Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 9)

ROBERTS I see. The smaller the event, the bigger the outcome, the better the story. The more famous the person happens to be . . .

MLODINOW The idea that Bruce Willis decides to visit his girlfriend in Los Angeles leads to the Diehard series is interesting. It’s a more interesting idea than the fact that I’m on my way to the mailbox to mail a letter turning down a fellowship to Germany when I bump in–literally cross paths at the mailbox, when I was in school–with the lady from the fellowship office who’s appalled that I’m not taking this fellowship that is so hard to get and makes me go talk to my advisor about it. I literally had the envelope in hand turning it down and it was the last day for deciding. I go to my advisor whom I’m sure will agree with me that it’s a stupid thing to leave Berkeley and go to Germany for a year on this fellowship and he convinced me to do it. That completely changed my life. Had I not bumped into this lady, had I not had an extra sip or had I had two extra sips instead of one of my coffee, we would not have crossed paths, literally, at the mailbox. It’s a really bizarre thing and . . .

ROBERTS You mean your advisor convinced you to take the fellowship?

MLODINOW He convinced me to take the fellowship and go and I hadn’t even considered it, I just thought, ‘Well here I am in graduate school, I have to get through and to go on something that could be just a lark in Germany . . .’ But I ended up meeting a woman I fell in love with, learning the language, loving Europe, staying there for years. Many, many things in my life changed; it was really a life changing experience and I think it broadened my horizons quite a bit also, living abroad. It just changes your whole view of the world. All that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t literally crossed paths on campus with this lady. To make the story weirder, I had heard about the fellowship a month earlier or six weeks earlier,  I don’t remember, but just ignored it and by chance the night before had come across the letter and thought, ‘Oh I shouldn’t be impolite, I should tell them whether I’m taking it or not; someone else might be waiting for this.’ That’s why I wrote the letter and was walking to the mailbox that next day. If anything, had I found the letter a day earlier and sent it out or not found the letter on my desk or not bumped into her or any of those things wouldn’t have happened, I would not have had these experiences.

ROBERTS I think different events have different potentials for change–you could say they have different life-changing potency. If you spend an hour doing the events with the big life-changing potencies you’re going to be in a lot better position than if you spend an hour doing the dead events, the events that are unlikely to change your life. I think your example plays into what I think because I think traveling is one of the events that has high life-changing potency.

MLODINOW Yes, that’s true.

ROBERTS And why that is, I think, is sort of interesting. You refer to something you call the Normal Accident Theory of life–what is that?

MLODINOW The Normal Accident Theory of accidents. The Theory of Normal Accidents is the theory that in a complex system you can’t prevent accidents; they will happen and you need to account for them, you need to plan for them and you should stop–well, I shouldn’t say stop–but you should give up the idea of zero tolerance and certainly try to minimize them. You also have to look at implications of when they occur because they will occur and in a very complex system there are always going to be events that on their own–or even in certain other combinations–are unremarkable and yet together in certain combinations can cause huge catastrophes.

One example is the story that I just told, meeting the lady at the mailbox. If you want to consider that–I don’t want to say that it was a catastrophe–but it was on a big event which is the life-changing event of going and the little things that caused it that are normally totally unremarkable such as straightening out my desk, which caused me to find the letter. Taking the letter to the mailbox on my way to work and a number of other things that were minor and on their own not noteworthy conspired to have me collide with this lady at that time and end up in Germany. The nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island or the space shuttle or Chernobyl, these are complex systems that are so complicated that little events can conspire to cause a big event which can be a big tragic event. After those big events–after 9/11, after Pearl Harbor–we go back and we find the little events that made the big event happen and we blame people for not having avoided them.  The question in the Normal Accident Theory is whether that’s really wise because you can’t know ahead of time what those un-noteworthy events will mean what or will cause what. Finding the actual events and tracing the path of tragedy doesn’t really tell you a lot because there are a million possible paths which could have happened.  You couldn’t have worried about all of them.  And only one of them, which is really not distinguishable from the others, a priori, is the one that led to the catastrophe. It’s all about trying to understand that–that’s the Normal Accident Theory.

I think in life, as I just said, I think that a lot of unremarkable, un-noteworthy events happen to push you this way or that, give you different opportunities or cause things to happen in your life that have the potential to cause major changes in life. It’s as much that sort of thing than your actual planning and conniving on how to get ahead causes you to get where you are.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 8)

MLODINOW How happy I would be in Kentucky or Georgia or Minnesota, maybe, though you don’t know. One thing I learned from Gilbert’s book is you don’t necessarily know really what would make you happy. My German girlfriend at the time was telling me that, too: “Right now you think you need to be in a big city, but you may find other things in life later, your family, that you focus on.” Certainly I’m here and I’m very focused on my kids but still what do we like to do? We like to into the Chinese parts of town and explore restaurants or the Mexican neighborhoods and look around or Vietnamese Town. We’ve got a lot of it here in Los Angeles and we like to go and find a new noodle shop.

ROBERTS Yes, I’m exactly like you. I love doing that sort of thing.

MLODINOW Yes, that’s why we’re friends.

ROBERTS I admire you; I’m glad that you’re willing to be friends with me. What were you doing at the World Trade Center on 9/11? Speaking of living in cities.

MLODINOW My kids went to school at the schools that were a block or two away from the World Trade Center and I would take the subway right at the World Trade Center back to Uptown, a few minutes Uptown to where I work, which was just on the border of the Village on Broadway and I happened to be standing under the building and saw the first plane come in, fly over me and fly into the building. It’s a long story what happened after that. I was hit with debris and injured. It’s a long story because my ex-wife was living two blocks below the Trade Center and just had surgery, my son was at the school there and I was trying to find them, get together, and I got caught in the collapse and trapped and it’s a long story, but that’s a book in itself.

ROBERTS It led to your leaving New York, right?

