As long as the world is turning and spinning, we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes.Mel Brooks
For the last few years, I’ve been an observer as our company develops an increasingly mature capability in the text and data mining space. We envision this domain to be an important component of the future of our customers and in particular with those researchers in the digital humanities.
As an English Language and Literature major, I’m dazzled by what these new tools and techniques can reveal—and often make the point that I am frustrated by what different angles my research could have taken has such capabilities been available when I was in school in the last century: No more endlessly reskimming Women in Love for two weeks while writing a paper called “The Lawrencian Zoo,” no more headaches trying to find interesting literary conventions in that one chapter in Ulysses. Just write a search or a little program and voilà!
Last week I was reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler for (embarrassingly) the first time in my life and was charmed to find a few prescient sections related to text mining in this postmodern message from the 1970s.
In celebration of libraries, and the interlibrary loan:
“We were nobodies, two young Lit students chatting away in a rickety old house in a small town at the edge of the world, a place where nothing of any significance had ever happened and presumably never would, we had barely started out on our lives and knew nothing about anything, but what we read was not nothing, it concerned matters of the utmost significance and was written by the greatest thinkers and writers in Western culture, and that was basically a miracle, all you had to do was fill in a library lending slip and you had access to what Plato, Sappho, or Aristophanes had written in the incomprehensibly distant mists of time, or Homer, Sophocles, Ovid, Lucullus, Lucretius or Dante, Vasari, da Vinci, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes or Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Lukics, Arendt, or those who wrote in the modern day, Foucault, Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Deleuze, Serres. Not to mention the millions of novels, plays, and collections of poetry which were available. All one lending slip and a few days away. We didn’t read any of these to be able to summarize the contents, as we did with the literature on the syllabus, but because they could give us something.
In the summer of 2013, I accepted a new job with a 60-mile each-way commute, qualifying me as a mega-commuter from the perspective of distance if not in duration (as I can often make the trip in less than 90 minutes, weather and traffic permitting). While less than ideal and much longer than the 25.5 minute average American drive, there are a number of reasons this was something I ultimately decided to do, and the opportunity to spend solitary time with audiobooks was high on that list. As an English major who long ago left his wordy career behind for the more lucrative, stressful, intense, all-encompassing world of technology, finding crevices of life in which to stuff books and magazines is an ongoing obsession. With a gift subscription to Audible.com, a Bluetooth-to-radio adapter for my 2006 ride (the Motorola T505—highly recommended), and Waze guiding my route, my mornings and afternoons are my listening time.
I started my new job in July and warmed up with two free audio books: The fantastic, dramatized version of “Ulysses” and a more straightforward “The Metamorphosis” (kudos to the folks over at Librivox and all their volunteers). In August, I received the Audible subscription I mentioned (thanks, Dad), and decided to tackle a huge bucket list item: Proust. I had read “Swann’s Way” twice over the years as a warm up into the entire “Remembrance of Things Past,” but had never gotten any further. Seven volumes. So, so many pages. Such long, beautiful, entrancing sentences, begging to be read and reread and underlined and glossed and shared in their un-Twitter-friendly completeness. I loved it in concept—I love things that are complex and ultimately unknowable: wine, philosophy, religion, music—but it was a big time commitment. Now, I had time to fill—and the brilliant folks over at Naxos had gotten Neville James to read the entire thing, unabridged. It was a small fortune to purchase on CD but Audible opened the door to relative affordability with each volume being one monthly credit (and generally one month’s listening). In September, I began, and moved through it one volume per month: “Within a Budding Grove” (October), “The Guermantes Way” (November), and “Sodom and Gomorrah” (December) finished off 2013.
Once you have a little Proustian momentum, it really isn’t possible to stop, and the first three months of 2014 speedily consumed the last three volumes, “The Captive,” “The Fugitive,” and “Time Regained,” and this important bucket-list objective was finally checked off with a mental flourish. As one of the most important works of literature ever written, there isn’t much point in summarizing “Things Past” or waxing poetically about the singular creation that it is (though of course the Monty Python Summarize Proust Competition is always worth five minutes). Things that stand out to me are the narrator’s love for his mother (his anguish in waiting for her kiss every night, and his scheme for prying her from dinner guests to have her deliver him one, has etched itself in my mind and had a great effect on me); his love for his grandmother, which receives similar treatment, and her passing is as heartbreaking as it should be; the love story of Swann and Odette, if that is what we should call Swann’s romantic obsession; the parallel love stories of the narrator and Gilbert and Albertine; the heroic Robert de Saint-Loup providing support throughout; the paintings of Elstir and Vinteuil’s evasive sonata—so many things about it are memorable that it becomes a part of your life and decorates your world with its own phrases and concepts. Proust’s own life and his writing of these volumes have become a mythology in and of themselves, and, while I am happy he gave us these words and images, I think we should be thankful that we are able to read them rather than having to have had the life that realized them. This genius’s life seems a better thing to experience from outside the cork-lined room.
