Coolest Things I Learned in 2020

I write a weekly email called Monday Musings.

The most popular part of the newsletter is a section called “Coolest Things I Learned This Week.” It’s fun and eclectic, interesting and intriguing. This is a collection of the most popular ideas I shared in 2020.

Subscribe here if you want to see ideas like this every week.


Use Punctuation to Communicate Your Mood

If you want to improve your writing, match your punctuation to the mood.

If the scene is tense, keep your sentences short. Be quick. Maintain pacing. And, if you want to slow the pace, add commas and other kinds of punctuation that ask the reader to stop, pause, slow down… and reflect.


The Sudden Explosion of Breweries


Happiness: Smile Curve

Most people’s happiness levels change throughout their lives. It follows a U-Shape. Just remember, it looks like a smile. 

Derek Thompson (who is my favorite journalist these days) added two observations

  1. Happiness bounces back fast in our 60s—faster than it declines in any other decade.
  2. Happiness in life is U-shaped, declining until our early 50s and then coming back.

Nassim Taleb’s Definition of Success

Pulled from Taleb’s excellent commencement speech at the American University in Beruit:

“For I have a single definition of success: you look in the mirror every evening, and wonder if you disappoint the person you were at 18, right before the age when people start getting corrupted by life. Let him or her be the only judge; not your reputation, not your wealth, not your standing in the community, not the decorations on your lapel. If you do not feel ashamed, you are successful. All other definitions of success are modern constructions; fragile modern constructions.”


In Praise of Tradition

  1. “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” — G.K. Chesterton
  2. “The dead outnumber the living 14-to-1, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril.” — Niall Ferguson
  3. “The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to [a fence] and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” — G.K. Chesterton, The Thing (1929).

People in Power are Getting Older

People in power are much older than they used to be.

  • The average age of new CEOs for S&P 500 companies is rising.
  • Of the 30 heads of top American universities, 28 were born between 1946 and 1964.
  • The age where independent researchers receive grants is steadily climbing. At the National Institute of Health, the percentage of grant funds given to scientists under the age of 36 fell from 5.6% in 1980 to 1.5% in 2017.
  • College professors and grant winners are rising in age too.

The Titanic vs. Modern Cruise Ships

The ship in the background is called the “Allure of the Seas.” It weighs 100,000 tons and is longer than a football field.


Tom Hanks on Acting

“My job is to hold a mirror up to nature, which means I need to reflect true human nature — how we think, how act, and the great paradoxes in all our decisions.”


Gutenberg Parenthesis

Orality and Literacy is an under-rated gem of a book. Through the lens of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, the author Walter Ong suggests that despite its dominance and prestige today, print literacy is an exception in the long arc of human history.

He argues that through electronic media, we may be in the process of restoring earlier modes of communication, which are based on speech instead of writing. As it does, it will fragment the number of perspectives in the world. As Ong wrote: “One of the oddest things about printing was that it delivered monopoly control over the expression of the truth to those who controlled publication.”


Great Conversations

The best conversations end in one of four ways:

1) Words: You explore so many new ideas that you no longer have the language to say what you want to say.
2) Metaphysics: You debate your values and base-level assumptions because they determine your conclusions.
3) Humor: Your cheeks are sore, your eyes are watering, and your stomach hurts from laughing so hard.
4) Creativity: You leave the conversation excited about a new idea and inspired to start working on it.


Clocks

I want to remove clocks from my life as much as possible. I dream of only having one clock in my house. Instead of telling the time, it’d toll only three times per day.

  1. 9am: Time to start creative work
  2. 12pm: Time to start non-creative work
  3. 10pm: Time to sleep

I’d consider adding a fourth toll at 7pm to remind me that it’s time to stop working altogether.


Watch One. Do One. Teach One.

This is a recipe for learning anything. First, observe how other people work. Second, do the work yourself. Third, show somebody else how to do what you just did.

This idea comes from surgical training, where students observe a procedure, perform the procedure on their own, then teach another person how to conduct the procedure. 


Beautiful Map of California


Education Trends

I enjoyed this slide deck from Union Square Ventures. Here’s what stuck out:

  • Public school teachers have an NPS score of -17
  • 55% of Americans think that K-12 education is on the wrong track
  • The role of school may change from a place where students are taught a central curriculum, to a safe space they can go all day for free where they are encouraged to pursue their curiosity and interests.
  • Of the top 100 US colleges, only 7 were founded in the last 100 years, and none were founded in the last 50 years. This is in contrast with the top 100 companies, where 64 were founded in the last 100 years. Top 100 Colleges from US News and World Report Rankings.
    • The most recent 5 in the top 100 US colleges are:
    • University of California San Diego – 1960
    • Brandeis University – 1948
    • Claremont McKenna College – 1946
    • Scripps College – 1926
    • University of Miami – 1925

Planck’s Principle

This idea is named after Max Planck. It states that scientific change doesn’t happen because people change their mind. Instead, the consensus shifts because old scientists pass away and young ones have different views. 


As Planck wrote: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. . . An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.


IBM Hard Drive

This is what a 5MB hard drive looked like in 1956. For a comparison, the iPhone 11 Pro Max has 512 GB — meaning it has 102,400 more memory than the hard drive in the photo above. 

Add memory per pound or square foot and you’ll get an ever bigger number. 


Women Get More Tattoos Than Men

Nearly twice as many American women are tattooed as men (39% vs. 21%).

The rates hold true for hidden (30.2% vs. 16.7%) and visible tattoos as well (8.5% vs. 4.1%).

I also liked this quote from the study: “The rise in popularity of tattoos constitutes one of the most significant cultural trends in the West. A mere two generations ago, tattoos were largely reserved for criminals, sailors, and circus freaks. Today, 40% of Americans aged 26-40 have at least one tattoo.”


Fun Etymologies

  1. Freelancer translates to “a sword for hire.” Originally, it referred to medieval mercenaries who fought for whichever country paid them the most. Today, the sword is a good metaphor for the sharp specialization that defines a freelancer’s work.
  2. Muscle comes from the Latin word musculus, which translates to “little mouse” because people thought that the shape of muscles looked like mice running under the skin.
  3. The word clue comes from the story of Theseus in Greek mythology. In it, he gets stuck in a maze. To find his way out, he unravels a ball of string called a “clew” which helps him escape. In the same way, we unravel strings of clues to solve mysteries.

Today’s Cassandra

One of my favorite questions to ask these days is, “Who is today’s Cassandra figure?”

It refers to somebody who is right about the future but has answers we don’t want to hear. The idea comes from Greek Mythology, where nobody believes (or likes) Cassandra even though she can see the future. Apollo grants her the gift of prophecy but turns it into a curse when she does not return his love.

For a movie-based outline of the idea, I recommend this clip where Cassandra tries to warn Troy’s citizens about its impending fall.


Eyes, Ears, Smells, and Animals

This is from a short book I read over the weekend called Man and Technics by Oswald Spengler. 

Herbivores (animals who eat plants) are ruled by the ear and most of all, scent. But carnivores (animals who eat other animals) rule with the eye.

“Scent is the characteristically defensive sense. The nose catches the point of origin and the distance of danger and so gives the movement of one’s flight the appropriate direction, away from something. But the eye of the preying animal gives a target. The very fact that, in the great carnivores as in man, the two eyes can be fixed on one point in the environment enables the animal to bind its prey. In that hostile glare there is already implicit for the victim the doom that it cannot escape, the pounce that is instantly to follow.”


The Stages of an Edward Hopper Painting

I enjoyed this series of sketches behind Edward Hopper’s “Morning Sun.” I always try to look for the process behind my favorite paintings because they reveal the chaos and messiness of the creative process.

You can’t jump from A to Z. You have to walk from B to Y.


When People Move Fast

These are my favorite examples from a collection of fast-completed projects from Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe”

  1. BankAmericard: Dee Hock was given 90 days to launch the BankAmericard card (which became the Visa card), starting from scratch. He did. In that period, he signed up more than 100,000 customers.
  2. JavaScript: Brendan Eich implemented the first prototype for JavaScript in 10 days, in May 1995. It shipped in beta in September of that year.
  3. The Alaska Highway: Starting in 1942, 1,700 miles of highway were built over the course of 234 days, connecting eastern British Columbia with Fairbanks, Alaska.
  4. Luckin Coffee: Luckin Coffee was founded in October 2017. Their first stores opened on January 1, 2018. On September 3, 2018—245 days later—they passed 1,000 directly-operated stores in China.”
  5. Disneyland: Walt Disney’s conception of “The Happiest Place on Earth” was brought to life in 366 days.

Islamic Architecture

Islamic architecture makes my soul come alive. It’s the vibrant colors, the endless symbolism, and the rhythmic geometric patterns.


Predictions About Airplanes

Intellectuals thought human-powered flight was impossible just before the Wright Brothers took their first flight.

In the words of American astronomer Simon Newcomb: “The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery and known forms of force, can be united in a practical machine by which men shall fly long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be.”The predictions against flight didn’t end there. Even after the Wright Brothers had flown, other scientists doubted the potential for commercial air travel.

Another astronomer named William H. Pickering said: “The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to our modern steamships. . . . [I]t is clear that with our present devices there is no hope of competing for racing speed with either our locomotives or our automobiles.


Goodhart’s Law

The law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

The most famous example comes from the Soviet Union. When the factories were given targets for how many nails they needed to produce, they make small and useless nails. Then, when they were measured on the basis of weight, they made a few giant nails. Before the measure, numbers and weight correlated well with the success of a factory. But once they were made targets, the measurements lost their value.

Likewise, hospitals in Britain were taking too long to admit patients so a penalty was instituted for wait times longer than four hours. In response, some hospitals asked their ambulances to stall or take the long road to the hospital. Even though the roundabout path hurt patients, it shortened hospital wait times.


Marathon Finishing Times

Finishing times spike around notable goals, such as 3:00, 3:30, and 4:00. Humans are driven by goals, so we kick up our effort when the next one is in sight.


The Raymond Chandler Rule for Writing

The novelist Raymond Chandler used to write on index cards on his typewriter. He had one rule: something had to happen on every notecard. By following the rule, his stories moved at a brisk pace. For Chandler, it trained him to be crisp and direct. 

The online writing equivalent is to make sure your reader has an epiphany every 250 words. This heuristic makes your prose more concise, which increases the regularity of “woah, I didn’t know that” moments which make reading so enjoyable. It works for podcasts too. Gimlet founder Alex Blumberg says something new should happen every two minutes. 
It’s not that you can’t explore the depths of an idea. But just as good comedians nest mini-jokes inside of larger ones, good writers keep readers engaged with an epiphany every 250 words.


How Beyonce Makes Music

Beyoncé records albums by renting out multiple studios at the same time.

She jumps between rooms, where she brainstorms ideas and works on different songs with different musicians and different producers. Once she loses momentum, she changes the vibe by switching studios.


How to Live Longer

The literature of people called Centenarians, who live 100 years or longer shows they don’t live longer once they get a disease. Instead, they take longer to get diseases in the first place.

That’s not obvious. It could be the case that Centenarians acquire disease at the same rate as non-Centenarians but are more resilient to disease once it sets in. Instead, their superpower is how long they can go before the onset of disease. But once the disease arrives, even Centenarians don’t have much of an advantage over anybody else.

Here’s the takeaway: If you want to live longer, focus on delaying the onset of chronic disease instead of trying to live longer once you have chronic disease.

Unfortunately, the healthcare system is mostly geared towards curing diseases instead of preventing them in the first place.


Why Movies Cast Twins for Kids

When Hollywood producers have kids in their movies, they look for identical twins. Due to child labor laws, kids can’t work as much as adults. They also have school and other commitments that make all-day acting difficult. But movies with twins can get twice as much acting time with kids.


The Rise and Fall of Cigarette Sales


Christopher Alexander’s Thoughts on Home Design

Once you start looking for these observations, you’ll see them everywhere. They come from Christopher Alexander, a design theorist and UC Berkeley professor with a cult following among software engineers.

1. Make a path between the street and the front door of the house.

2. Add a step to change the level between the sidewalk and the door.

3. Change the walking surface and the light quality to create a “transition space” between home and street.

4. In every room, light should come from two sides. More than any other pattern, having light from two sides will make-or-break the ambiance of a family room. Rooms lit from two sides have less glare, more natural light, and help us see each other’s faces.

5. The south side of the house should face outdoors. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So naturally, the north side is dark and dusky, while the south side is bright and luminous. The sun should make the south side welcoming and enjoyable.

These are all from The Timeless Way of Buildingwhich I can’t recommend enough.


Why Square Used Apple’s Headphone Jack

This is a wonderful story about the early days of Square. Incredible ingenuity.

“Connecting a credit card reader to the iPhone was risky. The only approved way to connect any piece of hardware to an iPhone was through the dock connector. Apple had a lengthy and expensive approval process to use the dock connector, special chipsets you had to use, royalties on each unit, and a bunch of other rules on top of the seventeen from the banking world that we were already breaking. On the other hand, every phone on the market, not just the iPhone, had this simple little microphone jack that was designed to take an audio signal. In other words, if we could make the data on a credit card appear to be the output of a microphone, we could read the magnetic stripe through the microphone jack. The audio software developer’s kit was part of the standard iPhone libraries, which meant that we could write some code without having to ask anyone at Apple for permission. By using the microphone jack to circumvent Apple’s dock connector rules, we could have a working prototype in a week.”


The Instagram Algorithm

Matthew Kobach, who I hosted this workshop with interviewed Sarah Frier, the author of No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram.

I learned two things:

  1. Instagram did a study in 2016 on the algorithmic feed. People who saw the algorithmic feed but were told it was the chronological one loved it. Meanwhile, people who saw the same feed but knew it was algorithmic, hated it.
  2. Instagram’s feed was also designed to encourage people to share more posts. The most important metric wasn’t time spent or engagement, but which post encouraged people to share more original photos.

How Jews Became so Successful

Before the Industrial Revolution, the Jews played a negligible role in the history of science and technology. Even though they were a talented bunch, they couldn’t access many European institutions. Prior to the 19th century, they weren’t allowed in most universities.

Things changed in the late 18th century when the United States granted them additional legal rights, including access to universities. France followed in 1789, and so did other nations. In the wake of these changes, Jews flooded top-tier schools.

By 1889, 30 percent of all students at Vienna University were Jewish. Between 1870 and 1950, Jews were over-represented among figures in the arts and sciences. Then, in the second half of the 20th century, Jews received 22 percent of the Nobel Prizes in chemistry, 32 percent in medicine, and 32 percent in physics — even though they were less than 1 percent of the world’s population.


How Elon Musk Learns

Question: How do you learn so fast? Lots of people read books and talk to other smart people, but you’ve taken it to a whole new level.

Elon Musk: I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, like the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Or, as Elon Musk said in his Ted Talk: “If you wanna do something new, go for the physics approach of first principles reasoning. Get the fundamentals and reason up from there.”


Long Shadows

Sometimes, I wish the sun never moved and we could spend our entire lives with late afternoon sunlight, just like an Edward Hopper painting.


How the Model T Changed the Economy

When thinking about the future, think through the second and third-order consequences of new inventions. A good science fiction writer can predict the car, but a great one can predict the traffic jam.

For example, the creation of 15 million Model T’s induced demand for gas stations, repair shops, and replacement parts for those shops. Americans who owned cars could also travel which created demand for vacation destinations, all of which needed hotels for people to rest their heads.


Abbott Fuller Graves’ Beautiful Garden Paintings


Faulty Human Predictions

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb writes about two groups who were shown an image of a fire hydrant so blurry that people couldn’t recognize it.

