Never too old to learn

I’m at Cornell, teaching my now-annual statistics course to a group who have come up from the city and are there enrolled in a Masters program. Cornell requires students to spend time on campus before it awards degrees, maybe to prop up College Town, which is now half deserted.

My evenings are free, so when I saw the sign announcing, “Advanced Life-Purpose Philosophy Seminar”, I decided to go. It would let me kill time in the evenings and give me the chance to learn something new.

I got to Caldwell Hall at the appointed time, but I was the only one there. I wondered if I’d misread the sign. Finally, as I was about to leave, a man walked in. He had a manila folder stuffed with papers, some making their escape from the edges. He was fifty-ish, running to fat, his glasses pinning a badly realized comb-over to his ears. Jeans, of course, ill fitting, and a knit pullover that had seen better days. He spoke with a soft accent—Belgian, I guessed, but only after he told me his name was Verd Antoine.

We chatted about the always dismal weather and how he usually taught this class in the fall to undergraduates but because he was on sabbatical this year he switched to the summer.

“So, you’re looking for a Life Purpose?” he asked.

“Well, not exactly—”

“There are many ways to engage in a Life That Makes A Difference,” he cut me off, “but I shall teach you the optimal. Now, we can agree that the best life is one that changes the world, so?”

“I’d say that every person just by living changes the world in some way.” Seemed a trivial observation.

“And how can somebody change the world,” he went on, ignoring me, “unless he or she has a purpose?” He lifted his eyebrows in anticipation of my agreement. I shrugged my shoulders.

“The natural question becomes, ‘How does one arrive at a purpose?’ The obvious answer is to think of a problem that needs solving. And what problems need solving? All of them, of course, but does it not follow that the most pressing problems require the most immediate attention? And among those, don’t the most potentially damaging demand first look?”

“I suppose so.”

“Now, it is well known that what disaster is defined to be the most potentially damaging is in part subjective; it depends on the life story of the individual, so? We must carry out an exercise that will allow you to find out what potential disaster is most meaningful to you. Ready?”

“Sure.” I tried to peek at the clock without making it too obvious.

“I want you to use your imagination. Can you do that for me?” I nodded and he went on. “I want you to create a vision of a trifling annoyance. Then slowly let that small itch become a raging infection. Imagine it infecting the largest group of people you can think of. Do you have something?”

“I…almost.” This wasn’t easy; by nature I am too cheerful.

“Any small vexation will do! Find it and let it grow. Work on your fundamental fear and irrationality. Call to the innermost part of your being where you are most primitive. Look to the place where Worry is trapped free it, set it loose! What do you see?”

His words were hypnotic and I felt myself falling away. Suddenly, visions came upon me! “Yes! The CERN facility might create a black hole to suck us all up! Obama wasn’t a natural-born citizen and will take over all private businesses on his path to dictatorship! Global warming will destroy us all by increasing temperatures by almost a whole degree Celsius! Evolution will no longer be taught in schools thus some students won’t appreciate fully the golgi apparatus! Second-hand smoke increases the anxiety in non-smokers that smokers are enjoying themselves more than non-smokers! The horror! The horror!”

I slipped into a black reverie and experienced eschatological fantasies of millions suffering minor inconveniences that could be avoided if only I could do something. I awoke to find my shirt covered with tears but I had no memory of shedding them.

Antoine was silent for a moment; then he said, “You now see that in order for mankind to be happy, you must be able to believe the worst that can happen will happen. You must become miserable. And only when you learn to spread your torment to others, only when all share your agony, only then can the world reach a state of perfection.”

He reached into his folder and withdrew a paper, took out a pen and wrote something on it. “Here,” he said, “Display this proudly.”

It read “Certificate of Activism“, and it had my name on it.


  1. Anthony

    Stuff like this makes me glad I never went to college.

  2. Wow. I hope this is parody but it is Cornell and this really would happen there.

  3. PDC

    Your cut -n- paste of this blog post onto the site liberal NOSPACE forum DOT org met the sites definition of spam and your post was treated as spam. I’m sure you could find a political topic to chime in on or create a thread on one at the site. If your only purpose is to drive eyes here to your blog that’s going to fail.

    Your participation on the forum is quite welcome. We could use a stat geek to help out the other math geek and the physicist to debunk the worst of the bad science promoted on the site as “fact.”

    However, I cannot say I recommend posting under your real name with a link to your academic profile. That appears to be begging for trouble, imo. That decision, of course, is yours to make. You are free to put a link to this blog on your profile, if you want too. I am not recommending that action, either.

  4. Luis Dias

    Orwellian. And that’s one of the greatest compliments I could make.

    Excellent piece of writing, mr Briggs.

    But there is a little nuisance in there. A gap. A step taken too fast. Here it is:

    slipped into a black reverie and experienced eschatological fantasies of millions suffering minor inconveniences that could be avoided if only I could do something. I awoke to find my shirt covered with tears but I had no memory of shedding them.

    Antoine was silent for a moment; then he said, “You now see that in order for mankind to be happy, you must be able to believe the worst that can happen will happen.

    A non sequitur for sure? What does having a fantasy of that magnitude have anything to do with the happiness of mankind? What Antoine says is not true, that is, one does not see at all that kind of thing.

