Big Data for the Little Guy
Using Your Imagination With The Internet
about creativity, imagination and intuition in the computer age
-- along with the need to shape our future. See the other blog-articles in this series:
INTRODUCTIONScientists are excited about the possibilities with Big Data. Big Data is a new buzz word that refers to the ability of computers to process massive amounts of data that can then lead to new scientific findings and insights.
Computers and digital information is not only a tool, but it can discover and reveal things that were not possible before. One of the earliest examples was the exploration of fractal structures by Benoit Mandelbrot. His fractal geometry, of "the art of roughness" as he called it, could only be accurately and completely constructed with the help of computers.
|(Top) Big Data is a tool that is changing science. |
(Bottom) Diagram of the huge growth in digital storage.
Scientists create automated 'time machine' to reconstruct ancient languages
But this blog-article is about something different. It is about the ability of the individual, the little guy. It is about intuitive people with hunches who can now explore their educated guesses in ways that were not possible just a few years ago. Big Data applies to them because now they have access to huge amounts of information via the Internet -- information that can be searched quickly and is easily available on any computer. Thinkers, writers, researchers with a hunch and imagination can now 'cut to the chase' and quickly zoom in on facts to support or develop an idea, if such evidence exists.
With the power of the Internet a person's imagination can roam free. By "connecting the dots" in new and different ways, I believe major advances in science, art and technology can be achieved. These resources allow a researcher, inventor or artist to investigate an idea or a theory to its fullest. What follows are a number of personal examples from my own work.
DOING RESEARCH BEFORE THE INTERNET
In 1971 I was getting a Masters Degree in Communication. I worked as a research assistant for a professor in my department. He wanted me to find everything available about talk radio with a political slant.
So I spent many hours at the million volume UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library -- which was huge at the time -- going through hundreds of books. This was tedious work to say the least.
In the beginning I slogged my way through the card catalogues which were not very helpful. They contained brief descriptions which were often misleading or incomplete. However, I quickly learned a trick to speed things up: I would find one book that I was certain was relevant and then I would get permission to go to the stacks where the actual books were shelved on book cases and look at all the books that were in the same section. This worked because the Dewey Decimal System for libraries put books with similar subjects together.
This short cut meant that I could put my hands on dozens of promising books in an hour, open each one up, check their table of contents and their index and quickly skim one or two chapters to see if I was on the right track. However, I found that this particular topic had not produced much mention in books. It turned out that most information could be found in magazines and periodicals. So when a book referenced an article, I would locate back issues of that particular magazine, rifle through a stack of issues that were usually not in order and then find the article which might or might not be relevant. This often took fifteen minutes just to find one article -- something you could now do with a couple of clicks on the computer.
After a while I learned to follow references in one article that led to another article or look for mentions in articles of a particular author or radio host -- assuming that the Wilson library had a full set of those periodicals. It was a good exercise for me, as I learned to skim articles quickly to see if they had the information I needed -- and only then to read in depth. After a while I got a nose for determining which articles would be more substantial and worth my time. At the end of the semester, I had found plenty for my professor who was quite pleased with my work.
RESEARCH ON THE INTERNET TODAYNow -- fast forward to the Internet.
Today a million volume library sounds like peanuts. Within seconds Google can search tens of thousands of websites that are relevant to just my query and quickly hone in on the most worthwhile ones. And forget about reading descriptions of a book or an article -- I can target specific words and phrases that should appear. \ However, my skills I developed doing research at the Wilson Library years ago have paid off because I now employ a number of short cuts such as knowing which set of words to search for and which set of words to put quotes around. This means I can often find exactly what I want in minutes. And much of the information I want is quite obscure.
Also it does not matter if what I want is in a book or an article or a column or a blog or a PDF file or in a graphic image. All of these are available to me. Of course, with the Internet, I have to check the credibility of the source and that does take a bit of time.
But wait! There is even more -- with Google Maps I can zoom in on specific areas and also find correct names. With Google Translate I can get a crude translation of a page in just about any language. With Google Earth I can almost 'walk through' any place on Earth and grab a picture of it - with Google's permission. In addition Google Books and other such projects such as Gutenberg are putting a huge number of books online.
A principle player in this new power for thinkers, bloggers and researchers is the wonderful free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. While it is not perfect, it does provide overview articles on just about any topic in straight forward easy to understand language, but in a way that is also professional. If there is an issue with a particular entry, the editors flag that at the top of the article. The overview these articles provide are also linked to a number of expert and professional articles as well as links to a full list of references stated in the article. However, as with any good research, crucial facts and definitions of concepts need to be verified with at least two different sources. Using Wikipedia as the only source would be a mistake.
At the same time it is hard to overstate the importance of Wikipedia. Articles which cover much of human knowledge, that are linked and divided into an understandable structure, are at the center of how Western civilization has evolved. In the 1700s in Europe one of the main changes in thought was brought about by the Encyclopedia Movement -- which in large part led to the Enlightenment and the democratic and more open societies we have today in the West. As of this writing Wikipedia now has over 5 million pages in English, with a total of 40 million articles in 293 languages -- making a significant collection of knowledge available to any one who has access to an Internet connection.
(Right) A figurative, tree-like diagram, of human knowledge -- not unlike the tree structure that computer hard drives use today to organize information -- was part of the Encyclopedia and known at the tree of Diderot and d'Alembert, editors of the Encyclopedia (left)
In addition to Wikipedia its companion, commons.wikimedia.org, contains almost 34 million images, photographs and videos that are free and available for anyone can use.
With this much information at my finger tips, it means I can do in hours what used to take a week. And even so my work back then would not be nearly as good as that which I can accomplish today.
