The Epistemology of Google

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy — the theory of knowledge, 
especially with regard to its methods,
validity, and scope
— Google Definitions

“Daddy, what is the meaning of life?” says the child.

“It’s complicated,” says the dad.

“Why don’t you ask Google?”

Laugh if you will but the question makes perfect sense to kids. Google knows everything doesn’t it? “What’s the weather?,” “How do I get to San Francisco?”, and even  “Why is the sky blue?” The big question is: “What doesn’t Google know?” Or, stated another way, “What knowledge can’t we outsource to Google?”

Knowing Facts vs. Gaining Understanding

It really comes down to two different kinds of knowledge: knowing facts and gaining understanding. The Farnam Street blog has a good description of this  and there’s a great video of Richard Feynman explaining it.  In summary:

  • Knowing Facts. You know what something is called and what it looks like. This is the type of information that Google is very good at.
  • Gaining Understanding. Taking various bits of information and really making it your own? This is the type of thing that you can’t ask Google because it’s about changing who you are (i.e., learning).

One good way to know the difference is the difficulty of what you’re reading or watching. If you can read it quickly you’re probably reading for facts. Reading for understanding requires you to sit down at the foot of the author and realize that things may not make sense in the beginning. I think of true learning as fundamentally changing myself. Kind of like in the Terminator 2 movie where the T-1000 changes his shape in the face of adversity.

Knowing Facts

So what does Google know:

  • Define a word (like epistemology)?
  • What’s happening in the news?
  • Who starred in the princess bride?
  • When is Mothers Day?
  • How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?

Rad Bradbury had a great section on knowing facts in Fahrenheit 451. The book is a metaphor on how books can be explosive with ideas. But the government can provide so many facts that people don’t have room for ideas:

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Filling in the Gaps

Data and facts can be useful but you need a framework to use them. William Poundstone has a great book on the topic called Head in the Clouds: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy. Poundstone’s key point in the book is that Google can’t teach you what you need to Google. In order to do that, you need a framework of understanding.  Facts are like bricks in a wall of knowledge. There can be some gaps and the wall will maintain its structural integrity. But if we remove too many, you have bricks hanging in midair and the wall collapses.

Gaining Knowledge

Gaining knowledge is about more than gathering facts. The best guide to gaining knowledge is from How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. The book was written in 1940 and revised in 1972 and it holds up incredibly well. The key idea is that to read a book well, you don’t just read the words or learn the key points. You need to understand the knowledge inside that book and let it change you — which takes effort. For a summary of the key points, the Farnam Street blog does a good write up. But if you really want to learn from these guys, you really have to read the book.

In short, the book says that an engaged reader needs to ask the following questions:

  1. What type of book am I reading? What do I hope to gain by reading it?
  2. What is the author’s high level points / argument?
  3. How does the author make this argument? At this point you don’t agree or disagree with the author by bringing any predefined prejudices to the argument.
  4. After reading the whole argument, going back and asking “Is it true in whole or in part?”
  5. For the pieces that you find true, “What are you going to do about it and how does it change your world view?”

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury talks about what makes an engaged reader. These are the people the government is concerned about. As one of the rebels says, there are three things needed to engage with a book:

  1. Quality Information: “What does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more `literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail.”
  2. Leisure: “[When] you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor…. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”
  3. Action: “The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two. “

If this all sounds difficult, that’s the point. You can’t expect to have other people do your thinking for you. You need to pose questions and answer them. You need to argue with the author once you’ve understood him or her.

Why is this Important?

Google in many ways is like the world’s most awesome encyclopedia or your friend with a photographic memory who watches TV all the time. He’s  a great guy to have around but not someone you should trust with important decisions. In an age when you can type a few keystrokes and feel like you’re changing the world it’s hard to put in all that effort.

But getting back to the original question, the reason that Google can’t answer “What is the meaning of life?” is that it needs to be figured out by living. It’s a question that’s only answered by learning and discussion. Basically, it requires gaining knowledge throughout your life.

“Our Genes Ourselves” OR Are Humans Monogamous?

Having a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old, it’s easy to ask the question “Why did you do that?” If I had super brilliant kids, they might respond, “My genes made me do it.”

There are a lot of things that we think we control or decisions we think we make that are really rooted in evolution. Take for instance this quote from Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works which could be titled “Oh Cheesecake, Why Do I Love Thee So … Even As You Pad My Belly With Fat?”:

We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.

