Monday, November 3, 2014

Why keep blogging? - I

In Fermat's Last Theorem, Simon Singh quotes from a book by the mathematician, G.H. Hardy:
I will only say that if a chess problem is, in the crude sense, 'useless', then that is equally true of most of the best mathematics... I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.  Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil; and outside mathematics it is trivial anyhow.  I have just one chance of escaping a verdict of complete triviality, that I may be judged to have created something worth creating.  And that I have created something is undeniable: the question is about its value.
After my stroke, I was also similarly engaged in useless activities, reading about evolution, human irrationality, etc. (although I was not creating anything). I gradually found that I was better at doing these useless activities than I had been in doing any useful activities earlier. Then someone suggested that I start a blog. I started writing tentatively and then with more confidence. The blogging went on for longer than I had expected and I also started writing about the books that I read, including about topics not directly connected to my stroke.

Dan Dennett has written a book called Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking. As you would have guessed, it is about Intuition Pumps And Other tools for thinking. It is a heavy book. Very heavy - and I am not referring to its  bulk. (But maybe I am underestimating you and  you may find it suitable for casual reading.) I will quote from a relatively easy section of  the book:
In his excellent book on Indian street magic, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, Lee Siegel writes,  
"I'm writing a book on magic," I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers."No," I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic." Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.
A couple of years back, I got something that would have been considered "real magic" a few decades back - a neuro headset with which I could type on my own. As Arthur C. Clarke said, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' This eased the process of typing a bit and my posts got longer. I will read something and think, 'How can I not tell you about this? 'Lately, I have been blogging more about other things than about my stroke. (You can write only so much about a guy who can't eat, walk or talk without it becoming an outstanding bore.) But every so often, the typing will feel tedious and I will feel like making a final post titled 'So long and thanks for all the fish'  and calling it a day.

At such times, I will remember the ending of this splendid speech by Robert Sapolsky to Stanford students. He tells the story of a nun who spends all her time ministering to prisoners on the death row of a particular prison. These are some of the most horrible people on earth so naturally she is always asked how she is able to  do such a thing. She always replies, 'The more unforgivable the act, the more you must try to forgive it; the more unlovable the person, the more you must find the means of loving him.' He tells the students to adopt a similar attitude (I have deleted some words from the speech to make it read better in print):

You guys, as of tomorrow around noon, are officially educated. And as part of your education, what has happened is that, you have learnt something about the ways of the world, how things work, you have learnt the word 'realpolitik', you have your eyes opened up, you have wised up and one of things that happens when you have wised up enough is, you reach a very clear conclusion that, at the end of the day, it is really impossible for one person to make a difference. The more clear it is that it is impossible for you to make a difference and  make the world  better, the more you must. You guys are educated, you are privileged, you are well connected, you are enormously lucky if you are sitting here at this juncture and thus what that means is that there is nobody out there in better position to be able to sustain a  contradiction like this for your entire life and use it as a more moral imperative. So do it and good luck and have good lives in the process.

And what happens?  I begin to think that a post on Fermat's Last Theorem is just what the doctor ordered for you to feel better about the world, to help take your mind off those nasty sales targets or that stressful presentation to your boss about how to make your product move up the value chain i.e how to charge more for it.

And so it goes.

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