But What For Newsletter - No. 010

Good Omens, Why There is Something, Multiple Paths, Secret Spies and Abe Lincoln

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(Underlined titles are links to sources)

Good Omens [Book]

  • Takeaway: Got to love Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

That was the trouble. Witchfinders didn’t get paid by the hour. Any witchfinder that spent a week examining the local crones and then told the mayor, “Well done, not a pointy hat among the lot of them,” would get a fulsome thanks, a bowl of soup and a meaningful goodbye.

So in order to turn a profit, Hopkins had to find a remarkable number of witches. This made him more than a little unpopular with village counsels.

“It's like you said the other day,” said Adam. “You grow up readin' about pirates and cowboys and spacemen and stuff, and jus' when you think the world's full of amazin' things, they tell you it's really all dead whales and chopped-down forests and nucular waste hangin' about for millions of years. 'Snot worth growin' up for, if you ask my opinion.”

Many phenomena - wars, plagues, sudden audits - have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing [Book]

  • Takeaway: Follow the evidence and keep an open mind, especially when it doesn’t fit into your current worldview

Science has been effective at furthering our understanding of nature because the scientific ethos is based on three key principles: (1) follow the evidence wherever it leads; (2) if one has a theory, one needs to be as willing to try to prove it wrong as much as one tries to prove that it is right; (3) the ultimate arbiter of truth is experiment, not the comfort one derives from one’s a priori beliefs, nor the beautify or elegance one ascribes to one’s theoretical models

Depending on your perspective, then, either every place is the center of the universe or no place is. It doesn’t matter.

I usually never get that far in my discussion, of course, because data rarely impress people who have decided in advance that something is wrong with the picture.

By forgetting that most of the time nothing of note occurs during the day, we then misread the nature of probability when something unusual does occur: among any sufficiently large number of events, something unusual is bound to happen just by accident.

The Multi-Path Career [Link]

  • Takeaway: It usually takes some luck to have a better than average result, so it can be good to have several irons in the fire

From executives to individual contributors, we all make one career bet at a time.

This is poor “portfolio theory” (to use a phrase from investing), meaning that this is not a balanced “portfolio” of diverse bets. It’s a career “portfolio” of extremely concentrated bets.

You can win big this way, but admittedly, most will not.

With current technology, remote work-styles, and the catalyst of Covid-19, the future will allow for (and incentivize) multiple career bets at the same time; albeit perhaps at different stages of each path — like an architect with three parallel projects (one in concepting, one in planning, and one in construction).

With the possibility, the incentives, and the social norms in place, it will become the ideal work-style for executives over the next decade… From “freelancing” as a performance marketer to “C-lancing” as a CMO of three companies at the same time.

This isn’t for everybody, but for the adventurous minority, a new wave of working style will emerge in the coming years.

Secrets and spies: Behind the doors of the UK's most enigmatic government agency [Link]

  • Takeaway: Invest in remembering where you have been and what you learned along the way

We’re not very good at learning lessons; most organisations aren't,” he says. “But having a corporate record of why we made a [certain] decision in 1977 or 1984 – you can use that to educate future management and leadership; so as not to trip up again.”

Intelligence and espionage are continually evolving. This, says Abrutat, is what keeps him and his colleagues at the Doughnut focussed on their missions.

“We save people’s lives, we stop bombs going off, we stop army units being killed in Afghanistan. If that doesn't motivate you to get to work in the morning, I don't know what does.”

How Abraham Lincoln Confronted—and Helped Spread—Political Misinformation [Link]

  • Takeaway: Just because someone calls out misinformation doesn’t mean they aren’t spreading misinformation themselves

On May 18, 1864, U.S. troops marched into lower Manhattan and entered the offices of two key New York City newspapers. Soldiers leveled guns at staff members’ heads. They blocked the doors with bayonets. President Abraham Lincoln had ordered the arrest of the editors and the seizure of the newspapers. That particular May morning, the papers had run a presidential proclamation announcing a draft of 400,000 new soldiers.

The problem: Lincoln had issued no such proclamation…

Although President Lincoln declared the bogus proclamation a complete fabrication, “false and spurious,” which the newspapers had passed “wickedly and traitorously” to the American people, he had in fact written and signed an order for 300,000 new soldiers that very same day. He just hadn’t sent it out. His outrage—and the likely constitutionally illegal act of arresting the editors and stopping the newspapers— covered up what was at its core a leak.

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.9, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: It can be dangerous to rely on others to tell you who you should be

“If you were to say to me now,” he tells his judges, “We will acquit you on these conditions, that you no longer conduct the discussions that you have conducted hitherto, and no longer pester any of us, young or old.” He would reply, “How absurd of you to think that if one of your generals had stationed me in a post, I should hold it, and defend it, preferring to die a thousand deaths rather than abandon it, but if God has stationed us in some position and laid down rules of conduct, we should abandon it!”…

For it is indeed pointless and foolish to seek to get from another what one can get from oneself. Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility of mind from myself, shall I seek to get a patch of land from you, or a bit of money, or some public post? Heaven forbid! I won’t overlook my own resources in such a manner.

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

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