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Month: July 2010

Problems with this non-fiction book and such

So I’m reading a book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.  Overall, I’d say it’s a pretty good book, though sometimes a bit repetitive, as if the author just wanted to make the book longer, or make extra-sure he got his point across.  The book firstly argues that “genius” and “giftedness” and “skill” are not innate, people aren’t just born more special than everyone else (though we seem to like this idea in fiction).  Expert skill can be acquired by almost anyone who is willing to put in the enormous amounts of time and effort.  (Of course, this really isn’t a world-changing view; plenty of people, including my genius self, have already concluded this.  And, as I said in one of my earlier blog posts, The Talent Code feels like a sequel, or at least a companion book, to The Genius in All of Us. (By the way, I know these books might sound like cheesy self-help books, but I don’t think they’re that bad…))

The book also talks about the importance of the brain’s myelin.  (It mentions it over and over and over… yes, myelin, I get it!)  The book argues myelin, which insulates the axons of the brains neurons, plays a key role in developing skills.  Developing skills is, in fact, all about growing myelin around the proper neurons in your brain.  (OK, maybe not all about growing myelin, but its certainly a vital factor.)  But beyond that (and beyond repeating it 12 billion times), it really doesn’t go very in-depth about the science of myelin, nor does it talk about any ways to get more myelin, besides good practicing, which would be the obvious way to gain skills anyway.  So I’m really not sure why the author chose to make myelin such a big theme of the book.  Coyle could’ve talked about it for three or four pages and then moved on; it doesn’t seem to really add that much to his point.

The book also talks “deep practice” … that is, practicing that counts.  Just going through the motions does not provide the best learning experience, you have to sit and contemplate what you’re doing, mentally recognizing some mistake you keep making, some thing you can improve on, and consciously working on it.  (I’ve played some kids in chess, and some of them, after learning how the pieces move, just play the first moves that pop into their heads instead of taking the time think.  It seems useless to play like that; they’re never going to get any better without thinking.  I’d actually go so far as to say that there are these huge institutions which encourage (and spend millions of dollars on) “shallow practicing” … in these institutions, people just read some material, hear a lecture on it, take a test on it, and they’re done.  They never apply much of their knowledge to anything.  These institutions are the American high school system and the American college system.  (Plenty of exceptions of course, but overall, these institutions are centered around very stupid ways to learn useless things.))

I’ve just started the chapter “The Three Rules of Deep Practice” … can’t say much about it yet, ’cause I haven’t read it yet!  But it looks interesting.

Anyway, I came across some quotes from the book that I don’t quite agree with.  Overall, it’s an interesting book, and I’d say it’s “good” … but these quotes really annoy me.

On pages 49-50, Coyle writes:

A famed 1956 paper by psychologist George Miller, called “The Magical Number Seven, Plur or Minus Two,” established the rule that human short-term memory was limited to seven pieces of independent information (and gave Bell Telephone reason to settle on seven-digit phone numbers).

OK, this quote isn’t that annoying, but I wonder if this notion that “telephones numbers have seven digits because of short term memory studies” is just a myth; I’ve never seen any evidence of it, and the author here doesn’t cite anything. Is he just repeating something he read somewhere without checking up on it?

Even if this notion was true, it wouldn’t make much sense. The digits of a phone number are not “pieces of independent information” … you can remember a sequence of 12 or 15 digits (or plenty more) very easily if you use them enough; you remember them as a sequence, or maybe even as an image or one big chunk. And if the goal was to make phone numbers easy to remember, shorter is always better, so why not make it shorter? Or why not disregard number length completely and just use easy to remember sequences? For example, 11111 is easier to remember than 59834. You don’t have to actually remember 1, then 1, then 1, then 1, then 1. Instead you just remember “5 1’s” … so you could perhaps have sequences like 444-555-1. Then you just remember “3 4’s, 3 5’s, 1” … the 1 being the “end” symbol. Then we could have a ton of possible numbers with very little remembering to do.

I’m sure there are some problems with that system, but my point is that 7-digit phone numbers could just be a coincidence. I’m not convinced a huge amount of psychological thought went into choosing how many digits to make phone numbers; I think people just used what they were comfortable with. Maybe they did put a ton of thought into it and labored over scientific papers on short-term memory, but I haven’t seen any actual evidence of it, besides people mentioning it in passing when they talk about the “7 items in short term memory” thing.

Anyway, that’s just a small annoyance. A bigger annoyance is what Coyle writes next on page 50:

When one of Ericsson’s student volunteers memorized an eighty-digit number, the scientific establishment wasn’t sure what to think.

Ericsson showed that the existing model of short-term memory was wrong. Memory wasn’t like shoe size–it could be improved through training.

But I just read about this in The Genius in All of Us! Yes, these student volunteers learned to memorize huge sequences of random numbers, but did that really improve their short-term memory? Not necessarily. Give them random sequences of letters, or animal names, or DNA code, and they become normal again. They weren’t really “improving their short-term memory,” they were teaching themselves number-chunking skills. If you chunk 7 and 8 and think “seventy-eight,” 7 and 8 are no longer independent entities; you remember them as a group, one number. But what’s most striking is the non-transferability of these students’ memorization skills. Ultimately their skill is useless because we have very little need for memorizing large sets of numbers. But they don’t have the skill to memorize just vast amounts of anything on the fly. So I’m not sure I really buy the notion that “the existing model of short-term memory was wrong.” Maybe it was, but Ericsson’s study is not direct evidence of that, as far as I can tell.

(On a side note, transferability is a huge topic in psychology and education. It’s easy to look at a really good piano player and notice other things he does well and reckon “ah, playing the piano helps your math skills” or whatever. Maybe it does in some amount, but people forget that correlation does not prove causation. You cannot see such cause-and-effect in the complexity of human behaviour so completely just with passive observation. Yet schools (and people trying to sell educational material) do this all the time. “Playing chess will help your logic reasoning!” “Listening to Mozart will improve your math skills!” etc. (Again, not that it doesn’t, but it’s much more complex than just playing chess and suddenly applying logic in more places. Transferability of skills is simply not so simple. (It would be interesting to read a big scientific book on the subject, but I’m not sure if it’s been written. I’ll have to look around.)))

This next annoyance isn’t really Coyle’s fault since he’s just quoting someone else. On page 66:

“Why do teenagers make bad decisions?” he [George Bartzokis] asks, not waiting for an answer “Because all the neurons are there, but they are not fully insulated. Until the whole circuit is insulated, that circuit, although capable, will not be instantly available to alter impulsive behavior as it’s happening. Teens understand right and wrong, but it takes them time to figure it out.”

*Sigh* … more teenage brain bias based on no evidence. Firstly, this doesn’t explain teens who made no more bad decisions than adults, like, gee, I don’t know, me. Nor does it explain adults who make worse decisions than teens, or pre-teens who make better decisions (as they would also have less myelin). Secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any actual science behind it. OK, we know there’s myelin, we know it helps, we know teens have less of it (in general, at least, though I’m not even sure how much evidence of this there even is), but, as usual, correlation doesn’t prove causation. You can’t just say “Ah, teens have less myelin, therefore that is the cause of their bad decisions! Makes sense to me! And I’ve seen teens make bad decisions, so it must be true!” It seems it’s just old people generalizing teenage behaviour and assuming little can be done about it, it’s just innate, and must be countered with parental control. It’s quite sad and disturbing and ultra-annoying.

Then, on page 67, Coyle quotes Bartzokis as saying:

“Sure, you can teach a monkey to communicate at the level of a three-year-old, but beyond that, they are using the equivalent of copper wires.”

Er … if you read up on the science of monkeys learning language, I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence that monkeys are even close to learning language at a three-year-old level. Mr. Bartzokis’s credibility, like the list of Gandalf’s and Elrond’s allies after the betrayal of Saruman, grows thin.

Anyway, there are some quotes from this book that I like (as I said, overall, I think this is a good book). For example, the author at times seems to recognize the complexity of human behaviour. Coyle talks about David Banks, “a Carnegie Mellon University statistician.” Banks realizes that geniuses (at least famous geniuses) tend to appear throughout history in clusters, not regular intervals. He wonders about why this is. He says that conventional wisdom might say that the certain cultures, certain political environments, certain cultural wealth, etc., all make the environment perfect for nurturing geniuses. Banks, however, does not see any strong correlations. So Coyle writes on page 63:

Banks’s paper neatly illustrates the endless cycle of tail-chasing that ensues when you apply traditional nature/nurture thinking to questions of talent. The more you try to distill the vast ocean of potential factors into a golden concentrate of uniqueness, the more you are nudged toward the seemingly inescapable conclusion that geniuses are simply born and that phenomena like the Renaissance were thus a product of blind luck. As historian Paul Johnson writes, giving voice to that theory, “Genius suddenly comes to life and speaks out of a vacuum, and then it is silent, equally mysteriously.”

