Ways of the Headless Chicken

Mike the headless chicken disproves the theory of ‘threshold concepts’. Let me explain. I recently started reading David Sudnow’s Ways of the Hand – A Re-written Account, on loan from a friend. It’s an ethnographer’s approach to learning improvised jazz piano, and is interesting to me in the context of the question of the embodiment of (for want of a better term) knowledge. After I got into the first chapter of the book I picked up a couple of others, getting stuck on a Sci Fi thriller that was a present from my sister, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, among other things. Anyway today a colleague (another Richard) emailed about ‘threshold concepts’ in canoeing, which reminded me to get back to Sudnow. Threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2003) are supposed to be difficult bits of learning that we tend to get stuck on but ultimately allow a kind of breakthrough moment. The thing is, most of the work on these has been done in areas where knowledge is thought of as something you obtain through careful thought, not by practicing something by tinkling the ivories, or in my case, treading the boards. In Lee’s case, it also involves kicking people’s teeth in (in self defense of course) because he teaches Pencat Silat and just finished his anthropology PhD thesis on the topic.

So is it really all about threshold concepts in that case? Sometimes it must be, because you can often get to the next stage of learning by introducing a concept, like say, lead and follow technique in lindy hop, Sudnow’s techniques in WOTH, or in Richard’s case, “the static paddle” in a canoe. But also, obviously people must learn these things without ever going through the stage of conceptualising anything. Like learning to drive a manual car without anyone needing to tell you just how to ease off the clutch, or all the pianists who have never really thought about technique but are still technically brilliant. Anyway (stay with me here) this talk of embodied knowledge got me thinking of the story of Mike the Headless Chicken. Yes, Mike the rooster stayed alive for 18 months after having his head lopped off with an axe. He even toured, raising quite a hefty amount of money for his owners before starving to death by accident. He reportedly only had a bit of brainstem left and one ear, yet his bodily functions and reflexes remained completely intact — so much so that he gained quite a bit of weight over his life time. So Mike’s body, in a sense, still “knew” how to survive, just as a spider knows how to spin its web. Yet at the same time we can say that a great dancer might not really know how they do what they do. Yet there will, I’d argue, still be thresholds in their ability to do the things they do — embodied thresholds, if you like. That’s surely one reason professional musicians, dancers and martial arts experts still practice for hours every day to get to the next level. I think this shows that it’s not necessarily about concepts, but it might still be about thresholds in learning.

BBC Article


The BBC Cambridgeshire website posted a story on swing dancing today, featuring me and Lotte answering some funny questions in a short video interview. There’s even some shots of all of us doing the Shim Sham, and if you listen really closely you can hear us talking to a woman on her bicycle who wanted to know why not all of us were dressed up in 40s gear. It was all pretty unplanned, and the music’s timing is a little off, but we really enjoyed doing it. Hopefully a few more people will hear about us as well.

Dublin and Norwich

The past two weekends have been spent away, with Lotte assisting Bill to teach workshops in Dublin and Norwich. The photo is actually from Dublin, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it. The group was really fantastic and learnt an awful lot in two days. The workshop in Norwich was very different — part of a swing, tango and salsa “fusion” weekend. It had mixed success in the sense that their was a lot of learning but not much actual fusion between the different dance styles. I took part in a tango class and marvelled at the technical skills of the teachers. The fundamental concepts were very similar to Lindy Hop, but more emphasis was put on keeping everything on one level in tango instead of “sinking into the floor”. When I took a step I was warned about “collapsing” my legs. I didn’t take part in many classes however. For the most part, I did my own thing at these weekends. In Dublin this consisted of finishing my thesis and watching The Da Vinci Code on my laptop, as well as getting a good look around town. The city is beautiful, and the wide suburban expanse by the bay reminded me of home.

In Norwich the experience was quite unusual. We were staying at Bylaugh Hall (pronounced Beela Hall), an amazing restoration in progress of a rural mansion that was requisitioned during WWII by the RAF. There are still all kinds of temporary wartime structures such as bomb shelters standing near the house, all overgrown with vines and rusting. The building itself had become decrepit before restoration work started 6 years ago, and when you walk through some of the partly restored areas you can still see dead vines clinking to the pillars. It’s now used as an arts and culture venue, and is hired out regularly for weddings and parties. We were treated to gourmet dining and luxury accommodation, all of which was very much appreciated after a hard slog for both of us. Lotte’s been invited to teach with Bill on a more permanent basis in Europe, with the next set of workshops in a couple of months.

