Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Expert Reference Group for Person-Centred/Experiential Psychotherapies

Entry for 29 January 2008:

At the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) conference last December, Mick and I realized that the adversarial relationship between the person-centred/experiential therapies and CBT had become counter-productive and that it was now necessary to open a dialogue with CBT types and power players in the IAPT movement. The result of our overtures to Tony Roth was that we were invited to a preliminary meeting with him and Steve Pilling at University College London, on the topic of developing competencies for what was then problematically (from our point of view) titled “Humanistic and Integrative Therapies”. After mastering our anxieties about the whole thing being a trap and with the support of Nancy Rowland, we were able to adopt a conciliatory tone and agreed to attend the meeting on their turf in London. That meeting was today.

Having gotten up at 4am, I met Mick at Glasgow Central in order to catch the 5.55 train to London-Euston. On the way, between napping, we looked over the draft CBT competencies that Sally Aldridge had sent along to us last week, as well as the fuller version Tony and Steve had produced last September, trying to puzzle out the state of play and the relationships among all the numerous organizational entities and people involved.

On arrival at Euston Station, we rendezvous-ed with Sally and Nancy, who provided further briefing and orientation on the plethora of groups in play here, involving at least 3 different sets of guidelines/standards/competencies/skills. For example, the professional therapy/counselling organizations are pursuing a competing parallel process based on regulation of helping professions, while Tony and Steve are working for Skills for Health (SfH), which is working on a rather different model, that of defining National Occupational Standards (NOS) based on skills.

The Psychotherapy/counselling competencies project is itself a highly complex and politically divided thing. When I expressed total confusion to Sally last week, she helpfully provided the following partial explanation (email, 25 Jan 2008):
The NOS project has been set up with several layers. At the top is a Strategy Group with reps from the 4 countries [England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) departments of health, the QCA, Skills for Health Staff, and maybe some other people.

It is chaired by Peter Fonagy [=prominent colleague of Steve, Tony and my friends Chris and Nancy at University College London]. There is a management group to look after the money I think. Then there is a National Reference group that sees all the modality group draft standards and I think advises on consistency, overlap and it seems from last week is the place where inter professional battles will be fought… Then there are research groups for each modality who draft standards based on research evidence. These draft standards are then sent to a group of modality based practitioners to consider and revise. They then go up to the National Reference Group which comprises people from the professional associations - ACP, BACP, BABCP, BPC, UKCP, RCN, a forensic psychologist, [and] Peter Fonagy. ... Skills for Health then plan to test the draft standards in the workplace... .
In addition, it turns out that Tony and Steve also have their agendas, which appear to be in part to subvert the skills agenda by using research evidence to make the competency lists prescriptive (i.e., guidelines of good practice) rather than descriptive, which amounts to reprofessionalizing the whole thing. (I happen to agree with this goal, personally.)

We collected in Steve’s office, where Tony fed us sandwiches and fruit while we hung out, began to get used to each other, and waited for Steve to finish with another meeting. In addition to Tony, Mick, Sally, Nancy and I, there was a lay representative, Catherine, who introduced herself as a Carer, i.e., a person who cares for a mental health service user (consumer in US parlance), in this case her son, who has a psychotic process. Then Tony began to brief us on the whole project and the methods that he and Steve have adopted for carrying it out.

Their method is an interesting one from the perspective of psychotherapy research, and basically one that would never fly as a change process research method in the Society for Psychotherapy Research or its journal Psychotherapy Research: They collect examples of the therapy they are studying based on a set of criteria (the last of which Steve claimed to have invented on the spot today): (a) the approach has one or more Randomized Clinical Trials associated with it; (b) it has a written treatment manual; and (c) it is based on a coherent theory. Based on this list, they then collect the associated treatment manuals, often by getting the developer to recommend or provide them. After that, they pay someone to plow through a large pile of therapy manuals for 6 or more months, collecting descriptions of treatment competencies. The intersting thing is that this is really what most North American therapy researchers are now calling change principles (cf. Castonguay & Beutler, 2005). So in SPR terms this is change principle research on therapy manuals, which isn't the same as actual change process research.

