TIME Innovation

How Damaged Brains Can Learn From Healthy Ones

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Could damaged brains learn to heal from healthy ones?

By Brian Handwerk at Smithsonian Magazine

2. From VOA to Radio Free Europe, the U.S. needs a single news voice abroad.

By Al Pessin at Defense One

3. Here’s how the dwindling teacher supply is complicating education reform.

By Paul Bruno in the Brown Center Chalkboard at the Brookings Institution

4. The mobile web sucks.

By Nilay Patel in the Verge

5. What’s better than a clinical trial for understanding drug side effects?

By Aviva Rutkin in New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Lessons From a Town That Runs on Social Media

Digital networks have made it possible to build much faster, more efficient feedback loops

We recently visited a small Spanish town that is using social media in a new way. Our research lab is studying the town to learn how these technologies might help communities around the world become more responsive to their citizens. This is a brief report on what we know so far.

For the last four years, a town in southern Spain has been conducting a remarkable experiment in civic life. Jun (pronounced “hoon”) has been using Twitter as its principal medium for citizen-government communication. Leading the effort is Jun’s Mayor, José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, a passionate believer in the power of technology to solve problems and move society forward.

Since launching the initiative in 2011, Rodríguez Salas has been recruiting his 3,500 townspeople to not only join the social network but have their Twitter accounts locally verified at town hall. This extra step isn’t necessary to participate in the conversation — Twitter is open to anyone — but it helps town employees know they’re dealing with actual residents.

In the most basic scenario, a citizen who has a question, request or complaint tweets it to the mayor or one of his staff, who work to resolve the matter. For instance, in the sequence of tweets shown below (which we pulled from the 2014 Twitter data and translated into English), at 10:48 pm a citizen tells the mayor that a street lamp is out on Maestro Antonio Linares Street. Nine minutes later, the mayor replies that he’ll have the town electrician fix it the next day. The mayor’s tweet includes the Twitter handle of the electrician, who is automatically notified that he’s been mentioned and sees the exchange. That tweet is a public promise that the town will indeed take action, and to underline this it ends with the hashtag#JunGetsMoving. The next day, the electrician tweets a photo of the repaired fixture, thanking the citizen for his help and repeating the hashtag:

William Powers and Deb RoyA citizen alerts the mayor to a broken street lamp. Two tweets later, it’s fixed.

Governments have been responding to citizens for centuries. But digital networks have made it possible to build much faster, more efficient feedback loops. Each of the participants in the above transaction wrote a single text of less than 140 characters, and in less than 24 hours the problem was solved.

There are numerous cases of public officials responding to tweets. U.S. Senator Cory Booker made headlines several times for doing so when he was mayor of Newark, New Jersey. For a big city U.S. mayor, this was considered unusual behavior and therefore newsworthy. In Jun, however, it has been systematically adopted as the way things get done every day. If Rodriguez Salasdidn’t respond to an urgent citizen tweet, it would make headlines.

Because these communications occur on a public social platform, they can be seen by everyone in the community. This “mutual visibility” (sometimes called “mutual transparency”) serves as both a carrot and a stick. On one hand, the government’s performance comes under greater public scrutiny. If a broken streetlight isn’t fixed, everyone knows it and the slacking employee is more likely to be disciplined or, if it becomes a pattern, fired. That’s the stick.

But the good work done by public servants is also now visible to all and thus more likely to be recognized and rewarded. The carrots can be as small as a message being favorited or retweeted (the electrician received both), or as great as winning the esteem of one’s neighbors and new status in the community. The operator of the town’s street-sweeping machine, whose entertaining tweets have made him a local celebrity, told us that having his daily work seen and appreciated on the social platform has changed his life.

According to the mayor, this system is saving the town time and money. Tweeting is quicker than fielding and returning phone calls, which used to consume his day. He says these efficiencies have allowed him to reduce the police force from four employees to just one. Jun’s sole police officer told us he now receives 40 to 60 citizen tweets per day, ranging from the serious (there’s been a bad car accident) to the trivial (my neighbor is singing at all hours, please make him stop). He noted that being accessible to the public on a 24/7 social network has its downsides; to protect his family time, on arriving home in the evening he turns off his phone. But what if there’s an emergency, we asked. Answer: It’s a small town and everyone knows where he lives.

Jun citizens also use Twitter to voice their views on local issues. At town council meetings, which are streamed live on the web, those not physically present may participate by tweeting questions and comments, which appear on a screen in the council chamber.

Beyond government, the social network is broadly integrated into the town’s everyday life, used for a wide variety of tasks such as publicizing social and cultural events, booking medical appointments, following youth sports teams, and just keeping up with neighbors. The town employee who tweets the school lunch menu each weekday told us on that on weekends she enjoys sharing some of her family’s home life via tweets. One retiree who learned to use Twitter at a technology education center run by the town said the network has become his principal news source. “It’s just like a newspaper!” he enthused, noting that the mayor tweets so often about national and global events, he’s a one-man media outlet.

Jun essentially runs on Twitter, a groundbreaking use of social technology that, as far as we know, is unique. All over the world, digital technologies play a growing role in community management. In their book, The Responsive City, Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford write about “the emerging cadre of officials and civic activists who are using the new data tools to transform city government” in Boston, Chicago, New York and elsewhere. The New York City police department recently started using Twitter to connect with citizens. But Jun is the first community to use a social medium comprehensively for all civic communication. And it happened in an entirely home-grown way. For the first couple of years, Twitter the company was not even aware of the experiment.

Our academic research group at the MIT Media Lab, the Laboratory for Social Machines, was founded last fall with a generous grant from Twitter, and one of us has a work relationship with Twitter. But the company doesn’t select or shape our research projects, and our interest in Jun is ultimately not about one platform: It’s about the future of all social media and their potential to reshape how communities large and small work. For studying these questions, Jun is an ideal laboratory, small enough that you can get a holistic feel for the place in a couple of days, and large enough that over time, through data analysis and on-the-ground research, meaningful lessons can be extracted. That’s our hope, anyway.

Many of the Jun citizens we interviewed told us that the initiative has had a net positive effect on the town. “Twitter is a plus, it makes the town better,” one said. Another noted that “it’s an easy and fast way to connect” and that “people can build on each others’ comments.”

But it is not without its critics. One resident said he dislikes the way the mayor uses Twitter for self-promotion, and how town employees tend to parrot everything the boss says. The same person feels public servants shouldn’t use their accounts to tweet about personal matters (“I don’t care that they had paella for dinner.”) Last time Rodríguez Salas ran for reelection, his opponent urged citizens to vote “for a real mayor, not a virtual one.”

The mayor himself has a few problems with the system. He jokingly calls Twitter “the Society of the Minute” and says it has a way of making citizens more impatient with government. “In the real world, one in every 43 people has a problem with everything. On Twitter, it is one in 27” — and they always expect an immediate response.

He notes that complicated public issues are difficult to discuss on Twitter because of its format. He also acknowledges that his ad hoc method for managing the incoming — checking his phone often and responding right away — could probably be improved. Somewhat miraculously, he’s been governing the town with Twitter and virtual duct-tape, and perhaps could use a data-driven dashboard that organizes it all.

For a clearer perspective, we have begun analyzing Jun’s Twitter data, along with other town records, from the beginning of the initiative to the present. Among the questions we’re seeking to answer: Is public engagement on the rise as result of the experiment, and is the demographic composition of the conversation changing? Do citizens vote and attend town meetings more than they did in the past? Are public issues solved more efficiently? Has the use of this tool simply amplified old ways of governing Jun, or has mutual visibility shifted it in some fundamental way, perhaps towards decentralization?

We don’t yet have the answers, but an initial mapping of the Twitter data has begun opening a new window on the town. In the screen shots below of a data explorer being developed by Martin Saveski, a graduate student at the Laboratory for Social Machines, each circle represents a Jun citizen or organization. The lines between the circles represent Twitter follower relationships. The larger the circle, the more “important” the position occupied by that person in the network (for this measure of Twitter importance — by no means the only meaningful kind of importance in the community — we used PageRank, Google’s original algorithm for ranking web pages). The four colors denote different sub-networks of people within Jun who are closely tied to each other by their Twitter activity. In each figure, the personal connections of one particular citizen (the white circle) are highlighted, and further details about that person are shown in the box to the right. The first shot focuses on the mayor, the second on the electrician.

Martin SaveskiA visualization of the mayor’s connections to the community (he’s the white circle). To the right, more details about his public Twitter activity.
Martin SaveskiFor electrician Miguel Espigares (the white circle), the picture is different, reflecting his work and unique role in the town.

Through such analyses, we hope to gain insights that will help Jun make its system more effective. Our longer-term goal is to determine if it can be replicated at scale in larger communities, perhaps even major cities.

