Memory as a Wikipedia Page

Memory

I don’t know anyone’s phone number, address or email address anymore. I don’t remember appointments, my agenda is on my phone and I get an alert. I don’t remember any of my passwords, they’re stored either in the app or in my browser. If I loose my phone I’m screwed, but only temporarily because all that information is backed up in the cloud somewhere.

On the plus side there is an unlimited memory that I can access in the sense that there is nothing Google doesn’t know, the days of playing Google Whack are over.

We tend to think of memory as being a storage, our own biological repository of true things that really happened, our own database that we can Google to recall.

It turns out that human memory functions less like a database and more like Wikipedia. That is we can create overwrite and change what we recall, and – here’s the wiki bit – other people can distort our memories. In this TED talk Elizabeth Loftus talks about the ways our memories can be subtly altered by what people ask us and even what words they use.

As shown in the video this has implications in crime solving, eye witness accounts can be manipulated as people are primed by something as simple as replacing the word “hit” with “smashed” in a description of an accident.

But it also has implications for all of us, having a wikipedia page for a memory is how we become vulnerable to gaslighting,  an insidious form of manipulation that includes persistent denial of the truth, deliberate lying, and manipulating the environment to make the victim doubt their own memory.

The usual setting for gaslighting is within a relationship, and it has been connected with narcissistic or sociopathic personalities and with abuse.

But what if we can all, collectively fall victim to gaslighting?  This accusation has been hurled at various politicians, most recently at the new President of the US. Various news outlets have called his behaviour gaslighting, including Business Insider, The GuardianCNN, Teen Vogue, the Washington Post, NBC, and the earliest example I could find in the Telegraph. The antidote to this has been the rise and rise of fact checkers.

The good news is that we have a global database now, it’s called the internet and we can search for sources, explanations, and the person’s own words.

The other piece of good news is that because our memories are wiki pages we can consciously choose to re-write the memory. For many years I was vaguely claustrophobic, I would avoid small spaces and if I had to be in one I would get highly anxious, never to the level of a full panic attack but unpleasant. I thought it was due to one event where for a joke two guys picked me up and shut me into the boot/trunk of someone’s car. When they finally let me out I was crying, shaking, and furious.  I changed the “script” of that event and cast myself as a circus performer escaping, Houdini-style, from the car’s boot with feather headdress and a flourish.  Am I cured? Well I won’t be joining the Speleology Club any time soon but I’m not anxious in a lift/elevator any more.

Our memories record the good and the bad stuff, just like wikipedia; and just like wikipedia the can be edited. Pay attention, be aware of the editing.

If you think you’re being “nudged” to change your view check the facts. If you think you need a record of something photograph it. Use the tools to help you keep a database, your brain won’t.

When I travel around the Netherlands by train I leave my bike at central station, amongst the 4,000 other bikes and I don’t always remember where I parked it. I’ve taken to photographing the view from where the bike is parked. My memory on bike location is definitely a wiki page, and I seem to randomly recall previous page versions.

Image: Memories  |  Stefanos Papachristou  |  CC BY-NC2.0

 

Game Changer

GameChanger

I’m going to talk about sport. Since I know so little about sport this may be the riskiest thing I’ve done all week.

The dictionary gives the definition as;

  1.  Sports. an athlete, play, etc., that suddenly changes the outcome of game or contest.

2.  a person or thing that dramatically changes the course, strategy,character, etc., of something:

Link To Sports

I tried to think of examples of things from sports that were genuine game changers. I was thinking of the sport itself not an individual game.

Swim Start;

Once upon a time swimmers simply dived in and swam, breaking the surface almost immediately. Now athletes swim dolphin style underwater – which is faster. The rules limit this to 15m in competitive swimming to ensure the athlete’s safety. But records were broken as soon as this technique change came in.

Tennis;

When I first played tennis as a kid, it was with a racket made of wood. Nowadays they’re graphite or graphite blends, with larger heads and synthetic strings. This means the racquet delivers more power and the shock as the ball strikes is dampened by the racquet. It’s an equipment change and a game changer.

The Fosbury Flop;

in 1968 Dick Fosbury won the high jump gold with the technique now used universally in high jump, the trick is that the jumper’s centre of gravity remains below the bar. In an interview he states that he increased his jump height by half a foot (15cm) in a day. As a comparison here’s what the jumps used to look like, with the athletes landing on their feet on the other side. Fosbury’s Flop was only possible once large foam mats were used for athletes to land on.

