Tag Archives: memes

1990-01-01: Quotes

I’ve been collecting quotes for a long time, so the date in this post’s title is irrelevant. There is no order to these, except that when I add a new one, it is at the top of the list. It should go without saying that this post is full of memes, and will always be unfinished.

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Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target … which others cannot even see.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.

— Daniel Kahneman

The psychological present is said to be about three seconds long; that means that, you know, in a life there are about 600 million of them; in a month, there are about 600,000 – most of them don’t leave a trace.

— Daniel Kahneman

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

— Annie Dillard

Be sure and tell your friends this isn’t easy.

— Dot Blackstone (on her deathbed)

When so many deny the lessons of history it usually means they’re just about to learn them all over again.

— John Templeton, Jesse Felder

Bull markets are born on pessimism, grown on scepticism, mature on optimism and die on euphoria.

— John Templeton

Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

— Edward Snowden

The hard part of standing on an exponential curve is: when you look backwards, it looks flat, and when you look forward, it looks vertical. And it’s very hard to calibrate how much you are moving because it always looks the same.

— Sam Altman

If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.

— Mickey Mantle.
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Quotes Collection


2017-06-29: The Lives of Arthur

Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur connects a historical person named Riothamus with the legendary King Arthur. When I read the book (late 1980s) I thought it might be interesting to incorporate the ideas into a novel-like structure where the historical aspects are recorded in some monastery after the death of Riothamus, then elaborated by accreting legendary aspects, and becomes the source material leading to Geoffrey of Monmouth and beyond.

2016-12-03: Sapiens


A Brief History of Humankind (2015)

by Yuval Noah Harari (1976-)

Sapiens has a very large scope: the entire history, and some of the future, of humankind.It is largely about the various revolutions (in the broad sense) that have created and changed humankind. Harari points out the effects of each revolution, including how it didn’t necessarily improve the lot of humans.

In the introduction, he provides a Timeline of History:

  • 13.5G ya (years ago) – Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.
  • 4.5G ya – Formation of planet Earth.
  • 3.8G ya – Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.
  • 6M ya – Last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.
  • 2.5M ya – Evolution of genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.
  • 2M ya – Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia.
  • 500k ya – Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.
  • 300k ya – Daily use of fire.
  • 200k ya – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.
  • 70k ya – The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language. Beginning of history. Sapiens spread out of Africa.
  • 45k ya – Sapiens settle in Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.
  • 30k ya – Extinction of Neanderthals.
  • 16k ya – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.
  • 13k ya – Extinction of Homo floresiensis. Homo sapiens the only surviving human species.
  • 12k ya – The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements.
  • 5k ya – First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.
  • 4,250 ya – First empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.
  • 2,500 ya – Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India -a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.
  • 2,000 ya – Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.
  • 1,400 ya – Islam.
  • 500 ya – The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.
  • 200 ya – The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.
  • The Present – Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.
  • The Future – Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? Homo sapiens is replaced by super humans?

Harari starts with the Cognitive Revolution, the developments in the mental organization and capabilities that distinguish Sapiens from other humans, and from other animals. He is a bit vague about the exact nature of these developments, but emphasizes language, and its utility in spreading information about the world, about the relationships among members of a group (i.e., gossip), and about things that do not actually exist (e.g., spirits, tribes and races, human rights, corporations). The only domestic animal known prior to the Agricultural Revolution was the dog, at least 15k ya. Trade among different groups was primarily in prestige items such as shells, amber and pigments. “There is no evidence that people traded staple goods like fruits and meat, or that the existence of one band depended on the importing of goods from another.” People living in these times probably worked less than six hours a day, foraging or hunting. They had practically no chores, except to maintain their clothing, hunting/foraging, cooking and housing materials. For those who survived their first few years, they could live to their sixties. They had a varied and nutritious diet. They weren’t exposed to the pathogens carried by domestic animals, and suffered less infectious diseases. On the other hand, they were subject to accidents and hardship, and conflict between neighboring groups when competition became too intense.

The Agricultural Revolution resulted in reliance on growing plant crops and confining certain animals, and the need to establish settlements. The average farmer worked harder than foragers, and had a worse diet. The increased production of food expanded the constraints on population. Harari assigns blame: “The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.” Agricultural society includes specialized groups such as farmers and rulers, with various intermediary roles, and with uneven allocation of production. The resulting lifestyles for the farmers are not an improvement over foraging, but the process was a gradual ratcheting up of small changes, with no non-revolutionary way to unwind it. Another effect of this revolution was an expansion of time horizons. Foragers might look ahead a season or a year. Farmers and their rulers looked forward and back several years or even decades, seeing the result of the work prior years building projects (e.g., houses, irrigation systems, public works), and planning new ones.


Harari emphasizes the role of myths in organizing a society, by which he means not just pagan religious mythology, but also such myths as the rule of law and the belief in human rights. These myths support an imagined order, and must be installed by indoctrination. Three factors prevent people from realizing that the order is imaginary:

  1. Embedding the order in the visible, tangible world through symbols and rituals.
  2. Shaping our desires, for possessions, entertainment, experiences and relationships.
  3. It is inter-subjective, the result of beliefs (memes) shared by the vast majority of members of a society.

Agricultural society required a persistent way to organize surplus production. This was enabled by the invention of script, which originally supported accounting (i.e., mostly addition and subtraction), and later expanded to support general-purpose writing and mathematics. Money, an abstract but tangible representation of purchasing power, was invented for this purpose.

Harari spends many pages describing the expansion of agricultural society and the resulting empires. It’s mostly quite interesting.

Harari characterizes the Scientific Revolution in three parts:

  1. Admission of ignorance, and the possibility of disproving a belief
  2. Observation and modeling (e.g., with mathematics)
  3. Using theories to develop new abilities, and new abilities to develop new theories

The Scientific Revolution led to the notion of progress, fueled by the application of new abilities to economic or political goals. The worldwide enterprise of science doesn’t set its own priorities, but is funded by others with their own objectives. The interaction of science and money led to economic growth and capitalism. Capitalism is based on trust, and before the notions of progress and growth, no one would extend much credit because there was no expectation that things would improve enough to collect on the credit. The industrial revolution is an aspect of the Scientific Revolution.

Harari wraps up with two discussions: one on happiness, and one on the future of Sapiens as a species. Both are interesting, if a little depressing.


2016-06-27: Me, Myself, and Us

Me, Myself, and Us

The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being (2014)

by Brian R. Little (-)

This book explains a recent approach to understand human personality. It starts by dismissing the Meyers-Briggs approach as unfounded scientifically. Then three levels of influence on personality are described:

  • biogenic – heritable characteristics that form a biological substrate for personality traits
  • sociogenic – socially developed influences that affect the expression of biogenic traits, based on family or community values
  • idiogenic – an individual’s decisions about how to act, based on personal projects

The traits that define a personality consist of the Big Five (Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (emotional stability), Openness (to new experiences), Extraversion; the collection abbreviated as CANOE). In addition, a number of other traits are introduced in more or less detail. In parts, the work seems to be compressed, perhaps too much for clarity.

The notion of personal projects is part of Little’s own research interests (i.e., one of his personal projects). He gives examples of people who have biogenic traits, and yet override them to express their opposite when sufficiently motivated.

Little says if asked to make a “Project Dump”, a list of their personal projects, people typically come up with about fifteen, ranging from putting the cat out to life-long projects. He provides a number of dimensions along which people can evaluate their projects, such as their meaning or significance to the person, how they relate to a person’s self-identity, how they are initiated (self or by external influence), efficacy (how well they are carried out), the degree of control the person has over them, how they are shared with or supported by others, and their affect on a person’s emotional life.

The book ends with a chapter on well-being, the expression of the book’s subtitle. It addresses the ways we can look at our projects, their suitability to our personalities, and how we can improve the chances of successfully completing them.