Cheesecake itself is not good for us, but each of the elements of cheesecake would have been strongly beneficial to our ancestors. Now that we’ve settled that one, what other questions can evolution help us with? How about this one, “Are Humans Monogamous?”

Robert Sapolsky, in his Great Courses Series, Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, uses biology to answer this question. Sapolsky divides species into 2 types: tournament species (polygamous) and pair bonded (monogamous). In a tournament species, males spread their genes by mating with any females around. Once they pass along their genes, they abandon their mate and look for someone new. Pair bonded males bond for life and are very paternal.

There are clear traits that call out how each species has evolved. In a tournament species, males are built for fighting. They are much larger than females, have huge canine teeth and much larger skulls (but not brains) than females. They often have weapons like giant antlers. Females, not looking for a fight, look very different from the males. In pair bonded species males and females look much more similar.

So what are humans? Based on the physical markers, males and females are relatively equal in appearance. Males have large canines but not huge. And men are bigger than women but not terribly so. So the biological answer is that humans aren’t polygamous or monogamous. The official classification for homo sapiens is “tragically confused.”

Let’s Get On The Same Page People! OR Great Ideas Need Great Communication

Have you been here? You have a great idea — an amazing and awesome idea that will completely transform your product. But it never quite took off. Why? One reason might be that you didn’t communicate the idea well enough. Communication is an incredibly important skill in an organization, though it’s very hard to do well. A lot of times an idea is totally clear to me and therefore I think it should be very clear to someone else. But the other person has a very different perspective.

In this post I’ll explain why communication is important, show some examples of communication failures and then present one useful way of thinking about communication

Why is Communication So Important?

As people move up in an organization, technical skills become less important and business skills gradually grow in importance.

  1. Technical Skills. When starting off in a job you are hired for your specific skills as an individual contributor. These are skills like creating a PowerPoint, or analyzing a spreadsheet or coding up a project in a programming language.
  2. Business Skills. As you get more senior in an organization, it’s more important to set direction and get everyone moving in that direction. That’s all about communication.

Examples People Being On Different Pages

  1. I remember one day a few years ago. It was a beautiful day. I was casually walking down the street smiling all the way. Then I noticed a thin blond woman around 40. She was in thin white dress with a small stroller next to her and this awful grimace on her face. She was shooting her hand up as she desperately tried to hail a cab.

    So I thought to myself “I’ll help her hail a cab because she looks like she needs lots of help.” So I put my arm up.

    Man, did she start screaming, “Don’t steal my cab! I just stepped on a piece of glass which is now stuck in my foot! I really need this cab!

    “When I look back, she obviously thought I was trying to hail a cab for myself — because I never told her what I was up to. Why would a person be hailing a cab for her without mentioning it? Instead of this being helpful I just made her life more difficult.

  2. This is a pretty amazing article that introduced Michael Lewis into the world of high frequency traders which he later wrote about in Flash Boys. It follows the case of Sergey Aleynikov who worked at Goldman Sachs. The way Goldman saw it, Aleynikov stole Goldman’s software code that was worth millions. Aleynikov thought he was just uploading open source software to an online repository. It’s a story about the hacker ethos vs. the Goldman ethos. Spoiler Alert: Goldman wins and Aleynikov ends up in jail.Here’s one example of the difference. Goldman thought Aleynikov was being nefarious because he was using a repository called “subversion” (i.e., he was trying to subvert Goldman). In reality, subversion is a repository for multiple versions of your code (“sub-versions” of your code).

  3. There’s a lot of comedy based on people coming at the same situation from different points of view. One of my favorites is Rowan Atkinson’s Fatal Conversations where the Principal at a boarding school is concerned about a student’s horrible behavior. The father, for some reason, is more concerned that the principal has beaten his son to death. The humor, of course, is the two different perspectives.

  4. Richard Feynman, the famous physicist had synesthesia, a mental difference where some things are seen as colors. From Surely You Must be Joking, Mr. Feynman: “When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.”

  5. I could go on forever with examples. While I was writing this, I happened to listen to the an episode of Invisibilia called Frame of Reference where they talk about how one person can have two different points of view inside their own head.
  6. How Does Pixar Think About Communication?

    In the book Creativity Inc Ed Catmull wrote about the different mental models that people use to make sense of their jobs. Here’s a great one on communication:

    Katherine Sarafian, another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. “One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are,” Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. “The most talented members of Pixar’s workforce—whether they’re directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever—are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, ‘I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.’ I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long.”

