I’ve been on a bit of a painting kick – I dug up my bottles of botanical inks, bought a massive stack of watercolor paper, and sifted through hard drives of my vacation photos for nature references.
As I got the hang of the medium, I spent hours and hours each evening painting as I listened to podcasts or classes. I was hooked. When else does one look at nature photos that closely or for that long?
The effect was hypnotic. At the time, I was digging into climate research that was emotionally taxing. The harder it got, the more I painted to recover.
I’ve run out of ink now, but I still find myself staring at the leaves outside my window, tracing shapes in the air with my finger.
Want to give it a try? Even if you can’t get away to the middle of the wilderness, you can still get some nature time. Take a look at leaves or clouds – for a long time, way longer than seems sensible. Trace their shapes in the air.
What do you see that you would miss at a glance?
I’m working on developing the most eco-friendly art practice I can. That’s why I’m experimenting with botanical inks and watercolors, and Forest Stewardship Council certified watercolor paper.
My process isn’t perfect, but I’m learning a lot about sustainability, which I hope to apply to other aspects of my life too.
I’ll share more about my process as I refine it. As a preview, if you’re curious, here is my article about how I apply sustainability principles to my journaling practice.
You can make truer statements with statistics than without. Statements that apply to some fraction of people for some fraction of the time can be stated as such, instead of as absolutes.
No one ‘always’ does anything. If you said to someone “You always do this!” the statement can only be false.
‘All’ people of a certain demographic don’t do any one thing. “All women (or all men) behave a certain way”, is less true than a statement that specifies what fraction of men or women you mean, and how you estimated this fraction.
Degree of knowledge and applicability can only be expressed with completeness using statistical tools like sample size, probabilities, and likelihoods. Without them, you are stuck with either the wishy-washy ‘sometimes’ or the overconfident ‘always’.
The phrase ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics’ was created in response to bad practitioners of statistics — people waving their hands and deflecting from the truth with jargon they know their audience doesn’t understand, trying to give an impression they know is incorrect.
Horrible as this is, statistics is not inherently prone to promoting falsehoods. With greater literacy, statistics can be an instrument of truth with nuance and accuracy.
There’s a big world of change needed for a sustainable future. There are millions of people looking for a way to help. It’s going to take a variety of skills and talents to devise solutions, implement them, make new and better products, market them, and create and enforce policies and regulations. It’s a vast array of possibilities and opportunities to get involved.
How to wrap our heads around it all, and join in to contribute?
I’m starting by informing myself and sharing what I learn. I’ve got the UN Biodiversity report from 2019 and a sustainability textbook downloaded and skimmed. To prioritize finding the answers I need in a sea of research, I’m starting with questions to answer (or QTAs, explained in this blog post by Jessica Abel).
The first two questions I’ve set for myself are:
What is the current status of environmental policy in the US?
What framework shall I use to organize and communicate what I learn?
I hope that focusing down on these two questions will make my next step easier.
Even if it seems like nothing is happening for now
A message for people who care about sustainability and the environment: you might be discouraged by the slow progress of countries and people toward sustainable development. Over recent decades, the problems have been clear and yet the solutions have stalled.
We recycle and buy package-free. We carry our own reusable bags and mugs to the store. We scour the internet for the most sustainably produced couch or dental floss, knowing that we are only one customer and the ‘other’ couches and dental flosses are doing a roaring trade without us. We sign petitions and advocate for new processes in the face of inertia and resistance. Is any of this even working?
It is. But we can’t see it yet.
Widespread change tends to be sudden
The change we are trying to make is widespread and distributed. In the future, stores in every town across the world, factories in every country, people sitting at their kitchen counters in their homes will need to behave a little differently in the future. The whole economy needs to change.
That makes it sound difficult, but changes of this scale have happened over and over in the past, and they tend to be sudden.
The sudden going in and then out of favor of — smoking, packaged food, social media — nothing was changing, and then it did, all at once.
In our lifetimes, we have seen social media touted as the thing that would connect us, free lonely teens from their isolation in the remote parts of the world, and reaffirm our common humanity, to regarding it as monopolistic, surveilling, democracy-destroying, and mental health-addling.
We have gone from low-fat, high sugar, ‘labor-saving’ packaged food and white bread to sprouted grains, avocado, paleo, keto, single-ingredient organic.
The public perception has changed beyond recognition. Plastic could be next.
There’s a tipping point in sustainable options
Right now, the easiest, cheapest, most convenient option is the most plastic-wrapped and factory-farmed product available. There are, and will be for the foreseeable future, vast swathes of every population who can or will only use the easiest, cheapest, most convenient option. Some, because that’s all they can afford. Some, because they have other concerns on their mind that leave no room for environmental considerations. Understandably.
Every day, sustainable solutions inch closer to being the easiest option. As they get slightly easier, a small segment of the population adopts them. People who had a little money, effort, and consideration to spare, for whom the new option brings sustainability within reach.
But these rates of adoption are small. There are only so many climate-conscious, affluent people you can add to your customer base.
But as the space of options shifts, as the easiest option becomes the sustainable one, the adoption rate explodes. In what seems like an instant. Like a powder keg.
Don’t be discouraged by the pace of change
We feel like we’re falling behind, and nothing is happening. But change won’t be linear.
