Intelligence, Wars, and The Great Silence

4 minute read

The Great Silence, or The Fermi Paradox is the following:

The universe is extremely big: there are more stars than grains of sands on all of Earth’s beaches (or 5x-10x more than that, depending on your approximations). And around many of these stars are orbiting planets. It is estimated that, in our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are forty billion planets that could support life. The universe is also extremely old: 13.8 billion years old. And we’ve only been around for the last 12.3 million years. If the age of the universe was a year, (called a cosmic year), multicellular life first appeared on Earth on December 5th, humans showed up on December 31st at 2:24pm, domesticated fire at 11:44pm, started farming at 11:59:32, created the wheel at 11:59:49, and modern history/when the first bottle of Dom Perignon was popped by a French monk in 1697 occurred at 11:59:59.4.

Due to enormous size and elderly age of the universe, it is reasonable to believe that intelligent life MUST have arisen throughout the universe on many, many occasions. And it is also reasonable to believe that at least ONE of these intelligent, technology-wielding life forms would have had more than enough time to spread across the universe.

So where are they?

As Ted Chiang wrote, in The Great Silence, “The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet. Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct before they can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hush of the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.”

Ted Chiang is one of my inspirations. Thank you Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang goes on to talk about intelligent life being out there and aware of us but staying quiet. But I’m more interested in the second idea. When I first read the “universe being a silent graveyard” thought, a theory popped into my mind: What if the intelligence required for ANY life form to leave a planet is also the seed of its self-destruction? Because what does it take for an intelligent life form to leave its planet?

  1. Most likely a sense of identity (Me exist in universe. Me explore universe). Species being aware of themselves can lead to conflict and competition.
  2. A harnessing and concentration of a planet’s resources (Me bring things on planet together to build a ship and leave planet). More conflict and competition. And perhaps exhaustion of planet’s resources.
  3. Knowledge (Me know how to survive in space for long time). Knowledge is power. Power corrupts absolutely…unless you’re George Washington.
Illustration: joecicak (Getty)

Add to this that an asteroid could hit a planet at any time and wipe out your species (sorry dinosaurs). Or, a thought-less thing on the planet could replicate uncontrollably and kill you (F U viruses.)

We were so careful, even wearing masks outside, until the asteroid hit…

And we only have to look at ourselves as a case study to see the danger of intelligence sophisticated enough to engage in space exploration.

During the extremely brief span of the last 110 years, we’ve sent humans to the moon and probes to Mars, well done humanity, but we’ve also accelerated climate change, built nuclear weapons, had two World Wars, and dropped two nuclear bombs that killed over 150,000 people instantly (and 214,000 by 1945).

I can’t help but compare humanity to the literary trope of the genius being linked with insanity/sickness. Our greatest artists were often insane, tortured, suicidal, cruel, extreme. Not all of them, but Caravaggio was a notorious criminal and murderer, Michael Jackson a child molester, Michael Jordan an addicted gambler (when MJ was asked how he could lose $3,000,000 one night in a casino, he replied, “I don’t like to lose,”) Eminem was only good at rapping when he was on drugs, Van Gogh cut off his own eye after a fight with his friend Gauguin then gave the ear to a prostitute, Joanne Rowling suffered through a disastrous marriage and an abusive husband, Frida Kahlo experienced incredible pain, the list goes on. To create great art often means an extreme personality has to experience extreme suffering or take risks and actions that could also potentially cause the creator’s demise. So maybe the great art of having the “species-capability of leaving a planet and exploring the universe” is inextricably linked up to species-destructive behavior? If you are a high-achieving individual, often something else has to give or in some way you have to pay.

Carvaggaio: “I paint, then I kill, then I paint, then I kill.”
Sin Esperanza / Without Hope by Frida Kahlo

Recently I finished reading Jeff Hawkins excellent book, published last year, A Thousand Brains. (Notes on it below.) Highly recommend. And he shared the theory I proposed above, using this analogy (invitation to a party = intelligence in the universe, attending the party = exploration of the universe for other life forms):

“Imagine fifty people are invited to an evening party. Everyone arrives at the party at a randomly chosen time. When they get there, they open the door and step inside. What are the chances they see a party going on or an empty room? It depends on how long they each stay. If all the partygoers stay for one minute before leaving, then almost everyone who shows up will see an empty room and conclude that no one else came to the party. If the partygoers stay for an hour or two, then the party will be a success, with lots of people in the room at the same time.

We don’t know how long intelligent life typically lasts. The Milky Way galaxy is about thirteen billion years old. Let’s say that it has been able to support intelligent life for about ten billion years. That is the length of our party. If we assume that humans survive as a technological species for ten thousand years, then it is as if we showed up for a six-hour party but only stayed for 1/50th of a second. Even if tens of thousands of other intelligent beings show up for the same party, it is likely that we won’t see anyone else while we are there. We will see an empty room. If we expect to discover intelligent life in our galaxy, it requires that intelligent life occurs often and that it lasts a long time.”

Only staying at a party for 1/50th of a second. Damn. Open the front door, HEY!, *SLAM*…who was that?

Hawkins goes on to write that humanity needs to engage in “estate planning,” or creating a record of our existence in case we kill ourselves off. I agree, especially after the events of the past week. We gotta get our quarreling asses on Mars, pronto, or create some type of self-sustaining satellite-archive that orbits the sun.

The previous chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, says that Vladimir Putin has lost his sense of reality and that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a turning point in history. According to a New Yorker article published two days ago, Putin has warned the world, “Whoever tries to interfere with us should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He continued to say that, “Russia is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.” Was he flexing or bluffing? Probably. But should we still be concerned? What if Putin is bitter that the World Taekwondo withdrew his honorary 9th dan black belt?

Interesting thought experiment: if you were part of Putin’s inner circle and you learned of his plan to fire nuclear weapons, would you have the courage to take him out?

There are 13,000 nuclear weapons on Earth, located in 9 countries. 90% of all nuclear bombs are now under Russian and U.S. control. Russia is believed to have more warheads, around 6,000. The majority of American and Russian bombs are more than 10x more powerful – in explosive yield, than the bombs that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has spit in the face of international laws and his own past policies. Dmitry Kiselyev, a Kremlin propagandist said last Sunday, “In total our submarines are capable of launching over 500 nuclear warheads, which are guaranteed to destroy the U.S. and all the countries of NATO to boot.”

Putin has failed to rapidly conquer Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. His army is having supply issues. Will Russia dominate Ukraine, or will Ukraine survive? In any case, with humanity’s propensity towards wars, destroying the planet, tripling the population in the last 70 years, constructing nuclear weapons, we gotta engage in estate planning.

The clock’s ticking. Let’s at least leave a calling card at the intelligence-in-the-universe party, and include instructions on why to ignore the cheese plate and to try the champagne.

A Thousand Brains Notes

229: From the universe’s perspective, this is an arbitrary distinction: neither the poliovirus nor the wildflower is better or worse than the other. We make the choice about what us in our best interest. 
226: Interesting: « I have never been a fan of science-fiction literature. »
216: « It is estimated that there are forty billion planets in the Milky Way alone that could support life. »
210: No one knows what will happen, but it is unlikely that we are done creating ways to destroy ourselves. 
205: Copying yourself is a fork in the road, not an extension of it. Two sentient beings continue after the fork, not one. Once you realize this, then the appeal of uploading your brain begins to fade. 
203: The brain has 100 billion neurons and several hundred trillion synapses 
182: False models of the world can spread and thrive as long as the false beliefs help the believers spread their genes. 
143: Without the old brain, no fear or sadness. 
142: Our fear of death is created by older parts of our brain 
135: For example, the way the brain learns models of the world is intimately tied to our sense of self and how we form beliefs.
131 « The brain of an intelligent machine will consist of many nearly identical elements that can be connected to a variety of moveable sensors. »
130: Prédiction os how a column tests and updates its model.
129: To be intelligent, machines:
1.) Learning Continuously 2.) Learning via Movement 3.) many models 4.) Using Reference Frames to Store Knowledge 
80: Discovering a useful reference frame is the most difficult part of learning, even though most of the time we are not consciously aware of it. 
79: what we think next spends on which direction we mentally move through a reference frame, in the same way that what we see next in a town depends on which direction we move from our current location. 
71: Thinking occurs when we activate successive locations in reference frames. 
62: It is as if nature stripped down the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex to a minimal form, made tens of thousands of copies, and arranged them side by side in cortical columns. 
38: Forgetting happens when old or unused connections are removed entirely.
37: Everything we know is stored in the connections between neurons 
37: Thoughts and experiences are always the result of a set of neurons that are active at the same time. 
36: Neurons look like trees 
30: Prediction was a ubiquitous function of the neocortex.
26: vision and language are fundamentally the same. 
23: Intelligence, language, touch, are all manifestations of the same underlying cortical algorithm. 
23: a slice of cortex responsible for touch looks like a slice of cortex responsible for language or touch. 
19: There are no pure motor regions and no pure sensory regions. 
11: The human neocortex is particularly large, occupying 70% of the volume of our brain. 
11: no matter how smart or sophisticated we are, breathing, eating, sex, and reflex reactions are still critical to our survival. 
-Faculty that master chess and Go are not those that can cope with the complexity of the real world. 
-Uploading brain to computer wouldn’t be fun 

Project Hail Mary Review: Taking Hard Sci-Fi To The Neighboring Stars

Spoiler Free Review (3.5 minute read):

(Traduction française ci-dessous)

Feeling emotions while reading a book requires a suspension of belief and a break from your physical surroundings. You have to let go of where you are, your problems, your baby basset hound whining on the couch, and become lost and consumed in the story. Or else you’re just a person sitting there holding a pile of neatly-organized paper. 

For biographers, memoirists, and nonfiction writers the process of suspending belief is less of a challenge than for Fantasy and Sci-Fi writers. The reader trusts that the contents of the book actually happened in reality, thus giving weight and drama to the events in the narrative. 

But a Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer is not only working against the inherent challenge of suspending a reader’s belief from their reality, but they have to instill a new reality with new rules that the reader will accept, spiritually buy into, and consciously follow.

How did Joanne Rowling sell half a billion Harry Potter books? Yes, the characters are great/enduring, the plots are exciting, the writing is solid, and the ideas are fascinating…but she also grounded the magical world as firmly as she could in a reality similar to our own. There’s a magical government, a magical bank, a magical transportation system. In an interview on her writing process Joanne admitted that one of her major challenges in constructing Harry Potter’s world was not creating the instances of magic or the fantastical powers of witches and wizards, but creating the constraints in the magical world that controlled and gave tension to the magical elements/events.

Too many fantasy and Sci-Fi books ignore how important constraints are to creating tension and drama. Why do readers desire constraints in their stories? One reason is because we battle with constraints every day of our lives. Our #1 constraint? We want to do things in life yet we’re perpetually decaying and the clock is ticking. Books help teach us what we want, who we are, and what to do in this brief flicker of existence. The best books don’t waste our precious time. Neither Joanne Rowling nor Andy Weir waste their reader’s time. Andy is a master of using Sci-Fi constraints and a leader in the Hard Sci-Fi genre.

Andy Weir is doing for Sci-Fi what Joanne Rowling did for fantasy. He grounds the narrative as much as possible in reality to add depth and drama to the story. But while Joanne grounded her world with social constructs similar to a human society, Andy grounds his world in scientific concepts and the natural laws of the universe. You learn scientific and space things while reading his books. You learn how solid objects, when you analyze them in the “teeny, tiny realm,” are actually more like thick jungles than brick walls.

What makes The Martian, Andy’s first book (which was a smash and made into a blockbuster Ridley Scott movie) so compelling is that he deeply researched the science and made it as accurate as possible (an exception being the sand storm/wind force on Mars in the beginning…Mar’s wind has high velocity but low force, Andy said he deliberately sacrificed accuracy for dramatic purposes in this case). He wanted to answer the question: how could a human survive on Mars? He crowd-sourced the writing process on his blog and received feedback from loyal readers/needling nerds on whether or not he got the science right. He’d write a chapter, research for three months, then write another. The process worked. He put the book on Amazon (at the insistence of his readers) for the cheapest price possible (.99, he didn’t need the money, he’d been software engineer for 20 years) and soon after the book skyrocketed (pun intended) in popularity. (Within a week he received a call from a literary agent for a book deal and another call saying the movie rights had been sold. Andy said it was a good week.)

“Finally..the publishing world…gives a shit…finally…I can go…home…”

But he also kept The Martian‘s plot grounded in reality and constrained. I saw an interview of Andy where he mentioned that he never wanted any “lightning strike conflict moments” to happen to his character. A “lightning strike conflict moment” is when a character is doing something and then BAM-OUCH-SIZZLE, out-of-the-blue thing arrives that causes a problem. This doesn’t feel satisfying to the reader. So Andy had each new problem/challenge that happened to his character (poor Mark Watney) be born out of the character’s previous solution to a previous problem. Through this technique you more deeply feel the character’s struggle. 

Andy is well-read in the Sci Fi Genre (he grew up reading the Sci Fi classics Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke) and he is passionate about NASA and space science. Just as Joanne Rowling spent five years creating the Harry Potter world so that the reader feels like the story teller knows everything about the magical world, Andy Weir has spent his lifetime learning about NASA and space travel, so the reader feels an expertness behind the narrative. What’s funny is that Andy is scared to fly on planes.

Andy asks the questions in his three books: what is possible on Mars, what is possible on the Moon, and what is possible in space travel + neighboring star hopping, given the constraints? 

Andy is extremely intelligent, but never condescending. He boils down complex, scientific ideas into simple statements, not to show how smart he is (I don’t think cares whether or not you think he’s smart) but because he sincerely enjoys sharing the discovery. He spends months researching the science behind a specific detail that might be one sentence in the book. He is also funny, making light-hearted jokes that often stare death/the void of space in the face.

