Author Archives: kirk.kittell

Madman Brooks

So there I was, shuffling through articles that I hadn't read yet in Instapaper. Up comes an edition of Oliver Burkeman's The Imperfectionist newsletter: "Dailyish". In it he links to an interview he did with Jerry Seinfeld in 2014 for The Guardian: "Jerry Seinfeld on how to be funny without sex and swearing". In that article I discovered that there was an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that had Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks in it. I practically ran to find the remote control so that I could pull it up on Netflix.

I love Mel Brooks. For good or ill, he's been a big inspiration to me, mainly through Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Those are the finished works, but his interviews are even better—they're kinetic, maniacal. Even at 80-something in the show above, he's still jumping out of his chair and running for the door to give the full measure of slapstick to his jokes.

The best interview is his 1975 in Playboy—you can read it here, not there.

PLAYBOY: What’s so special about your comedy?

BROOKS (snatching up the receiver as the phone rings): This is Mel Brooks. We want 73 party hats, 400 balloons, a cake for 125 and any of the girls that are available in those costumes you sent up before. Thank you! (Slams the receiver down) You were saying?

I don't know if "aspire" is the right word here. We'll make it work. That sort of immediate reaction to whatever is immediately available, and then taking off at a dead run in whichever direction is there to go, careening off whatever is there to careen off, knowing that he can run and jump off whatever he wants to and stick the landing—maybe not stick the landing, but a landing—that's what I try to do. It's not polished, but it is practice. That kind of full throttle will run you directly into a wall if you don't know how to drive. Move and move and move and see what works and feed it back into the system and keep moving.

Suitable challenges

I don't work well without a bit of pressure. I'm not sure if that's healthy or not. When there are more stakes riding on something, or when the probability of failure is a bit high—it's easier to concentrate, to sift out the useful work from the useless work.

It's like when the going is smooth, or if there is little pressure, I'm some kind of nebula of free-floating particles that might have the same mass as a planet or star, the same potential for order and purpose, but none of the strength. It's all there but it doesn't come together. Under pressure something forms out of that shapelessness.

I don't know if the better approach is to be able to meet all challenges vigorously—the great and the small alike—or if my approach is etched in, a well-worn groove that has always been there and will always be waiting for me when I need it.

I prefer pressure—sometimes, not all the time—because of the calmness it brings. Inside my head is a giant soundboard, like in a recording study, and when the time is right, I can lean over and turn down channels, one by one, until only the crystal sound of what needs to be done is left. I don't want to tune out so much all the time—life is in all that noise—but there's that feeling when the channels fade out, a closed-eye pursed-lip puff of air, a weight being lifted, then a breath in, eyes open, and stride out into the field.

Exhibition of rejects

While writing the newsletter on Monday, I made a reference to impressionist art—which I didn't know that much about other than what was in a few faded images in a drawer in a spare room in my mind, so I had to go digging for some clever-sounding words to back myself up. As it happened—as it always happens—the search for one specific thing turned into a meander among many things, no end goal in mind after the initial goal was reached. Link upon link upon link. That's the way the minutes go.

I did land on something interesting: Salon des Refusés. (Wikipedia, etc.) The very short version is: in 1863, a number of artists had their work rejected for an annual art competition held by the French government and managed by conservative judges with an interest in maintaining the Right Kind of Art. So they protested, and the emperor organized a second show to mollify them: Salon des Refusés—the exhibition of rejects.

Here's a paper (that I haven't read yet but have queued up) that explains the exhibition's affect on the trajectory of art: Boime, Albert. "The salon des refusés and the evolution of modern art". Art quarterly 32 (1969): 411-426.

I don't know much about painting. I'm not terribly interested in it, though I'll give it a go in a gallery if I've got time and space to blank my mind and stare. I don't like to cruise by walls and walls of paintings. Let me have a few minutes with one. Thank you for coming to my TED talk about art.

