Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 2017

Lunch with Roger Corman

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The obligatory first-director’s lunch [with producer Roger Corman] before Caged Heat was the most extraordinary hour, just amazing. Not because Roger picked up the tab—although it was a free lunch at Cyrano’s—but for the way he just machine-gunned the rules of directing at me. Like: Find legitimate, motivated excuses for moving the camera but always look for ways to move it. The eyeball, he said, was the organ most utilized in moviegoing. If you don’t keep the eyeball entertained, no way you’ll get the brain involved. Use as many interesting angles as you can. Don’t repeat composition in closeups. Don’t remind the eye it’s already seen the same thing. Make your villain as fascinating as your hero. A one-dimensional villain won’t be as scary as a complicated, interesting one. It was amazing.

Jonathan Demme, quoted in How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime

Written by nevalalee

April 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

A system of concepts in steel

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Precision instruments are designed to achieve an idea, dimensional precision, whose perfection is impossible. There is no perfectly shaped part of the motorcycle, and never will be, but when you come as close as these instruments take you, remarkable things happen, and you go flying across the countryside under a power that would be called magic if it were not so completely rational in every way. It’s the understanding of this rational intellectual idea that’s fundamental. John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts

That’s all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There’s no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone’s mind…I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this—that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts—all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forger work or welding sees “steel” as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. Shapes, like this tappet, are what you arrive at, what you give to the steel. Steel has no more shape than this old pile of dirt on the engine here. These shapes are all of someone’s mind. That’s important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone’s mind. There’s no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There’s nothing else there.

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Written by nevalalee

April 29, 2017 at 7:30 am

The A/B Test

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Magazine, there’s a profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Farhad Manjoo, who describes how the founder of Facebook is coming to terms with his role in the world in the aftermath of last year’s election. I find myself thinking about Zuckerberg a lot these days, arguably even more than I use Facebook itself. We just missed overlapping in college, and with one possible exception, which I’ll mention later, he’s the most influential figure to emerge from those ranks in the last two decades. Manjoo depicts him as an intensely private man obliged to walk a fine line in public, leading him to be absurdly cautious about what he says: “When I asked if he had chatted with Obama about the former president’s critique of Facebook, Zuckerberg paused for several seconds, nearly to the point of awkwardness, before answering that he had.” Zuckerberg is trying to figure out what he believes—and how to act—under conditions of enormous scrutiny, but he also has more resources at his disposal than just about anyone else in history. Here’s the passage in the article that stuck with me the most:

The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition, or seniority. They are concerned only with quantifiable outcomes about people’s actions on the site. That data, at Facebook, is the only real truth…This ideal runs so deep that the people who make News Feed often have to put aside their own notions of what’s best. “One of the things we’ve all learned over the years is that our intuition can be wrong a fair amount of the time,” John Hegeman, the vice president of product management and a News Feed team member, told me. “There are things you don’t expect will happen. And we learn a lot from that process: Why didn’t that happen, and what might that mean?”

Reading this, I began to reflect on how rarely we actually test our intuitions. I’ve spoken a lot on this blog about the role of intuitive thinking in the arts and sciences, mostly because it doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves, but there’s also no guarantee that intuition will steer us in the right direction. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has devoted his career to showing how we tend to overvalue our gut reactions, particularly if we’ve been fortunate enough to be right in the past, and the study of human irrationality has become a rich avenue of research in the social sciences, which are often undermined by poor hunches of their own. It may not even be a matter of right or wrong. An intuitive choice may be better or worse than the alternative, but for the most part, we’ll never know. One of the quirks of Silicon Valley culture is that it claims to base everything on raw data, but it’s often in the service of notions that are outlandish, untested, and easy to misrepresent. Facebook comes closer than any company in existence to the ideal of an endless A/B test, in which the user base is randomly divided into two or more groups to see which approaches are the most effective. It’s the best lab ever developed for testing our hunches about human behavior. (Most controversially, Facebook modified the news feeds of hundreds of thousands of users to adjust the number of positive or negative posts, in order to gauge the emotional impact, and it has conducted similar tests on voter turnout.) And it shouldn’t surprise us if many of our intuitions turn out to be mistaken. If anything, we should expect them to be right about half the time—and if we can nudge that percentage just a little bit upward, in theory, it should give us a significant competitive advantage.

