But What For?

Writing about anything, as long as it's interesting


Writing about anything,

but what for?

For a break from the urgent

Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.

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Frederick Taylor Gates – Uncommon Common Sense


Gates was born in New York in 1853 and grew up neither poor nor rich. The son of a Baptist minister, he followed in his father's footsteps, completing seminary at Rochester University in 1880. From the ages of 27 to 34, he served as a pastor in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a small congregation of “those made to feel unwelcome” at the larger churches of the city.

He was a hard-working and earnest man - known for his work ethic as much as for his devoted adherence to Baptist teachings. Innately, he was also an uncommonly curious individual, spending his free time reading about education, economics, finance, political science, and medicine through self-directed study. Thus, his small Baptist congregation was fortunate to have a well-educated, good-natured head of the church.

People noticed and would seek his advice from time to time. George Pillsbury - the patriarch of a wealthy local family - came to him with a rather large problem. Pillsbury was dying, and it had always been his intention to set up a Baptist institution of higher learning. He had just written into his will a gift of $200,000 (late-1800’s dollars) for such purposes, but he feared that the endowment would be misused and wasted. Could Gates think of a way to structure the gift to ensure success?

Simple Sabotage Field Manual – How to Destroy Your Organizations


Sabotage varies from highly technical coup de main acts that require detailed planning and the use of specially trained operatives, to innumnerable simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform. This paper is primarily concerned with the latter type….

Simple sabotage requires no destructive tools whatsoever and produces physical damage, if any, by highly indirect means. It is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit. Making a faulty decision may be simply a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another. A non-cooperative attitude may involve nothing more than creating an unpleasant situation among one’s fellow workers, engaging in bickerings, or displaying surliness and stupidity.

This type of activity, sometimes referred to as the “human element," is frequently responsible for accidents, delays, and general obstruction even under normal conditions. The potential saboteur should discover what types of faulty decisions and cooperation are normally found in this kind of work and should then devise his sabotage so as to enlarge that “margin for error."

America’s Tradition of Murder Ballads & the Story of Omie Wise


Omie (actually, Naomi) Wise and her song-stated murderer, John Lewis, were actual people that lived in the early 1800s in and around Randolph Country, North Carolina - which was settled in the 1740s as immigrants moving south from Pennsylvania and west from the coast found themselves in what is now the heart of North Carolina. It was said that the County was made up of “on the one hand, men who distinguished themselves for vice, rapine and the most villainous of crimes; on the other hand, men who displayed the noblest virtues and highest patriotism.”

John Lewis’ grandfather, David Lewis, was one of the earliest settlers in Randolph County, and served as the patriarch of a line of “tall, broad, muscular and very powerful men… [that] sought occasions of quarrel as a Yankee does gold dust in California.” Richard, one of David’s sons, fled to a nearby county after killing his own brother, Stephen,  following a far too complicated story involving home invasions, a fleeing wife , and an odd court ruling stating that, despite the fact that Richard had snuck into Stephen’s home while he was in bed and shot him, Richard had acted in self-defense. It was in this nearby county that John Lewis was born.

Legend states that Noami was an orphan in Randolph County, bound as a child to Mr. and Mrs. Adams to work in their kitchen and garden. The Adams’ were said to be fond of the girl, who at the time of the story had just passed the age of 18. Accounts from the day point to an industrious, happy, and noticeably pretty young Naomi. As young people are wont to do, the two fell head-over-heels for each other.

Joseph Brodsky: Speech at the Stadium


Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.

I am not totally oblivious to the pressures the so-called modern world exerts upon the young, I feel nostalgic for those who sat in your chairs a dozen or so years ago, because some of them at least could cite the Ten Commandments and still others even remembered the names of the Seven Deadly Sins. As to what they’ve done with that precious knowledge of theirs afterward, as to how they fared in the game, I have no idea. All I can hope for is that in the long run one is better off being guided by rules and taboos laid down by someone totally impalpable than by the penal code alone.

