Saturday, March 30, 2013

Practice Makes Perfect?

There's an old saying, "Practice makes perfect."

It's a phrase that is, as a professor at Berklee would would write in the margin after reading a particularly bad answer to a test question, "not even wrong."

In his class, a "not even wrong" answer earned you negative points (versus zero points awarded a "just plain wrong" answer) and I think that's the case here.

It's not that practice can't lead to perfection; it's that there's no direct correlation between practice and perfection. Practicing simply reinforces and more deeply embeds whatever it is you practice. Practice perfectly, and yeah, you move towards perfection; practice sloppily and you move towards slop. Practice rigidly... practice thoughtlessly... practice anxiously... practice clearly... practice precisely...

Regular practice is a power tool that speeds you towards whatever it is you practice. Like any power tool, if you don't pay attention you can end having moved away from, not toward your goal.

I see it all the time with musicians who seem never to get much better no matter how much they practice. In fact, there are many musicians who would do well not to practice as practice seems to make them worse.

Watching an unskilled musician trying to quickly learn a new selection of music is like watching an unskilled carpenter removing a blemish from a countertop with a belt sander. The latter may indeed manage to remove all traces of the blemish while introducing something new: a hole. The former may learn all the notes while managing to further embed a terrible sense of time or pitch.

A turn of the phrase may be a bit more accurate. Practice perfects whatever you practice. It perfects anxiety. It perfects calm. It perfects precision. It perfects flailing. It perfects intonation. It perfects being out of tune.

The important thing to note is that practice ALWAYS perfects what you practice, whether the practice is deliberate and organized or the casual consequence of daily activity. Embedding and making stronger whatever you practice (casually or deliberately) is unavoidable.

So what?

That's it really, unless there are things in your life you'd like to learn to do better or are actively working on doing better. It there are, then you might want to begin to a) identify all the times and places that you practice (casually or deliberately) and b) start paying closer attention to what it is you're actually practicing.

If you want to become more calm and at ease, then the time you spend meditating is but a small portion of your daily practice. If you want to get better painting detail, then your time in front of an easel represents a fraction of your opportunity to practice. It's amazing how much practice one can accomplish when she becomes aware of all the opportunities.

Once you see the opportunities, the next step is to seize them in a way that moves you toward your goal. The primary requisite for this is being able to discern in which direction you're moving. It doesn't matter how hard you practice a song if you don't hear pitch or timing. It doesn't matter how fine your brush if you can't see the detail. It doesn't how often you practice calculus if you haven't nailed addition and subtraction.

This gets to the tricky part of practice. No matter how advanced you believe yourself to be or think you "should" be, the thing tripping you up may be so basic that you'd never consider practicing it. Yet, unless you address the really basic stuff, it doesn't really matter how hard or long you practice the advanced stuff. Sometimes you have to step way back and work fundamentals, specially if you feel embarrassed or stupid about it (these feelings would be a good clue that you've found the problem.)

Yup, that's about it. Practice perfects what you practice.

So what will you practice today? When will you be practicing? How well will you practice?

Happy Saturday,

Friday, March 29, 2013


Sometimes you think, "Why bother?"


I don't think it very often.

When I do, it's not a passing thought. The size of the phrase is inversely proportional to the magnitude of emotion it expresses.

A trace-route of the phrase to its source always leads to a sudden change in expectation. The thought is an oxygen mask dropping from some overhead compartment deep in my brain as the ambient air pressure drops below zero and transitions to vacuum.

I'm good with zero expectations. I thrive in situations where expectations are so low that no one is contending for the opportunity to address a challenge lest they get stuck with the blame should they not succeed. The expectations of others have little effect on me other than logistically.

However, there's something about that sudden shift in expectation that leaves me feeling, well, sad.

It's the only time I use the word to describe me.

To be clear, the changes in expectation to which I refer always have to do with people, not situations. I thought not to mention this, but perhaps it isn't obvious. Sudden changes in situational expectation don't have this effect on me (or any effect for that matter).

Nope, the barometric shift that leaves me with "Why bother?" always occurs in my expectations of people.

It's not that I'm a humanist. It's just that sudden changes in expectations of people are so easily avoided. At first they leave me feeling angry, stupid or both (usually both). I feel stupid because there's never a reason for the change to have been sudden; the cues will have been there all along, but I'll have ignored them.