MLODINOW It did, because, in the end, without going into the details, my son–who was in kindergarten–saw the whole thing, saw people jumping off the building, had to actually flee for his life when the Trade Center collapsed and went for about five or six hours thinking that I was dead because the last place I was seen was standing under the World Trade Center building and we didn’t find each other until about 2:00 in the afternoon. That just caused psychological difficulties for him to live in the City as we were. I had shared custody with my ex-wife and I wanted to move into the suburbs and she didn’t want to do that and our compromise, since we continued to share custody, was to move back out here to California just to get him away from the City. And it was a great move because his problems diminished dramatically in just a week after we got here, or two weeks, I don’t remember, but just very shortly. Maybe it was a month.

ROBERTS How old was he?

MLODINOW I think 9/11 was his third day of kindergarten, something like that.

ROBERTS By then you’d already written Euclid’s Window?

MLODINOW I had written Euclid’s Window, so it wasn’t just, ‘Oh, I’m going to go out and write, it’s pie in the sky,’ I had written Euclid’s Window and I think had written Feynman’s Rainbow but it wasn’t out yet, if I remember. The first book I wrote when I came here was the book with Hawking, A Briefer History of Time. I had stuff I knew I could do and it’s all worked out very well and I’m much happier so that shows you that if you are a high paid executive somewhere maybe you’ll have an even happier life if you would be not a high paid executive somewhere else and you just don’t realize it.

ROBERTS Well, it’s kind of amazing that this happened to you–this 9/11 thing happened to you–and in your book at the end, the last chapter is about the effects of random events on people’s life stories. But you don’t tell the story about yourself.

MLODINOW I had many stories I could have told about myself in the book, about how random events impact you, how things that you think are going to be good turn out later in hindsight not to have been so good or things that you think are going to be bad turn out in hindsight to have been good. How things that you think make a big effect on you have very little effect and how things that you hardly imagine would have an effect on you, like having an extra sip of a cup of coffee in the morning, can have a big effect on you, because, let’s say you’re three seconds past where the big crash was–the car crash on your way to work–or something like that, that you could have been hit if you hadn’t had that coffee, or whatever. I have many ironic situations I can pinpoint in my life that I could have told them about but what I decided instead to do–I don’t think I’m that interesting–was to find very famous people, Bruce Willis, Bill Gates and people everyone knows and a lot of people care about, and talk about how these events changed their lives. I thought that would be more interesting.. I tried to minimize the stories from my life although I picked a few dramatic events, I think maybe three or four that I do talk about–I’m not afraid to talk about it, it’s just that in many cases unless the event itself is very interesting. If it’s a mundane, small thing that happened that caused a big change in my life, I think it’s more interesting. If it’s a mundane, small thing that happened to Bruce Willis that caused a big change in his life, it made him a star, so that’s why I chose those examples.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 7)

ROBERTS What happened in graduate school? What areas of physics did you pursue?

MLODINOW I worked for a fellow who did mathematical physics, which are mathematical techniques or mathematical underpinnings of physics. There were very few spots for theorists at Berkeley and I was very happy to get one of them. This fellow was probably the smartest one in the department and very picky about his students so I was happy to be able to have him as an advisor.

ROBERTS What was his name?

MLODINOW Eyvind Wichmann.

ROBERTS So that was in your first year of graduate school? You impressed him enough to have him take you on as a student?

MLODINOW I think at the end of the first year, yes.

ROBERTS What happened in the first year?

MLODINOW It may have been the second year; I don’t remember now. I took his course in quantum field theory and then I became his TA in his quantum mechanics course.

ROBERTS He didn’t have many students, right?

MLODINOW No. He would have, at any given time, probably average one or two over the years. He was there for probably 30 years and may have had probably less than 30 students. Since they stay a few years that makes sense but he probably had 15 students; I’m just guessing in terms of who I at least had heard of.

ROBERTS What happened to the students before and after you–his students before and after you? The one before you and the one after you–do you know what they’re doing now?

MLODINOW Yes. There were the ones with me who graduated before and after. One of them is a very good friend–Mark Hillery–who’s a professor in Hunter College in New York and very well known in quantum information theory. He graduated just before me . . .

ROBERTS With the same advisor.

MLODINOW Yes, and the one who graduated just after me I think is a professor in Indiana or Kentucky or somewhere over there.

But it was quite a great class. Two of the other theory students are big leaders in string theory now, Joe Polchinsky and Andy Strominger. One post doc, Steven Chu, has a Nobel prize [and a White House appointment]. There were quite a lot of good young people around there at the time.

ROBERTS Yes, I’m trying to get a sense of what your career would have been like if you hadn’t gone into writing.

MLODINOW I imagine I would be professor at some school, who knows where. One of the things that I always cared about is where I live, so one of the downsides in academia is that you could be really good in your field and still end up in Peoria; nothing against Peoria but it just wasn’t my choice of where to live. You don’t get to choose where you’re live; you get chosen by these places. Even Santa Barbara; I don’t know how happy I would be there, even though it’s a great school, very good in physics but I’ve always liked Chicago, New York, Boston–big cities–Los Angeles, the Bay Area, really big metropolitan areas with ethnic components and a lot going on.

ROBERTS Yes, I feel the same way. My mother went to Berkeley because she wanted to be at a big school near a big city.

MLODINOW How happy I would be in Kentucky or Georgia or Minnesota, maybe, though you don’t know. One thing I learned from Gilbert’s book is you don’t necessarily know really what would make you happy. My German girlfriend at the time was telling me that, too–‘Right now you think you need to be in a big city, but you may find other things in life later, your family, that you focus on.’ Certainly I’m here and I’m very focused on my kids but still what do we like to do? We like to into the Chinese parts of town and explore restaurants or the Mexican neighborhoods and look around or Vietnamese Town. We’ve got a lot of it here in Los Angeles and we like to go and find a new noodle shop.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 6)

ROBERTS Did you write in high school or in college?

MLODINOW I started writing in third grade for my school librarian. All I remember about that was they were short stories about dinosaurs and she claimed to love them and that gave me lots of encouragement. I used to love writing little stories; I didn’t do that in college very much, I do believe I did in high school. In college I was just too busy– I had three majors and also got my master’s degree, and I was only there three and a half years.

ROBERTS I didn’t know that. Where did you go to college?

MLODINOW To Brandeis University.

ROBERTS What were your three majors and master’s degrees?

