Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Listen to the questions posed by philosophers but don’t be distracted by their answers"

--- Christof Koch, from Chapter 20, "An Interview" (fictitious) in The quest for consciousness: a neurobiological approach, Roberts & Company, 2004,  p. 316-17 (hardback)
Interviewer: What, then, is the role of philosophers in your quest for a scientific theory of consciousness?

Christof: Historically, philosophy does not have an impressive track record of answering questions about the natural world in a decisive manner, whether it’s the origin and evolution of the cosmos, the origin of life, the nature of the mind, or the nature-versus-nurture debate. This failure is rarely talked about in polite, academic company. Philosophers, however, excel as asking conceptual questions from a point of view that scientists don’t usually consider. Notions of the Hard versus the Easy Problem of consciousness, phenomenal versus access consciousness, the content of consciousness versus consciousness as such, the unity of consciousness, the causal conditions for consciousness to occur, and so on, are fascinating issues that scientists should ponder more often. So, listen to the questions posed by philosophers but don’t be distracted by their answers. A case in point is the philosopher’s zombie.

"life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going"

--- from The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams, quoted by Christof Koch as the epigraph to Ch. 11, Memories and Consciousness (p. 187) of The quest for consciousness: a neurobiological approach, Roberts & Company (2004) (hardback)

Epigraph as given:

Has it ever struck you, Connie, that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going? It’s really all memory, Connie, except for each passing moment.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are"

--- The Talmud (also attributed to Anais Nin), quoted by Allen Frances in his review (pay wall) of Richard Noll's American Madness: The rise and fall of dementia praecox in New Scientist, 10 December 2011

Quote in context:
"We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." This simple Talmudic saying summarises the essence of epistemology. Psychiatric disorders provide a striking example: they are not real things in nature, but labels we create to describe troubling aspects of human experience.

Sometimes labels take on a life of their own. People mistakenly think that naming a psychiatric problem shapes it into a simple disease with a reductionist, biological explanation. Labelling mental disorders is useful in providing a common language and guide to treatment. But psychiatric disorders are remarkably heterogeneous and overlapping in their presentations and complex in their causation. The human brain rarely reveals its secrets in simple answers.

All of which brings us to the wonderful book, American Madness, an artful analysis of the rise and fall of the label "dementia praecox" from its promising birth in 1896 to its unlamented death in 1927. Introduced by the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, the term was used to describe an early onset of psychotic symptoms that presaged a tragic downhill course and poor outcome - as distinct from manic depressive illness, which has a more variable age of onset, cyclical course, and greater chance for a good outcome. 

Later in the piece, Frances notes:
In retrospect, there was nothing inherently superior about either term. Schizophrenia won [over dementia praecox because it was less discouraging, implied therapy might help, was not of German origin when the US was at war with Germany and was of Swiss origin at a time when the two major figures in American psychiatry were Swiss immigrants. If it sounds arbitrary, it was. Human nature doesn't sort into neat and obvious categories.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation"

--- Diana Athill, in Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir (2009), p. 20

In context:
My second after-Paul love was available, even eligible, but his very eligibility seemed to make him too good to be true. He liked me a lot. For a time he almost thought he was in love with me, but he never quite was and I sensed almost from the beginning that it was going to end in tears, whereupon I plunged in deeper and deeper. And it did end in tears quite literally, both of us weeping as we walked up and down Wigmore Street on our last evening together. With masochistic abandon lloved him even more for his courage in admitting the situation and sparing me vain hopes (and in fact such courage, which takes a lot of summoning up, is some thing to be grateful for, because a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation. Believe me! Mine experienced both.)
Another  nice passage is on p. 49:
I think that underneath, or alongside, a reader's conscious response to a text, whatever is need in him is taking in whatever the text offers to assuage that need.

Friday, December 02, 2011

"Each algorithm has a point of view"

--- Kevin Slavin, interviewed by Alison George for New Scientist in "Game developer: Beware algorithms running your life" 22 August 2011

Quote in context:

The pernicious thing about algorithms is that they have the mathematical quality of truth - you have the sense that they are neutral - and yet, of course, they have authorship. For example, Google's search engine is composed entirely of fancy mathematics, but its algorithms, like everybody's, are all based on an ideology - in this case that a page is more valuable if other pages think it's valuable. Each algorithm has a point of view, and yet we have no sense of what algorithms are, or even that they exist.

"Though you may get a new life, you can’t get a new past. You don’t get to leave your story."

--- Poet Wendell Berry, in the essay “Sweetness Preserved” (1998) about the poetry of Donald Hall, discussing “Elegy for Wesley Wells”, collected in Imagination in Place: Essays (2011)

Quote in context:
In immortalizing his grandfather Wells, Donald Hall the young elegist is also immortalizing a part of his own life which he now considers to be finished. That life, if it is to have a present life, must have the immortal life of art. Maybe you are outside your life when you think your past has ended. Maybe you are outside your life when you think you are outside it. I don’t know what Donald Hall in later life would say. I know only what I in later life would say, partly from knowing the story I am talking about, that though you may get a new life, you can’t get a new past. You don’t get to leave your story. If you leave your story, then how you left your story is your story, and you had better not forget it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive"

--- George Dyson, in an interview with Martin Eierman in the European, 17.10.2011 (via Peter Haynes)

With a little more context, from the interview:
There are many different ways of computing. Pure deterministic finite-state digital computing is one form, but there are other forms as well. Statistical computing is much more robust, because you don’t need all parts in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. . . .

Finding answers is easy. The hard part is creating the map that matches specific answers to the right question. That’s what Google did: They used the power of computing – which is cheap and really does not have any limits – to crawl the entire internet and collected and index all the answers. And then,by letting human beings spend their precious time asking the right questions, they created a map between the two. . . .

We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.

Friday, October 07, 2011

"If you're not paying for it, you're not the customer. You're the product being sold"

--- cartoon by "geek", found on the web, titled "Facebook and You". The little piggy on the left says, "Isn't it great? We have to pay nothing for the barn." The one on the right replies, "Yeah! And even the food is free."

For as long as the link lasts, here's the cartoon:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

“Each of these bands is its own Russian novel”

--- Rebecca Arbogast (regulator, investment analyst, government affairs exec), describing the complex characters and plots of radio allocation proceedings; mentioned in conversation 9/22/2011, referring to an insight she had when working at the FCC in the late Nineties

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"If you seek tranquillity, do less" (and better)

--- Democritus frg B 3, quoted by Marcus Aurelius in Meditations Book 4, 24

More interesting is Aurelius's gloss on Democritus, here from Gregory Hays's new translation (Modern Library 2003)

If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.

Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you‘ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary”?

But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate unnecessary actions that follow.

Monday, September 05, 2011

"Life is a path that you beat while you walk it"

--- ascribed to Antonio Machado, in Arie de Geus, The Living Company (1997) p. 155.

It seems to be quoting the line "se hace camino al andar" from the poem Caminante, no hay camino, which could also be translated as, "the road is made by walking" or "you make your path as you walk."

Here's the text from the ellyjean blog, with a translation she ascribes to wikipedia:

Caminante, son tus huellas 
el camino y nada más; 
Caminante, no hay camino, 
se hace camino al andar
Al andar se hace el camino, 
y al volver la vista atrás 
se ve la senda que nunca 
se ha de volver a pisar. 
Caminante no hay camino 
sino estelas en la mar. 

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road–
Only wakes upon the sea.
De Geus responds this way: "To me, this line embodies the most profound lesson on planning and strategy that I have ever learned. When you look back, you see a clear path that brought you here. But you created that path yourself. Ahead, there is only uncharted wilderness."

“A language isn’t something you learn so much as something you join”

--- Arika Okrent, author of a book on artificial argots, quoted in Tongues and grooves: The lure of made-up languages, The Economist, 6 Aug 2011. From the story:
SCRABBLE is compelling enough, but playing it in Esperanto, for those of a certain cast of mind, is even more addictive. The invented language’s tidy roots and suffixes are well suited to wordplay. A recent game in London featured words like acajeto (a little bit of dirt) and artamehoj (echoes of the love of art). Over its 120-year history Esperanto may have failed in its original mission to bring world peace via mutual intelligibility, but it remains both an engaging intellectual exercise and a route to a ready-made social life.
A language isn’t something you learn so much as something you join,” says Arika Okrent, author of a book on artificial argots. Few people will bother to learn a language on abstract or idealistic grounds, she says. Esperanto gives them a reason to get started, because of the culture that has grown up around it.
It also covers Klingon (no surprise).

Sunday, September 04, 2011

"A policy of avoiding small recessions has resulted in the biggest downturn since the 1930s"

--- The Economist's Buttonwood columnist, "Running out of options" 30 July 2011

Just as in complex systems everywhere - this reminds me of the unintended consequences of fire suppression in the national parks - trying to prevent problems from occurring at all makes the eventual conflagration all the greater.

Quote in context - the opening and closing paragraphs of the column:
ECONOMIC policy in the developed world over the past 25 years has followed one overriding principle: the avoidance of recession at all costs. For much of this period monetary policy was the weapon of choice. When markets wobbled, central banks slashed interest rates. A by-product of this policy was a series of debt-financed asset bubbles. When the last of those bubbles burst in 2007 and 2008, the authorities had to add fiscal stimulus and quantitative easing (QE) to the policy mix. The subsequent huge rise in budget deficits was largely the result of a collapse in tax revenues that had been artificially inflated by the debt-financed boom. Britain and America ended up with deficits of more than 10% of GDP, shortfalls that were unprecedented in peacetime.
. . . 
In a sense, the bill has come due for the past 25 years. A policy of avoiding small recessions has resulted in the biggest downturn since the 1930s. Public finances turned out to be weaker than politicians thought. As a result, they have used up all their ammunition tackling the current crisis. Governments in the rich world will have very few options left if the economy weakens again.
A great follow-up via Frank Pasquale:  Hyman Minsky said, "stability breeds instability."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"the bear does not understand about fasting"

--- Ascribed to St. Sergius, patron saint of Russia, in a story retold by Ann Persson in The Circle of Love: Praying with Rublev's icon of the Trinity (2010) p. 32


Like St Francis, Sergius was a friend to birds and wild animals. There is a story that tells how he regularly fed a bear that came near to his hut. Of there was not enough bread for the two of them, he gave his portion to the bear, because, he said, 'the bear does not understand about fasting'.

Friday, August 05, 2011

"it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make [a mature] individual, and then he is good only for dying"

--- Ernest Becker, paraphrasing André Malraux's The Human Condition (no reference given), The Denial of Death (1973) p. 268

Quote in context:
We saw [in Chapter Four] that there really was no way to overcome the real dilemma of existence, the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality. A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned—finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy, as André Malraux wrote in The Human Condition: that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying. This painful paradox is not lost on the person himself— least of all himself. He feels agonizingly unique, and yet he knows that this doesn’t make any difference as far as ultimates are concerned. He has to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

"behind every great fortune there is a psychological aberration"

--- The Economist's Schumpeter columnist, in Great bad men as bosses, 23 July 2011.

Quote in context:

Balzac supposedly wrote that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime”. It would be truer to say that behind every great fortune there is a psychological aberration. Henry Ford hated Jews. George Eastman sanctioned industrial espionage. Thomas Watson turned IBM into a personality cult, complete with company songs about “our friend and guiding hand”, a man whose “courage none can stem”. Michael Milken, the inventor of junk bonds, was jailed. Richard Tedlow of Harvard Business School argues that many “giants of enterprise” suffer from what Norwegians call stormannsgalskap, the madness of great men.

Stormannsgalskap is particularly common among media barons, not least because they frequently blur the line between reporting reality and shaping it. William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report. Lord Beaverbrook regarded himself as a kingmaker, literally so in the case of George VI. These men’s megalomania was captured in two masterworks: Orson Welles’s film “Citizen Kane” and Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop”.

The ugly side of these entrepreneurs is often just as important to their success as their admirable side. You cannot reshape an industry without extraordinary confidence in your own rightness. And it is hard to build a great company from scratch without what Mr Tedlow dubs “the imperialism of the soul”. But these negative qualities often end up undermining the empires that they helped to create.

Friday, July 22, 2011

"Law is the practice of rules in a context of deals"

--- Adam Gopnik, referring to context of Abraham Lincoln's thought, in Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (2009), Ch. 1, Lincoln's Mind.

