Days of Yore

From this Jennifer Egan interview at Days of Yore:



A: It’s a very trusting environment, but also a very rigorous environment. Because you want to know that everyone is on your side, but if they just tell you it’s great, they’re not doing you any favors. That part about everyone being on your side is really critical too. There’s nothing worse than not knowing whether their criticism is motivated by some sort of internal or external wish to undermine or whether it is valid.


Q: But it can be hard in, say, a writing workshop, to shut out the choir of voices and hear your own voice.


A: Yes. But what I lose by not listening is much greater than what I lose by listening to bad advice. Because I think I can sort of sort through with my gut what is useful and what is not useful. Whereas if I hear nothing, I know vividly what results. I am never going to let that happen again.


I think people feel somehow that they can be hurt by hearing the wrong thing. I am not convinced that is true. We might get our feelings hurt, but I don’t think there is any actual damage done. What’s bad falls away.


One thing I often say to students is, “I am not interested in hearing solutions.

The alpha and the loyal sidekick

Paul Allen's autobiography is about to hit, and so it's omnipresent on the web. A juicy excerpt appears in Vanity Fair. As with Keith Richards slagging Mick Jagger in his entertaining autobiography, Allen doesn't hold back about his relationship with Gates, both positive and negative.



Bill craved closure, and he would hammer away until he got there; on principle, I refused to yield if I didn’t agree. And so we’d go at it for hours at a stretch, until I became nearly as loud and wound up as Bill. I hated that feeling. While I wouldn’t give in unless convinced on the merits, I sometimes had to stop from sheer fatigue. I remember one heated debate that lasted forever, until I said, “Bill, this isn’t going anywhere. I’m going home.

Behind every autotuned 13 year old girl...

It makes sense, doesn't it, that Gawker would do the profile of the man behind Rebecca Black's Friday? Meet Ark Music Factory CEO Patrice Wilson.



Where did Wilson get the inspiration for such lyrics as "Yesterday was Thursday/Today is Friday?" "I wrote the lyrics on a Thursday night going into a Friday," he said. "I was writing different songs all night and was like, 'Wow, I've been up a long time and it's Friday.' And I was like, wow, it is Friday!"



The immense spike of interest in this otherwise unremarkable video begs for an explanation. Needless to say, I enjoy reading the attempts to explain the phenomenon more than the video itself. From one example:



Rob: I like the song too, but I don’t find that embarrassing. It feels like a confirmation of the suspicion that the best pop music must aspire to a formal purity that comes at the expense of content. The best pop songs are the emptiest. At that point, pop music has nothing to do with subjectivity or identity construction: You don’t become empty when you hear it; instead you have your own fullness confirmed.



And later:



To shift the terminology, I think we’ve been in post-Fordist relations of pop-culture production for some time now, with consumers driving the innovations in meaning that culture-industry firms then harvest and exploit. They increasingly supply the playground itself rather than the specific jungle gyms. No one owns the malleable, mutable meanings of pop culture, but the process and the medium for those transmutations is definitely owned. This is the essence of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism.



Next: 1,000 words on the great existential crisis of our time: which seat can I take?


What happened to liberal ed?

Why are fewer and fewer students interested in liberal arts and more focused on professional degrees? Dan Edelstein's theory:



The only problem with this logic is that universities in fact bear a considerable responsibility for the brain drain away from the humanities. By raising the cost of education to stratospheric levels, we oblige students to seek a higher return on their investment. It is this sort of economic calculation, I suggest, and not some alleged generational change, that is driving students in droves towards preprofessional degrees.



He forecasts a dire future for the humanities.



Until the tuition imbalance stabilizes – and eventually Congress may well intervene to ensure that it does – humanities departments need to act more aggressively to ensure their survival. Increasing the turnout of majors may be beyond our reach, but we perhaps need to rethink the relationship between research and teaching. Do highly specialized courses offered by individual departments provide the best kind of background in the humanities for students headed for careers in law, engineering, finance, or science? Or do we need to offer more cross-disciplinary courses, ideally team-taught by faculty from different departments, on core questions and topics in the humanities? The bulk of our teaching is geared toward majors and graduate students. If we do not want to be the victims of the next recession (or, if it lasts long enough, the current one), we also need to target those students who feel they do no longer have the luxury of specializing in a humanistic subject.



