Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 JULY, 2012

Close to the Machine: Code and the Mesmerism of Building a World from Scratch

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“…the programmer has no choice but to retreat into some private interior space, closer to the machine…”

The sociocultural relationship between humanity and technology has been the subject of equal parts dystopianism, utopianism, and layered reflection. But what of the actual, intimate, one-on-one relationship between human and machine, creator and created? That’s exactly what software engineer Ellen Ullman explores in Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (public library) — a fascinating look at the riveting dawn of computer revolution in 1997, those formative years of learning to translate the inexorable messiness of being human into elegant and organized code, examined through Ullman’s singular lens of being a rare woman on this largely male-driven forefront.

One particularly enchanting passage, from a chapter titled “Transactions,” captures the mesmerism of building a world from scratch — a rich portrait of the programmer archetype and a magnificent vignette of the creative process that breathes beauty into bits:

The project begins in the programmer’s mind with the beauty of a crystal. I remember the feel of a system at the early stages of programming, when the knowledge I am to represent in code seems lovely in its structuredness. For a time, the world is a calm, mathematical place. Human and machine seem attuned to a cut-diamond-like state of grace. Once in my life I tried methamphetamine: that speed high is the only state that approximates the feel of a project at its inception. Yes, I understand. Yes, it can be done. Yes, how straightforward. Oh yes, I see.

Then something happens. As the months of coding go on, the irregularities of human thinking start to emerge. You write some code, and suddenly there are dark, unspecified areas. All the pages of careful documents, and still, between the sentences, something is missing. Human thinking can skip over a great deal, leap over small misunderstandings, can contain ifs and buts in untroubled corners of the mind. But the machine has no corners. Despite all the attempts to see the computer as a brain, the machine has no foreground or background. It cannot simultaneously do something an withhold for later something that remains unknown. In the painstaking working out of the specification, line by code line, the programmer confronts all the hidden workings of human thinking.

Now begins a process of frustration. The programmer goes back to the analysts with questions, the analysts to the users, the users to their managers, the managers back to the analysts, the analysts to the programmers. It turns out that some things are just not understood. No one knows the answers to some questions. Or worse, there are too many answers. A long list of exceptional situations is revealed, things that occur very rarely but that occur all the same. Should these be programmed? Yes, of course. How else ill the system do the work human beings need to accomplish? Details and exceptions accumulate. Soon the beautiful crystal must be recut. This lovely edge and that one are gone. The whole graceful structure loses coherence. What began in a state of grace soon reveals itself to be a jumble. The human mind, as it turns out, is messy.

[…]

The programmer, who needs clarity, who must talk all day to a machine that demands declarations, hunkers down into a low-grade annoyance. It is here that the stereotype of the programmer, sitting in a dim room, growling from behind Coke cans, has its origins. The disorder of the desk, the floor; the yellow Post-it notes everywhere; the whiteboards covered with scrawl: al this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought. The messiness cannot go into the program; it piles up around the programmer.

Soon the programmer has no choice but to retreat into some private interior space, closer to the machine, where things can be accomplished. The machine begins to seem friendlier than the analysts, the users, the managers. The real-world reflection of the program — who cares anymore? Guide an x-ray machine or target a missile; print a budget or a dossier; run a city subway or a disk-drive read/write arm: it all begins to blur. The system has crossed the membrane — the great filter of logic, instruction by instruction — where it has been cleansed of its linkages to actual human life.

The goal now is not whatever all the analysts first set out to do; the goal becomes the creation of the system itself. Any ethics or morals or second thoughts, any questions or muddles or exceptions, all dissolve into a junky Nike-mind: Just do it. If I just sit here and code, you think, I can make something run. When the humans come back to talk changes, I can just run the program. Show them: Here. Look at this. See? This is not just talk. This runs. Whatever you might say, whatever the consequences, all you have are words and what I have is this, this thing I’ve built, this operational system. Talk all you want, but this thing here: it works.

Close to the Machine is just as gripping throughout, an uncommon blend of absorbing prose and captivating cultural history.

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25 JULY, 2012

Susan Sontag on Writing

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“There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”

The newly released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), from whence Sontag’s thoughtful meditations on censorship and aphorisms came, is an absolute treasure trove of rare insight into one of the greatest minds in modern history. Among the tome’s greatest gifts are Sontag’s thoughts on the art, craft, and ideology of writing.

Unlike more prescriptive takes, like previously examined advice by Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, and David Ogilvy, Sontag’s reflections are rather meditative — sometimes turned inward, with introspective curiosity, and other times outward, with a lens on the broader literary landscape — yet remarkably rich in cultural observation and universal wisdom on the writing process, somewhere between Henry Miller’s creative routine, Jack Kerouac’s beliefs and techniques, George Orwell’s four motives for writing, and E. B. White’s vision for the responsibility of the writer.

Gathered here are the most compelling and profound of Sontag’s thoughts on writing, arranged chronologically and each marked with the date of the respective diary entry.

I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.
(8/8/64)

Words have their own firmness. The word on the page may not reveal (may conceal) the flabbiness of the mind that conceived it. > All thoughts are upgrades — get more clarity, definition, authority, by being in print — that is, detached from the person who thinks them.

