Startup Wisdom from NPR’s Car Talk

Car Talk: Unencumbered by the Thought Process.
Unencumbered by the Thought Process. 

Recently while out running I’ve been listening to old episodes of Car Talk, with Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers that Americans will remember fondly from Saturday mornings on NPR. I wanted to share two reader-submitted letters that, while quite humorous, contain a great deal of wisdom relating to startups, ignorance, and the Modern Jackass Phenomenon (as it is now known, thanks to another great radio show, This American Life). 

The first is a letter submitted by Andy, which led to creation of ‘The Andy Scale’, the scale against which all other reader letters are judged (and on which, perplexingly, the Andy Letter was decided to have scored an 8.) The letter was in response to the Electric Brakes episode, in which Tom and Ray give some exceptionally bad advice about electric brakes due to their not knowing anything about them, yet conveniently forgetting that fact in their usual back-and-forth of advice. Here’s Andy’s letter:

Dear Click and Clack,

I am writing to offer profound thanks to you for resolving an important philosophical question that has been heatedly debated for the last twenty years. The rumination began on a construction site one summer in the early 1970’s, as my friend Jamie and I were working our way through college. The question we raised and have agonized over, lo these many years, is one that I’ve never read about in any philosophical treatise, and yet I have found it has applied to countless situations and conversations overheard in bars, repair shops, sporting events, political debates, etc. etc. etc.

Posit the question: Do two people who don’t know what they are talking about know more or less than one person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about? (Pardon the un-PC masculine pronoun, but I have found this to be, most predominately, a male phenomenon.)

In your recent conversations regarding electric brakes on a cattle carrier, I believe you definitely answered this query and have put our debate to rest. Amazingly enough, you proved that even in a case where one person might know nothing about a subject, it is possible for two people to know even less!

One person will only go so far out on a limb in his construction of deeply hypothetical structures, and will often end with a shrug or a raising of hands to indicate the dismissability of his particular take on a subject. With two people, the intricacies, the gives and takes, the wherefores and why-nots, can become a veritable pas-de-deux of breathtaking speculation, interwoven in such a way that apologies or gestures of doubt are rendered unnecessary.

I had always suspected this was the case, but no argument I could have built from my years of observation would have so satisfyingly closed the door on the subject as your performance on the cattle carrier call. To begin your comments by saying, “We’ll answer your question if you tell us how electric brakes work” and “We’ve never heard of electric brakes” and then indulge in lengthy theoretical hypostulations on the whys and wherefores of the caller’s problem allowed me to observe that you were finally putting this gnarly question to rest.

I am forever indebted to you for the great service you have performed! I’m truly impressed that it took so many years of listening to your show to finally have this matter resolved.

Andy R.

The second is a follow-up to Andy’s letter, from Mike, in which the theory is unpacked, expanded and given philosophical context:

Dear Tappet brothers,

Like yourselves I was most impressed by Andy’s discussion of whether two people who know nothing can know less than one person who knows nothing. Just as he was inspired by your combined ignorance over electric brakes, he has in turn inspired me to investigate further. It occurred to me that in the long history of philosophy, there must have been others who’ve addressed this question. Research caused me to happen upon a slim yellow paperback entitled The History of Philosophy; this magnificent work contains the entire world’s writings on philosophy, condensed into 347 pages. (A book which may be better referred to as, Philosophy for Dummies.) It was interesting stuff. The first page informed me of the name of a gentleman called Thales, who offered this gem: “The ideas of great minds are often so fragmented that they must be supplemented with a certain amount of conjecture in order to explain their theories.” This seemed to fit in well with the ideas often contained in response to Car Talk callers.

Having been off to this good start, it was then necessary to suffer through 115 excruciating unintelligible pages containing the ideas of 30 more philosophers before arriving at Occam (1287-1347) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), the Click and Clack of modern philosophy. William of Occam, a Franciscan monk in England, said ‘You can’t know anything about general things, like trees- only about specific things, like an oak tree.’ So if you say you know anything about brakes in general, but not electric brakes in particular, you may as well not disclose your ignorance when asked about electric brakes. Not earth-shattering stuff, I guess you don’t have to be a philosophy major to figure that out, but relevant, as he provided the foundation for Nicholas of Cusa. He starts out with the same hypothesis: ‘Reasoning from a general case can never provide true knowledge’, but adds, ‘True knowledge must be sought through immediate intuition, an ecstatic vision without comprehension.’

[Laughter; Ray interjects, “I’ve mentioned many times that you are unencumbered by the thought process!”]

“…An ecstatic vision without comprehension, or a state of learned ignorance in which rational thought is transcended, and ultimate reality is encountered. So if ultimate reality, or learned ignorance, is achieved by two people, they have twice as much learned ignorance than one person, and Andy’s question is answered. Two people don’t know twice as much as one person doesn’t know. While your combined state of learned ignorance is often quite impressive, it is important to understand that to achieve ultimate reality a great deal of meditation and prayer is required. The world awaits your veritable pas-de-deux to turn into an entire ballet, a work of learned ignorance which transcends the foibles of modern auto manufacture and rises to the Click and Clack of ultimate reality.

Yours sincerely,



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