Big data could pile up

When we’re kids we are told to try, just try, you won’t learn anything if you won’t try. That strategy seems to work reasonably well.  It’s not anywhere near perfect since there are countless examples of kids who try and don’t succeed who are subsequently put off by, not so much the actual failure, but by the ridicule, contempt, or disappointment of those who should know better. Often it comes from the very people who instructed them to try in the first place. But I would hazard to guess that most of the time kids feel fairly safe to give something new a whirl. How else to explain tobogganing, walking a balance beam, or calculus?

I was reminded of this when I read a weighty article in The Atlantic called, big data boom is the innovation story of our time. Anyone who has been reading my blog over the last year knows I touch on this on occasion. It’s one of my favorite topics and I really believe it is the most important hinge of this period. Keeping with the metaphor, it will allow us to swing open doors to places we only imagined in sci-fi. Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card were on to all this many decades ago.  Now we have the means to measure and collect extremely small slices of time and movements. We can look at that data and make decisions based on patterns we see or those we extrapolate. Is it the end of it? Not according to the article. Without experimentation to go along with the collection and analysis, the decisions will be fraught with mistaken conclusions. Basically, more data will mean more experimentation to test theories. You see, technology makes life simpler and more complex.

So how does the story of encouraging kids to try relate to big data? Because without experimentation, trying, we as a species never really grow and learn. The trouble as I see it is that our modern business models are not conducive to experimentation. Despite graduating thousands of smart people every year to lead and grow our economies, most modern corporations unwittingly, and with a smile and wonderful contradictory words, handcuff and strangle their staff. They smother experimentation. Corporations prescribe the approaches to be taken, and even if they ask employees to try, to experiment, there is precious little allowance for failure. Staff quickly learn that they better get it right the first time.

Such a shame that we still have such a long way to go.

The age advantage: more memories

I read a lot, an awful lot, so I’m used to seeing information presented in a wide array of styles, some more efficient than others.  An article I read today in the McKinsey Quarterly called, scuba rice building, should win some sort of award for touching on and connecting many normally dissociated topics, while doing it eloquently.

A single page of words took me back to my childhood and back up to the present with images and memories of the following: Jacques Cousteau riveting documentaries, fear of suffocation, images of struggling rural Chinese, my wife’s story of visiting her ancestral home, the Vietnam War, my father insisting we have a meal consisting only of rice and bits of fish (to empathize with the struggling Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese of that time), Xerox Parc, exquisite and raucous meals in Toronto’s Chinatown, and the scientific and engineering miracle of genetic decoding.

What was my takeaway from the article? Perhaps it’s just my nature but I see hope. It’s research and hard work like what is (quickly) described in the article that will help improve lives. That’s the first takeaway. The other is more esoteric and that is, writing can be scientific, clinical, and concise, and it can be elegant, soaring, and expansive.  It’s that second part, the power of the word to trigger thought and memories, that always dazzles me.

Thoughts on Twitter

I’ve been in the Twitter-verse quite a bit for the last few weeks trying to assess the value for me of the application.   I think I can draw some conclusions about it at this point.

– it’s a good way for me to keep in touch with the husband of my niece in NYC. He doesn’t use email (neither does she for that matter) but he is a strong Twitter user and here’s why.  He’s a photo artist and he captures random images in that fascinating city and posts them online using Instagram.  I love his art and getting his tweets is a simple way for me to participate in it and retweet with commentary.  This, I believe, is a perfect example of Twitter’s main strength, it’s ability to extend a message and add value at the same time.

– there’s a lot of noise, otherwise.  I follow over 200 people and that naturally creates a lot of tweet in my stream.   I actually peruse through the list because everyday I find some nugget of information I would otherwise have been unaware of.  That would be okay; my life would continue pretty much in the same way.   But each day some tweet catches my eye and stimulates a thought that allows me to learn something I didn’t know before.  This is good.

– I’m not addicted to it. There is value for me but there’s quite a bit of effort too.  I’m getting tired of some of the people I follow, finding that their messaging is too narrow, too within tight line of interest.  I suppose I wish they would show a bit of personality but then again, they may use Twitter for different reasons than me so I shouldn’t be harsh.  Still, I will continue to be judicious in who I follow and unfollow.

– it’s a great way to steer some attention to causes you support, whether they be charitable or artistic.  Basically, any cause that typically struggles to get a thin slice of society’s attention bandwidth benefits from even a single person tweeting about them, even if your following is rather small.  

That’s it for now.  I’ll probably write again about this app but it will l likely be in the context of how I utilize social media in general to promote my thoughts and views.

7 Billion: Qubits might help

There was a time when 3 Billion people living on the planet was a large enough number that it rang alarm bells.  Very smart people theorized at the time that the planet would never be able to handle the next billion. 3 billion was the number we collectively totalled in 1960.  Seems like chump change now that we just passed 7 billion the other day.  Looking back, 3 billion would seem like there was no one around.  So much space to do your thing.

That news item got lots of people excited, their reflex reaction of angst bubbling to the surface.  And while I don’t dismiss the challenges to the planet of so many humans, I’m also a believer in the intrinsic power we possess to successfully tackle and solve our most difficult problems.  We’ve been doing it for a few tens of thousands of years so there is a decent track record.  Take this other announcement the same day of a Canadian-built quantum computing machine bought and installed by the University of Southern California. The article was probably viewed by oh, maybe, six of us around the world. 🙂

Basically, if all goes according to plan, the machine will process information using quantum bits (qubits)…. the ability for a bit to be in both an on and an off state at the same time.  Radical.  And it means (again, if all goes according to plan, and it does sound profoundly complicated) that machines like the one described in the article will be able to run many more calculations than are possible with today’s fastest transistor-based super computers.

You and I won’t be around cluttering up this world when the benefits of this latest technological achievement are finally realized. Exponential leaps in physics don’t happen everyday and their impact takes time to be felt.  This technology is so edgy it can’t even be called that.  But I suspect it is one of the cornerstones of a foundation on which our kids’ grandkids will build the future.   We did it in our time and so will they.