no better state than this

I’m writing a Long Post, but it’s a slog. In the meantime here are some more trivialities.

  1. I realised that the three images in my glaucoma machine post could be condensed down to the following: “Glaucoma, the ox responded / Gaily, to the hand expert with yoke and plough.”

    This is really stupid and completely impenetrable without context, and I love it.

  2. I’ve been using the fog-clearing metaphor for the process of resolving ambiguity. It’s a good one, and everyone else uses it.

    It’s probably not surprising that we reach for a visual metaphor, as sight is so important to us. It’s common to describe improved understanding in terms of seeing further. Galileo named his scientific society the Academy of Lynxes because the lynx was thought to have unparalleled eyesight, though unfortunately that finding seems not to have replicated. (That was the high point of naming scientific institutions, and after that we just got boring stuff like ‘The Royal Society’.)

    I’m more attached to smell as a metaphor, though. We do use this one pretty often, talking about having a ‘good nose’ for a problem or ‘sniffing out’ the answer. Or even more commonly when we talk about good or bad taste, given that taste is basically smell.

    I’m probably biased because I have atrocious eyesight, and a good sense of smell. I’d rather join an Academy of Trufflehogs. I do think smell fits really well, though, for several reasons:

    • It’s unmapped. Visual images map into a neat three-dimensional field; smell is a mess.
    • The vocabulary for smells is bad. There’s a lot more we can detect than we know how to articulate.
    • It’s deeply integrated into the old brain, strongly plugged into all sorts of odd emotions.
    • It’s real nonetheless. You can navigate through this mess anyway! Trufflehogs actually find truffles.

 
3. An even better metaphor, though, is this beautiful one I saw last week from M. John Harrison on Twitter. ‘You became a detector, but you don’t know what it detects’:

This mental sea change is one of my weird repetitive fascinations that I keep going on about, here and on the old tumblr. Seymour Papert’s ‘falling in love with the gears’, or the ‘positive affective tone’ that started attaching itself to boring geology captions on Wikipedia. The long process of becoming a sensitive antenna, and the longer process of finding out what it’s an antenna for. There is so absolutely NO BETTER STATE THAN THIS.

Three replies

These are responses to other people’s posts. They’re all a bit short for an individual post but a bit long/tangential/self-absorbed for a reply, so I batched them together here.

1. Easy Mode/Hard Mode inversions

I spend a lot of time being kind of confused and nitpicky about the rationalist community, but there’s one thing they do well that I really really value, which is having a clear understanding of the distinction between doing the thing and doing the things you need to do to look like you’re doing the thing.

Yudkowsky was always clear on this (I’m thinking about the bit on cutting the enemy), and people in the community get it.

I appreciate a lot this having done a PhD. In academia a lot of people seem to have spent so long chasing after the things you need to do to look like you’re doing the thing that they’ve forgotten how to do the thing, or even sometimes that there’s a thing there to do. In parts, the cargo cults have taken over completely.

Zvi Mowshowitz gives doing the thing and doing the things you need to do to look like you’re doing the thing the less unwieldy names of Hard Mode and Easy Mode (at least, I think that’s the key component of what he’s pointing at).

It got me thinking about cases where Easy Mode and Hard Mode could invert completely. In academia, Easy Mode involves keeping up with the state of the art in a rapidly moving narrow subfield, enough to get out a decent number of papers on a popular topic in highly ranked journals during your two year postdoc. You need to make sure you’re in a good position to switch to the new trendy subfield if this one appears to run out of steam, though, because you need to make sure you get that next two year postdoc on the other side of the world, so that …

… wait a minute. Something’s gone wrong here. That sounds really hard!

Hard Mode is pretty ill-defined right now, but I’m not convinced that it necessarily has to be any harder than Easy Mode. I have a really shitty plan and it’s still not obviously worse than the Easy Mode plan.

If there was a risk of a horrible, life-ruining failure in Hard Mode, I’d understand, but there isn’t. The floor, for a STEM PhD student with basic programming skills in a developed economy, is that you get a boring but reasonably paid middle class job and think about what you’re interested in in your spare time. I’m walking along this floor right now and it’s really not bad here. It’s also exactly the same floor you end up on if you fail out of Easy Mode, except you have a few extra years to get acquainted with it.

If there is a genuine inversion here, then probably it’s unstable to perturbations. I’m happy to join in with the kicking.


2. ~The Great Conversation~

Sarah Constantin had the following to say in a recent post:

… John’s motivation for disagreeing with my post was that he didn’t think I should be devaluing the intellectual side of the “rationality community”. My post divided projects into into community-building (mostly things like socializing and mutual aid) versus outward-facing (business, research, activism, etc.); John thought I was neglecting the importance of a community of people who support and take an interest in intellectual inquiry.

I agreed with him on that point — intellectual activity is important to me — but doubted that we had any intellectual community worth preserving. I was skeptical that rationalist-led intellectual projects were making much progress, so I thought the reasonable thing to do was to start fresh.

😮

‘Doubted that we had any intellectual community worth preserving’ is strong stuff! Apparently today is Say Nice Things About The Rationalists Day for me, because I really wanted to argue with it a bit.

