To: Mr. George DiPaolo
Director, Studio I.T.
Walt Disney Pictures & Television
Burbank, CA

From:  Tom Naughton
Franklin, TN

Dear George —

I regret to inform you that after some serious soul-searching, I no longer feel it would be ethical for me to continue writing software for Walt Disney Pictures & Television, or for any other company.  I know I recently reported being about 75% finished with the updated version of the DVD Trailer Management System, which was true (actually, it’s closer to 85% as of today), but for the good of the company, you should delete all my code files from the SourceSafe database and hire a real programmer to begin the project from scratch.  You should also get rid of all the other systems I’ve programmed for Disney over the years, as it’s highly unlikely any of them actually work.

Bear in mind, I’m not quitting in reaction to anything you’ve done.  You’re a fine project manager.  The soul-searching began after several people posted notes on my Fat Head blog and YouTube channel, pointing out that I’m “just a comedian” without a degree in nutrition or any other health science, and therefore I have no business critiquing studies or challenging conventional health and dietary guidelines — especially any nutrition advice handed down by doctors, who spend several years learning to prescribe drugs.

Obviously, these critics are correct.  For several decades now, I’ve made the mistake of thinking that since my college education consisted of reading books and academic papers and listening to lectures, I could become educated in other fields by reading books and academic papers and listening to lectures.  So once I started doing research for Fat Head and became fascinated with nutrition science, I began reading like crazy.  I ordered dozens of books and downloaded more articles and research papers than I can count.  I listened to online lectures by MDs and PhDs, and sometimes even attended in person.

But it was all for nothing.  As one of my critics informed me, reading books and research papers on my own doesn’t count as an education since I wasn’t supervised by professors who could correct the errors in my thinking.  I must admit I see the point, even though I had a few professors in college whose errors in thinking were so profound, some of us wondered how they’d made it through graduate school.  But they did, and that’s what really matters.

Which brings me back to the programming work:  honestly, George, what the hell were you thinking when you hired me as a software contractor?  Programming large, complicated database systems with dozens of end-users (or hundreds, in the case of the DVD Trailer sytem) requires an awful lot of high-level skill and knowledge.  And yet you gave me those assignments in spite of the fact that I made it perfectly clear I never took a single programming class.  If you’ll recall our first interview, you asked me specifically about my education in computer science, and I replied that I’d bought some books and taught myself how to write software programs.

So while I apologize for my role in all of this, you’re the one who works for Disney, and you’re the one who kept calling me every other year or so with another big assignment.  You’re the one who let me program two of those systems in languages I’d never seen before, telling me to just order some books and get up to speed.  (God only knows how messed up those programs are.)  And you’re the one who offered to set me up with a remote computer at the studio so I could continue taking on assignments after moving to Tenneessee.  So now that we know my programming work is illegitimate, you have to accept your share of the blame.

If it’s any consolation, you’re by no means the only one paying the price for my lack of formal training.  I need to notify at least 25 law firms that they must immediately cease using my trademark and patent tracking software.  Worse, several pharmaceutical companies must now replace the hugely expensive clinical-trial management system sold to them by a company that hired me to build it.  Man, were they fooled … they told me I was the fourth programmer they hired, but the only one they kept.  One of the owners even said, “I don’t get it.  The last guy had a degree in computer science and every Microsoft certification you can name, but he didn’t have a @#$%ing clue how to build a decent system.”  I have no choice now except to urge that company to dump my work, re-hire the guy with the degree, and rebuild the whole thing.

The really frustrating part of all this for me is that I’m not even “just a comedian” now.  I never took a class in standup comedy either, so I can’t even go back to working the clubs and cruise ships.  Since my degree is in journalism, I’m stuck with hoping a newspaper or magazine somewhere is interested in hiring a 51-year-old rookie reporter.

