Thursday, December 27, 2007

All decisions are based on models . . . and all models are

--- John D Sterman (J. Spencer Standish Professor of Management and Director of the System
Dynamics Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management), section title in his Jay Wright Forrester Prize Lecture, 2002; published in System dynamics review, 18, no. 4, (2002): 501

Friday, November 16, 2007

Stepping from the title to the first lines [of a poem] is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.

--- poet Billy Collins, quoted in a Poetry Foundation profile, itself quoting a 1999 New York Times article by Bruce Weber.

As quoted on the Poetry Foundation site:

"I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I'm talking to, and I want to make sure I don't talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."

Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves.

--- Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Ballantine Books, New York, 1984, p. 382

In analyzing history do not be too profound, for often the causes are quite superficial

--- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, 1820-72, Boston, 1909-14, IV, 160, cited by Barbara Tuchman in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, New York, 1984, p. 23

Tuchman comments: "This is a factor usually overlooked by political scientists who, in discussing the nature of power, always treat it, even when negatively, with immense respect. They fail to see it as sometimes a matter of ordinary men walking into water over their heads, acting unwisely or foolishly or perversely as people in ordinary circumstances frequently do. The trappings of power deceive us, endowing the possessor with a quality larger than life."

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

As elegant as modern econometrics has become, it is not up to the task of delivering policy prescriptions

--- banker and regulator Alan Greenspan, in his memoir The Age of Turbulence, quoted in a BusinessWeek book review, 1 October 2007

In context, in the BW review:

But equally important—and far less noticed—is Greenspan's disdain for academic economics. "As elegant as modern-day econometrics has become, it is not up to the task of delivering policy prescriptions," Greenspan writes. "The world economy has become too complex and interlinked." Indeed, academic economists are virtually nonexistent in the book. Greenspan's successor, Princeton University economist Ben Bernanke, is mentioned only once, in a photo caption.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Government is a reality of life. Denying it is just letting your biases influence your business judgment

--- MCI founder Bill McGowan, quoted by Stephen Keating in Cutthroat: High stakes and Killer Moves on the Electronic Frontier (1999), p. 147, citing a Washington Post Magazine article by Greg Critser, 6/16/96

[Al Gore] never had great political instincts. He did have a keen sense for opportunities that might make headlines

--- Mike Kopp, Gore’s former press secretary, quoted by Stephen Keating in Cutthroat: High stakes and Killer Moves on the Electronic Frontier (1999), p. 97

Quote in context:

“We never operated from a political strategy, we just chased opportunities,” said Mike Kopp, Gore’s former press secretary. “If you look at a list of his hearings, it was all over the map. It was like a buffet he was sampling. We tried to do that on a presidential level and it was a different game. He never had great political instincts. He did have a keen sense for opportunities that might make headlines.”

Wisdom and knowledge are not the same, and speech dominated by intellectual knowledge hardly ever contains wisdom

--- Ayya Khema, "Come and See for Yourself: The Buddhist Path to Happiness," Windhorse Publications 2002, p. 147

Quote in context:

"A certain satisfaction with our abilities can be skilful, but the pride that suggests to us we have more knowledge or ability than other people serves only to leave us even more separate from others than before. If we relate in this way, the language of the heart is suppressed because we are coming only from the logical intellect which is often devoid of the qualities of the heart. This is why spiritual pride impedes those who have acquired a lot of knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge are not the same, and speech dominated by intellectual knowledge hardly ever contains wisdom. Knowledge is helpful only if it can be put into action. Think a bit less and act a bit more! Teresa of Avila said, ‘Stop thinking so much; start loving more!’"

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ten years ago, companies would call up and say I need a digital strategy.' Now, it's I need a green strategy.'

--- Chris Hunter, a former energy manager at Johnson & Johnson, who works for the environmental consulting firm GreenOrder. Quoted in BusinessWeek story Little Green Lies, about the difficulty in making "being green" profitable.

The story features Austen Schendler and his experience trying to follow Amory Lovins' evangelism and help Aspen Skiing be a green company. According to BW, he sums up his experience thus: "I've succeeded in doing a lot of sexy projects yet utterly failed in what I set out to do. How do you really green your company? It's almost f------ impossible."

Friday, October 19, 2007

The value of a social network is defined not only by who's on it, but by who's excluded

--- Paul Saffo, quoted in The Economist, "Social graph-iti: There's less to Facebook and other social networks than meets the eye," Oct 18th 2007

Quote in context, from the article:

This analogy to address books points to an important limitation for social networks, such as Facebook, compared with older sorts of network, such as the postal or telephone systems. These benefit from Metcalfe's Law, which says that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its users. In other words, the more people have phones, the more useful they become. This “network effect” leads to rapid adoption and puts up barriers for new entrants.

But unlike other networks, social networks lose value once they go beyond a certain size. “The value of a social network is defined not only by who's on it, but by who's excluded,” says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster. Despite their name, therefore, they do not benefit from the network effect. Already, social networks such as “aSmallWorld”, an exclusive site for the rich and famous, are proliferating. Such networks recognise that people want to hobnob with a chosen few, not to be spammed by random friend-requests.

