Thursday, July 28, 2011

Take the Horn Out You Mouth

Or how to avoid Voegelin-Rothbard syndrome.

A story: I was watching a special on John Coltrane. One of his former musicians was being interviewed. He talked about how long Coltrane could go on with a single number. One show in Philadelphia, they were playing a 3-and-1/2-hour matinee. Coltrane called the first piece, and began, of course, improvising. And improvising. Next thing they knew, the show was over. And they had played one piece for the entire show.

The fellow mentioned that Coltrane's predilection used to puzzle Miles Davis. "John," he would say, "why you play so long?"

"Miles, I get going, and just don't know how to stop."

"John, you just take the horn out you mouth."

Sometimes, as a writer, you have to "just take the horn out you mouth." Otherwise you get Voegelin-Rothbard syndrome. Many of you probably know the story of Rothbard and his history of economic thought, where a quick project to do a short textbook ran for years, multiple volumes, and was never finished. Eric Voegelin did something very similar with a history of political thought textbook project. Hired to write one volume in the late 1930s, he abandoned the project after nearly twenty years and seven volumes.

At Bell Labs, they had a saying that 90% of a program delivered today can be far more valuable than 100% of the program delivered in the distant future. The same thing goes for that paper or book you are working on. Let me tell you a secret: It contains mistakes. It still will contain mistakes ten years from now. Go ahead, put it out. A nice, intriguing mistake gives the scientific community something to correct. In fact, there you have your next paper: Correcting the mistakes of your previous paper!

Just take the horn out you mouth.


  1. Good evening, Dr. Callahan.

    I could be wrong, but isn't this an example of Pareto's principle? I understand one application of the principle to go something like this:

    First 80% of the project: 20% of your time
    Last 20% of the project: 80% of your time
    Last 4% (20% x 20%): 64% of your time (80% x 80%)
    Last .8% (20% x 4%): 51% of your time (.8 x 64%)

    So, your encouragement to "just get it done and not worry about making it perfect (which is an impossible goal anyway)" seems like good advice.

  2. A certain blogger with Asperger's autism said that a mark of a genius is a person who never gets his projects completed. Everything a genius does is always a permanent work in progress, and he can never be satisifed with his work. He cited examples of famous composers, philosophers, and other such people as proof.

    The aforementioned man was developing his own videogame for two decades. One that nobody but him has played.

    That's when I wondered - if that's what a genius is, then it means nothing to be a genius.

    One would think that an economist would apply marginal utility analyis here. He should have considered that there is never a perfect work - one merely gives up a little more time for a little more quality. The question is of how much time for how much quality.

  3. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and "good enough" is the enemy of "at all".

    Now, if only I lived by that...


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