How to generate, capture, and collect ideas to realize creative projects.


Bad News for Time-Travelers, Great News for Historians

“It’s called the TARDIS. It can travel anywhere in time and space. And it’s mine.”
“But it’s… look at it, it’s…”
“Go on, say it. Most people do.”
“It’s smaller on the outside!”
“Okay. That is a first.”
The Doctor and Clara in Doctor Who: “The Snowmen”

I recently watched the 7th season of Doctor Who. If you don’t know the series: He’s a time-traveling alien and his current companion is a human who works as a nanny. Although that’s like saying “Moby Dick is about a one-legged guy trying to catch a fish” (to quote an unrelated Jack Kirwan review).

Anyway, in one scene, the kids his companion governs discover photos from her in 1983, 1974, and 1893 (images below). Not being fooled by the assertion that this person only looks like her, it exposes her as a time traveler.

doctor_who_time_travel_1.jpg doctor_who_time_travel_2.jpg
Images from Doctor Who: “The Crimson Horror”

Personally, I found the explanation of the children how they got the photos harder to believe than the idea of time travel. One kid says:

“I found it at school.”

Really? How? Why?

I think a much more believable idea would have been if the companion left her notebook open, Facebook still open and logged in, and Facebook face recognition* suggested her on photos. You would just need someone uploading historic photos, e.g., on a history page.

After all, face recognition does not care whether the photos are from 1900 or 2000. It looks for matches no matter what.

So unless the photos contain date-time information in the EXIF and the algorithms filter out those photos where a match is impossible, it would find people currently living on historic photos when they could not have been living.

Sidenote: Actually such an algorithm to filter out impossible photos would make sense, it would cut down on the amount of photos that need scanning and it would allow for better face recognition. If the date of the photo is known, it could pick those personal photos as comparison that match the age of the person. Thinking further it could fill in the blanks by using an algorithm to age/rejuvenate the person on the photos. Not sure whether it is already possible, but there was talk about such a software to find missing children. If they haven’t been found for years, you might want to know how they would look like today. Actually, using Facebook photos would be a nice way to improve those algorithms, just think about the available data …

Anyway, so given that there are no hits of people currently living on historic photos (that cannot be explained by similar looking ancestors), it does not seem that time travel is possible (yet). Or just that time travelers are very clever.

But back to a more useful topic — I wonder what will be possible in the future when archives are digitized and face recognition works almost perfectly. Just imagine wanting to find out more about your family. It could make diving into the past almost effortless. Like a time machine on its own — finding people on photos and in newspaper reports.

With all the possible problems of digital technology — that is one of the bright sides when almost all data is digitized.

* If that is still a thing, I’m not on Facebook.


Using that Conference Poster Session

“Value’s in the mind of the buyer, not the peddler.”
Lucien in “Sandman: Fables and Reflections (The Hunt)” by Neil Gaiman

In my experience, poster presentations at conferences are often dreaded by those who have to present a poster, but also dreadfully underrated.

Sure, you have to stand around in front of a poster like a cheap merchant, while the conference participants stroll around or have a good time elsewhere. At least, in a presentation, they have to pretend to listen. Those who are there, anyway. But they can also be really useful if you — and the conference organizers — see them as something more than your ticket to the conference.

I think the crucial question with a poster presentation is: What do you want to get out of it?

Seriously, why do you present that poster? Whom do you want to attract?

  • Do you want to disseminate your findings as broadly as possible?
    Then go for a rather superficial, easy to understand approach. Use an easy to remember (sub-)title and soundbites. Focus on what the results mean in general and how the findings affect everyone. The empirical proof should be on it too — you want to convince — but not as salient.
    Afterwards, put the poster up in your department. Students and visitors might not really look at it, but it might just spread the message a bit longer.
  • Do you want to get in contact with experts in the field?
    Then make the relevant key-terms salient. Find out what attracts this community. Are there graphics that the community will instantly recognize, e.g., some stimulus material? Will the title of the poster attract the community when they browse over the poster titles in the program?
    Prior to the conference, have a look at the experts in the field. You get their names from the conference program when you look at talks/posters similar to your research topic. Who will be there? Who is interesting for your work? For whom is your work interesting? Have a look at the university homepage — usually there are photos that might help you identify them on sight. Being recognized and addressed with ones name can be incredibly powerful. Remember that as a beginning researcher, other PhD students in his/her department might be equally/more interesting.
    Afterwards contact those who have shown interest via eMail/LinkedIn/etc. You might want to send them a PDF copy of your poster. Continue the conversation you started at the conference. Show interest in their work and look for possible projects for collaboration.

