Water For Elephants

I first read Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen, in 2009.  It is a powerful, dynamic, and hopeful story.  If you have only seen the movie, you have missed a great deal of the texture and subtlety of the novel.

The novel is structured as a frame story in which Jacob, the viewpoint character, in a nursing home, recovering from a broken hip.  He is cranky, and a little forgetful.  A circus is in town, and he is looking forward to the weekend, when someone from his family will visit, and take him to the circus.

In flashbacks, we see his first few months with a circus in his youth, during the Great Depression, as an impoverished veterinary student.  He falls in love with an unavailable woman, he learns how cruel people can really be, how deep true friendship runs, and how easily even the best of us can be pushed by passion to violence and despair.

In the end, redemption from an unexpected source comes in the midst of cruel revenge gone beyond reason.

The book is gritty, as you might expect from a circus book set in the Great Depression.  Not recommended for children or younger teenagers, but adults will be moved by the deep emotional honesty, remembering the burning, self-centered transition from youth to adult.  It shows the bittersweet difference between the fantasy we all have about “adventures”, and the real hard times and fear that are the root of every adventure story.

If you like Water For Elephants, you may also like The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: Mind Mapping

A bit of personal history about the concept of Mind Mapping

I first heard of mind mapping in high school, in the late 1970s.  The context escapes me, but I was talking with a teacher about ideas for a paper or a project, and the teacher asked me if I had heard about mind mapping.  He described it as a brainstorming or idea-generating technique, and although I don’t recall his precise words, he described it very roughly as involving a central idea spidering out to other connected ideas, with connections out in layers.  I toyed with it at that time, but it did not really click for me.

The idea of mind mapping stayed with me, though, and through the years of school, and after, I tried it out for various brainstorming activities.  I remember, in particular, trying to break loose from plot blocks when writing fiction.  I am pretty sure I used it a couple of times when creating technical presentations or proposals, as well, but it never became a regular part of my tool set.

A few years ago, our pastor brought up the subject in a conversation, and for a while after that conversation he tried using mind mapping techniques in the sermon notes he passes out on Sunday mornings, as well as in the notes he displayed on a screen at the front of the sanctuary.  At this point, I began to get confused about exactly what mind mapping was.  I was still stuck on the brainstorming definition from a five-minute conversation in high school.  I began to realize that I needed to learn more about the technique, and about its application.

Clearing up my confusion

A while ago, then, I bought a copy of The Mind Map Book, by Tony Buzan, .  So, I have a few things to say about mind mapping as a technique, and about this book in particular.  I am not going to recap the book.  I am just going to talk about my reaction to it.

First, although mind mapping can be used for brainstorming, that is not its strength.  Brainstorming requires fluid speed, popping ideas out in all directions without pruning the list, the tree, the cloud of ideas.  The “Rules of Mind Mapping”, as Buzan lists them in the book, are so restrictive that when I attempt to follow them, it constricts the flow in my exploration of the ideas.

But, if you ignore mind map formatting in your brainstorming, then spend some time organizing, re-structuring, coloring, and sketching, you can produce a consistent mind map that shows you where most of your ideas cluster.  Depending on what you are doing, you can focus on the full or sparse branches.

Next, it can be used for taking notes, as in a lecture or study.   But, you must plan to go through several iterations.  There is simply no way to be sure, when you are learning something new, where all the bits belong, or even which parts are important to include.  So, the way to get the most out of mind mapping for note taking is to get your best “live” guess, then go run a draft or two to get the structure right, and then add color, sketches, highlights, and textures.

Hmm.  That sounds like note-taking advice I got back in high school, except for the mind map format.  Take notes, then later on re-write them, not for neatness necessarily, but to organize it, add your own thoughts, explore questions raised by your notes, etc.  Almost as if “mind mapping,” per se, is not a critical part of the process.

And that’s really the key

The key to a useful mind map is just this:  It is not a first draft.  It is not a draft at all.  It is a finished work, requiring re-working, re-structuring, and re-thinking.  It requires tossing crumpled papers in the trash, crossing everything out in big bold frustration, giving up and starting over.

In other words, it’s a lot like writing.  Or painting.  Or any other artistic or intellectual endeavor.