There are writers who love to write and who have stories they must express and there are writers who do it for a living even though they have nothing more to say (85% of published books). Andy was laid off by AOL fifteen ago and with an ample severance package spent three years trying to find a literary agent to publish a book he was writing. He received only rejections. He thought: “Well, I tried,” and went back to being a software engineer who wrote code. But he loved writing, so he kept at it, publishing stories on his blog. That’s when he created The Martian (one of the three books that he was writing simultaneously at the time…another was about mermaids and another about an alien invasion. In an interview he said that during this period he had “no life”).

After The Martian, Andy became a “full time writer” and wrote Artemis, a story about a sassy, sharp porter/smuggler named Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara who lives on the Moon and gets pulled into a conspiracy for control of the tourist-attraction city. The book is entertaining, the plot moves (readers on Goodreads voted it the best sci-fi novel of the year), the climax is great, and the science is interesting, but Andy’s secondary characters often feel the same/flat. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable read, enjoyable enough for me to feel eager for the next one.

Andy finds his stride in Project Hail Mary. He focuses in on his main character Ryland Grace, a high school science teacher, and spends the majority of the narrative on his journey. The story opens with Grace waking up on spaceship with two, dead corpses. Grace has lost his memory, but it starts coming back to him in flashes. He realizes that he is on a mission to save humanity…

I cried reading this book, I laughed. Near the end I was walking down the sidewalk with my kindle trembling in my hands and bumping into disgruntled Parisians wearing colorful scarves. There are fantastical Sci-Fi elements in this book, but they were never too much to shock me out of the narrative. Andy approaches problems such as “humans would need an ENORMOUS amount of fuel to travel to other stars” and uses elements he’s already reasonably introduced in the narrative to solve them. And because he is so well-read in Sci-Fi (and “well-watched in Star Trek), I never felt like he was using worn Sci-Fi tropes or clichés when introducing fantastical Sci-Fi things. They always felt fresh (but perhaps I’m not well read enough in the Sci-Fi genre). There’s goodness in the book as well, and a relentless pushing through obstacles. And if there’s a reminder we all need right now, at the tail end of this virus invasion, it’s to remain good while overcoming our challenges. On another note, here’s a picture of a whiny baby basset hound. Have a good Earth single rotation.

“So you want to travel amongst the stars and save the world? First rub my belly.”







All my notes on the book below…if I receive enough positive feedback on this review I’ll write another one (for those who have read the book) digging deeper into the story.

Project Hail Mary

100: good ending: “Who can tell me the speed of light?” Twelve kids raise their claws. —is this a subtle (conscious?) reference to the end of The Martian movie, where all the students raise their hands? 
99: hah: I love meburgers. I eat one every day. —Is meburger trademarked?? T-shirts?!
99: But I try to stay positive. What else have I got?
98: moving reunion scene.
97: cover, Grace jumping off with a tether…
97: typo: I only know where the ship is there.—should be: I only know where the ship is because 
97: typo: …made to find celestial bodies hundreds of thousands of kilometers across, not spaceship…” should be: not a spaceship. 
97: I smile. It’s working. 
96: keep hope alive and all that. 
96: hah, yes!: “I’m definitely going to die!”
96: I rub my hands together, take a sip of water, and get to work. 
96: hah, so good: “This is the astronavigational equivalent of doing donuts in the 7-Eleven parking lot. 
95: typo: “And all this is going on the edge of the Tau acetic system.” Should be: …going on at the edge…
95: hah, acknowledgement of the vanity: “Statues, parades, et cetera.”
95: Chapter 29: will Ryland go and save Rocky? How much time would this add to his trip? Not enough food and fuel. Uncertainty is too big. Has to return home. 
95: typo: …they figured out how to hide from nitrogen by sneaking into in the xenonite itself! —should be: into the xenonite…
94: Profound: “Yes, I made a strain of Taumoeba that could si I’ve nitrogen. But evolution doesn’t care what I want. And it doesn’t do just one thing at a time.” Is Rocky okay?!?? 
94: hah: “it’s hard to be an America, okay?”
94: interesting: “When you get down to the teeny, tiny realm, solid objects are more like thick jungles than brick walls 
92: Good line: “I owe my life to DuBois‘s preferred method of suicide.”
92: Okay, don’t panic. Think clearly. Then act. 
92: typo: “And hey, they’ll probably analyze it learn how to make their own.” —should be “…analyze it and learn his…
91: hah, daunting: “I’m going to have to eat this Bitter Pill Chow every meal for several years.”
91: But thanks to time dilation, when I get home all those folks will be a generation older than me. 
91: More accurately, hell is coming to us. 
90: true: “People nowadays…they have no idea how good they have it. The past was unrelenting misery for most people.”
90: Godspeed, buddy. 
90: Goodbye, friend Grace.
89: but hey, fashion isn’t about function or convenience.
89: Hah: …a worn old teddy bear she probably had as a kid, a kilogram of heroin…
89: hah: humans leak! Gross! 
88: hah: I spend a lot of time un-suiciding this suicide mission. 
88: Hah: Grumpy, angry, stupid. How long since last sleep, question?
88: So what? It’s only an extra year and a half. What’s the big deal? I don’t have that much food. (The Martian echo)
87: AstroTorch (TM)
86%: Same with writing, books: “It’s a weird feeling, scientific breakthroughs. There’s no Eureka moment. Just a slow, steady progression toward a goal. But man, when you get to that goal it feels good.
84: Humans are very different…we get diseases all the time. (Written pre-Covid-19?!)
84: good line: “The human body is more like a borderless police state.”
84: Earth’s air is 78% nitrogen. 
84: hah: The Hail Mary is currently the Taumoeba party bus. 
83: typo debatable: « That’s the closest to the center of ship I can get. » -of the ship. 
&3: I’m just a guy with the genes to survive a coma. 
83: great scene revealing that Grace never wanted to join the mission. 
82: « I may not have all the answers. But I’m here. »
81: hah: ride off into the Tauset.
78: debatable typo: “I installed it and got ship’s power back on without a hitch. » —without the ship’s power 
78: Beatles reference: hard day’s night 
78: hah: Use taumoeba farts to propel ourselves through space. 
77: interesting: when you get down to it, smell is just tasting at range.
75: Evolution is extremely good at filling every nook in the ecosystem. 
75: Grace and Rocky will discover that the predator is a Substance that in abundant supply on Earth. Helium? 
74: typo: That makes no sense, I said, « Those generators uses a tiny, tiny bit of Astrophage… » should be « use a tiny, tiny bit of Astrophage. 
74: prediction: last minute before launch Dubois elopes with his lover. Ryland Grace has got to step in. 
74: « A self-sacrifice instinct makes the species as a whole more likely to continue. »
73: « Intelligence evolves to give us an advantage over the other animals. But evolution is lazy. Once a problem is solved, the train stops evolving. So you and me, we’re both just intelligence enough to be smarter than our planet’s other animals. »
73: Fascinating: Math is not thinking. Math is procedure. Memory is not thinking. Memory is storage. Thinking is thinking. Problem, solution. You and me think the same speed. Why, question? » 
73: Hah: « I’m smart enough now to know I’m stupid. That’s progress. »
72: Commander Yao: a gun can actually be a complicated way, sometimes going wrong and slightly missing, look at Vronsky in Anna Karenina 
72: Never knew this: The suffocation reflex comes from excess carbon dioxide in the lungs, not lack of oxygen. 
72: software engineer: « It’s intensely satisfying. Like that feeling when you blast an air duster into an old computer. »
72: Interesting: At 29 atmospheres, air acts almost like water. 
71: At least being stupid isn’t permanent. I’ll press on. 
71: « My seal held. » reminds me of Jazz sealing up that building on the moon, a seal so good it caused everyone else to pass out from them blast…best scene in the book. 
71: « This orbit will probably decay over time » -interesting, didn’t know orbits decayed. 
70: That gram of Astrophage has 100 trillion Joules of energy. 
68: hah: sorry, earth. There. Much better last thought.
66: like this phrase: the engines would punch my ticket.
64: American mentality: “Earth’s had five mass extinction events in the past. And humans are clever. We’ll pull through.”
64: The faster you go, the less time you experience.
61: !!! This is where it all started.
61: More predictions: Rocky dies while working with Grace. Astrophage originates from Tau planet/Adrian 
59: software engineer author: “I pulled my laptop out and fired it up.”
59: good metaphor: Eridians going out in space in suit like. Human in scuba diving gear in black paint 
59: 7% methane, prediction, there’s life there.
57: “So we’re on our way to the mysterious planet.” Let’s go!
56: Hah: Are all Russians crazy? Yes…it is the only way to be Russian and happy at the same time.
55: I’m going to live! (Twisted, dark side of me was actually hoping he’d have to die out there. Cope with the morality and last moments alone. Just like I was hoping Mark would pass away on Mars and Jazz on the moon…)
55: I try not to think of my impending doom
55: good end of chapter: “How long do humans live, question?” 
54: Rocky = 291 years old/689 year average Average human life span = 72.6
Rocky is 30.66 human years old
He’s been there for 46 years…4.84 human years 
54: typo: “Sometimes he dips his carapace when sad, but I’ve never seen him dip is this far.” —-dip his this far. 
53: I’m the same way: “I know animal testing is necessary. I just don’t like to stare at it.”
53: yes: “you and me science to kill Astrophage together,” —-will be interesting to see how Hollywood/movie makes Rocky and handles his communication 
53: And pack instinct is required for a species to become intelligent.
52: haha so good: « I spent the next hour tidying up. I wasn’t expecting company. »
51: When the alternative is death to your entire species, things are very easy. No moral dilemmas, no weighing what’s best for whom. Just a single-minded focus on getting thr project 
51: haha: « Can we just keep poking Antarctica for more methane to keep Earth’s temperature right? »
51: interesting: Antarctica used to be a jungle 
50%: Earth was seeded by some ancestor Astrophage.
50%: Typo: Still unusual. Humans and Eridians are close in in space.
50: Typo: And with their unparalleled materials technology…should be materials and technology 
49: Climatologist from Paris: François Leclerc 
47: haha: « I’ve never heard of pair production before. » « It’s a thing. » « okay. » 
47: typo: How the can a civilization develop space travel without ever discovering radiation?—-Should be: How can a civilization…
45: « Well, you’re not alone anymore, buddy, » I say. « Neither of us are. »
45: Hah, …but he threw shade when I talked to myself. 
44: « I sleep now » prediction: Rocky 1 dies. He thinks sleeping is dying. 
43: Apt phrase: « Best of both worlds. »
43: good line: « Broadly speaking, the human brain is a collection of software hacks complied into a single, somehow-functional unit. » in short, the human brain is a mess. 
41: Hah: And that’s a damn fine army. » America! Yeah!
40: Spider alien reminds me a bit of the alien in the movie arrival 
36: hah, yes, his name is Rocky. 
Typo: 35%: …but I can’t expect Eridians to know the intricacies a universal airlock. Should be—of a universal airlock 
33%: truth : Human beings have a remarkable ability to accept the abnormal and make it normal. —-subconscious survival technique? 
33%: Prediction: will breaching the hull here come back to bite him in the ass someway later on (perhaps when he tries to leave the system)?
32: Hah: I’m telling my new friends that I can handle slightly faster deliveries.
31: Hah, “what do I even call noble gasses that don’t react with things? Ignobles?”
30%: typo: Pack a bag at meet us at Genève Aéroport. Terminal 3, private plane called Stratt.” —-should be: Pack a bag and meet us 
30%: typo: This is a fairly complicated piece of machinery and you’ll breaking the ship into two parts. —-should be “you’re breaking” or you will break. Or: “You’ll be breaking.”
30%: typo Shouldn’t faring be fairing? 
29%: Typo: Stratt says: “That fascinating,” should be “That’s fascinating.” 
29: Panspermia: life originated from chemical precursors of life 
29: Opening the cylinder while outside of the Orlan suit was big risk. Why not open it while still suited up? 
28: Taulight…re-naming reminds me of pirate-ninjas / one-kilowatt hour per Martian day/sol. 
28: I’m functional enough for now. I press on. 
28: Chrysalis-lock?
27: Hah: Besides, if there is hostile intent, what would I do about it? Did. That’s what I’d do. I’m a scientist, not Buck Rodgers. 
27: I’m the guy! I’m the guy who meets Alena for the first time. Prediction: foreign ship is powered by humans. 
27: …200 meters away from an honest-to-God alien!
27: nice detail: A bead of sweat separates from my forehead and floats away. 
26: Interesting: When European mariners first came across Asian mariners, no one was surprised they both used sails. 
26: hah: Still the most exciting moment in human history.
26: typo: I type some numbers into the calculator do an ARCTAN operation, and:-should be …into the calculator to do an ARCTAN operation. Or:…type some numbers into the calculator, do an ARCTAN, and
26: Holy fucking shit! (Saves the cuss words) 
26: It’s a ship. WTF!!!!
25: hah: I do a wiggly little dance in my chair. 
24-25: arrival at zero-g is a bit abrupt in the narrative. 
24% Typo: “I have to dig through a few layers of UI on the Beetles panel to find to the launch command, but I find it.” Should be: …Beetles panel to find the launch command.”
23: I wipe my eyes and try to think of other things. My whole species is at stake here. 
23: When you get going near the speed of light, you experience time dilation. 
22; hah: a more tactile approach: I’m gonna start pushing buttons! 
22: who is Werner von Braun?
22: The NannyBot
21: The entire output of a nuclear reactor for a year comes a single kilogram of mass (Uranium). 
21: Oh shit: « But if our sun dims by ten percent we’re all dead. »
21: Our best guess is that Astrophage can only survive so long without a star and it can coast about eight light-years in that time.
21: Our sun was infected by a star called WISE
20: Star mold!!!
20: Such a good idea, detail: professional astronomers don’t study local stars. They look at far-away things. It’s amateurs who log data on local stuff. Like train spotters.
19%: typo: It had big Chinese flag over it. Should be: « It had a big Chinese flag flying over it. » 
18: It’s simple, really. Get energy, get resources, and make copies. It’s the same thing all life on Earth does.
18: Lots of species migrate to breed. Why would Astrophage be any different?
18: microwave theme: net is too small forMicrowaves so you can watch your food cook without your face melting off. 
18: Light is a funny thing 
18: Who is Shemp?
17: That’s pretty much a rule in electronics: you never get diodes right on the first try. » what are diodes? Look this up later. 
16: pun: breathe a sigh of relief and stop working in argon-filled rooms. 
16: I’m going to die out here. And I’m going to die alone.
15: excellent writing: “These kids were going to grow up in an idyllic world and be thrown into an apocalyptic nightmare.”
15: Thirty years? Trang laughed. “That’s forever.”
15: hah: “My dad says that [climate change] is not real.” —“Well, it is.”
14: « I commend your body to the stars. »
14: great description of Olesya Ilyukhina. I’d like to meet her, « one of those infectious and jovial personalities. »
13: So why am I the one out here? All I did was prove that my lifelong belief was wrong?
11: an organism with a diet of stars: Astrophage 
11: « like cane toads in Australia. »Look this up. 
Question: he was a science teacher who wrote a paper and knew about life, but how was he chosen to go into space? 
Prediction: he returns to earth. Humans were able to survive, despite no sunlight. 
10: velocity is relative. It doesn’t make any sense unless you are comparing two objects. 
9: hah: Confetti, maybe.
8%: « All life needs is a chemical reaction that results in copies of the original catalyst. And you don’t need water for that! »
Prediction: he was chosen by humanity to go into « eternal » sleep, body being maintained by a robot, while the ship orbits a vacant earth, until humanity could be discovered, since humanity has been wiped out. Somehow the self-sustaining spaceship system has broken down centuries later and he’s all that is left. 
8%: However desperate things were, someone still had to deliver milk…if Mrs. McCreedy’s house got bombed in the night, well, you crossed it’s off the delivery list. 
7%: hah: pockets of nearly frozen noodles next to tongue-melting plasma. 
6%: …or maybe it’s just the calmness that comes after a crying jag. 
5%: pint of Guinness, yes.
5%: pendulums, mechanical clocks, period of time = length of pendulum, gravity 
4%: autoclave: strong, heated container used for chemical reactions and other processes
4%: what kind of weirdo am I?
3%: truth: No one cares about the right thing when they’re hungry. 
3%: hah: God job, it says, we get to not die for a while! 
2%/14: “I’m Caucasian, I’m, and I speak English. Let’s play the odds. “J-John?”

Ressentir des émotions en lisant un livre exige une suspension de la croyance et une rupture avec votre environnement physique. Vous devez vous détacher de l’endroit où vous êtes, de vos problèmes, de votre bébé basset qui gémit sur le canapé, et vous perdre dans l’histoire. Sinon, vous n’êtes qu’une personne assise là, tenant une pile de papier bien rangée.

Pour les biographes, les auteurs de mémoires et les écrivains de non-fiction, le processus de suspension de la croyance est moins difficile que pour les écrivains de fantasy et de science-fiction. Le lecteur est convaincu que le contenu du livre s’est réellement déroulé dans la réalité, ce qui donne du poids et du relief aux événements du récit.

Mais un auteur de science-fiction ou de fantaisie doit non seulement relever le défi inhérent à la suspension de la croyance du lecteur dans sa réalité, mais il doit aussi instiller une nouvelle réalité avec de nouvelles règles que le lecteur acceptera, auxquelles il adhérera spirituellement et qu’il suivra consciemment.

Comment Joanne Rowling a-t-elle pu vendre un demi-milliard de livres Harry Potter ? Oui, les personnages sont formidables et durables, les intrigues sont passionnantes, l’écriture est solide et les idées sont fascinantes… mais elle a également ancré le monde magique aussi fermement que possible dans une réalité similaire à la nôtre. Il y a un gouvernement magique, une banque magique, un système de transport magique. Lors d’une interview sur son processus d’écriture, Joanne a admis que l’un de ses principaux défis dans la construction du monde de Harry Potter n’était pas de créer les instances de la magie ou les pouvoirs fantastiques des sorciers et des magiciens, mais de créer les contraintes dans le monde magique qui contrôlent et donnent de la tension aux éléments/événements magiques.

Trop de livres de fantasy et de science-fiction ignorent l’importance des contraintes pour créer de la tension et du drame. Pourquoi les lecteurs souhaitent-ils des contraintes dans leurs histoires ? L’une des raisons est que nous sommes confrontés à des contraintes tous les jours de notre vie. Notre première contrainte ? Nous voulons faire des choses dans la vie alors que nous sommes en perpétuelle déchéance et que l’heure tourne. Les livres nous aident à apprendre ce que nous voulons, qui nous sommes, et ce qu’il faut faire dans ce bref moment d’existence. Les meilleurs livres ne nous font pas perdre notre temps précieux. Ni Joanne Rowling ni Andy Weir ne gaspillent le temps de leurs lecteurs. Andy est un maître dans l’utilisation des contraintes de la science-fiction et un leader dans le genre de la science-fiction dure.

Andy Weir fait pour la science-fiction ce que Joanne Rowling a fait pour la fantasy. Il ancre le récit autant que possible dans la réalité pour ajouter de la profondeur et du drame à l’histoire. Mais alors que Joanne a fondé son monde sur des constructions sociales similaires à une société humaine, Andy fonde son monde sur des concepts scientifiques et les lois naturelles de l’univers. On apprend des choses scientifiques et spatiales en lisant ses livres. On apprend comment les objets solides, lorsqu’on les analyse dans le “minuscule royaume”, ressemblent en fait davantage à des jungles épaisses qu’à des murs de briques.

Ce qui rend Le Martien, le premier livre d’Andy (qui a connu un grand succès et a été transformé en film à succès de Ridley Scott) si fascinant, c’est qu’il a fait des recherches scientifiques approfondies et qu’il a rendu son récit aussi précis que possible (à l’exception de la tempête de sable et de la force du vent sur Mars au début… Le vent sur Mars a une grande vitesse mais une faible force, Andy a dit qu’il avait délibérément sacrifié la précision à des fins dramatiques dans ce cas). Il voulait répondre à la question suivante : comment un humain peut-il survivre sur Mars ? Il a fait appel à la foule pour rédiger son livre sur son blog et a reçu les commentaires de ses fidèles lecteurs et des nerds qui lui demandaient si la science était correcte ou non. Il écrivait un chapitre, faisait des recherches pendant trois mois, puis en écrivait un autre. Le processus a fonctionné. Il a mis le livre sur Amazon (sur l’insistance de ses lecteurs) au prix le plus bas possible (.99, il n’avait pas besoin d’argent, il était ingénieur en logiciel depuis 20 ans) et peu après, la popularité du livre est montée en flèche (jeu de mots). (En l’espace d’une semaine, il a reçu un appel d’un agent littéraire pour un contrat d’édition et un autre appel lui annonçant que les droits cinématographiques avaient été vendus. Andy a dit que c’était une bonne semaine).

Mais il a également veillé à ce que l’intrigue de The Martian soit ancrée dans la réalité et limitée. J’ai vu une interview d’Andy dans laquelle il mentionnait qu’il ne voulait jamais que son personnage connaisse des ” moments de conflit foudroyants “. Un ” moment de conflit éclair “, c’est lorsqu’un personnage est en train de faire quelque chose et que BAM-OUCH-SIZZLE, une chose inattendue arrive et cause un problème. Cela n’est pas satisfaisant pour le lecteur. Andy a donc fait en sorte que chaque nouveau problème/défaut qui se présente à son personnage (le pauvre Mark Watney) naisse de la solution apportée par le personnage à un problème précédent. Grâce à cette technique, vous ressentez plus profondément la lutte du personnage.

Andy connaît bien le genre de la science-fiction (il a grandi en lisant les classiques de la science-fiction que sont Asimov, Heinlein et Clarke) et il est passionné par la NASA et les sciences spatiales. De même que Joanne Rowling a passé cinq ans à créer le monde de Harry Potter pour que le lecteur ait l’impression que le conteur connaît tout du monde magique, Andy Weir a passé sa vie à se renseigner sur la NASA et les voyages dans l’espace, de sorte que le lecteur ressent une expertise derrière le récit. Ce qui est amusant, c’est qu’Andy a peur de prendre l’avion.

Dans ses trois livres, Andy pose les questions suivantes : qu’est-ce qui est possible sur Mars, qu’est-ce qui est possible sur la Lune, et qu’est-ce qui est possible dans le domaine des voyages spatiaux + le saut dans les étoiles voisines, compte tenu des contraintes ?

Andy est extrêmement intelligent, mais jamais condescendant. Il réduit des idées scientifiques complexes à des déclarations simples, non pas pour montrer à quel point il est intelligent (je ne pense pas qu’il se soucie que vous le pensiez ou non), mais parce qu’il aime sincèrement partager ses découvertes. Il passe des mois à faire des recherches sur la science qui se cache derrière un détail spécifique qui pourrait faire l’objet d’une seule phrase dans le livre. Il est également drôle, faisant des blagues légères qui regardent souvent la mort ou le vide spatial en face.

Il y a des écrivains qui aiment écrire et qui ont des histoires qu’ils doivent exprimer et il y a des écrivains qui le font pour gagner leur vie même s’ils n’ont plus rien à dire (85% des livres publiés). Andy a été licencié par AOL il y a quinze ans et, grâce à une généreuse indemnité de licenciement, il a passé trois ans à essayer de trouver un agent littéraire pour publier un livre qu’il écrivait. Il n’a reçu que des refus. Il s’est dit : “Bon, j’ai essayé”, et il est redevenu un ingénieur logiciel qui écrivait du code. Mais il aimait écrire, alors il a continué à le faire, en publiant des histoires sur son blog. C’est alors qu’il a créé The Martian (l’un des trois livres qu’il écrivait simultanément à l’époque… un autre portait sur les sirènes et un autre sur une invasion extraterrestre. Dans une interview, il a déclaré que pendant cette période, il n’avait ” pas de vie “).

Après The Martian, Andy est devenu un ” écrivain à plein temps ” et a écrit Artemis, l’histoire d’une porteuse et d’une contrebandière insolente, Jasmine ” Jazz ” Bashara, qui vit sur la Lune et se retrouve mêlée à une conspiration pour le contrôle de la ville touristique. Le livre est divertissant, l’intrigue avance (les lecteurs de Goodreads l’ont élu meilleur roman de science-fiction de l’année), le point culminant est génial et la science est intéressante, mais les personnages secondaires d’Andy sont souvent identiques ou plats. Néanmoins, ce fut une lecture agréable, suffisamment agréable pour que j’aie hâte de lire la suite.

Andy trouve son rythme de croisière dans Project Hail Mary. Il se concentre sur son personnage principal, Ryland Grace, professeur de sciences au lycée, et consacre la majeure partie du récit à son parcours. L’histoire s’ouvre sur le réveil de Grace dans un vaisseau spatial avec deux cadavres. Grace a perdu la mémoire, mais celle-ci commence à lui revenir par flashs. Il réalise qu’il est en mission pour sauver l’humanité…

J’ai pleuré en lisant ce livre, j’ai ri. Vers la fin, je marchais sur le trottoir, mon kindle tremblant dans mes mains, et je croisais des Parisiens mécontents portant des foulards colorés. Il y a des éléments fantastiques de science-fiction dans ce livre, mais ils n’ont jamais été trop forts pour me faire sortir du récit. Andy aborde des problèmes tels que “les humains auraient besoin d’une quantité ENORME de carburant pour voyager vers d’autres étoiles” et utilise des éléments qu’il a déjà raisonnablement introduits dans le récit pour les résoudre. Et parce qu’il est si bien informé sur la science-fiction (et “bien regardé Star Trek”), je n’ai jamais eu l’impression qu’il utilisait des tropes ou des clichés usés de la science-fiction lorsqu’il introduisait des choses fantastiques de la science-fiction. Elles m’ont toujours semblé fraîches (mais peut-être ne suis-je pas assez cultivé dans le domaine de la science-fiction). Il y a aussi de la bonté dans ce livre, et un acharnement à surmonter les obstacles. Et s’il y a un rappel dont nous avons tous besoin en ce moment, à la fin de cette invasion de virus, c’est de rester bon tout en surmontant nos défis. Sur une autre note, voici la photo d’un bébé basset pleurnichard (défilement vers le haut). Bonne rotation unique de la Terre.

Confession of Meeting a Boring Murakami

            I met that elderly author, Haruki Murakami, in a small, Japanese-style town outside of Kyoto, some three years ago. He was boring or, more precisely, very boring, but I happened to spend a night in his company.

            I was travelling around in Japan, wherever the spirits or my Lonely Planet guide book led me, when I received an email from Murakami to meet for a beer. I knew from his books that Murakami likes beer. But why would he send an email to a nobody like me to meet for a drink? I had no idea.

            It was already past 8 p.m. when I arrived at the town and got off the train. Autumn was nearly over, the sun had long since set, and the place was enveloped in that dark-blue darkness particular to places where the sun has set. A cold, biting wind blew from somewhere, sending formless pieces of trash rustling along the street.

            I walked through the center of town in search of a place to stay, before meeting the famous author, but none of the decent inns would take in guests after the dinner hour had passed. I stopped at five or six places, but they all turned me down flat. Finally, in a deserted area outside town, I came across an inn that would take me. It was a desolate-looking, ramshackle place, almost a flophouse. It had seen a lot of years go by, but it had none of the quaint appeal you might expect in an old inn. Fittings here and there were ever so slightly slanted, as if slapdash repairs had been made that didn’t mesh with the rest of the place. I doubted it would make it through the next earthquake, and I could only hope that no temblor would hit while I was there.

            The inn didn’t serve dinner, but breakfast was included, and the rate for one night was incredibly cheap. Inside the entrance was a plain reception desk, behind which sat a completely hairless old man – devoid of even eyebrows – who took my payment for one night in advance. The lack of eyebrows made the old man’s largish eyes seem to glisten bizarrely, glaringly. On a cushion on the floor beside him, a big brown cat, equally ancient, was sacked out, sound asleep. Haruki would like that cat, I thought. He would probably write ten, boring pages about it. The cat was snoring loud. There was probably something wrong with it. Everything in this inn seemed to be falling apart.

