Still learning… and finding out

I learned a new phrase today: “Ancora imparo.” In Italian, it means “I am still learning” – what a great message! It apparently is often misattributed to Michelangelo, but actually derives from a letter by Seneca (who would not have written in Italian, but it had been popularized in Italy in Michelangelo’s time). To me it sounds like a wonderful reminder of humility and acceptance of not being perfect at something… yet :)

It’s also inspiring. Truly, what is life if we’re not learning something new each day?

I also like how it sounds like an incantation or a spell. Ancora imparo!

I am reminded of the excellent song by Cat Stevens called On the Road to Find Out. He has an even more explicit expectation of the outcome: “In the end I know, but on the way I wonder.” But it’s great just to be in the process of learning itself. If in the end you know, that just means it’s time to move on to the next question. :)

Happiness, now and later

Daniel Kahneman gave a fascinating talk about two kinds of happiness: the happiness you experience in the moment, and the happiness you feel when remembering an event later.

This idea got inside my head and wouldn’t go away. Basically, studies have shown that people will report very different levels of pain or pleasure while they are having an experience, compared to what they report looking back on it later. I take this to mean that not only is happiness subjective (per person), but it is also a function of time. Or, another way to see it is to realize that the person you are changes over time. We may know this already, but it is inconvenient and disorienting and at odds with the illusion of a constant self, so we tend to forget it and move on with our lives.

Kahneman captured the difference in this thought experiment:

Imagine that for your next vacation, you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed, and you’ll get an amnesic drug so that you won’t remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation?

Another observation he shared is that one’s later reflection on an experience is most influenced by how it ended. A positive or pleasant ending colors the entire experience, and the same is true if the end is painful or unpleasant. Remembered happiness is clearly *not* the integral of momentary happiness.

But if this is true, what does it mean for people who seek happiness? Which kind of happiness is the one you want to optimize? If you optimize happiness in the moment, arguably you are happier for more of the total time. But you might not *feel* that way, looking back later. If there were unpleasant bits near the end of an experience, they could dwarf all of the intermediate pleasure. But if you optimize retrospective happiness, this could come at the cost of a lot of momentary pain and unhappiness (which you later forget). Which self do you care more about? Since the remembering self is the one who lives on (the momentary self is arguably dead after the moment passes), maybe that self should win. What’s a person to do?

Kahneman did not answer this question. He also didn’t address the fact that the remembering self, each time it remembers, updates and reinforces and alters the memories slightly, so ultimately happiness is a fluid quantity that won’t sit still even if you were to stop having new experiences.

It’s possible that Kahneman has gotten me to way over-think this question. And yet I can’t quite let it go. The pursuit of happiness and a good life is the fundamental question of philosophy and living. With this idea, Kahneman has also pointed out that it is also inextricably tied to identity. Which self is *me*? Both. But I can only live one life. Hmmm!

“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

The Five Laws of Library Science

Library Science has a fundamental philosophy, first articulated by Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan. He was a mathematician and a librarian, so naturally he’d be led to identifying Laws. The Laws are simple:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

I admire these few, short rules for their concreteness, their simplicity, and their import. They hint at a deeper underlying philosophy (here I use philosophy in its “how to live your life” sense, not its “abstract argument” sense).

Rule 1 seems obvious, but on closer inspection it is not; instead, it helps combat natural protective (to keep the books clean and untorn and unmutilated — that is, unused) or collector (books are not (just) wall decor) impulses.

Rule 2 recognizes fundmental human diversity. If that isn’t a big concept in a small sentence, I don’t know what is.

Rule 3 actually seems a bit questionable to me, but I guess implies that every book may appeal to someone, even if it doesn’t appeal to you (or offends you — censorship beware!).

Rule 4 urges efficiency in the organization of books, the process of finding them (search), and the process of checking them out. Yes!

Rule 5 is the biggie — an open acceptance of change. How rare to see an institution acknowledge and embrace the fact that change is inevitable? Patrons change, demographics change, materials change, and the process by which those materials are disseminated definitely changes (the very wording of these Laws is now outdated, since we must replace “book” with “media” to reflect today).

Now I’m wondering what primary Laws one could identify in Machine Learning, or even Computer Science. Do we have fundamental principles? Can they be similarly tied to ethics? What would they be?

(Yes, yes, the Three Laws of Robotics. Next?)

A hypaethral life

Henry David Thoreau keeps a fun and thought-provoking blog, based on his diaries. A recent entry caught my eye with its use of a word that was new to me: hypaethral. This adjective describes something that is open to the air, as a building lacking a roof. Thoreau’s use of it here is amusingly metaphorical:

“I thought that one peculiarity of my ‘Week’ was its hypaethral character, to use an epithet applied to those Egyptian temples which are open to the heavens above, under the ether. I thought that it had little of the atmosphere of the house about it, but might wholly have been written, as in fact it was to a considerable extent, out-of-doors. It was only in a late period in writing it, as it happened, that I used any phrases implying that I lived in a house or lived a domestic life. I trust it does not smell [so much] of the study and library, even of the poet’s attic, as of the fields and woods; that it is a hypaethral or unroofed book, lying open under the ether and permeated by it, open to all weathers, not easy to be kept on a shelf.” — Henry David Thoreau, June 29, 1851

I like the idea of a book without a roof, one that would be hard to keep on a shelf, and one that would bring a taste of all the outdoors to any who passed near it. And many’s the day I’ve wished (though lacking the word) that my own life were more hypaethral — that I might look up from my computer and see the sky arching in dazzling blue above, or, later, feel the flickering chatter of stars rain down on me from the dusky twilight. The reminder to look up, to elevate our attention, to imagine the vastness of what lies outside our 12-foot ceilings and plaster and paint, is always a welcome one. Thank you, Thoreau!

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