Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dilemma of the Day - creativity

- according to A. Gopnik, children begin playing imaginary, i.e. "what if" (counterfactual) games, at the age of 18 months.


1)to be new (creative) an idea must be counterfactual. that is, it should not exist in real world.
2) the idea should not be counterfactual to be credible/verifiable or adoptable, e.g. in the marketplace.

Trade-off of the Day: A fearful vision

New Scientist reports:
FEAR changes how we see things, enhancing our ability to identify blurry shapes but impairing our perception of fine details.

From the abstract of the original paper:
Our results show that the brief presentation of a fearful face, compared with a neutral face, enhances sensitivity for the orientation of subsequently presented low-spatial-frequency stimuli, but diminishes orientation sensitivity for high-spatial-frequency stimuli. This is the first demonstration that emotion not only improves but also impairs low-level vision.
...Our results suggest an emotion-induced tradeoff in visual processing, rather than a general improvement. This trade-off may benefit perceptual dimensions that are relevant for survival at the expense of those that are less relevant.

Certain cognitive trade-offs seem to be built into our brains. To solve this particular one, we would have to come up with a neuro-enhancer system that detects fear and enables the brain to switch between high- and low-resolution modes. Getting rid of the emotion itself would be a mistake because it is connected with many other useful mind-body interactions. In other words, fear itself is good, but the loss of control associated with it has to be dealt with.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The modern history of frozen foods

The modern frozen foods technology was invented by Clarence Birdseye in early 1900-s, and it took about 50 years for the original idea to succeed in the marketplace. After World War II, complimentary inventions of affordable refrigerators and microwave ovens created an environment, in which frozen foods industry could develop and thrive.

[Clarence] Birdseye worked as a fur trapper and trader in the Canadian North, where he noticed that fish would freeze almost immediately after being caught, and when cooked later -- even weeks later -- these quick-frozen fish tasted much better than fish mechanically frozen in warmer climates.

Birdseye began his experiments with freezing in 1916, and eventually came to understand that if fish was frozen very, very quickly its cellular structure was damaged far less, so that when thawed it was nearly indistinguishable from fresh fish.
Frozen foods went nationwide in 1944, when Birdseye suggested leasing insulated railroad cars for shipping. He further changed the grocery landscape by contracting with American Radiator Corporation to build display freezers, which General Foods then leased to stores. By the early 1950s, more than half of American grocery stores had a 'frozen food' section.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

This is not a blonde joke

Blondes found a way to improve the economy:
An association of blonde women in Latvia says it hopes to dispel some of the Baltic state's economic gloom with a parade and ball in the capital, Riga.
A story about how inflatable boat was invented:

Early visitors to the Arctic sometimes ended up dead because they couldn't paddle their way to safety. So sailor Peter Halkett came up with a handy solution: a wearable boat.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Over the last month, Sony's massive multi-player game Free Realms attracted two million registrations:

John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment in San Diego, said the game is scoring well with the intended audience of kids and families. About 75 precent of the players are under 17 and 46 percent are under 13.

The engine behind the success is the:

free-to-play business model pioneered in Asia, where players start playing for free and pay for virtual goods one at a time in micro-transactions.

Sony proactively took down the main barrier to early adoption:

Kids have been slow to adopt MMOs in the past because they don’t have credit cards to pay for subscription fees. But they can play this game for free and can buy Station currency cards to get virtual goods at five major retail chains: Best Buy, Blockbuster, Rite Aid, 7-Eleven and Target.

We can see how company have learned to cross "the chasm" by going beyond a typical free trial period. Now, the access to technology itself is, literally, free. Therefore, the main internet battle for consumer wallets shifted from acquisition to retention. It is no longer about entry costs, but, rather, about exit costs. That is, consumers can now easily cross the chasm in both directions (see the graph). The problem has shifted from how to get people adopt a technology, to how to prevent people from dis-adopting it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Battle-ready neuro warrior

"There are lots of stories of soldiers who refuse to shoot other soldiers," says Zak. "If you could get rid of that empathy response you might create a soldier that's more prepared to engage in battle and risk their life."

