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Beautiful Data by Toby Segaran, Jeff Hammerbacher

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Chapter 5. Information Platforms and the Rise of the Data Scientist

Jeff Hammerbacher

Libraries and Brains

AT THE AGE OF 17, I WAS FIRED FROM MY JOB AS A CASHIER AT SCOTT'S GROCERY STORE IN FORT Wayne, Indiana. With only two months remaining before my freshman year of college, I saw in my unemployment an opportunity. Instead of telling my parents that I had been fired, I continued to leave the house every afternoon in my cashier's outfit: black pants, black shoes, white shirt, and smock. To my parents, I looked ready for some serious coupon scanning; in reality, I was pulling 10-hour shifts reading at the public library.

All reasonably curious people wonder how their brain works. At 17, I was unreasonably curious. I used my time at the library to learn about how brains work, how they break, and how they are rebuilt. In addition to keeping us balanced, regulating our body temperature, and making sure we blink our eyelids together every now and again, our brains ingest, process, and generate massive amounts of information. We construct unconscious responses to our immediate environment, short-term plans for locution and limb placement, and long-term plans for mate selection and education. What makes brains interesting is not just their ability to generate reactions to sensory data, but their role as repository of information for both plan generation and the creation of new information. I wanted to learn how that worked.

One thing about brains, though: they remain stubbornly housed within ...

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