Outrage and Strongly Worded Blog Posts

On my long drive back down the west coast this past holiday season, I listened about 20 hours of podcasts. Most of them were political and current events, including “Left, Right, and Center”, “The Bugle”, and my favorite, “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I also listened to several episodes of “Political Gabfest”, and one segment about outrage caught my attention since I had been thinking about similar issues in this blog post.

Roughly, the segment was a discussion about Slate’s feature piece, “The year of outrage 2014,” where they catalogued social media outrage from every day of 2014 and turned it into a nifty interactive. It turns out that there was a lot of outrage.

It’s ironic that Slate decided to appeal to a culture of outrage, in part derived from our preference for minimal context and easily digested information, is a massive infographic and 10 long essays. I almost didn’t read it myself despite citing it as the starting point for this article. Here’s the thesis:

…Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home…

Not being a heavy Twitter or Facebook user, I miss out on a lot of the excitement. I do, however, use reddit quite a bit, and it’s fascinating to see outrage there. Although the 140 character limit is a factor, longer discourse doesn’t fix it. The reddit community tends to be contrarian and smug, which builds in the “second opinion bias” that also causes outrage. The Slate essays explain this much better than I can, but I would attribute a culture of outrage to 2 things. First, we have a lack of context and research that we would expect from journalists but can’t expect from social media and citizen journalists. Second, we have a natural bias towards evidence and opinions that confirm our worldview.

Who’s fault is it: the medium or us? The internet as a medium has no intention or agenda: it simply facilitates human thought and communication. Even so, the medium has constraints that play into outrage, and it’s tough to blame individuals when we are presented with information (such as in 140 character snippets)  that we intrinsically react rashly to. We have cognitive biases: we know them, and we have had them well before the internet, from sound bites on TV to parlor room arguments before that. An important difference is the exponential influence of the internet, which scales previously limited instances of outrage from the mind of one person into a viral phenomena across the world.

I would like to present a challenge to the platforms that exist out there. I think sites like Twitter, Facebook, and reddit publicly take a hands-off approach to these issues and push for democratized, unregulated platforms (short of illegal activity). With my limited knowledge of user experience, however, I find this position disingenuous: the interface and platform itself can bias our behavior tremendously. Sometimes it is implicit, like the positioning of buttons, or explicit, like Facebook filtering our newsfeed. I think these sites should accept both the role they play in facilitating discourse and what we know about human biases. We need platforms that encourage better discourse.

Of course, maybe they are looking into these things: smart people work at these companies, so I hope they’re doing their homework. I just write a blog.

Even so, I should also do my best to encourage discourse through my blog. Like the Slate writers, here’s my story. A few months back, I started writing less about personal events and more about issues and ideas in my blog. I don’t have any hard numbers, but I noticed an odd trend through various metrics. There was a negative correlation between audience engagement and the thought I had put into the post. In other words, my less thoughtful pieces tended to get more activity than my more thoughtful ones.

Here’s my theory. When I put more thought into a blog post, the result is usually messy, and my blog post ends without firm conclusions and having argued both sides. Less thoughtful pieces end up more polemical that leave reader with stronger feeling, either in agreement or disagreement. I think they’re less interesting, but they’re easier to get into and respond to.

I could also be totally self-centered in my analysis. Truth be told, I don’t really know what my audience likes to read about. I just write and hope others find topics as interesting as I do.

The Effect of a Placebo-based Policy

(Disclaimer: I don’t actually know that much about medical ethics or public policy, so I welcome all comments to educate me on the issues here. Also, I will miss citing things because I’m a lazy blogger, so I recommend that if you’re interested, you do your own research)

The Placebo Effect is a well-known phenomenon where a patient actually improves even when given a non-effective treatment that  he or she believes is effective. The perception of efficacy alone not only makes the patient feel better, but actually makes them better.

This effect manifests in other, similar manners, where the perception overrides the actual sensation. For example, it turns out that people will enjoy (and report as enjoying) wine more if it is marked as being more expensive, independent of the actual wine itself. Though maybe if you’re a hipster cheapskate like me, you might perceive cheaper as being better, like a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.

In both of these cases, the subject is being tricked into something, but the effect on them is real. Given that, the big question I have is: do you think it’s ethical for doctors, marketers, and other professionals to use the Placebo effect?

Big Yak Mountain, the book club I am in, just read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke, and in this book, he describes several quirks about human decision-making that show how irrational we are. He discusses how uncertain we are in valuing things, to the point where we don’t even know whether we should pay or be paid for some experience. He talks about the gulf between free versus really cheap. He explains why I would happily help you move a couch out of the goodness of my heart but would be unwilling to do it if you offered me $5. Overall, he covers roughly 15 different topics, one per chapter, in an accessible manner. Although I think that Thinking, Fast and Slow is still better, I can understand why you might want to save yourself a few hundred pages and explanation of experimental methods.

When I was putting together notes for the discussion, the question I kept coming back to was, “Is it okay that we’re so irrational, or shoulwe be more rational, more economically logical, in reasoning?” From our discussion, we roughly agreed that these phenomenon are fascinating and good to know, but we were also completely satisfied to experience our blissful irrationality as it is. The bigger question, however, is how this should impact policy, and this is where I am going to do the very bad thing of generalizing narrow experimental results into my worldview.

