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This week’s featured posts.

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Big Daddy/Big Data

Big data repository.

Are older people wiser? If so, why?

Some societies believe strongly that older people are wiser than younger people. Before a family or community makes a big decision in such societies, they would be sure to consult their elders. The elders’ advice might not be the final word but it’s highly influential. Further, elders always have say in important matters. Nobody would think of not including them.

Why would elders be wiser than others? One theory suggests that older people have simply forgotten more than younger people. They tend to forget the cripcrap details and remember the big picture. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They can see the North Star, focus on it, and guide us toward it without being distracted. (Click here for more).

For similar reasons, you can often give better advice to friends than you can give to yourself. When you consider your friend’s challenges and issues, you see the forest. When you consider your own challenges and issues, you not only see the trees, you actually get tangled up in the underbrush. For both sets of advisors – elders and friends – seeing the bigger picture leads to better advice. The way you solve a problem depends on the way you frame it.

According to this theory, it’s the loss of data that makes older people wiser. Is that all there is to it? Not according to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, the widely acclaimed master of big data and aggregated Google searches. Stephens-Davidowitz has written extensively on the value of big data in illuminating how we behave and what we believe. He notes that companies and government agencies are increasingly trawling big data sets to spot patterns and predict – and perhaps nudge – human behaviors.

What does big data have to do with the wisdom of the aged? Well … as Stephens-Davidowitz points, what’s an older person but a walking, talking big data set? Our senior citizens have more experiences, data, information, stories, anecdotes, old wives’ tales, quotes, and fables than anybody else. And – perhaps because they’ve forgotten the cripcrap detail – they can actually retrieve the important stuff. They provide a deep and useful data repository with a friendly, intuitive interface.

As many of my readers know, my wife and I recently became grandparents. One of the pleasures of grandparenting is choosing the name you’d like to be known by. I had thought of asking our grandson to call me Big Daddy. But I think I’ve just come up with a better name. I think I’ll ask him to call me Big Data.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is probably best know for writing the book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. He’s also a regular contributor to the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. I heard his idea about seniors-as-big-data on an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain. (Click here). I mentioned his work a few years ago in an article on baseball and brand loyalty. (Click here). He’s well worth a read.

Veni, Vidi, Da Vinci

Spot the analogy.

What made Leonardo da Vinci a genius? I’ve just finished Walter Isaacson’s all-purpose biography of the Italian Renaissance man and four words come to mind: curiosity, observation, analogy, and humility. These four traits combined and recombined throughout Leonardo’s life to create advances in painting, engineering, architecture, anatomy, hydrology, optics, weaponry, and theater.

Leonardo maintained a childlike curiosity throughout his life. Every kid wants to know why the sky is blue. As we reach adulthood, most of us simply accept the fact that the sky is indeed blue. Not Leonardo. He studied the question for much of his adult life and ultimately developed an explanation based on clear evidence and careful reasoning.

Leonardo combined his curiosity with powers of observation that beggar belief. He noticed, for instance, that dragonflies have four wings, two forward and two aft. He wondered how they worked. By close observation, he concluded that when the two forward wings go up, the two aft wings go down. It seems like a simple observation but it must have taken hours of acute and disciplined observation.

Similarly, he took an interest in how birds flap their wings. Do their wings move faster as they flap upward or downward? Most of us would not conceive of such a question, much less focus our attention sufficiently to answer it. But Leonardo did, not once but several times.

His first observations – taken over many hours and days – suggested that birds flap their wings faster on the down stroke. At this point, I would have recorded my observation, concluded that all birds behaved similarly, and moved on. But Leonardo persisted. He observed different bird species and found that some flap faster on the up stroke than the down stroke. Wing behavior differs by species. It’s an interesting observation about birds. It’s a fascinating observation about Leonardo. Arthur Bloch once said that, “A conclusion is the place where you get tired of thinking.” Leonardo, apparently, never got tired of thinking. He recognized that all conclusions are tentative.

Leonardo didn’t just study insects and birds. He studied pretty much everything – from rivers to trees to pumps to blood circulation to optical effects to anatomy to geometry to Latin to … well, whatever caught his eye. His breadth of knowledge allowed him to draw analogies that others would have missed. Some of his analogies seem “obvious” to us today – like the analogy between water flow in rivers and blood flow in humans.

But how about the analogy between arteriosclerosis and oranges? As he dissected cadavers, Leonardo noticed that older people’s arteries were often less flexible and more clogged that those of younger people. He became the first person in history to accurately describe arteriosclerosis. He did so by comparing it to the rind of an orange that dries, stiffens, and thickens as it ages.

