Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The beaver told the rabbit as they stared at the Hoover Dam: No, I didn't build it myself, but it's based on an idea of mine

 --- widely ascribed to Charles H. Townes; h/t Matt Ridley, on the EconTalk podcast, Aug 31, 2020

From the podcast transcript:

Matt Ridley: Yes. And the way I distinguish [invention and innovation] is that when a new device is invented, it also has to be made available, affordable, and reliable, and that process is innovation. And it's often much harder work than the original invention. Coming up with the first prototype is sometimes the easy bit. Turning it into something that people want and people can afford, and that people can get ahold of is really tough work.

There's a lovely story that Charles Townes, the inventor of the laser, used to tell, which rather nicely illustrates the difference between invention and innovation. He said, there's a beaver and a rabbit looking at the Hoover Dam and the beaver says to the rabbit, 'No, I didn't build it, but it is based on an idea of mine.'

Saturday, October 17, 2020

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

 --- William Shakespeare, from Macbeth, spoken by Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Via Wikipedia

She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle!

Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Belonging is stronger than facts

 --- Zeynep Tufekci, in "How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump," MIT Technology Review, August 2018 (via L M Sacasas, "Narrative Collapse: An Addendum")

From the piece

While algorithms will often feed people some of what they already want to hear, research shows that we probably encounter a wider variety of opinions online than we do offline, or than we did before the advent of digital tools. Rather, the problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

people scaled for comedy trying to live in a world still ruled by the gods of tragedy

 --- A. P. Burnett's blurb writer, quoted by Richard Rutherford in his General Introduction to Medea and Other Plays: Medea/ Alcestis/The Children of Heracles/ Hippolytus (2003), Penguin Classics. 

Here's Rutherford (text at Erenow.com)

The Iphigenia at Aulis is a fast-moving and constantly attention-grabbing play, but one in which the high seriousness of the Aeschylean ode is dissipated, and the tragic sacrifice becomes wasteful self- deception. As A. P. Burnett put it: ‘In these plays the poet shows men scaled for comedy trying to live in a world still ruled by the gods of tragedy.’ 

The source is given in the accompanying footnote as, "From the jacket blurb of Catastrophe Survived (Oxford 1977)." The text from Google Books, for the 1985 edition, is:

Examining the seven Euripidean tragicomedies, this book contends that the plays' plots--compounded as they are of the opposite elements of good fortune and catastrophe--result from experimentation with a new form intended to express a characteristically Euripidean view of reality. The plays involve people scaled for comedy trying to live in a world ruled by the gods of tragedy, making efforts sometimes noble, sometimes sordid, but in the end, essentially futile. Burnett shows how Euripides manipulates traditional scenes, diverting and frustrating the expectations aroused in his audience and transforming their simple pity and terror into a response that is conscious, complex, and inescapably disturbing.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


 --- Chinese saying (Google Translate)

Via ShinikenHarui in the comment section of the TwoSetViolin episode World Class Prodigy Violinist Chloe Chua Gives TwoSet a Violin Lesson, Sep 2020, translated as "there's always another mountain taller".

For a few more translations, see a page on Baidu ("天外有天,一山还比一山高" 的英语翻译). The full saying seems to be "天外有天,一山还比一山高”, "There is a sky outside the sky, and a mountain is higher than a mountain" (according to Google Translate)

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Old men ought to be explorers

 --- T.S. Eliot, from East Coker, second of the Four Quartets

The last stanza:

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

Friday, August 28, 2020

if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst

 --- Thomas Hardy, in In Tenebris - II.

The fourth and final stanza

Let him in whose ears the low-voiced Best is killed by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here. 

For just this poem, pulled from the compendium given above, see here.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

My favourite results were those that didn’t quite look like something I’d made, yet felt like something I meant

 --- Gaby Wood, in LRB Podcast Gaby Wood: How to Draw an Albatross, June 16, 2020, a reading of her piece "Diary," London Review of Books, Vol. 42 No. 12 · 18 June 2020

In describing her attempts to use a camera lucida:

The drawings were semi-conscious, made at great speed in order to record an illusion, the way you might wake up and try to write down what had happened in a dream. My favourite results were those that didn’t quite look like something I’d made, yet felt like something I meant.

Another nice quote comes from her description of etching practice

As a novice etcher, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about ‘states’. Although I’d seen references to an etching’s state – ‘second state of four’, ‘fifth state’ and so on – I hadn’t really taken in what it meant. When you make an etching you tend to work on it in layers, and often over a long period. Painters do that too, but when you’re etching the only way to see the result is to print it (apart from anything else, the print is backwards in relation to the plate). The finished plate, which can be used for hundreds of near identical prints, will have produced printed records of its younger selves, or ‘states’. Of course, you don’t have to call your early trials ‘states’ – you could just call them rubbish and throw them in the bin. But artists often make editions of different states, and collectors might acquire several of them. There’s an acknowledgment, when dealing with this medium, that one image is haunted by its ancestors or alternates.

Here's the image of the albatross from the LRB piece

Monday, August 24, 2020

we're aestheticizing our own destruction

 --- Tara Isabella Burton, in conversation with Richard Aldous about her new book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, The American Interest podcast June 2020.

From timecode 19:56

There's a phenomenon I've seen since Trump was elected, but also anytime something bad or surreal happens in the news, the sort-of Twitter meme becomes, "Well, this season of America is terrible, this season of America has jumped the shark, can you believe the writers added this plot twist?" And it's a joke, but I think it reveals something very real, which is the sense of, you know, we're aestheticizing our own destruction, as Walter Benjamin might say.

