Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The acid test

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I think drugs are interesting principally as chemical means of altering metabolism and thereby altering what we call reality, which I would define as a more or less constant scanning pattern.

—William S. Burroughs, to The Paris Review

On September 7, 1967, the editor John W. Campbell, who had just returned from the World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis, wrote to the author Poul Anderson about how fantasy—as typified by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien—seemed to be taking over the fandom. Campbell weighed the various reasons why one genre might be on the rise and the other on the decline, but he was particularly dismissive of one possible factor:

One I do not intend to yield to—the escape-from-harsh-reality motivation that underlies the LSD craze among the younger group in colleges…No need for learning a discipline, no need to recognize that “my opinion” and “truth” are in conflict…Which makes for happy little self-satisfaction. But unfortunately overlooks that the Universe’s opinion has a somewhat special place in that scheme of things.

A few weeks later, in response to a letter from a reader, Campbell agreed with the notion that there was no substitute for “experience” when it came to the effects of LSD, but added: “The statement applies equally, however, to taking heroin, becoming a quadriplegic, or committing suicide.” Campbell proposed that as an alternative to drugs, his correspondent try inducing anoxia, by breathing air from which most of the oxygen had been removed:

In just a minute or two, you’ll discover a vast increase in your mental abilities—a sureness of thought, a breadth of understanding, and a rapidity and sureness of reasoning you never achieved before…Of course your brilliant realizations and mighty discoveries somehow seem to misfire when you come down off that jag, and your judgment faculty gets back on the job. But it’s a great trip while it lasts!

It’s worth noting that while Campbell was pointedly uninterested in exploring drugs in the science fiction that he published, he wasn’t exactly puritanical. In addition to his own habitual use of cigarettes, benzedrine, and occasionally alcohol, he sampled marijuana and even “an African witch doctor drug” that one of his chemist friends was developing. He didn’t much care for pot, which made him “uncomfortable,” but he also had a take on the subject that might strike readers as surprising:

Marijuana serves to demonstrate [to teenagers] that the older generation is stupid, ignorant, hypocritical, and unwilling to learn anything. They do reject learning the simple facts about marijuana, and give violently emotional lectures on the Awful Evils of That Hideous Drug—without knowing the first things about it…Any intelligent teenager who’s experienced the effects of marijuana, and discussed it with friends, knows the average family doctor does not know what he’s talking about…Marijuana is a damn sight less dangerous than alcohol. It’s less addictive, less toxic, and less dangerous for a “high” driver to be high on marijuana than on alcohol. It is not an aphrodisiac, nor does it have alcohol’s tendency to anesthetize the censor mechanisms of the mind.

Campbell believed that the real problem with marijuana is that a teenager who learns to doubt what adults say on the subject is likely to become equally skeptical when it comes to cocaine, heroin, and LSD: “So long as parents and doctors deny the facts about marijuana, and insist on classing it with hard drugs, the kid who knows they’re wrong about marijuana feels they’re wrong about heroin…Marijuana can be legalized—and thus separated, as it must be, from the problem of the hard drugs.”

When it came to LSD, Campbell’s attitudes were more or less in line with those of the three other authors who have been on my mind these days. L. Ron Hubbard warned gravely against its use—LSD and PCP were the only drugs that disqualified potential applicants for the Sea Org—and he described his effects in a bulletin of which one follower recalled: “All the information came from one person who had taken LSD once. That was how he did his research.” Isaac Asimov doesn’t appear to have written on the topic at length, although he refers in passing in More Words of Science to “young people foolishly [beginning] to play games with their minds by taking LSD,” and he writes in his memoirs:

Most people, when I tell them [how I get ideas], are dreadfully disappointed. They would be far readier to believe that I had to use LSD or something like that so that ideas would come to me in an altered state of consciousness. If all one has to do is think, where’s the glamour?

Asimov concludes: “Try thinking. You’ll find it’s a lot harder than taking LSD.” This echoes Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in a letter in 1967:

LSD and pot? Marijuana has been readily available to anyone who wanted it throughout my lifetime and apparently for centuries before I was born. LSD is new but the hippies didn’t develop it; they simply use it. But it seems to me that the outstanding objective fact about LSD (despite the claims of Leary and others) is that it is as much of a failure as other drugs in producing any results of any value other than to the user—i.e., I know of no work of art, essay, story, discovery, or anything else of value created as a result of LSD. When the acid-droppers start outdistancing the squares in any field, I’ll sit up and take notice. Until that day I’ll regard it just as I do all other euphoric drugs: a sterile, subjective, sensory pleasure holding considerable hazard to the user.

Aside from Hubbard, these writers objected to LSD primarily in its role as a kind of shortcut to enlightenment, leading to subjectively meaningful results that aren’t useful to anyone else. On the other side, you can set the testimony of such writers as Aldous Huxley and Robert Anton Wilson, not to mention Stewart Brand, Douglas Engelbart, and Steve Jobs, who believed that they had emerged from their experiences with valuable insights. I think it’s fairly obvious that both sides have a point, and that you get out of LSD exactly what you put into it. If you lack any creative skills, you aren’t likely to produce anything interesting to others, but if you’ve taken the trouble of cultivating those talents in the usual boring way, it can push you along unexpected lines of development. Whether these directions are different from the ones that you would have taken anyway is a separate question, and probably an unanswerable one. My own hunch is that the connection, for instance, between Silicon Valley and the psychedelic culture was mostly a question of timing: it wasn’t that these drugs produced unusually smart or unconventional people, but that many of the smart, unconventional people of that time and place happened to be taking drugs. Many of them regarded it as a turning point in their lives, but I’m inclined to agree with W.H. Auden said of transformative experiences in childhood:

The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting—had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial—in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter.

At a moment of renewed interest in microdosing, at least among young professionals with the resources and security in their own social position to try it, it’s worth remembering that the evidence suggests that drugs pay off in visible ways only for people who have already put in the hard work of figuring out how to make and do interesting things. Norman Mailer compared it to borrowing on the future. And as Heinlein himself might have put it, there’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

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April 27, 2017 at 9:11 am

Quote of the Day

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A method that fits the small work but not the great has obviously started at the wrong end…It seems to be a lesson of history that the commonplace may be understood as a reduction of the exceptional, but that the exceptional cannot be understood by amplifying the commonplace.

Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance

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April 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

The frigid juicemaker

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By now, many of you have probably heard of the sad case of Juicero, the technology startup that developed the world’s most advanced juicer, which retails for hundreds of dollars, only to be rocked by a Bloomberg report that revealed that its juice packs could just as easily be squeezed by hand. At first glance, this seems like another cautionary tale of Silicon Valley design gone wrong, along the lines of the $1,500 toaster oven, but its lessons are slightly more profound. A few days ago, Ben Einstein, a general partner at the venture capital firm Bolt, conducted a teardown of the Juicero Press to figure out why it was so costly, and he came away impressed by its design and construction: his writeup is filled with such phrases as “beautifully molded,” “a complex assembly with great attention to detail,” “painstakingly textured,” and “incredibly complex and beautifully engineered.” At one point, Einstein marvels: “The number, size, complexity and accuracy of these parts is somewhat mind-blowing for a young hardware startup.” The trouble, he points out, is that the cost of such components makes the juicer far more expensive than most consumers are willing to pay, and it could have delivered comparable performance at a lower price by rethinking its design. A Juicero Press uniformly compresses the entire surface of the juice pack, requiring thousands of pounds of force, while a human hand gets much the same result simply by squeezing it unevenly. Einstein concludes:

I have to believe the engineers that built this product looked at other ways of pressing the juice, but if the primary mechanism could apply force in a more focused way it could easily save hundreds of dollars off the shelf price of the product.

As it stands, the engineers at Juicero evidently “went wild,” building a beautifully made and confoundingly expensive product in the hopes that a market for it would somehow materialize. It’s like a juicer designed by Damien Hirst. In a peculiar way, it makes for a refreshing contrast to the usual hardware startup horror story, in which a company’s plans to build the world’s greatest espresso machine run aground on the inconvenient realities of manufacturing and supply chain management. Juicero’s engineers obviously knew what they were doing, at least on a technical level, but their pursuit of great design for its own sake appears to have blinded them to more practical realities. The market for juicers isn’t the same as that for fine watches, and its buyers have different motivations. In the absence of feedback from customers, the engineers went ahead and built a juicer for themselves, loading it with features that even the most discerning of users would either never notice or wouldn’t feel like factoring into the purchase price. In real estate terms, they overimproved it. When my wife and I bought our house six years ago, our realtor warned us against overspending on renovations—you don’t want to invest so much in the property that, if you sell it, you’re forced to list it at a point that doesn’t make sense for your block. The Juicero’s lovingly machined parts and moldings are the equivalent of granite countertops and a master bathroom in a neighborhood where homeowners are more interested in paying a reasonable price for a short walk to the train.

