Feedback please: Soviet Psychology

My first degree was in Psychology. More importantly, it was in an unusually interdisciplinary department of a university that still had some traces left of a politically radical past, in the late 90s. As a result, one of the component courses was “Soviet Psychology” which introduced us to some key concepts in psychology that were either unique to the Soviet literature or had been developed much earlier there than on our side of the Iron Curtain. Some of the positive examples are:

  • Learning as a culturally mediated process
  • Child development as a process of learning to build more sophisticated relationships with a larger number of people
  • Framing simple tools like a mathematician’s pad of paper as an extension of the mind
  • A sophisticated critique of the artificiality of lab psychology experiments

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Posted in Requests for ideas | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

Stand together or fall apart

I’ve been trying to write something like this post for some time.  I think I’ve finally figured out how to do it – by leaning on better writers than myself:

Tim Maly: “Certainly, the pundits are talking about [Bentham’s Panopticon]. Foucault’s in now. He’s arrived. He’s the hot new way of understanding the world and the pundits loooooove to natter on about how there are security cameras everywhere.”

I glanced around; the room was empty.

“The thing about pundits,” she said, “is they’re always getting it wrong. It’s easy to talk about all the cameras. It’s exciting to talk about the all-seeing tower in the middle. That’s where the power seems to be concentrated, and power sells.

“The truth is that the people manning the tower are a pack of squabbling incompetents. The halls of power are full of bad craziness, with reams of data miscollected, misfiled, and misunderstood. Still, the weight of authority, arbitrarily applied, is real and crushing, and far too heavy for any one person to bear.”

The room was cold; some fool had cranked the air conditioning too far.

“There’s a second half to the prison’s design and no one seems to remember this. The second half is that the prisoners are isolated from one another. If they could coordinate, those few lonely bastards in the tower wouldn’t stand a chance. But their clients are kept separated and when the hammer comes down on one of them, all the rest can’t help but think ‘at least it wasn’t me’.”


Quinn Norton: You’ve been letting it happen and grow for 50 years. Congratulations on noticing. Now do something about it, because you’re next.


Ta-Nehisi Coates: The culture of our world, right now, is crafted by little boys who only recall being stood up on their first date, and nothing they got after. They don’t remember the sand they kicked in other people’s eyes, only their own injuries. Our art is cynical and bad-ass and made by people who will not be happy until you join them in the church of “everything is fucked up, so throw up your hands.” This is art as anesthesia.

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Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

Walking the Freedom Trail®

Last week I walked the Freedom Trail with my cousin. It’s one of the best tourist walking routes I’ve seen, because it combines a high density of sites relevant to an interesting period of history with lots of beautiful buildings, and much of it is through parts of Boston that have a lot of modern life to them too. It’s also an excellent place to think about the mythos and reality of this country.

For a long time, especially my first few years living in the U.S., I despised all of the “rah rah freedom” rhetoric that I kept hearing. It reminded me of the unhelpful nonsense of American exceptionalism, and more than that of how far short we fall from actually fulfilling the haughty promises of the Revolution, more than 2 centuries since. I’ve never stopped being disappointed in the gap between national self-image and reality, but for various reasons I’ve come to see the rhetoric as a good thing in itself. As my own relationship with this country has matured, I’ve started seeing that rhetoric as an opportunity to push ourselves to do—to be—better. Part of this for me has been wholeheartedly embracing the stated ideals of the Revolution, and recognising its huge historical importance as a demonstration to the world that an alternative to monarchy was even possible, while regarding it as painfully unfinished business. Walking the Freedom Trail was a perfect illustration, particularly in two ways.

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A very personal, biased backgrounder on Turkey

DISCLAIMER: I am by no means an expert on this.  I’m not even as good a source as someone reasonably politics- and current-affairs savvy who lives in Turkey would be. I’m just writing this because I know more about Turkey’s history and situation than most of my non-Turkish peers, and I’m seeing a lot of confusion, misconstrual and missing context on what I’ve been reading in English about why there are mass protests in Turkey today.  I hope I can help you get oriented, but do not mistake this for an authoritative source. It’s just a personal view from someone who pays more attention to Turkey than most people around me because I have emotional ties to the place.

GOAL: I’ve seen some good writing on the proximal and medium-term causes of the current mass protests in Turkey, but the better-informed pieces seem to assume prior knowledge that many foreigners lack, and the less good pieces confuse various issues with each other. Taking a historical view on events sometimes makes them much easier to understand, and my hope with this piece is to help you, the non-Turkish-speaking reader, take that historical view. If you speak Turkish, you can certainly find better sources, and if you know Turkey and think I’ve got something wrong, please tell me in the comments.

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Posted in Out in the world | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Out of İstanbul

By chance, we were staying in central İstanbul while the riots kicked off. There were clashes all around our hotel, though we managed not to get caught up in any of it, and with the local broadcasting blackout much of our information came from the same sources I’d have been using had I been in Seattle.  Here’s what little I saw firsthand, and a bit of context gleaned from twitter & international news (spoiler: it’s not that much):

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It’s not the size of your data, it’s what you measure

Over the past few years we’ve seen an awful lot of over the top “Big Data” hype. Every use of stats wants to call itself “Big Data” and every user wants to say they’re a “Data Scientist” (what the hell is a non-data scientist, anyway?), but more importantly the uses of big data are getting oversold. The research avenues that have been opened by the relatively new ability to collect, store and analyse truly huge data sets are amazing, but every time you hear about big data replacing old fashioned things like domain specific knowledge and human judgement, you should be very suspicious. This leads to all kinds of confusion between statistical significance and genuinely meaningful information, especially in the face of a culture that systematically focusses on the wrong things.

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Posted in Systems | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Happy “we’re still here” day

Today and tomorrow are Purim. I re-read the book of Esther today in honour of that fact, and was actually a little disappointed by how horrible it is. Not just bloody—it’s the Old Testament so of course it’s bloody—but it’s also remarkably misogynistic for a book with a female heroine, and full of inappropriate revenge. Continue reading

Posted in Judaism | Tagged , | 4 Comments