Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bells and Whistles

I recently developed an aversion to bells and whistles (the non-essential but often engaging features added to a product to make it more attractive without doing a thing to enhance its main function). I think it all began with digital audio effects, the processes applied to sound to morph and "enhance" it, processes like echo, chorus, delay and pitch correction. As I think about it, the real instigator was reverb.

Let's say that you really like the sound of your voice while singing in the shower, but not so much while singing in the car or in your living room. That's where reverb comes in. Reverb can take a sound recorded in a quiet space that has few reflective surfaces and make it sound as though it were recorded in the shower or in a large auditorium or Grand Central station.

You're listening to a vocal track that you just recorded and think aloud, "Hmmm... I thought I sounded better than that."

The sound engineers says, "No worries, I'll just sweeten it up with a little reverb."

Voila, your voice sounds much better.

So you might be thinking, "What could be wrong with that?"

There's nothing wrong, really. Except...  except when you start to rely on the reverb rather than say, learning to sing better.  There's not even anything wrong with that, that is, unless your goal is to become a really good singer.

Reverb is kind of like vaseline on the lens of a camera. It softens the view and hides the tiny imperfections. However, reverb can become addictive, kind of like plastic surgery. In lieu of practicing and getting better, you just keep adding a little more reverb to the mix. You come not to notice it. However your recordings start to sound like someone who's had a bit too much plastic surgery looks.

Again, that's fine, if that's really what you want.

Anyway, my aversion started with reverb, but it branched out, first to other digital audio effects and then to other areas altogether. I started to notice all the "great" websites that were really nothing more than an attractive home page picture and color scheme. There's no design to speak of, no content and yet people think of them as great examples.  I started to notice the ingredients in and presentation of meals whenever we ate out. I'd taste to see if the cook cheated with things like MSG, sugar or butter. I'd make a mental note of times when a patron lauded mediocre food because he was dazzled by its presentation.

I began weaning myself of bells and whistles plugging my guitar straight into the amplifier sans effects pedals, cooking with just the right spice mix, playing solid accompaniments without a lot of flourish. It's been quite remarkable, kind of cleansing. I've got more in touch with what I do and I've got better at it, quickly.

Hmmm... as I look around my office, I'm amazed by all the bells and whistles that still surround me, that need to be dusted, cleaned and maintained. I'm thinking it might be time for a garage sale or perhaps just a trip to the dump.

Happy Thursday,

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

As the Old Adage Goes

As the old adage goes, "If at first you don't succeed, you pick yourself up and, ignoring all the doomsayers and mopidopes, you try again."

The Science Dude

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Connecting the Dots

Today you will have the opportunity to teach someone something.

You might see it and act upon it. You might not.

You might be unaware of it and yet still act upon it.

You might be overwhelmingly aware of it and not.

Nonetheless, the opportunity will present itself today.

When it does, you might consider the metaphor of connecting dots. We often think about teaching as helping someone to connect the dots.  However, I've recently come to the conclusion that the best teachers don't help students connect dots. Instead, they simply make sure that the students can see all the dots. They leave it to the students to do the connecting.

The reason I've concluded this is twofold. First, there is mounting evidence supporting the notion that the source of learning challenges is rarely the topic at hand.  Instead, it's a missed building block in the structure on which the topic rests.  For example, people don't struggle with trigonometry because they don't understand the notions of sin and cos.  They struggle with trigonometry because they're missing critical building blocks from algebra or geometry. The building block in algebra or geometry are missing because they depend on building blocks from arithmetic.

Teacher and student can work day after day trying to learn trig. The student can learn to repeat steps outlined by the teacher. The student may pass or even do well on exams.  However, the student never actually understands what she's doing. She's simply following the pattern the teacher used to connect the dots.  Many of the dots have know meaning for her.

To continue switching metaphors, it's like working a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Even when you get all the pieces together their are still gaps that may preclude you from actually seeing the picture. You can piece the thing together over and over and still not get it.

So, what's a teacher to do?  Focus on ensuring all the pieces are in the box, all the dots are visible on the page, all the foundational building blocks are in place. If so, the student can do the connecting.

Second (I mentioned that my reason was twofold).  It's through the process of putting the pieces together that we come to understand how to put pieces together. In particular, it's through failing to put them together and then stepping back to figure out why we failed and what we can do differently that we learn the most.

To simply follow directions or copy an example doesn't work. (OK, that's not entirely true; repeated imitation while seeking to gain insight can be quite effective. However, if you copy or imitate only long enough to get a checkmark or a star, it doesn't work.)

Today you will have the opportunity to teach someone something.

How will you go about it?

Happy Tuesday,

Friday, May 25, 2012

In My Opinion

In response to That's Impossible, Sree wrote:

I've taken to mentally prefixing/appending "in my opinion" or "as far as I know" to ANYTHING anybody says. For instance (in today's news):

  • Currently, "as far as we know", there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, which steadily robs patients of their memory, followed by full-blown dementia.
  • "In my opinion", the comparatively laissez-faire attitude of African parents produces admirable resilience among their children.
As I read Sree's comment yesterday, I thought, "Yes, that's it exactly. In the end, all we ever really have is opinion, even when it seems factual."

However, standing in the shower this morning, I launched into a completely tangential line of thought.  As I thought about the words "in my opinion" and "as far as we know", I was taken back to discussions with people who specialize in FDA-approved communications regarding experimental drugs, devices and methods.

