A few months ago, I posted a reply on social media with a comment that I called "Doug's Law #271". "There’s a precursor event to every disaster, if anyone is paying sufficient attention." A friend, taking me seriously (big mistake) asked to read the other 270, which didn't really exist.
After a little thought, I decided it would be worthwhile to make a list of my life lessons and insights. Some are original, but more are life lessons I learned from others, in person or through reading. Some of these might seem cynical, obvious or trivial. As another friend often says, your mileage may vary. But for what it's worth, here is the list of Doug's Laws.
1) All human problems can be solved with enough knowledge, money, social cooperation and time.
Social cooperation and time are usually the limiting factors.
- Modified from David Deutsch
2) On a beach of white seashells, the dark shell is the prettiest. On a beach of dark seashells, the white one is the prettiest.
The sunset is beautiful because it is brief and different than the other colors of the day.
3) Objective truth exists and is generally accessible to everyone.
4) Progressive risk-taking always ends in trouble or disaster.
Examples of progressive risk-taking include:
> “We’ve taken chances before, and it’s always worked out all right.”
> “We’ve launched the Space Shuttle successfully twenty-four times; what can go wrong?”
> “You can always fit a car through a narrower space than you expect” - until you can’t.
> “Well, you didn’t get pregnant the last time”.
> “You can go farther than you think on a tank of gas” - until you can’t. This is especially important in small airplanes. – Modified from FAA Accident Report, circa 2009
5) You have to learn to cooperate when paddling a canoe.
6) There is no rewind button on life.
Kasparov makes an analogy to the chessboard. You have to play the position on the board, regardless of your own prior errors or unexpected moves by your opponent. Omar Khayyam also had something to say about the moving finger that writes and moves on.
7) We should judge God according to standards of reason and justice.
If we determine that God is not reasonable or just, why should anyone believe in God?
- Modified from David Deutsch.
8) Thinking based on false premises cannot be expected to yield good conclusions or decisions.
This is why I reject religion and spirituality, despite some positive aspects of these beliefs.
9) The existence of war causes me to question the existence of nations as an organizing principle for humankind.
10) Borders are not for keeping people out; they are for keeping rules in.
- Steve Robbins (son)
11) Kindness is best and most needed when it is completely unexpected.
12) Humans are a uniquely improbable, intelligent and capable species with no known analogs in time and space.
There is no evidence of another sentient and capable species in the 4.5 billion year history of earth. Cephalopods did not develop technical intelligence in nearly 500 million years of evolution. Dinosaurs did not evolve technical intelligence in 170 million years of evolution. There is no evidence of another sentient species in the galaxy.
We should make the most of our abilities. We are unique, and have the opportunity to become something better than we are today.
13) I live in the Middle Ages, a time of war, disease, superstition and ignorance.
The Middle Ages will end when humankind is no longer organized into nations, when infectious disease is conquered, when most people no longer believe in spiritual beings and when education provides understanding, instead of belief and knowledge.
14) It’s critically important to know when the rules have changed.
People in 1930s Europe didn’t realize that the rules had changed.
15) If you don’t have a better idea, it’s time to shut up.
When someone is objecting to the solution to a problem, ask them for their alternative.
16) Three out of six people are completely honest.
Two out of six will bend the rules to their advantage.
One out of six people will simply cheat.
- From experience as an internal auditor, an unscientific sample.
17) The great ethical debate of the next century will be what rights to give to sentient machines.
The great ethical debate of the following century will be what rights to give to sentient humans.
18) Justice delayed is injustice.
19) You can’t mop the floor clean with dirty water.
-Steak ‘n Shake manager, 1972.
Ends and means are the same. There are no good ends achieved though bad means.
- Modified from Jacob Bronowski.
20) Celebrate people who are different. Accept people you don’t understand. Tolerate people who are somewhat annoying. Confront people who are evil.
21) No one is solely responsible for their own success. Everyone is helped by other people along the way, and by the schools and institutions that enable them to succeed.
No business is solely responsible for its own success. Every business is only successful because society has created a landscape of fair opportunity, physical and commercial infrastructure and a legal framework that enable the business to succeed.
Successful individuals and businesses have a responsibility to pay forward the profits of their success, so that others can also succeed.
22) Anything worth doing requires practice.
23) You improve what you measure.
- Ralph Dartez
24) You can’t write unless you have something to say.
Decide what to say before you write.
25) Say the most important thing first.
- Ed Buchwald
26) Everything you write will be improved by an editor.
- Renee Frazee, former secretary
27) Get rid of commas and extra words whenever you can.
28) Explanations matter.
Science is a matter of finding explanations. An explanation is the identification, observation, measurement and communication about some process that changes physical reality. Explanations follow the structure of language, with subjects, objects, actions and descriptive modifiers.
- Synthesis and expansion after David Deutsch, Jacob Bronowski and Ed Buchwald.
29) Empiricism isn’t science; it only works within the range of previous experience.
A good explanation has reach; it works outside the bounds of prior experience and extends to unexpected domains.
- Modified from David Deutsch and Jacob Bronowksi.
30) Nassim Taleb’s Black Swans represent events outside of the previous range of experience.
“The Envelope” is the term used by test pilots to describe the range of previous testing parameters for an airplane Unexpected behavior often occurs outside of the envelope. Empiricism only works within the envelope of prior experience. Good explanations are needed to anticipate outcomes outside of the envelope of prior experience.
31) Doing something and doing enough are entirely different things.
32) People think and identify in dualities.
Examples: Communism or Democracy, mountains or seashore, truth or falsehood, good or evil, Republican or Democrat. Reality is more complicated.
33) Scientists come in two types, experimentalists and theoreticians.
Consider Aristotle vs. Plato, Galileo vs. Newton, Michelson vs. Einstein, Edison vs. Tesla. Neither can progress without the other. This is another example of a simplified but useful duality.
34) People think either in terms of what is seen and experienced, or in terms of underlying causes. It is difficult for the two types to communicate.
This difference corresponds to the “sensing” or “intuitive” types in the Myers-Briggs personality system. The sensing individual believes only what he’s seen and doesn’t look for underlying causes. The intuitive individual seeks to understand what he hasn’t seen and expects underlying causes. This distinction seems to represent the some of the biggest differences in human outlook, including political orientation.
35) There is a hierarchy in the ways that people comprehend the world: experience, belief, knowledge and understanding. Understanding is the highest level of comprehension, and fails less often than experience, belief, or knowledge. Experience is necessarily limited. Belief is without basis beyond historical precedent. Knowledge implies learning from authoritative sources, and is generally limited to outcomes. Understanding implies that you know how things work; you comprehend the physical processes producing a higher level result.
36) People hate to let go of knowledge they learned as a child.
37) Any number is meaningless without another number for context.
38) Anyone or anything of sufficient intelligence should be able to independently derive the golden rule. Some animals are sufficiently intelligent. Some people are not.
39) People who don’t give respect don’t deserve respect.
40) Democracy and free enterprise are the best known systems for political and economic organization, but these institutions only work in societies with high integrity, fairness and regard for truth. This is concerning for the United States in 2020.
41) Rome didn’t fall in a day.
42) Anyone who won’t face the world without a gun is either a bully or a coward.
43) Being a manager is largely about being a life counselor.
44) At any given time, one out of ten people is in an existential crisis, and has told somebody about it. Another one out of ten people is in crisis but hasn’t told anyone yet.
45) Being a manager is like being a custodian.
You stay at the office after everyone else has gone home and clean up the mess that people made during the day.
46) Always learn the name of the custodian and thank them by name.
47) Always greet people by name.
48) People who think like dogs make great employees.
People who think like cats wind up in prison.
49) Every small child is a genius in terms of learning, memory and creativity.
50) Every small child instinctively understands that this moment will never come again.
Adults mistakenly believe that there’s time to do things later.
51) Amateur music is good training for life.
You learn to appreciate the good notes and ignore the bad ones.
52) It’s always darkest just before you stub your toe and fall down the stairs.
53) People are at their greatest risk of a tragic accident when they are on vacation or having fun.
54) The enjoyment of a bit of food is often inversely proportional to its size.
55) When you’re hiking up a mountain, most of the way you can’t see the top.
56) Always minimize the weight you are carrying when hiking.
You will enjoy the hike much more. But in dry country, always carry enough water. You can make that a life metaphor if you like.
57) It’s best to start hiking uphill and come down on the way home.
Also, start biking, canoeing or kayaking into the wind, and return with the wind at your back.
58) Always check the gas when you start an engine.
59) People consciously and unconsciously signal their status to other people.
One of our strongest signals is gender identity.
60) Women usually wear mittens. Men usually wear gloves.
Nothing they say about it actually explains the dichotomy.
61) If it’s important, write it down now.
62) The more hours I spend outdoors, the better I sleep.
63) For every proverb, there’s an equal and opposite proverb.
Examples: A) Look before you leap. B) He who hesitates is lost.
A) A penny saved is a penny earned. B) You can’t take it with you.
– Steve Robbins (son)
64) A good question carries with it the key to its own solution.
– source unknown
65) When a reporter asks you for a comment, they’ve already decided what you are going to say.
66) If you are a public figure, no reporter is ever really your friend.
67) Propaganda works.
Confirmation bias is a very powerful force. Confirmation bias combined with propaganda forms a feedback loop leading to unreasonable denial of truth.
