Monday, March 29, 2010

Qualitative and Quantitative research - ISO Audits

It occurred to me after my last post that many people might not know the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. In a nutshell:

Quantitative Research - research where the results are all distilled down to numeric quantities. It is usually recommended during the latter phases of a research project. Questions such as "how many people follow the procedure manual while doing this task?"; "how often is this store robbed?"; or "what is the percentage of improvement in depressed people while taking this medication versus a placebo?" are things answered through quantitative research.

Qualitative Research - is research where the results consist of words, descriptions, and images. It is usually recommended during earlier phases of research projects. Questions such as "what procedures are being used in production?"; "who is responsible for security?"; and "what are the side effects of this medication?" require qualitative answers.

The ISO compliance audit is a qualitative research process. Things like percent of damage returns or wasted man-hours are secondary concerns. What is important are things like:

Do the procedures documented in the process manuals accurately depict what is being used on the floor? Some companies create procedures that have little to no resemblance on how the worker actually does the job. Sometimes it's because the workers just don't care, but other times it is because the documented procedure is not adequate, whether it's out of date, an efficiency problem, or safety issue. It's hard to improve something if you aren't documenting what works and what doesn't.

How are data measured, recorded and analyzed? This is something you should ask yourself whenever you read a research document. All the number gathering in the world is meaningless if the numbers are not handled correctly.

Areas of responsibility and accountability. It's not enough to say "Yes, someone is accountable for this." An ISO auditor has to find out who is the person. Is it the QA manager or the production manager? Is it the financial department or procurement?

Feedback flows. How does the company get customer feedback? How can employees give feedback?

And so forth... The ISO system is developed to help companies not only prove their ability to produced quality products, but also put in place processes that help companies improve their performance and stay competitive in changing markets. It is qualitative in nature because you can't compare diverse companies through the use of quantitative data. It's been tried and it was ineffective. However, that's not to say that there is not a quantitative element in ISO certification. You still need a way to track how effective procedures are and what areas need the most work on.

Good researchers start with indepth qualitative research and then do the quantitative research. Anything else is not good research.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Importance of Qualitative Research

For five years I worked as a Quality Assurance Technician/Specialist for a major corporation, before I took time off to be a stay at home mom. Most of my work revolved around routine quantitative tests and research at the national QA lab. However, I had the opportunity to work on some investigative research during that time. One nice thing about doing internal research for a major corporation is that you don't really have the option to put a spin on your test results. There is always an external bottom line that you are accountable to. While in the academic and sales world, some researchers can talk circles around their results and still retain their positions, in the quality assurance world, if your research is faulty, it shows in the product and in the accounting. Faulty quality research costs a company money and can get you fired.

During my time in the QA field, I learned several things about research. First off, it's extremely easy to end up measuring the wrong thing. I cannot emphasis that point enough. During my first year, I was the technician for a new engineer, and he and I found this out firsthand. We even had a strong disagreement over one test on this matter. I noticed that there was something weird going on with my test results and brought it to his attention. He wanted to wave it away, because my results were confirming his hypothesis. If there is one thing I hate doing, it's fudging data. So I told him flat out that it may prove his hypothesis, but as a technician, I was not going to stand by the results. He finally told me that I could repeat the test. I'm sure he was expecting me to back down because he knew I hated doing that particular test, especially for the number of repetition he was asking for. Instead I agreed and then after clarifying that I would be doing the test the same way as I had the first time, I asked if I could switch the order of the samples. He agreed and the next set of results showed that I was right. To the engineer's credit, he then accepted that he was mistaken, listened to my observations, and figured out what actually was going on - and was able to confirm it. A few years later, he borrowed me back from the manager I was then working with, because he had a $5 million bizarre problem to solve and he wanted a technician who would tell him if things were looking screwy.

Between those times I worked for that one engineer, I worked for a manager who had been a university professor at an engineering school before working for the company. I was given the task to compare two types of color measuring machines. (Since, to the best of my knowledge, no one reading this blog is in the flexible packaging field, I'll dispense with the technical names.) The newer one was developed for the auto industry and we needed to see if it could meet our needs. Before I could even begin to compare the two machines, I had to do a search of the literature before I could even have an idea what I was actually testing. I also talked to our R&D packaging scientist and the manufacturer's representatives. I even resorted to going through my mother's old books on painting with color, which provided me with a lot more on the subject than I originally expected.