See, isn’t that a good paragraph? Or am I just using confirmation bias? No, I think it’s a good paragraph.

On page 53, Coyle writes:

In the vast river of narratives that make up Western culture, most stories about talent are strikingly similar. They go like this: without warning, in the midst of ordinary, everyday life, a Kid from Nowhere appears. The Kid possesses a mysterious natural gift for painting / math / baseball / physics, and through the power of that gift, he changes his life and the lives of those around him.

That quote made me laugh, it seems pretty true, doesn’t it? In fact, how many stories in general, even if not involving a “genius” character, involve some main character (or set of characters) that is just more special than everyone else? And why is that? To feed our natural desire / daydreams to be that kind of person? Not that this is necessarily a bad thing; I enjoy reading those kinds of stories and have some novel plots like that. But we should also realize that the “specialness” of characters in stories is not like real life…

Consider Pixar’s awesome movie The Incredibles. (By the way, I talk to one of the animators from that movie every week, brag brag brag, ha ha!) Firstly, the movie centers around characters who are definitely more special than everyone else… they have super powers after all. When you imagine yourself in that movie, would you imagine yourself being a regular non-powerful person? Maybe a non-super friend who learns their secret but is happy to keep it with them? Probably not. (Disney channel shows love doing that, giving one or a few characters special abilities and having their friends happily accept their side-kick roles.)

Anyway, there’s a part in The Incredibles in which Elastigirl (the mom) tells her son, Dash, that “everyone is special.” To which Dash replies “which is another way of saying no one is.” Beyond that the movie doesn’t really resolve the issue. Very quotable. How I resolve it: Yep, it’s true. Yep, sorry. No one is special. Everyone is. Live with it. What, Dash, you have to be more special than everyone else? Selfish conceded jerk!

Yet, in fiction, we don’t really live with it. We pretend it’s not true. We imagine stories of characters who really are more special than everyone else. The “chosen one” syndrome, as I might call it. I’m not sure why we do it, but we should at least recognize that we do. (Or maybe only I do since I am more special than everyone else.)

(Think about other exchanges Dash and Elastigirl could’ve had: “No one is special, Dash.” “Which is another way of saying everyone is!” or “The glass is half empty, Dash.” “Which is another way of saying the glass is half full!”)

(On a side note, Coyle also points out in the footnotes that the notion of the “Heroic Artist”–the genius artist that is more special than everyone else–may be a more recent phenomena in the course of human history, something that perhaps emerged in the Renaissance? Culture now supports the worshipping of geniuses of the past, putting them on pedestals: Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, da Vinci … such great works of art they produced! These people were not like us, they were geniuses high above us!)

OK, whew, didn’t mean for my post to get so long, but I think those are all the points I wanted to make today!

Books I done went and checked out

So yesterday I made the long journey back to George Mason University to use their library.  The same girl was working there as when I worked there years ago.  I’m not sure if she recognized me or not, but if she did she didn’t say anything.  Then again, neither did I.  Anyway, I found a lot of books I’d like to check out, but I only checked out 6 for now.  Not that I’ll read them all cover to cover; some of them are more of the scan-through kind.  So here’s what I got:

  • Timing for Animation, Second Edition – Well, actually, I got the first edition, but the second edition is what’s on Amazon now.  This book was in Animation Mentor’s “recommended books” section, and just flipping through it it looks like it will have some helpful tips.
  • Acting in Animation: A Look at 12 Films – I’m not really sure exactly what this is about (besides animated “acting” of course) but it looked interesting.
  • Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama – Someone mentioned this book in the comments of this blog. I forgot to look for Mamet’s book on directing though. Anyway, this book is very short. So I got it. Looks interesting. It’s just on story writing in general, I think, so could be interesting since I’ve always got screenplay and novel ideas floating around in my head.
  • Pure Animation: Steps to Creation With 57 Cutting-edge Animators – This is definitely just a scan-through book with lots of pictures in which animators make a few points about the creation of some of their short animations.
  • Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers, Directors, and Videographers – This was also recommended by Animation Mentor. It’s obviously about cinematography. It looks like its full of great and interesting film-making stuff. I’d like to read it cover to cover, though I don’t think I’ll have time, especially since I need to focus on actual animation. But it looks like it will definitely be interesting to at least flip through.
  • Autodesk Maya 2010: The Modeling and Animation Handbook – Here’s another one I’d like to read cover to cover if I had more time, which I don’t, so I’ll just flip through it. It’s just about how to use Maya. I think I’ve got an OK handle on the animation side of things, at least the basics of it, but modeling, lighting, rendering, etc. are all still kind of beyond me. Though I don’t necessarily need to learn those things for Animation Mentor, I still think they’d be useful.

As I said, they’ve got some other books I’d like to check out in the future, but I’ll look through those for the next few weeks and should definitely learn some things.

Some of those books make me want to subscribe to Netflix (or Blockbuster) so I can have access to a lot of movies (both animated and non-animated) just to study film in general. It’s very tempting, but I’ll save my money (and time) for now. Maybe as I get closer to finishing Animation Mentor…

Lastly, I also checked out a book from the local library called The Talent Code. This kind of seems like a good sequel to The Genius in All of Us, which I read a few weeks ago. While that book was about how almost anyone can be a “genius” with the right kind of work and dedication, this book is more about just what the “right” kind of work is. What is the best way to gain a new skill? What is the best way to practice? As I’ve concluded from reading a few books, it’s not just about doing something over and over, it’s more about figuring out how to do something you can not yet do. So it’s like “the art of learning” which I find to be very interesting. So it seems like it will be a good book. And it’s pretty short, only around 200 pages, so it shouldn’t take too long.

I guess that’s pretty much it today, just wanted to blather about books I got from libraries! Hope it was interesting! If not, too bad!

Imagination!

Here’s some good exercise for your imagination. You can’t do it now, sitting in front of your computer or whatever. You’ll have to wait until night and you’ve been in bed for at least 10 minutes, trying to get to sleep.

If your bed is next to a wall, this works better if you are facing the wall, your back to the rest of the room.

It is also best to keep your bedroom door unlocked, maybe even your house door (without setting the alarm, of course).

This also works better if you have a fan going, or the air conditioning, anything that creates some white noise in the background. With a good imagination, you’ll be able to hear things in the white noise.

OK, now, as your lying there, eyes closed, all relaxed in the complete darkness, imagine someone slowly opening your bedroom door. You don’t know who this person is, but he or she is very very dangerous. And the person is here to kill you, to murder you in your sleep.

Lie very still as the person slowly approaches. In the white noise, you can hear the person’s footsteps very faintly, you can even hear the person’s slow nervous breathing. Closer and closer the person comes.

The person is right next to your bed. The person begins hovering over you, perhaps to make sure you’re really asleep. The person is about to murder you. You can almost feel the person’s warmth.

Now… quickly sit up and scream “NOOOOO!!!”

And murderer will vanish in thin air! Or so we hope.

If not, I hold no responsibility for your untimely death.

Have fun using your imagination!

Animation and NurtureShock and other stuff

Animation Mentor

It’s week 5 (of 72) of Animation Mentor! Things are going OK so far. I’ll upload a video of last week’s assignment later. Our assignment last week was to animate balls of different weight and bounciness. This week our assignment is to animate a ball with squash and stretch bouncing around an opsticle course, so it will be quite tricky. I spent the morning fooling around a bit with animating squash and stretch, and it does take some getting used to, especially timing-wise. But it’s also easy to tell just how much more “alive” it can make something look.

NurtureShock

In other news, I recently finished reading NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. Overall, it was very good, and could change the way parents (and people in general) think about child development and (what I’m interested in) education.

However, I still have some disagreements with how they interpret certain scientific results. Though they mention somewhere in the book that they believe “intelligence” is malleable, they sometimes seem to imply that they believe it’s only malleable in children, or at least not as malleable in adults as I believe it to be.

