Sunday, August 05, 2018

We live by admiration, hope and love

--- William Wordsworth, quoted by Carleton Noyes in the final paragraph of The Gate of Appreciation: Studies in the Relation of Art to Life, 1907 (on gutenberg.org)


From Noyes:
Art is within the range of every man who holds himself open to its appeal. But art is not the final thing. It is a means to an end; its end is personality. There are exalted moments in the experience of us all which we feel to be finer than any art. Then we do not need to turn to painting, music, literature, for our satisfaction. We are living. Art is aid and inspiration, but its fulfillment and end is life.
"We live," says Wordsworth, "by admiration, hope, and love." Admiration is wonder and worship, a sense of the mystery and the beauty of life as we know it now, and thankfulness for it, and joy. Hope is the vision of things to be. And love is the supreme enfolding unity that makes all one. Art is life at its best, but life is the greatest of the arts,--life harmonious, deep in feeling, big in sympathy, the life that is appreciation, responsiveness, and love.

Monday, July 30, 2018

the sadness of growing old is part of becoming an individual

--- Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, Harper Perennial ppbk 1992, pp. 140-41.

Quote in context:
Aging brings out the flavors of a personality. The individual emerges over time, the way fruit matures and ripens. In the Renaissance view, depression, aging, and individuality all go together: the sadness of growing old is part of becoming an individual. Melancholy thoughts carve out an interior space where wisdom can take up residence.

Monday, July 16, 2018

There are no facts about the future

--- ascribed to risk expert Dr. David T. Hulett on https://www.gristprojectmanagement.us/statistics/there-are-no-facts-about-the-future.html and http://www.johngoodpasture.com/2014/10/there-are-no-facts-about-future.html. I learned it from Ed Thomas, former head of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. It's cited by various people, see e.g. the search results at DuckDuckGo.

And of course, there's always Yogi Berra: “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Jim Gray's Properties of a Research Goal

--- from "What Next? A Few Remaining Problems in Information Technology" (pdf), 1998 Turing Lecture
  • Simple to state.
  • Not obvious how to do it.
  • Clear benefit.
  • Progress and solution is testable.
  • Can be broken in to smaller steps
    • - So that you can see intermediate progress.

... a model ... should yield answers we believe to questions that matter

--- Paul Romer, in his 2015 blog post Speeding-up and Missed Opportunities: Evidence reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the publication of his paper "Endogenous Technological Change" (JPE 1990)

The bar I set for a model is that it should yield answers we believe to questions that matter. For a model of growth, the two questions that matter most are ...

Saturday, July 07, 2018

A paradox you live with

--- Sister Gertrude, in Muriel Spark's  The Abbess of Crewe (1974)

From Chapter One, published in The Scotsman,

‘Gertrude, my excellent nun, my learned Hun, we have a problem and we don’t know what to do with it.’

‘A problem you solve,’ says Gertrude.

‘Gertrude,’ wheedles the Abbess, ‘we’re in trouble with Rome. The Congregation of Religious has started to probe. They have written delicately to inquire how we reconcile our adherence to the Ancient Rule, which as you know they find suspect, with the laboratory and the courses we are giving the nuns in modern electronics, which, as you know, they find suspect.’

‘That isn’t a problem,’ says Gertrude. ‘It’s a paradox.’

‘Have you time for a very short seminar, Gertrude, on how one treats of a paradox?’

A paradox you live with,’ says Gertrude, and hangs up.

Friday, July 06, 2018

The only thing more dangerous than an economist is an amateur economist

--- ascribed to Hal Varian by Ludwig Siegele in "The story of the internet is all about layers" in The Economist's June 2018 Special Report "Fixing the Internet."

However, The Big Apple cites it as "Bentley’s Second Law of Economics" in an entry from July 30, 2010, suggesting that it has been cited in print since at least 2002. It also observes,
“Bentley’s second law” has been accompanied by another law since at least 2002: “Berta’s Fundamental Law of Economic Rents: The only thing more dangerous than an amateur economist is a professional economist.”