The angry part is largely attributable to the stupid part; I get mad at myself for not having seen and acted upon the obvious. However, it's often exacerbated by the changer of expectation not owning the change, but instead, insisting that he or she is the victim of the change, not the perpetrator thereof.

I know it's not a reasonable motivation to be angry; it's silly, but, nonetheless, anger tends to be my first response.

Both are quickly displaced by denial and a lot of "maybe if I were to...", and then by, "why bother?"

Stupid passes. Anger passes. Then there's just sad.

The sadness is really just the tails of denial as it makes its way round the corner and out of sight.

Once denial is gone, once I've established equilibrium in the new expectation, I'm good to go (or will be in this case.)

I don't know where my experience falls on the spectrum from common to unique; I'm just trying to figure it out by typing.

Pretty soon to be happy Friday,

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

It Don't Mean a Thing

I often hear people talk about discomfort as if discomfort were a reason for doing or not doing something.

"I understand what you want, but I'm just not comfortable with it."

"At first I thought it was good idea, but then I got this funny feeling about it."

"I'm just not comfortable with my ability to pull this off."

I'm sure you've heard it too. It's reached epidemic proportions. In fact, the use of discomfort as a reason has become so pervasive, that it's rarely questioned when invoked.

Of course, the first question that springs to mind is, "So..."

You can end it with a simple "what?" or you can be more specific.

Fact is that everyone who attempts anything significant experiences discomfort with it. Every home purchase is followed by a period of buyer's remorse. Every new wedding vow is followed by a "but what if." Discomfort is a natural response to making a real decision, i.e., one that has consequences and can't be easily changed. It's a natural side effect of significant and irreversible change.

As such, the first thing to know about discomfort with decision and change is that the discomfort doesn't actually mean anything about the specific decision or change. Prisoners often feel the same discomfort with leaving prison that they did with arriving at prison. Home owners often feel the same sense of discomfort buying a house that they do selling one.

There have been studies of people using meds for hypertension where no matter how often the dosage is increased or the prescription changed, their blood pressure levels first drop and then slowly return to their original levels. Why? Because they felt uncomfortable with the reduced blood pressure (e.g., sluggish or impotent). As the meds began working, they'd counteract them by, for example, maintaining a steady state of agitation.

Discomfort is just a phenomenon associated with change. It causes us to be wary and alert. It lets us know that we're doing something significant. However, it doesn't mean anything about the specifics of the change. It's not an indicator of right or wrong correct or incorrect. They're not related in the slightest way.

Discomfort is NOT a reason.

Happy Wednesday,

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Scarlet glasses, trees, grass and sky

I usually make decisions pretty quickly, .... then second guess the decision to death.  The second guessing is such torture.  Why do I do that?

At the ophthalmologist's office, yielding to the need for reading glasses and resisting transitions or bifocals, I decided to get 2 pairs of glasses.  That's a big deal.  I usually wear a single pair of glasses until they are falling apart and all the coatings are peeling off.  A bigger deal still was my decision to get scarlet frames for distance and royal blue frames for reading and moving around the house.  This is after 20+ years of black, brown and titanium frames.  It took me 10 minutes to choose the frames and several days of asking my daughter Did you really think those red frames look ok? or asking myself  Red???   Isaiah looked at them and said They're flashy and my panicked response was What does that mean??

A few months ago, I decided that I wanted to look out my window and see trees, grass and sky, not brick and siding.  That meant moving a little out of the city so I'd find a Metro North train stop, drop a pin on the map at that location, and search for houses in the area.  4 weeks ago, we saw an old farm house in Yorktown Heights that's big enough for our family, with views of trees, grass and sky from almost every window, plus acres of woods.  I'd dreamed of having that amount of space to myself. I saw the house and liked it.  We signed the lease after getting permission to Jaedon-proof the house and yard.  It was a total of 2 weeks from seeing it to signing the lease and we only looked at 2 houses.  It was a quick decision.

Yet, I split my time between excited anticipation and trepidation.  The opportunities morph into challenges with the blink of an eye, and to convince me that I'm not quite all there, when I blink again, the challenge is gone.  It's a far cry from the Bronx.

