Snippets of stuff that I thought were interesting. Some are classic, others are ‘new-age’.

To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.

Napoleon Bonaparte

If you are given a hammer with which to drive nails at the age of three you may think to yourself, “OK, nice.” But if you are given a hard rock with which to drive nails at the age of three, and at the age of four you are given a hammer, you think to yourself, “What a marvelous invention!” You see, you can’t really appreciate the solution until you first appreciate the problem.

Lewis Carroll Epstein

What one fool can do, another can.

(Ancient Simian Proverb.)

I had a very, very illuminating discussion with the guy in charge of repairs when my kitchen sprung a leak. Kitchen layout is constrained a lot by physics, and again by ergonomics, and the customer’s theories on how the kitchen should be don’t always allow for these. He confessed that the reason they bombard you with a million tile and color and flooring and countertop options is to induce decision fatigue.

So that when they hit you with the news that the sink can go in exactly two places and which one do you want, you just answer instead of fighting them on the stuff they know, care about, and cannot change no matter how long you monologue about it.

I don’t know if I was more shocked that they had this figured out, or that software developers don’t.


The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one - to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

jacobolus + others

The Ibis was a sacred bird to the Egyptians and worshippers acquired merit by burying them with due ceremony. Unfortunately the number of worshippers greatly exceeded the number of birds dying of natural causes so the temples bred Ibises in order that they might be killed and and then properly buried.

So far as many mathematics students are concerned university mathematics lectures follow the same pattern. For these students attendance at lectures has a magical rather than a real significance. They attend lectures regularly (religiously, as one might say) taking care to sit as far from the lecturer as possible (it is not good to attract the attention of little understood but powerful forces) and take complete notes. Some lecturers give out the notes at such speed (often aided by the technological equivalent of the Tibetan prayer wheel — an overhead projector) that the congregation is fully occupied but most fail in this task. The gaps left empty are filled by the more antisocial elements with surreptitious (or not so surreptitious) conversation, reading of newspapers and so on whilst the remainder doodle or daydream.

The notes of the lecture are then kept untouched until the holidays or, more usually, the week before the exams when they are carefully highlighted with day-glow yellow pens (a process known as revision). When more than 50% of the notes have been highlighted, revision is said to be complete, the magical power of the notes is exhausted and they are carefully placed in a file never to be consulted again. (Sometimes the notes are ceremonially burnt at the end of the student’s university career thereby giving a vivid demonstration of the value placed on the academic side of fifteen years of education.)

T. W. Körner

When enterprises are small they necessarily rely on people who have shown special skills and the ability to make good calls, or good guesses. When the enterprise is small it may organize itself around these special people so as to make best use of them.

It seems to me that as companies grow large (and old?) they become concerned about the vulnerability which high reliance on special or “irreplaceable” people involves. They try to organize to avoid the possibility of bad judgment or reliance on unique skills or knowledge. In so doing they reformulate the organization to run on a sort of formulaic one-size-for-all autopilot that allows any position to be replaced by someone with no special skills at all.

In structuring the workplace so it can operate with people who are no better than mediocre they insure that the place is filled with mediocre people who require many rules to avoid the necessity for good judgment. I have the belief that the primary purpose of rules is to tell you what to do when you don’t know the right thing to do. If you need too many rules to operate, that must mean you must mostly not know what to do.

Should we fear bad judgment? Of course, but eliminating the possibility for any judgment good or bad is not the solution.

And it gets worse, because the rules come to be made by people who don’t have the good judgment, perspective , and care for the fact that every rule preventing something bad from happening is also likely to prevent some good things, too. When the side effects are worse than the disease the remedy is made to cure, more people spend more time dodging bullets than in real work.

Relying on good people to have good judgment is risky. Not doing it is worse.

Rant paused, Paul

The philosophy of Mediocraties

Judge talent at its best but character at its worst.

Lord Acton

In desperation I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, “How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?” I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, “Four.” He said, “I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

Freeman Dyson