According to Wikipedia, Benjamin said that "fascism tends towards an aestheticization of politics", in the sense of a spectacle in which it allows the masses to express themselves without seeing their rights recognized, and without affecting the relations of ownership which the proletarian masses aim to eliminate. Benjamin said, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), ch.XIX/Epilogue:

Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. (...) Mankind, which in Homer’s time was a spectacle for the Olympian gods, has become one for itself. (...) Communism responds by politicizing art.

At 3:38, Richard Aldous notes that she sums up the key elements of religion as meaning, purpose, community, and ritual.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

a company is essentially a cybernetic collective of people and machines. ... AI is ... our id writ large

 --- Elon Musk, on JoeRogan Experience #1169,  

Time code 00:14:52

JR: How far away are we from something that's really truly sentient?

EM: Well, I mean, you could argue that any group of people, like a company is essentially a cybernetic collective of people and machines. That's what a company is. And then, there are different levels of complexity in the way these companies are formed. And then, there's a sort of like a collective AI in the Google, sort of, Search, Google Search, you know, where we're all sort of plugged in as like nodes on the network, like leaves on a big tree. And we're all feeding this network with our questions and answers. We're all collectively programming the AI. And Google, plus all the humans that connect to it, are one giant cybernetic collective. This is also true of Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and all the social networks. They're giant cybernetic collectives.

Time code 00:17:18

EM: But the AI is informed strangely by the human limbic system. It is, in large part, our id writ large.

JR: How so?

EM: We mentioned all those things, the sort of primal drives. There's all of the things that we like, and hate, and fear. They're all there on the internet. They're a projection of our limbic system. That's true.

JR: No, it makes sense. And the thinking of it as a -- I mean, thinking of corporations, and just thinking of just human beings communicating online through these social media networks in some sort of an organism that's a -- It's a cyborg. It's a combination. It's a combination of electronics and biology.

EM: Yeah. This is -- In some measure, like, it's to the success of these online systems. It's sort of a function of how much limbic resonance they're able to achieve with people. The more limbic resonance, the more engagement.

JR: Whereas, like one of the reasons why probably Instagram is more enticing than Twitter.

EM: Limbic resonance.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant

--- Ascribed to Albert Einstein. QuoteInvestigator makes a strong case that "this saying was derived from the words of Bob Samples who was presenting his individual analysis of Albert Einstein. . . . the ascription to Einstein is spurious."

From the QuoteInvestigator page, here's the root excerpt from Bob Samples, The Metaphoric Mind: A Celebration of Creative Consciousness (1976), p. 26

The metaphoric mind is a maverick. It is as wild and unruly as a child. It follows us doggedly and plagues us with its presence as we wander the contrived corridors of rationality. It is a metaphoric link with the unknown called religion that causes us to build cathedrals — and the very cathedrals are built with rational, logical plans. When some personal crisis or the bewildering chaos of everyday life closes in on us, we often rush to worship the rationally-planned cathedral and ignore the religion. Albert Einstein called the intuitive or metaphoric mind a sacred gift. He added that the rational mind was a faithful servant. It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

the lame man who keeps the right road outstrips the runner who takes the wrong one

--- St. AugustineSermons, CLXIX, quoted by Francis Bacon in The New Organon, Section LXI.

From Francis Bacon: A Selection of His Works, edited by Sidney Warhaft, College Classics in English,
Macmillan, 1982, p. 343
And this is so far well, inasmuch as it leaves the honour of the ancients untouched. For they are no wise disparaged, the question between them and me being only as to the way. For as the saying is, the lame man who keeps the right road outstrips the runner who takes the wrong one. [fn 12, St. Augustine, Sermons, CLXIX] Nay, it is obvious the when a man runs the wrong way, the more active and swift he is the further he will go astray.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Outsized returns come from betting against conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom is usually right

--- Jeff Bezos, in testimony to the House Judiciary committee, Antitrust sub-committee on July 29, 2020, on the topic Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 6: Examining the Dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, from his witness statement (pdf)


In addition to good luck and great people, we have been able to succeed as a company only because we have continued to take big risks.  To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.  Outsized returns come from betting against conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom is usually right.  

Monday, July 27, 2020

between jargon and platitudes, I prefer jargon

--- Roland Barthes, quoted by Michael Wood in The Meaninglessness of Meaning, London Review of Books, Vol. 8 No. 17, 9 October 1986

From the piece
His first published piece of writing was on Gide’s Journal, and, asked if he knew Gide, Barthes replies that he saw him only once, from a distance, at the Lutétia: ‘he was eating a pear and reading a book.’ What interested him about Gide? Barthes’s answer might be taken as a swift epitaph on himself, four brief sentences wonderfully afloat on all they don’t say: ‘He was a Protestant. He played the piano. He talked about desire. He wrote.’

