Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Companies that can both execute and adapt are very rare indeed

From The Adaptable Corporation by Eric D. Beinhocker.
We thus have, on the one side, high-performing executers that can't sustain their performance and, on the other, long-term adapters that don't perform well. Companies that can both execute and adapt are very rare indeed. Wiggins and Ruefli found that fewer than 0.5 percent of the companies in their sample stayed in the top stratum for more than 20 years. Only three companies - American Home Products, Eli Lilly, and 3M, or 0.04 percent of the whole - made it to the 50-year mark. (This sample didn't include multibusiness companies, such as GE.)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The market performs better than companies do

From an interview in McKinsey Quarterly:
Richard Foster: In the book, Sarah Kaplan and I show that over the long term, the market performs better than companies do. There can be periods - 5, 7, 10, even 15 years - when that isn't the case, but corporate performance always reverts to a lower level than the market because the economy is changing at a faster pace and on a larger scale than any individual company so far has been able to do without losing control. That's the challenge: to create, operate, and trade - to divest old businesses and acquire or build new businesses - at the pace and scale of the market without losing control.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A single mouse

From John M. Barry, The Great Influenza, page 160. In describing some of the testing on mice Barry mentions:
Male mice were and are generally not used in experiments because they sometimes attack each other; the death or injury of a single mouse for any reason can distort experimental results and ruin weeks of work.

Which makes sense. But I am surprised to come across this only now and in this place after so many hundreds if not thousands of science papers I have read over the years. It makes me wonder what, if any, bias or distortion using only female mice might have introduced into over a century of medical research from this pragmatic response to a quotidian issue. Presumably none, but you have to wonder.

He would sally forth to seek them

Thomas H. Huxley in An Essay, Joseph Priestley. Heh.
If the man to perpetuate whose memory we have this day raised a statue had been asked on what part of his busy life's work he set the highest value, he would undoubtedly have pointed to his voluminous contributions to theology. In season and out of season, he was the steadfast champion of that hypothesis respecting the Divine nature which is termed Unitarianism by its friends and Socinianism by its foes. Regardless of odds, he was ready to do battle with all comers in that cause; and if no adversaries entered the lists, he would sally forth to seek them.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

To live is to think

Cicero, Tusculanes Disputationes -
To live is to think.

To move in harmony

Thomas H. Huxley in A Liberal Education and Where to Find It.
Education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of Nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

He became extraordinarily careful

From John M. Barry, The Great Influenza, page 158. Oswald Avery, early in his research career at the Rockefeller, became excited about the results from a couple of initial experiments and rushed to publish two papers. The ideas he advanced and the tentative evidence he offered both proved to be wrong to his great mortification.
Avery again reached well beyond his experimental evidence for a conclusion.

Both were quickly proved wrong. Humiliated he was determined never to suffer such embarrassment again. He became extraordinarily careful, extraordinarily cautious and conservative, in anything he published or even said outside of his own laboratory. He did not stop speculating - privately - about the boldest and most far-reaching interpretations of an experiment, but from then on he published only the most rigorously tested and conservative conclusions. From then on, Avery would only - in public - inch his way forward. An inch at a time, he would ultimately cover an enormous and startling distance.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Swirling personal experience

From John M. Barry, The Great Influenza, page 158, quoting Albert Einstein.
One of the strongest motives that lead persons to art or science is a flight from the everyday life. . . . With this negative motive goes a positive one. Man seeks to form for himself, in whatever manner is suitable for him, a simplified and lucid image of the world, and so to overcome the world of experience by striving to replace it to some extent by this image. This is what the painter does, and the poet, the speculative philosopher, the natural scientist, each in his own way. Into this image and its formation, he places the center of gravity of his emotional life, in order to attain the peace and serenity that he cannot find within the narrow confines of swirling personal experience.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

All else was extraneous

From John M. Barry, The Great Influenza, page 157. Describing one of the key scientific investigators of influenza, Oswald Avery, who manifests the discipline and focus that is so often associated with great achievements.
Avery had almost no personal life. He fled from one. He almost never entertained and rarely went out to dinner. Although he was close to and felt responsible for his younger brother and an orphaned cousin, his life, his world, was his research. All else was extraneous. Once the editor of a scientific journal asked him to write a memorial piece about Nobel laureate Karl Landsteiner, with whom he had worked closely at Rockefeller. In it Avery said nothing whatsoever about Landsteiner's personal life. The editor asked him to insert some personal details. Avery refused, stating that personal information would help the reader understand nothing that mattered, neither Landsteiner's achievements nor his thought processes.

(Landsteiner likely would have approved Avery's treatment. When he was notified he'd won the Nobel Prize, he continued working in his laboratory all day, got home so late that his wife was asleep, and did not wake her to give her the news.)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Polonius' advice

From William Shakespeare, Hamlet. I am always scanning material for the embedded adages and proverbs that serve as cultural code for living an effective life. I came across this miscellany from Lord Polonius in Hamlet.
Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Consider a system that is constantly changing

I have been working lately on materials addressing the puzzle of development - why do some people and some countries seem to do a better job over time of accumulating the wealth that allows them to make the decisions they wish to make? This passage from Melvin Konner in The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints of the Human Spirit, page 408, addresses some aspects of the complexity. Here he is speaking of the effort to understand and forecast the influences on a person, their personality, and their decision making process but he could as easily be speaking of individuals from a life development or countries from an economic development perspective.
Consider a system that is constantly changing, according to laws both known and unknown, from causes both internal and external, in a manner both cyclical and progressive, by processes both reversible and irreversible. Allow it to pass through an inconceivable number of states, and to come to rest for varying times in any of them. Give it many potential reactions to a given input, including changing, ignoring, and terminating that input. Enable it to reproduce itself through functions that have entered the design exclusively because they serve that purpose, though often indirectly and at the cost of other purposes. Endow it further with a trajectory of fixed maximum length (say, ninety years), which carries the system, predictably, through a series of potential or actual states from nonexistence to final cessation of function, with a possible termination of function at any earlier time. Finally, build in a sensor that can detect where the system is in the trajectory, assess the chance of continued functioning, and react, as far as possible, to change that chance for the better, except - and this is a crucial but - where that conflicts with the goal of reproduction. We now have something approaching, at least in its outlines, the complexity of the human behavorial system. We must add, of course, the potential for malfunction that is common to all systems, whether because of design flaws or unpredicted stresses.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Define: Sacerdotal

From P.D. James, The Lighthouse, page 329.
He remembered that this routine preparation for a climb had always been done in silence, a formal, purposeful putting on of courage and resolution, almost, he thought, as if his grandfather had been an ordained priest and he the acolyte, both performing some wordless but long familiar sacerdotal rite.

Sacerdotal from Wiktionary:

sacerdotal (comparative more sacerdotal, superlative most sacerdotal)

1. Of or relating to priests or a high religious order; priestly.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ostrich egg brunch

From Tom Parker in Rules of Thumb, page 123. While the first book is out of print, he has a current one in the series, Rules of Thumb: A Life Manual that is in print.
Ostrich Eggs. One ostrich egg will serve twenty-four people for brunch.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Charles Panati in Words to Live By, page 180.
Wishing to Be Friends is Quick Work, but Friendship is a Slow-Ripening Fruit

Aristotle (384 -322 B.C.E.), a pupil of Plato, viewed friendship among the highest virtues. It was an essential element in a full, virtuous, and worthwhile life. For Aristotle, there were three kinds of friendship:

1. Friendship of pleasure: two people are wonderfully happy in one another's company.
2. Friendship of utility: two people assist one another in everyday aspects of life.
3. Friendship of virtue: two people mutually admire one another and will be on best behavior in order not to jeopardize their relationship.

