Monthly Archives: December 2011

Best known and wrong: Dreyfus and Dreyfus

Since dipping my toe into cross-disciplinary research, I’ve noticed that it seems the best known results of a field are often derided or ignored within the field.  For example:

  • Speech perception: Motor theory – based on outmoded idea of there being a special module that evolved for speech perception and action
  • Linguistics: Inuit words for snow – it turns out that they don’t have a particularly large number
  • Neuropsychology: We draw things using one side of the brain and do maths with the other – it’s a bit more complicated than that I believe, although I’d like to know more..
  • Psychology of emotion (?): Kübler-Ross model – the model of five stages of grief doesn’t have any experimental basis
  • Music psychology: Mozart effect – rather questionable hypothesis, with conflict of interest, that doesn’t seem to be replicable (except to the extent that it’s also true of death metal). I’ve not met any music psychologists who take this at all seriously.

I’d be interested to hear of more examples..

I guess research is nuanced, and ideas that can be understood from bite-sized quotes get ingrained in folklore over a couple of decades and are impossible to dislodge if/when they are superseded.

These things really get in the way of understanding of a field though. For example Alan Blackwell’s pioneering masters module on programming language usability found its way on to reddit lately.  One commenter couldn’t understand how the course text could have a chapter on “Acquisition of Programming Knowledge and Skills” without referencing the Dreyfus model of skills acquisition.  The Dreyfus model is detailed in a 30 year old paper, which while is enjoyable to read, does not introduce any empirical research, makes some arbitrary distinctions and does not seem to figure in any contemporary field of academic research.  In their paper, Dreyfus and Dreyfus suggest  that people should not learn by exploration and experimentation, but by reading manuals and theoretical instruction structured around five discrete modes of learning.  It is surprising then that this model appears to be highly regarded among agile development proponents, who through a lot of squinting manage to fit it to the five stages of becoming an agile developer.  For example this talk by Patrick Kua somehow invokes homeopathy in support of this rather fragile application of Dreyfus’ air pilot training manual design to agile development.

On the surface this seems fairly harmless pseudoscience, but for anyone trying to take a more nuanced view of applied research in software development practices, it can be extremely irritating.  There is no reason why Rogalski and Samurçay should mention Dreyfus’s model in their review of programming skills acquisition, but because it is fashionable amongst agile development coaches, its absence seems unforgivable by agile practitioners.  This reddit thread is a clear case where pseudoscience can act as a serious barrier in dialogue between research and practice.

That said, I’m quite naive both about agile development and education studies, so am very happy to be enlightened on any of the above.

To add on a positive note, perhaps the answer to this is open scholarship.  As campaigning and funding organisations lead us towards a future where all public funded research is freely available, practitioners are increasingly able to immerse themselves in real, contemporary research.  Perhaps then over-simplistic and superseded ghosts from the past will finally be replaced, so we can live our lives informed by more nuanced understanding of ourselves.

PhD Viva and Silicone Bake

Last month was a bit crazy, lots of grant applications in the air and amongst it all my PhD examination with Alan Blackwell and Matthew Fuller.  Both are leaders in different fields, it was a real privilege for me to have time with them.  It turned out to be a really enjoyable discussion, and they identified only minor corrections which should take me a couple of days to fix..  So a pass!

November also included a fine trip to Piksel festival, where I performed as “Silicone Bake” with Jake Harries.  Here’s our blurb:

A new collaboration between singer/guitarist Jake Harries and live coder Alex McLean, a bridge between semi-improvised pop and live coded techno, brought to life with unsolicited tales of sex, death and capitalism.

With live coding increasingly widespread in arts festival calls, live coders must confront the new normality of their practice. Live coders have always argued for focus on the human role in the algorithm, but now they leave the comfort zone of the radical, they find themselves at last on equal terms with traditional musicians who can touch and resonate with their instruments rather than try to weave their music from the functional compositions of computer language.

Through this collaboration ‘Silicone bake’, Jake and Alex explore the algorithmic limits of the 3.5 minute pop song, distracting themselves from the task with the constraints of spam, ignoring the question of the human in the algorithm to celebrate love, death and counterfeit watches.

All lyrics will be taken from spam emails and sung live. All guitars will be plucked and strummed live. All generative algorithms will be edited live. Nobody will die.

It turned out nicely and was a lot of fun, here’s a write-up from pixelache:

“Silicone Bake” -performance ended the saturday evening at USF with a wonderful contrast from the predominant “corporeal volume” of the previous performances with singing, acoustic guitar & live-coded beats & bases. Live coder Alex McLean with his Tidal music improvisation software collaborated with singer/guitarrist (&FLOSS advocate) Jake Harries. The lyrics of the “3.5 minutes pop-songs”, sung beautifully by Jake Harris, were all from spam emails, with themes of love, death and counterfeit watches. Reading the projected Alex’s coding on Tidal was surprisingly effortless and entertaining. The low light & mellow sounds carried us back in time to the intimate small-club-feel of the best MTV Unplugged gigs in mid 90′s, only to be interrupted by frequent and hysterical bursts of laughter from the spam lyrics.

We also improvised a cover version of the Free Software Song with Jag, a spooky, late night cafe performance fuelled by fine Norwegian pancakes..