Wednesday, February 27, 2008

One More Reason To Look Carefully When Crossing the Street

Cars are dangerous and can kill you. So be careful when driving and when crossing the street. If you die too soon, you might not live to see this become a reality:

They say elements of this might be available in seven years.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Processing What You Read

I'm actually shocked lately at how much I love reading.

I have always really, really liked reading, but in the last two years
there's been a major leap in how much I get out of it. In this essay
I'm going to explain what's going on, and all the things that are in
place to make reading so rewarding to me.

I'm a scientist, and more generally I'm a scholar. This means that
ultimately what I produce are pieces of literature-- papers, books,
etc., that try to make sense of our world. About a year ago something
clicked in me and I figured out all of the major things I was
interested in. Those things are:

  • A general theory of the human mind

  • Visual and spatial human reasoning

  • Creativity

  • Atheism

  • Psychology of art, religion, urban legends, conspiracy
    theories, etc.

  • Futurism

  • How to be a productive scientist

What's been so freeing for me about having this list is that when I
read something interesting, I reflect on why I found it
interesting. It turns out that most of the time, when I find something
interesting it is relevant to one of these topics. Specifically, that
something that I read and found interesting is something that I would
like to cite someday were I ever to write a book on that topic.

What happens is I mark the interesting passage with a pen, and then
put one of those plastic flags in the book or magazine so that I can
find it again. When I'm done with the book or magazine, I bring it to
work. I go through all the flags, and update my "lit review" files.

For each of the above topics I have a text file in a Google documents folder
called "lit-reviews." I make a notation in the appropriate lit review
file. So when I want to write my book on the topic, I have a complete
list of everything I want to cite on that topic.

Not only that, for a few of these topics, I actually have started
writing these books, and I try to incorporate the interesting part
into the book as I go.

The result is a great, great feeling of productivity and purpose. I
feel that when I read something, I don't have to worry about
forgetting what's in the book-- the important parts are already
noted. I feel that reading the book has gotten me closer to achieving
what I ultimately want to achieve as a scholar.

I also feel confident that I can find things again, even years
later. I hate saying "I read somewhere..." I want to know where I read
it. Because I'm taking notes on things in a single folder, I can
easily search this folder to find what I want. It's only failed me a
couple of times, presumably because I used different words when
searching than I used when notating.

I don't know how well these strategies will help other scholars, but I
think it's good to think about strategy once in a while. Are you
making the most of your reading?

Ironically, the part of science I dislike the most is probably reading
other people's scientific papers. I force myself to do that every day
at work, but at home I read books, about cognitive science and other
things (usually other popular science books) and a few magazines:

  • Psychology Today
  • Wired
  • Discover
  • The New Yorker
  • The Economist

I sometimes worry that citing popular magazines in a scientific book
is not kosher. It's certainly not kosher in a journal article. Anyway,
often the article is reporting on someone's scientific work, so I use
the article as a jumping-off point for finding published scientific
articles to cite.

It's very satisfying to put a book on my shelf, full of flags sticking
out, knowing that the book is read, understood, and in the pipeline
for incorporation into a future book. Perhaps the best way to
describe how I feel is that I feel more engaged with what I'm
reading. I feel very clearly the reason I'm doing it at all. When I
consider placing a flag, I force myself to think about what the
meaning is of what I'm reading, and how it relates to my theories. I
feel that if you're not doing something with what you're reading,
you're just entertaining yourself.

Sure, it takes longer to do it this way. But if you're not going to
process it and do something with it, what's the point of reading?

Pictured is a sculpture that is part of the "Walk of Ideas" in Berlin.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Spirituality and What Bizarre Magic

Discussion of religion and atheism is hot these days, what with the slew of books coming out recently promoting atheism (e.g. Dawkins, 2008; Harris, 2008; Hitchins, 2007).

I also find I think about it more because of social networking sites. What's interesting about them is that many ask you what your religion is, and many only give you a fixed number of choices.

Facebook, for example, allows you to put whatever you want. I put "atheist" but I know other atheists who put "none" or "FSM"*. I've also seen people put "under construction," which I think is humble and funny.

Dating sites, in trying to match people up according to similar religions, are more likely to give you a fixed number of choices. Usually the choices an atheist has for the religion slot are "none," or the safer-with-women "spiritual but not religious."

Which gets me wondering what spirituality actually is. I've had people hear I'm an atheist and look at me, deadly serious, and ask "But you're spiritual, right?" as though there's some universally accepted meaning to the term. When I'm asked, I say "yes" sometimes and "no" others. I say no if I want them to know I don't believe in spirits and ghosts and stuff, and I say yes if I want to emphasize my deep appreciation with my world. As the wikipedia entry on spirituality says, it's involved with reverence and awe.

I was just talking to someone the other night who actually thought that the world was getting worse because people were getting less religious. After I recovered from fainting and got up off the floor, had a glass of water, and did some reality testing I asked her to elaborate.** She said that people without religion had lives that were less rich. I got kind of offended by this, and told her about my life and how you don't need religion to have a deep appreciation of the world, and a rich life. I cry at art, get chills watching theatre***, and have a deep love for the people close to me. Religion gives you a sense of awe, for sure, but there's a better way. You can have happiness and a meaningful, rich life with out the ontological baggage of religion.

