Curated minds

Every single day I assess what curatorial role I play as I watch my children develop minds of their own. My decisions about what they can watch, read, listen to, play with, or who they can talk to all contribute to their individual “wraith of memory“. I know my influences play a huge role in how I select what they are exposed to. But what of those influences? Does my acceptance and selection of ‘camp‘ prevent them from developing a good eye for ‘highbrow’ creations? Given that I grew up in the midst of the post-modern era do I unconsciously prefer experiences that reinforce that there is nothing new, only rehashed simulation loaded with irony?  Awareness of these questions forces me to seek out the ‘classics’ as counterpoint. I only hope that I can discern the right balance to ensure that they develop the ability to one day step back as autodidacts and question their own development in the same way I do.

Scientism’s horizon

The trend towards scientism is nothing more than a race to the bottom of a very narrow funnel. Life, the universe, everything is so complex that to believe that it can all be explained by one uber-discipline is foolish. The single world views in literal translations of religious texts are dismissed as myopic and anachronistic. How is a single world view expressed by scientism purists any different? Balance, spectrum, continually reframed perspectives; these are but a few of the attributes our investigations of the universe require in order to be able to capture the salient outliers that inform leaps of insight. Enforcing a doctrinal rigour simply because of a bias based on method restricts our ability to adapt.

As polymaths we need to reject puritan scientism and embrace an inclusive scientism that uses the humanities to augment it’s activity. My first cogsci professor had the best outlook: (paraphrased) “Psychology is the study of the mind, AI is an attempt to model it, and philosophy is the razor we use to find the signal in the noise.”

We are finite beings, and so our investigations have to be selective, and the broadest frameworks of today’s science reflect the selections of the past. What we discover depends on the questions taken to be significant, and the selection of those questions, as well as the decision of which factors to set aside in seeking answers to them, presupposes judgments about what is valuable. Those are not only, or mainly, scientific judgments. In their turn, new discoveries modify the landscape in which further investigations will take place, and because what we learn affects how evidence is assessed, discovery shapes the evolution of our standards of evidence. Judgments of value thus pervade the environment in which scientific work is done. If they are made, as they should be, in light of the broadest and deepest reflections on human life and its possibilities, then good science depends on contributions from the humanities and the arts. Perhaps there is even a place for philosophy.

TNR: The Trouble with Scientism

How to think and why

This post on HBR is spot on with one of the key issues facing strategists. The essence of our job is to sift through all of the available data that whirls around us and grab the meaningful bits to cobble together. Information is useless until is it given context. It is our task to find that context.

The five guidelines listed are really great metacognitive recommendations. It is important to always think about how you are thinking, to reassess your skill level and the tools you bring to bear. Harold Bloom wrote a great book titled ‘How to Read and Why‘ that explores some seminal texts and shows how reading them a different way brings out much more meaning. Strategists and polymaths should always work on the premise that through their work they are crafting a personal book called ‘How to Think and Why’.

Managing the Information Avalanche

Inspired by Lucien

Inspiration can come from anywhere and likely from the most unexpected sources. Constant filtering of the torrent of available information is important to catch the nuggets that can be tucked away in the subconscious for later synthesis. Worrying about the optimization of the filtering is not worth the side effects as the random serendipitous results can be just as valuable as those that you seek out and may be more so in the long run. But don’t confuse serendipity with chaos. It is important to structure the sources of the torrent properly so that the available raw material has a high probability of value.

This constant filtering is to a polymath what exploring his craft was to Lucien Freud. He pursued new expression right up to his death and was always seeking new models or concepts to feed his imagination. The result is a lifetime output that will challenge and inspire for generations.

Most fascinating of all, the exhibition allows insight into the mutating practices of an eternally engaged and experimental artist. As the icy clarity of his early works mutates into the vivid colour swirls and thick brush strokes of the later ones, as he eschews sitting knee-to-knee with his subjects to standing back at a distance, as he explores personalities that fascinate him and body shapes entirely unlike those usually positioned on modeling couches, the portraits take us through the evolution of an artist who constantly explored, innovated and advanced his practice throughout the seven working decades of his life.

AnOther Magazine – Lucien Freud: Portraits

Anthropocentric sentience

This article from +Kevin Kelly presumes that all planets with sentient beings would have the same variables that inform those thresholds. Given that we only have one planet with sentient beings as a sample there is little data to support or contradict the point. But should we just presume that all planets that are fortunate to sustain life will see that life develop along the same vector? His book makes the argument that the physical rules of the universe create a scaffold or form upon which technological progress shapes itself. That form is then transferrable to other worlds where the right conditions exist to start that progress. Is elemental life the same as technological progress and sentience that is similar to us is inevitable? Given how little we know about the universe there is a good chance we might encounter sentience and not have the tools to even recognize it. This list of thresholds might be fueled by an anthropocentric assumption. We must always challenge our assumptions.

