BTW, are fictional characters counted as references? ;-)
From that article, In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes claims he does not know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, as such information is irrelevant to his work. Directly after having heard that fact from Watson, he says he will immediately try to forget it. He says he believes that the mind has a finite capacity for information storage, and so learning useless things would merely reduce his ability to learn useful things.
EDIT: Somewhat relevant (and OT) comic... http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla
Holmes was characterized as profoundly valuing facts (as well as methods of thinking), if and only if those facts were useful to crime-solving. He was noted, for example, for his monograph on tobacco-ash residues. That is, he knew so much about the details of tobacco ash that, upon sampling some ash found at a crime scene, he could infer many useful things from it. Another example is that he is so familiar with all the various mud around London that when he sees some dried, he can guess where it came from.
Holmes is, overall, preposterous. And his theories (the theories that Sir ACD put in his mouth) are almost entirely without evidence.
That said, theories without facts to work upon are like a level with no fulcrum.
I've said this before, and I'll say it again. Do not take advice from Sherlock Homes, because he is fictional and thus can be no smarter than his creator, a man who quite literally believed in fairies, and could not be persuaded that Houdini was not actually magic.
This may well be true if we're talking about real-time creation, but it's absolutely possible to put in more brain cycles into offline, pre-processed creation and get better results.
1. Random facts that have no obvious connection to what you're working on.
2. Facts that come in use frequently, and form the basis of expertise.
I expect there were many facts that Einstein did have memorized, even though he could look them up.
Holmes is surely an exaggeration, but in many domains expertise is simply mastery of basic elements.
Understanding many little pieces lets you see the whole more clearly than someone who is missing parts. Experts have enhanced intuition.
This is a distinct type of knowledge from the depth of the pacific ocean. That kind of knowledge will not improve intuition if memorized.
Apologies for the off-topic rant, but it's one of my passions. I'm most probably preaching to the converted.
Context is everything.
I don't know if that information is contained in a particular book, but it is certainly readily available all over the web.
Why do we care? Could Edison have had a similar interest, though focused more on his own business?
Separately, what good is knowledge of theory if you have no practical experience upon which to understand it? The candidates given this test were also supposed to be in line for the executive ranks. Having a general knowledge of geography, geopolitics and trade would seem to be fairly important.
It's also unclear from the article exactly how Mr. Edison interpreted or used the results. Frankly, it sounds like many of those quoted in the article were offended by being asked such "simple questions"... despite not being able to answer them. Perhaps Mr. Edison was interested in finding executives who didn't believe that common sense, mundane facts or important business details were beneath them and best left to others.
Also, I would argue that memorizing those numbers themselves is unimportant and putting too much stock in them is a mistake (some are very likely a bit different on the computer you're working with than they were on the one used to compile the list — for example, hitting L2 cache is slightly faster than a branch misprediction on the i7 IIRC). The important takeaway IMO is the orders of magnitude at work.
Just as a programmer should know the orders of magnitude of latencies, an industrial engineer in Edison's time should have a sense of the characteristics of materials he might be choosing between. For example, should the handle of a new tool you're inventing be made of leather-wrapped steel, or hickory (traditionally used for ax handles)?
I tend to want to remember the places (in this case, blogs, books, articles,etc.) where I could start looking to find a piece of information as more important.
I am now following his Developing Backbone.js Applications book online - http://addyosmani.github.com/backbone-fundamentals/#mvc-appl...
I trust that I have picked one of the top people in this area to help me learn this. If I just Google, just the sheer amount of links to blogs, training sites, videos, etc. would be overwhelming. It would be likely that I would pick a resource that is not the best.
With the information overload that we have, you now stand out by being able to find (and apply) the information in a timely manner.
I think penalizing someone for not knowing any fact in particular is silly. But throwing a ton of questions like this at a candidate just to see how many they hit has, IMHO, more value than is commonly admitted.
Maybe Edison only asked these questions because of how long it can take to look something up in a book.
For example, would you hire a programmer who couldn't answer:
- name one or two html elements and what they are for
- what is a for loop, and when would you use one?
These can of course also be looked up in books, but already knowing the answer to those questions (and many more advanced questions) in a lot of what you're paying for when you hire a programmer.
So, for "what is the speed of sound", I would accept an answer such as "The speed of sound is the speed at which a wave propagates through a given medium"; though I expect an actual physicist to involve molecules, springs and so on in his answer. What I would not accept is a string of digits. A string of digits shows you know how to remember a string of digits.
