Saturday, August 02, 2008

Lost in Information

The origins of our culture date back 100,000 years ago and started with burial rituals, stone carvings and cave paintings. While it can be disputed whether these were purposefully designed to pass on information there remains the fact they indeed did. Throughout the history of mankind, it has been the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next that enabled us to gradually improve our understanding of nature and our ability to shape our future. Communication - over increasingly long distances in space and time - is possibly the most essential human skill that sets us apart from other species. The efficient dissemination of what we have learned is what allows us to build and maintain a body of knowledge - without it, every generation had to start over again, reduced to what is imprinted in its genetic code.

Near the city I grew up was once the Roman Limes, a defense line marked by walls, gates and towers, ruins of which can be visited in many places. It was not unusual that a farmer would find some Roman relics in his ground, such founds were collected and displayed in the city-hall, constituting an incomplete but lasting record of the past that puts our existence in line, assigns us a role in the story of our evolution.

Traditionally, information was passed on in the narrative, and later in the written form. Carved in stone, painted on papyrus, printed on paper, data could be stored and preserved outside the human brain. This enabled us to become self-taught, to extract knowledge out of books, to learn from those long gone, and use the same means to collect our contributions to mankind's ongoing strive for understanding and sense-making.

Today we store information on microchips, CDs, or DVDs and if you use the Internet like I do, in most cases I have no clue where or how that information is actually stored. Like this blog post, presumably on a server somewhere in the bay area, but who knows, and more importantly: who cares? My understanding of my laptop's internal organs is at best peripheral, what experience tells me however is when you drop it you're fucked.

Since my work consists of spreading my brainchildren, I've developed a considerate amount of paranoia and meticulously back up paper drafts on various memory devices and different servers distributed all over the planet, while hard copies get lost and damaged in an increasing number of moves. Passing on of information to the next generation? Gee, passing it on to my older self is hard enough. A report by the National Institute for Standards and Technology notes that CDs and DVDs might last anywhere from twenty to two hundred years [1], others are less optimistic and come to notice the average writable CD you buy at Walmart becomes useless after ten years. Chances are the backups of your '99 intellectual effusions are slowly disintegrating.

The way we store information today it is no longer immediately accessible to our own senses, it can not be retrieved and used without highly sophisticated techniques. A CD is useless without a device to read it, an iPod useless without a player, and if you still have floppy disks lying around you know that information can get lost in upgrades “Any file stored more than six to eight years ago and not transferred to something more modern in the meantime, in on its way to doom” writes James Fallows in his article “File not Found”.

Colleagues ask me why I bother to publish my papers. Worse, why I publish in print journals, dead tree format. Because I'm German possibly? I value permanence. I'm used to houses that are centuries old, and cars that run and run and run. I'm used to marvel at the achievements of earlier cultures, I'm used to wonder what they would tell us if they could. I publish in print because this is my life's work, I want it to be stored in a medium that will survive at least some decades, and I don't want that survival to be left to the believe that progress will last forever. Because if progress doesn't last, that's when we will need it most - all that knowledge which became inaccessible. Paper you can spill Coke over, you can slap mosquitoes with it, you can put in the trunk of your car where it will endure temperatures from -25° to +50°C. Sure, it doesn't get any prettier but the information is not lost. Try that with an ebook. Progress?

And yes, that is a tiny fraction of my mental output I consider to be worth the preservation and I can't but be stunned upon the growth of the blogosphere, wrapping around the planet like a constant cloud of chatter. Every day there are more and more people writing up the stories of their first or second lives, or comments on other people's multiple lives. They snip information in smaller and smaller pieces, pieces that are being picked up and passed on by others until they lose their news value. But after some years one can warm them up again! Blogs have no memory, as I learned fast. How far have we come, we, the species whose superiority builds on accumulation of knowledge? Upon the invention of large artificial memory devices, we're declining to a culture that laughs about the same joke every three years.

