Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where Is One?

My first month at Berklee College of Music was, hmm... let's say, "challenging."

I was nineteen.

I was a thousand miles from home.

I was a suburban kid who suddenly found himself living in the heart of the city.

Since my focus was composition and arranging, I'd declared piano as my principal instrument. This in and of itself was not a challenge. However, I was a sax player. I'd just begun to play piano six months earlier. All the other pianists had been playing since they were five.

To make things even more challenging, I'd decided that having my sax with me might become a crutch. So I'd left it at home, a thousand miles away.

Fortunately for me, the first month at Berklee was challenging for pretty much everyone. Unlike many colleges and universities that pack freshmen into large lecture halls for core curricula, Berklee divided each core course into thirteen sections defined by skill level. We spent the first week of school completing evaluations that determined our skill levels in areas like music theory, ear training, composition, arranging and analysis. At the end of the week we were placed into sections with others who had tested similarly.

The result was that there was no one in a given section for whom the work was easy. If one was challenged, then you could bet that everyone was challenged.

Fortunately for me (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), I tested quite well. Each core course had sections A through M. All my sections ended up being L or M. Like I said, "Challenging."

The first day of ear training, the teacher walked into class smoking an unfiltered Camel. He dropped his backpack on the desk and retrieved a John Coltrane album. He placed the record on the turntable at the front of the room, dropped the needle in the middle of a solo, turned to the class and said, "Write this down."

Everyone just laughed thinking that he must be kidding: everyone, that is, but one guy, a nerdy looking guitar player from Long Island who'd immediately begun jotting down the notes as they flew by in flocks of seven and thirteen. Turns out that being in section M was kind of like fighting in the heavy weight category; there was no upper limit.

I'd always been good at transcription and ear training. I could do it better than anyone I'd known. But this guy... challenging.

As the semester progressed, I began to hit my stride and the courses became easier. Well, all of them but ear training. In ear training the teacher was determined to never let us actually catch the carrot or fully clear the bar. He never let anyone get too far behind, but no one ever got that far ahead. Before long even the guitar player from Long Island had become part of the pack racing after the carrot.

One day the teacher talked about always knowing where "one" was. In this case, "one" refers to the downbeat of a bar of music. A 4/4 bar has four quarter notes: ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR. A 3/4 bar has three. A 5/8 has two-and-a-half quarter notes or five eighth notes. As you listen to a piece of music, you first determine the meter. Is it 4/4 or 3/4 or 5/8 or 3/8, etc. Next, you listen for the downbeat (the beginning of each bar). Then you count.

It sounds pretty straight-forward and it is. However, that was only the beginning. The teacher wanted us not to count, but instead, to simply "know" where the downbeat was.  He'd play a tune and we'd tap our hands on our desks with each downbeat.

Once we had the basics, he pushed the carrot a little further out. He'd turn down the volume for a moment and ask us to continue tapping on one. A moment or two later, he'd turn up the volume to see if we were still in sync with the music.  You'd be amazed at how quickly a room of good musicians could drift far from the beat they were trying to maintain.

The nice part was the no one found the exercises demoralizing. Instead, we were all inspired to practice. Slowly we began to hold the beat over longer and longer periods of silence. As we did, the carrot sped ahead.

The teacher would call one of us to the front of the class and ask us to keep time. He'd turn down the music and the student would continue to tap on one.  He'd turn up the music to confirm that the student was still in sync.

Next, he'd ask the student to stop tapping and to begin to tap when asked, "Where's one?"

He'd play the music and then turn it down.

A bit later he ask, "Where's one?"

You'd start tapping.

He'd turn up the music.

It was challenging, but in reach. So the carrot sped ahead.

He'd play the music.

He'd turn down the volume.

He'd ask you about your weekend.

In the midst of your answer, he interrupt and ask, "Where's one?"

You'd start tapping.

He'd turn up the volume.

It was a challenge, an amazingly worthwhile challenge. By the end of the first semester, without thought or effort, every one of us absolutely knew where one was. Our internal clocks had become precision machines incapable of losing time.

