Child's play

A little blog about joyful life

(We are) kids exploring the world

Sometimes, we think kids are cute because they are exploring a world that’s new to them. By trying out various things, they build up what we think we have, experience and knowledge. But in fact, kids are here to remind us of the basics of the human condition. We, too, are only exploring the world that is continuously new to us. We cannot “know” what to do in a given situation, because the situation is gone by the time we stop to think about it. All we can do is, like kids, try something out and think to ourselves: Hmm, that didn’t turn out as expected. Or, with experience, try something out and notice it did, in fact, do what we wanted. And then, afterwards, describe it and call it “knowledge”.

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Into the zone

From time to time, the phrase that somebody is “in the zone” comes up. But what does that mean ?

When you have practised a certain activity until you can do it automatically, you usually start doing it without paying attention. As a former colleague of mine once said, he suddenly realised while driving that he had already travelled a long way without him noticing where he had passed. He was absorbed in thinking and the driving came automatically. Driving a car or riding a bicycle are typical activities that we do automatically.

On the other hand, when we are starting to practice a new activity, we can sometimes give our full attention to what we are attempting. I have just started playing the piano and the concentration that I can achieve without any effort is amazing.

Try to bring that sort of attention and concentration to activities that seem routine. When riding my bicycle along the river to one of my customers, I pay attention to how my feet move, how my hands are holding the handlebar, how the river birds are splashing about and how the wind feels. Without too much effort, the concentration comes up and I am in the zone. At that point, I notice how convoluted I usually am. My body is twisted by reacting to all the stress in my head. My brain feels like it’s sideways in my skull. And I usually don’t notice any of this because, like my former colleague, I am cruising in auto-pilot mode through my life.

I don’t do work

Every time I find myself wanting to work, it goes wrong. I get distracted like by this blog entry.

(Several hours later)Second attempt. I hereby renounce work. It’s no good. It’s effort and I never get any result. I get impatient, I want to get it over with, I wished the result was already there. I get distracted and I start feeling bad about being distracted but it’s hard to say whether it feels worse to have to go back to work. Work doesn’t work.

I’m looking for a new word now to describe what I want to do. Non-work, play, they don’t do the trick. The only thing I can say is wu wei but that’s not very clear, either. Things start happening when I don’t work. Instead, I just let things happen. Today, I wanted to work hard and copy the bibliography for my paper from Word into Zotero. It didn’t work, so I started chatting with a friend. He told me about something he saw on the news yesterday. I looked it up, it was a great item that fit perfectly in the context of my paper. So I added it to my bibliography in Zotero. By not working, I got a brand new source for my paper and some fresh inspiration. The less I work, the more actually happens. Action through non-action.

Engineering as a creative act

I was just reading through a magazine on culture & critique. The current issue is about art and cultural education. I am currently working in an engineering school, so you could say that I got a bit distracted when I started reading about art. But from the redactorial, I get the impression that art education in Belgium is now experiencing the same paradox that engineering education already has by its very nature. In Belgium, after several reforms, art education is confronted with demands for measurable results. Art education ? Measurable ? What nonsense !?

The difference with engineering education is that in the case of art education, the paradox is just more explicit. Both are dealing with a creative process that starts in emptiness. The process uses certain techniques. In the case of engineering, the techniques can be executed in a very precise (also called “scientific”, but “reproducible” would be more correct) way. In certain art disciplines like photography, the techniques are also quite reproducible. In graphic arts, it becomes less clear and in painting, reproducibility isn’t high on the priority list (though there are some painters that can quickly produce realistic portraits on demand). In its most extreme form, reproducibility disappears in performance art, leaving only the creative space in which things can appear.

But that’s precisely what engineering is also about. What happens is that the more “scientific” the processes are, the more they become the focus. In engineering, almost all the focus is on the techniques: base techniques (mathematics, physics, chemistry, electronics, …), applied techniques (circuit building, algorithms, …). As we descend “down” into areas where the creative space becomes more prominent, the obsession with technique diminishes. In photography, there are millions of messages posted daily on Internet forums about cameras and techniques like exposure, HDR, depth-of-field, etc. But in painting, we can only discuss brushes and paints. It’s much harder to describe how to lay down a stroke. And what can we still say about “how” to create and execute a work of performance art ?

What we need to achieve in engineering education is to refocus the attention to that creative space. By performing a creative act, engineers (or groups/teams of engineers) connect with the humanity in the users of their technology. This can then reflect back in the shape of people using the technology in ways never envisaged by the original creators. The whole of this process is quintessentially human: it is about exploring what the world and life are, and about sharing these experiences. Engineering education is rapidly changing in Belgium and abroad. We now have the chance to put that humanity back into the education.

