Tag: Information

Albert Einstein on Sifting the Essential from the Non-Essential

Albert Einstein on Sifting the Essential from the Non-Essential

Charlie Munger once said: “We have a passion for keeping things simple.”

Albert Einstein says, “I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.” Most of us try to consume more information, thinking it will lead to more signal, without thinking about how we filter and how we process the information coming in.

Knowing some basic principles helps as does knowing how to combine them. As Einstein says “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its area of applicability.”

It wasn't because he understood more about the complicated than other people, as John Wheeler points out in his short biographical memoir on Einstein:

Many a man in the street thinks of Einstein as a man who could only make headway in his work by dint of pages of complicated mathematics; the truth is the direct opposite. As Hilbert put it, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Gottingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, despite that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” Time and again, in the photoelectric effect, in relativity, in gravitation, the amateur grasped the simple point that had eluded the expert.

Where did Einstein acquire this ability to sift the essential from the non-essential? For this we turn to his first job.

In the view of many, the position of clerk of the Swiss patent office was no proper job at all, but it was the best job available to anyone with (Einstein's) unpromising university record. He served in the Bern office for seven years, from June 23, 1902 to July 6, 1909. Every morning he faced his quote of patent applications. Those were the days when a patent application had to be accompanied by a working model. Over and above the applications and the models was the boss, a kind man, a strict man, a wise man. He gave strict instructions: explain very briefly, if possible in a single sentence, why the device will work or why it won't; why the application should be granted or why it should be denied.

Day after day Einstein had to distill the central lesson out of objects of the greatest variety that man has power to invent. Who knows a more marvelous way to acquire a sense of what physics is and how it works? It is no wonder that Einstein always delighted in the machinery of the physical world—from the action of a compass needle to the meandering of a river, and from the perversities of a gyroscope to the drive of Flettner's rotor ship.

Who else but a patent clerk could have discovered the theory of relativity? “Who else,” Wheeler writes, “could have distilled this simple central point from all the clutter of electromagnetism than someone whose job it was over and over to extract simplicity out of complexity.”

Charles Munger speaks to the importance of sifting folly.

Part of that (possessing uncommon sense), I think, is being able to tune out folly, as distinguished from recognizing wisdom. You've got whole categories of things you just bat away so your brain isn't cluttered with them. That way, you're better able to pick up a few sensible things to do.

John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books

“You know that I voluntarily communicated this method to you, as I have done to many others, to whom I believed it would not be unacceptable.” 

In 1685 English physician and philosopher John Locke published “Méthode nouvelle de dresser des recueils,” which explains his unique method of indexing his common-place book. Later translated from French into English as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, with a preface by Monsieur Le Clerc, who augments and clarifies the work.

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Locke's Method

Locke first began keeping common place books in 1652, his first year at Oxford. His system, as unique at the time as it is today, can be found on pages [vi] and [1] in A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books (image below).

In his letter to Monfieur Toinard, which serves as the basis for A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, he explains the index, which contains a line for every letter of the alphabet and a subdivision along the lines of vowels:

I take a white paper book of what size I think fit, I divide the two first pages which face one another, by parallel lines, into five and twenty equal parts, with black lead; after that, I cut them perpendicular by other lines, which I draw from the top of the page to the bottom, as you may see (below) … Afterwards I mark with ink every fifth line of the twenty five that I just now spoke of. … I put at the beginning of every fifth space, or before the middle, one of the twenty letters which are defign'd for this use; and a little farther in every space one of the vowels in their natural order. This is the index or table of the whole volume, be it of what size forever.

John Locke
John Locke

Locke continues:

” If I would put anything in my Common-place Book, I find out a head to which I may refer it. Each head ought to be some important and essential word to the matter in hand; and in that word regard is to be had to the first letter, and the vowel that follows it; for upon these two letters depends the use of the index.

[…]

When I meet with any thing worth putting into my Common-Place-Book, I presently look for a proper Head. Suppose for Example, the Head were Epistola; I look in the Index the First Letter which the Vowel that follows, which in this Case E I. If there is found any Number in the Space marked E I, that shows me the space designed for Words which begin with E, and whose Vowel that immediately follows is I, I must refer to the word Epistola in the Page what I have to take notice of, I write the Head in pretty large Letters, so that the principal Word is found in the Margin, and I continue the Line in writing on what I have to remark. I constantly observe this Method, that nought but the Head appear in the Margin, and on and on without carrying the Line again into the Margin. When one has thus preserv'd the margin clear, the Heads, present themselves at First Sight.”

