Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue forty five of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
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Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…
At some point in the past fortnight (I’m not sure when because I’m still not sleeping, and as a result, it feels like I’m never truly awake), I read this excellent post by Adam Mastroianni about how lossy learning is and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
“Almost all of us start going to school when we’re three or four, and we don’t stop until we’re somewhere between 18 and 22. Some of us, having nothing better to do, keep going to school long into our twenties and beyond.
And yet, invariably, most of what we learn vanishes.
So what are we doing here? Are we crazy? How should we feel about spending our lives learning and forgetting?
Learning is lossy and there’s no way around that. You have to encode 100 units of information if you want to retain even a few. This is simply a law of nature, and if you’re mad about it, wait until you hear about perpetual motion machines.”
Mastroianni goes on to cite some examples of his own lossy learning experiences, which I think are very relatable:
“We definitely can’t expect to remember everything. But it’s not like I remember 20% of every class I took, or even 5%. Entire chunks of my education are now just black holes. For instance, I know I learned something about ancient Sumeria at some point, but all I have now is the name “Sumeria” floating around in my head. Actually, spellcheck is informing me that “Sumeria” might not even be a word. Ah, ok, a quick Google search reveals I was thinking of “Sumer.” Well then. Glad we spent two months on it in ninth grade social studies.”
Possibly you believe something like this:
The important stuff sticks. People remember multiplication because they keep using it. The fact that we lose so much means that we’re learning a bunch of useless stuff that our brains dutifully erase.
This is kind of true, right?
Some of the stuff we’ve learned, but since forgotten probably wasn’t super-useful; and yet, as Mastroianni highlights:
“I’m sure plenty of the stuff I learned wasn’t useful and I’m glad my brain dumped it.
But it also dumped tons of stuff I would have preferred to keep. For example, much of the stuff I’ve learned about psychology over the years would have come in handy later, and whenever I rediscover some finding I’ve forgotten, I curse my brain for forgetting it.
So while we’re more likely to lose low-priority information, even high-priority stuff disappears.”
Dear reader, I curse my brain for forgetting things like this constantly. On several occasions I’ve found myself desperately googling some half-remembered thing only to find that the thing I was looking for was actually an article I WROTE several years ago.
I’m frequently unable to clearly recall things which at one point I felt I knew enough about to write about – this is worrying, no?
But what do we do about this?
Mastroianni’s hypothesis is that as feelings (or vibes) stick far better than “knowledge”, they should be our focus:
“Knowledge fades fast, especially when you don’t use it. In the words of the late, great psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, “All sorts of ideas, if left to themselves, are gradually forgotten”
Feelings, or vibes, on the other hand, seem to stick around a lot longer.”
He argues that in academia, (and beyond) we should focus more on the vibe, or perhaps, more accurately, the types of feelings we’re evoking within whoever we’re attempting to pass on knowledge to.
Here’s an example from his own work:
“In addition to learning all of my squishy psychology, I’ve also had to learn statistics and programming. And I have, on several occasions, attempted to teach my students and research assistants the R programming language, which is a widely used data analysis tool. You might think, as I once did, that learning R should be all about knowledge and skills. After all, it’s a whole world defined entirely by functions and how you put them together. So just learn the names of the functions, practice using them, and you’ll learn R.
But in reality, learning R doesn’t go anything like that. Instead, it goes like this:
Student: How do you run a t-test?
Me: You use t.test()
Student: Yeah that didn’t work.
Me: What did the error message say?
Student: It’s like “object ‘rating’ not found.” But I know the data is there.
Me: Oh, “rating” is a column within your data frame. But R doesn’t know that. So you need to either put “data$rating” in, or use…what’s your data called?
Me: So you can use “data = data.”
I know these words sound stupid even as they’re coming out of my mouth. And the student does too. It’s like I’m a wizard trying to explain some arcane ritual. “Your potion didn’t come out because you sliced the eye of newt too thin. As the Dark Lord Graalnak wrote in the third volume of the Perfidium, ‘slice too thin, we may not begin.’ Oh, you want to know how thin should you slice? I don’t know, look it up on PotionOverflow.”
