Reinventing ourselves

November 30, 2008

Evidence of tool making has been found at archaeological sites dating from more than a million years ago. For most of these million+ years these tools evolved very little; humans were happy to go on flaking and chipping in the same way that their ancestors had done. This contrasts sharply with the frenetic rate of change we see in the twenty-first century.

The great bulk of inventions takes place far away from university research laboratories – very little is found by controlled experiment. Of course there are inventions that are the result of a very deliberate process – the nuclear programme or the space race. Nevertheless, most invention occurs in the everyday world.

Often these inventions are the result of serendipity. Penicillin is one that springs to mind. And even when the inventors had a use in mind the actual use of the product is totally different. The phonograph was invented by Edison as a way for people to preserve the last words of dying people and recording books for blind people to hear books. He was initially horrified at the way it was being for something so vulgar as listening to music. The Internet was designed by the U.S. army for communication after a nuclear war. The humble zipper was invented to replace shoelaces and not buttons and its inventor, Whitcom Judson died in 1909, believing that his invention might never find a practical application.

It is necessary to make a distinction between invention and innovation. Jan Fagerberg neatly summarised the difference:

An important distinction is normally made between invention and innovation. Invention is the first occurrence of an idea for a new product or process, while innovation is the first attempt to carry it out into practice.” We tend to fetishize the invention but in fact maybe the innovation is what really counts. The rise of coca-cola cannot be explained merely by referring to its inventor, John Pemberton. Where would McDonald’s be without Ray Kroc? Critics tend to minimise the significance of Bill Gates, saying he copied from Apple. But what Bill Gates did was to get millions of people using computers. This difference between invention and innovation helps to explain the sad fact that many talented inventors died in poverty while their inventions went on to change the world and make other people extremely rich.

            Invention is only the first step – just ask the Chinese. The list of Chinese inventions is impressive: cast iron, gunpowder, paper, printing (woodblock printing and movable type), silk and toilet paper and that’s just scratching the surface. But from the fifteenth century onwards they were to be overtaken by Europe. The case of gunpowder is fascinating. Originating in China it was used mainly for ceremonial purposes. China had a stable political system; Europe on the other was competitive fractious and gunpowder was too valuable to be left for fireworks. A state that refused to use it would soon find itself overwhelmed by its neighbours.

            Why then has Europe been so successful while China, which invented so much has been left behind? Partly these things are cyclical; countries and empires rise and fall. However, there are more factors. Europe has had growth-fostering social institutions (the rule of law relatively free markets etc).  Innovation and invention have been rewarded, encouraging others to try to emulate this success. The scientific method was an indispensable tool in the creation of prosperity, enabling an innovator to think rationally about solving a particular problem. This way of perceiving the world is not universal. In his book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes points out that societies in which innovation is seen as a sinful disruption of the proper cosmological order, or in which individuals are punished or shunned for thinking differently than others, are unlikely to experience innovation.     

            What makes an invention successful? There are no golden rules. It is not necessarily the best product that is adopted. We often hear the examples of Sony and their Betamax and Apple and its Mac as examples of superior products that were undermined by not having open systems. But recently Apple has reinvented itself using two devices that are basically closed. Personally, I am not a fan of Apple as I prefer inclusive systems but it is impossible to deny their success. The best invention does not necessarily triumph. The QWERTY keyboard is the classic case. There is an alternative keyboard layout, “Dvorak” which  is said to be superior, faster and more ergonomic but QWERTY was first and now it would be too complicated to change.

What all this shows is that invention is not enough. That is when the real work begins. This applies to inventors and to countries. Just because you have a lead in one moment doesn’t mean that you will be able to maintain this edge. We have seen the serendipity involved in so many inventions but we need a society capable of taking advantage of this luck and rewarding those individuals who help to make our world a better place to live in.


