Messy, Borges, Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge

Jorge Luis Borges once told of the ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’, a fabled Chinese encyclopedia. 

This tome, according to Borges (highly likely Borges invented these himself), organised animals into categories: 

(a) pertenecientes al Emperador,

(b) embalsamados,

(c) amaestrados, 

(d) lechones,

(e) sirenas, 

(f) fabulosos, 

(g) perros sueltos, 

(h) incluidos en esta clasificación, 

(i) que se agitan como locos, 

(j) innumerables, 

(k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, 

(l) etcétera, 

(m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, 

(n) que de lejos parecen moscas. 

a) belonging to the Emperor,

b) embalmed,

(c) trained (or tame; Eliot Weinburg translates as tame, but trained is more literal),

(d) suckling pigs (Weinburg) or piglets,

(e) Sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs [EW] (or loose dogs),

(h) included in this classification [present classification, EW],

(i) frenzied [EW]  (or crazed or agitated like crazy), (

j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine brush of camel hair, (

l) et cetera (m) having just broken the vase (EW water pitcher], (

n) that from afar seem like flies [that from a long way off like like flies, EW]

[ offer my own translation alongside the classic one attrib. to Eliot Weinberger, I think]

Borges wrote these in response to John Wilkins (a 17th century philospher) who had proposed a universal language and classification system.

Tim Harford in Messy offers this:

This looks like a joke, but like other Borgesian jokes, it is serious. Most of these apparently absurd categories have practical merit. Sometimes we need to classify things according to who owns them; at other times we must describe their physical attributes, and different physical attributes will matter in different contexts. Sometimes we must be terribly specific–a cat is not a good substitute for a sucking pig if you are preparing a feast, and if we are to punish wrongdoing (whether breaking a pitcher or committing an armed robbery) we must identify the wrongdoer and no one else. But while each category is useful, in combination they are incoherent, and the encyclopedia sounds delectably unusable. Borges shows us why trying to categorise the world is not as straightforward as we like to believe. Our categories can map to practical real-world cases or they can be neat and logical, but rarely both at once.”

It’s a wonderous and insightful riposte to clean tidiness of exact categories.

Maybe he could have said of humans:

  1. Belonging to God

  2. Dead

  3. Law-abiding

  4. Babies

  5. Seductive

  6. Star-Shaped

  7. Nomadic

  8. Uncategorised

  9. Crazy

  10. City-Dwellers

  11. Captured on digital image

  12. Other

  13. Having just made something

  14. Having just broken something

  15. Look like slow moving ants

Breadth as well as deliberate practice

David Epstein in an essay based on his book suggests that late specialisation is useful and that the narrative of only 10,000 hours deliberate practice is not the only path to happiness and success.

Practice is still needed though. It chimes with being a “fox” over a “hedgehog”.

This is also useful in super-forecasting.

“Over time, as I delved further into studies about learning and specialisation, I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination). And I was stunned when cognitive psychologists I spoke with led me to an enormous and too-often ignored body of work demonstrating that learning itself is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient – it looks like falling behind.”

Link to Guardian article here:

Ideas that don't make sense, Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland  (advertising exec, Oligivy) on his book exploring similar themes on why human stuff works. For instance, we brush our teeth to feel/look good, not to fight teeth holes. We buy more stuff some times when prices go up. That we are really not “rational” most of the time.


The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea. Don’t design for average.

 It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical. 

The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience. A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget. 

The problem with logic is that it kills off magic. 

A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident. 

Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will. 

Solving problems using rationality is like playing golf with only one club. 

Dare to be trivial. 

If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.


Chimes with the study showing in the real world, people hand back wallets with money over those with no money…

I wonder what the Founder of Oligvy would have thoughts:

The book along with Messy by Tim Hartford well worth a read.

Thanking donors, no impact on donation

Study on if thanking donors has any impact on donating.  Answer = No (which is unexpected).  



Calling to thank donors is a key fundraising strategy in the non-profit sector. Yet the effectiveness of these calls remains untested. We report on field experiments with public television stations and a national non-profit in which new donors were randomized to receive a thank-you call or not. The experiments involved about 600,000 donors and 500,000 thank-you calls over 6 years. We found a precisely estimated null effect of calls on subsequent giving. This result is in stark contrast to the incentivized forecasts of fundraising professionals and the general public, who anticipated that calls would increase donor retention by about 80%.


Samek, Anya and Longfield, Chuck, Do Thank-You Calls Increase Charitable Giving? Expert Forecasts and Field Experimental Evidence (April 13, 2019). Available at SSRN: