Revisiting The Odyssey

What a pleasant surprise, to have something wonderful that you hadn't heard of just drop out of the sky one day, like Beyonce's Lemonade. That's how I felt about Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, which arrived on my Kindle yesterday (a physical copy isn't due on my doorstep until next week; this is the rare book for which I wanted one of each format).

So far, I've read more about Wilson's thought process behind her translation than the actual translation itself, but even that is delightful:

In planning to translate the poem into English, my first thoughts were of style. The original is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse. Many modern poets in the Anglo-American tradition write free verse, and modern British and American readers are not usually accustomed to reading long narratives with a regular metrical beat, except for earlier literature like Shakespeare. Most contemporary translators of Homer have not attempted to create anything like a regular line beat, though they often lay out their text as if it were verse. But The Odyssey is a poem, and it needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud. The original is in six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters), the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse. I used iambic pentameter, because it is the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse—the rhythm of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Keats, and plenty of more recent anglophone poets. I have spent many hours reading aloud, both the Greek original and my own work in progress. Homer's music is quite different from mine, but my translation sings to its own regular and distinctive beat. 
 
My version is the same length as the original, with exactly the same number of lines. I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer's nimble gallop. Moreover, in reading the original, one is constantly aware of the rhythms and the units that make up elements of every line, as well as of the ongoing movement of the narrative—like a large, elaborate piece of embroidery made of tiny, still visible stitches. I wanted my translation to mark its own nature as a web of poetic language, with a sentence structure that is, like that of Homer, audibly built up out of smaller units of sense. There is often a notion, especially in the Anglo-American world, that a translation is good insofar as it disguises its own existence as a translation; translations are praised for being "natural." I hope that my translation is readable and fluent, but that its literary artifice is clearly apparent. 
 
Matthew Arnold famously claimed that translators of Homer must convey four supposedly essential qualities of Homeric style: plainness, simplicity, directness of thought, and nobility. But Homeric style is actually quite often redundant and very often repetitious—not particularly simple or direct. Homer is also very often not "noble": the language is not colloquial, and it avoids obscenity, but it is not bombastic or grandiloquent. The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption. Homer's language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious, The Odyssey relies on coordinated, not subordinated syntax ("and then this, and then this, and then this," rather than "although this, because of that, when this, which was this, on account of that"). I have frequently aimed for a certain level of simplicity, often using fairly ordinary, straightforward, and readable English. In using language that is largely simple, my goal is not to make Homer sound "primitive," but to mark the fact that stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric. I also hope to invite readers to respond more actively with the text. Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement. A consistently elevated style can make it harder for readers to keep track of what is at stake in the story. My translation is, I hope, recognizable as an epic poem, but it is one that avoids trumpeting its own status with bright, noisy linguistic fireworks, in order to invite a more thoughtful consideration of what the narrative means, and the ways it matters.
 

I'm with her on all of that. Iambic pentameter! Be still my bleeding heart.

Nodding along when she makes choices like this:

The formulaic elements in Homer, especially the repeated epithets, pose a particular challenge. The epithets applied to Dawn, Athena, Hermes, Zeus, Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, and the suitors repeat over and over in the original. But in my version, I have chosen deliberately to interpret these epithets in several different ways, depending on the demands of the scene at hand. I do not want to deceive the unsuspecting reader about the nature of the original poem; rather, I hope to be truthful about my own text—its relationships with its readers and with the original. In an oral or semiliterate culture, repeated epithets give a listener an anchor in a quick-moving story. In a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip. They can be a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one's own interpretative position, and can send a reader to sleep. I have used the opportunity offered by the repetitions to explore the multiple different connotations of each epithet.
 

I try not to spend too much time fetishizing craft, but when it comes to translation, it is inseparable from the thing.

This past Sunday's NYTimes Magazine included a feature on Wilson's accomplishment. In this age where we celebrate women breaking through in fields previously occupied by only white men, being the first woman to translate one of the great works of Western literature resounds at many levels.

The NYTimes feature spends some time laying bare the translator's hand. Take, for example, the thought that went into the opening line of the epic itself, and how varied its forms in all the translations that had been come before Wilson's. Just one line and already so many forks.

