Flow's evil twin

Last night Harry Ramsay hosted a discussion of flow, which left me more of a flow-sceptic than I was at the start.

Here’s what I realized. Flow is part of a spectrum of trance-like focus states. We pick it out because it fits with characteristics which we like: productivity, creativity, accomplishment. But those are characteristics of external society, not of the mental state itself.

I brought up video gaming in the discussion, calling the gamer’s trance the ‘evil twin’ of flow. Look at the properties of flow, and see how well gaming matches them:

  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding
  • Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable
  • Complete focus on the activity itself
  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome
  • Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness
  • Immediate feedback
  • Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs
  • Strong concentration and focused attention
  • Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing

With the arguable exception of ‘intrinsically rewarding’, it is a 100% match.

Harry’s descriptions of his teenage flow states practicing the guitar, in particular, feel indistinguishable from gaming. Both involve mastering a pattern of tiny physical movements, through extreme repetition.

The difference comes afterwards: your self-image is likely better emerging from a day-long music session than from a Warcraft binge. Again, though, that’s a social phenomenon: it’s not hard to imagine a culture which venerates gamers and despises musicians. Would that change which activity gets the label of flow?

Further loosen the requirements of flow, and we end up with more altered states of dubious value. Slot-machine addicts use the term ‘th e zone’ to describe their state of being subsumed within the logic of the machine. And of course we are all familiar with the experience of compulsively scrolling social media.

By now we’ve kicked away much of what makes flow flow. Slot machines are neither challenging nor rewarding. Facebook slips into our lives partly because it (at first) avoids demanding complete attention. Yet something remains common in all these worlds, and more.

Thinking about my own life, I find this comforting. Flow ceases to be an isolated, mystical achievement. It is merely the most prominent of an archipelago of altered states.

Every activity brings its own state of consciousness. Swimming, drawing, dancing, DIY: none of these are (for me) flow states. But each shares something with flow – focus, mastery, serenity, control, the absence of time or the dissolution of the self.

So now I no longer so keen to nudge myself repeatedly into flow. I would prefer to explore the entire realm of activity-induced altered states.

November 22, 2020

Domus Selection

The hallmark behavioral difference between domesticated animals and their wild contemporaries is a lower threshold of reaction to external stimuli and an overall reduced wariness of other species—including Homo sapiens. The likelihood that such traits are in part a “domus effect” rather than entirely due to conscious human selection is, once again, suggested by the fact that uninvited commensals such as statuary pigeons, rats, mice, and sparrows exhibit much the same reduced wariness and reactivity. [James C Scott, Against the Grain]

Domesticated cows are hard to startle. But so are city pigeons. So the cows might have developed their calmness not as a result of deliberate selective breeding, but through the evolutionary effects of sharing habitat with humans.

Change the habitat, change the behaviour. You don’t necessarily need to breed or train waway fear and aggression – just create a situation where they are not useful.

Scott is primarily talking in evolutionary timescales, but the same applies within a lifetime. And it applies to humans as well as to animals.

We are constantly being trained by our habitat. The commuter has been conditioned to stand inches away from his fellow-travellers, just like the Wild West gunslinger who never sits with his back to the door has been conditioned. No need to explicitly train attitudes to personal space, just make the Tube the easiest route to work.

There’s an obvious self-directed extension of this. When you want to change your own behaviour, perhaps don’t attempt to train yourself directly. Instead set up an environment which encourages the desired behaviour, and let the environment do the training.

November 19, 2020

Looking back with anger

Remembrance day for me is always a mix of sadness and anger, though the official ceremonies mostly stick to sadness. Every year at school we would stand through the reading of the names of the dead, honouring the sacrifice of boys who went straight from school into war. Never expressed was any condemnation of the people who sacrificed them.

The ratio of sadness to rage perhaps depends on how inevitable you think the First World War. If you believe there had been a chance to avoid the war, then you can only be furious at the system and the people who let it happen.

I cling to the belief that it could have been avoided. And in general, my default assumption is that everything is fixable until proven otherwise. This is as more psychological self-protection than reasoned analysis. Were the current state of the world something to be endured rather than changed, I’m not sure how I would be able to get out of bed in the morning.

This year, awful as it is, has given me more reason to believe in the possibility of change. Coronavirus in Europe has played out the way it did as the result of political failures and political choices. Some of them are structural, some are one-off mistakes by individuals. And we aren’t living in the worst timeline – other political choices could have brought us into an even worse situation. But it didn’t have to happen like this, and it doesn’t need to continue happening like this.

The real heroes of the first world war are the mutineers of Kiel, the German sailors who turned on their officers, sparked uprisings in the major cities, and so made it impossible for Germany to continue fighting. Eighteen months earlier, a mutiny had seized almost half of the French army. Imagine what better world we could be living in, if they had succeeded!

