Reddit Ask-Me-Anything Event
Responses by Stephen Wolfram to an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit, focusing on his essay "Seeking the Productive Life: Some Details of My Personal Infrastructure."
Q: it seems like you enjoy eating chocolates...do you enjoy chocolate liqueur or bourbon filled chocolates? —danegreen
SW: No. Just solid chocolate :)
Q: One question from Facebook (Joshua Schachter): what do you do for keylogging? i remember you logged every keystroke. —daniellerommel
SW: For the last several years I've used ReFog. Some keyloggers have caused insidious problems with my computer systems, but this seems to be OK.
Q: Hey Stephen, easy question for you: why is math so awesome and how can we make it more accessible and easier to teach? —SpreadItLikeTheHerp
SW: Not really my subject here... But... What's even more awesome than math IMHO is the whole computational universe ... which I think of as a generalization of math. Still, math is basically the single largest intellectual artifact our civilization has built so far. I like teaching it by doing abstract experiments with computers, and our Wolfram Language is great for that. It's so much easier to understand math when one can explicitly see things computationally. Actually I have a project to write an intro to abstract math that's based on that idea. But I have to find time for that! And for that I need to make my life efficient and productive .... which brings us back to the subject of this AMA....
Q: Do you have a "productivity reward function" that helps you decide which tools are most helpful rather than fun technology for its own sake?
For many people, technology enables distractions rather than productivity, and they spend more time watching youtube or reading reddit, etc, or they find themselves a slave to notification messages. Do you have any systems to guard against either of those to maintain focus?
Finally, Wolfram Language aside, which of these tools has given you the most benefit? Phrased another way, is there one you would most recommend to others?
Thanks for the detailed writeup! —nswanberg
SW: My "reward function" is basically "do I actually go on using it?" I like to make sure I try as much leading-edge tech as possible, because I want to understand it. But when it isn't really useful to me, I stop using it pretty quickly.
I think the main way I stay focused is that I have so many projects that I want to do, and I'm pretty tenacious about pursuing them. So if there's a distraction it usually doesn't have enough "gravitational pull" to snag me. I've also just decided there are "distractions" I'm never going to fall into ... for example, I never watch television. (Though this has the effect that when there's a television in a room I'm not used to it, and I find it hard not to look over at it whenever something moves on the screen...)
My main advice about guarding against distraction is to have something to do that you really like doing...
Having said all that, I can sometimes be a procrastinator ... though I consider myself a "rational procrastinator". E.g. don't prepare a talk until right beforehand, because otherwise I'll forget what I prepared...
Q: I've read before how you're an enthusiast about keeping "personal analytics" and I noted that you touched on that in your recent essay/post. What have been the most useful personal analytics that you've tracked? And, if I may ask a follow-up to that: What have been the most interesting or surprising finding that you've discovered about yourself or your life as a result? —MurphysLab
SW: The most useful thing by far that I have is a good email archive, going back 30 years, and well searchable. Also an OCR'ed archive of pretty much every piece of paper in my life. As far as data goes, I find my real-time dashboard of email backlog as a function of time pretty helpful. Oh, and I also find my count-up timer of how long I've been asleep useful. Other personal analytics I end up accumulating, and then look at if I have a specific question.
Actually, there's another thing: I've noticed that a day or two before I get sick with a fever, my heart rate seems to go up. However, in an example of how difficult medical science can be, I've (happily) only gotten sick 3 times in the last 3 years or so since I've been continuously measuring my heart rate. The first two times I saw this effect. But the most recent time I don't think I did, though it was hard to tell because other things were affecting my heart rate...
Q: Do you see working from home to be a more common and expected thing in the future? —d8uv
SW: I have to say that I've been "working from home" for most of my working life (i.e. 40+ years). I've had some fine offices to go to, but somehow I always end reverting to working at home. It's not that I don't like people, but somehow I find I'm more productive at home. Back in the day (~1980) I worked at home by having a dumb terminal connected to an acoustic coupler continuously dialed up to a computer. [Remarkably, it glitched only about every 6 months...]
At my company, perhaps half our people work at home, scattered around the world. (And some seem to travel randomly from place to place :)) I'm not sure if it works well for everyone, but for the kind of get-things-done people we like, it seems to work well.
Q: What's an easy addition that would improve your infrastructure in the next year or two? Could you add some NLP to scan online papers and surface ones that, for example, relate to your current project(s) ? —ArthurAardvark01
SW: I've been experimenting with using our latest ML/NLP tools. One basic thing I'd like is to have a system that alerts me if a question I sent out in email didn't get answered after a certain time. It's a slightly tricky problem. A student at last year's Wolfram Summer School made a decent "is it a question" classifier, but one has to trace through issues of email threading etc.
