Anna Koop

February 12, 2011

Playing to your strengths, fixing your weaknesses

Filed under: Hobbies,Research

I just finished listening to the Authentic Happiness audiobook (tonnes of good stuff in it) and one of the points Seligman makes is about working on your strengths rather than your weaknesses. In general I think this is obvious—we’re in a fairly advanced stage of specialization and are able to work closely with people who have strengths and skills we don’t. Why not have everyone do what they’re best at? Alone on a desert island I might need to be entirely self-sufficient, but that’s neither likely nor relevant to now.

This struck me today because discipline, self-control, and determination do not come naturally to me. But enthusiasm, curiosity, and love of learning are as natural as breathing. I’ve sometimes thought I need to work mainly on the discipline, just force myself to sit my butt in the chair and start writing. But there’s another approach that has the same outcome. When, instead of saying “just make yourself do it,” I say “hmm, I wonder how the prolog guys see this issue” or “what is the best way of explaining that point?” I find myself drawn to the task at hand anyway. No discipline required. I *want* to sit down and write. All it takes is changing the mental script.

It’s like knitting: picking or throwing, ssk or slip one, knit one, pass slipped stitch over—same result in the end. So do what’s easiest for you. There is occasionally a reason to push outside your comfort zone, but if you want to get it done, why not do it the way that comes most naturally?

February 2, 2011

Yet more on “Just WRITE already”

Filed under: Hobbies,Research

Cleaning up my inbox I ran into this link which continues the theme of being-a-writer-comes-down-to-writing. This is specifically for getting a book traditionally published, but I think it counts for academia as well.

Making Light: How To Get Published.

He starts with “To be a writer, you must write.” which is the message that is finally getting through to me after years of abusing this one. He goes on with: “Write straight through to THE END.” Heh. I think that’s particularly good advice for me, given how I’ve let perfectionism drag out the first draft of my proposal.

Next comes the multi-stage break, revise, beta-read with the intriguing “Start writing your next book. The same day. Or the very next day at the latest.” I’m thinking that is very applicable. Once I get my proposal done, I want to keep in the habit of writing every day. And I certainly have other projects I want to take on.

More nifty advice. Making Light is a most excellent blog.

February 1, 2011

Polymer Clay Paintings

Filed under: Hobbies

Copy of 100_2544

Originally uploaded by joanisrael

I ran into this via Polymer Clay Daily. Incredibly vibrant and detailed work. I love the swirls in the trunk of this one. Looking through I’m most blown away by how she uses techniques that I’ve seen on chunky jewelry or folksy figurines to create depth and texture.

January 22, 2011

The Dreams and Realities of Jobs

Filed under: Hobbies

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of 168 hours and I have to say it is my current favourite of the genre. It has led me to ponder some misconceptions I’ve had about work, work/life balance, passion, etc. (I also have realized that organization and time management and self-help (of the practical and science-based kind) are another hobby of mine. Hence the categorization of this post. Optimization and studying systems . . .)

Anyway, I discovered that I’ve misunderstood two aphorisms: One, that you should follow your dreams (a.k.a. do what you love). Two, that happiness and satisfaction and passion are key to being good at what you do.

First, on following your dreams. Misunderstanding this is not totally my fault. The way it is presented is usually: Quit school and start a crafting business! Move to New York to become a writer! Enrol in acting classes! Lock yourself in your garret to paint! Identify what your dream is and then drop everything (including practical considerations of money, location, and time) to follow it in the most obvious instantiation.

So I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t particularly want to move to New York. Or quit school, for that matter. Or even spend every free moment writing. I happen to love learning and want to spend time on that, too. This led me to conclude that I wasn’t really dreaming of being a writer. There was no dream to follow because if I really wanted it, writing a novel (and getting it published) would be a consuming passion. Thus a more prosaic career path was my calling, and I’m all for people following their dreams if they want but I really hate not having money to pay the bills so that’s not for me.

Now, the other side: passion, finding your core competencies and what makes you excited. This misunderstanding is almost entirely down to my own peculiar (but not unique) tendency to downplay happiness. I conflated this with “Bloom where you’re planted” and twisted it into a stick, a demand to muster up passion for whatever I’m doing or else. In order to be good I had to be passionate and excited. A rather serious misordering: “you need to be passionate about what you are choosing to do.”