If I were to choose one subject to start this movement to more practical instruction, it would be writing. Non-English majors are often forced to take some eclectic literature course when a more focused class on writing well would prove so much more practical over the course of their lives. I'm amazed how few people I encounter in the professional world who can write with clarity and command.


If we look at the Internet space, the world seems ready for a new and more focused educational paradigm for the modern age. Or at least an alternative to the traditional educational roadmap in the U.S.


RELATED: It's been clear for some time now that the tech sector is in the midst of a huge software engineer shortage. This weekend the NYTimes wrote about the wide variety of perks companies are dangling to not only hire new employees but keep the ones they have from bolting.


In a market like this, it wouldn't surprise me at all if a company like Google started its own alternative educational institution to train software engineers from an even earlier age in life (high school, perhaps), in exchange for a first look at candidates or just to expand the pool of candidates in general. Just as in sports, the cheapest candidates are those fresh out of school, before their salaries correct over time to match their contributions. Given how much of their work can be leveraged across a global audience now, the return on investment from a software engineer is massive.


 


Supercharging your memory

Joshua Foer's account of becoming a world-class memory athlete in the NYTimes seems like the perfect fodder for a short and focused documentary, like Spellbound or Word Wars. It's not surprising that Foer received a huge advance to turn this into a book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.


Two ideas about memory really struck me. One is that memorizing is an act of creation (emphasis below is mine).



What distinguishes a great mnemonist, I learned, is the ability to create lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any other it cannot be forgotten. And to do it quickly. Many competitive mnemonists argue that their skills are less a feat of memory than of creativity. For example, one of the most popular techniques used to memorize playing The point of memory techniques to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for. cards involves associating every card with an image of a celebrity performing some sort of a ludicrous — and therefore memorable — action on a mundane object. When it comes time to remember the order of a series of cards, those memorized images are shuffled and recombined to form new and unforgettable scenes in the mind’s eye. Using this technique, Ed Cooke showed me how an entire deck can be quickly transformed into a comically surreal, and unforgettable, memory palace.



The second is the idea of memory as not just an act of creation but as one of creating a physical space, like being an architect.



Memory palaces don’t have to be palatial — or even actual buildings. They can be routes through a town or signs of the zodiac or even mythical creatures. They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as they are intimately familiar. The four-time U.S. memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts to help him memorize the entire 57,000-word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary. In the 15th century, an Italian jurist named Peter of Ravenna is said to have used thousands of memory palaces to store quotations on every important subject, classified alphabetically. When he wished to expound on a given topic, he simply reached into the relevant chamber and pulled out the source.



One concept which you has applications beyond just training your memory is the idea of O.K. plateaus.



Psychologists used to think that O.K. plateaus marked the upper bounds of innate ability. In his 1869 book “Hereditary Genius,

Kasparov on Watson

[sorry for these untimely posts...I'm trying to clear out a few half-completed drafts]


The Atlantic pinged Garry Kasparov for his thoughts on IBM's Watson's victory on Jeopardy.



A convincing victory under strict parameters, and if we stay within those limits Watson can be seen as an incremental advance in how well machines understand human language. But if you put the questions from the show into Google, you also get good answers, even better ones if you simplify the questions. To me, this means Watson is doing good job of breaking language down into points of data it can mine very quickly, and that it does it slightly better than Google does against the entire Internet.



The analogy to a human using Google is a useful one. If you had infinite lifelines on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and could call a friend who could Google for answers for you, would you always win a million dollars? Maybe not always, but fairly close. So the challenge for IBM was to figure out how to parse the Jeopardy clues into the right parameters to generate the proper query. Then Watson, like Google, had to use some algorithms for ranking the relevancy of various results.