Similarly, for "what is a for loop", an acceptable answer is one such as "A for loop is a construct for bounded (at least in principle, but you can have unbounded for loops in some languages) iteration over a series of elements, either generated on-the-fly or from a concrete container". The analogue to a string of digits for this question would be to give the BNF definition of a for loop in C. I think you'll agree that knowing C syntax doesn't show you know how to program.
So to return to your comparison, if I were hiring for a position that required working math where the speed of sound was required... I would treat knowing that constant by heart indicative of their knowing the rest of that subject matter by heart. I'd want to test a lot of that as well. "What is the speed of sound?" would be like a fizzbuzz.
That's really the only 100% correct answer as well, since the speed of sound varies by temperature, humidity and a lesser extent, atmospheric pressure. If Edison expected a discrete number, that would be kind of disappointing.
I wouldn't even think to ask those questions in an interview.
edit: unfortunate typo
The distinction is similar to the distinction made in philosophy between "knowledge" and mere "true belief".
He does have information, he has information that some people around him will respond to his requests for more information if it becomes necessary to have it. The power of delegation at work.
I said I memorize things that I can't look up easily.
For all we know, he was looking for people who deliberately ignored some subset of questions as irrelevant, or who demonstrated some quality of judgment such as questioning the appropriateness of the quiz verbally before starting, asking to take it in a quieter environment away from the arguing people, helping mediate the argument instead, stopping and asking for their first few answers to be checked to see if there was any point in them continuing, or ... anything at all, really.
One of the most damaging things is when you have what Gabe Newell calls "rent-seeking inside the corporation," which is a neat economic way of describing bureaucratic political power struggles. And this is totally normal, expected behavior unless you find someone who is pre-aligned with the mission, goals and values of the organization. This becomes totally crucial at huge corporations like Edison's.
So this, in a sense, is a cultural test more than a knowledge quiz. Thomas Edison didn't want people who could win at 1920s Jeopardy!, he wanted people who were driven by the same non-monetary pursuits he had, possibly because it was his best chance to avoid BS artists, pleasant-but-ineffective workers and political strivers. I also have to think that it was because he was a pretty narcissistic dude, but that's another story.
For example, as Engineering Guy Bill explains, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DIGqBb3iZPo, the method for discovering light bulb filaments was very much a search problem, so knowing as much seemingly distant facts about barrel wood, cork, optical facets might actually be important.
Questions about Cleopatra and so forth may have been to see how educated an applicant was. I wonder if those helped or hurt a candidate. I.e., did this person learn this on their own through curiosity or did they pick it up at school...
Disclaimer: I am not qualified to give opinions on any topic.
For example, I guessed that Spitsbergen was in Austria/Germany. It's actually a town of <3000 in Norway. Not significant, until you realize that it was the subject of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty between 41 countries. The Edison list purports to be from 1921.
So yes, you are exactly right... the man wanted people that were actively self and location aware, nothing wrong with that.
Common knowledge simply has no relation to actual skill in a set field and neither does it have any relation to intelligence. This is doubly so true today with any of these questions being answerable within seconds on a smartphone, and the thoughts instead turned to actually using the information to accomplish something useful.
In short: it's a good indicator of so many random variables as to be simply an indicator of chaos itself. Don't use anything like this in any kind of test in which the results count - you will invariably get the short end of the stick with one or more candidates. Stick to measures that directly affect the job at hand, and culture fit.
The fact that he torqued a candidate so badly that it resulted in a letter to the NYT tells you that Edison didn't miss too much by passing on that hire.
There are many execs who will then react with a "willingness to stand up for themselves", and god knows that culture exists at some companies. Screening for people who have a different emotional response results in (imho) a higher-functioning team.
I don't mean this in a rude way, but if you honestly believe an average human being will/should know all these, prepare yourself for a life of abject disappointment.
Why is the day of the beginning and end of WW2 such a stand-out piece of trivia that you would expect every person who puts "some effort into their education" to know it? You say it as though you find it hard to believe that any responsible adult could lack this particular fact. For myself, I fancy that I know a lot of trivia, including a lot of war-history trivia, but I don't know the day of the year on which that war ended (in fact, the only war start/end date I can recall at the moment is the date of the WWI armistice, because my government reminds me every year).
More generally, I did not see a single question in the list in TFA that I would condemn a person for not knowing that particular question, although I definitely "would like to live in a world where people actually put some effort into their education", and in fact I see some practical value in knowing a lot of trivia.
EDIT: Wait, I just read your top-level comment. You believe that ALL of these questions are "common knowledge that an average human being should know"?? Did you read the list? The AVERAGE HUMAN BEING should know the third-smallest State in the United States of America?!? The average human being should know which country consumed the most tea before WWI? You think it's common knowledge (or was in 1921) who wrote "Home, Sweet Home", and the voltage of street cars, and Lincoln's birthplace, and the wood used in axe handles and kerosene barrels? Seriously? That is batshit insane.
