Messy, Borges, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Jorge Luis Borges once told of the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’, a fabled Chinese encyclopedia. 

This tome, according to Borges (highly likely Borges invented these himself), organised animals into categories: 

(a) pertenecientes al Emperador,

(b) embalsamados,

(c) amaestrados, 

(d) lechones,

(e) sirenas, 

(f) fabulosos, 

(g) perros sueltos, 

(h) incluidos en esta clasificación, 

(i) que se agitan como locos, 

(j) innumerables, 

(k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, 

(l) etcétera, 

(m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, 

(n) que de lejos parecen moscas. 

a) belonging to the Emperor,

b) embalmed,

(c) trained (or tame; Eliot Weinburg translates as tame, but trained is more literal),

(d) suckling pigs (Weinburg) or piglets,

(e) Sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs [EW] (or loose dogs),

(h) included in this classification [present classification, EW],

(i) frenzied [EW]  (or crazed or agitated like crazy), (

j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair, (

l) et cetera (m) having just broken the vase (EW water pitcher], (

n) that from afar seem like flies [that from a long way off like like flies, EW]

[ offer my own translation alongside the classic one attrib. to Eliot Weinberger, I think]

Borges wrote these in response to John Wilkins (a 17th century philospher) who had proposed a universal language and classification system.

Tim Harford in Messy offers this:

This looks like a joke, but like other Borgesian jokes, it is serious. Most of these apparently absurd categories have practical merit. Sometimes we need to classify things according to who owns them; at other times we must describe their physical attributes, and different physical attributes will matter in different contexts. Sometimes we must be terribly specific–a cat is not a good substitute for a sucking pig if you are preparing a feast, and if we are to punish wrongdoing (whether breaking a pitcher or committing an armed robbery) we must identify the wrongdoer and no one else. But while each category is useful, in combination they are incoherent, and the encyclopedia sounds delectably unusable. Borges shows us why trying to categorise the world is not as straightforward as we like to believe. Our categories can map to practical real-world cases or they can be neat and logical, but rarely both at once.”

It’s a wonderous and insightful riposte to clean tidiness of exact categories.

Maybe he could have said of humans:

  1. Belonging to God

  2. Dead

  3. Law-abiding

  4. Babies

  5. Seductive

  6. Star-Shaped

  7. Nomadic

  8. Uncategorised

  9. Crazy

  10. City-Dwellers

  11. Captured on digital image

  12. Other

  13. Having just made something

  14. Having just broken something

  15. Look like slow moving ants

Breadth as well as deliberate practice

David Epstein in an essay based on his book suggests that late specialisation is useful and that the narrative of only 10,000 hours deliberate practice is not the only path to happiness and success.

Practice is still needed though. It chimes with being a “fox” over a “hedgehog”.

This is also useful in super-forecasting.

“Over time, as I delved further into studies about learning and specialisation, I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination). And I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too-often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient – it looks like falling behind.”

Link to Guardian article here:

Ideas that don't make sense, Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland  (advertising exec, Oligivy) on his book exploring similar themes on why human stuff works. For instance, we brush our teeth to feel/look good, not to fight teeth holes. We buy more stuff some times when prices go up. That we are really not “rational” most of the time.


The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea. Don’t design for average.

 It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical. 

The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience. A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget. 

The problem with logic is that it kills off magic. 

A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident. 

Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will. 

Solving problems using rationality is like playing golf with only one club. 

Dare to be trivial. 

If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.


Chimes with the study showing in the real world, people hand back wallets with money over those with no money…

I wonder what the Founder of Oligvy would have thoughts:

The book along with Messy by Tim Hartford well worth a read.

Thanking donors, no impact on donation

Study on if thanking donors has any impact on donating.  Answer = No (which is unexpected).  



Calling to thank donors is a key fundraising strategy in the non-profit sector. Yet the effectiveness of these calls remains untested. We report on field experiments with public television stations and a national non-profit in which new donors were randomized to receive a thank-you call or not. The experiments involved about 600,000 donors and 500,000 thank-you calls over 6 years. We found a precisely estimated null effect of calls on subsequent giving. This result is in stark contrast to the incentivized forecasts of fundraising professionals and the general public, who anticipated that calls would increase donor retention by about 80%.


Samek, Anya and Longfield, Chuck, Do Thank-You Calls Increase Charitable Giving? Expert Forecasts and Field Experimental Evidence (April 13, 2019). Available at SSRN:

In defence of Arts Education investment

"...The returns on investment in performing arts are significant, but the strength of any country and its people is about far more than the financial wealth it generates. We must challenge the dangerous narrative that equates success with the level of a graduate’s income and which reduces education to a financial transaction. If we don’t, we risk losing the next generation of artists and all that they contribute to our wellbeing and society…”

David Ruebain makes the case for protecting arts and creative education not only because of a financial return but because of its creative and social capital. This is a move that New Zealand is trying to capture more of by setting its budget by more than only looking at GDP.

The conservatoire David leads has one of the only Circus perfoming arts schools in the UK in its federation. The teaching of this art form we may be losing due to continued cuts to arts education.

His op-ed here:

On New Zealand and non-financial capitals:

And here you can see a YT of the Circus School:

Asian American, published and tours Asia, Winnie Li

Here my friend Winnie Li shares an opinion essay about the types of narratives Western publishers/platforms expect of Asians and Asian-American creatives  - and how work can be perceived differently on the other side of the world. Touches upon identity and the narratives we tell.