The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. There’s Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; Henry Alford’s “much-versed”; Philip Worsley’s “that hero”; the Rev. John Giles’s “of many fortunes”; T.S. Norgate’s “of many a turn”; George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; George Edgington’s “deep”; William Cullen Bryant’s “sagacious”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s “so ready at need”; Arthur Way’s “of craft-renown”; George Palmer’s “adventurous”; William Morris’s “shifty”; Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”; Henry Cotterill’s “so wary and wise”; Augustus Murray’s “of many devices”; Francis Caulfeild’s “restless”; Robert Hiller’s “clever”; Herbert Bates’s “of many changes”; T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded”; William Henry Denham Rouse’s “never at a loss”; Richmond Lattimore’s “of many ways”; Robert Fitzgerald’s “skilled in all ways of contending”; Albert Cook’s “of many turns”; Walter Shewring’s “of wide-ranging spirit”; Allen Mandelbaum’s “of many wiles”; Robert Fagles’s “of twists and turns”; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s “cunning.”
 
Of the 60 or so answers to the polytropos question to date, the 36 given above couldn’t be less uniform (the two dozen I omit repeat, with minor variations, earlier solutions); what unites them is that their translators largely ignore the ambiguity built into the word they’re translating. Most opt for straightforward assertions of Odysseus’s nature, descriptions running from the positive (crafty, sagacious, versatile) to the negative (shifty, restless, cunning). Only Norgate (“of many a turn”) and Cook (“of many turns”) preserve the Greek roots as Wilson describes them — poly (“many”), tropos (“turn”) — answers that, if you produced them as a student of classics, much of whose education is spent translating Greek and Latin and being marked correct or incorrect based on your knowledge of the dictionary definitions, would earn you an A. But to the modern English reader who does not know Greek, does “a man of many turns” suggest the doubleness of the original word — a man who is either supremely in control of his life or who has lost control of it? Of the existing translations, it seems to me that none get across to a reader without Greek the open question that, in fact, is the opening question of the “Odyssey,” one embedded in the fifth word in its first line: What sort of man is Odysseus?
 

All that variation in just one word. Let's telescope out to the entire opening paragraph or stanza (the Paris Review published an excerpt from the opening of Wilson's translation), the invocation of the Muse:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
 

Here is how another popular translation, by Robert Fagles, handles the same passage:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns ...
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.
 

Here is Richmond Lattimore's opening. I can't remember if I had to read this or Fagles' in high school or college, it was one or the other.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming.
From some point here, goddess, daughter of Zeus,
speak, and begin our story.
 

While they all have their virtues, it's impossible to ignore the startling directness of Wilson's version. It is direct, more concise, and has a lyrical momentum from the iambic pentameter that adds to its muscularity. "He failed to keep them safe" is stronger in tone than "he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove" or "he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to." Wilson may choose to leave out the striving because, in the previous sentence, as all the translations include, it is already noted that Odysseus suffered many pains to save his life and bring his men home. How hard he strove is somewhat repetitive, so Wilson just nixes it.

"Complicated man" is about as tidy a way to characterize a character who contains multitudes. Fagles' "the man of twists and turns" doesn't register much to me except the image of a pretzel. Lattimore's "the man of many ways" is intriguing, less precise than Wilson's "complicated man" but hinting at both Odysseus' resourcefulness and complexity.

Direct does not mean Wilson dispenses with fun. Later in the opening we have this:

So why do you dismiss Odysseus?”
 

Let your tongue tap over that like a rock skip-skipping o'er a pond.

I could not help flipping ahead to what I consider one of the most iconic scenes in Western literature, in which Odysseus and his men, having blinded the one-eyed monster Polyphemus, are in a boat, escaping the island where the creature had held them hostage. Polyphemus does not know where they are, he is beside himself with pain and fury. Just as Odysseus and his men are about to escape unharmed, he turns back to face his vanquished foe. He cannot help himself.

When I had gone as far as shouts can carry,
I jeered back,

‘Hey, you, Cyclops! Idiot!
The crew trapped in your cave did not belong
to some poor weakling. Well, you had it coming!
You had no shame at eating your own guests!
So Zeus and other gods have paid you back.’