So the Internet is a game changer. Big time. Not only can I find things quickly, I can copy the text and the necessary crediting info and then quote them quite easily. The tens of millions of public domain images and videos also adds another layer to my research. Often a picture says more precisely and directly what I need or is actual proof of a point I am trying to make. But this is just the start.
While the Internet has streamlined my research, even more importantly it has allowed me to make connections I never would have made when I was a graduate student. Because to me the real advantage is that I can now follow my hunches. In the years before the Internet, it took too much time to trace the development of a scientific idea, for example, that might lead nowhere. Now I can do a detailed search in a matter of hours.
So today hunches have become a large part of the way I work. I have major hunches such as a hunch for a principal topic that I might write a number of blog-articles about -- and minor hunches such as looking for a telling quote or further documentation.
The Internet also lets me make tons of notes, bookmark websites, put them in a program that allows me to structure and search them -- and then bring them up in a week or in a year as needed.
EXAMPLES OF USING INTUITION AND HUNCHES WHEN RESEARCHING THE INTERNETPerhaps the best way to explain this is to give you some examples:
THE GENIUS OF CAVEMENOne of my major aims for this blog about the human experience of time, DeconstructingTime, was to prove that prehistoric people were just as smart as we are today given the technology they had at the time.
My first major Internet discovery had to do with the 15,000 year old cave paintings at the Cave of Altamira in Spain. My father had been to that cave in the 1920s before it was closed to the pubic. When I was a child he told me that he had to go into the totally dark cave to see the paintings on the walls and the ceilings.
Because of the Internet I was able to find a large picture of the wall paintings. One image in particular jumped out, a painting of a bison. It was an accurate depiction. Then it struck me: if this was painted inside a dark cave, the painting had to have been done from memory -- and the prehistoric man who did it had to have had an almost photographic memory and also be a skilled artist. He was not some stupid crude stereotypical caveman.
And voila: I not only found exactly what I was looking for but in a similar pose as the painting in the cave. When you look at the two together it is remarkable how accurate that cave drawing is.
This blog has proved to be one of my most popular posts, with almost 1600 page views in the three year. This was my first article based on this kind of research -- and this early success encouraged me to do more of these.
THE HISTORY OF THE FUTUREAnother idea I wanted to prove was that technology had to be imagined first before it could become a reality. I wondered if I could use the Internet to prove my point.
|Apollo 17 Command Module as it orbited the moon.|
In the 1960s & 1970s I had closely followed the US space race and moon explorations. Then a few years ago I watched the animated 1902 movie by Méliès entitled A Trip to the Moon on YouTube. Something in that very early sci-fi film struck me but I was not sure what it was. I went back and looked at it again and it hit me: it was the design of the capsule that was being loaded into a large gun to be shot to the moon. On a hunch I still framed a colorized picture at the only point when I could see the entire module and then screen grabbed that picture.
While I was not sure, I wanted to see how similar this capsule was to the actual command modules that were used by NASA in their the moon missions. When I researched the Internet I found not one but two NASA images that proved exactly what I was trying to say. The fictional capsule and the actual command module were strikingly similar -- which helped prove my point that early fiction and imagination had laid the ground work for the moon landing many years later.
(Bottom) Early NASA design for the command module that would go to the moon.
RESEARCHING THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESSAnother hunch:
As you know this blog is about the human experience of time. In doing my research I began to wonder if someone had gone from an unconscious state to a conscious one -- a person who was intelligent and articulate. My hunch was that their perception of time would be quite different.
It turned out that the deaf, dumb, blind Helen Keller was such a person who went from not knowing words to suddenly grasping their meaning. It happened when she was almost seven years old, so she had a full memory of the transition when it occurred. When she learned words her sense of time changed completely -- which she stated explicitly.
The birth of language for her, mean that time suddenly existed which it had not before.
The following is an edited composite of things she said:
Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness...and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.
Once I knew only darkness and stillness.
My inner life, then, [ED: before consciousness] was...without past, present, or future.
It was not night—it was not day. . . . . .
But vacancy absorbing space,
And fixedness, without a place;
There were no stars—no earth—no time—
After she understood words and language, time itself opened up for her.
RESEARCHING THE EVOLUTION OF THE GEOCENTRIC MODEL FOR THE SOLAR SYSTEM
At the time I thought this was a misunderstanding of the scientific process. It was clear to me that more sophisticated science was built on the science that had come before it. The fact that Ptolemy's calculations were close was a major accomplishment and not something to be ridiculed.
Sometime later, I saw a diagram of clock gears that I found fascinating but was not sure why. Then I realized I was struck by the similarity of the gearing to the diagram of Ptolemy's circles within circles that I had seen in my history class many years earlier.
In 1989, before the Internet, I wrote a series of essays. I put forward the idea that the discredited geocentric theory was not only useful for astronomy but had led to a sophisticated understanding of gearing in complex machines. I knew that early clocks (I had just read a book about time) were basically planetariums -- so I was quite sure that the mechanics of these clocks were based on the gearing of circles as described by Ptolemy. I also knew that clocks were a key machine for the Industrial age. But in the 1980s this was as far as I could go with the idea.
However, now because of the Internet and Wikipedia, I was able to follow the geocentric model from its inception with the astronomer Ptolemy to the modern day. To my surprise there was a virtually unbroken trail of ideas, concepts and yes, mechanisms for a period of about 2000 years. Because of the Internet I believe I was able to prove that this discredited idea was, in fact, a major factor in both scientific thinking and critical to the development of clocks in particular and then later to machines. It played a major role in the industrial revolution. So instead of being an outmoded and useless ancient way of thinking, it was a vital component to scientific thought and technology -- right up to today.
See the footnote for what I wrote before the Internet was available.
How the Discredited Geocentric Cosmos