Friday Finds (Beauty, Texting, Feynman, Swimmers, Math)


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Hi friends,

Greetings from Austin!

Great literature is as effective a tool for understanding psychology as science. For example, stories like Romeo and Juliet show how people fight not because of their differences, but because of their similarities. The play begins with the words: "Two houses, both alike in dignity." In just 18 lines in the book of Genesis, the Cain and Abel story captures central aspects of the human mind which rationality cannot explain.

Misunderstanding psychology leads to problems. We end up building a world for the kinds of people we wish existed instead of the ones who actually do. Though we've made great strides in our technological capabilities and even our rational understanding of the world, human nature is fixed. It refuses to budge.

René Girard's work is an instruction manual for the challenges of modernity. His ideas give you X-Ray vision into society. You'll be able to predict conflict amongst your peers and see where the matrix of mass media has led you astray.

This lecture that I hosted with Johnathan Bi shows how.

Today's Finds

Images of Organization: You can change what you see in a business by changing the metaphor you use to analyze it. Think of an organization like a machine, and you'll aim for efficiency and repetitiveness. Think of it like a biological organism and you'll think of how it's constantly changing to better suit its environment. I've always liked the idea that Amazon is the evolutionary process in action. They're constantly seeding new ventures, measuring what works, and doubling down on the most successful experiments. Images of Organization presents eight metaphors for thinking about companies. I particularly like the idea of companies as psychic prisons. The companies they work for trap them in certain ways of thinking. What you gain in shared culture you lose in groupthink and ideological conformity. It's fairly expensive on Amazon, but you can find it for cheaper in places like Abe Books or BookFinder. If you're looking for a summary, Venkatesh Rao wrote one up on Ribbonfarm.

Richard Feynman, on Textbooks: The Nobel Prize-winning physicist once served on the state of California’s curriculum commission. He was tasked with determining which math and physics textbooks should enter public schools. He insists that he was among the few committee members who actually read the textbooks. The rest, he says, “judged the books by their covers.” He points to one textbook which received high marks even though it consisted entirely of blank pages. Even when the textbooks had information, they were characteristically lousy, false, hurried, ambiguous, and useless. Feynman writes: “I was the only guy on that commission who read all the books and didn’t get any information from the book publishers except what was in the books themselves, the things that would ultimately go to the schools.” Yikes.

The Mundanity of Excellence: The authors of this paper studied professional swimmers to ask: "What made the best swimmers so successful?" They came up with three conclusions: (1) quality is more important than quantity. If you want to improve your outcomes, you need to perfect the way you practice. (2) Talent isn't as important as you think. Excellence came more from hard work than raw talent. By focusing so much on natural talent, we forget about all the work behind exceptional performances. Saying that somebody else has a natural talent is sometimes a cope for our own failures too. (3) Excellence compounds with repetition. Exceptional results come from exceptional discipline. The top swimmers turned drills into habits. All that effort compounded over time. Though I think the author undervalues natural talent (Michael Phelps has enormous hands, size 14 feet, and flexible joints), everybody who's serious about their craft should adopt the lessons in this paper.

The Mathematics of Beauty: If you want to consistently find interesting ideas, find a corner of the world where there’s an explosion in the amount of data we have about it. Then, follow the writers who make sense of it all. One example is the OkCupid blog. To the best of my knowledge, many of the best posts have been removed from the Internet because they were so spicy. That said, you’ll find many of the ideas in a book called Dataclysm. But some of them were saved, such as this one from Gwern. For an interesting rabbit hole, check out the recommendations on the right side of the page.

How Instant Messenger Shapes Thinking: The most meta interview you’ll ever read because it’s an interview about instant messenger which takes place on instant messenger. The best part of the interview centered around writing as a technology for thinking, as opposed to speech. When we’re talking, we hop from thought to thought. But writing asks us to freeze our thoughts, which is why it’s such an effective way to improve your thinking. The lesson is simple: Writing is useful precisely because it’s difficult.

Have a creative week,

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