In the Nicomachean Ethics the philosopher said: "My best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake."

Monday, December 13, 2010

We ought to be able to show some practical difference

From Selected Writings by William James, page 2.
I tell this trivial anecdote because it is a peculiarly simple example of what I wish now to speak of as THE PRAGMATIC METHOD. The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?--fated or free?--material or spiritual?--here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. Whenever a dispute is serious, we ought to be able to show some practical difference that must follow from one side or the other's being right.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Or courage to forget

From Remember or Forget by Charles Hamilton Aide
I sit beside my lonely fire
And pray for wisdom yet:
For calmness to remember
Or courage to forget.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The one is man that shall hereafter be

from Queen Mab
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Man is of soul and body formed for deeds
Of high resolve; on fancy's boldest wing
To soar unwearied, fearlessly to turn
The keenest pangs to peacefulness, and taste
The joys which mingled sense and spirit yield;
Or he is formed for abjectness and woe,
To grovel on the dunghill of his fears,
To shrink at every sound, to quench the flame
Of natural love in sensualism, to know
That hour as blest when on his worthless days
The frozen hand of death shall set its seal,
Yet fear the cure, though hating the disease.
The one is man that shall hereafter be,
The other, man as vice has made him now.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Does not know what to do with it.

From Napoleon Hill, The Law of Success
Education-let us not forget this-consists of the power with which to get everything one needs when he needs it, without violating the rights of his fellow men.


The man who can intelligently use the knowledge possessed by another is as much or more a
man of education as the person who merely has the knowledge but does not know what to do with it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A date which will live in infamy

What makes a great speech? Hard to tell sometimes. Surely one set of elements must be the accuracy, the foresight and the durability of what is spoken. Here is President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech to Congress on December 8th, 1941, the day after the attack at Pearl Harbor, asking that Congress declare war on the Japanese Empire. For all that the fog of war must have been thick, particularly in those telecom dark ages, there is virtually nothing inaccurate in the speech despite nearly seventy years of scholarly research and, even with the most dispassionate caste of mind, these words remain solemnly moving all these many years later.

For older middle schoolers and high schoolers, Walter Lord's Day of Infamy remains an excellent narrative story of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

Franklin D. Roosevelt - December 8, 1941

You will only be deceiving yourself

From Napoleon Hill, The Law of Success
Success in this world is always a matter of individual effort, yet you will only be deceiving yourself if you believe that you can succeed without the co-operation of other people. Success is a matter of individual effort only to the extent that each person must decide, in his or her own mind, what is wanted. This involves the use of "imagination." From this point on, achieving success is a matter of skillfully and tactfully inducing others to cooperate.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The bad economist confines himself to the visible effect

From Frederic Bastiat in Selected Essay on Political Economy:
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Broken Window

Essays on Political Economy by Frederic Bastiat. It is amazing how long we can maintain illusions (for example "cash for clunkers") that were long ago explained and dispelled.
I. The Broken Window.

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James B., when his careless son happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact, that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation--"It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?"

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier's trade--that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs--I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, "Stop there! your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen."

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way which this accident has prevented.

Let us take a view of industry in general, as affected by this circumstance. The window being broken, the glazier's trade is encouraged to the amount of six francs: this is that which is seen.

If the window had not been broken, the shoemaker's trade (or some other) would have been encouraged to the amount of six francs: this is that which is not seen.

And if that which is not seen is taken into consideration, because it is a negative fact, as well as that which is seen, because it is a positive fact, it will be understood that neither industry in general, nor the sum total of national labour, is affected, whether windows are broken or not.

Now let us consider James B. himself. In the former supposition, that of the window being broken, he spends six francs, and has neither more nor less than he had before, the enjoyment of a window.

In the second, where we suppose the window not to have been broken, he would have spent six francs in shoes, and would have had at the same time the enjoyment of a pair o shoes and of a window.

Now, as James B. forms a part of society, we must come to the conclusion, that, taking it altogether, and making an estimate of its enjoyments and its labours, it has lost the value of the broken window.

Whence we arrive at this unexpected conclusion: "Society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed;" and we must assent to a maxim which will make the hair of protectionists stand on end--To break, to spoil, to waste, is not to encourage national labour; or, more briefly, "destruction is not profit."

What will you say, Moniteur Industriel--what will you say, disciples of good M. F. Chamans, who has calculated with so much precision how much trade would gain by the burning of Paris, from the number of houses it would be necessary to rebuild?

I am sorry to disturb these ingenious calculations, as far as their spirit has been introduced into our legislation; but I beg him to begin them again, by taking into the account that which is not seen, and placing it alongside of that which is seen.

The reader must take care to remember that there are not two persons only, but three concerned in the little scene which I have submitted to his attention. One of them, James B., represents the consumer, reduced, by an act of destruction, to one enjoyment instead of two. Another, under the title of the glazier, shows us the producer, whose trade is encouraged by the accident. The third is the shoemaker (or some other tradesman), whose labour suffers proportionably by the same cause. It is this third person who is always kept in the shade, and who, personating that which is not seen, is a necessary element of the problem. It is he who shows us how absurd it is to think we see a profit in an act of destruction. It is he who will soon teach us that it is not less absurd to see a profit in a restriction, which is, after all, nothing else than a partial destruction. Therefore, if you will only go to the root of all the arguments which are adduced in its favour, all you will find will be the paraphrase of this vulgar saying--What would become of the glaziers, if nobody ever broke windows?

Friday, December 3, 2010

A fantastic house of cards

From Where are the Geniuses of Today? by Alex Petrov:
The ability to reason, to compute, to manipulate the symbols and rules of logic -- this unnatural talent, too, must lie at the very margin, where small differences in raw talent have enormous consequences, where a merely good physicist must stand in awe of Dyson and where Dyson, in turn, stands in awe of Feynman. Merely to divide 158 by 192 presses most human minds to the limit of exertion. To master -- as modern particle physicists must -- the machinery of group theory and current algebra, of perturbative expansions and non-Abelian gauge theories, of spin statistics and Yang-Mills, is to sustain in one's mind a fantastic house of cards, at once steely and delicate. To manipulate that framework, and to innovate within it, requires a mental power that nature did not demand of scientists of past centuries. More physicists than ever rise to meet this cerebral challenge.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It is notorious that facts are compatible with opposite emotional comments

From William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
It is notorious that facts are compatible with opposite emotional comments, since the same fact will inspire entirely different feelings in different persons, and at different times in the same person; and there is no rationally deducible connection between any outer fact and the sentiments it may happen to provoke. These have their source in another sphere of existence altogether, in the animal and spiritual region of the subject's being. Conceive yourself, if possible, suddenly stripped of all the emotion with which your world now inspires you, and try to imagine it as it exists, purely by itself, without your favorable or unfavorable, hopeful or apprehensive comment. It will be almost impossible for you to realize such a condition of negativity and deadness. No one portion of the universe would then have importance beyond another; and the whole collection of its things and series of its events would be without significance, character, expression, or perspective. Whatever of value, interest, or meaning our respective worlds may appear endued with are thus pure gifts of the spectator's mind. The passion of love is the most familiar and extreme example of this fact. If it comes, it comes; if it does not come, no process of reasoning can force it. Yet it transforms the value of the creature loved as utterly as the sunrise transforms Mont Blanc from a corpse-like gray to a rosy enchantment; and it sets the whole world to a new tune for the lover and gives a new issue to his life. So with fear, with indignation, jealousy, ambition, worship. If they are there, life changes. And whether they shall be there or not depends almost always upon non-logical, often on organic conditions. And as the excited interest which these passions put into the world is our gift to the world, just so are the passions themselves gifts,- gifts to us, from sources sometimes low and sometimes high; but almost always non-logical and beyond our control. How can the moribund old man reason back to himself the romance, the mystery, the imminence of great things with which our old earth tingled for him in the days when he was young and well? Gifts, either of the flesh or of the spirit; and the spirit bloweth where it listeth; and the world's materials lend their surface passively to all the gifts alike, as the stage-setting receives indifferently whatever alternating colored lights may be shed upon it from the optical apparatus in the gallery.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

If God had made man a solitary animal . . .

Frederic Bastiat, via 1994 Annual Report of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
If God had made man a solitary animal, everyone would labor for himself . . . But, since man is a social creature, services are exchanged for services . . . Do this for me, and I will do that for you.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The main idea is to be interesting

H.L. Mencken in Newspaper Morals.
Aspiring, toward the end of my nonage, to the black robes of a dramatic critic, I took counsel with an ancient whose service went back to the days of Our American Cousin, asking him what qualities were chiefly demanded by the craft.

'The main idea,' he told me frankly, 'is to be interesting, to write a good story. All else is dross. Of course, I am not against accuracy, fairness, information, learning. If you want to read Lessing and Freytag, Hazlitt and Brunetiere, go read them: they will do you no harm. It is also useful to know something about Shakespeare. But unless you can make people read your criticisms, you may as well shut up your shop. And the only way to make them read you is to give them something exciting.'

Footprints on the sands of time

A Psalm of Life
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream! -
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world's broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,- act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Importance versus Epistemological Uncertainty

In thinking about reading, behaviors, cultures, and problem solving, it seems to me as if there is probably a hierarchy of questions that can be asked of any situation, problem, or issue. There are approaches to problem solving that require the asking of questions and sometimes the standard questions of who, what, where, when, why and how are referred to as the six servants of inquiry. In fact Rudyard Kipling had a short poem (in The Elephant's Child)
My Six Servants
by Rudyard Kipling

I keep six honest serving-men
They taught me all I knew;
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Reporters historically have been counselled to focus on Who and What to lead their stories, followed by Why, When, How, and Where.

In investigating an issue or problem, though, it seems to me as if there is a different hierarchy. There are some things that are relatively easy to know, the What, Where, and When. Not that these are necessarily easy to know, but easier to know. They can be determined with some degree of objectivity. What Happened?: A murder occurred. Where Did it Happen?: In the parlor. When Did it Happen?: Last night.

Then you get to the next more complicated aspect. To whom did this happen. Sometimes it is quite clear, in other cases, it is less obvious. Next you have the question of Who did it. It seems as if you are moving along an axis where the degree of certainty becomes less and less. You can usually figure out who did it but there is always at least some modicum of doubt.

Then you take a big leap of epistemological uncertainty: How did it happen? What were the sequence of steps and dependent actions that led to this outcome at this place and at this time to this person(s). That is a much more tangled tale and subject to greater doubt. Some pieces are clear - Action B had to follow Action A. Other times, it is a matter of probability: This probably followed that.

Finally you come to the question with the greatest uncertainty of all - Why did this happen. As it goes to motive, state-of-mind, and estimation, this necessarily is the least certain answer of all. We can guess, we can speculate. We can identify multiple probable causes but our ability to be certain is low.

While we are venturing along the axis of epistemological uncertainty, we are also climbing an axis of importance to forecasting. Knowing what happened, where it happened and when it happened may help a little bit in estimating the probability of it happening again, but probably not a lot of help. Knowing the individuals and personal dynamics helps more. Knowing how something happened helps a lot in forecasting the future probability. Knowing why it happened helps the most.

This progression might look something like this.

In solving a problem, answering a question, or determining some prospective course of action, we are always dependent on knowing the background and the context. However, knowing the simple facts (What, Where, When, Who) is never enough. We need to know the How and the Why but they are the pieces of knowledge in which we are the least confident. The movement along that line of questions takes you from the objective, the factual, the logical, into the realm of the subjective, the probable, the motivational.

Enthusiasts with something to sell

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning
. . .another illusion bred by university research, the idea of the obsolete, the apparent elimination of the past by the future, the belief propagated by science and industry that later is better, even when later has not yet come about and is only a prophecy by enthusiasts with something to sell.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Vilified by base and illiterate scribblers

From Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy.
"With us in France," saith Scaliger, "every man hath liberty to write, but few ability." "Heretofore learning was graced by judicious scholars, but now noble sciences are vilified by base and illiterate scribblers," that either write for vainglory, need, to get money, or as Parasites to flatter and collogue with some great men, they put cut burras, quisquiliasque ineptiasque.

Amongst so many thousand authors you shall scarce find one, by reading of whom you shall be any whit better, but rather much worse, quibus inficitur potius, quam perficitur,
by which he is rather infected than any way perfected.
------ Qui talia legit,
Quid didicit tandem, quid scit nisi somnia, nugas?

So that oftentimes it falls out (which Callimachus taxed of old) a great book is a great mischief. Cardan finds fault with Frenchmen and Germans, for their scribbling to no purpose, non inquit ab edendo deterreo, modo novum aliquid inveniant, he doth not bar them to write, so that it be some new invention of their own; but we weave the same web still, twist the same rope again and again; or if it be a new invention, 'tis but some bauble or toy which idle fellows write, for as idle fellows to read, and who so cannot invent? "He must have a barren wit, that in this scribbling age can forge nothing. Princes show their armies, rich men vaunt their buildings, soldiers their manhood, and scholars vent their toys;" they must read, they must hear whether they will or no.
Et quodcunque semel chartis illeverit, omnes
Gestiet a furno redeuntes scire lacuque,
Et pueros et anus . .

What once is said and writ, all men must know,
Old wives and children as they come and go.

"What a company of poets hath this year brought out," as Pliny complains to Sossius Sinesius. "This April every day some or other have recited." What a catalogue of new books all this year, all this age (I say), have our Frankfort Marts, our domestic Marts brought out? Twice a year, Proferunt se nova ingenia et ostentant, we stretch our wits out, and set
them to sale, magno conatu nihil agimus. So that which Gesner much desires, if a speedy reformation be not had, by some prince's edicts and grave supervisors, to restrain this liberty, it will run on in infinitum. Quis tam avidus librorum helluo, who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books, we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The multitude of books

Adrien Baillet in Jugemens des savants sur les principaux ouvrages des auteurs in 1725.
We have reason to fear that the multitude of books that are increasing every day in a prodigious manner will put the centuries to come into as difficult a state as that in which barbarity had put the earlier ones after the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Be quite candid with ourselves and with the facts

From William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Let us play fair in this whole matter, and be quite candid with ourselves and with the facts. When we think certain states of mind superior to others, is it ever because of what we know concerning their organic antecedents? No! it is always for two entirely different reasons. It is either because we take an immediate delight in them; or else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential fruits for life.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Canonical Milestones

From The Limits of Complexity by Theodore Modis, an attempt to define and measure complexity. Modis attempts to identify the most significant milestones in history: "The 28 'canonical' milestones, . . . generally represent a cluster of many milestones events." See the article for his methodology which is necessarily open to criticism, but it is an interesting attempt. Below are the 28 inflection points of history which he identifies from a larger complilation from a variety of sources.

