Activity and Achievement

February 14, 2013

“Politicians like to panic. They need activity. It’s their substitute for achievement.” – Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Economy Drive

“Why has he got the time? He shouldn’t have the time. That’s your fault Bernard. You are here to ensure that he hasn’t got the time. Create activity, Bernard. He should be making speeches, provincial visits. We need deputations, junkets abroad, mountains of red boxes. We need crises, emergencies, panics. Pull yourself together Bernard!” – Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Right to Know

“Ha Minister! We don’t measure our success by results but by activity and the activity is considerable and productive. Those 500 people are seriously over-worked!” – Sir Humphrey Appleby, The Compassionate Society

“Just one last question. As Cabinet Minister, with all this power, what have you personally achieved?”

“Achieved? Oh well, all sorts of things. Membership of the privy council. Membership of the party policy committee.”

“No, I mean things you have actually done that makes life for other people.”

“Make life better?”


“For other people? Well, there must be a number of things. After all, that’s what one’s job is about, isn’t it? 18 hours a day, 7 days a week!”

“Could you give me one or two examples though? Makes the bit boring otherwise.”

“Examples? Difficult to know where to start! So much of government is collective decisions. All of us together, best minds in the country, hammering it out.”

“Yes but what is it that you all will look back at it and say, ‘I did that’. Like a writer can look at his books.”

“Government is a complex business, Cathy. So many people have to have their say and these things take their time. Rome wasn’t built in a day Of course, … Good heavens! Is that the time? I really must be doing my boxes. You will have to excuse me Cathy.”

– Jim Hacker and Cathy, Equal Opportunities

“It calls for a particular combination of talents – lots of activity but no actual achievement” – Sir Arnold Robinson, The Bed of Nails


The Pursuit of Perfection

July 12, 2012

“He who is determined not to be satisfied with any thing short of perfection, will never do any thing at all, either to please himself or others. The question is not what we ought to do, but what we can do for the best.”

“… a dull plodding fellow will often do better than one of a more mercurial and fiery cast – the mere unconsciousness of his own deficiencies, or of any thing beyond what he himself can do, reconciles him to his mechanical progress, and enables him to perform all that lies in his power with labour and patience. By being content with mediocrity, he advances beyond it; whereas the man of greater taste or genius may be supposed to fling down his pen or pencil in despair, haunted with the idea of unattainable excellence, and ends in being nothing, because he cannot be every thing at once. Those even who have done the greatest things, were not always perhaps the greatest men. To do any given work, a man should not be greater in himself than the work he has to do; the faculties which he has beyond this, will be faculties to let, either not used, or used idly and unprofitably, to hinder, not to help. To do any one thing best, there should be an exclusiveness, a concentration, a bigotry, a blindness of attachment to that one object; so that the widest range of knowledge and most diffusive subtlety of intellect will not uniformly produce the most beneficial results; – and the performance is very frequently in the inverse ratio, not only of the pretensions, as we might superficially conclude, but of the real capacity.”

“Respice finem (consider the outcome), is the great rule in all practical pursuits: to attain our journey’s end, we should look little to the right or to the left; the knowledge of excellence as often deters and distracts, as it stimulates the mind to exertion; and hence we may see some reason, why the general diffusion of taste and liberal arts is not always accompanied with an increase of individual genius.”

– William Hazlitt, On The Qualifications Necessary For Success

Of Friendship

May 30, 2012

“Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will. Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired. Our sympathy is just as base. We come to them who weep foolishly, and sit down and cry for company, instead of imparting to them truth and health in rough electric shocks, putting them once more in communication with their own reason.” – Self-Reliance

“It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly, on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with regrets that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion. If he is unequal, he will presently pass away; but thou art enlarged by thy own shining, and, no longer a mate for frogs and worms, dost soar and burn with the gods of the empyrean. It is thought a disgrace to love unrequited. But the great will see that true love cannot be unrequited. True love transcends the unworthy object, and dwells and broods on the eternal, and when the poor interposed mask crumbles, it is not sad, but feels rid of so much earth, and feels its independency the surer. Yet these things may hardly be said without a sort of treachery to the relation. The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both.” – Friendship

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Technological Understanding of Being

December 12, 2011

M Wrathall: One of the dangers of technology is that it relieves us of the burden of having to develop skills. Technology is always sold as a labour saving device. When you buy the latest technology for cooking, the promise is that you can cook as well as a master without any of the skills the master has and that goes for everything, with music as well. So, all of us now today, can enjoy music of a quality unimaginable to most people in the history of the world, in the comfort of our homes, with very little cost and very little effort. That’s a great promise! Who would give up on that pleasure of hearing music in that way? But the danger is that we give in to the seductions of technology to the degree that we lose all of these skills.

