Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interview: Self-educator Peter Behr

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Peter S. Behr

Self-educator’s location: Chicago, IL

Date: 15 October 2009

On his website, Peter Behr introduces himself by saying: "I'm Peter Behr, and I like to make things." That's an understatement. He is a computer programmer, artist, photographer, language learner, and translator. He maintains a website at, and his recent artwork can be found at Stemleaf Studio:

WAM: You have a lot of interests and activities, professional and personal. What are your currently "active" projects? How are you spending your days and evenings this fall?

PSB: Recently I have been programming more and doing a few web applications as a motivation to learn Python, which has been fun. I've also been renewing my efforts in learning Chinese in anticipation of a possible return to China, and developing my design and art skills by learning digital techniques and delving into photography. I have trouble focusing, I suppose, so I try to make that a strength.

Like a lot of people, I've also been looking for a new job since I returned to the states after a few months in Europe. It's an odd process but also a fascinating problem to solve, the whole idea of packaging yourself up into small, polished bits and sending them to people you don't know in an effort to get them interested in your work. My goal is to find an opportunity in China or on the West Coast involving one or both of my two main interests: language and technology.

WAM: Your projects include creating works of art, designing new web applications, and learning languages, among other things. What makes you decide to undertake these projects? Why not just watch television?

PSB: It's funny because a few weeks ago we got a huge TV with cable, so I've actually been spending time getting into football and also the Food Network. It's a guilty pleasure, I guess. But it is true that I always have a long list of projects to work on, and to be honest I'm not sure where that comes from.

WAM: What is the source of your creativity? How long have you been interested in "making things"? How did this habit of yours manifest itself in your childhood and in high school?

PSB: I've wanted to find things out and create new things since I was little, and I'm sure that has more than a little to do with my upbringing, in which I was always encouraged to read books and be creative. Actually, I think when I was much younger my parents tried to limit me in that somewhat, because I'd have a tendency to get absorbed in my own little bubble and never interact with people. Now I suppose that I'm in the process of learning how to balance the practice of creativity, which in my opinion is fundamentally independent process, with collaboration. The two feed off each other, but are also opposed in some ways; to develop some ideas you need time for uninterrupted focus, but you also need time out from that focus so that the idea can interact with those of other people. Making that distraction come neither too early nor too late is a challenge for me, and that's what I'm working on right now.

As for the source of creativity, I don't think I have an interesting philosophy on that. What matters to me is that it's there, and that something needs to be done with it. But I do like what Elizabeth Gilbert says in one of my favorite TED talks, which is that it might be a good idea to think of it as a kind of external and inscrutable force which you do not have complete control over, something which was prevalent before the Renaissance.

I'm trying to take that idea and merge it with the knowledge that improvement in technique requires no inspiration, only consistent effort. I am making an effort to find a point of view which makes me feel more at peace with the whole idea of striving to create new and original things, an incredibly hard thing to do, much less understand.

WAM: You are fluent in Mandarin Chinese and have worked as a freelance translator, but you just started learning that language in the summer of 2006. What made you decide to start learning Chinese? What methods did you use to study it? Are you still working to improve your ability, or have you moved on?

PSB: The whole process started when my brother and I visited China in 2006, knowing practically no Chinese. We had both wanted to start learning a language and Chinese became our choice because of how different it is from other experience, and its utility. My brother also needed to learn a non-Indo-European language for his linguistics major, so it all came together that we'd compress a year's study in a summer, then take the 200s back in Chicago. This worked out, and I went back the next year. Since then I've done what I can to keep my efforts alive, including studying with tutors and doing translation work. Recently I've gotten more work in translation, which is nice, and of course my goal is to go back to China again so that I can be back in the immersive environment. There's really no substitute for that.

You could say I just can't let go of the language, so yes, I've been trying to maintain and improve my reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension, but it's tough work on the side. Reading and writing inevitably get the focus, but I'm still not at all at the level where I could do professional work from English to Chinese. Eventually, I'd like to have that level, but time will tell if I'll succeed in finding the necessary environment. My fingers are crossed.

WAM: You do work in advanced computing, including programming, web design, and graphic design. Why are you interested in computers and the Internet? What would you say to traditional types who believe that we should focus on book-based education and keep computers out of classrooms? What can the average person do to learn more about computers and the Internet and grow beyond their computing comfort zone?