2016-06-01: The Society of Genes

The Society of Genes (2016)

by Itai Yanai () and Martin Lercher ()

This book has roots in two other books: The Selfish Gene (Dawkins) and The Society of Mind (Minsky). It addresses the manner in which genes within a genome cooperate and compete to enhance their survival. It starts from the notion that a gene’s entire “purpose” is to assure its replication. And it takes the approach pioneered by Minsky of grouping genes into “modules” that perform “functions” that, combined with the functions of complementary modules, magnify the efficacy of the genes acting alone, building the “survival machines” that actually perform the replication.

In the words of the promotional text on Harvard University Press website, it “uncovers genetic strategies of cooperation and competition at biological scales ranging from individual cells to entire species. It captures the way the genome works in cancer cells and Neanderthals, in sexual reproduction and the origin of life, always underscoring one critical point: that only by putting the interactions among genes at center stage can we appreciate the logic of life.”

I found the chapter on how to create cancer in eight easy steps particularly interesting. The information about how the immune system works in animals is also very interesting, as well as the corresponding functions in bacteria. The explanation of how sexual reproduction benefits evolution is complex, and interesting as well.

This is a book might purchase to place next to its two forebears. Although it doesn’t say much about memes, it illustrates them.



2015-12-21: XinX

I first learned of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu vision from his 1974 book Dream Machines, one-half of a dual book with Computer Lib, and in the later (1981) Literary Machines. I don’t recall when I read these.

Eventually I realized that Nelson wasn’t getting anything into production, and started to fiddle with the idea of implementing something similar myself. I tentatively called my approach XinX. This was based on the cute notion of a recursive acronym, and stood for “XinX is not Xanadu”.

It’s a long shot that I will ever devote much effort on this project, but Nelson’s vision of a hypertext/hypermedia system still has a lot appeal for me. In addition to being a meme, it should support some interesting applications of memetics.


2015-12-21: vision only.


2015-12-11: Office Posters

I was looking around my cubicle, wondering how long it will take to move everything out that I want to keep. I realized there are a bunch of “motivational” posters that I don’t need to pack. Here are the posters (quotes) I’ve printed and put up over the years. Some were left up for a short time, some for a long time. These are in no particular order.

AddSimplification Arithmetic BeautifulStrategy BrainWonderfulOrgan_Frost ComfortZone Count CrazyOnes Experiment ForeverYoung freeproduct GardenOfYourMind LearnFromExperience mindfire QuestionAuthority StupidityGotUsIntoThisMess TenGoodIdeas ToAchieveSuccess TreatEarthWell

2015-11-27: The Meme: Introduction, Application, Manifesto

The Meme: Introduction, Application, Manifesto (MIAM) is the oldest project on my list. The idea entered my head around mid-1990. I actually developed drafts of several chapters before getting bogged down. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the need to keep track of meme-related material I had read was the impetus for writing the book reports that make up so much of this backlog.


2015-11-27: Started, but on hiatus.


2015-11-27: Who Cares About?

This project would be a manifestation of the manifesto in MIAM.

The concept is that a wiki-style website would allow editors to identify specific beliefs, desires, and values (beliefs about desires), and assign them to communities of people who hold them, in various combinations. By making such memes explicit, and getting people to begin referring to the communities that hold them, it ought to be possible to improve the quality of discussion of issues affecting people who hold different views.


2015-11-27: Vision only


1990-00-00: Explanation

This page explains how I approach issues of explanation.

Human Motivation

My understanding of human motivation is based on four notions:

  • Drives/Urges: Humans, like every living organism, are subject to certain drives. Drives are abstract, but manifest themselves in urges to perform some action. These act on a variety of time scales, and with varying urgency. On a scale of seconds, we absolutely must keep breathing. Over a few hours, we get thirsty. Over several hours or a few days, we get hungry. Depending on our surroundings and activities, we get hot, cold, wet, stiff, sore, sleepy, or uncomfortable in other ways. Depending on how well our urges and desires are met, we feel pleasure in various realms (see more about realms below).
  • Desires: Urges motivate us without our thinking about them; we might literally scratch an itch without realizing we’ve done so. On a less purely-biological level, we are usually motivated by a set of desires, consciously recognized and relatable to actions that satisfy them.
  • Beliefs: As we operate in the world, we form mental representations of our experience. I use the term ‘belief’ for these mental states. A belief might be an accurate representation of (some aspect of) the world, or not. It might be useful, or not. We have so many beliefs that we usually can’t understand them and the ways they interact to influence our motivation, and hardly ever try.
  • Values: In my formulation, a value is a belief about two desires, which makes one desire more or less important than another, in the circumstances where the beliefs are active.

I mentioned realms above. The world is too complex to comprehend in its entirety. I find it useful to divide the world into categories, and any particular phenomenon typically applies to one category (or sometimes to the interface/transition between two categories). I use a couple of different ways to organize categories, which I call ‘realms’ and ‘scales.


One way to organize categories is in a hierarchy that I call realms, as listed below. The list is upside down, in the sense that the later items are higher-level categories than the earlier items; but this is the way I like to present it.

Physical: The physical realm represents everything in the inanimate world, from fundamental particles to atoms to molecules to human-sensible agglomerations of gases, liquids, and solids, up to planets, stars, galaxies and the large-scale of the universe (or even the multiverse, if it exists). There are many interesting features of the physical realm, not least is the fact that it is consistent enough that it can be explained by so-called ‘laws of nature’. The physical realm doesn’t contain anything like motivation.

Biological: Among the physical objects in the world are living organisms. These have the property that they can re-arrange parts of the physical realm for their own benefit, extending their lives, and reproducing others of their own kind. There are many interesting features of the biological realm, and it is well worth studying. A key feature is that biological organisms have drives and urges, and hence a low-level form of motivation. Among creatures with sufficiently complex brains (including most humans), desires and beliefs also provide motivation.

Social: Among the biological organisms are some types which thrive by acting toward a common purpose. In my view, the social realm applies to creatures with sufficiently complex brains that they are able to form desires and beliefs (i.e., I exclude ants, bees, etc.), and to share them with the other members of their social group. The product of behavior in the social realm is culture, broadly conceived, and some of the effort of the social realm has the effect of promulgating certain beliefs and desires (i.e., memes).

Reflective: Among the cultural activities of social creatures, one aspect involves awareness and consideration of the culture itself, with the aim of improving it. Of course, ‘improvement’ is relative to the person or group doing it.


Many phenomena in the world are easy to understand or control on a small scale, or in terms of a controlled hypothetical situation, but very difficult to grasp on a large scale. I sometimes find it useful to identify the scale of a discussion. Here are some scales, appropriate to various realms:

Atomic: In the physical and biological realms, atomic refers to a single instance of the object being considered, whether an actual atom, a living cell, or a large mammal. If the phenomenon involves a single object’s character or interaction with its surroundings, the scale is atomic.

Collective ?

Mass ?

1990-00-00: Memetics

From the time I read The Selfish Gene (before 1980) I confidently expected other smart people to pick up the notion of the meme and develop it into a field of study that would probably be called memetics. By 1990, I had lost patience and decided to start developing my own approach to the subject. I was not expecting to be recognized as the pioneer of the field, and didn’t take an academic tone toward it. Rather, I saw myself as potentially a gadfly, with the possibility that I could arouse someone else to take enough interest to more fully develop the ideas implicit in Dawkins’s notion. I started organizing my thoughts around three aspects of the subject, and tentatively titled my work Memetics: Introduction, Applications, Manifesto (MIAM).

I worked on it sporadically for several years, without getting anywhere near a complete work. During this period, much of my reading and many other unfinished projects were more or less deliberately related to MIAM. I began recording my thoughts about books I read in ‘book reports’, which mostly recorded aspects of them that I thought relevant to MIAM, either to assist in explaining the notion of memes, or to illustrate how memes and their propagation have contributed to the advancement of arts and sciences. My collection of quotes serves a similar purpose.

The fundamental assertion of MIAM is that memes are replicated from mind to mind by the generation and interpretation of behavior, i.e., by communication. I specialize the term community to mean a collection of people who communicate, and hence share, some set of related memes. For instance, members of the scientific community share memes about the aims and methods of the scientific enterprise.

A basic thesis of MIAM is that our actions arise from urges, feelings, beliefs, desires, and values. Non-controversial, I think. Part of the Manifesto is to establish a catalog or repository of the memic content of various communities. Making explicit the sets of memes shared by various communities, and giving them unambiguous identifiers, might make it easier to facilitate discussions between people who tend to talk past each other.

I have long been interested in the memic content of some eastern religion/philosophies, primarily Zen and Taoism, but also aspects of some others. I think that a memic catalog of these  might prove interesting. Along those lines, I was inspired to (informally) develop a portrait of a person with certain characteristics. This led eventually to Marie and Claude, which in turn led to the establishment of my Castle Knob (CK) publishing enterprise (to use the term loosely). CK, in turn, led to more publishing, especially the works related to Harry Gant, and some so-far-unfinished publishing projects.

The notion of using modern tools to convert memes into bits, in formats that can be realized in physical form, was implicit in the CK project, and exploration of that led to some projects with 3D animation and printing, with still others unfinished. I have been interested in 3D graphics since college days, but the tools are becoming so accessible now that I have begun implementing a facility to allow the display of the relationships among information items, such as memes. The facility is tentatively called the Meta-Dimensional Inspector (MDI).

One obvious Application of memetics is literary translation. Reading about eastern philosophies involves reading translations, and in some cases looser re-realizations. When I first read Njal’s Saga, the best of the Icelandic and Norse sagas, I was struck by how it describes a critical point in the memic evolution of a society. I wondered if an analogous society could be found or invented, and the story transposed to it. I even suggested to my mother that she might want to try, using Harry Gant’s voice and a setting like the Old West; I’m sure she found this suggestion bewildering. Eventually, I adopted the Neal’s Story project.

A non-meme-related interest of mine has been the space program, going back to my early teens and reading science fiction. A few years ago, I came across the Orbiter space flight simulator, and the community of the Orbiter Forum. It is full of people sharing and disputing memes related to rocket science (in the broadest sense). A thread in the forum mentioned that Richard Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast might make a good book if re-set in the asteroid belt. Assuming I ever finish Neal’s Story, I intend to tackle Two Years At The Hot End.

Rocket science is a big subject, and the interests of the Orbiter community span all of it, though each individual member typically has a fairly narrow set of interests. I had the idea that it might be useful to collect some of the more persistent memes related to Orbiter in a somewhat organized form under the title Rocket Science For Amateurs. At first I set up a dedicated web site for that purpose, but soon decided to move the content under the already-established OrbiterWiki. This is a large project, and I hope to recruit some of the Orbiter community to participate in adding content.

< I hope to add more projects, and identify some of the memic links among them. >


2015-05-22: Becoming Steve Jobs

Becoming Steve Jobs:

The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader (2015)

by Brent Schlender (1956-) and Rick Tetzeli (?)

This is not a biography in the same vein as Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, but is in part a reaction to that work. Many people who knew Jobs well were disappointed in Isaacson’s book, and others (e.g., me) were disappointed in Isaacson’s lack of technical insight into the issues Jobs addressed in his career.

The focus is on the developmental journey that took Jobs from being a terrible CEO of Apple in 1985 to the preeminent CEO of our time after his return to Apple. Schindler was in a good position to observe Jobs over this period. He also had the cooperation of many people who worked with Jobs.

I recommend this book over Isaacson’s, although I didn’t find that book terrible.

There is an interesting quote at the end, from Jony Ive.

Steve loved ideas and loved making stuff, and he treated the process of creativity with a rare and wonderful reverence. He, better than anyone, understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished. His was a victory for beauty, for purity, and, as he would say, for giving a damn.

This is an excellent description of my view of memetic and creativity.

2009-01-23: The Life of the Cosmos

The Life of the Cosmos (1997)

by Lee Smolin (1955-)

This book is about Smolin’s ideas about cosmology, and how they relate to philosophical notions at large in the world, and how the relate to philosophical ideas of the past. It is very interesting. Much of it is technical (but without math), so I won’t try to relate the ideas themselves. Instead I’ll mostly quote a few passages that resonated with me.

The opening paragraph of Chapter 8:

No matter how smart she is, no matter how modern her methods and how tricky her reasoning, a detective cannot be a good detective unless in the end the bad guys are found out. It is the same with science. Why science works is perhaps a mystery, but it does work, and often enough, those of us who do it are content with the notion that, in the end, the only true measure of what we do is the extent to which it stands up against test by observation and experiment. In fact, the experience of most scientists is that most of our ideas turn out, in the end, to be wrong. Many ideas never even get to the point of being testable before being discarded for other reasons. Perhaps one of the reasons that science progresses at all is that there are not a few of us, and we are a stubborn bunch.

In Chapter 12, The Cosmology of an Interesting Universe, he discusses one of his central ideas. Interesting systems are self-organizing, and not in thermal equilibrium. He contrasts them with system undergoing phase transitions, which take place at precise temperatures. Anoth feature of such interesting systems is that they have no particular size; in a sense they are fractal. These are called self-organized critical systems. :

All that is required is a system that is not in equilibrium because there is a flow of energy through it. … One reason why self-organized systems are often critical systems is that the process of self-organization is hierarchical. This is because the process by which the components of a system become interrelated through the formation of cycles can, once it is begun, repeat itself on a larger scale. Thus the system formed by the original components become  the components in a still larger system. In a sufficiently complex system one finds many layers of organization, each of which is tied together by the cycles and interrelationships that characterize stable self-organized systems. In the most complex system we know – the biosphere – there are at least eight such level of organization: the organelles of cells; the cells; the organs of a body; a plant or animal; a community of like organisms; a local ecosystem; a larger system such as a continent or ocean; and the biosphere as a whole. There are similarly many such levels in human society. Thus, a city has many interlocking levels of organization, which are reflected in the many scales over which itslife may be viewed.

Many of Smolin’s ideas are illustrated with reference to biology, sociology, philosophy or religion (the latter usually to show how it has stifled approaches to a more true understanding). Here’s an example from the beginning of Chapter 16.

When people speak of political change, they often speak of a rearrangement of the relationship between the individual and society. This is a euphemism, for society is an abstract concept that refers only to those human beings that are alive in one time and place. This is not to say that there are not hierarchies of organization in human society, but each interaction I have with any level of this hierarchy is really only an interaction with one or more people, even if the exchanges may be increasingly scripted as the hierarchy is ascended. What is then rearranged when society evolves is nothing other than the myriad of relationships between individual human beings.

In discussing the enormous problems in reconciling the ideas of quantum theory with the dynamical nature of space and time(Chapter 20), he says:

As so many examples from the history of this century attest to, human beings have a remarkable ability to live with crisis, to live even with unsupportable contradictions. And once we accommodate to something, and become used to it, it is often extremely difficult to imagine things could be any other way. This is perhaps the most difficult thing about any attempt to transform the world on any scale.

The final paragraph of the final chapter:

In the Peter Brook adaptation of the great Hindu saga The Mahabharata, the wise king Yudhishthira must, on penalty of the death of his family, answer a god who demands of him to tell what is the greatest marvel in the world. His reply is that, “Each day death strikes. And we live as though we were immortal. This is the greatest marvel.” And, yes, is it not possible that the greatest marvel of all is that we find ourselves in a universe in which everything around us, from the Earth, to the stars, the galaxies, and indeed the whole of what we can see, lives and is bounded by time, while at the same time revealing, through an infinte variety of relations that we are only just beginning to untangle, an order and a harmony that, while perhaps still not immortal, is far older and far richer than anything we hae so far let ourselves imagine.

