Friday, February 28, 2014

PSA: Write Stuff You Like

Common Writing Advice:
"Writing is work." 
"You have to treat it as a craft, not as an art." 
"You must write even if you don't feel like it."

All true if you ever want to finish anything. For a while, I had "finish what you start" as my motto, and I still consider it important to be able to sit down and work through something you're not excited about. Moderating yourself is the cornerstone of the 20-mile march, which has helped me attain any success I may have.
"Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm" - Robert Louis Stevenson

Or, in a more colloquial phrasing, "keep calm and carry on."

However, passion and engagement do, in fact, matter--why bother writing if it doesn't interest you?

I'm going to quote Paul Graham extensively here:
One of the most dangerous illusions you get from school is the idea that doing great things requires a lot of discipline. Most subjects are taught in such a boring way that it's only by discipline that you can flog yourself through them. So I was surprised when, early in college, I read a quote by Wittgenstein saying that he had no self-discipline and had never been able to deny himself anything, not even a cup of coffee.

Now I know a number of people who do great work, and it's the same with all of them. They have little discipline. They're all terrible procrastinators and find it almost impossible to make themselves do anything they're not interested in. One still hasn't sent out his half of the thank-you notes from his wedding, four years ago. Another has 26,000 emails in her inbox.

I'm not saying you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I'm often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don't run for several days, I feel ill. It's the same with people who do great things. They know they'll feel bad if they don't work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.

Do you think Shakespeare was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to write Great Literature? Of course not. He was having fun. That's why he's so good.


I'm issuing this PSA for my own sake as well. Lately, evening engagements have prevented me from working on UM as much as I want to, and it worries me because I've finally overcome static friction and the plot has begun to move. I need to maintain active engagement with the story so that I can come back to my plotting work after a couple of days gone and still work productively.

Notice how many times I use the word "work" in that previous paragraph. No, I'm not eschewing the idea that writing is work, that you have to work at it to get better. As my Lit teacher said (about the 10-page Crime and Punishment essay that we're writing), "Of course it requires effort. You've never thought these thoughts before."

He also said that you know you're doing valuable work when you're scared that you're going to look stupid and that you maybe aren't smart enough. This doesn't conflict with the Graham quote above. You can have lots of fun working through something challenging and rewarding. I've felt it, mostly when learning something new and trying to piece together how it all works (Italian grammar, coding).

-

But there is a purer element of fun. The effortless, playful, pure-invention type, which can't seem to last much longer than the first third of any project. Even reading, I often find that the first few chapters of a book give a richer sense of possibility and imagination (though this is usually wise, if the subsequent acts present a compelling story).

Recently, I made my first excursion into sci-fi...in responding to a prompt for a scholarship application. The UCLA alumni association scholarship application (due today, btw) has two prompts, and the second is: "You've just written a 200-page autobiography. Send us page 165."

My first draft ended up topping 2000 words. I may post it here someday--after all college admissions business has settled down, to avoid any conflicts of interest--because I actually really like the piece. Writing it was fun. Minimal research, only what's needed to proceed to the next part of the story...letting your brain go crazy with the details that indicate a difference from the real world...I am usually terrible at imagery and invoking a world, but for the hours that I worked on that first draft I was in Lagos, Nigeria in 2056, watching amphibious ships crawling along the shore, walking along bridges high in the air.

Something else that I've been missing--overt fantasy elements, like dragons. Especially dragons. I've got some indulgence pieces that I work on here and there, rife with primordial forests and mountains and towers and wings.

My first obligation is to UM, the story to which I've committed, whose plot I am stress-testing because I want something to come of this. You probably also have a main story you're working on right now. But, periodically, let's ask ourselves, is there something I really want to write? Something burning a hole in my brain, that hungers to be put into words? Then write it.

-

Imagine a graph with two axes. The x-axis: need to do -- don't need to do. The y-axis: fun -- not fun. Got that clear? In the upper left is where the main story, ideally, goes: (need to do, fun). Sometimes it may drift downward to (need to do, not-so-fun).

