Cross-Pollinating Ideas via the Internet

I was just leaving a comment on Richard Nikoley’s latest blog post, Vitamin K1 vs. Vitamin K2 concerning Natto, a fermented soy food from Japan that contains a huge amount Vitamin K2. I was specifically pointing out that fish gonads, which are considered to have a high K2 concentration, something I had learned over at Stephan Guyenet’s Whole Health Source: Seafood and K2, are absolutely dwarfed by the K2 concentration in natto^. I had first learned about natto and the importance of fermented foods via Seth Roberts’ blog (See his Fermented Food Category). Put differently, my comment took data from three different sources and presented it in a coordinated, collaborative manner.

Though this might not be the best term for it, I call these occurrences examples of the “cross-pollination” of ideas. It’s a collaborative, unpredictable, uncoordinated, complex effort whereby ideas and information gleaned from disparate sources are examined in relation to one another. It is knowing the trees and seeing the forest. The goal is to create more useful ideas and better information, and then spread this new knowledge far and wide. And do it over and over again. If this reminds you at all of evolutionary processes, not only are you catching my drift, you’re cross-pollinating.

Idea cross-pollination is amplified by the Internet. Historically, a powerful idea or discovery could languish in obscurity, the pet project of an experimenter who works in the silo of his own research. This was the case with Isaac Newton who had discovered/created calculus decades before it was made public.

Compare how calculus languished to the ideas contained within Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories, a book written by a non-specialist (Taubes is a writer, not a scientist) that looks at an enormous amount of nutrition-related research, sees common threads across the data, and presents it all in once place, calling into question the mainstream nutrition mantra that low-fat is healthy, fat will kill you, and people are obese because they eat too much. GCBC was created by having the power to examine the research of a number of disparate specialists and see the big picture.

A book like GCBC is made possible by the Internet because it becomes much less likely that ideas remain within the dusty silos of specialists. The Internet takes curiosity, search, and a great deal of disparate computing power*, and uses them to spread ideas much, much faster. Non-specialists(like Taubes or me) then have the pleasure of making fortuitous discoveries of connections across specialties.

Of course, the means by which cross-pollination is accomplished are unpredictable: we can’t plan a course to find them. All we can do is cast a wide net, examine a lot of ideas, follow our curiosity, and let our organic pattern recognition software do it’s thing. This is very much a “learn by doing, then by thinking” concept. If we dabble in this gamble enough, every once in awhile, we will hit the idea jackpot.

Mind, the idea of idea cross-pollination isn’t really an external process across disparate people, at all. To the extent that we learn ideas, we store copies** of them in our brains, forever taking the ideas with us (A reason legal boundaries around mental concepts is fundamentally absurd). Indeed, it seems that the majority of my intellectual growth has been predicated on being able to cross-pollinate within these internalized knowledge stores. I am always trying to reconcile previously learned ideas with new ones. In this way my organic human network, a human brain, is mimicked by the inorganic mesh of networks we call the Internet.

In sum, cross-pollination of ideas has always been occurring — it is a human specialty, warts and all. Thanks to the Internet, it’s happening more, and we’re getting an explosion of ideas/concepts/knowledge as a result.

^ It seems that Natto is an obscure bastion of nutrition, which may be due to the fact that it (apparently) doesn’t taste the greatest. I’ve yet to get my hands on any as it is exceedingly hard to find. Rest assured, I will be eating some just as soon as I get a chance to check out the only Japanese grocery store in Atlanta.

* As in, human minds that work to understand and pull together the data they discover.

** Albeit imperfect, frequently mutated copies, but this, again, can make for fortuitous idea creation, and as far as I can tell, acts as a positive, dynamic force.

Learn by Doing, Then by Thinking

Danger: Hubris
Creative Commons License photo credit: toolmantim

Seth Roberts talks about his graduate school days and how he got into self-experimentation by way of the axiom that, “The best way to learn is to do:”

And then I was in the library and I came across an article about teaching mathematics and the article began, “The best way to learn is to do.” And I thought “Huh well that makes a lot of sense.” And I realized you know that it was a funny thing that that’s what I wasn’t doing: I was thinking. And I also thought to myself well I want to learn how to do experiments. And if the best way to learn is to do then I should just do as many experiments as possible as opposed to trying to think of which ones to do. And that was really a vast breakthrough in my graduate training and everything changed after that.

