The Mathematical World

On the philosophy of mathematics. Two essential characteristics distinguish mathematics from other sciences: Complete abstraction, and the claim to discover absolute truths. But is mathematics anything more than a set of internally consistent rules — and therefore, at some level, a tautology? Or are those rules determined by external realities? Short answer: the latter. Symmetries and ratios exist in nature, for example (2,400 words)

A Mad World

Psychiatrist discusses “diagnostic creep” — the conceptualising of more and more patterns of behaviour as mental illness. “We don’t think that everyone is crazy, nor are we necessarily guilty of pathologising normal existence”. The question is always whether treatment might be useful: “A continuous view of mental illness extends into areas that might actually be normal, but still detract from optimal, day-to-day function” (2,100 words)

Return To Nib’s Knoll

Memoir of exploring the internet in the early 1990s via MicroMUSE, a community housed on a server in MIT’s AI lab. The “rudimentary” scripting language, “at about the level of Excel macros”, allowed “anyone to create anything: an object, a room, a house, a chocolate factory”. It was “a premonition of Minecraft, with the same sense of open-ended possibility that speaks so powerfully to 14-year-olds today” (2,700 words)

Hell On Earth

Life-extension technologies could keep bad people alive as well as good ones, allowing prolonged punishment for unusually wicked criminals — an idea with many moral complications: “If you put someone in prison for a crime they committed at 40, they might, strictly speaking, be an entirely different person at 940. And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else” (2,800 words)

One More Time: Repetition In Music Pick of the day

Repetition is the essence of music. Repetition is “so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song”. Repetition “makes a sequence of sounds seem less like an objective presentation of content and more like a kind of tug that’s pulling you along”. Repetition “actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical” (2,700 words)

Twilight In A Box

Conditions for American prisoners in solitary confinement “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience”. Many inmates fall over the edge into mental illness. The stress of isolation can unbalance the mind and permanently damage the brain. Prisoners emerge with “their minds altered by an experience so fraught with risk that scientists require special dispensation to do it to animals” (8,500 words)

Can Beauty Make Us Better?

We cannot define beauty. But by thinking about why we find things beautiful, we can learn about, and possibly improve, ourselves. Still the best starting point for reflection is Friedrich Schiller’s Aesthetic Education; which argues that we find beauty in those things which satisfy both sides of our human nature: our sensual drive, which seeks immediate gratification, and our formal drive, which seeks coherence over time (1,900 words)

How Useful Is GDP?

GDP is “simple in principle”. It is “the sum in a given time period of everything produced in the economy with a monetary value”; which should in theory equal the incomes earned by every person and company in the economy; and the total spent by those same people. It has conquered the world as a measure of economic performance since its launch in Britain in 1941. But the world has changed. Do we need new benchmarks? (2,780 words)

Our Quantum Reality Problem

Quantum theory is “supposed to describe the behaviour of elementary particles, atoms, molecules and every other form of matter in the universe”. But it is still something of a black box. “While the mathematics of quantum theory works very well in telling us what to expect at the end of an experiment, it seems peculiarly conceptually confusing when we try to understand what was happening during the experiment” (6,400 words)

Geel Welcomes The Mentally Ill

Moving. Amazing. Geel, an “otherwise unremarkable Belgian market town”, has a unique vocation: “For more than 700 years its inhabitants have taken the mentally ill and disabled into their homes as guests.” Odd behaviour is “ignored where possible, and when necessary dealt with discreetly”. The system is non-medical. “When boarders meet their new families, they do so without a backstory or clinical diagnosis” (2,800 words)

The Strange Life Of Colin Wilson

A self-taught existentialist, his huge output of naive and unusual books — about philosophy, esotericism, crime — brought him short-lived fame in the 1950s, followed by a long career as a cult figure on the margins of literature. “When he wrote his first book, he’d read more than enough to put most undergraduates to shame, but he’d never had what a university education might have given him: a training in critical thinking” (1,400 words)

Die, Selfish Gene, Die

For a century the primary account of evolution, culminating in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, has emphasised the gene as the determinant of the species. But the more we learn about genes, the more they take on the character of variables: they can act and interact to produce lots of different outcomes. We may be able to adapt to new environments without changes to our DNA; changes in the way our DNA operates may be enough (5,300 words)