They also don’t seem to realize how influential environment can be on intelligence, personality, decision-making processes, mood, etc. In fact, a lot of people in general don’t seem to realize this, so people are always searching for other reasons people act the way they do, such as “oh, the teens’ brain is just not done developing and that makes them take more risks, and their hormones make them all moody” or “prodigies are born, and we pulled him out of school so he can study chess and violin for 15 hours a day to nurture that genius.” I’m not arguing that environment complete dictates everything … obviously it doesn’t … but neither does DNA and hormones and the size of the prefrontal lobe. The environment still has a huge effect that should not be ignored.

I haven’t read it, but there’s a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo about Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment. In the experiment, students basically took part in a mock prison, some playing prisoners, others playing guards. As you might know, they had to stop the experiment early because people went mad; they got way to into it, the guards started torturing the prisoners, and the prisoners became insanely miserable (and forgetting it was just an experiment). The point was: change the environment enough, and you can become a completely different person. You still have to pay the price for your evil deeds, but the environment can still have a huge effect on your decision-making. And isn’t imagining the wonder of Heaven and the bleakness of Hell all about imagining certain environments? (As we can’t very well imagine a change in being or a change in the nature of our consciousness … that is beyond the limit of our consciousness, leading some to believe it’s altogether impossible.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, the authors of the book simply don’t give enough credit to the influence of environment. They do give it some credit, since some of the experiments they mention are all about changing the environment in specific ways. But other times they seem to ignore it.

But, as I said, overall it’s very good, and I recommend reading it; I simply advise not blindly believing their sometimes simplistic explanations of the experimental results. (That really goes for any science book meant for the average reader; be weary of oversimplification, especially in complex topics like business and marketing and economics and psychology and quantum physics. It’s amazing how many people sum up Einstein’s relativity as “time goes slower for things moving faster.” It’s usually high schoolers who go on to apply to MIT as a matter of looking smart rather than actually being qualified. There are lots!)

Some other random stuff

Oh, I’m resurrecting my Stuff I Found blog, now at a new location.

Also, I found some local people playing chess on Saturday nights, so I can get back into chess for a little while, playing some real life people on real life boards (which reminds me, I might have some games going on in Google Wave that I need to check). I don’t think I’ll have time to go to any tournaments anytime soon, since I work weekends, but at least it will be some non-Internet socialization.

Lastly, I’m hoping sometime this week to finally go back to George Mason University and use their huge library. I’ve long missed their library, the only thing I really loved about going to university, they’ve got just about every nonfiction book I’ve ever wanted to read. They’re especially great for computer books, which can be costly and which our local library won’t buy. It can be kind of a long drive (45 minutes to, at worst, an hour) but if I can get some books on Maya, and animation, and drawing, etc, I think it will be worth it. (And, looking through their online catalogue, they’ve got a ton. And almost everything is also checked in, I guess since it’s summer. Though even when I was going to Mason, I hardly ever had to wait for a book to come back. A lot of students just don’t use the library unless a professor makes them. (And many people don’t read nonfiction for fun, for that matter.) Which I think is fine… more for me! Plenty of professors and graduate students use it, though.)

OK, that’s all for now…

Some random things that I must say today

A few things…

OK, a few things.  Firstly, I finally updated my WordPress to 3.0!  Woohoo!  I’m all updated!  Not that one can really notice from just reading the blog…

Secondly, I created a new YouTube channel at youtube.com/seanhannifin to post random non-music stuff, probably mostly animation tests so that I can share my Animation Mentor progress.  Here are my first animation attempts:

Woohoo!

Um… what else?

Comic-Con

I don’t really know much about Comic-Con, except that it’s apparently a pretty popular event. I don’t have the time or money to go to any such conventions (or the social connections that would make going to such an event more fun). Anyway, Comic-Con will be streaming live at MySpace starting sometime today, so I might check it out for about 5 minutes…

A few responses to Nurture Shock

I’m reading this book called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman.  It’s a very interesting book; each chapter is dedicated to shedding new light and giving a new perspective to a certain topic.  (Just look at the table of contents on Amazon if you really care what those topics are… I might blog about more of them in the future.)  I love books that try to tackle long-standing myths.

