THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 20

Subject:  Epistemology – The Columbo Method

Event:  Premiere of the television detective drama Columbo, 1968.

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. -Thomas Berger

Imagine if the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates became the lead in a new detective television series.  It’s not that far of a stretch when you consider that Socrates was consumed by the same thing that all television detectives are.  Like Socrates, they are on an epistemological quest for knowledge, more specifically, knowledge that will lead them to the truth.  

Socrates used an analogy to describe the difference between unsound truth and sound truth.  He imagined two beautiful statues by the sculptor Daedalus.  The unsound truth, which came about via intuition, is like a statue placed precariously atop a pillar.  The first strong wind that comes along will knock it over.  The sound truth, however, is anchored to the ground by tethering cables, making it impervious to even gale-force winds.  For Socrates, the test of differentiating the unsound truth from the sound truth was to determine which one stood up under the scrutiny of questioning (1).

When we think of Socrates today, we probably think of his characteristic toga, and we probably also think about his characteristic Socratic method of questioning.

File:Columbo Peter Falk 1973.JPG
Peter Falk as Columbo (Wikimedia Common)

Another character known for his characteristic dress and method is the television detective Columbo.  Instead of a toga, he wore a raincoat.  Like Socrates, he valued questioning, but he added a wrinkle that made his method memorable and particularly effective for fighting crime.

The television show Columbo — which premiered on this day in 1968 — had a unique template.  Instead of following the typical “whodunnit” structure of traditional detective dramas, the Columbo writers inverted the template, beginning each episode by making the audience eye-witnesses to the crime being committed, which included knowing the identity of the perpetrator.  Instead of being a “whodunit,” Columbo followed the “howcatchem” format.  After seeing the crime committed before their eyes, the audience then got to see the cigar-smoking, raincoat-clad detective Columbo sniff out the trail of clues until he found the guilty party.

Like Socrates, an essential element of Colombo’s method was questions; however, his approach was a bit more indirect. It begins with an understanding of the importance of first and last impressions. Psychologists who study memory highlight the serial position effect and our tendency to recall best what is presented first (primacy effect) and what is presented last (recency effect). 

Columbo’s method began with a first impression that was deliberately crafted to disarm a suspect.  His disheveled appearance and his seemingly absent-minded manner put the suspect at ease, and his opening questions were always casual, respectful, and non-threatening, designed to get the suspect talking about things other than homicide.   

Columbo’s final interactions with a suspect were also deliberately designed to leave an impression.  Just as he appeared to be finishing his meeting and turning to leave, he would turn back around and say, “There’s just one more thing.”  Having thought that their interaction with the detective had concluded, the suspect would be caught off guard   At this point Columbo would point out facts from the case that appeared to be in conflict.  Instead of presenting this conflict in an accusatory manner, he would state it in a way that was self-deprecating, rubbing his head and expressing his own confusion, appearing to give the suspect the benefit of the doubt. He would then deliver the final probing question which the suspect — being disarmed by Columbo’s odd manner — would answer in a careless, less than thoughtful way, often revealing something important (2).

In one episode called “How to Dial a Murder,” one suspect, who happened to be a psychologist, saw through Columbo’s method, saying, “You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant. . . . You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you’re laying a minefield”(3).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Columbo method, and how does it differ from the Socratic method?

Challenge – That is the Question:  Do a search for quotations about “questions.”  Select one quotation that you like, and write a paragraph explaining why you think the quotation is an important one.

Sources:

1-de Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy.  New York:  Vintage International, 2000.

2-”The Columbo Technique.”  Changing Minds.

3-Griffiths, Mark D. ”The Psychology of Columbo.” Psychology Today, 20 Feb. 2018. 

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 19

Subject:  Metacognition – Copernicus’ Definition of True Knowledge

Event:  Birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473

Today is the birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, a man who not only changed the world as we know it, but also the universe.  

