Woodcarvers, Butchers and the Patronage System in Arts and Sciences

Given the well known declining returns to science, a phenomenon that has been documented for decades now, but the continuing investment in science and scientists, it is interesting to think about the future. Does it look like arts in the Renaissance, where wealthy patrons funded it because it seemed like a noble thing to do, the the way the Gates Foundation does now? It seems awfully unlikely it continues on its current budgetary path given competing demands for state capital.

Anyway, something I was reading:

In the late fifteenth century, Florence had more woodcarvers than butchers, suggesting that art, even more than meat, was a necessity of life. This was true not only for the wealthy, but also for those of more modest means. In 1472, the city boasted 54 workshops for marble and stone; it employed 44 master gold- and silversmiths, and at least thirty master painters. Florence’s position in the wool and silk industries relied on its reputation for quality—a tradition of craftsmanship that made discerning patrons of its merchants and financiers.

Most commissions were for religious works. Many banking families, for example, viewed the funding of altarpieces and chapels as a kind of penance for usury (moneylending at interest), which was condemned by the church but inherent to their profession. As the 1400s progressed, however, patrons became increasingly interested in personal fame and worldly prestige. Lavish, even ostentatious, public display became more common, even as the fortunes of the city declined. New subjects from mythology found eager audiences impressed by such evidence of learning. And, by the end of the century—for the first time since antiquity—some art was being made simply “for art’s sake.”

The Merits of Being Something Any Idiot Could Run

I was reminded of this classic Peter Lynch line today, and it applies to pretty much any non-transient human institution, not just companies:

“Go for a business that any idiot can run – because sooner or later any idiot probably is going to be running it.”

Normal Accidents

“If interactive complexity and tight coupling—system characteristics—inevitably will produce an accident, I believe we are justified in calling it a normal accident, or a system accident.”

Source: Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies

Epistemic Collapse

There come moments when your tacit ways of knowing the world are undercut, when they run in reverse and even fragment, in a kind of epistemic collapse, and you stop saying “That can’t happen”, because it has. I remember that feeling during the Cedar Fire in San Diego in 2003, when fires crossed multilane freeways, when smoke-lost airplanes landed on roads, and people died in their cars as they tried to escape a wildfire’s flames. 

RRd iZsg

Focus is the New Black

From Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, this on Alfred North Whitehead:

“[Whitehead’s] capacity for concentration on work was quite extraordinary. One hot summer’s day, when I was staying with him at Grantchester, our friend Crompton Davies arrived and I took him into the garden to say how-do-you-do to his host. Whitehead was sitting writing mathematics. Davies and I stood in front of him at a distance of no more than a yard and watched him covering page after page with symbols. He never saw us, and after a time we went away with a feeling of awe.”

Source: Cal Newport