An earlier, more militant remark is worth pondering too: ‘between jargon and platitudes, I prefer jargon.’ Of course we fervently hope that is not the choice, but if it were? ‘It’s shameful to judge someone on his vocabulary,’ Barthes adds.

magic is ... any kind of personal supplication from a once-dominant religious system which got pushed off center stage by a new system

--- Christopher Fennell, quoted in "Searching for the Witches’ Tower," Archaeology Magazine, November/December 2019, p. 37 (web version, p. 4)

From the article
Another explanation for the Pendle witch trials may lie in forgotten folk practices that often go unmentioned in official historical documents. Seventeenth-century Britons were mostly illiterate, lived by the rhythm of the agricultural calendar, and fought illness without the assistance of modern medicine. For decades, many historians subscribed to the notion that as Christianity replaced indigenous pagan religious systems in the British Isles from the late Roman period onward, magical superstition died out. Archaeologists, however, do find objects, markings, inscriptions, and other evidence of rituals and practices that should, they say, be considered magical. “When people start talking about magical invocations, they rarely try to define magic,” says archaeologist Christopher Fennell of the University of Illinois. “One definition of magic is that it is any kind of personal supplication from a once-dominant religious system which got pushed off center stage by a new system.” Christianity, Fennell says, by way of example, marginalized paganism in England, but individual rituals surviving from those belief systems continued to be carried on in private spaces.

our sense of our relationships with the past has to be one that’s capable of including contradiction

--- Fintan O'Toole, in the Talking Politics podcast episode Britain Wrestles with its Past, 24 June 2020.

From the conversation, with time codes in square brackets (44 MB mp3)
[17:08] The question then, it seems to me, is, do you just join in then, with kicking Churchill because he’s being grotesquely misused by Johnson or Trump, and say, Well, this is the time to kick him when he’s down; or should democrats be saying, Well, actually what Churchill tells us is that history is a complicated thing. [17:31] You know, that actually identity is complicated, that our sense of our relationships with the past has to be one that’s capable of including contradiction.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

The residents of Babylon in the first millennium B.C. saw themselves as facing their past and walking backward into the future

--- Jarrett A. Lobell, "Magical Beasts of Babylon," Archaeology Magazine, November/December 2019

Opening lines of the article:

The residents of Babylon in the first millennium B.C. saw themselves as facing their past and walking backward into the future. In the Akkadian language of ancient Mesopotamia, the word panu, or "face," relates to the past, whereas "behind" is a word associated with the future.
This reminded me of  the finding that in the Aymara language, "FUTURE IS BEHIND EGO and PAST IS IN FRONT OF EGO" according to a 2010 paper by Núñez and Sweetser; for more, see the 2006 UCSD press release Backs to the Future.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

The fear of machines outsmarting us, ...—I don’t think that’s new

--- Urs Fischer, in conversation with Natasha Stagg, Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2018

From the interview:
Natasha Stagg There does seem to be a common fear of technology and machine learning, though—that it will outsmart you eventually.

Urs Fischer Yeah, good. I mean, we’re not that smart to begin with.

NS But we’re creating the machine, so we don’t want to be outsmarted by it.

UF Our species creates all sorts of things, but look at what else we do: we tap into natural resources like there’s no tomorrow, knowing it’s bad for us as a species and for the rest of life on this planet. But we do it with very elaborate, smart machines. . . . There are a lot of things we do that we don’t want to talk about because we don’t like the solutions. We procreate like crazy, creating more of us, caring about the ones close to us but not about a bigger picture. We just mess everything up. How smart are we? I tend to think that we’re idiots. We’re smart enough to do things but too dumb to understand what we do. The fear of machines outsmarting us, the feeling, the emotional side of this—I don’t think that’s new. The world has always been ending. The apocalypse is as old as history, just with different ingredients.
IMHO, the world has always been ending because our lives are always ending; the apocalypse is personal before it’s collective. 

I’m willing to believe that the fear of machines outsmarting us isn’t new either, since it’s human to fear being outsmarted, primarily by other humans and then by anything else that our hyper-active innate agency detectors identify. If the fear is perennial, presumably the optimism is, too.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Employing evidence to make policy is an unnatural act

--- Robert Shea, in conversation with Bob Hahn on the Two Think Minimum podcast, "Robert Shea on Evidenced Based Policy’s Impact and Potential," June 29, 2020,

From the transcript:

Hahn: So how does that differ from how things work in Washington or other places around the world today? I mean, don’t politicians and civil servants use evidence? What’s the big deal here?

Shea: Yeah, you must’ve gotten this a lot too when you told people you worked on the commission on evidence-based policymaking, oh my god, we need a commission for that? That’s not what we do every day? No, employing evidence to make policy is an unnatural act. Today, politics, emotion, anecdote are more likely to drive policy than evidence. This whole movement, the evidence movement is all about trying to more and more get policymakers to look at data and evidence, and use it in their policy making.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

[Labels] are ways for us to categorize and simplify our lives in ways we shouldn't actually simplify our lives

--- Víkingur Ólafsson, in an interview for Deutsche Grammophon, on the launch of his  Debussy-Rameau albmu, 3 June, 2020

I don't think about labels at all, I mean like musical labels. I'm not talking about Deutsche Grammophon. I'm talking about Neoclassical or Classical or even Baroque or Impressionism or Jazz or Rock or Pop or whatever – it doesn't mean anything to me - all those stamps. They are completely outside of the music. They are ways for us to categorize and simplify our lives in ways we shouldn't actually simplify our lives because music is much more complex than that.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul

Khalil Gibran, from "On Reason and Passion"


Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.


Among the hills, when you sit in the cool shade of the white poplars, sharing the peace and serenity of distant fields, and meadows—then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason.”
And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, and thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky,—then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion.”