Nicolaus Copernicus (Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Poland in 1473, Copernicus was both a polyglot and a polymath.  He spoke Latin, German, Polish, Greek, and Italian.  In addition to holding a doctorate in canon law, he was also a physician, mathematician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist.  Today, we know him best as the astronomer who challenged the orthodox belief that Earth was the center of the universe.  Fifteen-hundred years after the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy established his theory that the planets, the sun, and the stars revolved around a stationary Earth, Copernicus presented his revolutionary theory.  He claimed that not only did the Earth rotate on its axis, but also that Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun.  Copernicus’ work in astronomy was the quintessential achievement of the Renaissance, totally transforming mankind’s view of the universe and paving the way for future work by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.

A true man of science and of learning, Copernicus embodied the Renaissance ideals of searching for knowledge and challenging conventional wisdom. His opus On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was published in 1543, the same year he died (1).

One quotation that typifies Copernicus’ scientific approach is one that uses simple terms to express a profound insight:

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

Today cognitive psychologists sum up Copernicus’ insight using a single term: metacognitionMeta is Greek for “about,” and cognition is Latin for “to know.” Metacognition, therefore, is “thinking about thinking.”  More than just being aware that we think, metacognition is the process of monitoring our own thinking.

As Copernicus reminds us, metacognition is not just what we know, it is also being aware of what we don’t know, as well as being aware of the ways we sometimes delude ourselves.  To understand the ways we think best and the ways we fall short of sound thinking, we should always keep in mind the relationship between both knowledge and ignorance.  

Notice, for example, how the following wise voices from the past express this relationship:

-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.  –Confucius

-The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. –Daniel J. Boorstin

-The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance. — Socrates

-The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. — Elbert Hubbard

-To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge. — Benjamin Disraeli

-The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand. — Frank Herbert

In the book Make It Stick, the authors discuss one specific learning strategy that employs metacognition to help learners be more productive and more efficient in their study.  The strategy is called retrieval practice, and recent studies have documented that this strategy is much more effective than rereading a text, highlighting a text, or even reviewing notes.

The key aspect of retrieval practice is self-quizzing or testing.  When reading a text or listening to a lecture, therefore, the student should generate questions for self-testing.  Once the student has finished reading or listening, he or she should use the questions to recall and recite out loud the facts, concepts, or events from memory, without using the book or notes for reference.  The basic premise of retrieval practice is that learning that sticks is learning that is effortful.  Furthermore, the effortful act of retrieving knowledge from memory strengthens the memory, increasing the likelihood that knowledge will stay in long-term memory.  Like walking an unfamiliar path through the woods, the more you travel the path, the more confidence you have in remembering your way without getting lost.  Retrieval practice also decreases the likelihood that students will delude themselves into believing they know what they don’t know. Since the strategy requires that students recite answers aloud without notes, they are able to exercise good metacognition by clearly determining what they know and what they don’t quite know yet (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is retrieval practice and how does it relate to metacognition?

Challenge – What Do You Know?

How can you apply retrieval practice to increase your metacognition?  Select an article or short story that you have not read before.  As you read the passage, write down three questions based on the key ideas you’re reading.  When you finish the reading, put the passage away, and attempt to answer each of your questions by reciting the answers out loud.  As you answer each question, rate your level of confidence with your answer on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being you feel highly confident; 1 being you need to look back at the passage to answer).  Once you have finished, take a moment to reflect on the strategy.  How did it feel to answer out loud?  Do you feel like this strategy will work for you in the future? 

Sources:

1-”Nicolaus Copernicus” – New Mexico Museum of Space History

2-Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.  Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2014.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 18

Subject:  Thought Experiments – Ring of Gyges

Event:  Birthday of Austrian physicist Ernst Mach

Imagine being a scientist so accomplished that they named the speed of sound after you; furthermore, imagine being so accomplished that Albert Einstein credited you with inspiring his Theory of Relativity.

Ernst Mach, 1905 (Wikipedia Commons)

The scientist imagined above is not a figment of your imagination; instead, he was a real person, the physicist Ernst Mach, who was born on this day in 1838 in Austria.  More than just a scientist though, Mach was also accomplished in the fields of philosophy and psychology.

We often picture accomplished scientists doing experiments in their laboratories, but what we don’t often contemplate is the level of both curiosity and imagination that precede physical experiments.  It is in this area that Ernst Mach was also accomplished, recognized as a pioneer in Gedankenexperiment, the term that originated in Germany and is known today in English as “thought experiment.”

In an essay he wrote in 1897 “On Thought Experiments,” Mach discussed how innate human curiosity is the spark that ignites the imagination, the mind’s laboratory, to visualize ideas long before the become physical facts:

Our own ideas are more easily and readily at our disposal than physical facts. We experiment with thought, so as to say, at little expense. This it shouldn’t surprise us that, oftentime, the thought experiment precedes the physical experiment and prepares the way for it. (1) 

Of course, long before the terms “science” and “thought experiment” were coined, philosophers were employing their imaginations to conduct experiments of the mind.  For example, in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Socrates paints an imagined scenario of men living their entire lives chained in a dark cave, seeing shadows rather than reality.  He then imagines what might happen if one of these men were loosed from his chains, freed to see the real world outside the cave.  Through this exercise of imagination, Plato provides us with insight into how philosophy can equip us with a broader view of reality while at the same time warning us of our blind spots and our human tendency to confuse perception with reality.

Another ancient thought experiment from Plato’s Republic, presents a story about human nature that addresses the following questions:  Is it true as the famous quotation by Lord Action proclaims that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?  And does true justice exist in the world, or is it just a facade motivated by self-interest?

In the story, a seemingly humble shepherd name Gyges finds a ring that suddenly great powers:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result—when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; whereas soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. 

After telling the story of the Ring of Gyges, the narrator asks the reader to join him in a thought experiment:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. 

The thought experiment attempts to illustrate the paradox of justice — that justice and injustice, instead of being opposites, are really the same thing.  Justice is never authentic; instead, it is merely an act, motivated by the fear of being exposed for who we really are: people who would act unjustly if we, like Gyges, could get away with it.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Ring of Gyges thought experiment, and how does it challenge our thinking about justice?

Challenge – Imagination Lab:  Research some other famous thought experiments.  Pick one that captures your imagination.  Explain the thought experiment, and explain why you find it interesting.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 18, 1884:  Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published. Unlike other American novels of the time, which were imitations of European literature, Huckleberry Finn was a truly American book, the first to be written in the American vernacular.  Twain’s revolutionary move was to give the narration of his book to the uneducated, unwashed Huck, who speaks in dialect and introduces himself in the novel’s famous first sentence:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another . . . .    

Sources:

1-Thought Experiment: How Einstein Solved Difficult Problems. FS Blog.

2-“Plato: Ethic – The Ring of Gyges.” Great Philosophers. Oregon State University.

February 18: Sequel Day

On this date in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the United States.  Since its publication, the language of Twain’s novel has sparked controversy, yet it remains a book unparalleled in its influence. Unlike other American novels of the time which were imitations of European literature, Huckleberry Finn was a truly American book, the first to be written in the American vernacular.  Twain’s revolutionary move was to give the narration of his book to the uneducated, unwashed Huck, who speaks in dialect and introduces himself in the novel’s famous first sentence:

Huckleberry Finn book.JPGYou don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another . . . .    

Ernest Hemingway praised Twain’s book, saying, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’ . . . . All American writing comes from that.  There was nothing before.  There has been nothing as good since.”  

Twain began writing his masterpiece in 1876, but after writing 400 pages he set it aside unfinished.  At one point Twain threatened to burn the unfinished manuscript, but luckily he took it out of his drawer and went back to work on it in 1882, finishing in August 1883.

Twain’s novel is so influential and so distinctive that some forget that it was a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).  It is the rare sequel that achieves the level of its predecessor, let alone eclipses it.  

In 1995, American novelist E.L. Doctorow highlighted the differences between the two books, pointing out that Twain’s motivation was to take on the issues of racism and slavery in his sequel — issues he had ignored in Tom Sawyer:

But Twain had to have understood, finally, that, in its celebratory comedy, his book [‘Tom Sawyer’] was too sentimental, too forgiving of the racist backwater that had nurtured him.  He had ignored slavery as if it hadn’t existed.  And after all was said and done his Tom Sawyer character was a centrist, a play rebel, who, like Twain, had been welcomed into the bosom of a ruling society he sallied against.

Today’s Challenge:   It Takes II to Tango

What are some examples of great sequels, great books or movies, that continue the story of an original book or movie?  Make your argument for the single sequel, book or movie, that you think is the best, and explain what makes the sequel so great.  See the list of examples below.  Don’t assume your reader has read the book or seen the movie. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Books:

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling

That Was Then, This Is Now  by S.E. Hinton

The Odyssey by Homer

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Movies:

The Color of Money

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

The Bourne Supremacy

Monsters University

The Matrix Reloaded

Quotation of the Day:  It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. -Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 17

Subject:  Invention – Stethoscope

Event:  Birthday of French physician Rene Laennec, 1781

It was baseball great Yogi Berra who said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” It is also true that you can hear a lot just by listening.  One man who exemplified the benefits of both watching and listening was a French doctor named Rene Laennec, who was born on this day in 1781.  

Today we take it for granted that doctors wear white coats with stethoscopes draped around their necks and shoulders.  This was not always the case.  From the days of Hippocrates — the father of medicine — physicians practiced the art of “auscultation,” (from the Latin verb auscultare “to listen”) by placing their ear directly on a patient’s body to listen to the internal sounds of the heart and lungs.  This was often embarrassing for women when examined by a male doctor. 

One day in 1816, when Rene Laennec was preparing awkwardly to listen to the chest of a female patient, he had an epiphany.  He remembered watching children play with long hollow sticks.  They would place their ear on one end of the stick, scratch the other end of the stick with a pin, and listen as the sound reverberated loudly through the stick.  Based on this memory, he rolled up a piece of paper into a cylinder and placed one end of it on the patient’s chest.  He was extremely pleased with the results:  not only was the use of the cylinder less intrusive, but it also allowed him to hear the beat of the patient’s heart more clearly and distinctly than he could with just his naked ear.  Laennec dubbed his invention the “stethoscope” from the Greek stethos — meaning “chest” — and skopein — meaning “observe.”

An original stethoscope belonging to Rene Laennec (Wikipedia)

Within two years of inventing the stethoscope, Laennec received a favorable review from the New England Journal of Medicine, which caused the majority of doctors to adopt the innovation.  In 1852, the stethoscope was improved when George Cammann produced one with two earpieces, the version we recognize today.

Both sadly and ironically, a stethoscope was used on Laennec as a patient when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He died in 1826 at the age of 45, only ten years after his great discovery (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How did observation lead to the invention that helped physicians listen better?

Challenge – Once Upon an Invention:  What is another invention that has an interesting backstory?  Research an invention, and tell the story of its inventor and its origin. 

Sources:

1- “Viewpoint: The curious history of the first stethoscope.”  March 1, 2010

February 17: Two Sources Day

On this date in 1942, the Voice of America (VOA), the United States’ government-funded multimedia news source, made its first radio broadcast.  With the world at war, the mission of the VOA was to combat Nazi propaganda, to promote American policies, and to boost the morale of its allies around the world.   

VOAlogo.pngAt the end of World War II and with the beginning of the Cold War, VOA began its first Russian-language broadcasts into the Soviet Union in 1947.  These broadcasts included news, human-interest stories, and music.  The stated purpose of the VOA at this time was to give listeners in the USSR a picture of what life was like on the other side of the iron curtain (1).

Congress did not enact an official charter for the Voice of America until 1976.  The charter, which was signed by President Gerald Ford, requires VOA to “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news” (2).