In context:

A love of the grease and a feel for the gist, the habit of compromise even at the cost of absolute clarity, a restatement of technical argument in emphatic simplicities, clarity achieved and helpful ambiguity sought—these were the heart of Lincoln’s style, and of his soul. They explain why we still argue about him: he said very clear things against slavery—and, for a time at least, he was ready to keep the slaves if he could find a bargain to keep the South in the Union. Law is the practice of rules in a context of deals, and Lincoln believed in both.

Curiously, Gopnik's phrase works just as well inverted, though perhaps better if Regulation is substituted as the subject: "Regulation is the practice of deals in a context of rules."

Monday, July 04, 2011

"Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it"

--- Benedictus Spinoza, quoted by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, Part I: Experiences in a Concentration Camp, p. 74

Quote from Frankl:

What does Spinoza say in his Ethics? –“Affectus, qui passio est, desinit esse passio simulatque eius claram et distinctam formamus ideam.” Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

This is from the Ethics, Part V, Prop III (Latin).  The Elwes translation is available on
PROP. III. An emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion, as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof.

Proof.--An emotion, which is a passion, is a confused idea (by the general Def. of the Emotions). If, therefore, we form a clear and distinct idea of a given emotion, that idea will only be distinguished from the emotion, in so far as it is referred to the mind only, by reason (II. xxi., and note); therefore (III. iii.), the emotion will cease to be a passion. Q.E.D.

Corollary--An emotion therefore becomes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it, in proportion as it is more known to us.

"a simile is just a metaphor with the scaffolding still up"

--- James Geary, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (2001), p. 8

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Beautiful—but not desirable; ugly—but not repulsive; false—but not rejected"

--- The perception of things in Buddhist wisdom, supposedly according R H Blyth, quoted by Ken Jones in "Buddhism and Social Action: An Exploration" (no reference given)

In context:
In this Wisdom, in the words of R.H. Blyth, things are beautiful — but not desirable; ugly — but not repulsive; false — but not rejected. What is inevitable, like death, is accepted without rage; what may not be, like war, is the subject of action skillful and the more effective because, again, it is not powered and blinded by rage and hate. We may recognize an oppressor and resolutely act to remove the oppression, but we do not hate him. Absence of hatred, disgust, intolerance or righteous indignation within us is itself a part of our growth towards enlightenment (bodhi).
 In an interesting example of the question of the suitability of righteous indignation, the New York Times reported the following in "Promoting Peace, Nobel Laureates Square Off, Politely" just yesterday:
On a stage during the opening session of the Newark Peace Education Summit, the Dalai Lama and Jody Williams, a world-famous anti-land-mine activist, disagreed — sometimes obliquely, always politely — about the importance of inner tranquillity, the role of anger and the moral character of the United States.


In the main panel on Friday morning, the Dalai Lama, wearing a deep red robe that hung to his ankles, and others said that people must attain inner peace in order to learn, and promote peace in the world. “Too much emotion, attachment, anger or fear, that kind of mental state, you can’t investigate objectively,” he said.

That did not sit well with Ms. Williams, an American, who is, as the Dalai Lama put it, “quite blunt.”

“I thought it was strange to be asked to be on this panel on inner peace, because I don’t have much,” she said. “It’s anger at injustice which fires many of us.” 

Update 13 July, 2011: I found the original Blyth quote on p. 278 of "Zen in English Literature & Oriental Classics" (The Hokuseido Press, 1942), following just after a retelling the story of the monk carrying the young woman over the ford:

Things are beautiful but not desirable ; ugly but not repulsive ; false, but not rejected ; dirty, but ourselves no cleaner.

[punctuation as in the original]

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Coal plants kill, but they only kill a few at a time, which is highly preferred by politicians"

--- Bill Gates on coal vs. nuclear power, speaking at WIRED's Disruptive by Design Business Conference, 3 May 2011, quoted in "Bill Gates: Don't dismiss nuclear energy" by JP Mangalindan, Fortune May 3, 2011
In context:

Gates suggested there's much more potential for nuclear energy, despite the recent disaster with Japan's Fukushima reactor. As he sees it, nuclear has a "factor million" of energy creation compared with coal. And as he quipped, "coal plants kill, but they only kill a few at a time, which is highly preferred by politicians."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

"Without giving up hope that there is somewhere better to be, that there is someone better to be, we will never relax with where or who we are."

--- Pema Chodron, quoted on her Facebook page in the note Start Where You Are, April 21, 2011. It's probably an excerpt from one of her books.

The full Facebook item (quotes theirs):

"In Tibetan there is an interesting word: ye tang che. The ye part means 'totally, completely,' and the rest of it means 'exhausted.' It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope that there is somewhere better to be, that there is someone better to be, we will never relax with where or who we are."

Friday, April 15, 2011

"Humility, trust, and desire—making faith. For ages humanity has built this experience, but stupid people like me must discover it all again, must touch it for themselves."

--- Anna Kamienska (1920–1986), Polish poet, journal entry from the selection "Industrious Amazement: A Notebook" translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, in Poetry magazine, March 2011, vol. CLCVIII, no. 6, p. 514

The whole entry:
From the whole liturgy my favorite words are those of the centurion, repeated before communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my soul shall be healed.” They have the power of poetry. Humility, trust, and desire—making faith. For ages humanity has built this experience, but stupid people like me must discover it all again, must touch it for themselves.

Kamienska stumbled into her faith. Here's another entry from the same collection:
I wasn’t looking for God at all.

I sought my Dead One.

I’ll never cease repeating this, amazed.

The "Dead One" is her husband Jan, who figures constantly in the notebook. For example:
And then a dream took pity on me again. I got up before dawn. When I went back to bed it was dark. I sensed he was beside me, he’d crossed the room. He lay down next to me. We talked entwined. “What’s it like there?” “There’s God and there are birds,” he said. Maybe he meant to say “angels”? God and birds. He left, went through the wall and jumped into a passing truck. He opened his mouth as if he were shouting something.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

"Play teaches us skills. Stories teach us what to do with them."

--- Harry Dewulf, in a letter to New Scientist (subscription required), 23 March 2011

Dewulf responds to an article about the "gamification" of everyday life, arguing

The best computer games exploit two basic desires. The first is to learn: a well-designed learning curve provides satisfaction from the achievement of mastery of the game. The greater the complexity, the greater the satisfaction.

The second desire is for a story. First-person "shooter" games involving one participant have the player follow a predetermined story path, deriving satisfaction from discovering the twists and turns.

He then offers the quote above. He concludes
Much of the gaming described in your article is light on play and storytelling, and heavy on "cumulomania" - the mindless racking-up of points, powers and achievements. Even the games strongest in learning and storytelling, like the Civilization series, eventually deteriorate into steady statistical accumulation.

Apps which rely on our attachment to endless accumulation of tokens and whose value is derived from potentially divisive social competition will have to be continually refreshed or replaced with new content - with diminishing returns as all the niches for apps that teach something useful are occupied.

If I am wrong about the games bubble, then the world will become increasingly divided between dopamine freaks endlessly indulging their cumulomania and those who prefer to use their time accumulating real value.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

“The catch with ardent followers is that they’ll go ardently follow something else after a short while.”

--- Walter Podrazik, co-author of the book Watching TV, on the precipitous decline of Glenn Beck's ratings, quoted in Why is Glenn Beck leaving his Fox News show?, Linda Feldmann for the Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"It's 1946 in cyber[warfare]"

--- James Mulvenon, a founding member of the Cyber Conflict Studies Association, a Washington DC nonprofit, quoted on page 2 of Mark Clayton's feature for the Christian Science Monitor, March 2, 2011, The new cyber arms race. See below for another great quote, by Mike McConnell, director of US national intelligence 2007-2009.

From the article:
"Here's the problem – it's 1946 in cyber," says James Mulvenon, a founding member of the Cyber Conflict Studies Association, a nonprofit group in Washington. "So we have these potent new weapons, but we don't have all the conceptual and doctrinal thinking that supports those weapons or any kind of deterrence. Worse, it's not just the US and Soviets that have the weapons – it's millions and millions of people around the world that have these weapons."

In the new cyber world order, the conventional big powers won't be the only ones carrying the cannons. Virtually any nation – or terrorist group or activist organization – with enough money and technical know-how will be able to develop or purchase software programs that could disrupt distant computer networks.

And the US, because it's so wired, is more vulnerable than most big powers to this new form of warfare. It's the price the country may one day pay for being an advanced and open society.

