Aphorisms Galore!


This blog — also known as "Aphorisms Galore! News" — is where I post updates about Aphorisms Galore! and its development. If you set your subscription option to "Aphorisms Galore! News" or higher, you will get a nice email every time I post an entry here.

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Tiny links to aphorisms

posted 2020 by Peter Wastholm  · 

Every aphorism now has a short link that looks something like this:


That last bit is just a short random sequence of numbers and letters that identifies a single aphorism. Not very memorable, perhaps, but at least short and share-friendly. Feel free to use them in social media, print them on T-shirts, tattoo them on your forearm, or whatever else you want.

Aphorisms Galore! Is 20 Years Old Today!

posted 2017 by Peter Wastholm  · 

Aphorisms Galore! celebrates its first twenty years by launching a few improvements:

As an experiment, I will also add a cryptocurrency tip jar where users and visitors can throw me a virtual coin if they want to show appreciation for the site and encourage its continued development.

Finally, if you haven't had enough of my ramblings, you're welcome to check out a blog post I wrote elsewhere: Twenty Years Without a Plan.

Happy New Year, thanks for your interest in Aphorisms Galore!, and here's to another twenty years!

Ideologies Considered Harmful

posted 2011 by Peter Wastholm  · 

Beware the man of one book. -- St. Thomas Aquinas

Ideologies can be a great thing. They can provide us with consistent belief systems. They can help us make decisions in line with our moral convictions. In a way, they can simplify our lives.

Ideologies can be a terrible thing. They can cause us to get stuck in dogmatic thinking. They can make us blind to other perspectives than our own. They can encourage us to oppress those we disagree with, or even to go to war.

In 1931, an Austrian mathematician named Kurt Gödel proved that, in layman's terms (I am not a mathematician myself), any nontrivial logical system cannot be both consistent and complete -- in other words, it must either have a contradiction built into it somewhere, or there must exist cases that the system doesn't cover. Sure, he was talking about mathematics, but still: it's an interesting point to consider when encountering systems (such as ideologies) that claim to be both consistent (free of contradictions) and complete (applicable everywhere). Actually, I contend that all ideologies contain fundamental assumptions about the world that are dubious at best, or downright false at worst.

If you're reading this, chances are you are living in a country that largely subscribes to the ideology called capitalism (though some people think this term sounds scary somehow and choose to call their systems "market economies" or even "free markets" instead). As we know, capitalism posits that the state should stay away from commerce, and that it should be consumers' preferences that dictate what goods and services should get produced, and how much they should cost, the idea being that this should result in the most efficient use of resources. That's great, except it seems to assume that we the consumers always make informed decisions -- and much of the time, we probably don't. It also seems to assume that everything can be measured in money, which would appear to be an over-simplification.

The opposite of capitalism is often said to be socialism, which hasn't been doing so well in the ideology popularity contest in the last twenty years or so: relatively few countries call themselves socialist nowadays. Socialism's description of the ideal society sounds pretty cozy: everyone helping out as best they can, and getting what they need in return. But the underlying assumption here seems to be that we human beings are collective-oriented enough to always work diligently for the greater good even with no, or almost no, personal gain -- or at least gain to some reasonably well-defined group to which we belong. I can't say I've seen much evidence to support this assumption. It's easy to be selfless, but not until after you're fed and clothed and in possession of a TV at least as big as your neighbor's, and it seems to me that a system that doesn't recognize this might encounter problems when faced with reality.

Now, you may or may not agree with my specific reservations above; that doesn't really matter. My point is that ideologies are pictures, painted in a very broad brush, of the society we want. This, of course, is very useful. But I think we need to acknowledge that they are just pictures: they can't both cover everything and be free of contradictions. And if we stare at our favorite pictures too intently, they may blind us.

All generalizations are false, including this one. -- Blaise Pascal

Fukushima Conspiracy Theories: Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

posted 2011 by Peter Wastholm  · 

There's always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong. -- Henry Louis Mencken

I have relatives in Fukushima, Japan; their house is only 4 km (2.5 miles) from the now-infamous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I have therefore spent considerable time lately following the news via television, newspapers, and web sites, both Japanese and Western. It has occurred to me that people relying entirely on Western media must have gotten a very distorted image of this disaster, and a very skewed sense of its proportions.

There has been a massive focus on the nuclear accident, which, in the grand scheme of things, has had and will have much, much less dire consequences than the unbelievable devastation caused by the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. There has also been a lot of talk of "coverups" on the part of the power plant's owners (Tepco) and even on the part of the Japanese government; sometimes, these speculations have bordered on outright conspiracy theories. (And I'm only talking about big mainstream media here; many outlets on the fringes of the media landscape have of course provided a diet of "journalism" firmly rooted in conspiracy-land.)

Conspiracy theories are appealing because they seem to provide simple explanations for complex problems: if I can't get ahead in my career, it's because I am being actively held back by this or that group of people; if the police haven't solved this or that murder, it's because they are secretly in cahoots with the perpetrator; if Tepco's reports on the power plant are incomplete and sometimes contradictory, it's because the company is engaged in a coverup. Complicating points -- like the immense difficulties involved in collecting data from a highly sophisticated piece of technology in which sensors have been drowned in seawater, blown to smithereens, and/or cut off from electricity -- are conveniently ignored.

When discussing conspiracy theories, it's very easy to get sidetracked into entirely separate subjects, like whether or not human beings are inherently good or evil. This is precarious because "good" and "evil" are very relative and subjective concepts. But, in fact, it's not even necessary to make any assumptions about people's innate goodness or evilness in order to discount most conspiracy theories.

I say conspiracy theories seem to provide simple explanations because the explanations they provide only look simple. The principle known as Occam's Razor states that whichever explanation needs the fewest new assumptions to work is the one that's most likely to be correct. Conspiracy theories tend to make a lot of very important assumptions that are not merely new or unknown but actually inconsistent with real-world observations. For example, they almost invariably require large and heterogeneous groups of people -- like technicians, bureaucrats, managers of private corporations, and elected officials -- to successfully keep big secrets for extended periods of time, without a single one succumbing to the temptation to blow the whistle (either for financial reward, for fifteen minutes of fame, or out of moral conviction). In most cases, this seems very improbable.

Sure, in Japan -- as, arguably, and to varying degrees, in most other countries -- there are unhealthy ties between large corporations and political organizations. But I have yet to see anything that credibly suggests that there is a conspiracy trying to cover up some big and horrible truth about the state of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. How could possibly everyone's cooperation in such a conspiracy be guaranteed?

Someone truly desperate to find a conspiracy here would find one of a much less sexy, much less deliberate, and much more blundering kind: the "conspiracy" of a thousand Western journalists, independently and undeliberatingly distracting readers and viewers with false or irrelevant radiation scares while causing them to lose sight of the hundreds of thousands of people in Japan who have literally had their lives swept away.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. -- Robert J. Hanlon

The Illusion of Precision

posted 2011 by Peter Wastholm  · 

There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. -- Benjamin Disraeli

Many years ago, while I was in the employ of a large international consulting company, I once helped a colleague out with a document he was working on. This took maybe half an hour, but ended up causing at least four different people to spend a total of at least a couple of days' worth of work trying to satisfy the corporate hunger for precise numbers, thereby illustrating the irrationality of trying to measure things too exactly.

At this and, I'm sure, most other consulting companies, keeping track of time spent on various activities was considered very important, and weekly time cards were expected. So, at the end of our brief work session, I asked my colleague how I should report the time. He gave me an activity number and, come Friday, I submitted my time card (which wasn't actually a card but a file) and forgot about the whole thing. Well, until a few days later when someone from elsewhere in the company called me and asked me why I had reported time on a one-off activity that had been concluded months earlier.

To make a long story short, this resulted in a whole lot of back-and-forth between various organizational units in different parts of the company's sprawling bureaucracy. (At this point, I'd like to point out that this was largely a well-functioning company -- but, as far as I know, every organization in history above a certain size has had a sprawling bureaucracy. I'm sure the builders of the Great Pyramid had some hellish paperwork, uh, papyruswork, to contend with.)

Now, since I bring it up here, clearly I feel there is something to learn from this incident, and I have already hinted at it. In everyday life, most people understand that close enough is, well, close enough. We let the soup simmer "a while," we add "a pinch" of salt to it, we serve it with "a few" bread rolls. In everyday life, we typically don't try to measure things with five significant digits, because it's clear to us that the effort to do so would outweigh any possible benefit. Our results may not be perfect, but they're good enough and we know what to expect from them. But in some situations, like in large organizations with sprawling bureaucracies, the effort somehow becomes invisible to to us because it's being expended by someone else. So we tend to assume that more precision is always better than less, and -- which is worse -- begin to trust numbers just because they appear to be given with an impressive level of precision.

Precision isn't merely a matter of using a large number of significant digits, offering lots of choices in opinion polls, or slotting every single half-hour of work into one of a large number of neatly labeled activities. If we insist on a higher level of precision than our instrument is capable of, we don't actually get precision, we get the illusion of precision.

Knowing how precise we can expect our data to be isn't always easy; in fact, there is an entire scientific field that studies this. It's called statistics, and it can be said to underpin most other sciences. Given the way our data was collected, statistic methods can tell us how much confidence we can put in it. We don't all need to become statisticians, of course, but it might behoove us to think about how to collect the data we base our opinions and decisions on -- or how it's collected for us. This way, we can assess to what degree we should trust opinion polls, financial information, or, for that matter, aggregated time reports across an organization. Insisting on overly precise data and relying too blindly on it may not be a good idea.

My sources are unreliable, but their information is fascinating. -- Ashleigh Brilliant

You Are Better at Getting Things Done than You Think

posted 2011 by Peter Wastholm  · 

If you do what you've always done, you'll be what you've always been. -- Unknown

Some people seem to get so much work done. Alexandre Dumas wrote 277 novels, including classics like ''The Three Musketeers'' and ''The Count of Monte Cristo''. Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize twice, the physics prize in 1903 and the chemistry prize in 1911. Thomas Alva Edison held 1,093 patents. (But he didn't invent the light bulb. Not exactly, anyway. He did, however, make important improvements that made electrical lighting practical for home use.)

It's easy to feel like a hopeless couch potato compared to people like this. Or compared to prosperous businesspeople, popular artists, or victorious athletes. Even compared to that annoyingly successful neighbor or acquaintance or colleague. But I think there are two things that are easy to forget but important to keep in mind.

The first thing is that we, as external observers, can only see the things these supposedly hypereffective people did do, not the things they didn't do. Like us, they probably had an even longer laundry list of things they wanted to do, but never got around to. Or at least didn't consider important enough, compared with other to-do items, that they took the time to do them. From this we can learn that we shouldn't worry too much if our to-do lists keep getting longer instead of shorter. This isn't really a problem as long as we also learn that we have to prioritize. If we want to travel the world, maybe we can't also have a meteoric career. If we want to learn something really really well, maybe we have to settle for simply getting by with other things. If we want a rich cultural and/or social life, maybe we can't always have a spotless home and an impeccable garden. Or vice versa.

The second thing is that success breeds success. If we get something done today -- something small, but something we can honestly say we consider worthwhile -- it may be a little bit easier to also get something done tomorrow. And if we can pull that off, we have the beginnings of a good streak, and most people don't like to break good streaks. Perhaps we can even make it easier for ourselves to keep track of our streaks by marking them somehow. It should probably be something really simple, like drawing marks on a wall calendar (I read somewhere that Jerry Seinfeld does this) or writing a short note in some sort of journal (I do this myself). Hopefully, by tangibly illustrating our good streaks, we can not only encourage ourselves to keep at it, but also give ourselves a little peace of mind: we may not be moving to where we want to be as quickly as we might like, but we are moving.

The beginning is the most important part of the work. -- Plato, The Republic

Why Is It Okay to Be Ugly, But Not Stupid?

posted 2010 by Peter Wastholm  · 

Wisdom and beauty form a very rare combination. -- Petronius Arbiter

In Western society, we generally don't find it acceptable to criticize people for being ugly. Typically, the stated reason for this is that a person can't help the way he or she looks. At the same time, however, most people don't even flinch when someone complains about another person being stupid. This is interesting, since arguably both physical attractiveness and intellectual capacity (and their respective opposites) are largely innate qualities, dealt out at birth in some grand cosmic lottery. Fundamentally, a person can't help being stupid any more than he or she can help being ugly. Actually, even less.

