Year's best

My 2015 favorites

I’m pretty late this year, but who cares? Here are my favorites from 2015! As usual, for books, the nominees are books I finished reading for the first time in 2015, regardless of their publication date. Movies and film scores must have been first released in the USA in 2015.

Year’s best live action film:Jurassic World

Year’s best animated film:Inside Out

Year’s best film score:Pan

Year’s best nonfiction book:Book of Talent

Year’s best fiction book:Fugitives of Chaos

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

Talent and stuff

My weird and often late work hours prevent me from falling into any sort of groove lately; my sleep schedule is all over the place and I can’t seem to get into any sort of routine. Not that I really need one, but I’d probably be more productive with one. I’m still working on writing things and programming musical things, but progress is slow on everything. The days seem to be flying by; every day feels like only a few hours. Suddenly an entire week is gone, and then the entire month. My mind is clearly shrinking.

Talent book

I bought a book last week (or was it the week before?) called The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle, which is basically a book of tips (52 to be exact) about how to… improve your skills, I guess one could say. It’s a quick and easy read and full of great little nuggets of wisdom about how to practice skills productively. I have yet to try putting them to the test (especially as I was feeling pretty sick all through last week), but one tip stood out to me…

From page 112:

Tip 51: Keep Your Big Goals Secret

… Telling others about your big goals makes them less likely to happen, because it creates an unconscious payoff — tricking our brains into thinking we’ve already accomplished the goal. Keeping our big goals to ourselves is one of the smartest goals we can set.

Definitely one I’ll have to try. This very blog is riddled with my blathering about goals I never seem to reach. So I’m going to try just shutting up about them and see if that helps at all. (It’s not my only problem, I know, but it’s still worth trying.)

Other interesting tips from the book include:

  • Tip 15: Break every move down into chunks
  • Tip 18: Choose five minutes a day over an hour a week
  • Tip 30: Take a nap
  • Tip 46: Don’t waste time trying to break bad habits — instead, build new ones
  • Tip 47: To learn it more deeply, teach it

The book makes a point about making a daily habit of things. The only daily habits I’ve gotten very good at are eating, sleeping, and taking showers. So that’s something I’ll have to work on. (Making new habits, that is, not eating and stuff.) The book also points out (as with the aforementioned tip 18) that just five minutes a day of focusing on some particular thing can make a big difference; it doesn’t have to be some hour and a half of dedication that will just wind up discouraging you from putting in any time at all. (“Oh, I don’t have enough time to focus very deeply today!”) So that’s definitely something I need to try.

Anyway, it’s a good book, and one that I’ll be rereading now and then. I especially appreciate how pithy it is. These self-helpy type books so often have only a few little points to actually make, but spread them out over a couple hundred pages bloated with boring personal stories and examples. And at the end the reader thinks, “Gee, that was good!” and then forgets what few main points there were, if there were even any at all. This book, on the other hand, is only main points, with pithy little paragraphs for a bit of elaboration. None of that annoying self-help bloating-to-make-it-book-length-to-sell-it stuff.

Bonus material

Here’s a TED talk by the author…

And here’s a funny comic from a talented person:

3-painting

By S P Hannifin, ago
Emergent properties

Five ideas to change the way you see the world

1. The idea of emergence
2. There are no secrets to success
3. School is stupid
4. There’s no such thing as a genius
5. There’s no such thing as a teenager

Here are my top five worldview convictions; ideas that I was not raised believing but came to accept through thought, observation, and communication with others.  In a sense, they are like epiphanies; for each idea there was a time I had either no idea about it or believed the opposite.  And all of them are subjects of debate; for each one of them there are plenty of people out there who vehemently disagree with my position.

The books listed are simply the best ones I’ve read on the subject.  Although certain books have certainly helped convince me of some of these things, please do not think that I believe anything blindly; there are plenty of authors I disagree with.  A book’s contents and ideas are always subject to my own observations, analysis, and judgment.

1. The idea of emergence

OK, this first one isn’t necessarily that anti-intuitive, but it’s something a lot of people still seem to have trouble understanding or accepting.

There are still ongoing debates about how exactly to define this idea of emergence, but I’ll define it like this: an emergent property is a large scale property that emerges from a bunch of small, usually simple, interactions on a small scale.

