Archive for September, 2007

Seeing things new again … wake up!

September 30, 2007

Human beings are so adaptable. Strange and unfamiliar things are quickly adapted to, and then their strangeness and unfamiliarity become invisible, i.e. we become anesthetized to them. But once in a while we experience things that cause us to “wake up.”

When we travel to foreign lands, we inevitably experience “new” things as strange and awkward. The money doesn’t make sense, the street signs are in the wrong places, and the toilet paper is all wrong.

An even more enlightening experience, though, is to accompany a foreign traveler through your own country, for through the foreigner’s eyes you will once again perceive the strangeness and awkwardness of your own culture.

Show a Swiss visitor American paper money for the first time. You will invariably hear, “But they’re all the same size? How do blind people tell them apart?” Your response will be an embarrassed silence, for unless you’re blind yourself, you’ve never thought about money in that way. Never? Well, hardly ever. Not, at least, since you were a child.

The next response of the Swiss visitor will be, “And they’re all of the same color! Don’t people make lots of mistakes in making change?” Again, embarrassed silence as you contemplate how many times you’ve had experiences of being shortchanged, or longchanged, when a five was mistaken for a ten.

Take some object that you handle every day – a shoe, a shirt, a fork, a car door, a toothbrush, or any one of a thousand others. Set yourself the exercise of “seeing” it from the point of view of someone from another country who has never seen one before. Then try using it with your eyes tightly closed. Imagine that you are one-fourth your present size and trying to handle this object for the first time. What happens if you cannot read, or your manual dexterity is not well developed?

Are Your Lights On? by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg

If someone tells you they have the answer, they probably don’t understand the question

September 29, 2007

“Don’t forget, if someone tells you they have the answer, they probably don’t understand the question.”

— C. K. Prahalad

The “not discovered here” approach to discovery

September 29, 2007

Five steps to making discoveries and inventions:

  1. Define: define the problem you want to solve and define a goal that you want to attain that would solve the problem. At this point you know “what” you would like to see attained, but don’t know “how” to attain it.
  2. Abstract: The problem and goal that you identified will be expressed in terms specific to the area that you are working in. Your next step is to raise it up, abstract it, so that it is expressed in terms independent of your particular area of endeavor. Get the fundamental concepts identified.
  3. Already Discovered: This may be the most important step: assume that someone has already solved the problem (made the discovery) [1], although it may be in a different area of endeavor.
  4. Search: search the internet and read voraciously, looking for people working on analogous problems. You will likely need to abstract their work, and then compare their abstract problem statement with your abstract problem statement to determine if they are the same.
  5. Apply: once you’ve found someone who has already discovered what you want to do, apply their ideas and techniques to solving your problem

So, the problem of making a discovery comes down to these factors:

  • How good are you at searching?
  • How widely read are you? Do you have varied interests?
  • How good are you at recognizing that your problem is (abstractly) the same as someone else’s problem?

With this approach you acknowledge that, with near certitude, someone else has already solved the problem (made the discovery). The only “discovery” you have to make is to find their discovery, recognize that it’s essentially the same thing that you’re working on, and then apply their ideas and techniques to your particular situation.

This is the “not discovered here” approach to discovery.

[1] “Most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimony to arrogance.” [James March, Stanford University]

Antidote for the “not invented here” syndrome

September 28, 2007

Want to discover something or invent something? Discovering or inventing something that is completely new, that no one has ever conceived, is very unlikely (virtually zero probability). You are much more likely to succeed by taking an existing idea and applying it in a novel way.

Below is a quote from the book Hard Facts by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. They are talking about the benefits to companies of using old ideas in new ways. However, I think this benefit applies to all of us, not just companies.

I have always (mistakenly) thought that research meant discovering/inventing something totally new. If I were Albert Einstein then perhaps I could do that. Since I’m not, I now realize that a better approach is to expand my learning to many different areas and then apply ideas from other areas to my area of research.

“Creativity is mostly sparked by old ideas. Both major creative leaps and incremental improvements come from fiddling with ideas from other places and blending them in new ways.”

“Better ideas result when people act like nothing is invented here and seek new uses for others’ ideas.”

“Unfortunately, too many companies are plagued by the not invented here syndrome, where people insist on using homegrown ideas, especially ideas that can be ballyhooed as new and different.”

Word of the Day: Sisyphean task

September 27, 2007

Imagine you are tasked to push a large stone up to the top of a hill.  Just as you near the top the stone slips away and rolls back down the hill.  You try rolling it up the hill again, and again the stone slips aways and rolls back down the hill.  Again and again this happens.

Clearly this is a very laborious and futile task.  It is a “Sisyphean task.”

[Definition] A Sisyphean task is an endlessly laborious or futile task.

Meaning of “conflict of interest”

September 26, 2007

Consider a scientist who is hired by a drug company to test a drug that the company recently created. The scientist has conflicting interests: on the one hand, as a scientist he has a responsibility to provide unbiased and trustworthy results; on the other hand, as a human being he would like for the results to be favorable to the drug company so that the company will pay him to conduct future research. We say that the scientist has a conflict of interest.

Conflict between the drug sponsor and the scientific ethos

That’s a lot of stickies!

September 25, 2007

I read a book recently on the scientific method.  The author states that in doing research for writing the book he read over 300 books and articles.  As he encountered interesting bits of information he would jot down a note on a yellow sticky.  By the time he was done he had jotted down notes on 15,000 stickies!

What does the word “God” mean?

September 24, 2007

I am starting to read a book How to Think about God by Mortimer J. Adler. The purpose of the book is to answer the question Does God exist? The author approaches the question very rigorously. In the first section he makes some initial remarks about proceeding in a rigorous fashion, and then I got to this:

“In the preceding pages, the word ‘God’ has been used again and again, and used without explanation of its meaning. What went through your mind, I would like to ask the reader, when you read sentences containing the word? Were you stopped by it because it was as meaningless to you as a word in a foreign language, or as a word not in your vocabulary?”

This startled me. It never occurred to me that there might be different meanings of the word for different people, or no meaning at all for some people.

He argues for the importance of clearly articulating what the word “God” means if headway is to be made in answering whether God exists:

“Everyone concerned with the question whether X exists must attach the same meaning to the word that names or designates X; and that meaning must be made as clear and precise as possible. Scientific inquiries, in which the X in question may be a certain kind of elementary particle or a certain celestial body, would not proceed without first giving as much clarity and precision as possible to the word that is used to name or designate X.”

Don’t confuse an explanation of causes with an acceptance of results

September 23, 2007

I started reading the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.  The purpose of the book is to answer this question:

“Why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents?”

For example, why did some places have iron and machines, while others were still using stone?

Before answering the question, he addresses this objection:

“If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination?”

His answer to the objection is profound:

“This objection rests on a common tendency to confuse an explanation of causes with a justification or acceptance of results.  What use one makes of a historical explanation is a question separate from the explanation itself.  Understanding is more often used to try to alter an outcome than to repeat or perpetuate it.  That’s why psychologists try to understand genocide, and why physicians try to understand the causes of human disease.  Those investigators do not seek to justify genocide or illness.  Instead, they seek to use their understanding of a chain of causes to interrupt the chain.”

Common sense – simple? It’s an illusion of simplicity …

September 22, 2007

Common sense is not a simple thing.  Instead, it is an immense society of hard-earned practical ideas – of multitudes of life-learned rules and exceptions, dispositions and tendencies, balances and checks.

If common sense is so diverse and intricate, what makes it seem so obvious and natural?  This illusion of simplicity comes from losing touch with what happened during infancy, when we formed our first abilities.  As each new group of skills matures, we build more layers on top of them.  As time goes on, the layers below become increasingly remote until, when we try to speak of them later in life, we find ourselves with little more to say than “I don’t know.”

The Society of Mind by Marvin Minsky