What Lights Up Your Neurons?

A friend told me today that this essay, posted in April, “bashes” fiction. I reread my post and decided to say more about the topic, especially since another friend has been debating the value of film and fiction with me.

The latter friend previously said that he wants to spend time on activities that stimulate his neurophysiology (e.g., stuff he finds interesting).  As a younger man, he read a lot of fiction and watched hundreds of films.  Later, he realized that fiction and film just don’t have much value for him when compared with contemporary nonfiction (especially well-researched, actionable stuff that he can use).

I want to bring all these ideas together in a way that clarifies my stance on fiction while providing guidelines for how to “choose” one’s interests:

1. Does the interest in question “light up” your neurons?  (E.g., is it stimulating?)

2. Will the interest in question, if pursued, likely harm you?

3. Will the interest in question, if pursued, likely harm others?

4. What’s the potential for net positive gain (especially, for the world)?  (This is subtle.  E.g., fiction, art, music, etc., can intangibly improve others’ lives.)

If the answer to the first question is “yes” and to the third question “no”, then you’ve found an interest that you should consider developing.  Answering “yes” to the second question is only viable if the answer to the fourth question is “massive”.  (E.g., Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi would probably have answered “yes” to the second and “massive” to the fourth.)

You can then prioritize your interests both by how interesting they are to you and by how helpful they are to the world (and to you).  Then, cut from the bottom so that you’re left with your “best” interests.  Pursue those.  As you go through life, new interests will pop up; apply the same guidelines to them.

In light of these guidelines, which I think you’d agree with, reading fiction might be a strong interest for you, but you may find other intense interests that *also* help the world (or that help you in ways more concrete than just neurostimulation), and you might find that when you prioritize all of your interests and cut from the bottom (because, after all, we only have a finite amount of time and energy), you actually don’t have time for fiction.  Or that you do.  People differ.  They have different neurophysiologies and they resonate with different things (e.g., with different works of art).

Personally, even though I don’t read much fiction and I don’t watch many films, I always appreciate good fiction/films when I encounter them.  Some of my favorite works of art are novels or films; they’re very intellectually/aesthetically stimulating.  I don’t consider such consumption wasteful as long as it’s in moderation.

Your thoughts?

Quick Review of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

A friend recently pointed me to this review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

I read the book a couple years ago.  The excellent review, above, reminded me of an email critique of the book that I sent to this same friend at that time.

First off, I want to say that it’s one of the most fascinating self-improvement books I’ve ever read.  Newport is a theoretical computer scientist, and one can tell that he’s trying to come up with a rigorous algorithm for success and happiness.  His ideas are brilliant.  The book is truly a must-read for anyone who seeks to become better at what s/he does.

That said, my biggest complaint with So Good They Can’t Ignore You is that the book is a series of cherry-picked case studies.  In the world of scientific research, it can be classified as a case series of extremely successful (and therefore extremely rare) people.

Case series suffer from the potential for bias and confounding.  The reviewer, above, is basically pointing out one potential confounding variable: privilege.  There could be many others.  Also, in case series, there is no comparator group.  This fact also diminishes the validity of the results.  As far as study designs go, case series are low on the totem pole:  one is usually not capable of deducing any strong conclusions from them.

This is problematic because Newport seems too eager to support his theories.  Especially in the section devoted to the plastic surgery resident, I can see (since it’s closer to my domain than any of the other examples, except for researcher Sabeti’s) that he’s extrapolating arguments, in support of his ideas, that don’t necessarily hold water.  In other words, I’m afraid he’s seeing patterns that don’t really exist, or those that simply support his own viewpoint.   He also seems too rigid about what he extrapolates from the cases.  I feel that a looser interpretation of his rigid laws is probably more effective in real life.

Additionally, the number of cases in his case series is awfully small.

Once again, however, this is hands-down one of the best self-improvement books I’ve ever read.  Newport makes bold, strong forays into territory that was previously very poorly charted.

Houston Sketchcrawl: The Menil

We sketched at the Menil Collection yesterday. I decided to sketch my variation of a “mask of a dying warrior” with Prismacolor colored pencils:

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The texture of the drawing resembled that of one of my watercolor pencil drawings…before water was applied!  Here’s an emerald toucanet that I sketched in watercolor pencil + colored pencil while traveling in Costa Rica in June 2013. It’s a freehand copy of the cover of a field guide (interestingly, the illustrator of the field guide was a famous guitarist before becoming an expat artist). It’s amazing what you can do with a few watercolor and cheap colored pencils!  I learned, during this painting, to finish the watercolor portions before moving to other media. (The top left portions were started in colored pencil and look out of place relative to the rest of the painting, which was started in watercolor pencil.)

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Speaking of watercolor, members of the Houston Watercolor Art Society were sketching at Rice University the morning of our sketchcrawl.  I stopped several times during my jog that morning to introduce myself and take a look at their work.

Wax-based colored pencil drawings can also be “melted” to produce “paintings”, but this is done with solvents other than water, such as with odorless mineral spirits as described in this excellent book on colored pencil techniques.  Serious colored pencil drawings or paintings, though, require a lot of time, work, and patience (unlike, say, watercolor, which usually requires a fraction of the time).

Houston Sketchcrawl: Cullen Sculpture Garden, Revisited

We sketched at the Cullen Sculpture Garden again!  Only one other person showed up to this sketchcrawl and was drawing this statue when I arrived:

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I sat down and sketched it in “true blue” (basically just a pale blue) Prismacolor colored pencil.  I hadn’t sketched all week, so I felt a bit rusty.  My friend agreed to become a co-organizer of our group (in response to my request that others step up to this role).  The more organizers, the better!  We can schedule more meetups, with a greater variety of activities, if we have multiple organizers.

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After the meetup was over, I was walking out when I saw this statue by Auguste Rodin:

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I sketched it quickly with the same colored pencil while standing (note that photographs make dark areas much darker than what the naked eye actually sees):

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iPad Art: Quick Sketches with an Improved Adonit Jot Pro Stylus

Applying powdered graphite to my Adonit Jot Pro stylus, as discussed in this post, really improved the drawing experience!  Graphite is a highly conductive, inexpensive lubricant, and powdered graphite certainly doesn’t dry out, so I hope that this fix will last a long time.  The stylus is still functioning as well as a very smooth pen on paper.

Here are a couple quick sketches of my left hand as drawn by my right in Paper by 53 with the Jot Pro:

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Houston Sketchcrawl: Ice Rink at the Galleria

We sketched at the Galleria’s ice rink yesterday. Initially, each of us attempted quick sketches of the ice skaters. After some time, I decided to sketch the Chanel billboard shown below. I went up to the second floor and drew it from an angle with Prismacolor “sienna brown” colored pencil. No erasures or graphite underdrawing. Freehand, as always. It was fun! Several people were interested in what we were doing. One woman tried to tell me, in limited English, that the drawing was beautiful.

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