28 January, 2011

Chance doesn't exist - and then it does again

When planning my own projects, thinking about the future, or just generally trying to picture the results of my actions in some future state, I've found it generally useful to think that chance doesn't exist. For sure, this is not true, and borders on the fallacious logic that I so hate - but it still helps. Convincing myself that success is not dependent on chance, but only on my own performance, widens the horizon of possibilities that seem achievable. I quote here Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State Univeristy:
On one hand it's encouraging: it makes me think that even the most ordinary among us should be careful about saying we can't do great things, because people have proven again and again that most people can do something extraordinary if they're willing to put in the exercise. On the other hand, it's a bit overwhelming to look at what these people have to do. They generally invest about five times as much time and effort to become great as an accomplished amateur does to become competent. It's not something everyone's up for."
I guess this is the key note I'm looking for, that basically the world is open to everyone. With practice and dedication, great things can be achieved. This is also the key reason why I'm always saying that people should do what they like best. Sure, it's no easy task focusing on something, but I feel confident it'll pay off sooner or later. (Looking at the text behind the link, I'm not sure if I can call the belief for no chance a very rationalist belief...)

After having done something, however, the concept of chance is quite important. It would be psychologically too much to try to find the fault always in oneself, so it's useful to have a concept to explain not-so-wanted results. In some discussions I've experienced, that some people claim the concept of chance gives us a chance to escape bad result and not improve ourselves. Well, in a way, it does. 

But there is still a fundamental difference between analyzing what you could have done better, and then saying you found nothing, or on the other hand blaming chance right from the start. It is after the self-reflection when chance can be brought into the picture, not before. If you've honestly done your best, there's no way to make it better that time. The point here is that chance will help you psychologically to accept that nobody's a Superman. Development is incremental, and there's no point in trying to see all the deficits in one go, it'd just make one feel terrible. Better to improve all the time in small steps. That's what the concept of chance helps me to do.

27 January, 2011

The Graz block courses

One more exam and I'll be finished with all my winter semester courses here in Graz. Levels of difficulty of the courses have ranged from a joke to one of the hardest things I've done. I have to say that the railroad design course, with its 500 pages of German material, an oral exam and a ~100h project work - for which I had to learn AutoCAD - was the benchmark in the latter section. At the other end of the scale would be some of the block courses I've attended.

A block course is something I've only got accustomed to in here. Usually it's a three-day course from 9 to 17, followed by an exam a week later. These courses generally have a small amount of theoretical content supported by several group assignments completed at the lectures. Usually the course has a maximum of 25 students, as these group assignments are generally presented in class, and any more students would make the concept impossible. The key is that the assignments should arouse new points of view in the students and hence help to create a culture of discussion. Success rates have varied from course to course.

The joke for me is that I usually get 3 ECTS for a course like this, and even with all my good faith could I defend the proposition that such a course is worth all those credits. But still, for an Erasmus it's a good way to hog up credits and save time for travelling! Despite its uses, the above is not the only (or even the main) reason why I enjoy such courses. It is the fact that it's possible to get really into something, even just for a couple of days. And I've enjoyed thoroughly the discussions with students and professors that I've had, both in and out of class.

I've toyed with the idea of incorporating similar courses in the Finnish system. Replacing any mandatory courses with block would not work, but maybe in the Master phase these could be used to provide some basics especially to minor subject students. In my experience sometimes people just have to work way too much on minor subject courses in comparison to their interest level. Surely it would be best for all to be able to concentrate on what really drives them.

Another option would be to have small courses that try to give light to a certain viewpoint or methodology to have such courses. Especially it could work for contemporary topics, or topics which still lack enough scientific background research to be included in the present day course books. I'm sure that in Aalto we have enough skills to know what those kinds of topics are.

22 January, 2011

Rediscovering the joys of literature

Halfway through my present university education, I've noticed a worrying side effect of my education. I've lost a lot of my literary sense. Powering through thousands of pages of course books has taught me to try to remember the main factual content right away. Skimming the pages of management books requires a good sense of what the key content is, at least if one wants to save a lot of effort in the learning process. This is a useful skill, especially when reading other factual texts. It never hurts to discern the main arguments of a writer right away, and skipping - or rather skim-reading - the extra stuff certainly is a valuable timesaver.

