Seeing further

In November and December I’m going to shut up talking nonsense here, and also have a break from reading blogs, Twitter, and most of my usual other internet stuff. I like blogs and the internet, but being immersed in the same things all the time means I end up having the same thoughts all the time, and sometimes it is good to have some different ones. I’ve seen a big improvement this year from not being on tumblr, which mostly immerses you in other people’s thoughts, but stewing in the same vat of my own ones gets a bit old too. Also I have a bunch of stuff that I’ve been procrastinating on, so I should probably go do that.

I’ve pretty much accepted that I am in fact writing a real blog, and not some throwaway thing that I might just chuck tomorrow. That was psychologically useful in getting me started, but now writing just seems to appear whether I want it to or not. So I might do some reworking next year to make it look a bit more like a real blog and less like a bucket of random dross.

The topic of the blog has spread outwards a bit recently (so far as there is a topic — I haven’t made any deliberate effort to enforce one), but there does seem to be a clear thread connecting my mathematical intuition posts with my more recent ramblings.

One of the key things I seem to be interested in exploring in both is the process of being able to ‘see’ more, in being able to read new meaning into your surroundings. I’ve looked at examples in a couple of previous posts. One is the ‘prime factors’ proof of the irrationality of the square root of two, where you learn to directly ‘see’ the equation \frac{p^2}{q^2} = 2 as wrong (both p^2 and q^2 have an even number of each prime factor, so dividing one by the other is never going to give a 2 on its own).

Another is the process of noticing interesting optical phenomena after reading Light and Colour in the Outdoors. I see a lot of sun dogs, rainbows and 22° halos that I’d have missed before. (No circumzenithal arcs yet though! Maybe I’m not looking up enough.)

They are sort of different: the first one feels more directly perceptual — I actually see the equation differently — while the second feels like more of a disposition to scan my surroundings for certain things that I’d previously have missed. I’m currently doing too much lumping, and will want to distinguish cases more carefully later. But there seems to be some link there.

I’m interested in the theoretical side of how this process of seeing more might work, but currently I’d mostly just like to track down natural histories of what this feels like to people from the inside. This sort of thing could be distributed all over the place — fiction? the deliberate practice literature? autobiographies of people with unusual levels of expertise? — so it’s not easy to search for; if you have any leads please pass them on.

I hadn’t really thought to explicitly link this to philosophy of science, even though I’d actually read some of the relevant things, but now David Chapman is pointing it out in his eggplant book it’s pretty obvious that that’s somewhere I should look. There is a strong link with Kuhn’s scientific revolutions, in which scientists learn to see their subject within a new paradigm, and I should investigate more. I used to hang around with some of the philosophy of science students as an undergrad and liked the subject, so that could be fun anyway.

We ended up discussing a specific case study on Twitter (Storify link to the whole conversation here): ‘The Work of a Discovering Science Construed with Materials from the Optically Discovered Pulsar’, by Harold Garfinkel, Michael Lynch and Eric Livingston. This is an account based on transcripts from the first observations of the Crab Pulsar in the optical part of the spectrum. There’s a transition over the course of the night from talking about the newly discovered pulse in instrumental terms, as a reading on the screen…

In the previous excerpts projects make of the optically discovered pulsar a radically contingent practical object. The parties formulate matters of ‘belief’ and ‘announcement’ to be premature at this point.

…to ‘locking on’ to the pulsar as a defined object:

By contrast, the parties in the excerpts below discuss the optically discovered pulsar as something-in-hand, available for further elaboration and analysis, and essentially finished. … Instead of being an ‘object-not-yet’, it is now referenced as a perspectival object with yet to be ‘found’ and measured properties of luminosity, pulse amplitude, exact frequency, and exact location.

This is high-concept, big-question seeing further!

I’m currently more interested in the low-concept, small-question stuff, though, like my two examples above. Or maybe I want to consider even duller and more mundane situations than those — I’ve done a lot of really low-level temporary administrative jobs, data entry and sorting the post and the like, and they always give me some ability to see further in some domain, even if ‘seeing further’ tends to consist of being able to rapidly identify the right reference code on a cover letter, or something else equally not thrilling. The point is that a cover letter looks very different once you’ve learned do the thing, because the reference code ‘jumps out’ at you. There’s some sort of family resemblance to a big fancy Kuhnian paradigm shift.

The small questions are lacking somewhat in grandeur and impressiveness, but make it up in sheer number. Breakthroughs like the pulsar observation don’t come along very often, and full-scale scientific revolutions are even rarer, but millions of people see further in their boring office jobs every day. There’s much more opportunity to study how it works!

7 thoughts on “Seeing further

  1. David Chapman October 30, 2017 / 6:35 pm

    Merleau-Ponty is the locus classicus for the phenomenology of perception. Haven’t read him in decades, but my recollection is there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there.

    For the phenomenology of boring office jobs, ethnomethodology is a fount of insight. The discipline actually started with Garfinkel’s study of accountants. Lucy Suchman, my mentor in the field, spent a huge amount of time studying people whose job was to approve or deny employee travel expense reports. That’s all about the interaction between an abstract, rational system (policy manuals explaining what is, or is not, a valid travel expense) and the messy nebulosity of specific cases.

    “I sat with people while they processed expense reports and accounts payable and recording the transactions in the accounting office, and developed an analysis of that. It was the beginning of the whole line of argument that I developed around relations between procedures, instructions, plans–any kinds of schematic and prescriptive representations of how things should be done and the actual work of carrying them out. My argument was that it wasn’t that people followed the procedure most of the time and then sometimes they deviated from that, it was that in order to follow the procedure, you had to engage in continuous forms of creative improvisational reasoning.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • drossbucket October 30, 2017 / 8:21 pm

      Thanks, this is really helpful! I was considering reading some Merleau-Ponty (any recommendations?), and it looks that’s an interest at my local university, so getting hold of the books will be easy. If I’m lucky maybe my ID card will still work! (I did a bit of tutoring and marking there a couple of years ago.)

      > Lucy Suchman, my mentor in the field, spent a huge amount of time studying people whose job was to approve or deny employee travel expense reports.

      Ah, now that sounds promisingly boring 🙂 Thanks very much for pointing me towards ethnomethodology – I’d never have known that the field even exists, and these sort of questions aren’t the easiest to google.

      I’m building up a long list of things to investigate, anyway… and I also want to do some physics. I’m interested in way too many things at the moment!


      • David Chapman October 30, 2017 / 8:26 pm

        > I’m interested in way too many things at the moment!

        I spent a couple hours yesterday understanding vacuum tubes (“valves” in English). TL;DR: the hot wire shakes electrons off into the vacuum; the cold wire doesn’t.


      • David Chapman October 30, 2017 / 8:28 pm

        Oh, also, forgot to say: I’ve read only _Phenomenology of Perception_. I don’t know anything about his later work.

        Liked by 1 person

    • drossbucket October 30, 2017 / 8:22 pm

      From the accounting office to killer robots – interesting career!


  2. gavinrebeiro October 30, 2017 / 8:34 pm

    It’s a very good thing to stay away from too much internet. I used to be on Quora but deleted my account. I did that in January and got a lot of studying done since then. I think sticking to websites like WordPress is good. Posts on here tend to be less pop-oriented and more substantial.

    Another benefit I’ve managed to pull from less web time is more time to spend reading novels. All in all, your productivity will definitely improve staying away from social media (Tumblr, Quora[essentially social media now], etc.).


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