With every day that more people write, there are less people reading. The more people are shouting and asking for attention, the less people are listening. With every day that more people collect information, less people assemble it to useful knowledge. With every day we snip information into smaller pieces: an abstract, a quotation, a headline. What was once carved in stone and carefully arranged in elaborate argumentation is now crumbled to sand, tiny pieces that can be put together into every desired form, can be used to build castles of sand hosting beliefs of any kind. We have accessibility to a vast and increasing amount of data, but unshaped and unordered information is noise, is useless.

So, no, it doesn't bother me much that most of this cloud of chatter will never be read by a coming generation because it's completely redundant noise. But what then is it that we want to pass on, what are the essentials the next generation needs to know? How do we find out what is relevant without some sorting and sifting, without some judging and selecting? Do we want to leave it to PageRank what is worthy being read repeatedly? There ought to be something! If there's some million bloggers tapping their keyboards, every now and them one of them should produce a coherent insight. The problem is just: if we're all tapping our keyboards who is left to read it and find out whether it's meaningful?

And the longer I watch the more islands of knowledge I see disintegrating, newspapers declining to catchy headlines, ads hanging in front of text, flashing blinking and asking for attention. [Figure: Project for Excellence in Journalism]

Reporting on results of a recent survey researchers on the 'Project for Excellence in Journalism' summarize that the newspaper of today “has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects [...] but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.” Which leaves me to wonder what then is investigated, apparently “the local issues”? Well, at least investiagive reporting is still “highly valued”, even if if can no longer be afforded since newspaper's “staff also is under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.”

So what are we creating then? We create a culture of the Now and the Here, with people commenting on other comments, arguing without conclusion, then forgetting about it and repeating the same story some months later, decaying into “a cacophony of controversy,” as Alison Gopnik puts it. We are creating a self-referential bubble without permanence, void of any useful structure. Start with a random blog post: you'll be left with links to other websites referring to other websites, until you end at a 404 page not found or come back in a circle. We're creating layers over layers of social games, and online tools for these games. Networking is the word of the day. I've diffused myself over a dozen social network sites and now wonder who I am. We're talking about talking about talking about each others. And the titles of our posts are puns on movies we didn't even watch.

PS: Yes, that means the blog-block we had yesterday was removed.

[1] Daniel Cohen, "The Future of Preserving the Past" CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 12 no 2 (2005): 6-9.

See also: Cast Away, The Spirits that We Called

TAGS: , ,


  1. Hi Bee,

    Yet another interesting piece that has one stop and think. I especially like the comment about your concern relating to the current lack of assured permanence of our knowledge. You also speculate that much of it holds no relevance or importance and yet I wonder. That wondering stems from the capability and potential of the very technology that permits, transmits and stores it. What I mean is that since it holds the potential to access and help analyze all in its entirety, could it not aid to reveal many truths that are not to be found in any one part or aspect of the content. That is something perhaps about our species that may in part serve as a warning and in part as inspiration to be considered as hope.

    It’s also true and alarming that currently many see this as nothing more then a source of amusement and distraction with only the few realizing the benefits it holds for understanding wrought of learning and meaningful connectivity. Perhaps this is only a phase like witnessed in some cultures where as an example the circle first imagined as merely useful in the creation of bemusing mobile toys, to only later realized to be useful as the basis for tools and vehicles to better our lives more greatly.



  2. Hi Phil,

    No, I don't think so. I don't think technology will in the soon future be able to help us find understanding in information. Technology might be able to find patterns in data, but the level of abstraction necessary to extract the content of written language is far off from our present day possibilities. The assembly of coherent lines of thoughts, based on gathered knowledge, and leading of understandable argumentation that can be continued over the course of time resulting in a slow but steady building of our insights is a process I am sure will remain in the realm of the human brain for a long time. Best,


  3. Hi Bee,

    I think you mistake my meaning, for I never suggested that computers would soon form to be a substitute or replacement for human cognation, yet rather as an unparalleled aid and or servant to it. I agree that for some time it will remain for us to imagine, formulate and ask the questions (with the emphasis on imagine), while it remain simply the function of the machine(s) to process the results. However, one must admit the holding of the data is beyond our own ability, yet will that persist to be true much longer for our machines?

