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Tagthinking

trying

A little less than a year ago I wrote a post about cultivating my blog as a kind of garden. I made reference there to something I heard about from Robin Sloan, the game designer Gunpei Yokoi’s idea of “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” — taking established and perhaps unsexy technologies and finding unexpected new uses for them.

Since I wrote that post I have started a newsletter, because a email newsletter is also a seasoned technology, and I wondered if I might be able to do some things with it that I can’t do with this blog. I’m still experimenting, still learning, still looking for what will make that project sing — but I am really enjoying it so far, and getting some lovely responses from people, and this morning I realized that one of the reasons I like doing the newsletter so much is that I have (quite unconsciously) understood it as a place not to do analysis or critique but to share things that give me delight.

What brought about that realization was reading the most recent edition of Warren Ellis’s newsletter, in which he writes this:

Here’s a thing that came up in an email conversation the other week, that I don’t think I’ve ever made explicit to you: herein, I only talk about the things I like.

This was an important decision for me, made some years ago. It is great fun to annihilate something in a storm of arch Menckenesque hail, and I’ve done it in the past. But I came to the place where I questioned its utility here. If I’m spending time and space on something that is bad, then that is time and space not used to boost the awareness of something good. And that is a poor trade-off, these days.

A thousand times yes.

I mentioned earlier that I learned about “lateral thinking with seasoned technology” (LTST) from Robin Sloan, and Robin with his Year of the Meteor project is doing just that, employing Risograph printing, the U.S. Postal Service, a print-and-mail service called Lob that’s typically used by businesses for mass mailings, and who knows what else in the future.

Similarly, for his Ridgeline project, Craig Mod, while on a long-distance walk in Japan, tried sending brief messages and photos to subscribers all over the world by plain old SMS. The project ended up having some bugs, but the idea is enormously generative. As Robin wrote about Craig’s project, “Craig is always making new tools, trying new things, like the SMS experiment. Like he is really TRYING. What if 10X more people were TRYING?” I want to be one of those people who is trying, too. Trying to share things I like in unexpected ways.

death recorded

This is certainly an embarrassing moment for Naomi Wolf, but I ain’t gloating, for reasons I spelled out in this recent post. In this case, the author in me, who feels for fellow authors who have made mistakes, is a lot stronger than the conservative in me who likes to see leftish prejudices (especially about the past) confuted.

In How to Think I wrote about the power of what C. S. Lewis called the Inner Ring: “Once we are drawn in, and allowed in, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us.” Wolf’s mistake looks like a classic example of that very kind of confirmation bias: See, those people from the past are every bit as nasty as we thought they were! And certainly Wolf and editors should learn something about assumptions that too readily confirm their priors.

But: Wouldn’t you — wouldn’t anyone — assume that the phrase “death recorded” means “death sentence carried out”? I know that’s what I would assume. Now, someone might say, “Well, she should have looked it up.” But we only look words or phrases up when we have reason to think that we have misunderstood them. Wolf fell victim to what C. S. Lewis (there he is again), in his book Studies in Words, called the “dangerous sense” of an old word or phrase:

The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.

Words don’t tell you that they mean something other than what you assume they mean. When our assumption “makes tolerable sense” of a text’s meaning we don’t pause — we have no reason to pause. And that’s why, though I have no high opinion of Naomi Wolf as a thinker or writer, in this case I simply I feel sorry for her.

UPDATE: Or am I being too generous? The fact that she chastised earlier historians for getting it wrong inclines me to less sympathy. If, as an amateur historian, you see professional historians making a claim that your own research leads you to doubt, then surely you should double-check your findings. As I say above, it’s reasonable that the term “death recorded” would raise no alarms; but it’s far less reasonable to blithely assume that all previous professional historians simply missed information that was there to be read.

Musée à croissance illimitée

corbu

Thanks to that excellent blog Futility Closet I’ve learned about Le Corbusier’s idea for a Musée à croissance illimitée, a museum “that would grow like a snail’s shell, coiling in a rectangular spiral as needs required and as funds became available.” Corbu explained that “Every time a visitor, in the course of his wanderings, finds himself under a lowered ceiling he will see, on one side, an exit to the garden, and on the opposite side, the way to the central hall. The Museum can be developed to a considerable length without the square spiral becoming a labyrinth.”

This strikes me as a wonderful model for developing a complex set of ideas over time, and one for which the blog, or more generally the hyperlinked online site, is especially well-suited. As a number of commentators have pointed out, this is what Walter Bemjamin was doing with his Arcades project, which was hypertext before hypertext: “the theater,” he said, “of all my struggles and all my ideas,” precisely because it was necessarily unordered and unfinished. When Arcades was published in book form, many critics complained about the way it was ordered, but of course any and every ordering was subject to the same criticism. The very idea of the project defies the structuring of the codex.