I Thomson: The internet is actually a much better example because what the internet is doing is: it’s basically transforming all reality into information.

H Dreyfus: Everything on the internet is equal. You can have the most important information right next door to the most trivial; you can find out on Twitter what your friends had for breakfast and you can find out also that there were 100 people killed in Iraq that day. With Google you can find anything and you can go on Wikipedia and you can get any facts about anything and that is in certain ways terrific if you just use it for something relevant. But if you think that’s just the best thing in the world, just to have more and more information, more and more transformable stuff, more and more applications for your iPhone, that make it able to do more and more things and that’s just what it is all about, everything gets levelled; there’s no meaningful differences any more between what’s important and not important, what’s trivial and what’s crucial, what’s relevant and irrelevant; it’s all reduced to just more information.

C Taylor: If you want to really be efficient, you really don’t want this kind of, you know, interference – “Hey this is Sunday or this is Christmas” or something – you just can’t stop that or “This is the middle of night, what do you think you are doing?” No! ’24 X 7′ is one of the great great achievements of our civilisation. Things, some things, go on all the time, are available all the time. And it is very handy! You know, three o’clock in the morning, I can rush to my computer and I can google and nobody is going to say to me on the screen “This is not available, this page is not available because you are supposed to be sleeping”. No, they are going to give it me. So it’s absolutely great. I benefit from it myself but you can see what this is doing. What it is doing is that it is making us look at time as something that is infinitely usable and extensible – it doesn’t matter when it is I can access, right? – as against being forced back into understanding that there are times that are just different, that have a different quality. It’s not appropriate to use them in this way.

M Wrathall: And it is true that is changes us. So we have to become the kind of people who are satisfied with the sort of commodities that are delivered to us. You can imagine people who really are connoisseurs of jazz music, who really understand that one of the great things about jazz music is the way the musicians are responding to the performance hall, and the audience, and the particular musicians that are there, and the weather and whatever accidents that are happening. The jazz musicians are incorporating it into their performance.

J Smith: Responding to the other musicians is one of the most important things.

R Cross: In playing together, you will hear that in the music; where the piano plays something, the bass will react, the drums are playing and the trumpet will jump in. You are interacting with everything. Everything is part of what you are trying to get to. Anything can change what’s happening. A cell phone goes off and all of a sudden, it is like “Oh”, you know, Cat might make fun of it on the piano or even on the trumpet or whatever it is and it all becomes part of the performance.

M Wrathall: And you as a listener, are a skilful listener and have the bodily dispositions to pick up on that, you would never be satisfied by listening to a recorded jazz performance on CD because that’s not the performance that would be optimal for your bedroom or living room. But technology also makes the sort of flexible people who are satisfied with a sort of cheap imitation of all the goods that deeply skilful practices deliver.

Being in the World (imdb)

The Artist of Kouroo

September 6, 2011

There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all the creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful? – Conclusion, Walden; Life in the Woods

Heaven: Gold and Precious Stones

January 31, 2011

Heaven18 And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.

19 And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;

20 The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolyte; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.

21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.

Revelation 21

Sanctum Sanctorum

December 30, 2010

By all kinds of traps and sign-boards, threatening the extreme penalty of the divine law, exclude such trespassers from the only ground which can be sacred to you. It is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember! If I am to be a thoroughfare, I prefer that it be of the mountain-brooks, the Parnassian streams, and not the town-sewers. There is inspiration, that gossip which comes to the ear of the attentive mind from the courts of heaven. There is the profane and stale revelation of the bar-room and the police court. The same ear is fitted to receive both communications. Only the character of the hearer determines to which it shall be open, and to which closed. I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were,—its foundation broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds which have been subjected to this treatment so long.

If we have thus desecrated ourselves,—as who has not?—the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. – Life without principle