Sam Gentle.com

Technical creativity

I've been watching a bunch of musicians on Youtube lately. I've found it surprisingly familiar, despite my lack of any serious musical background. I think it's because of the way music so explicitly embraces the idea of technical creativity.

As an art, music is particularly technical. Unlike visual art, it never really had a representational phase; nobody comes up to a guitarist and says "hey, can you play a river?" But unlike other abstract arts, it has some pretty inflexible constraints; consider the experience of seeing a random noise painting vs hearing a random noise band.

All the depth of formalism and structure in music theory is an attempt to wrangle with the fact that making music – not good music, just anything recognisable as music – is surprisingly difficult. You can't just take what you think of and play it; you have to know the rules before you even start getting creative.

This, I think, is an essential truth of technical disciplines: you have to start with the rules. There's no point designing a bridge if you don't know civil engineering, even if you can get a civil engineer to look at it afterwards. The problem is that most shapes of bridges won't work, so the only feedback you'll get is "nope, not even close".

In this kind of low-density idea space, you need an approach that eliminates most of the options that won't work right at the start. Then, once you've narrowed things down, the remaining space is much denser and you have the freedom to explore a little.

For many technical people, just getting to that point is difficult enough that creativity, as in the voluntary search for extra complexity, is the last thing on the cards. I mean, I got the damn thing to work, isn't that enough? What? What colour should it be? I dunno, what colour does it need to be?

To be creative in such a constrained system, you have to internalise its rules to the point where they no longer seem like rules. That's how you get to just do what you think of: you stop thinking of so much stuff that won't work. In a sense, you mind moves from the low-density space to the high-density one when you internalise the filter.

And so this is what I think music gets particularly right: cursed with a low-density idea space, musicians learn theory sooner and more aggressively than most other artists. Their goal isn't to become amazing theoreticians, but to internalise enough theory that what they think of will usually work.

At that point, what's left is which workable option to pick: not a technical question, but a creative one.

Nothing personal

Never believe that anti‐Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right to play.
  — Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew
I think part of my problem is comedy has suspended me in a perpetual state of adolescence. The way I’ve been telling that story is through jokes. And stories, unlike jokes, need three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Jokes only need two parts: a beginning and a middle.
  — Hannah Gadsby, Nanette
The left can't meme.
  — Old gypsy saying

The alt-right is kind of weird. Not the people in it; the thing itself. What could possibly bring together internet trolls, Christian fundamentalists, renegade intellectuals, conspiracy theorists, anti-feminists, neo-nazis, gamers, comedians, authoritarians, libertarians, techno-utopians and archconservatives?

When you try to analyse it in terms of shared goals or values, the whole thing seems completely nonsensical. But I don't think it's those things at all. The alt-right isn't a movement so much as it is a shared pattern of behaviour.

Comedy is tragedy plus time, so the saying goes, but I would say it's tragedy plus distance. Distance applied to tragedy. Tragedy distanced. Have you ever laughed out loud at a painful memory? Ever made a joke to smooth over an uncomfortable situation? Ever fallen over and laughed on your way back up? Tragedy distanced.

Why do bullies laugh? There's no wit in what they do. No surprise. No dissonance. Just the strong inflicting suffering on the weak. If your theory of comedy can't account for how funny it is to hurt people, then it's only half a theory. Consider slapstick. You laugh because the hurt isn't real. Or the hurt isn't real because you laugh. Tragedy distanced.

The experience of playing a video game where you kill people by the thousands isn't abject horror, it's... well, nothing in particular. Fun, hopefully, if the killing is well-designed. Annoyance if it isn't. Curiosity about how well you can kill and whether there are ways to do so more effectively. But this display of rarefied psychopathy is fine, because they're not real people and they're not really hurt.

Concerned Parents of a certain era were concerned that these games would unlock violent tendencies in their children like some kind of psychopath DLC, but they had it totally backwards: we're all psychopaths when the people aren't real and the harm doesn't count. The difference is where we draw that line. Virtual people? Animals? Long-dead real people? People on the other side of the world? People you don't like?

