On Janitors and Doctors of Philosophy

Did you know that in the United States, there are 5,000 janitors who hold a PhD? I didn’t know either until I stumbled on this post on Quora. The most popular response comes from Joseph Wang, PhD, who posits two credible explanations:

3) I’ve known people that have worked as janitors, and they say it’s an easy job. You get paid eight hours of wages for work that usually only takes two or three, and you spend the rest of the night just chatting. You work in the middle of the night so your manager isn’t going to be looking over your shoulder, and as long as everything is clean the next morning, no one cares how many hours you “really” worked.

4) You can do janitorial work and theoretical physics at the same time. You are pushing a broom, you can think about quantum field theory. This is *not* true for a lot of other jobs. You can’t think about QFT while taking orders at McDonalds, selling shoes, flipping burgers, or driving a cab. If the janitor has a blank vacant look, no one cares, whereas being absent-minded while dealing with hot cooking oil or customers can get you fired or cause a fire.

On Masters in Old Age, Loving the Work, and Never Retiring

In a remarkable piece in The New York Times, Lewis H. Lapham (founder of Lapham’s Quarterly), reflects on his work ethic and experiencing failure:

I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.

The context of the piece then goes on to short interviews with influential individuals in their 80s and 90s.

Here is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 81:

Q: What has been the most surprising thing for you about moving into your 80s?

A: Nothing surprised me. But I’ve learned two things. One is to seek ever more the joys of being alive, because who knows how much longer I will be living? At my age, one must take things day by day. I have been asked again and again, “How long are you going to stay there?” I make that decision year by year. The minute I sense I am beginning to slip, I will go. There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt. I appreciate that I have had as long as I have. . . . It’s a sense reminiscent of the poem ‘‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.’’

On the persistence of Carmen Herrera, age 99, who sold her first painting at age 89:

Q: You painted for decades, but didn’t sell your work until just 10 years ago. What kept you going?

I do it because I have to. I have my ideas. I do my drawings. I make my paintings. It’s my love of the straight line that keeps me going. This has not changed.

Q: What was your reaction when you sold your first painting at 89?

I was never bitter. I always wished others well. I thought maybe the market would be corrupting. Without commercial success you can do what you want to do. There is freedom to be working alone. But, oh, when my work began to sell! I thought, Damn it, it’s about time!

Christopher Plummer, actor, age 84 on loving the work you do and never retiring:

Q: I keep hearing that staying in shape is crucial past a certain age. Anything else?

A: Yes. And so is doing the work. It uplifts you. The idea that you’re doing what you love. It’s very important. It’s very sad that most people in the world are not happy with their lot or with their jobs and they can’t wait to retire. And when they retire, it’s like death. . . . They sit at home and watch the television. And that is death. I think you’ve got to continue. We never retire. We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing. We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.

I really appreciated the quote from The Once and Future King, quoted in the piece, on always learning:

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

The whole piece is a must read and worth the click for the photographs as well.

Building the Largest Ship in the World


The Maersk Triple E is the largest ship ever built. Photographer Alastair Philip Wiper was commissioned to photograph how the ship is being built, and shares his experience on his blog:

The Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) shipyard in South Korea is the second largest shipbuilder in the world and one of the “Big Three” shipyards of South Korea, along with the Hyundai and Samsung shipyards. The shipyard, about an hour from Busan in the south of the country, employs about 46,000 people, and could reasonably be described as the worlds biggest Legoland. Smiling workers cycle around the huge shipyard as massive, abstractly over proportioned chunks of ships are craned around and set into place: the Triple E is just one small part of the output of the shipyard, as around 100 other vessels including oil rigs are in various stages of completion at the any time. The man in charge of delivering the Triple E’s for Maersk is Søren Arnberg, and the Matz Maersk is the last ship he is delivering before his retirement. Søren started his career with Maersk as an engineer in 1976 and has travelled the world since, contributing to the construction of hundreds of ships. Søren is hard-boiled of Dane with a glint in his eye and a dry sense of humor, who is not impressed by much.”It’s just another container vessel, it’s just a bit bigger” he says. “I’ve never been in a project with so much focus. Discovery Channel even made 6 episodes about it. It’s just a ship.” Søren, who is one of the stars of the Discovery Channel series, still hasn’t even watched it. “What are you going to do when you get home?” I ask. “Ask my new boss” he replies, referring to his wife.


Click here to see the original story (photo gallery) in Wired.

