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08-Apr-2002

Two readings today lead me to posit that what's needed of us as we form a larger organism (see Specialization And Cooperation), if we want to participate intelligently in the process, is a sort of super-anti-autism: the ability to put ourselves not just in another's place, but to put ourselves in a place of larger-than-individual scale:

Man, Beast, and Zombie
"To go beyond a purely personal view of the world, we need to climb out of our individual minds, as it were, and view the world from a more external viewpoint. To go beyond the view afforded by a particular culture, we need to climb out of that culture and view it from the outside. To go beyond the view afforded by our species, we need metaphorically to climb out of our natures and view human beings from beyond ourselves. And so on. This process of climbing out of our immediate circumstances to achieve a more inclusive view is precisely the process of transcendence. Without such a process, neither history nor science would be possible."

Book review: The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of Thinking
"To use symbolism is to treat one thing as another thing. Our ability to do this is based on our capacity to step outside our minds, to see things from another person's point of view. From about the age of 12 months, normal infants can 'shift perspectives' in this way. They can identify their mother's attitude and incorporate it into their own attitude. This is precisely what children with autism cannot do. Hobson argues that this basic human capacity for empathy prepares the ground for language and all other specialised forms of symbolism. 'One can use symbols only if one has the kind of emotional life that connects one with the world and others.' Emotion is, as the title of the book suggests, 'the cradle of thought'."

And dayum, they both mention Wittgenstein, last referenced by Joe Mahoney in a spectacular conference call. Another To Read.

29-Feb-2002

Over a year ago Susan Woodward gave the engineers in our OffRoad Technology office an excellent lecture on the different auction models, noting that some worked better for certain applications than others. For instance, if I recall correctly, a Dutch Auction model works well for commodities that have a relatively short "shelf life". I asked why these particular models worked for their particular applications, and she didn't seem to have an answer. Has anyone studied this?

18-Dec-2000 4:30pm

I posted this post-election thought on another forum, but thought it worth capturing here:

My biggest worry in the wake of this [election process] is that there'll be an even more prevlaent attitude of disenfranchisement or active cynicism among us -- it's the danger of inaction at a time when we're becoming automatons responding to ever more sophisticated and well-funded marketing of candidates.

Our prevalent cynicism about the presidency had perhaps its first big boost in one generation's memory with Watergate, and became retroactive as we looked backward with a more skeptical eye. But if we look closely at our own attitudes, didn't we keep the faith that the system of checks and balances keeps the system relatively stable (however flawed) despite the faults of any one branch of government? For me, the most disturbing thing here is that the necessary separations of power are now called into question by the decision. (Maybe that's behind my search for other motivations badly covered over by stated Opinions.*)

That's why I think that the idea of doing what we can to prevent the selection of a Supreme Court justice by President Bush (if it's obviously partisan), when the time comes, is the most constructive concrete action I've seen suggested. Though it's a negative action, it's one of involvement by us voters in making another important national decision.

Regarding attitudes, I think we need the difficult balance between reconciliation and dissatisfaction with the way things worked, and I'm thinking the resulting vector is what we can call investment.

Maybe if the economy comes to a soft landing, some of us can find a little more time for that. [acknowledgement to Jon Waldron for an inspiring post follows]


This refers to an earlier post in the same forum:
Does anyone view the Supreme Court's decision as having a partially pragmatic motivation, i.e. that there was serious concern that the ongoing counting of votes alongside longer legal battles could, due to the uncertainty, impact the economy (reflected and effected in the stock market)?
I'm not saying that's a valid justification, given the longer term impacts and the way justice was compromised, nor that it was even necessarily discussed overtly. But do you think it might've been at least a tacit consideration?

13-Dec-2000 7:10am

(An old thought, pretty obvious to many, but seemed notable at the time. More like a Sat Night Live Deep Thought than a "real" one.)
Einstein's theory of relativity (special?) says that time slows for us, relative to an observer, proportional to our speed (approaching zero as we approach the speed of light). In effect, we're hurtling through time at the speed of light.

13-Dec-2000 4:40am

Moved to a separate page because it's growing increasingly important to me: Specialization And Cooperation

29-Nov-2000 2:00am

Working with my daughter on her math workbook last night, I realized why some kids hate math unnecessarily. The rote drilling of problems is mostly mechanical -- once a basic concept is understood (like the ones and tens places), there's a long flat highway of drills that use that concept. In class, some kids are good at these mechanics and finish first, giving them some pleasure in them (I remember that was the case for me). But for the rest of the class, they're sheer mind-numbing boredom, and for kids that are very conscientious about doing well, they can become a source of fear.

Last night, I made a game out of a couple pages of problems -- I'd do one part of a long addition, and my daughter would have to quickly do the next. I saw a remarkable difference after thus making it a more human, social process. She went from loathing it to actually enjoying it, and though she wasn't any faster at the individual components of the task (not surprising in just one session), the entire thing took much less time than usual, just given the added motivation and momentum. How can we do this in the classroom?

See resources at Teaching Math.

16-Nov-2000 7:00pm

I'd like to learn more about what Freeman Dyson means here (I hadn't heard the quote before):

Interviewer: Let me ask you about one of your most frequently quoted phrases, which also appears in Disturbing the Universe, in a passage I have returned to many times. You write that "in some sense the universe knew we were coming."

Dyson: The problem is just what we signifies. It does not mean "human beings." It means life and intelligence in general. It doesn't mean the universe was designed for humans. That's not what I intended to say. What it means is that the universe seems to be constructed in a way that it is hospitable to life and intelligence. I still think that's true, but I wish I had defined the meaning of we a little more clearly. [On a larger scale, see the "designer universe" article noted in Best Of Arts And Letters. 06-Dec-2000]

14-Nov-2000 4:00pm

We went to the Museum of Natural History in NYC over the weekend and saw the new spherical Hayden Planetarium, including the excellent "Passport to the Universe" show. The show does a great job of providing a sense of our place and scale in the observable universe -- we're of course infinitesimal in the large scheme. But this got me thinking: in terms of complexity and order, is our planetary world (and other supposed worlds like it) a pinnacle? Viewing the universe in a fractal way, where patterns are repeated at all scales, our miniscule position doesn't really "matter" (yeah, define that) as much as the richness of patterns with "meaning" (yeah, define that too) that we observe at our level. (See World View Forming Books and Emersons Essays.) But maybe there are patterns of organization at larger scales, both spatial and temporal, that we can't perceive.

BTW, what is our position in the scale of observable phenomena? The planetarium exhibit portrayed this very well with a series of stations on a walkway around the outside of the planetarium sphere. Most of the stations used the sphere (a couple stories high) as a point of comparison, e.g. "if the planetarium sphere is the observable universe, this foot-long block represents our three local galaxy clusters". It continues until we reach sub-atomic particles. I think we're about halfway in the logarithmic scale of largest to smallest, which is interesting.

[Another interesting fact raised by the excellent tour guide at the Museum: there are many more scientists alive right now than have existed in all previous history combined. That fact helps explain our current pace of change. For me, it alleviates the concern that there are so many people doing computer work now who might have been doing scientific work if computers didn't exist. Of course that concern, when looked at in a hard light, is fallacious, given the help that computers provide in scientific work. But come to think of it, did his statistic include software engineers in the category of scientists?]


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