Mathematical Models of Innovations

January 18, 2017

Interesting article spotted in The MIT Technology Review:

And yet the process of innovation is something of a mystery. A wide range of researchers have studied it, ranging from economists and anthropologists to evolutionary biologists and engineers. Their goal is to understand how innovation happens and the factors that drive it so that they can optimize conditions for future innovation.

This approach has had limited success, however. The rate at which innovations appear and disappear has been carefully measured. It follows a set of well-characterized patterns that scientists observe in many different circumstances. And yet, nobody has been able to explain how this pattern arises or why it governs innovation….

The adjacent possible is all those things—ideas, words, songs, molecules, genomes, technologies and so on—that are one step away from what actually exists. It connects the actual realization of a particular phenomenon and the space of unexplored possibilities.

But this idea is hard to model for an important reason. The space of unexplored possibilities includes all kinds of things that are easily imagined and expected but it also includes things that are entirely unexpected and hard to imagine. And while the former is tricky to model, the latter has appeared close to impossible.

What’s more, each innovation changes the landscape of future possibilities. So at every instant, the space of unexplored possibilities—the adjacent possible—is changing…

The team has also shown that its model predicts how innovations appear in the real world. The model accurately predicts how edit events occur on Wikipedia pages, the emergence of tags in social annotation systems, the sequence of words in texts, and how humans discover new songs in online music catalogues…

What If Technology Was Aligned To Your Values?

January 4, 2017

A series of three short videos on how technology could better align with your needs/values.

Adding Mess To Enhance Creativity

October 29, 2016

I suffer from occasional insomnia and as a result have often found myself listening to all sorts of talks on the radio in the middle of the night, usually the BBC World Service.

Now and then I’d hear something that really catches my attention, to the extent that it buzzs round my head the following day and I’d try to follow it up (terrible for my insomnia of course). Sometimes I’d be too sleepy though and, frustratingly, only a vague memory of the talk persists.

One recent example was a description of the way the outstandingly popular jazz piano concert by Keith Jarrett in Koln Cathedral came about. I’d bought the double album (vinyl) in the 80’s when I lived in Germany as lots of my friends were talking about it so the topic had a special ring to it anyway.

I’ve now tracked the talk down, a version is available as a TED Talk by Tim Harford. It’s well worth a listen (see above, just 15 mins long). Here are some extracts from the transcript.

Keith Jarrett had inspected the piano and decided it was unplayable and so wanted a new one, plus a tuner.

So Keith Jarrett left. He went and sat outside in his car, leaving Vera Brandes to get on the phone to try to find a replacement piano. Now she got a piano tuner, but she couldn’t get a new piano. And so she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, “Never forget … only for you.”

And so a few hours later, Jarrett did indeed step out onto the stage of the opera house, he sat down at the unplayable piano and began.

Within moments it became clear that something magical was happening. Jarrett was avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It’s an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it’s full of energy, it’s dynamic. And the audience loved it. Audiences continue to love it because the recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history.

It’s one example that Harford gives of the impact of adding ‘mess’ to problems to help come up with more creative and unusual solutions.

Another interesting example (from a social psychology experiment) is the effect of putting ‘strangers’ into team conversations to disturb complacency and promote improved decision making. I’ve actually tried this myself when I was a manager in a large R&D company and it worked quite well (although it naturally raised lots of eyebrows).

He also emphasises that it’s usually the last thing we try to do as it requires additional and often ‘uncomfortable’ work and we may not even feel good about it afterwards!

The three friends and the stranger, even though the stranger didn’t have any extra information, even though it was just a case of how that changed the conversation to accommodate that awkwardness, the three friends and the stranger, they had a 75 percent chance of finding the right answer. That’s quite a big leap in performance.

But I think what’s really interesting is not just that the three friends and the stranger did a better job, but how they felt about it. So when Katherine Phillips interviewed the groups of four friends, they had a nice time, they also thought they’d done a good job. They were complacent. When she spoke to the three friends and the stranger, they had not had a nice time — it’s actually rather difficult, it’s rather awkward …and they were full of doubt. They didn’t think they’d done a good job even though they had. And I think that really exemplifies the challenge that we’re dealing with here.

The trials and tribulations of creativity.

The book related to this topic, Messy, was published in October 2016 and has had very positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (4/5).

I’ve written on ‘oblique strategies’ previously, see here.

More interesting background information on the concert here.

Seven Ingredients of Creativity

July 20, 2016

There are many books published on creativity and innovation each year. Most are written by consultants or journalists who survey large areas and try to distil some general characteristics. A complementary approach is offered when when a hugely creative individual gives his own personal views, based on results within a specific specialised area.

