Category Archives: Thinkering

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From Chris Olah, it’s called Distill:

As people rush out new discoveries without putting effort into communication, they produce research debt. The field becomes noisy and energy draining to follow. In such an environment, I think it’s extremely valuable for there to be people focused on human understanding, clarity, and communication — a kind of “research distiller” role.

Read more about it on Chris’ announcement post.

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A short review of Dennett’s new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

And a quote explaining the main theme of the book:

Yet, as Dennett and others argue, genetic evolution is not enough to explain the skills, power and versatility of the human mind. Over the past 10,000 years, human behaviour and our ability to manipulate the planet have changed too quickly for biological evolution to have been the driving force. In Dennett’s view, our brains turned into fully fledged modern minds thanks to cultural memes: ‘ways of behaving’ — pronouncing a word this way, dancing like so — that can be copied, remembered and passed on.

Some memes are better than others at getting passed on. This drives natural selection, fashioning memetic design without a designer. The first memes, Dennett argues, were words, “the lifeblood of cultural evolution”, which act as virtual DNA for the richly cumulative cultural evolution that marks out our species. At first, he writes, words evolved to better fit the brains they had to colonize. Only later did brains start evolving genetically to better accommodate words, beginning a co-evolutionary process that turned us into voluble creatures.

An quote I dug up in my notes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Complete Sherlock Holmes

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be build up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our power, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

It seems to me that this notion of religion and Providence as nature in general was essential to the Victorian worldview, as Doyle (via Holmes’ quote) clearly acknowledges here.

Ben

5 March 2017

This afternoon I imported a ton of archives from previous years and a few different places. Some posts are about things I had forgotten I knew, but it’s so nice to re-read them, for example this old analysis of Christianity and Alcohol. My thinking hasn’t really changed much since 2011, to be perfectly honest. But don’t read the old essays, those are embarassing; I will keep them up for skin in the game of course.

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Edward Tufte keynote: “The Future of Data Analysis”

The presentation starts at 2:30. The news article is here

Bulletpoint take-aways from the end of the presentation:

  • Numbers on the screen are representations of the real world.
  • Look at the real world, not just representations.
  • Walk around what you want to learn about.
  • In doing creative work, do not start your day with addictive time-vampires such as The New York Times, email, and Twitter.
  • All scatter eye and mind, produce diverting vague anxiety, clutter short-term memory.
  • Instead begin right away with your work.
  • Many creative workers have independently discovered this principle.
  • How does what I see come to be seen by me? For what they show us is what we see. What we find is what we see. What we see is what we see. And what we see may not contain the answer.

Forty-four percent of the way through the complete Sherlock Holmes works on Kindle and Mycroft is finally introduced:

“My dear Watson,” said he, “I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers. When I say, therefore, that Mycroft has better powers of observation than I, you make take it that I am speaking the exact and literal truth.”

“You wonder,” said my companion, “why it is that Mycroft does not use his powers for detective work. He is incapable of it.”
“But I thought you said—”
“I said that he was my superior in observation and deduction. If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points which must be gone into before a case could be laid before a judge or jury.”

From the chapter on Leonardo da Vinci in Visari’s Lives:

Da Vinci would buy and the immediately release birds…

He was so pleasing in conversation, that he attracted to himself the hearts of men. And although he possessed, one might say, nothing, and worked little, he always kept servants and horses, in which latter he took much delight, and particularly in all other animals, which he managed with the greatest love and patience; and this he showed when often passing by the places where birds were sold, for, taking them with his own hand out of their cages, and having paid to those who sold them the price that was asked, he let them fly away into the air, restoring to them their lost liberty. For which reason nature was pleased so to favor him, that, wherever he turned his thought, brain, and mind, he displayed such divine power in his works, that, in giving them their perfection, no one was ever his peer in readiness, vivacity, excellence, beauty, and grace.

Was it karma? In another story, a Prince had commissioned a work from da Vinci, but da Vinci was not working on it, and the Prior grew worried…

Leonardo, knowing that the intellect of that Prince was acute and discerning, was pleased to discourse at large with the Duke on the subject, a thing which he had never done with the Prior: and he reasoned much with him about art, and made him understand that men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the least, seeking out inventions with the mind, and forming those perfect ideas which the hands afterwards express and reproduce from the images already conceived in the brain.