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.

Famous and you may have even quoted him

Want to have a serious laugh? Read THIS article from P. J. O’Rourke.  The guy is a genius of wit, poking fun at everything from summer heat waves to middle-aged men in shorts to urbanization to suburbanization to the American economy to golf to the education system to his own family and to himself.  He sprays all equally with his hilarious prose and I bet you can’t dispute any of his commentary.

I’ve read many of Mr. O’Rourke’s articles in The Atlantic, and likely many more than I realize in other journals since the entry on Wikipedia says that, “According to a 60 Minutes profile, he is also the most quoted living man in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations.”

Now that’s saying something. In our insanely chatty last half-century where we were privileged to witness such prolific comedic stars as Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Phyllis Diller (look her up), and Robin Williams (yes, I know there are many more so please don’t bother to correct or add),  P.J. O’Rourke takes the prize for saying things a great many of us seem to want to repeat.  No show of his own, just consistently high quality and extremely observant writing.  Interesting.  I wonder if he Tweets too.

The craft of writing in the computer age

Writing is a funny thing.  Not haha funny, although it can be.  Rather, curious and odd.  For one thing, you can break all sorts of rules (like I just did) and mostly get away with it these days if your message is crisp and clear.  On the other hand, writing can also be about as pure an art form as sculpting and painting.  It’s about stringing together disparate large and small ideas that float through your brain and transmitting them to “paper”.  It shouldn’t be a struggle but often is, especially if there are associated strong emotions.

Two things got me thinking about this. The first was a conversation I had with my wife the other evening about writers and whether I consider myself one (for the record, I said no because above all, I’ve never been really published).  The second was an article I read in The Atlantic called Composition 1.01: How Email can change the way professors teach . It’s a long, rambling piece but about halfway through, the author weaves the threads together to tell us of a professor named  John Whittier-Ferguson at the University of Michigan who uses Email in real-time to help his writing students write.  He tells them they should send him their writing as often as they want as they are writing their pieces.  So he ends up with snippets of drafts to which he applies his expertise so they can learn as they go how to construct proper sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and (ultimately) stories.  Sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it?  But smart too.  I mean, when I took writing at the University of Toronto, we had to do it the traditional multi-centuries-back, old-fashioned way… write your story, hand it in, wait a week, and then get raked over the coals for an hour in front of the class as your story is dissected line by line.  It was grueling but it worked.

I see the virtue and the value in the way Whittier-Ferguson does it too.  It likely doesn’t scale well (doing what he does leaves little time for him to do anything else) but from a student’s point of view, it would be like having an instant professor-check installed on your computer.  One so sophisticated that it could tear your work apart instantly as you write.  You wouldn’t have to wait a week or two for the humiliation.