In April, I decided to move on to something more contemporary, and as every magazine, newspaper, and Facebook post was promoting “The Goldfinch,” I decided to dive into it. It was as good as advertised and completely addictive. You will race through it. While you could argue that the last pages are a little longer and more expositional than you would have liked, I think it holds together very beautifully, and the narration by David Pittu was remarkable; I loved his version of Boris, and Xandra is a hoot, and I miss Hobie often. The fictional echoes of previous historical events is nicely managed as well.
May I gave to “Speak, Memory,” which I have read before but thought worth reliving. It is a beautiful book with, not surprisingly, some great moments and beautiful images (Nabokov on the hunt for the butterfly among them), but I still think it is better to read Nabokov writing about fictional others than about his historical self, and the narration was a little robotic and therefore distracting. I would recommend reading it in written form and listening to this recent podcast of “Pnin” instead.
The rest of May, June, and most of July I gave to “The Complete Essays of Montaigne,” which I loved and highly recommend. Though written around 1570 to 1592, the essays (or “attempts,” a form that Montaigne is argued to have invented, or at the least established the early model for) cover topics with an often very modern perspective, and his voice is so enjoyable that he will quickly pop up to the top of your list the next time someone (perhaps irritatingly) asks you, “If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be?” The audio book stretches almost 50 hours, but each of the generally short essays stands very independently and can be dipped into as you like. His send-up of doctors is worth your time if you’ve ever doubted your medical care (fairly or not). And, if you’ve ever felt certain about something, allowing his “What do I know?” to ring in your ears and encircle your thought process is certainly advisable.
Having been a long-time admirer of the wisdom that comes out of Neil Gaiman in social media but having never actually read of one of his works, I decided July was the month to remedy that omission. After a little Facebook voting and Goodreads review reading, I selected “American Gods” to populate my July. I was a big Stephen King fan as a young person and felt transported back into that sort of fantastical mystical world. I admire Gaiman’s creatively and narrative skills—you have to keep reading to see how this is all going to work out—but admit that this feels like a genre towards which I’m no longer all that partial. Maybe it was the Montaigne.
Back to nonfiction for August, with Alex Ross’s “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century,” another book that had long been on my to-read list. What a fantastic survey. Learning the background of musical history through different composers, their interactions with their cultural context and peers, and Mr. Ross’s amazing ability to describe musical pieces were all highlights, and my Spotify playlists grew as each chapter clicked by. One of the moments that stands out to me is the description of Sibelius and the inspiring swans he saw fly overhead, as similarly recounted in this article:
The second movement of the Fifth provides a spell of calm, although beneath the surface a significant new idea is coming to life—a swaying motif of rising-and-falling intervals, which the horns pick up in the finale and transform into the grandest of all Sibelian themes. The composer called it his “swan hymn”; he recorded it in his diary next to a description of sixteen swans flying in formation over Ainola. “One of my greatest experiences!” he wrote. “Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon…. That this should have happened to me, who have so long been the outsider.” The swans reappeared three days later: “The swans are always in my thoughts and give splendor to [my] life. [It’s] strange to learn that nothing in the whole world affects me—nothing in art, literature, or music—in the same way as do these swans and cranes and wild geese. Their voices and being.”
“That this should happen to me, who have so long been the outsider.” Haunting.
After seeing the first two Hobbit movies and getting prepared for the finale (which we just saw this week; its a little long but still enjoyable), I dedicated the rest of August to the original “The Hobbit” since I hadn’t read it in a long time and wanted to clear my mind of the film adaptations in order to better understand (or, naturally, critique) them. I first read Tolkien as an early teen and though I can’t lay claim to the fandom that enables some to recant complete dwarven ancestral lines from memory or draw the maps of Middle Earth that line the books’ end pages with pixel-level fidelity, I was certainly a follower and listening to it again in Rob Inglis’s completely appropriate voice drew me back into my childhood days with Bilbo. As Proust said, “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.”
