November 9: The Thinker’s Almanac

November 9:   Fermi and the ‘Great’ General

On this day in 1934, astronomer and Pulitzer Prize winning author Carl Sagan was born.  Sagan’s talent and enthusiasm for describing the stars made him America’s best known scientist.  His public television series “Cosmos” was one of the most widely viewed series in television history, challenging viewers to contemplate the vastness of the universe and the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe.  

The Demon-Haunted World, first edition cover.jpg
Cover of the First Edition (Wikipedia)

In Sagan’s posthumously published book The Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark (1997), he challenges readers to explore the universe of their mind.  In a chapter called “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” Sagan explores the dos and the don’ts of sound, skeptical thinking.  In the tradition of the scientific method, Sagan challenges the reader to have at the ready the following principles for detecting nonsense in any argument:

1. Do an independent confirmation of the facts.

2. Debate the argument, seeking all points of view.

3.  Spin more than one hypothesis by seeking out other possible explanations and disconfirming evidence.

4.  Fight against the instinct toward confirmation bias by keeping an open mind.

5.  Look for quantifying evidence, numerical data, that supports the argument.

6. Examine your line of reasoning, checking to make sure that every link in the chain of argument is sound.

7. Use Occam’s Razor as a rule of thumb when examining alternative hypotheses.

8. Test your hypothesis.  Think like a scientist to determine how a skeptic might approach your argument.  Just as a science experiment can be duplicated, would your conclusions hold up under scrutiny?

To illustrate the scientist’s skeptical mindset, Sagan shared an anecdote about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who emigrated to America during World War II to work on the Manhattan project.  On the way to meet one of the leaders he would be working with on the government project, Fermi’s companion told him that the man they were about to meet was a “great general.” Fermi immediately challenged the claim with some questions:

What is the definition of a great general?  Fermi characteristically asked.  I guess it’s a general who’s won many consecutive battles.  How many? After some back and forth, they settled on five.  What fraction of American generals are great?  After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

Fermi challenged his companion to question the hypothesis and to consider an alternative one:  that there is no such thing as a great general.  This would mean that the winning or losing of battles would be left to chance.  Quantifying the argument would make the chances of winning a single battle one out of two, “or ½, two battles ¼, three ⅛, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 — which is about 3 percent.”  Based on these numbers, it is possible that an American general might by chance win five consecutive battles.  Fermi concluded with another question:  “Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles . . .?” (1).

Since Sagan’s death in 1996 at the age of 62, the amount of baloney in our world has grown exponentially.  More than ever, we need to keep in mind Sagan’s principles of baloney detection, and always be ready, like Fermi was, to apply them as a means to being scrupulously skeptical.


November 2: The Thinker’s Almanac

November 2

Subject: Mortality — “The Appointment in Samarra,” Steve Jobs, and Memento Mori

Event: Write Your Own Epitaph Day

It’s the one universal, the one reality that all must face.  Whether rich or poor, a king or a commoner, we all are mortal.  Everyone dies.  Or, as Jim Morrison said, “No one gets out of here alive.”  There’s an ancient story that comes to mind called “The Appointment in Samarra”:

A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the public market. When the servant returned, he approached his master trembling with fear.  “Master” he said, “When I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd.  I turned and saw Death looking at me in the face, and she made a threatening gesture towards me.  Please, Master, please allow me to take one of your horses and flee from this city to Samarra so that death will not find me and so that I can avoid my fate.”  The merchant granted his servant’s request, and within minutes the servant was galloping away to Samarra.  Next, the merchant went down to the marketplace and saw Death standing in the crowd.  The Merchant approached death and asked, “Why did you make a threatening gesture towards my servant?”  Death replied incredulously, “That was not a threatening gesture; it was a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see your servant in Bagdad, because I had an appointment with him today in Samarra.”

Some, like the merchant, try to forget or avoid this inevitability; however, there is an ancient tradition of embracing it, not to be morbid but instead to be proactive.

In the Roman tradition, it’s known as memento mori, and it’s even on the calendar:  January third.  In Latin memento mori translates, “remember that you must die.”  The phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris.  When a Roman general was paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot.  As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear:  “memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).

The Stoic philosophers embraced memento mori as a reminder of life’s transience and of the importance of making each minute count.  Instead of fearing death, philosophers like Epictetus tried to reframe it, saying, “Death and pain are not frightening, it’s the fear of pain and death we need to fear.”  For centuries, an entire genre of artworks has been produced around the memento mori theme, usually depicting a skull and an hourglass (2).

Memento mori is not just for Roman generals or Stoics, however.  After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. 

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  (2)

One sure way to face mortality is to take a walk in a cemetery, perusing the gravestones and reading the epitaphs.  Today, November 2, is the perfect day for such a ruminative stroll because it is National Write Your Own Epitaph Day (3).  It’s a day to remember your mortality but also to consider what words you will leave behind to the living.  How might you distill the wisdom of your life into a single concise aphorism?

1-Crosby, Daniel. Memento Mori – The Ancient Roman Cure for Overconfidence.

2-Jobs, Steve.  Death is Very Likely the Single Best Invention of Life.  The Guardian. 10 Oct. 2011.


November 1:  Art Imitates Life Day

On this day in 1866, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky met a very important deadline.  Based on the terms of his contract with his publisher, Dostoyevsky would either deliver his completed novel on November 1, 1866 or his publisher would be given complete rights to his works, without compensation, for the next nine years.  Clearly entering into such a contract was a gamble, but then Dostoyevsky had a reputation as a gambler.  After all, the reason he agreed to a contract with such stark terms was because he was desperate for money to pay off his gambling debts.

When Dostoyevsky began work on his novel on October 4, 1866, he had just 26 days to finish.  To assist him, he hired a stenographer, a woman named Anna Grigorievna whom he would later marry.  They met daily.  Dostoyevsky dictated the story to Grigorievna, and on November 1st, two hours before the deadline, the complete manuscript was delivered to the publisher.

The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel is appropriately The Gambler, and its plot revolves around several desperate characters winning and losing at the roulette table.  In the novel, art imitates life as the author’s addiction to roulette is the focus of his novel’s plot.

Today’s Challenge:  From Fact to Fiction

What anecdote from your life would be worthy of adapting to fiction?  Just as Dostoyevsky used his life experiences, his passions, and his misfortunes for his fiction, the challenge here is to take something from your life and adapt it into a fictional anecdote.  Once you have an actual incident, transform it into fiction by creating a character in a specific setting.  Decide also on a point of view – 1st person or 3rd person (limited or omniscient).  Then, write your anecdote.  Base the plot of your anecdote on the facts of your experience, but also use your poetic license as a fiction writer to embellish the facts. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Nissley, Tom.  Reader’s Book of Days.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 2014:  315.