In order to ensure that companies marketing and developing medications and medical devices don't make false claims about the efficacy or safety of their products, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides rules that govern what can and can't be said, what must be said, and how one must say it.  The goal is to make it easy for someone to clearly understand the potential benefits and pitfalls of using a medication or device

Companies producing these products aren't particularly fond of the rules. After all, if you're trying to sell a cure for acne, telling people that a potential side-effect is her right big-toe falling off can impede sales.

But don't you worry. These companies have lots and lots of money. As soon as a rule/guideline is put into place, hoards of highly-paid experts specializing in medical law and marketing spring into action. Before you can say, "My toe could what?", they develop a clever way of stating the possibility without you ever having heard it. At best, you recall something about 'toes', but it's a phantom recollection of something you doubt was ever said.

My grandmother would have said, "They got the letter of the law, but not its spirit."

As I considered this along with Sree's comment, it occurred to me that Sree might be like the FDA providing a clear way of dealing with communications and understanding. However, it also occurred to me that one might easily implement the letter of "in my opinion" and "as far as we know" without ever really getting the spirit of it.

For example, a news reporter may be cautioned by the legal department to preface every claim or statement of fact with "as far as we know" or "in my opinion". He might use these phrases only as a matter of course believing fully that what he's saying is "true". His words say, "this is pure speculation", but everything else about his delivery says, "this is the god's honest truth." He may come to use the phrases so frequently that listeners filter them out completely hearing what he says as nothing but the facts. What starts out as a well-intended guideline becomes nothing more than window-dressing.

If this were the case only with news reporters and FDA marketeers.

It's not.

We all seem to have this uncanny capacity to absorb mantras and rudiments in a way that inoculates us to them. For example, I know many people who've made being happy important. It's not that they've made happiness a priority; instead, they've come to want others to see them as happy. When you ask them how they're doing, what comes out of their mouths is akin to a pharmaceutical ad. It's got all the right words, but it doesn't feel right.

We do this with pretty much anything. We learn the lingo. We use it. Before you know it we each believe that what we're saying accurately reflects what we're doing or how we're feeling.

It doesn't.

At least, not entirely.

I learn it's socially acceptable to qualify my strongly held beliefs with "in my opinion." So, rather than recognizing my belief as an opinion, I just sprinkle the mantra "in my opinion" on any statement I make.

I learn that it's important to project a positive attitude towards my kids. I begin complimenting them on every action, regardless of how well they do.  My kids start believing that either I'm blind or doing things well just isn't that important.

I'm instructed that it's not particularly useful to tell someone that what he's saying is bullshit. I nod and smile, but my nose still twitches.

Letter or spirit? Hmmm...

Happy Friday,

Thursday, May 24, 2012

That's Impossible

Over the past week or so, Iris and I have spent lots of time with experts.

In my experience, there are two types of expert, the type who do something with great skill and the type who know a lot about something. For example, in music both exceptional players and critics may be deemed to be expert. You rarely hear the first type (the player) using the word to describe himself; however, you often hear it from the second type.

It is with the second type of expert that Iris and I spent more than adequate time over the past week.

One of the reasons I found the time spent more than adequate is that these experts demonstrated a propensity to employ the phrases "that's impossible" and "how do you know that?" with a heightened intonation of incredulity.  Further, as our conversations proceeded, each expert would use these phrases with increasing frequency.

I found the phrases a bit challenging, not in that they called into question my own beliefs, but in that I often find it difficult to explain the obvious. To be fair to the experts, most of the times they said something was impossible, I had indeed not yet done it. Most of the times they asked how I knew something, I couldn't tell them that I'd conducted a specific experiment to show it. And although there were certainly cases where I'd done and could demonstrate the impossible or unknowable, the more interesting cases were the ones where I couldn't (at least not on the spot).

These were interesting to me because without failure the experts would take the absence of proof that one could do or know something to be the equivalent of proof that one could not.  It took me a bit to catch on to the game they played, but once I did, I started turning the questions around asking, "How do know it's impossible?" or "How do you know it's not that?"

I'd explain that I don't have to have played a specific song to know that I could play it. I've played enough other songs to know I could play one I haven't. I don't have to have walked a specific path to know that I could walk it... Don't have to have made a specific dish to know I could prepare it... and so on.

Some experts would respond with a litany of all the cases where people had attempted thus and such and failed. Others would respond indignantly touting their credentials and expertise. Some would laugh dismissively.  Every once in a while one would say, "Well... you're right. I don't know it's impossible; I just know that I don't know how to do it."

With the few who responded in this way, the nature of the conversation changed from dialog and debate to joint exploration. It was delightful.

As a rule of thumb (at least for me), impossible almost always means "I don't know how." "How do you know that?" means "I can't see how you got from point A to point B."  The problem with being an expert (of the accumulated-knowledge type) is that to not know is to be at fault.  You're an expert; you're supposed to know.

However, embracing not-knowing is the cornerstone of learning and asserting a belief that you can't yet prove is the basis of all scientific endeavor.

Ahh... experts.

Where's your expertise? What do you dismiss as impossible or unknowable? Are you easily dismissed because you're not an expert?

Happy Thursday,

Monday, May 21, 2012

Too Much

We all get there.