Since your run is most likely to be fairly long, and since being better off and having a decent world around you is what you presumably are after, you could do worse than to acquaint yourselves with those commandments and that list of sins. … But I am not here to extol the virtues of any particular creed or philosophy, nor do I relish, as so many seem to, the opportunity to snipe at the modern system of education or at you, its alleged victims. To begin with, I don’t perceive you as such. After all, in certain fields your knowledge is immeasurably superior to mine or anyone’s of my generation. I regard you as a bunch of young, reasonably egotistical souls on the eve of a very long journey. I shudder to contemplate its length, and I ask myself in what way I could possibly be of use to you. Do I know something about life that could be of help or consequence to you, and if I do, is there a way to pass this information on to you?

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O: Shel Silverstein’s Lesson on Self Reliance & Mentorship


For her first Christmas, my parents got my niece Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (apparently expectations are high for the six-month mark). I grew up reading its collection of poems, over and over. I even - to the horror of some of my readers, I am sure - used colored pencils (because I didn’t yet appreciate the waxy beauty of crayons) to color in some of Silverstein’s famous illustrations.

The gift sent me down memory lane. Re-reading a selection of those poems from all those years ago, I was struck by just how much more there is to much of Silverstein’s writing than his characteristic style and funny words.

Take the namesake of that book - Where the Sidewalk Ends - for example. As a child, reading the poem brought to me images of running out into a grassy field somewhere. And that is what Silverstein is writing about.

Charlie Munger: December 2020 CalTech Interview & Transcript


What happened was there were things I didn’t like about law practice, but I had an army of children to support and no family money or anything to start with. So I had to make my way in life for this army of children.

It was going to be a little difficult and there were things about law practice I saw that were quite limiting. And what happened was, my pitifully, small earnings as a young man, I kept underspending them. I kept investing fairly boldly and fairly smartly.

At the end of my first 13 years of practice, I had more liquid investments made than I’d made in all those years of law practice, pre-tax. I had done that in my spare time with these little, tiny sums. So it was natural for me, partly prompted by Warren Buffett’s success, to think I should just start working for myself instead of for other people. If I could do that in my spare time, I thought, well, what will happen if I do it full time?

David Foster Wallace: This is Water


Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches - the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Richard Feynman & The Feynman Technique: How to Learn Anything Well


It is 1941 and you have a problem. While you haven’t yet gotten around to defining quantum electrodynamics or even started your work helping design the atomic bomb, you are nearing the end of your second year of graduate school. This means you have an exam soon.

That’s OK though. You know what to do. After all, you have made it this far already. You just do what you always do - you pull out a notebook. And not just any notebook, but one especially well-prepared for the task at hand. Namely, a blank one.

A fitting title is needed for the first page. You think for a moment, smiling to yourself as you creatively run through all the options you could pick. But, alas, none of them seem right. You opt for the tried-and-true but never worn out choice. You write it down.

You are Richard P. Feynman, arguably the brightest young physics mind in the United States at the time, and you have just written “Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About” on the title page.

Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back


That same brutal principle of unequal distribution applies outside the financial domain—indeed, anywhere that creative production is required. The majority of scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists. A tiny proportion of musicians produces almost all the recorded commercial music. Just a handful of authors sell all the books. A million and a half separately titled books (!) sell each year in the US. However, only five hundred of these sell more than a hundred thousand copies. Similarly, just four classical composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky) wrote almost all the music played by modern orchestras. Bach, for his part, composed so prolifically that it would take decades of work merely to hand-copy his scores, yet only a small fraction of this prodigious output is commonly performed...

It also applies to the population of cities (a very small number have almost all the people), the mass of heavenly bodies (a very small number hoard all the matter), and the frequency of words in a language (90 percent of communication occurs using just 500 words), among many other things. Sometimes it is known as the Matthew Principle (Matthew 25:29), derived from what might be the harshest statement ever attributed to Christ: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.”

Charlie Munger: Practical Thought About Practical Thought


In a long career, I have assimilated various ultra-simple general notions that I find helpful in solving problems. Five of these helpful notions I will now describe. After that, I will present to you a problem of extreme scale. Indeed, the problem will involve turning start-up capital of $2 million into $2 trillion, a sum large enough to represent a practical achievement. Then I will try to solve the problem, assisted by my helpful general notions.  Following that, I will suggest that there are important educational implications in my demonstration. I will so finish because my objective is educational, my game today being a search for better methods of thought.