Why Study History?
Stanford University History Building
I was very surprised and delighted to open Hacker News today and see this in the top stories:
As someone who spent over $200k (or at least had as many money paid on my behalf) on a history diploma I figured I had better know the answer to this question. I found the article to be pretty simplistic and a little gushy after the first read, but after some reflection I’ve realized exactly how precious my education is history is in my daily life.
Everyone knows that there are only two legitimate applications for a history major: teaching and law school. I was still under the naive impression that being a lawyer was like living an episode of Law and Order or Suits until I realized that: (a) I’ll never be Jack McCoy (b) the paralegals are nowhere near as hot as they are on Suits. Seriously, the principle donor for a special scholarship that I received from Stanford and former university general counsel Mike Roster authored several articles and spoke at numerous conferences about an impending bubble in law (particularly in the salaries of first years). I saw what was happening in the financial sector and decided to read the writing on the wall and so, in my sophomore year decided to abandon the career choice that I had been preparing for.
Wanna be a lawyer? Full disclosure, paralegals don’t look like this
I still had plenty of time to change my major to any of a number of degrees that would improve my job prospects, and I considered them all. Truth be told, I’m not naturally a good fit for the degree: I’m dyslexic and read very slowly, I’m very opinionated and creative (creativity is not a quality most historians would consider a merit), and I will sometimes just fudge details if it makes the story I’m telling better. But my time in the department had allowed me to interact with some of the most brilliant historical minds in the world: Jack Rakove, David Kennedy, Richard White, my adviser Jessica Riskin, etc.. This advantage on top of the fact that I had fallen in love with the history corner (especially sneaking their late at night to smoke and watch movies on the projectors) was important at the time, but I didn’t realize the true benefits until much later.
Attending college in Silicon Valley, it was only a matter of time before I was swept up in the tidal wave of entrepreneurial spirit and decided that I would be taking my talents to North Beach (actually Hayes Valley but that just sounded too cool not to say) and start my own company focused on developing a new age music player for Android and iOS. Excuse me? Go back to that part where you were a history major and decided to start a tech company… WTF? That’s the reaction that I have been getting for years now. What most people can’t seem to understand is how my history degree has benefited me in my career as a designer and front-end engineer. A lot of these points are touched on in the article that prompted this post and I won’t beat a dead horse, but I will try and summarize:
1. Handling EvidenceOne of the most important qualities of a historian is the ability to discern the reliability and objectiveness of the sources that we handle. Unlike mathematicians or engineers, historians evidence is collected through very subjective (non-scientific) methods, and separating the objective “truths” from their human context is the most arduous task. For this reason we, historians, are the ones who read all of the footnotes at the end of the book, or read conflicting accounts of what is presented to better determine the objectivity of the source.
2. A fresh take on old ideasOne of the first lessons that I learned as a history major was that if you think you have something interesting to say, it has already been said a thousand times. How then are you supposed to make novel and insightful contributions in a field when bright minds have been at work for centuries? This is the challenge that excited me the most about History as a subject. For this reason, I am immensely proud of the papers that I wrote.
3. Everything is obvious
Finally, a historical perspective allows you to take a wide angle view of problems and challenges when you approach them. When I am under a lot of pressure to get something huge done and feel that I don’t have the resources or skills to execute it puts me at ease to think back to the many people who have accomplished a great feat largely thought to be impossible at the time. My music start-up set out to reinvent the iPod, and it was a big part of our pitch to remind potential investors and hires about how the iPod came out of nowhere to dominate the market, and how such a small thing catapulted Apple into the world’s most valuable company.
Today, I spend most of my time between Unix and Photoshop and at times even wonder how in the world a degree in history has prepared me for any of this. But something about searching Stack Overflow for a solution through mountains of conflicting solutions reminds me of all those nights spent late in the library searching thousands of pages for one sentence that is going to prove my thesis. When I’m in a meeting with a client and they ask me what’s special about my technology I flash back to my seminar classes while I (without thinking) rattle off the history of the entire industry and why this is the future. I could go on and on about how my degree has helped me in my daily life but I would recommend you reading the article. I only share my two cents because I hope that there is some high school senior or college freshman out there who loves history but still wants to be employed when they graduate.
The FuelBand by Nike, which has become an unlikely leader in wearable computing.
As design continues to gain recognition as a necessary ingredient to consumer success, the massive competitive edge that Apple had built during the Steve Jobs era appears to have dwindled more quickly than anyone could have predicted. It’s not that Apple has completely plummeted, its that a digital renaissance is taking place, and the leaders are graduating from places like RISD and Stanford’s D-School. Rest assured, the web is becoming a beautiful thing.