In September, Audible had a sale and I picked up “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which I have read before but thought it was a nice way to look back behind the movie and into Mr. Capote, whose brilliant “In Cold Blood” I’m not sure I want to read again but whose “A Christmas Memory” I need to revisit. It is hard not to love the enigmatic Holly Golightly, even without Audrey Hepburn in your mind. As to the question of whether Holly was a woman of the night, the author sort of clarified that in 1968 (just so you know).
The rest of the month I gave to “Middlemarch,” which I had only ready snippets of before, perhaps in college. I kept seeing it pop up very highly in “best book ever” lists and thought it was time to dive in and through it. Juliet Stevenson provides an absolutely fantastic reading in the Naxos version, and I loved following the travails of Dorothea, Casaubon, and Will Ladislaw. Though a little soap-operatic in plot—will Dorothea really marry the too-old Causabon for his intellect, and help him write “The Key to All Mythologies,” and will she then marry Will, her true love, despite Casaubon’s will forbidding it?—it is an absolutely engaging read and the last sentence still rings in my memory: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Yes.
In October, I was able to push through three books, the first one two times: “The Stranger” (twice because it is short, and compelling, and mysterious, and I wanted to make sure I got everything right—did the narrator really not cry when his Maman died? How did things go at the beach again, exactly?), “Crime and Punishment” (it was on sale and I had read it too long ago to remember much more than the main events), and “The Sound and the Fury,” which was another reread but, hey, it’s Faulkner, and honestly I think listening to it might actually make more sense than reading it, through you are not given the clues of line breaks and italics that the written version provides. “The Stranger” and “Crime and Punishment” were accidentally sequenced but, given some of the shared themes, ended up being good comrades in a way that I might have easily considered writing a paper about back in the days when I wrote papers about things like that. “The Sound and the Fury” was by far the most emotional read of three, with poor Benjy suffering through his miserable life with his miserable family until Dilsey saves the day by taking us all to church, literally.
With two more months left in the year and the potential of a polar vortex reprise extending my daily drive as autumn deepened, I knew I had time for one more big book, and I pulled Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy” to the top of the list. During my first year at university, I dual-majored in physics and literature, and, at one point, probably amid the obligatory Philosophy 101 class, in which I devoured impenetrable but somehow profound linguistic puzzles, I thought philosophy would be an interesting minor. (None of that really worked out.) “A History” is just like taking, well, a history of philosophy course, starting with the ancient, pre-Socratic days and bringing us right up to the more-or-less present day (it was published in 1945). Not just a review of philosophy or philosophers, Russell gives us historical context for the lives of the philosophers so we can better understand how their world informed their works—and how they then shaped the world around them in the instances in which they did. Its structure reminds me of “The Rest is Noise” enough that I have to wonder if Ross was inspired by Russell, or if it just an obvious enough way to architect a book that covers a specific subject area over a wide time period and a broad cast of characters. It is a witty, accessible, and wonderful book (I found myself laughing to myself, potentially to the irritation of my co-commuters, more often than I would have expected), and it is no surprise it was cited when Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1950. Here’s the last paragraph:
In the welter of conflicting fanaticisms, one of the few unifying forces is scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal, and as much divested of local and temperamental bias, as it possible for human beings. To have insisted upon the introduction of this virtue into philosophy, and to have invented a powerful method by which it can be rendered fruitful, are the chief merits of the philosophical school of which I am a member. The habit of careful veracity acquired in the practice of this philosophical method can be extended to the whole sphere of human activity, producing, wherever it exists, a lessening of fanaticism with an increasing capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding. In abandoning a part of its dogmatic pretensions, philosophy does not cease to suggest and inspire a way of life.
Increasing the capacity of sympathy and mutual understanding, indeed.
So ends my year of listening. Having grown up with books in all their papery, nerdy, librarian-shushed austerity, I recall a time when audiobooks (I think they were mostly Books on Tape, on cassette, then) were considered a more commercial, accessible, “easier” approach to reading, and somehow the less for it, like watching the movie or reading the Cliff’s Notes. I’ll admit there are times when this sensibility has merit for me, too, and I bought a complete set of Proust (thanks, Literati) and Montaigne in paper so I could follow along and retrace my steps in the original format as I listened. I also checked out nearly all the other books I heard from the library (or Feedbooks or Gutenberg) as well for the same reason. But listening is a great way to consume these works; it returns us to the oral traditions and forms of the original stories, and I often find that my ability to recall the specifics of plot, or to hear, literally, a thematic reference, is greater with audio adaptations when compared to reading along by myself in silence. I guess it is a moot point until Google delivers the self-driving car for which I pine and, with Cosmo-Kramer-intensity, yearn. Until then, I will be listening as I cover the blue Michigan highways, as the sun comes up and slips down again in my rear-view mirror, blissfully unaware of the congestion ahead until Waze interrupts the narration with a traffic alert and pulls me back to life, back to reality—if only for a moment.
