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“A Disrespect for Certain Kinds of Things”

May 11, 2009 — 11 Comments

When Richard Feynman was a boy, his dad would take him on nature walks through the woods near his home. His father would point out a bird and say “there’s a Spencer’s Warbler” and explain to him how at that very second it was eating the lice that ate the proteins off its feathers because everything is a source of food for something else.

It turns out that only half of what he told him was true. The important half. The part about why the bird acted the way that it did, what it was doing, or what it meant. The name was mostly just jibberish.

To Richard Feynman, this was an important theme for the rest of his life. When he taught in Brazil, he realized that although the students often studied physics, they rarely understood it. To him, this was like reading Socrates in Greek but missing the philosophy. What people forget, he felt, was that the words themselves are relatively worthless. Their meaning is what has value.

I saw that Fred Wilson gave a speech a few weeks ago on what he called “earned media.” It’s very likely that this will be one of the next big internet phrases. And as usual, people will miss the operative word: earn. They’ll miss that the concept is both bigger and smaller than the sum of its parts. That “earned media” communicates both a literal definition (hard work) as well as an idea (genuine vs paid media). They’ll be too busy “using” the word to really understand it. I’m sure only few of them will stop to think about how strange it is that the concept is also known as “free media.”

What made Feynman so special, at least to me, was that he only cared about what things meant. His father taught him that there was an enormous difference in knowing about a bird and knowing what other people call birds. One is harder to test, it doesn’t fit as well into textbooks, and like earned media takes time to accumulate.

Deciding to live that way is difficult but admirable decision. People who are self-taught know how embarrassing it is to try to use a word you’ve seen but never actually heard before – how quickly someone will jump in to correct you. But which side of the table do you want to be on? The side doing the correcting or the doing? Correct in detail or in principle?

Self-Reflection Means Self-Criticism

May 4, 2009 — 9 Comments

I’ve never really written about my girlfriend here. It’s strange because she is such a big part of my life.

Our relationship isn’t always the best which is unfortunate because she is a very sweet girl. It’s my fault mostly. I am a 21 one year old guy and I work all the time. My position forces me to make some really shitty decisions, ones with no real winner and enough of them added a bit of an edge to an otherwise wonderful relationship.

I don’t always agree with the things that upset her. There are times when I think she’s totally wrong. But looking back there are quite a few decisions I made that I am not proud of. Priorities and internal logic that were embarrassing at best and disturbing at worst.

I guess you need to think when you’re making a choice: is this an something I respect or is the logic just tenuous enough to settle your conscience?

There is a good line in Meditations where he says something like never do anything that you will worry about remaining ‘behind closed doors’. I think the same goes for how you treat the important people in your life. And when I look back on things, there’s a lot I could never justify to a third party. I regret that and it’s something I’d like to put an end to doing.

Mergers & Acqusitions

May 1, 2009 — 3 Comments

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And so ends the chapter of my life where I constantly scour the internet for funny dog pictures and carry a camera to catch Hanno failing a site-record 5 times.

If you haven’t seen it, FailDogs.com now aggregates all the fails from I Has Hotdog and Failblog onto one site. Ben Huh, the CEO offered me a certificate commemorating the sale as a joke but I of course made him give me one. The site couldn’t be in a better or smarter hands.

Never Enough

April 28, 2009 — 5 Comments

I like watching those shows on HGTV where people shop for their first home. I always lose it when I see some 25 year old engaged couple rejecting a house because it only has “two bathrooms” or “not enough space for a formal dining room.” It’s banal and insidious and makes me shudder.

When I think about it, that’s a lot like how we judge and make complaints about other people. Deep down there’s no other explanation but entitlement. I mean, have you ever once thought that you’d be willing to trade something you do appreciate in someone in exchange for the thing you’re complaining about?

Our grievances against other people are mostly rooted in this tendency to take what we do get for granted and whatever else we want as justly deserved. It’s a petty kind of narcissism shined over with rationalizations about social cues or the ‘future of customer service’ or reciprocity. And when I look at it that way, I realize there isn’t much honor in criticism, just greed.

The Second Act Fallacy

April 23, 2009 — 14 Comments

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are “no second acts in American lives.” Joesph Epstein retorted in Ambition that Fitzgerald should have realized that just because the ending isn’t happy doesn’t mean there wasn’t a second act. In fact, we have a name for that style: tragedy.

Maybe he would have been better served to remember that. Or, better still, he could have abandoned the whole notion that his life was a like a play. Consider that Fitzgerald’s love of drama, glamor, and fame were responsible for almost all his problems. It’s why he was depressed, why he loved a woman who destroyed his life, and why he never sat down to really work again.

What if there is just life and we’re not all actors on a world’s stage. There wouldn’t be the crushing pressure of redemption because there isn’t an audience to redeem. There would only be you. And each day, the expectations you fulfill are your own. The day before and the day after are unconnected because there is no narrative tying them together. They just are.

The Second Act in American Lives is a fallacy generated by the absorbed belief in the First Act. They’re both counterproductive. They’re both delusional. They ultimately make it impossible to an incredibly difficult thing: waking up everyday and doing only the things that make you happy and proud and self-contained.