Today the VOA provides programming through the internet, mobile and social media, radio, and television in more than 40 languages.  Located in Washington, D.C., VOA serves an estimated weekly global audience of 187.7 million people (3).

From its first broadcast in 1942, the VOA made the following promise:  “The news may be good.  The news may be bad.  We shall tell the truth.”  One principle that assists its quest for accurate reporting is its “two-source rule,” which it instituted in 1981.  The two-source rule stipulates that the VOA will not report a news story until it has two independently corroborating sources or an eyewitness report from a correspondent.   It’s this principle that prevents the VOA from making mistakes in its reporting.  It also promotes the VOA’s reputation as a trusted, credible source for news.

Today’s Challenge:  Two Sources to Truth

What are some questions that you have, questions that you are truly curious about and that you do not know the answer to?  Select a question that you are curious about and research it.  Find at least two separate sources, and write a paragraph answering your question.  If the two sources do not corroborate a clear, single answer to your question, continue your research until you have at least two separate sources that corroborate your answer.  Use direct quotations, and cite your sources. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  It was very hard to get any records, so the only source for us to really hear what was happening was listening to the Voice of America. We would be taping all the broadcast and then sharing the tapes and talking about it.  -Jan Hammer

1-http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/voice-of-america-begins-broadcasts-to-russia

2-NYTimes

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/06/opinion/06UNGA.html

3-VOA History

http://www.insidevoa.com/p/5829.html

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 16

Subject:  Fixed/Growth Mindset – John McEnroe

Event:  Birthday of John McEnroe, 1959

Today is the birthday of tennis great John McEnroe. He was born in 1959 in Germany where his father was serving in the U.S. Army.  McEnroe is remembered not only for his masterful play as a singles champion but also for his many victories in doubles and mixed doubles. His most memorable matches came at Wimbledon in the 1980s where he battled Bjorn Borg.

John McEnroe in 1979 (Wikipedia)

Although he won many major tennis titles and spent several years as the number one ranked tennis player in the world, John McEnroe is best remembered for his words and antics on the tennis court. Smashing tennis rackets and challenging umpire decisions, McEnroe became one of the most volatile and boisterous athletes ever.

Perhaps his best-known line was one shouted in the direction of an umpire at Wimbledon in 1981: “You cannot be serious!” This line became so often associated with McEnroe, that he used it for the title of his 2002 autobiography (1).

Another book that features McEnroe is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by psychologist Carol S. Dweck. In her book, Dweck uses McEnroe as an example of an individual with a fixed mindset.  People with a fixed mindset view character, intelligence, and ability as fixed and unchangeable.  As a result of this mindset, they often value looking smart or talented over actually being smart or talented.  Since they see intelligence and talent as fixed, they don’t see effort and persistence as valuable qualities.  Furthermore, they often fear failure as a judgment upon their person rather than seeing it as a learning opportunity. 

Dweck certainly is not arguing that McEnroe was not a successful, talented athlete; he was, after all, the number one ranked player for four years.  The issue with McEnroe, however, is that he could have been much better. For him, talent was the main thing.  He didn’t embrace opportunities to learn new things.  He hated to lose and always saw it as a negative rather than as a stepping stone to future success.  Instead of looking for lessons from a lost match, he looked for excuses, which is reflected in his constant focus on being a victim of the bad calls made by the umpires of his matches.  McEnroe won seven Grand Slam titles, but even he would probably agree that a less fixed mindset would have resulted in many more.

In contrast to those with a fixed mindset, people with a growth mindset view character, intelligence, and ability as qualities that change over time and that improve through conscious effort and persistence.  Instead of fearing failure, people with a growth mindset are able to embrace failure, learning from it and using it as a springboard for future success. 

