Farnam Street http://www.farnamstreetblog.com Sun, 01 Mar 2015 11:58:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Andy Warhol on Beauty http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/andy-warhol-beauty/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/andy-warhol-beauty/#respond Thu, 26 Feb 2015 12:00:26 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20103 “I’ve never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty,” Andy Warhol writes in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again): Every person has beauty at some point in their lifetime. Usually in different degrees. Sometimes they have the looks when they’re a baby and they don’t have it when […]

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AWARHOL

“I’ve never met a person I couldn’t call a beauty,” Andy Warhol writes in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again):

Every person has beauty at some point in their lifetime. Usually in different degrees. Sometimes they have the looks when they’re a baby and they don’t have it when they’re grown up, but then they could get it back again when they’re older. Or they might be fat but have a beautiful face. Or have bow-legs but a beautiful body. Or be the number one female beauty and have no tits. Or be the number one male beauty and have a small you-know-what.

Some people think it’s easier for beauties, but actually it can work out a lot of different ways. If you’re beautiful you might have a pea-brain. If you’re not beautiful you might not have a pea-brain, so it depends on the pea-brain and the beauty. The size of the beauty. And the pea-brain.

Never try to keep up with the times – a beauty is always a beauty.

When a person is the beauty of their day, and their looks are really in style, and then the times change and tastes change, and ten years go by, if they keep exactly their same look and don’t change anything and if they take care of themselves, they’ll still be a beauty.

Schrafft’s restaurants were the beauties of their day, and then they tried to keep up with the times and they modified and modified until they lost all their charm and were bought by a big company. But if they could just have kept their same look and style, and held on through the lean years when they weren’t in style, today they’d be the best thing around. You have to hang on in periods when your style isn’t popular, because if it’s good, it’ll come back, and you’ll be a recognized beauty once again.

On the difficulty of looking like your photoshopped self.

Beauties in photographs are different from beauties in person. It must be hard to be a model, because you’d want to be like the photograph of you, and you can’t ever look that way. And so you start to copy the photograph. Photographs usually bring in another half-dimension. (Movies bring in another whole dimension. That screen magnetism is something secret—if you could only figure out what it is and how to make it, you’d have a really good product to sell. But you can’t even tell if someone has it until you actually see them up there on the screen. You have to give screen tests to find out.)

….

Someone once asked me to state once and for all the most beautiful person I’d ever met. Well, the only people I can ever pick out as unequivocal beauties are from the movies, and then when you meet them, they’re not really beauties either, so your standards don’t even really exist. In life, the movie stars can’t even come up to the standards they set on film.

When you’re interested in somebody, Warhol argues that you should point out all of your beauty problems right away, “rather than take a chance they won’t notice them.”

Maybe, say, you have a permanent beauty problem you can’t change, such as too- short legs. Just say it. “My legs, as you’ve probably noticed, are much too short in proportion to the rest of my body.” Why give the other person the satisfaction of discovering it for themselves? Once it’s out in the open, at least you know it will never become an issue later on in the relationship, and if it does, you can always say, “Well I told you that in the beginning.”

On the other hand, say you have a purely temporary beauty problem—a new pimple, lackluster hair, no-sleep eyes, five extra pounds around the middle. Still, whatever it is, you should point it out. If you don’t point it out and say, “My hair is really dull this time of the month, I’m probably getting my friend,” or “I put on five pounds eating Russell Stover chocolates over Christmas, but I’m taking it off right away”—if you don’t point out these things they might think that your temporary beauty problem is a permanent beauty problem. Why should they think otherwise if you’ve just met them? Remember, they’ve never seen you before in their life. So it’s up to you to set them straight and get them to use their imagination about what your hair must look like when it’s shiny, and what your body must look like when it’s not overweight, and what your dress would look like without the grease spot on it. Even explain that you have much better clothes hanging in your closet than the ones you’re wearing. If they really do like you for yourself, they’ll be willing to use their imagination to think of what you must look like without your temporary beauty problem.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) is worth reading.

