Monday, 30 August 2010

The message in a song and poem

Back in the early 1970s, I wrote and led a church service in which I used some of the pop songs of the time to reflect words and themes from Bible stories. The service started with the first chapter of Genesis and ended with a poem talking of the seven days of destruction that led to the world being destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Despite the fact that there is enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the world ten times over, I have been repeatedly told this as a deterrent that prevents war. Tell this to the Iraqis or the Afghans or … War still happens because we fail to address the causes.

But it has been a different song dating back to the same time period, (early 1970s) that has been echoing through my thoughts. It is Simon and Garfunkel's song “Richard Cory” that is based on a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1897).

The song shows the contradictions of life in an unequal society that looks on economic wealth as a sign of prosperity and of success. The singer talks of working in Richard Cory's factories, loathing the life that he is living, and wishing that he could be Richard Cory.

Now Richard Cory is said to have wealth, connections, and status. “He had everything a man could want power, wealth, and style” but the final verse ends “So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read: 'Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head.”

What is the song telling us? Wealth doesn't bring happiness? Despite Cory's suicide, we still want to be like him?

To me, it is a sad commentary on an unequal society. Neither the poor and enslaved or the rich and enslaved have contentment. What did Richard Cory lack that made him so unhappy? The worker envies Cory's wealth and his life of social status but fails to see that wealth doesn't bring happiness or contentment.

As I look around, I don't see that society has improved. There are still those enslaved to the regimented hours of a factory type environment. But even those who have the appearance of greater freedom are enslaved to the wealth making processes that give the appearance of freedom. Money must be earned to pay for the freedoms that might be enjoyed.

The cravings for wealth continue and unhappiness continues. We need to refocus on those things that bring peace and confidence to people's lives and discard the race for greater wealth and progress.

Civil Rights and Are we there yet?

Earlier in the year, we went to Coventry Cathedral. They had a display of quotes and photos from the 1963 civil rights movement in America. The words on the posters reminded me that we really haven't moved a great deal further on. So much of what they said still remains to be resolved.

Some of the words also echo themes promoted by C.H. Douglas (1974) when they say "If we can have full employment and full production for the negative ends of war, then why can't we have a job for every American in the pursuit of peace?" (Walter Reuther). The focus during peace time isn't on the needs of people. They can be written off because the economic systems takes priority. Balancing the books takes priority over ensuring people are feed, have houses to live in, and have something they can contribute to society. The desired goal of full employment in the "pursuit of peace" has not been achieved and will not be achieved in the current economic way of thinking.

As I prepared this, I came across a quote from Brian Smith, ex-principal of Baptist College of New Zealand. He argued that "Political action works within the assumptions of the prevailing world view, which in this case asserts that economics is a law unto itself. Politics as we know it does not seek to challenge that. Rather it seeks to find ways in which what is produced by an autonomous economics can be utilised in a more benign and 'Christian' manner" (2003). The autonomy of economics inhibits the ability to make radical changes to address the clear imbalance and misplaced faith.

I agree that economics is a human created system and that it is within our power to dismantle and rebuild in such a way that it addresses the issues of providing freedom and confidence for all.

The civil rights movement marched for freedom as echoed in Martin Luther King's speech "I have a dream" (1963). They believed that this was the promise made to them and all people in the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Martin Luther King described it as an uncashed cheque. He said 'This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. …

'But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

But what do we have almost 50 years later? The black man may be less of a slave but people of all nationalities are enslaved to an economic system designed to enslave through debt and dependence, but as I write this, I realise that through the promotion of the western model, the western nations seek to enslave those who do not seek to walk and live as they do. The new slavery is enforced by an 'autonomous economic' system, a belief system that is entrenched in the fabric of society.