I may be completely missing the point on what the ‘rationality community’ is supposed to be in this argument. I’m only arguing for the public-facing, internet community here, because that’s all I really know about. I have no idea about the in-person Berkeley one. Even if I have missed the point, though, I think the following makes sense anyway.

Most subcultures and communities of practice have a bunch of questions people get really exercised about and like to debate. I often internally think of this as ~The Great Conversation~, with satiric tumblr punctuation to indicate it’s not actually always all that great.

I’ve only been in this part of the internet for a few years. Before that I lurked on science blogs (which have some overlap). On science blogs ~The Great Conversation~ includes the replication crisis, alternatives to the current academic publishing system, endless identical complaints about the postdoc system (see part 1 of this post), and ranting about pseudoscience and dodgy alternative therapies.

Sometimes ~The Great Conversation~ involves the big names in the field, but most of the time it’s basically whoever turns up. People who enjoy writing, people who enjoy the sound of their own voice, people with weird new ideas they’re excited about, people on a moral quest to fix things, grumpy postdocs with an axe to grind, bored people, depressed people, lonely people, the usual people on the internet.

If you go to the department common room instead, the academics probably aren’t talking about the things on the science blogs. They’re talking about their current research, or the weird gossip from that other research group, or what the university administration has gone and done this time, or how shit the new coffee machine is. ~The Great Conversation~ is mostly happening elsewhere.

This means that the weirdos on the internet have a surprisingly large amount of control over the big structural questions in the field. This often extends to having control over what those questions are in the first place.

The rationalist community seems to be trying to have ~The Great Conversation~ for as much of human intellectual enquiry as it can manage (or at least as much as it takes seriously). People discuss the replication crisis, but they also discuss theories of cognition, and moral philosophy, and polarisation in politics, and the future of work, and whether Bayesian methods explain absolutely everything in the world or just some things.

The results are pretty mixed, but is there any reasonably sized group out there doing noticeably better, out on the public internet where anyone can join the conversation? If there is I’d love to know about it.

This is a pretty influential position, as lots of interesting people with wide-ranging interests are likely to find it and get sucked in, even if they’re mostly there to argue at the start. Scott Aaronson is one good example. He’s been talking about these funny Singularity people for years, but over time he’s got more and more involved in the community itself.

The rationalist community is some sort of a beacon for something, and to me that ought to count for ‘an intellectual community worth preserving’.


3. The new New Criticism

I saw this on nostalgebraist’s tumblr:

More importantly, the author approaches the game like an art critic in perhaps the best possible sense of that phrase (and with M:TG, there are a lot of bad senses). He treats card design as an art form unto itself (which it clearly is!), and talks about it like a poetic form, with various approaches to creativity within constraints, a historical trajectory with several periods, later work exhibiting a self-consciousness about that history (in Time Spiral, and very differently in Magic 2010), etc.

That is, he’s taking a relatively formal, “internal,” New Criticism-like approach, rather than a historicist approach (relate the work to contemporary extra-artistic phenomena) or an esoteric/Freudian/high-Theory-like approach (take a few elements of the work, link them to some complex of big ideas, uncover an iceberg of ostensibly hidden structure). I don’t think the former approach is strictly better than the latter, but it’s always refreshing because so much existing games criticism takes the latter two approaches.

I know absolutely nothing about M:TG beyond what the acronym stands for, but reading this I realised I’m also really craving sources of this sort of criticism. I recently read Steve Yegge’s giant review of the endgame of Borderlands, a first person shooter that I would personally hate and immediately forgot the name of. Despite this I was completely transfixed by the review, temporarily fascinated by tiny details of gun design, enjoying the detailed explorations of exactly what made the mechanics of the game work so well. This is exactly what I’m looking for! I’d rather have it for fiction or music than games, but I’ll take what I can get.

I kind of imprinted on the New Critics as my ideal of what criticism should be, and although I can see the limitations now (snotty obsession with narrow Western canon, tone deaf to wider societal influences) I still really enjoy the ‘internal’ style. But it’s much easier now to find situated criticism, that wants to relate a piece of art to, say, Marxism or the current political climate. And even easier to find lists of all the ways that that piece of art is problematic and you’re problematic for liking it.

Cynically I’d say that this is because the internal style is harder to do. Works of art are good or bad for vivid and specific internal reasons that require a lot of sensitivity to pinpoint, whereas they’re generally problematic for the same handful of reasons that everything else is problematic. But probably it’s mostly just that the internal style is out of fashion. I’d really enjoy a new New Criticism without the snotty high culture focus.

Two cultures: tacit and explicit

[Epistemic status: no citations and mostly pulled straight out of my arse, but I think there’s something real here]

While I was away it looks like there was some kind of Two Cultures spat on rationalist-adjacent tumblr.

I find most STEM-vs-the-humanities fight club stuff sort of depressing, because the arguments from the humanities side seem to me to be too weak. (This doesn’t necessarily apply this time – I haven’t tried to catch up on everyone’s posts.) Either people argue that the humanities teach exactly the same skills in systematic thinking that the sciences do, or else you get the really dire ‘the arts teach you to be a real human being‘ arguments.

