All the World's a Classroom

The Solitude of Thinking

The Solitude of Thinking

Photo credit: Sunset Girl

 

My head is my address. I live there, most of the time, alone.

 

Sometimes there are guests, but they’re usually only a few steps inside or peeking in through the window.

 

Introverts Anonymous, anyone?

 

I recently revisited an old blog post due to a renewed realization at how private the act of thinking is to an individual. I tend to rate thinking—solitary thinking and reflection—as the most sacred activity in our existence as human beings. No one can touch that space where a fountain of insights and creativity resides.

 

Thinking of the deepest kind is, by nature, lonely. And it is not a bad thing to be lonely in this sense. In fact, it is a necessity for the birth of individuality.

 

“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do. The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought.” Ellen G. White in Education, p 17.

 

I sometimes go overboard with cherishing moments of contemplation. When an issue or situation perplexes me, I could ruminate silently for days. But out of this silence and solitude comes the most profound ideas that last a lifetime. Personal truths, as it were. The deeper the solitude, the stronger it is anchored to the soul.

 

Being a thinker and not a mere reflector of others’ thoughts is a lofty goal that requires utmost diligence. It involves iterations of asking, Whose voice is it that I’m hearing? Who are influencing my thoughts? Add knowledge, refine the mental model, reshape, reshape.

 

This, by definition, must be done alone. If anyone else does the work, then it ceases to be independent thinking. And if the power to think is foregone, identity will follow not far behind.

 

 

The Story In Time

The Story In Time

Photo credit: dryicons

 

Time is something fleeting that’s barely felt in the present. Things move and change in time, but in the present, they are often imperceptible because we, the observers, move along with them. Only when we “pause and reflect,” metaphorically taking ourselves out of the moving system, can we see the changes around us that are in fact pretty drastic.

 

The easiest example of this is observing a growing infant or toddler. The parents or siblings may not notice the height change as much as a distant relative who sees the child once a year. “Oh, he/she’s grown so much,” they say. The same changes, in proximity, are not as dramatic.

 

Since dramatic narratives are really appealing, I take quite a bit of pleasure doing the exercise of zooming out and observing things at a macro level. At this vantage point, storylines become larger than life. One of these exercises is studying timelines.

 

Timelines tell grand stories of how the world has altered. They can reveal things that may be imperceptible over years, decades, or even generations.

 

Usually, timelines are created for specific narratives, for example the timelines of U.S. presidents, American history, or the French Revolution, etc. While these are already fascinating, what fascinates me even more is overlaying these specific timelines into a more complete picture.

 

I call this the “vertical slice”—it’s when you have multiple timelines with time (e.g., year, centuries, etc.) as the horizontal axis, overlaid on top of each other do compared side-by-side, and you draw a vertical line at a particular time point. A different story then emerges. This vertical slice in time shows what things happened concurrently at a given point.

 

This is really a simple pivot in data visualization, but as data analysts know, merely inverting the x- and y- axis sometimes reveals different perspectives of the same data set. What’s amazing about data analysis these days is the technological advancement that allows more and more capabilities to tell stories out of complex data.

 

Back in 2011, I worked on several simple timelines that have continued to be the most visited posts on my old blog. Today, I’m about to embark on a fun data visualization project again. Along the way, I’m also trying to learn more about good principles of data visualization, so if you have recommendations on related books or resources, let me know!

 

Some TED Talks on data visualization:

 

 

 

Josephine Elia

What If: Newest Addition to Our Nerdy Home

What If: Newest Addition to Our Nerdy Home

As the self-designated curator of the Elia-Loi library, I added Randall Munroe’s What If to our collection using the promotional credit I received from Amazon Prime Day. The full title is What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Awesome. Just the type of coffee-table book our nerdy home needs.
 

How I Came Across the Title

Doing graduate school in engineering warrants familiarity with comic strips such as PHD comics and xkcd. Randall Munroe is the creator of xkcd. One day, my labmate Ruth invited me to see Munroe’s talk during his Princeton visit. I didn’t remember much from the talk, but it was a fun night.

 

Munroe is a NASA engineer turned full-time comic artist. Last year he gave an entertaining TED talk, which you can watch below. Now, we’re a pair of nerds in my home, but Munroe is a nerd nerd (watch the video). And that’s cool.


I learned about his book from his interview with Colbert. Yes, I do get a lot of reading ideas from fake news shows…

 

Thoughts on the Book

Pure fun. It’s funny and nerdy—I love it! The first question he answers in the book is, What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity? I read this chapter at the bookstore and I was pretty much hooked. Try reading it yourself at your local bookstore!

 

In another chapter, he shows the mathematical absurdity of thinking that everyone only has one soul mate. Of course, the book entertains with his comic drawings too.

 

The Trail

I have a few science-related books on my list, but the one I am most looking forward to is Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, to be released in August.

 

 

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