Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Douglas R. Hofstadter

The index fund

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When the time comes to prepare the index for a nonfiction book, there are basically two schools of thought on how to proceed. One is that the author is the only person qualified to perform this particular task. You see this view expressed at its most eloquent by Douglas R. Hofstadter, who reveals in a long endnote in Le Ton Beau de Marot that completing the index for that book required him to work fifteen hours a day for an entire month. He explains:

My feeling is that only the author (and certainly not a computer program) can do this job well. Only the author, looking at a given page, sees all the way to the bottom of the pool of ideas of which the words are the mere surface, and only the author can answer the question, “What am I really talking about here, in this paragraph, this page, this section, this chapter?” To answer those questions takes total understanding of the book.

Hofstadter adds that going through the book one last time awakened him to deeper themes and concepts that he hadn’t known were there, including “conflation,” “colliding cultures,” and “Chopin.” He concludes: “Once the index was essentially done…I found it interesting to flip through it and, by comparing the sheer sizes of various entries, to get new perceptions of what my book is most centrally about.” At a point at which a writer might be expected to have looked at a manuscript from every angle, an index can be a fund of new insights.

Another vote in favor of the author comes from Isaac Asimov. For his first nonfiction book, the textbook Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, he unquestioningly prepared the index himself, despite having only “a vague idea of how it should be done.” He enjoyed the job—which consisted mostly of preparing a mountain of index cards, alphabetizing them, and typing up the result—and was annoyed by what he saw as a “more cavalier attitude toward indexing” among his collaborators. For the rest of the career, he aways insisted on doing his own indexes, and when A Short History of Biology was indexed without his knowledge, he wasn’t pleased:

I looked over the index, which had, presumably, been professionally prepared, to see if I could learn lessons in technique. I quickly found that the only lesson I could learn would be on the method of preparing a thoroughly inadequate index. Half the names in the book were not included. A number of subjects were not mentioned.

Asimov concluded that the index was “insupportable,” and after that, he was careful to make his preferences known to his editors: “It added just one more time-wasting task to the list. I had to see it that no publisher, either through ignorance or through forgetfulness, ever allowed a “professional” to prepare my indexes.”

Of course, there’s also a strong case to be made for the opposite point of view, which Asimov recalled hearing from Dick DeHaan, one of his editors at Basic Books: “I tried to explain that I liked indexing, but he kept saying that no writer could approach his own book with sufficient detachment to do a good index.” Asimov eventually acquiesced for The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, and the outcome left him predictably outraged:

It was dreadful; simply dreadful. It left out a great variety of things that should have been put in. It was the slapdash job of someone working for money instead of for his own book, and never again was I fooled by any talk of expertise in indexing. When I later discovered that I had been charged five hundred dollars against royalties for the privilege of having that rotten index made, I was ready to choke DeHaan.

Yet you could also argue that this detachment is necessary, a perspective most famously expressed by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, which includes a chapter titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” It features a former professional indexer who informs the narrator that “indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book.” She continues: “I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work…It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work. It’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye.”

Speaking from a position of minimal experience, I’d suggest that the best approach is to split the difference, and to have an outside indexer make the first pass, after which the author is given the chance to make modest additions and corrections. I’m currently in the process of doing this for Astounding, and it certainly satisfies me. (I once planned to do it all on my own, like Asimov, but I decided to let somebody else handle it, despite the fact that the cost would be taken out of my advance. This was partially because I liked the idea of a third party going through the book with an objective eye, and also because nobody at my publisher seemed to have even considered the possibility that I would want to do it myself.) The index that they’ve provided is a nice piece of work, and although I’ve caught a few errors and omissions, I’m glad that I left it to a professional. This is the last major task that remains in the writing of a book that has taken up three years of my life, and seeing it through the eyes of an ideally attentive reader—which is what an indexer should be—allows me to engage for hours on end in what Hofstadter calls “a very curious activity, and perhaps overly introspective in some people’s eyes, but irresistible for at least a little while.” It’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading this book for the first time, and although my engagement with this index wasn’t as intensive or prolonged as his was, I can only echo Hofstadter’s conclusion: “Doing this index, painful though it was, afforded me one last pass back through the text, tying things together for a final time, saying goodbye to a work created out of love, and with love, for words, ideas, people.”

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

Note: I’m taking a few days off for Thanksgiving, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 13, 2016.

In the novel Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein writes: “A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an ‘intellectual’—find out how he feels about astrology.” But what did he really mean? It might not be what you think. A while back, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Allie Vesant, the astrologer who has joined the religious movement founded by the Martian Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether he delivers them himself or through the voice of an authorial surrogate, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its essential “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein seems to have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which just demonstrates, if we needed the reminder, that newsstand astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like this, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” Like it or not, this can lead to interesting insights, as long as you’re willing to look for them. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (Along these lines, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means of grokking doesn’t necessarily matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some serious thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us in new directions in the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I suspect that even Heinlein would agree.

Written by nevalalee

November 24, 2017 at 9:00 am

The sense of an ending

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Note: This post discusses details from last night’s episode of Twin Peaks.

When I was working as a film critic in college, one of my first investments was a wristwatch that could glow in the dark. If you’re sitting through an interminable slog of a movie, sometimes you simply want to know how much longer the pain will last, and, assuming that you have a sense of the runtime, a watch puts a piece of narrative information at your disposal that has nothing to do with the events of the story itself. Even if you’re enjoying yourself, the knowledge that a film has twenty minutes left to run—which often happens if you’re watching it at home and staring right at the numbers on the display of your DVD player—affects the way you think about certain scenes. A climax plays differently near the end, as opposed to somewhere in the middle. The length of a work of art is a form of metadata that influences the way we watch movies and read books, as Douglas Hofstadter points out in Gödel, Escher, Bach:

You have undoubtedly noticed how some authors go to so much trouble to build up great tension a few pages before the end of their stories—but a reader who is holding the book physically in his hands can feel that the story is about to end. Hence, he has some extra information which acts as an advance warning, in a way. The tension is a bit spoiled by the physicality of the book. It would be so much better if, for instance, there were a lot of padding at the end of novels…A lot of extra printed pages which are not part of the story proper, but which serve to conceal the exact location of the end from a cursory glance, or from the feel of the book.

Not surprisingly, I tend to think about the passage of time the most when I’m not enjoying the story. When I’m invested in the experience, I’ll do the opposite: I’ll actively resist glancing at the clock or looking to see how much time has elapsed. When I know that the credits are going to roll no matter what within the next five minutes, it amounts to a spoiler. With Twin Peaks, which has a narrative that can seemingly be cut anywhere, like yard goods, I try not to think about how long I’ve been watching. Almost inevitably, the episode ends before I’m ready for it, in part because it provides so few of the usual cues that we’ve come to expect from television. There aren’t any commercial breaks, obviously, but the stories also don’t divide neatly into three or four acts. In the past, most shows, even those that aired without interruption on cable networks, followed certain structural conventions that allow us to guess when the story is coming to an end. (This is even more true of Hollywood movies, which, with their mandated beat sheets—the inciting incident, the midpoint, the false dawn, the crisis—practically tell the audience how much longer they need to pay attention, which may be the reason why such rules exist in the first place.) Now that streaming services allow serialized stories to run for hours without worrying about the narrative shape of individual episodes, this is less of an issue, and it can be a mixed blessing. But at its best, on a show like Twin Peaks, it creates a feeling of narrative suspension, cutting us off from any sense of the borders of the episode until the words Starring Kyle MacLachlan appear suddenly onscreen.

Yet there’s also another type of length of which we can’t help but be conscious, at least if we’re the kind of viewers likely to be watching Twin Peaks in the first place. We know that there are eighteen episodes in this season, the fourteenth of which aired last night, and the fact that we only have four hours left to go adds a degree of tension to the narrative that wouldn’t be there if we weren’t aware of it. This external pressure also depends on the knowledge that this is the only new season of the show that we’re probably going to get, which, given how hard it is to avoid this sort of news these days, is reasonable to expect of most fans. Maybe we’ve read the Rolling Stone interview in which David Lynch declared, in response to the question of whether there would be additional episodes: “I have no idea. It depends on how it goes over. You’re going to have to wait and see.” Or we’ve seen that David Nevins of Showtime said to Deadline: “It was always intended to be one season. A lot of people are speculating but there’s been zero contemplation, zero discussions other than fans asking me about it.” Slightly more promisingly, Kyle MacLachlan told the Hollywood Reporter: “I don’t know. David has said: ‘Everything is Twin Peaks.’ It leads me to believe that there are other stories to tell. I think it’s just a question of whether David and Mark want to tell them. I don’t know.” And Lynch even said to USA Today: “You never say never.” Still, it’s fair to say that the current season was conceived, written, and filmed to stand on its own, and until we know otherwise, we have to proceed under the assumption that this is the last time we’ll ever see these characters.

This has important implications for how we watch it from one week to the next. For one thing, it means that episodes near the end will play differently than they would have earlier in the season. Last night’s installment was relatively packed with incident—the revelation of the identity of Diane’s estranged half sister, Andy’s trip into the void, the green gardening glove, Monica Bellucci—but we’re also aware of how little time remains for the show to pay off any of these developments. Most series would have put an episode like this in the fourth slot, rather than the fourteenth, and given the show’s tendency to drop entire subplots for months, it leaves us keenly aware that many of these storylines may never be resolved. Every glimpse of a character, old or new, feels like a potential farewell. And with each episode that passes without the return of Agent Cooper, every minute in which we don’t see him increases our sense of urgency. (If this were the beginning of an open-ended run, rather than the presumptive final season, the response to the whole Dougie Jones thread would have been very different.) This information has nothing to do with the contents of the show itself, which, with one big exception, haven’t changed much since the premiere. But it’s hard not to think about it. In some ways, this may be the greatest difference between this season and the initial run, since there was always hope that the series would be renewed by ABC, or that Fire Walk With Me would tie off any loose ends. Unlike the first generation of fans, we know that this is it, and it can hardly fail to affect our impressions, even if Lynch still whispers in our heads: “You never say never.”

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2017 at 8:48 am

The Chinese Room

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In 1980, the philosopher John Searle presented a thought experiment that has become known as the Chinese Room. I first encountered it in William Poundstone’s book Labyrinths of Reason, which describes it as follows:

Imagine that you are confined to a locked room. The room is virtually bare. There is a thick book in the room with the unpromising title What to Do If They Shove Chinese Writing Under the Door. One day a sheet of paper bearing Chinese script is shoved underneath the locked door. To you, who know nothing of Chinese, it contains meaningless symbols, nothing more…You are supposed to scan the text for certain Chinese characters and keep track of their occurrences according to complicated rules outlined in the book…The next day, you receive another sheet of paper with more Chinese writing on it…The book has further instructions for correlating and manipulating the Chinese symbols on the second sheet, and combining this information with your work from the first sheet. The book ends with instructions to copy certain Chinese symbols…onto a fresh sheet of paper. Which symbols you copy depends, in a very complicated way, on your previous work. Then the book says to shove the new sheet under the door of your locked room. This you do.

Unknown to you, the first sheet of Chinese characters was a Chinese short story, and the second sheet was questions about the story, such as might be asked in a reading test…You have been manipulating the characters via a very complicated algorithm written in English…The algorithm is so good that the “answers” you gave are indistinguishable from those that a native speaker of Chinese would give, having read the same story and been asked the same questions.

Searle concludes that this scenario is essentially identical to that of a computer program operating on a set of symbols, and that it refutes the position of strong artificial intelligence, which he characterizes as the belief that “the appropriately programmed computer with the right inputs and outputs would thereby have a mind in exactly the same sense human beings have minds.” According to Searle, it’s clear that there isn’t any “mind” or “understanding” involved here:

As regards the first claim, it seems to me quite obvious in the example that I do not understand a word of the Chinese stories. I have inputs and outputs that are indistinguishable from those of the native Chinese speaker, and I can have any formal program you like, but I still understand nothing.

I’ve never been convinced by this argument, in part because I approached it through the work of Douglas R. Hofstadter, who calls it “a quintessential ‘bad meme’—a fallacious but contagious virus of an idea, similar to an annoying childhood disease such as measles or chicken pox.” (If it’s a bad meme, it’s one of the all-time greats: the computer scientist Pat Hayes once jokingly defined cognitive science as “the ongoing research program of showing Searle’s Chinese Room Argument to be false.”) The most compelling counterargument, at least to me, is that Searle is deliberately glossing over how this room really would look. As Hofstadter notes, any program capable of performing in the manner described would consist of billions or trillions of lines of code, which would require a library the size of an aircraft carrier. Similarly, even the simplest response would require millions of individual decisions, and the laborious approach that Searle presents here would take years for a single exchange. If you try to envision a version of the Chinese Room that could provide answers in real time, you end up with something considerably more impressive, of which the human being in the room—with whom we intuitively identify—is just a single component. In this case, the real “understanding” resides in the fantastically complicated and intricate system as a whole, a stance of which Searle dismissively writes in his original paper: “It is not easy for me to imagine how someone who was not in the grip of an ideology would find the idea at all plausible.”

In other news, a lawsuit was filed last week against John Searle and the Regents of the University of California, where he has taught for decades, accusing him of sexual harassment. The plaintiff is a twenty-four-year-old woman, Joanna Ong, who was employed as Searle’s research assistant for three months. The complaint states:

On or about July 22, 2016, after only a week of working together, Searle sexually assaulted Ong. On that date, he asked his previous research assistant to leave his office. He then locked the door behind the assistant and then went directly to Ong to grope her. Professor Searle slid his hands down the back of her spine to her buttocks and told Ong that “they were going to be lovers,” that he had an “emotional commitment to making her a public intellectual,” and that he was “going to love her for a long time.”

