Is everything a Remix?

Kirby Ferguson has put together a fantastic short video series that nicely describes an idea I’ve been trying to highlight in my research for a long time – that very few “breakthroughs” are really about creating something truly new, but instead are more about copying, slightly transforming, and combining other people’s ideas.

Simply: breakthroughs are a myth, and copying is king.

In the series of 3 videos linked to below, he shows how even masterful / novel contributions to music (video 1, highlighting Led Zeppelin), movies (video 2, highlighting Star Wars), and technology (video 3, highlighting Xerox before the Mac) are really remixes. Very powerful ideas that run counter to society’s views on creativity!


Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

For most of recorded history, God was the only one who created life.US-SCIENCE-GENETICS-VENTER

Although I’m largely a huge fan of Craig Venter‘s work and approach to science (he is the guy who won the race to code the human genome), his new project creeps me out.  He and his colleagues are setting out to conquor the next great genetics challenge, synthesizing life from scratch. The technology is largely in place, and they have now succeeded in their primary efforts.  The team chose an ‘easy’ target for their first attempts, trying to create a simple bacteria called mycoplasma genitalium. It worked. Technically, it is not alive, as it lacks the biological machinery of a cell.  However, the genome is basically all there.

The good news is that by doing this, they will be able to probe a ton of very fundamental questions about the functioning of different parts of the genome directly. This type of work will help to really move our understanding of genetics into the 21st century.  The implications of the work are huge for pharma, biotech, and others who can use this info to build better drugs, and solve medical mysteries. Still, they are basically creating frankenstein. The logical extension of this work is to move to more complex organisms.  Where will that lead?  Design-your-own pet / friend / child / husband laboratories?  Hmmm.  Science is moving ahead at full steam.  I’m not sure the world is ready.

Creepy fact # 1: To make sure that their frankenstein did not escape captivity from their lab, Venter and company made it dependent on an antibiotic so that if it escaped it could not survive. The fact that they were worried about this worries me.  What would happen if it was let loose to run around with God’s other creatures?

Creepy fact # 2: To make sure that frankenstein was clearly identifiable to anyone through a genetic test, the scientists wrote the name of their institute and their individual names into its DNA code. Creepy!

Click here to read some Sternberg files

“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” – Eden Philpotts

The following list comes from Robert Sternberg, a Yale PhD and professor, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on human intelligence.  The actual list comes from the website of Michael Anissimov a science/technology writer and blogger  who blogs on issues of transhumanism, AI, and other topics.  It is a fantastic collection of ideas from Sternberg on the paths to failure taken by otherwise very intelligent people.  Some of this comes off as ‘obvious’ but collectively the list is very insightful.  Enjoy.

Content from Sternberg, R. (1994). In search of the human mind. New York: Harcourt Brace.  Click here to buy the book through Amazon.

Why Intelligent People Fail

1. Lack of motivation. A talent is irrelevant if a person is not motivated to use it. Motivation may be external (for example, social approval) or internal (satisfaction from a job well-done, for instance). External sources tend to be transient, while internal sources tend to produce more consistent performance.

2. Lack of impulse control. Habitual impulsiveness gets in the way of optimal performance. Some people do not bring their full intellectual resources to bear on a problem but go with the first solution that pops into their heads.

3. Lack of perseverance and perseveration. Some people give up too easily, while others are unable to stop even when the quest will clearly be fruitless.

4. Using the wrong abilities. People may not be using the right abilities for the tasks in which they are engaged.

5. Inability to translate thought into action. Some people seem buried in thought. They have good ideas but rarely seem able to do anything about them.

6. Lack of product orientation. Some people seem more concerned about the process than the result of activity.

7. Inability to complete tasks. For some people nothing ever draws to a close. Perhaps it’s fear of what they would do next or fear of becoming hopelessly enmeshed in detail.

8. Failure to initiate. Still others are unwilling or unable to initiate a project. It may be indecision or fear of commitment.

9. Fear of failure. People may not reach peak performance because they avoid the really important challenges in life.

10. Procrastination. Some people are unable to act without pressure. They may also look for little things to do in order to put off the big ones.

11. Misattribution of blame. Some people always blame themselves for even the slightest mishap. Some always blame others.

12. Excessive self-pity. Some people spend more time feeling sorry for themselves than expending the effort necessary to overcome the problem.

13. Excessive dependency. Some people expect others to do for them what they ought to be doing themselves.

14. Wallowing in personal difficulties. Some people let their personal difficulties interfere grossly with their work. During the course of life, one can expect some real joys and some real sorrows. Maintaining a proper perspective is often difficult.

15. Distractibility and lack of concentration. Even some very intelligent people have very short attention spans.

16. Spreading oneself too think or too thick. Undertaking too many activities may result in none being completed on time. Undertaking too few can also result in missed opportunities and reduced levels of accomplishment.

17. Inability to delay gratification. Some people reward themselves and are rewarded by others for finishing small tasks, while avoiding bigger tasks that would earn them larger rewards.

18. Inability to see the forest for the trees. Some people become obsessed with details and are either unwilling or unable to see or deal with the larger picture in the projects they undertake.

19. Lack of balance between critical, analytical thinking and creative, synthetic thinking. It is important for people to learn what kind of thinking is expected of them in each situation.

20. Too little or too much self-confidence. Lack of self-confidence can gnaw away at a person’s ability to get things done and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, individuals with too much self-confidence may not know when to admit they are wrong or in need of self-improvement.

Did you know that people who like broccoli likely suffer from a genetic taste defect?

I really believe that genomics will be at the center of most of the big advances in medicine and health over the next 50 years.  How this will emerge, who will control the process, and the details are currently being sorted out. 

One interesting player in a field dominated by pharma companies, universities, and research institutes is  The for-profit entrepreneurial startup was started by Anne Wojcicki (aka Sergey Brin‘s wife) on the idea of bringing genomics to the masses. Although backed by seriously big hitters, from Google to Stanford, they are catering their products to regular people.  Although there has been much pomp and circumstance around the idea of personalized medicine, this is how personalized medicine very well could look. 

After recently making a splash by lowering the price of their signature ‘product’ from $999 to $399 (due to incredible cost efficiency advances in the processing technology to analyze DNA), they now can much more feasibly reach the masses.  The basic gist of their product is this:  1. purchase the kit, 2. spit in a cup, 3. send the cup to 23 and me, 4. they send it to an outside lab to process, 5. they send you a link with your results.  Most of their company is based around the interpretation and presentation of your personal information in a very stylish, easy to understand format.  Your results provide you detailed personal information about your genome and its clues to your health and ancestory.  The ancestory tool allows you to track (in very raw terms) your ancestoral roots pretty well on the maternal side and to a lesser extent on the paternal side, back hundreds of years or more.  The basis of the health information is single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that have been demonstrated in academic research literature to be associated with certain diseases, medical conditions, and abnormalities.  They are very clear that nothing is set in stone, the best they can do is probabilities, and the research is emerging.  Still, they can tell you that you are more likely to have psoriasis, crohn’s disease, and potentially why you might not like broccoli.  In all, there are over 90 conditions they can give you information about, including how well you can smell, your intelligence, and potential longevity.

Critics have called the whole business extremely dangerous and have tried to get companies like 23 and me shut down.  They argue that providing such unproven data to consumers is irresponsible, and should not be allowed.  They show that many of the ’emerging findings’ and disease associations are later debunked, and providing such info to consumers is dangerous.

This will be an interesting process to watch.  I find myself rooting for 23 and me.

What if intelligence was a state and not a trait?albert-einstein

Science moves forward in a variety of ways.  Most commonly, it is by incremental ‘brick building’ where many people contribute individual bricks that eventually build a wall of knowledge around a topic. However, sometimes people advance science by breaking a hole through such walls.

For many years, neuroscience and pyschologists have told us that real intelligence, what is called ‘fluid intelligence,’ was an inate characteristic in people that was stable through life.  You could certainly learn more, acquire a great deal of knowledge, but the base level of fluid intelligence that allows you to solve problems, recognize patterns, etc. was something you were stuck with from birth.

New research from Susanne Jäggi, a post-doctoral visiting scholar in psychology at the University of Michigan, and her colleagues suggests that fluid intelligence may be developed through training.  Although her work is preliminary and based on lab experiments, she has shown that by completing very specific types of word game type exercises, over time the brain can be trained to enhance its raw capabilities. Although Jäggi and colleagues are hardly the first to test these ideas, in fact education specialists have been trying to develop brains for thousands of years, they are the first to present hard evidence to support their contention that fluid intelligence had been improved.

If this work holds up, and there are a ton of people pushing this new line of work in every direction, it could have a dramatic influence on all kinds of fields, from education to human resources.  In fact, assessing fluid intelligence has been proven as the single best predictor of future job performance (and many other types of performance) for job candidate selection available. Because such intelligence was viewed as a stable trait, no one could ‘fake’ their way into a high score.  If people can jack up this characteristic with training, it will raise some interesting questions.

To take the next step, are there upper limits on development?  Can everyone develop their fluid intelligence, or does it vary by person?  Can this be used to help people with brain injuries or mental disabilities?  The questions go on.

Ok, enough on this.  I need to go do a Sudoku.

quitterAre you too cool for school? 

It is with mixed feelings that I marvel over the success of several notable dropouts.  Over the last few weeks I’ve been reminded of several notable dropouts from school, Steve Jobs (Reed College), Bill Gates (Harvard), and Elon Musk (Stanford).  For those really interested, we could list many many more.  Maybe the term ‘dropouts’ is a misnomer, as people dropout at many different points. Jobs and Gates dropped out of undergraduate programs, Musk out of a Ph.D. program.  Nonetheless, all are quitters.

So, what’s so bad about quitting? 

I guess the problem would be making the perceptual exposure bias mistake of overgeneralizing the glory of dropouts.  I’m sure there are far more dropouts that are very disenfranchised with their choice than there are Microsoft, Apple, and PayPal success stories.  A common theme among those who dropout successfully is the jump to something bigger or more important.  For Gates and Musk that was the case – dropping out to start a company around some high-potential biz.

I guess formal education is always a value proposition. What do you expect to gain from school vs. the cost of school (time, money, opportunities, etc.). If the costs are too big, dropout. Like most things, however, estimating the value of an opportunity is hard to do. Given the risk it seems like education is common sense.

Ok. Common sense… Pro-Education: Slow and safe wins the race.  Pro-Quitter: No guts, no glory.

I’m reminded of a point a former professor once made – “common sense” is a bit confusing.  It can argue both sides of most discussions.  Example: Two heads are better than one.  Wait.  Too many cooks spoil the broth.  Hmmm.  Looks like there is no easy answer to quitting.

Interesting disection of happiness / decision making from a Harvard psychologist.