The author’s mind during Erholung


By the way, if The Hannibal Blog‘s intellect has seemed to you a bit less incisive than usual in the past week, it’s because its author is on holiday. Really on holiday, for the first time in two years or so.

(Lately, I’ve taken “vacations” mainly to write my book, so they were not “real”.)

A German word comes to mind:


It’s one of those words that have no direct translation. Er- is a syllable that can mean re-; holen means bring. So Erholen means something like bring back. It contains re-juvenation, re-laxation, re-generation and a few other re’s.

Usually, I restrict myself to an average of 30 minutes a day on this blog (writing and/or answering comments). But during this vacation I’ve cut that to 15 minutes a day, giving my wee’uns dibs on my time (or just staring at palms trees, which have a magical effect on me.)

My mind has become temporarily empty, as during deep sleep or coma. I choose to assume that this is prologue to a sort of rapid-eye-movement response as I re-emerge, and then to energetic, take-no-prisoners mental ferocity. 😉

Bookmark and Share

Schwarzenegger’s revanchist word game

[picapp src=”2/d/4/4/The_2009_Womens_8b22.jpg?adImageId=6962167&imageId=6924971″ width=”234″ height=”352″ /]

The following letter by Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, to the State Assembly would not seem to make for exciting reading. But that’s if you read it conventionally–ie, horizontally.

What if you read vertically? Could it be that the gubernator, cigar-chomping cad and prankster that he is, has had a bit of fun?

Tim Redmond spotted the hidden code. See if you find it:


[picapp src=”1/6/d/7/Gov_Schwarzenegger_Addresses_4e56.jpg?adImageId=6962178&imageId=4919912″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]

For background, AB 1176 was a bill by Tom Ammiano of San Francisco about infrastructure or something boring of that sort. The same Tom Ammiano recently did a reverse Joe Wilson and yelled “You lie” at Schwarzenegger, when the Republican governor had the audacity to drop in on a meeting of Democrats in a San Francsico ballroom. Ammiano then stormed out, yelling “Kiss my gay ass.”

So now Schwarzenegger is having a bit of revanchist fun. All in good humor, if you ask me. It is a sign of the unshophisticated mind to get squeamish about this sort of thing. Ammiano himself is probably laughing loudest.

If you have not already spotted it, here is the hint:


Bookmark and Share

Uniting the two kinds of enlightenment

Kant clarified

Kant clarified

The English word enlightenment can have two quite different contexts:

  1. The (Western) Enlightenment of the 18th century. You know: Kant, Voltaire, Hume, reason, the American and French Revolutions and all that.
  2. The (Eastern) Enlightenment that the Buddha, Patanjali, and various Zen masters and bodhisattvas have achieved through meditation and Yoga. Samadhi, nirvana, satori and all that.
Buddha illuminated

Buddha illuminated

The two are completely different, of course. The former is largely a collective phenomenon, one in which ideas elevated all of society. The latter is largely an individual phenomenon in which one person, through sudden insight (Zen) or hard and prolonged work (Ashtanga Yoga), achieves inner peace and freedom.

In fact, the same exact difference came up when I talked about freedom: There is:

  1. the (Western) Enlightenment view of freedom: Latin liberLiberalism, Liberty, and
  2. the Existentialist and Eastern views of freedom (moksha in Sanskrit).

Anyway, what this means is mainly that the limitation lies in the English word Enlightenment. German, for instance, has two separate words:

  1. The Western Enlightenment is called Aufklärung. The term was coined by Kant and means literally clarification (Auf-klär-ung = Up-clear-ing, for you fellow linguists. Incidentally, it can also refer to a young person learning about the birds and bees).
  2. The Eastern Enlightenment is called Erleuchtung, which means illumination, often symbolized with the halo (ie, ring of light) on the crown chakra of the Buddha or Jesus.

Why I bring this up

That difference between Aufklärung and Erleuchtung came up in 2007 when I was talking with Michael Murphy, one of the two founders of the New Age retreat Esalen. I was interviewing him for a profile of Esalen in the Christmas Issue of The Economist that year. Murphy is now in his seventies and lives in Sausalito, so I went there to see him. We sat by the waterfront and talked about absolutely everything except what we were supposed to talk about. For instance, he was the first person other than my agent, parents or wife whom I told about my book idea, and that really got him going. It was the best kind of conversation.

Anyway, so Murphy and I talked about the two kinds of Enlightenment, and to my surprise this Irish-American aging Hippie delves into German etymology. But it was appropriate. An oversimplified summary of his life work–at Esalen and in his books–is that he tried to unite Aufklärung and Erleuchtung, West and East, in an effort to liberate our full “human potential”. Hence the Human Potential Movement, which he helped to found at Esalen in the 60s, when folks like Abe Maslow were teaching there.

Instinctively, that is what I also aspire to: Uniting the two kinds of Enlightenment in my life. You see it when I call Diogenes a “Greek Buddha” or Abe Maslow a “Jewish Buddha,” or when I draw parallels between the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Feng Shui.

Somewhere between East and West (though perhaps not in the “middle East”)–somewhere between reflection and science, eternity and progress, mythos and logos–there must be something worth finding. I’m sure of it.

Bookmark and Share

Elitism: Socrates’ Athens to Palin’s America



Socrates was a snob, an unabashed elitist. How I love him.

Now, I know it’s not fashionable to be an elitist in today’s America–every four years, a Palinesque figure emerges to tell you that you don’t belong to “real America”. Elites, in some vague and unspecified way, then become those people out there who conspire to keep the honest folks down.

Socrates had none of it, and he too eventually ran into the Palin faction of his time. So this is yet another way in which Socrates, with his life and thought and personality, speaks to us across the ages, as we are discovering in this thread.

The mob and the experts

As ever, we must see Athens as his analog of America. So how did the Athenians see themselves? Above all, as free. Their word for their city was polis, a free and self-governing state. That’s where we get our word politics.

So the non-slave, male Athenians of a certain class lounged around the Acropolis and Agora, debating in their assemblies and deliberating in their huge juries–participating in this and that and every way.

To Socrates they were a dumb herd of sheep. It’s not that he was against democracy per se. It’s just that, as I.F. Stone puts it in his work of investigative journalism about the trial of Socrates (about which more in later posts), Socrates believed in

rule neither by the few nor the many but by the one who knows.

In short, he was neither oligarch nor democrat, but elitist! An Athenian, he always loved and admired Sparta, the elitist enemy of Athens.

(The orginal Greek meaning of aristocrat was “rule of the best”, similar to our meritocrat. How strange that we need to mix Latin and Greek roots together to understand a word properly. See: television.)

So Socrates thought it was just as ridiculous for the Athenians to expect masons and smiths to “govern” and “judge” in the assembly and jury-courts as it would be for them to hire a mason to build a ship. Obviously, they’d get a shipwright. So too they should get a properly qualified statesman for the ship of state.

Better, therefore, to look for the best, then train them, then pick the best again, then train them even more. What you are doing is eligere in Latin, to elect in English, élire in French, and that last variant is where elite comes from.

Americans in particular love this kind of market selection. When they step onto plane and hear from the pilot, when they send in the Marines overseas, when they appoint and compensate CEOs, they are proudly rooting for members of the respective elite.

Just don’t tell Americans that they love elites. When it comes to politics, nothing has changed since, well, the polis. Some sort of Nietzschean slave morality, a ressentiment against anybody who might think of himself as uppity, seizes Americans. This is when you get, say, billionaires posing for the cameras chowing hot dogs and slurping beers, to prove that they are ordinary enough to be president.

The downside of Socrates’ elitism, if we had ever tried to put his ideas into practice, may have been that we would have got a totalitarian society. Indeed, that’s not good.

The downside for Socrates personally was that they gave him hemlock. We’ll get to that.

Bookmark and Share

The original “gadfly”: Socrates’ negativity


Socrates saw himself as “a gadfly to a horse”, where the horse was Athens–a “sluggish horse” in need of a bit of “stinging”. This the origin of our cliché. As we keep discovering in this thread on Socrates, the old man is still with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.

Socrates also liked to compare himself to a midwife. (Perhaps that metaphor came to him because his mother was a midwife.) What he meant by it was that, through his dialectical questioning and conversation, he “birthed” the thoughts that his conversation partners were already pregnant with. Put differently: He felt that he brought something out of people: he led (Latin ducare) something out (ex), ie educated.

But how did others see him?

Cicero, a few centuries later, said that Socrates practiced a “purely negative dialectic which refrains from pronouncing any positive judgment.”

Hippias, one of the sophists (teachers) Socrates interrogated, said that “You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.”

Meno, another conversation “partner”, tells Socrates that “You are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it… For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed.”