[…]

When the two pages designed for one class are full, I look forwards for the next backside of a leaf that is blank. … At the tip of this new backside of a leave, I set down the number of the page I filled last. By these numbers, which refer to one another, the first whereof is at the bottom of one page, and the second is at the beginning of another, one joins matter that is separated, as if there was nothing between them.

[…]
Every time I put a number at the bottom of a page, I put it also into the index; but when I put only a V, I make no addition to the index; the reason whereof is plain. If the head is a monosyllable, and begins with a vowel, that vowel is at the same time both the first letter of the word and the characteristic vowel. Therefore I write the word Ars in A a, and Os in O o.

People in the Renaissance broke texts into fragments and used these to assemble and connect. It was, perhaps, the original remix culture and ultimate foundation of creativity.

Locke also advises having several books, “one for each science upon which one makes collections, at least two for the heads, to which we may refer to all of our knowledge, viz. , moral philosophy and natural; and perhaps a third, which may be called the knowledge of signs, which relates to the use of words, and is much more extent than mere criticism.”

At the time Locke's method offered a solution to one of the biggest problems of commonplace books: how many pages to assign in a blank notebook to a new subject. By means of an example, one of Newton's notebooks, “Certain Philosophical Questions,” which he began at Cambridge in 1664, listed 37 heads with a rather unsuccessful guess at the number of pages each would require. Locke's method required no pre-assigned pages, which made it more useful for both the diversity of information one kept and the size of the repository.

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Not all were fans of Locke's Method

In a paper read before the Statistical Society at the close of the year 1840, and published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Henry John Porter, commented:

It is strange, indeed, that such a man as Locke, impressed with the value of method, should ever have adopted so imperfect and arbitrary a plan, or having once adopted it, that he should not have improved upon it' for, surely, nothing can be more opposed to all method than the grouping of subjects together without any other bond of connection than an initial letter and a first vowel.

[…]

The object to Locke's “Common-place book” is this,—that a number of totally different subjects are entered in the same page, or succession of pages, which subjects are held together by no other relation than that of an initial letter and first vowel. It is true, that so long as these entries are few in number, there is little loss of time in refereeing to them' but if they become very numerous, many pages may be passed in review before the desired passage meets the eye. But even this inconvenience is not of sufficient moment to require the adoption of an improved method, where each of the several entries refers to a different subject. It is only from a great number of passages referring to the same topic as scattered through a succession of pages that the inconvenience of this plan is severely felt. It was this obvious inconvenience which induced me to adopt the improvement of devoting a separate page, or series of pages, to each separate subject. But even here I soon found the same objection to apply which lay against the common-place book of Locke. As long as the entries referring to any particular topic were few in number, my common-place book answered well-enough; but when the subject began to occupy many pages, I found that if I wanted to make use of it, to digest the materials which I had collected, to analyze them, or to write about them, I had to re-arrange the whole, and to place extracts or facts of my own observing which related to one part of my subject, or threw light upon any isolated question connected with it, by themselves, that by viewing them in connection I might better understand their bearing, and estimate their value. Thus the initial labour of inscribing the several extracts or facts in my common-place book had to be repeated with regard to all those parts of my subject to which I was induced to pay particular attention.

 

Locke's method was used for at least one hundred years.

Commonplace Books as a Source for Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity

Common Place Book

There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when you have occasion for any thing, you can't use it, because you know not where it is laid.”

The flood of information is nothing new.

“In fact,” the Harvard historian Ann Blair writes in her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, “many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extend back for centuries.” Her book explores “the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management — the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation.” She calls them reference books.

Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating access to a mass of texts considered authoritative. Reference books have sometimes been mined for evidence about commonly held views on specific topics or the meanings of words, and some (encyclopedias especially) have been studied for the genre they formed.

[…]

No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new. Nonetheless, the basic methods we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books. Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.

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The Florilegium and Commonplace Books

One of the original methods to keep, share, and remix ideas was the florilegium, which was a compilation of excerpts from other writings taken mostly from religion, philosophy, and sometimes classical texts. The word florilegium literally means a gathering of flowers — flos (flowers) and legere (to gather).

The leading Renaissance humanists, who experienced perhaps the first wave of information overload, were fans of commonplace books as a method of study and note-taking. Generally these notebooks were kept private and filled with the likes of the classical Roman authors such as Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca.

“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”

Arranged under ‘Heads' and recorded as ‘common-places' (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices.

The aim of these books wasn't regurgitation but rather combinatorial creativity, as people were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone — in this case, information — is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play.

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A Move Away From Memory

Theologian Jean Le Clerc, writing about John Locke's use of commonplace books, said:

In all sorts of learning, and especially in the study of languages, the memory is the treasury or store-house, … but lest the memory should be oppressed or over-burthen'd by too many things, order and method are to be called into its assistance. So that when we extract any thing out of an author, which is like to be of future use, we may be able to find it without any trouble. For it would be of little purpose to spend our time in [the] reading of books, if we could not apply what we read to our use.

Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory. Yeo writes,

This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. This imagined space was then searched for the images and ideas it contained…. In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory.

While calling memory “the store-house of our ideas,” John Locke recognized its limitations. On the one hand, it was an incredible source of knowledge. On the other hand, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time, memory faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. In something the internet age would be proud of, Locke's focus was retrieval, not recall. His system was a form of pre-industrial Google.

Locke saw commonplace books not as a means to improve memory but as an aid in recollecting complex information gathered over years from multidisciplinary subjects. If only Farnam Street existed in his day.

Yeo writes:

Locke sometimes refers to his bad memory. This might seem to endorse the humanist conception of commonplace books as memory aids, but Locke does not believe that memory can be trained in ways that guarantee transfer across subjects and situations. This separates him from many of his near contemporaries for whom the commonplace book was still a stimulus in training memory to recall and recite selected quotations.

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Creativity

In his essay “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” Robert Darnton comments on the practice at the time, which was to copy pithy passages into notebooks, “adding observations made in the course of daily life.”

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. … The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.

Commonplace books are thus to be mined for information, not only on how people thought but also as a source of creativity. Darnton continues:

By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology — a process of knowing — at work below the surface.

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The Art of Putting Things in Order

As for what to write in the commonplace books themselves, Le Clerc advised that we: (1) extract only those things which are “choice and excellent,” for either the substance or the expression; and (2) don't write out too much, and mark the place where we found it so we can come back to it:

At the entrance indeed upon any study, when the judgment is not sufficiently confirm'd, nor the stock of knowledge over large, so that the students are not very well acquainted with what is worth collecting, scarce anything is extracted, but what will be useful but for a little while, because as the judgment grows ripe, the things are despis'd which before were had in esteem. Yet it is of service to have collections of this kind, both that students may learn the art of putting things in order, as also the better to retain what they read.

But here are two things carefully to be observed; the first is, that we extract only those things which are choice and excellent, either for the matter itself or else for the elegancy of the expression, and not what comes next; for that labour would abate our desire to go on with our readings; neither are we to think that all those things are to be writ out which are called … sentences. Those things alone are to be picked out, which we cannot so readily call to mind, or for which we should want proper words and expressions.

The second thing which I would have taken notice of, is, that you don't write out too much, but only what is most worthy of observation, and to mark the place of the author from whence you extracted it, for otherwise it will cause the loss of too much time.

Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant.

The places we design to extract from are to be marked upon a piece of paper, that we may do it after we have read the book out; neither is it to be done just after the first reading of the book, but when we have read it a second time.

These things it's likely may seem minute and trivial, but without 'em great things cannot subsist; and these being neglected cause very great confusion both of memory and judgment, and that which above all things is most to be valued, loss of time.

Some who otherwise were men of most extraordinary parts, by the neglect of these things have committed great errors, which if they had been so happy as to have avoided, they would have been much more serviceable to the learned world, and so consequently to mankind.

And in good truth, they who despise such things, do it not so much from any greater share of wit that they have than their neighbours, as from what of judgment; whence it is that they do not well understand how useful things order and method are.

Locke also advised “to take notice of a place in an author, from whom I quote something, I make use of this method: before I write anything, I put the name of the author in my common-place book, and under that name the title of the treatise, the size of the volume, and the time and place of its edition, and the number of pages that the whole book contains.”

This number of pages serves me for the future to mark the particular treatise and the edition I made use of. I have no need to mark the place, otherwise than in setting down the number of the page from whence I have drawn what I have wrote, just above the number of pages contained in the whole volume.

(Image source)