Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Creativity and memory

March 8, 2011

Jim Holt at London Review of Books:

What do we really know about creativity? Very little. We know that creative genius is not the same thing as intelligence. In fact, beyond a certain minimum IQ threshold – about one standard deviation above average, or an IQ of 115 – there is no correlation at all between intelligence and creativity. We know that creativity is empirically correlated with mood-swing disorders. A couple of decades ago, Harvard researchers found that people showing ‘exceptional creativity’ – which they put at fewer than 1 per cent of the population – were more likely to suffer from manic-depression or to be near relatives of manic-depressives. As for the psychological mechanisms behind creative genius, those remain pretty much a mystery. About the only point generally agreed on is that, as Pinker put it, ‘Geniuses are wonks.’ They work hard; they immerse themselves in their genre.Could this immersion have something to do with stocking the memory? As an instructive case of creative genius, consider the French mathematician Henri Poincaré, who died in 1912. Poincaré’s genius was distinctive in that it embraced nearly the whole of mathematics, from pure (number theory) to applied (celestial mechanics). Along with his German coeval David Hilbert, Poincaré was the last of the universalists. His powers of intuition enabled him to see deep connections between seemingly remote branches of mathematics. He virtually created the modern field of topology, framing the ‘Poincaré conjecture’ for future generations to grapple with, and he beat Einstein to the mathematics of special relativity. Unlike many geniuses, Poincaré was a man of great practical prowess; as a young engineer he conducted on-the-spot diagnoses of mining disasters. He was also a lovely prose stylist who wrote bestselling works on the philosophy of science; he is the only mathematician ever inducted into the literary section of the Institut de France. What makes Poincaré such a compelling case is that his breakthroughs tended to come in moments of sudden illumination. One of the most remarkable of these was described in his essay ‘Mathematical Creation’. Poincaré had been struggling for some weeks with a deep issue in pure mathematics when he was obliged, in his capacity as mine inspector, to make a geological excursion. ‘The changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work,’ he recounted.

Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’s sake, I verified the result at my leisure.

How to account for the full-blown epiphany that struck Poincaré in the instant that his foot touched the step of the bus? His own conjecture was that it had arisen from unconscious activity in his memory. ‘The role of this unconscious work in mathematical invention appears to me incontestable,’ he wrote. ‘These sudden inspirations … never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless.’ The seemingly fruitless effort fills the memory banks with mathematical ideas – ideas that then become ‘mobilised atoms’ in the unconscious, arranging and rearranging themselves in endless combinations, until finally the ‘most beautiful’ of them makes it through a ‘delicate sieve’ into full consciousness, where it will then be refined and proved.

Poincaré was a modest man, not least about his memory, which he called ‘not bad’ in the essay. In fact, it was prodigious. ‘In retention and recall he exceeded even the fabulous Euler,’ one biographer declared. (Euler, the most prolific mathematician of all – the constant e takes his initial – was reputedly able to recite the Aeneid from memory.) Poincaré read with incredible speed, and his spatial memory was such that he could remember the exact page and line of a book where any particular statement had been made. His auditory memory was just as well developed, perhaps owing to his poor eyesight. In school, he was able to sit back and absorb lectures without taking notes despite being unable to see the blackboard.

It is the connection between memory and creativity, perhaps, which should make us most wary of the web. ‘As our use of the web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory,’ Carr observes. But conscious manipulation of externally stored information is not enough to yield the deepest of creative breakthroughs: this is what the example of Poincaré suggests. Human memory, unlike machine memory, is dynamic. Through some process we only crudely understand – Poincaré himself saw it as the collision and locking together of ideas into stable combinations – novel patterns are unconsciously detected, novel analogies discovered. And this is the process that Google, by seducing us into using it as a memory prosthesis, threatens to subvert.


IT and the demand for highly educated workers

March 6, 2011

Here is Paul Krugman (via Abi):

I decided to write the piece around a conceit: that information technology would end up reducing, not increasing, the demand for highly educated workers, because a lot of what highly educated workers do could actually be replaced by sophisticated information processing — indeed, replaced more easily than a lot of manual labor. Here’s the piece; …

Coincidentally, a few hours ago I wrote:

… how about engineers? Are they men and women of facts and calculations? If so, in the age of Google and Watson, do we need such a training? If not, what are engineers for?

Krugman does mention Watson in his piece.

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!

For the readers of this blog, from IISc and/or Bangalore

April 1, 2010

Here is one of the comments on a post of mine about E K Janaki Ammal:

Centre for Contemporary Studies
Indian Institute of Science
Bangalore 560012
invites you to a talk on

The Chromosome Woman:
E.K. Janaki Ammal and the re-ordering of the South Asian Environment (1897-1984)

Speaker: Dr Savithri Preetha Nair, London, UK (Fellow, New India Foundation, Bangalore)
Venue: Centre for Contemporary Studies Seminar Hall (Formerly TIFR mathematics Building)
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560012

Tuesday, 13 April 2010
Time: 4.00 pm
(Tea/Coffee will be served at 3:30 pm)

In her illustrated talk, Dr Savithri Preetha Nair outlines the life and work of a pioneering Indian woman scientist, Edavaleth Kakkat Janaki Ammal (1897-1984), who played a significant role in shaping plant genetics and the debate on the role of science in the emergence of the Indian nation.

The first Indian woman to obtain a doctorate in the sciences, Janaki pioneered researches in academic ethnobotany, the systematic study of the dynamic relationship between peoples, plants and environments, to counter the aggressive strategies adopted by Indian agronomists, in the name of national security and progress. Pioneering a plant geography trajectory within the practice of plant breeding and genetics in India, Janaki’s focus was ecological rather than economic, nationalist or ideological. Very importantly, she saw herself as a member of the international community of science rather than as a representative of a specific caste, race, or nation. By mapping the origin and evolution of cultivated plants across space and time, through cytogenetics, plant geography and a sound knowledge of the cultural uses of plants, Janaki aimed to contribute to a grand history of human cultural evolution.