Brian Smith said in his article that economics is "no longer about how we behave toward one another. Rather it is an impersonal and independent reality, that runs according to its own laws in the same way that physics and chemistry follow their own laws" (2003). Why have we come to this point in history where we have allowed a framework that men have created to dictate so much of our lives? It comes down to our belief system. A belief system that needs to be challenged so that we rebuild with the dreams of freedom, confidence, and security for all men, not just in western nations but in all nations.

In the words of the Civil Rights leaders "they must march from a present feeling of despair and hopelessness, despair and frustration, to renewed faith and confidence" (Whitney Young 1963) and "The revolution [must] reverberate throughout the land, touching every city, every town, every village ..." (A Phillip Randolph 1963). Who is willing to join me to march against the economic flow in the pursuit of a balanced a fair economy so that people may be free to utilise their skills and their talents?

References

Douglas, C. H. (1974). Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Martin Luther King (1963) I have a dream. Speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Smith, B. K. (2003). Our god reigns but not in economics, Reality, April/May.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Software Architecture

Having used the Cairngorm framework with ActionScript, I am beginning to question the overhead that they introduce. In preparation for assisting with a course that taught Spring and Hibernate, I implemented a Spring example and concluded that it also adds overhead in terms of maintenance and operations.

A common feature with model-view-controller frameworks is the use of a controller to distribute to commands or actions. The coding examples for Java often use a common action listener that then has to determine who should process the request. In both Flex / ActionScript and Java, it is possible to write the event to call the handler or action listener for that event, that is to rely on the controller or dispatcher in the interface code. The problem is that this is seen as hard wiring so framework designers look for a way to disconnect events from actions. In the case of controllers, this is seems to be done by introducing another dispatch mechanism instead of finding a way to inject into the view the dependencies. With Spring, it is injecting URLs or servlets into web pages. Why is there a desire to inject a single entry point controller that then has to redispatch the request through some decision process? The dispatch mechanism, already exists and we should make use of it.

A second issue is what I regard as configuration complexity. With Cairngorm when a command was added multiple places had to be updated. Looking at Spring and Hibernate, there seems to be the class files and at least one XML file. Actually with Hibernate, there were other changes in the Java code to tell Hibernate to use the class as well as the logic for doing the update. The Spring examples also seem to have these multiple place updates. The use of annotations can reduce this further. In the case of Hibernate, the annotations in the class file may be all that is required, Spring is also moving to annotations but I suspect that for dependency injection, there still needs to be some configuration file.

The frameworks trade off hard links for greater configuration maintenance. If the configuration can't be verified other than by executing the code then the gains are questionable. The programmer loses some of the syntactic verification.

Native objects uses an approach that doesn't build view objects or data access objects. The native objects framework uses the domain objects to build the user interface and the data access. Annotations are used to provide additional information to the native objects framework but the programmer focuses on domain issues rather than the surrounding technical issues. The interface or views have to match the standard views of the framework and this may make it unsuitable for some applications where a more graphical user interface is required.

If as in the case of native objects, there is a gain in terms of being easier to configure to achieve the same results then there are advantages to using a framework. However, the application needs to be able to fit the assumptions of the framework. I am not convinced that a framework necessarily leads to better reuse but it could lead to easier ability to replace objects with alternative solutions.

The final area where a framework might win is with the idea of liberated objects. CLISP has the function as the core unit. However, CLISP objects and functions can't exist outside the CLISP environment. Exploiting objects to enable wider integration of objects into other applications possibly even defining new relationships seems to be still beyond the scope of these frameworks.

God's Unconditional Love

I have been thinking a lot about the issue of redemption and reconciliation. God's unconditional love emphasises reconciliation but reconciliation comes through being drawn to repentance. God doesn't love us regardless. He loves us so that we might see our faults and turn to Him in repentance. We have to learn to love in such a way that those who we interact with will seek to re-establish relationships. It is so easy to close the door and end all contact but that isn't God's way. We have to extend our love and reach out to the pain of others. Our goal is to reconcile others in the relationships that are around them.

