Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Kelly

The long now

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In early 1965, Tom Wolfe noticed a book on the shelves of Ken Kesey’s house in La Honda, California, which had become a gathering place for the young, mostly affluent hippies whom the journalist had dubbed “the Beautiful People.” In Kesey’s living room, “a curious little library” was growing, as Wolfe recounts in typically hyperbolic fashion in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Books of science fiction and other mysterious things, and you could pick up almost any of these books and find strange vibrations. The whole thing here is so much like…this book on Kesey’s shelf, Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is bewildering. It is as if Heinlein and the Pranksters were bound together by some inexplicable acausal connecting bond. This is a novel about a Martian who comes to earth, a true Superhero, in fact…raised by infinitely superior beings, the Martians. Beings on other plants are always infinitely superior in science fiction novels. Anyway, around him gathers a mystic brotherhood, based on a mysterious ceremony known as water-sharing. They live in—La Honda! At Kesey’s! Their place is called the Nest. Their life transcends all the usual earthly games of status, sex, and money. No one who once shares water and partakes of life in the Nest ever cares about such banal competitions again. There is a pot of money inside the front door, provided by the Superhero…Everything is totally out front in the Nest—no secrets, no guilt, no jealousies, no putting anyone down for anything.

He closes with a string of quotations from the character Jubal Harshaw, who had affinities to Wolfe himself, including the skeptical but grudgingly admiring line: “Ain’t nobody here but [just] us gods.”

One member of Kesey’s circle who undoubtedly read the novel was Stewart Brand, my hero, who pops up in Wolfe’s book as an “Indian freak” and later founded The Whole Earth Catalog, which became famous for a similar declaration of intent: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” (As I retype it now, it’s that one italicized word that strikes me the most, as if Brand were preemptively replying to Wolfe and his other detractors.) Much later, in the celebrated essay “We Owe it All to the Hippies,” Brand writes:

We all read Robert Heinlein’s epic Stranger in a Strange Land as well as his libertarian screed-novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Hippies and nerds alike reveled in Heinlein’s contempt for centralized authority. To this day, computer scientists and technicians are almost universally science-fiction fans. And ever since the 1950s, for reasons that are unclear to me, science fiction has been almost universally libertarian in outlook.

Heinlein and his circle don’t figure prominently in the Catalog, in which the work of fiction that receives the most attention is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But Brand later recommended the Foundation trilogy as part of the Manual for Civilization collection at the Long Now Foundation, which may have been a subtle hint to its true intentions. In the Foundation series, after all, the writing of the Encyclopedia Galactica is an elaborate mislead, a pretext to build an organization that will ultimately be turned to other ends.  An even better excuse might be the construction and maintenance of an enormous clock designed to last for ten thousand years—an idea that is obviously too farfetched for fiction. In an interview, Brand’s friend Kevin Kelly protested too much: “We’re not trying to be Hari Seldon from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.” Yeah, right.

Brand himself was only tangentially inspired by science fiction, and his primarily exposure to it was evidently through the remarkable people with whom he surrounded himself. In his book The Media Lab, which was published in 1988, Brand asks the roboticist Marvin Minsky why he’s so interested in science fiction writers, and he quotes from the answer at length:

Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful. Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.

Along with Asimov and Pohl, Brand notes, the other writers whom Minsky studied closely included Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James P. Hogan, John W. Campbell, and H.G. Wells. “If Minsky had his way,” Brand writes, “there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in resident at the Media Lab.” In practice, that’s more or less how it worked out—Campbell was a frequent visitor, as was Asimov, who said that Minsky was one of the handful of people, along with Carl Sagan, whom he acknowledged as being more intelligent than he was.

