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.

After the concert

Last week I played as a guest percussionist in a symphonic wind orchestra, and my concert experience was overall good. On the positive side, I managed to play almost all my notes and I didn’t have issues with tubular bells, which I practiced only at the day of the concert. Here is a first-person view of the percussion section, right before the sound check:

It was a somewhat difficult concert, because I knew some pieces too little, and I had to pay a lot of attention just to follow what others were playing. Only the first piece was clear to me enough that I could really enjoy it. I think that the required level of attention is what makes the concert feel energizing, easy or exhausting. If I have to keep my attention on high alert for the whole ten minutes of the piece (or worse the whole concert), and moreover I make mistakes, my energy levels plummet down. I think it’s a quite common experience among musicians, and that my limited amount of rehearsals played a big role. However, for my next concerts I want to be more aware of how ready I am, aim at reasonable goals and not at perfection, and manage my energy so that I have enough left for the day of the concert (sometimes I put 130% in the last rehearsal and go to the concert with almost no energy). The thing is also that I need to communicate my current energy/skills availability in a positive way, not in a way that make me appear lazy. Most of the times when I say that a piece is too hard or that I can’t do something, I end up being pushed even more. I’m working on it, and will update you about my progress, maybe my experience will help others too ­čÖé

On giving and receiving feedback

Today I visited a Montessori classroom (around 30 children, 9 to 11 years old) and had the chance to attend a presentation about animal welfare, created by one of the children. First, it was a feast to see how much information she collected, how she organised it into a meaningful sequence, and how she presented, both reading texts written by herself and initiating brief guessing games where all children gladly took part. The presentation lasted almost an hour, and awoke the general curiosity. Many children set precise questions and she answered with sincerity.

Obliques

The most touching part for me was the final feedback from most of the people present, both children and adults (the teacher, the girl’s parents and a few guests including me): it felt sincere, accurate, carefully worded and spontaneous. I have read many articles and books about giving feedback and I thought I knew a lot, but was overwhelmed and almost surprised by how experienced everyone acted in that circle. I was equally moved by the quiet joy of the girl answering with a few words to each person, often with a simple, soft “Thank you”. It felt so right! She did a terrific job, put a lot of effort, time and passion into it, presented it to the whole group with an enviable nonchalance, then her classmates gave her positive feedback and a few points to improve: she deserved to be proud for that. It made me think of the times when my parents scolded me for looking too proud when I received compliments, and I am so glad that this girl, and the other children in that group, can practice this healthy feedback exchange from an early age so that it can become a natural, fully functional part of their growth.

Die Sonne genie├čen. N'Jumo, Orientalisch Kurzhaar.

Drawing streak – the end

I have not posted any more doodles in the last two weeks, as I felt that the streak had came to an end. I had more and more trouble finding subjects for my doodles, delayed them until bedtime, and did not experiment with techniques anymore. The daily doodle had became a chore, instead of a positive exercise. It’s time to find another routine.

I have then thought about which activities bring me joy and let me improve my skills. There are not many in my planning, that is nevertheless full: most of what I do is walking on known paths. How can I reach the appropriate ratio of known to new?

The known. Upon own reflection and some hints from Mosh├ę Feldenkrais’ method, I realised that the mere repetition of a movement or a routine does not automatically bring improvement. The real step forward is guided by awareness of what is being done, that gives the ability to evaluate changements in the practice. I struggle with that quite often, just like a wanderer feels he’s walking in circles in a wood, unable to know if he is making progress in any direction. So, after a long time “just practising”, I feel that I need meaningful feedback on what I draw and play. As I am not good enough a judge for myself, I think I need someone with a better trained eye and the ability to filter and reorder the list of what I need to improve. When I do that myself, I usually notice a pile of things to work on, feel overwhelmed and delay/quit, or start with the most apparent but the most difficult hurdle with little success. I am able to give myself feedback, but on things I know really well, so I don’t find myself able to be my own guide on uncharted land.

The new. It is not enough for me to go through the usual exercises every day, but I find it very difficult to just pick up something new and try to do it. The biggest blocker for me is not knowing if I am doing the new thing right, or at least, in a way that I can improve without needing to unlearn it first. This is again a feedback issue: I need more experienced eyes than mine to guide me around new topics. I have had the chance so far to find great guides in their domains, who showed me their way. I walked with them and enjoyed learning completely new skills, not much for a genuine love for those topics, but rather for the way they were presented.

For all these things I benefit so much from my drum lessons: I enjoy the balance of challenges, strenghtening of known routines, and simple enjoyment of a well-played sequence, that my teacher builds up for me. I bask in the gentle attention to all my movements, and the measured feedback – measured on what I am able to realise and improve in that moment.

I have never understood how someone could approach new activities by “just try doing them, you’ll get better on the way”. I used to see that as immensely arrogant and self-sufficient, especially when it was proposed as the main way to learn. There are however a few activities that I can improve on my own feedback only, and a few more if I content myself with slow/random improvement or minimal goals. For faster pace and higher targets, I need additional external advice. When I said that, some people thought I meant that I needed to trust that external feedback – but it is not a blind trust, it is more an acceptance of informed hints. I have left teachers and schools when I realised we didn’t match, and we both experienced frustration, and felt that our energy was more dissipated than transformed.

There is also a difference between learning how to do an activity that involves only objects, and one that involves sentient beings (animals and people). With objects only, you can make huge progress by learning from others, because the steps are reproducible and the progress is measurable, and you are the only variable element. With animals and people, it’s another story. Your situation is unique: the combination of minds can be understood only by who is in it, decisions can be taken only by the involved parties. External advice can be immensely useful, but never binding. I re-read Lynne Gerald’s post about expert advice, and found it so spot on.

Ha! Lots of reflections came out of my doodling crisis. Hope they help clarify other unclear corners and let me start afresh. And help you readers as much as you help me by sharing your thoughts online, that’s why I write here.