Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Mad questions

I am a very curious natured person. Every child starts asking lots of questions around 3-4, but according to my mom, I took that to another level constantly asking "but why?" and drove her crazy. On the other hand, I believe I owe my being curious to my mom. She was an elementary school teacher (a damn good one), and was instrumental in my development. She was (and still is) a very curious person, and she taught me how to ask more and better questions. For example, while traveling, she would notice different plants and would ask me why the landscape is different here? And we would make guesses.

The Turkish education system was not big on asking questions (these days it is waaaay waaaaay worse). Since the lazy path is to memorize and regurgitate answers, that is what it demanded from the students. But I think my questioning skills mostly survived. Among my friends, I was famous for replying questions with questions of my own, and if not, my answer was often "I don't know", because the question led me to ask more questions internally and I really don't know what I think about it yet.

For my PhD studies, I got a boost from my advisor Prof. Anish Arora, because as any great researcher he knew how to ask good questions and I learned from his example. Questions are the fuel needed for doing research. You can argue that the hard part of research is to figure out the right questions to ask!

Questions are a good way to test your sanity and mindfulness as well. Questioning helps you think meta and jump out of the system. Therefore I try to incorporate questioning in my studying as I wrote earlier: "For studying, writing, or researching, my process is also to take on the task in units of 30 minutes. I use the pomodoro technique and customized it over time a lot. I am right now on my 3rd version of pomodoro process. I will write about my recent pomodoro setup later on. It involves detaching and going meta for 4 minutes in the beginning and end of pomodoro. In these slots, I step back and force myself to think meta: Is this the right approach? What else I can try? Am I making good progress? Can this be made transformative?"

Unfortunately I feel like I got more into a routine with those "trying to ask questions", and I think the questions often come out as shallow/predictable. Those are still useful---at least I am double checking my sanity/approach--- but not really transformative. But yeah, I cannot be sure whether I have gone compliant/docile recently, can I? Maybe I am losing my edge, because I have been in the system long enough. Maybe I start seeing myself as experienced now, and it is affecting me.

So my New Year's resolution is to ask more/better/crazier questions.

To ensure that, I will try to install a system. One part of that system is to ask at least a couple questions in each blog post. Another part is to add a new tag to my blog called "mad questions".

Mad questions are questions beyond normal/expected questions, but are out of the left field questions. Asking mad questions will require a lot of effort and will drive me out of my comfort zone. I will try to give this my best shot, and I think the blogging format is a good medium to try this.

The questions for this post

1. Where does the question mark come from? It turns out there is no definite answer. I like its shape, though. It is like a hook.

2. Wikipedia says that some experts say animals can't ask questions:
"Enculturated apes Kanzi, Washoe, Sarah and a few others who underwent extensive language training programs (with the use of gestures and other visual forms of communications) successfully learned to answer quite complex questions and requests (including question words "who" what", "where"), although so far they failed to learn how to ask questions themselves. For example, David and Anne Premack wrote: "Though she [Sarah] understood the question, she did not herself ask any questions — unlike the child who asks interminable questions, such as What that? Who making noise? When Daddy come home? Me go Granny's house? Where puppy? Sarah never delayed the departure of her trainer after her lessons by asking where the trainer was going, when she was returning, or anything else".[10] The ability to ask questions is often assessed in relation to comprehension of syntactic structures. It is widely accepted, that the first questions are asked by humans during their early infancy, at the pre-syntactic, one word stage of language development, with the use of question intonation.[11]"
That is interesting, but also not very believable to me. It is known that dogs, monkeys, even cats can be surprised by illusion tricks. So, why is being surprised not acceptable as a question?
Maybe we don't understand the apes' questioning. If the ape phrases a question as surprise/frustration, or stating its desire to confirm/learn that thing, shouldn't that may be count as a question? What is the criteria used here? Taking this further, could hypothetical aliens say humans are unable to ask "questions" and therefore not intelligent?

3. What makes a question a "good" question? Can you stumble upon an insightful question by chance? What are some heuristics that help with asking good questions? Does a good question involve a perspective-change? (In science, it often seems to be so. When it is very hard to directly confront the issue, the skilled researcher looks at the problem sideways, formulates the question with a new perspective, and then finding a solution becomes feasible.)

4. When I ask a lot of questions in a blog post, how does that make you feel? Charged? Tired? Irritated?

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