Sunday, October 31, 2010

How easy it is to intimidate scientists with patent-related legal threats! Andre Geim, a 2010 Nobel laureate in physics, somebody who defied authority and common wisdom in his own field, believed empty talk served to him by a corporate lawyer. Here's an excerpt from Geim's interview to the Nature magazine:

Q: You haven't yet patented graphene. Why is that?

A: We considered patenting; we prepared a patent and it was nearly filed. Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational electronics company. I approached a guy at a conference and said, "We've got this patent coming up, would you be interested in sponsoring it over the years?" It's quite expensive to keep a patent alive for 20 years. The guy told me, "We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after ten years we find it's really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us." That's a direct quote.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fremium MBA from LSBF

Facebook users can now study an MBA for free at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) after the college launched a course that will be available on the social networking website.

Students will be able to study for free and will only pay if they want to be formally assessed for an MBA. The LSBF GlobalMBA, which has received £7.5m investment, is awarded by the University of Wales.

With high-quality distance education becoming widely available, our ability to choose the right education at the right time as well as having this time seems to be the most important skill to learn.

tags: education, information, social, networking, evolution, control, business, model

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Solar power: too much of a good thing

Germany has been pushing the limits with solar power installations, which causes, surprise-surprise, imbalances across the existing grid:

Solar power is intermittent and can arrive in huge surges when the sun comes out. These most often happen near midday rather than when demand for power is high, such as in the evenings.

But if the solar power input is too large it will exceed demand even with all the generators switched off. Stephan Köhler, head of Germany's energy agency, DENA, warned in an interview with the Berliner Zeitung on 17 October that at current rates of installation, solar capacity will soon reach those levels, and could trigger blackouts.

Subsidies have encouraged German citizens and businesses to install solar panels and sell surplus electricity to the grid at a premium. Uptake has been so rapid that solar capacity could reach 30 gigawatts, equal to the country's weekend power consumption, by the end of next year. "We need to cap installation of new panels," a spokesperson for DENA told New Scientist.

More power doesn't necessarily mean a better overall system performance. Power sources within the system used to be controllable by people, but now they are becoming controllable by weather, i.e. an external factor the grid cannot handle.

tags: source, control, distribution, system, evolution, energy

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Problem-solving in context

In one famous experiment, the psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby showed that subjects often had difficulty solving a logical puzzle which required them to identify playing cards that failed to conform to a rule of play (this is called the Wason selection task). However, when the very same logical puzzle was reformulated as a problem of identifying people who had failed to conform to a rule of social behavior, the subjects performed very much better on the test. This led Cosmides and Tooby to conclude that our reasoning abilities are sensitive to context in ways that would have been beneficial for our ability to spot cheats during our evolutionary history.

Wilson, Robert. The Company of Strangers. revised edition. p. 75.

It appears, in many cases we fail to solve a problem because we don't understand - no, understand is not the right word here - we don't internalize the rules, i.e. we don't feel comfortable working and playing within the context in which the problem is presented. Transferred into a familiar context, the problem becomes an easy target. Therefore, finding the right context of a problem should be one of the first steps in a problem-solving process. Stripping the problem of professional jargon, explaining it to an 8-year-old would be good first steps.

tag: creativity, problem, solution, method, process, inertia, psychology, magicians

Web is dead (continued)

CNet reports:

[Google] is set to launch Google Place Search as a standalone search option, much the same way Google users can search for images, news, or products. It will bring the Google Places listings that business owners can claim into the main search results pages, rather than confining them to searches done within Google Maps as was the case prior to today.

Searching for places should be a separate application on a multi-touch display because place is a "zoomable" entity, which has many fractal aspects: map, history, people, menu (if it's a restaurant), reviews, contact info, etc. Unfortunately, Google is so tied to the web, the company can't break loose from its old platform, the browser, and the old user interface paradigm, clickable links on the page. Just like Microsoft, with its calcified roots in Windows OS, Google is becoming stuck in Berners-Lee's 1989 vision of the Internet.

Background reading: The Web is Dead (Wired).

tags: internet, information, platform, evolution, interface, google, microsoft

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A breakthrough battery technology

A German startup creates an electric battery for a long-range car:

BERLIN, Oct. 26 (UPI) -- An electric car developed by a German company Tuesday set what organizers said is a world record when it drove 375 miles without recharging its battery.

