One theory to the tune of another

My second favourite type of question in physics, after ‘what’s the simplest non-trivial example of this thing?’, is probably ‘how can I write these two things in the same formalism, so that the differences stand out more clearly?’

This may look like an odd choice, given that all I ever do here is grumble about how crap I am at picking up new formal techniques. But actually that’s part of why I like it!

Writing two theories in the same language is like putting two similar transparencies on top of each other, and holding them up to the light. Suddenly the genuine conceptual differences pop out visibly, freed from the distraction of all the tedious extraneous machinery that surrounds them.

Or at least that’s always the hope – it’s actually pretty hard work to do this.

There are two maps between classical and quantum physics that I’m interested in learning, and should probably have included in my crackpot grand plan. (I guess they can be shoved into the quantum foundations grab bag.)

One is the phase space reformulation of quantum mechanics. This is sort of a standard technique, but I still managed to avoid hearing about it until quite recently. Some subfields apparently use it a lot, but you’re unlikely to see it in any standard quantum course. It also has a weird lack of decent introductory texts. I met someone at the workshop I went to who uses it in their research and asked what I should read, and he just looked pained and said ‘My thesis, maybe? When I write it?’ So learning it may not be especially fun.

It looks really interesting though! You can dump all the operators and use something that looks very like a normal probability distribution, so the parallels with classical statistical mechanics are much more explicit. There are obviously differences – this distribution can be negative, for a start. (It’s known as a quasidistribution.) Ideally, I’d like to be able to hold them both up to the light and see exactly where all the differences are.

It’s less well known that you can also do classical mechanics on Hilbert space! It’s called Koopman – von Neumann theory. If you ever thought ‘what classical mechanics is really missing is a load of complex wavefunctions on configuration space’, then this is the formalism for you.

In this case, I ought to be luckier with the notes, because Frank Wilczek wrote some a couple of years ago.

I’m not so clear on exactly what this thing is and what I’d get out of learning it, but the novelty value of a Born rule in classical mechanics is high enough that I can’t resist giving it a go. And I’d have a new pair of formalisms to hold up to the light.

crisis in english everything

2017-04-16-09-22-38.jpg

I grew up fascinated with this kind of thing, sort of improbably for a teenager in 2003 or so.

I’m going to write more about this; today I’m just taking bad photos while I’m at my parents’ house and have the materials to hand. But the point is that ‘systems of meaning all in flames’ isn’t just an abstract piece of history for me. I might not have understood the context very well, but the emotional tone got through anyway.

(The image is from the beginning of ‘Crisis in English Poetry’ by the excellently named Vivian De Sola Pinto, published 1951, which I picked out from a second-hand bookshop for 50p because I liked the doom-laden title. This stuff is easy to find once you’ve developed a taste for it.)

Some advice nobody asked for

Related to the previous post, here is some free PhD advice for all three people who occasionally read the blog, none of whom it’s probably relevant to. I really did not excel in my PhD and then left academia, so this advice may not be worth having, but I felt like writing it down anyway.

I saw this really insightful answer on academia.stackexchange, in response to someone asking how they could attract more good applicants to a PhD programme in an ‘awesome’ but (implicitly) not super-top-level-wow-prestigious university. The core part:

So currently, you are getting two types of student: A) Those for whom you are accidentally special, e.g. they live in your city and don’t want to move, and B) those who dreamed to get into Harvard. A will contain the usual mix of brilliant and average students, while from B, Harvard picked all the chocolate chips from the cookie.

The solution is that you become top player by getting into a niche which has been overlooked. It may be completely new, or it may have 1-2 players which are in it accidentally, so you can beat them easily. Suddenly, you’ll start getting applications from C), the students who dream of being in that niche. Not only did you open yourself to a new set of students, but those who know early on what they know, and find out which university offers it, tend to be the best. This is a set of self-selected people who are motivated and effective.