As an example of an athlete that embodies the growth mindset, Dweck turns to basketball legend Michael Jordan.  Jordan was famously cut from his high school team, but instead of quitting basketball, he dedicated himself to prove himself worthy to play for the varsity.  When he won the NCAA basketball championship as just a freshman at North Carolina, he didn’t rest on his laurels.  He was always the hardest working player in practice, putting in extra effort to improve his weaknesses.  When he began his career in the NBA, he was one of the league’s leading scorers, but his team was not winning championships. Today we see him as a perennial champion, but he didn’t win his first championship until his seventh year in the NBA.  In those seven years, he put in countless hours of work to become more than just a great scorer.  He worked on becoming a better passer, a ball-handler, and a better teammate.  He knew that there was no way he could win a championship by himself, so not only did he need to make himself better through effort, he also needed to help his teammates improve.

To test your own mindset, try this thought experiment.  Imagine you are in a class, and you have just taken a quiz with fifty multiple-choice questions.  The quizzes are immediately scored and all posted on the classroom wall.  Obviously, you would probably first look at your own score, but which tests would you look at next.  Would you be drawn to the quizzes of the students who scored higher than you or the quizzes of those who scored lower?  According to Dweck, students with a growth mindset will seek out the quizzes with higher scores, looking for possible ways to learn from those who scored higher and seeking strategies to improve their deficiencies.  In contrast, students with a fixed mindset focus on the quizzes with lower scores than their own; because they don’t see intelligence as something that can be improved with effort, they seek consolation in the fact that others scored lower than they did (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset, and how can you assess which you have?

Challenge – Game, Mindset, and Match:  Research some quotations by successful people about the role that hard work, effort, and persistence have in being successful.  Identify the one you like the best, quote it, and explain why you like it.

Sources:

1-Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 15

Subject:  Confirmation Bias – “Remember the Maine!”

Event:  Explosion of the USS Maine, 1889

On this day in 1889, the United States battleship Maine exploded while harbored in Havana, Cuba, killing 260 of the 400 sailors aboard.  The Maine had been sent to protect American interests when a Cuban revolt broke out against Spanish rule.  Although no clear cause for the explosion was proven definitively, a U.S. Naval Court of inquiry at the time placed the blame on a Spanish mine.  

Although he was initially against war with Spain, President William McKinley faced enormous public pressure to go to war.  The yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst inflamed American resentment against Spain, and cries of “Remember the Maine” increased tensions.  Finally, in April 1889, the U.S. declared war on Spain.  

The Spanish-American war lasted just five months.  Spain was not prepared to fight a distant war and was easily routed by the U.S.  As a result of the brief war, the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, as well as temporary control of Cuba (1).

In 1976 an investigation into the explosion of the Maine by U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover cleared the Spanish.  Rickover concluded that the explosion was caused by spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bins (2).

Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery (Wikipedia)

Today, the mast of the Maine stands in Arlington National Cemetery as a memorial to the American sailors who lost their lives in Cuba.  We might also consider the Maine’s mast as a memorial to confirmation bias, the pervasive and dangerous cognitive bias that allows us to see what we want to see instead of the truth.  It blinds us to evidence that runs contrary to the truth we want to see but makes more prominent anything that will confirm the claim we want to support.  The feeling of being correct is more important to us than actually being correct. As author David McRaney says, “We basically had to invent science to stop ourselves from trying to solve problems by thinking in this way” (3).

The U.S. might have learned a powerful lesson about confirmation bias in 1889; however, it clearly did not.  More than a hundred years later, in 2003, the U.S. again fell prey to confirmation bias by going to war with Iraq.  The U.S. discounted evidence that indicated that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, instead of focusing exclusively on any evidence that supported the theory that Iraq did have WMDs. 

“Remember the Maine” is one of the more memorable slogans of history.  Like “Remember the Alamo” before it and “Remember Pearl Harbor” after it, these bumper-sticker sized sentences remind us that slogans are not just about advertising a product; instead, they are about getting people to do something:  buy a product, vote for a candidate, or take arms against an enemy in war.  In fact, the etymology of ‘slogan’ is from the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, meaning “army-shout” or “battle cry” (4).

