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Current Topic: Science

Gödel, Escher, Bach: A Mental Space Odyssey
Topic: Science 10:57 am EDT, Jun  7, 2009

Navigate the mind-expanding universe of Gödel, Escher, Bach with MIT OpenCourseWare:

What do one mathematician, one artist, and one musician all have in common? Are you interested in zen Buddhism, math, fractals, logic, paradoxes, infinities, art, language, computer science, physics, music, intelligence, consciousness and unified theories? Get ready to chase me down a rabbit hole into Douglas Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize winning book Gödel, Escher, Bach. Lectures will be a place for crazy ideas to bounce around as we try to pace our way through this enlightening tome. You will be responsible for most of the reading as lectures will consist primarily of motivating the material and encouraging discussion. I advise everyone seriously interested to buy the book, grab on and get ready for a mind-expanding voyage into higher dimensions of recursive thinking.

Check out the video lectures.

From the archive, on Hofstadter:

What do we mean when we say "I"?

Freeman Dyson:

After Gödel, mathematics was no longer a single structure tied together with a unique concept of truth, but an archipelago of structures with diverse sets of axioms and diverse notions of truth. Gödel showed that mathematics is inexhaustible. No matter which set of axioms is chosen as the foundation, birds can always find questions that those axioms cannot answer.

Dr. Nanochick on the Geek Test:

I feel truly geeky because I can think of something that should have gotten me geek points that wasn't on the list -- owning the "Real Genius" DVD and reading "Gödel, Escher, Bach."

Gödel, Escher, Bach: A Mental Space Odyssey

Topic: Science 8:08 am EDT, May 14, 2009

Jonah Lehrer:

"I've always been really good at waiting," Carolyn told me.

Craig, a year older than Carolyn, still remembers the torment of trying to wait. "At a certain point, it must have occurred to me that I was all by myself,” he recalls.

Low delayers are more likely to have behavioral problems. Low delayers have lower SAT scores.

Intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control.

The key [to self-control] is to avoid thinking about it [the thing you want to delay] in the first place.

Last August, I observed to my Moleskine:

They say delayed gratification isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"We'll see", I tell them. "We'll see."

From March:

Santino, a male chimpanzee in a Swedish zoo, planned hundreds of stone-throwing attacks on zoo visitors. The chimp collected and stored stones that he would later use as missiles. The chimpanzee collected the stones in a calm state, prior to the zoo opening in the morning. Hours later, in an 'agitated' state, Santino launched the stones at visitors.

Why don't people pay more attention to the archives?

People who love camp say that non-camp people simply don't understand what's so amazing about camp. In this program, we attempt to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between camp people and non-camp people.

There is no spoon.

As cures for boredom have proliferated, people do not seem to feel less bored; they simply flee it with more energy.

Scarcity of attention and the daily rhythms of life and work makes people default to interacting with those few that matter and that reciprocate their attention.

If children are being instructed in the pink plane, can we teach them to think in the blue plane and live in a pink-plane society?

If you're a policy maker and you are not talking about core psychological traits like delayed gratification skills, then you're just dancing around with proxy issues. You're not getting to the crux of the problem.


In search of the black swans
Topic: Science 9:00 pm EDT, Apr 19, 2009

Mark Buchanan ("Nexus"):

This is how discovery works: returns on research investment do not arrive steadily and predictably, but erratically and unpredictably, in a manner akin to intellectual earthquakes. Indeed, this idea seems to be more than merely qualitative.

If the path to discovery is full of surprises, and if most of the gains come in just a handful of rare but exceptional events, then even judging whether a research programme is well conceived is deeply problematic.

Are we doing our best to let the most important and most disruptive discoveries emerge? Or are we becoming too conservative and constrained by social pressure and the demands of rapid and easily measured returns?

In the short run, what the mavericks do will almost always seem less successful, perhaps even like wasting their time, and it is easy to think that this is the kind of research we should not pursue, even if this is actually very much mistaken.

This is a trap into which modern science planning has fallen.