Depending on your design, both goals are not mutually exclusive.

In general, you might want to

  1. Attract the right kind of visitors (see above).
  2. Get these people to engage with your work emotionally or mentally.
    Go for instant enjoyment or trigger their interest with counter-intuitive results or questions.
  3. Ensure that the person understands it even if you are not there (or engaged in another conversation).
    For example, ask people from the target group beforehand whether they understand the poster, hell, even pretest it (a while ago, I was thinking about using a mobile eye tracker to evaluate a poster).
  4. Provide something the visitor did not know beforehand.
    Give them something of value, what they can take with them.
  5. Be upfront what you want from the visitor.
    If you seek specific skills or someone to collaborate with, say so. Say you are currently looking for people who can do x, or who want to try out y. Be also upfront what you can provide when you talk to interested visitors.

And whatever you do, keep in mind that a poster is not an article. Keep the text short and to the point. When it comes to the design, prioritize what is important. The poster supports you when you talk to a visitor, it’s essentially like an outline or a couple of slides on a large piece of paper. And slides are not a teleprompter. If you want to go into details, prepare handouts or ask for eMail addresses and send them your article/exposee/whatever later.

Find triggers that attract the people you are interested in and triggers that start a conversation. For one poster session, I taped an iPod touch to the poster using double-faced adhesive tape. Best way to show the app I had developed and a great way to start the conversation. (I also put some clothing below the poster in case the iPod touch falls down. It would soften the impact.)

Also help visitors identifying to whom the poster belongs. Personally, I additionally have a current photo of me on the poster. This allows visitors to quickly identify me as the author and start the conversation with the right person.

I think that seeing posters as inferior to presentations is a mistake. And I wish conference organizers would stop talking about “downgrading a presentation to a poster” or schedule the poster sessions in a way that conflict with other presentations or mealtimes.

And yes, if you plan for it, you can get more out of a poster than a presentation, even if those you are interested in do not visit the poster session. If you met them on the conference and talk about your work, you can pull out an A4 printout of your poster to support the discussion. You can send it to them afterwards.

Posters can be much more than an over-sized piece of paper. Use them.


You might also be interested in the following postings:


Laypeople’s access to scientific research when participating in research

“Personal questions don’t bother me. I just lie.”
Richard Fish in “Ally McBeal”

I’m working as a psychologist (researcher, not therapist) and psychology is a discipline that focuses a lot on questionnaires. These questionnaires are easy and cheap to apply, the ideal research tool in terms of efficiency. Send out a link and you (can) get a lot of respondents.

But questionnaires have a major, well established and well ignored, weakness: Reactivity.

If you give people a questionnaire, they know that you want to measure something and that might change what is measured. People might want to give a good impression — which can mean, among others, that they downplay “bad” behaviors, embellish “good” ones, or agree with a statement even if they actually disagree with it.

Unfortunately, many questionnaires make it fairly easy to “fake” responses. What is worse, the Internet allows participants to easily find out what is measured.

I noticed this when I was filling out a questionnaire looking between certain “life-style behaviors” and mental illness. To be fair, the questionnaire was already fairly open that it dealt with mental illnesses. But it did not give the name of the scales, nor how the items are related to that scale.

When answering the questions I had a certain impression what the questions on that page did measure and I wanted to find out whether I was right. So I copied the first question from the questionnaire into Google.

“I have saved up so many things that they get in the way.”

I used quotation marks to get this particular sentence, not pages where these words appear. I also made sure to remove the leading question number.

And the first hits were for the revised version of the Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory.


Google search results for the first question in an online questionnaire.

The first hit ( ) also thankfully provided me with the scale and a short description, including how to calculate the results and the cut-off values.

Administration & Scoring

The OCI-R is a short version of the OCD (Foa, Kozak, Salkovskis, Coles, & Amir, 1998) and is a self-report scale for assessing symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It consists of 18 questions that a person endorses on a 5-point Likert scale.

Scores are generated by adding the item scores. The possible range of scores is 0-72. Mean score for persons with OCD is 28.0 (SD = 13.53). Recommended cutoff score is 21, with scores at or above this level indicating the likely presence of OCD.