Applies to Business

The game changers in sports can be a technique change, an equipment change or a combination of both. Business analogies might be a new business model, inventing a new technology, or exploiting a new technology.

New Business Model

Do you remember the early days of the internet when you used the book mark function of your browser because you’d never find a site again? Search engines were starting to appear, and suddenly in the late 90s Google appeared with a brand new way of searching and an effective revenue model – advertising. Without the business model none of the other search engines could ever have won the internet.

New Technology

If my grandfather could see the power of what I carry around in my mobile phone he’d think it was science fiction. Even my parents are occasionally astonished, they grew up with phones that you called the exchange and requested a number then the operator connected the call. The first mobile phones didn’t do much more than call, but along comes the smartphone and everyone wants one (almost everyone). The inventors of the of both sorts of new phones transformed personal communications. Many businesses were built on their inventions.

mobile phone timeline
(Nostalgia moment; that Motorola on the far left was the first mobile phone I ever used).

Exploiting New Technology

Netflix killed Blockbuster and Videoland by streaming videos – we no longer were forced to leave the house to choose a video. But it couldn’t have existed without the ubiquity of televisions, computers and broadband internet. The transformed the home entertainment industry by licencing and streaming high demand content. They’re in the middle of transforming the content development industry by developing award winning shows of their own such as the House of Cards.

The term “game changer” can be fairly applied to all these examples. In each case the industry was transformed or a new industry was created, the change was big, and the impact was broad. Making the change was complex and there were spin off changes that new companies could exploit – particularly for the mobile phones example.

However when I hear “game changer” used in general conversation it’s usually applied to an improvement. As one article put it “Maybe cloud computing is, in fact, a game changer. Your new HR handbook is not”. Instead we can talk about improvement, change, update, advance, upgrade, progress, revision or development.

Lets save the phrase “game changer” for those inventions, developments and improvements that really do change the game.

Images: Jenga  | Antony Mayfield  |  CC BY 2.0

Mobile Phone Timeline | Khedera | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Book of the Month: Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Douglas Rushkoff

Like many people I tend to use the products of the digital revolution more easily than I think about the economics of it. I see the astonishing figures of acquisition value for companies that have yet to make a profit and something seems odd – but I’ve never sat down and examined what. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Rushkoff’s book examines the financial industry, particularly around digital startups to show us just what is wrong with our economy, and offers the beginnings of some solutions.

The main  argument are that our existing economy is set up to serve constant growth, and the wealth generated in that economy accrues to a minority at the top, leaving the majority worse off.

BOTM Googlebus quote1

The book begins with a discussion of an unusual protest; local residences of San Francisco’s Mission District lay down on the street in front of some of the Google buses that were used to ferry employees from their homes to the Google campus. This is a symptom of the dysfunctional economy.

Growth

We have all bought into the growth myth; we need and deserve more – in financial reward for our work, the size of our homes, the shininess of our possessions or the pool of money for our pension. But in nature things grow to maturity and then stop growing, they reach a size that’s appropriate for their physical limits and their ecosystem. An oak tree doesn’t keep growing, it maintains itself over time, growing new leaves each year, but the size remains more or less constant.

Companies have a growth imperative, the market expects growth in their market capitalisation to give investors a return. Which is why the market gets excited about huge audiences on Pokemon Go, and gets jittery when Apple iPhone sales stagnate.

In the theories of business that I learnt in business school a company had to manage multiple stakeholders and keep them all happy to ensure long term success. Put simply a company must keep employees well-trained and motivated to make customers happy, ensuring income for the company to return to investors over a longer term. Stakeholder theory says that the needs of all three must be kept in balance and that neglecting the needs of one will affect the other two.

Rushkoff explains that in today’s market there are relatively few investors in the sense of people wanting to own a piece of a company and be vested in its success. Instead the market is full of traders, those who trade shares amongst themselves and might never know what the company makes or what is on its balance sheet. The most advanced of these is using sophisticated technology and complex algorithms and trading on minute shifts in share price. This trading is done digitally, using microseconds of difference in share price enabled by digital, and the activity is so removed from actual business activity according Rushkoff, that it is creating a distorted market.

