Archive for July, 2010

The two senses of normal

July 30, 2010

Paul Graham:

The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40.

The next 40 years will bring us some wonderful things. I don’t mean to imply they’re all to be avoided. Alcohol is a dangerous drug, but I’d rather live in a world with wine than one without. Most people can coexist with alcohol; but you have to be careful. More things we like will mean more things we have to be careful about.

Most people won’t, unfortunately. Which means that as the world becomes more addictive, the two senses in which one can live a normal life will be driven ever further apart. One sense of “normal” is statistically normal: what everyone else does. The other is the sense we mean when we talk about the normal operating range of a piece of machinery: what works best.

These two senses are already quite far apart. Already someone trying to live well would seem eccentrically abstemious in most of the US. That phenomenon is only going to become more pronounced. You can probably take it as a rule of thumb from now on that if people don’t think you’re weird, you’re living badly.

Take a look!

Modelling brain using robots

July 26, 2010

A very interesting piece in BioMed Central by Wolpert and Flanagan on the workings of the brain as understood using robots.

Money matters, administration, forgivenss, selfishness and all that

July 22, 2010

Paul Graham’s latest piece (as usual) has plenty of interesting thoughts:

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.

I hear similar complaints from friends who are professors. Professors nowadays seem to have become professional fundraisers who do a little research on the side. It may be time to fix that.

I’ve found there are two types of thoughts especially worth avoiding—thoughts like the Nile Perch in the way they push out more interesting ideas. One I’ve already mentioned: thoughts about money. Getting money is almost by definition an attention sink. The other is disputes. These too are engaging in the wrong way: they have the same velcro-like shape as genuinely interesting ideas, but without the substance. So avoid disputes if you want to get real work done.

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.

A short, nice piece!

Protecting yourself against modern perils

July 8, 2010

With time, as with money, avoiding pleasure is no longer enough to protect you. It probably was enough to protect hunter-gatherers, and perhaps all pre-industrial societies. So nature and nurture combine to make us avoid self-indulgence. But the world has gotten more complicated: the most dangerous traps now are new behaviors that bypass our alarms about self-indulgence by mimicking more virtuous types. And the worst thing is, they’re not even fun.

Paul Graham in his latest piece.


July 6, 2010

A couple of pieces on re-reading are tempting me to go pick up Kanthapura!

Blogging, hedgehogs, foxes and mathematics

July 5, 2010

A couple of interesting points from Fleix Salmon’s piece (Hat tip to Swarup for the pointer):

Horn’s point is that any organized attempt to look deeply at something risks being self-defeating: you can end up disappearing down all manner of silly dead ends, and understanding less than you would with a more-is-more approach.This absolutely rings true to me. For reasons which today elude me, I decided when I was doing my A-levels in England to do what they call “double maths” — essentially taking two mathematics exams (Maths and Further Maths), in the same two years you’d normally spend studying for just one. As a result, we had a highly accelerated mathematics curriculum, and there was no time to circle back and make sure the class had understood something before moving on to the next thing. It was all rather sink-or-swim.

And at any given point in time, I was sinking — along, I think, with most of the rest of my class. I was pretty fuzzy about what we’d been taught in previous weeks, and I was very unlikely to understand what the teacher was trying to say at any given time. Maths class, for me, was a combination of panic and incomprehension, combined with a desperate attempt to bluff my way through as much as I could. (Needless to say, if you’re reduced to trying to bluff, mathematics is not the best subject to choose.)

Yet somehow my classmates and I all did very well, at the end of the two years, when it came time to taking the actual exams. As I recall, nearly everybody taking double maths wound up getting an A in their Maths A-level, and most of us got an A or a B in Further Maths as well. Somehow we had managed to gain a pretty good grasp of the subject by dint of sheer velocity: the mechanism, I think, was that a desperate attempt to understand a new concept had the effect of making earlier ideas drop into place. And that the best way of mastering the Maths curriculum was not so much to study it directly, but rather to try to study the Further Maths curriculum: even getting halfway there would bring you pretty much up to speed on the stuff that went before.

Something similar, I think, happens with blogging. Bloggers tend to be foxes, rather than hedgehogs; it’s pretty clear that Athreya is an archetypal hedgehog and has a deep-seated mistrust of foxes. We skip around a lot of different things, and much of the time we don’t really understand them. But somehow the accumulated effect of all that skipping around is to make connections and develop understandings which hedgehogs often lack. What’s more, we live, as Athreya admits, in a highly complex world — one which there are serious limits to what economics can do on its own.

A good post!

Experiments and theory

July 2, 2010

I want to emphasize, however, that the role of numerical simulation at best is not essentially different from that of carefully controlled experimentation, especially in situations like this where the underlying physical model seems well understood. Experiments, both real and numerical, can test existing theoretical ideas and inspire new ones, but cannot substitute for fundamental theory.

J S Langer, Models of pattern formation in first-order phase transitions, in Directions in condensed matter physics: memorial volume in honor of Shang-keng Ma, Edited by G Grinstein and G Mazenko, World Scientific, 1986.


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