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Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

From The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard W. Hamming, via Marginal Revolution.

I never thought about it this way, in terms of compound interest, but I have felt that there was an advantage to writing every day for an hour, that it was much more effective than writing only a couple times a week or just writing when “inspiration” (hah) strikes.

The hardest and in my opinion, most important, part of filmmaking is the script (improvised work aside), so it makes sense to me that that’s where you would want to focus your most precious energy and time, day in and day out, because that’s where the biggest returns will be. The ratio of (indie) films with good production value but poor writing to great scripts with poor production value is very high in my opinion. This seems somewhat backwards to me, as production value costs a lot of money but writing costs only time and most of us are broke or don’t have access to a lot of money, but we can all squeeze out an hour a day to write, if we look hard enough. Not that I’ve written anything great yet.

I started to wonder what I was doing there

I found this line in Michel Houllebecq’s Submission:

I started to wonder what I was doing there. This very basic question can occur to anyone, anywhere, at any moment in his life, but there’s no denying that the solitary traveler is especially vulnerable.

It reminded me of:

At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.
-Albert Camus

I finished Submission last night and it’s one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read. It’s not at all what I expected it to be and apart from being superbly written, it’s left me with a lot of questions.

Thanksgiving reading

Some of the things I’ve been reading while at home over the break:

Editing and Forwards

Episode 16 of Gimlet Media’s Startup podcast, titled “The Secret Formula” has a really interesting discussion about how Gimlet (and presumably This American Life and other highly-produced podcasts and radio shows) put together their shows.

The process is a lot like film editing, without the visual element of course. The episode basically turns out to be a how-to on how to edit a radio story and it’s comforting to know that it’s not an easy process. They start with a very rough cut, go through it and figure out where it “drifts,” and then making subsequent re-edits to improve the story until it’s working and interesting throughout.

It’s also comforting to know that this is more or less the approach I take when I edit video — whenever I get feedback (or give myself feedback), I look for the places in a script or the video where the action stalls. I really like the term drift though, because it’s more descriptive of the audience’s experience. Stalling is about the work, drifting is about the audience.

And they go into one technique that they use to keep people interested and moving forward, especially before a commercial break. They call it a “promote forward.”

The use of the term “forward” struck me because I just read a book called “Backward and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays” by David Ball. The book is fascinating on a lot of levels. As a reader, I learned that my understanding of Hamlet as a brooding man of inaction is entirely wrong and that he doesn’t actually contemplate suicide, he only feigns to be depressed and crazy in order to convince Polonius et al. that he is.

I don’t know if there’s a “right” interpretation, but I had never thought of that one.

The book is intended for theater creators, mainly directors, but it also serves as a technical guidebook for play-writing or screenwriting without falling prey to the “paint by numbers” approach of most of the dreck written about screenwriting.

One of the theses of the book is that a good play (or dramatic writing of any form) uses forwards throughout to keep the reader moving. Ball summarizes it:

A forward is any of a myriad of devices, techniques, tricks, maneuvers, manipulations, appetizers, tantalizers, teasers, that make an audience eager for what’s coming up. If you miss a script’s forwards, you miss the playwright’s most distinctive, gripping tool. What stripper does not know that the promise of nudity more excites an audience than does nudity itself?

Effective dramatic writing hinges on the ability to keep the audience wanting to know what happens next. Forwards eliminate drift. Suspense isn’t relegated to certain genres; it’s everywhere.

Only people who don’t give a damn have style

Canseco has been described as a charmer and a clown, but in fact he is a rogue, a genuine one, and genuine rogues are rare, inside baseball and out. It’s not enough to flout the law, to be a rogue–break promises, shirk responsibilities, cheat–you must also, at least some of the time, and with the same abandon, do your best, play by the rules, keep faith with your creditors and dependents, obey orders, throw out the runner at home plate with a dead strike from deep right field. Above all, you must do these things, as you do their opposites, for no particular reason, because you feel like it or do not, because nothing matters, and everything’s a joke, and nobody knows anything, and most of all, as Rhett Butler once codified for rogues everywhere, because you do not give a damn

…and this…

We have no style, you and I; only people who don’t give a damn have style.

– “On Canseco” from Manhood For Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Really enjoyed this book. And Canseco would’ve made a good Godard character.

Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary (!)

I read Hitchcock/Truffaut earlier this year. It’s a fantastic book. Hoping to catch the documentary at CIFF.

Fiction is the truth, fool!

You should never just read for ‘enjoyment.’ Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior; or better yet, your own. Pick ‘hard books.’ Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for God’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, ‘I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.’ Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of ‘literature’? That means fiction, too, stupid.

John Waters in his memoir, Role Models (via austinkleon)

It doesn’t matter what the MacGuffin is

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the “MacGuffin” is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatever.

– Hitchcock in Hitchcock/Truffaut

I was relieved to read this the other day because I’m working on a script has an object of desire that sets off the action of the entire story, but I was worried that the object was too… unbelievable. Part of that unbelievability drives the humor, but I don’t want people reading/watching the movie and thinking “yeah, that was illogical.”

It reminds me of something an improv teacher (I can’t remember who) told me a long time ago about plausibility vs. believability: that plausibility, in the storytelling context, means “would this actually happen?” Believability means “given these circumstances, are things unfolding in a believable way.”

That’s why you can watch True Blood and be interested or entertained without tossing the whole thing out on the premise that vampires could never exist. Given that they do exist in this world, are things playing out in a believable way? OK, maybe True Blood isn’t the best example1 but the point remains.

Reading this book has made me realize how much I need to watch more Hitchcock.


  1. One reason I stopped watching that show was that the world kept changing–just one you thought you knew what the rules were, they changed, often at the precise moment that the protagonist needed them to change 

Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I love books about writing. I think for me they serve as sort of a moral support to keep me going. I don’t know that they’re particularly informative or can really teach you to be a better writer, at least if you’re not writing a lot already.

Anyway, I’m reading On Writing by Stephen King now. Actually, I’m listening to the audiobook. It’s a really good read (listen?) even though it’s geared more towards novelists and it had a lot of his personal history, which I wasn’t really expecting. Part memoir, part discussion of the craft. And I haven’t read many of his books either.

Anyway, I’m not going to review the book or anything. But there was one passage that made me laugh, where he says something like “every writer remembers the first time they put a book down because they just can’t stand to read it.” And that reminded me of the first time I did that.

I was in a hostel in Lisbon, Portugal and somehow I had acquired a John Grisham novel. Not one of the more well-known ones. I have no idea which one it was, this was maybe 13 years ago. And I remember being hungover in this hostel and having absolutely nothing else to read and just trying to slog through it but the plot was so emotionally manipulative and the dialogue was so awful that it would make me anxious whenever someone was about to speak.

And I just had to stop reading it, even though it meant having nothing else to read except for the weird rantings on the side of my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap, which is not really a good read per se but can occupy your mind because the writing is so convoluted and hard to decipher.

I had read John Grisham in high school and remembered liking the stories so I thought maybe I just grew out of them? Or maybe this one was just a bad apple. I don’t know. Later on in the trip I stumbled upon The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy and boy was that good travel book because it sucked me in and was like 900 pages. And even though the writing wasn’t Dostoevsky or anything, it was good enough to not want to throw the book out the window and make it through.

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