Some quotes about inventing

November 30, 2008

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. Ralph Waldo Emerson


There have been three great inventions since the beginning of time: fire, the wheel, and central banking  Will Rogers


One might think that the money value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But… I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success. Thomas A. Edison


If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself. Josephine Cochrane, who tired of her servants breaking her expensive china, invented the modern dishwasher in 1886,


I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success… Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.  Nikola Tesla


All of the biggest technological inventions created by man – the airplane, the automobile, the computer – says little about his intelligence, but speaks volumes about his laziness. Mark Kennedy


Necessity, the mother of invention.  George Farquhar


Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship… the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth. Peter Drucker


Always remember that someone, somewhere is making a product that will make your product obsolete. Georges Doriot


Let’s drive not just breakthroughs in new products, but new ways to give more and more people access to these inventions and their benefits. This is a broad and important mission, and I believe we all have a part to play in it. Bill Gates 


Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it. Steve Jobs




My Media week 30/11/08

November 30, 2008

I recommend this video from YouTube about emergent order and the web.


The new Cicero. The Guardian had an article about Barack Obama’s speeches and the ancient rhetorical devices he uses.


BBC Radio 4’s Analysis has a podcast about what will happen in the aftermath of the current financial crisis. It comes with a transcript and is available until Thursday


Finally The Daily Mash has a satirical piece about an Apple iPhone advert.


100 greatest films

November 30, 2008

French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma have compiled a list of the 100 greatest films of all time. It is published this month in an illustrated book and was put together by 76 French film directors, critics and industry executives. None of the films are British, echoing a remark made by the famous French director, (and a former editor of the magazine) Francois Truffaut:

The British cinema is made of dullness and reflects a submissive lifestyle, where enthusiasm, warmth, and zest are nipped in the bud. A film is a born loser just because it is English.


Anyway, here are the 100 films:


  1. Citizen Kane – Orson Welles
  2. The Night of the Hunter – Charles Laughton
  3. The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) – Jean Renoir
  4. Sunrise – Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
  5. L’Atalante – Jean Vigo
  6. M – Fritz Lang
  7. Singin’ in the Rain – Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
  8. Vertigo – Alfred Hitchcock
  9. Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) – Marcel Carné
  10. The Searchers – John Ford
  11. Greed – Erich von Stroheim
  12. Rio Bravo – Howard Hawkes
  13. To Be or Not to Be – Ernst Lubitsch
  14. Tokyo Story – Yasujiro Ozu
  15. Contempt (Le Mépris) – Jean-Luc Godard
  16. Tales of Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) – Kenji Mizoguchi
  17. City Lights – Charlie Chaplin
  18. The General – Buster Keaton
  19. Nosferatu the Vampire – Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
  20. The Music Room – Satyajit Ray
  21. Freaks – Tod Browning
  22. Johnny Guitar – Nicholas Ray
  23. The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) – Jean Eustache
  24. The Great Dictator – Charlie Chaplin
  25. The Leopard (Le Guépard) – Luchino Visconti
  26. Hiroshima, My Love – Alain Resnais
  27. The Box of Pandora (Loulou) – Georg Wilhelm Pabst
  28. North by Northwest – Alfred Hitchcock
  29. Pickpocket – Robert Bresson
  30. Golden Helmet (Casque d’or) – Jacques Becker
  31. The Barefoot Contessa – Joseph Mankiewitz
  32. Moonfleet – Fritz Lang
  33. Diamond Earrings (Madame de…) – Max Ophüls
  34. Pleasure – Max Ophüls
  35. The Deer Hunter – Michael Cimino
  36. The Adventure – Michelangelo Antonioni
  37. Battleship Potemkin – Sergei M. Eisenstein
  38. Notorious – Alfred Hitchcock
  39. Ivan the Terrible – Sergei M. Eisenstein
  40. The Godfather – Francis Ford Coppola
  41. Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
  42. The Wind – Victor Sjöström
  43. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick
  44. Fanny and Alexander – Ingmar Bergman
  45. The Crowd – King Vidor
  46. 8 1/2 – Federico Fellini
  47. La Jetée – Chris Marker
  48. Pierrot le Fou – Jean-Luc Godard
  49. Confessions of a Cheat (Le Roman d’un tricheur) – Sacha Guitry
  50. Amarcord – Federico Fellini
  51. Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) – Jean Cocteau
  52. Some Like It Hot – Billy Wilder
  53. Some Came Running – Vincente Minnelli
  54. Gertrud – Carl Theodor Dreyer
  55. King Kong – Ernst Shoedsack & Merian J. Cooper
  56. Laura – Otto Preminger
  57. The Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa
  58. The 400 Blows – François Truffaut
  59. La Dolce Vita – Federico Fellini
  60. The Dead – John Huston
  61. Trouble in Paradise – Ernst Lubitsch
  62. It’s a Wonderful Life – Frank Capra
  63. Monsieur Verdoux – Charlie Chaplin
  64. The Passion of Joan of Arc – Carl Theodor Dreyer
  65. À bout de Souffle – Jean-Luc Godard
  66. Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola
  67. Barry Lyndon – Stanley Kubrick
  68. La Grande Illusion – Jean Renoir
  69. Intolerance – David Wark Griffith
  70. A Day in the Country (Partie de campagne) – Jean Renoir
  71. Playtime – Jacques Tati
  72. Rome, Open City – Roberto Rossellini
  73. Livia (Senso) – Luchino Visconti
  74. Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin
  75. Van Gogh – Maurice Pialat
  76. An Affair to Remember – Leo McCarey
  77. Andrei Rublev – Andrei Tarkovsky
  78. The Scarlet Empress – Joseph von Sternberg
  79. Sansho the Bailiff – Kenji Mizoguchi
  80. Talk to Her – Pedro Almodóvar
  81. The Party – Blake Edwards
  82. Tabu – Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
  83. The Bandwagon – Vincente Minnelli
  84. A Star Is Born – George Cukor
  85. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday – Jacques Tati
  86. America, America – Elia Kazan
  87. El – Luis Buñuel
  88. Kiss Me Deadly – Robert Aldrich
  89. Once Upon a Time in America – Sergio Leone
  90. Daybreak (Le Jour se lève) – Marcel Carné
  91. Letter from an Unknown Woman – Max Ophüls
  92. Lola – Jacques Demy
  93. Manhattan – Woody Allen
  94. Mulholland Drive. – David Lynch
  95. My Night at Maud’s (Ma nuit chez Maud) – Eric Rohmer
  96. Night and Fog (Nuit et Brouillard) – Alain Resnais
  97. The Gold Rush – Charlie Chaplin
  98. Scarface – Howard Hawks
  99. Bicycle Thieves – Vittorio de Sica
  100. 100.Napoléon – Abel Gance

