Video Of The Week: How We Got To Now Talk

I had the opportunity to do an appearance with Steven Johnson on the day his new book, How We Got To Now, hit the market. It was moderated by Manoush Zomorodiof WNYC. Here’s a video of the talk. It was a lot of fun.


Comments (Archived):

  1. JimHirshfield

    My parents were raving about this new series on PBS over dinner last night. I didn’t make the connection to Steven’s book until just now. Small world. Will have to queue up the shows.

    1. LE

      Yes.Last night, after tiring of Netflix I decided to see what’s at [1]I started to watch “Clean” not knowing anything about it other than it seemed that it would be interesting. About a minute in I thought “wow this is something that Fred would really like”, then I realized it was about something that Fred had already talked about. I watched about 20 minutes of it before it was time to go to bed.Definitely worth watching. I’m glad I didn’t dream about the things Johnson saw in the sewer in Chicago.…Plan to finish it tonight most likely.[1] Only issue is that it doesn’t remember, like Netflix, where you were when you stopped. So I have to keep a file on the desktop noting how many minutes I’ve watched. Also the commercials are really annoying. They keep playing the same one with Stephen Daniel Gilbert (the author) about retirement sponsored by Prudential. I had to sit through it twice last night. And if you quit the browser for some reason they make you watch it again.Here go get annoyed in advance!

      1. JimHirshfield

        Good to hear you liked it too.

  2. Twain Twain

    Why and how we get to the future of Distributed Data Synchronicity with male and female intelligence:*

    1. SubstrateUndertow

      So women are working the higher end of that integrative intelligence stack as is the right brain.Still, we men also serve by working those low-level left-brain components of the intelligence stack. It’s a tough job and someone has got to do it.The danger is that we men don’t seem to understand our place in the scheme of things. We constantly feel a meed to colonize the higher end of that integrative intelligence stack with our low level stack components.The sooner all these emerging big-data-tools can be commoditized into recombinant high-level building-block tools for the rest of us the sooner we will all start reaping the collective high-level benefits of right-brain social-integration.PSI’d like to see one layer of the dice graphic removed to give it a rubrics-cube inferential appearance.

      1. Twain Twain

        You wrote: “We (men) constantly feel a need to colonize the higher end of that integrative intelligence stack with our low level stack components.”Ray Kurzweil of Google, TED talk in March 2014: “The frontal cortex (where we think ‘That’s ironic. Hey you’re funny. She’s pretty…’) is not quantitatively different really. It’s a quantitative expansion of the neocortex.That additional quantity of thinking was the enabling factor for us to take a qualitative leap and invent language and art and science and technology.”So he’s saying quantity (1, 2, 3…%) => quality (ironic, funny, pretty).Google believes that, if they collect and stack up enough data components, they’ll be able to determine quality by the sheer quantities of probability correlations they can do because they own more Quantum servers than everyone else.Except that, tellingly, they released this video in which they admit they can’t crack the Natural Language problem in AI — this despite assembling what’s been called a “Manhattan Project” group of the best AI talent in the world:*

        1. SubstrateUndertow

          There is certainly some symbiotic interplay between quality and quantity attributes of a complex system but the true holistic magic/mojo emerges not from the sum of its parts but from the synchronously-networked recombinant-interplay possibilities that exist within the space/time distributive scope of its subsystem components.It is the near instantaneous holographic neural-net interplay magic that cannot be properly simulated within our present linear commuting tools even at the Google scale.IBM Builds A Scalable Computer Chip Inspired By The Human Brain

  3. Twain Twain

    Ideas and innovation indeedy, :*).

