Issue № 54


At the kickoff of an unusually long issue of 7 for Sunday, I’ll try to keep this first part short, because (as I often say, because I really do mean it) I appreciate your time and attention, and I don’t take it for granted.

Civility fades in the face of entitlement.

~ Seth Godin from,

Godin’s point—that sometimes we choose to assert that something was ours to take, when in fact someone was kind enough to give a gift—really landed for me. I’m reminded of a recently-run-here quote from Kevin Kelly about the growth opportunities pointed to by irritation with others.

Writer’s block

Re: Writer’s Block. Perhaps more should have it. Perhaps the disease, the dilemma, the affliction is trying to tell the writer something. Much that is being produced is unnecessary, indulgent. When the sincerity, the weird naïveté and enchanted stupor of writing leaves the host—the writer—one can only pray for their return, their reintegration.

~ Joy Williams

What kid would think this through?

In high school I had a class where your final grade was based on a total number of points earned through the semester. The final exam was worth a large portion of the total semester points—let’s say it was 500 of your semester’s possible points. Your percent-score on the exam determined how many of those points you received. (Ace the exam, and you get all 500 points.)

The exam was many hundreds of multiple-choice questions; The exam was so long that no one could ever finish it. The questions had to be shuffled to mix the material taught in the course. Every year the questions were identical, but each year the teacher made a copy of the master list, cut up (yes, with a scissors) the questions, shuffled the strips, and then taped the questions onto a sheet with question numbering, to create a unique Frankenstein-exam every year. This Franken-xam was then photocopied (via a Volkswagen Beetle sized behemoth in the main office) to produce the actual exams.

In the days before the exam, we were told to work at our own pace, to answer each question (skips counted as wrong answers) and to simply stop when time was called. Afterwards, the teacher would calculate the average number of questions attempted by the class. That average was then used as the possible number of questions for calculating our exam scores. (Thus the shuffling to create an exam that is however-long we made it as we took it!) If you went farther than the class’s average attempted number, then you could score some extra points (if you get the answers right, of course) to offset any wrong answers you had along the way. A lot of work to shuffle it every year, but it was a neat idea.

I think it had always worked because kids just didn’t care enough to think it through. We weren’t told the total number of questions, nor what previous classes had attempted. But, for discussion here, let’s say the class’s average-attempted is 200. And let’s say I were to answer 227 questions, but I get 24 wrong. That feels like an 89%, right? No, actually I end up with 203 correct answers, which is more than the class’s average-attempted of 200. I actually score 101.5% and I would get all of the exam’s 500 points towards my semester total. Wait, there’s more: As extra credit, my 3 extra correct answers (my 203 against the 200 attempted average) become extra credit points just added right to my semester total. I’d get 503 points towards my semester!

After the exam was announced, two of my friends and I, realized…

  1. Do not tell another soul about this or everyone will fail the exam.
  2. When you get the test, go as fast as you can. Our goal is to attempt as many questions as possible.
  3. The goal isn’t to get every question right— The goal is to get a lot right.

For example, if we could get just 60% right—normally a really poor performance on an exam—while attempting twice as many as the class average, we win big. Say, 200 average-attempted, against our 400 attempted, at 60% correct (240 correct answers of 400)… we’d score 120% on the exam, plus 40 extra points (our 240 correct above the 200 needed) That’s 540 points towards the semester. And, if we could get 75% correct, while attempting 3 times as many questions, then our exam score is 225% (that’s our 450 correct answers, while needing only 200) plus an extra 250 points (that’s our 450, minus the 200 to ace the exam) That’s 750 points towards the semester! Now do you see the attack? 🙂

I never understood why no one else ever tried that.

I know this is a minor thing in the universe of problems with secondary education and grading, but I found the hack interesting.

~ Bruce Schneier from,

…and I’m actually not sure if what we tried even worked. You thought I was going to have a clear take-away about my actual scores, or the test never being given again?! No the take-away is: Oh, I’ve been thinking like a hacker for a Long. Long. Time.


It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

~ Upton Sinclair


As the edges of human knowledge are advanced, the total amount one must learn to be able to then contribute to further advancement grows. If there’s a proverbial mountain of knowledge, it grows taller as each contributor adds. If you start from the beach (at birth), wander inland in your early years of not-guided-by-you learning, and eventually decide to scale the mountain… well, it really matters in what epoch you happened to be born. Or maybe it doesn’t?

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers-conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

~ Vannevar Bush from, As We May Think

Bush played a complex role in the history of the United States. (It’s better if you form your own opinion about him and his work.) His short essay from about 80 years ago is these days seen by technophiles as heralding our own, current Internet and information age. In particular, a lot is read into Bush’s description of a desk which behaves like our modern Internet, information systems, and data processing. That’s fine. It’s like reading 80-year-old science fiction that became science fact.

Much more interesting to me is the point that with just a bit of squinting, it looks like nothing has changed in 80 years. Everything about this—the mountain of information, the tools [eg, Bush’s imagined desk, our internet], the people feeling overloaded, the specialization—feels fractal.


Hope is not happiness or confidence or inner peace; It’s a commitment to search for possibilities.

~ Rebecca Solnit

Curated and random

I recall a little sign which was sometimes spotted on desks, back in the before-times when everyone had a desk and papers and ring-binders and books and a telephone that also sat upon that desk. The sign was: “A messy desk is a sign of genius.” (And sometimes it said, “…of a creative mind.” )

I’ve had a lot of desks. In every case, I’ve always swerved repeatedly between messy and organized. I get to a point where—sometimes with a literal scream—I stop working and reorganize everything. For a long time, I hoped that one day I would manage to be just comfortable enough, with just the right amount of clutter and chaos, to be able to reach a steady state.

One detail that drives me bonkers is in the digital realm, computers are perfectly organized. I use a tool (called Reeder) to manage a read-this-later collection. It’s a big collection often reaching 500 different things marked as possibly interesting. (Some are interesting enough to spend a few minutes on, some are interesting enough to spend hours on.) Sometimes I’ll randomly shuffle things in a digital list. But sometimes… the list is just ordered the way you assemble it. And you can look at the list in forward or reverse order. This gets to me. If it’s a big list, neither forwards or backwards is best. So instead, I do both: I read the item off one end (the thing that’s been in the list longest) and then the other (the newest), and I just alternate in a reading session.

Perhaps this seems like a silly or trivial thing to point out. But there’s a bigger lesson: Where do I have some specific structure (organization, ordering, etc.) that I didn’t actually intend? …is that structure holding me back or keeping me from experiencing something I’d prefer?

Until next time, thanks for reading.



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