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My last and first papers for Hofstadter

In grad school Douglas Hofstadter -- yes, that one -- was my advisor, and I took several of his courses, most of which were only tangentially related to what you'd think of as cognitive science, and just forget about computers. The last one was "Mind and the Atom", which I mostly remember as reading a bunch of early philosophers, then the resurrection of atomic ideas, with Doug sometimes asking "how did they believe this stuff?" partly as incredulity, partly as an actual cognitive question: how did a bright guy like Thales even *think* of "everything is made of water?" I don't remember any answers to that. I remember trying to memorize the periodic table, and reading about how horrible the 14th century was, though that might have been my abusing my eee in class.

Also we had to give skits at one point, from the perspective of various philosophers, with Democritus et al. probably off limits due to their being right and where's the fun in that? Anyway I think I went with Heraclitus.

Or, no, this is why I keep a journal; we had an atomist group and anti-atomist. Everyone I knew was in the atomist group, but it was bigger than the anti one, so I felt I had to join the latter. So maybe someone did have Democritus.

Anyway, we had to write a paper for the end of the class. Probably no assigned topic. I couldn't think of one and procrastinated and procrastinated. I should have gone to him and asked for a topic or something, but I didn't, I don't know why. Probably massive loads of not giving a damn -- not about him, but about grad school in general at that point, and certainly not *grades*, who cares about the grades of some 7th year PhD student, beyond "why are you even taking classes?" Maybe I was depressed again, like senior year at Caltech? I have no idea, now. At any rate I managed to put it off to the night before it was due... and beyond. Had some vague idea of doing a "who was right" paper.

Finally, that morning, I had an idea: write a dialogue! Of, like, the various philosophers arguing it out equipped with modern science knowledge about which of them was most right. I think my main motivation was laziness. See, I've always been really good at writing essays -- short one, anyway, not many long in my life ever -- but I do need a topic, and it does take a bit of effort. Can't write as fast as I can physically type, unless I've really rehearsed the ideas in my head. And even then I'd often thing i had something worked out in my head, then freeze once I sat down at a keyboard.

But I do a lot of thinking as imaginary conversations, me talking to someone, real or imagined, and I've had a fair number of insights in those -- the explanation effect or teaching effect at work, probably -- and more of note here, it just *flows*. Those never block. Repeat, maybe, but not block. So I figured I could set them up as imaginary people, have them talk, transcribe it, and that'd be my paper. Might not be great, but it'd be something to turn in. Easier to write, and more *fun*, and something I'd never done before -- a challenge! Which probably shouldn't be combined with last-minute papers, but eh, it's worked before, as in the papers I wrote for some Caltech humanities classes while affected by the verbose and ornate style affected by Steven Brust through the character, or rather, fictional author, of Paarfi, in The Phoenix Guards, following in the style and structure of The Three Musketeers, or at least of whatever English translations of that book that Brust had read and, obviously, enjoyed.

And of course Doug had done all those Achilles-Tortoise dialogues in Goëdel, Escher Bach, but I just figured that meant he wouldn't reject the paper out of hand based on format, not that I'd get a better grade for it. And of course I had the idea for such dialogues from that book, hanging around in the back of my mind for years to spring.

So I finally start writing around the time it's due, blowing off the last class so I can do the paper, and yeah, it flows out fairly well onto the screen, and a few hours later I'm done and can turn it in. (Ooh, I recorded that; 3600 words in 3.5 hours, including proofreading and distractions. Probably not perfect flow, I can type 30 wpm, or 1800 words per hour. (Also, Firefox spell-checker knows 'wpm', but not 'spellchecker'.)) You can see the result here (10 page PDF); I cleaned up some typos and LaTeX gave it a new date, but otherwise it's the same.

And it *was* fun to write, and probably a lot easier than writing some more normal essay on the same topic would have been, with a topic of some sort, unless I kept the conclusion a surprise, and digesting the various philosophers in my own words, instead of what felt like their own, even though it was all really my own, but there's a cognitive difference in imagining other people, or in imagining yourself as other people -- you can fix some cognitive errors in the lab just by asking them to "think like a trader", and I've found that telling myself "think like a Buddhist" causes a calmness and "think like a happy person" makes me smile.

Also, I just realized tonight that arguably this paper is fanfic or real person fic of an odd sorts, and thus the only example of such I've actually written down, at least that's longer than a paragraph. First fanfic, arguing philosphers, go me. Literally self-insert, too, since I'm in the dialogue.


His opinion: "Some of the best work I've seen from you." and a high grade. Which I'd had before, outside of the ambigrams class I sucked at, so I don't think I cleared a low bar.

My reaction to that: "This... this is not helping." I've thought for a long time that I keep procrastinating because I keep getting away with it; I can't easily think of any "yeah, I got really burned by putting it off" incidents, except maybe all of grad school itself (main discovery: I suck at self-motivation or choosing my own topics), while lots of getting away with it, or even being serendipitously helped by the lateness, where doing the right thing wouldn't have been as good. ("Wow, this book would be the perfect gift for John, and it's only 50 cents! Good thing I didn't give him something lamer yesterday.") Certainly wrote lots of short essays the period before class in high school, to As, and also to a 5/5 on both AP English exams, so it's not just that my teachers were coddling me. But nothing so long, so late. Best work? WTF.

I re-read it, and it still doesn't seem *bad*. Great, I dunno, I don't think I can have that thought about myself, I just have "sucks", "okay", and "other people tell me it's good". Unless I'm specifically re-writing someone else's words or ideas, then I can say "better than *that*". Done a fair bit of that online, at short scales, plus giving an intro quantum computing talk after someone else's intro quantum computing talk because I thought I could do it better. Influenced by Hofstadter, actually, and his emphases on examples, clarity, and examples [sic].

My other fluid writing mode is "stream of consciousness", you just got a full barrel of it.


For comparison, here's my first paper for one of his classes (12 page PDF), his Group Theory Visualized course, where i seem to have gone for a high clarity regurgitation of some of what we'd learned, especially first very basic group theory and then what automorphisms and such were, those being a new concept I'd struggled with in the class. On re-reading, I thought I'd done fine -- very clear and even funny -- until I hit section 5. Footnote 5 is opaque, I switched from phi to f for no reason, I think the endomorphism paragraph makes sense but it needs to be much clearer, and the sample mappings table is a great idea but doing something weird at the end. What the hell is *g? I think I figured it out to something sensible, but I shouldn't have had to, that violate the purpose of the paper... Section 7 should show the math, at least if I'm aiming for a naive audience (what audience was I aiming for? No idea, now.) Section 9 uses standard notation for some groups, not the notation I'd built up in the paper. Section 10 says "It may help to recall what factor groups are" when I'd never mentioned them before. Maybe the paper was aimed by my classmates, or just at my teacher? That may make more sense, trying to explain one of our topics. Section 11... proves that.

That was disappointing. I went from "this is great!" to "no, this is flawed but I can fix that" to "what's going on here and why do I care?" Maybe whipping out my best work wasn't such a high bar.

I've known elementary group theory since 7th grade, I suppose it makes sense that I was able to be really clear for the first half.


Also surprising: I had barely any tags appropriate for this, just 'philosophy' and 'math'. I guess I rarely LJed about grad school or classes?

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/341693.html#comments


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 20th, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
Huh, how'd that happen? Thanks, and fixed.

...also this tells me you're probably the first person to try to read it. Oh well.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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