As I think about it now, knowing where one is is fundamental to music. Yet, I know many musicians who've never acquired this basic skill. They often lose track of one or must count aloud to maintain it. Not having a sense of "one" makes it impossible to play a groove or to solo over breaks. Having to think about it is distracting and compromises your playing. Yet, not knowing is more common than knowing.

The tricky part is that most of us are reluctant to set aside time to learn basic skills that we've missed along the way. It seems silly to spend time on rudiments when we've been working on advanced skills. Yet, without the rudiments, the advanced skills never quite work.

Knowing where one is is just one of many such skills.

Happy Wednesday,
Teflon

PS Happy Birthday, Iris

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

10 Minutes of Anything

Here's the deal.

There are skills that you can acquire only by repeatedly applying them. You can learn a lot about them by attending lectures, reading books and watching videos, but you can't learn them until you've used them repeatedly over time.

You can learn a lot about swimming, but you won't "get" swimming until you've spent time in the pool. You can learn a lot about music, but you won't "get" music until you've spent time playing.

To be clear, repeatedly applying a skill over time in no way guarantees that you will "get" it. However, not doing so can guarantee that you will not.

This rule of thumb applies to a relatively small portion of the things you'll learn in life. However, it applies to a disproportionately large portion of things that are worth learning: basically all of them.

The tricky part is this. How do you ensure that repeated application of a skill over time will lead to the development that you want? Repeatedly applying a skill will always lead to development and reinforcement of that skill, but it may not end up being the skill you wanted to develop.

I know many drummers who've practiced diligently for years. They can play remarkable drum fills and solos. Yet, they cannot keep time or play a basic groove. I know many computer scientists who've written hundreds of thousands of lines of software. Yet they don't understand some of the more fundamental aspects of coding.

You can do something for years and still completely miss the boat. So what do you do?

A centuries-old model of education that has been all but lost in modern western cultures is that of apprenticeship. An apprentice works for someone who has mastered a skill. In exchange, the master teaches the skill to the apprentice.

The bulk of the education comes in the form of activities that provide the apprentice the opportunity to apply elements of the skill in a manner that can be reviewed and corrected by the master. Oftentimes the connection between activity and skill is not apparent. The apprentice might think, "How does doing this help me to become better at that?"

The apprentice might bristle at the thought of repeatedly doing something that seems irrelevant to her goals. She might want to ask the master why she must do it. However, to ask would violate the nature of apprenticeship.

It's not that the question would violate a protocol per se. It's that the answer to the question can only be reached through application of the task. Although the master could explain the reasons for any given task and the apprentice could memorize and repeat the explanations, the apprentice would never understand them.

Moreover, having the reasons explained (giving the apprentice the answer) would deny the apprentice the opportunity to discover them. It's often through that process of discovering the reasons for a task that learning is achieved.

The idea of repeatedly performing tasks for which no one has explained the reasons or provided context is anathema in the canons of modern western education. Yet it is foundational to apprenticeship.

As a would-be apprentice, the key to success is to find a master who truly is one and who is someone you will trust implicitly, even when you can't see any good reason for doing what you're doing. Variance from the model isn't apprenticeship. It might work. It's just not the same thing.

Combine the concept of apprenticeship with 10-minutes a day and you can learn anything.

Happy Wednesday,
Teflon

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

10 minutes of writing

The kids and I have started writing for 10 minutes as part of our school day.  For now, we are using 'I am looking at..', 'I am thinking about..', 'I remember..' to get us started.  The only instructions were not to think about the writing before doing the actual writing.  Here's one of mine, and one from Simonne (12).