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What A Rembrandt Can Teach you about Software and Programmers http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/rembrandt-software-programmers/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/rembrandt-software-programmers/#respond Wed, 25 Feb 2015 12:00:34 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20043 A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean on how looking at a Rembrandt can teach us to better understand not only software but the craft behind it. Suppose you visit an art museum and walk […]

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matrix

A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean on how looking at a Rembrandt can teach us to better understand not only software but the craft behind it.

Suppose you visit an art museum and walk up to a painting. I say “Ah ha! I see you’re admiring some powdered pigments, mixed with oil and smeared onto what appears to be a canvas panel.” You say “No, you moron. I’m admiring a Rembrandt.” Good. You’re three-quarters of the way towards a deep understanding of software.

How did this happen?

Well clearly we may, if we choose, regard a painting as a coming-together of two separate elements. The paints and canvas—the physical stuff; and the form-giving mind-plan. I’ll call these two elements the body and the disembodied painting respectively.

Both are necessary to the finished product. But they are unequally decisive to its character. If Rembrandt had (while trying to shake out a tablecloth) accidentally chucked his favorite paint set into a canal on the very morning he was destined to make our painting; if he’d accordingly been forced to go down to the basement and hunt up another set—the finished product would be the same. But if he’d altered his mind-plan—the disembodied painting—before setting to work, our finished painting would obviously have been different.

In fact, the disembodied painting is a painting in and of itself— albeit a painting of a special kind, namely an unbodied one. Rembrandt is perfectly entitled to tell his wife “I have a painting in mind” before setting to work. But plainly the mere body is no painting, not in and of itself. If the paints on Rembrandt’s table went around telling people “Hey look at us, we’re a painting,” no-one would believe them.

This distinction is the key to software and its special character. A running program is a machine of a certain kind, an information machine. The program text—the words and symbols that the programmer composes, that “tell the computer what to do” – is a disembodied information machine. Your computer provides a body.

Unlike Rembrandt’s mind plan, a disembodied information machine must be written down precisely and in full. It’s a bit like the engineering drawings for a new toaster in this regard; the machine designer leaves nothing to chance. Unlike Rembrandt’s mind plan or the toaster drawings, on the other hand, a disembodied information machine can be “embodied” automatically. No skill, judgement or human intervention is required. Merely hand your text to a computer (it’s probably stored inside the computer already); the computer itself performs the “embodying.”

So: A running program—an information machine or infomachine for short—is the embodiment of a disembodied machine. In saying
this, we have said a lot. A fairly simple point first, then a subtle and deeply important one—

Some people believe that, when they see a program running, the machine they are watching is a “computer.” True, but not true
enough. The computer, that impressive-looking box with the designer logo, is merely the paint, not the painting. When you say I’m watching this computer do its stuff, you are saying in effect I’m admiring not this Rembrandt but some paint smeared on canvas. Some people imagine the computer as a gifted actor (say) who is handed a program and declaims it feelingly. No: bad image. The computer itself is of the utmost triviality to the workings of the infomachine you are watching. It may decide how fast or slowly the thing runs, and may effect its behaviour just a little around the fringes, but essentially, it is of no logical significance whatever. It is a mere body, and bodies are a dime a dozen.

The second point is harder.

People often find it difficult to keep in mind that, when they see a program text, what they’re looking at is a machine. The fact that, for the time being, the machine they’re looking at has no body confuses them With good reason: This is a subtle, maybe a confusing point. They leap to the conclusion that what programmers do amounts to arranging symbols on paper (or in a computer file) in a certain way. They look at a program and see merely a highly specialized kind of document …

This mistake is fatal to any real understanding of what software is.

Understanding software doesn’t mean understanding how program texts are arranged, it means understanding what the working infomachine itself is like—what actually happens when you embody the thing and turn it on-what kind of structure you are creating when you organize those squiggles-the shape of the finished product, the way information hums through it, the way it grows, shrinks and changes as it runs, the look and feel of the actual computational landscape. This is where software creativity is exercised. This is where the field evolves, metamorphoses and explodes. Talented software designers work with some image of the actual running program uppermost in mind. Failing to see through the program text to the machine it represents is like trying to understand musical notation without grasping that those little sticks and ellipsoids represent sounds.

This kind of information is hard to convey. You can’t directly see a running program. You can sense its workings indirectly, but you can’t open the hood and look right at the mechanism. An ironic reversal of the Rembrandt experience: Here the mind-plan is tangible, but the embodied thing itself is not.

Finally concluding

[I]f you get carried away, and start asserting that “music is the mechanical manipulation of symbols on staff paper,” “programming is mathematics,” you have committed intellectual suicide. You’ve mistaken the means for the end. You’ve cut yourself off absolutely from all real inspiration, creativity and growth. And you have failed, profoundly, to understand the character of your field.

A dangerous mistake. Where software is concerned, an all-too-natural one.

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Cognitive Exhaustion: Resting Your Mental Muscle http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/cognitive-exhaustion/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/cognitive-exhaustion/#respond Tue, 24 Feb 2015 12:00:22 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=16997 In the go-go-go world of today we need to be sure we’re giving our mind ample opportunity to rest and relax — recognizing when we need a mental break. I usually take a walk. Or go to a yoga class. It turns out how we rest our minds has a big impact. Taking a walk […]

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coge
In the go-go-go world of today we need to be sure we’re giving our mind ample opportunity to rest and relax — recognizing when we need a mental break.

I usually take a walk. Or go to a yoga class.

It turns out how we rest our minds has a big impact. Taking a walk isn’t enough, it depends on where you’re walking.

In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman elaborates:

Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy.

The antidote to attention fatigue is the same as for the physical kind: take a rest. But what rests a mental muscle?

Try switching from the effort of top-down control to more passive bottom-up activities, taking a relaxing break in a restful setting. The most restful surroundings are in nature, argues Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan, who proposes what he calls “attention restoration theory.”

Such restoration occurs when we switch from effortful attention, where the mind needs to suppress distractions, to letting go and allowing our attention to be captured by whatever presents itself. But only certain kinds of bottom-up focus act to restore energy for focused attention. Surfing the Web, playing video games, or answering email does not.

We do well to unplug regularly; quiet time restores our focus and composure. But that disengagement is just the first step. What we do next matters, too. Taking a walk down a city street, Kaplan points out, still puts demands on attention— we’ve got to navigate through crowds, dodge cars, and ignore honking horns and the hum of street noise.

In contrast, a walk through a park or in the woods puts little such demand on attention. We can restore by spending time in nature— even a few minutes strolling in a park or any setting rich in fascinations like the muted reds of clouds at sunset or a butterfly’s flutter. This triggers bottom-up attention “modestly,” as Kaplan’s group put it, allowing circuits for top-down efforts to replenish their energy, restoring attentiveness and memory, and improving cognition.

A walk through an arboretum led to better focus on return to concentrated tasks than a stroll though downtown. Even sitting by a mural of a nature scene— particularly one with water in it— is better than the corner coffee shop.

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Ben Horowitz: The Struggle http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/ben-horowitz-the-struggle/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/ben-horowitz-the-struggle/#respond Tue, 24 Feb 2015 12:00:20 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=17774 “Life is a struggle.” — Karl Marx In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz describes the struggle. Every entrepreneur starts her company with a clear vision for success. You will create an amazing environment and hire the smartest people to join you. Together you […]

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benhorowitz
“Life is a struggle.” — Karl Marx

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz describes the struggle.

Every entrepreneur starts her company with a clear vision for success. You will create an amazing environment and hire the smartest people to join you. Together you will build a beautiful product that delights customers and makes the world just a little bit better. It’s going to be absolutely awesome.

