Conversation: Respect & Integrity

On April 17, 2011 at 5:38 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the first story in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making” surrounding my experience with glass. This is an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance.


anson: When I was studying hermeneutics,28 I remember my professor saying, “Every question presupposes you know something about the answer.”

For example, you ask, “What can I do to tear a piece of glass?” The question pre-supposes that you need to do something to achieve that effect. I don’t know much about glass-blowing, but as far as I know, you take advantage of gravity, right? Sometimes you don’t have to do anything, but just let gravity and the natural decline in temperature take care of matters.

The kind of question we bring to the table often shapes the kind of answer we expect to hear. Everyone sees through a pair of tinted glasses. It is inevitable, but it is important for us to be aware of that influence and bias and try to compensate for it. That is something people in the field of hermeneutics and epistemology have helped us to understand.

Does this make sense to you?

slim: Yes it does.

And that’s such a great point about the use of gravity in tearing glass. You’re absolutely right. I did think that I had to do something to tear glass. It is truly mind-boggling to realize that there’s no end to how many biases we may be operating under at any given moment.

You mentioning gravity also reminds me of an experience I had in my modern dance class.

One day, we were asked to roll down a small hill. The first time I did, I was somewhat apprehensive. I had never rolled down a hill before — at least not as an adult — and I was afraid that I might get hurt. So in an attempt to prevent that from happening, I tried to become very con-scious of how I rolled, so I could slow down and control where I was going. I wasn’t very successful, though.

I remember the roll being rather rough.

But the second time I did it, I was abruptly dragged away by a friend of mine who showed up out of nowhere and said “Let’s go!” Before I knew it, I was back up the hill throwing myself down again. What is interesting about this second time is that I distinctly remember how free my body felt. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have any time to think, but it felt as if I were gliding down the hill. It felt very smooth.

It was just me, the ground, and gravity working together in collaboration. In retrospect, I was biased toward assuming that to not get hurt I had to become conscious of the roll, so as to try and control every aspect of it. When in fact it was better to relax.

an-lon: Funny story. I was at a going-away party for one of my DreamWorks friends, and another coworker brought some homebrew and a beer bong. At the height of everyone’s drunkenness, Josh,  the bringer of beer, tore into Moiz, the guy who was leaving , over something involving semicolons. It took me a while to piece together the story, accompanied as it was by much shouting and laughter, but from what I gather, Moiz had managed to put a semicolon at the end of every single line of his Python code, and Josh just couldn’t believe it. He said, “We never put it in the best practices manual because we never imagined anyone would do something so goddamn stupid!”

Point being, in computer languages, people often write code in one language as if it were another — importing irrelevant habits/conventions/design patterns. The semicolons thing was funny because the vehemence of the rant far outweighed the magnitude of the infraction but I’ve seen many examples of this over the course of my programming lifetime, and I’m sure it has cost companies millions of dollars’ worth of programmer time just because the code ends up being incomprehensible.

slim: Yeah, I remember it taking me quite a bit of effort to go from programming in C to programming in Prolog. Even now I haven’t done much functional programming, so I bet the way I write functional programs is not as respectful of the functional principles as it could be. As a matter of fact, it may not be that much better than my disrespect for the material integrity of glass.

an-lon: By the way, your comment about respecting the integrity of physical materials reminds me of this old joke of a fictional radio conversation between a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier and the Canadian authorities off the coast.

U.S. Ship: Please divert your course 0.5 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Canadian Coast guard: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Ship: This is the captain of a u.s. navy ship. I say again, divert your course.

Cost guard: No. I say again: you divert your course!

Ship: This is the aircraft carrier uss coral sea. We are a large warship of the u.s. navy. Divert your course now!

Cost guard: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

slim: Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Respect the lighthouse, dammit!

an-lon: Also, here’s a quote that expresses my view of integrity, written by Mary MacCracken, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children. She’s explaining why she tries to teach reading to children who are so lacking in other life skills, it might be argued that learning to read is beside the point.

“The other teachers thought I was somewhat ambitious. They were kind and encouraging, but it did not have the same importance for them as it did for me. And yet, and yet, if what I loved and wished to teach was reading, I had as much right to teach that as potato-printing. In the children’s world of violent emotion, where everything continually changes, I thought it would be satisfying for them to know that some things remain constant. A C is a C both today and tomorrow — and C-A-T remains “cat” through tears and violence.”

For some reason, that quote has stayed with me for a long time. To me, that’s integrity:  that C-A-T spells cat today, tomorrow, and yesterday.

And incidentally, that’s what Microsoft’s never figured out — that users hate having things change from under their nose for no good reason. Remember those stupid menus whose contents shift depending on how frequently you access the menu item? Whose brilliant idea was that? Are there any users out there who actually like this feature, instead of merely tolerating it because they don’t know how to turn it off? Features like that create a vicious cycle where users become afraid of the computer, Microsoft assumes they’re idiots and dumbs down things even further — making the computer even more unpredictable and irrational. Now there’s no rhyme or reason whatsoever behind what it deigns to display. Say what you will about Mac fans, Windows and OS X are still light years apart in terms of actually respecting the user.

And here we cycle back to the initial conundrum: how to reconcile that austere landscape of programming abstractions with our emotional, embodied, messy selves; selves so much in need of human connection that we perhaps see everything through that lens.

Here’s a slightly loony bins example that I have tried and failed many times to write down. Around the time I was learning object-oriented programming, sometime in my early twenties,  my cousin went through a love life crisis.

The guy she was dating had a photo of an ex-girlfriend on his refrigerator, but none of my friend, only her business card. They somehow got into a fight over this. She went home, and, partly out of pique — but mostly to amuse herself — she got out a photo of every single one of her ex-boyfriends, put those photos on the fridge, and added the business card of the current guy. Then she forgot about it and went about her daily business. Of course, you can predict the rest of the story. The new guy somehow came over unexpectedly and saw the photos, they had another fight, and finally broke it off.

