Understanding the world around you – more insights from Richard Feynman

Another gem from Richard Feynman. In this clip he uses the game of chess to illustrate how scientists go from making observations about the world to better and better theories that account for the observations. There’s a lot of depth in this simple analogy and it’s well worth dedicating some of your own brain cycles to following Feynman’s reasoning.

Your morning dose of Feynman Boing Boing: “Your morning dose of Feynman By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 7:05 am Wednesday, Oct 12

Richard Feynman, God of Perfect Analogies, explains why it’s not a failure or a scandal when scientists adapt and change their understanding of the world. This is a really important point, applicable in a lot of public debates over science, especially those focused on evolution and climate change. Science isn’t about writing things on tablets of stone. It’s about taking a theory and constantly digging deeper into it adding layers of nuance, finding stuff that doesn’t make sense, and using both to build a more complete picture. Even if the big idea is right, the details will change. That’s how science is supposed to work.

Via W. Younes

How will the Internet change how we think?

By way of my friend and colleague Espen Andersen. I’ve found that I’ve already used this story in several conversations and that I find myself mulling it over regularly in recent days. 

image The Edge question this year is "How has the Internet changed the way you think?". The result is eminently readable – my favorite so far is George Dyson’s answer, which is quoted here in its entirety:

Science Historian; Author, Darwin Among the Machines


In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results maximum boat / minimum material by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Short and sweet, in other words. Now, where did I leave that informational adze, what P. J. O’Rourke referred to as the "brief-but-insightful-summary" button?

How will the Internet change how we think?
Fri, 06 Aug 2010 13:47:02 GMT

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink, Daniel H.

Pink takes a look at much the same evidence base as Lawrence and Nohria do in Driven with a slightly different purpose. His take is that organizations rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) at the expense of tapping into much more powerful intrinsic motivators. He is less interested in building a robust model of human behavior in organization than he is in trying to distill some practical short term advice. It makes for an easier read than Driven and Pink is a much better story-teller than Lawrence and Nohria. On the other hand, it sacrifices some important depth in the process.

Pink was also a speaker at last year’s TED conference; the video from that talk gives you the gist of his argument in 20 minutes:

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The War of Art

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield, Steven


I recently finished Seth Godin‘s excellent new book Linchpin (see Choosing to Draw Your Own Maps for my review). In it, he devotes a central chapter to the notion of resistance and how we get in our own way in the pursuit of our goals. Godin recommended Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for more insight.

I’m sure the fact that the book has been lurking in my ‘to read’ stack for several years is deeply meaningful.

Godin’s recommendation was enough to push Pressfield’s book to the top of that stack. If you find that you can be your own worst enemy facing creative work, don’t take as long as I did to get to this short but deeply insightful book. Pressfield is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and, more recently, has been blogging at Steven Pressfield Blog. The War of Art is an extended reflection by Pressfield on the practical challenges of creating.

Pressfield breaks his book into three sections. In the first, he takes a close look at resistance and the myriad ways it works to keep us from trying and carrying on. Ways both obvious and devious. For all the legitimate barriers and delays and excuses, resistance ultimately boils down to self-sabotage; our lizard-brain trying to protect us from fears it cannot understand or articulate.

In the second section, Pressfield offers his answer – turn pro. Show up and do the work. Forget about inspiration. Pressfield has good company here. Here’s a sampling of advice from various creative pros, all with the same fundamental message:

Anyone who waits to be struck with a good idea has a long wait coming. If I have a deadline for a column or a television script, I sit down at the typewriter and damn well decide to have an idea.

Andy Rooney

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

Linus Pauling

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at none o’clock sharp.

Somerset Maugham

For all the advertisements and enticements promising instant gratification, we all know that it’s really about doing the work. And this is true whether the work is carpentry or sculpture. Pressfield lays out the following qualities that distinguish a professional from an amateur:

  1. We show up every day
  2. We show up no matter what
  3. We stay on the job all day
  4. We are committed over the long haul
  5. The stakes for us are high and real
  6. We accept remuneration for our labor
  7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
  8. We master the technique of our jobs
  9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs
  10. We receive praise or blame in the real world.

(The War of Art. pp.69-70)

In the final section, Pressfield reveals the payoff of facing resistance with professionalism. He elects to couch it in spiritual terms, but substitute your own terms if that troubles you. Here’s the payoff to professionalism:

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

This is the secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. we have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. ideas comes. Insights accrete.

(The War of Art. p. 108)

We can’t  control how the world will react to what we create. All we can control is whether we show up to do the work and whether we have mastered the tools of our craft. Pressfield’s promise is that if we do our part, the Universe will notice and may help.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love offers a similar perspective in a talk she gave at TED last year:


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Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems: A Primer,

Meadows, Donella

From time to time, I recommend Meadows’ article, Places to Intervene in a System. It’s a succinct summary of her long experience at finding leverage points for effective change in complex human and organizational systems. In this slim volume, she provides an accessible and understandable introduction to systems thinking in general and "Places to Intervene" takes its place as a penultimate chapter.

We spend our days surrounded by and embedded in multiple, complex, interacting systems: transportation, education, health care, our employers, our customers, our suppliers. The systems we encounter are those that by design and by adaptation have found stable ways to operate and to survive.

Thinking in Systems explains why systems work the way they do and why our intuitions about them are so often wrong. Feedback loops drive system behavior. Positive feedback loops give us population explosions and Internet billionaires; negative feedback loops let us steer cars or regulate the temperature in our offices. Unrecognized feedback loops and lag times between action and response lead to most of the surprises we encounter with systems in the real world. What Meadows does here is make that all understandable and accessible with apt examples and clear explanations.