MLODINOW Chemistry, physics and math.

ROBERTS What was the master’s degree?

MLODINOW In physics.

ROBERTS In three and a half years you got a master’s degree?

MLODINOW Yes. I took about double the normal course load. I had to get special permission for that. In the end I was one course short; I had to choose between the master’s and the chemistry. I think I made the wrong choice, I chose the master’s, so I ended up with a double major but I did every chemistry course for a major except one.

ROBERTS Why did you do this?

MLODINOW I didn’t do this to try and break records; I was tremendously interested in things and if I saw a course I liked I wanted to take it. I was like the cliché of a kid in a candy store stuffing his face. I was stuffing my face with knowledge.

ROBERTS Why didn’t you stay longer? Why three and a half years? Why not four and a half years?

MLODINOW Normal is four years and I took a semester off to live in to Israel during the Yom Kippur war, so that made it three and a half. I didn’t think about staying an extra year. I went on to graduate school next so I didn’t leave school. And I’m still doing that–that’s what I do by writing books is just learn things and then write about them.

ROBERTS Yes, I know what you mean. Why did you choose physics rather than math or chemistry?

MLODINOW Chemistry was my love; chemistry and math since I was little and I had the clichéd chemistry set in the basement–blew up myself, burned myself, burned down the house (well, caught the house on fire) and all sorts of things and I thought ‘I will be a chemist’ from the age of, I don’t know, ten. When I got to college what happened was more and more I realized there wasn’t enough math in the chemistry for me so I started out with a math and a chemistry major and I thought the math was so Mickey Mouse in chemistry that I added . . . I learned about physics while I was in Israel in the kibbutz–I talked about that experience in Feynman’s Rainbow–and came back and added the physics and ended up in physics. I’ve always loved math but was not excited by pure math where you’re just exploring mathematics or its own sake. I always liked the applications. When I started learning about curved space it was not because the idea that Euclidian geometry isn’t the only one that excited me. It was the idea that physical space might not satisfy Euclidean axioms that really excited me. That was my proclivity in that direction.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 5)

ROBERTS I liked your line in The Drunkard’s Walk about lotteries: “What would you think of a system where one person wins a million dollars; for hundreds of thousands of people nothing happens; and one person dies a violent death.”

MLODINOW Would you participate?

ROBERTS Yes, would you participate? That was great.

MLODINOW Most people would, it turns out. But you can’t quite phrase it that way.

ROBERTS I thought, ‘Well, you’re not going to read that line in many descriptions of lotteries.’ That’s just not the way the average professor of statistics would describe a lottery. But it’s so much more interesting than the average way a lottery is described. I thought, ‘This is brilliant science writing. This person isn’t just copying or popularizing.’

MLODINOW That’s a creativity that comes into writing as well as science. Science research takes a lot of creativity and the ability to look at things from a different angle and I think writing does, too. I think one of the things that sets this book apart from other books on probability is that sort of thing; I looked at a lottery and didn’t just say ‘Here are your chances of winning and look how small they are,’ but I think I looked at it from a unique, somewhat amusing, surprising angle. That’s where the work comes in writing the book, is to find those angles rather than just explaining things.

ROBERTS I think the average science writer would grasp that if you’re going to write about the lottery, you’re going to have to find some interesting stories, but I don’t think they’re going to be bold enough or creative enough to think of the way that I just said–the part I quoted. That’s kind of a writer who’s more sure of himself. You should be sure of yourself–you have all these credentials–you did all this stuff in science but I don’t think the average writer is that confident. You know, Malcolm Gladwell tries to do this sort of thing. He does these slightly counter-intuitive ideas but it’s less successful, I think.

MLODINOW An idea like that would have been hard for someone who isn’t trained in the field; someone who is trained in the field I think would have confidence, if they thought of that idea, to use it. Also, that’s the two areas of confidence you need. You need confidence in the field, and you also need confidence as a writer.  You build the latter by writing.  Sometimes I’ll write sections of the book or I’ll go on for a while in a somewhat absurd–I’m thinking–direction and I know enough now to know that it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t work. I think I know enough now to tell the difference.

When I was first writing, I was being a bit more hesitant about getting a wild idea and going there, thinking it was going to be silly and I’m going to embarrass myself. Then I learned, well, it’s good to just do that and don’t worry if you waste a day or two in that direction; you can just cut it and keep going but it’s a good investment because sometimes it works and you get something really interesting. I also learned with time that I can tell the difference. If it really is silly and not working, I won’t embarrass myself by leaving it in the manuscript; I will notice it and cut it and not fret over the lost day or two and I’ll go on and write something else to take its place. Those are all lessons that you have to learn but it is interesting that you brought up the notion of confidence because I think that’s something that you do learn as you write. It’s really a dual lesson of confidence–that it’s okay to go ahead and take chances with the writing–and the letting go of the possible wasted time you’re going to have. So the confidence to know that you won’t embarrass yourself because if it’s really stupid, in the end you’ll cut it and also that you’re not going to fret over the wasted time are two lessons that I think you might not know your first time you’re writing a book. In letting go, you have to be naked and just let yourself go and not worry about what you’re saying and how it comes off.

ROBERTS And you know that you understand the subject. You know that there’s not going to be some other person out there who’s going to say, ‘This is all wrong.’ That’s just not going to happen.

MLODINOW Right. You can make mistakes in details–everybody makes misstatements sometimes. There’s so much in a book that it’s hard not to have anything come about wrong. Even Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, the original, gave the wrong relation at one point between wave length and energy for photons.  He knows the difference, but unless you’re a computer you do make errors, so another lesson you have to learn is not be too embarrassed if something does come out that is a detail that you get wrong. Obviously not an important concept you get wrong.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 4)

ROBERTS You learned stuff from writing TV scripts that transferred into book writing?

MLODINOW Yes, I think you do. It’s odd because there’s in many ways very little similarity.  Pacing, for instance, is very different on a TV show and when you’re reading something but you do get a feeling for it and its importance. All those years of comedy writing certainly I think translate to having a real sense of humor, so there are certain things that do translate.