Deep Play

Thoughts on a new mom-and-pop template for economic development. Sustainable growth requires responsible institutions which constrain behaviour and look to the long-term — the “martinet moms”. But it also requires flashy adventurers focused on short-term gains, who drive innovation — the “deadbeat dads”. The best results come when both parents work together to manage the cycles of disruption and consolidation (3,500 words)

In Praise Of The Polymath

We overvalue specialists in the intellectual world, and undervalue generalists — perhaps because the division of labour has worked well in the business world. But skilled polymaths are happier and more innovative. “Over-specialisation eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory” (2,400 words)

Embracing The Void

A visit to Star Axis, a monumental work of land art in the New Mexico desert, 40 years in the making, still not finished, already awe-inspiring. Sculptor Charles Ross has dug an artificial canyon crowned with a stone cap through which rises a long staircase aligned with the earth’s axis and pointing towards the North Star. It is a new Great Pyramid, a work of “celestial geometry”. Look up, and “tremble before the sky” (8,200 words)

I’d Rather Be Dissected

You can arrange to have your body buried or cremated. You can offer specific organs for transplant. But probably the best thing you can do for the well-being of humanity is to leave your whole body for scientific study. “To study the human body, nothing but a real one comes close. There are usable proxies — computer models and crash-test dummies, for example. But neither replaces the real thing”. And the real thing is always in short supply (2,600 words)

Life In The Fishbowl

The rise of universal surveillance frightens and angers libertarians. But what about the benefits? The more complete the surveillance, the greater the reduction in crime and terrorism. Society would need fewer police, because there would be much less to investigate; the evidence would all be there on camera. Corruption would be harder. Arms control would be easier. Pandemics would be detected sooner (2,300 words)

Unholy Mystery

On the rise of detective fiction, which produced its first masterpiece, The Moonstone, in 1860s Britain. Why then? Because Darwinism was shaking faith in traditional religion, and the detective offered a new, secular version of the priestly class, answering the riddles of existence. Just look at the names assigned by authors to their heroes: Dr Priestley, George Gideon, Adrian Monk, John Luther, Aurelio Zen, Alex Cross Simon Templar (2,800 words)

The Play Deficit

“The rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policy makers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play” (5,100 words)

Homelands

How countries break apart. Scotland’s bid for secession from the UK offers a road-map for a best-case scenario. History is full of worst-case scenarios, such as the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 at a cost of one million lives. Somewhere between the two lies Kosovo: “It’s one thing to amputate parts of your gangrenous leg yourself. It’s quite another for NATO to lunge in, wielding a rusty hacksaw” (3,000 words)

Riches Beyond Belief

The rise of Bitcoin and other private currencies is helping to demystify how money works. “Financial instruments are analogous to high-level programming languages such as Java or Ruby: they let you string commands together in order to perform certain actions. By contrast, money itself is more like a low-level programming language, very hard to see or to understand but closer to gritty reality” (4,200 words)

The Reality Show

On the history and etiology of paranoid delusions, and their evolving relationship with culture and technology. “Persecutory delusions can be found throughout history and across cultures; but within this category a desert nomad is more likely to believe that he is being buried alive in sand by a djinn, and an urban American that he has been implanted with a microchip and is being monitored by the CIA” (3,200 words)

How The Light Gets Out

On the problem of consciousness. I’m not going to pretend you will find the explanation here, but you will encounter a worthwhile quantity of ideas and anecdotes on which to reflect. Including the case of the man who believed he had a squirrel in his head. “When told that a cranial rodent was illogical and incompatible with physics, he agreed, but then went on to note that logic and physics cannot account for everything in the universe” (3,400 words)

History And Guilt

Superb essay on guilt and responsibility, culture and memory. Starts with Django and takes flight. Why build a Holocaust Museum in the heart of Washington, when America did so little before and during the Holocaust; recruited Nazis after the war to build rockets; and still hesitates before its own atrocities? “Can you imagine a monument to the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage at the heart of the Washington Mall?” (5,000 words)

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