I decided last week to register Jaedon in school in our new school district.  It was a very quick decision. It just felt right.  Before this, whenever I thought of Jay in school I felt nauseous (similar to how I feel when I think of getting a typical 9-5 job), yet something shifted, and it felt like a great idea, an opportunity.  Yesterday morning, I was doing my usual brain split between opportunity and challenge and in a second, I decided to stay with the opportunity.  As I gave Jay his breakfast, I told him about the new school, new friends, the new people who would love and play with him.  I decided the hold onto that firmly and not juggle it with the other panic laced thoughts that knock on the windows of my mind (will we get him in clothes to go to school?  Will he stay in clothes while at school?). And it felt good. It's good to anticipate and to celebrate and to hope and to enjoy, even when I don't know how things will turn out.

As I write, I'm figuring out some things about the crutch of second guessing.  I'll save those for another blog post.  Do you ever second guess your decisions even when you knew they were good decisions?  If you do, why do you?

I'm taking the lid off the celebrating and loving the smell of change.  I'm looking forward to the new space, even though I'm still not sure how all the packing will happen.  I'm anticipating new opportunities for Jaedon even though I don't exactly know what they are or how they are going to work out, and I'm really loving the scarlet glasses!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Insurmountable Opportunity

There are times that you find yourself faced with insurmountable opportunity and you just don't know where to begin. So what do you do?

A sage might advise you to take a step back and gain some perspective, to not rush in, to consider all the angles and take your time. This is sound advice. The only problem with this approach is that opportunity is often fleeting, by the time you've stepped back, it's gone. By the time you've gained perspective, there's no evidence that it existed.

The other night, Iris and I experienced a microcosm of opportunity to be seized upon or forever lost. It was 1:00 AM on a cold Saturday morning. We were returning home from a gig, our Ford Flex packed to the ceiling with amplifiers and instruments. It had snowed on-and-off all day and I'd made several passes of our driveway using our ATV with a 60" plow-blade to clear the way, making a last pass just before we left for the gig at 3:00PM.

I turn off the highway onto our driveway. Iris is asleep in the passenger's seat. The driveway feels a little slick, but not too bad. It's about a half mile from our house to the highway and a two-hundred-foot rise from the highway to the house. The first half of the driveway rises relatively slowly: the second, quickly. 

As we make our way up the first half, the surface becomes noticeably slicker, but not too bad. Because of the rise it can be two-to-six degrees colder at the house than down by the highway. At the house we can have snow or ice when there's none below. Halfway home, we make the turn to head up the steep section. As the incline increases, I have to modulate my use of the gas pedal to avoid spinning the wheels.

Halfway to the top, I turn slightly to take the steepest section. The Flex rolls forward smoothly, but even my slightest attempts at acceleration cause the wheels to spin. As we climb our momentum slows and just a few feet from the crest the Flex stops altogether. 

I think, "No problem. I'll just put it into park and we'll walk the rest of the way to the top."

As I press the brake and reach for the gear shifter, the Flex begins sliding backwards. My foot pushes the brake to the floor, but does nothing to slow our backward momentum. 

I think, "Uh, oh."

Apparently, I say it too, because Iris stirs and begins to wake up.

I decide to drive backwards down the driveway, except I can't see. The truck is full of gear and there's so much cloud cover that we have almost no ambient light. 

As the Flex accelerates backwards, I am faced with an insurmountable opportunity. The driveway is surrounded by trees and a culvert. There's little margin for error. However, in my mind's eye I see that the section sliding past our immediate right has no trees and a bit of space. 

I crank the wheel to the right, and release the brake. The rear of the car slides into the clearing as the front spins downhill. When the car is perpendicular to the driveway, I spin the wheel in the other direction and hit the brakes again. The rear wheels become a pivot as the front continues it's downward spin. A fraction of a second later, I turn the wheels center and release the brakes. We're still heading downhill, but at least it's in the forward direction. 

The incline slowly decreases and we come to a stop. I look at Iris who's looking at me. She says, "What happened? We were going one way and then sideways and then the other way."

I notice that my heart is pumping hard. I say, "Yup, that's about it."