A simple example might be a rush hour traffic jam.  A bunch of people get off work and drive home at the same time.  A traffic jam emerges from a bunch of individual decisions to drive at that specific time.  A traffic jam itself is a collection of cars; one car is not traffic jam, and a traffic jam can be made up of different cars at different times.

A famous example is John Conway’s Game of Life.  Conway made a grid and came up with a few simple “breeding” rules.  A square on the grid is either living or dead, on or off.  Then the player (or, more efficiently, a computer) uses the breeding rules for each square to determine if it would be living or dead in the next iteration (or generation).  Might seem boring, but playing around with it for a while, one can easily see patterns emerge, structures that cycle through patterns, structures that cycle but move around, structures that build other structures, etc.  All from a few simple rules applied to a bunch of grid squares.  The point is that they all interact with each other, and the patterns emerge.

Another example would be life itself, and nature’s use of DNA.  When combined with the machinery of a living cell (life doesn’t just pop up around a DNA strand all by itself), DNA contains instructions on what proteins to create.  From a bunch of small physical chemical interactions, a body grows.  Hands, brains, eyes, teeth, hair, etc.  It’s all encoded in the DNA, and it all emerges with trillions of tiny chemical interactions.  It’s important to understand that a physical body is the outcome of these interactions; though it’s encoded in the DNA, it’s not actually in the DNA.  Similarly, a music file encoded in a computer is just a long string of 0’s and 1’s, but it’s not music until this sequence is interpreted by a computer, played back through speakers, and ultimately heard by ears.  We can’t just look at the string of 0’s and 1’s and know how the music would sound.

One reason emergence can be hard to grasp or agree with, especially in the context of living systems, is that we humans tend to perceive intent, even when there’s no intent.  (There might be a more technical word for this problem, but I don’t know it.)

When we seek a reason for an event (or for the existence of something), we can seek two sorts of answers: intent to be fulfilled (a purpose), or a causal reason (cause and effect).  For example, if we ask “Why does the heart pump blood?” we can give two sorts of answers: an intent to be fulfilled (“The heart pumps blood to provide the rest of the body with supplies that travel through the blood”), or a causal reason (“The heart pumps blood because the brain sends a signal to it and its muscles contract”).  We can understand both these answers, but one is wrong: the heart has no consciousness; it doesn’t care what the rest of the body needs; it doesn’t do anything on purpose.  So why is it so natural for us to give the heart the human ability of having intent?

We can simulate similar systems in which emergent properties arise on a computer using genetic algorithms.  For example, we can program a robot to roll through a maze based on simple rules.  But we can also program the robot to figure out those rules on its own.  When it’s done, the rules might seem intelligent to us, as if the robot thought about his problem and solved it with intent to solve.  But really it’s just all the outcome of the simple rule-making rules of our program. (Unless, of course, we have succeeded in programming consciousness!)

If you think about genetic algorithms, it’s not really an amazing feat.  You just have the program come up with a bunch of random rule sets, test them, and weed out that ones that don’t produce the results you want.

The same thing happens in real life.  If the rules of making a life form (as dictated by the DNA) cause the life form to die before it breeds, its rules won’t be passed on.  Duh.  So in the end all we get are rules that “passed the tests.”

Although we do not yet know the exact science of it, emergence makes it quite plausible that God is not needed to explain the emergence of life on earth, or human life specifically.  This is enough to lead some people to atheism.  But to me it seems if your belief in God is dependent on ignorance regarding the origins of life, your faith is rather thin to begin with.  This really isn’t any sort of proof that God doesn’t exist.

There are quite a few books on this subject, and many more that relate to it, or utilize it in some way.  The two best books I have read on this subject are Emergence: From Chaos To Order by John H. Holland and Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell.  (Complexity: A Guided Tour is really about the subject of complexity, obviously, but the concept of emergence is an important part of it.)

2. There are no secrets to success

If you understand the idea of emergence, this isn’t a big leap of logic: success, at least in terms of fame and money, is an emergent property.  The fame of a person or a person’s work emerges from thousands, or millions, or billions of human interactions that take place each day.

