The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes

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One of my favorite things to read is The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes by Clifton Fadiman. The book contains over 4,000 anecdotes by more than 2,000 famous people.

Here are a few examples:

A devotee of cigars, Mark Twain was temptuous of those who made a great to-do about giving up smoking. He always claimed that it was easy to quit: “I’ve done it a hundred times!”

Henry Ford was once asked why he made a habit of visiting his executives when problems arose rather than calling them to his own office. “I go them to save time,” explained Ford. “I’ve found that I can leave the other fellow’s office a lot quicker than I can get him to leave mine.”

On arrival at a Chicago hotel, Thomas Du Pont found that a lady who had previously occupied his room had left behind a frilly nightgown. He summoned the manager, handed him the garmet, and instructed, “Fill it and bring it back.”

If you decide to buy it I recommend the Kindle edition simply because the paperback edition is massive. I also recommend not trying to read it straight through; I enjoy flipping it open to a random page and to just start reading regardless of whether I’ve heard of the person or not because it exposes me to a lot of history that I probably would never learn about otherwise.

As one of the Amazon reviewers commentedI envy you if you are discovering this for the first time. Check it out.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, Facebook, and the Oculus Acquisition

In The Age of Spiritual Machines Ray Kurzweil describes the life cycle of a technology:

We can identify seven distinct stages in the life cycle of a technology.

1. During the precursor stage, the prerequisites of a technology exist, and dreamers may contemplate these elements coming together. We do not, however, regard dreaming to be the same as inventing, even if the dreams are written down. Leonardo da Vinci drew convincing pictures of airplanes and automobiles, but he is not considered to have invented either.

2. The next stage, one highly celebrated in our culture, is invention, a very brief stage, similar in some respects to the process of birth after an extended period of labor. Here the inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination, and usually a measure of showmanship to combine methods in a new way and brings a new technology to life.

3. The next stage is development, during which the invention is protected and supported by doting guardians (who may include the original inventor). Often this stage is more crucial than invention and may involve additional creation that can have greater significance than the invention itself. Many tinkerers had constructed finely handtuned horseless carriages, but it was Henry Ford’s innovation of mass production that enabled the automobile to take root and flourish.

4. The fourth stage is maturity. Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an established part of the community. It may become so interwoven in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the false pretenders.

5. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be lacking some key element of functionality or quality. When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever.

6. This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology to the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor.

7. In this stage, which may comprise 5 to 10 percent of a technology’s life cycle, it finally yields to antiquity (as did the horse and buggy, the harpsichord, the vinyl record, and the manual typewriter).

Fred Wilson argues in The Search For The Next Platform that Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is “Zuck and his team looking up and saying “what’s next?””. Viewed through the lens of Kurzweil’s seven stages, Facebook is at stage 4 (maturity) and Oculus is the potentially disruptive upstart in stage 5. It might seem far-fetched now, but what if Oculus’s virtual reality platform did eventually evolve into a communication platform? Could it threaten Facebook’s current dominance? Maybe. The acquisition then can be seen as part Facebook’s attempt to beat the Innovator’s Dilemma, the tendency of mature companies to lose out to startups by focusing too much on satisfying existing customers and not enough on disruptive new technologies.

Will Facebook succeed and still be relevant in 5-10-20+ years or more? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to see how things play out. :)

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

From Some Thoughts on The Real World By One Who Glimpsed It And Fled, a commencement speech by Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, in 1990.

Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, “Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine.

Via Ed Weissman on an old HackerNews discussion about Paul Buchheit’s I Am Nothing essay.

There are a lot of good thoughts in the other HackerNews comments too. Worth checking out.