Kent  Pitman's

Quotes, Quoted Back

For the sake of people (including myself) who can't remember where I said various quotable things, or who are curious about the context, I've created this annotated repository. If you know of others that should go here, please feel free to mention them to me.

Pitman's Two-Bit Rule

From ...

“If you have two bits of information to represent,
   use two bits to represent it.
Neither coincidence nor convenience
   justifies overloading a single bit.”

—Pitman's Two-Bit Rule

To understand this quote, it may help to know:

Pitman's Lisp Utility Caveat

During discussion of my Slashdot interview (part 1), I wrote the much-quoted phrase:

“Please don't assume Lisp is only useful for Animation and Graphics, AI, Bioinformatics, B2B and Ecommerce, Data Mining, EDA/Semiconductor applications, Expert Systems, Finance, Intelligent Agents, Knowledge Management, Mechanical CAD, Modeling and Simulation, Natural Language, Optimization, Research, Risk Analysis, Scheduling, Telecom, and Web Authoring just because these are the only things they happened to list.”

The detailed context was:

Re:More Lisp (Score:1)
by NetSettler (460623) on Friday November 09, @10:29 (#2543265)

Re: One's choice of language has nothing to do with one's intelligence.

Neither does one programmers's choice of application area have anything to do with a language's suitability for other things. Go to Franz's success stories page [] for a list of Lisp success stories. But please don't assume this is an exhaustive list, and please don't assume Lisp is only useful for Animation and Graphics, AI, Bioinformatics, B2B and Ecommerce, Data Mining, EDA/Semiconductor applications, Expert Systems, Finance, Intelligent Agents, Knowledge Management, Mechanical CAD, Modeling and Simulation, Natural Language, Optimization, Research, Risk Analysis, Scheduling, Telecom, and Web Authoring just because these are the only things they happened to list. Common Lisp really is a general language capable of a lot more than these few incidental application areas, even if this web page doesn't totally bring that out.

Re: Lisp does indeed seem to have more than its fair share of elitists, however.

Your use of the word "seem" of course makes this a statement about you and your ability to perceive, not a factual statement about the world. If you had made this a factual statement about the world, I'd ask to know your source of statistics and the nature of your accounting techniques to make sure you were not applying any kind fo selective bias or personal opinion. But fortunately, that won't be necessary.

I'm also not really sure why elitism of individual users is an issue. Languages are not elitist, people are. And I think that's just a sometimes side-effect of passion (unless you're making a claim that something in the language semantics forces this, a claim that would require more documentation than you've given). Are there languages that don't attract passionate people? I'd be more afraid of a language that didn't inspire passion than one that did.

Kent M Pitman
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer

Pitman's Meta-Rule about Monopoly and Law

From a post on September 4, 2003 to Usenet group comp.lang.lisp:

“Any sufficiently advanced monopoly behavior is indistinguishable from law.”

Detailed context, from the article (hypertext link added here by me):

I mentioned monopolies myself in my prior message not to open the subject, but to hopefully head off a whole branch of discussion that insisted we needed to change "software license law" because otherwise monopolies will impose their licenses in this or that way. My point is that if you allow monopolies, a lot of rules break. While there may be a variety of ways of breaking up monopolies, the point is that in the context of this discussion on "responsible licenses", if it's a relevant at all to Lisp, it's relevant only in the context where you disallow discussions of monopoly powers, since otherwise you're in a frame of discussion where a kind of magic applies, in the sense that, paraphrasing Clarke, "any sufficiently advanced monopoly behavior is indistinguishable from law".

Pitman's Exotic and Inspired Corollary to Clarke's Third Law

In a July 2006 post to comp.lang.lisp, I wrote:

“Any insufficiently understood (or deliberately obfuscated) form of the Routine or the Obvious is indistinguishable from the Exotic or the Inspired.”

This may also be expressed as:

“Just because you don't understand how intelligence works, doesn't mean there's something smart going on.”

Detailed context from the post (hypertext link added here by me):

To me, inspiration is exactly just a subjective view on certain instances of labor. (Those instances sometimes seem to the person doing the subjective assessment as if they were not just the routine application of one's own individuality because the observer's unique individuality would not lead to those same results under routine use. And so we like to attach a mystique to such events.)