When Ong took her story to the director of the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, she was allegedly told that Searle “has had sexual relationships with his students and others in the past in exchange for academic, monetary, or other benefits.” No further attempt was made to investigate or respond to her claim, and the incidents continued. According to Ong, Searle asked her to log onto a “sugar daddy” website on his behalf and watched online pornography in her presence. The complaint adds: “On one occasion, when Ong”—who is Asian-American—“brought up the topic of American Imperialism as a discussion topic, Searle responded: ‘American Imperialism? Oh boy, that sounds great honey! Let’s go to bed and do that right now.’” When Ong complained again, the lawsuit states, she was informed that none of these issues would be addressed, and she ultimately lost her job. Earlier this month, Searle ceased to teach his undergraduate course on “Philosophy of Mind,” with university officials alluding to undisclosed “personal reasons.” As far as I know, neither Searle’s attorney nor anyone at the university has commented on the allegations.

Now let’s get back to the Chinese Room. At its heart, the argument comes down to a contest between dueling intuitions. Proponents of strong artificial intelligence have the intuition, or the “ideology,” that consciousness can emerge from a substrate other than the biological material of the brain, and Searle doesn’t. To support his position, he offers up a thought experiment, which Daniel C. Dennett once called “an intuition pump,” that is skewed to encourage the reader to arrive at a misleading conclusion. As Hofstadter puts it: “Either Searle…[has] a profound disrespect for the depth of the human mind, or—far more likely—he knows it perfectly well but is being coy about it.” It reduces an incomprehensibly complicated system to a user’s manual and a pencil, and it encourages us to identify with a human figure who is really just a cog in a much vaster machine. Even the use of Chinese itself, which Searle says he isn’t sure he could distinguish from “meaningless squiggles,” is a rhetorical trick: it would come off as subtly different to many readers if it involved, say, Hungarian. (In a response to one of his critics, Searle conceives of a system of water pipes in which “each water connection corresponds to a synapse in the Chinese brain,” while a related scenario asks what would happen if every Chinese citizen were asked to play the role of a single neuron. I understand that these thought experiments are taking their cues from Searle’s original paper, but maybe we should just leave the Chinese alone.) And while I don’t know if Searle’s actions amounted to sexual harassment, Ong’s sense of humiliation seems real enough, which implies that he was guilty, if nothing else, of a failure of empathy—which is really just a word for our intuition about the inner life of another person. In many cases, sexual harassment can be generously viewed as a misreading of what another person needs, wants, or feels, and it’s often a willful one: the harasser skews the evidence to justify a pattern of behavior that he has already decided to follow. If the complaint can be believed, Searle evidently has trouble empathizing with or understanding minds that are different from his own. Maybe he even convinced himself that he was in the right. But it wouldn’t have been the first time.

Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2017 at 9:07 am

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.

Inception

And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.

Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:

What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.

This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.

The astrological song

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Astrologers in Utriusque cosmi historia

A touchstone to determine the actual worth of an “intellectual”—find out how he feels about astrology.

—Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

But what did Heinlein really mean by that? Frankly, it might not be what you think. Yesterday, I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time in years when my attention was caught by a passage that I don’t remember ever noticing before. Jubal Harshaw and Dr. Mahmoud are discussing Alexandra Vesant, or Allie, the astrologer who has become a member of the Martian religious movement founded by Valentine Michael Smith. Jubal says, “Astrology is nonsense and you know it.” Dr. Mahmoud replies:

Oh, certainly. Even Allie knows it. And most astrologers are clumsy frauds. Nevertheless Allie practices it even more assiduously than she used to…It’s her device for grokking. It could be a pool of water, or a crystal ball, or the entrails of a chicken. The means do not matter. Mike has advised her to go on using the symbols she is used to…That she used as meaningless a symbol as astrology is beside the point. A rosary is meaningless, too…If it helps to turn your hat around during a poker game—then it helps. It is irrelevant that the hat has no magic powers.

I don’t always agree with Heinlein’s pronouncements, whether delivered through the voice of an authorial surrogate or not, but I found myself nodding as I read this. And while astrology might seem like a strange beachhead from which to mount a defense of divination, its very “meaninglessness,” as Heinlein must have sensed, is what makes it so potent an example.

The usual objection to astrology, aside from the point that there’s no known mechanism by which it could work, is that it does nothing but provide a few vague statements that users can interpret pretty much however they like. Here, for instance, is a reading that the psychologist Bertram Forer has prepared specifically for you:

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, weary, and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You pride yourself on being an independent thinker and do not accept others’ opinions without satisfactory proof. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done right right thing. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome or insecure on the inside…You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.

As Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote, after quoting this “reading” in Metamagical Themas: “Pretty good fit, eh?” In reality, it was cobbled together by Forer from a paperback astrology book in 1948, and when he asked his students to rate the result—telling each of them that it was the result of a customized personality test—nearly all of them said that it was excellent. Which all just demonstrates, as if we needed a reminder, that astrology offers up little more than a series of platitudes that anybody can fit to his or her own situation.

The signs of the zodiac

This is true enough. But this isn’t a bug—it’s a feature. When we read a horoscope like the one above, what we’re doing, essentially, is taking a few generic sentences and asking ourselves: “How is this statement like me? In what sense is my situation like this?” And like it or not, this can lead to an interesting insight, as long as you’re willing to look for it. Going to a daily horoscope site, for instance, I find:

Your slow and steady approach may need a sharp kick in the pants today, Gemini. Don’t withhold your opinions. This is a time to get it all out on the table, despite the tension that it may cause. Strong forces are at work, so don’t be surprised if things get a bit more heated than you’re used to. The fact is that incredible breakthroughs can be made through disagreements among different types of people.

If you insist on treating astrology as a way to predict the future, there isn’t much to go on. But if you’re more inclined to look at it for clues about how to approach the present, there’s something to be said for it, provided that we approach it with the right attitude, and remember that any string of words can be used to trigger a useful train of thought. Reading my horoscope, my natural tendency is to think: “Hmmm…I guess there’s a sense in which I’ve been holding back on that problem that has been bugging me. Maybe I should get the ball rolling.” And if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a new angle on the situation, especially if the connection between the reading and my circumstances isn’t immediately obvious. (On a similar level, I’ve often thought a book like The Secret Language of Birthdays would be a valuable tool for filling out a fictional character in a story. You’d just pick a profile at random, and ask yourself: “How, exactly, is my character like this?”)

