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Don Burleson Blog 







Finding database geniuses

Oracle Database Tips by Donald BurlesonMay 1, 2015


The nature of genius

I've always been fascinated by the whole concept of "intelligence" and how it's measured and applied within the scientific community.   Today's measures of intelligence are sadly lacking, and the standard Simon Binet IQ tests only provide a rough guestimate of functional intelligence. 

The average IQ is artificially adjusted to 100, and the average college student has a SB IQ of 120, while the typical graduate student clocks-in between 125 and 135.  The threshold for genius is arbitrarily set at 140. 

For below average intellect, clinicians used to use the terms moron, imbecile and idiot, but these terms have become offensive over time, and have been replaced with more politically correct labels:

  • 141 > - Genius or near genius

  • 120 - 140 - Very superior intelligence

  • 110 - 119 - Superior intelligence

  •  90 - 109 - Normal or average intelligence

  • 80 - 89 - Dullness (Moron)

  • 70 - 79 - Borderline deficiency (Imbecile)

  • < 70 - Definite feeble-mindedness (Idiot)

The long tail of the IQ bell curve

In my line of work (guru-level computer consulting), it's my job to find the most intelligent people in the industry, but identifying genius is fraught with challenges.  At BC, we have one of the most difficult job screening processes in the database industry, and we look for evidence of genius (graduating from schools that have a high number of geniuses, evidence of extraordinary achievement), but we must balance this with the social and interpersonal skills that are often lacking in extremely smart database experts. 

Some indicators of genius include:

- Getting accepted into a selective school:  Those who work hard to achieve entry into a top-tier university tend to be highly intelligent.

- High achievement:  Publishing papers, getting awards from the community are all positive indicators of a high IQ.

It's not an exact science, and I've noted that my staff is over-represented by left-handed people, and people with "idiosyncratic" (read "eccentric") hobbies and interests.  It seems to come with the territory. 

Highly intelligent people are rarely well-balanced emotionally, and emotional immaturity is a very common problem among super-smart people. 

Intelligence is easy to spot, but very difficult to formally define, and I remember my Psychology professors ridiculing the 19th Century technology of Phrenology (measuring bumps on the skull) with mocking disregard, while introducing current intelligence testing, which struck me as being not that much farther ahead.

Even today, we don't understand the machinations of the human brain, and we have not come far since the 1880's.

I'm extremely proud of my experts, and while not all of them score genius-level on traditional IQ tests, they all possess areas of undeniable genius. 

The irrational genius

It's long been noted that human intelligence is not always perfectly "reasonable" which creates a confounding challenge for researchers in the area of artificial intelligence.  For example, B17 pilots in WWII made "irrational" decisions when confronted with the prospect of saving their own lives. 

In 1943, the 8th Air Force was losing more than one-half of their bombers to the Luftwaffe, and it was noted that lives could be saved by engaging in one-way trips to Germany, with half the fuel and double the bomb load.  In an irrational decision, the airmen chose to avoid the certainty of a one-way trip to Germany in favor of the higher risk (and more irrational) approach of everyone flying . . . .

                            1942 air combat photo by Louis F. Burleson

In the geniuses I've known personally, they often suffer from a variety of neurotic disorders including borderline personality disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Asperger's syndrome

I had a cousin with a 180 IQ who scored a perfect SAT score and was offered full scholarships to a variety of Ivy's.  Unfortunately, he was extremely obsessive with weird hobbies (he collected photographs of traffic intersections), and he was emotionally immature, anti-social and unable to function in society. 

One of my favorite books about genius is Dr. Oliver Sack's masterwork:  'The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat', a great investigation into the mysteries of the human intellect.

One of my own skills is the ability to 'size-up' people, a job that I learned as a teenager.  Here is how I make quick observations about people, a critical skill for determining the needs and motivations of my staff and clients. I also have notes on using traditional testing to tease-out genius.

For complete details, here are my notes on the personality characteristics of successful computer professionals

But not all intelligence is created equally, and my job as a hiring manager is to tease-out the genius using unobtrusive measures. 

Intelligence is also area specific, and this is especially true for genius.  I've known some geniuses and along with the amazing intellect skills it's not uncommon to find crippling shortcomings. 


Different types of intelligence

In my work in animal psychology I note that animals have evolved distinct classes of intelligence.  Horses have a 'prey intelligence' which allows them to remember dangerous situations for many years, while dogs have a 'predatory intelligence', where they display cunning.  The same is true of people:

  • Spatial skills - Engineers and computer systems architects have an uncanny ability to 'visualize' a working system, and this ability to create virtual mental models makes them fantastic database administrators.

  • Music skills - IBM used to hire from the ranks of Music majors, ignoring the computer science students.  IBM believed that music majors were trained in logical thinking, and made great computer programmers.

  •  Sports skills - Canadian Moe Norman was widely known for his obsession with golf, and despite his lack of social graces, he was one of the world most accurate golfers.

Everyone is familiar with the 'Idiot Savant' (Like Dustin Hoffman played in the movie 'Rain Man', and it's quite true that exceptionally brilliant people have accompanying neurotic issues, ranging from mild antisocial disorder to profound retardation.

In the controversial book 'The Bell Curve', the author notes the normal statistical distribution of intelligence, and the controversy began when they began comparing racial differences in intelligence.

It's also well-known that extremely smart people can often suffer from a failure in the 'common sense' department.

Even though this approach was statistically sound (less lives would be lost) and airmen chose to take the higher-risk approach rather than draw straws for a guaranteed one-way trip to Berlin.

Testing for Genius

I have many unobtrusive tests for intellect, but one of my favorites is the Monty Hall test, where job candidates must explain counterintuitive results.  In this probability analysis, contestants have two choices "stick" or "switch":

1 - Contestants are shown three doors. 

2 - Behind one door is a new car, while the other two doors have a "booby prize" (a goat).

3 - After the contestant picks a door, Monty Hall reveals a door that he knows to contain a goat

4 - Monty then asks the contestant if they should switch doors of stick to their original choice. 

To fully understand the underlying probabilities, see this YouTube description of the Monty Hall Problem.

Upon its face, the "switch" or "stick" choice offers a 50/50 probability, and a great many debates have taken place over this counterintuitive result.

To play the game and see the outcomes, see this UCSD simulation of the Monty Hall problem reveals that a player has a 66% change of winning if they switch.

Finding geniuses is an important job for me, and the more that I learn about really smart people, the less it seems that I understand.



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