I’m Stupid, but I’m Trying

Apr 30, 2011

It doesn't take much to remind me that I know very little. Most days I can rely on at least a comment or two pointing out that, not only do I not understand that of which I've written, but that I should punish myself by promptly disconnecting from the internet tubes and forever forgoing having a connection ever again. Other times it's the harried moments of research which educate me in my ignorance. Friday, for instance, I attempted the briefest of digs into Auxiliary Power Unit heaters, after the space shuttle Endeavour saw its launched scrubbed over "an issue" with that very component.

No more than a handful of paragraphs of dense NASA technical documentation and I realized I'd bitten off far more than my blogger's brain could handle, at least in the space I had to push out a timely article and with a level of complexity casual readers might appreciate without finding overpowering. Did I get it right? Only pageviews, comments and a spattering of common sense will tell me, and even then it's part calculation and part divination. Welcome to the age of information overload.

[Image credit: Kevin Grocki]

It's a world where we have more data than we can handle. I can remember, pre-domestic internet, researching projects for homework. In those days, my sources amounted to the two-volume encyclopaedia in my parents' cabinet, an atlas - useful for geography, less so for biology - and, assuming I could get a lift to the local library, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and whichever relevant books I could find in their reference section without going cross-eyed at the card index. I always wanted to use the microfiche reader, but seldom had the excuse.

Back then, if there wasn't enough about tectonic drift, or the migrations of the indigenous peoples of North America, or mallards in the sources I had on offer, then there was nothing to do but pad things out with bigger handwriting (or later, on our Amstrad CPC-6128, a bigger font) and a carefully colored picture of a duck. I can remember the wide-eyed amazement when we bought a CD-ROM of Encarta, Microsoft's interactive reference tool. 700MB of text, photos, audio and video clips may not seem like much, but when you've been reduced to sketching footprints across a hand-crafted map of middle-America - after your volcano drawing was aborted thanks to someone belatedly explaining the difference between "indigenous" and "igneous" - it's a lifesaver.

Contrast that with today, with the open-access to information online and the many thousands of subscription-access databases. The signal-to-noise ratio is vast and unwieldy, our opportunities to learn - and the chasms of our ignorance - never greater. Time and timeliness are the limits now: we can know more and understand more if we put in the research, at the risk of coming to our conclusions too late for them to be actually useful. Instead we rely on shortcuts and crutches, limiting ourselves to the top ten journals, or news sites, or reviews, accepting that some "expert" - whether they be professors, hard-bitten journalists or Google - has filtered chaff from wheat on our behalf.

It's easy to assume those whose very job it is to predict the future - analysts, speculators, traders - must have some special insight, some luck or skill or other ability that allows them the clarity of prescience while all around them wallow in our confusion. It's also easy to criticize them; I've lambasted my fair share of tech industry analysts and their suggestions that sound at best unlikely and at worst ridiculous. The best will readily admit that their work is a mixture of common sense, guesstimation, familiarity and inside access, a near instinctual leaning toward one stance or another, which educates the search for justification and reasoning.

Yet every day we do the same signal-to-noise parsing ourselves: I and the rest of the SlashGear team choose which of the press releases, the hacks, the leaks and the rumors warrant time on the frontpage and which do not; you and all the other online readers choose whether to read our site, or another, or both, or none. We choose to trust some "expert" opinions and discount others. Every day we try desperately to filter through the noise and find as much of the signal as we can stomach.

Are we all misguided, conning ourselves that this appetite for refined information is helping us? In his book, Fooled by Randomness, trader and "Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty" Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that, rather than helping us understand, being perpetually aware not only confuses us but leaves us at a disadvantage. Rather than tracking the minutiae of share prices and market volatility every second, Taleb checks into his investments once in a blue moon.

"Over a short time increment, one observes the variability of the portfolio, not the returns" he suggests. "In other words, one sees the variance, little else." Taleb may be talking about money markets, but the same arguably holds true for everything else. Blessed hindsight is generally more accurate than knee-jerk reactions while in the moment.

And yet we cannot all be deliberately ignorant, punctuating our absences with the occasional bout of research and decision-making. Taleb's system is only available to the extreme minority; the rest of us must keep the world moving around them. "If an event is important enough, it will find its way to my ears" Taleb says, but that ignores the hunger we feel to dig out the facts rather than let them percolate to us. Yes, we could wait for HTC or Apple to show us their next phones, or Google its next service, but part of the glee is in the hunt, of knowing now what they'd rather tell us later.

In the same way, we pick our battles against ignorance selectively. I still don't quite understand quite what an Auxiliary Power Unit heater does, bar heating the APU. Luckily NASA has engineers who do. I'll continue to do my research in fits and starts, the blogger's equivalent of just-in-time production, though hopefully always with the liberty to take an impromptu half-hour Wikipedia tour of some topic that teases my curiosity. And if I can't figure it out, I can always draw a handsome picture of a mallard instead, with sleek feathers and a proudly jutting beak, making sure all my coloring stays neatly inside the lines.

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