My taunting made him angrier. He ripped
a rock out of the hill and hurled it at us.
It landed right in front of our dark prow,
and almost crushed the tip of the steering oar.
The stone sank in the water; waves surged up.
The backflow all at once propelled the ship
landwards; the swollen water pushed us with it.
I grabbed a big long pole, and shoved us off.
I told my men, ‘Row fast, to save your lives!’
and gestured with my head to make them hurry.
They bent down to their oars and started rowing.
We got out twice as far across the sea,
and then I called to him again. My crew
begged me to stop, and pleaded with me.

‘Please!
Calm down! Why are you being so insistent
and taunting this wild man? He hurled that stone
and drove our ship right back to land. We thought
that we were going to die. If he had heard us,
he would have hurled a jagged rock and crushed
our heads and wooden ship. He throws so hard!

But my tough heart was not convinced; I was
still furious, and shouted back again,

‘Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
your eye was mutilated and made blind,
say that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
destroyed your sight.’ 
 

This is, for my money, one of the seminal moments in Western literature. It's the birth of ritualized trash talk and boasting, the defining instance of taunting in the Western canon. Every time you see a basketball player get all up in the mug of some opponent after dunking on them, every time Cam Newton pantomines opening his jersey to reveal the Superman cape, every time a rapper refers to himself in the third person after performing lyrical violence on a nemesis, every time Roy Jones Jr. gave a shout out to Pensacola after one of his boxing victories, it all traces back to this moment when Odysseus can't help claiming personal credit for having outwitted the beast, giving himself a title (city-sacker) and naming himself in relation to his family (Laertes' son) and his home (Ithaca).

When Danaerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones introduces herself as "Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons," she should credit Odysseus,, the city-sacker, Laertes' son, who lives in Ithaca. When we use the term "making our name," we call back to Odysseus, who in that moment established the now familiar tradition of referring to oneself in the third person.

It comes with a cost. His pride and arrogance not only endanger his men by revealing their location and allowing Polyphemus to better target his next rock throw, but in making his name, Odysseus gives Polyphemus a specific target. As anyone who has read mythology or fairy tales knows, a specific name is needed to target curses from afar. Polyphemus' father just happens to be Poseidon, a god, and it's to poppa that he turns for help.

But he prayed
holding his arms towards the starry sky,
‘Listen, Earth-Shaker, Blue-Haired Lord Poseidon:
acknowledge me your son, and be my father.
Grant that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
will never go back home. Or if it is
fated that he will see his family,
then let him get there late and with no honor,
in pain and lacking ships, and having caused
the death of all his men, and let him find
more trouble in his own house.’

Blue Poseidon
granted his son’s prayer.
 

And so Odysseus brings a curse upon himself, his family, and his men. All of the above comes true, as prophecies are wont to do in stories like this.

I'd be inclined to chide him for his hubris, but wouldn't the internet be better today if trolls didn't hide like cowards behind the veil of anonymity? Face your critics, and name yourself, anonymous neo-Nazis. Rereading this passage, I couldn't help but think of Peter Cvjetanovic, the student who marched in the Charlottesville protests and was identified in a photo.

I am Peter Cvjetanovic,
Charlottesville city sacker,
neo-Nazi sympathizer
University Nevada Reno student
and campus escort service driver,
or used to be.

Let's not end there. Let's leave with a more pleasant example, when Russell Crowe removes his mask in perhaps the most iconic arena of battle in Western myth, the Colosseum, and names himself, as his ancestor Odysseus once did. If you're looking for inspiration for the next draft of your Twitter bio, now you have it, all you tweeter of tweets.

The rhythm of writing

Tony Zhou's Every Frame A Painting video essay series has a devoted following online, and for good reason. His pieces are one of the few things you can honestly say couldn't work in any form other than video.

That isn't the case for most content. It's trendy to bash media outlets for pivoting to video, but like many, I can't stand receiving a link to a video without a transcript because most of the time video is the least efficient way to consume the information within. Like many infovores, I can read and scan faster than I can listen to someone talk (which is why I listen to podcasts at 2X speed, sometimes even faster depending on who's talking). Video scanning and seeking is notoriously inefficient, and if the internet has done anything it's turned us into screen scanners with even shorter attention spans than before (as anyone who has looked at data from any eye-tracking study can attest).