This is anti-intuitive because it’s just too complex to understand.  When something becomes popular, we want to know why, and we feel that we should have the ability to know.  So we analyze the work of art (and the perhaps the traits of the culture that made it popular) and try to pinpoint what factors must’ve made it popular.  We try to reverse engineer its success.

Ultimately, though, the system is just too complex.  There is no way to guarantee success.  There are no key factors.

And yet so many people want to analyze and analyze and analyze.  Why?

OK, this might not actually be very anti-intuitive to a lot of people.  But it implies something else, something that might be more anti-intuitive.  Eventual popularity is not inherent in anything, be it a person or a work of art or whatever.

What I mean by this is that people sometimes look at famous things and take it as an objective measurement of greatness, as if there’s something undetectable but inherent in the work that makes it have such widespread appeal.  However, by feeding into this, they are unknowingly becoming a part of the social system that makes the object famous in the first place.  For example, it’s easy to look at the popularity of Mozart’s music and claim that it’s popular because genius is simply inherent in it, even though we can’t identify what factors make it so genius.

This sort of thought has pervaded through cultures for centuries, and it’s wrong; it’s a complete misunderstanding of what exactly popularity is and how it comes about.  That is, more specifically, it’s a wrong guess about how it comes about.

You’ll notice that many of these ideas simply involve giving different, sometimes anti-intuitive (but more correct!), answers to the question “why?”

The best book about this sort of thing is The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  OK, it’s not exactly just about objective greatness and popularity in art; it deals with the bigger problem of induction in general.  But the two subjects are very related.

3. School is stupid

This really seems to get people riled up for some reason, I suppose because the idea of school being necessary is so embedded in our culture; we grew up with it and simply can’t imagine (perhaps even fear) a world without it.  It’s odd, because when people are young students, they usually fully agree that school is stupid.  But for some reason, as they get older, they change their minds.  Usually they’ll defend the necessity of school when they are no longer required to go themselves, as if that’s suddenly a more objective position from which to judge it?

Notice that I did not claim that education was stupid.  And I don’t doubt that school is about education; it just has an extremely inefficient and overall harmful way of educating.

There are quite a few reasons formal schooling is dumb, and I won’t go over all of them here (there are books on the subject, after all), but I’ll mention the big ones.

The biggest problem with school is the material taught.  School systems simply want to teach too much.  This comes from a misunderstanding of intelligence.  People seem to think (and I’ve blogged about this before if this is sounding familiar) that intelligence is merely about knowing stuff, and the more you know the better.  I suppose it’s a bit like the idea behind hoarding—it’s better to just keep everything you can in case you need to use it someday.  But hoarding makes it difficult to live, difficult to have room for the stuff you want later, etc.  True, memory doesn’t work quite like that, but the point should be obvious: knowledge that you don’t use is useless.  The time and effort spent acquiring it is wasted.

And people already know this, otherwise students would be taught to memorize phone books.  Some knowledge is clearly useless; it’s not like the concept of useless knowledge is simply foreign to educators.  They’re just bad at figuring out which knowledge is useful and which isn’t.  In fact, usually someone figures it out for them, and they’d rather not think about it or question it.  How many times is a teacher asked “When will I ever use this?” and the teacher replies something like “You’ll use it on the test!” or “You’ll use it on your homework!”?  It’s easy to say that a teacher who utters such words should be immediately fired, but the intellectual crime he is committing and that instance probably deserves worse.

Figuring out what knowledge is useful and what isn’t shouldn’t be a difficult feat, nor should it be up to the government or any collective institution to determine.  It’s very simple, you just ask yourself: will I use this knowledge?  If you are interested in the knowledge, then yes, of course, it’s automatically useful because it gives you pleasure.  If you need the knowledge to get something you want (like a job), then yes, it’s useful; you are going to use it to get something.  If it does not fit one of those categories, it is, at the moment, useless.  What if it will be useful later?  Then learn later!  That’s why people write books.  Books store knowledge.  You don’t have to know it until you need it!  Amazing, huh?!

But you might protest: “How will I know whether or not I need a piece of knowledge until I know it?”  Easy: if you find yourself asking yourself a question, then you need more knowledge.  You could be asking yourself a question because you’re just curious (“What’s the population of the USA?”), or you could have a specific goal in mind (“How do I play the piano?” or “Can I make this work I have to do easier somehow?”).

Then you must search for the answer.  It is (or should be) up to you to find it; you can’t (or shouldn’t) just sit back and hope someone will come along and tell you.

Sometimes the answer can be found through a simple search query in Google.  Sometimes you want a deeper understanding that a book can provide.  Sometimes you might need several books.  Sometimes you might be interested in talking to a professional.  Sometimes taking a well-designed school course in the subject is appropriate.

Sometimes no one really knows the answer, and you must figure out how to find it yourself (that’s why people do experiments) or get used to the disappointment of ignorance.  (We’ll never know how many hairs were on Thomas Jefferson’s head.  Too bad for us.)

The point is that you know beforehand that there’s some sort of knowledge you want to gain, and then you seek it.

You probably realize that public schools have the process almost completely backwards.  They teach (or try to teach) students things before the student has any use for them.  This is completely counterproductive.

There is only one case in which this is justified, and that is in the teaching of young children.  Children are too inexperienced to understand what they want to learn, or why they need to learn certain things.  Some things are hard to learn, and they might naturally resist.  Most parents would agree that children need to learn to use the toilet, to pack up their toys, to not throw things at the wall, to not hit their siblings, to eat their vegetables, to tie their shoes, to dress themselves, to act politely, to read, etc.  Adults naturally need to guide their children in learning these things, even if the children claim they don’t want to learn.

This is not the case with many subjects taught in school.  There is no reason to force-teach calculus, the phases of the moon, the date George Washington died, how to calculate torque, the names of the big rivers in California, etc.

How do adults figure out what should be force-taught and what doesn’t need to be?  Again, the answer is simple: do most adults use the knowledge on an everyday basis?  If not, then force-teaching anybody such knowledge is a waste of time.  (Note that just because most adults know a piece of knowledge does not make it useful.  Most adults could know that the USA has fifty states, but that does not imply that children need to be taught that specifically.  It’s not useful information; it’s just common sense trivia.  As with all common sense trivia, children will naturally pick it up eventually.)

(Sometimes people say: “I have very eclectic interests.  Sometimes I just read random books without searching for any specific answer.”  Well, that’s great; go for it.  But that’s not the same as subjecting yourself to a strict classroom setting, where tuition is paid, schedules are followed and tests and grades are given. In other words, this doesn’t justify anything; it’s irrelevant to the argument I’m making.)

So, from what I can tell, that is the biggest problem of our (the USA’s) current public education system.  I’ve met a lot of people who agree that public schools have problems, but they completely miss this point.  They argue for fewer grades, less work, better teachers, smaller classrooms, etc., but they uphold the belief that so much knowledge should be force-taught in the first place.  As long as so much is force-taught, schools will be flawed and wasteful.  You can’t solve any other problem without first answering: why are we teaching this in the first place?

The other problems do include the grading system.  While it provides numerical assessment, it is wrongly used as a motivator (“If you don’t do this, you’ll get a bad grade!”), punisher (“You got a low grade, so you must do more work!” or “You got a low grade, so no TV for a week!”), and comparing system (“Sean had the highest grade in the class, so he is the best!  No one else is as good as him!”).  All of these hinder the actual act of learning.  There are other ways to assess educational progress.  Note that if the knowledge is useless in the first place and the student knows it, there is no honest way to motivate the student to learn it.  This is an example why solving these smaller problems will not help if the previously mentioned bigger problem is not dealt with first.

Another problem is that schools are thought of as factories (they are “systems” after all).  Students go in ignorant and come out smart.  But in structuring it like a factory, students are treated like prisoners: they are split apart by age (what purpose does that serve?), they are required to sit as long as they are told, they need permission to use the bathroom, they all must work at a similar pace, they are all taught the same material at the same time, etc.

There are problems with teachers: they are underpaid (people who might be good teachers don’t become them), they cannot be fired easily, and they sometimes aren’t very good.

Creativity is not cultivated as well as it could be; it is sometimes considered a detriment.  Music programs are sometimes cut before math programs, for example.  Why is math considered inherently more important?

