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When the instructions don't work - Input Junkie
May 8th, 2012
11:51 pm


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When the instructions don't work
I thought I was almost done with the posts about self-hatred. I'm still thinking about how the self-nurturing impulses appear that lead to at least partial solutions-- it seems to be a difficult topic.

However, that recent post about carmelizing onions has a surprising amount of bearing on the topic, since there seems to be a great many people who followed instructions which gave an inaccurately short cooking time, didn't get carmelized onions, and concluded there was something wrong with them, and I mean their capacity to make things work (though I don't know at what level of generality), not the onions.

It took me a lot of years to realize that when my calligraphy wasn't working on the basic "get the ink to make a nice clean-edged stroke" level, it didn't mean that I was somehow defective and if I just kept trying, I'd get the result I wanted. The right thing to do is check pen point, ink, paper, temperature, and humidity. They're defective. They should try harder.

Well, actually, a calm and steady attitude works better than blaming my tools.

I'm still blaming my mother. I don't think she had the foggiest idea of what effect she was having, but her impatience and possibly her belief in my intelligence led to her giving me the impression that I should just be able to get things right without having any process of learning. I'm still working on that one.

It's not just onions and calligraphy, of course. Here's Eric Raymond's account of his epic quest to get a printer installed on his home network. The reason this is relevant is that Eric has enough self-assurance and knowledge that he could be sure the documentation was inadequate. He got email from readers who'd had similar difficulties, but assumed it was some personality defect of their own which made it hard for them to get their printers to work.

Of course, sometimes things aren't working because you've read the instructions carelessly or don't have some piece of background knowledge. I think the thing to watch out for is a belief that you know why something isn't working, and the reason is a personality defect.

More on the subject-- Errors vs. Bugs and the End of Stupidity:
I had never thought about wrong notes that way. I had thought that wrong notes came from being "bad at piano" or "not practicing hard enough," and if you practiced harder the clinkers would go away. But that's a myth.

In fact, wrong notes always have a cause. An immediate physical cause. Just before you play a wrong note, your fingers were in a position that made that wrong note inevitable. Fixing wrong notes isn't about "practicing harder" but about trying to unkink those systematically error-causing fingerings and hand motions. That's where the "schizophrenia" comes in: pretending you can move your fingers with your mind is a kind of mindfulness meditation that can make it easier to unlearn the calcified patterns of movement that cause mistakes.

And also...
Thing is, I've worked with learning disabled kids. There were kids who had trouble reading, kids who had trouble with math, kids with poor fine motor skills, ADD and autistic kids, you name it. And these were mostly pretty mild disabilities. These were the kids who, in decades past, might just have been C students, but whose anxious modern-day parents were sending them to special programs for the learning disabled.

But what we did with them was nothing especially mysterious or medical. We just focused, carefully and non-judgmentally, on improving their areas of weakness. The dyslexics got reading practice. The math-disabled got worksheets and blocks to count. Hyperactive kids were taught to ask themselves "How's my motor running today?" and be mindful of their own energy levels and behavior. The only difference between us and a "regular" school is that when someone was struggling, we tried to figure out why she was struggling and fix the underlying problem, instead of slapping her a bad report card and leaving it at that.

And I have to wonder: is that "special education" or is it just education?

And a little something about enjoying your life by shaking off irrelevant comparisons. Actually, I'm not sure it's got enough about getting rid of the comparisons, though it certainly does a great job of describing the problem.

Lately, I've been posting comments about the common and poisonous idea that only the extraordinary is good enough-- it's a way of denigrating almost everything and everyone, since the extraordinary is rare by definition.

This doesn't mean there's something wrong with ambition and/or admiration, but there is something wrong with letting them take over.

This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/540284.html. Comments are welcome here or there. comment count unavailable comments so far on that entry.

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[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2012 07:18 am (UTC)
In fact, wrong notes always have a cause. An immediate physical cause. Just before you play a wrong note, your fingers were in a position that made that wrong note inevitable. [...] trying to unkink those systematically error-causing fingerings and hand motions.

I think this is what some people MEAN by 'practice' or 'practice harder': this kind of fooling around and trying something a little different each time and noticing what's going wrong ... using many many tries. Or quickly correcting the wrong motion with the right motion, so that the body automatically starts getting it right the first time.

Anyway, I agree with you about the calligraphy equipment etc! That's a sort of backing off and looking at something that comes before your own movement starts. And about the 'special education'!
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
Yeah, except that that's not "practice harder" -- it's "practice better." There are universal practice techniques for some physical things (mostly, start with slow versions of what you're doing and then work up after you've trained in basic correct actions/responses), but they're not always useful (for things requiring a minimum speed/momentum) and there are other, more advanced techniques that are also useful.

And even when one has corrected from "spend more time/effort practicing" to "spend more time on productive practice routines and make up/use better routines", that doesn't get you the knowledge of what you're doing wrong that usually, you need better instruction (or a series of breakthroughs) to discover. There's very little in "practice harder" that helps you with "you're doing the wrong thing, because you don't know any better".
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2012 07:40 am (UTC)
Eric Raymond mentions unhelpful "help" instructions. That's for sure. Help instructions are almost uncanny in their ability to tell you what you already know or don't need to know and to omit what you do need to know.

One typical problem is the instructions apparently written by a bored programmer with no vocation for explaining anything. Find a command that reads "coagulate the frammistan," you wonder what it means, so you click on the tooltip explanation and it says, "This command coagulates the frammistan."

Another thing I find frequently on Windows is that I know the command I want exists somewhere in the pulldown menu structure but I can't find it. It's on those occasions that the help menu will give detailed instructions on how to use the command but will not reveal where it is, which is what I need to know. If I already know where it is, the help will say in detail exactly where it is.
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2012 09:38 am (UTC)
Blogging this. Thanx.
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2012 09:47 am (UTC)
In fact, wrong notes always have a cause. An immediate physical cause. Just before you play a wrong note, your fingers were in a position that made that wrong note inevitable. Fixing wrong notes isn't about "practicing harder" but about trying to unkink those systematically error-causing fingerings and hand motions.

This bothers me quite a lot. If there's a keyboard passage I'm having trouble with, I slow it down and play it repeatedly at the slower tempo. I'll check on whether there's a better fingering I could be using, but that's a pretty quick thing. If I started thinking hard about "unkinking those systematically error-causing fingerings" then I'd get so self-conscious about the process that I'd just make worse mistakes. This sometimes does happen to me.

It's a form of delegation. I trust my fingers to know what they're doing but recognize that they need practice before they do it will.

[User Picture]
Date:May 10th, 2012 01:25 am (UTC)
Yeah, i'm with you on this.

The author's way of exploring the cause does not match my own, and her metaphor does not work for me.
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2012 10:55 am (UTC)
In a related vein, Henry Petroski's book To Engineer is Human is a very good book about why often it's actually bad design at fault when you do something wrong that's supposed to be easy - like pushing a door you're supposed to pull, or not being able to program a VCR (the book is a couple decades old).
[User Picture]
Date:May 9th, 2012 03:45 pm (UTC)
Yes. I get in a lot of trouble with various mentors, because when something is not easy, I figure I've got the wrong tool -- or the tools are not well designed. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:May 10th, 2012 01:21 am (UTC)
Much of the time, i think it is a case of wrong tool or poorly-designed tools.
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