On Masters in Old Age, Loving the Work, and Never Retiring

In a remarkable piece in The New York Times, Lewis H. Lapham (founder of Lapham’s Quarterly), reflects on his work ethic and experiencing failure:

I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

The context of the piece then goes on to short interviews with influential individuals in their 80s and 90s.

Here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 81:

Q: What has been the most surprising thing for you about moving into your 80s?

A: Nothing surprised me. But I’ve learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, “How long are you going to stay there?” I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have. . . . It’s a sense reminiscent of the poem ‘‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’’

On the persistence of Carmen Herrera, age 99, who sold her first painting at age 89:

Q: You painted for decades, but didn’t sell your work until just 10 years ago. What kept you going?

I do it because I have to. I have my ideas. I do my drawings. I make my paintings. It’s my love of the straight line that keeps me going. This has not changed.

Q: What was your reaction when you sold your first painting at 89?

I was never bitter. I always wished others well. I thought maybe the market would be corrupting. Without commercial success you can do what you want to do. There is freedom to be working alone. But, oh, when my work began to sell! I thought, Damn it, it’s about time!

Christopher Plummer, actor, age 84 on loving the work you do and never retiring:

Q: I keep hearing that staying in shape is crucial past a certain age. Anything else?

A: Yes. And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.

I really appreciated the quote from The Once and Future King, quoted in the piece, on always learning:

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

The whole piece is a must read and worth the click for the photographs as well.

Building the Largest Ship in the World

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The Maersk Triple E is the largest ship ever built. Photographer Alastair Philip Wiper was commissioned to photograph how the ship is being built, and shares his experience on his blog:

The Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) shipyard in South Korea is the second largest shipbuilder in the world and one of the “Big Three” shipyards of South Korea, along with the Hyundai and Samsung shipyards. The shipyard, about an hour from Busan in the south of the country, employs about 46,000 people, and could reasonably be described as the worlds biggest Legoland. Smiling workers cycle around the huge shipyard as massive, abstractly over proportioned chunks of ships are craned around and set into place: the Triple E is just one small part of the output of the shipyard, as around 100 other vessels including oil rigs are in various stages of completion at the any time. The man in charge of delivering the Triple E’s for Maersk is Søren Arnberg, and the Matz Maersk is the last ship he is delivering before his retirement. Søren started his career with Maersk as an engineer in 1976 and has travelled the world since, contributing to the construction of hundreds of ships. Søren is hard-boiled of Dane with a glint in his eye and a dry sense of humor, who is not impressed by much.”It’s just another container vessel, it’s just a bit bigger” he says. “I’ve never been in a project with so much focus. Discovery Channel even made 6 episodes about it. It’s just a ship.” Søren, who is one of the stars of the Discovery Channel series, still hasn’t even watched it. “What are you going to do when you get home?” I ask. “Ask my new boss” he replies, referring to his wife.

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Click here to see the original story (photo gallery) in Wired.

Sarah Marquis, Modern Day Ultra Adventurer

The New York Times has an incredible profile of Sarah Marquis, an uber-adventurer who’s walked more than 10,000 miles, solo:

But then there’s Sarah Marquis, who perhaps should be seen as an explorer like Scott, born in the wrong age. She is 42 and Swiss, and has spent three of the past four years walking about 10,000 miles by herself, from Siberia through the Gobi Desert, China, Laos and Thailand, then taking a cargo boat to Brisbane, Australia, and walking across that continent. Along the way, like Scott, she has starved, she has frozen, she has (wo)man-hauled. She has pushed herself at great physical cost to places she wanted to love but ended up feeling, as Scott wrote of the South Pole in his journal: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Despite planning a ludicrous trip, and dying on it, Scott became beloved and, somewhat improbably, hugely respected. Marquis, meanwhile, can be confounding. “You tell people what you’re doing, and they say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Marquis told me. “It’s never: ‘Cool project, Sarah! Go for it.’ ” Perhaps this is because the territory Marquis explores is really internal — the nature of fear, the limits of stamina and self-reliance and the meaning of traveling in nature as a female human animal, alone.

I’ve read before about the human ability to become hyper-aware in severely stressed environments, but this is on another level:

Eventually, however, Marquis passed out of Mongol territory. The washing-machine cycle ended. Her body changed, and her mind changed, too. Her senses sharpened to the point that she could smell shampoo on a tourist’s hair from a mile away. “One day you walk 12 hours, and you don’t feel pain,” Marquis said. The past and present telescope down to an all-consuming now. “There is no before or after. The intellect doesn’t drive you anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. You become what nature needs you to be: this wild thing.”