A perfect tool. But not an ideal one :)
iPhone as an art platform has arrived:

These days, all you need to create magazine cover-worthy artwork is an iPhone and Steve Sprang's $4.99 Brushes app. Oh, and insane talent.

Those were the ingredients that produced this week's dazzling New Yorker cover, a traditional-looking blurred street scene that looks like an authentic brush-and-canvas painting.

According to VentureBeat,

Internal Google tests found that most users favored results branded with the Google logo, even when Google swapped logos with another search engine to serve supposedly inferior results under its own brand.

The highest switching costs are inside our minds.

Monday, May 25, 2009

doing, not seeing, is believing

It looks like there's a mechanism in our brain that knows whether something is doable or not:
The team compared how the [mirror] neurons fired when a person grabbed a metallic object within a monkey's reach and again from a greater distance. They found that rather than simply responding to the action, the mirror neurons also responded to whether or not the action was close enough for the monkey to intervene.

To show that those differing responses were to do with what the monkey could reach rather than how close an object was, the experimenters placed a panel in front of the primate's chair, preventing the monkey from reaching objects close to its body.

In this situation, the neurons that previously reacted to reachable objects no longer responded to the human's actions at all, suggesting that mirror neurons change their properties according to the possibility that one can act.

Is it true then that thinking that something is impossible makes it impossible?
Wired provides an insight into Google's sales leads (advertisement) generation machine:

... the quality score. This metric strives to ensure that the ads Google shows on its results page are true, high-caliber matches for what users are querying. If they aren't, the whole system suffers and Google makes less money.

It's not the client's money that controls ad placement. Rather, it's Google's own algorithm that determines the price of admission to the club of web advertisers. With so much traffic through its site, Google has the ability to experiment in real time with algorithms and sales strategies. Very clever, indeed. Advertisement is treated as just another piece of content that needs to be matched to the user's search request.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The ultimate "detection" problem:

There was once a prince, and he wanted a princess, but then she must be a real Princess. He traveled right around the world to find one, but there was always something wrong. There were plenty of princesses, but whether they were real princesses he had great difficulty in discovering; there was always something which was not quite right about them. So at last he had come home again, and he was very sad because he wanted a real princess so badly.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Decision Making and Problem Solving

From a 1987 paper by a group of then present and future Nobel Laureates:

Because the possibilities in realistic problem situations are generally multitudinous, trial-and-error search would simply not work; the search must be highly selective.

The more difficult the problem, the smaller are the chances that a simple brainstorming session would lead to a solution it.

One of the procedures often used to guide search is "hill climbing," using some measure of approach to the goal to determine where it is most profitable to look next.

This is relevant to the Three Magicians technique (3x3). A combination of the "Climb on the Roof" and "Fall back - Spring ahead" usually works the best.

Another, and more powerful, common procedure is means-ends analysis. In means-ends analysis, the problem solver compares the present situation with the goal, detects a difference between them, and then searches memory for actions that are likely to reduce the difference.

In open-ended (inventive) problems setting the goal is often the most difficult task. That's why formulating the Ideal Result and stating dilemmas helps identify the gap between the present and the future. The 10X diagram also comes very handy in this type of discussions.

The third thing that has been learned about problem solving, especially when the solver is an expert, is that it relies on large amounts of information that are stored in memory and that are retrievable whenever the solver recognizes cues signaling its relevance.

During this stage, participation of the subject matter experts is essential. In earlier stages though, they should be kept in check, because they carry "the curse of knowledge". That is, the experts' psychological inertia often prevents them from finding a creative solution.

Decision Making and Problem Solving
Author(s): Herbert A. Simon, George B. Dantzig, Robin Hogarth, Charles R. Plott, Howard Raiffa, Thomas C. Schelling, Kenneth A. Shepsle, Richard Thaler, Amos Tversky, Sidney Winter.
Source: Interfaces, Vol. 17, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1987), pp. 11-31
Stable URL:
The early stages of human ability to change perspectives:

Before they are three, children do learn about the difference between what they see and what other people see.
Three-year-olds can even tell you about what an object looks like from different perspectives. If you put a yellow toy duck behind a piece of blue plastic, it will look green. You can show this trick to three-year-olds and let them see that the duck really is yellow. Three-year-olds will say that the duck looks green to the person on one side of the plastic but looks yellow to the person on the others side. Contrary to much conventional wisdom, these very young children are already beginning to go beyond an egocentric understanding of other people.
== A. Gopnik, et.all 1999. p.41.