ROBERTS I think there’s one remarkable thing that makes your books different from other books. Your books give the impression that they want to be entertaining–the author, you, is trying to meet the reader halfway. When you’re writing a TV show, it’s got to be entertaining because otherwise people won’t want to watch it. They’re not required to watch it to get a job or to get a good grade in their class; they’re watching it because they enjoy it. So you’ve got to make it enjoyable. Whereas a lot of books written by professors seem to be saying, “Well, I’m so important and you’re going to read my book because this is an important book to read, so I’m not going to even try to make it interesting; I’m just going to do whatever I want.” Your books are more reader-friendly in that sense.

MLODINOW I think that’s true. A lot of people who are very serious about their topic have a hard time seeing why you need to make it interesting or knowing how to make it interesting for people who aren’t automatically interested in that topic. To me that’s one of the joys of writing. One of the satisfactions is when I go, ‘Wow, I made that really funny’ or ‘I made that really interesting,’ and then I get excited by that.

ROBERTS That talent–it really helped you to have written for TV because it’s kind of a fresh voice.

MLODINOW I think it helped to develop my voice, too, especially the comedy part, you know? And what my credits show is obviously a small part of what I write. For example at one point I was thinking that maybe I wanted to get on Leno or one of those late night comedy shows and we never really went that far with it, but I did spend some days writing stand up lines and pure joke writing to try to get some material together for my agent to show around.  Probably very few other science writers have gone through an exercise such as that. That all, I think, contributes to being able to write with a sense of humor. Of course, you have to have a personality that gravitates in that direction in the first place.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 3)

ROBERTS I like to think that because you cover so many hundreds of years when you discuss geometry or probability that–and there’s so many interesting characters and they have to be so brilliant to make a lasting contribution to those fields–that you’re able to draw from a richer material than most writers. You have to be a very unusual person to make a lasting contribution to probability theory. [That came out wrong. You have to be a very unusual person to make a lasting contribution to any field.]

MLODINOW Right, well certainly mathematicians tend to be very unusual and colorful, odd sorts. That helps when you’re writing a book about them. The physicist are maybe not quite as odd. My book Feynman’s Rainbow was really about just one physicist and he was very colorful, so I got away with that. The work I do with Stephen Hawking is different in that sense–there’s not that much history in those books. In our new book that we’re doing, he doesn’t want us to much history at all, so we’re going to focus on the concepts.

ROBERTS . . . Let’s start with your writing career. You seem to have been a good writer by the time you got your PhD because as I understand it, you were able to actually get a writing job after leaving Cal Tech. You must have been at a very high level by that time; you wrote a spec script for, what, Star Trek? Or some other show?

MLODINOW Well, my rise in Hollywood is a long and involved story, but yes, I did rise pretty quickly. After Cal Tech I went to the Max Planck Institute in Munich and then I came to Hollywood to make my way and in six months I was working at my first TV job, which was a really crappy show on cable, which was pretty new then–cable, I mean. And from there I worked by way up to network shows–I did comedies such as Night Court, the original Gary Shandling show and I wrote for dramas as well including MacGuyver and as you said, Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was a crazy period of life.

ROBERTS I got the impression that you already knew how to write really well by then.

MLODINOW I think that in a way . . . I guess there’s two components to being able to write. One is your natural proclivity, I try not to say talent, but it’s your voice or the way you express yourself. And the other is the craft part of it that you learn by doing. I think I always had a good sense of humor and maybe a way to say things colorfully or think in terms of dramatic or powerful situations and I guess that’s the first part and served well. The other part is the things you learn as you go, such as what puts people to sleep or how to abandon what you think are good ideas but really aren’t. That’s a hard lesson to learn because it’s difficult to let go of things you might like and to realize that it just doesn’t belong or goes on too far or the idea that sometimes it’s hard to recognize things that may be good but just don’t belong there–that are tangents and they take away the dramatic thrust of where you’re going and they really have to be cut even though they’re good and you like them. You know, lessons like that, lessons about pacing–you learn by doing, by failing. You learn more about pacing, all sorts of technical aspects of writing, whether its fiction or nonfiction or TV or books; there are certain principles that you just learn by repeatedly doing and doing wrong and realizing, absorbing what went wrong and fixing it and you grow that way. In book writing you’re able to do that a lot with rough drafts so a lot of your mistakes don’t end up getting published–you know? TV writing can be so fast that often you don’t see the problems with the script until you actually watch it on the air and then you go, ‘Next time I think I won’t have that guy climbing the stairs for four minutes in the middle of the scene; I think five seconds is enough to get the idea across.’

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 2)

ROBERTS What other nonfiction writers do you like to read?

MLODINOW That’s a good question. Strangely I’ve never thought about that.  I can name novelists I repeatedly read, but most nonfiction writers that I like write to subjects of their own expertise, and I pick up nonfiction books based on what they are about more than on who wrote them.

ROBERTS Such as what? Which books?

MLODINOW For instance, Carl Sagan if you want to go back a little bit. I enjoyed several of his books; they tended to be, obviously, on astronomy or issues related. I also enjoyed Freakonomics, and I like Oliver Sacks’s books on neuroscience.  And Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness; I don’t know if Gilbert will turn around now and write a book on geometry . . .

ROBERTS I don’t think so.

MLODINOW . . . these authors write about their own field.  Oh, I do enjoy Simon Winchester’s books and he tends to branch out. I think he’s a good writer.

ROBERTS Was he a professor? He might have been a PhD in geology.

MLODINOW I don’t know.  But I do believe he had a number of unsuccessful books before–I forget which was his first successful book . . .

ROBERTS The Professor and the Madman, I think.

MLODINOW The Professor and the Madman, right.  His wife, I think, pushed him to write that.  If I remember the story correctly, he wasn’t initially going to write it. I think I am unusual in that I’m a science writer who writes in a variety of topics.  I am finishing a new book with Stephen Hawking right now, called The Grand Design, on the origin of the universe, and of the apparent laws of nature.  Then my next book is going to be on the unconscious mind.

ROBERTS A friend just asked me about a book on consciousness. She said, ‘Well, what about this book by _____?’ (I don’t want to say his name), and I said ‘No, I don’t like that.’ And she said, ‘Well, what would you recommend?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think there are any good books on consciousness except the one my friend is writing.’