November 11, 2020

My Cousin Vinny

Cars, bickering and defensiveness are the ingredients of a good relationship, right?

Tonight’s unexpectedly delighful movie was My Cousin Vinny, a courtroom comedy. A New York teenager is facing a murder charge in Alabama, and the titular Cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci) is the only lawyer he can find.

Unfortunately, Vinny is in over his head. This is his first trial since scraping through the bar exam, and his New York wisecracking doesn’t come across well down in Alabama.

What he does have going for him is his fiancee Lisa (Marisa Tomai). Their relationship is the main reason to watch the movie. They are bickering, insecure, chaotic, defensive – and utterly, beautifully in love.

They have both spent time as car mechanics, which gives them a shared language and respect for each other’s competence in at least one area. When Vinny admits he messed up court procedure, he explains it through an analogy to fixing a carburetor.

Admitting that he’s stuck is, in fact, Vinny’s biggest problem. He keeps on pushing away Lisa’s attempts to help, because accepting help would mean admitting that he needs it. Whenever Vince gets past his defensiveness, he and Lisa make for an admirable team.

Lisa and Vinny have a relationship built on squabbling. Vinny’s client at one point defends his choice of lawyer because he comes from a family of bickerers:

“You have to see the Gambinis in action. These people…they love to argue. I mean, they live to argue.”

We then cut to a delightful scene, which begins with Vinny ragging on Lisa for leaving a faucet dripping. Then, as she gives a string of increasingly elaborate explanations of the correct torque to prevent drips, his anger fades into horny enchantment at her patter.

All these elements come together for the final courtroom scene. As a legal resolution to the case it feels painfully weak. As a resolution to their relationship, though, it feels fundamentally honest and hopeful

October 24, 2020

Skin (Kathe Koja) -- review

This is a horror novel, which I don’t usually read. But my boyfriend recommended it, and he was spot-on.

I’d recommend it enthusiastically but very selectively. I would need to grok somebody fairly well before knowing whether to push it on them

The setup is artistic collaboration between a dancer and a sculptor of mobile metal creatures. Then the dancer gets into increasingly extreme self-mutilation as a form of performance…

There’s a lot about work, about collaboration, about dedication to art. It’s a book where everybody is pursuing creation rather than happiness, which is just what I need right now. And the horror-extremeness keeps the emotional engagement dialed way up. So you get a nuanced relationship between the two main characters, bouncing between love and hatred and friendship and collaboration, which is psychologically realistic while being over the top.

October 10, 2020

Corpus Christi

Take the structure of a light-hearted caper movie. Then throw religion into the mix, specifically Polish Catholicism.

The result doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to say. But it is gloriously intense and has some very powerful moments.

Daniel wants to be a priest, but he is also just out of jail. Those two don’t go together – no seminary will take him, and instead he is expected to spend his parole working in a sawmill.

Then some banter gets out of hand, and Daniel finds himself impersonating a priest, to a village which believes him to be strange but authentic.

The bulk of the film examines Daniel’s attempt to fill the role of priest, in the absence of any training or ordination. The tension is between Daniel’s kindness and intense devotion on one hand, and on the other his betrayal of a church built on hierarchy and the special role of the priest.

The difficulty for me is that Daniel’s good qualities as a priest feel superficial. He gazes intently at the Crucifixion, benefiting from an angular face which seems permanently on the verge of passion. He preaches from the heart, he cares for his flock, he tries to reconcile feuding villagers. But he is the model of priest as coach and therapist. Jesus and the bible don’t figure much in his activities. Congenial as this is to my non-believing self, it feels like a very thin take on Catholicism.

October 5, 2020

Cable Street

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, an (over-?) celebrated moment in British anti-fascism. This is when a march by the British Union of Fascists was stopped by a combination of Jews, communists, Irish dockers, and other antifascists.

I’m glad of anniversaries like this, because they force us all to ask “What have I done lately?”. My own head has been pretty firmly stuck in the sand for a good few years now. You could take your pick of causes I’ve ignored, from Xinjiang re-education camps to migrants drowning in the Mediterranean. For me, Rojava is the one which triggers the most guilt.

Cable Street’s big brother is the Spanish Civil War. At the same time as Oswald Mosley was failing to establish fascism in Britain, Franco was making a much more violent and ultimately successful attempt to do the same in Spain. The war, and in particular the International Brigades, are for me one of the most clear-cut examples of why I am not a pacifist.

And then…Rojava. David Graeber wrote of the parallels between it and Spain:

A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow.

….

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

I saw articles like this, vaguely followed the news, but was a thousand miles away from providing any practical support to Rojava. So today, when I think of Cable Street, it is with rather more shame than pride.

