Kelly: More than My Share of It All — Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson with Maggie Smith

Kelly: More than My Share of It All comes by way of Paul Graham and I see why Graham likes it: Kelly is the sort of person who barely exists anymore. Kelly worked on numerous important aerospace engineering projects from World War II into the 1970s, and he oversaw vital projects like the SR-71 Blackbird and the U-2 Reconnaissance plane—both of which were major innovations. In an era of the totally fucked up F-35 and numerous similar systems, it’s shocking to read about genuinely innovative projects completed on time and sometimes even under budget. It’s shocking too to read about someone who sounds like a person rather than a bureaucrat, and who argues for responsibility instead of buzzwords:

There is a tendency today, which I hate to see, toward design by committee—reviews and recommendations, conferences and consultants, by those not directly doing the job. Nothing very stupid will result, but nothing brilliant either. And it’s in the brilliant concept that a major advance is achieved.

kellyAt the time Kelly worked, large aerospace and related companies acted like Google or Apple do today—perhaps because their founders still ran them. Kelly writes about how he once “telephoned Walter Baird [of the Baird Atomic Company] personally since he and I had worked together on a number of other Skunk Works projects. He immediately agreed to pick up his end of the log.” A direct call to a decision maker is often an improvement over hundreds of hours of committee bullshit. Many people know this intuitively but many systems, in universities and business, have run to committee. Kelly writes, “I fear that the way I like to design and build airplanes one day may no longer be possible.” In that sentence I think he should have “may” before “one,” but the important point remains: that day has arrived.

One could profitably read this book next to Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Musk is a Kelly-like figure, and, together with Zero to One, Kelly tells a story about how large swaths of the nominal technology sector have become sclerotic. Every single person working on the F-35 should be required to read Kelly. But the people at the top of fat and lax military-industrial companies are already getting theirs.

The sense of differences extends to Kelly’s university experience, where he writes that “The professors were broadminded people, with interests and contacts outside the university. They took a personal as well as professional interest in their students.” Today “a personal as well as professional interest” leaves professors open to university politics and sexual harassment claims. Money is tighter; he writes of how the University of Michigan built a wind tunnel and let Kelly operate it part time. He says, “The money didn’t mean anything to the university; renting the tunnel afforded them a chance to see what the students could do.” Money today means a lot to universities, and the faculty seem powerless to reverse that trend.

Kelly and Kelly are about taking reasonable risks with good cost-to-payoff ratios. Risk does imply the possibility of failure, though, and reasonable failure isn’t tolerated in many big institutions. That may help explain why startups are so important, why much innovation happens on the Internet, and why’s ebook systems are so important for writers. Much of Kelly is not written particularly well, but the larger points it makes make it a fascinating historical document anyway, and a reminder of what can be accomplished by determined people in systems that let them succeed.

“Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?” Not at the New York Times

In “Have We Learned Anything From the Columbia Rape Case?” Emily Bazelon mostly answers “no.” I would very slightly answer “yes,” but in a way contrary to her reading: We’ve mostly learned that colleges are not set up (and should not be set up) to investigate and prosecute serious crimes. We have police and prosecutors for that. Those systems have their problems, but they exist to balance fairness and justice.

University judicial panels are good for relatively minor issues like plagiarism or smoking weed or being a jerk to a roommate. They’re terrible for serious crimes. Bazelon writes, “As universities scramble to improve their disciplinary processes…” as if it’s a foregone conclusion that they should be adjudicating serious crimes. Universities should improve their disciplinary processes… by referring cases to police, rather than setting up kangaroo courts.

Oddly, the general issue was covered in a round of articles from last year, which I wrote about here; little seems to have changed since. I wonder too how much time and money universities spend on these issues, rather than on, say, education. Maybe it’s time for universities to see their housing functions as too great an institutional liability and to shed them, since much of the controversy appears to be linked to university-owned housing.

Links: Greenspun on Krakauer, Tesla and hope, shadow workers, Camille Paglia and Sexual Personae, and more!

* Philip Greenspun’s non-standard reading of Jon Krakauer’s book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, which says more about economics than about its putative subject.

* With Tesla Entering Market, Hopes for Home Batteries Grow.

