Blog Archives

Mental callouses

In describing writing his second book, Tom Leinster says … I’m older and, I hope, more able to cope with stress: just as carpenters get calloused hands that make them insensitive to small abrasions, I like to imagine that academics

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“I got the easy ones wrong”

This morning my daughter told me that she did well on a spelling test, but she got the easiest words wrong. Of course that’s not exactly true. The words that are hardest for her to spell are the ones she

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Hard-working lazy people

“It was a favorite theme of C. S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves

Posted in Business, Creativity

Remove noise, remove signal

Whenever you remove noise, you also remove at least some signal. Ideally you can remove a large portion of the noise and a small portion of the signal, but there’s always a trade-off between the two. Averaging things makes them

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The difference between machines and tools

From “The Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders: I had botched a great many pieces of wood before I mastered the right angle with a saw, botched even more before I learned to miter a joint. The knowledge of

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Tragedies and messes

Dorothy Parker said “It’s not the tragedies that kill us; it’s the messes.” Sometime that’s how I feel about computing. I think of messes such as having to remember that arc tangent is atan in R and Python, but arctan

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Posted in Creativity, Software development

Maybe you’re doing more than you need to

Suppose a = 2485144657 and b = 7751389993. What is the last digit of a*b? What is the median digit of a*b? In both questions it is conceptually necessary to compute a*b, but not logically necessary. Both are a question

Posted in Creativity

Playful and purposeful, pure and applied

From Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera: … applied science, purposeful and determined, and pure science, playful and freely curious, continuously support and stimulate each other. The great nation of the future will be the one which protects the

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Posted in Creativity, Science

Slabs of time

From Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing by Neal Stephenson: Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long,

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Not complex enough

One time a professor asked me about a problem and I suggested a simple solution. He shot down my idea because it wasn’t complex enough. He said my idea would work, but it wasn’t something he could write a paper

Posted in Creativity

Pure possibility

Peter Lawler wrote a blog post yesterday commenting on a quote from Walter Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman: For until this moment he had lived in a state of pure possibility, not knowing what sort of man he was or

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Nobody's going to steal your idea

When I was working on my dissertation, I thought someone might scoop my research and I’d have to start over. Looking back, that was ridiculous. For one thing, my research was too arcane for many others to care about. And

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Posted in Business, Creativity

Maybe you don't need to

One life-lesson from math is that sometimes you can solve a problem without doing what the problem at first seems to require. I’ll give an elementary example and a more advanced example. The first example is finding remainders. What is

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Being useful

Chuck Bearden posted this quote from Steve Holmes on his blog the other day: Usefulness comes not from pursuing it, but from patiently gathering enough of a reservoir of material so that one has the quirky bit of knowledge …

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Avoiding difficult problems

The day after President Kennedy challenged America to land a man on the moon, … the National Space Agency didn’t suit up an astronaut. Instead their first goal was to hit the moon — literally. And just over three years

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