Hello, Emacs!

April 11, 2011

This post was written and published from within Emacs, using Weblogger Mode.


I’m not dead yet!

April 11, 2011

It’s certainly been a while since the last post. The first relevant change is that this is no longer the group blog of Patrick and Ashley. This is a natural consequence of there no longer being a Patrick and Ashley, except inasmuch as required by certain mereological outlooks. Ashley’s blog is [here], although she doesn’t seem to be much better at updates than I am.

My interests have also kind of gone metastatic since my last period of activity here. In 2008, I thought it more or less obvious that philosophy was the only discipline worth personally pursuing. I have since, ah, refined that position. Recently I have been spending most of my time studying mathematics and computer science, and will be beginning a Ph.D. program in biology next fall.

As such, I’ll try to constrain the topics of this space to the biological and mathematical, but excursions and digressions will probably be inevitable.  Part of the impetus for writing again is just to force myself to put 250 words on the page every day.  There seems to be a raft of evidence suggesting that the path to human excellence–in nearly any domain–is just repeated, mindful practice.  About 10,000 hours worth.  Johnson agreed:

“In an occasional performance no height of excellence can be expected from any mind, however fertile in itself, and however stored with acquisitions. . [The author] is at liberty to delay his publication till he has satisfied his friends and himself; till he has reformed his first thoughts by subsequent examination; and polished away those faults which the precipitance of ardent composition is likely to leave behind it. Virgil is related to have poured out a great number of lines in the morning, and to have passed the day in reducing them to fewer.”
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)

This is not to say that I don’t write currently.  In fact, I write rather a lot, but in batch-mode and usually under conditions of duress.  The point here will be to write for my own sake.  One might wonder whether it isn’t a bit presumptuous to write in the aim of attaining a form of human excellence, and of course it is presumptuous to claim to have attained it, at least without overwhelming empirical support.  Rather, I hope that the admission of a desire to practice a craft that is not wholly within one’s grasp is a humbling act, especially when that craft is one upon which most of one’s ultimate pursuits depends.

The blog’s official status at this point is quasinymity– it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to link this blog with my meatspace identity, but it’s not obvious to me whether I should encourage that identification or not.  The looming concern here is that I might write something idiotic, something which might encourage someone with a controlling interest in my future as a working scientist–like say my advisor–to conclude that I have no such thing.  The fear of publicly declaring idiotic things is a healthy one to have, but let me illustrate with an example:

I have recently decided that it is high time I learnt to program in a more traditional language, and last week I went to a short course put on by the Cambridge computer science faculty called “C for absolute beginners”…

I should perhaps add that I’ve attempted to understand C and C++ in the past, and although I didn’t manage, it was a big help this time round that I had seen at least some of it before…

I don’t know where this is going to lead. It already felt pretty complicated when we learnt about file handling (things like processing the data from one file and copying it into another), and we didn’t get on to how one might plot graphs…

The author of this excerpt is Tim Gowers. Tim Gowers the Fields Medalist. You’ve just read Tim Gowers’s admission that the C programming language was beyond him.

I don’t mention this in order to wrest some ill-gotten sense of superiority from it.  Far from it: I’m deeply indebted to Gowers for his work on the Princeton Companion to Mathematics, which is a wonderful book that you can tell has benefited from his editorial eye on practically every page.  His “informal discussions” were also extremely helpful to me when I first studied real analysis and found myself wondering what its real purpose was.  I mention that post only to introduce the moral that I derived from it, which was impressed upon me strongly enough that I can recall practically the entire post, almost two years later: there is a kind of liberation in the admission of ignorance.  If Tim Gowers can admit to being bested by a C compiler, what do I possibly have to lose?

There is a famous story, possibly apocryphal, about Rutherford–already a Nobel laureate–enrolling in freshman chemistry in order to develop the background to interpret the Geiger-Marsden experiment.  So too, then, can Gowers the Fields medalist and computational complexity theorist take “C for absolute beginners.”  I don’t think myself a Rutherford or a Gowers, of course, but I do think myself capable of learning from their examples.