68) Most people are not interested in seeing both sides of an issue.
69) Most politicians only know how to get elected and have no idea how to govern.
- Peggy Robbins
70) It is impossible for a politician to remain completely independent of the interests of his campaign donors. This is the reason for campaign finance reform.
71) When there’s only one way to say the truth, that’s how you have to say it.
- Modified from Ed Sneed.
72) Truth is necessarily an approximation, operating over a given domain, and with a degree of uncertainty. But uncertainty does not mean falsehood. Objective truth (not absolute truth) exists.
73) Art is the deliberate creation of something that produces an emotional response in another person. Art is an intentional form of communication. Art requires an artist and an audience.
74) People come in distinct, different personality types, easily recognizable according to various systems (Briggs/Myers INTJ, etc.; Thinker/Doer/Socializer/Empathizer; Authority Centered/Peer Centered/Ego Centered; Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, etc.). Bu personalities are not fixed, but vary with time and context. A leader in the office may be a follower in the family, and yet another type in a social club.
75) The personality of a dog usually says something about the personality of its owner.
76) Everyone working a full-time job deserves to earn a living wage. A living wage is enough to comfortably raise a family.
77) Dog owners will never understand that the dog’s behavior toward a stranger is different than the dog’s behavior toward its family.
78) All cats are alike, which is why tigers will sit in boxes.
This is concerning because the biggest cats would like to eat you.
79) Every database has errors. The larger the database, the more errors there are.
80) Every question from a vice-president begins with “what” or “how”. Every question from the president begins with “who”.
81) The potential return from cutting costs is one-fold. The potential return from growth is unlimited.
82) There is value in redundancy. Redundancy provides resiliency, optionality, innovation and quality control. These benefits usually outweigh the costs.
83) There is value in diversity – of people, of systems, of approaches to problems. Like redundancy, diversity provides resiliency, optionality, innovation and quality control.
84) People make work for other people. Larger organizations have greater scope and flexibility, but less efficiency.
85) Every system has friction and inefficiencies. A rigorous program of eliminating inefficiencies may impair the primary function of the system.
86) The benefit of a risk decision should first be weighed against the impact of the potential loss, without regard to probability.
87) There’s a precursor event to every disaster, if anyone is paying sufficient attention.
Problems with the Titanic’s rivets were known before it hit an iceberg. Problems with the Shuttle O-Rings were known before the Challenger disaster. Problems with the Shuttle heat tiles were known before the Columbia disaster.
88) The most common cause of failure for risk appraisal models is correlated risk.
This was the cause of the financial crisis of 2008. The second most common cause is neglected experience.
89) The universe will keep teaching you the same lesson until you learn it.
- Michelle Turner
90) In your previous life experience, you have never found the limit of how good or how bad a situation can be.
“You only think you’ve found the endpoint of the lowest quality oil in the Gulf of Mexico.”
– Vic Beghini, President of Marathon Oil. (Note: Beghini was right.).
In any distribution there’s always a possible realization beyond what you have sampled.
In any situation, it’s always possible for things to be worse.
91) Variables in one dimension have a normal distribution. Variables in multiple dimensions (either physical dimensions or the product of one-dimensional variables) have a skewed, log-normal distribution. The greater the skew, the more likely the variable is due to multiple-parameters.
92) Most real-world distributions are log-normal in the middle, but distorted on the tails.
Distribution tails may be truncated by physical limits or fattened by some parameter outside of basic model.
93) No one can properly assess very low probability or very high probability events.
This is partly due to sampling theory, party human nature, and partly due to uncertainty about distribution tails. Strategic planning for these events should focus on scenarios rather than probabilities .
94) Truly random events happen in streaks.
95) There are more ways for things to go wrong than right.
This accounts for the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy), Murphy’s Law, and Tolstoy’s aphorism about happy and unhappy families.
96) It is in the nature of the human brain to sometimes make mistakes.
Thinking is a statistical process, involving thousands of synapses modulating thousands of others. The process is generally correct, but not always. – after Jacob Bronowski and Daniel Kahneman
97) Today’s geologists will spend the first half of our careers trying to get carbon out of the ground. We will spend the second half of our careers trying to put it back.
- Me, circa 1990
98) Regarding climate change, if we all do a little, we will only do a little.
Large scale solutions are needed.
- modified from David MacKay
99) Climate change solutions need to be efficient (affordable) scalable and timely. As of today, no such solutions exist. - Dr. Charles Hall, SUNY, circa 2009
More than a decade later, we are only a little closer to efficient, scalable solutions, and we are running out of time.
100) Risk factors are not all equal.
The risk on an oil prospect is calculated as the product of several component risks – source rock, reservoir rock, seal, trap, and timing. However, the risks are not of equal scope. The lack of a source rock condemns a basin; lack of reservoir, seal or poor timing condemns a play; lack of a trap condemns only a prospect. Risk factors occur in a natural hierarchy and should not be regarded as equal in developing an exploration program.
