Saturday, May 29, 2010

Mental time travel

Since past is fact and future is fiction, common sense might suggest that different cognitive mechanisms underlie recollection of past events and construction of future ones. There is a fundamental causal asymmetry, and one simply cannot know the future as one knows the past. However, various lines of evidence suggest that mental time travel into the past shares cognitive resources with mental construction of potential future episodes(Suddendorf & Corballis 1997). Normal adults report a decrease in phenomenological richness of both past and future episodes with increased distance from the present (D’Argembeau & Van der Linden 2004). The temporal distribution of past events people envisage follows the same power function as the temporal distribution of anticipated future events (Spreng & Levine 2006).
DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X07001975

It's quite possible that foresight is, at least in part, a skill that allows us to construct imaginary situations, either in the past or in the future. Maybe that is why exercises like The Three Magicians a The Nine-screen View are so useful during invention sessions.

DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X07001975 Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007. The evolution of foresight. BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2007) 30, 299–351.

tags: creativity, forecast, magicians, 3x3, technique, teaching, method, quote

Trade-off of the day: Innovation vs Copying

A 2009 paper in the Journal of Theoretical Biology contrasts a-social (independent) and social (imitation, emulation, etc) learning:

Asocial learners (information producers) typically incur additional temporal or energetic costs as well as risk of mortality or injury associated with learning from direct interaction with the environment. While social learners (information scroungers) can acquire information relatively cheaply (i.e. they are free-riders), they are more liable than asocial learners to acquire outdated information that has no associated fitness benefit in a changing environment.

Two important consequences: a) copy-cat behavior is evolutionary successful and, therefore, should be rampant in a population; b) innovators are always at a disadvantage, unless they can preserve informational "distance" between themselves and the copy-cats.

Since the majority of the population consists of copy-cats, it benefits the society as a whole to distribute new useful information as fast as possible. On the other hand, if innovators cannot use the information to their own advantage, eventually, all innovation stops.
In many ways, human history is a series of continuous attempts to break through the trade-off. Today, we've got patent systems to, more or less, protect inventions; we've got Nobel Prizes and celebrity awards to encourage people share their ideas; we've got the open source movement where people earn reputations in exchange for their code contributions; etc. Most likely, social networking will create completely new incentives for sharing ideas and exploiting human propensity for social learning.

1. doi:10.1016/j.jtbi.2009.05.029 Kendal J. et al., 2009. The evolution of social learning rules: Payoff-biased and frequency-dependent biased transmission. Journal of Theoretical Biology Volume 260, Issue 2, 21 September 2009, Pages 210-219

2. DOI: 10.1126/science.1184719 Rendell L, et al. 2010. Why Copy Others? Insights from the Social Learning Strategies Tournament. Science 9 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5975, pp. 208 - 213.

tags: innovation, invention, problem, solution, tradeoff, dilemma, information, evolution, games, learning, education, market

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Social networking space is increasingly becoming a marketplace of digital goods. Like any other marketplace in the history of human civilization, it needs an exchange medium, aka money, to scale wrt volume and kinds of transactions. Enter Facebook Credits, which are going to become for Facebook what gold was for King Croesus:

The question asked what Facebook’s next big source of revenue would be? Parker, who was the founding President of Facebook, still works closely with the company as he’s a major shareholder. He noted that Facebook PR might not like his answer too much, but he decided to give it anyway: the Credit system.

Parker believes that the Facebook Credit system (that is, its payment platform), or any other things Facebook uses as a “tax and toll” on the Platform, will become a third of Facebook’s income in the next 12 months.

30% is extremely high. If they figure out how to lower the tax, the number of transactions, especially on mobile devices, is going to explode. And if they don't, somebody else will take over. For example, Zong.

tag: money, social, networking, market, control, payload, signal, course

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bloomberg reports how Walmart is working to squeeze costs out of their supply chain:

The company is contacting all manufacturers that provide products to its more than 4,000 U.S. stores and Sam’s Club membership warehouse clubs, said Kelly Abney, Wal-Mart’s vice president of corporate transportation in charge of the project. The goal is to take over deliveries in instances where Wal-Mart can do the same job for less and use those savings to reduce prices in stores, he said.

