Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The front of the roller coaster

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Blackpool Funfair roller coaster

The front of the roller coaster is really less stressful than the back part of the roller coaster. The first time you’re worried about a roller coaster, you might be better off riding in the front, because you’re not at the tail end of the whip. The average fellow getting on a roller coaster [thinks], “Oh boy, the most dangerous place must be the front, because you’re right there, nobody in front of you to tell you how to act, and so on; it must be the worst place, so I’m going to get in the ‘safe’ part in the back.” Because that’s what we do: we get in the back of buses, we get in the back of planes, and so on. We figure that’s the safe part.

Well, there’s a certain irony here, because the guy who says, “I’m gonna prove how macho I am, I’m gonna to really conquer my fear, I’m gonna get in the toughest place,” and he gets in front. When he finishes the ride, he must feel like, “Gee, it wasn’t so bad, after all.” Whereas that poor milquetoast fellow who gets in the back, he’s probably never going to ride again. So one of the things you might predict is that people who ride in the front of roller coasters are more likely to ride again. People who ride in the back for the first time are less likely to bother to go on it again.

Marcello Truzzi, at the first annual National Roller Coaster Conference

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February 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

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The single overriding rule

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Christopher Alexander

In his book A New Theory of Urban Design, which was published thirty years ago, the architect Christopher Alexander opens with a consideration of the basic problem confronting all city planners. He draws an analogy between the process of urban design and that of creating a work of art or studying a biological organism, but he also points out their fundamental differences:

With a city, we don’t have the luxury of either of these cases. We don’t have the luxury of a single artist whose unconscious process will produce wholeness spontaneously, without having to understand it—there are simply too many people involved. And we don’t have the luxury of the patient biologist, who may still have to wait a few more decades to overcome his ignorance.

What happens in the city, happens to us. If the process fails to produce wholeness, we suffer right away. So, somehow, we must overcome our ignorance, and learn to understand the city as a product of a huge network of processes, and learn just what features might make the cooperation of these processes produce a whole.

And wherever he writes “city,” you can replace it with any complicated system—a nation, a government, an environmental crisis—that seems too daunting for any individual to affect on his or her own, and toward which it’s easy to despair over our own helplessness, especially, as Alexander notes, when it’s happening to us.

Alexander continues: “We must therefore learn to understand the laws which produce wholeness in the city. Since thousands of people must cooperate to produce even a small part of a city, wholeness in the city will only be created to the extent that we can make these laws explicit, and can then introduce them, openly, explicitly, into the normal process of urban development.” We can pause here to note that this is as good an explanation as any of why rules play a role in all forms of human activity. It’s easy to fetishize or dismiss the rules to the point where we overlook why they exist in the first place, but you could say that they emerge whenever we’re dealing with a process that is too complicated for us to wing it. Some degree of improvisation enters into much of what we do, and in many cases—when we’re performing a small task for the first time with minimal stakes—it’s fine to make it up as we go along. The larger, more important, or more complex the task, however, the more useful it becomes to have a few guidelines on which we can fall back whenever our intuition or conscience fails us. Rules are nice because they mean that we don’t constantly have to reason from first principles whenever we’re faced with a choice. They often need to be amended, supplemented, or repealed, and we should never stop interrogating them, but they’re unavoidable. Every time we discard a rule, we implicitly replace it with another. And it can be hard to strike the right balance between a reasonable skepticism of the existing rules and an understanding of why they’re pragmatically good to have around.

A New Theory of Urban Design

Before we can develop a set of rules for any endeavor, however, it helps to formulate what Alexander calls “a single, overriding rule” that governs the rest. It’s worth quoting him at length here, because the challenge of figuring out a rule for urban design is much the same as that for any meaningful project that involves a lot of stakeholders:

The growth of a town is made up of many processes—processes of construction of new buildings, architectural competitions, developers trying to make a living, people building additions to their houses, gardening, industrial production, the activities of the department of public works, street cleaning and maintenance…But these many activities are confusing and hard to integrate, because they are not only different in their concrete aspects—they are also guided by entirely different motives…One might say that this hodgepodge is highly democratic, and that it is precisely this hodgepodge which most beautifully reflects the richness and multiplicity of human aspirations.

But the trouble is that within this view, there is no sense of balance, no reasonable way of deciding how much weight to give the different aims within the hodgepodge…For this reason, we propose to begin entirely differently. We propose to imagine a single process…one which works at many levels, in many different ways…but still essentially a single process, in virtue of the fact that it has a single goal.

And Alexander arrives at a single, overriding rule that is so memorable that I seem to think about it all the time: “Every increment of construction must be made in such a way as to heal the city.”