In short, under the direction of my manager, I did qualitative research before I started anything quantitative. That's because it's the qualitative research that shows you what you should be measuring. Most people don't understand that. When I took the research methods class for my masters, I really had to bite my tongue not to go into an impassioned rant over the necessity of qualitative research as a precursor of decent quantitative research. The R&D scientist I worked with for the color project was brillant and a good deal of his brillance came from the fact that he did his qualitative research before he launched his quantitative research. In the quality assurance world, measuring the wrong thing costs money and jobs. There's no time for weak research based on "well, this sounds like this might be the cause." You need to have solid reasons for your choices before you can even start your tests and in the corporate world, those choices are challenged more stringently than what I've seen so far in the academic world. Of course, this may not be the case on the doctorate level. I hope that is the case when I go back to school for my doctorate, because through my quality assurance training I have developed an obsession with doing thorough background research before I develop a test procedure. This is the reason my capstone is basically a literary review, because I would rather do a thorough literary review than a half-thought out series of qualitative tests.

Actually, I'm not sure I can even bring myself to do testing before doing a literary review. You see, my last job with this company was manufacturing defects coordinator. I was transferred to a plant to help them reduce their packaging defects. The plant management was convinced that the suppliers were sending them inferior flexible packaging. I spent the first few months testing roll stock to confirm that this plant was getting the same quality of packaging that all the others were. The plant manager didn't take that very well and I was told that I had six months to find out what the problem was or my job would be eliminated. For the first two or three months, management kept giving me things they wanted me to test for them as possible causes for their high defect rate. Out of pure preservation, I began to study other possible contributing factors. I used my connections with the national lab to talk to the engineers who trained the trainers who taught the packaging machine operators how to do their jobs. These were also the same guys who followed up on the quality of the machine maintenance people. They assured me that the trainers and the plant maintenance people where I was at were top notched. I talked with the trainers in the plant and made friends with the maintenance guys. It was obvious from their dedication and knowledge that they were, indeed doing their part. It was also obvious through the observed quality of their work, which they gladly let me examine.

I knew we were all missing something, but I couldn't figure out what it was while doing all the tests to make management feel better. So, I took a stand and reminded them that they brought me there because I was a specialist and if they were going to make me accountable for this, then they needed to let me do the job I was brought in for. Again, the plant manager was not impressed, but I figured I was doomed anyway with the way things were going, so I stood my ground. He said he wanted me to do line audits. In the past, I had been doing warehouse audits because no one wanted me to interrupt their production flow. I told him that I would do it on the grounds that I created my own audit criteria. To make everyone happy, I put in every common packing flaw that could be seen by a non-destructive inspection. However, well aware that I still had no idea what the real problem was, I made sure I made a space on my audit forms for comments - just in case I stumbled across a clue or two.

Then I started my line inspections. I hadn't even finished my first bag inspection, when the packaging machine operator came up to me and asked in a surly voice if he was going to see my results right away or was he going to have to wait until his manager yelled at him about them. Dumbfounded, I said, "You don't get my reports?" After he confirmed that was the case, I asked him if he wanted me to make him a copy and bring it back to the line as soon as I finished with everyone. He agreed. During this time, a light went off in my head, as I reviewed the stories I knew about how my dad and maternal grandfather managed their employees. The packaging machine operators weren't getting enough feedback. And if they weren't getting enough feedback, then chances were, based on the first guy's comments, they weren't getting any positive feedback at all. So, in my "comment box" I mentioned specifically what was right about the bags I auditted.

I asked every machine operator if they wanted my reports directly from me. All of them said yes. I instituted what I called my positive feedback program. Sometimes, before I even started checking for flaws, I would write down what looked good on the bag. After a week of this, the machince operators started looking forward to my audits and asked for my opinion on some of their issues. During the third week, I came across a perfect bag. I asked the machine operator if I could display it in the lunchroom with his name attached to it. That bag was followed by others from other machine operators. Three months from the start of my audits and positive feedback, the manufacturing defects numbers had dropped 70%.

It wasn't the quantitative studies that found the issue. It was the qualitative investigation that did the job. The quantitative studies only backed it up. International Organization for Standardization has proceedures it dictates for those companies wishing to be ISO certified. I've actually taken classes on ISO certification a few years back and I can assure you that their quality standards take into account the qualitative aspects of processes too. I'm tempted to pull out my books and give examples, but I think I'll save that discussion for another post.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Many Faces of Suicide

During my first two decades of life, I strongly held the belief that suicide was the ultimate act of failure - at least for myself. Looking back on the suicides that entered my life when I was younger, I don't remember ever feeling disdain for the victim, but I do remember feeling very confused by their acts. My views on suicide became a little less black and white when a friend of mine took a job in a toxicology lab at a local hospital. Her greatest surprise was finding out that many people who overdosed on their medicines or sleeping pills weren't actually trying to end their life. When questioned after being revived, most of them were operating on the misjudgment that if they could sleep a few days straight or just increase their dosage, their bodies and/or minds would be healed and they would be able to live productive lives again. As she put it, "These people could have killed themselves and have no idea of what they had done until they entered the hereafter."