The alt-right shares an empathy problem: not that they lack empathy, but that their empathy is incompatible with their beliefs. This requires careful management. Daryl Davis famously met with hundreds of KKK members to ask them "how can you hate me when you don't even know me?" Of course, that's exactly how. You can only hate them because they aren't real. They're caricatures. Painted faces on a stage who sing and dance and fall but never truly hurt.

And so too the whole sorry cast: the Welfare Queens, the Feminazis, the Fake Transgender Attention Whores, the Crybaby Minorities Who Act Hurt For Sympathy, the Hooknosed Conspirators Whose Dark Rituals Control Global Finance, the Kids These Days And Oh My God Karen Did You Hear What They Do At Parties Now, the Ones Who Kick Up A Fuss About Things That Aren't Serious.

Because that's the core of it in the end: not serious. The levity inherent in any ideology that demands indifference to suffering. Tragedy distanced, be it through the indirection of the internet, the depersonalisation of crowds, or the jovial denial of consequence.

So lighten up, buddy. We're all having fun here. Well, I'm having fun. But you have to admit it's pretty funny that you're not.

Striving is a sometimes food

One of the silliest terms in all of software development has to be the "sprint". It's an Agile concept intended to evoke a steady, sustainable release cycle by analogy to an all-out push to get over a line. Of course, if you take it literally you're Doing Agile Wrong, but perhaps it would be easier to do right if the words meant what they said.

But forget Agile, let's talk about sprinting. The kind of sprinters who sprint with their legs rather than a keyboard tend to do so at competitive events. Everyone shows up on the day, runs as fast as they can a few times, then goes home. The fastest get to take decorative pieces of metal with them. Most competitive sports work similarly, despite it being an obviously unsustainable way to work, even by Silicon Valley standards. Why is this?

One answer is that our idea of athleticism is generally more about peak output than sustained output. A single incredible feat looks much more impressive than a lifetime of steady achievement. Even marathons, purportedly more concerned with sustained performance, only last a day or so – the blink of an eye in any other field. A true marathoner would have no regard for such trivialities; their goal is nothing less than the highest total distance on foot since birth, as measured at their death.

Extreme, perhaps, but not so far from how we evaluate excellence in other areas. A great writer isn't someone who writes one really great sentence, or even a really great work, but someone who has written many great works. This takes a lot of time, and unsurprisingly age is much kinder to writers than sprinters. That said, you also don't get many writers retiring at 30. And they don't receive anywhere near as much decorative metal.

But perhaps the entire opposition between these extremes is a fiction invented to sell conference tickets. In reality, athletes spend almost all their time in steady and sustained training, and almost none in competition. Most writers don't write at a single metronomic pace (except for Stephen King, who is a humanoid puppet controlled by a cabal of sentient typewriters). Rather, they work to deadlines and vary their output accordingly.

And a sprinter's career is not just evaluated by a single peak performance, but by many such performances over time (tragically, the rules limit you to one piece of metal per peak performance, and it's the same size even if you win by a lot). Conversely, a lifetime of okay books will never add up to one really good one; even the most prolific writers will have peaks and troughs in their career, and it's the ones whose peaks go highest we remember as great.

In fact, I'd say it's more illustrative to consider peak and sustained output as complements. Why don't sprinters always sprint? Because the foremost goal of anyone trying to be great is to improve, and improvement requires both marathoning and sprinting; both steady progress and occasional breakthroughs; both words-per-lifetime and words-per-whatever-you-can-manage-in-the-next-hour.

A reliable baseline gives you the safety to take the occasional shot at excellence, and each attempt shows you the limits of your current ability. A new peak, higher than the last. Could it someday become your baseline?

Expertise

What does it mean to be an expert at something? Is it different from just being good at it? How can you tell if you are or aren't? And is it just a bourgeois construction designed to maintain the iron grip of privilege over the values of society?

