The posts here come from some random thoughts I have daily. The plan is to eventually write something more substantial, but for now don't expect more than a few paragraphs per post.

Books do work, but they take a lot of work

May 14, 2019

Interesting food for thought from Andy Matuschak:

Picture some serious non-fiction tomes. The Selfish Gene; Thinking, Fast and Slow; Guns, Germs, and Steel; etc. Have you ever had a book like this—one you’d read—come up in conversation, only to discover that you’d absorbed what amounts to a few sentences? I’ll be honest: it happens to me regularly.

Matuschak goes on to argue that understanding1 somethings requires engaging with it in some substantial way. Indeed, I’ve read the three books mentioned, and the only one I can meaningfully talk about is Guns, Germs and Steel. I’m pretty sure that’s due some brief discussions I’ve had about the book’s ideas while reading it, many years ago.

While reading the post I was wondering what he thinks about Michael Nielsen’s ideas on using spaced repetition to explain concepts. Then at the end I found that they collaborated on a book that does exactly that.

I have to say, though, that I’m satisfied with the current situation. Maybe there is no way to significantly improve our learning from books without putting in the work, but if it’s worth it then I have no trouble putting in the work. A bigger issue to me is that there are so many sources of information today that putting in the work in any one of them doesn’t seem worth it (since I could spend my time superficially learning other things).

That touches on perhaps my main issue with popsci books: if the subject is interesting and the reading is said to be pleasing, then I’ll be tempted to read them, but I know that precisely because they’re easy to read, I never have to engage actively with them and so I largely forget them as soon as I’m done with them. Tougher books require you to put more work into them, but that’s what you need if you want to remember anyway. I find it hard to believe that spaced repetition can help here if it happens seamlessly as you read.

  1. I’d prefer to say “remembering”, if only because “understanding” has a nearly magical connotation to me. [return]

Wikipedia and rats.

April 7, 2019

Next time I see a banner on Wikipedia asks me to donate, I’ll be thinking of this:

"Is Alberta Rat-Free" - the greatest edit war in the history of Wikipedia, locked by an admin after 12,239 pages of heated debate,

— Kia‏☆ (@alt_kia) August 24, 2018

If everyone reading Wikipedia donated the cost of a cup of coffee, this debate could’ve gone forever!

Don’t get me wrong, I love Wikipedia and have donated to it. Where else could I get trivia as random as this:

On the Isle of Man, there is a taboo against the word “rat”.

Nabokov as a refugee.

April 4, 2019

Interesting article from the NYT about Nabokov. Not knowing much about his life other than he was Russian and lived in the US later in life, I was surprised by some of the information here; for example, after leaving Russia, he traveled with a Nansen passport (issued to stateless persons), he and his wife having been stripped of Russian citizenship. The article actually shows a US immigrant identification card with his nationality stated as without. And then this:

And then there was “Dr. Zhivago.” Published four weeks after “Lolita,” it joined Nabokov’s masterpiece at the top of the 1958 best-seller list. Nabokov wrote off Boris Pasternak’s novel as “wretched and mediocre,” or, on a better day, as “a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic.” He might shrug off his losses, but 1919 still burned bright: He could not forgive Pasternak for having raced past the liberal revolution on his way to writing about the Bolshevik coup. The Nabokovs knew a Soviet plot when they saw one: They were convinced the Communists had pretended to smuggle Pasternak’s novel out of the Soviet Union. Its American publication amounted to a cunning act of currency conversion. Nabokov forbade his publisher from mentioning him and Pasternak in the same breath. It was as if the Cold War played out weekly in America’s bookstores.

I knew he had strong opinions about other writers, but this degree of paranoia makes him sound a bit like some of his characters.


April 3, 2019

I saw the Danish/Swedish drama Dronningen1, in a movie theater that was uncharacteristically packed for a Monday. I imagine the reason is that the movie has been getting a lot of press, apparently for being controversial. (I don’t know what the controversy is, but I can take a guess.) I tried writing my thoughts in a spoiler-free fashion but I only produced nonsense, so mind the spoilers below.

My first impression of Anne is that she is a bit too controlling and uptight and needs to relax a bit. That she does eventually, partly due to a few failures at work and partly due to seeing the carefreeness and youth of the newly arrived Gustav. And I suppose she has a bit of a midlife crisis as well.

By engaging in a groundbreaking affair with Gustav, she allows herself to become more and more vulnerable, and happier as a result. I don’t know if she ever contemplates what her new life situation means to people around her, because the moment her choices start affecting her “old” life, she shuts off the affair and comes back to being her old self again. Although this winds up having terrible consequences to her family, she seems to deal with it just fine, her previous life choices having been vindicated.

What it got me thinking about, even though it’s probably not the focus of the movie – it has a lot more things to say –, was how it’s impossible to introduce positive change in our lives without also changing what’s around us. And failure to see that often leads old behaviors to be reinforced, which makes future change more difficult. It’s a bit like the alcoholic who wants to remove the bad influences of alcohol in their life (and who wouldn’t want that!) but does not want to change their life otherwise. Maybe they try to drink less, which essentially never works. Or maybe they quit drinking but still want to keep their old friends. Introducing change is a lot more work than you think.

  1. The English title is “Queen of Hearts”, but I refuse to use that at least until it comes out in English-speaking countries. [return]

John Adams

March 31, 2019

I’ve never seen Hamilton, but I’ve listened to the soundtrack many times. I’ve always pictured John Adams like this:

Which I realize now is not John Adams but Silas Adams from Deadwood, which I’ve been frantically rewatching in anticipation of the upcoming film.

John Adams seems to have looked quite different. Here’s a painting of him at 29: