Quotations about:
    complexity


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Those three things — autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward — are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell (b. 1963) Anglo-Canadian journalist, author, public speaker
Outliers: The Story of Success, ch. 5, sec. 10 (2008)
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Added on 30-Jan-23 | Last updated 30-Jan-23
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I have no desire to make mysteries, but it is impossible at the moment of action to enter into long and complex explanations.

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) British writer and physician
“The Dancing Men” [Sherlock Holmes], The Strand Magazine (Dec 1903)
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Reprinted as "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, ch. 3 (1905).
 
Added on 20-Jan-23 | Last updated 20-Jan-23
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It is the speculations of crazy theologists which have made a Babel of a religion the most moral and sublime ever preached to man, and calculated to heal, and not to create differences. These religious animosities I impute to those who call themselves his ministers, and who engraft their casuistries on the stock of his simple precepts. I am sometimes more angry with them than is authorised by the blessed charities which he preached.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Ezra Styles Ely (25 Jun 1819)
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Added on 10-Oct-22 | Last updated 10-Oct-22
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The things which we understand least are the quasars, but I don’t want to get into a technical discussion. But these are the most violent and most energetic objects in the universe, and they’re totally, still totally, mysterious, really. I mean, we know that they’re there, that’s all, and they’re not only there, they’re rather frequent; and nobody ever dreamed that they existed, until they were found. And even after they were found it took a long time before people took them seriously. Nature’s imagination is always richer than ours.

Freeman Dyson
Freeman Dyson (1923-2020) English-American theoretical physicist, mathematician, futurist
“Freeman Dyson: In Praise of Diversity,” Interview on A Glorious Accident, VPRO (Netherlands) (30 Aug 2016)
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Added on 22-Aug-22 | Last updated 22-Aug-22
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Democracy has no place for the kind of justice implied in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Democracy is a system for the resolution of conflict, not for vengeance. Simple black-white notions of right and wrong do not fit into democratic politics. Political controversies result from the fact that the issues are complex, and men may properly have differences of opinion about them. The most terrible of all over-simplifications is the notion that politics is a contest between good people and bad people.

E E Schattschneider
E. E. Schattschneider (1892-1971) American political scientist [Elmer Eric Schattschneider]
Two Hundred Million Americans in Search of a Government (1969)
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Added on 16-Aug-22 | Last updated 16-Aug-22
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Have you ever noticed that there are no Maytag user groups? Nobody needs a mutual support group to run a washing machine. You just put the clothes in, punch the button, and they get clean. To do information processing, I don’t want hardware and software; what I really want is an appliance to do my tasks.

Jef Raskin
Jef Raskin (1943-2005) American computer scientist, writer
Interview in Susan Lammers, Programmers At Work (1986)
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Added on 11-Jul-22 | Last updated 11-Jul-22
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Holden decided that he was okay with not feeling any remorse for them. The moral complexity of the situation had grown past his ability to process it, so he just relaxed in the warm glow of victory instead.

Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham (b. 1969) American writer [pseud. James S. A. Corey (with Ty Franck), M. L. N. Hanover]
Leviathan Wakes, ch. 41 (2011) [with Ty Franck]
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Added on 23-Jun-22 | Last updated 23-Jun-22
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But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren. Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor!

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse (26 Jun 1822)
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Added on 21-Jun-22 | Last updated 21-Jun-22
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Only Truth can give true reputation: only reality can be of real profit. One deceit needs many others and so the whole house is built in the air and must soon come to the ground.

[Sola la verdad puede dar reputación verdadera, y la substancia entra en provecho. Un embeleco ha menester otros muchos, y así toda la fábrica es quimera, y como se funda en el aire es preciso venir a tierra.]

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) Spanish Jesuit priest, writer, philosopher
The Art of Worldly Wisdom [Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia], § 175 (1647) [tr. Jacobs (1892)]
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(Source (Spanish)). Alternate translation:

Only the truth can give you a true reputation, and only substance is profitable. One act of deceit begets many others, and soon the whole ghastly construction, which is founded in the air, comes tumbling down.
[tr. Maurer (1992)]

 
Added on 25-Apr-22 | Last updated 1-Jun-22
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Captious, yet kind; pleasant but testy too;
I cannot bear to part, or live with you.

[Difficillis facillis, iucundus acerbus es idem:
Nec tecum possum vivere nec sine te.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 12, epigram 47 (12.47) [tr. Pott & Wright (1921)]
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(Source (Latin)). Sometimes given as 12.46. Ker notes the second line is borrowed from Ovid, Amores, 3.9. Alternate translations:

In all thy humours whether grave or mellow,
Thou'rt such a touchy, testy, pleasant fellow;
Hast so much wit and mirth, and spleen about thee
There is no living with the, or without thee.
[Addison, The Spectator #68 (18 May 1711)]

Such stiffness, ease; such sweets and sours about thee!
I cannot live, or with thee, or without thee.
[tr. Elphinston (1782), Book 12, #126]

Difficult and easy, churlish and pleasing; you are all of these, and yet one person;
there is no living with thee, nor without thee.
[tr. Amos (1858), ch. 3 #85]

Thou'rt merry, sad; easy, and hard to please;
Nor with nor from thee can I live at ease.
[tr. Wright (<1859)]

You are at once morose and agreeable, pleasing and repulsive.
I can neither live with you, nor without you.
[tr. Bohn's Classical (1859)]

Difficult and easy-going, pleasant and churlish, you are at the same time:
I can neither live with you nor without you.
[tr. Ker (1919)]

Difficult or easy, pleasant or bitter, you are the same you:
I cannot live with you -- or without you.
[Source]

 
Added on 19-Nov-21 | Last updated 19-Nov-21
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We must never forget that human motives are generally far more complicated than we are apt to suppose, and that we can very rarely accurately describe the motives of another.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) Russian novelist
The Idiot, Part 3, ch. 3 (1869) [tr. Martin (1915)]
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Alternate translation: "Don't let us forget that the motives of human actions are usually infinitely more complex and varied than we are apt to explain them afterwards, and can rarely be defined with certainty." [tr. Magarshack (1955)]
 
Added on 5-Oct-21 | Last updated 5-Oct-21
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Knowledge breeds doubt, not certainty, and the more we know the more uncertain we become.

Taylor - Knowledge breeds doubt, not certainty - wist.info quote

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
“What Else Indeed?” New York Review of Books (5 Aug 1965)
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Added on 20-Sep-21 | Last updated 20-Sep-21
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Our lives get complicated because complexity is so much simpler than simplicity.

James Richardson (b. 1950) American poet
“Vectors: 56 Aphorisms and Ten-second Essays,” Michigan Quarterly Review, # 7 (Spring 1999)
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Added on 14-Sep-21 | Last updated 14-Sep-21
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If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.

John von Neumann (1903-1957) Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath [János "Johann" Lajos Neumann]
Speech, Association for Computing Machinery inaugural conference, Columbia University, New York (15 Sep 1947)
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Von Neumann insisted that ENIAC's command language could encompass all mathematics, given how only a thousand words could handle most needs of life, and mathematics was, he insisted, simpler than life. When the audience laughed, he replied with this comment. Quoted in Franz L. Alt, "Archaeology of computers: Reminiscences, 1945-1947," Communications of the ACM, Vol 15, #7 (Jul 1972).
 
Added on 15-Jun-21 | Last updated 15-Jun-21
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There probably is a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.

John von Neumann (1903-1957) Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath [János "Johann" Lajos Neumann]
(Attributed)
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As quoted in Norman Macrae, John Von Neumann: The Scientific Genius Who Pioneered the Modern Computer, Game Theory, Nuclear Deterrence and Much More (1992).
 
Added on 8-Jun-21 | Last updated 8-Jun-21
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I think that it is a relatively good approximation to truth — which is much too complicated to allow anything but approximations.

John von Neumann (1903-1957) Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath [János "Johann" Lajos Neumann]
“The Mathematician” (1947)
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Added on 18-May-21 | Last updated 18-May-21
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History gets thicker as it approaches recent times: more people, more events, and more books written about them. More evidence is preserved, often, one is tempted to say, too much. Decay and destruction have hardly begun their beneficent work.

A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) British historian, journalist, broadcaster [Alan John Percivale Taylor]
English History 1914-1945, “Revised Bibliography” (1965)
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Added on 26-Apr-21 | Last updated 26-Apr-21
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We must not suppose that, because a man is a rational animal, he will, therefore, always act rationally; or, because he has such or such a predominant passion, that he will act invariably and consequentially in the pursuit of it. No, we are complicated machines; and though we have one main spring that gives motion to the whole, we have an infinity of little wheels, which, in their turns, retard, precipitate, and sometimes stop that motion.

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]
Letter to his son, #209 (19 Dec 1749)
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Added on 1-Apr-21 | Last updated 11-Oct-22
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My life is already complicated enough, without trying to introduce organization into it.

