Exotic New Facts from Ennet House

Posted: October 23, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

If you ever chance to spend a little time around a substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will encounter many exotic new facts.

That you do not have to like a person to learn from him/her/it.

That loneliness is not a function of solitude.

That logical validity is not a guarantee of truth.

That no matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.

That it takes effort to pay attention to any one stimulus for more than a few seconds.

That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them.

That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.

That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.

That a clean room feels better to be in than a dirty room.

That other people can often see things about you that you yourself cannot see, even if those people are stupid.

That having a lot of money does not immunize people from suffering or fear.

From David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest.

Notes on the Making of an Expert

Notes on The Making of an Expert, by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely. Harvard Business Review, July/August 2007

All the superb performers [benjamin Bloom] investigated had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families though their developing years.

1. Intensive, deliberate practice
2. Devoted teachers
3. Family support

The amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved.

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice, but also to help you learn how to coach yourself. Above all … forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise.

Real expertise must pass three tests. First, it must lead to work that is consistently superior to that of the expert’s peers. Second, real expertise produces concrete results…. Finally, true expertise can be replicated and measured in the lab. As the British scientist Lord Kelvin stated, “if you can not measure it, you can not improve it.”

Deliberate Practice

Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you *can’t* do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills…. The famous violinist Nathan Milstein wrote: “Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] Professor Auer how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘it really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.”

[V]ery few appear to be able to engage in more than four or five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice at a time.

Ivan Galamian: “If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by their teacher or an assistant to the teacher.”

The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. Real experts are extremely motivated student who seek out such feedback. They’re also skilled at understanding when and if a coach’s advice doesn’t work for them. The elite performers we studied knew what they were doing right and concentrated on what they were doing wrong. They deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance. The best coaches also identify aspects of your performance that will need to be improved at your next level of skill.

The key to improving expertise is consistence and fully controlled efforts.

Rules for Creators with Small Audiences

A guide for the emerging comics artist or how to behave on the Internet w/r/t social media.

Don’t take your readership for granted

Small readership defined: If your Twitter and Facebook followers could easily fit inside a college auditorium, that’s a small readership. If this describes your audience, you have time to respond to any personal messages. See also internet famous1.

It literally takes ten seconds to respond to a complimentary post on Twitter or to “like” a Facebook comment or post that someone has written about you. Seriously. If you get ten compliments a day in your platforms of choice, that’s five minutes out of your day to respond with a simple thank you to all of them. It’s not too much to ask.

Case Study

September 23, 2011: Thorne posts “Morning ‘Verse.” then @ replies to five people who complimented his work in the past day. Total time elapsed: 2 minutes.

Saying thank you is nice

Conclusion

If you can’t be bothered to do that, I’ve got no sympathy for you. Neither you nor I is Lady Gaga. We are not people who get more messages than any one person could possibly respond to. At that point, your relationship with your audience must change, but you’re not there yet. If it does take you more than fifteen minutes a day to respond to readers, then you may indeed be at that reevaluation point.

As an artist, dedication to your craft and making great work is your first priority. But I am going to posit that respect for your readership is a close second. If you have an Internet presence and a readership, that respect means that social norms of politeness are not just things you discard when you get behind the keyboard.

And Action

Take fifteen minutes each day to respond to readers. You may not need that much time. You may need more. If you are getting more mentions than you can respond to in that time, I would say take the fifteen minutes anyway and do what you can. If you’re getting that much attention, your readership will probably understand that you can’t get to everyone. Similarly, if you get linked by a major site, you’ll get overwhelmed for a time. Take your time and work through the backlog. If you thank someone three days after a major traffic spike, they should understand.

Art is the intersection between artist, object, and spectator. The audience plays a crucial role in your work. Don’t forget that. Without your readers, you’re just a person in a room with a stack of papers.

notes:
1: The next stage up.

