Sunday, November 25, 2007

Timequake

Breezed through Vonnegut’s Timequake this weekend, a whimsical, esoteric, moralistic and funny page-turner. Two relevant (to this blog) morsels to share:

First, Vonnegut’s recap of an interaction with his alter ego (Kilgore Trout):

The first story Trout had to rewrite after the timequake zapped him back to 1991, he told me, was called “Dog’s Breakfast.” It was about a mad scientist named Fleon Sunoco, who was doing research at the NIH. Dr. Sunoco believed really smart people had little radio receivers in their heads, and were getting their bright ideas from somewhere else.

“The smarties had to be getting outside help,” Trout said to me at Xanadu. While impersonating the mad Sunoco, Trout himself seemd convinced that there was a great big computer somewhere, which, by means of radio, had told Pythagoras about right triangles, and Newton about gravity, and Darwin about evolution, and Pasteur about germs, and Einstein about relativity, and on and on.

“That computer, wherever it is, whatever it is, while pretending to help us, may actually be trying to kill us dummies with too much to think about,” said Kilgore Trout.
Next, more Trout:
Only after he had completed his own absorbing business, the story, was Trout at liberty to notice what the outside world, or, indeed, the Universe, might be doing now, if anything. And as a man without a culture or a society, he was uniquely free to apply Occam’s Razor, or, if you like, the Law of Parsimony, to virtually any situation, to wit: The simplest explanation of a phenomenon is, nine times out of ten, say, truer than a really fancy one.
Reminded me of Blink, along with myriad rants herein about simplicity. Intrigued by the nonfiction of Vonnegut’s creative nonfiction, I Wiki’d deeper:
Occam's razor (sometimes spelled Ockham's razor) is a principle attributed to the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory. The principle is often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae ("law of parsimony" or "law of succinctness"): "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem", or "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity".

This is often paraphrased as "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best." In other words, when multiple competing theories are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest entities. It is in this sense that Occam's razor is usually understood.

Originally a tenet of the reductionist philosophy of nominalism, it is more often taken today as a heuristic maxim (rule of thumb) that advises economy, parsimony, or simplicity …

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