The questionable part of this is that simple presence of a competency/principle in the treatment manual of therapy supported by RCT evidence is taken as prima facia evidence of its effectiveness (i.e., an inference is made that it is a change process). What is really annoying – and goes against 50 years of psychotherapy research science -- is that no direct evidence of the effectiveness of a therapeutic element (such as process-outcome correlations or helpful factors research) is given this status as a starting point. (I can almost hear Hans Strupp turning over in his grave.) We went around on this point for at least half an hour, with Steve invoking a metaphor of frogs vs. bicycles. That is, you can take a part a bicycle and put it back together again without harming it (actually a questionable assumption if you were my brother Willy as a kid), but you can’t do this to the poor frog (at some point Steve indicated that he was speaking from experience). It’s a bit difficult to know how to respond when CBT folks start invoking holism… what is the poor humanist to do, launch into a defense of atomism?

In any case, it soon became clear that they had the money and were in love with the rules of the game they had invented. For all we could say, they were still going to pay the piper to play “We will rock you” if that’s what they wanted. Nevertheless, I feel duty-bound to say that this strikes me as yet another example of methodological sloppiness on the part of CBT-types, for whom I have often found that an inordinate adulation of the hard science of RCTs so often goes hand-in-hand with a compensating carelessness about other methodological safeguards or scientific logic. It’s almost as if there were some law of the conservation of sloppiness, like the Third Law of Thermodynamics applied to science. Entropy will have its way!

Eventually, when this had gone on long enough, I remarked that we were going in circles. I proposed that since the treatment manual criterion was going to let in all sorts of things that weren’t necessarily justified, it nevertheless would make for a good starting point, simply because it is so broad. Then, I said, we could use the other evidence, process-outcome, helpful factors to modify the RCT-manual-based competencies. That way all the evidence would come in along the way. There was a moment of stunned silence, then all agreed and we went on to the next issue without further discussion.

Actually, the trickiest thing we had to handle today was finding the proper name for what the review was going to encompass. Fortunately, “Humanistic and Integrative had already gone out the window at the National Reference Group meeting last week, in favour of “Humanistic with a focus on Client-Centred.” We all agreed that sticking with humanistic was going to let us in for a load of trouble with a lot of different special interest groups, so gradually over the course of the discussion, Mick and I persuaded the others to go with “Person-Centred/Experiential”. Mick came up with a really helpful concentric circles formulation: Person-centred in the middle; then person-centred/experiential (including Process-experiential); then the broader humanistic including bioenergetics, transpersonal, psychodrama etc. We agreed that person-centred by itself is too narrow, while humanistic is too much to take on; however, following the Goldilocks principle, Person-Centred/Experiential is just right for the exercise. The issue of whether Gestalt would be in or out was left open for now, in part depending on some initial scoping. Given our initial fears, this felt like a major accomplishment, and left me feeling deeply grateful for all the hard work the World Association had done in formulating its scope.

Now, we have a job of work to do: (a) nominating additional individuals to make up the Expert Reference Group for PCE therapies; (b) proposing exemplars of PCE therapies that meet their criteria; (c) identifying therapy manuals for these; (d) identifying a knowledgeable, skilled person to do the extracting of competencies/principles from the manuals. And mainly hanging in with the process as it goes forward, and doing our best to keep it on the tracks.

Castonguay, L., & Beutler, L. (Eds.) (2005). Principles of therapeutic change that work. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Toast to the Lasses

Entry for 25 January 2008:

The Toast to the Lasses is a traditional part of the Burns Supper celebration, commemorating the birth of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns in 1759. It’s appropriate to incorporate Burns’ songs or poetry into a Burns Supper speech, which is what I’ve done here by interspersing verses of Burns’ famous ode to women, “Green Grow the Rashes, O.”
Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.
For as long as I can remember,
I have preferred the company of women.
They have fascinated me.
As a result, I have never been able to understand
Freud’s concept of a “latency period”
during which boys and girls
are not supposed to be interested in each other.
There's nought but care on ev'ry han',
In ev'ry hour that passes, O;
What signifies the life o' man,
An' 'twere na for the lasses, O.
I don’t know why I am like this.
I have wondered if, like my gay friends,
I was simply born with a certain sexual orientation.
Or perhaps it was because I was without any sisters
until I was 7 years old.
Certainly, I was a lonely boy
and felt little in common with the other boys in my neighborhood.
The warly race may riches chase,
An' riches still may fly them, O;
An' tho' at last they catch them fast,
Their hearts can ne'er enjoy them, O.
Beginning in first grade and going through high school,
I developed a series of crushes on girls my age, mostly notably:
Kathy, Connie,
Brenda (for whom I pined for years, even after she and her family moved to Trinidad),
Margaret and Susan.
But gie me a canny hour at e'en,
My arms about my Dearie, O;
An' warly cares an' warly men,
May a' gae tapsalteerie, O!
In college, there was Diane, whom I met in our first week,
Diana, my first serious relationship,
and Debbie, with whom I had an unhappy affair
that drove me into my first experience of therapy.
For you sae douse, ye sneer at this,
Ye're nought but senseless asses, O;
The wisest Man the warl' saw,
He dearly lov'd the lasses, O.
And Diane has outlasted them all,
and is still here just shy of forty years later.