Quoted from a 10 minute presentation by Seth Roberts

Roberts’ goes on to apply these ideas to graduate students and professors, when he notes, “Grad students … worry too much about what to do. Professors often … do something more complex than necessary.”

This is a simple, but enormously important idea: we learn more by doing first than by thinking first. The idea lies at the foundation of empiricism. Despite its simple power, it seems that across all aspects of life, we show a clear preference for thinking over doing. Why?

One reason may be that we overestimate our ability to “figure things out” by thought alone—generally, this is hubris. Another reason for this preference for thinking is poor assumptions. For the novice, the presumption is that less experience, or fewer trials under your belt, must be supplanted with more reasoning and thought. Alternatively for the expert, the problem is reliance on accumulated experience to create a basis for reliable reasoning and thought.

Regardless of the “Why?,” thinking before doing causes problems. Specifically:

  • Thinking results in unnecessary complexity, which obfuscates our ability to interpret results,
  • Thinking sets expectations, biasing analysis towards certain results, and
  • Thinking is time-intensive, reducing resources that could be used doing.

These problems hinder our ability to learn—not just in scientific experiments, but in virtually every aspect of our lives. Here are just a few examples where I’ve seen the problem manifested:

  • Our education system is founded on thinking over doing. School boards think through what subjects students should learn. Even when choice is introduced such as in college, there are enormous costs to trying a lot of disparate subjects. Not surprisingly, students get locked into fields of study only to learn when it’s too expensive to do anything about it that they don’t particularly enjoy their chosen major. Conversely, look at blogging, which seems to result in a great deal of knowledge gathering, but is driven heavily by random curiosity.
  • More on blogging. Perhaps the triumph of blogging lies in the thoughtlessness of it. Sure, you put plenty of thought into a blog post as you are writing it, but unlike writing a book, the blog post is so much cheaper that you end up having many more iterations and much less “thinking” behind each individual post. Contrast blogging to the editorial thinking that is put into mainstream journalism. This thinking results in a lot of censorship — not in the classic “You can’t use that word” sense, but in the “I think your idea should be altered in X, Y, Z ways.” The result? More complex ideas. Fewer ideas. Bad ideas. (Added 4/17/09)
  • The same problem is seen with career choices. We think our way into a certain career versus learning what works and what doesn’t work by simply trying out different types of work. We try to think our way into figuring out our passions. It just doesn’t work.
  • Or apply the idea to William Glasser’s Control Theory. Glasser argues that it is difficult to impossible to change what we think or feel about something that happens to us. Thus, our best course of action is to simply do something.
  • Or consider another book: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert makes the point that, “We insist on steering our [lives] because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of tour steering is in vain … because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.” Thinking through what we want is something we all do, yet it rarely is effective at leading to happiness. How often do we finally get what we want only to realize that the experience is not what we expected? This is a failure of thought.
  • Nassim Taleb harps on overreliance on thinking all the time. The Black Swan is essentially a book about hubris and the misguided belief that we can think through everything. As another example, Taleb doesn’t read the news because it formalizes thought, effectively handicapping our cognitive function by creating bias. In Nassim Taleb’s recent interview on EconTalk, he talks about “tinkering,” which is more or less just trying different stuff out and seeing what works, as a means to learn.
  • Or look at thinking over doing as it pertains to governments and political debate. Was there ever such an embodiment of preference for thinking over doing? Every government generally and every government program specifically is a thought-out experiment tested on a massive scale. Should it come as a surprise that governments and government programs are so dysfunctional? Observe how political philosophers consistently prefer thought to action, a la Folk Activism, dismissing attempts at trial and error or ignoring the importance of seeking new frontiers for experimentation, while arguing, “We’ve yet to see pure [ socialism | capitalism ]; therefore, you can’t say it wouldn’t work!”
  • I haven’t read Arnold Kling’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (Preface), but that’s at least partially because it hasn’t been published yet! In thinking about the question of children, two thoughts come to mind in relation to the doing/thinking problem (And both relate to Kling’s review of a study about how “Almost no one regrets having kids“:
    • Couples who choose not to have kids have overthought the problem and will almost certainly regret their decision not to have kids.
    • Parents who think they should only have two kids (for example) will likely end up wishing they had had more—it seems parents tend to think they should have more kids than they end up having!

