Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The value of a good problem just went up a notch. New Scientist writes that the Molecular Frontier Foundation just announced "a Nobel for children":
Starting this May, the prize will be awarded annually to an equal number of girls and boys from around the world for posing the most penetrating and insightful questions related to molecular science, which encompasses everything from physics and chemistry to physiology and medicine.

I wonder why the prize is limited to children. Are we giving up on adults?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Neuroeconomics: cross-currents in research on decision-making" Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 10, Issue 3, March 2006, Pages 108-116
Alan G. Sanfey, George Loewenstein, Samuel M. McClure, Jonathan D. Cohen

psychologists make between automatic and controlled processes. Automatic processes are fast and efficient, can often be carried out in parallel, but are highly specialized for domain-specific operations and therefore relatively inflexible. They are thought to reflect the operation of highly over-trained (and, in some cases, possibly ‘hardwired’) mechanisms. However, humans also have a capability for controlled processing underlying our higher cognitive faculties. Controlled processes are highly flexible, and thus able to support a wide variety of goals, but are relatively slow to engage and rely on limited capacity mechanisms – that is, they can support only a small number of pursuits at a time.

Creative thinking and problem solving when they lie outside of domain-specific expertise is a slow process. As G.Altshuller used to say, "Good thinking is slow thinking." This may also relate to the social facilitation effect studied extensively by Robert Zajonc.

From this perspective, effective brainstorm is an information exchange exercise rather than a problem solving session.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

BBC Science story: Dull jobs really do numb the mind

Boring jobs turn our mind to autopilot, say scientists - and it means we can seriously mess up some simple tasks.

Monotonous duties switch our brain to "rest mode", whether we like it or not, the researchers report in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

They found mistakes can be predicted up to 30 seconds before we make them, by patterns in our brain activity.

The team hopes to design an early-warning brain monitor for pilots and others in "critical situations".

This seems to be a localized version of the Einstellung effect. It affects people as well as organizations as a whole.

It's quite possible that art is a way to overcome the problem on the "culture" level. Similar to the way junk food parasitizes on our evolution-induced taste for fat and sugar, TV shows ride our need to un-dull ourselves from monotonous environment.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A simple solution to a difficult problem - chores and walks!

One 20-minute session of housework or walking reduced the risk of depression by up to 20 per cent. A sporting session worked better, reducing risk by a third or more. Failing housework or sport, says Hamer, try to find something physical to do. "Something - even for just 20 minutes a week - is better than nothing."

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

An internet platform with hooks attached

Google has announced its Google App Engine.

TechCrunch notices that:
Unlike Amazon Web Services’ loosely coupled architecture, which consists of several essentially independent services that can optionally be tied together by developers, Google’s architecture is more unified but less flexible. For example, it is possible with Amazon to use their storage service S3 independently of any other services, while with Google using their BigTable service will require writing and deploying a Python script to their app servers, one that creates a web-accessible interface to BigTable.

What this all means: Google App Engine is designed for developers who want to run their entire application stack, soup to nuts, on Google resources. Amazon, by contrast, offers more of an a la carte offering with which developers can pick and choose what resources they want to use.

This is the type of customer lock-in ( control point) that Google lacks in the search space. Strategically, very similar to what Salesforce.com is doing with its Force.com .

It appears that server-side business models, which originated in the Open Source revolution, are going to dominate computing during the next decade.

Google now has a shot at dominating two key application+service platforms: mobile( Android) and web utility ( App Engine).

Monday, April 07, 2008

I just realized that in 3+ years of teaching Principles of Invention and 10+ years of running invention workshops at major global companies I never had a black student or participant. Not even once. This is truly amazing. I wonder what national invention/patent statistics say about race.
A beautiful little story from Turin via London:

In a bid to keep its municipal lawns trim while saving money, the city of Turin has done away with lawn mowers and brought in 700 sheep to graze in two parks.

Sheep rentals in major US suburban areas, anyone?
Reorg at Adobe:

Adobe Systems, maker of Photoshop and Acrobat software, is folding the company's mobile group into its platform operations as a way to create one platform for computers, handsets, and other consumer devices.

Another piece of evidence that PC is losing ground as a de facto platform for consumer applications. Server-based business models become dominant, pushing software makers to rethink their strategies.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Surprisingly accurate predictions from 1968:

Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities. Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs. The machine tallies up its own services and submits a bill, just as it does with other utilities.

Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills. Each time you buy something, the card’s number is fed into the store’s computer station. A master computer then deducts the charge from your bank balance.

Computers not only keep track of money, they make spending it easier. TV-telephone shopping is common. To shop, you simply press the numbered code of a giant shopping center. You press another combination to zero in on the department and the merchandise in which you are interested. When you see what you want, you press a number that signifies “buy,” and the household computer takes over, places the order, notifies the store of the home address and subtracts the purchase price from your bank balance. Much of the family shopping is done this way. Instead of being jostled by crowds, shoppers electronically browse through the merchandise of any number of stores.

This is very close to utility computing of today. On the other hand, predicting physical infrastructure proved to be much more difficult:

IT’S 8 a.m., Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2008, and you are headed for a business appointment 300 mi. away....

The car accelerates to 150 mph in the city’s suburbs, then hits 250 mph in less built-up areas, gliding over the smooth plastic road. You whizz past a string of cities, many of them covered by the new domes that keep them evenly climatized year round. Traffic is heavy, typically, but there’s no need to worry. The traffic computer, which feeds and receives signals to and from all cars in transit between cities, keeps vehicles at least 50 yds. apart.

Somewhat predictably, descriptions of "final needs", like business travel, shopping, and etc. are very well understood. The difficulties arise when people try to forecast change in the often "invisible" infrastructure: roads, networks, transportation devices. The bigger the system, the greater the discrepancy. The same pattern shows up in people's inventive thinking. They tend to focus their effort on "tools", i.e. elements and applications that fulfill a well understood function, and forget about the "distribution", i.e. infrastructure that enables scalable growth.

I wonder if this another case of the availability heuristics bias.