It's easy to see insurmountable opportunities that must be acted upon or lost when they're presented by an icy driveway at 1:00AM. It can be a bit more challenging at other times. Nonetheless, sometimes you just have to act not knowing exactly how things will turn out, but taking each step as it comes.

Happy Monday,

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A book trip

During a purple patch in the middle of spring last year, I did some reading that was entertaining, edifying, and ultimately, life-enhancing: all qualifications for sharing on this blog. I had even written this blog post immediately afterward, but the intention to post only found fulfillment now.

First up is Self-Compassion, by Kristin Neff. I had first heard about it on DailyGood (more about that later), and had resolved to read it based on just a brief description of the subject. I was already a strong advocate of compassion, and what better place in which to start its practice than oneself? But upon discovering that the author was a primary character in The Horse Boy, a book (and movie) of particular fascination to me, I hastened to check it out immediately. For those of you who haven’t read The Horse Boy, it’s an enthralling narrative featuring a boy with autism, horses (obviously) and Mongolia (not so obviously). But Self-Compassion is worth a read even if you don’t have any particular interest in horses or boys. It pulls from diverse influences, such as Buddhism and India, but what added most to the power of the book were the searingly honest looks at the author’s personal experiences.

I normally don’t pick up books at random from the library shelves, but made an exception for this one: Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, by Dan Buettner. I can’t say its insights into finding happiness were especially illuminating, but it certainly made for an entertaining read, especially the descriptions of life in Denmark, Singapore and Mexico, each of which topped their respective continents on surveys of happiness. I was fascinated to find that despite the fact that a large proportion of Danes belong to clubs and associations, they would tend to call the police if you smiled, waved and said Hi to one on the street. And when a Danish man was asked what he would think if his neighbor were to purchase a shiny new BMW one day, he responded by saying he would think the neighbor was feeling insecure about his manliness. Similar idiosyncratic tidbits are sprinkled throughout, lending a very personal feel to the book.

Along the way, I also thumbed through Daniel Goleman’s Social Intelligence, but it somehow didn’t grab me in the same way his earlier book did, the more well-known “Emotional Intelligence”. There’s a lot of research presented, much of it interesting in itself, but it didn’t seem to come together very well.

And finally, I'll Mature When I'm Dead, penned by one of my very favorite authors, a literary giant in his genre, and a social commentator of keen insight and wit: Dave Barry. For those who haven’t been hooked yet to his irreverent and often insightful brand of humor, here’s a sample:

The greatest Greek physician of all was Hippocrates, who is often called ``the father of modern medicine'' because he invented the concept that remains the foundation of all medical care as we know it today: the receptionist. Prior to this invention, when patients came to see the doctor, the doctor had to actually see them, which, as you can imagine, took up a lot of his valuable time because they were always nattering on and on about being sick. But all of a sudden, thanks to Hippocrates, incoming patients could be intercepted by a receptionist, who would (1) tell them to take a seat, and then (2) avoid making eye contact with them for the rest of the afternoon. This breakthrough meant that a single doctor could schedule as many as 375 appointments per hour, which is the system we still use today.

Any books tickled your fancy lately?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Not Knowing

For a variety of reasons, software has always come easily for me.

When I first started learning software, I expected anything but that experience. I'd never been good at math. I'd done poorly in school. I had a hard time reading and I didn't write well.

As I began teaching myself the UNIX shell, a basic line editor, and the use of regular expressions,  I had low expectations. I knew so little about software that I had no reference points against which to gauge my progress. Besides, I was so enamored with what I was learning that it didn't occur to me to measure.

It was only when others saw and commented on the product of my work that it began to dawn in me that I might actually be pretty good at it. Even as I was skip-leveled up the ladder of software employment titles, it didn't occur to me that I was particularly good; I just saw myself as making up for lost time.

Later, managers would give me the work that had previously been assigned to teams of ten-to-fifteen people with the expectation that I would complete it faster.

I would.

Yet even then, I didn't see myself as particularly good. I just saw the team as particularly bad.

It's only recently (i.e., thirty years later) that I've started to see that I might be somewhat exceptional when it comes to software. It's a funny thing to articulate as such because I've always thought about software being easy, not me being good. I mean, software is infinitely easier than music, right?

