Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2015

Thinking away from the notes

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Terry Gross

On a typical day, [Terry] Gross is at the office from 8:45 to 5:45…Gross will continue working at home, preparing for the next day’s interview in the living room. She clarifies her thoughts first thing in the morning in the shower. That’s when she asks herself: What do I care about? What in all of this research is meaningful? It’s important to be away from her notes when she does this. She emerges from the shower with her ‘‘major destination points.’’ Then she goes to her office and refers back to her notes—sheafs of facts; dog-eared, marked-up books—for the details. Then she does the interview. And then she is inundated by the other daily tasks of running a radio show. The next day, she does it all again.

Susan Burton, in The New York Times Magazine

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October 31, 2015 at 7:30 am

Hail to the King

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Stephen King

“The golden age of science fiction,” the fan editor Peter Graham once wrote, “is twelve.” And it seems fair to say that the golden age of horror fiction comes shortly thereafter. If science fiction tends to take hold of the imagination of curious kids in search of stories in which intelligence is a means of empowerment, rather than isolation, they often latch onto horror in the years when middle school and the onset of adolescence send them looking for a kind of narrative that can put their terrors into a more tangible form. Between the ages of twelve and thirteen, I read so much Stephen King that it’s a wonder I had time to do anything else: at least fifteen novels in all, from Carrie to Needful Things. And I know that I’m not alone in saying that the best time to discover King is when you’re just a little too young for it to be appropriate. The recent rise in fiction geared exclusively toward young adults, which includes its share of horror titles, isn’t a bad thing, but it means that a teenager looking for interesting reading material is less likely to turn first to The Shining or The Stand. Which is a loss in itself—because I’ve come to realize that King, for me, wasn’t just a gateway drug into reading in general, but toward an especially valuable mode of fiction that I can only describe as modernist realism put into the service of more primal fears.

King has never ceased to produce bestsellers, but if his reputation continues to rest on a main sequence of early books—stretching roughly from ‘Salem’s Lot through It—this isn’t just a question of his having produced his best work in his youth. He was, and is, a writer of enormous talent, but he was also the right man at the right time. His most influential novels appeared in the mid- to late seventies, at a time when mainstream fiction was uniquely enterprising in turning the tools of modernist realism onto genre plots. The first category to take full advantage of that bag of tricks, not surprisingly, was the suburban sex novel: the difference between Peyton Place and Updike’s Couples is more one of style than of substance. A few earlier horror novels, notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, had covered some of the same ground, with meticulous, almost fussily detailed looks at upper-class households on the verge of crossing over into the supernatural, but King was the first to do it over multiple books. And it was a surpassingly good trick. King’s basic formula, with convincing observations of everyday life providing a backdrop for increasingly horrifying events, may seem obvious now, but surprisingly few other writers have pursued it consistently. (One exception is Peter Straub, whose Ghost Story is one of those late entries in a genre that has a way of codifying everything that came before.)

John Updike

And much of King’s appeal comes from his ability to create what John Updike called “specimen lives,” with carefully constructed characters who turn out to be both timelessly interesting and emphatically of their era. King’s novels are rooted much more in the culture and politics of the seventies than we tend to remember. The Shining often reads like a haunted house story informed by Watergate, as when Stuart Ullmann smugly informs Jack Torrance that Wilson, Harding, Roosevelt, and Nixon all stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite: “I wouldn’t be too proud of Harding and Nixon,” Jack replies. And The Stand originated in a confluence of ideas that could only have occurred at a particular historical moment, as King recounts in Danse Macabre:

The story about the CBW spill in Utah…became entwined in my thoughts about Patty Hearst and the SLA, and one day while sitting at my typewriter…I wrote—just to write something: The world comes to an end but everybody in the SLA is somehow immune. Snake bit them. I looked at that for a while and then typed: No more gas shortages.

When we turn to his characters themselves, we find finely nuanced portraits of ordinary individuals who wouldn’t have been out of place in an Updike novel. Time has turned them into period pieces, but they’re as valuable, in their way, as the literary novels of the time, and the care that King lavished on assembling those mundane lives goes a long way toward explaining the power of the terror that follows.

