Reinhold Niebuhr on Hope, Faith, Love, and Forgiveness

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s book, The Irony of American History (1952):

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Via Katherine Tyler Scott. Hat tip to Joanna Levitt Cea.

Quote Investigator to the Rescue!

At the end of last year, I received a Christmas card from a friend with this lovely quote attributed to the great writer and thinker, James Baldwin:

Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.

As is my practice with quotes that I like, I did a quick search to see if I could confirm the source, and I came up empty. I saw this quote attributed to Baldwin hundreds of times with nary a citation. I then checked Wikiquote, which is invaluable for rooting out misattributed quotes, but had no luck there either.

Usually, at this point, I assume that the quote is misattributed, and I stop looking. But just a few weeks earlier, my friend, Kate, who knows about my hangup with misattributed quotes, sent me a link to Garson O’Toole’s website, the “Quote Investigator,” who “diligently seeks the truth about quotations.” I loved his website, and while it looked like he received more requests than he could handle, I decided to ask him for help on a whim.

Over two months had passed, and I had long figured that he had been too busy to respond. Then, this morning, to my surprise, I received an email from him! He had researched my request and had published his answer! In short, Garson was unable to find any evidence that James Baldwin said it. However, Garson’s story of the trail he followed was just as interesting. I’d encourage folks to read the whole story.

The virality of today’s Internet tools has its costs, as we’re recognizing more and more these days. But these same tools offer ways to counter to these problems… should we decide to leverage them (as Mike Caulfield passionately reminds us to do). I’m grateful for folks like Garson, and I’m grateful that the Internet — along with a good dose of real-life social connections — enabled me to find him. Seeing his research made my morning!

Copyright and the Evolution and Availability of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Speeches

Last week, I wrote a blog post for Faster Than 20 where I quoted some lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1961 commencement speech at Lincoln University. I first heard this and many others last summer on Spotify, which has a comprehensive playlist of King’s speeches.

The Lincoln University one grabbed me the most, and when I decided to revisit it last week, I searched for a transcription and was surprised that I couldn’t find one. I found a few scanned versions, but no transcriptions.

At first, that made me wonder about the copyright status of his speeches. As suspected, the King estate keeps tight hold over who and how his speeches get shared (as is its right). For example, it gave an exclusive film license to DreamWorks for an upcoming Steven Spielberg biopic, which meant that Ava DuVernay had to paraphrase his speeches for her movie, Selma.

Because I couldn’t find an existing transcript, I went through the trouble of transcribing one of the scanned versions for my own use. I also wondered whether some choice quotes from that speech were available anywhere. If not, I figured I could contribute some.

His Wikiquote page did not reference this particular speech, but it already had several of the quotes I wanted to share. Many of them, for example, appeared in his 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Not surprisingly, King reused parts of many speeches. It was fascinating to see how some of them evolved over time. I also think it’s fascinating to wonder how certain speeches became more prominent and others did not. I think his Lincoln University speech, for example, is far more powerful than the version he gave four years later at Temple Israel of Hollywood, but the latter is much easier to find.

I think this is unfortunate, but I’m glad that audio recordings of that speech (which is the best way to enjoy his speeches anyway) are more readily available:

Photo by Dick DeMarsico / New York World Telegram & Sun (November 6, 1964). From Wikimedia Commons.

“Collaboration” in the Public Consciousness

I was sorting through old books today, looking to get rid of a bunch, and I came across two ancient books of quotations, one from 1970, one from 1980. When I was younger, I used to use them a lot, but I hadn’t touched them in decades, and it was time for them to go.

I decided to find and record the quotes on collaboration, then give the books away. So I opened them up, and to my surprise, neither book had sections or indices on collaboration.

I realized this was an interesting way of tracking when collaboration as a concept entered more of the mainstream of public consciousness. When I get the chance, I’ll see if I can find when “collaboration” does start appearing in the index.

Google Books has a really cool feature called Ngram Viewer, which enables you to chart how often different words and phrases appear in Google’s considerable archive of scanned books, which date back to 1800. Several years ago, I searched for “collaboration,” which turned up this chart:

If I were to guess, the initial dip in 1943 is because the French word, “collaborateur,” became associated with those who were collaborating with the Nazis, and the term naturally lost favor. The term gradually returned into favor, and the most recent spike started in 1982. It will be interesting to see if the inquiry into quotation books lines up with this data.

Richard Feynman on Explaining Things Clearly

My dad is a physicist who idolized Richard Feynman, which meant that I idolized him as well growing up. One thing about him that made a huge impression on me was how simply and clearly he explained things. Feynman was a genius. If he could explain physics clearly to anyone, then no one had any excuse to put on airs.

The Long Now Foundation recently republished one of my favorite essays about Feynman, Danny Hillis’s, “Richard Feynman and the Connection Machine.” (Hat tip to William Barnhill.) It not only shares many great anecdotes about Feynman, it also is an oral history of the early days at Hillis’s groundbreaking parallel computing company, Thinking Machines.

The whole essay is fantastic, but I like this excerpt about Feynman’s explaining prowess in particular:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

But what Richard hated, or at least pretended to hate, was being asked to give advice. So why were people always asking him for it? Because even when Richard didn’t understand, he always seemed to understand better than the rest of us. And whatever he understood, he could make others understand as well. Richard made people feel like a child does, when a grown-up first treats him as an adult. He was never afraid of telling the truth, and however foolish your question was, he never made you feel like a fool.