For awhile now I’ve been fascinated with the idea of serendipity. I was actually going to write a book on the topic but had to shelve it when we started Percolate. (A choice I’m very happy with, as tech industry > book industry.) Anyway, the core idea of the book was going to be that serendipity is something you can both encourage and design for. Because of that I read anything I see that talks about serendipity and was pleasantly surprised by this post on Medium by Stef Lewandowski on the subject. I’ll let you read it yourself, he hits on a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about, but wanted to share a word he introduced me to: “Zemblanity.” As he explains, “Zemblanity, a word coined by William Boyd in his book Armadillo in the 1980s, is the polar opposite of serendipity.” He goes on to quote the book for the full definition:
So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.
I’ve definitely found myself in zemblanity at times and I usually have to read my way out. It’s nice to have a word to use in case it happens again in the future.
I never finished Taleb’s Black Swan, but I vividly remember a point from the opening chapter about what would have happened if a senator had pushed through legislation prior to September 11th to force all airlines to install locked cockpit doors. That person would have never recieved attention or recognition for preventing an attack, since we never would have known:
The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statuses in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. “Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease.” Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office . . .
I was reminded of this as I was reading Tim Harford’s Adapt and this point about how we interpreted the US domination of the first Gulf War:
Another example of history’s uncertain guidance came from the first Gulf War in 1990–1. Desert Storm was an overwhelming defeat for Saddam Hussein’s army: one day it was one of the largest armies in the world; four days later, it wasn’t even the largest army in Iraq. Most American military strategists saw this as a vindication of their main strategic pillars: a technology-driven war with lots of air support and above all, overwhelming force. In reality it was a sign that change was coming: the victory was so crushing that no foe would ever use open battlefield tactics against the US Army again. Was this really so obvious in advance?
So apparently Jonah Lehrer plagiarize himself (or something like that). I’ve read a bit about it (not enough to have an opinion), but of course Felix Salmon has and takes the opportunity to dive into a comment from Josh Levin at Slate that Lehrer’s Frontal Cortex blog (one of my favorites) is to blame. The argument, essentially, is that if you’re “an idea man” like Lehrer a blog places too much stress on content creation.
Felix, as is frequently the case, disagrees: “Lehrer shouldn’t shut down Frontal Cortex; he should simply change it to become a real blog. And if he does that, he’s likely to find that blogs in fact are wonderful tools for generating ideas, rather than being places where your precious store of ideas gets used up in record-quick time.” What’s more, he dives in on a few suggestions for what to do with the blog and in turn makes some really interesting comments about blogging generally. I especially like his first point:
Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.
I always thought of this blog as a thing I use to think out loud. It doesn’t overwhelm me because it helps me think through ideas (and in turn create new ones).
I really like this quote about writing (the context is apps that are popping up to help writers concentrate in small increments):
If you think you’ve got writers’ block after 45 seconds of not writing, you don’t need an app, you need someone gently to tell you that you should consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head. Almost always, you do eventually start to write, and it seems that you’ve been considering after all. It’s not as comfy as writing a thousand words in half an hour, but it seems to work OK, so long as you think of it as part of a process of writing rather than writer’s block.
[Via The Awl]