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Nature as a Fitness Center, Putting Curiosity on a Pedestal, & The Blockchain as an Institution (Reading/Study Notes 6.6.18)

Resource: How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout


This post is a brief account of the workout routines of the poet Walt Whitman. He was a man who made nature his gym. He exercised his body by finding creative ways to toss/catch stones and push/pull trees among other things. It’s a testament to the power we have to find our own way to do things if we’re willing to bring some personality to the task. It’s also a good reminder of the possibility we have to integrate things that are important to us. For Whitman, his love for nature, contemplation, and personal fitness were all capable of being cultivated and celebrated at the same time and in the same context.


“The question of whether we are minds in bodies or bodies with minds has animated philosophers for millennia…My own accidental answer arrived long ago, when I began noticing that my morning workout provided the most fertile hours for reading and thinking. Every single morning for more than fifteen years, I have journeyed to the gym with a book, filling margins with motion-mangled notes and scribbling ideas sparked in the connective tissue of the mind as blood and electricity course through my muscles.”

“A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high — pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets or plays — or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army. I make the echoes ring, I tell you!”

“His exercise for an hour each day consisted in tossing a few feet into the air, as he walked, a round, smooth stone, of about one pound weight, and catching it as it fell. Later in life, and after his first paralytic stroke, when in the woods, he liked to bend down the young saplings, and exercise his arms and chest in that way. In his poems much emphasis is laid upon health, and upon purity and sweetness of body, but none upon mere brute strength.”

Resource: Richard Saul Wurman the King of Access Q: What Do Bill Gates, Daniel Boorstin, Marvin Minsky, Horace Deets, Herbie Hancock, Nicholas Negroponte, Edward De Bono, and a Slew of Other Elite Doers and Thinkers Have in Common? A: They’re All Friends of Ted.


Richard Saul Wurman is the founder of TED Talks. He’s known by many titles, but the one he prefers the most is “intellectual hedonist.” This title captures his insatiable curiosity. It was this curiosity, this love for ideas that eventually made him wealthy in his late 40’s. Embodying his own advice to “sell your curiosities, not your expertise”, Wurmnan’s road to wealth began when he published a series of access guides that essentially documented his own curiosities and discoveries related to Los Angeles. TED talks were born out of his desire to speak with as many interesting thinkers as possible while also creating a space for the cross-pollination for ideas. He describes the TED experience as the dinner party he’s always wanted.

Most of us know of TED through videos of short talks we watch on YouTube. TED’s notoriety, however, is rooted in the live experience. Top researchers, investors, achievers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and artists paid roughly a couple thousand dollars to attend an event where they could schmooze without shame among other ambitious minds who were eccentric in their own way. Many creative projects and business ideas (ie. Wired Magazine for example) were the by-product of cocktail conversations that started at TED conferences.

Wurman is described as someone with a short-attention span who loves to start fires and quickly move to new projects. He often leaves the messy details and day-to-day project management to others while he focuses on being the information architect of big ideas.

At 45, Wurman was fired from his job as a professor and his career as an architect failed. That’s when he made up his mind to let his curiosities take the lead and be the true driving force in his life.

Wurman is known for be persistent and bold when it comes to going after what he wants. He espouses an “ask for the best seat in the house” philosophy because “someone is going to get it and you might as well give yourself a chance to be the one.” In the spirit of Michael Jordan’s “I can accept failure, but I can’t accept not trying”, Wurman says he was taught by his father to always take chances asking for what you want. If you get a “no”, that’s fine but it’s not fine to count yourself out from the beginning by not asking.

For Wurman, the greatest sin is ignoring our own curiosities. He sees the willingness to indulge what we’re curious about as the cure to a great deal of society’s ills.

Wurman’s wife describes him as a TV baby who has a hard time focusing his attention on any one thing for too long. From what I have read about Wurman thus far, it doesn’t seem to be the case that he’s the most meticulous reader. His creation of idea/conversation meetups seems to be a way for him to increase his exposure to cool ideas in a way that works best for his learning style. I think this contains a great lesson about finding the approach that works for you and just going with it. Information is information and once it’s been internalize, it doesn’t matter what medium you used to access it. There’s no need to be a book snop or any other kind of snob. People need to give themselves permission to consume content in a way that feels the least like work. This also connects well with Walt Whitman’s approach to working out.


“My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight.” –Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” When he wrote these lines, Frost probably didn’t know he was describing a scheme for making millions of dollars. It took the shrewd, self-indulgent, childlike genius of Richard Saul Wurman to establish that possibility. After failing as an architect and getting fired as a college dean, Wurman found the calling many of us secretly want: intellectual hedonist. That’s his term, and it fits better than the ones people usually apply to him, like graphic designer, cartographer, writer, publisher. For what Wurman really does all day is shamelessly indulge his own interests. It’s hard work tearing around on one hobbyhorse after another, but the top brass at companies like Sony, Walt Disney, Intel, AT&T, and Microsoft pay him handsomely for it.”

