December 29, 2010

Where good ideas come from by Steven Johnson.

Where good ideas come from by Steven Johnson.
The natural history of innovation.

[This book stresses the importance of the network. Completely different outlook from ‘wisdom of the crowds and says, it is the wisdom of the person in the crowd makes it big rather than the wisdom of the crowd itself. I did prove it in my series of projects (me vs. groups) where the group’s output comes down to the average of everyone in the group’s performance. Secondly, the author compared coral reef to big cities for creating an ‘ecosystem’ for generating new ideas]

Scientists and animal lovers observed that as life gets bigger, it slows down the heart rate. Flies live for hours or days; elephants live for half-centuries (Female elephants give birth at intervals of about every 5 years, with a gestation period of 2 years; can bear up to 6 babies in a lifetime). A horse might be five hundred times slower than the rabbits, yet its pulse certainly wasn’t five hundred times slower than the rabbits. Swiss scientist Max Kleiber and his peers analyzed the clearer the equation: metabolism scales to mass to the negative quarter power. The math is simple enough. you take the square root of 1000 which is approx. 31 and take square root of 31 which is approx. 5.5. This means, that a cow which is roughly 1000 times heavier than a woodchuck, will on average live 5.5 times longer and have a heart rate that is 5.5 time slower than woodchuck.

Over the ensuing decades, Kleiber’s law was extended down to the microscopic scale of bacteria and cell metabolism; even plants were found to obey negative quarter-power scaling in their patters of growth. Several years ago, the theoretical physicist Geoffrey West decided to investigate whether Klieber’s law applied to human build cities. Did the ‘metabolism’ of urban life slow down as cities grew in size? The result was, ‘A city that was ten times larger than its neighbor wasn’t ten times more innovative, but 17 times more innovative. A metropolis fifty times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative. the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of hundred thousand.

When we look back to the original innovation engine on earth, we find two essential properties. First, a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements possible. And second, a ‘randomizing’ environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system. On earth, the story of life’s creativity begins with a liquid, high-density network: connection-hungry carbon atoms colliding with other elements in the primordial soup. The molecules they formed mark the point at which chemistry and physics gave way to biology.

Why are we so confident about carbon’s essential role in creating living things? The answer has to do with the core properties of the carbon atom itself. Carbon has four valance electrons residing in the outermost shell of the atom which for complicated reason makes it uniquely talented at forming connections with other atoms, particularly with Hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulfur - and crucially with other carbon atoms. These six atoms make up 99 percent of the dry weight of all living organisms in earth. Those four valance bonds give carbon a strong propensity for forming elaborate chains and rings of polymers.

Computer scientist Christopher Langton sometimes use the metaphor of different phases of matter - gas, liquid and solid - to describe innovative systems. In a gas, chaos rules; new configurations are possible, but they are constantly being disrupted and torn apart by the volatile nature of the environment. In a solid, the opposite happens; the patterns have stability, but they are incapable of change. But a liquid network creates a more promising environment for the system to explore the adjacent possible. New configurations can emerge through random connections formed between molecules.

When the first market towns emerged in Italy, they did not magically create some higher-level group consciousness. They simply widened the pool of minds that could come up with and share good ideas. This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It is not the network itself is smart, it is the individual get smarter because they are connected to the network.

The waking brain has an appetite for the generative chaos that rules in the dream state. Neurons share info by passing chemicals across the synaptic gap that connects then, but they also communicate via a more indirect channel.: they sync their firing rates. For a reason that are not entirely understood, large clusters of neurons will regularly fire at the exact same frequency (imagine a discordant jazz band, each member following a different time signature and tempo, that suddenly snaps into a waltz at precisely 120 beats per min). This is what neuroscientists call phase-locking. There is a kind of beautiful synchrony to phase-locking - millions of neurons pulsing in perfect rhythm, But brain also seems to require the opposite: regular periods of electrical chaos, where neurons are completely out of sync with each other (noise period). Robert Thatcher a brain scientist decided to study the vacillation between phase-lock and noise in the brains of dozens of children. He notes that nose period lasted in average 55 milliseconds. The kids who has more noise period has higher IQ (every extra millisecond spent in the chaotic mode - noise period- added as much as twenty IQ points. The phase-lock mode is where the brain executes an established plan or habit and the chaos mode is where the brain assimilates new information, explores strategies for responding to a changed situation. In this sense, the chaos mode is a kind of background dreaming.

Reproduction without sex is a simple matter of cloning; you take your own cells, make a copy and pass that on to your decedents. It does not sound like much fun to our mammalian ears, but it is a strategy that has worked out very well for billions of years for bacteria. Asexual reproduction is faster and more energy efficient than the sexual variety: you don’t need to go to the trouble of finding a partner in order to create the next generation. Asexual organisms reproduce on average twice as quickly as their sexual counterparts in part because without a male/female distinction, every organism is capable of producing offspring directly. But evolution is not just a game of sheer quantity. Overpopulation poses its own dangers and a community of organisms with identical DNA makes a prime target for parasites or predators. For this reason natural selection also rewards innovation, life’s tendency to discover new ecological niches, new sources of energy.

The water flea Daphnia under normal conditions Daphnia reproduce asexually with females producing a brood of identical copies of themselves (females) in a tiny pouch. But when conditions get tough, when droughts or other ecological disturbance happen, or when winter rolls in, the water fleas make a remarkable transformation: they start producing males and switch to reproducing sexually. This switch is attributable to the sturdier eggs produced by sexual reproduction which are more capable of surviving the long months of winter. This strategy of switching back and forth between asexual and sexual goes by the name ‘heterogammy” and while it is unusual many different organisms have adopted it - Slime molds, algae, and aphids have all evolved heterogamous reproductive strategies.

Private serendipity can be cultivated by technology. For more than a decade now, I have been creating a private digital archive of quotes that I have found intriguing, my twenty-first-century version of commonplace book. Some of them are passages that I have transcribed from books or articles; others were clipped directly from web pages. Thanks to Google books and the Kindle, copying and storing interesting quotes from a book has grown far simpler). I keep all these quotes in a database using a program called DEVONthink where I also store my own writing. DEVONthink features a cleaver algorithm that detects subtle semantic connections between distinct passages or text. These tools are smart enough to get around the classic search-engine failing of excessive specificity.

Google and other search engines made easier to find what you are looking for - it is efficient, but dull. You miss time consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves of pulling down a book because the title interests you or the binding... Looking for something and being surprised by what you find - even if it is not what you set out looking for - is one of life’s great pleasure. and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience. Old style browsing does indeed lead to unplanned discoveries.

There are seven elements in order to understand the history of innovation.

The adjacent possible -
Liquid networks
The slow hunch

Words from the book
Serendipity \ ser-ən-
ˈdi-pə-tē\ is a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated
Hunch - an intuitive reckoning /a collective intelligence decision making system
Heterogammy - Switching back and forth between sexual and asexual reproduction.
Exaptation - The utilization of a structure or feature for a function other than that for which it was developed through natural selection.

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