The startup economy takes all this to the next level, it effectively gamifies investment.

Startup Economy

In the start up economy it’s venture capitalists doing the investing, and they are not interested in the long term profitability of your company, they’re looking for a maximum return “on exit”, which is either your company being acquired by a larger company or an IPO. Here’s a simple breakdown of how the funding works and the share of return at the IPO stage. Venture Capitalists invest significant amounts in multiple startups and expect some to fail. Conversely the ones that succeed need to do very, very well.

The drive for high valuations of startups is less about the net present value of the company, and more about the expectations of the venture capitalists. The VCs expect a return on their investment not of percentage points, like a traditional investor, but in multiples.

History of Money

Rushkoff points out that it wasn’t always this way. In simpler times we bartered our goods directly, and then as trading grew in the bazaar towns developed a form of script allowing more exchanges. Quality was ensured by a set of guilds who could control a trade. As the bazaar emerged Europe enjoyed rapid economic expansion. However, he suggests, the nobility feared losing their system of value creation, as feudalism broke down, and instituted measures to limit or eliminate local currencies.

The discussion of the changes in how money functioned in the past points to ways that it could function in the future.

Potential Solutions

Money has two functions, measuring accumulated assets and transactional, the system we have now works far better for the former function and not that well for the second. Solutions revolve around changing the currency system in various ways.

  1. Local currency; eg the Massachusetts Berkshares
  2. Free money; eg; the Worgl currency
  3. Cooperative currencies; eg; Fureai Kippu
  4. Local bank; reforming banking to enable local investment
  5. Crypto currency; eg Bitcoin, which frees up money for transactions.

Rushkoff also points to some different models of business building, where businesses are established specifically not to grow – or at least not to grow beyond their chartered purpose. He asks that new entrepreneurs think of more in the stakeholder model that delivers long term sustainable growth.

You can see a discussion of the book at the Commonwealth Club;

The book explains all the history and the theory very clearly, I think it’s a must read for digital professionals, economists and those with an interest in sustainability or social justice. There are plenty of examples throughout the book – most real and a few hypothetical. The book answered a lot of my “how does that work?” economic questions, but also made me curious at how do we solve this for ourselves and for future generations.

I look at the overwhelming wall of opposition, the “vested interests” and the conflicted interests – after all even as I see the sense of this revolution I am relying on the growth of investments to pay for my future, and the solutions offered seem too small and too vulnerable. For real change it will take government regulation to change, in the meantime I’ll look for alternative models that I can employ today.

Easter Egg Pheneomenon

2016march_easter

The ones found in media, the chocolate ones are for the weekend.

An Easter Egg is a surprise addition, something unexpected and usually humorous, included on a DVD, movie, music compilation or software. They usually have an “inside joke” quality to them, and some range into rather esoteric geek territory.

Online Easter Eggs

Google leads the way in producing browser-based Easter eggs with easy to get jokes. They’re your standard hollow chocolate Easter egg. Easy enough to consume, and leave you wanting more. Here are some of my favourites;

Search for ‘anagram’, ‘recursion’, ‘askew’ or ‘do a barrel roll’ and watch what happens.

If you use google maps, pay attention to what happens to the pegman, he changes in various locations or to celebrate specific occasions. He’s been a penguin, a witch, a leprechaun a rainbow, a skier and an astronaut. There are two locations I found that still have adapted pegmen.

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There are also some hidden subpages from Google, a virtual teapot for example, or a bonus puppy shot in the app store.

Easter Eggs In Films and TV

Disney is famous for “cameo” appearances of one character into another movie, so Goofy turns up in the Little Mermaid, and Mickey Mouse makes a brief appearance in Frozen.

The geek TV sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” has a final shot that’s a “card” from Chuck Lorre, the series creator. These are usually on the screen for a matter of seconds meaning it takes some dedication to get to read them. Card #221 is a philosophical rambling on politics and horses.

Easter Eggs In Advertising

Ever wondered why phone numbers in (US made) movies begin with “555”? It’s a range of fictitious phone numbers so that the movie doesn’t accidentally use a working phone number. Except when it does. In 2014 Old Spice included a real phone number in their ad and gave away free super bowl tickets to the first person who called the number.

More delightfully, Innocent, the UK health drink company, included a help line phone number on their bottles. They invited you to call them even if  you did not have a problem and promised to sing you a song if you did. We called and they did indeed sing.