Back to Every Frame A Painting. The series works well as video in part because Zhou has a deep understanding of film's visual grammar, but don't underestimate the patience needed to rip discs and scan through video. Someday, that may be easier to do, but for now, it's a long time suck, involving ripping Blu-Rays and DVDs with MakeMKV and then transcoding them with Handbrake into a format editable in Premiere or Final Cut, then watching over and over to assemble the clips, then writing a script and recording the voiceover, then fine-tuning. Writing an essay isn't easy, but compared to producing a video essay it's trivial. Christian Marclay's The Clock is a remarkable piece, but a moment of silence for all the assistant editors and interns who had to rip and label all the video from which it was assembled.

The Zhou essay on Kurosawa titled Composing on Moment reminded me of something about writing that has become more salient to me over time: rhythm. Zhou's essay is about shot structure, movement, and length, but many of the lessons he discusses apply to writing.

Each shot in a movie is a sentence. One of the simplest ways to improve one's prose and to keep a reader's attention is simply to vary sentence length. I don't love editing my own writing, it's so easy to overlook errors when your mind knows what it was trying to say; it tends to fill in the blanks instead of processing what's actually on the page.

However, I don't really have any other option, so I am my own editor. To protect against my familiarity, I usually set aside anything I've written for a long time, sometimes months, until I've forgotten it completely, before revisiting it to revise and edit. Once you're estranged from your own work you can see it anew. Also, sometimes the work doesn't survive the test of time and can be tossed.

The most effective way I've found to edit myself is to read the text out loud (using my inner voice, that is). Reading the text out loud does two things. One, it slows me down. Speed readers largely increase their velocity by training themselves to not read aloud. When I started editing myself, I had to un-train myself in speed reading techniques like word block scanning.

The other benefit of reading out loud is to render the rhythm of your writing audible. Where in a block of text can you pause to take a breath, and where do you go breathless? The cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain's ability to process words and sentences..

Think of your reader as someone with as a limited amount of RAM. They can only hold so much of a thought in their head at once. The longer your sentence, the more structure it needs if you're hoping the reader will remember it.

There are exceptions, as there are to any rule.

Here's an opening line from Cormac McCarthy:

They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.
 

That's from Outer Dark.

There are other authors known for an occasional colossus of a sentence, and some who seem to rely on it as the base unit for entire novels, like Joyce or Proust. The film equivalent is something like the nearly 3-minute continuous shot that opens Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. or the famous Copacabana Steadicam shot from Goodfellas.

[If you plot the Copacabana shot spatially you realize that Ray Liotta takes a purposefully circuitous route through the kitchen to lengthen the shot, for no apparent reason other than to lengthen the shot. But it's such a great moment, and it has such a purpose in the film at that moment, that you forgive it the indulgence. Ray Liotta is trying to impress Lorraine Bracco, and the lack of a cut allows him to draw out the performance in one unbroken, escalating build. It works. No one who watches the movie ever notices the circuitous route because the shot itself is so dazzling, which is how magicians pull off many a sleight of hand.]

In both text and video, such a flourish is overtly showy, like magician wearing a tuxedo with tails, conjuring one dove after another from his breast pocket, his sleeve, his collar, back to his sleeve, and oh! here's three doves at once. Or a sporting event employing flame throwers during introductions, or a concert beginning with the artist rising from beneath the stage through billowing florets of smoke. 

As anyone who builds such an elaborate apparatus knows, such displays inevitably attract accusations of grandstanding. As soon as any film auteur releases a long unbroken shot in a film, an argument will erupt online over whether the shot is justified and breathtaking or just self-indulgent, rent-seeking on the viewer's attention. Generally it's both, and where you settle is a matter of taste.

I find my novelty-seeking sloping upwards at this point in my life, so I appreciate the occasional grasp at the sublime. Not every sentence needs to be in the unadorned prose style of The New Yorker (Tom Wolfe once described their house style it as "leisurely meandering understatement") and not every film needs to be a series of back and forth over-the-shoulder shots while two people talk, like is common in a network TV drama which must brute-force its way through a 24 episode full season order.

In my spare time, I've dabbled with creating my own writing app, a common fantasy among those who write, since no one is ever perfectly satisfied with their word processor.

[Processor, incidentally, is a terrible name for an application. "Word processor" is bad, and so is "food processor." Is there any craft that can retain the slightest bit of romance and dignity when its primary tool is named a processor? There's a reason we don't call Tinder and other dating apps mating processors, though many might argue that online dating deserves exactly such a name. Processing is a word that should be reserved for bureaucratic procedures; it feels appropriate that so many government institutions have FAQs about processing times.]

Among the many odd features I'd include in my theoretical writing app (whose goal would not just be to make it more enjoyable to write, but to write better, and which would likely make for a terrible business), one would be an editing view which would transform the rhythm of the text into a more scannable form. It might be color coding each sentence according to its word length, or turning a block of text into a graphic like a line graph, with sentence length as the y-axis. You might be able to calculate the variance of sentence length mathematically, though I suspect such a figure would be too reductive to be useful.

The longer the text, the more sentence length variation is desirable, so regardless of methodology, the goal would be the same, to make monotonous stretches of similar sentence lengths more visible to the writer. Readers can't handle being bludgeoned with sentences of the same length in perpetuity. Occasionally they need a breather.

A pause.

The next time you edit something you've written, look for places where a sentence or two needs trimming or splitting, or where a longer sentence might find an opportune moment in which to wander languidly. We may not all be poets, but even a million monkeys at a million typewriters can churn out the occasional line of Shakespeare, more so if they know what to look for.

Hazard disgrace

In a master class, director Walter Hill tried to summon a quote from memory:

There is a great quote I’ll get wrong of Samuel Johnson, the English poet and essayist, that: ‘We come to the arena uncalled, to seek our fortune and hazard disgrace. That’s the game, those are the rules.’
 

Hill was correct: he got the quote wrong. The original, by Johnson, is this (source):

He that writes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgement. To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honour, but at the hazard of disgrace.
 

However, both versions are lovely, and in some ways Hill's version is more succinct and memorable.

Remember both next time you write something and many people disagree with you, because if you offer an opinion online, through a blog or on Twitter, and no one disagrees with you, it's probably because no one read it.

Beginning with the end

Tyler Cowen interviews Margalit Fox, the lead obituary writer for the NYTimes.

The criterion we look for, if we had to pick a single question that can be asked of every applicant at our gates, is: Did he or she change the culture?
 

Since death is a lagging indicator of cultural influence, it's reassuring but also depressing that we're now starting to see a shift away from obits for mostly white men.

FOX: No. But remember, think about what an obit is. It is not only the most narrative genre in the paper; it is the most retrospective. We are writing about the movers and shakers who made our world. I think of obit writing as the act of looking through a sliding window onto the past, a kind of window that slides back along the rails of time.
 
When I first started the job in 2004, we were writing overwhelmingly about the people on either side of World War II. We edged up into the Cold War. We’re now writing about Vietnam and the civil rights era.
 
And no matter how we feel about it in light of modern sensibilities, the stark reality of our world is, pretty much the only people who were allowed to be actors on the world stage in the 1940s, ’50s, were overwhelmingly white men.
 
I’m happy to say that in the 12 years I’ve been doing this job, as that window has slid up into the civil rights era and even the women’s movement, that page of ours has started to diversify.
 

One would imagine it's more efficient to pre-write obits for famous people, especially those who are veering closer to death, and indeed that's the case (with the exception of maybe Keith Richards, it's unlikely to be wasted work):

It is indeed the case that obits for many of these major historical figures — presidents, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, old-time silver screen stars — those are indeed written in advance.
...
Things happen. Rockers OD. Planes go down. Things happen. But in general, we try to have a certain level of preparedness with the major figures. We do indeed have the advance obits — all but the top, as it were — written, edited, on file. We have about 1,700.
 