It’s more than that, because in the same way,
I’ve never been able to think of God as a man, bearded or not.
As a small child, when I was in church,
my father was not in heaven;
he was at home mowing the lawn.
But my mother was kneeling there next to me,
and teaching my Sunday school class.
Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O;
Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
An' then she made the lasses, O.
So it’s the Goddess for me still,
hovering over the chaos,
bringing everything forth
Out of the void quantum foam.

The important religious figures in my life
Have been women: My grandmother, my mother,
My friend Margaret, for whom I became a Baptist for time,
And a succession of female priests.

In my journey, I eventually
grew out of the having of crushes --
with the help of therapy.
And I find myself wondering if this is the part that
Rabbie Burns was searching for but never got quite right
in his brief life:

That the most difficult, amazing journey
is to stay with one person, man or woman,
another self in the same way that I am a self,
living a rich texture of sameness and difference,
seeing where that leads, through dark places and light,
fighting against the staleness that kills relationship.
always discovering new parts of her and me,
Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

Our Own Burns Night Supper

Entry for 25 January 2008:

Last year we attended the University’s version of a Burns Night celebration, a big fancy affair in Barony Hall, with all the bells and whistles. This year, Diane and Lorna decided that it would be really good if Mikio could experience a Burns Night Supper before he goes back to Japan in March, so they decided to do their own small version of this Scottish tradition for Beth, Ana (Beth's daughter), Mikio, and me.

This was new departure for all of us, even Lorna, who took on the mistress of ceremonies role and the Speech to the Immortal Memory. She and Diane worked on the plans all week. They assembled the bits and pieces, in running order:
-Leeks/celery etc, for the starter: Cock-a-Leekie soup.
-Haggis (authentic version with sheep's lungs etc., and vegetarian), plus carrots/neeps (turnip) and tatties (mashed potatoes), for the main course.
-A wee bottle of Drambouie, (a liqueur associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie), for the dessert, to go over the sliced oranges, making a dish called Tipsy Orange.
-The piece de resistance, a collection of scottish cheeses: Bruckley, Grimbister, Clava, and two kinds of Scottish island cheddar, an Orkney and a Mull.

That was just the food. There were also the various poems and speeches that had to be collected or written (again in running order):
-Address to the Haggis: Lorna
-Speech to the Immortal Memory (of Robert Burns): Lorna
-Toast to the Lasses: Lorna assigned this to me (the only male native English speaker present in any case).
-Response from the Lasses: Diane got this role.
-Various Burns songs (we selected A Man’s a Man for A’That, Green Grow the Rashes O, and Auld Lang Syne), in Scots, with English translations where possible.

Finally, I made a playlist of appropriate Scottish music, featuring bagpipes and some of my favorite Burns songs (I have the box set of all 300+ Burns songs).

The Burns Supper is full of ritual, like the Parade of the Haggis, and ritual objects, like the metal platter on which the Haggis is paraded, and the dagger (in our case a black-handled kitchen knife) with which to stab the Haggis. These too had to be organized.

In the event, I think it came off quite nicely. There was wine and whiskey, but not in excess, the food worked, a good balance between ritual and convivial conversation was achieved, the speeches were heart-felt and revealing, and a good time was had by all. Lorna carried off the Address to the Haggis and the Speech to the Immortal Memory with great style, invoking the spirit of her childhood and her beloved uncles and citing Burns as a major source of her person-centredness. My toast to the lasses was an autobiographical poem/account of my history of relationship to women and the feminine, interwoven with one of my favorite Burns poems, “Green Grow the Rashes O”. Diane responded to this with tart good humor appropriate to the occasion. We concluded by playing/singing/decoding (into English) Diane and Lorna’s favorite Burns song of equality, “A Man’s a Man for A’ That”.

There was a large mess to clean up after our guests left, but it was clear that the evening had been a great success, and one that we would like to try again. Now that we have an idea of the basics, we would like to try it on a somewhat larger scale, for 10 or 12 people.

I am also posting my Toast to Lasses, with Burns interpolations. Slainte!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

An Introduction to Client Process

Entry for 21 January 2008:

Monday of last week, Tracey and I managed to put together a nice session on client process for the Monday Part-time course: Tracey started them off with an exercise we adapted from the Change Interview, for them to reflect on their own change processes, either in the course or in their personal therapy. I’ve included the exercise at the end of this posting.

Next, we took them through Rogers’ Process Equation and the Client Experiencing scale. This is material that I have loved since I presented it in my introduction to therapeutic approaches course in graduate school; I’ve still got the handout I made for it in a folder somewhere. Late Rogers’ process-oriented work is really the taking off point for the whole experiential clan within the broader person-centred nation. From there, process differentiation emerged via the work of Gendlin, Rice, Greenberg (and in due course, my own work in PE-EFT). For me, then, this seems like a good foundation and a common ground not only for counsellors who are going to practice in either more traditional person-centred way and also for those who want to go on to PE-EFT.

We then connected this to Art Bohart’s formulations of the client as active change agent. For me, Art’s perspective is really a kind of Copernican revolution, involving one of those important perspective shifts similar to going from seeing the sun as orbiting the earth to seeing the earth (=therapist) as circling the sun (=client). It radically changes how one perceives and experiences therapy.

We finished the session by looking at the Rogers-Kathy video. I’d never seen it before (and only saw the first 7 minutes this time), but was startled to discover that, like the Gloria video (also produced by Shostrom), it featured a prominent alliance difficulty. In Gloria, the difficulty is of the confrontation type: the client demands that Rogers give her advice, and pursues him for this for much of the session. Kathy, on the other hand, discloses at a fairly deep level quite quickly, then, 5 minutes into the session, as she begins to tear up, realizes that she has gotten in over her head and really doesn’t want to go any further, leading to a withdrawal type of difficulty, characterized by a long silence. When I get a chance, it will be very interesting to see the rest of this video plays out.

Here is the exercise we developed:

Change Process Exercise (Elliott & Sanders, 2008)

1. In General: What has therapy/training been like for you so far? How has it felt to be in therapy/training?

2. Changes:
2a. What changes, if any, have you noticed in yourself since therapy/training started?
2b. What is your sense of how these changes have come about?
2c. What is your sense of what has made these changes possible?
2d. What has the impact of these changes been on your life?
2e. Has anything changed for the worse for you since therapy/training started?
2f. Is there anything that you wanted to change that hasn’t since since therapy/training started?

3. Resources:
3a. What personal strengths do you think have helped you make use of therapy/ training? (what you’re good at, personal qualities)
3b. What things in your current life situation have helped you make use of therapy/ training? (family, job, relationships, living arrangements)

4. Obstacles or Barriers:
4a. Is there anything about you that might have made it harder for you to use therapy/ training? (things about you as a person)
4b. Are there any things about your life situation that might have made it harder for you to use therapy/training? (family, job, relationships, living arrangements)

5. Other: Is there anything else that seems important to know about your experience of therapy/training?

Monday, January 14, 2008

One-day PE-EFT Workshop in Dundee

Entry for 11 January 2007:

With my crazy week, I barely had time to organize the one-day taster workshop on Process-Experiential-Emotion-Focused Therapy scheduled for Friday in Dundee. I was fortunate enough to be able to get a ride from John McLeod back to his house, after the Scottish SPR meeting on Thursday night, since the workshop was scheduled for 9:30 the next morning (the folks who caught the train I would have taken turned up late).

John and Julia have moved up into the hills between Dundee and Perth, to a farmhouse-style place up one of the little valleys off the Perth-Dundee road. The rain had cleared out and the temperature had dropped, or maybe it was just that we had moved out of the Dear Green Zone that we had noticed when we flew in the previous Monday. At any rate, by the we got there, the road leading up to the valley to their house turned icy and the gravel of their drive was covered in a layer of bumpy ice. As I got out of the car, I was hit by the intensity of the bright stars glowing against the clear winter sky, like Murray Creek but with a clearer horizon because their weren’t so many trees; we could even see the Milky Way!

They put up me in a very nice outbuilding, similar to what we call the Prayer Closet at Murray Creek, but with indoor plumbing. Actually, their whole place reminds me strongly of a somewhat less primitive Murray Creek. I’d finished going over my presentations for the next day, and slept soundly for a change.