    Having kids isn’t like waking up and making an omelette, so I realize that this one fits into the doing-vs-thinking paradigm a bit loosely, but nonetheless, it’s just another example of how thinking fails. (Added 4/17/09)

  • Life is the result of trial and error performed on a massive scale and is ongoing. As complex as a DNA molecule may be, the individual building blocks are simple. So here’s an example of doing (DNA replication) and simplicity leading to unfathomable complexity—life. Evolution is the triumph of doing and is clearly a thoughtless process. (Added 4/17/09)

As Seth Roberts realized in his graduate days, “I should just do as many experiments as possible as opposed to trying to think of which ones to do.” But why does doing first work better than thinking first? Perhaps it is because doing is fundamentally an iterative process: doing is trial. The idea of trial and error as a method of learning means making mistakes and learning from them. Making mistakes and figuring out what doesn’t work can also be desirable as evidence of absence. I further wonder if it is the sheer number of trials that spur the creation of knowledge. Could it be that the more experiments/trials/iterations, the greater the chance of winning the lottery and learning something truly worthwhile? Maybe so.

I can’t help but conclude that, regardless of the reasons, thinking should almost always be put on hold in favor of action. Stop thinking and start doing. Follow whims, opportunities, gut instincts, and curiosities. Observe as much as possible. Expect failure and realize that it is through innumerable failed attempts that one can stumble on success.

The Importance of Brain Tech and the Limits to Acquiring It

Near my desk there is a stack of unread books (And ebooks). They taunt me. What ideas are they holding, eager to be assimilated and used, but stagnant until I can find the time to read them, tease out the knowledge, and add it to my mental toolbox? There are limits on acquiring brain technology, and it seems they are presently difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.

being
This is not my stack! — Creative Commons License photo credit: Annie Ominous

There’s an idea articulated in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon that goes something like this: imagine there is a project that will take five years to complete. Imagine further that a technology that could be developed in a year would, once acquired, enable the project to be completed in only two years. Thus, rather than use existing technology to complete the project in five years, it makes more sense to acquire the time-saving technology first.

Reality is considerably less predictable than this simple example allows, but it still illustrates a useful idea: acquiring the right technology first can save time and effort later.

This idea seems most relevant to acquiring brain technology, which I’ll define as the sum of useful ideas, useful paradigms, and knowledge. Modern-day prosthetics, also known as our mobile phones and laptops, are rapidly eliminating the need for this last bit of brain tech. The rote knowledge we need is almost always a google or two away (See the recent grind skill discussion on maximizing Google search). However, these prosthetic devices can’t yet do the work of a useful idea or paradigm.

Functional ideas and paradigms are the programs by which our brains process data. The better the programs, the faster we can process problems and the better our answers will be. The better our brain technology, the better our lives. It is for this reason that I take measures to acquire as much brain tech as possible. This is why I read books, blog (On the power of blogging), and follow my curiosity. It’s all in an effort to boost my brain tech, which I hope will improve my life as it improves my ability to solve problems and understand the world.

It seems simple enough but there are problems: (1) it takes a long time to acquire brain technology, it’s difficult or impossible to know what it is we should be seeking to know (2), and it’s hard to know when our existing brain technology is obsolete (3). I have no good ideas on how to attack the second problem, which is Black Swan-esque and thereby unforeseeable. Awareness that it exists may mitigate our base ignorance but then again, it probably won’t. Regarding problem three, seeking out new brain tech as well as simply sharing our own brain tech with others may help — as far as mundane tasks go, that is driver behind writing about Grind Skills.

I’m left to dwell on the first problem. My solution here is to filter through as much information as I can manage and mine out the useful ideas and paradigms. By filtering information, I usually mean reading books and blogs. On the blogging front, a feed aggregator is a must-have. And as far as reading books, get thee to a library (or amazon.com)!

