Who has time for all that?

I gave up multitasking a long time ago. I realized that I’m not good at it, and started paying attention so that I could notice when I was doing it and stop.

As an aside, I should mention that there’s now quite a bit of research to show that nobody is good at multitasking, and that the people who think they’re good at it are even worse than the people who know they’re not.

Even though I’m more efficient doing one thing with complete focus and then going on to the next thing, that practice alone doesn’t solve the underlying problem that tempts people into multitasking: How else can I get everything done?

Half of the answer to that is the drearily obvious, “You can’t. What you can do is get a whole lot done, if you quit frittering away your time on trivial, pointless stuff, and apply your time doing the most important stuff.”

I know some people who are pretty good at that, and they are routinely way more productive than me or most other people.

But there’s more to it than that. Katy Bowman has been talking about one useful practice, suggesting that you “stack your life” by accomplishing multiple goals at once—something that sounds suspiciously like multitasking, but really isn’t.

I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit, wanting to articulate the difference for my own sake if no one else’s. My take on it, is that it has to do with what the limiting resource is for each activity.

There are a lot of limiting resources. Your hands are one—they can really only do one thing at a time (although my mom used to read, fan herself, and drink lemonade all at the same time, and felt like she was being very efficient). Location is another—something that can only be done in the kitchen can’t be stacked with an activity that can only be done in the garage or the gym or the grocery store. Other people are another—something that requires the presence of another person can’t be done without him or her. (Though it’s not that simple, as sometimes you can stack up the other people and get multiple things done with multiple people.)

In multitasking, the limiting resource is your attention, and what’s unique about attention is that many activities can be done with partial attention. That experience tempts us into thinking that attention is more divisible than it really is.

Washing dishes only takes partial attention, meaning that you can listen to the radio or a podcast and get full benefit out of both activities.

Driving is a more complex example. We know that driving sometimes requires your full attention. This is why talking on the phone is unsafe to do while driving—talking on the phone requires enough of your attention that doing so reduces your competence at driving as much as getting drunk does. (Talking to someone in the car with you is much less unsafe, because that person can see when the road conditions are such that you need your full attention and shut up. Just listening to something—the radio or a podcast—does not seem to cause the same problem, probably for reasons having to do with deep structures in the brain that prioritize social interactions.)

Even though there are plenty of activities that can be done with partial attention, most important activities require full attention to be done well.

Writing a blog post can be done with partial attention, but when I try to do it while simultaneously listening to a podcast, checking my twitter and facebook feeds, chatting with a friend on-line and another in-person, and answering the occasional email message, I don’t do it as well.

As I’ve worked to apply this lesson—noticing when I’m multitasking and then refocusing on the main thing I’m doing—I’ve learned something else: Many activities that don’t require full attention turn out better when I give it to them anyway.

Beyond that, I feel better when I give my full attention to whatever I’m doing.

It was the meditation practice that I adopted as part of my taiji practice that taught me this. First, it taught me the skill of paying attention, then it taught me that paying attention to what I was doing right now paid dividends, even when all I was doing was sitting or standing.

I’ve noticed it particularly with exercise. I used to distract myself from exercise with music or podcasts or games like Zombies, Run!, because I found exercise to be unpleasant drudgery that I only engaged in to the extent necessary to build and maintain a basic level of fitness. I don’t do that any more. It’s much better when I fully embody my exercise: I enjoy it more, I’m less prone to injury, and the exercise is more effective.

The more I do this—give my full attention to whatever it is I’m doing, whether it seems worthy of full attention or not—the more I find it worthwhile.

Downside: I’m falling behind on my podcast listening, because there are so few things were I feel like partial attention is all they deserve. Maybe I’ll find more, but at the moment I’m just about down to riding on the bus.

So, yes: Stack your life. If you can do one thing with your brain, one thing with your hands, and one thing with your feet all at the same time, go for it. But think twice before dividing your attention. If something is worth doing, it may well be worth your full attention, no matter how hard that makes it to get everything done.

Prairie Spiderweb

Second passports for expensive

This sort of thing was a fantasy of mine, back in the 1980s. I could see things getting worse in the US, and the idea that a foreign passport and foreign residency could provide an escape if things got too bad was pretty appealing.

Nowadays not so much. It’s not that things have gotten better in the US; it’s that things have gotten worse other places at least as quickly. More to the point, things getting worse in the US seems to make things worse other places, so the conditions that make the idea appealing are the same conditions that make it pointless.

One book that substantially influenced my thinking in this area is Emergency: This book will save your life by Neil Strauss. I recommend it highly. In entertaining and informative prose, he documents his transformation from just the sort of kook I was in the 1980s into somebody with a much more practical perspective.

