Reward-Driven Learning of Sensorimotor Laws and Visual Features," Development and Learning (ICDL), 2001 IEEE International Conference, vol. 2, 24-27 Aug. 2011  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Inside Joke

The entire world order is built on inside jokes (okay, slight exaggeration, but I'm making a point here), those moments where awareness resides in a shared sensory experience; the task is communication, but the end result is usually enjoyment. 

From our first encounter with an individual (or an idea) to each subsequent encounter thereafter comes a number of "first times" ... the first time we think of something, the first time we feel something specific regarding a specific thought, and so forth. 

This endless field of perceptions make up the beginning of a game we have been playing since childhood: 


Playing Pretend propels us toward vertical independence, the fundamental building block from which all imaginative thought grows. 

We might be the type of person who prefers to put pieces back into the places where we believe they fit... or we might be the type of person who decides to hop over the fence, try their hand at picking some pieces up, all the while enjoying the heck out of the experience that comes with discovering all new places where the pieces might also fit!

Ideas, thoughts, feelings, experiences, perceptions, visions, epiphanies, explosive sensations: the arsenal of accessories from which we choose to explore our world. 

Life is like a game of sorts... following mazes, accumulating points, treasures, and experience; we either move forward, sail backward, or steady our ships so that the world's crashing waves, roaring calms, and tsunami-like experiences might manifest into a calm, smooth, endlessly delightful, marvelously delicious spinning ride... 


into an Explosive New Shinning Star ~ 


...into whatever you like

The experience of pretend is the inside joke that resides in the person having it. 

You might be a delightfully curious person, feeling yourself compelled to follow the White Rabbit... 


You might be a Storyteller, 
busy creating or building fairy tales for others ...


Perhaps you're just accumulating adventures... endlessly and creatively assimilating them all while actively adding new elements to heighten each subsequent discovery until some of those discoveries explode into the starting points of new adventures or brilliant ideas you bring to life.

Eventually, or in some cases, suddenly and quite magically, Pretend brings us right before the Queen Mother herself... 

She is also on a magical ride. Imagine the world from her viewpoint. We are one of the many characters that delight her, too! We are all Cocreators of the world we seek...

Are you dizzy yet?

What did you think about the spinning tea cups? What was your first, second, third, thought? Are you looking at it now? If you're reading this sentence you're probably thinking to yourself that you wish you were looking at the picture instead of reading this endlessly looping sentence whereby you keep reading because the sentence keeps going on and on until you realize that I am playing with you, messing with your head, purposely writing just to see if you'll keep reading, kind of like the picture, right?

Fun, huh?

For me, the spinning tea cups make me giggle before my mind has a chance to dart off in every conceivable direction I have time to entertain. The dizzying sensations physically take me back to childhood when my friends and I would play outside, spinning ourselves silly until we fell down on the grass laughing and giggling for hours on end.

This is that space where tea cups magically came to life... 

Whether we want to be soothed by life or have fun with it, however we choose to experience our world, we are doing it through the veil of pretense. Pretense is that which brings us hope and the enduring belief in the attainability of our wishes. Herein lies the inside joke. 

Admitting that most of what we do is playing pretend brings with it confidence, enthusiasm, positive thinking, and excitement about life's possibilities. It is the essential essence needed to thrive and move forward in the world and within ourselves. 

We mostly operate from this pretend stage ~ it is our center by which we learn how to be and how to act. We are on always on stage. We are also in the audience. We are the characters, the script writer, the director, the financier, the costume designer, the marketer, the negotiator, and all the other -ers one could imagine surrounding each stage of life. 

If we're lucky, we never forget that LIFE is our play time. We are all the proverbial child galloping through our own productions of life. Our giant horse causes a sensation! Chairs get knocked over! 


Things get moved about... 


Our horse's foot gets tangled in ropes, pulling down entire sets with one sweeping motion! We raise all sorts of havoc and attention and yet, by golly, 

It is our play!

If we don't like how it unfolds, we can try something 

We can apologize to the audience; to our parents, teachers, children, colleagues, friends, loved ones; to our dentist, our baker, to the guy at the deli, and to our mailman for the disruption, which reminds them (and us) that we are the director of our lives, responsible for the outcomes; the comings and goings of all the central characters, the theme, all the little foreshadowing events...


Disruptions are simple reminders that we are writing our own script. Like the audience, we don't know exactly what all of our efforts will look until they're up on stage, but our eyes are wide open when the curtain comes up. 

After all, we're acting in this play, toO!