Monthly Archives: February 2012

Innovation and the Bell Labs Miracle

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Another article on the importance of a physical space, and specifically proximity, to successful innovation. I see this every day in the interactions I have with the people I work with. Proximity, “bumping into people,” is everything. If you want interesting things to happen, put a bunch of interesting people together and let them interact.

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Brainstorming Doesn’t Work — and What Does

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The article defines brainstorming as a bland, “there are no bad ideas” sort of thing, and says that it is less productive than people working separately and then bringing their ideas together after they’ve listed them out.

In contrast, it says that a more contentious form of brainstorming,where participants challenge each other, is more productive, and especially so when measured in terms of productivity after the meeting: those groups were more productive by a certain percent as groups, but the individuals were several times more creative when asked for more ideas after the meeting.

It turns out that groups are most likely to be creative/productive when they are neither too raw nor too ossified. Groups need some experience of each other to develop the comfort necessary to be open with their criticisms, but not so familiar that there are no sparks.

Most interesting to me, however, was the description of a creative space, specifically the descriptions of the atrium at Pixar, which Steve Jobs specifically designed to foster people running into each other, and building 20 at MIT, which just happened to engineer chance meetings. I’ve seen first hand how a workspace can encourage or restrict interaction, and the description of building 20 fascinates me. If I were designing a workspace I think I’d start with a warehouse and encourage something like the City Museum to develop.

Why Do Some People Learn Faster? | Wired Science

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In You can get smarter — and by telling you this, I’m helping you do it I described how in studies it was found that, just by listening to a three-hour presentation on the malleability of intelligence, you can affect your learning ability. Now it turns out that the effect can be triggered and observed as a result of just one sentence. Allow me to lay this out step by step:

Intelligence is not fixed.
You can improve your mental performance by trying harder.
Believing that you can do this improves your ability to do this.
Small inputs can influence your mindset, and therefore your effort, and therefore your ability.
This article is an input that encourages you to believe you can be smarter if you try harder.
Now stop thinking that you are smart or stupid, and think about how hard you work, and try harder.

I have just made you smarter. You’re welcome.

How Much Is an Astronaut’s Life Worth?

If we could put a man on the Moon, why can’t we put a man on the Moon?

Starting with near zero space capability in 1961, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put men on our companion world in eight years. Yet despite vastly superior technology and hundreds of billions of dollars in subsequent spending, the agency has been unable to send anyone else farther than low Earth orbit ever since. 

Why? Because we insist that our astronauts be as safe as possible.

From an article in Reason Magazine.

To NASA: it’s “To boldly go,” and, you’re doing it wrong. To add another Kirk quote, “There are certain things men must do to remain men.” And NASA, you’re not doing them. 

I’m not sure what odds I would accept if I were going on a Mars mission. I’m pretty sure I’d take a .1% chance of failure/death. But I’m certain there are people out there who would accept much greater risk than that, and as the article says, we’re committing statistical murder, as well as shortchanging the human race, by not letting those people take their shot at glory. 

There was a time when NASA understood that in order to achieve the mission you mitigate risk rather than running away from it. Many years will pass before going to space is as safe as going to New York, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go.

How long should we expect to live?

In Life expectancy in the 1800s not as bad as reported, I said that, “…in 1850 a [20 year-old] man could expect to live to 60.1. In 2004, that same man could expect to live to 76.7.” Improved health care has extended our lives, and increased our ability to prolong life in difficult circumstances. In Our unrealistic attitudes about death, through a doctor’s eyes, the Washington Post reports on the increasing tendency for people to eke out every last minute of life possible.

In How Doctors Die, Ken Murray MD discusses how doctors tend to shun extraordinary life-extending techniques once it is clear their time has come. I plan to do the same.

I’ve seen the inside of a hospital, having been through a near-fatal motorcycle accident and spent a month in an ICU. It was decidedly unpleasant, but necessary. I’ve had a great twenty years since then, time I wouldn’t have had if I weren’t willing to put up with having a tube up my nose to feed me, a tube down my throat to breathe for me, and a guy coming in every few hours to suction the mucus out of my lungs.

Even now I would go through it again, if the expectation were that I could be cured and live to my expected 70 or 80 years. If the goal is to allow me to continue with my normal life, that’s one thing; but I don’t intend to die to the sound of a ventilator and a heart monitor.