Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In honor of Blog Action Day

I missed the original call for Blog Action Day, which was sponsored to "get blogs posting about a common cause: the environment." But better late then never, here's a small contribution.

Today's a work day so I don't have much time to put together a good post, but I'll say a bit about how Compendium relates to the collective effort to reclaim our environment from the forces of destruction and chaos.

Compendium was founded on the idea that it is possible for groups of people to come to grips with complex issues, to look at problems from multiple perspectives. The core idea is that you should be able to ask questions about anything, no matter how monolithic it looks from the outside. Any thread of an issue or debate can be explored, and the discussion around that exploration can be highlighted and focused in its own "space" (a map) without losing the connections to all the other discussions that include that thread. A Compendium project is designed to contain all the many and manifold perspectives and connections on complex issues, giving all a voice and a way to express, query, and explore all of the facets.

No issue requires this kind of multi-perspective analysis as the environment. Science, public policy, economic interests, social impact, personal relationships -- all are involved. Many of our adopters have used Compendium to help explore environmental issues in many different ways. Ricky Ohl's work on mapping public consultations on environmental atmosphere issues in Australia is just one example.

We hope that we can make Compendium useful to many more people and groups attempting to understand, get consensus, and act on environmental issues.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another useful New Yorker article

The New Yorker has lately been a great source of material that talks about engagement with a medium and the human drama of aesthetic production. Besides the article on Garry Kasparov that I wrote about recently, this week (the Oct. 22 "Arts" edition) there's an article (by the unfairly talented Adam Gopnik) called "The Corrections (abridgement, enrichment, and the nature of art)". It talks, among other things, about DVD commentaries where film directors shed light on the often minute (to the viewer) choices they made. E.g. the following about the director's commentary on the movie "Hollywoodland":

Barely audible sound clues are minutely parsed for their implied significance; it turns out that the extras, looped in post-production, were allowed to murmur only about timely subjects from 1959. Every moment in the mix, every change of light (from the "fading Kodachrome" look of the Brody story to the saturated look of the Affleck bits), every discreet genuflection to another movie is lovingly catalogued. ("Just a bit of an homage to a great cut in 'Chinatown,' one of my favorite edits in all film.") We learn that the longest lens in the Adrien Brody sequences is the same length as the shortest lens in the Ben Affleck sequences. We learn that the director drew up a "flow chart" of gum-chewing, marking the dramatic trajectory on which the Brody character does and does not chew gum, and thereby revealing his moral growth.

It's this kind of thing, that I experienced even as a novice filmmaker and film student in college, that got me into the whole question of looking at the connection between aesthetics and ethics in the practice of making some kind of artistic object, especially when you intend it to be engaged with by other people. When you're making something you really care about, you get deeply involved in all sorts of nuances of form and meaning and effect, some of which you may plan in advance but many of which occur spontaneously in the act of making ("if I just move the camera like *this*, it will make the actress's choice more XXX").

The same thing can happen when, as an observer or audience member, you look really intently at a scene or a painting or whatever, you start seeing things at a much more fine-grained level of nuance than the usual, just letting it wash over you kind of spectatorship. It takes a deeper engagement than normal to do that. That kind of engagement comes more easily and naturally in the act of making, whether you're aware of it consciously or not, but it can also occur from the audience or participant perspective, with enough effort and motivation.

Helping my kids with writing

When I was scrawling in my notebook on what became this post about outcomes, I ended up with a thought that surprised me. I'd been writing about what kind of positive outcomes this research might result in, particularly in helping practitioners improve their situational effectiveness in the heat of actual practice. And that got me on to thinking about helping my kids (both now in their teens) with their school assignments, especially writing (as they get farther on I'm not of much use with science, math, or Spanish, but writing is still something I more or less can do).

When I help them with their writing, I don't give them much by way of general principles and big ideas. Instead we look at specific sentences, words, paragraphs in the context of what their assignment is about, and I try to help them see what works or doesn't work in that context. Sometimes I can gloss the specific example with a general principle -- for example, don't use passive voice -- but the real help I provide is very close-grained. Little formations in the immediate context of the whole. It's not giving them the answers, instead it's (hopefully) helping them to see how to come up with the answers themselves.

And I realized while writing about this that I love doing it. Working up close with the materials they are trying to shape, helping them to discover what works and what doesn't and why, which they have to do for themselves because telling them doesn't help. It has to come from the inside out. My role is to help that process along, and it happens by the simultaneous close engagement with the materials and medium itself (what they are writing about and how they are doing it), with my interactions with them as people, with an attitude of love and hope and respect for their own intelligence. I know they can get it, they just haven't gotten there yet. There is something about that close work with the words and sentences and meanings, with the styles and effects, with thinking through the consequences of different choices, with providing an example but only to help them to see why it does or doesn't work in the context, helping them towards being able to do it on their own, that in doing it I feel like my life may be worthwhile, that I have given something that matters to someone whose flourishing I deeply care about. It's kind of like when I taught them to ride bicycles. That skill, too, has to come from inside, I can't ride the bikes for them or tell them in the abstract how to do it. I had to help them to learn the little tricks of balance and navigation and the confidence that they don't need me holding the bike up straight, but ultimately what mattered was when they could get around the running track on their own, that look of pride and freedom on their faces when they had done it. Then I felt like I had done something worth doing.

This area, the fostering of capability, is a huge motivation to me in the research work. Somehow among all the scrabbling, setbacks, and long hours of video analysis, if something emerges that can be of help to people trying to achieve and express what they are trying to do with these new media, seeing for themselves why something does or doesn't work, coming up with their own inspirations, it will have been worth it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chess as knowledge art

In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, there is an article about Garry Kasparov. I liked the following quote, talking about Kasparov's experience of playing chess in tournaments:

. . . the crazy depth of commitment and passion, as well as the daring of his style, made him feel alive. [quoting biographer Fred Waitzkin:] "Chess for Garry was never a game . . . . It was about living and dying, about redefining the art every time he played . . . . To be a world champion in chess, the amount of what you have to know, what you have to fit in your brain and master, is so big that it is incomprehensible to a normal person . . . . You have to know more than a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon knows. You have to know more stuff than virtually anyone on earth. Then you have to have the facility of mind to process it and then forget it so that you are free to improvise and be imaginative.
- From "The Tsar's Opponent", by David Remnick (The New Yorker, October 1, 2007), p. 73)

While I've yet to come across a 'crazy' Compendium practitioner (and I don't think I'm one myself, except for maybe when I've delved into making fiction....), much of this sounds and feels familiar. At least in terms of what a person who feels passionately about working in their medium brings to it. I especially like the last sentence, about the necessity for improvisation and imagination on top of all one's technical and conceptual knowledge.

This connects also to what I've tried to talk about in terms of looking at Compendium, and Compendium practice, as a medium with practitioners. The point isn't whether it's a 'better' or 'worse' medium than others, any more than you can understand Kasparov's artistry and expertise by talking about whether chess is a more 'effective' game than other sorts. For Kasparov each game -- each situation -- is unique and requires a unique response. He has to approach it with all of his energy, knowledge, passion, and artistry, and following a formula is a sure recipe for defeat. If we want to understand what a master brings to his or her medium, we need to look at it in its own context, what does it take to "work" in that arena.