For one group, the resolution rose slowly, in ten steps. For the other, it rose faster, in five steps. The increased resolution stopped at a point where both groups could see an identical image. Then, researchers asked participants from each group to identify what they saw. The members of the group that saw fewer intermediate steps were able to recognize the hydrant much faster.

Researchers concluded that the more information you give to somebody, the more hypotheses they will create along the way. The effects are detrimental because people see random noise and mistake it for information.


Falling Commodity Prices

Malthus famously predicted that humans’ standard of living was inversely proportional to how many people we needed to feed. Thus, as the number of people on Earth grew, our standard of living would fall. People’s need for food is greater than the earth’s ability to provide it, he said. But the opposite has happened.

As Josh Brown states: “Between 1980 and 2019, the world’s population increased from 4.4 billion to 7.6 billion or by 73.2 percent. The time price of commodities fell by 74.2 percent.

The biggest falling commodities, measured by percentage change in time price are:

  • Coffee: 86.8%
  • Sugar: 86.4%
  • Silver: 84.7%
  • Pork: 84.5%
  • Uranium: 84.0%

Jerry Seinfeld on His Life’s Work

“You and Larry David wrote Seinfeld together, without a traditional writers’ room, and burnout was one reason you stopped. Was there a more sustainable way to do it? Could McKinsey or someone have helped you find a better model?

Who’s McKinsey?

It’s a consulting firm.

Are they funny?

No.

Then I don’t need them. If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.”

Original Source: Harvard Business Review


Predicting Automation

Jobs with a small pay gap between the best people and average ones are most likely to be automated.


Bedtime Procrastination

The Chinese term 報復性熬夜 translates to “revenge to stay up late,” where people who can’t control their daytime life delay their sleep to relish their night time freedom before bed.


How Gold Performs

Stock market data from 1976-2019 shows that gold breaks the usual relationship between risk and return.

As you can see in the chart below, it’s a more volatile asset than many other similarly-risky asset classes such as equities and international stocks.


Wing Clouds on Airplanes

Wing clouds only happen at takeoff and landing when there’s water vapor in the atmosphere, which causes a cloud to form on the top of the wing. The higher the airplane’s angle of attack, the higher the likelihood that condensation will form. 
Since airplanes fly slower when they’re close to the ground, there‘s more time for wing condensation to develop.


A Playground in 1900

The difference between a modern playground and this one from 1900 says a lot about how society has changed.

On the topic of playgrounds, I enjoyed this comment on Hacker News: “I remember reading something somewhere about the real issue with risk and playgrounds… that modern playgrounds often hide risk, whereas older playgrounds it would be more obvious. The idea is that there were clearly places (high up, requiring climbing skill) in the old playgrounds that kids would slowly work their way up to conquering. Because the risk was obvious, kids would approach it with caution and build up skills to get there. In contrast, a lot of injuries occur when ‘safe’ playgrounds have kids try to do things the equipment is not designed for, but because of the way they are made don’t appear to be dangerous as they actually are. Giving kids the ability to assess risk accurately, and develop the skill to take that risk, is the important part.”

Buzz Feed Brain

A phenomenon where you skim online articles instead of reading them, secretly hoping your next intellectual breakthrough is just a thumb-scroll away.


The Ice Cream Principle

Tell 10 people to get ice cream.

If they have to agree on a flavor, they’ll pick chocolate or vanilla every time. Groups of people don’t agree on what’s cool or interesting. They agree on what’s easy.”Consensus” is just another way of saying average.


Law Salaries

Starting salaries of law school graduates follow a bi-model distribution, where many people have a starting salary of $40,000 – $60,000 per year. On the other hand, there’s a large group of people who make ~$160,000.


Knife Theory of Hiring

When you first start a company, you need Swiss Army Knife people who can do a little bit of everything.

Once your company gets big, you need a bunch of kitchen knife people who do one thing very, very well.


The Mind of a Writer

This sculpture of Franz Kafka represents how ideas turn in a writer’s multi-layered mind.


Why People Homeschool

By far and away, the top reason parents choose homeschooling is because they’re concerned about the environment of the traditional schools they would send their kids to.

Towards the top of the list, other reasons include dissatisfaction with academic instruction and wanting to give their kids a religious education.


Facebook Estimates

Facebook users overestimate the time they spend on the app but underestimate the number of times they open it every day.

As Nathan Taylor observed, this is a fascinating behavioral bias.


Logistics Costs
The average trucking cost per mile is $1.82. A friend who is writing a paper on the impacts of autonomous driving shared this with me, and she makes the case that self-driving electronic trucks will change these percentages significantly.
Self-driving trucks would bring down driver wages and fuel costs in particular. Since they have fewer moving parts and don’t need oil changes, electronic cars are easier to maintain and service. I want to return to this chart in a decade to see how the percentages have changed.Also, if you’re interested in trucking costs, I recommend this video from Wendover Productions.


Apple and Pop Culture

Apple doesn’t let villains use iPhones in movies. As Knives Out director Rian Johnson said: “Apple, they let you use iPhones in movies but, and this is very pivotal if you’re ever watching a mystery movie, bad guys cannot have iPhones on camera… Every single filmmaker who has a bad guy in their movie that’s supposed to be a secret wants to murder me right now.”

It seems to be a new policy, though. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood was the villain and he carried an iPhone. So if you’re watching a new movie and somebody has an iPhone, they’re not the bad guy. Oops, was that a spoiler alert?


How the Enlightenment Impacted Judaism

The Enlightenment simultaneously helped and hurt Jews in France. It helped them because public law told people to treat everybody equally, which gave Jews civil rights. But it hurt them because the reason-driven Enlightenment mindset challenged the Jewish idea that they were the “chosen people.”

Count Clermont-Tonnerre described the circumstances in 1789: “One must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation but one must give them everything as individuals; they must become citizens.”In France, Jews were granted full rights as citizens. But they simultaneously abandoned their collective distinctiveness and autonomy.


The Future of Architecture

I don’t know what the future of architecture looks like, but it should be inspired by Bahá’í temples.

In order, these images are from America, Chile, India, and Papua New Guinea.


How Elon Musk Motivates People

Compared with other CEOs, Elon Musk expects work to be done on short time scales. One Friday, he visited SpaceX headquarters where he asked the staff how long it would take to remove cars from the parking lot and start digging a hole for the Boring Company tunnel.
Two weeks, they said.

Elon was skeptical. After gathering information, he said: “Let’s get started today and see what’s the biggest hole we can dig between now and Sunday afternoon, running 24 hours a day.”

Three hours later, the cars were gone and there was a hole in the ground.


Men and Beards

Men are more likely to wear beards in countries where they have to compete with each other for women. 

The data comes from the Pew Research Center, which collected information from 14,032 men in 25 countries. The authors conclude that beards make men look more masculine, which helps them with sexual selection, but the authors couldn’t confirm if beards contributed to higher reproductive success.


Genesis of the Tour de France

The most important race in the cycling world was born out of financial desperation. It was created by a French newspaper called L’Auto around the turn of the 20th century. The staff was tasked with finding ways to increase circulation and one 26-year-old sportswriter suggested hosting the biggest cycling race in the country’s history.The first race occurred in 1903 and was an instant hit. The race tripled L’Auto’s circulation from 25,000 – 65,000 newspapers per day, and over the next three decades, the newspaper saw a 34x increase.


How Cambridge and Oxford Secured Monopolies

By the year 1500, more than 100 universities were founded in Europe. But between the 1300s and 1820, no new universities were established in England.

None. Zero.

In 1320, Oxford and Cambridge leveraged their early success to petition King Edward III to block the formation of new universities within England. At the same time, they encouraged alumni not to give lectures outside of the two campuses. With the policy in place, both universities secured a 500-year head-start where they built reputations and networks of influence in England.


A Story about Picasso

Picasso was once sitting in a park. A woman saw him and asked if he could draw her a portrait.

Picasso agreed, finished it, handed it to her, and said: “That’ll be $5,000.”

The woman was confused: “But it only took you 5 minutes.”Picasso said: “No, it took me my whole life.”


