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Archive for December, 2011

Stop teaching Shakespeare in schools (except maybe his sonnets)

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LYes, he was a slick, slick dudeet’s be honest. I enjoy Hamlet. I think it’s great writing. I enjoy the game of piecing out Shakespeare’s meaning, catching all the symbolism, watching the way he expertly plays with words.


Just saying.

Why do we put tragedy on a pedestal? I really don’t know. I bet if you ask a random sampling of college educated adults what the deal is with tragedy, why people like it, 90% of the people who manage to evolve any kind of answer at all will come up with “catharsis”. Why? Because that was what Aristotle thought, and in the 10,000 years since he died, no one’s come up with a better answer. But at this point I feel like we’re just saying it because we’re saying it. We’ve been conditioned that if we don’t think Hamlet is the best piece of literature on the planet, there’s something wrong with our cultural taste, so we back-rationalize to the answer we were given in high school English class.

I appreciate Shakespeare because of his writing, but in spite of his plots. Frankly, his plots are pretty… Elizabethan. I don’t buy universal human experience. I buy universal human nature interacting with highly contingent circumstance leading to infinitude of permutations.

The good news is that the people who actually create stuff have all moved on — in fact, they probably moved on a century ago. It’s just, high culture hasn’t gotten the memo yet. Let me give some examples of what I consider modern “great literature”:

Wouldn’t it be funny if the rest of this blog post was just a collection of Fatboy Slim music videos? I could keep going, you know. Don’t make me do that.

Other “real literature”:

The reason I don’t like tragedy is that I don’t like books about easy stuff. Easy stuff is boring. Getting yourself killed off, or slowly poisoning yourself to death with alcohol, or persisting in a semi-alive state as your hopes and expectations are crushed, that’s all pretty easy. You just sort of have to show up. What’s hard is doing something amazing. Creating, bringing life and new forms of complexity into the world. All the things that make a good story — all the conflict, all the ups and downs, the pain and growth, the stupidity and insight, the missed chances and the redeeemed ones — they all matter to me only in the context of someone getting out there and fucking trying.

And the good news is, there’s plenty of people in the universe going out and doing exactly that.

Written by jphaas

December 7th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

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Learning to be Rational

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Back in 2006 I was diagnosed with depression. I was in college, and I had run into a simple, common life frustration that probably afflicts 1 in 3 college students, namely unrequited love. But it totally broke me. I didn’t have the coping mechanisms or skills to deal with it and move on. Instead, I retreated from social situations, threw temper tantrums, sat around crying, and scared the hell out of my roommates and friends. At the low point, one evening I walked off campus and headed out in a random direction; I walked for hours and hours in the cold, trying to somehow physically escape from my own mind. Eventually I was freezing and really had to pee, so I stopped in a McDonald’s, turned around, and went home. Afterwards I sat in my dorm room for a couple hours cradling a knife and thinking about killing myself. My roommate came in and I glared at him for a while: he thought I was totally insane. I kind of was.

Eventually one of my good friends force-marched me to Harvard’s mental health center. I started taking antidepressants and seeing a psychologist. I started meditating regularly (also thanks to my friend and her boyfriend). I bought some books on Amazon: I remember reading Lord Chesterfield’s Letters and Mrs. Dalloway. And I wrote stuff: I kept a kind of journal, I poured a lot of heart into my school papers, I wrote long philosophical rants. My previous paradigm for understanding life had failed me, and I needed to figure things out.

I’m not sure if I can really articulate how I thought about things back then. I think I basically believed that a) I was smarter than everyone around me and therefore more worthy, b) therefore I was going to be wildly successful and famous and have all the women, money, power I wanted (in a benevolent, contributing-back-to-humanity kind of way), c) I wasn’t totally sure how I’d get from where I was (socially-awkward nerd with a lot of academic potential but who hadn’t accomplished anything of note in the real world) to where I wanted to be, but I was given to understand it involved a time-based “growing up” process that would kick in eventually. I think the reason I fell apart is that for the first time in my life, I really, really wanted something, and I couldn’t have it, nor did I have the slightest clue how I could get it. The fact that I was book-smart didn’t help me at all. I began to suspect that growing up wasn’t a passive process that would inevitably happen to me, but rather something that I needed to actively take part in, and I had no idea how to do that.

I think the two ingredients for happiness — for not being depressed — are acceptance and empowerment. It’s okay that things aren’t perfect. It’s okay that I hurt, that my friends hurt, that my apartment is too small and I have razor burn on my neck and my shirts don’t fit right and I had what I thought was a brilliant idea and realized later I was being idiot. It’s okay if things stay like that forever, if I never solve my problems. It’s okay because there’s no platonic ideal out there of how things should be; there’s no judge, no scoring system; just each moment, one by one until we die. That’s acceptance. Empowerment is feeling like, okay, so things are okay as they are, but I’d like them to be different, and I can actually do something about it. I can learn, I can get smarter. I’ll probably fail, repeatedly, but if I care enough and work at it long enough I’ll eventually be able to achieve anything I want.