Another loosening of my views on suicide came when I entered treatment for clinical depression. I insisted quite fervently to my psychologist that not only was I not suicidal, but I would never even considered taking my own life because "that would mean that I screwed up my life so badly that not even God could fix it." He looked at me for a moment and then asked me if I had ever had any self-destructive thoughts or acts. I burst into tears. Despite my beliefs, I had indeed had those thoughts - to the point where I could not leave sharp knives out in the open, because I would have visions of me cutting myself in ways that would have lead to my death, had I done them. It was something I guarded against diligently. Every time I used a knife, it was either washed right then and put back in the drawer, or went immediately into the dishwasher. If neither option was available at that moment, it went under a dishcloth. It had to be out of my sight. I even moved my sharp knives to a separate drawer, so I wouldn't see them while getting other utensils. This experience taught me that even people who believed strongly against suicide, could have those type of thoughts.

Sociologist Emile Durkheim studied the social factors of suicide back in the late 1800s. While we tend to think of suicide as a highly individualistic act, it occurs within a social framework that shapes those acts. His research proposed four types of suicidal acts:

Egotistic suicide - These are people who are not well-integrated into the social network around them. Without the social bonds to fall back on for support and guidance, they are left to face their problems alone. These people can be disaffected for a variety of reasons: they're part of undesirable social group; they're highly individualized people; or they have an illness or disorder that makes creating social bonds difficult.

Altruistic suicide - These are people who are overly integrated into the social network around them. This is the kamikaze pilot, the suicide bomber, and the self-martyr. These people kill themselves in the belief that it will save others.

Anomic suicide - This happens when someone loses their standing in their social network. They are no longer guided by the rules they had come to depend upon, because those rules are either no longer relevant or have completely failed them. These are the people who suddenly lost their jobs or social positions, due to things like financial downturns, divorce, or scandal. Not knowing where they now fit into society, they decide that they no longer have a place in it.

Fatalistic suicide - These people are overly controlled by society, whose only real "freedom" is killing themselves. These people include slaves, prisoners and those oppressed by a totalitarian regime.

But social networks are not the only factor in suicidal behavior. Age and level of development is also a great influence on how and why suicide is committed. While it is a difficult concept for even professionals to come to terms with, pre-adolescent children do commit suicide. It's rare, but it does happen in situations where the family bond is weak (strong families rarely tell each other they wish that other family members were dead), especially if the child knows of others who have committed suicide. Children are more likely to commit suicides that can be dismissed as accidents, such as running into traffic or falling from high places. That's not to say that every child that dies this way has committed suicide--far from it. Accidents still are a major reason for childhood deaths; however, for a child who wants to end his/her life, doing similar acts on purpose is the easiest way to achieve their goal.

Adolescents are one of the most likely groups for committing suicide. It is the second highest cause of death for those between the ages of 15 to 24. The lack of problem solving skills among adolescent suicide victims, as well as the lack of parental bonding and guidance probably explains the cut-off point around age 24, which is around the time that the frontal lobes in the brain have finished developing. So it's possible that even those who have an elevated risk will have improved judgment by then. Rick factors include: poor parental-attachment; deficient problem-solving skills; alcohol and drug use in the family; seeing themselves different than their parents; socio-ecomonic adversity; exposure to sexual abuse; high rates of neuroticism; novelty; depression; anxiety; and conduct disorder. There is also a social element involved. Adolescents are more susceptible to cluster suicides--suicides triggered by other who have committed suicide. The attention give to the first suicide victim after the fact can appear to be the type of validation the following victims hope for, though they fail to take in account that they won't actually benefit from it. For this reason, some psychologists are warning Cornell University to be careful how they memorialize the students who have recently comment suicide there.