We had similar pre-written obits at Amazon back when there was a larger human editorial team there. Editors would assign obits for famous authors, musicians, and filmmakers/actors who were still alive but on the far side of the age curve. This batch of obits was referred to, with all due affection, as the ghoul pool.

It strikes me as a useful exercise, if you can get over the usual morbid associations around death in the West, to write an obituary for yourself and update it once a year, almost like maintaining a resume or LinkedIn profile.

My one New Year's resolution for 2017

Those of you who've been loyal readers in the past may have noticed I didn't write much here in 2016. I started a new job which kept me extremely busy. Virtual reality is a very young space, and video and filmmaking in VR are even more nascent. It's an area you can dive really deep and find you've just gone far enough to get lost.

With just a little less time in the day, and work can fill all the free moments, every post I start is a bit more likely to be abandoned midway. There's a certain amount of potential energy every one of my posts requires to push it into publishable form. I often wish I had an editor who would just read my drafts and prod me (and them) into a finished state. In the past, that editor was me, but that role has fallen to the wayside.

Also, no matter how many times you tell people that your views represent your own and not those of your employer, someone will frame some story that way. Given how many people and entities I deal with through my job, it's hard to say much without feeling vulnerable to so many PR gotchas. That left me generally reticent to dip into the fray, though I have the same volume of opinions on matters tech or otherwise..

My one and only resolution for 2017 is to resume regular posting here. I should set a measurable goal, so I'll set a target of one post a week. By my past standards, easily achievable, but given last year's pace, more daunting than it might sound.

I do so as much for myself as for any imagined readers. As many who study Amazon know, Jeff Bezos banned Powerpoint presentations and forced everyone who would present to him to put their ideas into essay form. There's much wisdom in that, not only because so much time is wasted in the presentation production process, but because the process of writing forces you to clarify your thinking.

All those hours spent reworking a draft? That's the mind at work. The most popular time of year for a gym is January, and the first quarter of the year in general. Writing, to me, is exercise, just for the mind. So I'm joining everyone who hit the gym today by sitting here in front of my keyboard. It feels healthy.

Style transfer

Frank Liu developed a technique he calls “style transfer” in which he renders an image in the style of another. 

Bhautik Joshi riffed off of that for video, resulting in experiments like this rendering of clips from Blade Runner in the style of Van Gogh's Starry Night. 

Prisma has capitalized on this technique by taking it mobile. I've enjoyed using the app to render some photos in my camera roll in a variety of styles. I had previously found expensive apps and plugins on the desktop that could do something like this, but now it's available in a free mobile app. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a free app on your phone, eventually.

I'm looking forward to when Prisma can handle video, it's only a matter of time before style transfer videos like the one above are flooding your social media feeds.

A market opportunity for human ingenuity remains, however, for those who can actually transfer not just the visual style but the entire cinematic grammar of one artist to another. What if Werner Herzog directed Toy Story? What if Stanley Kubrick directed Star Wars? Who wants to see Terrence Malick's take on Captain America?

I draw much too much pleasure from style transfer in prose, like imitations of Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and the such. James Wood once wrote of McCarthy:

To read Cormac McCarthy is to enter a climate of frustration: a good day is so mysteriously followed by a bad one. McCarthy is a colossally gifted writer, certainly one of the greatest observers of landscape. He is also one of the great hams of American prose, who delights in producing a histrionic rhetoric that brilliantly ventriloquizes the King James Bible, Shakespearean and Jacobean tragedy, Melville, Conrad, and Faulkner.

Process vs results in creative work

In the 1960s, a creative performance researcher named George Land conducted a study of 1,600 five-year-olds. Ninety-eight percent of the children scored in the “highly creative” range. Dr. Land re-tested each subject at five year increments. When the same children were 10 years old, only 30% scored in the highly creative range. This number dropped to 12% by age 15 and just 2% by age 25. As the children grew into adults they effectively had the creativity trained out of them. In the words of Dr. Land, “non-creative behavior is learned.”
 
Similar trends have been discovered by other researchers. For example, one study of 272,599 students found that although IQ scores have risen since 1990, creative thinking scores have decreased.
 
This is not to say that creativity is 100% learned. Genetics do play a role. According to psychology professor Barbara Kerr, “approximately 22% of the variance [in creativity] is due to the influence of genes.” This discovery was made by studying the differences in creative thinking between sets of twins.
 
