Roses and traffic lights


[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

I read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary last year, and I’m still digesting what I think of the book as a whole (see this thread for a few thoughts), but I’ve already got a lot of use out of some of the ideas I picked up along the way. One of the most surprising things I learned is that there are two very different ways we use the word ‘symbol’, and I’d never noticed! This observation is probably not unique to McGilchrist, and may be obvious to others anyway, but it was news to me.

The first sense is roughly what we mean by symbolism in poetry. The power of a poetic symbol lies in the strength of its associations to other ideas, objects and symbols, both direct and culturally specific. The rose is a canonical (western?) example:

In one sense of the word, a symbol such as the rose is the focus or centre of an endless network of connotations which ramify through our physical and mental, personal and cultural, experience in life, literature and art: the strength of the symbol is in direct proportion to the power it has to convey an array of implicit meanings, which need to remain implicit to be powerful. In this it is like a joke that has several layers of meaning – explaining them destroys its power.

The other sense is a more technical, practical one, that applies to the sort of symbols you see on clothes labels, maps and airport signs. These symbols need to be unambiguous. In this case secondary associations are useless at best and may be actively dangerous. A red traffic light needs to mean one thing only:

The other sort of symbol could be exemplified by the red traffic light: its power lies in its use, and its use depends on a 1:1 mapping of the command ‘stop’ onto the colour red, which precludes ambiguity and has to be explicit.

In the book these two quotes are bookended by a couple of sentences linking this back to his hemisphere model. I left those out because this point stands whether he’s right or not. I’m more interested in the implications, which I haven’t thought through very much yet.  I can’t think of any situations where we mistake one kind of symbol for the other – we generally know whether we’re reading poetry or a clothes label – so maybe this is something we just know how to navigate in practice, and the mixing together of concepts doesn’t matter very much.

Still, I find this confusion deeply weird, and I’m left with a few questions:

  • Who else has written about this point? Any good references?
  • Do other languages split these two concepts up into separate words?
  • Are there good examples of intermediate cases? Emoji seem like one potential good place to look. They need a fairly fixed meaning to work, but often pull a network of secondary meanings along with them (which sometimes – as with the eggplant/aubergine – end up overshadowing the original intended meaning). They’re often conveying squishy human emotions, and haven’t been as rigorously pruned for the purposes of technical rationality as airport signs. This would be an interesting topic to explore in itself.
  • Does being unaware of this distinction ever cause trouble in practice? Maybe emoji are the place to look again.

If you have any thoughts, let me know!

Five jobs meme, post-PhD edition

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[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

There was a ‘first five jobs’ meme going around in March when I first started compiling this list of potential posts. This is my favourite entry:

I’m going to do this but with the first five jobs I did immediately after getting a PhD in physics, because the answer is funnier. I had a sort of unmotivated directionless phase after I finished, and did a bunch of weird temporary jobs in the absence of any better ideas. Exactly five in fact. I haven’t made anything up here, the jobs really were that odd. Here’s the list:

1. Walking round hospitals measuring things

I really wanted to do something mindless straight after I finished, and I’d done some temporary admin work before, so I signed up with a temp agency. They really excelled themselves and came up with something more mindless than I could ever have imagined.

The job was seriously weird. There were two hospitals being merged together on a new site, and the project management office needed to collect data on how much storage space the new hospital would need for medical supplies. I’m not sure what the best way of doing this would be, but maybe it would involve, I don’t know, some Fermi estimates based on their current storage requirements, plus some efficiencies for the single site. What they actually did was make a giant spreadsheet of every sort of item ordered by the hospital (bandages, prosthetics, tiny orthopaedic screws) and then employ EIGHT OF US to go round the hospitals with tape measures FOR WEEKS tracking down and measuring every individual item on the list, including the tiny orthopaedic screws. It was a kind of bizarre treasure hunt round the wards and cupboards and operating theatre storerooms, and I sometimes got to scrub up and go into the theatres themselves for the more obscure items. I genuinely enjoyed this job, because I like walking and exploring and being nosy, but also wtf??

I was so talented at this challenging job that I was kept with one other guy for an even tougher assignment – weighing things. We went round finding all the different types of surgical kits and putting them on scales for… reasons, I guess.

I have no idea if any of this data was ever useful for anything.

2. Following medical secretaries around

After this I had a few weeks off for some reason I forget, and then I phoned the temp agency again. They had more work at the same place! This time they were collecting data on the space they’d need for admin work, and my job was to follow people round and tick a box saying what they were doing every five minutes. Most people were understandably pretty unhappy about being seen like a state, and were grumpy at first, but when they realised I wasn’t too irritating they’d soon warm up, often to the point of offering me office cake.

I discovered Slate Star Codex some time in this job (this was early 2014) and obsessively read my way through the whole back catalogue on a tiny phone screen in between ticking boxes. That was my first step down the rabbit hole of becoming an extremely online person, so I guess it’s notable in retrospect.

3. Receptionist in a soup factory

I only did this one for two weeks, which is good because it was deadly boring. I was on the reception desk signing visitors in and out of a soup factory in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Bristol. Not many people visit soup factories in industrial estates unless they’re bringing a lorry of soup ingredients, so this wasn’t very taxing. To pass the rest of the time I was given a big pile of soup batch reports (temperature, density, etc) to enter into some spreadsheet.

