Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Reading Railroad

Child And Book
[Dear Diary,]

Until recently I'd forgotten how much I love to read. In the past week, I've gone through some good books. Some of the best were Phillip Roth's Everyman, Voltaire's Candide, Stephen Hawkings's My Brief History and Lisa Randall's Higgs Discovery: The Power of Empty Space.

In the past, some of my friends have said to me that, for various reasons, they "don't like to read very much". I've empathized. Books have never seemed as innately engaging to me as screen-delivered entertainment. In the past couple years especially I've largely abandoned reading in my leisure time. Instead, I've watched lectures, information-rich web shows, movies, etc.

What I've rediscovered lately is that books make life richer and more interesting. For me, the drive to read is connected to feelings of curiosity and determination to figure things out. When I was a child, those feelings were totally irrepressible. In recent years, they've been less pronounced. I think the relationship between those desires and the consumption of literature is basically symbiotic.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I'll Write This Blog Post Tomorrow

Like many people, I sometimes struggle with the urge to procrastinate. It's amazing how tempting it can be to postpone even the most pressing tasks.

Here is a video from ASAPScience explaining some of the science behind productivity, as well as some insight on how to avoid procrastination. It's informative, funny and short.

When I have trouble focusing, I will often force myself to alternate between "work" and "break" activities. On this schedule, "work" means doing activities that I would normally put off and "break" means doing activities that are low stress and more fun (like writing this article).

My "easy" version of this schedule is to work every hour and half hour for ten minutes, taking twenty minute breaks after each work session (like this). This may seem indulgent, but it ends up being effective because each ten minute work session is extremely intense.

My "medium" version is to alternate between equal fifteen minute breaks and work sessions (like this). Usually this doesn't work very well for me; either the breaks or the work sessions feel a little too long.

My "hard" version is to alternate between twenty minute work sessions and ten minute breaks (like this). This seems to work best when I am completing a task that requires attention for longer periods of time. If I need to "get into" a project in order to do it well, I might approach it this way.

None of these represent a perfect solution, but they all help me stay on top of things without pulling my hair out. In the end, it feels good to get things done.

And now I guess I should get back to work.

EDIT 2013-11-24, 9:14pm:
A friend of mine just sent me a link to a two-part article about procrastination from Wait but Why. It is excellent. Be sure to read both parts One and Two.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Portrait of the Classical Bullshitter

Consider the following conversation:

Person #1: "Last night, I was listening to Beethoven's second bassoon concerto. It is so gorgeous. Do you know that piece?"
Person #2: "...why, yes! The second violin part in that piece is terrific. In fact, I think that is one of the most underrated gems in his entire oeuvre. But it runs a tad long, don't you think?"
Person #1: "Mmm."

Both of these people are being disingenuous. Neither of them has heard Beethoven’s bassoon concertos, because he didn't write any. But they are eager to impress each other with their knowledge of classical repertoire. So they pretend.

Person #1: “I think that Mozart’s 39th symphony is by far the best he ever wrote. I might even say it represents the pinnacle of European musical culture.  Don’t you agree?”
Person #2: “Oh, it’s wonderful all right, but I tend to prefer his 34th.”

In the process of bullshitting, people may use hyperbolic language (“terrific”, “gorgeous”) and make sweeping statements (“most underrated”, “by far the best”) to make it sound like they know what they’re talking about. This works because it seems less likely that a person who is passionate about a topic will lie about it. They may also posit some critical comments, but these remarks will be deliberately vague (“runs a tad long”, “tend to prefer ____”) so as to avoid being pressured into providing details.

The temptation to bullshit can be enormous because it’s embarrassing to be “caught” not knowing something you should. Faking it seems like an easy and harmless alternative…so long as you get away with it. But it’s impossible to be a hundred percent sure you’re in the clear. Maybe the other person has noticed the deception and is simply being polite. Or maybe you have made a grievous error in your description of the piece.

It is better to be direct and truthful. Contrast the earlier interactions with this one:

Person #1: “I was listening to an awesome piece by Beethoven last night. It was one of his symphonies.”
Person #2: “Can you remember which one it was?”
Person #1: “No…but I remember it had a story attached to it. And one of the movements depicted a storm.”
Person #2: “Oh, that’s the 6th, the ‘Pastoral’. Yeah, I love that piece.”
Person #1: “I know, right?”

This is a happier scene. Person #1 probably doesn't know the repertoire very well—Beethoven’s 6th symphony is a famous piece—but Person #2 fills the gap quickly and the two people are nonetheless on their way to an engaging discussion. This last example demonstrates what we miss out on when we pretend to know things: genuine intellectual growth, camaraderie and the pleasures of honest conversation.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

For Its Time

Cave painting, Lascaux, France, 15,000 to 10,000 B.C.

When criticizing a work of art that is important or influential, there is a temptation to forgive its shortcomings in light of its historical significance. Here is an instance: some drawings by early cave dwellers may not be impressive by today's standards, but they may be impressive by the standards of the time in which they were made; for this reason, any comparison between these drawings and the Sistine Chapel that declared Michelangelo's art as artistically superior might be disregarded on the basis of contextual or historical ignorance. This temptation should be resisted.

The truth is that there are two variables at work here: 1) the importance or effect of a piece of art and 2) the excellence of that piece's craftsmanship. These variables are independent. One artwork can be simultaneously influential and poorly made; another can be simultaneously unimportant and brilliant. Therefore, the argument that a work is good "for its time" is not an argument at all--it is a non sequitur, a conversational path towards a possibly interesting but completely separate source of study.

These two subjects require very different areas of knowledge. Talking about the importance of an object of art requires knowledge of the history and culture surrounding its creation. Talking about its craftsmanship requires knowledge of the craft. It is possible for someone to be completely at ease in one of these fields and completely lost in the other.

In my experience there is confusion about this distinction, and this confusion causes problems. There are people who hold back from criticizing the craftsmanship of important works because they are afraid of looking ignorant or erratic. And there are great works that get panned or ignored on the basis of their unpopularity.

We should treat these variables as separate. We should feel free to criticize the classics, and we should feel free to praise artistic accomplishments we suspect will be forgotten.