“Remember the Maine” features two principles that make it stick in the mind.  First, it is stated as an imperative sentence; second, it is clear and concise.  Nothing arrests the attention like a short imperative sentence.  Stated as a command, an imperative sentence like “Remember the Maine” doesn’t need to waste time stating a subject; instead, the slogan begins with a verb that acts like the blast of a starting gun telling us to “Go!”  In addition to being a call to action or a call to arms, great slogans make every word count.  They are micro-messages, and the fewer the words, the greater they stick.

For more proof the effectiveness of the concise imperative slogan, read the examples below — each one with no more than six words:

Eat fresh

Make believe

Think Small

Think different

Challenge everything

Just Do It!

Obey your thirst

Dig for Victory

Spread the happy

Ban the Bomb

Have it your way

Say it with Flowers

Fly the friendly skies

Save Money. Live Better

Don’t Leave Home Without It

Twist the cap to refreshment

Reach Out and touch someone

Buy it. Sell it. Love it.

Put a Tiger in Your Tank

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can the slogan “Remember the Maine!” help us remember how to avoid the cognitive bias known as confirmation bias?

Today’s Challenge – Build a Better Battle Cry:  What is an existing product or cause that you would be willing to promote?  Brainstorm some products, causes, and some original imperative slogans.  When you have found one that works, write a brief letter to the company or to someone representing the cause, and make your pitch for your slogan.  Why do you think it works and should be used to promote the product/cause?  Make your case. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 15:  The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was born on this day in 1564.  He said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”  For more on Galileo, see Thinker’s Almanac – January 7.

Sources:

1-Cavendish, Richard. “The Sinking of the Maine.” History Today Volume 48 Issue 2, 2 Feb. 1998.

2-” Better Late Than Never?: Rickover Clears Spain of the Maine Explosion”  History Matters.

3-McRaney, David. “Confirmation Bias.”  You Are Not So Smart.  June 23, 2010

4-”Slogan” Etymology Online.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 14

Subject:  Creativity/Problem Solving – Zwicky’s Box

Event:  Birthday of Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, 1898

Born on Valentine’s Day in 1898, Fritz Zwicky was a man who loved ideas.  As an astronomer, he is known for his discovery of dark matter, and he not only discovered many supernovae, he also coined the term “supernova.”

Perhaps Zwicky’s greatest discovery, though, was a strategy that allows anyone — even non-astrophysicists — to generate new ideas.  The strategy is called morphological analysis, a method that begins by identifying the parameters of a problem followed by generating alternative options for each parameter.  The magic comes from randomly combining different parameter options to spark creativity.  Zwicky was so proud of his invention that he compared it to the mystical practice of alchemy:  “I feel that I have finally found the philosopher’s stone in what I call the morphological outlook and method” (1).

To illustrate the process, imagine you were presented with the problem of designing a new office trash can.  To begin you would generate a variety of different parameters that make up a typical trash can, such as “size,” “material,” “shape,” “position,” and “additional features.”  List each of these parameters at the top of a piece of paper.  Next, under each parameter, you would brainstorm possible alternatives for each parameter; for example, under “additional features” you might list “a paper shredder,” ‘a clock,” “a whiteboard,” “hole punch,” and “stapler/staple remover.” Once you have a variety of options under each parameter, you should now have a matrix of options that make up a morphological box, also known as a Zwicky Box.  Once you have created your box, the magic can now begin by randomly combining different parameter options.  Imagine, for example, if you generated just five options for each parameter; a 5 x 5 matrix like this would generate over 3,000 different possible combinations.  Because the human brain loves associations, you can use each random combination as a spark to produce a new idea for a never-before-seen or produced office trash can.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How is a Zwicky Box used to generate ideas?

Challenge – Thinking Inside the Zwicky Box:  Imagine you are working for a greeting card company.  Your job is to produce new ideas for a Valentine’s Day card. Using the parameters and options below or ones that you create on your own, randomly combine some options to generate some ideas.  Write a pitch for your best idea, or better yet, create the card as your prototype.