The fraction of Americans who think protecting the environment should be a top priority of government has been growing since 2011, and was 64% in 2020. People care, but they don’t have a lot they can do. If we can make things easy enough for them to take action, we’ll catch up to where we want to be, because change tends to be sudden.
There’s hope, so don’t give up. Keep innovating. Keep incentivizing companies to innovate. Keep supporting the ones that do. Keep experimenting.
What I learned at the intersection of math and fiction
Sometimes I prove mathematical theorems in my work as an engineer. It’s one of the most intense types of brain work that I do. I also write fiction, and it taught me one of the most important lessons about all my creative work: to write down everything that I know.
Setting the scene
I’m hunched over my desk with grid paper in front of me and a PDF of a textbook with reference material on my computer. I glanced up at the PDF and back at the page full of symbols I’ve written. My brow is furrowed. I’m stuck.
Involuntarily, I stretch my neck a bit and let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding — oblivious to my need for a break — even though my head’s throbbing and my shoulders are stiff.
Almost there. Almost there!
I can’t stop even if I want to. The discomfort is mounting, and so is the promise of success.
This is how I usually feel when I am about to figure something out. I have all the different aspects of the problem stuck in my head and work them simultaneously. I’m switching and comparing approaches, thinking about which ones will probably work, and suddenly become aware of the existent disadvantages! Time to consider borrowing an element of one approach to offset a disadvantage of another.
Prelude to Success, turning Discomfort into Anticipation
Holding so many alternate and competing possibilities in my mind is exhausting. It is also exciting because I have learned to recognize these symptoms as being on the brink of a creative breakthrough.
In the past, sessions like this one, be it over a period of months or even years, usually add up to a proof of a theorem, where every step has been checked from every angle for holes. In one session I build a step, and in the next, I find a flaw in the step. In the next session, I try to fix it. Eventually, I look for flaws and don’t find any. The proof is as bulletproof as I can make it.
And that is the result I’m seeking — the mathematical result I can apply to my engineering problem. And achieving that means I can finally rest my straining, pulsing brain and bask in the glow of success.
Recently, I learned a new method that I borrowed from one of my other areas of interest: fiction writing. An exercise commonly recommended to fiction writers is free-writing (also known as Morning Pages), that is, stream-of-consciousness writing where you put down on paper whatever is in your mind, without pause, for three pages. You write before you’ve had a chance to complete the train of thought; in fact, the train of thought is altered by the writing of it. The exercise forces your mind to work differently, slows down for your writing and helps increase your ease and fluency.
When I start writing fiction, I don’t have the whole story in my head — at least, not in a form that performs the function of a story. I may have the plot or a loose structure, but I don’t have the elements that make for a memorable reader experience or create an emotional impact.
The emotional complexity of characters and the journey that the reader goes through are too complicated to hold in my head, but I can divide the creative process over several sessions to make it manageable. Before this though, I have to write everything I know about the story at the time and let the story evolve on the page.
A Mathematical Theorem is Like a Fiction Piece
Mathematical theorems, like fiction pieces, are thought processes too complex to hold in my head. One day, more or less by accident, it occurred to me that I could apply my writing method to my mathematical proving process.
Instead of completing the thought in my mind and then writing it down, I wrote while I was thinking. I started getting my thoughts down while they were still half-formed. By downloading ideas onto the page, I was effectively freeing up my working memory and making space for my next thought. This allowed me to create more complex, layered, and multifaceted ideas because I was not limited by how much I could hold in my mind at a given moment.
For example, while still proving a theorem, I just wrote in my notebook all the half-formed thoughts and possibilities I knew.
Maybe, I can change notation?
Or change parameterizations and have simpler forces?
What about switching parameterizations in between?
I just wrote down my approaches as they appeared and went back to work each of them out in more detail.
Okay. So here’s the sticking point. I think we’re going to get to this result, but unfortunately, this term doesn’t cancel.
I wasn’t able to finish the theorem that day. Thanks to my notebook, though, I could bookmark a Lemma (an intermediate conclusion that will be used in the theorem), and start from where I’d left off, for my next session a few days later.
In the past, I would have wasted my energy carrying around a half-formed idea in my mind for days. I would have felt like I had nothing to show after all my exhausting brain work. Now, when I start, I allow myself not to have every step figured out. I have the statements that I know to be true, guesses about which ones will get me to closer to the conclusion, and an instinctive idea of how the proof will end up. I build from there, just like I would do for a fiction piece.
My New Approach and Why It Works
The most striking difference in my new approach is how easily-flowing the experience of writing math proofs is compared to my past experience. Instead of feeling like my brain is about to burst and I can’t stop until it releases some of the pressure, I feel relaxed, I pause, flip back in my notebook and enjoy the progress.
I invite you to write down everything you know. Don’t just keep it in your head, write down your current knowledge of the problem, what you expect to happen, and the things you think might be relevant but aren’t sure. You’ll avoid frustration and the unfulfilled expectations of having “The Answer” at the end of your session.
Freeing up the brain-space you were using to think those thoughts will enable you to take unimaginable next steps. Let your notes build on each other on the page and become something that your mind alone could not create. You will be surprised to find the boundaries of your knowledge expanding in ways you could not predict or control.
In my next installment, I will take you through how these ideas can be applied to blogging. In the meantime, write your ideas down and let me know what happens next!