            The room I was shown to was cramped, like the storage area where one keeps futon bedding; the ceiling light was dim, and the flooring under the tatami creaked ominously with each step. But it was too late to be particular. I told myself I should be happy to have a roof over my head, a futon to sleep on, and a famous author contacting me for god knows what.

            I put my one piece of luggage, a suitcase, down on the floor and set off back to town. (This wasn’t exactly the type of room I wanted to lounge around in, especially when I had an approaching rendezvous.) I went into a nearby soba-noodle shop and had a simple dinner. I didn’t want to have an empty stomach before drinking with Haruki, because I think he drinks like a fish. It was that soup or nothing, since there were no other restaurants open. I had a beer with the dinner, some bar snacks, and some hot soba. The soba was mediocre, the soup lukewarm, but again, I wasn’t about to complain. It beat going to bed later on just beer and vomiting in the morning, because who knows if Haruki would give me food. After I left the soba shop, I thought I’d buy some snacks and a small bottle of whisky to give to Haruki (he likes whiskey), but I couldn’t find a convenience store. It was after nine, and the only places open were the shooting-gallery game centers typically found in the town (according to my guide book). So I hoofed it to the address Murakami had sent me. Our rendezvous was for 9:37pm.

            Compared with the shabby neighborhood where I was staying, the area where Murakami wanted to meet was surprisingly wonderful. The homes, which looked like Buddhist temples, were spaced far apart, the streets were clean, and the atmosphere was quiet and peaceful.

            I was approaching a house when a man seemed to appear out of nowhere at my side. Was he hiding in the bushes? “Excuse me,” he said in a low voice. I was about to shout and run away, when I realized it was Haruki. He gazed intently at my face, his eyes narrowed, for all the world like an anthropologist studying an indigenous native of a long-lost tribe.

            “How is the thing?” he asked me.

            “Um, what thing?”

            “The thing.” I was embarrassed, so I replied,

            “It’s very nice. Thank you.” My voice reverberated densely, softly, in the night air. It sounded almost mythological, not like my own voice but, rather, like an echo from the past returning from deep in the forest. And that echo was…hold on a second. What was Murakami doing here on the street? Why wouldn’t he wait for me inside his home?

            “Shall I help you become a better writer?” he asked, his voice still low. He had the clear, alluring voice of a baritone in a doo-wop group. But nothing was odd about his voice: if you closed your eyes and listened, you’d think it was an ordinary person speaking.

            “Yes, thanks,” I replied. It wasn’t as if I’d been waiting all my life hoping that Murakami would give me writing advice, but if I turned him down I was afraid he might not invite me inside for a beer. I figured it was a kind offer on his part, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So I nodded and added, “Please, help me write, as…as good as you,” and followed him into his yard then his house.

            There was no furniture inside the house except a refrigerator in the center of a big room. Haruki opened it and gave me a beer.

            “It’s got very cold these days, hasn’t it?”

            “That it has.”

            “Before long this place will be covered in snow. And then they’ll have to shovel snow from the roofs, which is no easy task, believe me.”

            There was a brief pause, and I jumped in. “So how do you write so many books that are so interesting?”

            “I just do it,” Haruki replied briskly. He probably often received questions like this and was annoyed with them. “I started writing at the age of twenty-nine, because I felt like it, and before I knew it I was selling millions of books and winning awards. I lived for quite a long time without writing, around Tokyo, working in a coffee house and a jazz bar.

            “What part of Tokyo?”


            “That’s a nice area.”

            “Yes, it is a pleasant residential area with excellent transportation links. There are many parks and it is a popular location for young families.”

            Our conversation paused at this point. Haruki continued drinking his beer (I did too) and all the while I tried to puzzle things out rationally. Why was I here? Why did he invite me? Did he want something? How did he even think to contact me? This was Haruki Murakami, for goodness’ sake. 

            “I grew up in America,” I said, a basically meaningless statement.

            “I know. Americans buy millions of my books. I like that,” he said in a friendly tone.

            “What else did you think of Kokubunji when you lived there?”

            “Well, even though it is a nice place to raise a family, my wife and I decided not to have children.” This wasn’t really the answer to my question. 

            “You wanted to dedicate everything to literature?” He frowned.

            “No. We made this decision before I started writing.”


            “I like music though. Especially classical music you’ve never heard of. I’m very cultured and refined.” I decided to continue with this topic of conversation, because I knew from Murakami’s books that he was always name-dropping classical songs and writing boring pages about his opinions on composers.

            “Like who?”

            “Bruckner and Richard Strauss.”

            “You enjoy Bruckner. I often listen to Bruckner!” (I’d never heard of him.)

            “Yes. His Seventh Symphony. I always find the third movement particularly uplifting.”

            “I…um…often listen to his Ninth Symphony,” I chimed in. (I hoped Brucker wrote at least that many.)

            “Yes, that’s truly lovely music,” (Phew.)

            “So why didn’t you have any children?”

            “I am a very patient person, a person who values order and regularity above all, so no kids for me. Kids are chaos. I am a serious person whose favorite saying is that the repetition of accurate facts is the true road to wisdom. My wife is a quiet, sweet person, always kind to me. We get along well, and I hesitate to mention this to a stranger like you, but, believe me, my nighttime activities can be quite intense.”

            “Really,” I said.

            Haruki started to walk out of the room. “Thanks for your patience and for visiting me,” he said, and bowed his head. I thought his polite gratitude very Japanese.

            “Thank you,” I said. “What you said just now was…good. So, do you live in this house?”

            “I do. Sometimes. I sleep on the floor in the other room. The neighbors are kind and leave me alone. I can’t live in cities anymore. Too much attention. Here, the people don’t care if I’m a famous writer or not. They let me work and drink my beer without taking photographs.” I knew Haruki was known for being a recluse (in Japan), among other things.

            “Have you been working and drinking here for a long time?” I asked.

            “It’s been about thirteen years, off and on.”

            “But you must have gone through all sorts of things before you arrived here.”

            Haruki gave a quick nod. “Very true.”

            I hesitated, but then came out and asked him, “If you don’t mind, could you tell me why I’m here? Why you invited me?”

            Haruki considered this, and then said, “Yes, you are right to ask me that. It might not be as interesting as you expect, but I’d prefer to tell you later tonight, at a different location. Would that be convenient?”

            “Certainly,” I replied. “I’d be grateful if we also drank beer then.” (It would make his boring conversation more enjoyable.)

            “Understood. Some cold beers it is. Would Sapporo be all right?” I knew there was Sapporo at my inn.

            “That would be fine. So you like beer?”

            “A little bit, yes.”

            “Then please bring two large bottles.”

            “Of course. If I understand correctly, you are staying in the Araiso Suite, on the second floor? Let’s drink there.” This scared me a bit.

            “Ah, that’s right.”

            “It’s a little strange, though, don’t you think?” Haruki said. I thought he was going to explain how he knew where I was staying, but I was wrong. “An inn in the mountains with a room named araiso – ‘rugged shore.’” He chuckled. I’d never in my life thought I’d hear Haruki Murakami chuckle. But I guess famous authors do laugh, and even cry, at times. It shouldn’t have surprised me, given that famous authors are human too.

            “By the way, should I call you Haruki, or Mr. Murakami?”

            “Just call me friend.”

            Haruki finished his beer, put the bottle in the fridge, turned, and gave a polite bow, then walked deeper into the house and disappeared.

            It was a little past eleven when Haruki came to the Araiso Suite, bearing a tray with two large bottles of beer. I assumed he had got them from downstairs. In addition to the beer, the tray held a bottle opener, two glasses, and some snacks: dried seasoned squid and a bag of kakipi– rice crackers with peanuts. Typical bar snacks. This was one author who knew how to throw a party!

            Haruki was dressed in a peculiar way: gray sweatpants and a thick, long-sleeved shirt with “I <3 NY” printed on it, probably some kid’s hand-me-downs. Weird.

            There was no table in the room, so we sat, side by side, on some thin zabuton cushions, and leaned back against the wall. Haruki used the opener to pop the cap off one of the beers and poured our two glasses. Silently we clinked our glasses together in a little toast.

            “Thanks for the drinks,” Haruki said, and happily gulped the cold beer. I thought this was odd to say, since he brought the beer, but I went with it. Maybe he had charged them to my room? I drank some as well. Honestly, it felt strange to be seated next to Haruki Murakami, sharing a beer, but I guess you get used to it.

            “A beer after work can’t be beat,” said Haruki, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “But, for a famous author, the opportunities to have a beer with a nobody-writer like you are few and far between, believe it or not.”

            “How often do you contact nobody-writers like me?”

            “Once every couple of years.”


            Haruki had finished his first glass, so I poured him another.

            “Much obliged,” he said politely.

            “Where is your wife right now?” I asked.

            “She’s with…a friend,” Haruki answered, his face clouding over slightly. The wrinkles beside his eyes formed deep folds. “Whenever she wants to meet with a friend, go on trips or vacations with him, I contact nobody-writers who I discover on the internet. I don’t have friends. For years I thought I could live peaceably without friends, but that didn’t work. People were kind to me, but I just couldn’t connect with them, I just couldn’t express my feelings well to them. We had little in common, and communication wasn’t easy. ‘You talk funny,’ they told me, ‘You’re so boring,’ and they sort of mocked and bullied me. Women would giggle when they looked at me. I am extremely sensitive, as you probably know from my best-selling books. Women found the way I acted comical, and it annoyed them, irritated them sometimes. It got harder for me to be around people, so eventually I went off on my own. But I needed connection, so I started contacting random bloggers to meet me for a drink.”

            “It must have been lonely for you, before contacting nobody-writers.”

            “Indeed it was. I had to emotionally-survive on my own when my wife was busy or traveling. But the worse thing was not having anyone to communicate with. I couldn’t talk with people. Isolation like that is heartrending. The world is full of humans, but I couldn’t start up a conversation with whomever I happened to come across. Do that and there’d be hell to pay. The upshot was that I wound up sort of neither here nor there, not part of the common herd, nor part of the literary elite. It was a harrowing existence.” (Boring, I thought, Time to change the subject.)

            “And you didn’t know about Bruckner, then.”

            “True. That’s part of my life now,” Haruki said, and drank some more beer. I studied his face. It was red, so I assumed he was drunk. I had figured Haruki could hold his liquor, but I guess I was wrong. Or maybe Haruki’s face turned red whenever he was drinking, no matter what the quantity.

            “The other thing that tormented me, before I married, was my relations with females.”

            “I see,” I said. “And by ‘relations’ with females you mean – ?”

            “In short, I didn’t feel a speck of sexual desire for women. I had a lot of opportunities to be physical with them, but never really felt like it. I guess I regret not doing anything.”

            “So women didn’t turn you on, even though you liked them?”

            “Yes. That’s exactly right. It’s embarrassing, but, honestly, I could only be sexually attracted to a woman I loved. And I’ve only ever loved my wife.”

            I was silent and drained my glass of beer. I opened the bag of crunchy snacks and grabbed a handful. “That could lead to some real complications, I would think.”

            “Yes, real complications, indeed. Me being a sensitive and shy, there was no way I could expect women to understand my complicated desire. Plus, it runs counter to culture, where young men are supposed to have relations with many women, ‘sow their wild oats,’ they say.”

            I waited for the beer to make his conversation less boring. Haruki rubbed hard behind his ear and continued.

            “And now…” He squinted his eyes. “So I found another method of dealing with my complex desire.”

            “What do you mean by ‘another method.’”

            Haruki frowned deeply. His red face turned a bit darker.

            “You may not believe me,” Haruki said. “You probably won’t believe me, I should say. But, from a certain point, after I was married, I started using the experiences I had with women from my past, combined with the feelings I have for my wife, to create literature.”


            “I seem to have been born with a special talent for it. I can write from memory, add in dream-live, abstract elements, and people like it.”

            A wave of confusion hit me. Haruki wasn’t making any sense.

            “I’m not sure I get it,” I said. “When you say you mix your memories with dream-like elements, does that mean your stories aren’t supposed to have any meaning?”

            “No. They don’t lose their meaning. I write about my past, a fragment. But when I mix in a dream-like element it becomes less substantial, lighter than before. So I can go deeper in the memory despite the pain. Like when the sun clouds over and your shadow on the ground gets that much paler. And, depending on the memory, I become less aware of the loss. The pain transforms into a sense that something’s a little off, but also bearable.”

            “But do the women you write about know what you’re doing? That you are using their past for your literature?”

            “Yes, of course, some of them do. But most of the time the women have forgotten me. Quite a shock to the ego, as you might imagine. And when they read my stories, if they even do, they may not even recognize the character as themselves. In some cases, they suffer through something close to an identity crisis, one of them told me. And it’s all my fault, since I took the experience I had with them and turned it into literature. I feel very sorry about that. I often feel the weight of a guilty conscious bearing down on me. I know it’s wrong, yet I can’t stop myself. I’m not trying to excuse my actions, but my dopamine levels force me to do it. Like there’s a voice telling me, “Hey, go ahead, write that senseless dream sequence mixed with your past with a woman. It’s not illegal or anything, and millions of people will buy your books anyway.”

            I folded my arms and studied the famous author. Dopamine? Finally, I spoke up. “And the women you write about, they are the ones you had intimate experiences with but never loved. Do I have that right?”


            “How many women?”

            With a serious expression, Haruki totaled it up on his fingers. As he counted, he was muttering something. He looked up. “Seven in all. I have been intimately involved with seven women before my wife.”

            Was this a lot, or not so many? Who could say?

            “So how do you do it?” I asked, “Combine your past experiences with dream-like elements?”

            “It’s mostly by will power. Power of concentration, psychic energy. But that’s not enough. I need to meet with a nobody-writer to talk about what I do, before I can actually do it. Communication is the path to understanding. Because we, you and I, have no connection to each other, I can talk freely. I’m pretty skilled at talking freely about my writing.”

            “So when you need inspiration you contact a nobody-writer on the internet?

            “Precisely. I stumbled upon your blog by chance, and since I’m working on a story now and my wife is with her…friend, I sent you an email. Now I can go back to writing.”

            “So that’s it? You’re using me for literature?”

            Haruki nodded sharply. “I know it sounds lowly, but I never do anything unseemly. You won’t be in my books explicitly. I agree it’s a bit strange, but it’s also a completely pure, platonic act. I simply have a beer with a stranger, secretly, talk and talk, and it helps me write. For me, this experience is like a gentle breeze wafting over a meadow.”

            “Hmm,” I said, dreadfully bored. “I guess you could even call your complex desire, your past inability to feel sexual attraction without loving a woman, the ultimate form of romantic love.”

            “Agreed. But it’s also the ultimate form of loneliness (Here we go again, I thought. Murakami and his goddamn loneliness). Like two sides of a coin. The two extremes are stuck together and can never be separated.”

            Our conversation came to a halt here, and Haruki and I silently drank our beer, snacking on the kakipi and the dried squid.

            “Have you written about a woman from your past recently?” I asked.

            Haruki shook his head. He grabbed some hair on his head, as if making sure that he still had hair. “No, I haven’t written about a woman from my past recently. Soon, though. That’s why I contacted you. Thanks to this encounter, I have found a measure of clarity and peace. I will be able to write about the woman now, one of the seven women in my heart.”

            “I’m glad to hear it,” I lied.

            “I know this is quite forward of me, but I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to allow me to give my opinion on the subject of love.” Oh god no. Could he get any more boring? I saw that there was still some beer. I nodded my head and began chugging.

            “I believe that love is indispensable fuel for us to go on living. Someday that love may end. Or it may never amount to anything. But even if love fades away, even if it’s unrequited, you can still hold on to the memory of having loved someone, of having fallen in love with someone. And that’s a valuable source of warmth. Without that heat source, a person’ heart – including my heart – would turn into a bitterly cold, barren wasteland. A place where not a ray of sunlight falls, where the wildflowers of peace, the trees of hope, have no chance to grow.” He seemed to be reciting something he had recently written, or was about to write. “Here in my heart, I treasure the names of those seven women I tried to love, but failed, or can’t love anymore.” Haruki laid a palm on his chest. “I plan to use these memories, along with random encounters such as this one, as my own little fuel source to burn on cold nights, to keep me warm as I live on what’s left of my own little life.”

            Haruki chuckled again, and lightly shook his head a few times.

            “That’s a strange way of putting it, isn’t it?” he said, “Little life. Given that I’m a famous author, with supposedly a big life. Hee hee!”

            It was past midnight when we finally finished drinking the two large bottles of beer. “I should be going,” Haruki said. “I got to feeling so good I ran off at the mouth, I’m afraid. My apologies.”

            “No, I didn’t mind,” I lied. At least he was conscious of how much he been blabbering on. But I mean, sharing beer and chatting with a famous author was a pretty unusual experience in and of itself. I should be more thankful. Add to that the fact that this famous author contacted me randomly online, loved name-dropping classical composers, and writes about the same, seven women from his past because he had intimate experiences with them (but didn’t love them). 

            As we said goodbye, I handed Haruki a small bottle of whiskey that I had stolen from the closed-down bar when I arrived back at the inn. “It’s not much,” I said, “but please enjoy this whiskey.”

            At first Haruki refused, but I insisted and he finally accepted it. He put the bottle in the pocket of his sweatpants.

            “It’s very kind of you,” he said. “You’ve listened to my absurd life story and writing process, treated me to beer, and now this generous gesture.” (But it was him who brought the beer, maybe he was drunk, or maybe he did charge my room.) “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

            Haruki put the empty beer bottles and glasses on the tray and carried it out of the room.

            The next morning, I checked out of the inn and went to Tokyo. At the front desk, the creepy old man with no hair or eyebrows was nowhere to be seen, nor was the aged cat who snored loudly. Instead, there was a fat, surly middle-aged woman, and when I said I’d like to pay the additional charges for last night’s bottles of beer (I assumed Haruki had charged them to my room, since he kept thanking me for the beer), she said, emphatically, that there were no incidental charges on my bill. “All we have here is canned beer from the vending machine,” she insisted. “We never provide bottled beer.”

            Once again I was confused. I felt as though bits of reality and unreality were randomly changing places. Nonetheless, how kind of Murakami to buy me beer!

            I was going to bring up Haruki Murakami with the middle-aged woman, but decided against it. Maybe Haruki didn’t actually visit me, maybe the man was an imposter, and it had all been an illusion, the product of a lonely, Japanese man who looked just like Murakami preying on nobody-writers like me. Or maybe what I saw was a strange, realistic dream (thinking about Murakami so much has really made my thoughts more dream-like). If I came out with something like, “Last night the famous author Haruki Murakami visited me in my room,” things might go sideways, and, worst-case scenario, she’d think I was insane. Chances were that Murakami was a town secret, and the inn couldn’t acknowledge him publicly for fear of him moving away or getting angry.

            On the train ride to Tokyo, I mentally replayed everything Haruki Murakami told me. I jotted down the details, as best I could remember, in a notebook that I used for work, thinking that when I got back to Tokyo I’d write the whole thing as a blog post from start to finish.

            If Haruki Murakami actually met me– and that was the only way I could see it – I wasn’t at all sure how much I should accept of what he had told me over beer. It was hard to judge his story fairly. Was it really possible that he used his experiences from women in the past to write literature? Were the dream-like elements in his stories just cheap, easy ways to cope with his memories and pain? Maybe Haruki was a pathological liar. Who could say? Naturally, there are numerous famous authors with mythomania, but, if Murakami harnessed his sickness to sell millions of books, who cares if he is a habitual liar who bizarrely contacts nobody-writers for a beer and to hear himself talk?

            I’d encountered thousands of people working as a bartender in New York City during my twenties, and had become pretty good at sniffing out who could be believed and who couldn’t. A bullshit detector, you can call it. When someone talks for a while, you can pick up certain subtle hinds and signals and get an intuitive sense of whether or not the person is believable. And I just didn’t get the feeling that what Haruki was telling me was made-up bullshit. Then again, he also worked in a restaurant for years, so maybe he had developed a way to skillfully bullshit gullible people, undetected. But the look in his eyes and his expression, the way he pondered things every once in a while, his pauses, gestures, the way he’d get stuck for words – despite being boring, nothing about it seemed artificial or forced. And, above all, there was the total, even painful honesty of his confession.

            My relaxed solo journey over, I returned to the whirlwind routine of ex-pat life in a city. Even when I don’t have any major work-related assignments, somehow, as I get older, I find myself busier than ever. And time seems to steadily speed up. In the end I never told anyone about meeting Haruki Murakami, or wrote anything about him. Why try if no one would believe me? Unless I could provide proof – proof, that is, that Haruki contacted other nobody-writers for beer – people would just say that I was “making stuff up again.” And if I wrote about him as fiction the story would lack a clear focus or point, and look like I was just complaining about his writing being so boring, and not understanding why so many readers praise and read his books, when I find them achingly dull. I could well imagine a reader of my blog looking puzzled while reading my post, saying to themselves, “I hesitate to ask, since you’re the author of this post, but what is the theme of this story supposed to be?”

            Theme? Can’t say there is one. It’s just a confession about an old, famous writer who pumps out boring books and asks nobody-writers to meet him for beer in a tiny town outside Kyoto, who feels nostalgia for the women he had intimate experiences with but never loved. Where’s the theme in that? Or the moral?

            And, as time passed, the memory of my Murakami encounter began to fade. No matter how vivid memories may be, they can’t conquer time.

            But now, three years later, I’ve decided to write about it, based on notes I scribbled down back then. All because something happened recently that got me thinking. If that incident hadn’t taken place, I might well not be writing this.

            I had a journalism networking event in the coffee lounge of hotel in Akasaka. Near the end of the event I was talking to an old woman, the editor of a travel magazine. Despite being old, she was attractive: long hair, a lovely complexion, and large, fetching eyes. She was one of those passionate, energetic, ageless humans, who still have sexual appeal even when they’re elderly. She was an able editor. And still single. I think she wanted to sleep with me. We’d worked together quite a few times, and got along well. We sat in a corner and chatted over coffee for a while.

            Her cell phone rang and she looked at me apologetically. I motioned to her to take the call. She checked the incoming number and answered it. It seemed to be someone important. She talked for a while in Japanese, checking her pocket planner, and then shot me a mischievous look.

            “It’s Haruki Murakami,” she said to me in an excited voice, her hand covering the phone. “We used to date a lifetime ago.”

            I gasped, but, as casually as I could, I took a sip of coffee. She nodded and relayed information to the famous author on the other end of the line. Then she hung up and giggled.

            “We dated when we were teenagers.”

            “Does he call you often?” I asked.

            She seemed to hesitate, but finally nodded. “Yes, it’s happening a lot these days. I don’t know why.”

            “Does he miss you?”

            She shook her head decisively. “No, not at all. We’ve always been on platonic terms since we broke up. He loves his wife. He’s faithful. But sometimes we meet up in secret. I’ve never been able to figure him out. When we were together, he was so distant. After, when we became sort-of friends, there was this animal hunger about him. As if he desperately wanted to get closer, but just couldn’t. Maybe I’m crazy.”

            “No, I don’t think you are.”

            She squinted and thought more about it. “About half a year ago, I think, I remember I went to visit a cherry blossom orchard, near where I grew up. It was the place where Haruki and I first kissed. When I arrived he was there, wandering around the trees, with tears on his cheeks. He didn’t see me. I was so scared when I saw him, I ran away.”

            “This might be an odd thing to ask, but, when you’ve read his books, did you ever notice that some of the characters were based off of you?”

            She pursed her lips, then smiled. “I’ve never read his books. I’ve tried, but I just can’t. They are all so boring. Banal. He writes for the masses, particularly the western masses. We have a word for what he writes, in Japanese: batakusai, which means “stinking of butter.” His writing is a mish-mash of katakana and hiragana, using borrowed western terms, and his stories have no point.” 

            She took a sip of coffee. I waited for her to go on.

            “It’s a shame that he’s become the face of Japan to many westerners. He’s not really Japanese. Did you know that he says he found his voice by writing the first pages of first novel in English – then translating them into Japanese? As he gets older, his readers get younger. He’s a commercial writer, a sell-out. Not real literature.”

            I sighed quietly, but said nothing.

            “I sound like I’m bitter, right? It’s just that I’ve tried all my life to create beautiful, Japanese prose. I remember when Haruki and I were dating we talked about books all the time, about beautiful books and beautiful prose. Now he churns out vague, stinking butter.”

            “When’s the last time you met him in person?”

            “A few years ago. I forgot exactly when. It was in a small town outside of Kyoto.”

            I quickly shook my head. I wondered if I should bring up the story of my meeting with Murakami in a small town of outside of Kyoto, three years ago.


            She looked suspicious. I knew it was risky, but there was one more vital question I had to ask.

            “What did you talk about?”

            “He told me he had just met with an American writer and was feeling inspired.”


            She shook her head. “Yeah, but the conversation was boring, as usual, I don’t remember anything else. He talked a lot.”

            Did Murakami meet her soon after our meeting? Maybe even the day after? Did he actually use my experience with him, then his experience with her, to write another boring book? Or was I making this all up in my head, and going crazy?

            I really didn’t want to think that Murakami was writing book after book using experiences with women from his past and nobody-writers. But he told me, quite matter-of-factly, that having seven women from his past was plenty of enough material, and that he was satisfied simply living out his remaining years quietly, occasionally vising that little town. And he’d seemed to mean it. But maybe Haruki had a chronic psychological condition, one that reason alone couldn’t hold in check. And maybe his illness, and his dopamine, were urging him to just do it! And perhaps all that had brought him to contact old girlfriends and nobody-writers, a pernicious habit.

            Maybe I’ll try it myself sometime. On sleepless nights, that random, fanciful thought sometimes comes to me. I’ll take a memory of a woman who I used to be with, focus on it like laser, contact a nobody-writer, then use a conversation about the process to pull dream-like, abstract literature out of me. What would that feel like? Could I also sell millions of books?

            No. That’ll never happen. I’ve never been skillful at weaving vague, dream-like paragraphs that have no sense but exude a bizarre atmosphere that tickles the fancy of western, literary critics. And I don’t care about the women from my past. Even if I could do that, readers would think I was just copying Murakami, because he did it first.

            Extreme love, extreme loneliness. The time-worn tropes. Even since I met Murakami, whenever I hear someone name-drop a classical composer who I’ve never heard of then spend ten minutes praising a symphony, I think of him. I picture the elderly, famous writer in that tiny, decrepit town, jumping out of the bushes, asking me “How is the thing?” And I think of the snacks – the kakipi and the dried squid – that I consumed as we drank beer together, propped up against the wall, while Haruki droned on and on.            

            I haven’t seen the beautiful, elderly travel-magazine editor since then, so I have no idea what fate befell her after that, or if she’s dead. I hope she never learned that Murakami uses their past experiences together for literature. She was blameless, after all. Nothing was her fault. I do feel bad for her, but I still can’t bring myself to tell her, if she’s still alive, about what Murakami is doing. Then again, she probably wouldn’t care, anyway, since she doesn’t read his boring books and calls them stinking butter.      


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What is Lost in Translation?

(A Brief Analysis of Two English Translations of the Opening Paragraph of Heinrich Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas)

            A few months ago I was introduced by the love of my life to the German writer, Heinrich Von Kleist. I immediately became obsessed with his work. I read everything he wrote, including a biography and all his letters, and I consider him a literary friend who will always be there for me from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death gives me the chance to schedule a rendez-vous with him in hell.

            But I was lucky. I had encountered a magnificent translation of Kleist’s work by David Luke. You can read all about David Luke and his life in this Independent article. But here’s an excerpt:

           “His [Luke] verse translations all render into English not only the sense of the original with meticulous accuracy but make as close an approximation as is possible to the verse forms of the German, of which there are a huge range, even within Faust. All are remarkable achievements; the very best of them succeed magnificently in conveying the great beauty of the German language in the hands of the finest writers. For decades, reviewer after reviewer (including poets such as Stephen Spender and D.J. Enright), praised David Luke’s acutely sensitive ear and his tremendous linguistic dexterity. In 2000 the German-British Forum presented him with a medal in honour of his contribution to cultural understanding between the two nations.”