Not much else to say about this one. The soup smelled quite nice in the morning I guess.

4. Numeracy drop-in sessions for nurses

After this I stumbled into a job that actually used some of my mathematical knowledge. This wasn’t really due to any effort on my part – my landlord, a research chemist, knew some people at the maths department of a local university and passed my name on. It’s not a big research university with an army of PhD students to do all the bits of marking and tutoring that crop up, so I took some of these on.

This is the only one where I’ve tweaked the title for comic effect, because I did a lot of more normal stuff too, marking Fourier series engineering coursework and running computer labs. But the best thing they gave me was the numeracy drop-in sessions. There’d been a high profile case somewhere where a patient had been given X milligrams of something instead of X micrograms and died, and now nursing students had to pass a test to show understanding of unit conversions along with some other basic maths. It was a nice walk along the river to the nursing hospital, which was in a converted Victorian lunatic asylum, and I’d sit in their fancy barrel-vaulted canteen and help people out if a numeracy test was coming up, and get on with whatever I wanted if it wasn’t. Pretty enjoyable job.

5. Sorting the post in a law firm

This was about as exciting as it sounds. The post would come in early in the morning, and then we’d open it, sort it, scan it, email it out, and file the originals. Sometimes people would request the original documents, so in the afternoon we’d pick those out of the files. For some added excitement we’d do a trolley run to other offices to fetch the post.

The most fun I had on this job was when I got put on ‘destruction’ for a week. This is still a lot less fun than it sounds, and involved chucking old documents into bags for shredding after rescuing any stray passports and birth certificates. Still, it wasn’t supervised much, and a leisurely week of listening to music while throwing things in bags is quite relaxing.

After a couple of months of this I finally decided I’d had enough of this, and started looking for a more normal job. Since then I’ve been working as a programmer, like everybody else who left academia after a STEM PhD and didn’t have any other ideas. So that was that was the end of my prestigious career in weird temp work. Though I guess there’s still time to become a duck roper.

Synthesising foggy pearls



[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

Very short one to start things off. I have a new twitter bio and I wanted to explain it.


Like everything else in my head it comes from mashing two things together and deciding that they are the same thing. First, here’s an alternative definition of ‘metascience’, from… whatever this game is:

I’m not sure ‘metascience’ has much of an agreed-on definition beyond the obvious ‘ideas that extend around or beyond science’, but the conference mentioned in the tweet expands on it with the following:

During this decade, we have witnessed the emergence of a new discipline called metascience, metaresearch, or the science of science. Most exciting was the fact that this is emerging as a truly interdisciplinary enterprise with contributors from every domain of research. This symposium served as a formative meeting for metascience as a discipline. The meeting brought together leading scholars that are investigating questions related to themes such as:

  • How do scientists generate ideas?
  • How are our statistics, methods, and measurement practices affecting our capacity to identify robust findings?
  • Does the distinction between exploratory and confirmatory research matter
  • What is replication and its impact and its value?
  • How do scientists interpret and treat evidence?
  • What are the cultures and norms of science?

I think that ‘synthesising foggy pearls’ is actually weirdly appropriate, especially for the first point about idea generation. You go into the fog — vague, contextual, disorienting swirls of untheorised confusing stuff — and try to condense out something more structured, durable and reusable. This process fascinates me more than almost anything. I want to understand how we do it, and I want to understand how to do it better.

A couple of months later I saw this tweet:

It turns out that there’s a beetle that synthesises pearls from fog already! Maybe it can teach us how to do metascience…

Notebook Blog Month

I’m going to try an experiment in June: writing lots of short notebook-style posts, roughly in the style of David MacIver’s notebook blog. I’ve been thinking of testing whether this format works for me for ages, and it seems like a good time to finally do it.

I crashed most of my writing routines in late 2019 by getting a new job with a long bus commute and dropping my monthly newsletter for a while to readjust. That was the main engine driving new post drafts, so once that crashed the blog went with it. Then 2020 came along and crashed everything else. I’ve been doing a lot of weird half-baked physics stuff but not really writing anything up properly, and I’ve sort of forgotten how to by now. This is my attempt to flywheel up some writing energy again, starting with some easier raw material than badly organised physics notes.

If I like it I may continue with something like this, if not I’ll probably go back to the newsletter format. Or combine both somehow? Don’t know yet.

Anyway… I’ve made a list. I’ve dredged through old drafts and newsletter notes and incomprehensible shower-thought emails to myself, and managed to pull together 50 topics I could potentially write about. And I’m going to make quick low-res attempts at a bunch of these. Some of these are pretty constrained in scope anyway, others would be a serious research project to do well, but either way I’ll just sit down for an hour or two and see what I can bash out in that time. I might also veer off the list if any good ideas come up during the month.

My goal is 20 posts but I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t get there. I don’t have a good sense of how difficult this is going to be, and the idea is to have fun rather than kicking myself through a miserable obstacle course. Ten would be fine.

