Thursday, December 30, 2010

"To say that one practices zazen in order to become an enlightened person is like saying one practices medicine to become a doctor"

--- Thomas P. Kasulis, in Zen Action, Zen Person (1989), summarizing Dōgen:

In short, Dōgen rejects the view that zazen is a technique by which one comes to realization. Zazen is not the cause of satori; even at that first moment when the student begins to sit in meditation, zazen is already realization. Thus, in referring to enlightenment, Dōgen usually prefers to use the character shō (“authentication”) rather than satori (“realization”) or kaku (“awakening”). For Dōgen, proper sitting authenticates the enlightenment already there. Conversely, the student never reaches the point at which zazen is superseded. To say that one practices zazen in order to become an enlightened person is like saying one practices medicine to become a doctor. To practice medicine is to be a doctor. To practice zazen is to be enlightened. Enlightenment is not a static state of achievement; it is the active undertaking of the way exemplified in zazen.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

"a man who is afraid of sinning because of Hell-fire, is afraid, not of sinning, but of burning"

--- Augustine of Hippo, Epistolae 145, 4; quoted in Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (1967, 2000) p. 375

Context in Brown: "It is Pelagius, not Augustine, who harps on the terrors of the Last Judgment: to which Augustine simply remarked that ‘a man who is afraid of sinning because of Hell-fire, is afraid, not of sinning, but of burning.’"

Monday, November 22, 2010

Who better knows clay, the geologist or the potter?

--- Thomas Kasulis, proposing an analogy for the difference between Western and Japanese philosophy, quoted in his interview on the Philosopher's Zone

From the transcript:

Alan Saunders: When you wrote to us here at The Philosopher's Zone about your forthcoming book, Engaging Japanese Philosophy you use a nice analogy that I'd like to repeat here: 'The easiest way to think of the difference between Western and Japanese philosophy is to ask who better knows clay, the geologist or the potter?' Now for the most part, modern Western philosophy sides with the geologist. While for the most part Japanese philosophers have studied with the Potter. Both traditions recognise both kinds of knowing, but there is a marked difference in emphasis as to which is the more profound.
Thomas Kasulis: That's right, and that's why I call the book Engaging Japanese Philosophy because I think that in modern Western -- mediaeval Western is kind of interestingly different in some ways, and some ways also the ancient traditions, or some of them -- but in the modern West, what we might consider from 1600 on and certainly since the enlightenment, from 1800 on, that Western model has been one of objectivity, detachment, observation, and logical reflection. Whereas in many cases Japan's model has been one of engagement.
Both traditions agree that both are kinds of knowing, I think. I don't think there's any problem there. But the issue is which is the really important kind of knowing?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"public goods: things ... that everyone wants and nobody is prepared to pay for"

--- Nice definition of public goods from James Astill in The Economist's special report on forests, 25 Sep 2010; this quote from the article "Money can grow on trees"

Quote in context:

Yet in the national accounts the clearance is recorded as progress. About a quarter of Indonesian output comes from forestry, agriculture and mining, all of which, in a country more than half-covered in trees, involve felling. But this is bad accounting. It captures very few of the multiple costs exacted by the clearance, which fall not so much on loggers and planters but on poor locals, all Indonesians and the world at large.

The Indonesian exchequer, for one, is missing out. Illegal logging is estimated to cost it $2 billion a year in lost revenues. But that can be fixed by policing. A bigger problem is that most of the goods and services the country’s forests provide are invisible to the bean-counters. Many of them are public goods: things like clean air and reliable rains that everyone wants and nobody is prepared to pay for. And where they are traded, they are often undervalued because their worth or scarcity is not fully appreciated.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

"we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion"

--- David Eagleman, opinion column Beyond God and atheism: Why I am a 'possibilian', New Scientist, 27 September 2010

Excerpts, quote quote highlighted below:

Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don't feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom - but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them. Religious structures are built by humans and brim with all manner of strange human claims - they often reflect cults of personality, xenophobia or mental illness. The holy books of these religions were written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, other galaxies, information theory, electricity, the big bang, the big crunch, or even other cultures, literatures or landscapes.

So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position.


I don't think the important goal should be to fight for a particular story in the absence of strong evidence; it should be to explore and celebrate the vast possibilities.


This is why I call myself a "possibilian". Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.


