The Rental Philosopher

Your intellectual handyman.

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It struck me how lacking in imagination we are: we had been putting our suitcases on top of a cart with wheels, but nobody thought of putting tiny wheels directly under the suitcase


Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Anti-Fragility

We’ve understood the theory of how the wheel works for a long time. We’ve understood that we could put our luggage on carts to get them on planes for a while. But why did it take so long to realise that we could actually put tiny wheels under our suitcases? An interesting question from Nicholas Nassim Taleb, and part of his argument that theory follows practice and not the other way around, which is why we should ‘tinker’ and play around more often to stumble into strokes of genius.

To become a successful philosopher king, it is much better to start as a king than as a philosopher

— Nicholas Nassim Taleb heavily critiques academia (over 2000 years of it, for that matter) in his latest book Anti-Fragility. And rightly so. There is something odd about philosophers rationalising their own poverty when they never had an option. There is much more to say for the person who is able to theorise from practice, than the person who theorises but doesn’t practice. The industrial revolution wasn’t started by academics or their theories, it was started by tinkering entrepreneurs with no idea of theory. In other words: wisdom above knowledge. Being able to practice beats being able to theorise.

Calling names: migrants, settlers and foreigners after the 1800s in words and data


In his book Exodus Paul Collier notes the following: “between 1810 and 1830 a subtle change occurred in the language used to describe migrants. Around 1810 the term most frequently used in newspapers was “emigrants.” But by 1830, “emigrants” had given way to a new term, “settlers.” I think that this change was not innocuous; the two terms imply radically different narratives”

Google Ngram confirms this, although either Collier or Ngram is a couple of years off, which may be attributed to the fact that Ngram uses books instead of newspapers which may delay the change in use of the terms a bit. But when we look in more detail we also see some other interesting facts. We see a big influx of European immigrants from the 1860’s to the 1920’s, this, however, is only picked up in literature after the 1900’s when we start to see books with titles like “Mentality of the Arriving Immigrant”, “On the Trail of the Immigrant”, and “The Immigrant and the Community”. I believe this is the start of the contemporary immigration narrative as Collier calls is.

There’s no use trying” said Alice. “One can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice”, said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

— A quote from Alice in Wonderland in Tom Peters’ This I Believe, on creativity, business, innovation and life in general.

What!? How … ? But Why!? Seven Ways to Ask Better Questions


A while a go I was trying to form a research question. That odd process where scientific results are supposed to suddenly appear when you ask the right question. More often than not you find an interesting answer and try to figure out the corresponding question like a lame, dinner time game show. I realised, however, that the way I asked the question pointed me in a certain direction. Asking a question starting with ‘How …’ unfolded a mechanism, a way things worked. ‘How did the Second World War start?’ will give you a description of how one event unfolded into another. Compare that with ‘Why did the Second World War start?’ or ‘What was the start of the Second World War?’ and you’ll begin to see the difference. You’ll get a motivation, or a specification depending on what you ask. With the risk of stating the obvious, but the way you ask a question highly influences the answer you’ll get. So here are seven ways to ask better questions.

1. Ask Them 

If you want to use of the power of questions you’ll have to ask them. As 37Signals founder Jason Fried paraphrased Clayton Christensen: ”Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go.” To see the answers around you, you’ll have to ask questions all the time. Not necessarily to other people, but also to yourself. Meaningful questions that is. It’s not enough to keep the conversation polite and pleasant, you need a little friction to get somewhere meaningful. That can be confrontational, for yourself as well as your subject.

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Story Asymmetry: 4 Ways You’re Missing Out on Customer Experience

“A very good morning ladies and gentlemen. I’m happy to announce that we have safely reached our destination, The Hague. All that’s left for me to do is to wish you all a fulfilling and productive day! From here on, you’re on your own.”

Everyone around me on the train had a grin on their face when they heard this announcement from the train driver at eight in the morning. The grin was sheepish, yes, but they noticed it. Even if only a little, it changed their day for the better. And this was just from the people I could see in my compartment, multiply that by twenty and you get an idea of the power a train driver has every morning. This is the asymmetry of the story. The train driver might feel he is repeating himself over and over, but everyday has a new morning. We’re all experts in picking up emotions and tone of voice in other people’s speech, so we notice his disdain and uninterestedness and let it affect us. It might also be the first time we hear the announcement. It might be the first time on a train ever.

Years ago I worked in an Apple store. It was around the time the first iPhone came out. We didn’t have any in stock yet, but people came by the dozen everyday to ask whether we had. At some point one of my colleagues said: “Why do they keep asking about that iPhone? I’ve told them a million times we don’t have it yet. Wouldn’t they know it by now?” Of course, the outside world is not one all-knowing organism. For every customer coming in to the store it’s a new story. For you it’s an old story. That means you’ll often be repeating yourself, but it also means you have an opportunity to reinvent yourself and to surprise your customer. So here are four things you need to keep in mind.

  • Leverage: The decision you make may be small, even it’s impact for an individual may be small, but it can influence lots and lots of people.

  • Feedback: Your feedback-loop may be removed from the the actual customer experience, so you’ll never see how your decision influences the experience a customer has. If you use and experience your own product or service, you’ll see how it works for you. But you also need to learn how others use and experience your service and whether it’s broken for them. 

  • Responsibility: Who is responsible for customer interaction? The person who sets up the process and service? Or the cleaner who notices where things go wrong? What is the job you’re paying people to do? Who do they report to?

  • Everything is a service: you can no longer get away by saying that you’re responsible for your product until it leaves the factory. Everything that takes place afterwards is associated with your product. The way it is displayed in the store, the online reviews, the way it is used in combination with other products. Your always selling a service, not just a product.

Story asymmetry is often a cause for a broken interaction, but most of the time no one in the process realises its impact. The store clerk who sticks the price tag over a product description probably fails to understand this causes some people to walk out of the store. The mumbling train driver making an incomprehensible announcement at the stop for the airport, fails to see the tourist who will miss his flight. At the same time these are the people that have leverage. This is where one person can make a small (positive) impact on many lives. All you need though, is to realise you can make that impact. 

Weekend art project: The GeomeTree. Nothing more than a bunch of nails and some thread.

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess, because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, or even to have found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.

— Walden, David Henry Thoreau

We are in this mess today because our post-scarcity world economy cannot produce sufficient effective demand required to keep everybody employed. From 1938 to 1945, war created that demand. From 1945 to 1973, prosperity, rising wages, and advertising created that demand. From 1982 to 2007, debt fuelled consumption financed by ever rising asset prices created that demand.

— Tom Streihorst on why we are solving the wrong problems the wrong way and why creating meaningful demand is important, not austerity.

Talking about talking, thinking about thinking, thinking about talking, tasting taste, and talking about thinking about taste. The philosophy of Wine. The always eloquent Steven Shapin on The Tastes of Wine: Towards a Cultural History (by CRASSH Cambridge)