I wanted to call this Shitty Blog Posts Month, which is a funnier name, but I’m trying to wean myself off this sort of self-deprecation. It is quite likely that many of the posts will be shitty, given the time constraints. But I want to avoid the whole thing of saying ‘oh I’m not really trying, look I’ve labelled it ‘shitty’ and put it on a blog called Drossbucket, don’t judge me’. That was very effective several years ago for getting past my defences and starting to write at all, but I don’t need it any more.

OK, here’s the list. There’s no meaning behind the order, I just came up with a whole load of ideas and then randomised the list afterwards. In practice I’m likely to do a mix of the ones I’m most excited about and the ones I can phone in quickly, but I’d also be interested to know which ones look appealing to people – it’d be more fun to write for an audience!

Edit to add: I’m crossing these off as I do them. Also if I have more ideas I’m adding them to the end after the original fifty.

  1. Cognitive dancing! cognitive style! followup post
  2. Pullman – alethiometer/marionette theatre essay
  3. Debugging resources – just a list of blog posts etc people suggested in that twitter thread.
  4. The way mathematicians name variables is actually good and not bad. Notes from November: “I had a good thought about… something… but lost it before I opened this document 😦 Possibly it was connected to that John Cook thing David Chapman mentioned about how everything in probability is P… was connecting it to that thing people say about meaningless variable names in mathematics. I don’t think this is such a big deal because mathematical symbols end up richly saturated with meaning when you use them… they tend to represent recurring concepts not arbitrary bags-of-crap like in programming.”
  5. Bret Victor Kill Math
  6. Mane 6 as Mitford sisters
  7. Talking About Machines Kindle highlights
  8. Examples only
  9. Whiny post about why I find debugging hard
  10. Redraft Wittgenstein newsletter stuff as post
  11. “Neoliberalism”
  12. Something on ‘accountability’ narratives e.g. that Meaningness gluing goldfish crackers to ceiling example.
  13. I don’t like the ‘bullshit jobs’ classification, too binary. Attempt to bullshit out a better taxonomy.
  14. Programmer envy
  15. Old ‘fragmentation’ draft
  16. Something about that vague thing I was just thinking about on intellectually understanding vs viscerally understanding – the visceral one feels a lot ‘more real’ so it is really tempting (coming from a sort of rational worldview) to think there is a clean theory behind it. whereas actually that visceral sense is coming out of the background of previous engagement with the thing, which is complicated and specific, and isn’t ever going to resolve to a clean theory. need to sort out what I’m even trying to say.
  17. Do something with all those Tasic postmodern mathematics notes I made
  18. Bristol bridge walk tweets in blog post form
  19. Rewilding physics
  20. Too many cooks spoil the global section
  21. Marx on alienation speedrun. Feel like I should know what he has to say but I can’t be arsed. So set a timer for one hour to research and read, then write up what I find.
  22. Pebbles and sheep as an example of the middle distance thing. If they are an example of the middle distance thing. Write the post and find out.
  23. Something like Dan Luu’s ‘HN: The Good Parts’ post where I dig out comments I really like from various places. or maybe exceptional comment threads? i dunno.
  24. Rubik’s cube learning notes
  25. Write out that twitter thread on McGilchrist/Derrida/whatever with some words between it
  26. Thinking on the page’/ writing, fast and slow
  27. Old draft on my dislike of ‘thin’ technical terminology
  28. Trailing clouds of glory’ ramble from August 2019 notes
  29. Crackpot time 3
  30. That thing I was thinking about in the stationery aisle in the post office. Something like ‘most stationery is ambiguity reduction’. Is it true? Write the post and find out.
  31. Some shit on going all out on your natural strengths vs getting to mediocre on your weaknesses.
  32. Worse than quantum mechanics. (PR box and Piponi’s machine are both ‘worse than QM’ in some way. Is there any deep connection there?)
  33. Something to do with the banana’s indexicality post
  34. You Are Not An Artisan thoughts
  35. David MacIver’s book prompt notebook post thing
  36. Taste
  37. Pretentious essay on The Waste Land and oddly satisfying videos
  38. Close to the Machine Kindle highlights
  39. The Well Wrought Urn / Heresy of Paraphrase
  40. The middle distance post comments are good enough that I could probably make a post by summarising them.
  41. Seven Types of Ambiguity Kindle highlights
  42. diff mcgilchrist.txt chapman.txt
  43. Two types of symbols bit from McGilchrist
  44. Keep your identity embodied and *maybe* also illegible.
  45. Five jobs meme: post-PhD edition
  46. Ben Hoffman on LW has a good comment… somewhere… about how we end up doing ‘accidental deliberate practice’ on things we already like, e.g. improving writing by monologuing in your head while walking. Find it and give more examples.
  47. Practical Criticism book thoughts
  48. AU where Derrida trolled mathematicians instead and writing/speech became algebra/geometry
  49. Bristol study hall – what it is + why it’s good
  50. ‘Eating fog’ (Namib desert beetle)
  51. Having opinions in public
  52. Motive power
  53. Universities are still good
  54. Dig out that Garfinkel pulsar thread and do something with it
  55. Doing things on purpose
  56. Some rambling thoughts on visual imagery