Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 2016

Learning how to guess

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Jerome S. Bruner

Should students be encouraged to guess, in the interest of learning eventually how to make intelligent conjectures? Possibly there are certain kinds of situations where guessing is desirable and where it may facilitate the development of intuitive thinking to some reasonable degree. There may, indeed, be a kind of guessing that requires careful cultivation. Yet in many classes in school, guessing is heavily penalized and is associated somehow with laziness. Certainly one would not like to educate students to do nothing but guess, for guessing should always be followed up with as much verification and confirmation as necessary; but too stringent a penalty on guessing may restrain thinking of any sort and keep it plodding rather than permitting it to make occasional leaps.

May it not be better for students to guess than to be struck dumb when they cannot immediately give the right answer? It is plain that a student should be given some training in recognizing the plausibility of guessing. Very often we are forced, in science and in life generally, to act on the basis of incomplete knowledge; we are forced to guess. According to statistical decision theory, actions based on inadequate date must take account of both probability and costs. What we should teach students to recognize, probably, is when the cost of guessing is too high, as well as when guessing itself is too costly.

Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education

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December 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

What comes next

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Isaac Asimov

In the memoir I. Asimov, which Isaac Asimov wrote when he knew that he was dying from complications of an HIV infection acquired years earlier from a blood transfusion, its author says:

Comparatively early in life I managed to have it ground into my brain that there was no disgrace in dying after seventy, but that dying before seventy was “premature” and was a reflection on a person’s intelligence and character.

Asimov blamed this on the Bible verse that tells us that “the years of our life are threescore and ten,” and he observes that his opinion was “unreasonable, of course; quite irrational.” Still, I have a hunch that many of us continue to share that view, if only subconsciously. This year may or may not have had a greater number of celebrity deaths than usual, but it certainly seemed that way, and many of the ones that stung the most—David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher—were of artists who were between the ages of fifty and seventy. They had been around for enough to feel like legends, but not quite old enough for us to think that their stories were over, and it felt, in some cases, as if we’d been deprived of another decade or two of work. (It’s a measure of Bowie’s hold over my imagination that even after we’ve lost so many others, his death is still the one that hurts the most, and I think that the post I wrote after hearing the news might be the best thing I’ve ever written on this blog.)

When a science fiction writer dies, there’s an additional pang of regret that he or she didn’t live “to see the future,” which, if anything, is even more irrational. But that doesn’t make it wrong. In the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell published the complete chart of Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History, which extended from the present day to past the year 2100. In his editor’s note, Campbell wrote:

It might be of very real interest to you to trace in on this suggestion of the future your own life line. My own, I imagine, should extend up to about 1980—a bit beyond the time of “Roads Must Roll” and “Blowups Happen.” My children may see the days of “Logic of Empire.” Where does your life line fall? Where will your children’s end?

Campbell, in fact, had no intention of dying at all. In a biographical sketch from the early fifties, he said: “It’s my intention to live at least two hundred years, because I damn well want to find out how this mess comes out, and that’s the only way I know of that I can do it.” A few years later, he extended the timeline, saying that he planned “to see what happens next—if I have to hang around for another five hundred years or so to do so!” Toward the end of the sixties, when he was painfully conscious of his failing health, he wrote, more modestly, that he hoped to keep editing the magazine for another thirty years, noting that he would be “just shy of ninety” in 1998.

Robert A. Heinlein's Future History

Campbell’s fullest statement on human longevity came in an editorial titled “Oh King, Live Forever!”, which was published in the April 1949 issue of Astounding. Campbell began with the statement:

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed, without our knowing it.

He continued by saying that it shouldn’t be too hard to extend the human lifespan by a few decades, and he concluded:

The first advance of thirty years would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—

It’s an argument that perfectly anticipates those of such later transhumanists as Ray Kurzweil, author of books like Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. And for all I know, it might be right—someday.

As it turned out, Campbell was only sixty-one when he died, and while his death was sudden, it was far from unexpected: he had been suffering from gout, high blood pressure, and other ailments for years. It’s easy to regret that both he and Asimov failed to make it to the twenty-first century. But Campbell lived to see the moon landing. So did Asimov, who once wrote, like Campbell, that he hoped to keep on living as long as he was still curious to see how the story would turn out. In his movie review of The Sea Inside, which is about a quadriplegic who demands the right to die, Roger Ebert made a similar statement:

I believe I would want to live as long as I could, assuming I had my sanity and some way to communicate…If a man is of sound mind and not in pain, how in the world can he decide he no longer wants to read tomorrow’s newspaper?

When he wrote those words, Ebert—who once called Campbell “my hero”—was a few years away from his own very public struggle with mortality. But the desire to see what happens next is very strong, and it’s particularly moving when you think of the times through which Campbell, Asimov, and the rest all lived. It’s been a rough twelve months, and I can’t say that I’m particularly sorry to say goodbye to 2016. But I still want to know what comes next.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2016 at 9:24 am

Quote of the Day

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December 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

The Potion of Circe

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Daniel Ellsberg

In 1968, Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who would later become famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers, had a meeting with Henry Kissinger. At the time, Kissinger had spent most of his career as a consultant and an academic, and he was about to enter government service—as the National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon—for the first time. (Their conversation is described in Ellsberg’s memoir Secrets, and I owe my own discovery of it to a surprisingly fine article on Ellsberg and Edward Snowden by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker.) Ellsberg, who had been brought in for a discussion about the Vietnam War, had a word of advice for Kissinger. He said:

Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret…I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

At first, Ellsberg said, Kissinger would feel “exhilarated” at having access to so much information. But he cautioned: 

Second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess…You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information…you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t…and that all those other people are fools.

Over a longer period of time—not too long, but a matter of two or three years—you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information…In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know?”

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon

After a while, Ellsberg concluded, this “mental exercise” would become so tortuous that Kissinger might cease to pay attention altogether: “The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.” Ellsberg compared this sort of secret information to the potion of Circe, which turned Odysseus’s men into swine and left them incapable of working with other humans. And it’s a warning worth bearing in mind even for those of us who don’t have access to classified intelligence. Ellsberg’s admonition is really about distinguishing between raw information—which can be acquired with nothing but patience, money, or the right clearances—and the more elusive quality of insight. It applies to everyone who has ever wound up with more facts on a specific subject than anybody else he or she knows, which is just as true of writers of theses, research papers, and works of nonfiction as it is of government advisors. In researching my book Astounding, for instance, I’ve seen thousands of pages of letters and other documents that very few other living people have studied. They aren’t classified, but they’re hard to obtain and inconvenient to read, and I’m reasonably sure that I’m the only person in recent years who has tried to absorb them in their entirety. But a lot of other people could have done it. I didn’t have to be smart: I just had to be willing to reach out to the right librarians, sit in a chair for long periods, stare at a microfilm reader, and take decent notes.

There’s something to be said, of course, for being the one who actually goes out and does it. And there’s a sense in which this kind of drudgery is an indispensable precursor to insight: you’re more likely to come up with something worthwhile if you’ve mined the ore yourself, and there’s a big difference between taking the time to unearth it personally and having it handed to you. Reading a hundred grainy pages to discover the one fact you need isn’t the same thing as finding it on Wikipedia. It’s necessary, if not sufficient, and as Ellsberg notes, the “moron” stage is one that everyone needs to pass through in order to emerge on the other side. (I also suspect that we’ll start to feel nostalgic soon for the kind of government moron whom Ellsberg describes, who at least respected the information he had, rather than ignoring or dismissing any data that didn’t suit his political needs.) But it’s important to draw a line between the kind of expertise that accumulates steadily as a function of time—which any good drudge can acquire—and the kind that builds up erratically through thought and experience. It’s obvious in other people, but it can be hard to see it in ourselves. For long stretches, we’ll have acquired just enough knowledge to be dangerous, and we can only hope that we won’t do any lasting damage. And even if we’ve been warned, it’s a lesson that has to be learned firsthand. As Ellsberg ends the story: “Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning…He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.”

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2016 at 8:24 am

Quote of the Day

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Sagrada Familia

I lack the means to express myself adequately. I would not be able to explain to anyone my artistic concepts. I have not yet concretized them. I never had time to reflect on them. My hours have been spent in my work.