What we need, in general, is to put policies in place that will judge young scientists not on whether they are linked into programmes established decades ago by now-senior scientists, but solely on the basis of their individual ability, creativity and independence.

Malcom Gladwell:

We should be lowering our standards, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about.

Richard Hamming:

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work.

In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.

Have you seen "Doubt"?

Father Brendan Flynn: You haven't the slightest proof of anything!
Sister Aloysius Beauvier: But I have my certainty!

In search of the black swans

The AlloSphere at the California NanoSystems Institute, UC Santa Barbara
Topic: Science 7:41 am EDT, Apr 17, 2009

JoAnn Kuchera-Morin:

Visualizing, hearing and exploring complex multi-dimensional data provides insight that is essential for progress in a number of critical areas of science and engineering, where the amount and complexity of the data overwhelm traditional computing environments. The need for richer and more compelling visualizations continues to receive attention as a US national science priority.

The AlloSphere is a unique, one-of-a-kind scientific instrument that is a culmination of 24 years of Professor JoAnn Kuchera-Morin's creativity and research efforts in media systems and studio design. She approached the design of the AlloSphere in much the same way that she composes a piece of music.

See also the just-released TED talk on the AlloSphere.

The AlloSphere at the California NanoSystems Institute, UC Santa Barbara

The Civil Heretic
Topic: Science 12:11 pm EDT, Mar 28, 2009

A (long) profile of Freeman Dyson, uncloseted skeptic, in the Sunday NYT, written by Nicholas Dawidoff:

Science is not a matter of opinion; it is a question of data.

It's rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive.

... always preaching the virtues of boredom ...

The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people's hopes.

The truths of science are so profoundly concealed that the only thing we can really be sure of is that much of what we expect to happen won't come to pass.

From last year, Freeman Dyson:

Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.


I beseech you, in the words of Oliver Cromwell, to think it possible you may be mistaken.

Colin Powell:

Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

Richard Hamming:

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work.


I've always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not.

Carolyn Johnson:

We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life's greatest luxuries.

Michael Lopp:

You should pick a fight, because bright people often yell at each other.

The Civil Heretic

Who Profits From Scientific Research?
Topic: Science 7:42 pm EST, Mar  1, 2009

William Deresiewicz:

The most striking thing about the way we talk about science these days is just how little we talk about it at all. And if we talk about science very little, we talk about the scientist even less. No Einstein or Pasteur anymore, no Frankenstein or Strangelove. Science has become so pervasive a part of the way things run that, like the servants in a Victorian household, the people who actually make it happen have disappeared into the wallpaper.

Does the injection of the profit motive into scientific research distort the kinds of questions that get investigated and degrade the quality of the results that get produced? There are strong reasons to believe that it does.

The system works well for everyone except patients. This is what comes of thinking that scientific integrity can survive the assault of the profit motive.

We do not have to acquiesce in the notion that scientists and the institutions that employ them are necessarily the wisest custodians of our technological future. The choice is not between the disinterested pursuit of truth for the sake of the common good and the meddling of ignorant laypeople. The choice, as it always is, is whether corporations will control our collective fate, or we will.

Marcia Angell:

There seems to be a desire to eliminate the smell of corruption, while keeping the money.

Steve Shapin on Craig Venter:

When academic bureaucracies are said to protect intellectual orthodoxies, when cumbersome and politicised government bureaucracies harbour cults of personality, and when corporate bureaucracies build on business models that stultify both science and commercial growth, the only person you can trust is an edgy hybrid of self-confessed ‘bad boy’ and self-advertised humanitarian who thinks he has a spoon long enough to sup with all the institutional devils and sacrifice his integrity to none.

Who Profits From Scientific Research?

The Computer as a Road Map to Unknowable Territory
Topic: Science 7:30 am EST, Feb 18, 2009

Shankar Vedantam:

Last year, as the financial meltdown was getting underway, a scientist named Yaneer Bar-Yam developed a computer model of the economy. Instead of the individuals, companies and brokers that populate the real economy, the model used virtual actors. The computer world allowed Bar-Yam to do what regulators cannot do in real life. It allowed him to change the way actors behaved and then study how those changes rippled through a complex ecosystem.