In today’s world, expertise is often associated with narrowness. Experts gain ever more knowledge about ever-narrower subjects. Leonardo was certainly an expert in several narrow domains. But he also saw across domains and could think outside the frame. Philip Tetlock, an authority on political judgment, suggests that this ability to think across boundaries is a key ingredient to insight and discovery. In many ways, Leonardo thought more like a fox and less like a hedgehog.

If I could think and observe like Leonardo, I might become a bit of a prima donna. But Leonardo never did. He remained humble and diffident in an ever-changing world. As Isaacson notes, he “… relished a world in flux.” Further, “When he came up with an idea, he devised an experiment to test it. And when his experience showed that a theory was flawed … he abandoned his theory and sought a new one.” By revising and updating his own conclusions, Leonardo helped establish a world in which observation and experience trump dogma and received wisdom.

Leonardo’s legacy is so broad and so varied that it’s difficult to encapsulate succinctly. But Isaacson includes a quote the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, that helps us understand his impact: “Talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target that no one else can see.”

Chocolate or Sex?

Such difficult choices.

Such difficult choices.

A few days ago I published a brief article, Chocolate Brain, which discussed the cognitive benefits of eating chocolate. Bottom line: people who eat chocolate (like my sister) have better cognition than people who don’t. As always, there are some caveats, but it seems that good cognition and chocolate go hand in hand.

I was headed to the chocolate store when I was stopped in my tracks by a newly published article in the journal, Age and Ageing. The title, “Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitive function in older age” pretty much explains it all. (Click here for the full text).

The two studies – chocolate versus sex – are remarkably parallel. Both use data collected over the years through longitudinal studies. The chocolate study looked at almost 1,000 Americans who have been studied since 1975 in the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study. The sex study looked at data from almost 7,000 people who have participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA).

Both longitudinal studies gather data at periodic intervals; both studies are now on wave 6. The chocolate study included people aged 23 to 98. The sex study looked only at older people, aged 50 to 89.

Both studies also used standard measures of cognition. The chocolate study used six standard measures of cognition. The sex study used two: “…number sequencing, which broadly relates to executive function, and word recall, which broadly relates to memory.”

Both studies looked at the target variable – chocolate or sex – in binary fashion. Either you ate chocolate or you didn’t; either you had sex – in the last 12 months – or you didn’t.

The results of the sex test differed by gender. Men who were sexually active had higher scores on both number sequencing and word recall tests. Sexually active women had higher scores on word recall but not number sequencing. Though the differences were statistically significant, the “…magnitude of the differences in scores was small, although this is in line with general findings in the literature.”

As with the chocolate study, the sex study establishes an association but not a cause-and-effect relationship. The researchers, led by Hayley Wright, note that the association between sex and improved cognition holds, even “… after adjusting for confounding variables such as quality of life, loneliness, depression, and physical activity.”

So the association is real but we haven’t established what causes what. Perhaps sexual activity in older people improves cognition. Or maybe older people with good cognition are more inclined to have sex. Indeed, two other research papers cited by Wright et. al, studied attitudes toward sex among older people in Padua, Italy and seemed to suggest that good cognition increased sexual interest rather than vice versa. (Click here and here). Still, Wright and her colleagues might use a statistical tool from the chocolate study. If cognition leads to sex (as opposed to the other way round), people having more sex today should have had higher cognition scores in earlier waves of the longitudinal study than did people who aren’t having as much sex today.

So, we need more research. I’m especially interested in establishing whether there are any interactive effects. Let’s assume for a moment that sexual activity improves cognition. Let’s assume the same for chocolate consumption. Does that imply that combining sex and chocolate leads to even better cognition? Could this be a situation in which 1 + 1 = 3? Raise your hand if you’d like to volunteer for the study.

Blockchain Beyond Bitcoin

Blockchain - It's not just for Bitcoin anymore.

Blockchain – It’s not just for Bitcoin anymore.

In 1979, Paper Mate introduced the world’s first ballpoint pen with erasable ink. Technology analysts considered it an important breakthrough and the news made headlines around the country. Many of us thought, “Wow! Finally I can write in ink and then erase it. How cool is that?” After a few moments of reflection, we had a second thought, “Why would I ever want to do that?”

Before erasable ink, we thought of ink’s permanence as a drawback and a disadvantage. After erasable ink appeared, we realized that ink’s permanence was actually its primary benefit. Write it once and you know it will never go away. If you might want to erase something, use a pencil.

In an odd way, permanence may also be the primary benefit of the blockchain technology that underlies Bitcoin. We think of databases as interactive, up-to-date records of the world as it is. The closer to real-time, the better. If you want to know what’s happening right this millisecond, high-speed databases will tell you.

But what if you want to know what happened some time ago? And what if you want assurances that the information you retrieve is tamper-proof and immutable? In other words, what if you want the electronic equivalent of permanent ink?

That’s exactly what blockchains on distributed ledgers give you. You can’t change the blockchain unless you can decrypt it – and that’s very difficult. Even if you can decrypt it on one network node, many original copies exist on other nodes. It’s fairly easy to restore the status quo ante. You can be very confident that the information you retrieve is unchanged from the original. It’s an immutable, permanent record.

The blockchain/ledger technology allows Bitcoin to keep a permanent record of all transactions. That’s important if you want to create a trusted financial system. But why stop at financial transactions? Are there other transactions that might benefit from permanent, tamper-proof records?

Indeed, there are. Here are a few that are in production or beta today:

  • Ascribe – allows artists to “…lock in attribution [and] securely share and trace where your digital work spreads.”
  • Storj – a potential weak point of cloud storage is that, ultimately, your data is assigned to one server. What if that server fails or is corrupted or hacked? To improve security and privacy, Storj breaks your data into blockchains and stores it on multiple servers.
  • BitHealth – while Storj can store most any kind of data, BitHealth focuses on healthcare data. It claims to provide highly secure, uninterruptible, tamper-proof health data around the world.
  • Everledger – where did your fancy diamond come from? How did it get here? Where is it insured? For how much? Everledger keeps a permanent, immutable “ledger for diamond certification and related transaction history.”
  • Proof Of Existence or Bitproof — you want to prove that you had an idea at a certain date (preferably before anyone else). You could file a patent application. But that’s expensive, time-consuming, and public. Or you could register your document in the Proof of Existence or Bitproof blockchain databases.
  • Warranteer – you buy a product that comes with a warranty, which is described in a document. The product goes bad at approximately the same time that the document goes missing. Why not save the warranty in Warranteer’s blockchain, cloud-based database?

I could go on and on. (If you want to dig deeper, click here, here, and here). While Bitcoin popularized the technology, blockchain extends far beyond the financial world. Indeed blockchain may disintermediate and disrupt supply chains around the world. If so, the world will get much more efficient. Is that what we want?

The Mother Of All Fallacies

An old script, it is.

An old script, it is.

How are Fox News and Michael Moore alike?

They both use the same script.

Michael Moore comes at issues from the left. Fox News comes from the right. Though they come from different points on the political spectrum, they tell the same story.

In rhetoric, it’s called the Good versus Evil narrative. It’s very simple. On one side we have good people. On the other side, we have evil people. There’s nothing in between. The evil people are cheating or robbing or killing or screwing the good people. The world would be a better place if we could only eliminate or neuter or negate or kill the evil people.

We’ve been using the Good versus Evil narrative since we began telling stories. Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics follow the script. So do many of the stories in the Bible. So do Republicans. So do Democrats. So do I, for that matter. It’s the mother of all fallacies.

The narrative inflames the passions and dulls the senses. It makes us angry. It makes us feel that outrage is righteous and proper. The narrative clouds our thinking. Indeed, it aims to stop us from thinking altogether. How can we think when evil is abroad? We need to act. We can think later.

I became sensitized to the Good versus Evil narrative when I lived in Latin America. I met more than a few people who are convinced that America is the embodiment of evil. They see it as a country filled with greedy, immoral thieves and murderers who are sucking the blood of the innocent and good people of Latin America. I had a difficult time squaring this with my own experiences. Perhaps the narrative is wrong.

Rhetoric teaches us to be suspicious when we hear Good versus Evil stories. The word is a messy, chaotic, and random place. Actions are nuanced and ambiguous. People do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. A simple narrative can’t possibly capture all the nuances and uncertainties of the real world. Indeed, the Good versus Evil doesn’t even try. It aims to tell us what to think and ensure that we never, ever think for ourselves.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president, John Wayne attended his inaugural even though he had supported Carter’s opponent. Wayne gave a gracious speech. “Mr. President”, he said, “you know that I’m a member of the loyal opposition. But let’s remember that the accent is on ‘loyal’”. How I would love to hear anyone say that today. It’s the antithesis of Good versus Evil.

Voltaire wrote that, “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.” The Good versus Evil narrative is absurd. It doesn’t explain the world; it inflames the world. Ultimately, it can make injustices seem acceptable.

The next time you hear a Good versus Evil story, grab your thinking cap. You’re going to need it.

(By the way, Tyler Cowen has a terrific TED talk on this topic that helped crystallize my thinking. You can find it here.)

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