In every generation, people are seduced by the idea that they possess all the tools they need to explain the universe. They have always been wrong. From consciousness to dark energy, we know that we are missing an unknowable number of pieces of the puzzle. This is why in the debates between the strict atheists and the fundamentally religious, I choose a third side. A little less pretence of certainty and a little more exploration of the possibility space.

As Voltaire put it, "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Hurt people hurt people"

---David Hooker, a black community-builder, recounting an incident in an Oxford, Miss. bar; from a CS Monitor story Beyond racism: lessons from the South on racial discrimination and prejudice, Sep 18, 2010. (This article is part of the cover-story package for the Sept. 20, 2010 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine. The weekly is well worth having - subscribe!)

Mr. Hooker, who lives in Atlanta and teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., stepped into the Ajax bar to order some food. A white Mississippian sitting at the bar said to no one in particular, but within Hooker's earshot, "I remember when they didn't let niggers in here."
Recounting the episode, Hooker says he replied, "That was crazy, wasn't it? I remember that, too."
Hooker adds: "He kind of looked at me, like, 'What do you mean? You're not going to be offended?' "
The two ended up having a 45-minute chat that spanned the election of Obama, the Ole Miss football team, and hopes for their kids. "He was asking to have a conversation about race – he just didn't quite know how," says Hooker. "The reason I could hear that as an invitation is because I constantly remind myself that hurt people hurt people – they're exposing you to a place of their own pain."
Times are changing, it seems, though not in the way Northerners might imagine. Willie Griffin, an entrepreneur who moved back South is quoted as saying, "If there's prejudice today, it's more of a class thing than a racial thing."

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man."

--- Francis Bacon, in the essay "On Studies", found via a lecture by Brooks Landon on "The Rhythm of Threes" in his Teaching Company course Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft.

This short essay is packed with wonderful quotes; it short, and bears reading in full.  Here are a few that jumped out at me:
Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business
Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.
Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Innovation is unnatural"

--- The Economist's Schumpeter columnist, in  review (Aug 30, 2010) of “The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge” by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble ("G&T")

From the piece:
G&T say that you need to start by recognising that innovation is unnatural. Established businesses are built for efficiency, which depends on predictability and repeatability—on breaking tasks down into their component parts and holding employees accountable for hitting their targets. But innovation is by definition unpredictable and uncertain. Bosses may sing a pretty song about innovation being the future. But in practice the heads of operational units will favour the known over the unknown.
G&T argue that companies need to build dedicated innovation machines. These machines need to be free to recruit people from outside (since big companies tend to attract company men rather than rule-breakers). They also need to be free from some of the measures that prevail in the rest of the company. But they must avoid becoming skunk works. They need to be integrated with the rest of the company—they must share some staff, for example, and they must tap into the wider company’s resources as they turn ideas into products. And they must be tightly managed according to customised rather than generic rules. For example, they should be held accountable for their ability to learn from mistakes rather than for their ability to hit their budgets.

Sounds good, but it's easy to give recipes. Still, it's a good quote

Sunday, September 05, 2010

"A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality"

--- attributed passim to Irving Kristol, cited to Two Cheers for Capitalism (1979) at's page on Kristol.

I heard Peter Berkowitz mention it in a Philosopher's Zone program about Leo Strauss and the state of American conservatism.

I wouldn't say I've been mugged by reality yet, but I definitely feel like I'm walking in a rough neighborhood...

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"If the people are to be ruled they must first be scared"

--- A. D. Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker (2008) p. 158, quoted by Walter Rodgers in his CSMonitor Commentary "Obama vs.his enemies", 21 February 2010

From Nuttall:
It is sometimes said that political leaders require a “demonised Other” to retain control of their citizens. If the people are to be ruled they must first be scared. This is very nearly the situation at the beginning of Henry V. The King desperately needs a war with France if he is to control such as Scroop and Grey.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"fire can be thought of as an emergent property of vegetation in the same way that vegetation can be thought of as an emergent property of climates"

--- David Bowman, in the essay "Scorched earth: Wildfires will change the way we live," New Scientist, 10 October 2009

In context:
A key to understanding those consequences [of global climate change] is the notion of the "fire regime", where different vegetation has characteristic fires in terms of recurrence, intensity, seasonality and biological effects. Indeed, fire can be thought of as an emergent property of vegetation in the same way that vegetation can be thought of as an emergent property of climates. In other words, Earth has a "pyrogeography".

"There are societies where, once the book is closed, the reader goes on believing; there are others where he does not."