Another thing I'd really like is an automated "computational history" tool: to be able to take thousands of files or emails about a particular subject and create some kind of meaningful summary timeline/visualization/narrative. I'd like to be able to answer e.g. "what happened with this?", and automatically get the kind of answer that a good historian/analyst could give me.
Of course, ultimately I'd just like a "bot of myself" that can suggest e.g. how I should respond to this AMA question :)
Q: From twitter: Aka Avere Augere:
Did you test for HR w a treadmill outside in nature? —daniellerommel
SW: No! That would be an interesting test. I suppose I could simulate some of it in the real low-tech way of opening a window :)
Q: Do you think there will ever be a treatment for math disorders such as Dyscalculia, and how do you think software may be able to assist this effort? —Sartrean010
SW: When I was a kid I used to claim I was "math challenged" (well, I used different words because I spoke British English then). That was why I started building computer tools to help me ... and eventually built Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, etc.!
Even before I'd built those tools, I was using computers to do math ... and me+computer did really well at math relative to other people, even though me on my own would have done fairly horribly.....
Q: Do you use software to keep track of all or some of the projects happening in your company? Is it really just email threads? Do you use a slack-like application? Do you use something to schedule your day and/or keep track of what you want to be doing? —SaulYoussef
SW: We have a good project management team and system at our company. I think probably the project management culture is the most important part. Different project teams end up using different specific software systems (some use Jira, some use RT, some use homegrown solutions, etc.) We have pretty active RocketChat going on around our company.
My scheduling is pretty complicated, and I have to admit that I have a full-time person who just handles that. (It gets complicated, among other things, because we have lots of meetings that involve people in very diverse timezones ... and sometimes meetings go in unexpected directions and we have to quickly find people, etc. Also, sometimes when I'm working on something I'll end up getting on a roll, and don't want to derail.) My actual schedule is in a standard iCal calendar (Zimbra+Fantastical2). [I'm not a huge fan of the current system we have; it's hard to believe that in 2019 calendar refreshing is that hard, or that recurring meetings need to have such simple-minded logic.]
At least during the week, I tend to have 10–12 hours of completely scheduled time, mostly meetings. I've adopted the methodology of "thinking in public", so most of those meetings are actually creative time, but with other people helping/learning etc.
As far as keeping track of what I want to do longer term ... I have lots of Wolfram Notebooks full of ideas and plans, and I organize things with those.
Q: In regards to personal analytics and productivity, what do you use for knowledge management and general idea storage? What do you use to manage all the different notes on things you may be reading, researching, developing or are simply interested in doing? Scholars such as Luhmen, German Sociologists, believe that one cannot think without writing and have devised elaborate methods such as the slip-box system where they write down and note every idea and build up index systems tracking source and then developing a network of relations. Do you use any such organizational or work-flow enhancing system? —TheJoy-
SW: I try to invent "matrices" for myself, into which I put most things I think about. For example, lots of ideas I have will end up being functions in the Wolfram Language. Other ideas will end being essays or blog posts. During the decade when I was writing A New Kind of Science, most ideas I had ended up somewhere in the book. It's great to have these kinds of "matrices", because then one has a framework for developing the ideas, and once they're done, one can find them again :)
I have rather few orphaned projects (though some day I should write about them, because some are pretty amusing in retrospect). I actively avoid thinking about things where I don't have a "matrix". I don't like to have "disembodied ideas" floating around... Of course, when something is important enough to me, I try to build a "matrix" for it.
Another thing to say is that I typically don't think I understand something until I can write down an explanation of it. In the last few years, I've been writing more, and I really like writing what's currently blog.stephenwolfram.com because I can basically write about anything. Including strange "meta subjects" like my personal infrastructure....
Q: You gather data on your daily activities using Mathematica. As more biofeedback tech (smart watches, neuro tech, etc..) comes along what will Mathematica's role be in helping make use of this data in a meaningful way? Also if I want to make use of a Muse device's data (EEG data) what would be the best approach for doing so in Mathematica? —bleslie69
SW: Mathematica/WL [Wolfram Language] have been able to import EDF for a long time. EEG is really complicated, though I have to believe that modern machine learning should finally be able to unscramble it better.
As far as decoding biofeedback data: ultimately one needs a model for the human to know what it means. And that's becoming more realistic, e.g. with our SystemModeler product. There's a huge amount that I think can be done with "sensor-based medicine", but it requires a change in the way people think about things like medical diagnosis. When you've got a gigabyte of data, it's no longer "well, do you have A or B?" This is a big subject ... there's lots more to say about it.....
