The advantages of organizing knowledge in terms of country and place

by on February 10, 2018 at 12:33 am in Education, History, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

When a child is looking at a map, he or she is probably organizing some of the associated knowledge in terms of location or plac — “Hmm…so there’s a boot-shaped country at the bottom of Europe.”

If you say “I don’t know much about Algeria.  I should read Alastair Horne on the country, watch Battle of Algiers, and try to speak with some Algerians,” you are again organizing knowledge, and your quest for knowledge, in terms of place.

Alternatively, you might organize your knowledge in terms of historical eras, of fields of science, or in terms of people you know — “that’s Johnny’s view of the world!”  Of course we all use some combination of these methods and others.

I find that people who travel a great deal often organize their knowledge in terms of physical location.  For instance, they might be curious about visiting parts of the world they have had no previous exposure to, or alternatively they might decide “I am going to specialize in Brazil.”

I see a few advantages from organizing knowledge in terms of place:

1. It encourages objectivity, as most of us do not have strong political or partisan opinions about most other countries.  In contrast, if you set out to study “Does industrial policy work?”, you will approach your study of each place with a higher degree of bias.  Instead, just study each place, and let your conclusions about industrial policy come to you.  Quite literally, it has a useful “distancing” effect.

2. As I have mentioned, almost everyone in the world becomes an interesting potential partner in your quest for knowledge.  Even if a person doesn’t know much theory, or is not a good storyteller, almost certainly they can teach you something about the places they have lived in.

3. There are many places, so you will never feel you know so much.  And you can always be imagining the next quest.

4. Increasing returns to scale will drive your curiosity, much as one might seek to capture stones in the game of Go.  Imagine knowing all the countries that surround Uzbekistan, but never having visited Uzbekistan itself.  Oh how the passions would rise!

5. Even if distant travel is not available to you, you can study so many social science questions by comparing parts of your city, or by considering adjacent towns and their differences.

6. Folding over pages in a book, leaving books in piles on the floor, and trying to remember “where in a book you read something” are all methods of using space to better organize your knowledge.  Subsequent innovations in VR and AR may help us advance on these techniques.

Organizing knowledge in terms of place does not always encourage theoretical reasoning or thinking in terms of models.  It is therefore especially useful for people who tend to be systematizers in the first place.

In general, I believe that many people have a quite underdeveloped sense of how to use physical space as a cognitive tool.  You may recall that many medieval and Renaissance memory systems (pre-Google!) instructed the user to imagine all of the information arrayed at different points in physical space, such as in a sequence along a road, or as rooms in a house.

Similarly, if you organize your knowledge of the arts, music, and economics by country and place, many of the underlying study objects may become much more vivid to you.

1 stephan February 10, 2018 at 12:56 am

6- The “ memory palace” works quite well but it’s for rote memorization like remembering the order of cards in a card deck. There’s no understanding. Organizing by place or country I don’t think is useful for math or Physics or Engineering. It is probably useful in the social sciences, but if they were more rigorous, more exact or more universal, it wouldn’t be. Literature , music and the arts is where it more naturally belongs.

2 clockwork_prior February 10, 2018 at 1:54 am

As literature , music, and the arts are as much a part of the humanities as economics, of course it makes sense for a member of the GMU econ faculty to think this way, and not like an actual scientist.

3 Axa February 10, 2018 at 2:40 am

Ages in the geologic time scale are literally the name of places around the world: Campanian, Oxfordian, Hauterivian….etc.

Also there’s the famous guy who wrote the Origin of Species after sorting animals by place and then comparing the differences. I guess Biology is now a social science too 😉

4 Ray Lopez February 10, 2018 at 6:06 am

Not only that, isn’t there a field in mathematics called topology, not to mention field theory? Hard not to do abstract math without visualizing Klein’s bottle…

5 stephan February 10, 2018 at 6:54 am

The field of topology is not different in Norway and in Congo. Just because you’re visualizing a shape doesn’t mean you have to travel somewhere. In Physics , translation symmetry is equivalent to conservation of momentum.

6 stephan February 10, 2018 at 7:00 am

It was very useful in the discovery phase as the theory took shape. Once the field was established evolution and natural selection were found to apply universally. It is that universal character that gives it its scope and power.

