Tools for Discovery: David Krakauer

Tools for Discovery is a monthly profile series that inspects the tools, computer programs, gadgets and methods behind WID’s ideas and discoveries.

David Krakauer is the director of WID and co-director of the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation.

Question: What is your WID research focus?

Krakauer: The evolution of biological computation; collective decision making; the emergence of intelligent systems, from genes and cells to brains and the so-called, “Cultural Technium.”

David Krakauer
David Krakauer

Tools for analysis?

First and foremost, the blackboard and whiteboard — the ultimate collaborative space for minds to meet, to do battle and engage in discovery. These Stone Age technologies are followed by paper and writing tools, then the analytical software environments, the “R” computing language and Mathematica. I use R for statistical analysis and Mathematica for simulation, symbolic analysis and visualization. I stopped writing in the C code when computer memory and processor speed reached a tipping point, allowing R and Mathematica to become fully immersive cognitive niches in what I call “Representationally Constrained Hypothetico Deductive Systems” (RCHDs). These are basically systems that outsource cognitive problems. An example would be a chess board that stores the position of the pieces, allowing you to plan for many possible scenarios. Without the board, you would have to perform all of this in working memory, which is a considerable challenge. It is precisely the simple, constrained nature of the representation (the checkered pattern on the board and the positions of the pieces) that promotes and amplifies hypothesis-making and deduction. Hence, simple systems promote complex solutions.

Conversation, reading and art of every kind. I know these are not one thing, but they are all existentially indispensable. Without them we are all husk and no kernel.

— David Krakauer

Tools for writing?

For writing, I have many tools (a tendency which is more or less a natural and rather obsessive outgrowth of my interests in paper, fountain pens and note pads). For quick thoughts: IA Writer; for science articles: Emacs; and for book projects: Scrivener. All of these are deeply thought-through environments supporting creative communication. IA Writer emphasizes simplicity and focus; Emacs provide powerful tools for searching and editing technical documents; and Scrivener is the ultimate working space for long, multi-chapter book projects.

In my opinion, they all differ profoundly from a well-known word processor that is the worst kind of multipurpose tool, bulging at the seams and always threatening to impose its file-bloating, feature-laden perspective on the creative mind.

Tools for collaboration?

DropBox and Evernote are a source of endless, collaborative delight. They solve simple and daily problems with minimum effort and intrusion. Wonderful. I think Evernote should remain vigilant to not to evolve into something too large and all-encompassing. Economic growth and market share don’t always go hand in hand with quality.

Ultimate tool for discovery?

Conversation, reading and art of every kind. I know these are not one thing, but they are all existentially indispensable. Without them we are all husk and no kernel.