--- Paul Veyne, tr. Paula Wissing, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (1983, 1988), p. 22, Ch. 2, "The Plurality and Analogy of True Worlds"

According a certain program of truth, that of deductive and quantified physics, Einstein is true in our eyes. But if we believe in the Iliad, it is no less true according to its own mythical program. The same can be said for Alice in Wonderland. For, even if we consider Alice and the plays of Racine as fiction, while we are reading them we believe; we weep at the theater. The world of Alice and its fairytale program is offered to us as a realm as plausible and true as our own—as real in relation to itself, so to speak. We have shifted the sphere of truth, but we are still within the true or its analogy. This is why realism in literature is at once a fake (it is not reality), a useless exertion (the fairy world would seem no less real), and the most extreme sophistication (to fabricate the real with our real: how baroque!). Far from being opposed to the truth, fiction is only its by-product. All we need to do is open the Iliad and we enter into the story, as they say, and
lose our bearings. The only subtlety is that later on we do not believe. There are societies where, once the book is closed, the reader goes on believing; there are others where he does not.

"Financial markets are a collection of arguments"

--- Michael Lewis, p. 79 of "The Big Short" (2010)

Extended quote:
[Deutsche Bank trader Greg] Lippman had at least one good reason for not putting up a huge fight [against the request from management to make a bet against the subprime bond market]: There was a fantastically profitable market waiting to be created. Financial markets are a collection of arguments. The less transparent the market and the more complicated the securities, the more money the trading desks at big Wall Street firms can make from the argument. The constant argument over the value of the shares of some major publicly traded company has very little value, as both buyer and seller can see the fair price of the stock on the ticker, and the broker’s commission has been driven down by competition. The argument over the value of credit default swaps on subprime mortgage bonds – a complex security whose value was derived from that of another complex security – could be a gold mine.

"He may have been a thug, but he knew a greater thug when he saw one"

--- Johann Hari, in his review of Richard Toye's "Churchill's Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made"for the New York Times, August 12, 2010

Churchill was a brutal imperialist. From the review:

The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When the first concentration camps were built in South Africa, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering” possible. At least 115,000 people were swept into them and 14,000 died, but he wrote only of his “irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.” Later, he boasted of his experiences. “That was before war degenerated,” he said. “It was great fun galloping about.”
So how can the two Churchills be reconciled? Was his moral opposition to Nazism a charade, masking the fact that he was merely trying to defend the British Empire from a rival? Toye quotes Richard B. Moore, an American civil rights leader, who said that it was “a most rare and fortunate coincidence” that at that moment “the vital interests of the British Empire” coincided “with those of the great overwhelming majority of mankind.” But this might be too soft in its praise. If Churchill had been interested only in saving the empire, he could probably have cut a deal with Hitler. No: he had a deeper repugnance to Nazism than that. He may have been a thug, but he knew a greater thug when he saw one — and we may owe our freedom today to this wrinkle in history.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

"Great thoughts / do not nourish / small thoughts / as parents do children"

--- poet Kay Ryan, in the poem Great Thoughts, from Say Uncle (2000) reprinted in the new collection The Best Of It (2010)
In context:
Great thoughts
do not nourish
small thoughts
as parents do children.

Like the eucalyptus
they make the soil
beneath them barren.

Standing in a
grove of them
is hideous.

Friday, July 02, 2010

"c’est le métier qui rentre"

--- a French expression that might be translated as "the craft is entering". It has been paraphrased as "pain is the craft entering the apprentice." Larousse gives "it shows you're learning."

Here's some context from my friend Pierre-Yves Saintoyant:
We would say this, for instance, when cutting or burning your finger when trying to cook, doing some DIY, or hurting yourself in any way while trying a new craft; or suffering and complaining in learning a new process. For instance if you lose all your work because you did not do any backup, someone could tell you “c’est le métier qui rentre” ;-)  If you develop some pain (e.g. blisters) while doing some work, someone might tell you “c’est le métier qui rentre” to “comfort” you.
This expression is also used when beginners make mistakes to encourage them to continue (and hopefully improve);  someone could tell them “that’s not bad, c’est le métier qui rentre”.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Once sent out, a word takes wing beyond recall"

--- Roman poet Horace, Horace 65-8 bc: Epistles, source Oxford Quotations database

From the translation on
Moreover, that I may advise you (if in aught you stand in need of an adviser), take great circumspection what you say to any man, and to whom. Avoid an inquisitive impertinent, for such a one is also a tattler, nor do open ears faithfully retain what is intrusted to them; and a word, once sent abroad, flies irrevocably.

Friday, June 18, 2010

"The problem with such newspapers is that, although they do much that is excellent, they do little that is distinctive enough for people to pay for it"

--- The Economist in a leader on the American newspaper business, June 12th 2010

Quote in context:

Thanks to family connections, Chandler ended up in control of the Los Angeles Times in 1960. The paper he inherited was parochial and conservative, reflecting the city it served. Chandler jettisoned the anti-union dogma and set about building a west-coast rival to the New York Times. His paper was heavy on foreign news and serious, objective reporting. The result was hugely impressive—but not, as it turned out, suited to the internet era. In the past few years the paper has suffered repeated staff cuts. In 2007 it was acquired by a property magnate and in 2008 filed for bankruptcy protection.

The problem with such newspapers is that, although they do much that is excellent, they do little that is distinctive enough for people to pay for it. The Los Angeles Times’s foreign reporting is extremely good. But it is hard to argue that it is better than the stuff supplied by the New York Times or foreign papers—sources to which the residents of Los Angeles now have unfettered, largely free access via their laptops and iPhones. Similarly, it has never been clear why each major newspaper needs its own car reviewer: a Corolla is a Corolla, whether it is driven in Albuquerque or Atlanta. And by extension, it is not clear why presidential candidates or sport teams require huge journalistic entourages. Papers should concentrate on what they do best, which means, in many cases, local news and sport. If the rest is bought in from wire services or national outfits, readers are unlikely to complain—as long as there is enough competition between those larger providers to keep up standards (and thanks to the internet there probably is now). Specialisation generally means higher quality.

"a gloriously over-engineered stand-up scooter"

--- The Economist's description of the Segway, in a profile of Dean Kamen, "Mr Segway's difficult path", Technology Quaterly, June 12th 2010.  Classic Economist.

In context:
The invention for which Mr Kamen is best known is the Segway Transporter, a gloriously over-engineered stand-up scooter that had the misfortune to emerge just after the dotcom crash in 2001, just as the disillusioned technology industry was looking for the next big thing. Before its unveiling, Mr Kamen’s mysterious new invention was the subject of feverish speculation. Steve Jobs of Apple said it was “as big a deal as the PC” and John Doerr, a venture capitalist, mused that it would be “bigger than the internet”. It was, in fact, a rather clever two-wheeled, self-balancing scooter, using technology similar to the iBot. But after all the hype it could not possibly live up to expectations.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"in a golden age everyone goes around complaining about how yellow everything is"

--- Randall Jarrell, quoted by Adam Kirsch in his exchange with Ilya Kaminsky on the occasion of the publication of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, ed. by Kaminsky and Susan Harris; in Various Tongues: An ExchangeIs true translation impossible?,  Poetry, March 2010, p. 467

Quote in context:
Randall Jarrell said that in a golden age everyone goes around complaining about how yellow everything is. I don’t want to make that old mistake, but I wonder if there are some costs to living in a time when books like The Ecco Anthology make so much foreign-language poetry so easily accessible. What strikes me about the many examples you cite, from Wyatt down to Akhmatova, is that they are all cases of poets immersing themselves in a foreign literature and using its resources to renovate their own.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"the simpler her routine, the more complex her thinking can be"

--- Elizabeth Lund in "Poet Kay Ryan: A profile", Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 2004

Quote in context:

"I've tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy," she says, explaining that the simpler her routine, the more complex her thinking can be. Her poems function much the same way, with deep currents underlying a simple-looking surface, as in "Hope" from the collection "Elephant Rocks":

What's the use
of something
as unstable
and diffuse as hope -
The almost-twin
of making-do,
the isotope
of going on:
what isn't in
the envelope
just before
it isn't:
the always tabled
righting of the present.

"I feel that the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more"

--- Jonas Salk, quoted passim. According to wikiquote, this was said on receiving the Congressional Medal for Distinguished Civilian Achievement on 23 April 1956. Other variations cited there:
  • The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more
  • I feel that the greatest reward for success is the opportunity to do more.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"What if religion is factually false but necessary for human well-being?"

--- sociologist William Sims Bainbridge in an interview about his work on World of Warcraft, New Scientist, 27 March 2010

In context; interviewer's question followed by Bainbridge's answer:

You've done a lot of work with religion. What does religion in WoW tell us about the real-world phenomenon?