As Heinlein points out, the means don’t matter. Astrology isn’t any less useful a way of generating random associations than, say, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, even if the quality of the material leaves something to be desired. It might be wiser, in fact, to cast your horoscope yourself, which would create the kind of mental blank space that I’ve elsewhere found in tarot cards. In my post on the subject from a few years ago, I wrote:

It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it. It’s a variation of what we do when we write notes to ourselves, which are really dispatches from a past version of ourself to the future, even if it’s only a few seconds or minutes away. The nice thing about tarot is that it concretizes the problem in a form that’s out of our control, forcing us to take the extra step of mapping the issues we’re mulling over onto the array of symbols that the deck has generated. If we’re patient, inventive, or imaginative enough, we can map it so closely that the result seems foreordained, a form of note-taking that obliges us to collaborate with something larger.

And although I haven’t tried it, it seems that casting a horoscope, properly understood, would provide many of the same benefits: the arrangement and interpretation of arbitrary symbols, according to a preexisting system, is a great way to do some thinking. The future isn’t in the stars—but if they nudge us into new directions of thought about the present, they can’t be entirely useless. And I think Heinlein would agree.

The art of serendipity

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Douglas R. Hofstadter

Serendipitous observation and quick exploration of potential are vital elements in [creativity]. What goes hand in hand with the willingness to playfully explore a serendipitous connection is the willingness to censor or curtail an exploration that seems to be leading nowhere. It is the flip side of the risk-taking aspect of serendipity. It’s fine to be reminded of something, to see an analogy or a vague connection, and it’s fine to try to map one situation or concept onto another in the hopes of making something novel emerge—but you’ve also got to be willing and able to sense when you’ve lost the gamble, and to cut your losses…

Frantic striving to be original will usually get you nowhere. Far better to relax and let your perceptual system and your category system work together unconsciously, occasionally coming up with unbidden connections. At that point, you—the lucky owner of the mind in question—can seize the opportunity and follow out the proffered hint. This view of creativity has the conscious mind being quite passive, content to sit back and wait for the unconscious to do its remarkable broodings and brewings.

The most reliable kinds of genuine insight come not from vague reminding experiences…but from strong analogies in which one experience can be mapped onto another in a highly pleasing way. The tighter the fit, the deeper the insight, generally speaking. When two things can both be seen as instances of one abstract phenomenon, it is a very exciting discovery. Then ideas about either one can be borrowed in thinking about the other, and that sloshing-about of activity may greatly illumine both at once…

A mapping-recipe that often yields interesting results is projection of oneself into a situation: “How would it be for me?”

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas

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May 29, 2016 at 8:40 am

“This was the ending that had awaited him all along…”

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"Closing the door behind him..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 47. You can read the previous installments here.

One of my favorite storytelling tricks is the false ending, in which the writer fools us into thinking that we’ve reached a satisfying conclusion, only to pause, regroup, and push forward into something even deeper. The great example here is The Usual Suspects. After listening to Verbal spin his convoluted tale for well over an hour, Detective Kujan turns the tables, bombarding Verbal with a version of events—aided by a barrage of flashbacks over a dramatic underscore—in which Dean Keaton was Keyser Soze all along. It’s a convincing performance, and if you went into the film knowing nothing except that it was supposed to have a famous twist, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was it, even if it wasn’t as good as you expected. Yet the sequence flies in the face of one of the few scraps of objective information that the audience has been given: the very first scene in the movie, in which Keaton dies. And if we temporarily forget this, it’s partially because ninety complicated minutes have unspooled in the meantime, but also because Kujan’s closing argument is assembled to look and sound like the end of the movie. It’s a perfectly decent flashback montage, of the sort that is often used to reveal the solution to a mystery, and we have no way of knowing that the movie is about five minutes away from using an even better montage to blow our minds for real. (The unsung hero here, as I never tire of saying, is editor and composer John Ottman, whose contributions elevate the movie beyond what was there in McQuarrie’s script and Singer’s direction.)

Which, when you think about it, is a surprisingly subtle point. It isn’t the logical consistency of the fake ending that fools us, but the way in which it mimics the visual, rhythmic, and aural conventions of the real endings to which we’re accustomed. We’re subconsciously attuned to how a movie feels as it draws toward its conclusion, and for a fake ending to work, it has to give us the full package, which is more important than whether or not it makes sense. And the absence of such cues can tip us off to the trick prematurely. Zootopia, for instance, has what would otherwise seem like an ingenious fake ending, but the movie rushes past it a little too quickly: if it were the real climax, we’d be savoring it, and the fact that the script treats it in an almost perfunctory way is a clue that we shouldn’t take it seriously. If a movie really wants to trick us, it has to edit that fake ending as if it were the real thing, and in particular, it has to pay close attention to the music, which often tells us what to feel. The score at the end of a movie usually swells to carry us out of the theater, and if many fake endings fail to convince, it’s because they’re too quiet. (I’m surprised at how rarely movies use our knowledge of scoring conventions against us. Movie music often prompts us to feel relieved—as when the score softly creeps in again after a long stretch of silence in which the heroine is exploring the deserted house—and I’d love it if a film gave us a few bars to release the tension, and then the jump scare.)

"This was the ending that had awaited him all along..."

The fact that movies almost never exploit a fake ending to its logical extent is hard to explain, especially because the medium lends itself so naturally to such a mislead. We know exactly how many pages remain in a book, and we generally have a pretty good idea of how long an episode of a television series will last. With a movie, unless we’re watching it at home and have carefully scrutinized the back of the video box beforehand, we don’t really know how much longer it has to go, and even if we can guess that it’s about two hours, twenty minutes in either direction gives it plenty of room to play with our expectations. (Douglas Hofstadter once jokingly proposed padding out novels with fake pages toward the end, to create the same kind of effect, and I sometimes experience this when a book ends, without my knowledge, with a preview of the next installment in the series.) But if the movies seem reluctant to push that kind of fakeout as far as it can go, it might be because the benefits are canceled out by unanticipated side effects. A really convincing fake ending would have the audience putting on its coats and preparing to exit the theater, only to be yanked back into the story, and that sort of manipulation can easily turn viewers against it. Fooling us into the physiological response created by a real ending might make it impossible for us to respond in that way when the movie actually ends. This might explain why the handful of movies that really sell a fake ending, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or James Mangold’s Identity, time it so that it occurs only a few minutes, or seconds, before the real thing, compressing the two into one.