How we teach is what we teach

--- John H McArthur, quoted by Michael Roberto in Lecture 1, The Art of Critical Decision Making, The Great Courses, timecode 32:13

Monday, June 22, 2020

... that urgency is accompanied by a sort-of diminished authority because there is no one consensually agreed version of what just happened

--- Jonathan Shainin, in conversation with David Runciman and Helen Thomas, Talking Politics podcast #248, 4 June 2020, "Facts vs Opinions"

Excerpt, with approximate <time code> in angle brackets
<37:17> We have a settled model, a kind of classical model, so to speak, of how the facts, the news, and the demos interact with one another. And I think that settled model is now very antiquated, and I’m not sure we have a new model that adequately conveys the kind of chaos and instability in the relationship between those three elements. And so I think journalism feels more urgent to many people than it ever has before, in terms of, you’ve got it on your phone, you’ve got it on social media, people are talking about it all the time, people are talking about the news. And yet, that urgency is accompanied by a sort-of diminished authority because there is no one consensually agreed version of what just happened, in the way that an earlier iteration, journalists had a kind of functional monopoly on describing the world to their audience. […] <38:47> You had kind of a consensus about a stable way of representing the world, and I don’t think it exists anymore. And I think it's a real challenge, because I think this constant skepticism, or doubts, or even cynicism, about the extent to which we can produce a representation of what's happening out there in the world. And I think what you see, particularly when you look at questions of race in America, for instance, you get into another for of thinking about representation, which is, who are the journalists who are telling this story.
And here's Helen, following up at <39:32> 
I think that the - what's happening in America at the moment - does run into the limits of the analytical mode [of opinion writing]. Sometimes I think that's been true about Trump since the beginning. There's something about his presidency, where the analytical mode just seems inadequate to try to get to grips in any moral sense with what has been happening, and that is particularly true now. I think in terms of what's been going on for over the last week, and partly the analytical mode is sort-of near exhausted, because there's something almost I think religious about what is happening and that that means that trying to sort-of use conventional political language to try to say something about it doesn't really work. It can risk coming over as simple indifference, and that's simply not what's required in this situation. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Words are to a lawyer what mathematics is to a physicist

--- Owain Blackwell, in "Words are Chameleons: The Languages of Law," Oxford Reference, 20 March 2019

Words are to a lawyer what mathematics is to a physicist. That being the case, if an observer watched the goings on of, say, the Court of King’s Bench in the 15th century, they might wonder how the legal system could work at all, for they would be hearing words in three languages.
So can we contrive a system in which all words are defined and all nuances banished? It is but a pipe dream. For, as Justice Holmes observed: ‘A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.’ Furthermore, it would be a grim day for lawyers if such a dream could be realized. One is reminded of the toast first given at Sergeants Inn in 1756 by Mr Wilbraham, and since then much repeated: ‘Gentleman, to the glorious uncertainty of the law.’ For it is that very uncertainty—uncertainty, usually, over the meaning of words— by which lawyers earn their keep.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Everybody has the same size box

--- Michael Hsu, quoted in Business Travel Won’t Be Taking Off Soon Amid Coronavirus, Wall Street Journal, 15 June 2020

From the article
Michael Hsu, chief executive of Kimberly-Clark Corp., the maker of Cottonelle toilet paper, said he has found Zoom calls more effective than some in-person meetings with his executive team. In face-to-face executive roundtables, people fidget and look at their phones, he said, but on Zoom people are forced to be attentive. Mr. Hsu said he also finds such meetings to be more “egalitarian” because no one is at the head of the table, so executives speak up more often and more candidly.

Everybody has the same size box,” he said.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Rome added political genius to Greek artistic genius

--- Paul Veyne, in an interview with François Busnel in L'Express, 12 January 2005

In context:

F. B. Le poète Horace avait-il raison d'affirmer que «la Grèce conquise a conquis son sauvage vainqueur puisqu'elle apporte chez lui les arts»?

P.V. Oui, certainement. Mais Rome a ajouté au génie artistique grec le génie politique: l'autorité et le sens de la règle du jeu en politique sont romains. Et cette règle du jeu s'est perpétuée jusqu'à nous. Son principe est très simple: une grande collectivité obéit certes aux clans et aux pouvoirs sociaux mais il faut aussi suivre un certain nombre de règles de droit public. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Every gift comes with sacrifice. There is always something demanded.

--- Joy Harjo, in a CSMonitor Q&A, April, 2020

In context:
Q: How would you describe the gift of poetry?

Every gift comes with sacrifice. There is always something demanded. To take care of the gift of poetry demands listening, even when it seems as if there is nothing or no one there. It remembers listening to history and beyond history. It means walking a road of language alone, until you teach someone how to hear you. My mission is to take care of the gifts that I carry, to develop and feed them, and then to share them. We must all take care of our respective gifts, because with them we will find the answers to our problems. With poetry, we can sometimes sing the answers. 

Sunday, June 07, 2020

I've always wanted to be exempt from meaning, the way one is exempt from military service

--- Roland Barthes, quoted by Michael Wood around timecode 17:24 in an LRB conversation with Adam Shatz (May 2020)

From the transcript:
Adam Shatz: ... something that is central to Barthes’s thinking, which is this discomfort with meaning. He described meaning at some point, I think, as sticky. Heavy, sticky. He didn’t like it. What was that about?

