“It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!” That’s me thinking about Humaginarium in 2020 — quoting JRR Tolkien thinking about The Lord of the Rings in 1944.
Both projects (his and mine) are gigantic and erudite, yet made for untutored masses with purportedly short attention spans. How odd! Both are outlandish and amusing, steeped in adult fantasy and occult imagery, yet each feels natural and familiar to regular folks who are purportedly empirical and pragmatic. How peculiar! Tolkien’s project characterized the deranged evil that threatened himself, his family and friends and civilization. Mine models poorly controlled illness that threatens me, my family and friends and civilization. How curious! Nobody paid Tolkien to devote years of his life to his project. He was merely asked to write a sequel to a successful children’s book. Nobody has paid me to persist in my project after my first successful startup, yet I do. How strange!
We both know why. Epic undertakings occur because their makers want them, not because “users” or “customers” demand or even expect them. The efforts such undertakings require are their own sweet reward, not a down payment on fame and fortune that may never come. Large, innovative projects have no ulterior motive. They truly exist for their own sake, though makers may want them to change the world a little, for the better: in my case to make it a happier and healthier place to live, in Tolkien’s to justify a personal commitment to virtue in a fallen world. When makers work hard, great things may come about. It’s just possible. On the other hand their projects may fail, they may give up and turn back. When that happens, problems like evil and illness may become even harder to fathom, as though the human spirit perceives them and doesn’t care. The fallen world doesn’t change, but its problems do. They grow worse.
An epic temperament is all very well. It’s the mother of invention. It kept Tolkien going and keeps me going more conscientiously than orders and lucre ever have. What makes the temperament a curse is not the inspiration, but the perspiration. The curse of snappy bits: pesky details of how and when things will be made. As avaricious angels — who may have never had an original idea of their own — are fond of saying to makers: “ideas are basically worthless.” Execution matters. Stuff has value. If it doesn’t sell it doesn’t count.
Stuff rarely just happens. It must be inspired, ideated, investigated, planned, prepared, washed-dried-ironed-folded, assigned, designed, developed, tested again and again, repaired and refined and finally launched — or at least saddled and walked out of the barn. Tolkien did that with The Lord of the Rings. He not only wrote and typed and recited his story again and again for years before it was printed. He also wrote a “history” of the different world in which his story unfolds; he invented languages spoken there, animated deities adored and feared there, empowered supernatural laws and fierce traditions that shaped reality there; and he created newfangled geography, morphology, astronomy and physics so his story would make perfect internal sense to every one of the purported nincompoops who would eventually buy and read his very long and complicated novel. He did all of this not to please them, but to please himself and a few individuals he loved. He had no customers or bosses or investors or contracts, so he made The Lord of the Rings in his spare time after work while raising a family, and gardening, and fixing the plumbing, and running errands on his bicycle. How impractical! What a stupendously foolish way to create one of the most beloved and best selling stories of all time! If only there had been an Innovation Corps or incubator or creative writing program to show him how to do things the right way!
Tolkien and I planned our respective projects. Plans are containers for snappy bits. They tell makers what will be done, by when, for how long, by whom, with what results. Plans are details of execution: how an epic temperament actually makes the things it wants.
Unlike Tolkien, my plan is a schedule. Correction: right now it is the outline of a schedule. Relatively little is scheduled just yet, just enough to inform the National Science Foundation how my execution will play out. For this reason, Dave Walker and I have begun writing a proper schedule: him in Microsoft Project, me in Merlin Project. What snappy bits may our schedule contain? Here’s what I know:
- The project is named Diabetes Agonistes
- The start date is April 4, 2020
- It has three phases: preparatory, generative, evaluative
- Preparatory ends no later than September 2020
- Generative and evaluative end no later than June 2021
- The schedule involves 24 credentialed professionals
- It also involves 2000 online testers (the “nincompoops”)
- The project produces evidence rather than product
- Evidence lowers the risks of product development that follows
- Evidence is collected in five milestone deliverables
- Milestone deliverables cohere in a modular proof of concept
- The project allocates cash of $233,613 and equivalent sweat equity
The preparatory phase, which we’re in now, produces our detailed project schedule, two websites, seven briefs, and an ineluctable sense that the epic temperament of Humaginarium is mastering the snappy bits and throwing off a nagging curse, in our overcrowded age: turning “worthless ideas” into treasure worthy of Khazad-dûm.