Monday, September 07, 2015

Creators need armored underwear

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, creativity, sociology

Build a better mouse trap, and the world will beat a path to your door – with tar and feathers. More simply put, "No good deed goes unpunished."

In How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, Kevin Ashton fully exposes and expounds the greatest hypocrisy we face: Nearly everyone loudly touts their allegiance to "innovation" and "creativity", but in the face of any truly new thing, they will hide, protest, or punish the "perpetrator". The book is filled with stories of what really happened to many inventors and innovators. Very few received anything like acceptance, at least during the first few decades after making their discoveries known. Dr. Joseph Lister showed that requiring doctors to wash their hands after every visit with a patient nearly eliminated hospital-borne infections. Even today, there's only a 40% chance that your doctor washes up before examining you, unless you vociferously insist. Dr. Lister's predecessor, Ignaz Semmelweis, was driven to suicide by those opposed to his discoveries.

Why do we create? Why this continual drive for making something new? It is built into us. To be human is to create, or at least, to desire, yearn and long to create. We are defined by our tools. Humans are not the only tool-using animals, but we are the only animals that keep modifying and refining out tools, making more progress in tool development during one lifetime than chimpanzees or ravens have made in tens of thousands of years. In the opening chapter of the book, we read that, prior to about 50,000 years ago (70,000 according to other accounts I have read), innovations in toolmaking occurred over spans of thousands of years. Something changed in the human brain, and there followed an explosion of improvement and modification of human technology that continues to accelerate. Ashton's core thesis is that we are all creators, creation is common, and that the notion that only geniuses can be creators is so false that he denies there is any true meaning to the word "genius". We must all create, or die. In a late chapter he points to stifled creativity as a feature in many kinds of addiction and criminality.

Yet, as Jesus said (Luke 5:39), "No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is good enough.'" No matter how much people may say they value creativity and innovation, their instinctive reaction to anything new is, "It was good enough for grandpa and it's good enough for me." (Apologies to the composer of "Gimme That Old Time Religion"). You might say, "Oh, how about Einstein? He did Relativity and all that stuff, and got a Nobel Prize, and everyone loves him." He had a couple of lucky breaks, and got four articles published in 1905, giving him the stature to generalize his discoveries about Relativity in 1915, but his work is roundly misunderstood by most people who have not done the work to understand it, and every year many "private researchers" try to get articles published that challenge some aspect of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics.

Not all innovators are "punished". The book opens with the story of a 12-year-old slave on a French island who discovered how to pollinate the Vanilla plant artificially. "Edmond's Gesture" is still used, by workers with small enough hands. Only in its native area can the plant be pollinated naturally by a small green bee that lives nowhere else. But there was no assurance that Edmond would get credit for his discovery. Only persistent protection and advocacy by his owner assured that the "Gesture" would be associated with Edmond and nobody else. Later in the book we read of the team that developed America's first fighter jet, in about five months! Only thanks to a particularly clear-headed leader and his "Show Me" principle was it even possible.

Before going on, I want to take partial issue with one portion from the second chapter, that purports to show there is no value to the notion of "incubation." Various studies are remarked upon, in which it was shown that giving people various creative tasks, and having them take a break of 15 or 30 minutes in the middle, did not improve the results, and usually hindered them. I am not sure that my experience falls under the title "incubation", but here is a practice upon which I built a career of nearly 40 years as a software developer:
When faced with a conundrum, I'd work at it for a day, and if I didn't see how to make it function properly, I would step back and think through every aspect of the problem, building a kind of flowchart in my mind. Then I would go home, do whatever needed doing there, and sleep on it. Some time between 3 and 6 AM I would awake with a critical idea, and that would directly solve, or lead to the solution of, the key problem with that part of the software. I called it, "throwing it over the wall to the right brain".
I think the studies of "incubation" did not give nearly enough time for incubation to work, nor were the problems to be solved sufficiently difficult. Half a day (including the overnight sleep) seems to be required, at least the way my own mind works. By the above practice I produced a great deal of software that nobody else had been able to write. Oh, and just by the way, I was also a very unusual computer programmer in this regard: I always documented my work in internal "comment lines" that typically numbered about 1/3 of the total bulk of the code. This saved a great deal of time when I needed to re-use some code later and needed to remember how to hook it up. I once had a boss who gave me a file of subroutines (modules) that he had written related to tracing contour lines on maps. I began reading through the FORTRAN code, and some things were very obscure, so I was having a hard time even figuring out how to pass data into and out of the modules. There was not a single comment line in many, many pages of FORTRAN code! I asked him why, and he responded, "Can't you read FORTRAN?" I said, "If I were your supervisor, you'd have just been fired." Of course I can read FORTRAN, but every programmer uses clever constructions that make sense during the writing, but are very hard even for the original programmer to decode later. I decoded his code and was able to make good use of it, but it could have taken much less time had he been a thoughtful programmer. 'Nuff about that.