But it isn’t hard to understand why this rule isn’t more widely known. It’s difficult to imagine invoking it at a city planning meeting, and it has a mystical ring to it that I suspect makes many people uncomfortable. Yet this is less a shortcoming in the rule itself than a reflection of the kind of language that we need to develop an intuition about what other rules to follow. Alexander argues that most of us have a “a rather good intuitive sense” of what this rule means, and he points out: “It is, therefore, a very useful kind of inner voice, which forces people to pay attention to the balance between different goals, and to put things together in a balanced fashion.” The italics are mine. Human beings have trouble keeping all of their own rules in their heads at once, much less those that apply to others, so our best bet is to develop an inner voice that will guide us when we don’t have ready access to the rules for a specific situation. (As David Mamet says of writing: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) Most belief systems amount to an attempt to cultivate that voice, and if Alexander’s advice has a religious overtone, it’s because we tend to associate such admonitions with the contexts in which they’ve historically arisen. “Love your enemies” is one example. “Desire is suffering” is another. Such precepts naturally give rise to other rules, which lead in turn to others, and one of the shared dangers in city planning and religion is the failure to remember the underlying purpose when faced with a mass of regulations. Ideally, they serve as a system of best practices, but they often have no greater goal than to perpetuate themselves. And as Alexander points out, it isn’t until you’ve taken the time to articulate the one rule that governs the rest that you can begin to tell the difference.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2017 at 10:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Martin Gardner

I’ve never made a discovery myself, unless by accident. If you write glibly, you fool people. When I first met Asimov…he asked me where I got my Ph.D. I said I didn’t have one and he looked startled. “You mean you’re in the same racket I am,” he said, “you just read books by the professors and rewrite them?” That’s really what I do.

Martin Gardner, quoted in Bookletter

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February 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Imaginary Dr. Kutzman

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A Criticism of Dianetics

In my recent piece on Longreads about L. Ron Hubbard and the origins of Scientology, I note that Hubbard initially didn’t want the first important article on dianetics to appear in Astounding Science Fiction at all. In April of 1949, he made efforts to reach out to such organizations as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Gerontological Society in Baltimore, and he only turned to the science fiction editor John W. Campbell after all of these earlier attempts had failed. Most of the standard biographies of Hubbard mention this fact, but what isn’t always emphasized is that even Campbell, who became one of Hubbard’s most passionate supporters, didn’t seem all that eager to publish the piece in Astounding. Campbell knew perfectly well that printing this material in a pulp magazine would make it hard for it to be taken seriously, and he was also concerned that it would be mistaken for a hoax article, like Isaac Asimov’s story about the fictional compound thiotimoline. As a result, even as Campbell served as a key member of the team that was developing dianetics in Bay Head, New Jersey, he continued to push for it to make its first appearance in a professional journal. Later that year, Dr. Joseph Winter, their third crucial collaborator, reached out “informally” about a paper to the Journal of the American Medical Association, only to be told that it lacked sufficient evidence, and he got much the same response from the American Journal of Psychiatry. It was only after they had exhausted these avenues that they decided to publish “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the magazine that Campbell himself edited—which tells us a lot about how they had originally wanted their work to be received.

At that point, Campbell was hardly in a position to be objective, but he wanted to present the article to his readers in a way that at least gave the appearance of balance. Accordingly, he proposed that they find a psychiatrist to write a critical treatment of dianetics, presumably to run alongside Hubbard’s piece—but he was doomed to be disappointed in this, too. On December 9, 1949, Hubbard wrote: “In view of the fact that no psychiatrist to date has been able to look at Dianetics and listen long enough to find out the fundamentals, Dianetic explanations being dinned out by his educational efforts about Freud, we took it upon ourselves to compose the rebuttal.” Incredibly, Hubbard and Winter wrote up an entire article, “A Criticism of Dianetics,” that spent over five thousand words laying out the case against the new therapy, credited to the nonexistent “Irving R. Kutzman, M.D.” (In his letter, Hubbard argued that the “M.D.” was justified, since it reflected the contributions of Winter, a general practitioner and endocrinologist from Michigan.) Hubbard claimed that the essay consisted of the verbatim comments of four psychiatrists he had consulted on the subject, including one he had met while living in Savannah, Georgia, and that he had “played them back very carefully,” using the perfect memory that a dianetic “clear” possessed. He also described setting up “a psychiatric demon” to write the piece, which refers to the notion that a clear can deliberately create and break down temporary delusions for his private amusement. To the best of my knowledge, this paper, which I discovered among Campbell’s correspondence, hasn’t been published or discussed anywhere else, and it provides some fascinating insights into Hubbard’s thinking at the time.

L. Ron Hubbard to John W. Campbell

The most interesting thing about “A Criticism of Dianetics” is how straightforward it is. Hubbard told Campbell that “it is in no sense an effort to be funny and it is not funny,” and for most of the piece, there’s little trace of burlesque. Notably, it anticipates many of the objections that would be raised against dianetics, including the idea that it merely repackaged existing psychological concepts. As “Kutzman” writes: “Further examination…disclosed that scraps of Dianetics have been known for thousands of years. Except for one or two relatively minor matters, all of them are known to the modern psychologist.” He also observes that Hubbard has only thirteen months of data—which is actually generous, given how little he disclosed about any of his alleged cases—and that there’s no evidence that any perceived improvements will last. It’s only toward the end that the mask begins to slip. “Kutzman” speaks glowingly of “the new technique of trans-orbital leukotomy and the older and more reliable technique of pre-frontal lobotomy,” with which “patients can be treated more swiftly and will be less of a menace to society than heretofore.” He concludes: “By such operations…[the neurosurgeon] can get rid of that part of your personality which is causing all your trouble.” (Even the name “Kutzman,” I suspect, is a bad pun.) The piece dismisses General Semantics and cybernetics, the latter of which it attributes to a “Dr. Werner [sic],” and closes with an odd account of the fictional Kutzman being audited by Hubbard, in which he explains away the prenatal and childhood memories that he recovered as delusions: “I had eaten excessively at supper and…my ulcer had been troubling me for some time.” It ends: “Discoveries not solidly founded in classical psychoanalysis are not likely to be easily accepted by a social world which already comprehends all the basic problems of the human mind.”

In any event, it was never published, and it isn’t clear whether Hubbard or Winter ever thought that it would be. Hubbard wrote to Campbell: “Any article you receive will, I know, run something on this order if written by a psychiatrist…May I invite you to peruse same, not in any misguided spirit of levity, but as a review of the composite and variously confirmed attitudes Dianetics meets in the field of those great men who guide our minds.” No actual rebuttal ever materialized, and dianetics was presented in the pages of Astounding without any critical analysis whatsoever. (Interestingly, Hubbard did contribute to a point/counterpoint discussion on at least two other occasions. One was in the November 1950 issue of Why Magazine, which ran Hubbard’s “The Case For It” with “The Case Against It” by Dr. Oscar Sachs of Mount Sinai, and the other was in the May 1951 installment of Marvel Science Stories, which contained positive articles on dianetics from Hubbard and Theodore Sturgeon and a critical one from Lester del Rey. Campbell could have arranged for something similar in Astounding, if he had really wanted it.) But it provides a valuable glimpse into a transitional moment in Hubbard’s career. Compared to the author’s later attacks on psychiatry, its tone is restrained, even subtle—which isn’t a description that usually comes to mind for Hubbard’s work. Yet it’s equally clear that he had already given up on reaching mainstream psychologists and psychiatrists, even to the extent of convincing one to compose an objective response. Campbell, for his part, still clung to the hope of obtaining academic or scientific recognition. Much of the tragicomedy of what happened over the next eighteen months emerged from that basic misunderstanding. And the seeds of it are visible here.

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February 23, 2017 at 8:50 am

Quote of the Day

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February 23, 2017 at 7:30 am

The luxury of disruption

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Uber Apps

What we maybe should’ve realized sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber.

—Travis Kalanick, to Vanity Fair

Earlier this week, Susan J. Fowler, a software engineer, published a long post on her personal blog with the pointedly neutral title “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” It’s a gripping read that exposes a corporate culture that is dysfunctional both toward women—with its sexism, rampant sexual harassment, the dismissal of such concerns by human resources, and a steadily diminishing percentage of female employees—and toward just about everyone else: “It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job.” The piece, or at least its reception, has prompted Uber founder Travis Kalanick to hire former Attorney General Eric Holder to look into these allegations, a measure which is presumably intended to impress us with its seriousness, but which comes off as an unintentionally hilarious way of investigating one’s own company. (As Thornton McEnery of Dealbreaker puts it: “Travis seems to only have one move: Hire a former Obama administration official and hope that’s what caring looks like.”) The news doesn’t really affect me personally: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I deleted Uber a long time ago for other reasons. But what strikes me the most about Fowler’s essay is its tone, which is calm, controlled, and understated, even when she relates incidents of profound humiliation. For instance, when she reported her manager’s inappropriate sexual advances, she was told that her only options were either to find a different team or to continue to report to the man who harassed her, at the risk of a poor performance review. In response, Fowler writes: “I remarked that this didn’t seem like much of a choice.”

