Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People — Stephen Wolfram

Idea Makers is charming and not for everyone. Its introduction is accurate:

in my own life I”ve seen all sorts of ideas and other things develop over the course of years—which has given me some intuition about how such things work. And one of the important lessons is that however brilliant one may be, every idea is the result of some progression or path—often hard won. If there seems to be a jump in the story—a missing link—then that’s just because one hasn’t figured it out.

idea_makersThe book is also pleasant because Wolfram does not adhere to the false art-science dichotomy. He’s “spent most of my life working hard to build the future with science and technology.” At the same time, “two of my other great interests are history and people.” Idea Makers covers all four and to some extent asks where good ideas come from. Wolfram has met numerous interesting, unusual, and special people, and his stories are close the ideal ones you’d hear in a bar after two drinks.

Some sections introduce ideas that are counterintuitive or that I wasn’t aware of, like “mathematicians—despite their reputation for abstract generality—like most scientists, tend to concentrate on questions that their methods succeed with.” From this one might think the best way forward is to concentrate on developing new methods, or applying old methods to radically different fields. The quality of someone’s work may also not be apparent immediately, which is a better-known idea but still finds itself here: “At the time… Turing’s work did not make much of a splash, probably largely because the emphasis of Cambridge mathematics was elsewhere.”

Other thinkers were different: John von Neumann, for example, “was not particularly one to buck the system: he liked the social milieu of science and always seemed to take both intellectual and other authority seriously.”

Or:

Despite his successes, [George] Boole seems to have always thought of himself as a self-taught schoolteacher, rather than a member of the academic elite. And perhaps that helped in his ability to take intellectual risks. Whether it was playing fast and loose with differential operators in calculus, or finding ways to bend the laws of algebra so they could apply to logic, Boole seems to have always taken the attitude of just moving forward and seeing where he could go, trusting his own sense of what was correct and true.

Measuring the extent to which a person admires or respects received authorities / hierarchies against the extent to which a person disregards them could be an interesting project.

Each section of Idea Makers covers someone in science, math, or technology. This is not amenable to quotation, but each section feels the appropriate length and like it has the appropriate focus.

Some facts are simply tragic. Ada Lovelave died from what was likely cervical cancer; today the HPV vaccine largely protects its recipients from that disease. Most deaths are tragic on a local level; Ada Lovelace’s death is tragic on a global level, given how much she contributed and how much more she might have contributed.

Refreshingly, the quality of the physical book—its paper and binding—is unusually high, maybe because it’s put out by Wolfram Press: The company cares about longevity and quality in a way that most commercial publishers would do well to emulate. Stephen Wolfram himself often consults centuries-old pages, and in one illustration we see him using an iPhone to photograph an artifact. It is not a stretch to imagine him imagining someone photographing (or using some other advanced technology) to photograph the work he publishes today.

Links: Reading, advice, literature in other forms, schools, floods, cars, and other apocalyptic matters

* “My dirty little secret: I’ve been writing erotic novels to fund my PhD: Don’t breathe a word, my mentor advised me. They were right – I’ve had some odd reactions from the few colleagues I’ve told.”

* “We Are Reading Less Literature,” maybe. But: “The Internet Has Not Killed the Printed Book. Most People Still Prefer Them.” I wish printed books used better-quality paper.

* “The Art of Advice-Giving;” I’m somewhat baffled by the popularity of advice columns, since most of the people with problems seem to have obvious solutions to those problems. They’re like drop-dead dumb crime novels. Dan Savage is an exception, though.

* The literary fiction of investor letters. “Philosophy” may be a more appropriate genre.

* “Nicholson Baker, Substitute Teacher,” about what I think I’d feel if I taught K – 12. I also work for a lot of superintendents and school administrators in a grant writing capacity, and the experience has not given me great optimism about the quality of American education. It is striking how often promises to teach reading and writing effectively are themselves poorly written and argued.

* “The Campus Left and the Alt-Right Are Natural Allies: It’s unlikely that either movement has the cultural power or breadth of appeal to take down liberalism on its own. But taken together, they make a fearsome foe.” Too few people are standing up for freedom of thought and inquiry.

* “Flooding of Coast, Caused by Global Warming, Has Already Begun;” important and underappreciated news.

* “People in Los Angeles are getting rid of their cars.” I’m not sure I believe it.

* Even the New York Times editorial board has figured out that police unions impede justice and let bad cops proliferate. A rare victory for reason over politics.

* “Tesla envy grips Germany’s giants: But Porsche, Audi, BMW and Mercedes are ready to respond.” Good news.

