The magic of big numbers and small changes

Winter is a perfect time for reading up on all sorts of things. Which in turn is the perfect excuse for curling up on the sofa and not moving an inch for the next three hours. It’s the perfect pastime:

A Cat's Day Off, by A. Davey (who has, incidentally, some other great pictures on Flickr)

A Cat’s Day Off, by A. Davey (Click to view this and more of his pictures on Flickr)

Just a couple of days ago, I ran into a curious thing about numbers. In this case, numbers that reflect the growth of the global human population.

Knowledge… and the thing about population numbers

Far back in time, numbers are partly (or even mostly) based on educated guesses. It’s estimated that about 2000 years ago, the total population on earth of homo sapiens (or at least the species that is assumed, by individuals of that same species, to be able to think), is estimated to have been somewhere around 300 million. Rome hit the 1 million mark around that time.

The table contains a set of years for which the population was calculated and/or estimated (like I said, the further back you go, the more guesswork this involves). It also contains the number of births per 1000 individuals. The fourth column contains the number of births between two consecutive benchmarks.

As intriguing as the table (which I found in Gurteen’s Knowledge Newsletter) was, I thought it was lacking something. So I added two more columns, figuring:

  1. If you have the years and the population size (more or less), you can calculate how many years there are between every two consecutive benchmarks.
  2. Once you have that, you could even use the number of births between benchmarks and the number of years between benchmarks to come up with…

The number of births per year. And when you see those numbers, you realize two sets of numbers are developing in opposite directions.

Population_Growth

Population growth. Black text from David Gurteen’s Knowledge Newsletter; red columns added by me. Click to enlarge.

More or less

  • The number of births per 1000 humans per year has gone down in no uncertain way. Actually, I’m guessing it’s even more extreme than it looks, because death rates among young children were very high for a very long time (and among mothers).
  • Meanwhile, the absolute number of births per year has gone up as steadily. There are now enough representatives of the human species that not all need to have children at all to sustain the species as a whole – at this rate, only half of all humans will need to reproduce on a moderate scale to keep the population growing.

So… what are the odds of 7 billion human beings having no impact on their environment? (Nope, I’m not adding examples.) On the other hand: if 1 million people decide to rip their lawns out and putting in plants that provide shade and cool spots in the garden instead of trying to keep all those lawns green (and the air conditioning roaring) in another sweltering summer,* that will have an impact, too.

* Not summer around here. We tend to get wet no matter the season. I looked it up last autumn and my hunch was right: we’re in the perfect region to get seriously soaked (as confirmed by 10 year average rainfall stats). I’m not going to risk growing grapes 🙂

 

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Knowledge in whose brains?

Just recently I ran into a text stating (yet again) that knowledge can only be found inside (human) brains.
While experts in the field of artificial intelligence are working hard in hopes of disproving that statement, I have trouble accepting it at all.

Brains contain more than ‘just’ knowledge. Or not?

Which part of the stuff we store in our brains constitutes knowledge? Our senses receive loads of data to store in our brains. A lot of these data are frankly ‘noise’, things we see but which our brain more or less successfully tunes out for being irrelevant. It’s like a huge spam filter in our heads. By the way, this filter may help to explain things like:

  •  Why do some people in cities seem indifferent or oblivious to most of what’s going on around them?
  •  Why do people who visit a busy city for the first time look dazed and move (too) slowly? Hmm. How do you decide what is noise that can be safely tuned out?
  •  Why do people not notice friends in the street? If you get a lot of remarks from your friends “didn’t you see me across the street, I waved and yelled” then you’re probably better than average at tuning out other people as though they’re so many trees. Or you were checking your phone of course.

Absorbing information and turning it into knowledge?

At school, this natural spam filter means any new information needs to prove its relevance before it’s admitted to your permanent storage.

  • For new languages, it means that if you need to learn a list of new words, checking them twice just before a test may mean you pass the test. A week or so later most of us will have forgotten those words. A tip on Quora was to repeat learning them every day for a week. The seventh time round (well, more or less) something happens. Your brain decides – apparently on the basis of that repetition – that this information is part of your daily routine so it must be stored efficiently. When next your temporary storage space is emptied, the information is still somewhere else in your brain.
  • For quite a few subjects, it means that you need to find out where and how the new information fits in with things you are familiar with already. That may mean you need to repeat the 200 or so words you learned previously just to allow your brain to make new connections between them and arranging them neatly.

So you end up with a ‘body of knowledge’. Or do you?

At this point, all you’ve done is storing information. Which is an important skill. But also a rather basic one. Under the right circumstances, even ducklings will store vital information after a couple of repetitions. Allow me to explain.

A duck’s life

We live near a small lake (or a big pond) with quite a lot of ducks. Nearly every early summer, a blue heron will go from eating fish to eating every fuzzy duckling that swims unwittingly into his reach and even stalking duck mothers with their little ones.

A few years ago, two ducklings survived out of a nest of ten. Their mother had forsaken them when there were about four ducklings left. By that time we’d already saved one of them by scaring the heron into dropping the duckling he’d just grabbed.

Having your siblings snatched out of the water just two (human) feet away from you will, at some point, even impress a fuzzy little duckling. The two ducklings that lived long enough to outgrow the danger of turning into a heron’s lunch were very wary of anything that came too near or hovered over them! They’d swim out of reach then turn and eye any passer-by keenly (in case you’d brought anything edible).

Out of those two, one turned into a young duck mum who managed to keep at least four of her ducklings alive the first year. Whenever she spotted anything suspicious she’d send her little ones deep into the reed beds to hide.