    1. SubstrateUndertow

      Just for fun let me cross thread those framing categories into a set of exploratory dialectic Cliche-Probes.Objectively Qualitative Quantitatively Subjective

      1. Twain Twain

        Indeedy, I made it interchangeable to reflect how we flex between the two states and the inherent subjectivity in each of us.What one person considers to be objective may indeed be qualitative. For example, when a teacher is marking a literature essay. They’re objective in the sense that the student’s name is omitted, there’s specific content that earns marks (e.g., quotations and citations to support the analysis) and even usage of appropriate punctuation.What is quantitative may indeed be subjective. For example, a company marketing as “80% of people use our products” has made a subjective choice not to communicate about the 20% who don’t.Science claims to be objective because it’s empirical and quantitative but there’s a lot of subjectivity in the way the data’s presented and communicated.Equally, art is said to be subjective because people describe it in such qualitative terms. Yet there’s lots of quantitative and quantifiable factors in it (from the angle at which the artist holds their paintbrush to the pressure they apply with each stroke to the shapes they paint).

  4. Mac

    Can’t listen to Steven without thinking of James Burke. Amazing connections they’ve both made. I wonder if they have ever met.

  5. Kirsten Lambertsen

    I was just in Chicago a couple of months ago and learned about the lifting of city on an architecture tour. A lot the things done around that time seem impossible still today. If someone proposed them now, they’d be shot down. Makes me wonder how we managed to create so many big thinkers around that time.

    1. Girish Mehta

      I thought Peter Thiel’s framework of “determinate optimism” driving some of the big thinking and projects in the past (e.g. Transcontinental Railroad) was interesting…he sees this as the prevailing belief of the future in the past.…Thanks.

      1. Kirsten Lambertsen

        Really interesting share. Thanks!

        1. Girish Mehta

          Glad it was interesting, you’re welcome.

  6. awaldstein

    Book is in my Kindle for my upcoming trip to Europe.

    1. Fernando Gutierrez

      I’ve just downloaded it also, Audible in my case.Where in Europe are you heading?

      1. awaldstein

        Montreux, the Valais and Milan–six days– workshop, wine and work.

        1. jason wright

          wine and work – a good order.

        2. Fernando Gutierrez

          Sounds great, I wish I could call work to all my drinking 🙂

  7. Twain Twain

    19 inventions made by women from Kevlar, the solar house, submarine telescopes to Scotchguard :*…The women who mapped the Universe:* http://www.smithsonianmag.c…The women who didn’t get credit for their inventions:*…This is why, for all the inefficiencies of the patent system, women should at least file their inventions.It’s a historical record that makes them visible and that informs future generations that women contributed to innovation too.

    1. Twain Twain

      Even today, there are men who don’t give due credit to women’s ideas.The case of Evgeny Morozov and Eden Medina:*