I think there’s another distinction that often gets lost. There are two types of understanding I’d like to distinguish, that I’m going to call explicit and tacit understanding in this post. I don’t know if those are the best words, so let me know if you think I should be calling them something different. Both are rigorous and reliable paths to new knowledge, and both are important in both the arts and sciences. I would argue, however, that explicit understanding is generally more important in science, and tacit understanding is more important in the arts.

(I’m interested in this because my own weirdo learning style could be described as something like ‘doing maths and physics, but navigating by tacit understanding’. I’ve been saying for years that ‘I’m trying to do maths like an arts student’, and I’m just starting to understand what I mean by that. Also I feel like it’s been a bad, well, century for tacit understanding, and I want to defend it where I can.)

Anyway, let’s explain what I mean by this. Explicit understanding is the kind you come to by following formal logical rules. Scott Alexander gives an example of ‘people who do computer analyses of Shakespeare texts to see if they contain the word “the” more often than other Shakespeare texts with enough statistical significance to conclude that maybe they were written by different people’. This is explicit understanding as applied to the humanities. It produces interesting results there, just as it does in science. Also, if this was all people did in the humanities they would be horribly impoverished, whereas science might (debatably) just about survive.

Tacit understanding is more like the kind you ‘develop a nose for’, or learn to ‘just see’. That’s vague, so here are some examples:

  • Taking a piece of anonymised writing and trying to guess the date and author. This is a really rigorous and difficult thing my dad had to do in university (before pomo trashed the curriculum, [insert rant here]). It requires very wide-ranging historical reading, obviously, but also on-the-fly sensitivity to delicate tonal differences. You’re not combing through the passage saying ‘this specific sentence construction indicates that this passage is definitely from the late seventeenth century’. There might be some formal rules like this that you can extract, but it will take ages, and while you’re doing the thing you’re more relying on gestalt feelings of ‘this just looks like Dryden’. You don’t especially need to formalise it, because you can get it right anyway.

  • Parody. This is basically the same thing, except this time it’s you generating the writing to fit the author. Scott is excellent at this himself! Freddie DeBoer uses this technique to teach prose style, which sounds like a great way to develop a better ear for it.

  • Translation. I can’t say too much about this one, because I’ve never learned a foreign language :(. But you have the problem of matching the meaning of the source, except that every word has complex harmonic overtones of different meanings and associations, and you have to try and do justice to those as well as best as you can. Again, it’s a very skilled task that you can absolutely do a better or worse job at, but not a task that’s achieved purely through rule following.

I wish these kinds of tacit skills were appreciated more. If the only sort of understanding you value is explicit understanding, then the arts are going to look bad by comparison. This is not the fault of the arts!

Crackpot time 2: cargo culting hard

I’m back from another weird foundations-of-physics workshop in the middle of nowhere, this one even smaller and more casual than the last. Also much more relaxed, schedule-wise, so there was plenty of time to think idly about various rubbish in my head.

Last time I was inspired to write my crackpot plan, so it feels like a good time to revisit it a bit, but mostly this is just a large braindump to get various things out of temporary memory before I lose them.

Continue reading “Crackpot time 2: cargo culting hard”

glaucoma machine yoked to a plough

I’m going to start reintroducing a few tumblr-style posts without much editing, as this thing is starting to develop a stodgy Real Blog atmosphere where I feel like I need to post Proper Serious Writing.

This is supposed to be more of a workbook, and I think I’ll learn faster if I up the percentage of experimental/embarrassing/badly-thought-out posts.

There’s this mindset I sometimes kick myself into, which is roughly ‘I’m going to work hard at this thing, and I’m going to like it.

It’s got a very specific emotional tone and a specific range of application. I wouldn’t bother trying to use it for utterly dull stuff like the washing up where I do not care at all. On the other hand, there’s a definite theatrical aspect (the ‘and I’m going to like it’ bit) where I’m kind of faking up the enthusiasm in the hope that some genuine enthusiasm will follow. Getting up early in the winter and working when it’s still dark outside is the right sort of situation for it.

I’d never really thought consciously about this before, but I noticed the other morning that it’s got three different images attached to it in my head. By ‘image’ I don’t mean a vivid mental picture (I don’t have much of a visual imagination at all, oddly for someone who loves geometry), just vague sort-of-images or bits of phrases that cluster round the thing.

The first one is a half-remembered line from The Waste Land, something about ‘the boat responded gaily to the slightest touch’. The real version turns out to be ‘Damyata: The boat responds / Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar’.

This is highly relevant. It contains the right sort of things: precision and responsiveness and genuine enjoyment. I’m actually impressed with whatever part of my brain came up with that, apparently without much conscious supervision.

After that the images go downhill fast. The second is something to do with oxen yoked to a plough. Which is not imaginative at all, and also a pretty miserable vision of the potential rewards of hard work. I guess there’s a kind of stoic, stubborn element that’s useful here.

Also, I have never in my life thought clearly about what oxen yoked to a plough actually look like (though of course I’m googling it now). The words in my head are something about oxen yoked to a plough, but the image is more like an old-fashioned heavy leather horse harness.

The third part, ludicrously, is something like one of those glaucoma testing machines you get at the opticians. I can’t quickly find a public domain image, just google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m not imagining the bit that puffs an unpleasant jet of air into your eye, but the bar bit you push your forehead against in order to keep your face aligned properly.