7 Mark Thorson February 10, 2018 at 1:46 pm

When I was little, my family moved frequently. One of the first things I would do in a new city was draw a map of the neighborhood. I was concerned that I would find my way home. I remember drawing a map at about age 7 or 8 when I lived in Santa Clara, 733 Raney Court. That’s just off of Brannen, which is off the main street, Los Olivos. These days, I suppose you can get satellite photographs of the 733 residence and all of the surrounding neighborhood. Creating maps is like cursive writing. I haven’t done any cursive writing since about 1970, but I still draw maps. The last one was a couple of weeks ago to the new place I go to smog my car. It’s on Imperial, a few blocks south of the post office in Cupertino.

8 Kalim Kassam February 10, 2018 at 1:49 am

What, in your view, are the disadvantages?

9 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 1:57 am

this is really good advice and since i know you don’t always read the comments Tyler i don’t feel bad about lengthily riffing on this today i was talking to a friend we were talking about this weird show she thought was a great tv show she said they put cameras on the animals running down their prey climbing the treetops and she said the animal was a cougar i said you mean cheetah right based on other things she had said she said yea yes a cheetah and you could see the cheetah running down the cheetah’s prey ‘roebuck’ or ‘starbuck’ God only knows some other ‘Dutch-word-buck’ and i am like what about the cougars in the treetops she said no there were no cougars in the treetops that was the orangutans and i am like feeling bad about that because – leaving aside the fact that everybody loves orangutans, except complete losers – i am feeling bad that after all these years the idea of seeing a cheetah climbing around in treetops would have made up for a lot of cool things i have missed but i pretended i did not care a cheetah i said may climb a tree in extreme necessity but not all the way to the treetops… we patient discussed it …. forget about organizing by nations there are the nations that we can fly to right now (in 2018) or honoring some memory or another collect the stamps of (say the DDR run of stamps in the 50s f**ing sad in a way fascinating in another way – there were lots of people who would have been wonderful friends to you in the DDR of the 50s, word) but in every country there are lots of people who know exactly how much better their countries would be if they were the ideal that they should be, think of it this way, sort of like the Vegas vacation you dream about (casinos and tuxedos, trips with fascinating pals to the desert highlight roadside attractions) then there is the Vegas vacation you lived through – you thought that night in the hotel room would be romantic but the light was brighter than you thought … who knew someone could gain so much weight in just a a month… oh well after the Ceasarean you did not feel that much down there anyway … so the main thing is to be kind to care and not to let them know they are not what they should have been —- you love them and that is enough – but sometimes you remember what they were at their best, Manhattan that night when you were the only person in the world (and she was too,and from her point of view, she was the only person, and you were too, falling in love for the first time) falling in love for the first time., that is all countries are really there for, to be backgrounds for experiences like falling in love for the first time (or just the experience of being the caring person you were meant to be – Vitamin C Graduation nailed it in a few of the lines – not the sadly unlikely ‘friends forever’ line but that was nevertheless a good line, if only we lived in that kind of a world) The ugliest saddest country at its best makes the nicest vacation spot look sadly lacking when you factor in what it feels like to be cared about, even in a country most people consider boring.

Mnemonics. That is what we are talking about. Housman said that about 4 people (in the world, in 1910) understood Latin enough to know if he understood Latin or if he did not. He rejected the praise from anyone but those 4. He worked hard. No, Dunning and Kruger are no help here. Either you care or you don’t. Don’t laugh. Well Housman understood English sort of good, there’s that. Shropshire – nobody loved him there. I could have given him good advice, and someone would have loved him in Shropshire, if the took my advice, nobody did, he did not get my advice. Did you ever wonder what Basil saw in Sybil? Housman did (wondered). I never did (I Never wondered – I knew – she was a hottie). Do you see how I could give him good advice, even though he would never consider me an equal in classical studies (word) ? Either you care about other people or you don’t. Thus ends the longest comment on an economics blog from someone who regrets he was not born early enough to help the bard of Shropshire live a more pleasant love life. Well, God loves us all, anyway, so there’s that. Deus nos amat qualos invenit nos et nos amat, amici, amat et peramat ad nos videndos mutatos et non qualos erant primis in diebus ubi fuimus quales eramus.

10 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 2:14 am

Elektra Records 2000 Van Nuys as we go on we remember all the times .

I worked 248 days that year at a boring job.

“the way we are”

we won’t

“stay that way”

John 3:16

Remember what country that was?

Try and remember

11 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 2:16 am

you can remember with better accuracy than anybody

12 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 2:18 am

The Latin at 1:57 AM would be considered really good in any year from 600 to 1700.
Words are easy. Remembering how things should have been – you can remember with better accuracy than anybody.
when you remember let me know if I was right

13 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 2:45 am

One day you are going to read a poem by Housman about how beautiful life was because Mrs and Mr Housman fell in love in the Shropshire of their day – the poet could not have been happier! – but the first day you read that poem will necessarily be a day when you will not be able to access in your memory a single word I, the guy who wanted to make Housman less of a loser in love, have ever written, because that world is not our world, that is the real world. Trust me. All of us are going to, one day or another, wake up dead or wake up on a day where we do not remember someone who cared about us enough to sacrifice their health, their time, and all that sort of thing for us. It is no small thing, on such a day, to have tried to make the life of an Alzheimer’s patient better, for example.

Don’t worry I won’t comment here a lot you won’t have to remember to skip my comments. The world is a bigger place than I thought.

14 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 2:57 am

Was anything I said relevant to the post of course it all was! So if you visited Salt Lake City, say, in February 1993, and you have forgotten to remember Salt Lake City at its best, that month that year: remember better, remember more vividly. you can remember with better accuracy than anybody Sydney or the bush everybody loves orangutans except complete losers ok when Russia annexed Crimea Poland moved up one in the list of countries of Europe that had never been settled by colonies of monkeys (assuming that in the misty old days of the Byzantine Empire – organize your knowledge! – at least one small colony of monkeys settled, if not for long, in the Crimea.) You reading this are probably smarter than I will ever be so let me be happy that, for once, I correctly referenced my friends the orangutans and my friends the monkeys in a natural way in a real sentence on a real day in a real universe that is, now and more or less from the moment after I said it, gone.

15 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 3:06 am

“make better decisions” …. “lead a better life” … try and remember

16 anonymous as usual February 10, 2018 at 3:12 am

and when you remember make my heart glad recognize that I remembered long before you did and nothing you could have said could have made me happier you will know why when you remember please do not reply

17 clockwork_prior February 10, 2018 at 4:16 am

This comment section, a numbers station of the Internet, a plaything of the random and intentional at the cutting edge of something.

Still entertaining, though.

18 John Tierney February 10, 2018 at 6:57 am

Archaeologists differentiate between physical and stratigraphic (temporal) relationships in space. When we delve into a place we follow the stratigraphic sequence first (called the matrix or a Harris Matrix).

19 chuck martel February 10, 2018 at 7:39 am

most of us do not have strong political or partisan opinions about most other countries.

Really? Russia, China, every country in the Middle East, probably all the countries in Africa, many in Europe, produce what seem to be very strong feelings among many Americans.

Imagine knowing all the countries that surround Uzbekistan

What do you mean by “know”? How well can any stranger know another country or even his own? Knowledge of a foreign country is almost always rather superficial and influenced by the interactions with it, both positive and negative. A visitor to the US would have very different impressions of the country if his knowledge of it was acquired in only Pine Ridge, South Dakota and Miami, Florida.

20 clockwork_prior February 10, 2018 at 9:08 am

‘every country in the Middle East,’

Do you really think the Kabiles in Algeria – – or the Kurds in any number of countries that are not Arab share the same history?

21 A curious person February 10, 2018 at 7:49 am

Scientists have proved that Brazilian claims to civilizational antiquity are actually extremely well-founded:

1) It is widely known Columbus was not the first European in America. Nor were the Vikings.
Is it coincidence the Irish knew an “island” called Brazil? I wonder.
2) According to tradition, Saint Thomas established Brazil in the middle of the 1st Century C.E. And it is widely believed Brazil was actually discovered by Phoenician navigators.
Their link with the Jews (like Saint Thomas) is widely known
Could they have taken him with them the way Jonah was transported on a ship?
3) It is well-known that God makes wonderful miracles. It is well-known God took Elisha and Enoch. Among the men experts think God took, there is a Phoenician. Maybe that is the missing link between early Brazil and Saint Thomas.

22 A curious person February 10, 2018 at 7:52 am

Unfortunately, the comments system doesn’t allow me post links.

23 clockwork_prior February 10, 2018 at 9:10 am

Actually. lnks can be posted, as long as they are not ones that are not blacklisted…

Years In the past, the New Yorker was blacklisted, for example.

24 A curious person February 10, 2018 at 10:00 am

They are basic links. Wikipedia, Gary North, etc.

