Book review: Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night

This is a cozy tale of queer-poly family, under a thin veneer of urban fantasy.

The setup is that a magician goes missing. His two partners must join forces to track him down. The main attraction of the book is watching their mutual connection develop from one of distant acceptance towards real affection.

I was indifferent to many aspects of the book. The plot, the prose, the fantasy elements, even the characterization: it all felt flat and plodding.

But I adored the depiction of queer-poly families, both chosen and biological. There’s a moment, for instance, where a woman gets to know her wife’s metamour. It was spot-on, and also something I don’t remember having encountered in fiction before.

Practice for Autodidacts

As the last 2 posts suggest, I’m becoming interested in training and practice.

I’ve long considered myself a skilled autodidact. I have successfully taught myself the programming skills I use to earn a living, as well as multiple languages. I’m (over-)confident of my ability to immerse myself in an unfamiliar academic discipline enough to find whatever information I need.

Pull back the camera, though, and it turns out I am very good at a small subset of learning. I can do studying, but have only the most rudimentary skill in practice or training. Or to put it in the terms of the previous post: I am good at gaining knowledge-of, bad at gaining knowledge-how.

This, I think, is because so much of my learning has happened alone. It is much easier to teach yourself than to train yourself. Training (or practice) requires a tight feedback loop, and it is harder to obtain that without a teacher. It’s hard to imagine a movie training montage without the wise mentor in the background.

And we approach new challenges with the tools we have used to deal with problems of the past. Self-directed learning means I have spent less time practicing, which in turn means it is not the first method which comes to mind when I am learning something new. I have got out of practice at practicing.

As I noticed this more over the past couple of years, I gradually realised its scope. Take cooking: I understood this to mean memorizing a collection of recipes, techniques, flavor combinations and the like, so I could pull them out of my mind at will. It occurred embarrassingly late to me that “knowing how to cook” might involve experience more than book-learning.

It’s not an accident that I came up with such a ridiculous approach to cooking. I was taking the mental toolkit I had, and applying it to the problem at hand. I have not previously learned much from practice, and so did not reach for that as an approach.

Humbling as it is to realise what I have been missing out on, it is also energising. Since I have overlooked an entire area of learning, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit to be plucked. I suspect I’m now heading towards a phase of annoying over-correction, as I ask about everything: “how can I practice it?”

Visual mnemonics for stunt pilots

Stunt pilots, preparing for aerobatic routines, have converged on a fascinating form of rehearsal: they dance.

If you see a pilot before an airshow, they may well be doing the so-called “Aresti dance”. It’s a series of movements which encode the manouvers they will make up in the air.

Besides being a charming idiosyncracy, this makes total sense. Physical movement is a powerful aide to memory. It is one of many reasons for the role of dance in traditional rituals from any number of cultures. It is under-used in modern education partly because we are just overall bad at teaching, and partly because dancing does not fit obviously into a classroom.

The Aresti dance also deals with a problem more unique to aerobatics pilots: it is hard to get enough rehearsal time. Stunt flying is inherently dangerous and expensive. So as much work as you can do on the ground, should be done on the ground.

Online information about the Aresti dance is pretty scarce. It takes its name from Aresti figures, which are a standard nomenclature and digramming system for aerobatic manouvers. I have found plenty of videos of the dance, but no in-depth description of how it works.

Education as a Substance

Keith Johnstone’s Impro is ostensibly a book about iimprovisational theatre. Yet the book – in particular the introduction – goes both deeper and broader.

Here, for instance, is Johnstone on education:

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities
[Improv, Keith Johnstone]

Johnson is absolutely correct for the kind of education he is thinking of – teaching art, or acting, or most situations where you could substitute ‘training’ for ‘teaching’.

He is, I think, only mostly correct when it comes to more academic education. The more the content resembles “one damn fact after another”, the more it can be taught by a bad teacher. If you attend a bad (but factually correct) history lecture, you will still come out with some basic information about the subject matter. Does that count as education? Debatable, but in my view it just barely clears the bar.

It helps to distinguish between knowledge-that and knowledge-how. Knowledge-that is factual knowledge which you can consciously explain. Knowledge-how is a skill, something you can do perhaps even without being able to explain it. I know that the Bastille was stormed on 14 July; I know how to ride a bicycle.

The academic system has a bias towards knowledge-that. A universtiy lecturer is arguable the highest-status teacher. Her work is one of the purest forms of teaching knowledge-that. The audience do not learn how to do anything more than sit on their bums and listen.

Yet, most of the value of a teacher is in teaching knowledge-how. I can skip a lecture and learn from a recording or a book. But if I skip an acting class, I will not be able to make up for it with time in the library.

The class where the teacher is most needed (acting, or dance, or woodwork) is also where a bad teacher can do most harm. Training a bad habit is more likely, and more harmful, than teaching a bad fact.

Knowledge-how is dangerous for the same reason it is powerful and wonderful. It changes how you see and understand and interact with the world, in a way that is hard to unpick. This is especially true of a topic like painting or drama, where the skill overlaps so completely with the rest of the self.

The Ethical Slut

The Ethical Slut is one of the books most frequently recommended to anybody interested in polyamory. That is partly because, written over 20 years ago, it established its reputation at a time when there were few alternative resources. And it is partly because, even now, the alternatives are less than perfect. More than Two, another prominent book on poly, lost its lustre when it emergeed that one author had abused multiple women, including his co-author

When I mentioned to friends what I was reading, I heard much more criticism than praise. Similarly, once our book group held its discussion, we ended up with objections on all sides.

One complaint is the way that The Ethical Slut discusses other minority sexual groups. Despite being written by two bisexual/lesbian women, it feels very targeted towards a heterosexual couple considering opening up their relationship. When it discussed gay and lesbian communities, it is in a way that over-generalizes from the groups the authors have encountered.

A criticism I care less about is historical accuracy. The Ethical Slut includes a whirlwind tour of groups who have in the past practiced non-monogamy. Treat it as a historical treatise and you will be infuriated. I read it more as a reminder that the mid-20th-century American nuclear family is not the single model by which all human society has arranged itself.

Mostly, I feel the people in my circle who dislike The Ethical Slut want it to be something it is not. Somebody already deeply embedded in LGBT, kinky, and poly groups is unlikely to find the book frustratingly basic. But if you come to the book from the straight, monogamous mainstream, this is perhaps the introduction which you need.