Jonathan Franzen Travels to Antarctica

Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) went on a three-week expedition to Antarctica and wrote about his experience in the latest issue of The New Yorker. I’ve always liked Franzen’s depictions of life, and this piece delivers:

I’d never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real. A trip that had seemed unreal to me beforehand had taken me to a place that likewise seemed unreal, albeit in a better way. Global warming may be endangering the continent’s western ice sheet, but Antarctica is still far from having melted. On either side of the Lemaire Channel were spiky black mountains, extremely tall but still not so tall as to be merely snow-covered; they were buried in wind-carved snowdrift, all the way to their peaks, with rock exposed only on the most vertical cliffs. Sheltered from wind, the water was glassy, and under a solidly gray sky it was absolutely black, pristinely black, like outer space. Amid the monochromes, the endless black and white and gray, was the jarring blue of glacial ice. No matter the shade of it—the bluish tinge of the growlers bobbing in our wake, the intensely deep blue of the arched and chambered floating ice castles, the Styrofoamish powder blue of calving glaciers—I couldn’t make my eyes believe that they were seeing a color from nature. Again and again, I nearly laughed in disbelief. Immanuel Kant had connected the sublime with terror, but as I experienced it in Antarctica, from the safe vantage of a ship with a glass-and-brass elevator and first-rate espresso, it was more like a mixture of beauty and absurdity.

This commemoration of Ernest Shackleton on the voyage seems excessive:

There wasn’t even a good field guide to Antarctic wildlife in the Orion’s library. Instead, there were dozens of books about South Polar explorers, notably Ernest Shackleton—a figure scarcely less fetishized onboard than the Lindblad experience itself. Sewed onto the left sleeve of my company-issued orange parka was a badge with Shackleton’s portrait, commemorating the centennial of his epic open-boat voyage from Elephant Island. We were given a book about Shackleton, PowerPoint lectures about Shackleton, special tours to Shackleton-related sites, a screening of a long film about a re-creation of Shackleton’s voyage, and a chance to hike three miles of the arduous trail that Shackleton had survived at the end of it. (Late in the trip, under the gaze of our videographer, we would all be herded to the grave of Shackleton, handed shot glasses of Irish whiskey, and invited to join in a toast to him.) The message seemed to be that we, on our Lindblad, were not un-Shackletonian ourselves. Failing to feel heroic on the Orion was a recipe for loneliness.

And this encounter with an Emperor Penguin:

I fetched Captain Graser, who took one look through the scope and let out a whoop. “Ja,ja,” he said, “emperor penguin! Emperor penguin! Just like I was hoping!”

I’d already made a quiet, alienated resolution not to take a single picture on the trip. And here was an image so indelible that no camera was needed to capture it: the emperor penguin appeared to be holding a press conference. While a cluster of Adélies came up from behind it, observing like support staff, the emperor faced the press corps in a posture of calm dignity. After a while, it gave its neck a leisurely stretch. Demonstrating its masterly balance and flexibility, and yet without seeming to show off, it scratched behind its ear with one foot while standing fully erect on the other. And then, as if to underline how comfortable it felt with us, it fell asleep.

The piece reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s epic essay on his first time experiencing a cruise.

On the Minecraft Phenomenon

Clive Thompson, writing in The New York Times, profiles the gaming phenomenon that is Minecraft. It’s a really interesting read on the appeal of the game for both children and adults:

Minecraft is thus an almost perfect game for our current educational moment, in which policy makers are eager to increase kids’ interest in the “STEM” disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math. Schools and governments have spent millions on “let’s get kids coding” initiatives, yet it may well be that Minecraft’s impact will be greater. This is particularly striking given that the game was not designed with any educational purpose in mind.

 On how the game teaches kids autonomy, negotiation, and empathy:

But Minecraft is unusual because Microsoft doesn’t control all the servers where players gather online. There is no single Minecraft server that everyone around the world logs onto. Sometimes kids log onto a for-­profit server to play mini­games; sometimes they rent a server for themselves and their friends. (Microsoft and Mojang run one such rental service.) Or sometimes they do it free at home: If you and I are in the same room and we both have tablets running Minecraft, I can invite you into my Minecraft world through Wi-Fi.

What this means is that kids are constantly negotiating what are, at heart, questions of governance. Will their world be a free-for-all, in which everyone can create and destroy everything? What happens if someone breaks the rules? Should they, like London, employ plug-ins to prevent damage, in effect using software to enforce property rights? There are now hundreds of such governance plug-ins.

Worth clicking through to see the illustrations done by Christoph Niemann.

Pablo Picasso’s Multi-Billion Dollar Empire

I enjoyed this piece in Vanity Fair on Pablo Picasso’s multi-billion dollar empire.

Picasso did not leave a will. The division of his holdings took six years, with often bitter negotiations among the heirs. (There were seven then.) The settlement cost $30 million and produced what has been described as a saga worthy of Balzac. The family, writer Deborah Trustman noted at the time, “resembles one of Picasso’s Cubist constructions—wives, mistresses, legitimate and illegitimate children (his youngest born 28 years after his oldest), and grandchildren—all strung on an axis like the backbone of a figure with unmatched parts.”