The next thought is that God's unconditional love still keeps loving even though the recipient closes the door. This makes the love hard to communicate but at some point the door has to open and the love will flow in.

More from a human perspective God's love means working to resolve conflict by seeking to understand. It is easy to blame everything on the other person and fail to see where we haven't shown the love and compassion that we should have. Even when others don't respond, we have to learn to continually try and communicate.

God must also feel the barriers when we endeavour to shut Him out because we have acted contrary to His wishes.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Abstraction

This blog is a reflection on teaching abstraction using variation theory. Marton, Runesson, and Tsui (2003, p 6) have said that when teaching using variation theory, the teacher will use contrast, generalisation, separation, and fusion. Contrast helps identify specific features of the phenomenon. Generalisation helps identify similar phenomena or other phenomenon that are identical. Separation helps identify specific features or aspects of the phenomenon. Fusion is about simultaneous awareness and should help see the phenomenon as a whole.

When we look at abstraction, we are looking to move away from specific phenomenon to something that categorises a set of phenomena. This means identifying features that are common to the phenomena. Generalisation is seen as part of the process of identifying abstractions. This is looking for features that are common to the phenomena to which the generalisation is to apply. However, fusion also plays an important part in the sense of forming the abstraction. Seeing how the common factors work together to form the new entity, the abstraction.

From the perspective of cognitive processes, the emphasis with respect to abstraction is synthesis. That is exemplifying, classifying, and summarising. Anderson et al. (2001, p 276) define synthesis as putting together elements and parts so as to form a whole. I see it as making connections between ideas.

Abstraction is also about making connections in order to reduce complexity. Some details are ignored because they are either irrelevant or they belong to a specialisation of the abstraction.

My contention is that in order to teach abstraction, we need to help students see the commonalities, that is those things that are common to the phenomena, and to see or put aside those that are unique, or find ways to handle the unique features so that there is a common extension mechanism.

This process means that we need to highlight the similarities in part by contrasting them with what changes. Some of these will be easy to spot. Others will require some manipulation.

References

Marton, F., Runesson, U., & Tsui, A. B. M. (2003). The space of learning. In F. Marton & A. B. M. Tsui (Eds.), Classroom discourse and the space of learning (pp. 3-40). Mahwah, NJ; London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., . . . Wittrock, M. C. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning and teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives Addison Wesley Longman.

Recognising Difference

A theory of learning concepts

After listening to a talk by Aaron Sloman, I endeavoured to clarify my thinking with respect to variation theory and formulating concepts. Aaron seems to contend that things like mathematical concepts can not be formed from the recognition of differences or variations. In some respects, this applies to any abstract concept.

Sensing difference

As I look around me, I visually recognise colour, distance, movement, shade, etc. I also hear sounds and feel objects. The human body has a wide range of sensory input that we recognised as different signals and yet possibly related to the same object or phenomenon.

An individual eye recognises colour and shade. The combination of two eyes gives us depth and to some extent direction (direction is probably recognisable with a single eye but two adds the depth to the perception of direction). An ear allows us to recognise variation in sound. A constant sound may be ignored unless we give it focal attention. Two ears helps us determine direction of the sound. Our nose allows us to detect the direction of the smell. Each of these is a dimension of variation detected by the body's sensors.

The brain doesn't scramble or confuse the different sensors. It recognises the different sensors origins and recognises when the sensors are providing information about the same object.

The question is how does the brain learn that a particular combination of noise, visual queues, or smell relate to the same object. Sometimes, we have to explore or experiment to confirm our suspicions. Once we have made the connection, the recognition is reasonably automatic although from time to time we recognise that we have made a mistaken identification. The most frequently happens with sound or smell clues but visual clues are also at times confused especially when the vision lacks clear focus.

