A Note: Propagation of Learning

I’ve finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem some days ago. As is usual with all his works so far, I enjoyed it immensely. This is the kind of book that grips your attention and never let it go, the sort of reading experience that many people don’t get to enjoy very often past a certain age. Other than some technicality like how stable elements from one universe can remain stable even in another universe (and if it is because the physical laws are the same, what caused those elements to be different enough to be incompatible with life forms in another universe) that keeps on nagging at the back of my mind, I see no reason to criticize the book in any way. Of course, Neal Stephenson won’t be winning Nobel prize for writing the Anathem, but he never meant for it to be that kind of work, did he?

The premises of Anathem is obviously reflective of that of the current world we live in, notably the ubiquity and evanescence of information. The fact that most people lack learning of significant depth (which isn’t really all that much of a change from any other time in history) while becoming increasingly irreverent of the devotion to learning itself is a trait of the modern world frequently discussed in variety of media. Anathem also devotes quite a number of pages to discussion of the issue, and I hit upon a simple idea while thinking about a section on dangers of unintentional misinformation born through insubstantial learning.

In conventional process of teaching and learning, an individual opts to become a node of a degree of knowledge. The individual-node then connects with other individuals of varying degrees of learning and transmit his/her learning to those individuals in a process reminiscent of propagation of thermodynamic equilibrium. Currently the system of public knowledge-the web-is like an ever expanding vacuum. Lack of reliable sources of data and knowledge combined with abundance of random bits of knowledge that remain nonetheless incoherent and worthless in light of a greater system of thought is the symptom of such a vacuum. Maybe this symptom can be alleviated once the academic sector of the knowledge network begins to open its data to the world at large? Maybe the web itself can become a coherent learning environment through steady injection of respectable nodes of knowledge that expands along with the noise of the internet vacuum. I believe we already have the beginnings of the groundwork for such a project in the guise of openscience/science 2.0. If the openscience movement remains unhampered by the increasing haranguing of special interest groups and economic fundamentalists, we might be able to observe a true renaissance of human learning some time in the future that makes current advances in human network and information technologies pale in comparison.

Support LHC, and the Long Now event

There are two big events from today to tomorrow, one of them truly big in the sense of its possible impact on humanity and the sciences, and the other one big in the sense that it is a release celebration of a book by one of my favorite authors hosted by one of the more interesting groups around today. Both of them will be on the net through live webcast, so anyone interested should set the alarm bells on their clocks today.

The first and the most important is the upcoming live webcast of CERN lab LHC first beam. The Large Hadron Collider went though so much drama and uncertainty (pun intended) from inception to its recent power-up, this event will be quite emotional for the people who worked on the project as well as the large portions of the members of scientific community at large (and there are lot of them, I assure you). The first *beaming* of the tens of kilometers large apparatus is set to begin at 10th September 2008 9am CEST (GMT+2), which roughly translates into around 10th of September 3am EST in NYC. Considering that the technical and scientific magnitude devoted to this project likely dwarfs that spent for building the Great Wall, it would be tragic for anyone even remotely interested in the advances of sciences to miss this significant event. I know I will be up and about in the night, despite the fact that I have early workday tomorrow. It is worth the anguish of a day without sleep I say! So please remember to make a ruckus and wake up members of your family in support of the sciences when the beam goes off. (Fermilab in U.S. is hosting a pajama party in honor of the event, though the registration is closed I am sorry to say)

The second even is the release party for the book Anathem by Neal Stephenson, hosted by the Long Now foundation. While Neal Stephenson might not be the greatest writer alive, he is certainly one of the most interesting. I preordered my copy from Amazon in a heartbeat when I heard that he was set on publishing a new book after a long period of inactivity. The Long Now foundation itself sounds as interesting as the man himself, focused around the concept/building of millennial clock. Those people should be well worth checking out if you are interested in humane pursuits that stretches beyond mere decades or centuries. I personally find such devotion to long-term pursuits to be very attractive in this day and age where vast majority of information seem to be relegated to the role of a junk food.  Since the basic premise of the Anathem itself revolves around the millennial clock concept, the Long Now foundation is throwing a party of sorts in celebration of the release of them book, with some readings and performances that will be streamed through a live webcast at the Long Now website. The webcast is set to begin on 9th September at 7pm PST, so I guess it will be around 10pm EST in NYC (interestingly enough, the year is written as 02008 on the Long Now website. Maybe we should all begin adding zeros in front of our year marks from now on).

P.S. There is a teaser stream running at the LHC first-beam webcast site describing what they are doing at CERN. For some reason I can not stop thinking about the background music they used in the stream.

Neal Stephenson notes

I’ve been googling some Neal Stephenson articles on the net in preparation for his new upcoming book, Anathem.

Here is an interesting excerpt from a Wired article I encountered from a blog about Neal Stephenson and his upcoming work (I recommend you read the full article as well if you are interested in current status of Neal Stephenson’s life).

Stephenson spends his mornings cloistered in the basement, writing longhand in fountain pen and reworking the pages on a Mac version of the Emacs text editor. This intensity cannot be sustained all day–”It’s part of my personality that I have to mess with stuff,” he says–so after the writing sessions, he likes to get his hands on something real or hack stuff on the computer. (He’s particularly adept at Mathematica, the equation-crunching software of choice for mathematicians and engineers.) For six years, he was an adviser to Jeff Bezos’ space-flight startup, Blue Origin. He left amicably in 2006. Last year, he went to work for another Northwest tech icon, Nathan Myhrvold, who heads Intellectual Ventures, an invention factory that churns out patents and prototypes of high-risk, high-reward ideas. Stephenson and two partners spend most afternoons across Lake Washington in the IV lab, a low-slung building with an exotic array of tools and machines to make physical manifestations of the fancies that flow from the big thinkers on call there.

“In Neal’s books, he’s been fantastically good at creating scenarios and technologies that are purely imaginary,” Myhrvold says. “But they’re much easier imagined than built. So we spend a certain amount of our time imagining them but the rest of our time building them. It’s also very cool but different to say, ‘Let’s come up with new ways of doing brain surgery.'”

That’s right–brain surgery is one of the things Stephenson is tinkering with. He and his team are helping refine some mechanical aspects of a new tool, a helical needle for operating on brain tumors. It’s the kind of cool job one of his characters might have.

This article seem to further compound my idea about Stephenson’s (or any other writer/artists’) almost instinctive urge to see the products of their written fantasies manifest in their world in a more corporeal form. Many artists throughout history seem to share that trait in particular, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Jasper Johns, methods of manifestation sometimes taking form of involvement in things of the ‘secular world’ or integration of their artistic ideas into lifestyles and memes. Such universally observed trait might as well be the reason that synthetic biology, or rather, any and all forms of artificial life holds so much promise for artists of the world. Synthetic/artificial life might as well be the catalyst needed to bridge the unreasonable cultural and intellectual gap between the arts and the sciences.

Indeed, I might even go as far as to say that the utility of artificial life in the field of arts would be an inevitable development of the future, based on the innate human desire to breathe life into immaterial thoughts.

Once I get past the deadline season, I might do a bit more detailed post on the matter of human creativity and obsession towards its manifestation…

Random thing on SciFoo

Just a quick update on something I found on the net by chance. As many of you would know, I will not be able to do a full post until I get some work stuff done, which should be early September…

Those of you in the know would probably be aware of the SciFoo that took place a few weeks ago. While looking at the Flickr photostream for the SciFoo 08 (deep in contemplation on how to get invited to the inevitable 09 meet up) I found an interesting picture… Well the picture itself is not interesting per se, I am really talking about the person in the picture.

Neal Stephenson was apparently present in the recent iteration of SciFoo. He is the writer behind the Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and the Baroque Cycle. A sort of cyberpunkish economics-hacking system-forming stories are his forte (so far). He had been inactive for a while though. His new work titled Anathem is set to be released this September, something that is coming out after six or so years of silence from a prolific author. To say that I am excited would be an understatement, since I consider him to be one of the best entertainment writers around today (for those of you who take offense at the term, Victor Hugo was a pulp-fiction writer of his day. Yet his name went down in history and he is not likely to be forgotten anytime soon).

One thing I can not stop thinking about now: Which sessions did Neal Stephenson attend?

P.S. :Is he still using Mac? (He should really update his essay In the Beginning there was Command Line sometime in the future…)

Joy of reading

As my acquaintances know well enough already, I love reading. There is something peculiarly tempting about the very activity of reading itself that appeals to me beyond the information, stories and knowledge that can be gleamed as the result of reading, just like the act of gaming that attracts people of all ages beyond the benefits of aesthetics and possible brain-enhancement associated with the act.

Of course, my job as a full-time student makes reading a mandatory part of my life. And my interests tend to diverge across wildly different fields, so the volumes I handle tend to be just as numerous. Through all the time I’ve spent digging into the mazes of phantasm and ideas, I’ve come to notice something about the nature of my captivation with the act of reading. While I do enjoy reading through the informationally intense texts, I much prefer well written fiction of somewhat classical setting and witty writing while I’m winding down. Strangely enough, occasional feats of such ‘light reading’ helps me concentrate even better while reading through the academic texts and papers, and the performance boost is very significant.

So I’m thinking of designing a reading schedule for myself that should be able to satisfy my urge for reading and academic performance in one fell swoop. I remember reading through the ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell’ a few months ago. I was completely immersed in the story and character of the mysterious yet whimsical world created by the gifted author Susanna Clarke, and even now I can picture some of the scenes of the book in front of me as clear as the daylight. I’ve already finished the City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers, which I loved as much as I’ve loved reading the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I’m almost at the end of the Baroque Cycle series of three books written by Neal Stephenson, who I believe is a thoughtful yet humorous writer, with certain charmingly irreverent attitude woven into every pages of his books. His newest work would be Anathem scheduled to be released somewhere in September, so I need to find some book to tide me over until then. Just what kind of book would be able to satisfy the strange bibliophile in me? I prefer to hold the book in my hand while reading, absorbing the subtle shades of light and the texture of the pages just as rich as the stories and characters themselves, forming the icing on the cake that is the activity of reading… So no ebooks or internet books at the moment. I get plenty of those from my school in forms of scientific papers I have to report on.

I’m burning through amazon and librarything web pages trying to find my next leisure reading right now. I just hope I’d be able to find another amazing book soon. I feel like someone searching for water in middle of a vast desert, its borders continuing throughout the stretch of my lifetime.