A Note On Process

I've missed many weeks' worth of posts now, and I'd like to examine the underlying reason for it and what this might suggest for the structure of Eclectic Commentary moving forward.

Fundamentally, Eclectic Commentary is meant to be a project about the process of learning and the process of developing a breadth and depth of ideas. This implies a certain roughness around the edges: after all, a refined product is a finished product, requiring no further development.

In writing my previous Eclectic Commentary posts, I felt the pressure to commit only highly refined ideas to writing. This is normally a difficult thing to do in itself, but in the case of Eclectic Commentary, the task is made doubly hard by the fact that I was deliberately trying to learn about and synthesise ideas at the edges of my own expertise. Trying to do so on a weekly schedule, I have come to realise, is foolish, counterproductive, and a recipe for acute Impostor Syndrome.

I would still like to publish on a weekly schedule, though, and to do it in a way that emphasises process and exploration.

This is the way I’m going to do it: when I’m exploring a new discipline, I’ll lay out some fundamental questions that I’m looking for answers to. That said, most of these questions will be unanswerable. The goal isn’t answers, the goal is understanding. The questions are simply catalysts for exploration and new territory.

Once the questions have been laid out, I’ll read as much as I can about the topic in question. Posts during this stage might take the form of book summaries, or they might be notes I make for myself — I’m not sure yet. The goal at this stage will simply be to accumulate knowledge.

At some point, the accumulation of knowledge will move towards consolidation and synthesis. I’ll start making connections between what I’ve learnt and what I know, and use that to build out new ideas to play with. I’ll revisit some of the early questions I began with, and see if I have any more insight into them now. Hopefully these posts will draw from many disciplines, and spark a new round of questions to begin a new line of inquiry.

This means that posts like the previous few will be much more spaced out. The synthesis of ideas might happen only once every few weeks, as opposed to every post. But let’s face it: the synthesis of ideas always takes time, and if I was able to kick out one post a week for a while, it was only because I’d been thinking about these ideas for a while anyway. The way of working that I’ve laid out here will free me from the pressure to produce a refined product every week, and instead will allow me to spend more time digging and mining for information. You’ll also get to read more of the process, and follow along as I learn and refine my ideas.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Normal service will resume next Monday, 26 March. Thanks for reading!

What is Eclectic Commentary?

In short

Eclectic Commentary is my experiment in my own continuing education. This blog is where I explore different fields and ideas in the liberal arts, always looking for new lenses through which to see the world.

In particular, it’s a place where I look for and write about core ideas and basic principles that can be translated from one discipline to entirely different ones.

The long story

When I was registering for classes for my final year of college, I remember looking through the course catalog and being seized with anxiety. There were so many classes I wanted to take, there was so much more I wanted to learn, and I could only take 36 credits’ worth of them. I’d click on a random department in the course catalog — Hebrew and Judaic Studies, say — and think, ooh, these classes look interesting. But are they more interesting than these other classes in the Linguistics department? Or I’d go look at a cool project that, say, the Interactive Telecommunications department was working on, and look up what classes they had, only to find out that they weren’t offering any classes open to undergrads that semester. Then I’d feel really disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to learn, say, Arduino. Then I’d feel really sad that I wouldn’t be able to learn all these things!

I realised that I was going to need some guiding principle to allow me to sift out just eight to ten classes to enrol in, out of the thousands that the university offered. After much consideration, the guideline that I arrived at was this: I would take the classes where I most needed the guidance of an instructor. Everything else that I wanted to learn, I’d find a way to learn — or to teach myself — after college.

So that’s the first thing: Eclectic Commentary is a space for me to write about the things I’ve learnt, the books I’ve read, etc. that fall within the domain of the liberal arts.

But there’s another thing that I want to do here that’s a little harder to articulate, except through a series of examples.

Felicia, my sister and collaborator in just about everything, is a musician. I’ve long since known that we pay attention to very different things as a result of our different training: Felicia will hear an ambulance go by and tell me, for example, that the two tones of ambulance sirens in Germany make a perfect fourth, while in Switzerland they make a perfect fifth and in France a major second. She is simply much more attuned to sound and music than I am.

This is true of everyone to some degree, of course. David, my collaborator on Monkey Mind, is an ecologist, and thinks of the world in terms of habitats, populations and ecosystems. When he sees a dead bird, he doesn’t just see a dead bird: he sees whether the bird is resident or migratory, what the cause of death is, and many other things that I have no idea about. Mun Yi, my collaborator on Collision Course, is an architectural designer, and sees the world in terms of design problems and visual and spatial solutions.

Meanwhile, as a filmmaker by training, I tend to tune in to narrative structure and audiovisual communication. As a linguistics enthusiast, I clue in to words that have interesting histories and cognates, and to variations in pronunciation. Even that reflects my knowledge of linguistics: if I’d taken more syntax and semantics classes, instead of focusing on phonetics and historical linguistics, I’d probably be looking for very different things in language.

So this is the second thing: Eclectic Commentary is a place to explore and expand the range of ways I can see and understand the world, and in particular, to look at connections between diverse fields.

What To Expect

You can expect at least one substantive post a week, usually on Monday.

By “substantive”, I mean a post that will generally require some time and thought to read and digest. There’s no word count above which I count something as “substantive” and below which something isn’t. Some things simply take less time to explain and others take more. My goal is to express a coherent idea, and whether that takes 1500 words or 3000 is irrelevant.

Some weeks I will post more than one long post. It depends on what I happen to be working on. Posts that are about the same length may take vastly different amounts of time to write, depending on the amount of research needed and my familiarity with the topic. One long post a week works well: it gives me enough room to do research and tackle topics that might be challenging, but it also guarantees a reasonably consistent output.

I will occasionally make shorter posts, highlighting articles, essays, news, books, podcasts, whatever else, during the week, but you won’t find low-effort posts here that simply repeat other people’s news. My goal with these posts is to point you to stuff that might stimulate ideas and discussion.

Accuracy and Expertise (aka the Imposter Syndrome Section)

I’m one person in a room somewhere with an Internet connection, and depending on where I am, maybe a reference library nearby. I’m not an expert on most things that I talk about, just a very curious and inquisitive person. Nonetheless, I try to learn as much as I can, and sit with ideas for as long as I need to, before posting something on Eclectic Commentary.

So: if you read something here that you feel I didn’t understand correctly, or if you think there’s an important point that needs to be made, just drop me a message, and I’ll get back to you. I’m here to learn, and I can’t be an expert on everything, so I’m more than happy to draw on the expertise of others.

A related but separate issue: I do my best to make what I write worth reading. I credit my sources and references. But — let’s face it — often I’m going to be laying out an idea that someone else has already developed, and I’m not going to know about it because I’m not an expert. In that case, please assume good faith and send me a message. I’ll look into it and write an update as necessary.

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