On suspense and spoilers

A few weeeks ago I read about the upcoming 36th America’s Cup, with Luna Rossa winning the races up to the final match with Team New Zealand. Back in 2000 I had been watching the competition with great interest, I woke up at 4AM for almost a week to watch the event live (there was basically no other option to see the full event replayed in daytime, and I was not interested in five-minutes-summaries). My first thought was, quite naturally, to do the same, excited to get back to that state of mind. However, I’m not sleeping too well lately, and the time between 4AM and 7AM is usually the most sacred sleep phase. I noticed that when I get up in that interval of time, the body has to cancel some crucial routines and I feel as if I didn’t sleep at all. The event’s website offers the full replay of the races, so there was not so much pressure in getting up that early.

I thought whether I should check the result of the races before watching the replay. I finally decided against suspense and in favour of spoilers. I do that with movies and books – the tension that piles up in my head trying to follow the story, to pick up all relevant information, is acutely uncomfortable. I am sure that other people consider suspense and plot-following the best part of watching a movie, and I assume the authors/directors put in a significant effort in constructing the plot to maximise the quality of the first watching experience; I’m likely built differently, and I struggle a lot to follow stories based on standard social dynamics, especially crime series/novels. I actually prefer to watch a movie several times, to get familiar with the plot, and then put it aside to pay attention to other sides of the work (photography, secondary characters, music, scene changes, views of the writer about things that are not in focus). Same applies to books. But I’m drifting away! To come back to the America’s Cup, knowing who would win made my viewing experience much more enjoyable. Maybe when I’m watching a live event I identify so much with the competitors while being completely powerless to help, that it ruins the moment. Rewatching the event has more of an analytical purpose and I feel allowed to take breaks, rewatch an action to really understand it, spot some tiny detail, enjoy the movement in a purely visual way and then rewatch it to focus on another aspect of the action. Somehow, I get bored only after at least 10 rewatches for single-use content, and for some favorites of mine, never 🙂 I don’t always need new content, on the contrary: I use known content to get into a mood, or a speed of thought, and repetition is necessary instead of boring. What happens to many people only with pop music is touching many more areas of my experience.

Any thoughts about this? Feel free to leave a comment!

On welcoming inputs

Last night I thought about why I don’t feel entertained by novels and movies anymore, and have trouble listening to the news and sometimes even to everyday conversations. I guess there are many factors at play, and different combinations for each situation; still, there is a leitmotiv in my perception that connects them. I apologise for the somewhat vague title, but this is the best fit I could find.

I have realised at a way earlier point in life that I receive information from the outside world in form of a mix of events that can be explained with laws of nature (in the broadest sense) and the opinions about these events. This seeems so obvious that it’s odd to mention it at all. What I recently realised is that I used to give both of these categories the same attention, the same right to be heard; and that I was listening to any input with full focus, genuine intention to understand it well. Not surprisingly I was good at school and I was regarded as a good listener, but I regularly and increasingly got overwhelmed.

The solution that most have suggested to me is “well, focus on some specific topic, filter the inputs the you get, there will always be too many situations that would need your help anyway, think about yourself first”. I understand , but I manage only to half-heartedly agree with that. I recognise my finite resources and I’m working on acknowledging my own needs, but I have no usable logic for picking up a topic. I guess it has to do with my intention to work on a given issue that I met directly, not on what someone managed to convince me to. I would feel horribly guilty to have followed a good marketing feat and have disregarded a more urgent issue just because it was not as brilliantly presented. I think of many examples of great storytelling that made a legitimately good work in raising attention on some obscure yet important topics, but I have the uneasy thought that there is much more in the shadows that can’t sell itself as effectively, and it would be inhumane to expect it to.

Connected to that, I got the increasingly clear perception of that “listen to me, disregard the others, I’ll make you change how you think or confirm your views” in works of fiction. I started to read books in a different way. Until recently, I was reading to discover new topics and the views of the authors, and use them to build my inner world, changing them as little as possible. What happens now when I pick a novel is that my brain defiantly grabs a notepad and takes notes about what views the authors want to bring forward, tries to find out inconsistencies, reasons to stop reading. Same happens, with more success for the brain, when I watch a movie. I seem not to be able to get into suspension of disbelief, and I see the movie as if I were on the set: I can almost hear the director telling what he/she wants to see the actors doing (which brings its own pleasure, as a behind-the-scenes experience). I can only watch videos and read text where the self-irony or self-observation is so blatant that I’m not expected to approve the narrative or have empathy of any sort. The focus moves to the acting ability, the photography, the use of narrative devices for fun. I can watch the Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the IT Crowd over and over, and I am very wary in watching anything new, even when I get suggestions from friends.

I think there is a lot behind this change in my perception and I’m trying to understand it better. I would be curious if anyone has similar experiences or has hints for further exploration on the topic.