    Again I would suggest that perhaps our current phase is like when with other animals we at first feared and thus avoided fire, only later to find it useful, when mastered and controlled. This is the aspect of humans that I hold trust in; that as a species of individual potential which have learned how to pass some of this on as to be shared to be part of others. We are then for our world indeed a unique species of personal innate abilities, which can invent even more, rather then waiting for their evolution. We then should not fear this ability yet rather understand, respect , celebrate and as you suggest optimize it fully for the personal and common good.



  4. Hi Phil,

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. I was talking in my post about sense-making not data analysis, so I thought your comment asking whether technology could "aid to reveal many truths that are not to be found in any one part or aspect of the content" was referring to revealing truths unrecognized in the body of available information of our collected keyboard tapping, of which I am highly skeptic.

    I do agree that technology is and further can be a great help that spurs progress. I would go even farther and say that only now with the processing capabilities for enormous amounts of data the scientific revolution can eventually be extended to the social sciences. There are also examples in which cross-citation analysis did indeed reveal correlations between seemingly unrelated different works, but such analysis relies on an already existing well structured and referenced body of knowledge and not on a wooly fuzzball as we're creating now where you pull one end and instead of a coherent line of thought you'll get a clump of entangled and knotted completely useless snipples consisting of random thoughts from people about whose identity is at best unsure at worst anonymous.

    Using technology to our benefit requires however a constant assessment of whether our technological tools bring us where we want to go. I know I'm preaching the choir, but technological developments do not automatically lead to progress and if they don't, we have to change direction. Actively. There are developments that happen by themselves, but concluding that these are necessarily the good ones is enormously short sighted. Yes, progress does need governance, it does need careful thought and consideration. As such, progress needs above all things our ability to make sense of the world around us and the will to take the future into our own hands. Technology can help us with that, if we make it a tool work for us, instead of one that is eroding the value of understanding and replacing it with a value for collecting unrelated bits of information.



  5. The great American writer Henry David Thoreau, in his masterpiece "Walden," makes many prescient and funny comments about the direction of modern technology that are in line with what you are saying here. On the first transatlantic cable, which was still a work in progress, he wrote:

    "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

    Your paragraph above, "With every day that more people write...," could almost be a passage from Walden.

    The problem of how to find and preserve the worthy content amid all the dreck clogging the world wide web will most likely be unsolvable; we can hope that some of the relatively few providers of meaningful or beautiful material, knowing that electronic information is evanescent, will take the trouble to record their works in more permanent media, such as paper, as you yourself are doing.

  6. Hi Bee,

    Yes this is what I meant, that the machines hold the potential to increase both our resolution and scope in the attaining of insight and new knowledge and the understanding of it. One thing I would like the technology to be capable of is to give a direct result to the precise question. What I mean by this is that statistics for instance are more often then not relayed in a context and format that serves the purpose(s) of those relating them, being dedicated to stressing their perspective or motive rather then to enhance understanding.

    This is done across the spectrum from marketing studies to medical ones and everything in between, many times distorting the significance. As for example if someone were today to read a story that researchers have discovered that those that drink pickle juice increase their changes of developing pimples by 400% over non pickle juice drinkers, many would be alarmed to the point where they throw out their pickle juice or worse initiate a pickle juice drinkers class action suit. What the reports failed to reveal or make clear is that out of a sample of 4 billion pickle juice drinkers, 4 more people developed pimples then didn’t. Of course I’m exaggerating yet you get my point.

    What I'm saying it would be good to have the ability in any such instance to query the related data for yourself and not simply leave it at the offered interpretation. This is an example where I feel advanced and open technology combined with enforeced policy and education can be deemed as both as enlightening and general improvement in individual decision making.



    P.S. Strangely enough this has a most recent corollary with what I call the F.D.A. tomato debacle, where in my opinion data interpreted wrongly and then reported irresponsibly served to have a lot of people needlessly frightened and a lot of good food wasted.