My favourite links #24

November 30, 2008

The Zaragozatwins website

These mystery twins from the capital of Aragon have had this interesting WordPress blog for around six months. They also contributed some comments to my blog. It is very different in style and politics to mine. Actually, it’s quite difficult to categorise, so check it out yourselves. They have such articles as I’m in love with Sarah Palin, Why oh why oh biofuels and The Zaragoza Twins Guide to The Capitalist Meltdown. Go here for the website.

Prediction Markets

November 23, 2008

Predictions come in all shapes and sizes and in varying degrees of credibility. They include opinion polls, mathematical models of stock market behaviour and supernatural prophecies. Often predictions seem to be more a product of the particular climate at the moment. We have seen an example of this with this week’s global trends review published this by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Just four years ago they proclaimed that there would be “continued US dominance…..most major powers have forsaken the idea of balancing the US”. Now they have become much more modest – “the multiplicity of influential actors and distrust of vast power means less room for the US to call the shots without the support of strong partnerships.” The world sure has changed a lot in 48 months

            One of the most fascinating developments in foretelling the future are the so-called “prediction markets”. Wikipedia defines them like this: “Prediction markets are speculative markets created for the purpose of making predictions. Assets are created whose final cash value is tied to a particular event (e.g., will the next US president be a Republican) or parameter (e.g., total sales next quarter). The current market prices can then be interpreted as predictions of the probability of the event or the expected value of the parameter.” How do they work? The idea is that the bits of information held by different individuals are aggregated into a market price. For it to work it is important that the participants make independent decisions. It would not work if they formed a committee to debate the question and reach a consensus decision. When people are together they interact in different ways and you can get a kind of groupthink, where the desire for consensus means that ideas are not sufficiently tested and contrarian opinions are just not heard. Prediction markets are  based on something called the “wisdom of crowds. The results tend to be more accurate than those of the individuals in the group and often more accurate than even the experts. This may seem like a crazy idea but prediction markets have two important things going for them. If you call someone up asking them for an opinion the person has no incentive to admit that he doesn’t know anything. Neither does he have a reason to tell the truth. By introducing money into the equation you are able to change these incentives. If you don’t know you have an incentive to shut up; if you are wrong you will lose money. 

