Cubed by Nikil Saval

Weaves together a history of the architecture, interior design, politics, and sociology of the office, from its rise in the countinghouses of the 19th century to the co-working spaces of the present. Made me want to re-watch Mad Men, this time to appreciate all the historical detail in the architecture and furniture that I missed before.

Out of the many things I learned from this book, three surprised me the most:

  • Human Resources as a discipline was invented by Lillian Gilbreth, the wife of the couple Cheaper by the Dozen was based on. It’s original name was Personnel Management, and it was based on the efficient workplace theories of Frederick Taylor.
  • The Larkin Building in Buffalo, NY, one of the first office buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (in 1904), set all the precedents for Google’s offices a hundred years later: rec areas, open floor plans, libraries, and outdoor spaces for employee relaxation.
  • The cubicle farm came out of a 1968 design that was intended by its inventor (Robert Propst) to be a more flexible, individualized, office. In seeking to make something more human than the offices of the past, he inadvertently created the inhuman office of the future.

Hold on to Your Butts

That’s how I feel, like I’ve turned a corner in one of those old mining carts and found the tracks plunge down into the darkness. At the bottom, the climax is there, waiting for me. I couldn’t stop it happening now even if I tried.

So I’m holding on as best I can, gripping the sides of the cart as we hurtle down together, my characters and I. I only hope I can type fast enough to capture everything before we hit the bottom, and it’s all over.

You by Austin Grossman

Another novel that makes staring at a computer screen, thinking, seem more exciting than physical combat. But where Egan took me deep inside the protagonists’ heads to generate that excitement, Grossman goes one level deeper, using second-person narration from the perspective of video game characters to take me down past the narrator playing the game and into the game itself. It’s a genius trick, and the fact that Grossman manages the transition between first and second person without jilting me out of the story is impressive.

To me, it’s an example of second-person done right. It contrasts with novels — such as Charles Stross’ Halting State — that start out in second person, creating immediate dissonance between me and the story. I’ve never been able to get past the first few pages of Stross’ novel, but devoured Grossman’s in a few days.

It also made me miss working in video games. Which is strange, considering how much time it spends describing game developers as ill-fed slobs that don’t have lives outside of work. But that feeling of belonging that the narrator talks about, of discovering where he was meant to be after years spent away from gaming, really hit home for me. The narrator’s descriptions of his childhood in the 80s, even though the character is 10 years older than me, still resonated.

That sense of something important happening when he first sat down in front of a computer, of being on the threshold of the future, didn’t happen to me at the time (I was 6, and not very self-aware), but it could have: I used our Commodore-128 to teach myself how to program, and spent many hours typing in machine language instructions from the back of Compute! magazine in the hopes of being able to play a new game. It didn’t feel like something that was only mine, and not for the adults, but it did feel natural, more so than almost anything else I’ve done, and it still does.

Despite everything it does right, You‘s ending is unsatisfying for me. The climax of the book happens off-screen, and in the final few pages — that I tore through the rest of the book in desperation to reach — don’t resolve anything. Perhaps that makes the ending more realistic, but the lesson for me is twofold: first, show your climax. The reader’s earned it. Second, tie up most of the plot threads you weave into the novel by the end. Leave some of them, sure, but after so much time invested, the reader’s going to want to have some of the tension you’ve built up released. Ideally, showing your climax also releases the tension and resolves multiple conflicts — internal or external — at the same time.

Did Not Know That About Myself

107,187 words in.

I’ve heard other writers talk about how issues they didn’t know they had can show up in their writing, unbidden, like notes from an intimate therapy session suddenly posted on a public bulletin board. But I didn’t think that was happening to me until this morning, when I realized that my treatment of two of the male characters in the novel I’m working on echoes a pattern of behavior from my youth, which itself stems from how my father treated me¬†when I was little.

It shocked me, to think that something I wrote pointed so directly to emotions and expectations that I didn’t know I had. I felt — I feel — very vulnerable now, as if when I finish the novel and hand it over to its first readers, they’ll be able to decode everything about my personality, know all the parts of my self I try to keep hidden in everyday life.

I don’t think I can stop feeling vulnerable, but I tell myself that being vulnerable is part of the writing, that putting these parts of myself down on the page is what makes the characters come alive, that any book that didn’t have more of me in it than I’m comfortable with probably isn’t worth writing. I could be lying to myself, but I hope it’s true.

Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics by Nicholas Wapshott

A remarkable book. Covers not just the development of Keynes’ and Hayek’s positions, but also how they developed in opposition to each other, then moves on to how their followers (both politicians and economists) have continued the argument over the past 70 years.

I’m not sure how balanced the book is. After reading it, my opinion of Keynes is much higher than it was before, and my opinion of Hayek is lower.

Hayek’s economic ideas come across as an obscure version of classical economics, neither very original or very influential. Hayek’s politics, the idea that any government intervention in the economy inevitably leads to fascism, has the whole of recorded history against it, with the last 70 years as a comprehensive refutation.

Keynes, on the other hand, invented the Bretton Woods system, and laid the foundation for the IMF and World Bank. His criticisms of the Paris Treaty that ended World War I led to the US policy of rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II instead of trying to hold them down. Despite politician’s rhetoric, his economic and political ideas are the dominant ones in Western society, and have been since his death.

However, this interpretation of mine could be a result of my natural tendency toward Keynesian thinking, and not a result of any bias in the book. After all, followers of classical economics have been looking at exactly the same world as the Keynesians and coming to different conclusions for decades; perhaps from a Hayekian perspective this book proves just how prophetic he was?

In any case, it did show me the massive gaps in my understanding of the history of both men:

  • Keynes pioneered the now-conservative idea that decreasing taxes is the same as spending money to stimulate the economy. In the US, it was first proposed as policy by Kennedy in 1962 to overcome a mini-recession, and the economic data support Keynes.
  • Keynes invented the discipline of macroeconomics, which is partly to blame for why he and Hayek disagreed so violently: they were really working in different disciplines.
  • Milton Friedman, Hayek’s biggest supporter, actually first adopted Keynesian economics, only rejecting them after his study of the causes of the Great Depression in the US. It was Hayek’s politics, not his economics, that Friedman and the conservative establishment of the UK and US adopted.

Still Surprising

You’d think that after 97,867 words I’d have things pretty well plotted out by now, that I’d know everything the characters are going to say and what they’re going to do.

Far from it. Instead, this far in I find myself knowing what my characters want, and what situations they’re going to have to deal with next. But I don’t know how they’re going to deal with it, or how things will play out, until after it’s written.

Early on, this terrified me. What if what I write is terrible? What if I contradict myself? What if I set them free and they totally derail my plot and everything ends up in shambles?

This past week, though, it’s actually helped me relax and just write. How will they get out of this problem? I dunno, let them solve it. How will they convince this character to help them out? No idea, let’s see if they find a way.

It sounds creepy and weird to say it, like I’ve got multiple personalities crawling around in my brain. But I swear to you, earlier this week one of the characters turned to the other and said the solution to a problem that I’d been wrestling with since November, and it was better than anything I’d come up with. Gave me chills to write it out.

I hope it keeps happening, all the way to the end. It makes the act of writing a little more like an act of discovery, something akin to an improv performance, with me both on the stage saying lines and standing on the sidelines watching.

It’s fun, and I don’t know how long this feeling will last, but I’m going to enjoy it while it does.

Re-Watching: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

As I thought watching the first one, this sequel is a better movie in all respects: a better villain, with a better plot, and with better companions for Watson and Holmes.

In particular, I think this movie handles Holmes’ sacrifice at the Falls perfectly. Using Holmes’ calculated-combat trick here is sheer mastery: we get a physical climax which is reflective of the combatant’s mental sparring — especially when Moriarty gets into the act — and we still get the proper climax of Holmes throwing himself off the falls, legs wrapped around Moriarty, sacrificing himself for the greater good. The fact that we haven’t seen Holmes’ calculated combat since the start of the movie lends this scene extra weight; we’ve been waiting for them to repeat the gimmick from the first movie, so this is a payoff on multiple levels.

Altogether I think Jared Harris makes a brilliant Moriarty, easily my favorite on film, and second only to the portrayal of Moriarty in tv’s Elementary. He’s threatening and clever and cultured, all at once, with a calm exterior that belies a rage bubbling up underneath. He’s not surrounded by stupid minions that have to be cursed every five minutes, he’s surrounded himself with other master criminals, all working to implement his well-thought-out schemes. I don’t think he raises his voice once in the movie, and yet everything he says feels like the important words of a powerful man.

As for the other rough edges from the first movie — the extended action sequences and Irene Adler — those have been polished out.

Adler’s death early on removes a weak actor while lending Holmes’ character more depth and giving him — and therefore us — a personal stake in what had been, till then, a very abstract criminal plot.

The extended mass fight pieces have been entirely cut. We get one acrobatic sequence with Holmes, Madam Simza, and the Cossack, and then the flight sequence where everyone is fleeing the factory. But neither of these degenerate into the general face-punch-kick-ouch-hold-turn-kick tedium from the first movie. The flight sequence in particular is a fantastic use of slow-down effects and running the actors at a different speed from their surroundings to give us a good sense of what’s happening and convey some of the otherwordliness of being on the receiving end of an artillery barrage in that era.