Sarah Marquis, Modern Day Ultra Adventurer

The New York Times has an incredible profile of Sarah Marquis, an uber-adventurer who’s walked more than 10,000 miles, solo:

But then there’s Sarah Marquis, who perhaps should be seen as an explorer like Scott, born in the wrong age. She is 42 and Swiss, and has spent three of the past four years walking about 10,000 miles by herself, from Siberia through the Gobi Desert, China, Laos and Thailand, then taking a cargo boat to Brisbane, Australia, and walking across that continent. Along the way, like Scott, she has starved, she has frozen, she has (wo)man-hauled. She has pushed herself at great physical cost to places she wanted to love but ended up feeling, as Scott wrote of the South Pole in his journal: “Great God! This is an awful place.” Despite planning a ludicrous trip, and dying on it, Scott became beloved and, somewhat improbably, hugely respected. Marquis, meanwhile, can be confounding. “You tell people what you’re doing, and they say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Marquis told me. “It’s never: ‘Cool project, Sarah! Go for it.’ ” Perhaps this is because the territory Marquis explores is really internal — the nature of fear, the limits of stamina and self-reliance and the meaning of traveling in nature as a female human animal, alone.

I’ve read before about the human ability to become hyper-aware in severely stressed environments, but this is on another level:

Eventually, however, Marquis passed out of Mongol territory. The washing-machine cycle ended. Her body changed, and her mind changed, too. Her senses sharpened to the point that she could smell shampoo on a tourist’s hair from a mile away. “One day you walk 12 hours, and you don’t feel pain,” Marquis said. The past and present telescope down to an all-consuming now. “There is no before or after. The intellect doesn’t drive you anymore. It doesn’t exist anymore. You become what nature needs you to be: this wild thing.”

Worth clicking through for the read and the embedded videos.

State of the Photoblog Industry, Photo Friday Edition

I was curious about the state of the photoblog industry recently, and was interested to find out what kind of people still post on an active basis on their blogs. Some of my favorite photobloggers over the years are still publishing (albeit very infrequently), while others have quit photoblogging altogether (yours truly included).

As a fan of data, I went to the Photo Friday website and decided to see how many people are entering the Photo Friday contest these days. I pulled the data into Excel and plotted the number of entries into the contest since the contest’s inception in 2002 to present (September 2014). The plot appears below, with the red line highlighting a 14-week moving average in number of entries to the contest:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.41.00 PM


A few observations:

  1. Peak number of entries to the Photo Friday contest occurred between 2004 and 2006, when an average of more than six hundred entries were submitted on a consistent weekly basis.
  2. The number of entries to Photo Friday contest has been on a gradual decline since late 2008, with no rebound in sight.
  3. There has not been a single week in 2014 in which more than 200 entries were submitted to the Photo Friday contest. By contrast, there was not a single week from February 2004 until April 2009 where fewer than 200 entries were submitted to the Photo Friday challenge.
  4. If an extrapolation can be made, the last year in which more than 100 entries would have been submitted to the Photo Friday contest  would be in 2014.

One of my other, biased proxies regarding the state of the photoblogs? When one of the best photoblog out there, Daily Dose of Imagery, decided to call it quits on July 4, 2013—after ten years of daily photoblogging.

On Sberbank and Cat Lending

In order to capitalize on the mortgage boom in the country, the Russian Bank Sberbank is offering a cat for free to those who get a mortgage. There’s a catch though: the cat is limited to two hours for new homeowners. The Moscow Times reports:

The bank is offering a choice of 10 cats to mortgage-buyers, who will get the pet brought to their door by a new delivery service. According to a special website, KotoService.ru, the felines on offer include a ginger cat called “Apricot” and a hairless cat known as “Kuzya.”

The gimmick appears to be an attempt to maximize profits from Russia’s mortgage lending boom as people watch their savings lose value amid a sliding ruble and rising interest rates.

Here’s the video from Sberbank:

The whole reason for the gimmick? Capitalizing on the superstition that maintains that it is good luck if a cat is the first to enter a new home.

(via Foreign Policy)

Book Review: Ian Leslie’s Curious—The Desire To Know and Why Your Future Depends on It

Everyone is born curious. But only a proportion of the human population retains the habits of exploring, learning, and discovering as they grow older. So why are so many of us allowing our curiosity to wane, when there is evidence that those who are curious tend to be more creative, more intelligent, and more successful?

In Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie makes a compelling case for the cultivation of our “desire to know.” I’ve had the chance to read the book in advance of its publication date (full disclosure: I received a complimentary advance copy of the book from Basic Books, the publisher of Curious), and this review provides my impressions of the book and highlights some notable passages.

The book is divided into three parts: How Curiosity Works, The Curiosity Divide, and Staying Curious. In the introduction to the book, the case is made for why being curious is vital:

The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests, who have a strong, intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems, and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times, these individuals, for their interests and enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part, they will be worth the difficulty.

 Another assessment of what this book is about is presented in the introduction: 

If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of color, interest, and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in creative life. While barely noticing it, you’ll become a little duller, a little dimmer. You may not think it could happen to you, but it can. It can happen to any of us. To stop it from happening, you need to understand what feeds curiosity and what starves it. That’s what this book is about.

Something worth pondering over:

Curiosity is contagious. So is incuriosity.

Something that caught my attention in Part I of the book was the evolutionary of advantage of becoming or staying curious. Here, Leslie cites the research of Stephen Kaplan, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan:

The more information about her environment a human acquired, the more likely she would be to survive and pass on her genes. Gathering that knowledge meant venturing out into the unknown, to spot new sources of water or edible plants. But doing so meant risking one’s survival; you might become vulnerable to predators or get lost. The individuals more likely to survive would have been those adept at striking a balance between knowledge gathering and self-preservation.

Perhaps as an incentive to take a few risks in the pursuit of new information, evolution tied the act of curiosity to pleasure. Leslie writes how the caudate nucleus, located deep within the human brain, is packed with neurons that traffic in dopamine. As the brain has evolved (from the evolutionary perspective), it seems to have bootstrapped the urge for intellectual investigation onto the same pathway as our primal pleasures (for sex or food). This research was done at California Institute of Technology by asking undergraduates questions whilst they were in the brain scanner. (I need to read this study in depth because Caltech undergrads are naturally some of the most curious individuals on the planet, so we have a potential selection bias at work here).

In a chapter titled “How Curiosity Begins,” Leslie points out how babies respond to curiosity:

Babbling, like pointing, is a sign of readiness to learn, and babies are also more likely to us it as such, if, rather than ignoring them, they try to answer whatever they think the baby’s unintelligible question might be. If a baby looks at an apple and says “Da da da!” and the adult says nothing, the baby not only fails to learn the name of that round greenish object, but also starts to think this whole babbling business might be a waste of time.

One interesting bit about curiosity: we don’t get allocated a fixed amount of it at birth. Instead, we inherit a mercurial quality that rises and falls throughout the day and throughout our lives. Leslie points out that an important input into the curiosity output is the behavior of people around us – if our curiosity is ignited, it grows; on the other hand, if our curiosity is squashed at a point in time, curiosity may wane over the long term.

In a chapter titled “Puzzles and Mysteries,” Leslie describes how curiosity may naturally wane as we grow older:

Computer scientists talk about the differences between exploring and exploiting—a system will learn more if it explores many possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most likely one. As babies grow into children and then into adults, they begin to do more exploiting of whatever knowledge they have acquired. As adults, however, we have a tendency to err too far toward exploitation—we become content to fall back on the stock of knowledge and mental habits we built up when we were young, rather than adding to or revising it. We get lazy.

The so-called curiosity zone is a function of surprise, knowledge, and confidence. Curiosity is highest when the violation of an expectation is more than tiny but less than enormous. When violations are minor, we are quick to ignore them. When they’re massive, we often refuse to acknowledge them we may be scared of what they imply. The less knowledge you have about something, the less likely you are to pursue getting to know it better. Alternatively, if you are an expert in a particular subject area, your capacity to stay very curious about the subject area may have piqued. The curiosity zone is a concave function, where maximum curiosity happens at the middle. Finally, it is important to have an environment that is conducive to curious thinking. Curiosity requires an edge of uncertainty to thrive; too much uncertainty, and it freezes.

A good anecdote is presented in the “Puzzles and Mysteries” chapter on why The Wire was such a great TV show:

One way of describing the achievement of the TV series The Wire was that it took a genre, the police procedural, which is conventionally based on puzzles, in the form of crimes that are solved each week, and turned it into a mystery—the mystery of Baltimore’s crime problem.

So while routine police work may classified as solving puzzles (with a definitive answer), The Wire, showcased it as more akin to a mystery – multilayered, shifting, nuanced (in Leslie’s words). The Wire, to this day, is in my top 3 all-time favourite TV shows, so I was glad to see its incorporation in the book.

What’s the one company that is doing everything it can to deprive you of the itch of curiosity? Answer: Google. Because according to Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, they are working toward the ambition of incorporating search into people’s brains. All information gaps will be closed. I don’t take as a black-and-white stand in that proliferation of Google will make more people incurious, but I do understand Leslie’s perspective. In general, if you were to ask someone “Is the Internet making us stupid or more intelligent,” Leslie’s response would be a simple “Yes.” He writes:

The Internet presents us with more opportunities to learn than ever before and also allows us not to bother. It is a boon to those with a desire to deepen their understanding of the world, and also to those who are only too glad not to have to make the effort…If you’re incurious—or, like most of us, a little lazy—then you will use the Internet to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.

Ian Leslie does a good job of assimilating related research into Curious. For instance, what matters in students are their character traits such as attitude toward learning and conscientiousness, as well as persistence, self-discipline, and what the psychologist Angela Duckworth termed “grit”—the ability to deal with failure, overcome setbacks, and focus on long-term goals. In a chapter titled “The Power of Questions,” Leslie quotes the former CEO of Dow Chemical, Mike Parker: 

A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. I have watched talented people—people with much higher IQs than mine—who have failed as leaders. They can talk brilliantly, with a great breadth of knowledge, but they’re not very good at asking questions. So while they know a lot at a high level, they don’t know what’s going on way down in the system. Sometimes they are afraid of asking questions, but what they don’t realize is that the dumbest questions can be very powerful. They can unlock a conversation.

In what I think is the most important chapter of the book, “The Importance of Knowing,” Leslie highlights the importance of epistemic knowledge, and provides evidence to debunk some of the “twenty-first century” mindset. Leslie presents three misapprehensions about learning, common to the supporters of “curiosity-driven” education:

  • Children don’t need teachers to instruct them. Those who think the natural curiosity of children is stifled by pedagogical instruction overlook something fundamental about human nature—as a species, we have always depended on the epistemic endowment of our elders and ancestors. As Leslie writes, every scientist stands on the shoulders of giants; every artist works within or against a tradition. The unusually long period for which children are dependent on adults is a clue that humans are designed to learn from others, rather than merely through their own explorations. Traditional teaching—the transmission of information from adults to children—is highly effective when skillfully executed. Citing the research of John Hattie, the three most powerful teacher factors (those that lead to student success) are feedback, quality of instruction, and direct instruction.
  • Facts kill creativity. At the most basic level, all of our new ideas are somehow linked to old ones. The more existing ideas you have in your head, the more varied and rich and blossoming will be your novel combination of them, and the greater your store of reference points and analogies. Per Leslie: “a fact is a particular class of idea about the world, and it can be put to work in a lot of different ways.” In this section, Leslie refers to Sir Ken Robinson’s famous 2008 talk on educational reform titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity” and the proceeds to justify that Sir Robinson’s arguments about creativity are almost entirely baseless.
  • Schools should teach thinking skills instead of knowledge. Learning different skills grow organically out of specific knowledge of specific domains—that is, facts. The wider your knowledge, the more widely your intelligence can range and the more purchase it gets on new information. This is why the argument that schools ought to prioritize learning skills over knowledge makes no sense, argues Leslie: the very foundation for such skills is memorized knowledge. The more we know, the better we are at thinking.

On how knowledge gives curiosity the staying power, Leslie writes:

This is why curiosity, like other thinking skills, cannot be nurtured, or taught, in the abstract. Rather than being stifled by factual knowledge, it depends on it. Until a child has been taught the basic information she needs to start thinking more deeply about a particular subject, it’s hard to develop her initial (diversive) curiosity into enduring (epistemic) curiosity, to get her to the stage where she is hungry for more knowledge…Sir Ken Robinson has it precisely the wrong way around when he says that the natural appetite for learning begins to dissipate once children start to be educated. The curiosity of children dissipates when it doesn’t get fed by knowledge, imparted by parents and teachers.

In short, background knowledge is vital, kindling curiosity. From personal experience, I happen to think that there is also a positive feedback loop in place; the more you know, the more curious you become, the more knowledgeable you become over time because you seek to gain more knowledge through your curiosity.

In the last part of the book, Leslie outlines seven ways to stay curious. They are as follows:

  1. Stay foolish. Echoing Steve Jobs’s memorable commencement address, in which Jobs advised Stanford graduates to “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” Ian Leslie points out how Jobs’s curiosity was crucial to his ability to invent and reinvent the businesses in which he was involved (Apple, Pixar).
  2. Build the database. The idea behind this premise is that any project or task that requires deep creative thought will be better addressed by someone who has deep knowledge of the task at hand and general background knowledge of the culture in which it and its users (or readers, or viewers) live. Leslie writes:

    Highly curious people, who have carefully cultivated their long-term memories, live in a kind of augmented reality; everything they see is overlaid with additional layers of meaning and possibility, unavailable to ordinary observers.

  3. Forage like a foxhog. In the words of the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The fox evades predators via a variety of techniques, while the hedge adopts one trusted technique (hunkering down and relying on its spikes to thwart a predator). And the thinkers that are best positioned to thrive today and in the future are likely a hybrid of the fox and the hedgehog: the foxhog. You need to be specialized in one or two subject areas (what are knowns as SMEs, or subject matter experts) but also to be a voracious consumer of knowledge from other fields. In short, combine breadth and depth into your skill set.
  4. Ask the big why. In a useful anecdote from the book Negotiation Genius by Harvard Business School professors Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman, Leslie points out how asking “why” is such a critical component in the negotiation process. If two parties negotiate on their preagreed positions, the negotiation becomes a trade-off where one side necessarily loses with respect to the other, which gains. So then the key is to really try to understand what’s motivating the other party’s interestsand this involves asking the probing, penetrating questions which can be summarized with the why.There is an interesting diversion in this point on the Big Data movement. One of the proponents of it, Chris Anderson (who was formerly editor of Wired), has made the extreme case of asking the Big What instead of the Big Why. With enough data, the premise is that you can glean behavior from the patterns that is observed. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, the more data you collect, the more likely you are to start forming false narratives (Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a great point of this fact in his excellent book, Antifragile). When we have a lot of data to work with, we get things like spurious correlations.
  5. Be a thinkerer. A portmanteau of “think” and “tinker,” the origin of the verb “to thinker” is unknown. Leslie mentions that he was introduced to the term by Paola Antonelli of Museum of Modern Art in New York City, who traced it to a 2007 presentation given by John Seely Brown (formerly the director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center). The idea is enunciated well by Peter Thiel:

    A fundamental challenge—in business as in life—is to integrate the micro and macro such that all things make sense. Humanities majors may well learn a great deal about the world. But they don’t really learn career skills through their studies. Engineering majors, conversely, learn in great technical detail. But they might not learn why, how, or where they should apply their skills in the workforce. The best students, workers, and thinkers will integrate these questions into a cohesive narrative.

  6. Question your teaspoons. The idea is to become aware and curious about your daily surroundings. Parking garage roofs, hand dryers, milk, paint catalogs, and bus routes–they sound mundane but if you dig deeper, you can find out how complex and intricate they can really be. This is what led James Ward to found The Boring Conference (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds!). Leslie points out a good example: Laura McInerney, who used to work at McDonalds. Her shift would be to make the daily breakfast by breaking four hundred eggs, a mind-numbing ordeal on a day-to-day basis. But then she started asking questions on how the proteins in the egg change as the egg is heated, and how she started reflecting on whether it was ethically right to steal eggs from a chicken, or whether the egg or the chicken came first?
  7. Turn puzzles into mysteries. The premise here is simple: a puzzle is something that commands our curiosity until we have solved it. A mystery, by contrast, is something that never stops inviting (further) inquiry. The way to stay curious, then, is for every puzzle that we come across in our daily lives, be cognizant that there may be an underlying mystery behind it that would be worth exploring/pursuing.

In the Afterword of Curious, Leslie highlights one of my all-time favourite commencement speeches, that given by David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of 2005. In it, Wallace argues that we are inherently self-centered (because the world we experience is in front and behind us, above and below us, and it is immediate). It is only through the exercise of our curiosity about others that we can free ourselves about our hard-wired self-obsession. We should be curious about others not just because it is virtuous, but because it’s also a coping mechanism of the routine, petty frustration of day-to-day life.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Ian Leslie’s Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It is a well-researched book that cites a number of relevant scientific studies, frames concepts related to knowledge and curiosity with interesting anecdotes, and has a solid bibliography for the curious people to dive further after finishing Curious.

I highly recommend the book. It is available on Amazon (hardcover or for the Kindle) or your favourite bookseller beginning today, August 26, 2014.