MLODINOW Well thank you; I hope to live up to that. I’ve found that there is a niche available in that field. There have been a lot of books but a lot of them have been case studies or people’s individual pet theories about what consciousness is and I think that for someone like me from the outside, who yet has a scientific understanding, there is room for a good book there. And there probably is room every five or ten years for another one because it is a very fast moving field.

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Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 1)

Leonard Mlodinow’s most recent book is The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The first book of his that I read was Feynman’s Rainbow. It was so good I wrote him a fan letter. He came to talk at Berkeley in connection with A Briefer History of Time (which he co-wrote with Stephen Hawking). After his talk I told him how much I had liked Feynman’s Rainbow. Because I was a psychology professor he asked my opinion of the parts of The Drunkard’s Walk that involved psychology. That’s how we met.

ROBERTS  You’re a scientist but you also are a good writer and you appreciate the science–no one’s telling you, “this is good and this is bad,” you can figure it out for yourself. Is that fair? Is that accurate?

MLODINOW I hope so. As a scientist I like to think I have good taste in judging what is good science, at least. It’s not always so easy to judge which directions are the ones that are going to be fruitful, obviously, but certainly in judging what’s good science, or more importantly I think, in judging what science is crucial for the public to understand and how to make it exciting for them. That’s one thing that I think a lot of scientists don’t know how to do, which is how to look at from the point of view of a person who isn’t a scientist and explain it in an interesting and amusing, entertaining and most of all exciting way. One of my pet peeves is that, among the general public, people think that science is dry and boring and done by nerds who wear accountant-type thick glasses and white coats.  Really it’s done by people who experience huge ups and downs and have as much passion for their subject as other professions that are considered more romantic, like artists.

ROBERTS Unlike other people who write about science, I think you’re writing intellectual history. I mean, you’re not saying, “Oh, this is a popular topic; this came up in the last ten years as a new popular topic I’m going to write a book about.” You’re writing about things like geometry and probability, which are ancient topics. That’s really unusual. Am I right?

MLODINOW When I write about something, it’s because that excites me and I see a relevance to our world today. When I wrote Euclid’s Window about geometry, it was really about the idea of curved space and curved space is so important in modern physics and even in technology. If you look at, say, global positioning systems, you have to use Einstein’s Theory of Gravitation which is based on curved space and I thought that no one really sat down before and explained, taking their time, what is curved space and what is un-curved space and how do we get that idea and where did it come from and looking at fascinating stories, so that’s where Euclid’s Window came from. In The Drunkard’s Walk it was similar in the sense that there had been other books about probability or other books about statistics and other books about randomness, but I don’t think there had been any book on all three of them, but what propelled me was the idea that not just to write about these concepts but the realization that they’re very important in everyday life, and really the focus on everyday life and how these concepts can help us see it differently.

ROBERTS And it’s better written than the other books, I have to say.

MLODINOW Thank you.

ROBERTS That’s really important, I mean, what good is it to write a book if it’s hard to read?

MLODINOW I think that’s what I bring to this field, is both knowing the science and being able to write well, and with a sense of humor.  There are plenty of people who know the science and plenty of people out there who write well, but there are few who can do both.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 8)

ROBERTS Were there really some people that didn’t think that opera is highbrow and comics are lowbrow? Was that a hard thing?

NUSSBAUM The complicated thing is: why is opera considered highbrow and why is comics considered lowbrow?

ROBERTS That’s a different question.

NUSSBAUM We were trying to articulate this. Part of it is a mass versus elite thing. Part of it is a notion of the complexity of ambition of the thing. But that doesn’t really work.

ROBERTS That’s not quite fair.

NUSSBAUM You can have an opera that’s incredibly dumb and not very well thought through. And you can have a comic book that is the most ambitious thing ever in terms of its narrative or in terms of its artistry. The tricky thing is: what pulls something up or down? Also, I just couldn’t over the fact that people didn’t understand that lowbrow is not a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing for something to be mass and enjoyable. That’s why there are two different things. The visual is meant to literally suggest that highbrow and lowbrow are not same thing as brilliant and despicable.

ROBERTS I liked The Approval Matrix for that. I took it for granted.

NUSSBAUM I’m kinda chatterboxy today for lack of sleep.

ROBERTS That’s fine. You’ve helped a lot. The wonderful thing about The Approval Matrix is that in a small space it makes me aware of many new things I would like to find out about. It improves my world. It opens me up to lots of stuff. It opens me up to lots of art. It helps me find lots of great art.

NUSSBAUM That’s great!

ROBERTS Other magazines don’t do that as well. I think every magazine does that a little bit.

NUSSBAUM Not only is that very exciting to hear, it was one of the things when I was redesigning the section that was really difficult. When you read a section on culture it is generally divided into genres. So if you’re interested in visual arts, that’s what you end up reading about. If you’re interested in visual arts, you flip to the visual arts section. You’re likely to perhaps never read the book section or the TV section or something you’re not interested in. The thing about The Matrix is, because it’s a destination that sort of forces everyone to go to this place where it’s like a big bus station where everyone interested in everything is forced to hang out, I hope it has that service quality you’re talking about. Which is it opens your eyes to things you’d normally not have heard of, you’re forced to mingle with all art forms, to be very high-faluting about it.

ROBERTS That’s a good way to put it.

NUSSBAUM Are there other questions?

ROBERTS There’s aren’t any other pressing questions, no. You’ve done a wonderful job answering my questions. Thanks a lot, Emily.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 7)

NUSSBAUM The other thing is it [The Approval Matrix] got picked up all over the place. Which was exciting for me. We would start noticing people started refering to things as highbrow/despicable.

ROBERTS By “picked up” you mean by other magazines? People on the street?

