Reading Richard Feynman: On curiosity, learning and selfishness

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Richard Feynman was a problem-solver. He got to be a problem solver by tinkering, and he tinkered because he was curious. Moreover, his parents encouraged his curiosity.

In that video up there (it's well worth 50 minutes of your time, by the way), he discusses learning about inertia. He noticed the funny way a ball rolled around in a wagon, and he asked his father about it. His father told him to watch again, that the ball actually behaved differently from how he thought, and then he explained why.

His father taught him the value of learning, as opposed to knowing.

With this, as Feynman relates in his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he was running around his neighborhood repairing radios when he was a young boy. He found them interesting, he played with them, and when someone had a broken radio he would pace around their living room trying thinking about how to fix it, and then he'd fix it.

People were astonished.

Now, you probably know Feynman's name because he was part of the Manhattan Project. And he won a Nobel Prize (something he didn't want because of the extra attention, but upon learning that it would be more of a hassle to turn it down, he accepted it). And he taught for a long time. Or you just watch too much "Big Bang Theory."

What strikes me about Feynman is his curiosity, and his willingness to follow that curiosity. Here's a guy who wanted to know how radios worked, so he took them apart and played with the pieces.

Later in life, he wanted to learn how to draw, so he took a class and wound up having a gallery show.

He thought it would be fun to learn the drums, go to Brazil and play at Carnival. So he did.

While he enjoyed teaching, it sometimes led him to get stuck in his own work. One time, he went out on the quad and saw some students throwing around a disk (a Frisbee, though there weren't Frisbees yet). He noticed it wobbled, soared and curved. He went and did some calculations, and it helped in his work on subatomic particles.

There's that tinkerer again.

Another thing that strikes me about Feynman can only really be described as selfishness. If he didn't want the hassle of a committee position, he didn't take it. If he didn't want to go to a party, he didn't go. We only have so much time, why not have fun with it?

And have fun he did: He was a prankster as a college student, leaving tips under full glasses of water turned upside-down, stealing doors from rooms in his fraternity. He writes that he used to do some of his work at a strip club. Nobody bothered him, he didn't bother anybody, and the owner would send over a free soda every night.

Take three action items from Feynman, then.

(1) Leave your house and find something you know nothing about. Leave your house, because if the thing is in your house, you've been ignoring it long enough that it won't sustain your interest for very long. It could be coffee roasting, snowblowers, the physics of how chalk sticks to a board – anything. Now, learn all about it. This will take you some time. If you figured it out in an hour, you didn't get the point.

Now, report on it. If you have a blog, post it there. If you don't, use my comments section. If you think your story's absolutely awesome and you don't have a blog, email me and maybe we'll do a guest post here.

Mine: I've begun home-brewing beer, just this past weekend. I've been a beer fan since – well, since I was 4 and I was already only drinking my dad's brand – and over the past few years I've become a fan of craft brews. So I'm going to start making my own. I sort of expect that the first batch will fail. It's not fermenting as quickly as expected, and while I know a scotch ale is more malty than hoppy and has a low-ish ABV, I think we might be looking at something a little too sweet and flat. The second batch will be better because I'll work with it a little differently. Beyond that, I'll start experimenting with flavors and probably fail a few times. Either way, it's something new – and it's committing to a process (really, it takes at least three weeks before it's drinkable).

(2) Say no to something. Make it something you really don't want to do but that society dictates you should do. Feynman tried to turn down the Nobel prize. When he finally accepted it, he managed to say no to a banquet in his honor. When Woody Allen won an Oscar for "Annie Hall," he was in Manhattan playing his clarinet at a weekly gig. He snuck out the back door, unplugged the phone and read about it in the paper the next day. He said no to sitting around uncomfortably on the other side of the country waiting to see if his name would be called.

Mine: I'm not sure on this one, honestly. I'm in the fortunate situation that I get to choose just about all my interactions. There's the give-and-take of a relationship, but other than that, you pretty much have to come ring my doorbell (and hope I answer) to get me to make an unplanned social interaction.

(3) Go do something at a place it's not the norm to do it. I used to go to bars, sit in a crowded spot and read. Since I was typically reading something interesting, it led me to interesting conversations with interesting people. I met someone who described himself as a freelance lawyer while I was reading Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear at Al's Wine & Whiskey in downtown Syracuse. That was one interesting dude. I wound up giving him the book when I was done.

Another time I was reading the Sunday New York Times at a now-defunct chain coffee shop on the north side (I had friends who worked behind the counter, making the coffee, er, awfully affordable) when someone came up and admonished me from getting all my news from such a liberal source. Until I pulled out a Wall Street Journal. No more political discussions over newspapers for me, thanks.

Mine: Now that school's back in session and the public playgrounds are free of children during the day, I'll do some playground workouts. [Adult males are generally discouraged from hanging out on playgrounds when they don't have kids; just sayin'.] There are lots of opportunities to climb and do bodyweight exercises, and plenty of opportunity for people walking or driving by to stare. It also gives me the chance to walk with the dog and bring him to the "gym."

