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Irreducible Truth

June 10, 2009

I had a conversation with smart guy today.  His name is Navdeep Alam.  He is quite possibly the smartest guy I know personally.  His Masters work at MIT is about genetic algorythms, adaptive AI, and the semantic web.  I like talking to Nav.  I don’t always understand every word he says, but I do understand the basic gist and more importantly, I understand the possibilities in what he’s doing.  For this reason, I think Nav likes talking to me too.

But a lot of people (maybe most people) aren’t like Nav and I.  Some people don’t “get” what he’s talking about.  They don’t even know where to begin.   In some cases, they lack the foundational knowledge to put his work in context.  In other cases, they simply lack the intellectual chops that are required to see the grandeur in what he’s doing.  Many simply don’t want to put in the time to understand it.

So what’s a guy like Nav to do?  He’s constantly asked to “simplify, simplify, simplify.”  To “frame it in a way that other people can understand.”  But here’s the problem:  at the alter of abstraction, meaning and nuance are the sacrificial lambs.  And the more you abstract, the more you lose: implications, impacts, possibilities, risks.  I can tell you that calculus is math.  I can tell you that algebra is math too.  So is trigonometry.  And on and on…  They’re all the same yet they’re all different.

If I know that you want to calculate the height of the pole based on it’s shadow, I can easily tell you which math to use.  Simplicity and framing is easy.  But what if you only know the math side, and you’re not sure yet what you can do with it?  What if you need the help of colleagues and other conceptual, smart folks to figure it out?  That gets a lot trickier when your audience isn’t able to wrap their brain around what you’re doing.

One final analogy to drive this point home.  The number 4.678921 rounds up to 5.  So does 4.72.  So does 4.57999929.  If I’m ballparking whether I have enough room for a new deck bench that’s 5 feet long, I don’t give a crap where the “2” is in any of the above measurements.  None of them will fit.  On the other hand, if I’m measuring in millionths of an inch when building a part for the space shuttle, it matters a great deal.  I can’t even use the number 4.72 because it’s not accurate enough.

In a lot of life, we manage to get by without needing to employ the intellectual rigor necessary to distinguish between 4.678921 and 4.57999929, but sometimes, when you’re onto a big idea, the “2” matters.  It matters where it is in relation to other numbers and where it is in it’s absolute position.  Sometimes it’s not enough to say that 4.678921 is 5; just like it’s not enough sometimes to say that calculus is math.

Knowing when to abstract and when the details matter is a tricky thing, but assuming that all things can be astracted and simplified to be understood by anyone and everyone is a kind of intellectual laziness.  Anyone with even a cursory understanding of logic, math, or the sciences knows that the granularity and depth of measurement accuracy matter.  The same thing is true of ideas.  Sometimes simplification obfiscates meaning to the point of no return.  Sometimes, especially when dealing in the realm of potential paths and future states, abstraction is counterproductive.  Just as in the world of science and math, in the world of ideas, there are irreductible truths.  And I’m grateful everyday for the opportunity to know a guy like Nav who thinks them up.

What does this have to do with community and social learning?  A lot actually.  Would love to hear your comments.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2009 10:10 pm

    What can I say?
    It is a fact the people do not take the time or the effort to understand the others.
    Sometimes I think we are oceans of knowledge walking alone, in the dark, seeing some lights from time to time.
    I agree.

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      June 11, 2009 9:27 am

      Thanks Pablo. I’m pretty sure this line: “Sometimes I think we are oceans of knowledge walking alone, in the dark, seeing some lights from time to time” from your reply is the most poetic comment I’ve ever read. Great way to express it. So much inside all of us never quite makes the surface or breaks through the darkness. Thanks for brightening my morning.

  2. Mark Britz permalink
    June 11, 2009 9:21 am

    Fantastic post! I’m still processing it though… scrolling up, rereading…scrolling down and typing. I see many connections to communicating the value of SL but again I need more time to ponder. Just wanted to say thanks for now. Great way to start my day!

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      June 11, 2009 9:28 am

      Thanks Mark. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts once you are done pondering…

  3. June 11, 2009 4:04 pm


    Great post as usual. I too know Nav, not to the extent you know him granted, and I think he is great!

    Moreover, your implication of the above towards social learning, community / web 2.0 as a whole I have to agree.

    I have to stay myself lest I go on a rant about information and request intellect, but, I will say this: In a society which is clearly driven by information, we as consumers must take the time to think things through to the details despite the temptation to just ” read the abstract”. If it were so easy to get the ” true meaning” of information by reading the abstract it wouldn’t be call an abstract it would just “be” the information.

    The best decisions are based on taking the information and digesting it yourself, not reading a distilled version. You as the consumer have to make a choice as to what is important and what is not. Letting someone else “make is simple” for you….. well it feels a bit like Fahrenheit 451…

  4. June 11, 2009 10:24 pm

    So what’s a guy like Nav to do?

    Simplify, but with a disclaimer?

    Start where people are, knowledge-wise, but let them know that it’s only a starting point and that the journey to complete understanding may be long?

    Qualify the desire sincerity of the person to learn before starting to explain (or change the subject)?

  5. June 13, 2009 8:23 pm


    Right on with the topic. There is value in doing the hard work to communicate clearly and concisely, but simple communication that ignores the wealth in subtlety is often the home base of the ignorant or lazy. Some concepts and ideas are important enough to expand your universe. Our job is to help the willing connect the known to the unknown.

    For example, there’s the intellectual rigor of good visual design. See Tufte. Sparklines is a great example of effectively communicating detail:


  6. June 15, 2009 12:30 pm

    Asking a visionary /creator to try and simplify their intelligence is detrimental.

    Their minds are not custom to processing simplicity.

    Even when they try to dup it down for folks like yourself and I to understand, it is still not going to be enough; it will never be simple enough to satisfy everyone due to the complex layers upon layers of in-depth calculations and theories they are processing through their minds.

    The front end of a product will always be made simple while the back end will be too complex to understand for the everyday user. However, for folks like Navdeep, the back end of the product is simple and the front end is complex because the mind is not geared for simplicity.

    Most likely when he looks at the front end of something, he is thinking about how it works on the back end vs the everyday user that does not care as long as its doing what we need it to do!

    The most important key element to keep in mind and understand about gifted individuals like your friend Navdeep is that they are so adamant in proving their theories are correct that they will not fail. Do not boggle so much time and efforts into asking a complex person to dup it down for you.

    If you trust their visions, ideas and theories then have faith that they will deliver a product that works in which at the end of the day makes you look as well.

    Support folks like Navdeep Alam!

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