Sunday, June 03, 2018

You can’t run, and you can’t hide from complexity; there’s no point in even trying

--- Russ White, in "Considerations in network complexity," The Internet Protocol Journal, vol. 21, no. 1, Apr. 2018 (pdf)

Quote in context

You can’t run, and you can’t hide from complexity; there’s no point in even trying. You’re going to encounter it; ignoring it doesn’t make the problem go away, it just allows the problem to fester under some “rug” in some corner of your network. The complexity problems you create today will return as bigger, more complex problems in just a few years.  
… 
When dealing with engineering problems, then, a little humility around what can, and cannot, be solved is in order. Don’t ignore complexity, but don’t think you can solve it, either. Instead, remember to treat every situation as a set of tradeoffs—and if you don’t see the tradeoffs, you’re not looking hard enough.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above,or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth

--- quoted by David Hockney, in Secret Knowledge (New and Expanded Edition): Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2006), the visual evidence, p.231 (closing three paragraphs of this part of the book)

In context:

Why pursue all this? Isn't it just about pictures? But images have power, they are used to control. All of us still have 'primitive' thoughts about images and their individual power over us. I sometimes think of the Second Commandment - very clear in the King James's English version: 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in Heaven above,or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.' [Exodus 20:4, KJV] What did Moses know that we don't? It isn't discussed today.
Two old and respected religions have a prohibition on images (if the Middle East were truly 'fundamentalist' is wouldn't have television), but these aspects of religious life are never discussed. Islam has only recently been taken over by images (television). There weren't that many before. Its art is abstract, derived from natural forms, and influenced European Modernism through the arabesque.
The pull between idolatry and iconoclasm is something I know about. I have it myself. What would a world without images be like? But don't images help us see the world? Earlier in this book, I made a diagram trying to explain the history of the lens. Does the lens have relationships with power? If one sees that the camera was almost a secret until 1839, and that the Church had social power (controlling pictures), one can also see its power began to decline with the manufacture of cameras, and social power followed the lens into the 'media'. We now have a new revolution. Millions more cameras have been made (even on phones now) and the distribution of images is changing. The continuum is the mirror and lens. Exciting times were in the past as well.

Film and video bring their time to us; we bring our time to painting

--- David Hockney, in Secret Knowledge (New and Expanded Edition): Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2006), the visual evidence, p. 197

Quote in context:
In mid-century, people believed that Cecil B. DeMille had replaced Alma-Tadema;
at the beginning of the new century, Alma-Tadema is still with us (a popular poster at
the Getty Museum is proof of that) and Cecil B. DeMilIe is becoming harder to see. With
paintings and books you don't need batteries or a machine. A painting is a physical,
crafted object; a film is not. Still pictures don't move, don't talk, and last longer. Film and video bring their time to us; we bring our time to painting - it's a profound difference that won't go away.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Understanding trumps truth

--- Philip Ball, in a New Scientist book review, "Science isn’t everything – and it’s not even after the truth," 28 Feb 2018

Quote in context:
But philosopher Angela Potochnik’s ambitious book Idealization and the Aims of Science is an antidote to the view that the philosophy of science tries to pronounce grandly on what scientists ought to do. Even so, many might still resent her assertion that “science isn’t after the truth”. But she’s right. While our picture of the universe is in some sense truer than it was in the Middle Ages, and science typically does work its way closer to some sort of truth, that isn’t what scientists are trying to achieve.
What they want are useful, comprehensible, workable theories of the world. Understanding trumps truth: scientists will generally settle for a less accurate model if it is more cognitively transparent. They don’t strive to map models perfectly onto reality. This doesn’t seem so controversial. Even Hawking agrees, indulging in a bit of philosophy himself when he states: “There is no model-independent test of reality.”
...
There is no “scientific method”, but there is a collection of tried-and-tested principles: try to use reason, compare theory against experiment, attempt to replicate results, that kind of thing. The precise emphases differ by discipline. Some depend more heavily on statistics. Some are necessarily empirical, with few theories. Some, like chemistry, are as much concerned with making as with understanding. At any rate, science doesn’t do just one thing over and over again in different fields of enquiry. That, says Potochnik, is why there are also no clear boundaries between science and non-science.

