Personal metamorphosis

Review of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

“Sir,” said a letter to Kafka in the last few years of his life, “You have made me unhappy. I bought your ‘Metamorphosis’ as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of the story.”

Having finished Kafka’s legendary story, which has “inspired countless stage adaptations and doctoral theses and scores of subsequent writers”, I can share the frustration of the cousin. This story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who one day wakes up to find he has become a giant bug, has a simple plot but is hard to make sense of without the right metaphors.

After shaking off the possibility that he is in a dream, Gregor does his best to fit in society that he was once part of. But as the story progresses, his attempts bear no fruit in a household which is finding it difficult to sustain their earlier lifestyle after losing the sole breadwinner. At the end, after enduring the growing distance from a family he still loves and feeling useless, Gregor dies of depression and self-inflicted harm.

Despite the dark plot, Kafka, through simple words and short sentences, keeps the mood cheerful almost all through, with comical interludes and many happy moments. Of the many analogies people draw to understand Gregor’s metamorphosis, this one convinces me the most:

The reasons behind Gregor’s transformation are not all that complicated. Kafka declines to spell out the specific reasons but still makes it clear that Gregor (and by extension, all the other Gregors in the world) had allowed himself to become a powerless insect long before actually physically turning into one. As someone who has selflessly sacrificed whatever independence he may have had to support his uncaring parents and their attempts to live an “upper class” life without actually having to suffer for it, Gregor has already willingly given up all the unique traits that make one a human.

The bit of the story that really gets me, though, comes right at the end, where, after the death of Gregor with whom the family still seems to have some attachment, they go on a drive and start thinking about what a “voluptuous” woman Gregor’s sister has become and how they would like to find him an upper class husband. And the fact that that end seems so out of place, forces readers to reanalyse what Kafka had in mind about Gregor’s metamorphosis.

Hat-tip to Emma Hogan, whose brilliant review of Kafka’s biography made me pick up this book.

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Why choosing a career is hard and why it should be

When someone asks me how I came to be what I am today, I say that I walked down the path of diminishing salaries and stopped where I felt that that is the least I needed to earn. What I don’t tell them is that, if there is one thing that I’ve struggled with constantly as a young adult, it would be with my choice of career.

At the age of 17, when I was about to enter university, I wanted to make lots of money but also be as educated as my dad. The middle ground was to become an engineer, earn an MBA and get a high-paying job. Chemistry and maths were the subjects I liked, so I decided to do chemical engineering.

At 20, in the middle of my engineering degree, I decided that my education was too shallow. To be truly valued I needed to become an expert. Earning money can wait. This is why I decided to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry, the subject I enjoyed the most.

At 23, in the middle of my PhD, I realised that, while research is a noble pursuit, my temperament is not cut out for a life spent trying to solve problem in a single narrowly-defined field of science. There were far too many interesting things happening in the world to not know and think about. That is when I started blogging about science. And money had merely become a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now, at 26, having finished my PhD, I have become a science journalist. It seems like the job that I feel I could do most with given my skills, my temperament and my ethical code. It is the job in which I’ve found myself to be most at peace with myself.

And yet, even today I struggle with my choices. Every so often, I have to take a few steps back and look at what I’m doing. I feel torn about the opportunities that I may have let go on my way here, and those I still let go because I’ve made a decision to do something else.

Hard at work

Hard at work? Be sure to think about why you work. Svein Halvor Halvorsen

Do all young adults suffer from the same? Do they all give this critical choice of their life enough thought? Do we even have a culture that promotes deep thinking about our own careers? From what I read on Cal Newport’s blog, the answer to all the above questions seems to be “no”.

In a sharp commentary, Ezra Klein, a Washington Post columnist, explains that this lack of thinking about careers (or, more precisely, “no idea what to do next”) leads the world of finance to swoop up smart graduates with great work ethic. These kids did not enter university thinking they are going to spend their life making money for the already rich, but for the lack of better options and the attraction of a fat paycheck that’s what they end up doing.