Micro-Kitchens are the Modern Day Coffeehouses

I was thinking about companies that serve free food (few companies) or coffee (almost everyone). While there are some emotional reasons companies do this, e.g., showing appreciation for workers or desire to keep them healthy, I think there are solid business reasons to do this.

Providing Spaces For Lunch (or Buying Lunch for the Company) Sparks Innovation

Gathering everyone together for lunch naturally sparks ideas. I remember the story from The Psychology of Computer Programming where Gerald Weinberg talks about management removing the water cooler from the office because they noticed that employees were always around it. Once the water cooler was removed, productivity plummeted. As it turns out, the water cooler was a hub of informal knowledge transfer. I liked this quote from Peter Diamandis’s piece From Beer to Caffeine: The Birth of Innovation because they talked about 18th century coffeehouses — the non-work places where great ideas were sparked.

The coffeehouse was a hub for information sharing. These new establishments drew people from all walks of life. Suddenly the rabble could party alongside the royals, and this allowed all sorts of novel notions to begin to meet and mingle and, as Matt Ridley says, “have sex.” In his book London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite explains it this way “The London coffee-houses provided a gathering place where, for a penny admission charge, any man who was reasonably dressed could smoke his long, clay pipe, sip a dish of coffee, read the newsletters of the day, or enter into conversation with other patrons. At the period when journalism was in its infancy and the postal system was unorganized and irregular, the coffee-house provided a center of communication for news and information… Naturally, this dissemination of news led to the dissemination of ideas, and the coffee-house served as a forum for their discussion.”

Serving Coffee as a Drug Delivery System

I always wondered why coffee was available in every office I’ve worked in. First I thought it was a perk for employees. Now I realize it’s a drug delivery system. Caffeine is one of the most powerful drugs known to man. By keeping employees hopped up on coffee, you can make them a lot more productive. But keeping caffeine pills by the water fountain seems so vulgar — so we are left with coffee. As Diamandis says:

In his excellent book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson explores the impact of coffeehouses on the Enlightenment culture of the 18th century. “It’s no accident,” he says, “that the age of reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages.” There are two main drivers at work here. The first is that before the discovery of coffee, much of the world was intoxicated much of the day. This was mostly a health issue. Water was too polluted to drink, so beer was the beverage of choice. In his New Yorker essay “Java Man,” Malcolm Gladwell explains it this way: “Until the 18th century, it must be remembered, many Westerners drank beer almost continuously, even beginning their day with something called “beer soup.” Now they begin each day with a strong cup of coffee. One way to explain the industrial revolution is as the inevitable consequence of a world where people suddenly preferred being jittery to being drunk.”

So eat, drink and be innovative!

PS I once saw this hanging in an office:


How Cell Phones Cause Car Crashes (And Can Also Save Lives)

Cell Phones Make You A Worse Driver — Taking Many Lives

Talking on the phone is dangerous. The New York Times wrote a great series of  articles called Driven to Distraction to explain the science behind this. Basically, your brain keeps saying “Why do you keep looking at the road? We’re having a conversation here! David Pogue has a good article on the dangers of hands free texting as well. Yet people keep trying to put more and more distractions in their cars.

Cell Phones Also Save Some Lives — When Used In An Emergency

There was an interesting article on insurance that mentioned how cell phones saves lives:

Technology has also had a profound impact on survival post
accidents. One company we interviewed told us that, in the
late 1990s, it noticed that its losses from motor accidents had
increased substantially, but it didn’t know why.

In the end the company discovered that the advent of mobile
phones meant that accidents were reported more quickly, so
people survived more often. That is, of course, very good for
drivers, yet increasing the survivability of severely injured
motorists wrong-footed actuarial assumptions at the time.

When People Can’t See What’s Right In Front Of Them

This is  the preface to Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s book Nurture Shock. It’s one of the best stories I’ve read about how people can completely ignore irrefutable evidence that’s right in front of them:

During the late 1960s, visitors to the Magic Castle— a private nightclub in Hollywood, California, run by professional magicians— were often delighted to see that the club had hired a Cary Grant look-alike as its doorman. As they’d step up to the portico, the door would be swung open by a dashing man in an impeccably tailored suit. “Welcome to the Castle,” he charmed, seeming to enjoy his doppelgänger status. Once the guests were through the lobby, they would titter over just how much the doorman resembled the iconic actor. The nightclub is mere yards from the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame. To have the best Cary Grant impersonator in the world holding the door for you was the perfect embodiment of the magic of Hollywood in all its forms.