Gradually, King strayed from that template, particularly as his own success made it more difficult for him to write convincingly about protagonists who weren’t members of the upper middle class. (The transitional novel here is It, in which nostalgia takes the place of reportage for the first time, and which a character observes of his friends: “And then there’s the passingly curious fact that you’re all rich.”) But those early novels—in which King fused the textured social observation of the seventies with something older and darker—stand as permanent landmarks, and when we look at lesser efforts in the same vein, we’re reminded of how hard it really was. One reason why Jaws reads so strangely today, as I’ve noted before, is that it’s an early attempt to fuse the slightly sordid air of a sexy bestseller with a monster story, and the two halves don’t work together: instead of allowing each piece to enhance the other, Benchley gives us a hundred interminable pages about Ellen Brody’s affair that never connect in satisfying ways to the action on the boat. King cracked the code in a way that Benchley didn’t, and a book like Pet Sematary is a master class in fusing a realistic psychological novel with a plot out of Poe. In time, both King and the culture around him moved on, and the artistic moment that produced his best novels seems to have passed. But the books still exist, for whatever teenagers or adults feel like seeking them out, and for lucky readers, they can still spark the kind of hunger that they once awoke in me.

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October 30, 2015 at 8:28 am

Quote of the Day

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John Carpenter

People say things like, “The rule is that you never show the devil.” I’ve heard that. An actress lectured me on that once. But if you have a good-looking devil, and it looks convincing—well, yes, you show it! You kidding? It’ll scare the shit out of the audience. If you have a stupid devil, then you don’t show it.

John Carpenter, to The A.V. Club

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October 30, 2015 at 7:30 am

Arguments with myself

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Oscar Niemeyer

I argue with myself. Inside, we are always at least two people. So when I draw, I have this very clever man who fights with me. He is a great guy. He loves the beach, women and the sea. He says he wants to live a simple life, fishing, but he knows a lot more than me about architecture. Sometimes I talk to him out loud when I’m alone at my drawing board. And somehow we come to conclusions about what a new building wants to be, what it has to be. The drawings appear. I write a text to go with them, and read it back to make sure it makes sense, common sense. If not, I have another argument with myself, and produce a new drawing. When this reads clearly and simply, there you have the building. This is it. Nothing more.

Oscar Niemeyer

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October 29, 2015 at 7:30 am

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“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

Quote of the Day

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October 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Is this post an example of Betteridge’s Law?

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Article in The New York Times

Yesterday, I was browsing The A.V. Club when I came across the following clunky headline: “Could Guardians of the Galaxy be worthy of the coveted Firefly comparison?” I only skimmed the article itself, which asks, in case you were wondering, if the Guardians of the Galaxy animated series could be “the next Firefly“—a matter on which I don’t have much of an opinion one way or the other. But my attention was caught by one of the reader comments in response, which invoked Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.'” Needless to say, this is a very useful rule. In its current form, it was set forth by the technology writer Ian Betteridge in response to the TechCrunch headline “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data to the RIAA?” Betteridge wrote:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.

Betteridge may have given the rule its most familiar name, but it’s actually much older. It pops up here and there in collections of Murphy’s Law and its variants, and among academics, it’s best known as Hinchliffe’s Rule, attributed—perhaps apocryphally—to the physicist Ian Hinchliffe, which states: “If the title of a scholarly article is a yes or no question, the answer is ‘no.'” (This recently led the Harvard University computer scientist Stuart M. Shieber to publish a scholarly article titled “Is This Article Consistent with Hinchliffe’s Rule?” The answer is no, but only if the answer is yes.) In his book My Trade, the British newspaper editor Andrew Marr makes the same point more forcefully:

If the headline asks a question, try answering “no.” Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means “don’t bother reading this bit.”