Book impression: “Nonluoghi” by Marc Augé

I found this book at the Italian bookstore while I was scanning the shelves for something that would somehow bring light on a topic I am familiar with, but not knowledgeable. As a former frequent traveller, the cover with the airport symbols caught my eye. I started reading it at a quick pace, then stopped and started over, equipped with a higlighter and a pencil, in a more study-like mode. It is a short text but it contains a lot of starting points for further analysis, reflection, observation, thought.

As I finished the book I found it intriguingly close to Calvino’s “Le città invisibili”, as both see the city (and per extension the world) as a mix of socially meaningful locations, impersonal places, traces of the past, people both as individuals and more or less part of the society. Maybe in the future I would read both books again, to pick up the cities in Calvino’s book and link them to the relevant part of Augé’s text.

While looking for links about the author I found this interview, held twenty years after the publication of this book. I listened to it today, enjoying the dual French-Italian quiet voices not less than a deeper, more philosophical, more symbolic view of the non-place – a place that is more a blank canvas and is seen as a crucial component of the globalisation process.

For further reading I would suggest to start with Marc Augé’s Wikipedia page and follow links. The French version has a longer bibliography, while the English version has more about his career and the development of his theoretical apparatus.

I’m sorry that such an intense book is not really shining in my short post, but I recognise that it left me with a sense of wonder, of “OK, I need to reset many of my opinions on so many things”, so it actually cleaned up space in my head – which is refreshing and sometimes necessary.

Book impression: “In nessun modo ancora”, Samuel Beckett

I initially gave this post the title “Book review” but there is not enough review to justify it, so I preferred the term “impression”.

This book is the Italian translation of Nohow On, and was lended to me by a very good friend. I usually read books entirely, including introductions and interpretations, but this time I skipped them and went directly for the text. The first novel, Company, first disoriented me then captivated me and I read it in one sitting. I assumed that the text was meant to be read, and therefore it would be written in such a way that thoughts could be followed by other people; instead, it seemed the full recording of thoughts formed into the brain, a sort of “raw data” version of a book. Surprisingly, I found that form extremely understandable, probably more than the potential revised form – and likely the introduction, that I haven’t read yet (sorry). I was led to analyse, think, smile, laugh, read again to appreciate every word. I read the following two prose pieces but I was not really focused and they were written in a slightly different form, so I will need to read them again.

Company sounded to me like a victory against revisions to a text and implicitely to thoughts. In school I had mixed feelings about someone else telling me “look, your text lacks clarity, you should change these parts, explain these ones better, remove that paragraph” because I didn’t feel that a third person could check if my text matched my own thoughts (in which case I would have accepted corrections that made the text a truer expression of my thoughts) and the corrections seemed to add their touch, their need for clarity, in my own words. My reactions got worse when I arrived to the point of writing scientific articles, because revisions tended to make the text less clear to me, the author, and that would have been ridiculous! I later kept writing my thoughts in a diary and started this blog. I don’t edit posts unless there is a mistake or a follow-up that I want to link to. I write only when the text has a clear structure in my mind, and consider it a snapshot rather than an encyclopedia entry – therefore, it represents my thoughts about something in that moment, and are not supposed to be edited afterwards, only connected to other posts.

On the other hand, there is text that I write as part of documentation or news items, for example OSM Weekly News. In that case the focus is on the tool/service that needs documentation, or the contents of the news items. I am not going to treat that text as my own thoughts, quite the contrary: I see myself as an ambassador for the tool/service/news item, so I am more than open to comments and review that get the text as true and clear as possible.

Apologies to Samuel Beckett for the minimal comment about his work. Next review will be a proper one 🙂 stay tuned!

Computer-taught humility and honesty

It has been many years since I first formed thoughts about this topic, so I wish to share them.

I remember the relief that I felt when I started programming. Finally I was receiving feedback in ways that I was fully OK with. It took many years to understand why I liked it so much, and why I preferred to interact with a program/software/machine than with most humans.

I must say that I was not a very patient person nor very ready to admit my errors, before I met computers. I think what allowed me to grow was their transparent way of dealing with my inaccurate inputs.

First of all, they were consistent: every time I made a typo or called the wrong command, I got an error back. The machine had zero tolerance for inaccuracies and instead of being annoyed by it I was deeply, sincerely thankful. (Of course there are some programs which are not that picky about input, and these are the ones that confuse me most, because I can’t know in advance if the input will be reviewed properly, or if an error can sneak in). I notice that I am confused by inconsistent feedback and I tend to get angry when that happens – but often it is misread as me getting angry for negative feedback, which can’t be far from the truth! What I fear is to be randomly left on my own judgment, and being corrected only at the Nth repetition of the same action. I can’t understand why it was OK for a while and suddenly it’s being corrected. I would really prefer to know all the criteria in advance, even if I know very well that I can’t work on every aspect from the start, because I have the information that this will be worked on at some point in the future. I understand how I confuse people when I say “Let me know about all my mistakes! Don’t worry about giving too much feedback! Don’t try to be nice by giving only partial feedback!” and I can also understand how demanding it sounds. I guess it has to do with a different kind of honesty that sounds brutal when applied to people.