  7. I have some technical questions about scanning and storage.

    I have many writing pads full of my maths scribble (some of it superimposed with my 2 year old son's toddler scribble). I want to scan and store them. What resolution do you think is adequate for this? What file type is most suitable for handwritten maths? How big is the file for one page, at this resolution, and in this file type? (Assume it's black and white.)

  8. Hi Bee,

    Sorry, I goofed, that should have been a sample of 4 billion with 16 having more pimples not 4. :-)



  9. Dear Bee,

    Most stuff is not worth lasting through the generations. For things that are worthwhile, keep printed copies on acid-free paper. A person should spend the most effort on his/her portfolio - the collection of his/her best creations.

    For digital stuff, CDs and DVDs are not good, because, e.g., the effort of copying 200 of them to whatever the next technology is in 10 years is too much. IMO, it is better to have it all on RAID hard disks; and copy everything you have each time you upgrade.

    Regarding social networking and such, it is easy to overdo it. :) Moderation in all things!

    The current nature of blogging requires frequent updates - straining the capabilities of the producer and of the readers. It might eventually turn out to be better to have a schedule.

    You can see that I probably agree with Phil, that we don't yet know how to deal with all this new stuff. :)


    BTW, my favorite line in this piece is : "I've diffused myself over a dozen social network sites and now wonder who I am."

  10. jjd said: "we can hope that some of the relatively few providers of meaningful or beautiful material, knowing that electronic information is evanescent, will take the trouble to record their works in more permanent media, such as paper" Yeah, so publish in some dusty journal which no one is ever going to read? Or get your stuff out on the web where it's all happening? I know which I prefer. If knowledge is now a crazy, fast-flowing river of information then you've just got to paddle faster and shout louder and get to the front of the queue. Things are changing, and scientists will just have to adapt. The alternative is just not to compete.

    Maybe the nature of knowledge is changing, becoming more rapid, more bite-sized, more dynamic. But maybe dynamism is a good thing. Why are people so scared of change? Why do we always have to go back to the same old books? Why do we have to look at the same old paintings? Why listen to the same old classical music when we can have a different pop song at No. 1 every week?

    Here's a quote which I really like from the American philosopher Robert Nozick who protests about the prejudice in favour of unchanging (Platonic) notions in mathematics, which seeks to endow them with an elevated status: "Some mathematicians have this attitude towards the permanent and unchanging mathematical objects and structures they study, investigate and explore. Despite the pedigree of this tradition, it is difficult to discover why the more permanent is the more valuable or meaningful, why permanence or long-lastingness, why duration in itself, should be important. Consider these things people speak of as permanent or eternal. These include numbers, sets, abstract ideas. Would it be better to be one of these things? Would anyone wish they could become the number 14, or the Form of Justice, or the null set? Is anyone pining to lead a setly existence?"

    Change is good. We should value change and welcome it. Without change the world would be a dull place. So write something that will last for 1000 years (and never be read). Personally, I'm more interested in the here and now, and how many eyeballs I can reach. And let's keep moving.

  11. Hi Andrew,

    “Change is good. We should value change and welcome it. Without change the world would be a dull place. So write something that will last for 1000 years (and never be read). Personally, I'm more interested in the here and now, and how many eyeballs I can reach. And let's keep moving.”

    It seems that you relate change with progress. Having your house destroyed is change or losing ones hair and yet should these be considered good or progressive? I’m sorry yet progress relates to me to be a qualitative thing, not strictly a frequency or quantitative one. If some knowledge persists a thousand years doesn’t mean that our progress has slowed or ability faltered, as it may simply mean that for the most part it is true. You also speak of music or art as they be nothing more then fashion. You call this Platonic thinking and I would call it not understanding there is truth. This is not mere philosophy, this is something many strive to find and one of the principle methods used in this discovery is science.



  12. Dear Bee,

    thanks for this thoughtful essay - it fits very well to a day when I wonder what stuff to pack away for moving, which paper printouts I should dump, and where I had stored away the floppy disk with the files of my master's thesis... But even for stuff that is being printed on paper - what of all this will be worth being remembered in, say, fifty years?