I joined one of these sort of research groups and they are fantastic. They are obviously not as good for your future career as getting into Fancy Subfield at Imperial or Stanford. On the other hand, you won’t be expected to chew each others’ limbs off to get to the top of whichever bullshit status ladder is currently dominating the field. Also, nobody has gone there just to show off how amazingly brilliant they are, because if that was really important to them they’d have picked a trendier field/university/city. So you get a relaxed, collaborative atmosphere where people just really care about the subject and want to help each other learn.

Obviously the usefulness of this advice depends on the general intellectual health of your subject. If you reckon the existing status ladder in the field does line up nicely with actual useful progress, then it might be worth risking your limbs at the top groups. If instead you look at the ladder and think um, not so much, then you may as well go and have fun somewhere else.

my old tribe

There was one more thing I meant to port over from the old tumblr and forgot: a list of what I loved about my old research group. It was never under the ‘mathbucket’ tag, but goes a long way to explaining what I care about in maths and physics, what I missed horribly when I left and what I’m working towards finding again.

  • Everyone is interested in a wide variety of things – other areas of maths and physics, other academic subjects, various sports and arts and hobbies. Nobody expects you to just be narrowly focussed on learning about your specialism.

  • Getting better at these things is valued. A little bit of bragging is alright as long as you don’t get too obnoxious about it.

  • Helping other people get better at these things is valued. Being able to explain your work in plain language is valued. Writing a clear paper, giving an entertaining talk or writing for a nonspecialist audience are all considered worthwhile, as well as technical competence in your own research area.

  • (This one’s important) An almost total absence of that competitive one-upping thing where everyone spends their time proving how much smarter they are than everyone else, or looking down on other subdisciplines as less important/fundamental/difficult/rigorous than their own. This is all over the place in physics, I hate it, and I was very very lucky to avoid most of it.

  • Playfulness, silliness, gurning, stupid repetitive injokes, awful songs played over and over again, pointless fun distracting projects with absolutely no relevance to anyone’s research.

  • A kind of glorying in being stubbornly independent-minded and prepared to defend your own stupid opinion. ‘That is bollocks and I will tell you why.’ But always grinning as you say it, and sometimes you discover that it isn’t bollocks and admit you’ve changed your mind.

(Disclaimer I added a bit later: I’m not saying it was a perfect fit for me. It was more undisciplined and structureless and anarchic than I really knew how to deal with, and I was very lazy and unfocussed a lot of the time. This stored up problems for me in the long run, and finishing on time was a miserable ordeal. But there was a lot of good there.)

I’m a bricoleur scientist

I’ve just read a fascinating paper, ‘Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete’ by Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert. I’m lucky that I only found the paper recently: I love Papert but I’m not sure I’d have been able to stomach it even two years ago. The very first paragraph manages to combine a couple of ideas I’m seriously allergic to:

The concerns that fuel the discussion of women and computers are best served by talking about more than women and more than computers. Women’s access to science and engineering has historically been blocked by prejudice and discrimination. Here we address sources of exclusion determined not by rules that keep women out, but by ways of thinking that make them reluctant to join in. Our central thesis is that equal access to even the most basic elements of computation requires an epistemological pluralism, accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking.

So, first of all, this is a paper about Women In STEM, considered capitalised as an Important Social Issue. Being lumped in with my gender automatically puts me on edge, as I tend to assume that I’m not going to fit in very well.

Then we have the phrase ‘ways of knowing’, which I’ve sort of unfairly come to associate with the worst of pomo nonsense. Like that anthropology course my flatmate did, where literally any bullshit explanation of anything ever advanced by some isolated tribe had to be taken seriously as an ‘equally valid’ way of understanding the world.

Put these two together and this article threatens to be about, er, ‘women’s ways of knowing in STEM’, a phrase which is literally making me cringe as I type it out. A couple of years I would have stopped here, unable to cope with the kind of associations this gave me with the awful gender-essentialist woo stuff that some women inexplicably find inspiring and not horrific. Like, stuff of the form ‘women have special kinds of intuition, which are probably to do with being really in touch with the earth or something, and also lots of feelings are going to be involved’.