Another important point is that they were factual. The machine didn’t throw back an error out of spite, tiredness or with any kind of emotion attached. It simply pointed out that there was some problem with what I did/wrote, and that was it. No judgment, no making fun of me, no extra layer to decode, just the fact. And when I solved the problem, the machine had zero grudges or worries about the error happening again. It had the apparent patience to letting me try until I found the right instruction to type in, and it meant I could take all the time and attempts I needed. I took it as “OK, I need to learn a bit more about this topic, so that I get the right words in the right order, no matter how unfamiliar this language looks – because it is the language of the machine and it has no other way to communicate, so it’s on me to learn it”. In most other social situations there was some kind of pressure to not make mistakes and not being able to repair the mistakes, and more expectation about everyone knowing the rules already. My machines relied on precisely written instructions and were free from the several implications that puzzled me, mostly because I didn’t mean them.

When I started programming, I felt I entered in a comfortable bubble, with objects I was able to interact in a fruitful and pleasant way. I was able to notice the subtleties of their language and I was rewarded by them working productively and with their remarkable accuracy. When it happened that I mistyped a command and got some output that was exactly what I asked for, but not what I wanted in my head, I felt a bit sorry for the machine as it had worked on the wrong assignment, and angry at me for not noticing the mistake in the command. I never got angry at the machine for not “understanding what I meant”, because I know very well that it is not able to guess that. My patience (and my success) with the machines was a wonder for many. I just can’t think of handling them any differently. There is a complicity with the machines that I rarely get with anyone/anything else. That’s why every laptop I have, and every server I used to maintain, has a name that I remember.

And to finish with a somewhat old picture, here are Galadriel (left) and Matusa (right), my second and first laptops. I am thankful for all I learned from/through them and the worlds they introduced me to.

Tangram

I first thought that my life would be a blank canvas, on which I would trace my own drawing.

Then I thought about it as a blank canvas, on which I traced a drawing under the guidance of other people.

Then as a puzzle, and I started noticing missing pieces, and the immense task of finding the right place for each of the existing ones.

Finally as a tangram, where the pieces have no predefined place, and there are minimal rules on how to compose a figure out of the seven geometrical shapes.

Gimpo airport stn line 5

If there will be any step after the tangram, it will be a variant where I can use less than all seven pieces, where I can develop the figure on more dimensions than the flat plane…

On different ways to scan the environment

In these past days I have been noticing two extremes of a range, in the way people scan the outside world. These will be my thoughts and observations, even if I can easily guess that this has been analysed before by other people and quite likely by domain experts. If you have sources related to this topic, please leave a comment!

I first thought that the extremes of this range could be similar to the prey and predator schemas of scanning the world, but I realised I know way too little about it, so I will not use those labels. I will use instead the terms “constant scanner” and “optional scanner”.

The constant scanners tend to check the environment (which can be the landscape, the email inbox, the task list, the servers in the network, the news…) quite often, with both the fear of having missed out an incoming problem, and of not being sure to look for the right signals for the problem. The constant scanners tend to be suspicious and look at things under multiple angles, and are reluctant to classify a signal without cross-checking multiple signals/information sources. They tend to be alarmed by small deviations from the usual data flow, as they are afraid it is a sign of a problem that can grow large if not addressed in time. They tend to assume they missed a sign, and try to get better at observing.

On the other end of the range, the optional scanners tend to classify signals and issues once and for ever, check the environment when they decide it is time for it, and address problems when they grow beyond a certain size. They tend to expect the environment to send signals in their own language, i.e. that they don’t have to interpret or fill up with further information. They are often complaining that the signals from the environment are not clear enough for them to act, and tend to hold the environment responsible.

There is of course the whole set of nuances between those two, and the same person can fluctuate along the range, depending on time or on the activity.

I find myself very often near the constant scanner extreme, and I realise I spend a lot of time trying to notice incoming issues even outside my own area of responsibility, mostly because I wish to spare other people the burden of a problem grown too big, and therefore I lend them with pride and even joy my sharpened attention to details. But sometimes I feel like the dog that barks to warn about the incoming storm, and is asked to stop: I know I am not 100% sure it will be a life-threatening storm, but I would never forgive myself for not barking for a really serious event. I wish this could be seen as a positive skill, that allows others to focus on their activities, knowing that I’m keeping a vigilant eye on the surroundings, and would warn them in time.

That’s it for now. I look forward for your comments and for links for further reading!

