The J Curve

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Spooks and Goblins

As it’s Halloween here, I got to thinking about strange beliefs and their origins. Do you think that the generation of myths and folkloric false beliefs has declined over time?

In addition to the popularization of the scientific method, I wonder if photography lessened the promulgation of tall tales. Before photography, if someone told you a story about ghosts in the haunted house or the beast on the hill, you could chose to believe them or check for yourself. There was no way to say, “show me a picture of that Yeti or Loch Ness Monster, and then I’ll believe you.”

And, if so, will we regress as we have developed the ability to modify and fabricate photos and video?

For our class on genetic free speech, Lessig used a pre-print of Posner’s new book, Catastophe: Risk and Response. Posner relates the following statistics on American adults:
• 39% believe astrology is scientific (astrology, not astronomy).
• 33% believe in ghosts and communication with the dead.

Ponder that for a moment. One out of every three U.S. adults believes in ghosts. Who knows what their kids think.

People’s willingness to believe untruths relates to the ability of the average person to reason critically about reality. Here are some less amusing statistics on American adults:
• 46% deny that human beings evolved from earlier animal species.
• 49% don’t know that it takes a year for the earth to revolve around the sun.
• 67% don't know what a molecule is.
• 80% can't understand the NY Times Tuesday science section.

Posner concludes: “It is possible that science is valued by most Americans as another form of magic.” This is a wonderful substrate for false memes and a new generation of bogeymen.

Gotta go… It’s time to trick-or-treat… =)

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The Photo Blog

For those of you who are not receiving the Feedburner RSS Feed of this blog, you are missing the whimsical and visual postings. So, for Halloween, I thought I’d post links to some of the interesting photos and commentary:

• Fun with: Bush, Kennedy, Gates, Jobs, Moore, and Jamis in Japanese.

• Observations from the first screening of Pixar’s new film, The Incredibles.

• Beautiful Scenes from: Estonia, the Canadian Rockies, Singapore, Montage (Beach), and The Internet.

• Odd Photos: Halloween Horses, Climbing the Dish at Stanford, Extreme Macro Zoom, Elephants, Aquasaurs and Ecospheres, the Technorati Bobsled Team, and the NanoCar spoof (which continues to fool people even this week).

• It came from TED: Visual Material Puzzles (another) and the DeepFlight submarine.

• And, of course, Rockets, Detached Heads, Funky Pink Divas and Robot Women.

An eclectic mix…. Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 18, 2004

Defining “Don’t be Evil”

Back in 1995, it was easy to rig search engine results. Some search engines would actually tell you how they parsed just the first 100 words on the page. And they would let you submit pages to be crawled for fast feedback on how page content modifications lead to search results. Stacking white keywords on a white background at the top of the page did the trick for a couple years.

Then Overture invented the pay for placement model, which Google disdained as “evil” and then adopted as its primary revenue model. Google got around their own evil epithet by clearly delineating paid search results from unpaid. This has been their holy line in the sand. From the Business Journal: "'Don't be evil' is the corporate mantra around Google…. When their competitors began mixing paid placement listings with actual search results, Google stayed pure, drawing a clear line between search results and advertising.”

So Overture and Google have made search engine results a BIG business, and several “consultants” sell advice on how to spike results, but their tricks are short lived.

So it was with some amusement, that I found a way to easily spike certain Google search results. This has worked for a few months now, and it will be interesting to see how long it lasts after this post… ;-)

A reader of this blog pointed out to me that my Blogger Profile gets the top two Google search results for IL-4 smallpox, a genetically modified bioweapon. This is when my blog had no content whatsoever in this area (it now does). My profile is also number one for genetically modified pathogen policy, over thousands of more relevant pages.

And my profile is number one for several areas of whimsy: Techno downbeat music, and Nanotech core memory boards, and Artificial life with female moths, and Viral marketing with Technorati, among others. (disclosure: we invested in Technorati and Overture). Of course, longer phrases are easier to spike, and not everything works for a top placement, but this still seems way too easy.

Why is this interesting? Well, Google owns Blogger, and they get to decide how to fold blog pages into search results. It’s not obvious how to rank a vapid Blogger profile page versus real content… or a competing blog service for that matter. And as Google offers more services like Blogger and Orkut, it will be interesting to see how they promote them in their own search results.

Every person I have met from Google is fantastic, and I don’t think this quirk is an overt strategy passed down from management (and I presume it will disappear as more people exploit it). On the other hand, this is the kind of product tying you would expect from Microsoft. And it begs the question, can a mantra to not do evil infuse into the corporate DNA and continue to drive culture as a company scales?

There's also the question of internal consistency. Thinking back to the holy line in the sand about disclosing advertising in search results, does it somehow not count if you own it?

Google has taken on the challenge of defining evil, which begs for an operational constitution. Neal Stephenson proposes one meta rule: in a climate of moral relativism the only sin is hypocrisy.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Childish Scientists

In the comments to the Celebrate the Child-Like Mind posting, a wonderful quote came from Argentina:

"I know not what I appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore” – Sir Isaac Newton

Of course, this observation does not apply just to the Newtonian physicists. The September issue of Discover Magazine observes: “Einstein had the genius to view space and time like a child,” as with his thought experiments of riding a light-beam. "His breakthrough realization of the relativity of time turned on a series of mental cartoons featuring trains and clocks. General relativity, his theory of gravity, started off as a meditation on what happens when a man falls off a roof."