I asked one policy question above, and I have a few more for you along the same lines. Here’s an easy one: should the use of “free” in advertising campaigns be regulated? I think most of us would say no, despite the fact that we’re totally irrational about free and will go way out of our way to get a free bagel to a degree far beyond that of a 1 cent bagel, even if the free bagel is just a way to lure us into a store to make a large purchase.

Here’s a more contentious one. Ariely spends a chapter on how irrational we are when aroused. If you’re unfamiliar with the study, I’ll save the joy of the experimental methods for when you read the book, but the result is that we act less rationally when emotionally aroused. Since people can be emotionally aroused by anger, one policy is a “cooling off” period between the purchase and acquisition of a gun to prevent people from doing something rash. What do you think of cooling off periods?

The last one is quite broad, but a big issue today is government surveillance. It appears that the NSA has been spying on just about everyone to a much greater degree than we thought. I’m a trusting guy and believe that this was done for our own good and not because someone is reading my phone meta-data to hurt me. If we momentarily ignore the ethics of the surveillance itself, we have been deceived about the activity itself. This deception sounds a lot like the Placebo effect, where an authority gave the perception of something to make us feel better and improve our situation, though they were technically lying at the time. Given my biased framing, how do you feel about the government deceiving us about surveillance for our benefit?

I haven’t quite worked through the details and nuances of this, and specific issues deserve more thought, but I personally am pretty liberal (socially and economically), and I think my belief in human irrationality (and by inclusion, the placebo effect) plays a big role in that. Simply, I, like most other people in this country, am just one person who can’t adequately grasp what is ultimately good for me, and to some degree, I need someone (and not just market forces) to be watching my back.

I need financial regulations because I have no idea what the banks are doing. I need environmental regulations because I don’t know what every supplier is doing. And even if I could, I couldn’t resist buying the cheaper detergent to make optimal purchases. I believe in universal health care because choice is good, but it’s a lot ask every individual to know how best to keep themselves healthy. And assuming that Congress is well-informed (which apparently has not been true so far), I’m generally pretty okay with government surveillance because there are things that I’m better off not knowing, and I trust an entity with the goal of protecting me more than businesses with the goal of being profitable.

So my wildly extrapolated beliefs based in science suggest that a stronger hand in policy is good for us. Of course, there’s always the looming threat of totalitarianism, but a healthy debate and oversight from our legislature should keep it in check. At least in contrast to current trends in libertarianism and small government, I would like to see government stay involved. Some people believe that they deserve complete transparency, that markets are self-correcting, that government should be limited, and that individuals should have tremendous personal freedom. I definitely believe in personal freedom on social issues where it’s more obvious (to me) how freedom affect one’s happiness. On the other issues, my understanding of human cognition is that given complete information and choice, people can still be quite bad at ultimately making themselves happy. And I think that public policy has that mandate as well.

The Limits of the Ancient Egyptian World

Let me start with the story of Osiris and Isis. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the god ruler of Egypt. After returning home after a business trip, his brother Set (also brother to Osiris’s wife, Isis; don’t worry too much about familial relations) had a plan to take over: he built a chest the exact size of Osiris, then offered to throw a welcome home party. At the party, Set decided to skip “Charades” and play the “Lie down in the coffin *cough* I mean chest” game, with the winner receiving the chest. Presumably after a few too many beers, Osiris decided to give it a shot, but when he got into this perfectly shaped chest, Set closed the lid, nailed him in, and threw it into the Nile. The other party guests were probably too drunk to realize that this wasn’t part of the game.

Isis heard the bad news, then went to go look for the chest. By then, it had floated all the way to modern-day Lebanon, where a well-fertilized tree managed to grow completely around and envelop the chest. The king of this land was so impressed by this huge tree that he insisted on using it to build his castle (carpentry wasn’t very good back then, so they never actually cut into the tree to find the chest). After a pointless undercover mission where Isis thought she needed to be a nurse to get to the chest but ended up getting it anyways when she was revealed and the king let her have it, she took the chest back to the Nile River delta, where an very lucky Set happened to stumble across Osiris’s body hidden while hunting. He cut the body into a ton of pieces, and poor Isis had to find and reassemble the parts before reincarnating him. Technically, Osiris’s junk was eaten by a crab, but Isis wanted to have a child badly enough that she ended up making some new parts for Osiris, then followed through by having a son, Horus. Although Horus went on to be a very successful god when he grew up, it’s possible that all the stress and substitution involved in his birth led to him having a falcon head.