Spend most of your writing time left of the origin, on what you need to do. Avoid the lower right corner (don't need to do, not fun) as much as possible. But don't forget that upper right corner--that (don't need to do, fun).

Write stuff you like. Drive safely. Drink eight glasses of water a day. Be good.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Even Function

…?, Can You

(src)
Let me tell you what terrifies me.

-

Normally, it's a good thing when you can identify with a story's main character. Ex: if you are Percy Jackson you can breathe underwater, if you are Harry Potter you get to learn magic, if you are Aang you get to save the world and ride a skybison.

However, when the main character is one Rodion Romanych Raskolnikov, that empathetic experience can dredge up all sorts of awful paranoias.

The main character of Crime and Punishment is an intelligent young man who drops out of university, can't dredge up the motivation to find a job, descends ever deeper into poverty, and then murders and robs an old pawnbroker. Things get worse.

The big problem for me was that I identified with Raskolnikov. I could trace a lot of similarities--which may be universalities, I don't know--ennui, questioning of the point, irrational anger when proved wrong, etc--most of all, being a reasonably intelligent person at the start of their life, of whom several people seem to expect much.

I could not help thinking: what if I turn out like him?

-

I certainly cannot claim to be the only person wracked by fears of not being able to function in the real world, or who could benefit from solid advice on how to deal. For example, this top 6 list of programming top 10 lists* includes a high proportion of points that, cumulatively, advise staying humble and learning to work well with people.

*Some of the links are broken. McDonough's list is here.

I've been trying to pick apart the roots of this insecurity, because I suspect that 1) it's irrational 2) if I don't get quell it then it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy 3) I appear not to have any compunctions about discussing my emotional issues online.

Thus far, I think a big part of this insecurity is awareness of the huge mismatch between school and the real world. In school you're rewarded for being clever and doing what you're told, while people who care about their social status are labeled superficial. In general I've succeeded at school, and my fear of what might happen when I get into the real world stems from a fear that I've optimized myself for the wrong environment.

I know nothing of the real world save what others have told me, and the general consensus is not encouraging. Who you know counts more than what you know--shocking for someone who holds the meritocracy as an ideal. The smartest people aren't always the most successful--scandal!

For people who have been taught to identify themselves with their intelligence, these messages from the front are actually terrifying. Intelligence isn't enough--what more do you need? Can you learn it? How quickly? Has everyone else been acquiring these secret skills while your (let's be real--my) head has been inside a book?

Another factor contributing to this fear is more specific to my community, which is in a liberal and affluent part of California. That is, kids like me grow up in households where the parents are high wage earners, and consequently get used to a certain level of comfort, of not having to worry about money. Because of this comfortable, accommodating lifestyle, I haven't had to get a job or learn much in the way of practical skills. In short, I and others in my situation are untested.

This all reduces to a fear that, having trained for an intellectual race, we--I? Certainly there are others who fear growing up--suddenly find ourselves at a different competition altogether, one for which we are completely unprepared, with no data points from which to extrapolate, no past successes to bolster our confidence.

(I know little of sports; do not poke this analogy too hard.) This new competition is, perhaps, a team sport or a strategy game, one in which interactions with others are paramount and you can never be measured on your own merit, in absolute terms.

-

Enough whining.

I am willing to convince myself of things that may not be true, if the result is productive. Thus, I am telling myself that the skills needed for future success may be unfamiliar, but they are learnable, and it is not too late to learn and practice them.

On the soft skills side, I found my way to this site, which exists as a sort of remedial social skills course. For those of you who are snickering: I for one am grateful for a tool that can make me suck less at interacting with human beings. Is there any shame in wanting to improve?

Another article that I want to internalize as quickly as possible: a guide to salary negotiation. In school, we're taught that your work should speak for itself, and thus don't learn how to advocate for ourselves. In fact, we're more often praised for "modesty," which, contrary to true humility, involves downplaying yourself so that others can speak well of you and everyone gets brownie points.

When I swore two years ago to break the smiling mirror, what I meant mostly was to stop being a pushover concerned about what others thought of me. As I wrote in my notes at the bottom, it's an ongoing process.