Monday, May 07, 2018

What forms of psychological manipulation will we consider to be acceptable business models?

--- James Williams, doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, speaking on the Talking Politics podcast, April 25, 2018, ahead of the publication of his book Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy.
“The fundamental question for society to answer is, What forms of psychological manipulation will we consider to be acceptable business models?” (timecode 24:40)
Lots of great stuff in this discussion; for example:
“That’s what’s one of the rhetorical risks in the near term: Political issues will be reframed as design issues.” (timecode 28:10)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

a dumb algorithm with lots and lots of data beats a clever one with modest amounts of it

--- Pedro Domingos, professor of computer science at UW Seattle, in "A few useful things to know about machine learning" (2012), Comm. of the ACM.

Quote in context:
Suppose you have constructed the best set of features you can, but the classifiers you receive are still not accurate enough. What can you do now? There are two main choices: design a better learning algorithm, or gather more data (more examples, and possibly more raw features, subject to the curse of dimensionality). Machine learning researchers are mainly concerned with the former, but pragmatically the quickest path to success is often to just get more data. As a rule of thumb, a dumb algorithm with lots and lots of data beats a clever one with modest amounts of it. (After all, machine learning is all about letting data do the heavy lifting.)
The immediately following paragraph also has some good stuff:
This does bring up another problem, however: scalability. In most of computer science, the two main limited resources are time and memory. In machine learning, there is a third one: training data. Which one is the bottleneck has changed from decade to decade. In the 1980s it tended to be data. Today it is often time. Enormous mountains of data are available, but there is not enough time to process it, so it goes unused. This leads to a paradox: even though in principle more data means that more complex classifiers can be learned, in practice simpler classifiers wind up being used, because complex ones take too long to learn. Part of the answer is to come up with fast ways to learn complex classifiers, and indeed there has been remarkable progress in this direction (for example, Hulten and Domingos).

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Most people who’d love to be novelists don’t write novels, and that’s because they’re not really interested in doing so

--- Paul J. Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School, in "Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual: Outlines of the Life of the Mind," First Things, May 2018

Quote in context:
From your letter, and especially from your list of people you like to read, I think that at the moment you’re in love with the idea of being an intellectual rather than with some topic for thought. You’d like to be the kind of person who writes books like Regarding the Pain of Others or the Lam-rim chen-mo, rather than being already deeply enmeshed in the toils of thought about some particular topic. This may be a sign that you’re not yet serious, that, as Augustine said of himself in his salad days, you’re in love with love rather than simply in love. Most people who’d love to be novelists don’t write novels, and that’s because they’re not really interested in doing so. They’re infatuated with an image and a rôle rather than with what those who play that rôle do. So, perhaps, with you; if so, the infatuation will fade as you grow older, and you’ll do something closer to the rough ground of material necessity.
Some other gems:
"So: Find something to think about that seems to you to have complexity sufficient for long work, sufficient to yield multifaceted and refractory results when held up to thought’s light as jewelers hold gemstones up to their loupes. And then, don’t stop thinking about it."
"You need a life in which you can spend a minimum of three uninterrupted hours every day, excepting sabbaths and occasional vacations, on your intellectual work. ... You need this because intellectual work is, typically, cumulative and has momentum."
"The most essential skill is surprisingly hard to come by. That skill is attention. Intellectuals always think about something, and that means they need to know how to attend to what they’re thinking about. Attention can be thought of as a long, slow, surprised gaze at whatever it is."
"Don’t do any of the things I’ve recommended unless it seems to you that you must. ... Undertake it if, and only if, nothing else seems possible."

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Most exciting ideas are not important, most important ideas are not exciting, not every problem has a good solution, and every solution has side effects.

--- Dan Geer, Testimony to U. S. House of Representatives Committee on Science Subcommittee on Technology Washington, DC, 11 February 1997

I am reminded of what I know as the four verities of government:

  • Most exciting ideas are not important,
  • Most important ideas are not exciting,
  • Not every problem has a good solution, and
  • Every solution has side effects.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

If you want to look at what the future of AI really holds, it’s not the highlight reels that matter – it’s the out-takes.

--- Douglas Heaven, in "The epic robot fails that say AI will never rule the world," New Scientist, 19 December 2017

In context:
Far from being a steady march to greatness, the past and present of robotics and AI are littered with examples of banal practicalities tying machines down. If you want to look at what the future of AI really holds, it’s not the highlight reels that matter – it’s the out-takes.
...  don’t even talk about stairs. Judging by the awkward ascents of most robots, to avoid the rise of the machines we only need to retreat to the mezzanine.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ideology - what determines how you think when you don't know you're thinkin

--- John Naughton, in Reformation Then and Now, Talking Politics podcast, 10 January 2018, at timecode 11:59

"You could define ideology as what determines how you think when you don't know you're thinking. And some things become unthinkable in any ideological climate."

See also Naughton's "95 theses about Technology"

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are very strange and those whom you don't know well

--- John Allen Paulos, afterword to Edwin Abbott's "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions" (Signet, new edition, 2013), p. 153

Quote in context
I myself have sketched an attempt along these lines that utilizes the rich notion of dimension, and there is probably no better place than here to sketch it. Specifically, I've developed a mathematical metaphor for the old chestnut "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are very strange and those whom you don't know well." In other words, I'm suggesting that each of us is actually very strange and not a completely integrated personality, and there is a way in which higher dimensions can illustrate this.

[He goes on to calculate the percentage of an N-square that is more than 5% from both edges, e.g. for a line of length 10 inches "Consider the part within a half inch of aside of this square and call this border the extreme part of the square." The normal part is (10 - 2*0.5)^2 = 9^2 = 81 square inches. Taken as a percentage, one has for an N-dimensional square 0.9^N, and evidently this shrinks as N increases. Line: 90%; square: 81%; cube: 72.9%; hypercube: 65.61%; etc. "For one hundred dimensions, the interior or normal part shrinks to only 0.0027 percent of the total volum"

Monday, January 01, 2018

Poverty is not a lack of character. Poverty is a lack of cash.

--- Rutger Bregman at TED 2017

From the transcript, at 14:33 (the final words of the presentation):


Now, more than 500 years after Thomas More first wrote about a basic income, and 100 years after George Orwell discovered the true nature of poverty, we all need to change our worldview, because poverty is not a lack of character. Poverty is a lack of cash.






religion has generally been an activity, not a set of true-or-false propositions, and above all a collective activity in which the tribe or nation finds meaning

--- from The Economist, "Transcendental meditation: Neil MacGregor on living with gods," 4 Nov 2017, a review of Neil MacGregor's show at the British Museum "Living with Gods" and associated podcast

Quote in context:


Mr MacGregor is a social anthropologist on a vast plane, whereas Ms Cook leans more to the neuroscience of religion. By including sounds, such as softly heard bells and flutes, she draws attention to the aural stimuli that can arouse people’s spiritual antennae.


However, they have a common purpose: to bring home the ubiquity, and the social character, of religion to a mainly secular public. To the modern mind, speculating about moral and philosophical questions is something people engage in individually. In most eras of history, and in many parts of the world today, such freedom would be inconceivable.