In short, it is hard to avoid concluding that Socrates left everybody feeling bad. If you were lucky, he merely belittled or embarrassed you; if you were unlucky, he exposed and humiliated you. He never made anybody feel confident or good. In our lingo, he left everybody 😦 and nobody 🙂 .

What if Socrates had talked to Patanjali?

This is quite worth thinking about.

You recall that Patanjali was my nomination for the title of “the world’s greatest thinker ever“. He was the original sage of Ashtanga Yoga. Which is to say: Whereas the Bhagavad Gita outlines Ashtanga Yoga (which it calls “Raja Yoga”: “regal union” or “kingly discipline”) in a narrative form, Patanjali was the first to analyze the “how to”, step by step.

As it happens, he had a lot to say about something that Socrates valued: truth, or Satya in Sanskrit. It is one of the Yamas, or ethical principles, that yogis must adhere to if they want to embark on the journey that leads to enlightenment. Don’t lie, in Commandment language, to others or yourself.

But Patanjali is more subtle than Socrates. Another of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence: Don’t hurt people (others or yourself), physically or psychologically.

The subtlety lies in understanding that Satya and Ahimsa, truth and gentleness, often conflict. It may be true that you are ugly, but do I need to tell you that and hurt you? In Socrates’ case, it may have been true that his interlocutors were, if not ignorant, at least far less wise than they pretended. But did he need to humiliate them publicly?

There was widespread consensus that his negativity helped the cause of truth only insofar as it tore down certain falsehoods. That’s a step forward! But Socrates did not then build on the rubble with a positive truth.

Patanjali might ask Socrates: What, sir, were you trying to accomplish by humiliating your opponents in your dialectic? Did you not forget your own distinction between eristic dialogue, in which the parties try to win, and proper dialectic, which brings people closer together in the common search for truth?

Sometimes, in life and world history, one must be violent in the name of truth. Other times truth is not worth violence. There must be a higher purpose, a positive goal. Otherwise a gadfly is just another gnat that bites to feed on the blood of others.

Bookmark and Share

Socrates and the original think tank



And so we continue this thread on Socrates, and the profound ways that he is still with us today.

We’ve been looking at his ideas about conversations, good and bad, and his skepticism toward writing (as opposed to oral conversation). But what did this in fact lead to, in practical terms?

It led to a weird, perambulatory kind of school, as Socrates walked around with various people, mostly younger, engrossed in conversation. This would ultimately get him in trouble, of course. But before it got him killed, it merely raised eyebrows.

Aristophanes, the greatest comedian of ancient Greece and Socrates’ most cutting parodist, invented a word for this kind of purposeful and moderated conversation, in his play the Clouds: a thinkery (phrontisterion).

A think tank, in other words.

Indeed, think tanks are among Socrates’ legacies. His student Plato took over a grove dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and founded his Academy, which lasted for three hundred years, throughout the entire Hellenistic era.

One of the people perambulating and thinking and conversing at that Academy was Aristotle, who eventually took over another grove, dedicated to Apollo, the god of wisdom (and other things), and also started a think tank, called the Lyceum.

In time, Academy and Lyceum became the roots for “school” in many languages, depending on whether the insitution leant toward Platonism or Aristotelianism. But the more direct descendants today might be the likes of Heritage, Cato and Tellus.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need to start looking at whether Socrates actually practiced what he preached in his peculiar style of conversation. Stay tuned.

Bookmark and Share

The spoken and the written word


So Socrates loved good conversations, which he called dialectic, and disdained bad conversations, which he called eristic, as I described in the previous post of this series on Socrates. But that actually opens up lots and lots of fascinating and difficult issues.

For instance: the relative value of the spoken and the written word.

Since I happen to write words for a living, I spend quite a bit of time pondering this, as you might imagine.

Socrates never wrote a single word. He did not believe in it. Why waste your time killing words (since to write them down was, to him, to kill them) when you could send them back and forth in intimate conversation such as the scene (with him on the left) above?

His student Plato was more schizophrenic on the point. He agreed with Socrates but also, obviously, felt that he should write things down to make them immortal, to reach more people, to make Socrates’ wisdom ‘scalable’ in our lingo. So he compromised, you see: He “wrote” by transcribing … conversations!

One generation on, and we get to Aristotle, who clearly did not agree at all, and wrote what we would consider genuine philosophical treatises. No qualms about the written word at all!

Why did Socrates disdain the written word?

He sort of tells us in one of his (ie, Plato’s) dialogues, the Phaedrus. He takes several shots:

  • He tells a legend from Egypt, in which a god gives a king the gift of writing as an aid to memory. The king, however, observes that writing things down is likely to be a remedy for reminding, at the expense of remembering, and thus will lead to less wisdom, not more.
  • He then compares writing to paintings, which “remain most solemnly silent” whenever you question them, and just say the same thing over and over, stupidly and dumbly. People wise and ignorant alike will look at them and understand and misunderstand them. And they (the words/pictures) cannot talk back, defend themselves, explain themselves.

So text has several problems, in Socrates’ opinion:

  1. It is not a conversation, not dialectic, because it cannot go back and forth and climb toward something higher, such as a truth.
  2. An author has no control over what idiots or assholes might read his text, whereas somebody in oral conversation does control with whom he speaks.
  3. Words outside of their original context (ie the intention of the person using them, and the way a listener might hear them) can mean anything, and thus nothing at all.

Ultimately, Socrates disdained writing for a subtler reason that unifies all these points: It’s just not what life is about!

Instead, life is about communing with others and discovering yourself and truths in conversation. Not about recording this or that, or propagating this or that. Socrates believed that you can’t find yourself when you write, only when you converse.

Where does that leave us writers?

In a tight spot, it would seem.

Then again, we have moved on 2,400 years, and few things are becoming clearer. Here is how I would converse with Socrates on the matter if he were to visit us today:

The need for conversation…

First, I would tell him that he is mostly right, even and especially for writers. Only a tiny part of “writing” consists of typing words–5%, if I had to guess. The other 95% consists of living, experiencing, interviewing, discussing, talking, reading what others have written, and so on. The ideas and stories that end up on pages don’t come out of nowhere. They still come out of conversations.

… but also for order

But writing, which should never replace conversation, has something to contribute: order. Real conversations–and Socrates’ own dialogue with Phaedrus is a great example–run all over the place, like foals on a meadow. That’s the fun. But it can also be frustrating when you want structure and discipline about one particular issue. Writing can simply be a way of forcing yourself to structure the thoughts that came up in conversations.

Why not written conversation?

This is one bit that Socrates overlooked. You can converse in written form.

Some of the greatest conversations in history have been exchanges of letters. Just think of Voltaire and Frederick the Great.

Today there is a fascinating technological twist. In 400 BCE, it was impossible to imagine ‘place-shifting’ (via tele-phony, far-hearing) or time-shifting conversations. But time-shifting is exactly what we do when we …. blog!. I write words, and those then turn into conversations in the comments below, or on other blogs that link to them. So the words are not dead at all. They can talk back. Writing can be conversation.

Indeed, by time-shifting the back-and-forth of a real conversation, the dialectic can become better. All of the people who talked to Socrates must have felt, a few hours later: “Doh! If only I had said…..” Well, now it’s possible to take a moment to think–without the distractions of, say, a famously ugly face such as Socrates’, or body odor, or wind, or sun–and then to come back with a clearer thought.

The inevitability of context

But Socrates was right on at least one point: The written word without context, as provided by conversation, is treacherous. Just take this notorious example, which we call the 2nd Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Does that mean that a people has the right to keep an armed militia, or that every shmuck in the people individually has a right to bear everything from a pocket knife to nukes, whether there is a militia anywhere to be seen or not?

Socrates would find the author and … converse!

Bookmark and Share

Idioms: The Book

Congratulations to Jag Bhalla, whose witty wordsmithery adorns many comment threads on The Hannibal Blog, for publishing his new book today.

It’s called: “I’m not Hanging Noodles on your Ears” and is about idioms–their mystery, meaning, beauty. I’ve read it, and it’s witty and entertaining, humorous here and intellectual there. Get yourself to Amazon now.

Now if I could just set my own publisher’s butt on fire to get my own publication date.

Bookmark and Share

The hip, swinging world of lexicography

Erin McKean

Erin McKean

Words are alive, says Erin McKean in this TED talk below. She is a lexicographer, shares my geeky infatuation with words and will make equally gratuitous use of the bizarre ones.

Here she deplores the dictionary industry, which has been frozen in time. As a dictionary editor she no longer wants to be a

traffic cop

who “lets in the good words and keeps out the bad words.” Instead, she would rather be a


who casts his net into the ocean of English to find what is there.

In another talk, she points out how worldview affects our relationship to language. Noah Webster–the Webster–apparently thought that all languages derive from Chaldean, since Noah–the Noah–spoke Chaldean and, well, he was the only one who survived the flood, wasn’t he?