History is a science

Life is sometimes compared to walking backwards: we can’t see the future, but we can see the past. So we don’t know where we’re going, but we see where we’ve been. But is that the case ? It’s certainly true that we don’t know what will be. But do we “know” or “see” what has been ?

History presents itself to us as memories. A memory is uncontrollable: it either presents itself, or it doesn’t. When it presents itself, it comes up and we notice the content in our consciousness. As an example, think of how you remember somebody’s name. Sometimes, nothing comes up at all. Then, all of a sudden, there it is. Who did that ? What happened ? It’s just memory playing its tricks on us.

When something has happened and we can still remember it, we can use our memory as evidence that this has indeed happened. When nobody remembers it anymore, things become more complicated. We don’t have proof of what happened, but we can build a theory of what happened. Then we can corroborate that theory with hearsay, historical notes, and with artefacts. We can continue corroborating until we are fairly certain, but we will never find solid proof because we cannot go there and witness it. As such, the historical process is similar to the scientific one: corroboration of theories, but never proofs.

Cult of Is

Here’s a little something I’m thinking about now. It’s kind of a mindful version of The Cult of Done.

  1. There is one state of being: that what is. Deluded ones talk about stages of not-being-yet or of not-being-anymore. I do not know of such things. I know only what is.
  2. What I do interacts with the things that are. That what isn’t, is not and I cannot act upon it.
  3. Nothing I do begins or ends. Deluded ones believe in beginning and ending. I do not know of such things. If it is, it is. Otherwise, it isn’t.
  4. Thoughts of things that are not-being-yet or not-being-anymore, can be called little clouds. These clouds are. Their content are not. I can do things with the clouds. I cannot do things with their content.

Blog closed due to illness

I’m sorry to say that I’ve closed this blog due to illness. This may be temporary or it may be permanently: I’ve not decided if I will continue yet. Thanks to all who followed me, I did it all for you !

Fix my PC, plumber

The title could also have been: implement this spec, electrician. I remember having a vision when I was 12 that I would become a well-known and rich programmer. Instead, the job of programming has become quite similar to that of a plumber or an electrician. There is a bit of design work, then some grafting to implement it, then some troubleshooting to finish the project. Sure, programming is frequently more complex than implementing the water or electricity circuits in a house. But life in general has become more complex.

Programmed plumbers & plumber programmers

It’s not only programming jobs that have become rather mundane: making documentation, building websites, designing marketing campaigns, a lot of previously “white collar” jobs are experiencing a similar evolution. In the 1950s, an office job was highly regarded, higher education was required to get one and you were certain of rewards like a high salary, job security and a good pension. In 2011, an office job is what most of us do and none of the rewards is very certain any more. You still need higher education, the value of which diminishes as more and more graduate. Office jobs are also under threat by technological advances: you can easily outsource anything that involves thinking and typing on a PC to India or elsewhere. As a consequence, office workers are yesterday’s factory workers: squeezed like a lemon, threatened with obsolescence and permanently stressed. If you aren’t stressed yet, perhaps this article in the Economist will convince you that you should be.

The result is an interesting twist of events, where job security can be gotten by going down the educational ladder. Why not go up ? Because the industry currently cannot cope with the influx of graduates with a PhD. Despite a push for more PhD, the situation now is that several who do get their doctoral end up having a hard time finding a job. The only way is down, towards concrete jobs. Waiting a table can’t be outsourced to somebody in India. No Chinese engineer can come and fix your leaky tap. These are jobs that are inherently local. And because most of your peers will aim for stressful office jobs destined for obsolescence, your concrete job may end up being a lot more secure and paying more.

Dalrymple on education

Theodore Dalrymple is in the news again with his dry analysis of the London riots. He bases his opinions on what he sees on the streets when he sees young people and he doesn’t like it. In his opinion piece, he mixes causes and effects, painting a bleak picture of youth abandoned by parents and expecting everything even when offering nothing. Unemployment and rioting are then logical consequences.

It’s a bit simple to reduce the cause of the riots to youth, abandoned by those who should be their authority, adrift in a mix of drugs and music. This explanation has been used at least as early as the 16th century. I also remember that somebody in ancient Greece, perhaps Socrates, lamented that youth spent its days with song and drink. Dalrymple, being an astute intellectual, should have been aware he’s doing no more than copying a familiar template.

I have a different take on the matter. Dalrymple, in another piece on Tunesia, writes about a disease called diplomasotis. He describes it as follows:

This dangerous disease is caused by the assumption that, since a modern economy requires educated people, the more educated people it can call upon—as measured by the average number of years in school—the more productive that economy will be.

But for Dalrymple, there is a major disadvantage of these policies when used in countries like Tunesia:

No policy could be more dangerous, more certain ultimately to produce a social explosion, than to educate young people for many years and deny them first the opportunity to earn a living that they believe is commensurate with their education, and then the opportunity to earn a living at all. But this is the policy that many countries persist in following on both sides of the Mediterranean.

