How to Hide a Secret in the Information Age

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, as Herbert Simon said. When attention is scarce, secrets can be hidden. Dialogues from G. K. Chesterton’s The Sign of the Broken Sword illustrate this vividly.

Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a pebble?
Flambeau: On the beach.
Father Brown: Where does a wise man hide a leaf?
Flambeau: In the forest.
Father Brown: What does he do if there is no forest?
Flambeau: What does he do?
Father Brown: He grows a forest to hide it in. A fearful sin.
Flambeau did not answer.
Father Brown: And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it.

We Exist for a Book


Staring into the dreamy Shanghai dusk, a few lines of verse cross my mind:

The candle died, the water-clock was exhausted,
I rose and sat, but could not be at peace.
Man’s affairs are like the flow of floodwater,
A life is just like floating in a dream.

A few years ago, an up-and-coming musician magically reenacted these poetic verses, when he was down and out in Shanghai. Many centuries ago, these lines were first uttered by the last emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty. He achieved greatness in his poems, not his reign.

Jorge Luis Borges said that the world is a book in which all men are being written. Is it true that we write the verses, or the verses write us? I believe the latter. For it could be said that a single, all-knowing master has written all the books in the world. Tonight, the emperor, the Shanghai musician and me are one.

Factionalism in War and Peace

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prince Andrey enumerated the factions within the Russian high command during Napoleon’s invasion. You usually see the full range or a subset of these dynamics as a group responds to situations.

  1. Rigid military theorists
  2. Non-planners favoring spontaneous actions
  3. Courtiers reconciling the first two groups
  4. Advocates of surrendering to Napoleon
  5. Adherents to Barclay de Tolly
  6. Adherents to Bennigsen, calling for Barclay to be replaced
  7. Devoted worshippers of the Tsar
  8. Place seekers chasing crosses and promotions (the largest group)
  9. Older politicians who can withdraw from conflicting opinions and take an objective view

The Half-Life of Information

Facebookers write for the next few minutes or hours. Newspapermen write for the next few days. Corporate entertainers (consultants, economists, and all sorts of “thought leaders”) write for the next few months or, more rarely, years. A minority of academics write for the next decade or beyond. Men of letters write for time and for memory.

Life is short. The shorter the half-life of the information, the lower the signal-to-noise ratio, the less time you should spend on it.

The Theory of the Leisure Class

Invest in a quality, non-collapsible umbrella. On rainy days, at times when you are standing on escalators or waiting for someone, rest your hands on it instead of checking your smartphone. It is an advertisement that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in busy efforts, and an evidence of leisure and superiority.

For the same purpose, consider carrying a quality walking-stick on sunny days.

Two Parables on the Information Economy

1. Immanuel Kant’s observations on student note-taking in 1778:

Those of my students who are most capable of grasping everything are just the ones who bother least to take explicit and verbatim notes; rather, they write down only the main points, which they can think over afterwards. Those who are most thorough in note-taking are seldom capable of distinguishing the important from the unimportant. They pile a mass of misunderstood stuff under what they may possibly have grasped correctly.

2. Jorge Luis Borges’ 1942 short story Funes the Memorious on a person with perfect memory:

With no effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.