Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Two Awesome Books

It's been a few days since I did my first post --- getting into the habit of being more regular is going to be difficult!

Actually, I was rereading two highly original, excellent books, that are both strangely enough, out of print ! (Note, however, that used copies are available easily online or from libraries.) They are both trying to deal with the problem of how people deal with information, and I think that they share the underlying goal of shedding some light on how to increase grokrate. One of them, Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman is a "how to" book, and the other, Silicon Dreams by Robert Lucky is a "how come" book. Both are written for a general audience, although Silicon Dreams has a few equations here and there.

Both authors are successful practitoners. Wurman is the creator and designer of the ACCESS travel books, and so brings this designer perspective to the problem. He has a seemingly endless number of interesting things to say about how information should be organized and communicated in order to be quickly groked. Lucky is an engineer (he invented something important called adaptive equalizers and is a Bell Labs veteran), and spent his intellectually formative years studying information theory. So his focus is almost exclusively on how to define and measure the amount of information in something. He talks about the fact that while multimedia takes thousands of times more bits to send than text (even when it is efficiently compressed), it does not appear to contain that much more meaningful information. He also hypothesizes that our grokrate (although obviously he does not call it that) is roughly 50b/s, a pitifully small number!

If you have any interest in understanding how people absorb information and what limits the rate at which it can be done, I strongly recommend that you check these books out. Even though they are ten years old, they are quite amazingly current.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


I finally have a blog. My hope is when I am in between things I will actually post something instead of playing minesweeper or doing something equally inane. Maybe some of these posts will actually make sense and be of interest to others.

So what is "grokrate"? It's a word I made up so let me explain. When you stare at something complicated, after a while it may actually start making sense. This deeper understanding, in which the information gets internalized into your thinking is the grokking of that information. The term grok comes from the Robert A. Heinlein novel Stranger in a Strange Land, and it is pretty commonly used among geeks.

The grokrate is simply the rate at which you grok. Sometimes our grokrate is phenomenally high. For example, when you are crossing a busy street your brain assesses the speed and positions of a variety of different objects, and then has you walk (run) across safely. Action heros and NBA basketball players are forever impressing us with their grokrates as they successfully improvise in seemingly impossible situations .

However, that kind of information is different from information on the web.
When you want to buy a new car, plan a trip or understand more about climate change, you are more-or-less certain to be in for a very long period of meandering through various websites. Even if you do find everything you need, it's hard to synthesize it. The grokrate is typically very very low. This turns most people into information grazers -- they'd rather flit from one amusing story to the next and ignore the "hard" information synthesis required to really grok stuff. Or they rely on someone else to tell them what to think...

So what can you do to increase your grokrate? I'm interested in figuring out effective ways to do that.