What’s right about Buzan-style mind mapping

Emphasis On Context

Buzan lists a number of features that make items more memorable:

Easier To Remember
Description My View
Near the beginning Temporal Context
Near the end Temporal Context
Associated with existing memories Referential Context
Associated with other items in the material Structural Context
Emphasized in the material Artificial Context
Appeals to the senses Sensory Context
Interesting to the student Personal Context

In my view memory is all about context.  Another way to view that is associations.  The different things that make a bit of information memorable are contexts, or associations, and learning something requires some way to put them all together in a cohesive structure.

When we study a subject with a lot of internal connections, it has what I would like to call Structural Context.  Natural science tends to have a lot of these:  “The head-bone’s connected to the neck-bone.”  History, when it is viewed as interconnected stories, has them.

But, a lot of abstract studies, or contrived knowledge systems, lack natural structure and connections.  In these cases, structural context lacking, it often helps to add some artificial context.  You can add context by ordering (temporal context).  You can add context by associating sensations with concepts (colored fonts, sketches, associations with sounds or smells).  You get the idea.

And some of the most useful parts of The Mind Map Book are about attaching artificial context to concepts.  Colored pens, stars and underlines, boxes and curves.

There is another technique of artificial context, an ancient concept:  the Memory Palace.  You have probably heard about the technique.  Things like associating an exaggerated representation of the first item with the front door, the second item in the foyer, etc.

A completed final version of a mind map is a web of colored, textured associations, sketches, and words.  A two-dimensional artificial context map.  A useful memory tool.

What bothers me about the book

Okay, I believe that a mind map can be a useful memory tool.  But, The Mind Map Book, what about it?

Excess Enthusiasm

The whole book reads like a political tract, working too hard to convert you to the position that Mind Mapping is the best and only way to represent knowledge.  Frankly, it’s a sales job, of the used car variety.  I found myself wondering if the brakes were bad on this lemon, so to speak.

I believe the book would be more effective with the attention of an editor whose paycheck was signed by someone other than Tony Buzan, someone who could rein in the enthusiasm and push Buzan  to view the techniques more dispassionately.

Junk Science

One of Buzan’s central ideas is that Mind Mapping reflects the structure of memory, and that therefore, by definition, it is the best way to organize information.

There are plenty of examples in the book of people making breakthroughs using the technique, and some of them are striking.  On the other hand, most of them have a hidden leap of eye-rolling illogic.

Repetition

Except for a couple of chapters near the end, the second half of the book is a half-dozen variations of this theme:

If you use Mind Mapping for this situation, it is completely different from all the other uses of Mind Mapping, and utterly revolutionary.  Here are the steps.

1. The same step 1 as all the other uses.

2. The same step 2 as all the other uses.

… etc.

See?  Different from all the other ways to use it!

Few (Useful) Instructions

I found that the descriptions of what a Mind Map should look like inadequate for actually producing them, and the step-by-step instructions too vague.  I suspect that a significant part of Buzan’s income is from live classes on the technique, and that he feared that really good instructions would cannibalize that business.  It felt miserly and disingenuous to me.

De-emphasizes Iterations

If you want to wind up with a usable Mind Map, it is going to require iterations, multiple drafts, trial and error.  Buzan manages to convey the impression that the maps should spring from your head like Athena from Zeus, by virtue of the “natural” structure of the tool.

There is a short and inadequate discussion of iterations, but to me it felt overwhelmed by the rest of the implications in the rest of the text.

Single-Word Branches

One of the Rules of Mind Mapping is that branches should have single words only.  So, instead of “Red Pony”,  would have “Red” -> “Pony” (or vice versa, depending on what you wanted to emphasize.)

I’m not making that up.  In fact, the argument in the book for single-word branches is even more precarious and contrived than that.

Topological Identity of Trees and Outlines

In a very real sense, I believe this is one of the most glaring weaknesses of the book.  Buzan hammers over and over at the idea that Mind Maps are superior to numbered outlines in every respect.  However, topologically speaking, they are identical.  Either one is simply a way of formatting a tree:  A set of connected nodes, each except the root) with one parent, any node may have zero or more children.  The only difference is formatting.

His refusal to acknowledge this fact completely dissolves his credibility.