Then, after working night and day to make your vision reality, you wake up to find that things did not go as planned. Your company did not unfold like the Jack Dorsey keynote that you listened to when you started. Your product has issues that will be very hard to fix. The market isn’t quite where it was supposed to be. Your employees are losing confidence and some of them have quit. Some of the ones that quit were quite smart and have the remaining ones wondering if staying makes sense. You are running low on cash and your venture capitalist tells you that it will be difficult to raise money given the impending European catastrophe. You lose a competitive battle. You lose a loyal customer. You lose a great employee. The walls start closing in. Where did you go wrong? Why didn’t your company perform as envisioned? Are you good enough to do this? As your dreams turn into nightmares, you find yourself in The Struggle.

It’s at this point that you start to question things. This is when things get dark. Depression sets in. Options look narrow. You just want to hit snooze over and over again and hide under the covers. The Struggle, however, is also where greatness is born.

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

The Struggle is when food loses its taste.

The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.

The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness.

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.

The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy.

The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.

The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak.

Most people are not strong enough.

Every great entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg went through The Struggle and struggle they did, so you are not alone. But that does not mean that you will make it. You may not make it. That is why it is The Struggle.

The Struggle is where greatness comes from.

The Struggle is where we turn adversity into opportunity.

Ben offers some things that may help you through the struggle.

There is no answer to The Struggle, but here are some things that helped me:

  • Don’t put it all on your shoulders – It is easy to think that the things that bother you will upset your people more. That’s not true. The opposite is true. Nobody takes the losses harder than the person most responsible. Nobody feels it more than you. You won’t be able to share every burden, but share every burden that you can. Get the maximum number of brains on the problems even if the problems represent existential threats. When I ran Opsware and we were losing too many competitive deals, I called an all-hands and told the whole company that we were getting our asses kicked, and if we didn’t stop the bleeding, we were going to die. Nobody blinked. The team rallied, built a winning product and saved my sorry ass.
  • This is not checkers; this is mutherfuckin’ chess – Technology businesses tend to be extremely complex. The underlying technology moves, the competition moves, the market moves, the people move. As a result, like playing three-dimensional chess on Star Trek, there is always a move. You think you have no moves? How about taking your company public with $2M in trailing revenue and 340 employees, with a plan to do $75M in revenue the next year? I made that move. I made it in 2001, widely regarded as the worst time ever for a technology company to go public. I made it with six weeks of cash left. There is always a move.
  • Focus on the road – When they teach you how to drive a racecar, they tell you to focus on the road when you go around a turn. They tell you that because if you focus on the wall, then you will drive straight into the wall. If you focus on how you might fail, then you will fail. Even if you only have one bullet left in the gun and you have to hit the target, focus on the target. You might not hit it, but you definitely won’t hit if you focus on other things.
  • Play long enough and you might get lucky – In the technology game, tomorrow looks nothing like today. If you survive long enough to see tomorrow, it may bring you the answer that seems so impossible today.
  • Don’t take it personally – The predicament that you are in is probably all your fault. You hired the people. You made the decisions. But you knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Everybody makes mistakes. Every CEO makes thousands of mistakes. Evaluating yourself and giving yourself an “F” doesn’t help.
  • Remember that this is what separates the women from the girls. If you want to be great, this is the challenge. If you don’t want to be great, then you never should have started a company.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers offers a piercing look into the hard choices that leaders must make.

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Vincent van Gogh on Why Never Learning How to Paint Helped Him http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/van-gogh-letters-paint/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/van-gogh-letters-paint/#respond Mon, 23 Feb 2015 12:00:32 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19949 In a letter to his brother Theo, dated September 1882, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes the advantages of never learning to paint. While making it I said to myself: let me not leave before there’s something of an autumn evening in it, something mysterious, something with seriousness in it. […]

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van Gogh View of the beach at Scheveningen

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated September 1882, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes the advantages of never learning to paint.

While making it I said to myself: let me not leave before there’s something of an autumn evening in it, something mysterious, something with seriousness in it.