Happy New Year 2019 and a few updates

Let’s start 2019 with a post packed with good news and wishes for the year that just started!

Last year was definitely challenging, but ended with a great positive note: in December I went back to work, back to the 106-key keyboard:

At the new job I found an atmosphere where I can keep healing at my own pace, while contributing to the company. As my first task, I chose to continue the development of a small software package. As I explored the code to get familiar with it and decide where to start making changes, I slowly saw how much I can see that software as a mirror – so that taking care of the software became a way of healing myself, by carefully picking the parts I could replace while keeping the program functional. I could have decided to rewrite it from scratch, but I didn’t feel brave enough to start something 100% mine, nor to abandon the thread of functionality of the current code. It will not be a straightforward task, but I know what I have to do, and I know it will be an enriching experience.

Being employed again means I suddenly have a lot less practical worries about the future, and therefore I am quite optimistic for the upcoming year. I will need a bit of time to adjust to the new routine, and to keep playing music with my mind fully present (sorry Sven for our last concerts where I was barely paying attention!). I have mixed feelings about my job taking so much of my energy and attention, but at the same time I have already seen how I can make it a meaningful and fulfilling practice.

For other activities I have no specific plans. As usual, I would like to draw, craft, knit, play music and meet horses more than last year, but I prefer to follow inspiration rather than goals. Let’s see 🙂

That’s all for this post! I wish all my readers a great start in the new year, and the strength and peace of mind to keep navigating their lives’ rivers.

The way and the shortcuts

I was thinking about how setting a goal shapes the way one takes to reach it.

Where am I going?

Let me pick an example with music, my most familiar environment. Let’s say my orchestra plans to play a given difficult piece for next concert. That goal will influence all rehearsals, filling them with a detailed plan, that includes the progressive steps to the full execution of that piece: separate rehearsals per section, focus on getting to play to the required speed, focus on expression, and finally playing the piece properly from start to finish.

When difficulties arise during rehearsals and it starts to look like we are not progressing as fast as we thought, it’s time to find shortcuts. We simplify our parts, play a little slower than required, remove details. This is where I start to diverge from how one is expected to work. I rarely think about the goal directly, it is for me more of a part of the landscape that I sometimes remember to look at, but my interest is on my immediate surroundings, on the atmosphere at the current rehearsal, on what I can do right now. I’m relieved that someone else is responsible for keeping the boat sailing straight towards the goal, because I just couldn’t! My work is more of a fractal exploration, without direction, with the focus on how I walk, and no eye on the time – in this mindset, shortcuts simply make no sense. I observe and I accidentally also take part to the rehearsal. This is where I’m not offering any grip to the usual motivation talks which sound like  “Don’t you feel the pressure, the urge to reach the goal?”. No, I don’t. It doesn’t mean I explicitely avoid it, but simply that it will be the side effect of me having the space to wander at will. I first had to prove that my random exploration takes me to the goal anyway, before I was given the trust to be left free alongside the bridled horses, apparently aimless, for the surprise of some.

I felt that this can be a good parallel with how one works with animals, for example during horse riding. I sometimes get the feeling that the rider has a goal in mind and gets to the point where the test approaches and they start looking for shortcuts, but that is where+why the horse loses connection – because the horse doesn’t seem to think in terms of goals, and the proposed shortcuts look like forced steps that take attention further away from the flow of observation, of being in the present. This gearing up tends to make things work both worse and slower, it requires even more shortcuts, and that brings the opposite of the desired effect!  It takes a lot of trust to stop this vicious cycle when the deadline is approaching, but re-focusing on the present seems to me one of the few respectful and efficient ways out.

I hope that makes sense! Let me know if that resonates with you, I’m curious to read about your experiences with deadlines, goals and shortcuts.

The audience and the stage

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Source: my Flickr

I was at a concert in Philharmonie last night, sitting in the audience. After many concerts where I have been on the stage, it was a strange sensation. Once again I felt out of place sitting among the listeners, even if I could never have been playing with such a brilliant team of musicians; but on a personal level I felt near to them. I saw them exchanging glances before an especially hard passage, syncing tempo and movements, laughing sincerely when they enjoyed the music they were creating, finishing a piece and immediately rearranging the instruments for the next one. I think it’s because I’ve been on the stage and in the backstage for so long that I can pierce through the wall of what the musicians offer the public as a final product, and get a glance on how they build it.

This made me think about a further point. I keep saying that I prefer to see rehearsals than concerts or shows. What I mean is that, having been playing music myself, I give high value on the way a piece is slowly assembled rather than on the single execution at the concert. It’s obviously a necessary goal, but it has almost no value for me if it’s the only part of the way I can access, because one can see a tiny fraction of the heap of small steps that were required to get there.

That’s why I’m playing again with JEB and joined a choir, to get even more backstage and rehearsals 🙂 More posts about that soon!