One of the the things that pulled me out of my depression was a sense of purpose. The system had failed me. I was supposed to be the 1% of the 1%, with the best education that money can buy, ready to take over the world, and instead I was crying on the floor of my dorm room. As I piece-by-piece learned how to manage my emotions, work towards goals, see the world from a broader perspective, I became increasingly outraged that I had to figure this all out for myself. How many other people out there were suffering because they hadn’t gotten the memo? Looking around at my fellow students, a lot of them were pretty miserable. How is that possible? Most of these kids had lived incredibly privileged lives, received loads of attention and care, and were now attending what was allegedly the top educational institution in the world. And they were unhappy? Something had to be done! Viva la revolution, baby!

As the years have passed I’ve grown increasingly less confident that I know how to solve the happiness problem for anyone else. (In 2006-07, I thought it was really simple. Mandatory meditation classes for everyone!) I still feel though like there’s something broken in paradise. I think a lot of my life for the past five years has been a reaction to my experience with depression, my anger at myself for being so slow to learn, my anger at the system for not helping me more.

I’m still piecing things together for myself. Since I started looking, I’ve found a lot of exceptional people who’ve found their own paths towards sanity and rationality. I think the best articulation of what I believe right now comes from one of my former bosses:

…treat your life like a game or a martial art. Your mission is to figure out how to get around your challenges to get to your goals. In the process of playing the game or practicing this martial art, you will become more skilled. As you get better, you will progress to ever-higher levels of the game that will require—and teach you—greater skills. …

This particular game—i.e., your life—will challenge you in ways that will be uncomfortable at times. But if you work through this discomfort and reflect on it in order to learn, you will significantly improve your chances of getting what you want out of life. By and large, life will give you what you deserve and it doesn’t give a damn what you “like.” So it is up to you to take full responsibility to connect what you want with what you need to do to get it, and then to do those things—which often are difficult but produce good results—so that you’ll then deserve to get what you want.

That’s just the way it is, so you might as well accept it. Once you accept that playing the game will be uncomfortable, and you do it for a while, it will become much easier (like it does when getting fit). When you excel at it, you will find your ability to get what you want thrilling. You’ll see that excuses like “That’s not easy” are of no value and that it pays to “push through it” at a pace you can handle. …

With practice, you will eventually play this game like a ninja, with skill and a calm centeredness in the face of adversity that will let you handle most of your numerous challenges well. However, you will never handle them all well: mistakes are inevitable, and it’s important to recognize and accept this fact of life. The good news, as I have mentioned, is that most learning comes through making mistakes—so there is no end to learning how to play the game better. You will have an enormous number of decisions to make, so no matter how many mistakes you make, there will be plenty of opportunities to build a track record of success.

The person who wrote the above founded the world’s biggest hedge fund, which basically printed money straight through all the financial crises of the last decade, so I know he must be doing something right. But I’ve also run into a lot of other people with similar ideas (most of whom are also highly successful).

People in general are terrible at the above. Most people do not act rationally at all, if you define rationality as doing what you yourself would say is what you want. As one small example, I’ve seen statistics that on average, Americans watch 4 hours of TV a day (I dunno how accurate that is but I’ve never heard a statistic that puts it below 4). The scary thing is that that’s an average so there’s a lot of people who watch much more than 4. Do you think anyone on their death beds would honestly say they’re happy they spent a sixth of their life (a quarter of their waking life) watching television? People dream of a life that’s more than 40 years at a job followed by retirement and death, but most of them don’t take the (relatively straightforward) actions that could change things for them. And now everyone is freaking out because the default life path doesn’t even work any more, because we’ve run out of money to pay for the medical bills of all the retired people who spent their lives in front of a desk during the day and a television during the evenings.

I think rationality is a combination of a skill and a world view. You have to see it as important to you to be rational, to act as a human being and contribute to the world vs let yourself get blown around by your own mind, or else it’s not even a possibility. But even if you have the world view, you still have to get good at it.

I think it’s criminally stupid that we don’t have cultural mechanisms to teach this. Our formal education system is actually counterproductive: the world view it instills consists of “sit still and raise your hand”, “there’s a right and a wrong answer to this question”, “the important thing is scoring well and getting the A.”

So people figure it out on their own. For instance, a serial entrepreneur whose blog I like wrote a great post about his personal daily practice for staying mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy. There’s a lot of good stuff floating around out there, but most people don’t even know it exists, don’t even know they have a need for it.

I was excited back in college by the Positive Psychology movement, which is trying to mainstream ideas about building character, resiliance, real mental health into the practice of psychology (which today treats unhappiness as a disease, a paradigm that I think is appropriate for certain neurological conditions but inappropriate for the vast majority of people who seek some kind of help or counseling). But I think they may be too hopelessly stuck in the paradigm of applying for grants, doing double-blind trials on twenty undergraduates, and publishing in academic journals, to make any substantial progress in the next 100 years. That’s why I’m more interested in entrepreneurship; it’s not as rigorous, but things move much much faster because the only thing that matters is impactful real world results. For instance, these guys might solve the physical health problem for nerds. We’ll see.

One thing that hasn’t changed for me since college is that my love life is still a disaster. Last night I went out with friends, hoping to end up with a girl at the end of the night, and I screwed things up. This morning, as soon as consciousness returned, I was on my feet, hangover and all, listing the lessons I learned, listing the questions I had for my friends about what I did wrong, and preparing for my morning run. I couldn’t have done that two years ago. Building skills takes time… I’m still not very good at transforming humiliation into learning, anger into determination. I’m still pretty irrational. But that’s okay.

Written by jphaas

December 4th, 2011 at 12:29 am

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Simple Answers

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It’s Friday and I’m tired. I just built and deployed a new feature for my company, KeywordSmart, that shortens the free trial period for new users by counting “usage” slightly differently. I have no idea if this was a good idea or not. We did it because no one’s been reaching the end of the free trial, but a lot of users have spent a long time on there playing with it. So, the idea is, force people to make a decision: is our software worth paying for or not?

I think it’s a good thing to try, so we are. But trying to get a new product and make it valuable to people and get them to buy it feels like sculpting in the dark. There’s clay going everywhere and you’re definitely doing something, but what is it?

A month or two ago I read The Lean Startup which is a really great, revolutionary book on how to manage entrepreneurial activity. The thesis is that just like in traditional companies you set goals and manage against metrics, you can do the same thing with startups, but the goals and metrics are around learning.

Like all great books it makes things seem really clear and simple. Of course: all we need to do is identify the quantitative assumptions behind our business model, find a way to measure how reality stacks up against those assumptions, and iterate until we’ve gotten reality to match our goals. That’s easy! It’s so clear! I built a really nice report in excel that lays it all out: our goals, numbers, experiments we’re running, features in the pipeline.

Turns out that making a pretty spreadsheet doesn’t equal making a successful business. The numbers don’t tell you what to do; they don’t even tell you what’s necessarily going on. There’s still a lot of taking things on faith, taking risks, pouring time and energy into ideas that might not work out.

I feel like there’s a lot of things in my life where there’s a simple magic formula that if you just follow it, everything will work. If I just followed the rules in The Primal Blueprint I’d be in great physical shape and high energy. Instead I’m on my second cappucino today and craving a third because of the caffeine crash. If I meditated every day, if I always woke up and immediately did the most important thing on my todo list, if I always followed the five step process, if I… I’ve bounced through so many good ideas I’m exhausted just thinking about all of them.

The funny thing is that I think the simple answers are right. When you overlay logic on top of reality, reality changes… there are too many examples of succesful people who were able to start with a vision and make reality follow it for it not to be true. But the path to getting there seems to be infinitely longer than a straight line. Things seem to be incredibly simple and infinitely complex at the same time, which makes me blink just saying that.

I’m not a very patient person. I have a hard time seeing things as they should be while simultaneously accepting things as they are. I kind of just want to skip to the should be. Why can’t we all just apply a little logic and common sense, and have everything just click into place? … is how I think. In the real world, though, things are slow. I’m trying to learn how to go forward one step at a time. Step. Step. Step. Man that’s boring.

Written by jphaas

December 2nd, 2011 at 10:53 pm

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Fantasy & SF

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Fantasy and science fiction don’t get much respect. They conjure images of sweaty nerds in basements living a fantasy life instead of dealing with their own pathetic realities. People throw dirty words around like “escapist.” It’s not a good scene.

I actually prefer both genres over most other forms of literature. For me part of it is escapist, but part of it is that I feel the nature of the medium allows more scope for interesting stories.

I’ll be honest — a lot of fantasy books and sci fi books are crap. Totally worthless stuff peddled out to keep the nerds in line just as the bodice-rippers are sold to give the desperate housewives their fix. But I’m a big believer in judging things at their best, not at their worst.

Good books are books about human nature. People are selfish animals; we want to hear about ourselves. The fun factor from reading comes from exciting stories that I can relate to. The valuable factor comes from stories that I can learn from. In other words, characters that I identify with who go through experiences that shed light onto my own experience.

(Pretty writing is also nice, but at the end of the day the books that people remember are the books that explore characters or ideas that are important).