Anyway, chapter seven is called The Science of Teenage Rebellion, and while it doesn’t go into too much depth (afterall, you could write entire books on this topic … and people have), it does make some interesting points.

This post is really not about those points, though.  It’s really just my reaction to some quotes from the chapter.

On Page 140, it says:

Pushing a teen into rebellion by having too many rules was a sort of statistical myth.  “That actually doesn’t happen,” remarked Darling.  She found that most rules-heavy parents don’t actually enforce them.  “It’s too much work,” says Darling.  “It’s a lot harder to enforce three rules than to set twenty rules.”  These teens avoided rebellious direct conflict and just snuck around behind their parents’ backs.

Woah.  So, just lying to your parents and breaking the rules behind their backs is not rebellious?  You think the parents would be OK with that?  So… it’s good to set rules as a parent, because, hey, if it’s too many, your child will just break them behind your back…?

I think it’s possible for a parent to set too many rules, and not enough rules, and doing either could help cause rebellion.  And by “rebellion” I mean teenagers disobeying their parents, not just avoiding direct conflict.

That paragraph makes it hard for me to understand what the author is trying to say, so I can’t really agree or disagree with him on it.

Then, in a new section, on page 141, the book says:

The Mod Squad study did confirm Linda Caldwell’s hypothesis that teens turn to drinking and drugs because they’re bored in their free time.

Woah again!  The book says pretty much nothing about how this was confirmed.  It is seems way too simplistic to me.  What about the many environmental influences?  Peer pressure, parental pressure, school pressure, the availability of drugs and alcohol, etc?  I’m not convinced anyone ever does anything just because they’re bored.  There’s always more to it than that.  If you were really bored, you wouldn’t do anything!

The book then talks about how Caldwell creates a program called TimeWise which tries to help kids counter boredom.  And it says on page 143:

For the seventh-graders who started out the most bored, “it didn’t seem to make a difference,” said Caldwell.  It turns out that teaching kids not to be bored is really hard–even for the best program in the country.

Why didn’t TimeWise have a stronger effect?

My guess would be that after TimeWise, kids are thrust back into the environment they were in before.  Yes, their time spent in the TimeWise program could affect their choices a bit, but they didn’t drink and do drugs just because of mere boredom in the first place!  You got your premises wrong.  (The real results Mod Squad study might’ve been more complex than this, I don’t know.  As I said, the book gives no explanation as to how the study confirmed such a thing.)

And then, bum bum bum… the book says:

Is it possible that teens are just neurologically prone to boredom?

According to the work of neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Galvan at UCLA, there’s good reason to think so.

To me, there seems bad reason to think so.  Basically, scientists do these brain scans and watch parts of the brain light up.  And for teens, they find that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t light up as much when the teen is supposedly excited (it shows a “diminished response whenever their reward center was experiencing intense excitement”).  And the prefrontal cortex is “responsible for weighing risk and consequences.”  Therefore when the teen is excited… “the teen’s brain is handicapped in its ability to gauge risk and foresee consequences.”

That’s it?

That’s the evidence?

The prefrontal cortex shows a “diminished response” and therefore teens aren’t as good at foreseeing outcomes and are therefore just naturally prone to risky behaviour?

And nevermind the environment?

And… weren’t you at first trying to say something about boredom?

Overall, it’s a very interesting book.  I think the authors need to do a bit more research in this area though.

Geniusness and whatnot

It’s week 3 of Animation Mentor, and this week we’re learning to animate a bouncing ball. I think my bouncing ball will be so good that Pixar will want to license it for a new short film called “The Bouncing of the Ball” or something. Anyway, it’s going well; the workload isn’t overwhelming yet though I still wish I could get my sleep schedule in order so I could get my animation studying time into some kind of structured groove. Here’s my assignment from last week:

stupose1

The assignment was merely to observe other people’s poses and then pose the given 3D character. That took long enough; I can’t wait to see how long it will take to actually animate something that complex … *gulp*

geniusbook In other news, I just finished reading a good book called The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong by David Shenk. It basically argues against the classic notion that “genius” is just some innate quality that we’re either born with or without, most of us without. What we call “genius” is actually a set of skills that are highly developed over a long period of time, formed by constant practice and dedication. With enormous amounts of dedication, just about anyone can become a “genius” in any area they desire. The thing is, not many of us are willing to really dedicate that much time and effort to one area of study (and sometimes we can’t anyway, because of the demands of work, school, or family life). But realizing that just about anybody has the ability to become a genius in just about anything (though certainly not everything at the same time) is something few people seem to realize (though if you read through my blog here, you should see that I have long held this notion, as have others, so it’s not really an innovative idea, but it’s still a good book).

