Being useful

Chuck Bearden posted this quote from Steve Holmes on his blog the other day:

Usefulness comes not from pursuing it, but from patiently gathering enough of a reservoir of material so that one has the quirky bit of knowledge … that turns out to be the key to unlocking the problem which someone offers.

Holmes was speaking specifically of theology. I edited out some of the particulars of his quote to emphasize that his idea applies more generally.

Obviously usefulness can come from pursuing it. But there’s a special pleasure in applying some “quirky bit of knowledge” that you acquired for its own sake. It can feel like simply walking up to a gate and unlocking it after unsuccessful attempts to storm the gate by force.

9 thoughts on “Being useful

  1. That feeling is so intrinsically rewarding. It may be the primary motivation for my becoming a hacker in the first place.

    I think there is a strong connection between bicycle skills and these types of experiences. Terse programming languages give me a similar type of feedback. This can be boiled down to “look how much work this little piece of code can do!”

  2. Jerzy, John: That scene is interesting if you know a bit of Sindarin (the common elvish). The inscription on the door includes grammatical information that really does imply the translation would be “Speak, friend, and enter”.

    And of course Tolkien never bothered to explain the grammar to anyone. It’s only been figured out through the usual language analysis.

  3. Stephen May, is Ardalambion ( what you have in mind when you mention the “usual language analysis”?

    If you haven’t seen it before the site has a pretty extensive exploration of Quenya (a.k.a. “High Elvish”), but does also discuss Sindarin and the other languages of LotR.

  4. Of course there was another Holmes (Sherlock) who was against accumulating quirky bits of knowledge.

  5. Ed: Well, actually, he was very much for accumulating quirky bits of knowledge, but only discriminatingly. Unlike the Copernican heliocentric theory, he found the minute details of chemistry, soil composition, the history of crime, etc. were entirely relevant to his objectives, and though he would actively pursue knowledge, it wasn’t necessarily immediately relevant to anything specifically; the same idea that developing and collecting a set of mental “tools” is common between the two Holmes — the fictional one just specifies that said “toolset” should be also be made neat and organized and relevant to a specific task.

  6. Here’s a quote from an old talk by the late Richard Hamming:

    “Most great scientists know many important problems. They have something between 10 and 20 important problems for which they are looking for an attack. And when they see a new idea come up, one hears them say ‘‘Well that bears on this problem.’’ They drop all the other things and get after it.”

    It’s not just the collection of quirky facts, but also the continuous evaluation of that knowledge against problems on your list of interest that leads to sudden insights and discoveries.

  7. Adam: Well, yes, sort of. I think Watson, in one of the stories, even lists the things Holmes does and does not know. And it’s all a bit tongue in cheek.

    It’s hard to know, ahead of time, what kind of knowledge one is going to need. A good foundation, then familiarity with your chosen field(s), and finally the accumulation of quirky bits is a reasonable path to follow.

    It’s the supposed lack of a good general foundation (the Copernican theory, for example) that bothers me.

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