The virtue of computational models is that when you are confronted by a dizzying array of potential problems, they can tell you where to focus your attention.

Our culture celebrates intuitive leaders who make brilliant calls -- even when we suspect their success was largely luck. Computational models, which speak the language of scientific doubt, are less sexy, but they can tell a president who takes empirical evidence seriously where public health dollars, battlefield troops and financial interventions can have the greatest impact.

Have you seen "Doubt"?

Father Brendan Flynn: You haven't the slightest proof of anything!
Sister Aloysius Beauvier: But I have my certainty!

Your daily dose of Simpsons:

Smithers: That's quite a nice model, sir.

Burns: Model?

The Computer as a Road Map to Unknowable Territory

Keep Your Identity Small
Topic: Science 10:01 pm EST, Feb  8, 2009

Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying "this cupboard must be kept empty." Yes, strictly speaking, you're putting something in the cupboard, but not in the ordinary sense.

From the recent archive, Freeman Dyson:

... I came to Princeton and got to know Hermann Weyl. Weyl was a prototypical bird ... I wrote his obituary for Nature, which ended with a sketch of Weyl as a human being:

"Characteristic of Weyl was an aesthetic sense which dominated his thinking on all subjects. He once said to me, half joking, 'My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful'."

People who solve famous unsolved problems may win big prizes, but people who start new programs are the real pioneers.

Keep Your Identity Small

How Google Is Making Us Smarter
Topic: Science 7:09 am EST, Jan 27, 2009

Carl Zimmer, in Discover Magazine:

The mind appears to be adapted for reaching out and making the world, including our machines, an extension of itself.

The mind is a store of knowledge you can dip into, an external repository of information.

The US Navy has developed a flight suit for helicopter pilots that delivers little puffs of air on the side of the pilot’s body as his helicopter tilts in that direction. The pilot responds to the puffs by tilting away from them, and the suit passes those signals on to the helicopter’s steering controls. Pilots who train with this system can learn to fly blindfolded or to carry out complex maneuvers, such as holding the helicopter in a stationary hover. The helicopter becomes, in effect, part of the pilot’s body, linked back to his or her mind.

The extended mind theory doesn’t just change the way we think about the mind. It also changes how we judge what’s good and bad about today’s mind-altering technologies.

There’s no point in trying to hack apart the connections between the inside and the outside of the mind. Instead we ought to focus on managing and improving those connections.

From the archive, Marshall McLuhan:

“Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.”

McLuhan again:

In operating on society with a new technology, it is not the incised area that is most affected. The area of impact and incision is numb. It is the entire system that is changed.

Jeff Leeds, in conversation with Sasha Frere-Jones:

I think the message and the medium are much more intertwined than they were ten years ago.

WSJ, in 2007:

If indeed the Web and microprocessors have brought us to the doorstep of a Marshall McLuhan-meets-Milton Friedman world of individual choice as a personal ideology, then record companies, newspapers and old TV networks aren't the only empires at risk.

Howard Rheingold:

I discovered when I talked to teachers in my local schools that "critical thinking" is regarded by some as a plot to incite children to question authority.

Eric McLuhan:

The new media won't fit into the classroom. It already surrounds it. Perhaps that is the challenge of counterculture. The problem is to know what questions to ask.

How Google Is Making Us Smarter

Do you want to make a deal?
Topic: Science 6:31 am EST, Jan 26, 2009

Want It!

People will reject material compensation for dropping their commitment to sacred values and will defend those values regardless of the costs.

Expecting a young woman to sacrifice her reproductive fitness for the sake of career advancement is simply too much, and yet the structure of academic research can demand exactly that.

So worrisome has the situation become that students at prestigious universities are even talking about becoming butchers.

If you spent six or seven years and hundreds of thousands of dollars getting a graduate degree and you end up doing this, that is not a happy thought.

How does it feel?

You've gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you're gonna have to get used to it
You said you'd never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He's not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

Do you want to make a deal?

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