It is unbelievable how prolific Picasso was:

When Picasso died, 43 years ago at the age of 91, he left an astounding number of works—more than 45,000 in all. (“We’d have to rent the Empire State Building to house all the works,” Claude Picasso said when the inventory was completed.) There were 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, 30,000 prints, 150 sketchbooks, and 3,222 ceramic works.

Much more here.

The Elements of Effective Teamwork: A Google Experiment

This is a fascinating piece by Charles Duhigg (author of the excellent The Power of Habit) which outlines the steps Google took to understand what made some teams at the company effective, while other teams–though composed of very intelligent members–tended to underperform. The code name for the internal project at Google was Project Aristotle:

Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).

Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.

It’s worth reading the piece in its entirety, but it comes down to the fact that teams where individuals have a chance to speak their minds, engage in mild chit-chat, and share their personal stories and vulnerabilities end up as more cohesive, stronger performing teams compared to the ones that simply get down to business and attempt to get work done.

From the concluding portion of the piece:

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.

And this:

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

From my own personal experience, I can relate to the findings. I’ve tended to perform better in work groups where the managers or my colleagues tended to take an interest in my personal life, either by asking questions or offering advice.

On the Future of Machine Intelligence

This is a very thought-provoking read on the future of machine intelligence and how we will cope with its advancement. The author, Douglas Coupland, begins the narrative with some hypothetical apps that track data (geolocation, etc.) and then paints a dystopian view:

To summarise. Everyone, basically, wants access to and control over what you will become, both as a physical and metadata entity. We are also on our way to a world of concrete walls surrounding any number of niche beliefs. On our journey, we get to watch machine intelligence become profoundly more intelligent while, as a society, we get to watch one labour category after another be systematically burped out of the labour pool. (Doug’s Law: An app is only successful if it puts a lot of people out of work.)

The darkest thought of all may be this: no matter how much politics is applied to the internet and its attendant technologies, it may simply be far too late in the game to change the future. The internet is going to do to us whatever it is going to do, and the same end state will be achieved regardless of human will. Gulp.

Do we at least want to have free access to anything on the internet? Well yes, of course. But it’s important to remember that once a freedom is removed from your internet menu, it will never come back. The political system only deletes online options — it does not add them. The amount of internet freedom we have right now is the most we’re ever going to get.

I found the notion of Artificial Intuition (as opposed to Artificial Intelligence) worth highlighting:

Artificial Intuition happens when a computer and its software look at data and analyse it using computation that mimics human intuition at the deepest levels: language, hierarchical thinking — even spiritual and religious thinking. The machines doing the thinking are deliberately designed to replicate human neural networks, and connected together form even larger artificial neural networks. It sounds scary . . . and maybe it is (or maybe it isn’t). But it’s happening now. In fact, it is accelerating at an astonishing clip, and it’s the true and definite and undeniable human future.

Worth reading in its entirety.

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Note: I usually don’t link to The Financial Times (because of its stringent paywall), but at the time of this post, the article is free to access.

The Cascadia Earthquake

A thought-provoking, and frightening, piece by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker on the very big earthquake that is likely to strike the Pacific Northwest sometime in the future:

The first sign that the Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line. Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt. They are not very harmful, but they are potentially very useful, since they travel fast enough to be detected by sensors thirty to ninety seconds ahead of other seismic waves. That is enough time for earthquake early-warning systems, such as those in use throughout Japan, to automatically perform a variety of lifesaving functions: shutting down railways and power plants, opening elevators and firehouse doors, alerting hospitals to halt surgeries, and triggering alarms so that the general public can take cover. The Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system. When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive. Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest.

Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.

Worth reading in entirety.

A World Without Work?

Are the machines taking over our world? Will they replace the jobs of the future? Derek Thompson explores in his essay at The Atlantic titled “A World Without Work.” Some notable passages below:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment, nor is the United States remotely likely to face, say, 30 or 50 percent unemployment within the next decade. Rather, technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work—that is, on wages and on the share of prime-age workers with full-time jobs. Eventually, by degrees, that could create a new normal, where the expectation that work will be a central feature of adult life dissipates for a significant portion of society.

After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology.

The post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society, Hunnicutt said, people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē,the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.

And then this:

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley. Research has shown that it is harder to recover from a long bout of joblessness than from losing a loved one or suffering a life-altering injury. The very things that help many people recover from other emotional traumas—a routine, an absorbing distraction, a daily purpose—are not readily available to the unemployed.

Derek Thompson’s conclusion:

One theory of work holds that people tend to see themselves in jobs, careers, or callings. Individuals who say their work is “just a job” emphasize that they are working for money rather than aligning themselves with any higher purpose. Those with pure careerist ambitions are focused not only on income but also on the status that comes with promotions and the growing renown of their peers. But one pursues a calling not only for pay or status, but also for the intrinsic fulfillment of the work itself.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people. But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

Very interesting food for thought.