But What For Newsletter - No. 007

A Prisoner in Hanoi, Human Misjudgment, Good Omens, Cultural Revolutions, Why We Read, the Pandemic, and Language

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

“The flight in September 1965 was part of his third combat tour of North Vietnam, serving as Wing Commander of the aircraft carrier Oriskany. Despite his misgivings about the purpose of him being in Vietnam, he was a competent and skilled career fighter pilot. Nothing suggested he shouldn’t expect to make it back home that day - let alone that decade.

But sometimes life deals you a lousy hand, and it dealt Stockdale quite an unhappy one.

While trying to aid trapped American soldiers on the ground, he was suddenly falling out of the sky and hurtling towards a small Vietnamese village. His plane was on fire, the control system shot out by North Vietnamese who had used the grounded soldiers as bait, and he didn’t have much choice beyond punching out of the plane.”

“I am very interested in the subject of human misjudgment, and Lord knows I’ve created a good bit of it. I don’t think I’ve created my full statistical share, and I think that one of the reasons was I tried to do something about this terrible ignorance I left the Harvard Law School with. When I saw this patterned irrationality, which was so extreme, and I had no theory or anything to deal with it, but I could see that it was extreme, and I could see that it was patterned, I just started to create my own system of psychology, partly by casual reading, but largely from personal experience, and I used that pattern to help me get through life.

Fairly late in life, I stumbled into this book, Influence, by a psychologist named Bob Cialdini, who became a super tenured hotshot on a 2,000 person faculty at a very young age. And he wrote this book, which has now sold 300 odd thousand copies, which is remarkable for somebody. Well, it’s an academic book aimed at a popular audience that filled in a lot of holes in my crude system. When those holes had filled in, I thought I had a system that was a good working tool, and I’d like to share that one with you.”


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

Good Omens [Book]

  • Takeaway: Humans are great at making other people less happy than they need to be, but they also like to think there are people out there making things better somehow

“But he liked seeing nuns around, in the same way that he liked seeing the Salvation Army. It made you feel that it was all all right, that people somewhere were keeping the world on its axis…

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people

Oh, he did his best to make their short lives miserable, because that was his job, but nothing he could think up was half as bad as the stuff they thought up themselves. They seemed to have a talent for it. It was built into the design, somehow… There had been times, over the past millennia, where he felt like sending a message back Below saying, Look, we may as well give up right now, we might as well shut down… They’ve got what we lack. They’ve got imagination.”

  • Takeaway: You can hide behind the idea that someone else will eventually make an effort - or you can go ahead and make the effort yourself; the past is something to learn from, whether it was enjoyable or not

“But whenever I am tempted to get even with my persecutors, I think back to the atmosphere on campus during the Cultural Revolution, when anyone who joined a faction seemed to have drunk a personality-altering potion that alienated them from their own humanity and made them non-human… I say non-human because calling humans brutes is an insult to animals. Animals eat people because they are hungry. Unlike human beings, animals don’t tell lies, they have no wiles, and they don’t make rambling speeches full of classical allusions to why someone deserves to be eaten before opening their mouths to gobble him up…

It’s true that we shouldn’t dwell on the past, but in this case we haven’t reflected sufficiently on it. As I have mentioned, most people were deceived at the time, but even those who were deceived should seize this unparalleled opportunity to reflect on how they were taken in, to avoid making the same mistake again

As our ancestors said, “You could grow old waiting for the Yellow River to become clear.” I couldn’t do anything about one of the books I was hoping for, but as for the other: after all, I was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, and as opposed to waiting for someone else to write the book I wanted to read, I thought I might as well roll up my sleeves and write it myself.

  • Takeaway: Read to better yourself, such that you might eventually be of some greater benefit to others

“We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure.

. . . I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads…

How to Read and Why [Book]

  • Takeaway: While the phrase “this time is different” is usually dangerous, this time, it might actually be different

“So, most of the time, downturns stem primarily from economic weakness, and they are repaired with economic tools. But this episode is different. It was caused by an exogenous, non-economic development, the pandemic. The recession – rather than being the cause – was the result: a closure of business induced intentionally in order to minimize inter-personal contact and halt the spread of the disease.

Thus, this down-cycle cannot be fully cured merely through the application of economic stimulus. Rather, the root cause has to be repaired, and that means the disease has to be brought under control. An effective vaccine will do this – in time – but healthy behavior will be required in the meantime. Spikes like much of Europe is seeing represent something of a step backward in this regard.

And even with the disease controlled, economic stimulus is unlikely to reverse all the damage. The trauma has been deep, and the impact may not be easily shaken off. Large firms will continue to automate and streamline. Large numbers of smaller businesses – such as restaurants, bars and shops – will never re-open. Thus millions of people will not be rehired into the jobs they formerly held. For this reason, the expectations with regard to economic recovery have to be realistic…”

  • Takeaway: People come from different backgrounds and see things differently than you do

“Chinese characters (known as hanzi in Chinese, hanja in Korean, kanji in Japanese) have had a huge effect on the two languages similar to the effect of the Greco-Latin vocabulary present in English… Korean and Japanese are the same way in that they simply don't function without these loanwords made from Chinese characters. About 70% of the vocabulary in English comes from foreign sources, and the ratio is about the same with Korean and Japanese.”

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.6, translation by Robin Hard

“What kind of man do you supposed Heracles would have become if it hadn’t been for the famous lion, and the hydra, the stag, the boar, and the wicked and brutal men whom he drove away and cleared from the earth? What would he have turned his hand to if nothing like that existed? Isn’t it plain that he would have wrapped himself up in a blanket and gone to sleep?

First of all, then, he would surely never have become a Heracles if he had slumbered the whole of his life away in such luxury and tranquility; and even if he had, what good would this have been to him? What would have been the use of his arms and of all his strength, endurance, and nobility of mind if such circumstances and opportunities hadn’t been there to rouse him and exercise him?…

No, but you sit there trembling at the thought that certain things may come about, and wailing, grieving, and groaning at others that do come about; and then you cast blame on the gods… Possessing these faculties as you do, free and as your own, you fail to make use of them… ”

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