Michael Wood:  He says at one point – it’s a phrase I’ve always liked – I’ve always wanted to be exempt from meaning the way one is exempt from military service. It’s required – you can’t actually get out of military service if that’s the law of your country. You could be some kind of protester, you could be a conscientious objector, but he doesn’t want to be a conscientious objector. He wants a certain kind of exemption from meaning, or at least a rest from meaning. I think that is, in a way, a kind of French illness or a French worry. It’s a natural thing to say, I think if you’re French, that meaning is rather regimented, it’s official, there’s a standard version of it. I’m not sure that any English speaker ever quite feels that about meaning.
I think this is from "Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes," judging by the only other reference a quick search turned up: a 1977 review by Frank Kermode in the New York Times. Here's the excertp:

Barthes is an extraordinary virtuoso though people who read him in English—a language, incidentally, in which he takes very little interest—may be skeptical about this remark. It remains true. Highly original, extremely fertile and inventive, he really does represent, in a peculiarly qualified way, a new kind of writing, and he continually discovers new ways of writing about writing. He is not a philosopher, not a linguist not a poet, not a novelist and even not an essayist. His ideal “text” is not controlled by an author at all. He “dreams of a world which would be exempt from meaning (as one is from military service),” and the ideal text would also be without meaning and without style. Yet he is, and knows he is, a conscious stylist and heavy with meanings.

According to the biography in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard, Barthes was indeed exempted from military service in 1937 (aged 22). I couldn't confirm the quote using the Amazon "Look inside" function, but the phrase "dreams of a world which would be exempt from meaning" apparently occurs on page 87 of the 2010 paperback edition.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around

--- Milton Friedman (2009) Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition, p.14, University of Chicago Press 

Quote according to AZquotes:

Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

All models are wrong, but some are useful

--- George Box, Robustness in the Strategy of Scientific Model Building, Technical Summary Report #1954, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mathematics Research Center, May 1979 (h/t David Weinberger for the reference)

Some more great passages by Box, also via Weinberger, from George E. P. Box, Science and Statistics, Journal of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 71, No. 356 (Dec., 1976), pp. 791-799, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2286841

...he must not be like Pygmalion and fall in love with his model.

2.3 Parsimony

Since all models are wrong the scientist cannot obtain a "correct" one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.

2.4 Worrying Selectively

Since all models are wrong the scientist must be alert to what is importantly wrong. It is inappropriate to be concerned about mice when there are tigers abroad.

2.5 Role of Mathematics in Science

Pure mathematics is concerned with propositions like "given that A is true, does B necessarily follow?" Since the statement is a conditional one, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth of A nor of the consequences B in relation to real life. The pure mathematician, acting in that capacity, need not, and perhaps should not, have any contact with practical matters at all.

In applying mathematics to subjects such as physics or statistics we make tentative assumptions about the real world which we know are false but which we believe may be useful nonetheless. The physicist knows that particles have mass and yet certain results, approximating what really happens, may be derived from the assumption that they do not. Equally, the statistician knows, for example, that in nature there never was a normal distribution, there never was a straight line, yet with normal and linear assumptions, known to be false, he can often derive results which match, to a useful approximation, those found in the real world.

It follows that, although rigorous derivation of logical consequences is of great importance to statistics, such derivations are necessarily encapsulated in the knowledge that premise, and hence consequence, do not describe natural truth. It follows that we cannot know that any statistical technique we develop is useful unless we use it. Major advances in science and in the science of statistics in particular, usually occur, therefore, as the result of the theory-practice iteration...

All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.

--- Richard Avedon (attributed passim, couldn't confirm source), via Gagosian on Instagram

The more I think about it, the more fatuous (or do I mean specious?) this quote seems. 

No photograph is "the truth," but then, nothing is (to a modern, or certainly a postmodernist).

So what if he'd said, "All photographs are accurate. None of them is true"? That seems a bit more accurate to me. But then consider the first part: "All photographs are accurate." 

If accurate means correct in all details (cf. Lexico), then this is false since many photos - especially in fashion magazines! - are doctored in some way, from soft focus to color correction to airbrushing Trotsky out of a the photo of Lenin's speech in Sverdlov Square.

Now, to the extent that Trotsky was no longer an important figure in Soviet history after the rise of Stalin, editing him out of the photo was true in its context. Which takes us around 180 degrees to, "No photographs are accurate. All of  them are the truth."

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A language is a dialect with an army and navy

--- popularized by Max Weinreich (see Wikipedia discussion), via Rita Tan

Weinreich's story about it, per Wikipedia
A teacher at a Bronx high school once appeared among the auditors. He had come to America as a child and the entire time had never heard that Yiddish had a history and could also serve for higher matters.... Once after a lecture he approached me and asked, 'What is the difference between a dialect and language?' I thought that the maskilic contempt had affected him, and tried to lead him to the right path, but he interrupted me: 'I know that, but I will give you a better definition. A language is a dialect with an army and navy.' From that very time I made sure to remember that I must convey this wonderful formulation of the social plight of Yiddish to a large audience.

Friday, May 01, 2020

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne

--- Geoffrey Chaucer, "The life so short, the craft so long to learn", the first line of the Parlement of Foules (Wikipedia), quoted by Hilary Mantel in The Mirror & the Light, according to Helen Thomas in the Talking Politics podcast "In Praise of Hilary Mantel" (at 38:53)

I feel as if I've at last tracked down the origin of my favorite saying by my father, "Too soon old, too late smart."

