If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)

“You sound as if you believe in spirits.”

“I believe in the things that were done, and there are evidences of many things done on Mars. … Everywhere I look I see things that were used. They were touched and handled for centuries.

“Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and I’ll say yes. They’re all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we’ll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we’ll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. The names we’ll give to the canals and mountains and cities will fall like so much water on the back of a mallard. No matter how we touch Mars, we’ll never touch it. And then we’ll get mad at it, and you know what we’ll do? We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves.”

“We won’t ruin Mars,” said the captain. “It’s too big and too good.”

“You think not? We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.”

Captain Wilder & Spender


National Geographic (Nov. 2017)

Their skulls, ornamented with crests and keels, and those great, gaping mouths achieved proportions Habib calls “ridiculous,” even “stupid.” … Pterosaurs, he told his questioner at that talk, “were giant flying murder heads.”

Richard Conniff, “Weirdest Wonders on Wings”

Isaac Asimov – Foundation (1951)

The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had.

Baldwin and Clark – Design Rules, vol. 1 (2000)

Fundamentally, augmenting is a “wild card” operator: it is difficult to place a value on things yet to be invented, or to predict when and where those inventions will occur.

Baldwin and Clark – Design Rules, vol. 1 (2000)

If the downside of “bad draws” in the design effort can be controlled by rejecting bad outcomes, technical risk and complexity may be good things. The reason is that modules with more technical risk or complexity may have wider distributions of outcomes than other modules. If the downside risk can be controlled, that leaves only the “upside risk”–the possibility that the experiments will uncover very good designs (high peaks in the value landscape)

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

It has been my observation, culled over years and years of eliciting “Ma Mignonne” translations from relatives, friends, colleagues, and students, that those people who do the most imaginative, liveliest, and most polished jobs are invariably those with the best senses of humor. They are people who love to play with ideas, juggle words, take risks, laugh at themselves, be silly, let themselves go. I suppose it suggests that having a sense of humor is tightly bound up with a propensity for intellectual risk-taking.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

We had seen posters all over the city advertising an exhibit of strumenti di tortura (“instruments of torture”), and after weighing our heavily mixed feelings, finally decided to go see it. As we expected, it was very, very grim. There were spiked iron balls on chains, used to bash people to a pulp; there were large wheels upon which victims were fastened and stretched till their bones cracked apart; there were cages in which people were suspended in the air without water or food for days or weeks, until they died; there were tightenable metallic bodysuits that had huge spikes facing inwards; there were instruments for removing fingernails, for peeling off a live human’s layers of skin, for pulling organs out of abdomens; and on and on and on, ad nauseam. What struck Carol and me most of all, though, was that without any exception, all these demoniacal devices had been concocted in the name of God by the Catholic church, and they were used systematically by the clergy in order to keep people in line.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

There is certainly no sharp black-and-white crossover line, however–no magic moment at which meaning suddenly attaches to a symbol that up until then had been totally empty. Rather, over a period of days, weeks, months, or years, symbols gradually acquire layers of meaning, like boats accumulating layers of barnacles.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

Basically, the direction in which I am moving is toward the conclusion that there is not a simple one-to-one correspondence between human souls and human brains, but that instead each human soul is a distributed entity that is, of course, concentrated most intensely in one particular brain but that is also present in a diluted or partial manner in many other brains, and the degree of presence of A’s soul in B’s brain, not surprisingly, is a direct function of the depth of shared history and mutual caring between A and B.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

Words are translatable among cultures to the extent that the worlds inhabited by their host languages are the same–and that extent is very high for many modern languages.

And yet, each language inhabits a world slightly different from all other languages, and so it has certain special terms whose meanings cannot be expressed concisely in other languages. They can be explained, but there is nothing like a terse corresponding expression.