NUSSBAUM A lot of people did imitations of it. Some of them mentioning it, other ones ripping it off. I’ve seen 10 or 12 other magazines doing things that were like The Politics Matrix or whatever. A bunch of European magazines did things. At one point Stuff magazine did something and we put their matrix on our matrix. I wasn’t involved in the placement at that point. We put their matrix on our matrix, and then they put our matrix on their matrix. It was this strange little down-the-rabbit-hole issue. I would occasionally read different articles or online things where people would start refering to something as lowbrow/brilliant. And at one point we talked about making stickers to put around town so that people could tag things as lowbrow/brilliant or highbrow/despicable like that. It never happened. There was a New York magazine event where they made t-shirts. I think the t-shirts are going to be a problem because I don’t think people are going to get a t-shirt that says highbrow/brilliant.  Everybody will want a t-shirt that says lowbrow/brilliant or maybe lowbrow/despicable. It was an interesting question: What labels are people willing to put on themselves? Which t-shirts would be more popular than others?
Later they created a online interactive Matrix on the website, but I don’t think it was that successful even though it was incredibly beautifully done. To me that was because people don’t want to place things on the matrix, they want to argue about the matrix.

ROBERTS I did it once and everything landed in the middle. It was no fun.

NUSSBAUM It was an interesting idea in theory because it was a Wiki-matrix. But to me it missed the point of what people liked about it. First, people like the authority of it being set and then responding to it. They don’t necessarily want to create their own.  The other thing was that the jokes out of context of their actual placement are not that interesting. If you just see a factoid about a particular fashion show that week — it’s not that meaningful unless you see where it’s placed on The Matrix. To me, it wasn’t supersuccessful. Did you find it that, technologically, it was lovely? I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t take off.

ROBERTS I did it once and the average answers were so boring I stopped. I don’t care what I think, I’m more interested in what other people think.

NUSSBAUM Exactly. I think that that’s the case. I launched it, and oversaw the editing for — I don’t even remember how long, I was working so hard at the time, the whole thing is such a blur to me. After a couple of months, like I said, we hired Sternbergh and he came on and he was the overseeing editor of it for quite a long time.  If you want to talk to him, he’s another good person to talk to.

ROBERTS Well, I’m just writing a blog entry about this, not a book. This is wonderful. This is so interesting to me, you can’t understand how interesting this is to me.

NUSSBAUM So why are you interested in it? How did this become a thing for you? I’m just so excited when someone likes it. It’s nice. What interests you about it?

ROBERTS Partly it’s that I worked at Spy . . . No, the first thing that happened was that I read Spy. I loved Spy. The interesting thing is not that I was so into dissing powerful people, it was that Spy made me interested in New York City in a way that I’d never been before. Spy did all sorts of things that made New York come to life and made it seem like a wonderful place. This was the city that has The New Yorker, remember? Spy did better, way better. Then I worked at Spy and I talked to the editors, I know they were very interested in coming up with new ways of telling things. I could see that it was very successful at this. And then Spy goes away, and a long time later The Approval Matrix comes up which has the same quality as Spy of making me interested in stuff. In a big way. It really succeeds in ways that other magazines don’t do so well.

NUSSBAUM I was very into Spy as well.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 6)

NUSSBAUM We do want it [The Approval Matrix] to be useful. Somebody told me that they were sitting on a subway and they saw somebody circling things on it. That was really cool, I suppose it was things they wanted to see.

ROBERTS Exactly!

NUSSBAUM I thought that was really great. There are the two reactions that I like the most: people finding it really useful and also people arguing with it. It was always interesting to trigger an argument where people just have a conversation about how good or bad something was in relation to something else. We actually made a little bit of a specialty in the Culture section in general of doing quasi-mathematical charts. We did a crazy guilt/pleasure index for reality television as a way of covering reality television. The other big one was when Sternbergh and I collaborated on this thing called The Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations. I don’t know that you’ve seen that. That’s the flowing time chart that shows how things move from buzz to saturation point, how good people think things are going to be, to backlash to backlash to the backlash. We’ve done a few mathematical things. But they’re kind of tricky. We tried to come up with others but sometimes they just didn’t work. Or were too complicated. It’s hard to come up with anything original just because magazines, this is their stock in trade. The thing I do really love about The Matrix and I did feel really proud about, was the fact that… I felt like it managed to combine a bunch of things in a good way.

ROBERTS Like what? What did it combine?

NUSSBAUM It’s fun to respond to, so it’s an entertaining thing. It allows us to have a final say on the culture for the week. In a magazine sense, it closes the section nicely. And it’s kind of a destination place, people open the magazine and go to it.

ROBERTS That’s very true.

NUSSBAUM Give a quick shot of wit and humor.

ROBERTS It’s easy, pretty easy.

NUSSBAUM On the one hand it’s easy and reductive. On the other hand, I’m telling you, I guess people who are just not mathematically-minded at looking at charts: I don’t get it. I don’t get it.

NUSSBAUM They don’t understand how charts work. I had somebody say: I don’t like it, it makes me feel dumb, it makes me angry. I mean, I think it’s clever but it’s not THAT smart.

ROBERTS They didn’t understand what the placement of the points meant? Is that what you’re saying?

NUSSBAUM Exactly. This wasn’t an uncommon reaction. There was a moment when it first came out where people felt like they had to work to understand it. I don’t think that was a bad thing. There was also a question of the tone of it. We had a meeting early on, when we first put out the section, where there was a discussion about whether it was too kind of snarky, bloggy, online, maybe juvenile in its sensibility, whether that was in some way problematic, or didn’t match what the rest of the section was supposed to be. I never agreed with that. But it’s always a discussion because when you have something that’s funny and punchy in that way, there’s the question of: Is it going to be sour and kind of rim-shot-ish, like it’ll just be a roast? To me it doesn’t feel like that at all. And obviously we celebrate things. A whole half of it is about things we think are brilliant! So those were the main points of debate. One of them was tonal, one of them was the idea of acting as if there really was a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. And then, that’s it.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 5)

NUSSBAUM For good or bad there was actually a lot of conversation and real analysis about where to place things. In the very beginning one thing I did try was to make it a policy, if we could avoid it, to not snark on things that we hadn’t actually experienced or really knew nothing about, just make jokes at the expense of the names of books that we hadn’t read. I wanted to make the jokes about things that were very specific. Instead of saying we don’t like the movie Godzilla, saying “the ridiculous scene in . . .” — a specific scene, a specific performance, or a specific song in a musical, or something like that. Because to me it makes it more useful and more authoritative, and less just striking out at the general world of culture and saying good, bad, good, bad, good, bad, which is always a danger with something like that. Because we were under a time crunch.

