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1,000,000 Words to the Wise

According to my blog, I’ve published 1152 posts since I started it back in 2004. I was 43 when I started writing these posts.

My average post is about 870 words long, so based on my somewhat admittedly limited math skills, that means I’ve written just a smidge over 1 million words in the last 18 years. If I were writing a book, that would have been 1.71 books the length of War and Peace or ten average novels.

For those of you that have been following my output for some of or all of that time, first of all, I thank you. Secondly, you’ll have noticed a slow but steady editorial drift towards existential angst. I suspect that’s a side effect of aging.

For most of us, as we age, we grapple with the nature of the universe. We worry that the problems that lie in the future might be beyond our capabilities to deal with. We fret about the burning dumpster fire we’re leaving for the next generation.

If you’re the average human, we tend to deal with this by narrowing our span of control. We zero in on achieving order with the things which we feel lie within our capabilities. For the average aging guy, this typically manifests itself in obsessions with weed-free lawns, maniacally over-organized garages or driveways free of grease spots. I aspire to achieve at least one of these things before I die.

But along with this obsessive need for order somewhere in our narrowing universe, there’s also a recognition that time is no longer an unlimited commodity for us.  For some of us, we feel we need to leave something meaningful behind. More than a few of us older dudes become obsessed with creating their magnum opus.

Take Albert Einstein, for example. In 1905, which would be known as his annus mirabilis (miracle year), Einstein produced four papers that redefined physics as we knew it. One of them was the paper on special relativity. Einstein was just 26 years old.

As stunning as his achievements were that year, they were not what he wanted to leave as his definitive legacy. He would live another 50 years, until 1955, and spent a good portion of the last half of his life chasing a Unified Field Theory that he hoped would somehow reconcile the explosion of contradiction that came with the emergence of quantum mechanics. He would never be successful in doing so.

In his 1940 essay, ‘A Mathematician’s Apology,’ G.H. Hardy asserted that mathematics was “a young man’s game” and that mathematical ability declined as one got older. By extension, conventional wisdom would have you believe that the same holds true for science — primarily the so-called ‘hard’ sciences like chemistry, biology and especially physics.

Philosophy – on the other hand – is typically a path that doesn’t reach its peak until much later in life. This is true for most of what are called the “soft” sciences, including political science, economics and sociology.

In an admittedly limited but interesting analysis, author and programmer Mark Jeffrey visualized the answer to the question: “At what age do we do our greatest work?” In things like mathematics and physics, notable contributors hit their peak in their mid 30’s. But in the fields of philosophy, literature, art and even architecture, the peak of those included came a decade or two later. As Jeffrey notes, his methodology probably skewed results to the younger side.

This really comes down to two different definitions of intelligence: pure cognitive processing power and an ability to synthesize input from the world around us and – hopefully – add some wisdom to the mix. Some disciplines need a little seasoning – a little experience and perspective. This difference in the nature of our intelligence really drives the age-old debate between hard sciences and soft sciences, as a post from Utah State University explains:.

“Hard sciences use math explicitly; they have more control over the variables and conclusions. They include physics, chemistry and astronomy. Soft sciences use the process of collecting empirical data then use the best methods possible to analyze the information. The results are more difficult to predict. They include economics, political science and sociology.”

In this explanation, you’ll notice a thread I’ve plucked at before, the latest being my last post about Elon Musk and his takeover of Twitter: hard sciences focus on complicated problems and soft sciences look at complex problems. People who are “geek smart” and good at complicated problems tend to peak earlier than those who are willing to tackle complex problems. You’re born with “smart” – but you have to accumulate “wisdom” over your life.

Now, I certainly don’t intend to put myself in the august company quoted above. My path has infinitesimally consequential compared to, say, Albert Einstein’s. But still, I think I get where Einstein was trying to get to when he became obsessed with trying to (literally) bring some order to the universe.

For myself, I have spent much of the last decade or so trying to understand the thorny entanglement of technology and human behavior. I have watched digital technology seep into every aspect of our experience.

And I’m worried. I’m worried because I think this push of technology has been powered by a cabal of those who are “geek smart” but lack the wisdom or humility to ponder the unintended consequences of what they are unleashing. If I gathered even a modicum of the type of intelligence required to warn what may lie on the path ahead, I think I have to keep doing so, even if it takes another million words – give or take.