Six Easy Pieces (Modern Library Nonfiction #88)

(This is the thirteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)

mlnf88Richard Feynman, exuberant Nobel laureate and formidable quantum mechanics man, may have been energetic in his lectures and innovatively performative in the classroom, but I’m not sure he was quite the great teacher that many have pegged him to be. James Gleick’s biography Genius informs us that students dropped out of his high-octane, info-rich undergraduate physics classes at a remarkable rate, replaced by Caltech faculty members and grad students who took to the Queens-born superstar much like baryons make up the visible matter of the universe. The extent to which Feynman was aware of this cosmic shift has been disputed by his chroniclers, but it is important to be aware of this shortcoming, especially if you’re bold enough to dive into the famed three volume Feynman Lectures on Physics, which are all thankfully available online. Six Easy Pieces represents an abridged version of Feynman’s full pedagogical oeuvre. And even though the many YouTube videos of Feynman reveal an undeniably magnetic and indefatigably passionate man of science who must have been an incredible dynamo to experience in person, one wonders whether barraging a hot room of young nervous twentysomethings with hastily delivered information is the right way to popularize science, much less inspire a formidable army of physicists.

Watch even a few minutes of Feynman firing on all his robust cylinders and it becomes glaringly apparent how difficult it is to contend with Feynman’s teaching legacy in book form. One wonders why the Modern Library nonfiction judges, who were keen to unknowingly bombard this devoted reader with such massive multivolume works as The Golden Bough, Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time, and Principia Mathematica, didn’t give this spot to the full three volume Lectures. Did they view Feynman’s complete lesson plan as failed?

Judging from the sextet that I sampled in this deceptively slim volume, I would say that, while Feynman was undeniably brilliant, he was, like many geniuses, someone who often got lost within his own metaphors. While his analogy of two corks floating in a pool of water, with one cork jiggling in place to create motion in the pool that causes indirect motion for the other cork, is a tremendously useful method of conveying the “unseen” waves of the electromagnetic field (one that galvanized me to do the same in a saucepan after I had finished two bottles of wine over a week and a half), he is not nearly on-the-nose with his other analogies. The weakest lesson in the book, “Conservation on Energy,” trots out what seems to be a reliably populist metaphor with a child named “Dennis the Menace” playing with 28 blocks, somehow always ending up with 28 of these at the end of the day. Because Feynman wants to illustrate conservational constants, he shoehorns another element to the narrative whereby Dennis’s mother is, for no apparent reason, not allowed to open up the toy box revealing the number of blocks and thus must calculate how many blocks reside within. The mother has conveniently weighed the box at some unspecified time in advance back when it contained all 28 blocks.

This is bad teaching, in large part because it is bad storytelling that makes no sense. I became less interested in conservation of energy, with Feynman’s convoluted parallel clearly becoming more trouble than it was worth, and more interested in knowing why the mother was so fixated on remembering the number of blocks. Was she truly so starved for activity in her life that she spent all day at work avoiding all the juicy water cooler gossip about co-workers, much less kvetching about the boss, so that she might scheme a plan to at long last show her son that she would always know the weight of a single block? When Dennis showed resistance to opening the toy box, why didn’t the mother stand her ground and tell him to buzz off and stream an episode of Project Mc²?

Yet for all these defects in method, there is an indisputable poetic beauty in the way in which Feynman reminds us that we live in a vast world composed of limitless particles, a world in which we still aren’t aware of all the rules and in which even the particles contained within solids remain “fixed” in motion. Our universe is always moving, even when we can’t see it or completely comprehend it. Feynman is quick to observe throughout his lessons that “The test of all knowledge is experiment,” which again points to my theory that Feynman’s teachings, often accentuated by experiment, were probably better experienced than read. Nevertheless, even in book form, it is truly awe-inspiring to understand that we can still not accurately predict the precise mass, form, and force of all the cascading droplets from a mighty river once it hits the precipice of a waterfall. Such mysteries capture our imagination and, when Feynman is committed to encouraging our inventiveness through open and clear-eyed examples from our world, he is very much on point. Thanks in part to Feynman reminding me just how little we silly humans now know, I began to feel my heart open more for Tycho Brahe, that poor Dane who spent many years of his life refining Copernicus’s details and determining the elliptical patterns of planetary orbits. Brahe worked out his calculations entirely without a telescope, which allowed Johannes Kepler to sift through his invaluable measurements and forge laws that all contemporary astronomers now rely on to determine where a planet might be in the sky on any given night of the year. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle hasn’t even been around a century and it’s nothing less than astounding to consider how our great grandparents had a completely different understanding of atoms and motion in their early lifetime than we do today.

Feynman did have me wanting to know more about the origins of many scientific discoveries, causing me to contemplate how each and every dawning realization altered human existence (an inevitable buildup for Thomas Kuhn and paradigms, which I will take up in ML Nonfiction #69). But unlike such contemporary scientists as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alan Guth, or Brian Greene, Feynman did not especially inspire me to plunge broadly into my own experiments or make any further attempts to grapple with physics-based complexities. This may very well be more my failing than Feynman’s, but there shall be many more stabs at science as we carry on with this massive reading endeavor!

Next Up: G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology!

Frank Partnoy (The Bat Segundo Show)

Frank Partnoy appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #468. He is most recently the author of Wait.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Impatient for a pause.

Author: Frank Partnoy

Subjects Discussed: Perception of time, Walter Clark, pauses and authenticity, Jon Stewart’s 20 second pause in response to Sarah Palin’s “squirmish,” This American Life, Christian Marclay’s The Clock, “Kristen Schaal is a horse,” Tao Lin’s use of repetition, John Boyd’s OODA loop, whether a military strategist’s ideas are entirely applicable to dating, how delay persuades us in other context, the first date as a military tactic, lunch-oriented dating services, making bad snap decisions because of a photo, panic and fast talking, being aware of your audience when talking, the Einstellung effect, Peter McLeod’s experiments with chess players, the three move checkmate, how even chess masters get stuck in the muck, the dangers of being overconfident, unemployment, Sarkozy’s failed efforts to readjust the GDP to help long-term economic impact, readjusting human attention from the short-term solution, cognitive bias, subliminal messages, how fast food logos help to read, SAnford DeVoe’s experiments, racist treatment decisions from doctors, the unanticipated advantages of a spare second, the effects of wealth upon happiness, finding another activity while waiting, viewing time as more scarce and impatience, when scientific developments are at odds with capitalist realities, the downside of success, procrastination, subliminal messages within the film Fight Club, topless women in The Rescuers, when people are vulnerable to subliminal messages, the invention of the Post-It, the advantage of fresh eyes, Archimedes and Newton, Arthur Fry, thin slicing and the Malcolm Gladwell reductionist incarnation of this idea now welcomed by marketing people, Dr. Phil’s incorrect use of thin slicing, and why thin slicing isn’t two seconds according to the studies.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s start off with panic, which seems a very good thing to start off with. Panic, as you say, has much to do with our perception of time. You bring up Walter Clark’s theory — he’s this acting teacher. He says that the best actors are the ones who don’t panic. So how much of our waiting has to do with panic or any other sense of emotional paralysis? How much of our anxieties come from this false comprehension of time? If there’s this correlation between good acting and not panicking, well, I have to ask, Frank, what’s the compromise between being human and being some pretender or some mimic?

Partnoy: Oh, it’s a great question. I’ve learned so much from Walter Clark, who’s one of the best acting coaches I’ve been around. My daughter takes a lot of acting classes. So I’ve learned a lot from him. And I think an acting coach, like somebody who is sophisticated watching a play or a performance, can see through a mimic. You can tell when somebody’s a fake when they’re performing. One of the things that panic does is that it leads people to speed up their performance. So that they run through what the acting coaches call beats. So it’s partly true of acting generally. But it’s especially true of comedy, I think. One of the things that I took away from watching him in action was that a lot of comedy really is about pauses and delays.

Correspondent: Yes.

Partnoy: And understanding the audience and being authentic in your understanding of the audience and figuring out how often to pause. You know, we’re talking right now. We’ve just met each other, right? And we’re sort of watching each other and having this conversation.

Correspondent: And you’re a total phony.

Partnoy: Yeah. Sorry.

Correspondent: Or are you? Maybe I’m the total phony. Who knows? Maybe we’re both being phony. I don’t know.

Partnoy: Hopefully we won’t be as we move along.

Correspondent: I think I can trust you so far.

Partnoy: Alright. Likewise. I’m enjoying it so far.

Correspondent: Okay, good.

Partnoy: I’m grabbing my wallet now. But I do think, just when we start having these conversations in our normal lives, even if we’re not acting that there’s a role of the pause and the delay. That just speeding through something 100 miles an hour is not a very effective communication technique. So one of the things I’ve been interested in for a long time is that. I teach law school classes and my students can’t comprehend me if I’m speaking 100 miles an hour. On the other hand, I can speak pretty quickly and they’ll get content down. They’ll write. So it’s this kind of balance back and forth. And when you panic, you speed up. You speed through the pause. One of the things that I’ve been playing with, as I’ve done three years of research now on the book and wrote it, is how long I can get away with pausing. [short pause] So I talk a little bit about Jon Stewart as an example and this extraordinary moment he had in one of his shows where he had captured Sarah Palin questioning some of the Obama military action in Libya and saying she didn’t know what to call this. “We’re not at war. What’s a word for it? I don’t know the word.” And then Sarah Palin uses this non-word “squirmish.” And for me as a speaker, I would have a hard time waiting, pausing more than a couple of seconds, telling a joke and then delaying. My son actually — I have an eight-year-old son — he’s a lot better at telling a joke and then delaying the punchline. So he’ll make up some joke. “A couple of cantaloupe were married. What did they name their daughter?” And then he’ll do a dramatic pause and say, “Melony.” Which is just made up. But he’ll get a laugh where I’m not sure I can do. But Jon Stewart is able to pause for twenty full seconds. I think that must be some kind of a world record for pauses. And he’s just the opposite of panic. He’s utterly fearless with the audience, feeling them out, understanding and being totally authentic, right? I mean, that’s one of the reasons why we love Jon Stewart so much, is that he’s command of timing and gets us and gets what we want and goes through this kind of time framework, which I think is actually very valuable in all the decisions that we make. Which is a two-step process. The first step is: How long can I wait before taking this action and making this decision? What’s the maximum amount of time that I can wait? And then the second step is delaying until that moment. And so in that example, he decided it was going to be twenty seconds. Probably not consciously. Because he’s a a master. And he was able to wait twenty seconds. I could never do that.

Correspondent: Well, since you brought up pauses, I think we should talk about them.

[pause]

Correspondent: You observe that the best radio announcers and interviewers use them.

[pause]

Correspondent: Comedians like Jon Stewart, of course.

[pause]

Correspondent: You can even point to the Mike Daisey pauses in This American Life.

[pauses]

Correspondent: Oh. Am I sort of interfering with the question? I don’t know.

Partnoy: Beautifully done. Masterful.

Correspondent: Actually though, I do want to bring this up. I could even bring the William Shatner pause into this equation. But I’m wondering if how we react to a pause shares much in common with how we react to, say, a loop. There’s this comedy routine — I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it — “Kristen Schaal is a Horse” — where basically it just goes on and on and repeats and repeats. It’s basically this woman dancing and a man clapping and going, “Kristen Schaal is a horse! Kristen Schaal is a horse!” And it goes on and loops for like fifteen minutes. There’s a Tao Lin poem where he constantly says the line “the next night we ate whale.” And there are all sorts of repetitions throughout art and culture and so forth. Does the manner in which we ascribe authority to a pause have much in common with this loop situation?

Partnoy: Oh, that’s a fascinating question. I think so. I mean, loops come up in all sorts of contexts and they relate to time in a very fundamental way, right? There’s — I’ll forget the artist, but there’s the 24 hour loop exhibit that’s out now.

Correspondent: Oh yeah. Christian Marclay’s The Clock.

Partnoy: It’s incredible, right? The Clock, where you’ve got, from various films, depictions of 12:01 and 1:05 sort of cycling around. And there’s something really powerful about the reinforcement of the story. A lot of jokes get funnier as they’re retold. So much so that even comedians, they might not even laugh at the joke, but they’ll just think, “Wow, that was really funny.” And loops come up also in a completely different context, I found in my research. Which is in the military.

Correspondent: Mr. Boyd.

Partnoy: Mr. Boyd, right. John Boyd, probably the greatest fighter pilot in history, who created something called the OODA loop. O-O-D-A, for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. This approach to decision making started in a military context, but now people use it in all areas of life and business. Where you take time and initially you observe. And you orient. You figure out where the enemy is. And then finally you make the decision. And then the decision is the mental part. And the act is the implementation part. And what John Boyd talks about is running through an OODA loop. So going through that cycle of Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act over and over again, watching the jet fighter you’re trying to shoot down to see what that person’s proclivities are — Do they like to faint to the left? Or the right? How fast are they? — to understand and to confuse them too. Which is also interesting. Because I’m not sure whether the art projects or films that we talked about earlier — I’m not sure they’re really meant to confuse. But in the offensive aspects of the OODA loop, part of what John Boyd is suggesting they do is get a speed advantage to confuse the enemy. And the development of the F-16, he was the person who basically created the idea of the F-16 and pushed its development. The kind of aircraft that’s like using a switchblade in a knife fight, that you can use very quickly to confuse and disorient your opponent. So these loops show up. Expertise, if you think about it. Where does expertise come from? It comes from a kind of repeated loop, right? Chess players become experts by learning openings and repeating that over and over and over again and seeing certain patterns. What behavioralists call chunking. Being able, because they’ve been through those loops so many times, to recognize patterns consistently. So it’s a really interesting question. And I think to some extent, these really deep insights and expertise come out of repeated loops as well.

The Bat Segundo Show #468: Frank Partnoy (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Leher appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #448. He is most recently the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Brown-bagging his imaginative faculties.

Author: Jonah Lehrer

Subjects Discussed: Continuum’s development of the Swiffer, Shakespeare, whether creativity that originates from theft is acceptable, Bob Dylan, conceptual blending, efforts to defend aerosol cheese spray, bacon cocktails, Dick Crew, Don Lee, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alex Osborn and brainstorming, Pixar management techniques, Mike Daisey, when storytelling gets in the way of the facts, Milton Glaser and the beginnings of I ♥ NY, the creative possibilities of Benzedrine, WH Auden’s poetry, Angela Duckworth, attempting to make banal chapters, Brian Uzzi and Jarret Spiro’s work involving the Q rating, “Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem,” Y combinator startups and Broadway musicals, not bringing up Stanley Milgram, comparisons between Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell, small world theory and hit plays, Charlan Nemeeth‘s idea of dissent’s relationship to creativity, Lehrer sandwiching dissent and complacency, “Managing Innovation,” Steve Jobs tearing people apart at Pixar, Pixar’s plussing approach, the middle ground between brutal honesty and egalitarianism, Ray Oldenburg and third places, Pixar and Lehrer’s liberties with third places, the Santa Fe Institute, Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt building an equation based on urban variables, why Lehrer placed the Homebrew Community Club into the city-based West/Bettencourt model, Silicon Valley vs. New York, Tom Wolfe, California’s non-compete clause, the Duncker candle problem, functional fixedness, Robert Adamson, leaving the country to solve a problem, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky’s “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers,” why Lehrer doesn’t use the exact nomenclature to describe science, the origin of Post-Its, Lehrer avoiding the term “functional fixedness,” avoiding terms to attract a larger readership, the problems with mashup methods, responding in depth to Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions*, Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight, the fMRI and the insula lighting up, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and being hamstrung by the popular science medium.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You put on the glasses. Have you always worn glasses? Because I noticed that was the new cover photo for this. Whereas before you didn’t have glasses.

