Innovation: Together or Alone

It is very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world.
Steven Johnson

It seems that the determinants of success and creative achievement have become a matter of political debate. We have one presidential candidate who attributes it to individual initiative and one who says, “we succeed because we do things together," one who champions “Big Capital” and one who supports government and corporate collaboration.

In last Sunday’s Times (9/23/12) Steven Johnson, the author of Where Good Ideas Come From, writes about this issue by taking up the question of who created the Internet. In discussing this case, Johnson returns to his claim that, like so many other technologies,

“the Internet was created by—and continues to shaped by—centralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists. (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor…”

I wrote about Johnson’s views here in discussing the culture of the coffee house and here in discussing Where Good Ideas Come From. I imagine he returns to these themes in his latest book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.

In his Times article he claims that we live in a society that credits the development of the most important new products to corporations or government agencies. Johnson takes issue with this view:

“…the institutions responsible for the technology itself were neither governments nor private start-ups. They were much closer to the loose, collaborative organizations of academic research. They were networks of peers.”

They are not motivated by economic incentives, copyright protections, or centralized control of their work. Rather, they are primarily interested in sharing their ideas, and in collaborating with others in developing them further.

Johnson is concerned with “products” as he calls them, to a large extent, technological products. But surely there are other forms of creative achievement. What role do peer networks play in the arts, in writing a great novel or composing a memorable piece of music?

I doubt Tolstoy or Proust sat around with their buddies working on their novels or that Beethoven went down to the coffee house to try out his new compositions with his friends. Their “products” were creations of talented individuals, working alone, long hours, collaborating only with their thoughts and imagination.

Works of art are every bit an innovation as the technologies Johnson discusses. They constitute, at least, one important exception to his view. No doubt there are others that call into question the necessity of collaborative peer networks for creative achievements.


Evolutionary Psychology

…our minds have a stubborn fondness for simple-sounding explanations that may be false. David Barash

Anthony Gottlieb has written (New Yorker 9/17/12) an important critique of the increasing application of evolutionary accounts of human behavior. He writes:

Today’s biologists tend to be cautious about labeling any trait as an evolutionary adaptation—that is, one that is spread through a population because it provided a reproductive advantage. It’s a concept that is easily abused …

While his discussion of evolutionary psychology is wide ranging, I want only to summarize the methodological limitations that in his view, as well as mine, characterize the field. It doesn’t matter what your conclusions are if they are based on a limited, error-prone method.

And there are several methodological weaknesses in most current evolutionary studies of human thought and action.

1. Disentangling the separate effects of culture and biology (e.g. reproductive advantage) is perhaps the greatest difficulty faced by evolutionary psychologists. In the absence of hard evidence, say rigorous, well-controlled randomized experiments, this is a problem for most attempts to explain behavior.

2. Research in this area is of limited value when it is based almost entirely on self reports that are extremely unreliable and subject to a number of biases inherent in the laboratory study of human behavior

3. The vast majority of evolutionary psychology studies are carried out with college sophomores, taking a psychology course, where experimental participation is a course requirement.

4. These studies are also conducted almost entirely with students in Western, industrialized nations largely in the United States.

Establishing very general, universal principles of evolutionary psychology is the goal of this discipline. At the same time, the field seems to have little concern for human variation, for the enormous differences there are between individuals. American college sophomores are hardly the basis for developing such a science.

It is well known they are quite different in several respects (styles of reasoning, individual versus group perspective, etc.) from comparable groups in non-Western cultures. To formulate a set of very general principles is going to require a cross cultural program of research in which a fair number of influential variables are examined in well-controlled, multivariate designs.

While many of these limitations are understood and often acknowledged, they are often forgotten or ignored. The same is true for discussions of other areas of psychology, economics, and sociology. It is unfortunate they are so easily set aside.



Here is a portion of Stefano De Luigi’s contemporary version of Homer’s Odysseus. The link below appeared today on the New Yorker’s online blog. I believe a more complete version will be in the current issue (10/1/12) issue.

I was rather captivated by the video and wanted to pass it along right away. It is very much worth a few minutes to watch and listen.


The New Yorker comments,

This past spring, the photographer Stefano De Luigi set out to retrace the Mediterranean voyage of Homer’s Odysseus, armed with only an iPhone to document his travels. In Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, and Italy, De Luigi took Hipstamatic photos, recorded noises from streets and seas, filmed cities and ships, and asked people he met along the way to read excerpts from the Odyssey in their mother tongue.

“The epic has its roots in an oral tradition, transmitted by itinerant poets, singers, and storytellers,” De Luigi writes. “In contemporary society, the digital revolution has drastically changed the transmission of knowledge and information.


Roberto Calasso

If we continue down this part of my library, it could last for hours, because every book here has a story.

