Saturday, October 23, 2010

brain plasticity

Norman Doidge has written a book, The Brain That Changes Itself, about brain plasticity which has implications for our education system in general, those with learning disabilities and for senior citizens. Note the comment in the Kerry O'Brien interview below where it is argued that the decline of rote learning of long poems has contributed to declining oratory skills.

These theories developed in conjunction with Michael Merzenich have a great deal of scientific support. Check out the Norman Doidge video (on the brain and neuroplasticity, in 3 parts) and Michael Merzenich videos (TED talk, google talk) on the web.

Here is an extract from a 2008 interview with Doidge:
KERRY O'BRIEN: You write that humans instinctively were on the right track in the age of rote learning in education and you cite Abraham Lincoln's skill as an orator as an example. Can you elaborate?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Sure. In the '60s, there were things that were part of a kind of classical education that people did away with 'cause they thought that they were irrelevant like an almost fanatical attention to elocution and handwriting, or memorising long poems. But, it now turns out that what these activities did is they exercised very important parts of the brain that allow you to think in long sentences, have deep internal monologues and a certain amount of grace in all kinds of expression. And probably a lot of damage was done by doing away with these exercises that were there for good reasons we didn't understand.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You mean that they have reduced the scope of the functions of a child's brain as they grow to adulthood?

NORMAN DOIDGE: Yeah. The simplest example would be memory of long verses of poetry. It allows you to speak in public and have long, deep paragraphs of thought in private. When you reduce the amount of memory in those processors, we're reduced to a world of sound bites.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So, somebody else might say, well, you know, the kind of oratory of a Lincoln is simply a lost art. You would add to that; you would say it's a lost art …

NORMAN DOIDGE: That can be recovered.

KERRY O'BRIEN: ... but a lost art that was lost in the way we learnt, which you connect to the plasticity of the brain.

NORMAN DOIDGE: Most definitely.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Does mainstream science take it as seriously as it should?

NORMAN DOIDGE: I would say that mainstream neuroscience is now smitten with neuroplasticity as the new revolutionary paradigm that is giving us great insights in the levels of activity that are going on in the brain. And an example of it is just the following amazing fact: that when you think thoughts or learn something, you actually turn on genes inside the nerve cells in your brain to change the number of connections between those cells. You can double them in a matter of hours between nerve cell A and nerve cell B. So, what we've discovered with neuroplasticity is that consciousness can direct genetic expression, and neuroscientists are looking at all the sort of points along that trail from consciousness, ultimately to structural change in the brain and altered behavioural expression as one of the chief tasks right now.
- Kerry O'Brien speaks with Norman Doidge

Sunday, October 17, 2010

crises of capitalism (David Harvey)

This talk contrasts five different mainstream theories of the economic crisis with David Harvey's Marxist analysis. He build the talk around the rhetorical device of a question which the Queen asked the London School of Economics: How come you guys didn't see the crisis coming?

The very entertaining RSA ( (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) artistic animation enhances the presentation considerably.

ethical consumption debunked (Zizek)

I love the way this Slavoj Zizek talk is animated by RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and some of his argument about how post 1968 capitalism offers redemption for the consumer through ecological sound purchases is spot on, too.

Some snippets, just phrases:
... the anti consumerist duty to do something for the environment is included (in your purchase)

Starbucks coffee ethics ... good coffee karma

... through a consumerist act you buy your redemption of being a consumerist
He then quotes extensively from Oscar Wilde in a polemic against all charity. Some of that was challenging but overall I wasn't so supportive of that section. It is one thing to expose phony "ethical consumerism" but I don't think all efforts to reform the system from within are misguided. "One laptop per child" is a good example of reform from within initiated by philanthropists which empowers the recipients.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Capital chapter one (Laurence Miall's blog)

Capital by Karl Marx, Chapter 1 - blog by Laurence Miall

Laurence writes in an entertaining (and self deprecating, not claiming to be a Marx guru) manner replacing Marx's commodities of linen and coat with the more modern examples of gasoline, iPads and cat kibbles.

I think his summary of the most difficult chapter of Marx could be improved by a deeper analysis of the value form. I cite some references below which I found particular helpful in coming to grips with this. Here are some extracts from Laurence's article with comments:
para 10: “David Harvey really saved my pea brain from total meltdown here. It turns out that value is socially necessary labour time. This is to say that what gives a commodity value is the labour that went into it”
This is true but incomplete in that it is limited to the magnitude and substance of value. Value also has a social form  (the capacity to be exchanged as an equal with another commodity) as well as a substance (embedded abstract labour) and magnitude (socially necessary labour time).
para 11: “And lastly, what gives my cat kibbles their exchangeability is the fact that they hold value: their value is that they provide a use-value for somebody else (in this case, for James, because he can feed my yummy cat kibbles to his own cats)”
This mixes up value and use value in a way which muddies the concept that value is a historically contingent social form, a social construct which eventually took on the form of money. In another type of society (pre or post capitalist) the cat kibbles would not have value at all. Imagine a society where your neighbor James just took the cat kibbles (no exchange) and that wasn’t regarded as theft. There is enough cat kibbles for everyone, no scarcity. Without exchange there is no value.
para 22: “Furthermore, the quantities are pretty arbitrary too. What makes 20 pounds of linen the basis of comparison? Why not 50 pounds? Or one pound?”
Those quantities in the general value form are not arbitrary. They are equivalents of socially necessary labour time required to produce those various commodities.
para 28 David Harvey quote: “People under capitalism do not relate to each other directly as human beings; they relate to each other through the myriad products which they encounter in the market.”
An issue which I found difficult to understand in Marx – in the same sense that Laurence qualifies Harvey’s quote - was Marx’s use of the word social in phrases like “socially necessary labour time” and in the commodity fetishism section, particularly the phrase “… material relations between persons and social relations between things”. My understanding now is that the use of the word social here relies on:
  • a restricted sense of social to mean exchangeable on the market – not social in the more general sense of human social interaction
  • the historical transformation of things into social forms, eg. products of labour become commodities, which as well as having use values are exchangeable (and hence social in that restricted sense)
So, appreciating value as a historically contingent social form I think adds a deeper dimension to Marx's analysis as well as helping to fathom out some of the ways in which he expresses himself.

Marx, Karl: The Value-Form: Appendix to the 1st German edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1867 (link)
Rubin, Isaak Illich: Essays on Marx's Theory of Value, esp Ch 12: Content and Form of Value (link)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Geoffrey Canada

I've been participating in a discussion with Tom Hoffman about the Harlem Children's Zone and Geoffrey Canada's role in the Waiting for Superman video (which I haven't seen in full). I wrote this initially as a comment on the thread but it became too long for blogger's word length restriction, so I am publishing it here. I knew a little about Geoffrey Canada from past discussions and initially updated my knowledge by watching this 2008 video interview with Charlie Rose:

I also watched the Oprah Education Panel Continues the Discussion After the Show (link), featuring Geoffrey Canada and some others, which was fascinating. (The Charlie Rose interview provides a better look at Canada's overall world view and the reasons he has formed a political alliance against "big labour"; might be worth summarising in more detail at some stage)

No one raised the fundamental question which is that the problems of social class cannot be solved within a system which by its nature and day to day activity continues to generate those problems on a greater scale than any solutions within that system. Canada was not critical of government and praised Obama's "Race to the Top". Nor can such a big nation wide problem be solved by philanthropy as Tom points out, the pockets of Gates and Zuckerberg (Facebook entrepreneur who has become a recent education philanthropist) are miniscule compared to what is required nation wide. Also Canada buys into the great American empire rhetoric which is populist and misleading when it comes to solving this problem for America as a whole. His empire rhetoric is more apparent in the Charlie Rose video.

Nevertheless, Canada's analysis of educational problems for the disadvantaged and what to do about it are correct. High expectations, early intervention, build parental support into the package, longer school day, teacher accountability (even though we might argue about how to do that). This is along the same lines (progress without progressivism) of the scheme proposed and now being implemented by Noel Pearson in Cape York, Australia for the most disadvantaged Australians. Pearson is not so dependent on philanthropy because Australia differs from the USA in that respect but he has ended up allied to what is regarded as the "right" because they are more practical than "correct". That political alliance seems to go with solutions within the system too.

IMO you can't really polemicise in an all round manner (black and white, they are bad and we are good) against people who are trying to help the Disadvantaged in the here and now and at the same time describe yourself as "progressive". Because what progressives do is help the Disadvantaged. Part of the logic flowing from this is criticism of the Union, since the role of the Union is to protect working conditions. If you are working very long hours on moderate pay for the sake of the kids then that is not what Unions are on about. This part is tricky because good teachers do work long hours on moderate pay for the sake of the kids.

Davis Guggenheim, the film director of Waiting for Superman also made An Inconvenient Truth. The parallels here to me are striking. Identify a real problem but through exaggeration completely muddy the waters about a real solution on a macro level.