Lehrer: Oh, I’ve been blind for a long, long time. Maybe — I forget. Maybe the photographer had me take them off.

Correspondent: They asked you to take them off. I was always curious.

Lehrer: No, no, no.

Correspondent: I didn’t know if it was a new mild-mannered Clark Kent look or…

Lehrer: No, no, no. I can assure you that these glasses actually work. They help me see.

Correspondent: Good. I’m more visible for you. That’s reassuring. Let’s go ahead and get right into it. Your book opens with this story of Continuum observing an elderly woman who is wetting a paper towel and wiping the remaining coffee grounds off of the linoleum as she was cleaning. This, of course, leads to the development of the Swiffer. Near the end of the book, you point out Shakespeare. He had a tendency to comb through the many books he read to find stories that he could use for plays and so forth. So it would seem to me — just to establish some terms from the beginning — that much of your notion of creativity involves the theft of ideas. That if you have financial or intellectual resources and you’re able to go ahead and pluck them from somebody else, then hey! You can be creative! So how is profiting off of another person’s idea a form of creation? Or art? Or what not?

Lehrer: I’m not sure I’d call it straight theft. I think Dylan actually has — I talk a lot about Bob Dylan in the book.

Correspondent: Yes, you do.

Lehrer: And he’s got this wonderful phrase where he describes his process as one of love and theft. That first you fall in love. Whether it’s a Woody Guthrie-style. Whether it’s a Robert Johnson riff. Whether it’s, say, old Irish lullaby from Ireland which you turn into “Blowin’ in the Wind.” So you love it and you love it. And you try and understand it and map out the intricate details and connections and then you steal it. And you make it your own. So this isn’t straight theft. This is, in theory, Shakespeare, who, as you point out, was doing pretty well for himself. He came from very humble beginnings. His father was a glover. He signed his name with a mark. But he did his dad proud and made lots of money. So he didn’t just steal Hamlet. He didn’t just steal the plot for Romeo and Juliet. And he didn’t just steal almost all his plots. Shakespeare did not like inventing his own stories, of course. He made them his own. He reinvented them. I think it’s the same thing Bob Dylan did with that Robert Johnson riff. It’s the same thing Continuum did with watching that elderly lady wipe up the coffee grinds that they actually spilled on her floor. That she didn’t invent the Swiffer. They invented the Swiffer. That triggered an insight which then led them to combine the mop, which they spent nine months studying and realizing that mopping’s a terrible idea. Because you spend more time cleaning the mop than you do the actual floor. And in that, her simple act, I mean, they had all done themselves countless times, simply triggered their breakthrough. So in a sense, I mean, I think you’re right to point out that all creativity involves a theft from somewhere. I think creativity is ultimately just a new connection between old ideas. So you are in the most literal sense thieving ideas which already exist. But the connection itself is new. At least it should be new. If it’s not new, then it actually is straight up theft. And that’s not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

Correspondent: What is the creativity you’re interested in? Because I want to actually distinguish from an elaborate or high-class pickpocket. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah. You know, I think it’s very easy to get lost in lots of circular discussions about how to define creativity. I think creativity, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit like porn. You kind of know it when you see it.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Lehrer: Yeah. Or at least that’s what the Supreme Court says. You know, I think creativity is just the invention of something new. I’m not saying new in some kind of pretend sense. I’m saying something genuinely new which doesn’t exist in the patent office, doesn’t exist in the world, that other people find useful. So that’s as fancy as I get in defining creativity.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get into conceptual blending, which you get into. People exchanging ideas across different disciplines. When you take two concepts and mash them together, which seems applicable to this notion of what is creativity, I mean, it has given us some regrettable and fairly negative ideas. I think that we can both agree that aerosol cheese spray, the car alarm, telemarketing, the Pet Rock.

Lehrer: Yes. Oh come on.

Correspondent: These are things that also come from conceptual blending. So…

Lehrer: Aerosol cheese spray? I’ll go with you on the Pet Rock, but Cheese Whiz? That stuff in the can? That fueled me for much of my childhood.

Correspondent: Yes. “Childhood” being the key.

Lehrer: (laughs)

Correspondent: We’re talking about adulthood.

Lehrer: Okay. Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, we’re talking about ideas that really changed the world. That really have a revolutionary impact. Such as the iPhone or something like that. I mean, you commend Dick Drew as this innovator. And I’m fairly certain that a lot of terrible ideas have also come from 3M. And with the bartender Don Lee, you point out that most of his experiments were utter failures. His attempt to carbonate a cherry didn’t exactly work.

Lehrer: Yeah. And even his Bacon Old Fashioned is very divisive. Like I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Correspondent: Have you tried it?

Lehrer: I have. The first sip is delicious and then it’s kind of unsettling. I think it’s more about my limitations as a consumer than as an eater. And a lot of people don’t like it. So that’s a…

Correspondent: Well, who ultimately determines whether it’s creative or not? I mean, I can just go ahead and spend an evening being completely stoned out of my mind and come up with stupid ideas and that can also be conceptual blending.

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, what is the distinguishing quality here?

