Monthly Archives: January 2013

Polymaths, freedom of information, and copyright – why we need copyright reform to more effectively increase the number of polymaths

Emil Kirkegaard, board member of Pirate Party Denmark


Polymaths are people with a deep knowledge of multiple academic fields, and often various other interests as well, especially artistic, but sometimes even things like tropical exploring. Here I will focus on acquiring deep knowledge about academic fields, and why copyright reform is necessary to increase the number of polymaths in the world.

Learning method
What is the fastest way to learn about some field of study? There are a few methods of learning, 1) listening to speeches/lectures/podcasts and the like, 2) reading, 3) figuring out things oneself. The last method will not work well for any established academic field. It takes too long to work out all the things other people have already worked out, if indeed it can be done at all. Many experiments are not possible to do oneself. But it can work out well for a very recent field, or some field of study that isn’t in development at all, or some field where it is very easy to work it things oneself (gather and analyze data). Using data mining from the internet is a very easy way to find out many things without having to spend money. However, usually it is faster to find someone else who has already done it. But surely programming ability is a very valuable skill to have for polymaths.

For most fields, however, this leaves either listening in some form, or reading. I have recently discussed these at greater length, so I will just summarize my findings here. Reading is by far the best choice. Not only can one read faster than one can listen, the written language is also of greater complexity, which allows for more information acquired per word, hence per time. Listening to live lectures is probably the most common way of learning by listening. It is the standard at universities. Usually these lectures last too long for one to concentrate throughout them, and if one misses something, it is not possible to go back and get it repeated. It is also not possible to skip ahead if one has already learned whatever it is the that speaker is talking about. Listening to recorded (= non-live) speech is better in both of these ways, but it is still much slower than reading. Khan Academy is probably the best way to learn things like math and physics by listening to recorded, short-length lectures. It also has built-in tests with instant feedback, and a helpful community. See also the book Salman Khan recently wrote about it.

If one seriously wants to be a polymath, one will need to learn at speeds much, much faster than the speeds that people usually learn at, even very clever people (≥2 sd above the mean). This means lots, and lots of self-study, self-directed learning, mostly in the form of reading, but not limited to reading. There are probably some things that are faster and easier to learn by having them explained in speech. Having a knowledgeable tutor surely helps in helping one make a good choice of what to read. When I started studying philosophy, I spent hundreds of hours on internet discussions forums, and from them, I acquired quite a few friends who were knowledgeable about philosophy. They helped me choose good books/texts to read to increase the speed of my learning.

Finally, there is one more way of listening that I didn’t mention, it is the one-to-one tutor-based learning. It is very fast compared to regular classroom learning, usually resulting in a 2 standard deviation improvement. But this method is unavailable for almost everybody, and so not worth discussing. Individual tutoring can be written or verbal or some mix, so it doesn’t fall under precisely one category of those mentioned before.

How to start learning about a new field
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Ada 2012 Tutorial #1

Ada 2012 Tutorial

Ada Lovelace, the namesake of the Ada programming language, considered the world’s first computer programmer

    Welcome to the tutorial! I will be making some assumptions which are fairly safe: first, that you are unfamiliar with the Ada language; second, you have at least some interest in discovering what it is about; third, that you have some programming experience; and last, that you have an Ada Compiler. (There’s a free one available from AdaCore here, and the GCC has one as well.)
    Ada is probably different than what programming languages you are likely to be familiar with, this is a result of Ada’s design goals — two of which are safety and maintainability. The first means that Ada tries to do a lot of checking up-front, in compilation if possible, which reduces the time spent debugging at the cost of the compiler rejecting erroneous source. That can be frustrating at times, but it is better than having to spend three days tracking down a bug. This leads us to the second difference, Ada was designed to be highly maintainable, even across large teams, which is evident in its package system.
    To introduce the language I will use a small and simple (read as ‘toy’) LISP-like interpreter. To begin with, we need to realize that LISP runs on a loop of read-input, evaluate, and print.

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Meaning and Happiness

Which is a more important pursuit in life: meaning or happiness?


Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was transported to a Nazi concentration camp in September 1942. When the camp was liberated three years later, he was his family’s sole survivor. Dr. Frankl used his experiences to write his bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946, which he completed in only nine days. Frankl, whom the Nazis used to treat suicidal prisoners in the camps, concluded that the difference between those who lived and died came down to one thing: meaning.

People who find a meaningful purpose to their suffering are far more resilient than those who fail to do so.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning. Two suicidal inmates that Frankl encountered in the concentration camps profoundly shaped his observations and conclusions. One patient had a child in a foreign country. The second patient was a scientist who had unfinished work and writing to complete. Both anticipated something beyond their present circumstance waiting for them to finish and fulfill.

Frankl wrote, “This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'”
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Startup Idea Checklist

The unfortunate part of being an idea person in entrepreneurship is the tendency to accumulate more ideas than you have time to implement, and consequently, the need to discard most of them. But there are certain defining characteristics of ideas which can determine their success at a given stage in the business lifecycle. It turns out that many of these characteristics are possible to define in a fairly simple checklist. Before you chase an idea, try running it through this checklist and see if it matches what you’re looking for at your current stage of business and financial/risk situation. For instance, if you’re working on your first venture (and not teaming up with a more experienced entrepreneur, which you should do if you can), you might want to avoid scenarios which require large outside capital investments, as the terms offered are generally not as favorable to first-time entrepreneurs.