Q: Apparently you did a talk at Y Combinator in its early days. Any particular memories of Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian and Aaron Swartz when they were young? —RunDNA
SW: I did do a talk, and even went to the very first Demo Day. As it happens, I was there with my then-10-year-old precociously-business-oriented son ... and he kept a scorecard of the companies. His best pick was a company called Kiko, that was a calendar system. I almost invested in that. In the end, that company didn't make it (it got sold on eBay I think), but its founders went on to start Twitch.... My son's other comment was that Sam Altman (who had a company called Loopt) was "the most businesslike person there". Curiously, I think Sam now runs Y Combinator... I did see the Reddit presentation at that Demo Day, but I'm embarrassed to say it didn't make that much of an impression on me. I knew Aaron Swartz ... and he talked to me a bunch about his company Infogami (as well as about "eating only white food" and other curious things). [Actually, as I write this, one of the other things I remember about that Demo Day was talking to a slightly older entrepreneur who was unhappy with his VCs but was pleased that he'd just managed to install his dog as his CEO.....]
Q: You mentioned putting on a tiny camera which takes pictures every 30 seconds while at trade shows. Which camera do you use? Has anyone ever asked you to pause the camera? —equivariant
SW: It's what was originally called Memoto, then changed its name to Narrative, and sadly didn't make it commercially. (I think they really saw it as a home/consumer product; I'm pretty sure the real market is more professional, for trade shows, validating behavior, etc.)
Particularly several years ago, people sometimes said "what's that?" I thought about painting an eye or a camera icon on it just to communicate preemptively that it's a camera, not least because sometimes people thought it was an audio recorder. I don't remember any time in a professional setting when anyone asked me to turn it off. A few times I wanted to use it on outings with my children, but they gave me such a hard time ("what a stupid thing that is!") that I typically gave up....
Q: What happened to the Facebook analytics module? Why was it discontinued? —Somachigun1234
SW: Facebook (correctly, in my opinion) tightened up the privacy of personal data on their platform, so their API no longer provides the data one would need for this kind of analysis.
Q: Have you ever considered working with Hart? —Demderdemden
SW: I watch no television ... so I might not have gotten that one... However, a long-time senior exec of ours told me years ago that Buffy was her favorite TV show ... and told me about Wolfram & Hart....
Q: Hello Stephen, you and I share a mutual close relationship: the late Mathematica pioneer Richard E. Crandall of Apple ACG, Reed College and Perfectly Scientific. To you he was a colleague and friend, to me he was a teacher (Reed) and mentor/boss (PSI).
While I worked under Crandall's supervision as an employee at his consulting firm I learned a great deal about Wolfram Language/M'ca and Cellular Automata.
Since I left Richard's firm I have formulated a novel (to me) theory that hypothesizes a possible link between Cellular Automata, the Holographic Principle / Black Hole Information Paradox and Cybernetics. My specific theory is that it is possible to enscribe a cellular automata Turing machine on the event horizon of a black hole, thereby creating a cybernetic governor of the inscribed holographic universe. Would you like to read and critique my draft paper before it is submitted to the peer review press? —JohnMobiusOwen
SW: The whole issue of computational processes interacting with distortions of spacetime is pretty interesting (e.g. https://www.wolframscience.com/nks/notes-12-4--time-and-gravity/) I'm curious what you've figured out....
By the way, I always greatly enjoyed Richard Crandall ... with his way of saying things like "let me commend this to your attention"...
Q: About mobile technology, do you think that smartphones will suppress desktop computing?
What is the future of mobile vs desktop computing in business? What do you think about programming in mobile in the future? —danielscarvalho
SW: For myself, I really like having a keyboard that I can type fast on. Our Wolfram Cloud app runs fine on a smartphone, and lets you bring up a notebook and do programming. In a few emergency situations I've used this, and it's worked better than I expected. But I can't see myself forsaking a keyboard for serious work.
I guess the real question is: can things be reduced to point-and-click and/or menus, etc., or is more linguistic communication necessary. I strongly believe that for any form of rich expression, one needs linguistic communication. For natural language, it's conceivable to use voice. We've done some experiments on voice-based Wolfram Language programming, but we haven't figured it out. (OK, there is one case of that I've seen: I visited a group of 11-year-olds who'd learned Wolfram Language and were actually able to fluently speak it to each other ... and were pretty disappointed that I couldn't immediately understand what they were saying...)
Q: Hey Dr. Wolfram; Huge fan of your software. What do you feel about complexity after 30 years of developing a system? That is, by the way longer than I have been alive lol —TheJoy-
SW: This is a confusing question for me, because I've worked a lot on complexity in science (and the launching of "complexity theory" back in the early 1980s etc.) But I'm guessing you mean: complexity of a software system.
It's very important that Wolfram Language is based on a small number of powerful principles (e.g. "everything is a symbolic expression"). It's a lot of work to keep everything coherent, and aligned with the principles, and that's a big part of how I've spent my past 30 years. But by keeping that coherence one builds something extremely powerful ... where all the pieces fit together (connect image computation to graph theory to ...). It's what's allowed us to continually accelerate the development of WL.
Q: Are there any possibilities of your computational engine's capabilities to be used in fields such as molecular simulations, gene sequencing and analysis. etc? Or maybe quantum simulations?
Does the underlying system in theory can support such type of calculations? —rahulnht
SW: Absolutely! In fact ... there are some interesting new things in these directions coming in our Version 12, which is just getting wrapped up now....
(We've had sequence analysis capabilities for a long time; I've even used it on my own genome. See also https://www.wolframalpha.com/examples/science-and-technology/life-sciences/molecular-biology/genomics/)
By the way, if you want to see what's coming in V12 ... check out the 250 hours or so of livestreams I've done over the past year of our internal design meetings....
Q: Dr. Wolfram, you wrote a book called A New Kind of Science.
Many critics claimed it overhyped the principles that were stated in the book... specifically that the automata were not as powerful or as revolutionary as you claimed. You're were also criticized for being too egotistical and not giving enough credit to others who research similar ideas before you.
Looking back, do you feel that the book was overly ambitious, and promoted the automata principles too eagerly? Do you wish you had been more humble in the way you wrote the book? —noleander
SW: I've written about that e.g. in https://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2017/05/a-new-kind-of-science-a-15-year-view/
It's really neat to see the ideas in my book become mainstream. And fortunately I'm enough of a student of the history of science that I find it interesting rather than infuriating to see what happens on the inside of "paradigm shifts"...
By the way, I'm pretty proud of the historical notes in my book ... and I don't know of any significant errors in them. By the way, correct history is hard to do ... but I always find it fun (e.g. https://blog.stephenwolfram.com/2016/07/idea-makers-a-book-about-lives-and-ideas/)
Perhaps I should have given a list of 20,000 academic references too ... but I had the theory that it was easier for people to just search for keywords on the web than to find some obscure journal reference. I did put a list of all the books I used on the web, https://www.wolframscience.com/reference/books/ but I think almost nobody ever looked at it :( I never had a computable version of the many papers I looked at ... but actually we've just recently been scanning all their front pages, so finally I may have a computable list. (As it happens, I had a picture of one of many drawers of such papers in the post I did about personal infrastructure.)
Q: Do you ever use the alias "Stephen Tungsten"? —suburbanbrotato
SW: No. But it's always nice to have an immediate "favorite element"...
Q: If you were to leave wolfram tomorrow, what projects would you pursue? —ecret
SW: There are two big projects I'm really hoping to do soon (though I'm hoping they'll go faster, not slower, with me being part of the company).
One is trying to finish my effort to find the fundamental theory of physics. Of course I may be wrong about how physics works ... but the current ideas about physics (which I understand very well) are basically 100 years old ... and I think it's time to try something different. I've been pursuing versions of this for about 35 years ... but there's lot of technology to build ... and, needless to say, I need WL for it.
The second project is building what I call a "symbolic discourse language": a way of representing in a computable symbolic form the content of anything we might want to talk about. It's an old idea (> 300 yrs old, actually); things a bit like this used to be called "philosophical languages". We've already gotten quite a long way with WL ... but I think it's possible to finish the job. And right now there's even an immediate application, in creating computational contracts.
Oh, and I'd love to have more time to do writing. I have several books I want to write.
I would also like to do more on teaching computational thinking to kids. I have a hobby right now of doing that, and I find it a lot of fun. It'd be nice to scale it up ... though dealing with the organizational structure of education is not my kind of thing.
I enjoy doing history projects too...
Actually, I have a pretty long list of things I want to do....
Q: I've met many people who work at your business and they say it's a wonderful job but is it true what I've heard about the Stephen meetings where someone may be fired right on the spot for a single comment? —37precentmilk
SW: I actually think that in my 40 years of management I have never fired anyone on the spot...
I strongly believe, however, in being direct and telling people what I actually think ... good or bad.
For better or worse, my "management style" is pretty exposed these days ... since I've now livestreamed 300+ hours of internal meetings https://www.stephenwolfram.com/livestreams/ (Now I'm wondering what the most outrageous thing I've said on there is ....)
I have to say that one of my great personal sources of satisfaction is helping people do their best possible work. With some people I find every interaction I have with them is calm, but others it can get quite spirited (even when I've worked with them for years and years).
Is it possible to do the kinds of things we do, and have every meeting be calm? Interesting question. I've done a few tens of major software releases in my life, and I've wondered if there will ever be a completely calm one. In fact, I've debated that quite a bit with my team, some of whom I've done software releases with for more than 20 years. I had thought the answer was no (typically because in the end things will come up that nobody expected... but (touch wood) Version 12 may be disproving that!
[ Meta factoid: when I entered this answer just now and pressed Save Reddit gave a 503 and my web browser lost it.... But thanks to my personal infrastructure setup ... I just looked in my keylogger database and reconstructed this ... and nobody was fired...... :) ]