No, This Doesn’t Make Sense

Herman Bernstein “Élie Metchnikoff,” With Master Minds; Interviews by Herman Bernstein (New York: Universal Series Publishing Company, 1913), p.61:

We are working all along in this direction in the hope of finding the most effective remedy for premature senility. I am only 64 years old, and yet see how gray my beard is. I look much older than I really am. This should not be. People will attain happiness only when they will grow old naturally, not as they now grow old without years, and when they will be able to use all their faculties, without suffering or pain, until the time sets in for their natural death. The relief that medical science brings to suffering humanity should not be regarded as merely a negative ideal. The absence of suffering, which means that man can make use of his perfect health, constitutes a very positive ideal, which is appreciated all the more as the years go by and which makes it possible for man to avail himself of the other advantages of life.

In an interview with the Financial TimesLaura Deming echoed Metchnikoff’s sentiments on increasing healthy life span by  developing treatment for age-related diseases:

I tell her I’m not sure that everyone thinks that the fact of ageing — rather than its symptoms — is an obvious problem that needs addressing. Deming suggests I think about infectious disease. “For such a long time, people viewed it as a required part of life. Of course you’re going to die in your twenties or thirties from this random virus. You thought it was the natural course of life, until Pasteur and others said: ‘No, this doesn’t make sense.’ ”

The Principle of Destruction

Charles Wagner, “Effort and Work,” Courage (New York:  Dodd, Mead and Company, 1903), pp.113-114: 

A certain inertia, one might almost say an influence emanating from death, tends incessantly to neutralize and exhaust our vital force. Iron and steel rust; and every force, no matter what it may be, has beside it a principle of destruction which attacks it, and will ruin it unless it defends itself. Man is not exempt from this law. He must struggle against rust by regular exercise of his faculties. We are condemned by an inevitable law to advance unceasingly under penalty of falling into decay. Movement is not only a sign of life; it is a source of life. To strengthen his muscles, to carry his body, to learn to use his hands, his eyes, to become accustomed to fatigue, to the rigors of the seasons, to struggle against obstacles, to increase his intelligence by difficult exercise, to familiarize his will with opposition, to conquer his desires, his emotions, his passions, in a word, to tame and discipline his whole being. As soon as he applies himself to this task, which, I admit, is not without difficulty, he perceives how fortifying it is.

The Satrapy by Constatine P. Cavafy

What a misfortune, although you are made
for fine and great works
this unjust fate of yours always
denies you encouragement and success;
that base customs should block you;
and pettiness and indifference.
And how terrible the day when you yield
(the day when you give up and yield),
and you leave on foot for Susa,
and you go to the monarch Artaxerxes
who favorably places you in his court,
and offers you satrapies and the like.
And you accept them with despair
these things that you do not want.
Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels.
How can Artaxerxes give you these,
where will you find these in a satrapy;
and what life can you live without these.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1910).

Playlist of the Week

Chip, Ella Mai   —   Hit me Up
G-Eazy, Keyshia Cole, E-40   —   Nothing to Me
Lil Wayne   —   Can’t be Broken
Teyana Taylor   —   No Manners
Jhene Aiko   —   3:16AM
Rita Ora, Chris Brown   —   Body on Me
Cheryl   —   Fight for this Love
Tinashe, Offset   —   No Drama
Rihanna   —   Bitch Better Have my Money
Kat Dahlia   —   Gangsta  

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it. 

Afterthought

Those who live are those who struggle; are those
Whose high resolves fill soul and eyes; who, urged
By noble destiny, ascend the slopes,
Or walk with pensive mien, absorbed in hopes
Of ends sublime, having before their eyes
Some holy task or some great love to serve.

–Victor Hugo

Mario Livio on Curiosity

Knowledge@Wharton: What is it that really drives our curiosity?

Mario Livio: Curiosity has several kinds or flavors, and they are not driven by the same things. There is something that has been dubbed perceptual curiosity. That’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when something doesn’t quite agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state, as an adversity state. It’s a bit like an itch that we need to scratch. That’s why we try to find out the information in order to relieve that type of curiosity.

On the other hand, there is something that has been dubbed epistemic curiosity, which is a pleasurable state associated with an anticipation of reward. That’s our level of knowledge. That’s what drives all scientific research. It drives many artworks. It drives education and things like that.

Knowledge@Wharton: There’s a basic difference between being unpleasant or unhappy and being happy. I would think many people feel both of those things pretty much every day of their lives, correct?

Livio: You’re absolutely right. You see something that you completely did not expect or is very ambiguous, and you feel somewhat unpleasant about this. On the other hand, you try to learn something new every day, and that is a very pleasurable state that gives you a reward. So yes, everybody feels both of these things almost every day.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there an element of curiosity that is enhanced by living in the digital age?

Livio: There are some people who have the feeling that because we have information literally at our fingertips, maybe we’re becoming less curious. But that’s not true. There are two things to remember. One is that when we do scientific research, we try to find answers to questions where we don’t know the answers yet. Therefore, you cannot find those answers on the internet or Wikipedia.

The other thing is that what the internet allows us to do is to satisfy what has been dubbed specific curiosity, namely you want to know a very particular detail. Who wrote this or that book? What was the name of the actor in that film? The digital age allows you to find the answer very quickly. That’s actually good because you don’t want to spend all your time trying to answer a question like that. I don’t know how you feel, but I sometimes can be really obsessed by not knowing the answer to something very, very simple like that.

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s almost a natural component of who we are. There are times when we become obsessed with wanting to know what that information is.

Livio: That’s right. In that sense, the digital age helps us because we can find that information, and that may drive us to look for something else about this. And that would drive perhaps epistemic curiosity, which is this love of knowledge and wanting to learn new things.

Read more here

Mario Livio is an Israeli-American astrophysicist and an author of works that popularize science and mathematics

George Pólya’s Problem Solving Methods

  1. First, you have to understand the problem.
  2. After understanding, make a plan.
  3. Carry out the plan.
  4. Look back on your work. How could it be better?

If this technique fails, Pólya advises: “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.” Or: “If you cannot solve the proposed problem, try to solve first some related problem. Could you imagine a more accessible related problem?”

Read more here

George Pólya was a Hungarian mathematician.

Constantinos Daskalakis on Tackling Hard Problems

Scroll down to the bottom of Constantinos Daskalakis’ web page— past links to his theoretical computer science papers and his doctoral students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and you will come upon a spare, 21-line poem by Constantine Cavafy, “The Satrapy.”

Written in 1910, it addresses an unnamed individual who is “made for fine and great works” but who, having met with small-mindedness and indifference, gives up on his dreams and goes to the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes. The king lavishes satrapies (provincial governorships) upon him, but his soul, Cavafy writes, “weeps for other things … the hard-won and inestimable Well Done; the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels” — all the things Artaxerxes cannot give him. “Where will you find these in a satrapy,” Cavafy asks, “and what life can you live without these.”

For Daskalakis, the poem serves as a sort of talisman, to guard him against base motives. “It’s a moral compass, if you want,” he said. “I want to have this constant reminder that there are some noble ideas that you’re serving, and don’t forget that when you make decisions.”

The decisions the 37-year-old Daskalakis has made over the course of his career — such as forgoing a lucrative job right out of college and pursuing the hardest problems in his field — have all been in the service of uncovering distant truths. “It all originates from a very deep need to understand something,” he said. “You’re just not going to stop unless you understand; your brain cannot stay still unless you understand.”

Today, Daskalakis’ contributions have been recognized with the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize, which is awarded every four years and is considered one of the highest honors in theoretical computer science. The award cites his “powerful body of results” that explicate core questions in economics about how rational players behave in games and markets, as well as his more recent work in machine learning.

“I really can’t think of anyone else who has been a leader and influencer in so many areas,” said Éva Tardos, a computer scientist at Cornell University. “It’s amazing and it’s impressive.”

Daskalakis is interested only in problems that will be “wildly impactful,” said his former doctoral student Matthew Weinberg, now a professor at Princeton University. Daskalakis’ attitude, Weinberg said, has always been: “Here’s all these unsolved problems that are crazy hard and will be really impactful to solve; someone has to do it, so let’s make it be us.”

Daskalakis’ work sits at the interface between mathematics and the study of human behavior, and this is no accident. The son of two high school teachers in Athens — his father taught mathematics and his mother Greek literature and history — he spent his childhood steeped not just in science but also in the deeply human-centric mindset of the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights.

“That’s a super important heritage that I carry,” he said. “It’s inspiring, it’s humbling, it’s a big responsibility, it’s a challenge.”

Read more here

Constantinos Daskalakis is a Greek theoretical computer scientist. He is a professor at MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department and a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

Playlist of the Week

A$AP Rocky, Bones   —   Canal St.
KIDS SEE GHOSTS   —  4th Dimension
Pusha T   —   If you Know you Know
The Game   —   Money
CyHi The Prynce, Estelle   —   Murda
Big Sean   —   Moves
A$AP Ferg, Future   —   New Level
Gucci Mane, Migos   —   I get the Bag
Huncho Jack   —   Eye 2 Eyes
Rae Sremmurd   —   Lit Like Bic

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it.