Archive for the Useful Aphorisms Category


Posted in Useful Aphorisms with tags , on April, 2011 by melendwyr

“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.”

Oh, I miss him…


Posted in Useful Aphorisms with tags , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

“Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.”
– John Naisbitt

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

“You can’t pick cherries with your back to the tree.”
– J.P. Morgan

“To lead a symphony, one must occasionally turn one’s back on the crowd.”
– Unknown

Shakers on Salads

Posted in Useful Aphorisms on June, 2010 by melendwyr

“To make a good salad four persons are wanted:
a spendthrift to furnish the oil,
a miser to measure the vinegar,
a councillor to dole out salt and spices,
and a madman to toss it.”

– attributed to a Shaker work on cooking, mid-19th century

The Best Thing to Say

Posted in Useful Aphorisms on April, 2010 by melendwyr

“Silence is often the best thing to say.” – Bene Gesserit saying

Good, Evil, and Trustworthiness

Posted in Useful Aphorisms on March, 2010 by melendwyr

A train of thought that I’ve been following for a while:

Kind, humane people are likely to do kind, humane things. But when trying to get their opinions or evaluations, they’re likely to lie or deceive to spare the feelings of others; they’ll avoid being hurtful, even if it means they have to stretch the truth to do it. So the nicer they are, the less the nice things they say can be trusted.

Cruel and hateful people, however, are likely to say cruel and hateful things even if they’re not true. But when they’re true, they’re probably going to savor the infliction of pain. So the mean things they say aren’t trustworthy. Their kind and humane statements are far more believable – begrudging, possibly dragged out under duress, and at the very least are compelled by circumstances.

So the behaviors that are most like the characteristic personality traits of the people we’re concerned about are the ones we should have the least confidence in, all things being equal.

Useful Aphorisms

Posted in Useful Aphorisms with tags , on November, 2009 by melendwyr

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”
– Joseph Stalin

“If you don’t control your mind, someone else will.”
– John Allston

Pound of Feathers, Pound of Gold

Posted in GIGO, Useful Aphorisms with tags , on October, 2009 by melendwyr

Which weighs more: a pound of feathers, or a pound of gold?

Close consideration of this riddle – and the conditions under which people tend to get it wrong – is helpful in understanding the limits of human rationality. It is a specific example which leads us to general principles of rationality failure.

These sorts of riddles and similar interpersonal language tricks (such as “Stupid says what?”) are especially popular among children but not among adults. Why is this the case? Partly because adults are more likely to have previously encountered and become familiar with their patterns, but there are other factors – including one very relevant one. Children tend to have less-developed capacities of impulse control.

It takes very little analysis to discover the ‘trick’ in the question; the concepts involved are relatively simple. But we’re confronted with the fact that people do answer it incorrectly, and that by manipulating aspects of the context in which the question is delivered, we can significantly increase the chance people will fall for it. What does this imply? That analysis is not being conducted in the erroneous cases, and that context is a contributing factor to whether people successfully engage in conceptual analysis. Specifically, that context determines whether people will counter their impulses long enough for analysis to be completed.

The key to these sorts of riddles is time pressure. If people feel free to take as much time as they like thinking over the question, they rarely fall for the trick. But if they’re trying to answer rapidly, they’ll screw up. Examples of situations that often result in such behavior include: competing against others to see who can be correct first, trying to demonstrate competence by investing little effort in answering, or encountering the question as part of a limited-duration examination. If several superficially-similar questions whose answer depends on retrieving facts from memory rather than performing logical analysis of the question are asked before the riddle is presented, that also tends to result in a wrong response.

The error occurs because of our weight-related associations with the concepts of ‘feathers’ and ‘gold’, our conditioned assumptions about the sorts of questions people are likely to ask, and a failure to inhibit the first impulses towards response. Feathers are far less dense than gold; any given volume of feathers will weigh far less than the same volume of the metal. Questions about a property rarely contain their own answers in a trivial way – we do not expect the defined quantities in the question to be equivalent relative to the property being asked about. And – this is the most vital aspect – it takes longer for our brains to process the question at a conceptual level than it does to activate our associations.

In the state of nature, organisms are often under intense pressure to produce results quickly. If they take too long, the resource they’re trying to exploit may be taken by a competitor – or worse, they may become exploited resources by a predator. So stimulus-response methods which produce generally-useful reactions tend to be favored over extremely accurate and precisely analysis that takes longer. As a consequence, natural modes of though available to humans favor rapid responses more than rigorous correctness – and in much the same way that the limits of our visual processing systems lead to optical illusions, which can be understood and thus constructed, the limits of our conceptual processing lead to inherent tendencies towards fallacies of reason, which can be exploited to produce riddles and language gags.

Just as other aspects of our behavioral response involve the repression of rudimentary reflexes, our thinking involves the inhibition of associational activation and reflexive reactions. The “more advanced” cognitive functions can take place only because the simpler, less resource-intensive, and faster functions are prevented from initiating responses before them.

In the wrestling match between the modern functions and the ancient ones they try to control, the more subtle and advanced features are at a distinct disadvantage. Which brings us to the next post.