Although you’ve likely guessed that much of my fascination with Egyptian mythology has to do with the plot holes, I’m also intrigued by the apparently very narrow scope that constituted stories of epic proportion. Osiris was the son of Nut, the goddess of the sky, and yet, he never really left Egypt, except when his body floated out to Lebanon. It just seems strange that the Egyptians would have thought that the sky and Egypt was proportionally fair divisions of the world for different gods to rule. Even Nut, the goddess of the sky, was imagined to be supported on her fingers and toes across 4 mountains, which were supporting points from Geb, the god of the earth. But even this conception seems somewhat odd. At some point, some Egyptian must have gone up to the top of a mountain and realized that the sky was no closer. And unless Geb had really bad eczema, the fact that they were picking up dirt from the earth and turning it into buildings should have been a clue that these phenomenon were not gods.

Today, these characterizations seems comically bad, but taking the long view that is necessary when comparing ourselves to people 5000 years before ourselves, we’ll be the bad joke of cyborgs in the year 3000. We can’t get past a simple point: we understand the world in terms of what we know. This idea feel intuitively true and is the premise of our schooling: we learn numbers to learn addition to learn multiplication to learn division to learn fractions to learn decimals and so forth. It also determines how we as a society view the world. Collectively, we only know so much, and that constrains the representations we develop.

For ancient Egyptians, the universe was the size of a country and a few bordering nations. Osiris was the ruler of the world because they didn’t know about the Americas. The sky could be a single entity because the clouds were just as unreachable as the stars. The gods might as well be humanoid, if with the heads of different animals, since the only intelligent beings they knew were other humans. And all the entities of the universe, from the earth to the sky, might as well be humanoid gods or evil spirits in the forms of snakes.

Take the sun and moon, specifically. Being people of a very fertile land, they worshipped the sun in many ways, including as multiple gods, including the popular Ra. Its counterpart in the sky was the moon, which appeared only at night. With 2 globes in the sky, they made the natural connection to their own experience: the sun and moon were the eyes of Horus (and don’t ask what it was like when Osiris was king and Horus wasn’t born yet. Technically, Horus the Elder was already around, but again, don’t ask questions). The moon, being the weaker of the two eyes, was apparently the product of a vicious fight between Horus and Set as Horus got in a fight after looking for the man who tricked-buried-and-cut-up his pa. Set, in the form of a “black pig”, tore out Horus’s weaker eye, and the lunar cycle represented this struggle between gods. To reiterate, they couldn’t understand the moon as a satellite with Earth’s shadow, and instead, they took their own knowledge and turned that into a story. And apparently, their cultural context involved a lot of fights with black pigs.

Although we may now know that the sun and moon are not the eyes of a god, we’re just as constrained by what we’re capable of understanding. In my own education, I think the computer and brain are a great example of this. Descartes thought that the nervous system was a series of strings, with various parts tugging on them. At that time, the best technology they had were fancy toys using basic hydraulics and simple machines. Later, Luigi Galvani shocked frog legs, and then, the brain was based on electricity.

Nowadays, we think of the brain and thinking as a digital computer and calculations, even going as far as to draw connections between short-term and long-term memory with RAM and hard drive space. It’s helpful in our exploration of the brain, but given our history as a species, it seems wrong to think that this is the right representation. Given another a few centuries, and I’m sure we’ll have moved well past this model of thought. Even our theory of computing is probably suspect. Despite most of a century of development, computation is still based on a long tape of symbols being fed into a state machine and manipulated, one symbol at a time. The Church-Turing Thesis, at a high level, hypothesizes that this representation encapsulates all possible computation. In this case, we’re constrained by the physical manifestation of a machine. And despite my training in understanding the brain and theoretical computer science, and even my own work in modeling the brain with computers, history seems to suggest that we’re clearly wrong.

But it’s still worth trying. We may only understand the world in terms of what we know, but it all gradually accumulates. Everyday, the world is a little bigger than the day before. We can amuse ourselves by comparing our world a few millennia later, as long as we remember that we’re just as limited and should continue to look forward to what we may know next.

(Edit: Citing my source for all of this. Great book for those interested in Egyptian mythology)

Bibliography

Ions, Veronica. Egyptian Mythology. New York: P. Bedrick, 1983. Print.

2 Final Papers for My Classes

I’m just finishing up with finals week now and will hopefully have more to write over the upcoming break. In the meantime, I thought I would reference you to some work I did this quarter. Specifically, I ended up doing 2 final projects and 1 term paper. 1 of those projects is still ongoing, so I haven’t posted anything for it, but the other 2 are pretty much complete and available for you to look at. Here are links and snippets for each of them (you can also find them on my writing page, along with various other things I’ve worked on):

Identifying Actors in Political Activism over Twitter

This paper was written for CS378, “Phenomenological Foundation of Cognition, Language & Computation.” I was interested in the use of Twitter for political activism (such as the Egyptian protests) and thought that there were interesting questions about identity and commitment in that context. I take some ideas from network models to understand the roles that individuals have in terms of concrete actions, and I connect that to some empirical work on types of actors in activism on Twitter to understand where identity comes from.

Evolution of Internet Information Consumption Through Bookmarking

This paper was written for CS224W, “Social and Information Network Analysis.” The question I had going into this was whether we could quantify how information overload might be reflected in changes in internet usage. Particularly, Neal Gabler here complains that we can’t grapple with big ideas and are stuck in the constant flow of unimportant data. I tackled this hypothesis by looking at Delicious data and seeing whether the distribution over bookmarks has changed from year to year. If he’s right, we should see more bookmarks happen sooner and less of a long tail. The basic result is that over 3 years, things look pretty much exactly the same, and I also try to come up with a model to explain the data.