These extremely specific questions have been on my mind, in part because the process of gaining expertise has been mostly invisible to me. Sure, I used to be bad at programming, but I started when I was 10 and back then I was bad at everything; it's hard to distinguish my development as a programmer from my development as a human.

Recently, though, I've been using more skills like electronics, that I picked up later in life, or writing, that I've done a lot but never formally studied. In some sense, I am good at these things, but the experience of doing them compared to programming is like night and day: I am not an expert.

What does that look like in practice? Well, with writing I'm at this kind of high-amateur plateau. I've written a bunch of words, and I write 'em good, but my process is messy and slow, my theoretical knowledge isn't there, and my structure can be a bit shambolic. This all adds up to a lack of reliability: I can't write to a deadline, be certain in my grammatical choices, or have a high confidence that my writing achieves what I intended.

The high-amateur plateau is common in self-taught programmers: they're often quite skilled, but the skill is fragile. You can write code, but can you write code in a way that ensures some other outcome? Can you write code fast? Can you write code while people are watching? Can you write code and be confident that it works and it's good without someone else telling you?

I think expertise is more than just being highly skilled; it's being skilled to the point where your skill becomes invisible. In that sense, it's a qualitative shift: from spelling to vocabulary, vocabulary to phrasing, phrasing to voice. To learn the higher-level skill, you need the lower-level skills to support it. To do this, they have to be so reliable that they disappear.

So the reason I am not an expert in writing is because my writing skills are not invisible. I can't really think about what I'm writing, because I'm still thinking about grammar, structure, or editing. By contrast, when I'm programming, I think about what I want my program to do, not about programming itself.

This suggests an interesting strategy for pursuing expertise. Of course, you still need to develop your skill through practice and training, but at a certain point it may be better to start learning something else with that skill so that it is forced to become invisible. The real benefit of a computer science education may be that it teaches you programming in order to teach you computer science.

And finally, it's worth wondering if we could use this to approach even higher levels of expertise. Even if I think only about what I want my program to do, that can still be very complex. What would it mean to reach a point where I no longer have to think about that, and the skill of making a program that does something becomes, itself, invisible? What would I think about instead?

Learning vs training

It's very easy to conflate learning and training. I'm not sure if this is because they're both ways of increasing your capability, or because it's convenient to pretend they're equivalent so you can do whichever you find easier. Both, probably.

Learning is a detached intellectual process: to learn, you step back from the activity itself in order to analyse it. This stops you from getting bogged down in the details and reason about the space in abstract. It's a process that provides knowledge and understanding: learning means you know things you didn't know before, but also means you in some sense grasp the structure, connection, or meaning of those things.

Training is an embodied practical process: to train, you dive into the activity and perform it in order to improve at it. Here, the details aren't irrelevant: they're the entire point. You might use abstraction to determine what to train, but training itself is an abstraction-free zone. It's a process that provides skill and intuition: you are able to do something you didn't do before, and, even without reasoning about it, you just have a kind of sense of how it will go.

These two things are not substitutes. You can't learn skills any more than you can train knowledge. If you try to use learning in place of training, you'll end up with a theoretical understanding that you have no ability to execute. You can study music for years and still have no idea what to do when you pick up a guitar. The theory can tell you how your hands should move, but not how to move your hands; they're your hands, so only you can do that.

If you try to use training in place of learning, it's no better. You end up stuck on a plateau, trying and trying again with no substantial improvement. Why? Is it because you just need to try harder? No, most likely it's that you need to try something different. Knowing what to do is an intellectual process, not a practical one, and it requires a higher understanding you can't get until you stop practising and start thinking.

But even if we know there is a difference, I think the temptation will always be there to train when we should learn, or learn when we should train. That's nothing more complex than habit and inertia. You spend a lot of time learning, you get better at learning, you get used to learning. When you need to train, you're comparatively bad at it, so you compensate by learning more. That works up until it doesn't, and then you're stuck with deeply unbalanced development.

Which means the problem with learning vs training is that it's easy to understand the difference between the two, but far more difficult to put it into practice.