For some years I wanted to write a book called The Gospel of the Trees, but couldn’t make it cohere into a linear form, and a finally realized that it would be better as a website comprised of text and images that can only be navigated randomly. That project is only somewhat Benjaminesque, because while it’s nonlinear and (theoretically) open-ended, it has a single theme, whereas Arcades represents all of Benjamin’s thinking.

I like writing books, and my employer likes for me to write books, but I really do think that if I were independently wealthy I’d spend the rest of my life making my own universal, non-linear Musée à croissance illimitée right here on this blog. And see, after many years, what it all adds up to.

advice

Almost everyone knows that one of the great banes of online life is unsolicited advice. The compulsion some people feel to advise strangers is a continual puzzlement to me. You can see it especially vividly when someone says online that she really likes X or is very much enjoying Y, where X and Y can be anything from moisturizer to a typeface. Immediately someone will hop up and say, “Have you tried Z?” — or, worse, “You should try Z.” Why should she try Z? She just told you that she’s happy with X. Leave her to her enjoyment, you obnoxious person.

But as Agnes Callard points out in this excellent essay, the giving of advice is as fraught an activity when you’re being asked for it.

When starry-eyed students come to my office to ask for tips and strategies for becoming a philosopher, I find myself cringing in anticipation of the drivel I am about to spout. My advice isn’t “bad” in the sense that it will lead them astray, but it is bad nonetheless, in that it won’t lead them anywhere. It’s as though right before I give the advice, I push a button that sucks all the informational content out of what I’m about to say, and I end up saying basically nothing at all.

And then, later in the essay:

I do not have tips or tricks for becoming a philosopher to hand over to my students; my wisdom is contained in the slog of philosophical argument — the daily grind of reading old books, picking out the premises, tearing them apart. I can make you better at that, by showing you how to do more of this and less of that. I can’t help you become a philosopher without being your philosophy teacher, any more than I can massage you without touching you. Someone who wiggles her fingers and pretends she has magical powers isn’t actually getting you anywhere.

I think this is right, and what it suggests to me is something along these lines: Useful advice can only be given in response to a very specific question. “How can I become a philosopher?” (or, as I often hear, “How can I become a writer?”) is so vague and abstract a question that no meaningful answer is possible. But if you ask me “Does this sentence make sense?” or “How am I supposed to read this article?” or “Is this a good letter of application?” then perhaps I can help.

#ShunTheTake

Last week I walked into one of my classes to discover fourteen students sitting in complete silence. Each one of them — I believe; there may have been a single exception — was reading or typing on a phone. I said, “Hey everybody!” No one looked up or spoke. I suppose I should be grateful that when I pulled out the day’s reading quiz they put their phones away.

If I wanted to produce a #HotTake, boy, did I have a prompt for one.

But: two hours earlier I had walked into another classroom to find the students already in animated conversation about the reading for the day. I sat and listened for several minutes, gradually realizing that I could ignore my plan for the class session because the students had, without my assistance, set the agenda for the discussion.

I’d advise all of you who read this post to remember those two moments the next time someone tries to tell you what an entire generation is like. Those two classes were occupied not only by people of the same generation, but by people who are studying in the same program (the Honors Program) in the same university. And yet, for complicated reasons, their behavior in my classes was very different.

Most things that happen happen for complicated reasons. Don’t stop looking and enquiring the moment you find an anecdote that confirms your priors.

#ShunTheTake

the strange pleasure of the mob

What would Freud make of group minds in the digital age? I don’t think he’d be surprised by the witch hunts, call-outs, draggings, and pile-ons. On the other hand, social media allow for the creation of micro-communities and the fostering of niche interests. Digital affiliations may discourage collective action, insofar as online discourse can substitute for “live” interaction, or they may send more of us into the street – like my Canadian friends and I, stirred into action by the online calls to march on Washington. Social media may alter the way we join and negotiate our group memberships, but it’s unlikely to change our fundamental need to be part of something larger than ourselves. Humans are social animals by nature and by evolution; we thrive by working together. This will always be something of a paradox to an introvert like me, whose idea of a party is a locked door and a good book. And yet, having tasted the strange pleasures of the mob, I’m certain I could be lured out from my behind my own barricades again. For a good cause, of course.

Sarah Henstra. One of the major themes of my How to Think is the vital importance of distinguishing between the “mobs” and “crowds” and “Inner Rings” who discourage or forbid thinking from the kinds of groups that offer us the possibility of genuine membership and that, accordingly, encourage us to think — and are, therefore, good people to think with.

when political prophecy fails

In his column today, Ross Douthat writes:

A good many members of the opposition to Donald Trump — a mix of serious journalists, cable television hosts, pop culture personalities, erstwhile government officials, professional activists and politicians — have been invested in what appears to be exactly the kind of conspiracy-laced alternative reality that they believed themselves to be resisting.

With the apparent “no collusion” conclusion to the Robert Mueller investigation, there will now be a retreat from this alternative reality to more defensible terrain — the terrain where Trump is a sordid figure who admires despots and surrounded himself with hacks and two-bit crooks while his campaign was buoyed by a foreign power’s hack of his opponent.

Will there be “a retreat from this alternative reality”? I don’t see why there would be, or why Ross thinks there will be. Similarly, listening on my morning walk to the National Review Editors podcast, I heard all the members of that distinguished panel agree that the release of the Mueller report will be very bad news for, a big black eye for, the media, and I thought: Really?

I mean, I’m sure a handful — more likely, a hand half-full — of journalists and media talking heads will say they got ahead of the story, but I’d be shocked if it were more than that. More likely scenario: the Rachel Maddows and Jonathan Chaits and Stacey Abramses of the world

(1) will say “We won’t really know anything until we see the full Mueller report”;

and if the entire report isn’t released

(2) will insist that whatever has been redacted contains the key to the whole mystery, and that it remains overwhelmingly likely that Trump and his entourage are guilty of collusion with the Russians and other high crimes and misdemeanors;

and if the entire report is released

(3a) will find something, anything, in it that, they insist, confirms their worst suspicions,

or, if the full report gives them nothing,

(3b) will say that Mueller was scared into silence or is part of the con.

And their followers and enablers will cheer them on. In short, I can imagine no circumstances in which the people most committed to the Trump-and-the-Russkies narrative would acknowledge that they got it wrong. And the people who trusted them before will continue to trust them, while the people who didn’t trust them before will continue not to trust them.

Changing your views because you realize you got the facts wrong? Or because you realize that you “theorized in advance of the facts,” as Sherlock Holmes warned you not to do? In American politics today that’s not how it works. To understand why, take some time to read a book — a book I explore fairly extensively in my How to Think — called When Prophecy Fails. It was published in 1956, but it tells you much of what you need to know about how politically invested people behave in 2019.

“in fact the mind was poorly understood”

Astounding, really, that Michel could consider psychology any kind of science at all. So much of it consisted of throwing together. Of thinking of the mind as a steam engine, the mechanical analogy most ready to hand during the birth of modern psychology. People had always done that when they thought about the mind: clockwork for Descartes, geological changes for the early Victorians, computers or holography for the twentieth century, AIs for the twenty-first…. and for the Freudian traditionalists, steam engines. Application of heat, pressure buildup, pressure displacement, venting, all shifted into repression, sublimation, the return of the repressed. Sax thought it unlikely steam engines were an adequate model for the human mind. The mind was more like — what? — an ecology — a fellfield — or else a jungle, populated by all manner of strange beasts. Or a universe, filled with stars and quasars and black holes. Well — a bit grandiose, that — really it was more like a complex collection of synapses and axons, chemical energies surging hither and yon, like weather in an atmosphere. That was better — weather — storm fronts of thought, high-pressure zones, low-pressure cells, hurricanes — the jet streams of biological desires, always making their swift powerful rounds…. life in the wind. Well. Throwing together. In fact the mind was poorly understood.

— Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars

the blog garden

My friend Dan Cohen recently wrote,

Think about the difference between a blog post and a book: one can be tossed off in an afternoon at a coffee shop, while the other generally requires years of thought and careful writing. Not all books are perfect — far from it — but at least authors have to wrestle with their subject matter more rigorously than in any other context, look at what others have written in their area, and situate their writing within that network of thought and research.

This is absolutely true — as I know from long experience with both genres. But what if there’s a more enlightening comparison? What if, instead of comparing a book to a blog post, you compared it to a blog? If a bog post is too small to compare to a book, a blog might be too big — keep on blogging long enough and you can have enough words to fill several books. If that’s the case, then one might find it interesting to compare a book to, say, a particular tag on a long-standing blog.

An example: For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

Well, certainly nothing that any scholar would cite. (How would that even be done? All the handbooks to scholarly documentation are still struggling with how to cite websites and individual articles — citing tags is not even on their radar, I suspect.) But I would certainly learn a lot about Ruskin; and perhaps the sympathetic reader would also.

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

My friend Robin Sloan tweeted the other day — I’m not linking to it because Robin always deletes his tweets after a few days — that, despite the many calls these days to return to the good old days of Weird Indie Blogging, there are still plenty of charmingly weird things being posted on the Big Media sites, especially YouTube. Point taken: no doubt this is true. But for my purposes the problem with the Big Media sites is the absolute control they have over association: you don’t decide what is related to your post/video/audio, they do. “If you liked this you may also like….” A well-thought-out tagging system on a single blog creates chains of associated ideas, with the logic of association governed by a single mind (or in the case of a group blog, a set of intentionally connected minds). And such chains are powerful generators of intellectual and aesthetic value.

I really do think that the Back to the Blog movement, if we can call it a movement, is so timely and so important not only because we need to, as I have put it, tend the digital commons, but also because we were just beginning to figure out what blogs could do when their development was pre-empted by the rise of the big social media platforms. Given the accelerated pace at which our digital platforms have been moving in recent years, blogs may best be seen as an old, established, and now neglected technology.

I think it was also Robin Sloan who recently directed my attention to this Wikipedia page on the late Nintendo designer Gunpei Yokoi, who promoted what he called “Lateral Thinking with Seasoned Technology”: finding new and unexpected uses for technologies that have been around for a while and therefore (a) have clear patterns of use that you can rely on even when deviating from them, and (b) have decreased in price. Nintendo’s Wii system is the classic example in the gaming world of this way of thinking: some of us will remember that when the Wii was introduced critics were flabbergasted by its reliance on previous-generation processors with their limited graphics capabilities, and were certain that the console would be a total flop. Instead, everyone loved it.

Blogging, I want to argue, is a seasoned technology that is ripe for lateral thinking. The question for me, as I suggested in my previous post, is whether I am willing to set aside the conventional standards and expectations of my profession in order to pursue that lateral thinking — in order, that is, to give up practicing architecture and going in for a good deal of gardening.

new uses for old blogs

More ideas about ideas: Given my current interest in intellectual gardening rather than architecture, in allowing ideas to emerge rather than trying to generate them by a brute-force attack, I am reconsidering the way I have historically used my blogs, and wondering whether there’s not a better path to intellectual substance than the one I’ve been following.

This has been my M.O. going back to the relatively early days of Text Patterns, when I was working on The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction: Use the blog to generate and try out ideas, get feedback from readers, develop the ideas a little further … and then put on the brakes. But why did I put on the brakes? Because I knew that I was getting close to the point at which there would be so much of the book’s contents online that a publisher wouldn’t want to buy it. And so the idea-generating stage of the project would effectively come to an end.

Not altogether, of course; I could still write in notebooks or sketch ideas or whatever. But two things were missing: the felt need in writing a public post to achieve at least some minimal level of coherence, and the feedback from readers. Moreover, when you’ve been generating ideas using a particular method and then are forced to switch to another one, you tend to lose momentum. So effectively I found myself working with the ideas that I had generated to that point in the project — even when I didn’t feel that I had explored my chosen topics as thoroughly as I would have liked. And this happened more than once, most recently with my idea for a book on what I called Anthropocene theology.

So in these situations the limits and boundaries of my projects are set, not by the inner logic and impetus of those projects, but by the preferences of the publishing industry. But that’s a superficial take. Why, after all, should I allow the publishing industry to set those boundaries? Because in my line of work the highest-denomination currency is the book. I have my current job because of publishing books — Baylor simply would not have sought me out and hired me had I not been able to list several books on my CV.

Put it this way: If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now; if I had blogged millions of words without publishing books I would not have a job.

But, you may say, at this point in my career why don’t I just do what I want? I have tenure; I have no administrative ambitions (indeed, just the reverse); I am a Distinguished Professor and there’s no such thing as an Extremely Distinguished Professor or Sun-God Professor. If I am feeling the demands of the publishing world as a heavy yoke why not just throw it off?

Well, I might. But I hesitate for two reasons, or maybe it’s one reason with two parts.

  1. My profession has never figured out what to do with online writing, except for a few peer-reviewed online journals. It is still devoted to finished products — and vetted products too, despite the manifest problems with peer review. Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.
  2. And working to the established standards of my profession is, as I have noted, what got me my current position, so that I can’t help feeling that if I were to strike out into unfamiliar writing territory I wouldn’t be keeping the implicit contract I made when I took this job.

So if I were to do the thing I am contemplating — pursue big intellectual projects all the way to their completion here on this blog — my university’s administrators would be unhappy, the publishers who want to publish my stuff would be unhappy, my magnificent literary agent would be unhappy, and some part of me would be unhappy.

But what if, by following SOP for my profession, I limit my ability to think? What if I curtail the development of ideas and end up fitting them into familiar boxes rather than following them to surprising and new and fascinating places? Isn’t that a heavy price to pay for professional adequacy?

More on all this in the next post.

Karl Barth to his critics

Wesley Hill posted this recently. It’s a brilliant letter, and below I am going to put in bold the most important passages — and the ones that are most relevant to an age of social-media boundary-policing.

Dear Dr. Bromiley,

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me. The claims of work in my last semester as an academic teacher (preparation of lectures and seminars, doctoral dissertations, etc.) are too great. But even if I had the time and strength I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like [G.C.] Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

Dear Dr. Bromiley, you will no doubt remember what I said in the preface to Church Dogmatics IV/2 in the words of an eighteenth-century poem on those who eat up men. The continuation of the poem is as follows: “… for there is no true love where one man eats another.” These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.

With friendly greetings,

Yours,

KARL BARTH

P.S. I ask you to convey what I have said in a suitable manner to the people at Christianity Today

It seems to me that far, far too many disputes among Christians — especially (God help us) on social media — resemble the approach American fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals took to Barth. What seem to be questions are usually veiled accusations (though often enough the accusations are explicit); the questioners have not worked to discover what the person they suspect really thinks; they (therefore) neglect actual quotation in favor of tendentious and inaccurate summaries in the form of what I call “in-other-wordsing”; and they show no signs of “seeking the truth that is greater than us all,” but rather seem merely to want to declare other people wrong in the name of doctrinal boundary-policing. There is no way to have a conversation under such terms, and no one should even try.

addressing biases

Nick Phillips:

Intellectual diversity addresses a fundamental problem in human cognition: we seek out information that confirms the views we already have. As Jonathan Haidt has argued, this instinct is well-adapted to creating intra-group solidarity, which is useful when competing for power with other groups. But if the goal is to seek the truth, it’s poison. If everyone in your group shares the same biases, that group will block new information that doesn’t conform to those biases. Since no one is right 100 percent of the time, this dynamic guarantees that falsehoods will persist. 

One solution is to attempt to purge individuals of their biases. But cognitive psychologists don’t yet understand how to do this. The only method that reliably solves the confirmation bias problem is to create groups made up of individuals with different biases. In such an environment, countervailing biases checks one another, prodding at weak points and raising questions a colleague didn’t think to ask. This dynamic is highly adapted to truth-seeking, because it forces every person to justify their biases on grounds other than tribalism.

(See also this 2009 article on “debiasing.”

studies prove

Kevin Williamson:

Studies have a way of ceasing to be studies once they are taken up by politicians-in-print like Ezra Klein. They become dueling implements. Mary Branham of the Council of State Governments: “Evidence Shows Raising Minimum Wage Hasn’t Cost Jobs” vs. Max Ehrenfreund of the Washington Post: “‘Very Credible’ New Study on Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Has Bad News for Liberals” vs. Arindrajit Dube of the New York Times: “Minimum Wage and Job Loss: One Alarming Seattle Study Is Not the Last Word.” Much of this is predictable partisan pabulum. The study that confirms my priors is science. The study that challenges my preferences is … just one study. Our friends among the global-warming alarmists, embarrassed by the fact that every time Al Gore shows up to give a speech it turns out to be the coldest March day in 30 years, are forever lecturing us that weather doesn’t tell us anything useful about climate — except when it’s hot in the summer, or there’s a drought in California, or there’s a hurricane in Florida.

I am a registered “global-warming alarmist,” but Williamson is absolutely right about all this. 

productive smudging

“Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely; you can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.”

Why Do Mathematicians Love Blackboards So Much?

“poisoning your mind with novels”

People talk of keeping au courant, and no doubt an intellectual cannot ignore the human race, nor be indifferent to what is written in his special field; but take care lest the current should carry away with it all your capacity for work, and, instead of bearing you onwards, prevent you from making any headway against it….

What you must principally cut down is the less solid and serious kind of reading. There must be no question at all of poisoning your mind with novels. One from time to time, if you like, as a recreation and not to neglect some literary glory, but that is a concession; for the greater number of novels upset the mind without refreshing it; they disturb and confuse one’s thoughts.

As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little; and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings!…

A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.

— A. G. Sertillanges, O.P., from The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (first published in 1921)

I took some apples out of a paper bag where they had been lying for a long time; I had to cut off and throw away half of many of them. Afterwards as I was copying out a sentence of mine the second half of which was bad, I at once saw it as a half-rotten apple. And that’s how it always is with me. Everything that comes my way becomes for me a picture of what I am thinking about.

It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you see, hear, read, or understand. This is of great use.

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