don't just think, do something

Brains operate using perception-action cycles. Good programmers know that a key to fast code is a good data structure. Sensory inputs are like a data structure for the brain. Using your body and physical implements, you can shape the sensory data structure that your brain uses. Moving around to get a good look is thinking on your feet. Tinkering is thinking with your hands. If you just use your head to think, you’re mentally handicapped.

Tetris game play provides a good case study of how the brain and hands work together. Careful study of play indicates that players rotate the falling blocks more frequently than is plausible for a linear cognitive program of play.[1] Study also indicates that using keystrokes, a player can rotate a falling block about ten times as fast as a person can mentally rotate such a block.[2] In figuring out where to direct a block, players use keystrokes to rotate blocks at least in part because doing so is more cost effective than performing such actions on representations within one’s head.

Trade-offs between external sense and cognitive effort also occurs in choices between different sensory forms of media. The rapid shift of “soap operas” from radio to television suggests that adding visual stream to the programming lowered the cost of making sense of it. More generally, the cost of making sense of presence falls with richer sensory inputs.

Playing Tetris and making sense of presence both involve perception-action cycles. In Tetris, the player rotates blocks to create new sensory inputs so that higher level cognitive processes can more efficiently plan trajectories for placing blocks. In sense of presence, attunement to another occurs as a good created through the social evolution of human nature. This attunement can occur at different cognitives levels, from awareness of twittering of another to a face-to-face, heart-to-heart talk with a best friend. At each level, attunement is associated with characteristic patterns of action such as textual response or eye-tracking.

Perception-action cycles are built into human biology from the lowest to the highest levels of cognitive complexity. As a cognitive scientist explained:

At all levels of the central nervous system, the processing of sensory-guided sequential actions flows from posterior (sensory) to anterior (motor) structures, with feedback at every level. Thus, at cortical levels, information flows in a circular fashion through a series of hierarchically organized areas and connections that constitute the perception-action cycle. Automatic and well-rehearsed actions in response to simple stimuli are integrated at low levels of the cycle, in sensory areas of the posterior (perceptual) hierarchy and in motor areas of the frontal (executive) hierarchy. More complex behavior, guided by more complex and temporally remote stimuli, requires integration at higher cortical levels of both perceptual and executive hierarchies, namely areas of higher sensory association and prefrontal cortex.[3]

Interactivity, which new Internet services emphasize, is deeply embedded in human biology.

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[1] David Kirsh and Paul Maglio (1994), “On distinguishing epistemic from pragmatic actions,” Cognitive Science 18, pp. 15-20.

[2] Id. p. 24.

[3] Joaquín M. Fuster (2004), “Upper processing stages of the perception-action cycle,” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 8, no. 4 (April) p. 144. Note that id. Figure 2 describes the general structure of Kirsh and Maglio (1994), p. 39, Figure 16. For additional description of the perception-action cycle, see Paul Baxter’s Memoirs of a Postgrad.

COB-11: education is the key to success

This month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats highlights the bright future for U.S. bureaucracy. The Council of Graduate Schools’ Advisory Committee on Graduate Education and American Competitiveness has just released a 30-page report entitled Graduate Education: The Backbone of American Competitiveness and Innovation. The Executive Summary begins with it:

It is tempting to be complacent about the future of American competitiveness. … But as our world flattens, we face new and growing competition. We can no longer take for granted America’s continued leadership in innovation and competitiveness.

I see some evidence supporting that view. Being a graduate student is a socio-intellectual position that fosters backbone, independence, and innovation. Even more important, however, is developing the flexible, goal-oriented skills of bureaucratic reasoning. A Committee member highlighted the relationship of these skills to graduate education:

“Interdisciplinary research preparation and education are central to future competitiveness, because knowledge creation and innovation frequently occur at the interface of disciplines,” says the CGS report (p18). In such a world, the ability to analyze and solve problems, even ones you never saw before is particularly important, as is the ability to quickly bring to market new products, services and integrated solutions of all kinds. This kind of talent is more important than ever, given the increasingly complex, fast changing, competitive world we live in. These are the kinds of skills that require solid preparation as well as a certain degree of maturity, and that therefore are difficult to acquire in college. This is what graduate education and advanced degrees are all about.

The Committee’s recommendations are consistent with developing these skills:

  • Develop a highly skilled workforce by fostering collaboration among leaders in higher education, business and government
  • Expand participation of underrepresented groups in all fields, especially those essential to America’s competitiveness and national security
  • Create a vision for all US students that portrays careers in the STEM fields as engaging, compelling, transparent and remunerative
  • Attract and retain the best and brightest students from around the world
  • Enhance the quality of graduate education through ongoing evaluation and research

These are exactly the type of recommendations that emerge from a committee of well-educated bureaucrats.

The Council of Graduate Schools’ Advisory Committee on Graduate Education and American Competitiveness consisted of 14 eminent leaders — five presidents, one chancellor, two chairmen, two vice-presidents, five deans, one vice-provost, and a CEO. That’s just short of the 18 member, 20 title lineup of the National Academies’ Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. The latter recently produced a bureaucratically superb 364-page report. The greater scope of the former work may compensate for its lower author-titles to report-pages ratio.