* “Elon Musk’s Space Dream Almost Killed Tesla,” but really the first sentence is the true winner: “In late October 2001, Elon Musk went to Moscow to buy an intercontinental ballistic missile.”

* “Don’t Be So Sure the Economy Will Return to Normal,” from Tyler Cowen, an unusual perspective, as always. See also my 2013 discussion of his book Average is Over.

* “Are You a Shadow Worker?” Social site moderators are, which is one reason they are often so bad.

* No one should condescend to Agatha Christie – she’s a genius.

* Andrew Ng: “Inside The Mind That Built Google Brain: On Life, Creativity, And Failure,” which is brilliant throughout; I note this: “When I talk to researchers, when I talk to people wanting to engage in entrepreneurship, I tell them that if you read research papers consistently, if you seriously study half a dozen papers a week and you do that for two years, after those two years you will have learned a lot. This is a fantastic investment in your own long term development.”

* “GMO Scientists Could Save the World From Hunger, If We Let Them.”

* “Austin, Texas, Is Blowing Away Every Other Big City in Population Growth.”

* “‘Everything in the world is about sex:’ Twenty-five years after its publication, Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae is still an energising ‘cultural bible.’” I read it a couple years ago and it’s now among the books I cite most frequently, though its earlier chapters are better than its later ones.

Two visions for the future, inadvertently juxtaposed: Nell Zink and Marc Andreessen

Last week’s New Yorker inadvertently offers two visions for the future: one in a profile of the writer Nell Zink and the other in a profile of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Both profiles are excellent. One of their subjects, however, is mired in a fixed, contemporary mindset, while the other subject looks to a better future.

This is Schultz’s description of Zink: “Zink writes about the big stuff: the travesty of American apartheid; the sexual, economic, and intellectual status of women; the ephemerality of desire and its enduring consequences.” Is any of that stuff really big? Does it matter? Or is it just a list of somewhat transitory issues that obsess modern intellectuals who are talking to each other through magazines like The New Yorker? The material well-being of virtually any American is so much higher than it was in, say, 1900, as to diminish the relative importance of many of the ideas Zink or Schultz considers “big.” At one point Zink “delivered a short lecture on income stagnation: a bird ridiculing its fellow-bird for stupidity.” But global inequality is falling and, moreover, the more interesting question may be absolute material conditions, rather than relative ones. One gets the sense that Zink is a more parochial thinker than she thinks. I sense from The Wallcreeper that she writes about the motiveless and pathless.

Here, by contrast, is Andreessen as described by Tad Friend:

Andreessen is tomorrow’s advance man, routinely laying out “what will happen in the next ten, twenty, thirty years,” as if he were glancing at his Google calendar. He views his acuity as a matter of careful observation and extrapolation, and often invokes William Gibson’s observation “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Jet packs have been around for half a century, but you still can’t buy them at Target.


The game in Silicon Valley, while it remains part of California, is not ferocious intelligence or a contrarian investment thesis: everyone has that. It’s not even wealth [. . . .] It’s prescience. And then it’s removing every obstacle to the ferocious clarity of your vision: incumbents, regulations, folkways, people. Can you not just see the future but summon it?

Having a real vision counts, and it seems that too few people have a vision for the future. Andreessen is thinking not of today but of what can be made better tomorrow. I would not deny the impact of slavery on contemporary culture or the importance of desire on life, but I would ask Zink: if the U.S. is doing things poorly, who is doing them better? And if the U.S. is doing things poorly why then is Silicon Valley the center of the future?

One of these people reads as an optimist, the other as a pessimist. One reads as someone who makes things happen and the other as someone who complains about things that other people do. One reads as a person with a path. The other doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Wallcreeper when I read it a couple months ago. I didn’t have much to say about it on this blog because it seems kind of interesting but left me without much feeling. But I can’t help thinking that Andreessen’s vision for the future is big, while Zink’s vision of the present is small.