The problem is, I seem to have lost the sense how to read more emotional literature. Well, serious literature, at any rate. I can still pick up any thriller and read it with the same ease as ever before, but with the more heavy novels I'm in trouble. These books owe their effects to a process of identification and affection with the characters and/or situations. The point of such a book is to make one feel, and that feeling then provokes thinking. Trying to see behind the story while reading results in nothing sensible, since one needs to read the story first and think about it afterward. Trying to do these simultaneously makes no sense, since the story is a whole not reducible to its parts. The same thing is with movies, the scenes are part of a story, and in a good movie few scenes would make that much of an impact on their own. At the moment, with my course book reading style I get stuck, trying to see the idea behind some character way too early. It's as sane as trying to analyze the motives and desires of a person you've just met and hardly even know at all.

The books of this limbo world of sorts are not everywhere. Books, which are very literary, yet have a lot to say. This includes some obvious works in philosophy, like Nietzsche, but also a lot of classics. Not the kind of books to pick up amidst a tight schedule and stress. Exactly the kind of books I've previously avoided and am only now filling my shelves with. I guess that is why I've managed to avoid noticing this obvious lack for so long.

Luckily, now I have a lot of time to read, and besides a share of factual literature I'll pinch in pieces of the aforementioned genre. According to my high school Finnish and literature teacher, one can never go wrong with classics. Time to see if she was right!

17 January, 2011

Life as investment: the stock of shortsightedness

Life - a long and fuzzy thing. Something, that most of us feel is quite important. We all want to be happy and satisfied. That's fine by me, but there's something about the viewpoint, the philosophical stance that bugs me. It's the view of investment and return.

With the rise of capitalism and financial security the language of economics and business has invaded into the personal sphere. I've seen countless self-help books and heard many a discussion, where we are investing in quality time, marketing ourselves or developing our assets (eg. skills). Before I could have shrugged and said that sure, it sounds stupid, but they're just words, and calling learning asset development doesn't really change anything. I don't think so anymore.

I've really seen people of my age do ROI calculations about various careers to decide, which line of work to get into. Usually they've been the same way, get the average yearly salary and then calculate, how much the difference in, say, 10 years is. Some have even took into account investing this 10 year surplus into shares and then found out to be loaded at the promising age of 70! Yes, I'm telling the worst examples, but I'm devastated that even a single person would seriously consider the above as a career choice method. Well, maybe I just came across somebody who really values money first and foremost, and I guess there's not much to say if that's a conscious choice.

Money, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. We are investing a lot of other stuff too. Ever heard of the concept of quality time in parenting? Have you ever been told how a PT can make your training so much more effective? Have you ever heard how just that one orange juice makes you so much more energetic in the morning, saving precious time?

All the above things can have a grain of truth, and actually make your life more effective. But to think that it actually increases your happiness, that's the key issue. The belief seems to be that the more time and effort we put into something, the better the results. Sure, it works for a lot of things: if I spend a lot of time studying real good for an exam, my grade is a lot more likely to be at the upper end of the scale. But, seriously, to apply this framework to life?

First of all, there's the problem of not being able to increase the time used. You're alive all the time already! Secondly, what's the return in this context? Why does more effort inescapably make you more happy? What does happiness have to do with effectiveness?

Well, you don't really need to be a philosopher to work it out. More effort makes us more capable and more effective. That in turn makes us do tasks better, which means promotions, a bigger paycheck. That enables glamour and style, which in turn facilitates rise in social status. If one believes that happiness stems from the position in the social scene the right track is in increasing effort. I, however, happen to believe that happiness comes from my disposition to the outside, not the other way round. For me happiness is very closely linked with intrinsic motivation, as a kind of gut feeling of "how much I like doing this", using an example of having a hobby.

There's a lot more to be said about this subject, but I'll let it go for now, lest this post become monstrously long!

07 January, 2011

Note on teaching

I think everybody has heard the following famous quote from Abraham Lincoln:

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."
Today I suddenly found myself reflecting on all the different courses and lectures I've been to. The differences are huge: the best lectures have been phenomenal, whereas the worst ones have made me feel like I'd rather be deaf to avoid any similar experiences. I know the lecturers try their best, but teaching is really not that easy. It should be informative, compact and easy to understand. But still, the key ingredient is to not make it boring! So, I thought of an application of Lincoln. Maybe the golden rule of teaching should be instead

You can bore all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot bore all the people all the time.