October 4, 2020

The Shadow Self

A dim premonition tells us that we cannot be whole without this negative side, that we have a body which, like all bodies, casts a shadow, and that if we deny this body we cease to be three-dimensional and become flat and without substance. Yet this body is a beast with a beast’s soul, an organism that gives unquestioning obedience to instinct. To unite oneself with this shadow is to say yes to instinct, to that formidable dynamism lurking in the background. From this the ascetic morality of Christianity wishes to free us, but at the risk of disorganizing man’s animal nature at the deepest level. [Jung, On the psychology of the unconscious]

Lately I’ve run into a cluster of references to Jung’s idea of the ‘shadow’ self. This is the set of unconscious urges which are formed in reaction to the overt, conscious personality. Just as the shape of an object determines the shape of its shadow, so our shadow self is the dark opposite of whatever values we hold in everyday life.

To me, the concept has an intuitive resonance. I’m not convinced it is true, but it is a useful tool for introspection.

I took a dive into Jung’s writing to find more about this, and ended up pleasantly lost. I can see why Jung, even more than Freud, appealed to a generation of artists and writers. He offers a world where stories matter. Literature, art, religion, culture – they are all routes to the same essence, and understanding one will cast light on the rest

August 27, 2020

Progression Fantasy

I’ve been reading through Will Wight’s Cradle series, which is my first exposure to “Progression Fantasy

Progression Fantasy is something like a book-length training montage. The main appeal is to watch the hero increasing in power or competence over the course of a book or a series.

In Cradle this power comes through training in the ‘sacred arts’, a combat-oriented idea of magic. Everybody wants to level up through a series of named ranks, from Copper to Iron to Jade, and beyond. Your rank determines, among other things, your chances of winning in hand-to-hand magical combat.

It all feels like Dungeons and Dragons, or a computer game. This isn’t just in the named levels, but in the shape the world takes on in order to accommodate them. So the hero starts in a low-powered village before venturing out to encounter increasingly more advanced enemies. It is considered dishonourable to fight somebody of a lower level, because otherwise every hero would be splatted immediately. A sister genre, LitRPG, leans even harder on these game-related aspects.

The end result is something which satisfies one very particular itch, but does that extraordinarily well. If you don’t want to play games yourself, but still want to vicariously experience the joy of leveling up, go for Cradle.

August 23, 2020

The Destructive Character

I found a collection of Walter Benjamin essays on the street. Bracing stuff, this!

I turned straight to an essay in praise of destructive personalities, and….yep, I already want to run riot with a sledgehammer

   
Der destruktive Charakter ist jung und heiter. Denn Zerstören verjüngt, weil es die Spuren unseres eigenen Alters aus dem Weg räumt; es heitert auf, weil jedes Wegschaffen dem Zerstörenden eine vollkommene Reduktion, ja Radizierung seines eignen Zustands bedeutet. Zu solchem apollinischen Zerstörerbilde führt erst recht die Einsicht, wie ungeheuer sich die Welt vereinfacht, wenn sie auf ihre Zerstörungswürdigkeit geprüft wird. Dies ist das große Band, das alles Bestehende einträchtig umschlingt. Das ist ein Anblick, der dem destruktiven Charakter ein Schauspiel tiefster Harmonie verschafft. The destructive character is young and lively. Destruction rejuvenates, because it removes the remains of our age. It enlivens, because to the destroyer every removal means a reduction, a dissection of his own situation. This Apollonian picture of the destroyer arises in fact from a vision of how radically the world is simplified, when it is measured by its potential for destruction. That is the great bond, uniting all that exists. Such a perspective is what turns the destructive character into a spectacle of deepest harmony.
Der destruktive Charakter sieht nichts Dauerndes. Aber eben darum sieht er überall Wege. Wo andere auf Mauern oder Gebirge stoßen, auch da sieht er einen Weg. Weil er aber überall einen Weg sieht, hat er auch überall aus dem Weg zu räumen. Nicht immer mit roher Gewalt, bisweilen mit veredelter. Weil er überall Wege sieht, steht er selber immer am Kreuzweg. Kein Augenblick kann wissen, was der nächste bringt. Das Bestehende legt er in Trümmer, nicht um der Trümmer, sondern um des Weges willen, der sich durch sie hindurchzieht.
Der destruktive Charakter lebt nicht aus dem Gefühl, daß das Leben lebenswert sei, sondern daß der Selbstmord die Mühe nicht lohnt.
The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees paths everywhere. Even where others hit walls or mountains, he finds a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always stands at a crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.
The destructive character lives not from the feeling that life is not worth living, but that suicide is not worth the effort

Here is the original; here is a translation

Sober me accepts that there might be the odd problem with a life built on trashing everything you encounter. But my furious rebel self is starting to get fire behind the eyes, and craving the aesthetics of rubble. Everything looks the same after you’vde burnt it to the ground, right?