There are probably books on this, but I actually haven’t read any.  As I’ve said before, people, including authors, usually discuss the smaller problems, but don’t see or agree with the bigger one.

4. There is no such thing as a genius

There is such thing as one person having more skill than another.  However, the notion of “genius” comes from a human misunderstanding of where that skill comes from.  Sometimes a skill seems to come so easily to another person that we simply can’t attribute it to practice; therefore, we suppose, it must be innate, it must come from DNA, it must be a gift from God.

Sometimes intellectual fame is also considered an inevitable product of genius.  Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein, Newton, Edison, etc. are considered famous because their minds were special and the rest of the world just naturally recognized it.

But, as discussed in idea #2, their (and their works’) fame (“success”) is actually the product of our complex social interaction system.  That is, it’s an emergent property.  Mozart was not special.  Newton was not special.  Edison was not special.  Yes, they’re special in the sense that they’re famous, but they never had greater intellectual potential than anyone else.  Their status of fame is the result of both their hard work and luck. (By “luck” I don’t mean pure random chance; I simply mean it is an emergent property, a product of a system that is otherwise far too complex for us to understand.)

You, yes you, whoever you are, can play the piano and compose symphonies as well as Mozart.  But you have to put in the time, and a lot of it.  But it’s not beyond your mental abilities (though perhaps it’s beyond your time resources).  You can understand the theory of relativity, you can study quantum mechanics, you can paint a beautiful sunrise.  But you’ve got to put in a lot work and practice.  Sometimes it does seem like a skill comes to some people faster than others, but no one is ever just born with it.

Again, hard work won’t guarantee fame.  Since Mozart’s famous touring-as-a-prodigy childhood, there have been plenty of other parents of young pianists seeking the same kind of fame.  But fame was not just the product of Mozart’s skill; it was an emergent property. Mozart got lucky, not just in his time, but throughout history (at least to this day; nobody knows what people hundreds of years from now will think).

Making a breakthrough scientific discovery is a bit trickier.  Again, it comes down to luck.  We might like to think it comes down to natural genius, but once you come up with your discovery, it’s not as if you’ll be the only one who’ll ever be able to understand it (if that were the case, your discovery would be useless anyway).  It might take hard work to arrive at your theory, but there’s nothing you can do innately to guarantee that you make the discovery first.

There are a few books on this subject, such as The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

5. There is no such thing as a teenager

Similar to the notion of a genius, a teenager is a purely cultural idea that emerged from a purely cultural way of raising children.  Biologically, after puberty, humans are ready to go out on their own and breed.  For some reason, culturally, we don’t accept this.  We might even think of it as disgusting and wrong for a thirteen or fourteen year old to get pregnant.  But that’s what the body is designed to do.  (Or perhaps I should say that that’s how the nature of the body emerged.) The reason it seems disgusting and wrong is cultural; we were raised in a culture that thinks of it as wrong and disgusting, so we accept the belief ourselves.

What is the basis for it?

Well, you could argue that teenagers are unruly and irresponsible.  But is it really biology that makes them that way?  I think yes and no; that is, biology indirectly makes them that way, and would make adults that way too if they were put in similar environments.  Biologically and psychologically teenagers are ready to take the reins of adulthood.  But they are not given those reins.  Parents, teachers, and lawmakers deny teenagers the reins for several more years, sometimes up to a decade longer than they should.  They exert control, sometimes giving them only more adult responsibilities without adult privileges.

The consequences of this should be apparent and predictable, and they’re exactly what we observe: teenagers resist.

Duh.

But then society makes the mistake of guessing that a teen’s troubles are due directly to biology and psychology; they conclude the teenager is in fact not ready to be treated like an adult, and the vicious cycle continues.

Does that mean parents of teenagers are bad?  Well, I wouldn’t say they’re evil.  After all, the belief is cultural; it’s natural and understandable that most parents would accept the common societal views of teenagerhood.  But they’re still wrong, and usually end up doing more harm than good.

Unfortunately this wrongness is even embedded in national law, so even if a parent wanted to treat their teenagers more like adults, there would be still be lawful limits on just how many privileges the teenagers could be given.