My cousin tried to explain to me later that the problem wasn’t so much the photos and business cards and exes. It was that her boyfriend just didn’t get that she does quirky things like that for her own amusement. What she did wasn’t intended as a message and wasn’t intended to be seen, it was just an expression of her own personal loopiness. The fact that he couldn’t relate to her silliness was as much the deal-breaker as the original photo of his ex.

At the time, we were both fresh out of college and lamenting the closeness of college friendships. The guy in question was older, maybe in his thirties , and he really just didn’t seem to get it.

And here is where I went into the spiel I have never been able to replicate since. Because I had just been reading about object-oriented programming, the thought in my head was that in college, we gave out pointers left and right to each other’s internal data because we just didn’t know better. All the joy and sorrow and drama was there for any close friend to read ,  and write, and modify. As we got older, we learned that this is a rather dangerous way to live, and developed more sophisticated class interfaces — getters and setters for that internal data, if you will. The guy in my cousin’s story seemed to live by those getters and setters, and was appalled when my cousin inadvertently handed him a pointer.

Here’s the part of the story I have never been able to replicate: I told my cousin all that without mentioning object-oriented programming once. I used a fair bit of object-oriented terminology, but only the words whose meanings were either immediately clear from the context or already in common usage — handle and interface, for example. She immediately understood what I was trying to say, and added that the word “handle” was a particularly poignant metaphor. When we’re young, we freely give loved ones a handle to our inner-selves, but in adulthood, we set up barriers and only let people in at predetermined checkpoints according to predetermined conventions. As adults, we give out handles to only a very few, and those already in possession of a handle can always come back from a previous life to haunt us. We interact with the rest of humanity via an increasingly intricate set of interfaces. By now, I possess a much deeper and richer set of interfaces and protocols than I did in my early twenties, so I can share a great deal more of myself without fear of being scribbled on. But I still don’t hand out raw pointers very often — the vulnerability is too much for me, and the responsibility too great for the other person.

Back to computers and HCI. I am surprised sometimes by how often I use computer terminology in daily life among non-programmers and get away with it. You don’t have to be a programmer to understand me when I complain that an instruction manual is spaghetti, or that my memory of a particular song got scribbled on by someone else’s more recent cover of it. The reason these metaphors work, of course, is that spaghetti and scribble are essentially round-tripping as metaphors — from daily life to computer science and then back to daily life. First, the English words were co-opted to convey a specific computer science concept — spaghetti code is code that is unreadable because it tangles in a million different directions, and to scribble on a memory location is to overwrite data you’re not supposed to overwrite —and then I re-co-opted them back into English — to express frustration at the unreadability of the instruction manual or lament that my memory of the original song has been tarnished.

My point here is that computer science is rich in human meaning precisely because we choose human metaphors to express otherwise abstract concepts. My analogy between object-oriented programming and human relations is surprisingly salient because object-oriented programming, at some level, had to come from human experience first. What is architecture? It was the Sistine Chapel before it was the Darwin operating system. Have you seen the ted talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability? It’s what got me thinking about our longing for human connection

slim: I’m really taken by your use of pointers and getters/setters in the context of relationships. I’ve never thought of it that way, and it’s a rather interesting way of thinking about it. There’s so much in there that I’m having trouble responding in a coherent way.

And yes, I’ve watched that Brené Brown talk numerous times in the past. It’s a very good one, and it is consistent with my experience making physical things.


28 The art or science of interpretation, especially of Scripture. Commonly distinguished from exegesis or practical exposition. (OED Online)

Conversation: Trust & Not Expecting

On April 8, 2011 at 2:16 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the last story in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making” surrounding my experience in the foundation studio. This is an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance.


anson: For me, painting requires this exact kind of courage you are talking about. I find painting very difficult, because I always need to get things right the first time around. I always need to know what to do precisely to get to the end result I want. I would use very fine brushes to get all the details of the eyes and the hair from the get-go. I would pick the exact color of paint that matches the photo. I need to get everything right with painting just one layer.

But when I saw videos24 of skilled painters painting, they didn’t seem to care if their painting looks awful in the beginning. They begin with a very rough outline and use very broad strokes. They keep painting over it again and again, refining and adjusting constantly, adding more and more details layer by layer. It is by this constant refinement that makes their painting possible, and also realistic.

To be courageous in the midst of uncertainty, trusting the process — or the journey — will work itself out, is something that I don’t think I learned from our computer science education.

slim: Having gone through a portion of the risd foundation program, I’ve come to realize that one of the most important skills of an educator is to know how to challenge the students. It’s like Randy’s story about his first building virtual worlds (BVW) class where he realized that the quality of work his students displayed on their first project was so high that all he could do was tell them to do better. It seems to me that in the right environment, we human beings can to grow in almost magical ways.

anson: I was lucky to be in that very class with Randy. But you know what? At that time, we all thought Randy was a mean and ruthless teacher. We worked so hard to get our first virtual world out in two weeks, and then he said he expected better work. We were like “What?!” After having watched his last lecture, we, of course, now empathize with why he did this, and that he is one of the best educators in the world. He saw the potential in us and he helped us to draw it out.

I think both you and I learned something precious in the past few years by jumping into a field foreign to us. And you’re right, it is education itself. We had our minds and paradigms stretched, challenged, stimulated, and inspired. I am so glad I have gone through this education process while I am still teachable. You know, some people stop being reflective after a certain age and become unwilling to change the paradigms of how they look at things.

an-lon: I’ve been through this — making forwards and backwards progress at different times in my life — learning to be prolific instead of perfectionistic, and learning that it’s the playful, throw-away variations that eventually lead to the finished work.

In one chapter of the book Art and Fear, there’s an apocryphal story about how half the students in a pottery class are told they will be graded on the quantity of work they produce, the other half that they will be graded on the quality of their work. At the end of the assigned period, the students in the quantity group have produced higher quality work than the students in the quality group because they were given the freedom to experiment and iterate, plus the mandate to work quickly.

That’s my art story. My computer science (CS) story is no less profound. Here’s the thing, I doubt that I could have survived majoring in cs back in college. I didn’t have the maturity or the study habits, and I was far too easily intimidated. I was also terrified that I wasn’t smart enough. I don’t want to go into a long song and dance about this, and fortunately, I don’t have to because Po Bronson has already written an article25 about it.

The gist of the article is that parents who overpraise their kids for being smart are setting them up to never leave their comfort zone, because the minute they encounter difficulty, the kids panic and assume “it’s tough, therefore I must not be so smart after all.”

I found CS to be tough. I assumed everyone else was smarter than me. I walked away, for a time. What brought me back? Above all, it was the change in mindset that allowed me to return to computer science. This happened over the course of several years, and I can trace much of it back to a couple of college friends.

Doug was this kid from Alabama who lived two doors down from me in my dorm freshman year; Jeff was his Jewish roommate from New Jersey. One of my very clearest college memories — the one that’s always struck me as the quintessence of dorm hall diversity — was when we somehow got into an argument about when World War II actually began. For Doug, World War II began with Pearl Harbor because that’s what we were taught in American history classrooms. For Jeff, it began with the Holocaust and the pogroms, because that’s what was in his cultural memory. For me? Japan invaded China years before any of that other event ever happened. We came from such different backgrounds, yet ended up as such good friends. Those were good times.

Anyway, Doug and Jeff were different from any of the guys I’d known in high school. Smart, yes, but this was Princeton and everyone was smart — or desperately trying to prove they were. I think, in hindsight, that those guys were among the first I’d met who were playfully smart — who tried new things because it was fun, and who ended up in computers because it was a new, fun thing to be tried.

Back then, I didn’t understand the concept of doing things for fun. My physicist father had none of that playfulness about him when it came to academic studies. For example, he could probably be a chess grandmaster if he wanted, but he never bothered to learn because it was just a game and therefore pointless.

I was never as good at math and physics as my dad. That was a losing battle from the start. And since physicists tend to see computer science as being several rungs below them on the intellectual pecking order — the equivalent of doing manual labor — I was never exactly encouraged to pursue computer science. So I went my own way and studied comparative literature — and my parents, to their everlasting credit, let me.

But I threw the baby out with the bath water. I was never meant to be a physicist — though, ironically, computer graphics has actually brought me back to physics full circle, but computer science wasn’t physics. Honestly, computer science is mostly just dicking around . You futz with it till it works. I’m not saying the theoretical underpinnings are unimportant , but honestly, the guys who are good are the ones who spent a lot of time dicking around because, it was fun. They weren’t intimidated by the difficulty factor because unlike me, they didn’t see the difficulty as an iq test. For them, an obstacle was like a video game obstacle :  a legitimate challenge to be bested, not a measuring instrument assessing whether or not they stacked up.

At first, I really couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that these guys who seemed to spend as much time playing Nethack as they did writing code were also really cool and well-rounded people. Jeff was into theater and Doug knew a ton about contemporary art. It didn’t seem fair, somehow, that the reward for goofing off was to become smarter.

I didn’t have any sort of instant epiphany, but over the course of college and my early twenties, I did rewrite my entire value system. I came to understand from observation that intelligence wasn’t about being born smart — it was about being born smart enough, and from there, being playful and willing to explore. It was about leaping in without a clue and getting your hands dirty, rather than hovering nervously on the sidelines.

After years of being told by my parents how smart I was and living with the secret fear that I really wasn’t, I finally came to value honesty, courage, and playfulness over being smart. I also came to see the excuse “well, I could have done it if I’d tried harder” as the coward’s way out. Because if you get a B on a test without studying, you can comfortably assume you might have gotten an A if you had studied. But if you study your ass off and still get a B, well, there goes all your illusions. So it’s easier never to try.

When I returned to computer science in my early twenties, I was beginning to develop some semblance of maturity. I made a conscious choice about my value system that I would quit worrying about whether I was smart enough, and instead put all my effort into making an effort. What I discovered was that playfulness (i.e.,  willingness to explore seemingly irrelevant side paths ) and work ethic  (i.e.,  setting goals and not making excuses )  led, over time, to all the analytical smarts I ever needed for my career.

This spirals back to Art and Fear because of the simple, sad observation the authors make in their opening pages, which is that many students stop doing creative work after they graduate. Without the community and structure and feedback cycle, they’re lost.

So I think the spirit of play becomes all the more important after graduation — because the girl folding paper and producing a thousand variations just because it’s interesting will keep doing it, whereas the guy who was doing it for a grade won’t. What you’ve produced as a student will most likely be forgotten, but what you’ve become won’t.

david: Slim, there’s a certain raw, honest quality to your writing that I’m just incapable of, but it feels so good reading it, because like the finest song lyric, it expresses what I felt palpably.

The overarching theme here of whimsy is spot-on. I think the greatest indictment of modern u.s. culture is the lack of whimsy and its replacement with what the writer David Foster Wallace referred to as “the entertainment” or “an orgy of spectation.” 26

If there is one thing I seek in my mostly boring middle-aged adult life is that whimsy, and childlike sense of adventure. It strikes me that the same thing that makes children so hilarious as in this conversation between a friend (the mom) and child (the son) which appeared in my e-mail today:

Son: When you’re three, sometimes they will let you out of a cage.

Mom: What? What cage are you in when you’re three?

Son: I don’t know… I think it’s the rule, though. You can get out when you’re three.

Mom: How do you know?

Son: Well, when people are let out of a cage they always say, “I’m three! I’m three!”

This is precisely the same thing that when observed in adults would be labeled as a dissociative disorder and medicated out of existence. Adulthood is so overrated. At least the politically correct version of it that most of us practice.

slim: Both of your stories resonate with me. I feel as though I have spent too much time in my 20s worrying about when I would finally be an “adult,” or at the very least “professional,” much to my own detriment. At first,

I thought there was something wrong with me for being so child-like, but once I got sufficiently close to those who I considered to be the epitome of adulthood or professionalism, I learned that they were simply hiding their child-like tendencies, because they didn’t want other people to see it as a sign of immaturity or weakness.

I also learned that the elders could see right through people who are trying to look like an “adult” or a “professional.” Those who have lived long enough know that none of us actually know anything for certain. So it’s mostly a matter of whether you trust someone or not, instead of whether that person really knows something.

david: There is no more chilling effect, as far as I’m concerned, on American culture than the one you describe here, which is to say that half the country exists in a world where everyone is pretending to be professional, instead of being authentically themselves and leaning toward self-actualization. Some form of this was the original hypothesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto,27 which seems to have had little effect outside very small circles of young people.

Of course, the individual’s self-actualization is rarely in the best interest of the corporation, at least as management sees it. This homogenization is about as disturbing a trend as we can possible endure and in fact, should be seen as an affront to the principles that we stand for, namely freedom.

I’m consistently amazed by the influence of “dress for success” on the American corporate psyche. People actually care how I cut my hair, shave, or whether I’m tattooed or pierced as if my capabilities or brain power or effectiveness change with the scenery. I’m also consistently amazed by how the basic marks of individuation aren’t seen as intrinsic or extrinsic. I started writing an essay on a philosophy of hiring recently and a lot of these kinds of themes come up there. Pittsburgh is certainly a bastion of the old school in this regard. While I understand the point in marketing and sales, the extent to which I’ve seen all manner of bizarre corporate policy developed on the altar of dress codes is mind-boggling.

I’ve seen pictures of James Watson delivering the original papers on dna just days after their publishing standing on-stage in front of his peers in shorts and then there’s Paul Erdos, who pretty much defined the picture of obsession and minimalism. I’m also told that none other than Herb Simon, when asked to choose a place to live on his arrival at cmu drew a half mile radius around the university and said, “Anywhere in that circle” owing to his particular obsession with being able to eat and breathe the work, other concerns be damned.

And of course, I’m not sure we have much in the way of counterculture outside of absurdist examples like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.28 I must go watch that movie again soon.

Welcome to Costco; I love you!

They tell me Costco is now in downtown Chicago. I may have to move to a hill in Montana next.

an-lon: The theme of balancing grown-up responsibilities (e.g., taxes, housing, earning a living) with a childlike sense of adventure is definitely a big one for me, as well. I think the theme of rebirth is a salient one as well. For better or worse, I can’t re-live my twenties .  I need to find what works for me now, in making my second big career change,  or third, I guess, if you count comparative literature to cs to be one arc and then think tank to vfx to be another. I can’t just repeat what I did the first two times — I need to find what works now, at a different life stage with different priorities. I’m not out to reject adulthood here   but I do intend to redefine it.

anson: I think we have to question whether professionalization is doing good or not to the education of our current and next generations. Professionalization makes us feel good about ourselves and also helps us to land a job more easily, but then it doesn’t help produce people who are more well-rounded and more capable of continued learning, especially in contexts that are out of their comfort zones.

I am fortunate to have received both a technical and liberal arts education. When I raise my kids, I won’t let them become lopsided techies. I also want them to be equally exposed to a liberal arts education, including history, arts, literature, and philosophy. I think that will help them to see the world through a different pair of lens and be more embracing of diversity and creative ideas.


24 A good example of such a video is a Belgian documentary film from 1949 directed by Paul Haesaerts called Visit to Picasso that captures Picasso’s creative process as he paints in real time. (“Bezoek aan Picasso”)

25 American journalist Po Bronson once wrote about how a large percentage of all gifted students severely underestimate their own abilities. (“How Not to Talk to your Kids”)

26 The late David Foster Wallace, an award-winning American writer, is quoted as saying, “The great thing about not owning a TV, is that when you do have access to one, you can kind of plunge in. An orgy of spectation. Last night I watched the Golf Channel. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus. Old footage, rigid haircuts.” (Lipsky, 2010, 118)

Lipsky, David. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 118.

27 The Cluetrain Manifesto both signals and argues that, through the Internet, people are discovering new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a result, markets are getting smarter than most companies. Whether management understands it or not, networked employees are an integral part of these borderless conversations. Today, customers and employees are communicating with each other in language that is natural, open, direct and often funny. Companies that aren’t engaging in them are missing an unprecedented opportunity. (“The Cluetrain Manifesto”, 2000)

28 An American film where Private Joe Bauers, the definition of “average American,” is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he’s easily the most intelligent person alive. (IMDB, 2006)

Conversation: Choice & Feeling

On April 6, 2011 at 12:31 a.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the fifth story in the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making.” surrounding my experience in the metal shop. This is an edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance. Click here for the previous installment, which talks about empathy and mastery.


an-lon: (Smiles) Happens to me all the time when drawing and editing, squinting at it and wondering what’s wrong, and 90% of the time, whatever’s wrong is completely orthogonal to all the directions I was previously searching.

slim: The feeling of hindsight obviousness intrigues me quite a bit. I remember being dumbfounded when my friend shared her story of how she overcame her bipolar disorder. She said she finally realized that she had the power to choose not to be depressed. She told me that it was so obvious in hindsight, that she couldn’t understand why she didn’t realize it before. But the reason I was dumb-founded was that I wasn’t depressed, yet I had never realized that, either. I can choose how to feel? That was a completely novel thought.