When you're raised to believe that being polite will get you anywhere, asking for what you need doesn't come naturally. Asking for people to fix things for you. Think about the last time you got served a burrito or drink or something that wasn't what you'd asked for--did you bring it up? Or did you think, I shouldn't bother anyone?

(NB: I am all for being hella polite to people who work in the service industry, and I am all for not wasting food. But for non-consumable goods, definitely ask for what you want.)

I admit that I'm more fired up about this than I will be in a few days. Why? Recently I had an issue with my College Board account and I sent in three emails requesting that it get fixed. To no avail. Then this morning I finally got up the courage to make the simple, 10-minute phone call that resolved a problem that had been hanging over my head for a week. And I was infuriated with myself afterward because it was so damn easy. All my angst could have been avoided if I wasn't such a wuss about making phone calls.

For future reference: to get problems resolved faster, get the most human line. Going into some place's offices in person > calling > emailing > sitting at home sulking because you're not getting what you want.

Side note: along with developing practical skills, I'm trying to change the way I think about my functioning in the future. After reading this article, I'm questioning my self-identification as an introvert, because even though I am one, incorporating that as part of "who" I am will, I fear, make me defensive about becoming better at dealing with human interaction.

-

Raskolnikov kind of sucked. (Only kind of: he did give charitably, though out of a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige.) But he is definitely not the only character in Crime and Punishment, and at the end of the book, I had mostly stopped identifying with him.

Instead: Razumikhin. The reasonable fellow. Just as poor, just as much of a drop-out--but much more resilient, and with a much more promising trajectory. Razumikhin sought out work, was able to support himself, even had some start-up ideas percolating in the back of his head, stood ready to take opportunities that came his way, instantly gave the impression of trustworthiness.

I can hear the cries of "bourgeoisie sellout!" (for those of you who know me IRL: guess whose voice they're in?). But I know that I will only be able to make the contribution I want to make to the world if I evolve into a self-sufficient, responsible adult.

Lines and cubics are fun. However, given the choice, I'd rather even function.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Resolutions Revisited

War Room from Dr. Strangelove
(src)

I need a strategy summit, by which I mean I need--as most people need--to build in time to reflect on how things are going on a macro level. To set out a path, a vision for how the future is going to run. This is literally my first free weekend in 2014, and I'm hoping to come out of it with more clarity.

(Letting you in on a secret: writing this blog is important because it gives me time to articulate plans for myself, and then I start implementing them before the post is done because otherwise I'd be a fake.)

To facilitate my reflections, I'd like to revisit a post I wrote early in the year, entitled Senior Year Resolutions. Here were the resolutions, and some notes on how I'm doing.

I will remain healthy.

Reasonably healthy, yes. I slacked off on exercise earlier this year but I'm back on the wagon. Also trying to get up at the same time each day, even if my first class doesn't start until 0930.

I will organize myself.

Confession: I completely dropped the ball on filling out the CSS Profile. In fact, the first couple weeks of the year I was disoriented and failed in a thousand different ways (okay, three, but they were big failures). A couple weeks back, however, I went on a reorganizing spree to help myself be more productive at the computer.

I'm not organizing my time very well, however, and I need to improve at that. Will be thinking of ways to increase my efficiency.

I will keep up my end of bargains.

At the risk of burnout, I have done so.

I will tutor people.

I haven't done paid tutoring this year since I need the hours for AP Chem, but yes, I've tutored juniors in precalc (because their teacher doesn't teach) and do my best to get my AP Phys friends to let me help them, too. I miss that class.

I will mentor band people.

I've dropped the ball on this one, though I am closer to my sophomore trombone-sister. Though I have encouraged many band freshmen to take on more responsibilities in my volunteer club, and that seems to have helped them.

I will feed my brain.

Another one where I've dropped the ball, though a couple of weekends ago I blitzed through a book of essays on The Brain, edited by Kenneth Partridge, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Will begin carving out reading time into my schedule from now on.

I will abide by the principles of the 20-mile march.

