Past Quotes of the Week/Month

One feels that Mr. Mencken is deeply outraged because he does not live in a world where all men love truth and excellence and honor.
(Walter Lippman on H. L. Mencken)

"because the forces that want to improve the world don't have a special advantage at our ability to kill but we do have a special advantage at our ability to - invent and ally and befriend and build." (Iomedae)
From a very good fanfic thread, unfortunately as yet  incomplete

"I have come up with a grand theory as to why my ingroup acting insane is all my outgroup's fault".

(Poster on Data Secrets Lox)

Piove, porco governo

“He ... gave me a memorandum prepared for him on that subject by a certain John von Neumann. I had never before heard of this von Neumann fellow, but the memorandum was obviously pretty smart for a man who apparently knew little about statistics”

    (W. Allen Wallis from his history  of the statistical research group in WWII)

The overlap between "engaging and interesting enough to have a large audience" and "never offensive to any vocal or powerful group" is pretty much empty.

(Comment online on the Joe Rogan/Spotify flap)

This hasn't been my experience of the masses. My experience has been they hate elites trying to lecture them on what to do, especially if justified in pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo that they can see through easily.

(Scott Alexander on AstralCodexTen)

If the earth was flat, cats would have knocked everything off it by now.

That... is a powerful argument, but if the world is round, wouldn't the cats be constantly rolling it all over the place ?

What did you think was making it spin?

(From a discussion of arguments for and against a flat Earth on Data Secrets Lox, the forum for refugees from the closing of Slate Star Codex)

Once a Republican is President again, Trump will start to look better in retrospect, since the incentive is to make the current Republican as bad as possible.
(Comment online about what Trump will be remembered for)

If the rest of Europe turns itself to glowing rubble, the Swiss will spend two weeks playing cards underground and then get back to work.
(Comment on Swiss civil defense)

In general, the war on terror has been a great opportunity to watch the party of small government and the party of civil liberties close ranks and make sure the state can spy on everyone all the time.

(Comment on Slate Star Codex)

You can’t make history into a clean black-and-white morality play and also learn what really happened– — pick one. (Comment on Slate Star Codex)

this crowd more than others might appreciate when I say that polyamory is just plain WRONG! It should be "multiamory" or "polyphilia"

(Commenter on FaceBook)

(Trump) really is the pinnacle of the Peter Principle.

(Commenter on FaceBook)

I think my friend/family member is in the psychiatric hospital, but nobody will tell me anything.

Your best bet is to call every psychiatric hospital that they could plausibly be in and ask “Is [PERSON’S NAME] there?” Sometimes, all except one of them will say “No”, and one of them will say “Due to medical privacy laws, we can’t tell you”.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but it really works.

(Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex)

“The president would get a huge symbolic boost with his base while not violating the law and while changing nothing of substance,’’ Jack Goldsmith, a former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and a Harvard Law School professor, said in an interview. “He would get maximum symbolic value while doing nothing. Trump’s a genius at this.”
"It dawned on me, as it should have earlier, that virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew, a state that in turn was able to extract more resources from and exercise more control over the very populations it was designed to serve."
(James Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism)

"You may be right that 'you have to bend morality into a pretzel to fabricate a reason for an offensive war as a Christian or a Buddhist,' but I think it’s obvious that humans are extremely good at bending their moral precepts into pretzels to fabricate reasons for whatever they want to do anyway. Even a brief historical or psychological study will make it clear that you should never underestimate the power of human hypocrisy."

(A commenter on Slate Star Codex)

"It’s like the oft-repeated observation that “we need to have a national conversation on $ISSUE” actually means “I need to talk, and you need to listen”.
(A commenter on Slate Star Codex)

"But being an independent scientist, it is much easier to say you made a mistake than if you are a government department or an employee or anything like that."
(James Lovelock, originator of the "Gaia Hypothesis," on his mistake in overestimating the effects of climate change. Interview.)

" I also thought it was a good idea to move on and let others pursue the work in this area. You don't want to get stuck in a position where you're essentially defending your old research."
(David Card, explaining one reason he did not do more work on minimum wages. I agree. It's the principle I describe as "fire and forget.")

Mostly, the NSA has spent $250,000,000 per year on a program of sabotage, through which they have inveigled proprietary hardware and software companies, as well as standards bodies, into deliberately introducing back-doors into their technology. This is much more frightening than the idea that the NSA has made profound mathematical breakthroughs -- such breakthroughs might stay within the NSA's walls for years or decades. But a program of systematic sabotage against common crypto tools means that anyone of sufficient skill and attentiveness is likely to discover and exploit those same back-doors -- that means that organized crime, totalitarian states, and other entities even less savory than the NSA should now be assumed to have full access to the financial system, government databases, and other sensitive systems.
(Cory Doctorow post on boing boing. I particularly liked "even less savory than the NSA")

"Krugman, whether he likes it or not, has to become like the Limbaugh’s, etc. that I’m sure he would claim to loathe, in order to succeed in his latest career move"

(Commenter on a post discussing a piece by Krugman)

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”
(From a NY Times article on political discrimination among academics)

Now it is not very hard to find out, if you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is beloved [sic] by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about - not just the answers, but even the questions - are consistently misleading. His impressive literary and historical erudition makes his work seem profound to most readers, but informed readers eventually conclude that there's no there there.
(Paul Krugman on Stephen Jay Gould, from What Economists Can Learn From Evolutionary Theorists, 1996)

It is, perhaps, a fact provocative of sour mirth that the Bill of Rights was designed trustfully to prohibit forever two of the favorite crimes of all known governments: the seizure of private property without adequate compensation  and the invasion of the citizen's liberty without justifiable cause.... It is a fact provocative of mirth yet more sour that the execution of these prohibitions was put into the hands of courts, which is to say, into the hands of lawyers, which is to say, into the hands of men specifically educated to discover legal excuses for dishonest, dishonorable and anti-social acts.
 -- H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: A Selection,  pp. 180-82

"Crutchley was about as much convinced by this assurance as were the Allies, on being informed by Mr. Keynes, after the conclusion of the Peace Treaty, that they might whistle for their indemnities, since the money was not there. It is impossible for human nature to believe that money is not there. It seems so much more likely that the money is there and only needs bawling for."

Dorothy Sayers, Busman's Honeymoon, suggested by my wife after reading this.

"Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents,"

Mitch Daniels at CPAC

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

(Philip K. Dick)

"When you're young, you worry that people will steal your ideas. When you're old, you worry that they won't."


"Because in the Society, real wealth is the ability to say "I have an idea" and have people agree to work to support it.  The rarest coin of the realm is when other people give you chunks of their leisure time.


Losing the confidence that others have in you, that you can make things fun for them, is SCA Bankruptcy."

(Mark Schuldenfrei, aka Baron Tibor, talking about the Society for
Creative Anachronism. His point applies more generally.)

"I think that probably everyone is aware that this period of time - that period between 1.8 and just over two million years [ago] - is one of the most poorly represented in the entire early hominid fossil record."

( Professor Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand speaking to BBC News about a new hominid fossil discovery).

For a very restricted definition of "everyone"

When persons are presumably robbers and all their property is presumably obtained by robbery, because they are robbers by occupation, such as tax collectors and bandits, it is forbidden to benefit from them since the presumption is that their occupation involves robbery.

(qualified a little later in the text, however)


Why is it that it is generally assumed that the owner abandons hope of recovery in the case of an Israelite brigand but not in the case of a heathen? Because the owner knows that heathen courts reclaim property from a robber on the basis of circumstantial evidence and conjecture, even though there are no witnesses that he committed robbery.

(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nezikin, The Book of Torts, Hyman Klein tr.)

But Mr. Zakaria is incorrect to suppose that these traits separate Gov. Palin from other candidates for high political office.  Calls by Senators McCain and Obama for cracking down on "speculators" are full of classic and wrongheaded catchphrases, as is Sen. Obama's vocal skepticism about free trade.  Gov. Palin is merely less skilled in passing off inanities and claptrap as profundities.

Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek

"In our experience, badly conducted regression analysis is the norm rather than the exception in social science and legal writing."

(Analytical Methods for Lawyers by Jackson et. al.)

"The biggest immigration problem we got in America is a government that's not doing its job," says Armey. "I don't like illegal immigration, but I'll tell you something: I don't run stop lights. But you put me out on the road at two o'clock in the morning on the way to the all-night drugstore to get medicine for my babies, and you give me a stop light that is stuck on red, and no traffic in sight, and I'm gonna go through that red light."

(Dick Armey, ex majority leader, currently head of Freedomworks, in defense of illegal immigrants. The whole talk.)

"If the human race doesn't get wiped out by robots, nanotech replicators, or an invading alien species then at some point we are going to need to do large scale climate engineering to compensate for future periods of intense volcanic activity."

(Randall Parker of FuturePundit)

"I've written five chapters in the last month.  Unfortunately, all of them were Chapter 11."

(Fantasy author Patricia Wrede on rec.arts.sf.composition)

"Life isn't a rehearsal"

(Jacey Bedford in a post on rec.arts.sf.composition. But she thinks she probably stole it from someone else.)

