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Lessons from Sherlock Holmes Pt.II: Cultivate What You Know to Optimize How You Decide
Today’s lesson from Sherlock Holmes deals with learning to cull and to cultivate knowledge in such a way that your decision process will be optimized for the question at hand, and not get bogged down in irrelevant minutiae – a lesson that is all too relevant in the age of the internet, when we have a constant stream of information at our beck and call.
A mind is an attic: keep yours well organized
In “A Study in Scarlet,” Dr. Watson expresses surprise that Holmes is ignorant of Copernican theory and the composition of the solar system. Holmes explains that he does his best to forget any information that is not relevant to his existence:
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” [Dr. Watson] protested.
“What of the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
A cluttered mind prevents organized thought
Holmes, of course, is exaggerating. Obviously, the solar system does make a difference to both him and his work, on a broad scale and even in the particulars (the properties of physics, for instance, are of great importance to the detective – and those he has down to an exact science; he just doesn’t care about the broader picture when it’s not immediately relevant). But the principle is a valid and useful one.
Especially when it comes to decision making, Holmes’s analogy is remarkably apt. When making a decision, it is easy to get distracted if too much clutter has accumulated in the attic of our mind. We need to learn how to shift through the layers of dust and only use what is relevant – and prevent the irrelevant from clouding our judgment. No matter how many facts are at our disposal, how capacious and deep our memory might be (and there are people whose talent in memorization is staggering), it is useless unless we know how and what to apply to a particular situation. In fact, the “what” is a major component of the “how.” Knowing what to use and what to ignore is one of the fundamental skills of a good decision maker.
In a decision, it is crucial to ignore so-called distracters, things that are actually irrelevant but that can influence our judgment if we are not careful. These come in many guises: emotions, for one, and personal impressions (which, while sometimes useful, are often completely beside the point); or, additional information that should make no difference but that actually does impact our decision (for example, the color of a text: we might choose one option over another because it happens to be in blue, and we prefer blue to red, the color of the other option. Should that matter? Absolutely not. But many of us make such personal judgments constantly, letting small preferences, superstitions, rituals and routines guide us away from what we should be looking at).
Here’s the crucial point: even if everything is there, it is rendered useless if we don’t know what we need to access and what we need to sweep away at any given point. And the more cluttered our mind attic, the more difficult it can be to shift the useful from the useless – and the more we might find that the useful has disappeared into some dark corner, or under some strange box, and that we can’t find it altogether.
Our attics can change, and this is a benefit worth exploiting
Of course, our brain attic is not immutable. We can move things out and move others in. We can shift items around, box them differently, make some easier to access or to identify. In other words, our memory may change. Unlike Holmes, whose fictional mind is perfectly fixed, ours is in flux, and when we return to the attic for something, we may find it is no longer the same as when we left it. We might not even realize the shift has occurred. Every attic will be different, and even the same attic can change over time.
Where I don’t agree with Holmes is that there is no room for a broad base of general knowledge. In a non-fictional world, you never know just what the precise tools are that you will need, and it is best to be prepared. A broad base of knowledge, I often find, ends up being relevant to far more than you might originally think possible. What we read, what we hear, what we learn even in those classes we think we’ll never use again, can all color how we approach a problem and can shed insight on a seemingly unrelated problem in the most startling ways. It would be a shame to clear everything quirky out of your attic; then, it would be a boring place indeed. (And here, it also bears noting that even in Holmes’s so-called stark attic, resided a vast knowledge of music, literature, science, and countless fields that seem to have little to do with detective work).
Has the internet expanded our attics?
The internet provides a tremendous resource for storing and retrieving information. What does that mean for our mind attics?
In a recent study in Science, Betsy Sparrow and a team of researchers from Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found two important effects: first, when people are primed to think about computers, or when they expect to have access to information in the future, they are far less able to recall the information. However—and this is the second effect—they are far better able to remember where (and how) to find the information.
This study has direct implications for how we think about our own storage space, the attic of our minds, as we make decisions and interact with the world. As with most things, it provides us both with opportunity and with further need for caution. The opportunity: we can store “clutter” that might be useful in the future, and know exactly how to access it should the need arise. And the need for caution: we might be tempted to store even that which should rightly be in our mind attics outside of them, and the curatorial process (what to keep, what to toss) becomes increasingly difficult.
As with effective leadership and functional teamwork, when it comes to memory, smart delegation is key.
How to exploit expanded storage without subverting our mind attics
Holmes had his filing system. We have Google. We have Wikipedia. We have books and articles and stories from centuries ago to the present day, all neatly available for our consumption. We have our own digital files.
But we can’t expect to consult everything for every choice that me make. Nor can we expect to remember everything that we are exposed to – but the thing is, we shouldn’t want to. We need to learn instead the art of curating our attics better than ever. If we do that, our limits have indeed been expanded in unprecedented ways. But if allow ourselves to get bogged down in the morass of information flow, if we store the irrelevant instead of those items which would be best suited to the limited storage space that we always carry with us, in our own heads, the digital age can be detrimental.
Here’s a good check. If you were deprived of all technological access (I mean computer, phone, any files that you store, everything) for a day, would your ability to make solid decisions suffer? How about a week? A month? A year? If the very thought sends you into a panic, you might want to recheck your use of your limited attic space. And even if it doesn’t, take a look around: are you using your resources to their optimal capacity?
Remember to maintain your attic vigilantly
It’s nice to do a periodic check. Even the best-kept attic needs to be updated every so often. So, look, make the adjustments necessary (does anything need to be thrown out? Anything else need to be moved in?), and then, enjoy the benefits that technological access allows. We have more space than ever before. Let’s use it productively.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.