Adults over 25 who commit suicide are another class, altogether. For one thing, they are less likely to state their suicidal intentions in direct ways. Instead they will talk about not being useful or not being able to stand their current situation anymore. While some, due to delayed development, will behave similar to the adolescent group, most suicidal people from ages 25 to 65 suffer from anomic stressors like job losses, financial and health problems, loss of a loved one, as well as drug use, depression, and hopelessness. Behavioral signs are very similar to clinical depression, with the exception of gettings one's affairs in order. They tend to withdraw from others and start having troubles with sleeping, concentrating, and eating.

Elderly people are largest group to commit suicide and that's not even including those who commit chronic or passive suicide by letting their illnesses have their way or just stop eating and drinking. The group most likely to commit overt suicide in the US are 85 year old white males. The elderly are the most successful at their attempts and the least likely to give any warning of their intentions. Unlike younger people, the elderly rarely use suicide as a threat. Their reasons are often more calculated than emotional. Lack of finances and increases in health care cost often figure prominently in their decision, though depression, isolation, and lack of activity can be major factors. They will often have everything in order to make things easier on their loved ones. During my gerontology studies, a classmate gave a presentation on senior suicides. I will never forget the story she shared of a couple in their 80s, who not only had a file near them containing all their important papers and instructions for their children, but even went as far as laying on trash bags to make the clean up easier. Even my death, dying, and bereavement textbook gives a similar example of elderly suicide.

One type of suicide risk not covered so far is one I'm not sure the mental health industry really has a proper name for - suicidal thoughts caused by medication. Granted, most of these people probably have other risk factors, but based on personal experience, this is not something to tack on just as a footnote. A few years ago, I was placed on blood pressure medication because while my blood pressure wasn't in the danger zone, it was high enough to cause concern with my other medical problems. The first medication I was put up seriously messed with my attention and memory. I stopped driving my car because twice I forgot how to drive. Luckily, both times were in parking lots, and after a few moments I could call up enough of my memory to get me back home. When it became obvious that this side effect was not going to go away, I was switched to another medication. Within a day, I started to have suicidal thoughts. As a precaution, I put my knives out of easy reach. I challenged the thoughts each time they surfaced. Two days later, I took myself off the medication because not only were the thoughts coming just minutes apart, but when I tried to supress them, I began to get suicidal images. Within sixteen hours, I was no longer having those persistant thoughts. I later brought my blood pressure down dramatically by severely limiting the time I spent with negative relatives.

If you experience something similar, it would probably be a good idea to follow the first aid guides at WebMD for suicidal thoughts and not follow my example too closely.

And a final note: Recent studies have shown that animals do commit suicide. While I expected there to be suicides along the lines as the passive suicide done by seniors, having seen a few beloved pets go through this, I had not expected the evidence of animals committing altruistic suicides to protect their population. I do appreciatiate the following statement: "The big difference is that in modern humans that calculation can go wrong. There are some acts of suicide that do save lives. But most of the millions or so human suicides each year worldwide benefit no one, [Thomas] Joiner explained. They are acts that perhaps used to serve a purpose in early human societies, he said, but have lost their function in the modern world."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Modern Artist Spotlight - Marwin Begaye

Marwin Begaye is a critically acclaimed Navajo artist, currently living in Oklahoma. He teaches at both the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University. His passion is educating Native Americans and non-Native Americans alike on the dangers of the modern diet, particularly diabetes. His prints are full of pop-icon, corporate brands, and macabre imagery, all meant to drive home visually what we are doing to ourselves in regards to our dependence on over-processed foods.

On a more personal note, he's the guy who taught me lithography. And I can assure you that he's a real character, as the pictures in this blog post of another print artist will attest to. He teases people a lot. Especially painting students for not being careful enough with their images. You'd never know by listening to his teases that his first accolades were for his works as a painter. He often uses humor to get his point across. As long as you don't take any of it personally, you'll have a great time learning from him, because he really does want to make his students the best printmakers they can be. He also requires his students to personally relate to their own art, to actually create things representative of them. He's the reason that my American Mutt series focused on all of my ancestry, instead of just a juxaposition of Lenape and Pennsylvania Dutch images.

He doesn't really have a website gallery, so here's a slideshow of images from Flicker of his works, taken by other people. In the center of the show is a hummingbird print that I actually have on a t-shirt, from his class. Of course, having not been worn regularly, the print in the slideshow looks a lot crisper than my beloved t-shirt.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Subliminal stimuli processing

About a month ago, a friend of mine in the psychology profession, who is a fan of Derren Brown, had me watch this video:

It is an interesting experiment and a very well done one. I like the fact that they included two subjects who were internal controls. I think that it would be a very good idea to repeat the experiment for a larger population, with controls who hadn't even laid eyes on the CD they sent out. Another example of subliminal priming is Derren Brown influences two gentlemen who work in the US advertising industry. Even advertising professionals can be influenced. This video includes the explanation of how he did it. You might want to check out the UK version too.