As the exhibition and the radio series both proclaim, religion has generally been an activity, not a set of true-or-false propositions, and above all a collective activity in which the tribe or nation finds meaning.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Trust is the bridge between the known and the unknown

--- Rachel Botsman, Said Business School, University of Oxford, author of "Who can you trust," in "In what? we trust" by Douglas Heaven, New Scientist, issue 3149, 28 October 2017

Quote in context
Trust is a human instinct that is essential to our survival. It first evolved when we lived in small tribal groups, and probably provided benefits in times of conflict. Groups that were better at working together – more trusting – were more likely to survive than less cooperative rivals.
“All societies are based on trust because you can’t do everything yourself,” says Luciano Floridi, who studies online trust at the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK. “At some point you have to trust someone to keep the fire going.”
The trouble is, trusting groups can always be exploited by untrustworthy individuals. Putting your trust in someone puts you at risk, it makes you vulnerable. “Trust is the bridge between the known and the unknown,” says Rachel Botsman at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

He had always wanted to be someone other than he was, but he didn’t want to change

--- Michael Ende, in The Neverending Story (1979), transl. Ralph Manheim (1983), p. 359 (in Ch. XXIV)

In context - the end of a story told by Dame Eyola:
“… Then at last he came to the House of Change, and there he would stay until he found out what he really and truly wanted. You see, it’s called the House of Change not only because it changes itself buat also because it changes anyone who lives in it. And that was very important to the little boy, because up until then he had always wanted to be someone other than he was, but he didn’t want to change.”

Monday, December 11, 2017

Knots were probably the earliest spell

--- T.H. White, quoted by Helen Macdonald in "H is for Hawk", Grove Press, 2014, p. 257. Macdonald gives the reference as "T. H. White, entry dated 22 August 1939 in unpublished manuscript 'Journal 1938--1939', Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin."

"The initiation ceremonies, the boodo hut of the falconer, the noises in the magic dark, the necromantic knots. Knots were probably the earliest spell. The two hawks consider themselves spell-bound to their blocks by my arts . . . I am convinced that if nobody had ever invented knots, nobody would ever have imagined magicians."

(I bought myself "The Handbook of Knots" by Des Pawson for my birthday this year, and have been practicing knots. There is certainly a magic between the steps and the resulting knot.)

(A nice story on knots, and Des Pawson, in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/17/t-magazine/knots-culture-craftsmanship-history-fashion-des-pawson.html)

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The patient can have as many diseases / As the patient damn well pleases

-- Hickam's dictum, cited passim. According to Wikipedia

Hickam's dictum is a counterargument to the use of Occam's razor in the medical profession.[1] While Occam's razor suggests that the simplest explanation is the most likely (implying in medicine that diagnostician should assume a single cause for multiple symptoms), Hickam's dictum is commonly stated: "Patients can have as many diseases as they damn well please". The principle is attributed to John Hickam, MD. When he began saying this is uncertain.
...
 A key reason for using Hickam's dictum as a limiting principle to that of Occam's razor is that it is often statistically more likely that a patient has several common diseases rather than having a single, rarer disease that explains their myriad of symptoms. Another key reason is that, independent of statistical likelihood, some patients do in fact turn out to have multiple diseases. In such cases, multiple categories of diagnosis may indeed have independent causes rather than a single source, i.e., may be due to separate events or combinations of events to which the patient may have been subjected or exposed.

The rhymed version  is cited here, among others.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

these algorithms ... show up when there's a really difficult conversation that people want to avoid

--- Cathy O’Neil, author of the book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, on the 99 Percent Invisible podcast episode 274, "The Age of the Algorithm", at timecode 10:50

Excerpt:
I feel like, just by observation, that these algorithms, they don't show up randomly. They show up when there's a really difficult conversation that people want to avoid.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context

--- Eliel Saarinen, quoted by Eero Saarinen, "The Maturing Modern," in Time, July 2, 1956:51, cited in Saarinen Houses by Jari Jesonen and Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen, p. 11

Full quote:
Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The terror you feel in quiet moments is not misplaced, just mistimed.

--- Welcome to Night Vale, written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, episode 42, "Numbers" (transcript; around 6:00)

Quote in context

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Sunday, August 06, 2017

The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life

--- Mohammed Ali, via the Ear Hustle, Episode Two. The quote is given near the end, from about 25:50.