    Cheers, Stefan

  13. Hi Phil, agreed - not all change is good. But by and large technological change does bring inevitable progress. It has done for 1,000 years and I've no doubt it will continue into the future. The internet is making more information available to more people than ever before. If that necessitates new ways of learning and absorbing information then it's us humans who are just going to have to adapt. People who can't see the internet's potential for disseminating knowledge and cannot exploit that (preferring unread dusty books) are going to be the ones losing out.

  14. Have you not considered the irony of you people in an internet blog community complaining about the internet as a bad way of spreading information and knowledge? :-)

    Heck, we wouldn't even have been able to have this conversation ten years ago.

  15. Hi Andrew,

    I am fully aware of the irony, I hope you are aware of that. Phil took the words right out of my mouth (or whatever the written analogue of that saying might be). Change does not equal progress. Change comes by itself whether we ask for it or not, but it requires an evaluation as to where it will lead us to decide whether we want to let it lead us, or whether we need to correct the direction.

    You write

    But by and large technological change does bring inevitable progress

    Can you proof 'inevitable'? I guess you are drawing upon the knowledge that technological change has brought progress? That is true, but this has been possible because we have paid attention to what it brought and because we have corrected it if change was not progress. Consider various side effects of early industrialization. Consider traffic regulations that became necessary with more cars on the road, consider safety features that now are requirements, consider smog regulations. Consider early screens with high radiation doses, consider X-rays of high intensity. There must have dozens of medical practices a century ago that were once considered scientific achievements that are now known to be complete nonsense, if not outright harmful.

    What you are rather naively saying is that it will all work out somehow because you have faith that if things go really wrong, somebody, somewhere will make things right. But there is nobody to make things right except us.

    There exists further the common believe that if things get only nasty enough pressure to act will finally be large enough for mistakes to be corrected. That might be true, but if that pressure gets high enough it might already be too late. That is the reason why, Andrew, I repeat again and again the same mantra: think ahead.

    I'll give you a very simple example. If you get closer to a fire you'll notice change: it gets hotter. You will shy away because heat is painful, and your senses warn you fire is dangerous. If you wouldn't have this warning you'd just notice it's getting warmer. I would hope that then you were smart enough to realize you shouldn't get closer before your hair starts burning and your skin blisters. This warning system is incredibly useful but in situations were we can't sense whether change is good or bad, we have to rely on our ability to asses the present situation and see where change leads us.

    I assure you I fully see the potential of the internet for sharing and disseminating information, and it is a great opportunity that I am convinced can help us solve the challenges we are currently facing. But we have to use it wisely.



  16. Hi Andrew,

    “People who can't see the internet's potential for disseminating knowledge and cannot exploit that (preferring unread dusty books) are going to be the ones losing out.”

    I think you have missed much of what Bee and others have said here and in the past, which is that the accumulation and available access to facts and information are not the same as knowledge. I also would maintain that many people are not aware of this and have never been, regardless of the era.

    Since I was a child I realized there was a distinction to be made between what I call route learners and conceptual ones. The route learners have always considered knowledge as for the most part being what would simply be considered as data points.

    For the conceptual learner, individual, isolated and or unrelated facts on their own have little meaning or semblance as being knowledge, as this cannot be extended to new situations or problems. In my experience this requires in depth study of something inspired by interest and cannot be achieved without the reading of many books coupled with extended contemplation.

    The media of the internet is not formatted or structured currently well for such learning and perhaps to some extent may never be. So for now I will stick to and rely on those old dusty books until this and not I have proven to have changed.



  17. Hi maths scribbler,

    I don't know. What is wrong with putting the notes into a folder and storing them in a box? The only reason I can see for scanning notes is sending them per email?

    We have a copy machine here that also converts scanned images into pdf-files and instead of printing sends them to you by email. It works fast, is very convenient, and the quality is pretty good. Several people here use it to send handwritten notes to collaborators. I would guess that if you go into a copy shop they can offer a similar service. As to data format, I have no clue. PDF, jpg, and gif seem to me fairly robust, but I wouldn't trust my technological predictions myself. Best,


  18. I like my old books, I like to read printed materials, I like to have my photos printed, I like to take handwritten notes. On the other hand I also like my digital life.What I don't like from the former is dust, the latter, noise.

    I am trapped between two eras.

    But what I really look for is time. Time for myself and time for the things that I find important to last. I'm getting more and more selfish in this respect. What I find important is important for *me*. Maybe I'm going into those "bubbles of nothing" that you often refer... Or maybe not. I must confess that I am not that worried about it at the moment. I used to be much more worried about mankind in the past, when I thought we had a good chance for destroying ourselves in a world war III... Things have changed. Is the internet a monster created by us? A disguised WWIII?

    Perhaps only the next generations will be able to deal with information overload created by the monster. If at all. Perhaps all that dynamics is something we cannot understand or absorb now.

    Perhaps, Bee, it is not time for you to disconnect a bit and have some walk under the sunshine? At the end, this is what really matters, your life. Live it fully in the real world-- the internet is just virtual and forgettable, nobody cares. You will not find yourself there.

  19. Hi Bee,

    One thing I will concede is that the internet has always proved to be useful for me in the recognition of concepts and ideas one is not otherwise normally exposed. In this regard I have to admit that although for some time I recognized the internet as being limited, I never considered it to be largely a waste of resource and failing potential. It was through this blog's discussions that I first became alerted to this and as a result something I’m convinced all should have interest to study, consider and move for change.



  20. One of the latest seminars in the Long Now Foundation series (by Edward Burtynsky) touched upon information transfer to a civilization 10000 years from now (In the form of a durable picture gallery to accompany the Clock of the Long Now). How would we "communicate" this aspect of ours?

  21. Hi Christine,

    Thanks for your comment. Indeed I went for a walk yesterday looking for some sunshine, just to get caught in the rain. It is incredible how many insects it has in Canada, I'd never have thought. They even have dragonflies, really large ones, shiny green or red. I sat on a thistle (not long though) and watched the geese.

    Egoism is natural, I'm not an altruist either. People who don't know me often mistake me for one though. I wouldn't spend time on something if I wasn't interested in it, and luckily I can afford this.

    I don't think the internet is a monster. As every technology I see it as a tool, and we have to learn how to use it. But that learning isn't something that is sufficient when done on the individual level. I guess that's my problem with people like Andrew. The internet changes the connections and interactions within our society profoundly, with noticeable effects (see e.g. the above report about print media, or the influence on the election campaign). If this change is for worse, not for better, then it takes a collective effort to recognize it and to solve potential problems. As I said already above, I think that the internet has a large potential in helping us solve challenges we are facing eg in managing social-ecological systems, and that potential hasn't yet even been remotely explored.



  22. Hi Phil,

    Yes, of course I do agree with you. When publishing 'research results' be that in a journal or a newspaper that should be done in a scientific way, such that the reader can in principle check the claims made - I'd say that with our without the internet at hand though.

    It is very puzzling for me - and I am sure you must have noticed that as well - that newspaper or magazine articles reporting on some recent result or a paper in the majority of cases do not add a proper reference. They do generally contain at least one of the author's names, and if you're lucky also a journal, but that's it. I find this very annoying as I then have to go and browse the journal or Google for the author etc. What a nonsense. Similarly, if they quote results of some study they will often not link to the website if there is one. As an example, see the Globe and Mail article on the Excellence in Journalism study.

    I also do agree with you that the internet has brought science much closer to the public, and I think I must have said repeatedly this is a good trend. It has drawbacks too though. E.g. people without an education in science often don't know what to do with that knowledge which is now suddenly everywhere. Take e.g. this discussion about the black holes at LHC. There's tiny bits of information people cling to without getting the larger picture, they re-assemble these bits and misconstrue them to fit their own purposes. Then there's the problem of the late genius, if you allow that I call it like that. There seems to be a lot of people who late in their lives decide they want to invent a theory of everything. Instead of taking some classes however, they go directly to some institute website, pick some email addresses and send out their ingenious ideas, convinced they will be recognized as the next Einstein if only somebody would listen. (Or if they have the money they just publish a book and then 'draw your attention to this great work' of themselves.) There is something broken here if people are not able to realize their work doesn't reach the scientific standard. Typically they might have gotten their paper rejected from journals already by the editor before entering the referee process, but that's just the arrogance of academia of course. There is a huge gap here, and closing it requires some effort from both sides. Best,