Another interesting study is the Duke University Subliminal Ad Experiment:

Research=> Automatic Effects of Brand Exposure on Motivated Behavior: How Apple Makes You “Think Different”

This article first examines whether brand exposure elicits automatic behavioral effects as does exposure to social primes. Results support the translation of these effects: participants primed with Apple logos behave more creatively than IBM primed and controls; Disney-primed participants behave more honestly than E!-primed participants and controls. Second, this article investigates the hypothesis that exposure to goal-relevant brands (i.e., those that represent a positively valenced characteristic) elicits behavior that is goal directed in nature. Three experiments demonstrate that the primed behavior showed typical goal-directed qualities, including increased performance postdelay, decreased performance postprogress, and moderation by motivation.

What does this mean, besides the fact that humans can be easily manipulated? These experiments, tricks, and studies show that our minds process information on an unconscious level. In fact, it could be argued that some intuitive may come from this subliminal data processing. (Some intuition comes from the capacity to process things in a global manner.) This ability probably wasn't developed as a means to be influenced, though it probably helps with social interaction, but there is some evidence that it can improve our safety. The Gift of Fear written by security expert Gavin de Becker, suggests that the hunches and gut feelings we sometimes get come from picking up on certain cues that our conscious minds miss. It is a very easy and fascinating book to read, despite it's length. I highly recommend The Gift of Fear to anyone interested in personal safety or even just human behavior.

The way I see it, our minds have to regulate some of the processing of stimuli to the subliminal level because if it was all conscious, we'd get overwhelmed. And while this process can have some undesirable results, it does serve some very important functions.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Project Implicit®

While writing the previous post on the fly, I touched on the concept of preconceived notions and it reminded me a bit of Harvard's research on hidden biases:

Project Implicit®
Project Implicit blends basic research and educational outreach in a virtual laboratory at which visitors can examine their own hidden biases. Project Implicit is the product of research by three scientists whose work produced a new approach to understanding of attitudes, biases, and stereotypes.

It really is a fascinating site to visit. Several friends and I have compared our results with each other with interesting results. Not to mention insightful conversations on why we got the results we did. It's been a few years since I've done some of these tests. I might have to go back and try them again.

Reasons why kids are sometimes better at technology

After finishing my masters, I decided I wanted a break before going on to a doctorate program. So at the moment I'm employed doing technical troubleshooting over the phone. While in training, the truism about children being better at technology was brought up. Our trainer confirmed that children were indeed easier to troubleshoot with - because they were better at following directions and did exactly what you told them and nothing more. As a parent, this sounded rather counter to my experience; however as a technician, I've found out that she was right. More often than not, the children I've talked to (after getting the parent's permission) weren't really all that more knowledgeable than Mom and Dad. Of course, as we're often reminded, the customer who actually know what they're doing are usually the last ones to call for technical support, but still there is a pattern between the two populations.

1. Children have less preconceived ideas on how something is supposed to work. It never fails to amaze me the expectations people have of electronic equipment. Despite the fact that they have to replace light bulbs in their homes, flashlights, and cars, there are people in this day and age who still think that electronics should last forever. The fact it comes with a time-limited warantee is completely lost on them. But even more frustrating is the customer who thinks they know how a piece of equipment works and tries to jump ahead of the technician. Children don't do this. They let you tell them what the next step is - even the teenagers.

2. Children focus more on the task and less on the embarrassment. When troubleshooting with a child, there hardly ever any self-esteem problems to deal with. They feel valued just by the fact that an expert is willing to work with them.

3. Children are literal. When you ask a child what is showing on a screen, they will tell you exactly what is on there. If you ask a child if the screen says something specific, they will tell you just that and nothing more. If you ask a child what a cable looks like, they never say it's just a cable.

4. Children are open to being taught. This one is sort of a combination of the others, but I've worked with adults who showed the other traits and still failed in this one. The last thing most technicians want is a customer to keep calling back with the same problem when it is something easily fixed. Also, an educated customer is less likely to panic the next time something goes weird. Panicked customers are always difficult to troubleshoot with.

I could probably tack on that children tend to be more trusting of the technician, but that isn't necessarily why they are better at new technology. And for the record, I've dealt with senior citizens who show these traits and several of them have actually taught themselves to be technically savvy at ages that most people would not thought possible. Elderly women in particular seem good at this. I suspect it is because they don't have the preconceived idea that they have to be experts at it. So you can teach an old dog new tricks, but that can't beat old dogs who can teach themselves.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Modern Artist Spotlight - Julian Beever

Words really can't do Julian Beever's sidewalk art justice. I've seen him compared to Picasso, which is very misleading. Whereas Picasso went for flat abstractions, Beever goes for hyper-realism by making trompe l'oeil art that creates the illusion of three dimensions. Though I will give you that the works of both artists will challenge your preceptions.

Above is a video of him creating a sidewalk/pavement illusion for Aveeno. In addition to his official website, there is also a Flicker gallery of his works.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Tipping Points

A couple of weeks ago, a commenter directed me to Change Therapy, a free online book about marketing "soft skills" like therapy by David P. Diana. I'm a little leary of promoting things from sources I'm not sure of, so my first action after seeing the comment was to email the link to a friend of mine who has been a practicing psychologist for over 40 years. His response was not only positive, but there was the hint that it would do me some good too.

I did enjoy reading the book. Among the gems within it, was a revisitation of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule. In a nutshell, 10,000 hours of practice is the tipping point of making one an expert at a skill. Diana extended the rule into an exercise program for one's career.

Yesterday, I visited, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson's site. Fredrickson found through her studies that "that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine." Knowing that negativity is one of my worse inner demons, I've decided to track my positive/negative ratio on her site.

Most of my life, I've been told that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. I've have started several "habits" this way, only to have them get squashed by major life upheavals months later. The thing is I don't want new habits, I want an effective lifestyle where I take better care of myself than I do now. I can't do this by being a "habitist". That's how I developed my toolbox of immediate stress relievers. What I need to do is to become an expert - a master - of personally dealing with stress and depression.

So, how can I apply the 10,000 hour rule here? Well, to make it more manageable, I've decided that I would focus on two things - becoming an "expert" at realistic positiveness and becoming an expert at visual processing. The first is for my health; the second is for a career. If I were to assume that I could apply myself to one of these goals 16 hours a day, then it would take me 625 days or about 22 months to gain expertise. Though that is hardly a realistic expectation, especially since I have health concerns that bring the Spoon Theory into play. If I did an hour a day, it would take me a little over 357 months or close to 30 years to achieve the 10,000 hours by rough estimate. After a few more calculations and based on the fact that I tend to have 5 year cycles in my life, I've decided to make a goal of doing at least 2000 hours of effort to my mastery of these two fields, per year. This means about 5.5 hours a day or 38 hours a week. Luckily for me, I can integrate these tasks in with my other activities, and in fact, I already am to some extent. It might take me a little while to get that going strong, but I suspect that once I do, the 5.5 hour practice will naturally extend itself. And on those days when it's harder, I will remind myself that even if I have been doing it for several months, I still have to reach that 10,000 hours.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Living with Depression

While I don't feel qualified to make conclusions about happiness, I have spent most my life dealing with depression and anxiety. Over a year ago I wrote the following poem to my depression.

Hello Depression
by Amanda D. Barncord Doerr

Hello there.
I know, we've already met.
In fact, we've been together most of my life.
But I decided it was time for a formal introduction.

You see, I've been operating under a pretext,
The idea that I would one day be free of you.
All I had to do is find the right things to think,
And get the right type of help and support.

But you would just wait until I let my defenses down.
Ambushing me like a tiger in wait.
Giving me a double blow. Sending me into a spiral.
Causing me to doubt my abilities to deal with you.

I've finally accepted that you are a part of me.
That when I fail, it isn't because I am a loser.
It's because you are hard-wired into me.
Through genetics, trauma and happenstance.

Even though you are part of me--you are not me.
I just wanted to make that clear.
Those thoughts or doom and despair are not mine.
They are you speaking to me.

And that's all right.
You can speak to me.
Because when you speak,
I have forgotten something.

However, I have the final word.
Things are never as bad as you say they are.
I want to make sure you know that.
It is time I give you credit for your ideas.

So, here's the head up.
I'm not going to play your games.
We will have to work together instead.
Trust me. It's better this way.

People tell you that admitting the problem is half the battle. They're wrong. It's more like a quarter of the problem, assuming that you're admitting the right problem in the first place. After you've admitted there is a problem and determined what the problem is, you still have to learning how to deal with the problem for the long haul and know the quick fixes for the emergency relapses.