Haven't really been abiding...though I did read Crime and Punishment in manageable increments. Trying to be more strategic and conquer material through strategic studying rather than sheer force of hours. UM is finally starting to roll (knocks on wood though superstition is a bad habit to encourage in myself); 20-mile march principle starting to kick in.

I will go out in a blaze of glory.

Well, I didn't get principal euph, so that's out. I need to redefine what "blaze of glory" means to me. What is success to me at this point? I want to keep up my grades because so far I'm on the valedictorian track. I want to set the stage aflame at all concerts, because even if I'm not principal for the district I still need to set a high bar for myself and others at school. I have high hopes for our robotics team, and am very proud of how well the code has worked.

For seniors, a blaze of glory is often defined as getting into a prestigious school. I've gotten into all my safety schools thus far...March and April are when most of the other decisions roll in. MIT gets to break my heart first on Pi Day. In any case, there's nothing more I can do now to help or hurt my chances of admission, so I've just got to wait and see what happens.

But these metrics of success are all external. Don't get me wrong, my mood is as susceptible to outside forces as anyone else's. Recognition, validation, feel great. Rejection hurts. But as I leave high school, I want to find bases of success that are more permanent than a gold sticker.

I want to look back upon my high school legacy with pride. I want to produce work that will not ashame me, work upon which I am proud to stamp my name. I don't want to write essays that get good grades just to get good grades: I want to write essays that deserve good grades. I want to be excellent more than I want to be recognized for excellence, though of course I'd love to have both.

What do I want my last 3.5 months of high school to look like? I want to do quality work, as stated above, both for school and in my own creative endeavors. In addition, I want to set myself up for later success, and to do that I need to ramp up efforts to feed my mind through reading and seeking out new inputs, scrapping inaccurate images of myself as I search, constantly, for a better version.

-


You're Gonna Go Far Kid - The Offspring

Song recommended by Lieutenant Sarcasm. I need more aggressive danceable music.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Voynich Manuscript

(source)

Who wrote the Voynich manuscript? It is a cipher manuscript codex, possibly originating from Northern Italy, which has not yet been decoded.

Particularly fascinating: the illustrations:
Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. Following are the sections and their conventional names:

Herbal

Each page displays one plant (sometimes two) and a few paragraphs of text—a format typical of European herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and cleaner copies of sketches seen in the "pharmaceutical" section. None of the plants depicted are unambiguously identifiable.

(source)

Astronomical

Contains circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fish for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a hunter with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.)...

Biological

A dense continuous text interspersed with figures...some wearing crowns, bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them strongly reminiscent of body organs.

Cosmological

More circular diagrams, but of an obscure nature. This section also has foldouts; one of them spans six pages and contains a map or diagram, with nine "islands" or "rosettes" connected by "causeways" and containing castles, as well as what may possibly be a volcano.

Pharmaceutical

Many labeled drawings of isolated plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary jars, ranging in style from the mundane to the fantastical; and a few text paragraphs
(source)

Various theories about the script in which it is written:

...

Steganography

This theory holds that the text of the Voynich manuscript is mostly meaningless, but contains meaningful information hidden in inconspicuous details—e.g. the second letter of every word, or the number of letters in each line...

Exotic natural language

The linguist Jacques Guy once suggested that the Voynich manuscript text could be some exotic natural language, written in the plain with an invented alphabet. The word structure is similar to that of many language families of East and Central Asia, mainly Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese), Austroasiatic (Vietnamese, Khmer, etc.) and possibly Tai (Thai, Lao, etc.). In many of these languages, the "words" have only one syllable; and syllables have a rather rich structure, including tonal patterns...

Glossolalia

In their 2004 book, Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill hint to the possibility that the Voynich manuscript may be a case of glossolalia [fluid vocalization of meaningless syllables], channeling or outsider art...
(source)

This is eminently usable story material.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Snow Queen

Since it's Valentine's Day, I'm going to share a love poem I wrote recently. Beware: I consciously went for maudlin, even over-dramatic, and I fully intend to revise later. Also: this is long.

-
Ice Maiden
Edmund Dulac
(source)

The Snow Queen

Her hands were always cold
This I remember, though all else
Memory, reason, imagination
Has left me, alone among the sands.
She will not follow me here
I, who of course weigh less
In her esteem than her city
The glorious towers of ice, the streets
Paved in snow, the whole palace
Glittering like a blue diamond
Set above the harbor where I docked.
Polar bears guard her doors.
By dawn the city blinded me
Yet more astounding, her.
The Snow Queen, sitting in state,
Lips blue, white hair bound back
From a face as thin and pale
As a sliver of Arctic ice
No great beauty--uncanny, that face
Perfectly symmetrical, crystalline
But I loved her. How could I not?
(I scourge myself with the sands;
The trackless desert groans itself
to sleep.) Her mind precise,
Exact as a freezing point,
As the diagrams etched into the walls
The steps in her six-eight waltz.
Ah, how I loved her! My queen,
How I blessed the blizzard
That brought me north to you!
Gladly I'd have sunk my ship
To trade horse for reindeer,
Flowers for tundra lichen
The daily Aurora for another,
The flaring green lights above
Singing in the thin cold air.
I would have done this.
(The sun sears the flesh from bone
Not long until the vultures come.)
Stayed by my Queen forever
(A caravan passing brought cakes of salt;
I wept to discover they were not ice.)
But I--oh, curse'd be this blood
That flows so thick and warm
This motion beneath my skin!
I could not stay. She loved me too--
Though I earned my keep as a hunter
I dined with her in the palace,
Drank at dawn the blood of seals
At eventide her moss champagne
We spoke of philosophy, science, art
The borealis, the stars beyond
Though the stars I saw were in her eyes
I told her of my travels, she, their history
The famous kings, the wars,
The treaty with the bears.
I loved her. I love her still.
(The warm breeze sings softly,
But how I wish it could burn cold
Like the winds from the top of the world.)
I could not stay with her
There, in her land of ice, there
By her side where I hoped to belong.
I kissed her hand--our first touch
--the light in her eyes flared
Joy to horror in moments--
My mouth was numb, but worse--
Her hand, so clear--now marred
A star of white, my lips' mark
The gramophone counted time
Six and six; what else
In a palace of hexagons, of ice?
No, she said, a plea.
I'm sorry, said I. Her eyes--
So cold, so still--saw the start of tears.
I could not stay with my Queen.
The northern lights they saw me leave
The dragons'-head prow pointing counter
To my compass and my will
She stood on her balcony, weeping herself blind
As her city glowed blue under moonlight.
(The mighty pyramids, the sphinx
All stir my longing for crystals,
For those implacable polar bear guards
Who watched their empress grieve.)
She would not follow me.
I am but a man, and a fool
Nothing set against her realm
Her ancient charge, her lands
Those silent fields of snow.
I pray she has forgotten me
Even as I pray never to forget her
Though I once wished, as I sailed
From port to port, trading winter furs
For timber, for fish, for silks
For wines, incense, and gold,
For a camel to take me here
Here where the sands shift, where
My skin burns red as seal-blood--
Once I wished to banish her memory
Those hours in her palace
Waltzing at a distance, speaking of lands
She could never see, of truths
I could never know. I no longer
Know of what we spoke. All I remember
Are fragments of her, memories
Splintered like cracks in ice,
Memories of the queen of the snows
Those eyes like stars gone dark
That face so strange, so still
The lips I never touched
Her hands: kiss-wounded, cold.

-

Feb 2014.

Inspired by the Subway to Sally song Schneekonigin (not by Frozen, which I still haven't seen):

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Parallel Processing

Essai sur l'électricité des corps
Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet
(src)
If you've been reading this blog in the past month, you know that I've been struggling through the pre-writing phase of a new novel, which bears the working title Ubermadchen (henceforth, UM).

Given that I've changed parts of my process recently, I saw fit to document the phases of my progress as a record for future me and present readers. All is hypothesis: "this may work."

With the disclaimer out of the way, this is how I am proceeding:

-

Main point: parallel processing.