* “A Return to Print? Not Exactly.” Or, don’t necessarily trust the headlines.

Links: Malthusians are wrong, the physical Internet, France, knowledge wants to be free, and more!

* “The New New Malthusians: The fear of too little gives way to the fear of too much.” It is possible that we’re on an S-curve ultimately headed to zero, but the history of catastrophic predictions has so far not been correct.

* “Architecture for the Internet: A look inside a carrier hotel in Manhattan — a building where different ISPs and network companies check in with one another.” See also Neal Stephenson’s insane, magisterial “Mother Earth Mother Board.”

* “‘Hot’ Sex & Young Girls” by Zoë Heller, a review that ought to be even harsher than it is: “History has taught us to be wary of middle-aged people complaining about the mores of the young. The parents of every era tend to be appalled by the sexual manners of their children (regardless of how hectic and disorderly their own sex lives once were, or still are)” and “neither [book] entirely avoids the exaggerations, the simplifications, the whiff of manufactured crisis that we have come to associate with this genre.” I suppose “the kids aren’t all right” is a genre that always has sold and probably always will sell.

* “Graduate Students, the Laborers of Academia;” academics, virtually all of whom favor unions in other industries, do not like them in their own. Schadenfreude.

* “OpenBSD 6.0: why and how,” about the operating system.

* “French PM suggests naked breasts represent France better than a headscarf;” I laughed.

* “Architecture for the Internet: A look inside a carrier hotel in Manhattan — a building where different ISPs and network companies check in with one another.”

* “Economists Profit by Giving Things Away:” In short, economists publish their work freely online and that work isn’t hidden behind pay gates. So that means anyone can get ahold of it, which isn’t true in many other fields. This gives economists outsized influence. I find the publishing practices of academics in English lit bizarre in this respect.

Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” is distinctly contemporary

A reader suggested that in light of Date-onomics I get a copy of the original Sex and the City book. I see why. Though published in 1996, it feels shockingly contemporary, like something you’d read in New York Magazine, or Slutever, or 1,001 other places. If Sex and the City were a little more explicit (Bushnell prefers “unmentionable” to “penis” or “cock,” for example) and added in references to smartphones, Instagram, texting etiquette, and online dating, it would still have the basic set of issues and problems and challenges and behaviors of 2016. The tone of the stories feels bloggy and podcast-y (which is a descriptive observation, not a slur).

sex_and_the_cityOn the Internet you really can say whatever the fuck you want, including “fuck,” and becoming accustomed to that makes Sex and the City feel a little linguistically reticent. To be sure, it goes a lot of places in terms of description but it doesn’t get to all the explicit places the online-only writers do; Sex and the City generally stops at the bedroom door and resumes at the restaurant recap the next day.

Being originally part of a newspaper also means that the lows aren’t quite as low as the online writers, many of whom don’t have anyone to edit their material or tell them that piece x is filler and ought to be cut. But they also don’t have editors to tell them that piece x is in “bad taste,” which means that bad taste as a concept barely exists (here I am tempted to list some examples, but if you keep your eye around the Internet you’ll find some on your own). I hate the word “heteronormative,” but Sex and the City is more heteronormative than online writers are.

What else? Some modern books about love, sex, and dating often have a harder data edge: that’s the point of Dataclysm and Date-onomics. The big way our knowledge has collectively grown in the last twenty years in this domain comes from the revealed preferences of online dating. That lets us know things less through gossip and more through how people behave, at least in online interactions.

It is common to read claims about how the Internet has changed everything, and while data tells us a lot, the basic challenges that emerge in Sex and the City remain. Still, I prefer a Straussian reading of Sex and the City in which guys read the books in order to discover how they should present themselves, market themselves, and be.

Perhaps the book’s most important theme is the need for novelty and stimulation, maybe because novelty-seekers are drawn to New York, despite the city’s costs and many inconveniences. Boredom is a great sin: “You get tired of being around anyone after a while” (63). Or: “Miranda checked the labels: Savile Row—boring” (90). Or: “While many women would have killed to have a date with Scotty, the TV producer, Camilla told me she had been bored” (105). Or: “I already have too many Chanel bags. They bore me” (109; what do you do for the person who has everything, which is a larger number of people than is commonly assumed?). Or: “Where’s the new place to go? I want to make sure my ward here has a good time this evening. I think she’s bored” (141). Or: “The truth is, he bored me” (198).