Quote Investigator has the backstory. The first instance was a 1974 quote in a UPI wire story, “If a man looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 and it hasn’t changed, then be has wasted 30 years of his life.” By November 1975 he'd streamlined it to, The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Just as it takes time for a speck of fish spawn to mature into a fully-grown fish, so we need time for everything that develops and crystallizes in our world of ideas

--- Alvar Aalto, quoted in The Pool and the Stream by Avery Trufelman

Extended quote:

"Architecture and its details are in some way all part of biology. Perhaps they are, for instance, like some big salmon or trout. They are not born fully grown; they are not even born in the sea or water where they normally live. They are born hundreds of miles away from their home grounds, where the rivers narrow to tiny streams. Just as it takes time for a speck of fish spawn to mature into a fully-grown fish, so we need time for everything that develops and crystallizes in our world of ideas."

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Conway, whom experience had taught that rudeness is by no means a guarantee of good faith, was even less inclined to regard a well-turned phrase as a proof of insincerity.

-- "Glory" Conway, in James Hilton's Lost Horizon, Chapter 10

Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue

--- the High Lama, in James Hilton's Lost Horizon, Chapter 8

In context

Conway was startled by the accuracy of the judgment. "That's so," he replied. "I'm unmarried; I have few close friends and no ambitions.
"No ambitions? And how have you contrived to escape those widespread maladies?" 
For the first time Conway felt that he was actually taking part in a conversation. He said: "It always seemed to me in my profession that a good deal of what passed for success would be rather disagreeable, apart from needing more effort than I felt called upon to make. I was in the Consular Service—quite a subordinate post, but it suited me well enough." 
"Yet your soul was not in it?" 
"Neither my soul nor my heart nor more than half my energies. I'm naturally rather lazy." 
The wrinkles deepened and twisted till Conway realized that the High Lama was very probably smiling. "Laziness in doing stupid things can be a great virtue," resumed the whisper. 

Thursday, June 01, 2017

vices are habits to be corrected, rather than sins to be punished

--- Matthew Treherne, in the BBC In Our Time program on Purgatory, discussing Dante's Purgatorio, at time code 21:07:

Matthew Treherne: Dante divides the mountain into seven terraces, each of which corresponds to a particular vice. 
Melvyn Bragg: Are they the seven deadly sins? 
Treherne: Yes. Dante would think of these as vices, which are habits to be corrected, rather than sins to be punished - that's a really important distinction to what happens in Hell.
According to Wikipedia, "The Roman Catholic Church distinguishes between vice, which is a habit of sin, and the sin itself, which is an individual morally wrong act. ... It is the sin, and not the vice, that deprives one of God's sanctifying grace and renders one deserving of God's punishment. Thomas Aquinas taught that "absolutely speaking, the sin surpasses the vice in wickedness". On the other hand, even after a person's sins have been forgiven, the underlying habit (the vice) may remain."

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Enlightenment is a destructive process

--- Adyashanti, in "The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment", p. 136

Full quote:
Make no mistake about it- enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It's seeing through the facade of pretense. It's the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences

--- William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas, the "Thomas theorem" per wikipedia

Cited by Mireille Hildebrandt in David Runciman's Talking Politics podcast episode on Power in the Digital Age, 6 April 2017, around timecode 13:29

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Meaningful prediction does not lie in serving up the present larded with startling improvements or revelations in lieu of the future.

--- Stanisław Lem, quoted by Simon Ings in a profile "Stanisław Lem: The man with the future inside him, " New Scientist, 19 November 2016

In context
Writing in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury predicted earbud headphones and elevator muzak, and foresaw the creeping eeriness of today's media-saturated shopping mall culture. But even Bradbury's guesses – almost everyone's guesses, in fact – tended to exaggerate the contemporary moment. More TV! More suburbia! Videophones and cars with no need of roads. The powerful, topical visions of writers like Frederik Pohl and Arthur C. Clarke are visions of what the world would be like if the 1950s (the 1960s, the 1970s...) went on forever.
And that is why Stanisław Lem, the Polish satirist, essayist, science fiction writer and futurologist, had no time for them. "Meaningful prediction," he wrote, "does not lie in serving up the present larded with startling improvements or revelations in lieu of the future." He wanted more: to grasp the human adventure in all its promise, tragedy and grandeur. He devised whole new chapters to the human story, not happy endings.

More from the piece

Twenty years before the term "virtual reality" appeared, Lem was already writing about its likely educational and cultural effects.

His abiding concern was the way people use reason as a white stick as they steer blindly through a world dominated by chance and accident. This perspective was acquired early, while he was being pressed up against a wall by the muzzle of a Nazi machine gun – just one of several narrow escapes.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Crowds are often mad rather than wise

--- The Economist's review of Douglas Carswell's book "Rebel: How to Overthrow the Emerging Oligarchy" (April 8, 2017)

Quote in context

"Mr Carswell thinks that a new oligarchy is the biggest threat to the welfare of mankind.... Big companies are tightening their hold over the global economy. Established parties are rigging the political system in their own favour. And business and politics are becoming ever more intertwined as companies offer jobs to ex-politicians. Journalists snobbishly dismiss populism as proof that their fellow citizens are bigots rather than as evidence that they are waking up to the fact that the system is rigged. Yet Mr Carswell has no time for the leftist solution—enlisting the state to regulate capitalism and redistribute wealth." 
"Mr Carswell makes his case well. He is right that capitalism is going through a worrying period of concentration: .... He is also right that today’s meritocratic elite is hard to stomach, ... But he is wrong to think that people-power is the answer. There is a good reason that America’s Founding Fathers, whom Mr Carswell so admires, built up checks and balances to the will of the people: the people are often moved by short-term passions, swayed by demagogues, deceived by rumours. Crowds are often mad rather than wise."

Friday, April 14, 2017

Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously -- it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves

--- C.S. Lewis, in the essay "Democratic Education" (1944), with thanks to Pierre-Yves Saintoyant for the reference

In context:
"A mild pleasure in ragging, a determination not to be much interfered with, is a valuable brake on reckless planning and a valuable curb on the meddlesomeness of minor officials. Envy bleating "I'm as good as you", is, on the other hand, the hotbed of Fascism. You are going about to take away the one and foment the other. Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously -- it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves !!"


Sunday, March 26, 2017

how much of physics is real, and how much of reality is physics?

--- Richard Webb, in a book review in NewScientist, 3 December 2016

Quote in context

A veteran of particle physics and cosmology behind at least two Nobel-prizewinning strands of research, [Richard] Muller [author of "Now: The physics of time"] isn’t pouring cold water on an entire discipline. But he is addressing a theme that, one way or another, exercises him and the authors of three other major new books: how much of physics is real, and how much of reality is physics?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Disciplines are now defined too much by methods rather than by questions

--- Economist Hamish Low, in Exams and Expectations: The art and science of economics at Cambridge, The Economist, 24 December 2016

Quote in context:

Hamish Low, a Cambridge professor who works in applied economics, does not mourn the loss of philosopher kings’ grand intellectual debates. “Now we need to be much more evidence based”, he says. But the discipline’s development has come with a cost. The specialisation associated with expertise can encourage narrow thinking. “Disciplines are now defined too much by methods rather than by questions”, Low says. This narrowness feeds through to policy advice, which too often applies established models to current circumstances, rather than considering fundamental reinterpretions of the issues. Economists can give you an estimate of how much revenue a tax increase will raise, the income loss associated with Brexit, or the employment effects of a minimum wage rise. It calls to mind another aphorism from Keynes about economists being at their best as “humble, competent people on a level with dentists”, using their technical skill to solve pressing problems within a limited area of expertise.