Apparently this is how I’m taking the image of the harness, which is attached to the ox, and applying it to myself. Sticking my forehead against this machine is how I’m yoking myself to the badly-imagined plough – it’s the crucial image that makes the other two apply to me specifically.

I had no idea I was imagining something so specific and weird. Imagine trying to consciously think up this crap! But somehow it kind of hangs together as something inspiring, if you don’t look at the component parts: fluid delicacy mixed with stolid determination, joined (of course) at the forehead. By a glaucoma machine!

It’s hopeless to try and write about this sort of thing accurately, because so much of what’s going on is not language-based. (And there’s a mess of other associations when I start thinking about this. I’m not sure the process stops, there’s just more and more of this nonsense.) But it’s also fun to try, because it’s all so entertainingly stupid!

Self-similar procrastination

Sierpinski triangle
Your to do list should look like this. Or something. I’m still working out the finer details.

[image source]

I had a gigantic insight on my walk home tonight, which is clearly going to make me millions, but before I start on my self-help book empire I needed to write this rushed crappy blog post explaining it. And before that, I needed to do the dishes. Because my grand theory requires self-similar competence at all scales.

OK, so really this thing is not very profound or original at all. It’s pretty much the same as John Perry’s structured procrastination, but with a slightly different emphasis. (And probably this emphasis appears elsewhere too.)

If you somehow haven’t come across the structured procrastination essay before, it’s wonderful and you should read it. The key part:

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this approach ignores the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be, by definition, the most important. And the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is the way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

I’m highly susceptible to this particular bad idea and end up doing nothing too often. Partly this is because I tend to have overambitious crackpot plans, so there’s always a good supply of ‘most important’ tasks to put at the top of the list. And partly it’s because I don’t seem to get bored as easily as most people and am unusually good at sitting around doing nothing very much, so it’s easy to slump into the couch potato ground state.

I do think sitting around doing nothing very much is highly underrated by a lot of people, but that would be a different post. In my case, I definitely need nudging towards actually getting shit done, instead of thinking idly about things I could do.

John Perry advocates avoiding this low-energy stuck state by filling up your to do list with ‘a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important’. The main mechanism he advances for why this works is that fear of the big intimidating tasks at the top drives you down the list, pushing you into actually completing many of the lower-ranked items.

I think this effect is somewhat important, but my thesis is that the most important mechanism is actually going the other way, from the bottom of the list up. Deadline fear is definitely useful, but I think that the energy and confidence created by completing the small tasks is the most important bit.


My intuition is that energy tends to be created at the microscale and bubbles up from there. I definitely use this principle to try and build momentum at work when I have a seriously boring task to do. I don’t want to do the actual task, but maybe I can be bothered to open up the password manager and get out the password I need for the server, and then maybe I can be bothered to open up a terminal and log on. Then maybe I’ll type in some trivial command to get myself used to the fact that I’m going to be typing in some commands. I don’t actually care what files are in that particular directory, but listing them has enough of the flavour of ‘doing work’ that it’s often enough to push me over the threshold into doing real work.

I think this is all pretty uncontroversial at the microscale. Any grumpy old fart who writes a weekly column for the Telegraph on how The Kids These Days Have No Discipline could tell you that sitting up straight and making your bed in the morning (or whatever) will propagate through to getting more done in general.

Where it gets interesting is at the mid-scale – projects you’re spending weeks to months on, but that aren’t all that important, at least in comparison with Big Intimidating Project at the top of the list. These are the ones I find myself wanting to cross off the list, because they’re ‘wasting time’.

But I’m coming to realise that they play an extremely important role in the task ecosystem. In some sense these are the largest-scale projects that you know you can actually pull off. Really big intimidating projects tend to have some sort of ‘research’ type element, where you don’t know what would even constitute a solution when starting out. Mid-sized projects, on the other hand, take a considerable amount of effort but are much more well defined. You more-or-less know how you’re going to tackle them, and what a successful outcome will look like. Successful mid-sized projects give you the confidence and energy to keep going, gradually allowing you to push further and further up the scale.

(I think it’s also important that at least some of these are self-contained projects in their own right, rather than subtasks of Big Intimidating Project. Lopping chunks off of Big Intimidating Project and tackling them separately is an excellent strategy, but my intuition is that this can’t be the only thing. Probably this is something to do with needing a supply of new ideas to keep bubbling up at all scales, but I haven’t thought about it very carefully.)


Here’s an example of an idea bubbling up. Last August I declared a Shitty Projects Month, as I could tell I needed some sort of break from more focussed work. It’s the kind of idea you can’t really fail at, and I did indeed do some shitty work on a couple of shitty projects, but I didn’t feel too pleased with how it went at the time. I suppose I was hoping that the results would be, well, less shitty.

Somehow, though, I found myself coming back to one of the projects a couple of months ago. I’d had an idea for a toy project I could try and do using the d3.js visualisation library – nothing useful, but it would look pretty if I got it right. I spent most of my time fighting my poor understanding of the library, and indeed of Javascript in general, and didn’t get very far.

Eventually it came back into my head, though, and this time I had the bright idea of prototyping in Inkscape. Once I could see something visually I was a lot more excited about the project and made rapid progress. I haven’t finished yet because there’s other stuff I have to do this month, but it looks likely that it’s going to be a major component in the visual design of the proper website I’m finally going to make, which will be my next mid-range non-physics project. If I don’t run into any more weird distractions.

And of course, the best example of a mid-range project bubbling up from triviality is this blog itself. I got the shittiest possible blog, a basic tumblr with the default design, and started writing with no particular plan. It turned out that what I wanted to write about was mathematical intuition (and chalk!? no idea about that one) so I went with that. And then got it off tumblr and turned it into something approximating a proper blog.

I haven’t run out of ideas yet, so hopefully this one can keep bubbling up. That’s my excuse for writing essentially the same post over and over again. Self-similar blogging at all scales!

Everything And Its Discontents

I was trying to dig up some blog I read ages ago that I thought used a variation on ‘X and its Discontents’ in its tagline. I haven’t found it, but I have dug up a pretty extensive list of things people on the internet are discontented about (who knew?).

Main conclusions are that everyone hates -isms and Europe:

Globalism
Globalisation
Gentrification
Gamification
Technoglobalism
The New Turkey
The China Boom
The Crowded Public Sphere
Romanticism
Barbarism
Secularism
Capitalism
Capital
Consumerism
Federalism
Formalism
Militarism
Multilateralism
Paternalism
Pluralism
Individualism
Ecomodernism
Marxism
Marketing
Feminism
Feminity
Manliness
Industrialism
Atheism
Data Nationalism
Late Neoliberalism
Late Style
Art
Art Direction
Nordic Art
Ceramics as a Medium
Jazz
Cinema
Method Acting
Division
Scholarly Publishing
Political Rule
Multidimensional Poverty
Plansplaining
Happiness
Love
Hearts and Minds
Mapping
Social Media
Autumn
Creativity
Connectivity
Sociability
Dimensionality
Intersectionality
Rationality
Civility
Homosexuality
Lumbersexuality
Empathy
Spotify
Labour
Privilege
Offsetting
Power
The Enlightenment
Aesthetics
Medicalisation
Europe
Europeanisation
Eurocentrism
European Integration
Euro-Zionism
The European Court of Human Rights
Anti-Corruption
The Dollar
Simulation
Islamophobia
Content
Privatization
Hegemony
Hysteria
Representation
Financialization
Cavitation
Cultivation
Centralization
Colonization
Creolization
Separation
Falsification
Localisation
Motorization
Sublimation
Randomization
Mansionization
Vaccination
Innovation
Film Adaptation
The United Nations
Tor
The Social Imaginary
Childhood
Citizenship
Modern Water
Listening
Dwelling
Interdependence
Grand Coalition Politics
Class Size
Development
Urban Computing
Urban Governance
Urban Tourism
The 21st Century Urban Housing Crisis
The Bacteriological City
Democracy
Meritocracy
Aesthetics
Terror
Synergies
The Internet
Scientology
Scientism
Open Science
The Modern University
The Nobel Prize
Narratology
Theology
The Singularity
Hypochondria
Spooky Interaction
Communal Living
Discretion
Aging
Rest
Conversion
Mission Creep
Identity
Patent Alienability
Specialization
The Standard Model of Talent Development
Memory
Cyberculture
Copyright
The GDP
The Jobless World
Newport
Conspiracy Theory
Microfinance
Curatorial Education
Climate Based Daylight Modelling
Continental Realism
Preservative Realism
Realist Criminology
Situational Crime Prevention
Irony
The Achievement Society
Technological Progress
The Technological Body
Psychiatry
Strategic Philanthropy
Transitional Justice
Cosmopolitan Justice
Judicial Engagement
International Law
Family Law
The Lawn-Chemical Economy
Time
The World’s Course

Research debt, double distilled

I said a few weeks ago that I was going to talk more about this article by Chris Olah and Shan Carter on the idea of research debt, but every time I went back to it I felt that the original article made the point so clearly and elegantly that there was very little I wanted to add. (Other than ‘I want this thing in physics too please!’)

So I started to pull out my favourite bits, intending to do a very lazy quotes-and-comments sort of post, and realised that with a couple of additions they made a coherent summary of the original post on their own. In the process I discovered that there were a few things I wanted to say, after all.

If you just read straight down the blockquotes you get a double-distilled microversion of the original essay. Or you can also read the bits I’ve stuck in between.


For centuries, countless minds have climbed the mountain range of mathematics and laid new boulders at the top. Over time, different peaks formed, built on top of particularly beautiful results. Now the peaks of mathematics are so numerous and steep that no person can climb them all.

This has always saddened me. In Men of Mathematics, E. T. Bell labels Henri Poincaré as the ‘The Last Universalist’, the last person to be able to range freely across all fields of mathematics as they existed in his time. Now Bell did have a tendency to over-dramatise things, but I think this is basically right.

Probably this is unavoidable; probably the expansion wave has accelerated too fast, and those days will not return. I’m temperamentally susceptible to millenarian dreams of the return of the once and future universalists, but I accept that this is unlikely.

Still, there is a lot of compression that is within reach:

The climb is seen as an intellectual pilgrimage, the labor a rite of passage. But the climb could be massively easier. It’s entirely possible to build paths and staircases into these mountains. The climb isn’t something to be proud of.