All of this to say, claiming that “I’m just not the creative type” is a pretty weak excuse for avoiding creative thinking.
 

From James Clear.

If you've been following all the recent popular thinking about parenting, the recommendations that follow for improving your creativity won't be a surprise. As embodied in Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success or Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (how perfect is it that a book on grit is written by an author named Paul Tough, who sounds like a hard boiled detective), the vogue in self-help is sustained effort over innate talent, repeated practice over any one result.

If the path to creative breakthroughs is a probabilistic one, than an approach of sustained effort is more likely to yield success, and one's understanding that outcomes are not necessarily deterministic should render failure less psychologically crippling. A good combination for people, and entrepreneurs especially, is a small short-term memory, so you can move on from your mistakes, and an ample long-term one, so you can learn from them.

I learned the hard way as an undergrad the danger of waiting for inspiration when it came to my creative writing classes, or even just any form of writing which might be regarded as “creative” work. That's just a recipe for having a deadline scare you across the finish line in a frenzied late night of work, and it's hard to generate great work under such stress or fatigue, even if it's a great motivator.

I've come to see the simple act of writing here on my blog as a form of meditation. At some point it became a habit, one I've felt a true guilt for neglecting these past few months while I try to ramp up at a new job, and while it can seem like a maddening and arbitrary task I hold myself to, if even for just 15 minutes a day, the process bears long-term fruit. Writing forces me to clarify my thinking, and getting my thoughts out of my head and into a written piece frees CPU cycles in my head. The inspiration comes in the perspiration, as writers say, even if there usually isn't much sweat involved.

The secondary effects of writing have increased in this age, too. Readers have easier ways of finding and responding to my work, and that interaction has been not only intellectually rewarding but socially and professionally, too.

Why weren't they grateful?

Robert Caro looks back on The Power Broker 40 years after it was published.

Why weren’t they grateful? As I recalled that Exedra scene in 1969, as I was trying to organize my book, I suddenly knew, all in a moment, that that question would be its last line. For the book would have to answer that very question, would have to answer the riddle posed by the Moses Men: How could there not be gratitude, immense gratitude, to the man who had dreamed a great dream — of Jones Beach and a dozen other great parks, and of parkways to reach them — and who to create them had fought, and won, an epic battle against Long Island’s seemingly invincible robber barons? How could there not be gratitude to the man who had built mighty Triborough, far-­stretching Verrazano, who had made possible Lincoln Center and the United Nations? And yet there were ample answers to that question. Did I think in that moment of Robert Moses’ racism — unashamed, unapologetic? Convinced that African-Americans were inherently “dirty,” and that they don’t like cold water (“They simply didn’t like swimming unless it was red hot,” he explained to me confidentially one day), he kept the water temperature deliberately frigid in pools, like the ones at Jones Beach and Thomas Jefferson Park in Manhattan, that he didn’t want them to use. Did I think of the bridges he built that embodied racism in concrete? When he opened his Long Island parks during the 1930s, the only way for many poor people, particularly poor people of color, to reach them was by bus, so he built bridges over his parkways too low for buses to pass. Or of the “slum clearance” projects he built that seemingly created new slums as fast he was clearing the old, or of the public housing he placed in locations that cemented the division of New York by race and class? Did I think in that moment of the more than half a million people he dispossessed for his projects and expressways, using methods that led one observer to say that “he hounded them out like cattle”? Did I think of how he systematically starved New York’s subways and commuter lines for decades and blocked proposals to build new ones, exacerbating the region’s dependence on the automobile? I don’t remember exactly what I thought of when I remembered Robert Moses’ speech at the Exedra — only that in that moment, seeing the book’s last line, I suddenly saw the book whole, saw the shape of everything that would lead up to that line. I began organizing the book, the thoughts coming faster, I recall, than I could write. Over the next days, I outlined the book — in a quite detailed outline — from beginning to end. Some parts of what I wrote from the outline would later have to be truncated or cut out entirely so that the book could fit into one volume; aside from these deletions, “The Power Broker” as it was published follows that outline all the way through.