101) The main criterion for judging prospects should not be the chance of success on the exploration well, but the probability that if the exploration well is successful, the project will be successful. Delineation risk should be managed during the prospect generation and selection process.
102) A good prospect should have five elements. These elements constrain delineation and development risk. (AKA Robbins’ Rules.)
> A prospect should be simple.
> A prospect should be big (enough to be clearly economic if successful, and have a meaningful commercial impact to the company).
> A prospect should be seismically visible.
> A prospect should have a laterally continuous reservoir.
> A prospect should be developed according to a conceptual model.
103) Every list in a business presentation starts with the author’s personal agenda, followed by several things that everybody knows and ends with the boss’s personal dogma. (See list above.)
104) The productivity and wealth of a nation depends on its energy usage and level of integrity.
Per capita GDP correlates very well with an index weighting energy usage by 2/3 and integrity (from Transparency International) by 1/3. See the “Wealth of Nations” post on my blog, Wonky Thoughts.
105) Your reputation is your most important asset.
- Steve Robbins (father, b. 1923)
106) No one can ever take your education away from you.
- Steve Robbins (father, b. 1923)
107) A contract is meaningless without mechanisms for enforcement of its terms.
- Ralph Dartez
108) Buying and holding a low-cost stock index is the most effective investing strategy.
This is due to several simple truths: 1) you can’t time the market, 2) a broad portfolio performs best, 3) gains on held stocks compound without tax, and 4) you will minimize management fees.
109) If you have an investing idea but aren’t sure that you are right, do half of what you originally considered. This prevents inaction.
110) My grandfather dropped out of school at the age of 14 and started a real estate business with his older brother. He retired at the age of 89. He said that 75 years in real estate had taught him three things.
1) Every house has cracks.
2) Every house eventually sells.
3) Something is only worth what someone else will pay you for it.
When I became older, I wondered if he meant this to be an analogy to people.
1) Every person has flaws.
2) There’s a suitable partner for every person.
3) Your value as a person is measured by what you provide to others.
111) Human values inform the decisions and behavior of individuals and societies. There are first-order core values, and second-order values which logically follow from core values or the intersection of core values.
The following is a list of my values.
> Empathy – Kindness, Compassion, Human Understanding, Care, Generosity
> Truth – Honesty, Integrity, Accountability
> Equity – Fairness, Justice, Respect, Diversity, Human Dignity, Opportunity, Democracy, Shared Prosperity
> Service – Work Ethic, Humility (do the little things), Productivity (produce more than you consume).
> Progress – Science, Exploration, Technology, Physical Understanding, Globalism, Economic Development, Social Development, Peace
> Responsibility – Ethics, Family, Community, Care and Provision for Future Generations
> Conservation—Care and preservation of Nature for its own sake
> Liberty – Individual Freedom, Self-determination
> Self-regard – Courage, Reputation, Self-reliance, Challenge, Legacy, Productivity, Creativity
112) Here is a list of values I reject.
113) The creative personality is one that looks on the world as fit for change, and on himself as an instrument for change – Jacob Bronowski.
114) Creativity is a deliberate process used by clever people to solve problems, or for the pure joy of creation. There are many similarities between technical creativity and artistic creativity.
Here is a list of creative processes.
> Creativity begins with deep expertise in a field.
> The next step involves reframing the problem or the paradigm. A good question carries with it the key to its own solution (Law #54).
> Creativity often involves inversion of some part of the problem – or asking what would happen if you try exactly the opposite of what you’ve been trying to do.
> Visualize the problem from different vantage points, or before and after a process.
> Abstract thought (visualization) should alternate with analytical thought (measurement and calculation) in an iterative cycle.
> Depending on the problem, multiple solutions may be generated and evaluated before selecting an optimal solution, by some criteria.
> The creative work may come as a single inspiration, or a set of incremental innovations.
> The final step of any creative process is the realization and validation, through publication, construction or performance of the creative enterprise. – Modified after Betty Edwards
115) Here is a list of laws about photography.
> Avoid back-lighting. Put the subject of the photo in the best light, and focus on the subject.
> Try to achieve a range of brightness in the subject.
> Underexpose the photo; never overexpose. For landscapes, set the light setting by focusing on the sky.
> Check the background for distracting elements.
> Check that the horizon is horizontal.
> Never put the subject in the middle; follow the rule of thirds.
> Direct movement, facing and gaze toward the center of the photo.
> In landscapes, put an object in the foreground to create depth in the photo.
> Find complimentary colors.
> Look for patterns diverging or radiating from a point; look for repeating shapes or patterns at different scales.