Monday, April 19, 2010

How Hard Can It Be?

My friend Jonathan's motto is, "How hard can it be?" Having developed everything from flight simulators to advanced telephony systems to chips that block epileptic seizures to devices that prevent heart attacks, Jonathan's motto has served him well and often confounded people around him. I find his motto incredibly useful, not only in what it helps me to accomplish, but also in how it shapes my thinking.

At the core of 'how hard could it be?' is the notion that things aren't as different as they may appear to be, that there are common themes that unite apparently disparate sets of activities, processes and systems. If you find these commonalities, you can take something that appears complex and difficult and make it simple.

In Any Key

For example, pretty much any music that you'll ever hear (all western music and much of contemporary eastern music) relies on just twelve notes. Just twelve little notes and hundreds of thousands of songs. Roughly speaking, songs are written in either a minor key (dark and sad) or a major key (bright and happy). So, 12 notes time 2 keys gives you 24 possibilities for any song.
Typically, songwriters compose songs in keys that are easy for them to sing or perform. A singer will adjust the key of the song so that the notes match her vocal range. Many guitar players will select a key that's easy to play on a guitar. However, if someone else is going to perform the song, they may want to do so in a key other than the one in which it was written. This requires that the song be 'transposed', moved from one key to another.
If the song were written in the key of A and the singer wanted to sing it in the key of C (which is three steps higher), then all the chords in the song would need to be adjusted by three steps; an A would become C, a D would become F, a C#minor would become E minor, and so on. If you're a pianist who accompanies singers, then doing this kind of transposition is commonplace and for many, quite challenging. Essentially, as you play you perform a kind of musical math in your head, transposing the chord you see on the page to the one that needs to be played.
For me, transposing has always been really easy and people often wonder how I can hear a song, play it, and then begin to play it in whatever key the performer wants. Once I've got the song, I can play it in any key, without even thinking about it.

Now, here's the 'how hard could it be' part: I never actually transpose.
Instead, I learn the song in a manner that is key-less. Rather than hearing an A followed by a C# minor followed by a D followed by an E, I simply hear the first chord of the scale followed by the third chord of the scale followed by the fourth chord followed by the fifth chord. A-C#-D-E becomes 1-3-4-5.

Since I never learn the song in a key in the first place, so I never need to transpose it. I just go from key to key playing 1-3-4-5. There aren't twelve keys nor twenty-four keys; there's just one.

Why We Make Things So Complex
One of the biggest contributors to 'making things harder than they actually are' is branding. Now, I'm not just talking about Pepsi versus Coke, or Microsoft versus Apple, or Republican versus Democrat types of branding. I'm talking about the apparent need of so many to have something uniquely identified as their own creation, invention or discovery. People will latch on to small nuances among otherwise identical situations and call it something. By calling it something, they shift the focus from the multitude of common threads to the isolated exceptions.

This phenomenon seems to be most pronounced in academic circles where one has to simultaneously prove orthodoxy (showing comprehensive understanding of and adherence to the tenets of the field) while providing novel insights and discoveries. The result is making much ado about nothing.

For example, the phrases autism, autism spectrum, and pervasive developmental delay are more brands than they are descriptions of specific conditions or sets of conditions. In fact, one might argue that as descriptions, they're pretty terrible (what exactly is autism?), but as brands they've become quite powerful (more people have a strong response to the word autism than can tell you exactly what it is). Even the phrase Asperger syndrome is named for the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger who, in 1944, described children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills, demonstrated limited empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy.

So, on the one hand, you have strong brand recognition of autism (and many of its variants) and very little understanding of what autism actually is (almost all treatments are based on interplay with symptoms not core causes). To top it off, you have all sorts of autism treatment protocols whose purveyors are trying to distinguish themselves in the market with branding.

All this mitigates against understanding and effective results.

To be sure, there are differences among various forms of anything. However, most of the differences are not pronounced and certainly not inherent to the brands

Solve Anything, Solve Nothing
In the movie This is Spinal Tap, a mach documentary about a fictitious legendary rock band, the band's leader, David St. Hubbins, has just been handed a copy of the band's latest release, an all black album jacket with no text or photos. His manager tries to explain why an all black album is a great idea comparing it to the Beatle's White album. St. Hubbins comments:
It's such a fine line between stupid, and clever.
There's a fine line between making something impossible and making it easy. It all comes down to how complex you make the problem, how you frame it. If you spend your time enumerating differences and isolating nuances, then you'll probably be able to make anything impossible. If you look for common threads and filter out insignificant details, then you can do pretty much anything.

Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler."

I'm not advocating oversimplification; however, in a world where so many 'experts' have a vested interest in the complexity of their areas of expertise, it's not likely that you'll find the simple answer there.

The best source for answers is you. Listen to what the experts have to say, do your research, read and study. Then ask yourself, "How hard can it be?"

Happy Monday!
Teflon

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