Ask the Chauffeur

October 28, 2015

A fun story spotted in The Telegraph and reproduced here:

One of the most important figures in quantum mechanics was the German physicist Max Planck. After he won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1918, he undertook a lecture tour of Germany.

“Naturally enough the lectures he delivered to the various audiences were more or less identical, a fact that was noticed in due course by his chauffeur.

One day the driver said to him: “Professor Planck, I’ve heard you give the same lecture on quantum mechanics so many times that I now know it by heart. It must be very boring for you, so for tonight why don’t we swap roles? I’ll deliver the lecture and you sit in the audience and wear my chauffeur’s cap.”

Planck agreed and that evening the driver got up on stage and delivered the lecture flawlessly. Then a member of the audience stood up and asked an incomprehensible question about quantum mechanics. Without hesitation the chauffeur said: “I’m surprised that someone from the renowned city of Munich could ask such a basic question. I will leave my chauffeur to answer it.”

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, often tells this story. He uses it to illustrate the difference between real understanding of a subject – “Planck knowledge” – and the mere appearance of it, or “chauffeur knowledge”.

The “chauffeurs” of this world often distract attention from their shortcomings by putting on a great show. They may have a commanding presence, a way with words, huge self-confidence. In every walk of life – politics, business and, yes, journalism – you get both types of knowledge.

And of course you get both in fund management. Almost all fund managers can persuade you that they are a suitable person to entrust your life savings to. Sadly, the facts show many aren’t up to the task.

Choosing the right fund manager is one of the most important financial decisions we’ll ever make. Being able to distinguish those with chauffeur knowledge from those with Planck knowledge would be a huge help.

How can you tell them apart? Here are a few suggestions.

  • First, can they explain what they are doing in simple language? It’s the chauffeurs who seek refuge in jargon and obfuscation.
  • Second, do they ever admit that they don’t know the answer to a question? It’s the Plancks who have the self-confidence to admit ignorance when the circumstances call for it.
  • And the third, related test is whether they are aware of their own “circle of competence” and avoid being tempted to invest in areas that they are not properly familiar with.

Finding the right fund manager is hard. Fortunately, though, probably not as hard as quantum mechanics.”

You can of course replace fund manager with any other sort of manager! I appreciate that in practical situations admitting ignorance may easily be viewed as a weakness. I guess it works provided that you have the opportunity to clearly demonstrate your strengths so that people can get a rounded and balanced picture.

There’s an interesting discussion of chauffeur knowledge by Tim O’Reilly who points out that:

The point of the story was that there are two types of knowledge, the kind of rote knowledge that the chauffeur had, and the deep knowledge that Planck had. (What Munger didn’t say: the chauffeur had some Planck knowledge of his own, being clever enough to turn that question around! But it’s a great punch line — and a great concept.)


The Quotable Feynman

October 20, 2015

From the Princeton University Press:

“Some people say, ‘How can you live without knowing?’ I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.”—Richard P. Feynman

Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918–88) was that rarest of creatures—a towering scientific genius who could make himself understood by anyone and who became as famous for the wit and wisdom of his popular lectures and writings as for his fundamental contributions to science. The Quotable Feynman is a treasure-trove of this revered and beloved scientist’s most profound, provocative, humorous, and memorable quotations on a wide range of subjects.

It sounds an interesting read, especially if you’re a Feynman fan.

I’ve written a few posts on Feynman that might be of interest, including:

I started my career as a theoretical physicist and during this period I co-organised the last physics meeting that he attended, held on the small German island of Wangerooge.

Feynman Wangerooge 1987

Feynman at the Workshop held at Wangerooge (he’s in the middle, just to the right)


The interesting and unusual island of Wangerooge (off the German coast)

Courage And Confidence

October 10, 2015

I had a meeting with a friend yesterday where we discussed the key ingredients for successfully developing new ideas/startups etc. In particular, the differing roles that emotions and logical thinking play in making decisions that stick.

This brought to mind a recent post by Ed Batista on the difference between confidence and courage:

We may utterly lack confidence–we may even suspect that failure is a near-certainty. But that determination has no bearing at all on our ability to be courageous in the face of those long odds. The issue isn’t the likelihood of failure–the issue is the relative cost.

The key to untangling this confusion lies in understanding these two qualities and how they differ: Confidence is a calculation of the odds of success. Courage is a calculation that the cost of not trying is higher than the cost of failing.


October 6, 2015

Spotted in The Independent today (which incidentally has a much needed refresh of it’s website):

“Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other” – Oscar Ameringer

If, like me, you’ve never heard of him, there’s an interesting description here:

But above all, Ameringer was funnyLife and Deeds of Uncle Sam: A little History for Big Children (1909) sold over half a million copies, and his autobiography, If You Don’t Weaken (1940) is a joy to read.  It’s available on Google Books here.  His views on politics are thoughtful, cynical, gentle and astute, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The Perfect Plastic Bag

October 5, 2015

From the BBC (Business) News:

The number of plastic bags given out by major supermarkets in England has risen by 200 million in the past two years to exceed 7.6 billion last year – the equivalent of 140 per person and amounting to 61,000 tonnes in total…

Many shoppers in England will have to pay 5p for plastic carrier bags from Monday (5 October 2015) in a bid to slash the 7.6 billion handed out every year…

The government hopes the English scheme will cut use of plastic carrier bags by up to 80% in supermarkets, and by 50% on the High Street. It also expects to save £60m in litter clean-up costs as well as generating £730m for good causes over the next decade.

I have to admit that I’ve loads at home and this nudge is what’s needed to get me to change. It’s really odd that it’s not happened before and even odder that there’s not been a technological (biodegradable) solution (although I’m sure there have been many attempts).

On the radio today, as it’s topical, there was a discussion on the challenges of developing ‘the perfect plastic bag’. The main problem seems to be to find a polymer that efficiently degrades in very different environments, those with oxygen and those without (such as landfills).

Carl Boardman, from the Open University, was interviewed and he’s optimistic that they’ve found a suitable candidate.

A team at the OU’s Integrated Waste Systems (IWS) research group is working on an ambitious partnership worth around £250,000 with a UK SME, and funded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to develop a new type of biodegradable single-use plastic carrier bags that is recyclable, biodegradable and will have no harmful effects on plants or animals.

Egged on, he was asked ‘Come on, what can you tell us about it?’ and very sensibly replied with an alarmingly honest ’Nothing!’. Let’s hope it all works out, both technically and commercially.

More info here: