Big Ideas Simply Explained

Three subjects that I can never seem to understand as completely as I would like:

  • Philosophy
  • Economics
  • Psychology

Whenever I read a book about any of these subjects, I feel like a student, which means, I am reading because duty requires me to complete the book. The subjects interest me, but too many of the books I have read on these subjects are dreary, slow-moving, too dense with ideas for any reasonable person to sort out and retain their valuable understanding. Pictures help, but many of the ideas held within these disciplines are difficult to illustrate with anything better than wordy diagrams.

A year or so ago, I noticed a series of three books put together by Dorling Kindersley (DK)’s collaborative teams in the UK and India. They’ve got the formula right, and as a result, I have spent the last year happily browsing, and learning, from:

  • The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Economics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • The Psychology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

A month or so ago, the same company released The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained, and at some point, I’ll get to that one, too. Right now, I’m still working my way through the first three volumes (about 1,000 pages total).

Three DK BooksSo what’s so special?

First,there is no single author. The collaborative approach focuses on presentation, clarity and consistency. This is less the work of a brilliant psychology teacher, more like a good old fashioned browse through, say, The World Book Encyclopedia from days of old. The type treatments are bold. There are pull-out quotes. There is color. No single idea runs more than a few pages. Everything is presented in a logical flow. There are boxes filled with biographical details. There is a clear statement of predecessor ideas and influences for each idea, and there is an equally clear statement about those in the future who built upon each idea. There are color pictures and diagrams. It’s tidy, presented for smart adult readers but certainly suitable research material for any school report.

The Philosophy Book is written by four academics and two writers: Will Buckingham is a philosopher and novelist with a special interest in the interplay between philosophy and narrative storytelling. Marcus Weeks is a writer, and author. Clive Hill is an academic focused on intellectualism in the modern world. Douglas Burnham is a philosophy professor and prolific writer on the subject. Peter J. King is a doctor of Philosophy who lectures at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. John Marenborn is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, whose expertise is medieval philosophy. Taken as a group, they’ve got their philosophical bases covered (each of the books is put together by a team with similar skills). Marcus Weeks is the connection between all three books.

The bright yellow Philosophy book introduces the whole idea in comfortable language:

Philosophy is…a chance simply to wonder what life and the universe are all about…Philosophy is not so much about coming up with the answers to fundamental questions as it is about the process of trying to find out those answers, using reasoning rather than accepting…conventional views or conventional authority.”

So begins an introductory essay that introduces debate and dialogue, existence and knowledge, logic and language, morality, religion, and systems of thought and beliefs. A red color burst is the bridge into a timeline that begins the conversation in 624 B.C.E. And so, early on, we meet Pythagoras, who should be famous for more than his geometric theorem. In 428 B.C.E.–that’s about 2,500 years ago–Pythagorus developed a remarkable idea, that everything in the universe conforms to mathematical rules and ratios, and determined that this was true both of forms and ideas. Pythagorus was the leader of a religious cult, in which he was the Messiah, and his followers thought of his work as revelations. Here was a man for whom reasoning was the secret of the universe. He wrote, or said:

There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”


Reason is immortal. All else is mortal.”

SiddharthaTurn the page and there’s Siddhartha Gautama and Buddhism’s four noble truths, explained in terms that anybody can understand, followed by the Eightfold Path presented in the Dharma Wheel. Siddhartha is covered in four good pages, and then, it’s time for Confucius and his Five Conscious Relationships.

All three of these men–Pythagorus, Siddhartha and Confucius–lived and worked around 500 B.C.E. More or less, they were contemporaries. A century later, philosophy turns to what is later called science, as Democritus and Leucippus come with the idea of atoms and the emptiness of space. (Seemed very early to me, too!) At about the same time, this from Socrates:

The life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

Jumping ahead to the middle of the book, Britain’s David Hume is considering human nature in the mid-1700s, and, in particular, the ways we cobble together facts:

In our reasonings concerning fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance. A wise man therefore proportions his beliefs to the evidence.”

Thinking in the present day, Palestinian philosopher Edward Said criticizes imperialism, Australian Peter Singer advocates for animal rights, and Bulgarian-born French philosopher Julia Kristeva questions the relationship between feminism and power. It’s a large field, and with The Philosophy Book, it’s possible for the average person to navigate with greater confidence than before.

The other two books are equally good.

The Economics Book begins with an article about Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on prices, markets, and morality; the provision of public goods with thoughts by David Hume, whose words from the 1700s certainly resonate today:

Where the riches are engrossed by a few, these must contribute very largely to the supplying of the public necessities.”

Hume is among the few whose ideas appear in more than one of these volumes. And–I just noticed–The Philosophy Book tends to be stories about the people behind the ideas, The Economics Book tends more toward the ideas with less frequent stories about the people behind them (often because economic ideas are credited to multiple sources, I suppose). Making our way through The Age of Reason (“man is a cold, rational calculator;” “the invisible hand of the market brings order”);  on to economic bubbles (beginning with tulip mania in 1640); game theory and John (A Beautiful Mind) Nash; market uncertainty, Asian Tiger economies, the intersection of GDPs and women’s issues, inequality and economic growth, and more. Great book, but a bit slower going than Philosophy.

Psych Book SpreadThird in the trilogy is the bright red volume, The Psychology Book. As early as the year 190 in the current era, Galen of Pergamon (in today’s Turkey) is writing about the four temperaments of personality–melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, and sanguine. Rene Descartes bridges all three topics–Philosophy, Economics and Psychology overlap with one another–with his thinking on the role of the body and the role of the mind as wholly separate entities. We know the name Binet (Alfred Binet) from the world of standardized testing, but the core of his thinking has nothing whatsoever to do with standardized thinking. Instead, he believed that intelligence and ability change over time. In his early testing, Binet intended to capture a helpful snapshot of one specific moment in a person’s development. And so the tour through human (and animal) behavior continues with Pavlov and his dogs, John B. Watson and his use of research to build the fundamentals of advertising, B.F. Skinner’s birds, Solomon Asch’s experiments to uncover the weirdness of social conformity, Stanley Milgram’s creepy experiments in which people inflict pain on others, Jean Piaget on child development, and work on autism by Simon Baron-Cohen (he’s Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin).

When I was in high school and college,  I was exposed to all of this stuff, but only a small amount remained in my mind. Perhaps that was because I was also trying to read the complete works of Shakespeare, a book a week of modern utopian fiction, The Canterbury Tales, and studying geology at the same time. In high school and college, these topics were just more stuff to plough through. No context, no life experience, no connection to most of the material. Now, as an adult, it’s different. Like everyone I know, and everyone you know, I’m still juggling way too much in an average week, but I can now read this material with a real hope of understanding and retaining the material. Cover to cover, times three, these books will take you a year or two, but… without a test the next morning, you’ll be surprised how interesting philosophy, psychology and economics turn out to be. Just read them in your spare time, and behold (great word, “behold”) the ways in which humans have put it all together over several millennia. It’s a terrific story!

Big Data, Bigger Ideas

face pic human face

Every animate and inanimate object on earth will soon be generating data, including our homes, our cars, and yes, even our bodies”— Anthony D. Williams on the back of a big book entitled The Human Face of Big Data

From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated give exabytes of data. Now, we produce five exabytes every two days.” — Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google

The average person today processes more data in a single day than a person in the 1500s did in an entire lifetime.

Big Data is much more than big data. It’s also the ability to extract meaning: to sort through masses of numbers and find the hidden pattern, the unexpected correlation, th surprising connection. That ability is growing at astonishing speed, it won’t be long before Amazon’s ability to dazzle customers by suggesting just the right book will seem as quaint as our ancestors’s amazement at horseless carriages.– Dan Gardner, from the book’s introduction

human face big dataClearly, big data is a massive idea. Let’s see if we can’t break it down, if not by components, then, at least, by illustrations of classes and contexts.

The connection between data collection and pattern recognition is not new. In fact, we know the earliest example, which still exists, in book form, in a small, private Library of Human Imagination in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The book is called Bills of Mortality, and it records the weekly causes of death for London in 1664. This data was used to study the geographic (block-by-block) growth of the plague, and to take measures to prevent its future growth.

Two hundred gigabytes per day may not seem like much data, not in the days when you can buy a terabyte drive from Staples for a hundred bucks or so, but collect that much data day and day out, for a few years, and the warehouse becomes a busy place. That’s what MIT Media Lab’s Seb Roy did to learn how his newborn son learned language. The work was done at home with eleven cameras and fourteen microphones recording the child’s every move, every sound. The recording part of the project is over–their son is now seven years old–but analysis of “unexpected connections between the routines of everyday life and how one child learned his first words” continues as a research project.

On the other end of the age scale, there’s Magic Carpet, now in prototype. The carpet contains sensors and accelerometers. When installed in the home of, say, a senior, the carpet observes, records, and learns the person’s typical routine, which it uses as a baseline for further analysis. Then, “the system checks constantly for sudden (or gradual) abnormalities. If Mom is moving more slowly than usual, or it’s 11 a.m., And her bedroom door still hasn’t opened, the system sends an alert to a family member or physician.”

