(to What You Can't Say)

[1] The Inquisition probably never intended carry out their threat of torture. But that was because Galileo made it clear that he would do whatever they asked. If he had refused, it's hard to imagine they would simply have backed down. Not long before they had burnt the philosopher Giordano Bruno when he proved intransigent.

[2] Many organizations obligingly publish lists of what you can't say within them. Unfortunately these are usually both incomplete, because there are things so shocking they don't even anticipate anyone saying them, and at the same time so general that they couldn't possibly be enforced literally. It's a rare university speech code that would not, taken literally, forbid Shakespeare.

[3] Kundel HL, Nodine CF, Krupinski EA, "Searching for lung nodules: Visual dwell indicates locations of false-positive and false-negative decisions." Investigative Radiology, 24 (1989), 472-478.

[4] The verb "diff" is computer jargon, but it's the only word with exactly the sense I want. It comes from the Unix diff utility, which yields a list of all the differences between two files. More generally it means an unselective and microscopically thorough comparison between two versions of something.

[5] It may seem from this that I am some kind of moral relativist. Far from it. I think that "judgemental" is one of the labels that gets used in our time to prevent discussion of ideas, and that our attempts to be "non-judgemental" will seem to future eras one of the most comical things about us.

[6] This makes the world confusing to kids, since what they see disagrees with what they're told. I could never understand why, for example, Portuguese "explorers" had started to work their way along the coast of Africa. In fact, they were after slaves.

Bovill, Edward, The Golden Trade of the Moors, Oxford, 1963.

[7] The kids soon learn these words from their friends, but they know they're not supposed to use them. So for a while you have a state of affairs like something from a musical comedy, where the parents use these words among their peers, but never in front of the children, and the children use the words among their peers, but never in front of their parents.

[8] A few years ago I worked for a startup whose logo was a solid red circle with a white V in the middle. I really liked this logo. After we'd been using it for a while, I remember thinking, you know, this is a really powerful symbol, a red circle. Red is arguably the most basic color, and the circle the most basic shape. Together they had such visual punch. Why didn't more American companies have a red circle as their logo? Ahh, yes...

[9] The fear is far the stronger of the two forces. Sometimes when I hear someone use the word "gyp" I tell them, with a serious expression, that one can't use that word anymore because it's considered disparaging to Romani (aka Gypsies). In fact dictionaries disagree about its etymology. But the reaction to this joke is nearly always one of slightly terrified compliance. There is something about fashion, in clothing or ideas, that takes away people's confidence: when they learn something new, they feel it was something they should have known already.

[10] I don't mean to suggest that scientists' opinions are inevitably right, just that their willingness to consider unconventional ideas gives them a head start. In other respects they are sometimes at a disadvantage. Like other scholars, many scientists have never directly earned a living — never, that is, been paid in return for services rendered. Most scholars live in an anomalous microworld in which money is something doled out by committees instead of a representation for work, and it seems natural to them that national economies should be run along the same lines. As a result, many otherwise intelligent people were socialists in the middle of the twentieth century.

[11] Presumably, within the industry, such thoughts would be considered "negative". Another label, much like "defeatist". Never mind that, one should ask, are they true or not? Indeed, the measure of a healthy organization is probably the degree to which negative thoughts are allowed. In places where great work is being done, the attitude always seems to be critical and sarcastic, not "positive" and "supportive". The people I know who do great work think that they suck, but that everyone else sucks even more.

[12] Behar, Richard, "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power," Time, 6 May 1991.

[13] Healy, Patrick, "Summers hits 'anti-Semitic' actions," Boston Globe, 20 September 2002.

[14] "Tinkerers' champion," The Economist, 20 June 2002.

[15] By this I mean you'd have to become a professional controversialist, not that Noam Chomsky's opinions = what you can't say. If you actually said the things you can't say, you'd shock conservatives and liberals about equally—just as, if you went back to Victorian England in a time machine, your ideas would shock Whigs and Tories about equally.

[16] Traub, James, "Harvard Radical," New York Times Magazine, 24 August 2003.

[17] Miller, Arthur, The Crucible in History and Other Essays, Methuen, 2000.