Roberto Calasso has devoted his entire life to books—reading, editing, translating, publishing, organizing, and simply being in their presence. He is director of a prestigious Italian publishing house and author of many books, including the international best seller, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

In an interview in the latest issue of the Paris Review, he is described as, “a writer on esoteric topics, a book collector, a translator of Nietzsche and Karl Kraus, and an editor who oversees the publication of some ninety books a year, in every domain from the scientific to the poetic…”

Calasso’s father was an attorney, a learned legal scholar and most of the books is his library were Latin texts on the theory of law, published between the 16th and 17th century. Calasso recalls how he felt when he was there. “Just to be around them, with their obscure titles and authors, was far more useful to me than reading so many other books later on.”

As they are sitting in his study in Milan, the interviewer asks Calasso to describe it. (What a good question, I thought.) He replies it is like being in paradise. It requires a big table, upon which the books and papers and dictionaries are set in separate piles. Each wall has a different them, one Greece and Rome, another on India, where he has studied Vedic sacrifice.

He is then asked how he organizes his library or to be more exact, his libraries, containing about twenty thousand volumes located in three separate locations in Milan. He replies that to answer the question properly would require an autobiography.

“For me there are several criteria—practical, aesthetic, capricious. The essential thing is to obey what Aby Warburg [founder of the Warburg Library in London] called “the law of the good neighbor.”

Calasso is said to “stand for a lost ideal.” One hopes that there will always be individuals who cherish their books as much as he does, who quite simply want to be around them and enjoy their sensory dimensions. The books I read on a screen have none of that appeal. And I miss that a great deal

One also hopes that there will always be libraries that house books on their shelves, not in the basement or underneath the football stadium. Where are the books in the emerging digital libraries? What will we lose when there are gone?

Here is what will be lost, a collection of some of the most inviting libraries in all the places where they still remain.


Winter Journal

He was running out of time. Everyone was, it was the general condition.”
Ian McEwan

Paul Auster is 65 and devotes a large portion of his recent memoir, Winter Journal, to the matter of growing old. I am a few years older, so I have been devoting an even larger portion of my time to the subject.

Several years before I read Auster’s memoir, I wrote,

“The business of growing old crept up on me slowly. It was not something I had thought about or planned for. There was no course on it in college. And then one day there it was, staring me straight in the face--grey beard, cold, dark hands, brittle bones, wrinkles here and there, and more, of course. … you have no idea how ferocious it will be…

Auster begins Winter Journal similarly,

“You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”

This is the way it is once you realize you’re growing old, there’s no escaping it, and Auster struggles and grumbles about it, as we all do. Winter Journal also meanders around other portions of his life—his mother, lovers, 21 different homes he’s lived in, illnesses, favorite foods, scars from many injuries, and a couple of traffic accidents.

And he has written his memoir in the second person “you” as if to distance him from himself and, to my way of thinking, from his readers too. It does seem a bit contrived.

He writes about a near-death experience somewhat more personally, “…you had learned that death was not something to be feared anymore, that when the moment comes for a person to die, his being shifts into another zone of consciousness, and he is able to accept it. Or so you thought.”

A few years ago I had a similar experience in Florence. At breakfast one morning I drank too much of the strong coffee they in Italy and experienced what is known as a vasovagal reaction, a mild form of fainting. I desperately wanted to lie down and sleep for a bit.

Luckily I happened to be passing by the Palazzo Strozzi, a center of cultural events in Florence. A smart Florentine designed the Palazzo with large stone benches on three of its four sides. They were originally intended as a shady resting place for servants and the motley assortment of characters the palace attracted long ago.

I laid down on one and immediately fell into one of the most peaceful moments of my life. I thought I was coming to the end and it did feel good and I was not at all fearful or worried about a single thing. Alas, I eventually recovered and moseyed off to join my wife for a lovely al fresco luncheon.

I wish I had kinder words for Winter Journal. But it rambles all over the place, with few meaningful insights. Nevertheless, I know that many readers enjoy confessional musings of this sort. For them, the book might be a pleasure

At the end Auster wonders, as we all do once we reach his age, how many days are left. Quite frankly, every day that I wake up, I feel it’s a bit of a miracle.

I am reminded of a film, My Life Without Me, that I saw several years ago. In the film, Ann played by the ever-lovely Sarah Polley, learns she is going to die. She is married and has two young children. She makes a list of things she wants to do before she dies. And does each one, in turn.

If you learned you were going to die, what would be on your list?


After the Season

"People were always saying something had completely changed them, some experience or book or man, but if you knew how they had been before, nothing much really had changed…in truth the most you could expect was to change perhaps one thing and even that would eventually go back to what it had been.” James Salter

In “After the Season,” the first short story in Bernhard Schlink’s new collection, Summer Lies, a middle man and woman meet after the summer crowd has left a village somewhere out on Cape Cod. He walked by a popular restaurant one night, saw the woman sitting alone, reading a book, hesitated for a moment until she looked up and smiled at him.

“Then he took his courage in both hands, walked over to her table, and asked if he might join her.”

No doubt you can see where this is going. Susan is wealthy, has inherited from her former husband a large home and a smaller cottage not far from the restaurant, a condominium in Manhattan, and one in Los Angeles. Richard plays the flute in a New York orchestra, earning a paltry salary that requires him to live in a tacky apartment in a noisy, sometimes threatening, run-down New York neighborhood.