Zwicky Box with Valentine’s Day Card Parameters

THEMEFEATURESHAPEMESSAGE FORMSTYLE
animalspop upheartsonnethumorous
heartsrecorded messagerectanglerhyming coupletselegant
famous loversmusicovalpuntraditional
candyscratch and sniffdiamondhyperbolequirky
vintage/nostalgiaconfettiamorphousmetaphorironic

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

-February 14, 1954:  Today is the birthday of cartoonist and creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groenig.  He said, “Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.”

Sources:

1-”Remembering Zwicky

February 14:  Metaphors of Love Day

Our modern Valentine’s Day rituals date back to an ancient Roman fertility rite called Lupercalia, celebrated from February 13-15.  Roman myth tells of the twin brothers Romulus and Remus who were abandoned in a cave (Lupercal) of a she-wolf (lupa).  The twins survived and went on to become the founders of Rome thanks to the she-wolf who nursed them.

Wolf head, 1-100 CE, bronze, Roman, Cleveland Museum of Art.JPGTo commemorate the deliverance of Romulus and Remus each year, priests gathered at Palatine Hill above Rome to sacrifice goats and a puppy along with making an offering of grain.  Two young boys were then stripped naked and clothed in the freshly skinned coats of the sacrificed goats. In addition to the goatskins, the boys were also given a narrow strip (or thong) cut from the hide of the goats.  These thongs were called februa, meaning “instruments of purification.”  Running downhill and through the city streets, the two boys slapped everyone they met with the februa in a symbolic act of purification.  Women often came forth to be struck since they believed the ceremony rendered them fertile, as well as ensured an easy delivery in childbirth.

A less violent aspect of Lupercalia festival was a lover’s lottery where young men would be coupled with young women by drawing names randomly from a jar.

The modern name of Valentine’s Day also originated with the Romans; however, the day’s name resulted more from martyrdom than from a fertility rite.  In the 3rd century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II executed two men in two different years.  Both men were named Valentine and both men were executed on February 14.  Later, the Catholic Church commemorated the two saints’ martyrdom with the feast of St. Valentine.  In 494, attempting to expel pagan traditions, Pope Gelasius I outlawed Lupercalia and replaced it with Valentine’s Day (2).

Today we associate Valentine’s Day more with Venus – the Roman goddess of love – than with Catholic saints.  And the most ubiquitous symbol of the day is Venus’ son Cupid.  It’s his bow and quiver of arrows that represent the capriciousness of romantic love; anyone struck by one of his arrows is instantly filled with uncontrollable desire.

As we can see from the history of Valentine’s Day, it is a tradition filled with symbols that attempt to make the abstract ideas of romantic love and attraction more concrete.  In a similar fashion, lovers have attempted to make the abstract idea of love more concrete through the use of metaphor.  Notice in the following examples, the variety of metaphors used by various writers to define this elusive yet universal emotion:

Love is like war:  easy to begin but very hard to stop. -H.L. Mencken

Love is like a virus.  It can happen to anybody at any time.  -Maya Angelou

Love is an exploding cigar which we willingly smoke. -Lynda Berry

Love is the wildcard of existence. -Rita Mae Brown

Love is friendship set to music.  -E. Joseph Cossman

Love is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath.  At night, the ice weasels come. -Matt Groening

Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gates of fear. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Love is like an hourglass, with the heart filling up as the brain empties. -Jules Renard

Love is the ultimate outlaw.  It just won’t adhere to any rules.  The most any of us can do is sign on as its accomplice. –Tom Robbins

Love is the only disease that makes you feel better. -Sam Shepard

Today’s Challenge:  Love Is a Metaphor

What is the best thing anyone has ever said about love?  What makes this person’s observations so insightful?  Select a quotation about love, either from the quotations above or from your research.  Your quotation can be lines from a poem, lyrics from a song, or prose from a Valentine’s Day card.  Explain why you find the quotation so insightful and specifically why you agree with it.  (Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar. -Jim Butcher

1-http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Lupercalia.html

2-http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day