Since then, I’ve heard many people say things like “we always have a choice.” But I think it’s imprecise to say that we always “have” a choice. I’m sure it took them a lot of struggles to come to that realization. So what they mean is that we have to become knowledgeable of the choice. Or more precisely, we have to “develop” and “make” a choice that wasn’t available to us previously. That can take quite a bit of effort. It’s not just a matter of “snapping out of it.” Once you’re able to just snap out of it, you’ve already learned it.

an-lon: Ironically, Slim, you knew me during a period when I was genuinely depressed. When I attended the International School of Beijing (isb), I was really alone and struggling. Beijing was my first time living in a big city and I experienced culture shock and extreme loneliness.

I was functional — for where I was at the time, I was pretty convinced I’d just get yelled at if I admitted I needed help —but I remember sleeping 10 hours a day because I just didn’t want to wake up, and making a deal with myself that I’d allow myself to contemplate suicide if college wasn’t better. Don’t get me wrong ,  I wasn’t actively suicidal. It was just my way of mentally kicking the can down the street. I truly have no idea what it was like for your friend.

I think there are links between add and depression, but I don’t think I was ever truly chemically predisposed to depression in the way a bipolar person is. In my case, I was depressed first because I was trapped in a small town — before Beijing — then thrown into a big city — Beijing — with no coping skills.

College and D.C. introduced me to the world, and I was fine after that. But I do know from those high school years exactly what depression is. I had plenty of roller coaster ups and downs in my twenties, but nothing like depression. Nothing like that soul-sucking lethargy of my teens.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of the past few years. The allergies are a long story, but basically a year into my stay in L.A., I started experiencing mysterious symptoms:  a sore throat that wouldn’t go away for two months and just overall lack of energy. It took many trips to various doctors to figure out what was going on. I’d do something that would help for a while, then get flattened by some new mystery ailments.

The infuriating thing was, that was never anything huge — I’d just be sick, and tired all the time because when you’re not breathing well, you’re not sleeping well, and when you’re not sleeping well, you’re not living well. After a while, this changed my identity, from an energetic, enthusiastic person to one who carefully rationed her energy.

This also made me realize that perhaps that enormous physical energy was all that had held depression at bay all through those 18 years between high school and l.a. I kept the demons at bay by constantly chasing after new pursuits, which was great, but what I didn’t know was that if you take away the physical energy, the scaffolding that remains is a house of cards.

Thing is, during the healthy decade of my twenties, I’d taught myself to push through fatigue, frustration, and fear. Athletics are a good example of this ; you learn to recognize when to push through pain and when to rest. You know the Nike slogan “Just do it”? Well… yeah. Just do it. And with computers, I’m sure I don’t need to explain how stubbornness pays off. Damn. I pushed hard in my twenties, but I scored a lot of victories, too.

The allergies-and-depression cycle of recent years is a bit hard to explain because I really can’t just blame the allergies. There was a breakup, job angst, and moving to a new apartment. But I’ve coped with all of the above before, and there were good things going on in my life, too. It was all incredibly frustrating because while I definitely recognized the symptoms of depression from that extended period in high school, I could not figure out why it was happening again and why I couldn’t just snap out of it.

As with that period in high school, I never stopped fighting. I never stopped going out and doing what I wanted to do. But I did cut back . There was always this triage of what I had energy for and what my priorities were. In my twenties, I just did it all. These past few years, I hit a point where I couldn’t — I had to make choices.

I’m still convinced that the only reason I snapped out of that depressive period — I can’t truly call it depression, but I felt like I was always close to the edge and could never quite get any distance from it — was that I finally got the allergies under control. Exercise and nutrition are a big part of it, but so were allergy shots and an immune system booster vaccine.

No silver bullets, but basically I feel like myself again after having had to walk through sludge the past three years. I’ve kind of forgotten how to run, but at least I know it’s possible again. (Smiles) I spent three years trying to choose not to be depressed, but the fog refused to lift until I finally got my physical health back.

Did I do it all wrong? Would therapy or medication have gotten me over it sooner? I just don’t know. And I perhaps never will. I’ve been playing these past six months entirely by ear. I do feel safe in the assumption that as long as I have my physical health, my mental health is also safe. But
I no longer take it for granted. And I also realize that the madcap coping mechanism of my twenties — constantly sprinting — literally, when it came to ultimate frisbee, probably wouldn’t have lasted forever anyway.

One thing that tends to not work is trying to will yourself into being more organized/disciplined/attentive. That tends to be a recipe for failure, with all the voices in your head yelling at you for being such a lazy slob and a waste of space. What does work is finding clever ways to set things up such that it’s a downhill slide instead of uphill battle — in essence, coming up with a system that makes the good behavior easy instead of difficult. It’s like the judo trick of using the other person’s momentum for a throw, rather than trying to absorb the force of their blow directly

slim: Indeed. I also think the kind of support structure or environment you’re talking about is essential. Although, I would rather use words like “encouraged,” “supported,” or “amplified” to describe the qualities afforded by such an environment over “easy.” I think there is a significant difference between something being easy vs feeling at ease when you’re in relation to something.