            I became so obsessed with Kleist that after finishing his masterpiece, Michael Kohlhaas, for the third time, I ordered a hard copy of the book on Amazon, to give my burning retinas a rest and to have a physical child I could actually hold. When the book arrived in the mail my hands were trembling. I tore open the package, jumped on to the coach to go for ride, and began reading…

            And while reading the first paragraph I was filled with a rising, sickening sense of revulsion. In my hands was a different book. This was not Kleist. This was not Michael Kohlhaas. After three pages, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was reading garbage, an airport novel full of clichés and detectives; a shit book with a hack title like: Jack Knish Hunts For Redemption. I threw the book across the room and stormed out of my apartment. I collapsed in the middle of the street, cars honking and speeding by (Qu’est-ce que vous faites, connard !), and wept bitter tears at the horrible mediocrity that pervades so much of this finite and imperfect world…

            A few days later I began to wonder why I had felt such disgust reading Frances A. King’s translation of Kleist. What was it about the translation? So I began to compare King’s translation with Luke’s translation. Below is what I discovered and the conclusions that I’ve made concerning the art of translation.

            To be a great translator, you must keep three ideas in your head at all times while translating a work:

  1. Who was the writer? 

Who was Henrich Von Kleist? The answer is complex, of course, but there are some adjectives we can use: intense, tortured, curious, adventuresome, lonely, hyper-sensitive, extremely intelligent, and wild. His first tutor described him as having a “mind of undampened fire.” Kleist was known for having shattering episodes of depression. His heart had been broken by his first love. His parents were dead before he was 15. He was a prisoner of war. His only remaining family (sister) abandoned him. He felt like he should have been living in another period of human history. He loved to travel, but he also desired to settle down in the wilderness and write. He committed suicide with a lover (or perhaps a close friend, biographers aren’t certain, Kleist was mysterious) at age 34. All these details and parts of his personality must be kept in mind as the translator engages in word choice, the rhythm of phrases, and the expression of complex ideas.

2.) In what period of human history was the writer working in?

Kleist was writing at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s. He was a contemporary of Goethe. Goethe expressed horror and disgust after reading Kleist’s prose, calling Kleist’s writing “diseased” because it showed “the unlovely and frightening in Nature.” He condemned the violence of Kleist’s theories and for finding life “a labyrinth to which reason, faith and feeling were uncertain guides.” Kleist was writing during the romantic period of literature in Germany. Enlightenment ideas were on the rise (rationality, objectivity, reform movements, etc.). In 1793, the execution of the French king and the onset of The Terror disillusioned the Bildungsbürgertum (Prussian middle classes). Around 1800 the Catholic monasteries, which had large land holdings, were nationalized and sold off by the government. Europe was racked by two decades of war. All these events and more must be known by the translator so they can have a sense of the writer’s setting. But a great translator must also read other books written during the same time period (and their best translations), to get a sense of what words and phrases are being chosen.

3.) What is the context of the story itself? Who are the characters and what do they stand for?

Michael Kohlhaas is based on the 16thcentury story of Hans Kohlhase (a merchant whose grievance against a Saxon nobleman developed into a full-blown feud against the state of Saxony, thus infringing the Eternal Peace of 1495). Kohlaas himself was tough, rugged, fair, and strong. Here is a trailer for a movie made about Michael Kohlaas, released in 2013, to give you an idea:

Again, the time period (16thcentury) must dictate word choice, and the characters and the plot (which in this case contain violence and a wild, powerful quest for vengeance and justice) must determine how the translation is rendered.

            I could write 100 pages meticulously dissecting both translations. But I won’t waste your time. Here is just the first paragraph of the great translation by Luke with the shit translation [King] in parenthesis. Analysis and justification below. 

            About the middle of the sixteen century there lived beside the banks of the River Havel a horse-dealer called Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, who was one of the most honorable/[upright] as well as one of the most terrible men of his age. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man could have been considered a paragon of civil virtues/[model of a good citizen]. In a village that still bears his name he owned a farm where he peacefully earned a living by his trade/[quietly supported himself by plying his trade]; his wife bore him/[presented him] children who he brought up in the fear of God to be hardworking [industrious] and honest; he had not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness/[nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice]; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer./[In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.

  1. Honorable as an adjective is a 100x better than upright. The word is stronger, fits the century, and connects with a theme of the story and with Kohlhass’ character (honor). Upright evokes somebody trying to fix their posture, and is physical and limited rather than epic and spiritual.
  • A paragon of civil virtues also has an epic quality, subtly revealing the power of Kohlhass, and the sound of “civil virtues” is pleasing to hear in English. Model of a good citizen is bland and weak, a product of the 20thcentury, and makes one think of “doing their small part” for society as they recycle, vote, and follow the rules. 
  • Peacefully earned a living by his trade evokes the image of a someone working hard in peace. The verb “to earn” is powerful and implies independence and pride. Quietly supporting himself by plying his trade implies that “himself” needs to be supported and that he is meek. Michael Kohlhass could survive any obstacle and doesn’t need, in a sense, to support himself. On the other hand, he is intensely “living” and desires “peace.” And the verb plying, is extremely weak, sounding close to playing and being synonymous with handling, using, operating, and feeling.
  • His wife bore children is 1000x better than his wife presented him children. To verb, “bore” is raw and suggests how difficult and painful the act of childbirth is, especially during the late 1700s. What does “present children” to Kohlhass even mean? It evokes an image of a woman nonchalantly putting children on a table as a gift and saying, “Here they are!”
  • Hardworking and honest is a pleasing alliteration. Industrious and honest are two words that rhyme, and intense prose shouldn’t rhyme (because it jars the ear and flow if it’s unintended). In addition, children aren’t taught to be specifically industrious, like machines or employees, they are taught to be hardworking, a subtle difference but all these differences add up.
  • “Not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness,” reveals that Kohlhass had a respected and revered place in the community. They were indebted to him. Compare this to: “Nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice,” puts the emphasis on neighbors enjoying Kohlass as if he was an entertainer. Kohlass was not an entertainer. And the sentence clumsily uses the word justice, tacked on at the end. Justice is the most important theme in this story, and it shouldn’t be used lightly, as it is in King’s crap translation.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, Luke breaks up the last idea into two sentences: as Kleist does in the original German. Luke writes, “in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer.” Making the last idea two sentences adds force and power to the second sentence: his sense of justice making him a robber and murderer. It punches the reader in the gut and makes them want to keep on reading. Compare this to King’s run-on, choppy sentence: “In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.” It’s as if the last idea were just tacked on at the end haphazardly, “oh yeah, Kohlhass also became a robber and a murderer.” The phrase, “the world would have every reason to bless his memory” is also stupid and sloppy. Why focus on the world in this sentence, when the story of Kohlhass is him against the world (as Kleist was against his world). Why use the verb “to bless” which evokes religion and the image of a priest calmly leaning over a pious worshiper. The world did not consider blessing Kohlass’ memory. The world either hated or revered him: a divided intensity that Kleist lived by.

Conclusion: If I had encountered King’s translation first instead of Luke’s I might never have befriended Kleist. How many times has this happened before with other translations? It’s better not to think of this question.

      If you get one thing out of this essay, I hope it is that you should read Michael Kohlhass as soon as you can. But please read David Luke’s translation. I believe it’s better.

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J.D. Salinger’s Unpublished Work Will Be Released, Confirms Matt Salinger, E.T.A.: 6 years

Special thanks to Alice Develey for conducting the interview and giving me permission to translate it into English. Also thanks to Le Figaro (original article).

INTERVIEW (2.5 minute read): After years of rumors, it’s official: everything that the most secretive American author has written will be released.

LE FIGARO: “Did Salinger continue to write after his last short story, Hapworth 16th, 1924?”

Matt Salinger: “Yes. My father was an author, so he wrote all his life. People seem surprised that he continued to do so without publishing. But he thought that publication was a distraction. My father was a very private person. That’s one of the reasons he didn’t give interviews. He thought they were useless, that everything he had to say was in his books. Maybe he was out of step with his time.”

“What was his connection to his readers?”

“They were almost sacred to him. It was like he was writing directly into the imagination of each reader. That’s why he never accepted any adaption of his books. And that’s why I wouldn’t want it either. There will be no film or series. If Leonardo DiCaprio – him or another actor – plays a character, you will always have his image in your head. You will never be free to imagine it again. My father was a purist. He did not want the reader to be prevented from dreaming or for the reader’s mind to be blurred by minor, outside conceptions. He wanted people to open his books without any prejudice. This year, I have two projects: to help publishers who are working on new editions of Salinger and to set the record straight. I want readers to know that most of the things that have been announced are false. There are biographies that have been published by biographers who have never spoken to him. However, in the absence of contact, they had to feed on rumours. One of these biographies says that there are six books finished that are ready to be printed. But that’s completely false! It goes against my father to say all this. However, I would like to tell readers that what was not published during Salinger’s lifetime will be published. As far as possible. That is, in no less than three years but no more than ten. I think in six years, it’ll all be over.”

“I think Salinger’s most dedicated readers will find treasures in what is released. I don’t know if we’ll publish all at once. It’s still under discussion.”

“Why take so much time?”

“When you have written for forty-five years at the rate of five, six, seven, eight hours a day, every day of your life, there is a lot of work. No one can imagine how much work that is. There are both handwritten and typed sheets to transcribe, double-spaced typed sheets with annotated margins… This requires a lot of transcription time. But I don’t edit anything, I don’t interfere with what he wrote. I think the most dedicated Salinger readers will find treasures in what is released. I don’t know if we’ll publish all at once. It’s still under discussion. There will probably be people who will buy it because they have heard about the Salinger myth. They will certainly be disappointed, but that is not a problem. J. D. Salinger wrote for his readers. I look forward to sharing his writings with these readers.

What are we talking about here? Novels, poems, letters?

It’s not important. What the reader needs to know is that these will be his writings. France despises short stories. However, in my opinion, if you appreciate a writer, you will appreciate everything he or she has produced, whatever the form of what he or she has written. That is why I will not tell you what form his texts will take. To answer your question, then, I read everything my father didn’t publish. But I will not say anything, so that the readers, whom Salinger loved so much, do not have a biased reading of what they will read. It would be a disservice to my father to do the opposite.

Did your father ever talk to you about his work?

Sometimes. He loved to write. It was his great joy, which made him happy. He thought he was doing what “We” – call it God if you wish – expected of him. Sometimes he was electrified about what he was doing and would come out of his office with eyes filled with excitement. Sometimes he would laugh and read me a few lines. But I wasn’t around much. So, most of the time, he didn’t have a confident to read his texts to. Sometimes he would read to his wife. But I don’t know to what extent he did it. He was a very secretive man. He didn’t care much about money. He really lived very simply, modestly. He was an artist. A real one. He wanted to share his writings, nothing else.

“My father studied things so deeply that nothing surprised him.”

Did he know why Catcher in the Rye was so successful?

He never talked about that. I have my own idea on the matter, but would he have agreed with me? I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was eleven and numerous times as I grew up. When I re-read The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey – which is my favorite – I feel like I hear his voice. But his voice is always there, in me. I thought I was experiencing something unique because I was his son. Then I realized that I had many brothers and sisters when I read it because he had written it in a very personal way for each reader. That’s what makes his writing so beautiful. I think that when you get older, you see things differently. By rediscovering it, you will surely learn things about yourself: how much you have changed, who you were and who you have become. It is whispered that there may be a new translation… But there is nothing official.

[Author’s Note: I’ve read the French version of The Catcher In The Rye and it is dated and stale (Bon Sang ! Le cafard). In another 6 years I hope to have learned and lived enough French to translate a new version.]

What would he think of our world today?

When Trump was elected president, I called my sister. I said, “What person wouldn’t be surprised if we elected this clown?” And she started screaming, “Dad!” Our father was deeply sceptical. He was suspicious of technology. He never had a computer or a mobile phone. He thought Facebook and Google were worrying. Alarming, even. He was a strong supporter of European laws for the protection of personal data. He found the world sad but not surprising. He had this ability to predict events. I don’t think he had this gift of omniscience, but he was a keen observer. He studied things so deeply that nothing surprised him.

Did he believe in God?

It depends on what you mean by “God”. But yes, completely. He has read and studied religions throughout his life. That’s why I don’t think people can understand the depth of his reading, the number of books he’s been able to read. He was attracted to the mystical part of religions but whether it was Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Confucianism… he studied everything. He spent decades analyzing them.

If you want to learn more, check out this article from The Guardian this past February: “Matt Salinger: ‘My father was writing for 50 years without publishing. That’s a lot of material.'”

Or this 27 minute video interview of Matt Salinger by Penguin Books UK, posted two days ago.

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Crazy Jack Ma and his Behemoth Cyber Bazaar

During a 23 hour layover in Shanghai I finished an excellent book called Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark. Here are three reasons you might want to check it out:

1.) If you are curious about the rise of the internet, how it happened, the major players, the timing, failures, future, etc.

2.) If you agree with the statement: watch out for China.

3.) You like Forrest Gump and success stories.

For this post, I’m going to focus mainly on #3. We are living in an era of uncertainty in regards to politics, globalization, and how to save our declining environment. I believe it’s important and encouraging to follow the story of someone who had a strong, singular vision and achieved it, despite years of doubt and setbacks. In an era of impatience, it’s important to learn lessons from someone who waited decades for their chance to succeed. This someone is Jack Ma. He started Alibaba, an e-commerce company that provides consumer-to-consumer, business-to-consumer, and business-to-business sales service via web portals. It is the most dominant retailer in the world (surpassing Walmart in 2016), generating more revenues than and Ebay combined. When the company went public in 2013, it was the largest IPO in history, being valued at $25 billion dollars.