25 msgkings February 10, 2018 at 2:01 pm

Appropriate new handle, Thiago. You are definitely a curious person.

26 A curious person February 10, 2018 at 3:39 pm

I really don’t know what you are talking about. I think curiosity is what drives Man to explore and discover.

27 Li February 11, 2018 at 2:24 pm

“It is well known that God took Elisha and Enoch.” ba-da-boom.

28 Susanna Richards February 10, 2018 at 8:12 am

First line, “location or place”.

29 Susanna Richards February 10, 2018 at 8:14 am

Sorry, I didn’t put a website. I’m here.

30 Bill February 10, 2018 at 8:22 am

Sounds like a location aware knowledge app.

31 rayward February 10, 2018 at 8:59 am

Well, people may think they know about other places and have opinions about them. My dear friend is from Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). For many generations his family owned a farm in that place, and my friend grew up on that farm, in an isolated place between the countries of Rhodesia and South Africa. He eventually left and emigrated to America where he has a thriving professional practice. Around the time I met him, his parents had recently moved to America after the Mugabe government confiscated the family farm. That’s background on my interest in the place.

Like most Americans, I had a dim view of whites in Africa, Rhodesia being one of the places where the very negative connotations of the term “apartheid” had been planted in my mind. The contrast between my dear friend and the bigots in that place was confusing to say the least. For an answer I read Peter Godwin’s memoir Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa. Godwin is not a white African apologist, but he provides the lens through which I could see the place from the perspective of white settlers and their descendants who had adopted the place as their home, many of the white settlers having come to Africa many generations ago, including my friend’s family. What I saw through that lens was America (but with a history that in time diverged from Rhodesia’s). Godwin has since written several more volumes to his memoir, but the first volume is the best.

32 chuck martel February 10, 2018 at 11:12 am

Most Americans seem to have accepted without question the violent displacement and near extermination of the native American population as a normal and desirable state of affairs while at the same lamenting similar events in other locales. It’s not too difficult to imagine the American response to foreign demands that the land be returned to the natives. White Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Hawaiians and others would be equally outraged at being forced from their homes in favor of the descendants of the prior land owners. The situation in South Africa is the fruit of the displaced guilt found among whites attempting to atone without cost for the final chapter of the slave era in the US. Proof of this is that the only examples involve blacks. Hypocrisy is endemic in advanced societies.

33 nigel February 10, 2018 at 9:13 am

Excellent, excellent post.

34 liberalarts February 10, 2018 at 9:14 am

I have traveled extensively from the 1970s to the present, and I fully agree with point 1. I have never embraced the politics of any place that I have visited and it is in fact liberating. People I meet abroad often will explain political things, which I often find fascinating, but I can always intellectualize it in a way that is impossible in the U.S., where I live and have too many preconceived notions to listen objectively to anything political.

35 David Perell February 10, 2018 at 10:41 am

Research on cognition has shown that our basic mode of thinking is not abstract reasoning and planning, but “interacting via perception and action with the environmental situation.”Essentially, it’s easier for us to interact with physical objects in the environment than with abstract ideas in our heads.
Watson and Crick used this approach to discover the structure of DNA.

Although their model had to account for abstract chemical and mathematical observations, they relied heavily on building physical models to arrive at the double helix.

Manifesting their thinking in external structures revealed approach vectors that pure math and two-dimensional diagrams simply couldn’t provide.

36 carlospln February 10, 2018 at 3:12 pm

W&C discovered the nucleotide base pairing with models.

The double helix backbone was parsed with X Ray diffraction [e.g., no. of turns, anti-parallel orientation].

& they purloined their model building from Linus Pauling [who invented it as a way of exploring the structure of macromolecules]

37 peter February 10, 2018 at 11:14 am

This location based way of learning is helpful and easily applied in medical school, where the anatomy atlas is your map. I emphasize a strong anatomy foundation to our residents for this reason. I also think memorization of facts is becoming underrated with easy access to the internet; it allows easier synthesis of information into a diagnosis, especially for uncommon diseases.

38 Dustin February 10, 2018 at 5:52 pm

The advantages of something are not very useful to know without also knowing the disadvantages.

Even then, the usefulness is limited without also being able to know the advantages/disadvantages of other methods that you may be giving up because of opportunity costs.