Antoni Gaudí, quoted in Gaudí by Gijs Van Hensbergen

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December 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

The children are our future

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Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Children of Men

Sometimes a great film takes years to reveal its full power. Occasionally, you know what you’ve witnessed as soon as the closing credits begin to roll. And very rarely, you realize in the middle of the movie that you’re watching something extraordinary. I’ve experienced this last feeling only a handful of times in my life, and my most vivid memory of it is from ten years ago, when I saw Children of Men. I’d been looking forward to it ever since seeing the trailer, and for the first twenty minutes or so, it more than lived up to my expectations. But halfway through a crucial scene—and if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one I mean—I began to feel the movie expanding in my head, as Pauline Kael said of The Godfather Part II, “like a soft bullet.” Two weeks later, I wrote to a friend: “Alfonso Cuarón has just raised the bar for every director in the world.” And I still believe this, even if the ensuing decade has clarified the film’s place in the history of movies. Cuarón hasn’t had the productive career that I’d hoped he would, and it took him years to follow up on his masterpiece, although he finally earned his Oscar for Gravity. The only unambiguous winner to come out of it all was the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzeki, who has won three Academy Awards in a row for refinements of the discoveries that he made here. And the story now seems prescient, of course, as Abraham Riesman of Vulture recently noted: “The film, in hindsight, seems like a documentary about a future that, in 2016, finally arrived.” If nothing else, the world certainly appears to be run by exactly the sort of people of whom Jarvis Cocker was warning us.

But the most noteworthy thing about Children of Men, and the one aspect of it that its fans and imitators should keep in mind, is the insistently visceral nature of its impact. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I was blown away the most by three elements: the tracking shots, the use of music, and the level of background detail in every scene. These are all qualities that are independent of its politics, its message, and even, to some extent, its script, which might be its weakest point. The movie can be refreshingly elliptical when it comes to the backstory of its characters and its world, but there are also holes and shortcuts that are harder to forgive. (Its clumsiest moment, for me, is when Theo is somehow able to observe and overhear Jasper’s death—an effective scene in itself—from higher ground without being noticed by anyone else. We aren’t sure where he’s standing in relation to the house, so it feels contrived and stagy, a strange lapse for a movie that is otherwise so bracingly specific about its geography.) But maybe that’s how it had to be. If the screenplay were as rich and crowded as the images, it would turn into a Christopher Nolan movie, for better or worse, and Cuarón is a very different sort of filmmaker. He’s content to leave entire swaths of the story in outline form, as if he forgot to fill in the blanks, and he’s happy to settle for a cliché if it saves time, just because his attention is so intensely focused elsewhere.

Michael Caine in Children of Men

Occasionally, this has led his movies to be something less than they should be. I really want to believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest installment in the series, but it has real structural problems that stem precisely from Cuarón’s indifference to exposition: he cuts out an important chunk of dialogue that leaves the climax almost incomprehensible, so that nonreaders have to scramble to figure out what the hell is going on, when we should be caught up in the action. Gravity impressed me enormously when I saw it on the big screen, but I’m not particularly anxious to revisit it at home, where its technical marvels run the risk of being swallowed up by its rudimentary characters and dialogue. (It strikes me now that Gravity might have some of the same problems, to a much lesser extent, as Birdman, in which the use of extended takes makes it impossible to give scenes the necessary polish in the editing room. Which also implies that if you’re going to hire Lubzeki as your cinematographer, you’d better have a really good script.) But Children of Men is the one film in which Cuarón’s shortcomings are inseparable from his strengths. His usual omissions and touches of carelessness were made for a story in which we’re only meant to glimpse the overall picture. And its allegory is so vague that we can apply it to whatever we like.

This might sound like a criticism, but it isn’t: Children of Men is undeniably one of the major movies of my lifetime. And its message is more insightful than it seems, even if it takes a minute of thought to unpack. Its world falls apart as soon as humanity realizes that it doesn’t have a future, which isn’t so far from where we are now. We find it very hard, as a species, to keep the future in mind, and we often behave—even in the presence of our own children—as if this generation will be the last. When a society has some measure of economic and political security, it can make efforts to plan ahead for a decade or two, but even that modest degree of foresight disappears as soon as stability does. In Children of Men, the childbirth crisis, which doesn’t respect national or racial boundaries, takes the sort of disruptions that tend to occur far from the developed world and brings them into the heart of Europe and America, and it doesn’t even need to change any of the details. The most frightening thing about Cuarón’s movie, and what makes it most relevant to our current predicament, is that its extrapolations aren’t across time, but across the map of the world as it exists today. You don’t need to look far to see landscapes like the ones through which the characters move, or the ways in which they could spread across the planet. In the words of William Gibson, the future of Children of Men is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.

Quote of the Day

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Sheldon Library by Ernest Flagg

Disguise and complication are hindrances, both to good construction and good design, and as complication and disguise are expensive and wasteful…the interests of good art and true economy run on parallel lines.

Ernest Flagg, Small Houses

Written by nevalalee

December 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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