The point where you just can't do anymore... just can't take anymore... just can't.

Unfortunately the times at which we get there are coincidently the times when our capacities to evaluate are, to say the least, compromised. All that is bad is gigantic. All that is good is infinitesimally small. All creativity has been channeled into the repetitive crafting of worst-case scenarios.

It just all feels so overwhelmingly impossible.

We all get there.

Sometimes the experience is so strong that we make it real. We no longer feel overwhelmed; we are overwhelmed. The situation doesn't seem impossible; it is impossible.

Making it real validates the experience giving it a life of its own. It stalks us. It haunts us. Each time we start to believe everything will be alright, it creeps out from under the bed, jumps up and shouts, "boo!"

We come to believe that there is no way to navigate the treacherous path that lies ahead. There is only abandonment. We no longer seek ways through; we seek ways out.

Finding a way out becomes all there is.

There are a few for whom abandonment is no option. No matter how overwhelming or impossible the path ahead seems, something compels them to travel forward, against all odds, without hope.

What is it that keeps them moving?

It's passion, I think: passion for the path and where it leads.

They shun escape plans. They abandon hope. Instead, they look down at the path and focus all they have on just one thing, the next step. Step by step by step, they walk forward with no thought of anything but the present step.

It could be for days. It could be for hours. It could be years or decades. Step by step they walk forward.

Happy Monday,

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A little thing

I'm not working full time anymore. I can stop by your home for a few hours and help you with whatever you want.  

I wasn't sure what to say.  I had just finished a presentation for autism awareness, diving into the 'normal' everyday life of families living with autism.  I used my messy home as an example in the montage of photos that accompanied my talk.  I tried to make it clear that I wasn't asking for help personally, but was just wanting to illuminate some of the hidden realities.

I did really need help.  Yet, sometimes accepting help is hard.  I'm getting better, but still, I may protest in my mind.  Accepting help means letting people know more about my imperfections.  We all know no-one is perfect in theory.  Harsh supporting evidence is quite another thing.  Yet, I also had just encouraged people to reach out in a non-judgmental way.  My home represents one such opportunity, especially in the form of the 6 bags of clean laundry that had yet to get into closets and drawers that were going to be met by the 3 bags that were going to be done that day.

Sure!  Call me in the morning and we'll set a time to come over.

The next morning I received a text at 9 am.  Can I come by at 10?  Talk about initiative.  What about noon ? I said.  Jay went to sleep at about 4 am and I'm just getting up.

It was all arranged.  I spent my afternoon doing what I normally do, reading, talking, cooking with the kids in attendance.  The only thing different was the knowledge that one of the shoemaker's elves was busily making clothes disappear from the laundry bags and appear in the closets and drawers.  It was a glorious feeling!

The common battle cry for awareness activities is Do Something.  Sometimes we thing the 'something' has to be something big.  We think, what can my little thing do in the scope of the challenge facing so and so ? So we don't offer our little thing.  But the little things are often HUGE in impact, especially when combined with several other little things.  What if everyone did their little thing?  The effects could be quite...significant (gargantuan, gynormous, elephantitic...)  Most of the time, it's a little thing that motivates someone to throw their hands in the air.  Alleviate that little thing and we give each other a little more time to process, to plan, to just be, and recoup our energies to deal with the big things that crop up every day.

Is this all you have?  No, I said sheepishly.  There are 3 more bags in the basement.  Give me another one.  I have a bit more time.

That day was a wonderful day.  I stepped into my room and saw the clothes folded on the chair, looked in the drawers and saw neatly folded rows.  I breathed a sigh.  All the tantrums, poop cleaning, messes and spills did not seem as significant as they were on just the previous day.

Thanks, my friend.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


This morning, I decided to decide on my intentions for the day.  As I stopped to make the decision, I got stuck on one word: delight.  I decided to delight in anything and everything today.  It is also mother's day, an external reminder of my internal intention.  Here are a few of the things I took delight in:

  • Although I wanted to be up and about by 7:30 am, it had been a full week.  I changed my mind and took pleasure in being in bed for at least another hour.  The kids were still asleep.  Work could wait.  Contemplation could occur right here in bed.
  • I delighted in wearing a pair of earrings I truly love, a gift from a friend in Turkey.
  • I delighted in being off on my own agenda.  I went to a meeting and when people asked me how the kids were, I delightedly shrugged, "I dunno!  I guess they are ok!" and grinned.  Being off was truly delightful.
  • I sat in a meeting that felt a little ... disheveled... and I resisted my typical temptation to think about how the make the meeting more efficient and effective.  I didn't!  Instead, I delighted in just being there, in the people and their contributions.
  • I had lunch with my mom.  There were so many delightful things about that.  Isaiah sponsored our day together and we still had money left.  I took her to one of my favorite indian restaurants and had the buffet so she could sample an entire assortment of appetizers, entrees, and sweets.  Yum!
  • I delighted in taking her to work, relaxing enough to follow her directions. (I usually hate following directions while I'm driving.  I really like to know where I'm going before I get behind the wheel)
  • I pulled up a listing of  houses for sale in the area on my way back home.  I decided to drive by a few, stopped on streets I enjoy, looked around.  I'm really wanting my own back yard and took delight in thinking about the possibilities as  looked at these houses for sale.
  • When I got back home, the kids regaled me with stories of Jaedon's antics while I was away.  They were hilarious, especially Jaedon mooning other travelers through the back window of our minivan as he took off his shorts and remained bent over while Daddy was driving.  We all had a hearty laugh.  I delighted in the story and delighted in my delight.
All simple things, yet so wonderful. Delight feels really good.  I encourage you to decide on a few simple intentions for your day.  If you only choose one, I recommend delight.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fast Train

Lately I've noticed many people riding the same train of thought. It goes something like:

I don't want to become some kind of great bass player, I just want to learn to play a few songs.