Article from The Daily Mail

What I find most interesting about Betteridge’s version of the rule is his last line: “Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.” This implies that the rule can be used not just to identify unreliable articles, but to characterize publications as a whole. As I write this, for instance, three headlines on the New York Times home page run afoul of it: “Is Valeant Pharmaceuticals the Next Enron?” “Has Diversity Lost Its Meaning?” “Are Flip Phones Having a Retro Chic Moment?” (There are a few more that technically sprout question marks but don’t quite fit the rubric, such as “Should You Be Watching Supergirl?”) The Daily Mail site, by contrast, has five times as many, and most of them fall neatly into the Betteridge category, including my favorite: “Does This Clip Show the Corpse of a Feared Chupacabra Vampire?” Buzzfeed, interestingly, doesn’t go for that headline format at all, and it only uses question marks to signify its famous personality quizzes: “Are You More Like Adele or Beyoncé?” This implies that a headline phrased in the form of a question might not be especially good at attracting eyeballs: Buzzfeed, which has refined clickbait into an art form, would surely use it more often if it worked. Most likely, as both Betteridge and Marr imply, it’s a way out for journalists who want to publish a story, but aren’t ready to stand behind it entirely. If anyone objects, they can always say that they were just raising the issue for further discussion.

But most readers, I suspect, can intuitively sense the difference. Headlines like this have always reminded me of “The End?” at the close of Manos: The Hands of Fate, to which Crow T. Robot replies: “Umm…Yes? No! I want to change my answer!” It might be instructive to conduct a study of whether or not they’ve increased in frequency over the last decade, as news cycles have grown ever more compressed and the need to generate think pieces on demand forces writers to crank out stories with a minimum of preparation. It’s hard to blame the reporters themselves, who are operating under conditions that actively discourage the kind of extended research process that would allow the question mark to be removed or the article to be dropped altogether. (And it’s worth noting that editors, not reporters, are the ones who write the headlines.) This isn’t to say that there can’t be good stories that sport headlines in the form of a question: like the Bechdel Test for movies, it’s less about criticizing individual works than making us more aware of the landscape. And given the choice, the question mark—which at least provides a visible red flag—is preferable to the exclamation point, literal or otherwise, that characterizes so much current content, from cable news on down. In that light, the question mark almost feels like a form of courtesy. And we have to learn to live with it, at least until good journalism, like the flip phone, experiences a retro chic moment of its own.

Quote of the Day

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October 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

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The blood in the milkshake

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Fargo

Note: Spoilers follow for the first two episodes of the current season of Fargo.

The most striking aspect of the second season of Fargo—which, two episodes in, already ranks among the most exciting television I’ve seen in months—is its nervous visual style. If the first season had an icy, languid look openly inspired by its cinematic source, the current installment is looser, jazzier, and not particularly Coenesque: there are split screens, montages, dramatic chyrons and captions, and a lot of showy camerawork. (It’s so visually rich that the image of a murder victim’s blood mingling with a spilled vanilla milkshake, on which another show might have lingered, is only allowed to register for a fraction of a second.) The busy look of the season so far seems designed to mirror its plot, which is similarly overstuffed: an early scene involving a confrontation at a waffle joint piles on the complications until I almost wished that it had followed Coco Chanel’s advice and removed one accessory before leaving the house. But that’s part of the point. Fargo started off as a series that seemed so unlikely to succeed that it devoted much of its initial run to assuring us that it knew what it was doing. Now that its qualifications have been established, it’s free to spiral off into weirder directions without feeling the need to abide by any precedent, aside, of course, from the high bar it sets for itself.

And while it might seem premature to declare victory on its behalf, it’s already starting to feel like the best of what the anthology format has to offer. A few months ago, after the premiere of the second season of another ambitious show in much the same vein, I wrote: “Maintaining any kind of continuity for an anthology show is challenging enough, and True Detective has made it as hard on itself as possible: its cast, its period, its setting, its structure, even its overall tone have changed, leaving only the whisper of a conceit embedded in the title.” Like a lot of other viewers, I ended up bailing before the season was even halfway over: it not only failed to meet the difficult task it set for itself, but it fell short in most other respects as well. And I had really wanted it to work, if only because cracking the problem of the anthology series feels like a puzzle on which the future of television depends. We’re witnessing an epochal shift of talent from movies to the small screen, as big names on both sides of the camera begin to realize that the creative opportunities it affords are in many ways greater than what the studios are prepared to offer. And what we’re likely to see within the next ten years—to the extent that it hasn’t already happened—is an entertainment landscape in which Hollywood focuses exclusively on blockbusters while dramas and quirky smaller films migrate to cable or, in rare cases, even the networks.