  23. Yeah, I believe sunshine is quite rare in Canada... And I didn't know about the insects... Too bad...

    Anyway, I also do not see the internet as monster -- this was a question to you, and thanks for your clarification. I try to make the best possible use of the internet, of course, but people use it the way they like. It's a virtual world with very few constraints... Most people are not that cerebral you know... I agree that this technology is not being explored in its full potential. Maybe the trends do not look promissing. But, on the other hand, it's a new tool and maybe it will reach some maturity in a new future, in a way that we cannot anticipate at the moment.

  24. That was a very interesting discussion. Thanks for all comments.

    I'm kind-of torn on both sides of the argument because I like my dusty old books as well, but I see how the internet is opening a new world of "creative chaos" and it's quite fun to roll with it.

    One thing I feel is a gaping hole in the internet is any sort of equivalent to a science textbook, just providing a grounding in the basics of the subject (up to undergraduate level), together with the basic equations. It's really surprising - I know of no such site. Wikipedia isn't it - it's an encyclopedia. And the arXiv isn't it. It would be just so useful to have that, but it just isn't there, anywhere.

    Phil said: "I think you have missed much of what Bee and others have said here and in the past, which is that the accumulation and available access to facts and information are not the same as knowledge."

    Yeah, I think if we had that science textbook site then it would provide that central repository of authoritative knowledge.

  25. Having said that, I am aware of the Motion Mountain site which is the sort of online physics textbook I was thinking of. It's quite impressive.

  26. Hi Andrew,

    That's a good point actually. I noticed the same thing. There are some lecture notes you find online but these are often already into very specialized subjects (gravitational lensing, AdS/CFT, effective field theories etc). Occasionally I've come across some lecture notes on QM but they didn't impress me all that much. There is also the problem of accuracy. I'd rather read through a handed down book than sitting over a printout from somebody I've never heard of wondering whether I'm just stupid or there is something fishy with that derivation. I prefer to know I'm just stupid ;-)

    Something else I meant to add is that I'm not particularly worried about my generation and up (if I guess that correctly you are some years older than me?) simply because we'd know what we are losing. Take that example with multitasking, decreasing attention span and problems to focus which Maggie Jackson addressed in her book. If you've grown up that way, you don't know it differently. I do at least notice that I read very inattentively on a screen for whatever reasons (it doesn't seem to have much to do with being on- or offline), so if I really want to read something I print it. I read recently in some survey results (will see if I can find the reference) that indeed many people share this behavior when it comes to academic papers.

    (As far as newspapers are concerned there is another reason for me printing them, that is that in many cases you'll have to pay for them after a couple of weeks. Which I find utterly nonsensical, but anyway.)



  27. Hi again,

    Thanks for mentioning motionmountain, I didn't know that! Best,


  28. Like anything there is always a need for distillation of any process, and of course, the deeper you are into the science of the world, the more the question of what becomes the basis for "developing observations" about that process. Getting to the essence of all that information

    For example.

    No two paths will ever be the same for many people, yet, we would like such standardizations of this process(education), so that everyone can draw from the same source, and here, Andrews example is a good one in regards to the book, and what one should keep close beside them.

    Another one would be Hyperphysics So you "build your blog" as an extension of this pursuance. Your developing "concept map."

    No two paths will ever be the same because of the knowledge that is accumulated and becomes that much more a "signature of arrival" to the conclusions one does, and the selection of the variety of skills that will go into the selection of the people for such specializations in science. Those selected tools then become part of the mode of operation.

    People refer books all the time.

    You should be able to switch over to condense matter physics without to much trouble. Implement part of their views into the process of the theoretics and such a thing is "another point of view." One used to become diverse in the approach. Phenomenology. What is required of the theoretics?