Sure, questions like the one about a lightest/heaviest wood is not so easy,but for a well educated person it should be of no issue. We have this issue nowadays where we don't remember anything - because our brains know that we don't need to. We are always a few clicks away from knowing anything we might need. We read an article and we don't actually remember any solid facts,because we know we can just come back and find them again. 100 years ago people were actually amazingly good with remembering shit, much much better than we are now. They would read something and that would stay in their brain.
Sure, questions like the one about a lightest/heaviest wood is not so easy,but for a well educated person it should be of no issue
Are you trolling? I'd make an honest bet that less than 1 percent of people holding masters degrees could answer this. People would just guess (incorrectly) mahogany and get on with their non-trivial business. Hell, forget 1 percent. Less than .01 percent more likely. Harvard graduates can't even tell you why we have seasons.
I was not aware that Edison survived past WW2... Maybe you need to review the facts a little more. FYI, generally, in the time period that this article was written, the war referred to the great war, aka WW1
I do agree that some people boast about their ignorance but that is another problem entirely.
Back when I was at school, we had all the subjects as mandatory, chemistry, physics, biology, history - there was no choice like you get today. So yes, I happen to know the weight of the air,or the lightest/heaviest types of wood. And if you like researching things(in my case - spending hours on wikipedia) questions like the one about optical lenses are easy.
And I am pretty sure that's what Edison was looking for - people who are curious about stuff and research it themselves. Common knowledge in my opinion,because in an ideal world I would like everyone to be that curious about the world that surrounds them.
Uh-huh. You should go on Jeopardy, you would make Ken Jennings look like a clown.
And no, I am not interested in Jeopardy.
"I actually used to work in a wolframium mine"
Apropos useless facts, did you know shellac was made from insects?
For example: I remembered reading about the topics relating to some of the test questions, but was unable to answer most of them.
Remembering a bunch of relatively useless facts does not make you a capable professional.
Given some of them are disputed (heaviest type of wood is one of about three depending on who you ask and when (some are nearly extinct and like all natural things, vary considerably)), some require knowing knowledge from Edison's timeframe (what planet was recently found to be enormous size - certainly wasn't Jupiter - possibly Neptune) and a couple are opinions (what country and city produce the finest china), I feel like there is a lot of leeway in the answers, but knowing all but three seems unlikely.
Kerosene was the most important fuel used up until the 1920s, so I'd imagine most people would have seen kerosene barrels personally. A few would have derived the type of wood via curiosity.
Those were difficult and discriminating questions at the time.
This is a time when poor girls who couldn't afford stockings wouldn't be allowed to go to school and the majority of people didn't have indoor plumbing let alone the luxury of books. Heck, 6% of possible candidates of the country were immediately eliminated because they would have not been able to read or write in any language, let alone know the arithmetic, physics, etc, required.
Keep in mind that he's not interviewing every single person in the country, he's interviewing college graduates.
Not only was having a college education not as prevalent as it is now, the sole fact that the people who are taking this test have graduated from college eliminates every single one of the "discriminatory" accusations you are making. If anything, the college admissions process (an obvious prerequisite of the test) is discriminatory, not the test itself.
Making or showing an unfair or prejudicial distinction between different categories of people or things.
You may say that it is not practical to not be discriminatory. You can also say that it is not immoral to be discriminatory. Both of those may or may not be true.
However, it is certainly discriminatory to use a test that is biased towards educated white men with college degrees and access and time to read newspapers.
Where is my time better spent? Reading the biography about an ancient historical figure or reading a programming book relevant to my profession (and passions)? I argue the latter, especially since I don't care about said historical figure.
You'll need to operationalize what you mean to make any sense, and then to be right you'll need to provide evidence.
So then you have to decide, is having a person that is "well educated" and well oriented preferable to one that isn't?
A similar list today, say for a candidate to help run a high-tech incubator, might consist of questions like "who founded Google? which is preferable to a seller, a 2nd price auction or a standard auction? where was the web invented? what's the geopolitical and technological significance of tantalum? are lithium batteries riskier than other battery technologies, why or why not? what's a typical price for web advertising (per click, or per impression)? what's a zero-sum game? what's a derivative?" (Those are just off the top of my head, I could probably come up with a better list if I thought about it for 15 minutes). In other words, not things that you must know in order to do the job, but things that anyone capable of doing the job would likely have picked up along the way.
Replace "what city produces the most laundry machines" with "which American city is known for producing cars" and "from where domestically do we get sardines" with "what part of the United States is known for producing wine"?
Note also that there are some ostensibly hard questions that seem blindingly obvious to people here now: "Where is Korea?"
If we updated this list to include things that are relevant to today's world, I would expect that a well-educated, well-informed person would be able to answer most of these questions.
a) How good is the candidate at saying 'I don't know'?
b) Can the candidate handle repeated failures i.e., a string of "I don't know"?
c) Can they BS? Instead of leaving a blank, can they BS about something tangential?
d) Building hype around Edison. Imagine if the smartest person in your town failed to get hired. In the days of telegraph, the word of mouth would be 'only the best and brightest can become inspectors at Edison's factories.'
e) Head fake. Perhaps Edison really judged the candidates in some other way but made a big show of 'ignorant college grad' to prevent people from gaming the interview.
f) Make people that pass the test feel privileged. Its a common recruiting tool.
I think Edison was a good at spotting and using talent (yeah, using) for his own ends. I give him the benefit of the doubt on the interview process.
To give you an example of what I am talking about:
1. Figure out if a binary tree is a mirror image of another binary tree.
2. Describe X where X is a language specific feature. More amusingly, in machine learning interviews, pick one out of millions of algorithms that are out there that the interviewer knows very well, demand that the candidate answer and derive every single part of that algorithm.
There is a distinct difference between demanding that people rely on memory to solve a problem vs problem solving abilities to solve a problem. While both are certainly useful for a job, I am honestly not sure how exclusively devoting yourself to the former is better than the latter.
One question in an interview was something like: How many possible IP addresses are there per square meter of the Earth?
If I didn't know how much a square foot of air weighed, could I represent it with x and then give a formula?
If he asked me who discovered the south pole and I asked him to clarify whether he meant who first reached the south pole, who first postulated that the earth, being spheroid, must have a southernmost extremity, or who first realized that the earth produces a magnetic field, would he be impressed or merely annoyed?
I'd be more interested to know how he reacted to the answers than the fact that he asked the questions.
On the one hand, knowledge is different than education. Knowledge is the possession of information. Whereas education is the ability to find information quickly and efficiently, and pass it through a filter of critical thinking. Questions like the ones on Edison's list measure knowledge, but not education.
On the other hand, in my personal experience people who possess seemingly "random" pieces of information such as the location of countries on a world map or the birthday of a jazz singer tend to be much more productive. Not because the random bits of knowledge they possess are related to the work they are doing, but because information like that gives them a wider perspective on everything and allows them to be better at "pattern-matching", i.e. drawing connections between seemingly unrelated fields and subjects. This is a very, very important skill for any knowledge worker.
So even if knowledge does not automatically mean understanding or education it can be a precursor to it and it can make it easier to attain the latter.
Silly facts (baseball scores for instance) do not have that effect. So there is a definite division between the kinds of facts that you can digest and their future effects.
We often talk about company hiring procedures here on Hacker News. From participants in earlier discussions I have learned about many useful references on the subject, which I have gathered here in a FAQ file. The review article by Frank L. Schmidt and John E. Hunter, "The Validity and Utility of Selection Models in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 85 Years of Research Findings," Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 124, No. 2, 262-274
sums up, current to 1998, a meta-analysis of much of the HUGE peer-reviewed professional literature on the industrial and organizational psychology devoted to business hiring procedures. There are many kinds of hiring criteria, such as in-person interviews, telephone interviews, resume reviews for job experience, checks for academic credentials, personality tests, and so on. There is much published study research on how job applicants perform after they are hired in a wide variety of occupations.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: If you are hiring for any kind of job in the United States, prefer a work-sample test as your hiring procedure. If you are hiring in most other parts of the world, use a work-sample test in combination with a general mental ability test.
The overall summary of the industrial psychology research in reliable secondary sources is that two kinds of job screening procedures work reasonably well. One is a general mental ability (GMA) test (an IQ-like test, such as the Wonderlic personnel screening test). Another is a work-sample test, where the applicant does an actual task or group of tasks like what the applicant will do on the job if hired. (But the calculated validity of each of the two best kinds of procedures, standing alone, is only 0.54 for work sample tests and 0.51 for general mental ability tests.) Each of these kinds of tests has about the same validity in screening applicants for jobs, with the general mental ability test better predicting success for applicants who will be trained into a new job. Neither is perfect (both miss some good performers on the job, and select some bad performers on the job), but both are better than any other single-factor hiring procedure that has been tested in rigorous research, across a wide variety of occupations. So if you are hiring for your company, it's a good idea to think about how to build a work-sample test into all of your hiring processes.