Still, an EU passport might have its upsides. Anybody got a spare quarter million euros and an interest in learning Greek? (If money is no object, a half million euros will let you buy in to Ireland, and I expect learning Gaelic is optional.)

Graphic from Citizenship for Sale on the International Monetary Fund’s IMFDirect blog.

 

Are we reaching the end of “escalate faster”?

For about a generation now the police in the U.S. have followed a general practice of escalating any confrontation, with the intention of escalating faster than the opposition can respond. This has saved lives, but I think we’ve reached the point where the negative consequences of this practice are becoming highly visible in a way that’s going to force changes.

The police still patrol in ones and twos the way they always did, but starting in maybe the 1970s they quit responding to confrontations that way. At the first sign of trouble, they’d call for backup. A confrontation with one person would be met by four or six officers. A confrontation with several people would be met by a dozen officers. A confrontation with an armed individual would be met by countless officers with rifles and shotguns.

In many cases this has no doubt saved lives. Certainly it has saved the lives of police officers, but it has probably saved the lives of suspects who were persuaded to surrender in the face of overwhelming force.

The problem with this tactic is that it’s obviously inappropriate in many circumstances. It’s basically a military tactic—hit with overwhelming force—and the general public views it that way and reacts with scorn (when used against people who are obviously harmless) together with either fear (when used against people like them) or shame (when they see it used in their name).

And that last, I think, is the change that’s going to make a difference: People feel shame when they see a rapid escalation to a disproportionate use of force done in their name, and they’re seeing it more in this age of smart phones.

So far when rapid escalation leads to uses of force that seem clearly unnecessary or disproportionate, and yet police officers face few or no consequences, people have been surprised. They shouldn’t be. The whole point is that these practices are codified in law and in the procedures the police departments follow. When the police rapidly escalate a confrontation they aren’t doing anything illegal, and they aren’t violating police department policies.

And those things—laws and procedures—are what need to change. Fortunately, in a democracy, when the public decides something ought to change there is a real chance of change forthcoming.

So, what do we do instead? We can go back to what policing ought to be—attempting to deescalate confrontations, reserving escalation for cases where public safety really requires it.

There are many instances where violence is a possible result—where somebody is angry or drunk or stoned or stupid or having a psychotic break or just a really bad day. In many instances violence could be avoided with deescalation.

For a very long time—as long as there has been government, right up until recent decades—escalation had to be slow, because the communication options and the manpower available didn’t allow for rapid escalation. There tended to be one representative of the government—a sheriff or tax collector—who kept order largely through moral suasion, together with having some call on overwhelming force (in the form of a posse or a platoon of redcoats or something). Unless a situation was such that calling in the marines would be appropriate, it pretty much had to be handled through deescalation rather than escalation.

Many of the lives saved by rapid escalation are police officers’ lives. Many of the people who will be saved through deescalation are not especially sympathetic—the petty criminal, the drunk, the mental patient, the burly man who is developmentally disabled. But others are, and we’re beginning to see the losses as part of a pattern, rather than as a series of unfortunate incidents.

When a guy has a stroke at the wheel of his car, manages to stop it, but is unable to respond to a police officer’s instructions (“Show me your hands! License and registration! Get out of the vehicle!”), what is the police officer’s appropriate response? Knowing the situation, obviously calling an ambulance. But under current polices there’s far too much chance that the guy will be dragged out of his car, roughed up, and dumped in the drunk tank until brain damage from the stroke is irreversible. Or, if he doesn’t have white skin, very possibly shot instead.

Now that we’re seeing people die at the hands of the police, and now that we’re hearing the testimony that these killings are legal and are in accordance with police department policy, we may finally see some changes in the laws and the policies.

Because that, rather than feelings of anger or shame, is what will make the difference.

A shift to deescalation will probably mean that people will die who might have lived. But people are dying now. People will die either way. A shift to deescalation may mean fewer people will die. It will almost certainly mean that fewer people will be shamefully killed in my name.

Turn up the volume

A true fact about me: I’m terrible at watching another person move and then moving in the same way. My coping mechanism for this limitation is that instead of doing what ordinary people do—watching and then doing the same thing—I go through an intermediate step of describing the move in words, and then executing my verbal description.

It’s a slow process. First I have to watch enough times to figure out what the verbal description is, and then I have work through the move very slowly, executing my verbal description while (slowly, and with difficulty) comparing what I’m doing to what I’m supposed to be doing.

Because of all this, I’ve always found it hard to learn things like dance moves and martial arts moves, but it also makes it hard to learn even just ordinary exercise moves.

