Adam Smith On The Stoics

Found this quote on HN news thread on Stoicism. I’m a big fan of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius; everyone can benefit from them and this is a good summary of their thesis.

Quote is from Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (Adam Smith is also worth a read!):

Human life the Stoics appear to have considered as a game of great skill; in which, however, there was a mixture of chance […] In such games the stake is commonly a trifle, and the whole pleasure of the game arises from playing well, from playing fairly, and playing skilfully. If notwithstanding all his skill, however, the good player should, by the influence of chance, happen to lose, the loss ought to be a matter, rather of merriment, than of serious sorrow. He has made no false stroke; he has done nothing which he ought to be ashamed of; he has enjoyed completely the whole pleasure of the game. […]

Our only anxious concern ought to be, not about the stake, but about the proper method of playing. If we placed our happiness in winning the stake, we placed it in what depended upon causes beyond our power, and out of our direction. We necessarily exposed ourselves to perpetual fear and uneasiness, and frequently to grievous and mortifying disappointments. If we placed it in playing well, in playing fairly, in playing wisely and skilfully; in the propriety of our own conduct in short; we placed it in what, by proper discipline, education, and attention, might be altogether in our own power, and under our own direction. Our happiness was perfectly secure, and beyond the reach of fortune.

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Books

I find there’s something about learning from a physical object (with volume, texture, scent) that makes things “click” better in my head; and I doubt I’m an oddity in this respect — the root of this effect may be more biological than preferential: For example, when recalling some piece of information, often I can remember where — within some textbook I read half a decade ago — the subject is explained. And I do mean, a literal, physical “where”: a page, (a thing,) which at all times can be found tucked somewhere within a physical stack of bound paper, which I can touch and feel; I might even remember where I was sitting (or standing, or lying), as I held that particular book, open at that particular page, when I studied the subject, and what it felt like to the touch, and how the lighting in the room fell on the paper; maybe I jotted some note on the margin, maybe I spilled tea on the pages before, giving that “where” its own unique irregular texture and color — all of which my brain will forever associate with that information. Digital can’t do any of that.

In this sense, there is nothing left to improve about the physical book.

On the other hand, if once I open this book I find myself confused, (maybe because the book was written by a guy named named Spivak, who does not like to explain what happens in between those little “=” symbols,) I can’t press on anything and expect it to expand magically and reveal more detail. It’s at this point that I will turn to my laptop, and search for more information, maybe even ask a stranger half a world away, or watch an interactive video. My copy of “Calculus on Manifolds” can’t do any of that.

So even though ebooks do offer some perks, in many ways the printed book remains superior. I think it’s a safe bet that books aren’t going anywhere. Radio did not replace print, TV did not replace radio. (Interactive did not replace passive; print did not replace the spoken word.) Each of these media is better suited for different tasks.

(I also still find that the best way to solve a problem (even a programming problem), is with pen and paper. Physically jotting down an idea beats pressing buttons while staring at an obnoxious, headache-inducing glowing screen any time (which I try to avoid as much as possible, even as a software developer). To me flipping pages still beats searching and clicking — what a dreadful user experience is a digital textbook!)

The Diminishing Returns of Focusing on the Right Thing

There was a recent thread on Hacker News about the search for the “cure for aging”:

The thought has recently occurred to me that we should all be working on the “aging problem”, until it’s solved, and then spending all our extra time on other pursuits. — b_emery

I’m sure you’ve heard (or expressed) a similar sentiment about other pressing Big Problems.

After all, why should we spend millions in tax dollars funding “useless”, or at the very least, non-vital research, when there are real problems to be solved? Why do we pay pure mathematicians to dream up infinite-dimensional spheres and Hilbert spaces, when that money could be better spent training engineers to build next-generation sustainable transportation?

This line of thinking may be noble in principle (“Let’s prioritize research that focuses on finding solutions to our most urgent real-world problems, instead of wasting resources on useless/unprofitable endeavours”), but it tends to lead to stagnation, not innovation.

Focusing on big problems is important, but there are diminishing returns to focusing on the right thing, possibly even negative returns. That is, focusing too much on solutions makes us less likely to find them.

While, improvements and advancements come from focused research, paradigm-shifting discoveries tend to come from unexpected places; often based on information that is initially discarded as not useful, even by experts.

By taking away funding from “useless” pursuits (like pure maths, arts, theoretical research) and focussing solely on the bottom line (“real-world problems”, what is profitable, what is immediately useful), we make great advancements less likely, not more.

This is why we can’t simply pour infinite money into “Finding the cure for x” and expect results; we can’t pour infinite money on engineers, while defunding basic research, and expect innovation.

Reminds me of the Louie bit where David Lynch instructs Louie to “Be funny: 3… 2… 1… Go”. — Well, that’s not how funny work. Achieving that level of mastery of his craft is 90% non-funny related activities (life experiences, personal growth, self-reflection etc.), and 10% actually focusing on “being funny” in itself.

What if the key to unlocking “disease x” comes from unrelated research in metabolism, what if the techniques needed to sort through the data come from an applied mathematician investigating economic trends? What if the technology required to model the problem in order to even ask the right question in the first place is developed by computer scientists modelling data for a social network? There’s just no way to know but to explore.