This suggests that the future of social networking will not be one big social graph but instead myriad small communities on the internet to replicate the millions that exist offline. No single company, therefore, can capture the social graph. Ning, a fast-growing company with offices directly across the street from Facebook in Palo Alto, is built around this idea. It lets users build their own social networks for each circle of friends.

So are Facebook and its graph really worth many billions?

Monday, October 08, 2007

A "trusted computer" is a computer they can trust not to do what I want

--- David Clark, comment at TPRC 2007, Sunday 30 Sep 2007, during the panel "Research Initiatives for a Future Internet"

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Vida sin amigos, muerte sin testigos

A Spanish proverb, roughly translated, "Life without a friend is death without a witness."

Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity

--- Bill Gates, prepared text for Harvard Commencement, June 7, 2007,

Quote in context:

But taking a serious look back … I do have one big regret.

I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world – the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair.

I learned a lot here at Harvard about new ideas in economics and politics. I got great exposure to the advances being made in the sciences.

But humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity – reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.

I left campus knowing little about the millions of young people cheated out of educational opportunities here in this country. And I knew nothing about the millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and disease in developing countries.
It took me decades to find out.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Evolution favours what is good at replicating itself, rather than what is good.

--- John Kay, Culture and Prosperity: Why Some Nations Are Rich but Most Remain Poor (2005), quoted by Andrew Taylor in his post Evolution vs. adaptation vs. ultimate good

In the blog Taylor gives a slightly longer quote: "Evolution favours what is good at replicating itself, rather than what is good. This fundamental distinction is essential to understanding any evolving system."

Taylor comments:

"We can easily see in human history (and I see it in my own biases) a presumption that evolving systems slowly create better results. We've used the argument in reinforcing the supremacy of humans on the earth (animals and nature are in service to man, because man was the one to evolve the best). And we often use the bundled assumption in describing healthy organizations -- in the arts and elsewhere.

"But Kay's simple point cuts to the heart of these assumptions. Evolution -- and even adaptation -- are extraordinarily effective at advancing what can be replicated. But they have nothing to do with selecting and advancing the best responses for any larger challenge. In fact, established organizational cultures are highly effective at perpetuating themselves through these very systems."

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.

--- Christine Rosen, senior editor of The New Atlantis and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism", New Atlantis, Summer 2007,

Sunday, September 16, 2007

It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.

--- Trappist monk Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, p. 122; cited by Bret Battey

Friday, September 14, 2007

Until proven otherwise, we should assume that consciousness doesn't play a role in human behaviour. This is the conservative position that makes the fewest assumptions.

--- Robert Provine, quoted in Mark Buchanan, Why we are all creatures of habit, New Scientist 7 Jul 07, p. 37

Other quotes along the same vein:

Alex Pentland: "The data support the view that a lot of human behaviour is largely automatic and determined by instincts alone."

Ap Dijksterhuis: "Almost everything we do is automatic. I'm more and more inclined to draw the conclusion that consciousness is a pretty unimportant thing."

Buchanan writes: "Provine goes even further. He suspects we only think we act consciously because our inner voice is so skilled at making up seemingly reasonable narratives and explanations of our unconsciously generated behaviour."

There's a resonance with Michael Brian Schiffer's theory of communication that focuses on receivers and artifacts rather than senders and words. From the article: "Researchers studying apes and other animals typically start from the idea that animals' actions follow mechanically and automatically from their instincts alone. In contrast, psychologists tend to view people as mostly self-aware individuals acting on conscious thoughts. Pentland's idea is that if we can explain and even predict much of what people do without ever referring to their words or conscious thoughts, then maybe those aren't as important as we usually believe. It is a radical thesis, but one for which his sensors provide strong support."
Buddhism takes realization of basic existential problems as a route to peace, when such realizations are more typically considered the basis for despair

--composer Bret Battey, email 8 Sep 07 (quoted with permission)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Death is voracious, it swallows all the living.
Life is voracious, it swallows all the dead.

--- Jane Hirshfield, from the poem Poem with Two Endings, in Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001(

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

You can’t get rid of ambiguity and uncertainty—they are the flip side of opportunity

--- UCLA business professor Richard Rumelt, interview with Dan P. Lovallo and Lenny T. Mendonca, McKinsey Quarterly 5 Sep 2007 (membership wall)

In context: "Strategic thinking helps us take positions in a world that is confusing and uncertain. You can’t get rid of ambiguity and uncertainty—they are the flip side of opportunity. If you want certainty and clarity, wait for others to take a position and see how they do. Then you’ll know what works, but it will be too late to profit from the knowledge."

Friday, August 31, 2007

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.

--- Andre Gide. Quoted widely, but I have not found a source citation. Some versions have "new oceans" or "new continents" in place of "new lands". It's not in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, or's collection of quotation references. It may be apocryphal.