In the epilog:

Perhaps the reason why science works, in the absence of a fixed method or a fixed set of rules, is that it is based on an ethic which recognizes that while any individual is obligated to champion what they honestly believe, no individual is the arbitrator of te correctness, or even the interest or usefulness of their own ideas. Experience teaches us that no matter how sure of ourselves we may feel, and how clever we may think we are being at certain instants, nature is alwayssmarter, and anyone’s individual achievement may only survive to the extent to which it is superseded by the achievement of others.

Perhaps, then, this is the most important reason that science does matter to society, because it is in this way a part of the centuries old experiment to discover what democracy is. In its ideal form a science is a network of consensus shared among individuals without propaganda or coercion, as a democratic society is envisioned to be a society of free individuals living with each other without coercion or violence.

Also in the epilog, he mentions again the influence of Liebniz’s views against Newton’s ideas of the absolute, and contrasts the heavy worldview connected with the idea of a universe viewed from outside by the Great Clockmaker, and the fear of the clock running down into a heat-death, with the dynamic and ever-renewing self-organizing universe he has described throughout the book. He again invokes Nietzche’s darkness and heaviness as the ultimate expression of the inevitable worldview that follows from Newton’s universe.

Against this I would like to set the lightness of the new search for knowledge, which is based in the understanding that the world is a network of relations, that what was once thought to be absolute is always subject to  evolutionand renegotiation, that the complete truth about the world is not graspable as any single point of view, but only resides in the totality of several or many distinct views. We understand now that there is no meaning to being at rest, and hence no sense for stasis; this new understanding of knowledge might be said to be imbued with the freedom of the principle of inertia and grounded not in space but only in relations. And these develop not inabsolute time but only in succession, in progression. Finally, this new view of the universe we aspire to will include a cosmology in which life has a proper andmeaningful place in the world. That is, in the end the image I want to leave is that life is light, both because what we are is matter energized by  the passaage of photons through the biosphere and because what is essential in life is without weight, but only pattern, structure,information. And because the logic of life is continual change, continual motion, contiual evolution.

Finally, the new view of the universe islight, in all its senses, because what Darwin has given us, and what we may aspire to generalize to the cosmos as a whole, is a way of thinking about the world which is scientific and mechanistic, but in which the occurrence of novelty – indeed the perpetual birth of novelty – can be understood.

It’s a very interesting book, though perhaps not for everyone. The ideas deserve to be more widely understood.


2009-01-10: Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody

The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008)

by Clay Shirky (1964-)

This book is about the impact of the Internet on reducing the cost of communications, and the resultant effect on reducing barriers to people organizing for ad hoc and impromptu reasons. The ideas are more interesting than the prose, so I’ve taken advantage of the summary of ideas at the beginning of most chapters. I’m merely quoting them, rather than expressing them in my own words.

Chapter 1 is largely an extended anecdote to illustrate the power of an ad hoc single-purpose organization in recovering a cell phone lost in a New York City cab. The protagonist used his website and other services to rally a large number of people to support and enlist in the effort to recover a phone whose “finder” resisted returning even after she knew it’s rightful owner. Here’s a passage:

But mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing information. Evan was driven, resourceful, and unfortunately for Sasha, very angry. Had he presented his mission in completely self-interested terms (“Help my frame save $300!”) or in unattainably general ones (“Let’s fight theft everywhere!”), the tools he chose wouldn’t have mattered. What he did was to work out a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence. (This sweet spot is what Eric Raymond, the theorist of open source software, calls “a plausible promise.”) Without a plausible promise, all the technology in the world would be nothing more than all the teleology in the world.

I like the term “plausible promise”.

Chapter 2, Sharing Anchors Community: Groups of people are complex, in ways that make those groups hard to form and hard to sustain; much of the shape of traditional institutions is a response to those difficulties. New social tools relive some of those burdens, allowing for new kinds of group-forming, like using simple sharing to anchor the creation of new groups.

Chapter 3, Everyone Is a Media Outlet: Our social tools remove older obstacles to public expression, and thus remove the bottlenecks that characterized mass media. The result is the mass amateurization of efforts previously reserved for media professionals.

Chapter 4, Publish, Then Filter: The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older patten of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact.

Chapter 5, Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production: Collaborative production, where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, is considerably harder than simple sharing, but the results can be more profound. New tools allow large groups to collaborate, by taking advantage of nonfinancial motivations and by allowing for wildly differing levels of contribution.

Chapter 6, Collective Action and Institutional Challenges: Collective action, where a group acts as a whole, is even more complex than collaborative production, but here again new tools give life to new forms of action. This in turn challenges existing institutions, by eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination.

Chapter 7, Faster and Faster: As more people adopt simple social tools, and as those tools allow increasingly rapid communication, the speed of group action also increases, and just as more is different, faster is different.

Chapter 8, Solving Social Dilemmas: There are real and permanent social dilemmas, which can only be optimized for, never completely solved. The human social repertoire includes many such optimizations, which social tools can amplify.

Chapter 9, Fitting Our Tools to a Small World: Large social groups are different from small ones, but we are still understanding all the ways in which that is true. Recent innovations in social tools provide more explicit support for a pattern of social networking called te Small World pattern, which underlies the idea of Six Degrees of Separation.

Chapter 10, Failure for Free: The logic of publish-then-filter means that new social systems have to tolerate enormous amounts of failure. The only way to uncover and promote the rare successes is to rely, yet again, on social structure supported by social tools.

Chapter 11, Promise, Tool, Bargain:  There is no recipe for the successful use of social tools. Instead, every working system is a mix of social and technological factors.


2008-09-21: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1990 ed.)

by Julian Jaynes (1920-1997)

This is a wildly ambitious work. As such, it probably attempts more than it can handle. Nonetheless, it is very interesting and provocative. I would have to reread it carefully to fully assess the degree to which I can accept its many ideas. Given the density of ideas in its 470 pages, this would not be an undertaking lightly undertaken.

The book was originally written in 1976, and revised in 1990. Apparently many of its ideas must have needed revision (and perhaps still do) in light of the work that has been done in cognitive science since 1976.

It’s arranged in three Books (of an originally planned five): The Mind of Man, The Witness of History, and Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World.

In Book I, Jaynes describes what he means by consciousness. He first eliminates the many aspects of mentality that are often intended by the word. For example, it is not a copy of experience, not necessary for concepts, not necessary for learning, not necessary for thinking, not necessary for reason. Addressing its location, he refers to its spatial character. We usually think it’s in our head, or in the head (behind the eyes) of the person we talk to. Yet, “there is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another”.

Before addressing directly what consciousness is, Jaynes looks at language, particularly at metaphor as a way of constructing new meanings from old. He uses an interesting approach, identifying two parts of a metaphor. The metaphrand is the thing being described. The metaphier is the thing or relation used to elucidate the metaphrand. (The words are analogous to multiplier and multiplicand for the parts of a multiplication.) The metaphier has associations or attributes that are relevant to the metaphor, which Jaynes calls paraphiers. Each paraphier projects some element of meaning to an aspect of the metaphrand, called its paraphrand. Example: Snow blankets the ground. Metaphrand: the completeness and evenness with which the ground is covered by snow. Metaphier: a blanket on a bed. Paraphiers: warmth, protection, slumber until some awakening. Paraphrands: the earth is sleeping; it is protected by the snow cover; it awakens in the spring when the snow is gone.

Jaynes suggests that consciousness is a result of the metaphor-building process. The paraphiers of experience are projected into paraphrands that have functional effects in the working of the mind. Further, the process is recursive, so that each new paraphrand can become a metaphrand of a new metaphor, and so on. This brief sketch doesn’t do the idea justice, which is elaborated in Book II, but could still be clarified.