This, combined with twisted ideas about what I was allowed to be passionate about, turned disastrous and nearly drove me out of work I adore. Because surely being a researcher meant always thinking only about the topic you were researching, not this more general desire to Learn! All! The Things! (and then connect them). And definitely being a researcher was about successful discovery, not clear communication. Real (computer science) researchers were passionate about proofs, or programs, or scribblings on the whiteboard or maybe even hardware design. Not crafting sentences, not absorbing ideas (at least not without immediately turning them to work for your own ideas). And so on. I don’t think I could possibly uncover all the strange gotchas in my head that meant what I loved and was doing and feeling Didn’t Count. You can blame some on poor teaching or a restrictive “Protestant work ethic’’ or the disconnects in society about success and happiness. But the end result was that I would hear “passion leads to quality” as a criticism of my obsessions rather than a pointer for what to pursue. And it would mix with the “if-I-really-loved-this-I’d-love-only-this” interpretation of “follow your dreams” and it would all mean I was judged and found wanting.

Both of these skews miss the point that the key thing for making decisions is finding out the trivial and vague and recurring things you love. Not your dream in some epic sense (I am but the mistress of my muse) or in the sense of finding the right career label (I was born/called to be a Teacher) but in the sense of “Hey, I like reading. I am enjoying this. I like petting this cat, too. Isn’t the sun lovely?”

I can find some broad categories that I love (and am good at), but I get to them from looking at the specific things I enjoy, not decreeing that I-Am-Researcher-This-I-Love. I know that I love looking into (some) things, whether it’s what fibre to use for hypoallergenic wicking socks or the underlying causes of schizophrenia. I love experimenting (sometimes), whether with new craft materials or new update functions for my learning agent—both different cases of trying something out and seeing what happens. I love inventing things, from the helpful (I hope my knowledge representation research is promising for artificial intelligence) to the ridiculous (I tried to design a sock knitting machine but gave up because sourcing the parts was going to be a pain). I really like trying to explain things to people and understand other points of view. I like trying new things and I love creating things with my hands. Tiny things, especially. But not everything. I hate sewing, although sheet metal work is awesome.

None of these counted in “follow your dreams” or “be passionate about what you do” edicts because they weren’t real career-type things. They are not on anybody’s criteria for career inventories. But they keep coming up in my life, and I keep coming back to them. Sure, these could roughly fall under “researcher” when I target the general statement. But if I focus on the role, I try to shoe-horn myself into my preconceived ideas about what a researcher should be, rather than bending the role to my many loves.

So it turns out that paying attention to what I’m enjoying NOW, in this moment, might be extraordinarily more important than what career I feel a strong affinity for or which program is most appealing. Why is this a strange thought to me? I’ve spent decades pondering career choices, and I’m thinking that time would have been better spent exploring and enjoying(although it was inevitable that I was doing that all along as well, to give myself *some* credit). The career guidance surveys that suggested poultry veterinarian, concrete sculptor, dentist all seem irrelevant now. This is what I’m really doing: grad school, AI research, writing, developing a home-based business, selling tiny things. There’s an odd man out there. But they’re what I love.

Life is strange.

January 10, 2011

On Ghosts and the Metaphysical Properties of Crystals

Filed under: Hobbies

I was thinking about ghosts the other day, in particular imagining how I would respond to someone who asked me if I believe in ghosts. (I believe this was prompted by the unfamiliar noises of the hotel we were staying in.) This imaginary person had a ghost story of their own and was sympathetic to the “science can’t explain everything” philosophy (doesn’t everyone have backstory to their imaginary conversation partners?).

So: belief in ghosts. I do and I don’t. I have grave doubts about the empirically-testable existence of a particular ghost haunting a particular place. But I am convinced of the ability of the human mind to experience wild and wonderful and individual things. So your grandmother’s tale of feeling a comforting presence late one night after your grandfather passed away, of her opening her eyes and seeing him standing there smiling down at her and then fading away into a bright light—I believe that she experienced that, whatever would have been measured and confirmed by instruments in the room. And the story of the dedicated student that still haunts the school paper’s newsroom, opening drawers and tramping around upstairs late at night when the building should be deserted—that story has power, and insisting that someone shouldn’t believe their lying ears is not always useful.

The problem is that people who believe in the (empirically-testable) existence of ghosts are not completely happy with the “I believe you experienced that.” response. And “I believe that something happened” is a little too gullible for extreme skeptics or hard-core logical positivists. But, being the indirect realist that I am, “I believe you experienced that, and it is not something that can be measured or reliably experience by me” is the most accurate thing I can say.