“I’m looking at…”

I’m looking at Jaedon, fascinated by the 5 inch laceration on his right hand, examining it, touching it, smelling it, resting hi lips on it, being with it.  He stares off into space, totally comfortable, totally himself.  Although this laceration only became a part of him 2 days ago, he integrated it into his person hood within the hour.  He owns it, protects it, feels it and, in a weird way, embraces it.  He’s different because of it, cautious of exposing it to prying eyes and fingers, protecting it from sights and feelings, yet, he’s the same with it.  He is himself, the same giggling, smiling, moody, crying, hungry, playful boy that I’ve known all his life.  He’s the same, yet with a 5 inch laceration on his arm.
“Milk”, he glances my way, sees me looking and stares in to my eyes.  His eyes say “If you are looking, do something.  I’m hungry.  I’m always hungry.  No more, no less because of the exposed, oozing epidermis on my arm.  No more, no less because of my nakedness.  No more, no less because of autism, or whatever other ‘co-morbidities’ experts think affect me.  I’m me, and I’m hungry”.  For good measure, to reinforce the point, he suggests “oil?”.
“Sure, sweetie, you can get some milk and some oil”

"I'm thinking about..."
I am thinking about a spaceship.  It is unlike any other spaceship I have ever seen.  Most spaceships look dull in color, but this spaceship is bright orange with pink stars all along the sides. In my mind, I see the spaceship taking off, and the smoke from behind the spaceship is sky blue, instead of smoky grey.  I can see the spaceship soaring up towards the stars. I'm putting on my glasses to see it better as it zooms away.  It's a very good thing to have brought a telescope at a time like this, because once I saw the space ship from it's starting position, I did not want to take my eyes off it.  And so I have to keep looking at it, because when we don't really look at things we miss out on a lot. 

Now the spaceship is reflecting the sunlight and is changing color.  Slowly the orange fades into green, and the pink turns into purple, then blue.  Now, I'm pretty sure that it is turning white but I'm wrong.  Suddenly I can see them all: red orange, yellow, green, blue, purple; all the amazing colors of the rainbow shine off the glittering dot in the sky.  But now it's gone. 

I need to do my homework.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Matter of Perspective

Humans make judgments. We do it all the time.

We judge pretty much anything that enters our awareness.

You see it. You judge it. It's good, or it's bad.

The degree of goodness or badness may be so small that you don't notice that you've made a judgment. You smell bread baking in the oven and you breath a sigh of contentment; you've judged baking bread as good. You hear a snippet of the latest office gossip and your shoulders tighten; you've judged what you heard as bad.

Sometimes you don't use the words "good" or "bad" to reflect the valence of our judgements. You might use words like "OK" or "Hmm" (both of which could mean either good or bad). Sometimes you might pretend that a judgement is something else, an assessment.

Assessments are not judgments. They are qualitative and/or quantitative evaluations that lack emotional charge. They are evaluations to which we do not apply values.

Assessments are easily confused with judgments. People who make a matter-of-fact assessment are often accused of being judgmental. People who make judgments often explain themselves as having simply made an assessment.  An assessment always carries at least a bit of judgment and a judgment carries at least a bit of assessment.

The pure, non-judgmental assessment is a mythical creature. A formal assessment conducted by someone who has had no previous experience with the person, place or thing being assessed still carries bias (i.e., judgment), even if the assessment is purely quantitative and uses mechanical or electrical devices to record data. The data collector may have no judgments whatsoever. Yet bias can be found in the selection of criteria measured or questions asked or tools used.

So what?

Good question.

The answer is this. You can't get rid of judgment. To tell yourself otherwise is, well, silly.

So what?

So rather than pretending you have no judgments, how about embracing them for what they are? Know that any time you make an assessment, you've made a judgment. It can be positive or negative. It can be reflected in how you qualify or quantify something or someone. It can be reflected in your selection of the criteria you measure or the questions you ask.

It's always there and by paying attention to it, you can learn a lot about yourself and how you operate. More often than not you'll find that you "assess" as good, activities, things or people that align with your preferences or your goals.

Take the same product and render it in two colors, one that you love and one that you hate. Undoubtedly, your quality assessments of them will vary.

Take someone who is stubborn and pigheaded and align his goals with your goals. Voila! He's now someone who's persistent and will never give up.

Is it a flower or is it a weed?

Is she a creative genius or a head-in-the-clouds flake?