Conversation: Empathy & Mastery

On April 3, 2011 at 4:23 p.m., I posted the first draft of what will eventually become the second story of the “Making and Empathy” chapter in the book “Realizing Empathy: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of Making.” surrounding my experience in the woodshop. While much has changed since then, I wanted to share with you this edited version of the conversation that followed, regrouped and rearranged for clarity and relevance. Click here for the previous installment, which talks about computer and ethics.


joonkoo: This story reminds me of my recent attempts to master bread baking, namely baguettes. I’ve been baking a batch pretty much every other weekend, and one of the most delightful things that happens after you retrieve a freshly baked baguette from the oven, is to hear them singing , which is the sound of the crust cracking, and perhaps some moisture interaction going on.  I’m nowhere near the level of mastery, but I’m sure there are different sounds that you can distinguish, once you become a master baker.

slim: Did you notice the singing from the get-go or did someone point it out to you? If the former, was it highly noticeable or did you actively have to pay attention to it? I don’t think I’ve heard that sound. I’m very curious what it is like.

joonkoo: It’s very noticeable. I noticed it from the beginning. But then I also watched this French guy making a baguette on YouTube, and he was the one who mentioned this singing sound. It’s really the sound of crust cracking, but it makes the bread sound so delicious.

slim: Did you notice the sound after you heard the French guy on YouTube, or before?

joonkoo: I noticed it before, but I didn’t care that much. Afterward, I came to like the sound. But to be honest, there has been no deep understanding of the sound.

slim: See… A question I have about this is how do we come to understand, and become sensitive to these subtle nuances? There seem to be certain things that we can proactively notice, then there are things that other people have to raise our awareness to.

Is this simply a matter of time? If I spent enough time paying attention, would I eventually become sensitive to everything there is to be sensitive about — (smiles) and become miserable? Or are there always going to be things that other people have to raise our awareness to, because there is an infinite number of things, and simply not enough time?

joonkoo: The question you are raising is an excellent one! I haven’t thought about it much, but intuitively, there seems to be a need for both internal enlightenment and external stimulation to learn such nuances.

slim: Indeed.

By the way, last semester I interviewed a child psychologist, who told me that in the beginning, babies learn how to be attached to their mother, and come to understand what it means to love their mother. Then they may feel comfortable with other people who have attributes similar to mother, which allows them to feel safe and comfortable with these other people. Then as they interact with them more, they mature, and start to appreciate the nuances that make these other people different from mother, but love them despite the differences. I found that to be a rather fascinating way to think about maturity. Don’t you think?

joonkoo: The child psychologist was perhaps referring to Piaget’s idea of assimilation and accommodation.16 I have little knowledge in developmental psychology, but you may find it relevant.

Also, when I took cognitive development, I was fascinated not only by Piaget, but also by Vygotsky.17 You might want to check out his theory. My knowledge about these is too shallow to be shared here. (Smiles)

Now, returning to the idea of non-living things telling us something, I experience very similar things when analyzing data — they tell me how they should be analyzed.

slim: Yeah, isn’t that peculiar? There’s a feeling associated with it .

I’ve also heard a firefighter say the house told him to get out, and immediately after he ran out, it crumbled. Perhaps there is a combination of pattern recognition, as well as some genetic reflex that triggers a certain physiological change in our body that results in us feeling as if we’re being told?

joonkoo: Although, I think this is a very literary way of describing the gaining of expertise.

slim: What do you mean that it is a very “literary” way of describing the gaining of expertise?

joonkoo: I think it’s just one possibility of expressing how we get to know things better. I say literary because unlike other people or other creatures, it can’t be that a piece of wood is telling you something. It’s that you think that the wood is telling you something. For example, a baseball player might claim that the ball that left the pitcher’s hand told him to hit it, and it resulted in a home run.

This kind of expertise, often described as intuition, wisdom, mastery, is something that humans — and other animals — can acquire at an incredible level, as the human brain has amazing ability to parse statistical and stochastic patterns in the environment.

However, it’s an open question, I think, to ask what it takes to gain expertise in this variety of domains such as understanding other people’s mind (e.g., theory of mind ), furniture making, and computer programming. And also whether they are different, and if so, why.

slim: When you say it’s an open question, do you mean that there is no good insight into how one gains expertise as studied by neuroscientists? That because it’s such uncharted territory that it’s hard to start a discussion on it?

joonkoo: My question was whether it takes a similar amount of time and effort — if not the same amount —to master things across domains.

I remember reading from some cognitive psychology paper that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest end of expertise. This may be an over generalization, but it means that it takes a huge amount of time and effort to become an expert.

For example, most of us are all experts at looking at faces, extracting facial expressions and emotions — although we know that people with autism lack this ability to some extent. On the other extreme, there are expert computer game players (e.g., Starcraft18). When you look at how they play, it’s simply incredible to look at how fast they make decisions and click the mouse buttons. This is not something that everyone can easily achieve, but some people are experts in this field.

How do the two domains that I raised as examples (face perception vs. Starcraft) differ in terms of their acquisition of expertise? What about wood cutting? What about computer using /programming? Is becoming an expert wood cutter very different from becoming an expert computer user? What are the common mechanisms and what are different mechanisms? These were the questions that I had in mind when reading your post.

slim: The question of testing expertise across domains sounds like it would be a challenge in defining the boundaries of each domain, not to mention the standards against which to measure expertise , no?

For example, Isn’t facial recognition something that we are hard-wired for? Is it fair to compare that to Starcraft? What would it mean for one to be an expert in facial recognition? Be able to tell the difference between twins you’ve never seen before within a certain amount of time?

joonkoo: Some things are definitely hard-wired and some things are not. Some things presumably use a combination of more hard-wired and less hard-wired systems to achieve expertise.

In facial recognition, there are ways to quantify it experimentally using behavioral measure of inversion effect, composite effect, and such. And recent research has shown that these abilities are pretty heritable.

A few years ago, we also found that the neural basis of facial recognition may be more genetically shaped than neural substrates for processing other visual categories. Now it’s true that I don’t think it is fair to compare facial recognition to Starcraft — one of the reasons being that some things are more hard-wired than others. But I would like to raise different facets of expertise, which might be related to your question about empathizing with objects and what it means to do that in different areas.

an-lon: Ok, I’m jumping in about the subject of 10,000 hours because it’s become simultaneously trendy and misunderstood. The gist of the research is that what makes Mozart or Tiger Woods or any virtuoso great isn’t necessarily inborn talent, but the ability to hone that talent.