Easter Eggs In Geekdom

I’ll stay out of the seriously geek territory, but will point out that if you open a firefox browswer and type ‘about:mozilla’ into the URL bar, you will get to read a verse from the Book of Mozilla. The verses are written in an eerily apocalyptic style, but do contain references to events that are history for Mozilla. With some historic knowledge you can decode them.

I think companies, such as Google and Disney, which create Easter eggs in their products are displaying a sense of fun – sometimes to the surprise of unsuspecting viewers. They’re also inviting us in, teasing us to become part of the inner circle. Not every company has the platform to do this, nor the company culture to support it, however when it works it’s genius branding.

Still looking for the perfect chocolate Easter egg?  Michel Roux jr reviewed various flavours, and then there’s this, a Game of Thrones inspired dragon’s egg.

Dragon's egg

 

Image: Easter eggs  |  Dan Zen  |  CC BY 2.0

 

Freelancer Tools; a timer

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 13.16.22Freelancers need to figure out how to charge for their time, you may be charging on an hourly basis or you may be charging for a particular deliverable, either way you need to estimate and then measure how long a task takes you.

There’s another reason to use this if you’re in the Netherlands; you need to prove you’ve worked 1225 hours per year in your own company to qualify for tax benefits. By keeping this all documented in your calendar you can satisfy the tax department that you have met that threshold.

I was looking for a free way to do this that would be easy to use and fit with existing tools, I found an add-on that works with Google calendar and Google docs two tools I already use.

Freelance Timer

In this screenmailer video I take you through;

  1. Installing the add-on
  2. Creating an event
  3. Creating a report
  4. Using the timer
  5. Updating a report

Because I can add links and documents to the events on the calendar I can document my timesheets to satisfy the Belastingdienst (tax department). I can also look back and see how much time I spent per client or per activity and compare it to my estimates. If it’s a regular activity I can also check back and see if I’m getting more efficient.

Hope it helps other freelancers! Let me know in the comments.

Image; Time Flies   |   Hartwig HKD   |  CC BY-ND 2.0

Internet Access as a Human Right

UNhumanrightsI am constantly connected, both at home and at work, often via multiple devices. And it’s not just my phone and laptop, increasingly service apps are online – I can control my apartment temperature  from the other side of the world via an app. Lots of services are online, I do all my banking online, I’ll do my tax return online soon. I’ll shop online, including for dinner delivered. At work I’m online all the time. My functional life is online – if wifi goes down I’m really stuck. So internet is hugely important. But is it a human right?

The original UN Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention the internet, but then it was written in the 1940s so that’s not surprising. However it does list a number of rights that are increasingly accessed via the internet, including the right to;

  • take part in the government of his country,
  • equal access to public service in his country.
  • work, to free choice of employment
  • education.
  • participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

These are all available online

It’s only a matter of time before these are available only via the internet. It’s such a clear trend that in 2011 the UN declared internet access a human right, noting;

The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.

But what action follows this declaration? How can governments ensure that access is fair? And what happens when fair access does not exist?

There are a lot of government and business initiatives to ensure universal access to the internet, although in many cases the individual would still need to provide the device;

  • Costa Rica, Greece, Spain, France, Finland and Estonia have taken legislative steps to enshrine internet access as a right in law.
  • India plans to roll out wifi to 2500 cities.
  • The UK government aims to turn thousands of public buildings into free wifi zones.
  • In the Netherlands network providers are finding ways to open use of customer hotspots.

But not all governments are doing so well. The Syrian regime seems to shut down the internet for hours or days at various times. China famously has “The Great Firewall“, which uses a range of blocking techniques to filter sites and content. And governments of democratic nations aren’t immune to the temptation to turn off internet access in times of crisis, as UK’s PM David Cameron showed during the London riots in 2011 (in this case it did not happen).

But even outside these extreme examples internet access remains very unequal. Jon Gosier, who has worked on some of the big issues of technology inequality, talks about how our thinking around technology as an improver of lives is flawed and asks the vital question – how do we include everyone?

There are a few organisations around the world working on ensuring full internet access, including A Human Right, which in 2012 campaigned to have a planned undersea cable moved 500km south so that it could serve the isolated island of St Helena. Their site and twitter feed appear somewhat moribund so it’s hard to judge real progress.