Foa, E.B., Huppert, J.D., Leiberg, S., Hajcak, G., Langner, R., et al. (2002). The Obsessive-Compulsive Inventory: Development and validation of a short version. Psychological Assessment, 14, 485-496.

Information about the scale from

Very useful but also very scary when you think about the validity of the research results.

There is already a discussion in psychology about lay-people’s access to original scientific research. Use Google or Google Scholar and you can access many preprint versions of original research. This raises a lot of questions, e.g., lay-people’s ability to deal with these findings and interpret them correctly.

Note that this is not Academic elitism. I am a psychologist and I regularly read original research. I have difficulties understanding the research in — for me — more remote research areas. I know a lot of standard methods in psychology, but sometimes I stumble upon different ways to analyze data that take me a while. Science — actual science — is confusing, rarely without contradictions, rarely without flaws that can be criticized. It is not pretty and easy (this TwistedDoodles strip captures it nicely). That’s just because science is a creative endeavor and social sciences deal with the most complicated subject we have found today: a human being (interacting with other human beings).

But access to published research is only one of the consequences of our information society. Another issue is access to the measurements and scales — sometimes published in this research, sometimes available as user-friendly 2-page PDFs.

Psychology (and other disciplines) rely too much on questionnaires — and I think this will become more and more of a problem. And while some researchers might be angry about this posting, I like to point out that security by obscurity is a bad way to deal with this issue. Because it does not work anymore. Laypeople can easily find out which questionnaires are used and what they mean. Even if they do not want to use that information to fake the results, knowing about the scales will likely influence them. I think better ways to deal with this problem are, e.g., to log whether a person leaves the browser, the amount of time needed between questions, etc. pp.

And whenever possible use behavior data that is harder to influence.


Smarter Smart Watches

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea …
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by Douglas Adams

One of the current trends among major tech companies are smart watches. It’s the next big thing after smartphones become standard. If this seems strange to you, then I think the current situation is a bit like before tablets became common. Why would anyone want such a thing? And yup, tablets seemed so Roman Empire clay tablets, while watches seem so 20th Century digital watches.

And yup, some design prototypes are rather … underwhelming. For example, many design prototypes show weather information. Seriously, when I look at the watch and it shows me that it’s raining, I’m probably standing in it. Thanks for stating the obvious.

However, this does not mean that weather information is useless — showing me that I might want to take an umbrella with me (or check that I have it with me), because it is going to rain in a couple of hours, would be a more useful information. Likewise, a smart watch (or smartwatch) can offer a lot of useful functions — if they are designed well.

The main advantage of a smart watch is it’s quick and easy availability. You wear it on your wrist — and there is a reason why watches evolved into that spot. It allows you to have the information quickly available with minimal effort and virtually no inconvenience in everyday life.

The position on the wrist makes the smart watch perfect as:

  • a relay station to the powerful information system inherent in smartphones (which can be buried deeply into your pockets),
  • unobtrusive provider of information, and
  • always available logging system of the user’s context information (activity, position, etc.).

Personally, if I could influence the development of smart watches I would aim for the following functions to make them really smart:

  • Hardware characteristics pick off where the digital wristwatches ended
    I recently ordered a digital wristwatch. It’s got not Bluetooth, no GPS, no computing power — in short, nothing that would make it relevant today. But it is water resistant up until 100 m, the wristband is secure and comfortable in the short and long run, it runs for years without switching the battery, and it can take quite a beating without damage.
    The standard continuously exposed smart watches have to meet is not the standard smartphone meet. It’s where the previous generation of wristwatches ended. Rugged, water resistant, and extremely long battery life.
  • Usable Stand-Alone Functions
    A smartphone is not a PC/Mac. And while some people use tablets like and iPad as replacement for a notebook, it is still limited. However, a smartwatch should have value on its own. I don’t only mean displaying the current time, or setting alarms. I mean other functions as well.
  • Especially useful: Vibration Alarm
    A vibration alarm in a wristwatch is a really useful, highly underestimated feature. It can provide you with information even if you cannot hear anything (or nothing should be heard, e.g., in a classical concert). Unfortunately, most vibration alarms are still too loud. You should not notice that the person sitting next to you in a classical concert just got an information that triggered a vibration alarm, but unfortunately, oftentimes you do. Still, a vibration alarm can wake you up even if you are wearing earplugs and without waking the person next to you. Really, really, useful feature.
  • Especially useful: Motion sensor
    I love the M7 motion sensor chip in my iPhone 5S because it provides me with activity information (using MotionX’s “24/7″) with minimal energy consumption. But I do not carry my smartphone with me 24/7. I would be willing to wear a smart watch 24/7 and a motion sensor would provide much more accurate information this way. And it could remind me when to stand up and walk around.
  • Especially useful: Microphone
    Yeah, I know Dick Tracy from the 1990 movie and the only thing that I remember is the watch. A microphone in the watch is the perfect place for voice commands. Anything that requires more complex interaction might work brilliantly this way. Think of it as an easily available Siri and an easily available hardware button allows you to quickly make voice commands — even in the dark (nope, not during extreme situations, just when you lie in bed with the lights out or walk home in a area without streets lights).
  • smartwatch

