Syzygy #6: piddling around, forecasting the future, & mimetics
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Syzygy #6: piddling around, forecasting the future, & mimetics

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Piddling around

Physicist Richard Feynman was gifted in many ways, but for me his two most captivating qualities were his child-like curiosity and his simplicity.

In his lectures, Feynman demonstrated a world class ability to craft far-reaching and mind-bending concepts about the secrets of the universe into the most seemingly simple, every day way.

He was also always looking for fun and challenges in life.

"I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate.
I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate—two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?”
I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one."

Feynman had no reason for doing this aside from his own amusement.

But because his interest was piqued, he had the best kind of motivation to start exploring - with no specific end goal in mind.

His motivation was the process of discovery.

"I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is . . .” and I showed him the accelerations.
He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?”
“Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked."

Even when asked 'why?', Feynman wasn't deterred.

He carried on because it was his passion and because he found it fun.

He knew that following his interest and passion would lead to a fulfilling result - even if others didn't see it that way.

Feynman always made sure there was an element of play in his work, and that made for spectacular results.

Not only was he a physicist, he sold drawings, played drums on the streets of Brazil and became a world class lock-picker.

When learning feels like play, it's fun. And, it can lead to tremendous results.

"It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was.
The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate."

If we can add elements of play into our daily life and work, everything will be all the better for it.

Want to learn more about Feynman? I can recommend 'Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman'.

Little big ideas: Mimetics

People assume there's a straight line between them and what they desire. Fans of mimetic theory say actually no, that's not the case.

According to mimetics, objects of desire like a car or a new shirt are not objective. You don't like the shirt just because of the way it looks. You like it because of how others see it. The others are the 'models' illustrated above.  

Luke Burgis is a mimetic theory guru and explains how this works:

Models of desire—those people who we look to for guidance about what to want (usually without knowing it)—literally transfigure objects before our eyes.
Say you walk into a consignment store with a friend and see racks filled with hundreds of shirts. Nothing jumps out at you. But the moment your friend becomes enamored with one specific shirt, it’s no longer a shirt on a rack. It’s now the shirt that your friend Molly chose—the Molly who, by the way, is an assistant costume designer on the sets of major films.
The moment she starts ogling one shirt, she sets it apart. It’s a different shirt than it was five seconds earlier, before she started wanting it.

It has implications when we think about how we communicate to people, how we sell messages, and indeed how they are packaged.

It also led me down a rabbit hole... More later.

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

Authors Tetlock and Gardner offer a thoroughly readable and eye-opening introduction into how people can become superforecasters, and how we can and should calibrate our understanding of the complexity happening around us.

A Superforecaster is someone who is super consistent at forecasting what might happen next in the world.

They are individuals whose forecasts are consistently more accurate than the general public or experts.

In 'Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction', we learn how normal, albeit very smart, folk were able to out-predict big agencies like the CIA.

And it's a skill you can learn.

Below are some key takeaways, but do read my book notes for much more on this excellent book.

Reduce System-1 thinking


“A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

Most people say $0.10. It seems obvious and our brains like quite shortcuts. That's System-1 thinking.

But by stopping and asking 'what could convince me I'm wrong' make you take a harder look at your ideas. That's System 2 thinking.

Work in probabilities

We love certainties, but life is chaotic. It's often impossible to be certain about anything.

In fact, we should beware of people who are certain.

Take TV experts and pundits.

Data shows that the more famous an expert is, the less accurate they are.

Forecasters use probabilities to inform the likelihood of something happening. This is a very successful way of calibrating answers to complex questions.

Aggregating information

Connecting lots of little pieces of information together can form a more accurate picture of what's happening.

In 1906 the legendary British scientist Sir Francis Galton went to a fair and asked 100s of people to guess the weight of an ox.

Their average guess—their collective judgment—was 1,197 pounds, one pound short of the correct answer, 1,198 pounds.

This is 'the wisdom of crowds'. Aggregating the judgment of many consistently beats the accuracy of the average member of the group

Break down questions

Q: ‘How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?’

Seems impossible, right?

Here's what you would look for:

1. The number of pianos in Chicago

2. How often pianos are tuned each year

3. How long it takes to tune a piano

4. How many hours a year the average piano tuner works

Even if we don't have all the answers, by breaking down the question, we can better separate the knowable and the unknowable.

Add perspective

For superforecasters, beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.

Research has shown that by merely asking people to assume their judgement is wrong and to seriously consider why, the accuracy of a prediction is greatly improved.

This was based on my recent Twitter thread.

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