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."