August 23, 2020

Review: The Flying Classroom

Erich Kästner is a National Treasure in Germany, and this might be his most treasured book. Telling Germans I am reading it, I have found, often results in glossy-eyed nostalgia.

I can partially understand this. It must be a very comforting book to read at the right age. Not only does everything turn out right in the end, but two of the adults are presented as boddhisattva-like images of perfection. One is the benevolent boarding-school headmaster, the other a drop-out living in an old railway carriage.

Reading it as an adult is less satisfying, for some of the same reasons. Many of the characters feel two-dimensional, and spend a lot of time repeating their gimmicks. One wants to be a boxer and is permanently hungry, for example, and another is easily scared. But I can’t complain, since this is obviously something which works better for the target audience.

I was also taken aback by some of the violence between children. Clearly, childhood has become less physically aggressive in the 95 years since the book was first published. A fight to KO, a child being tortured in a basement: I’m glad to say that these are well beyond my own experience.

I definitely enjoyed reading this. Had I read it at age 10, I would doubtless me many times more enthusiastic.

August 22, 2020

The Little Ice Age

According to some climatologists, the cold spell known as the Little Ice Age, from roughly 1500 to 1850, may well have been due to the reduction of CO2—a greenhouse gas—brought about by the die-off of North America’s indigenous fire farmers. [James C Scott, Against the Grain]

This theory is probably too neat to be true, but that doesn’t stop it being fun. Scott is largely drawing on (and perhaps slightly exaggerating) the work of William Ruddiman

He is interested in how humans before and outside of sedentary, grain-based ‘civilization’ shaped their landscape with fire. By burning vegetation, you can herd animals into a spot where they are easy to kill. The plants which grow back first after fire might also be more human-friendly: less huge trees, more bushes with fruits or berries.

So before Columbus, humans in the Americas were burning the landscape every year. Then Europeans came, brought smallpox, and killed off a the majority of them. So the forests stopped being burned, leading to the reforestation forest of an area the size of Venezuela. This decreased CO2 in the atmosphere, which cooled the temperature, causing the Little Ice AGe.

August 20, 2020

Review: The Right Stuff

Even Tom Wolfe can’t make me care about the Mercury Program Astronauts.

At age 14, when I first encountered Tom Wolfe, his work was an adrenaline shot. I got hold of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his portrait of the group of psychonaut drop-outs clustered around Ken Kesey. For the next decade I fantasized about going to San Francisco and joining a nomadic band of freaks.

If this longing was mostly caused by the subject matter, some of the responsibility of Tom Wolfe. His prose is always an overexcited, colloquial splurge of words, like a Good Ol’ Boy on speed. His fellow New Journalist Hunter S Thompson is the obvious comparison. Hunter, though, was in real life at least half as bonkers as his gonzo persona. Tom Wolfe was the straightest of the straight, but with sufficient journalistic chops to get inside the heads of the most varied people.

So even though I don’t care much about astronauts, I imagined Tom Wolfe might be able to show me their character.

The problem is, Wolfe seems not to care that much about astronauts either.

Perhaps a third of the book is dedicated to military test pilots, from whose ranks the first astronauts were chosen. This is by far the best part of the book. Wolfe describes a culture on – or sometimes over – the boundary between bravery and self-destruction, where fatal crashes are an unremarkable event. And yet he makes it comprehensible. The pilots are a band of young men who consider themselves a natural elite. Alongside bravery they share reflexes, calm under pressure, and an almost supernatural knack for getting out of tough scrapes. This combination, the ‘Right Stuff’ of the title is the defining feature of the pilots’ self-image, and is how they keep score among themselves.

The astronauts emerge from this world, but into one where there skills are all but valueless. The Mercury rockets allowed almost no manual piloting; the first flights were made by chimpanzees. In almost all their actions, the astronauts are subject to orders from engineers on the ground. So even while they are feted by society, test pilots sneer that they no longer have ‘The Right Stuff’

The problem is that, as the astronauts have nothing to do, the narrative naturally loses its drive. We hear about their car racing, their womanizing, their experiences of celebrity, their internal squabbles – but none of it seems to matter.

The suicidal passion of the test pilots might seem ridiculous from the outside, but it felt serious and honorable and life-defining. The astronauts’ mission was historic, but only minimally reliant on the men in the capsules. And so, in the end, I found it hard to work up excitement about these astronauts.

August 17, 2020

The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer

One of my very niche interests is following the fine line between heroism and masochism. So much glory is just a thin veneer over gleeful suffering.