Anyway, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.  I was really looking forward to showing you the new features I added to the DVD Trailer Management System.


p.s. —  If there are any electric light bulbs in your office, I suggest getting rid of them before they explode and start a fire.  Thomas Edison only attended school for four months, and his instructor described him as “addled.”

29 Responses to “Don’t Listen To Me; I’m Just A Comedian”
  1. Sean says:

    Some people are just suckers for the old argument from authority fallacy. My mom would always take as gospel anything said by a guy in a work suit and his name on the side of a van. I mean he’s got his own van so he must know more about this incredibly complicated thing called a faucet than her son the engineer, right?

    I had to overcome a bit of white-coat awe in my mom to convince her she didn’t need statins. Fortunately, she came around.

  2. anand srivastava says:

    I hope you don’t mind my copying the text (with attribution ofcourse). Need it for Denise’s blog. Looks very apt, for the Campbell supporters.

    Copy away. Denise’s analysis was superb. But instead of answering her critique, Campbell tried dismissing her with the old “But she’s not a real scientist” line.

  3. Felix says:

    There’s an old Zen saying:

    When the master points to the moon, the idiot looks at the finger.

    This text just made me think of it. 🙂

    I remember hearing that one. Very true.

  4. gallier2 says:

    Hey, I’m a real programmer with university degreeal and I can tell you that the shit you learn at University is of no use when you want to program things that work. The last 8 years my whole occupation was to make things work that were commited by Ph.D level people. They’re good at inventing new algorithms and techniques, but are noobs at actually implementing them.

    When the people producing the trial-management software brought me in, it was to fix a big security module the programmer-with-degrees had created. When they installed his module at a pharmaceutical company, the entire system froze. Nobody could do anything. His code was so bad, when they asked if I could fix it, I told them the truth: nope, but I can rip it out and start over; there’s nothing here worth fixing.

  5. Andrew says:

    I’m not a certified nutritionist – well, not yet at least – but I have helped several friends loose 40+ pounds each. I suppose I need to take back those pounds. If I decided to gain that weight myself, would that balance out the universe or do I need to force feed those friends white bread?

    You must fatten them up to previous levels, then turn them over to nutritionists with degrees.

  6. Rick says:

    Tom you are making me very nervous…how deep into the economy do your tentacles reach? Does this mean airplanes will fall from the sky? Nuclear reactors blow up? And all for lack of certification.

    I hadn’t thought of it that way. If those planes start dropping, Congress will no doubt make it illegal for anyone without a computer science degree to write software.

  7. Charise says:

    I am learning that in the face of controversy, all of the “scientists” or supporters of those “scientists” will immediately resort to the argument that “so-and-so doesn’t even have a degree so they shouldn’t be criticizing.” Does that mean people without a degree shouldn’t SUPPORT these scientists either? If you don’t have a degree, you obviously don’t know what you are talking about, and so should not be permitted to form any opinion, good or bad.

    I’ve been looking into “alternative” medicine for any ailments I have (Naturopath, Chiropractor, supplements) and even though many of these methods aren’t “proven” by scientists, I tend not to believe a word “scientists” say because these are the same people who approved Froot Loops as a heart healthy alternative to other sugar-laden “bad” choices…

    I think holding a degree makes you more of an expert on nothing (instead of knowing a little about a lot, you know a lot about VERY little).

    Keep sticking to what you don’t know!

    Yup, sometimes they trot out that degree as a shield against having to answer critics.

  8. Angel says:

    I learned some interesting and occasionally useful stuff in college. I learned a lot more after I dropped out and became addicted to documentaries and non-fiction books. I have a couple of college degrees that I don’t use, and I’m starting on another one in a completely different discipline this fall … maybe this time around, my academic studies will actually lead to a profession in a related field! Third time’s the charm! (Although, um, this isn’t my third time in college … or the third college I’ve attended … well, whatever.)

    Whether or not it leads to a job, enjoy college … again.

  9. John Clements says:

    Bravo, Tom. Like I always say – no wait, I actually just made this up – a degree gives you a little credibility, but not all of it.