Using the latter approach, the mathematician Cedric Villani offers seven ingredients conducive to the birth of an idea (see short video above):

  1. Documentation, for building on what is known
  2. Motivation incl. early education
  3. Environment eg life in a big bustling city
  4. Communication eg massive collaboration in the future
  5. Constraints, to imaginatively find ways around obstacles
  6. Illumination coupled with meticulous systematic work
  7. Luck and tenacity

Villani (born 5 October 1973) is an outstanding French mathematician and was awarded the Fields Medal in 2010 (the highest accolade you can get for contributions to mathematics).


Cedric Villani (picture from WikiMedia)

From The New Yorker:

Villani has been called the Lady Gaga of French mathematicians. After winning the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor, in 2010, for what his award citation called “proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation,” he embraced a role that many other medalists have dreaded—that of mathematical ambassador, hopscotching from event to event and continent to continent, evangelizing for the discipline. “We are the most hidden of all fields,” he told me. “We are the ones who typically interact the least with the outer world. We are also the field which is most emblematic of revulsion in school.”

The Allure of Physical Books

May 31, 2016

TsundokuSee also here

I made an attempt to move over to ebooks a few years ago, mainly in the hope of realising some more space (I literally have hundreds of physical books, many from when I was an academic).

However, over time, I’ve realised that I really prefer physical ones (except for travel). I was curious why this was so and Michael Hyatt has given 8 reasons:

1. Ebooks Are out of Sight and out of Mind

2. Ebooks Engage Fewer Senses

3. Ebooks Make It Easier to Get Distracted

4. Ebooks Result in Less Retention and Comprehension

5. Ebooks Feel Too Much like Online Reading

6. Ebooks Are More Difficult to Interact With

7. Ebooks Are More Difficult to Navigate

8. Ebooks Provide Less Satisfaction in Finishing

My current approach is to read a new physical book through a local library (which also helps keep it going, so that’s a win-win) to see how good it is. If they don’t have it in stock it’s easy and cheap to request it (even for quite technical books eg through inter-library loans). In fact through the British Library you have access to most books that have been published (at least in the UK).

I’ve found in practice that having my own copy is now not that important and I now only buy a few ‘exceptional’ ones (ie ones that have a large and lasting impact on me).

However, I wonder if this is also generational. I was brought up on physical books but for someone brought up on ebooks (and digital media in general) it might be quite different.


A National Innovation Plan – Call for Ideas

May 6, 2016


From the UK Department of Business, Innovation & Skills:

Innovation can transform lives. It can help to address our biggest societal and economic challenges such as energy supply, food security and managing the impacts of demographic change. It enables businesses to develop new ideas, products and services, create new jobs and export opportunities.

The UK has a long and strong history in science and innovation, and a world-leading reputation, being ranked second in the Global Innovation Index in 2015. But there can be no complacency about the global challenges we face and the increasing levels of competition. At the same time, the nature of innovation is changing towards greater use of digitally connected technologies and data. This is changing how goods and services are produced and delivered, and transforming established markets. This survey seeks views on how the UK should further develop its innovation framework and system. This will help us to develop a National Innovation Plan.

See here.

The call ends on the 30th May 2016.

Gore Vidal and the People’s Airplane

March 27, 2016


Vidal with President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, 1961 (credit Everett/Rex)

I recently skimmed through a biography of Gore Vidal after seeing it on display at the local library.

An intimate, authorized yet frank biography of Gore Vidal (1925-2012), one of the most accomplished, visible and controversial American novelists and cultural figures of the past century.

At a similar time, I also happened to see a good documentary on him on Sky Arts.

As is often the case, the childhood of these exceptional people is also quite exceptional (I’m always hoping they’ll be mundane, they rarely are).

Here’s a revealing example (see video above):

In November 1933, Gene Vidal announced the Bureau’s plan to make owning a personal aircraft as commonplace as owning a Model-T Ford. The Bureau invited aircraft manufacturers to design a simple, safe vehicle that would sell for a target price of $700. Unfortunately, the manufacturers never thought that was feasible, even though at least one of the innovations that came out of the contest—tricycle landing gear with a steerable nose wheel—did end up influencing future designs.

In 1936, Vidal and 10-year-old Gore were filmed at Washington D.C.’s Bolling Field, demonstrating how easy it was to control one of the competition winners, the two-seat Hammond Model Y (a later version of which is in the Smithsonian collection).

As they say, “supremely confident at an early age”.

Some memorable Vidal quotes:

“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

“Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an IQ of 60.”

“A good deed never goes unpunished.”

“All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.”

“Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.”

“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”