1) The Big Bang and associated processes: 15.5 billion years ago

2) Origin of Milky Way, first stars: 10 billion years ago

3) Origin of life on Earth, formation of the solar system and the Earth, oldest rocks: 4 billion years ago

4) First eukaryotes, invention of sex (by microorganisms), atmospheric oxygen, oldest photosynthetic plants, plate tectionics established: 2 billion years ago

5) First multicellular life (sponges, seaweeds, protozoans): 1 billion years ago

6) Cambrian explosion, invertebrates, vertebrates, plants colonize land, first trees, reptiles, insects, amphibians: 430 million years ago

7) First mammals, first birds, first dinosaurs, first use of tools: 210 million years ago

8) First flowering plants, oldest angiosperm fossil: 139 million years ago

9) Asteroid collision, first primates, mass extinction (including dinosaurs): 54.6 million years ago

10) First hominids, first humanoids: 28.5 million years ago

11) First organutan, origin of proconsul: 16.5 million years ago

12) Chimpanzees and humans diverge, earliest hominid bipedalism: 5.1 million years ago

13) First stone tools, first humans, Ice Age, Homo erectus, origin of spoken language: 2.2 million years ago

14) Emergence of Homo sapiens: 550,000 years ago

15) Domestication of fire, Homo heidelbergensis: 325,000 years ago

16) Differentiation of human DNA types: 200,000 years ago

17) Emergence of "modern humans," earliest burial of the dead: 105,000 years ago

18) Rock art, protowriting: 35,800 years ago

19) Invention of agriculture: 19,200 years ago

20) Techniques for starting fire, first cities: 11,000 years ago

21) Development of the wheel, writing, archaic empires: 4,907 years ago

22) Democracy, city-states, the Greeks, Buddha: 2,437 years ago

23) Zero and decimals invented, Rome falls, Moslem conquest: 1,440 years ago

24) Renaissance (printing press), discovery of New World, the scientific method: 539 years ago

25) Industrial revolution (steam engine), political revolutions (France, USA): 250 years ago

26) Modern physics, radio, electricity, automobile, airplane: 100 years ago

27) DNA structure described, transistor invetned, nuclear energy, World War II, Cold War, Sputnik: 50 years ago

28) Internet, human genome sequenced: 5 years ago

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An order that always refers to limited aspects of reality

Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation, p. 253
Einstein's space is no closer to reality than Van Gogh's sky. The glory of science is not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy, but in the act of creation itself. The scientist's discoveries impose his own order on chaos, as the composer or painter imposes his; an order that always refers to limited aspects of reality, and is based on the observer's frame of reference, which differs from period to period as a Rembrant nude differs from a nude by Manet.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pleasure has no fellowship with virtue

Cicero, De Sectute -
The most noble and excellent gift of heaven to man is reason; and of all the enemies that reason has to engage with, pleasure is the chief. . . . Pleasure has no fellowship with virtue.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Always a child

Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.

They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations

From William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
In recent books on logic, distinction is made between two orders of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it? how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans call a Werthurtheil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first separately, and then adding them together.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Homer nods

Bertrand Russell in The Impact of Science on Society, page 17
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There are only human beings

From The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew M. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl. Page 13
There is still supposed to be a deep split between scientific, cultivated, rational ways of knowing the world and intuitive, natural, emotional ways of knowing. And children (and "primitive" people and women) are still assumed to be the exemplars of intuition rather than science, and passion rather than reason. The debate is still about which side you think you ought to root for.

The new developmental research shows that this historical consensus about children was just plain wrong. Children are not blank tablets or unbridled appetites or even intuitive seers. Babies and young children think, observe, and reason. They consider evidence, draw conclusions, do experiments, solve problems, and search for the truth. Of course, they don't do this in the self-conscious way that scientists do. And the problems they try to solve are everyday problems about what people and objects and words are like, rather than arcane problems about stars and atoms. But even the youngest babies know a great deal about the world and actively work to find out more.

That undermines the entire picture of the great chain of knowing. Women and people from other cultures have, after all, at least escaped the negative implications of being "childlike." (Nowadays it's okay to think women and people from other cultures are intuitive and natural only if you take the positive, Romantic view). But if even children themselves aren't "childlike," the whole picture collapses. There are no savages, noble or otherwise, and there are no "children of nature," not even among children. There are only human beings, children and grown-ups, women and men, hunter-gatherers and scientists, trying to figure out what's going on.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Getting to know the world

Bertrand Russell in The Impact of Science on Society, page 91
Science used to be valued as a means of getting to know the world; now, owing to the triumph of technique, it is conceived as showing how to change the world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

And then I call to mind eternity

The Infinite
by Giacomo Leopardi

Dear to me always was this lonely hill
And this hedge that excludes so large a part
Of the ultimate horizon from my view,
But as I sit and gaze, my thought conceives
Interminable vastnesses of space
Beyond it, and unearthly silences,
And profoundest calm; whereat my heart almost
Becomes dismayed. And as I hear the wind
Blustering through these branches, I find myself
Comparing with this sound that infinite silence;
And then I call to mind eternity,
And the ages that are dead, and this that now
Is living, and the noise of it. And so
In this immensity my thought sinks drowned:
And sweet it seems to shipwreck in this sea.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Christopher Hitchens:
What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Responsibility must be both definite and limited

Via Saving Hayek from the People Who Think They're Saving Hayek by Jason Kuznicki
A free society will not function or maintain itself unless its members regard it as right that each individual occupy the position that results from his action and accept it as due to his own action. Though it can offer to the individual only chances and though the outcome of his efforts will depend on innumerable accidents, it forcefully directs his attention to those circumstances that he can control as if they were the only ones that mattered (The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 78).

The sense of responsibility has been weakened in modern times as much by overextending the range of an individual's responsibilities as by exculpating him from the actual consequences of his actions . . . To be effective, responsibility must be both definite and limited, adapted both emotionally and intellectually to human capacities. It is quite as destructive of any sense of responsibility to be taught that one is responsible for everything as to be taught that one cannot be held responsible for anything . . .