Susan Sontag, in The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer, explores the interaction of love, art, suffering and Christianity:

The cult of love in the West is an aspect of the cult of suffering—suffering as the supreme token of seriousness (the paradigm of the Cross). We do not find among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and the Orientals the same value placed on love because we do not find there the same positive value placed on suffering. Suffering was not the hallmark of seriousness; rather, seriousness was measured by one’s ability to evade or transcend the penalty of suffering, by one’s ability to achieve tranquillity and equilibrium. In contrast, the sensibility we have inherited identifies spirituality and seriousness with turbulence, suffering, passion. For two thousand years, among Christians and Jews, it has been spiritually fashionable to be in pain. Thus it is not love which we overvalue, but suffering—more precisely, the spiritual merits and benefits of suffering. The modern contribution to this Christian sensibility has been to discover the making of works of art and the venture of sexual love as the two most exquisite sources of suffering.

I’m less convinced than Sontag that this cult of suffering is purely Western, or purely Christian. Strands of Hinduism, for example, put a value on suffering which can outdo even Catholic hagiography. It’s a basic tendency which seeps out, in one form or another, from just about any cultural environment.

August 15, 2020

Weimar Culture, by Peter Gay

This book is a short, opinionated cultural history of Weimar Germany.

“Short and opinionated” is basically the only way I can deal with reading cultural or intellectual history. When a writer attempts to be balanced and encyclopaedic, they erode any sense of excitement from the people or works being described.

Take the Warburg Institute. Wikipedia will tell you that it is a cultural history research institute, founded in Hamburg and then moving to London in 1933. Peter Gay gives some idea why you might care:

There was in [Warburg], Panofsky has written, “an enormous tension between the rational and the irrational” which induced in him “not a romantic split, but a fascinating combination of brilliant wit and dark melancholy, the keenest rational criticism and most empathetic readiness to help.”14 It was Warburg’s special achievement to recognize—I am tempted to say, re-experience—the full range of the classical heritage, which was, for him, more than serene temples and Latin poems; it was dark as it was light, and its legacy was superstitious beliefs and magical practices quite as much as sculpture and poetry. Warburg’s models—Burckhardt, Nietzsche, and Usener—set his problem and suggested its solution: the study of the survival of the classical heritage demanded a broad view of cultural history, an appreciation of the Dionysian aspects of life, and close attention to man’s religious experience.

I find Gay’s prose style captivating. As the author of a book on Style in History, he obviously also values the craft of writing.

August 14, 2020

The Night Sky

Last night I ventured out to a lake to watch the Perseid meteor shower.

I had the predictable city-boi revelation that yes, there really are stars in the sky. But – I grew up in the countryside, so I have some vague memory that there are Things Up There.

What I had not expected were the satellites. I’m sure that back in the 90s, when little-me was lying on their back in nighttime fields, spotting a satellite was at least mildly exciting. Now, it seems there is no moment without them.

So I looked it up. The number of satellites has indeed quintupled since I was a kid, and has doubled in just the past 6 years. It’s bewildering that the night sky has changed so much while I wasn’t paying attention.

August 13, 2020

Practice and Procrastination

Practice and Procrastination is not a piece of Jane Austin fanfic, but a miniature revelation about one of the reasons why I put things off.

A very typical cause of procrastination is an unacknowledged confusion about what to do next. There is a gap between the overall plan (which is understood), and the immediate next step (which is not).

Thinking about practice makes me aware of another gap. Namely, the gap between my brain knowing what to do next, and having sufficient practice that the knowledge how has percolated down into the body. So every action must labouriously be directed from consciousness, with correspondingly greater temptation to give up.

For example, for months I have been putting off doing some home renovation work. I could write down, step by step, what is needed. But I have only minimal experience of actually doing any of it. So, when I finally get going, I will need to think through each element of the work.

What happens if I think in terms of practice? Maybe I would drill holes into bricks until the process became automatic. Or paint walls, or rewire plugs, or any similar task. This might not justify itself for a single DIY task, but would if I had any intention of doing this more frequently.

August 11, 2020

Book review: Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night

This is a cozy tale of queer-poly family, under a thin veneer of urban fantasy.

The setup is that a magician goes missing. His two partners must join forces to track him down. The main attraction of the book is watching their mutual connection develop from one of distant acceptance towards real affection.

I was indifferent to many aspects of the book. The plot, the prose, the fantasy elements, even the characterization: it all felt flat and plodding.

But I adored the depiction of queer-poly families, both chosen and biological. There’s a moment, for instance, where a woman gets to know her wife’s metamour. It was spot-on, and also something I don’t remember having encountered in fiction before.

