Category Archives: vignettes


What is strategy? The etymology of the word has two parts with PIE roots – strategos was Greek for ‘general’, or the art of the general, and it was a combination of ‘stra-‘ (stretch, structure, stratos, strong, stride, strict) and ‘ag-‘ (agility, act).

Here are some definitions from acaemics, according to wikipedia:

  • “A pattern in a stream of decisions” – Henry Mintzberg from McGill University
  • “Strategy is about shaping the future” and is the human attempt to get to “desirable ends with available means” -Max McKeown (2011)
  • “A system of finding, formulating, and developing a doctrine that will ensure long-term success if followed faithfully. – Dr. Vladimir Kvint

What’s the difference between a strategy and a philosophy?

A philosophy is about inquiry, about a sense of how things work, how the world works, an idea how things should be. It’s about ideals. A philosophy is embodied, a strategy is enacted, executed.

What’s the difference between a strategy and a principle?

What are principles, anyway? I can think of two definitions. One describes axiomatic truths or fundamentals – ie principles of design, principles of music. They’re kind of like rules, but maybe less dogmatic. We mean different things when we say “he is a man of philosophy”, “he is a man of principle”, “he is a man of rules(?)”, he is a man of discipline. Each thing means something slightly different in a very subtle way.

The other thing about principles – I’m thinking about Ray Dalio now, who has his principles published at He describes principles as concepts that can be applied over and over again in similar circumstances. There are parenting principles, management principles, skiing principles and so on.

What’s the difference between a strategy and a plan?

Casually, I find that people often use the phrase “so what’s the plan?” when discussing something that’s to happen next. What’s the plan for the dinner party tonight? People make weekend plans. (In contrast, people tend to have a ‘life philosophy.’ We tend to ask “what’s your philosophy…” over drinks in the evenings.)

Sometimes we ask, what’s your plan for the future? What’s your plan for the next 5 years? But those tend to be grasping at straws a little, and we don’t expect people to have great answers to those things.

I find it interesting to think about when we ask questions like “what’s your strategy”. I’ve definitely asked it before – I think when people tell me that they intend to make something, implement something, when they want to become something. You want to become a successful writer? What’s your strategy?

It seems to me then that strategy is all about implementation. You embody your philosophy and then execute your strategy, which will involve making plans and so on. The strategist figures out what to do, and what she will do if things change. She will identify what is important and what is not important, what to do with the limited resources that she has, and how to deploy them.

Diagnosis -> Guiding Policy -> Action Plan

President Kennedy illustrated these three elements of strategy in his Cuban Missile Crisis Address to the Nation of 22 October 1962:

Diagnosis: “This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites are now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.”

Guiding Policy: “Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere.”

Action Plans: First among seven numbered steps was the following: “To halt this offensive buildup a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.”

Plan, Pattern, Position,  Ploy, Perspective

Henry Mintzberg described five definitions of strategy in 1998:

  1. Strategy as plan – a directed course of action to achieve an intended set of goals; similar to the strategic planning concept;
  2. Strategy as pattern – a consistent pattern of past behavior, with a strategy realized over time rather than planned or intended. Where the realized pattern was different from the intent, he referred to the strategy as emergent;
  3. Strategy as position – locating brands, products, or companies within the market, based on the conceptual framework of consumers or other stakeholders; a strategy determined primarily by factors outside the firm;
  4. Strategy as ploy – a specific maneuver intended to outwit a competitor; and
  5. Strategy as perspective – executing strategy based on a “theory of the business” or natural extension of the mindset or ideological perspective of the organization.

Everything big started out small

We often look at oak trees and struggle to realize that they started out as acorns.

Uber started as Ubercab, a luxury cab service for the rich. Now, they’re operating in the space that regular taxicabs do. And soon they’ll create a whole new market with driverless cars.

Apple started out selling hardware for hobbyists, and it didn’t even come with a case.

Microsoft started out selling some obscure Basic interpreter for the Altair.

Facebook started out as a way for college students to stalk one another online.

Tesla started out selling modified Lotuses – sports cars for the very wealthy. Their goal is to make an affordable electric car for the masses.

3M started out selling sandpaper.

If you want to make it big, you have to start by dominating a small niche first.

What niche could you be dominating?


I really like this:


I like it because the idea of Spiderman going around helping people is perfectly normal. I think sometimes when a “regular” person approaches a homeless one, it can seem a little awkward or uncomfortable– an interaction between people who aren’t equal, or between people who don’t have a clear relationship. Generally the understood relationship is that homeless people are invisible to regular people.