Responsibility, to be effective, must be individual responsibility. In a free society there cannot be any collective responsibility of the members of a group as such, unless they have, by concerted action, all made themselves individually and severally responsible . . . If the same concerns are made the responsibility of many without at the same time imposing a duty of joint and agreed action, the result is usually that nobody really accepts responsibility. As everybody's property in effect is nobody's property, so everybody's responsibility is nobody's responsibility (ibid., p 83).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sic transit Gloria mundi

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.
At the end of 1899, the editor of London's Daily Telegraph, with the assistance of learned consultants, selected the "100 Best Novels in the World" from all the novels in any language. In all, 61 authors were represented in the list of 100 best novels. Only 27 of them - fewer than half - qualified as significant figures in Human Accomplishment's inventory of Western literature. Seventeen of the 61 - 28 percent -were not mentioned even once by any of the 20 sources used to compile that inventory; not even by the most encyclopedic ones. And yet each of those 17 who are now ignored had written one of the supposedly 100 best novels of all times as judged in 1899. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

It is this sort of contemporaneous over-confidence that always makes me leery of the hoopla over the most recently discovered author or new gem of a book. Time tests them all and finds most wanting regardless of what experts and critics might opine.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The chief business of the American people is business

From a speech, The Press Under a Free Government, by Calvin Coolidge, January 17, 1925.
There does not seem to be cause for alarm in the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise. Rather, it is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation, is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life. The opposite view was oracularly and poetically set forth in those lines of Goldsmith which everybody repeats, but few really believe:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Excellent poetry, but not a good working philosophy. Goldsmith would have been right, if, in fact, the accumulation of wealth meant the decay of men. It is rare indeed that the men who are accumulating wealth decay. It is only when they cease production, when accumulation stops, that an irreparable decay begins. Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort. In all experience, the accumulation of wealth means the multiplication of schools, the increase of knowledge, the dissemination of intelligence, the encouragement of science, the broadening of outlook, the expansion of liberties, the widening of culture. Of course, the accumulation of wealth can not be justified as the chief end of existence. But we are compelled to recognize it as a means to well nigh every desirable achievement. So long as wealth is made the means and not the end, we need not greatly fear it. And there never was a time when wealth was so generally regarded as a means, or so little regarded as an end, as today. Just a little time ago we read in your newspapers that two leaders of American business, whose efforts at accumulation had been most astonishingly successful, had given fifty or sixty million dollars as endowments to educational works. That was real news. It was characteristic of our American experience with men of large resources. They use their power to serve, not themselves and their own families, but the public. I feel sure that the coming generations, which will benefit by those endowments, will not be easily convinced that they have suffered greatly because of these particular accumulations of wealth.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Time to stop repeating the wise sayings and begin to believe them

From Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning
But the reward of reading with a humanistic eye is not in doubt: it is pleasure, renewable at will. That pleasure is the ultimate use of the classics. All the great judges of human existence have said so, from Milton who called reading "conversation with the master spirits" to Virginia Woolf, who imagined the Almighty saying to St. Peter about some newcomers to heaven: "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them . . .They have loved reading." I can only add one thing: it is always time to stop repeating the wise sayings and begin to believe them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

If he knew he would never be caught

Lord Kelvin:
The true measure of a man is what he would do if he knew he would never be caught.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

It requires a kind of conjury

From John M. Barry's The Great Influenza.
The greatest challenge of science, its art, lies in asking an important question and framing it in a way that allows it to be broken into manageable pieces, into experiments that can be conducted that ultimately lead to answers. To do this requires a certain kind of genius, one that probes vertically and sees horizontally.

Horizontal vision allows someone to assimilate and weave together seemingly unconnected bits of information. It allows an investigator to see what others do not see, and to make leaps of connectivity and creativity. Probing vertically, going deeper and deeper into something, creating new information. Sometimes what one finds will shin brilliantly enough to illuminate the whole world.

At least one question connects the vertical and the horizontal. That question is "So what?" Like a word on a Scrabble board, this question can connect with and prompt movement in many directions. It can eliminate a piece of information as unimportant or, at least to the investigator asking the question, irrelevant. It can push an investigator to probe more deeply to understand a piece of information. It can also force an investigator to step back and see how to fit a finding into a broader context. To see questions in these ways requires a wonder, a deep wonder focused by discipline, like a lens focusing the sun's rays on a spot of paper until it bursts into flame. It requires a kind of conjury.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New perspectives on reality based on information mediated by symbols

From Mihali Csikszentmihalyi's Creativity.
It seems that every species of living organism, except for us humans, understands the world in terms of more or less built-in responses to certain types of sensations. Plants turn toward the sun. There are amoebas sensitive to magnetic attraction that orient their bodies toward the North pole. Baby indigo buntings learn the patterns of the stars as they look out of their nests and then are able to fly great distances at night without losing their way. Bats respond to sounds, sharks to smell, and birds of prey have incredibly developed vision. Each species experiences and understands its environment in terms of the information its sensory equipment is programmed to process.

The same is true for humans. But in addition to the narrow windows on the world our genes have provided, we have managed to open up new perspectives on reality based on information mediated by symbols. Perfect parallel lines do not exist in nature, but by postulating their existence Euclid and his followers could build a system for representing spatial relations that is much more precise than what the unaided eye and brain can achieve. Different as they are from each other, lyric poetry and magnetic resonance spectroscopy are both ways to make accessible information that otherwise we would never have an inkling about.

Knowledge mediated by symbols is extrasomatice; it is not transmitted through the chemical codes inscribed in our chromosomes but must be intentionally passed on and learned. It is this extrasomatic information that makes up what we call a culture. And the knowledge conveyed by symbols is bundled up in discrete domains - geometry, music, religion, legal systems, and so on. Each domain is made up of its own symbolic elements, its own rules, and generally has its own system of notation. In many ways, each domain describes an isolated little world in which a person can think and act with clarity and concentration.

The existence of domains is perhaps the best evidence of human creativity. The fact that calculus and Gregorian chants exist means that we can experience patterns of order that were not programmed into our genes by biological evolution. By learning the rules of a domain, we immediately step beyond the boundaries of biology and enter the realm of cultural evolution. Each domain expands the limitations of individuality and enlarges our sensitivity and ability to relate to the world. Each person is surrounded by an almost infinite number of domains that are potentially able to open up new worlds and give new powers to those who learn their rules. Therefore, it is astounding how few of us bothers to invest enough mental energy to learn the rules of even one of these domains, and live instead exclusively within the constraints of biological existence.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A link in a chain, a phase in a process

From Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
According to this view, creativity results from the interaction of a system of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation. All three are necessary for a creative idea, product, or discovery to take place. For instance, in Vera Rubin's account of her astronomical discovery, it is impossible to imagine it without access to the huge amount of information about celestial motions that has been collecting for centuries, without access to the institutions that control modern large telescopes, without the critical skepticism and eventual support of other astronomers. In my view these are not incidental contributors to individual originality but essential components of the creative process, on a par with the individual's own contributions. For this reason, in this book, I devote almost as much attention to the domain and the to the field as to the individual creative persons.

Creativity is the cultural equivalent of genetic changes that result in biological evolution, where random variations take palce in the chemistry of our chromosomes, below the threshold of consciousness. These changes result in the sudden appearance of a new physical characteristic in a child, and if the trait is an improvement over what existed before, it will have a greater chance to be transmitted to the child's descendants. Most new traits do not improve survival chances and may disappear after a few generations. But a few do, and it is these that account for biological evolution.

In cultural evolution there are no mechanisms equivalent to genes and chromosomes. Therefore, a new idea or invention is not automatically passed on to the next generation. Instructions for how to use fire, or the wheel, or atomic energy are not built into the nervous system of the children born after such discoveries. Each child has to learn them again from the start. The analogy to genes in the evolution of culture are memes, or units of information that we must learn if culture is to continue. Languages, numbers, theories, songs, recipes, laws, and values are all memes that we pass on to our children so that they will be remembered. It is these memes that a creative person changes, and if enough of the right people see the change as an improvement, it will become part of the culture.

Therefore, to understand creativity it is not enough to study the individuals who seem most responsible for a novel idea or a new thing. Their contribution, while necessary and important, is only a link in a chain, a phase in a process. To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Albert Eintstein discovered relativity is a convenient simplification. It satisfies our ancient predilection for stories that are easy to comprehend and involve superhuman heroes. But Edison's or Einstein's discoveries would be inconcievable without the prior knowledge, without the intellectual and social network that stimulated their thinking, and without the social mechanisms that recognized and spread their innovations. To say that the theory of relativity was created by Einstein is like saying that it is the spark that is responsible for the fire. The spark is necessary, but without air and tinder there would be no flame.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Our choices unleash consequences that gain momentum over time

From Kevin Kelly's an article Chosen, Inevitable and Contingent on his site Technium.
Within the borders laid out by inevitable forces, our choices unleash consequences that gain momentum over time until these contingencies harden into technological necessities and become nearly unchangeable in future generations. There's an old story that is basically true: Ordinary Roman carts were constructed to match the width of Imperial Roman war chariots because it was easier to follow the ruts in the road left by the war chariots. The chariots were sized to accommodate the width of two large war horses, which translates into our English measurement as a width of 4' 8.5". Roads throughout the vast Roman empire were built to this spec. When the legions of Rome marched into Britain, they constructed long distance imperial roads 4' 8.5" wide. When the English started building tramways, they used the same width so the same horse carriages could be used. And when they started building railways with horseless carriages, naturally the rails were 4' 8.5" wide. Imported laborers from the British Isles built the first railways in the Americas using the same tools and jigs they were used to. Fast forward to the US Space shuttle, which is built in parts around the country and assembled in Florida. Because the two large solid fuel rocket engines on the side of the launch Shuttle were sent by railroad from Utah, and that line transversed a tunnel not much wider than the standard track, the rockets themselves could not be much wider than 4' 8.5." As one wag concluded: "So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of two horses' arse." More or less, this is how technology constrains itself over time.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Our own profound lack of interest

From Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History by Lee Harris.
it s a common human weakness to wish to make more of our contribution to the world than the world is prepared to acknowledge; it is our fantasy world that allows us to fill this gap. Normally, for most of us at least, this fantasy world of ours stays relatively hidden, and indeed a common criterion of our mental health is the extent to which we are able to keep our fantasies firmly under our watchful control.


What is common in such interactions is that the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props: there is absolutely no interest in, or even awareness of, other as having wills or minds of their own. The man who bores us with stories designed to impress us with his importance or his intellect or his bank account cares nothing for us as individuals, for he has already cast us in the role that he wishes us to play: we are there to be impressed by him. Indeed, it is an error even to suggest that he is trying to impress us, for this would assume that he is willing to learn enough about us to discover how best we might be impressed. Nothing of the kind occurs. And why should it? After all, the fantasist has already projected on to us the role which we are to play in his fantasy. And no matter what we may be thinking of his recital, it never crosses his mind that we may be utterly failing to play the part expected of us; indeed, it is sometimes astonishing to see how much exertion is required of us in order to bring our own profound lack of interest to the fantasist's attention.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Not the givens. But the choices we took.

From Kevin Kelly and his blog Technium, Chosen, Inevitable, and Contingent.
Who you are is determined in part by your genes. Every single day scientists identify new genes that code for a particular trait in humans, revealing the ways in which inherited "software" drives your body and brain. We now know that behaviors such as addictions, ambition, risk-taking, shyness and many others have strong genetic components. At the same time, "who you are" is clearly determined by your environment and upbringing. Every day science uncovers more evidence of the ways in which our family, peers, and cultural background shape our being. The strength of what others believe about us is enormous. And more recently we have increasing proof that environmental factors can influence genes, so that these two factors are co-factors in the strongest sense of the word — they determine each other. Your environment (like what you eat) can affect your genetic code, and your code will steer you into certain environments - making untangling the two influences a conundrum.

Lastly, who you are in the richest sense of the word - your character, your spirit, what you do with your life - is determined by what you choose. An awful lot of the shape of your life is given to you and is beyond your control, but your freedom to choose within those givens is huge and significant. The course of your life within the constraints of your genes and environment is up to you. You decide whether to speak the truth at any trial, even if you have a genetic or familial propensity to lie. You decide whether or not to risk befriending a stranger, no matter your genetic or cultural bias. You decide beyond your inherent tendencies or conditioning. Your freedom is far from total. It is not your choice alone whether to be the fastest runner in the world (your genetics and upbringing play a large role) but you can choose to be faster than you have been. Your inheritance and education at home and school set the outer boundaries of how smart, or generous, or sneaky you can be, but you choose whether you will smarter, more generous and sneakier today than yesterday. You may inhabit a body and brain that wants to be lazy, or sloppy, or imaginative, but you choose to what degree those qualities progress (even if you aren't inherently decisive).

Curiously, this freely chosen aspect of ourselves is what other people remember about us. How we handle life's cascade of real choices within the larger cages of our birth and background is what makes us who we are. It is what people talk about when we are gone. Not the givens. But the choices we took.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Our ignorance must necessarily be infinite

From Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.
The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance - the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

3,000 years of learning

From Goethe:
He who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

They give our personal abilities a little more influence on our well-being

From Karl Popper, All Life is Problem Solving.
Although I consider our political world to be the best of which we have any historical knowledge, we should beware of attributing this fact to democracy or to freedom. Freedom is not a supplier who delivers goods to our door. Democracy does not ensure that anything is accomplished - certainly not an economic miracle. It is wrong and dangerous to extol freedom by telling people that they will certainly be all right once they are free. How someone fares in life is largely a matter of luck or grace, and to a comparatively small degree perhaps also of competence, diligence, and other virtues. The most we can say of democracy or freedom is that they give our personal abilities a little more influence on our well-being.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

There is but one right, and the possibilities of wrong are infinite

I came across this essay yesterday. Thomas H. Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog", was one of those extraordinary gentlemen with which Victorian Britain seemed so blessed. Curious, ventursome, self-educated, an iron in many fires and effective in most the arenas in which he played. The following are some excerpts from an address he gave in Baltimore in 1876 on the founding of Johns Hopkins University, one of our premier centers of learning and medicine, founded through the benefaction of the eponymous Johns Hopkins. With a massive endowment and leadership from many talented philosophers, businessmen, and other leading lights, Johns Hopkins was established in an environment where the board sought to create an institution of learning and education free from any historical constrictions. Here is Thomas H. Huxley's Address on University Education. It is fascinating to me, here some 135 years later, that so many of the issues remain. The same questions, often similar answers, and we are still struggling to bring our aspirations into alignment with reality.
In my experience of life a truth which sounds very much like a paradox has often asserted itself: namely, that a man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes. So long as a man is struggling with obstacles he has an excuse for failure or shortcoming; but when fortune removes them all and gives him the power of doing as he thinks best, then comes the time of trial. There is but one right, and the possibilities of wrong are infinite.