Anyway I’ve calmed down about this a bit recently, to the point where I could possibly even extract something worthwhile from a full-fat gender-essentialist-woo piece of writing. And of course this paper is not like that.

Even so, this paper pretty much is about ‘women’s ways of knowing in STEM’ (in broad statistical strokes, rather than an essentialist claim that This Is How All Women Feel). And, um, it actually fits me rather well? Some of it is off, but it also includes the best description of my particular learning style that I have ever come across anywhere.


The basic setup here is one of those ‘two types of mathematician’ divisions I love. Except here there are two types of programmer. There’s this standard (straw? I don’t think so, but it’s hard for me to tell) idea of a programmer:

For some people, what is exciting about computers is working within a rule-driven system that can be mastered in a top-down, divide-and-conquer way. Their structured “planner’s” approach, the approach being taught in the Harvard programming course, is validated by industry and the academy. It decrees that the “right way” to solve a programming problem is to dissect it into separate parts and design a set of modular solutions that will fit the parts into an intended whole. Some programmers work this way because their teachers or employers insist that they do. But for others, it is a preferred approach; to them, it seems natural to make a plan, divide the task, use modules and subprocedures.

Then there’s ‘a very different style’:

They are not drawn to structured programming; their work at the computer is marked by a desire to play with the elements of the program, to move them around almost as though they were material elements — the words in a sentence, the notes on a keyboard, the elements of a collage.

Turkle and Papert call this ‘bricolage’, a term they got from Levi-Strauss. I know nothing about Levi-Strauss so can’t really say what he meant by it. The Wikipedia article on bricolage describes it as ‘the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process’, which seems close enough to the usage in the paper.

Bricoleur scientists, apparently, work in the following way:

The bricoleur scientist does not move abstractly and hierarchically from axiom to theorem to corollary. Bricoleurs construct theories by arranging and rearranging, by negotiating and renegotiating with a set of well-known materials.

To which, all I can say is:

!!!

This is the thing! This is a perfect description of the thing!


My favourite sort of problem is something that could probably be labelled ‘synthesis’, but at ground level looks like this: you have a bunch of concepts you don’t understand very well, but for some reason you’re convinced they can be combined. Sometimes this is a pointless exercise in making patterns out of noise, like staring at the Easyjet seat pattern for too long. Other times you have valid intellectual reasons for why they would fit together.

This is a bit vague, so here are some examples. There are some ideas in maths and physics that have this particular quality for me. They aren’t ones where I’m making much useful progress, and at least one is probably outright bad. They’re just examples of the kind of thing where once it’s in my head, it’s really in my head.

  • There’s a variant form of general relativity called teleparallel gravity. GR takes place in curved spacetime, and one way of thinking of this mathematically is that as you move from place to place, your frame of reference rotates in a manner described by an object called the connection. The GR connection has nonzero curvature, but there’s also some other geometrical property it could have called torsion, that’s set to zero in GR.

It turns out that you can also make a perfectly good connection with zero curvature (it’s ‘teleparallel’ – parallel lines stay parallel). Instead, it has nonzero torsion. And if you choose some coefficients right in some Lagrangian, you can reproduce GR in some sense. Buh? The formulation is pretty opaque, so what’s really going on?

  • Pedalling back a bit because we quite clearly need to, what are these curvature and torsion thingies? You can calculate quite well with limited understanding of what’s going on geometrically. GR people love to do this in a very opaque way with lots of shuffling little superscripts and subscripts around (it’s fast once you’ve learned it). In an intro course this is normally connected back to geometry at a specific ritual point, which involves shoving a vector round a loop and observing that it rotates a bit. This is not especially satisfying. It’s obviously possible to get a far better understanding, and people in the field manage this, but at least for me that’s involved extracting it painfully one piece at a time from many different sources.

  • A subquestion of this that wasted hours and hours of my time over several years (this is the ‘probably outright bad’ one): there’s curvature and torsion of a connection, but there’s also the simpler idea of curvature and torsion of a a curve in 3D space. I’d convinced myself that there was some sort of analogy between them that had to do with taking a curve off a manifold and developing it in flat Euclidean space. In fact I even got it into my head that I’d read this one of Cartan’s own books! But a lot about the idea didn’t fit so well.

I eventually couldn’t stand it any more and risked asking about it on Mathoverflow, where I feel massively underqualified. Robert Bryant answered me, which was pretty amazing. There is probably nobody better placed in the world to answer questions about Cartan – he’s apparently read the whole lot. He very politely explained that he thinks it’s a red herring, and that Cartan had a different picture in mind when he introduced the torsion of a connection. And I can’t find anything about my brilliant idea in the Cartan book I read.

So it looks like there’s probably nothing there, but I can’t quite say it’s fully out of my head yet. It’s the Easyjet seat pattern of maths questions.

  • A current one: what’s going on in QFT that makes it different to classical perturbation theory? Suddenly the diagrams have loops; why? OK, so some propagator’s nonzero at some point. What does that mean? Why can’t I get that out of a classical theory?

There’s two main parts to all these questions. One, how do the things fit together? And in order to answer this: two, what are these things really? Where ‘really’ is poorly defined, but just being able to reproduce a formal calculation definitely won’t cut it.

And the process for working on them? It’s exactly as in the quote: you do it ‘by arranging and rearranging, by negotiating and renegotiating with a set of well-known materials’. ‘Well-known’, because you’ve spent hours thinking about specific concrete instantiations, in the process of trying to understand what they ‘really’ are. Particular connections, particular propagators. ‘Negotiating and renegotiating’, because they’re your friends by now and you want them to get on. Maybe one side of your explanation meshes poorly with another side. Maybe there’s a reframing that can combine them.

If this is bricolage, then sign me up.


Doing maths and physics in this style requires a certain stubbornness in the face of never getting taught that way. I lost confidence eventually, but I seem to have it back now. I’m convinced that it absolutely can work. It’s not some kind of second-prize way to flail around the curriculum, inferior to a more structured approach. It has its own distinctive methods and produces its own distinctive questions, which I think are often good questions.

It could work even better if it was supported better.

I’m a bricoleur scientist.

Crackpot time!

I’m pretty serious now about becoming a crackpot physicist. I even have an expandable bullet-pointed plan:

crackpot

Actually I’ve had this list for a while now, but it’s becoming less of a joke. And a couple of weeks ago I went to the most amazing workshop, organised by early-career physicists who are pretty unimpressed with the state of a lot of academic physics themselves, and they were very understanding and welcoming. So now it looks like I have allies on the inside!

The aim is to be a sort of high-class crackpot, rather than the sort who spams mailing lists with EINSTEIN WAS WRONG screeds. I want to engage with the actual physics community, and learn more physics.

Learning is going well already. I have a full time job so have to work around it, but I’ve got fairly disciplined now and have learned that you can do a lot with half-hour focussed blocks of time. In some ways it’s more freeing than the PhD situation, because you never have to worry that you should be working on your stupid thesis instead.

Research will be a harder one to crack. I’m pretty sure it just needs longish stretches of uninterrupted time, and I don’t have many of those. So long term I also need to work out a better employment situation. I’ve punted those decisions to October at the earliest, though, and for now I’ll focus on learning.

This is the plan:

  • QFT first pass: focus on scalar phi^4 theory

This is pretty much the simplest option, and I’m sticking to it pedantically in the spirit of ‘examples first’. I’ve had this ‘sort out my embarrassing total lack of QFT background’ plan going for a while now, so I’m already a good way through this one. The aim is just to know roughly how to calculate some shit without getting too hung up on technical details.

I lucked out by buying the book Quantum Field Theory for the Gifted Amateur, by Blundell and Lancaster. It’s a bit of a weird name but turns out to be brilliant – it’s pitched at exactly the level I want, giving a reasonable overview of how to actually calculate things with out being immediately bogged down in the sort of practitioner-level detail that the likes of Peskin and Schroeder need to go into. I’m starting to think I should ask the authors for some kind of sales commission as I keep plugging it to all the physicists I meet. I’ve got a few chapters on renormalisation to go and then I think I’m done with the phi^4 material.

I don’t want to go completely mad on conceptual questions either, but I do want to clear up some of my ‘quantum without quantum’ confusions and figure out what’s actually novel and what’s a bunch of methods that could just as easily be used in classical physics.

I think the key question is still: where are the loops coming from? You don’t get those in classical perturbation theory. I’m suspicious that the weirdo Feynman propagator is part of the issue, and I’m curious what happens when you introduce it in the classical case. I should stop vaguely wondering about this and actually go and do some maths.

  • Quantum foundations grab bag

Now I’m a proper crackpot I can think about the foundations of quantum mechanics as much I as want 😀

The main part of this is going through Matt Leifer’s Perimeter course video lectures, which I’d already started on. But now I also have a big old supplementary reading list from the workshop. Also I might get hold of Bell’s Speakable and Unspeakable, which was passed around there like some sort of holy relic.

  • QFT second pass: nonzero spin

Not sure of the exact plan as this is some way off, but it may evolve into some giant detour where I learn geometric algebra too.

I always thought that was one of those weird things with the worryingly zealous true believers, but at the workshop a couple of true believers did a good job of convincing me it was worth bothering with. Apparently they find it to be a really useful tool for going up and down the ladder of abstraction, with the same notation helping them both with getting a clean geometric understanding of a problem and with cranking actual numbers out. That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m always looking for! So maybe if I’m going to be messing about with spinors this’ll help.

Also now I’m a crackpot I can learn whatever I like. Being a crackpot is fun!

  • Looking for the fine structure constant in the Bible

… or maybe not. I’m not that far gone yet! (Growth mindset?)

Cognitive dancing! Cognitive style!

(Pictured: the inside of my head. This has been a pretty bad earworm recently.)

Figure out what your own cognitive style is. Embrace and develop it as your secret weapon; but try to learn and appreciate other styles as well.

I keep thinking about this quote (from How To Think Real Good). And specifically about what my continuing adventures in being a terrible programmer are adding to my own toolkit, as it’s definitely quite a lot.

Of course everyone and their cat is now a programmer so these are not in any way hard-to-find insights. Actually most of what I read seems to be saturated with them. But my brain is quite resistant to learning any of this, so it’s only just starting to go in.

The ultimate aim would be to finally become passable at some of the tricks the current culture throws at me, and also hang on to my own weirdo cognitive style. Cognitive bilingualism!

Anyway let’s be specific. Here’s three related things that I’m starting to get a grip on.

‘Seeing the skull beneath the skin’.

As in, being able to isolate the structural skeleton of a problem, the bits that actually matter in this application, and mapping it on to some kind of data structure.

You’d think a maths degree would have taught me this already, but no. I was able to rely on intuition and good old rote memorisation for when that failed, and it worked just about OK. Now there’s nothing I can yet grasp well enough to visualise and not much to memorise either, so I suppose I have to learn how to do the thing.

This’ll be a slow one and I don’t yet have any strategies for getting better. I’m still in the process of ‘falling in love with the gears’, attempting to attach any sort of ‘positive affective tone’ to the idea so that I can be bothered to learn it at all. In that respect it’s interesting to listen to people who can do the thing. I joined my current job on some sort of graduate scheme thingy and there are some good CS graduates who were starting at the same time. Sometimes just in the pub or whatever they’ll mention the kinds of problems they idly think about for fun and they have this sort of quality. ‘How would I code this up?’ ‘What structure can I fit it to?’

I like these people so maybe I can like the thing? That always sounds dumb written out but it’s worked before.

(The ‘skull beneath the skin’ quote comes from here but even more I’m thinking of this bit from Watership Down:

“When we think of the downs, we think of the downs in daylight, as we think of a rabbit with its fur on. Stubbs may have envisaged the skeleton inside the horse, but most of us do not: and we do not usually envisage the downs without daylight, even though the light is not a part of the down itself as the hide is part of the horse itself.”

Seems like there are increasing numbers of people who are able to look for the skeleton inside the horse, which is interesting but also weird to me.)

‘Is there a process for that?’

I’m actually getting my head round this one quite nicely, as part of a general project of getting better at structure and discipline and organisation. (This has been way more successful than I would have expected — I actually get up at six and learn physics before going to work these days, which I’d never have imagined would work even a couple of years ago.)

The trick here is that if you’ve got something you need to do, you set up some kind of system so it happens automatically. My boss and his boss are both good at this and take it seriously – it’s worth having an in-depth dull conversation once for, say, how to keep track of emails in a shared inbox, because once you’ve got a good process it takes care of itself and you never need to think about it again.

Most productivity advice is of this form, but it took me a long time to start engaging with it. It just sounded so tedious and bean-county and I kind of liked the image of myself as an messy eccentric with piles of paper everywhere. But it turns out that getting shit done efficiently is extremely useful, and now I want to get more shit done efficiently.

I seem to pass as an organised person quite often these days, which is funny. My boss asked me if I had any thoughts on Trello, for example – I know nothing much about Trello, but it was nice to be considered as the sort of person who could plausibly have something useful to say.

Automate everything.

The general version of ‘is there a process for that?’ is the classic programmer tendency to ‘automate everything’, and it’s actually really hard for me to learn outside of a few special cases. I love repetition. I’m pretty sure there’s a gigantic lead flywheel in my brain which takes forever to spin up, but once it gets there I have enormous cognitive inertia and will happily do the same thing for ages. This is probably obvious from the contents of this blog, and even more obvious from my youtube music listening history. I’ve done many low-level menial admin temp jobs in the past because I have an unusually high tolerance for doing a rote task over and over again.

Whereas the programmer ideal seems to be to pick up a new task lightly, identify the abstract structure as cleanly as possible, and then automate the hell of the bastard so you never have to see it again. And then move on to the next one.

This is a massive nuisance for me! There’s no such thing picking up a task lightly when you have a lead flywheel to spin up, and once it’s spun up you’re properly invested. And then once you’re into that enjoyable flow state of knowing how to do something you’re supposed to rip it all up and make a computer have all the fun instead? Programmers are crazy!

I’m not sure it’s worth tackling this one upfront. I also need to work on ways to get my existing abilities to help me out and route around obstacles, and I’m thinking about that too, but that will be another post sometime.

sleep deprivation, part 2

After the flight, I got a four hour coach back to Bristol, and the fun really started. While waiting in the airport I read a bit more of Keith Johnstone’s Impro, and got on to some pretty crazy-sounding free association exercises (the earlier part of this is what inspired my post about the pastebin of utter crap). Most of them required a partner, or at least a situation where you could talk out loud without sounding like a total nutter, but I thought I could at maybe try improvising stories in my head, allowing myself no pauses to think about what should come next.

I’ve forgotten most of what I came up with, and it was probably mostly crap anyway, but there were a few segments that were a) strange and memorable; b) somewhat in the style of those in the book; and c) nothing at all like what I would have expected to come up with, given what I normally think is in my head:

1. Plovers make their winter migration to the pole star, where all lines intersect. The surface of the pole star is covered in bulrushes, but the inner core is ice. Each plover brings a small amount of warmth to the star, and melts a bit of the ice. When the ice is fully melted, the universe ends and infinity returns.

2. Wolves are streaming down off the tundra in lines. In each line, each wolf carries the tail of the preceding wolf in its jaws. The air smells of lichen and wet feet.

3. There’s an internment camp for people who have forgotten the names of the four seasons. Most of them have internalised that they are stupid and deserve to die.

A man there gets angry and kicks his chair to bits. He makes a fire from the pieces. Staring into the ashes, he intuits new and better names for the seasons. He shouts them at the guards and they drop down dead. The inmates run out through the gates and all four seasons happen at once.