Recommendations

  1. Get a different book.
  2. Use a stripped-down version of mind mapping to explore a concept space (brainstorming).
  3. Create maps to help remember complex information that lacks natural context.

Gone

I’ve been a fan of Randy Wayne White and his Doc Ford series of mysteries for a pretty long time.  There are nearly a score of them now, and the last few have felt just a little strained.  Not so far that I’m giving up, but like maybe White and Ford need a break from each other.

The other day I found his new book, Gone, the first of a new series.  The protagonist is Hannah Smith, a fishing guide and private investigator working in the Sanibel/Captiva/Fort Meyers area.

Four chapters in, I am pretty happy with the book.  It is always a good sign when the shamus in a mystery treats wounded characters with respect and care.

Sure, there is a place for the noir tradition of the Knight in Stained Armor, but noir mysteries focus much more on rough justice, and any mercy tends to be nearly as rough.  The detective shrugs off connections, afraid his (almost always his) own damage will aggravate the wounds of the victims he encounters.

Hannah Smith seems to be the sort of character who can hardly help herself from making the world just a little brighter, a little better than she found it.  She is not a hippy-dippy touchy-feely guidance counselor, just a tough woman who cares about people, finding her way in a world filled with darkness and cruelty.

When I finish up, I will say a few more words about this one.

Continue reading “Gone”

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This book, by Eleanor Cameron, was my first exposure to what might be called Science Fiction, and one of only a few books I remember from before about the sixth grade.  I think I was in third when I got hold of it.

It is hard to emphasize how influential this book was on my thinking.  Really, ever since I read it, I identified with Science Fiction, even before I probably had heard the term.  It had the right amount of adventure to appeal to me, it struck me at the right level of emotional engagement, and it clearly was the first of a series.

Let me take a moment to explain why that was important to me, even at that age.

I had been reading, by then, for half my life, and my level of decoding and comprehension skills were far beyond what was expected of my age.  For the first couple of years, the school library limited students to a double shelf of picture books, and I was deeply frustrated.  I remember one day, I found a book on that shelf that seemed enormous to me.  It was probably fifty pages, and it seemed even larger because it had been re-bound in that plastic-coated canvas that school libraries use.  I did not even read the title, just took it to the desk and checked it out.  I had visions of a book that might take me most of the afternoon to read.  Bliss!

When we got back to the classroom, I opened the book, and got a nasty shock.  It was just another stinking picture book.  I don’t remember the pictures, the topic, or anything, except this:  It had one word per page.  Literally.  I felt like I’d been deceived.

So, back to the Mushroom Planet, a book that was clearly the beginning of a series was like that “big book”, before I opened it up:  a promise of a long reading experience.

The basic plot, for those of you who haven’t encountered it:  An odd little man advertises for two boys to build a rocket.  The protagonists do it, the odd little man adds a motor, and sends them up to to solve a crisis on The Mushroom Planet, which invisibly orbits Earth considerably closer than the Moon.

Although this book clearly triggered my interest in Science Fiction, I was already interested in what I thought of as Science.  It’s a safe bet that I would have come to science fiction by some other path if I hadn’t encountered The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet.

In any case, I picked up a copy a few years back and re-read it.  With older eyes, I would now classify this book as Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction.  Although it uses sciencey props (rocket, planet, polarization, spores, sulphur), the science is all window dressing.

  • The mechanics of the flight and orbit are worse than wrong
  • The use of the concept of escape velocity is misleading,
  • The boys’ ability to communicate with the Mushroom People is unexplained.
  • The inability of Mr. Bass (the Odd Little Man) to repeat his inventions or explain how they work is the opposite of science and engineering.

The other thing I noticed is that the rocket-building experience was not just glossed-over, it was explicitly described as a mystical experience.  The parts were magically available.  The scrap aluminum sheets the boys found fit perfectly on the boat-rib frame with no cutting.  The ship was completed in record time, with no squabbling between the boys.

I would prefer to see a version of the story that included false starts, the necessity to learn skills and undo mistakes, and a sense of accomplishment, rather than the boys just being pawns in a story on rails.  In other words, a story that provides a view of the world as a set of puzzles one can and should solve.

Still, as I say, it was an influential book of my childhood, and I retain a certain fondness for it.