Life: The joy of walks edition

The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub; in fact, the original ‘eureka’ moment—Archimedes hitting upon a way of measuring the volume of irregular shapes—occurred in a bathtub.) The shower or stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn’t I think of that before.

—Steven Berlin Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

One danger of  cell phones might be the way they keep you immersed in “the task-based focus of modern life,” at least if you let them; Johnson wrote Where Good Ideas Come From in 2010, and at the time smartphones weren’t ubiquitous.

The Steve Jobs Biography

Like everyone else, I started Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography today. It’s wonderful. In the first pages, Isaacson gives a sense of how Jobs both viewed himself and was viewed in his place at Apple: “When he was restored to the throne at Apple [. . . .]” How many companies could see their CEOs as occupying thrones? Almost no one has or had the medieval level of control Jobs did over Apple. But he didn’t exercise that control capriciously: he used it to make things people want. Lower on the same page, Isaacson describes his unwillingness to write on Jobs at first, but he says that he “found myself gathering string on the subject” of Apple’s early history. “Gathering string:” it’s something I do all the time, using the methods Steven Berlin Johnson describes in this essay about DevonThink Pro. One imagines the string eventually being knit into a sweater, but first one has to have the material.

A page later, Isaacson says “The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences combine in one strong personality was the topic that most interested me in my biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century.” By now, such an assertion is almost banal, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right and doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be asserted. Whenever you hear someone creating the false binary C. P. Snow discusses deconstructs in Two Cultures, point them to Jobs, who is merely the most salient example of why there aren’t two or more cultures—there’s one. You can call it creative, innovative, human-centered, discovery-oriented, bound by makers, or any number of other descriptions, but it’s there. It’s not just “a key to creating innovative economies in the twenty-first century,” either. It’s a key to being.

One more impression: while discussing the Apple II and the role of marketing guy Mike Markkula, Isaac describes the three principles Markkula adopts: “empathy,” “focus,” and, most interesting to this discussion, the “awkwardly named [. . .] impute.” The last principle “emphasized that people form an opinion about a company or product based on the signals that it conveys. ‘People DO judge a book by its cover,’ he wrote.” He’s right, and that brings up this book as a physical object: it’s beautiful. A single black and white picture of Jobs as an older man, still look vaguely like a rapscallion, dominates the cover. Another picture of him, this time as a younger man, dominates the back. The pages themselves are very white, and the paper quality is high; ink doesn’t bleed through easily, and the paper resists feathering. Jobs agreed not to meddle with the text; Isaacson says “He didn’t seek any control over what I wrote.” But he did meddle around the text, however: “His only involvement came when my publisher was choosing the cover art. When he saw an early version of a proposed covert treatment, he disliked it so much that he asked to have input in designing a new version. I was both amused and willing, so I readily assented.”

Good. I wonder if Jobs had “input” in the paper quality too. Sometimes I wonder if publishers are themselves trying to encourage people to adopt eBooks through the use of lousy paper stock and spines in books, especially hardcovers. Take Steven Berlin Johnson’s excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From. The cover is black, with yellow text shaped like a lightbulb. Excellent design. But the pages themselves are a brownish gray, like newsprint, and the glued binding feels flimsy. The paperback is probably worse. It’s not the kind of book one would imagine Steve Jobs allowing, but the state of Johnson’s book as a physical object indicates what publishers value: cutting corners, making things cheap, and subtly conveying to readers that the publisher doesn’t care enough to make it good.

Publishers, in other words, are ruled by accountants who probably say that you can save $.15 per book by using worse paper. Apple was ruled by a megalomaniac with a persnickety attention to detail. People love Apple. No one, not even authors, love publishers. The reasons are legion, but when I think about what a lot of recent books “impute” to the reader, I think about how Steve Jobs would make them do it differently if he could. If you’re reading this in the distant future, the idea of reading words printed on dead trees is probably as strange to you as riding a carriage would be to me, but for now it matters. And, more importantly, I think books will continue to exist as physical art objects as well as repositories for knowledge as long as the Jobs and Isaacsons of the world make them.

I’m not far into the biography and feel the call of other responsibilities. But I leave Steve Jobs reluctantly, which happens to too few books of any genre. And I have a feeling that thirty years from now I’ll be reading an interview with some inventor or captain of industry who cites Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs as inspirations in whatever that inventor accomplishes.