The lack of jobs after a higher education is just one problem of the obsession with education. Let’s take a look at the one particular course that Dalrymple mentions: mathematics. There are several jobs that hardly have any use for more than very basic counting, like nursing, plumbing, graphical design, truck driver, and so on. These jobs require other skills that more intellectual jobs do not: take a look at the social interaction, DIY skills, general taste and driving attitude of some bankers or ICT personnel and you get the idea. Unfortunately for those who have a skill set in any of those directions, a large part of the education of our kids has intellectual work as its main focus.

Imagine what happens when you aren’t good at interpreting complex documents (like legal ones) and complex calculations. First, you spend twelve years in an institute that, at every step, reminds you that you are no good. After that, when you enter the job market, you notice that things like filing your taxes or starting up a company are actually really complicated. Where can you still turn to ? Not politicians, because they’re only there to make politics more complicated as a form of job protection. Employers seem like they have reverted to their 19th century ways of increasing profit at all costs, particularly at the expense of the employees. Unions look like a legal sort of Mafia too, making demands that will rather bankrupt the employer than save jobs. Capitalists are just millionaires defending their interests and communists are dictators in disguise. In such a situation, you are nearly guaranteed to end up disappointed, frustrated and cynical.

Is it a surprise then that riots involved people who actually have a job ? I’m not surprised myself. It’s also quite obvious that groups who offer a safe identity become popular, as is shown in the rise of populist, “common sense”, and nationalist parties, particularly if they have a recognisable leader. The most common response so far is to ignore these alternative parties and to act as if it’s business as usual. The Tea Party and Belgian’s plethora of Flemish parties are typical results: parallel societies where people share ideas, instead of being able to join in the larger, society-wide discussion. Because of this exclusion, both sides end up the poorer, reverting to historically wrong statements repeated over and over, like Dalrymple in his analysis of the riots.

Avoiding responsibility

The proverbial hits the fan again. Debts are rising, interests on the debts are rising, too. Suddenly, politicians find themselves in a nasty situation: damn, we can’t pay for all of this. We need more debt in order to pay the interests. Yeah, that must be the solution. But we can’t afford more debt. Fortunately, we joined the EU. Let’s stare long and hard at the ECB and refuse to budge. They won’t allow EU wide problems, so we win ! Hurray !

This looks like a fairly new problem. The Economist has an article about the Republican-Democrat stand-off on the budget that explicitly describes it as such: the downgrade is not a problem of the budget but it’s due to the changed mentality. Nobody wants to give an inch, so the stalemate blocks all normal operations. The Republicans have no reason to blame it on the Democrats increasing debt because they happily blocked political life as well. In Belgium, we know this situation all too well. Just take a look at our 14 month old government formation: both sides block it, hoping the other will give way first.

But the problem goes much deeper than just blocking things. It’s a general lack of responsibility. In politics, openly stating the facts and wanting to do something is extremely rare. The far left and right are obviously just shouting slogans, but they get good electoral opportunities thanks to a center field that is utterly ignorant of the reality around them. Here are a few examples of how to get rid of a problem and to move it into somebody else’s backyard:

  • The green mayor of a minor city decides to tackle the city’s traffic problems. Despite the fact that the city’s importance is because of its location at a major crossroad between bigger cities, the mayor lowers the number of lanes to just one. Result ? As a pedestrian, it’s indeed easier to cross the road in the city itself. Just outside the city, monster traffic jams coming from all directions trying to get into the city or just to pass it. Problem solved for the city, moved elsewhere.
  • Belgium’s income taxes are amongst the highest in the world. Pressure groups have long pushed the government for exceptions for certain groups: stimulating industry to hire newly graduated, stimulating industry to hire those of age 50+ to keep them from retiring early, stimulating people on the road with lowly taxed company cars and lunch vouchers, and so on. Result ? An incomprehensible mess of exceptions. There are tens of thousands of people employed by government institutions to process all administration caused by all the vouchers. The real result is that the government pays much more to keep these exceptions alive than it would cost them to abolish them all and to lower taxes.

Why not just admit that your country’s debt is out of control and that you need to take measures ? Why not admit that your city’s existence is because of the traffic and to take measures to tackle pure pass-through traffic ? Why not just lower taxes ? There is only one answer: it’s easier not to, even if the consequences around you and even for yourself compound into chaos. This complacency is based on fear: politicians are afraid of the general public. In case they would announce sweeping reform, there might be a backlash. On the other hand, they’re also afraid of doing nothing so they want to make a statement. By doing something irresponsible and packaging it as an effort to stop the uncontrollable, they position themselves as heroes while dumping the problems in somebody else’s backyard. So problems get handed around and around until they become unmanageable. That’s when rating bureaus get the blame: they should not point out that politicians have not done their job and everybody would’ve been well.

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