Three rules of work:
Out of clutter, find simplicity.
From discord, find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Back in June, The New Yorker published Malcolm Gladwell’s review of “Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton) by Jeremy Adelman. I’ve reread the piece a number of times and have found so many references of interest in it that my first recommendation is to simply click over and read it.
One of the characteristics of failing fast that I find compelling is that it provides direction in the face of ambiguity or uncertainty, particularly in those early stages of a project or effort during which we lack the information or context to make effective decisions, and I believe this is why the fail fast model has been adopted with such apparent uniformity (perhaps, at this point, even dogmatically) in the entrepreneurial world, as evidenced by the pivot becoming the favored strategy when feedback on your original concept informs a change in direction. However, what I found enlightening about the Gladwell piece, and the stories, that Hirschman used in his own work—such as the Hoosac Mountain tunnel and the Karnaphuli Paper Mills—is that these were not situations in which there was any perceived ambiguity in the way we readily acknowledge it in other contexts. The experts felt that blasting through the Hoosac was a tractable and relatively inexpensive problem, and Karnaphuli Paper Mills operators specifically built in an optimal location, near existing bamboo forests. However, in the middle of the projects, at that flexing tipping point that breeds a pivot, it turned out that their plans were built on assumptions that didn’t hold or expectations that didn’t match with reality. The creativity required to build out of that situation is what Hirschman highlights in his essay, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand:”
Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.
That last sentence is thrilling. Misjudge the nature of the task in order to bring out our full creativity. That feels right.
Later in the essay, Hirschman writes:
The Hiding Hand is essentially a way of inducing action through error, the error being an underestimate of the project’s costs or difficulties.
I’ve never conceived of deliberately underestimating a project’s difficulties as a way of inducing action, and I can’t say it is clear that Hirschman is suggesting that either. But, in the same frame of mind as “having a bias for action” or “getting fast feedback,” this does suggest that when you find yourself in a situation in which your back is against the wall and success seems less clear than when you set out, taking this new information and either failing and moving on or pivoting into a new future is the right approach.
Hirschman published these ideas in 1967. And he was an economist. An amazing guy who lived to be 97 and was, in Gladwell’s words, satisfied to “circle the globe and be content to conclude that he couldn’t reach a conclusion—for a long time, if ever. He was a planner who really didn’t believe in planning.”
In my mind, this echoes Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth:
Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.
Don’t assume you know where you’re going. Get in the middle of difficulty and invent a way out. Fail fast and prosper.
Here in Michigan, we are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” (Google confirms this conversational convention with unsettling analytical accuracy.) But we are not the only citizens who’ve noted the lack of weather predictability, and this paragraph from Annie Dillard’s astounding Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I’m currently re-reading — as I have every few years since Mrs. Granger introduced us to the work in high school; I absolutely love it — reminded me how seasons aren’t as self-contained as our invented calendar implies.
[T]here’s always unseasonable weather. What we think of the weather and behavior of life on the planet at any given season is really all a matter of statistical probabilities; at any given point, anything might happen. There is a bit of every season in each season. Green plants—deciduous green leaves—grow everywhere, all winter long, and small shoots come up pale and new in every season. Leaves die on the tree in May, turn brown, and fall into the creek. The calendar, the weather, and the behavior of wild creatures have the slimmest of connections. Everything overlaps smoothly for only a few weeks each season, and then it all tangles up again. The temperature, of course, lags far behind the calendar seasons, since the earth absorbs and releases heat slowly, like a leviathan breathing. Migrating birds head south in what appears to be dire panic, leaving mild weather and fields full of insects and seeds; they reappear as if in all eagerness in January, and poke about morosely in the snow. Several years ago our October woods would have made a dismal colored photograph for a sadist’s calendar: a killing frost came before the leaves had even begun to brown; they drooped from every tree like crepe, blackened and limp. It’s all a chancy, jumbled affair at best, as things seem to be below the stars.
And, while drawing a line between Dillard and Proust, with his own ravishing natural descriptions, might be a more romantic concept than a literal one, nonetheless it is appealing to see a similar description in Swann’s Way:
For often we find a day, in one, that has strayed from another season, and makes us live in that other, summons at once into our presence and makes us long for its peculiar pleasures, and interrupts the dreams that we were in process of weaving, by inserting, out of its turn, too early or too late, this leaf, torn from another chapter, in the interpolated calendar of Happiness.