The 10,000 hours translates to about a decade, but here’s the key: it is not just any 10,000 hours that makes a person great, it’s 10,000 hours always at the edge of your comfort zone, constantly pushing your boundaries. Most of us simply do not have the capacity to operate at that level. Instead, we spend most of those 10,000 hours simply repeating our old habits. We practice the same thing over and over again. Phenoms19 are those extremely rare individuals who are able to push their boundaries in an extremely focused and deliberate way.

I think George Colvin’s Talent is Overrated actually covers this better than Gladwell’s Outliers. He calls it “deliberate practice,” and gives many examples, from Jerry Rice to Ben Franklin, of how those so-called geniuses balanced on that knife’s edge over the course of an entire 10,000 hours. One useful model is three concentric circles: comfort zone, learning zone, and panic zone. Only in the learning zone can we make progress. The comfort zone is too easy and the panic zone is too hard.

Most of us, when we practice, think we’re in the learning zone, when in reality we’re simply performing extra iterations within the comfort zone. Those iterations, no matter how many, do not count towards the 10,000 hours, and do not bring us any closer to a Mozart-level accomplishment. 10,000 hours in a true learning zone is incredibly difficult, which is why there are so few geniuses out there.

I think there are excellent connections to be made between your dialogue with materials and that learning zone. The key here is to leave your comfort zone, but to not venture so far from it that the result is chaos. Inevitably, finding that knife edge requires dialogue, feedback, interaction, and discomfort.

slim: Ah . . . That’s a great way to think about it! 10,000 hours of discomfort.

joonkoo: Yes, as An-Lon described — thanks, An-Lon — it’s not merely the 10,000 hours of work. But still, what is true is that effort and time is a necessity for gaining an expertise..

Sorry if my comments steered the discussion too much toward the idea of expertise. But, I thought this was exactly what you were referring to when I got a better understanding of what you meant by being able to empathize with things.

slim: Don’t worry about steering the conversation in whatever direction. The purpose of this conversation is to understand what it means to have an empathic conversation, which would naturally require a lot of empathic conversations. (Smiles) I thank you for your patience. I really could not ask for more!

And yes, An-Lon, I do see a correlation between expertise and empathizing across time and memory. The more you empathize with an other across time and memory, the more trust, discipline, and skill you are able to build in relation to them. Whether this is with physical objects, or another human being, the model seems to work equally well .

Here’s a thought: Having a conversation with someone or something who/that has a sense of integrity, or a world view, different from your own — or simply unexpected or unpredictable — is highly uncomfortable. Perhaps the capacity to handle this gap in knowledge or this discomfort — one of the abilities I would think is necessary to stay in the learning zone — is directly related to humility.

joonkoo: Here’s also another thought, which is my current research topic. We are all experts at processing words visually — or simply reading, which is to say that we can quickly parse fine squiggly lines in our mother language. There are, in fact, many experimental tricks that you can do to show your expertise in reading letters and words. However, when you think about it, it is hard to believe that our brain is hard-wired to read words.

Script was invented only very recently on an evolutionary time-scale. Most humans were not educated to read and write until much more recently. But literate adults are very good at reading. This must be due to the extensive training with letters and symbols during development.

While I’m not sure if learning to read during childhood really pushes the boundary and enters the discomfort zone, this may be illustrating another type of expertise that we go through. It’s different from others because, unlike face recognition, it’s not hard-wired, and unlike becoming an expert in Starcraft, this kind of expertise seem to be something relatively easily achieved by the masses.

slim: I want to understand better what you say about our ability to become expert readers. You are saying that, for some reason, we can learn how to read starting at a young age, although it is not something we are hard-wired for .  This is an assumption, but a fairly safe one. I think you’re also saying that it is unclear if this necessarily implies that we are in the discomfort zone when we learn to do this, which leads to the question on whether this is a different kind of learning or not. Is that the question?

joonkoo: Well, I don’t want to get into a discussion around the idea of a discomfort zone too much. That was just a side note. What I was focusing on was that learning to read —visual processing of orthographic stimuli, to be precise — and becoming an expert at reading is something that is quite different from becoming an expert in some other domain, because it is an expertise that is ,  presumably,  not based on a hard-wired system, yet acquired by pretty much all of us — except people with dyslexia.20 When you think about it, there are not many things that are like this. This is, in fact, what makes reading very interesting.

slim: Ohhhhhhh! So you’re distinguishing between learning through the use of hard-wired facilities  ( i.e., facial recognition)  vs. learning through the use of non-hard-wired facilities  ( i.e., reading). Then you’re asking how much of the learning that happens in a given domain is facilitated by hard-wired capabilities vs. non-hard-wired capabilities, and how their proportion affects the experience of learning. And you’re saying that reading is special, because almost all — possibly an overstatement — is not facilitated by hard-wired capabilities. Am I understanding you?

joonkoo: Yes, that would be a straightforward way of saying what I was trying to say. (Smiles) Thank you!

slim: What is an orthographic stimuli? I just tried looking it up, but couldn’t make much sense of the stuff I found.

joonkoo: Oh, an orthographic stimuli might be a word that I made up. (Smiles) Just think of letters and words.

slim: Oh, then by “read” do you simply mean recognizing the letter forms that one sees or do you mean making meaning from their composition into words?

joonkoo: What I mean by “reading” is the visual processing of letters. Reading is a special case because not much of it is hard-wired. In fact, one of the recent claims is that it goes against some hard-wired neural structure that is designed to carry out other activities more efficiently. That other stuff being the mirror invariant perception of visual features. For example, it takes very little effort to view some image, then view the left-to-right flipped version of the image and know that those two images are identical. It is argued that this is a kind of basic visual mechanism that is more hard-wired. However, when learning to read, b is not the same as d even though it is a left-to-right flipped image of b. So to learn that these are different, the mirror invariant perception needs to be unlearned to a certain extent before you can learn to read.

slim: Wait, wait, wait . . . mirror invariant of perception? You mean we’re hard-wired to be able to tell something is the same regardless of whether it is mirrored or not? Where did that come from? Is it because things
in nature are symmetrical?

an-lon: Seriously! Symmetry and mirror invariant of perception? That’s fascinating! What about Asian languages where there isn’t the b and d problem? I’ve often heard that there’s no such thing as dyslexia in the Chinese because of that. Is that really true? I don’t suppose there’s a good layman’s book on this subject?

joonkoo: My understanding is that the critical ability in visual processing of written words is not necessarily restricted to the b vs. d problem, but more related to discriminating the subtle nuances in the various different visual features. Mirror invariance is just one of the examples. There are many such examples in other languages for sure.