The best book I’ve read dealing with this subject is The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by Robert Epstein.  However, there are still scientific papers and articles on the differences between the teenage brain and the adult brain that try to explain teenage rebellion, so this is still quite a controversial subject.

Conclusion

I hope that was interesting to some people out there!  I continue to see these ideas all over the place.  Emergence is everywhere and helps shape our world in complex (sometimes mysterious) ways.  The problem of induction leads people to false knowledge and a misunderstanding of the nature of fame and success.  Schools continue to waste so much time and effort, and the people trying to make it better often miss its main problem.  The cultural notion of genius encourages people to underestimate their own true abilities.  And what people think about teenagers leads to vicious endless cycles of strained relationships.

I was considering adding more ideas, such as compatibilism (the notion that free will and determinism are compatible) and Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness (I do recommend The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged to everyone), but they didn’t quite make the cut.  Maybe next time.

I’m tempted to think some people get too satisfied with their convictions; they naturally resist any sort of idea that might change how they see the world. I suppose they’re afraid that if they change their outlook, it implies they’re stupid. But the opposite is true. No one is born with perfect knowledge. In fact, you’re really not born with very much knowledge at all. Most of your current knowledge came from somewhere. Your convictions should be changing as you grow older. I’m not saying they have to completely reverse every few years (that would be awful and probably would imply your stupidity), I’m simply saying one should be open and honest with himself in his judgments. Changing your mind about something is not a sign of stupidity.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Animation

Animating and reading and music and stuff…

Animation studies continue

It’s now week 7 (of 72) of Animation Mentor! The first semester (of 12 weeks) is half way over!

Last week’s assignment involved animating a pendulum. Unfortunately, towards the end of the week (mostly Saturday and Sunday) I caught some sort of virus, so I lost a nice chunk of animation time, and my assignment turned out pretty “blagh.” I mean, it wasn’t completely terrible, but it needs lots of polishing, so I’ll post that up on YouTube after I do a revision. Feeling better now, so I hope this week will be better.

Reading…

I finished reading The Talent Code the other day. Overall, ’twas a pretty good read, though I still think that in some of the chapters the author kind of goes off on these less interesting tangents. There was this whole chapter about how good some “KIPP program” schools were, though to me they seemed kind of brain-washy. One of the main points of the program, besides instilling militaristic discipline, was to not only get the students to go to college, but get them to want to go to college. Apparently the founders of the KIPP program believe that going to college is pretty much the most important thing in the world. It’s kind of … disturbing. Maybe there’s a grain of truth to it, in terms of there being a correlation between income levels and college attendance, but I don’t think brain-washing children to believe that college is the most important goal in life is necessarily helpful, even if the students in this KIPP program preform very well on tests.

Which kind of leads me to another problem… so often it seems that how “good” a school is is determined by comparing it to other schools. People say things like “this school scored in the 90th percentile!” That sounds pretty good, but it actually really doesn’t say that much. What exactly is the “score” of the 90th percentile? Shouldn’t the actual score matter? With this sort of comparison-rating system, a school (or a student) doesn’t even have to improve for their score to improve… everyone else just has to do worse.

Along the same lines (though this is a complete tangent from the subject of the book), I hate when teachers, both high school and college, grade to a curve. As if a bell curve should naturally arise in the grades, and if it’s not there, you just shape the test scores to it. It makes no sense; you can get a better grade simply because everyone else did lousy on the test? But really this is part of the bigger “grading problem” in general that schools have; they simply use grades in a completely wrong way, as a form to easily compare students and to act as an easy gatekeeper for decision making. Unfortunately how well someone knows facts or a skill is not so easily numbered. (And this is really related to the “school problem” in general; how so many people think it’s a good use of time and money to teach and learn things students are not interested in or are not going to use. I’ll spare myself from going off on that tangent today…)