Innovation You — Jeff DeGraff

I started Innovation You because of this Arnold Kling post. Suggestion: read his post and this one instead of the whole book. If you’re interested in how innovation and ideas work, try Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Derek Sivers’ Anything You Want. They cover similar territory infinitely better. DeGraff asks a lot of questions that feel absurd and obvious at the same time, like, “How do you innovate you?” The answer is obvious: read, write, try new things. If you don’t know how to do that, there might be no hope for you. Or very little hope.

So little hope that you’d be like a student I had who I’ll call “Sarah.” She didn’t know what to write her second paper on, so she came to my office hours for help. This isn’t at all uncommon and is exactly what you, if you’re a student, should do, and if you’re one of my students who happens to be reading this, make sure you do come to office hours. Anyway, Sarah didn’t know what to write about, so I asked if she liked anything we’d read. No. Okay, did she like anything we read in the first unit? No. What classes was she taking? It was something like business, econ, a humanities class. Did she like any of them? No. What did she like? She didn’t know—shopping, hanging out with friends. What was important to her? Getting a job when she graduated, her family. How was she going to get a job if she didn’t like any of her classes? She didn’t know. I backpedalled: almost all my assignment sheets include a caveat that, if you’d like to write about a book of your own choosing, you can as long as you clear it with me first (this is to weed out the people who want to write about Twilight or self-help books or things like that). I suggested that she use that option and write on a book of her own choosing. Sarah’s response: “I have no books.” That’s a direct quote. Mind you, this is on a university campus with a giant library and equally giant bookstore. She was beyond my help; I think she’s the only student who’s come into office hours who I’ve been utterly unable to assist.

Sarah might be helped by Innovation You.

DeGraff says things like, “These days, people from all walks of life come to me for individual guidance. Who am I?” Fortunately, the question of “Who am I?” is a very contemporary one, like asking, “Should I get the iPhone with less storage space or pay for more?”, and it has no history or background whatsoever. If you’re the kind of person who smacks your head and says, ” ‘Who am I?’ is a question I’ve never thought to ask before!”, this book is for you. It has lots of very short stories that reduce people to pawns. Don’t read this book, though there are some worthwhile bits. Here’s one, where DeGraff describes a woman who kept looking for a synagogue like the one she went to as a child and not finding one that met her standards, whatever those might be, because

She was evaluating and criticizing, not creating. She reminded me of certain older, unmarried people I’ve known who decide later in life that they want a spouse after all. They are experts at going on dates and evaluating what’s wrong with every possible candidate. And they’re right—there’s something wrong with everyone. We’re human. But we’re worthwhile anyway. People don’t marry when they’ve found perfection because there is no perfection. They marry wen they’ve found someone they love whose faults they can accept, and who can accept their faults in return. {DeGraff “You”@34}

Very true. It’s a lot of what Lori Gottlieb says in Marry Him! (link goes to a Megan McArdle discussion of said book). A lot of what DeGraff says is said better in other books. Here are the other two quotes worth going in Devonthink Pro:

“Most of the distractions and wasted time in your life tend to be created by a small number of distracting, wasteful people. So today, many of us focus on trying to do more for the most important clients or customers and to avoid whoever is wasteful or doesn’t show results” {DeGraff “You”@42}.

We also avoid a small number of behaviors, like obsessively checking e-mail. And:

“At a personal level, almost anyone you know will tell you that they are overly busy and overly stressed, but who controls that? The person saying so. So we suffer our ‘do it all’ mentality and inadvertently create a melange of mediocrity. Trying to have it all, all at the same time, is at best difficult, and, at worst, destructive” {DeGraff “You”@89}.

Congrats. I’ve now saved you from spending the $6 (Amazon used) or $14 (Amazon new) that you might otherwise have spent, because you’ve got almost all the book’s contentful sections in a handful of quotes. If you’re wondering how to live your life, read the epiphany posts at Hacker News and you’ll get basically the same thing.

Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas

Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk has one of those mandatory “Why I Blog” posts, but it’s unusually good and also increasingly describes my own feeling toward the genre. Jeff says:

There is a painful non-convexity in academic research. Only really good ideas are worth pursuing but it takes a lot of investment to find out whether any given idea is going to be really good. Usually you spend a lot of time doing some preliminary thinking just to prove to yourself that this idea is not good enough to turn into a full-fledged paper.