From Mantel, p. 321
Sometimes Henry says to him, ‘Still at the antique letters, Lord Cromwell? What did you learn today?’ 
He says, ‘I learned that ars longa, vita brevis: I learned how to say it in Greek.’ 
‘That is Hippocrates,’ Henry says. ‘He tells us, life is short and our task so great that we will die before we can . . .’
The king breaks off. It is an offence for his subjects to speculate about his death or predict it, but it is not an offence for him to speak of it himself; yet he looks chary, as if he thinks it should be. ' "Life is short and art is long, the opportunity sudden and fleeting: experiment dangerous, judgement difficult." I think I have the sense of it.’ 
He bows. ‘I am the better instructed, sir.’ 
Daily, daily, one must practise the courtier’s art, and nightly, the art of governance: and never get it right. Chaucer says it in our own English tongue. ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’
I was embarrassed that I hadn't realized that it all goes back to "ars longa, vita brevis." Hippocrates's original is wonderful.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

pretension is the professional risk we run in the humanities

--- Graham Harman, in "Graham Harman and Slavoj Zizek: talk and debate: On Object Oriented Ontology" (YouTube), a talk at the "Lost-Weekend" Cafe, Munich, December 1, 2018, at timecode 35:43

Quote in context
[After quoting Daniel Dennett's wine tasting example of a "flamboyant and velvety
Pinot lacking in stamina":] There are a lot of pretentious wine tasters, there are pretentious theater critics, pretentious architecture critics, pretentious philosophers.  You're probably not going to find a pretentious chemist or physicist. That's not the congenital vice of the sciences – pretension.  You might find arrogance or narrow mindedness, lack of intellectual breadth; but you're not going to find pretension. This pretension is the professional risk we run in the humanities, because we have to rely on indirect discourse in a way that the other the sciences do not. And we should own that; we should become comfortable with that.
More on indirect discourse from the talk:

At [33:00]
I've already talked about undermining and overmining, and how philosophy can't get a knowledge of the things because the things are never reducible downward or upward; that kind of knowledge of the things can never exhaust the things. And so this is why for us aesthetics is important; why indirect discourse is important.  
At [37:05]
I mentioned jokes before. A joke only works when it's indirect. When you literalize a joke, you ruin it. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Those who know better, should do better

--- Arnold Kling, in conversation with Russ Roberts on the Econtalk podcast, April 6, 2020, about he revised edition of his book The Three Languages of Politics

In context

Russ Roberts: I see this book, in a way, as an attempt to reshape the culture and to think differently about our political disagreements. One of the problems I have with it is, I think it appeals to you and me. And most people don't want to learn that other language of their opponents. They don't want to empathize. . . . [So] for most people, they're not so interested in what you're selling. How do you react to that?
Arnold Kling: That may be true. I think if you're trying to--if I were trying to sum up a prescription of this book, and I don't have this phrase in the book. Like, this is one of these things that I keep thinking about as I go along, and I sometimes come up with better formulations. But, I would say my phrase would be, 'Those who know better, should do better.'

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

If one no longer has land but has the memory of land, then one can make a map

--- Anne Michaels, in Fugitive Pieces: A novel (1998), via Helize van Vuuren, "Between the Stormberg Mountains and Timbuktu: Aucamp's ars poetica/Tussen die Stormberge en Timboektoe: Aucamp se kunsteorie" (2005)

Quote in context
There's no absence, if there remains even the memory of absence. Memory dies unless it's given a use. Or as Athos might have said: If one no longer has land but has the memory of land, then one can make a map

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A eunuch clutched by an old crone

--- Abdullah Ibn al-Mu'tazz, from Birds through a ceiling of Alabaster: Three Abbasid poets, transl. by G. B. H. Wightman and A. Y. al-Udhari

The whole poem
Delays in Baghdad worried me;
   Journeys seldom turn out as planned.
I was detained too long in town,
   A eunuch clutched by an old crone.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Technology seduces us

--- Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson in Ingenious: The Unintended Consequences of Human Innovation (2019), p. 148, via a New Scientist book review by  Jonathon Keats

In context:
[. . .] It can be argued that the smartphone represents the practical pinnacle of human ingenuity to date.
People's expectations have also changed. No longer do we accept a phone that is just a phone. We want one that is lightweight, has a battery that lasts forever, has unlimited memory, can monitor our health as well as our finances, can connect to the internet rapidly anywhere, act as a GPS system, survive being dropped into the toilet, unlock our car, manage our kitchen from a distance, turn off our lights, monitor our alarms, find itself or another phone when lost, be absolutely secure . . . . Technology seduces us. Rather than being happy with what we have we want more, fashion dictates that we need a new phone even when we don't. Industry wants us to have more. More capable, and often more expensive, models appear every year—all launched with fanfare and pizazz. 
But these phones soon also performed other functions—they fed users' data back to the supplier. It was a Faustian deal that many other companies joined in on. These companies did not need to actually make physical things in order to succeed. Amazon, Google, and Facebook had a very different way of making money. And that all depended on the internet.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The American mind is the battle space

--- Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at CSIS, quoted in "Super Tuesday: Which candidate does Russia want to win?" CSMonitor, March 3, 2020

From the piece
The accounts taken down [from Instagram by Facebook] included 11 supporting Mr. Trump and four supporting Mr. Sanders. But as a whole, the accounts, which appeared to be part of a network, were working to fuel divisions by posting on opposite sides of controversial issues such as police violence. Some included hashtags like #blacklivesmatter or #policebrutality while others would use #bluelivesmatter or #backtheblue.
“They’re fueling both sides of the argument, because what they want to do is bring the two sides to a clash,” says Ms. Conley of CSIS, who frequently tells audiences: “The American mind is the battle space.”