So, let's say that software isn't generally easy, that most people would have trouble writing an operating system or an optimizing compiler. Why does it come easily to me? This is the question I woke up with this morning.

I don't believe that it has anything to do with your usual suspects, e.g., intellect or visual acuity or perseverance. Sure, these attributes can make a difference. However, I know many people with them that still can't begin to do the kinds of things that I can do with software and certainly not as quickly. (BTW, if you don't know me that well, all this may sound like a load of horse dung.)

Nope, I it's something else.

OK, here goes. The key to my being able to do things in software that would take others who are really good at software about ten times longer is this: I'm completely comfortable not knowing.

That's it. I'm comfortable not knowing a language. I'm comfortable not knowing exactly how I'm going to do something. I'm comfortable not knowing if I can do something. I'm comfortable not quite knowing what the something is.

People who do software tend to cling to knowing. They want to know the requirements. They want to know the dates. They want to work with tools they've used for years. They want to know the rules. They're comfortable only when they know. I'm comfortable not knowing. Moreover, I actively seek situations where I don't know, when I have the opportunity to learn with a deadline.

Yup, that's it. The real difference lies in thriving in, actively seeking, and moving forward in situations where you have to adapt in the moment to whatever comes your way. It's more than a preference. It's a skill that can be practiced and learned. It's a skill that transcends modes of expression.

For example, I often perform with musicians with whom I've never rehearsed, playing songs I've never played (and in some instances I've never heard.) I love those situations and prepare for them.

How do I prepare?

Not by asking for song-lists and learning songs ahead of time, but instead, by spending time playing songs that I've heard on the radio but never learned. I practice playing what I don't know.  Similarly, rather than learning a new language and then developing a program, I develop a program to learn the language. I get the basics of the language and then, rather than looking up how this or that works, I assert based on what I know already. It's akin to playing by ear.

I'm going out on a limb here, but I would suggest that learning to operate well in situations where you don't know (what, where, when, how, etc.) may be the single most useful skill one can acquire.

Just a thought.

Happy Thursday,

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Lie by Any Other Name

After reading his post, Not So Simple, in which Sree showed how the simple present tense is anything but simple, it occurred to me that using the simple present is a great way to lie. I then started to think about seemingly endless number of ways that people lie.

In english, the use of the simple present tense can mask any number of lies. The lies are twisted in a way that makes it hard to identify them. Yet, there's often something about a statement that nags at you and makes you think, "Hmm..."

For example, the statement "Teflon writes this blog" is simple and straightforward, but it lacks completeness and therefore, clarity. Yes, Teflon writes this blog, but is he the only one who writes it? Is he even the most frequent contributor?  Based on the simple statement, on might easily conclude that Teflon is the sole author, though he's not.

"Susan gets angry" might be true enough, but it may occur only once in a blue moon. If one were to try to clarify or contest it, the person making the statement might counter with another simple present statement, "So, are you trying to tell me that Susan does not get angry?"

As Sree pointed out, statements made in the simple present tense imply habitual activity; there's a built in always or never.

Unnecessary Dichotomy
The simple present tense makes it easy to set up a quite common form of lying, the unnecessary dichotomy, the forced yes-or-no answer so popular among television lawyers. "So Mr. Antwerp, do you or do you not get still beat your wife? Please answer the question, yes or no!"

Whenever I see this on TV, I think, "Hmm... to answer the question as stated would be to purger oneself. Why not just say, 'I took an oath not to lie. So I can't answer your question as stated."

People use unnecessary dichotomy all the time as a way to evade telling or looking at the truth.

You have to pick; you can either be happy or you can have lots of money. 

You can't have your cake and eat it.

Fish or chicken?

Sometimes the dichotomy is more subtle. Consider the statement:

It takes time to become a great musician.

This is a form of unnecessary dichotomy. Do you see it?

A more obvious version would be:

You can either take little time and become a poor musician or much time and become a great musician

The statement leaves out two important alternatives: 1) take much time and become a poor musician, and 2) take little time and become a great musician. Any of the four combinations is a valid alternative. However, the form makes it difficult to see any but one.

Localizing Experience
A great way to lie is to appeal to your someone's immediate experience. This is a favorite of advertisers and cigarette companies. If someone says, "Smoking causes cancer", you say, "Hey, I've been smoking for five years and I don't have cancer."