Ashleigh Brilliant (b. 1933) Anglo-American writer, epigramist, cartoonist
Pot-Shots, #1960
 
Added on 26-Mar-21 | Last updated 26-Mar-21
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Physics is, hopefully, simple. Physicists are not.

Edward Teller (1908-2003) Hungarian-American theoretical physicist
Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics, ch. 10 (1991) [with Wendy Teller and Wilson Talley]
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Added on 9-Mar-21 | Last updated 9-Mar-21
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Words are like Leaves; and where they most abound,
Much Fruit of Sense beneath is rarely found.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) English poet
“An Essay on Criticism” (1711)
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Added on 25-Jan-21 | Last updated 25-Jan-21
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“People aren’t either wicked or noble,” the hook-handed man said. “They’re like chef salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”

Lemony Snicket (b. 1970) American author, screenwriter, musician (pseud. for Daniel Handler)
The Grim Grotto (2004)
 
Added on 21-Oct-20 | Last updated 21-Oct-20
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Code is like humor. When you have to explain it, it’s bad.

Cory House (contemp.) American software architect, speaker, author
Twitter (12 Nov 2013)
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Added on 30-Sep-20 | Last updated 30-Sep-20
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Everything we possess that is not necessary for life or happiness becomes a burden, and scarcely a day passes that we do not add to it.

Robert Brault (b. c. 1945) American aphorist, programmer
(Attributed)
 
Added on 22-Sep-20 | Last updated 22-Sep-20
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Ugly programs are like ugly suspension bridges: they’re much more liable to collapse than pretty ones, because the way humans (especially engineer-humans) perceive beauty is intimately related to our ability to process and understand complexity.

Eric S. Raymond (b. 1957) American software developer, writer [a.k.a. ESR]
The Cathedral & the Bazaar (1999)
 
Added on 5-Aug-20 | Last updated 5-Aug-20
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Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is just a thousand thousand smears of paint. Michelangelo’s David is just a million hits with a hammer. We’re all of us a million bits put together the right way.

Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) American novelist and freelance journalist
Diary (2003)
 
Added on 12-May-20 | Last updated 12-May-20
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THE SERGEANT: When men and women pick one another up for just a bit of fun, they find they’ve picked up more than they bargained for, because men and women have a top story as well as a ground floor, and you can’t have the one without the other.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British playwright and critic
Too True to Be Good, Act 3 (1932)
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Added on 11-May-20 | Last updated 11-May-20
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Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.

Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) French-Swiss film director, screenwriter, critic
(Attributed)
 
Added on 11-Mar-20 | Last updated 11-Mar-20
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The name philosopher, which meant originally “lover of wisdom,” has come in some strange way to mean a man who thinks it is his business to explain everything in a certain number of large books. It will be found, I think, that in proportion to his colossal ignorance is the perfection and symmetry of the system which he sets up; because it is so much easier to put an empty room tidy than a full one.

William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) English mathematician and philosopher
Quoted in A. D’Abro, The Evolution of Scientific Thought from Newton to Einstein, Part 4, ch. 37 (1927)
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D'Abro says it comes from one of Clifford's essays, but the source does not appear online.
 
Added on 14-Feb-20 | Last updated 14-Feb-20
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An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) German-American author, poet
Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969)
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Added on 14-Feb-20 | Last updated 14-Feb-20
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Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering — because you can’t take it in all at once.

Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) Belgian-English actress
Quoted in David Hofstede, Audrey Hepburn: A Bio-bibliography (1994)
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Added on 16-Jan-20 | Last updated 16-Jan-20
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At bottom every man knows well enough that he is a unique human being, only once on this earth; and by no extraordinary chance will such a marvelously picturesque piece of diversity in unity as he is ever be put together a second time.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German philosopher and poet
“Schopenhauer as Educator,” ch. 1 (1874) [tr. Collins]
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Added on 26-Nov-18 | Last updated 26-Nov-18
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Proverbs contradict each other. That is the wisdom of a nation.

Stanislaw Lec (1909-1966) Polish aphorist, poet, satirist
Unkempt Thoughts [Myśli nieuczesane] (1957) [tr. Gałązka (1962)]
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Added on 16-Mar-17 | Last updated 29-Mar-22
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Nature is more subtle, more deeply intertwined and more strangely integrated than any of our pictures of her — than any of our errors. It is not merely that our pictures are not full enough; each of our pictures in the end turns out to be so basically mistaken that the marvel is that it worked at all.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Science and Human Values, Part 4 “The Abacus and the Rose” (1956)
 
Added on 26-Dec-16 | Last updated 26-Dec-16
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“When did life get so complicated?” she wondered to Dimity.

