Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Monday, December 4, 2006day link 

Granularity for students, by Michael Leddy, gives some good advice on breaking things down.
People who think about hacking their lives and their work often speak of “granularity.” It’s a curious word. The online Oxford English Dictionary offers only “granular condition or quality” as a definition. A more helpful definition comes from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications: “The extent to which a larger entity is subdivided. For example, a yard broken into inches has finer granularity than a yard broken into feet.” To think of tasks and challenges in terms of granularity is to think in terms of breaking them down into smaller and more manageable parts.

Granularity is a tremendously useful strategy for students. The typical spiral-bound student-planner doesn’t seem to encourage it; that tool is often little more than a place to store due dates: “research paper due.” But no one can just write a research paper. That paper can only be the result of numerous small-scale tasks. It’s not surprising that students who think of “write research paper” as one monolithic task are likely to put it off far longer than they ought to. Instead of “write research paper,” one could think of these tasks: go to library to look up sources; organize them by call number; read first three sources and take notes; get article from JSTOR; read remaining three sources and take notes; organize notes on computer; check bibliography format; ask professor about endnote form; make rough outline; and so on. Each of these “granular” tasks is far more do-able than “write research paper.” Thinking of work in terms of granularity can be one way to overcome the overwhelming dread of getting started. And keeping track of such tasks on paper and crossing them off one by one gives the satisfaction making progress and getting closer to done.

A student might also apply the strategy of granularity to the work of writing itself. Instead of writing a draft and “looking it over,” it’s much smarter to break down the work of writing and editing by thinking about one thing at a time. Developing a strong thesis statement: that’s one task. Working out a sequence of paragraphs to develop that thesis: another task. Figuring out how to make a transition from one paragraph to another: another task. If you tend to have patterns of errors in your writing, look for each kind of error, one at a time. Noun-pronoun agreement? Read a draft once through looking only for that. Comma splices? Read once through with your eyes on the commas. It might seem that approaching the work of writing and editing in terms of smaller, separate tasks is unnecessarily cumbersome, but breaking things down will likely make it far easier to work more effectively and come out with a stronger piece of writing. No writer can think about everything at once.

Granularity is also a useful strategy for making even a daunting reading project do-able. If you have eighty pages to read, finish twenty and take a short break; then repeat. If you’re reading James Joyce or Marcel Proust, a handful of pages might be all that you can manage at one sitting, and sometimes you might need to chart your progress by the sentence. But those sentences and pages add up, and I should know. I just finished all seven volumes (3,102 pages) of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), averaging twenty pages a day over five months and two days of reading.
(Via BoingBoing).

I suppose we can say that one can accomplish just about anything, if one can break it down into small, managable tasks. Many people will fail in doing something big they really could do, simply because they don't break it down into things they can start doing right now. Something big and fuzzy will seem impossible. But often there will be a small thing you can do right now, or today, and another piece tomorrow, and sooner or later you're there.
[ | 2006-12-04 20:38 | 2 comments | PermaLink ]  More >

