Really late January 2012 links: Innovation, undergrads, TSA, Updike, the evils of JSTOR, and more

* This is our national identity crisis in a nutshell: Do we want government spending half its money on redistribution and military, or re-dedicating itself to science, infrastructure, and health research?

Do STEM Faculties Want Undegratuates To Study STEM Fields?

* “This might seem a small thing — hey, so what if these foreign jet-setters endure some hassle? — but I think it is emblematic of some cumulatively larger issues. Americans are habituated to griping about our airports and airlines, but I sense that people haven’t internalized how comparatively backward and unpleasant this part of our “modern” infrastructure has become.”

* “The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life.

* Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR Imprisons Academic Research.

* Rabbit at Rest: The bizarre and misguided critical assault on John Updike’s reputation. I suspect there are a couple of things going on:

1) His fiction isn’t easily categorizable, so you can’t lump him in and say he’s part of group X: hysterical realism, postmodernism, whatever.

2) Many of his novels don’t have much plot, so non-academic readers aren’t likely to love him as much as academic writers.

3) When he began writing, explicit sex was rare, or relatively rare, in fiction; now that it’s common, some of the tension in his earlier books is absent for contemporary readers.

4) You can read Updike and figure out who’s speaking and where a scene is occurring, which isn’t fashionable in some literary circles and hasn’t been for a long time.

5) I suspect most average readers would prefer Robertson Davies to Updike, yet Davies is barely known in the United States or anywhere outside Canada; I think over time Updike will share his fate.

* On programmers:

Formal logical proofs, and therefore programs—formal logical proofs that particular computations are possible, expressed in a formal system called a programming language—are utterly meaningless. To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept that whatever you might want the program to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and come to some meaningless conclusion. In the test the consistent group showed a pre-acceptance of this fact: they are capable of seeing mathematical calculation problems in terms of rules, and can follow those rules wheresoever they may lead. The inconsistent group, on the other hand, looks for meaning where it is not. The blank group knows that it is looking at meaninglessness, and refuses to deal with it.

The “inconsistent group” sounds like many of the humanities grad students and profs I know.

* “In the high-rise offices of the big publishers, with their crowded bookshelves and resplendent views, the reaction to Amazon’s move is analogous to the screech of a small woodland creature being pursued by a jungle predator.

* The Business Rusch: Readers:

When I started, it wasn’t possible to make a living as a self-published writer. It is now. In fact, weirdly, you can make more money as a self-published writer than you ever could as a midlist writer—and in some cases, more than you could make as a bestselling writer.

Honestly, I find that astounding. This change has happened in just the past few years. A number of readers of this blog have commented on how fun it’s been to watch my attitudes change toward self- and indie-publishing. I’m still educating myself on all of this, and I’m still astonished by some things that I learn.

This might be me, shortly.

* “Students aspiring to technical majors (science/mathematics/engineering) were more likely than other students to report a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder (p = 0.037). Conversely, students interested in the humanities were more likely to report a family member with major depressive disorder (p = 8.8×10−4), bipolar disorder (p = 0.027), or substance abuse problems (p = 1.9×10−6).”

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* A Company Built on a Crisper Gin and Tonic: The quest for a better G&T led Jordan Silbert to start beverage company Q Tonic.

* “If I were a zombie, I’d never eat your brain / I’d just want your heart.”

Why we need the third way: “What Are You Going to Do With That” and the need for imagination

In “What Are You Going to Do With That?,” William Deresiewicz tells the freshmen class at Stanford:

In the journey toward the success that you all hope to achieve, you have completed, by getting into Stanford, only the first of many legs. Three more years of college, three or four or five years of law school or medical school or a Ph.D. program, then residencies or postdocs or years as a junior associate. In short, an ever-narrowing funnel of specialization. You go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry. You go from being a biochemistry major to being a doctor to being a cardiologist to being a cardiac surgeon who performs heart-valve replacements.

But he goes on to point out why and how these kinds of defined professional paths—the ones high school and college students students are so often told constitute “success”—might not be optimal, for either the person on the path or society in general. If you “simply go with the flow,” you can end up merely being defined by what someone else has laid out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Deresiewicz goes on to say, “There is an alternative.” He calls it “moral imagination” and defines it this way: “Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.” I would call it something else: the “third way.”

Deresiewicz’s essay shows why we need more talk about the third way: there are more options out there than further advanced schooling. Stanford in particular is a good place to be reminded of this. Obviously, Deresiewicz doesn’t say you must choose grad school or the professions, but the absence of any acknowledgement about starting your own company implies that those are the two primary choices.

