thought you’d never ask
(Author biographical statement page)
The short Story:
I have S.B. and S.M. degrees from MIT
and a Ph.D. from Stanford University, all in electrical engineering,
and worked for twenty years doing research in signal processing at MIT’s
Lincoln Laboratory. I have independently studied psychology and cognitive
science for several decades and have applied my knowledge of signal
processing to exploring how the mind works.
The longer story:
I am an autodidact, at least in the
fields of cognitive science, psychology, and the philosophy of mind.
That means that I am not formally schooled in those fields and have
learned whatever it is I know mostly by reading books, although I have
occasionally attended lectures and courses. Consequently, I may know
a lot about many aspects of the field yet know virtually nothing about
other aspects that everybody else in the discipline knows very well
because they followed a standard curriculum.
It’s hard to learn new concepts when you are older. Perhaps that’s
because your brain cells work more slowly. but it may be because you
have so many other ideas that could get in the way. If you were raised
on Bach, the Beatles may sound weird to you and you may never become
a great rock and roll musician. On the other hand, if you were raised
on Senegalese drumming and you were exposed to 1910 minstrel and popular
music, your attempts to play it may at first be strange, but in time
you might be playing something entirely new and exciting. That, by the
way, is a highly condensed version of how jazz was born. Sometimes coming
into a new field with an entrenched background brings that new field
into sharper focus.
My education and research experience
in electrical engineering doesn’t wholly explain my voyaging into
another complex scientific discipline. Part of the puzzle is just my
personality. Even in grade school I was interested in how things worked.
I in fact gave a “lecture” to my eighth grade class on the
way batteries function. A few years after I got my Ph.D. and was doing
research in electrical engineering, I became interested in psychology
and cognition—how the mind works. A couple of things got me started.
||As engineering student
standing on the banks of the
Charles River in 1961
After I finished my Ph.D., I had, for the first time in my life, time
to reflect on some emotional concerns. In college, we (engineers) just
couldn’t understand the young women we dated who seemed to spend
much of their time discussing personal feelings and relationships. I
am embarrassed to say that at the time we saw that as a weakness; internal
matters were simply of less significance than the practical and scientific
subjects that occupied our attentions. My reflections later on led me
to re-evaluate that appraisal of the validity of examining the emotional
aspect of the mind, to talk to a variety of people, read some books,
and take some interpersonal psychology courses at the Harvard Extension.
I later stumbled onto a course on adult development at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education where I learned how Piaget had changed the way people
thought about the development of children. I also did all the “recommended”
(i.e. not “required”) readings for the course and was thereby
exposed to some important ideas in moral development and the philosophy
the shore south of Boston in 2004.
I found learning about the development of children fascinating because
of some strange aspects of my own intellectual skills. I couldn’t
read or write very well, and I was an atrocious speller. I was even
poor in high school algebra. On the other hand, I was phenomenal in
high school geometry and physics. Doing great in two courses and mediocre
in eighteen courses isn’t a very good batting average, however;
I guess I got into MIT based on high SAT scores in my two good subjects.
Not surprisingly, my weaknesses were a real problem in my freshman year
at MIT where I almost flunked out, despite working very hard. It took
me three entire semesters to get going, but after that I did pretty
well. I’m still not sure what the problem was, but I think it
was partly not having worked very hard in high school (doing school
work, I mean—I worked long hours earning money for college, and
I was in every extracurricular club and dramatic play I could fit in).
I think I was also partly dyslexic. I still can’t spell, and my
arithmetic is still full of errors. I’m also a terrible computer
programmer, but I’m spectacular at abstract ideas, especially
ones that have a spatial component. These idiosyncrasies in my cognitive
functioning made me very curious about the idiosyncrasies of other people’s
cognitive functioning. My interest in how the minds of children work
expanded into trying to understand how the minds of adults worked. Consequently,
my readings in cognitive development soon expanded to cognitive science.
When I started reading about psychology, cognitive development, and
cognitive science, I found that I had to stop and reflect on each page.
I wrote extensively in the margins of books. I started keeping a notebook
and wrote down fragments of ideas. I started “talking” directly
to Socrates, Descartes, or Piaget. Regardless of who they were, I “told”
them what I thought of their ideas. I realize that you might find this
a bit arrogant. Many people believe we should worship the intellectual
greats in human culture. I say, honor and respect them, absolutely,
but blindly believe them, never! In fact, all the great thinkers loved
thinking and discussing their ideas. Who likes hitting a tennis ball
against a wall by oneself when hitting with a partner is much more fun?
I can think of some other activities where doing it with a partner is
a much richer experience than doing it alone. The great thinkers believed
in their ideas and didn’t want blind obedience. They were not
dictators. At any rate that’s my rationalization for doing what
I do. Occasionally someone will say to me that they admire my discipline
in reading and writing so consistently on this subject. I always say
thank you, but then add, “ You’ve have to be kidding. You
wouldn’t admire my discipline in eating a chocolate brownie for
lunch every day.” But that’s how reading and writing about
the mind is for me. It’s just fun. It’s what I feel like
doing most of the time.
Others have asked me, “What if you’re wrong?” “How
do you know for sure that you are right?” The fact is that I don’t
know. Moreover, I can’t know. Did the Wright brothers know for
sure that they could get an airplane to fly? Maybe they should have
stuck to fixing bicycles. After all, many inventors far more qualified
than they were had tried and failed. Do you think that they were arrogant
even to try? I say, no, just totally absorbed. Quitting simply wasn’t
an option. Inventors learn from the attempts of other inventors. Failed
science experiments give rise to better experiments. Flawed theories
emerge as better theories, perhaps by different people. If you take
a large perspective, you can see that ideas evolve in our culture and
that in a deep sense it doesn’t matter who the individual carriers
are at any specific time.
Consequently I can only hope that my ideas will help people rethink
how the mind works. Perhaps twenty-five years from now no one will remember
what I had to say. Poets, musicians, and politicians face a similar
fate. Only time reveals who has had a hand in swaying his or her culture
for a moment. That’s just the way it is.
For those curious about my technical background I’ll mention a
few details. For my Master’s thesis, I developed a computer program
on a PDP-4 computer (12 microsecond cycle time or about 83 KHz.) at
Massachusetts General Hospital to detect arrhythmias in Electrocardiograms
(EKGs). Of course, this was just luck on my part. I stumbled upon a
very innovative physician with joint appointments at MIT and several
hospitals. I believe that we were one of the first laboratories in the
country to do such research. Unfortunately I graduated and didn’t
continue working in that field. I then spent a few years at a not-for-profit
research laboratory working on signal processing for pulse-compression
radars before going to Stanford for my Ph.D. There I worked in ionospheric
radio communication, trying to synthesize extraordinarily long apertures
using the signal processing techniques I had learned earlier. Then I
returned to Massachusetts to work at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.
Over a twenty-five year period, I worked in satellite optical communications,
superconducting signal processing circuits, and speech technology. I
have a patent (now expired) for a passive chirp filter that used a thin-film
spiral of Niobium on an alumina substrate at liquid helium temperatures
(4.2 Kelvin) to make a rather impractical spectrum analyzer with a full
Gigahertz of bandwidth. It was in the speech group that I learned about
artificial neural networks, subtle aspects of pattern classification
using sophisticated algorithms, and a little bit about artificial intelligence
(AI). In a sense, all my graduate education and my research career has
focused on various applications of signal processing. I think this partly
explains why I have been fascinated by how our human brain processes
the signals coming from our senses— eyes, ears, and so on. In
general, our brains do a much better job than do the processes engineers
have been able to develop to date. Yet that fact alone leads many of
us to try to understand biological signal processing more fully.
In 1996, I decided to take advantage of a general offer MIT made to
its faculty and staff to retire early. Retiring early, even with generous
added benefits, means a significant reduction in current and long-term
income. However, since my children had already graduated from college,
I decided to live more frugally in order to have the opportunity to
pursue my ideas in human and animal cognition. I briefly considered
getting a second Ph.D., but this looked like a roundabout (and expensive)
way to get involved. So I decided to study and write on my own. I benefit
from the independence (and I can say that no animals or graduate students
were harmed or used in any way in my studies). However I miss the give
and take and fellowship of colleagues, and my ideas may be out in left
field, not having profited from the subtle shaping that occurs in a
group environment. I am hoping that at least some of my ideas turn out
to be new to others (they’re new to me, but perhaps someone else
whom I’ve never read has had similar ideas) and useful. Please
let me know either way.
I have finished writing my book many times. An early version is an about
foot-thick pile of hand-written pages; I stopped dictating it into Dragon’s
Naturally Speaking speech recognition software when it got too long.
Then I worked over a period of many years, adding chapters and reorganizing
with the help of two marvelous editors. Elizabeth Stevens read that
rambling manuscript first. Then, after major revisions that took over
a year, it was edited by Jason Overdorf. Both of these people were extraordinarily
helpful. The next step was to submit the book to a major scholarly publisher
in the field of cognitive science. This proved to be a difficult path.
The problem wasn’t that my peers didn’t like my work, but
rather that the acquisitions editor could not get “peers”
who agreed to read and review three chapters then to follow through
on their commitments. It took two years before the acquisition editor
said, “I’m sorry, I can’t get your book reviewed.”
He had gotten six professionals to agree, but none came through. I think
the problem is that there are many well known and well educated people
out there writing good books, so it’s hard to get a busy reviewer
interested in reading a book by a maverick unknown person like me.
At any rate, I decided to take my book to a “print-on-demand”
publisher (Aventine Press). I found that they had a page and illustrations
limitation, so I then decided to divide my manuscript into three parts,
imaginatively called Books I, II, and III. (My scholarly press acquisition
editor also suggested a shorter more focused book, but the thought of
spending another year or two rewriting the book just did not sit well
with me. So I decided on three short books instead.)
“Print-on-demand” publishers use a laser printer to produce
just a single copy of the book when someone orders it online through
a bookseller such as Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. The printing
costs are a lot higher with a laser printer than with a conventional
offset press printer, but selling the book only online lowers the distribution
costs significantly. The customer therefore pays roughly the same amount
as one would for a conventionally printed paperback book. In addition,
the book never gets printed in quantity, thus considerably reducing
the up-front inventory expense, but that means it will not be sold in
street-front bookstores. Consequently, any publicity is up to me —which
is why I’ve put together a web page so that people can learn a
little about me and my ideas before deciding whether to buy the book.
The original edited book did not divide up into three pieces very easily,
so I had to juggle things a bit. That’s when I hit on the idea
of keeping the non-language-based cognition separate from the language-based
cognition. In retrospect, the partition makes a lot of sense, and I
don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me earlier. That is,
again, one of the penalties of working alone—you get stuck in
a certain view of things. So that’s why Book I is subtitled, Thinking
And that’s why an engineer has written such a strange book.
Annotated Bibliography I For
Pet Owners I Thought You'd Never Ask
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