So how did a poor, country boy in China who looks like E.T. rise to become a billionaire who recently met with Donald Trump (promising to create 1,000 jobs in the U.S.):

“[He] is not a handsome man, but I fell for him because he can do a lot of things handsome men cannot do,” -Jack’s wife
who financed Mission Impossible 5:

SHANGHAI, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 06: Jack Ma talks to Tom Cruise at the Shanghai premiere of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation at the Shanghai Film Center on August 6, 2015 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Kevin Lee/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures International) *** Local Caption *** Tom Cruise; Jack Ma
“One of the biggest disconnects the studios face is that they never really know, in a detailed comprehensive way, who is coming to see their movies.” -Jack Ma

who bought a soccer team for $200 million when he was drunk:

“…not understanding soccer doesn’t matter…I also didn’t understand retail, e-commerce, or the Internet, but that didn’t stop me from doing it anyway.” -Jack Ma

and who in 2015 purchased the $23 million Brandon Park Estate in New York’s Adirondack Mountains?

“It doesn’t matter how wealthy or powerful you are, if you can’t enjoy the sunshine, you can’t be truly happy.” -Jack Ma

Yes, Jack Ma is everywhere. He is also strategic, charismatic, well-spoken, and wise. His favorite movie is Forrest Gump, who he frequently quotes in his speeches:

“People think he [Forest Gump] is dumb, but he knows what he’s doing.” -Jack Ma

“I am a very simple guy, I am not smart. Everyone thinks that Jack Ma is a very smart guy. I might have a smart face but I’ve got very stupid brains.” -Jack Ma

Where did these stupid brains come from?

Jack Ma was born in 1964 in Hangzhou, a city one hundred miles to the southwest of Shanghai. His birth name was Yun Ma, which means cloud horse. As a boy, he fell in love with the English language and literature, specifically readings of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which he listened to on a shortwave radio.

Jack Ma (left) with his sister and brother

In 1978, China launched the new “open door” policy in pursuit of foreign trade and investment. In 1978, only 728 foreign tourists visited Hangzhou. The following year, 40,000 tourists came to the city. Yun Ma saw his chance.

For the next 9 years, between the ages of 14 and 23, Yun Ma would wake up at dawn, teach himself English, and ride his bike to the Hangzhou Hotel to give tours to foreigners. He honed his communication skills. An American tourist whose father and husband were named Jack suggested the name and “Ma Yun” became known in English henceforth as Jack. I like that name.

“English helps me a lot. It makes me understand the world better, helps me meet with the best CEOs and leaders in the world, and makes me understand the distance between China and the world.” -Jack Ma

At one point, an Australian family who were visiting Hangzhou took Jack under their wing. One of the sons became Jack’s pen pal, and they brought Jack on a trip to Australia.

“Everything I learned in China [before the trip] was that China was the richest country in the world. Then I arrived in Australia and realized it was totally different. I started to think you have to use your own mind to judge.” 

But despite his inner independence, Jack would face years of failures and struggle. His first job was delivering heavy bundles of magazines from printers to the Hangzhou train station. He was rejected when he applied for a job as a waiter in a hotel because he wasn’t tall enough. When he took the Chinese test to get into college, he failed the gaokao math section with a score of 1/120 and wasn’t allowed in. The next year he took the test again, scored better on the math section (19/120), but his overall school dropped and he still wasn’t accepted. Jack would later speak of failing the test twice as a badge of honor.

After the second failure, Jack sent out 7 job applications. They were all rejected. One of the applications he sent out to KFC and of the 24 candidates, he was the only one not picked. 

Finally, in 1984, at the age of 19, Jack scored 89 in the math section (several points below the normal acceptance rate) and was accepted to a local university. He would be learning/teaching English at the Hangzhou teachers college. He taught there for 2 years.

After class, Jack worked part time on his first company called Haibo. Haibo means “Hope,” but has a literal translation of “vast like the sea.” Haibo was an English translation company.

First Encounter with the Internet

In early 1994, Jack was asked by the government of Tonglu County to assist as an interpreter. They wanted him to help resolve a dispute with an American company over the construction of a new highway. The American company had promised to build a highway between Hangzhou and Tonglu, but the negotiations were in a deadlock. Jack traveled to America for the first time.

In Las Vegas, Jack Ma was kidnapped. The American company he was investigating did not exist, his host was a crook, and he found himself in serious danger. The host wanted Jack to work for him and locked him in a hotel room. Jack escaped, won $600 on slot machines in the casino, and took a plane to Seattle.

In Seattle, Jack stayed with Bill Aho’s (a fellow teacher/co-worker) son-in-law. While walking around the neighborhoods, Jack would point at various houses and say, “I’m going to buy that one, and that one, and that one.” At the time, he didn’t have a nickel.

Bill Aho’s son-in-law (Stuart Trusty) had set up an Internet consultancy firm called Virtual Broadcast Network. Trusty showed Jack what the internet was. Back then, the Internet was mostly just a directory for governments and businesses, but Jack seemed excited. The first word he searched was beer. He found American Beer, German beer, but no Chinese beer. Then Jack searched ‘China’ and no data appeared. The seed was planted.

Back in Hangzhou, Jack set about building his concept of an online yellow pages. He named the business China Pages. During this time, he saw the dean of his school on a bicycle buying vegetables. The dean encouraged Jack to keep working hard at teaching. Jack saw a limit to ambition as a teacher. He told himself he would put everything towards this new venture.

In April 1995, Jack borrowed money from his relatives, including his sister, brother-in-law, and parents and started the Hangzhou Haibo Network Consulting (HHNC). His wife, Cathy, was the first employee.

But the problem was that nobody could get online in Hangzhou. It is difficult for us to imagine now, but Jack was telling businesses, “Give me your money ($1-2 thousand dollars) and I’ll put your business info into this invisible, magic place.” Jack would later say, “I was treated like a con man for three years.” When a business did agree to a deal, Jack would mail the website designs to Seattle for them to set it up.

In 1996, HHNC was near bankruptcy. The world wasn’t ready for the internet yet. Jack was too early. An additional problem was that Jack’s sites were too rudimentary. They were just directories.

In November, 1997, Jack left his company. “At that time I called myself a blind man riding on the back of blind tigers. Without knowing anything about technology or computers, I started the first company. And after years of terrible experience, we failed.” He started work at the government’s Foreign Trade of Economic Cooperation, which to me sounded very similar to The Ministry of Magic:

Ministry of M

Jack was like a fish out of water, and had to bide his time until he could jump back into the entrepreneurial sea of China’s internet.

This chance came in 1999, when Jack founded Alibaba. He knew he was on to something big, would frequently give inspiring speeches to his few employees, and began filming all of their meetings. In early 1999, China had 2 million internet users and personal computers cost $1,500. The number of users would double in six months and reach 9 million by the end of the year. Jack and Alibaba were ready to ride the internet wave. In 2000, Jack traveled to Berlin and gave a speech on the internet in a 500-person auditorium to 3 people.

Most of Alibaba’s competitors at the time were business to business. Jack knew they needed to find their niche, and decided to stick to small businesses. Instead of focusing on the whales they focused on the shrimp. Jack says he found inspiration in Forrest Gump’s Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

snow you son of a bitch, snow

Jack Ma said, “85% of the fish in the sea are shrimp sized. Who’s making money from whales? People are making money from shrimp.”

Alibaba grew (Goldman Sachs invested $5 million in the company), but the internet bubble was about to pop. Right before the dot com crash, though, another major investment by Softbank would keep Alibaba afloat. The investment of $20 million occurred because of a brief meeting between Jack and the CEO of Softbank, Masayoshi Son:

we are born to make things happen
Masayoshi Son

When Masayoshi was asked why he invested $20 million dollars after such a brief meeting, he replied,

“It was the look in his [Jack Ma’s] eye, it was an ‘animal smell’…it was the same when I invested in Yahoo!…when they were still only five to six people. I invested based on my sense of smell.”

Jack Ma would later describe Masayoshi as an “iron rooster,” which in Chinese is an idiom for “very cheap,” [you can’t pluck a single feather out of an iron rooster]. But this iron rooster believed in Jack Ma. A worker for Softbank said, “He’s [Masayoshi] crazy, but Ma’s also crazy. It’s very common for crazy people to like each other.”

The decline (2001-2002) were dark days for Alibaba, but they survived. Jack’s strategy was to “be the last man standing. If I had a hard time, my opponents had an even harder time. Those who can stand and manager will win eventually.”

But despite the setback, knowledge of the internet was growing. Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused an eventual 8,098 cases, resulting in 774 deaths. But SARS also convinced millions of people, afraid to go outside, to try shopping online instead.

War Against Ebay

Ebay would try to become a major player in the Chinese Internet Market. Ebay would eventually lose the war against Alibaba. Here’s why:

1.) Ebay looked at their China competitors as enemies. Jack Ma had a different strategy: “Competition is the greatest joy…if you can’t tolerate your opponents, you will definitely be beaten by your opponents. If you have no enemy in your heart, you will be invincible in the world.”

2.) Ebay purchased Eachnet in China in order to compete, but maintained an arrogant, “leave-it-to-the-experts” attitude which demoralized the Eachnet team. China’s Ebay site looked foreign to local users. They didn’t even have a customer service number.

3.) Ebay didn’t know about the Chinese consumer. In website design, culture matters. In America, websites like Google are popular with their clean lines and uncluttered negative space. In China, this seems dull. Check out the old Alibaba site:


Commerce in China is very strange. Alibaba started with unconventional, non-standardized products. And they understood that individuals could be happy making 1 cent on a sale.

3.) Facing spiraling costs, Ebay’s Eachnet started charging fees to sellers, adding commissions on all transactions. Taobao (part of Alibaba) didn’t charge merchants or consumers to transact. Chinese merchants at the time were “allergic to paying fees,” and while Taobao’s free policy was dangerous, the site steadily gained popularity.

4.) Because of Eachnet’s charging policy they had to worry about policing, while Taobao encouraged interactions between merchants and consumers. Taobao even created a chat window.

5.) Ebay “moved” their hosting website from China to America. With China’s government firewalls, websites overseas took much slower to load. Furthermore, when the engineers wanted to change one word on the site, it would take 9 weeks. If they wanted to change a feature on the website, it would take a year.

6.) Ebay had an effective monopoly in the U.S. and was complacent. Meg Whitman, who was the CEO of Ebay during their war with Alibaba, would say years later: “It was not a market where you can take a product or system in the U.S. and export it to China.” As Jack said, “Ebay is a shark in the ocean, but I am a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we lose, but if we fight in the river, we win.”

7.) An emphasis on capital over people. Ebay invested 100 million into China, but Jack at the time just laughed, “They [Ebay] has big pocket, but we cut a hole in that pocket. Some say the power of capital is enormous. Capital does have its power. But the real power is the power of the people controlling the capital. People’s power is enormous. Businessman’s power is inexhaustible.”

Alibaba won the war. In 2005, a desperate Ebay condescendingly offered to buy Taobao for $150 million dollars. Jack replied, “No, we’re just getting started.” Then Ebay offered $900 million. Jack declined and the meeting was over. Later that year Yahoo! would invest $1 billion in Alibaba.

Today, Jack Ma is worth $28.7 billion dollars (according to Forbes, 3/1/2017). “A record $463 billion of business transactions were conducted on Alibaba’s retail platforms in the fiscal year through March 2016.” And last year, on “Singles’ Day” (a retaliation against Valentine’s Day which celebrates the country’s single population) the site recorded nearly $18 billion in sales in 24 hours.

If you still don’t believe it’s important to be aware of Jack Ma and Alibaba, while writing this essay I discovered a Business Insider Article written today on the same subject. Check it out if you want to learn more.

And if you’re wondering about the picture of Jack with the black lipstick and the tall mohawk…Jack dressed up as a punk rocker for a performance in front of 20,000 Alibaba employees at the company’s anniversary event/talent show. He came a long way from his Berlin speech in 2000 to 3 people.

And yes, Jack Ma is crazy. But as the wise Forrest Gump once said, “What’s normal anyways?”

j and fg

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Turning Points in the Life of Malcolm X

“Learn wisdom from the pupil of the eye that looks upon all things and yet to self is blind.” -Persian Poet

“There is nothing more frightening than ignorance in action.” -Goethe

(Both notes written by Malcolm X on scraps of paper found after his death.)

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book. (400)-Malcolm X

My goal for this post is to convince you, the reader, to read Malcolm X’s autobiography (if you haven’t already). We’re living in a divided nation fraught with polarizing opinions and hatred. By learning about the life of a man who was labeled a terrorist, who suffered through oppression and distortion by the elite and his own nation of Islam, we can hopefully gain more empathy and inspiration.

My memory of Malcolm X, in my public high school history class, is in comparison to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


When we learned about the Civil Rights Moment there were pages dedicated to Dr. King, his marches, his sit-ins, his Christian humility, and his pacifist approach. Malcolm X only had a one paragraph beneath a picture of him shouting, and I distinctly remember him being labeled as a violent radical, a dangerous Muslim, a preacher of hatred towards the white man. How fitting that his autobiography would end with this:

“When I am dead – I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form – I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say – that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate”…You watch, I will be labeled as an “irresponsible” black man. (389).”

Not only was Malcolm X assassinated a few months before the book was published, but he never preached unprovoked violence towards white people. He preached separation and self-defense. Today, much of our country still believes that Muslims are violent radicals. This has to change.

Before delving into Malcolm X’s life, I want to tangentially discuss a philosophical conundrum that has bothered me for about a decade: The power of outward circumstances vs. the power of internal will. How much are “we” controlled by what happens around us: our families, our communities, and our country’s newspapers? Many thinkers today favor circumstance over internal will. I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books (they’re all great, I recommend them all), and they lean towards this “circumstance” bias. His best book, Outliers, uses the analogy of a tall tree in a forest. How fortunate that the tree, as it grew to one day be tall, wasn’t blocked by other trees from receiving sunlight? How fortunate that some animals didn’t come along when the tree was young and damage its growth? Gladwell tells the story of how Bill Gates became a leader in developing computers. Bill Gates grew up near the Computer Center Corporation (CCC), and would sneak out of his house at night to practice and learn on a computer.

bill_gates_school 1968
Bill Gates in 1968, age 13

How lucky that Bill had early access to the world’s cutting edge computer system at a young age? How lucky that Bill came from a family that encouraged learning and competition? Yes, Bill was lucky to live near this opportunity and to have grown up in a stable home, but what Gladwell doesn’t focus on is that Bill still woke up in the middle of the night to learn and take advantage of this computer. Bill still pursued his computer obsession, despite his family pushing for him to become a lawyer. Similarly, as I discuss Malcolm X’s life, I want the reader to keep in mind how easy it would have been for Malcolm to throw up his at hands at any point and say, “I’m done. This wretched life isn’t worthy living.” Yes, circumstances pushed him in various, dark directions: he became a drug dealer and was deeply involved in NYC’s underworld, but through it all he maintained a driving energy and a will to live and flourish. He had a powerful internal will. Despite outward circumstances attacking him again and again, he rose to become one of humanity’s most influential leaders, whose voice will echo for centuries, while all the petty, racist bastards who attempted to bring him down at every stage in his life are by now anonymous ashes and dust.


Malcolm’s father was killed by a group of white men, most likely the K.K.K., when Malcolm was six years old.


Malcolm was his father’s favorite child. Malcolm remembered the funeral:

“And I remember that during the service a big black fly came down and landed on my father’s face, and Wilfred sprang up from his chair and he shooed the fly away, and he came groping back to his chair – there were folding chairs for us to sit on – and the tears were streaming down his face. When we went by the casket, I remember that I thought that it looked as if my father’s strong black face had been dusted with flour, and I wished they hadn’t put on such a lot of it. (11)”

Early on, he was acquainted with cruelty and mortality.

At the age of 13, Malcolm’s mother was admitted to a mental institution:

Kalamazoo Insane Asylum

“I truly believed that if ever a state social agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours. We wanted and tried to stay together. Our home didn’t have to be destroyed. But the Welfare, the courts, and their doctor, gave us the one-two-three punch. And ours was not the only case of this kind. (22)”

Malcolm developed a distrust of state institutions and realized that he was alone in this world.

Malcolm went to live with a kindly condescending foster family, the Swerlins.

“What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was closed. Thus they never did really see me. (28)”

Not only was Malcolm alone, but he would never be seen as an equal in a white-dominated world.

Malcolm had an English teacher named Mr. Ostrowski who liked him and treated him comparatively well. Mr. Ostrowski was a “natural born advisor.” He asked Malcolm what he planned to do in life. “Well, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.”

“Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands – making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?” Malcolm brooded over this advice for days:

“What made it really begin to disturb me was Mr. Ostrowski’s advice to others in in my class – all of them white…those who wanted to strike out on their own, to try something new, he had encouraged…yet nearly none of them had earned marks equal to mine…it was then that I began to change – inside. I drew away from white people. (38)”

“Whatever I have done since then, I have driven myself to become a success at it. I’ve often thought that if Mr. Ostrowski had encouraged me to become a lawyer, I would today probably be among some city’s professional black bourgeoisie, sipping cocktails and palming myself off as a community spokesman for and leader of the suffering black masses, while my primary concern would be to grab a few more crumbs from the groaning board of the two-faced whites with whom they’re begging to ‘intergrate’ (40).”

Malcolm’s beloved Aunt, Ella, was a strong-minded woman who lived in Boston. After the Mr. Ostrowski epiphany, Malcolm decided to leave his small town and move to Boston. He explored the city for months and saw a different, more diverse, and open world.

Boston, 1940, Adams Square
Boston, 1940, Adams Square

He wanted to find a job to surprise Ella. He was drawn by the sight of all the “cool-looking cats” in a poolroom. He met ‘Shorty,’ a shoe-shiner in the Roseland State Ballroom, who took him under his wing and said, “I’m going to school you to the happenings.”

Couples dancing to the Dolly Dawn band at the Roseland Ballroom, New York, New York, 1941. (Photo by Irving Kaufman/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
Couples dancing to the Dolly Dawn band at the Roseland Ballroom

For years, Malcolm would work menial jobs and hustle: dishwasher (first job), shoe-shiner at the Roseland Ballroom (where Duke Ellington would play and Ella Fitzgerald would sing), waiter, railroad porter. He fell in love with New York City and moved there (after running afoul of the Florida Cracker who was assistant conductor on the railroad). Malcolm started working at a popular bar, Small’s Paradise, which was the “center of events” in Harlem. It was 1942 and Malcolm was 17.

Smalls Paradise

“Every day I listed raptly to customers who felt like talking, and it all added to my education. My ears soaked it up like sponges when one of them, in a rare burst of confidence, or a little beyond his usual number of drinks, would tell me inside things about the particular form of hustling that he pursed as a way of life. I was thus schooled well, by experts in such hustles as the numbers, pimping, con games of many kinds, peddling dope, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery (86).”

No matter where Malcolm was in his life, he was questioning, working, and learning.

Malcolm became friends with Sammy the Pimp and learned about women and prostitution.

“Those women would tell me anything. Funny little stories about the bedroom differences they saw between white and black men. The perversities!…The prostitutes had to make it their business to be students of men. They said that after most men passed their virile twenties, they went to bed mainly to satisfy their egos, and because a lot of women don’t understand it that way, they damage and wreck a man’s ego. No matter how little virility a man has to offer, prostitutes make him feel for a time that he is the greatest man in the world. That’s why these prostitutes had that morning rush of business. More wives could keep their husbands if they realized their greatest urge is to be men (95).”

But Malcolm’s personality was the type to take things all the way. His hustling became more aggressive, and one day at Small’s Paradise he fell right into the hands of a military spy (who he thought wanted a woman). Luckily, due to a previous clean record, Malcolm was not arrested, but he was barred from Small’s. Sammy and him began doing more business together and Malcolm went deeper into the underworld.

“In those days only three things scared me: jail, a job, and the Army (108).” One day, he was almost killed by West Indian Archie over a gambling mishap. He was chain-smoking four packs of cigarettes a day (“Tobacco is just as much an addiction as any narcotic” 142)), not sleeping, and running all over the city. Malcolm became the boss of a four-person-team specializing in armed robbery. He got caught.


Despite the average burglary sentence for a first time offender being 2 years, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years in prison. The white women who he was working with received 1-5 years. In 1946, when Malcolm was not quite 21, when he hadn’t even started shaving yet, he was taken to Charlestown State Prison and would spend the next 7 years incarcerated.

Charlestown State Prison
Charlestown State Prison

“Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars – caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars (155).”

Malcolm hit rock bottom and was known in the prison as Satan. “As a ‘fish’ at Charlestown I was physically miserable and as evil-tempered as a snake, being suddenly without drugs. The cells didn’t have running water. The prison had been built in 1805 – in Napoleon’s day – and was even styled after the Bastille. In the dirty, cramped cell, I could lie on my cot and touch both walls. The toilet was a covered pail; I don’t care how strong you are, you can’t stand having to smell a whole cell row of defecation (155).”

Charlestown Cell Block
Charlestown Cell Block

During the first year in prison Malcolm cursed guards, threw things out of his cell, balked in line, dropped trays in the dining hall, and refused to answer to his number – claiming he forgot it. “I preferred the solitary that this behavior brought me. I would pace for hours like a caged leopard, viciously cursing aloud to myself. And my favorite subjects were the Bible and God (156).”

But in 1947 Malcolm met a fellow inmate who made a positive impression on him. The man was named Bimbi. He was an old-time burglar who was gruff and gave talks on odd subjects.

“Out of the blue one day, Bimbi told me flatly, as was his way, that I had some brains, if I’d use them. I had wanted his friendship, but not that kind of advice. I might have cursed another convict, but nobody cursed Bimbi. He told me I should take advantage of the prison correspondence courses and the library (157).”

Over the next 7 years Malcolm would read and write like a fanatic: history, philosophy, fiction, everything he could get his hands on. “Let me tell you something: from then on until I left prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge…months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life (176).”

“I’ve never been one for inaction. Everything I’ve ever felt strongly about, I’ve done something about, I guess that’s why, unable to do anything else, I soon began reading and writing…(173).” He would copy the entire dictionary.

In 1948, after Malcolm had been transferred to Concord Prison, his brother Philbert, who was forever joining something, wrote him that he had discovered the “natural religion for the black man.” He belonged now, he said, to something called, “the Nation of Islam.” The religion would “get him out of prison.” “If you will take one step toward Allah – Allah will take two steps toward you (158-159).”

In addition to Malcolm’s intensive reading, he began a correspondence with Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Nation of Islam group in America. Elijah became a father figure to Malcolm and told him something which revolutionized his thinking:

The white man is the devil.

“I couldn’t make of it head, or tail, or middle. The white people I had known marched before my mind’s eye. From the start of my life. The state white people always in our house after the other whites I didn’t know had killed my father…the white people who kept calling my mother ‘crazy,’ to her face and before me and my brothers and sisters, until she finally was taken off by white people to the Kalamazoo asylum…the white judge and others who had split up the children…the Swerlins, the other whites around Mason…the white-only dances at the Roseland Ballroom…the judge who gave me ten years…the prisoners I’d known, the guards and the officials (164-165).”

Malcolm came to the conclusion that history had been “whitened” in the white man’s history books, and that the black man had been brainwashed for hundreds of years. He became a dedicated follower of Elijah Muhammad. In prison he became a teacher.

During the spring of 1952, Malcolm was released from prison. After taking a Turkish bath to wash off the prison taint, he bought three things that would become prized possessions and prepare him for what his life was to become:

“My eyeglasses to correct the astigmatism that I got from all the reading in prison…a suitcase, and a wrist watch. You won’t find anybody more time-conscious than I am. I live by my watch, keeping appointments. Even when I’m using my car, I drive by my watch, not my speedometer. Time is more important to me than distance (196).”

Until his death, Malcolm would travel constantly and preach the teachings of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. He would grow Elijah Muhammad’s organization from 400 members to 40,000. From speeches on street corners in Harlem to speeches at revered universities (Harvard, etc.), Malcolm funneled all his energy into spreading the word of Islam. He became Elijah Muhammad’s right hand man.

E and M

“’Brother Malcolm, I want you to become well known,’ Mr. Muhammad told me one day. ‘Because if you are well known, it will make me better known,’ he went on.

‘But Brother Malcolm, there is something you need to know. You will grow to be hated when you become well known. Because usually people get jealous of public figures.’

Nothing that Mr. Muhammad ever said to me was more prophetic (207).”

Elijah Muhammad and the nation of Islam would eventually betray Malcolm X. One of the reasons is that he became too famous. Another reason was that despite preaching fidelity, Elijah would have numerous relationships with his secretaries, and this information became public and damning. Malcolm couldn’t defend him anymore.

“What began to break my faith was that, try as I might, I couldn’t hide, I couldn’t evade, that Mr. Muhammad, instead of facing what he had done before his followers, as a human weakness or as a fulfillment of prophecy – which I sincerely believe Muslims would have understood, or at least they would have accepted – Mr. Muhammad had, instead, been willing to hide, to cover up what he had done.

That was my final blow (312).”

When jealously set in, the newspaper that Malcolm founded, Muhammad Speaks, wouldn’t print anything about Malcolm X.

In addition, Malcolm was questioning the belief that, “The white man is the devil.” When he was rising up in the nation Islam, an experience occurred that Malcolm would never forget. A little blond co-ed at a New England college was moved by Malcolm’s words. She must have caught the next plane behind the one that Malcolm took to New York. She found Malcolm in a Muslim restaurant in Harlem.

Temple 7 Halal
Temple 7 Halal Restaurant in Harlem

She demanded, to Malcolm’s face, ‘Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” Malcolm didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so he told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss – not their words.’

‘What can I do?’ she exclaimed. He told her, ‘Nothing.’ She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi (292).

Years later, Malcolm X would tell Gordon Parks, “Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like that kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then, like all Muslims – I was hypnotized, pointed in a direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years (436).”

While Malcolm was traveling the African continent, meeting presidents and important figures and visiting Mecca, he began changing his world-view. He had never experienced such kindness from whites. Meanwhile, back in America, the Nation of Islam was plotting his death.

“My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with new insight…in the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again – as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks (369).” The nation of Islam did not agree with Malcolm’s broadening scope. Malcolm knew that the Nation of Islam were actively trying to kill him. His fame and philosophical changes would lead the Nation of Islam to murder him in cold blood on February 21, 1965, when Malcolm was 39 years old.

MX Life

Elijah Muhammad told the annual Savior’s Day convention that “Malcolm X got just what he preached.” Martin Luther King said, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race.”


Recently (January 28, 2017) I read articles about Malcolm X’s granddaughter who was arrested for animal cruelty and theft. Even today people are attempting to smear his reputation in subtle, insinuating ways. And in our nation’s climate of police brutality towards African Americans, this fucking Alt-Right group claiming white supremacy, and a ban on Muslims entering our country, I think it’s important to remind ourselves what Malcolm X really stood for. It’s important to know that he did not preach hate. It’s important to recognize his will to live and his belief that he could change the world:

As Alex Haley noted in the epilogue of this book, “I saw Malcolm X too many times exhilarated in after-lecture give-and-take with predominately white student bodies at colleges and universities to ever believe that he nurtured at his core any blanket white-hatred. ‘The young whites, and blacks, too, are the only hope that America has,’ he said to me once. ‘The rest of us have always been living a lie’(407).”

Malcolm X presented a challenge to white people. And there’s one, final scene I want to conclude this essay with that stayed with me months after finishing the book:

Malcolm X was driving his car along the freeway when he stopped at a red light. Another car pulled alongside. A white woman was driving and on the passenger’s side, a few feet away from Malcolm, was a white man. ‘Malcolm X!’ he shouted. The white man stuck his hand out the car, while grinning, and asked, ‘Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?’ Just as the traffic light turned green, Malcolm turned and said, ‘I don’t mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?’

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