One last thing I’m starting to understand, from this book and others with similar themes, is that our personalities, as defined by our decisions and interests, are, or at least can be, as malleable as our intellect. They are a product of our environment. Maybe not completely, of course, but the true (often subconscious) sources of interests and personalities are quite complex; they do not simply emerge from DNA. In other words, if you observe that someone is bossy when they are a baby, that’s not necessarily just because they have “bossy” genes. Although, maybe they do… my point is that it’s complex. And people can change, at least to a greater degree than they may realize. Not easily, perhaps. It might take a complete overturning of your environment, and the change might be from “stable” to “completely depressed and crazy”, but it’s possible. I do wish it were easy to understand how interests come about and how they could be changed, but they seem to get so set-in-stone that we think of them as being as unchangeable as stone…

The other book I finished reading was Federations, a collection of sci-fi short stories. It was kind of a mixed bag… I thought some stories were very good, especially Prisons by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason and Symbiont by Robert Silverberg. Some were OK. Some were uhhhh-what-the-heck? (I have more traditional tastes. When authors try to get all experimental and stylized, I don’t always get it. One of my big pet peeves is unisex/nonsex pronouns, like “hirs” and “shim”… blagh! You’re not clever! Stop it!)

Will books die soon?

In other news, I read this article in which some guy says that physical books will be dead in 5 years. *gasp* Firstly, the article states that we must consider what has happened to music and films, which makes no sense to me. Those are digital art mediums in the first place. You watch a movie with a digital TV, and you listen to music on speakers (or headphones). Those have required electricity to perceive the art for a long time. Not so with books. So I don’t think the comparison is entirely valid. Also, movies are still quite non-digital, in that they still are sold on physical discs. This not only helps prevent copying (to a degree), but it also allows customers to trade, rent, borrow, return, and resell their movies. In a purely digital world, we can’t do that. Money would only ever flow one way. Great for movie distributors (if they can prevent illegal copying enough), somewhat lame for everyone else (unless you can get free movies by watching ads at certain intervals… but still no returning or trading).

He also says that the sales of Kindle books has outnumbered the sales of hardbacks. OK… that in and of itself is not really evidence of anything, as far as I can tell. We’d also have to see a decline in hardback sales, and look at paperback sales. And publishers would have to at some point conclude that publishing a hardback would not be worth it. And then conclude that paperbacks aren’t worth it either. These business decisions would, I think, be way too drastic for publishers to figure out in just 5 years. Unless, of course, Kindle and other ebooks take off so well and make publishers so rich that they have nothing to worry about by going all digital. So I guess I’d really have to look at the publishers’ records to know…

Eventually, books may very well die, or at least become mostly dead… but in just 5 years? I highly doubt it.

Some beautiful music!

Lastly, as a reward for reading all that blather (or for scrolling down), here’s some beautiful music for you!

Want more? Of course you do!

These pieces were brought to you by the Portsmouth Sinfonia which I came across last week (or yesterday or something)… what beautiful sounds!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Animation

Secret motivation from Inception

Animation study progress

It is now week 6 of Animation Mentor! After this week, I’ll be halfway through the first semester! I am definitely learning a ton, but … WHEW! … I am finding this to be quite hard stuff! Definitely takes time and patience. But it’s also fun. It’s not like high school or college work which was mostly useless. Here are my assignments from weeks 4 and 5:

Inception

I saw the new film Inception on Sunday night, and I thought it was fantastic, one of the best movies ever made. Don’t worry, I won’t give any spoilers. I’d love to say some things about it, but I’ll wait until it comes out on blu-ray, then I’ll post a more spoiler-ish review. Of course, it helps if you like sci-fi pertaining to dreams. In some ways, it was kind of Philip K. Dick-ish, in its “is-this-reality?” kind of way, but with much more action, and a more direct plot. So if you like sci-fi, or any of Christopher Nolan’s other movies, you better go see this movie. It’s just brilliant.

Inception in relation to motivation

The word “inception” means … what, you don’t know? … it means “origin: an event that is a beginning” … in the movie, “inception” refers to the act of giving someone else an effective idea in their dreams.

Chapter 5 of The Talent Code (which I’m still reading) is called “Primal Cues” and it’s about what motivates someone to put in the long hard hours of deep practice to master a skill. Deep practice takes a lot of mental focus and effort, and is quite tiring. So must of us don’t do it if we don’t have to, which we usually don’t.1 So to do it, you more or less have to really want to do it. As Coyle says in the book, you have to be willing to suffer through it now, keeping in mind the rewards later.