    Just imagine a smart watch with easily replaceable batteries — no downtime whatsoever and no need to take it off

    Not that antiquated: Quickly replaceable dual battery
    Any smart watch that provides more than basic time information will need a lot of energy (for a watch). However, the real issue is that you can wear it 24/7, without having to take it off to recharge it. Recharge downtime kills usability. I accept having to connect my smartphone to a power source because I can still use it with an attached cable. But I would not accept it with a watch.
    I think the only way to ensure it is to allow for an easy exchange of batteries. Yes, seems antiquated, but it is really useful. A smart watch should carry two easily replaceable rechargeable batteries and come with two replacement rechargeable batteries. One battery is continuously used and once this battery is empty, the other one gets drained. During that time you can replace the empty rechargeable battery with a recharged one and recharge the spend one. It would allow you to wear the watch 24/7 if exchanging the battery can be done without removing the watch (see picture on the right).

  • Easy access to smartphone “basis station”
    While a smartwatch should work on its own, it should be able to tap into the power of smartphones. A smartphone has the connectivity (Bluetooth, WiFi, Cellular Data) and context sensitivity (GPS + connectivity sources) a smartwatch might lack. Yet, the smartphone is frequently difficult to access. It’s like pepper spray. If it’s in the pocket or bag you won’t have it available if you really need it.
    One main usage of the smart watch would be as a relay station for sound — put earphone into the watch (like an iPod nano worn as a wristwatch) while the sound files are stores on the smartphone. It would allow you to easily tread the cable below clothes along the arm to the watch while at the same time have hundreds of songs and podcasts easily available on the smartphone.
  • Configure Predetermined Responses on the smart watch
    The Smartphone/Tablet could be used to setup a number of predetermined responses accessible via the smart watch. Depending on the kind of information specific replies are possible by pressing buttons on the smart watch. For example, you could reply to an eMail with a predetermined text saying “Yes.”, “No.” or that you will reply soon. Depending on the person the text would be formatted more formal or informal (e.g., business contact vs. private contact). Likewise you could ask the smartphone to send a short message — via SMS or eMail — that you arrive a few minutes later when you have an appointment. Given the limited interface and screen real-estate, a smart watch needs to have access to the users context.
  • Energy Saving
    One function for the always on motion sensor would be when to activate the display. It should react to a quick wrist-flick gesture and activate the display when this gesture is made.
  • Assistants
    I was deeply impressed by Apple’s old “Knowledge Navigator” spot. While still way in the future, I think using some archetypical assistant functions might work well with a smart watch. Just imagine you got some predefined functions for

    • office assistance
    • house assistance
    • entertainment assitance
    • travel assistance

    that you could activate easily.
    The limited screen real estate and hardware buttons of a watch would not matter that much, because the context shapes the interface. The office assistant would inform you about the next appointments, allows you to use the Pomodoro technique easily, and watches your activity. The entertainment assistant allows you to easily change the channels and volume with the hardware buttons.