I’ve had similar talk. In my interview with him, Tucker Max describes the primary speech he gives at colleges:

[. . . W]hen you’re an undergrad, generally you think you can do two things. You’re gonna have to get a job after you graduate or you gotta go do more school. Because everyone who’s giving you advice or telling you how to live your life are people who’ve done one of those two things.

He describes a “third way,” with his two normal paths defined a lot like Deresiewicz’s, but in a lower register:

You don’t generally have anyone in your life who has gone out on their own and done something entrepreneurial or done something artistic or truly risky or truly taken the path less traveled, because those people [. . .] don’t work in academics. And don’t become cubicle monkeys. So what I try and explain in my speeches is that there’s a third way. Because a lot of people—I think most people—want to do something besides those two things.

A lot of people want to do something else, but that something else is, in some ways, harder to do than the normal path. Yet the people who go the third way often talk about it as being more satisfying, and the people who go the “two paths” often speak wistfully of the third—despite the difficulty one is likely to encounter. A friend wrote this to me: “I know for a fact that I’d hate [Tucker] Max’s writing, but he’s dead right about how few students are aware that they can do something artistic or creative or entrepreneurial.” Too few students are aware of this—and too few people in general are. You can consider this post a very small step in the direction of increasing awareness.

So far I’ve noted two examples. Paul Graham talks about the problem of standard paths too, in “A Student’s Guide to Startups:” “Till recently graduating seniors had two choices: get a job or go to grad school. I think there will increasingly be a third option: to start your own startup.” His answer is more defined than Deresiewicz’s or Max’s, but the very language he uses is similar. But he’s also got a way of generating the “third way” by funding startups. Instead of merely telling people to find one, he’s creating a third way for people to flow, which might be the most valuable contribution of all, at least for the technically inclined.

I think all three of these disparate writers—Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham—are pointing to a more fundamental need for the imagination necessary to exit the obvious paths that so often end up going nowhere. Of the three, Graham has done the most to institutionalize this process and make it available for others by starting Y Combinator. Max has probably done the most to be a living embodiment of an unusual third way. Deresiewicz is pointing to the possibility from within the way of a well-defined path (and the same one I’m one) from undergrad to graduate school to being a professor. Taken together, they diagnose and offer treatment for the same malady that can’t quite be identified yet comes from so many sources and has so many symptoms: Dilbert, cubicles, malaise, ennui, florescent lights, midlife crises, 20-somethings with advanced degrees working as baristas, waiters, or bartenders, essay writers.

Artistic or creative activities don’t usually come prepackaged in convenient jobs that get handed to college graduates. They get created by people who are artistic and creative, who find a way to turn what they want to do, or their inchoate ideas, into something greater than the idea itself. The “inchoate idea” is important: I suspect most people don’t entirely know what they’re doing when they find a third way. Steven Berlin Johnson has a term for this in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation: the slow hunch. This happens when something that you’ve been gnawing on slowly develops over time. Johnson describes it much more fully, of course, but a lot of my ideas in writing novels or academic work comes from slow hunches. Writing fiction isn’t an activity that really comes packaged in convenient job form: it is made by each practitioner individually. People who succeed as writers sometimes do so not through conventional publishing, but through alternate ways—as Max did with his website, or as J.A. Konrath apparently does with his blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.”

Like Deresiewicz and Max, I don’t really have a solution to the problem other than to encourage you to think imaginatively. But who’s against thinking imaginatively? Partners are probably telling their third-year associates the same thing, even as the associates put in soul-killing seventy hours weeks under those menacing florescent lights. The other part of my solution is to be aware of the problem. I’ll also channel Graham in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and encourage you to stay upwind:

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.

Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, you can’t fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind.

“Work on things that interest you and increase your options:” the target of Graham’s essay is nominally high school students, but it’s applicable to a much broader swath of people. Maybe you’re one. If so, however, you’ll probably read this and then go back to filling out those TPS reports. Or maybe you’ll be one of the very rare people who realize there is no speed limit and react appropriately. At least you can’t say that no one told you. At least three people have: Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham. Four if you count me, writing a meta essay.

Why we need the third way: "What Are You Going to Do With That" and the need for imagination

In “What Are You Going to Do With That?,” William Deresiewicz tells the freshmen class at Stanford:

In the journey toward the success that you all hope to achieve, you have completed, by getting into Stanford, only the first of many legs. Three more years of college, three or four or five years of law school or medical school or a Ph.D. program, then residencies or postdocs or years as a junior associate. In short, an ever-narrowing funnel of specialization. You go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry. You go from being a biochemistry major to being a doctor to being a cardiologist to being a cardiac surgeon who performs heart-valve replacements.