Lehrer: Well, that’s why I think when defining creativity, one has to invoke the second life of the idea. One has to invoke this notion that it has to be useful to yourself and other people. So you know, one of my favorite stories and moments of insight — I talk about moments of insight in Imagine and the neuroscience of it. And why they happen when we least expect it. But there’s this great story of an insight by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he first took laughing gas for the first time. And he’s stoned out of his mind. High as a kite. While high as a kite, has this big epiphany. He solved the world. This grand solution. Writes it down on a cocktail napkin. And they can’t find the cocktail napkin. And he wakes up the next day. He’s hungover. Searches everywhere. Finally finds a cocktail napkin. So excited to read it. And what it says is: “The world smells like turpentine.”

Correspondent: Yeah. But there are failed economic theories that are also written on cocktail napkins. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no. So that’s why I think one has to separate the phenomenology of the idea. To use a ten dollar word. Like the feeling of the insight. Like “Oh my god, I made this great connection.” And I think we’ve all had the experience — many of us have had the experience of being stoned or high and being “That was such a brilliant epiphany.” Then you wake up in the morning and you realize it’s useless. So I think when talking about creativity, one should talk about the second life and hopefully not just in the brute financial terms. I don’t think we should get in the business of just measuring creativity by how many books you sell or whether or not it can be monetized. Etcetera etcetera. But we should talk about the second life. Cause that I think is the ultimate way our ideas are measured.

Correspondent: Well, to go ahead and get into some of what you write in the book, late, you write that Alex Osborn’s idea of brainstorming was in fact wrong. That’s been pointed out by numerous people. Why then does your book skim over the really terrible ideas? I mean, how do we reconcile Osborn with the Carson/Peterson/Higgins study involving 86 Harvard undergraduates in which those who considered the irrelevant details were seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers”? Now being ranked as an “eminent creative achiever” is a lot different from, oh say, inventing the iPhone or coming up with something that is actually helpful.

Lehrer: Of course. So their ranking of creativity — and what I liked about this study is that it was real world creativity. A lot of limitations of the way scientists study creativity are creativity tests. So it’s tests on divergent thinking, coming up with uses for a brick, finding ways to study traffic in the Bay Area. Stuff like that. But it’s not about the real world. So what I liked about that study was that it was real world achievement. So to get back to your question about why I don’t spend a lot of time on the failed ideas….

Correspondent: Because that would seem to be important, you know.

Lehrer: Well, one of the subplots in the book — at least that I tried to engineer into the book — is this notion that there’s no success without failure, that one of the defining features of successful creators is the way they’ve learned how to fail successfully. One of my favorite lines in the book is Lee Unkrich’s quote — the director of Toy Story 3 — about the secret sauce of Pixar is failing as fast as possible. You know, you go through iteration after iteration. So I’ve got that whole chapter on the importance of revisions and drafting and the conceiving process and going through drafts, looking for your failures, and trying to fix them. So, you know, hopefully I’ve made it clear that all good ideas emerge from the litter of lots of bad ones and that even the best epiphanies, you still have to edit them. You still have to fine tune them and perfect them. So hopefully it’s implicit in the book that part of coming up with a good idea is this entangled relationship with bad ideas. As for why I don’t talk a lot about failed ideas in the book, why I don’t harp on those inventions that never work, I don’t know. I mean, to be honest, I’m sure as a storyteller, it’s easier to tell stories of success. That’s what interests me more. No one wants to buy a book that’s all about…

Correspondent: You’re more of a Mike Daisey type than a New York Times guy?

Lehrer: How’d I go from wanting to tell success stories to being a Mike Daisey type?

Correspondent: Well, because we’re talking about facts vs. storytelling. Which is an ongoing debate especially in 2012. With John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact. With Mike Daisey.

Lehrer: Well, what are facts vs. storytelling?

Correspondent: The point I’m trying to make here is if you are telling a story where everything could be a conceivable success, I mean, there are some things that are inevitably failures. John Carter is probably by every standard a failure. It’s lost more money than any movie.

Lehrer: Yeah, but how does that? To get back to your question about facts and stories, how does that — I’m trying to talk about creativity and where it comes from. I think that one of the defining features of creativity — like I said before — it’s a new idea that people find useful. So there are obviously lots of ideas which people don’t find useful. Lots of failed ideas. In my book, I try to make clear that failure is a part of the creative process. One should learn how to deal with it. But one doesn’t have to write a book about creativity to talk about all the bad ideas that don’t work out. That would be a very, very, very, very long book, and I think fairly incoherent. So that’s why most of the stories I tell in the book are stories where, because that’s part of what creativity is, that’s how I define it. It’s a new idea that works. So I tell the story of new ideas that work.

Correspondent: Okay.

Lehrer: But I don’t quite understand how that means I’m Mike Daisey.

Correspondent: Well, because Mike Daisey took facts to fit his larger narrative. And while from a liberal standpoint, I suppose you could argue that looking at Shenzhen, even if the facts aren’t entirely airtight, might be a good idea, there’s still…

Lehrer: Well, which facts am I eliding to make my larger narrative? I guess that’s my…

Correspondent: Well, when you say you can learn from every failure and there’s a success from there, I don’t know if that’s entirely the truth.

