Category Archives: literature

“…the anatomical blueprint of some alien and crab-like creature.”

I came across these alien geometrical graphics via Bibliodyssey (oh how I can wander that blog for days and days):

They’re plans for fortresses.

Such complexes of fortifications, said Austerlitz, concluding his remarks that day in the Antwerp Glove Market as he rose from the table and slung his rucksack over his shoulder, show us how, unlike birds, for instance, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds. Someone, he added, ought to draw up a catalogue of types of buildings, listed in order of size, and it would be immediately obvious that domestic buildings of less than normal size — the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage, the lock-keeper’s lodge, the pavilion for viewing the landscape, the children’s bothy in the garden — are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace, whereas no one in his right mind could truthfully say that he liked a vast edifice such as the Palace of Justice on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels. At the most we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

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Philip Tetlock: Foxes and Hedgehogs

Tetlock also found that specialists are not significantly more reliable than non-specialists in guessing what is going to happen in the region they study. Knowing a little might make someone a more reliable forecaster, but Tetlock found that knowing a lot can actually make a person less reliable. “We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly,” he reports. “In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals — distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on — are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.” And the more famous the forecaster the more overblown the forecasts. “Experts in demand,” Tetlock says, “were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight.”

From a review of his book in The New Yorker.

He gave a presentation to the Long Now Foundation earlier this year. There’s a summary, but there’re still interesting points that weren’t included. Consider listening to the mp3 recording.

Tetlock is referencing Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox“. A friend once mentioned this to me some time ago in a conversation about HR practices and talent attraction. That conversation sort of dissipated (as casual banter is wont to do) a little after we concluded that although our employers might say they wanted foxes, they were really rewarding hedgehogs.

Speaking of HR, Mr Wang’s post on how the civil service allegedly evaluates performance and potential has been attracting lots of attention. If you ignore the flaming, there’re some good contributions and anecdotes in the comments section.

Reading can be dangerous

From The Inferno of Dante Alighieri, translated by Ciaran Carson

And I replied: ‘Alas! What kind of thrill,
what longing led them to the sorry pass?
And when did they their vital souls imperil?’

So I turned again to them, and asked:
‘Francesca, all your torments make me weep
with grief and pity, whether now, or past;

but tell me, did you wake, or did you sleep,
and did you sigh, when Love breathed in your ear
of secret joys, so dubious and deep?’

And she: ‘There is no greater pain I fear,
than to recall past joy in present hell;
and this is known by your overseer.

But since you want so desperately to dwell
on how and when our passion was begot,
then I’ll be one of those who weep and tell.

One day, to pass the time, we read of Lancelot,
who loved illicitly. Just the two of us;
we had no thought of what, as yet, was not.

From time to time that reading urged our eyes
to meet, and made our faces flush and pale,
but one point in the story changed our lives;

for when we read of how the longed-for smile
was kissed by such a noble knight, the one
who for eternity is by my side

all trembling kissed my trembling mouth. The man
who wrote this was a Galeotto; so was the book.
That day the rest of it remained unscanned.’

And while one half of this fond pair so spoke,
the other wept so much I fainted. All
of me was overwhelmed by that stroke

of pity; and I fell, as a dead body falls.

—–

In his introduction to his translation of Dante’s Inferno, Carson also muses on the similarities between his Belfast and Dante’s Florence, among other things.