Some things mentioned in the book that I though were interesting:

Prodigies:

Firstly, there are plenty of prodigies who grow up to do nothing special, and plenty of successful adults (like Einstein) who weren’t prodigies. The qualities needed to be considered a “prodigy” and to be considered an adult “genius” are simply different. So if you weren’t a prodigy, relax, you can still do great things. And if you were a prodigy, you’re a loser now! Ha ha! See what it feels like!

No, what I mean is, if you were a prodigy, you can’t just rely on whatever made you a prodigy to help you compete in the adult world; you have to retain that constant drive to learn and practice and get better still, and this time without your parents and teachers praising how good you are to family and friends on the phone.

I watched this video on YouTube some time ago. A 6 year old girl plays an original composition on the piano.  Take note of what Ellen says at around 4:35.  She asks “How do you come up with this stuff?”  And the girl says “It just comes out!”  And Ellen says “Well, it doesn’t just come or it would come out of all of us if it did.  You’re very very special.” Oh, Ellen. You’re so funny. See? This is what a lot of people really think! Actually, Ellen, you could compose and play like that if you just practice for a few years. It’s really not that amazing. That you think you can’t anyway, however, won’t help anyone at all.  But Ellen is right; it doesn’t just “come out,” it’s practiced and worked towards.

How to be a Genius:

Chapter 7 includes some tips on how to become a genius; that is, how to work yourself to the bone to become good at something. The tips are very good (though easier said than done). The first tip is to find your motivation. Obviously it’s much easier to do something if you want to do it. Secondly, be your own toughest critic and identify your limitations and ignore them. Practice that will help you improve is not just doing the same thing over and over. You have to try to do something you cannot yet do. You have to constantly be finding areas you can improve in. You must delay gratification and resist contentedness. You might get to a point where people start praising you for your work, but you can’t be content with that. (Is praise your motivation, you shallow fool?!) You have to keep pushing yourself; never be happy with your work. I mean, you can be proud of what you’ve achieved, certainly, but the point at which you can’t find anything to improve on is the point at which you’ll stop improving (and become a big dummy). That said, you must also beware the dark side (bitterness and blame). You don’t have to psychologically mess yourself up by constantly thinking you’ll never be good enough, for whatever reason. When you push yourself, you must do it for the desire of getting better, not out of self-contempt. Finally, try to have heroes and find mentors. They will inspire you and teach you their secret ways.  (And, no, I can’t be your mentor, sorry to disappoint…)

Being a genius shouldn’t be the reward. Becoming a genius should be a reward in and of itself. You must learn to love the process, as it never truly ends.

Also, school is stupid and doesn’t help at all. Just thought I’d put that in there.

And all that said, you might be perfectly content with not being considered a genius. Nothing wrong with that. Lazy bum.

But … how does one practice effectively?

I’m still not really quite sure, the book doesn’t go into a whole lot of detail on this point. I shall have to do some further reading and research, I suppose. I guess some of it depends on what exactly you want to learn. And I suspect it has to do with what I mentioned earlier: finding some certain thing you are not yet capable of doing and figuring out how to do it. Give yourself little goals and then work to achieve them, and when you do, give yourself more goals. So I guess the trick is to find little goals that will actually aid you in your larger quest. For example, if you’re learning to play the piano, and you give yourself the goal of playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” even faster, that might not be as helpful of a goal as trying to play it with more accurate tempo or something. Or in learning to draw: If you wish to draw dragons that can only be seen in your mind, redrawing family photos from reference might not be as much help as studying anatomy and learning to recreate bodies in positions you do not have reference to work from. For arts like writing and composing, the art is so much more subjective that coming up with goals might be harder. Having a goal of simply “getting more praise from more people” just seems a bit stupid. Areas like that are, I think, more tricky. I could go into my thoughts about them, but I think that topic is worthy of another entire blog post, and I don’t really feel like getting all into it now.