Then we go to school and learn "the right" perspectives.

Newspaper death spiral

"In the world of online classified advertising, Craigslist is by far the most used Web site in the United States," Pew said in the report. "In March 2009, classified sites averaged 53.8 million unique visitors, up 7 percent from February. Craigslist had 42.2 million unique visitors in the month of March."

To kill a technology, one has to kill the business model that supports it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The medium is the message.

Evolutionary ecologist Elizabeth Derryberry, of Louisiana State University, found that over the last 30+ years white-crowned sparrows adjusted their songs to match the changes in the habitat:

...the birds' habitat had gone from being mostly grassy, with about 11% scrub, to 26% scrub. The slower modern songs would better penetrate the new scrubby habitat, which Derryberry attributes to reduced livestock grazing.
The birds reacted more strongly to recordings of modern songs than they did to old ones, with males moving toward the sound and females doing a little dance.

If birds can change their communications (payload) in response to environmental changes, then humans, which are supposed to be much smarter, must also behave in a somewhat similar fashion. Is there any evidence for that? I think so.
For example, relatively recent changes in our technological habitat caused massive changes in the way we communicate with each other, especially, where mating matters are concerned. While the birds adapted the tone of their songs to better penetrate scrub, people adapted their letters, e.g. from snail- to e-mail, to better penetrate the physical space. So, if today's private messages go through blogs, craigslist, facebook/linkedin, twitter, and etc., tomorrow's business communications will not only adapt to the very same environment, but also drive proliferation of such environment into enterprise infrastructure.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Are we there yet?

Monster Employment Index for April, 2009 is out:

Sector-wise, Education, Maintenance, and Repair grew slightly. People seem to be working to repairing their skills and their environment.
Podcast of the 11th annual top 10 trends as seen by the best and brightest VCs in Silicon Valley.

Here's a brief report on CNET:
8. Health care administration will be the fastest-growing sector. (The panelists were so bored by this trend they didn't even discuss it.)

9. Consumption of digital goods on mobile devices is the growth story of the coming decade.


#9 sounds like the beginning of the PC software revolution in the 80s and 90s. The amazing part of the mobile revolution is that it is going to happen both on the end device (mobile) and on the server (cloud).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The newly issued US patent 7,536,363 describes a goal-based computerized education system. It's an elaborate piece of work: 18 inventors, 30 figures, and a main claim (claim 1) that spans almost an entire page. It interested me because it referred to my old invention, which was probably an order of magnitude simpler. Nevertheless, I found the patent's title intriguing, and decided to navigate through pages of legalese and discover the original idea. It wasn't easy, but eventually I identified a short phrase in claim 1 that described the main useful function of the system:

(d) evaluating progress toward the goal and providing the feedback that further motivates accomplishment of the goal.

Everything else in the invention was about setting up a simulation environment for making progress and figuring out goals that would motivate further learning.

It seems like the problem they are trying to solve is the excruciating slowness of most real-life-learning-on-the-job education methods. Having a good simulator allows users to make as many business decisions in one hour, as s/he would make in months or even years of running an actual business. The same way, the range/quantity/quality of emotions we experience during a good movie is probably greater than what we experience in weeks and months of normal life.

Which leads me to believe that educational systems of the future will be more like movies and games than like textbooks and lectures.
Smartphone news:

1. Smartphones continued to grow, despite a deepening recession. [as expected]

2. Yahoo ads voice search for iPhone. [cool]

3. Palm Pre shortages expected. [right :)]

4. Even home phones get smarter. [ too late ]

Trade-off of the Day: housework and marital happiness.