It's like living in neighborhood with a gunman around. Now, admitting you have a gunman around is going to keep you safer than pretending he's not there. You can keep a vigilent eye out for him and take evasive measures, but it still doesn't change the fact that there is a homicidal creep with a deadly weapon around. There's always the chance that you will be caught by surprise. If that happens, there's still the chance that you might survive if you can get first aid and medical attention. But the only sure way to get rid of the gunman is to bring in authorities and change the dynamics of the neighborhood. And if the job is only partially done with no thought and effort beyond the immediate situation, there's no guarantee that the gunman won't return or another gunman won't show up. The solution must have awareness, emergency aid, policing, AND a change of the dynamics of the neighborhood itself through long term planning, which increases the social networking and bonding within the community itself.

Depression is a biological part of me that can only be managed like diabetes. That doesn't mean I am doomed to be depressed and anxious--only that I have to be aware that I am susceptible to it when I don't take care of myself. Realizing that part after attending a NAMI presentation made a very big difference for me, because it was then I realized that I was not a failure, but working under the false notion that I could cure myself from depression permanently.

Of the previous stated needs for a solution, I have the first two down pretty well. I have an amazing toolbox for stress emergency aid. What I don't have is a good social and economic network for myself. I'm not completely without a network, and many a time it has stood between me and total despair, but I am not firmly enmeshed in it, nor is it enough for my needs. What I have is an emergency network, something that is essential, but is more for saving my neck than keeping me from getting that bad in the first place. What I need is a preventative network - or more of one.

Building a preventative social network isn't easy for those of us who never really had one to begin with. The longest I've ever lived in one place is six years. Social networks take time to build. You need to be comfortable with the people around you and they need to feel comfortable with you - or at least not be uneasy around each other. You also have to know your neighborhood and be a part of your community. It's the little strings within the network that can often give us the strongest sense of belonging. Nothing says "you belong here" like being able to recognize local merchants and city workers, and running into church/association members in the checkout line. Being an introvert definitely impedes this process, but even an introvert over a period of time can still develop a strong social network.

A strange thing I've noticed over the past few years of being aware of my interaction with the social networks around me, you don't actually have to have everyone know your problems for it to have a positive affect on your sense of security. The restaurant owners near me have no idea of my daily struggle to keep depression at bay, yet that doesn't stop me from feeling valued as I visit their places and chitchat with them. Granted, I still need people I can talk to and confide in when things get bad and I have to deal honestly with people. Promoting a lie never helps mental health. But somehow when I make an effort to just be more visible within my community, things seem just a little less horrible.

Rereading this post, I realized that in my pride, I have neglected to mention/admit that I do need some policing in regards to my mental health. I spend a lot of time self-policing my thoughts, but it probably wouldn't hurt if I got some extra help as I had in the past. Nothing like having your words public to insure you re-evaluated yourself. In my defense, I am in the midst of improving the policing of my depressive behaviors. One thing I am doing is taking advantage of some of the online resources available for monitoring my moods. Another thing I am doing is being aware of all my moods and selectively talking to different friends when I am very disturbed by something in order to gain an understanding of the situation in positive ways.

Interested in the research on Happiness?

I'm sure that like me, many people find the research on happiness fascinating. I've done a post or two (three?) related to it in the past. I was about to do another one dealing with the newer research when I realized I was actually recovering territory already covered better by another blogger - Sandy Gauntam, writer of The Mouse Trap. The blog is practically dedicated to the subject of happiness at the moment. She does cover other topics there, though, too.

Here are a few of her posts on happiness research:
Am happy, will be selfish; Am sad, will be fair. Oh Really?!?
Happiness opposed to despair/ennui; sadness to anger/irritability
Am Happy, will talk more and deep; am Sad, will make small talk
Am happy, will seek novelty; am sad, will stick with familiar
Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?

Do I agree with all her conclusions? Of course not. I rarely, if ever, competely agree with someone's conclusions. I'm genetically onery and have a family tradition of being slightly rebellious to uphold. However, she does an excellent job presenting the research and to be honest, I haven't really made my mind up on the subject yet.

And for your additional perusal, more articles on the subject from other sites:

Happy, Enthusiastic People Less Likely To Develop Heart Disease
Emotions Interfere in Theory of Mind
The Proof’s in the Positive Thinking

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Using the Web in a right brain way

Pivot is a bit like how the right brain sorts and compares data, looking for patterns, anomalies and relationships. Like the right hemisphere, Pivot relies on global processing and dealing with generalities. I suspect as it becomes more used, Pivot will also specialize in finding patterns that can be described visually, but are difficult to describe in words. And like the right brain, Pivot arranges visual stimuli by appearance, using stored data to arrange parts.

