This site is a collection of writings by Ian Varley. I’m starting it in summer, 2019, and for the time being it’s mostly just a device to get me to talk out loud about ideas that have so far only been private musings. Eventually, I hope it becomes useful for other people, but ... we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If you’re reading it, I’d love to hear from you–shoot me an email (first name @ first name last name dot com).

What’s all this writing about? Roughly speaking, it’s my attempt to understand (and explain) how concepts in human minds might exist in rigid formal systems (like computer programs or mathematical proofs).

The URL of the blog ( is pronounced “Essentialist” (just sound it out). This is an obscure name, I suppose; but it is (so far) a pretty obscure project, so I’m OK with that. :) I don’t actually endorse a strong form of Essentialism, as I explain here; but I’m fascinated by the question of why it feels like an attractive idea. I also think that many of the ways we interact with computers today tend towards a thoughtless essentialism, and I’d like to explore that. My goal is to expand the boundaries of what makes clear, common sense to me ... to talk about the patterns of patterns, and build up a base of good explanations about things.

The world is full of smart people, and I’m going to spend the majority of my energy trying to open doors into the thought of other writers who’ve been talking about concepts and patterns for centuries. Some are names you’ve probably heard (Douglas Hofstadter, Stephen Pinker, George Lakoff, Noam Chomsky, Peter Norvig), but hopefully many will be new. My hope is that as a practicing computer engineer, I can marry these ideas with the world of engineering in a useful way.

Of course, there's a danger I run, writing in this way: rediscovering entire fields of study that have been around for ages without realizing it. Experts tend to get testy when you wade into their territory without being an expert yourself (see also, the recent kerfuffle about Erisology). But, the world of knowledge is vast, nobody can be an expert in everything. I hope my stance as an ardent fallibilist–and my willingness to always revise and attempt to go deeper–will stand me in good stead. I think it's better to stumble forward in the dark, and apologize later if needed. I do aspire to make my own unique contribution, but history will say what’s actually novel.

Ultimately, my reason for writing is that I believe that deeper literacy about the relationship of concepts in minds and machines has the potential to unlock human flourishing. That’s a lofty statement, so let’s see if that actually plays out in the things I write. :)