 Troubadours and the Singable Earth Charter
picture If you're planning to write something like a constitution, you might want to adopt the guideline that it needs to be singable. Singable? Yeah, why not? Good songs have certain inherent qualities which we intuitively recognize. Like good stories, they sometimes succeed in making complexity easily understandable. Tony Judge makes the point in A Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic. Here are some guidelines for songs as applied to writing a constitution:
  1. Needs to be short -- but able to embody a complex pattern of information (in the light of advances in auditory display and sonification)
  2. Needs to be memorable -- especially in the sense of its function of "re-membering" a divided society
  3. Needs to offer reminders of significant relationships between matters that may otherwise be treated as dangerously unrelated -- vital feedback loops from a systemic control perspective
  4. Needs to be attractive in the context of a complex social system -- especially according to the new understanding of "strange attractors" in the complexity sciences
  5. Needs to strike a balance between the dysfunctional symbolic extremes of:
    • the Ode to Joy, adopted as the anthem of Europe -- appealing primarily to the older generation, if only because of its classical quality, exemplifying the democratic challenge that admiration does not necessarily enable participation
    • the overwhelming popular winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007 (Hard Rock Hallelujah) -- a heavy metal band in monstrous demonic guise, appealing significantly to the younger generation [video]
    • the 300-pages of the legal text of the proposed European Constitution [more] -- unreadable, and therefore incomprehensible, to most EU citizens (and perhaps deliberately so)
  6. Capable of being refreshed periodically, if not annually, in the light of new insights, challenges and opportunities -- and if only in recognition of the limitations of any previous version
  7. Inviting participation, if not entraining it -- as a contrast to the apathy-reinforcement characteristic of modern political discourse
  8. Inherently imaginative -- reframing the past, offering new significance to the present, and pointing to new ways of thinking about the future
  9. Challenging to cognition -- an element of puzzle and mystery to be "solved", as with many computer and other games in which there is a gestalt to be recognized (possibly even at several levels)
  10. Imminently practical in its elaboration -- as with the procedures for open competition for major architectural or other design projects
  11. Susceptible to animated accompaniment -- with possibilities of exemplification through multi-media techniques and gaming simulations
  12. Embodying systemic understandings valuable to governance at all levels -- and consonant with experience at those levels
It is a brilliant connection to make. And so simple, really. If it doesn't make a good song, it probably doesn't make a good constitution. Yeah, nobody could understand that 300 page EU constitution, so they didn't like it. If it would have been in a format that played well on the radio, and if people actually liked it, no sweat, of course they would have voted for it.

Cognitive engagement with complexity. Yeah, we need more of that. And you don't make complex things palatable just by over-simplifying them and leaving things out. But you can make them available by representing them in formats that more naturally convey complexity. You know, like a picture is worth a thousand words. And like a song or an orchestral piece can convey something very complex, which one actually might "get" and remember, more or less, afterwards. What's efficient in terms of communication in a picture is not the large number of pixels. Rather it is that you can see how it all fits together. You don't remember 2 million pixels and their color values, you remember the patterns, because they make sense.

A common mnemonic trick is to remember something based on a story. Say you're asked to memorize 100 numbers or random items. Unless you're an autistic savant, you probably can't do that. But, with a little practice, you can learn to do so by constructing a story around the items or the numbers. A story is much easier to remember than a list of random stuff. The compression rate is much higher. But you can turn the story around and bring back those random items.

One idea, or one metaphor, or one photograph might bring forward large amounts of related thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc. It is like a fractal compression thing. You get the pattern that ties it all together, and then you just need to remember one thing, rather than 100.

You're constantly being bombarded with both good and bad examples of that. Advertising will often try to use your few seconds of attention to convey a whole package of meaning and feelings, to make you change your behavior and go and buy whatever they want you to buy.

And law makers and university professors will often ask you to do the impossible: making sense out of thousands of random items, without ever giving you the fractal algorithm that would wrap them into something simple and understandable. Quite possibly because they didn't think about it, or they wouldn't know what it would be. And quite possibly because what they're trying to present really just is thousands of random items.

So, instead they should think of singing it. And if they're having trouble with that, they maybe should get back to the drawing board and make something that actually is coherent.

And we can learn something from past masters of integrating different cognitive realms and modes of communication into good tunes, like ... the troubadours.
One early example is the work promoted by the Cathars through the troubadours and trouvères, highly sophisticated verse-technicians, whose music and poetry combined in the service of the courtly ideal of love:

"Modern European literature originated in Occitania in the early 12th century. It was started by hundreds of Troubadours (poet-musicians), who sang the praises of new values and in a new way. Their themes were courtly love, and concepts such as "convivencia" and "paratge" for which there is no modern counterpart in modern English or French. "convivencia" meant something more than conviviality and "paratge" meant something more than honour, courtesy, chivalry or gentility (though our concepts of honour, courtesy, chivalry and gentility all owe something to the concept of "paratge". They praised high ideals, promoting a spirit of equality based on common virtue and deprecating discrimination based on blood or wealth. They were responsible for a great flowering of creativity." (The Troubadours)
Of course Occitania is right here, south-western France. Cathar country. So, I'm always happy to hear about that. The troubadours might mostly be remembered now as simply some guys who sang songs, but, yes, it was really a lot deeper than that. Subversive communicators of new values. But, hey, that's indeed because song can be an effective vehicle for such.

So, public leaders better start singing. Or somebody else will.
[ | 2006-12-04 21:42 | 1 comment | PermaLink ]  More >

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