As a bonus, check out “All Hail the Grumbler! Abiding Karl Kraus,” which is poorly titled but describes Jonathan Franzen’s relationship to art, technology, and other matters. He’s in the Zink school; perhaps something about studying German inculcates an anti-technology backlash among writers, since Germany and the U.S. are both among the most technophilic societies in the world (for good reasons, I would argue). From the article:

Kraus’s savage criticism of popular newspapers, suspicion of technology, and defense of art all appeal to Franzen, whose nonfiction essays strike similar notes. For instance, in the spirit of Kraus, Franzen has attacked the intrusiveness of cellphones and the loss of private space as people bark out the dreck of their lives.

But even “privacy” is a relatively new idea: being alone to read books only really got going in the 18th Century, when books got cheap enough for normal people to borrow them from libraries. The luddites of the day lamented the withdrawal from the private sphere into onanistic privacy. They asked: Why wrap yourself in some imaginary world when the big real world is out there?

As you may imagine I’m more neutral towards these developments. Like many literary types I think the world would be a better place with more reading and less reality TV, but I’ll also observe that the kind of people who share that view are likely to read this blog and the kind of people who don’t aren’t likely to give a shit about what I or anyone like me says.

Much later in the essay its author, Russell Jacoby, writes: “Denouncing capitalist technology has rarely flourished on the left, which, in general, believes in progress.” I get what he’s saying, But denouncing technology in general has always been a fool’s game because a) pretty much everyone uses it and b) to the extent one generation (or a member of a generation) refuses a given technology, the next generation takes it up entirely. Franzen may not like technology circa 2015 but he is very fond of the technology of the printing press. At what point does Franzen think “good” technology stopped?

I’m reminded, unfairly perhaps, of the many noisy environmentalists I’ve known who do things like bring reusable bags to grocery but then fly on planes at least a couple times a year. Buy flying pollutes more than pretty much anything anyone else does. A lot of SUV-drivers living in exurbs actually create less pollution than urban cosmopolitans who fly every two months. By the same token, the same people who denounce one set of technical innovations are often dependent on or love some other set of technical innovations.

Almost no one wants to really, really go backwards, technologically speaking, in time. Look at behaviors rather than words. I do believe that Franzen doesn’t use Facebook or write a blog or whatever, but he probably uses other stuff, and, if he has kids, they probably want smart phones and video games because all their friends have smart phones and video games.

I’m not saying smart phones and video games are good—quite the opposite, really—and I’m sympathetic to Zimbardo’s claim that “video games and porn are destroying men.” But I am saying that the claims about modern technology doing terrible things to people or culture goes back centuries and has rarely if ever proven true, and the people making such claims are usually, when viewed in the correct light, hypocrites on some level. Jacoby does hit a related point: “Presumably, if enough people like SUVs, reality TV, and over-priced athletic footwear, little more may be said. The majority has spoken.” But I want to emphasize the point and say more about not the banal cultural stuff like bad TV (and obviously there is interesting TV) but the deeper stuff, like technology.

The Andreessens of the world are right. There is no way back. The only way is forward, whether we want to admit it or not. The real problem with our cultural relationship to technology—and this is a Peter Thielian point—is that we’re in denial about dependence, need, and the need to build the future.

Links: Tesla, women and dating, streets for humans, messy truth, Penelope Trunk, reading, and more!

* “Tesla Battery Economics: On the Path to Disruption,” one of these incredibly, shockingly important points that’s easy to miss.

* Why women lose the dating game at 30: Bettina Arndt listens to the other voices in this debate: the men. Maybe.

* Building streets for humans rather than cars could help solve the affordable housing crisis.

* Social Liberalism as Class Warfare—or, points that are too infrequently made.

* “Where Did Penelope Trunk Go Wrong?“, an excellent question though not well explored at the link. I unsubscribed from Trunk’s blog a while ago, though some of her older posts, like “Don’t go to grad school” and “How much money do you need to be happy? Hint: Your sex life matters more” are still excellent. She went from being contrarian and brilliant and willing to say shit other people won’t say to cruel. There is a fine line between speaking the messy truth and being an asshole.

* Why can’t we ready anymore? Long attention spans are one of my competitive advantages in consulting: see also “One of the Open Secrets of Grant Writing and Grant Writers: Reading.” I think attention control is an increasingly valuable job market skill; most of the programmers I know speak of it reverently too.

* Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi review – the global war on terror has found its true witness. We have seen the monsters and many are already inside the castle.

* “For the love of God, rich people, stop giving Ivy League colleges money.” The words “diminishing returns” aren’t used explicitly but are implied throughout.

* Adjunct teaching: “Treadmill to Oblivion.” Short version: Don’t go to grad school. But if you read this blog you should already know that.

Briefly noted: Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation — Laura Kipnis

Men is charming but inessential; like many essay collections it is better taken from a library than bought, though I bought and resold my copy. That being said the essays within were detailed, thoughtful, good on a sentence-by-sentence level, and made me re-evaluate almost of all of the subjects (like Larry Flynt or a movie I’d never heard of: House of Games.

The Flynt essay shows Kipnis being thoughtful and non-dogmatic:

[Hustler] was also far less entrenched in misogyny than I’d assumed. What it’s against isn’t women so much as sexual repression, which includes conventional uptight femininity, though within its pages, not everyone who’s sexually repressed, uptight and feminine is necessarily female: prissy men were frequently in the crosshairs too. In fact, Hustler was often surprisingly dubious about the status of men, not to mention their power and potency […]

men_kipnisThe ending of the essay is also excellent for reasons I’d rather not spoil: if John McPhee read this sort of thing, I could imagine him smile.

House of Games is not as visually compelling as it should be; the movie is ripe for a remaking because Kipnis is right about the script, and, as she says (perhaps without fully appreciating it):

Every woman adores a con man—to steal a page from Sylvia Plath. Especially one who knows you better than you know yourself, who looks into your eyes and reads your dirty secret desires, who knows what a bad girl you really are under the prim professional facade, and then takes you for everything.

Is it true? Maybe, for some values of “truth.” That said, not all of the sentences are true: “As we know, modern market societies require ambition, because they’re premised on social mobility, which is essential to a flourishing democracy.” All of those clauses are untrue: we don’t know what the sentence says we know; market societies don’t require ambition (they may sometimes reward the unambitious with a quasi-basic income, allowing them to do other things) and are based on giving people what they want, and democracy doesn’t necessarily mandate market societies, at least in theory. Most people, however, want More (defining “More” broadly), and democracies attempt on some level to give people what they want.

Like so many culture writers Kipnis is missing evolutionary biology, and the addition of it would make her even less politically palatable to the chattering set (already her essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” at the link and included in the collection, is accurate and contrary to Right Thinking and therefore all the more despised).

Kipnis complains about clichés, which is a good sign, but she’s still willing to use the word “problematic” (5), which is a bad sign. But the rest of the book is fun enough to make the bad sign ignorable.

Novelty, art, business

“[T]he most important task in business—the creation of new value—cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals,” as Thiel says in Zero to One, which, if you haven’t read it, you should stop reading this post and go read it instead. Read properly it’s about art as much as business. The most important task in art may also explain why art schools bother us (sample: “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.?“): they take what might be successful master-apprentice relationships and make them professional—that is, more like consultants than like artists. Maybe the best consultants are artists.

There’s more evidence for this: Genre writers often bother literary writers, perhaps because genre writers tend to execute a formula rather than innovate (the word “tend” is key here). If genre writers do come up with a new formula, they tend to iterate on that formula rather than seeking to discover a whole new one; while this might be admired in science and to some extent business it rarely is by artists, who often value noble, large-scale failure over commercial success. It’s easier to scorn what people want than it is to give them what they want, or make what they want.

Many writers of literary fiction are attempting to be novel, though I would argue that most attempts, even those that are highly praised, are actually bad. They may be bad in a way likely to provide tenure for future English professors, but the badness remains, and it isn’t clear that MFA and related programs help inculcate the idea that the most important task is the creation of new value, which by definition can’t be foreseen ahead of time. If someone foresaw it, they would execute, and the value would be there. Unpredictability may also be why so many artistic careers are difficult: you don’t know if you’re really creating value until it’s too late. Efforts at standardization are futile. Value may not even be recognized in your lifetime. You really are Sisyphus. When I first read the core part of The Myth of Sisphyus, in high school, I thought it stupid, yet it remains with me because it touches something at the core of not just art but life.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote, “although we are always surrounded by our creations, there is something profoundly mysterious about the creative process.” That mystery exists across fields.

%d bloggers like this: