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What I’m Learning: Day 15/365

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” ― T.H. White, The Once and Future King

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (Chapter 7 The Playful State of Mind)

Gray opens Chapter 7 by offering a myriad of experiments illustrating and demonstrating the adverse effect that the inhibition of play has on people’s ability to learn and think creatively. After sharing several interesting and thought-provoking experiments, he goes on to make a number of crucial observations about what play is and why it matters to personal development. Here are some of my favorite passages from this chapter.

On the consequences of inhibiting play and the benefits of facilitating play:

…learning, problem solving, and creativity are worsened by interventions that interfere with playfulness and improved by interventions that promote playfulness.

On the impossibility of mandating creativity through authoritarianism, coercion, or bribery:

Pressure to be creative interferes with creativity…If you want to increase the degree to which people will pull hard or persist at some boring, repetitive task, such as shelling beans or copying sentences, you can succeed by giving them an incentive to perform better. If you enter them into a contest, or watch them conspicuously, or pay them well for excellent performance, their performance improves. But creativity doesn’t work that way. High incentive seems to foul up rather than improve the process. You can’t become creative by simply trying really, really hard. Creativity is a spark that comes when mental conditions are just right, and high incentive seems to mess up those conditions.

On play as a psychological, not merely physical, phenomenon:

…the characteristics of play all have to do with motivation and mental attitude, not with the overt form of the behavior itself. Two people might be throwing a ball, or pounding nails, or typing words on a computer, and one might be playing while the other is not. To tell which one is playing and which one is not, you have to infer from their expressions and the details of their actions something about why they are doing what they are doing and their attitude toward it.

On the blended nature of playfulness and the myth of play as an all or nothing phenomenon:

Play is not necessarily all or none. Play can blend with other motives and attitudes, in proportions ranging anywhere from zero up to 100 percent. For that reason, the adjective playful, which is understood as something that can vary by degrees, is often more useful than the noun play, which tends to be interpreted as all or none. People can, to varying degrees, bring a “playful attitude” or “playful spirit” to whatever activity they are doing. In general, pure play (activity that is 100% playful) is more common in children than adults. In adults, playfulness most often blends with other attitudes and motives having to do with adult responsibilities.

On the essential elements of play:

Play is not defined in terms of some single identifying characteristic. Rather, it is defined as a confluence of several characteristics…1) play is self-chosen and self-directed; 2) play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; 3) play has structure or rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; 4) play is imaginative, nonliteral, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and 5) play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

Gray spends the remainder of the chapter devoting a separate section for each of these five elements of play. Nearly every other paragraph is quotable. His analysis and elucidation of the essential features of play makes the reading of this book worthwhile. Chapter 7 of Free to Learn can justify the purchase of this gem of a book all by itself.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions

In this article, Maria Popova shares the personal musings of Eugène Delacroix on solitude. Quoting from The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, she provides the reader with more than a few poignant observations about the richness of contemplative life and the potential pitfalls of overindulging in social activity. Here is my favorite excerpt:

Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well-ordered your health will not suffer.

Like Delacroix, I see pleasant social interaction as a reward for having the sort of well-ordered interior state that comes from the practice of solitude. Scipio was reported by Cicero as having said “I am never less alone than when alone.” When we exercise the courage and determination to set aside time alone with ourselves, pushing aside the guilt and peer pressure thrust upon us by those hungry for our company, we’re able to develop the kind of relationship with our inner being that allows us to return to the crown with a greater sense of presence. Fewer people are more pleasant and healing to be around than those who don’t feel the need to always be around.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Giving Away Money: An Economist’s Guide to Political Life

Mike Munger joins Russ Roberts to share his thoughts on the relationship between economics and political life. While politicians may be motivated by different concerns than the rest of us, Munger argues that we should not look at political actors as neutral agent. Politicians are neither angels or demons, they are human beings who respond to incentives. The entire interview (under 40 minutes long) was informative. Here are two of my favorite quotes by Munger from the interview.

On the paradox of public choice:

In a market setting, the way to make money is to create new products and services and sell them at a low cost. The paradox of public choice is that in government, the way to make money is to promise to give it away for free.

On the nature of public choice and what it means to attribute self-interest to political actors:

The public choice approach basically just extends the fundamental assumption of economics to the study of politics. The fundamental assumption of economics is that people act in their own self-interest. In politics, if you believe that people act in their own self-interest, you don’t necessarily mean that they’re narrow and egotistical. They could be doing what they think is good for you.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Bruce Hood on the Supernatural

Bruce Hood shares some fascinating insights into why we tend to invoke supernatural explanations for ordinary and extraordinary phenomenon. Invoking the concept of essentialism, “the attribution of a hidden dimension to things giving them their true identity,” he explains how our common belief in hidden essences accounts for appeals to the supernatural. One of the more interesting aspects of his research is his demonstration of the fact that supernatural beliefs are often held by believers and non-believers alike. Even people who self-identify as atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, exhibit tendencies to think in supernaturalistic terms. Hood provides examples ranging from objects we hold to have sentimental value (ie. wedding rings) to things like the sense of disgust we would feel about wearing a sweatshirt previously worn by a serial killer to show how we often attribute intangible essences to things that have no basis in scientific thinking:

So for example, I did a study some years ago asking people if they’d be willing to wear a cardigan. I offered them incentive of £20. Most people would. And then you say ‘Actually, would you still wear it if you knew it belonged to Fred West?’ Most people would put their hands down when you say, ‘Well why wouldn’t you wear it?’ Some people say ‘Well I don’t want to be seen to be as someone who’s willing to wear Fred West’s cardigan.’ But that just restates the problem. What’s wrong with wearing a killer’s cardigan? Others will say well it feels disgusting. It feels dirty. It’s almost as if they’re applying a biological explanation.

We’re now actually doing work where we get people to put on or touch clothing and then we inform them that it belongs to someone very good or someone very evil and then we watch what happens afterwards. Do they wash their hands? Do they start doing all these implicit measures? And they all suggest that they are acting irrationally. But there’s a good reason why they might do so. We don’t know why people are crazed killers. There might be a biological contamination. So in that sense it’s not an entirely irrational response. But when you explain it explicitly people say ‘Well I know it’s a bit strange, but it just makes me feel yucky.’ So that’s what I mean by supernatural thinking because if these things were really real, if these dimensions and forces and energies were real, they wouldn’t be supernatural they’d be natural. So these are things which go beyond our current understanding.

It’s the belief of what you think something is which will affect your behavior. So for example, we did a study asking people to cut up photographs of sentimental objects or their wives. And we found that even though they knew it’s just a photograph and they didn’t think there’d be any problem you could measure significant increases of undue stress. So in other words I think what’s going on is you have systems in the brain which are triggered by irrational supernatural intuitions if you like, but you can suppress them or control them by top down logical analysis. But they’re always in conflict. And there are no atheists in the foxhole, or at 30,000 feet when the plane hits turbulence. We can revert right back to this magical thinking.

Hood presents some interesting experimental data that could bring some clarity and intrigue to many contemporary discussions on the supernatural.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Joseph DeSimone: What if 3D printing was 100x faster?

Joseph DeSimone begins with the following observation: “3D printing is a misnomer. It’s actually 2D printing over and over again.” He then explains how 3D printing works and he identifies three fundamental problems with the current approach that hold back 3D printing from being a manufacturing process:

1. 3D printing takes forever,

2. Printed parts are mechanically weak.

3. Material choices are far too limited.

DeSimone then explains that his approach to tackling these problems is to harness oxygen and light to grow parts:

Light and oxygen grow in different ways. Light can take a resin and convert it into a solid. It can grow a liquid into a solid. Oxygen inhibits that process. So light and oxygen are polar opposites of one another from a chemical point of view. So if we can control spatially the light and oxygen, we can control this process.

DeSimone refers to this process as CLIP (Continuous Light Interface Production). The result of this process is the ability to print 3D objects 25-100x’s faster than the conventional process. Because convention 3D printing is actually just 2D printing repeated through multiple layers, the CLIP approach makes it possible to produce a much more refined and realistic product.

DeSimone closes his fascinating talk, one that included a live CLIP-based 3D printing demonstration, with the following words:

So the opportunity of making a part in real time that has the properties to be a final part really opens up 3D manufacturing. And for us, this is very exciting. This really is owning the intersection between hardware, software, and molecular science. And I can’t wait to see what designers and engineers around the world are going to be able to do with this great tool.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Chris Michel on Art, Compliance Mechanisms, and Entrepreneurship (The Accidental Creative Podcast)

Chris Michel, a serial entrepreneur, writer, and photographers shares various insights on creativity and entrepreneurship.