So what good is intuition, anyway? I like to start with William Goldman’s story about the Broadway producer George Abbott, who once passed a choreographer holding his head in his hands while the dancers stood around doing nothing. When Abbott asked what was wrong, the choreographer said that he couldn’t figure out what to do next. Abbott shot back: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.” Intuition, as I’ve argued before, is mostly about taking you from zero ideas to one idea, which you can then start to refine. John W. Campbell makes much the same argument in what might be his single best editorial, “The Value of Panic,” which begins with a maxim from the Harvard professor Wayne Batteau: “In total ignorance, try anything. Then you won’t be so ignorant.” Campbell argues that this provides an evolutionary rationale for panic, in which an animal acts “in a manner entirely different from the normal behavior patterns of the organism.” He continues:

Given: An organism with N characteristic behavior modes available. Given: An environmental situation which cannot be solved by any of the N available behavior modes, but which must be solved immediately if the organism is to survive. Logical conclusion: The organism will inevitably die. But…if we introduce Panic, allowing the organism to generate a purely random behavior mode not a member of the N modes characteristically available?

Campbell concludes: “When the probability of survival is zero on the basis of all known factors—it’s time to throw in an unknown.” In extreme situations, the result is panic; under less intense circumstances, it’s a blind hunch. You can even see them as points on a spectrum, the purpose of which is to provide us with a random action or idea that can then be revised into something better, assuming that we survive for long enough. But sometimes the animal just gets eaten.

The idea of refinement, revision, or testing is inseparable from intuition, and Zuckerberg has been granted the most powerful tool imaginable for asking hard questions and getting quantifiable answers. What he does with it is another matter entirely. But it’s also worth looking at his only peer from college who could conceivably challenge him in terms of global influence. On paper, Mark Zuckerberg and Jared Kushner have remarkable similarities. Both are young Jewish men—although Kushner is more observant—who were born less than four years and sixty miles apart. Kushner, whose acceptance to Harvard was so manifestly the result of his family’s wealth that it became a case study in a book on the subject, was a member of the final clubs that Zuckerberg badly wanted to join, or so Aaron Sorkin would have us believe. Both ended up as unlikely media magnates of a very different kind: Kushner, like Charles Foster Kane, took over a New York newspaper from a man named Carter. Yet their approaches to their newfound positions couldn’t be more different. Kushner has been called “a shadow secretary of state” whose portfolio includes Mexico, China, the Middle East, and the reorganization of the federal government, but it feels like one long improvisation, on the apparent assumption that he can wing it and succeed where so many others have failed. As Bruce Bartlett writes in the New York Times, without a staff, Kushner “is just a dilettante meddling in matters he lacks the depth or the resources to grasp,” and we may not have a chance to recover if his intuitions are wrong. In other words, he resembles his father-in-law, as Frank Bruni notes:

I’m told by insiders that when Trump’s long-shot campaign led to victory, he and Kushner became convinced not only that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about America, but that they’d tapped into something that everybody was missing about the two of them.

Zuckerberg and Kushner’s lives ran roughly in parallel for a long time, but now they’re diverging at a point at which they almost seem to be offering us two alternate versions of the future, like an A/B test with only one possible outcome. Neither is wholly positive, but that doesn’t make the choice any less stark. And if you think this sounds farfetched, bookmark this post, and read it again in about six years.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2017 at 7:30 am

The acid test

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

—William S. Burroughs, to The Paris Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2017 at 9:11 am

Quote of the Day

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

Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2017 at 7:30 am

The frigid juicemaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2017 at 9:29 am

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