My Aunt Maria asked me to read the life of Dr. Chalmers, which, however, I did not promise to do. Yesterday, Sunday, she was heard through the partition shouting to my Aunt Jane, who is deaf, ‘Think of it! He stood half an hour today to hear the frogs croak, and he wouldn’t read the life of Chalmers.’

— Thoreau, journal, March 28, 1853

Mixed Motives

In a democracy, a voter might reasonably choose to vote in their own interests or to vote for their idea of the common good. This divergence can spell trouble. Suppose voters are choosing between two options, A and B. A is in the interests of 40 percent of the electorate, and B is in the interests of the remaining 60 percent. Now suppose that 80 percent of voters believe that B is for the common good, and 20 percent believe that A is for the common good. And suppose that these beliefs are independent of interests — that is, believers in A and believers in B are spread evenly through the electorate. Finally, suppose that voters for whom A is in their interests vote according to interest while voters for whom B is in their interests vote according to their idea of the common good.

The result is that 52 percent of voters (all A-interest voters and 20 percent of B-interest voters) will vote for A, which wins the day, “even though it is in the minority interest, and believed by just 20% of the population to be in the common good,” notes philosopher Jonathan Wolff. The scenario in this example may be unlikely, but “the key assumption is that morally motivated individuals can make a mistake about what morality requires. … [W]e cannot rely on any assurances that democratic decision-making reveals either the majority interest or the common good.”

(Jonathan Wolff, “Democratic Voting and the Mixed-Motivation Problem,” Analysis 54:4 [October 1994], 193-196.)

Niven’s Laws

By science fiction author Larry Niven:

1.a. Never throw shit at an armed man.
1.b. Never stand next to someone who is throwing shit at an armed man.
2. Never fire a laser at a mirror.
3. Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re having fun.
4. F × S = k. The product of Freedom and Security is a constant. To gain more freedom of thought and/or action, you must give up some security, and vice versa.
5. Psi and/or magical powers, if real, are nearly useless.
6. It is easier to destroy than create.
7. Any damn fool can predict the past.
8. History never repeats itself.
9. Ethics change with technology.
10. There ain’t no justice.
11. Anarchy is the least stable of social structures. It falls apart at a touch.
12. There is a time and place for tact. And there are times when tact is entirely misplaced.
13. The ways of being human are bounded but infinite.
14. The world’s dullest subjects, in order:
a. Somebody else’s diet.
b. How to make money for a worthy cause.
c. Special Interest Liberation.
15. The only universal message in science fiction: There exist minds that think as well as you do, but differently. (Niven’s corollary: The gene-tampered turkey you’re talking to isn’t necessarily one of them.)
16. Never waste calories (i.e., don’t eat food just because it’s available, or cheap; only eat food you’ll enjoy, because you have to limit overall calorie intake).
17. There is no cause so right that one cannot find a fool following it.
18. No technique works if it isn’t used.
19. Not responsible for advice not taken.
20. Old age is not for sissies.

See Lessons Learned.

Right Enough

The weather was unprecedented — weeks of damp and rain and fog. Everybody talked about it. One day during that spell I was holding forth to a practical farmer on the subject of hay. Full of book learning, I was explaining (rather too glibly) the advantages of cutting hay in June. I described in detail the vitamin loss incurred by letting hay stand in the field after it has matured, and how much greater the feed value was per unit weight in early-cut hay, even though the quantity might be slightly less. The farmer was a quiet man, with big hands for curling round a scythe handle. He listened attentively. My words swirled around his head like summer flies. Finally, when I had exhausted my little store of learning and paused for a moment, he ventured a reply.

‘The time to cut hay,’ he said firmly, ‘is in hayin’ time.’

— E.B. White, “Book Learning,” 1942

Wiio’s Laws

Finnish economist and parliamentarian Osmo Antero Wiio framed these rueful principles of human communication in 1978:

  1. Communication usually fails, except by accident.
    1. If communication can fail, it will.
    2. If communication cannot fail, it still most usually fails.
    3. If communication seems to succeed in the intended way, there’s a misunderstanding.
    4. If you are content with your message, communication certainly fails.
  2. If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.
  3. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message.
  4. The more we communicate, the worse communication succeeds.
    1. The more we communicate, the faster misunderstandings propagate.
  5. In mass communication, the important thing is not how things are but how they seem to be.
  6. The importance of a news item is inversely proportional to the square of the distance.
  7. The more important the situation is, the more probable you had forgotten an essential thing that you remembered a moment ago.

Writer Jukka Korpela offered two corrolaries: “If nobody barks at you, your message did not get through” and “Search for information fails, except by accident.”

No Time Like the Present

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis points out a phenomenon he calls “chronological snobbery,” “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

“History does not always repeat itself,” wrote John W. Campbell. “Sometimes it just yells, ‘Can’t you remember anything I told you?’ and lets fly with a club.”

Signifying Nothing

When King Pyrrhus was undertaking his expedition into Italy, Cyneas, his wise counselor, wanting to make him feel the vanity of his ambition, asked him: ‘Well, Sire, to what purpose are you setting up this great enterprise?’ ‘To make myself master of Italy,’ he immediately replied. ‘And then,’ continued Cyneas, ‘when that is done?’ ‘I shall pass over into Gaul and Spain,’ said the other. ‘And after that?’ ‘I shall go and subdue Africa; and finally, when I have brought the world under my subjection, I shall rest and live content and at my ease.’

‘In God’s name, Sire,’ Cyneas then retorted, ‘tell me what keeps you from being in that condition right now, if that is what you want. Why don’t you settle down at this very moment in the state you say you aspire to, and spare yourself all the intervening toil and risks?’

— Montaigne, “Of the Inequality Amongst Us,” 1580

Changing Times

Egbert de Vries, a Dutch sociologist, has told of how the introduction of matches to an African tribe altered their sexual habits. Members of this community believed it necessary to start a new fire in the fireplace after each act of sexual intercourse. This custom meant that each act of intercourse was something of a public event, since when it was completed someone had to go to a neighboring hut to bring back a burning stick with which to start a fresh fire. Under such conditions, adultery was difficult to conceal, which is conceivably why the custom originated in the first place. The introduction of matches changed all this. It became possible to light a new fire without going to a neighbor’s hut, and thus, in a flash, so to speak, a long-standing tradition was consumed.

“In reporting on de Vries’ finding, Alvin Toffler raises several intriguing questions: Did matches result in a shift in values? Was adultery less or more frowned upon as a result? By facilitating the privacy of sex, did matches alter the valuation placed upon it?”

— Neil Postman, Technopoly, 1992, citing Toffler’s introductory essay “Value Impact Forecaster — A Profession of the Future” in Kurt Baier and Nicholas Rescher’s Values and the Future (1969)


In 2011 I published a list of unusual American girls’ names collected by H.L. Mencken in his magisterial study The American Language. I should have gone back for the boys’ names:

  • Allmouth
  • Anvil
  • Arson
  • Centurlius
  • Cho-Wella
  • Clarmond
  • Cluke
  • Comma
  • Crellon
  • Cyclone
  • Doke
  • Elesten
  • Elgne
  • Elvcyd
  • Felmet
  • Florns
  • Habert
  • Harce
  • Human
  • Jat
  • Kark
  • Kleo Murl
  • Koith
  • Lig
  • Loarn
  • Mord
  • Murt
  • Quannah
  • Rephord
  • Terbert
  • Thrantham
  • Torl
  • Valourd
  • Virgle
  • Yick
  • Zelmer
  • Zurr

“In Connecticut, a generation or two ago, there was a politico surnamed Bill whose given-names were Kansas Nebraska. He had brothers named Lecompton Constitution and Emancipation Proclamation, and sisters named Louisiana Purchase and Missouri Compromise.”

(H.L. Mencken, The American Language, Supplement 2, 1948.)

“Love Cools Quickly”

Irish proverbs:

  • Laziness is a load.
  • A good run is better than a long stand.
  • The tools are half of the trade.
  • Bribery can split a stone.
  • The pleasant humorous people are all in eternity.
  • A promise is a debt.
  • What cannot be had is just what suits.
  • It is better to be alone than in bad company.
  • It is easier to scatter than to gather.
  • The horses die while the grass is growing.
  • Be afraid and you’ll be safe.
  • The deed will praise itself.
  • Poverty is no shame.
  • It is better to be lucky than wise.
  • Tell me your company and I’ll tell who you are.
  • Time is a good historian.
  • Self-love is blind.
  • Avarice is the foundation of every evil.
  • Patience conquers destiny.
  • Nothing is preferable to reconciliation.

And “There is no forest without as much brushwood as will burn it.”