Some favorite quotes

The day is short, and the labor is plenty ... You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. — Rabbi Tarvon, quoted by Moshe Vardi in How to be an Ethical Computer Scientist.

Rule of 7 in research. You can find out anything if you are willing to go seven levels. If the first source you ask doesn't know, ask them who you should ask next, and so on down the line. If you are willing to go to the 7th source, you'll almost always get your answer. — Kevin Kelly, 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice

We discovered that if we arranged those tricks in just the right way, they fell into a pattern. There was an underlying, unsuspected structure. As long as you had the courage to leave gaps. And this goes back to things like the Periodic Table, when Mendeley was writing down all the elements—he realized that if you arranged them all according to function, then there were gaps, and that then predicted the existence of chemical elements.

Well, we were predicting the existence of juggling tricks. And it worked! We actually found juggling tricks that no one had ever done before. And when we took these to juggling conventions, people literally sat at my feet for days to try to learn some of these tricks. And months later, at another juggling convention, people from—in particular, I remember going to the European Juggling Convention—and people from America were trying to teach me a juggling trick that I had shown people just a few months earlier at the British Juggling Convention.

— Colin Wright Relatively Prime: The Unexpected
(Spotted at Hypotext's repository of quotes on notation)

SQL, Lisp, and Haskell are the only programming languages that I've seen where one spends more time thinking than typing. — Philip Greenspun

Those who fall in love with practice without science are like a helmsman sailing without rudder nor compass, who is never sure about where he is going. — Leonardo da Vinci

In most universities nowadays—and this seems to be true almost everywhere—academic staff find themselves spending less and less time studying, teaching, and writing about things, and more and more time measuring, assessing, discussing, and quantifying the way in which they study, teach, and write about things ... . It's gotten to the point where "admin" now takes up so much of most professors' time that complaining about it is the default mode of socializing among academic colleagues; indeed, insisting on talking instead about one's latest research project or course idea is considered somewhat rude. — David Graeber, Are You in a BS Job? In Academe, You're Hardly Alone

Today I learned the word "saeculum," which is the length of time between an important event happening & the moment that everybody who was alive when it happened is dead. Apparently Etruscans believed each civilization was alotted a certain number of saecula from its founding. — David Hines, @hradzka

By today's definition, y=mx+b is an artificial intelligence bot that can tell you where a line is going. —  Amy Hoy @amyhoy

You e-mailed asking for my opinion, and I wanted to give a really thorough, well-thought-out, articulate response, so I starred your e-mail, and over time it became a mascot for my illogical but oppressive sense of dread in the face of slightly annoying tasks. That little yellow star became a shining testament to the burden of modernity! Every day, it dared me to write a response worthy of the time I've made you wait, and every day I thought, Ugh, no. But today! Today I will respond! Rejoice, my patient friend! (I'm actually really busy, though, so this is going to be a vague, half-assed response that I could have easily written in the minute after I first read your e-mail, five months ago.) Sorry! — Susanna Wolf, Sorry for the Delayed Response, The New Yorker, 16 March 2017

Mathematics in the nineteenth century began to include four-dimensional spheres, parallel lines that meet, and a deliberately meaningless algebra of empty symbols, becoming more and more abstract and detached from any description of reality ... before reality, in the twentieth century, with its curved space-time and multiple unseeable dimensions and logic-operated computers, couldn't bear to be parted from its old friend mathematics and curved back to meet it. — Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

London and southern England have moved away from the tradition that cemented Britain following the great war and the second world war, the one-nation tradition of a mixed economy combining free markets with a state sector that intervened, provided the national health service, and so on and so forth. That post-war concensus, from let's say 1920-something to 1974-75, has collapsed now and southern England has moved in a neo-liberal direction of its own. And if anything, Scotland has remained faithful to that tradition. You’ve got southern England effectively heading in its own direction away from that which created a one-nation consensus in Britain. So it’s they that are abandoning ship, not Scotland. — Yanis Varoufakis interview, 12 November 2015

4) There are ugly papers to which I have methodological objections.

4a) Lousy use of English, that make the paper ranging from empty to ambiguous. (In the second case you get the feeling that by rewriting it you could perhaps salvage parts of it.) Such poor use of language puts me off very rapidly. It makes the reading very much harder and the effort/gain ratio goes up very quickly, also because the gain goes down: it is impossible to carve a gem with a blunt instrument. Careful use of language is not a dispensable luxury but a vital matter, often deciding between success and failure. It is in this connection worth noticing that in the Comm.ACM the papers on data bases, AI and information retrieval, and social implications are of markedly lower linguistic quality than the others. A subcategory are the papers with a shoddy motivation which a more careful linguistic analysis would have revealed as a slogan (readability, understandability, natural and intuitive, programming for non-programmers, etc.).

4b) Pompous notations. This makes the paper boring to read and shows a lack of good taste. Sometimes the paper can be saved by translating it formula by formula. Very irritating are such papers when they are essentially an exercise in sterility, such as "the precise formal definition of XXXX" with which subsequently nothing is done because the formalism is absolutely unmanageable.

4c) Clumsy mathematics.

4d) Intertwining of concerns that you have learned to separate. This leads to irritation, for the paper is always confusing, unnecessarily long and clumsy (and sometimes nonsensical).

4e) Use of misleading metaphors, such as anthropomorphic terminology. (Most diagrams and pictures, needless to say, fall into the same category.)

— Edsgar Dijkstra, EWD 691

Keep it concise and don't stuff your sentence with unnecessary, superfluous, gratuitous content that smothers your prose, muddies your intentions, confuses the reader, clogs up the page with excess text, pads out the work with inelegant drivels, irritates the eye, examines giraffes, and renders your point unclear. — James Thomas, How to Write a Sentence, The New Yorker, 24 October 2014

Warner M. Van Norden, President of the Van Horden Trust Company and head of Van Norden's Magazine, told over again in the Jefferson Market Police Court yesterday how $28,000 was abstracted from his wallet last Wednesday night after he had casually met May Williams and Bessie Roberts, alias Kittie Dowdell, in East Thirty-third Street, a short distance from the Waldorf-Astoria. — New York Times, 27 January 1910.

Feynman was famous for his hand-waving arguments. Once he explained his theory of superfluid helium to Pauli using such arguments. Pauli, a tough critic, was unconvinced. Feynman kept at it, and Pauli stayed unconvinced, until Feynman, exasperated, asked, "Surely you can't believe that everything I've said is wrong?" To which Pauli replied, "I believe that everything you've said is not even wrong." — Frank Wilczek, The Lightness of Being

There is nothing more practical than a good theory. — James C. Maxwell

In mainstream language design, formal training is the exception, not the rule. Most decision makers couldn't parse an operational semantics if their life depended on it. Let alone understand a denotational model or a type system.

I usually compare it to architects designing bridges without knowing the first thing about statics. It's sufficient qualification to have crossed bridges all your life. And if in doubt, a road sign always is an appropriate measure for preventing one from collapsing. Traffic participants are expected to bring parachutes.

To be fair, it took a few millennia before knowledge about statics prevailed among bridge builders, too. — Andreas Rossberg

Leibniz thought that if natural language could not be perfect, at least the calculus could: a language of symbols rigorously assigned. ``All human thoughts might be entirely resolvable into a small number of thoughts considered as primitive.'' These could the be combined and dissected mechanically, as it were. ``Once this had been done, whoever uses such characters would either never make an error, or, at least, would have the possibility of immediately recognizing his mistakes, by using the simplest of tests.'' Gödel ended that dream. — James Gleich, The Information

It is proof of a base and low mind for one to wish to think with the masses or majority, merely because the majority is the majority. Truth does not change because it is, or is not, believed by a majority of the people. — Giordano Bruno

Human progress is furthered, not by conformity, but by aberration. — H. L. Mencken

Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.

— Inscription on an Assyrian clay tablet, circa 2800 B.C.E. (Maggie Koerth-Baker, Boing Boing)

Thankfully, the laws of physics are compositional, since they were not designed by software engineers on a standards committee. — Gilad Bracha

And the users exclaimed with a laugh and a taunt: "It's just what we asked for but not what we want."
— unknown (quoted by Butler Lampson, in an essay dedicated to Alan Kay appearing in Points of View).

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another. — Richard Feynman

Telescopes and bathyscapes
and sonar probes of Scottish lakes,
Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse
explained with abstract phase-space maps,
some x-ray slides, a music score,
Minard's Napoleonic war:
the most exciting new frontier
is charting what's already here.

Desert Island
From XKCD, a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language, by Randall Munroe.



From XKCD, a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language, by Randall Munroe.

From XKCD, a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language, by Randall Munroe.

You can only find truth with logic if you have found truth without it. — G. K. Chesterton

I was taught assembler
in my second year of school.
It's kinda like construction work --
with a toothpick for a tool.
So when I made my senior year,
I threw my code away,
And learned the way to program
that I still prefer today.

Now, some folks on the Internet
put their faith in C++.
They swear that it's so powerful,
it's what God used for us.
And maybe it lets mortals dredge
their objects from the C.
But I think that explains
why only God can make a tree.

For God wrote in Lisp code
When he filled the leaves with green.
The fractal flowers and recursive roots:
The most lovely hack I've seen.
And when I ponder snowflakes,
never finding two the same,
I know God likes a language
with its own four-letter name.

Now, I've used a SUN under Unix,
so I've seen what C can hold.
I've surfed for Perls, found what Fortran's for,
Got that Java stuff down cold.
Though the chance that I'd write COBOL code
is a SNOBOL's chance in Hell.
And I basically hate hieroglyphs,
so I won't use APL.

Now, God must know all these languages,
and a few I haven't named.
But the Lord made sure, when each sparrow falls,
that its flesh will be reclaimed.
And the Lord could not count grains of sand
with a 32-bit word.
Who knows where we would go to
if Lisp weren't what he preferred?

And God wrote in Lisp code
Every creature great and small.
Don't search the disk drive for man.c,
When the listing's on the wall.
And when I watch the lightning burn
Unbelievers to a crisp,
I know God had six days to work,
So he wrote it all in Lisp.

Yes, God had a deadline.
So he wrote it all in Lisp.

"The Eternal Flame" parody lyrics Copyright 1996 by Bob Kanefsky, parodying "God Lives on Terra" by Julia Ecklar. Thanks to gnu.

Are you personally affected by this issue? Then email us. Or if you're not affected by this issue, can you imagine what it would be like if you were? Or if you are affected by it, but don't want to talk about it, can you imagine what it would be like not being affected by it? Why not email us? You may not know anything about the issue, but I bet you reckon something. So why not tell us what you reckon. Let us enjoy the full majesty of your uninformed, ad hoc reckon, by going to, clicking on 'what I reckon' and then simply beating on the keyboard with your fists or head. — David Mitchell and Robert Webb

From XKCD, a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language, by Randall Munroe.

Grand Master Turing once dreamed that he was a machine. When he awoke he exclaimed:

"I don't know whether I am Turing dreaming that I am a machine, or a machine dreaming that I am Turing!"

From The Tao of Programming. (Spotted on the home page of John Meacham.)

I remember a conversation we had a year or so before his death, walking in the hills above Pasadena. We were exploring an unfamiliar trail and Richard, recovering from a major operation for the cancer, was walking more slowly than usual. He was telling a long and funny story about how he had been reading up on his disease and surprising his doctors by predicting their diagnosis and his chances of survival. I was hearing for the first time how far his cancer had progressed, so the jokes did not seem so funny. He must have noticed my mood, because he suddenly stopped the story and asked, "Hey, what's the matter?"

I hesitated. "I'm sad because you're going to die."

"Yeah," he sighed, "that bugs me sometimes too. But not so much as you think." And after a few more steps, "When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you've told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway."

— Daniel Hillis on Richard Feynman,
Physics Today, February 1989.

When I was six, my grandmother taught me and my three brothers (all older) to play Bridge. I don't even remember learning how to play, I just remember being surprised that my classmates in elementary school not only did not know how to play, many had never heard of the game.

Over the years, people taught me all kinds of other card games: Spades; Hearts; Whist; O'Pshaw; Pinochle; Canasta. I've forgotten most of them because they turned out to be pale subsets of Bridge, more or less. I was never inclined to become a Bridge master, but it was clearly the granddaddy of them all and the only one that would hold interest in the long run for a serious player.

Such is Haskell compared to the other languages available and I envy the six year olds who will learn it before they know how amazing that is.

— Clifford Beshers

"All men are mortal. Socrates was mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates." — Woody Allen

Actually the Chateau D'If, on the island of the same name, is where Edmond Dantes was imprisoned in Alexander Dumas' novel "The Count of Monte Cristo". It's in this formidable fortress that the wise old Abbe Faria tells Dantes the location of the treasure that later made him rich.

I guess everyone except me read this story as a kid - I'm just reading it now. But how many of you remember that Faria spent his time in prison studying the works of Aristotle? There's a great scene where Dantes asks Faria where he learned so much about logic, and Faria replies: "If - and only If!"

— John Baez

Mathematics can also take over for its study what Shakespeare claimed for the role of the poet: 'And as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown/ The Poet's pen turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name.' — Ronnie Brown

All those backups seemed a waste of pay.
Now my database has gone away.
Oh I believe in yesterday.

There's not half the files there used to be,
And there's a milestone hanging over me
The system crashed so suddenly.

I pushed something wrong
What it was I could not say.

Now all my data's gone
and I long for yesterday-ay-ay-ay.

The need for back-ups seemed so far away.
I knew my data was all here to stay,
Now I believe in yesterday.

(spotted by Naoyuki Tamura)

"All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow." -- Grant Wood

"Any sufficiently complicated C or Fortran program contains an ad hoc informally-specified bug-ridden slow implementation of half of Common Lisp." -- Philip Greenspun

"There are very few things which we know, which are not capable of being reduc'd to a Mathematical Reasoning; and when they cannot it's a sign our knowledge of them is very small and confus'd; and when a Mathematical Reasoning can be had it's as great a folly to make use of any other, as to grope for a thing in the dark, when you have a Candle standing by you." -- John Arbuthnot, Of the Laws of Chance, 1692.

Said the frustrated formalist, "Hype
Often comes with no clear static type,
But as long as it parses,
Those pragmatic arses
All say I have no grounds to gripe!"
— Jonathan Robie

"There may, indeed, be other applications of the system than its use as a logic." — A. Church, 1932

"Haskell is the least-broken programming language available today. C, C++, Perl, Python, Java, and all the other languages you've heard of are all much more broken, so debating their merits is pointless. :-) Unfortunately Real Life involves dealing with brokenness. ... We are just using C and Python because of unfortunate real-world circumstances like availability of support and documentation, add-on modules, marketing, and the like. If we could use a nicer language, that would be lovely." — Havoc Pennington

"I remember Haskell. If he seemed ascetic and overly functional at times, once you got close to him you could see he was not strict at all. Some say he was lazy, but I say that those men did not see his purity." — Frank Christoph

Philip Wadler,