The Carnival of the Bureaucrats joins the Council of Graduate Schools’ Advisory Committee on Graduate Education and American Competitiveness in congratulating Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two Ph.D. program drop-outs, for their success with Google.

Steven Silvers at Scatterbox uncovers a directive to the U.S. news media. It begins by complimenting major news organizations for referring to the head of the FDA as a “czar,” and then it directs:

Please remember that any director of a large government entity should be referred to as the Subject-matter Czar, even if that official displays no similarity to any of the pre-revolution Russian emperors. This will help Americans understand news about their government. And that is why we are here.

I would like to petition for reconsideration of this directive. Instead of “czar,” a director of a large government entity should be referred to as “Servant of the Servants of the Public,” e.g. “FDA Names Food Safety Servant of the Servants of the Public.” Unfortunately, a procedure for petitioning for reconsideration of news coverage does not seem to exist.

At the Engaging Brand Blog, Anna Farmery offers ideas for widgets. One relates to the important bureaucratic activity of attending meetings:

Whether Widget – that allows me to put a meeting name in and see the purpose to see if it is worth attending

Such a widget is unlikely to be useful for dedicated bureaucrats. For dedicated bureaucrats, all meetings are worth attending.

At A VC, Fred Wilson reports on an important new communications development:

We are now in the world of conversation. We are talking to ourselves.

Bureaucrats have been talking to themselves for a long time. The rest of the world, including venture capitalists, apparently is now catching up with standard bureaucratic practices.

The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh offers its students a Common Intellectual Experience. This includes assigning students to read the book Mercury 13. The Common Intellectual Experience offers insightful guidance about that text:

[It] tells the story of 13 female pilots who fought to become part of the nation’s space program from its very inception. Their tale is uplifting, a narrative of their dedication, and sacrifice in their attempt to aid their nation in the space race against the Soviets and experience the thrill of space flight personally. These women, among the most accomplished female pilots in the world at the time, went through many of the same excruciating and challenging tests experienced by NASA’s original seven astronauts. That all passed all tests, often with scores exceeding those achieved by the males selected to fly, carried absolutely no weight with an entrenched bureaucracy. (Excerpts from a review of The Mercury 13 in Publisher’s Weekly, written by Michael Zimmerman, former Dean of the College of Letters and Science at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.)

With deep regret, the Carnival of the Bureaucrats acknowledges that an entrenched bureaucracy can produce nonsense.

Phil for Humanity suggests that the size of U.S. currency should be differentiated to make life easier for persons with different visual capabilities. The size of U.S. currency notes was probably decided without a notice-and-comment administrative procedure. The shortcomings of short-cutting bureaucracy are readily apparent to the blind; they should be to everyone.

Zenofeller highlights the merits of renaming as an instrument of governance. Naming certainly is worthy of careful study. Zenofeller offers a simple policy rule, with supporting arguments:

Is there a problem? Find it a new name. So what if people will think you’re idiots? First of all, they already do. Second of all, you actually are. Third of all, you just work there.

That third point appears to be inconsistent with evidence about bureaucrats. A bureaucrat loves her organization and submerges her whole life into it.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our Carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival regulations. Past posts and future hosts can be found on the Carnival index page.

the Internet brain

There is no Chief Executive Officer neuron in a brain. In brains, the most general decision-making processes (top of the executive hierarchy) and the broadest and most abstract representations (top of the perceptual hierarchy) are physically instantiated in the broadest networks of neurons. That’s rather different from the structure of a company in which the Chief Executive Officer is considered to be the highest decision-maker and the best representative of the company.

Joaquín Fuster, a leading neuroscientist, described this contrast:

The cortical structure and dynamics of the executive hierarchy, like those of the perceptual hierarchy, differ radically from the structure of social hierarchies. In social hierarchies, such as those of industrial and military organizations, representation — like power — is concentrated at the top; in cortical hierarchies, it is distributed at the top. Because both perceptual and executive hierarchies are formed largely by divergent connections, representations at the top are much more broadly based, in neural terms, than those at the bottom….[1]

The Neurocritic provides conceptual and anatomical diagrams from one of Fuster’s earlier papers.

Note that this difference involves neither an absence of hierarchy nor a contrast between bottom-up and top-down control. The brain’s executive and perceptual hierarchies are built upon anatomical gradients of memory formation:

Because the three gradients of memory formation — phylogeny, ontogeny, and connectivity — largely coincide temporally and spatially, we can trace them by focusing on any one of them, such as the ontogenetic gradient, as portrayed by the myelogenetic map of the cortex. The numeration of the map refers to the order of myelination of the various cortical areas in perinatal periods.[2]

Moreover, both top-down and bottom-up control are important aspects of brain functioning, each with somewhat different communications technologies.

The Internet is like a global brain. That global brain, like the one in your head, includes hierarchies and forms of top-down control. At the same time, the most general decisions about the goals of the Internet are a product of the relations of many active participants. Relations among persons, not one corporate person, represents what the Internet is.


[1] Joaquín Fuster (2006), “The cognit: A network model of cortical representation,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 60, p. 130.

[2] Id. p. 127, reference to figure omitted.