Having established (if not justified) the framework he will work with, Jaynes identifies the features of consciousness.

Spatialization: the spatial relations in the world around us are metaphrands for many functions of consciousness. We’ve invented a mind-space, in our own heads and those of others. It is so fundamental, we don’t think of it as having been invented, we simply assume it without question. As an example of referring something to space, consider time. We commonly have mental impressions that place past, present and future in some spatial arrangement (or different arrangements for different purposes). For instance, thinking about the sweep of history, we might imagine the years spread out from left to right. Considering our future plans and past experience, we might imagine the past behind us, and the future in front (some people reverse this arrangement, since they can ‘see’ the past but not the future).

Excerption: We are never conscious of anything in its entirety. This kind of consciousness is analogous to ‘seeing’ and subject to similar constraints. We can’t see all of an object at once, only its near side. Similarly from moment to moment we can only attend to one part of a thing at a time. “We excerpt from the collection of possible attentions to a thing which comprises our knowledge of it. And this is all that it is possible to do since consciousness is a metaphor of our actual behavior.”

The Analog ‘I’: Perhaps the most important feature of the metaphor world is the metaphor we have or ourselves. The analog ‘I’ can ‘move about’ in our metaphor world, ‘doing’ things that we are not actually doing, and might never have done or never will do. Yet we ‘make’ decisions on the basis of imagined ‘outcomes’ of  these ‘actions’.

The Metaphor ‘Me’: As the analog ‘I’ does something in mind-space, ‘seeing’ imagined features of real space, among those features might be the analog ‘me’ interacting with other people or other features of the imagined world. The analog ‘I’ can observe the results of these actions of the analog ‘me’ and make judgments of the consequences of such actions.

Narratization: “In consciousness, we are always seeing our vicarial selves as the main figures in the stories of our lives.” This story includes not only our analog ‘I’, but everything else in consciousness. Indeed it is its inclusion in a narrative that makes it conscious.

Conciliation: We constantly assimilate new perceptions into the learned schema we have of some feature of the world. This happens unconsciously, and is simply part of the process of making sense of the otherwise ambiguous perceptions, creating a stable internal model of the world in which for instance, things maintain their color even though changing lighting conditions result in different sense impressions. Jaynes calls the conscious analog to assimilation conciliation. We make excerpts or narratizations compatible with one another through conciliation. “If I ask you to think of a mountain meadow and a tower at the same time, you automatically conciliate them by having the tower rising from the meadow. But if I ask you to think of the mountain meadow and the ocean at the same time, conciliation tends not to occur and you are likely to think of one and then the other. You can only bring them together by a narratization.”

The question Jaynes addresses in chapter 3 is: Should we date the origin of consciousness before or after the invention of writing? Prior to reading this I would have said the question is ridiculous. Of course it is prior, probably roughly at the same time as the development of human language itself, perhaps 50,000 years ago. Now I’m not so sure.

Jaynes uses the Iliad as an early written source, discounting a few passages that scholars usually assign to later editors. His conclusion is surprising, disturbing and interesting: “There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad.” He finds “no words for consciousness or mental acts. The words in the Iliad that in a later age come to mean mental things have different meanings, all of them more concrete.” He gives several examples of such words, then says, “Now this is all very peculiar. If there is no subjective consciousness, no mind, no soul, or will, in Iliadic men, what then initiates behavior?”

Jaynes points out the mistaken tradition that before the fourth century BC there was no true Greek religion, and that the gods were an invention of poets. The reason behind this mistake is the view that religion must be a system of ethics. Indeed people did not look to religion for ethics in that age. “The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think about what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon. It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath …, a god who whispers low to Helen to sweep her heart with homesick longing, a god who hides Priam in a mist in front of the attacking Memelaus, a god who tells Glaucus to take bronze for gold, a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, who urges the soldiers on or defeats them by casting them in spells or drawing mists over their visual fields. It is the gods who start quarrels among men that really start the war, and then plan its strategy. It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across a bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.” This nutshell summary is not in itself convincing, but compresses a lot of analysis into a short stretch of words.

Jaynes goes on to say that people in this age relied on immediate instruction to know what to do, and on a rigid hierarchy to govern the affairs of rising states. Each person did what he or she was told by an appropriate authority. When the authority was not available, the memory of the voice of authority was manifested as a mental voice, originating in memory but interpreted as the actual disembodied voice of the authority. When the voice was that of a recently deceased person, either a relative or chief or priest (sometimes all three in one person), the voice was taken as a manifestation of the essence of the formerly living person, in a new state, still capable of influencing action in the world. As the dead were venerated in this way, they were elaborated into gods, and the voices were taken as unmistakable authorities. Jaynes makes some attempt (perhaps plausible but not particularly convincing) to relate this phenomenon with the different roles of Broca’s area in the left brain and the corresponding area in the right brain, but it isn’t crucial to his overall argument.

His notion of the bicameral mind is that people of this age had a normal mind that dealt with day-to-day routine activities, not needing decisions; they had another mind that reacted to a need for decision-making by invoking the voices of gods. The two ‘houses’ of the mind worked together to guide a person through every foreseeable circumstance. The notion is interesting, and the argument is too complex to repeat here.

The breakdown comes about in the failure of the word ‘foreseeable’ above. When new circumstances arise that aren’t covered by the remembered wisdom of the gods, even kings don’t always make the right decisions. In the face of invasion by foreigners, or abrupt climatic changes, crises can lead to failure of the old ways, and a breakdown of society. An example is the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The various rises and falls of Mesopotamian city-states and empires provide others.

Jaynes dates the origin of consciousness to the circumstances where people find they can no longer rely on the  advice provided by one half of their bicameral mind to the other. This leads to the rise of more explicit (as well as slower, more resource-intensive, and perhaps less reliable) techniques of understanding the world and predicting the future, the features of consciousness he has previously listed.

Once he has made clear the outline of his argument, Jaynes spends much effort in providing supporting evidence. Of course, much of the evidence he cites can’t be unambiguously interpreted, and so the argument can be doubted. Still I think the possibility that there is some truth in it makes it worth considering further.

While reading, I wondered how others who have written on consciousness might react. I’ve since found that Daniel Dennett doesn’t dismiss it outright (though he doesn’t endorse it, either). He even warns that those who do dismiss it probably don’t understand it.

A very interesting book, challenging to understand, as well as challenging the ideas most people hold. Religious people won’t care for it.


2007-11-24: The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

In his preface, Pinker says: “There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has  a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our speech – our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies – can therefore give us insight into who we are.”

This is the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience, beginning with The Language Instinct, and Words and Rules. I’ve read the first, but skipped the second with the impression he was addressing a narrow linguistic topic; I’ve started it now.

Generally I think Pinker’s work and writings are very interesting, and well worth reading and thinking about. Just from the preface, I can imagine an interesting pair of works: one would explore the differences between the human model of reality and some other creatures, such as dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins; the second would similarly compare and contrast humans and post-humans, such as robots and aliens.