Alliance for Affordable Internet is a public-private partnership that works to provide affordable broadband and mobile access to the internet for everyone.

But the most interesting “bet” on securing global, universal access to the internet might come from the private sector. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has a vision of creating a “space internet“. And Google have a mad idea involving balloons, called Project Loon, that might just work.

Image: Human Right | Zack Lee |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ego Surfing

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 23.28.16It’s a term coined almost twenty years ago, referring to the act of searching for your own name, pseudonym, or handle online to see what information appears.

We often place a negative association on displays of egos, and references to ego surfing on the internet are generally negative or sarcastic.

But ego surfing can be a smart thing to do.

Just as companies manage their online presence and their online reputation so should you, I think this should be an ongoing action, but I’m sure people think of it more when they’re job seeking.

If you’re a random, unfamous person like me, the occasional search on major search engines will be enough. Here’s how I do it;

  1. Use a browser I don’t use very often
  2. Log out of any accounts, particularly Google
  3. Clear browsing history and cookies
  4. Search for my name, and the name of the blogs I write
  5. Search for the key topics I write about in the hope that my name/blog appears connected to those topics.

It’s important to use a “clean” browser to do this as Google will give you adjusted results based on your location, browsing history and login.

If you find content that shouldn’t be publicly available you have a few options to remove it; WikiHow provides a list of actions you can take. In some cases Google will remove content that they index if it could lead to identity theft (although they won’t remove your date of birth). In some situations EU residents can ask to be “forgotten” by Google when information is dated and has a negative reputational impact.

There are therefore two very good reasons for searching your own name; to check that your name isn’t associated with negative information and to make sure that the content you are publishing is building  your reputation in your field of expertise.

So, be honest, when was the last time you went ego surfing?

 

Image: The Ego Project / Mike Curley / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

 

 

Through the Prism

Surveillance: America's PastimeThe US government has being spying on our online activities. That comes as no surprise, we’ve all seen the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act (FISA), but what is surprising is that it now appears some companies including Facebook and Google have been allowing the National Security Authority (NSA) of the US government direct access to their data via something called Prism.

Facebook, Google, and now Yahoo have issued public statements stating that they are not working with NSA, but complying with legal requests. In an Orwellian twist the FISA prevents any discussion of any requests made under the act, including whether such requests exist.

Facebook and Google both use the phrase “no direct access to our servers”, which is not the same as “NSA doesn’t get our data”, which they can’t say because (a) they can’t discuss anything around an FISA request and (b) they are obliged to pass on data within legal constraints.

The New York Times article talks about some of the technical changes that have been discussed;

one of the plans discussed was to build separate, secure portals, like a digital version of the secure physical rooms that have long existed for classified information, in some instances on company servers. Through these online rooms, the government would request data, companies would deposit it and the government would retrieve it, people briefed on the discussions said.

Which makes it sound like a technical solution developed to comply with a legal requirement, and certainly far less scary than the “direct access to servers” statement that raised concerns.

Mashable takes a similar view, calling Prism a “data integration API” which the NSA would need to analyse and use the data released. Mashable also suggests that the term “direct access” is used incorrectly in the original slide deck, for the simple reason that it’s difficult – which means expensive – to do.

In many articles these technical solutions, and the fact that the servers to host them belong to the companies are cited as evidence that the companies are somehow collaborating with the NSA making it easy for them to get the data. I suspect it’s the other way around; The companies are building these solutions to make it easy for themselves to comply with the law.

So possibly, probably Facebook et al have been acting legally; but perhaps that’s the scary part.

Robin Gross via twitter; the scandal is that what the govt is doing doesn't violate the law

The underlying laws, the Patriot Act and the FISA, raised concerns when they were passed, with cities opting out of the Patriot act, but now that the connection, and the scale of data requested/shared the concern level has gone up a notch. With commentators raising real concerns about the collection, use and safeguarding of personal data in an increasingly monitored nation. As the Guardian revealed the source of the leaked information as Edward Snowdon yesterday they also published his motives; safeguarding internet freedom.

Cyber security is a real issue, and it needs addressing. The global nature of the internet, and the huge potential unleashed by analysis of big data, make the online world a source of genuine crime-stopping information. But the right to privacy is upheld in the laws and constitutions of many countries and it is being eroded.