“We’re on the tail end of technology being special,” says John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design. “The automobile was a weird alien technology when it first debuted, then, after a while, it evolved and designers stepped in to add value to it.” …
The worship of design has also taken designers out of the back offices and into top executive jobs. Engineers are still in the mix, to be sure. But they don’t rule the roost in product development, which may also be why tech products are easier to use, more human.
Review: Cloud Atlas
This week I went to the movies to see a movie that I have anticipated the most this year (yes, more than Django Unchained, Lincoln or the final installment of Nolan’s Batman) and that is for one reason and one reason only: Cloud Atlas, the 2004 novel by David Mitchell is my favorite work of contemporary fiction. I could qualify that by saying that I am not a big fan of fiction and am more of a non-fiction historical type, but nonetheless I would recommend this book above any book not written by Erik Larson. For those who have not read the book I will attempt to summarize it as concisely as possible.
Cloud Atlas is a delicately crafted novel in which the author tells six separate stories in strikingly convincing and widely varied styles, all the while weaving grand themes and spectacular lessons subliminally into characters who are connected despite spanning several centuries. The story takes the form of an artichoke heart, the reader is given the first half of the first five stories, then the sixth story in full (the heart) and finally the second halves of the stories. Upon first reading the book, the switching between the stories is very abrupt, precisely because the author is do adept at writing in radically different styles from flowery 20th century to post-Apocalyptic pseudo-English garble. While this sounds troubling this is one of the qualities that makes the book so enjoyable. It is an insanely satisfying read that then culminates in succession, and if delivered in any other format the lessons that the book seeks to deliver could never be as fulfilling.
For this reason I start my critique of the movie on that very subject: the format. Unlike the book, the movie’s directors (Tom Tykwer and the Wachowiskis) decided to tell all of the stories at once, rapidly leaping from story to story in clips that ranged in length. Most people who have read the book considered it “unfilmable” and the screen adaptation survives by changing the way the story is told, climaxing each tale around the same time, which is vastly different from the experience of the book. As a result the user is not allowed to get as deeply invested in each story and much nuance is lost. On top of this the stories are dramatically cut short, with mounds of details omitted (obviously for the consideration of time; the movie was still nearly three hours). That these stories contain so many rich details and that the user reads significant portions of each story before moving to the next are the two qualities that make the book so good, and both of these factors are lost in the way that it is adapted for screen. It is not a clear adaptation of the book: the cast is recycled throughout the stories to crudely recreate what Mitchell accomplishes in the book which is far more subtle than caking layers of makeup on Halle Berry until she looks like an Korean man (in all honesty the makeup is a little over the top and comical at times).
But don’t let my critique scare you… I loved this film. The world that is created in the film is at least visually on par with the audaciously imaginative book. The special effects in “An Orison of Sonmi~451” are breathtaking, although I wish the story had been given a lot more gravity. Some stories are told better than others in the film version, and I was very pleased that my favorite story, Letters from Zedelgham, is the best delivered part of the film. The cast isn’t perfect, but doesn’t disappoint (Doona Bae was incredible as Sonmi, Hanks was hit or miss as many characters throughout, James D’Arcy is perfect as Sixsmith, Halle Berry is merely satisfactory throughout). Regardless of your opinion of the acting or the adaptation the story is thoroughly entertaining because it is a feast for the eyes: there is gore, sex (oh yes… there are tits), raging special effects, and diverse locations and settings (think Inception on speed).
It is sad that this movie could not deliver the same satisfying and intricate message that the book delivers but I am convinced that this was not for lack of effort, but more because such a goal was unattainable from the start. If I were to grade this movie on how well it succeeded in delivering Mitchell’s story in movie form I would have to grade it poorly, the only way to experience the true brilliance of the masterpiece is the old fashioned way. But If I were asked to grade this story on how well it took the essence of this film and adapted it into an enjoyable (semi) digestible work of art, then it was a raging success. I can understand how the author came to approve this adaptation knowing full well that the general public would get a watered down rushed version of his masterpiece, and I assume that he, like I, is hoping that this film might inspire more people to actually go back and read the book (although some of the greatest twists in the plot would have been ruined already by the film). It is for this reason that I make my final grade and recommendation for this film:
It will take me seeing the film again to ultimately decide if it was closer to a B or an A, but I’m leaning toward giving it an A. If you have read the book then you will enjoy this film, if you have not read the book then you could possibly emerge thoroughly confused and unsatisfied. For this reason I would recommend anyone who has not read the book to start reading it and watch this film when it comes out on Blu Ray. I promise you it will be so much better that way. As for me I am going to start re-reading the book in my spare time and I too will see the film again when it comes out on Blu Ray, as it is certainly going to be added to my collection.Cloud Atlas on IMDb