Friday, June 24, 2011


Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mk I

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I’m a great believer in the idea that one should learn the tools of one’s trade so well that one’s muscle memory takes over, and their use becomes a reflex rather than requiring conscious thought. That approach is the basis of military training, and, whatever you may think about the military, it works.

I can still remember exactly how to use the first rifle I ever trained with – a  bolt action .303 Lee Enfield No.4 (a commendably accurate weapon) even though it has been half a century since I have used one. My instructor was a Guards Sergeant Major and he was superb. He told us that the first thing he and his men had done after landing in Normandy was polish their boots. Then they had killed Germans.

The basis of acquiring such reflex skills has traditionally been made of: a good teacher; a good manual; and constant repetition over a period of time until the necessary skill is mastered. I stress the importance of time because  although one can often master principles fairly easily and quickly, only repetition over a period – weeks, months and years rather than days – ensures that reflex skill that is so desirable. Musicians, singers and shooters practice regularly for exactly that reason.

Mastering computer software seems to require a different approach largely because however straightforward it seems to be initially, in reality most software is complex, powerful, constantly evolving, and there is so much of the stuff.  Research suggests that most of us seem to cope by learning only what we think we need to know; and ignoring the rest. Indeed that has been my approach for many years. I held to the view that I should focus on writing, and anything that didn’t support that goal was nothing more than a distraction.

Over time, I have come to the view that such a narrowly focused approach is not good enough, and that a writer today needs to have a much deeper understanding of the application of computer technology than is necessary for pure writing. My reasoning is that writing is more and more going to be linked to multimedia; the very formats we read are changing; information management has become increasingly important; and distribution technologies are going to change beyond recognition.

When I first went to school, I learned to write with a pen one dipped into an ink pot; and I regarded a fountain pen as advanced technology. 

Can one adapt? I don’t think any of us have any choice in the matter. Besides, it’s fascinating (though it can be MADDENING), so I look forward to becoming as comfortable in this new world as I once was with my rifle. 

But where do I find the computer equivalent of Sergeant Major Hennessey? I shall polish my shoes and meditate.







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