I mention this, because it has a lot to do with why I’m only now starting to turn up the volume on my exercise: Over the past year, I have added a lot of new exercise moves, drawn from Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA, from Ben Musholt’s Parkour Strength Training, from Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat videos, and from other sources. For a long time, I’ve felt awkward doing a lot of these moves, and am only now starting to feel like I’m doing them well enough that it’d be safe to start doing them in higher volumes.

One thing that Julie Angel’s book Breaking the Jump reminded me of was that the early parkour practitioners pushed the volume way up in their training, doing hundreds of push-ups, thousands of sit-ups, and covering long distances balancing on a rail (or hanging under a girder, or jumping from rock-to-rock or post-to-post) every day, often multiple times a day.

Of course I can’t do hundreds of push-ups or thousands of sit-ups. What I can do—what I’ve started doing this week—is add sets. I can do 40 meters of quadrupedal movement, and then do another 40 meters later in my training session. I can do 4 negative pull-ups, and then another 4, and then another 3. And so on.

In between sets, I can do the more flexibility oriented restorative exercises. (Right now I’m working on getting the ankle, knee, and hip mobility I need to do deep squats.)

I started upping the volume on the pull-ups and quadrupedal movement a while ago. Now I’m adding some of the newer exercises, such as lunges and squats, that I hadn’t done before, and that felt awkward enough that I wasn’t inclined to add volume.

So far it’s feeling really good.

Oh, and to bring things full circle, it turns out there is an upside to my coping mechanism for my inability to mirror movement—it has made me a better tai chi instructor. When I’m teaching a move, I already have a verbal description of how the move goes. I already have a vocabulary out of which to build descriptions. And I have a lot of practice at producing a verbal description of a movement. These things have turned out to be very helpful.

Book review: Breaking the Jump by Julie Angel

breaking-the-jump-coverI’m not sure exactly when I discovered parkour. Its first mention here in my blog is in May 2014 when I talk about starting to practice precisions and shoulder rolls.

By then, Julie Angel had already finished a PhD and created a large body of photos and videos on parkour.

I came across her work fairly early, and immediately appreciated its strength, so I was delighted to learn that she was writing a book. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, and spent last week reading it.

I’d read some about the early history of parkour, so I knew about David Belle as an individual and the Yamakasi as a group, but this was largely my first exposure to the other early practitioners as individuals—and a bunch of interesting individuals they are.

Early in the book Angel takes a stab at tweezing out the many threads that went into making parkour something that appeared in this place at this time: The urban planning that produced the built infrastructure in Lisses and that also drew in the immigrant population that lived there. The life- and family- histories of the handful of young men who became the Yamakasi. The kinds of men they were. Angel never really pins down exactly why these young men produced parkour when no one else had done so, but it’s a credible effort at answering a question that’s probably unanswerable.

Because on the one hand, many other groups of young men could have created parkour. Most of the key traits of these young men—a certain facility with movement; a willingness to train very, very hard; a tendency to push one another to ever greater efforts (and to let themselves be pushed)—are not that rare. Although many young men are clumsy or lazy, you need only look among the national-level competitors in any boys or junior individual sport, or even at any good high school sports team, to find both movement skill and the capacity for hard training.

More important than those things—which are, as I say, fairly common among young men—was an ethos that leaned against that willingness to push and be pushed. It’s an ethos exemplified in some of their sayings—things like “Start together, finish together,” and “Be strong to be useful.” Everyone was pushed outside their comfort zone, but no one was pushed to attempt anything that he didn’t know he could succeed at. It is surely the reason that early parkour practitioners had such an incredibly low rate of training injuries whether from accidents or from overtraining. (Would that runners were as durable.)

New to me—and a perfect example of that ethos—is the picture Julie Angel gradually paints of Williams Belle. Younger than the others, he was someone I hadn’t even been aware of until I read the book. Williams is portrayed as having all the movement skill and all the willingness to train very, very hard as any of the other pioneers, but lacking the ego of David Belle, and possessing teaching methods that seem uniquely gentle.

She has Stéphane Vigroux saying this about Williams:

On the surface it was the same training school, but somehow the energy and feel when observing Williams was different. . . . From the first jump . . . Williams had known that the discipline should be about helping and sharing with others.

It makes Williams sound like someone I’d like to get to know.

Angel includes a good look at the prehistory of parkour—Georges Hébert and others—and a look at contemporaries who created things that overlap—people like Erwan Le Corre—but it’s not really about them. Most of the book is about the early practitioners. But only most of the book. A little bit—maybe ten or fifteen percent—is kind of a memoir of Julie Angel’s own experiences beginning with parkour. Her stories of her struggles to break her own jumps, learn to balance on a rail, or simply to attend her first class are very effective at illuminating the journey of the founders.

