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Apr 7, 2004 1:45 am

The Two Things ...

So, I'm taking my evening stroll around the Blogosphere, following link to link here and there to see what there was to see. And I came across Glen Whitman's The Two Things:
A few years ago, I was chatting with a stranger in a bar. When I told him I was an economist, he said,"Ah. So… what are the Two Things about economics?"
"Huh?" I cleverly replied."Oh," I said."Okay, here are the Two Things about economics. One: Incentives matter. Two: There's no such thing as a free lunch."
Ever since that evening, I've been playing the Two Things game. Whenever I meet someone who belongs to a different profession (i.e., a profession I haven't played this game with), or who knows something about a subject I'm unfamiliar with, I pose the Two Things question.
I was particularly interested in The Two Things he'd gleaned from practitioners in the humanities.
The Two Things about Art Criticism:
1. If it isn't novel, critics aren't interested.
2. If it is novel, no one else is interested.
The Two Things about English Literature:
1. The text is really about writing.
2. Writing is really about sex.
The Two Things about Life:
1. Beauty is truth.
2. Truth is beauty.
The Two Things about Writing:
1. Write what you know.
2. Be as short and simple as possible.
The Two Things about Writing:
1. Include what's necessary.
2. Leave everything else out.
-Nicholas Kronos
The Two Things about Editing:
1. Know the rules.
2. Pay attention.
-Stephanie D.
Ogged at Unfogged, the philosopher, added his two bits:
The Two Things about Philosophy:
1. Plato
2. Aristotle
What interested me more was The Two Things about Teaching History that Ogged quoted:
The Two Things about Teaching History:
1. A good story is all they'll remember, not the half hour of analysis on either side of it.
2. They think it's about answers, but it's really about questions.
That seemed right to me, but I wondered where Ogged got that. So, following the Richard Henry Morgan rule of thumb about tracking sources, I followed his link to Marginal Revolution. Low and behold, there I found that the Father of the Wisdom is our own Jonathan Dresner, the Cliopatriarch of the Pacific. More than that, if you follow Marginal Revolution's link to here and, then, here, you'll find
The Two Things about Linguistics
1. You already know more about the grammar of your native language than could ever be taught in a class. (synchronic linguistics)
2. Language change is inevitable, and neither bad nor good. (diachronic linguistics)
More to the point, you'll also find that Professor Dresner was laying down more profound doctrine in the comments at Agoraphobia on 31 January 2004:
The Two Things about History:
1. Everything has earlier antecedents.
Corollary: all culture, including religion, is syncretic; there is nothing purely original.
Second Corollary: there's no question that a historian can't complicate by talking about what led up to it.
2. Sources lie, but they're all we have.
-Jonathan Dresner
The Two Things about Teaching History:
1. A good story is all they'll remember, not the half hour of analysis on either side of it.
2. They think it's about answers, but it's really about questions.
-Jonathan Dresner
Let it be known that: a) Jonathan Dresner is the author of this wisdom; b) it has slipped loose from its moorings in attribution to him because c) Ogged at Unfogged didn't identify the author, though he did provide a link. I take it that's because philosophers are more interested in the wisdom than in its history.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2004

I know it violates the tenets of the "Two Things" rule, but Robin Hahnel's rule of financial markets deserves mention, perhaps as a corrollary of "Timing is everything":

"Panic First." The first person to panic cleans up....

Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2004

I don't know if it's original with him, but Bob Ruzicka wrote a song called "The Dealer (Down and Losin')" which Judy Collins recorded in 1973, which included the chorus: "You can't win and you can't break even / you can't get out of the game. / You shouldn't stay but you ain't leavin' /cause your luck, could change again."

David Haan - 4/7/2004

The Two Things about Finance:

1) Reward is its own reward.

2) Timing is everything.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/7/2004

The Two Things about Socialism:

1. We pretend to work.

2. The government pretends to pay us.

The Two Things about Economic Systems:

1. Under capitalism, man exploits man.

2. Under socialism, the reverse is true.

Van L. Hayhow - 4/7/2004

I think I read the same compilation of Murphy's law. There was a third component. It was you can't quit the game. It went on to note that much of society is organized around systems that violate one of these rules. It was said that capitalism was based on the theory you could win; socialism on the theory you could break even and mysticism on the theory you could quit the game.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/7/2004

With apologies to the first and second laws of thermodynamics:

You can't win

You can't break even

- - - -
Concerning writing:
The first 90% of the work takes 90% of the time

The last 10% of the work takes the other 90% of the time.

(The latter I took from a compilation of Murphy's Law and its corollaries that I read long ago.)

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/7/2004

The Two Things about Metaphysics:

1. You don't know.

2. Neither does anyone else.

(very roughly paraphrased from one of the philosophes -- maybe Voltaire?)

Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2004

I'm very pleased to see that my "wisdom" makes sense even when you don't know where they came from. And good work finding the original.

I found the original link to Agoraphobia via Rodney Balko, at Liberty&Power, and also posted those two "two things" there: So, in a sense, we've just closed the circle. Or closed it again: I think topologists must have fun with the blogosphere.