Wilbur Wright, Elon Musk, and bullies

According to John Lanchester

One very odd thing is a parallel to do with bullies: Musk was set on and beaten half to death by a gang of thugs at his school in Johannesburg; Wilbur Wright was attacked so badly at the age of 18 – beaten with a hockey stick – that he took years to recover from his injuries and missed a college education as a result. His assailant, Oliver Crook Haugh, went on to become a notorious serial killer. Something about these very bright young men set off the bullies’ hatred for difference.


Thoughts are things that happen (vs. the ’emotion of authorship’)

According to Galen Strawson in “I am not a story

The tendency to attribute control to self is, as the American social psychologist Dan Wegner says, a personality trait, possessed by some and not others. There’s an experimentally well-attested distinction between human beings who have what he calls the ‘emotion of authorship’ with respect to their thoughts, and those who, like myself, have no such emotion, and feel that their thoughts are things that just happen.


Consider also the Michael Leyton quote in “Active Seeing

The revolutionary action of the painting, while being central to its meaning for the viewer, as well as its meaning for modern art, was an intensely personal experience for Picasso himself. During this period, Picasso seems to have turned inward and become particularly concerned with his own creativity. That is, not only was he engrossed in the products of his creativity, but he was deeply pre-occupied with, and mystified by, the creativity itself.

To win the prize, take risks

According to 2014 Nobel-prize physicist Shuji Nakamura, when asked “Why did you succeed with the blue LED when others failed?”

Nobody thought that gallium nitride would work. So it was a really crazy thing to pick gallium nitride. Luckily, it worked. The most important thing in science and technology is to take risks, like gambling in a way.

According to Nathaniel Branden in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem

That which we call “genius” has a great deal to do with independence, courage, and daring — a great deal to do with nerve. This is one reason we admire it. In the literal sense, such “nerve” cannot be taught; but we can support the process by which it is learned. If human happiness, well-being, and progress are our goals, it is a trait we must strive to nurture — in our child-rearing practices, in our schools, in our organizations, and first of all in ourselves.


A brain is never at rest — consciousness consumes only 5% extra energy

According to “The Brain’s Dark Energy” by Marcus E. Raichle, neuroimaging shows that a human brain is always very actively messaging, even when daydreaming, asleep or anesthetized, and that the marginal energy consumption for consciousness is only 5%.

According to Lisa M. Krieger, interviewing physicist Andrei Linde

This most extraordinary of ideas was conceived in the most ordinary of circumstances. Linde was lying in bed, sick, at his home in Moscow, during a miserable winter. And his international intellectual life was in limbo, because publication of a paper had been suspended a year during the turbulence at the end of Soviet rule.

“I was living in this state of depression. I was in my bed and unable to do anything,” he said. Then came a sudden invitation to visit Italy — but he had to submit a paper overnight.

“I held my head … What can I do? What can I do?” he recalled thinking, with less than an hour to write. “And suddenly, I had the theory of eternally expanding inflationary universes, unceasingly producing new universes,” of which ours is but one of many.

“It was just pure, from nowhere,” he said.

See also “Keep thinking, think of it everyday“.

Making the best of a bad interruption

According to Edwin Bliss

Amount of time spent on a project is not what counts: it’s the amount of uninterrupted time.


One of the most prolific of modern novelists was […] Georges Simeon. [His] method was to cut himself off completely from the outside world while working on a book: no phone calls, no visitors, no newspaper, no mail; living, as he said, ‘like a monk’. After about eleven days of total immersion in his writing he would emerge with another best-selling novel.

Few of us would carry concentration to that extreme – but what if we did, who knows what we might accomplish.

Stephen B. Jenkins wrote an excellent article (with a boring title) called “Concerning Interruptions” on the huge cost of interruptions to the productivity of computer programmers and gave practical advice on how to reduce that cost. (Strongly recommended read.)

For the historical context, a good source is Christine Rosen’s “The Myth of Multitasking“.

Making the best of a bad interruption

On longer time scales, when you must drop something for a while, it’s important, before doing so, to leave behind enough context for yourself to swap it back in. Write down some organized notes about where you were, what still needed to be done, etc. Keeping a log can be a big help, too, but it’s not a substitute for a high-level summary before suspending the task.

(For programming in particular, when you consider that you will need to revisit most computer code someday in the future, this is also a selfish reason to build a legacy of great comments and documentation.)

A good mental model for suspending a task is to leave behind the sort of information that you would need to hand it off to another person to finish.

Pretend that you are handing off the task to another person and you will be going away on a long vacation and unavailable to answer further questions, because when you come back to the task you will effectively be that other person.

Swapping in a new context is very expensive. Saving your state well when you suspend is actually much, much cheaper overall, assuming that you’ll need to come back to the task eventually.

This is one reason it’s important to write your to-do list at the end of the working day, instead of waiting until the start of the next working day.

It’s not that the computer is slow, it’s that it’s doing something else

Cognitive capacity is a scarce resource. The struggle of poverty drains it away like a regressive tax. According to Sendhil Mullainathan

Our results suggest that when you’re poor, money is not the only thing in short supply. Cognitive capacity is also stretched thin. That’s not to say that poor people are less intelligent than others. What we show is that the same person experiencing poverty suffers a cognitive deficit as opposed to when they’re not experiencing poverty. It’s also wrong to suggest that someone’s cognitive capacity has gotten smaller because they’re poor. In fact, what happens is that your effective capacity gets smaller, because you have all these other things on your mind, you have less mind to give to everything else.

Imagine you’re sitting in front of a computer, and it’s just incredibly slow. But then you realize that it’s working in the background to play a huge video that’s downloading. It’s not that the computer is slow, it’s that it’s doing something else, so it seems slow to you. I think that’s the heart of what we’re trying to say.

But what if the poor are only the most outrageous example of such societal intelligence wasting? Which video is your own, more fortunate, brain downloading right now? What could you achieve if you could just kill that background process somehow?

Update: Shalom in the comments gave another great example of misfortune forcibly taking over your mental resources.

People with severe health problems in the family are also hard-pressed to concentrate on constructive activities.

See also “How multitasking messes with your brain” and “Keep thinking, think of it everyday“.

Aside: How can we break out of the consensus trance and stop brooding cuckoo eggs?

The paradox of values — “We shape ourselves like clay from someone else’s dream.”

According to John Wareham in The Anatomy of a Great Executive (pp. 41-42)

The Paradox of Values. Most people cherish what they imagine to be an almost sacred right to hold and live by a system of values that springs from invalid and conflicting beliefs. They do so, believing that to live in accordance with one’s beliefs bestows integrity, gives meaning to life, and makes us free. The exact opposite, however, is more likely to be the case. People are mostly prisoners trapped within the cage of their own beliefs, yet unaware of any restraint.

He also says

The earlier our values are acquired, the greater their power. Early values become the voice of conscience.

According to Danny Elfman

We shape ourselves like clay from someone else’s dream.

Surveillance vs. morality

A beautiful essay by Emrys Westacott concludes

Ultimately, the ideal college is one in which every student is genuinely interested in learning and needs neither extrinsic motivators to encourage study, nor surveillance to deter cheating. Ultimately, the ideal society is one in which, if taxes are necessary, everyone pays them as freely and cheerfully as they pay their dues to some club of which they are devoted members – where citizen and state can trust each other perfectly. We know our present society is a long way from such ideals, yet we should be wary of practices that take us ever further from them. One of the goals of moral education is to cultivate a conscience – the little voice inside telling us that we should do what is right because it is right. As surveillance becomes increasingly ubiquitous, however, the chances are reduced that conscience will ever be anything more than the little voice inside telling us that someone, somewhere, may be watching.

I’ve often thought about how heavily I lean on the crutch of vanity, simply to exercise and eat right. And I’ve wondered, “How would it change me if everyone could read my mind?” Not for the better.

Soon some big organizations will be able to read our minds. According to an old USA radio drama series, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Soon we will really have such a Shadow.

The anti-moral, anti-creative force of groupthink will get more intense.

According to George Dyson

The ultimate goal of signals intelligence and analysis is to learn not only what is being said, and what is being done, but what is being thought. With the proliferation of search engines that directly track the links between individual human minds and the words, images, and ideas that both characterize and increasingly constitute their thoughts, this goal appears within reach at last. “But, how can the machine know what I think?” you ask. It does not need to know what you think — no more than one person ever really knows what another person thinks. A reasonable guess at what you are thinking is good enough.


The United States has established a coordinated system that links suspect individuals (only foreigners, of course, but that definition becomes fuzzy at times) to dangerous ideas, and, if the links and suspicions are strong enough, our drone fleet, deployed ever more widely, is authorized to execute a strike. This is only a primitive first step toward something else. Why kill possibly dangerous individuals (and the inevitable innocent bystanders) when it will soon become technically irresistible to exterminate the dangerous ideas themselves?

There is one problem — and it is the Decision Problem once again. It will never be entirely possible to systematically distinguish truly dangerous ideas from good ones that appear suspicious, without trying them out. Any formal system that is granted (or assumes) the absolute power to protect itself against dangerous ideas will of necessity also be defensive against original and creative thoughts. And, for both human beings individually and for human society collectively, that will be our loss. This is the fatal flaw in the ideal of a security state.

According to Tim Harford in Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

It isn’t right to expect a Mario Capecchi to risk his career on a life-saving idea because the rest of don’t want to take a chance.


The moral of the story is not that we should admire stubborn geniuses, although we should. It is that we shouldn’t require stubbornness as a quality in our geniuses. How many vital scientific or technological advances have foundered, not because their developers lacked insight, but because they simply didn’t have Mario Capecchi’s extraordinarily defiant character?


Jack Galvin also taught Petraeus that it is not enough to tolerate dissent: sometimes you have to demand it.

Distinguishing to-do lists from could-do lists

Following up to “Don’t write your to-do list at the start of the day, write it at the end of the day“, “You are never going to get caught up“, and “What’s the #1 thing you should be doing right now?“.

To keep yourself focused on your current #1 priority, it’s useful to allow an outlet for ideas and anxieties that bubble up to your consciousness while working on your current #1.

Keep a “could-do” list nearby, and add items to it as they occur to you. For example, you could use the notepad on a mobile phone — in meetings, on walks, at dinner. It only takes a few moments, and after the idea is safely stored away, you can forget about it for a while and continue to attend to the main event.

Don’t confuse this with your “to-do list”, which is a short list of commitments that you’re going to do in the next 24 hours.

Your “could-do list” is the ore you pan for “to-do” gold.