A potential fraud — at least potential — in all writing.
(8/20/64)

Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.
(8/30/64)

If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
(11/1/64)

Science fiction —
Popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal
(11/1/64)

Greatest subject: self seeking to transcend itself (Middlemarch, War and Peace)
Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

Kafka the last story-teller in ‘serious’ literature. Nobody has known where to go from there (except imitate him)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

John Dewey — ‘The ultimate function of literature is to appreciate the world, sometimes indignantly, sometimes sorrowfully, but best of all to praise when it is luckily possible.’
(1/25/65)

I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.
(3/5/70)

‘Writing is only a substitute [sic] for living.’ — Florence Nightingale
(12/18/70)

French, unlike English: a language that tends to break when you bend it.
(6/21/72)

A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
(7/5/72)

In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere
My life is a brutal anecdote
(3/15/73)

The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart

[…]

The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk.
(6/27/73)

I’m now writing out of rage — and I feel a kind of Nietzschean elation. It’s tonic. I roar with laughter. I want to denounce everybody, tell everybody off. I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun. But I’m safe. I don’t have to face the consequences of ‘real’ aggressivity. I’m sending out colis piégés ['booby-trapped packages'] to the world.
(7/31/73)

The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.
(7/31/73)

Talking like touching
Writing like punching somebody
(8/14/73)

To be a great writer:

know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
(2/6/74)

‘Idea’ as method of instant transport away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase.

‘Idea’ as a means of miniaturizing experience, rendering it portable. Someone who regularly has ideas is — by definition — homeless.

Intellectual is a refugee from experience. In Diaspora.

What’s wrong with direct experience? Why would one ever want to flee it, by transforming it — into a brick?
(7/25/74)

Weakness of American poetry — it’s anti-intellectual. Great poetry has ideas.
(6/14/76)

Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer — I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.

By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.
(6/19/76)

The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations.)

Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.
(11/5/76)

‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ — this utterly nihilistic statement rests at the foundation of every moving camera style in the history of the medium. But it is a cliché, a 19th c[entury] cliché, less an aesthetic than a projection of an exhausted state of mind, less a world view than a world weariness, less a statement of vital forms than an expression of sterile decadence. There is quite another pov [point of view] about what ‘all art aspires to’ — that was Goethe’s, who put the primary art, the most aristocratic one, + the one art that cannot be made by the plebes but only gaped at w[ith] awe, + that art is architecture. Really great directors have this sense of architecture in their work — always expressive of immense line of energy, unstable + vital conduits of force.
(undated, 1977)

One can never be alone enough to write. To see better.
(7/19/77)

Two kinds of writers. Those who think this life is all there is, and want to describe everything: the fall, the battle, the accouchement, the horse-race. That is, Tolstoy. And those who think this life is a kind of testing-ground (for what we don’t know — to see how much pleasure + pain we can bear or what pleasure + pain are?) and want to describe only the essentials. That is, Dostoyevsky. The two alternatives. How can one write like T. after D.? The task is to be as good as D. — as serious spiritually, + then go on from there.
(12/4/77)

Only thing that counts are ideas. Behind ideas are [moral] principles. Either one is serious or one is not. Must be prepared to make sacrifices. I’m not a liberal.
(12/4/77)

When there is no censorship the writer has no importance.

So it’s not so simple to be against censorship.
(12/7/77)

Imagination: — having many voices in one’s head. The freedom for that.
(5/27/78)

Language as a found object
(2/1/79)

Last novelist to be influenced by, knowledgeable about science was [Aldous] Huxley

One reason [there are] no more novels — There are no exciting theories of relation of society to self (soc[iological], historical, philosophical)

Not SO — no one is doing it, that’s all
(undated, March 1979)

There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work
(undated, March 1979)

To write one must wear blinkers. I’ve lost my blinkers.

Don’t be afraid to be concise!
(3/10/79)

A failure of nerve. About writing. (And about my life — but never mind.) I must write myself out of it.

If I am not able to write because I’m afraid of being a bad writer, then I must be a bad writer. At least I’ll be writing.

Then something else will happen. It always does.

I must write every day. Anything. Everything. Carry a notebook with me at all times, etc.

I read my bad reviews. I want to go to the bottom of it — this failure of nerve
(7/19/79)

The writer does not have to write. She must imagine that she must. A great book: no one is addressed, it counts as cultural surplus, it comes from the will.
(3/10/80)

Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.
(3/15/80)

The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.
(4/26/80)

Making lists of words, to thicken my active vocabulary. To have puny, not just little, hoax, not just trick, mortifying, not just embarrassing, bogus, not just fake.

I could make a story out of puny, hoax, mortifying, bogus. They are a story.
(4/30/80)

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh is exquisite in its entirety — I couldn’t recommend it more heartily.

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25 JULY, 2012

Maira Kalman on Identity, Happiness, and Existence

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“How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say OK?”

In this wonderful short video, Maira Kalman — the remarkable artist, prolific author, unmatched storyteller, and one of my favorite hearts and minds in the world — shares some wisdom on identity, happiness, and existence. Watch and take notes.

The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say, in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work — what else could there possibly be?

Speaking to the fluidity of character and the myth of fixed personality, Kalman observes:

How do you know who you are? There are many parts to who you are, so there isn’t one static place. And then, the other part of that is that things keep changing.

Here are some of the beautiful, poignant quotes Kalman reads and shows from her published works.

From And The Pursuit of Happiness:

From The Principles of Uncertainty:

How do you know who you are?

How are we so optimistic, so careful Not to trip and yet Do trip, and then GET up and say O.K. Why do I feel so sorry for everyone and so PROUD?

What can I tell you? The realization that we are ALL (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief — isn’t that the central premise of EVERYTHING? It stops me DEAD in my tracks a DOZEN times a day. Do you think I remain FROZEN? NO. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction.

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