Where does such motivation come from? It’s hard to know. When asked, masters or those partaking regularly in deep practice don’t really know themselves; they say things like “I’ve always been interested in this” … which of course just encourages the notion that potential interests lie somewhere in DNA.2

This chapter doesn’t necessarily make the issue less complicated. If anything, it makes the issue seem even more complicated, by showing how interests, which seems so innate and unchangeable, can indeed be affected by outside sources. On pages 110-111, Coyle writes:

They [Dr. Geoff Cohen and his colleague Gregory Walton] took a group of Yale freshmen and gave them an innocuous mix of magazine articles to read. Included was a one-page first-person account of a student named Nathan Jackson. Jackson’s story was brief: he had arrived at college not knowing what career to pursue, had developed a liking for math, and now had a happy career in a math department of a university. The story included a small biographical profile about Jackson: hometown, education, birth date. The article, like the others, was utterly forgettable–except for one microscopic detail: for half the students, Nathan Jackson’s birth date was altered to exactly match the students’ own. After they read the article, Cohen and Walton tested the students’ attitudes towards math and measured their persistence; i.e., how long they were willing to work on an insoluble math problem.

When the results came in, Cohen and Walton found that the birthday-matched group had significantly more positive attitudes about math, and persisted a whopping 65 percent longer on the insoluble problem. What’s more, those students did not feel any conscious change. The coincidence of the birthday, in Walton’s phrase, “got underneath them.”

When I first read this I thought… aha, they’re using inception!! Non-dream inception, yes, but it does seem like sub-conscious inception.

Coyle goes on to argue that a factor that strongly affects motivation is a “feeling of belonging” … feeling you’re part of a group that partakes in a particular study or activity. The shared birthday, it seems, would make a student imagine being in Nathan Jackson’s shoes and relate to him. Which is why it’s also important that Jackson came into college not knowing what to do. If Jackson said he had been into math all along, and had won prestigious math competitions in his youth, my guess is the effect would be not nearly as strong. Also, it has to be subtle. If the students knew what the experiment was about, they’d probably be too self-conscious for the experiment to work the way it did.

When I was in college I tried doing some research into the psychological “feeling of belonging” … I tried to find if there was any science behind it, how it could be used and affected, etc., but I couldn’t find anything at all. Too tough to study perhaps?

Another experiment Coyle mentions involved asking students one simple question before they started learning to play an instrument: “How long do you expect to keep playing this instrument? Through this year, through primary school, through high school, or for the rest of your life?” They took the answers, then compared them with how quickly the students learned and how often they practiced. You can probably guess the results: Students who practiced more got better faster, obviously. And students who felt they had made a life-long commitment also got better faster. As Coyle writes on page 104:

With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed.

I suppose when you start to think of whatever you’re studying as part of your identity, part of what makes you you, you’re studying is that much more effective. It means you’re really dedicated. If it’s just something you’re studying because your parents or teachers are making you, effectiveness goes down.

Anyway, The Talent Code continues to be quite an interesting book! And that’s all for today.

——————–

1 Schools don’t make kids do deep practice either, unless it’s a specialized school. Schools instead force shallow practice. Actually, for the most part, I wouldn’t even call it practice, because students don’t use skills as they would in the real world. Instead they are taught things that can be put on paper and easily graded. If schools were to encourage deep practice, they’d have to have a lot more focus in their curriculum, and take a more hands-on approach, not just use a bunch of written tests. It’s amazing how many people (most people, it seems) support the education system out of tradition considering how ineffective it is, and how much they hated it when they were going through it themselves. “It’s better than nothing,” they say. OK, but it’s also worse than many better things. I’m obviously not proposing that schools should be replaced by nothing.

2 Stephen Sondheim, master composer and lyricist of musicals, once himself said in an interview that he believed his desire to compose (or his talent for composing or something) came from his genes. Upon first reading the interview, I thought “nah, I don’t believe that…” But then I came to think there might be some truth to it; after all, I have no idea why I started composing music. I just had to do it. (Not that I’m a master quite yet, of course.) Now I’m going back to not quite believing it again…

By S P Hannifin, ago
Non-fiction books

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!

By S P Hannifin, ago