Monday, March 06, 2017

since he made only what he wanted, what he could comprehend, he learned nothing

--- Stanislaw Lem, from "Doctor Diagoras" in Memoirs of a Space Traveler, transl. Joel Stern and Maria Swiecicka-Ziemianek, p. 127

Quoting Dr. Diagoras

"Corcoran wasn't seeking knowledge; he merely wanted to create what he had planned, and since he made only what he wanted, what he could comprehend, he learned nothing and proved nothing except that he is a skillful technician. I am much less confident than Corcoran. I say: I don't know, but I want to know. Building a manlike machine, a grotesque rival for the good things of this world, would be ordinary imitation."

Friday, March 03, 2017

"Sire, do you like yourself?" "What's not to like?"

--- Exchange between Nathaniel and Prince Edward in the 2007 movie Enchanted

Nathaniel: Sire, do you like yourself?
Prince Edward: What's not to like?

Monday, January 09, 2017

A man may search for a shilling and find a sovereign. The important thing is to search

--- Parasitologist Patrick Manson, quoted in EPOD's "Accidental Discoveries: Unusual Salt Crystal Whiskers," January 09, 2017

It's also quoted in Tales from the Torrid Zone: Travels in the Deep Tropics by Alexander Frater

Weeks later, after his wife complained about the smell, he saw the eggs had grown into creatures he reckoned to be embryonic lung flukes that had originated in snails. Snails? How did he know? In truth he didn't; snails had been an inspired guess yet, later, he would be proved right on both counts—and find himself the first person in history studying the lung fluke' s life cycle. An organism lurking in bad water and uncooked food, it becomes a worm in the gut, reaches the lungs after penetrating the intestinal wall, in a few cases continues upwards to lay its eggs in the dark little cerebellic burrows of the brain. 
Manson, contemplating another big breakthrough, denied luck had anything to do with it. "A man may search for a shilling," he said, "and find a sovereign. The important thing is to search." 
Of the forty diseases that flourish between the ecliptics Manson studied no fewer than a quarter and created a more profound understanding of them all. Giant statues should be raised to him throughout the region.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others

-- Etty Hillesum, from Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 and Letters from Westerbork, p. 218

Quote in context

29 September. You often said, "This is a sin against the spirit, it will be avenged." Every sin against the spirit will be avenged, in man himself and in the world outside. 
Let me just note down one more thing for myself: Matthew 6:34: Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. 
We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies. We make mental provision for the days to come, and everything turns out differently, quite differently. Sufficient unto the day. The things that have to be done must be done, and for the rest we must not allow ourselves to become infested with thousands of petty fears and worries, so many motions of no confidence in God. Everything will turn out all right with my residence permit and with my ration book; right now there's no point in brooding about it, and I would do much better to write a Russian essay. Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world


Sunday, October 23, 2016

It is nice to know that the computer understands the problem. But I would like to understand it too.

--- Eugene Wigner, quoted in Physics Today, July 1993 according to quote-wise.com

Found via a letter to New Scientist from Richard Cragg (13 Aug 2016, issue #3086):
Thank you for Regina Peldszus's review of Samuel Arbesman's book warning that we have reached the stage where very few “experts” really understand the complexity of the software systems they have installed to control critical parts of our infrastructure (23 July, p 42). This reminds me of the lament of Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner: “It is nice to know that the computer understands the problem. But I would like to understand it too.

It is nice to know that the computer understands the problem. But I would like to understand it too.

--- Eugene Wigner, quoted in Physics Today, July 1993 according to quote-wise.com

Found via a letter to New Scientist from Richard Cragg (13 Aug 2016, issue #3086):
Thank you for Regina Peldszus's review of Samuel Arbesman's book warning that we have reached the stage where very few “experts” really understand the complexity of the software systems they have installed to control critical parts of our infrastructure (23 July, p 42). This reminds me of the lament of Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner: “It is nice to know that the computer understands the problem. But I would like to understand it too.