One key question is the leading role played by the mayor, who has held office for the last eleven years and before that was deputy to his father. Throughout those years, Jun was a trailblazer in applying digital tools to democracy, including electronic voting and live-streamed town meetings.

Rodríguez Salas, with his relentless belief in innovation, spearheaded all these efforts. Even before the Twitter experiment, a Spanish newspaper called him “El Alcalde Digital” (The Digital Mayor) while a national TV report dubbed the town “El Increíble Jun” (The Incredible Jun). He convinced Junians to adopt a new flag with the town motto — “Love” — spelled out in binary code. Between his personal and official mayoral accounts, he has about 350,000 Twitter followers — that’s 100 times the population of Jun, and about 100,000 more followers than New York CityMayor Bill De Blasio has in his two verified accounts. This is not just any small-town mayor. He also has a warm personality and a common touch. As he walks down the street, a bunch of middle-school-aged boys run up to him shouting, “Mayor! Mayor!” and the first thing he does is make sure they’re on Twitter and he’s following them.

In short, the mayor has an unusual combination of tech sophistication and personal charisma. Is such a leader required for bringing government into the social age? Could the Jun system work in a metropolis with millions of citizens and a different kind of mayor? Rodríguez Salas thinks so and he has ideas about how.

For now, in conversation he returns often to his primary goal: making democracy more transparent and participatory. In his office, where the blue Twitter bird adorns the wall behind his desk (in the spot where a portrait of the Spanish king used to hang), he recently installed glass ceiling panels open to the sky to symbolize the new transparency. The citizens will soon have a chance to pass judgment on his work: In elections next month, they will decide whether to give him another term.

Meanwhile, we’ll be digging deeper into the data and sharing what we learn from one town’s surprising leap into the socio-political future. Stay tuned.

Deb Roy is associate professor at the MIT Media Lab where he directs the Laboratory for Social Machines, as well as Chief Media Scientist of Twitter.William Powers is a research scientist at the Laboratory for Social Machines and author of the New York Times bestseller Hamlet’s BlackBerry.

This article originally appeared on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Releasing Drug Offenders Won’t End Mass Incarceration

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Releasing drug offenders won’t end mass incarceration.

By Oliver Roeder at FiveThirtyEight

2. Here’s the real solution to Greece’s woes. (Hint: It’s not crushing austerity measures.)

By James Surowiecki in the New Yorker

3. The “entrepreneur gene” is a myth.

By Aimee Groth in Quartz

4. To protect the brain health of our children, tackle poverty.

By Joan L. Luby in JAMA Pediatrics

5. Stop obsessing over why people become terrorists.

By Isabel Larroca in the Wilson Quarterly

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How Privatizing Marriage Would Be Disastrous

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Why privatizing marriage would be a disaster.

By Shikha Dalmia in the Week

2. Is the United States working on a new nuclear weapon?

By Oliver Lazarus in the Takeaway

3. Why America’s workforce is shrinking and Europe’s isn’t.

By Tami Luhby in CNN Money

4. The Pentagon is courting Silicon Valley and leaving traditional defense contractors behind.

By Leigh Munsil and Philip Ewing in Politico

5. New drugs for Alzheimer’s could treat Parkinson’s and other brain diseases.

By Jon Hamilton at NPR

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Read the Inspiring ‘Questions of Existence’ Letter from the World’s Greatest Thinkers

Yuri Milner And Stephen Hawking Host Press Conference On The Breakthrough Life In The Universe Initiatives
Stuart C. Wilson—Getty Images for Breakthrough Initiatives DST Global Founder Yuri Milner, Theoretical Physicist Stephen Hawking, Cosmologist and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees, Chairman Emeritus, SETI Institute Frank Drake, Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager Ann Druyan and Professor of Astronomy, University of California Geoff Marcy attend a press conference on the Breakthrough Life in the Universe Initiatives.

Why we should be searching for life beyond our solar system

On July 20, a consortium of scientists funded by billionaire investor Yuri Milner announced a $100 million project to scan the universe for signs of intelligent life. Milner, 53, a prescient technology investor, is also a former physicist. The endeavor, named Breakthrough Listen, is being supported by some of the world’s most well-known scientists and thinkers. As part of the announcement, the group release a letter explaining why the search matters and why it must continue. Here is the document in full.

Are we alone? Now is the time to find out

Who are we?

A mature civilization, like a mature individual, must ask itself this question. Is humanity defined by its divisions, its problems, its passing needs and trends? Or do we have a shared face, turned outward to the Universe?