And the fantastic physicist Feynman (the first person to propose nanotechnology in his 1960 lecture “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom”) is especially child-like: "When Richard Feynman faced a problem he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks and saying, 'Now, what have we got here?'" – The Science of Creativity, p.102.

For a humorous aside, the T.H.O.N.G. protesters remixed Feynman as "Plenty of Room at This Bottom."

Lest we think that childishness is reserved for physicists, I am reminded of my meeting with James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. His breakthrough technique: fiddling with metal models and doodling the fused rings of adenine on paper. I like this summary: “Watson can himself be quite the double helix – a sharp scientific mind intertwined with a child-like innocence.”

How far can this generalize? In Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, the author “finds a childlike component in each of their creative breakthroughs.”

This final quote reminds me of a wonderful echo of Michael Schrage’s claim that reality is the opposite of play:

“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
– Albert Einstein

Monday, October 11, 2004

Notes from EDAY 2004

On Saturday, IDEO mixed some fun and play with some great lectures:

• Stanford Prof. Bob Sutton: “Sometimes the best management is no management at all. Managers consistently overestimate their impact on performance. And once you manage someone, you immediately think more highly of them.” When Chuck House wanted to develop the oscilloscope for HP, David Packard told him to abandon the project. Chuck went on vacation” and came back with $2MM in orders. Packard later gave him an award inscribed with an accolade for “extraordinary contempt and defiance beyond the normal call of engineering.” When Leakey chose Jane Goodall, he “wanted someone with a mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory.” Sutton’s conclusion for innovative work: “Hire slow learners of the organizational code, people who are oblivious to social cues and have very high self-esteem. They will draw on past individual experience or invent new methods.”

• Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the Institute for Play, showed a fascinating series of photos of animals playing (ravens sliding on their backs down an icy slope, monkeys rolling snowballs and playing leapfrog, and various inter-species games). “Warm-blooded animals play; fish and reptiles do not. Warm blood stores energy, and a cortex allows for choice and REM sleep.”

Brown has also studied the history of mass murderers, and found “normal play behavior was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, anti-social men. The opposite of ‘play’ is not ‘work’. It’s depression.”

“We are designed to play. We need 3D motion. The smarter the creature the more they play. The sea squirt auto-digests its brain when it becomes sessile.”

• Michael Schrage, MIT Media Lab Fellow, defined play as “the riskless competition between speculative choices. If it’s predictable, it’s not play. The opposite of play is not what is serious, but what is real. The paradox is that you can’t be serious if you don’t play.”

“We need to treat our tools as toys and our toys as tools. Our simulations, models and prototypes need to play.”

Friday, October 08, 2004

More Things Change

I am at the World Technology Summit today. Just finished a panel on accelerating change, where John Smart made the following provocative points:

• Technology learns 100 million times faster than you do.
• Humans are selective catalysts, not controllers, of technological evolutionary development.
• 80-90% of your paycheck comes from automation.
• Catastrophes accelerate societal immunity. The network always wins.

If you want to take a deep dive into these topics with him, John is hosting Accelerating Change 2004 at Stanford, Nov 6-7. He is offering a $50 discount to readers of this blog (discount code "AC2004-J" with all caps).

Update: For those not subscribing to the Feedburner RSS feed, here are some new photos from WTS 2004 and the Awards Dinner.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Celebrate the Child-Like Mind

Celebrate immaturity. Play every day. Fail early and often.

From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind. They are playful, open minded and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure.

On Thursday, I went to a self-described "play-date" at David Kelley's house. The founder of IDEO is setting up an interdisciplinary "D-School" for design and creativity at Stanford. David and Don Norman noted that creativity is killed by fear, referencing experiments that contrast people’s approach to walking along a balance beam flat on the ground (playful and expressive) and then suspended in the air (fearful and rigid). They are hosting an open conference on Saturday, appropriately entitled The Power of Play.

In science, meaningful disruptive innovation occurs at the inter-disciplinary interstices between formal academic disciplines. Perhaps the D-school will go further, to “non-disciplined studies” – stripped of systems vernacular, stricture, and the constraints of discipline.

What is so great about the “child-like” mind? Looking across the Bay to Berkeley, I highly recommend Alison Gopnik’s Scientist in the Crib to any geek about to have a child. Here is one of her key conclusions: "Babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new.... They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments…. In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally."

Much of the human brain’s power derives from its massive synaptic interconnectivity. I spoke with Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute last night. He observed that across species, synapses/neuron fan-out grows as a power law with brain mass.

At the age of 2 to 3 years old, children hit their peak with 10x the synapses and 2x the energy burn of an adult brain. And it’s all downhill from there.

Cognitive Decline by Age

This UCSF Memory and Aging Center graph shows that the pace of cognitive decline is the same in the 40’s as in the 80’s. We just notice more accumulated decline as we get older, especially when we cross the threshold of forgetting most of what we try to remember.

But we can affect this progression. Prof. Merzenich at UCSF has found that neural plasticity does not disappear in adults. It just requires mental exercise. Use it or lose it. We have to get out of the mental ruts that career tracks and academic “disciplines” can foster. Blogging is a form of mental exercise. I try to let this one take a random walk of curiosities and child-like exploration.

Bottom line: Embrace lifelong learning. Do something new. Physical exercise is repetitive; mental exercise is eclectic.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Quote of the Day

"Microsoft has had clear competitors in the past.
It's good that we have museums to document them."
- Bill Gates, today at the Computer History Museum (former SGI HQ)

At the reception, Gates mingled in front of the wooden Apple 1, with a banner over his head: “The Two Steves.”