The battery, based on what DBM Energy calls the KOLIBRI AlphaPolymer Technology, comes with 97 percent efficiency and can be charged at virtually every socket. Plugged into a high-voltage direct-current source, the battery can be fully loaded within 6 minutes, Hannemann said.

The battery charging time is excellent; it's comparable with today's gas station infrastructure, but does not require it at all. Provided, of course, the high-voltage electricity can be provided safely.

tags: storage, payload, transportation, energy, 10x

Monday, October 25, 2010

Collective intelligence factor

Summary: for best results from creative group work, DO NOT compose the group randomly because it will negatively affect participants' performance. Unless, maybe, they happen to be socially sensitive to each other.

Having finished teaching my class at Stanford CSP, I'm back at blogging! Today's topic is a research paper in Science about Collective Intelligence. An excerpt from its abstract:

In two studies with 699 individuals, working in groups of two to five, we find converging evidence of a general collective intelligence factor that explains a group's performance on a wide variety of tasks. This "c factor" is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members but is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

This is consistent with my experience moderating multiple brainstorms and invention sessions. The important lessons from the paper are:
a) random groups perform worse than individuals;
b) the group's social dynamics is more important than participants' intelligence;
c) having women in the group helps the dynamics.

Also note the type of tasks the researchers used for measuring performance:

Tasks included solving visual puzzles, brainstorming, making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources.

From what I understand reading the paper's references, another task was:

to work on a creative, open-ended task together with their team members during a one-hour laboratory session. Specifically, they were asked to use a set of building blocks to build a house, garage, and swimming pool, which were scored according to a set of complex scoring criteria (see Appendix A). The scoring of the task was intentionally complex and devised to force trade-offs.

Working on open-ended problems is better than solving puzzles, but the approach still follows the good old path of standard engineering and management training practices where people take trade-offs for granted. As we know from the history of innovation, best solutions emerge when problem solvers break through trade-offs, which would impossible to re-create and measure in this type of experiments.

tags: trade-off, psychology, brainstorming, social, research

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trade-off of the day: privacy vs performance

A NYT article about HTML 5, an upcoming standard for web pages, describes potential problems the standard creates for user privacy:

The new Web language and its additional features present more tracking opportunities because the technology uses a process in which large amounts of data can be collected and stored on the user’s hard drive while online. Because of that process, advertisers and others could, experts say, see weeks or even months of personal data. That could include a user’s location, time zone, photographs, text from blogs, shopping cart contents, e-mails and a history of the Web pages visited.

It is remarkable how tradeoff-based, standard, non-creative, non-inventive thinking builds privacy problems right into a major technology standard for the next 10-15 years. Engineers are educated and brought up with the idea that an improvement in one area has to lead to a deterioration in another. It's not entirely their own fault because they are trained to work and think within certain constraints. But even when they do have a chance to create a new technology from scratch, their psychological inertia guides them toward preserving bad old compromises, or, as in this case, making them worse than the old ones for the sake of "balance"! developers and the representatives of the World Wide Web argue that as technology advances, consumers have to balance its speed and features against their ability to control their privacy.

WTF is balance?!

tags: psychology, inertia, tradeoff, problem, book, creativity, internet, security

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Google: a severe case of mistaken self-identity.

Google news search engine puts news about Google car tests into the category of search engines :)))

Toward a new model of social change

I just wrote a big post about Malcom Gladwell's article in The New Yorker, but somehow this blogging software ate it all. $^####! What a disappointment.

I don't feel like rewriting it all, but here's a brief summary:

Malcolm Gladwell believes, based on historical research, that major social change is brought about by highly committed groups with strong ties, while today's social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) encourages creation and maintenance of low-commitment weak ties. In his words, the social media "makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient." Therefore, it's an improvement of the existing system, but not a creation of a new one.