The horrendous question that always troubles me is, what if religion is factually false but necessary for human well-being? What does science do then? Could there be some other stage of development in which we express ourselves through a kind of protean self in numerous realities with different levels of faith or suspension of disbelief appropriate to each of them?

That, on a much smaller scale, is what is happening with the fictional religions in WoW. The overwhelming majority of the people that play WoW don't take its religions seriously.

The difference between faith and fantasy might not have been very distinct in ancient times, and it's possible that we will move towards a time when instead of religion, people's hopes can be expressed in something that's acknowledged to be a fantasy but also, on some level, sort of real. WoW might exemplify that kind of post-religious future.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"What interests me ... is how one is to live when one neither believes in God, nor totally in reason"

--- Albert Camus, quoted by Edward Hughes, Professor of French at Queen Mary University of London and the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Albert Camus, in a Philosopher's Zone program on Albert Camus and The Absurd, 30 January 2010

Quote in context:
In 1945-46, Camus argued that, he says, 'I'm not a philosopher because I don't believe sufficiently in reason to sign up to a thought that would be seen as being philosophically systematic'. He says, 'What interests me is to know how one is to live, and this is more precisely how one is to live when one neither believes in God, nor totally in reason.'
 Looks like I really should go read The Myth of Sisyphus...

Monday, April 05, 2010

“Choose each word as a precision tool”

--- speech writer Ted Sorensen, quoted by Peter Grier in his Decoder column of March 29, 2010

In context:

Ask not whether Ted Sorensen wrote “Ask not what your country can do for you...,” the famous line from John Kennedy’s inaugural. He says today he doesn’t remember.

But whether he wrote that gem or not, Mr. Sorensen, who was one of JFK’s closest advisers, remains perhaps the greatest Washington speechwriter of modern times.

In his memoirs, he drops this bit of advice for aspiring political wordsmiths: “Choose each word as a precision tool.”

Remember that the next time you’re listening to some politician try to sell you something. Washington speeches often aren’t arguments so much as word-delivery machines. They’re sprinkled with bons mots that in themselves are intended to induce in you, the listener, a particular emotional response.
I loved that phrase, "Washington speeches often aren’t arguments so much as word-delivery machines"

“Good politics is repetition”

--- Senate minority leader Mitch McConnel, New York Times profile March 16, 2010, quoted by Peter Grier in his Decoder column of March 29, 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“No one becomes compassionate unless he suffers”

--- St Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Marc Ian Barasch in his "Searching for the Heart of Compassion", reprinted in The Best Buddhist Writing 2006, Melvin McLeod (Editor), p. 27

In the context of the Barasch essay:
Perhaps Thomas Aquinas was not so far off when he claimed, “No one becomes compassionate unless he suffers.” I take this less as a mandate for medieval masochism than an indecorous call to embrace our own authentic experience. If we’re not at home with the depth of our feelings, we’re likely to skirt the deep feelings of others.
There are links to on-line texts of Aquinas here, but the quote doesn't not resolve to one of these sources; the translation doesn't seem to be on-line.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"The anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy"

--- Jonah Lehrer, summing up his piece "Depression's Upside", New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2010

The story is built around the "analytic rumination hypothesis" for depression advanced by Andrew Thompson and Paul Andrews. Here's the quote in the context of the penultimate paragraph:
This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.
"Anatomy of focus" refers to the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), a part of the brain that seems to be important for maintaining attention (among other things). Lehrer reports that "[s]everal studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients."

There are other good quotes near the end too. For example, after talking about the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders, Lehrer quotes neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen
Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
He also talks about "the virtue of self-loathing", one of the symptoms of depression, and quotes Roland Barthes: "A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem."

For a critique of Lehrer's piece, see Edward Champion's "Jonah Lehrer: A Malcolm Gladwell for the Mind", February 28, 2010.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

“God” must be an experience before “God” can be a word

--- theologian Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian (2009), p. 15

Quote in context:

Marcus Borg has written a widely helpful book about the need for Christians to retrieve the correct understanding of Jesus, which, he claims, would be a much more appealing picture of Jesus. He titled the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. I think the same can be said about the need many Christians feel to retrieve their mystical traditions: they need to become mystics again for the first time. Karl Rahner, one of the most respected Catholic theologians of the past century (and my teacher!), recognized this in a statement that has been repeated broadly: “In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything.”

