But What For Newsletter - No. 011

Feynman, Good Profit, Yes to Life, the Value of Coders, Wealth as a Byproduct and Board Games Getting Boring

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

Richard Feynman: How to Learn Anything Well

The next Monday we were playing in a field, and a kid said to me, “What’s that bird? Do you know the name of that bird?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” He said, “Well, it is a brown‑throated thrush.” He said, “Your father doesn’t teach you anything.”

But my father had already taught me about the names of birds. Once we walked, and he said, “That is a brown-throated thrush. In German it is called the Pfleegel flügel. In Chinese it is called Keewontong. In Japanese a Towhatowharra”, and so on.

And when you know all the names of that bird in every language, you know nothing, know absolutely nothing, about the bird… So I had learned already that names don’t constitute knowledge…

We have to learn that these are the kinds of disciplines in the field of science that you have to learn – to know when you know, and when you don’t know, and what it is you know, and what it is you don’t know.

You’ve got to be very careful not to confuse yourself.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

Good Profit [Book]

[You can’t turn around every mistake] Rather than squandering our scarest resource (talent) trying to save a marginal business, we’ve learned to focus that resource on opportunities with real potential.

[The importance of the right incentives] When Soviet nail factories had their output measured by weight, they tended to make big, heavy nails, even if those big heavy nails sat unsold on the shelves while the country was crying out for small nails.

[Knowing the name of something tells you nothing] I confused articulate conceptual knowledge with knowledge of how to apply the concepts to get results. In other words, the team we assembled was much better at articulating the concepts than practicing them.

[A victim mentality won’t help you] When we find they[the competition] are better, we should never rationalize that it’s because of factors we can’t control. This self-protective thinking happens quite often and can be disastrous because it justifies inaction. Overcoming this tendency requires the humility to admit you haven’t kept up, as well as having senior leaders who refuse to accept any excuse.

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything [Book]

  • Takeaway: The goal doesn’t have to be in the future, it can be the moment you are in right now

It is not only through our actions that we can give life meaning — insofar as we can answer life’s specific questions responsibly — we can fulfill the demands of existence not only as active agents but also as loving human beings: in our loving dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good. Should I perhaps try to explain for you with some hackneyed phrase how and why experiencing beauty can make life meaningful?

I prefer to confine myself to the following thought experiment: imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favorite symphony, and your favorite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine; and now imagine that it would be possible (something that is psychologically so impossible) for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning.

I believe you would agree with me if I declared that in this case you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like: “It would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!

Are Coders Worth It? [Link]

  • Takeaway: It is important to find meaning in what you choose to do, but it is also important to do something valuable to others

We call ourselves web developers, software engineers, builders, entrepreneurs, innovators. We’re celebrated, we capture a lot of wealth and attention and talent. We’ve become a vortex on a par with Wall Street for precocious college grads. But we’re not making the self-driving car. We’re not making a smarter pill bottle. Most of what we’re doing, in fact, is putting boxes on a page. Users put words and pictures into one box; we store that stuff in a database; and then out it comes into another box.

We fill our days with the humdrum upkeep of these boxes: we change the colors; we add a link to let you edit some text; we track how far you scroll down the page; we allow you to log in with your Twitter account; we improve search results; we fix a bug where uploading a picture would sometimes never finish…

I don’t have the courage to say no to that. I have failed so far to escape the sweep of this cheap and parochial thing, and it’s because I’m afraid. I am an awfully mediocre programmer — but, still, I have a secure future. More than that, I have a place at the table. In the mornings I wake up knowing that I make something people want. I know this because of all the money they give me.

Wealth: The Toxic Byproduct [Link]

  • Takeaway: What matters is what you create for others

Suppose one day you wake up to find a large pile of Congolese francs heaped on your living room coffee table.

That's not all. You also find that your front door, previously a single slab of wood, is now divided horizontally into top and bottom halves (a so-called Dutch door). When you use the doorknob, both pieces move together, opening out onto your front porch as usual. But you can open just the top half, separately, like a window. And when you do, it pushes open to reveal the unfamiliar sights and sounds of a Congolese outdoor market.

Before you have time to object to this strange new reality, a man approaches your window. He's carrying a sack of grain over his shoulder and calling out to you. Luckily you speak enough French to understand him. He's asking if you'd like to buy his grain for 500 francs.

What should you do?

Board to Death: How Scrabble Blew Its Big Moment [Link]

  • Takeaway: It’s fine to do things that don’t increase the balance of your bank account

“I know we’ve had our glory days,” Hopkins says, but “the game is in a healthy place because of the children.”

Children like Heather Jordan. Despite being the advanced division’s only solo entrant, the 15-year-old blows away the competition at the school finals. But this was a predictable result. Hopkins knew Heather had that special Scrabble drive when he saw her studying words on the trolley ride home from a club meeting.

As Heather accepts her trophy, her father, Eric, watches nearby with pride. Just a few months earlier, after attending her first NASPA tournament, she’d sent him a text: “I keep losing. Why do I enjoy it so much?” Obsessed as she may be, though, Eric says she is also realistic about the game’s limitations, starting with the obvious. No one plays Scrabble for a living. The money just isn’t there.

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.10, translation by Robin Hard

If we had devoted the same unsparing effort to our own work as the senators at Rome have in achieving what they have set their mind on, perhaps we too might have achieved something. I know a man older than myself who is now the official who superintends the grain supply at Rome.

While he was passing through this town on his journey back from exile, I recall what things he said to me as he denounced his former way of life, and declared that from now on, after he got back, he would concern himself with nothing other than living the rest of his life in peace and calm— ‘For how little time is now left to me!’

To which I replied, ‘No, you won't do that, but as soon as you get the slightest whiff of Rome, you'll forget every word of it.’ I added that if he were granted the least access to the palace, he would push his way in, with a joyful heart and offering up thanks to the gods.

‘If you ever find me putting one foot inside the palace, Epictetus,’ he replied, ‘then think what you like of me.’

And what do you suppose he did? Before he even arrived in Rome, he was met with dispatches from Caesar; on receiving them, he forgot all that he had previously intended, and from that moment on he never ceased from heaping one activity on top of another. How I wish that I could be standing beside him now to remind him of what he said while he was passing through and tell him, ‘I've proved to be a much shrewder prophet than you!’

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

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