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How much do you really know?

A photo posted by Bill LaBrie (@billlabrie) on

I don’t know much, really. But I’ve heard some things.

There was an article that recently went viral about “what you learn in your forties.” One thing the author learned was that there are no grown-ups. Everyone is just winging it. Some do a better job of this than do others. Some get lucky. That’s life.

When I really drill down on what I really have studied enough to claim as knowledge and not just received opinion and — frankly — bullshit, the list is embarrassingly short.

When I was a teenager I bought into the common perception of the time that the Japanese had it all figured out. That was the society of the future, Japan.


So I went to the library and read everything I could on Japanese culture. I learned about the mythical origin of their culture, which still stands as one of the weirdest origin stories ever. It even beats out two twin brothers being left for dead and raised on the teats of a she-wolf.


I learned a lot about the various dynasties right down through the Tokogawa Shogunate that preceded the country’s forcible opening to the West, which was followed by the Meiji Restoration, which was followed by an extremely rapid industrialization that took a sleepy little chain of beautiful islands stuck in the tenth century to a modern world power not much more than fifty years later. I took notes.

Industrious people, those Japanese. Law-abiding, too. Well, except in Manchuria that once.

I learned about the ways of the then-current Japanese lifestyle: Of bullet trains and conformism and overwork and low productivity (because the Zaibatsu conglomerates like Mitsubishi at the time hired people en masse without a clue as to what to do with them).

In the end I realized much of their culture wasn’t that great, and wasn’t applicable to a multi-cultural superpower like the U.S. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say this crazed idolatry of Japan in the U.S. at the time was all based on one factor: The popularity of the Honda Accord.

Nevertheless, I know something about Japan.

When I went to college I was very enthusiastic. I don’t remember why. I was trying to understand civilization, I guess. No, I didn’t even know what that meant.


I started off reading Machiavelli. Many people have read The Prince. It’s talked up as a classical guide for striving young corporate a-holes, along with Art of War by Lao Tsu. But what we did in our study of Machiavelli across two classes was to read/study/discuss The Prince in one class and read/study/discuss the footnotes he called out to his Discourses in the other. It was a graduate-level reading of Machiavelli given to college freshmen. And it kinda kicked my ass. We completed the semester by reading Machiavelli’s play Mandragola which was a sort of dramatic portrayal of his principles — such as they were. The moral teachings around the rest of Machiavelli (i.e.: Machiavelli is bad, Mmmmkay??)  sort-of backfired with the inclusion of that one piece. At the end of the play, there’s a baby. The baby resulted from all the Machiavellian scheming around sex that one might imagine. But here was the baby. What are you going to do about that? It was like Machiavelli saying “Look, I said the end justified the means. The end in this case is a human child. You still gonna bitch about how it came into being?”

The good Catholics in the class groaned.

I know something about Machiavelli. I actually enjoyed learning what I do know about him.

Then I started working and fell in love with the UNIX operating system. I’d stay up late reading manuals and taking self-paced tutorials. The deeper I went, the more it fascinated me. My mind chomped at things like time-slicing and context changes; Threads of execution and locking on the i486 processor.


Where I worked we had Korn-shell scripts that people invoked but had never opened. I opened them and figured them out and improved them. I didn’t just assume I knew what it was doing because it was called “remove_all_temp_files_and_prune_all_logs.ksh.” A lot of it was crap–stuff thrown into a file from a command line by a drunk at some point five years earlier. I’d take the basic commands and put wrappers around them, providing for error states and making damn sure that the /tmp that was being emptied was the one we thought was being emptied. Because things had happened.

So I know something about UNIX, especially the versions popular before 2002 or so, when I got moved to management and lost about 70% of my ability to reason.

But outside of those three things, I stand on shaky ground. There are so many things to know. An almost-infinite number of things, each with almost infinite variations. Just as the universe is overwhelmingly empty space, it follows my mind is overwhelmingly ignorant.

So how do I get through each day?

I guess just like everyone else does: I wing it.