   When Buddha refused to talk about God in order to make way for the experience of Enlightenment, he was making the same point, but even more forcefully, that Rahner was getting at in his insistence that Christians must be mystics: “God” must be an experience before “God” can be a word. Unless God is an experience, whatever words we might use for the Divine will be without content, like road signs pointing nowhere. Buddha would warn Christians, and I believe Rahner would second the warning: if you want to use words for God, make sure that these words are preceded by, or at least coming out of, an experience that is your own. . . .

   To put this more in our contemporary context, Buddha has reminded me and all of us Christians that any kind of religious life or church membership must be based on one’s own personal experience. It is not enough to say “amen” to a creed, or obey carefully a law, or attend regularly a liturgy. The required personal experience may be mediated through a community or church, but it has to be one’s own. Without such a personal, mystical happening, once cannot authentically and honestly call oneself religious.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Microsoft is like a plumbing supply company that found itself running a chain of spas"

--- Marc Smith, Chief Social Scientist, ConnectedAction, personal communication 7 March 2010, reproduced here with permission.

Quote in context:
But is Microsoft an engine that has disconnected the innovation drive train from the axle? Yes, probably. But the first to market, innovator role is not really what Microsoft is. Microsoft is like a plumbing supply company that found itself running a chain of spas. It really likes pipes more than people, and has to do customer facing things more than it likes.

"Loved data lives longer"

--- Beth Noveck at a Long Now Foundation seminar, March 2010, as reported by Stewart Brand (see the "Summary" tab)

Quote in context:
"Loved data lives longer," Noveck declared. She encourages citizens to "adopt a dataset," and to demand ever wider release of government data troves. (One audience member requested that all the aerial photographs ever made by the US Geological Survey be digitized and published.) The Obama adminstration is finding that the whole process of opening up government digitally doesn't have to wait for pefection. It can move ahead swiftly on the Internet standard of "rough consensus and running code."
I also liked:
Noveck said the government is replacing its reflex "there's a form for that" habits with "there's an app for that," and a panoply of cloud-based apps...

Friday, February 26, 2010

"If a family cannot stay together because there is not enough work or money for them to survive otherwise, surely that is poverty"

--- Jaman Matthews, in his report for Heifer on a visit to Jaltenango, a dusty outpost in rural Chiapas

Matthews writes:
"Poverty is an elusive concept to pin down. Most of us have a preconceived idea of what poverty looks like. The people in these coffee-growing communities didn’t fit those stereotypes—there were no skeleton-thin children, no one was dirty or ragged, the view down into the coffee plots was breathtaking. There were even a few vehicles in some of the villages.

"But all of these things hide the hardscrabble existence here. The vehicles are used to go to Jaltenango once a month for basic supplies, like beans and corn, not for joyriding. The children may not be thin, but they are often severely undernourished. And even though the villages are surrounded by coffee, we never had coffee in any of them. Families here do not, it seems, drink the product they grow any more than an Iowa corn farmer consumes what he grows. Coffee is the way they eke out a barebones survival."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Google loves challenging old business models with new technology ideas"

--- Mark Sullivan in his PC World piece on 10 Feb 2010 "Google Challenge to US Broadband Might Actually Change Things"

In context:
The announcement comes right on the heels of the federal government releasing the first round of funding for broadband networks to rural and underserved areas. It appears to be intended as an adjunct to the FCC’s own Broadband Plan, as if to say: “See, you can do it like this.”

Google loves challenging old business models with new technology ideas. Today’s announcement is the search giant’s opening salvo in a challenge to US broadband, which is monopolistic, slow and sees openness as a threat to profits.


I sincerely hope the tech and telecom communities rally around what Google is trying to do here. The planned fiber networks are not big enough to excite the suspicions among privacy conspiracy junkies that Google is only running the networks to collect more data about us, and as a new platform for its advertising business.

If the network goes national, those will be important questions to explore. For now, though, Google has a rare opportunity to put real pressure on large ISPs like AT&T and Comcast to sell more bandwidth for less money.

I can get behind that.
More a more neutral report, see the Wall Street Journal, "Google Jolts Telecom Rivals", 11 Feb 2010.