The students who ultimately succeed in learning R are not the ones who force themselves to memorize functions or do a bunch of coding drills. They’re the ones who accept they will feel stupid and that most of the rules will at first seem totally arbitrary, and who understand that they will gain great power if they just keep going.
Students often don’t like this vibe because it feels infantilizing. For most of them, the last time they learned a seemingly arbitrary language, they at least got to poop in their pants while doing it. Now, in exchange for very politely not pooping in their pants, they expect things to make a little sense. And I have to explain that, unfortunately, they gave up that right for nothing.
I’ve found that the best way to transmit this vibe is to show them just how dumb I am.
Student: How do I change the size of the axis labels on a plot?
Me: Oh, I always forget how to do that. Just Google it.
Student: It says “non-numeric argument to binary operator.”
Me: Uh. *types something* Nope. Um. *types something* Yeah that’s not it. Uh. *types something* Hmm. Try Googling it.
Student: What does it mean when it says “json—”
Through it all, I purposefully remain upbeat, unflappable, and unashamed. “This is normal,” I say. “You guys are doing great! Nobody is crying.” They look at me skeptically. “I cried lots of times,” I explain. This they can believe; I’ve got the looks of a guy who’s prone to blubbering in psychology classes.
It takes a while, but if the student is willing and I have them in class or the lab for long enough, they eventually get it.
The crazy thing is: they might not even know they got it. They may simply leave with a vague sense that R is cool.
But woven into that feeling are vibes like “I can get better at this” and “it’s okay to feel dumb while doing this” and “if I learn R, I can do all kinds of useful things.” That’s all they need. They can Google the rest of the stuff, just like I do.”
Why is this important?
In our working lives, much of what many of us do to day-to-day involves some sort of knowledge transfer – i.e. whilst most of us would not describe ourselves as “teachers”; nevertheless we teach. The same is also true outside of our working lives, right?
It occurs to me that I’ve been approaching pretty much any and all kinds of knowledge transfer in a way that is hopelessly wrong.
I spend a lot of time considering how best to pass any knowledge along, (my messaging, the language I use, frameworks/devices to make things more memorable etc); but not nearly enough time considering the vibe or feelings I’m trying to evoke.
Moreover, whilst I know that people will forget most, if not all, of whatever it is I’m trying to pass on, I rarely address this head on. I rarely cover off what people should do when they forget, (as they almost certainly will), whatever it is I’ve been trying to impart.
We know that learning is lossy, and so we try to make stuff memorable. And we try really hard to do this well, but it doesn’t work, and people still forget stuff.
But what might happen if rather than fighting it, we lean into it? If we worry less about what we’re trying to impart, and instead think harder about the vibes and feelings we’re evoking? If we focus on what people need to feel, to get good at this thing we’re trying to teach?
And what if we centred all these conversations around the things that we forget, and the things we do when we forget them?
It seems to me we’d be doing everyone a favour, including ourselves.
I love Janeane Garofalo so much, that most of the time, the mean voice which I hear in my head* is hers. As such, I loved this profile of her, and the multiple references to Reality Bites (a film which if you haven’t seen, I feel you should – not because it’s good – honestly it’s kinda clunky in places and I’m not convinced it really works; but because it’s a fascinating depiction of just how obsessed Generation X-ers like me were with the concept of not selling out, and Garofalo is a delight throughout). Anyways, read this profile friends.
*We all hear mean voices in our heads, right? No need to be alarmed friends. Why is the mean voice in my head someone that I love? Whoa, that’s a lot to unpack. Maybe I’ll do that one day. As you were.
How Donna Summer’s iconic track “I Feel Love” came to be made, invented new futures, and continues to endure.
This is a deliciously long read about the fiction writers who are making use of AI to speed up their writing processes.