Chapter 47 of Eternal Empire occurs long before the ending of the book, but it includes a narrative fakeout that required me to take many of these issues into account. It’s the culmination of the subplot in which Ilya has been forced to assassinate Tarkovsky, and at the end of the chapter, he appears to do exactly that, shooting Tarkovsky in cold blood in the oligarch’s stateroom. Or at least that’s how it looks. Needless to say, there’s something else going on, and within the next couple of scenes, we’ll be let into the secret plan that has been unfolding in plain sight. When a valued reader gave me notes on the first draft, however, he said that he didn’t buy the scene as written—he knew, somehow, that Tarkovsky was still alive. When I went back to reread the relevant section, I saw my mistake: I had written it as if I knew what was coming. If Ilya had shot Tarkovsky for real, this would have been the tragic endpoint of the entire trilogy: the instant in which his true nature as a killer overtook his attempts to become something more, swept up by circumstances beyond his control. I would have lingered on this moment, which would have been one of the major climaxes of the whole series, and the existing version didn’t give it the attention that it deserved. In the revision, then, I slowed it down, putting in the equivalent of a dramatic orchestral sting to play over Tarkovsky’s apparent death, and I dwelled on it as if the entire book had been building to this passage. Which, in a sense, it had. (The rewrite also gave me my single favorite line in the novel, the description of the yacht as “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”) Does it work? I can’t say. But at least it has a chance…

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2015 at 7:30 am

“He drew air into his lungs one last time…”

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"Karvonen had observed the chase..."

Note: This post is the twenty-third installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 22. You can read the earlier installments here.)

One of my recurring obsessions as a writer is how narrative elements that once served a purely pragmatic purpose can be appropriated by artists to convey meaning or emotion. Take the convention of opening and closing credits. Originally, movie credits consisted of a simple card at the beginning of a reel to indicate the film’s title, mostly as a matter of convenience for the distributor. Gradually, they expanded to include more information, and as they grew longer, they became a means of creative expression in themselves: Saul Bass’s great credit sequences for Hitchcock and other directors are only the flowering of a tradition that began with those first shaky titles at the start of a silent film. These days, elaborate opening titles have sadly fallen out of fashion, except in the James Bond movies, but even ordinary credits can still serve a narrative function. The first appearance of a film’s title can be a statement of intention, coming as a kind of punctuation mark after a dramatic cold open, and the decision to dispense with an opening title at all—which is becoming more and more common—is a choice in itself. And many directors use their own credit as a punchline. Tarantino does this all the time, and the ending of A Clockwork Orange wouldn’t have nearly the same impact without the cut to the stark “Produced and Directed by Stanley Kubrick,” as Gene Kelly sings us out of the theater.

In fiction, authors have access to similar tools, in the form of white space, chapter breaks, and the transitions between sections. Much of the formatting of a book is out of a writer’s hands, of course, and I suspect that if more authors had control over the layout of their novels, we’d also see page breaks used as dramatic devices. (Screenwriters, for instance, will often edit the script so that a joke or surprise appears at a good place on the physical page.) As it stands, it’s generally only in the larger divisions of a story that a writer can exercise control. Most readers know how it feels, for instance, to see out of the corner of one eye that a chapter is about to end, which subtly guides the way we read the rest of the text. As a writer, I always like it when the reader needs to turn the page to see that the chapter is ending, ideally with only a few lines left, so that the full impact of the break is retained. The same is true, to an even greater extent, when the end of a larger section becomes visible on the horizon. And our tactile awareness of how many pages remain in the book as a whole shapes our attitude toward what we’re reading now. Douglas Hofstadter, for one, wondered whether it would be possible to pad a novel with additional pages to mislead readers about how close they were to the end, and by accident, I ended up with something like this with my own books, each of which concludes with a sample of the next installment in the series, hiding the real ending.

"He drew air into his lungs one last time..."

Even in other kinds of writing, these sorts of physical, structural breaks carry syntactic meaning. The gaps between sections in a long magazine article, for example, were originally incorporated for typographical reasons: for the sake of the reader’s eyes, you want to break up the wall of text with illustrations or blank lines whenever possible. When you read an article in The New Yorker, though, you quickly find that that writer—or editor—has turned those patches of white space into an expressive tool in themselves. They often occur at a pivotal point in the argument or narrative, and they naturally emphasize the text that comes immediately before and after. The sentence leading up to the break, in particular, is effectively put into invisible italics, so we’re encouraged to look at it more closely. Position, along with content, informs the reader’s response, and if the article were reformatted so that each paragraph flowed smoothly into the next, there would be a real loss of meaning. A visual break in the text looks both forward and backward: if there’s one sentence that a reader is likely to read more than once, it’s the last line before a major structural division, which is the novelistic equivalent of a curtain line in theater. We may not be sure why the author put those words there, but we know that it’s probably important.

Which brings us to the end of Part I of City of Exiles. The fact that Chapter 22 concludes this larger section probably doesn’t come as a surprise to a reader. Internally, it feels like the end of a big chunk of narrative, since it represents the end of one major plot thread: Karvonen fulfills the assignment that he received in the first chapter, killing Morley and his bodyguard, and he escapes with the MacGuffin safely in hand. The fact that the chapter lingers more than usual on the violence, which I generally show only sparingly, is another clue that we’re nearing the climax. And if that weren’t enough, the layout of the print version of the novel itself, which puts the epigraph to Part II on the facing page, gives away the game a few paragraphs before the reader reaches the end of Part I. For all that, though, I think the result works just fine, even if it doesn’t have quite the slap to the face that I would have liked. (Whenever I think of a perfect act break, the first thing that comes to mind is end of the first half of Doctor Zhivago, with the big reveal of Strelnikov on the train followed by a crashing Maurice Jarre chord and the title card reading Intermission.) Here, Morley lies dying on the floor, and Wolfe arrives just in time to hear his last words: “Dyatlov Pass.” With that, the section ends. And we’re going to spend the rest of the novel trying to figure out what he meant…

A marginal confession

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A page from a college essay

Recently, I made a surprising discovery about myself: I’m less likely to buy a book that has been typeset with a ragged right margin. Over the weekend, I went to the winter sale at the wonderful Open Books store here in Chicago, and while I picked up a few nice discoveries—The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, Field Notes in Science and Nature, The Genius of the System—I also passed on a couple of promising books because I didn’t like the way they were laid out. (For the curious, these were Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question, a collection of his lectures at Harvard, and David Reck’s Music of the Whole Earth.) The price wasn’t an issue; they would have been just a few dollars each. And while I’m consciously trying to cut down on my book purchases, simply because I’m running out of space, I suspect I would have bought them both if their margins had only been justified. This isn’t an instance of the larger principle, which I still think is true, that shoddiness in design and typesetting is a sign that other compromises have been made on the editorial side; margins and all, these were handsome volumes. It’s a sign of a deeper, more idiosyncratic need on my part to read books that present themselves to me in a symmetrical column of text, and it means that I routinely judge books, not by their covers, but by their margins.

