Can the Zygomatica blog serve any useful purpose, when we have made a conscious decision to not focus on anything for any significant periods of time?
I do not speak for the other members of Zygomatica, although they have peer-reviewed this posting (see below). This is my own question, and my own answer.
Most bloggers have no need for such a question. If writing a blog is something that comes naturally and causes real joy, then no question: just do it. For me, writing does not come naturally and is not a real joy. It is difficult. The Zygomatica team has a policy of internally peer-reviewing every posting, meaning we are lucky to end any given day on speaking terms. What, then, is the point?
The point, as I see it, is to maintain and develop my skills of rigorous thinking. It would be exhilarating to create something that people actually enjoy reading, of course. But above all this is an exercise in self-discipline. But self-discipline to what purpose?
A famous paper (Ericsson et al 1993) notes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve exceptional proficiency in any task, meaning 10 years of more or less obsessive practice started at childhood. That is completely excessive though. I have no desire to operate at the “grandmaster level” of thinking. Collegiate level perhaps.
At slightly less obsessive levels, Cal Newport has argued that one should focus tightly on exceeding at one skill at a time, rather than diluting one’s focus. An interesting example is provided by an analysis of the skills of comedian Steve Martin:
“But when you study people like Martin, who really do live remarkable lives, you almost always encounter stretches of years and years dedicated to honing craft.”
Somewhat depressing. I do not have a passion or dedication for any particular craft. On the other hand: neither do I desire to lead a “remarkable life”. Feeding my family, being an passable father and husband, and dying more or less content is enough. But for me a content death requires some intellectual stimulation, which I think requires skill. And even a minimal level of skill does not come easily.
In addition, my idea of fun intellectual stimulation is not exactly shared by normal society. Apparently, I would bore a Vulcan. But a commentary by Cory Doctorow on the concept of “too much time on his hands” warms my heart:
“‘That guy has too much spare time’ is one of the most odious, intellectually dishonest, dismissive things a person can say. It disguises a vicious ad-hominem attack as a lighthearted verbal shrug….. [T]he slur brooks no possibility that the speaker has failed to appreciate some valuable, fulfilling element of the subject’s hobby.”
I love the attitude. An Asperger-like stubbornness to do what you do and ignore the ridicule is something that I admire and respect very much. Genuinely. But I do not have such a clear-cut hobby. (Nor do I exactly have very much time on my hands). Coming closer to home, John D. Cook writes optimistically of the concept jack of all trades and a master of none.
“Calling someone a jack of all trades could be a way of saying that you don’t have a mental category to hold what they do.”
The negative connotations might come from the fact that some seemingly unfocused people have skills that are simply not recognized. This is potentially reassuring. In a similar vein, Venkatesh Rao writes on the “calculus of grit”. A crucial passage:
“So what does the inside view of grit look like?…. It simply feels like mindful learning across a series of increasingly demanding episodes that build on the same strengths.“
I would like to take some comfort from this. My career interests seem to have no coherent pattern at all (space plasmas; memory optimization; temperature sensors; lightning detection; other stuff). But in fact there is a unifying theme. Any problem, literally any problem, can be attacked by the basic tools given by a scientific training — but with a catch. A perfect metaphor for half my thinking is the study on the fastest lane in the supermarket by Dan Mayer. The following line resonates:
“This problem has obsessed me for years. It’s my DaVinci code. It’s my love for math, for mathematical reasoning, for the relentless deconstruction of something that seems simply intuitive into data, models, and computation.”
I love the quote, but it is only half the truth. Meaningful real-world phenomena cannot be reduced to simple mathematical/scientific models. You can always prune down the problem until it can be modeled. But at some point the model is too simple to describe the original problem statement. To me, only half the work is done when the math is done. The other half is to evaluate whether the solution actually has any relevance to the problem. As often as not, it does not, and then it is back to the drawing board.
Perhaps that is what makes Zygomatica a meaningful exercise. Using rational methods to skeletonize a seemingly intractable problem into a scientifically solvable one; trying to solve the problem; and then relentlessly and ruthlessly deconstructing whether the solution has any real-life meaning whatsoever. That is actually a skill set that is not taught at university. This is a mindset that I have applied to problem after problem, project after project, year after year. And that plodding is just perhaps what separates Zygomatica from being a mere exercise in dilettantism.
I may be overoptimistic and covering for an inner insecurity. On the other hand, this is where an Asperger-like attitude comes in handy: I really do not care if this sounds ridiculous. It is my thing. And the Zygomatica thing.