Is he an optimist or does he lack any sense of the "real world?"

Is she passionate or is she a fanatic?

Is he a visionary or a day dreamer?

Was she distracted or was her focus elsewhere?

Was he honest or insensitive?

Is she courageous or foolish?

Positive or naive?

Love your judgments (i.e., judge them as good) and you'll see yourself and how you do things in a whole new way (which I judge as good).

Happy Wednesday,
Teflon


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Inspired, Inspiring

If you think something is impossible, don't disturb the person who is doing it.
Dr. Amar Bose
Dr. Amar Bose died last Friday. The founder of Bose Corporation was 83.

Dr. Bose was one of those characters who merited the qualifier, unique. He was an MIT educated electrical engineer with unbridled creativity, a canny entrepreneur who only built products that he found useful and interesting.

Dr. Bose founded Bose corporation while still studying electrical engineering at MIT. The company developed everything from concert-hall-quality speakers for the home to automobile suspension systems that used noise canceling technologies to cancel bumps in the road. He never took the company public (the goal of most tech entrepreneurs), but instead opted to keep it private so that he wouldn't have to compromise his research in order to satisfy the concerns of Wall Street. In a 2004 interview, he said:
I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs. But I never went into business to make money. I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn't been done before.
That's not to say that he didn't make money. He did, but he did it on his terms. He pursued what he loved to do and the money came.
At 13, I realized that I could fix anything electronic. It was amazing, I could just do it. I started a business repairing radios. It grew to be one of the largest in Philadelphia.
He never lost his love for what he did. At a time in his life when most would have retired and moved on, he still pursued his research with the same enthusiasm and energy he had when starting out.
The excitement level for me working on projects is really not a bit different from when I was 26.
Dr. Bose is one of those people whom I've found to be quite inspiring. I thought that you might too.

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon

Friday, July 12, 2013

Drama Coach

Regarding Drama Free?, Sree wrote: 
I’m always on the lookout for effective tools and techniques to deal with drama generated by others. Among the tools I draw from: 
  • Be a good listener to understand both the explicit and unspoken messages being delivered. 
  • Reflect back to them my understanding in a way that they know their message was received 
  • Take nothing personally 
  • Know what to address now and what to table for later 
  • Know how to negotiate 
  • Act with integrity when a third party is involved 
  • Interrupt skillfully when the message starts getting repetitive 
I’d love to hear what yours are. A bigger question is how to detect and defuse drama that one generates oneself. Hmmm...
Sree's put together an excellent set of tools for managing drama, or for that matter, pretty much any human interaction. The first two, listening and reflecting back, are often combined into something called active listening. Active listening along with taking nothing personally are the prerequisites for the rest. If you've mastered active listening and never take anything personally, you may never need to employ the other tools.

As I think about it, taking nothing personally is a prerequisite to active listening. If you take things personally, then active listening can easily morph into informed criticism. Informed criticism does not achieve the same results.

As I think about it, Sree's listed another prerequisite to active listening; it's acting with integrity. I'd morph that a bit to just plain old have integrity, though, due to popular use, that phrase may be misleading. I don't use the word integrity to refer to morals or ethics. I use it to refer to consistency. Integrity means that what you see is what you get. Whether you're with this person or that, whether you're alone or with others, you're always the same you. There are no unresolved conflicts in your definition of you. You're fully integrated. So, rather than saying, "having integrity", let's say, "being integrated".

So, in active voice we start with 1) be integrated, 2) take nothing personally and 3) listen actively. The next three (4) know what to address now, 5) know how to negotiate and 6) interrupt skillfully) are specialties that build on the first three.

To be integrated and take nothing personally is basic to who you are. They form the foundation on which you are built. Once you've acquired these skills (yes, they're skills), they can serve as an early warning system that lets you know when something is awry.

