Wikipedia’s List of Lists of Lists (and Aliens!)

2014-09-05 Thurfir

I came across this a few days ago and thought it was worth sharing, Wikipedia has a list composed of lists that are themselves lists. Here it is.

To try and conceptualize this1 we can start at the lowest level. Here is Wikipedia’s list of accounting journals. That list is itself one item in Wikipedia’s lists of academic journals. So the lists of academic journals is a list of lists, and one of those lists is the list of accounting journals. With me so far? Great. So the list of lists of academic journals is, itself, one of the entries in the list of lists of lists.

Mostly this is amusing, but it’s also seriously interesting to me. I often wonder about meta-ness.2 As in: how meta can you go? It seems like there isn’t any genuine reason why you’d need to have a list of lists of lists of lists, right? I feel like there’s something about three that makes it complete. Random other example, I’ve done research on learning in the past, and we talked about: learning, learning-to-learn, and learning-to-learn-to-learn. Again: the first two are pretty straightforward. You can learn math. You can also get better at learning math, which is learning-to-learn. And you can sort of think of abstract methods of getting better at refining your study techniques, which is learning-to-learn-to-learn. But surely there isn’t a fourth level, is there?

I can’t tell if three levels is enough in some objective sense, or if humans just give up at three levels ’cause it’s hard to keep track of anything past that in a concrete sense. The way you can instantly recognize the difference between the quantity three and the quantity four just by sight, but bigger numbers like 15 vs. 16 require some abstraction to work with.

Then again: maybe this is just a limitation of human experience. Ever wonder what it would be like for extra-terrestrials to be smarter than humans? It’s a sci-fi concept we talk about a lot, but what would a super-smart alien intelligence really look like? A lot of the time we depict it (in books or movies) as either rapid calculation and logical inference, like a computer (think of the mentats3 in Dune) and other times it just gets mystic and weird (like the new movie, Lucy). But maybe what it would look like is a group of people who could talk about learning-to-learn-to-learn-to-learn with total ease, as though the concept made perfect intuitive sense. And maybe they would have a list of lists of lists of lists and think it was as ordinary as a grocery list.

1 thought on “Wikipedia’s List of Lists of Lists (and Aliens!)”

  1. This is a bit tangential to the OP but one of the great paradigm shifts I’ve experienced in the last few years was when I learned that the decimal numeral system is somewhat arbitrary and that the duodecimal system is actually the more optimal number system.

    Somehow I just took it for granted that there was something special about the number 10. There’s not, really. But imagine our society switching to the duodecimal system. It would be very hard, if not impossible, to get used to but it would totally change the way we see the numerical world.

    So imagine this more intelligent alien race uses this system and thus corollary number groupings would simply seem more intuitive (like your three-tiered levels of meta-ness).

    Also, the Pirahã, a remote indigenous people in the Amazon, have the distinction of having no words for numbers higher than 2 in their language. Members of this community have had great difficulty at learning even rudimentary mathematics simply because the idea of exact quantity did not exist in their paradigm.

    So what are the missing pieces in our paradigm? What is it we are unable to understand because we don’t have the words for it? Or what elegance and insight are we missing by clinging to our clunky decimal system?

    Maybe the aliens can help us in this respect. I, for one, welcome their overlordship. Even if they are robots. Especially if they are robots.

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