If someone says, "Look, to really play well, you need to work with a metronome daily", you say, "Charlie down the block plays really well and he's never used a metronome."

It won't matter that you get cancer next year just as long as you don't have cancer now. It won't matter that Charlie can't hold a candle to anyone in the next town just as long as he's the best guitar player in your town.

Cause and Coincidence
A lie popular among PhD's, lawyers and news pundits is the confusion of causal relationships and coincidental relationships. Two things occur at nearly the same time; therefore, 1) they are related, and 2) the first to occur caused the second. This form of lie is best perpetrated on oneself.

You start sneezing. You notice that Harry just walked into the room. You conclude that you're allergic to Harry. You ignore the fact that about twenty minutes ago Fred opened the window.

You get nervous before playing. You make fewer mistakes. You believe you played "better". You ignore the fact that you also didn't attempt to play anything the least bit challenging or interesting.

The fact that two things occur in rapid succession or simultaneously may or may not have any bearing on whether or not one caused the other.

Going to Extremes
A secret weapon of liars who feel cornered is to state the extreme opposite of what's being tested. This form is used frequently by those who struggle with various forms of "addiction". You suggest to someone that not everything is "happening" to him, that he could start to take responsibility for how he feels and how he responds to things.

He recognizes that what you're saying might be right, but doesn't want to deal with the responsibility, so he says, "I'm not some kind of robot who can control every little emotion!"

He morphs taking a step towards personal responsibility into a task that not even the Dalai Lama could undertake.

Drown Them with Detail
A favorite of those with lots of knowledge but limited skill is to provide an "exhaustive" response. When confronted with a question you don't want to answer, respond with so much information that your audience falls asleep or commits suicide before you actually get to point of answering the question. If asked to get to the point, insist that the background information is critical to fully understanding it.

True, but So What
The best liars never actually say anything that is untrue. Instead, they simply say truths that are utterly irrelevant to the current question. The may use a lot of connecting phrases to make it appear as though what they said was relevant. They make use keywords that match those found in the question so that the same google search would pull up their answer and your question. Nonetheless, they never actually answer what was asked.

Wether you want to become a better liar or simply want to become better at spotting lies, any of the above can go a long way to getting you there.

Happy Tuesday,

Thursday, March 7, 2013


One of the cool things about models is that, well, they're just models. Models ways to think about things that make it easier to understand context and implication. Models can be built upon and extended to accommodate new ways of thinking. A model can be discarded when it's no longer the most useful way to think about something.

The problem with models is that they often cease to be seen as such. Models have this uncanny ability to morph into truths. Models that become truths often draw adherents and proponents, morphing from truth to religion (secular and spiritual). In some instances, pervasive adherence to a model makes it nearly impossible to see that it's just a model, even for those who don't particularly like or believe in the model.

All this doesn't doesn't change the fact that a model is just a model. A model is a way of thinking about something, not a replacement for thinking about something. A model is a means, not an end; it's a process, not a purpose.

The ADHD Model
For example, autism and ADHD are models. They're ways of thinking about patterns of behavior, what causes them and how to change them. Autism and ADHD don't exist per se; they're models.

In many instances these models are quite useful. However, like any model, they can be limiting, specially when applied by those who've learned them second and third hand.

From a model perspective, people with ADHD have sensory systems that are nominally under-stimulated and people with autism have sensory systems that are easily over-stimulated. Someone who's bought into the models might point out that the stimulus-response patterns of someone with ADHD or someone with autism are consistent with this model.

This belief would have two challenges. First, the observed stimulus-response patterns are likely to have led to the diagnosis or classification. So it's not that people with ADHD are under-stimulated; it's that people who are nominally under-stimulated are tagged as having ADHD.

Second, the patterns of under- and over-stimulation are not consistently displayed. Someone with ADHD (nominally under-stimulated) may encounter situations that are over-stimulating. Someone with autism may find relief in strong-stimulation. Further, the forms of under- and over-stimulation may seem bizarre to someone from outside the pattern.