In the morning, after John had warned me that I’m working too hard and we had struggled to get out up the icy drive to the main road, Julia drove us into Dundee for the workshop. Once there, the set-up when very smoothly and I found myself ready 15 minutes early for a change. I felt a bit at loose ends, but it made for a pleasant start to an intense day.

In contrast to the summer EFT-1 course, only a few of the 15 attendees (including a couple from Glasgow and one from Newcastle) were primarily trained in the Person-Centred Approach; most were in the humanistic-integrative camp, with a fair number with a Transactional Analysis (TA) background. This meant that I was preaching to the choir when it came to process guiding; for a change, nobody really seemed to be struggling with that.

I seem to have developed a reasonable plan for one-day taster courses: I emphasized emotion theory, played a couple of videos, introduced two tasks (two chairwork and Clearing a Space), did a live demonstration, and had them practice Two Chairwork in groups of 3 or 4. This time I dropped the outcome research and the dialectical constructivism (they were in the handout but we skipped over them). Overall, this structure gives participants a bunch of the theory and a flavour for the practice and the workshop format, making it a good lead in for the PE-EFT Level 1 training, for those who are interested in going on to do more.

As has happened in the past, the experiential small group practice nearly got squeezed out at the end. This would have been a mistake, because I suspect that it was the high point for many of those there. We left on a high note, dashing off to the train station to catch the 16.47 train back to Glasgow. As Julia dropped the Glasgow-bound folks off, I asked her to please tell John to invite me back. I rode home through the early Friday evening darkness (the sun is still setting about 4), tired but please, looking forward to a quiet evening at home after a long week that had started in Ohio.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Personal Dimension in Research

Entry for 11 January 2007:

Scottish SPR meetings this year have been preceded by a two-hour Research Community meeting open not only the MSc students, but also to our research PhD students, the Counselling Psychology students from the joint Strathclyde-Glasgow Caledonian course, and really just about anybody who wants to come and talk about research. We usually start by going around the circle with everybody reporting where they are with their research and what kind of help they might need.

Last night, as we did this, it became clear that a key theme was personal issues in research. This had been highlighted for me over the holidays by conversations I had with my oldest son Brendan about his work on his dissertation. Like many graduate/postgraduate students, he had become somewhat stuck in his progress on his dissertation. Somehow, the lack of structure and scale of a major research dissertation (whether at the masters or doctoral levels) seems to raise all kinds of personal issues for people. (This was certainly the case for me when I was a graduate student.) Perfectionism, overambitiousness, ambivalence about research, work-life balance problems, fear of failure, fear of success, difficulties dealing with lack of structure, writing blocks, lack of support from mentors, isolation, social anxiety, distractions/problems maintaining focus, lack of proper research training, uncertainty about life direction, failure to find and maintain protected time to work on research and writing; these are most of the main personal issues that I have encountered over many years of helping students through the dissertation process.

So we talked about these personal issues for much of the Research Community time last night, people offering support to each other, in some cases getting suggestions for how to move past the difficulty, in other cases just realizing they were not alone in their stuckness. Brian and I each talked about stuck places with our writing, Brian with his dissertation, me with my writing, in particular my long-delayed work on my paper on the Adjudicated Hermeneutic Single Case Efficacy Design (A-HSCED) method. Various of us talked about the fragility of the research/writing process, how easy it is for it to be pushed out by other more pressing demands. But we also about how strong the research/writing process can be once it takes hold, when one enters a “writing bubble” (John McLeod’s term) or when a “writing demon” (my term) takes hold, and it is as if we are possessed by the work for a time, sometimes to the consternation and frustration of those we love.

At times, I think it can be really valuable to provide therapeutic work to help researchers get unstuck. Procrastination, writer’s block and so on often take the form of conflict splits, frequently with an ineffectual coaching part of the self that only seems to make things worse, or a harsh critic part that paralyzes the person. In a depressive-type research block, parts of the self go on strike to protest not getting their way, effectively blocking the part that wants to work, which in turn becomes a killjoy preventing the person from enjoying themselves. For these problems, Two Chairwork can be useful, helping the person explore the conflict that underlies the stuck point. It would be very interesting to offer a research consultation process that focused on these issues.

(BTW, Brendan got unstuck and at last report was once again making headway on his dissertation.)

Running as a Cure for Jet Lag?