Lehrer: I’m not saying you can — I don’t say that anywhere in the book that all ideas are created equal. In fact, the whole point of why brainstorming doesn’t work — you brought up Alex Osborn’s failed idea — is that it treats all ideas as equal. I mean, the whole point of brainstorming is all ideas are useful. All ideas are good. And as I point out, the reason brainstorming doesn’t work is because groups that engage in criticism and debate and dissent, groups that point out, “That idea is actually a piece of shit,” they do much better. They come up with more ideas and those ideas are better. So hopefully a theme of the book, as I’ve been trying to make clear, is this notion of being honest about which ideas are good and which ideas are bad, identifying failures and fixing them, and out of that process, which is often dismal and unpleasant and insufferable, out of that long process, you will hopefully get a good idea. But there is no shortcut around it.

Correspondent: You talked with Milton Glaser, the graphic designer who came up with the I ♥ NY logo. You mention WH Auden and how he was hopped up on Benzedrine to produce his poems. You say that it was persistence, this determination to solve the problem of how to rehabilitate the image of New York City, which led to Glaser’s solution. But aside from Earl Miller’s recursive loop, his dopamine findings, I’m curious what science you have to back up this idea of the value of persistence to the creative mind. I mean, is it not possible that maybe Glaser’s idea caught on because, well, New York was kind of stuck with it? Because I ♥ NY was everywhere? Know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: And also there’s this troubling idea of, well, do we have to be hopped up on Benzedrine to be a poet?

Lehrer: No, no, definitely not. As Auden himself would discover, there’s a reason why Benzedrine is now illegal. We no longer prescribe it for asthma. It’s incredibly addictive and, as I point out in the book, comes with all sorts of terrible side effects like horrible constipation, insomnia, and heart arrhythmia, and you definitely don’t want to advocate Benzedrine, no matter how much you need to edit your poetry. In terms of the science on persistence, yeah, there’s a lot of interesting research. A lot of which has nothing to do with the brain, at least not yet. Which I think demonstrates that persistence — the technical term for persistence that psychologists study is grit. This is primarily the work of Angela Duckworth. She’s at Penn. I’m actually writing about her now. Writing an article about her. She’s shown in many domains that grit is the single biggest predictor of success. More than IQ scores. So if you’re trying to figure out which 12-year-old will win the National Spelling Bee, it’s about grit. Who’s going to last at West Point? It’s about grit. Who’s going to last at Teach for America? Which amateur golfers are going to make the PGA tour? She argues that grit also plays a very important role in the creative process. She always quotes the Woody Allen line that 80% of success is showing up. Well, grit is what allows you to show up again and again. The two components of grit — and it’s important to point out, it’s not just about persistence. And I think this is an important caveat. It’s not just about persistence. You also have to have the right goal in the first place. So I may want to play in the NBA. But you’re looking at me. It’s not going to happen. So I have to have someone tell me early on hopefully that all the grit in the world, all the persistence in the world, won’t turn me into Spud Webb. Find a different goal. So I think sometimes one of the problems we have is we’re not willing to help people — you know, dreams will come true if you simply try for it. That kind of talk. It sounds really good, but it’s not entirely honest. And I think we need to be honest about it not being honest.

Correspondent: Now that’s a completely reasonable assessment. Why then would you put WH Auden on Benzedrine then in the book? And is this sort of the worst case scenario? Even though he ended up coming up with a number of great poems. If we’re talking about reasonable applications of what we’re talking about here for people to find their creative roots, why would you go for these more extraordinary examples?

Lehrer: Why I chose that in particular?

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m just curious. Why did you include a Benzedrine addict? Genius as he may very well have been.

Lehrer: Sure. To be honest, the reason I chose Auden is because I’ve long been an Auden fan. I’ve always been fascinated by why you look at his most anthologized poems — and my favorite Auden poetry is actually his late poetry. So absolutely after he weaned himself off Benzedrine, and that was a brutal process, but I actually like “In Praise of Limestone” — his later poetry — which is a little messier, a little more chaotic, a little more personal. But if you look at his most anthologized poems, they really come from this three year window when he was really on Benzedrine, “September 1,” “In Memory of Yeats,” etcetera etcetera. And I was interested in why that is. What allowed him to, in this narrow window, produce poems that were spare and precise and transparent and really, really popular and have resonated with people for decades. And so that’s why I chose Auden. Both because I liked the man and I have this lingering interest in this particular phase of his career. So that’s why I chose him. I wasn’t trying to pick an extreme example. You know, for me, it was the storytelling challenge in this chapter was — in the end, the point I’m trying to give readers is incredibly banal. And I’m sure that — I think most readers will realize that, in the end, the point of that chapter is “Sometimes you have to work really hard.” Not the most exciting idea. And so for me, the reason I chose Auden is cause drugs, Benzedrine, and that struck me as a slightly more interesting way to, in the end, make this point that creativity is also about hard work. And Milton Glaser’s motto says it best. “Art is work.”

Correspondent: But wait a minute. If the underlying point of the chapter is banal, then why stretch out a chapter? I’m not saying that…

Lehrer: Well, because that’s an important part of the creative process. I wish I could write a book in which the whole point was “Take showers when you’re stuck.” Get relaxed. Which is part of the process too. I think there’s good evidence for that. But when you talk with creative people, and I’m trying to tell the story of creativity as I see it from talking to people in the business and from the perspectives of scientists who study it. A big part of creative success is showing up, is putting in the work, is going after the drafts. That’s not the sexy stuff. But that needs to be in there too.

Correspondent: But isn’t it your job to sex it up, Jonah? I mean, you’re a guy — we were cracking up about aerosol cheese spray, right?

Lehrer: Oh, I do my best to sex it up. Which is why I begin the chapter by talking about Benzedrine. That was my attempt to sex up a very banal chapter. Hopefully the chapter itself isn’t banal. The idea in it is — you know, if you’ve ever done anything worthwhile in your life, you know it takes work, right? So my challenge as a storyteller in that chapter was, gosh, I’ve got to put this in here. Because that’s a huge part of the creative process. There’s no getting around it. But how can I make it interesting? I can’t just talk about hard work. That’s a chapter I wouldn’t want to write and people wouldn’t want to read. So the way I begin it is by talking about this poet who is an incredibly talented poet. I’m not saying that if we all take Benzedrine, we’ll pump out “September 1st, 1939.” Having dabbled in amphetamines myself, all I got out of it was several nights of insomnia. But I think it does, within the context of Auden, help show how this drug modulated his poetry a little bit.

* — In The Millions‘s comments, Lehrer responded to a lengthy criticism of Imagine offered by Requarth and Crist (namely, Lehrer criticizing the limitations of fMRI in a Wall Street Journal column, while simultaneously relying on similar data elsewhere):

I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena. For instance, I’m currently in the midst of Eric Kandel’s wonderful new book, which has many chapters on fMRI data combined with musings on aesthetics and beauty. Is this inappropriate?

Fortunately, Our Correspondent also happened to read Kandel’s book. In chapter 30, Kandel does cite fMRIs too. But he doesn’t just cite fMRIs. He is careful to write this in Chapter 30:

The two techniques for measuring brain activity complement each other perfectly: EEGs, which are superior for pinpointing when an event occurred but poor at identifying where it occurred, have good temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution, whereas functional MRIs have the inverse and weaknesses.”

In fairness, Lehrer, at the beginning of Imagine, writes:

By combining both techniques — fMRI and EEG — in the same study, Beeman and Kounios were able to deconstruct the epiphany.”

But inexplicably (and this is also the point of contention with Requarth and Crist), he merely applies the fMRI results in relation to jazz improvisation. Kandel did not make this slip at all in The Age of Insight. The issue here is whether Lehrer, who was good enough to talk out this problem at length during this program, is omitting essential data in an effort to appeal to a popular audience. This conversation begins at the 43:44 mark in the program.

The Bat Segundo Show #448: Jonah Lehrer (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #265.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is most recently the author of The Pluto Files.

segundo265

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Reconfiguring his planetary paradigm, with the aid of minatory electrodes.

Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Subjects Discussed: The Great Planet Debate, sensible classification systems, “reorganizing” the solar system, why the International Astronomical Union wasn’t approached before the Rose Center display was established, the usefulness of the word “planet,” playing 20 Questions to gain insight into what Tyson talks about, Copernicus, acceptable groupings, quibbles with the New Horizons reconnaissance mission to “complete” the exploration of the solar system, government and space exploration, Sedna vs. Pluto, efforts to explicate Sedna’s orbit, the ethical implications of scientists who write popular books, scientists and get rich quick schemes, pedagogical paradigms, manned missions to Mars, the celebrity culture of astronauts, manned space program vs. robotic expeditions, how science can endure in the face of looming budgetary cuts, the financial return of science, communications with the Obama Administration, and the possibility of the asteroid Apophis colliding against the Earth in 2036.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

ngtTyson: We just reorganized the solar system, combining objects of like properties together. And at the time, more frozen bodies — small with tipped orbits, crossing the orbits of other planets — were found in the outer solar system that looked more like Pluto. And Pluto looked more like them than any one of them looked like anything else in the solar system. So all we did was group Pluto with its brethren in the outer solar system. Then we grouped the gas giants together as a family. Then we grouped the terrestrials — Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — together. So the family photo of the solar system was presented in these groupings. At no time did we recount the planets in the solar system. And, in fact, the word “planet” is undervalued in the exhibits entirely. We prefer to focus on physical properties of these objects, rather than try and salvage a word that hasn’t been formally defined since before Copernicus.

Correspondent: Well, to talk about the notion of introducing this exhibit and not tipping anybody off initially, until this New York Times reporter ran with the ball and created something of a media storm, you…

Tyson: Something of a media storm?

Correspondent: Something of a media storm.

Tyson: Just say “media storm.”

Correspondent: Well, I’d like to use reverse hyperbole here. But in the case of this considerable media storm, you didn’t tip anybody off. And I’m curious. I mean, the sentiment in this book that you express multiple times is “Science is not a democracy.” And I’m wondering though why you didn’t approach the IAU to essentially get them to get with the program. That Pluto is not a planet. That it is essentially a TNO, and…

Tyson: Trans-Neptunian Object.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly. Exactly. I’m wondering why. Perhaps you could have smoothed things over a little bit with the IAU before introducing this. Does the IAU really not matter in this particular group?

