Why are aphorisms so annoying?

Some aphorisms are charming,

An apple a day keeps the doctor away,

but too often they are annoying. Here’s a typical example from Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes:

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

Here is apparently a one-sentence book review that Rota reprints as the final line of his Indiscrete Thoughts:

When pygmies cast such long shadows, it must be very late in the day.

What it is about such remarks? First of all they seem drenched in ego. On the surface, of course, the aphorism is a timeless truth with no connection to the author; but we know who he is really talking about. The brevity itself begins to feel like part of the egomania. The author affects to be so cool, so busy with more important projects, that he has just a moment to toss a piece of wisdom at us as he flies by.

I try for my own notes to be a little more sincere, and, to put it bluntly, a little longer. But it’s possible that Taleb and Rota think they are being sincere too.

[21 January 2022]

Nevil Shute and Carl Runge

We all have our special loves, as Kate calls them, things we cleave to with a personal feeling that becomes a part of our identity. For me, among authors, it is Nevil Shute, all of whose novels I’d read by age 20. My father was an engineer, and our family spent time in Australia, so Shute was a natural for me even before I became a fellow of his Oxford college, Balliol.

Among mathematicians, my special one is Carl Runge, a German from Bremen who looks just like my German great-grandfather Henry Newman in a formal photograph with his moustache and who understood my kind of mathematics better than anyone else in those pre-computer days. Runge was born 99 years before me on August 30, 1856 and was later appointed at Göttingen as Germany’s first Professor of Applied Mathematics.

[10 January 2022]