(These are sort of tidied up, but I think only slightly; the verbal content was almost exactly as I wrote it down, but there was a funny mix of visual imagery in there with it which I obviously can’t reproduce. This was interesting to me because I normally have a rather weak visual imagination. The reincorporation of the seasons at the end of the third one is probably because I’d just read the section on reincorporation. I’m pretty sure there were wolves in one of the Impro stories too.)

It’s fascinating to me that this stuff is just there. As Johnstone says, it all turns up when you stop fussing about whether the thoughts belong to or mesh well with you in any sense, and just let them come out with no particular owner. As ever, I wonder about whether mathematical intuition is made out of similar stuff.

After a while of this, I finally fell asleep and napped until Bristol.

sleep deprivation, part 1

Here’s an image of the seat pattern on Easyjet aircraft, which I stared at for an hour or so while sleep deprived yesterday:

easyjet-big

[image source]

It’s been carefully designed to be maximally annoying to whatever kind of stupid brain I have, in that pretty much every element of the pattern almost but doesn’t quite repeat. Actually the segment in the photo isn’t too bad, but the bit I had in front of me had the ‘L’ shape appearing in three of the possible orientations but not the fourth one, and no ways to make larger squares using the grey squares as the corners, and some other incredibly frustrating feature that I have thankfully now forgotten.

Anyway this pattern ruined any chance I may have had of a good nap, but it did make me hazily realise that whatever this mental mode is is one of the key elements of my cognitive style, for better or worse. I normally label it as ‘synthesis’, which sounds kind of grand, but what I really mean is just this thing of idly mashing little bits of conceptual pattern together in a semi-conscious, automatic way, over and over and over until I maybe get something I can use.

It has a pretty similar subjective flavour to having an annoying tune or a bunch of odd word fragments stuck in your head, which is also something that I have going on all the sodding time.

OK, I’m maybe not selling this skill as an enjoyable one here, but actually I have a lot of affection for it. Whatever this skill is, it somehow manages to balance out my terrible ability at conscious rule-following and gives me a way to survive in mathematics.

long pastebin of utter crap

it’s been abstracted too far for my tastes and stinks of algebra all over
that putrid stench? that would be the dead rotten hand of algebra

I dug out an interesting-ish writing experiment from a few years ago, where I just wrote out rubbish that came into my head as fast as possible over several evenings. I guess I should be horribly embarrassed by the result, but for some reason I like it, so I’m posting the whole lot to a pastebin here.

It starts out stilted and self-conscious and pretentious and derivative and crap, and then eventually relaxes a bit into being, well, still very pretentious but vaguely worth reading. And every so often there’s an odd little section I’d never have imagined I could write, based on my normal output.

This was a year or so before I started reading SSC, got a tumblr and got fascinated with the whole odd rationalist-adjacent world, so in a lot of ways the prevailing weather in my head was pretty different. I mean, some things never change – as well as the algebra bit there’s another maths rant 500 lines or so in, this time about terminology in differential geometry. But I was finishing up my thesis and was utterly sick of it, and winter was hanging around a lot longer than usual, and the main loops in my head were these sort of miserable ones linked up somehow with M. John Harrison’s Viriconium series and the Anatomy of Norbiton blog. The Pastel City and the Ideal City. And of course underneath it The Waste Land and the Unreal City, my longest-lived and most faithful source of brain noise (that and some Empson stuff).

There was some kind of depressing economics-related news around too, whatever this Harrison post was soaked in. I honestly can’t remember what particular thing it was now that the whole of the news is such a shitshow, but it may have been something about automation/’the post-work future’? “Outside it’s minus ten & you have no idea what’s happening on the old housing estates by the river.” That image of boiling an egg in the same water is completely lodged anyway, even if the specifics have gone out of my head.

Anyway it’s been interesting to read back. I’m a lot more cheerful right now despite the news, and my brain is currently working around some new loops, so maybe I should try this exercise again.