Thinking about your career is as much a responsibility to yourself as it is to society that depends on you. In your lifetime there will be only so many hours spent working and contributing to the world (80,000 by one estimate), the least you can do is ensure that those hours are spent productively.

Newport’s summary of the three things that one must think about when choosing a career is a good start:

  1. The value of craftmanship
  2. The importance of lifestyle
  3. A personal ethic

That I would contend is still not enough.

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Creativity in a box

Trapped-in-a-box

Not so bad. Dan Machold

As a writer, I suffer from a disability that I suspect isn’t unique. I am never pleased with anything I write. There must be, my critical self nags, a better idea to write about or a better way to write what I just wrote.

Perhaps it is this disability that has forced me to work as a journalist, rather than, say, a novelist. For example, both the aforementioned problems go away when I’m on an assignment.

The first disappears because once my idea has been accepted by an editor, I know that’s what I have to write about. The second vanishes because the acceptance comes with a deadline, which I’m forced to honour so it keeps my easy-to-distract mind on a leash.

This it turns out isn’t a bad way of learning to be a writer. As it happens, Neil Gaiman, a best-selling English author of fiction and comics, found that the restrictions placed on him as a journalist were great for learning to be a creative writer.

In an interview for the Financial Times, he said:

(After school I went) straight into work, as a journalist – a wonderful thing for a writer. You learn you can ask questions, you learn compression and you learn probably the single most important thing for any writer: delivering more or less on time.

Of course, the idea of tethering your mind to a task at hand isn’t a new productivity tool. What is counter-intuitive, though, is that putting yourself in a box that is governed by self-set rules does not kill creativity. If anything, it is enhanced in a way that may produce more results.

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When free will, causality and privacy are all at stake

Review of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s Big Data

We live in a world where flu outbreaks are predicted faster and more accurately by analysing Google search results rather than by doctors or clinicians, where traffic jams are better judged by crunching data from cellphone signals rather than from direct reports from people on the ground, and where your shopping habits might reveal that you’re pregnant before anyone else in your family knows.

This is the power of big data. It is defined not by the sheer volume of information, but by what that large volume enables us to do that similar smaller volume of data wouldn’t. For example, Google’s flu trends will hardly work if the amount of queries made per second were not in the thousands. Another aspect of big data is that using it means shedding our obsession for causality and embracing correlations. The important thing is to know what rather than the why.

Take the example of how Google’s page ranking system works. The computer algorithm at the heart of Google search that is analysing data from all across the web is not trying to understand what the websites say or mean, so much as it is trying to correlate what people want when they type something in the search query. More queries followed by more clicks on relevant sites will better the algorithm that ranks pages, helping it to make better predictions which links will work best. Now add to it information like a person’s search history, location, time of the day, etc. and Google is able to give near perfect search results.

The book also rightly argues that despite data’s ubiquitous use today, the revolution has only just begun. A lot of the information in the world still remains locked or wasted. Consider the example of electrocardiography (ECG). When a patient undergoes ECG, hundreds of data points are collected every second but most of it gets thrown away. Instead the capability of easy storage (thus never needing to throw away any data) can be used to make better predictions of the patient’s health in the future. Datafication, which is recording everything possible, can unlock information around us. Things which might seem uninteresting could, in combination with other data, reveal insights that we could not have guessed before

Big data’s use does not paint a uniformly rosy picture. Governments are desperately trying to control more and more data from their citizens’ lives under the guise of security concerns. But, just like private companies do, the data can easily be employed by governments for uses that citizens would not approve of, if they were asked to give consent. The story of Minority Report could come true. In it the government develops a system that is used to predict the future occurrence of crime and make arrests in time to stop it. These sort of uses are still science fiction, but not for long. They risk taking away from humanity its most dear capacity—to act on “free will”.

It is this dual-edged sword of big data that makes Messrs Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger’s book timely and important. Written beautifully and convincingly, it makes for a great read. Where I don’t agree with the book is that big data “will transforming how we live, work and think”. I think it already has.

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