What I do know is that the idea of displaying rejected work in its own show—a well done, unironic show—sounds like a fine idea for (a) finding work that shouldn't have been rejected in the first place, (b) laughing at the bad, and (c) sifting interesting ideas and approaches from the semi-bad. A terrible drawing might have the germ of an idea that didn't develop, but in the right environment or care transforms into something amazing.

Strip out the things you want, and bury the rest. Test your luck, test your skill, and if it doesn't work out, exhibit the rejects. ("I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself down through the generations. Westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we - ah, look at me. I'm ramblin' again.")

To know is to kill

There’s no happiness without knowledge. But the knowledge of happiness brings unhappiness, because to know that you’re happy is to realize that you’re experiencing a happy moment and will soon have to leave it behind. To know is to kill, in happiness as in everything else. Not to know, on the other hand, is not to exist.

—Fernando Pessoa (translated by Richard Zenith), The Book of Disquiet

This line has been revolving around my head all day. Sometimes I can make sense of it. Sometimes not. Maybe if it would just stand still for a second? If I don't know what it means will I ever be happy?

Bonus: Thomas Swick. "Wandering Through Literary Lisbon in Search of Pessoa’s Disquiet". Literary Hub (2020-06-24)

It works, 2

Previous: It works (2021-04-19)

Trailhead: Eric Berger. "‘After a dozen flights, NASA’s chopper has yet to come a cropper". Ars Technica (2021-08-17).

The Mars helicopter Ingenuity is still going and going and going. Twelve flights in four months doesn't sound like much—but it's an amazing solar-powered toaster with rotary wings in a low-density atmosphere with no one around to set it upright or mend its body if something goes wrong. There are flying things of all shapes and sizes and methods here on much, so perhaps it doesn't seem as magical as it is. Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner (an amazing solar-powered toaster with rotary wheels) were also not that much compared to the robot vans on Mars today, but they tested out some methods and technologies that led to bigger and better missions.

One day it will be commonplace for aircraft of various kinds on Mars, providing the kinds of footage that can't be supplied from the ground or from orbit. Balloons, planes, helicopters. The interesting regions of Mars—the ones that will be in the final running for landing sites for human missions—will be known in fine detail before anyone gets there. It won't be a matter of if these robots will be able to fly, but how many and where and what kinds of robots will be flying there.

Every day is a day

"Well it's Groundhog Day. Again."

Every day is a new day is a casual fiction that we tell ourselves. We can break with our pasts and our futures, and light the fuse on our presents and—hey presto—off we go. I don't know about that. The past is a mystery and the future is history and today is a graft.

"There is no way that this winter is ever going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don't see any other way out. He's got to be stopped. And I have to stop him."

I'm not quite sure I ever had a plan for where I was going to take this mess of words.

I love middle age. Before I can finish saying "I can't believe it's Monday already" it's Thursday. Time is loaded into a cannon and the guy lighting the fuse doesn't even wait for you to get out of the way.

Outside of a traumatic experience, we get to wake up connected to the past and the future. Every day is a new day, but only if you don't examine it closely. It looks an awful lot like the day before, and the day before that. That's not the worst thing (love the process, keep pushing things forward) unless you're just coasting to a halt.

Every day is a slightly new day, maybe—you can tell it's not factory-new because it doesn't have that new day smell. Someone has been driving this day. Was it you? Maybe if you had to slightly change one small thing on your slightly new day, spend a little time behind the wheel yourself. Drive it into the quarry for all I care, but drive it.

Reference, 2

Previous: Reference (2021-07-30)

After reading a book or paper—the boring, sometimes informative kind, but I suppose that's obvious from the title of the post—I grab a pile of references and store them nicely and neatly in a place where I will never ever look at them again. I do this dutifully. I don't know why.

I finished reading Managing with Power a week or two ago, then tonight I thumbed through the bibliography and grabbed citations for books and papers that I remembered from the text, or had titles that seemed like something I wanted to read.