From a study of marital quality in the US:

Only one trend - husbands' share of housework - had implications that differed for husbands and wives. The increase in the proportion of housework done by husbands appears to have improved the marital quality of wives but to have eroded the marital quality of husbands.

Continuity and Change in Marital Quality between 1980 and 2000.
Author(s): Paul R. Amato, David R. Johnson, Alan Booth, Stacy J. Rogers
Source: Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 1-22.
Published by: National Council on Family Relations
Stable URL:

Detecting babies' thoughts

A.Gopnik writes that it is impossible to know what babies think. So, rather than solving this impossible detection problem, which requires an incredible level of precision, researches decided to solve a much simpler "binary" recognition problem(p.27):

"How can we say we actually know what babies think? With help of videotape, scientists have developed ingenious experimental techniques to ask babies what they know. One whole set of techniques has been designed to answer two simple questions: Do babies think that two things are the same or different? And if they think they're different, do they prefer one to the other?"

Note that binary detection systems are the most coarse of all. Love vs Hate. Black vs White. Good vs Evil. 0 vs 1. At this early stage, the goal is to make a basic distinction, because a fine-grained understanding is either impossible or undesirable. Politicians use this clever approach during elections campaigns by giving voters simple choices: Are you for or against? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? etc.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A.Gopnik on the clever stupidity of the scientific method (p.21):

"...the Piagets' diaries so astonishing. But what makes a science really advance isn't just the astonishing geniuses, it's the methods that allow us ordinary idiots to do the same thing as the astonishing geniuses.
...The new technology of video recording and the new theories of cognitive science turned the pioneering ideas of Piage and Vygotsky into a full-fledged research enterprise.

It appears that science follows the same general innovation pattern as any other technology. Once a dominant design, in this case a  scientific proof, is established, the focus of innovation in a particular field shifts to process, methods, and tools.

Less than 1 percent and growing...

From a recent issue of Scientific American:

[a] watt of [solar] power now costs around $1.40 to produce compared with $2 or more in the 1990s.

Of course, solar power represents just 0.375 percent of all installed power generation worldwide and there's the little problem of producing electricity at night. Plus, installing the solar panels can more than triple that cost per watt to more than $4.

High taxes on fossil fuels is probably the only way to make solar competitive, but unfortunately, this approach will not improve productivity. Investment in conservation seems to be the most effective way to address energy-related problems.
A brief history of Paris Metro maps at Creative Review.

You can see how the designer tries to create a highly informative map that would work for most of the people. Now, that we have moved into a digital world, we need map that work for every one. Individually. With the right information at the right time.

Monday, May 18, 2009

According to venturebeat, Scribd has launched an ebook distribution site. The article also says that authors might get 80 percent of revenue, which, in my estimate, is almost 10 times more than through a typical publishing industry contract.

Is this a 10X change? Will it translate into a significant drop in book prices?
Under the headline "Cisco: Smart grid will eclipse size of Internet", CNET writes:

Cisco's move is a sign that the creaky electricity distribution system is poised for a digital upgrade. Other high-tech companies, including IBM, Intel, and several start-ups, are ramping up smart-grid efforts to capitalize on expected investments from utilities and federal governments. Cisco estimates that the communications portion of that build-out is worth $20 billion a year over the next five years.

Yeah!!! Electricity is going to become digital!!! :)))

I think comparing Smart grid to the Internet is deeply misleading. The fundamental difference lies in functionality and expenses/losses involved in running each of the networks. The purpose of the Internet is to move content between people or computers across the world. You should get the same message from Beijing whether you are in San Paolo or San Francisco. Contrary to that, moving electricity from one place to another leads to up to 30% loss of energy. Ideally, we should not move electricity at all. Rather, we should produce and consume it locally as much as possible. Figuring out the best delivery route is useful, but shuffling energy between arbitrary points would be a huge waste. I do hope that the government is not going to underwrite this mass production of waste with taxpayers' money.

Dilemma of the Day - learning.

The advantage of learning is that it allows you to find out about your particular environment. The disadvantage is that until you do find out, you don't know what to do; you are helpless. Alison Gopnik et al. 1999. The Scientist in the Crib. p. 9.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

An up-to-date swine flu map.

