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Bogging the horses down in mud

July 30, 2010

I sat up late tonight, well into the early hours of the morning but I will backdate this post to its origin. Daughter had resisted my attempts to get her to not to drive up to London at midnight (not even the offer of paying for a morning train worked) and I wanted to know she was safe so I awaited the ping of the Blackberry to tell me she had made it.

In between watching the best of all bad films of all time and back episodes of thrice seen comedies I happened on two related quotes from Aristotle and Clausewitz:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit

Action in war is like movement in a resistant element. Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war, it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results.

The heading on this post also comes from Clausewitz by the way, its an example of the small things that can easily go wrong. Both quotes relate to the idea of Praxis which has been a constant theme in my posts,, the most recent of which contained another quote from the man who Aquinas simply refers to as The Philosopher.

Now both of my quotes are from philosophers, but in both cases philosophers who engaged in practice. They understood the need for both an ability to handle the abstract, but also to modify or coevolve theory with real world interactions. On a sort of tangent its why swarm robots often work better than computer simulations, their physical interaction with their environment produces subtleties that are simply not possible in a purely abstract world.

It’s something I have noticed also comes with age; sorry about that but I do now realise that my parents and teachers were right about wisdom coming with more advanced years! As you gain more experience of failure you tend to plan at a subconscious level on the expectation of failure so you think further ahead (to protect aching knee joints to take one example), you build in more resilience but its not conscious, you can’t write it down.

So as I prepared a map for Daughter I was suddenly thinking of all those little habits you build as a result of years getting lost in the Wandsworth one way system, or getting confused when the A3 and the A205 merge for a period and the signs don’t follow the previous pattern. The habits of knowing which areas of south London are dangerous at night, especially for a solitary female driving at one o’clock in the morning cannot be fully articulated. I started with five pages of instructions, but whittled it down to a single A4 page with 32point font. The only way of handling a body of knowledge that, even if it could be written down, would not be absorbed or remembered in time, was to create a few simple memorable instructions and a couple of heuristics – M4 to junction 2, follow South Circular until second right after West Dulwich Station, only stop in well lit areas, keep driving if someone approaches you, phone me at once if anything unusual happens.

Then she phoned me up and said she had borrowed a sat nav from a colleague at the restaurant where she works …..

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