Devil of a Holiday

The weekend in Hamburg was terrific. We had possibly the best Lindy hosts in the entire world, Arne and Fabian, who made sure to check with us on our breakfast preferences before we left, and then greeted us with a smile on arrival in Hamburg. They have a really interesting, large apartment at the top of a very steep spiralling staircase in a building in a handy part of the city. Hopefully they will get to Cambridge (or maybe even Melbourne?) one day so that we can return the favour. Lotte had a baptism of fire into the international lindy hop teaching world, with 12 hours of teaching over 2 days assisting Bill. The advanced classes were quite a decent level, so she had her work cut out for her, and she did an amazing job. At the end of the weekend they had them in the palm of their hands, and the students were all starting to really get it. I enjoyed the opportunity of a weekend with no responsibilities apart from doing a bit of DJing and having fun. I also met a DJ with perhaps the most astounding collection of beautiful swing music I’ve ever met — Swingin’ Swanee. This woman is a professional, and it shows. Bill, Ellen and I took her on in the DJ Battle and never stood a chance. I heard she owns around 4,000 albums, most of which were in her personal vinyl collection. She has only fairly recently started using CDs to DJ. I highly recommend getting hold of her CD collections Wild Party, Devil’s Holiday, and That’s Rhythm from Ceraton.

Frozen Hamburgers

This weekend we’re off to Hop In The Spring in Hamburg, Germany. It looks like a fun weekend, but I’m wondering a bit about the name. It’s below freezing in Hamburg right now, and the forecast is for snow, snow/rain, and snow. That doesn’t sound like spring to me. This is sure to be a test of my not-very-snow-friendly shoes, especially because they will be doubling as my dance shoes. Hmmm…

Goodnight and goodluck, sweetheart

We spent last weekend exhausting ourselves on the dance floor at Goodnight Sweetheart in Hertfordshire. It was a fun weekend for us because we hadn’t had much dancing in a long while. The weekend included workshops from Steven & Virginie and Peter & Giselle, among others. I think my favourite thing for the whole weekend was the classes from Peter & Giselle. Really great. The huge, gigantic, spectacular World Championship Battle of the DJs turned out to be rather disappointing. Sound systems that didn’t work, a strange setup, stressed organisers, and guess how many songs we played? 3! Even the final two only got to play a total of 6 songs. The winner in a very good field was Alf from Norway who did an excellent job in these difficult circumstances, I must say. He gets to buy himself a ticket to Canada (if he can afford it) as a prize. Hmmm. Still, it was great to get away for a while, and even more terrific to make some new friends and catch up with our great mate Dozka. She did us proud by making it through to the semi finals of the DJ Battle too. That’s better than I did, that’s for sure.

An awful lot is still going on here as we settle in. The big news for us is that Lotte’s found an ad for a job that really sounds like her, so she’s putting some time into preparing to apply. Keep your electronic fingers crossed, folks. She won’t know for a few weeks yet how she does, though. Work here for me is going well. I’ve had time to get to look at some things that I know will help me in the next year, including updating my knowledge on tools for qualitative research. In the running are Nvivo 7, Atlas.ti, and a Mac-only thing called TAMS Analyzer. I’m going to try the last of these over the next short while becuase I can run it on my machine and it has a limited feature set (an advantage for my needs, perhaps).

Today jeff pointed out this demo of Multitouch (14Mb, Quicktime), a gestural interface project that looks absolutely amazing. Also see this article and this page about the project. That’s exactly the sort of thing I heard Alan Kay talking about in 1994. It definitely takes a long time for these ideas to come to fruition.

Flurry of plans

Tonight Lotte and I registered for Goodnight Sweetheart in February and the London Lindy Exchange in March. Places tend to sell out of these things in the UK we’ve been told, so it was time to commit. Also I found out I’ve been picked to represent Australia in the 3rd annual World DJ Championships at GNSH, which is going to be huge fun. And just yesterday I got a casual invitation up to the International Centre for Research on Learning at the University of Dundee in Scotland. I might take them up on that offer to do a presentation of some sort. We’ve also planned our first side-trip to Holland, only 6 days after our arrival in the UK! The air fares are amazing — for 100 GBP we get there and back, and that’s including insurance. Handy.