Monday, March 02, 2020

Comparison is the thief of joy

--- attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, via Ivy Kwong in A Brutally Honest Review of My 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat, September 2017

In context
It makes sense that we weren’t allowed to talk with each other until the last day. Comparison is the thief of all joy.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Our factual worlds are more like cabinetry carefully carpentered than like a virgin forest inadvertently stumbled upon

--- Jerome Bruner, in What Is a Narrative Fact? The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 560:17-27, p. 18, 1998, via Robert Shiller in Narrative Economics, NBER Working Paper 23075

I do not believe that facts ever quite stare anybody in the face. From a psychologist’s point of view, that is not how facts behave, as we well know from our studies of perception, memory, and thinking. Our factual worlds are more like cabinetry carefully carpentered than like a virgin forest inadvertently stumbled upon.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A flower is effectively a weed with a marketing budget

--- Rory Sutherland, in conversation with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast, "Rory Sutherland on Alchemy," 11 November 2019

At timecode 1:06:00

Yah, so, I mean, in the book, I used this phrase -- which I assume someone must have used before, but it appears they haven't; at least, I've Googled it -- which is: Advertising's very, very old. A flower is effectively a weed with a marketing budget. And the reason that advertising is necessary by plants is that the bee can only discover whether there's a worthwhile supply of nectar available in the plant by actually visiting it. And there is a mechanism that is necessary that delivers a reliable signal of promise of the presence of nectar, of which large petals and a variety of other signaling tools are merely one form. And so the very fact that advertising is an upfront cost is a reliable indicator of seller confidence. Because if the flower wasn't expecting the bees to come back for a second visit, it wouldn't pay it to grow these huge, great petals. 

Washington is ... run by lawyers who occasionally take advice from economists

--- Rory Sutherland, in conversation with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast, "Rory Sutherland on Alchemy," 11 November 2019

At timecode 1:18:06:

Washington is essentially a place where, uh, run by lawyers who occasionally take advice from economists

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Ralph, come back, it was only a rash

--- quoted by Brian Boyd in "Literature and Discovery," Philosophy and Literature 23(2):313-333 (1999), DOI: 10.1353/phl.1999.0028http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/phl.1999.0028

To treat literature as art doesn't require prostrate reverence before old men on dusty pedestals. Let me offer an example. Twenty years ago, in a calendar of Auckland city scenes, one photograph showed a beach front, a scoria embankment, and a man jogging past, allowing us to see the scale of things. In letters more than two feet high, and in a message about thirty feet long, someone had spray-painted on the scoria wall a great graffito, a single sentence: "Ralph, come back, it was only a rash."
Also quoted in his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2010)

Friday, February 14, 2020

Write what you must, then walk away from it

--- Carl Phillips, from "Craft and vision" in Wild is the Wind (2018)

From the poem
. . . Write what you must, then walk away from it is
not the hardest thing I've ever had to learn, by any stretch,
only one of the hardest. . . .

Without mystery, what chance for hope

--- Carl Phillips, from "A stillness between the hunting and the chase" in Wild is the Wind (2018)

From the poem
                                                . . .  But this is waking,
and this his favorite horse, whom he's never named,
that's how much he loves her, though she's
          branded, sure, the way all his horses are: "Without
mystery, what chance for hope"–in Latin, on the left
flank where it catches the light, loses it, the king
           sashless and in flight, though it looks processional,
he thinks–stately, almost–as the newly fallen believe
at first there's still a plan available: they'll save themselves.

The higher gods having long refused me, let the gods deemed lesser do the best they can

--- Carl Phillips, from "Brothers in Arms," in Wild is the Wind (2018)

From the poem
                                                                    . . .   The higher
gods having long refused me, let the gods deemed lesser
do the best they can
 — so a friend I somewhere along the way
lost hold of used to drunkenly announce, usually just before
passing out. I think he actually believed that stuff; he must
surely, by now, be dead. . . . 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

a digital model is a plan out of water, or like swimming at your desk

--- Kristina Andersen, Ron Wakkary, Laura Devendorf, and Alex Mclean, in Digital crafts-machine-ship: creative collaborations with machines, ACM Interactions, December 2019
Consider the complexities of swimming in the sea, indescribable and impossible if you try to think about it. But the body knows. We are made for engaging with this, an intentionality toward the world, the wind and the waves, the knowledge of the body and the strokes of the swim, the currents and the undertow, the shoreline and the place on the beach where we left our shoes. 
The digital twin promises an understanding of the complexity of the original, so that we can explore and control without risk, without consequences. But a digital model is a plan out of water, or like swimming at your desk. It is at best an abstraction, at worst a simplification, a safe reduction. When it reaches an impending level of complexity it overflows our coping capacities, typically cognitive, as we sit hapless, staring at our screens. 
Arguably, we can make a digital simulation of the sea and the currents. We can experiment safely within the confines of this reduction, a space of alternatives. Yet the difficulty for us is how to switch between plans and simply swimming, succumbing, feeling, as the currents push against the body; becoming insignificant in the process, humble; negotiating a camaraderie with the humbled; joining together, appreciating, flowing, and forming, to become again in relation to another.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The present is a bully

--- Richard Snow, in Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World (2019), quoted by Riley Robinson in a CSMonitor book review, 31 December 2019

"Why did you do this?" a journalist [Walt Disney] asked amid the park's scaffolding, and received the simple answer "For twenty years I wanted something of my own." There was a good deal more to it than that. Disney had become tired of animation, had been embittered by a 1941 strike at his studio, and like so many at the end of World War II felt dissatisfied and adrift. 
And this man who had so acute a sense of what the public would respond to believed that other Americans shared such feelings—that there was a vast potential audience in need of reassurance. 
The present is a bully, always making us think the molten moment we inhabit is the most alarming ever, while the past tends to slip into that specious category of "simpler times." The 1950s now bask in the sunshine of false memory, sock hops, genial Ike, two-car garages, Elvis, and a victorious America, her manufacturing plants unshaken by a single Axis bomb in the war, bestriding the industrial world.
Few saw the decade like that while they were making their way through it. In 1947 W. H. Auden published a book-length poem in which four characters in a New York City bar discuss the cosmos. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, but reading it could be heavy going. Nevertheless, it at once became universally known because of its title: The Age of Anxiety. That's what millions of Americans thought they were living in. 
And with reason. The war had ended with the thunderclap of two doomsday weapons over Japanese cities, and just four years later Soviet Russia, recently an ally, now a threat, possessed those weapons, too. American GIs who had never wanted to see another acre of Asian landscape found themselves fighting a shooting war against Communism in Korea and, once that dwindled to a stalemate, were being urged to help the French in Vietnam.

The fear of Communism simmered, a low fever that ran throughout the decade, spiking every few months, as when the Russians matched the new U.S. hydrogen bomb, or when Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that reds had infiltrated American life at every level.

Nor was all the unrest in other lands; in a few months Rosa Parks would refuse to yield her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger, thereby triggering the first direct action campaign of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

every night we close our eyes and go to sleep, and for a few hours, quietly and safely, we go stark staring mad

--- Neil Gaiman, from Reflections on MythColumbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, No. 31 (WINTER 1999), pp. 75-84


But new mythologies wait for us, here in the final moments of the twentieth century. [...] They have their function, all the ways we try to make sense of the world we inhabit, a world in which there are few, if any, easy answers. Every day we attempt to understand it. And every night we close our eyes and go to sleep, and for a few hours, quietly and safely, we go stark staring mad.

Myths are compost

--- Neil Gaiman, from Reflections on Myth, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, No. 31 (WINTER 1999), pp. 75-84

The process of composting fascinates me. I am English, and share with many of my countrymen an amateurish fondness for, frankly, messing around in gardens: [...]
And one learns a lot about compost: kitchen scraps and garden left-overs and refuse that rot down, over time, to a thick, black, clean, nutritious dirt, teeming with life, perfect for growing things in. 
Myths are compost
They begin as religions, the most deeply held of beliefs, or as the stories that accrete to religions as they grow.
And then, as the religions fall into disuse, or the stories cease to be seen as the literal truth, they become myths. And the myths compost down to dirt, and become a fertile ground for other stories and tales which blossom like wildflowers. Cupid and Psyche is retold and half forgotten and remembered again and becomes Beauty and the Beast. 
Too often, myths are uninspected. We bring them out without looking at what they represent, nor what they mean. Urban Legends and the Weekly World News present us with myths in the simplest sense: a world in which events occur according to story logic--not as they do happen, but as they should happen
But retelling myths is important. The act of inspecting them is important. It is not a matter of holding a myth up as a dead thing, desiccated and empty ("Now class, what have we learned from the Death of Baldur?"), nor is it a matter of creating New Age self help tomes ("The Gods Inside You! Releasing Your Inner Myth.") Instead we have to understand that even lost and forgotten myths are compost, in which stories grow
What is important is to tell the stories anew, and to retell the old stories. They are our stories, and they should be told.
I have lived here for six years, and I still do not understand it: a strange collection of home-grown myths and beliefs, the ways that America explains itself to itself.

Monday, January 20, 2020

the problem comes not from mythos itself, but from mythmongers demanding that their story be validated by logos institution

--- Peter Heehs, in Myth, History, and Theory, History and Theory, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb 1994)


Since the Greeks, logos (word as demonstrable truth) has been opposed to mythos (word as authoritative pronouncement). […] The Agastya-Aurobindo narrative is an example of an account based on factual materials that gradually became transformed into fiction. […] The Ramjanmabhumi narrative (at the center of sectarian conflict in India) took form in much the same way.
Clashes between logos and mythos are not uncommon, and are not confined to the third world. Greece's blocking of the European Community's recognition of Macedonia on account of that country's name and flag is the result of a mythos notion even if couched in logical language. The debate over the suitability of basing the teaching of geology and biology on the Hebrew scriptures is another example. And when a prominent speaker tells the Republican National Convention, "There is a religious war going on for the soul of America," he clearly is using the language of myth in what is often thought of as a logos forum. In each of these cases the problem comes not from mythos itself, but from mythmongers demanding that their story be validated by logos institutions.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics

--- Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, quoted in How political tribalism is leading to more political hypocrisy, Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 2020

Some excerpts
But today, it seems, hypocrisy is particularly rampant – and there’s a reason. “It’s a function of our extreme partisan polarization, and really, it justifies anything,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics.”
“It is pragmatic for politicians to act like hypocrites during periods of hyperpartisanship, since they otherwise might be harassed or expelled from their group for disloyalty,” writes Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University ... 
But in other ways, commonly cited examples of hypocrisy may in fact represent a misunderstanding of the people who hold seemingly contradictory views. Strong support for Mr. Trump by white Evangelicals is one case, [Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania] says.