On the importance of courage and work ethic over having ideas:

To me it’s even really less about the idea and more about the courage to go the company. Because often times, whatever you decide to go do, what you end up doing or what the company ends up being is a little different.

On the value of being committed to the creative process:

The most important thing is to be committed to the idea of creating something. Those people who are like “This is what I’m going to go do, this i how my life will be defined,” I think you remove some of that serendipity from the system and increase your odds significantly.

On the lack of a necessary connection between entrepreneurial success and traditional schooling:

The most successful entrepreneurs didn’t even go to college.

On the need to be proactive:

People probably shouldn’t wait around for the serendipity moment or for the light bulb. Instead say “this is what I want to go do.” Then your mind is open and receptive to seeing opportunities and hopefully you have the courage to go take the leap.

On the advantage of smaller companies or unsuccessful people:

One of the hard things for people who have had some success in life is to be willing to sacrifice to create great things when they don’t have to. A lot of younger people have done a lot of incredible things because they had no alternative or they were driven in some way. That’s more difficult for really successful people to do. Why do big companies famously don’t really innovate? Because real innovation and entrepreneurship are almost unnatural acts of human sacrifice. And big companies that don’t have to do that, won’t give it enough. They won’t bet the company on it. Nobody will work 365 days and sacrifice everything.

On the power and primacy of trust:

If you can build, maintain, and generate trust with others, you can do anything. And to the extent you don’t do that, it doesn’t matter what principles you use, you’ll have problems.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

How To Do Philosophy by Paul Graham

“while ideas don’t have to have immediate practical applications to be interesting, the kinds of things we find interesting will surprisingly often turn out to have practical applications.” -Paul Graham

Paul Graham shares his thoughts on the value of philosophy, when and how the study of philosophy went wrong, and how we can fix it.

Graham begins by criticizing much of scholarly philosophy as irrelevant and obscure. He doesn’t believe this is a matter of necessity, but rather a matter of unfortunate, but fixable, fact. Recounting one lesson he learned during his freshman year at college, Graham affirms philosophy’s ability to challenge our commonsense intuitions and judgments about life:

There are things I know I learned from studying philosophy. The most dramatic I learned immediately, in the first semester of freshman year, in a class taught by Sydney Shoemaker. I learned that I don’t exist. I am (and you are) a collection of cells that lurches around driven by various forces, and calls itself I. But there’s no central, indivisible thing that your identity goes with. You could conceivably lose half your brain and live. Which means your brain could conceivably be split into two halves and each transplanted into different bodies. Imagine waking up after such an operation. You have to imagine being two people.

The real lesson here is that the concepts we use in everyday life are fuzzy, and break down if pushed too hard. Even a concept as dear to us as I. It took me a while to grasp this, but when I did it was fairly sudden, like someone in the nineteenth century grasping evolution and realizing the story of creation they’d been told as a child was all wrong. [2] Outside of math there’s a limit to how far you can push words; in fact, it would not be a bad definition of math to call it the study of terms that have precise meanings. Everyday words are inherently imprecise. They work well enough in everyday life that you don’t notice. Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.

Commenting on the innovative nature of the questions asked by the early Greek philosophers, Graham praises the originality and curiosity of these early thinkers:

People talk so much about abstractions now that we don’t realize what a leap it must have been when they first started to. It was presumably many thousands of years between when people first started describing things as hot or cold and when someone asked “what is heat?” No doubt it was a very gradual process. We don’t know if Plato or Aristotle were the first to ask any of the questions they did. But their works are the oldest we have that do this on a large scale, and there is a freshness (not to say naiveté) about them that suggests some of the questions they asked were new to them, at least.

Aristotle in particular reminds me of the phenomenon that happens when people discover something new, and are so excited by it that they race through a huge percentage of the newly discovered territory in one lifetime. If so, that’s evidence of how new this kind of thinking was.