Tyson: IAU cares about what a planet is. And we didn’t. It’s that simple. We didn’t present a case for planethood or not. All we did was say, “Here’s an interesting way to look at the solar system.” Put Pluto with the icy bodies and present it as such. We didn’t say Pluto was not a planet. We made no such claims. We were widely stereotyped for having done so. And that’s the simplest — if you don’t have the time to read what we did, then that’s the simplest thing that people did. Many interviewers — media — would come up to me and say, “So how many planets are there in your exhibits?” And I said, “We don’t count planets.” We just simply don’t count planets. So I had no interest in lobbying the International Astronomical Union. Because they’re concerned with the definition of planet. And when they do, fine. Define it however they want. It doesn’t change sensible ways to organize the information content of the solar system.

Correspondent: But in the minds of people. You had to be aware of the public perception. I mean, in this book, you point, of course, to the Caltech parade in Pasadena, the funerals for Pluto, the endless editorial cartoons and the like. In fact, I actually saw a Discover magazine headline that said, “Beyond the nine planets.” That was a week ago. So people are still struggling with this taxonomy, even though it’s clearly not a planet. I mean, you had to have been aware of this in some sense. What kind of adjustment period do we need? What kind of outreach do we need? Even to the IAU members. The 10% who voted against the idea, who voted for Pluto being a planet.

Tyson: Obtaining its planet status.

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Tyson: A mere 10%, I might add.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Tyson: Well, let me make it clear. There are people who have a lot invested in the word “planet.” Odd. Because like I said, “planet” had no formal definition. Not since ancient Greece. Planet means — it comes from the Greek “planetas,” meaning “wanderer.” And it referred to the objects in the night sky, from night to night, would wander against the background stars. There were seven of them — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Did I get the seven there? Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Seven. That’s an unambiguous definition. No argument there. Seven planets. Copernicus says, “Wait a minute. The Sun is in the middle. Earth is one of these objects that goes around the sun. The moon goes around the earth.” So Earth became a planet. The sun became not a planet. The moon became not a planet. And so, okay. But even at Copernicus’s time, the word “planet” did not get a formal definition. It was only, “It just seems right. Let’s just keep it.” It was not formally defined until the IAU in August 2006. I’m fine with their definition! Because it doesn’t matter to me. The word is not useful.

BSS #265: Neil deGrasse Tyson (Download MP3)

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Ice Ages Are a Great Sartorial Motivator

New York Times: “If people first became nudists 3.3 million years ago, when did they start to wear clothes? Surprisingly, lice once again furnish the answer. Though humans may long have worn loose garments like animal skin cloaks, the first tailored clothing would have been close-fitting enough to tempt the head louse to expand its territory. It evolved a new variety, the body louse, with claws adapted for clinging to fabric, not hairs. In 2003, Mark Stoneking, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, estimated from DNA differences that the body louse evolved from the head louse about 107,000 years ago. The first sewn clothes were presumably made shortly before this time.”

The Guinea Pig is Doing Better

The human eye transfers information to the brain as fast as a swift Ethernet connection. Unfortunately, like a tetchy DSL connection, we could be transferring data a lot swifter. Humans have ten times more ganglion cells in the retina than a guinea pig, yet the guinea pig is faster. This suggests that this deficiency might be best rectified if a few humans replaced a few guinea pigs for those painful dissections conducted in the name of research. Or perhaps our ganglion cells might be boosted if we adopted other humans as pets and had them run around in circles.

Either way, this will not stand! The human is smarter than the guinea pig. Can a guinea pig balance a checkbook or order takeout? I think not! Moreover, the average guinea pig lives a mere four to six years. Perhaps that comparatively smaller blip of existence is what causes the guinea pig to get its act together.

I call upon my fellow humans to do better! We must triumph over the guinea pig before the eye-to-brain transfer speed is comparable to a 56K modem.

The Reader’s Last Sigh

The Associated Press reports that Rushdie’s new novel will “have a lot more India in it” than Midnight’s Children. That’s great. But it still doesn’t change the fact that Rushdie hasn’t written a single compelling novel since Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Who says they aren’t crazy about libraries in the sticks? In Modesto, 100 volunteers are trying to maintain a small sales tax to ensure that their libraries stay open.

Geologists are trying to stop a creationist book from being sold at the Grand Canyon. The book, Grand Canyon: A Different View, suggests that the Canyon came into being not by the erosion of the Colorado River over millions of years, but because of a wager between Jesus and Peter. Peter lost the bet. And instead of turning water into wine, as Peter hoped, Jesus created the Grand Canyon. But not without starting a few side projects like lime jello and double-entry bookkeeping.

And Pete Rose has the best marketing gimmick around: “Read my book before judging me.”

[1/24/06 UPDATE: As of November 2004, the controversy died down. I am not in a position to confirm this, although I will try and make a phone call to determine what the National Park Service’s position is, but it appears that Tom Vail’s apocryphal book is still being sold at the Grand Canyon store. Of course, all this came well before any of the Intelligent Design bullshit. But the decidedly unscientific Tom Vail has remained quite smug about his victory.]

Is There Life?

The Science article requires membership to some orgainzation that sounds too much like someone’s rear end, so all we have are generalities in other media outlets to go by. But it looks like the Australians have found a habitable region in the Milky Way where life is likely to exist. Charles Lineweaver notes that there are four components necessary for life: a star, elements to form a planet, evolutionary time, no chance that the star will fall prey to a supernova. But there are three additional facets Lineweaver fails to list: wars triggered by colossal misunderstandings, edible underwear and parking tickets.