Archive for September, 2012

Lecture to me

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

It surprises me how much of my personal preferences were shaped by graduate school. I actually really enjoy the academic seminar / journal format for communicating ideas, where the speaker has a prepared story-with-a-moral complete with abstract, introduction, and a chronological or conceptual ordering, conclusion and future works section.

I don’t know how this format originally came about, but I find that I feel mildly annoyed whenever people talk about conceptual things and fail to impart sufficient structure by, e.g., forgetting to include motivations or forgetting to indicate which tradition or discipline the ideas are situated in.

It’s not that I have a high regard for the truth value of formal disciplines. I know that there are many areas where formal understanding has a lot of catch-up work to do. It’s more about communication than it is about truth. There is a memetic version of the anthropic principle in play here – the truth of un-expressable ideas is epistemologically inaccessible / non-existent, and must not be allowed to affect the choices we make in deciding what to say.

Yes it is true that an infinitesimal proportion of the sum total of humanity’s knowledge has been captured and reduced and cast into axioms. Yes it is true that as an individual your happiness and prosperity will likely be determined by your knowledge of the very much non-universal idiosyncratic circumstances into which you are born.

In a world thus impossibly dense with local knowledge, however, it is still possible for truths to matter only because truths are the only way to communicate. The world of possible ideas is distinct from the physical world, but their (unusual? anthropic?) intersection is the reason that accumulated knowledge has the power that it does.

Bridging identities for growth

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

We all have different roles in different circles, and present different aspects of ourselves to different parts of the world. For simplicity, I think of behavior as belonging to two selves, one public and one private. The public self is the personality that you affect when you are dealing with strangers – you are polite, non-confrontational but will punish the occasional queue jumper, get excited about certain technical subjects, enjoy talking with people who disagree, etc. The personal self is the one that has ridiculously strong beliefs about sci fi morality, what constitutes a beautiful object, and the nature of happiness, etc.

Every time I move to a new place, I find that there are three stages that happen:

  1. Public self is established by adaptation to local culture – this happens pretty quickly
  2. Private self is established by meeting people who share a large proportion of interest – this just requires you to meet the right people
  3. Bridging of public and private roles by meeting a series of people who are of intermediate familiarity

I’ve found the third stage to be the most interesting. Both public and private selves get along too well with other people, and generate no discomfort through which personal growth can be pushed. The best setting for personal growth is that of encountering a person who is getting to know you better, and having to decide who you want to be.