I find that visualization is a powerful tool for many purposes. Visualizing doing physical activities is actually helpful for doing those activities better (e.g. choreography, martial arts, sports). I find it's also beneficial for (my version of) spirituality.

I have written one novel, called What Bizarre Magic (still in its first draft and unpublished). It's a fantasy novel, so there's a strong magical component to it. I was inspired by something I read about the Shinto religion.

What I read said that in Shinto very large or very old things were believed to have spirits. I found this a very compelling idea. Anyway, in my novel all living things had this spirit, and so did anything that people really appreciated over time. This spirit presence was visible to some of the characters, and they could manipulate things that had spirits with their own. Eventually they learned to focus their own appreciation to give things spirit so that they could manipulate them. For example, a new fork is something nobody cares about. One of my characters could focus appreciation and love on this fork and imbue it, temporarily, with enough spirit so that they could pick it up with their own spiritual form.

Now of course this is not a theory of reality. I know it's not true; I made it up for my book. However, the idea of this is quite compelling to me, and sometimes I imagine it's true, and focus my appreciation on the things around me. My teacup, a tree as I walk by, someone I care about, etc. It leaves me feeling happy and energized. Pictured is a crane. I love cranes; they fill me with a sense of awe.

So am I spiritual?

* FSM stands for the "Flying Spaghetti Monster." See the wikipedia page for this humorous idea.

** This story has been embellished for comic effect.

*** Only about 1/8 shows I see are good, but still.

REFERENCES (none which I have read yet)

Dawkins, R. (2008) The God Delusion. Mariner Books.

Harris, S. (2008) Letter To A Christian Nation. Vintage Books.

Hitchins, C. (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve Books, Hachette Book Group.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rocket Man

I really like my Elton John's Greatest Hits CD. One of Elton John's
most famous songs is "Rocket Man."

"I'm not the man they think I am at home
oh no no no, I'm a rocket man."

It's inspiring, isn't it? Especially with that great rising tone in
the background. To me the chorus evokes a feeling everybody has at one
time or another-- that others think you suck, but inside you've got

But then I read the rest of the lyrics and it turns out this isn't
what the song appears to be about at all. Being a rocket man isn't a
metaphor, really, it's literal. He's an astronaut. And it's not
something wonderful, it's lonely, and he's not even all that into it:

"And all this science i don't understand
It's just my job five days a week
A rocket man, a rocket man"

The song also has some quite mundane observations:

"Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it's cold as hell
And there's no one there to raise them if you did"

Indeed. Hey, I got an idea, I'll write a song called "Submarine Man"
which will include lyrics like:

"Under water ain't a place to raise your kids.
It's dark even in the day.
And there's only fish to raise them, anyway."

So even though, at first listen, the song sounds inspiring, when you
get down into the lyrics it's about how he's not as great as his
family thinks he is. Saying he's a rocket man is something BAD about
him, uninteresting, lonely. How disappointing. You can see the lyrics
in total at:

Not that lyrics seem to have anything to do with a song being a
hit. Malcolm Gladwell reports in the New Yorker about a software
company that does a fine job of predicting which songs are going to be
hits, just based on the music. There's not even a way to input the

This isn't too surprising to me. Lots of people love songs before they
even try to understand the lyrics.

Interestingly, the same company predicts hit movies based on ONLY the
script. That is, the software doesn't use the fame of the actors and
actresses, the release time, the director, etc. It's a fascinating
article, and I recommend it to everyone.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

All Your Worth

I just read a wonderful book on managing your money called All Your Worth.

It's simple, clear, and makes so much sense. If you have any concerns about money at all, I highly recommend reading this book. I adopted its principles about a year ago and I worry about money so much less now.

Special thanks to Jennie Rivlin Roberts for recommending it.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Keeping Track of Your Own Ideas

I discovered rather late in life that you need to write down all your ideas, because no matter how vivid they might seem at the time, you will forget them, or perhaps only remember them with very specific cues that you might never get again. I learned it first with books on how to write fiction, and sort of figured it out for myself with science.

Now I keep a notebook of project ideas, with one idea per page. It's been great, and it's so inspiring to page through this thing. I have noticed, though, that the rate of idea generation varies depending on the book I'm reading. For example, during Minsky's Society of Mind and Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach I produced many, many ideas. Now, reading Herb Simon's The Sciences Of The Artificial, not so much. It's frustrating. As I read the book, I feel like I'm not productive, because where are the science ideas?

It's making me feel desperate, and I look on my bookshelf at the upcoming books I have planned and re-order them according to which ones I think are going to be most inspiring

The other thing that bothers me is that I forget what's in books, and I mean big time. My old advisor Nancy was so good at remembering what was in books. I feel like I retain only a little bit (at least the project ideas are a productive residue) but I often just think about the content in terms of whatever else I happen to be thinking about at the time. So if I read Society of Mind and then Anderson's The Atomic Components of Thought, I compare those. If I'd read Churchland's A Neurocomputational Perspective instead, I'd have a different experience.

Makes me want to go back and read all these books again-- in different orders, so different books are back-to-back for comparison. That's depressing. Maybe after I teach this stuff for a few years it will stick into my seive head.

Pictured is an weird, intimidating cover of a box of tongue depressors I found in my doctor's office, featuring an enthusiastic, unshaven, young doctor.