If nothing else, this is PR genius of the caliber we've come to expect of Google. Huge bang for little buck.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"The best way to achieve complete strategic surprise is to take an action that is either stupid or completely contrary to your self-interest"

--- A sign then-Deputy National Security Advisor (and current Secretary of Defense) Robert Gates had on his desk at the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, according to Richard Haass in War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars, Simon & Schuster 2009, p. 59

Humans create their cognitive powers by creating the environments in which they exercise those powers

--- Edwin Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild (1996) p. 169

Quote in context:
. . . in watching the ant [in a complicated path across a beach], we learn more about the beach than about what is inside the ant. And in watching people thinking in the wild, we may be learning more about their environment for thinking than about what is inside them. Having realized this, we should not pack up and leave the beach, concluding that we cannot learn about cognition here. The environments of human thinking are not “natural” environments. They are artificial through and through. Humans create their cognitive powers by creating the environments in which they exercise those powers. At present, so few of us have taken the time to study these environments seriously as organizers of cognitive activity that we have little sense of their role in the construction of thought.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Economists will have to learn to live with messiness"

--- Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman in a NY Times column "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?", 2 September 2009.

After outlining the causes of economics' failure to foresee the crash, Krugman writes
 It’s much harder to say where the economics profession goes from here. But what’s almost certain is that economists will have to learn to live with messiness. That is, they will have to acknowledge the importance of irrational and often unpredictable behavior, face up to the often idiosyncratic imperfections of markets and accept that an elegant economic “theory of everything” is a long way off. In practical terms, this will translate into more cautious policy advice — and a reduced willingness to dismantle economic safeguards in the faith that markets will solve all problems.

Towards the end of the piece he writes
Economics, as a field, got in trouble because economists were seduced by the vision of a perfect, frictionless market system. If the profession is to redeem itself, it will have to reconcile itself to a less alluring vision — that of a market economy that has many virtues but that is also shot through with flaws and frictions. The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Even during the heyday of perfect-market economics, there was a lot of work done on the ways in which the real economy deviated from the theoretical ideal. What’s probably going to happen now — in fact, it’s already happening — is that flaws-and-frictions economics will move from the periphery of economic analysis to its center.
.... and

So here’s what I think economists have to do. First, they have to face up to the inconvenient reality that financial markets fall far short of perfection, that they are subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds. Second, they have to admit — and this will be very hard for the people who giggled and whispered over Keynes — that Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions. Third, they’ll have to do their best to incorporate the realities of finance into macroeconomics.

For an interesting discussion among Sante Fe Institute researchers prompted by this piece, see (thanks to Rich Thanki for the link)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

"Any experience deeply felt makes some men better and some men worse"

--- journalist Murray Kempton (1917 - 1998), Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties, Modern Library Ed edition (November 24, 1998) ), A Prelude, p. 7

"Any experience deeply felt makes some men better and some men worse. When it has ended, they share nothing but the recollection of a commitment in which each was tested and each to some degree found wanting. They were not alike when they began, and they were not alike when they finished. T. S. Eliot says in one of his Quartets that time is no healer, because the patient is no longer here. The consequences of the journey change the voyager so much more than the embarking or the arrival."

Peter Pringle's obituary in the The Independent has another nice quote: "There's no excuse for kicking somebody unless he's up"

Saturday, January 02, 2010

“Banks had lots of tools to create leverage, but not many to manage risk”

--- VC Roger Portnoy quoted in "Silo but deadly", The Economist, December 5th 2009, on the role of IT systems in the financial crisis.
“Banks had lots of tools to create leverage, but not many to manage risk,” says Roger Portnoy of Daylight Venture Partners, a venture-capital firm that invests in risk-management start-ups.
The article goes further to report that some think IT played a more fundamental role in the crisis:
"Because things are so interconnected, largely thanks to technology, a problem in one part of the system can quickly lead to problems elsewhere. The global financial markets have evolved over the years into an inherently unstable network, says Till Guldimann, a strategist at SunGard, a software and IT services firm. The rapid unwinding of positions by ultra-fast quantitative-trading programs at the start of the credit crunch in August 2007 is one example of this cascading effect."
... though it may go deeper still:
"Many banks have become too complex to be managed properly, says Glenn Woodcock, a director at Andromeda Capital Management and a former head of credit-risk infrastructure at RBS. IT alone cannot fix that problem for them."

"There is a big shift from holding a phone to your ear to holding it in your hand"

--- David Edelstein of the Grameen Foundation, quoted in "Beyond voice", part of The Economist's special report on telecoms in emerging markets, September 26, 2009

“There is a big shift from holding a phone to your ear to holding it in your hand,” says David Edelstein of the Grameen Foundation. “It opens the door to information services. It’s not the web, but it’s a web of services that can be offered on mobile devices.”