Given Wal-mart's scale of operations, I wouldn't be surprised if, over time, in some markets they will compete for commercial delivery business with Fedex and UPS.

tags: distribution, efficiency, problem, solution, transportation, scale,

From a system perspective, this would be an example of a solution to an efficiency problem. Distribution is being tightly integrated with Sources (manufacturers) and Tools (stores and warehouses) to optimize the system's overall performance. It's an indication that today's brick-and-mortar retail infrastructure is entering the stage of extreme maturity. Once the infrastructure is in place, Wal-mart will be able to either add "out-of network" manufacturers and stores or put them out of business altogether.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Phenomenon of the day: Information Cascade

In 1995, management gurus Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema secretly purchased 50,000 copies of their business strategy book The Discipline of Market Leaders from stores across the nation. The stores they purchased from just happened to be the ones whose sales are monitored to select books for the New York Times bestseller list. Despite mediocre reviews, their book made the bestseller list. Subsequently, the book sold well enough to continue as a bestseller without further demand intervention by the authors.' Presumably, being on a bestseller list helps a book sell more because consumers and reviewers learn from the actions of previous buyers.

Source: Learning from the Behavior of Others: Conformity, Fads, and Informational Cascades. Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer, Ivo Welch. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1998), pp. 151-170.

A System perspective note: by hacking the detection system, which was supposed to identify bestsellers, the authors managed to activate a desirable control scenario.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The will to think.

I pulled the quote below from a 1976 paper by William Shockley, Nobel Laureate, inventor of the junction transistor.

A competent thinker will be reluctant to commit himself to the effort that tedious and precise thinking demands - he will lack “the will to think”- unless he has the conviction that something worthwhile will be done with the results of his efforts -- and, of course, there is always also the risk that his hard thinking may not produce any creative ideas.

A meaningful simplest case stimulates the will to think by reducing the threat of being forced to accomplish repugnant and tedious tasks.

Models often provide such meaningful simplest cases. For example, Copernicus' planetary system was a meaningful simple case that explained a lot of very complex astronomical data. The proverbial apple that fell on Newton's head was instrumental in making the gravitational theory simple and relevant despite all the calculus that had to be invented from scratch to prove the theory.
In my own experience, Altshuller's trade-off resolution technique is the easiest concept to explain in TRIZ. It's also the least powerful one. As a result we have a problem: people perceive something that is used to wake up their "will to think" as the real thing. Which is unfortunate because it prevents them from pursuing better invention methods.

References: W.Shockley. The Path to the Conception of the Junction Transistor. IEEE Transactions in Electronic Devices., Vol ED-23,   No 7,  July 1976.

tags: theory, problem, quote, education, triz, theory

Money as a mobile application.

Credit cards are becoming extinct:

just wave your iPhone at any Visa payWave terminal, which can already be found at some 32,000 retailers, and voila, you've made your transaction.

Visa has the market power to make interface devices ubiquitous, while the banks can be made responsible for distributing mobile applications. As the result, we've got the credit card business model, but without the credit card.

tags: money, ideality, distribution, packaging, tool, digital, information, commerce

Friday, May 14, 2010

How to detect a patent bomb in the making

If patents were people they would tell tales of ingenious transformation that would eclipse Oscar-winning movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

This month, SoftView, a small software development company, sued Apple for patent infringement. The patent mentioned in the suit is US7461353 "Scalable display of internet content on mobile devices." It was filed in January 2005 and issued in December 2008. The patent has 319 claims. This is almost 20 times greater than the average number of claims in a US patent issued in the same year! Clearly, this is a custom IP weapon of mass destruction created to attack large technology companies.

So, how was it made? As we dig deeper into the patent history, we discover that the original invention goes back to a provisional application filed in 2000. In 2001, the provisional was converted into a utility application, which issued in 2007 with 50 claims (US Patent 7,210,099). 50 claims is a relatively big number, but nothing extraordinary. It is when the initial 50 claims turned into 300+ claims things became really interesting. At this point, we could figure out that, by filing divisional patent applications with a dramatically increased number of claims, the patent owner was pursuing an IP attack strategy.

Who would be the target of the attack? Well, it's any company that provides a mobile wireless device hosting a web browser that allows users zoom and pan on web pages. Sounds like Apple to me. Or, as a matter of fact, all iPhone/iPod/iPad copycats. From 2000 to 2009, the patent owner had the time and smarts to monitor developments in the mobile industry, and fine-tune patent claims to read on one of the emerging killer features. This is not a defensive "picket-and-fence" play that is taught in patent textbooks. Rather, it's a well-designed weapon, which, as any other patent, is supposed to enable a legal attack capability. The patent has its weaknesses, but it'll take a lot of effort to deflect all its claims. Detecting a pending attack, e.g. by spotting divisional applications with a large number of claims, can be a part of an early warning system that gives companies time to develop effective defensive strategies.

As a side note, the value of SoftView patents is much greater than the value of its technology. This shows that with the right IP strategy startups can be successful even if their innovations don't materialize in the market.

tags: patent, example, problem, solution, strategy, system, payload, tool, mobile, apple

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dilemma of the day: dieting vs self-control

Several studies showed that self-control leads to blood glucose depletion. This phenomenon occurs not only in humans but in dogs too! The obvious connection between sugar and weakness of will prompted M.T.Gailliot et al to formulate the following problem:

...self-control tasks that have a direct impact on blood glucose may raise particular problems for self- control. Most obviously, dieting essentially involves restricting one’s caloric intake, and there may be an ironic conflict in which the dietary restriction produces lower glucose, which, in turn, undermines the willpower needed to refrain from eating.

Currently, only diabetes patients regularly check their blood glucose level. It's quite possible that dieters or generally healthy people need it to monitor it too. Even better, a diet should be a part of a life-style change program that helps anticipate and deal proactively with self-control (stress) situations.


Gailliot MT, et al. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor.J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007 Feb;92(2):325-36.
Miller HC, et al. Self-control without a "self"?: common self-control processes in humans and dogs. Psychol Sci. 2010 Apr 1;21(4):534-8. Epub 2010 Mar 11.

tags: control, health, detection, scale, dilemma, problem

Monday, May 10, 2010

Winner-takes-all market in social media.

Another example of Prisoner's Dilemma playing out in the high-tech world:

If this is all true, I find it hard to believe that either side will actually pull the plug on a relationship that has generated most of the top-10 most popular applications on Facebook. Without Facebook, Zynga could lose easy access to millions of its most regular users, and without Zynga, Facebook would lose several of the applications that keep its users coming back to the site so often.

Earlier, I wrote about a similar situation between Google and Apple. Now, I am wondering whether Prisoner's Dilemma is endemic in relationships within high-tech industries.
In his recent book, The Nature of Technology, W.B.Arthur showed that most of technology innovations require concerted efforts from multiple companies and individual contributors. It's highly unlikely that all of them will get rewarded by the market proportionally to their contributions. Quite the opposite, over a period of time a dominant player emerges and gets into a position to dictate the pace of innovation, and as a result, collects a much higher return on its technology investment. Google dominates search advertisement market, Intel - PC-related semiconductors, Microsoft - PC OS, Apple - portable audio and smartphones, Facebook - social networking, and etc.
I suggest that on its path to domination, a high-tech player has to build a series of coalitions (just because the technology contains multiple parts), and then, in Prisoner's Dilemma terms, defect from the cooperation strategy in order to claim the top spot.

Related: Hal Varian's talk on technology where he discusses the role of substitutes and complementers.