The climb isn’t progress: the climb is a mountain of debt.

The analogy is with technical debt in programming, which is all the awkward stuff thrown to the side in an effort to get software into production quickly. Eventually you have to go back and deal with the awkward stuff, which has an unfortunate tendency to compound over time.

The insidious thing about research debt is that it’s normal. Everyone takes it for granted, and doesn’t realize that things could be different. For example, it’s normal to give very mediocre explanations of research, and people perceive that to be the ceiling of explanation quality. On the rare occasions that truly excellent explanations come along, people see them as one-off miracles rather than a sign that we could systematically be doing better.

People who are truly excellent at explaining research are probably rare. But ‘better explanations than we have currently’ seems like a very, very easy target to hit, once people are persuaded to put resources into hitting it.

I plan to finally start taking my own advice soon, and start putting whatever notes and bits of intuition I’ve gathered online. I’m not too convinced that they’ll be especially great, but the current floor is pretty low.

Research distillation is the opposite of research debt. It can be incredibly satisfying, combining deep scientific understanding, empathy, and design to do justice to our research and lay bare beautiful insights.

Distillation is also hard. It’s tempting to think of explaining an idea as just putting a layer of polish on it, but good explanations often involve transforming the idea. This kind of refinement of an idea can take just as much effort and deep understanding as the initial discovery.

Distillation is fundamentally a different sort of activity to the types of research that are currently well supported by academia. Distillers aren’t mountain climbers; they engage with their subject by criss-crossing the same ground over and over again, following internally-generated trails of fascination that can be hard to interpret from the outside. They want to understand!

An aspiring research distiller lacks many things that are easy to take for granted: a career path, places to learn, examples and role models. Underlying this is a deeper issue: their work isn’t seen as a real research contribution. We need to fix this.

Distillers generally have little interest in who can get to the top of the mountain fastest, and anyway it certainly won’t be them. In an environment that rewards no other activity, they tend to disappear quickly. They require different infrastructure.

None of this infrastructure currently exists, but it easily could do. Research distillation doesn’t intrinsically need to cost huge amounts of money. It’s not like we need to spend billions on a gigantic high-energy collider to smash our current explanations together. This is an area where transitioning from moaning about academia to actually doing something about it looks to be pretty straightforward.

It’s one of the nice sorts of problems where small efforts at the margins are already useful. It certainly helps if you have Google’s resources behind you, but you can also just polish up any half-decent notes you have lying around on a topic that’s currently poorly explained and put them online, and you’ve made a tiny contribution towards fixing the problem.

If you are excited to distill ideas, seek clarity, and build beautiful explanations, we are letting you down. You have something precious to contribute and we aren’t supporting you the way we should.


I’ve been saying ‘they’ throughout this post, but, I mean, it’s obvious why I care about this thing. This is my old tumblr ‘about me’ page:

aboutme

It’s amusing self-deprecation, but unfortunately I also meant it a lot of the time. (I still believe the programmer bit, but I’m starting to have some optimism about improvement there too.) My standard line after finishing my thesis was ‘I love physics but I’m bad at research’.

I had a poorly understood but strongly felt sense of what I wanted instead, academia was clearly not going to provide it, and I just wanted to get out. ‘Research distillation’, however, is a reasonably close fit. (Maybe not an exact one. I feel the ‘criss-crossing existing territory’ approach goes deeper than just refining existing ideas, and is a valid route to original research in itself. But it’s an ecosystem I think I would have been able to cope with, and succeed in.)

So I’ll admit my enthusiasm for the idea of research distillation is mostly pure self-interest. But I’m pretty sure that a thriving ecosystem of distillers would also help academia. After all, you only criss-cross the territory for love of the subject. The external rewards are currently too poor for any other motivation to make sense.

Reading into the landscape

Written quickly and probably not very clear – it’s a workbook post not a polished-final-thoughts post. Vaguely inspired by this exchange between Julia Galef and Michael Nielsen.

One of my favourite things is the point in learning a new topic where it starts to get internalised, and you begin to be able to see more. You can read into a situation where previously you had no idea what was going on.

Sometimes the ‘seeing’ is metaphorical, but sometimes it’s literal. I go walking quite a lot, and this year I’m seeing more than before, thanks to an improved ability to read into the landscape.

I got this from Light and Colour in the Outdoors, a classic 30s book on atmospheric phenomena by the physicist Marcel Minnaert. It’s really good, and I’m now regretting being cheap and getting the Dover version instead of the fancy coffee-table book (note to self: never buy a black-and-white edition of a book with the word ‘colour’ in the title).

I’ve only read a few sections, but already I notice more. Last weekend I got the coach to London, and on the way out I saw a sun dog I’d probably have missed before. And then on the way back it was raining with the sun shining onto the coach windscreen in front, and I thought to myself, ‘I should probably look behind me’. I turned, and right on cue:

2017-05-20 20.23.49

This is entry-level reading into the landscape, but still quite satisfying. Those with exceptional abilities seem to have superpowers. George Monbiot in Feral talks about his friend Ritchie Tassell:

… he has an engagement with the natural world so intense that at times it seems almost supernatural. Walking through a wood he will suddenly stop and whisper ‘sparrowhawk’. You look for the bird in vain. He tells you to wait. A couple of minutes later a sparrowhawk flies across the path. He had not seen the bird, nor had he heard it; but he had heard what the other birds were saying: they have different alarm calls for different kinds of threat.

