4 ways to be as smart as Sam Seaborn

Sam Seaborn – intellectual inspiration

Sam Seaborn, what a legendMy top pick for a TV show I could watch for days on end? The West Wing. My favourite character from that show (not an easy task, that – it is full of brilliant, complex personas)? Sam Seaborn.

I thought I wasn’t particularly unusual in this, but apparently in fan and tabloid ratings Sam often doesn’t hold his own against some of the other heavy hitters in the Bartlet administration (including the President himself). However, those of us who idolise Sam do seem to fall into a handful of camps. Some see Sam and wish they could find a partner that loving and passionate (not to mention rich, I dare say). Some see Sam and want to mould their entire lives based on his examples (I’m talking to you, Jessica at Hello Giggles). Me, though – I see Sam and I ask “How could I become that smart?”

Now, what that says about my personality I couldn’t say – we’ll get some insights from my future therapist at some stage, no doubt – but assuming I’m not the only one with this question in his head, let’s look at some possible answers.

Here’s a list of four things I think Sam does to be as smart as he is:

  1. Read lots
  2. Work long hours
  3. Never consider it beneath you to debate a point with someone, no matter who they are
  4. Don’t settle for ‘good enough’

Read lots

Any time the camera pans to Sam in his office, he’s always doing one of two things: writing or reading. The writing is the bulk of his job at the White House, but it’s the reading that’s the important bit. To be able to comment intelligently on a topic, you’ve got to be well-informed about it, down to the level of being able to quote the fundamental statistics. And not only that, but Sam’s value also derives from his ability to link themes together, something that rests on him being widely-read.

Sure, there are other ways to absorb information – TV reports, being briefed in person – but reading is one of the most versatile and efficient means. Plus, I’m sure Sam would say that reading good writing helps him to create good writing, which is a nice spillover benefit.

Work long hours

This seems a bitter pill to swallow for me, as I’m still clinging to the idea of a permanent work-life balance, but clearly Sam gets so much done in the day partially because he is at the office for more hours than most people are even awake. And it pays off – he says that at his former job at a law firm, he was raking in over $400k, and at the White House he is directly shaping policy (as Ainsley Hayes quickly learns). Be that as it may, though, it still comes at the price of his social life and sleep patterns.

Never consider it beneath you to debate a point with someone

Whether it’s the President of the United States, a 19-year-old intern from the Audit office, or incorrigible Republican Ainsley Hayes, Sam never shies from an intellectual challenge. And he does so in full combat mode, too, chasing down whatever piece of legislation or archaic tome he needs to support his argument. This isn’t just to his credit as a liberal who practices the sort of egalitarianism he preaches – any would-be Sam Seaborn should relish the constant opportunity to sharpen wits against a worthy opponent.

Don’t settle for good enough

Have you heard the expression, “It’s good enough for government work”? Well, apparently Sam Seaborn hasn’t. Even the menial task of writing a birthday message to the Assistant Transportation Secretary can’t be put down until it is perfect. Not content with the ringing applause following a speech he wrote, he laments that there was no standing ovation. He views every piece of prose, every oration, and every policy initiative as an opportunity to shift the world into a better orbit. And that, I suppose, could help to explain why he’s able to commit to the first three points…

Overheard at Toastmasters

At an evaluation contest yesterday:

To make your speech even better, you should work on the preciseness of your language…

Needless to say, for the rest of the meeting I could barely concentrate – too busy reliving that moment and savouring the perfect irony!

A present from the past – my time capsule

Lena and I were cleaning out the garage yesterday when she came across something we had completely forgotten about:


A time capsule! Prepared and hidden away by a much younger Daniel (whose handwriting is so similar to mine as to be almost indistinguishable). How it ended up in our garage in Alexandria rather than in the roof of young Daniel’s house is a story unto itself – stay tuned for that tale in a later blog post, maybe.

