Originally written December 26, 2011.
The Power of Full Engagement
Personal development book, second reading (Loehr & Schwartz, 2006). The big idea is that managing your energy is essential, and it rings true as I spend a lot of my time disengaged and lethargic. When I’m energized and engaged, I’m happier, I make others around me happier, and I do more interesting things, which lengthens the effect.
The main metaphor is to an athlete who improves through periods of training — particularly, training that pushes limits — and rest. Somehow the main tool for this is developing rituals designed to help improve performance along several targeted areas. By ritual, I mean some well-defined activity that is highly prioritized at a specific time once or twice a week.
I recall in The Art of Learning by chess-prodigy-turned-tai-chi-master Josh Waitzkin that one of the main concepts was developing a ritual — playing the same song, meditating the same way, eating the same snack — that would lead to better performance. This occurred to me when I was in an airport and making some good progress as I usually do. Is it because, despite all the stress and headache, that the ritualistic nature of the whole process leads to a better state of mind? Or is it just that I’m removed from distractions, particularly the computer?
It’s worth trying next semester. This reflection writing is one to start. I’ll target physical energy with weekly In the Groove, which is cardio that’s actually fun. Targeting engagement in social activity seems important for me though I already have a number of semi-regular rituals. Another one that I’d like to instate is a weekly meal with my cohort in the department. Finally, to work towards focus and mental energy, I’ll start a air travel-inspired weekly retreat to somewhere distraction-free to work, similar to Cal Newport’s Adventure Studying.
Learning in Zen in the Art of Archery
(clips/notes coming later)
Ritual also shows up in this early Western account of zen, where the author, Eugen Herrigel, trains in archery from a Japanese master. The ritual practice described is where the master engages in some seemingly mundane activity at the beginning of class and the students follow along exactly. They aren’t learning per se, but rather preparing the mind for the lessons to come. Again, this reminds me of the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain where the right brain is invoked through activities like contour drawing. While I’m sure there is a complex process of neurochemistry in each case, if it works, it works. The state of mind is described as that “in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and the impossible, so unswerving is its power — this state, which is at bottom purposeless and egoless, was called by the Master truly ‘spiritual’.”
Like how drawing well is about seeing the shapes, angles, and negative spaces that you couldn’t before, I think this state of mind is about sensing in different ways. Herrigel learns to sense the way breathing helps pull the bow as well as how to feel the moment of release. When leaving, his master tells him not to write about his progress but to send pictures of how he holds the bow — the master knows exactly what he needs to see. Herrigel speculates, “The [zen master] painter’s instructions might be: spend ten years observing bamboos, become a bamboo yourself, then forget everything and paint.” As I remember, this was discussed in The Talent Code, where students would observe the swing of the tennis coach, and it seems even to work for listening to background music after practice.
From split brains to multiple intelligences
This week I’ve also been reading three things that tie in nicely together: How the Mind Works, Intelligence Reframed, and some of the writings of Bret Victor.
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, from 1997, presents, at the offset, a view of the mind that I mostly take for granted now. For one, the brain has a huge amount of infrastructure — recognizing faces, understanding language, and so on — that is essentially pre-programmed through natural selection. It takes environmental stimulus to develop the mind, and certainly brain plasticity allows us to repurpose the mechanisms, these things leading to individuality through the environment, but the big miracle part is in the genes.
The evolutionary perspective applies to human-computer interaction by understanding that humans have evolved with a great ability to do many things, but “using a computer” is not one of them. Instead, computer interfaces have to be designed for what we have. One of main ways that designer Bret Victor applies this is to more greatly enable our use of visual/spatial intelligence. Instead of the drop-down boxes and buttons that are the status quo, he presents some beautiful ways to present information graphically with , which he writes about in Victor, 2006. Another target for Victor is our fetishization of symbolic processing in math and computer science. Like Hadamard, 1954, he exposes that scientists don’t actually do much of that (especially as computers can do more and more), and yet it’s almost exclusively what we teach kids and has somehow become an awkward standard of communication in professional math. In the early stages of his Kill Math project, he is working on interfaces that make math much more tangible.