“Recently, for example, he was captivated by a TV show on how insects crawl, featuring Robert Full, a biologist at the University of California at Berkeley. He immediately dialed Full and asked him to give a talk, gratis, at a conference Wurman was organizing… “I had no idea what it was all about,” says Full, whose work on insectlike robots and movie animations has won national media attention. But intrigued, he came, lectured, and suddenly was swarmed by admirers with vaguely familiar names. “I loved the bug man,” says conference attendee Stanley Marcus, retired CEO of Neiman Marcus. Full found himself talking biophysics with Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s chief technology officer. Other attendees offered the flabbergasted professor TV coverage and research funding.”

“And he’s serious about the importance of whole-hog self-indulgence when it comes to one’s interests. In his view, it’s a skill sadly in disrepute and the answer to many modern ills, from rotten schools to information overload. Opining about the latter in his 1989 book, Information Anxiety, he declares: “Your work should be an extended hobby.” He reached that conclusion ramming his head against the wall of his own nature, trying to succeed as an architect. “I needed quicker gratification; I needed to be able to follow my interests. When he did, his career took off.”

“ In 1981 came the first of his popular Access guidebooks to cities, one on Los Angeles. The book, he says, was largely inspired by what he found himself wanting to know after moving to L.A. “in a full state of disorientation.” Dozens of what-Wurman-wants-to-know guides followed, including ones on medicine and sports that sold millions.

“In 1984 he started TED, styling himself an impresario of Information Age thought leaders…TED is an unabashed schmooze fest, a series of standup snacks interrupted by short lectures. “Welcome to the dinner party I always wanted to have but couldn’t,” Wurman tells TED’s audience, opening his annual gig as its avuncular, wisecracking emcee.”

“”Richard has a very short attention span. He’s a total TV baby. But he has a childlike passion to understand things that never got messed up the way it gets messed up in most of us.”

“Says he: “I can’t do just one thing. That’s my problem. I don’t know if it’s an attention disorder.” This is more shtick. Wurman has made a great success of doing flybys of varied specialties, getting an acute sense for their fertile intersections. Says Doblin’s Keeley: “He understands that interesting things often don’t happen in fields themselves, but in the grout between the tiles. That’s the genius of TED.”

“The popularity of Wurman’s Access guides helped elevate him to guru of lucid design. He christened himself an “information architect” and waxed philosophical about the nature of clarity in books like Information Anxiety. His style, best represented by the Access guides, is marked by no-nonsense graphics, handy color codings for different kinds of information, and maps cleverly cross-linked and geared to a traveler’s-eye view. Above all, says longtime collaborator Jane Rosch, Wurman uses his interests to dictate how information is boiled down: “He thinks, ‘Here I am on a page. So where’s a place I can eat, or pee, or look at a gallery?’”

“In Information Anxiety he counsels readers to “embellish with flourish … To clarify or highlight something, you exaggerate it.”

“Lumpiness isn’t as crucial to Wurman’s magic as what his wife calls “Jewish voodoo,” an almost “primitive sense” of what to put in and leave out so his works work. Nor does it rank with his Godzilla-size chutzpah. Says he: “I always ask for the best seat in a restaurant. Someone’s going to sit in it. It’s okay if it’s not me, but it’s not okay for me not to try to get it. My father told me that.”

“Without his oceanic gall, TED wouldn’t be. Says Accel’s Schoendorf: “When most of us read about somebody interesting in a magazine, we put it down and go on. Wurman calls the guy up and says, ‘I’d like you to do something for me.’ ” Adds Saffo: “He’s a little like [San Francisco mayor] Willie Brown. If you do him a favor, he doesn’t feel he owes you one. He feels you’re in his debt because he did you the favor of letting you do him a favor.”

“I live by two credos,” says Wurman. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And most things don’t work.”

“Yet most, if not all, of Wurman’s sprites deem the wages fair. Says Tedologist Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog and now a senior statesman of the digital revolution: “People asked to talk at conferences a lot don’t do it for the money after a while. They do it for the quality of the audience. TED offers a killer audience and a killer lineup of other speakers.” Wurman asks the luminaries to stick around for the whole conference, and many do, helping to foster the camaraderie of intense, shared experience–My Dinner with Andre multiplied by about 50.”

Resource: How the blockchain will radically transform the economy | Bettina Warburg


The basis of economic activity is cooperation and collaboration. Human beings get their needs met by interacting with one another for the purpose of exchanging value.

One of the problems inherent in value exchange is uncertainty. There are three basic kinds of uncertainty: Can you trust the integrity of the provider? Can you trust the reliability of the process or delivery mechanism? What options do you have if the produce is defective in some way?

The way we deal with uncertainty is through institutions. An institution is any social group that abides by a set of formal rules and/or informal constraints. An institution can be a family, a village, a book club, a school, a government, a bank, and so on. Institutions provide a way for the people involved to reduce risks in their transactions with one another.

A centralized institution is one where an individual or group of individuals functions as an authority figure who ensures the integrity of the system by enforcing the rules.