Maybe she used every such story she had—at least, that’s the only good reason I can think of for including so few, because frankly, those bits are some of the best bits in the book. If she wrote a longer memoir of her own journey learning parkour, I’d buy it.

If you’re interested in the history of parkour, and especially if you’re interested in understanding what it meant to those early folks—what it meant to work together, to train very hard, to confront their fears and overcome them together—this is an outstanding book

Breaking the Jump: The secret story of parkour’s high-flying rebellion by Julie Angel.

Free tai chi group practice

img_20160530_091940035_27254416212_oEveryone is welcome to join me and the folks from the tai chi groups I teach for free practice sessions this summer.

We’re planning to meet Monday-Wednesday-Friday 8:30–9:30 AM in Morrissey Park. (If we meet later it gets too hot before we’re done.)

These group practices sessions have no teacher or leader, so they’re free.

These sessions tend to be much like our usual classes:

  • A few minutes of opening exercises
  • Half an hour of moving Qigong
  • Ten minutes of standing meditation
  • A short tai chi form
  • The 48-movement form

This means that most of the hour is accessible to anybody, even complete beginners.

We’re starting Wednesday, June 1st. I’ve promised to show up for the first couple of sessions to help students from my beginner class get started on the longer form. (After that I’ll miss several sessions in a row because I’ll have family visiting, but there are lots of other friendly people there, many of whom know tai chi as well I do.)

Join us!

img_20160530_085444842_27253378762_o

Tree identification workshop (and fitness)

Shagbark Hickory tree at Allerton Park
Shagbark Hickory at Allerton Park

Jackie and I attended a tree identification workshop at Allerton Park yesterday.

Both my parents are naturalists, and my brother took some botany classes as part getting his PhD in science education, so they all know all the trees we’re likely to see in any of the places where we’ve ever lived. They routinely identify the trees for me when we’re walking. If I’d had any sense, I’d have learned all that stuff myself long ago.

Sadly, I have a lazy brain—the sort that figures that if other people will identify the trees for me, there’s no need for me to learn how to do it myself. So, I had to subject myself to this workshop to try and catch up.

It was a very well done workshop. We spent about half an hour going over basic terminology of tree characteristics—alternate versus opposite, simple versus compound, pinnate versus palmate, petioles versus petiolules—then we spent about three hours hiking through Allerton Park on the south side of the Sangamon River, before breaking for lunch. After lunch we spent another three hours hiking on the north side of the river, looking at the trees found over there.

We learned to identify maybe 30 species, with enough repetition of the more common species that we might actually be able to remember them.

It was good.

With all the time and effort I’ve been putting into fitness of late, I’ve been feeling just a little smug—I’m in so much better shape than I was nine or ten years ago. But this outing showed me that any such smugness is unjustified—everybody in our group of 20 or so, including some people older than Jackie and me, held up just fine to the rigors of five or six hours on our feet in the woods, some of it hiking off-trail. Jackie and I held up just fine too, but I was pretty tired at the end. (And managed to jam my ankle at some point, which wasn’t a problem during the event, but got sore in the night.)

It was a good reminder that endurance is a very complicated thing. Being in shape to walk briskly for 10 or 15 miles is not the same as being in shape to alternate walking and standing for the same number of hours. Adding effort in a mental dimension—trying to learn the trees, keeping an eye out for things like poison ivy, nettle, and tripping hazards—also makes things more taxing, something that’s easy to forget.

Now we need to get back to Allerton reasonably soon—before we forget everything—and see how many of those trees we can still identify.

Adjusting my morning routine, maybe

The natural movement people I follow continue to broaden my perspective on what constitutes natural movement. Fairly recently, in her podcast, Katy Bowman pointed out that dilating and contracting the pupil of your eye is a natural movement.

Most people spend most of their time at just a few lighting levels—dark (however dark they keep the room they sleep in, which often isn’t very dark), medium (ordinary indoor light levels), and bright (ordinary outdoor light levels). Katy suggests that there may be some benefit in experiencing the whole range of light levels, from in-the-woods-at-night dark to full-sun-at-midday light—and most especially everywhere in between.

It’s an idea that appeals to me, and I’m inclined to copy her and go outdoors while it’s still dark, and take a walk during the time from just before dawn until just after sunrise.

Taking such an early morning walk would be a change to my daily routine, and whenever I think about adjusting my daily routine I like to compare it to that of Charles Darwin. He was so productive for such a long time, I figure his is a touchstone for a successful daily routine. So I went and checked and was very pleased to see that Darwin’s daily routine included a pre-breakfast walk of about 45 minutes.

I’d previously copied some elements from Darwin’s routine, but I hadn’t taken that one. I’ve been spending that time at the computer checking email, Facebook, and my RSS feeds, and chatting on-line with my brother. Those are all things that are probably worth doing, but maybe they don’t need to be the very first things I do in the morning.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, but spring has been cold and damp and not really conducive to early morning walks.

This morning I took a test walk, strolling around Winfield Village and in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration in the half hour before sunrise. It was very pleasant.

sunrise from prairie

Summer work

I was making some notes, trying to organize my thinking about how I wanted to spend the summer. My first draft looked something like this:

  1. Finish my novel
  2. Work on my parkour strength/skills
  3. Do some running
  4. Go for some long walks
  5. Get in some bike rides
  6. Practice taiji in the park

It’s not a bad list, but as soon as I started playing around with it, I noticed that there’s a lack of parallelism. Specifically, the first item was a goal, while the other items were activities.

So I changed it, turning the first item into “Work on my novel.”

I think that’s better. I think having a goal to “finish” my novel has been an obstacle to actually doing so.

And it’s kind of odd that I’ve been thinking that way at all, because I’ve always enjoyed the actual writing part of writing. I’ve never been one of those “author” types of writers—the ones who don’t want to write, but only to have written. I’ve always liked all the phases of writing. I like starting something new, when I have a clean slate and haven’t made any mistakes yet. I like the phase of cranking away on something, putting the words down. I like the phase of revising, getting my raw words closer to the story I’d envisioned. They’re all good. So why have I found it so hard to work on my novel these past many months?

Perhaps I have tricked myself into replaying my perpetual struggle with the things I merely wanted to get done, as opposed to the things I actually wanted to do. It’s a problem I had all through school, and then all through my career. The things I needed to get done were always the hardest.

Since I quit working a regular job, I discovered that I am way more productive when I do the things I want to do and put off the things I just want to get done. This makes some things problematic—the taxes come to mind—but overall it’s been an effective strategy.

I have other thoughts about trying to be more productive this summer—this actually started out to be another “daily routine” post—but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

For the rest of this morning, I’ll just see if I can quit worrying about finishing my novel, and instead spend some time working on it. And maybe squeeze in a run, along with some strength training.

Fencing, taiji, parkour, oh my!

I don’t know how long I’ve wanted to learn to fence. At least as far back as 7th grade when I read Glory Road, and probably before then. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in Kalamazoo, I was unable to come up with a way to learn, but nowadays in Champaign it’s possible—because there’s The Point Fencing Club.

The minimalist option would be to take the $100 three-day adult fencing workshop in mid-June. The dates are slightly awkward, as that’s very likely exactly when my dad might come to visit, but otherwise it would be just the thing.

Alternatively, I could go ahead and join for the summer for $150 (plus another $100 or so to buy my own foil, plastron, jacket, glove, and mask). Upside of that: I’d have my own foil! Downside: it’s a lot of money. Plus, if I enjoyed it, I’d end up wanting to keep doing it, which would cost something like $750 a year.

I’ve considered doing this each summer for years now and have never done it due to the cost and scheduling issues. This year it seems like a real possibility.

Another thing I’ve been meaning to do each summer for a while now is study taiji with The Center for Taiji Studies.

Founded by my teacher’s teacher, they’re a strong local group that takes a somewhat more martial perspective on taiji than my teacher, which very much appeals to me.

Like with fencing, the main obstacles have long been scheduling and cost. Taking weekly classes for the summer looks to come to $234, so almost exactly the same as it would cost to spend the summer fencing.

There’s slightly less downside. Since I already have a taiji practice in place for fall, winter, and spring, there will be less of an inclination to spend another several hundred dollars a year to continue practicing with them year-round.

A third thing that I meant to do last summer and will almost certainly do this summer is join the local campus parkour club for their practice sessions over the summer.

That has the enormous upside of being free. The downside is that they are just group practice sessions, and not formal classes.

I went one time last summer, and actually got a lot of instruction. I expect that if I showed up, practiced with the other folks there, and asked people to show me the stuff I didn’t know, I could continue to get instruction. Of course, that’s not the same as having a skilled instructor put together a curriculum designed to teach the basic skills in a sensible order.

As I say, these are all things I’ve been wanting to do for as long as I knew they were things. I’m still working out the details, but this summer I’ll start working on the backlog.