Boredom is part of a simple paradox at the heart of many of the stories—a paradox prevents some of the characters from getting off the party carousel: “this was the kind of life she’d grown up believing she could have, simply because she wanted it. But the men you wanted didn’t want it, or you; and the men who did want it were too boring” (85). And there is no way in Bushnell’s world to avoid that paradox. Men might want to think about it too, and how it affects their own choices. The characters in Sex and the City are experiencing the problems and fruits of freedom: “[Edith] Wharton thought no one could have freedom, but [Henry] James knew no one wanted it,” and “Freedom’s unpalatable qualities are hard to accept.” So too is accepting the choices one makes. In first three quarters of the book, Samantha Jones makes occasional appearances to disparage her dates and men in general. By page 181, “Lately, Sam had been complaining about not having a boyfriend.” Er. She spends most of book engaging in boyfriend-incompatible thoughts and behaviors.

The women in Sex and the City are chronically outraged by male behavior while chronically and simultaneously rewarding it with sex. The phrase “revealed preferences” is relevant.

Snobbery is ever-present (“She’s like an auto mechanic from nowhere’sville”), almost a sport, in a way that would be hard to take, at least for me, in real life. The brand-name snobbery is much more irksome than much of the bedroom material.

Used copies on Amazon are cheap and plentiful, for good reason. It’s a fun, historically interesting read, but once is enough. Re-selling it is too time consuming for me, but I’m donating it to a thrift shop which will probably recycle it back onto Amazon.

Links: The dream, the cars, the madness

* “Why China won’t own next-generation manufacturing.” Maybe.

* “The Devil and John Holmes: John Holmes was a porn star. Eddie Nash was a drug lord. Their association ended in one of the most brutal mass murders in the history of Los Angeles.” If this were a novel I’d call it unrealistic.

* “‘America Is a Dream Country:’ What does it mean to spend years as a Syrian refugee and then land in a brand new life in Erie, Pennsylvania?” A point often missed in abstract political debates.

* “Europe’s ageing population is set to wreak havoc with the economy,” an underappreciated point.

* “Why Electric Cars Will Be Here Sooner Than You Think.”

* A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt, on the madness infecting college campuses (and other topics).

* Are PhD students irrational?

* The demise of the textbook mafia, one hopes.

Thoughts on Tolkien’s Letters and ossification by age

I’ve read Tolkien’s letters before, but as with most reading, each reading is different because I know, think, and believe different things. Tolkien’s occasional crankiness stands out in this reading. He doesn’t like cars (or “motor-cars” in his words) or most industrial / mechanical processes. To him the future often seems grimly industrial, and passages like this speak to his view of what would become modern culture:

Music will give place to jiving: which as far as I can make out means holding a ‘jam session’ round a piano (an instrument properly intended to produce the sounds devised by, say, Chopin) and hitting it so hard that it breaks. This delicately cultured amusement is said to be a ‘fever’ in the U.S.A.

letters_tolkienOne wonders what he’d think of computerized music, if such a term has any meaning anymore: Distinction between digital and analogue music is so blurred as to be useless today. And at least the “jam session” Tolkien does not much like demands more skill than a record, CD, or now mp3.

To my mind too a piano is not “properly intended” to do anything: It’s an instrument or tool that people will apply to all sorts of uses, many unforeseen or unintended. Chopin is one but there are many others, not necessarily worse. I imagine Tolkien did not “get” the Beatles.

I wonder if most people are just most comfortable with the technological world that spans from their childhoods to age 30 or 40, and what comes after often seems unnecessary, gratuitous, or even obscene. When I see the apartments many old people live in, I’m often struck by the lack of prominent computers and by the clutter and (to my eyes) ugly bric-a-brac (even T.G.I.F. is shedding clutter in favor of minimalism). What do they do all day? Old people are often in turn surprised by how much I use computers. I, in another turn, find Snapchat to be of little use, although its popularity is undeniable. When students and my cousins have tried to explain it to me the conversation is often comical.

The usual explanation goes something like, Snapchat lets you tell people what you’re doing; for example you might take a video of yourself on the way to the store, or to the beach, or a concert. I usually then ask, “Why would anyone care?” The conversation breaks down towards mutual incomprehension: They cannot explain the role of this very important tool in their lives, anymore than I could explain video games when I played them as a teenager; I’m too old or set in my ways to understand on a sub-verbal level Snapchat’s uses.

There is an interesting parallel between technology ossification and the way many people seem to lose friends and stop making new friends around age 30. Maybe some common root lies at the bottom of both phenomena.

To return to Tolkien and his dislike of motor-cars, though, Tolkien also got to experience the worst of mechanization in WWI, so his dislike has strong roots, given that virtually everyone he knew was killed using mechanized weapons and the generals who fought WWI had no idea how technology had changed warfare. If virtually everyone I know had died in mechanized warfare I might not love mechanization or machines either.

