Barry Duncan: Master of Palindromes

NPR has a fun story about Barry Duncan, a man who is obsessed with creating palindromes (those words or phrases that spell the same thing backwards and forwards) everywhere he goes:

In the beginning, Duncan’s palindrome obsession wasn’t much fun. For the first 10 years, he says, it drove him a little crazy. “There was a point in the early ’90s where I thought I would have to be hospitalized,” Duncan says. “I would go to bed thinking I was missing three letters from the beginning of a palindrome and I could work it out, and I just couldn’t. Now I know better.”

Duncan is constantly working out new palindromes — not just on paper, but in his head. Strolling down the street, he spots a “Don’t Walk” sign. He turns the words around in his head and comes up with “Don’t nod” and “Walk Law” — both palindromes. He expands “Walk Law” to “Walk, sir, I risk law.” He identifies the “I” as the middle pivot point and then begins to build it out on each side. “I walk, sir. I risk law. I” leaves that last “I” dangling, so he resolves it by adding one more word: “Won’t I walk, sir? I risk law. It now.”

I think this is just wild:

Once Duncan gets rolling, he can write some of the longest palindromes in the world. He has written palindromes for friends that are 800 words long. He fills up pages and pages of notebooks. He reads them at parties. He writes them for local businesses.

Would you consider being a master palindromist an oddity? Is it a weird hobby? In my opinion, I think the point is to find something you love and continually build on it, as Duncan has clearly done.

My only gripe? One of his palindromes was about LOST:

In 2010, Duncan wrote a palindrome expressing his incredulity that Lost was still airing new episodes on ABC: “No, still? It’s not so long? No, Lost on. Still, it’s on?”

And here I thought we would get along. Anyway, the full story/radio broadcast is here. Read through the end, where Duncan offers advice for reading and building palindromes:

If you are new to reading palindromes, here is the best advice I can give you: Read a palindrome the way you would read anything else. In other words, read it forward. If you insist on reading it forward and backward (thinking that you are being clever and sophisticated by following both ends until they meet in the middle), you may become dizzy and confused. Wait. The time will come.

Some novice readers of palindromes are under the impression that the punctuation in a palindrome must be the same in both directions. These people are misinformed. Pay them no mind.

The Fragility of Ideas

On October 19, Apple held an event to honor Steve Jobs. Featured appearances include the newly-appointed CEO Tim Cook and the legendary designer Jony Ive, who goes on to talk about the fragility of ideas (as proposed by Steve Jobs):

Steve used to say to me — and he used to say this a lot — “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.”

And sometimes they were. Really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet simple ones, which in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound.

And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.

So eloquently said. I’m reminded of this quote from Inception:

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed—fully understoodthat sticks; right in there somewhere. 

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(Hat Tip: Fortune)

The Million Dollar Taxi

The statistic of the day comes from The New York Times, which reports that for the first time ever, taxi medallions–aluminum plates that grant the right to operate a yellow cab–sold for over $1 million a piece:

The sale was the culmination of decades of astonishing growth for the humble medallion, which is nailed to the hood of every yellow cab in the city. When New York issued its first batch of medallions in 1937, the going price was $10 even, or $157.50 in today’s dollars.

Some perspective: The Dow Jones industrial average has risen 1,100 percent in the last 30 years. In the same period, the value of a taxi medallion is up 1,900 percent. That return beats gold, oil and the American house.

According to NPR, New York City strictly limits the number of medallions — currently at just over 13,000. So as the supply is held relatively constant, demand has been rising. But according to NPR:

The medallions create a textbook example of what economists call rent-seeking behavior: Basically, gaining extra profits without providing extra benefits. If the number of taxis were allowed to increase (and if cab fares were unregulated), the number of taxis would increase and the price of a cab ride would fall.

So forget investing in gold or the general stock market… Consider investing in TAXI.

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is His The Brothers Karamazov

In an excellent New York Times Magazine piece on Haruki Murakami, Sam Anderson meets with the writer to talk about his latest book being released in the United States: 1Q84. I have pre-ordered it months ago from Amazon.com (you should too), and I can’t wait to read it.

Below, Anderson vividly describes the book and how 1Q84 is Murakami’s The Brothers Karamazov (I’ve read it when I was in high school):

For decades now, Murakami has been talking about working himself up to write what he calls a “comprehensive novel” — something on the scale of “The Brothers Karamazov,”one of his artistic touchstones. (He has read the book four times.) This seems to be what he has attempted with “1Q84”: a grand, third-person, all-encompassing meganovel. It is a book full of anger and violence and disaster and weird sex and strange new realities, a book that seems to want to hold all of Japan inside of it — a book that, even despite its occasional awkwardness (or maybe even because of that awkwardness), makes you marvel, reading it, at all the strange folds a single human brain can hold.

Reading the piece, you come to learn how humble Murakami is. The Little People are characters in 1Q84, and Anderson notes how the idea just came to Murakami:

“The Little People came suddenly,” he said. “I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what it means. I was a prisoner of the story. I had no choice. They came, and I described it. That is my work.”

And in case you’re wondering: do Murakami’s dreams resemble his novels?

I asked Murakami, whose work is so often dreamlike, if he himself has vivid dreams. He said he could never remember them — he wakes up and there’s just nothing. The only dream he remembers from the last couple of years, he said, is a recurring nightmare that sounds a lot like a Haruki Murakami story. In the dream, a shadowy, unknown figure is cooking him what he calls “weird food”: snake-meat tempura, caterpillar pie and (an instant classic of Japanese dream-cuisine) rice with tiny pandas in it. He doesn’t want to eat it, but in the dream world he feels compelled to. He wakes up just before he takes a bite.

This part about translation is fascinating, I think:

Murakami has consistently denied being influenced by Japanese writers; he even spoke, early in his career, about escaping “the curse of Japanese.” Instead, he formed his literary sensibilities as a teenager by obsessively reading Western novelists: the classic Europeans (Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Dickens) but especially a cluster of 20th-century Americans whom he has read over and over throughout his life — Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. When Murakami sat down to write his first novel, he struggled until he came up with an unorthodox solution: he wrote the book’s opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese. This, he says, is how he found his voice. Murakami’s longstanding translator, Jay Rubin, told me that a distinctive feature of Murakami’s Japanese is that it often reads, in the original, as if it has been translated from English.

But as Anderson later notes, Murakami’s “entire oeuvre…is the act of translation dramatized.”

I am currently reading Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance. It might take me some time to finish reading 1Q84, as it’s over 900 pages (Murakami’s take on his book: “It’s so big…It’s like a telephone directory”). I’ve never been to Japan, but reading Murakami’s fiction makes me want to visit. But as you learn from Anderson’s piece, Murakami’s Japan is different from actual Japan in so many ways.

On a final note, do not miss the interactive feature that goes along with Anderson’s piece.

On Presenting to Jeff Bezos

I’ve just stumbled upon an awesome personal story from Steve Yegge, who used to work at Amazon (he’s at Google now). In this post, he explains what it was like presenting to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO.

The first item of business that you should note: Jeff Bezos outlawed PowerPoint presentations at Amazon. As Yegge notes, “If you present to Jeff, you write it as prose.” I’ve bolded my favorite takeaways from Steve’s post:

To prepare a presentation for Jeff, first make damn sure you know everything there is to know about the subject. Then write a prose narrative explaining the problem and solution(s). Write it exactly the way you would write it for a leading professor or industry expert on the subject.

That is: assume he already knows everything about it. Assume he knows more than you do about it. Even if you have groundbreakingly original ideas in your material, just pretend it’s old hat for him. Write your prose in the succinct, direct, no-explanations way that you would write for a world-leading expert on the material.

You’re almost done. The last step before you’re ready to present to him is this: Delete every third paragraph.

Now you’re ready to present!

Back in the mid-1800s there was this famous-ish composer/pianist named Franz Liszt. He is widely thought to have been the greatest sight-reader who ever lived. He could sight-read anything you gave him, including crazy stuff not even written for piano, like opera scores. He was so staggeringly good at sight-reading that his brain was only fully engaged on the first run-through. After that he’d get bored and start embellishing with his own additions.

Bezos is so goddamned smart that you have to turn it into a game for him or he’ll be bored and annoyed with you. That was my first realization about him. Who knows how smart he was before he became a billionaire — let’s just assume it was “really frigging smart”, since he did build Amazon from scratch. But for years he’s had armies of people taking care of everything for him. He doesn’t have to do anything at all except dress himself in the morning and read presentations all day long. So he’s really, REALLY good at reading presentations. He’s like the Franz Liszt of sight-reading presentations.

So you have to start tearing out whole paragraphs, or even pages, to make it interesting for him. He will fill in the gaps himself without missing a beat. And his brain will have less time to get annoyed with the slow pace of your brain.

I mean, imagine what it would be like to start off as an incredibly smart person, arguably a first-class genius, and then somehow wind up in a situation where you have a general’s view of the industry battlefield for ten years. Not only do you have more time than anyone else, and access to more information than anyone else, you also have this long-term eagle-eye perspective that only a handful of people in the world enjoy.

In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.

But how do you prepare a presentation for a giant-brained alien? Well, here’s my second realization: He will outsmart you. Knowing everything about your subject is only a first-line defense for you. It’s like armor that he’ll eat through in the first few minutes. He is going to have at least one deep insight about the subject, right there on the spot, and it’s going to make you look like a complete buffoon.

Trust me folks, I saw this happen time and again, for years. Jeff Bezos has all these incredibly intelligent, experienced domain experts surrounding him at huge meetings, and on a daily basis he thinks of shit that they never saw coming. It’s a guaranteed facepalm fest.

So I knew he was going to think of something that I hadn’t. I didn’t know what it might be, because I’d spent weeks trying to think of everything. I had reviewed the material with dozens of people. But it didn’t matter. I knew he was going to blindside me, because that’s what happens when you present to Jeff.

If you assume it’s coming, then it’s not going to catch you quite as off-guard.

And of course it happened. I forgot Data Mining. Wasn’t in the list. He asked me point-blank, very nicely: “Why aren’t Data Mining and Machine Learning in this list?” And I laughed right in his face, which sent a shock wave through the stone-faced jury of VPs who had been listening in silence, waiting for a cue from Jeff as to whether he was going to be happy or I was headed for the salt mines.

I laughed because I was delighted. He’d caught me with my pants down around my ankles, right in front of everyone, despite all my excruciating weeks of preparation. I had even deleted about a third of the exposition just to keep his giant brain busy, but it didn’t matter. He’d done it again, and I looked like a total ass-clown in front of everyone. It was frigging awesome.

So yeah, of course I couldn’t help laughing. And I said: “Yup, you got me. I don’t know why it’s not in there. It should be. I’m a dork. I’ll add it.” And he laughed, and we moved on, and everything was great. Even the VPs started smiling. It annoyed the hell out of me that they’d had to wait for a cue, but whatever. Life was good.

You have to understand: most people were scared around Bezos because they were waaaay too worried about trying to keep their jobs. People in high-level positions sometimes have a little too much personal self-esteem invested in their success. Can you imagine how annoying it must be for him to be around timid people all day long? But me — well, I thought I was going to get fired every single day. So fuck timid. Might as well aim high and go out in a ball of flame.

That last part about not being timid and just laying it out there is so, so good. Will more people at Amazon (or anyone else who reads Steve’s post) change their attitudes because of it?

On Overconfidence and Cognitive Fallacy

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Daniel Kahneman, emeritus professor of psychology and of public affairs at Princeton University, writes about the hazards of overconfidence. His piece begins with an anecdote from his days in the Israeli army and then moves on to lambasting overconfidence of professional investors. A lot of the ideas here I was already familiar with, but I liked Kahneman’s conclusion:

We often interact with professionals who exercise their judgment with evident confidence, sometimes priding themselves on the power of their intuition. In a world rife with illusions of validity and skill, can we trust them? How do we distinguish the justified confidence of experts from the sincere overconfidence of professionals who do not know they are out of their depth? We can believe an expert who admits uncertainty but cannot take expressions of high confidence at face value. As I first learned on the obstacle field, people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing. Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.

True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes. You are probably an expert in guessing your spouse’s mood from one word on the telephone; chess players find a strong move in a single glance at a complex position; and true legends of instant diagnoses are common among physicians. To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do. Many of the professionals we encounter easily pass both tests, and their off-the-cuff judgments deserve to be taken seriously. In general, however, you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.

My only gripe: I believe overconfidence is even more systemic than Kahneman posits. I believe there are overconfident dentists, waitresses, accountants, and engineers. What about you?

Jony Ive and Freedom

I’ve pre-ordered Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I’ve been following some news outlets reporting snippets from the book. This bit about the iconic designer at Apple, Jonathan (Jony) Ive, and his independence at the company, struck a chord with me:

In talking with author Walter Isaacson for the book, Jobs revealed that he viewed Ive as his “spiritual partner” at Apple. Showing his trust in Ive, the company co-founder left him more freedom than anyone else in the company — a perk that remains even after Jobs’s death.

“He [Steve Jobs] told Isaacson that Ive had ‘more operational power’ at Apple than anyone else besides Jobs himself — that there’s no one at the company who can tell Ive what to do,” the report said. “That, says Jobs, is ‘the way I set it up.'”

Ive and Jobs became close at Apple, working directly together on designing a number of the company’s core products, including the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. Ive, a 44-year-old native of London, joined Apple in 1996 and has held his current job since 1997.

After I finish reading the book sometime next week, I will post a comprehensive review of my own. Stay tuned.