Right along with Ashton's thesis that we all create, he dwells much on the incremental nature of innovation. Remember Einstein? One of his huge innovations was Special Relativity, based on the speed of light as an absolute limit to motion. It includes things like time dilation (a speeding traveler ages more slowly), relativistic mass increase (things get harder to push as velocity increases), and length compression (faster yardsticks are shorter). All this from his thought experiments about riding a light beam or driving a very fast carriage with a lamp and clock aboard. But the points just listed are based on others' work, particularly that by Lorentz, who was building on work by others. Einstein had some key insights, it is true, but the power of his system was bringing all the parts together, and showing how they worked together. In a small way, I've had a similar experience. I have published a few articles in journals. The one of which I am most proud uses methods from astronomy and civil engineering, plus a 200-year-old technique first published by Leonard Euler. How many recent scientific articles have you seen that cite literature from the 1700's?

The chapter "Chains of Consequence" trace out a few key innovations, including the chain of innovation leading to the aluminum soda can, which can be produced for a few cents (of the 25 cents you spend for a cheap brand of soda, or the dollar you spend for a Coca-Cola). He shows the origin of all the known ingredients in the syrup that is added to carbonated water to make that Coke. Later on, Ashton even digs into Isaac Newton's statement about standing on the shoulders of giants. Similar statements were made for generations before Newton. We find that there are no giants. Instead, we are standing atop a pyramid of people like us, who made one innovation after another after another.

This reminds me of a joke about engineers and mathematicians. An engineer is brought to a room in which he sees a saucepan containing water to his right and a stove, already lit, across the room in front of him. A piece of paper next to the pan says, "Heat the water". He picks up the pan and places it on the stove burner. Then he is taken to another room with the same setup, but the pan with the water is to his left. He picks it up and places it on the stove burner. Now a mathematician is taken to the first room, re-set to the original condition. He does exactly what the engineer did. Then, when taken to the second room, he picks up the pan, but sets it to his right, saying to the person who brought him, "I already solved that problem." Of course, this sounds silly and we snicker at mathematicians, but the mathematician's principle is how we actually innovate. Based on all the problems already solved, we find an unsolved problem, and add just a little to a known method that had almost solved it. You can get a PhD for doing that.

Politics rears its ugly head in a chapter on credit. According to this Wikipedia article, as of 2014, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 817 men, 47 women, and 25 organizations. Only 15 women have won in Science, and two of them were Marie (twice) and Irène (once) Curie. Quite a number of male laureates won the prize for work not only performed, but invented, by women. This opens up quite a can of worms, so I'll leave it there, reported but not editorialized.

We do not see everything, but a most egregious example of not seeing because of not expecting is found in the saga of Helicobacter pylori, the organism that causes ulcers. Doctors looked at samples of ulcerated tissue from stomach and duodenal ulcers for more than 100 years, and didn't note the bacteria there. Some early "authority" had decreed the stomach too acidic to allow bacterial survival, let alone growth, so every single time bacteria were seen, they were ignored as "contamination". Not so the doctor who finally believed his eyes, and a colleague who was willing to "let the data talk." Ashton doesn't report this, but as I recall, Barry Marshall had to drink water laced with the bacterium, get an ulcer, then cure it with antibiotics, to convince even a few of his colleagues that H. pylori is the true cause of ulcers, not "stress". And it is now known that hundreds of species of bacteria inhabit our stomachs.

What we expect can determine what we see, and what we don't see. Many years ago I went with friends to a road cut in eastern Nevada, where they said we could collect trilobites. We stopped, got out of the car, and I looked at the weathered rock in the road cut. It looked like grainy limestone with a kind of salt-and-pepper texture. I said, "How do we find the trilobites?" One of the guys put his finger next to a black blob half an inch long and said, "Look closely". Suddenly I saw them. Thousands of them. Nearly every black blob on that hillside was a small trilobite! Having seen one, I had "eyes for them". Similarly, on the first fossil collecting trip that my wife and I brought our young son along—he was 5 years old—the leader started the day by showing us several specimens of shellfish that had been found there (it was an abandoned quarry). He pointed to one, saying, "This one is rare and hard to find." Our boy looked for a moment, then trotted off. He came back in 15 minutes or so with three of them. We joked that, of course it helped that his eyes were only 3 feet from the ground! But he was the only person to find any of that species that day.

Innovation is built into us. The hard part is getting over resistance to innovation. We need the new, but we fear it. My father calls it the Moses Principle: in his words, "It takes 40 years in the wilderness for all the old-timers to die off, before the next generation will embrace something new."

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