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Cressey Performance

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

One of the cool new things I've found at work in reading fitness blogs and seeing what's up in the industry is a blog by Eric Cressey, who runs Cressey Performance, a Boston training center.

Cressey Performance is known for training pro (and, I imagine college and amateur) baseball players – particularly pitchers – and many of you know I'm a baseball nerd.

Cressey, who doesn't have a baseball background, fell into this niche entirely by accident. His own journey through fitness and mobility led him to be passionate about the field, and eventually his location and his methods caught on in the baseball world. Read his story the way he tells it. I haven't read too many career path stories that interest me, but his does.

To feed the baseball nerds among my readers (I'm looking at you especially, Tom and Mitch), check out what pitchers do during the off-season.

Geeking out at work: Bar codes

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

I wrote the other day about QR codes, primarily because I'm starting to use them. But in general, bar codes and bar code scanning have me a little too giddy for my own good.

Mostly what happened is one day at work, someone said, "Hey, I heard you can read this thing on a cell phone," and pointed to a QR code. So I went to the Android App Market and downloaded a few bar code applications, finally settling on Barcode Scanner by ZXing. It read the QR code fine.

But then I brought it home (always a smart thing to do with your cell phone), and flipped over the Scrabble Dictionary that was sitting on the coffee table. Yeah, it scanned that fine, too – and then linked me to a Google Shopping results page that offered me various locations and various prices for the book.

I then scanned the bar code on a box of staples from Target and while it read the code, it couldn't find a shopping result. So I searched the Web, and got a bunch of sites in Chinese, which probably made sense, since they were made in China.

Then for kicks, I hopped over to Target.com and discovered you can only get them in stores, so everything made sense.

Anyway, there are a bunch of bar code standards, including a unique one for the Post Office. With smart phones taking over the mobile phone market, I'm really curious to see where this goes.

Geeking out at work: Shelving and racking

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

I know I'm in deep at work. We took a trip to Home Depot for a doorknob, some fertilizer, some charcoal and a few other household goods, and I couldn't quit looking at the shelving.

Essentially, the material handling industry is about moving stuff and storing stuff. And the Home Depots and Lowes and BJ's of the world basically take pallet loads of stuff from trucks or trains or boats and move them to warehouses where they sit on racks.

Somewhere in the back of your mind, you knew this, you likely just never thought through the process. There's actual thought that goes into those shelving units, and I'm not talking about from a marketing and store layout perspective. What goes on the shelves is important to consider, and so is how it gets there.

I've never noticed grooved tracks on the floor, so they're not using something like an automated guided forklift. They're likely, instead, either using some sort of narrow aisle truck, or possibly a small counterbalanced forklift, since when it comes down to it, those aisles aren't all that wide.

From a technical standpoint, the shelving is only the metal grating on which you actually put the stuff. The unit on which you lay shelving is called racking. Racks have certain standard widths because pallets – the wood or plastic things that a giant bundle of paper towels, for instance, comes stacked on – have standard widths.

(Aside: There's a lobbying fight in Congress right now. Some plastic pallet manufacturers want stricter fire code measures for wood pallets, which would essentially make wood pallets much more expensive both to manufacture and to use. I hate when competition gets worked out through legislation. If you have the better product, people will use it.)

Racking is set up in various ways depending on how you load it. If you go to buy bulk nails or screws or whatever, the shelves are just set up to hold bins, and someone puts those on by hand. The boxes of 50 granola bars you get from BJs were once on some sort of pallet and were probably wheeled out of the warehouse on a dolly to be unwrapped and manually placed on lower shelves. But if you look up, you'll oftentimes see bulk items still wrapped in giant loads. Sometimes they're even still on pallets.

Then there's those long pieces of wood or piping you can get – the kind that doesn't fit on normal racks because the support beams would get in the way. So they're on what's called cantilevered shelving. Essentially, it's a beam supported from only one side. People have these things in their homes, too – you might screw or nail a piece of prettily designed metal into your wall and place a piece of painted wood on top for a nice shelf. Those pieces of metal are cantilevered; they're supported from the back by the wall, but they're on their own for the rest of it.

There's a whole process to choosing whether you're going to just slide the pallets in and use the pallets themselves as the shelving, or whether you're going to place the load, with or without the pallet, on a bunch of rollers to do the sliding for you, or something else.

There's also the whole thought of how you're going to unload. Most stores use a last in, first out method, just like if you were loading your car with groceries – since the first thing you put in the trunk is against the back wall, you grab the last thing you put in first. Since warehouse stores tend to put their racks up against the wall, or back-to-back with another rack that has different items on it, this system works best.

Some warehouses, though, use a first in, first out system, where you load something from one side, and unload it from the other. If you're loading and unloading something like this with a forklift, you use a drive-through rack, which a truck can enter from either side (or drive all the way through if there's not a stack of something in the way). Those store racks would be drive-in racks, which a truck can enter, but then has to back out because there's support beam or something in the way.