To be honest, I doubt that Asimov and Pohl will ever be remembered as “the important philosophers of the twentieth century,” although if they might have a better shot if you replace “philosophers” with “futurologists.” It seems a reasonably safe bet that the Three Laws of Robotics, which Campbell casually tossed out in his office for Asimov to develop, will be remembered longer than the vast majority of the work being produced by the philosophy departments of that era. But even for Kesey, Brand, and all the rest, the relationship was less about influence than about simple proximity. When Wolfe speaks of “an acausal connecting bond” between Heinlein and the Merry Pranksters, he’s consciously echoing the subtitle of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, which may be the best way to think about it. During moments of peak cultural intensity, ideas are simultaneously developed by different communities in ways that may only occasionally intersect. (On April 6, 1962, for instance, Asimov wrote to Campbell to recommend that he investigate the video game Spacewar, which had been developed just two months earlier at MIT. Campbell spent the next decade trying to get an article on it for Analog, which Albert W. Kuhfeld finally wrote up for the July 1971 issue. A year later, Brand wrote a piece about it for Rolling Stone.) And Brand himself was keenly aware of the costs of such separation. In The Media Lab, he writes:

Somewhere in my education I was misled to believe that science fiction and science fact must be kept rigorously separate. In practice they are so blurred together they are practically one intellectual activity, although the results are published differently, one kind of journal for careful scientific reporting, another kind for wicked speculation.

In 1960, Campbell tried to tear down those barriers in a single audacious move, when he changed the title of his magazine from Astounding to Analog Science Fact & Fiction. For most of his career, Brand has been doing the same thing, only far more quietly. But I have a hunch that his approach may be the one that succeeds.

Brand awareness

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Over the last few months, I’ve noticed that Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and one of my personal heroes, has been popping up a lot in the press. In his excellent piece earlier this year in The New Yorker on survival prep among the rich, Evan Osnos called Brand to get a kind of sanity check:

At seventy-seven, living on a tugboat in Sausalito, Brand is less impressed by signs of fragility than by examples of resilience…He sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

More recently, in an article in the same magazine about the Coachella Festival, John Seabrook wrote: “The short-lived first era of rock festivals began in San Francisco. The incubator was Stewart Brand and Ramon Sender’s three-day Trips Festival, a kind of ‘super acid test,’ in Tom Wolfe’s famed account.” The New York Times Magazine published a piece in March on Brand’s efforts to revive extinct species, and just last week, Real Life featured an essay by Natasha Young on the Long Now Foundation.

So why is Brand back in style? Young’s article offers a tempting clue: “The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if Donald Trump is the question, Stewart Brand is the answer, although it would be harder to imagine two white males of the same generation—Brand is eight years older than Trump—with less to say to each other. Yet his example is even more damning for those who claim to be following in his footsteps. The historical connections between Silicon Valley and the Catalog have been amply chronicled elsewhere, and much of the language that technology companies use to talk about themselves might have been copied straight from Brand’s work, with its insistence that information and modern tools could improve the lives of individuals and communities. To say that these ideals have been corrupted would be giving his self-appointed successors too much credit. It takes a certain degree of cluelessness to talk about making the world a better place while treating customers as fungible data points and unloading as much risk as possible onto outside parties, but it isn’t even particularly impressive. It’s the kind of evil that comes less out of ruthless efficiency or negative capability than short-term expediency, unexamined notions, lousy incentives, and the desperate hope that somebody involved knows what he or she is doing. Brand was a more capable organizer of time, capital, and talent than any of his imitators, and he truly lived the values that he endorsed. His life stands as a rebuke to the rest of us, and it didn’t lead him to a mansion, but to a houseboat in Sausalito.

Brand matters, in other words, not because he was a better person than most of his contemporaries, but because he was vastly more competent. This fact has a way of being lost, even as we rush to honor a man whose like we might never see again. His legacy can be hard to pin down because he’s simply a guy who got it right, quietly and consistently, for four decades, and because it reflects what seems at first like a confusing array of influences. It includes Buckminster Fuller’s futurism and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics; the psychedelic fringe of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, as flavored by mysticism, Jungian psychology, and Zen Buddhism; Native American culture, which led Tom Wolfe to refer to Brand as “an Indian freak”; and the communalist movement of young, mostly affluent urbanites going back to the land in pursuit of greater simplicity. That’s a lot to keep in your head at once. But it’s also what you’d expect from a naturally curious character who spent years exploring whatever he found interesting. My favorite statement by Brand is what he says about voluntary simplicity:

Personally I don’t like the term…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

“Sheer practicality” sums up how I like to think about Brand, who lists the rewards of such an existence: “Time to do your work well enough to be proud of it. Time for an occasional original idea and time to follow it. Time for community.”