However, because this effect doesn’t last, I had to paint quickly. The figures were done with a few vigorous strokes with a firm brush — in one go. I was struck by how firmly the slender trunks stood in the ground — I began them using a brush, but because of the ground, which was already impasted, one brushstroke simply disappeared. Then I squeezed roots and trunks into it from the tube, and modelled them a little with the brush. Yes, now they stand in it — shoot up out of it — stand firmly rooted in it. In a sense I’m glad that I’ve never learned how to paint. Probably then I would have LEARNED to ignore effects like this. Now I say, no, that’s exactly what I want — if it’s not possible then it’s not possible — I want to try it even though I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done. I don’t know myself how I paint. I sit with a white board before the spot that strikes me — I look at what’s before my eyes — I say to myself, this white board must become something — I come back, dissatisfied — I put it aside, and after I’ve rested a little, feeling a kind of fear, I take a look at it — then I’m still dissatisfied — because I have that marvellous nature too much in mind for me to be satisfied — but still, I see in my work an echo of what struck me, I see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me and that I’ve written it down in shorthand. In my shorthand there may be words that are indecipherable — errors or gaps — yet something remains of what the wood or the beach or the figure said — and it isn’t a tame or conventional language which doesn’t stem from nature itself but from a studied manner or a system.

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Fooled By Randomness http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/fooled-by-randomness/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/fooled-by-randomness/#respond Thu, 19 Feb 2015 12:00:50 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=17502 I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did. I waited too long before reading Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Taleb. He wrote the book before the Black Swan and Antifragile, which propelled him into intellectual celebrity. Interestingly, Fooled by Randomness contains semi-explored gems of the ideas that […]

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fooled by randomness

I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.

I waited too long before reading Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Taleb. He wrote the book before the Black Swan and Antifragile, which propelled him into intellectual celebrity. Interestingly, Fooled by Randomness contains semi-explored gems of the ideas that would later go on to become the best-selling books The Black Swan and Antifragile.

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Hindsight Bias

Part of the argument that Fooled by Randomness presents is that when we look back at things that have happened we see them as less random than they actually were.

It is as if there were two planets: the one in which we actually live and the one, considerably more deterministic, on which people are convinced we live. It is as simple as that: Past events will always look less random than they were (it is called the hindsight bias). I would listen to someone’s discussion of his own past realizing that much of what he was saying was just backfit explanations concocted ex post by his deluded mind.

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The Courage of Montaigne

Writing on Montaigne as the role model for the modern thinker, Taleb also addresses his courage:

It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations— scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves.

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Probability

Fooled by Randomness is about probability, not in a mathematical way but as skepticism.

In this book probability is principally a branch of applied skepticism, not an engineering discipline. …

Probability is not a mere computation of odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our ignorance. Outside of textbooks and casinos, probability almost never presents itself as a mathematical problem or a brain teaser. Mother nature does not tell you how many holes there are on the roulette table , nor does she deliver problems in a textbook way (in the real world one has to guess the problem more than the solution).

Outside of textbooks and casinos, probability almost never presents itself as a mathematical problem” which is fascinating given how we tend to solve problems. In decisions under uncertainty, I discussed how risk and uncertainty are different things, which creates two types of ignorance.

Most decisions are not risk-based, they are uncertainty-based and you either know you are ignorant or you have no idea you are ignorant. There is a big distinction between the two. Trust me, you’d rather know you are ignorant.

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Randomness Disguised as Non-Randomness

The core of the book is about luck that we understand as skill or “randomness disguised as non-randomness (that is determinism).”

This problem manifests itself most frequently in the lucky fool, “defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason.”

Such confusion crops up in the most unexpected areas, even science, though not in such an accentuated and obvious manner as it does in the world of business. It is endemic in politics, as it can be encountered in the shape of a country’s president discoursing on the jobs that “he” created, “his” recovery, and “his predecessor’s” inflation.

These lucky fools are often fragilistas — they have no idea they are lucky fools. For example:

[W]e often have the mistaken impression that a strategy is an excellent strategy, or an entrepreneur a person endowed with “vision,” or a trader a talented trader, only to realize that 99.9% of their past performance is attributable to chance, and chance alone. Ask a profitable investor to explain the reasons for his success; he will offer some deep and convincing interpretation of the results. Frequently, these delusions are intentional and deserve to bear the name “charlatanism.”

This does not mean that all success is luck or randomness. There is a difference between “it is more random than we think” and “it is all random.”

Let me make it clear here : Of course chance favors the prepared! Hard work, showing up on time, wearing a clean (preferably white) shirt, using deodorant, and some such conventional things contribute to success— they are certainly necessary but may be insufficient as they do not cause success. The same applies to the conventional values of persistence, doggedness and perseverance: necessary, very necessary. One needs to go out and buy a lottery ticket in order to win. Does it mean that the work involved in the trip to the store caused the winning? Of course skills count, but they do count less in highly random environments than they do in dentistry.

No, I am not saying that what your grandmother told you about the value of work ethics is wrong! Furthermore, as most successes are caused by very few “windows of opportunity,” failing to grab one can be deadly for one’s career. Take your luck!

That last paragraph connects to something Charlie Munger once said: “Really good investment opportunities aren’t going to come along too often and won’t last too long, so you’ve got to be ready to act. Have a prepared mind.

Taleb thinks of success in terms of degrees, so mild success might be explained by skill and labour but outrageous success “is attributable variance.”

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Luck Makes You Fragile

One thing Taleb hits on that really stuck with me is that “that which came with the help of luck could be taken away by luck (and often rapidly and unexpectedly at that). The flipside, which deserves to be considered as well (in fact it is even more of our concern), is that things that come with little help from luck are more resistant to randomness.” How Antifragile.

Taleb argues this is the problem of induction, “it does not matter how frequently something succeeds if failure is too costly to bear.”

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Noise and Signal

We are confused between noise and signal.

…the literary mind can be intentionally prone to the confusion between noise and meaning, that is, between a randomly constructed arrangement and a precisely intended message. However, this causes little harm; few claim that art is a tool of investigation of the Truth— rather than an attempt to escape it or make it more palatable. Symbolism is the child of our inability and unwillingness to accept randomness; we give meaning to all manner of shapes; we detect human figures in inkblots.

All my life I have suffered the conflict between my love of literature and poetry and my profound allergy to most teachers of literature and “critics.” The French thinker and poet Paul Valery was surprised to listen to a commentary of his poems that found meanings that had until then escaped him (of course, it was pointed out to him that these were intended by his subconscious).

If we’re concerned about situations where randomness is confused with non randomness should we also be concerned with situations where non randomness is mistaken for randomness, which would result in signal being ignored?

First, I am not overly worried about the existence of undetected patterns. We have been reading lengthy and complex messages in just about any manifestation of nature that presents jaggedness (such as the palm of a hand, the residues at the bottom of Turkish coffee cups, etc.). Armed with home supercomputers and chained processors, and helped by complexity and “chaos” theories, the scientists, semiscientists, and pseudoscientists will be able to find portents. Second, we need to take into account the costs of mistakes; in my opinion, mistaking the right column for the left one is not as costly as an error in the opposite direction. Even popular opinion warns that bad information is worse than no information at all.

If you haven’t yet, pick up a copy of Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Don’t make the same mistake I did and wait to read this important book.

(image via)

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A Plunge and Squish View of the Mind http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/a-plunge-and-squish-view-of-the-mind/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/a-plunge-and-squish-view-of-the-mind/#respond Wed, 18 Feb 2015 12:00:36 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20046 How can we bring our knowledge to bear on a problem? Does this resemble how we accumulate knowledge in the first place? A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean explores these questions. In your mind […]

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How can we bring our knowledge to bear on a problem? Does this resemble how we accumulate knowledge in the first place? A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean explores these questions.