Ted Danson and Patrick Wilson on Fargo

It isn’t hard to imagine this scenario: in many ways, we’re halfway there. But the current situation leaves a lot of actors, writers, and directors stranded somewhere in the middle: unable to finance the projects they want in the movies, but equally unwilling to roll the dice on the uncertainties of conventional episodic television. The anthology format works best when it strikes a balance between those two extremes. It can be packaged as conveniently as a movie, with a finite beginning and ending, and it allows a single creative personality to exert control throughout the process. By now, its production values are more than comparable to those of many feature films. And instead of such a story being treated as a poor relation of the tentpole franchises that make up a studio’s bottom line, on television, it’s seen as an event. As a result, at a time when original screenplays are so undervalued in Hollywood that it’s newsworthy when one gets produced at all, it’s not surprising that television is attracting talent that would otherwise be stuck in turnaround. But brands are as important in television as they are anywhere else—it’s no accident that Fargo draws its name from a familiar title, however tenuous that connection turned out to be in practice—and for the experiment to work, it needs a few flagship properties to which such resources can be reliably channelled. If the anthology format didn’t already exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

That’s why True Detective once seemed so important, and why its slide into irrelevance was so alarming. And it’s why I also suspect that Fargo may turn out to be the most important television series on the air today. Its first season wasn’t perfect: the lengthy subplot devoted to Oliver Platt’s character was basically a shaggy dog story without an ending, and the finale didn’t quite succeed in living up to everything that had come before. Yet it remains one of the most viscerally riveting shows I’ve ever seen—you have to go back to the best years of Breaking Bad to find a series that sustains the tension in every scene so beautifully, and that mingles humor and horror until it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. (But will Jesse Plemons ever get a television role that doesn’t force him to dispose of a corpse?) If the opening act of the second season is any indication, the show will continue to draw talent intrigued by the opportunities that it affords, which translate, in practical terms, into scene after scene that any actor would kill to play. And the fact that it can do this while departing strategically from its own template is especially heartening. If True Detective is defined, in theory, by the genre associations evoked by its title, Fargo is about a triangulation between the contrasts established by the movie that inspired it: politeness, quiet desperation, and sudden violence. It’s a technical trick, but it’s a very good one, and it’s a machine that can generate stories forever, with good and evil mixed together like blood in vanilla ice cream.

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October 26, 2015 at 9:36 am

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Quote of the Day

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"Interior at Nice (Room at the Beau Rivage)" by Henri Matisse

I used to say to my young students, “You want to be a painter? First of all, you must cut out your tongue, because your decision has taken away from you the right to express yourself with anything but your brush.”

Henri Matisse

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October 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Beyond intuition

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Cooper Union building by Thom Mayne

I’’m interested in locating my work in terms of its ideas. What’’s the generative trail of architecture—how do you generate ideas?

The general public still relies on this notion that design is located personally, intuitively—that it comes from a certain type of talent. I never believed in that. I was educated in the sixties, and we were already interrogating that idea—it was a highly rationalist view. I’’m trying to make it apparent that first of all, those ideas aren’’t as simple as being intuitive. They’’re borrowed, and—like languages—appropriated. It has an origin in previous architecture.

If you’’re interested in the progress of a language, the evolution of an architecture, you have to have some method of interrogating the broader aesthetic. The rules and the structure that lead you to a particular aesthetic. I guess anybody of my generation would have to have some interest in the location of creativity, the processes of removing certain rational instincts. Jackson Pollock is an example of how things happen because you nurture a certain kind of environment. The notion is: how do we develop our own trajectories within the knowledge of artistic behavior? For me, this is huge territory that has to do with developing a certain type of complexity, finding an architecture which corresponds to the relationship of how we understand the world.

Thom Mayne, to Australian Design Review

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October 25, 2015 at 7:30 am

The architect’s humility

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Nordic Pavillion by Sverre Fehn

You’re…always trying to find the simplest solution. There are a lot of factors you have to take into account, but a simple solution often provides answers to several different questions. But you can’t just begin building—you have to reach an architectonic expression before you start. The drawing is vital. To be a good architect actually requires great humility. You have to make the most of the very small amount of knowledge you possess. Many young people today don’t have the patience. In my time we had to make maximum use of what little we had.

Sverre Fehn, to Architecture Norway

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October 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

The book of numbers

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Neil Sloane

The recent Nautilus article by Siobhan Roberts about the mathematician Neil Sloane, titled “How to Build a Search Engine for Mathematics,” is the most interesting thing I’ve read online in months. I stumbled across it around six this morning, at a point when I was thinking about little more than my first cup of coffee, and when I was done, I felt energized, awake, and excited about the future. At first glance, its subject might not seem especially promising: Sloane’s baby, The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, sounds about as engaging as the classic bestseller A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. But the more you think about Sloane and his life’s work, the more it starts to seem like what the Internet was meant to do all along. It’s a machine for generating connections between disciplines, a shortcut that turns good hunches into something more, and a means of quickly surveying an otherwise unnavigable universe of information. In short, it does for numbers, or anything that can be expressed as a sequence of integers, what Google Books theoretically should do for words. The result is a research tool that led Rutgers University professor Doron Zeilberger to call Sloane “the world’s most influential mathematician,” although, if anything, this understates the possible scope of his accomplishments. And even if you’re already familiar with OEIS, the article is well worth reading anyway, if only for how beautifully Roberts lays out its implications.

The appeal of Sloane’s encyclopedia can best be understood by going back to its origins, when its creator was a graduate student at Cornell. While writing his doctoral dissertation on a problem in artificial intelligence, he calculated an integer sequence—0, 1, 8, 78, 944, and so on—that described the firing of neurons in a neural network. As Roberts writes:

The sequence looked promising, though Sloane couldn’t figure out the pattern or formula that would give him the next and all further terms, and by extension the sequence’s rate of growth. He searched out the sequence at the library to see if it was published in a math book on combinatorics or the like, and found nothing. Along the way, however, he came upon other sequences of interest, and stashed them away for further investigation. He eventually computed the formula using a tool from 1937, Pólya’s enumeration theorem.

But the roundabout process had been frustrating. The task should not have been so difficult. He should have been able to simply look up his sequence in a comprehensive reference guide for all extant integer sequences. Since no such thing existed, he decided to build it himself. “I started collecting sequences,” he said. “I went through all the books in the Cornell library…And articles and journals and any other source I could find.”

Neil Sloane's notebook

Reading this, I was inevitably reminded of the experience of writing my own senior thesis, in the days before universal book search was available, and the kind of random scavenging through the stacks that was required back then to track down references and make connections. Sloane’s impulse to collect such sequences initially took the form of a set of punchcards, followed years later by A Handbook of Integer Sequences, published by his employers at Bell Labs. Finally, about twenty years ago, he put it online. Before long, the database began to prove its value, as when it revealed that a sequence related to the problem of placing cell towers matched one from an unrelated subject in number theory. It’s the closest thing we have to a search engine for math, as long as you can express whatever you’re doing in terms of a sequence of numbers:

Ultimately, it all comes back to counting things, and counting is a universally handy tool. Which in turn makes the encyclopedia handy, too. “Suppose you are working on a problem in one domain, say, electronics, and while solving a problem you encounter a sequence of integers,” said Manish Gupta, a coding theorist by training who runs a lab at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology. “Now you can use the encyclopedia and search if this is well known. Many times it happens that this sequence may have appeared in a totally unrelated area with another problem. Since numbers are the computational output of nature, to me, these connections are quite natural.”

As Roberts concludes: “The encyclopedia’s impact on scientific research broadly speaking can be measured by its citations in journals, which currently Sloane has tallied to more than 4,500, ranging through biology, botany, zoology, chemistry, thermodynamics, optics, quantum physics, astrophysics, geology, cybernetics, engineering, epidemiology, and anthropology. It is a numerical database of the human canon.” And although the humanities go mostly unrepresented in that list, that’s probably because the translation of such concepts into numbers isn’t always intuitive. But researchers in other areas can at least appreciate its usefulness by analogy. When I think of how I use Google as a creative tool, it’s less to find specific information than to unearth connections—as when I spent a month looking up pairs of concepts like “Dadaism” and “Vehmgericht” to populate the conspiracy theory in The Icon Thief—or to verify a hunch I’ve already had. (As E.L. Doctorow once put it: “[Research] involved finding a responsible source for the lie I was about to create, and discovering that it was not a lie, which is to say someone else had thought of it first.”) Sloane’s encyclopedia essentially allows mathematicians and scientists to do the same, once they’ve converted their ideas into a searchable sequence, which can be a useful exercise in itself. And even if you aren’t in one of those fields, a few minutes browsing in OEIS is enough to remind you of how large the world is, how patterns can emerge in unexpected places, and how the first step to insight is making sure that those connections are accessible.

Quote of the Day

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Viktor Shklovsky

Increasing the difficulty and duration of perception is the device of art. The perceptual process in art is an end in itself and ought to be extended. Art is a means of experiencing the making of a thing.

Viktor Shklovsky

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October 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

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“You’re destroying the scale!”

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Frank Lloyd Wright

[Frank Lloyd Wright] often used to tell us, paraphrasing his own essay on house building: “I took the human being, at five feet eight and one-half inches tall, like myself, as the human scale. If I had been taller, the scale might have been different…”

Someone once remarked to him, “Whenever I walk into one of your buildings, the doorways are so low my hat gets knocked off.” Mr. Wright merely suggested, “Take your hat off when you come into a house.” While I was at the Fellowship, the tallest apprentice around was Wes Peters, six feet and four inches. Mr. Wright never let him forget about his height, since both Wes and the Taliesin ceilings were six feet four. Occasionally, when we gathered in one of the rooms at Taliesin, Mr. Wright would roar out at Wes, “Sit down, Wes! You’re destroying the scale!”

Edgar Tafel, Years with Frank Lloyd Wright

Written by nevalalee

October 22, 2015 at 7:30 am

On Walden Pond

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is a public menace, and he needs to be stopped. That’s the impression, at least, that we get from the critic Kathryn Schulz’s puzzling essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a savage takedown with no apparent news angle aside from the author’s determination to bury, not praise, Thoreau. Schulz tackles the task with relish, pointing out that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Let’s set aside the point, for now, that literary masterpieces in any genre aren’t likely to emerge from any other kind of personality: Walden, Schulz writes, is the work of a misanthrope “whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” The article’s attitude toward Thoreau’s antisocial tendencies is indignant, even strident, and it’s even stranger when we realize that it occupies the same prominent position in the same magazine—and was presumably the product of the same editorial process—as Jonathan Franzen’s equally baffling essay on climate change, in which he more or less advised the rest of us to resign ourselves to a “human catastrophe” to make room for more deserving species. And I can’t help but feel that Schulz has chosen a peculiar target for her rage, at a time when Thoreau, for all his flaws, stands as a necessary counterexample to the unsustainable impulses that surround us on every side.

I could tell that I was going to be out of phase with Schulz almost from the beginning, when she refers to the opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” as “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.” I’ve always found it riveting—it’s possibly the most heavily underlined section in any book I own—and I revisit it on a regular basis, while I rarely feel the need to reread Thoreau’s nature writing, which Schulz likes. But there are other early warning signs that we shouldn’t expect a fair hearing. Schulz dismisses Thoreau’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, including his work as a conductor on the underground railroad, in a single paragraph, and she concludes: “But one may reach good ends by bad means.” (If history has taught us anything, isn’t it that we need to be more concerned about the opposite?) “His moral clarity about abolition,” Schulz writes, “stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” Yet that abstract conviction led him to take positions and actions at considerable risk to his own safety, while the “compassion” of so many others, then as now, resulted in nothing more than moral self-congratulation at a comfortable remove. Walden, Schulz says, is “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” but in practice, it resulted in a greater sense of obligation and responsibility than many of the social and economic platitudes with which we surround ourselves today.