Foundations
When you've learned to be fully integrated, even the smallest lapse in integrity feels strangely off. It's not unlike what happens when you give up sugar and sugar substitutes. What used to taste good, now tastes too sweet. You taste sugar in all sorts of foods that never used to taste sugary. If you find yourself saying this to one person and that to another, you don't feel quite right. Something is off-rhythm or out of tune. You start to feel greater discomfort in not saying something that's on your mind than in saying it.

When you've learned to take nothing personally, it's (among other things) much easier to say what's on your mind, because what you have to say is never charged with judgment or defensiveness (a specific response to negative judgment). You can talk about what you're thinking matter-of-factly. Finding yourself getting annoyed, anxious or defensive sets off alarms; you know that you've taken something personally.

Listen Actively
Active listening, listening to someone and reflecting back to them what you've heard, is pretty straightforward. However, it's not always easy. It's a skill to be developed. The great active listeners not only have skills, but they also have a style all their own.

The easiest way to practice is to find some who will confirm or deny your having got it.
1. The speaker says something.
2. You say it back to her in your own words, "So what you're saying is..."
3. The speaker confirms your statement on two levels:
a) Did you in fact say what he said, and
b) Did you say it in a different way (or just repeat what he said).

If you were to do nothing more than to get to the point where you always received an affirmation on both counts, you'd see amazing changes in your interactions with people.

Interrupt Skillfully
The next step in developing active listening is timing. There are times when you don't want to interrupt and times when you do. As Sree points out, someone's becoming repetitive can be a time when interrupting skillfully may be the best course of action.

For me, the biggest challenge in knowing when and how to interrupt comes when someone never completes a thought; he speaks without ever using a period. In some instances, it's part of his process in getting to the heart of the matter, in others it's a way to avoid the heart of the matter.

The easiest way I've found to address this is to preface the conversation with the fact that I'm going to be interrupting from time to time to make sure that you're following the speaker. I may even designate a signal such as raising my index finger to indicate that I want to ask a clarifying question.

The speaker begins to ramble and you raise your finger. He stops and I ask, "So what you're saying is..."

This has four great effects. First, it ensures that you're really understanding what she has to say. Second, it allows the speaker to hear what she's said from a different person's perspective1. Third, it allows you to codify the ramble into a complete thought. Fourth, hearing ones ramble unbiasedly converted into structured thought can have a remarkable effect on a speaker, i.e., it can be wonderfully clarifying.

Make It Your Own
Once you've learned to listen actively (as confirmed by the speakers) and how to interrupt skillfully, it's time to have some fun with it by bringing your style into the mix. If you actually use your words when playing back someone has said in your own words, it's hard to avoid stylizing your listening skills. Other elements of style include playfulness, e.g., helping someone to see everything he's saying from a brighter perspective or even making a game of the interaction) and illustration (e.g., sticking with a specific metaphor or analogy as you play back what you're heard.)

Try It
I could go on, but I think Sree's list provides a great place to start. Besides, the more specialized tools aren't all that effective if you haven't mastered the basics.

So, how well do you listen actively? What would someone to whom you've listened have to say about that? 

Happy Friday,
Teflon

1
This only works if you're actually listening well.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Steps Along the Way

"Wax on. Wax off."

"That's from that movie, right?  You know... uh... the Karate Kid."

"Yup, that's the reference."

"So why you bringing it up now?"

"Because it applies perfectly to this situation."

"Which situation?"

"Our situation. The one we're in right now."

"I guess. I never really got that part of the movie."

"What part?"

"The one where Mr Miyagi has that kid waxing all his cars for him. Poor kid just wants to learn karate and instead, he spends the whole day waxing the dude's cars. It ain't right. For sure I'd never let anyone pull that kind of crap with me."

"No kidding."

"Nope. So, what's up with the movie reference? What's it got to do with our situation?"

"Um... never mind."

Sometimes the path to learning is paved with activities that seem irrelevant or even counter productive. The activities make us uncomfortable. We ask why we must do them. We want to know if there are alternatives.

We typically find the responses (e.g., "just do it" or, "you'll see" or, "nope, this is the only way") unsatisfying. So, some of us quit. Some continue, but only halfheartedly. Some abandon (or at least temporarily suspend) disbelief and pursue the activities with intensity and focus.