  • Digital Calendar
    I tried out different digital calendars, starting way back with really basic PDAs. While I like the iOS 6 calendar more than the iOS 7 one, I think the time is finally right to go digital. Entering appointments is fairly easy today. Personally, I only wished there was an “I don’t know how long it will take, just take down the start time” option. This being said, the smart watch should show the time until the next appointments (including travel time warnings). If others would be allowed to change the appointments (think secretary) it would be even more useful.
  • Repeat Alarm
    A tiny thing but a useful thing: Repeat alarms. Some old digital watches restart alarms immediately. It’s a really useful feature if you want to check on something in regular intervals.
  • Right/Left-Handed Settings
    If that watch has any hardware buttons, it would be nice to mirror the button placement. While I am right-handed I know how obnoxious it can be when the buttons are all palced “wrong”. A simple “mirror” switch would remove this issue.
  • Works for Android and Apples smartphones
    If we think about smartphones as the “basis station” for a smart watch, it matters that the basis station can be anything. Yup, the hardware battle between Android devices and Apple will likely advance the devices, but a smart watch should be able to use whichever device is available. The only limitations should be genuine limitations when something is actually impossible to realize.
  • Actually detrimental to usage: Camera
    Sometimes I think that developers spend to much time thinking about potential while ignoring consequences. Yes, I would love to take high-quality photos without other people knowing. But that’s a wish. Reality has more to do with photographed subjects starting lawsuits or social media storms. Even worse, a camera can prohibit entry to certain places. I love spa’s, but I would not be able to wear a smart watch if it has a camera. A camera is a liability for watches and should not be included. Just opt out of the race for ever higher mega pixels (which do not mean much) and give me something I can use anywhere without any risk of appearing like a glasshole … sorry, smart watch pervert asshole.

Hmm, that’s it so far, probably a lot of other useful and detrimental features out there. Personally, I am very curious what the smartwatch revolution will offer. And yup, I hope for a “Alpha Centauri” “Quicklink” type of world. It’s such an underestimated but highly powerful technology just begging to be used well.

I probably won’t play a role in that revolution, but hell, I’m gong to enjoy it. I hope you do too. The potential for supporting creativity is certainly there. :-)


Question: Does anyone know whether the TV series “Mission Top Secret” is available on DVD or digital download?

“They don’t have movies where you come from, do they?”
“We had something similar a few hundred years ago, but they lost their appeal when people discovered their real lives were more interesting.”
“Still, it’s nice to take a break from your life now and then, don’t you think?”
Crewman Cutler and Dr. Phlox in “Enterprise”

A (very) long time ago I watched a series called “Mission Top Secret” on TV. I remember a few elements, some that seemed like sci-fi in the 1990s but might be possible today. I like to revisit that series and I wonder, is that series available somewhere — as DVDs or digital download?

If you know anything about that series I’d be grateful for a comment.

Best regards



Change needs experience

Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.

Change is often viewed as the domain of young people. They have the energy, the motivation, the drive to challenge the status quo, they ask why not do it differently, and they change things.

Personally, I am a bit critical of this view.

First of all, I think in many cases people who are older are not that mobile, so they rarely encounter different situations where they want to change things. For me, the reason to change something is not that a person is young, but that this person notices a difference between what is and what could or even should be. It’s being “the new guy/gal”, not the young one.

Second of all, while youth might come with energy, it often lacks experience and skill. It is not just wanting to do things differently, or even seeing ways to do things differently, it’s also being able to work this out and convey it to others.

However, there is one area where younger people might have it easier. They don’t have the baggage of encountering situations where change was not welcome.

Unfortunately, many situations are rather resistant against change. After all, change makes those in power look bad. What they did was not only inefficient, they did not notice it themselves. It also requires additional effort from others involved in the change, and not everyone is willing to pay this initial investment in another way of doing things. Sometimes rightly so, not all change is good and it just might be a big investment for little or no gain, or even for more work in the future. Then you have organizations where the boss wants to be involved in everything, and given that there is just too much to be involved in, nothing that requires more than fifteen minutes of attention ever gets ever done.

Being young might mean that you have not made these experiences and thus still believe that you can change things. In this sense, ignorance might be bliss. Because perhaps you can change the situation.

In other situations, however, it’s best to accept that change is not possible, and if you feel the need to continuously improve your working conditions, it’s best to leave. This behavior does not mean that you are old and do not want to change things. It means you got the necessary experience to go where that change is welcome.

And then you should leave a changeless situation before it changes you.


Dealing with Negative Comments

“Now, while I’m touched by that Hallmark moment, you don’t get points for subtlety in journalism. I’ve already started getting hate mail.”
“You seem very happy about that. Why?”
“Because it means I’m hitting a nerve. Besides, between the abysmal sentence structure and generous use of obscenities, I’ve got a pretty good idea of who’s been sending it.”
Chloe and Clark in “Smallville”


Banner on the site of the National Post, advertising their feedback videos.