Marker for Thoreau's cabin

Which isn’t to say that Thoreau isn’t a deeply problematic figure. The core of Schulz’s position is familiar, and basically correct: Walden is a work of imaginative literature, not reportage, since Thoreau wasn’t nearly as removed from civilization as he claimed to be, and he wasn’t able to stick for long to the mode of living that he pressed on his readers. Schulz concludes: “So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.” (There’s also the fact that even contemplating such a retreat is a luxury afforded to very few. E.B. White’s famous quip that Thoreau wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected” carries more weight than Schulz’s essay does in its entirety.) But this also misses the point. “His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel,” Schulz writes, but this is a charge that can be leveled, with just as much reason, at other moral exemplars who have manifestly asked for the impossible. Walden is less like a practical handbook than what the Jesus Seminar calls a case parody, an admonition so exaggerated—like “Turn the other cheek”—that it exists only to shock us out of our old assumptions. A more reasoned approach, of the kind that Schulz would evidently prefer, would have had about as much impact as such arguments usually do, which is to say none. Thoreau overcorrects toward an extreme vision of simplicity because so much of America, both in his time and in ours, skews just as strongly in the other direction.

And it’s only through a conversation between extremes that we get at the kind of reasonable middle ground that Schulz finds acceptable. Thoreau wrote that even owning a doormat might mean succumbing to a kind of materialist temptation, of which Schulz says: “Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope.” But this misunderstands how balance arises in the first place. The kind of moderation that Schulz—and I—see as the best way of living doesn’t emerge from aiming constantly at the midpoint: it’s an averaging out of extremes, a pragmatic slalom that allows for a play of competing forces that otherwise would shake themselves apart. (In fact, the best defense of Schulz’s essay is that its shrill attack on Thoreau might be the corrective we need to get at a more realistic portrait, which doesn’t make it any more convincing on its own.) “Restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life,” Schulz writes, as if this were a flaw in Thoreau’s argument, when in fact he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics who recognize that strict rules of simplicity, requiring constant vigilance, are the only way to generate the right kind of complexity. “The hypocrisy,” Schulz says, “is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one.” Yet I don’t think the reader comes away from Walden with any impression other than that of a man of enormous inward complexity enabled by the outward constraints on which he maddeningly insisted. Thoreau’s example, even if it was inherently unattainable, points the way forward. In the words of the man who owned the land on which that cabin was built: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

Quote of the Day

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Jean Nouvel

My research is always around the idea of specificity, and I don’t like to repeat the same vocabulary or to do the same architecture on every spot on the earth. I always research good reasons to do one thing in a specific place.

Jean Nouvel

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2015 at 7:30 am

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A building that sings

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Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center by Renzo Piano

Let’s talk about expression in architecture. I like fighting gravity. Magic is essential in architecture. Working in Manhattan, I love the idea that we accept the clear and simple geometry of a building. We accept that logic. But complexity comes from texture, from vibration, from the metamorphic capacity of the building to transform, to change, to breathe. Sometimes buildings even make sounds. You know, in New Caledonia we learned from the local culture that buildings sing. And we were actually able to do that, to make our building make a sound when the wind blows. So the complexity doesn’t necessarily come from geometrical complexity. The building is actually very simple. But the complexity comes from the skin, the surface of the building actually vibrating, working with the weather.

Renzo Piano

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Oo-de-lally, oo-de-lally

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Concept art for Disney's Robin Hood

Over the last few weeks, my daughter and I have been slowly working through the Disney movies that are available for streaming on Netflix. I’m not sure about the business details of that arrangement, which I can only assume involved some protracted negotiations, but Disney’s conservative approach to its back catalog leads to an intriguingly skewed sample set. It’s reluctant to give unlimited access to its most lucrative plums, so the selection includes neither the masterpieces of the first golden age, like Snow White or Pinocchio, nor the heights of its late renaissance, like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Instead, it gives us the movies that fell through the cracks: lighter fare, much of it from after Walt Disney’s death, like The Aristocats or The Rescuers, or the movies that the revitalized studio continued to produce after the bloom had gone off the rose, like Hercules or Treasure Planet. And although my daughter seems equally happy with all of it, as an animation buff, I’m most interested in the way the result amounts to an accidental canon from a parallel universe. As viewers of the excellent documentary American Experience: Walt Disney can attest, the studio’s history consisted of alternating periods of boom and bust, and watching the movies on Netflix is like experiencing that legacy with most of the high points removed, leaving the products of the years when money was scarce and the animators were forced to work under considerable constraints.