Books are little laboratories. What happens if you take a poor boy steeped in the American dream, have him fall in love with a pretty girl from a different social class, and drop him in the roaring 20s? The Great Gatsby. It’s memorable because it says something about what it means to be human, and the way it says it is by creating a little world, with laboratory-controlled circumstances (for instance, Daisy doesn’t become fat and pregnant by the time Gatsby re-encounters her, which would have made it a very different book).

For a book to be good, the laboratory has to be compelling and believable. If there isn’t an internal consistency along the experimental dimensions, nothing can be learned; it’s a void experiment.

Many genres try to create this believability by hewing to circumstances that are (allegedly) realistic. This has a face-value logic to it (if you want to be realistic, be realistic), and of course it can be really powerful when done well. But it’s also a huge constraint, because there is a lot of overhead required in creating realism.

I’ve been re-reading Battle Royale, which is about Japanese school children who are forced to kill their classmates. The situation is totally contrived. To come up with a realistic scenario where a whole class of school kids needs to kill each other or die would probably take a whole novel by itself. Battle Royale hand-waves a bit over the setup, and because it does that, it takes an incredibly original look at love, friendship, values, cliques, and cultures. It’s great.

Sci Fi and Fantasy open up an entire universe (ha ha) of experiments that more mainstream genres can’t touch. They give the author permission to throw the existing rules out the window. With a bad author, that leads to derivative crap. With a good author, it leads to brilliance. It’s Picasso deciding that he’s allowed to paint things that don’t actually look like photographs. Actually, it seems really unfair that Picasso isn’t looked down on as “genre painting”, with all that unrealistic blue stuff and funny escapist angles.

The main difference between the two (overgeneralization alert) is that sci fi (or better, “speculative fiction”, which is a little more accurate I think) explores the realm of logical possibilities whereas fantasy explores the realm of a-logical possibilities. Sci fi asks the “what if?”and “what would it be like?” questions. What if there was a galactic civilization whose economy was based around an addictive life-extending drug? What does consumer society look like when the internet becomes so high-bandwidth you can live in it? What would it be like to fall in love with someone from a backwards, militaristic culture that just rediscovered advanced technology?

Fantasy on the other hand allows the exploration of the irrational parts of human experience, the dreams and nightmares, by projecting them on the waking world. What does a little girl’s fantasy world look like? What if you could have a conversation with your own soul? (arguably, this is a sci fi book… there’s definitely a fine line between the two). What if Japan’s subconscious culture baggage manifested as a physical force and stole your wife, or a young man coming of age acted out his personal growth struggles as a video game?

I like fantasy and science fiction because we live in a fantastic, science fictional universe. I very rarely find books with characters that I identify with who live in a world that strictly hews to reality. That’s because our world is so weird, so changing, that real life doesn’t do justice to real life. I honestly think literature that doesn’t bend the rules of reality a little bit is as antique as realist painting.

Anyway, this whole post is actually just a really long lead-in so I can pitch my favorite short story to you. It’s called “Lean Times in Lankhmar” and you can read it as part of this collection (note: there’s a much classier edition that doesn’t look like the cover was designed by a three year old here but it’s not kindle-available). I have yet to meet someone who knows what I’m talking about when I say I love Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, and each time I bring them up and get blank stares, I die a little inside.

There are five amazing things about this story:

a) The control of tone and atmosphere is pitch-perfect. Every single detail adds together coherently: not one is misplaced. Leiber’s city of Lankhmar is itself a character in all of his stories, and it has more personality and coherence that most writers’ human characters.

b) It’s totally psychologically accurate. The insight into human nature is hilariously exaggerated, but spot on. Leiber is in love with his character’s vices, and because he is, you are too.

c) The writing is absurdly confident. Leiber writes sentences like driving a Ferrari through your neighbor’s lawn and into their swimming pool at 90 miles an hour. There are run-ons. There are appeals to completely made-up and immediately forgotten historical authorities. There are wild exaggerations and crude innuendo. And there are no apologies. It’s great.

d) It’s a real story. There is a beginning, middle, and end; there is an (absolutely hilarious and brilliant) climax; it ends up somewhere different than where it started. It has depth: like most great literature, it is both incredibly cynical and deeply humble.

e) It is actually impossible to write a better ending to a short story than the ending of this one. I was on a literary magazine in college and one of the things I noticed is that no one can end short stories well. It’s like a super-power. This is how you do it. Take notes.

If you read it, I suggest reading the preceding story, “The Cloud of Hate”, first. It’s short, fun, and provides an introduction to the characters, which is important. And then read the rest of the stories because honestly they’re all pretty amazing.

P.S. Apparently the Chinese government (or factions therewithin) are trying to promote more science fiction writing in China because they believe that the Western Sci Fi tradition is the source of a lot of America’s and Europe’s technological creativity.

Written by jphaas

December 1st, 2011 at 4:43 am

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