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  1. Expertise is more than meets the eye (677 words)



1. Expertise is more than meets the eye: 20:34

Last Wednesday, I shared this amazing anecdote from a research paper on expert levels of performance (Ericsson, 1998) about the Italian violinist, Paganini:

According to my father's account, during one of his concerts Paganini experienced a problem—one of the strings on his violin broke; after a brief pause, he continued playing the music on the remaining string. A little later another string broke but he still resumed playing. Yet another strong broke, and Paganini finished playing the concert on a single string while producing the most beautiful music. Such a demonstration of an immediate unexpected reorganization of one's music performance is mind-boggling.

So what's the explanation for this amazing feat of genius? Ericsson went on to explain that in the 19th century, performers generally composed their own music. Paganini set himself the creative challenge of composing musical pieces that could be played on only one string, developing new techniques along the way.

The audience didn't know that, of course! Paganini started off by playing the pieces on all strings. Easy enough if you're used to playing them on one string! Ever the showman, Paganini would sometimes intentionally snap the other strings in the course of his performance, finishing—to great applause—on the single string that he'd planned all along.

So what seems like a miraculous gift is really more about lots and lots of practice and preparation, with a little bit of trickery thrown in.

Now I have a sneaky suspicion that I've seen this trick before. Not only that, but I completly fell for it too! I was in Tokyo watching a shamisen performance. In the middle of a frenzied passage, the plectrum a blur over the instrument's three strings, snap! went one of the strings. Not a problem! He adjusted the tuning peg and kept on playing! I was *so* impressed. But now I'm onto you, Mr. Shamisen Player. You probably break strings all the time while practicing. You might have even been playing a one-string piece and had snapped your strings intentionally to impress us. Hah!

Do we have anything like that in IT? What's our one-string piece with which we can astound other people?

Ericksson, K. A. (1998) "The scientific study of expert levels of performnance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity." High Ability Studies, 9(1), pp75—100

Random Emacs symbol: comint-within-quotes - Function: Return t if the number of quotes between BEG and END is odd.

Follow up: JM Ibanez

and from Paul Lussier:

Practice can't account for all of it, actual, real life experience handling catastrophes and routing around unforseen problems on the fly helps a lot :)

Paganini obviously knows his music and his instrument to such a level that he's able to pull this type of thing off. But anyone so versed in music could do the same thing. Ever listen to extemporaneous "jam sessions" from the likes of Eric Clapton, BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Satriani, Pat Methany? They're all unbelievable guitarists who can make the guitar do things you never even dreamed possible.

My manager, at 2:00am, faced with a dual drive failure in a mirrored system running an ancient, monolithic, non-moduler Linux kernel specially compiled with certain drivers long since lost, pulled off an unbelievable feat of grafting a very recent, very moduler 2.6 kernel from a Knoppix CD onto this system and was able to get it back up and serving NFS long enough to move the entire terabyte array to a new system.

It's the same thing. Years of practice and familiarity coupled with knowing *what's* possible, then working around catastrophe using this knowledge and experience!

Someday you're going to pull off the impossible too, but it won't seem so hard to you. It will just be "the natural thing to do" given the circumstances at the time. To everyone else, it'll be a miracle :)

Remember what Arthur C. Clark said:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinquishable from magic."

Where "sufficiently advanced technology" can be defined as any area in which you are more expert than the average person :)


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