I'm still researching. However, I'm doing it with a different sort of emphasis, more on the spirit of the times than the details. Of course the devil is in the details and all that, but I need to remember that I am writing an alternate historical fantasy, not a nonfiction book.

This does not mean that I'm going to start making up huge important things. I'm also not diverting the entire stream of history orthogonal to its prior flow (that gets to happen in another story that's been sitting on the back burner). My actual mode of research isn't going to change much (google, click first link, skim to see if useful, read with notes if useful, click on links contained within, rely upon Wikipedia), but the way I treat my notes will be more impressionistic, with the attitude that the facts are tools to use or discard, as necessary.

I'm plotting in pieces. I've written the setup--the normal world and the inciting incident, so to speak--and as I get further along in my plotting, I'm going to research more specific details. For example, I'm probably not going to need to dig out the old maps of Warsaw at this point--for Edinburgh, maybe.

Furthermore, learning from my robotics experience, I'm trying to debug in the design stage. As I progress, I'm asking myself, "Would they really do this?" and encouraging the "Why don't they just…?" questions.

After having written two novels, I know that things aren't going to turn out exactly according to outline, so I'm not filling in all the details, and as I continue I might sketch out a couple of different paths that the characters could take. But my desire for structure is strong, and so I'm hoping that, if I stress-test my ideas now, I won't have to scrap as many of them later on.

I'm remembering to have fun. Let's be real: most writing days are not wonderful. I drag myself through 400-600 words, thinking, Wow, I'm a hack, getting distracted, producing either purple prose or talking heads dialogue. I was extremely lucky in that the last couple chapters of Orsolya flowed by as if in a dream.

The point is that I need, consciously, to focus on what I enjoy about the writing. To that end, I've drawn up a list of the places I want the Ubermadchens to go, the people they'll meet, and scenes that seem as though they'll be fun to write.

An example: the scenes set in their "normal world," prior to the catalyst of the story. The domestic scenes where they're just hanging out, learning things, thinking. This is good, because the third prong of my approach is writing such scenes, both as a way of keeping myself sane (writing withdrawal sucks) and as an exploration into the characters/their interactions.

Also, I'm counting on my backbrain planting details in these snippets that I'll be able to use later. Shh, don't tell anyone.

A fourth element of my revised process: I'm writing in other stories. Busman's holiday principle. I have a lot of other stories that include elements not present in UM (e.g. dragons), and working on those stories gives me a chance to refresh. For these sessions, also, I'm shooting straight for word counts because they should be writing I really want to get into.

-

Since I like making lists, here is a tl;dr:

  1. Treat research as a toolbox, not a straight-jacket
  2. Plot incrementally, stress-testing components
  3. Write enjoyable introductory material to explore your story
  4. Use indulgence stories as a pressure release valve

Friday, February 7, 2014

Second Place Again

The Course of Empire IV: Destruction
by Thomas Cole
(src)
Falls from power tend to bruise the ego.

Warning: complaining post ahead. Overdramatic treatment of a relatively minor problem (see painting above). Self-absorption. What else is new?

-

I think I peaked in junior year. That was the year I ramped up my STEM education--calc BC, physics a year early, learning Python on my own. That was my first year on band staff, also, and most relevantly, that year I was the principal euphonium for the district honor band.

Notice the past tense.

-

We got our music yesterday. And there, on my folder: Euphonium Stand 2. Gone, all shreds of hope that my band teacher might have forgotten to mention a renewed triumph. Boom. That was the sound of my ego imploding.

I'm more disappointed than bitter, I think (and hope, because bitterness is unworthy of me). How did I let myself lose? I know I turned in an audition CD that was not perfect--why? Was it beyond me to produce one perfect take? Did I hope that I'd be grandfathered in on last year's success? (Please, let me never become like that.) Or did I just forget about the competition?

Fear complacency.

What is it like to be someone who clawed her way to the top, displacing a friend who was principal sophomore year, attained glory (status) junior year, and now, as a senior, falls back down to second place?