Early on he discusses a legal issue that arose from the events of 9/11: Were the attacks on and fall of the two towers of the World Trade Center one occurrence or two? The question arose from a clause in the insurance policy covering the WTC, which capped the payment for a single “event” at $3.5 billion.

p. 83: “The constituents of common sense we have encountered, like causation, force, time, and substance, are not just home editions of the concepts used in logic, science, or our best collective understanding of how to manage our affairs. They worked well enough in the world in which our minds evolved, but they can leave our common sense ill-equipped to deal with some of the conceptual challenges of the modern world.” He goes on to describe several ways our notions can lead us astray: having and benefiting; having and knowing; having and moving; time; things and locations; causality. Each is interesting, though too detailed to recap here.

p. 159: Pinker discusses the Kantian view of the conceptual scaffolding of thought, and then says: “… languages appear to be organized by Kantian abstract categories. We see them in the basic parts of speech: substance in nouns, space in prepositions, causality in verbs, time in verbs and in markers for tense. … in the way verbs enter constructions, which are selective about how something moves, whether it is a substance or an object, whether the event is instantaneous or protracted, and who or what caused it … and … in the everyday metaphors that pervade our language and reasoning, as when we say the price of gas can rise and fall like a balloon, and when we speak of Sonia forcing Adam to be nice or even forcing herself to be nice as if she were closing a jammed drawer.”

p. 189: He addresses the notion of the present. Various lines of evidence and reasoning lead to the notion of “the specious present”, an interval of about three seconds, “the duration of an intentional movement like a handshake; of the immediate planning of a precise movement, like hitting a golf ball; of the flips and flops of an ambiguous [visual] figure; of the span within which we can accurately reproduce an interval; of the delay of unrehearsed short-term memory; of the time to make a quick decision, such as when we’re channel-surfing; and of the duration of an utterance, a line of poetry, or a musical motif, like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

p. 195: Although many metaphors treat time similarly to space, Pinker mentions two differences. First, and most obvious, time is one-dimensional. There are fewer tenses than spatial terms, even when treating with relations between three “points in time”, such as the present moment of an utterance, a reference point-event, and an event being located. Second, the two directions of time from the present are very different. The past is frozen and can’t be changed, and the future is a range of possible events constrained by the present and the laws of causality. We can know the past, but must wait for future events to unfold.

p. 233t: <I need to look at the book to figure out what this refers to>

p. 235: Opening the chapter The Metaphor Metaphor, Pinker quotes the first (rather long) sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and then says:

The United States Declaration of Independence is perhaps the best-known passage of English prose expressing an abstract political idea. … At the heart of this abstract argument, though, is a string of concrete metaphors. The issue at hand was the bands that connected the colonies to England, which it was necessary to dissolve in order to effect a separation. … The four metaphors really allude to a single, unstated metaphor: alliances are bonds. We see the metaphor in other expressions like bonding, attachment, and family ties.

Also palpable is the metaphor in impel – force to move – whose literal sense is plain in the noun impeller, the rotating part that pushes the water or air in a pump, and its cousin propeller. The implicit metaphor is that causes of behavior are forces. It underlies the cognates repel and compel, and analogous words like impetus, drive, force, push, and pressure. A related metaphor may be found in powers of the earth (which calls to mind horsepower and electric power): a sovereign state is a source of physical force.

A bit less obvious is the metaphor for human history, course, which refers to a path of running or flowing, as in the course of a river, a racecourse, and a headlong course. The metaphor is that a sequence of events is motion along a pathway.

The very name of the document echoes two older metaphors, which we can glimpse in related words. To declare, like clarify, comes from the Latin for “make clear,” an instance of the understanding is seeing metaphor, as in I see what you mean, a murky writer, and shedding more heat than light. And independence means “not hanging from,” echoed in suspend, pendant, and pendulum. It alludes to a pair of metaphors, reliance is being supported (propped up, financial support, support group), and subordinate is down (control over him, under his control, decline and fall).

If we dig even deeper to the roots of words, we unearth physical metaphors for still more abstract concepts. Event, from Latin evenire, originally meant “to come out,” (compare venture). Necessary comes from “unyielding” (compare cede). Assume meant “to take up.” Station is a standing-place, an instance of a widespread metaphor that equates status with location. Nature comes from the Latin for “birth” or “inborn qualities,” as in prenatal, nativity, and innate. Law in the sense of “moral necessity” is based on law in the sense of man-made regulations, from Old Norse lag, “something set down.” The metaphor a moral obligation is a rule also underlies entitle, from the Latin word for “inscription.” Decent originally meant “to be fitting.” Respect meant “to look back at” (remember aspect), kind comes from the same Germanic root as kin, require from “seek in return”.

Even the little grammatical words have a physical provenance. Sometimes it is evident in modern English, as in the pronoun it (a situation is a thing) and the prepositions in (time is space), to (intention is motion toward a goal), and among (affiliation is proximity). Sometimes it is evident only in the word’s ancestor, such as of, from a Germanic word related to “off,” and for, from the Indo-European term for “forward.”

Not much is left. Political comes from the Greek polites, meaning “citizen,” from polis, “city,” which is a metonym rather than a metaphor, but still has an association to something tangible. The and that come from an ancient Indo-European demonstrative term (also the source of then, there, they and this), standardly used in connection with pointing. That leaves God, man, and people, which mean what they mean and have for a long time, and the quasi-logical terms and, equal, and cause.

So if language is our guide, the lofty declaration of abstract principles is really a story with a strange and clunky plot. Some people are hanging beneath some other people, connected by cords. As stuff flows by, something forces the lower people to cut cords and stand beside the upper people, which is what the rules require. They see some onlookers, and clear away the onlookers’ view of what forced them to do the cutting.

But should language be our guide? It seems unlikely that anyone reading the Declaration would entertain the bizarre images in the literal meanings of these words or their roots. At the same time it’s jarring to discover that even the airiest of our ideas are expressed (“pressed out”) in thumpingly concrete metaphors. The explorations of language and thought in the preceding chapters have turned up these metaphors under every stone: events as objects, states as locations, knowing as having, communicating as sending, helping as giving, time as space, causation as force. What should we make of the discovery that people can’t put two words together without using allusions and allegories? This chapter will try to steer a path between two extreme answers.

p. 245: Pinker credits George Lakoff with the idea that:

Metaphor is not an ornamental flourish of language, he says, but an essential part of thought: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Mental life begins with a few experiences that are not metaphorical, namely, the sensations, actions, and emotions that are built into our constitution and engage the physical world. From there, conceptual metaphors are acquired by a kind of associative conditioning. We learn that control is up because we experience fights in which the victor ends up on top, that goals are destinations because we walk toward something we want, and that time is a moving object because things that approach us get closer and closer as time elapses.

But this isn’t the half of it. Since we think in metaphors grounded in physical experience rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. Reason is not based on abstract laws, because thinking is rooted in bodily experience. And the concept of objective or absolute truth must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them.

Western philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge, ethics, and reality, but a succession of conceptual metaphors. Descarte’s philosophy is based on knowing is seeing, Locke’s on the mind is a container, Kant’s on morality is a strict father, and so on. Nor is mathematics about a Platonic reality of eternal truths. It is a creation of the human body and senses, growing out of activities of moving along a path and of collecting, constructing, and measuring objects. Political ideologies, too, cannot be defined in terms of assumptions or values, but only as rival versions of the metaphor that society is a family. The political right likens society to a family commanded by a strict father, the political left to a family cared for by a nurturant parent. …

Though I believe that conceptual metaphor really does have profound implications for the understanding of language and thought, I think Lakoff takes the idea a wee bit too far.

He then goes on to defend truth, objectivity, and reason. Amusingly, he uses Lakoff’s own words to show that Lakoff also believes in them.

p. 252: Pinker explains the effectiveness of metaphors based on physical experience. They aren’t just arbitrary symbols, for which any substitution would be as effective. Rather, they are linked to modes of inference that allow many related, but unstated, relations among objects and situations to be implicitly understood. This is similar to the notions he expressed in Words and Rules, that we have memory for facts (symbols, words) and memory for procedures (rules, inference).

p. 377: Pinker credits Paul Grice with developing the cooperative principle of communication, in four conversational maxims:


  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.


  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.


  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.


  • Be relevant.

In the chapter The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, Pinker explains a lot about swearing, including the reasons we do it, and the words we use.

In the chapter Games People Play, he discusses the ways we use language to be ambiguous and obscure our motives. He has extended examples regarding seduction and bribery. He has several examples of metaphors relevant to social situations, particularly relating biological notions of family to society.