Dr. Henry Niman, a biomedical researcher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, put together a live map of H1N1 flu.

Please protect yourself and others.

E-mail smileys - a great invention.

I am reading "50 Scientific Ways to Be Persuasive", a new book by a group of psychologists, including R.B.Cialdini. Number 47 on their list of topics is e-mail. This relatively new communications technology is lightning fast, efficient, and economical. But it also creates an important problem:

Research conducted by behavioral scientist Justin Kruger and colleagus shows that miscommunications are much more likely to occur through email than face-to-face or over the phone...
... an even more dangerous problem is that the senders ... are almost completely unaware that their messages may be completely misunderstood...
... written communications can't be fully deciphered even by people who are close to one another...

Thus, a great invention - emoticons. Do not forget to sprinkle them here and there in your cover letter when you apply for a new job online ;)

Kruger, J. et al. 2005. Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2005, Vol. 89, No. 6, 925–936.

Friday, May 15, 2009

200 years that changed the world

David vs Goliath.

A wonderful piece by Malcolm Gladwell on rules to break the rules. One of them is not play by the rules set by your opponent:

...when the world has to play on Goliath’s terms, Goliath wins.

When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, ArreguĂ­n-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

What goes unsaid, though, is that in order to accomplish a David-vs-Goliath type of victory, a would be David has to either be very lucky, or know Goliath's rules really well, and choose wisely which one to break . Why? Because even David can run out of time and resources while trying to break every rule in Goliath's book.

== an example of a destruction problem: attack interfaces and communications (distribution) rather than individual (strong) elements of the system.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mind games

The placebo effect:

Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful.

The nocebo effect:

The placebo effect has an evil twin: the nocebo effect, in which dummy pills and negative expectations can produce harmful effects. The term "nocebo", which means "I will harm", was not coined until the 1960s, and the phenomenon has been far less studied than the placebo effect. It's not easy, after all, to get ethical approval for studies designed to make people feel worse.

An interesting knowledge asymmetry is developing in the mind-body science: due to ethical considerations, we will know a lot less about harmful nocebos than harmless placebos.

Virtual goods for real money

Asian web companies have been making millions from virtual goods for years.

Tencent’s web-based virtual goods saw a quarter-over-quarter increase of nearly 20 percent and a year-over-year increase of 75 percent, coming in at $278 million. Its mobile virtual goods sales were smaller but also growing, coming in at $64 million.

I wonder what would be a good virtual good to buy for my blog?
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, on [inventive] creativity:

For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you're sitting in. Every object in that room - the right angle table, the book, the paper, the computer screen, the ceramic cup was once imaginary. Not a thing in the room existed in the pleistocene. Every one of them started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone's mind.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bloomberg provides a good example of the difference between invention and innovation. The article compares Amazon's Kindle DX and a 1990-s effort by Knight Ridder Inc to create an electronic newspaper reader:

In 1992, Knight Ridder Inc. set employees to work at a lab in Boulder, Colorado, to create its own portable newspaper-reading device to boost readership and revenue.

[they] spent about three years trying to create an electronic tablet that could download newspapers and magazines. With the death of James Batten, Knight Ridder’s chairman at the time, the project fizzled and the 10-person lab was shut down, according to Fidler.
On the 5-element Flag Diagram below, we can clearly see that the Knight Ridder team's solution was missing key system elements (P.Payload, Distribution, Control).

As for the amazon's solution, it has all the system elements in place and highly functional.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The "whatness" of iPhone.

The Wall Street Journal notices the growing popularity of iPhone as an ad placement platform:
At the most basic, marketers are taking advantage of the iPhone's advanced video and screen capabilities by creating streaming video ads. But some are taking things further by offering ads disguised as apps. The latter allow users to do such things as play games or manipulate images by touching the phone's screen.
To minimize the risk and cost of iPhone advertising, at least one marketing company is now buying existing iPhone applications and revamping them with clients' brands.

Before Lions Gate Entertainment released its action movie "Crank: High Voltage" in April, the media-strategy firm Initiative paid for the rights to a popular iPhone game app called Stun-o-matic. Initiative redesigned the app with movie-related art and a link to a trailer for the film.

The process took less than a month, half the time it would have taken to create a new application from scratch, says Ezra Cooperstein, a vice president at Initiative. The application got two million downloads and 800,000 trailer views.

"Phone" in iPhone is great for disguising the true software nature of the device. The Internet infrastructure has been changing dramatically to accommodate the growing density of mobile usage.

According to Mobclix Inc., which analyzes iPhone usage, iPhones generate more than half the total Web traffic from smartphones. The average iPhone user has installed five to 10 applications on the device, compared with fewer than two apps for the overall smartphone market.
A good example of a solution to a detection problem: Swiss scientists found a common food sweetener, acesulfame potassium, that does not disintegrate in water treatment processes. Now they can use it to trace sources of the country's water supply.

"We can determine what fraction of waste water ends up groundwater," says Buerge. His study in the lower Glatt valley of Switzerland found that between 10 and 20 per cent of water that was pumped from ground-water aquifers had made its way there from domestic waste water.

Since the water (payload) itself cannot be detected, a stable intermediary (tag) is introduced to solve the problem. ( 28/37 -> principle 24).

Monday, May 11, 2009

iPhone killer app

Basically, players take on the role of a drunk guy in a bathroom stall. The goal is simple: To relieve yourself without making too much of a mess. The applications shows a stream of urine whose direction changes over time. Players tilt the iPhone to move the stream towards the toilet. As you advance through the levels, the game gets harder, presumably because your character has gotten drunker.

Sun vs Wind

Southern California Edison wants to buy electricity from a 90-megawatt BP wind farm in Idaho at about 11.4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In comparison, the city of San Francisco approved a plan to buy electricity from a local 5-megawatt solar array at 23.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. The 5-MWt facility will be the largest photovoltaic installation in the state.

Seems like energ-wise the wind beats the sun hands down.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

CNet on YouTube's slow march to generate a meaningful revenue:
Bernstein Research's Jeffrey Lindsay ... believes that YouTube has been able to increase the number of videos suitable for advertising to around 9 percent of YouTube's inventory. That doesn't sound like much, but it's up from around 3 percent last year, according to MediaMemo, and could reach 15 percent next year.

I am a little bit surprise that so many people still watch ads on the net despite the fact that ad-blocking browser extensions like AdBlock Plus are widely available. Do they think that it is unfair to use a resource without supporting its business model, or they are just unaware that ad blockers exist? The latter is more likely because a lot more people are interesting in distributing ads than distributing tools to remove ads.

p.s. hulu vs youtube would be a good "technology battle" exercise.

Friday, May 08, 2009

A recent research paper describes links between creativity and problem-finding skills:

Problem finding is vital to problem solving. It is how one defines a potential predicament. In one example, Getzels (1975) described a pair of people who get separate flat tires while driving through the countryside. The first person notices that he does not have a jack and attempts to find one. The second frames the problem as how to lift the car, and thereby solves the problem faster. Problem finding includes the questions people ask before they solve the problem. Problem finding is not only utilized in obvious problem solving situations; artists who are good at problem finding have their artwork rated as more original, and many become more successful (Csikszentmihalyi & Getzels, 1988). Problem  construction, a subprocess of problem finding, has also been shown to be positively associated with problem solving originality and quality (Mumford, Reiter-Palmon,& Redmond, 1994).
Problem finding, itself, is not a single process. It can be broken down to four separate, but related, skills: problem identification or detection, problem definition, problem expression, and problem construction (Runco, 1994a; Runco &; Nemiro, 1994). It has even been described as a post-formal operations stage of cognitive development (e.g., Arlin, 1975, 1989).

Paletz, Susannah B. F. and Peng, Kaiping(2009)'Problem Finding and Contradiction: Examining the Relationship Between Naive Dialectical Thinking, Ethnicity, and Creativity',Creativity Research Journal,21:2,139 — 151.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Several creativity-related quotes from R.J.Sternberg's 2006 paper "The Nature of Creativity":

People typically want others to love their ideas, but immediate universal applause for an idea often indicates that it is not particularly creative.