Reading provides a starting point, but even here there is a problem. The volume of information that must be mined to find a single useful idea is immense. There is a brain bandwidth problem: I can only read so fast. Furthermore, even supposing I’m maxing out my reading speed*, I will inevitably read books and blogs that have broken ideas and paradigms (or none at all). How do I reduce the risk of wasting time and energy spent reading empty datasets (books/blogs)? I don’t know.

One workaround to my own bandwidth limitations is to leverage the bandwidth of others. I do this by surrounding myself with others who similarly seek out useful ideas and paradigms and are eager to share what they know. As far as the Internet goes, there again we see the power of blogging and the importance of a good, share-friendly feed reader. In real space, I think Nassim Taleb’s suggestion to “go to parties” is astute. Socialize (Don’t isolate yourself!)! Otherwise, observe others and ask questions.

These are ground-breaking insights, I know. I’m mostly just articulating a problem that has been on my mind. It’s great that modern technology has improved our understanding of the world and enabled us to outsource at least some of our brain functions to our gadgets (Thereby freeing up some bandwidth). However, it seems to me that the age-old ways to acquire wisdom, which is all brain technology really is, are the only ways we’ve got. Read as much as you can and share your tech with others**. And that’s what I’ll be doing until some other tech comes along and renders this brain tech obsolete.

* Speaking of brain tech, I’ve previously attempted learning to speed read. I’ve had no success with it though.
** I’m optimistic that this latter method (sharing) is being accelerated via the Internet.

Follow-up

Use a Feed Aggregator [Grind Skills]

RSS Logo Drawn In The Sand
Creative Commons License photo credit: kiewic

New to Grind Skills? See this post first.

Grind Skill Brief — If you regularly visit blogs, news portals, or other dynamic websites (This means you), you need to be using some form of feed aggregator to consolidate the content of all your favorite sites into one, manageable place. If you aren’t already doing this, you are wasting time and energy and simultaneously failing to keep up with the topics and ideas that interest you most. Even worse, you’re missing out on powerful means of learning knew ideas and knowledge. If you need a feed aggregator, Google Reader is free and incredibly easy to set up for existing Google (Gmail) account holders.

The Details — What is RSS / Atom? Simply put, they are two forms of XML coding websites use to syndicate content. Content syndication empowers Internet users to subscribe to a site through XML aggregating software — the aforementioned “feed aggregator” — without using clunky, cluttered email. Feed aggregators virtually eliminate the need to physically visit (As in, load in your Internet browser) your “must-read” websites. They check for the latest site updates on your behest, pull the entirety of content from whatever websites you want, and then dump all the newest, unread posts into an inbox-like format for your easy reading digestion.

By way of an example, there are nearly 70 websites to which I currently subscribe using Google Reader, my feed aggregator of choice. If I didn’t use a feed reader, I would have to try and remember all 70 sites I’m tracking and then visit every one of those sites numerous times per day to accomplish the same task that my feed aggregator has already accomplished every time I login. The Grind Skill angle should be obvious: a feed aggregator is technology makes you more efficient and effective at doing the things you want to do.

Google Reader — I am not an expert on all of the various feed aggregators out there and would be interested in hearing about any feed aggregators that readers have found particularly useful. I like Google Reader because it has an intuitive interface that allows you to search for feeds, categorize them into common groups, fluidly scan through the latest posts by site or category, tag content, search your feeds, email posts (this functionality taps your Gmail address book to auto fill email addresses), “star” content, and use hot keys to navigate around. You can even share posts with other Google Reader users with which you have had regular contact (More on this feature below). Because Google Reader is web-based, it requires no software and can even be accessed on your mobile device. If your browser supports Google Gears, you can even get setup to take your feeds offline for reading when you don’t have Internet access.