On to crystals: I love rocks. I have collected them one way or another since I was a child. I like the sparkly structures of crystals and the rich hues of gemstones and the smooth lines of river rocks and the cutting edges and flat planes of slate and all the images and letters and patterns that we find in perfectly ordinary stones. I am (in spite of the dreadlocks) emphatically not a believer in their mystical powers.

But I do believe in the power of symbolism and ritual and mental cues. So I have been contemplating ways of presenting this in an intellectually honest way. I do not think that putting my bit of kyanite near my computer will protect me from evil emanations, and I love my labradorite sample for its hidden aurora borealis, not for good luck and clarity of thought. But since I once used a ladybug sticker to remind myself to “just do the next thing”, I can certainly use rocks to remind myself to be mindful or calm or whatever affirmation is most important at the time. In fact, stopping to play with the labradorite and watch it glow might be a perfect antidote to thrashing.

And, being an incorrigible schemer, I’m thinking of ways to systematize this (personal) symbolism and make wire cages for different rocks and customizable stitch markers and keychains and a billion other plans. So it goes.

Still, labradorite for mindfulness works pretty well, since you have to play with it to catch its beauty. I’ll give that a go.

January 7, 2011

Spinning for Dummies #1

Filed under: Hobbies

If you’re going to go for 3-ply using a plying ball, do not start with a 2-ply ball and a spindle full of singles. Start from 3 cops, 3 single-ply balls, or 3 spindles. Three individual strands being joined for the first time into the final plying ball.

The rest of the plying experience will be much more pleasant (read: possible) if you aren’t trying to keep the 2-ply properly aligned with the extra single.

In semi-related news, I have decided I need to do some more spinning projects from beginning to end before filling up all my spindles. Turns out spinning, plying, finishing, and using all intersect in complicated ways. Need more experience.

In unrelated news, I just had cereal for lunch. It was a stroke of genius. And my PDA will no longer turn on, so I have to finally give up the idea of using it for Windows-only audiobooks. Curses.

NB: I’ve been winding around pennies rather than starting with a butterfly. I might try Amelia’s way next time.

January 2, 2011

The Jungle Restored

Filed under: Hobbies

We had a series of houseplant mishaps in our last several living places, so as part of Joel’s Christmas present(s) we got a watering system from Lee Valley (thanks in part to a GC from Mom & Dad Koop) and then went to Home Depot together to pick up some replacement plants.

We were using these lovely PlantMinders but Asha loves dumping them over. Attempts to make a cage to keep it safe didn’t work, so we needed something new. The watering system we got is more elaborate (there’s a big reservoir, and a series of hoses and valves), but should help with plant health. Asha has investigated but not pestered the valves. Seems like a win.

The watering systems make a big difference in fungus gnat defence, as well as keeping things lush. No damp soil==no breeding grounds.

We have a peace lily and anthurium again! We got an ivy for the corner, although it’s small yet. And we’re attempting a fern once more—we’ll see how it goes. Survivors are the dragon plants, the figs (one from my mom that is older than I am, and a shoot from Joel’s grandma that is still hanging on), a spider plant, Christmas cactus, the rubber plants and philodendrons.
Jungle restored.jpg

You can see the reservoir in the top right of this picture. On the rock coffee-table there’s the arrowhead plant that never dies (regularly comes close), and a new lipstick plant.
Jungle and waterer.jpg

A bright spot for the dead of winter. The days are getting longer now!

December 12, 2010

Crochet cast-on with knitting needles

Filed under: Hobbies

I moved the bulk of the tutorial over to my artfire blog. Need some content there, so this is going to be more for personal/research stuff.

Artfire link to tutorial

Highlight reel:

  1. Start with a slipknot.
    1 Slip Knot.jpg
  2. YO on the working needle (right).
    2 First YO.jpg
  3. Knit the slip knot.
    3-1 Knit Slip Knot.jpg3-2 Knit Slip Knot 2.jpg3-3 Knit Slip Knot 3.jpg
  4. Pass stitch back.
    4 Pass first stitch back.jpg
  5. YO.
    5 Second YO.jpg
  6. Knit.
    6 Knit.jpg
  7. Pass the new stitch back.
  8. Repeat 5-7 for the until you have at least 2 extra stitches.
  9. Cut and secure the yarn. This is pre-cast on.
    8 End loop.jpg

  10. Knit with your real yarn, this is the cast-on row that will stay.
    10 Provisional with Stockinette-2.jpg
  11. To free up the provisional stitches, undo the last chain stitch and zip the waste yarn off.
    11 Unzipping Chain.jpg
  12. There you go! Some extra details at the Artfire page, but that’s the essentials.

© Anna Koop & Joel Koop