Blog Archives

“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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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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The Jericho-Masada approach to mathematics

Pierre Cartier describing Alexander Grothendieck’s approach to mathematics: Grothendieck’s favorite method is not unlike Joshua’s method for conquering Jericho. The thing was to patiently encircle the solid walls without actually doing anything: at a certain point, the walls fall flat

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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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Efficiency could land you in jail

A German postman recently faced criminal charges for coming up with using more efficient routes to deliver the mail. His supervisor had informally tolerated his initiative, but could not officially sanction it since his violated procedure. He got into trouble

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Posted in Business

Beethoven, Beatles, and Beyoncé: more on the Lindy effect

This post is a set of footnotes to my previous post on the Lindy effect. This effect says that creative artifacts have lifetimes that follow a power law distribution, and hence the things that have been around the longest have

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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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How long can you think about a problem?

The main difficulty I’ve seen in tutoring math is that many students panic if they don’t see what to do within five seconds of reading a problem, maybe two seconds for some. A good high school math student may be

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Pushing an idea

From The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking: Calculus may hold a world’s record for how far an idea can be pushed. Leibniz published the first article on calculus in 1684, an essay that was a mere 6 pages long. Newton

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