Throughout history, the institutions we’ve relied on to reduce uncertainty are centralized institutions. The blockchain offers a way for us to reduce uncertainty in a decentralized manner.

The blockchain is a public and decentralized ledger that records all entries and transactions in a way that is permanent, secured by encryption, and in need of no central authority.

Centralized systems work based on trust. The blockchain works based on mutual distrust.


“As humans, we find ways to lower uncertainty about one another so that we can exchange value.”

“North pioneered what’s called “new institutional economics.” And what he meant by institutions were really just formal rules like a constitution, and informal constraints, like bribery. These institutions are really the grease that allow our economic wheels to function, and we can see this play out over the course of human history. If we think back to when we were hunter-gatherer economies, we really just traded within our village structure. We had some informal constraints in place, but we enforced all of our trade with violence or social repercussions. As our societies grew more complex and our trade routes grew more distant, we built up more formal institutions, institutions like banks for currency, governments, corporations. These institutions helped us manage our trade as the uncertainty and the complexity grew, and our personal control was much lower. Eventually with the internet, we put these same institutions online. We built platform marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, just faster institutions that act as middlemen to facilitate human economic activity. As Douglass North saw it, institutions are a tool to lower uncertainty so that we can connect and exchange all kinds of value in society. And I believe we are now entering a further and radical evolution of how we interact and trade, because for the first time, we can lower uncertainty not just with political and economic institutions, like our banks, our corporations, our governments, but we can do it with technology alone.”

“Blockchain technology is a decentralized database that stores a registry of assets and transactions across a peer-to-peer network. It’s basically a public registry of who owns what and who transacts what. The transactions are secured through cryptography, and over time, that transaction history gets locked in blocks of data that are then cryptographically linked together and secured. This creates an immutable, unforgeable record of all of the transactions across this network. This record is replicated on every computer that uses the network.”

“It’s not an app. It’s not a company. I think it’s closest in description to something like Wikipedia. We can see everything on Wikipedia. It’s a composite view that’s constantly changing and being updated. We can also track those changes over time on Wikipedia, and we can create our own wikis, because at their core, they’re just a data infrastructure. On Wikipedia, it’s an open platform that stores words and images and the changes to that data over time. On the blockchain, you can think of it as an open infrastructure that stores many kinds of assets. It stores the history of custodianship, ownership and location for assets like the digital currency Bitcoin, other digital assets like a title of ownership of IP. It could be a certificate, a contract, real world objects, even personal identifiable information. There are of course other technical details to the blockchain, but at its core, that’s how it works. It’s this public registry that stores transactions in a network and is replicated so that it’s very secure and hard to tamper with.”

“So uncertainty is kind of a big term in economics, but I want to go through three forms of it that we face in almost all of our everyday transactions, where blockchains can play a role. We face uncertainties like not knowing who we’re dealing with, not having visibility into a transaction and not having recourse if things go wrong.”

“Blockchains allow for us to create an open, global platform on which to store any attestation about any individual from any source. This allows us to create a user-controlled portable identity. More than a profile, it means you can selectively reveal the different attributes about you that help facilitate trade or interaction, for instance that a government issued you an ID, or that you’re over 21, by revealing the cryptographic proof that these details exist and are signed off on. Having this kind of portable identity around the physical world and the digital world means we can do all kinds of human trade in a totally new way.”

“The second uncertainty that we often face is just not having transparency into our interactions. Using the blockchain, we can create a shared reality across nontrusting entities. By this I mean
all of these nodes in the network do not need to know each other or trust each other, because they each have the ability to monitor and validate the chain for themselves. Think back to Wikipedia. It’s a shared database, and even though it has multiple readers and multiple writers at the same time, it has one single truth. So we can create that using blockchains. We can create a decentralized database that has the same efficiency of a monopoly without actually creating that central authority. So all of these vendors, all sorts of companies, can interact using the same database without trusting one another. It means for consumers, we can have a lot more transparency. As a real-world object travels along, we can see its digital certificate or token move on the blockchain, adding value as it goes. This is a whole new world in terms of our visibility.”

“The last uncertainty that we often face is one of the most open-ended, and it’s reneging. What if you don’t send me the smartphone? Can I get my money back? Blockchains allow us to write code, binding contracts, between individuals and then guarantee that those contracts will bear out without a third party enforcer. So if we look at the smartphone example, you could think about escrow. You are financing that phone, but you don’t need to release the funds until you can verify that all the conditions have been met. You got the phone. I think this is one of the most exciting ways that blockchains lower our uncertainties, because it means to some degree we can collapse institutions and their enforcement. It means a lot of human economic activity
can get collateralized and automated, and push a lot of human intervention to the edges, the places where information moves from the real world to the blockchain.”

“I think what would probably floor Douglass North about this use of technology is the fact that the very thing that makes it work, the very thing that keeps the blockchain secure and verified, is our mutual distrust. So rather than all of our uncertainties slowing us down and requiring institutions like banks, our governments, our corporations, we can actually harness all of that collective uncertainty and use it to collaborate and exchange more and faster and more open.”

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