If you need to get setup on Google Reader go to http://reader.google.com and login with your Google/Gmail account. From there, click on the button at the top left that says “Add a subscription.” From there, you can search for sites by domain name, keyword, etc. and a list of possible matches will be returned. Alternatively for instantly adding subscriptions, if you see an RSS icon on a website, which typically looks like this symbol sans wings:


You can try it by right-clicking the linked icon above, copying the linked address, which is the Feedburner feed for all Justin Owings blogs, and paste that address into the “Add a subscription” dropbox and hit “Add.” Done!

Feed Aggregators Accelerate Learning — Beyond the immense time-savings you’ll realize from the feed aggregator grind skill, there is a less-obvious benefit, which is making you smarter: feed aggregators accelerate learning through focusing your curiosity while enabling you to take advantage of the work others’ put into reading their own feeds.

Curiosity is a precursor to learning. I am a curious cat, and my curiosity often leads to seemingly random pursuits of ideas and knowledge. These pursuits are exciting and of high interest to me, which is why I’m so likely to internalize and gain knowledge from them. However, just as my curiosity is unplanned and spontaneous, it is practically impossible to keep track of. A feed aggregator manages the human element, my forgetfulness and lack of focus, and “remembers” my interests for me. Even more impressive in the case of Google Reader, is that my aggregator suggests other feeds I might find worth reading by intuiting my interests from my existing subscriptions.

The other way a feed aggregator can accelerate learning may be particular to Google Reader and that is via shared items. Google allows you to broadcast items in your feed aggregator that you found particularly interesting, insightful, funny or otherwise worth noting. Your friends (as determined by your Gmail contacts) who use Google Reader will see your shared items and vice versa.

The power of shared items is twofold. First, there’s a reasonable probability that the individuals you regularly contact share some common interests with you. But with every Venn Diagram, there are certain interests your friends share that are either of no interest to you or have yet to be discovered by you. In this latter category lies an additional avenue for finding ideas or insightful posts that you may otherwise have never found! Furthermore, like you, your friends are scouring countless blogs but only “sharing” a small fraction of the content they read. This tiny fraction, the cream of the feed crop, has a high probability of containing novel or interesting ideas.

In short, not only do feed aggregators save you time but they can expose you to ideas and knowledge that make you smarter.

Update 3/12/09 10:02 AM: I just learned that you can now comment on shared items within Google Reader. This feature was just released yesterday. Comments are only visible to friends using Google Reader (for now). This is cool in that previously you could only write brief notes on shared items. Google Reader just keeps getting better!

Note — Presently, if you’re looking for a particular Google Reader user’s shared items, you have to find a link to where that user makes his or her shared items public. I make my shared items public at Justin Owings Google Reader Shared Items. You can also find links to the ten most recent posts on the front page of this site.

Grind Skills Reading

If you have questions or comments about this grind skill, please comment below or contact me!

Eight reasons not to go to grad school

http://blog.penelopetrunk…th-grad-school/

Via Patri, found this great article (and site!) over at Penelope Trunk. The full out post is a linkfest to other material (much of which looks worth reading) on Penelope’s site. If I only had the time.

Anyway, I’m very much anti-schooling these days. I feel this way for a multitude of reasons, but the main two are:

  • Schooling in no way mimics real life. Schooling is centrally controlled, rigid, boring, one-size-fits-all, socially backward and doesn’t encourage students to take chances, be curious, use their brains, etc. For all of these reasons, schooling as we know it (across all levels of the education system — grade school to graduate) stunts the growth of human beings.
  • Schooling is antiquated. We have the internet. I’ve learned more following my own curiosity scouring the Internet than I learned in 20 years of school. And that was in five years? The schooling system was broken already, but now its downright moot.

Here are Penelope’s eight reasons not to go to graduate school (Go to her site if you want her additional commentary on each reason):

  1. Grad school pointlessly delays adulthood.
  2. PhD programs are pyramid schemes
  3. Business school is not going to help 90% of the people who go.
  4. Law school is a factory for depressives.
  5. The medical school model assumes that health care spending is not a mess.
  6. Going to grad school is like going into the military. . . . Military is the terrible escape hatch for poor kids, and grad school is the terrible escape hatch for rich kids.
  7. Most jobs are better than they seem: You can learn from any job.
  8. Graduate school forces you to overinvest: It’s too high risk.