For bass player you might substitute cook or writer or programmer or athlete or singer, pretty much anyone who's mastered a skill.  You might also substitute physical or environmental states like strong or rich.  The train of thought is the same.

For a while I'd hear this, something would tug at me and then I'd let it pass. As I watched more and more people jumping on the train I started asking about it.

"Wait, so you're saying you really wouldn't want to be a great bass player."

"Nope. I don't need to be great. I'm fine with just being able to play a few songs."

"I know you don't need to be great, but if you could be great would you want to?"

"No, not really."

"But what if you could suddenly become a great bass player.  Wouldn't that appeal to you."

"It might, but it's just not that important to me."

"OK. What if you were a great bass player? Would you give it up to be a mediocre bass player?"

"Uh... well know, of course not."

That's pretty much the thread of it. Doesn't matter the topic. When someone says they don't want to be a great this or that, it would seem that she doesn't really mean it. She means... Well, it could be any number of things.

It could mean: I don't believe I could be... 

It could mean: I don't want to take the time to...

It could mean: I'm too old to...

It could mean: I'm not the kind of person who...

It could mean...  Well, what does it mean when you say it? Are you riding the train to mediocrity?

The bass playing example is interesting to me because bass playing was my ticket on the train. As I practiced, I never envisioned becoming another Jaco Pastorius or Marcus Miller. I envisioned playing well enough to play with a band. I didn't want to become a great bass player.

However, when I walk myself through the same set of questions, I come to the same conclusion. If I were a great bass player, I'd never it give it up so that I could be mediocre.  My reasoning for lower expectations was an amalgam of the above: too much time, effort, etc,  your basic fodder of what is formally known as bullshit.

Even as I embarked on the train to greatness, I kept finding myself routing it down alternate tracks. A hesitation to believe I could do this. A steadfast belief that I couldn't do that. A compromise on how I might become the other thing. Even my finding myself on the wrong track became itself a reason to derail.

So, when I see it, I stop. I back up the train. I start again.

For example, when I noticed my belief that my hands aren't big enough, my fingers not long enough to play a full size bass, I bought a five string with an extra-wide neck. When I noticed my avoidance of material by Jaco Pastorius because he played it all on a fretless bass, I switched from the five string fretted bass to a fretless one modeled on his.

There's something about the train to mediocrity that makes it easy to board. You have to be diligent lest you find yourself aboard it: at least I do.

What train are you riding?

Happy Saturday,

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ev-er-y Day

One of the phrases that people often use when  describing me (sometimes with a hint of what I assume to be feigned annoyance) is, "He's one of those people who just decides to do something and then does it."

This statement is only partially true. I do tend to do what I decide to do. However, it's not due to my being "one of those people."  I just know the secret to fulfilling intentions. I don't even keep the secret, secret. I share it with anyone who will listen and many who won't.

The secret to fulfilling your long term intentions is: every day.

That's it. If you get "every day", then everything else is easy.

What do I mean by every day?

I mean this:

Whatever you set out to do, do it every day. You don't have to do it long. You don't have to do it hard. You only need do it every day.

If you want to implement a workout program, work out every day.

If you want to learn to play an instrument, play it every day.

If you want to become a writer, write every day.

Start with just ten minutes and don't worry about making progress. Pay attention only to consistency and being in the moment.

The reason everyday works is that it completely eliminates the question: Should I do it today, or wait until tomorrow?

If you do something three days a week, it's really easy to decide that you don't feel up for it on a given day. You put it off until the next day, but then something comes up. The following day, you're already a day behind and you wonder if it's even worth trying. Unless you're exceptionally and consistently optimistic or strong of will, you're unlikely to progress at the rate you'd like You're likely to quit, though quit is a bit strong; it's more like fading out.

However, when you do things every day, they become part of you. Working out, practicing your flugel horn, writing in your journal, pretty much anything become as part of your routine as eating or sleeping. Before you know it, you can't imagine not doing them.

That's it, really.

Now you might be thinking, "C'mon, there's got to be more to it than that."

After we got past, "How's what you're doing working for you?", I'd tell you, "Let's talk about that after you've tried every day for a month."

You might be thinking, "But I heard that you shouldn't work out every day. You should give your body time to recover."

I'd respond, "You probably don't want to work out badly every day (or any day), but if you pay attention to your body and change things up you can work out ever day. I've been working out about 350 days per year for the past seven years without issue."

The cool thing about everyday is that once you've got it, you don't really need it. Doing what you do becomes so ingrained that you can skip a day without breaking stride. Once you've got it, that is.

So what is it that you've started a hundred times but never maintained? Eating right? Cleaning the kitchen? Playing the guitar? Cooking? Writing your memoires? Learning French? Getting in shape?

