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One thing I've noticed over the years is that oft-repeated quotes are worth a lot of thought. They often represent gems of distilled wisdom, which is exactly why they get quoted and requoted over the years. I'm especially fond of quotes that lend themselves to various interpretations and reconsiderations depending on the situation.

"There's no such thing as a self-made failure."

I'm not sure where I first heard this quote, but it's one of those that you can interpret on a number of levels. At first, you might think that "There's no such thing as a self-made failure" is just talking about people who are unwilling to blame themselves for their own failures. I suspect you've run into a few of these folks over the years. But it could also be interpreted to mean that someone who believes he has made himself will also refuse to describe that self as a failure, or maybe even refuse to believe the self-made self could fail. At yet another level, it could be seen as an external claim of something similar, that self-making people will not be failures. And I think I'll recall at least one more interpretation after I give it a bit more thought, but now my editorial muse is getting offended by the remarkable ambiguity of the few words...

"Any clod can have the facts, but having opinions is an art."

This is attributed to Charles McCabe of the San Francisco Chronicle and is the motto of "The Open Channel" in@IEEE Computer. It was the last page column running back many years, and often has some very amusing or interesting contributions. Actually, I even submitted one piece that they used many years back. [However, the feature was pretty much was killed off by 'enhanced professionalism' or something around 1998, though it it sort of staggered and danced around the grave for a few years. It's demise contributed a good bit to my disillusionment with the Computer Society--but that's another story, and getting off the topic too easily needs to be included on my official list of faults...]

On one level of reading this is just a reminder that lying doesn't work. The facts are there, and any clod can get the facts, though it may take longer in some cases. Facts are concrete and easy to gather, and basically hard to argue with. Rather boring, eh? The facts are the facts, and it's just too bad if you don't like 'em.

Opinions are different animals, however. Everyone has one, and some people seem to think that all other people's stink, which leads back to a couple of other jokes which I'll skip for now. But having your opinion implies expressing it, and how it is expressed can often be more important than the substance of the opinion itself. I didn't appreciate this so much until I'd been in Japan for a while, but it is one of those obvious things: If you express your opinions aggressively and try to push them at other people they will naturally react defensively, and may well tend to reject your ideas regardless of the merits. Al Evans says that revelations are just those things that are obvious after someone has pointed them out to you.

By the way, I may well qualify as an artist of opinions, especially based on the often violent reactions my posts have provoked in various newsgroups. I doubt it's great art, and actually my perception is that the firmness and clarity of my writing is what is offending people--my opinions disagree with theirs, and I express them well. Or at least artistically.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

This is one I stole a long, long time ago. I'm pretty sure that Joe Dimaggio stole it from me--it appears in his signatures files, but he claims he doesn't remember where he stole it.

Anyway, I really used to worry a lot about people stealing my ideas. This is linked to the very possessive nature of Americans, I think. You have to hide your ideas and try to get the sole patent, and be the owner. This actually winds up getting in your way.

The reality is that it's actually pretty easy to have new ideas, and most people do it pretty often. Most times it's just dismissed as daydreaming. Of course, some of the new ideas are better than others, but the REAL trick is bringing the new ideas to fruition. Most people usually just want to keep on going along the same way, so a really new and creative idea--an idea that knocks people out of their old ruts--is not going to meet with instant acceptance, no matter how good it is. But resistance is futile: ultimately the good ideas will prevail, though there are also lots of examples of good ideas reappearing many times until they are finally accepted.

Incidentally, I think this is related to the perception of the Japanese as lacking in creativity. Soon after my arrival in Japan I noticed that the Japanese people I was meeting seemed to be pretty much similar to other people I'd met. The only thing that struck me as odd was their generally high degree of politeness, but it certainly seemed to me that many of them had very interesting ideas, even interesting creative ideas. "Aye, there's the rub!" It isn't polite to go around ramming your ideas down other people's throats. That means that a lot of good and creative ideas will never come to fruition in Japan, because relatively few of the Japanese are willing to do any serious throat-ramming. IMHO, Americans are more willing to rate victory--including victory in making a new idea happen--above friendship. Seeking for a more fundamental explanation, I'd guess that the perceived situation in America is that there's plenty of room even if you leave a few enemies scattered about... That's not the case in Japan, where you're always bumping into people you know on the trains.

"Don't teach Granny to suck eggs."

The story behind this expression is that you can punch a hole in both ends of a raw egg and suck out the insides. When a child learns this, it's the kind of thing the child wants to teach to someone else, especially Granny, but the reality is that Granny already knows about it. Perhaps one measure of Granny's skill at Granniness is how much enthusiasm she can display while 'learning' about and eating raw eggs.

The metaphoric meaning is that Granny is already an expert as far as egg-sucking is concerned, and experts get kind of bored when someone is trying to teach them something they already know quite well. I see it as a sort of admonition to pay attention to the audience, and just because something is new or interesting to you, doesn't mean it will have any appeal or relevance to someone else.

As a parenthetic side note, the Japanese really do eat raw eggs pretty often, though without going through the trouble of punching holes in the shell and all that stuff. They just break the shell and pour it into the food or sometimes into a special bowl, where it is used sort of like a sauce or dip.

"The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions."

This quote has to do with the difference between cleverness and wisdom. It's easy for the clever young man to learn the rules of the game, but that isn't the same as wisdom. The old man knows when to apply the rules and when to dodge them. That takes actual wisdom that most young men lack.

In general it's easy to confuse cleverness, such as the ability to do well on standardized tests, with wisdom, though there is no necessary relationship between the two. Some people are quite wise without being very intelligent, and there are plenty of clever fools around. Too much cleverness may actually be an impediment on the road to real wisdom...

My own belief is that deep wisdom is more valuable, but there are various paths to follow to achieve it. Some people are just lucky and seem to be born wise, though that isn't common. More people seem to arrive at wisdom the hard way, by passing though very hard times without being destroyed or embittered. Most often it seems to be simply correlated with age, though again there is no guarantee. Maybe someone should do research to see which group is larger, the old fools or the clever fools? Another way to think of part of this involves this little table that I learned about some years ago:

Subject Matter Knowledge
Knows Doesn't Know
Meta Knowledge

(what is known about knowing)

Knows Class One: Knows and knows that he knows. A wise man--follow him. Class Two: Doesn't know, but knows that he doesn't know. A student--help him learn.
Doesn't Know Class Three: Knows, but doesn't know that he knows. An unenlightened person--enlighten him. Class Four: Doesn't know, and doesn't knows that he doesn't know. A fool--shun him.

Actually, this is not as helpful as it might seem, since it involves the kinds of judgments that a wise man should avoid. And yet, it does seem to apply in various ways in many situations. Sometimes I've thought about trying to add another dimension to it, too. The one that most often comes up is 'Wants to learn' versus 'Doesn't want to learn.' This usually comes up when I'm working with Class Two Mackers, who know quite well that they don't know, but absolutely insist that they don't want to know. About 75% of my efforts in such cases are usually focused on persuading them that there certain things they ought to know to use their tools effectively... One common analogy I use is that it's like having a pencil, but not wanting to know how to sharpen it.

"Don't argue with a fool. People won't be able to tell the difference."

This is one with several levels. The more obvious level is just that argument tends to sink to the level of the lowest common denominator, so if a fool is involved, the argument must be conducted at that level, or there just can't be any argument at all.

On the other side it suggests that argumentation itself is non-productive--people who weren't originally fools with wind up looking that way anyway. It kind of has to do with one of the major differences between Japanese and American philosophies. The American idea is that that conflicts should be aired, and winner take all, even if there are some arguments along the way. The Japanese idea is that the conflicts should be avoided, and the differing ideas should be gradually understood. After a big argument has developed people become polarized and they won't be able to work together smoothly, but the Japanese idea is to avoid that argument and polarization, and try to get everyone ready to willingly move in the same direction.

An old friend, Ray, was using this version as a .sig: "Never argue with an idiot. They'll drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience!"

"It's the poor craftsman who blames his tools..."

...but it's also the poor craftsman who can't tell the difference.

This is one that I liberated some years back, but I think the extension is my own idea. The original is just focusing on people who want to make excuses for their failures. (The Marine Corps version was "Excuses are like assholes--everyone has one and they all stink.") Blaming the tools is especially convenient because the tools can't say much in response.

My extension is focused on the fact that poor tools really do make a difference, and a good craftsman is going to know about the difference and want to benefit from it. However, it is also one of the marks of the superior craftsman that he will focus more on the goals than the tools, and use whatever tools at hand to achieve the goals. The gifted craftsman with inferior tools will often produce better work than the mediocre craftsman with the best tools. But given the choice of tools...

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo."

Sorry, but I'm not sure who to attribute this one to, though I've known it for years. It's obviously derived from Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." As I learned it, it applied mostly to computer software, though I suppose they try to use the same tricks to sell hardware. One of the things I've noticed in my sales work at Akihabara is that the glitziest demos are often running on the hardware that I've heard the most problem reports about, though I don't want to name any makers just now... The application to software is more obvious, where you can constrain the demonstration and then fix the problems that would make it less than impressive. Too bad the real world is so resistant to tidy little constraints.

"Figures don't lie, but liars figure."

Lot's of attributions for this one, but it's probably proverbial and lost in antiquity. Another common version is "Lies, damn lies, and statistics" which is also a catchy book title, though I don't recall the book as being especially noteworthy.

Anyway, the meaning is pretty obvious. Numbers don't stand on their own, but get interpreted and explained, often by people with various kinds of axes to grind. This one applies quite well in a number of fields. For example, in history, it helps show why the same events can receive radically different interpretations--a Marxist account of the French Revolution leaps to mind. In sociology, it means that survey results are often very much slanted depended on who was paying for the survey. The slanting there is sometimes quite cunning, perhaps depending on careful wording of the research questions and their sequencing, even before we get to the sometimes very creative interpretations of the results.

"Beggars can't be choosers."

What this one brings to my mind most is my recent experiences with Sofmap. Mostly as regards the way they treated Mrs. Yoshida when I persuaded her to apply for work in the soon-to-disappear international section. It's not like they have swarms of eager applicants for their poor pay and lousy working conditions, but they didn't give her anything like a fair chance to show what she could do. She worked two or three days before they said bye-bye, and the international section manager wasn't even around part of that time. They sometimes asked other employees to help them find new coworkers, but those of us in the know were scarcely likely to recommend any friends--too easy to make ex-friends that way.

Another aspect involved their purchasing. Hard to say without actually sitting for a while in that section, but it seems quite likely that the buyers spend lots of time begging for special deals from makers. I never saw much evidence that they spend any time looking in the store to see what was actually selling. The result was that Sofmap seemed to have a chronic out-of-stock condition, even for popular merchandise. They could easily boost sales 10-20% by avoiding that, apart from offending the customers. The begging apparently helped them get lots of fairly good prices, though the inefficiency probably explains why bigger stores manage to beat them on price anyway.

There was something more profound to say on the standard general interpretation of the expression, but just now it's lost in clouds of specific interpretations...