To be creative one must first decide to generate new ideas, analyze these ideas, and sell the ideas to others. In other words, a person may have synthetic, analytical, or practical skills but not apply them to problems
that potentially involve creativity. ... The skill is not enough: One first needs to make the decision to use the skill. ... ability to switch between conventional and unconventional modes of thinking is important to creativity.

There seems to be at least two questions associated with creativity. One: how do we spot a creative idea, if most often it is considered to be uninteresting? Two: how do we find environments that facilitate people's decisions to be creative?

Another interesting observation from the same paper:

...we had creative products of people of different ages rated for their creativity by raters of different age cohorts. We found informal evidence of cohort matching — that is, raters tended to rate as more creative products of creators of roughly their own age cohort.
Sternberg R.J.(2006). The Nature of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal 2006, Vol. 18, No. 1, 87–98.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dilemma of the Day - US Patent 7,529,806

Finally, after almost 10 years(!) in prosecution US patent 7,529,806 has been granted for my solution to the media streaming/download dilemma: the file should be large to provide complete movie experience, AND, the file should be small to enable fast download.

Briefly, here's how it was invented:

After identifying and solving the dilemma (separation in space), I put together a five-element diagram, which showed a need for a new file "packaging" (payload) process and a matching control mechanism. Then, having looked into various alternatives, we developed an example implementation using XML and java.
VoilĂ !
From New Scientist:

A study in rats shows that eating a certain type of fat produces a hormone [oleoylethanolamide (OEA)] that helps the brain cement short-term memories into long-term ones.
More experiments with the rats showed that OEA activates the same areas of the brain that mediate the formation of emotionally charged memories in humans, which are more vivid than typical memories.
OEA is only produced after eating a healthy unsaturated fat called oleic acid, so a cheeseburger after a night of cramming may not work - try food with olive oil or soybean oil...

Source: (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0903038106).

Emotions are substitute for fat. Or vice versa :)
Venture Beat: China’s online game sales expected to grow 38 percent to $3.8 billion this year

There are now 58 million game players in China, according to San Jose, Calif.-based Niko. The market is strong because online games are the entertainment of choice in China’s 170,000 Internet cafes, where there are 23 million personal computers.

The company predicts that the online game market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 26.4 percent from 2009 to $8.9 billion in 2013.

This can be a strong driver for further infrastructure growth in China, along the lines of a more general trend identified by E.Boserup:

The other effect of population increase is to make it possible to build, and finance the building of collective investments in physical and human infrastructure of various types, especially investment in water regulation, energy supply, and transportation.

Information infrastructure, i.e. "mass media", needs to be added to her original list.

Esther Boserup. 1982. The Impact of Scarcity and Plenty on Development. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Volume 14. Issue 2. (Autumn, 1983), 383-407.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The future of education.

This would be a fascinating topic for the final invention session of the class. First, it is highly relevant to many people; second, it is very complex, which is great for highlighting advantages of a systematic approach to innovation.

In any case, here's what Mark C. Taylor, a department chair at Columbia, has to say about one particular problem in this domain:

[Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”]

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization.

Sounds like a very good illustration of how a recipe for success has become a recipe for disaster. In the 19th century [post-Kant's time] the Prussian mass-production approach to education created the best school and university system in the world. Only now, when knowledge becomes obsolete every 10-20 years, we are beginning to understand its limitations. One important reason to consider here would be the change in student motivation. In the 19th and early 20th century, if a child did not study hard, he would end up working long arduous hours on a farm, in a factory, or a coal mine. For those who could afford it, choosing education was a no-brainer, because it presented a superior life-style alternative. Now, a) kids don't have to work to support the family; b) they have a lot more distractions (TV, computer games, Internet, and etc); b) the process of education takes 12-16 years and is totally detached from practical purposes ( except for computer programming, maybe).

What are we to do to improve the system?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Dilemma of the Day - heavy textbooks.