Update 21 Oct 2007: Bret Battey, with a little help from, found the reference: The Counterfeiters. In 1951 Knopf version in, either Page 49 or 326 (can't tell for sure from the listing).

Monday, August 20, 2007

The good has to happen first in our own hearts. Only then can goodness and purity come out of it. We can't give away what we don't have.

--- Ayya Khema, from the discourse "Talking to One Another," p. 50, Be an Island, 1999
If we're looking for outer conditions to bring us contentment, we're looking in vain. We have to find inner conditions conducive to contentment. One of them is independence - not financial independence, which may bring other hazards, but emotional independence from the approval of others. This entails knowling that we are trying to do the best we can, and if someone disapproves, that's just the way things are. . . .

To be independent also includes no looking for support from others. Sometimes the best we can do may be very good, sometimes it is mediocre. That too has to be accepted. . . . If we sometimes cannot do as well as we thought we could, that is also all right and no reason for discontentment.

Emotional independence requires having a loving heart. If we are looking for love, we are emotionally dependent and often discontented because we don't get what we want, or don't get enough of it. Even if we do get enough, we still cannot count on it to fill our needs. To look for love is a totally unsatisfactory and unfulfilling endeavor. What does work, however, is loving others, which brings emotional independence and contentment. Loving others is possible whether the other person reciprocates or not. Love has nothing to do with the other, but is a quality of our own hearts.

--- Ayya Khema, in the discourse "Harmonious Living," p. 41-41, in Be an Island, 1999

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

He lives well who lives lightly,
hoards nothing,
lets go the air he breathes-
to draw in more

Peter Abbs, in The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems, quoted in a review in the Economist, 11 Aug 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

--- Donald Knuth, Email (let's drop the hyphen)

In context:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study.

On the other hand, I need to communicate with thousands of people all over the world as I write my books. I also want to be responsive to the people who read those books and have questions or comments. My goal is to do this communication efficiently, in batch mode --- like, one day every three months. So if you want to write to me about any topic, please use good ol' snail mail and send a letter to the following address. . .

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Our evolutionary history determined that we become [sic] a cultural creature, but did not determine what kind of culture we would have. Hence our problem today is not whether to have a culture; it is what kind of culture to have.

--- Ervin Laszlo, The Systems View of the World: A Holistic Vision for Our Time, Hampton Press 1996, Ch. 4, "The Systems View of Ourselves," p. 75
The music industry is growing. The record industry is not growing.

--- Edgar Bronfman, chairman of Warner Music, at a New York investor conference, June 2007, as quoted in "A change of tune," The Economist, July 5th 2007

Monday, July 23, 2007

According to Aristotle's commendable formula . . . the beautiful is defined as that which the eye can easily embrace in its entirety and which can be surveyed as a whole.

--- Friedrich Kittler, "The World of the Symbolic--A World of the Machine", cited by Text via Google Books

This is evocative because it connects cognitive capacity to aesthetics, not least the aesthetics of programmers who use elegance as a criterion for good code.
The Hopi way cherishes the intangible: the riches realized from interaction and interrelationships with all beings above all else. Great abundances of material things, even food, the Hopi elders believe, tend to lure human attention away from what is most valuable and important. The views of the Hopi elders are not much different from those elders in all the Pueblos.

---Leslie Marmon Silko, Landscape, History and the Pueblo Imagination, The Migration Story: and Interior Journey, in Antaeus, no. 57, Autumn 1986, reprinted in The Norton Books of Nature Writing, eds. Robert Finch and John Elder, 1990

Friday, July 13, 2007

Being an Oxford graduate is like having a permanent source of emotional central heating. Whatever happens to you later in life, the fact that you were once at Oxford marks you out as someone who was destined for greatness before accountancy beckoned.

--- Guy Browning, Oxford Today, Trinity Issue 2007, p. 64

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A happy woman is one who has no cares at all; a cheerful woman is one who has cares but doesn't let them get her down.

--- Beverly Sills. More great quotes at

For example: "Attachment to spiritual things is... just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else. "

Monday, June 25, 2007

[T]he American left has turned into a skittish, hysterical old lady, one who defiantly insists on living in the past, is easily mesmerized by half-baked pseudo-intellectual nonsense, and quick to run from anything like real conflict or responsibility.

Matt Taibi, in Adbusters column The American Left's Silly Victim Complex


"It shies away from hardcore economic issues but howls endlessly about anything that sounds like a free-speech controversy, shrieking about the notorious bugbears of the post-9/11 “police state” (the Patriot Act, Total Information Awareness, CARNIVORE, etc.) in a way that reveals unmistakably, to those who are paying close attention, a not-so-secret desire to be relevant and threatening enough to warrant the extralegal attention of the FBI. It sells scads of Che t-shirts ($20 at the International ANSWER online store) and has a perfected a high-handed tone of moralistic finger-wagging, but its organizational capacity is almost nil. It says a lot, but does very little. "

Quoting David Sirota: "Perhaps what the real issue is that the left is not really a grassroots movement. . . . You have this donor/elite class, and then you have the public . . . You have these zillionaires who are supposedly funding the progressive movement. At some point that gets to be a problem."

"Citibank gives money to Tom Daschle, Tom Daschle crafts the hideous Bankruptcy Bill, and suddenly the Midwestern union member who was laid off in the wake of Democrat-passed NAFTA can’t even declare bankruptcy to get out from the credit card debt he incurred in his unemployment. He will now probably suck eggs for the rest of his life, paying off credit card debt year after year at a snail’s pace while working as a non-union butcher in a Wal-Mart in Butte. Royally screwed twice by the Democratic Party he voted for, he will almost certainly decide to vote Republican the first time he opens up the door to find four pimply college students wearing I READ BANNED BOOKS t-shirts taking up a collection to agitate for dolphin-safe tuna. "

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Being an executive does not require very developed frontal lobes, but rather a combination of charisma, a capacity to sustain boredom, and the ability to shallowly perform on harrying schedules.

--- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan, 2007, p. 166

Quote in context:

"[A European-owned financial institution where he worked in the summer of 1998] wanted to distinguish itself by being rigorous and far-sighted. The unit involved in trading had five managers, all serious-looking (always in dark blue suits, even on dress-down Fridays), who had to meet throughout the summer in order “to formulate the five-year plan.” . . . The managers flew across the world in order to meet: Barcelona, Hong Kong, et cetera. A lot of miles for a lot of verbiage. Needless to say they were usually sleep-deprived. Being an executive does not require very developed frontal lobes, but rather a combination of charisma, a capacity to sustain boredom, and the ability to shallowly perform on harrying schedules."

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Let's face it, we're not changing the world. We're building a product that helps people buy more crap - and watch porn."

--- Seagate Technology CEO Bill Watkins, at dinner in San Francisco 28 Nov 2006, reported by Jeffrey M. O'Brien, Fortune senior editor in Seagate CEO: I help people "watch porn", 30 Nov 2006

Sunday, May 20, 2007

During the dot-com bubble, you needed $5 million to do stupid ideas. Now you can do stupid ideas for 12 grand

--- Guy Kawasaki, on doing Web 2.0 start-ups, quoted in a WSJ story on Truemors, Lee Gomes, "In New Net Economy, Everyone Gets to Be Stupid for 15 Minutes," The Wall Street Journal, 16 May 2007

More from the WSJ story: "Apparently, Web businesses now aren't much harder to make than YouTube videos. Mr. Kawasaki says he has been working on Truemors for just three months. Because it uses free software, with programming done by a for-hire outfit in called Electric Pulp located in the high tech mecca of South Dakota, the costs are minimal. Mr. Kawasaki says to date, he has spent $12,000 on Truemors. "

Monday, May 14, 2007

Using the word design to describe [how processes exit on Windows XP] is like using the term swimming pool to refer to a puddle in your garden

--- Colleague, cited by Raymond Chen in Quick overview of how processes exit on Windows XP.

In context:

"I should say up front that I do not agree with many steps in the way processes exit on Windows XP. The purpose of this mini-series is not to justify the way processes exit but merely to fill you in on some of the behind-the-scenes activities so you are better-armed when you have to investigate into a mysterious crash or hang during exit. (Note that I just refer to it as the way processes exit on Windows XP rather than saying that it is how process exit is designed. As one of my colleagues put it, "Using the word design to describe this is like using the term swimming pool to refer to a puddle in your garden.") "

Sunday, April 29, 2007

We must not forget that it is not our business to make programs, it is our
business to design classes of computations that will display a desired behaviour.

--- Edsger Dijkstra, The Humble Programmer, ACM Turing Lecture 1972, published in Commun. ACM 15 (1972), 10: 859-866

In context:

I now suggest that we confine ourselves to the design and implementation of intellectually manageable programs. If someone fears that this restriction is so severe that we cannot live with it, I can reassure him: the class of intellectually manageable programs is still sufficiently rich to contain many very realistic programs for any problem capable of algorithmic solution. We must not forget that it is not our business to make programs, it is our business to design classes of computations that will display a desired behaviour.
[A]s long as there were no machines, programming was no problem at all; when we
had a few weak computers, programming became a mild problem, and now we have
gigantic computers, programming has become an equally gigantic problem.

--- Edsger Dijkstra, The Humble Programmer, ACM Turing Lecture 1972, published in Commun. ACM 15 (1972), 10: 859-866
Artificial intelligence has the same relation to intelligence as artificial flowers have to flowers.

--- David Lorge Parnas, Software aspects of strategic defense systems, Communications of the ACM, December 1985, Vol. 28, No. 12

In context:

Artificial intelligence has the same relation to intelligence as artificial flowers have to flowers. From a distance they may appear much alike, but when closely examined they are quite different. I don’t think we can learn much about one by studying the other. AI offers no magic technology to solve our problem. Heuristic techniques do not yield systems that one can trust.
Even in highly structured [software] systems, surprises and unreliability occur because the human mind is not able to fully comprehend the many conditions that can arise because of the interaction of these components.