Take that recipe and extend it across a lifetime, and you end up with a career like Brand’s, which I’ve been contemplating for most of my life. Before I ended up working on my current nonfiction project, I seriously thought about pitching a book on Brand and the Catalog, simply because I thought it would be good for me. As it turns out, I don’t need to write it: John Markoff, the former technology reporter for the New York Times, is working on a biography of Brand, and Caroline Maniaque-Benton and Meredith Gaglio recently edited the anthology Whole Earth Field Guide. I’d be jealous, if I weren’t also grateful. And Brand’s impact can be seen right here every day. Kevin Kelly, Brand’s protégé, once wrote:

[The] missives in the Catalog were blog postings. Except rather than being published individually on home pages, they were handwritten and mailed into the merry band of Whole Earth editors who would typeset them with almost no editing (just the binary editing of print or not-print) and quickly “post” them on cheap newsprint to the millions of readers who tuned in to the Catalog‘s publishing stream. No topic was too esoteric, no degree of enthusiasm too ardent, no amateur expertise too uncertified to be included…It is no coincidence that the Whole Earth Catalogs disappeared as soon as the web and blogs arrived. Everything the Whole Earth Catalogs did, the web does better.

Personally, I think that there’s a lot to be said for putting out a version on paper, and Kelly evidently came around to the same conclusion, publishing the lovely tribute Cool Tools. But the basic form of the Catalog—excerpts from worthwhile sources interspersed with commentary—is the one that I’ve tried to follow. This blog is a kind of portrait of myself, and although its emphasis has changed a lot over the years, I’d like to think that it has remained fairly consistent in terms of the perspective that it presents. And I owe it more to Stewart Brand than to anybody else.

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

Note: I’m taking a few days off, 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 December 12, 2015.

Take a look at the map above, which was the work of the American geologist Henry Darwin Rogers. As the legend on the right indicates, its various colors represent different rock formations. It’s obvious that some areas are larger than others, but how would you measure the difference? When Charles Darwin—no relation—was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with exactly this problem, and his answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, it also testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) But while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post a while back by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I liked about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and if you want to get even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And the physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. To prototype Tetris, for example, you could cut out pieces of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is just a reminder that I really should get back to my cards. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

When Charles Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with a tricky problem: how would you compare the areas of the different kinds of rock shown above? A quick look at the map by the geologist Henry Darwin Rogers—no relation—is enough to establish that some formations are clearly larger than others, but it isn’t immediately obvious how to quantify the difference more precisely. Darwin’s answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, I also like how it testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) And while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I’ve realized that I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I enjoyed about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and for those who are trying to go even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And playing with physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. If you were prototyping a game like Tetris, for instance, you could cut pieces out of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became visibly more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is a reminder that I really should get back to my cards when it comes time for my next big project. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

The Book of McBees

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McBee cards

A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published an intriguing profile of Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, a librarian and food historian engaged in a decades-long attempt to catalog all the world’s recipes in a single database. The whole article—written appropriately enough, as we’ll soon find, by Bee Wilson—is fascinating, but this was the part that caught my eye:

In the 1970s Wheaton discovered McBee cards. They were a primitive data system, in which different pieces of information could be encoded by punching holes to designate broad categories (date, gender, country). “After the cards are properly punched, whole packs of them can be searched by running a knitting needle through the desired hole in the pack and lifting it up,” Wheaton explained in a talk last summer at a food symposium held at Oxford. “When, if one is lucky, gems of information will drop out.” McBee cards had obvious limitations, however. “My categories kept expanding, and the cards did not.” Wheaton tried to improve the cards by adding color-coded edges, but then she ran out of colors.

I was immediately captivated by the idea, and I soon found another article on the subject by Kevin Kelly, of Wired and Cool Tools fame. Back in the day, McBee cards came perforated on every edge by tiny holes, and the user employed a special tool to cut a notch—associated with a particular category—that allowed a card to fall out of the deck when the rest of the cards were skewered together. Given more than one needle, or successive selections, you had the equivalent of logical and and logical or functions. Kelly notes that the cards, sold under the brand name Indecks, were used to create the database of items at The Whole Earth Catalog, in which Stewart Brand wrote:

What do you have a lot of? Students, subscribers, notes, books, records, clients, projects? Once you’re past fifty or one hundred of whatever, it’s tough to keep track, time to externalize your store and retrieve system. One handy method this side of a high-rent computer is Indecks. It’s funky and functional: cards with a lot of holes in the edges, a long blunt needle, and a notcher. Run the needle through a hole in a bunch of cards, lift, and the cards notched in that hole don’t rise; they fall out. So you don’t have to keep the cards in order. You can sort them by feature, number, alphabetically or whatever; just poke, fan, lift and catch…They’ve meant the difference [at the Catalog] between partial and complete insanity.