So ducks can store information in their brains…
Or is this knowledge?
And how can you tell the difference?

(We didn’t actually tag the duckling in order to recognize her later on. She just developed a rather annoying way of quacking. A loud, non-stop, monotonous series which doesn’t indicate whether the merciful end to the racket is getting near yet. Her mum would have taught her differently I suppose.)

Knowledge transfer among ducks?

A lack of words and the skill to talk about things that are not actually present probably means this vital knowledge doesn’t get passed down to the next generation unless there is indeed a heron lying in wait every year. Plus, it’s quite possible that as the years go by without personal danger to our now more experienced duck mother, the importance of being careful may fade. Does the novelty of having 10 ducklings wear off after a couple of years?

The transfer of (seemingly irrelevant) knowledge is tricky even if you’re not human.
So a final word of advice to my duckling readership:

Don’t go near the heron.

What’s a heron? Oh, here we go…

How to become the go-to expert for go-to experts

How do you become a go-to expert while still getting some work done?

Experts

Who do experts turn to? Image by Mai Le | Flickr

For individuals and organizations alike, having a wealth of knowledge sure helps if you want to be an expert for other experts to turn to.

However if you really know your stuff you may end up filling your days answering very similar questions – without getting to the bottom of a topic that has your genuine interest more than once every few months.

Add structure to your knowledge-sharing

There are a couple of ways to enhance your expert status in a more structured way:

  1. Organize networking and knowledge-sharing events. David Gurteen’s Knowledge Cafes come to mind – as part of a community.
  2. Provide training to experts
  3. Share your expertise online starting, if you’ve been answering questions for quite some time, with a couple of FAQs. There is no end of experts blogging themselves silly 🙂
  4. However, mind the amount of time you want to invest. You might want to get someone to interview you instead.

The advantage of documenting your knowledge in some form is that you can share it while you’re doing something else with your time. Like run a business based on your expertise. Or perhaps you could use your time listening to other people. Expertise should not be allowed to rest on its laurels.

Ultimate content: being the go-to expert for go-to experts

The ultimate expert is the one the experts turn to – the one who provides content they’ll happily recommend to anyone who will listen, because they really can’t add much to your overview. If this is your aim it means you need to get all of your facts right.

Mistakes ruin your reputation as an expert (need I even say it?)

Mistakes, even if you copy-pasted them from another website to save time, render your content useless and could turn your visitors away for good – because you lose trust when you mix facts with fiction. This is something I realized years ago: if you’re wrong about one fact, then it doesn’t matter if you’re right about all the other facts. (I also learned that people who can’t work with absolute accuracy should not be allowed to go near a database).

People can’t refer to your content as the ultimate source on the topic if you leave in a single mistake. Get your facts straight.

So review every detail with care. Content from obscure sources should be checked against not just your own knowledge but also against, say, your biggest competitor’s opinion or even several other websites. If they contradict one another, apply your own expertise, do more research, call in another expert, or leave that particular ‘fact’ alone.

What else would you recomment doing?

Professional knowledge and the use of different perspectives

Have you ever noticed how some people can completely erase your desire to have a discussion with them? David Gurteen recently drew my attention to Nancy Dixon’s blog post about the negative impact of speaking with conviction. In this post I’ll review the pros and cons of considering many perspectives versus limiting yourself to a single point of view.

Cloud Gate. Different perspectives.

Cloud Gate. Different perspectives. [Click to view Mike Warot’s photo on Flickr]

In all the heaps and piles of information before you, what is valuable depends on your purpose.

Professional knowledge lends purpose to your actions

Anyone who has a very specific purpose for the information (or objects) available to them will use their perspective to sieve the gold from the dirt:

  • As an information specialist – and in a number of other professions – you analyze and filter information according to what other people need at a particular time. Going in with a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, narrowed down to one specific purpose, combined with (re)search skills, means you’ll end up with the right set of information sooner rather than later.
  • As an archivist, you put together archives – structures – that will serve the needs of the team, department, or organization. There’s limited room for your own preferences – and that’s fine. You’re not supposed to keep every file you like.

Different perspectives urge different actions. If your perspective is “anything can be useful, depending on what you’re looking for” you don’t see gold or dirt, but copper, iron, gold, and lots of other stuff that could be useful to someone. Although at this point the word ‘hoarding’ comes to mind.

Professional knowledge and different perspectives in conversations

In conversations, taking one perspective and pushing it to the exclusion of every other point of view means you effectively kill the conversation. That seems convenient, but people may stop trying to change your opinion and focus on implementing their ideas without your valuable input.

  • If you want to keep your conversations going – and the exchange of professional knowledge with it – taking a leaf from the ‘many perspectives’ book may be just what you need.
  • On the other hand, if you’re reasonable to a fault, self-proclaimed holders of strong opinions may think you lack a personal own point of view.

Aiming for balance is probably your best bet.

The limits of your knowledge

It’s relatively easy to become an expert and out-know everybody else. The true art lies in letting go of your preferred point of view and trying a different perspective. Doing so makes you realize that there is always room for a smidgen of doubt.

  1. Your reasoning may be faulty.
  2. The information you have is incomplete, therefore your knowledge is likely to be flawed in some part.
  3. The mere fact that you’re better informed than the others doesn’t mean you’re also right.

Trying to convince people to trade the opinion they’ve voiced for yours may not work. Pointing out that the object they see looks different from another angle may be all you can do.
We’re all walking the tightrope of knowledge over the chasm of inadequate information. Meet you halfway?