--- David Lorge Parnas, Software aspects of strategic defense systems, Communications of the ACM, December 1985, Vol. 28, No. 12

In context:

Dividing software into modules and building each module of so-called “structured” programs clearly helps. When properly done, each component deals with a small number of cases and can be completely analyzed. However, real software systems have many such components, and there is no repetitive structure to simplify the analysis. Even in highly structured systems, surprises and unreliability occur because the human mind is not able to fully comprehend the many conditions that can arise because of the interaction of these components. Moreover, finding the right structure has proved to be very difficult. Well-structured real software systems are still rare.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

I conjecture that most multi-threaded general-purpose applications are, in fact, so full of concurrency bugs that as multi-core architectures become commonplace, these bugs will begin to show up as system failures.

--- Edward A. Lee, professor of computer science, UC Berkely, in "The Problem with Threads,"
Technical Report No. UCB/EECS-2006-1, January 10, 2006

He continues:

This scenario is bleak for computer vendors: their next generation of machines will become widely known as the ones on which many programs crash. These same computer vendors are advocating more multi-threaded programming, so that there is concurrency that can exploit the parallelism they would like to sell us. Intel, for example, has embarked on an active campaign to get leading computer science academic programs to put more emphasis on multi-threaded programming. If they are successful, and the next generation of programmers makes more intensive use of multithreading, then the next generation of computers will become nearly unusable.
We understand complex things by systematically breaking them into successively simpler parts and understanding how these parts fit together locally. Thus, we have different levels of understanding, and each of these levels corresponds to an abstraction of the detail at the level it is composed from. For example, at one level of abstraction, we deal with an integer without considering wehterh it is represented in binary notation or two’s complement, etc., while at deeper levels this representation may be important. At more abstract levels the precise value of the integer is not important except as it related to other data.

--- Donald E Knuth, “Structured Programming with go to Statements,” Computing Surveys, Vol. 6, No. 4, December 1974, p. 291

Knuth goes on to provide an excerpt of Charles L. Baker’s 1957 review of McCracken’s first book on programming:

Break the problem into small, self-contained subroutines, trying at all times to isolate the various sections of coding as much as possible . . . [then] the problem is reduced to many much smaller ones. The truth of this seems very obvious to the experienced coder, yet it is hard to put across to the newcomer.

[Knuth’s citation: Baker, Charles L, “Review of D. D. McCracken, Digital Computer Programming,” Math. Comput. 11 (1957), 298-305]

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The problem with being clever is you’re not

--- A saying among developers, reported by Adam Sapek, personal email, 15 April 2007
A civil engineer doesn’t rebel against gravity

- Adam Sapek, personal email, 17 april 2007, exploring why programming is not like engineering. In context:

"[Why is it so rare that software is built as predictably and reliably as bridges?] The first reason is that programmers realize that limitations are arbitrary and don’t like them. A civil engineer doesn’t rebel against gravity; for a programmer the equivalent is PHB ."

Friday, April 06, 2007

The desire to deal with the subject has been consistently less passionate than the desire to have it dealt with.

--- James Davidson, Reader in Dept. of Classics and Ancient History in the University of Warwick, on why received notions of homosexual practices in ancient Greece are so inaccurate, in "Greek Homosexuality," in Omnibus #53, January 2007 (ISSN 0261-507X). The Omnibus author's introduction notes that his book Courtesans and Fishcakes: consuming passions of ancient Athens "was a runaway sucsess with both specialists and non-specialists and received rave reviews in all sorts of newspapers that normal books about the ancient world don't reach."

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Once you set an idea free to fly, you can’t control where it goes. And sometimes it comes back, lands on your shoulder and starts pecking at your eyes.

--- John Murrell, Second thoughts from a first-rate mind, Good Morning Silicon Valley, 3 April 2007, on Jim Watson's decision to allow publication of his DNA sequence

Monday, April 02, 2007

[A] list of technologies that, when they appeared, people said would "create peace" includes battleships, Alfred Nobel's explosives, the radio, the aeroplane, the atomic bomb, television and the internet.

--- David Edgerton, professor of history of science and technology, Imperial College, London, New Scientist opinion piece "The stuff of technofantasy" 29 January 2007

More from the piece:

We also underestimate the importance of some modern technologies and sciences. Take chemistry. It hardly figures in most accounts of 20th-century technology or science, and its absence is barely noticed. But omit computers, even from histories of the 1950s, and your account would be questioned. We can easily exaggerate the significance of technologies, and ignore some really important ones.

Globalisation has very quickly, and for no really good reason, become associated with the internet. We could as easily have had today's globalised world without the internet, but without cheap air travel - carrying people and some cargo - and cheap shipping - carrying most of the world's tradable goods and some people - it would hardly be possible. A type of globalisation driven only by the internet, had it happened, would surely not see so much stuff surging around the world.

. . . .

IKEA subverts the modern and postmodern notions of what we are technologically in another way: it has shifted part of the production and transportation of furniture away from specialist (employed) producers back to the household. The company has created a new middle-class urban peasantry which has to load, transport and build its own furniture, though in new ways, of course.
It is easy to visualise the shape of ordinary objects because you can look at them from the outside. You can pick up a cup, view it at different angles, feel its curves and surfaces, poke a finger through the handle. But we can't do this with the universe because we're stuck inside it - in fact, according to some definitions, it is all that exists. There are, however, still ways to feel its shape from the inside.

--- Simon Battersby, "Fold testament: The shape of the universe," New Scientist, 7 December 2006

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Science forgets that it too is based on faith: in particular that the universe is an orderly place with rules; and that information received by our senses is true.

--- David Odell, letter to the editors, New Scientist, 19 Dec 2007

The rest of his letter:

Do these scientists really believe the cosmos is a replacement for God? Atheists will look at the cosmos and realise, as my science teacher says, that our lives are so insignificant; a religious person will look to the cosmos and be awed by (God's) creation. This is not a way to defeat religion.

Many scientific discoveries only make people more awed by their God. Why do scientists want to get rid of religion, when religion has driven scientists for hundreds of years?
I have learned by experience that when a book makes a sensation it is just as well to wait a year before you read it. It is astonishing how many books then you need not read at all.

--- W. Somerset Maugham, in the short story The Voice of the Turtle, in Collected Short Stories Vol 1, Penguin 1963
The moment programs grow beyond smallness, their brittleness becomes the most prominent feature, and software engineering becomes Sisyphean.

--- Jaron Lanier, Why Gordian Software has convinced me to believe in the reality of cats and apples [11.19.03],

In context:

"Ivan Sutherland, the father of computer graphics, wrote a program in the mid 1960s called "Sketchpad" all by himself as a student. In it he demonstrated the first graphics, continuous interactivity, visual programming, and on and on. Most computer scientists regard Sketchpad as the most influential program ever written. Every sensitive younger computer scientist mourns the passing of the days when such a thing was possible. By the 1970s, Seymour Papert had even small children creating little programs with graphical outputs in his computer language "LOGO". The operative word is "little." The moment programs grow beyond smallness, their brittleness becomes the most prominent feature, and software engineering becomes Sisyphean."

Saturday, March 31, 2007

It is amazing the lengths a Watcher will go to keep you from pursing the flow of your imagination. Watchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages. They are compulsive looker-uppers. They cultivate self-important eccentricities they think are suitable for "writers." And they'd rather die (and kill your inspiration with them) than risk making a fool of themselves.

--- Gail Godwin in an essay titled "The Watcher at the Gate" (1974), quoted by Roy Peter Clarke in Writing Tool #43: Self-criticism

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A decision was wise, even though it led to disastrous consequences, if the evidence at hand indicated it was the best one to make; and a decision was foolish, even though it led to the happiest possible consequences, if it was unreasonable to expect those consequences.

--- Herodotus, quoted by D. S. Siva, Data Analysis: A Bayesian Tutorial, 1996, p. 2. Ronald A. Howard in The Foundations of Decision Analysis Revisited refers to Jaynes (Jaynes, E.T. (1986), Bayesian Methods: General Background. In Justice, J. H. (Ed.) Maximum-Entropy and Bayesian Methods in Applied Statistics. Cambridge Univ. Press) when citing the same quote. Looks like this is a favorite quote of Bayesians everywhere.
Explanation is to cognition as orgasm is to reproduction.

--- Alison Gopnik, Explanation as Orgasm, Minds and Machines 8 (1) 101-118 (1998)

In context:

"My hypothesis will be that explanation is to cognition as orgasm is to reproduction. It is the phenomenological mark of the fulfillment of an evolutionarily determined drive. From our phenomenological point of view, it may seem to us that we construct and use theories in order to achieve explanation or have sex in order to achieve orgasm. From an evolutionary point of view, however, the relation is reversed, we experience orgasms and explanations to ensure that we make babies and theories."

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In the Web hype-o-sphere, things matter hugely until, very suddenly, they don’t matter at all.

--- Michael Hirschorn, The Web 2.0 Bubble, The Atlantic Monthly, April 2007

Monday, March 05, 2007

Invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa

--- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Norton, 1997, pp. 242-3. Via Delancyplace 03/05/07

Full text quoted:

"The starting point for our discussions is the common view expressed in the saying 'Necessity is the mother of invention.' ...

"In fact, many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind. Once a device had been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after a device had been in use for a considerable time did consumers feel they 'needed' it. Still other devices, invented to serve one purpose, eventually found most of their use for other, unanticipated purposes. It may come as a surprise to learn that these inventions in search of a use include most of the major technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, rather than vice versa.

