Still fighting Blog Blah and looking for low hanging fruit to get me back in the habit. Hoping a year-end clearance mode clears the cobwebs. (All ideas and notions 75% off! Everything must go!)
For a while now, I’ve “been meaning to do” a post listing favorite quotes, quips, sayings, and bumper stickers. Pithy idea capsules that clearly and evocatively express singular human experiences. We often gather favorites along the way. Of course, as always, tastes vary.
Here are some of my enduring favorites.
I’ll include what source information I have. In the interest of getting this post out, I’m not going to pursue it much beyond what’s already in my “favorites” quote file. For one thing, it’s gotten harder to do. The internet has become extremely noisy with regard to information — so many misattributions and guesses.
And while it’s important to honor original authors, ultimately it’s what was said that matters, rather than who said it. “Out of the mouths of babes,” and “even stopped clocks are right twice a day.” Truth — or fiction or lies — can come from any source. The messenger and the medium are one thing, but the message is the meat.
And speaking of which, I think it says something about a society for which the famous Marshall McLuhan quote is so central:
The medium is the message.
It’s the title of the first chapter of his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). He felt we should pay as much attention to the mediums we use as we do to the messages they carry. Truer words. McLuhan was a renowned media theory scholar, writer, and teacher, so naturally media was his focus. But he wasn’t wrong. As I’ve said before, I think, for all its positive value, social media has damaged society. In large part because we haven’t paid enough attention to the effects of the medium.
Along similar lines, this gem from Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (1982), by John Naisbitt:
We are drowning in information, but we are starved for knowledge.
Naisbitt also wrote: “Intuition becomes increasingly valuable in the new information society precisely because there is so much data.” Artificial neural nets today do some awesome things, but they’re still just search engines. Human intuition likely will be the last of our traits to submit to automation (if, in fact, it ever does).
Which, to me, suggests we should value original thinking and avoid tradition and groupthink. One might also note how problems that seem magnified and out-of-control today were noticed by some many years ago. (But does anyone ever listen?)
Here’s one that recently joined my favorites list. It’s due to John R. Pierce (who coined the term transistor):
We will never again understand nature as well as Greek philosophers did… We know too much.
Sometimes, the more we learn, the less we know. Drowning yet starving. There is such a thing as being too smart for our own good. And there is something that is lost when we deny a mystic aspect, or even just an ineffable one, to reality. I like living in a universe that is, at least a little, unknowable.
In counterbalance to that heavy start, a favorite due to the great Niels Bohr (one of the fathers of quantum mechanics):
Some subjects are so serious that one can only joke about them.
The corollary is that humor applies to almost everything. There are times not to joke, but not many. And even then, the jokes often come later. (Hence the pseudo-question, “Too soon?”)
Along somewhat similar lines, one due to H.L. Mencken in 1949:
Creator — A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.
Sometimes misattributed to Voltaire, usually as: “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Personally, I’ve always thought God had one hell of a sense of humor. The platypus seems a canonical example…
Speaking of animals, this quote from W.G. Sebald:
Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.
It recognizes human consciousness as significantly different from that of all animals. There is indeed a spectrum of consciousness (perhaps even among humans), but there is also the “Sebald Gap” — a vast chasm between us. (I’ve often looked into the eyes of dogs trying to bridge that gap but with little real success.)
What does it say that one of my all-time favorites is a math quote due to mathematician Leopold Kronecker:
God made the integers, all else is the work of man.
It’s one of those hard philosophical problems, a dilemma. On the one hand, there is a lot to be said for the naturalness of the natural numbers (hence the name). On the other hand, something as simple as the ratio of a circle’s circumference and diameter force us to accept the naturalness of not just the real numbers, but the transcendental real numbers.
Many, perhaps most, of my favorites involve how we think about and approach reality. Topping that list is one due to Albert Camus from Notebooks (1951):
An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.
Meta-thinking — thinking about what we’re thinking about — is an important skill. Everyone should be an “intellectual” in this sense. It’s being mindful. The extreme opposite is to be mindless.
I have many, many times referred to Leon Wieseltier and his off-the-cuff ‘do it in ten words’ response to Stephen Colbert’s challenge to summarize his view of modern culture:
Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.
Three clauses, each one an indictment of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. Best ten-word summary I can imagine!
This is a good place for an often misattributed one actually said by Joseph de Maistre:
Every nation has the government it deserves.
Given what we have now, ouch.