Blinded by Models
For example, a child with autism may flap his fingers in front of his eyes or rock back and forth or bang his head against a wall. To many adherents to the model, these activities lack any reason or function. They're wrong. These activities serve a purpose. They're ways for a child to help himself feel better, ways to drown out the noise of an over-stimulated sensory system by actively stimulating an under-stimulated one.

Sometimes the methods of feeling better become self-injurious. Because of the model, people see the self-injury as unrelated to the overstimulation of another sensory system. Abandoning the model, one can see that the degree of self-stimulation is proportional to the degree of discomfort a child is experiencing due to stimulation of some other system; they miss the opportunity to calibrate and understand what a child is experiencing internally.

Yesterday while driving home, I recognized where my buy-in to the ADHD model had precluded my seeing a pattern in myself. I'm nominally under-stimulated, which is to say that I don't feel comfortable unless something's going on. On the flip-side I feel quite comfortable in situations where so much is happening that others feel out of control. All this is consistent with the model.

Nonetheless, for years I've found myself in situations that are overstimulating and leave me with a mild sense of anxiety. Yesterday, I figured it out. I do really well with complex, rapid-paced visual stimuli racing by me. I thrive on dynamic, visual noise. However, if that noise becomes static, I begin to feel really uncomfortable. For me, racing down a mountain trail on a bike or zigzagging down Fifth Avenue are soothing experiences. However, seeing every horizontal surface of my office cluttered with stuff that Iris might have left here or there can be pure torture.

Feeling tortured, my responses to what others would see as nothing at all are often perceived as, well, disproportionate to the situation. Fortunately for me, the person to whom I'm most likely responding really understands kids with autism and knows that even people with ADHD may also have autism-like experiences.

Happy Friday,

Not so simple

The simple present tense has probably ruined more lives than all the wars in human history put together.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. But not by much, in my opinion.

I was sitting in a darkened room one morning at work, watching a safety video, when a simple slide appeared on the screen, bearing just the words “TIME DOES NOT HEAL ALL WOUNDS”. The slide lingered for a while, and was then followed by video of a recently widowed lady who elaborated on it. “The saying ‘Time heals all wounds’ is a lie”, she said, with some bitterness. “It has been repeated over and over again by people who probably never lost anybody in their lives”.

Setting aside the specific circumstances of the incident that was the subject of the video, it reminded me of something I’ve felt strongly and often. The adage “Time heals all wounds” is but one example of things we phrase in the simple present tense. Digging deep into my memory of elementary school grammar, I recall these forms of the present tense in the English language:
-       Simple present: to indicate actions that happen habitually. Teflon writes for this blog.
-       Present continuous: to indicate an action in progress at the present moment. I am composing a post for this blog.
-       Present perfect: indicates an action that has just completed. I have described two of the present tenses. (I could never understand why this wasn’t a past tense).
-       Present perfect continuous: refers to the recently completed portion of an activity still in progress. I have been waiting outside in this freezing weather for two hours now.

Now, English, this royally ridiculous and recalcitrant language, also permits usage of the simple present tense to indicate future events (my flight leaves tomorrow). But let us ignore that for now. Consider expressions we commonly use in the simple present tense:
  • The sun rises in the east.
  • He leaves for work at 8 o’clock every day.
  • Stores in North Carolina run out of bread and milk at the slightest hint of snow.
So far, so good. They range from the irrefutable to the fairly evident. Now check these out:
  • Johnny takes forever to eat his meals.
  • Little Eva does her homework at the last minute.
  • Kamran gets angry if anyone mentions his past failures.
I don’t know if you can feel the incline as we descend the proverbial slippery slope. Take something that has happened a handful of times, slap the simple present tense on it, and voila – you’ve created a monster! Henceforth, Johnny will be met at mealtimes with irritation and resignation, Eva will associate homework with tension and pressure, and a wall of resentment will be quickly erected in Kamran’s home. Solutions to those issues will now require swimming against the strong tide of the simple present.

Now, if you are following this carefully, you will notice that it’s not the fault of the simple present construction itself, but merely of the insufficient awareness that uses it. For you can use the same thing to great effect in the opposite way. Seize upon the merest evidence of improvement or desirable behavior, install it on the broad shoulders of the simple present tense, and you can carry it to any extent you wish.