“...I am glad my Korean publishers recognized the value of promoting an Asian American female author to Asian women readers, but our readerships shouldn’t be limited by race.  It is truly a shame if Western publishers perceive a problematic gap between the race of an author and the race of a book’s intended readers—because there are readers of all ethnicities in the West, and we are all capable of empathy.  And literature, after all, is meant to transcend such human particularities. As a Taiwanese American girl growing up in the U.S., I certainly identified with characters who didn’t come from a world anything like mine: Scout Finch, Holden Caulfield, Bigger Thomas. And indeed, it works the other way around. I’ve had white male readers say that reading Dark Chapter made them understand a bit better what it’s like to be a woman, who cried reading the scenes of the heroine’s experience of the criminal justice system. So if they can identify with a Taiwanese American heroine, then that’s already one step towards progress….”

Why America is called America

Why America is called America and the power of acknowledging “We Don’t Know”

From Harari’s Sapiens: “During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces–one indication of the development of the scientific mindset, as well as of the European imperial drive. The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world. The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia. Columbus still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps. Using them, he calculated that Japan should have been located about 7,000 kilometres west of Spain. In fact, more than 20,000 kilometres and an entire unknown continent separate East Asia from Spain.

On 12 October 1492, at about 2 a.m., Columbus’ expedition collided with the unknown continent. Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted ‘Land! Land!’ Columbus believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast. He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies–what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago. Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life. The idea that he had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable for him and for many of his generation.

For thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers and scholars but also the infallible Scriptures had known only Europe, Africa and Asia. Could they all have been wrong? Could the Bible have missed half the world? It would be as if in 1969, on its way to the moon, Apollo 11 had crashed into a hitherto unknown moon circling the earth, which all previous observations had somehow failed to spot. In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in Europe. They were attributed to Vespucci. These texts argued that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not islands off the East Asian coast, but rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers and contemporary Europeans. In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having drawn it, Waldseemüller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in his honour–America. The Waldseemüller map became very popular and was copied by many other cartographers, spreading the name he had given the new land. There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’...”

Amazon link to Sapiens here.

Grice Maxims

Tools for Writing Dialogue

Grice’s Conversational Maxims

I’ve not across these maxims before or at least not described as Grice’s.  Huh…. shows still so much I don’t know.

From Stephen Jeffrey’s book: Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

“...As well as there always being a minimum of two speakers in every play, there is always at least one listener, even in a monologue, or when a character delivers a soliloquy. For as well as the person or persons on the stage to whom their speech is usually being made, there is always the theatre audience itself. An onstage character may be listening to the speech, but that wider audience is also listening and making certain assumptions. In this section, I want to talk about the ‘rules’ of conversation. Any audience will have preconceived ideas about those rules. There is an interesting literature on this subject, covering topics such as ‘turn-taking’( how do you know when it is your turn to speak? When do you deliberately step back and allow others to speak?) and ‘self-election’–i.e. deciding on the moment when it is your turn to speak. These kinds of questions are quite important to think about when you are writing dialogue, when it comes to choosing who is the next person to speak and deciding whether they are being encouraged to speak, or are having to interrupt to get their way.

The philosopher of language, Paul Grice, made the following observations about how conversation works in his 1989 book Studies in the Way of Words, which have come to be known as the ‘Gricean Maxims’.

Maxim of Quantity

1. Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than necessary.

Maxim of Quality

1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Relevance

Be relevant (i.e. say things related to the current topic of the conversation).

Maxim of Manner

1. Avoid obscurity of expression.

2. Avoid ambiguity.

3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness).

4. Be orderly.

When an audience is listening to stage dialogue, they will expect it to follow these basic conventions. However, what can be really interesting is to occasionally break the rules. You can experiment with breaking the rules systematically, one at a time, and you will find that extremely interesting things start to happen to your dialogue….

… here are a few brief notes on breaking them. The breaking of his two ‘Maxims of Quality’ (i.e. never to lie, or say something for which you lack evidence) have led to the creation of immortal villains, both tragic (Iago) and comic (Falstaff), as well as a mixture of both (Richard III). Not to break Grice’s ‘Maxim of Relevance’ (i.e. only to talk about what you are supposed to be talking about) would have deprived the world of such compelling digressors as Justice Shallow (in Henry IV, Part Two)–and even Hamlet, whose dialogue is perhaps the supreme example of breaking all four components of Grice’s ‘Maxim of Manner’: 1. Avoid obscurity of expression. 2. Avoid ambiguity. 3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness). 4. Be orderly. ‘Obscurity of expression’, which according to Grice is best avoided in our daily conversation, can be used to disguise a deceit or fault in a very useful way on stage, or in politics. Likewise ‘ambiguity’, which there are good reasons to avoid in real life. One of the most famously ambiguous sentences in the English language is ‘Let him have it’. In an infamous case from 1952, a policeman arrested two youths–Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley–on the roof of a building they had been trying to burgle. Bentley said to his accomplice, who was holding a gun, ‘Let him have it, Chris!’, which could have meant two things: either ‘Give the gun to the policeman’, or ‘Shoot him.’ Craig shot the policeman, but because he was sixteen he could not be prosecuted. Bentley, however, a nineteen-year-old with learning difficulties, was convicted, and then hanged, on the basis of his having apparently ordered the murder. (He was posthumously pardoned in 1998, seven years after a film–Let Him Have It–was made of the story.) The injunction to ‘be brief’ means avoiding the use of too many words to make your point (which is different to not giving too much information). ‘Be orderly’ means saying things in the correct order, rather than lurching from topic to topic, which we saw some of in the Nixon transcript. Florian Zeller’s The Father (2012) depicts an elderly man with dementia and is anything but orderly; the resulting confusion gives the audience some insight into the condition. It is always fascinating to break the rules, whether one at a time or all at once, and when you begin to experiment with such ‘conversational maxims’, amazing scenes are almost guaranteed to flow from your head….”