You have doppelgängers. They’re quietly influencing your life.
Companies refer to like-minded strangers when recommending products to you.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has used data from the internet, particularly Google searches, to get new insights into the human psyche. A book summarizing his research, Everybody Lies, was published in May 2017 by HarperCollins.
Seth has used Google searches to measure racism, self-induced abortion, depression, child abuse, hateful mobs, the science of humor, sexual preference, anxiety, son preference, and sexual insecurity, among many other topics.
He worked for one-and-a-half years as a data scientist at Google and is currently a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times. He is designing and teaching a course about his research at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will be a visiting lecturer.
Seth received his BA in philosophy, Phi Beta Kappa, from Stanford, and his PhD in economics from Harvard. In high school, he wrote obituaries for the local newspaper, the Bergen Record, and was a juggler in theatrical shows. He now lives in Brooklyn and is a passionate fan of the Mets, Knicks, Jets, Stanford football, and Leonard Cohen. For more info, head to sethsd.com.
SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: So there's a methodology called k-Nearest Neighbor in big data analysis where you can find a person who looks similar to another person. Who's the most similar on a number of traits?
But I kind of renamed the search a doppelganger search because I think that's a cooler name for it and also accurate. So you basically look in a huge data set, you take a person and say "Who is the person who looks most similar to that person?" So one way you might use this is if Amazon's looking for what books to recommend. They may find your book-reading doppelganger. So across the whole universe of Amazon customers, who's the person who tends to buy books like you have bought? And then what books has that person recently read and enjoyed that you haven't read and enjoyed? And that's sort of how they recommend books to you. And this can be used in a lot of other areas. People are just starting to use this in health where you can say, across the entire universe of patients who has symptoms very similar to your symptoms, and what has worked for those people, are your health doppelgangers. So it's a very powerful methodology and it gets more powerful the more data you have. Because the more data you have the more similar, the more likely you're going to find someone in that data set who's really, really similar to you.
Some of this stuff, some of the big data analysis are things we have always kind of done. That's kind of what doctors try to do. They try to say, "Who are you similar to? Of all the patients I've seen, which ones remind me of your case, and what worked for them?" But they've been doing this on a small number of patients, namely the ones they've seen. Whereas the potential for big data is you can do it over the entire universe of patients and get people who are, really, much, much more similar to you. Really zoom in on the tiny subset of people who have a very similar path to you. Instead of saying "You have the condition depression" which might remind a doctor of a hundred depressed patients that he's seen over the past couple of years, you can say maybe that "You have a particular type of depression." So you maybe sleep all the time whereas other depressed patients don't sleep all the time, and you feel guilty whereas other depressed patients don't feel guilty, and then really find these people who are really, really similar who's depression has taken a much more similar path to yours than have other people's depressions.
- One way companies recommend products to you is by referring the purchasing tendencies of individuals who have bought similar items in past. When these individuals have many similarities, they are referred to as doppelgangers.
- This can also work in medicine. When someone gets sick, professionals may refer to the patient's health doppelganger, who's had similar symptoms, and prescribe treatments that previously worked.
- It's a powerful methodology and it gets more powerful the more data you have. That is, the more data you have, the more likely you're going to find someone in that data set who's "really, really" similar to you.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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