Elad Yom-Tov is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and a visiting scientist at the Technion, Israel. Before that, Elad also worked with Yahoo Research, the Machine Learning group at IBM Research Haifa Lab, and Rafael. Elad Yom-Tov also studied at Technion, where he gained an M.A. and a PhD. His work focuses on using Internet data to improve health and medicine by applying tools from Machine Learning and Information Retrieval. Elad Yom-Tov has also had a book published, entitled Crowdsourced Health: How What You Do on the Internet will Improve Medicine, it has received positive reviews from both New Republic and Science. Elad’s current areas of research include; learning health facts from user generate content (side effects of drugs, public health issues, and personal welfare), and generally trying to nudge people to better health. Please enjoy my interview with Elad Yom-Tov…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I’m a scientist, trying to learn about people’s health from the things they leave online, and to use this knowledge to help them improve their health.
I’m towards the end of The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre, his very enjoyable autobiography. More on the professional side, I am midway through #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media by Cass R. Sunstein.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
Not so much a memory of reading, as of libraries: I have fond memories of these in a few countries where I spent the years of my childhood. I must have spent many hours between their tall bookshelves hunting for interesting books to take home. Before the Internet, this was the only way to find the books I wanted to read.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
I have three teenagers, and I try to get them to read the books I loved as a teenager and since then. Unfortunately, they seem to have their own taste in books. Two books I was successful in getting them to read are Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister by Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay. These are based on the wonderful BBC television series of the same name, but are in some ways better than the series. I feel that they are a must read for anyone who thinks they may end up working for a large bureaucracy, either government or private, as an education of how these systems work and how to make them work for you.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
I was fortunate to have worked in jobs I really liked at the time, though in retrospect, leaving each of them at the time I did was a very good decision. I used to have Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Die Slowly”, in a frame next to my desk, and tried to act on it (“He or she … who is unhappy at work … die slowly.” And then “Let’s try and avoid death in small doses\\ reminding oneself that being alive requires an effort far greater than the simple fact of breathing.”).
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
Not nearly enough. I tend to find time during weekends and sometimes during breakfast, but there are always more books I would like to read than time to read them. I would certainly enjoy more reading time.
My work spans two areas: Medicine and Computer Science (my education is closer to the latter). Beyond the technical books that are needed to be able to pursue this career path, it’s important to wrap one’s mind around the way of thinking that regards experimentation and data as the sole proof of any hypothesis. As eloquently summarized by Richard Feynman, “Experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth”. Books such as Atul Gawande’s Better and Complications, Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch, or Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein all convey this idea, but there are many others.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
There are quite a few books I’ve reread over the years. I very much like The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, which I’ve read numerous times. His descriptions of Central Asia are second to none. Indeed, I stumbled on this book on a visit to London during my undergrad years and, after reading it, my wife and I decided to spend our honeymoon in the ‘stans: Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan, to see these places for ourselves. Some of them were seemingly unchanged since they were described by travellers in the 19th century, and one could navigate the streets by using these account, as given in Hopkirk’s book.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I’ve lent my copy of Atul Gawande’s Better to so many of my friends and colleagues that, even though they tend to return them, I’ve so far had to purchase four or five copies of this book. I love Gawande’s prose, his unique view of medicine, and his optimism on the ability of evidence-based medicine to improve medical care.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
I love reading history, but popular science is a close second.
What do you think a world without books would be like?
Dull and depressing.
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
Atul Gawande, Niall Ferguson and Yann Martel.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
I suppose this is bound to happen one day, but I hope it won’t be during my lifetime. I like the feeling of leafing through a physical book.
What book do you feel humanity needs right now?
I’m worried by the trend towards populist governments across the world. A book which will help people appreciate the commonalities among us rather than the differences, that will help us burst the “filter bubble” and hear the thoughts and opinions of the “other side” (whoever that may be) is sorely needed.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
When I was in high school, David Grossman published The Yellow Wind, a collection of essays on the West Bank, Israel, and the complex effects they have on each other. If there is one book I can say changed (or rather, reinforced) my political thinking, it is this book. I went back to it a few weeks ago, on its 30th anniversary, and still found it poignant and painful to read. On a more universal note, one of my favourite books as a teenager was the biography of one of Britain’s fighter pilots, Stanford Tuck, Fly for Your Life by Larry Forester. I think I started reading it for its depiction of air battles, but I still appreciate it for its portrayal of a solitary human and his fight against the odds.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
I like to travel, and when I do, I try to read books on the country I’ve visiting. During a short spate of work in South Africa I read The State of Africa by Martin Meredith, which is a superb history of this continent, if often depressing. For a similar reason, I came across 1861 by Adam Goodheart, a description of the first year of the US’s civil war, effects of which still matter in the US.
A recent popular science book, Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch is a must for anyone who wants a very readable overview of why statistics matter so much in medicine.
I live in Israel, and read Hebrew and English to roughly the same amount. For outsiders who want to understand the spirit of early Zionism, I highly recommend The Blue Mountain by Meir Shalev. It is a loving and rather humorous story of the early days of a town not far from my own.
The ability to put complex ideas into condensed a condensed form such as poetry has always intrigued me. I highly recommend Yehuda Amichai’s poetry, especially Open Closed Open with its humanistic message, and Maria Szymborska’s personal and almost cynical poems.
Finally, as a geek, I feel I have to recommend the five-book trilogy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
The list of books that I plan to read for professional reasons includes; This is your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe and the recent Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. I’ve also added The Censor’s Hand by Carl Schneider to my wish list at Amazon.
Other than that, I don’t like to plan too much. I prefer to wander to the less obvious shelves at book stores and pick something that is not in my main areas of interest. That way, I tend to learn something new and unexpected.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Perhaps something like, To Leave A Positive Trace.