    Sure, a degree is paper proof that you completed a course of study.

  10. Lucy says:

    Oh geesh, Tom, you rather shot yourself in the foot with that “p.s.”. Edison’s lightbulbs, as I’m sure you well know, are the primary reason we have global warming and dependency on foreign oil. If HE had had a real college degree in electrical engineering, he would have just skipped right to the wonders of halogens, LED, flourescents etc and the PLANET WOULD HAVE BEEN SAVED.

    I knew it was all his fault.

  11. Josh says:

    While you certainly don’t have to be a genius to be a comedian, people don’t seem to appreciate the perspective a comedian can bring. We’re used to looking at things from angles others might not have considered. I can’t count the times I’ve listened to someone like Carlin and thought, “Wow, I hadn’t considered that.”

    It seems unfair to downplay someone who has a knack for finding flaws in conventional thinking just because people happen to laugh.

    As you know from doing standup yourself, you’ll never a meet a really funny comedian who isn’t also highly intelligent. I’ve met some dumb actors, dumb musicians, dumb dancers, etc. (also highly intelligent people in all those disciplines), but I never met a dumb comedian who was good enough to headline a show, with the possible exception of those who relied on d@#$ jokes.

  12. Dave, RN says:

    I once got into an online “discussion” on FaceBook. After putting in my 2 cents worth, I was informed that HE was a nutritionist AND an exercise physiologist, and there for I had NO PLACE in disagreeing with his contention that we should all eat 60% of calories from carbs.

    After I played the RN card, he then decided that my point had merit, and refused to engage in any further discourse.

    The point here of course is that my side was moronic when I was just a guy, and then suddenly maybe had merit when I revealed my career. Of course it doesn’t matter what I do. I learned the truth about diet 1o years after I graduated, not in school. RN means nothing when it comes to knowing diet, except that you were taught that a low fat, low cholesterol, low salt, plant based, grain filled diet will keep you healthy. Just like the nutritionists are taught.

    Some might be coming around though. I just completed a continuing education course in which the nurse-author stated at the beginning that the “ADA diet should NOT be followed”.

    Here’s a line I got tossed at me once: “Your body cannot turn carbohydrates into fat! I know this because I’m a registered dietician.”

    Need we say more about the value of that degree?

  13. Jan says:

    Oh, dear. You know, I only have a high school diploma and my husband merely has a liberal arts associates degree (he went back to school in his late 30s just for the hell of it). We better let our staff go, drop our 150+ satisfied clients and just abandon our very successful retail software business – we clearly aren’t qualified to run it. Never mind we have a combined 45+ years experience in retail/accounting/marketing/logistics/sales/programming/business management.

    Seriously, though – I once had a biochemist tell me, after hearing me lament my lack of a “higher” education, “Any fool can buy a so-called ‘education’ – a degree is just a piece of paper, after all.”

    The biochemist hit it on the head. Nothing against earning a degree, but it’s not the only way to learn.

  14. Amy Dungan says:

    People refuse to listen to others with real experience in this area, but if some bozo on TV says something, it’s gold. Earlier in the week I had a guy try to tell me ketosis is dangerous and we need carbs. Low-carb is a dangerous fad, he said. So I explained what ketosis was an gave him facts about low-carb living. His reply? “I”m sorry, but I don’t argue with The Biggest Loser!” I about fell out of my chair laughing! Like you, I’ve been self-educating on this stuff for years and he’s sure his argument is better because he heard it on a hyped-up, completely non-realistic TV show? Has he seen any of those “biggest losers” one or two years out? He’d be sadly disappointed in what they’d tell him about the mental and physical scars they have from being on that show… not to mention the regains.

    When The Biggest Loser is considered an unimpeachable source of knowledge, I fear for the future.