He’s right, but it’s hard to say which of the 100 preliminary ideas one might have over a couple of months “are worth pursuing.” Usually the answer is, “not very many.” So writing blog posts becomes a way of exploring those ideas without committing to attempting to write a full paper.

But to me, the other important part is that blogs often fill in my preliminary thinking, especially in subjects outside my field. I’m starting my third year of grad school in English lit at the University of Arizona and may write my dissertation about signaling and status in novels. My interest in the issue arose partially because of Robin Hanson’s relentless focus on signaling in Overcoming Bias, which got me thinking about how this subject works now.

The “big paper” I’m working on deals with academic novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which I’ve written about in a preliminary fashion—for Straight Man, a very preliminary fashion). Status issues are omnipresent in academia, as every academic knows, and as a result one can trace my reading of Overcoming Bias to my attention to status to my attention to theoretical and practical aspects of status in these books (there’s some other stuff going on here too, like an interest in evolutionary biology that predates reading Overcoming Bias, but I’ll leave that out for now).

Others have contributed too: I think I learned about Codes of the Underworld from an econ blog. It offers an obvious way to help interpret novels like those by Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, and other crime / caper writers who deal with characters who need to convincingly signal to others that they’re available for crime but also need not to be caught by police, and so forth.

In the meantime, from what I can discern from following some journals on the novel and American lit, virtually no English professors I’ve found are using these kinds of methods. They’re mostly wrapped up in the standard forms of English criticism, literary theory, and debate. Those forms are very good, of course, but I’d like to go in other directions as well, and one way I’ve learned about alternative directions is through reading blogs. To my knowledge no one else has developed a complete theory of how signaling and status work in fiction, even though you could call novels long prose works in which characters signal their status to other characters, themselves, and the reader.

So I’m working on that. I’ve got some leads, like William Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction and Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, but the field looks mostly open at the moment. Part of the reason I’ve been able to conceptualize the field is because I’ve started many threads through this blog and frequently read the blogs of others. If Steven Berlin Johnson is right about where good ideas come from, then I’ve been doing the right kinds of things without consciously realizing it until now. And I only have thanks to Jeff Ely’s Cheap Talk—it took a blog to create the nascent idea about why blogging is valuable, how different fields contribute to my own major interests, and how ideas form.

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Berlin Johnson's new book

I already pre-ordered Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, but if I hadn’t, this video would have convinced me to:

Sounds like an excellent complement to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, since both are about structuring lives and minds are ideas and their implementation. This is an obvious topic of interest to novelists and academics, since both require a) lots of ideas and b) even more implementation of those ideas.

One thing I’ll be watching for closely in the book: around minute 3:30, the video says that the Internet isn’t going to make us more distracted in a bad way—it will make us more interconnected so that hunches and combine into ideas faster. That implies Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is mostly wrong, which is an argument I’m skeptical about: I suspect that we need a combination of quiet, contemplative space of the sort the Internet is driving out along with the combination of ideas that originate from various sources. If one side becomes too lopsided, the creativity equation fails.

To be sure, it’s unwise to judge a book before reading it, and I want to see how the debate plays out.

Regular readers probably already know Johnson through my repeated references to his essay Tool for Thought, which is about Devonthink Pro and changed the way I work. I regularly tell my better students as well as friends to read this essay and use DTP in the way Johnson describes if they’re at all interested in ideas and writing.

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book

I already pre-ordered Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, but if I hadn’t, this video would have convinced me to:

Sounds like an excellent complement to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, since both are about structuring lives and minds are ideas and their implementation. This is an obvious topic of interest to novelists and academics, since both require a) lots of ideas and b) even more implementation of those ideas.

One thing I’ll be watching for closely in the book: around minute 3:30, the video says that the Internet isn’t going to make us more distracted in a bad way—it will make us more interconnected so that hunches and combine into ideas faster. That implies Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows is mostly wrong, which is an argument I’m skeptical about: I suspect that we need a combination of quiet, contemplative space of the sort the Internet is driving out along with the combination of ideas that originate from various sources. If one side becomes too lopsided, the creativity equation fails.

To be sure, it’s unwise to judge a book before reading it, and I want to see how the debate plays out.

Regular readers probably already know Johnson through my repeated references to his essay Tool for Thought, which is about Devonthink Pro and changed the way I work. I regularly tell my better students as well as friends to read this essay and use DTP in the way Johnson describes if they’re at all interested in ideas and writing.

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