Notes from Class with Fernando Flores

Today in CS378, Fernando Flores came to speak with us. I would give an explanation of the class and his work, but I don’t think I can. The class has largely been taught without giving definitions or explaining concepts, but instead discussing ideas and trying to tie them together into a holistic sense of what’s going on. In any case, I took some notes (mostly quotes and paraphrases) on interesting things that Fernando said in the same spirit that Terry Winograd explained after class that he took notes in: you definitely can’t recompose anything that Fernando said from them, but they might be interesting things to think about and digest. Also note that this isn’t of general interest. There may be some people who would enjoy these notes (such as my Uncle David, who introduced me to this field and Terry’s work), but flip on past if you like. I’m not really going anywhere with these notes beyond what you see.

  • we are already thrown into our normative context
  • a lot of philosophy is based on truth
  • in reality, you “bring it forward” with you with logical performance
  • not processing information; more interpretation, performing as a minister
  • email is treated like “information” – there are no commitments with it
  • synchronization of people is dependent on the commitments they make
  • in Mexico, they don’t have a culture of commitment; by workshop, they figured it out
  • commitments are for humans: can’t really be automated
  • so far has failed in politics: it’s about hope, image, not commitments
  • how does such an efficient society end up with such messed up government?
  • short answer: politicians don’t distinguish between promises & expectations
  • politicians do things in public life that are very different from private life
  • 3 ways for a promise to fail
  • 1) competence – within a domain, can you do it?
  • 2) sincerity – you can lie all you want
  • 3) care – caring about the person, which is context-specific
  • trust is an assessment
  • unfortunately, we are thrown in culture of trust – “thrown assessment”
  • “The Tea Party is a mood against Obama”
  • this is pre-history; it’s a sentiment
  • Occupy Wall Street is using the financial system
  • “Projects need to be related to the concerns they are”
  • Objectivity
  • so we’re objective to the point of our experience
  • in World of Warcraft, he had a “poverty of world” – not something you can do strictly by description
  • can reprogram your history with games
  • problem with the US today: we’re based on ideas of social mobility and life always getting better
  • this may not be true anymore
  • can the internet bring the “disposition of being” universally? (question from Kevin, not me)
  • technology affects people in different places differently
  • Heidegger’s concern: we have a metaphysical blindness of the west in how we conceptualize language
  • most people think that language is about passing information
  • some take the commitment interpretation
  • astronomy: “how do people with such poor instruments have such big interpretations?”
  • “what ar the central concerns of people?”
  • we’re trying to build tools, but we’re in a history
  • 3 concerns to care about
  • 1) care – issue, not a problem
  • 2) wonder – mood, questions
  • 3) dwelling – being mortal, having an identity in a culture
  • “thinking is synonymous with calculation, not mood or listening” – this is a mistake often made at places like Stanford
  • “we need to bring sacredness back to tradition”
  • Churchill did this, to create unity
  • you can guarantee success, but you can all be on the same page
  • US has a problem of mood right now
  • we’re realizing we’re not the world power and can’t solve everything
  • design is manipulating us for care – anticipating ready-to-hand
  • but we can’t always anticipate
  • wonder has to do with design because we deal with materials with properties we don’t control (Dean)
  • accidents need to coalesce in a space, and they develop a possibility
  • “a little bit of whim, a little bit of contingency, and a little bit of wonder”
  • a big question with the internet has to deal with identity
  • “the essence of language is poetry” – not logic, not precise in concept
  • Steve Jobs built a sentiment that no one else has
  • “Who said that geniuses and good people need to be saints?”

Why We Don’t Need to Worry About Robots’ Rights

Last Thursday, I went to a panel discussion being held at the Stanford Law School by The Center for Internet and Society on “Legal Perspectives in Artificial Intelligence.” My mind is mostly buried in the AI, but since I have recently become more interested in policy in general and the social impact of technology, I thought it could be interesting to see where the crossover is.

There were a lot of possible intersections, such as the use of AI in assisting lawyers put together cases or IP rights to AI code and programs. The topic they mostly discussed, however, was the possibility of AI being considered a legal person and what the implication of that was. It was an unfortunate angle to take because AI equal to a human doesn’t exist, so it was mostly non-answers, roughly of the form, “Interesting; we’ll see what happens.” They also chose not to jump into the philosophical aspects too much, with only minor discussion of philosophical zombies (a being that behaves exactly like a human but has no consciousness), and instead left those as largely open questions as well.

Disregarding how unsatisfying those answers were, I was also disappointed by the conversation as a whole because I found their conception of AI somewhat narrow, and that limited the topics they could consider. Instead of considering the state of technology as it is today and the issues surrounding that, they mostly clung to the more fantastic view of AI. This view, perpetuated largely by popular media, is best represented by robots like C-3PO that are human in all except form. More generally, this view treats AI as a system with intentions, self-motivation, and more psychological properties similar to humans. And that AI doesn’t exist.

Stepping back from that, however, and we already have some forms of AI, and I will make the stronger claim that what we have now will be the form of AI for the foreseeable future (with respect to legal rights; of course we’re making great progress in the nitty-gritty). So, I think that this panel was appropriate for us now, but for different reasons than what the organizers likely considered. AI is here now and it has plenty of problems surrounding it. For better or worse, though, I think it’s largely invisible in our lives. Let me give a few examples of AI in our lives, what its role is, why I don’t see it changing into HAL, and what the legal implications of it are.

First, AI in the market. The panelists discussed the legal status of AI as a trustee, an advisor to a trustee, or as a business operator. I don’t see this coming soon because AI don’t have their own desires, so it doesn’t make sense for them to be in charge. AI can be a tool to make recommendations and crunch the numbers, but the last mile will be all blood and guts. And this form of AI already exists. Take algorithmic trading: a computer is executing trades for a fund or some other trader based only on the numbers and often faster than humans are capable of. On the whole, it’s a black box. Very smart physicists and computer scientists can build models to make it run, but once it’s going, it’s past our ability to actively monitor it. Just last year, the Dow Jones crashed, which was largely blamed on algorithmic trading. The SEC ended up changing some rules based on this, so this is a problem being dealt with right now. I haven’t followed the situation, but I imagine that there are questions about liability when AI runs havoc on the market.

Second, health care. This came up in the discussion of Watson, the Jeopardy playing AI that IBM claims it wants to retool for health care. They were concerned about the possible issues here, as health as least as touchy of a topic as the market. I’m not scared about it, though, because we still have doctors. Doctors may receive advice from computers, but the final decision is going to be in the hands of a human. We don’t send our brightest to school for a decade just to let them defer judgement: they’ll still sit between a patient and AI. Even so, this is again already happening today. In fact, we apparently even have a journal dedicated to this topic. As it is, we can use probabilistic models to diagnose various illnesses by telling a computer what the various symptoms are, and it’ll spit back the likelihood of various possibilities. AI researchers will tell you that they’re actually better than doctors since they have the accumulated knowledge of many more cases than any 1 doctor could ever know. Importantly, AI here is just a tool, not a legal person. We do have questions today, such as patient privacy when the data are being aggregated into a single machine, and these will be the questions moving forward.

To wrap this up, let’s bring this around to an example of AI that you must be familiar with to be reading this: web search. On the surface, it seems like this is a task that humans are performing, any non-trivial search engine you’ll encounter has all sorts of interesting AI in it, such as trying to figure out if you meant the scooters, the mice, the hygiene product, or the phone when you type in, “Why isn’t my razor working?” The net result is that people usually click on the first link, which means that we’ve already deferred a lot of our choices to AI in picking the “best match” to our search terms. But that’s a far cry from R2D2, and hopefully, no one will ever sue a search engine for giving them bad results.

And it’s everywhere else, too. Google translate, autonomous cars, Bing flight search, Amazon search recommendations, and Siri are all examples of what AI really looks like today, and frankly,  it’s not that scary. None of it may sound that impressive or very AI-like, but that tends to be a funny problem with AI as a field of research: once we figure out how to do it, it’s not AI anymore.

I think it’s important that all of those things I just rattled off are tools, not independent agents. We build things that we want, and for the most part, we want things done for us while leaving us in control. This means that we build wonderful systems that use AI to make our lives easier, but that last mile is still human.

Given that this is what AI is and what it will be (so I claim), then the issues are already in front of us now. And if they don’t seem like issues, it’s because they aren’t. Do we worry about incorrect diagnoses from AI? A doctor may blame a computer, but it’s still the doctor’s call. What about an autonomous car getting into an accident? Assuming it’s entirely autonomous, it’s no different than trams that have a preset schedule. Cars aren’t going to have their own desires (such as to tailgate the jerk who cut them off), and since we’ll understand how they work, the mystery is gone.

So in summary, AI is here now, and it’s as it will be. There are legal issues to consider with respect to AI, but we shouldn’t be worrying about AI as a legal person. And appreciate and understand how important AI already is in your lives. As tools.

Journal Entry 8 for Development in Early Childhood

(This is my last journal for the class)

This week, I was in the language area, but with low interest in writing stories and having Christian nearby as well, that ended up being a small part of my actual focus as I drifted around. Instead, I want to focus on a longer interaction I had with A..

I was initially in the music room looking at the chicks with C. when she said that she was going to go out to the monkey bars. At that point, A. asked me, “Do you know what the monkey bars are?” I was curious as to why he would ask me such as a question, since I would assume that he would think I must know, so instead of just saying know, I instead just asked him if he could tell me what they are. He explains in reasonable terms about what they are and how children interact with them, and we briefly discuss his own ability with the monkey bars. Although this initially left me confused, my interpretation now is that this was how A. was initiating conversation. Aware that C. would no longer be the focus of my attention, he picked up on the most immediate discussion point and threw it out there for me to engage with him on. This particular question was somewhat awkward as a starting point, but A. did demonstrate an ability to discuss in a context-sensitive manner. Forman points out that “…we need to make a shift in what we believe a question to be…,” and he continues to discuss one possibility that a question is “an implied failure to communicate” (79). Between adults, A.’s question would simply whether one knew what monkey bars are, but to A., this question had a much different purpose, being primarily communicative instead of focused on the actual knowledge. Moreover, it worked as we began to talk as we walked out of the music room.

A. was holding a photo from a vacation in his hand, and we walked over to the mailbox on the shelves, and he put it in. He tried to close it, but the flap flopped back open, and he soon realized that he couldn’t stand there forever to hold the mailbox closed. He first asked me how it closes, so I explained that most mailboxes have clasps on them. From there, he pointed out the one clasp on the flap, and I agree. He then commented that the clasp has nothing to attach to, so he put together all of the details to understand exactly why the mailbox wasn’t staying closed.

Next, he asked me why the mailbox had nails sticking out of the bottom of it. I honestly said that I didn’t know in the moment. He responded relatively quickly and told me that they’re to attach the mailbox to the wooden support below it. I was again very impressed by his ability to demonstrate this knowledge, though I’m still not entirely sure where his comment came from. First, it could’ve been prior knowledge. A pattern I noticed in his speaking manner was that he often asked “why” or “what” questions for things he asked seemed to know. Like how he began our conversation about monkey bars, perhaps those are the sentence forms that he feels comfortable speaking with. Second, he could’ve reasoned through it in the moment, which I think would be a great inductive leap to make in understanding the physical relationship between the parts and the purpose of the nails. In either case, he was able to carry on at a very high level of functioning.

From there, I saw an opportunity to scaffold his engineering talent and asked him if we could use anything to close it. He immediately said tape but then retracted it. When I asked him why, he pointed out that if it’s taped, we can’t get anything into the mailbox. When he floundered on other solutions, I suggested that maybe we can use string, so we went over to the craft area to get some string. Meanwhile, he still pulled two pieces of tape, and we returned to the mailbox to close it.

He told me to pull the string through, and I talked through with him exactly what he wanted, which turned out to be the string through a small hole on the side. Because of how the yarn is braided, I ended up pushing the first bit through, then allowing him to complete the rest of it. After that, he taped the flap anyways so that the flap remained partially open. Although I had had a particular solution in mind, he clearly still had his own vision in mind that he executed.

Later on, he said to me, “The string is just hanging there. Do we even need it?” On that point, I agreed with him, and he removed the piece of string. When I asked him how someone could put something into the mailbox if it’s taped, he simply said that one can just take the tape off.

Overall, I’m impressed by his ability to work through a particular goal. Although his method didn’t quite match up with what he had said, he continued to work towards it and think critically about the purpose of various objects present. From my end, I think I ended up being the most helpful to him in my confusion about his mental state and purpose and in my ignorance about how to proceed, so I feel like I did the right things if perhaps for the wrong reasons. My confusion drove me to ask him questions that demonstrated his thought process, which hopefully helped to solidify those. My ignorance gave him the opportunity to think and work through various problems instead of me just telling him what he needed to know or what he needed to do.

I don’t know if I can aptly distill my experience at Bing into words other than to say that it has been very good. As I mentioned early on, my interest in children is almost exclusively on cognitive development, but interacting with them has reminded me that there are other important parts of development as well, such as social skills and emotional maturity. Although my mindset is still to compartmentalize these ideas, there really is a lot of connection between these different topics that gives a better total understanding of where a child is overall and how he or she can best be supported.

I’m not sure if I had expectations of the capabilities of 3, 4, and 5 year olds, but whatever they were, they were shattered. Perhaps the only thing that I feel I had right coming in is that children are strangely competent and incompetent in various areas, sometimes at the same time on what seem like very similar things. The best example in my mind is their language development, which is in many ways very sophisticated, but is also often not at all translated in writing and reading. They can recognize the first letter of another child’s name, but not be able to spell or even write the letters for their own name.

I feel like I’ve grown quite a bit from this experience, if only to have bought in to Bing’s philosophy about a play-based education. Even beyond the ability to understand children better, both in academic and real-life settings, and use that in the future, the basic skills to engage with and help the children feel like they’re more generally useful in interacting with all people, adults or children. Although I don’t think I’ll ever go through conflict resolution in quite the same way with my roommate, I think the mindset and determination to really understand the motivation of others and express those very explicitly makes sense. These journals have caused me to think harder about why certain interactions happened as they did and try to do better in the future. After spending the past few years at college focusing so specifically on my own cognitive development in classes, this class was a good reminder that just like the children, I have other things I need to learn along the way, too.

Journal Entry 7 for Development in Early Childhood

This week, a short staff gave me the opportunity to stay in the art area again, though the more significant interactions happened incidentally in that area. A flower was put out, but only Nicole went by to make an observational drawing. Instead, children came to and went from the craft table and painting easels, where they interacted with each other.

An. and L. were at the craft table when L. saw a friend (S.’s sister, I think) walk in. While L. went over to give her a hug, An. looked at them blankly and seemed unsure what to think of it. When L. came back, she immediately said, “You’re my best friend. She’s just my friend.” Although I was struck by the empathy, I was even more surprised that L. said this without having apparently seen An.’s expression. My sense was that L., instead of reacting, anticipated this feeling of minor jealousy, which requires more active awareness.

The closeness between them likely facilitated this reaction, but two more incidents revealed how sensitive they were. C. had taken an egg in a cup outside, and shortly after, we all saw her rush inside, crying and running to Karen. They all paused midway through their work and watched C.. The conversation roughly went:

L.: I never saw C. cry like that.
An.: Yeah, I wonder what’s wrong.
B.: Maybe she want her mom.
An.: Why does she want her mom?
B.: Sometimes they cry when they want their mom.
L.: But she came from the sand area.

The conversation continued between them as they explored possible reasons for why she was crying. On the one hand, they themselves seemed outwardly unaffected by C.’s state, though perhaps non-verbal cues and expression also develop over time. Even so, they all empathized with C., which fascinated me from a theory of mind perspective. They explored hypothetical situations of what potential causes, considered how those would affect them, and reasoned that against C.’s observed behavior. This process of thinking made me realize how tightly connected several aspects of development are: in empathizing with C., they needed to project themselves into her point of view and reason through counterfactual worlds to guess what had happened.

Cognitive Development

This ability to take another perspective happened in a less emotionally involved situation soon after when Ae. had brought in a beetle in a plastic egg. Thankfully, it seemed as though most of the children hadn’t developed any sort of disgust towards it and eagerly looked at it. Ae. pointed out that “It can’t get out because it’s slippery,” watching the beetle desperately try to climb the sloping sides of the egg. When the excitement died down, he put the top on the egg. At that point, I mentioned something like, “The beetle might get lonely inside the egg because it can’t get very far if you close the egg.” What followed was:

J.: We could let it out in the classroom. (Pauses) It would be a giant world.
Me: Why would it be a giant world? It’s not giant to us.
J.: Because it’s so small. The room would be giant to it.

In this case, I was impressed by how she not only took the mental perspective of the beetle, but also absorbed and considered its physical shape as well. In fact, the perspective of it being small required that she, in some sense, imagine the beetle trying to interact with the room, either walking through it or using the objects in it, since the perspective of being close to the ground doesn’t necessarily make the room big.
The conversation continued when Al. jumped in with another comment:

Al. (with a disgusted look): It could get into our food.
(Several other children looked disgusted)
Me: Yeah, that wouldn’t be very good. I don’t think I would like eating a beetle.
Another child (from the background): Frogs eat them.
Me: That’s true. Maybe if we were frogs, we would like to eat them?
Everyone: Yeah!

This particular idea had much wider agreement with the children, which I think has 2 interesting aspects to it. First, we discussed in cognitive development how children form a “belief-desire psychology.” Presumably less advanced than empathy, infants slowly develop the ability to distinguish their own preferences from the preferences of others, reflected in having different desires. In this case, that resulted in understanding that as a frog, they would like the beetle that they typically don’t like. Second, this particular example seemed easier to engage in since it was closer to a fictional situation. They weren’t necessarily projecting into another person but simply imagining a hypothetical world. This sort of thinking seems closely related to the dramatic play that the children are, of course, wonderful at. This particular example is the most direct link I’ve seen between their play and the skills that emerge from it.

The last episode I want to relate came when L., J., and An. were painting. S. came in, walked up to everyone, and said, “You can’t talk.” After he left, J. came to me and said, “He said to me ‘you can’t talk,’ and I didn’t like it.” I asked them why he might have said that, and when no ideas came, I proposed that maybe he didn’t want to talk to anyone and therefore didn’t want anyone to talk to him, either. L., very acutely, responded instantly, “Then why is he saying that to us?” When the subsequent discussion didn’t enlighten us, I suggested that someone go out to ask him why he said that. J. chased him down, came back, and told us, “He says he’s ‘laning’.” An., clearly unsatisfied, asked what “laning” was, which I had no answer to and proposed that perhaps this was just some game he was playing.

J. then went out again and came back with a new revelation. “He says it’s too loud, and he wants it to be quiet.” We all accepted this, but since it still didn’t answer our question about “laning,” all three went out to talk to him after finishing their paintings. The final revelation came when they came back and told me that he was “laying eggs” and needed quiet for that. After class, Peckie confirmed this with me since S. had found something that needed quiet to lay eggs.

Although their process didn’t engage with possibilities as deeply as the previous events, they demonstrated the same empathy and were concerned for why S. was behaving as he did. The problem solving began from their own discomfort but soon became focused on trying to understand what S. was doing, and this time, they talked to him directly to get an answer.

This week was also my first chance to run a snack table on my own as Peckie was filling in at another table. For the most part, I didn’t find it too difficult to maintain control, except when there wasn’t any particular topic to focus on. A big difference from usual was their willingness to engage with me. When Peckie is there, the children will often come forward with their own stories or observations, which becomes a point of discussion. This time, however, I felt as though I needed to be more directed in asking about what they had done, and between their reluctance and less familiarity on my part about them individually, we drifted between topics quickly. It didn’t help that the chosen book was the very short “Tough Boris,” and the post-book awkwardness was a little tricky to work with.