Hold on—just wanted to address the last sentence in the first paragraph. I think I know why. Even when alone, there is some kind of strange allure to appearing smart. Nobody knows I'm jotting down all these academic reference, but I still get something of the... I don't know... dopamine response to behaving in a way that would get some kind of "check out the big brain on this guy" reaction. It's weird. Not surprising, I suppose. We all have our self-images that we fight to maintain.

Anyway, here I am with a pretty large pile of references about psychology and sociology and so on in large organizations. I'm glad someone's thinking about it. Large organizations could use some work. But am I really going to sit down with those and read them? Any of the papers? Any of the books? Maybe. Should I? I'm not totally convinced. Is that the thing I want to know more about? To be better at? Sort of—in a stiff-arming-the-thing-that-annoys-me kind of way, it would be nice to navigate large organizations without getting mired in the hassles. But is that as interesting as doing the job itself better? No, not really. But do you ever get to just do the job in a large organization. No, not really. So, learning how to do the job and survive the culture both have a place, for good or ill. Interested yet? Eh. Not as interested in reading the references as collecting them, perhaps.

The Last Days

The 1998 documentary The Last Days has recently been added to Netflix. We watched it tonight—I'm not sure how we stumbled into it, but the algorithm probably noticed that we've watched The Pianist and Schindler's List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and several movies and shows about Nanjing, so we get more Holocaust movies served to us.

I think I could understand it if someone said—prior to receiving evidence, of course—that they didn't believe such a thing happened. It's a scale and a brutality—scales and brutalities—that are hard to square with human activities. On the surface, at least. Below the surface, I think we see ourselves and the people we know and the people we don't know, and we understand. I think it's an unsettling feeling, this under-surface thought. We can imagine ourselves in any one of the roles in this story—any and all of them, not just the valiant and the dispossessed, but the aggressors.

The sound of leaves we couldn’t see

Not even we could say what homes, duties and loves we’d left behind. We were, in that moment, no more than wayfarers between what we had forgotten and what we didn’t know, knights on foot defending an abandoned ideal. But that explained, along with the steady sound of trampled leaves and the forever rough sound of an unsteady wind, the reason for our departure, or for our return, since, not knowing what the path was, or why, we didn’t know if we were coming or going. And always, all around us, the sound of leaves we couldn’t see, falling we didn’t know where, lulled the forest to sleep with sadness.

The entirety of fragment 386 in Richard Zenith's translation of Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet is perhaps my favorite of the book so far, about two-thirds of the way through. It's a long fragment—a few whole pages. The whole thing loops and meanders and doubles back on itself, very much like being lost in the woods in the dark. It's full of pair's contradictions—things that are and aren't, things that are done together alone or alone together. The scene is familiar but unknown, unknowable. And always there is a soft sound of leaves falling at the periphery.

The whole fragment is, I think, this long metaphor about what life is. There is no point, or maybe we forgot what it is, and there is no destination, but we have to move onward. And always the contradictions—as if you couldn't make sense of what is without also considering what isn't. And always a soft sound at the periphery, reminding you that what you can see is only a part of the whole.

All models are wrong

All models are wrong

Now it would be very remarkable if any system existing in the real world could be exactly represented by any simple model. However, cunningly chosen parsimonious models often do provide remarkably useful approximations. For example, the law PV = RT relating pressure P, volume V and temperature T of an "ideal" gas via a constant R is not exactly true for any real gas, but it frequently provides a useful approximation and furthermore its structure is informative since it springs from a physical view of the behavior of gas molecules. For such a model there is no need to ask the question "Is the model true?". If "truth" is to be the "whole truth" the answer must be "No". The only question of interest is "Is the model illuminating and useful?".

—Box, George EP. "Robustness in the strategy of scientific model building." Robustness in statistics. Academic Press, 1979. 201-236.