    Some people are not capable of this diversity. Ingenuity. The lone genius had to have a bit of every aspect of science in order to appreciate the global view with which the integration takes place.


  29. Hi Bee: "Something else I meant to add is that I'm not particularly worried about my generation and up (if I guess that correctly you are some years older than me?)"

    Yeah, I'm 43. I've no idea what goes on in universities these days. I left academia 12 years ago.

    I have no idea what impact the internet has had. I remember spending a lot of time in the library, and if they didn't have a paper you'd have to ask at the desk, and you were allowed to get the British Library to send you three papers in the post I think every couple of weeks. It sounds like something out of the ark, but I'm talking only 15 years years ago. Now you can get anything instantly off the internet. But have standards increased because of that? You would think so, but I suspect students aren't reading any more papers than we used to. As you say, we get just bits and bobs nowadays.

  30. Those bits and bobs should spur you on?:)

    Now such simplistic assertions could be made about any theory, but what actually goes into it, and you have this cognition about so many bits and pieces, that one realizes that such a view could bring so many, many, things together.

    Because one follows a research route that would seem not/promising to them, does not delineate from the work that can move in others directions. Condense matter theorist with a string theorist. A philosophy of science person with one, in cosmology

    The probability of the insertion of diverse views and different angles allow perception to move and develop in these other areas( two science minds bouncing off one another). You do by nature seek not to constraint the work, but apply your perspective based on the knowledge you are developing.


    Theoretical Physics is like a sky scraper. It has solid foundations in elementary mathematics and notions of classical (pre-20th century) physics. Don't think that pre-20th century physics is "irrelevant" since now we have so much more. In those days, the solid foundations were laid of the knowledge that we enjoy now. Don't try to construct your sky scraper without first reconstructing these foundations yourself. The first few floors of our skyscraper consist of advanced mathematical formalisms that turn the Classical Physics theories into beauties of their own.

    Seeking to destroy any theory means to seek to destroy the foundational attributes of this development, and means, that if your inclined to such a route, you had better be prepared to answer this destruction with a viable interpretation of that foundation.

    As a layman, science is important to me.

    My interpretation is simplistic based on what is included in this assertion.:)There would be others better qualified to show the whole framework, yet, I would see it as very complex, they might say yes indeed, it is a theory of nothing?:)


  31. "Passing on of information to the next generation? Gee, passing it on to my older self is hard enough."

    lol Bee, passing information to one's older self can be precarious. It is not only people with alzheimer's have trouble recollecting past memories or remembering where they left the car keys.

  32. "With every day that more people write, there are less people reading. The more people are shouting and asking for attention, the less people are listening. With every day that more people collect information, less people assemble it to useful knowledge."

    Information overload.
    Sifting through the information has always been a precarious almost random act. Does it matter that much if we had an accurate weather report as to how we proceed today. Sure it can be helpful sometimes to know whether to expect sun, rain or snow storms.

    But will it change what we feel we have to or need to do - and do we sometimes not plough on regardless.

    And of what use is the information of yesterday's weather report. To what use is it to me what temperature it was yesterday where I am, never mind the temperature in London, Berlin or on the other side of the world

  33. Hi Bee,

    Current technological progress really poses a challenge to all of us just because we live in the era of digital revolution. But people who lived, say, in the end of the 19th century, were just as confused about telegraph and radio as we are bout internet. Even this information overload was known in some measure to them. It must have been a great change for message that previously had to travel a few weeks across Atlantic to be transmitted via telegraph in minutes.

    But still current information overload is unprecedented. Too many people now are presenting their ideas even in highly specialised fields such as HEP or QG. Moreover, it is not a problem for scientific community only. Having experience in art and social sciences I can admit that is the case there too. If there were just a few art academies 30 years ago now there are way too many.

    But what is most disturbing is that quantity does not mean quality. And in social sciences and art it is even more the case than in physics. For if passing test of Nature is the ultimate criterion for scientific theory there is no such criterion in art. It leads to the concept that everything must be accepted, everything must be hailed. It is this concept of 'everything goes' that is fostered by the Internet and which poses a grave threat to expertise and value.



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