Sherlock Holmes playing the violin while puffing on a pipe, gray smoke misting the air like thoughts of inductive reasoning… Hercules Poirot sipping on his tisane while musing with his little gray cells…Mr. Monk framing the room with his hands… Columbo, hand to his forehead, dripping cigar ash on his raincoat…such detectives have captured popular imagination for centuries and are among the most famous of our modern heroes. Mysteries have nearly eclipsed novels as popular reads. Agatha Christie is called the world’s best-selling author with two billion sales of her 66 detective novels.
How did we get here?
Most discussions of the history of the mystery define the universe as related to detective fiction — a premise I grant — and suggest that Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” was the beginning of the mystery. But let’s go back a little further. How does Poe’s 1841 short story about a detective, C. August Dupin, arise into existence? What were detectives before then? Didn’t anyone write short stories? Didn’t anyone write stories about people who investigated things? Continue reading “‘Tis a Mystery: Where Do Mysteries Come from?”
Aliens plop down on earth. Humans wonder what the aliens want. What do they want? How do humans know? This is the conundrum created by many a science fiction movie and at the heart of the excellent new film that’s generating Oscar buzz, though little attention otherwise, Arrival.
There are a set number of possible options for an Alien Landing plot, many of which have formed the core famous and infamous science fiction premises. Often, the aliens mean harm or pretend to be nice but then mean harm OR some are nice but are fighting with others who mean harm. So getting eaten/enslaved/destroyed is a fairly likely occurrence. But then, how do humans know? Someone has to ask, and how do you speak to an alien?
As most movies are aimed at the lucrative 13-15 year old boy market, many Alien Landing plots involve the shoot first variety. If you google “Alien Invasion,” you can even see the top twenty or thirty of these movie types. But Arrival is about the communication process itself. Since there is such a huge possibility that the aliens still might have nefarious intent, the armies surround the aliens and point guns at them. You can’t help but marvel at the stupid efficiency of the American army as it erects tents and hazmat facilities and communication centers without the slightest clue of whether any of that will be helpful. (Turns out most of it is not). They at least have the sense to bring in Amy Adams, who plays linguist Dr. Louise Banks, to bridge the communication gap.
I’ve always had a beef with that societal notion of Happiness, and when reading the book Flow on what makes people enjoy life, I realized why. “Happy people” in the media always seem to be rich, thin, beautiful, lucky, brilliant, or talented – all unattainable notions to me or the average Jane. In the book Flow, an analysis of what makes people truly happy, it turns out none of those things drive Happiness at all. And in a recent update to the influential book The Millionaire Next Door, on how ordinary people achieve financial security, the message is similar. Ignore external messages; ignore social media; ignore commercials. Or as a folk singer once said, “it’s an inside job.”
I will note at the outset that this is a somewhat paradoxical entry. I’m telling you to read my explanation and advice on how to improve your life by ignoring other people. This reminds me a little of the Steve Martin bit where he would say, “Now, repeat after me, ‘I will not say things that other people tell me to say’…all together now….’”
But bear with me. The keys to discovering wealth and happiness are not avoiding other people’s advice or ignoring your friends and family, but rather learning when to react to cues from society and the environment and when to ignore them.
The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko
Let’s tackle wealth first; it’s easier. The Millionaire made a very strong impression on me when I first read it 15 years ago. Since many have asked me how I have figured out how to leave the corporate world early, I would point to these principles. The book was based on large scale studies of affluent families and found that people accumulating wealth would probably not be recognized as such. They drive older cars, spend on few luxuries, and save the fruits of their hard-earned labor. They don’t tend to play the lottery but do understand the “miracle of compound interest.” They do take financial risk in keeping with appropriate rewards – save money, leverage money, but don’t gamble money. A key theme is to ignore “keeping up with the Joneses”: affluent people don’t purchase things because their neighbor has them.
When I was poking around on Valentine’s Day, I came across the coolest mathematical pictures to illustrate love. It got me thinking about how visually representing the information that we want to convey is so important. Now, I totally dig numbers. And I dig artwork. I took that test this week on whether you are more left or right brained, and I scored a 53 – ambi-brained. My undergraduate study was equal measures of English Literature and Accounting, but that shouldn’t be surprising. I worked with many excellent banking and finance professionals who had degrees in English, Religious Studies, Music, Art History, and Humanities. People who analyze often appreciate the aesthetic beauty of analysis for its own sake.
Hence, it’s no surprise that pictures of numbers and data can be inherently beautiful. For example, I found this one posted by Utsav Goyal, named “The Love Function.”
Change one of those squares to a 3 or a 1, and you’ve just got a squiggle. There are also tons of beautiful patterns in the natural world – the whole science of fractals blossomed a few decades ago to show just that. The Greeks understood the connection of beauty in math and aesthetics as they were passionate about both. Aristotle, for instance, coined the concept of the Golden Mean, a ratio in nature which would reveal everything from the structure of a nautilus shell to a rose to the human ear.