Often, big data intersects with some sort of mapping project. Camden, New Jersey’s Doctor Jeffrey Brenner “built a map linking hospital claims to patient addresses. He analyzed patterns of data, and the result took him by complete surprise: just one percent of patients, about 1,000 people, accounted for 30 percent of hospital bills because these patients were showing up in the hospital time after time…a microcosm for what’s going on in the whole country (in) emergency room visits and hospital admissions…” Subsequently, he established the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers to help address this “costly dysfunction.” He collected the data, analyzed it, then brought out meaningful change at a local level.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

One of the many superb photographs depicting the intersection between human life and technology use. The book was put together by Rick Smolan, an extraordinary photographer, curator and compiler whose past work includes A Day in the The Life of America and other books in that series.

Yes, there’s a very scary dark side. Bad people could turn off 60,000 pacemakers via their Internet connections. A real time, technology enabled 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai killed 172 people and injured 300 more thanks to Blackberries, night vision goggles, satellite phones and other devices.

If you control the code, you control the world. There has not been an operating system or a technology that has not been hacked.

Fortunately, the good guys have tools on their side, too. The $40 million Domain Awareness System in Manhattan includes “an array of 3,000 cameras known as ‘The Ring of Steel” that monitor lower and midtown Manhattan as well as license plate readers, radiation detectors, relevant 911 calls, arrest records, related crimes, and vast files on characteristics such as tattoos, body marks, teeth, and even limps. They can also track a suspicious vehicle through time to the many locations where it has been over previous days and weeks.”

Google’s self-driving car is safer than a human-controlled vehicle because the digital car can access and process far more information more quickly than today’s humans.

By 2020, China will complete Compass/Beidou-2. This advanced navigation system will outperform the current (and decades old) GPS system. Greater precision will be used for public safety (emergency response, for example), commercial use (fishing, automotive), and, inevitably, for far more productive war.

Data can mean the difference between life death when the weather turns ugly. Thousands of lives are saved each year by weather earnings in wealthier countries. Yet thousands of lives are lost in poor ones when monsoons, tornadoes and other storms strike with little public warning, an intensifying threat as the planet warms,,,

If you’ve ever wondered what Amazon’s true business is, or why it uses the name of a gigantic river, the answer is big data. Ultimately, Amazon intends to become a public utility for computing services. Take a careful look at Amazon Prime and you will see a prototype. The streaming side of PBS and Netflix are among the enterprises enabled by Amazon’s big data operations.

For FedEx, “the information about the package is as important as the package itself.”

human face big data movementsWhether its eliminating malaria or making art, text messaging for blood donors or tracking asteroids, the future will be defined by the collection, analysis and use of big data. It will shape our individual knowledge about our own bodies, our children’s growth and our parents’ health, our collective tendencies for public good, safety, and bad behavior. It will be embedded in robots and intelligent systems that may, soon, control aspects of life that we once considered wholly human endeavors. It is a change of epic proportions and yet, most of us are unaware of its importance.

The book, The Human Face of Big Data, along with its related website and app, provide a useful gateway into this brave new world.

Chopping Down the Tree of Knowledge

So, during the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the visual mapping of ideas.

Scott McCloud suggested that I have a look at the animation being done by Cognitive Media. You’ve probably see their work. I especially enjoy their lectures, often associated with TED-Ed, and their RSA work.

Back to mapping. I’ve been struggling with the tree of knowledge–and its modern equivalent, the mind maps now found in so many places on the internet and in classrooms. This means of structuring information provides the basis for the often-awkward corporate organization chart, now as often undermined by concepts of matrix reporting (you report to me, but we both also report to a lot of other people, kinda, sorta). I’m experimenting with several mind mapping programs, and one (Curio) is especially promising. That’s coming in a later post.

A few years ago, I worked with some folks from Wharton on a new approach to organizational design in which everybody is responsible to everybody else. I liked the idea because (a) I thought it represented what happens in a modern organization with greater precision, and (b) it represented the kind of productive, modern place I wanted to work. The design was a simple circle with about 100 points–and every point was connected to every other point. The concept: simple. The illustration: ridiculously complicated and difficult to understand.

So back to Cognitive Media. They’ve produced a nifty cartoon that helped me to understand the inadequacies of the tree-based design, the plusses and minuses of the network design, and the need for a universal design.

Watch it:

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