But What For Newsletter - No. 008

Practical Thought, Good Omens, Cicero, Blockchain, Handling Complexity, Grapefruits and Overnight Tragedies

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

“Fortunately, I am still able to refrain from complaint in the mode of Mark Twain. After all, I never had more than a shred of an illusion that any views of mine would much change the world. Instead, I always knew that aiming low was the best path for me, and so I merely sought (1) to learn from my betters a few practical mental tricks that would help me avoid some of the worst miscognitions common in my age cohort, and (2) to pass on my mental tricks only to a few people who could easily learn from me because they already almost knew what I was telling them.

Having pretty well accomplished these very limited objectives, I see little reason to complain now about the un-wisdom of the world. Instead, what works best for me in coping with all disappointment is what I call the Jewish method: humor.”


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

Good Omens [Book]

  • Takeaway: The people you associate with matter, but you have to take personal responsibility for most things - especially if you just straight-up messed up

“ ‘Don't tell me from genetics. What've they got to do with it?’ said Crowley. ‘Look at Satan. Created as an angel, grows up to be the Great Adversary. Hey, if you're going to go on about genetics, you might as well say the kid will grow up to be an angel. After all, his father was really big in Heaven in the old days. Saying he'll grow up to be a demon just because his dad became one is like saying a mouse with its tail cut off will give birth to tailless mice. No. Upbringing is everything. Take it from me.’

It wasn't just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They'd come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout "The Devil Made Me Do It" and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn't have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

You see, evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction. It is ultimately negative, and therefore encompasses its downfall even at its moments of apparent triumph. No matter how grandiose, how well-planned, how apparently foolproof of an evil plan, the inherent sinfulness will by definition rebound upon its instigators. No matter how apparently successful it may seem upon the way, at the end it will wreck itself. It will founder upon the rocks of iniquity and sink headfirst to vanish without trace into the seas of oblivion.

Crowly considered this. ‘Nah,’ he said at last. ‘For my money, it was just average incompetence.’ ”

  • Takeaway: If you try to please everyone, you will eventually please no one - and especially not yourself

“Their loyalty was to their commanders, whom they expected to make the necessary arrangements, and not to the Republic. Unfortunately, land was in short supply… The state owned a good deal of land throughout Italy and in theory this could be distributed to returning soldiers or the urban unemployed, but much of it had been quietly appropriated by wealthy landowners. These eminent squatters were extremely difficult to dislodge. Many of them were Senators and they fiercely resisted any proposals for land reform.

Personally, I am always very nervous when I begin to speak. Every time I make a speech I feel I am submitting to judgment, not only about my ability but my character and honor. I am afraid of seeming either to promise more than I can perform, or to perform less than I can, which suggests bad faith and indifference.

When the town fell, Caesar found about 50 Senators and equities in it, all of whom he released on condition that they not take arms against him again – an assurance many of them swiftly broke. This act of clemency had a huge impact on public opinion, which began to swing in his direction, and a number of optimates returned to Rome. Caesar maintained this policy of leniency for the rest of his life. He intended it as a vivid proof that he was no Sulla, set on the armed overthrow of the state.

‘I do not reject peace,’ he said, ‘but I am afraid of war disguised as peace.’

  • Takeaway: Just because everyone is talking about it doesn’t mean it is useful

“In front of a sea of coders sitting on folding chairs, their laptops on folding tables, a man appears on a purpley-blue lit stage.

‘Seven hundred blockchaingers,’ the man shouts at his audience. He points at each programmer in the room. ‘Machine-to-machine learning …’ And then, at the top of his voice: ‘Energy transition! Health! Public safety and security! Future of pensions!’

We are at the Blockchaingers Hackathon 2018 in Groningen, the Netherlands. And something really, really big is happening here, according to the speakers. Earlier on, a film trailer voice asked those present if they could imagine that right here, right now, in this room, they were about to find solutions that would change ‘a billion lives’. A planet spontaneously combusted in the accompanying video…

I’ve been hearing a lot about blockchain in the last few years. I mean, who hasn’t? It’s everywhere.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought: but what is it then, for God’s sake, this whole blockchain thing? And what’s so terribly revolutionary about it? What problem does it solve?

“My programming students often write in with their struggles and failures. Many students ultimately overcome their struggles—but a large percentage of them give up their programming ambitions after realizing how hard creating software can be. These students started with the goal of becoming professional coders, but, ultimately, they missed that target.

After thousands of personal conversations with these students, it became apparent that many new coders don’t fail because they don’t know one or the other Python feature or because they lack technical skills, intelligence, or even talent.

These are not the underlying reasons why they fail.

Instead, they fail because they are overwhelmed by the complexity lurking everywhere in programming. The complexity causes them to throw in the towel. This is unfortunate because there are many ways to mitigate the harmful effects of complexity in programming. In the previous chapter, you’ve already learned some strategies about the 80/20 principle (Focus on the vital few and sacrifice the trivial many!).

In this chapter, we’re going to have a comprehensive look at this important and highly underexplored topic. What exactly is complexity? Where does it occur? How does it look like?”

  • Takeaway: Keep an open mind - even to the most absurd sounding ideas - when evidence suggests there is a question not yet fully answered

“In 1989, David Bailey, a researcher in the field of clinical pharmacology (the study of how drugs affect humans), accidentally stumbled on perhaps the biggest discovery of his career, in his lab in London, Ontario. Follow-up testing confirmed his findings, and today there is not really any doubt that he was correct. “The hard part about it was that most people didn’t believe our data, because it was so unexpected,” he says. “A food had never been shown to produce a drug interaction like this, as large as this, ever.”

That food was grapefruit, a seemingly ordinary fruit that is, in truth, anything but ordinary. Right from the moment of its discovery, the grapefruit has been a true oddball. Its journey started in a place where it didn’t belong, and ended up in a lab in a place where it doesn’t grow. Hell, even the name doesn’t make any sense.”

  • Takeaway: History is the record of man’s steps and slips; it shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding

“New technologies take years or decades for people to even notice, then years or decades more for people to accept and put to use. Show me a new technology that was immediately recognized for its full potential and instantly adopted by the masses. It doesn’t exist. A lot of pessimism is fueled by the fact that it often looks like we haven’t innovated in a decade because it takes a decade to notice innovations. This is true even in hard sciences: Historian David Wooton says it took 200 years from discovering germs to the medical acceptance that germs cause disease…

Growth always fights against competition that slows its rise. New ideas fight for attention, business models fight incumbents, constructing a building fights gravity. There’s always a headwind. But everyone gets out of the way of decline. Insiders might try to stop it, but it doesn’t attract masses of outsiders who rush in to push back in the other direction like progress does.”

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.7, translation by Robin Hard

“For what is required in reasoning? To establish the truth, reject what is false, and suspended judgment in doubtful cases. Is it enough, then, to learn that alone?…

'Yes, it's enough,' someone replies.

Is it also enough, then, for someone who wants to avoid any mistake in the use of coinage merely to hear it said, 'Accept good drachmas and reject those that are counterfeit'?

'No, that's not enough.'

So what is required in addition? Why, what else than the capacity to test the coinage and distinguish the good drachmas from the counterfeit? And likewise, in reasoning too, the words that are spoken are surely not sufficient, but it is necessary too to know how to test them and distinguish the true from the false and the uncertain?

'That is indeed necessary.' ”

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