Singularity redux

From Danny Hillis: The Pattern on the Stone, which I am currently reading hunting for simple explanations of technological things:

Because computers can do some things that seem very much like human thinking, people often worry that they are threatening our unique position as rational beings, and there are some who seek reassurance in mathematical proofs of the limits of computers. There have been analogous controversies in human history. It was once considered important that the Earth be at the center of the universe, and our imagined position at the center was emblematic of our worth. The discovery that we occupied no central position – that  our planet was just one of a number of planets in orbit around the Sun – was deeply disturbing to many people at the time, and the philosophical implications of astronomy became a topic of heated debate. A similar controversy arose over evolutionary theory, which also appeared as a threat to humankind’s uniqueness. At the root of these earlier philosophical rises was a misplaced judgment of the source of human worth. I am convinced that most of the current philosophical discussions about the limits of computers are based on a similar misjudgment.

And that, I think, is one way to think about the future and intelligence, natural and artificial. Works for me, for now. No idea, of course, whether this still is Danny’s position, but I rather think it is.

Key myths about analytics

My excellent colleagues Alessandra Luzzi and Chandler Johnson have pointed me to this video, a keynote speech from 2015 by Ken Rudin, head of analytics at Facebook:

This is a really good speech, and almost an advertisement for our course Analytics for Strategic Management, which starts in two days (and, well, sorry, it is full, but will be arranged again next year.)

In the talk (starting about 1:30 in), Ken breaks down four common myths surrounding Big Data:

  1. Big Data does not necessarily imply use of certain tools, in particular Hadoop. Hadoop can sift through mountains of data, but other tools, such as relational databases, are better at ad hoc analysis once you have structured the data and determined what of the data that is interesting and worth analyzing.
  2. Big Data does not always provide better answers. Big Data will give you more answers, but, as Rudin says, can give you “brilliant answers to questions that no one cares about.” He stated the best way to better answers to formulate better question, which requires hiring smart people with “business savvy” who will ask how to solve real business problems. Also, you need to place the data analysts out in the organization, so they understand how the business runs and what is important. He advocates an embedded model – centrally organized analysts sitting geographically with the people they are helping.
  3. Data Science is not all science. A lot of data science has an “art” to it, and you have to have a balance. Having a common language between business and analytics is important here – and Facebook sends its people to a two-week “Data Camp” to learn that. You ned to avoid the “hippo” problem – the highest paid person’s opinion – essentially, not enough science. The other side is the “groundhog” issue – based on the movie – where the main character tries to win the girl by gradual experimentation. Data is like sandpaper – it cannot create a good idea, but it can shape it after it has been created.
  4. The goal of analytics is not insights, but results. To that end, data scientists have to help making sure that people act on the analysis, not just inform them. “An actionable insight that nobody acts on has no value.”

To the students we’ll meet on Tuesday: This is not a bad way of gearing up for the course. To anyone else interested in analytics and Big Data: This video is recommended.

(And if you think, like I do, that his sounds like the discussion of what IT should be in an organization 20 years ago – well, fantastic, then we know what problems to expect and how to act on them.)

Hans Rosling in memoriam

Hans Rosling died from cancer this morning.

Not much to say, really. Or, maybe, so much to say. I met him in Oslo once, I had seen his video and suggested him for the annual “big” conference for movers and shakers in Oslo. He came and wowed everyone. Simple as that.

Here is another one (this one in Swedish) where he just shuts down a rather snooty and ill prepared newsshow host by saying, essentially, “this is not a matter of opinion, this is a matter of statistics and facts. I am right and you are wrong.”

What a man.

Teaching hacks: Getting rid of those long links

I find myself having to ask students to look up web pages and online materials in various forms all the time. Often, the links are quite long and not very intuitive. The way to fix that is to use a URL (Uniform Resource Locator, fancy name for web address) to turn, for instance

into

  • goo.gl/1kfvfzqr1

which is undeniably shorter and easier to write down fast. I can also make it into a QR code which can be scanned by the students from a PowerPoint slide and brought up on their smartphones.

There are a number of such URL shorteners – goo.gl, bitly.com, TinyURL, and so on. I use goo.gl, but after a tip from Ragnvald Sannes I have installed it as an extension of my Chrome browser, which means that whenever I want to share a link to many people I go to the page in question, click on the URL shortener in the top line of the browser, and that’s that. (There probably are similar extensions available for your browser of choice, go search.)

Quite a little timesaver…

If you want to read more about URL shorteners, try the Wikipedia article (which also lists some of the technical issues that sometimes crop up, though not much in a teaching context.)

Teaching hacks: Write next year’s course this year

As a teacher, you tend to have the same courses year after year. I have 5-6 courses I repeat in various shapes and forms. To keep them fresh, they need to be updated every year – new materials, purge stuff that has gone stale or didn’t work, and so on.

My problem is that as soon as I have finished teaching a course, I completely forget about it until the next time (normally a year later), and then have to scramble to update things and find new literature. While you are teaching the course, you notice things that don’t fly, but then you forget the details.

gra6834-2017_-_google_driveThe hack, of course, is simple: Write next year’s course documentation as you are teaching this year’s course. For instance: I have a detailed syllabus (written as a Google Doc) for my course GRA834 Business Development and Innovation Management (which I last taught in the fall of 2016). The syllabus is largely the same from year to year, but when I start teaching the course, I make a new copy of document (as the figure shows, the whole course folder), and fiddle with it after each class. For stuff I will have to change later, I make a note to myself, inserting the text “zxzx” which I can search. When the course starts next year, I simply make the edited documents available to the students straight into It’s Learning (the course management system we use at BI.)

Not exactly rocket science, but the hack is doing this as you start teaching. Much less hassle the next year…

(PS: You can do similar things with presentations and other stuff: My eminent colleague Hanno Roberts has a hidden slide in the back of all his presentations, where he writes notes to himself about what he will need to change the next time he gives it.)

Teaching Hacks: Using Google Docs under It’s Learning

(This is a new category I just dreamed up – will post little snippets of useful stuff for teaching. My view is that technology should make your life easier and the experience of the student better – otherwise, don’t use the technology.)

At BI Norwegian School of Business we use a learning management system called It’s Learning. As these systems go, it is (I think) no better or worse than any other system, but the interface is a bit clunky. However, it has a very useful feature (which I learned from Ragnvald Sannes), namely the ability to display Google Docs within the page:

screendocs

This is very useful because

  • you can create all your course documents (syllabi etc.) in Google Docs, which is much better for editing and everything else. You can even edit the docs right in the It’s Learning window.
  • you can give the students read, comment or write capability as you please. Giving the students write access to a shared document is useful for many purposes – I use it as a shared arena for proposing term papers, for instance. Linda Rademaker uses a shared spreadsheet for student group formation – the students write themselves into groups, and she has a tab with “Lost sheep” who have not found groups to work in.
  • you can also share a Google Folder with the students and link that right from It’s Learning.

To set up a page like this, first create the document in Google Drive, copy the link to the document (“Share” in Google Doc, set the access rights to whatever you want), go to It’s Learning, click “Add” in the left column, choose “File or link”. Here you can choose various options, but what has worked for me is choosing “link” and pasting in the link. Make sure the “Embed page within itslearning” is checked, write the Title, and there you go.

Certainly has made my life easier, and hopefully made the students’ experience better.

(By the way, this does not work in China, of course (no Google Doc access), in case you teach there.)