Anyway, it turned out that young Daniel had done an amazing job of sealing the time capsule. We had to bust out the can opener to get it open, removing the bottom of what was formerly a shortbread tin:


Inside were all manner of treasures! What a discovery:


In case it’s not obvious from the visual, an inventory:

  • a photo of young Daniel
  • a mother-of-pearl shell (so pretty)
  • a Remembrance Day poppy
  • one of my favourite marbles (I just loved shiny things, okay?)
  • some stamps
  • a term program from my local church youth group
  • the comics and front page of the newspaper from the date of the time capsule’s creation (31/12/2002, as it turned out)
  • some seeds from Cosmos Sensation flowers sealed in an old TAB ticket (Dad used to collect them to use as scrap notepaper)
  • a letter

The letter ran to two pages, and had some good things to say. No testable hypotheses about the future, sadly, but the whole package did yield some interesting insights, of which a couple were:

  1. My sense of humour was just about fully developed by the age of 12. I have a better grasp of irony now than I did then, but other than that present Daniel and past Daniel would find one another hilarious.
  2. I was unbelievably investment-minded, even then – thus the stamps. I haven’t looked up their market value yet, but I feel like past Daniel might be disappointed with how little they’ve appreciated in the intervening 12 years…
  3. I have no idea about botany whatsoever – I’ve optimistically planted the seeds, but could not tell you at all whether they’re likely to grow. Would love to hear any advice you have on this front, to save me from disappointment.

Hope you liked taking that trip down memory lane with me and my time capsule. If you’d like to do something similar but don’t quite have the energy to make a physical time capsule, check out something like futureme – I highly recommend sending yourself a message in the future.

Three ways to optimise your language learning

Learning a second (or third!) language is a fantastic experience, and opens the door to a host of experiences you otherwise would have missed. But the learning process is both tough and time-consuming. So, unabashedly revelling in my economist nature, I’ve got three tips for you to optimise your language learning – saving you both time and effort.

  1. Doch indeedGrab yourself a frequency dictionary early on in the language learning process. As implied by the name, a frequency dictionary lists the most commonly used words in a language, enabling you to focus your attentions on increasing your vocabulary in ways that will quickly yield big dividends. Do note, however, that a frequency dictionary is not a substitute for a normal dictionary – you should definitely buy both.
  2. Speak the language you are learning. Find as many opportunities as you can – with a native speaker if possible. Meetup.com is the perfect place to look for fellow language learners, and universities often have casual conversation groups you can attend. One vital piece of advice, though: it’s not enough just to go to the group and listen to other people. You’ll start seeing big gains only when you step up and join in the conversations yourself. And yes, that means you are going to make mistakes – that’s an unavoidable part of the process. Plus, although those gaffs are slightly embarrassing at the time, they make for great stories later…
  3. Practice every day. It’s tempting, particularly for the time-poor among us, to think that putting in an hour of practice twice a week will be much better than doing 15 minutes per day. Unfortunately, two things work against this: diminishing returns, and human nature. Diminishing returns means that your ability to concentrate on language learning will decline after about 15-20 minutes – so it’s better to do a lot of short, separate practice sessions rather than one long stint. And humans like patterns and routine – it will be a lot easier to stick to a commitment to practice every single day rather than a more flexible schedule. To help me with this, I use an app called Streaks – it’s amazing what lengths you find yourself going to in order to avoid breaking your perfect run of days!

Hopefully those three points help take your language learning to a whole new level! If you liked this post, Lingholic also have a list of the best language self-study methods available.

Send your love away (just for a bit)

My best friend (and partner, both in crime and otherwise) just came back from almost a month in Germany. By the end of the time, we both missed each other way too much, but now she’s back, I’m glad she went. Not just because she got to see her family and relax for a bit before going back to uni, but for the benefits to our relationship.

bis baldI think it’s a contrast thing. Although I’m always aware that I like spending time with her and enjoy her company, her sudden absence really drove home just how important she is to me. It meant that I was eagerly awaiting the date she was due to return, and has made this past week – since she’s come home – just wonderful. To quote Pippi Longstocking, “if you don’t [leave] you can’t come back, and that would be a shame.”

It’s similar with lots of things in life, I’m coming to realise. Take food. Recently I’ve become a big fan of Nassim Taleb‘s ideas about antifragility, one of which is the notion that our metabolism benefits from a less regular eating pattern than is typical in modern Western societies. So instead of having three square meals a day, you fast for one day and then eat more the next day. Apart from any biological benefits this may be conveying (I’m no nutritionist, so no guarantees or recommendations that anyone else try this), there is also the additional enjoyment of food consumed when you’re truly hungry.

So if you want to enjoy your food more, stop eating for a while. Feel like something else in your life is becoming mundane? Try living without it for a week. And to ensure that you fully appreciate how lucky you are to have your significant other, send them away (but only for a bit).

Tell-tale signs you’re an economist

…or you’ve spent too much time around economists

  1. You use the word ‘marginal’ in sentences
    • Worse sign: you don’t even notice when you’re doing so
  2. You’ve estimated your marginal rate of substitution between two goods (my most recent: coffee and chocolate bars)
  3. When you listen to political debates, all you can hear is the continual rent-seeking
  4. You’ve ever said ‘dwellings’ rather than ‘houses’, ‘households’ rather than ‘families’, or worst of all, ‘consumers’ rather than ‘people’
  5. You know at least half of the Greek alphabet (to be fair, this could also mean that you’re a mathematician or physicist)
    • Or you could be Greek
      • But then, you could also be a Greek economist (Greek economists  Greeks, Greek economists  economists, also Greek economists = economists  Greeks)
  6. You secretly attempt to track how many utils a given situation conveys
    • And if you disappear, your friends know that the calculation came out negative
  7. Something in the dark caverns of your mind shrieks ‘net present value!’ whenever you lend a friend money
  8. You collect data on your personal life
    • You time your route to work
    • Your cat’s pooping schedule is predicted to a narrow confidence interval (within 20 minutes of morning feeding, +/- 200 seconds)
    • Sports are reduced to statistics
    • There is an excel spreadsheet for your wardrobe items (sorted by function and then by price)
  9. Making lists gives you an inordinate amount of satisfaction

Any more ideas? Tell me in the comments!

How to fix the City to Surf: self-seeding incentive realignment

One of my two super-sisters (here’s the other one, for your YouTube enjoyment) has started her City to Surf training already, and has taken to it with a vengeance. Currently I hold the family record for that particular race, but as with most things, it probably won’t be long before one of my tougher, better-looking siblings wrests it from my grasp.

Self-seeding into the hottest group!Anyway, hearing about her exploits got me thinking about a problem I keep runni encountering in any race context, be it C2S, Parkrun, or whatever – misalignment of the incentive to self-seed accurately. Self-seeding refers to the pre-race ordering of participants relative to the starting line. Ideally, the fastest runners would start at the front, then the next fastest, and so on until those who are more socially- than athletically-inclined end up at the back, where they are usually happiest. If everyone self-seeded perfectly, then no-one would ever be stuck running behind a slower runner, and the whole pack would move with heart-warming smoothness.

Here’s the kicker, though: there’s (currently – stay tuned) no disadvantage in trying to get closer to the front of the pack than someone of your speed should be. Being overtaken by faster runners is no skin off your nose (apart from some potential ego damage, perhaps), and is certainly better than being stuck too far back and having to dodge slower-moving human obstacles. This creates the incentive to game the system, and leads to an inefficient outcome where a non-trivial number of runners will be dodging people regularly during the race.* To combat this, race participants who want to secure a decent spot in the line-up must either break social conventions by shoving and/or ‘subtly’ maneuvering around people, or by turning up earlier than they would otherwise.

So how do we fix this problem? For C2S with its high-tech timing technology, I have a solution that would be fairly easy to implement, although it would require a solid effort to convince participants of its utility. Runners are a fairly intransigent lot, have you noticed?