The activities make no sense and yet, people who seem to know what they're doing insist upon them. For those who quit or only halfheartedly continue, the connections between activities and results are never made; the reasons are never understood. For those who continue with focus and vigor, the activities slowly build competence. Competence reduces discomfort. Comfort improves focus and attention. Better focus and attention lead to understanding.

The problem is that you often can't get there any other way.  There are things you can't understand except by learning to do them (or things similar to them). Without doing them, you can know about them; you just can't know them.

Oftentimes you can't get to know them directly; you have to tack in, i.e., you have to approach them indirectly using other activities that teach you a subset of the required skills. Sometimes these other activities seem to have nothing to do with what you're trying to learn, that is, until you've acquired the skills.

Happy Tuesday,
Teflon



Saturday, July 6, 2013

Drama Free?

One of the things that Iris and I share is a desire to live in a drama-free zone. It's not that we avoid challenging or volatile situations. It's just that we choose not to respond to them with high degrees of emotion.

For me, there are several reasons I choose to live in a drama-free environment. First, I have so much I want to do, I prefer not to spend time indulging in drama. If there's something that needs fixing, I'd rather just fix it and move on. Second, I'm never bored (at least not when I'm alone) or looking for something to do. I don't require drama for its entertainment value. Third, I find folks who frequently indulge in drama or who need drama to function to be particularly, hmm... the word that comes to mind is the drama-inspiring "useless", but let's go with "not particularly helpful."

I've known people who can dramatize pretty much any situation, overloading it with so much emotion that they're rendered incapable of action even after the problem has been remedied and it's time to move. They experience post-traumatic stress from self-induced trauma. When the chips are down, when the stakes are high, when the odds are against you, well, they're the last people you want to see walking through the door.

They fill their lives with drama. Over time, the drama becomes something without which they don't feel quite right. Eventually, the drama becomes their lives. Every tweet or post is laced with the tragedy of having to wake up with the kids or spend another day at work. Life is drama. I guess that works, that is, if you've got absolutely no life.

It's akin to what can happen to someone with hypertension. As the meds and dietary changes reduce her blood pressure, something feels off. She doesn't feel as energetic or alive as she used to feel. The discomfort triggers her body's self-regulation systems and voila, her blood pressure returns to "normal". The better she feels, the more cause for concern on the part of her doctor.

I know, that statement about "no life" may have been drama inspiring and that brings us to the point I was sure to reach. You see, like me, Iris prefers to live in a drama-free zone. She has reasons similar to mine. However, she also has reasons that are not. It's only recently that the others have come to light and the way I've come to understand them is by contrasting and comparing our drama-management techniques.

Whereas I prefer to surface and eradicate drama the moment I sense it, Iris prefers to ignore it or shove it back into the box. The general results are similar; we have a house that is drama-free about 99.95% of the time (that's about 5.04 minutes of drama per week). However, the specifics vary significantly. Whereas Iris avoids drama and dramatic people, drama and dramatic people tend to avoid me. Dramatic people love Iris, but me, not so much. Whereas I tend to speak my mind and be done with it, Iris tends to hold things inside and let them build up. I don't have pent up emotions or issues that I need to discuss; Iris sometimes does.

In short, the difference between Iris' and my drama management techniques is that I have some.

Over the past week or two Iris has been courageously waking up and processing drama that's been lying dormant for years. The existence of so many unprocessed bits of drama quickly led Iris to the conclusion that drama-avoidance may not be the best form of drama management.

This begged the question, "Then why have you been avoiding drama?"

The question suggested the possibility, "Perhaps you don't know how to manage drama?", a possibility that Iris immediately confirmed.

Once Iris recognized that she'd been avoiding rather than managing drama, the instances of her doing so currently became impossible for her to miss. Let's just say that opportunities for her to practice new techniques abound.  Further, just seeing the challenge for what it was made it easier to manage and significantly less dramatic. It's been and continues to be quite a process.