However, the doorman pretending to be Cary Grant wasn’t an impostor after all. It was, in fact, the real Cary Grant.

Grant, a charter member of the Castle, had been intrigued by magic since he was a kid. Part of the Castle’s appeal to Grant and many other celebrities, though, was that the club has an ironclad rule— no cameras, no photographs, and no reporters. It gave stars the ability to have a quiet night out without gossip columns knowing.

Grant hung out in the lobby to be with the receptionist, Joan Lawton. They spent the hours talking about a more profound kind of Magic— something Grant cared more deeply about than the stage. Children.

Lawton’s work at the Castle was her night job. By day, she was pursuing a certificate in the science of child development. Grant, then the father of a toddler, was fascinated by her study. He plied her for every scrap of research she was learning. “He wanted to know everything about kids,” she recalled. Whenever he heard a car arrive outside, he’d jump to the door. He wasn’t intentionally trying to fool the guests, but that was often the result. The normally autograph-seeking patrons left him alone.

So why didn’t guests recognize he was the real thing?

The context threw them off. Nobody expected the real Cary Grant would appear in the humdrum position of a doorman. Magicians who performed at the Magic Castle were the best anywhere, so the guests came prepared to witness illusions. They assumed the handsome doorman was just the first illusion of the evening.

Here’s the thing. When everything is all dressed up as entertainment— when it’s all supposed to be magical and surprising and fascinating— the Real Thing may be perceived as just another tidbit for our amusement.

That is certainly the case in the realm of science.

In the immediacy of today’s 24-7 news cycle, with television news, constant blogging, press releases, and e-mail, it feels as if no scientific breakthrough escapes notice. But these scientific findings are used like B-list celebrities— they’re filler for when the real newsmakers aren’t generating headlines. Each one gets its ten minutes of fame, more for our entertainment than our serious consideration. The next day, they are tossed aside, lipstick asmear, as the press wire churns out the science du jour. When they’re presented as quick sound bites, it’s impossible to know which findings really merit our attention.

Most scientific investigations can’t live up to the demands of media packaging. At least for the science of child development, there have been no “Eureka!” moments that fit the classic characterization of a major scientific breakthrough. Rather than being the work of a single scholar, the new ideas have been hashed out by many scholars, sometimes dozens, who have been conducting research at universities the world over. Rather than new truths arriving on the wings of a single experiment, they have come at a crawl, over a decade, from various studies replicating and refining prior ones.

The result is that many important ideas have been right under our noses, building up over the last decade. As a society, collectively, we never recognized they were the real thing.

From: Bronson, Po; Merryman, Ashley (2009-08-14). NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (pp. xiii-xv). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

How to Experience the Future of Virtual Reality Today

Online Learning: Udacity

Udacity is an Awesome Place for Online Learning: In order to review technical and coding skills and to learn new ones, I really like Udacity. Udacity was founded by Sebastian Thrum, founder of Google X and Google’s self driving car project. When Thrum wanted to have more of an impact he created Udacity — which is structured slightly different from other online learning sites. I’ve taken a number of great classes on Udacity including Hadoop and MapReduce (where I downloaded Hadoop to my PC), Intro to the Design of Everyday Things (a fantastic class led by Don Norman), and Intro to Computer Science (a good introduction to Python). They also do some very interesting online talks with thought leaders like Tony Fadell (Nest), Astro Teller (Google X) and Yann LeChun (Facebook’s Director of AI).

The Ethics of AI

The Ethics of AI: We are becoming more and more reliant on Artificial Intelligence, mostly because it keeps getting better more quickly than anything else. More and more, we’re relying on AI systems to make important decisions like who to hire at work or who to release from prison, even when these models may have strongly ingrained biases based on the training data. And as self driving cars become more of a reality, we will continue to become more reliant on machines. This brings up an interesting ethical question on self driving cars in specific — in an accident that can not be avoided, how does the car prioritize the life of the driver and passengers vs. others? How many injuries would need to be avoided of the car to prioritize the bystanders over the driver. Mercedes has already come up with a statement on this question “You could sacrifice the car. You could, but then the people you’ve saved initially, you don’t know what happens to them after that in situations that are often very complex, so you save the ones you know you can save. If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car.” Whether or not it’s the right answer, people will want their self driving cars to do everything possible to save their own lives.