1. Does the startup serve an immediate need?

1a. To whom?

1b. What need?

1c. If existing solutions meet the need, how can you better meet the need?

2. Can the startup scale to address a broader need in the future?

3. Are the user and the customer the same person? i.e. Does the person paying also receive the benefit?

4. Does more than one “type” of customer need to join simultaneously?

5. Where does the money come from?

6. Can it be bootstrapped? Are initial expenses necessary to acquire revenue?

7. Can you start it off yourself? If not, where will you find the necessary co-founders?


While this is not the end-all-and-be-all of a startup’s viability, it’s a useful tool to narrow down the possibilities before making the mistake of embarking on one that isn’t suitable.


1905: Annus Mirabilis – Photoelectric effect

This is the first in a series of posts that will cover the outcome of the 4 fundamental papers published by Albert Einstein in 1905, the so-called “Annus Mirabilis”, or miracle year. This article was originally published at the sent2null blog and is reposted here courtesy of David Saintloth. The remaining 3 posts in the series are to follow.


1905 was a great year for physics – in this year a 24 year old patent examiner in Bern, Switzerland published 4 fundamental physics papers in 4 disparate areas of the field. The topics included special relativity, the relationship between energy and matter, Brownian motion, and the subject of this post, the photoelectric effect.

Next to his paper on Brownian motion, Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect was probably the most practical: it provided an answer to a long-standing problem in electromagnetic theory at the time that had stood as an embarrassment to particle physics. This embarrassment was a legacy of the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his fundamental equations of electromagnetism: by using a continuous wave analog to describe the energy of propagating fields, Maxwell was able to astonishingly explain the riddle that was the relationship between electricity and magnetism in clear mathematical terms. He was also able to show how light itself must be an electromagnetic wave, by showing that all such waves are limited by the speed of light (c), roughly 186,000 miles per second.

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Amy Chow, Polymath

Project Polymath’s vision is to create a whole army of da Vincis, spreading across the world with their diverse skills and talents in art, music, medicine, mathematics, science, and many other fields of study.  Since Leonardo da Vinci was from another time and culture, though, I have wondered what form modern polymaths might take.  I thought back to my days as a gymnast and realized that I already knew of at least one: Amy Chow, Olympic champion gymnast, concert pianist, elite-level diver, and doctor.

Amy Chow

During the summer of 1996, I watched the USA Olympic Team Trials.  I was twelve years old, I made straight A’s in school, and I very much enjoyed my piano lessons and gymnastics classes.  So, of course I took note when the commentators talked about Amy Chow and her elite-level piano skills, her 4.0 GPA, and her daring tricks on the vault, bars, beam, and floor.  (Her skill level was much more impressive than mine.)  On the second day of the Olympic Trials, she fell off the beam and hit her head, but she finished the routine (by the end of the competition, one could see a purple bruise right by her eye).  Because of her perseverance, she made the Olympic team, and I was even more amazed on the night I saw her and her teammates make history by winning America’s first team gold medal in gymnastics.

Amy became a two-time Olympian in 2000, after which she went to medical school at Stanford University and specialized in pediatrics.  In more recent years, Amy has done both diving and pole-vaulting.  Her skills in gymnastics lent very well to other sports and helped her go from recreational-level diving to national-level diving in approximately a year’s time.  She may have even advanced to the 2012 Olympic Trials for diving, had she not suffered an injury prior to the meet.

Amy summed up the heart of the polymathic pursuit when she said, “I like learning new things”.¹  She has described integrating and synthesizing her areas of expertise; she has a particular interest in sports medicine and helping children enjoy a healthy, meaningful athletic experience.²   She sets goals that are high but realistic for her, and she then takes the steps necessary to pursue them.  From her experiences, she has learned important life skills, including responsibility, dedication, problem solving, perseverance, and teamwork.²  Any budding polymath would do well to emulate these qualities.

Watch Amy’s beam routine here

Watch Amy’s uneven bars routine here

Hear an interview with Amy


¹ Palo Alto Medical Foundation. (2012).  “Amy Y. Chow, MD, FAAP.”  Retrieved 4 January 2012 from .

² Peters, Keith. (2011). Olympian Amy Chow dives into a new challenge.  Palo Alto Online Sports.  Retrieved 4 January 2012 from .


Photography: exposure and metering

Want to take pictures like this?

Waves of Nacre

Waves of Nacre

Mediterranean Sunset

Golden Leaves

See The Light

Then you’ll need to master the art of exposure – controlling the amount of light which enters your camera.


What is exposure?

Like the eye, cameras operate by recording light when it strikes a sensor in the camera. The camera’s sensor is made of a grid of semiconducting material (the number of light-sensing “buckets” in this grid determine the resolution of the photograph). When light strikes a “bucket”, the incoming energy frees paired electrons in the material, causing an electric current to flow. This electricity is picked up by a processor in the camera (its “brain”) and the responses from the “buckets” are compiled to form an image.

The amount of light striking the sensor while the camera’s shutter is open determines how much light is recorded in the image. In other words, the more light that enters the camera (or the longer the camera is exposed to a constant source of light), the brighter the resulting image will be. This is called the exposure.
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Michael Barnathan

January 3, 2013

Welcome to the official blog of Project Polymath! We’re excited to get the discussion going on the future of education, and to share many of our insights and interesting finds within and across many areas of study.