I guarantee you that if you do it every day for a month, you'll substantially increase your likelihood of success. Do it every day for two months and it will become a part of you.

If it doesn't, come back and we'll talk about it.

Happy Friday,

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I hated the dark

As a child, I always needed a night light and it had to be really bright.  Those little barely lit wall things didn’t work for me.   I could see all kinds of things in the shadows.  In fact, may as well make the light one that’s overhead, or at least in a standing lamp.  That way, the shadows weren’t as scary.

The dark represents the unknown.  Well, the unknown for me, anyway.  If I can’t see it, I don’t know it.  Seeing isn’t confined to processing the input from my eyes.  If I can figure it out, then I control my own ability to see it or not.   I guess when things are important to me, I really want to be able to see it when I decide I want to be able to see it.  Darkness cannot be tolerated at all.

In my early 20’s I lived with my mom is a very cramped space.  I loved it.  I didn’t have to think about being alone in the dark.  We shared a bed.  When I got married I found out I didn’t mind the dark so much.  Company in the dark all the time definitely made the dark less dark.  Or maybe I wasn’t as preoccupied by looking in to the dark.  As a kid, I would spend inordinate amounts of time staring into the dark until exhaustion would overtake me and I’d finally succumb to sleep.  Isaiah in my bed somehow made the dark different.  I didn’t care as much.  I’d stick my hand out, and he was there. 

In therapy, they say that stressed systems don’t grow.  Years of not sleeping alone helped me to calm down considerably.   Darkness isn’t as much of a problem for me.  Actually, the unknown is just that, unknown.

A couple of days ago Jaedon hurried over to me and grabbed my hand.  He wanted the key to the kitchen that is typically in my pocket.  Before I could do my ‘Hi honey, what do you want?’, started yelling and grabbing at my arm.  I lost my balance and tried to steady myself, but he started screaming more, pushing me over further, then holding my clothes, pushing me.  I stumbled around like a toy, screaming in shock.  He continued pulling me around for a few more seconds until I regained my footing.  I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. 

Darkness.  That was all I could see.  Panic gripped my innards and I started to cry.  No, my eyes did not fill with tears and I let out a sniffle.  I cried, like I was 8 years old and had received an unjust whooping.   I stared into the darkness and could only see shadows.  I let my imagination run wild and cried some more.  Yes, I knew I had given him a new homeopathic remedy that morning, and I knew that he had been peeling portions of paint from the wall and eating it and I knew he was going through a parasite detox.  The few pinpoints of light were not enough.  Better to not have had them at all.  The darkness overwhelmed them and I cried.

Within 5 minutes, it was as if nothing had happened.  I was out of the bathroom talking calmly to J.  He was co-operating, asking me for something in the kitchen.  I was righting the chair and picking up the small remnants of our brief foray into the darkness.  The doorbell rang, and it was as if nothing had happened.  But something had happened.  The song in my head, “stand in the rain, stand your ground. Stand up when it’s all crashing down.” Repeated over and over. 

Later that night, I sat in the car, listening to music, praying, thinking.  I felt the darkness descend again.  I felt the panic.  I felt the tightening of my chest.  Then, the thought flashed through my mind.  Unknown is just that: unknown.  I can go into the unknown and explore it, if I want to.  Like those times when my glasses broke and I had to use my hands to figure out where the fallen pieces of glasses are, and the tape, to try to get them together again.  I can explore the darkness, even when I don’t want to.  And, when I really don’t want to explore, I can close my eyes and relax.  I can take a breath.  The darkness will be there until it’s not dark anymore.  In the mean time, I can co-exist with it and explore at my pace.  I reach over, my fingers wiggling in the dark, stretching across the space, and I feel Isaiah.  I lace my fingers through his, and take another breath.  He still helps me to calm down.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Ten-Times Faster

The thing about practicing is that you tend to learn whatever it is you practice. This may seem obvious, and it is at the surface. However, as I watch people practice, I'm pretty sure they haven't fully explored the implications of this simple statement.

I think the operative word is: whatever. You learn whatever you practice. If you practice the wrong pronunciation, you learn the wrong pronunciation. If you practice music halting for difficult passages, you learn to play haltingly and without rhythm. If you practice math problems sloppily, you learn to do math sloppily.

Practice is the most effective means of learning I've encountered. However, its being effective in no way guarantees that you'll get the results you desire. To get the desired results, you have to practice well. If you do, you can increase your productivity by a factor of ten.

Let's talk about this in the context of learning to play or sing music. There isn't much to it and you'll be able to extrapolate to pretty much anything else.
  1. Always practice with a click (a metronome). This will ensure that you play at a consistent pace and is a prerequisite for all that follows.
  2. Never practice anything faster than you play it well.

    When you play with a click and you have a piece with challenging sections, one of two things will happen. Either you'll play at the rate that is comfortable for the easier sections and fumble through the challenging ones, or, you'll play the easier sections at a super slow rate and play the challenging sections well.

    Without the click, you'd probably rush through the easier sections and slow down for the faster ones (that's a great way to learn to play with inconsistent tempo) or you'd just get used to screwing up the difficult parts (building a healthy cringe factor into your anticipation of them).
  3. Don't spend time on anything you know well.

    I can't tell you how many players, after pulling out their instruments, start playing exactly the same riff they always play. Many have an entire litany of phrases and passages that they know well and play every time they begin practicing. From an optimal practice perspective, this is a complete waste of time.