Now I have a very clear conviction as to what elementary education ought to be; what it really may be, when properly organised; and what I think it will be, before many years have passed over our heads, in England and in America. Such education should enable an average boy of fifteen or sixteen to read and write his own language with ease and accuracy, and with a sense of literary excellence derived from the study of our classic writers: to have a general acquaintance with the history of his own country and with the great laws of social existence; to have acquired the rudiments of the physical and psychological sciences, and a fair knowledge of elementary arithmetic and geometry. He should have obtained an acquaintance with logic rather by example than by precept; while the acquirement of the elements of music and drawing should have been pleasure rather than work.


In a country like this, where most men have to carve out their own fortunes and devote themselves early to the practical affairs of life, comparatively few can hope to pursue their studies up to, still less beyond, the age of manhood. But it is of vital importance to the welfare of the community that those who are relieved from the need of making a livelihood, and still more, those who are stirred by the divine impulses of intellectual thirst or artistic genius, should be enabled to devote themselves to the higher service of their kind, as centres of intelligence, interpreters of Nature, or creators of new forms of beauty. And it is the function of a university to furnish such men with the means of becoming that which it is their privilege and duty to be. To this end the university need cover no ground foreign to that occupied by the elementary school. Indeed it cannot; for the elementary instruction which I have referred to embraces all the kinds of real knowledge and mental activity possible to man. The university can add no new departments of knowledge, can offer no new fields of mental activity; but what it can do is to intensify and specialise the instruction in each department.

Another very important and difficult practical question is, whether a definite course of study shall be laid down for those who enter the university; whether a curriculum shall be prescribed; or whether the student shall be allowed to range at will among the subjects which are open to him. And this question is inseparably connected with another, namely, the conferring of degrees. It is obviously impossible that any student should pass through the whole of the series of courses of instruction offered by a university. If a degree is to be conferred as a mark of proficiency in knowledge, it must be given on the ground that the candidate is proficient in a certain fraction of those studies; and then will arise the necessity of insuring an equivalency of degrees, so that the course by which a degree is obtained shall mark approximately an equal amount of labour and of acquirements, in all cases. But this equivalency can hardly be secured in any other way than by prescribing a series of definite lines of study. This is a matter which will require grave consideration. The important points to bear in mind, I think, are that there should not be too many subjects in the curriculum, and that the aim should be the attainment of thorough and sound knowledge of each.


In the first place, there is the important question of the limitations which should be fixed to the entrance into the university; or, what qualifications should be required of those who propose to take advantage of the higher training offered by the university. On the one hand, it is obviously desirable that the time and opportunities of the university should not be wasted in conferring such elementary instruction as can be obtained elsewhere; while, on the other hand, it is no less desirable that the higher instruction of the university should be made accessible to every one who can take advantage of it, although he may not have been able to go through any very extended course of education. My own feeling is distinctly against any absolute and defined preliminary examination, the passing of which shall be an essential condition of admission to the university. I would admit to the university any one who could be reasonably expected to profit by the instruction offered to him; and I should be inclined, on the whole, to test the fitness of the student, not by examination before he enters the university, but at the end of his first term of study. If, on examination in the branches of knowledge to which he has devoted himself, he show himself deficient in industry or in capacity, it will be best for the university and best for himself, to prevent him from pursuing a vocation for which he is obviously unfit. And I hardly know of any other method than this by which his fitness or unfitness can be safely ascertained, though no doubt a good deal may be done, not by formal cut and dried examination, but by judicious questioning, at the outset of his career.


All knowledge is good. It is impossible to say that any fragment of knowledge, however insignificant or remote from one's ordinary pursuits, may not some day be turned to account. But in medical education, above all things, it is to be recollected that, in order to know a little well, one must be content to be ignorant of a great deal.


Up to this point I have considered only the teaching aspect of your great foundation, that function of the university in virtue of which it plays the part of a reservoir of ascertained truth, so far as our symbols can ever interpret nature. All can learn; all can drink of this lake. It is given to few to add to the store of knowledge, to strike new springs of thought, or to shape new forms of beauty. But so sure as it is that men live not by bread, but by ideas, so sure is it that the future of the world lies in the hands of those who are able to carry the interpretation of nature a step further than their predecessors; so certain is it that the highest function of a university is to seek out those men, cherish them, and give their ability to serve their kind full play.

Finally, there is this interesting observation from Huxley as an observer of America. The resonance with today is eerie:
I constantly hear Americans speak of the charm which our old mother country has for them, of the delight with which they wander through the streets of ancient towns, or climb the battlements of mediaeval strongholds, the names of which are indissolubly associated with the great epochs of that noble literature which is our common inheritance; or with the blood-stained steps of that secular progress, by which the descendants of the savage Britons and of the wild pirates of the North Sea have become converted into warriors of order and champions of peaceful freedom, exhausting what still remains of the old Berserk spirit in subduing nature, and turning the wilderness into a garden. But anticipation has no less charm than retrospect, and to an Englishman landing upon your shores for the first time, travelling for hundreds of miles through strings of great and well-ordered cities, seeing your enormous actual, and almost infinite potential, wealth in all commodities, and in the energy and ability which turn wealth to account, there is something sublime in the vista of the future. Do not suppose that I am pandering to what is commonly understood by national pride. I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things? What is to be the end to which these are to be the means? You are making a novel experiment in politics on the greatest scale which the world has yet seen. Forty millions at your first centenary, it is reasonably to be expected that, at the second, these states will be occupied by two hundred millions of English-speaking people, spread over an area as large as that of Europe, and with climates and interests as diverse as those of Spain and Scandinavia, England and Russia. You and your descendants have to ascertain whether this great mass will hold together under the forms of a republic, and the despotic reality of universal suffrage; whether state rights will hold out against centralisation, without separation; whether centralisation will get the better, without actual or disguised monarchy; whether shifting corruption is better than a permanent bureaucracy; and as population thickens in your great cities, and the pressure of want is felt, the gaunt spectre of pauperism will stalk among you, and communism and socialism will claim to be heard. Truly America has a great future before her; great in toil, in care, and in responsibility; great in true glory if she be guided in wisdom and righteousness; great in shame if she fail. I cannot understand why other nations should envy you, or be blind to the fact that it is for the highest interest of mankind that you should succeed; but the one condition of success, your sole safeguard, is the moral worth and intellectual clearness of the individual citizen. Education cannot give these, but it may cherish them and bring them to the front in whatever station of society they are to be found; and the universities ought to be, and may be, the fortresses of the higher life of the nation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It always takes two to make a discussion reasonable

From Karl Popper in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.
There are many difficulties impeding the rapid spread of reasonableness. One of the main difficulties is that it always takes two to make a discussion reasonable. Each of the parties must be ready to learn from the other. You cannot have a rational discussion with a man who prefers shooting you to being convinced by you.

