Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is His The Brothers Karamazov

In an excellent New York Times Magazine piece on Haruki Murakami, Sam Anderson meets with the writer to talk about his latest book being released in the United States: 1Q84. I have pre-ordered it months ago from Amazon.com (you should too), and I can’t wait to read it.

Below, Anderson vividly describes the book and how 1Q84 is Murakami’s The Brothers Karamazov (I’ve read it when I was in high school):

For decades now, Murakami has been talking about working himself up to write what he calls a “comprehensive novel” — something on the scale of “The Brothers Karamazov,”one of his artistic touchstones. (He has read the book four times.) This seems to be what he has attempted with “1Q84”: a grand, third-person, all-encompassing meganovel. It is a book full of anger and violence and disaster and weird sex and strange new realities, a book that seems to want to hold all of Japan inside of it — a book that, even despite its occasional awkwardness (or maybe even because of that awkwardness), makes you marvel, reading it, at all the strange folds a single human brain can hold.

Reading the piece, you come to learn how humble Murakami is. The Little People are characters in 1Q84, and Anderson notes how the idea just came to Murakami:

“The Little People came suddenly,” he said. “I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what it means. I was a prisoner of the story. I had no choice. They came, and I described it. That is my work.”

And in case you’re wondering: do Murakami’s dreams resemble his novels?

I asked Murakami, whose work is so often dreamlike, if he himself has vivid dreams. He said he could never remember them — he wakes up and there’s just nothing. The only dream he remembers from the last couple of years, he said, is a recurring nightmare that sounds a lot like a Haruki Murakami story. In the dream, a shadowy, unknown figure is cooking him what he calls “weird food”: snake-meat tempura, caterpillar pie and (an instant classic of Japanese dream-cuisine) rice with tiny pandas in it. He doesn’t want to eat it, but in the dream world he feels compelled to. He wakes up just before he takes a bite.

This part about translation is fascinating, I think:

Murakami has consistently denied being influenced by Japanese writers; he even spoke, early in his career, about escaping “the curse of Japanese.” Instead, he formed his literary sensibilities as a teenager by obsessively reading Western novelists: the classic Europeans (Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Dickens) but especially a cluster of 20th-century Americans whom he has read over and over throughout his life — Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. When Murakami sat down to write his first novel, he struggled until he came up with an unorthodox solution: he wrote the book’s opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese. This, he says, is how he found his voice. Murakami’s longstanding translator, Jay Rubin, told me that a distinctive feature of Murakami’s Japanese is that it often reads, in the original, as if it has been translated from English.

But as Anderson later notes, Murakami’s “entire oeuvre…is the act of translation dramatized.”

I am currently reading Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance. It might take me some time to finish reading 1Q84, as it’s over 900 pages (Murakami’s take on his book: “It’s so big…It’s like a telephone directory”). I’ve never been to Japan, but reading Murakami’s fiction makes me want to visit. But as you learn from Anderson’s piece, Murakami’s Japan is different from actual Japan in so many ways.

On a final note, do not miss the interactive feature that goes along with Anderson’s piece.

On Presenting to Jeff Bezos

I’ve just stumbled upon an awesome personal story from Steve Yegge, who used to work at Amazon (he’s at Google now). In this post, he explains what it was like presenting to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO.

The first item of business that you should note: Jeff Bezos outlawed PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. As Yegge notes, “If you present to Jeff, you write it as prose.” I’ve bolded my favorite takeaways from Steve’s post:

To prepare a presentation for Jeff, first make damn sure you know everything there is to know about the subject. Then write a prose narrative explaining the problem and solution(s). Write it exactly the way you would write it for a leading professor or industry expert on the subject.

That is: assume he already knows everything about it. Assume he knows more than you do about it. Even if you have groundbreakingly original ideas in your material, just pretend it’s old hat for him. Write your prose in the succinct, direct, no-explanations way that you would write for a world-leading expert on the material.

You’re almost done. The last step before you’re ready to present to him is this: Delete every third paragraph.

Now you’re ready to present!

Back in the mid-1800s there was this famous-ish composer/pianist named Franz Liszt. He is widely thought to have been the greatest sight-reader who ever lived. He could sight-read anything you gave him, including crazy stuff not even written for piano, like opera scores. He was so staggeringly good at sight-reading that his brain was only fully engaged on the first run-through. After that he’d get bored and start embellishing with his own additions.

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realization about him. Who knows how smart he was before he became a billionaire — let’s just assume it was “really frigging smart”, since he did build Amazon from scratch. But for years he’s had armies of people taking care of everything for him. He doesn’t have to do anything at all except dress himself in the morning and read presentations all day long. So he’s really, REALLY good at reading presentations. He’s like the Franz Liszt of sight-reading presentations.