McBee card and notcher

Reading over these descriptions, I began to wonder whether McBee cards would be useful as a writing tool, as a replacement or supplement to the index cards that many writers accumulate in such quantities. In some ways, a standard corkboard or separate stacks of conventional cards might seem preferable: they provide a necessary visual overview of the whole, rather than a single opaque deck, and the cards can be more easily recategorized and rearranged. (You can’t unnotch a McBee card.) But the McBee system offers some enticing advantages. For one thing, it’s portable: you can collapse the piles of cards that cover your desk into one rubber-banded deck, shuffle it, throw it into a backpack, and then easily restore the original order. Cards can also be sorted into more than one category, which is a genuinely useful feature. Let’s say you’re writing a novel like The Icon Thief, with multiple points of view, locations, and themes. Using the McBee system and some appropriate categories, you can quickly find all the scenes in which Maddy Blume appears, or the scenes set at Archvadze’s mansion, or the scenes in which the characters discuss the Rosicrucians—as well as any combination of the above. Instead of linearly categorizing each card only by where it appears in the book, you can “stack” cards across multiple dimensions with nothing but the thrust of a few needles. And I suspect that this method would yield connections and patterns that wouldn’t otherwise be visible.

Obviously, you can do much the same with a database or spreadsheet. But the tactile use of cards, as I’ve said elsewhere, confers other advantages: writing on physical cards with ink and manipulating them with your hands seems to yield insights and surprises that don’t appear when everything is in digital form. As a result, I’m seriously considering using McBee cards for my next big project—assuming that I can get my hands on some. As Kelly points out, there are “no sellers on eBay, no fan sites, no collector sites, no historical web pages, and no evidence that anyone is still using them. They are gone. Blasted out by the first computers.” But there might still be a place for them. They’d be particularly useful in applications in which the categories are clearly defined, as with Wheaton’s recipes, or with the bird or tree identification decks that are still gathering dust somewhere. Users could combine the easy searchability of a database with the rougher, more intuitive benefits that come from shuffling and stacking. (They’d also be a fantastic tool for tabletop games.) At least one writer has described making a deck at home, but the process seems unnecessarily laborious. They seem ideally suited for a modest Kickstarter campaign: all you’d need was a machine for punching the perforations, a supply of notching tools and knitting needles, and the cards themselves, presumably in colors and patterns cute enough to appeal to the hipster crowd. It’s a razor and blades model: once you sell someone a set, you can keep selling them the replacement decks, or starter kits with templates for recipes or other standard uses. If anyone reading this is an entrepreneur looking for an idea, consider this a freebie. I’d buy one in a second, and for a lot of other writers, I think they’d be the bee’s knees.

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2015 at 8:55 am

A new bag of tricks

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Genrich Altshuller

Back in the early sixties, a Soviet patent clerk named Genrich Altshuller embarked on an absurdly ambitious project. He wanted to formulate a set of rules for innovation, a kind of universal recipe book for inventors and engineers, based on the characteristics shared by the patent applications he had inspected. The result, which Altshuller claimed was based on an analysis of more than two hundred thousand patents, was a theory of inventive problem solving, best known as its Russian acronym TRIZ. It’s a complicated system based on the concept of a contradiction matrix, in which elements of a problem are paired off and assigned to solutions that have been useful when applied to such conflicts in the past. For our purposes here, the details don’t really matter, although you can find as much information about it online as you feel like absorbing. What’s particularly enticing is his set of solutions, which he classified under forty general principles of invention. They include such headings as “Segmentation,” “Taking Out,” “Asymmetry,” “Russian dolls,” “Mechanical vibration,” “Periodic action,” “Feedback,” and “Porous Materials.”  It’s a bit of a grab bag, but each entry represents an approach to solving a problem that has worked before, and the headings are both general and just specific enough to spark a promising train of thought.

In his invaluable book Cool Tools, Kevin Kelly says of the Altshuller method: “I like to think of it as Oblique Strategies for engineers.” That’s a shrewd comparison, especially because there’s an element of randomness involved. If you’re stuck on a problem, you can pick one of the forty principles out of a hat and see how it applies to your situation. Take, for instance, the principle of “Another Dimension.” As summarized by one popular presentation, it includes the following hints:

  1. If an object contains or moves in a straight line, consider use of dimensions or movement outside the line.
  2. If an object contains or moves in a plane, consider use of dimensions or movement outside the current plane.
  3. Use a multi-story arrangement of objects instead of a single-story arrangement.
  4. Tilt or reorient the object; lay it on its side.
  5. Use “another side” of a given area.

And although these rules are intended for inventors and engineers, it isn’t hard to see how they could apply to the problems of a writer, playwright, sculptor, director, choreographer, or anyone else who has to break away occasionally from an obvious line of action.

Contradiction matrix

What I find most intriguing about Altshuller’s approach is less the forty principles themselves—most of which have only a tenuous connection to what artists do, although they’re useful as analogies—than the underlying premise behind them. When you’re working in any field that requires a sustained engagement with complex projects, you inevitably end up with a wide range of tools, to the point where it’s hard to keep them all in mind at once. You carry a lot of craft unconsciously, of course, and you apply many of the rules intuitively, without being totally aware of why or how you’re doing it, which is fine as long as it works. But there also seems to be an upper bound on how many such tools you can comfortably internalize. There are always going to be rules or approaches that don’t occur to you, simply because the lore of your chosen field is too vast or specialized for any one person to hold in his or her head. As a result, one of the most productive things any creative professional can do is to maintain a list of the rules that seem to consistently work, so that you aren’t depending solely on memory or instinct to resolve issues as they arise. You might refer to that list only rarely, but when you’re stuck on a problem without any obvious solution, the best approach is often to test every tool against it one at a time, hoping that one of them has some kind of effect.

Ultimately, Altshuller’s forty principles are really just an unusually comprehensive attempt to catalog the tools available. Every artist ends up doing much the same, although probably less systematically, and using a more restricted sample set. You write a lot of drafts, make a mental note of the tricks that work, and if you’re particularly diligent, you’ll also record them more formally—hence the checklists that so many authors and artists are always writing up for themselves. And it’s important to strike the proper balance between the rules you discover on your own and the ones you get from somewhere else. A rule, like a philosophical precept, never seems real until you’ve rediscovered it though your own experience, and a writing trick that you’ve figured out through trial and error will always seem more vivid and applicable than one you’ve appropriated from a set of rules you read in a book. It’s also easy to fetishize approaches like Oblique Strategies or the Altshuller method, which are really nothing but someone else’s catalog of tools. Yet there’s a very real sense in which it can be helpful to apply the lessons of a stranger, or the principles of an unrelated field, to your own problems. Sometimes an answer can emerge only from tackling the same issue from a new angle, or with the benefit of somebody else’s experience, and when your own bag of tricks seems empty, it’s good to know which other ones exist.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2015 at 9:44 am

Making it simple, keeping it complex

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Ward Cunningham

Simplicity is the shortest path to a solution.

Ward Cunningham

The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.

Sol LeWitt

When I begin, I usually improvise a melody and sing words—and often those words are just clichés. If it is an old songwriting cliché, most of the time I throw it away, but sometimes I keep it, because they’re nice to have. They’re familiar. They’re like a breather for the listener. You can stop wondering or thinking for a little while and just float along with the music.

Paul Simon

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The solution for me, surely, is neither in total renunciation of the world, nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes; a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

It is important to emphasize the value of simplicity and elegance, for complexity has a way of compounding difficulties and as we have seen, creating mistakes. My definition of elegance is the achievement of a given functionality with a minimum of mechanism and a maximum of clarity.

Fernando J. Corbató

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.

Alan Perlis

David Mamet

The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of a nail, it has to look like a nail.

David Mamet

Complexity must be grown from simple systems that already work.

Kevin Kelly

While it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Mike Meginnis

Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

Jonathan Ive

A great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity. But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

—Attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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