There are two big takeaways here. One is the fact that there’s no such thing as good design or engineering in isolation—you always have to keep the intended user in mind. The other is that aesthetic considerations or technical specifications aren’t sufficient guidelines in themselves, and that they have to be shaped by other constraints to be channeled in productive directions. Elsewhere, I’ve noted that Apple’s cult of thinness seems to be driven by the search for quantifiable benchmarks that can drive innovation. Lowering the price of its products would be an even better goal, although it isn’t one that Apple seems inclined to pursue. Juicero, to its detriment, doesn’t appear to have been overly concerned by either factor. A juicer that sits on your kitchen counter doesn’t need to be particularly light, and there’s little incentive to pare down the ounces. There clearly wasn’t much of an effort to keep down the price. A third potential source of constraints, and probably the best of all, is careful attention to the consumer, which didn’t happen here, either. As Einstein notes:

Our usual advice to hardware founders is to focus on getting a product to market to test the core assumptions on actual target customers, and then iterate. Instead, Juicero spent $120 million over two years to build a complex supply chain and perfectly engineered product that is too expensive for their target demographic.

Imagine a world where Juicero raised only $10 million and built a product subject to significant constraints. Maybe the Press wouldn’t be so perfectly engineered but it might have fewer features and cost a fraction of the original $699…Suddenly Juicero is incredibly compelling as a product offering, at least to this consumer.

And you don’t need to look hard to find equivalents in other fields. A writer who endlessly revises the same manuscript without seeking comments from readers—or sending it to agents or publishers—is engaging in the same cycle of destructive behavior. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about artistic frigidity, which he defines as a moral failing that confuses side issues with what really matters. The symptoms are much the same in literature as they are in engineering: “It is sometimes frigidity that leads writers to tinker, more and more obsessively, with form.” Juicero suffered from a kind of technological frigidity, as does its obvious role model, Apple, which seems increasingly obsessed with aesthetic considerations that either have a minimal impact on the user experience or actively undermine it. (We saw this most recently with the Mac Pro, which had a striking cylindrical design that was hard to configure and suffered from heating issues. As engineering chief Craig Federighi admitted: “I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner.” And it seems only fitting that Apple’s frigidity led to a problem with heat.) Ordinary companies, or writers, have no choice but to adjust to reality. Deadlines, length limits, and the demands of the market all work together to enforce pragmatic compromises, and if you remain frigid, you die. As the world’s largest tech company, Apple has to actively seek out constraints that will rein in its worst impulses, much as successful writers need to find ways of imposing the same restrictions that existed when they were struggling to break in. As Juicero’s example demonstrates, a company that tries to ignore such considerations from the beginning may never get a chance to prove itself at all. Whether you’re a writer or an engineer, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re selling juicers, but you’re not. You’re selling the juice.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2017 at 9:29 am

Quote of the Day

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Intuitive behavior cannot be summoned upon demand. It is unpredictable and can also, under circumstances, be the root of dangerous errors…As it is, we cannot normally rely upon intuition; it often helps us in an emergency, but without guaranteeing success.

Wolfram Wilss, Knowledge and Skills in Translator Behavior

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

Quote of the Day

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There is one set of attitudes or methods [in discovery] that has to do with sensing the relevance of variables—avoiding immersion in edge effects and getting instead to the big sources of variance. This gift partly comes from intuitive familiarity with a range of phenomena, sheer “knowing the stuff.” But it also comes out of a sense of what things among many “smell right,” what things are of the right order of magnitude or scope or severity.

Jerome S. Bruner, On Knowing

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The sound and the furry

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Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:

Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”

When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:

Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.

Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.

You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:

Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.

On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.

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