    To practice well, slow the metronome and dive into those sections that are most challenging (and likely least loved).
  4. Break down big chunks.

    Challenging sections are often long, specially when you've just started playing. If they're long, break them down into smaller chunks. Work each section one at the time, slowly increasing the tempo until you can play it a speed.

    Once you've got it, move on to the next challenging section.
  5. Work the transitions.

    Frequently someone who's taken time to break down a piece into sections and worked the sections individually will have difficulty putting them all together into a song. They'll set the metronome to a comfortable rate and start rolling through the song from the beginning. However, at the first transition from one section to the next, they'll hesitate or fumble.

    Rather than starting at the beginning and playing to the end, start practicing repeatedly the transitions from one section to the next. For example, if you have a bass line for the A section of a song and one for the B section, then work just the transition from A to B.

    Each time you work out a transitional kink, you'll have merged to sections into one. Work in this manner until you've merged all the sections in a complete song.
That's it: five easy steps to optimal practice.  Everyone I know who's put these to work has dramatically improved the effectiveness of their practice, squeezing months into weeks and even into days.

The caveat is that only about ten percent of the people with whom I've shared these techniques (people who've understood and agreed with them) ever really use them.

Happy Monday,

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Fir or Agin

Standing in the shower this morning it occurred to me that for years I've been misreading cues provided in the intonation, speech and body language of others. Okay, before those of you who know me say, "Well, duh!", I want to point out that I'm referring to my missing a specific set of cues, not my being generally cue-less.

What I realized is that it's totally obvious when people are asking questions in support of an idea and when they're asking questions only feigning to support an idea.  If you know all about this, then, well...  uh... why didn't you tell me about it?

Anyway, here's how it goes. You're standing in the shower one morning and you realize that it's totally easy to solve world hunger. In the midst of your consideration of whether you should first clean the kitchen or tackle the bathroom, you see a field of vegetables flourishing in the Sahara, burgeoning with growth, held back only by bureaucratic red tape supported by years of failed academic research.

You shout, "Ureka!"

Dripping wet at your desk, half-wrapped in a towel that should have been washed last week, you type frantically into your computer. The answer is as clear as day and you want to capture it before the fog of gotta-do drifts in and clouds your vision.

Satisfied that you've sufficiently documented your idea so as not to forget any of the salient points, you notice a crusty sensation on your skin. Glancing at your upper arm, you spie the the white flakes of dried soap. On the way back to the shower you toss your towel in the hamper and grab a fresh one.

Clean and dressed, you head out the door for work. Your mind cranks away at your great idea, simplifying it, augmenting it, ferreting out the finest details.

At the office you can't contain your excitement; you share your solution to world hunger with people standing around the coffee room.  One of the engineers rolls his eyes and says, "Yeah, but what about..."

Having thought through the details, you say, "Good question. I thought about that too. Here's the solution..."

A sales manager says, "OK, but who's ever going to want to..."

You say, "I thought about that too. I asked myself, 'who's going to benefit most from a system like this?' and I figured the best way to get support would be..."

You think, wow, these guys are really supportive of my idea.  They're asking all the right questions.


Back to the shower this morning.  I realized that not every question is supportive, that some people, in the guise of open discussion actually take potshots through questions they ask.

I immediately decided simply to never include anyone who pursues questions in this manner in anything I do.

The tricky part is identifying them.  The subject of the question doesn't necessarily distinguish an idea assassin from and idea enabler.  Nope, you've gotta look at the phrasing.  For example, "Yeah, but what about..." is way different than "How can we best address..."

Of course there are the more obvious tells such as eye-rolling, head-shaking, dismissive hand gestures and exasperated sighs. The main thing is to determine whether questions are being asked in a supportive, wanna-do-it manner or in a dismissive, shut-this-down manner.  Because in the end, who has time for the latter.

How do you greet new ideas? Do you open-mindedly explore them or do you dismiss them.  Do you feign entertaining them by asking questions that only highlight why the idea would never work or do you use questions that enhance understanding?

Happy Saturday,

Friday, May 4, 2012


The other day as Luke and I talked about writing software, Luke said, "In the end there's exactly one optimal way to do something. Wouldn't you agree with that?"

I said, "Well, yes and no. There are lots of situational factors to take into account. If money's no object, but time is of the essence, then you optimize one way. However, if you're short on funds and have more time than you know what to do with, then you optimize another way."

"Yeah, but still, all things being equal, then there's just one optimal way to do something, right?"

"Right, theoretically."


"Yeah, it's only in theory that all things are ever equal. However, if it were the case, then there would be only one optimal path. After all, optimal is a superlative."

Our discussion got me to thinking about optimizing. The first question is: optimize what?

It's easy to optimize if you know what you want to optimize. Do want something to be the cheapest? The quickest? The best? The most colorful? The easiest to maintain? The most durable?

Each of these goals determines a vector (or path) of optimization. If you're clear on what you want, them optimizing is easy; you can pretty much google the answer.

What happens when you want more than one outcome, when you want something done cheaply, quickly and well? What if the goals are at odds with one another? There's an old saying in engineering: cheap, fast or good, pick two.