I am going to argue that at times, we recognise that we have perceived a difference but we lack the conceptual framework to clearly identify what that difference means. I am thinking here in terms of visible objects but this may also apply to more abstract concepts such as mathematical concepts or virtual objects. Through language acquisition, we link agreed names (sound forms or visual word forms) to our observations. At some point in this process, we also accept names for the sensor groups (i.e. visual, smell, touch). These are abstract concepts that relate to more concrete signals that we receive. As I write this, I am conscious that how language relates to concepts is another abstraction that at this point, I have little theoretical knowledge of. I am writing this in English and as far as I am aware my thought processes are in English. Others for who English is not their primary language may claim to be thinking in another language. However, we all see and recognise the same phenomena. It is simply that in arriving at a naming convention, we have used different sound or symbol forms. I can only speculate whether the human brain uses some more abstract form for thought processes. However; I recognise that not all my thought processes are linguistic (language based) in nature. I may also conceive ideas in visual or sound form. I am thinking of art or models or music. At different times, our brain seems to reflect our thoughts using the different forms of sensory channels of our bodies. Our thoughts and sensory ability seem to have some linkage.

When we experience a new dimension of variation, we seek to apply some mechanism of identification. This leads to the formation of a new concept since the dimension of variation doesn't fit any existing concepts. I want to argue that our ability to reason also throws up new dimensions of variation or the recognition of new areas of similarity. The result is some times a struggle to name the concept but overall higher level concepts come from recognising similarities and differences in lower level concepts (vision draws together colour, contrast, depth, ...) and endeavouring to assign names.

Is reasoning simply becoming aware of new similarities or differences? I struggle to clearly express my current thoughts in part because I am on the edge of a domain that I have not previously given much attention. I recognise connections that I am making and to some extent my lack of language to express them.

Aaron is particularly interested in mathematical concepts but I wonder whether this may simply be utilising a different language for expressing our thoughts and reasoning. I see mathematical notation and recognise its origin but having not worked consistently with the notation, I struggle with its meaning but does this mean that I can not apply the reasoning that might be expressed in that mathematical notation. There seems to be a similar issue with language acquisition or expression of ideas. Two people reasoning in different languages or notations may apply the same process or come to the same conclusion by different processes but does that mean one or the other lacks the ability to reason about the phenomenon being studied. Surely the issue is one of acquiring the notation that is common to both.

It is clear that being able to communicate with a specific notation can aid in communicating to others in a particular field and to show that you are able to reason in that field. However, the lack of knowledge of a notation doesn't mean an inability to reason in that field or to recognise concepts in that field.

Ultimately, we assess a person's ability to reason and understand a field of study by their ability to communicate their reasoning and understanding. So maybe what we are really talking about is the ability to acquire particular notational skills.

So in teaching, I endeavour to draw existing knowledge, concepts, and terminology to foster understanding of what we argue is new knowledge, concepts and terminology. We attempt to make visible similarities and differences so that the learner becomes aware of new possibilities. At this point I will argue that abstractions come from seeing the similarities or commonalities while recognising the differences. The abstraction is developed simply to enable a reduction in the notational baggage when talking about phenomena that possess those commonalities. The learner may need help to see these commonalities and therefore the possible abstractions.

Robotic skills

Here I really lack current knowledge of robotic techniques. However, a robot has an innate ability to retrieve data (bit streams) and to identify those bit streams based on their sensor source. Remove the knowledge of the sensor source and the bit stream is a meaningless set of signals. We can say the robot has vision or hearing based on its ability to process particular data streams.

The next step is to be able to associate the different signals so that it can combine sight, sound, location, smell, ... Through this process, it begins to develop a more complete picture of a phenomenon. As it continues this process of combining and separating, it could develop a conceptual framework possibly including the recognition of notations.

Giving it the ability to explore relationships and connections between signals may see it develop human like abilities to reason.

Humans may give focal attention to particular sensory inputs but I would contend that we don't discard signals simply because it doesn't seem to fit a particular strand of reasoning. Maybe the difficulty with robotic research is that the focus is narrowed too much so that certain signals necessary to develop some concepts are missed from the equation.