“Boys,” said Dimity succinctly.

Gail Carriger (b. 1976) American archaeologist, author [pen name of Tofa Borregaard]
Curtsies & Conspiracies (2013)
 
Added on 3-Nov-16 | Last updated 3-Nov-16
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Sometimes I don’t know if my life is complicated, or if it’s that I just think too much about things.

John Scalzi (b. 1969) American writer
Zoe’s Tale (2008)
 
Added on 20-Sep-16 | Last updated 20-Sep-16
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Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Following the Equator, ch. 15, epigraph, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar” (1897)
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Sometimes paraphrased, "Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense." More on this quotation and its variants here.
 
Added on 17-Jul-15 | Last updated 20-Jan-19
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The older I get, the more wisdom I find in the ancient rule of taking first things first — a process which often reduces the most complex human problems to manageable proportions.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
“Let’s Be Honest with Ourselves,” Reader’s Digest (Dec 1963)
 
Added on 13-Apr-15 | Last updated 13-Apr-15
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Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Russell L. Ackoff (1919-2009) American organizational theorist, consultant, management scientist
“The future of operational research is past,” The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol 30, pp.93-104. (1979)
 
Added on 19-Mar-15 | Last updated 19-Mar-15
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What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts (which are but the mute articulation of his feelings,) not those other things, are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world, with its scarred snow summits and its vacant wastes of water — and they are so trifling a part of his bulk! a mere skin enveloping it. The mass of him is hidden — it and its volcanic fires that toss and boil, and never rest, night nor day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written. Every day would make a whole book of eighty thousand words — three hundred and sixty-five books a year. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 (2010)
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Added on 11-Mar-15 | Last updated 28-May-18
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A problem never exists in isolation; it is surrounded by other problems in space and time. The more of the context of a problem that a scientist can comprehend, the greater are his chances of finding a truly adequate solution.

Russell L. Ackoff (1919-2009) American organizational theorist, consultant, management scientist
“The development of operations research as a science,” Operations Research (Jun 1956)
 
Added on 22-Jan-15 | Last updated 22-Jan-15
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I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen — I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones who look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline of good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the Big One comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of The Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies too. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British fabulist
American Gods, Part 2, ch. 13 [Sam] (2001)
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Added on 22-Jun-09 | Last updated 19-Jan-23
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Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

Lawrence J Peter
Lawrence J. Peter (1919-1990) American educator, management theorist
Peter’s Almanac, entry for 24 Sep. (1982).
 
Added on 14-Aug-07 | Last updated 3-Apr-20
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Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

Mencken - neat plausible and wrong - wist_info quote

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“The Divine Afflatus,” New York Evening Mail (16 Nov 1917)
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Reprinted in Prejudices: Second Series (1920) and A Mencken Chrestomathy, ch. 25 (1949).

Variants:
  • "There is always an easy solution to every human problem -- neat, plausible, and wrong."
  • "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 14-Dec-21
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Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) American poet
“Song of Myself,” sec. 51, ll. 1324-26, Leaves of Grass, Book 3 (1855)
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Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 17-Jun-22
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Great blunders are often made, like large ropes, of a multitude of fibers.

[Les fortes sottises sont souvent faites, comme les grosses cordes, d’une multitude de brins.]

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) French writer
Les Misérables, Vol. 2 “Cosette,” Book 5 “A Dark Chase Requires a Silent Hound,” ch. 10 “In Which it is explained how Javert lost the Game” (1862) [tr. Wilbour]

Alt. trans. [N. Denny (1980)]: "The greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often compounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, separate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can break them one by one. You think, 'That is all there was!' But twist them all together, and you have something tremendous." Full text. Cited as Part 2, ch. 5 "Hunt in the Darkness."
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 27-May-19
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“But the Great Plan can only be a tiny part of the overall ineffability,” said Crowley. “You can’t be certain that what’s happening right now isn’t exactly right, from an ineffable point of view.”

“It izz written!” bellowed Beelzebub.

“But it might be written differently somewhere else,” said Crowley. “Where you can’t read it.”

“In bigger letters,” said Aziraphale.

“Underlined,” Crowley added.

“Twice,” suggested Aziraphale.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Good Omens (1990) [with Neil Gaiman]
 
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 8-Jun-21
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