The very unique Frank Zappa also had something to say about governments (or at least countries, which presumably have governments):
You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
As a fan of craft and homemade beers, that speaks my language! Zappa is the true source of this quote often attributed to Einstein:
Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.
Einstein is one of those people frequently misattributed to whatever quote is meant to look smart. As Einstein himself once said, “I never said half the shit people say I did!” As with that misdemeanor I just committed, there’s often a clue in the phrasing. Einstein was a gentleman who never would have called people “stupid”.
On the topic of computers (always good for a quote or two), this one due to Pedro Domingos (from The Master Algorithm in 2015):
People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.
When you look at it that way… yeah. Way back in 1984, in The Threats to Computing Science, the great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra wrote:
The question of whether Machines Can Think… is about as relevant as the question of whether Submarines Can Swim.
Which always made me smile.
Speaking of smiles, as an unrepentant omnivore, this one due to William Ralph Inge from 1919:
It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favour of vegetarianism while the wolf remains of a different opinion.
And speaking of eating, this one due to the great Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.
Makes me feel better about not remembering the plots or details of the books I’ve read. Just what I took away from them, the book calories.
From books to libraries with this tasty metaphor I copied from a Rex Stout novel:
A man may debar nonsense from his library of reason, but not from the arena of his impulses.
It’s a line by Nero Wolfe, his famous detective. I liked it so much when I read it, I copied it to my quotes file immediately.
There’s one that’s been in my favorites list a long time. It’s due to Thomas J. Watson, Jr, a former-CEO for IBM (he’s the guy who did the THINK! signs):
The worst possible thing…was to lie dead in the water with any problem. Solve it, solve it quickly… If you solved it wrong, it would come back and slap you in the face, and then you could solve it right.
I used it a lot during my sojourn in Corporate America to try to urge various committees and middle-managers to stop considering options and pick a direction. I still think, in many situations, it’s a good approach. That said, other situations do demand a great deal of care.
Above were the favorites with what I believe to be pretty solid sourcing. These real people really said these things. (But reality is fuzzy in all sorts of ways.) This next section has stuff that’s anonymous, unknown, or so obvious anyone might say it. I don’t have a source for any of it (let me know if you do). Lotta good bumper stickers.
Experience is a comb life gives you after you lose your hair
In my file, attributed to a Judith Stern, but I’m not sure who she is.
If riding in an airplane is flying, then riding in a boat is swimming! To experience the element, get out of the vehicle!
Popular with skydivers. And true!
Silent and Listen are spelled with the same letters
Only true in English, but it’s pretty cool. A similar one goes:
Garden and Danger are spelled with the same letters
So, stay out of my garden! Not as impressive as the Silent/Listen one, but cute.
One person’s “Duh!” is another person’s “Huh?”
Just because it’s “obvious” to you…
The converse of “fools rush in!”
You are to yourself your thoughts. You are to others your actions.
And, oh, boy, can those two be very different things! (There is also that it is wise to try to remember that you probably don’t matter to most people as much as you might think.)
Science proceeds despite scientists
Fortunately! There’s a saying about how it proceeds one dead scientist at a time. Groupthink and personal investment act as anchors and false headings, but eventually theories get closer and closer to apparent reality.
Modern life: A triumph of Lies & Illusions over Truth & Substance
I snuck in a ringer. Here’s another:
Intellectual couch potatoes: Exercise the mind; feel the burn!
One of my long-time favorites, often appearing in my email signature (in fact, it’s in the footer of this blog):
How’s my programming? Call 1-800-DEV-NULL
UNIX is a very user-friendly operating system … it’s just picky about who it’s friends with
Won’t mean anything if you’ve never used Unix, but if you have it’s funny (because it’s true). I smile fondly because we became really good friends. Missed it for years after I moved back to the Windows world. To this day I use a programmer’s editor that’s a Windows version of a Unix editor, the notorious vi.
There are many more, but this is long enough that I’ll end with a few cuties:
Given enough time, atoms arrange themselves and start to wonder why they exist
I’ve also seen one along the lines of theoretical physicists being how the universe understands itself. There is also that:
The brain is the only thing that named itself
Just one of the many ways brains are unique. Lastly, speaking of brains:
The brain is nothing without imagination
Along with intuition, another fundamental aspect of genuine intelligence.
I’ve accumulated many quote files in over two score and some years of mucking about with computers. I’ve tried to merge them, but different formats make it a challenge. The biggest trick is finding and merging all the duplicates. It’s a project that’s been on a back burner for what is by now decades. Prolly never gonna happen.
Stay quotable, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.