A sense of communality via folk biology can also be reinforced by myths and ideologies. People are told that they are descended from a patriarch or a primeval couple, or that they are connected to a natal land, or came into being in the same act of creation, or are related to the same totemic animal. Here is a rule of thumb in anthropology: whenever a society (including ours) has a cultural practice that seems bizarre, its members may be manipulating their intuitive biology to enhance feelings of community.

Conspicuous by its absence is the one social mechanism that social ad political theorists treat as the foundation of society: a social contract. Friends, families, couples, and clans don’t sit down and verbally articulate the rights and responsibilities that bind them together. If they use language at all, it’s to avow their solidarity in unison or close succession, as in I love you, I pledge allegiance, and I believe with a perfect faith. What they don’t like to do is negotiate the terms of their communality. The very act of delineating perquisites and obligations in words undermines the nature of the emotional (and in their minds physical) fusion that allows them to share instinctively, without concern for who takes what and who gets what.

When I read this, I thought that the marketing folks at CircleLending.com (now VirginMoneyUS.com) ought to make use of these ideas.

p. 428: In the chapter Escaping the Cave, Pinker contrasts the analog nature of the physical world with the discrete nature of our mental representations.

Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events. They assemble these objects and events into propositions, which they take to be characterizations of real and possible worlds. The characterizations are highly schematic: they pick out some aspects of a situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple ways. People thereby can disagree about what a given situation really is even when they can agree on how matter has moved through space.

Human characterizations of reality are built out of recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: acting, going, changing, being, having. One event may be seen as impinging on another, by causing or enabling or preventing it. An action can be initiated with a goal in mind, in particular, the destination of a motion (as in loading hay) or the state resulting from a change (as in loading a wagon). Objects are differentiated by whether they are human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, solid or aggregate, and how they are laid out along the three dimensions of space. Events are conceived as taking up stretches of time and as being ordered with respect to one another.

Each of these ideas has a distinctive anatomy. Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories. They distinguish stable categories that capture an individual’s essence from transitory and superficial properties they may happen to possess. They have a mental zoom lens that can home in on the substance an entity is made of (plastic) or pan back to see its boundaries (a cup). A substance can be seen as a continuous medium (like applesauce) or as an aggregate of parts (like pebbles).

Humans have a primitive concept of number, which distinguishes only one, two, and many, though they can also estimate larger quantities approximately. They use this coarse way of quantifying not just when tallying objects (as in singular, dual, and plural) but also when locating things in space (as in at, near, and far) and when locating things in time (as in the present, recent past, and remote past).

When humans think about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes or moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts. The entire object is thought to be located in a spot, or to move as a whole, or to have a trait that suffuses it, or to change from one state to another in its entirety (as in a wagon loaded with hay, or a garden swarming with bees). But humans are also capable of articulating an object into its parts and registering how they are related to one another (as in the bottom of the wagon or the edge of the garden). When the object is a human body, another entity comes into play: the person, who is thought both to be his body parts, and to have his body parts. Among people’s possessions are not just their body parts and their chattels but also their ideas (which they can send to one another) and their good fortune.

p. 431t: I noticed only one typo in the book: “when it seen as just occurring” should be “when it is seen as just occurring”.

p. 439: After summarizing most of the ideas in the book, he says:

None of this, of course, comes easily to us. Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways. This underscores the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it (a surprisingly elusive principle in higher education today). The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements in empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in sensitive analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.


2007-11-23: Words and Rules

Words and Rules

The Ingredients of Language (1999)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

This book is about two fundamental types of mental machinery – perhaps the two fundamental types of mental machinery. Pinker uses the breadth of linguistic study into the irregular forms of nouns and verbs to illustrate the notion that we have two types of memory and associated processing: factual and procedural.

On page 23, he has a diagram like this:  <need to find and reproduce diagram>

In constructing utterances from a desire to express a thought, it is necessary to retrieve some words from the lexicon, and apply rules to put them into intelligible order. Pinker spends a great deal of the book elaborating on aspects of this idea, and shows how the patterns of regular words, the less-obvious patterns of irregular words, and the mistakes made by children and others shed light on the ways that this picture must be at least approximately right.

His case is persuasive, and consistent with many other ideas he has presented in his other books on cognitive science. I skipped this book when it first came out, as it seemed too much about linguistic minutiae, and not enough about the workings of the mind. But of course the most distinct aspect of human minds, compared with others, is the capacity for language.

I found parts of the book slow going, particularly when he dwells on the experiments that verify or disprove one or another theory. At this stage, I am ready to accept a lot on faith, when it is consistent with my ideas of how the mind works; and Pinker has contributed significantly to those ideas.

I read the book after finishing The Stuff of Thought, and that might be a good order for an impatient reader.


2007-11-03: Made to Stick

Made to Stick

Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007)

by Chip Heath (19?-) & Dan Heath (19?-)

This is an interesting book, somewhat related to rhetoric. It isn’t about ideas, but about how to present ideas for the most impact.

The authors (brothers) provide an acronym-checklist: SUCCESs, Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, Stories. Then they elaborate on these six principles.

Simple = Core + Compact. It’s important to identify the core message, and make it compact enough for simple presentation.

Unexpectedness overcomes the guessing mechanism in listeners’ brains, that make them see ideas as obvious, and therefore not important.

Concrete expressions help make a message memorable; abstract ideas are hard to remember without repetition.

Credibility, whether from an authority or the listeners’ own experiences, helps remove doubt.

Emotions, when aroused, help make a message memorable.

Stories activate an innate part of the human brain, to fit a message into existing patterns or plots, and make people see how an idea can be put into action.

The book provides many examples, and some practical exercises to illustrate the principles, and I’m sure they would be effective. This is a book that should be read and reread by anyone who needs to be persuasive.


2007-05-20: Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Why the Greeks Matter (2003)

by Thomas Cahill (1940-)

This is Volume 4 of Cahill’s Hinges of History series, with three to go. Chronologically it is mainly earlier than Volume 3, though Volumes 2 and 3 go naturally together. Cahill suggests that those who haven’t already read Volume 1 read that volume after Volume 4. I enjoyed this book, and probably marked more passages than in the earlier volumes of the series; I will certainly read the next volume, and look forward to the two that are supposed to follow that.

Cahill’s introduction explains his views on history. Here is the beginning of it:

History must be learned in pieces. This is partly because we have only pieces of the past – shards, ostraca, palimpsests, crumbling codices with missing pages, newsreel clips, snatches of song, faces of idols whose bodies have long since turned to dust – which give us glimpses of what has been but never the whole reality. How could they? We cannot encompass the whole reality of the times in which we live. Human beings never know more than part, as “through a glass darkly”; all knowledge comes to us in pieces. That said, it is often easier to encompass the past than the present, for it is past; and its pieces may be set beside one another, examined, contrasted and compared, till one attains an overview.

Like fish who do not know they swim in water, we are seldom aware of the atmosphere of the times through which we move, how strange and singular they are. But when we approach another age, its alienness stands out for us, almost as if that were its most obvious quality; and the sense of being on alien ground grows with the antiquity of the age we are considering.

Cahill quotes Hanson critiquing Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel): “The efforts of those who seek to reduce history to biology and geography deprecate the power and mystery of culture, and so often turn desperate. . . . Land, climate, weather, natural resources, fate, luck, a few rare individuals of brilliance, natural disaster, and more – all these play their role in the formation of a distinct culture, but it is impossible to determine exactly whether man, nature, or chance is the initial catalyst for the origins of Western civilization.” (Cahill’s emphasis)

Having described the Greek approach to warfare, and the related reliance on citizen participation, he goes on: “To inquire into the ways in which an unpredictable historical combination – in this case, the combination of dogged military practicality with unprecedented citizen responsibility – may generate a new cultural force that has tremendous impact on the world over many centuries brings us as close as we are likely to come to the deep mysteries of the historical process.”

Naturally starting with Homer, he quotes Oliver Taplin: “The poems [of Homer] seem to emerge … as a kind of opener of discussion, an invitation to think about and scrutinize the structures and allocations of power and of respect. Thus, while everyone in the poems agrees that honour … should be given where honour is due, they do not agree on the criteria for its allocation. So while Homer does not positively advocate any particular kind of political change, this is surely not the poetry of political conservatism or retrenchment either. It is part and parcel of an era of radically widening horizons; and it is a catalyst to change.” Cahill contends that this change continue from Homer’s day until Greece gave way to Rome, about 500 years. Early along the way (c. 550 BC), Solon established a code of laws. He is credited with the saying, “Men preserve the agreements that profit no one to violate.”

Cahill quotes Aristotle, showing what Greeks thought of themselves: “Europeans, as well as peoples who live in cold climates generally, are full of spirit but somewhat lacking in intelligence and skill; and because of these deficiencies, though they live in comparative freedom, they lack political organization and the ability to rule others. Asians, on the other hand, though intelligent and skilled by nature, lack spirit and so are always subject to defeat and slavery. The race of the Greeks, however, which occupies the center of the earth, shares the best attributes of West and East, being both spirited and intelligent. Thus does this race enjoy both freedom and stable political institutions and continue to be capable of ruling all humanity.” Cahill asserts that for the Greeks, everything was a competition.

Competition apparently ruled relations between the sexes as well, and men considered women distinctly inferior, and valued relations between men as superior to relations between a man and a woman. Cahill made a point of Homer’s extolling the long-term love between Hector and Andromache, and between Odysseus and Penelope, and now points out that such insights “are never spoken of again in Greek literature”.

In the chapter on philosophers, Cahill mentions Democritus’s On Cheerfulness. An online source says that Democritus traveled widely, might have been to India. The three paragraphs immediately available certainly indicate a common attitude between Democritus and Buddhist thought. One story of his death makes him sound very much like a Zen master. Another point of similarity between Greek and Indian thought is in the organization created by Pythagoras, which Cahill says has aspects of monastic life, as developed in India.

Understandably, Cahill admires Thucydides, saying he, “following the path blazed by Herodotus, had succeeded in creating an entirely new mode of knowledge, independent of philosophical inquiry. No longer would knowledge be the sole province of scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers, those who observed natural phenomena or tried to discover the essences of things or contemplated a world beyond the world. Close attention to human activity – society and politics, war and peace – could yield another kind of knowledge. And this knowledge, the result of meditation on the past and close consideration of human affairs, could yield new principles, quite unlike anything established by philosophy or the sciences to guide humanity in the future.”

In discussing art, and in particular the way that the serenity and confidence apparent in Athenian sculpture waned after a series of catastrophes at the hands of Sparta, Macedon and Rome, Cahill says, “It is a general rule of culture that new ideas appear first in literature, only later in the visual arts. This is probably because ideas are so intimately linked to words, which are their primary vehicles, and because the tools of literature are so negligible and transportable, compared to what an artist must use.

While writing these notes, and working through the passages I had marked, I discarded many of them, more than I usually do. Apparently I was in a somewhat enthralled state of mind while reading the book. That excitement has calmed somewhat, but it is a good quality of a book. I recommend the book.


2007-04-29: Desire of the Everlasting Hills

Desire of the Everlasting Hills

The World before and after Jesus (1999)

by Thomas Cahill (1940-)

This is volume 3 in Cahill’s Hinges of History series, a series devoted to “retell[ing] the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers, those who entrusted to our keeping one or another of the singular treasures that make up the patrimony of the West. This is also the story of the evolution of Western sensibility, a narration of how we became the people that we are and why we think and feel the way we do.”

This volume is about the events that made the foundations of Christianity. It naturally draws on the conclusions from volume 2, The Gifts of the Jews.

Cahill’s approach is to describe the writers of the Gospels, their own viewpoints and the ways that those viewpoints affected their messages. He also describes Paul’s perspective and the ways it affected his views  as expressed in his letters.

He starts with a description of the conquest of the Asian side of the Mediterranean by Alexander, and the effects that had on the peoples who lived there, such as the Jews, and on subsequent regimes, such as Rome. He mentions the Sibylline Oracles, and repeats a theme from volume 2: “The message of the Sibyl …, haunting various shrines and caves throughout the Greco-Roman world, seems to have been that, though some times are better and some worse, there can be no permanent safety. Peace will be followed by war, prosperity by poverty, happiness by suffering, life by death. This was indeed the constant message of all ancient literature and its principal insight into human existence. … But whereas Greeks and Romans and all other ancient peoples tended to see history as an ultimately empty succession of triumphs and tragedies, the Jews believed that history had a beginning … and would have an end and that each human being … had an individual destiny to fulfill ….”

Cahill goes into significant detail on several differences among the Gospel writers, such as the fact that the story of the good Samaritan appears only in Luke, and explains how these differences are natural for the individual writers and their specific backgrounds and objectives. But after discussing these differences, he says

These books and letters of the New Testament are of varying quality and importance. Because they are the work of many hands, they exhibit some of the quirks and contradictions of the Old Testament, the story of of whose composition spans more than a millennium and a half. But because they were written over a fifty-year period by two generations of authors, many of whom had some contact with one another, they also exhibit a marked consistency and even unity.

In nothing is their unity so evident as in their portrayal of Jesus. Though he is presented in various lights and shadows, depending on the concerns, personality, and skill of each author, he exudes even under this treatment a remarkable consistency, so that we feel on finishing his story, whether it is told well or badly, simply or extravagantly, that we know the man – and that in each telling he is identifiably the same man. This phenomenon of consistency beneath the differences makes Jesus a unique figure in world literature: never have so many writers managed to convey the same impression of the same human being over and over again. More than this, Jesus – what he says, what he does – is almost always comprehensible to the reader, who needs no introduction, no scholarly background, to penetrate the meaning of Jesus’s words and actions. The Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Washing of the Feet, the Empty Tomb: all these and many more gestures, instructions, and symbols are immediately intelligible not only to the simplest reader but even to the unlettered and the immature.

Near the end of the book, when he is assessing the impact of Christian thought on subsequent history, and the effects of its institutions, Cahill considers the example of the leprosariums set up by Mother Teresa and the unlikelihood of such work being done by humanists without the impetus of Jesus’s instruction. He goes on:

But it is also true that the West could never have realized some of its most cherished values without the process of secularization. The separation of church and state was achieved in the teeth of virulent Christian opposition, as was free speech, universal suffrage, tolerance, and many other values we would not be without. That these values flow from the subterranean river of authentic Christian tradition points up, once more, the paradoxical validity of the distinctions Jesus made between the religious establishment and true religious spirit.

The book opens with mention of the “Axial Age”, a term which is somewhat explained in the notes: a term invented in 1949 by German historian Karl Jaspers, to describe “an age of extraordinary worldwide creativity with the fifth century B.C. as its white-hot center.” The Axial Age was roughly three hundred years, from the late seventh century B.C. to the late fourth. “In Confucian China … burgeoning of reasonableness and courtly moderation, as well as the mystical depths uncovered by the Tao of Lao-Tsu. In India … the ineffable example of Gautama Buddha, reforming the chaos of more ancient systems and revealing the steps to personal peace. … Zarathustra …. the Hebrew prophets rose, giving to the bizarre monotheism of their singular people an ethical foundation so profound the Jews could never entirely forsake it. In the isles of Greece, the Axial Age saw the flowering of what would come to be called ‘philosophy’ … and of a noble ‘politics’ … that took the name of ‘democracy’. This same time and place saw the invention of drama and its division into ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ … as well as the first attempts to write … ‘history’.”