There’s an apocryphal account of Bertrand Russel, a British scientist, who was approached by an old lady at the end of his lecture on astronomy.
“Your theory about the earth being round is interesting, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“Enlighten me madam.” inquired the scientist politely.
“The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle.” the lady said confidently.
The scientist decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see inconsistencies in her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
If this conversation happened a hundred years back, you’d not be surprised by the old lady’s argument. After all, the first man-made satellite didn’t go to space until 1957. A century ago, it wasn’t strange to come across smart and educated people who still believed that earth was flat.
If you’re not a programmer then debugging may be a new word for you. It means cleaning out the bugs, i.e., fixing your software program so that it does what it’s supposed to do and more importantly doesn’t do what it’s not supposed to do.
A debugger is a tool that makes the computer slow enough so that a human can see what’s brewing inside that computer’s mind. More specifically, you can mark the lines in your program (called breakpoints) where debugger will halt the execution temporarily and wait for you to press the continue button. And while it’s paused, you can literally scour the computer’s mind and see what it’s up to.
Put simply, in debug mode you freeze the computer’s brain to sneak a peek.
Greek mythology has a story about a bandit called Procrustes. His name means “the stretcher.” True to his name, Procrustes was a rogue smith who would abduct travelers, treat them with a lavish dinner and invite them to spend the night in a special bed.
He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection, writes Taleb in his book The Bed of Procrustes, “Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched.”
Nobody ever fitted the bed exactly and Procrustes’ reign of terror continued until he was captured by Theseus who “fitted” Procrustes in his own bed.
A Procrustean solution is thus the practice of forcefully fitting reality to the rigid containers of theoretical models and preconceived structures. This post is a compilation of my highlights and notes from The Bed of Procrustes — Taleb’s lesser known book.
The new year started with someone tipping me off about a documentary named The Men Who Built America. What followed was a six-hour binge watch. The history channel docudrama chronicles the lives of five American business titans — Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, and Ford. What fascinated me about this series wasn’t just how the industrial innovations and business empires of these five individuals revolutionized modern society, but also how their paths crossed more often than I would’ve imagined.
History doesn’t repeat itself, said Mark Twain, “but it often rhymes.” The capitalistic rivalry among the 19th-century tycoons has an uncanny similarity to present day standoffs between business honchos. Which means, there might be crucial insights hidden in these century-old events which would give you a more informed perspective on how the modern business stories could unfold and their impact on society at large.