And it’s been an factor in my life for some time, both in my own writing and in reading the works of others. Early in my freshman year at college, I found myself obsessively writing my essays so that the margins came out neat on both sides. At the time, I was using a version of Word that had relatively primitive justification and hyphenation settings, so my only option was to rewrite the text itself, altering words here and there so that the margins were even. (I also liked a slightly tapering shape at the top of each paragraph, as the examples posted here illustrate.) Early on, I wrote my essays in monospaced 12-point Courier, which meant that not only did the lines need to be aligned to the naked eye, but they had to contain exactly the same number of characters, the occasional dangling comma or period aside. In my senior year, I switched over to Times New Roman, a proportional font, which made things easier, and I’ve been using it ever since. But my marginal obsession still remains, if in a somewhat attenuated form. I still justify and hyphenate all my own manuscripts—although I remove the hyphenation before they go out to readers—and I continue to revise the text if the spacing on a line seems loose. And if you’ve ever noticed that most of the paragraphs on this blog are roughly the same size and shape, with the right margin only slightly ragged, well, that isn’t an accident.

A page from a college essay

This naturally raises the question of why I go through all this trouble, especially for works that are eventually going to be published in a form that I can’t control. And I don’t really have a good answer. Writers, by nature, are obsessive creatures who have been known, as Norman Mailer once was, to devote an entire working day to changing a period to a comma and back again, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’d be equally finicky about how their work appears on the screen or the page. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that writers who format their own work for publication fiddle with the wording in similar ways. In Le Ton Beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter writes:

I can clearly see the spacing as I type on my screen, and I rewrite and rewrite in order to make sure that no line is too tightly or too loosely spaced. In the course of such rewritings—here extracting a word, there using a shorter or a longer one, elsewhere inserting a word where none was—words and phrases that I would otherwise not have thought of pop to mind, suggesting ideas I would not have thought of, and those ideas suggest unexpected paragraphs, and those paragraphs are in turn linked to other ones, and so on…

Hofstadter’s story, incidentally, raises the question of why he didn’t just use hyphenation to deal with loose lines, since there isn’t a single instance of it in the entire book—I’ve always wanted to ask him about this. More recently, the graphic designer Chip Kidd wrote his novel The Cheese Monkeys in Quark, allowing him to revise it for formatting purposes as he went along. (When he told Thomas Harris about this, Harris is alleged to have replied: “I wish I could do that!”)

As a matter of fact, there’s one category of authors for whom these issues are of huge practical importance: screenwriters, who are essentially formatting their own work for the skeptical eyes of producers or studio readers. Not surprisingly, they’re all obsessed by margins, line spacing, and avoiding widows and orphans, often a way to fudge the page count, but also as a reflection of something larger. As Terry Rossio observes:

In retrospect, my dedication—or my obsession—toward getting the script to look exactly the way it should, no matter how long it took—that’s an example of the sort of focus one needs to make it in this industry…If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.

And I sort of believe this. Deep down, I’d like to think that my obsession with margins has made me a better writer, not just because it reflects my meticulousness in other ways, but because of the discipline it enforces. As Hofstadter points out, keeping an eye on the physical appearance of your manuscript is a source of self-composed constraints, and reworking the text in this light isn’t all that different from making the lines of a poem fit a complicated form, like a sonnet or villanelle. (I almost wrote “like a sonnet or sestina,” but the line spacing ended up looking a little weird, so I changed it.)

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2013 at 8:38 am

The art of translation, part 2

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Vladimir Nabokov

In one of the wonderful short essays that appear in the anthology Selected Nonfictions, Jorge Luis Borges writes:

Around 1916, I decided to devote myself to the study of the Oriental literatures. Working with enthusiasm and credulity through the English version of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “A man condemned to death doesn’t care that he is standing on the edge of a precipice, for he has already renounced life.” Here the translator attaches an asterisk, and his note informed me that this interpretation was preferable to that of a rival Sinologist, who had translated the passage thus: “The servants destroy the works of art, so that they will not have to judge their beauties and defects.”

Speaking of the experience, Borges concludes: “A mysterious skepticism had slipped into my soul.” That skepticism never left him entirely, and you can see it on full display on his essays—which are among his best—on the translations of the Iliad and The Thousand and One Nights, most of which tell us more about the personalities of their translators than about the work itself. (If you ever want to disillusion yourself on the subject of translation in record time, just try reading a few translations, in parallel, of poetry in an Eastern language. This list of versions of Basho’s famous haiku on the jumping frog is a good place to start.)

And the irony here, of course, is that I’m also reading Borges in translation, in this case filtered through the words of the editor and translator Eliot Weinberger, and I didn’t think twice about it. Nearly every encounter I’ve had with Borges, who ranks among my four or five favorite writers, has been thanks to the midwifery of translators, and although I used to know enough Spanish to puzzle my way through a few familiar stories in the original edition of Ficciones, I haven’t tried this in a long time. And my conscience is clear. My only real firsthand experience with comparing translated texts to their originals was in college, when I studied Latin and Greek, and it left me with a few workable assumptions. Prose in a Western language can usually be translated into English without any devastating loss: Plato or Thucydides in English misses something, sure, but ninety percent of the original’s interest is preserved. Poetry is a different matter, and I never found a version of the Iliad I liked enough to read for its own sake. (I ended up relying mostly on what Borges calls Samuel Butler’s “unruffled” prose version, which renders Homer’s poetry as “a series of sedate news items.”) This is doubly the case with translated poetry from a non-Western language, which turns into a kind of performance art on the part of the translator, and it’s tempting to agree here with Robert Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.”

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

So what’s a reader to do? I’d been aware of these issues for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot that I started to piece together my own feelings on the subject. Le Ton Beau is a very strange book, a highly personal work on translation that ranges widely over multiple authors and languages—Hofstadter refers to himself as “pilingual”—while maintaining the chatty, nerdy, occasionally prickly tone of an interested amateur. Hofstadter’s conclusion is that poetry should be translated in a way that honors both the form and the content to the best of the translator’s abilities, even if this inevitably involves compromises in the literal meaning. It’s a sensible stance, and one that allows readers to more or less keep reading the same translations they always have. But it also pits Hofstadter against a formidable opponent: Vladimir Nabokov, whose epic translation and commentary of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin stands as the ultimate rejection of such easy consolations. For Nabokov, any conscious deviation from the literal text is a betrayal, a sop at the expense of the author to readers who can’t be bothered to learn Russian. To prove his point, Nabokov devoted unimaginable effort to a plodding, agonizingly “faithful” translation of Pushkin, published with two massive volumes of commentary. It’s a translation designed to destroy the reader’s very idea of translation itself, as well as the project in which Nabokov most resembles one of his own obsessive characters.

