‘What Have You Been Reading?’

One of the first delightful surprises I had while living in Korea was learning that the Korean equivalent of ‘what’s up?’ is ‘밥 먹었어요?’, which translates to either ‘have you eaten?’ or ‘have you had any rice?’. It’s been decades since the tiger economies went hungry, but this linguistic fossil remains from an age when the most important thing you could know about a person’s well being was whether or not they’d had food that day.

Perhaps instead of ‘how’s it going?’ we should start conversations with ‘what have you been reading?’ or ‘what are you learning?’. This would bias interactions toward focusing on the efforts a person is making to improve the scope and precision of their knowledge. Because a person will eventually have to give an account of their gnostic enterprises they might be more motivated to have an interesting reply. That means more reading, more learning, and more conversations about reading and learning.

After that we start implementing the John Waters’ strategy of not sleeping with people who don’t have books in their homes. If a person has time to bone but not to read then maybe a little celibacy will afford them the opportunity to right the unconscionable inversion of their priorities.

Popova Tuples

When I encounter writers who are unusually compelling I try to understand the qualities that make them so. Usually this is very difficult, stemming from a nebulous conjunction of factors like ‘style’ and ‘structure’ which make them especially clear and memorable. Sam Harris, Eric Raymond, Tom Woods, and Paul Graham all fit into this category.

In the case of Maria Popova the answer is at least partly obvious: she makes exquisite use of what I’m going to call ‘Popova Tuples’, these charming little word pairs which are nearly always alliterative and cause her writing to shimmer like jewels glimpsed on the shores of a distant river.

A philosopher isn’t ‘good’, he is ‘lucid and luminous’. Advice isn’t ‘germane’, it’s ‘timely and timeless’.

This can be extended to whole phrases, such as a personal non-Popova favorite: ‘Nobody owns you, nobody owes you’. (I thought this was from Ayn Rand but couldn’t turn up an attribution.)

If used properly these might be a way of utilizing the concept of ‘pebble forms’. Try to coin the sorts of ringing phrases which will eventually replace the full scope of your ideas, because no matter what you do that’s what’s going to eventually happen. At least this way you can exercise more control over the process and mitigate the resulting loss of comprehension.

Kanizsa Inferences

A while back a friend of mine was advancing the controversial thesis that Darwinian social dynamics necessitated religiosity (or something like that).

His essay was structured in such a way that there were several fallacious inferences kind of… implied, but not actually stated anywhere.

I think we need a term for this kind of thing, and I have a proposal:

‘Kanisza Inference’.

Kanisza figures are those ghostly shapes which the brain can’t help but see because of how some other shapes are arranged:



Knowing about Kanisza inferences might help in crafting more lucid arguments and avoiding pointless tangents (though of course nothing can prevent the deliberately dishonest from misinterpreting your ideas.)

A Bookish Review of 2017

Counting books I’m currently in the middle of I have read 75 books this year.

A few of these are children’s books in Russian and German so if we subtract those out it’s ~70.

This includes three trilogies (Ramez Naam’s ‘Nexus’, Hannu Rajaniemi’s ‘Jean Le Flambeur’, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’), and one pentagy (George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’).

Six titles were from the ‘Very Short Introduction’ series (Postmodernism, Logic, Mathematics, Relativity, Plants, Stem Cells) which, despite their lilliputian profiles on the bookshelf do pack a lot of punch.

I got through several textbooks, of which the most difficult was “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”. This was also the most difficult book overall, though Bob Murphy’s “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and New Deal” was a definite contender, as it is a complete statement of the Austrian view on the origins of the great depression.

Jeffrey Biles’s “Mages Must Fall” was the only title written by a personal friend: an athletic little fantasy book which stood up admirably to some of the other titanic volumes in the list.

My science fiction reading was mostly standard fare: Robert Heinlein (“Farmers in the Sky”), Neal Stephenson (“Anathem”, “King of the Vagabonds”, “Snow Crash”, “Cryptonomicon”). But I also deliberately made a point to engage with authors with whom I was unfamiliar, like Ben Bova (“As On A Darkling Plain”) and James Blish (“Titans’ Daughter”).

Ayn Rand made five appearances: I read three of her four fiction works (“The Fountainhead”, “Atlas Shrugged”, “Anthem”) and the compelling defence of her economics called “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”, which also featured a cameo essay by future Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Anne C. Heller’s biography of her did a great job of neutrally exploring the brilliant, profoundly controversial figure.

In economics I also read Murray Rothbard (“For a New Liberty”), Alex Epstein (“The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”), F.A. Hayek (“The Fatal Conceit”), and Thomas Sowell (“Intellectuals In Society”), this last of which might’ve been my favorite. Besides this I also read a history of the Austrian School and a towering, 1000-page biography of Ludwig Von Mises which did a lot to flesh out my view of the man.

There were two pop business books (“Abundance”, “Bold”) by Peter Diamandis and Stephen Koettler which I liked more than I thought I would, and Winnifred Gallagher’s “Rapt” was a pop psychology book that easily bests anything put out by Malcolm Gladwell.

I had hoped to make it to 100, to include works in Korean/Spanish/French, and to have gotten in another textbook or two, but considering that I also published my own book (“The STEMpunk Project”) and had a baby, this isn’t too bad.


Explaining Things To Your Grandmother

Einstein supposedly once said that you don’t really understand a thing until you can explain it to your grandmother. While I think we can all agree that Einstein was reasonably bright this advice, in its unexpanded form, is fairly stupid.

It encourages people to digest shallow metaphors, maybe memorize a factoid or two from Wikipedia, and then confidently expound upon a subject about which they know literally nothing. I’m sure Einstein wasn’t trying to encourage that sort of behavior, but that’s what’s happened.

What this advice really means is that you should have run the fingers of your mind over the 3-dimensional shape of a concepts so much that you have an intimate acquaintance with its lines and edges. You aren’t just trafficking in facile analogies but can generate a whole host of images, anecdotes, and explanations at will, tailoring them on the spot to better connect with the knowledge already contained in your interlocutor’s head. If they have spotty knowledge of the subject you can skip over those places and drop down in any part of the map that’s still a blank.

Making quantum physics comprehensible to grandmother will not be the same as making it comprehensible to a graduate student in psychology. The grad student might be smarter than grandma, or might not, but that isn’t the only issue. Grandma has a radically different way of understanding the world, a whole host of concepts, intuitions, and biases which can help or hurt comprehension, depending on the context.

She might even surprise you and turn out to remember a good amount of that discrete mathematics class she took 600 years ago.

When you can take the shape of quantum physics in your hands, move it around to expose different faces, change the angle of your explanatory light so that it casts different kinds of shadows onto different kinds of surfaces, illustrate concepts with hand-rolled improvised expositions — with the end result being that your grandmother comes away with a reasonably intuitive grasp of this science, then you understand it.

A Science Podcast?

I had an idea for a podcast the other day exploring plausible, radical alternatives to accepted scientific theories which are carefully supported by available evidence.

For example, Julian Jaynes famously argued that the ancient Greeks were not conscious in the way that you and I are. Instead, they were more like automatons occupying one part of the human brain, with dictats coming from gods which occupied the other part. Eventually developments in language led to a unifying of human consciousness and the rise of modern humans.

….which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But Jaynes spends 500 pages very carefully building his case with evidence from linguistics, exegesis, history, and art. I remember reading his book and thinking “welp, this is a lot harder to dismiss than I first thought.”

I also recently encountered the ‘deep, hot biosphere’ hypothesis by Thomas Gold, which contends that the conventional story of fossil fuels coming from organic matter slowly crushed over long periods of time is nonsense. Instead, there is a vast subterranean biosphere comprising microbes which are somehow or another manufacturing oil as a byproduct of their metabolism.

…which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But in reviews of the book I’ve consistently come across statements like “well, if it were anybody else making this claim we’d just laugh. But coming from a scientist like Thomas Gold…?”


Clearly there is a real danger here of crossing over into pseudoscience. So maybe I could do episodes of the demarcation problem with Massimo Pigliucci and “On Bullshit” with Harry Frankfurt, combined with giving ample room to skeptics who want to poke holes in the supporting arguments.

And I would try to avoid this crossing by only speaking to real, serious intellectuals. I have no interest in Deepak Chopra, for example, but I might talk to Daryl Bem.

In addition to bicamerality and the deep hot biosphere, some other interesting ideas include:

  • Homotopy theory in mathematics;
  • Paraconsistent logic (w/ my brilliant logician friend Erik Istre);
  • Superintelligent AI: fact or fiction?;
  • the Tau v.s. Pi debate;
  • Bayesianism v.s. Frequentism;
  • the Inca Quipu as an actual, functional language;
  • Morphic Resonance with Rupert Sheldrake;
  • Was English a pidgin language?

For fun maybe I could do an episode on fan theories in Star Wars, GoT, and similar franchises.

Is that something you nerds would be interested in?

Two Transhumanist Experiments

Here is a sketch of two Transhumanist experiments I’d like to try in the future:

(1) A company called ‘SenseBridge’ manufactures belts made of cellphone batteries which constantly vibrate in the direction of true North. This is superior to simply wearing a compass because after a while the vibrations weave themselves into your phenomenal field and become something about which you are perpetually aware.

Simultaneously, the wearer should actively banish relational direction words from their vocabulary, as do the Australian Guugu Yimithirr tribe. So instead of saying ‘my left hand’ you’d say ‘my Western hand’.

Observe the changes in your sense of direction, and whether or not they persist when you remove the belt.

(2) In Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” there is a scene in which Bruce has electrodes hooked up to a typewriter that send electrical shocks to his muscles whenever he hits a key. In the film he claims that this is equivalent to doing 200 pushups in a couple of minutes.

These are real things and you can buy them. I wonder: If a person visualized themselves performing an exercise like squats while sending pulses to their legs, how much stronger would they get?

For this you’d need to have two people of roughly equal strength, one of whom continues doing regular squats and the other of whom uses electrodes and thought.

Standardize the amount of time and number of reps performed, wait a month, and take some measurements.