One Life Beautiful - Julie Giroux

That gorgeous euph solo from 3:24 to 3:52? Those notes are well within my tessatura. That could have been mine. I would have played it beautifully in concert. Last year, this would have been mine. Cantabile, dolcissimo, mio.

Anyone who has had a solo will know that feeling of being, for a minute or thirty seconds or however long it lasts, at the center of the universe, of having the great privilege of becoming the most important conduit of beauty in the room. Is this a fancy way of saying "showing off"? Maybe. Solos are a way of proving that you're worth listening to.

As a conditional: if you're worth listening to, you have solos.

The contrapositive, which has the same truth value: if you have no solos, you're not worth listening to.

A terribly unhealthy mindset, this. Yet, when your school has held the principal euphonium spot for the past four years, and you, the incumbent, are the one to lose the seat, it's difficult not to take a hit to the self-esteem. Listening to a solo like that, practicing it at home and sounding good on it...regret is really the only proper response.

Without any dodging the question, or any philosophizing, any rationalization--I'm disappointed in myself.

So what can you do?

-

Back to philosophizing: one of the reasons I'm putting my small personal struggles on the internet is because I'm using this year, senior year, as a test run for the philosophical tools that will let me deal with the scaled-down kinds of hardships I'll face later in life. Also because I can't talk to anyone about this IRL without the chance to edit and reorganize.

Situation: you thought you were going to be chosen for something and you weren't. You did better last year. You have disappointed people's expectations of you. You've let people down.

I reiterate: what can you do?

I want to make a distinction here between what I can do, as in what actions I can take, and what I can do psychologically. My actions are simple: play as best as I can, treat the new principal with all the respect s/he deserves, keep my IRL complaining to a minimum.

But my thoughts?

-

Process of elimination: what thoughts are unworthy of you? Acknowledge and then shoot them down.

"It should have been me." -- No, it shouldn't have. The music teachers listened to the audition recordings and yours was not the best. Get over it.

"The new principal is so good, I never had a chance." -- Maybe the new principal euph will turn out to be vastly, vastly superior to me--so much better, with such a greater range, and a tone to rival David Childs's--that I'll have lost not through my defects but through their qualities.

Even if this turns out to be the case, I still can't excuse myself. You don't get to let yourself off the hook for subpar work.

"It's not my fault because I was distracted by circumstances." -- Yeah, so? You made principal during junior year when your head felt like it was going to explode with stress. Don't tell me that you're incapable of producing quality under pressure because empirical evidence says otherwise.

"Principal doesn't mean anything anyway." -- Oh yes it does. Principal means best in the district, superior to all the other euphoniums including those also in the honor band. It is meritocracy. It is honor. It is recognition for good work. See: your obsession with solos, above.

"At least I'm in the honor band still." -- I get that it's called "honor" band because we are honored to play at such a high level. But I'm not going to devalue myself. You got in last year, too. If you hadn't gotten in, you'd want to slap yourself even more than you do now. This is like saying, "At least I don't need help playing the circle of fifths*."

*If you don't know the circle of fifths, I'm not saying that you're incapable of accomplishment. This is a milieu-specific analogy, since at my school you get into the wind ensemble by playing the circle of fifths.

I refuse to lower my standards for myself. I would rather be miserable and high-achieving than happy with the minimum. I foresee this causing me a lot of unhappiness in the future.

"At least you're still the first chair euphonium at school." -- Bro, if you ever think this in all seriousness, you deserve to be booted out of the honor band. The other euphoniums at school have not been playing as long as you. One of them you taught last year. The other two are sophomores. They're on their way to excellence, but you got a head start. Remember how dead set you are against the lowering of standards?

-

The following features assert themselves as part of my optimum psychological response:
  • acknowledgement of defeat
  • owning responsibility for the defeat (circumstances played a negligible part)
  • valuing status levels properly (principal=high)
  • maintain high standards for self
  • moving on instead of flagellating self

Seems pretty straightforward. Now what's the "party line" on this?

You lost your former position through your own inability, for one reason or another, to produce quality. Because you are a senior you're not getting another chance to win this position back. But, as Euphonium Stand 2, you must back up the new, worthy principal to the best of your ability, representing your school, your director, and yourself with honor even in your less prominent and honored position.