The Wisdom of Small Talk

Small talk builds relationships because it says “I care more about you than being productive.”


Toyota’s Decision-Making

Toyota has a decision-making principle called “gemba.” Instead of depending on hierarchy, the people who are closest to what’s happening make decisions. Toyota believes that the more hands-on knowledge a decision-maker has, the better their decision will be.

It comes from the Japanese word genchi genbutsu, which translates to “go and see.”


Rafaelle Monti’s Statues

Making marble look transparent is a superhuman art form.


Elite Overproduction

Peter Turchin is one of the most interesting sociologists I’ve come across. He blames “elite overproduction” for many of America’s challenges and argues that there’s a surplus of smart young Americans fighting for admission to elite colleges and graduates fighting for the same job slots. All that competition, he says, causes society to fracture and is one of the chief causes of political instability.

In both cases, the number of people fighting for admission is rising much faster than the number of available slots. Thus, the prices of important cultural industries such as schooling and housing are being bid up.


How the Amish Choose Technology

The Amish want technologies that direct their attention to the community, and second, they don’t want to serve technology so they make technology serve them. To decide, they ask two questions:

1) Will this technology strengthen my family?

2) Will this technology strengthen our community?

The Amish also have “early adopters” who can use new technologies with permission. Based on how that person behaves, the community decides how they want to use the technology.


Two Sides of Light in Every Room

When choosing a living space, pick the room where the light shines from two sides.

I first learned this idea from Christopher Alexander in The Timeless Way of Building, which is one of my all-time favorite books. Light that comes from multiple directions feels more natural, which gives a space life. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, at least one of those windows should face South so you can maximize sunlight.

Alexander writes: “This pattern, perhaps more than any other single pattern, determines the success or failure of a room. The arrangement of daylight in a room, and the presence of windows on two sides, is fundamental. If you build a room with light on one side only, you can be almost certain that you are wasting your money. People will stay out of that room if they can possibly avoid it.”If you don’t have windows from two sides, you can replicate the effect by hanging a mirror on the wall opposite of where the sun shines.


Arete

The Greek standard for moral virtue, which translates to “excellence of any kind.” In the Homeric poems, Arete is associated with bravery and effectiveness.

Originally, in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the word applied to quieter virtues like justice and self-restraint. But that changed with Aristotle, who expanded the term. Eventually, Arete began to encompass excellence in mind, body, and soul.

You’ll notice that Arete has the same root as aristos, which is where the word aristocrat comes from.


Why We Dream

Traditionally, sleep researchers have said that dreaming is a way of replaying moments from our waking life. Though our “learning neurons” fire more during sleep, new research indicates that the theory falls short for two reasons: (1) replay is more associated with non-REM sleep than REM sleep, where the most intense narrative dreams happen, and (2) researchers can’t confirm that memories are actually being replayed.

Most of the time, people dream about experiences that haven’t happened. Dreaming memories is so rare that it’s an indicator of PTSD. Dreaming is more like deep learning. Instead of trying to remember a specific moment instantly, we try to generalize our learnings to be broadly applicable. Our brains don’t focus on specific experiences because that’d be a form of over-fitting, where we lean too much from a specific experience instead of generalizable lessons from it.

In the words of Michael Mayer: “The space of possibilities is wider than our experience set. Perhaps the purpose of dreams is to combine our experiences in novel ways to generate a wider training set for the mind.”You can’t randomize your experiences while you’re awake, so according to this theory, dreams give us self-generated “corrupted” inputs so we can generalize learning and improve performance in waking life.


Pre-Elevator Life

From one of my favorite Twitter accounts: “Before elevators, the classic 5+2 Parisian apartment house looked much the same as good apartment buildings have done since the days of ancient Rome. Far more economically diverse than today: shops on ground floor, the rich on top of that, then middle class, at top, working class.

Rich people weren’t interested in walking up all those stairs, so the higher you got in the house, the smaller and cheaper the apartments got. Today we have elevators, so these houses are more economically homogenous than they used to be, often the top floor is the most expensive.”


Cover Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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