“I am a believer in fortuitous accidents.” —John Ashbery
There was a time when I would only read one book or magazine at a time. Straight through, cover to cover — including the covers, the notes, the advertisements — and I would do so even if I wasn’t enjoying whatever it was because I presumed that all writing had the potential to reveal something, even if only a random fact I wasn’t pursuing or a model of thought that I would be well-advised to avoid adopting.
At some point, perhaps because this approach resulted in a slower pace of overall reading or because it delayed by days or weeks the enjoyment of the exciting piece I had just discovered, I started reading many things all at once and letting my interest direct which of them I would continue to read. If I tired of a book three chapters in, I would pick up something else to see if it I found it more enticing, and only circle back when that first book seemed intriguing again. Eventually I might even decide that a book was not worth finishing, which my more youthful self would have considered heretical, milquetoasty anti-intellectualism, but which I rationalized by deciding that what I was more naturally drawn to read might be a greater use of my always-diminishing biological span.
One accidental outcome of reading many things at once is the surprising number of confluences and parallels you uncover. A book written four centuries ago and one written this year might share a turn of phrase, a plot twist, or a psychological insight, and having both moving through your thoughts within hours or days of each other makes these similarities — or even contrasting differences — discernible in a way they likely would not have been otherwise.
I was reminded of this benefit just this week when I picked up two books at the library and started reading them on the same day. Here is the first paragraph of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life:
There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task. Reasons to be inconsolable abound: the fraility of our bodies, the fickleness of love, the insincerity of social life, the compromises of friendship, the deadening effects of habit. In the face of such persistent ills, we might naturally expect that no event would be awaited with greater anticipation than the moment of our own extinction.
I read a few chapters and then turned to the other book the library had surrendered, Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, which I am rereading because a third book I just finished made me want to go back to it.
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.
Here is de Botton writing in the late 1990s (in a book structured around one of the greatest authors of that century) and Camus in the early 1950s. De Botton is playful; Camus, just a bit more intense. But the question is the same: Is happiness possible? Is life worth living? Certainly, these are timeless questions and there is no surprise that a topic that has been treated by many would be present in two different works you just happened to be reading more or less simultaneously. However, this lack of singularity does not lessen the impact on the reader, and both the connectedness of the passages and the relief they throw each other into yield a more interesting vantage point from which to consider either, and both.
I once thought of writing a piece that included instructions to the reader on a preparatory experience to have before reading the next section. For example: “Have a very late dinner at The Feast of Chilmark before reading Chapter 4.” Or: “Stand at the corner of State Street and East Liberty looking west on a September evening before reading Chapter 7.” Or, even more fun: “Peacefully break up with someone after a yearlong relationship for a reason neither of you can distinctly remember before proceeding to Chapter 12.” The idea of the reader having had an experience directly tied to the writing offered to enable a greater level of connectivity between the reader and writer; a more refined collaboration.
Of course, the dull edge of practicality cuts through such a concept with little resistance. Since eating the same foods, meeting the same people, and reading all the same books in the same order at the same pace won’t make us the same person with the same perspective, it is fruitless (if still enticing) to inconvenience a reader with such demanding homework. Far better to find that something you wrote appeals regardless of the specific experiences of the reader, regardless of what they have recently, or ever, read. And, as a reader, far better to find that something you are reading connects you to the work of another, either in its echo or its denial, in its expansion of detail or its shift of perspective, in the way it, completely accidentally, makes you consider something you have felt before with either greater certainty or, instead, with a wistful glance behind you, makes you realize that where you’ve been before isn’t where you thought it was, and is, apparently, nothing like where you are going.
I’m not sure if blogs are waning as a medium or not, but I find that I often want to share a quick link or point that doesn’t feel worthy of an entire post but isn’t going to fit into 140, either. So, probably a bit late, I’ve finally created a Fail Fast Facebook page. Please come over and connect; I’ll be sharing posts from the blog but there will also be some exclusive content as well. See you there.
Now it’s easy to say go forth and fail! What’s most important is how you fail. The best method is to fail fast. LinkedIn wasn’t the first social network in a very competitive space nor did we know exactly where we were going. It was an extremely tough fight. What allowed us to succeed was our mantra of failing fast in order to survive. We would build products quickly, test them out, many of them failing, then learn about went wrong and try again.
From How to Fail: Mark Pincus:
One of the things I try to instill at Zynga is to fail fast, look at the data, and move on