  15. Be says:

    GRRR! I am just now reading Gary Taube’s book and if ONLY being a Scientist qualified a person to have half a brain, we wouldn’t have the disinformation problem we have. When will people learn that the ONLY brain they should ever trust is their own? Yes we are capable of rational thought.

    BTW, NOBODY in my company is doing what they were trained for. Image my lead programmer is a Music major. Guess all our software is “played out”.

    Keep giving them hell Tom and let your reason be your guide.

    Gary Taubes, of course, wrote one the most comprehensive books on nutrition science ever published … but his degree is in physics.

  16. Lee says:

    Reminds me of this quote in a Scientific American article called “The Expert Mind”:

    Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice,
    there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing
    credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the
    past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest
    no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs
    distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly
    credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than
    colleagues with less advanced degrees. And even when expertise
    undoubtedly exists–as in, say, teaching or business management–it
    is often hard to measure, let alone explain.

    I think the diet/health field is just chockablock with ‘laypeople with imposing credentials’.

    That’s a beautiful quote.

  17. the older brother says:

    When I was taking Auditing towards my Accounting degree, the instructor was, among other things, a lead member of the audit team for the U.S. Air Force. Top notch practitioner and outstanding instructor in addition to of course having his Phd, CPA, etc, etc.

    When someone asked him about the value of the CPA, he thought about it a little and then said — “the CPA is certification of entry level competence.”

    Which illustrates two points — one, education and credentials are at best an indication of potential, not actual ability; and two, the real pros understand that and don’t feel threatened about defending themselves from the non-annointed.


    In T. Colin Campbell’s case, he’s not only feeling threatened by one of the non-anointed, he’s probably feeling embarrassed about getting his ass kicked in public by a girl … uh, I mean, young lady.

  18. Angel says:

    Of course comedians are smart … they view things at right-angles to reality and then somehow explain what they see in an entertaining manner. Takes a lot of brain power to do that. I think that’s why “you can pretend to be serious, but you can’t pretend to be witty.”

    Oh, and the point of my previous rambling post about my education … ummm … I forgot to mention that I worked for several years in a demanding field (military intelligence) that had nothing to do with my education, and did extremely well. (That might have been my point … sorry about that. I was in a hurry.) Oh, and I benefit in a reverse way from that work experience – lots of people who don’t know much about either the military or intelligence think I have credible and highly informed opinions on both. 🙂 And the less I talk about it, the more credible I am!

    Not that it applies to you, but that reminds of the saying “It is better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”

  19. Dave, RN says:

    Then there’s Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Both dropouts.

    Same goes for Alexander Graham Bell, which is why I never used telephones. They’re clearly not trustworthy.

  20. John hunter says:

    I owe you a big thanks. For years I have been running a construction company. I have a little training in computer networking but no education in construction. I have 18 employes that have only a high school diploma. I also have a few that have about a semester of non construction related college courses. We build a lot of schools and hospitals. Now I realize that myself and my employees are putting people in danger. Starting tommorow I am dissolving the company. I will have to tell everyone tommorow morning that they no longer have a job with my company. I will also send notices to the owners of what we have built

    My god, man, tear down those buildings immediately!

  21. John hunter says:

    Informing them to evacuate their facilities immediately and contact my insurance company. They should also leave the contents of the buildings as they are unsafe as I have no formal education in construction.

    I am sorry for what I’ve done and I am grateful that you have awoke me in my wrongdoings. These people should not have been put in this danger. Thanks for saving their lives.

  22. Lori says:

    It’s kind of funny what people expect you to know when you have a certain degree. I have a degree in mechanical engineering, and the latest comment was “Why don’t you install an attic fan? You’re a mechanical engineer.”

    Actually, I left engineering a long time ago. And I’m not going to install an attic fan because, among other reasons, the ME curriculum had nothing to do with house wiring and it’s not something I’ve picked up elsewhere. It’s not something I want to try in a dark, cramped attic. My half-brother had over ten years’ experience as an electrician when he nearly died in an electrical accident. Not to say I couldn’t learn wiring, but…it is something I’d have to learn, not something I’d automatically know from working out a lot of equations at my desk.