The solution: penalise people for the number of runners who started behind them (i.e. whom they self-seeded ahead of) who finish in front. There’s always plenty of uncertainty in how people will perform in a specific situation, so a generous penalty-free threshold could be allowed – say, 20 people who started behind you could finish in front of you before you were penalised. After that, though, start adding on time for each person you’ve slowed down by poor self-seeding. The penalty should start light but increase at an increasing rate, so that the most egregious offenders are punished the harshest. That way you bear some of the cost from your choices, and hence will have an incentive to err on the side of caution when choosing where in the pack you’ll start the race.

What do you think? Have an alternative solution to the problem? Tell us about it in the comments!


* I am aware of the existing C2S seeding system, which seems to work quite well overall. The problems I’ve described still exist within each of the starting packs, however, and can make a pretty big difference – take my word for it, speaking as someone who was stuck at the back of the red group in 2013…

Uninterested vs disinterested – a battle for meaning

Introduction to pedantry

Disinterested in the dictionary

When it comes to English, I am not a die-hard prescriptivist – my father is, heaven help him – but certain mistakes irk me disproportionately. Examples include affect/effect, could care less, and etcetera being pronounced as though the first syllable were ‘eck’. To be fair, although they annoy me I am still willing to forgive, as I’m convinced that they stem less from laziness as from a lack of familiarity with the minutiae of the language.

Nonetheless, my irritation must have an outlet, so today’s post concerns one of those incredibly widespread and unkillable errors: the conflation of ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’.

Before we get into the details, I have a rule of thumb for success to share with you. If you are not sure which one to use, always use ‘uninterested’, and 90% of the time you will be correct. To a large extent, this is because ‘uninterested’ is one of the easiest ways to express the sentiment intended by the word, whereas ‘disinterested’ (used correctly) could easily be replaced with a better word. If that’s enough for you, great, otherwise keep reading for the definitions of the two words.


‘Uninterested’ means ‘lacking an interest in something’, as in: he was completely uninterested in her justification.

‘Disinterested’ means ‘not influenced by considerations of personal advantage’ – i.e. impartial. As in: he was chosen as a judge as he was perceived to be disinterested in the case.

Two different meanings, expressing two different concepts.

Is all hope lost?

Unfortunately we are at the point where the two are so often interchanged that dictionaries have started to list ‘lacking an interest in something’ as a secondary definition for ‘disinterested’. Perhaps this battle therefore has a foregone conclusion, but I hope that you, gentle reader, will stand with me in defence of this (and other) useful distinctions in English.

More thoughts on Opal cards

Further to my previous post on Opal cards, I’ve had a few more thoughts on the topic:

  • Downside risk. If you buy a paper ticket, you’re set – got something to show to the ticket inspectors if they come a-calling, and even if you lose it the Sydney Trains staff are usually happy just to let you through the gates at the other end. With the Opal card, though, if you forget to tap off at the end of your journey (entirely possible at a station with no ticket gates), then you’re charged the full default fare, which’ll set you back up to $8.10 rather than the couple of dollars you were anticipating. If you forget a few times, there goes all the savings you made from the slightly cheaper fares.
  • Policing difficulty. Paper tickets are easy to check – they have the journey information printed on them. How do you verify that an Opal card has been tapped on? Unless Sydney Trains has made a significant investment to kit out transit officers with some sort of Opal readers, it seems like they’re relying entirely on the ticket gates as enforcement mechanisms. From what I’ve observed, they work well enough, but what about the stations without gates? Then again, I guess not every station need them for the system to work – the majority of commuters just need to use a gated station at least once in their journey.
  • Fashion. Apart from the other reasons I mentioned that people seem to like Opal cards, there’s also the trendy factor. There’s the novelty of using a newish technology for an otherwise mundane activity, and the card itself is fairly aesthetically pleasing. There are even Opal iPhone covers, for heaven’s sake! I suppose marketing the cards to probably Apple product-owning individuals is a good strategy – early adopters all over the place…