In 1990, Voyager 1 swiveled its camera and captured the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ – an image of Earth from six billion kilometers away. It was a mirror held up to our planet – home of water, life, and minds. A reminder that we share something precious and rare.

But how rare, exactly? The only life? The only minds?

For the last half-century, small groups of scientists have listened valiantly for signs of life in the vast silence. But for government, academia, and industry, cosmic questions are astronomically far down the list of priorities. And that lengthens the odds of finding answers. It is hard enough to comb the Universe from the edge of the Milky Way; harder still from the edge of the public consciousness.

Yet millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child – our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings – an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “In either case the idea is quite staggering.”

That means the search for life is the ultimate ‘win-win’ endeavor. All we have to do is take part.

Today we have search tools far surpassing those of previous generations. Telescopes can pick out planets across thousands of light years. The magic of Moore’s law lets our computers sift data orders of magnitude faster than older mainframes – and ever quicker each year.

These tools are now reaping a harvest of discoveries. In the last few years, astronomers and the Kepler Mission have discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. It now appears that most stars host a planetary system. Many of them have a planet similar in size to our own, basking in the ‘habitable zone’ where the temperature permits liquid water. There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. And with instruments now or soon available, we have a chance of finding out if any of these planets are true Pale Blue Dots – home to water, life, even minds.

There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilization, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.

But as well as a call to action, this is a call to thought. When we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilizations? Who decides? Individuals, institutions, corporations, or states? Or can we as species – as a planet – think together?

Three years ago, Voyager 1 broke the sun’s embrace and entered interstellar space. The 20th century will be remembered for our travels within the solar system. With cooperation and commitment, the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.

Yuri Milner –

Founder, Breakthrough Prize; Founder, DST Global

Cori Bargmann –

Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, The Rockefeller University

Sarah Brightman –


Magnus Carlsen –

World Chess Champion

Ding Chen –

Professor and Principle Investigator of the Search for Terrestrial Exo-Planets Mission, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Frank Drake –

Chairman Emeritus, SETI Institute; Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz; Founding Director, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center; Former Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University

Ann Druyan –

Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager; Co-Founder and CEO, Cosmos Studios; Emmy and Peabody award winning Writer and Producer

Stephen Hawking –

Professor, Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research, University of Cambridge

Paul Horowitz –

Professor of Physics and of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, Harvard University

Garik Israelian –

Professor and Staff Astrophysicist, Institute of Astrophysics of Canary Islands

Lisa Kaltenegger –

Director, Carl Sagan Institute; Associate Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University

Nikolay Kardashev –

Deputy Director, Russian Space Research Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences

Mark Kelly –


Eric Lander –

President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Professor of Biology, MIT; Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School

Alexey Leonov –


Avi Loeb –

Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, Chair of the Astronomy Department and Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, Harvard University

Seth MacFarlane –

Writer, Director and Actor

Geoff Marcy –

Professor of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley

Lord Martin Rees –

Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge

Kenneth Rogoff –

Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics, Harvard University; International Grandmaster of Chess

Dimitar Sasselov –

Phillips Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University; Founding Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative

Sarah Seager –

Professor of Planetary Sciences and Professor of Physics, MIT

Sujan Sengupta –

Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Ministry of Science and Technology

Seth Shostak –

Professor, Senior Astronomer and Director, Center for SETI research

Thomas Stafford –

Jill Tarter –

Astronomer; Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research, SETI Institute

Kip Thorne –

Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology; Scientific consultant and an executive producer, Interstellar

James Watson –

Chancellor Emeritus, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; Nobel Prize Laureate

Steven Weinberg –

Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin; Nobel Prize Laureate

Edward Witten –

Professor, School of Natural Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study

Pete Worden –

Chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation

Shinya Yamanaka –

Professor and Director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University; Nobel Prize Laureate

TIME apps

Here’s What Really Makes Microsoft’s Cortana So Amazing

Key Speakers At The Microsoft Build Developer 2014 Conference
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/via Getty Images The Nokia Oyj Lumia Icon smartphone displaying the Cortana application on screen is held for a photograph at the Microsoft Developers Build Conference in San Francisco on April 2, 2014.

Not your average digital personal assistant

When Microsoft releases Windows 10 to the world on July 29, it will introduce millions of people to Cortana, its chatty, voice-activated digital assistant. But not every Windows 10 user will get to know the same Cortana: She will alter her behavior, ever so slightly, according to a user’s home country, Microsoft tells TIME. Cortana will tiptoe around points of national pride in Italy and lob wry barbs in the United Kingdom. She’ll introduce herself with a bow in Japan and present herself as an emoji-based alter-ego with darting eyes in China.