Dr Nair’s forthcoming book on Janaki will be the first ever full length study on the life and science of an Asian woman scientist.

If you manage to attend the talk, feel free to give your feedback here, as a comment!

Why are there few negative reviews than positive ones

March 23, 2010

Jo Walton gives several reasons — here are two:

Lots of magazines only publish positive reviews. They don’t say “You must love everything.” It’s much more insidious. They’ll send a reviewer a pile of books and say “Here’s a pile of books. Write reviews of the ones that are worth it, get them to us by Friday and we’ll pay you $50 (or $100, or $25…) per review.” The corrolary is that they pay nothing for the ones you don’t review because they’re not worth it. The reviewer is then in the unenviable position of having a pile of books they have to spend time reading before Friday, knowing they’ll only be paid if they produce a positive review. Lots of people can find something nice to say about anything if it means the difference between being paid and not being paid, eating and not eating. I was sometimes in this position when I reviewed for the old British RPG magazine Arcane. I tried hard to be ethical and often succeeded. Only publishing positive reviews is as terrible an idea as it was when Orwell wrote against it.

Beyond that, there’s an extra layer if you are a writer reviewing—and this is why I stopped writing about everything I read. If you are a writer, there’s a way in which all the other writers are your competition. This is quite different from them being your friends. You’re competing: for awards, for review space, for attention, for sales. I don’t think it’s a zero sum game like this so that if someone buys my book they don’t buy someone else’s. But some people do. In this worldview, if I trash someone’s current book, not only am I hurting their potential sales, but they imagine I am doing it on purpose to put down a rival. The fact that this never occurred to me before someone accused me of doing it—on my livejournal ages ago, not here—is irrelevant. That was their perception. And I can only deny intentionality. I’m a midlist writer. I’m also a reader. From my point of view, I was a reader warning other readers to avoid a bad book. From that author’s point of view, I was one midlist writer putting down another midlist writer to my own potential advantage. This is so repulsive a thing to have thought about one that I’ve been extremely careful ever since.

And, there is more in Walton’s piece; take a look.

Link via Jenny.

Difficilior lectio potior

March 22, 2010

Classical scholars have, I believe, a general principle, difficilior lectio potior–the more difficult reading is to be preferred–in textual criticism. If the Archbishop of Canterburry tells one man that he believes in God, and another that he does not, then it is probably the second assertion which is true, since otherwise it is very difficult to understand why he should have made it, while there are many excellent reasons for his making the first whether it be true or false.

G H Hardy, The Indian Mathematician Ramanujan, American mathematical monthly, Vol. 44, 137-155, 1937.

Seat preferences in aircrafts

March 22, 2010

Can be influenced by so many strange things; here is Dermot O’Brien:

I think I shall always sit in seat 31C.

A must-read piece!

Argumentational skills for different contexts

January 21, 2010

Winston Churchill once praised the argumentational skills of the celebrated barrister and politician F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, by stressing their suitability to context: ‘The bludgeon for the platform; the rapier for a personal dispute; the entangling net and unexpected trident for the Courts of Law; and a jug of clear spring water for an anxious perplexed conclave’.

Andrew Aberdain in his enjoyable The informal logic of mathematical proof (in 18 unconventional essays on the nature of mathematics).

Brain damage and selective aphasia

July 11, 2009

Mo at Neurophilosophy points to an interesting paper (which reads like a case study from Oliver Sack’s book):

After the rehabilitation period, a series of linguistic tests was administered to determine the extent of his speech deficits. M.H. exhibited deficits in both languages, but the most severe deficits were seen only in Hebrew. In this language he had a severe difficulty in recalling words and names, so that his speech was non-fluent and interrupted by frequent pauses. He had difficulty understanding others’ spoken Hebrew, and also had great difficulty reading and writing Hebrew. In Arabic, his native language, all of these abilities were affected only mildy. Differences were also seen in the effects of intensive language therapy. Although the therapy led to improvements in both languages, the improvements in Arabic were seen in all linguistic abilities; in Hebrew, by contrast, there was only mild improvement in his spontaneous speech and comprehension, and his ability to name objects remained unchanged.Similarly, his ability to read and write Arabic, but not Hebrew, improved significantly.

Take a look!

A grain of that much sought-after actuality

June 29, 2009

A different point of view:

When I first heard the farcical story of the governor’s disappearance and then confession, I found it easy to laugh along with everyone else. I found it easy to agree with Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist as well as a journalist, that there was something bizarrely self-destructive in Sanford.

Now, having read the letters — or the excerpts running in the South Carolina papers — I’m not doing that anymore. The letters reveal nothing more nor less than true thunderbolt from the sky love. English professors tend to be people who love language, and who seek in language, more than in other places, the real. The Sanford/Maria letters have in them the grain of that sought-after actuality. Every word, every phrase, comes from the deep heart’s core.

Maria’s fractured English is as beautiful as Nora Barnacle’s in her love letters to James Joyce.
Perfection after all isn’t the real; Michael Jackson’s multiply knifed face was a horror. The flaw and the fracture that convey our humanity and its exertions toward expressivity is the real.

Sanford’s sincere, halting, emotional prose carries the impact upon him of his having been hit, and hit hard, by passionate love. Rather late in a very public life, Sanford has suddenly felt the bliss of utter enchantment with another human being.

Must read of the day, undoubtedly! One reason why I love English Professors!!