Entry for 11 January 2007:

We got back from the US about noon on Monday and it’s now Friday, so you’d think I’d be over the jet lag by now, but I’ve been struggling with it all week, not being able to go to bed before midnight or 1 am, then lying awake tossing and turning until 2 or 2:30. Personally, I blame not having gotten a run in, a result of a crazy schedule all week. Somehow, my body never feels like it’s truly arrived in a place until I’ve been out in the weather in my thin running clothes, really experiencing it; pounding on the pavement as I follow the familiar paths; breathing the air deeply, just feeling the place in that intense kind of way. This seems to reset my internal body clock, or maybe it just helps me sleep better, but whatever the reason, I seem to do better when I can get a run in the first or second day back.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Social Anxiety Therapy Development Group

Entry for 8 January 2008:

When we starting planning the Social Anxiety study over a year ago, one of the things we all were looking forward to was the opportunity to look at each other’s work with clients. Now, finally, our first two clients have started therapy. Today was the first meeting of the Social Anxiety study group since we started seeing clients, meeting under a revised name (Social Anxiety Therapy Development Group) and format. Rather than working on the research protocol and screening process, our main focus has become looking at the work in order to figure out what we’re doing and how to do it better; this also provides supervision.

At the end of a stimulating and fascinating conversation I proposed that some of us write about what we are learning after each meeting. Here is my list for this first meeting:

1. Because Social Anxiety (SA) is fundamentally a kind of difficulty with interpersonal relationships, it can be useful to listen for SA exemplars in sessions, that is, instances of the client’s difficulty as they occur in the moment. This is not transference work, because it's not really interpretive, but does introduce relational work, that is, attending empathically to the client’s experience of being with the therapist in the session. For example, a client may introduce an instance of social anxiety with regard to the therapist, such as a concern that the therapist will judge or view them poorly.

2. It looks like it is going to be important to work with what can be variously called ambivalence, polarities, multivocality or conflict splits around the social anxiety. Thus, it seems likely that a key issue will be the tension between a part of the person who is terrified of social situations and another part that isn’t happy with the consequences of the SA and wants to change. This explains why Motivational Interviewing is being used with anxiety problems by Westra and others as a prelude to CBT exposure work.

3. We also saw instances of self-focused attention, where the client’s experience of the immediate moment/interaction with the therapy was mediated by their attention to self. The most striking example of this was how one of the clients responded rapidly and seamlessly to their therapist’s apology by blaming themselves for the problem. I have observed clients’ tendency to blame themselves for therapist limitations for years, but here it was clear how this was part of the client’s SA process.

4. What most struck us as we reviewed the tapes today was how central dialogue/ presence is in this work. It appeared to be quite important for the therapist to make contact with the client directly and transparently in the opening minutes of the first session. This got labelled variously as empathy, congruence and presence, but it appeared to be critical.

All in all a great beginning!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Queue Order vs. Stack Order?

Entry for 6 January 2008:

Our kids and Mayumi accompanied us to the aiport, to see us off. On the way, we resolved to work hard but not too hard and to have fun doing it. Brendan is keeping track of his hours working on his dissertation, which is helping him get focused for the push he’ll need to finish his doctoral dissertation this academic year. I vowed to do my email in forward temporal order (what Brendan refers to as “queue order”) rather in reverse temporal order (Brendan calls this “stack order”). I’ve been doing my email this way for the past several years, following the advice of Kelyn Roberts, one of my professors from graduate school. Kelyn claimed that research (e.g., in doctor’s offices) had shown the stack order was more efficient, i.e., reduced average waiting times.

However, this strategy has not been working for me, and has resulted in ever-worsening backlogs of unread email, and unhealthy binge-and-purge cycles, as witnessed over this vacation period: By the time most people stopped sending emails on 21 December, my in-box had mounted to nearly 1100 unread threads. Come to think of it, my old professor was actually pretty disorganized, so it may not have been good advice in the first place, even if it was an Evidence Based Email Strategy (EBES).