Beauty may be highly subjective -- or "in the eye of the beholder," as the saying goes -- but, for a given culture and a given time period, certain physical traits will be generally accepted as attractive, and others as less so. There are even some physical qualities that are considered beautiful regardless of culture, like youthfulness and symmetry. Therefore, a person has a reasonable chance to assess his or her level of physical attractiveness, and thereby establish a "baseline" from which to improve (by, for example, gaining or losing weight, applying more or less makeup, or even subjecting to medical procedures). With intelligence, establishing such a baseline is much more difficult.

The reason for this is that intelligence is like a race in which all participants are running backwards: everyone can see how much further along they are than the ones behind them, but no one has a clear view of how many are ahead of them, or of how far they are from the finish line. It's entirely possible for every single runner in the race to believe that he or she is in the lead, or at least up there with the very best, and that he or she is considerably closer to the end than to the beginning. In fact, it's very likely that most runners believe this: it's called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Intelligence and knowledge are similar in this respect. No matter how much or how little I know about a particular subject, I'm likely to underestimate how much I don't know. To someone else, though, who happens to know something that I don't know I don't know, I exhibit a glaring lack of knowledge.

So, what am I saying here? That we can't change how intelligent we are, so we might as well give up? -- No, but I am saying that even understanding that we're not as intelligent as we think we are is pretty difficult, so perhaps we should cut others and ourselves some slack. Perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to judge those who struggle to grasp abstract concepts that we ourselves find natural. Perhaps we should try to remember from time to time that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that it's therefore quite likely that, in some other area, we are the stupid ones.

Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. -- Will Rogers

Poker Aphorisms

posted 2010 by Peter Wastholm  · 

Here you used to be able to read a guest post by PokerListings.com. At their request, this post has been withdrawn, but you can still read plenty of other posts on various subjects at the Aphorisms Galore! Blog. See you there.

Aphorisms Galore! Also Available on Identi.ca

posted 2010 by Peter Wastholm  · 

For some time now, as an alternative to email subscriptions, it has been possible to follow the Aphorism of the Day as @aphorismsgalore on Twitter. From today, the same service is also available via @aphorismsgalore on Identi.ca.

Identi.ca is a microblogging service very much like Twitter, but with some interesting extra features, like better geolocation services and the ability for users to congregate in groups, around common interests like beer or travel or history.

Of course, it is still possible to have the Aphorism of the Day (or the Aphorism of the Week) delivered to your inbox. Just create or update your user profile, and pick the subscription option you want.

Aphorisms Galore! Is Now on Twitter

posted 2009 by Peter Wastholm  · 

Starting today, the Aphorism of the Day is also available as @aphorismsgalore on Twitter. Due to Twitter's 140-character message limit, the entire aphorism will not always fit, but each post will always contain a link to a page where you can see the whole aphorism, as well as discuss and rate it. Maybe I will add other kinds of Twitter messages, too; if you have any ideas or suggestions, do let me know.

As before, if you want to receive the Aphorism of the Day in your mailbox, create or update your user profile and pick the subscription option you want.


posted 2009 by Peter Wastholm  · 

For a period of time, there have been two sites called Aphorisms Galore!: this one, which has existed since 1997, and another, which was much more recent. Since there can't really be two sites using the same trademark, this other site no longer exists, and its domain name, Aphorisms-Galore.info, now points here. I have tried to make the transition as smooth as possible by setting URLs in the Aphorisms-Galore.info domain up to redirect to the most relevant page possible here at AphorismsGalore.com.

Mr. Vitaliy Fastov, who until now operated "the other Aphorisms Galore!" now has a new site called Land of Wisdom which is also worth a visit if you're looking for quotations on a broad range of subjects.

In other news, the subscription feature, which has been disabled for a long long time due to technical difficulties with my previous server, will be reactivated in a few days, so check your settings if you want an insightful aphorism delivered to your inbox for free every week or even every day.

It's Alive!

posted 2009 by Peter Wastholm  · 

I have decided to bring this blog back from the dead as a way of keeping Aphorisms Galore!'s visitors and users informed of new features, fixed bugs, and other bits of information about the site. If you're reading this, Aphorisms Galore! has moved to a new server, and, though everything may look almost exactly the same, pretty significant changes have happened behind the scenes:

There may, of course, still be bugs. Should you find one, I'd really appreciate hearing from you. Some important fixes and improvements still remain:

As always, suggestions, questions, praise, and even complaints are very welcome. Comment on this blog entry or send me an email.

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