“He didn’t like rich people. He despised inherited wealth and considered earned riches to be ill-gotten.”

Nevertheless, they begin to see each other, then live together, fall in love, and start to plan their future. They spend many hours walking along the beach, cooking, and in bed. Schlink writes that she saw something in him that he was not aware of and he found it impossible to resist the “gift of it to him.”

No doubt he was also taken in by the allure of living like the rich in her New York condo and the end of his financial worries.

Eventually Susan must fly to Los Angeles to work for a while organizing her foundation and his vacation has come to an end. They part at the airport and Richard flies back to New York to resume his work with the orchestra.

After living so luxuriously, it was difficult to get used to his neighborhood. The kids were sitting out on the front steps of their houses, smoking, drinking, and blasting tunes from their boom box. He wasn’t entirely sure he was safe.

However over the years, the neighborhood began to change. He started to meet doctors, lawyers and bankers and could take his visitors out to a decent restaurant. His building wasn’t torn down or renovated to bring it up to date. But that was fine because he liked it the way it was.

“He liked the noises [in the adjacent apartments]. They gave him the feeling that he was living in the real world, not just a rich enclave.”

He had his life there, the second oboist who he met for dinner once a week, the old man who lived on the top floor who came down to play chess with him, and Maria, the kid down the street who wanted to learn how to play the flute.

When he arrived back in front of his building, Richard sat down on its steps, listened to the children playing hide-and-seek, greeted his neighbors who welcomed him back, and waved to his Spanish teacher who was walking by.

“This was his world: the street, the neat houses and the shabby ones, the Italian restaurant on the corner…the foot shops, the newsstand and the fitness center…He hadn’t just got used to this world. He loved it.”

He had forgotten he would have to give up all of this for the new one Susan offered. He would have to decide which one to choose fairly soon. He went up stairs, switched off the light, and went to bed.

I was completely absorbed by “After the Season,” by its reminder of what we so easily forget, and the importance of remembering it once in a while.


Sweet Tooth

The first rule of espionage is trust no one.

Sweet Tooth is the title of Ian McEwan’s latest novel. I was fortunate to obtain a copy of the European edition, long before (November 13th) the US edition will be published. Reading it is such great fun. And it doesn’t take a genius to detect that McEwan had a lot of fun in writing it.

The outline of the story can be told; anything more would spoil it for any future reader. It is a thriller, a spy thriller, layer upon layer of deception, uncertainty, and ambiguity.

McEwan unfolds the tale in a post 60s cold war climate in the voice of Serena Frome, the daughter of an Anglican bishop and his wife, living in a quiet town on the Dorset coast. She enrolls at Cambridge, graduates with a degree in mathematics, although she spends most of her time reading literature, a voracious reader to be sure.

She has several affairs along the way, most notably with a history professor, a former MI5 operative. Their days in his summer cottage are idylls of picnics, walks in the woods and culinary masterpieces. He and only he knows his days are numbered and he decides to groom her for the MI5. (There are two intelligence services in England. MI6 deals with foreign intelligence, while MI5 with domestic security.)

In time, he disappears and she applies for a job with the MI5, is accepted, and assigned to work on project code named Sweet Tooth. The task of this group is to recruit writers (“We don’t tell them what to think. We enable them to do their work.”). She is given the task of trying to enlist Tom Haley, a young writer of short fiction and academic essays.

She reads Haley’s fanciful, bizarre stories that McEwan has sprinkled throughout the novel. It is here where you know he is really having fun.

"I count those hours with his fiction as among the happiest in my time at Five. All my needs beyond the sexual met and merged: I was reading, I was doing it for a higher purpose that gave me professional pride, and I was soon to meet the author. Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage. I was pleased to have been chosen."

The MI5 senior staff agrees that he is worth supporting, whereupon he is given a generous yearly stipend to write whatever he wants, free of his academic responsibilities. They are hopeful he will write the kind of novel that will be sufficiently anti-communistic to justify the expense.

In due course, she falls in love with Haley who reciprocates the sentiment and they have some jolly times together. It is beyond here that I must stop. The tale gets complex, with much duplicity, concealment, and treachery, all the while terribly amusing.

But Sweet Tooth is really much more than a thrilling spy story. In many respects it is a novel about the experience of reading literature. Tom Haley comments, “I like life as I knew it recreated on the page….[but] it wasn’t possible to recreate life on the page without tricks.”

It is also about the blurry line between fiction and reality, moral reasoning about espionage, and what many readers hope to gain from fiction. Serena says, “And I suppose in my mindless way, I was looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favorite old shoes.”

The last chapter is priceless, McEwan at his best. Reading Sweet Tooth is something to look forward to and, in time, no doubt to be seen on the screen at your local multiplex.

Footnote: In an interview, McEwan reports that in researching the novel, he went online and applied to join the MI5. He was then given a set of complex, technical questions that he struggled to answer (all online) and “within a tenth of a second” after they were submitted, he was informed he had been refused.