Microsoft’s Cortana team says the goal is to strike up a chatty, inoffensive rapport with users, in the hope that users will reward Cortana with their trust and open the kimono on their personal data. That data is critical to Cortana’s success, because if Microsoft wants to outwit the brainiest digital assistants on the market — Apple’s Siri and Google Now — Cortana will first need to take a good, hard look at your browser history, your emails and your web searches. With your permission, of course.

“We’re trying to forge a relationship that’s built on trust,” says Marcus Ash, Microsoft’s group program manager for Cortana. “Millions of years of evolution tell us that that relationship means personification. If you don’t put a face on it and make it emotional to people, it’s just hard to believe that people will tell us information that will make Cortana really great for them.”

To that end, Microsoft has recruited a global staff of ethnographers, voice actors and even playwrights to make a veritable United Nations of Cortanas. In a sign of how much cultural fluency matters to Microsoft, Cortana will initially launch in only seven nations where she has mastered the local etiquette — the U.S., U.K., China, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. The rest of the world will have to wait for Cortana to finish her cultural sensitivity training in a nation by nation rollout that will continue to the end of next year. So don’t hold your breath for a Burundian Cortana any time soon.

Of course, not all of Cortana’s attributes divide along national boundaries. Microsoft intensively surveyed users on their ideal personal assistant, and a few qualities emerged as universally desirable. Respondents worldwide preferred a female to a male assistant, ideally in her 20’s, 30’s tops — not one surveyed population expressed enthusiasm for a middle-aged assistant. She should be professional, but not a stiff, solicitous, but not a pest, cheeky, not biting. At one point, the Cortana team considered tapping a staff writer from The Late Show With David Letterman, but decided a whip-smart joke machine might alienate some users.

In short, she has to be just so. Think James Bond’s Moneypenny, incidentally the reported code name of Facebook’s virtual assistant project.

Probe a little deeper into these preferences, however, and national fissures start to emerge. Take, for instance, the universal demand for humor. Americans expressed a distaste for slapstick, Germans have a penchant for the absurd and the Japanese responded to wordplay. Brits, in what will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched a BBC sitcom, couldn’t get enough of self-deprecation, and Cortana aims to please. “Dryness and irony really appear subtly there,” says Susan Hendrich, a principal program manager who is spearheading Cortana’s cultural training.

It takes upwards of 11 months to get Cortana’s voice just right for each nation, time spent auditioning actors, writing scripts and recording local idioms. Spaniards expressed a preference for a husky female voice, while the English preferred a more chipper, sing-songy assistant. Chinese users posed a puzzle for Hendrich. “They wanted a voice that sounded as if it was smiling,” she said. “I can listen to Chinese voices and have no idea what they’re saying and know when these attributes come out.” See for yourself if you can hear the difference:


Q: Cortana, give me a Spring festival couplet.
A: Wish you a happy family, wish you a shining spring


Q: Kiss me.
A: Hold on, let me search in my audio files…

United Kingdom

Q: Tell me something interesting.
A: Fancy a cuppa? Every day in the UK over 165 million cups of tea are brewed.

Cultural fluency is just Cortana’s entry point. Over time, she’ll engage users in deeper conversations about their personal tastes. Machine learning algorithms will track users’ activity across the web, observing if they have a thing for sushi restaurants, for instance, and notifying them if she detects a pattern in their behavior. This is the critical juncture in the relationship, when Cortana can either “delight,” as the team likes to say, or weird a user out. One misstep, and a user may choke off her machine learning algorithms. After all, Microsoft has given users access to Cortana’s “notebook” where everything she tracks and learns is on display. A flip of the switch can wipe her memory bank clean.

Personality can go a long way toward maintaining a positive relationship between man and machine. “People are generally more forgiving toward a system that has personality attributes than one that doesn’t,” says Ash. And to ensure Cortana doesn’t overstep personal boundaries, Microsoft has engineered her to “forget” uncannily precise details, just as a human assistant would. “I personally love Molly Moo’s ice cream,” says Hendrichs, “but a personal assistant wouldn’t observe the exact time and date I went to Molly Moo’s.”