PSB: I don't know how much traction such traditionalists have, but I agree with the idea that skills such as reading and writing and mathematical ability or not drastically improved by teaching digitally rather than from books. But I don't think they're worsened, either, and eventually I think digital media will form the backbone of curricula. That doesn't bother me because of the added convenience, portability, and the fact that books will no longer require such quantities of physical resources. And we'll be able to take advantage of the fact that suddenly all of our information at hand is truly at hand, instantly accessible and capable of being processed by machines.

Keeping that trend in mind, I think what is missing in curricula is instruction in technology at a depth that will allow us to not be overtaken by the transformation of (parts of) our lives into a digital medium. The transformation opens up all sorts of possibilities of using programming to augment the speed at which you can manipulate massive quantities of information. The longer we wait to teach children how to control computers 'under the hood,' the further behind we get. Kids are curious and if you show them a system they'll play with it and learn it, and that's why I think it's important to get them interacting with computers in a direct way, not just with the layer that allows computers to emulate what books and televisions and mail are able to.

WAM: Your art portfolio includes both traditional and computer-assisted works. What do you see as the proper relationship between computers and art? Why does art matter, and what role can art play in a person's education and growth?

PSB: Heh, I don't have a very strong belief in that word, 'proper.' If it's a medium, art will be made in it, and there will be the possibility of that art being done well or being done poorly. I like to be a generalist and explore both kinds of media, but some people like to focus. That's okay, it's the effort that matters to me.

Art's role can be anything. I feel very anti-prescriptivist here, and can only say that it's important to realize that though taste and art in general have subjective facets, they are also very concrete areas of endeavor where effort and attention to detail really matter. If someone has the desire to express themselves and to be devoted to it, they should be encouraged. And I also think that it's harmful when people view the natural human inclination towards beautiful things and good art as an indulgence.

WAM: Wide Awake Minds highlights the work of self-educators and lifelong learners. Is it fair to say that many of your educational accomplishments have resulted from your own initiative? Do you consider yourself a self-educator or lifelong learner?

PSB: I would say that most education relies on personal initiative, though it can really be influential when somebody with certain interests and skills sees you have a shared interest and can closely encourage it to develop.

But when it comes to labels such as 'lifelong learner,' I hope that I don't sound facetious here when I say that every human can be called that.

WAM: You majored in mathematics at the University of Chicago. Why did you choose math? What would you say to the otherwise talented and motivated high school student who sees math as a pointless stumbling block? What are some of the benefits and pleasures of studying high-level mathematics, mathematics beyond basic calculus?

PSB: Mathematics is a rigorous and logical way of thinking. I think everyone should be shown the mechanisms of mathematical proof and encouraged to study it, because it sharpens and expands your ability to solve logical problems. That said, if someone doesn't (and I consciously used that word instead of 'can't') see the utility or beauty of mathematics, that's okay. But acquiring facility in fundamental arithmetic, geometry, combinatorics, and statistics are necessary for functioning fully in society. I think that's obvious, even though my mind is yelling at me, 'Prove it!'

The vast majority of people are never even exposed to logical proof. I certainly wasn't impressed with its significance until college, which made for an enormously uphill battle in studying math. I think math was what happened when I found physics too full of approximations and almost sloppy, also there was certainly familial influence involved since my dad, aunt, and uncle are all mathematicians. Even though I finally came to the conclusion that I don't want to be a pure mathematician, I still don't regret having committed to learning what I did, even though I could have gone in may other directions. If I could do it again, I would only want to do it better and with more depth.

WAM: Any advice for current and future college students?

PSB: This certainly doesn't apply to everyone, but I think that a lot of people with strong creative tendencies get paralyzed sometimes when presented with something like college. It's a huge opportunity for creative work, but there are so many possibilities and the whole structure and time period is vaguely defined. You can only understand it backwards, and not forwards. If I were giving myself advice, I would say to never forget to look for what I like to do, seek out smart people, ask lots of questions, and to study and work when in doubt. Repetition is so valuable not only because it makes you better at whatever activity you're targeting, but because each time around you understand what you're doing in a different way, and you might suddenly see a different path.

Instead of trying to cover a thousand things, which it sometimes seems you're forced to do, fight that and maybe pick a hundred to do at least once and ten to do a hundred times.

WAM: Any other thoughts, observations, or advice for others who love to learn, think, and make things?

PSB: There are many places I could crib from, but a modified Zen saying might do: 'When you are hungry, eat; when you are thirsty, drink; when you are sleepy, sleep; when you are curious, learn.'

WAM: Thank you, Peter, for your time and for the good work you do.

PSB: Thank you Ryan, best of luck to you.

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