It’s the end of 2013, and here’s what Bret fell in love with this year

I’m trying to build a jigsaw puzzle. I wish I could show you what it will be, but the picture isn’t on the box. But I can show you some of the pieces that snapped into place this year, and try to share a context for why they mattered so much to me.

If you are building a different puzzle, it's possible these pieces won't mean much to you. You might not have a spot for them to fit, or you might not yet. On the other hand, maybe some of these are just the pieces you’ve been looking for.

These are mostly about powerful seeing, and powerful representations for scientific thinking.

Reading Tip #1

It’s tempting to judge what you read:

I agree with these statements, and I disagree with those.

However, a great thinker who has spent decades on an unusual line of thought cannot induce their context into your head in a few pages. It’s almost certainly the case that you don’t fully understand their statements.

Instead, you can say:

I have now learned that there exists a worldview in which all of these statements are consistent.

And if it feels worthwhile, you can make a genuine effort to understand that entire worldview. You don't have to adopt it. Just make it available to yourself, so you can make connections to it when it's needed.

Bret Victor What is the difference between scientific and non-scientific thinking? Thinking within a consistent theory versus thinking haphazardly?

I'm crucially interested in the problem of representing theory such that intuitions are fruitful and theoretically sound, and representations suggest analogies that stay true to the theory. That's not diSessa's problem, but I feel that his viewpoint has some powerful clues.

Thanks to Cassandra Xia and Mitch Resnick for suggesting this.

Bret Victor A very exciting book for me, because I see the complaints of the discontents as design challenges that can be overcome. The book contrasts the intimacy, transparency, and directness of “thinking with a pencil” to the helplessness and loss of connection inherent in black-box computational tools. I believe we can design a computational medium whose transparency and directness exceeds that of paper. It sure won't look like anything that exists today.

I suppose Turkle is also responsible for turning me on to scientific ethnography in general, along with Edwin Hutchins.

Thanks to the MIT Press bookstore for leaving this in the bargain bin.

Bret Victor Also see his talk. If you're going to design a system for education, it might help to understand the purpose of education in the first place. Egan points out how modern education is implicitly driven by a cargo-culty mish-mash of three lofty but mutually-incompatible goals. Good luck with that!

I'm really happy to have discovered Kieran Egan this year. Also check out his delightfully audacious Learning in Depth project (video, website).

Found via a reference in a paper by Jonathan Borwein.

Bret Victor A game about learning to see, when all you have are ambiguous representations. Extraordinary, beautiful, amazing.
David Hestenes

Bret Victor I don’t have the words to express how much I admire and value David Hestenes. The theme of his physics work -- both the language he designed and the physical theories he's created with it -- is that you can picture what’s going on. I expect that future generations will place him with Leibnitz and Heaviside, as one whose language dramatically expanded science's thinkable territory.

I link to his modeling work below, because that's what I got into this year, but if you are interested in his language, Imaginary Numbers Aren't Real is what originally got me hooked, and also see Reforming the Mathematical Language of Physics. Unfortunately, there isn't yet a good (visual) (interactive?) introduction.

Bret Victor I read this some years ago, but I wasn't ready for it, and it didn't take. Reading it this year, after having struggled to clarify many of the systemic and cognitive concepts that the paper defines, I felt like I had stumbled upon All The Answers To Everything.

See also his earlier, more pedagogically-oriented paper Toward a modeling theory of physics instruction, as well as the Modeling Games paper below.

Bret Victor Hestenes is beautifully and valuably clear here about the distinction between the Conceptual World (invented models) and the Physical World. And representing the axioms of a theory as a game board, pieces, and legal moves is delightful.

Linked below, both Carver Mead and Alan Kay also orbit around the model vs reality theme. And a particularly incisive perspective on this distinction is in E.T. Jaynes's wonderful paper Clearing Up Mysteries.

Carver Mead
Reading Tip #2

Carver Mead describes a physical theory in which atoms exchange energy by resonating with each other. Before the energy transaction can happen, the two atoms must be phase-matched, oscillating in almost perfect synchrony with each other.

I sometimes think about resonant transactions as a metaphor for getting something out of a piece of writing. Before the material can resonate, before energy can be exchanged between the author and reader, the reader must already have available a mode of vibration at the author's frequency. (This doesn't mean that the reader is already thinking the author's thought; it means the reader is capable of thinking it.)

People often describe written communication in terms of transmission (the author explained the concept well, or poorly) or absorption (the reader does or doesn't have the background or skill to understand the concept). But I think of it more like a transaction -- the author and the reader must be matched with each other. The author and reader must share a close-enough worldview, viewpoint, vocabulary, set of mental models, sense of aesthetics, and set of goals. For any particular concept in the material, if not enough of these are sufficiently matched, no resonance will occur and no energy will be exchanged.

Perhaps, as a reader, one way to get more out of more material is to collect and cultivate a diverse set of resonators, to increase the probability of a phase-match.

Bret Victor Carver Mead is perhaps more responsible than anyone for Silicon Valley and the microchip revolution. He refers to that as his 30-year detour. Now he's back to fundamental physics and electromagnetic theory.

I love his way of thinking about electrons and “photons”, but I love even more his insistence that we can think of them, and that we must be able to think about them -- that it's our responsibility to have a sensible conceptual model, a picture in the head, not just some mystical equations that happen to match some experiments for reasons we can't ask.

David Hestenes found his “way in” through decades of learning to geometrically interpret the equations, and pursuing a mission to eliminate all “imaginary” mathematical objects. Mead found his way in through decades of learning to work with coherent-matter systems, and pursuing a mission to eliminate all discontinuities in space and time. For both, the "picture in the head" was paramount.

Douglas Engelbart
Bret Victor A transcript is here, but you really, really need to hear it. Just about everything that Ted Nelson writes or presents is magnificent, and here he says what no one else would dare.
Bret Victor I thought that the best way to honor Engelbart here would be to call attention to his more recent work. Even the most ardent Engelbart-fans often haven't looked beyond his 1962 paper or 1968 demo. His three-tiered organizational strategy -- (A) do the work, (B) build tools to improve the doing of the work, (C) build tools to improve the improving -- is painfully relevant and badly needed.
Alan Kay
Reading Tip #3

Misunderstandings can arise when an author is thinking in a broader context than the reader. A reader might be thinking tactically:

How can I do a better job today?

while the author is thinking strategically:

How can we make a better tomorrow?

The misunderstanding becomes especially acute when real progress requires abandoning today's world and starting over.

We are ants crawing on a tree branch. Most ants are happy to be on the branch, and happy to be moving forward.

But there are a few special ants that, somehow, are able to see a bigger picture. And they can see that this branch is a dead end.

They can see that if we really want to move forward, we'll have to backtrack a long ways down.

They usually have a hard time explaining this to the ants that can only see the branch they're on. For them, the path ahead appears to go on forever.

Bret Victor Several “big idea” thinkers have shown up on this list, and I love them all, but Alan Kay's idea is bigger than any of them. It's almost too big an idea to see, and many people don't see it.

Part of the problem is that Kay talks about computers a lot, so computer people think he's talking about computers. But he's thinking of computing-as-a–medium, not computing-as-technology. I'll try to clarify with an analogy:

Wikipedia (printing press) The invention and spread of the printing press are widely regarded as among the most influential events in the second millennium, revolutionizing the way people conceive and describe the world they live in, and ushering in the period of modernity...

In Renaissance Europe, the arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class.

Bret Victor The cultural importance of the printing press doesn't have much to do with the technology -- the ink and metal type -- but rather how print acted as a medium to amplify human thought in particular ways.

Print was directly responsible for the emergence of a literate and educated society, which (for example) made possible the idea of societal self-governance. The US Constitution could only exist in a literate print culture, where (for example) the Federalist papers and Anti-Federalist papers could be debated in the newspapers.

As you read and watch Alan Kay, try not to think about computational technology, but about a society that is fluent in thinking and debating in the dimensions opened up by the computational medium.

Don't think about “coding” (that's ink and metal type, already obsolete), and don't think about “software developers” (medieval scribes only make sense in an illiterate society).

Think about modeling phenomena, modeling situations, simulating models, gaining a common-sense intuition for nonlinear dynamic processes. Then think about a society in which every educated person does these things, in the computational medium, as easily and naturally as we today read and write complex logical arguments in the written medium.

Reading used to be reserved for the clergy, to hand down unquestionable Revealed Truths to the masses. Today, it's just what everyone does. Think about a society in which science is not reserved for the clergy, to hand down unquestionable Revealed Truths to the masses, but is just what everyone does.