Posts Tagged ‘quote’

Churchill on the passive

February 21, 2017

I just read a book of quotes by Winston Churchill and came across this great quote on the passive. It is rather famous and well-known, I gather, but because of my periodic preoccupation with all things writing, and because this blog partly substitutes for my thought archive, (and because it is fun) I post it here:

What if I had said, instead of “We shall fight on the beaches”, “Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter”?

– Winston S. Churchill


Quote of the day

December 7, 2016

Frank Ramsey (1903 – 1930), one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, is often quoted on using his size to illustrate his world view:

Where I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importance to physical size. I don’t feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing nearly seventeen stone […]

The New York Review just reviewed a biography on Ramsey that I am unlikely to read, but I would want to read a biography more in line with what the reviewer wants, one that ‘describe and place in intellectual history his important contributions to economics, mathematics, and philosophy’.

Qualifications for an economist

September 25, 2015

In The Worldly Philosophers, Robert L. Heilbroner brings this quote from Keynes on the qualifications for an economist. I’ve posted parts of this before, but it is worth repeating:

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusual high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy or pure science? An easy subject, at which very few excel!  The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purpose of the future. No part of man’s nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, vet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

Quote of the Day

April 15, 2015

Such in reality is the absurd confidence which almost all men have in their own good fortune, that wherever there is the least probability of success, too great a share of it is apt to go to them […] of its own accord.

– Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book IV, ch. 7, part I

Quote of the Day

February 5, 2015


Quote of the Day

November 14, 2014

The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own. And if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.

–John Stuart Mill

A Researcher’s Staff

August 15, 2013

The choosing of [collaborators] is a matter of no little importance for a [researcher]; and their worth depends on the sagacity of the [researcher] himself. The first opinion that is formed of a [researcher’s] intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him. When they are competent and loyal he can always be considered wise, because he has been able to recognize their competence and to keep them loyal. But when they are otherwise, the [researcher] is always open to adverse criticism; because his first mistake has been in the choice of his [collaborators]. […] There are three kinds of intelligence: one kind understands things for itself, the second appreciates what others can understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others. The first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless [paraphrased from George Bull’s translation of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, chapter XXII].

Quote of the Day

March 3, 2013

People often use the passive voice because it’s indirect, polite, unaggressive, and admirably suited to making thoughts seem as if no one had personally thought them and deeds seem as if nobody had done them, so that nobody need take responsibility. Thus the passive is beloved of bureaucrats and timid academics…

From ‘Steering the Craft’ by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Daniel Kahneman on the Unpredictable Luck Involved in Hitler’s Rise to Power

December 5, 2012

I am reading what someone in the local newspaper hailed as last year’s most important book; Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (and for the record, I started on it before the newspaper brought it up, but progress is as always painfully slow). It is great, really great (and not a footnote in sight!), penetrating deep in to the human condition. It might well be last year’s most important book, indeed. In an odd twist, he ends up discussing the role of unpredictable luck, or rather unluck, in how Hitler came to be what he became. The discussion came up in a chapter entitled The Illusion of Validity, which opening paragraph is worth quoting:

System 1 [thinking fast] is designed to jump to conclusions from little evidence–and it is not designed to know the size of its jumps. Because of WYSIATI [What You See Is All There Is, a central concept in Kahneman’s work], only the evidence at hand counts. Because of overconfidence by coherence, the subjective confidence we have in our opinions reflects the coherence of the story that System 1 and System 2 [thinking slow] have constructed. The amount of evidence and its quality do not count for much, because poor evidence can make a very good story. For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous–and it is also essential [p. 209*].

I am not sure what Kahneman has in mind with the last remark that confidence in our beliefs is essential. He did not return to it in the chapter, but perhaps he returns to it later in the book. What he do discuss in the chapter are how humans think they understand the past and why things happened while pure chance, unpredictable luck, is not an essential or sufficient part of the understanding.

The often-used image of the “march of history” implies order and direction. Marches, unlike strolls or walks, are not random. We think that we should be able to explain the past by focusing on either large social movements and cultural and technological developments or the intentions and abilities of a few great men. The idea that large historical events are determined by luck is profoundly shocking, although it is demonstrably true. It is hard to think of the history of the twentieth century, including its large social movements, without bringing in the role of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong. But there was a moment in time, just before an egg was fertilized, when there was a fifty-fifty chance that the embryo that became Hitler could have been female. Compounding the three events, there was a probability of one-eighth of a twentieth century without any of the three great villains and it is impossible to argue that history would have been roughly the same in their absence. The fertilization of these three eggs had momentous consequences, and it makes a joke of the idea that long-term developments are predictable [p. 218].

*Page numbers refer to the first British edition (Allen Lane).

Economists and Statistical Methods

January 31, 2011

From an ancient (but readworthy) JPE article by Christopher Sims:

Economists must inevitably try to sort out systematic patterns from random variations in the past-if only because, unassisted, policymakers would do the same thing more naively. In doing so economists will need probabilistic models and statistical methods of inference. Like historians, though, they must accept that a single agreed view of the causal structure of the record they examine will never emerge [Sims, C. A., 1981, What Kind of a Science Is Economics? A Review Article on Causality in Economics by John R. Hicks, The Journal of Political Economy, 89 (3), pp. 582-582].

Quote of the Day

December 9, 2010

“Congress is so strange,” a Russian immigrant once observed. “A man gets up and says nothing. Nobody listens. Then everybody stands up and disagrees.”

Amusing. The quote is from Buchholz’s New Ideas from Dead Economists, which I’m still(!) laboring away at.

Keynes on the Master Economist

November 10, 2010

Keynes once wrote that the ‘master economist’ must fulfill an extraordinary set of attributes:

He must be a mathematician, historian, statesman, [and] philosopher […] He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature or his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.*

* The quote is from an essay on Alfred Marshall.

Quote of the Day

November 3, 2010

It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl.
– John von Neumann (1903-1957)

Can Anything More Insane be Imagined?

May 25, 2010

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins. Pins are already so cheap that  hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all around instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?*

Hardly. Perhaps that the little book The Limits to Growth takes the time and space to quote Russell on it; that the authors thought it to be a good idea and a rhetorical winner to seemingly have Russell on their side. They were wrong.

* The quote is originally from Bertrand Russell (1935), In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, pp. 16-17, transcribed from Meadows et al. (1972), The Limits to Growth, p. 181.

Related post:

Mathematical Models

May 20, 2010

Models are coherent representations of systems and/or of the processes therein, and may consist of words (‘word models’), graphs or equations. Words alone can often describe complex systems or processes adequately, as in the case of natural selection (Darwin 1859).* Graphs can also make compelling cases, as did, for example, the trophic pyramid of Lindeman (1942). However, equations that capture essential aspects of systems or processes always outperform word or graph models, if only because the application of standard albebraic or other mathematical rules to these equations often leads to the discovery of unkonwn properties of the systems or processes in question. This non-intuitive, and in fact wondrous property of mathematical descriptions (Wigner 1960) has, moreover, the distinct advantage of allowing the testing of hypotheses about future states, or previoiusly unobserved features of ecosystems, besides allowing for testing the adequacy of the initial description (p. 212, Pauly & Christensen, 2002, Ecosystem Models, in Handbook of Fish Biology and Fisheries, vol. 2, Hart & Reynolds (eds.), pp. 211 – 227).

* See Pauly & Christensen (2002) for references.