One of the reasons why I write this blog is the positive feedback I get. Sure, I also write because I need to, but, yeah, it’s great to feel appreciated. And I have been really lucky regarding the comments I have received so far. There were some very positive, very encouraging comments.

But what do you do when you get negative comments?

One way to deal with negative comments is to check them for their merit (see pages 160ff in “Organizing Creativity”) and go from there. But if the comments are firmly in the “destructive” category, at least according to Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement? When, despite not reaching the minimum requirements for replies, you cannot ignore them for whatever reason.

Well, the columnists of the National Post have shown a nice way to deal with negative, destructive comments. They read them aloud (see banner on the right side). Yup, sometimes the best thing you can do is to read these comments aloud. Show that the comments do not really affect you and shame those who wrote them. It’s a bit like this xkcd comic.

Luckily, so far, I did not have a need for this measure. All I can do is say “Thank you” for all those readers who left a comment here. Love it. :-)

But if you ever encounter public criticism that is below the belt — perhaps the National Post’s strategy is a valid way to deal with it.


Sometimes you have to first increase the distance to your goal to reach it

“Stupidity is the devil. Look in the eye of a chicken and you’ll know. It’s the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creature in this world.”
Werner Herzog

There is this old story about a chicken desperately trying to reach the food behind a fence. The food is just a little bit too far away for the chicken to reach it. Nevertheless, the chicken tries and tries to reach it, never succeeding, and slowly dying of starvation. It is then revealed that the fence is only a few meters long and the chicken could have easily walked around the fence to reach the food. Yet it never did.

I am no expert on chickens, they usually come deep fried, so I don’t know whether this story is true. But I think it’s a really good analogy how many people get stuck when they are trying to reach a goal. I think one of the hardest things in trying to reach a goal is to voluntarily increase the distance to it in order to reach it. Take the long way, do something else, or move away. It just seems counter-intuitive and unproductive to retreat from a goal. Yet sometimes it’s the best thing you can do.

Unless you want to end up like that chicken.


Minimum Requirements to React to Comments

I love free speech.
I also love ignore, mute and block.

As a child I read that Viking ships were the terror of the seas. They were low-build with a large sail and oars, which made them fast, allowed them to enter shallow waters, and its crew packed a lot of punch (Want an exercise for fighting with hand-weapons? Try rowing.). If you were on a trading ship traveling from port to port to make a profit, you were pretty much screwed when they appeared on the horizon. However, this changed abruptly when these traders began to build ships with higher hulls. Now, the decks of the trader ships were far above those of the Viking ships. It made it very hard for the Vikings to board these trading ships, while allowing its defenders to bombard the low-build Viking ships with arrows and other nasties.


Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement

Not sure whether this account is true, but thinking about Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement a bit longer, I think it could function the same way for online discussions. I mean, you go along with your business to discuss something, like a trader traveling from A to B, and then those wanna-be raiders appear who do not contribute to the conversation. Outright trolls and those who have nothing to offer but their own emotional outrage, frequently resorting to name calling, ad hominems arguments, or snide remarks about the tone.

I wonder whether it would be possible to use Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement to raise the hull a bit higher as well. Automatically color-code the contributions according to the level of disagreement and filter out those below a certain threshold. (Using the Hierarchy of Agreement would be also useful, although many people might not want to do so.)

With such a classification system on a website or Twitter feed … you still could see that there are hidden “contributions”, the type and amount. And some contributions would have to be split if they contain different levels. But you could focus on the contributions that advance the discussion. Advance it by engaging with counter-arguments and rebuttals that are relevant and meaningful. It would advance the conversation in terms of knowledge generation, free exchange of ideas and arguments, testing the strength of arguments, etc. pp. You could also see the profiles of the participants with a classification of the quality of their disagreement — how often they use which kinds of disagreements. It would allow you to seek out conversations with those who disagree on a high level, who might actually advance the conversation. Those people might be interesting for a hangout, or a Delphi study.

You could still tap into the lower levels of the pyramid, if you want to, but on your terms. When you want and in the amount you want. It would give you an impression of the underbelly without becoming worn out by it. They are inconsequential anyway. Given the skewed self-selected online samples, they don’t tell you anything about the prevalence in society. And persuasion in such a public forum is usually rare, due to public commitment.

So far, there are some forums which automatically hide comments that get too many downvotes. But that is rather unspecific. A downvote can be anything, from “does not contribute” to “I disagree with the position”. But such a system would be more specific.

Perhaps we get there one day. But until we have such a tool, we have to do it ourselves. Quickly sort out through the contributions, discard the ones on the lower levels and focus on the higher ones. Find the diamonds in a sea of pebbles, and the places where more people contribute diamonds than pebbles.


Other Criteria for Good Discussions

“Just because someone’s a member of an ethnic minority doesn’t mean they’re not a nasty small-minded little jerk”
“Feet of Clay” by Terry Pratchett

I have already written about online discussions in this posting. Here the focus is a bit broader.

I think to have a good discussion, the following criteria are important:

  1. The freedom to discuss any topic, even outrages and bigoted ones,
  2. via well-reasoned arguments and disagreement (also: agreement),
  3. on a level playing field, and
  4. with Open Outcomes.

I focus here on the level playing field and open outcomes, given that I have addressed the first two points already.

3. A Level Playing Field

A level playing field includes, among others:

  • Time/Space: At the very basic the same time (or online: space) for each participant.
  • Fair moderation: A no-brainer in a face-to-face discussion. Online, editing/moderating messages by site administrators should be — if they are used at all — applied equally.
  • Amount of People: I had a couple of conversations where suddenly other people chimed in. Other people can improve the discussion if they contribute high-level arguments, but more frequently it was emotional support for my opponent. It reminds me a bit about Huxley who fought valiantly for Darwin’s theory of evolution and was called “Darwin’s bulldog”. But the online quality is more on the level of a Chihuahua. And personally, I would not want to have this kind of support in a discussion. Even when it goes beyond emotional support. A discussion should go subject by subject, not jump around — something likely to happen when more than one person argues on the same side. Unless they use a principal discussant whom they support behind the scenes. And when it’s cheap emotional support it devalues the person who has to rely on it. It often come off as intimidation. Even worse, once the other side has learned to deal with this kind of attempt at intimidation, it backfires. It’s like fighting — two against one can turn out very well against an inexperienced opponent. But against someone who is trained, the two have the disadvantage. They have to coordinate and must be careful not to hit each other. Online discussions are a bit more difficult, and who wins is not always clear, but the hassle is the same.
  • Equal Rules: I love the quote in the beginning of this posting. One of my biggest criticisms about sexism is that the discussions about it are often incredibly sexist. No, I don’t mean sexist slurs or perceived threats. What I mean is that the people on the side ostensibly suffering from (negative) sexism are acting incredibly sexist themselves. Claiming, for example, that “men cannot understand x, because they are men”. Ad hominem arguments are insulting, carry no weight for the discussion, and frequently distract from the actual issue. The irony is that is often is way, way more sexist than any example they are fighting against. I mean, sorry? Wasn’t the whole point here that sexism is wrong? But strangely, these “arguments” are frequently accepted. One nice example where it backfired was, surprisingly, at Huffington Post (albeit confounded with race, which sometimes seems to operate in a similar way). A discussion should have equal rules, everything else is just hypocritical. A person cannot argue against sexism by using sexist “arguments” her-/himself.

4. Open Outcomes

A good discussion must not have a predetermined outcome. Nothing is worse than “having a discussion” where you can think critically — as long as you come to the “right” conclusions. I distinctly remember a visit by amnesty international to my school where the discussion was about capital punishment. The person they send was shocked to find many of us arguing in favor of capital punishment (this was in Germany, we don’t have capital punishment). Unfortunately, she was not a good discussant. At the end, there was a strong pressure from the teachers to agree with her. I doubt it convinced anyone “about the evils of” capital punishment, on the contrary. If the arguments are not strong enough, proponents should get better arguments. That’s what research and critical thinking is for. But using pressure — social, legal, or otherwise — is counterproductive.


Looking at the four criteria — that are really difficult requirements. Given my vocational background (so far), I am used to scientific discussions. They can be backstabbing and emotional — below the surface — but they usually at least try to conform to these standards. Note that I am talking about scientific discussions in psychology. Should apply to any other natural science.

But achieving these standards online — hmmm, difficult. Sometimes people just want to vent. Some people do not see the difference between their emotional outrage and a discussion based on arguments and evidence. It’s “I want my pony” all over again. But I wonder whether it is possible to somehow introduce a way to have discussions online that are somewhere between scientific discussions and emotional outrage.

Perhaps technology can assist here. There are some interesting ideas floating around on how to assist people in having a discussion.

But that is something for the next posting.