Our right brains take simultaneous streams of information and created a master collage of that moment, using images, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings (both tactile and emotional). It manipulates those streams of information in ways not unlike Pivot's algorithms. What is amazing is that the right hemisphere is better at catching errors than the left. It is easier to prime, benefiting from even the weakest association. It is also easier to update with new information.

The "Dawn of Reason" gave humanity the opportunity to hone many left-brain dependent processes. I foresee this as the "Dawn of Global Analysis", which will hone many right-brain dependent functions in the decades and maybe centuries to come. I look forward to the other data analysis tools that will be spawned by this.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

When do we consider someone an "artist"?

It is said that a writer is someone who writes.

When I consider "spotlighting" a modern artist, I usually select people who are primarily known as fine art artists. This has not been a conscious decision on my part and until today, I really didn't put much thought to the matter. In fact, I don't usually put much thought into it at all. I just come across an artist I find interesting and I post about him/her.

Well, I decided this week that I would do someone who is mostly known as a craftsman and a webcomic artist - "Doc" Nickel, creator of The White Board. By trade, he's an machinist who specializes in paintball guns/markers (otherwise known as an "airsmith"). By academic standards, this might not qualify him as an "artist".

However, let me present the follow piece of sculpture:

Rage by 'Doc' Nickel is a sculpture wrought entirely by hand, each piece of 22 gauge sheet steel was formed using only hammers, wood blocks and small handbuilt anvils. Each of the seventy-nine individual plates are welded to an internal steel frame, all of which is supported by a graceful steel spar over a handmade Red Oak base. - from the website.

Shall we compare it to the cluster qualities of high art?

1) Direct Pleasure - yep.
2) Skill and virtuosity - definitely.
3) Style - check.
4) Novelty and creativity - yes.
5) Critism (or "illicits a positive or negative judgment") - I believe so.
6) Representation - check.
7) Special focus - yes.
8) Expressed individuality - yes.
9) Emotional saturation - most definitely.
10) Intellectual challenge - putting 79 pieces together is definitely an intellectual challenge.
11) Art traditions or institutions - okay, you got me here, but I'm still not sold that this is a valid criterion.
12) Imaginative experience - yep.

Does someone have to make a living at high art to be an artist? No. Poet and painter William Blake made his living as an engraver, printer, and illustrator. Here is my favorite work of Blake's Ancient of Days:

Perhaps Doc will not end up in the art history textbooks, but I believe he is definitely worthy of the title of "modern artist".

Monday, March 01, 2010

How we learn to see

Pawan Sinha talks about how our brains learn to see, based on his research with blind children and adults in India. Despite what some scientists had extrapolated from animal studies about sight, human brains can learn how to see even after many years of vision deprivation, even into adulthood.

"The one thing that the visual system needs in order to begin parsing the world is dynamic information."

This makes a world of sense when you consider that visual perception is dependent on eye movement. Vision and movement are linked. To quote Wikipedia: "Humans and other animals do not look at a scene in fixed steadiness; instead, the eyes move around, locating interesting parts of the scene and building up a mental 'map' corresponding to the scene. One reason for the saccadic movement of the human eye is that the central part of the retina—known as the fovea—plays a critical role in resolving objects. By moving the eye so that small parts of a scene can be sensed with greater resolution, body resources can be used more efficiently."

Try this. Focus on the red dot in the image below. After a while, the blue circle will start to fade. This illusion is based on how your eyes move.

[If you're like me, you will find it hard to stay focus on the dot once you notice the circle starting to look different. I actually got a headache fighting the impulse to compensate for the lack of microsaccade movement, through the use of gross eye movement.]

Visually thinking and different types of minds

Temple Grandin talks about thinking in pictures. I am so grateful that she has been able to find a way to verbalize how she visually processes things. There is no way I could possibly match her explanations. I straddle verbal and visual processing, but that doesn't mean that I totally understand a visual mind that doesn't has the access to the verbal skills I have. I know that I use visual processing. I also know that there I have not fully developed my visual processing ability. Verbally and mathematically, I had the training. I've been writing poetry since I was seven years old, thanks to my second grade teacher, who introduced poetry writing as part of an English/spelling lesson.

In this world of internet videos, I hope that more people like Temple Gardin are able to show us how to visually think - not only for those like me who intuit its power extends further than we see, but for everyone's benefit.