Gaines’ sculpture “Roots”, is comprised of seven inverted sweetgum trees (which were once native to the region), and engages with the nation’s history of colonisation and enslavement:
“Painted a matte gray, the trees stand in stark contrast to the neon billboards above them, bearing more similarity to the cinderblock exteriors of the tourist hub’s office buildings than to its flashy, ever-changing pixelated displays.
“The subject is really a critique of America’s version of capitalism, and particularly, America’s version of capitalism that was fueled by slavery and colonial occupations,” Gaines told Hyperallergic.”
Joshua Hunt on the enduring shame of being poor, and the lies we tell as a result:
“I soon came to see [these lies] as part of the etiquette of poverty — a means of getting by for the poor and also a gift we give to the rich, a practice that lets us avoid talking about the uncomfortable differences between us.
Over time, it becomes second nature. Observing this etiquette doesn’t feel dishonest because its falsehoods recognize the deeper truth that many of society’s institutions are hostile to the poor. Lying to the landlord keeps a roof over our heads. Lying to the social worker keeps our family together. Lying to ourselves allows us to believe it’s all going to be OK, somehow, someday.”
“The James Webb Space Telescope delivered astounding images of the universe. But what are we looking at, exactly?
It may go without saying, but these aren’t photographs. They are data visualizations! And that data is the impact of photons—light energy—on very sensitive circuits a million miles away from us. The various sensors on the Webb Telescope measure that energy and send that data back to earth, where it can be rendered into something human eyes can see.
That rendering process can make people suspicious of these images—that we aren’t seeing what’s really there, but something artificial or manipulated. The truth is more interesting: Just like any data set, measurements of light in the universe can be manipulated. But scientists have standards and techniques to ensure that their visualizations convey useful information about the world, just like economists trying to put their finger on rising inflation.”
Also, they are astoundingly beautiful:
You might also like:
- Women are less likely than men to get authorship on scientific publications according to a new study
- Charles Dickens’ fake books
- Aubrey Hirsch’s illustrated essay on the violations of cyber flashing
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
This fortnight I read Fen, by Daisy Johnson, a short story collection where houses fall in love with girls; a mother gives birth to a boy whose sucks her mind and memory dry; and beautiful young women bring men home to devour. This collection is utterly delicious, and I’d strongly recommend it.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
Here are a few things I’ve watched over the past fortnight and would recommend:
- Prima Facie, (National Theatre Live): Jodie Comer is nothing short of incredible in Suzie Miller’s one-woman stage play about sexual assault and the legal system.
- Big Boys, (All4): Jack Rooke’s six-part comedy for Channel 4 about a friendship between two young men, is genuinely uplifting, and an absolute delight.
- Better Call Saul, (Netflix): Yeah, I know I’m very late to the party with this. For me the first season doesn’t quite hit its stride until around episode 4; but I’m glad I persevered, and I’m now hooked.
Part IV: What I’ve been up to…
Mostly I’ve been failing to sleep post-MozCon, and now my eyebags have eyebags. On a brighter note, I got to catch up with my friend Alex, met up with friends to see Prima Facie at the cinema; and I’m currently away doing a singing course with my Dad in Marlborough which is lovely.
I’m in the process of writing a piece of flash fiction for a competition, and thinking about possibly penning some sort of business book(!)…
I’m *very* excited to be running the first Women in Tech SEO training course. Throughout the month of September I’ll be running a live cohort-based training course, (via Zoom) for women in the SEO field, to coach and support them in creating strong speaker pitches. Attendees will leave the course with a well-crafted speaker pitch which has been both peer-reviewed, and reviewed by me personally; and a renewed confidence in their own ability to take to the stage.
If you’d like to take part, you’ll need to be quick, the deadline for applications is 29th July – click here to apply. Please note, this course is only open to women.
On October 5th I’ll be running a training course in Brighton. It will be lovely. You can find more details about the course, and book your spot here.
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