Tell yourself this: "You could have done better and you didn't and now you have to deal with it. Do so."

Furthermore: be on the alert for other ways that you're losing your edge, and take steps to fix it. Also, recognize that you're used to success and that your relative academic prowess blinds you to situations in which you can't get by on sheer might of brain.

(Seriously, though: I got my license yesterday but I passed with only two points to spare. Not cool.)

The thoughts align with the actions, as they should. What else can you do but your best with what you get?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cognitive Toolkit Improvements

Studley Tool Chest
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As part of my ongoing project in making myself better, I am reading a book entitled This Will Make You Smarter, a collection of short essays submitted to Edge.org in response to the prompt "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" I'm about 75% of the way through it at the moment and have some thoughts.

Most of the essay authors are involved in science, whether through research/academia or journalism (which is important, as how else are we to disseminate knowledge?)--understandable, given the question. There are of course outliers, such as music producers and artists.

Thus far, some common themes:

1. Doubt and Experimentation. Instead of treating what we're told as a given, we should see for ourselves the results of actions. Doubt and uncertainty are vital because they allow for us to be wrong--meaning that we can improve our understanding of the world.

Recommended reading: Richard Feynman's book The Meaning of It All. I got my senior quote from him (not this book specifically, iirc): "We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress."

2. Statistics and Probability. A better understanding of risk, probability, uncertainty, would help us worry about the right things--the small, constant dangers (like carbon emissions)--rather than the headline-grabbing but unlikely perils (terrorist attacks).

Recommended reading: The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A cognitive tool I remember in particular: if everyone has a different opinion, shoot for the center. If everyone thinks the same way, go in the opposite direction. Use with caution and always evaluate the evidence for yourself, and pay attention to Pareto's principle (known more commonly as the 80-20 rule or something like that).

3. And >> xor. Nature or nurture? Yes. Wave or particle? Yes. There are actually two essays in the collection called "Dualities," and they emphasize the importance of seeing both sides of the problem or the topic. Dichotomies exist, of course, but a more fluid spectrum, or a Schrodinger-esque situation in which two seemingly-opposite states exist at the same time, is often a more accurate picture of reality.

Causes are rarely singular: often, you have to look farther back and trace out multiple strands contributing to an event. I particularly enjoyed the essay "Path Dependence" by John McWhorter, which encouraged looking beyond the easy answers to the fundamental ways that historical forces shape present situations.

John Horton Conway's Game of Life
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(for more info)

4. Emergent properties. I've got to admit that I really like these. A lot of essays mentioned how our sense of self is an emergent property of our neurons, how there's no corner in the brain where the Identity hangs out.

Closely related are the ideas of holism (and thus a refutation of reductionism). In a cliche, synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It is only when you put things together that stuff happens--the system can do what the individual parts cannot.

5. Self-improvement. The whole book is about improving your cognitive toolkit, but here are some of the highlights:

a. Cultivate and learn from failure. Iterative design, yo.

b. Do new things. From "Structured Serendipity," by Jason Zweig--on a regular basis with a high frequency, read something in a field that's not your specialty in an uncommon location.

c. Curate. Consciously choose what is important, how to juxtapose things for maximum...meaning? Impact? Insight? Pay attention to negative space--what has been left out?

d. Practice skills at which you are weak. (Obvious, but bears stating.) The corollary: identify your weak spots by looking at the evidence--"personal data mining," as David Rowan puts it--and tracing out the patterns of your behavior. In general, more self-awareness.

e. Draw upon others' expertise. Humans are definitely not unique in our ability to share information, but you could argue that we are the species that does it the most efficiently. Delegate knowledge to other people--comparative advantage, ja?

I notice that unlike traditional self-help books, which (and yes, I've read a few) often emphasize how you feel about things and relate to yourself, this book mostly relates to how you think about things and change your behavior in response to inputs. Which gels with the idea that we as entities are not states but processes. And processes, of course, are dynamic, always subject to improvement, as we are.