Archive for the ‘Letters’ Category

Not bad for "design by committee" (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As the debt ceiling hullabaloo is still ongoing and vastly depressing, I’m going to blog about a general idea that bugs me — that of the singular brilliant “auteur” — which has recently spread to this technology article in the NYTimes contrasting Apple and Google.

To summarize my previous argument about singular auteurs:

The recent revelations of Robert Johnson’s sped-up recordings show that even the most idealized and individualized romantic musical figure — the traveling bluesman who sold his soul to the devil — is just as co-dependent as everyone else. Homer was probably multiple people; Emily Dickinson needed the support and encouragement of Thomas Higginson; and Robert Johnson had a nosy producer. If anything, I find this reality much more assuring than the God-given myth of great artists, because it reminds us that prodigious talent is not the result of magic folks coming out of the clear blue sky (or another world), but products of an individual and community effort.

The Times story suggests that Google’s design team is hampered by “design by committee.” This is a long-standing joke, but frankly, “design by committee” can yield superb results. Consider Chartres Cathedral: there’s no greater “design by committee” example on earth. How many craftsmen over how many years put together that glorious building, and yet, no one would say that its design was the work of any one man. Is it a victim of the shortcomings of “design by committee”? Raymond Carver’s stories are as much a response to Gordon Lish, his editor, as they are a fully-grown one-man production.

And yet, we want so much to believe that some magical individual person is behind our products (or our music or our art, etc.). When people go to a restaurant with a celebrity chef moniker, they expect that the chef is back in the kitchen actually cooking the food. Instead, the chef has delegated the responsibilities for the menu and cooking to his executive chef at the restaurant. This sort of “design by committee” all works well, and no one complains that they are not eating the food of the “auteur” (until, of course, they discover that Emeril isn’t really back there!).

Google’s method of “design by committee” gave us a better browser than Apple, a better maps app than MapQuest, a better mail program than, well, anything really.

This is not to devalue the contributions of Steve Jobs, who undoubtedly turned around Apple’s fortunes. It is worth thinking that there are many paths to great art, and nowhere is this clearer than in another company that Jobs helped to turn around — Pixar. I can’t think of a better example of “design by committee” pursuing excellence and hitting it almost every time.

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It’s time for the latest installment of the Unpersons podcast!

This time we discuss college and recent debates about its purpose and worth. Reading the first two links in the footnotes helps get the background, but I think our conversation makes sense anyways.

Our topics meander from:

– What the value of college is; i.e. why would anyone want to go to college
– The Menand argument of sorting vs. democratic functions of college — which is it?
– What to do with unprepared college students
– Bashing/defending Professor X’s (no not that Professor X) teaching ability; what is a professor’s job?
– Connections between the failures of K-12 education and problems in college education
– Scholarships, loans, and poor financial decisions (it’s only worth it if you don’t drop out!)
– Tracking into vocational schools and why we are queasy about the idea
– Inherent elitism/classism in the “don’t go to college” movement


– Linus’s original blog post, my response, and the original Professor X article
– Professor X’s new book and article
– the Louis Menand New Yorker article about the value of an education
– List of drop-out factories
– Wealth effects of first job (PDF)

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Bill James is a great statistician and guru to many a stats-nerd (and Boston Red Sox fan), but his much-read Slate article (an excerpt from his new book), about why America produces great athletes but not great writers, is wrong in its premise and its conclusion.

James posits that the reason we don’t produce great writers is 1) lack of economic incentive, and 2) lack of targeting at a young age — which is all well and good.

But he gets tripped up when he starts making the strained comparison between writers and sportsmen:

The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

Alas, a major league player ain’t Shakespeare. Only every so often are “great” players created whose marginal utility is substantially higher than their contemporaries. How often does Topeka produce an all-time great, or even an All-Star? Correct answer: Never. Despite all the targeting, training, competition, etc., Topeka can’t do it. Why not? Maybe because talent in a field of increasing competition, with an ever-broadening base of players to choose from (with the opening of international markets), simply isn’t enough. (For what it’s worth, I’d say Topeka has produced a few authors who would arguably make an All-Star team: Gwendolyn Brooks, Jane Heap, and of course, Bill James. Topeka also produced the band Kansas, so they’ve got that going for them.)

Furthermore, there are gads of talented writers in America. Pick up your average Harper’s, or New Yorker, or National Review, and you can read tons of pretty good writing — “major league,” even. How many athletes in America can say they “make their living” from their profession, compared with the number that can say they do similarly with writing, be it journalistic, self-help, fiction, or whatever else is out there? Writing isn’t the most vibrant profession out there, but many people do it for a living. 275,000 new book titles are published each year — more than all the games in all the leagues in professional sports.*

Unlike baseball, it’s hard to tell whether a writer is “good” or not until after their careers end. Shakespeare’s plays had limited critical respect at the time (resulting in misprints, mistakes, multiple versions, etc.), and his reputation grew posthumously. Evaluating writers is similarly difficult. I can look up Willie Stargell’s OPS+; I can’t look up Jack London’s. Good writers often toil in anonymity; good ballplayers are scouted and make the majors. Athletes peak younger, writers peak at various times and various places. (As an aside, James points out that sports admitted blacks before most of society, but writing admitted them long before. Frederick Douglass, WEB Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, etc. all wrote bestselling books in the 19th century, and the Harlem Renaissance predates Jackie Robinson by 25 years.)

