Posts tagged with leadership

Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.

Werner von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever

cf, this

  • WP on WvB:

…von Braun was the central figure in the Nazis’ rocket development program, responsible for the design and realization of the V-2 combat rocket…. After the war, … taken to the United States…. Von Braun worked on the ... intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) program… … direct[ed] the …Marshall Space Flight Center … chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.


UPDATE: I guess my own (ironic) interpretation of this statement is not as obvious as I’d hoped. Subtlety is maybe not the best for quick-glance-react-reblog medium such as tumblr. My reactions are:

  1. Of course someone who used science for evil would say that science has no moral dimension. Rockets are a great example of science with primarily military applications, although perhaps (argues the casuist) someday Amazon will deliver goods to our houses with rocket-based technology!
  2. Pretending you aren’t responsible for how your research is used is immature.

    We can of course differentiate {a} people who couldn’t have known their research would be used for violent purposes, {b} people whose research is “for” peaceful purposes (such as communications) but can be used by military, {c} only when combined with other research, can the products of your work be put to violent ends, and {d} somehow there’s no way military could possibly do violence with this (such as social-psychology research perhaps).

    I wouldn’t suggest either that researching something completely useless, so useless it can’t help the military or civilians, is blameless either. In fact as adults we can critically assess and debate the culpability of various individuals. I would argue that everyone is covered in sin insofar as no-one continually does the most ethical thing at all times through all points of their life (nor do we know what that is).
  3. There are plenty of historical examples of mathematics and science being funded by war. Cryptonomicon, trigonometry in catapults, the canard of Archimedes and the parabolic mirrors, and of course the Manhattan Project. (Famously among mathematicians, Grothendieck saw physics as evil because it had produced the Atom Bomb.) Look at rich zip codes in the eastern USA you’ll notice Skaneatles Lake in upstate New York.
    This is the country with by far the largest military spending in the world and one of their biggest defence contractors—Lockheed-Martin—has a big facility in, you guessed it, Skaneatles Lake. If I take the time later I’ll fish some photos showing how nice it probably is and how not-nice is Gary Indiana
    , birthplace of world-class entertainer Michael Jackson whose hometown does not produce missiles.
  4. I’m not suggesting you need to be a limp dovey peacenik. If you are the appropriate sort of engineer with the appropriate permits and you hate the Iraqis, the Japanese, the Afghanis, the North Koreans, whoever—then design that bomb and don’t lie about what it’s going to be used for. However it’s disingenuous in the extreme to sell dynamite to a terrorist and deny you had any clue what he was going to do with it.

Here are the tweets of a scientist confronting the real dilemma he faces:

Anyway: no, sticking your head in the sand does not constitute an ethical position.  Maybe you’re doing wrong. Maybe you’re not doing very wrong. Maybe you’re doing something that is both good and evil. Maybe you’re doing something that’s evil only under some perspectives. At least consider it, from time to time. Don’t pretend “Science is always neutral”—that’s a wishful dream. Invent the Atom Bomb in wartime and pretend you’re not part of the war effort? Please. I don’t think scientists owe the world both their work and a fully fleshed out, consistent ethical system. But, no, science does not get to be “neutral” by fiat.

(((Nor do I get to be “neutral” simply by never having studied to be a weapons engineer. Since I don’t actively spend time working to right the wrongs of the world I’m also culpable, not just on the issue of violence or war but on many things. I don’t even spend enough time doing good that I could say I’m too busy solving one problem to work on the others. I’m simply a bad person. One can derive from economics 101 —from the ideas behind opportunity cost—that culpability extends far and wide—and I intend to write a separate article about that.)))


Scepticism trades on [1] a focus on the worst case, and [2] a demand that any method of forming belief find the truth in all logically possible circumstances.

When action must be taken, scepticism is in league with obscurantism, with know-nothingism, and in opposition to forces that are more optimistic about the information that inquiry can provide to judgement.
Clark Grymour


The Brookings Institution says it cares about unemployment among 18–24-year olds in the U.S. I know there are some unemployed EEUUse 18–24-year-olds who subscribe to isomorphismes in your tumblr feeds.

So if you are whom this seminar is supposed to help—how do you feel about people getting paid possibly $170k and $65k salaries to write this?:

  • forging strong vertical relationships
  • industry needs should drive workforce development policy
  • Outreach to SME’s
  • A sector approach
  • organizing industry sector panels that bring together leaders from the worlds of industry, education, and labor
  • By establishing clear goals and empowering regions, state leaders can set a platform for … action
  • Goal-setting is a major platform-setting function
  • bringing in a third-party to facilitate discussion can make all the difference
  • Encouraging cross-sector collaboration at the regional level
  • States can help strengthen metro-level workforce development by improving access to useful data
  • encourage greater cooperation across state agencies involved in economic and workforce development
  • By introducing innovation in the very structure and organization of its state agencies, Kansas is better positioned to ensure cooperative, cross-agency action on critical economic and workforce development priorities.

Those are some of the bolded parts of their “distilled” 6-page “main takeaways”.

Are you being served?


I had to tell someone what £20−£12.25 was. At first I thought she was stupid. You really don’t know? But then I realised that many people can’t do mental arithmetic of the variety £20−£7.75; they just don’t admit it or ask for help. Then I thought she was smart.


I read somewhere that dyslexia is overrepresented among CEO’s. The person who pointed it out speculated that it’s because dyslexics are used to asking others for help. No matter how brilliant you are, you can’t be good at everything a large organisation needs to do. How are you going to be the person at the top if you’re more focussed on being brilliant yourself rather than seeking help from someone who’s smarter than you?

181 Plays

BHP Billiton from The Economist

  • the cut and thrust of dealmaking
  • putting finance types in the C suite rather than engineers
  • diversifying as mines are both very large and financially volatile

After talking to a number of PhD students, I’ve come to conclude two things. First, that many (especially in “genius disciplines” like maths or physics) are motivated by the goal of being the smartest human who ever lived—“the next Einstein”, or Feynman, or Grothendieck—not like the humans themselves, but rather like the symbols: revolutionary rarities who personally transformed some small corner of the world.

Second, I’m tentatively concluding that base hits are “actually the way forward”—that is, that home-run projects become magnum opi that never get finished because they’re not perfect, or the passionate ego-drive weakens, or the idea of expressing the ultimate moral worth of one’s psyche through academic paper-writing does not lead to successful ideas. Maybe the cure to cancer doesn’t come from a flash of insight but from a more mundane process of trying this, then that, then another thing. The dissertation that gets done comes from a concrete plan, consisting of steps, which lead to a sequence of words on a page.

The revolution, if it happens, is more likely to come from a sequence of papers which actually get written, than from an unhatched geniusling that doesn’t get written. And let’s face it: most of us aren’t geniuses, nor would we want to be, but we’re still interested in being productive.


In business one can think about base hits as well. My first business was a base hit. I didn’t sell for a jillion dollars, I just gave myself and some other people jobs for a number of years and didn’t fail. Which was my goal at the outset: not to be unprofitable. My plan was to copy an idea I had seen work somewhere else, make a few tweaks, and do it.

OK, so maybe it turned out to be more of a bunt and I should go for a double next time. But at least I wasn’t trying to dream up a revolutionary mobile app that will change the world, justifying paying $250k to various programmers as justified on a massively outsized conception of the “genius” of my “idea”, and ending up with something looking suspiciously like a mashup of Foursquare, Linkedin, OKCupid, and airplane reservations.

I definitely keep my left eye on acquisition prices as a way to gauge interesting spaces to enter—but I’m also thinking about what are the things I can accomplish, with the team I could reasonably assemble, the skills & knowledge I actually have, and the hours I’m actually going to want to work. What are the high-probability base hits I could string together to get from here to there?

(Just to give an example, I will not be founding the next Heroku. That got a nice bid, but the founders were engineers who knew a lot about hardware. That’s not me.)

Maybe Citadel wasn’t built from a “genius” signal using all the latest machine-learning hoopla, but from a smart (and obsessive) kid making trades he thought he could win on, and not making the other trades. And then building from there. Learning what’s a good opportunity, how long it takes to scope out a trade, how much research can reasonably be done in a month, and so on.

In short, maybe all of the “homeruns” I can think of, are actually just a sequence of small steps definitively forward.


In writing I find myself looking more and more for base hits as well. When I first started, I had very, very high hopes for how awesome the material would be. (I won’t admit how high.) But now after posting 250 short bits of mathematics, I’m much more focussed on

  • write everything down somewhere, perhaps for later;
  • publish 2-3 things a week;
  • try to make them not suck.

I still think that after some unspecified amount of time, I may be able to string together a more magnum-opusy kind of work—once the pieces (short blog posts) are mostly there on the cutting-room floor. But that’s much more like stringing together a series of base hits than genius-ing out the heartbreaking work I would like to imagine I’ll create.

But what’s my rush? I’m accumulating tumblr followers every day, I’m plugging away at the craft, I’m putting out material. Looking back over a year of following that formula, I’ve put out a surprising amount of text and have a surprising number of subscribers. It’s kind of like the short-term/long-term fallacy working in reverse (working in my favour). ∫short term adds up to more than I thought it would.

Maybe Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst didn’t succeed because they were inspired geniuses who one night invented one of the best songs ever. But instead, first they learned to play the guitar, then they wrote one song when it occurred to them, then they wrote another. That’s the way Phillip Glass describes his own journey in the biopic about him.


Elon Musk and Larry Summers take a contrary perspective. @elonmusk says “I don’t know why all these entrepreneurs are trying to solve small problems”. Larry Summers says “It’s just as hard for an economist to think about important problems as about unimportant problems. The intellectual effort is the same, it’s just the output that’s better.”

Well, maybe they know better than I do. I still suspect in the day to day it’s about “What is the paper I can write, rather than the paper I’d like to be able to write” or “What are the practical steps I can take today to get closer to my business goal?” rather than “What do I wish for?”.

I can’t prove I’m right, this is just where my thoughts are at the moment. I think there’s a cult around genius and a cult around business superstars. Both of which do harm by increasing people’s appetites for success—feeding ambition, feeding vanity, feeding swagger, feeding overexuberance, feeding bad investments—above what’s reasonably achievable in a succession of 3,500 days.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

(The attribution is somewhat dubious, but who cares?  This is the best management advice ever)