My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson's performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all. Worse, by definition they do not understand what they do not understand and so cannot avoid them. A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty. A computer can simulate this by an artificial confidence measurement, but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering "Toronto" in the "US Cities" category, as Watson did.



Kasparov gives humans credit for knowing what they don't know, but in plenty of cases people are just as overconfident and blinded in their opinions. In fact, Watson had low confidence in its answer of Toronto in the US Cities category on Final Jeopardy, so it did have an "awareness" of its own uncertainty. I'm almost certain that the programmers ensured that Watson would make a guess in Final Jeopardy regardless of its confidence since there's nothing to lose at that point. In Single or Double Jeopardy, though, Watson wouldn't buzz in unless its confidence in an answer exceeded a threshold.


Humorous aside on Watson: how the computers could have beaten Watson on Jeopardy.


Beijing

China is well known for its blatant knockoffs, and Baidu's online maps are a dead ringer for Google Maps.


But Baidu did manage to put a personal touch on its equivalent of "street view" for Beijing...


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Since it's pixel art, you can zoom in really far.


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All that's missing from Google street view is some random pixel people caught in action.


It's like Street View deconstructed by China using one of their unique assets, namely a ton of excess labor.

Miscellany

Yeah, um, this is why I don't drive a Ferrari.


***


Garry Kasparov is known mostly for being a great chess player, but I'm impressed with his writing ability. I don't know enough about chess to characterize his playing style, but there is a precise and clinical objectivity to his writing that feels like it might arise from a mind optimized to the playing of a game with the nature of chess.


This review of the Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness in The New York Review of Books is a case in point.



In his play, Fischer was amazingly objective, long before computers stripped away so many of the dogmas and assumptions humans have used to navigate the game for centuries. Positions that had been long considered inferior were revitalized by Fischer’s ability to look at everything afresh. His concrete methods challenged basic precepts, such as the one that the stronger side should keep attacking the forces on the board. Fischer showed that simplification—the reduction of forces through exchanges—was often the strongest path as long as activity was maintained. The great Cuban José Capablanca had played this way half a century earlier, but Fischer’s modern interpretation of “victory through clarity

Daytum

Nicholas Felton is famous for his gorgeous annual reports on his personal life. I was excited a few weeks back to hear that he'd partnered with Ryan Case to release a free iPhone app to help you track events in your own life: Daytum.


Unfortunately, the app is still so buggy that I gave up using it just a few days after installing it. I'd add events to find they had either cloned themselves or committed suicide by the next morning, and removing duplicate events sometimes caused both the original and the clone to evaporate. It's already a burden to track events in one's life; having to then clean up after the app's whims is a nonstarter.


Good idea, solid visual design, but reliability? Not so much. Maybe in the next update.


OkTrends - The Mathematics of Beauty

One of the ascendant blogs last year was OkTrends, the data analysis blog of dating site OkCupid. Two of the most discussed posts last year were "The REAL stuff white people like" and "Gay Sex vs. Straight Sex."


They're sprinting out of the gates in the new year with another gem: The Mathematics of Beauty. Feels like research Malcolm Gladwell will resummarize in a New Yorker article in about a year and a half.


Football is Socialism, and other stuff

Clearing out some random links from last year, my lowest blog output year in history. Writing is a muscle, I'm committed to working it more this year (as well as my literal muscles, whose atrophy is more visible).


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Football is Socialism [The Awl]



The vainglory of the alpha wide receivers—demanding the damn ball, willfully ignorant of how much has to go right for the ball to reach them—is so ridiculous precisely because it doesn't admit the obvious and incredible difficulty inherent in all this. Consider: a player misses a block and things get screwed up. The quarterback overthrows or underthrows and things get screwed up. The coach misreads the defensive scheme and sends in the wrong play, and things get screwed up. Everything has to go right for even the simplest play to work. Even on a play where the raw ingredients are individual genius—perfect throw, brilliant catch—there's a ton of prosaic, self-sacrificing stuff that has to happen before all the fun stuff. This is the socialistic part, the real grace in the game that makes the stupid, atomized dude-ism of those commercials look that much dumber. You can't watch a football game and not understand this—that nothing succeeds unless everything and everyone succeeds, that no one wins unless everyone wins.



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Don't fret, liberals. A divided government is more productive. Jonathan Rauch has explained his theory on this before and summarizes it again in this NYTimes op-ed.



In Mode 2 — divided government — the dynamic is reversed. Both parties, responsible for governing, have a stake in success. Forced to negotiate and compromise, they drag policy toward the center, allowing moderates to feel represented instead of ignored. Most important, the country itself becomes more governable and meaningful laws stand a likelier chance of passage, because neither side can easily blame the other for whatever is wrong and because any major legislation needs support from both parties to pass.



Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker challenges Rauch's assertion.



The data cover from 1952 only through 2004. But there’s no reason for the pattern to have changed wildly since then. The percentage of voters opting for divided government ranges between 10 and 30 per cent.


Which is to say that between 70 and 90 per cent of voters do not prefer divided government. Some prefer united Republican Party government. Others prefer united Democratic Party government. All, presumably, would prefer having part of the government controlled by the party they support to having all of the government controlled by the party they oppose. But that hardly means they think that divided government is somehow desirable in and of itself.



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The good news is that a young child who doesn't seem to be aging may hold the secret to immortality. The bad news is that it may involve being a mental infant for the rest of your life.


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What is the best "hair of the dog"? One vote here for the Bloody Mary.


(Doctors in my family vouch for the science behind "hair of the dog." I thought it was just an excuse conjured by alcoholics.)


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One of the most important but less-cited technologies that has fundamentally altered the game of tennis: copoly strings. It's one of the major reasons the net game is so rare today as copoly strings make previously impossible passing shots easier to pull off. I miss the higher variety in playing styles in modern tennis.


The mythical cricket-beast

I read Gordon Grice's The Red Hourglass over holiday break, and one question it left lodged in my head was what insect was the "cricket-beast" Grice wrote about in the mantid chapter. Grice placed this giant bug, which he found in his driveway, into a jar with a mantid (praying mantis) and the cricket-beast devoured the mantid with ease.


I owned a pet praying mantis in high school. While I was touring Japan with a youth symphony, the young son of the host family I stayed with gave me a praying mantis he grabbed out of a tree while we were sightseeing. No doubt in violation of some U.S. tourism laws, I brought the mantis back to the U.S., keeping it in my shirt pocket the whole flight home.


I kept it in a jar, and each day I'd catch some different insects to toss into the jar as an experiment. I didn't know what praying mantises ate, but given the famous configuration of their two barbed front legs, I was fairly certain they weren't vegetarians.


What I discovered was that the mantis had a wide and worldly palate. Crickets, moths, wolf spiders, grasshoppers, flies--the mantis ate all of them whole. In just two weeks, my mantis had eaten enough that it molted and emerged even larger than before. I was enthralled by the glorious violence of its feeding.


So when Grice wrote about a cricket-like beast that caused the mantis to retreat in fear and that mauled said mantis with a casual efficiency, I was intrigued.


Sometimes it seems like the internet was invented for such questions. On his blog, Gordon Grice reveals the identity of the cricket-beast.


Incidentally, doesn't it feel like a huge miss that this annotation can't be added to the Kindle version of the book for future readers?


The Adjacent Possible

Steven Berlin Johnson adapts a portion of his upcoming book Where Good Ideas Come From for this essay in the WSJ.



The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas may seem logical enough, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas. Ironically, those walls have been erected with the explicit aim of encouraging innovation. They go by many names: intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology, top-secret R&D labs. But they share a founding assumption: that in the long run, innovation will increase if you put restrictions on the spread of new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards from their inventions. And those rewards will then attract other innovators to follow in their path.


The problem with these closed environments is that they make it more difficult to explore the adjacent possible, because they reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem, and they reduce the unplanned collisions between ideas originating in different fields.