What's your drama quotient? Are you a drama-free kind of person or a drama-junky? How much time does drama consume? How do you manage drama? Do you ignore it? Do you avoid it? Do you instigate it? Do you eradicate it? What would change if you had less drama in your life? How would you change if you were less dramatic?

Happy Saturday,
Teflon





Wednesday, July 3, 2013

All You Need to Do

I'm continually amazed at the lengths to which people will go to avoid thinking.

By "thinking", I mean the synthesis of ideas and solutions versus the acquisition or regurgitation of ideas and solutions.

People will spend hours googling answers, thousands of dollars hiring others, and years ignoring an ongoing problem rather than simply stopping to think of an answer.

By "thinking", I mean, figuring out.

The availability of Internet search engines, downloadable books and manuals, youtube how-to videos and a generally inexhaustible supply of information has only served to exacerbate the phenomenon; statistically speaking, people no longer think.

By "thinking", I mean, being resourceful.

The phenomenon seems to know no racial or ethnic boundaries. It affects young and old alike. However, it does seem to skew towards those with advanced degrees, i.e., the more advanced the degree, the more likely one is to not think.

By "thinking", I mean, translating something you read into a visual representation.

It's this last example of thinking I find most telling. I work frequently with university professors who've received grants to conduct research projects using computers and mobile devices. The grant proposals always lack the specificity to design or develop what is required, so we'll get together and talk about what it is they really want to do.

I'll ask the professor what exactly she wants to do and invariably she'll answer with an unstructured brain-dump of miscellany that provides no additional clarity or insight. The lack of structure will be multidimensional with no sense of priorities, no sense of timing, no common threads of reasoning or motivation. So, I'll ask questions.

The problem is that questions can take a long time, a very long time, at least longer than the time we've scheduled. So, I'll suggest that it might be useful for the professor to sketch a storyboard of how he wants his application to flow. What happens first? Who's involved? What is required of each involved person? What does each person do?

Storyboarding or sketching a sequence is one of the best methods I know for creating clarity and structure, and driving to specificity. It is something that we all learn to do as children, something that comes quite naturally. It's something that's easy when you know what you're talking about (e.g., retelling a past experience) and something that can be quite difficult when you don't (e.g., feigning to retell a past experience).  Storyboarding is something with which principal investigators (PIs) on well funded research projects often struggle.

So what do I do? I offer to help her with her storyboard, i.e., I offer to be her outsourced thinker.

Now you'd think that anyone who thinks (specially anyone whose job is thinking) would insist on doing the thinking himself, that he might even be offended by the suggestion that he outsource thinking to me (specially considering that I'm not an expert on his subject matter).

You'd think that.

So, I'll organize and structure the experiment. I'll make priority calls. I'll determine the data that can be gleaned and the insights it might yield.

Every once in a while, I'll have a question along the way. If the answer involves information that can be found in the literature, then the professor responds quickly and easily. If the answer involves mental processing (i.e., thought), she'll defer to someone on her team (e.g., her statistician).

I find the idea of a "scientist" deferring to a statistician to be particularly disconcerting. The idea that a scientist would require a statistician to do his work is like that of a policeman requiring a bodyguard to do his. One cannot claim to be a scientist and yet require a statistician to understand one's own research project. Sigh...

All said, professors or principal investigators will go to great lengths to avoid thinking. They'll go to even greater lengths to convince others that they do in fact, think. This wouldn't be all that great a problem save for one thing; it's these same professors who are ostensibly teaching the best and the brightest to think.

System-ness
My speciality in computer science is systems. I love to conceive, design and develop large-scale systems. I've built many over the years and have learned a lot about them.

One of the things about systems that people frequently fail to understand is how systems fail. The great thing about a good system is that it provides you leverage; a little effort yields a big result. The problem is that the leverage is unbiased. It can yield a big result that is good; it can yield a big result that is bad. As such, when systems fail, they don't "kind of fail", they fail completely.

If you catch the failure early enough, you can correct for it. If you don't, if the failure passes the tipping point, then there's no solution. You simply replace or reboot the system.