"For reasons that are pragmatic, scientific, demographic, economic, political, social, emotional, and secularly spiritual, I am committed to the notion that both individual fulfillment and the ecological balance of life on this planet are best served by dying when our inherent biology decrees that we do. I am equally committed to making that age as close to our biologically probable maximum of approximately 120 years as modern biomedicine can achieve, and also to efforts at decreasing and compressing the years of morbidity and disabilities now attendant on extreme old age. But I cannot imagine that the consequences of doing a single thing beyond these efforts will be anything but baleful, not only for each of us as an individual, but for every other living creature in our world."

(Dr. Sherwin Nuland, in an interesting, and in some ways sympathetic, article on Aubrey de Grey, a leading figure in the attempt to defeat aging. I will be grateful to anyone who can offer me a plausible defense of Dr. Nuland's position in the strong form in which he puts it—absolutely in favor of using science to extend life to its current biological maximum, absolutely opposed to going one step beyond that.)

"The Russians merely took this process of reasoning one step further. They rightly judged that if youth, barbarism, and lack of education were criteria of a glorious future, they had an even more powerful hope of it than the Germans. Consequently the vast outpouring of German romantic rhetoric about the unexhausted forces of the Germans and the unexpended German language with its pristine purity and the young, unwearied German nation, directed as it was against the 'impure', Latinised, decadent western nations, was received in Russia with understandable enthusiasm."

(Isaiah Berlin, "The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia.")
"A contract," said my B-law professor back when, "should be written under the assumption that you and the nice person you're dealing with will both  be hit by a truck as you leave the building arm-in-arm after signing it, and your heirs will hate each other's guts."  I have always considered this an extremely wise bit of advice.

(Patricia Wrede, on rec.arts.sf.composition)

There is unembarrassed talk in Washington of a future under control, in which sailors will undergo meaningful background checks and will be supplied with unforgeable, biometrically verifiable IDs by honest, appropriately equipped, and cooperative governments. Panama, for instance, will vouch for the integrity of, say, an Indonesian deckhand working on a ship operated by a Cayman Island company on behalf of an anonymous Greek. This is a vision so disconnected from reality that it might raise questions about the sanity of the United States.

(The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime by William Langewiesche)

"If only they'd stop changing the date every day, I'd have a much easier time remembering it."
 (Damien Neil)

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.
Will Rogers  

"IN AMERICA, WE have a two-party system," a Republican congressional staffer is supposed to have told a visiting group of Russian legislators some years ago.
"There is the stupid party. And there is the evil party. I am proud to be a member of the stupid party."

He added: "Periodically, the two parties get together and do something that is both stupid and evil. This is called-bipartisanship."

From a column by Peter Brimelow, the rest of which I disagree with.
The story has also been told  by M. Stanton Evans; I don't know who originated it.

I don't think there was any Arab in the seventies who did not want Saddam Hussein to have an atomic weapon. They wanted him to have military parity. Israel had atomic weapons. The Arabs wanted an Arab country to have atomic weapons. Iraq was the head of the pack and therefore all Arabs supported Saddam Hussein. I have news for you: I don't think there are many Arabs at this moment in time--you can exclude me out of this statement at this moment in time--who do not want Saddam Hussein to have an atomic weapon now. They don't look at it as weapons of mass destruction. They look at it as transfer of technology. That the Arabs have done it. The Arabs have joined the modern world. That's the way they see it. And that pleases them. The fact that Saddam Hussein eliminates people, kills innocent men, uses a chemical weapon against his own people, is actually in a way secondary to this image. The Iraqi people are concerned with the latter. They suffer because of the latter. But the Arab people outside of Iraq do not suffer because Saddam Hussein eliminates people, because he doesn't eliminate them. He eliminates Iraqis.

Iraqi journalist Saïd K. Aburish, in a webbed interview. Emphasis mine.

Of the mothers who commented on the baby's resemblance to one of the parents, 81 percent indicated that the baby was more similar to the father ... 
Subjects [in an experiment where they were shown pictures of three adults and the child of one of them] correctly matched one-year-old children with their actual fathers 49.2 percent of the time. ... In contrast, subjects were not able to correctly match one-year-olds with their biological mothers at a rate greater than chance.

(David Buss, Evolutionary Psychology, discussing ways in which

humans deal with the problem of paternal uncertainty.)

"The politician will make the good decision only when there are no other options left. "
(Mart Laar)

We're not fighting for slaves.
Most of us never owned slaves and never expect to,
It takes money to buy a slave and we're most of us poor,
But we won't lie down and let the North walk over us
About slaves or anything else.

Confederate soldiers in John Brown' Body, a book length poem by Stephen Vincent Benét. On my web page during the Iraq war.

... place at the apex of your order of creation a fiction. If you are born in the Middle Ages, call it God. If you live now, call it the Ecological Balance. Identify a perturbation in nature, then interpret it as a warning that we are living wrongly and should change our ways. Finally, earn yourself status, a pulpit, a Commons cheer, a living, or a research grant by elaborating on the perturbation and enumerating the ways we should change. ...
Note that in every case the voice crying 'I told you so' has an ulterior motive. Science is wheeled on just as God was once wheeled on, as corroborating evidence (from a superior source) for something upon which the voice of moral reproof wanted to insist anyway. Many and loud have been the voices crying that Aids was God's way of punishing an unnatural practice. One day, perhaps, an inoculation against HIV may be discovered. A bottle of champagne, then, for whoever cites me evidence of one of those voices crying that the breakthrough is God's way of telling us to bugger each other.

Matthew Parris, from a (webbed) column

Robert Ardry, The Territorial Imperative, discussing his and his contemporaries' reaction to Pearl Harbor.
"...Then in the midst of it all came a bulletin that Ecuador had declared war on Japan. ... . It was an absurd thought that Ecuador had come to the rescue of the United States of America, it was like a bad line in a play, and yet what was happening to my emotions had no least connection with either thinking or playwriting. Something within me burst, and I ached with my gratitude to Ecuador, I ached with my love for my country, I ached with horror at the Japanese deception, I ached with sickness for the American loss. ...

...The generation that was to respond to the last man on Pearl Harbor's dawn had been conditioned to the last man to believe that wars accomplish nothing. Had America been an enormous laboratory and had we all been albino rats, no more elegant experiment could have been devised to test the powers of social conditioning. Perhaps its only equal has been that of the Soviet Union in its total effort half a century long to induce the Russian farmer to put his heart into crops raised on land not his own. Ours was as total in its way, and it lasted for twenty-three years, and it failed in a dawn's bad hour. Yet human gullibility is such that a generation who survived the experiment will instruct another generation that patriotism is something we are taught.

"Young man, there's a great deal of ruin in a nation."

Adam Smith, responding to a student who told him that a recent British reversal in the American Revolution would be the ruin of England

The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you've gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?

Chuang-tzu, quoted in The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil.

"Since there is a limit to how brilliant you can be and want to go to law school ..."

(Judge Richard Posner, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory--a very entertaining book)

 (about French women in the 18th c.):
"Yet because the woman's spheres were largely removed from contact with the outside market economy, she had little leverage upon her husband. … The roles she was obliged to perform in relation to him and the outside world were all inferior, subjugated ones, in which the autonomy she enjoyed within the domestic sphere did her no good. Only when wives gained direct contact with the market economy--by means of cottage industry and later by means of factory work--did they seize hold of a solid lever with which to pry themselves loose from these subordinate roles."

(Shorter, Edward, The Making of the Modern Family)

But I eventually came to realize that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right.

(Paul Krugman on Stephen Jay Gould. For justification, click here.)

"What this new technique, and so many others like it, tell us is that there is nothing special about human reproduction, nor any other aspect of human biology, save one. The specialness of humanity is found only between our ears; if you go looking for it anywhere else, you'll be disappointed."
Mouse geneticist Lee Silver, responding to a bioethicist concerned that a technique that might make it possible to produce human sperm from the testes of an animal challenged "the specialness of humanity." From Remaking Eden.

The causal world imposes a nonarbitrary distinction between detecting in one's visual array the faint outline of a partly camouflaged stalking predator and not detecting it because of alternative interpretative procedures. Nonpropagating designs are removed from the population, whether they believe in naive realism or that everything is an arbitrary social construction. 
(Tooby and Cosmides, in The Adapted Mind, Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, editors )

In the thirteenth century, movement was to be noted everywhere: there was general prosperity and the population was increasing by leaps and bounds; popular culture was effervescing in bubbles that researchers are only now beginning to pick up. Then, in the late Middle Ages, a long term regression set in (for reasons much too complicated even to suggest in this short book), and a period of economic, demographic, and cultural retrenchment began which was to continue until the early nineteenth century. It is this epoch of decline and stagnation in the grand sweep of Western life that one might call "traditional." During this epoch the popular values and patterns of doing cultural business were nailed into place that subsequent folklorists would think had begun with the Druids.

Shorter, Edward, The Making of the Modern Family, pp. 20-21

"Had natural selection not worked this way--had it instead harnessed human intelligence so that our pursuit of fitness was entirely conscious and calculated--then life would be very different. Husbands and wives would, for example, spend no time having extramarital affairs with contraception; they would either scrap the contraception or scrap the sex."

(Robert Wright, The Moral Animal)

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