This is the kind of learning that fascinates me! You can do it with maths as well as with sparrowhawks…

This has been on my mind recently as I read/reread Venkatesh Rao’s posts on ambiguity and uncertainty. I really need to do a lot more thinking on this, so this post might look stupid to me rather rapidly, but it’s already helping clarify my thoughts. Rao explains his use of the two terms here:

I like to use the term ambiguity for unclear ontology and uncertainty for unclear epistemology…

The ambiguity versus uncertainty distinction helps you define a simpler, though more restricted, test for whether something is a matter of ontology or epistemology. When you are missing information, that’s uncertainty, and an epistemological matter. When you are lacking an interpretation, that’s ambiguity, and an ontological matter.

Ambiguity is the one that maps to the reading-into-the-landscape sort of learning I’m most fascinated by, and reducing it is an act of fog-clearing:

20/ In decision-making we often use the metaphors of chess (perfect information) and poker (imperfect information) to compare decision-makers.

21/ The fog of intention breaks that metaphor because the game board /rules are inside people’s heads. Even if you see exactly what they see, you won’t see the game they see.

22/ Another way of thinking about this is that they’re making meaning out of what they see differently from you. The world is more legible to them; they can read/write more into it.

I think this is my main way of thinking about learning, and probably accounts for a fair amount of my confusion when interacting with the rationalist community. I’m obsessed with ambiguity-clearing, while the rationalists are strongly uncertainty-oriented.

For example, here’s Julia Galef on evaluating ‘crazy ideas’:

In my experience, rationalists are far more likely to look at that crazy idea and say: “Well, my inside view says that’s dumb. But my outside view says that brilliant ideas often look dumb at first, so the fact that it seems dumb isn’t great evidence about whether it will pan out. And when I think about the EV here [expected value] it seems clearly worth the cost of someone trying it, even if the probability of success is low.”

I’ve never thought like that in my life! I’d be hopeless at the rationalist strategy of finding a difficult, ambitious problem to work on and planning out high-risk steps for how to get there, but luckily there are other ways of navigating. I mostly follow my internal sense of what confusions I have that I might be able to attack, and try to clear a bit of ambiguity-fog at a time.

That sounds annoyingly vague and abstract. I plan to do a concrete maths-example post some time soon. In the meantime, have a picture of a sun dog:

sundog

Hackers and painters but not physicists?

There are two common routes that people go down after a physics PhD. The first is, of course, to stay on in academia and get a postdoc, and then hopefully another postdoc or two, and then hopefully a permanent job.

Many people fail one of these steps, and many others don’t fancy the whole process in the first place. So the second common option is to leave and look for a job that uses the same skills in some way. This could be in, for example, data science, algorithmically intensive areas of programming, quantitative finance, or industrial research and development. These are challenging jobs that require a lot of thinking, normally with long work hours attached. There isn’t much time and energy left to spare for learning physics, so mostly people don’t do that any more.

I wasn’t particularly good at my PhD, so playing the first game would have been a struggle. And there was enough that annoyed me about academia that I was pretty OK with leaving.

But I also didn’t like the look of the second game. I don’t want to do a challenging job that ‘uses my technical skills’ in some other field. I don’t care about my technical skills. They’re not even very good! I’m completely lacking in the kind of sharp, focussed intellect that excels at rapid problem solving in unfamiliar contexts. I will not pass your whiteboard interview.

I just want to think about physics. I have specific questions that are stuck in my head, and I want to work on those. I may not succeed in doing this very well or finding anything useful, but it’s not going to stop me thinking about them. Getting to use some decontextualised ‘problem solving skills’ elsewhere is not much of a consolation prize, because everything I care about is in the context itself. (This mindset actually makes most academic postdocs look quite unappealing too.)

So in my case it makes more sense to be relatively unambitious career-wise and try to free up time for learning physics. The main useful features of my current job are that it’s reasonably not horrible, has sane hours, and leaves me with mental energy to spare. Eventually I want to do better, and figure out how to cut down the hours I work.


This seems to be an unusual choice in physics. I can only think of two vaguely relevant archetypes: cranks of the classic ‘retired electrical engineer who’s just realised relativity is WRONG’ variety, and the occasional seriously impressive person who ends up the news for making important contributions to number theory while working in Subway. I feel embarrassed admitting to people what I’m doing, because I worry that the subtext they’ll pick up is either ‘I’ve deluded myself into thinking I’m an unrecognised genius’, or ‘I’ve gone full crackpot and no longer care what anyone thinks, also did you know that Einstein was wrong?’ Neither of those exactly sounds good, so I tend to talk about my plans like it’s just a big joke.

The annoying thing is that what I’m trying to do is not at all rare in other fields. Everyone understands the concept of people in the arts having day jobs, for example. The musician who works in a coffee shop to pay the bills is a standard cultural stereotype.

I like several things about this stereotype. For a start, it’s nice to simply have it available, so you can explain what you are doing to others quickly without looking too odd. (Possibly someone will give you a bit of ‘get a real job!’ grief for it, but that’s also part of the script! You already know how to play along in that exchange, so you escape a lot of awkwardness.)