In corporations, the tipping point occurs when the poor employees become the ones doing the hiring. In education, the tipping point occurs when people who avoid thought become the ones doing the teaching.

The solution is easy, at least on an individual basis. All you have to do is to avoid not-thinking, to spend time contemplating rather than googling, to take the first crack at the repair rather than hiring the repairman, to visualize how it works rather than watching a video, to hear the notes in your head before you play the keys.

The solution is also easy on a general basis; when systems fail, they fail big. It just that it generally takes more time.

Specifically, the timing is up to you.

To what lengths do you go to avoid thinking? To what lengths do you go to avoid not-thinking?

Happy Wednesday,
Teflon

Monday, July 1, 2013

So Much, So Little

Hold the Door
I'm always amazed at the way in which others respond to delivery people: not the delivery guy who's bringing your a long-awaited package, but the delivery guy who's struggling to open the door while balancing one-too-many packages on his hand truck.

What I notice is how rarely a bystander or passerby will stop to hold the door for him or how others will even pass through the door that he's attempting to open as though he were holding it for them. It seems strange to me because my first inclination is always to run up and hold the door for the delivery guy and I've always assumed that inclination to be the common one.

It's not.

I used to think this phenomenon was limited to delivery people wearing uniforms like UPS and FedEx employees. However, I've noticed that it also occurs with mothers young children struggling with strollers and carriages, and with musicians wrestling speakers and amplifiers.

The other night I played at a place where the band entered through the same front door used by all the patrons. I got there early and set up my gear. As I plugged in my last cable, I looked out the window and saw that the bass player and drummer had just pulled up outside. I ran outside to help them load in.

Carrying a bass speaker under one arm and a bass drum under the other, I tried to negotiate the double glass doors that led from the sidewalk into the club. I wedged the bass drum against against door jam and then leaned into it to keep it from falling as I let go of it and reached for the door handle. I couldn't quite reach the handle, so I grabbed the drum and repositioned it to give me a better position and leverage.

As I juggled the drum, the speaker and the door, a couple guys stood inside talking to one another and watching me through the glass. Neither made a move to open the door. When I finally got the door open and made my way through, I had to say, "Excuse, me", before either watcher made room for me to pass. The one who moved offered me an annoyed glare before stepping back just enough to let me pass by.

Last week, in Chicago, I had dinner with several guys each of whom had played music professionally. When I shared my juggling experience, they all nodded in sympathy, each having had similar experiences. This phenomenon is multiregional.

Conspicuous Consumption
I've come to realize that most adults are first and foremost, consumers. They spend little time creating or inventing or building; they spend most of their time consuming, planning to consume, reliving their consumption and telling others about it. Even their productive times (from baking to painting to building) can be forms of consumerism, rote activities based on recipes, not creative expressions of something inside.

Most adults are conspicuous in their consumption. When you ask them what they've been up to or what they're working on, answers include everything from television shows and movies watched  to trips and renovations planned to restaurants visited and the foods consumed there. When you ask them about what they've actually done outside of consuming, they look at  you funny as if what you've asked makes no sense at all (even after both brief and elaborate forms of explanation.)

"What do you mean, 'What have I done?" I've already told you; I had this wonderful meal at thus and such and visited these amazing ruins in there-and-then and then watched an amazing performance by who's-he-wit."

They're lives are so consumption oriented that no other mode exists.

Conscious?
What's pervasive conspicuous consumption got to do with holding doors?

I've heard people talk about television as being mind-numbing. People often watch TV to escape reality (even for just a little bit.) Those escapes are so media rich, the plots so easy to see, that little is left to the imagination. The mind goes numb as the viewer drifts into pure consumption.

When in the mode of pure consumption, there is little awareness left for anything else. We lose awareness, we lose consciousness. The more time spent in consumption, the less aware we become. The less aware we are, the less frequently we hold doors for struggling delivery guys, moms and musicians.

What's your consumer/producer ratio?

Happy Monday,
Teflon