And if Cortana can skirt the line between intimacy and invasion, Microsoft expects her artificial intelligence to pay dividends to both its users and its shareholders. As Ash says: “The idea of this unbounded, ‘I know so much about you I can help you in ways you don’t quite expect, I can see patterns that you can’t see.’ That’s the magic.”

TIME Innovation

The Virtual Reality Gaming Revolution That Wasn’t

The real revolution came in the form of computers small enough to fit in your pocket

On a crisp fall evening in 1991, an excited crowd packed into London’s Wembley Stadium, the storied venue that had previously hosted the 1966 World Cup final and 1985’s Live Aid concert. That was in the past. This night, about 2,000 people gathered to stare directly into the future.

Inside the cavernous stadium stood a line of a dozen large, gray pods. From the outside, it looked like dystopian science fiction: people in pods, their heads sealed in helmets. Inside, though, they were flying in a cutting-edge virtual reality flight simulator that networked all the players into a single, computer-generated world. The launch event celebrated the first time the public could buy all-inclusive VR. People played all night. Orders were taken then and there.

Behind the scenes, the team that’d built the machines, an upstart British company called Virtuality, struggled to hold things together. They’d never attempted to link that many systems together; Virtuality’s engineers were literally writing code on the spot, hoping everything wouldn’t crash and burn. The result—chunky graphics and simple gameplay—would seem primitive today, but in 1991, it was a revelation.

Read the rest of the story at The Kernel, the Daily Dot’s Sunday magazine

TIME psychology

How to Improve Your Writing: 5 Secrets From Hollywood

Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Thanks to the internet, people are reading and writing more than ever. But is it me, or does it seem like the quality of that writing has gotten worse?

However, this can be a good thing. These days, solid writing really stands out. It can be a competitive advantage in anything you do.

Want to know how to improve your writing? Or have you ever thought about crafting the next great novel or screenplay? Want to know how to write like a pro?

Me, too. So I called my buddy Andy.

Andrew Kevin Walker wrote the blockbuster Seven, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Here’s the trailer:

Andy was also a writer on many other big projects including Sleepy Hollow, The Hire, and Fight Club (you might notice in the credits that the three cops who attack Edward Norton are named “Andrew”, “Kevin” and “Walker.”)

His new book is Old Man Johnson.

Below you’ll learn:

  1. The thing that immediately tells readers you’re a good writer.
  2. How to surprise your audience.
  3. The mindset you need to write like a pro.
  4. The secret to effective collaboration.
  5. How to make readers feel something when they read your work.

And much, much more. Alright, ramblers, let’s get ramblin’…


1) How To Improve Your Writing

Andy recommends two things you can do to vastly improve your writing — whether you’re writing an email, a presentation for work or a screenplay for Hollywood. What’s the first one? Here’s Andy:

When I’m reading something, what lets me know if I’m in good hands or not is whether there’s a sense of structure to it.

Do you have a beginning, a middle and an ending? Does one build on the other? Is there a sense this is going somewhere? Does it seem like you have really thought this through? Here’s Andy:

Knowing where you’re going is key. If you don’t, how can you know what your theme is? How can you foreshadow anything? When you know what your ending is, then you know what you’re writing. It may change as you’re writing but I really feel like you have to have a “true north” that you’re heading toward — and that “true north” is your ending. You don’t have to know every detail of it. With Seven I always knew that there were going to be seven deadly sin murders. Therein lay the structure of it. Good cop was gonna become “wrath” in the end. With that I had a skeleton on which to build the spine of the story.

And other experts agree. When I interviewed UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber, he said structure was vital.

Good stories are built on the word “but”, not the word “and.” This insures that there are twists and turns, and a relationship between what came before and what will come after.

What’s the second thing you need to do? Revise. First drafts are never final drafts. Here’s Andy:

That golden rule that “writing is rewriting” gets ignored a lot. Completing it is one thing, but then going back to the beginning and completing it again is the most important part of the process. In fact, I would say “completing it again and again.” You should rewrite your rewriting too.

When I spoke with Harvard professor Steven Pinker, he said the same thing. Here’s Steven:

Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that. And after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.

(To learn the good work habits that all geniuses have in common click here.)

Structure and revising will definitely improve your writing. But what gets the attention of an audience, especially in this age of zero attention span? You gotta surprise ’em. Here’s how…


2) How To Surprise The Reader

Surprise is about defying expectations. So to do it you must first know what your audience expects from the type of writing you’re doing. This is true for everything from PowerPoint presentations to creative essays.

