Monday, June 24, 2013

A Long Time "Face Value"

As testers, we like to believe that we don't take things at their "face value". We pride ourselves in the fact that we investigate things, we are skeptics, we research and we check things out, and we are sure that the things that we do have passed this so called test. Yet, very often, we carry around things that we've always thought were true, or have thought something was true for so long we never thought to investigate. This is a story of one of those instances, and the "face value" issue has, effectively, spanned my entire professional life.

When I first started working at Cisco Systems in 1991, I joined a variety of USENET newsgroups. In that process, I saw a lot of people posting intelligent commentary on a variety of topics, many people having considerably more experience and understanding than I had at the time. Additionally, this was the era when everyone had some kind of interesting or pithy .sig file, and typically they had quotes. Some were well known, others a little more obscure, and one just stuck out and appealed to me so much I decided to adopt it as part of my own .sig. That quote?

"Not one shred of evidence supports the notion that life is serious." - Friedrich Nietzsche

This quote has followed along with me, in some way, shape or form for twenty-two years. It's been part of .sig files, profiles, and favorite quotation lists. The thing is, I never remembered reading the quote in anything that Nietzsche wrote. Granted, I will not profess to having read all things Nietzsche, but it was something I'd seen so many places, posted by so many people, and I'd used myself for over two decades. No one ever said anything about it. It wasn't until I started using a service called Goodreads, and where I started to plug in favorite quotes, that I realized something was odd. Various quotes I'd been able to plug in, and they came back with slightly different versions, but with generally the attributed speaker, and the actual text quote. The quote above, when I ran it with Nietzshe's name, came back with nothing.


The site must be broken... or maybe no one had entered it in before. Still, I started to get a nagging feeling... had I been wrong all this time? Was the quote something that someone else said? Thus, I decided to see if I'd been wrong... and apparently, I and many others had been wrong. There's a reason there's no reference to Nietzsche being listed as the quote source... he never said it. If he did, it was never written down.

As I was searching, though, I came across this interesting page at Quote Investigator, and it looks like this quote is much more recent, but in many ways, has the feeling of Nietzche, and thus could be seen why it might be attributed to him. From quote investigator:

Quote Investigator: Brendan Gill wrote for The New Yorker magazine for six decades. In 1975, near the four decade mark, he published a memoir titled “Here at The New Yorker” that included the following passage: 1
In fact, not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious, though it is often hard and even terrible. And saying that, I am prompted to add what follows out of it: that since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule.

Why am i bringing this up now? If you do a search on my name and various email addresses I've had over the years, as well as various web sites I've hosted, I've clearly used the Nietzche reference. For two decades and some change, I and many others blissfully ignored the fact that the quote I posted was mis-attributed. Had I not become more curious, it might have stayed that way. Alas, I did something that gave me an unexpected result, and it started a line of thinking. Why didn't I get back the result I expected?  My first response was not "do I have a mis-attributed quote". Instead it was "what's wrong with this service?" Yes, I very quickly jumped to that latter answer. Still, I felt uneasy. For a service that posts and shares quotes, it seemed odd that such a big name and such an oft bandied quote didn't line up. Perhaps the service isn't wrong. Perhaps it's me that's wrong. That led down a number of searches and this recent discovery, where I now have to admit that a favorite quote deserves to be attributed, and reworded, so that Brenden Gill gets proper credit.

What do you take at face value today? Are there things you've long understood or believed to be one way, that upon further investigation, turned out to be not so? Did a quote, a statement, or a thought that you held onto or a long time actually belong to someone else? Did time and no challenge from anyone else just cement the fact that "it must be so" in your mind? I'm guessing that for many of us the answer is "yes". As professional skeptics, it's nice to think that we believe we "think differently". It's also amusing, and frustrating, to realize that we may have been taken in by something for years. The happy ending isn't that I was taken in, or that I was foolish to think the way I did, but that a moment of serendipity led me to other facts, and now I have a clearer view of something today that I didn't have a few weeks ago. That's pretty cool, if you ask me :).

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