Sunday, September 12, 2004

Special[ly] smart people issue

Update: I have superhuman powers: I can take the gems from some extremely interesting reading and make them sound dull and mundane. Just go read the originals.

Paul Graham -
I didn't mean to make the book controversial. I was trying to make it efficient. I didn't want to waste people's time telling them things they already knew. It's more efficient just to give them the diffs.

...curiosity [is] simply the first derivative of knowledge

and ( in The Age of the Essay)
[What an essay used to be, which is what it should become again:]
An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.
In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.
...Essays should aim for maximum surprise.
... Surprises are things that you not only didn't know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of fact you can get.
People trying to be cool will find themselves at a disadvantage when collecting surprises. To be surprised is to be mistaken.
History seems to me so important that it's misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is 'all the data we have so far'.

Favorites from the December 1997 questions:

Arthur De Vany :
Why are decentralized processes ubiquitous in nature and society and why are they so poorly understood that people will sacrifice their autonomy and freedom for authoritarian, centralized solutions (gods, governments, and gurus) to personal and social problems?

Paul Ewald:
As biological and traditional forms of cultural evolution are superseded by electronic (or post electronic) evolution, what will be the differentially propagating "units" and the outcome of the natural selection among them?

Judith Rich Harris:
How can we reconcile our desire for fairness and equity with the brutal fact that people are not all alike?

Reuben Hersh:
Is there a way to enlarge our separate tribal loyalties, to include all our fellow humans?

Pamela Mccorduck & Joseph Traub:
When posterity looks back on the 20th Century from the perspective of a hundred years, what will they see as our greatest successes and worst follies?

Neal Stephenson:
Why can our minds do physics? That is, why does the behavior of the physical world map so neatly onto mathematical laws, given that those laws are (arguably) strings of symbols that our brains happen to be capable of manipulating, apparently as a fortuitous byproduct of some evolutionary process that made our ancestors better adapted to dodging hyenas in the Rift Valley? Why is it that a person sitting in a chair in a room can, by using those leftover hyena-dodging and buffalo-hunting neurons to manipulate symbols in his head, design wing flaps for a 747, or figure out what was happening one femtosecond after the Big Bang?

Edge's main World Question Center page, linking to the Q&A's for each year

Edge honcho John Brockman on the pre-history of Edge (near top of this page) -
James Lee [Byars] inspired the idea that EDGE...He believed that to arrive at an axiology of societal knowledge it was pure folly to go to a Widener Library and read 6 million volumes of books...[instead] gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world...have them ask each other the questions they were asking themselves...expected result, in theory, was to be a synthesis of all thought. But between idea and execution are many pitfalls. James Lee...called each of them, and asked what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him.

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