Know your “genre” and what your audience expects and you’ll know what you need to do to surprise them. Here’s Andy:

It’s only by being aware of genre and audience expectations that you can really surprise people… Best example for Seven was taking a movie that’s about characters who desperately want to catch a murderer and an audience that’s awaiting the cathartic moment of capture — and then having the killer turn himself in. Stealing that catharsis from the audience and sucking all the air out of the room so that the characters — and now the audience — are off-balance. And then everyone is going, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

That shocking moment (NSFW) is here:

And UCLA Film School professor Howard Suber says this sort of surprise is essential to creating engaging writing. Here’s Howard:

Without the surprise, without the twist, if you don’t pull the wool over the audience’s eyes, then it’s unlikely you’re going to be memorable. It’s precisely the fact that things are not what they seem that makes a story interesting.

(For more on how to be a great writer from Harvard’s Steven Pinker click here.)

Okay, so you’ve got structure, you’re revising your work and incorporating surprise. That can definitely improve your writing. But what does it take to write like apro?


3) How To Write Like A Professional

Are you enjoying putting those words on the page? Is it making you smile? Congrats, you’re screwing up. Here’s Andy:

When you’re writing, if you’re super happy and having a fun time — you’re probably doing something wrong. Good writing means being a perfectionist. And that means being at least semi-miserable. But that’s a good thing. Perfectionism leads to rewriting. Now you can get so depressed over writing that you get in your own way, but a happy writer probably isn’t pushing themselves hard enough.

Sound crazy? Research shows that experts emphasize the negative. They have to. If you aren’t continually identifying what isn’t working you can’t make it better. Here’s Andy:

Before you show it to anyone else, are you really asking yourself, “Is this the absolute best it can be?” Are you being as hard on yourself as you can possibly be? Because those important reads that may get it seen by an agent or a publisher, those reads are really rare and you won’t get two of them out of the same person.

We’ve heard a lot about “flow.” Flow is pleasurable — but it doesn’t make you better. As Georgetown professor Cal Newport explains, it’s “deliberate practice” that improves skills. And that means you’re always working at the edge of your comfort zone, not in a blissful state of flow.

Okay, so you’re focusing on the negative…

But you also need to stay optimistic.

I know what you’re thinking: Huh? How the heck do you embrace negativity and also be optimistic?

If you keep emphasizing the negative, you get depressed and you quit. Research shows pessimism kills grit.

And with all the rejection and criticism in Hollywood, it’s too easy to give up. So while you have to focus on the negative while you’re writing, you need to keep some optimism cooking when you look at the big picture. Here’s Andy:

One of the most important things for any writer is to be constantly refilling their reserve of naiveté. If I weren’t as wholeheartedly naive now as I was on my first day leaving film school that I was going to achieve something in the world of screenwriting, then I wouldn’t still be doing it. It’s like selective memory. If you can’t tamp down the bad experiences you’ve had writing — and they’re numerous — almost actively forget them and refueling your optimism each time, then you’ll just stop… I’m as optimistic about writing now as I was at the beginning — which is completely delusional. Embracing delusion is really important. They say the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” But if you’re not doing that in Hollywood, you’ll never survive. It’s only the person who has the determination to keep saying “yes” in the face of all those “no’s” that will make it.

Does this sound crazy? Here’s what’s interesting: the schizophrenic mindset Andy’s describing is the same one seen in elite athletes.

Via Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success:

Doublethink is essential to the success of leading athletes and other top performers… Take top golfers…they have to make scrupulously rational choices about shot selection (laying up, for example, rather than going for the green), but once they have committed to any given shot, they have to be—indeed, they train themselves to be—irrationally optimistic about execution. Nick Faldo, the six-time major winner, made precisely this point when I interviewed him at the Open Championship in 2008. “You have to be very calculating in selecting the right shot,” he said. “You have to make a decision based upon a realistic assessment of your own weaknesses and the scope for failure. But once you have committed to your decision, you have to flick the mental switch and execute the shot as if there was never any doubt that you would nail it.”

It’s what Andy calls “the manic-depressive requirements of writing.”

So how does he do it? How do you hold matter and antimatter in your head at the same time?

Andy keeps that ruthless perfectionism brewing… but he makes sure he feels he’s making progress on a regular basis. Here’s Andy:

One of the things that’s important is to create a daily or weekly sense of completing something. I’m not going to be done with this script for months or years. It may not get made into a movie. If it does it’ll be years from now. I can’t finish this script today but I can finish sweeping the floor. I can’t finish this novel today but I can finish this submarine sandwich. I can finish this nap. Every little bit of distraction or procrastination that has closure to it is a small reward for the person whose main journey of writing has its reward so far away and on such uncertain terms.