ROBERTS Yeah, a little less Entertainment Weekly with its A+, B+. . . . I happen to like that.

NUSSBAUM I don’t actually have a problem with that. What Entertainment Weekly does with that is very basic, and a lot of places do that, is using a school metaphor thing to judge things. They’ve read the book. They’re actually writing a review of it. The Matrix isn’t writing reviews. but because it’s putting things on this chart, I do think we have to have some sense of responsibility about not just throwing something on just because that doesn’t sound good.

ROBERTS You’re real critics. You actually know about what you’re talking about.

NUSSBAUM The whole thing works better if we know what we’re talking about, if it actually seems like…it operates as though it has its own consciousness and  it’s this weird hive mind of a lot of different opinionated people who’ve experienced a lot of different culture.

ROBERTS If a book is on The Approval Matrix, someone at New York has read the book.

NUSSBAUM Ideally, yes. I’m talking to you because I began the thing. But I’ve switched jobs now, I’m not the head of Culture now. Sternbergh isn’t editing it, either, it’s been passed on. But even if it was a very silly book, you should at least take a look through it. That was essentially the premise. Some things are about news items. Those don’t have the same necessity in terms of . . . I feel like I’m being so crazily over-analytical! Of course it is a charticle.

ROBERTS A charticle? There’ve been many charticles in the history of journalism.

NUSSBAUM Of course it is a visual device. It’s supposed to be entertaining.

ROBERTS I think it’s wonderful. Not because it’s entertaining, although it is, but because it’s enlightening. It’s opening up a world. It does it so well. Let’s take Entertainment Weekly. If they give something an A, I’m going to look into it. If they give a book an A I’m going to check out that book. But they take two pages to give one book an A. The Approval Matrix can give something an A or A+ five times in one page.

NUSSBAUM This is the transcendent beauty of the reductive. We can chart something in this pseudo-scientific way. It does have some kind of …

ROBERTS Pseudo-scientific? I don’t know about that. I think it’s scientific.

NUSSBAUM Just in the sense that it’s so absurdly hyper-specific that it’s unreal. 

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 4)

NUSSBAUM Occasionally we’d throw something in that had nothing to do with culture. At one point this year the weather was really miserable. I just suggested putting overflowing sewers on one side and then hot soup on the other — or something like that. The main thing we got flack for was the highbrow/lowbrow aspect of it.

ROBERTS Why? What was the flack?

NUSSBAUM We got this objection from people who have a strong feeling about these cultural categories. About the art of the charticle. The strongest objection was essentially, to be super-academic about it, that we were reifying the categories of highbrow and lowbrow.

ROBERTS What does reify mean?

NUSSBAUM Instead of critiquing, or being playful with, or using but in a knowledgeable way, those categories, that we were solidifying them, and acting as if they were real and making them into solid objects.

ROBERTS I’m not grasping the criticism. Oh, ok, you’re doing that, so what?

NUSSBAUM Basically, that we were taking them at face value, or, even more cynically, that we were presenting them at face value even though we knew better. By setting up a chart like this, we were basically saying opera is highbrow and comics are lowbrow. When to me, part of the point of it was making visual those illusory categories. Effectively setting up a kind of stimulus for people to react to the way that we place things. You do end up saying to yourself, at least if you’re in-house and you’re debating these things — you do end having this weird conversation about: are the Oscars more highbrow or lowbrow than the Grammys and the Tonys? This kind of crazy way of determining things. Sternbergh once wrote something to the guy [Mohamed Ibrahim] who was doing Behind the Approval Matrix — we were so excited that someone was doing a blog about it — he wrote a note to him at one point describing our thinking on several of the items in it. Also, occasionally people would just come up to us and say, I don’t understand why is this in this category, it should be here! And then we would have an absurdly overanalytical conversation about our thinking. For good or bad there was actually a lot of conversation and real analysis about where to place things.

Interview directory.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 3)

ROBERTS To me one of the fascinating things about The Approval Matrix is not only that it works so well but also that it has this despicable/brilliant dimension. This is fascinating because they’re not opposites, obviously. But also because despicable is an unusual word to see in highbrow American journalism.

NUSSBAUM All credit to Adam Moss for people who like and dislike the word despicable. Who find it both brilliant and despicable.

ROBERTS I’m saying that people usually don’t pass moral judgment. Are you saying that despicable is just a synomym for idiotic or awful?

NUSSBAUM To me, what despicable does is it says there is something outrageous about this and not entirely serious about the judgment. Because, the truth is, to me the voice of The Matrix, much more than the rest of the Culture section, sounds like people mouthing off in a bar. When you get in one of those crazy High-Fidelity-like debates about something. Where you say, “Don’t you think that this is a tiny bit better than the other thing?” These two characters on a TV show, one of them is two notches better than the other one.  Somebody says: I just can’t abide anything from that genre, it’s completely despicable. It has the voice to me of people being, hopefully, witty blowhards. To me, despicable kind of refers to them.

ROBERTS An underreported category.

NUSSBAUM Yes, the witty blowhard! The thing signals—because you can’t judge things so literally, on a mathematical chart—it both displays our judgment about things and to me slightly undercuts it. Because part of the point of The Matrix is for people to argue about the placement of things. Or object to them. Because that’s what happens. If you hand it to somebody, nobody’s going to agree with everything. Often what they disagree with is not the literal placement of things but the placement of things in relationship to one another. For instance, wait a second, a Sondheim musical is more highbrow than this particular HBO drama. And then there’s this weird discussion: Why is that? What constitutes more highbrow? Or, often, my favorite thing: Early in The Matrix, one of the fun things to do was to create a something like a constellation. . . .

ROBERTS You mean, if you connect the dots, it makes a shape? Is that what you mean by constellation?

NUSSBAUM No, not a literal constellation like that. I mean a bunch of things that all cluster together and are all being judged in relation to one another. This was several years ago and we had a tiny cluster that was essentially Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsey Lohan, these starlet types who had been caught in various scandals. They were all in lowbrow/despicable but they were in slightly different sections next to each other. Lindsay Lohan was slightly more highbrow than Nicole Richie and a little bit more brilliant. They were funny in relationship to one another. This was at the point when Sternbergh, a couple months into it, he started being the top editor. And his sensibility has been really important to it. He was overseeing it when there was an end-of-the-year matrix thing. There were a lot of Jude Law movies out that year. So it was Jude Law’s face right in the middle of The Matrix and then four of his movies were right around him, each of them in one of the quadrants. The bizarre thing is — they were weirdly accurate. I’m trying to remember what they were. The Closer was highbrow/despicable. God, what did he make that year? He had literally done four movies that you could kind of justify as being very close to one another but each crossing into a different category. I always enjoyed when we did things like that.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 2)

NUSSBAUM I remember during the first Matrix, there was this Uggs fever in New York. I put them on the slightly highbrow and slightly despicable side. A picture of an Ugg. It just said Ugg. A one-word thing.

ROBERTS Ugg spelled U-G-H?

NUSSBAUM It just said U-G-G-S. On the other side was some “brilliant” fashion thing. So we started pairing things. Initially, the illustrations were way too literal. They would just illustrate the thing we were talking about it. But I think The Matrix works better when there are some big and some small things, some visuals that are jokes themselves.

ROBERTS You said there were big things and small things. What do you mean by big and small?

NUSSBAUM Just visually. Sometimes there would be one big blown-up thing to add visual interest to it. We were constantly sending notes to the photo department saying, “if there’s a thing about something being slow, just show a snail.” Silly dopey things like that. Finding a visual that made its own joke, as opposed to simply being straightforwardly: We think this book is good, we think this TV show is bad. We wanted something that would kinda make it work together. And then of course there were debates about what constituted highbrow and lowbrow. The way we actually created the Matrix was, it was mostly the people who worked in culture — it was myself, Chris Bonanos, and, once we hired Adam Sternbergh, he was very involved, and he really helped sharpen the voice. Because he used to be a comedian and he was incredibly funny at coming up with these compressed one-liner ways of saying things. At the time, I was top-editing it, and then later, he took that on, and now there are other people doing it: Emma and Ben. I would send out a big mass email, trying to get stuff from all of the different people who did different areas, classical music, art, etc. But the truth is, it was just a few people contributing initially. People would send in their jokes or their elements. They would send us something that was highbrow/despicable. And sometimes, more specifically, it would say “highbrow/despicable but very close to the brilliant/despicable line”, describing where it should go on the Matrix. Then I would top-edit the jokes. And often at the end of the day, when we were closing the thing, the three of us would gather in Bonanos’ office and we all just would hash it out and try to sharpen or improve some of the jokes in the way that you do. We would do it collaboratively and try to get it to work. Then I would send it by Adam Moss and he would add or sharpen things further. It was often an incredible crunch because it was such a visually-complicated thing to lay out. And very last-minute. Because they would be trying to get a photo of something odd or difficult.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 1)

New York magazine’s Approval Matrix is my favorite magazine feature. I asked Emily Nussbaum, an editor at New York, how it came to be.

ROBERTS When did you come up with this? What happened in the beginning?

NUSSBAUM I’d been hired soon after Adam Moss came on board as Editor-in-Chief and my job was essentially to oversee the redesign of the culture section. It was a collaborative process with editors like Chris Bonanos and writers including Boris Kachka and Logan Hill. I wanted to open with something more substantive — an essay on a cultural matter or a profile — follow with reviews and fun devices. and then close with something really visual, ideally that combined different genres. We rejected a variety of things before we managed to come up with something. Actually, the idea [for The Approval Matrix] came off a piece I saw in Wired magazine. Which was a kind of Matrix-y sort of chart, a one-off thing. The two directions, one of them went geek to cool, the other went nerd to wonk. It didn’t have any visuals and it didn’t have any jokes. It was all of these different people. It had Joss Whedon and Joss Whedon was nerd/cool. Names of different technology people, a little bit of pop culture. It was funny, it was hard to understand in its own way, which I think is true of The Approval Matrix as well — but that was part of the appeal. So I brought it in and showed it to Adam. We were talking about it and I suggested we use it as a back-page round-up, a visual catch-all for stuff from theatre to television to books . . . Commentary on little news items in culture, events, people, a whole range of things. That was the basic concept. Then I had suggested that it go highbrow/lowbrow and something like good/bad or great/terrible. Adam said we should make the extent of the continuum longer than that. So I said “brilliant” and he said “despicable” — which in the long run was one of the more controversial aspects of The Matrix! Every once in a while, I’ll come across someone who says, “How can you call something despicable?” The larger philosophy of the section was to combine access — talking to creators — with judgment and authority. So the Matrix was about making judgments but also being playful and random, by comparing totally different things to each other. The extremeness of brilliant/despicable was supposed to be part of that. And then there’s the highbrow/lowbrow thing, which can also be controversial. It’s both something that we’re literally doing and something we’re being satirical about. For me personally, one of things that I thought was appealing about it — not to be, as I’m already being, incredibly overanalytical — but one of the things that I wanted for the section as a whole, was to say the obvious but true thing that you can have something that’s lowbrow that’s absolutely fantastic or something that people think of as mass-y, like comics books or whatever, that’s incredible, and some opera that’s actually incredibly dull; it’s just that they operate on different parts of the spectrum. So the idea was that putting those things together was essentially saying what really matters is the quality of them, not whether people consider them an elite taste or whether people consider them a mass taste. But obviously it’s also supposed to be something fun, geeky and mathematical. There was an initial concern that it might be hard to understand. Just because it’s a graph, and people found it a little confusing. So, anyway, we drew up a prototype of the Matrix. The designers did a great job. Then there was a gradual move toward launching the Culture section. And we launched The Matrix. It didn’t change that much from the time that we put it out. What changed was the developmental process of figuring out which jokes work and what works best in terms of combining visuals and text.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.