It takes a high IQ to evade the obvious

From The Multicultural Cult, an essay by Thomas Sowell. I have long enjoyed Mr. Sowell's common sensical approach to issues and his commitment to deep research and analyzing topical concerns from the perspective of what the data allows us to know rather than the perspective of what we would wish were the case. Here is a passage where he goes beyond the data and ends up channeling P.J. O'Rourke:
In Germany, as in other countries in Europe, welcoming millions of foreign workers who insist on remaining foreign has created problems so obvious that only the intelligentsia could fail to see them. It takes a high IQ to evade the obvious.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

There is no history of mankind

From Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
There is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The notion of loss

Jacques Barzun in Toward the Twenty-First Century, an essay in The Culture We Deserve:
The very notion of change, of which the twentieth century makes such a weapon in the advocacy of every scheme, implies the notion of loss; for in society as in individual life many desirable things are incompatible--to say nothing of the fact that the heedlessness or violence with which change takes place brings about the incidental destruction of other useful attitudes and institutions.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance

From Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies. A continuing conundrum to which there is not easy answer.
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The pursuit of knowledge in the Middle Ages

Richer was a monk of Rheims in the late 900s. Invited by his friend Heribrand to come study Hippocrates with him at Chartres, he recounts both his excitement at this prospect and the tribulations attendant to executing that plan. We forget how many barriers their were to knowledge and wisdom in the days of yore, a dead horse being the least of it. From a translation by Michael Markowski at the Medieval Sourcebook.
While engaged in the study of the liberal arts, I wanted very much to learn logic through the works of Hippocrates. One day a horseman from Chartres came to Rheims and we began to talk. He told me that Heribrand, a clerk of Chartres, had sent him here to bring a message to a monk named Richer. When I heard my friend Heribrand's name, I told the messenger that I was Richer. He gave me the letter which I opened with some excitement. This was it! An invitation from Heribrand to come to Chartres and study the Aphorisms of Hippocrates with him. My joy faded somewhat because my own abbot gave me nothing more for the journey than one saddle-horse and a young lad to help with the trip. Without money or even a change of clothes, I decided to go anyway.

After setting out from Rheims with the messenger and the lad, I soon arrived at Orbais, well-known for its hospitality. The abbot cared for our needs and on the next day we set out for Meaux. But having entered the shadows of a dark forest, problems overtook us. We made a wrong turn at some crossroad, then wandered miles out of our way. Soon my abbot's generous gift of a saddle-horse, which had seemed as powerful as [Alexander the Great's own steed] Bucephalus, began to lag behind like a lazy ass. It was getting toward evening and the sky had clouded up. Just as the rain began to fall, as luck would have it, our Bucephalus sank to the ground some six miles from our destination and died. If lightening had struck him, he could not have been more dead! How serious our situation was, and how nervous we became, can only be appreciated by those who have also suffered hardships on the road.

The lad, now without a horse and unaccustomed to the difficulties of a journey, collapsed on the ground in despair. Our baggage sat there in a pile without any way to carry it further. Sheets of rain poured down on us. Clouds surrounded us. The setting sun brought darkness. Unsure of what to do, I turned to prayer and God did not ignore us: I had an answer. I left the boy with the baggage, told him what he should answer to any one who might come by, and warned him not to fall asleep. Then I set out with the messenger for Meaux. We reached the bridge before the town but could barely see it in the rainy night. I became even more anxious because the bridge had so many holes and large gaps in it that the citizens of Meaux could hardly cross it in the daytime, much less in the dark - and in a storm! The messenger, an experienced traveler, went to find a boat for us to cross in. Not finding one, we faced the difficult path over the bridge. As we went, the messenger put his shield over the smaller holes for the horses. He used planks for the larger gaps. At times he would be bending over, now standing up, now running here and there in order to keep the horses calm and safe. Slowly, he managed to get me and the horses across safely.

Well into the night, I finally arrived at the church of St Pharo. The brothers were preparing the love-drink. On this particular day, they were just finishing a special reading and feast. They received me as a brother and invited me to their table. After a fine meal, I sent the messenger of Chartres back with the horses to get the lad we left behind. Skillfully, the messenger crossed the bridge a second time, but he took a long time to find the boy. He wandered about and shouted for him. After finding him, he returned to the city but was afraid to try his luck on the bridge again. They sought shelter in a peasant's hut. The peasant let them sleep there but gave them no food even though the lad had gone the whole day without eating.

What a sleepless night I had waiting for them! If you have ever stayed up the whole might waiting for someone dear to you, then you know what torture I went through that night. But at first light they arrived, famished. The brothers gave them something to eat and took care of the horses. Since the boy had no horse, I left him with the abbot and headed for Chartres at a fast pace with the messenger. Having reached our destination, I sent the horses back to Meaux so that the boy could follow. Only after he arrived at Chartres could I rest easy.

Then I diligently began the study of the Aphorisms with Hippocrates with Heribrand, a highly cultured and scholarly man. I learned the ordinary symptoms of diseases and picked up a surface knowledge of ailments. This was not enough to satisfy my desires. I begged him to continue to guide my studies on a deeper level, for he was an expert in his art and in pharmaceutics, botany and surgery.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

As admirable and sound as it is dangerous

From Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous - from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It is obvious that this preposterous convention cannot continue

From George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and English Genius:
The stagnation of the Empire in the between-war years affected everyone in England, but it had an especially direct effect upon two important sub-sections of the middle class. One was the military and imperialist middle class, generally nicknamed the Blimps, and the other the left-wing intelligentsia. These two seemingly hostile types, symbolic opposites - the half-pay colonel with his bull neck and diminutive brain, like a dinosaur, the highbrow with his domed forehead and stalk-like neck - are mentally linked together and constantly interact upon one another; in any case they are born to a considerable extent into the same families.

Thirty years ago the Blimp class was already losing its vitality. The middle-class families celebrated by Kipling, the prolific lowbrow families whose sons officered the army and navy and swarmed over all the waste places of the earth from the Yukon to the Irrawaddy, were dwindling before 1914. The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

But the general weakening of imperialism, and to some extent of the whole British morale, that took place during the nineteen-thirties, was partly the work of the left-wing intelligentsia, itself a kind of growth that had sprouted from the stagnation of the Empire.

It should be noted that there is now no intelligentsia that is not in some sense 'left'. Perhaps the last right-wing intellectual was T. E. Lawrence. Since about 1930 everyone describable as an 'intellectual' has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for him. In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed nor falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be 'clever' was to be suspect. If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political parties.

The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. Many intellectuals of the Left were flabbily pacifist up to 1935, shrieked for war against Germany in the years 1935-9, and then promptly cooled off when the war started. It is broadly though not precisely true that the people who were most 'anti-Fascist' during the Spanish Civil War are most defeatist now. And underlying this is the really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia - their severance from the common culture of the country.

In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanized. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during 'God save the King' than of stealing from a poor box. All through the critical years many left-wingers were chipping away at English morale, trying to spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist, sometimes violently pro-Russian, but always anti-British. It is questionable how much effect this had, but it certainly had some. If the English people suffered for several years a real weakening of morale, so that the Fascist nations judged that they were 'decadent' and that it was safe to plunge into war, the intellectual sabotage from the Left was partly responsible. Both the New Statesman and the News Chronicle cried out against the Munich settlement, but even they had done something to make it possible. Ten years of systematic Blimp-baiting affected even the Blimps themselves and made it harder than it had been before to get intelligent young men to enter the armed forces. Given the stagnation of the Empire, the military middle class must have decayed in any case, but the spread of a shallow Leftism hastened the process.

It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a by-product of ruling-class stupidity. Society could not use them, and they had not got it in them to see that devotion to one's country implies 'for better, for worse'. Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence. If you were a patriot you read Blackwood's Magazine and publicly thanked God that you were 'not brainy'. If you were an intellectual you sniggered at the Union Jack and regarded physical courage as barbarous. It is obvious that this preposterous convention cannot continue. The Bloomsbury highbrow, with his mechanical snigger, is as out-of-date as the cavalry colonel. A modern nation cannot afford either of them. Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar kind of war, that may make this possible.