Couple this deceptive power of the simple present tense with a weakness for oversimplification, mindless repetition, and pontification, and you have the full-blown tragedy I referred to in the beginning of this post. Growing up, you may have heard a variety of grown-ups spout a number of adages and axioms, almost always in the simple present tense. Consider some common ones:
  • Fortune favors the brave.
  • Discretion is the better part of valor.

  • He who hesitates is lost.
  • Good things come to those who wait.
  • You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • It is better to be safe than sorry.
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence (the opening line of a long quote from President Calvin Coolidge).
  • If you can’t beat em, join em.
  • No man can serve two masters.
  • You gotta be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. 
Enough to scramble the brains of impressionable youngsters, don’t you think? We have made an imperceptible transition from descriptive to prescriptive, from purportedly observing reality to unwittingly shaping it. The power of language over our lives is seldom examined, and hence rarely understood. What I have found is that increased awareness of language, and more precision in its use, can bring enhanced power and peace in our lives.

P.S. Back to “Time heals all wounds”. How could we rephrase it so it would be both accurate and responsible? Time heals some wounds ? Time may heal some wounds, in some people, sometimes? You can see how it’s not nearly as snappy as the original, nor as easy to appear comforting or wise with it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Radio Management

You've probably noticed that people seem to fall into one of two camps when it comes to thinking. You've got your structured, organized thinkers and your free-flowing, creative (i.e., unorganized) thinkers. Your structured thinkers tend to become engineers, scientists, mathematicians and accountants; your free-flowing thinkers tend to become writers, artists, actors and musicians.

At birth, the differences between a shall-be structured thinker and shall-be free-flowing thinker are minimal. A couple of little dips in the neural pathways that lead either to the left-side or right-side of the brain. As thoughts begin to flow, those dips divert slightly disproportionate volumes to the left or to the right. As the volume of thought increases, the dips become deeper and wider. The longer and deeper the dip, the more the volume that flows through it. The more the volume, the wider and deeper the dip.

And so it goes. The proportionality continues to shift until it becomes noticeable. Once noticed, others (parents, teachers, friends) continue to drive the disproportionate relationship between right-brained and left-brained activity. Rather than helping a child find activities that reduce the disparity, others provide activities reinforce it. The disparity grows to the point where the structured thinkers almost never use their free flowing sides and vice versa. 

Soon, labels are attached to make it easy to identify each child by the manner in which she thinks. You've got your brainiac and your math wiz. You've got your musical genius and your space cadet. All this is done as though it were meant to be, as if each child were predestined to be a left-brained type or a right-brained type.

It's just so... hmm... well, it's just so stupid.

Another Way
Imagine that, instead of reinforcing the disparity between left- and right-brained capabilities (note, I'm using these phrases rather loosely and more metaphorically than literally), we helped children to correct the disparity at as early an age as possible. What if each of us provided our kids activities to strengthen the weaker side as soon as we recognized it as weaker? What if we treated thinking like we do a lazy eye or a semi-paralyzed limb? How would that change things?

Actually, it's the last question that might be best asked first. How would it change things if everyone were equally comfortable with both left- and right-brained thinking? Well, based on my experience, we'd see a lot more patents filed, more breakthroughs in healthcare and medicine, better application of new technologies, deeper understanding of art and music, and generally better dinner conversation. 

In my experience, it's always been the people who could seamlessly integrate left- and right-brained thinking that ended up solving the hardest problems or creating the biggest breakthroughs. In every case I know, the person remembers favoring one form of thought, and then encountering a situation that forced her to develop the other. Were it not for the forcing function, he'd likely never have done so and at the time, it seemed a burden.

Radio Management
How'd I start thinking about this? 

This morning I was looking over descriptions of bluetooth systems and the management of the bluetooth radios. Bluetooth radios consume lots of battery power and significantly shorten battery life. You can extend the battery life and times between charges by managing the bluetooth radios (e.g., turning them on only when they're needed). You can do even better if you manage the sources of need.

As I read the work that others had done in this area, I was struck by how uncreative the approaches were. It occurred to me that our mobile phones would probably run a lot longer on a single charge if more engineers had taken acting or music classes.

Anyway, it's not too late for your kids to become ambi-cerebral (nor is it too late for you).

Happy Tuesday,