The Times of India reports on health hazards of heavy textbooks:

16 Apr 2009, 2242 hrs IST, Shivani Vig, TNN
KANPUR: School going children with slouching backs, bent shoulders, drooping necks and regular backaches is a common sight. Going by the physiotherapy experts, the heavy school bags, which they carry for most part of the day are to be blamed for it.

When 13-year-old Mayank Pathak (name changed) constantly complained of chronic backache, his mother suspected a serious problem. A physiotherapist diagnosed the cause of the pain to the heavy weights of backpacks.

Thus, a dilemma: a) a child should carry a lot of books to accommodate the expanding school curriculum; b) a child should carry no books to avoid damage to his/her spine.

Enter Amazon:
when Amazon takes the wraps off its new device on Wednesday, it may focus on an entirely different market: education. In the weeks leading up to the introduction of the Kindle 2 (unboxing, review) this past February, rumors were abound of an upcoming education model that would feature a larger screen and be marketed to students as an alternative to textbooks.

Making text available on other portable screens would be an even better solution. But we'll have to wait until the initial transition from paper to digital is complete.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Another hyped up story about the upcoming release of Wolfam Alpha:

The biggest internet revolution for a generation will be unveiled this month with the launch of software that will understand questions and give specific, tailored answers in a way that the web has never managed before.
The new system, Wolfram Alpha ... takes the first step towards what many consider to be the internet's Holy Grail – a global store of information that understands and responds to ordinary language in the same way a person does. ...
Wolfram Alpha has been designed with professionals and academics in mind, so its grasp of popular culture is, at the moment, comparatively poor. ...
With Google now one of the world's top brands, worth $100bn, Wolfram Alpha has the potential to become one of the biggest names on the planet.

Wolfram's chances to disrupt Google's business model are slim to none. 
First, Wolfram targets scientists and professionals, i.e. people who are already good at asking Google questions. Therefore, Wolfram's supposed advantage in being able to respond to "ordinary language" targets the wrong people. The general public might need some help in this department, but Wolfram's software performs here the worst. In other words, Wolfram attacks Google's strengths, not weaknesses.
Second, Google makes money by selling advertisement. In this regard, search is just one of, among many, Google's ad delivery vehicles. The company runs a large-scale computing platform that provides access to web pages, e-mail, media, blogs, pictures, books, analytics, and etc. The number of quantifiable leads that Google can generate for advertisers is orders of magnitude greater that Wolfram's presumably highly sophisticated, but rather niche software. At best, Wolfram will compete with Google Scholar, not Google Inc, the web advertisement giant.
Third, scalability-wise, Wolfram is going to be constrained by the number of professionals (he estimates it at 1,000) needed to update the engine's databases. Compared with hundreds of thousands of people updating Wikipedia, writing blogs and scientific articles, this seems like a very significant limitation.

In my opinion, is a much bigger threat to Google than Wolfram Alpha. Search is important, but it is a well understood and, more importantly, addressed problem (see the 4Q diagram). 
In general, people a very satisfied with the quality of Google's search results. It's an established technology in an established market. On the other hand access to and monetization of media content is still being fought out in the cyberspace, with no clear winners emerging so far.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Dictating the pace of innovation

Steve Jobs in a 2008 interview describes the benefits of owning an operating system:

"That allows us to innovate at a much faster rate than if we had to wait for Microsoft, like Dell and HP and everybody else does. I mean Vista took what -- seven or eight years? ...we can set our own priorities and look at things in a more holistic way from the point of view of the customer. It also means that we can take it and we can make a version of it to fit in the iPhone and the iPod.

We can clearly see Apple's advantage on the 10X diagram. In addition to it, the introduction of the AppStore enables Apple and its developers to run innovation cycles at breakneck speeds. Very few companies, if any, can match this.
Furthermore, with the newly acquired silicon design capabilities, Apple might be able to beat its hardware competitors at their own game.

Friday, May 01, 2009

"History is one damn thing after another."

This saying is attributed to Henry Ford, one of the greatest innovators of all times. It's worth remembering because no matter what you invent today, there will be another "damn thing" invented tomorrow.