Monday, March 12, 2012

Audiobooks 2.0: Listening at double speed and beyond

I'm a huge fan of audiobooks, and I listen to them almost exclusively in the car. I currently commute around 60-70 minutes a day total, and instead of being frustrated by traffic, I often arrive at work or home excited and invigorated by a new idea that I picked up in my classroom on wheels. However, one thing that I do that often surprises people is that I listen to nearly all my audiobooks at double speed or faster. Fortunately (or perhaps as a consequence), I commute alone!

The San Jose public library system has a huge selection of audio books available for download in MP3 and WMA format, as well as a number of books on CD that can be ripped to MP3, and I have recently begun to purchase more books from now that I am not completed blocked by their DRM. I use my Android phone as my portable media center, but I was turned on to the idea of high-speed listening by an iPhone user because Apple has variable-speed playback built in. I use an Android app called Astro Player Nova (the paid version, although they have a free version that also does speedups) that allows me to increase (or decrease) the playback speed, while providing pitch correction so the speaker doesn't sound like a chipmunk. Most audiobooks are recorded at a comfortable speaking pace (~150 words per minute),  but most people are able to easily process spoken language at at least 2 times that rate. It is a little daunting at first, but I started out at 25% faster, then gradually increased it until I now start most books at double speed and move up or down according to the book. Although in theory I can probably go even faster, I find that the software begins to clip words together. Yes, I know, blaming the software, not the "wetware"... At that rate, I enjoy a new (unabridged) book nearly every week, and I also find that the faster pace keeps me more alert.

Prior to getting a smartphone, I used a rather cumbersome pipeline (tools glued together with perl) that would convert CDs or MP3s into WAV files, then run these through mplayer to do the speedup, resize them into 2 minute chunks for easier indexing (my old CD player would only start at the beginning of the song, not exactly where I was when the engine stopped), and then finally re-encoding them as MP3s before burning them onto CDs for playback in my CD player. Variable speed playback of audiobooks was actually the deciding factor that pushed me over the edge to a smartphone! DRM protection on the audiobooks is still a nuisance for both WMA files and files, but tunebite helps.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed

In Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, author and table tennis Olympian Matthew Syed explores the role of innate ability (talent) vs. practice, and strongly promotes a practice-based approach to mastery. Although largely based on his experience in athletics, as well as research in athletics, art and music, the core principles of a "growth mindset" have many applications outside of these fields.

The key idea of Bounce is that effort and directed, challenging practice matter far more than natural ability in most pursuits, and that behind the story of many of child prodigies is a reality of hard work and dedication to practice far greater than others of a similar age. Mastery in a subject is usually not achieved without roughly 10,000 hours of directed practice (the 10,000 hour "rule"). This is often around 10 years of effort, given that it is difficult to consistently do more than 20 hours of really focused practice per week, 1000 per year. Many young stars in various fields, from Mozart to Picasso and the Williams sisters, also took approximately 10 years of training to begin to reach their peak performance despite being significantly ahead of their peers at a young age. Of particular note is that merely doing something for 10,000 hours doesn't result in mastery (for example, driving for 10,000 hours doesn't make you an expert driver), but instead mastery comes from targeted practice that stretches your limits. Top performers find techniques that continuously push them beyond their comfort zone, challenging themselves more relative to their own abilities than their less successful competitors. For example, top figure skaters don't only try harder jumps, but consistently try jumps that are farther beyond their current capabilities, and as a direct result, they also fall more during practice. MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko expressed this idea well after a significant loss: "The one who doesn't fall, doesn't stand up"

Starting with his own story as a child table tennis prodigy, Syed explains how his success could be seen as a natural result of his innate ability revealed at a young age and leading to his rise to the pinnacle of British table tennis. However, he then points out the multiple environmental factors that truly contributed, including having a full-sized table as a child, an older brother who was a motivated training partner which resulted in hours of practice against a strong opponent, which led in turn to early successes against his peergroup, and then to better coaching, including early work with a star coach in the local school district, and how these opportunities built in a reinforcing cycle. He then notes that a hugely disproportionate number of England's table tennis stars came from one single street, his street.