To be honest, I’ve never made it through all of Nabokov’s translation, but I’ve read all nine hundred pages of his notes, in which he lavishes all the invention, wit, and fire that he intentionally drains from the text itself. These notes strike me now as a defiant creative act in their own right, a statement that Nabokov would have been more than capable of blowing us away with a conventional translation if he hadn’t been too principled to do so. And it’s a stance that somehow manages to be unimpeachably correct and spectacularly wrongheaded all at the same time. Nabokov’s argument that fidelity to literal meaning should come first is impossible to refute, but he destroys the village to save it: his translation of Eugene Onegin is an “aesthetic self-wounding,” as Harold Bloom says elsewhere of Shakespeare, and it has little if anything to do with the qualities that draw readers to Pushkin in the first place. That’s a betrayal of its own, and in choosing between the two kinds of compromises, I can only speak from my own experience: reading a few stanzas of Nabokov’s work is enough to put me off Pushkin forever, while James Falen’s sparkling verse translation has made Eugene Onegin, or some version of it, a permanent part of my life—which is all a translation can ever hope to do. It’s hard to reconcile this, and rightly so, with our ideal of what a translation should be. But in response, I can only quote what Borges said, through an intermediary, to a translator who said that it was impossible to render one of his poems into rhyme: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

Written by nevalalee

November 20, 2013 at 8:58 am

My ten great books #5: The Phantom Tollbooth

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The Phantom Tollbooth

(Note: For the rest of the month, I’m counting down the ten works of fiction that have had the greatest influence on my life as an author and reader, in order of their first publication. For earlier entries in the series, please see here.) 

The Phantom Tollbooth is the best fictional handbook I’ve ever seen on how to be alive. It’s supposedly written for children, but if anything, the lessons it holds are even more urgent for adults, who need to be reminded from time to time of what a young child understands instinctively. I’ve noted before that you can’t fully appreciate the horrors of the Terrible Trivium, “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit,” until you’ve held your first job. This isn’t to say that children don’t understand boredom, busywork, or meaningless wastes of time: when we romanticize our own childhoods, it’s easy to forget that much of a child’s life is spent waiting around for something to happen. The difference is that adults construct these traps for themselves. Norton Juster’s great book is a manual of escape, not into fantasy, but into reality—that is, into the possibilities of life that we ignore because we tend to take them for granted. Other children’s fantasy novels offer up a vision of a world that is more beautiful than ours, and they leave us wishing that we could visit Narnia or Hogwarts just for a little while. Juster leaves you hungry for the books and people and ideas that are there for you to explore right now, if you’re willing to master a few simple tools: words, numbers, perspective, time, curiosity, and sense of humor. As the Senses Taker warns:

I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion—and, but for one thing, you’d be helpless yet…I cannot take your sense of humor, and, with it, you’ve nothing to fear from me.

Of course, none of these lessons would count for anything if the book itself weren’t such great fun. Juster sometimes reads like Douglas R. Hofstader or Joseph Heller for the grade school set: he loves puns, wordplay, and sly inversions of familiar ideas, but all of these good jokes are windows into deeper truths. It’s all too easy to jump to Conclusions, which in The Phantom Tollbooth is a very crowded island, but you can only get back after a long swim through the Sea of Knowledge. You emerge from the Doldrums—where the schedule, with its four naps, looks a lot like the routine of the residents in The Magic Mountain—by thinking. When you’re faced with such terrors as the Triple Demons of Compromise, the Horrible Hopping Hindsight, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, your best chance of rescue lies in marshaling all the wisdom you’ve acquired along the way. And you especially need to remember the very important thing about Milo’s quest that couldn’t be told to him until he returned:

“It was impossible,” said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king…
“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together, “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

It’s a lesson I’ve tried to remember, with varying degrees of success, for most of my life—but I occasionally need a reminder. And thanks to Milo, and Norton Juster, I always know where to find it.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2013 at 9:00 am

The golden braid of Douglas Hofstadter

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When I was growing up, if needed something new to read, I’d just head for the garage. My parents owned hundreds, possibly thousands of books, and there were never enough shelves for them all, so the same dozen cardboard boxes followed us from house to house, rarely, if ever, being unpacked. (Some of them are still there, untouched, after twenty years, and a visit to my parents’ house isn’t complete before I’ve had a chance to go through them yet again.) Rummaging through these boxes was like browsing through a great, if eclectic, used bookshop, and the quality of serendipity I love in such stores was multiplied tenfold—I just never knew what I was going to find. Quite a few of those discoveries have probably ended up on my own shelves, absorbed by now into the rest of my library, to the point where I no longer remember where they came from. And my inner life has been enormously shaped by the authors I found there, which only serves to illustrate the point that if there are books anywhere in a house, a true reader will always find them, like a junkie in search of a fix.

One book in particular sticks in my mind, if only because it influenced so much of what came afterward. When I was in seventh grade, my father was browsing in a carton of books—I can’t remember why—and came up with a copy of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themes, which he said I might like, mostly because of Hofstader’s discussion of the Rubik’s Cube. I liked those chapters a lot, but loved the rest of the book even more, and it’s followed me on every move I’ve made since—I’m looking at my original copy as I write this. It’s pretty worn and tattered by now, and just leafing through it takes me back, as much as any book I own, to the period of ferocious reading that I wrote about yesterday. Metamagical Themas, a collection of Hofstadter’s columns for Scientific American, led me inevitably to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and The Mind’s I, and what I found there dazzled me so much that I ended up dedicating my school project that year—an autobiography, printed on dot matrix paper, that ran a hundred pages or more—to Hofstadter himself.

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Who was this guy, anyway? Then as now, Hofstadter was a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington, and his work was my first exposure to a kind of writing that I’ve since come to love passionately: the eccentric, unabashedly nerdy attempt to fuse science and the humanities into something that isn’t quite either, but draws on the best qualities of both. Even now, I don’t think I’ve quite made it through every page of Gödel, Escher, Bach, but what I found there, and in Hofstadter’s other work, has stuck with me ever since. Among other things, he was my first introduction to Zen, self-reference, the Codex Seraphianus, the Skeptical Inquirer, Alan Turing, Magritte, Nabokov’s notes on Eugene Onegin, James Falen’s translation of the same, and countless other authors and concepts I’ve been mulling over ever since, not to mention the larger subjects of consciousness and artificial intelligence. The range of his references is so rich, in fact, that he was later compelled to write another—and somewhat less interesting—book, I Am a Strange Loop, to clarify what he was trying to say in the first place.