I imagine a homeless person would find it easier to accept help from a Spiderman than a regular stranger– unless maybe they’ve been pranked or punked before. Or maybe I’m wrong about that– I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never been homeless. But it’s interesting just to think about how we perceive the whole act differently once the costume is involved.


Warm Notice




There’s something about translating things from other languages that accidentally ends up creating art. I’m guessing whatever was written in Chinese was more formal or “conventional”, but when translated to English we get the funny idea of a warm notice to not take drugs and go whoring.

There are other cool things that happen when we translate from other languages, or when we get writers who write in English but think primarily in their mother tongue. People from Ethopia write English very differently from people from Japan. It reminds us that language colors the way we think, and the way we see and view the world– the metaphors and lenses that we use.

It’s quite magnificent and mind-blowing. Especially considering how many problems only get solved when we look at things from a different point of view.

Street Art


It’s always interesting to think about the distinction between street art and graffiti. Graffiti makes the place uglier, street art makes it more beautiful. Graffiti makes you cringe, street art makes you think, makes you feel.

I especially like how the art here looks almost like it was written by an official town council or road pavement person. The semblance of official-ity makes it more powerful than if it were, say, “gangsta script”. It feels more authoritative.

I  suppose it boils down to context-sensitivity. Understanding why people are using something, what they expect to see, and how they expect to interact with things. If you disrupt or damage that experience, you’re a cost. If you add more than you subtract, that’s art.

Organized Violence


Wouldn’t it be interesting if the outfits were reversed– if it were dark-skinned men with batons and weapons standing in a circle around cowering light-skinned men with their hands clasped behind their heads?

I wish somebody would take that picture.

It’s interesting to think about organized force and violence. Where did the idea of property begin? We were nomadic at some point, hunting and gathering wherever we went. Then some of us become more territorial, when they found certain spaces that were recurringly more valuable to they  than others. They’d have guarded those territories by force– how else do you claim ownership to something? Can you claim to own something if someone can simply take it away from you?

So over time you have walled settlements, with men with clubs and swords and spears guarding them on behalf of everybody.

Today we have police forces, armies, jails. All of these things are simply organized force. Even if 99.9% of society never had to raise a fist at anybody else, the entire functioning depends on the promise of violence against anybody who flouts the rules that the rest agree upon.

Imagine if an alien showed up and decided to simply start killing people and taking their property for fun. Imagine if then the police arrested the alien, and they brought him to court for a trial. Imagine he then uses his alien powers to simply decimate the court itself, vaporizing the judge and jury with his alien powers.

Where are your laws now? What can you do against someone who has simply more sheer physical force than your entire justice apparatus?

I joked with a friend that a mafia mobster who wanted to fry bigger fish should go into banking. My friend replied, “Ah, yes, going clean.”

What’s the difference between clean and dirty?

It’s not as straightforward or substantial as you might think.


What will they laugh at us for?


It’s very easy to look back at the past and laugh and mock at what we now know to be outright wrong.

It’s not so easy to realize that we are, right now, laugh-worthy ourselves.

Many things about who we are today will absolutely horrify our grandchildren.

It’s worth thinking about what those things are.

Good Samaritan


The power of the parable of the Good Samaritan is diluted, because we no longer know the context. A Samaritan wasn’t just a stranger– he was a person from a different tribe, from a different culture. He was the Other.

Today, it might be the Good Atheist. The Good Muslim. The Good Nigger. The Good Faggot.

The Good Person.




It’s very difficult for people to notice small differences, small changes. If you want to communicate something effectively, you almost always have to exaggerate.

I saw a piece of advice on reddit the other day, which said– if you’re not sure whether you should do something, ask yourself if you’d do it 100 times. Because ultimately life is the sum of small actions, so take ood small actions.

Call And Response



When I first started out as a writer, I often felt burdened with the need to embody every single point of view, to cover all the bases. Carl Zimmer pointed out that this isn’t possible, not at all. At most you can do one point of view really well.

A cool hack is– you can have multiple voices, multiple characters. Different people can embody different things.

The above ad is funny because of the response. There’s a video of a dancing newscaster that’s funny primarily because his coworker is so embarrassed and awkward. She makes the video work. Without her, he would just be a guy by himself, having fun. Nothing significant.

Conflict. Contrast. Interplay. It helps us make sense of things. We think and see in stories.