Effort-based praise and rewards (instead of talent-based recognition) lead to a culture of achievement, and increased resilience to setbacks: They teach that success shouldn't come easily because of your talent, but rather is obtained through consistent effort and a willingness to try, learn, refine, practice and improve. Organizational cultures that reward talent can even be destructive: Because innate ability can't be earned or improved, there is a much greater temptation to cheat when talent is the measure of success. Syed points to Enron as an extremely talent-oriented culture (talent was valued far more than knowledge), and points to the need to appear smart as one of the key reasons why people felt compelled to hide their failures at ever-greater scales. Embracing failure, taking on difficult challenges and insisting on hard work are key ingredients to a "growth" culture.

I found two of the studies cited in Bounce to be particularly worthwhile. The first is somewhat common in the "growth mindset" literature, about children who were praised on for their effort on a test versus children who were praised for their intelligence (talent). The children praised for effort were more willing to take additional, harder tests, and in fact did better, while the "talent praise" children attempted to retain their intelligent label by avoiding more difficult opportunities. In the other study, it was demonstrated that there is a transference effect to success. Students who read an article about a successful mathematician immediately before taking a test did better when the article was modified so that the mathematician was born on the same day as the test-taker. This placebo effect is discussed in several other examples, but I found it quite surprising.

Bounce also describes the experiences of László Polgár, the father of three chess superstars who set out on a publicized, real-world experiment to demonstrate that he could raise children to become chess champions despite having no chess aptitude himself, and literally recruited a wife to help him. His quest to prove  that "geniuses are made, not born" is fascinating. Although the success of his experiment was astonishing (Judit Polgar is considered to be the best female chess player ever, another is a grand master, and the third is an international master), the very fact that all three sisters were so good has given his critics an opportunity to point to a genetic basis for their success.

Syed also writes about the importance of making some part of what you are doing consistent enough so that you have an adequate mechanism for identifying problems and isolating changes. This is a  common idea for trouble-shooting:  isolate one factor and see how changes to that factor impact the rest of the system, but I had not given it too much thought in the context of a tennis swing. In his example, his coach changed his swing so that it was uniform for all types of strokes. Although this was a difficult adjustment, once completed he could easily diagnose problems and make changes and improvements, leading to much more rapid progress.

One of the most unique concepts in the book is the idea of "doublethink". Doublethink (as coined by George Orwell) is keeping two incompatible ideas in mind at once. Top performers need to be able to make realistic assessments to choose a course of action, accurately predicting  the risk of failure from available options, but, once the decision as been made, to execute the action with the confidence that failure is impossible. Similarly, after a loss, top competitors typically go through a cycle of selective focus or even denial during which they deal with the failure by seeing only the good parts. Later, however, during practice, they need to fully analyze and understand the root problems in order to correct them. Finally, at the next competition, they need to once again banish all thoughts of failure and perform with confidence.

Related to this idea of performance doublethink was an exploration of the athletic "choke" phenomenon, when all training breaks down and the performer completely falls apart. Syed explains that through extended practice, many parts of an activity become unconscious-- muscle memory that allows the athlete to focus on a completely different set of problems. For example, a tennis player can think about what his opponent is doing rather than how he needs to move his feet and swing his arm to connect with the ball. However, when "choking", his concentration becomes so disrupted that the athlete begins to focus on the unconscious actions and attempts to perform them consciously. Unfortunately this is literally like attempting to re-learn the techniques in the middle of the match, analyzing and breaking a complicated motion into the hundreds of small pieces that make up the whole. Pressure and loss of confidence can bring on the choke, and a partial remedy is to try to focus on other things and re-establish the unconscious rhythm. Top athletes need to play "the most important game of their life as if it didn't matter".

Bounce also mentions situational blindness: We focus only on a tiny fraction of the available information that our senses present. This topic is discussed in much greater detail in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,  a great book which he also mentions.  The famous invisible-gorilla experiment demonstrates how we can ignore something obvious right in front of us while focused on something else. In a much more chilling account of an airplane crash, repeated, cockpit recordings demonstrated that clearly audible altitude warnings were ignored while the pilot and crew focused on troubleshooting a warning light until it was too late to avert the crash.

Near the end of the book, Bounce challenges one of the most prevalent athletic stereotypes: black sprinters and distance runners are better than white ones. Only black sprinters have run sub-10 second 100 meters, the vast majority of recent Olympic 100m finalists are black, and Kenyans have done spectacularly well in the distance events. However, digging deeper, he points out that, for sprinters, American and Jamaican sprinters are disproportionately represented, and that the majority of top Kenyan runners come from a tiny region, roughly within a 60 mile radius in Kenya. So rather than being general racial characteristics, the successes are highly specific to a tiny subset of the population. A brief exploration of genetic diversity ensues, the highlight of which is that all ethnicities contain a very large percentage of the total genetic variation, far more within a group than across groups. For more information on this topic, see the wikipedia article:

In summary, Bounce is an inspiring look at the benefits of the growth mindset versus the talent mindset, with a good mix of personal anecdotes and scientific research. I recommend it with 4 stars, and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook version from

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? By Seth Godin

In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, author Seth Godin assembles a surprisingly large collection of ideas, tips, strategies and anecdotes about becoming a linchpin, the person that an organization can't do without. Although many of his examples are targeted at the business environment, Linchpin is also about life strategies that can be applied to nearly any undertaking. The book is filled with so many thought-provoking ideas, many almost at the level of one-liners, that it would not be surprising to have separate readers come away with significantly different impressions. I will be highlighting the points that I found most interesting, rather than giving a thorough summary.

My principle takeaway from Linchpin is that creative, non-linear results delivered consistently and with humanity is the secret to becoming indispensable. Godin calls linchpins "artists", and points to three critical characteristics:

1. They give a gift. Some exceptional part of what they do is above and beyond what they expect in return.
2. They produce results that cause change in the world around them.
3. They ship. They prepare their work, but then share/publish/give it so that other people can use/appreciate/consume/benefit from it.

Godin explains that your work as an artist is to simply ship things that make change. Everything else is unimportant.
Linchpin begins with a relatively pessimistic assessment of the state of the business environment. Godin argues that many of our business practices originate in the assembly-line management style that emerged from the industrial revolution, when one of the primary goals was to break down production into a series of simple, largely repeatable tasks that could be performed by mostly interchangeable workers with specific but limited training. An employee's value to the business was confined to the income they generated minus the wage they were paid. By mechanizing the steps, businesses could achieve economy of scale and the emphasis was on decreasing the cost of labor by simplifying the requirements for any particular task. Today, even though there are still companies that are succeeding with this type of business model, there are a very limited number of them in each industry, and they are very price and cost-sensitive. The business ecosystem supports a variety of other approaches, however, and many other businesses succeed by providing better service, more flexibility, creativity and competing on other factors other than price. As he points out, retail businesses don't try to compete with Walmart on price, that battle is largely over. Instead, businesses that depend on any of those other non-price factors need employees who show superior initiative, creativity and/or people skills. Unfortunately, he argues, our education system is still oriented to producing factory workers who are able to follow instructions, master a body of existing knowledge, work hard at clearly defined tasks, and expect that over time, their diligence, hard work and obedience will be rewarded. The harsh reality is that because of a variety of factors from globalization to the continued factory mindset, these types of system-educated workers are more likely to become low-cost, outsourceable cogs than someone highly in demand. For example, is a transcription service that uses Amazon's mechanical turk to break audio recordings into small chunks that are transcribed by a fleet of low-cost typists distributed all over the world, thereby providing quality transcriptions at a fraction of the cost (and employee wages) of a traditional service. However, after painting a pretty grim picture of the existing environment, Godin begins to point to a number of opportunities to adapt and thrive within this difficult ecosystem. One of the points is that knowledge work has transformed the balance of power from the factory owner to the factory worker. Previously, the factory required a huge capital investment, and it was far easier for a factory owner to replace a worker than it was for the worker to create a new factory where his skills could be applied. However, with knowledge work, the "factory" is often the mind, or the mind + a computer, and so it is now easy for the worker to "build their own factory". 

The concept of shipping is critical to the linchpin mentality. Part of the discipline (and the point) of creativity is sharing. As you force yourself to ship, to finish something and share it with others, you enable the artistic process (both giving and receiving) to happen. Develop the discipline of getting things to a shippable state, and then pull the trigger. Sometimes this can simply involve shipping whatever you have at a fixed cutoff, and making that commitment to yourself and others. For example, Saturday Night Live must ship. That's the point, and it's built into the show. Over time, you will become better at producing higher quality results when you ship. A common fear barrier ("the resistance") is that we don't have a good enough idea, or enough good ideas. Godin argues that it's far more effective to attempt to generate lots of bad ideas, and *ship* them than to obsess about finding the one good idea. With practice, good ideas will emerge from the discipline of preparing bad ideas for release, and bad ideas that ship have an infinitely better chance of creating positive change than good ideas that never get implemented. As an additional strategy, Godin suggests putting aside ideas that don't quickly take shape, where you aren't able to make rapid, concrete progress and complete them. This technique requires some finesse, however, because it's important not to avoid everything that is difficult, while at the same time avoiding the trap of not shipping because it's too hard to get things "ready".

