Newton’s queries

Franklin had read Newton’s Opticks, for example, which contains a set of experimentally proven propositions and ends with a group of “queries,” unsolved questions for further studies.

This was a passing reference in Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air (p. 34), but it caught my attention.

In writing posts on this blog—especially longer posts—I’ve found myself compelled to come to some sort of a conclusion at the end of the post. While this may be what is expected of most non-fiction writing, this isn’t what I want to do on this blog. I want to capture and explore ideas that are new to me without necessarily coming to a conclusion. 

Sometimes in the course of writing about a new idea, I will draw a conclusion, but many times the conclusions at the end of these posts have been forced. Forced conclusions are not particularly compelling conclusions.

Newton’s queries are interesting because they provide a potential way to end a blog post while satisfying my deeply felt need for a resolution of some sort.  A set of questions—things I’m still uncertain about or need to research further—is also more in keeping with the purpose of this blog. It also invites commentary and conversation. Something I’ve not been very good at encouraging on this blog.


  • Is working toward a conclusion is a better way of exploring new ideas? For the moment, my hypothesis is that ending with unaswered questions, rather than a conclusion is a better way of doing this. By for the moment it’s only that: a hypothesis.
  • What I’m proposing here is different from what Newton did. He did come to a conclusion. What I’m doing on this blog isn’t science. These posts aren’t experimental outcomes, but in a way they are the experiment. Iss there a balance between coming to a conclusion and highlighting questions that I’d still like to find an answer for?

Commonplace books

Darwin kept these amazing notebooks. In the Enlightenment, they were often called “commonplace” books. A commonplace book was a great engine of innovation in the period. People would transcribe, very dutifully, quotes from books that they found influential. They would also intersperse it with their own notes, their own ideas, and sketches and rhymes. And they would go back and reread these books stitched together from all these different perspectives, all these different voices interspersed with their own voice. And it was this process of borrowing and remixing and revisiting, they created their own kind of intellectual presence. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin, Priestly, Darwin, all these people kept these very elaborate commonplace books. It was a bit like a private version of blogging something. The important thing is they were rereading their own work. That revisiting of their own ideas and those influential quotes was crucial to the exercise.

This is the second idea I wanted to capture from Steven Johnson’s talk on Where do good ideas come from?.

As he points out, commonplace books have a lot in common blogging. This blog started out as a personal blog with the intention of keeping in touch with my family, but over time it’s become different. About a year ago, I talked about the direction the blog was taking. On Tuesday, I realized what I’ve been doing for the last year: commonplacing.

In this I was guided by other blogs that I find useful, that point me to ideas, articles and podcasts that often wind up on Blogs such as bobulate, Marginal Revolution, 3 Quarks Daily and All of whom are effectively commonplacing.

Elsewhere, Steven Johnson, has discussed commonplacing at length. He also addresses two potential futures of online content:

The contrast here suggests to me that we have two potential futures ahead of us, where digital text is concerned, or that the future is going to involve a battle between two contradictory impulses. We can try to put a protective layer of glass of the words, or we can embrace the idea that we are all better off when words are allowed to network with each other. What’s the point of going to all this trouble to build machines capable of displaying digital text if we can’t exploit the basic interactivity of that text? People don’t want to read on a screen just for the thrill of it; even with the iPad’s beautiful display, reading on paper is still a higher-resolution experience, and much easier on the eyes. Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but that’s not the only promise of the technology. The promise also lies in doing things with the words, forging new links of association, remixing them. We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson. And yet we are, deliberately, trying to crawl back into the glass box.

Having identified my own beliefs in civic republicanism, I’m obviously not a huge fan of Johnson’s glass box. I need to get better at running everything I’ve read through this blog, though. As it stands, much of what I read and my responses to it are scattered across multiple services. This is fine. I want to spread what inspires me as widely as I possibly can. I look forward to the conversations that result from that. But I want to document anything that has me thinking here. Not so I can control it, but so I can review it. Reviewing delicious, twitter, goodreads, and the several other services I’ve used is too difficult, and never really happens. However, I find that I come back to what I’ve written here again and again. So this is where anything interesting should be captured, even if it also appears on other services.

OK. That’s it. Navel gazing over.

Related posts

The fragmented future of

In the coming weeks the number of posts on this blog is likely to increase. I’m going to publish short commentaries on and selections of items I find interesting from around the web. The last two posts on the new Tube map and David Byrne’s Perfect Cities are examples of this. These posts will all live in the Fragments category, which will eventually replace both otrops quotes (on Tumblr) and otrops elsewhere (on

There are a number of reasons I’m doing this; I’ll go I to three of those reasons here.

Good enough to publish

I tend to over-think most things. Blog posts are no exception. I now have over a dozen drafts that are more or less complete. The problem is, I’ve gone back, restructured and reworded them. In the end I’ve been unsatisfied with one phrase or another and left them until I have time to come back and write the perfect post.

I have a problem with perfection. Wanting to create the perfect thing often prevents me from creating anything. I’m hoping that writing quick fragments is a way of getting into the habit of pushing “Publish.”

I’m not a great writer. The only way I’m going to become a better writer is by writing regularly and letting other people read (and critique) what I write.

Conversational comsumption

I love to read. Whether fiction or non-fiction, online or offline, it is one of the things I enjoy most in life, but I’ve too often been a passive consumer of words. I read a book or an article and it ends there. It sits on my shelf or in my delicious bookmarks and gradually fades from memory.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the books or articles that I remember best are those that I’ve discussed with other people. This could be in a university class, over beer at the pub or online. However it’s done, participating in a conversation makes what I’ve read a richer, more meaningful experience.

By publishing my initial reactions to what I’m reading online, I hope to become a more active consumer of words, sounds and images. In doing so, I hope to take part in a conversation that will make these fragments more interesting and memorable than they would be on their own.

Room to think

I suspect that there are few people reading this post who are thinking, “Why not just use Twitter?” This is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past year: posting very short commentary and a link to items that I find interesting.

This has worked fairly well. Twitter has allowed me to write more and to participate in numerous fascinating conversations. But sometimes — a lot of the time, in fact — 140 characters isn’t enough. I often want to think aloud about something. Twitter provides enough space to say, “Look at this, it’s interesting.” However, if there is more than one reason I find something interesting or if there are a number of related items that I want to tie together, Twitter quickly becomes restrictive.

In short, Twitter is great for pointing at things and talking around things, but it’s not so great for thinking about things. And I want to do more thinking about things.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll be abandoning Twitter. It just means I’ll be using it a little differently from now on.

More on the way

I have other reasons for publishing these fragments: it fits in nicely with my daily routine; it allows me to route around some of Twitter’s other limitations; and I think it’s a better way forward than lifestreaming. I plan on discussing these and other reasons in future blog posts.

Finally, I realize that some of you may not want find this type of blogging overkill. If that’s the case, let me know. I plan on providing a way to read my infrequent, longer posts without being inundated with fragments of what I’m reading online. If you moan loudly enough, I’ll probably fix this sooner than later.