These markets have been around for a number of years now. One of the most famous is the Iowa Electronic Markets which has been predicting presidential elections since 1988. The IEM is a real-money, web-based futures market. Traders can invest as little as $5 or as much as $500 to buy futures contracts based on the outcome of  elections. These traders could hardly be described as a representative sample of likely voters; the vast majority are  male, well-educated, high income and young. What makes the IEM such an accurate forecaster then? The answer is clear; traders are thinking differently about elections and politics than those taking part in opinion polls. They are putting their money on the line, creating a strong incentive for them to think critically. Their bets will reflect who they think other people would like to win and not their own personal preferences. The IEM is not alone. If you look on the web you can find other places such as Hubdub, where you can bet on news events and the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which specialises in movie box-office takings.

Some kinds of prediction markets have proved to be particularly controversial because off the incentives they create. In July 2003, the U.S. Department of Defence launched a Policy Analysis Market, to analyse events in the Middle East, including the probability of terrorist attacks. The knee-jerk condemnation did not take long to appear. Democrat Ron Wyden was forthright in his condemnation: “The idea of a federal betting parlor on atrocities and terrorism is ridiculous and it’s grotesque.”  The very next day the programme was cancelled. This may have been a mistake. Before the 9/11 attack there was lots of valuable and relevant information available but there was no mechanism capable of aggregating all that dispersed information in a single place. Markets may well be the best tool to achieve this goal. Obviously there would have been some difficulties in its functioning. One that springs to mind is that if these markets produced warnings, then the U.S. might take preventative action thus making the traders’ predictions false.

I realize that now may not be the best time to be defending the use of markets. Nevertheless, I feel that prediction markets have an important role to a play in our complex world. They can be a very useful policy tool in areas such as the introduction of new products by companies and military and political intelligence. The people in charge in governments and firms rely on information that filters through hierarchies; they can make better decisions with such markets. The benefits in terms of improved planning for future contingencies are clear. Robin D. Hanson, an economist at George Mason University has even proposed what he calls a “futarchy,” a form of government enhanced by prediction markets. Voters would decide broad political goals, but betting in speculative markets would determine the policy steps to achieve those goals. I don’t know if we will go that far but if I may be bold enough to make a prediction of my own, I think we are going to hear a lot more about prediction markets in the near future.


Really terrible predictions

November 23, 2008

I know some of these are probably urban legends but….


I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. Thomas J. Watson, 1943, Chairman of the Board of IBM


The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many sceptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive. Prestigious economist Paul Samuelson in an economics textbook published in 1988, one year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.


Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.  Marshal Ferdinand Foch in 1911


We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962


Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, October 16, 1929


Pish! A woman could piss it out Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth referring to what would become the Great Fire of London on Sunday 2 September 1666.


Everything that can be invented has been invented. Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899.


Democracy will be dead by 1950. John Langdon-Davies, A Short History of The Future, 1936.


Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government. David Steel at the 1981 annual conference of the UK Liberal Party. In the 1983 election the Liberal Democrats got only 23 seats (out of around 6508 and Thatcher won with an increased majority.


The battle to feed humanity is over. In the course of the 1970s, the world will experience starvation of tragic proportions – hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.  Dr Paul Erlich, in the best-selling book, The Population Bomb


They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist… Last words of Gen. John Sedgwick, spoken as he looked out over the parapet at enemy lines during the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864.


The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903.


If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one. W.C. Heuper, National Cancer Institute, 1954.


“Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way… well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!”. BBC weatherman, Michael Fish. That evening, the worst storm (with winds of hurricane force) to hit South East England since 1703 caused record damages and killed 19 people.


 We’ll die in each other’s arms. David Gest’s prediction about his marriage to Liza Minnelli. Less than two years later, Gest was suing Minnelli for $10 million for beating him up, and Minnelli was suing Gest for divorce.


The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it…knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient. Dr. Alfred Velpeau, French surgeon, 1839.


So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value. Committee advising King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain regarding a proposal by Christopher Columbus, 1486


The history of U.S. home prices suggests a clear potential for home prices to decline in individual markets, particularly in cities that have shown wide price swings in the past and where prices recently have risen dramatically. However, this same history also strongly suggests that it is highly unlikely that home prices will fall precipitously across the entire country—even if rising interest rates raise the cost of mortgage borrowing and reduce housing affordability. Analysis from the FDIC in February 2004.


My media week 23/11/08

November 23, 2008

EconTalk has an interview with George Selgin about free banking. This is the idea that banking should not be regulated in a special way.


The Cato Institute also has a couple of podcasts about financial questions.


The Onion has a piece about an alternative economic rescue plan.


As I am organising a trivia quiz this week I have decided to include an article about pub quizzes.


Mark Steel has a piece about the family.

Chaos, complexity and politics

November 15, 2008

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld


            Chaos theory is one of the most fascinating areas of mathematics; it is often used to describe the complicated behaviour of non-linear systems. It posits that that some systems, such as weather, are ultimately unpredictable because of the effects of small-scale events that can’t be included in the prediction equations. Just by changing one of the variables ever so slightly, you may see drastically different results. This is often called the butterfly effect- the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create minute changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to alter its path.

So how can this theory be applied to politics? How does complexity play out in our political systems? This is where a lot of problems start. The nature of the political game is to proclaim certainty. Rumsfeld was mocked incessantly in the media about his known knowns but in my opinion it is a good description of our complex reality.  Successful politicians by their very nature are not prone to doubt and introspection – at least in public. This does not sit well with the complex reality of our world. Ministers have to make decisions. The snag is that this can create false hopes of success. This can result in many policies that are not up to the job.

            Whenever you take actions you invariably come up against the famous law of unintended consequences. You can never be sure what unforeseen consequences will happen. Indeed, sometimes, these side effects can be more important that the intended results. You do get some fascinating unforeseen consequences. One of my favourites has to be that Viagra is helping to boost the world’s rhino population. I don’t mean that all these male rhinos started getting frisky after being given the blue pill. Viagra has helped in a different way, by reducing demand for rhino horn as an aphrodisiac. In fact Viagra itself was an unintended consequence. It was originally designed as a medicine for treating heart ailments until patients started reporting these pleasant side effects. The rest is history.

It is when governments start getting involved that the fun starts. The case of sperm donors in the UK is a textbook example. In 2005 a law came into force that gave donor-conceived children the right to trace their biological parents when they reach 18. The Government said that children’s rights to discover their genetic origins trumped the donors’ right to privacy. The regulation also stipulated that donors could no longer be paid; they were only allowed to claim “reasonable expenses” incurred while donating. I’m sure the intentions of those who drafted the law were noble. Of course the consequences could have been predicted by anyone with half a brain. The supply if sperm started to dry up; most clinics now have waiting lists of at least two years for sperm. Many desperate couples will go abroad or use unregulated agencies.

Alex Tabarrok explains how many unintended consequences arise:

The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. The political system is simple, it operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives.  Society in contrast is a complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven system.  When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system you often get unintended consequences.

                        Do I see any solutions? Not really. We seem to want to simplify the world. We like the idea that problems are soluble. Politicians who try to give a more nuanced view have no chance of being heard above the din. We should not judge policies by their intentions but by the incentives and constraints that the policy creates. We need politicians who are little more realistic about what they can achieve. But maybe society as a whole has to forget these children’s stories that politicians are wont to tell us.

My media week 15/11/08

November 15, 2008

On the Simon Mayo programme on BBC Radio 5 they did a piece on grammar rules and the typical mistakes natives make.  I haven’t listened to the programme yet but there is a test  with answers.


IOT: Neuroscience

Melvyn Bragg opens up the mind and delves into the complex world of the brain in this discussion about neuroscience. His guests this week are Martin Conway, Professor of Psychology at the University of Leeds; Gemma Calvert, Professor of Applied Neuroimaging at Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick; and David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science at King’s College London. Go here.


The Bad Science column in The Guardian has an article about how we have problems interpreting statistics.


The Independent did a piece on the pros and cons nanotechnology. Go here.