    I think you need a little work on that. Otherwise, perfect stuff (wouldn’t be nitpicking if I didn’t love it).

  5. libguy22

    i came from there pdc the site clearly says no holds barred and other people have linked to sites before. lighten up

  6. PDC


    Everyone gets to play by the same rules. Even NHB has a few. Not many. But this is one of them. If you believe I have abused the small amount of authority I have you are free to complain to mgt.

    You’ll note I encouraged Matt to post on the site. Just not use it as a dump site for his partial blog posts with links back here. I’ve been asked to spam those type of threads. I’ll continue to do so with those threads I run across until I’m told otherwise.

    I usually spam them without coming to the persons site and encouraging them to keep posting on the site. You’ve made me rethink such actions in the future.

    No good deed goes unpunished.


  7. Ari


    Everyone knows that Obama is a natural-born citizen– the people who think otherwise are craaaazy. But never mind that. He’s a secret Muslim. That’s what’s terrifying.

    Also, the golgi apparatus? Anyone can see that it’s clearly the peroxisome that people should be impressed by.

  8. Luis Dias

    I usually spam them without coming to the persons site and encouraging them to keep posting on the site. You’ve made me rethink such actions in the future.

    You do realise that William Briggs isn’t spelled as “L-I-B-G-U-Y-2-2”, right?

    Probably your mistake wasn’t contacting Briggs to say what you said, but to do it here instead of mailing him, thus exposing yourself to third parties’ opinion?

    I find comendable that you do explain censorship. Personally speaking, it was because after moderating (and censoring) a comment of mine mr Briggs made the trouble of e-mailing me explaininig why and asking me if I could rephrase the comment so he could publish it that I bookmarked this blog.

    So it’s a good practice. Don’t lose it. If you want quicker and more “intimate” feedback, e-mail is more appropriate though.

  9. JH

    You might have encountered a future Socrates. Professors of Philosophy and Religion Studies are one interesting bunch of people.

    Darn, every time I think about the purpose(s) of my life, I become a teeeeny bit unhappy. So I stop thinking about it. Life is good and laughter makes life better. Be happy!


    Have a great weekend. Happy Father’s Day.

    Ari, Obama is a secret Muslim!? Oooh. I didn’t know that. Did you know that all Muslims were terrorist?! *_^

  10. JA

    I looked up Golgi apparatus on Wiki and got as far as the cis-golgi network and trans-golgi network. I have Direct TV and don’t get either of those networks. Should I continue reading?

  11. Briggs

    Apologies, PDC, I had no idea of the limitation. Won’t happen again.

    And just for fun, what “bad science” is floating around your site? I’d like to go and take a look. Thanks.

    Luis, I think the “libguy22” is somebody who was surfing on PDC’s site.

  12. Noblesse Oblige

    Gee… Now I see where the Bhudda went wrong. Instead of…

    1. All is suffering (dukkha).
    2. Suffering is caused by desire/attachment.
    3. If one can eliminate desire/attachment, one can eliminate suffering.
    4. The Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire.

    We have the Antoine:
    1. All is misery
    2. Misery is happiness
    3. We need to spread misery
    4. The path to misery is the path to happiness.

    How could I have missed this?

  13. As a metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigologist, I can prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, that Briggs’s website is the most magnificent of all websites, and his lectures on statistics, statistically the best of all possible lectures.

    It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Students were made to be lectured and the very best students to progress to lecture students in their turn. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best.

    [with apologies to M. Voltaire]

  14. Briggs


    Which reminds me that I hadn’t yet gave Rousseau credit for his tears.

  15. Nah, JH, Antoine can’t be a future Socrates. He’s Belgian. Just can’t get there from there. He could, however, become a hippy. Is that the same thing?

  16. Touche’. Prose magnifique. Approaching ART.

    Don’t waste it on the libbies, their minds are closed like banks on Sunday.

  17. Stevie W.

    Did this experience actually happen?

    In all seriousness, the point I gathered is that the purpose in life involves taking sides. However, this guy thinks it must be whatever negative. But it’s actually interesting because by taking the sides with the worst-case-scenario, and spreading it to others, others see the worst, then improve on it, and then improve on it, etc., until there is perfection.

    I think it can work if we drop our identities and all stop.


    Like that’ll happen.

    Fun stuff for the head, but not for reality!

  18. My dear Briggs, I had no idea you were a fan of New Age music. I’m rather fond of Frederick Rousseau’s “Tears”. Not to mention his fellow musician Vangelis… 🙂

  19. JH

    49erDweet, he could become a hippie. I’m not sure what is meant by hippie anymore. He could be a hippie already. There is only one way to find out… ask him. Shall I find his email address and ask him? I am serious.

  20. Joy

    So I suppose the pocket square came in handy to mop up the leak? Next time you could upturn your hat, or move your chair.

    Never argue with a dog with a face like that., he looks like he could lick someone to death.

  21. JH: We could ask Matt to use the powers invested in him by the University of Cornell through his “Certificate of Activism” to activate Professor Antoine as a hippie, and that would settle the matter. Good question, though: What is “a hippie”? Maybe we can write that on the board and consider it during fall term?

  22. Scumop

    I wondered where that was going until I got to the punch line. Nicely done.

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