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.

I mean, imagine what it would be like to start off as an incredibly smart person, arguably a first-class genius, and then somehow wind up in a situation where you have a general’s view of the industry battlefield for ten years. Not only do you have more time than anyone else, and access to more information than anyone else, you also have this long-term eagle-eye perspective that only a handful of people in the world enjoy.

In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.

But how do you prepare a presentation for a giant-brained alien? Well, here’s my second realization: He will outsmart you. Knowing everything about your subject is only a first-line defense for you. It’s like armor that he’ll eat through in the first few minutes. He is going to have at least one deep insight about the subject, right there on the spot, and it’s going to make you look like a complete buffoon.

Trust me folks, I saw this happen time and again, for years. Jeff Bezos has all these incredibly intelligent, experienced domain experts surrounding him at huge meetings, and on a daily basis he thinks of shit that they never saw coming. It’s a guaranteed facepalm fest.

So I knew he was going to think of something that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what it might be, because I’d spent weeks trying to think of everything. I had reviewed the material with dozens of people. But it didn’t matter. I knew he was going to blindside me, because that’s what happens when you present to Jeff.

If you assume it’s coming, then it’s not going to catch you quite as off-guard.

And of course it happened. I forgot Data Mining. Wasn’t in the list. He asked me point-blank, very nicely: “Why aren’t Data Mining and Machine Learning in this list?” And I laughed right in his face, which sent a shock wave through the stone-faced jury of VPs who had been listening in silence, waiting for a cue from Jeff as to whether he was going to be happy or I was headed for the salt mines.

I laughed because I was delighted. He’d caught me with my pants down around my ankles, right in front of everyone, despite all my excruciating weeks of preparation. I had even deleted about a third of the exposition just to keep his giant brain busy, but it didn’t matter. He’d done it again, and I looked like a total ass-clown in front of everyone. It was frigging awesome.

So yeah, of course I couldn’t help laughing. And I said: “Yup, you got me. I don’t know why it’s not in there. It should be. I’m a dork. I’ll add it.” And he laughed, and we moved on, and everything was great. Even the VPs started smiling. It annoyed the hell out of me that they’d had to wait for a cue, but whatever. Life was good.

You have to understand: most people were scared around Bezos because they were waaaay too worried about trying to keep their jobs. People in high-level positions sometimes have a little too much personal self-esteem invested in their success. Can you imagine how annoying it must be for him to be around timid people all day long? But me — well, I thought I was going to get fired every single day. So fuck timid. Might as well aim high and go out in a ball of flame.

That last part about not being timid and just laying it out there is so, so good. Will more people at Amazon (or anyone else who reads Steve’s post) change their attitudes because of it?

On Overconfidence and Cognitive Fallacy

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Daniel Kahneman, emeritus professor of psychology and of public affairs at Princeton University, writes about the hazards of overconfidence. His piece begins with an anecdote from his days in the Israeli army and then moves on to lambasting overconfidence of professional investors. A lot of the ideas here I was already familiar with, but I liked Kahneman’s conclusion:

We often interact with professionals who exercise their judgment with evident confidence, sometimes priding themselves on the power of their intuition. In a world rife with illusions of validity and skill, can we trust them? How do we distinguish the justified confidence of experts from the sincere overconfidence of professionals who do not know they are out of their depth? We can believe an expert who admits uncertainty but cannot take expressions of high confidence at face value. As I first learned on the obstacle field, people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians. To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do. Many of the professionals we encounter easily pass both tests, and their off-the-cuff judgments deserve to be taken seriously. In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.

My only gripe: I believe overconfidence is even more systemic than Kahneman posits. I believe there are overconfident dentists, waitresses, accountants, and engineers. What about you?

Jony Ive and Freedom

I’ve pre-ordered Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I’ve been following some news outlets reporting snippets from the book. This bit about the iconic designer at Apple, Jonathan (Jony) Ive, and his independence at the company, struck a chord with me:

In talking with author Walter Isaacson for the book, Jobs revealed that he viewed Ive as his “spiritual partner” at Apple. Showing his trust in Ive, the company co-founder left him more freedom than anyone else in the company — a perk that remains even after Jobs’s death.

“He [Steve Jobs] told Isaacson that Ive had ‘more operational power’ at Apple than anyone else besides Jobs himself — that there’s no one at the company who can tell Ive what to do,” the report said. “That, says Jobs, is ‘the way I set it up.'”

Ive and Jobs became close at Apple, working directly together on designing a number of the company’s core products, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Ive, a 44-year-old native of London, joined Apple in 1996 and has held his current job since 1997.

After I finish reading the book sometime next week, I will post a comprehensive review of my own. Stay tuned.

Insert Great Story Here: The Social Conformity Effect

I learned about the social conformity experiments from my introductory psychology class in college. Jonah Lehrer reminds us about its effects in his latest post:

[O]ur love of stories comes with a serious side-effect: like all good narrators, we tend to forsake the facts when they interfere with the plot. We’re so addicted to the anecdote that we let the truth slip away until, eventually, those stories we tell again and again become exercises in pure fiction. Just the other day I learned that one of my cherished childhood tales – the time my older brother put hot peppers in my Chinese food while I was in the bathroom, thus scorching my young tongue – actually happened to my little sister. I’d stolen her trauma.

Citing a paper in Science, Lehrer explains:

This research helps explain why a shared narrative can often lead to totally unreliable individual memories. We are so eager to conform to the collective, to fit our little lives into the arc of history, that we end up misleading ourselves. Consider an investigation of flashbulb memories from September 11, 2001. A few days after the tragic attacks, a team of psychologists led by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelpsbegan interviewing people about their personal experiences. In the years since, the researchers have tracked the steady decay of these personal stories. They’ve shown, for instance, that subjects have dramatically changed their recollection of how they first learned about the attacks. After one year, 37 percent of the details in their original story had changed. By 2004, that number was approaching 50 percent. The scientists have just begun analyzing their ten year follow-up data, but it will almost certainly show that the majority of details from that day are now inventions. Our 9/11 tales are almost certainly better – more entertaining, more dramatic, more reflective of that awful day – but those improvements have come at the expense of the truth. Stories make sense. Life usually doesn’t.

What I am curious about: how many of us actively realize that we are enlivening our stories? If we were presented with evidence that we have changed our stories, how would we react? That’s an experiment I would like to see.

The Other Zuckerberg

The New York Times has a brief profile of Randi Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s creative and rebellious older sister:

In August, Ms. Zuckerberg, 29, quit her job at Facebook, where she had been among the first two dozen people hired. Most recently, she was the director of marketing. In its early days, Ms. Zuckerberg was a buoyant presence, representing her reticent brother to an eager press. Later, she earned attention (not always favorable) singing at company functions with a band composed of colleagues. And she came up with the idea for Facebook Live, the social network’s video channel, which has featured interviews conducted by Facebook executives with Oprah Winfrey and President Obama.

So is Randi on Facebook and Twitter, then?

Now Ms. Zuckerberg has started her own business, R to Z Media, to help companies take advantage of social media.

Mark and Randi discussing Randi’s compensation package, right before she started working at Facebook:

On her last night there she joined her brother in his office to negotiate her signing package. Mr. Zuckerberg, then 21, sat behind a desk and slipped her a piece of paper with two lines: one with her salary; another with the number of stock options she would receive. She crossed out the stock options, doubled the salary and slid it back. “He took the pen back from me and rewrote the original offer he proposed,” she said. “And, he’s like: ‘Trust me. You don’t want what you think you want.’ ”

Not to miss: a profile of Mark Zuckerberg, published last year.

Blogging Stanford’s Computer Science Courses

It’s been over two years since I last took a course in college, and I felt like I was missing something from my daily life. So when I found out that Stanford was offering a number of its computer science classes on the web, I jumped at the chance. I decided to enroll in the Artificial Intelligence course, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Feeling slightly ambitious, I signed up for the advanced track:

This course is offered in two tracks. The advanced track is intended to be an undergraduate or early graduate level course, and you should plan on spending around ten hours a week or more on it. It will involve weekly homework assignments as well as a midterm exam and a final exam. In order to receive a statement of accomplishment for the advanced track you must take both the midterm and the final exam.

The basic track is for people interested in the material but who do not have time or would prefer not to do homework assignments and exams. You will be able to view the same lectures as the advanced track, and will have access to the homework assignments and exams after they have been completed by students in the advanced track but will not be scored on them. In order to receive a statement of accomplishment for the basic track you must stay active and continue to view material throughout the course.

Turns out, more than 160,000 people signed up for this course. The first week has come and gone, and I’m happy to report that I did well on the first homework assignment.

A number of people are blogging about their experience in taking these computer science courses. For example, Chris Wilson over at Slate is blogging about the machine learning course:

So far, the math in this class has ranged from third-grade arithmetic to multi-variable calculus and linear algebra. This is fortunate for me, because the latter two were the last two math classes I took in college, and I also graduated from the third grade. (Professor Ng reassures us that, if some of the math is over our heads for now, we’ll still be able to do the homework.)  