"If the nation went to war today, in a cyberwar, we would lose," Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence from 2007 to 2009, told a US Senate committee a year ago. "We're the most vulnerable. We're the most connected. We have the most to lose."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"The polar ends of a society's assets -- its wealth and its criminals -- are guarded with equal vehemence"

--- Avi Steinberg, p. 214 in Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (2010)

Excerpt, from a meditation about a ruined prison:
But ambiguity is born of long life. Archaeologists are occasionally unsure whether an unidentified solidly built ancient structure is a prison or whether it is a treasury building. The polar ends of a society's assets -- its wealth and its criminals -- are guarded with equal vehemence. Both are of supreme concern and utmost value. Ultimately they are indistinguishable.
This is particularly salient in the United States since, as Steinberg notes on p. 394, "America has 5 percent of the world'ds population, 25 percent of the world's prison population. A population the size of an American city left without the vote."

For more on prisons in America, see these two July 2010 Economist articles:
 In the second story, The Economist writes: "The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Our experiences, then, are not just our sensations"

--- James Hall, Prof. of Philiosophy Emeritus, University of Richmond, in "Postmodern and New-Age Problems," lecture 23 in the Teaching Company course Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World Through Experience and Reason, published as an excerpt in a Teaching Company catalog, March 2011

In context:
Let's look at this [question of observation] at a down-home level. I would insist that you cannot observe edible things on banana trees unless you had some experience that would lead you to construe what you see as safe and nourishing. This is why a city slicker who is lost in the forest can starve to death because he does not observe what is out there as food. He does not thave the requisite experience and background to categorize things in useful ways and to see that he is surrounded by edible, useful material.

Our experiences, then, are not just our sensations. Our experiences, our observations, are the way that we construe our sensations, and the way that we construe them is a product of all our experiences, and of a great many other things as well. So one could claim, then -- and many people have claimed -- that our observations are relative to the conceptual apparatus, and the prior experience, and all of the other things that come into play, that enable us to construe our sensations the way we do and arrive at the observations that we arrive at.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Stairwells remember as do doors, but windows do not"

--- Carolyn Forché, lines from her elegy "Travel Papers", published in Poetry magazine, February 2011.

Such is the piano’s sadness and the rifle’s moonlight.
Stairwells remember as do doors, but windows do not—

do not, upon waking, gaze out a window
if you wish to remember your dream

Friday, March 18, 2011

"in the most secret heart of every intellectual ... lies hidden ... the hope of power"

--- Lionel Trilling's character Gifford Maxim, from the 1947 novel The Middle of the Journey via Michael Knox Berry's opinion piece "When compassion turns to coercion", Christian Science Monitor March 14, 2011

Quote in context:

For a moment Maxim did not answer. Then, “Is it not strange,” he said, “do you not find it strange that as we become more sensitive to the sufferings of mankind, we become more and more cruel? The more we think of the human body and the human mind as being able to suffer, and the sorrier we feel for that, and the more we plan to prevent suffering, the more we are drawn to inflict suffering. The more tortures we think up, the more people we believe deserve to be tortured. The more we think that people can be ruled by fear of suffering. We have become our brother’s keeper—and we will keep him in fear, we will keep him in concentration camps, we will keep him in straitjackets, we will keep him in the grave.”


“And never has there been so much talk of liberty while the chains are being forged. Democracy and freedom. And in the most secret heart of every intellectual, where he scarcely knows of it himself, there lies hidden the real hope that these words hide. It is the hope of power, the desire to bring his ideas to reality by imposing them on his fellow man. We are all of us, all of us, the little children of the Grand Inquisitor. The more we talk of welfare, the crueler we become. How can we possibly be guilty when we have in mind the welfare of others, and of so many others?”