Worth clicking through for the read and the embedded videos.

On Sberbank and Cat Lending

In order to capitalize on the mortgage boom in the country, the Russian Bank Sberbank is offering a cat for free to those who get a mortgage. There’s a catch though: the cat is limited to two hours for new homeowners. The Moscow Times reports:

The bank is offering a choice of 10 cats to mortgage-buyers, who will get the pet brought to their door by a new delivery service. According to a special website, KotoService.ru, the felines on offer include a ginger cat called “Apricot” and a hairless cat known as “Kuzya.”

The gimmick appears to be an attempt to maximize profits from Russia’s mortgage lending boom as people watch their savings lose value amid a sliding ruble and rising interest rates.

Here’s the video from Sberbank:

The whole reason for the gimmick? Capitalizing on the superstition that maintains that it is good luck if a cat is the first to enter a new home.

(via Foreign Policy)

The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu

The Atlantic has an interesting preview of Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, coming out in September: 

You needn’t be a linguist to note changes in the language of menus, but Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.”

Putting this book on my to-read list.

Bill Gates on the Future of College

At the National Association of College and University Business Officers Annual Meeting on July 21, 2014, Bill Gates delivered an address on the “Future of College” in America. A transcription is on Mr. Gates’s blog.

Looking at the individual level of opportunity, do people have equal opportunity? The data we see shows that, unless you’re given the preparation and access to higher education, and unless you have a successful completion of that higher education, your economic opportunity is greatly, greatly reduced. There’s a lot of data recently talking about the premium in salaries for people with four-year college degrees. In 2013, people with four-year college degrees earned 98 percent more per hour, on average, than people without degrees. That differential has gone up a lot. A generation ago, it was only 64 percent.

If you look at the numbers more closely, you will also see that unemployment, partial employment, is primarily in people without four-year degrees. Our economy already is near full employment for people with full year degrees. And, so, the uncertainty, the difficulty, the challenges, faced, if you haven’t been able to get a higher education degree, are very difficult already today. And, with changes coming in the economy, with more automation, more globalization, that divide will become even more stark in the years ahead.

So, if we’re really serious about all lives having equal value, we need to make sure that the higher education system, both access, completion, and excellence, are getting the attention they need.

It is unfortunate that, although the US does quite well in the percentage of kids going into higher education, we’ve actually dropped, quite dramatically, in the percentage who complete higher education. We have, amongst developed countries, the highest dropout rate of kids who start. And, understanding why that happens is very, very important. For many of those kids, that experience is not only financially debilitating, being left with loans that are hard to pay off, but, also, psychologically, very debilitating, that they expected to complete, they tried to complete. And, whether it was math or getting the right courses, or the scheduling, somehow, they weren’t able to do that, which is a huge setback.

Worth the read in entirety.

Why Photography Matters: an Airbnb Case Study

This is a superb read on one of my favorite start-ups, Airbnb, and how the company was able to double its revenues after a critical decision was made: get professional-looking photos of the listings.

At the time, Airbnb was part of Y Combinator. One afternoon, the team was poring over their search results for New York City listings with Paul Graham, trying to figure out what wasn’t working, why they weren’t growing. After spending time on the site using the product, Gebbia had a realization. “We noticed a pattern. There’s some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites.  It actually wasn’t a surprise that people weren’t booking rooms because you couldn’t even really see what it is that you were paying for.”

Graham tossed out a completely non-scalable and non-technical solution to the problem: travel to New York, rent a camera, spend some time with customers listing properties, and replace the amateur photography with beautiful high-resolution pictures. The three-man team grabbed the next flight to New York and upgraded all the amateur photos to beautiful images. There wasn’t any data to back this decision originally. They just went and did it. A week later, the results were in: improving the pictures doubled the weekly revenue to $400 per week. This was the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months. They knew they were onto something.

This was the turning point for the company. Gebbia shared that the team initially believed that everything they did had to be ‘scalable.’ It was only when they gave themselves permission to experiment with non-scalable changes to the business that they climbed out of what they called the ‘trough of sorrow.’

Here’s the takeaway:

Gebbia’s experience with upgrading photographs proved that code alone can’t solve every problem that customers have. While computers are powerful, there’s only so much that software alone can achieve. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs tend to become comfortable in their roles as keyboard jockeys. However, going out to meet customers in the real world is almost always the best way to wrangle their problems and come up with clever solutions. 

Read the rest here.