Like all leter collections the best parts of the letters are scattered amid a lot of material that’s unlikely to be of interest to most people. Unlike most letter collections this one is uncommonly deep and contains uncommonly deep analysis of the author’s own works. To most people who are uninterested in The Lord of the Rings or the Edwardian era the letters will be of no interest. To those who find either fascinating the letters may fascinate.

But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past — Chuck Klosterman

But What If We’re Wrong? is consistently delightful in both sentence and idea quality: the chapters are full of astute observations, like “Something becomes truly popular when it becomes interesting to those who don’t particularly care.” Klosterman’s example here is football and that is indeed a winning way to describe football in U.S. culture (though see here for one account of how football may decline); I don’t care about football and perhaps unsurprisingly I select for friends who don’t really care about it, yet in January I went to a friend’s apartment for he Superbowl anyway because other friends who also didn’t care about football were going. On some level this makes no sense yet we did it anyway.

but what if were wrongReality TV has that quality too, and Klosterman discusses it in another chapter. I don’t care about it either, though it has spawned one amazing TV show (UnREAL), at least one excellent novel (Arts & Entertainments), along with lots and lots of good articles. Reality TV producers probably have a better grasp of human psychology than most psychologists. It’s also arguably affected the way people use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and the plethora of other tools we have to broadcast our fabulous, highly edited lives in the sun and exotic locales and so forth. The Real World got to the unreality of living in front of cameras before the rest of us did.

Speaking of the unreal world, the most striking thing to me is the gap between the Facebook faces of the people I know well and the private conversations with those same people, since the former is inevitably sunny and the latter contains the usual set of human challenges and feelings, which are repressed or distorted by reality TV. For good reason, I might add: the makers of those programs are building specific media properties for entertainment purposes. They know their business well, and their job is to present a specific kind of information system that may or may not be “real,” much the way my job is to write a specific kind of information system that may or may not be real.

The preceding two paragraphs are mostly digression, but they are digression that may feel somewhat like a Klosterman digression. Klosterman makes one think and makes one want to have a beer with him. He makes me want to write more and better. Not all of the chapters are equally strong—the one that starts out with comments about the role of dreaming particularly stands out in this respect, and I also have found discussions about the simulation hypothesis boring since I first heard them. But the overall effect is to make one think and to make one think something apart from the usual battle lines and lines of thought one hears, and that is valuable in itself.

There are many other excellent facets to the book, which feels like the cleverest conversation you’ve ever had rather than a slog through tedious ideas. There are some predecessors—”What You Can’t Say” also wonders what the present will look like centuries from now, and it asks:

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

So if you believe everything you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably doing something wrong (if you believe nothing that you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably also doing something wrong, or simply cannot operate in a society that depends on some level of order and coordination). I think Klosterman would agree, although if he said so explicitly I missed it. He does set up the book this way:

What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility? These ideas are so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems fool-hardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue.

The ideas that are so accepted are of course the ones we need to question.

Klosterman also recalls the history of failed predictions; my favorite is Paul Ehrlich, who, in 1968, wrote a book called The Population Bomb, about how over-population would annihilate the world; in Klosterman’s words, summarizing Ehrlich, “we should currently be experiencing a dystopian dreamscape where ‘survivors envy the dead,’ which seem true only when I look at Twitter” (that last clause is a good sample of Klosterman’s humor). As most of outside of Syria know, the living do not for the most part envy the dead, growth has continued, and on an inflation-adjusted basis commodities are cheaper than they’ve ever been. We’re on the verge of an energy revolution in which a combination of solar, wind, and nuclear energy will reduce our carbon footprint, while electric cars should dramatically reduce the flow of oil money that is currently propping up despotic regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran.

Those predictions are off. So are many predictions about who and what will matter in literature, music, and art. The cultural world of 2016 looks wildly different than the cultural world of 1950, 1900, or 1850, and all of those periods had artistic priorities and worlds vastly different from today’s. As we look backwards from today, the things we find valuable then are different than many of the things that people found valuable at the time. That implies that the cultural world of 2050 or 2100 will probably be different than the world of today, rendering many of our present values and works moot, but in ways that we probably can’t predict, and, “In fact, it often seems like our collective ability to recognize electrifying genius as it occurs paradoxically limits the likelihood of future populations certifying that genius as timeless.”

Wow.

So far this essay has only discussed a small part of But What If We’re Wrong. There’s much much more. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

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