Monday, March 14, 2011

"Giving up is half the battle"

--- Reputed to have been said by a meditation teacher. Via John Givot, while chatting at the conclusion of a 10-day sit on 12 March 2011 about the importance of admitting one's weakness to oneself. A web search on 14 March 2011 didn't yield any attribution; in fact, many of the results for the string "giving up is half the battle" were people saying "not giving up is half the battle" :-)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

"such a pleasure to read that it must have been hell to write"

--- The Economist, in its review of Alex Ross's Listen To This (2010)

From the opening paragraph of the review:
“Writing about music isn’t especially difficult,” avers Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, at the start of his new collection of essays. That sounds too modest. Mr Ross’s history of music in the 20th century, “The Rest is Noise”, published in 2007, is such a pleasure to read that it must have been hell to write. The same goes for these pieces, which are mostly reworked articles from his day job, ranging from Björk to Brahms, and Radiohead to Verdi.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought"

--- Spanish poet and theater director Federico Garcia Lorca, in a lecture in Buenos Aires titled “Play and Theory of the Duende”, quoted in "What is the hardest word to translate from Spanish?"'s the hot word column, February 22, 2011

In context:

In the dictionary, the word is listed as “elf” or “magic.” However, in actual practice, when the word shows up in text, it is rarely in the context of a woodland spirit, although that is where the word’s etymology begins. . . .

In 1933 Spanish poet and theater director Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture in Buenos Aires titled “Play and Theory of the Duende” in which he addressed the fiery spirit behind what makes great performance stir the emotions:

The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … everything that has black sounds in it, has duende.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"... the world is alive and in dread; it is, as the ancient Greek philosopher Thales claimed, 'full of gods.'"

--- Painter Madeleine Avirov, in the opening sentence of an essay about her experience of poetry, in the January 2011 issue of Poetry.

In context:

When I wake in the night in fear I regain the knowledge that no child lacks: the world is alive and in dread; it is, as the ancient Greek philosopher Thales claimed, “full of gods.” The time is invariably between three and four in the morning.

This belief is attributed to Thales, according to Wikipedia, in Aristotle, De Anima, 411a7, and for other ancient sources see the discussion in Kirk and Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, 93-7. A Crandall University philosophy department web page portrays it thus: "Thales' view seems to be as follows. As most Greeks, he holds that soul is the cause of all motion, even of inanimate objects. Thus, since there is motion, there must be a soul causing each instance of motion. . . . He then takes a further step and concludes that soul, or the cause of motion, is a god." Not quite as poetic as Avirov's gloss...

"Babies are like the [R&D] division of the human species and we're production and marketing"

--- Philosopher and psychologist Alison Gopnik, in conversation with Alan Saunders on ABC Radio National's The Philosopher's Zone, 29 Jan 2011

In context:

Alan Saunders: So babies and kids brains are clearly different to adult brains, which is what makes us think of them as something 'different'.

Alison Gopnik: One of the things I say is that babies are like the research and development division of the human species and we're production and marketing. They're the ones who are just exploring in a blue-sky way figuring out the way the world works, and we're the ones who actually take all those things that we learned as babies and put them to use as adults.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

"Loving yourself is about as likely as tickling yourself"

---James Richardson, number 8 in his poem, "Vectors 2.3: Fifty Aphorism and Ten-Second Essays", originally published in America Poetry Review, collected in The Best American Poetry 2010, p. 124

A few others on the list that jumped out at me:

4. Spontaneity takes a few rehearsals.

10. No one's so entertaining as the one who thinks you are

13. Office supplies stores are the Cathedrals of Work in General. They forgive, they console, they promise a new start. These supplies have done work like yours a million times. Maybe when you get home it will already be finished.

14. When it gets ahead of itself, the wave breaks.

15. I'd listen to my conscience if I could be sure it was really mine.

17. The lesser of two evils is the one with the less evil friends.

26. What keeps us deceived is the hope that we aren't.

34. Do unto others and an eye for an eye have the same payment plan.

38. The great man's not sure he wants you to criticize even his great rival, let there be no such thing as greatness.

40. My best critic is me, too late.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Only the present has a true shape in our mind, it’s the only image of truth, and all truth is ugly"

--- Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), poet and writer, from his daybooks “Zibaldone di pensieri”, August 18, 1821, transl. W. S. di Piero, published in Poetry magazine, November 2010, p.134

Full quote from Poetry:

The past in memory, like the future in our imagination, is more beautiful than the present. Why? Because only the present has a true shape in our mind, it’s the only image of truth, and all truth is ugly.

This reminds me of the Buddhist teaching to realize the dissatisfaction of existence by being constantly aware of the present moment.

"No law can impede violation or disobedience of the law"

--- Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), poet and writer, from his daybooks “Zibaldone di pensieri”, August 31, 1820, transl. W. S. di Piero, published in Poetry magazine, November 2010, p.132