    I get those too. Customers expect me to figure out what’s wrong with their networks because I write software. I have to explain to them that those are different fields.

  23. Alexia says:

    I have said and always will say, the best workers to ever grace the planet are the apprentices. What happened to good ‘ol clueless, getting your hands dirty learning?

    Back in the day, that’s how people learned their trades.

  24. AJP says:

    We have the University crowd running the economy now and failing and doing long term damage.
    Turn the same system over to the average successful small business owner who has no degree and I bet we would turn the corner in a matter of months

    “can’t see the forest for the trees”

  25. Elle says:

    There is a special kind of really smart person who can take a complex concept and explain it in a way that is simple, accurate, and comprehensive. These smart people are 10x more useful than any credentialed expert who can’t communicate their ideas without a bunch of field specific lingo. It’s not that the experts lack the desire to do so, but the further you develop your expertise in a field the harder it is to instruct laypeople with zero knowledge about it.

    And at the risk of sounding like a gushing fangirl, you are one of those smart people Tom. The kind who can explain the big ideas to the laypeople. You don’t have the credentials; you didn’t do the research; but you disseminated the ideas in a way that many people can understand it. And that’s just as important as doing the research.

    So all of these “you’re not a credentialed expert” commenters can go jump in a lake.

    Thank you, Elle.

  26. TonyNZ says:

    My favourite quote after going to university (not taken from anything but I’m sure there’s similar quotes out there):

    “Not having a degree doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re talking about and having a degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you do.”

    I am in the same boat, apparently, as many people here in that I got a degree in one field and promptly went to work in another field, with a high degree of success. I have many friends who are finishing qualifications and intend to do the same. I have leapfrogged many people with “industry” qualifications based on actual performance. In fact, I attempted to gain some qualifications in the industry after, but the way in which everything was taught infuriated the hell out of me.

    University is a tool. It helps many people achieve a task, though some people are lost even with the tool and plenty make do without it.

    Although when queried about why I would disagree with a qualified nutritionist, it is somewhat gratifying to point out that I have more credentials in math, biochemistry and the scientific method than a nutritionist ^_^.

    There may some exceptions, but I don’t believe most nutritionists are science whizzes.

  27. Gwen says:

    My *degree* is in Theatre Arts. But the first title I ever had at any company I worked for was “General Specialist”, because I did *everything*. I’ve done everything imaginable in a theater both on and off stage, from writing the play to directing to producing to performing to building the sets and running the tech. I’ve been “on boards” since I was 5, my family was theatrical, musical, and into public speaking. When one employer required the programmers to go to Toastmasters to learn to speak in public, I went, but when I brought back the week’s trophy on my “getting to know you” speech, they didn’t make me go back.

    I’ve been an electrician, a cook, a janitor. I’ve been a writer, a reporter, a cameraman, a photographer, and a publisher. I’ve run conventions, competitions, and small corporations. I’ve worked as a programmer, built computers, done field service, installed networks, and supported software over the phone. I’ve even worked in a bookstore. And now, I’m a cartoonist.

    I agree with Heinlein. Specialization is for ants. I get downright angry at the demand for a piece of paper to grant me the imprimatur to speak on a subject.

    I think my family doctor is starting to weaken on the nutrition issue. When she got my last bloodwork, I think it surprised her. Everything looked so good and healthy, and me doing everything “wrong”. My A1C was even down by more than a point. I think that shocked her silly. And I’ve lost about 40-45 lbs in the past year or so, since I started changing my diet back MY way.

    I’m with you. There’s no law that says we can only be good at one pursuit. And who the heck wants to spend 40 years doing the same thing over and over? Yee-uck.

  28. Denny says:

    Tom, what books did you read to teach yourself coding?

    I don’t remember any specific titles, but I remember that a lot of them were published by Wrox.

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