Because of a Supreme Court decision in the United States (the decision does not apply in other countries, which have different statutes about employment), it is legally risky to give job applicants general mental ability tests such as a straight-up IQ test (as was commonplace in my parents' generation) as a routine part of hiring procedures. The Griggs v. Duke Power, 401 U.S. 424 (1971) case
interpreted a federal statute about employment discrimination and held that a general intelligence test used in hiring that could have a "disparate impact" on applicants of some protected classes must "bear a demonstrable relationship to successful performance of the jobs for which it was used." In other words, a company that wants to use a test like the Wonderlic, or like the SAT, or like the current WAIS or Stanford-Binet IQ tests, in a hiring procedure had best conduct a specific validation study of the test related to performance on the job in question. Some companies do the validation study, and use IQ-like tests in hiring. Other companies use IQ-like tests in hiring and hope that no one sues (which is not what I would advise any company). Note that a brain-teaser-type test used in a hiring procedure could be challenged as illegal if it can be shown to have disparate impact on some job applicants. Thomas Edison's test might face the same challenge today. Thomas Edison or anyone else defending a brain-teaser test for hiring would have to defend it by showing it is supported by a validation study demonstrating that the test is related to successful performance on the job. Such validation studies can be quite expensive. (Companies outside the United States are regulated by different laws. One other big difference between the United States and other countries is the relative ease with which workers may be fired in the United States, allowing companies to correct hiring mistakes by terminating the employment of the workers they hired mistakenly. The more legal protections a worker has from being fired, the more reluctant companies will be about hiring in the first place.)
The social background to the legal environment in the United States is explained in many books about hiring procedures
Some of the social background appears to be changing in the most recent few decades, with the prospect for further changes.
Previous discussion on HN pointed out that the Schmidt & Hunter (1998) article showed that multi-factor procedures work better than single-factor procedures, a summary of that article we can find in the current professional literature, for example "Reasons for being selective when choosing personnel selection procedures" (2010) by Cornelius J. König, Ute-Christine Klehe, Matthias Berchtold, and Martin Kleinmann:
"Choosing personnel selection procedures could be so simple: Grab your copy of Schmidt and Hunter (1998) and read their Table 1 (again). This should remind you to use a general mental ability (GMA) test in combination with an integrity test, a structured interview, a work sample test, and/or a conscientiousness measure."
But the 2010 article notes, looking at actual practice of companies around the world, "However, this idea does not seem to capture what is actually happening in organizations, as practitioners worldwide often use procedures with low predictive validity and regularly ignore procedures that are more valid (e.g., Di Milia, 2004; Lievens & De Paepe, 2004; Ryan, McFarland, Baron, & Page, 1999; Scholarios & Lockyer, 1999; Schuler, Hell, Trapmann, Schaar, & Boramir, 2007; Taylor, Keelty, & McDonnell, 2002). For example, the highly valid work sample tests are hardly used in the US, and the potentially rather useless procedure of graphology (Dean, 1992; Neter & Ben-Shakhar, 1989) is applied somewhere between occasionally and often in France (Ryan et al., 1999). In Germany, the use of GMA tests is reported to be low and to be decreasing (i.e., only 30% of the companies surveyed by Schuler et al., 2007, now use them)."
One thing I have to say about this whole issue, after a thoughtful comment from another HN participant off-forum, is that hiring managers have to be prepared for the development of their workers. The programmer you hire today may be a manager three years from now. Being sensitive to how workers grow in the workplace is at least as important for managers as making a good hire at the beginning.
However, I'm finding it kind of tiresome to see it at the top of every job discussion, particularly since it's so lengthy. I don't think this Edison post was meant as a serious suggestion for how hiring can be done.
Perhaps you could make a blog post or pdf that contains the copy-pasted text, and then produce a summarized comment that links out to this info for anyone interested?
I'm sensitive to the argument that hiring related submissions will give bad advice if this context isn't provided. But on the other hand the status quo is tiresome for those of us who have seen this comment over and over.
Frequently asked questions might include:
1) What is a reasonable work-sample test for programmers?
2) Should programmer work-sample tests be assigned as homework, or should they be administered in person?
3) Will the very best programmers refuse to take work-sample tests?
These questions seem rather pointless, it's a case of I know this, so you should too. If Edison had been born on the west coast he would have likely asked a different set of questions.
I believe this runs counter to the current politically correct understanding of intelligence or if you prefer intelligence(s) - although I do believe in the latter.
yes - and we should we give a f.ck about Edison's views? The man was no better than a lowlife
Of course, there's no control group... One might expect his half-baked trivia test to work a little bit (being a poor IQ test), but there's no way to know.
* And I bet if you circled "T", he'd zap you with a Tesla Coil and have you thrown out.