August 10, 2020

Practice for Autodidacts

As the last 2 posts suggest, I’m becoming interested in training and practice.

I’ve long considered myself a skilled autodidact. I have successfully taught myself the programming skills I use to earn a living, as well as multiple languages. I’m (over-)confident of my ability to immerse myself in an unfamiliar academic discipline enough to find whatever information I need.

Pull back the camera, though, and it turns out I am very good at a small subset of learning. I can do studying, but have only the most rudimentary skill in practice or training. Or to put it in the terms of the previous post: I am good at gaining knowledge-of, bad at gaining knowledge-how.

This, I think, is because so much of my learning has happened alone. It is much easier to teach yourself than to train yourself. Training (or practice) requires a tight feedback loop, and it is harder to obtain that without a teacher. It’s hard to imagine a movie training montage without the wise mentor in the background.

And we approach new challenges with the tools we have used to deal with problems of the past. Self-directed learning means I have spent less time practicing, which in turn means it is not the first method which comes to mind when I am learning something new. I have got out of practice at practicing.

As I noticed this more over the past couple of years, I gradually realised its scope. Take cooking: I understood this to mean memorizing a collection of recipes, techniques, flavor combinations and the like, so I could pull them out of my mind at will. It occurred embarrassingly late to me that “knowing how to cook” might involve experience more than book-learning.

It’s not an accident that I came up with such a ridiculous approach to cooking. I was taking the mental toolkit I had, and applying it to the problem at hand. I have not previously learned much from practice, and so did not reach for that as an approach.

Humbling as it is to realise what I have been missing out on, it is also energising. Since I have overlooked an entire area of learning, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit to be plucked. I suspect I’m now heading towards a phase of annoying over-correction, as I ask about everything: “how can I practice it?”

August 9, 2020

Visual mnemonics for stunt pilots

Stunt pilots, preparing for aerobatic routines, have converged on a fascinating form of rehearsal: they dance.

If you see a pilot before an airshow, they may well be doing the so-called “Aresti dance”. It’s a series of movements which encode the manouvers they will make up in the air.

Besides being a charming idiosyncracy, this makes total sense. Physical movement is a powerful aide to memory. It is one of many reasons for the role of dance in traditional rituals from any number of cultures. It is under-used in modern education partly because we are just overall bad at teaching, and partly because dancing does not fit obviously into a classroom.

The Aresti dance also deals with a problem more unique to aerobatics pilots: it is hard to get enough rehearsal time. Stunt flying is inherently dangerous and expensive. So as much work as you can do on the ground, should be done on the ground.

Online information about the Aresti dance is pretty scarce. It takes its name from Aresti figures, which are a standard nomenclature and digramming system for aerobatic manouvers. I have found plenty of videos of the dance, but no in-depth description of how it works.

August 8, 2020

Education as a Substance

Keith Johnstone’s Impro is ostensibly a book about iimprovisational theatre. Yet the book – in particular the introduction – goes both deeper and broader.

Here, for instance, is Johnstone on education:

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities [Improv, Keith Johnstone]

Johnson is absolutely correct for the kind of education he is thinking of – teaching art, or acting, or most situations where you could substitute ‘training’ for ‘teaching’.

He is, I think, only mostly correct when it comes to more academic education. The more the content resembles “one damn fact after another”, the more it can be taught by a bad teacher. If you attend a bad (but factually correct) history lecture, you will still come out with some basic information about the subject matter. Does that count as education? Debatable, but in my view it just barely clears the bar.

It helps to distinguish between knowledge-that and knowledge-how. Knowledge-that is factual knowledge which you can consciously explain. Knowledge-how is a skill, something you can do perhaps even without being able to explain it. I know that the Bastille was stormed on 14 July; I know how to ride a bicycle.

The academic system has a bias towards knowledge-that. A universtiy lecturer is arguable the highest-status teacher. Her work is one of the purest forms of teaching knowledge-that. The audience do not learn how to do anything more than sit on their bums and listen.

Yet, most of the value of a teacher is in teaching knowledge-how. I can skip a lecture and learn from a recording or a book. But if I skip an acting class, I will not be able to make up for it with time in the library.

The class where the teacher is most needed (acting, or dance, or woodwork) is also where a bad teacher can do most harm. Training a bad habit is more likely, and more harmful, than teaching a bad fact.

Knowledge-how is dangerous for the same reason it is powerful and wonderful. It changes how you see and understand and interact with the world, in a way that is hard to unpick. This is especially true of a topic like painting or drama, where the skill overlaps so completely with the rest of the self.

