Where the term “Conventional Wisdom” came from

It was John Kenneth Galbraith, the hyperliterate economic sage, who coined the phrase “conventional wisdom”. He did not consider it a compliment. “We associate truth with convenience,” he wrote, “with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.”

Smart people are happier with fewer friends

Interesting article in the Washington Post conjecturing why smart people appear to be happier with fewer friends. Or, as I interpret it, fewer social obligations. The sociologists interviewed guess it might be because smarter people have bigger goals, like writing a novel or curing cancer, which friendships can distract from. Others guess that smarter people are better equipped to adapt to dense, urban environments and many interactions with many people. But my guess is that it is the social obligations that come with being smart. I remember a smart friend of mine, a lawyer, complaining after a very frustrating day that her job was to be smart and competent, for people who were neither smart nor competent, and it was wearing on her.

Designing for a grandpa, not an abstract ideal

"I liked architecture going into college, and Berkeley’s hippie culture made me like it even more. A lot of the professors came up in the 1960s and emphasized the personal, human scale of architecture. One of them had a favorite story: 'At the top of every stair you should put a bench, so that the grandfather can read a book to his grandson.' When I came out to New York for grad school, everything was very theoretical and academic. You were hardly ever designing for a person. You were designing for some type of abstract ideal, not a grandpa."—@dongpingwong. Follow #CreativeNewYork for more from Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu of design office @family_newyork over the coming days, and read the full #PopRally Q&A at the link in our profile. [Family New York. Rendering of the Circle Bridge. 2010.]

A post shared by MoMA The Museum of Modern Art (@themuseumofmodernart) on

Comments Sections: A Clarification

Nick Bilton: One of the realizations I’ve had about startups is that they take on the DNA of their founding fathers or mothers. Caterina Fake told me when they started Flickr that they wanted it to be a pleasant experience and a happy platform. So with the first few thousand photographs that were up there, all the employees at Flickr wrote all these really nice notes. Even if it wasn’t the most beautiful photo, they’d say, This is the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen. I love the framing. It created, from the beginning, this very happy place.

There are many true things in Nick’s statement in an article about Twitter in Fast Company. We very consciously created the comments section of Flickr, we did want Flickr to be a happy place, and for a long time it was. We wanted people to behave in a civilized way, and they did. We did not want to comments to devolve into glib pronouncements, snarky putdowns and ad hominem attacks as they so often do. We wanted real connection, appreciation and human flourishing. However, we never exhorted people to say something was beautiful that was not beautiful, and Flickr, and I, and the team were all deeply committed to the idea that you honor the wholeness of people, and that your comments be thoughtful. The team was encouraged to participate in all the conversations, because it is the founding team that determines how the software will behave, who set the tone, define the limits of what is tolerated on the service, which I wrote about in Wired.

The idea was the opposite of blanketing the comments sections with compliments, superlatives or “Likes”.  We tried to think about the photos we were looking at. Say something thoughtful. And that was what we were with great effort building into Flickr’s comments sections, which can easily become transactional, liking, and hearting,”Great!””Beautiful”,”Love it”! and on to more liking and hearting. Thinking about things takes time. It’s a slower internet. It’s a better internet.

n+1 article: Yarmouk Miniatures


Last night I read an article, Yarmouk Miniatures, appearing in Issue 23 of n+1 magazine, which made the situation in Syria vivid for me in a way that the none of the news and articles I’ve read ever did. I visited Syria long ago, and spent a lot of time in particular in Aleppo, now all but destroyed. The people were kinder than any I had met in my travels, anywhere and it was a magical country, living under, even then, a harsh regime.

The article, written by English writer Matthew McNaught, tells the story of how he got to know many Syrians in Yarmouk when he was living there and learning Arabic. He tells of the teacher, Mazen, his parties, and the social circle surrounding him, and especially of the books Mazen had him read. One of these was Historical Miniatures by Sa’dallah Wannous, a playwright, who wrote political theatre. Mazen told McNaught that the miniatures of the title referred to detailed paintings celebrating legendary warriors and great battles and were meant to validate imperial rule and their domination of other peoples. Mazen explained:

Wannous…wanted to play with this convention. He chose a setting straight out of these victors’ narratives but passed over the buff men lopping off heads, the battles, the imperial pomp and ceremony. Instead, he portrayed the people usually left outside the frame of history. The quiet silk weaver and his wife. The refugee girl who cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy to escape exploitation. The trader finding ways to discreetly profit from war. The religious leaders, united in their pious public rhetoric, each picking out his own private compromise among convictions, self-interest, and fear.

The stories of those people that I met in the streets of Syria all those years ago are the people we care about, not the “people” who are abstracted away in the nightly news. The article was illuminating, and if you subscribe to n+1, in itself a great magazine, you can get access to all the digital versions. Here is one of the stories McNaught relates from Historical Miniatures, The Silk Weaver:

A small house within the city walls. A young couple, Marwan and Khadija, are arguing. They have heard the news of the approaching armies and are discussing the choice that lies ahead of them. Khadija wants to stay. “I’d rather be with our own people and meet our fate together than beg on some foreign street. We’ll lose everything if we go. The house, your workshop and loom.” But for Marwan, the uncertainty of flight is preferable to the certainty of violence and destruction if they stay. He has heard of the savagery in Aleppo. He is a silk weaver, not a soldier, and the prospect of taking up arms against Tamerlane’s armies seems absurd and suicidal. The argument goes back and forth until Khadija takes Marwan by the hand. ‘‘I’m tired of all this argument and hesitation,” she says. “Since dawn we’ve been torturing ourselves. If you’ve made your decision, let’s just leave. The bags are already packed. Go and pray. I’ll get dressed.”

Marwan holds on to Khadija, whispering words of adoration, pleading with her to come back to the bedroom: “Just let me taste your sweet honey before we leave.” Khadija wriggles out of his embrace: “Not now, Marwan!” She starts dragging bags to the front door. “Look, are we leaving or not?” Moments later, there is a knock at the door. It is Khadija’s brother Ahmed. He tells them that the city gates have been locked. All travel is forbidden. The palace guard has been ordered to fortify the citadel and arm all men of military age. They have missed their last chance to leave.

More reading:

Syria Speaks, an anthology of recent writing from Syria, including the work of Ali Ferzat, Samar Yazbek, Khaled Khalifa and Robin Yassin-Kassab.

Teachers dislike creative children

Do teachers dislike creative children in spite of their assertions to the contrary? 96% of teachers say that daily classroom time should be dedicated to creative thinking. And yet they seem biased against the very children whose thinking is most creative. At school, creative children are punished rather than rewarded, and the system seems designed to extinguish creativity. In spite of all the lip service.

The characteristics that teachers value in the classroom are those associated with the lowest levels of creativity. Teachers want students to be responsible, reliable, dependable, clear-thinking, tolerant, understanding, peaceable, good-natured, moderate, steady, practical and logical. Creativity is not moderate or logical. It is associated with characteristics such as determined, independent and individualistic, people who make up the rules as she goes along, divergent rather than conformist ways of thinking. You can read some of the research in this article.


For good reason Ken Robinson’s talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most viewed talk on the TED web site. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” he says, and rightness and wrongness, as anyone who has ever received a graded paper can attest, is the very backbone of education.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality isn’t really that surprising.  It’s nearly impossible for a teacher, outnumbered by his charges, to help the rebels and mavericks flourish in an environment requiring more supervision than vision. The system is set up for teachers to prefer the obedient.


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