I agree with James that we need more cultivation of writing talent, but I question his contention that there isn’t a lot already. Schools have libraries, newspapers, writing contests, required reading and of course, regular writing and English classes. Certainly these resources could be better-funded, but the idea that America is just bad at producing writers is silly on its face and sillier because of the apples-to-oranges comparison of writers to athletes.

*not sure on the math, but it’s probably not even close

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Ducks help you read!

I was dismayed by the article in the NYTimes today that described the decline of picture books for children. I found the article a bit suspect, possibly falling into the “phony New York Times trend” category. After all, the empirical data cited in the article is a bit thin. Still, some of the information points to a general trend away from picture books:

At Scholastic, 5 percent to 10 percent fewer hardcover picture books have been published over the last three years. Don Weisberg, the president of the Penguin Young Readers Group, said that two and a half years ago, the company began publishing fewer titles but that it had devoted more attention to marketing and promoting the ones that remain. Of all the children’s books published by Simon & Schuster, about 20 percent are picture books, down from 35 percent a few years ago.

I appreciate the move for early literacy, even the goofy “infant reading” quasi-scams. Still, there’s much value in teaching reading with pictures, and the propagation of junk science has led many parents to make ignorant decisions about their children’s reading:

Some parents say they just want to advance their children’s skills. Amanda Gignac, a stay-at-home mother in San Antonio who writes The Zen Leaf, a book blog, said her youngest son, Laurence, started reading chapter books when he was 4.

Now Laurence is 6 ½, and while he regularly tackles 80-page chapter books, he is still a “reluctant reader,” Ms. Gignac said.

Sometimes, she said, he tries to go back to picture books.

“He would still read picture books now if we let him, because he doesn’t want to work to read,” she said, adding that she and her husband have kept him reading chapter books.

As an avid early chapter book reader and a big proponent of content-heavy canonical reading curricula, this kind of derision for picture books as “easier” or “lazier” than chapter books is beyond idiotic.

Picture books help students learn vocabulary quickly, relate more closely to the story, grasp highly abstract concepts, etc. We use pictures to communicate or enhance written words all the time. We have structure models for chemistry, diagrams for mathematics, paintings and photographs for history. Treating “chapter books” as inherently superior to “picture books” misunderstands how reading functions.

If your kids would rather read picture books, pick good ones! Pick picture books with high vocabulary levels or important messages. The key is broad content area learning, not particular focus on the medium.

The unfortunate characterization of picture books as “kids’ stuff,” by parents and educators, has led generations of American kids to believe that they should be ashamed of picture books. And yet, picture books help students learn — social studies, chemistry, current events, and yes, English. Picture books help us visualize distant lands or kingdoms. Picture books introduce us to the interplay between symbols and ideas.

I would rather have students read We the People: The Story of Our Constitution than Twilight.

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This fits into my working hypothesis that collaboration is much more the model for the advancement of knowledge. As much as we have uber-creative heroes, such as Da Vinci or Newton, those heroes only exist because of highly innovative and communicative communities that informed their ideas. Newton himself said that he stood “on the shoulders of giants.”

(There are many ways in which the popular individualist view of history has damaged our psyches, but that’s a story for another time.)

I do think, though, that the access to new information online creates the problem of information glut — there being no good way of separating the wheat from the chaff. The sorting mechanism has to be so much better advanced than, say, Reddit, in order to become more functional for the great idea-maker.

Anyways, the video makes me want to read the book.

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With Never Let Me Go opening this weekend to decent if not overwhelming reviews, I wonder why the greatest novels do not often make the greatest films. (Needless to say, I consider Never Let Me Go one of the finest pieces of fiction I have ever read.)

A few examples:

There are notable exceptions (Grapes of Wrath), but it seems that there is something decidedly unliterary about well-made film — or uncinematic about well-made novels. Those small touches that make a novel great — an extended description of the whaling industry in New England, the notion of the terrible size of the white whale, the words running over themselves in a moment of great fear — are exactly the kinds of touches that can deaden a film. If the technology doesn’t exist to capture the white whale, the film is hokey (which the 1953 Moby Dick certainly is).

I think much of the problem resides in the “faithfulness to the author.” In interviews, the director often says that he/she has great respect for the author and wants to present the author’s vision. But this is impossible! The change in media results in a total change in how the scene has to be interpreted. If you respect the subject material too much, sometimes the result can be an embalmed, wax figure of the original, rather than the excitement that the original once elicited (see: Sin City).

Great novels are great for different reasons than great films, which means that one cannot be simply made into the other.

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Daniel Engber has assembled what can only be described as a comprehensive history of quicksand in the arts. I mean really comprehensive. Like, 6 Slate-pages long, 5,000-6,000 word monster.

I would point out that, although the topic seems trivial, this kind of story — a longer, carefully-researched story on a somewhat esoteric subject — is exactly what Internet journalism affords its writers, as opposed to print. There’s simply no way The New Yorker or The New York Times Book Review or any of the non-Slate Washington Post Co. subsidiaries would ever print this particular article. But the admittedly narrow subject area is just fine for the dabblers of the Internet — just as Engber supposes for the quicksand enthusiasts who have seen their beloved cliche forgotten by the mainstream.

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