I think, it just follows from the Clarkian claim that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, if you take thought as a technology. If you need it in pithy form, I suggest:

Pitman's Exotic and Inspired Corollary to Clarke's Third Law:

Any insufficiently understood (or deliberately obfuscated) form of the Routine or the Obvious is indistinguishable from the Exotic or the Inspired.

Put another way:

Just because you don't understand how intelligence works, doesn't mean there's something smart going on.

I often think that the reason that the essence of intelligence is so elusive is that we assume it's there at all.

Pitman's Meta-Rule about Political Answers

In a February, 1999 post to comp.lang.lisp, responding to the late Erik Naggum on a matter of politics, I wrote:

“There are no political answers, only political questions.”

Expanded context from that newsgroup item:

I have often said in political arenas: there are no political answers, only political questions. If a question is political, the answer is political. People often have a political way of viewing a situation that obscures this symmetry, but it's there.

A key issue is that the status quo is often a choice, but is often politically spun, sometimes obliviously and sometimes in true Machiavellian style, as if it were not. Someone says “We must not do X because that would be political,” failing to acknowledge that if doing X is political, so is not doing X.

I've extended this paradigm to span religion, as well, in my 2010 post Hawking God:

“There are no religious answers, only religious questions.”

Here is the expanded context, though naturally I recommend the entire article:

I have often said, “there are no political answers, only political questions.” That is, it can't be the case that you can ask a question to which one answer is a “political answer” and another answer is “not political.” Politicians often try to disguise political outcomes by claiming they are “just” the status quo, for example, as if the status quo were not a political result. People often try to persuade, or even coerce, others into a different choice by suggesting their response is political, and somehow could be otherwise. In my view, if a question is political, all possible answers to that question are by definition political; they do not subdivide into political answers and non-political answers. If you find someone suggesting otherwise, it's time to stop the conversation and point at the question and identify that as political.

I feel the same about religion and so hereby announce a corrolary: “There are no religious answers, only religious questions.” That is, having asked a question, you can't point to one answer as religious and another as not. If the question provokes a religious answer in some, it provokes a religious answer in all.

And, going back to that original 1999 newsgroup item, I also made the following, more confusing variation on the same theme:

“there are no ethical choices, only ethical dilemmas.”

Alas, the intent of this wording was probably not easily intelligible because of an ambiguity I didn't anticipate at the time I wrote it. The term “ethical choice” has come to mean a “a choice that reflects good ethical judgment” rather than (as I intended here) “a choice that requires the application of ethics to make any judgment” (which would span choices that require bad ethical judgment or even just different ethical judgment). So my meaning was obscured. Sadly, the only less-ambiguous restatements of this idea that I've come up with end up so long and tedious that they lose the power of a pithy quote. Such is the nature of ethical debate, I suppose. (Perhaps we could improve people's willingness to engage in it if we made conversation on the matter less tedious.)

Pitman’s Assessment of Lisp’s Success

In Ventonegro, I am quoted as saying the following on the comp.lang.lisp newsgroup:

“And anyway, the subject line presupposes that Lisp has not caught on. This is like saying that astrophysics or calculus or brain surgery has not caught on because in relative numbers, there might be more people doing other things. The success of Lisp is not measured in the number of people using it, it’s measured in the utility to those people who do use it. Turning it into C (or C++ or C#) to make it more popular would not be success. In the world’s menu of computer language options, we don’t need them all to be Taco Bell.”

Pitman's Shameless Rule

In a comment during discussion about a post on another topic, I wrote:

“There’s no shame in being treated badly.”

Expanded context:

There's a bit of alleged wisdom I made up and sometimes dispense on topics quite similar to this, and it almost stretches to this situation, too, so I'll try it: “There's no shame in being treated badly.” It's common for people to get this wrong and somehow think it's an embarrassment to themselves when they witness or sometimes even provoke a bad action in another. Bad actions by people do not reflect badly on the recipient, and if someone thinks it's too much of a chore to be nice or humble or forthcoming, let them think so. The situations you describe in people is not exactly mankind at its lowest; people could be worse people than merely to be unpleasant in conversation. But even so, I think the basic formulation is right, and that while the consequences may be less for screwing up manners rather than screwing up ethics, it doesn't mean one shouldn't try to get both right.
Kent Pitman
June 07, 2009 09:25 PM

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