Loonshots by Safi Bahcall - Book Notes

Loonshots by Safi Bahcall - Book Notes

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries
by Safi Bahcall

In Loonshots, Safi Bahcall makes a compelling case that:

  1. The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.

  2. Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.

  3. There are practical rules any organization can follow to nurture loonshots faster and better.

The book is entertaining read, charting stories of loonshots and radical change from the scientific revolution, military R&D from World War I through World War II and modern-day DARPA, and companies in biotech (Bahcall’s bread and butter) and other industries.

Out of these stories, Bahcall extracts rules and guidelines that organizations can follow to nurture crazy, world-changing ideas. He calls them the “Bush-Vail rules”, after Vannevar Bush and Theodore Newton Vail. Bush created and led the new US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), through which almost all US military R&D was channeled during World War II, and also pushed for the creation of the National Science Foundation and for a lot more government funding of R&D in general. Vail lead AT&T labs during 1885-1889 and 1907-1919 and greatly grew the utility of the service through pioneering research and development.

Let’s take a look at those rules.

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Zen, Suchness, and Sign Language

“A girl is crossing the street. Is she the younger or the older sister?”

Rather obviously, the question is impossible to answer using judgement. And yet this is precisely the question a student of Zen may be asked as koan - a question to test a student’s understanding of Zen.

In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts writes

“Such koan are rather more obviously “tricky”… and show the student that what are dilemmas for thought present no barriers to action… the student solves the problem of the younger or older sister by mincing across the room like a girl. For in her absolute “suchness” the girl is just that; she is only relatively “sister,” “older,” or “younger.”

One can perhaps understand why a man who had practiced za-zen for eight years told R. H. Blyth that “Zen is just a trick of words,” for… Zen is extricating people from the tangle in which they find themselves from confusing words and ideas with reality.”

Indeed. Let’s do a perhaps silly thing, and use words to define “suchness” as the true, concrete essence of things as they really are, without words or other ideas attached to them.

The “solution” of the koan as described above made me think of sign language - the language used by deaf people to communicate with each using their hands and body language.

See here for how I hacked the above demo together

“But wait Krystof! In that video you’re just translating words - that’s not suchness!”

‘Tis true, and that’s where classifiers come in.

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Killing It

For the first few minutes of the opening episode of Killing It, you might think you’re watching Silicon Valley: an ambitious entrepreneur with a big dream and an empty wallet practices his pitch to get funding so that he can change the world.

But Killing It is set in Florida, and things quickly go Florida-man south:

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Traveling around Cusco, Peru

Traveling around Cusco, Peru

Cusco, is the regional hub near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes, and the starting point for many adventures near the city, of which easily the most popular is Machu Picchu.

Plaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas

I spent just shy of two weeks there while I traveled around those sights. I’ve written up separate posts about the highlights of the trip including…

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