That “remarked” is what sticks with me. It casts Fowler as an objective observer to her own story, and it isn’t just a rhetorical device, although she maintains it masterfully throughout the essay. (The only place where she falters is at the end, where she writes, not altogether convincingly: “I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous everything was. Such a strange experience. Such a strange year.”) Even at work, from the very beginning, Fowler did exactly what she had to do: she took screenshots of her interactions with her manager, kept records, went through proper channels, and was good at her job. In the end, it didn’t matter, at least not at Uber itself. When she requested a transfer to another project, she was told that she had “undocumented performance problems,” and after asking for more information, she was told, bewilderingly: “Performance problems aren’t always something that has to do with work, but sometimes can be about things outside of work or your personal life.” But even if the discipline that she displays here didn’t lead to the professional results that she deserved, it’s indispensable when it comes to sharing her experiences. As my wife pointed out, when a woman comes forward with this kind of story, she has to do everything right. Any perceived shortcoming or compromise will be seized upon as an excuse to undermine her credibility. Fowler, to her credit, appears to have conducted herself with unwavering intelligence and integrity—but if she hadn’t, we probably wouldn’t have heard her account at all. Silicon Valley loves to talk about “failing faster,” but a woman in her situation doesn’t get to fail and try again. She gets exactly one chance. And the fact that she pulled it off isn’t an accident, but a reflection of the inhuman standards that we impose on all those who dare to speak out.

Uber

When we look at Uber itself, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. I won’t even get into the instances of illegal or unethical activity by individual drivers, or the legal actions and protests the company has weathered from taxi companies, both of which were probably unavoidable. But even when we set these aside, Uber’s corporate track record is exceptionally toxic. It misled prospective drivers by exaggerating potential earnings and minimizing the cost of leasing or buying a car. Its employees ordered thousands of rides from its competitors and canceled them, both to waste the drivers’ time and to lure them into joining Uber instead. One project focused on inserting moles into Lyft to learn about its launch plans and recruit its drivers. As I’ve discussed at great length in my previous post on the subject, an executive at Uber threatened to dig into the background of a journalist who was critical of its policies, and another shrugged off the ensuing outrage with the hashtag #HatersGonnaHate. They’ve even used their internal tracking system to follow the movements of reporters and politicians. You’d expect to see an intense level of scrutiny directed toward any startup that grew as quickly and had as much of an impact as Uber has, but even if you account for this, the company has demonstrated in half a dozen different ways that it’s an ethical mess. Unlike Fowler, who had to retain a laserlike focus to tell her story in a credible way, Uber gets to fail and flail endlessly on the assumption that it will eventually be forgiven. And maybe it will be. I’d be the first to admit that Uber is built on a transformative idea, a useful service, and a beautiful app, which means that it had to screw up to a truly remarkable degree to convince its users to delete it. Well, as Angelica Schuyler once said to Kalanick’s favorite founding father, congratulations. It has invented a new kind of stupid.

And its culture is inseparable from the idea of “disruption,” which has saturated Silicon Valley to the point where it stands as an article of faith. You’re supposed to break down entire industries and rebuild them in your own image, an approach that favors grand, risky bets rather than systematic growth. But it also tends to attract people, at least on the executive level, who can afford to fail repeatedly because they’ve been granted unlimited second chances, like Fowler’s manager, whose every act of harassment was treated as his first offense. It’s a luxury that isn’t granted to women, or to employees who don’t look more or less like the guys who hired them. Disruption itself is a creed that could only be embraced by those who have their existing cultural and social safety nets firmly in place, and who know that they can’t fall far. Not surprisingly, rather than enforcing the difficult sort of discipline which depends on an endless series of invisible ethical choices, Uber’s usual response to controversy is to radically overcompensate in the other direction, usually by throwing money at it. After Kalanick, who until recently was a member of President Trump’s economic advisory council, expressed only mild criticism of the executive order on refugees, the founders of Lyft announced that they would donate a million dollars to the American Civil Liberties Union—to which Uber retorted that it would establish a fund of three million dollars to defend its affected drivers. Hiring Eric Holder is a similarly flashy gesture meant to correct the slow drift toward the bottom that the company seems fated to repeat, as if it were settling to its natural level. Like a politician granted a free pass by his base, Uber seems convinced that we’ll overlook everything else if it delivers the services we expect. And just as in politics, that’s probably true, up until the moment that it isn’t.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2017 at 9:34 am

Quote of the Day

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Edgar Allan Poe

People think [detective stories] more ingenious than they are—on account of their method and air of method…Where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself…have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?

Edgar Allan Poe, in a letter to Philip Pendelton Cooke

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February 22, 2017 at 7:30 am

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