Bestselling author Dan Pink has written about the power of these “small wins” to keep us going. Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard shows nothing is more motivating that the feeling of progress. By building this into his schedule, Andy is able to keep going even with a mindset that is deliberately focused on the perfectionistic negative.

(To learn how Navy SEALs build grit and learn to never give up click here.)

But in many work environments writing can be a collaborative process. Hollywood is no different. So what if others are doing the writing and you need to give feedback? How do you help them improve — without insulting them?


4) The Right Way To Collaborate

Andy has worked with director David Fincher on a number of memorable films, including Seven and Fight Club. Why have their collaborations been so effective?

Because Fincher is a master at suspending his ego when giving feedback. Here’s Andy:

Fincher does a lot of things that a lot of people don’t do. He listens. He actually collaborates. He’s incredibly specific with his input. But he’s not desperate to put his stamp on something. It’s his lack of ego. Usually when you’re getting notes on a project, the person giving them is clearly motivated by having their voice heard, their ego being stoked.

When I spoke with FBI behavior expert Robin Dreeke he said the exact same thing about effectively dealing with people: Suspend your ego.

And the secret to writing well when you’re part of a team is to give others that chance to contribute in the areas where they know more than you do. Here’s Andy:

Really good actors like Morgan Freeman, and Brad and Kevin, will always take your worst stuff and make it a thousand times better than it was on the page. And so the lesson is, when it goes from the page to fruition, less is better. In the right hands, you’ll be amazed how much better it gets.

It’s only when great writing, great directing, and great acting come together that you get moments (NSFW) like this:

(For more on how to make people like you — from an FBI behavior expert — click here.)

We’ve learned a lot about solid writing. But, in the end, nothing is more powerful than moving people emotionally. How can you do that? Andy has an answer.


5) How To Make Readers Feel Something

It all comes down to one word. Here’s Andy:

Honesty is the most important ingredient.

That’s what made Seven work. Now Andy didn’t literally follow the old advice of “write what you know.” He was never a cop… or a serial killer for that matter.

But the script was honest regarding what he was feeling about New York City while he was writing it. Here’s Andy:

Seven came from a very personal place. The argument that’s taking place both internally and externally for Mills, (Brad Pitt’s character) and for Somerset (Morgan Freeman’s character) is an argument that I was having with myself, living in New York City in the late 80’s. If there’s anything that elevated it above an exploitational film, it was the stuff that came from me personally. The “write what you know” wasn’t experiences I had; I was never a policeman tracking down this terrible, murderous villain, but it was the debate over “look what this city’s become.” I was empathizing with John Doe and having him express frustrations of mine — in the worst way possible. It was an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other — and this is the argument that Mills and Somerset are having, that I was having. Morgan Freeman wants to quit and Brad never will. As a writer, I had to earn that moment where Morgan Freeman, despite his pessimism about the city, decides not to give up. And that’s what drives him to say, “I’ll be around” at the end of the movie.

(For more on how to tell great stories from a UCLA Film School professor click here.)

Okay, Andy’s told us a lot about how to be a better writer. Let’s round it all up — and learn how we can apply it to any career.


Sum Up

Here’s what Andy had to say about how to improve your writing:

  1. Structure lets readers know they’re in good hands. And finishing a draft is just the start. Writing is rewriting.
  2. Surprise comes from knowing the expectations of your audience — and then turning them on their head.
  3. The best writers know how to balance the negativity of perfectionism with the optimism that keeps them going. Making sure you have “small wins” can help.
  4. Collaboration is about suspending your ego. Stop thinking about yourself and focus on what would objectively make the piece better.
  5. Making a reader feel something is about honesty. You don’t have to come from the future to write science fiction but there does have to be something of yourself in the story for that emotion to show through.

And these ideas don’t just apply to writing. You can be an artist at anything if you take the mindset of an artist and strive to be great at whatever you do. Here’s Andy:

In the same way that there’s an art to crafting surfboards or an art to designing cars, there’s an art to pumping gas or being a garbage man. No matter how much you’re being paid or what you’re doing as a career, you need to embrace the art of it and not be afraid of the artist in you… Find the art in everything you do.

In my next weekly email I’ll have more writing tips from Andy (including the best way to find original ideas and discover your voice as a writer.) To make sure you don’t miss it, join here.

Join over 195,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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