I have just spent a large part of my holiday sifting through the enormous pile of accumulated from the past 4 months, and have concluded that this strategy just isn’t working for me anymore. So for the new year I will attempt to deal with my email in queue order, and will see if that works any better.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Central vs. Distributed Processing in Contemporary Computer Science and Emotion Theory

Entry for 3 January 2008:

The conversation that Conal and I began but weren’t able to finish (even if that had been possible) had to do with what Conal calls the crisis in contemporary computer science over parallel processing. He says that in order to move forward computer scientists and programmers now need to learn how to work effectively with distributed parallel processor networks, including massive distributed networks. However, computer scientists and programmers have gotten stuck in a paradigm of central, linear processing, originally adopted simply because it was simpler and more manageable. Now, the limits of individual processors in terms of miniaturization and speed are being approached, which means that the way forward is parallel processors working together. But how do these processors work together? Does it need a master processor? Conal says that current practice treats different processes/processors as separate things that then need top-down governing processes and pipelines and protocols to govern their interactions; however, this soon becomes unmanageably complex, like the multi-body problem in Newtonian physics: A soon as you get to 3 interacting bodies, it becomes difficult or impossible to fully calculate and therefore predict their interactions. Instead, like physicists they resort to looking at them two at a time and various heuristic shortcuts to approximating things.

To Conal this is the wrong approach and makes everything difficult and kludgey. Conal loves elegance and autonomy; instead of centralized, linear processes, he points to the cellular automata and self-organizing systems of complexity theory, and to the simple, elegant underlying processes of chaotic phenomena. Afterall, it’s pretty clear that the human brain is a massively distributed parallel processing system, with lots of competing, semi-independent but interacting subprocesses. There isn’t a central processor (although there are after-the-fact meta-reflective processes that process the process), and it certainly isn’t linear. And all this is capable of working together with tremendous efficiency and grace, although (it's clear to me) it is just as capable of tying itself into chaos, conflict and confusion. Computers should be able to do this, but can’t as long as programmers and designers think in out-moded terms of centralized control and linearity.

Conal points out that natural systems manage to integrate multiple processes in elegant ways that don’t require complicated protocols governing their interactions. (I would add: that's because the natural systems that don't work like this don't succeed and are weeded out by natural selection.) He argues that it would be more productive to observe how these successful systems work rather than designing sets of commands or instructions for controlling these processes.

What is so interesting about this is the resonance with person-centred/experiential ideas of encouraging natural, organic, emergent processes in people, of honouring and supporting multivocality/multiple self aspects, and of observing natural change processes via close process observation (e.g., task analysis). I’m sure that exploring these ideas further with Conal will prove to be interesting and useful, and I look forward to doing on so on future visits. In the meantime, some of his creative work on what he call s tangible functional programming and also his whimsical graphics programs can be found on his website at:

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Anger vs. Fear

Entry for 3 January 2008:

An important discussion that Conal and I had this time was an exploration of our views on emotion, especially anger. This had been the point over which we had our argument back around the time of our dad’s death, so it felt important to try to have this discussion in a more open, constructive manner. As a computer scientist, Conal values clarity highly, and so he raised some really interesting and useful questions about Process-Experiential Emotion Theory.

In particular, what distinguishes anger from fear, given that both are responses to danger or threat? This is part of a position on his part that anger is not a natural emotion, but always involves cultural programming, but as we talked it became clear that we were using the word “anger” differently, and that what he calls anger corresponds roughly to what I call maladaptive and secondary reactive anger.

But what does distinguish anger from fear? With anger, I would say that the danger is of a particular kind such that taking a stand against the threat would be useful (likely to have a successful outcome). Generally this means that the threat is another person who is not so much bigger and stronger than I am that I would get killed if I stood up to them. This means that anger is more interpersonal, social, territorial. With fear, the danger is going to be of a more overwhelming or overpowering kind; that is, resistance would only increase the danger. Large, natural forces like forest fires (to cite an example relevant to Murray Creek), bears or attacking armies are more likely to engender fear. But it also means that primary fear and primary anger are often going to co-occur, even if the person only acts on one of the two.

This is actually a critical distinction for the emotion system to be able to make; survival will be enhanced if there is a rapid, efficient means for distinguishing between and appropriately mobilizing toward (a) threats that need to be managed by firmly standing one’s ground and perhaps yelling and shaking a stick and (b) threats that need to be escaped from or avoided by hiding or not attracting attention to oneself.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Reconnecting with Siblings

Entry for 29 December 2007:

Our vacations in America are as much about recontacting the different bases of our lives as anything else. We go back to the familiar places, our other homes, the places that define us by virtue of where we come from, both constituting us and renewing us: Toledo, where we have lived from almost 30 years, and where part of us still lives; Pleasanton, where Diane grew to adulthood and where her mother still lives; Murray Creek, where my parents escaped after I had gone away to college, but which feels like a spiritual home to me, with its ancient, moss-covered oaks and seven-circuit Cretan labyrinth,... and my mom. These places provide an anchor for our new life in Glasgow, grounding us by giving us a place that we come from and regularly go back to. An important part of that reconnecting is catching up with my brothers and sisters. I missed Joseph, my youngest brother this time, but I did manage to catch up with the other four:

I’d missed seeing my two sisters last time we were in Murray Creek, so we made a point of arranging to spend time with them on this trip. Anna is an infection control nurse by training who has gone free lance as a consultant on disaster/pandemic readiness planning and lives in Paso Robles, in the California coast range several hours south of San Francisco. Anna is multi-talented, with many interests, including lace, stained glass, and high-tech gadgets (she also has an advanced degree in bioinformatics). She is an expert candy-maker: her almond roca is legendary in the family, and this year she has added expertise in spicy pistachios and her own version of butterscotch, which she developed a passion for last February during her time with us in Scotland.

Louisa lives a couple of hours north of Murray Creek, in Auburn, a suburb of Sacramento. She is also multi-talented, with a degree in fashion design and an MBA. She is the only one of the six of us who has any kind of fashion sense (also business sense), but in recent years she has spent much of her time exploring alternative medicine, including vibrational medicine, magnet therapy, past life therapy, various nutritional supplements and so on. Some of this used to bother me and we had a period where we used to get into unpleasant and pointless arguments over what I took to be unsound claims about nutrition. Of all my family members Louisa is the one most likely to Be Into Something Flaky in classic California fashion. I used to think that our arguments were about Science vs. Folly, but over the years I have come to see that they were more about Robert Being Right (RBR). RBR comes from being the oldest of six and was long overdue for retirement as a mode of relating to my younger siblings, but the habit dies hard and I still have to catch myself, especially when I feel my sibs encroaching on subjects I consider myself to be an expert on. It was really good to spend some time catching up with her.

I also saw two of my brothers on this trip. Willy, three years younger than I am, runs Second Harvest Food Bank for Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties (go to:, a large regional food bank in Watsonville, which collects surplus food for distribution to local food banks for the Santa Cruz area. Willy started interested in urban planning, went to France to study, dropped out, and hitch-hiked around the country for a while (this was in the ‘70’s), came back, worked in a belt factory until he got fired for organizing the workers, and finally fell into driving a truck for the local meals-on-wheels. One thing led to another, and here he is 30 years later head honcho for Second Harvest, hanging out with corporate types who he’s hitting up for donations and beginning to talk about succession planning. I’m pretty proud of him, actually.

After our father died, things were a bit strained between my next younger brother, Conal, and me. Conal has a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon and worked for Sun and then Microsoft during the first internet boom in the 1990’s. He and I had always been the two academic-scientist types in the family and had a good connection around that. However, after leaving Microsoft and getting divorced, he had gotten into Nonviolent Communication (NVC). If I’m honest with myself I have admit that I had been feeling a bit threatened by what I took to be him setting himself up as an expert in communication, which I have always considered to be my territory in the family. As a result, I behaved in a somewhat dismissive manner, trying to pick an argument with him about NVC in the days after my dad died, during a time when we were all feeling fragile. Things felt a bit tense with him for a year or so after that, as we both moved on with our lives.

Finally, last April he and his new partner Holly moved down from Seattle to Murray Creek, where years earlier he’d purchased a house just up the valley from my mom. When we were back last August, I was finally able to begin to reconnect with him. He seemed to have gotten unstuck from whatever process he’d been in and was getting back into his computer science work again after a long hiatus. I’d spent a year at Strathclyde absorbing the person-centred atmosphere out of which NVC emerged (late Rogers peacework in particular) and was/am generally in a more grounded place in my life as well. Then, too, he and Holly have been enormously helpful to our mom, for which I’m really grateful. In August, we had discussed the possibility that Diane and I might stay there when we came at Christmas, and so when Conal and Holly renewed the offered we were pleased to take them up.

One of the things that Conal and I share is a distrust for ordinary ways of doing things and a desire to work on the edge of what is emerging. During our stay with him and Holly, we had several intriguing conversations, which are worth blog entries of their own. In the end, we ran out of time just as we reached the point of realizing how much more there was to discuss. I left feeling that I had my brother back, and looking forward to further, deeper discussions. There is much that we likely don’t agree about, but now it looks to me like the effort to spin out the points of agreement and disagreement will be well worth it.

All this feels like getting pieces of myself back and getting better grounded in my family. It's something I tend to neglect, so I will have to watch that in future.