But he goes on to point out why and how these kinds of defined professional paths—the ones high school and college students students are so often told constitute “success”—might not be optimal, for either the person on the path or society in general. If you “simply go with the flow,” you can end up merely being defined by what someone else has laid out. Perhaps not surprisingly, Deresiewicz goes on to say, “There is an alternative.” He calls it “moral imagination” and defines it this way: “Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.” I would call it something else: the “third way.”

Deresiewicz’s essay shows why we need more talk about the third way: there are more options out there than further advanced schooling. Stanford in particular is a good place to be reminded of this. Obviously, Deresiewicz doesn’t say you must choose grad school or the professions, but the absence of any acknowledgement about starting your own company implies that those are the two primary choices.

I’ve similar talk. In my interview with him, Tucker Max describes the primary speech he gives at colleges:

[. . . W]hen you’re an undergrad, generally you think you can do two things. You’re gonna have to get a job after you graduate or you gotta go do more school. Because everyone who’s giving you advice or telling you how to live your life are people who’ve done one of those two things.

He describes a “third way,” with his two normal paths defined a lot like Deresiewicz’s, but in a lower register:

You don’t generally have anyone in your life who has gone out on their own and done something entrepreneurial or done something artistic or truly risky or truly taken the path less traveled, because those people [. . .] don’t work in academics. And don’t become cubicle monkeys. So what I try and explain in my speeches is that there’s a third way. Because a lot of people—I think most people—want to do something besides those two things.

A lot of people want to do something else, but that something else is, in some ways, harder to do than the normal path. Yet the people who go the third way often talk about it as being more satisfying, and the people who go the “two paths” often speak wistfully of the third—despite the difficulty one is likely to encounter. A friend wrote this to me: “I know for a fact that I’d hate [Tucker] Max’s writing, but he’s dead right about how few students are aware that they can do something artistic or creative or entrepreneurial.” Too few students are aware of this—and too few people in general are. You can consider this post a very small step in the direction of increasing awareness.

So far I’ve noted two examples. Paul Graham talks about the problem of standard paths too, in “A Student’s Guide to Startups:” “Till recently graduating seniors had two choices: get a job or go to grad school. I think there will increasingly be a third option: to start your own startup.” His answer is more defined than Deresiewicz’s or Max’s, but the very language he uses is similar. But he’s also got a way of generating the “third way” by funding startups. Instead of merely telling people to find one, he’s creating a third way for people to flow, which might be the most valuable contribution of all, at least for the technically inclined.

I think all three of these disparate writers—Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham—are pointing to a more fundamental need for the imagination necessary to exit the obvious paths that so often end up going nowhere. Of the three, Graham has done the most to institutionalize this process and make it available for others by starting Y Combinator. Max has probably done the most to be a living embodiment of an unusual third way. Deresiewicz is pointing to the possibility from within the way of a well-defined path (and the same one I’m one) from undergrad to graduate school to being a professor. Taken together, they diagnose and offer treatment for the same malady that can’t quite be identified yet comes from so many sources and has so many symptoms: Dilbert, cubicles, malaise, ennui, florescent lights, midlife crises, 20-somethings with advanced degrees working as baristas, waiters, or bartenders, essay writers.

Artistic or creative activities don’t usually come prepackaged in convenient jobs that get handed to college graduates. They get created by people who are artistic and creative, who find a way to turn what they want to do, or their inchoate ideas, into something greater than the idea itself. The “inchoate idea” is important: I suspect most people don’t entirely know what they’re doing when they find a third way. Steven Berlin Johnson has a term for this in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation: the slow hunch. This happens when something that you’ve been gnawing on slowly develops over time. Johnson describes it much more fully, of course, but a lot of my ideas in writing novels or academic work comes from slow hunches. Writing fiction isn’t an activity that really comes packaged in convenient job form: it is made by each practitioner individually. People who succeed as writers sometimes do so not through conventional publishing, but through alternate ways—as Max did with his website, or as J.A. Konrath apparently does with his blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.”

Like Deresiewicz and Max, I don’t really have a solution to the problem other than to encourage you to think imaginatively. But who’s against thinking imaginatively? Partners are probably telling their third-year associates the same thing, even as the associates put in soul-killing seventy hours weeks under those menacing florescent lights. The other part of my solution is to be aware of the problem. I’ll also channel Graham in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known” and encourage you to stay upwind:

In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.

It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.

Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.

Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn’t have an engine, you can’t fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind.

“Work on things that interest you and increase your options:” the target of Graham’s essay is nominally high school students, but it’s applicable to a much broader swath of people. Maybe you’re one. If so, however, you’ll probably read this and then go back to filling out those TPS reports. Or maybe you’ll be one of the very rare people who realize there is no speed limit and react appropriately. At least you can’t say that no one told you. At least three people have: Deresiewicz, Max, and Graham. Four if you count me, writing a meta essay.

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