Sometimes, you have to pick. What exactly do you want to optimize? You have a great band that gets along well. You enjoy playing together and like each other. Your drummer isn't great, but he gets by and is fun to be with.  One day you're approached by an amazing drummer with lots of connections; he'd like to join your band. You know that having him in the band would get you a lot more gigs and help you to land a recording contract. What's the optimal path?

You're having a party and your house catches fire. You've got a 100 buckets down in the garage and pond full of water. You could wait for the fire department or get everyone to grab a bucket and carry water from the pond. However, your partiers may get their clothes muddy and some are wearing expensive party outfits. What's the optimal path?

In the end, everything we do is optimized. The question is not one of whether or not, it's one of: to what end?  To what end is your method optimized? Time and money? Entertainment value? Educational value? Building relationships? Destroying relationships? Being recognized? Remaining anonymous?

You might say that no one ever has a problem making something optimal.  The challenge lies in aligning the optimization with the goals.

Here's the thing: if you ever notice that your goals and methods are not aligned, then forget about optimizing. Instead, identify the goals towards which your methods are aligned and spend time reconciling your real goals with the goals you thought you had.

Real goals? Thought you had?

Yup. Your real goals are not always your stated goals. For example, your stated goal might be to finish college and get a good job, whereas you're real goal is to make your mom proud of you or to get your dad off your back. Your stated goal might be to become a guitar god, when you're real goal is to become a chick-magnet.

Sometimes we state our goals so frequently and vociferously that we start to buy into them. After all, the best liars are the ones who believe the lie. You might argue that when you buy into your stated goals and become a true believer, that your stated goals become your real goals?

That could be, but I doubt it. Whenever you do this, you sense an undercurrent of anxiety and doubt.  Although you believe, you doubt. Something nags at you from inside, something on which you can't put your finger.  So you sincerely believe, but you don't believe.

How does a true believer discover that he's fooled himself. First you pay attention to your internal nagger and follow up on your suspicions.  Second, you look at all the places where you seem to be shooting yourself in the foot because your goals and methods don't align; it seems that your methods aren't optimized.

Rather than forcing alignment, you take a look at where your methods are taking you. Your methods and how they're optimized are like a compass always pointing at your true goals. Follow the compass needle and you'll float right past your stated goals to the ones you hold internally.

Once you see them, you might think, "Hmm... do I really want to go here?"

You may find your true goals distasteful. You may find your true goals impossible. You may find your true goals impractical or juvenile.  Nonetheless, optimization doesn't lie.

Do you ever consider yourself to be your own worst enemy? Do you frequently shoot yourself in the foot? Perhaps your goals aren't really your goals. Towards what goals are you optimized?

Happy Friday,

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Scary girl

I made some changes to the document.  I'll email it to you.
You already did.  We should talk about that.
I did?  I'm more efficient than I thought.
You are! You?  You're scary.  Isaiah doesn't even know  With this, he chuckled to himself and went into his car.  Although such comments are meant as veiled compliments, I hear a double message.  Stay away from the scary girl.

Often, the best time for me to do something is when I'm thinking about it.  If the solution, or the system is actively developing in my mind, it's best I document it or implement it.  That gives me breathing room, thinking room.  Not creating or implementing my thoughts (even on paper) feels like ... anxiety... like a buzz that needs to be calmed down. So, I may focus on something for a few hours or days and empty my head.  Then, I'll leave it for a while.  It's as if I have to replenish my thoughts.  Usually, in that time, I'm thinking about something else.

People who want to work with me get my most creative self when they get me at peak interest.  That's not hard to do, since I'm generally curious and interested in many things.  Unfortunately, that very interest works against me.  Here's how it plays out.  You approach me about doing something.  I listen with interest and decide if I can and what I can do, give you some general ideas and we part company.  That night, I email you my thoughts and perhaps within a few days, you have a 10 page document describing whatever it was and detailing next steps.  You respond with enthusiasm.  I don't hear from you for a year.

Usually, the project is one that I'm interested in but can't commit to, so I love the idea of living vicariously through others who own the idea. I'm genuinely excited about seeing the thing we talked about brought to reality.  When I do the first leg of my part and don't see any further action, I feel dissapointment.  There are also times when I'm interested in helping the various parties hone their skills around the thing they are asking me to do.  They say they are interested in that too.  I then do my part and throw the ball back to them.  The sound of the crickets chirping in the night is deafening in the silence. The silence seems to matter.

Why does it matter?  What am I making of the silence?  What stories am I making up?  Well for one, I'm believing that my enthusiasm for the project is somehow off-putting and that people are uncomfortable with that.  Perhaps because of their discomfort, they won't want to work with me in the future and I may lose opportunities.... Hmm, well, if my approach to these projects were as scary to others as I make them up to be, I wouldn't be so busy!  So maybe that's not true.  And, even if I was scaring people away, maybe those aren't the people I should have a long term relationship with.

If I go with this idea that people aren't fragile, then I don't need to protect them from their own discomfort.  Since I'm also not fragile, I can give my best gift and process my discomfort as it comes.  If they never come back, they will neither be the last client, nor the last friend/associate I will ever have.  Since I get so much pleasure from doing all this, I have decided to change what what matters.  My doing, my engagement, the buzz I get from offering my best self and my gift to whoever I'm partnering with, that's what I'm making matter.  That way, I'm not tied to the end result.  Or rather, my end result is different.  Now the end game is my full engagement in something that I'm genuinely interested and have time for (determining the latter is where I may need some help).