I don’t know much about dyslexia in the Chinese population. Dyslexia is something that’s a little different from pure impairment in visual processing of words.

Most current theories and findings are putting emphasis on the phonological processing of prints. Stanislas Dehaene21 is a big name for this kind of research. I’m sure he wrote books for the general public on these matters.

High-level vision is a fascinating field for research. Reading, in particular, is intriguing for all the reasons that we discussed so far.

anson: What a lively discussion! Slim, let me just say that your descriptive writing helped me imagine myself going back to a wood workshop, with all the sensations that comes with it. I took a woodworking classes from Grade seventh to ninth, way back when.

I also think you have touched on a very important topic about truth or what is true in this world. Truth is honest. Truth is simply what is. Truth neither budges nor needs to budge. To go against the truth is like kicking against the goads.

Truth is beautiful and simple. It just remains there patiently waiting for us to recognize it and embrace it. Truth sets us free. It always teaches us an easier and simpler way. It helps us to be in harmony with this world. A lot of times when we think of truth, we think of moral categories of right and wrong, but it need not be so. Rather, I think using the categories of in harmony or out-of-tune is a better way of looking at it. Finding truth is simply finding the way of how to be in harmony with everything. Although there is indeed a lot of incredulity towards truth in our postmodern sensibilities, your story is reminding us something so basic and simple — whatever is true is honest and it is what it is. There’s a video on YouTube called “Rhythm” featuring a pastor named Rob Bell 22 on this very topic from the Christian perspective. Perhaps you will find it relevant.

slim: I recently came across a book called the Empathic Civilization by an economist named Jeremy Rifkin. In the book, he writes that “when we say that we seek the ultimate truth, we are really saying that we seek to know the full extent of how all of our relationships fit together in the grand scheme.” Your comment reminded me of that sentiment, and it resonates.

In the way that he describes it, I believe both truth as well as subjectivity can coexist. If there’s a classic pattern I recognize throughout history, it is that every time someone claims the existence of a dichotomy, it is not that it is either/or, but both in some relationship constantly shifting through time. Just as the idea of balance is not some static equilibrium, but rather an ongoing process that fluctuates, I imagine this is the same.
And although I’m not Christian, I have to say that I enjoyed the video very much. The first thought that came to mind was how different it was from what I had expected a Christian video to be like. But then I realized what does that even mean to label something as a “Christian video”? It’s nothing but a projection of my biased assumptions.

It almost seems like the words “God” and “religion” play a large part in confusing and dividing people. I can tell from first-hand experience how profound the change in one’s own world view can be when words that you once thought you knew get redefined. Perhaps a relevant quote is one from philosopher Emmanuel Levinas23 who said, “Faith is not a question of the existence or nonexistence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.”


16 Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget defined assimilation as the integration of external elements into evolving or completed structures, and accommodation as any modification of an assimilatory scheme or structure by the elements it assimilates. He said that assimilation is necessary in that it assures the continuity of structures and the integration of new elements to these structures, whereas accommodation is necessary to permit structural change, the transformation of structures as a function of the new elements encountered. An example of assimilation would be the child sucking on anything they can get their hands on. As they learn to accommodate, they discern what to suck on and what not to. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

17 L. S. Vygotsky, (Nov. 5, 1896 – Jun 11, 1934) was a Soviet psychologist who, while working at Moscow’s Institute of Psychology  from 1924–34, became a major figure in post-revolutionary Soviet psychology. His theory of signs and their relationship to the development of speech influenced psychologist Jean Piaget. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

18 Starcraft is a real-time strategy game for the personal computer. It is produced by Blizzard Entertainment. According to Scientific American, it has been labeled the chess of the 21st century, due to the demands for the pursuit of numerous simultaneous goals, any of which can change in the blink of an eye. (“How a Computer Game is Reinventing the Science of Expertise”)

19 An unusually gifted person (frequently a young sportsperson), a prodigy. (OED Online)

20 Dyslexia is an inability or pronounced difficulty to learn to read or spell, despite otherwise normal intellectual functions. Dyslexia is a chronic neurological disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to recognize and process graphic symbols, particularly those pertaining to language. Primary symptoms include extremely poor reading skills owing to no apparent cause, a tendency to read and write words and letters in reversed sequences, similar reversals of words and letters in the person’s speech, and illegible handwriting. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)

21 Stanislas Dehaene (born May 12, 1965 Roubaix, France) is a professor at the Collège de France, who directs the Cognitive Neuroimaging unit of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. In his book The Number Sense, he argues that our sense of number is as basic as our perception of color, and that it is hard-wired into the brain. (“Stanislas Dehaene”)

22 Rob Bell is the founding pastor and pastor emeritus of Mars Hill Bible Church. He graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is the author of Love Wins, Velvet Elvis, and Sex God, and is a coauthor of Jesus Wants to Save Christians. He is also featured in the first series of spiritual short films called NOOMA. (“Rob Bell”)

23 Emmanuel Lévinas (December 30, 1905 – December 25, 1995) is a Lithuanian-born French philosopher renowned for his powerful critique of the preeminence of ontology — the philosophical study of being — in the history of Western philosophy, particularly in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. (Encyclopædia Britannica Online)