Fail Smarter

There’s a huge problem in the attitude towards (governmental) scientific research that I see regularly.  There’s this overt desire to mimic industry, but institution-wide, we’re consistently picking the wrong things to copy.  Our focus should be on problems, questions, and results, but the actual focus is on getting more data, faster, cheaper.

Doesn’t matter how you get the data or if the procedure is flawed.  Doesn’t matter which questions you’re asking.  Doesn’t matter if the course is correct.

Get more data. Ask questions later.

One superficial problem with problem driven research is that it’s a perilous path.  Oh, the failures!  A _real_ scientific process is a tale defined by the numberless problems along the way.  Who has time for all that though when you need more data now?

We would do better to mimic the Googles.

Feel like Google is not only problem driven, but they also give their engineers plenty of leeway to fail. Excerpt from a Slate interview with Google’s Research Director Peter Norvig:

I’m interested in the way that attitudes about error vary across professional cultures—doctors typically think about error very differently than pilots and politicians and so forth—as well as across the cultures of different companies, even within the same field. How would you characterize the overall attitude toward error at Google?

There’s a story going back to the founding of Google: One of the venture capitalists came to [company founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and said “OK, the first thing you have to decide is, is this company going to be run by sales or by marketing? They said, “We think we’ll take engineering.” He laughed and said, “Oh, you naive college kids, that’s not the way the real world works.” And they said, “Well, we want to try it.” Ten years later, that experiment is still running; engineering is still the center of the company. And it seems like it’s worked.

And, like you say, it does create a very different attitude toward error. If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.

[Kathryn Schulz @ Slate via the Browser]

Bonus: Contender for Coolest Guy, Steve Hoefer, has some exceptional thoughts about failure: Here.

[image via pimpin and crimpin]
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September 10, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.

The Future According to Google

I care more about what Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt says about the future than the recently-batty-but-still-very-famous futurist Ray Kurzweil does.

For example, Schmidt thinks that

Every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

It’s not all bad news for your unborn grand-kids. More Shmidt:

‘One idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type.’

‘I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions, they want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.’

Let’s say you’re walking down the street. Because of the info Google has collected about you, ‘we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are.’ Google also knows, to within a foot, where you are. Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities: If you need milk and there’s a place nearby to get milk, Google will remind you to get milk. It will tell you a store ahead has a collection of horse-racing posters, that a 19th-century murder you’ve been reading about took place on the next block.

Says Mr. Schmidt, a generation of powerful handheld devices is just around the corner that will be adept at surprising you with information that you didn’t know you wanted to know.

[Holman W. Jenkins Jr. @ the Wall Street Journal via The Browser]

[image via buzzpirates]

August 25, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading. Leave a comment.