What I read last week
Creativity, Inc. (Ed Catmull)
Unlike many forms of creative expression, the animated movie stands out in the sheer amount of creative labor required for production. As one might expect, creating a great film involves an extremely iterative process where the result often bears no semblance to the original pitch. For instance, Catmull recalls Monsters, Inc. starting as a story of a thirty-year-old dealing with monsters visible only to himself. As a Pixar insider, Catmull provides a great deal of reflection on how to mitigate complacency and pride in an organization whose foundation is creativity. There’s numerous parallels between his take on the process of developing a film and what I’ve read on building a startup, and Catmull also provides a diagonal perspective on Steve Jobs that isn’t covered in most biographies. In general, this was a solid read on building a healthy and robust work environment and a compelling look how an industry is made.
Seeing Like a State (James C. Scott)
Throughout history, it’s surprising how many innovations have been developed solely to help cement the power of the state – for instance, some of the earliest evidence of arithmetic is found in ancient tax records. In Seeing Like a State, Scott argues that the founding of civilizations can be analyzed from the perspective of the “legibility” of society to authority. In contrast to the distributed nature of pre-modern societies, modern states require centralized observability for the vital needs of conscription and taxation. Though centralization is not necessarily an evil – Scott cites the disease-fighting capabilities of the CDC as an example – the 20th century saw a “high modernism” movement characterized by an uncompromising arrogance towards controlling nature and people. With the example of 18th-century European forestry, Scott provides an initial glimpse at how he understands bureaucracies fail to grasp local knowledge. Later initiatives to create projects such as the planned city of Brasilia, the collective farms of Soviet Russia, and the forced relocation of Tanzanian villagers back Scott’s point that central authorities were often incompetent in the face of addressing local externalities. Overall, the arguments and evidence presented in this read are surprisingly diverse and a compelling read for those interested in how those at the top are ill-equipped to control aspects of the economy, society, and nature.
What I’m reading this week
Dune Messiah (Frank Herbert)
A few weeks ago, I finished Dune, which was a fantastic read. As the first book in a long series, the ending left me wondering about a bunch of things, which is why I’m going to read the second one now.
Impro (Keith Johnstone)
I’ve always been intrigued by the skills that improv actors have that enable such spontaneous expression. In a similar sense, it’s hard to recognize the thought cycles that constrain us from agency in daily life. In Impro, Johnstone shares his thoughts on recovering imagination and developing spontaneity.