In your mind particulars turn into generalities gradually, imperceptibly—like snow at the bottom of a drift turning into ice. If you don’t know any general rules, if you’ve merely experienced something once, then that once will have to do. You may remember one example, or a collection of particular examples, or a general rule. These states blend together: When you’ve mastered the rule, you can still recall some individual experiences if you need to. Any respectable mind simulation must accommodate all three states. Any one of them might be the final state for some particular (perfectly respectable) mind. (Many people have been to Disneyland once, a fair number have been there a couple of times, and a few, no doubt, have been to Disneyland so often that the individual visits blend together into a single melted ice-cream puddle of a visit to Disneyland rule or script or principle or whatever. All three states are real.)

Plunge-and-squish adapts to whatever you have on hand. If there is a single relevant memory, plunge finds it. If there are several, squish constructs a modest generalization, one that captures the quirks of its particular elements. If there are many, squish constructs a sound, broad-based generalization. You may even wind up with a perma-squish abstraction, if this particular squish happens frequently enough and the elements blend smoothly together. It all happens automatically.

You need plunge and squish.

It’s worth pausing here to explain in a little more detail plunge and squish. Plunge is when you take a new case—”one attribute or many attributes, doesn’t matter”—and plunge it into the memory pool. “The plunged-in case attracts memories from all over: The ‘force fields’ inside the system get warped in such a way that every stored memory (every case in the database) is re-oriented with respect to the plunged-in “bait.” The most relevant memories approach closest; and the less-relevant ones recede into the distance.” Squish, on the other hand, means “to look at the closest cases that are attracted by a plunge, and compact them together into a single ‘super case.’ We take all these nearby memories (in other words) and superimpose them.”

One more point: Whatever stack of memories you have on hand, you can cut the deck in a million ways. You can reshuffle it endlessly. You can, if you need to, synthesize a general rule at a moment’s notice. You see an asphalt spreader on the next block. You develop an expectation: The next block will smell like [the smell of fresh asphalt…}. What happened—did you wrack your brain for that important general principle, squirrelled away for just such an occasion—fact number three million twenty-one thousand and seven—fresh asphalt usually smells like…? Or did you synthesize this rule by doing a plunge-and-squish on the spot?

Clearly you can cobble together an abstraction, a category or an expectation at a moment’s notice. You can create new categories to order whenever they are needed. (Unpleasant vacations? Objects that look like metal but aren’t?…) Any realistic mind simulation must know how to do this.

Gotta have plunge; gotta have squish.

And so we arrive, finally, at two radically different pictures of the mind. In the mind-map view, there is a dense intertwined superstructure of categories, rules and generalizations, with the odd specific, particular fact hanging from the branches like the occasional bird-pecked apple. In the plunge-and-squish view, there are slowly-shifting, wandering and reforming snowdrifts instead, built without superstructure out of a billion crystal flakes—a billion particular experiences. New experiences sift constantly downwards onto the snowscape and old ones settle imperceptibly into ice-clear universal, and the whole scene is alive and constantly, subtly changing.

It’s too soon to say which view is right. Both approaches need a lot more work. Both have produced interesting results. …

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Albert Einstein on the Secret to Learning http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/albert-einstein-learning/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/albert-einstein-learning/#respond Tue, 17 Feb 2015 12:00:58 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20272 In 1915 Einstein, who was then 36, was living in wartime Berlin with his cousin Elsa, who would eventually become his second wife. His two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard “Tete” Einstein were with his estranged wife Mileva in neutral Zurich. After eight long years of effort his theory of general relativity, which would […]

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Albert_Einstein
In 1915 Einstein, who was then 36, was living in wartime Berlin with his cousin Elsa, who would eventually become his second wife. His two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard “Tete” Einstein were with his estranged wife Mileva in neutral Zurich.

After eight long years of effort his theory of general relativity, which would propel him to international celebrity, was finally summed up in just two pages. Flush with his recent accomplishment, he sent his 11-year-old Hans Albert the following letter, which is found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children.

My dear Albert,

Yesterday I received your dear letter and was very happy with it. I was already afraid you wouldn’t write to me at all any more. You told me when I was in Zurich, that it is awkward for you when I come to Zurich. Therefore I think it is better if we get together in a different place, where nobody will interfere with our comfort. I will in any case urge that each year we spend a whole month together, so that you see that you have a father who is fond of you and who loves you. You can also learn many good and beautiful things from me, something another cannot as easily offer you. What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

Be with Tete kissed by your

Papa.

Regards to Mama.

Follow your curiosity and read letters from Hunter S. Thompson, Eudora Welty, van Gogh, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Feynman.

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The Art of Stillness http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/the-art-of-stillness/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/the-art-of-stillness/#respond Mon, 16 Feb 2015 12:00:34 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20254 “Sitting still,” writes Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, is “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.” The Art of Stillness is a persuasively argued case for the pleasures of slowing down and being in one place. The adventure of going nowhere but inside […]

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The Art of Stillness

“Sitting still,” writes Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, is “a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”

The Art of Stillness is a persuasively argued case for the pleasures of slowing down and being in one place. The adventure of going nowhere but inside ourselves.

Today we’re going faster and faster in search of contentment and meaning. This is largely a recipe for ensuring we will never be happy. The modern diet is a wonderful cocktail of movement and stimulation.

After a thirty-year study of time diaries, two sociologists found that Americans were actually working fewer hours than we did in the 1960s, but we feel as if we’re working more. We have the sense, too often, of running at top speed and never being able to catch up.

[…]

We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

Our educational institutions tend to tell us the point of life is to get somewhere, not to go nowhere. But nowhere can be just as interesting.

[T]he nowhere I was interested in had more corners and dimensions than I could possibly express to him (or myself), and somehow seemed larger and more unfathomable than the endlessly diverting life I’d known in the city.

Too many of us see going nowhere as turning away from something rather than turning towards something.

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

***

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
— Shakespeare in Hamlet

The idea behind choosing to sit still long enough to learn about yourself is simple and has been around for ages. Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus reminded us many millennia ago that it’s how we respond to our experiences, not the experiences themselves, which shape us.

If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems— and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind— lie within. To hurry around trying to find happiness outside ourselves makes about as much sense as the comical figure in the Islamic parable who, having lost a key in his living room, goes out into the street to look for it because there’s more light there.

The best way to change our lives is to change the way we look at it. William James said “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

It’s the perspective we choose— not the places we visit—that ultimately tells us where we stand. Every time I take a trip, the experience acquires meaning and grows deeper only after I get back home and, sitting still, begin to convert the sights I’ve seen into lasting insights.

***

The idea of going nowhere has been around longer than gravity. “All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.”

After spending nearly five months alone in a shack in the Antarctic where temperatures sank to minus 70, Admiral Richard E. Byrd declared “Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” Or, as they sometimes say around Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Those were the good old days right? Pascal and Byrd didn’t have to contend with the onslaught of technology and information that we face today.

Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes— which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

And the more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them. The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a sense of how to make the best use of technology. Put another way, the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it.

It’s easy to feel as if we’re standing two inches away from a huge canvas that’s noisy and crowded and changing with every microsecond. It’s only by stepping farther back and standing still that we can begin to see what that canvas (which is our life) really means, and to take in the larger picture.

Part of making better decisions is making time to think. Something that few of us are able to do.

The Art of Stillness is a wonderful meditation on the adventures of going nowhere. Complement with Dan Harris on how to be 10% happier.

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Soul Mates http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/lang-leav-soul-mates/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/02/lang-leav-soul-mates/#respond Fri, 13 Feb 2015 12:30:38 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20482 This could be the most beautiful thing I’ve read so far this year. From Lang Leav’s amazing Love and Misadventure: Soul Mates I don’t know how you are so familiar to me—or why it feels less like I am getting to know you and more as though I am remembering who you are. How every […]

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This could be the most beautiful thing I’ve read so far this year.

From Lang Leav’s amazing Love and Misadventure:

Soul Mates

I don’t know how you are so familiar to me—or why it feels less like I am getting to know you and more as though I am remembering who you are. How every smile, every whisper brings me closer to the impossible conclusion that I have known you before, I have loved you before—in another time, a different place, some other existence

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