Master Study: Parmigianino

Over at dynamanga.net, Dirk Tiede has been working on a series of master studies as an exercise to sharpen his drawing skills. Being inspired by the idea, I decided I would shamelessly copy it. Master studies. Once again I found myself enthusiastically doing things that I had half-assed or blown off completely in college (when I knew everything and didn’t see the point). This happens to me all the time these days: e.g. copying the works of masters, reading the suggested but not required texts, going back to primary sources, etc.

The Rules

I started with Dirk’s original rules, which are to do two drawings based on an original, each one with a 20 minute time limit. The first drawing is a faithful copy, the second, a “riff” in which you do your own thing with it. I liked the idea of the 20 minute time limit and the idea of kicking it old school and working from the masters. So off I went.

The Art

Here’s the original drawing, Parmigianino’s Holy Family with Angels and Shepherds:

Parmagianino_orig.jpg

Here’s my faithful copy. Although Parmigianino’s drawing is complex, it’s very gestural, and I felt twenty minutes was enough time even though I’m doing pencils, inks, and wash.

Parmagianino_copy.jpg

The same cannot be said for the “riff” or the departure drawing. It’s not really enough time for me to bring anything of my own to the table and be able to execute it. It might have worked better if I had just focused on one of the figures, or if I had increased the time limit—maybe to 30 minutes—ten for pencil, ten for ink, ten for wash. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for myself. Anyway, here it is:

Parmagianino_riff.jpg

I’m going to be doing more of these, but I’ll be tinkering with the format. Perhaps giving myself more time for the second drawing, or perhaps working on the theme of variations: drawing more, but focusing on different things in each. More to come.

Let’s Not Talk about Content or Its Consumption

Shawn Blanc brings up something that’s been bothering me for the past few years: consuming content.

We say “consuming content” as a way to sum up the act of reading, listening, viewing, and other ways of taking in various forms of media and entertainment. We keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what we think it means.

Consume (verb): eat, drink, or ingest (food or drink); buy; use up.

Content (noun): everything that is included in a collection and that is held or included in something.

I don’t like either of those words when applied to art. They are both lazy and unspecific words that are used as a sort of shorthand for “the stuff people do on computers and iPads” and it generally implies that we’re not exactly sure what that is yet.

Consuming

As Shawn points out, to consume something is to use it up. When we read a book or look at a work of art or read a post on the Web, we are not rendering it unfit for other’s enjoyment, we are not using it up. Talking about consumers w.r.t. art, literature, or journalism is an appropriation from the field of economics. We talk about consuming goods in an economic transaction because when we buy things we use up some or most of their value. Once used, they are worth less from an economic standpoint than they were when new. Even so, the term is useful only in talking about purchasing in the abstract: global consumption of electronic goods, or consumer price indexes. In the specific, however, we watch a television, drive a car, or use a computer, we don’t consume them.

It’s telling that this vague term is only applied to content or sometimes as a verb without an object, as in people are using their iPads for consumption. Although even here the word content is implied. Again, vague and uncertain. Are they reading or watching a movie? Playing a game or browsing the Web? Are they writing? Be specific. If you can’t be more specific than that, maybe you need to think harder about what it is you’re trying to say.

Content

To aggregate specific art forms under the term “content” assumes that art is fungible, that words and images can, like water, be poured from one container to the next without any fundamental alteration of their nature. This is untrue, as anyone who has posted a magazine article to the web or collected blog posts into an anthology will tell you. The same goes for a images: the jpeg on the Web or the CMYK reproduction in a magazine are related but different instances of a physical object (like the drawing or painting they are based on). The same is true if the image is created electronically from the start: an infographic or webcomic created entirely on a computer is very different when viewed on screen as opposed to in print. They are perceived differently by the viewer, created differently by the artist, and are composed of different materials. Is the content the platonic ideal of the image? What about text? An author writes a blog post which she expands into a magazine article, then into a book. Which is the content? Is it the original idea that informs all three? Or are they all separate instances of content? If so, better to refer to the idea, post, article, or book. Because it makes a difference. Each of these iterations of the author’s idea have different characteristics, different presentations, and different expectations from the reader. Some are physical, some electronic. If you treat them all the same, as content, it implies you are not aware of these differences or that you don’t understand them.

I draw and paint on paper using pen, ink, and watercolor. I then scan and publish my work on this web site. People then visit and read this graphic novel, or if you prefer, webcomic. Occasionally, I write a blog post like this one. There is art and there is commentary, but there is no content and there are certainly no consumers.

A comic page

Machiavelli: Prologue

I’m experimenting with a new method of displaying completed chapters of Machiavelli. I’m looking at putting them together into a unified whole. One post per chapter. I will continue, of course, to upload the current pages one at a time, but as each chapter finishes I’ll bundle them up like the prologue below.
It will make site administration easier for me, but more importantly, I think it will make a better reading experience for you. What do you think? Let me know in your preferred medium: comments below, Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook.

Machiavelli prologue

Machiavelli and Anthony Weiner

Sculptor, Lorenzo Bartolini (1777–1850)

It started out, appropriately enough, with a post on Twitter. @GreatestQuotes posted “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” attributing the quote to Niccolò Machiavelli. The metaphysical examination of one’s inner life is a bit outside of Machiavelli’s purview, so it raised my suspicions. Hunting down fake quotes is something of a hobbyhorse. It turns out, however, that it is indeed Machiavelli: from chapter 18 of The Prince, (How Princes Should Keep Faith) but truncated and poorly translated. Here’s the full passage:

Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by results.

Machiavelli is commenting on the crucial importance of appearances in politics. (And he’s addressing the prince, not the common person bewildered that no one really understands them, pace @GreatestQuotes.)

There are certain standards of behavior and speech that public officials must observe, and this is as true in our time as it was in his because “people in general judge by the eye rather than by the hand, for everyone can see but few can touch.” A leader must “seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright” or he risks the condemnation of his people. You may, at this point, object that there are many politicians who possess none or few of these traits, but you will be hard pressed to find one who does not preach them verbally. This is one of the occupational hazards of politics, the importance of appearance, politicians know it going in and we play along with it as well. We know full well our leaders are not perfect, even those we support, but we want them to appear to be.

Progressives are embarrassed by Rep. Weiner’s actions even though they seem to have little to do with the practical aspects of government. But they do. The ability to rally popular support for government action is built on the foundation of public opinion. A politician who has harmed himself with foolish words and images contrary to the standards of appearance that we expect is a damaged spokesperson for the politics and policies that he supports. A leader derives much of his power from the support and the enthusiasm of the people he represents, even in a principality. A humiliated Anthony Weiner lacks the moral force that he had before all this happened. He was a powerful liberal voice in the Congress that is now diminished. That is precisely what Machiavelli is warning against.

On Machiavelli, Hourglasses, and More Fake Quotes

“The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it”

Not as pernicious as the overthrowing the status quo false quotation I discussed earlier, this one does seem to have some staying power as a fake Machiavelli. The fact that it’s pretty blatantly not Machiavelli’s style or subject matter doesn’t seem to slow folks down. What makes this quote intriguing is that we have a double misattribution.

Jeanpaul.jpgThe quote seems to be from the German Romantic writer Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, better known by his nom de plume Jean Paul. Rev. James Woods attributes the saying to Jean Paul in his Dictionary of Quotations: from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources of 1893, although lacking a source for the quote. That’s the earliest I can trace it back without going into the stacks. But the lack of an actual source text and my cautious nature force me to qualify my attribution of authorship.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Perhaps due to Jean Paul’s relative obscurity, the quote seems to have latched on to a more famous Jean Paul: the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Unlike the obviously false Machiavelli attribution, which only appears in the usual rogues’ gallery of quote aggregators, Sartre gets credit for this one in a number of published books of quotations and other folk wisdom. Shamefully, it actually appears on sartre.org. At least it’s apparent how the confusion occurred. How Machiavelli got involved with this one, I have no idea.

The lesson in all of this is that the quote aggregators like brainyquote, searchquote, and their ilk should be avoided at all costs. Wikiquote seems like a better bet if you’re just looking for something to paste into Twitter and you’re not some nut who hunts down quotes he finds on the Internet in some Quixotic quest for historical accuracy.