I discovered Hofstadter in the same year as Umberto Eco, and they’ve acted on my life in similar ways, one on the side of science, the other of literature. (From an intellectual standpoint, it’s likely that ninety percent of what I care about as an adult was formed in middle school, although those aren’t exactly years I’d like to revisit.) Both are polymaths who opened me up to surprising influences and countless other books, and if my decision to major in classics in college was ultimately due to Eco, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take also a long hard look at cognitive neuroscience. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Hofstader’s limitations—his own translation of Eugene Onegin is a misguided vanity project of the worst kind—but I remain in awe of his brilliance and intellectual omnivorousness. The book of his I treasure the most is Le Ton beau de Marot, which came out when I was a college freshman, leading to many late evenings in my dorm, with my roommate and I trading rival translations of “Ma Mignonne.” There are other writers I’ve come to love more, but few who fill me with such gratitude. If you haven’t read his stuff, you might want to give it a try—he might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

February 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

Thinking in pictures

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Last weekend, at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, I picked up a copy of Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, a novel I’d been meaning to read for a long time. I’d been interested in Perec ever since reading about his work in Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot, and while I’ve only begun dipping into Life, I’m already intrigued by the riches on display. As described in greater detail here, Life is an ambitious experimental novel, centered on a fictional apartment block in Paris, that Perec constructed using a system designed to generate a random list of items (an activity, a position of the body, a writer, even the number of pages) for each chapter, which he then had to incorporate into the narrative. The result, as Perec put it, is a “machine for inspiring stories.” Even apart from the merits of the novel itself, I find this premise tremendously exciting.

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my ongoing obsessions is finding new ways to insert randomness and constraints into the writing process. Writing a novel, at least as I tend to approach it, is such a left-brained activity that it’s necessary to create opportunities for the right brain to participate. Sometimes this happens by accident—while shaving, for example. But there are also ways of approaching randomness more deliberately. I’ve published stories based on juxtapositions of two unrelated articles from science magazines, used random selections from Shakespeare and the I Ching to guide chapters (although I’ve mostly dropped the latter, despite the fun of throwing the coins), and used mind maps to bind all these elements together. And I’m looking forward to applying some of Perec’s techniques to my own work, although probably in a much more limited sense.

Recently, I’ve also discovered another approach that might prove useful. In Origins of Genius (which, in case you haven’t noticed already, is one of the most stimulating books on creativity I’ve read in a long time), Dean Simonton describes a fascinating experiment by psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg:

[Rothenberg] and a colleague began by making up a set of visual stimuli that involved the superimposition of visual images. For example, one contained a photograph of an empty French four-poster bed placed in a period room superimposed over a group of soldiers in combat who were taking cover behind a tank. These highly incongruous homospatial images were then shown to writers and to artists, the latter including individuals selected in a national competition by faculty at the Yale School of Art. The writers were instructed to create new metaphors inspired by the stimuli, while the artists were instructed to make pastel drawings. In comparison with the control group (e.g., subjects who saw the images only separately), individuals exposed to these visual juxtapositions of unrelated images generated more creative products, as judged by independent raters.

In other words, juxtapositions of two unrelated concepts often result in ideas that would not have arisen from considering the two concepts separately, which only confirms one of my most basic convictions about the creative process.

What I find particularly interesting about Rothenberg’s experiment, though, is that the stimuli consisted of images, rather than words, which seems like an especially promising way of encouraging nonverbal, creative thought. With that in mind, I’ve started to incorporate a similar method into my own work, using images randomly chosen from three books that seem ideally suited for such an approach: Phaidon’s chaming little volumes The Art Book, The Photo Book, and The 20th Century Art Book. Each book consists of representative works by five hundred artists, one work to a page, arranged in alphabetical order—an arbitrary system that already lends itself to startling juxtapositions. For instance, in The Photo Book, by an accident of the alphabet, “A Sea of Steps” by Frederick H. Evans appears across from “Washroom in the Dog Run” by Walker Evans, exposing their haunting visual similarities. Two images, taken together, yielding a meaning that neither would have apart—that’s what art is all about, and why I’m looking forward to thinking more with pictures.

The art of shaving

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A few days ago, I quoted the unnamed physicist who told Wolfgang Köhler that scientists in his profession speak of “the three B’s”—the bus, the bath, and the bed—as the places where ideas tend to unexpectedly emerge. In my own case, two other activities are especially conducive to serendipitous thinking. The first, as my hero Colin Fletcher knew, was walking. While I don’t often have a chance to go on long hikes of the kind Fletcher wrote about so unforgettably, even a short walk to the grocery store has a way of working out whatever story problem I’m trying to solve at the moment. (Although I’ve also found that if I have music playing on my headphones, as I usually do, it tends to drown out that inner voice, which is a reminder that it’s sometimes best to leave the iPod at home.)

My other favorite activity is shaving. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I’ve had more good ideas at the bathroom sink than at any other location in the house. And I’m not the only one. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes writes: “A close friend of Einstein’s has told me that many of the physicist’s greatest ideas came to him so suddenly that he had to move the blade of the straight razor very carefully each morning, lest he cut himself with surprise.” And while I’ve never cut myself, at least not for that reason, I’ve certainly been startled by unexpected insights. The most stunning moment, by far, is when I realized the true identity and motive of the killer in The Icon Thief, for a murder that I had already described with an eye toward a different suspect entirely. It’s one of my favorite memories as a writer.

Not every profession lends itself to thinking while shaving. For poets, it can pose a problem, as A.E. Housman notes. I’ve quoted him on this before, but since it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing, I see no reason not to quote him again:

One of these symptoms [that poetry produces in us] was described in connexion with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.

This is such an effective indicator of true poetry, by the way, that Robert Graves proposes it as the definitive test in The White Goddess, although authors seem divided on its consequences for a morning shave. In Pale Fire, Nabokov writes, in the voice of the poet John Shade:

                    …Better than any soap
Is the sensation for which poets hope
When inspiration and its icy blaze,
The sudden image, the immediate phrase
Over the skin a triple ripple send
Making the little hairs all stand on end
As in the enlarged animated scheme
Of whiskers moved when held up by Our Cream.

Later in the same novel, the mad commentator Charles Kinbote points out the inconsistency between Shade and Housman’s accounts, and notes that since Housman “certainly used an Ordinary Razor, and John Shade an ancient Gillette, the discrepancy may have been due to the use of different instruments.” Clearly, a controlled experiment is required, perhaps with a side investigation into Douglas R. Hofstadter’s self-referential number P :

P is, for each individual, the number of minutes per month that that person spends thinking about the number P. For me, the value of P seems to average out at about 2. I certainly wouldn’t want it to go much above that! I find that it crosses my mind most often when I’m shaving.

After years of experimentation, my own routine has settled, rather surprisingly, on an old-fashioned shaving brush and cake of shaving soap. I was partially inspired by Updike’s description of Harry’s shaving regimen in Rabbit is Rich (“He still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy”) but mostly from simple frugality: a cake of shaving soap is cheap and lasts close to a year, at least the way I use it. My razor, at the moment, is a Gillette Sensor, the blade’s lifetime extended by occasional stropping on a pair of jeans. (It really seems to work, although reports of blades lasting for half a year or more are probably atypical. Two weeks is a good number for me.)

All in all, it’s a modest routine, but shaving, I’ve increasingly come to understand, is one of life’s joys, even with the simplest of tools. And it’s in those unassuming moments, when one’s mind is free to wander, that the best ideas often arrive. I think I’m going to try it right now.

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