Linchpin takes the bias towards action to a whole new level with the idea that there is only minimal difference between knowing and not knowing when you begin something. Progress has three states: inaction, action, and completion. While this is another idea that requires considerable finesse to be practical, the takeaway is that progress is made by doing, not by waiting until we have everything just right so that we can start with a clear plan.

Godin also devotes considerable attention to describing the importance of the "gift" exchange. As mentioned above, giving is a critical part of being a linchpin. Because of the power of internet communications, there is a new class of people who are not friends but "friendlies". If you spend too much time attempting to market and sell to people you don't know, you are likely to cause strains and your art will suffer. However, if you spend time attempting to give "gifts" to your friends AND friendlies, you will likely see that your circle expands and opens new opportunities. It may turn out that there is no clear economic benefit to giving your gift, but often being true to what you want to do is rewarding itself. 

One of the more surprising ideas in Linchpin is that asking for permission to do something new and risky is largely a cop-out. "I want to do something, but my boss won't let me. Of course she won't, because it means that if it fails, she gets the blame, but if it succeeds, you get the credit." If you believe in something, take the risk to make it happen, accept failure on your own shoulders and be very quick to share the credit if you succeed.

Learn to depersonalize: people tend to have a much easier time not blaming others when events are random or the result of forces we can't really change, like the weather. However, we have little actual ability to change the people around us, and should learn to treat events caused by others just as impersonally.  Switching to "wow, I wonder why that happened" instead of "How dare he!" is the first critical step to being solution oriented. As an example, Richard Branson, when faced with a canceled flight out of the Caribbean, didn't spend time fretting about the problem, but instead went immediately to inquire about a charter flight, and then put up on a board, "flights home, X dollars" and was able to fill the charter and get home on time.

Another technique is "if only". Learn to say to yourself, I could do this "if only". Then address the specific issues. Don't treat this an an excuse, but rather as an empowerment technique that can isolate limiting factors in a specific and actionable way, moving from a blockage to the idea that you could succeed given a few tweaks. Naturally, it helps to identify things that you can control or influence as part of the "if only" condition.

One of the ideas that was most controversial to me was about avoiding thrashing. Per Godin, as a project progresses, it becomes important to limit the number of people who can change the final result. The cycle of see, change. debate, consider, build, see, change is important to have early on, but once the direction has been established, if that sort of change happens closer towards the end, it can delay or sink the entire project. So attempt to have a single person with go/no-go authority, and present them the choice of shipping on time, or accepting/handling lots of late-stage feedback. I tend to agree that it's very easy for lots of late stage changes to create thrashing, but building iteratively with shorter release cycles seems to be a better approach. Perhaps, though, shorter release cycles are really just another way of decreasing the amount of required/available late-stage input.

Another key concept in Linchpin is the idea of "the resistance". The resistance is a general term for the forces of fear, uncertainty, doubt, inertia and overt hostility that conspire to block change. Many times these forces are internal, while another times they are actually external. Godin points to anxiety as an extremely useless part of the resistance. Fear is productive, it warns you away from danger, while anxiety is imagining what could go wrong. He uses the example of a driver who, when spotting flashing lights in the rear view mirror, begins to imagine a traffic stop, misunderstandings, resisting arrest, being jailed and eating prison food. Learn to recognize the signs of the downward spiral of anxiety, and abort it at an early stage. As a personal example, I have found that my tendency to replay arguments in my head, and in particular to imagine the actual dialogue for the "rematch", is a particularly useless cycle. It allows my anger to escalate nearly unchecked against the mental strawman, while the actual conversation with a real person always diverges radically from the first word of the imagined script. I can break the cycle by recognizing the pattern and focusing on the key points of how I feel and what needs to change, not the intricacies of scoring points in an imagined contest of verbal swords. 

I would definitely recommend reading Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?. There are a  multitude of ideas, and you are sure to find a few that will inspire, challenge and provoke you. I listened to the Overdrive unabridged audiobook version from the San Jose Public Library. 

Rating: 4 stars