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.
My notes from They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. Published in 1955, this book is a collection of stories by Mayer, a Jewish-American, as he interviewed 10 Germans in Kronenberg. Each of them were involved with Nazism in some form, but none of them were very high in the ranks of leadership, in fact they called themselves “little men”. Given that he was Jewish, and this was published so close to the date of the tragic Holocaust, I’m impressed at his journalistic ability to remain objective in his questioning and analysis.
My overall impression of the book is very good. The first half especially is worth a read, if only to get inside the mind of regular German people from the WWII days. Mayer does some very good journalism and storytelling in order to capture the characters, actions, and belief systems of his Nazi friends. The second half of the book is not so as great, it reads like a combination of rushed journalism and bad historical analysis.
What follows is a write up of my notes, each heading is a chapter or collection of chapters with summaries, observations, and quotes from each chapter. Page numbers are in parentheses. Enjoy…
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.
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.
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.
Currently finishing A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel DeLanda. Fascinating re-thinking of history using nonlinear metaphors, but sometimes I wonder if he pushes the metaphors too far; I don’t have enough background knowledge to say either way. I’ve got They Thought They Were Free (via pushcx) from the library which I’ll start this weekend. I’ve been very into history lately.
For fiction, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Just started it a few days ago. It’s entertaining, but I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Follett was previously a thriller writer, and you can tell from some parts of the story. Much faster moving than Great Expectations and Dharma Bums, both of which I allowed to go half-finished from last month…
Six maps that will make you rethink the world. Not only are the maps beautiful, but the interview is pretty interesting too.
Christopher Olah’s blog
The math behind computational learning is hard, but Christopher Olah makes understanding it really easy. Every article of his is worth reading.
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.”