If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Category: Nonfiction

National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

In early spring much of the land remains bare, with soil left exposed after the harvest of quinoa that feeds an insatiable appetite for the high-protein grain in Europe and the U.S.

The timing is unfortunate. Before the year’s crops are planted, the winds off the Atacama Desert in Chile scour the empty fields, carrying twice as many tons of sediment into the lake as they did before native grasses and shrubs were cleared for quinoa production.

“Drying Lakes,” Kenneth Weiss

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National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

The United Nations warned a decade ago that indigenous people would be among the first to be ravaged by climate change because so many rely on nature’s bounty as subsistence hunters and fishermen. An estimated 23.5 million people fled their homes in 2016 because of storms, floods, wildfires, extreme temperatures, and other weather-related disasters, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. That exceeded the 6.9 million newly displaced by conflict and violence that year.

In sheer numbers those fleeing “natural” calamities have outnumbered those fleeing war and conflict for decades. Still, these figures do not include people forced to abandon their homelands because of drought or gradual environmental degradation; almost two and a half billion people live in areas where human demand for water exceeds the supply. Globally the likelihood of being uprooted from one’s home has increased 60 percent compared with 40 years ago because of the combination of rapid climate change and growing populations moving into more vulnerable areas.

“Drying Lakes,” Kenneth Weiss

National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

You can call them “failed experiments” in evolution if you want, but they succeeded and flourished, within their preferred but challenging environments, for more than 30 million years. We humans should be so steadfast and lucky.

“When Life Got Complicated,” David Quammen, of Ediacarans

National Geographic (Mar. 2018)

When the massive geologic forces that have sculpted the planet are visible at a glance, the eons in which we crafted pyramids and skyscrapers become nearly indistinguishable.

“Beyond the Blue Marble,” Nadia Drake, of Samantha Cristoforetti’s vantage from ISS

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

But over time, with few exceptions, attention is withdrawn from a new situation as it becomes more familiar. The main exceptions are chronic pain, constant exposure to loud noise, and severe depression. Pain and noise are biologically set to be signals that attract attention, and depression involves a self-reinforcing cycle of miserable thoughts. There is therefore no adaptation to these conditions. … Adaptation to a new situation, whether good or bad, consists in large part of thinking less and less about it. In that sense, most long-term circumstances of life, including paraplegia and marriage, are part-time states that one inhabits only when one attends to them.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

Any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation. This is the essence of the focusing illusion, which can be described in a single sentence:

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

It is not only at the opera that we think of life as a story and wish it to end well. When we hear about the death of a woman who had been estranged from her daughter for many years, we want to know whether they were reconciled as death approached. We do not care only about the daughter’s feelings–it is the narrative of the mother’s life that we wish to improve. Caring for people often takes the form of concern for the quality of their stories, not for their feelings. … Most important, of course, we all care intensely for the narrative of our own life and very much want it to be a good story, with a decent hero.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

A comment I heard from a member of the audience after a lecture illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing memories from experiences. He told of listening raptly to a long symphony on a disc that was scratched near the end, producing a shocking sound, and he reported that the bad ending “ruined the whole experience.” But the experience was not actually ruined, only the memory of it. The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened. …

Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion–and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

Richer and more realistic assumptions do not suffice to make a theory successful. Scientists use theories as a bag of working tools, and they will not take on the burden of a heavier bag unless the new tools are very useful.

Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

You know you have made a theoretical advance when you can no longer reconstruct why you failed for so long to see the obvious.