04 January, 2011

We are terrible in systems thinking

Well, you've probably heard at some point this famous statement:
"Correlation is not causation."
It works, sure. The fact that both ice cream and swimsuit hit top sales at summer does not mean that one causes the other. This distinction is especially important in scientific research and reporting about it. I've seen a lot of reports by newspapers failing to make the distinction explicit, causing a huge amount of confusion on the discussion boards. Just remember the distinction and so far so good.

Larger than two unit systems make things a lot more intriguing. In a large system, causes produce effects which are causes to other effects etc. At some point you've probably heard or read that everything is connected. I'd be hard pressed to find a more compact and revealing description of a network-like system, where a change in a single node causes effects like waves; everything is linked to everything.

Looking at a standard analysis of such a system (referring to a layman's analysis, not a scientific one), usually at a point when we have observed several causes and two dozen effects we just usually seem to give up. We put up our hands and just pick the most important causes in our opinion, and advocate that they explain the effects. If not all of them, at least well enough, so forgetting the other causes is in order. Unfortunately, at times this behaviour is more like reversed stupidity, not intelligence. In systems even minor effects can cause large ripple effects, as per the famous butterfly effect. It's just that we find analyzing such a system cognitively so difficult, that we usually end up reducing it to a simpler form. With this method the system unfortunately ceases to be a system. We are trying to analyze a car, thinking it's just a cart without a horse. Not a very good idea.

Going to the other extreme, sometimes we conclude that everything is connected - and leave it at that. So what are the effects? How big are they? This viewpoint doesn't really help a lot either, does it? If we want to analyze a system, we need some orders of magnitude in the effects. Otherwise anything can cause anything, making us revert back to guessing instead of an actual analysis. It seems clear that we need the best of both worlds, not just one extreme. Our vision is just as bad with an eyepatch, no matter which eye is blind.

So what's the corrective step? To try to combine the two above viewpoints, it should probably be a point that everything is connected, correlation is not causation, but also that effects and causes can be in the same phenomenon. In a system, the effect of something is very often the cause of something else. A first degree change can raise a vital unit above a threshold, which in turn causes an effect in another node. A system cannot be analyzed by first finding the causes and then deducing the effects, as they both can coexist at the same time, and not all effects arise directly from the original setting.

03 January, 2011

Reflections on an accident

Long time no see! Alas, on this occasion the reason for the silence is of a real sort. In the middle of December I experience an accident: I fainted in a grocery store and hit my head as I crashed to the floor. Result: a small skull fracture and a minor brain bleed. So I got to spend two weeks in an Austrian hospital with CT and MRT scans and pain killers, but luckily also got loads and loads of messages and support from concerned friends, relatives and loved ones. I thank all of you with my deepest gratitude and consider myself very lucky to enjoy the presence of such magnificent people! Healthwise I'm pretty ok now, and should not experience any lasting effects. Present day symptoms are mainly an enhanced need for sleep and rest and some minor headaches. So all in all, the future looks very bright, no worries.

Hitting one's head for real makes some weird stuff happen. I can't really remember that much from the first three days after what happened, but I'll tell you all the fun parts. The first thing I remember is being lifted into an ambulance. The first discussion between me and the paramedic was about this:

"Where are we going?"
"Well, you are in an ambulance so what do you think?"
"Oh yeah, when you put it like that... So has something happened?"

Yeah, I didn't really know what was going on, but they briefed me on the way. When we got to the hospital and the doctor interviewed me, it didn't really go any better. I can't remember much from the actual exchange, but the wife of another patient told me some days later that I was really speaking in tongues when I arrived. I'd talked mainly English mixed with some German words and some she couldn't understand at all. Well, I told her that was probably my subconscious talking in Finnish. After this mishmash of languages, you can imagine the nurses' surprise next morning, as they discovered I spoke rather good German!

Fast-forward two weeks of resting, eating and physiotheraphy and I'm here, sitting in front of the computer, looking back at the accident. What has changed? Not much, really. Of course, it made me respect the people close to me even more, but apart from that I don't feel I had a lot of revelations. Sure, in a way it was a case of Reductionism Strikes Back, a reminder of how our cognitive skills are eventually based on physical phenomena. A reminder of how you and your brain are inseparable. So best to take good care of them both.