Amazon Deals

New at Amazon

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Wednesday links

J. R. R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892: some LOTR quotes, history, physics, and video (including dancing orcs and a Lego version of the battle of Helm's Deep). Related: Tolkien wrote a translation of Beowulf and included some imagined history of the characters - it was published for the first time in 2014.

London's oldest house has survived the English Civil War, the Great Fire and the Blitz.

Yesterday (January 2) is Isaac Asimov's birthday. Here's his 1964 essay predicting life in 2014 and a paper on creativity he wrote in 1959 for DARPA.

Some call the Nobel committee... Trader Joe's just released shelf-stable French fries to satisfy all your snacking needs  

We've all seen this movie, and it doesn't end well - Chinese Construction Workers Stumble Upon 30 Perfectly Preserved Dinosaur Eggs From Cretaceous Period.

ICYMI, Monday's links are here, and consisted are of New Year related material:  hangover science and cures, New Year’s Day in Paris in the 1800s, and Dave Barry’s 2017 Year in Review.

J. R. R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892

Map of Middle-Earth
All that is gold does not glitter, 
Not all those who wander are lost; 
The old that is strong does not wither, 
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

~ J. R. R. Tolkien (wiki) (The Fellowship of the Ring)

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.

~ Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring)

It is said: "Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger."

~ Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring)

How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep ... that have taken hold.

~ Tolkien (The Return of the King)

Commissioned poster by Aaron Horkey (wiki)
 for The Lord of The Rings film series. Larger version here.
It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

~ Tolkien (The Return of the King)

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then?  I cannot say. 

~ Tolkien (walking song, several versions of which appear in The Lord of the Rings)

Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens.

~ Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring)

No one ever influenced Tolkien - you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.*

~ C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) (letter, May 1959) 

Today is the anniversary of the birth of English philologist and author J(ohn) R(onald) R(eul) Tolkien (wiki) (1892-1973), best known as the author of the cult classic, The Lord of the Rings. Born to English expatriates in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Tolkien studied languages at Oxford and served in the British Army during World War I.  After beginning his academic career at the University of Leeds, he became in 1925 the Bosworth professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, where he developed the languages and supporting mythology that led to his epic magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings (published in three parts in 1954-55). Earlier, in 1937, he had written The Hobbit, which established a certain basis for his later work. (Here's a C. S. Lewis review of The Hobbit from 1937)

* N.B.  The reference here is to the mythical beast mentioned in Lewis Carroll's nonsense poems, "Jabberwocky" and "The Hunting of the Snark." 

The LOTR in 90 seconds:

CGP Grey explains the backstory of  Middle-Earth in four minutes:

And the story of the One Ring:

Epic Rap Battles of History: J. R. R. Tolkien vs. George R. R. Martin - who is the king of fantasy novels?:

An orc dance:

An a Lego version of the battle of Helm's Deep:

Related posts and links:

Everything you wanted to know about the physics and math of Hobbit strength.

Related Tolkien physics:

Part of the text above is adapted from Ed's Quotation of the Day, only available via email - leave your email address in the comments if you'd like to be added to his list. Ed is the author of Hunters and Killers: Volume 1: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1776 to 1943 and Hunters and Killers: Volume 2: Anti-Submarine Warfare from 1943.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

In 1959 Issac Asimov wrote a paper for DARPA on creativity

In 1959 Asimov (wiki) was approached by DARPA (at the time it was ARPA) to think about how ideas are formed. His brief work for the organization had never been published until 2014.

Via Arthur Obermayer:
(Asimov) expressed his willingness and came to a few meetings. He eventually decided not to continue, because he did not want to have access to any secret classified information; it would limit his freedom of expression. Before he left, however, he wrote this essay on creativity as his single formal input. This essay was never published or used beyond our small group. When I recently rediscovered it while cleaning out some old files, I recognized that its contents are as broadly relevant today as when he wrote it. It describes not only the creative process and the nature of creative people but also the kind of environment that promotes creativity.
Excerpt below from ON CREATIVITY - Isaac Asimov Mulls “How Do People Get New Ideas?”:

How do people get new ideas?

Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.

One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.

But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea—though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest. 

Read the whole thing at Technology Review.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Shrinking bloated government - the cartoon

h/t @petefrt

Rudyard Kipling's little known poem "New Year's Resolutions"

Jstor: On January 1st, 1887, Rudyard Kipling (wiki) explored the human desire to make New Year’s resolutions in an uncollected poem published in the Civil and Military Gazette.

New Year’s Resolutions.

I am resolved throughout the year
To lay my vices on the shelf
A godly, sober course to steer
And love my neighbours as myself –
Excepting always two or three
Whom I detest as they hate me.

I am resolved – that whist is low —
Especially with cars like mine –
It guts a health Bank-book – so
These earthly pleasures I resign.
Except – and here I see no sin –
When asked by others to “cut in”.

I am resolved – no more o’ dance
With ingenues – so help me Venus!
It gives the Chaperone her chance
For hinting Heaven knows what between us.
The Ballroom and the Altar stand
Too close in this suspicous land.
(N. B.) But I will (her ten names) abandon?
No, while I have a leg to stand on!

I am resolved – to sell my horses,
They cannot stay, they will not go,
They lead me into evil courses
Wherefore I mean to part with – No!
Cut out that resolution – I’ll
Try Jilt to-morrow on the mile.

I am resolved – to flirt no more,
It leads to strife and tribulation;
Not that I used to flirt before,
But as a bar against temptation.
Her I except (cut out the names)
Perfectly Platonic flames.

I am resolved – to drop my smokes,
The Trichi has an evil taste
I cannot buy the brand of Oakes
But lest I take a step in haste,
And so upset my health, I choose a
“More perfect way: in pipes and Poona.

I am resolved – that vows like these
Though lightly made, are hard to keep
Wherefore I’ll take them by degrees,
Lest my back-slidings make me weep.
One vow a year will see me through;
And I’ll begin with number two.

Rudyard Kipling.

Monday links

Happy New Year! A happy and healthy 2018 to all.

The New Year’s Feast That Transformed Fools Into Popes and Kings.

Dave Barry’s 2017 Year in Review: Did that really happen? Previous such columns are available here.

Get your trebuchets, catapults, air cannons, and giant sling shots ready - January 3rd is National Fruitcake Toss Day.

The Year in Discovery: The 50 Greatest Finds of 2017.

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include New Year traditions, history, resolutions, "best of" lists, and advice.