    2. sigmaalgebra

      Read the piece about the women working as data assistants in astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astronomical Observatory.Un, commonly still nearly no one works their way up in a university from support staff to a tenure track professor.Long in the US, the main norm about a professor is that they pursue at least scholarship and hopefully good research, hopefully with external funding. For that, a beginning professor needs training in research, and the standard training for that is the Ph.D. degree.Typically a Ph.D. from a good research university is challenging, and typically the main challenge is just the research the student is supposed to do, say, to show that they know how to do research.This situation holds strongly now, and I can believe that it held back when all those women were processing photographic plates in astronomy.That the means of cataloging stars was named after Harvard instead of the woman who invented the means is just a rip off, a bummer, much like what happened to Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images of DNA before Watson and Crick finally really saw how DNA worked, with Franklin’s results, purloined by her lab director without her knowledge or consent.But at least for now, the outlines of how to avoid a lot of discrimination based on gender can be seen: Point 1, Academic Topics. In high end academics, there are exactly three important topics, research, research, and research. Period. Point 2, Research. The definition of research is that it gets published in a peer-reviewed journal of original research. The usual criteria are that the work be new, correct, and significant.The definition of good research is that it gets published in what is regarded as a good journal. The research is best for a person’s career if they are the sole author or at least the first author and, likely, the principal investigator on the work. Still better if that author is invited to give talks on the work. Still better if the work wins a prestigious prize. Quite good if the paper results in the author getting a job offer from a better university, still better with a promotion along the track Associate Professor, Full Professor, Chaired Professor (someone in business donated), University Professor.For research grants, work in a STEM field because that is where the money is. Point 3, How to Do Research. Here is an opinionated view: In a STEM field, usually the best work is mathematical, that is, helps mathematize the field.To be prepared for such work I warmly and strongly recommend a good undergraduate major in pure and applied mathematics with most of a major in physics, especially mathematical physics. If want, also take some computer science in, say, algorithms and data structures.Then I recommend a good Master’s in pure and applied mathematics. Just crucial topics — measure theory and functional analysis. Then, especially for applications all over the STEM fields, a graduate course in probability and stochastic processes based on measure theory and functional analysis.For artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, etc., these three areas might be interesting for research, but my view is that the research needs to be mostly mathematical — applied math. For those three areas in a computer science department the work would be much more useful it printed on long sheets of paper, perforated, and wound on rolls. Point 4, the Ph.D. For the Ph.D., look for a highly regarded research university where the main requirement for a Ph.D. is some publishable research. The most definite way for a student to show that their research is publishable is to publish it. Point 5, Building an Academic Career To build an academic career, after a Ph.D., get on with publishing. So, pick some promising topics where can get good results and turn each such topic into a stream of research papers.To help keep down attacks from jealously competitive professors, first do and publish the work and talk about it later.To reduce the time teaching, use current word whacking, especially Knuth’s TeX, for class notes and tests and revise both a little each semester or term. Assign and collect homework and have a grader read, check, and grade it.Then, build a research record.Then will get offers to review papers, and will likely want to review at least some of them, both to keep up on related research and to get to know important people. Might get an appointment as an editor of one or more journals.Keep track of where grant opportunities are and when have some good proposals make some applications.Such a career effort should encounter relatively little gender discrimination.If the work is good, then the professional reviews should be at least okay, and should make progress.Mostly the progress is based just on good research results.

      1. Twain Twain

        Thanks, sigmaalgebra. If only there’d been AVC and Disqus when I graduated…I’d probably have completed a PhD as you suggested.Instead, my first job as a maths grad was working in a hedge fund with Professor John G. Taylor (…, where his research team built 6 Neural Nets models to do asset allocation. He was one of the first people to apply AI to big data sets for predictive analytics. The preceding summer I’d worked on the editorial team of where I was responsible for proofreading Black-Scholes equations in articles on derivatives and options, and producing the annual banking surveys.That later influenced the way I designed my patent-pending system for surveying and measuring perceptions and how to build a machine learning algorithm around that.Theoretical academic research in STEM has never held particular appeal to me; I’m much more interested in applying knowhow as commercial applications.I do, though, read a wide range of published research from Quantum Information theories to economics to machines proving the Kepler theory of 3D geometric shapes stacking.

  8. awaldstein

    Fred–really enjoyed this.Like having some smart friends over for drinks and reimagining the future.Have to say though that your description of people coming to your office looking for capital to fund servers made me smile.Raising money can be a serious bitch, a serious grind and the process usually includes a lot more than a vision.Sounds like a dream and I’ll hold on to it as I head to the gym.

  9. sigmaalgebra

    Steven Johnson seems to have a theme: The way we “got to now” was a lot of unpredictable, inscrutable serendipity.To me, Johnson is on the outside of the STEM fields and looking in, and what he sees seems like such serendipity to him.Well, there is some such serendipity, but my view is very much that that’s not how we “got to now”: and, instead, the progress was much more from deliberate work to understand nature, people, and society and then to find good solutions to obvious, important real problems.E.g., my understanding of electric lighting was that indoor lighting based on flames — candles, whale oil, coal gas, and kerosene — gave light that flickered, was not very bright or white, generated smoke, and was a fire hazard.In particular Edison knew very well just what problem he was trying to solve. And Edison was not going just for light but also for electric power to drive electric motors to improve on central steam engines. And his investors also knew very well what the problems were.Yes, there was some serendipity in a good, new vacuum pump from Germany. And Edison did hear about tungsten from the English chemist J. Swan. Or, at…we have In addressing the question of who invented the incandescent lamp, historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel[4] list 22 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison. They conclude that Edison’s version was able to outstrip the others because of a combination of three factors: an effective incandescent material, a higher vacuum than others were able to achieve (by use of the Sprengel pump) and a high resistance that made power distribution from a centralized source economically viable. So, we’re looking at not just Edison but also Swan and then 22 more earlier.Net, the importance of the problem was fully clear; there was a lot of work trying to find a solution; and the solution was very much intended and not inscrutable serendipity.For teaching by encouraging curiosity, doing things, and making things, maybe okay.But for now I’d urge young people to have curiosity, sure, but also try to aim it in more promising directions.Then for learning, I’d suggest proceeding with the more abstract, powerful, and general over the more specific, manual, and physical.Newton was thinking this way, not just about apples falling from trees or even just about planetary motion or just the longitude problem for navigation of ships at sea but also, with his law of gravity, essentially everything that is and, with his second law of motion, essentially everything that moves.And, yes he wanted to understand light and thought, run it through a prism, see the separate colors, run each of those through a prism and see that there is no more separation. So, guess that the separate colors from the first prism are fundamental in some sense. Then combine such colors and observe, presto, bingo, back to white light. Simple experiment; fundamental progress on understanding nature. Curiosity trying to understand but aimed in a quite general and, thus, promising direction.And for finding solutions to practical problems, I’d suggest careful problem selection and then good work solving the problem.Or, when have sewage running and reeking in the streets, then an important problem starts to become obvious. Similarly for people dying of cholera, using poor light from some flickering flames, etc.There are many important problems left to solve, but, sorry, flying cars is not one of them since some simple calculations show that a lot of energy would be needed and some simple considerations show that there are some serious dangers.Ah, last night I got some software running, started it, and it’s still running gathering data for some of the initial data for my project. So, with my computer fairly busy, I can take time to type this post now!

    1. Richard

      Great points. For most of basic science Sagacity leads to more advances than Serendipity.

      1. sigmaalgebra

        Nice, and shorter than mine!

  10. William Mougayar

    Steven Johnson was in Toronto last Tuesday doing a luncheon talk at the U of T. I’m bummed that I learned about it right after, or would have attended otherwise. Enjoyed the video & good to hear Fred talk outside of Tech.

  11. sachmo

    Fred, I have a suggested Blog post -I think you should share your thoughts or open up a discussion on Google Apps. It’s interesting b/c as Apps have slowly become near equivalent to Office, Microsoft has been put in a very weird position. They’ve tried Office365 for $8/mo. They have more recently released “Office Online” – a free stripped down version of Office.Hmm… How do you manage the expectations of a user who thinks they are getting Word but instead gets “Word Online”… ?The other thing that I find interesting about Google Apps is that by bundling their service with Google Drive, they are also in a 3 way competition with Dropbox.It’s interesting, b/c I would love for Google Apps to edge out Office, but I do think they should somehow make Apps compatible with other online storage platforms.After initially thinking Apps was kind of lousy (and the Chrome OS for that matter back in 2012), I find myself slowly using it more and more. I recently bought a cheapo $200 chromebook that I keep at work. By switching to Apps, I can now bike to work on days when I don’t need to run CAD or any other specialized software and not take my PC to the office or home at all. I also love the fact that I can run it on a cheapo $200, 2lb chromebook from anywhere with an internet connection and not worry about data loss or accessibility.What I don’t like, and think was a mistake, was to tie Apps to Drive. The best would be to use Apps on top of Dropbox – which is much more reliable and doesn’t randomly screw with files.Anyway, this is completely off topic from your post today, but thought I would mention it, because there is an interesting war happening in this space.What are you using currently for a productivity suite?

  12. kirklove

    DVR’d and caught the first one last night. My #mancrush on Steven grows.

  13. Scott Spencer

    The ‘Preview of Time’ segment was especially fascinating. It makes one want to question those who cannot accept proven methods of dating (time-stamping) every aspect of our world (universe). Well done!