I love what I do.  So much.  It's scary.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What Do You Expect?

The U.S. Navy Seabees are the construction battalion (CB) of the United States Navy. During World War II, CB morphed into Seabee. The Seabees built thousands of barracks, buildings, bases, runways roadways and just about anything else that needed building, often under challenging conditions with limited resources. Although their official motto is Construimus, Batuimus (We Build, We Fight), their unofficial motto is: The difficult task we accomplish right away, the impossible may take a little longer!

The other day I spoke with my son Luke who'd call to chat as he drove home from work. Luke recently began a new job developing database software. One of the most challenging aspects of his job is estimating the time required to perform a specific assignment. Some things that seem challenging at first end up being quite easy. Some things that seem quite easy, end up being a bit more challenging than expected.

I told him that this was par for the course. You can't foresee all the potential pitfalls in a plan at its onset, specially if you're attempting to do something that's never been done or at least something that you've never done. If your project requires a team, then planning is even more difficult. You have to take into account  resource availability, communications overhead, and each individual's skill and capacity. Most importantly you have to consider each individual's attitude. What does she expect from herself and her team.

Over the years, many research studies have been conducted on the improving the productivity of software engineers. Researchers have compared the efficacy of programming methods, software development tools and environments, and programming languages. Despite millions of dollars and decades of research, the debate over the best methods, tools and environments continues with near religious ferver.

In fact, only one factor has shown itself to consistently influence the outcome: exceptional (3-sigma) programmers are about ten-times more productive than great (2-sigma) programmers. It doesn't matter which tools you give them; it doesn't matter in which language they code; the best programmers will always significantly outperform the great ones.

One could attribute this difference to any number of factors: experience, education, talent, skill. However, I think it may come down to just one: expectation. Every exceptional programmer I've ever worked with has had ingrained into her psyche the unofficial motto of the Seabees: The difficult task I accomplish right away, the impossible may take a little longer!

Or as my friend Jonathan would have said: How hard could it be?

What's all this got to do with playing bass guitar, you ask? (I know, you didn't ask, but that's how I got onto this train of thought.)

Friday morning as I sit in my office playing my bass guitar (see For the Joy of It) I notice that my expectations for my playing are low. Sure, I enjoy playing. I play well enough to perform and record pop, rock and simple jazz tunes. However, I don't expect myself to become a great bassist.

Why not?

I prepare to embark on a deep exploration of the question, when the answer pops into my head: Indeed, why not? How hard could it be?

So, right then and there I decide to become a great bassist.  I get onto youtube, skip past all the basic and introductory stuff, and jump right into advanced grooves and solos. The impossible may take a bit longer, but hey, it's amazing how much difference expectations make.

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

For the Joy of It

Although I've played bass guitar since high school, a few weeks back I started learning bass guitar.

Prior to that I'd only ever played out of necessity. If the bass player doubled on organ and the band needed someone to play bass, I'd play. If during a mixdown the tracks played by the band's bassist weren't cutting it, I'd overdub them. If the bass player didn't show, I'd cover.  Although I'd played bass frequently, I'd never actually sat down with a bass to practice.

One afternoon about three weeks ago, my mind full of code that isn't going anywhere, I glance up at the wall and notice my bass.  Have you ever looked at someone and felt like you were seeing her for the first time? You've known her forever, but you've never taken time to look at her, to notice the creases around her eyes, the shape of her upper lip or the line of her jaw.

I leave my code where it is was, grab my bass, plug into the amp and start to play.

I stop.

I turn the bass over in my lap and examine it, scanning from top to bottom, running my hands up and down the neck. I hold it up to eye level and check out the string height. I turn it over to test the quarter-inch jack to see if it needs tightening. I slowly twist each of the knobs, my fingers searching for any hesitation or resistance.

Satisfied that everything is working well, I re-situate myself, set the bass in my lap and tune. I take my time. I first tune by ear simply listening to the intervals. I test my work comparing the overtones of adjacent strings, listening for the beating patterns that occur when a string is just a bit off.

I stop. I breathe. It occurs to me that I've never taken this long to prepare to play, certainly not with a bass guitar.

I close my eyes and pluck a groove from the groove garden that seems to bloom perennially in my head.

I open my eyes and look at the fretboard. My left hand slides up the E-string to the fifth fret. My right elbow shifts to the right positioning my thumb and index finger just above the lower pickup.

I stop.

I close my eyes and explore the strings with the fingers of my right hand, calibrating the distances between each pair. I caress the top string with my thumb taking time to enjoy the texture and density. I roll my left hand back and forth around the neck and find just the spot land my thumb.

As I grip the bass to play, I notice for the first time how massive it is, it's five strings, broad neck and dense body designed to provide a deep, long-lasting resonance. It's much heavier than your average bass, more substantial.

I focus. I pace my breathing. I visualize my hands and fingers. I drink in the sensations they provide me. I play.

An hour later, I stop.

No massage has ever been so relaxing, no meditation so calming.

Standing in the shower this morning, I felt an undercurrent of anticipation as I thought about playing my bass. As I toweled off, I thought, "Hmm... why don't I feel that way about everything else?"

Then I thought, "Good question."

Happy Friday,