Citing Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Graham goes on to explain how philosophy went afoot:

Aristotle’s goal was to find the most general of general principles. The examples he gives are convincing: an ordinary worker builds things a certain way out of habit; a master craftsman can do more because he grasps the underlying principles. The trend is clear: the more general the knowledge, the more admirable it is. But then he makes a mistake—possibly the most important mistake in the history of philosophy. He has noticed that theoretical knowledge is often acquired for its own sake, out of curiosity, rather than for any practical need. So he proposes there are two kinds of theoretical knowledge: some that’s useful in practical matters and some that isn’t. Since people interested in the latter are interested in it for its own sake, it must be more noble. So he sets as his goal in the Metaphysics the exploration of knowledge that has no practical use. Which means no alarms go off when he takes on grand but vaguely understood questions and ends up getting lost in a sea of words.

His mistake was to confuse motive and result. Certainly, people who want a deep understanding of something are often driven by curiosity rather than any practical need. But that doesn’t mean what they end up learning is useless. It’s very valuable in practice to have a deep understanding of what you’re doing; even if you’re never called on to solve advanced problems, you can see shortcuts in the solution of simple ones, and your knowledge won’t break down in edge cases, as it would if you were relying on formulas you didn’t understand. Knowledge is power. That’s what makes theoretical knowledge prestigious. It’s also what causes smart people to be curious about certain things and not others; our DNA is not so disinterested as we might think.

So while ideas don’t have to have immediate practical applications to be interesting, the kinds of things we find interesting will surprisingly often turn out to have practical applications.

The reason Aristotle didn’t get anywhere in the Metaphysics was partly that he set off with contradictory aims: to explore the most abstract ideas, guided by the assumption that they were useless. He was like an explorer looking for a territory to the north of him, starting with the assumption that it was located to the south.

And since his work became the map used by generations of future explorers, he sent them off in the wrong direction as well. [8] Perhaps worst of all, he protected them from both the criticism of outsiders and the promptings of their own inner compass by establishing the principle that the most noble sort of theoretical knowledge had to be useless.

Soon after, the western world fell on intellectual hard times. Instead of version 1s to be superseded, the works of Plato and Aristotle became revered texts to be mastered and discussed. And so things remained for a shockingly long time. It was not till around 1600 (in Europe, where the center of gravity had shifted by then) that one found people confident enough to treat Aristotle’s work as a catalog of mistakes. And even then they rarely said so outright.

If it seems surprising that the gap was so long, consider how little progress there was in math between Hellenistic times and the Renaissance.

In the intervening years an unfortunate idea took hold: that it was not only acceptable to produce works like the Metaphysics, but that it was a particularly prestigious line of work, done by a class of people called philosophers. No one thought to go back and debug Aristotle’s motivating argument. And so instead of correcting the problem Aristotle discovered by falling into it—that you can easily get lost if you talk too loosely about very abstract ideas—they continued to fall into it.

After offering his diagnostic, Graham proposes the following cure:

We may be able to do better. Here’s an intriguing possibility. Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they’re useless, let’s try to discover them because they’re useful.

I propose we try again, but that we use that heretofore despised criterion, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering off into a swamp of abstractions. Instead of trying to answer the question: What are the most general truths?
let’s try to answer the question Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general? The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we’ve written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we’re using. The goal is the same as Aristotle’s; we just approach it from a different direction.

Graham contends that one advantage of his solution is that it democratizes the practice of philosophical inquiry:

Here’s the exciting thing, though. Anyone can do this. Getting to general plus useful by starting with useful and cranking up the generality may be unsuitable for junior professors trying to get tenure, but it’s better for everyone else, including professors who already have it. This side of the mountain is a nice gradual slope. You can start by writing things that are useful but very specific, and then gradually make them more general. Joe’s has good burritos. What makes a good burrito? What makes good food? What makes anything good? You can take as long as you want. You don’t have to get all the way to the top of the mountain. You don’t have to tell anyone you’re doing philosophy.

For those who find this process daunting, Graham offers the following bit of optimism:

That sounds a preposterous claim to make. It won’t seem so preposterous in 10,000 years. Civilization always seems old, because it’s always the oldest it’s ever been. The only way to say whether something is really old or not is by looking at structural evidence, and structurally philosophy is young; it’s still reeling from the unexpected breakdown of words.

Philosophy is as young now as math was in 1500. There is a lot more to discover.

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