(Also in that talk: Why “ass hat” is a great word, but not one that will make it into her dictionary. Defined as: Somebody who behaves as though he were wearing his ass as a hat.)

Herewith, the TED talk:

Bookmark and Share

About not confusing length with depth


A brief meditation on: length in writing, which is to say word count.

As a writer I am intensely aware of word count, throughout the entire process, even while I am still conceptualizing my story idea. What would be the natural length of this idea? What new idea would I have to add, or how would I have to expand the idea, to justify more word count? Could I deliver the same idea in fewer words?

At The Economist we have a very inflexible page layout. For example:

  • A lead note, in our jargon, is the first piece in a section, and should just turn a page, but within a prescribed line count. = 1,100 words
  • A note, which is a regular piece in a section, = 600 or 700 words.
  • A column–such as Lexington (US), Charlemagne (Europe), Banyan (Asia), Bagehot (Britain), Face Value (Business), Economics Focus (Finance), or Obituary–is a few words short of 1,000.
  • A box, ie a short and quirky sidebar, = 300 or 500. And so on.

I have learned to like writing for prescribed word counts. It is great discipline.

For example: When I write Face Values, I write 990 words, then cut six words to leave my piece one line short. Why? Because that way an editor can’t take anything out without putting it back in! 😉 It’s also my way of winking at my editor, and they, tending to be cavaliers, usually get it and wink back.

Even in these sloppy blog posts, I always look at the word count, out of interest. Did you know that the average blog post, and possibly also the ideal blog post, is about 250 words? That’s just about what our boxes are at The Economist. My average is above that, but that is beside the point. The point is that….

Length matters

Take the New Yorker. My former boss, Bill Emmott, once said that its writers tend to:

confuse length with depth.

I heard Bill say this when he was leaving The Economist and giving farewell interviews, in which he was explaining what was special about The Economist. Brevity, for one thing.

Of course I know where that reaching for length on the part of writers comes from. All my students (when I taught at a Journalism School) always wanted to write long pieces. There is more kudos in it. You don’t get awards for 300-word pieces.

Well, that is a scandal. You should get awards for 300-word pieces, and even for shorter pieces. Haikus! Limericks! Sonnets!

(Editor: ‘Nice piece, William, but, you know, could you make it longer? William: ‘Er, OK. How ’bout: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, in the sweltering and sultry heat, just after a really, really big downpour….’)

Why do people never listen to what the great writers say? That same William in the sonnet joke, for instance, said, via Polonius (in Hamlet, II, 2), that

brevity is the soul of wit.

Or take Mark Twain, his American equivalent:

I’m sorry I didn’t have time to write you a shorter letter.

Or take Ed Carr, one of my editors, who once, 10 years ago, told me to

crucify your darlings,

by which he meant that I should write and then find the phrases in my writing that I was most proud of (!) and just … cut them! For the heck of it. To prove to myself that I can. To stay humble and nimble. That phrase was my screen saver for three years.

Seeing negative shape


Well cut

The skill in all the arts is to take away stuff, not to add stuff. When they asked Michelangelo once how he made such beautiful figures out of stupid blocks of marble, he said something like:

Easy. I visualize the figure inside, then I cut away the rest.

A lot of art goes wrong because the artist does not dare to do that. This is when a great and riveting Hollywood movie suddenly becomes unbearable — because instead of ending when it should, it goes on for another twenty minutes of moral summary and closure (in a courtroom, probably) just in case you didn’t get it.

Cutting into flesh

Michelangelo only cut marble fat, not marble flesh, of course. Over-cutting is just as bad as over-writing. This has also  happened to me.

Sometimes, I write something that demands space and expansion, but then news happens and our layout changes at the last minute and an editor has to cut my piece to fit. This can go wrong. Perhaps the piece was subtly humorous or ironic, and now the tiny signals and implied winks are missing and it falls flat. Or a logical connector gets cut and the piece seems like a non sequitur. Or something went from being simplified to oversimplified and is just plain wrong.

Or a writer might simply have a great subject that, by nature, wants to go on and be told as a story but instead dies a premature death.

But I’ve observed that writers overwhelmingly err to one side: they overwrite; they rarely overcut. And they suffer more when an editor cuts than when an editor asks for more. Even though, to improve, they should always consider both options, simultaneously.

All of this is simply to say: Every story, every thought, every joke, every movie, every poem has a natural (=optimal) length. A lot of good writing is simply intuiting that length and then writing to it, and not one word more or less. Unless you want to wink at your editor and leave it one line short.