There’s also no requirement for you to have any particular level of ability, so you escape the genius/crackpot dichotomy. You can be a brilliant musician, but it’s also OK to be sort of mediocre, or even downright awful, but love it anyway.

And best of all, it’s expected that your interests will be specific and contextual, that you’ll be driven by a particular obsession. If someone advises you to ‘apply your technical skills’ to writing advertising jingles, it’s a pragmatic suggestion for how to pay rent, not an indication that it could be a comparably fulfilling way to spend your time.


Maybe it’s not so surprising that the idea of people working on physics in their spare time is not well represented in the wider culture. Most people aren’t especially interested in physics, and might not even realise that you can actually care this much. But I’m not just talking about cultural representation. I’m confused about why hardly anyone seems to be doing it at all.

One very obvious point is that the financial situation is so much better than in the arts. All those jobs in data science and industrial research pay very well. This is not something I want to complain about! But it means there are strong forces pulling people into these careers, and away from having time for physics. This probably makes it harder to notice the idea in the first place.

I don’t think this is the whole story, though. In this respect it’s interesting to compare us against a different population of STEM nerds. Programmers are also well paid. But, like musicians, they still manage to have a robust culture of day jobs and side projects. It might not be such a sitcom stereotype, but within the field it’s not seen as so unusual for someone to spend the day at their dull enterprise Java job, and then go home and contribute to an open source project they really care about.

In fact, once you’ve thought of it, the financial situation makes the ‘day job’ idea easier, not harder. The most challenging and well-paid jobs may not leave you much extra time for thinking, but there are other less impressive-sounding options that still pay pretty well. Writing line-of-business applications at Large Dull Company may not be the most exciting way to spend your day, but that means you’re likely to have brainpower to spare. And if you want to reduce your hours further or have more flexibility with your time, there are reasonable pathways in consulting and contracting.

As with artists and musicians, you don’t have to be brilliant to fit this pattern. You just have to be fascinated enough with a specific idea to want to work on it even if nobody is paying you. Writing a basic CRUD app in your spare time is fine if there’s something in there that really interests you.

Paul Graham famously made the same comparison in his Hackers and Painters essay:

The other problem with startups is that there is not much overlap between the kind of software that makes money and the kind that’s interesting to write…

All makers face this problem. Prices are determined by supply and demand, and there is just not as much demand for things that are fun to work on as there is for things that solve the mundane problems of individual customers. Acting in off-Broadway plays just doesn’t pay as well as wearing a gorilla suit in someone’s booth at a trade show. Writing novels doesn’t pay as well as writing ad copy for garbage disposals. And hacking programming languages doesn’t pay as well as figuring out how to connect some company’s legacy database to their Web server.

I think the answer to this problem, in the case of software, is a concept known to nearly all makers: the day job. This phrase began with musicians, who perform at night. More generally, it means that you have one kind of work you do for money, and another for love.


So why is this missing from physics? One good reason is that working independently doesn’t make much sense for a lot of people if they want to still produce original research. If you enjoy being an experimentalist in a big collaboration, you’re out of luck. You can’t build a small version of the LHC in your shed and hope to keep contributing to high energy physics. Some areas of theory would also not work well, such as big numerical simulations, or fast-moving subfields developing highly technical methods that would be hard for an outsider to keep up with.

I think that still leaves a reasonable number of options, though. It’s the same for programmers, surely: you won’t have access to Google-sized datasets in your one-person side project, either. And I’m not necessarily even talking about original research anyway. In fact, I’m explicitly in favour of a much wider conception of what constitutes a useful contribution to physics. I talked about some of the things I value briefly in this ‘niches’ comment on David Chapman’s Meaningness blog:

What I’d like to see is more niches, in the ecological sense: more acceptable ways to be ‘successful’ in academia so that everyone isn’t stuck trying to shove each other down the same boring hill in their quest for the summit. Off the top of my head I would like all these things to be valued as highly as ‘high-impact’ research: teaching, reproduction of experiments, new ways of visualising or conceptualising existing results, communication of existing concepts to people outside of your speciality, programming new tools to make research easier, digging around in the historical archives of the field for interesting lost insights…

Many of these are completely feasible to work on as an individual outside of academia. So I don’t think this is the whole problem.

It’s true that a lot of people are in physics mostly for the problem solving element. In that case, applying your skills elsewhere for more money might look extremely attractive, as you aren’t really losing anything by solving the same kinds of problems in a different field. This could actually be enough to explain the situation completely – maybe there just are very few weirdos like me out there who care about specific questions in physics rather than broadly applicable techniques, but who also don’t try to stick it out in academia. But in that case I don’t really understand why the situation in programming is so different.

I do have to wonder, though, whether one reason that people don’t do this in physics is simply that, well, people don’t do this in physics. Nobody sees anyone else doing it (apart from a few crackpots and geniuses who are easily discounted) so they don’t think to try it themselves. This would be the most optimistic explanation, because it looks so easily changeable! Maybe if more of us continued doing physics outside of academia it would become a thing. Maybe there are already a fair number of people trying this, but they’re currently keeping rather quiet about it.

Mostly I’m just confused, though. Suggestions gratefully received!