What kinds of developmental thresholds would any planet of sentient beings pass through? The creation of writing would be a huge one. The unleashing of cheap non-biological energy is another. The invention of the scientific method is a giant leap. And the fine control of energy (as in electricity) for long-distant communications is significant as well, enabling all kinds of other achievements. Our civilization has passed through all these stages; what are some future transitions we can expect — no matter the fashions and fads of the day? What are the emergent thresholds of information and energy organization that our civilization can look forward to? Most of these thresholds are gradual, so we can’t assign dates, but each of these structures seem to be a natural transition that any civilization must reach sooner or later.

The Technium – The Next Transitions in the Technium

Immersion, education and criticism

If only there were more workplaces structured like SFI. Similar to Building 20 at MIT, the structure encourages ‘haphazard’ interactions between people from different disciplines. These interactions appear to be a strong predictor of new ideas or conceptual breakthroughs due to the mountain of innovations coming from this type of interactive environment. We know little about the subconscious mind however it appears to be that when it is fed from the multiple ‘orthogonal’ perspectives available the result of the background processing is stunning.

Polymaths obviously thrive in such an environment therefore we can assume it should be a great training ground for developing the skills to become more polymathic. Finding the right balance between immersion and education would be critical to make sure the student has the right tools to engage in discussion well outside their domain yet is still off-balance enough to be forced to adapt.

Yet while Goldstein and McCarthy aren’t consciously trying to analyze topics as novelists, their perspective sometimes supplies a way of thinking that’s unusual among scientists. Bettencourt gave an example to describe the benefit of interaction with a novelist. “I was just talking with Cormac on crime in Mexico. It’s relatively well measured, but the motives are fluid and complicated. We were talking about organized crime, which involves many factors. You have to understand demographics, corruption, the police, the tolerance of people for violence, and to some extent part of the challenge is knowing the dirt, the visceral, the unquantifiable and messy aspects. Novelists tend to have a different view than physicists, who are always trying to abstract things away.” He continues, “The design here is to have an intellectually interesting place. And the payoff often doesn’t come immediately. But it’s impossible to do what we do without an environment so rich and diverse and haphazard.

The Daily Beast – Cormac McCarthy on the Santa Fe Institute’s Brainy Halls

The reference to Building 20 at MIT comes from this article on brainstorming in the New Yorker. The point of the article is spot on with its assessment of the failure of brainstorming. Criticism inspires adaptation and exploration to mitigate the obstacle. Without criticism people engaged in ideation have no yardstick to compare their progress against.

The New Yorker – Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth

A libertarian perspective on adaptable minds

Peter Thiel encourages university age kids to drop out and start companies instead. In the latter half of the article he states, as you can see in the quote below, that the educational product is overvalued because expectations are unrealistic. In addition to the product being overvalued, has the process to achieve the product become abstracted from the reality it is meant to address?

Certification could regain value if, during the course of obtaining it, the student was immersed in the world that required the skills and knowledge provided by studying. In a leap beyond a co-op placement could a certification granting course be integrated into a traditional work environment? By splitting the day into class time and work time could the student apply their knowledge within hours of learning it? Infusing the education process with daily disruption could possibly create the right environment for crafting the agile, adaptable polymath minds that our future demands.

There’s an education bubble, which is, like the others, psychosocial. There’s a wide public buy-in that leads to a product being overvalued because it’s linked to future expectations that are unrealistic. Education is similar to the tech bubble of the late 1990s, which assumed crazy growth in businesses that didn’t pan out. The education bubble is predicated on the idea that the education provided is incredibly valuable. In many cases that’s just not true. Here and elsewhere people have avoided facing the fact of stagnation by telling themselves stories about familiar things leading to progress. One fake vector of progress is credentialing—first the undergraduate degree, then more advanced degrees. Like the others, it’s an avoidance mechanism.

The American Interest: A Conversation with Peter Thiel


“Monsters demonstrate, monsters alert us….” Frankly, monsters just plain scare us. Painted with a simplistic brush they can be nothing more than a fun house shock, designed to startle, terrify, and then vanish only to reappear in nightmares. But life’s rich pageant is never simple. Digging deeper into the Blob, the Kraken, Cthulhu and the zombie’s grave we find yet another attempt to rationalize and explain the world around us. The progression of science has revealed many of natures secrets yet monsters continue to thrive in our closets as metaphors for what it is to be a human. No wonder children are both thrilled and shocked at the sight of a new monster: life is speaking to them in a visceral language that unlocks more meaning than Dick and Jane ever will.

Monsters demonstrate, monsters alert us: whether or not the etymologies relating the word to both “monstro” (I show) and “moneo” (I warn), are correct, monsters act as a moral compass. The physical prodigy becomes a test of ethics and, in the move between literal and figurative, displays the crucial role fictions play in the establishment of value and the common sense. Or, one might say in the era when the Humanities are under such stress, thinking with monsters shows how an understanding of Nature, and of medicine, law and custom is impossible without cultural expression.

The Times Literary Supplement: Monsters, magic and miracles