It would be easy to dismiss that as an “American problem” but it specifically targets foreigners, and our own governments show worrying tendencies to trample over privacy rights online including the Dutch proposal to give police the right to hack as a cybercrime prevention measure. Despite playing up their “Digital Agenda” in recent months the EU has been strangely silent.

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Image;
Surveillance: America’s Pastime /Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Revolution 2.0

20121028-121057.jpgRevolution 2.0; The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir

I heard Wael Ghonim speak at the Dublin Web Summit last week, and before he’d finished talking I’d purchased the Kindle edition of Revolution 2.0; the power of the people is greater than the people in power – his memoir of the uprising in Egypt.

About a day after the conference I’d finished reading it, and I’m still thinking about it. It’s the story of a growing political awareness of the author, a revolution in a country that had had the same ruler for decades, and the huge power unleashed by social media.

Ghonim applied his marketing skills to build a following by;

  • making sure he connected with similar groups to build momentum,
  • using the language of his audience (the language of Egyptian youth rather than formal Arabic)
  • asking the community for their input, and acting on it
  • including and linking to content from similar sources
  • integrating online and offline by promoting and supporting other protests including the silent stands

His account also points to some online dilemmas, although the Internet started out with the possibility to remain anonymous, that’s not really the case any more and Facebook requires a real person to be behind admin accounts. But if you’re inside a country where the state of emergency has existed for decades or where the state security machine is active against dissidents you want to remain anonymous. Ghonim countered this by having a supporter based in the US listed as the real person, while a small group of activists had the password to the admin account. He also discusses some tools used to disguise where you’re posting from. I suspect that government security teams around the world will study Ghonim’s book, and the relevant social media accounts in order to be ready for the next revolutionaries using social media.

It’s very much an “on the ground” account.The writing is raw, it was written quickly so that the launch would co-incide with the 1year anniversary of the 25 January protest, and as he concedes at the end of the book, outcomes are still unclear.

There is much discussion around the impact social media has in a revolution, is it the beginning of a brave new world? Yes, and no.

Yes – for two reasons; firstly, it enabled smaller disparate groups to connect and start to see the scale their actions could have. Secondly, at least initially, social media took the place of a free press, reporting – almost in real time – the events on the ground. This reporting went global thanks to Egyptian expats who translated some of the content, countering the official press accounts.

No – at a certain point, probably around the first large scale protest on Tahrir Square on 25 January, the real world took over. Without this the social media conversations could be ignored or dismissed by the government.

Social Media acted as a catalyst, sparking a revolution. But it was the men and women on the streets who made the revolution, without their courage to act it was a theoretical discussion.

I was left with deep admiration for the author, for taking his commercial skills a dose of courage and building a foothold for the revolution. A sadness for all those families who lost someone in the revolution, and hope. Hope that the future is brighter.

Fame Wars

I’ve been playing with Google Ngrams. If you’ve never heard of them, here’s an introduction to the concept.

Google have scanned about 50 million books, and a couple of scientists at Harvard figured out some ways to analyse that mountain of data – and Google have developed the ngrams tool based on this analysis.

I was trying to use it to compare fame, so testing pairs or groups of famous people from roughly the same era to see who was more famous. Stephen Hawking beats Stephen Fry, Galileo beats Copernicus most of the time, and Edison beats Tesla (to the consternation of true geeks). Moving into fiction, Captain Kirk beats Hans Solo; but Darth Vader beats both – apparently in the fame stakes it pays to be evil.

But one result amused me more than all the others; Michaelangelo vs Da Vinci. There’s a huge upkick in results for Da Vinci, in the early 2000s, right when Dan Brown published the Da Vinci code.

Da Vinci beats Michaelangelo

Remember that ngrams is referencing mentions of a term in the 50 million books scanned so far – so this huge jump in the number of times the term is used cannot be due to one book alone. Ngrams also lets you drill down and see what was published in that period with the term “Da Vinci”, and indeed a whole range of books on the subject of Da Vinci was published. Everything from biographies, to school books, to books analysing all the errors in Dan Brown’s book.

You need to use the drill down function when playing around with ngrams, I tested “meme” vs “gene”. Gene won, which was no surprise, but I found data for the word meme being used back into the 1800s which was a surprise. But on drilling down it turns out that it’s the French word “meme” that is being counted.