Finally, Intelligence Reframed of one of Howard Gardner’s books espousing multiple intelligences — a similar idea that the logical/symbolic type of intelligence that society tends to value is just one of many types. I was hoping this would illuminate the split brain concepts a little more, but I don’t think this book is going to explain the brain mechanisms very much. Similar to Pinker, he justifies the existence of the particular intelligences as parts of the brain that were developed through evolution to better equip us for certain tasks. If the theory is true and predictive, I’m not yet sure what it gains us for improving learning. He claims that there are probably not “horizontal faculties” that can cut across many of the intelligences. While I agree that knowledge transfer between domains is difficult, I’m not sure I buy this. It eludes to the direct instruction/discovery learning debate where Hmelo-Silver, Duncan & Chinn, 2007 claim that guided discovery practices promote general problem-solving/reasoning skills, while Sweller, Clark & Kirschner, 2010 say, “Show us the skills!”
By next week, I’m hoping to conclude some of this thinking about splits brains and perceptual learning by applying it to a reflection on our way of doing cognitive modeling and tutoring at CMU. I’m just getting into Pinker’s discussion of computational theory of mind and production systems that is directly related.
Rather than anything complicated for timing, I just switched from 5-minute sprints to a Pomodoro-style 25 minute task for most things as I mentioned last time. This seemed to result in an immediate boost in recorded points, but with travel and other things I haven’t been able to see trends yet.
I started experimenting with Evernote (again) as a capture tool. Evernote and Researchr are complementary in their strengths. Evernote captures the style of full web pages and is better for mobile collection such as taking pictures. With Skitch I can add notes and highlights to screenshots. Researchr is better for taking clips of web articles and PDFs. Not yet sure how to combine them though there’s some potential in making Ruby scripts for Evernote.
A problem with Evernote before was that I’d put cool stuff in there and never look at it again. Now I have a Shuff task for processing things but not exactly sure how to use that yet. During these reflections I can at least go through all notes that were created during the week.
I really like this time of year for one reason: best of the year album lists. Spotify makes it really easy to get music (when they have it), but I’ve just now figured out a system to listen to new stuff I add. I simply keep a Playlist folder called “To Listen” and drag in albums as playlists. Unfortunately I can’t sync the whole folder with my iPhone automatically, but it’s not too bad to do each list. I was using a big playlists with a couple songs from each album I wanted to evaluate, but I can’t really get into something just listening to one song and then switching to a potentially totally different genre — this setup is way better.
YouTube has almost everything that Spotify doesn’t but not whole albums. So I just have playlists around types of music. This works really well for things like the music threads in TeamLiquid (over 2000 pages of kpop, wow), where I can just run through the pages of embedded YouTube videos and hit the “+” button.
I get new music on a regular basis with a Shuff task. My favorite site is Rate Your Music, where they keep a running list of best albums of the year, and I shuffle into more typical review sites like Pitchfork and Resident Advisor, forums like We are the Music Makers, and links to the TeamLiquid threads that I’m just working through.
I’ll post my own favorite albums list on Facebook before the end of the year!
- Came up with a way to structure this post while I was trying to fall asleep. Decided to get up to write it down before I forgot, but it mostly escaped me anyway. Not sure if the fact that it is so heavily on my mind means that it’s actually helping me be more reflective or if it means I should find a better release. Well, maybe I will eventually settle into the more typical blogging-per-idea model, but I’ll Milgram it up and continue the experiment.
- Took waay too long to write. Wow.
- I had 11 items recorded for the reflection. A few important things were missing, but it was okay — I had more than enough.
 Sounds a lot like deliberate practice
 Also voice of the Chessmaster tutorials, which I really wanted to turn into SRS cards
 I read Dunbar, 1997 this week, where they found that scientists make many within-domain analogies in their creative reasoning but very few across-domain ones.