Overall

Overall, I recommend the book, especially if you don’t already agree with its message, because you need to understand how wrong and foolish you are! I only deduct a few points because the author misinterprets an Ayn Rand quote, and gives too much unwarranted credit to Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, the “stupid old foolish scientist” as he’s known in these parts.

Happy reading! (Or happy non-reading, to all you non-genius folks…)

Life is good (with Animation Mentor)

OK, this post is part just talking about Animation Mentor, and part completely me bragging about how happy and excited I am, so look away if you hate that kind of stuff, as I probably would if I weren’t me.

Animation Mentor has officially begun! You can see I’ve got official badge on the side there, haha! My mentor for the first semester is animator Tim Crawfurd, who did some 2D animation before getting hired by Pixar in 1997 (when CG animation was still pretty new), and he continued to work at Pixar until 2009. Check out his imdb profile to see the films he worked on with Pixar, and his showreel on YouTube.

The structure of Animation Mentor might seem confusing at first, but basically there are six “classes” or “semesters”, each one lasting 12 weeks. Within each class there are 12 to 15 mentors, and each mentor is assigned to 9 to 14 students. So Tim Crawfurd is the mentor for me and 12 others. I think three of us are in the US, and the others are around the world, like in India, Ireland, UK, France, Spain, etc. Each semester you get a different mentor, so you get professionals with a variety of industry backgrounds (but they’re all character animators, obviously).

Here’s how the learning part works: on the Monday of each week, you get a video lecture and a corresponding assignment. The lectures and assignments are the same, no matter which mentor you have. The lectures also feature a bunch of different animators, so you get to hear from a wide variety of pros; it’s not just one guy telling you everything. You have until 12 PM PST Sunday to upload your assignment, so you have almost the entire week to work on it. Sometime during the week, you have a Q&A session with your mentor, live using webcams and microphones, allowing you to talk with the other students in your group and the mentor, asking any questions you have. Lastly, each week you’ll get a (non-live) video from your mentor reviewing and grading your assignment from the previous week, so if you did something wrong or have something you could improve, you’ll know exactly what and why from personal attention from your mentor. These reviews are also made public, so everyone can learn from your work and the mentor’s comments. (If that embarrasses you, too bad! I personally think it’s a great idea! The assignments are animation practice, not strict tests to see how smart you are.) Lastly, the online “campus” has other places to visit, like the perpetual chatroom, a forum, a “library” with book recommendations, and videos of animated-related learning material, like one about stop-motion animation, Maya training, etc. There are profiles to learn more about each other, video journals you can keep, etc. I think it could be easy to forget you have an assignment to do with all the social networking fun on the site!

To more specifics:

The first semester, that I just started, is “Basic Foundations” … so we’re starting with the basics, bouncing balls and such. You obviously can’t just jump right in and animate full characters! You have to progress to that. There’s no real assignment this first week; it’s all about getting introduced to the site, to the other students, and to your mentor. Yesterday I spent some time meeting some other students in the perpetual chatroom, which was a ton of fun. And I just had my first Q&A session yesterday and it was awesome. We mostly just tested out our webcams and how the whole Q&A thing will work, and had the opportunity to ask questions. I could probably sit there and ask a professional animator endless questions, but I only asked one today about how he approaches scenes that combine a lot of physics with character movement; to me that seems like the toughest stuff to animate; I fear I’ll really stink at it. But I haven’t animated anything at all yet, so maybe I’ll stink at even simpler things!

It was interesting to see people from all different time zones as well. It was late at night for some, early in the morning for others, 2 PM for me (which is perfect for me).

And it was really just my nerdy dream come true to be talking LIVE to someone who REALLY WORKED on some of my favorite movies of all time! And I look forward to more!

So now I’m in a state of elation, just so excited at actually having the opportunity to learn this stuff. So I hope I’ll be geeking out over animation for the next year or so, and my other interests, like music, might take more of a back seat. Maybe for eternity. OK, not for eternity.

Oh, I also love how informal Animation Mentor is, by which I mean it’s not like being at a university, with lofty professors who take themselves too seriously and dress up for class and have you worrying more about your grade than the actual subject.

So, overall, life is very good right now!