August 7, 2020

The Ethical Slut

The Ethical Slut is one of the books most frequently recommended to anybody interested in polyamory. That is partly because, written over 20 years ago, it established its reputation at a time when there were few alternative resources. And it is partly because, even now, the alternatives are less than perfect. More than Two, another prominent book on poly, lost its lustre when it emergeed that one author had abused multiple women, including his co-author

When I mentioned to friends what I was reading, I heard much more criticism than praise. Similarly, once our book group held its discussion, we ended up with objections on all sides.

One complaint is the way that The Ethical Slut discusses other minority sexual groups. Despite being written by two bisexual/lesbian women, it feels very targeted towards a heterosexual couple considering opening up their relationship. When it discussed gay and lesbian communities, it is in a way that over-generalizes from the groups the authors have encountered.

A criticism I care less about is historical accuracy. The Ethical Slut includes a whirlwind tour of groups who have in the past practiced non-monogamy. Treat it as a historical treatise and you will be infuriated. I read it more as a reminder that the mid-20th-century American nuclear family is not the single model by which all human society has arranged itself.

Mostly, I feel the people in my circle who dislike The Ethical Slut want it to be something it is not. Somebody already deeply embedded in LGBT, kinky, and poly groups is unlikely to find the book frustratingly basic. But if you come to the book from the straight, monogamous mainstream, this is perhaps the introduction which you need.

August 6, 2020

Autistic human interaction tips

Often, the autistic-spectrum folks in my life have the most interesting things to say about human interactions. Survivorship bias accounts for much of this. I’m only having these conversations with the autistic people who have not only learned how to socialize with neurotypicals, but to talk with them about people and emotions.

Anyway, such people tend to have incredibly astute and precise understandings of human behaviour. So I was thrilled to stumble upon this collection of Docs, which comprise a guide to neurotypicals for Autism-Spectrum Disorder people.

Some choice bits:

Anger at deities is almost always directed upwards, above a 45 degree angle, while thanks or prayer is usually directed downward and inward. In contrast, happiness at the self is directed outward randomly, while anger/fear/shame are shown by aiming all attention vectors together at a point roughly 2 feet in front of the person.

Curious what an ‘attention vector’ might be? Take the usual body-language idea that people turn to whoever they care most about, and break into down into component parts:

By pivoting your eyes, head, shoulders, hips, and feet, you can point them in different directions. These directions are three-dimensional for head and eyes, and mostly two-dimensional for shoulders, hips, and feet because it’s difficult to point those up or down while standing. Pointing your attention vectors at something is a signal that you’re paying attention to that thing

….

The reason I mentioned that there are five of them (eyes, head, shoulders, hips, feet), is that you can point them in different directions to indicate split attention. The reason I put them in that specific order isn’t just that it’s top-to-bottom, it’s that it indicates temporary-to-permanent attention…..The lower down on the body the attention vector, the more permanent its indication of attention.

July 16, 2020

Dewey likes Decimals

Systems often seem pre-ordained until you understand your origins. When you find out how something got started, it’s often hard to take it quite so seriously.

Case in point: library classification. The Dewey Decimal system exists, in part, because John Dewey just really liked the number ten:

In March 1873, when he was still an undergraduate, Dewey had his third big idea, inspired by an 1856 pamphlet titled “A Decimal System for the Arrangement and Administration of Libraries”, written by Nathaniel Shurtleff, who worked at the Boston Public Library. As Dewey wrote at the time, “My heart is open to anything that’s either decimal or about libraries”. In fact, fifty years ltaer, Dewey would attribute the idea to order topics by decimal numbers to an epiphany during a Sunday sermon. Dewey was already infatuated with decimals. He wrote a school essay on the metric system when he was sixteen. When he was twenty-five he founded the American Metric Bureau to lobby for the adoption of the metric system within the United States. He even arranged his travel so that he would arrive on the tenth, twentieth or thirtieth day of the month…rationalism crossing over into superstition

[David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous, p53-4]

Suggested music: The New Puritans yelling “what’s your favourite number” again and again. It’s like being accosted in the street by a gang of numerologists

July 5, 2020

The Act of Creation

The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills … ‘It is obvious’, says Hadamard, ‘that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas…The Latin verb cogito for “to think” etymologically means “to shake together”. St Augustine had already noticed that and also observed taht intelligo means “to select among”’ [Koestler, The Act of Creation, p119-120]

I’m slowly rereading The Act of Creation, one of the formative books of my teenage years. Arthur Koestler sets himself the task of describing creativity across art, science, and humour. The core is what he calls ‘bisociation’, which means thinking simultaneously in two frames of reference.

He goes way too far in attempting to reduce everything to his one system. The picture on the right, from the book’s frontispiece, is an example of this. But the book has more than enough insight to make it worth reading.

Frontispiece to *The Act of Creation*

July 3, 2020

Review - Playing to the Gallery

Grayson Perry has found himself a niche in the British media as a guide to modern art. In this short book he sets out to ‘answer the basic questions that might come up when we enter an art gallery

Alas, the questions he answers are mostly about the art world, not about art. There is plenty about turf wars between gallerists and collectors, about young artists’ assigned role as accepted rebels, about the role of money in art.

What’s missing is any suggestion that art might have something to say about the wider world.

If I’m in an art gallery, I’ll be wondering something like “what feelings can this art inspire in me?”, or “will this change the way I look at the world?”. That kind of question doesn’t seem relevant to Grayson Perry.

June 30, 2020

Lawn-mowers are internet oxen

From a report on how people read online:

the rise in popularity of comparison tables and zigzag layouts (where text and images alternate in each row on the page) has coincided with the development of a new gaze pattern.

On pages with distinct cells of content, people often process those cells in a lawn-mower pattern: they begin in the top left cell, move to right until the end of the row, then drop down to the next row, move to the left until the of the row, drop down the next row, and so on. (The name of this pattern is inspired by the way a lawn mower sweeps methodically back and forth across a field of grass. The mower moves from one side of the lawn to the other, then flips around and mows the next row of grass in the opposite direction.)

I love this because it so perfectly recapitulates a metaphor from ancient Greece.

Some early Greek manuscripts were written in a similar way. One line goes left-to-right. The next reverses everything (down to the shapes of the letters themselves) to be read right-to left. Then for line 3 you go left-right again. The reader’s eye can smoothly follow the text, without needing to jump across the page (or the tablet) to find the start of the next line.boustrophedon

There were not many lawn-mowers in early Greece. But there were plenty of oxen. And you plow a field the same way you mow a lawn: all the way across the field, then turn and come back.

So this (soon-abandoned) form of writing was called ‘boustrophedon’, ‘like an ox turning’. I’m tickled pink to find it reborn online

June 24, 2020

Enterprise Software

I never hated Enterprise Software until I had to work with it.

I have always been in the open-source world – admittedly spending far less time contributing than being paid to build closed-source products on open-source foundations. Still I had a vague, theoretical distrust of enterprise software.

Now, for the first time, I get it. I’m working on a tiny project which is entirely subject to the half-baked API of an enterprise behemoth. On every side I’m faced by problems caused not by my own work or by logical limitations, but by the past decisions of a nameless somebody. Problems I cannot fix, no matter how hard I work or how cunningly I plan. Because here you don’t change anything by thinking. You change it by siting in meetings, persuading people, and perhaps having your boss write a five-figure cheque.

And so, I feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

These days I am not used to feeling powerless. It reminds me of home and school – of the last time I felt continuously, cripplingly, at the mercy of arbitrary rules. That my life since then has been relatively independent is of course the result of immense privilege. It’s also because, hating being constrained, I’ve cashed in some of that privilege running away from authority.

Now, with this sense of powerlessness in my head, I look at free software in a different light. I had seen it either in political or in practical terms – as the Right Way and the Best Way.

I had overlooked the psychological aspect. I had not really felt the frustratation of being trapped inside somebody else’s conceptual world, and the compulsion to break free.

The children of the revolution, I suppose, never quite understand the horrors of the ancien regime. So maybe I should appreciate my current situation as a teaching moment, a picture of how I Do Not want to live. For sure, it has motivated me to contribute more actively to free software.

Mostly, though, I just want it to be over.

June 21, 2020

Beginnings

At that other time of beginning, the New Year, I resolved to structure my life around the solstices and the equinoxes. Covid has thwarted my plans to throw parties on those dates. But it has not stopped me using them for introspection, for contemplation – and for new beginnings.

Hence this notebook, beginning on the longest day. Its immediate inspiration is DrMaciver, whose daily notebook has already spawned a brood of offspring. Mostly, though, it’s just latest iteration in my slash-and-burn approach to writing.

I’ve previously bounced from LiveJournal to student newspaper to self-hosted blog to Tumblr, to the daily diary I’ve typed into text files in its dedicated CRT-green editor.

Every time I eventually find myself boed by the imagined constraints of the structure or the audience. I give up. I stop writing for a while. Then I emerge somewhere else, re-energised by a new location or a new format.

So what is the new format this time round? First off, longevity. I have plans to write this from the summer solstice until the autumn equinox. After that it might continue, it might mutate, it might die – all bets are off.

Second, this is a notebook. It is not quite a diary, not quite a blog. That is, it is not primarily a vehicle for self-revelation, nor for connecting with others – though I hope both will happen occasionally alog the way. There is no commitment to theme, to length, to making each post interesting. This is a drop of whatever is on my mind – no less, no more

June 20, 2020