In his indispensable book Paper Dreams: The Art and Artists of Disney Storyboards, the historian John Canemaker says this about that era:

After Walt died in 1966, story took a backseat to animation at the Disney Studio. In films such as The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound, the animators brought new degrees of subtlety to the characters’ personalities and relationships. But the stories, concocted solely by storyboards that were mainly contributed to by a committee of animators, were weak and almost an incidental backdrop to the often bravura performances. Observing fine animators going through their dazzling paces in second-rate vehicles was likened by one pundit to watching great chefs make hot dogs.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston make much the same point in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life:

The interrelationships of these characters were of particular importance in Robin Hood, because the story was secondary to the characters. There was no real suspense in Prince John’s many attempts to catch Robin. They are showcases for the histrionics of the two villainous actors who become richer and more entertaining as the picture progresses.

Concept art for Disney's Robin Hood

This goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar appeal of Robin Hood, which remains one of the most beguiling works in the whole Disney canon, as well as the movie that my daughter and I have ended up watching the most. Its reduced budget is painfully apparent, with animation and character designs repurposed from other projects, reused from elsewhere in the movie, or simply flipped and repeated. Much of the writing feels like the work of animators more accustomed to thinking in terms of isolated character poses and bits of business than considering the story as a whole, leading to the kind of crude, obvious gags and tricks that we find even in Winnie the Pooh. And the story suffers from a manifest indifference, verging on boredom, toward Robin Hood and Maid Marian: Disney has always been better at evil than at good, and it’s particularly evident here. But the evil is truly delicious. The pairing of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and the British comic Terry-Thomas as Sir Hiss—both playing wonderfully within type—still makes me laugh with delight. And the rest of the cast is stocked with the kinds of dependable character actors that Disney used so capably: Phil Harris, Pat Buttram, Ken Curtis, George Lindsey, Andy Devine. (You could write an entire dissertation on the evolving pool of talent that the studio employed over the years, from vaudeville and radio pros like Ed Wynn through the television stars of the seventies through the Second City and single-camera sitcom alumni that make up the cast of a movie like Inside Out.)

And it’s still oddly charming, especially in the songs that Roger Miller contributes as the Rooster: if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably got “Whistle-Stop” running on a loop through your head right now. (There’s something undeniably shrewd in the way the studio outsourced the music to different writers, with Miller’s novelty country numbers sharing screen time with “Love” by Floyd Huddleston and George Bruns and Johnny Mercer’s “The Phony King of England.”) It’s a cut below the classics, but luckily, we don’t need to take it in isolation. When we’re in the mood for a movie on which the studio lavished all its resources, there’s always Fantasia or Sleeping Beauty, but there’s also something engaging about the sheer roughness of Robin Hood, cut corners and all, which is as close as Disney ever got to the actor’s performance passing through the pencil sketches to end up almost intact on the screen. It all feels like the result of a private huddle between the animators themselves, and they weren’t afraid to poke fun at their own situation, as Thomas and Johnston note:

The subtler shadings of [Sir Hiss’s] personality were based on real experience. Occasionally, over the years, there had been men at the studio who in their determination to please Walt did a fair amount of bowing and scraping…Suddenly there was a place to use these observations as our cartoon character matched the reality of human actions. “Now, what was so funny about the way those guys did it?”

Now that Disney is an entertainment juggernaut once more, I doubt we’ll ever see anything as unvarnished and vital again. And as much as I love Frozen, I also miss the spirit that we find here, with Robin Hood himself—in the form of Walt—gone from the forest, and a ragtag group of merry men doing their best in his absence.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2015 at 7:30 am

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