Learning and the immediacy of correction

illustration from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, not because mistakes are always funny. (Image courtesy of The British Library.)

I want to follow up on what I said in my previous post about the importance of errors in learning a craft, and think about what kind of errors are useful — because not every mistake is a “learning opportunity,” or at least some are more opportune than others. Certainly learning any sort of skill or craft is not a linear process of instruction and emulation. Here’s philosopher Richard Sennett, whose The Craftsman is an excellent exploration of the process of learning a craft:

To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Erratic is a apt word, I think. It’s a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but some kinds of errors are better teachers than others. The more immediate that feedback is, the better — especially when what’s being learned involves bodily work. The wrong note on the violin, for example, corrects the learner immediately, while she still remembers quite clearly what she did to produce it. For a teacher to come by half an hour later and say “Very good, but you were flat on that eighth-note G-sharp in the twenty-third measure,” would only draw the student’s attention again to what she should have done, not to what she did and therefore how to correct the error. Continue reading “Learning and the immediacy of correction”

The devil of false precision

Eating lunch today I noticed on my bottle of soy sauce the words expiration date on label and, an inch away, a dot matrix stamp: 2019.03.28 14:48.

I expect that the stuff was bottled on March 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm and that it’s supposed to be good for three years from the date of bottling. But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s good until March 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm. Certainly a machine can record the exact time of bottling, but the idea that the soy sauce is good for exactly three years, for three years down to the minute, is absurd — as if, at twelve minutes to three on a particular March afternoon two years from now, the contents of the bottle will instantly develop a fuzzy blue mold and smell distinctly of gasoline. Obviously that’s absurd.

For one thing, it was bottled in Taiwan, so it would actually expire at 1:48 am EST and not in the middle of the afternoon.

“Three years from date of bottling” means three years, give or take. Give or take what? That’s the question. Six months, maybe? I would assume that they kept a bottle around for three years and it seemed to be okay. I doubt it’s very scientific at all. But it’s so easy just to take the present time, add three years, and stamp it on the bottle.

The expiration date on my soy sauce is not in itself a big deal. (I’ll use it within a few months anyway.) But this kind of arbitrary precision is everywhere — the practice of assigning a number to something, giving it as many decimal places as we can, and then slapping it on a label, noting it in a chart, entering it into a database — where it takes on a kind of magical invincibility, a rightness that can no longer be questioned or challenged. There are cases where this might have disastrous consequences, but more important is the impression of invincibility. Knowledge is power; false precision is an implication of knowledge; therefore false precision is an assumption of power. False precision is one way that science and industry and government claim power over us. But wallpapering the world with false precision builds false confidence in our own abilities, individually and collectively.

Every measurement is an estimate. If I were king of the world, I’d decree that every published measurement must be accompanied by a margin of error, e.g. “Expires on 2019.03.28 14:48 ± 6 mos.” It would be honest, it would be accurate, and it would remind everyone many times a day of the limits of human knowledge.

(And no, since you ask, I cannot think of anything better for a king to do than to demand accountability and humility from the powers of the world. Can you?)

Public space and ignorance

This story seems, at first, like a classic tale of the little guy fighting the big mean corporation. A group of Korean seniors was tossed out of a New York City McDonald’s they had turned into a hangout:

Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.

The men had, by their admission, “treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years,” and management and other patrons claim that they’re interfering with business. There are several senior centers and civic centers in the neighborhood, but the men seem uninterested in going to any of them.

If I were their age, I wouldn’t want to be cordoned off with a bunch of old people, either, any more than I want to be cordoned off with a bunch of forty-somethings now. Nothing against people in their forties, but I like a little variety. The presence of children and young adults lightens things up a bit, and I appreciate the proximity of people of people considerably older than I am. –On the other hand, taking up valuable real estate in a busy restaurant at lunchtime is at a minimum inconsiderate; the people who own these restaurants — franchisees, in this case, not the global corporation — have to make money, and the business model imposed on them isn’t such that they have a lot of wiggle room.

The problem here is not what the owner of a fast-food restaurant ought or ought not to do but that the choice has arisen in the first place, because we simply don’t have enough genuine public space — spaces where people can meet, talk, catch up, get to know one another, even just sit and rest or think without being cut off from the rest of humanity, and without their actions being watched over and prescribed by well-meaning volunteers and civil servants. Continue reading “Public space and ignorance”

Pimping for hawks

This morning a Cooper’s hawk picked off a mourning dove from underneath the bird feeder in the front yard, then perched on a pile of leaves in the woods to eat it methodically over the course of an hour, tearing off bits of flesh, tossing them back, discarding the feathers, ignoring the freezing rain that dripped on her shoulders. I’d filled the feeder last night in anticipation of the snow, and the squirrels being squirrels dumped a third of its contents onto the ground, which bounty lured the dove to the raptor’s waiting embrace. I’m reduced to pimping for hawks. Not to mention the leaves I’d raked into a pile last month for Ivy to jump in now gave the hawk vantage for glancing round, after every mouthful, to check that no one was scoping her lunch. No one was. The feeder had cleared, the finches scattered. The neighbor’s miniature dachshund was safely inside. And all this went on twenty feet from the window where I watched, looking up at intervals from my work, writing documentation for a web application, which seemed, in context, thoroughly pointless. Continue reading “Pimping for hawks”