If anyone is interested, I will blog more about the Artificial Intelligence course and how I am doing in it.

Atlanta, Zombie Capital of the World

How fast can you say “Braaaains”? My hometown, is getting some nice press coverage in The New York TimesNamely, Atlanta is the zombie capital of the world!

That, at least, is what Atlanta Magazine, the glossy monthly, has dubbed this Southern city [editor’s note: the feature in Atlanta Magazine is really worth your time].

It’s not only that “The Walking Dead,” the hit zombie show that began its second season on AMC on Sunday, is filmed and set here. Or that Atlanta holds some of the nation’s largest zombie film festivalszombie paradesand zombie haunted houses. Or that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that staid Atlanta-based federal agency, joined in the fun with a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving a zombie apocalypse.

So why Atlanta as the setting for The Walking Dead?

Robert Kirkman, the Kentucky native who wrote the graphic novel on which “The Walking Dead” is based, wanted the story set in a large Southern city. One of the largest annual gathering of zombies, DragonCon, a fantasy and science fiction convention, happened to be founded by an Atlanta resident. And this sprawling city, with swatches of foreclosed or abandoned property, is easy to make look spooky.

I’ve watched the first season of The Walking Dead. Personally, I think it’s an okay show, but nowhere near as good as, say, Breaking Bad or LOST.

What do you think of The Walking Dead? Is it just a big hype of a show or does it have something special going for it?

On Reading Joan Didion

I’ve only read one novel by Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking. It was depressing, and I vowed to not read anything by her for a while. I still haven’t.

But reading this New York Magazine feature by Boris Kachka, about Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights (slated for release on November 1, 2011), I think I will get back to reading her other novels.

Kachka on Didion’s most famous work:

The Year of Magical Thinking transformed Didion, who looks today like the world’s unlikeliest self-help guru. Perched on a white slipcovered love seat in front of the fireplace in her split-level living room—which is where her husband died—she speaks reluctantly but in sudden crescendos, punctuated by nervous laughs. On a vast coffee table between us sit neatly stacked books of all sizes—many of them unread, she tells me. And all around—on shelves, mantels, and dressers, and arrayed along a hallway that leads to two offices and two bedrooms—are pictures of mostly bygone family. “I hadn’t thought that I was generally a pack rat, but it turns out I am,” she says, showing me around the orderly apartment. “Everything here is a mess.”

By far the best-selling book of her nearly half-century career, The Year of Magical Thinking sold more than a million copies and made its author, for the first time, a truly public figure, even a kind of literary saint—no longer a cult favorite but a celebrity writer embraced by book clubs and heralded in airport bookstores. That success was a disorienting shock, she says—especially the crowds. “People would stop me in airports and tell me what it had done for them,” she tells me. “I had no clue; I hadn’t done anything as far as I could see.”

This seems to be an unconventional, recluse-like attitude:

When that happens, “I go remote on them,” she says. “I actively do not want to be a mentor. I never liked teaching, for that reason.”

Superb analysis here, and how I felt after reading The Year of Magical Thinking:

In each case, she makes the story her own—slyly conflating private malaise and social upheaval, a signature technique that has launched a thousand personal essayists. But sometimes it’s difficult to tell which of her confessions are genuine and which calculated for literary effect, how much to trust her observations as objective and how much to interrogate them as stylistic quirks. Her clinical brand of revelation can sometimes feel like an evasion—as likely to lead the reader away from hard truths as toward them.

So if Didion admits this kind of attitude, how could her books affect the people that read them? It is ironic, to be sure:

In person, Didion does concede to me the occasional hard criticism. She admits that her writing might lack empathy, even human curiosity. “I’m not very interested in people,” she says. “I recognize it in myself—there is a basic indifference toward people.”

 As I’ve mentioned, I will read Didion’s other works. The hard decision, for me, is to choose the right work. I don’t think Blue Nights is it.

The Upside of the Blackberry Outage

After the three-day Blackberry outage across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, The National (the English newspaper of the United Arab Emirates) reports the upside of the said outage:

A dramatic fall in traffic accidents this week has been directly linked to the three-day disruption in BlackBerry services.

In Dubai, traffic accidents fell 20 per cent from average rates on the days BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents this week fell 40 per cent and there were no fatal accidents.

I’d like to see more concrete evidence here, but anecdotally, this makes sense: texting kills.

One statistic from the article that seems excessive to me:

On average there is a traffic accident every three minutes in Dubai, while in Abu Dhabi there is a fatal accident every two days.

Does anyone know of such traffic statistics for other cities around the world?