"A good example is the history of Thomas Edison's phonograph, the most original invention of the greatest inventor of modern times. When Edison built his first phonograph in 1877, he published an article proposing ten uses to which his invention might be put. They included preserving the last words of dying people, recording books for blind people to hear, announcing clock time, and teaching spelling. Reproduction of music was not high on Edison's list of priorities. A few years later, Edison told his assistant that his invention had no commercial value. Within another few years he changed his mind and did enter business to sell phonographs--but for use as office dictating machines. When other entrepreneurs created jukeboxes by arranging for a phonograph to play popular music at the drop of a coin, Edison objected to this debasement, which apparently detracted from serious office use of his invention. Only after about twenty years did Edison reluctantly concede that the main use of his phonograph was to record and play music."

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Science is the conversation about how the world is. Culture is the conversation about how else the world could be, and how else we could experience it.

--- Brian Eno, "Eno's Second Law," on, mentioned by Scott Rosenberg in lecture at MSR on Dreaming in Code.


"Science wants to know what can be said about the world, what can be predicted about it. Art likes to see which other worlds are possible, to see how it would feel if it were this way instead of that way. As such art can give us the practice and agility to think and experience in new ways - preparing us for the new understandings of things that science supplies."

Also, Eno's First Law

"Culture is everything we don't have to do

"We have to eat, but we didn't have to invent Baked Alaskas and Beef Wellington. We have to clothe ourselves, but we didn't have to invent platform shoes and polka-dot bikinis. We have to communicate, but we didn't have to invent sonnets and sonatas. Everything we do—beyond simply keeping ourselves alive—we do because we like making and experiencing art and culture."
Our technological civilization depends on software

--- Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of C++, interview with, “The Problem with Programming," MIT Technology Review November 28, 2006


"Software developers have become adept at the difficult art of building reasonably reliable systems out of unreliable parts. The snag is that often we do not know exactly how we did it: a system just "sort of evolved" into something minimally acceptable. Personally, I prefer to know when a system will work, and why it will."

"There are just two kinds of languages: the ones everybody complains about and the ones nobody uses. "

Friday, March 02, 2007

People like to imagine that because all our mechanical equipment moves so much faster, that we are thinking faster, too.

---Christopher Morley, writer(1890-1957), cited passim, no reference found, recommended by Pam Heath

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Software gets slower faster than hardware gets faster

--- Niklaus Wirth, cited by Scott Rosenberg

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter."

--- Pascal, "Lettres provinciales," 16, Dec.14,1656. Cassell's Book of Quotations,London,1912. P.718. "Je N'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." Source. See also link.

"Please forgive this long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one."

--- George Bernard Shaw, who used to write 10 letters per day, who after writing a 50-page letter to someone, link

Monday, February 19, 2007

The political expert who bores you with an cloud of "howevers" is probably right about what's going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

--- Stewart Brand, paraphrasing Philip Tetlock's Long Now Foundation seminar on "Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs"

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The moment programs grow beyond smallness, their brittleness becomes the most prominent feature, and software engineering becomes Sisyphean

--– Jaron Lanier, Why Gordian Software has convinced me to believe in the reality of cats and apples [11.19.03], A Talk with Jaron Lanier,,
The moral I want to draw from this reading [of Salvador DalĂ­’s The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus], and from each of the other uncontrolled and unbelievable interpretations I have described in the course of the book, is that an engaged imagination is finally what compels conviction. Indisputable facts and irrefutable discoveries are only the skeleton of art history: what counts both initially and ultimately is the ability to put a full emotional and intellectual commitment on the page, and bring the apparatus of interpretation to bear in the most forceful possible manner.

--- James Elkins, Why are our pictures puzzles?: On the modern origins of pictorial complexity (1999), p. 244

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust the experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.

--- British prime minister Lord Salisbury, to Lord Lytton, 15 June 1877, Lytton Papers, E.218/4A, cited in John Ferris, "Salisbury, Intelligence, and British Policy" in Keith Neilson & B. J. C. McKercher, Go Spy the Land: Military Intelligence in History, Praeger, 1992

Monday, February 05, 2007

When Escher's inventiveness stalled, he tackled the obstacle much as a mathematician does an intractable problem -- with obstinacy. Mathematicians pose questions that nag and pester, they keep chipping away at a problem, until truth, a solution, presents itself (or the enterprise crumbles and proves impossible.)

--- S. Roberts, King of Infinite Space, Walker & Company, 2006, cited in

Thursday, February 01, 2007

My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

--- Attrib. to JBS Haldane. Quoted passim, e.g. in Queerer than we can suppose?, The Economist, Jan 3rd 2002

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In the early 1500s one could hike through the woods for days without encountering a settlement of any size. Between 80 and 90 percent of the population ... lived in villages of fewer than a hundred people, fifteen or twenty miles apart, surrounded by endless woodlands. They slept in their small, cramped hamlets, which afforded little privacy ...

The centerpiece of the room was a gigantic bedstead, piled high with straw pallets, all seething with vermin. Everyone slept there, regardless of age or gender--grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and hens and pigs--and if a couple chose to enjoy intimacy, the others were aware of every movement. In summer they could even watch ...

If this familial situation seems primitive, it should be borne in mind that these were prosperous peasants.

--- William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, Back Bay Books, 1992, pp. 50-2. Cited by 01/25/07-life in the 1500s

Monday, January 29, 2007

Our modern skulls house a stone age mind

--- William Allman, picked up and elaborated by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer" (see Acknowledgements)


"The key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American -- they were designed to solve the day-to-day problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. These stone age priorities produced a brain far better at solving some problems than others. For example, it is easier for us to deal with small, hunter-gatherer-band sized groups of people than with crowds of thousands; it is easier for us to learn to fear snakes than electric sockets, even though electric sockets pose a larger threat than snakes do in most American communities. In many cases, our brains are better at solving the kinds of problems our ancestors faced on the African savannahs than they are at solving the more familiar tasks we face in a college classroom or a modern city. In saying that our modern skulls house a stone age mind, we do not mean to imply that our minds are unsophisticated. Quite the contrary: they are very sophisticated computers, whose circuits are elegantly designed to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors routinely faced."
You cannot understand what a person is saying unless you understand who they are arguing with.

--- Don Symons, quoted by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer,"
On principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. It is the theory which decides what we can observe

--- Albert Einstein, from J. Bernstein, "The Secret of the Old Ones, II." New Yorker, March 17, 1973, cited on
Many psychologists avoid the study of natural competences, thinking that there is nothing there to be explained. As a result, social psychologists are disappointed unless they find a phenomenon "that would surprise their grandmothers", and cognitive psychologists spend more time studying how we solve problems we are bad at, like learning math or playing chess, than ones we are good at.

--- Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer," making the pitch for evolutionary psychology, and studying our natural competences.
"Let's say the world has only e-books, then someone introduces this technology called 'paper.' It's cheap, portable, lasts essentially forever, and requires no batteries. You can't write over it once it's been written on, but you buy more very cheaply. Wouldn't that technology come to dominate the market?"

-- Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee quoting someone he heard on a panel, using the Stanley Crouch "flip test", cited in GMSV

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Friday, January 26, 2007

That perception of Google's search engine - that sense that "we the people" control its workings - continues to hold sway among the public. But while it may have been true once - and while it may in fact have been the company's founding ideal - it's not true anymore. Google's engine is a meticulously hand-crafted, continually optimized machine that does precisely what Google instructs it to do - even if that means filtering results to protect the company's reputation. Google may have good in its heart. It may, for the time being anyway, be fighting on our behalf against the forces of distortion that it has unleashed. But let's not forget that Google's machine is not our machine. It's Google's, for better or worse.

--- Nick Carr, "Google's machine," Rough Type, January 26, 2007

Thursday, January 11, 2007

There are few things as toxic as a bad metaphor. You can't think without metaphors.

--- Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

I think Microsoft is now well in the advanced throes of getting everything 100 percent right in terms of the discipline and just no longer producing products people want to buy with any level of consistency.

--- Joel Spolsky, Salon interview (page 2) December 9, 2004, by Scott Rosenberg
"To have the kind of free will we would like involves walking a fine line between determinism and randomness. We must be able to freely make our actions, but they should then result in deterministic (that is, non-random) effects. For example, we may want to be free to send our kids to a school of our choice. But then we also want to believe that the laws of physics (and biology, sociology and so on) ensure that going to a good school is highly likely to lead to a better life. Having free will is pointless without a certain degree of determinism.

"The same can be said about studying physics. I want to believe that the choice regarding which aspect of nature I want to study - whether I want to measure the position or velocity of a particle, for example - lies with me. But what I also want is some degree of deterministic behaviour in nature that would then permit me to infer laws of physics from any measurement that I choose to make. In fact, the only means we have for deducing the basic equations of quantum mechanics means that they are fully deterministic, just like those of Newtonian mechanics.

"There is nothing mysterious or controversial about this, but look what happens when we apply this to ourselves. If we are all made up of atoms, and if atoms behave deterministically, then we too must be fully determined. We simply must share the same fate as the rest of the universe. When we look inside our brains, all we find are interconnected neurons, whose behaviour in turn is governed by their underlying molecular structure, which in turn is fully governed by the strict laws of quantum mechanics. Taking the argument to extremes, the laws of quantum mechanics ultimately determine how I deduce the laws of quantum mechanics, which appears to be a fully circular argument and therefore logically difficult to sustain."

--- Vlatko Vedral, in "The Big Questions: Is the universe deterministic?" New Scientist 24 Nov 2006
Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.

--- Alan Turing, quoted by Michio Kaku in The Big Questions: Will we ever have a theory of everything?, New Scientist 16 Nov 2006; also reportedly quoted in J D Barrow, "Theories of Everything"