Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Monday, June 27, 2011

The oldest (and the dimmest) lightbulb in the world

Recently, the city of Livermore celebrated the 110th year of continuing service of a ligh bulb:

For more than a century, the 4-watt "Centennial Light" -- believed to be the world's longest-burning bulb -- has hung from the modest rafters of Fire Station No. 6 in Livermore.

4 watts! By design, this old bulb produces at least 10 times less light than an average modern one. The key reason for that is the limitation imposed by the low-current DC electricity distribution system invented by Edison. His main business constraint was the cost of copper wires: the higher the current, the thicker and more expensive the wires would have to be to feed the bulbs. But expensive wires would not allow Edison's system to cover a large city area, making it a poor competitor for gas lighting installations popular at the time.

Therefore, Edison settled on a low-current system, which required high-resistance light bulb filaments. Unfortunately, a carbon-based filament found by Edison, the famous bamboo one prominently shown in books and movies, would heat up during operation and burn out fairly quickly. Furthermore, the carbon filament would eventually blacken the inside surface of the bulb, turning it even dimmer. To make his system more reliable, Edison had to limit the brightness of bulbs used, the bulbs bright enough to beat competition from candles, kerosene and gas lamps. Only with the invention of high-resistance tungsten filaments by Hungarian engineers in the beginning of the 20th century and, later, the process of filling the bulb with an inert gas, light bulbs began approaching levels of brightness comparable to today's standards.

Eventually, the world created highly resistant bright light bulbs that consumed more and more electricity, the electricity coming over long transmission lines from distant power plants burning fossil fuels, losing lots of power on the way and in the bulb itself because most of the power went into heat. Paradoxically, with low-power LEDs and local solar panels producing low-current DC we don't need the heat and the transmission lines, but we still lack efficient power storage systems. When these are deployed at scale, we'll go back to Edison's good old idea of a 4-watt bulb, which, implemented with new technologies, will shine brighter and greener(!) than ever before.

tags: system, evolution, power, distribution, tool, constraint, trade-off, payload, course

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The teacher effect: bad performance on a problem-solving task.

Sheena Iyengar, professor at Columbia Business School, talks about an experiment conducted with Anglo– and Japanese-American children in San Francisco. All kids were asked to solve several anagrams, the only difference being how they chose their task.

The first group got to choose their own anagram set and the marker to write the answers. The second group was told by the teacher, Ms Smith, which anagrams to work on and what marker to use. The third group was told that it was their mother who recommended the anagram set and the marker for writing. Behind the scenes, the experimenters ensured that in all three conditions the kids were involved in the same activity.

The children's performance turned out to be very different. Once clear difference was that both Anglo- and Japanese-American children performed the worst in the teacher condition (the left columns on the chart above). The other one was the contrast in the mother condition: Anglo–American kids performed much worse than Japanese kids (the right columns).

Looks like giving people a choice, even when the choice itself is meaningless, improves their performance, but as the rest of the talk shows, not happiness.

tags: education, control, psychology, performance, book,  video, information

Friday, June 24, 2011

Creative thinking is slow thinking - 2

Almost a year ago I wrote about brain research evidence showing that, contrary to a popular belief in "the light bulb in your head" moment, creative thinking is a slow, rather than fast process.
In a recent paper about the relationship between national IQ and national productivity, economist Garett Jones of Mason University, cites extensive studies linking intelligence and patience.

Shamosh and Gray (2008), two Yale psychologists, summed up 2 dozen studies and found that in almost every study, high IQ is associated with patience, as measured in a variety of methods. The classic example is Walter Mischel’s experiment of a child waiting for marshmallows. In this experiment an experimenter puts a child in a room, puts a marshmallow in front of the child, and tells her that if she leaves the marshmallow untouched until the experimenter returns, she will get a second marshmallow. The experimenter then leaves the room, not returning until the child finally eats the marshmallow.
“Minutes until marshmallow” has been shown to be a reliable predictor of many life outcomes—but it is also highly correlated with IQ.

The systematic invention and innovation methods I teach and practice almost force you into a process of deliberate creativity, requiring patient application of your intelligence. As Genrikh Altshuller always said, "Inventive thinking is slow thinking."

What's also interesting is the "Hive" effect, which shows that the society as a whole benefits from an individual's IQ more than the individual him/herself. To me this makes perfect sense because in an innovation economy existence of a high-performance creative crowd is essential to turning ideas into breakthrough technologies.

For the article link, hat tip to
See also my earlier post From Creative to Mundane.

tags: creativity, innovation, scale, intelligence, system, invention, economics, psychology

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Inefficiency: a greener version of the old stupid grid.

The latest from the green job plan:

The Department of Energy has issued a $1.4 billion conditional loan guarantee to fund a massive project that would install solar panels on unused industrial roof space across the U.S.

Different from many private solar roof installations, the electricity generated from the Project Amp solar panels will feed directly into a branch of the national electric grid, not the host building itself.

Compare this with Google's "distributed power" approach I wrote about earlier. With 30-50% of electric power lost in transmission, the government found a great way to waste expensively produced energy. By installing sources of electric power away from places where customers are going to consume it, we exacerbate the inefficiency of the old "stupid grid" infrastructure.
The plan is an excellent example of non-creative thinking. That is, instead of looking for a breakthrough, problem-solvers reinforce a wasteful trade-off: the greener the energy, the more money you have to pay for using it.

tags: creativity, energy, distribution, source, system, performance, synthesis

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

2015 Traffic Report: million minutes of video per second.

Source: Mashable

Growth rates in Latin America look particularly impressive.

tags: video, distribution, infrastructure, tool, system, growth, information

Monday, June 20, 2011

Invention of the day: Retail Shop.

Money is arguably the oldest technology that gets reinvented all the time. The invention of coinage by the Lydians in the 6th century BC helped create the ancient Greek civilization, the progenitor of today's Western world. Being great traders, the Lydians also invented a major modern business model - permanent retail shop. Before that, retail trade was conducted either in temporary markets or door-to-door. Only recently, some two and a halve thousand years later, the "brick-and-mortar" retail model invented by the Lydians was successfully challenged by the likes of and Apple's app store.

Compared to temporary market stalls, Lydian shops were the equivalent of today's high-frequency trading brokerage houses, and were greatly helped by another invention, a sophisticated sexagecimal computation system:

The system allowed bankers and traders perform computational operations with large numbers of coins, by converting them from a large number of small-value units to much smaller number of large-value ones. For example, if you earned your money in obols and didn't know much math, which was quite common at the time, you could still figure out how much you made in your newly invented brick-and-mortar retail operation, by converting obols into drachmas, staters, minas, and talents. This new computational ability is somewhat similar to the invention, in the 17th century, of the logarithm, a mathematical concept that helped simplify complex multiplication operations in military and engineering applications during the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and beyond.

Back to the ancient Greeks, people who made lots of money were "talented". I'm not joking. The etymology of the modern word "talent" goes back to the money-related ancient Greek term talanton. A copper sheet of about 60 lb in weight, something an average man could comfortably carry, was equivalent in value to a talent. A stronger man could carry more talents, thus the connection with the contemporary notion of a natural advantage, which, in turn, found its another incarnation in a common saying, If you are so smart, why aren't you rich.

* Coin conversion table from the book "A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day", by Glyn Davies.

tags: commerce, invention, business, model, system, computers, information, money, history, scale, 10x

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How to become an inventor in 5 easy steps.

Popular mechanics has an article on how to become an inventor. Here's an outline:

Intro: Have a metaphorical light bulb go in your head.
Step 1: Cultivate an Idea.
Step 2: Build a Prototype.
Step 3: File a Patent.
Step 4: Test the Market.
Step 5: Sell it or Make it.

The article is a typical media combination of fact and fiction. For example, there's no evidence whatsoever that the proverbial light bulb went off in Edison's head when he came up with his real lightbulb design. Some people experience the Aha moment, some don't. There's no relationship between the intensity of personal experience and quality of an inventive idea.

Nevertheless, a certain patent-related statistics I found illuminating. One out of three patent applications is granted as a patent, with the number of commercially viable patents ranging from 0.2 to 5 percent. In other words, the most optimistic estimate of the overall system efficiency would be 5/3≈1.7%, which is comparable to the efficiency, or more accurately, the inefficiency of Newcomen's steam engine created in 1714.

The good news is the invention revolution is yet to come!

tags: psychology, media, invention, method, patents,

Friday, June 17, 2011

A technology for selectively erasing memories.

CNet writes:

Now scientists in Israel say they have devised a method to erase memories that trigger cravings in rats addicted to cocaine--a method that works so well it actually results in rats ignoring the place where they had been scoring the drug.

The protein they use is known for inhibiting learning processes by affecting memories. I wonder if it can be used in reverse, i.e. to improve learning by selectively erasing memories that prevent us from learning. That is, it's much more difficult to teach a person who clings to prejudices and obsolete ideas, than somebody with a fresh mind. If we were able to control memory deletion mechanism, we could free up our minds from the baggage of unneeded information and, as a result, increase our creativity by escaping "the curse of knowledge".

tags: creativity, brain, mind, psychology, biology, education, information

Invention of the day: walking fish.

Is this fish too early or too late to the walking market?

tags: evolution, biology, preadaptation, video

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Back to Edison: the war of currents revisited.

Google is helping the transition from industrial to information-age power infrastructure:

Google is investing $280 million in SolarCity, a company that leases out solar panels to home owners.
Google said it was a move to increase the amount of “distributed solar power.” That means that the power from solar panels is generated on the roofs of homes and is used by those homes instead of having to travel through a power grid. That can help reduce some of the strain on power grids during peak usage hours, when homes are drawing more electricity for air conditioning or, in the future, electric car charging.

This transition will begin in earnest when efficient energy storage becomes available to home owners and/or neighborhoods. Today, there's no practical way to store solar or wind power for future use on a small scale. Once this problem is solved, the current power distribution system, which wastes from 30 to 50 percent of transmitted energy, will be out of the picture, at least in the residential market.

Then, since the vast majority of information gadgets we'll be using consume low-power DC current, the next step will be creation of an in-home low-power DC network to feed them (rather than using AC/DC converters for everything, from PC to TV to car). This will probably take another 10 to 20 years.

tags: distribution, storage, energy, book, system, evolution, payload, s-curve, synthesis

Monday, June 13, 2011

Freedom to the cows!

Architect Carolyn Steel gives a TED talk on how city transportation infrastructure defines the food we eat. She shows evolution of London food supply routes: from river, hoof, and foot, to railroad, cars, and airplanes. A part of the evolution is a drastic change in food packaging, production scale, and consumption patterns.
Several points I'd like to note:
- meat and urbanism are rising hand in hand;
- feeding animals to feed them to humans takes 10 times more food;
- takes 10 calories [of fuel] to produce 1 calorie of food in the West;
- half the food grown in the US is thrown away;
- a billion of us is obese.

She proposes food localization as a solution the all these problems, but I don't believe it will work, unless people are willing to pay much higher prices for their food. And we've already seen revolutions in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt, when a spike in food prices occurred.

Here's the video, but if you don't have 20 minutes you can read a full transcript of the talk (on the right of the video on the site).

tags: distribution, payload, health, system, evolution, problem

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Eliyahu Moshe Goldratt (March 31, 1947 - June 11, 2011), author of the Theory of Constraints.

Evolution of perceptable information: Solid -> Liquid -> ... Gas?

I'm finishing up The Social Animal, by David Brooks. One phrase caught my attention because it illustrates current transition from documents-centric computer interfaces to stream-centric ones:

The unconscious treats information like a fluid, not a solid. (p.239).

With twitter, the humanity's unconscious found a way to satisfy its need for ceaseless stream of background chatter: crowd-wisdom, crowd-sourcing, crowd-everything.

I wonder, what would be the next step in this direction.

tags: innovation, payload, quote, book, youtube, system, evolution

Friday, June 10, 2011

Programming your cake and eating it too.

New Scientist reports:

A student at the Royal College of Art in London, Hannes Harms, has come up with a design for an edible RFID chip, part of a system he calls NutriSmart. The chip could send information about the food you eat to a personal computer or, conceivably, a mobile phone via a Bluetooth connection.

The site says that the purpose of the system is diet management and allergy control. It can be integrated with an RFID reader embedded into a plate or a refrigerator.

Will this cool idea fly in the real world? Most likely, not. Forget about the implementation for a minute and think about the system's functionality. Its main purpose is to deliver information about food from people who make the food to people who make decisions about eating it. If we can program RFIDs with nutrition information, then we have the ability to program non-edible items with the same information. Since 2D barcodes and phone readers are widely available, it might be much easier to transfer information that way, especially, when allergies are concerned.

Though, the key problem still remains unresolved: it's too late to detect information about food right before eating it. This kind of decisions need to be made at the time of buying and/or ordering. Besides, we all know that eating cake, with large amounts of sugar and fat in it, is not for the diet. You don't need an RFID reader plate to tell you that :)

tags: problem, solution, information, health, detection, system, energy, example

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Reporting live from the underworld of customer support.

From HAL's sublime mood swings in Odyssey 2001, the domain of Artificial Intelligence is quickly becoming limited to robotic vacuum cleaners and customer service chatbots helping underwater homeowners buy and troubleshoot the cleaners:

The company’s [VirtuOZ] virtual agents, or chatbots, are programmed to automate sales support for large and mid-sized businesses. By helping online shoppers resolve issues or make purchase decisions, VirtuOz helps web sites cut labor costs. The company claims that its agents, equipped with natural language processing (NLP) capabilities, can provide customer service to clients for one-tenth the cost of a traditional human support team.

If we could automate shopping, nobody would need people in this world.

*chart via

tags: technology, information, commerce, market, 10x

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The happiness of No Regrets.

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, talks about how we overvalue choice. (TED video on youtube). In his experiments, people felt much better living with choices that cannot be changed at a later date, though before the experiment they expressed a strong preference (66 percent of participants) for reversible choices. That is, we prefer to be unhappy.

Here's a classic song that makes Dan's point quite forcefully:

tags: psychology, control,  video

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Invention of the day: electric car starter.

There's a class of inventions that improve original breakthrough technologies to such a degree that the breakthroughs reach the mass market. In the beginning of the 21st century, invention of blogging democratized web publishing by helping people who didn't want to learn HTML create their own web pages. Even now, most blogging services, including blogspot and LiveJournal I use regularly, offer two editing modes, HTML and direct. With the latter, you don't need to know any HTML tags to orchestrate your text so that the browser understands how do display the content when it pulled from the server to your PC or mobile. The removal of the user skill constraint enables explosive growth.

 A hundred years ago the same thing happened to the automobile when Vincent Bendix invented an electric starter for gasoline engines. The starter is a miniature electric motor coupled to the main gas engine to crank up the engine from a dead stop. Today, you only need to turn on the ignition key or press a button to open a flow of electric current from the battery in your car to the starter. The starter turns and, being linked mechanically to the rest of the system, turns the crankshaft of the engine.
Before the invention, the driver had to do it manually. That is, using a hand crank, the driver had to crank up the engine - a feat that not only required significant physical abilities, but also the willingness to get down and dirty with mechanical tools on the road. (Just like a web designer would have to learn HTML codes, scripts, frames, etc. to put together a passable web page.) People who eschewed the mechanics of automobiles had to either hire a chauffeur or stay away from the automobile market altogether.

Introduction of the starter eliminated the problem, especially for middle class men and women. The horseless carriage, which most people at the time perceived as an expensive toy for men, became a mass market product that drove American innovations for more than 50 years. Consumer loans, the highway system, the oil and gas industry, tire manufacturing, suburban homes and other features of the modern life we love and loath are direct consequences of the automobile revolution. I can't say that Vincent Bendix of Memphis, Tennessee started it one hundred years ago, but he definitely contributed to the process.

tags: invention, problem, technology, improvement, industry, infrastructure, innovation, system,  constraint

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The optimal number of legs is between 2 and 3

VentureBeat has a post with various metrics for startups, trying to capture the relationship between success and the team's level of commitment, technical expertise, ability to adapt to market requirements, etc.

I found it interesting that the most successful number of founders is 2 to 3, which is the same number recommended for problem–solving work. Generally, a person working alone can come up with better ideas than a group, but doing it alone is very difficult psychologically: tough problems tend to be frustrating, the problem-solver needs a lot of persistence, social support, access to additional information, and friendly criticism. As the team grows over the magic number of 3, tensions increase, social loafing kicks in, and productivity suffers. There's even what is called Philippe's Law for software development productivity, which states that a team's productivity declines by the factor of cube root of number of people on the team:

Continuing with team numerology, the theory of social information in small worlds says that the optimal number of worlds for discovering useful information is between 2 and 3, but closer to 2. With the new data from startup research, the magic number seems to gravitate to the same value.

tags: psychology, social, network, productivity, startup,

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The greatest inventions of all time (a candidate list)

 A couple of years ago I taught The Greatest Innovations of All Time course at Stanford University CSP. At the time, I focused on five areas of human experience: 1) Energy, 2) Communications, 3)Health Care, 4) Money, and 5) Transportation. Implicitly, I also included 6)Agriculture, as part of the discussion on Energy and Health. It was a great experience and I got good reviews from my students, but I felt that a better list of inventions was needed to understand the invented world we live in. Here's my updated attempt at this list in a semi-chronological order.

Double-entry accounting
Smallpox vaccination
Scientific Method
Steam Engine
Telegraph/Morse Code
Software and Universal Computer(The Turing Machine)
Social Networking

* I just noticed that the majority of words on this list start with S. Maybe this is a coincidence, or maybe it's a psychological bias, due to the fact that my last name starts with S :)

tags: invention, technology, history, business, model, system,  course

Problem solving and bilingualism.

  - Why did the cat bark? 
- He wanted to learn a second language. 
(A children joke).
NYTimes publishes an interview with Ellen Bialystok, a neuroscientist who has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her recent work shows that, among other things, bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.

I also find it interesting that researchers see differences in physical brain activity when mono- and bilinguals solve the same problems:

...when we look in their [bilinguals'] brains through neuroimaging, it appears like they’re using a different kind of a network that might include language centers to solve a completely nonverbal problem. Their whole brain appears to rewire because of bilingualism.

On the problem-solving side, I find that using abstract system-level language instead of a specific engineering or technology jargon helps me and my students approach the problem from a different perspective. I call this language "Inventorese." Maybe it should count as my 5th one :)

Finally, long-held common sense belief on the subject turned out to be wrong:

Until about the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that bilingualism was a disadvantage.

tags: brain, mind, communications, psychology, creativity, system, five element analysis, health, bias