The Schickedanz reading this week, however, brought up the good idea of discussing the book after reading. In past readings, I’ve struggled to know when to inject my own observations and discuss the book while reading. Although intended to get the children more involved, “stopping to point out word meanings detracts from the pleasures of hearing the rhythm and rhyme” (Schickedanz 226). I’m also unsure how sensitive the children are to the difference between my comments and the actual text of the book. In the future, I’ll probably try to push discussion to the end and see if we can cover the same content as I would have during reading.

Journal Entry 6 for Development in Early Childhood

This week, I was out on the back 40 where I saw both a mix of typical outdoor play and another more structured activity. For the morning, Peckie setup a station on the picnic bench where the children could squeeze oranges to make juice using a large juice squeezer. With the somewhat finicky cone, a separate cup to catch the juice, and a mechanical handle, the squeezer was a good activity to understand the mechanics of the device and develop the appropriate motor skills to operate it.

When multiple children were sitting around to operate it, they invariably managed to organize themselves into taking turns without any prompting from any teachers. The closest to a slip-up that I saw was when S., who had previously gotten accustomed to doing many in a row when he was squeezing by himself, squeezed two oranges in a row, but when A. caught this, she insisted that they all do 2 at a time, restoring balance there. An even more surprising act was when N. was helping another child use the squeezer. Noticing that the other child was having difficulty, N. helped to push down the lever, doing most of the work. After that orange was done, N. gave another orange to the child, saying, “It’s your turn because I did yours.”

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember once playing a computer game at school with 2 friends where we took turns on levels. Since I had played it before, I “demonstrated” by playing the first level, then played the second level as well, since the other one was just to show them how it was done. In that instance when I was 5 or 6, I only demonstrated selfishness that I didn’t see at all with the squeezer. Overall, I needed to do little to oversee the activity. Other than offering baby wipes to children as they came up and cutting more oranges for them to squeeze, I could be passive through most of the activity.

A major part of this activity was the children teaching each other how to use the squeezer. As the Tudge and Caruso suggests, “Teachers should avoid suggesting solutions to children” (214). Not only does this suggestion prevent me from intervening incorrectly, it allowed for them to work together to make juice. “When children try to achieve a shared objective… they must … try to adopt an agreed-upon strategy for realizing the goal” (213). In this case, it was turn-taking and juice-squeezing skills that needed to be organized. Overall, my role was largely in support to make sure that the materials were always available and appropriately used. Although juice-squeezing isn’t really conducive to elaborate structure or creativity, it does set forth a clear objective for them to work together on.

Dramatic Play

During my time outside, I witnessed two extended periods of dramatic play. The first was between two girls in the kitchen area outside. The main focus was around a pot, which had mostly red water, sand, and flowers and was being stirred. The first quote that caught my attention was when one said, “Here’s some sand” and proceeded to dump it into the pot. Although perfectly accurately, this struck me as strange because it showed how fluid reality and fiction were to them. Unless they truly wanted to cook with sand, I would imagine that the conversation would also maintain the fiction of what the sand represented, such as cinnamon or flour. Were they not so engaged in their play, I might have asked them what the sand was as I suspect that the fictional nature of the sand was never precisely determined. That hypothesis, however, comes only from my realization that children’s fiction often isn’t as complete as I would consider to be substantial otherwise.

Another interesting moment arose when they had a minor conflict about who got to use the wooden spoon. Until then, the wooden spoon had been used for stirring, but the girl who was stirring wanted to take it away to get dirt while the other took over stirring. The details of the conversation are lost to me now, but it came together after a slight pause, and one proposed, “How about whenever you go away, I get to use it, and whenever I go away, you get to use it?” “Okay, this spoon is for dirt,” the other said, offering a plastic spoon for her to go foraging with. Having seen and experience instances where children want to keep items for themselves simply for the sake of having them, I was again surprised by this deal, which engaged real conflict resolution and reimagined the purpose of objects in their fictional play.

After snack time, I stood by a tree where C. and J. had climbed up and were playing “clones.” Although most of the play was focused on shooting the other team from their vantage point, there were some notable distractions, such as when C. randomly offered J., “Take a soda. It’s a clone soda.” Curious why he had qualified it, I asked C., “Is a clone soda different than other soda?” He hesitated, then said, “No it’s sweeter.” Satisfied, he continued his distractions by proposing that the tree had “clone berries” that he began handing out for us to eat. The interesting twist came when the other team came close, and C. realized that it was no longer time for dining in the tree; the same berries became “clone grenades,” which he began throwing down onto the ground. The final transformation came when O. joined their play, and the “clone grenades” went back to berries (I think) that C. passed to her to gather in her satchel.

The big lesson for me from these examples is simply how fluid dramatic play can be. When I think of fiction, I imagine a fixed setting where a plot is played out. For the children, however, objects can constantly change identities and other children can come and go, and these modifications always happen in a way to continue the play in an engaging, if unexpected, direction.