39 Halbert Thomas February 10, 2018 at 7:50 pm

The Memory Code: The Secrets of Stonehenge by Lynne Kelly is an interesting dive into the use of our innate capacity for spatial memory as a superstructure for remembering what’s useful. She covers evidence of ancient human use the method (sometimes called the Method of Loci) and describes it’s current value in the present time when “everything” is on our phones.

40 Amy February 10, 2018 at 8:30 pm

You didn’t mention where this Temple diagram comes from. As stated in the bottom center, it was “invented by Emma Willard” and you can see this diagram in the frontispiece of her book, A System of Universal History, in Perspective, here:

Emma Willard, born in 1787, opened the Troy Female Seminary in 1821, the first school in the US to offer higher education for women. She also earned a living by writing Universal History and other textbooks. See

41 William February 10, 2018 at 10:05 pm
42 Li February 11, 2018 at 4:15 pm

“knowledge”. Interesting…I don’t know if I agree or not. Of course any internal representation of the physical world is abstraction, and probably amenable to recruitment for many, many other purposes. Just like any other part of our “internal world”. I agree TC is correct (obviously) to claim that DATA can be effectively stored in “memory castles” ( ‘pseudo-physical structures’). I’m not sure this adds much to our ability to make connections between factoids (i.e. to create knowledge).
As far as his 6 points. In general, many of them are problematic. (TC uses this sentence’s same structure in his writing, “In general…many…” – I believe this comes from his less than rigorous (analytical, quantitative) education. To me they seem to be “weasel words”.)
1. It encourages objectivity. His point seems to be that study of some economic subject ( industrial policy) of any country is likely to be more effective if you focus on location rather than the web of interactions that the policy is part of. Rubbish. Obviously, any such web is specific to a given time and place, and there are many significant economic variables which are highly correlated with location (resources, capital availability, educational level, socio-economic status, etc. etc.) but the question I have is: is it really true that using location (ie zip-code?) is the best way to analyze most questions of economic interest (assuming I want to be kind and limit this to economics)?
I really doubt this – unless here TC means a location’s history (its past) and that is so blindingly obvious and trivial, that I hope that isn’t what he meant.
2. Almost everyone in the world becomes “interesting”. How does this relate to location? It is trivial (again) to claim that there are more people “there” than there are “here” if ‘there’ is a larger area than ‘here’. It is trivial (again) to claim that everyone (almost) has something they know and you do not. It is trivial (beginning to sense a trend?) to claim they are “potential” sources of knowledge. What he ought to have had the balls to say (if he believed it) is that traveling to some “there” is MORE LIKELY to result in acquisition of (RELEVANT??) knowledge than not. Well, unless that knowledge is location specific, I doubt it is in fact an effective strategy (in general).
3. Well, I guess this is important to those who think they know “so much”. I think all of us know “so much”. Perhaps he meant “enough” but then that begs the question: enough for what? If your goal is to reach valid conclusions, then this point seems to suggest travel is deleterious to that goal. If your goal is to experience “new” things, then travel is one way to do it…but so is going to your (closest major) city’s [insert ethnicity]-neighborhood (neighborhood, ghetto, xxx-town, little-xxx area, etc.) plus – you’re more likely to be able to talk to “potential partners”.
4. I don’t understand WTF he is trying to articulate here. (Yes, I have knowledge of Go!, but wouldn’t call myself a player). If travel prevents you (see #3) from knowing “so much” then how would one be in the position of “knowing all of the countries surrounding Uzbekistan”??? Is this an elliptical reference to finding the “holy grail of insight” on some table in some odd bazaar between the mongers selling live snakes and a peddler hawking miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower?
5. Wait. Is he implying that studying two adjacent towns is INHERENTLY less valuable than traveling half way around the world and spending a couple days “there”? What?!?! Good to know that as it turns out, we can study social questions at the micro level as well as the macro level. Who would have guessed? mumble mumble “trivial”.
6. Six is just wrong. Folding over pages in a book (just like highlighting passages in it) is NOT a way to better organize your knowledge. It IS a way to aid you in retrieval of factoids. Factoids are not knowledge. –arguably, knowledge is the ‘gestalt’ neuro-state which includes both facts and connections between facts. I say “arguably”, because we are swiftly reaching the point where external representations (ie. AI, AR) contribute actively to our “knowledge”. (not really a point of course…and by ‘knowledge’ I refer only to individual knowledge; we are well past the point where external devices (machines, strings on beads, books, other people) are part of our ‘collective knowledge’.

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