I agree with his current assessment, but let's compare this situation to the rise of cities, where a large number of weak ties, eventually, played an important role in creation of various groups with strong ties. The social media of today can't enable us to produce things together within the social media itself. Using a metaphor, it still hovers above the world of real goods and events, touching but not changing it. With one major exception, of course, for the hacking culture, capable of creation of a wide range of new ventures inside the hovering space itself. To me, this is a strong indicator that the emerging social infrastructure will produce a major change, the timing of the change or its exact nature is difficult to predict yet. I'll speculate more about it in my subsequent posts.

tags: control, efficiency, evolution, infrastructure, network, niche construction, s-curve, social, system

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Time to resurrect privacy? At least for children.

Last spring, by the end of the Principles of Invention (BUS 74) class I taught at Stanford CSP, a group of students identified an online privacy and security as one of the more important problems to address in the near future. A recent Zogby poll sponsored by Common Sense Media confirmed the students' assessment:

...three out of four parents say that social networks aren’t doing a good job of protecting kids’ online privacy. The poll finds that 92 percent of parents are concerned that kids share too much information online, and 85 percent of parents say they’re more concerned about online privacy than they were five years ago. The Zogby International poll also finds that 91 percent of parents think that search engines and social networking sites should not be able to share kids’ physical location with other companies until parents give authorization.

A large part of the problem is that people have very little knowledge and control over how the information gathered by social networks is being used and where it ends up eventually. Somehow, we've created an environment where others know a lot more about you than yourself. But, unlike a relationship with the doctor, teacher or lawyer, this personal information asymmetry is governed neither by trust or law. It is as if every time you talk to a friend somebody is eavesdropping on your conversation. Phone companies are prohibited from doing this, but social networks are not.

tags: control, information, social, network, detection, constraint, niche construction

Friday, October 08, 2010

Forming a good creative habit.

Forming a good habit requires repetition. The more complex the task, the more repetition is needed to get to a plateau where the behaviour becomes automatic. This appears to be a conclusion of the study reported in a research blog:

" It seems the message of this research for those seeking to establish
a new habit is to repeat the behaviour every day if you can, but don't
worry excessively if you miss a day or two. Also be prepared for the
long haul - remember the average time to reach peak automaticity was
66 days."

Usually, repetitive work is not associated with creativity. But Edison's name comes to mind, b/c of his constant focus on developing new inventions. Over his lifetime he accumulated more than a thousand patents, some of them turned out to be seminal in the history of technology. Edison's lab tried to be creative "repetitively" and, obviously, the succeeded.

In Creativity, by now famous psychologist M.Csikszentmihalyi, the idea that creative people are very repetitive, almost stubborn, in things they are trying to create comes out loud and clear.

From my own experience, writing for two hours a day was key to making progress with my own book. Zerubavel's "Clockwork Muse" helped me immensely to understand and implement this simple recipe. Also, my best patents came out during the time when I literally forced myself to think up an invention a day. Most of the ideas died, but a good 50 or 60 of them made it into a patent application.

Of course, the problem with the repetitive approach could be that you get stuck with the same set of tools and in the same concept area, developing, even if you are very successful, a tunnel vision. Then, an antidote to this problem would be to work in many areas at the same time. That is why I really like working with various startups, learning new technologies, and teaching different invention techniques. Listening to UC Berkeley podcasts on topics ranging from electronics to philosophy of language, also helps.

tags: creativity, process, problem, solution, science,  invention

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

... is power

Remarkably, the Forbes' list of most powerful women tops Michelle Obama, a woman who married the right guy, rather than, let's say, Lady Gaga, who rose to power, whatever the Forbiates think it is, through her own efforts.

tags: selection, niche construction, information, control

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Creativity Quote of the Day: Explaining things.

"Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn't explain to an eight-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan."
"Then I'm dumber than an eight-year-old," Miss Pefko mourned. "I don't even know what a charlatan is."

Kurt Vonnegut. Cat's cradle.

Genrikh Altshuller used to say that you should be able to strip your idea of all technical jargon and explain your invention to a 12-year-old because the 12-year-old would need only some understanding of physics. The more I work with inventors, the more I realize that most concepts can be easily explained to much younger kids. Unless, of course, adults package their explanations in layers of professional buzzwords, the buzzwords often designed to signal affinity with a certain group and repel the uninitiated. When stripped of packaging, ideas become much easier to understand, and, more importantly, develop  much further into additional inventions.

tags: quote, creativity, knowledge, communication