Month: November 2014

Where Good Ideas Come From

I recently read Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”.   It had some good ideas, even if the biological analogies were a stretch.   The basic ideas are summed up at the end:

  • Go for walks
  • Get some sleep (it wasn’t mentioned in this book, but probably splitting up your night’s sleep would be good)
  • Make Mistakes
  • Have Hobbies
  • Talk to strangers
  • Mix ideas together
  • Take good notes
  • Live in or near a city
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The role of government

I recently read, “The Entrepreneurial State” by Mariana Mazzucato.   It was interesting to read in light of Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One” and Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”.   Mazzucato’s central theme is that contrary to the idea that government is an impediment to economic development, the US government has actually spurred a lot of the most innovative sectors in the economy.   Beyond simple support of basic research, government has spurred development.   Unfortunately, at times, I think that she is her own worst enemy and at times draws rather tenuous connections between government investment and marketplace results.

To my mind, the government has done and continues to do an excellent job at funding basic research.  In the past, there was more support from industrial research labs such as AT&T Bell Labs, but that was during an era where monopoly profits allowed them to have the funds to do so.  In the US, prizes have also proved stimulating (ex. the X-prize).  DARPA has also been rather successful in funding risky targeted research.  Mazzucato correctly points out that SBIR grants have served to support companies in the development of technology that government needs that later has commercial application (ex. Apple).   But, it’s a stretch to suggest that Apple would not have existed without such investment.   However, she does raise a good suggestion—rather than just paying cash for SBIRs, the government would do well as a long term “venture capitalist” if it actually took on a small stock holding in companies where if they really took off, the funds could be used and reinvested in other research areas.  

Peter Thiel brings up the idea in Zero to One and in his book and talks that Clean tech and thin film solar panels in particular were a disaster for venture capital funds that poured in as a result of funds available from the DOE.   I think the problem here is time horizons—venture capitalists really only have maybe a 10 year time horizon to return a profit for their investors.  There has just been too much uncertainty in this market for them to really win (   At this point, in the lab, single crystal silicon seems to have approached theoretical efficiency limits (   The difficulty at this point is more engineering and finance—namely, making it economical for people to buy panels at those efficiency levels.   At that point, it might be feasible to start thinking more about distributed power.  However, there is a rather disheartening  article in IEEE about what it would really take to reverse climate change, but that’s another topic (…However, here Mazzucato is correct about the need for “patient” capital that can wait for more than 10 years to reap the benefits of investment.  Here, government is not just generally stimulating basic research, but is instead trying to achieve a given goal and allowing companies and labs to try different ways of realizing the goal of developing cleaner sources of energy.

Another point that Thiel brings up is that he believes that the pace of innovation is slowing.   One of his prime examples is the pharmaceutical industry.   Peter Thiel believes that it’s a result of government regulation.   I disagree.  Here, I think the conventional view is actually correct.  We really have eaten a lot of the low lying fruit.   Johnson raises the idea of the “adjacent possible”—a space of ideas that are accessible to a given person at a given time in history.   At this time, we’re waiting for the adjacent possible to sweep the next major wave of innovations.   We’ve discovered that cancer for example, is much more complex than we originally thought.  Rather than just being a simple disease with a simple cure (for example one drug that treats all cancers), it’s more likely that tailored solutions will be necessary.  Who knows, perhaps treatments will have to become on going and adapt to individual patients with time.   We’ve laid a lot of ground with projects such as the Human Genome Project, but it may take some time before it starts to bear major fruit because the problems at this stage are hard.   It’s also important for the government to continue to fund “risky” research where failure is possible.

Besides government directly investing in research, government can try to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from the university to industry (for example, with the Bayh-Dole act.  Or to encourage corporations to work together on hard problems like with Sematech.   It can also try to encourage environments where “random” encounters are likely to result in innovation—for example encouraging technological incubators  in large cities.   

Posted by william in books, research, 0 comments

I went to a pretty exciting meet up last night at George Washington University.  It was by put on my Statistical Programming DC and was my first meet up with them.  The speaker was Matt Sundquist, who is one of the founders of, which is sort of the github of plotting.   The talk was pretty good and I was impressed by the package.  It’s free and they have bindings to Julia, Python, Excel, Matlab, Igor, R, etc.   You can view graphs, edit legends, etc. from within the browser and send them directly from your python scripts, which is really cool!   You can also stream real time data over.  One really nice feature is that you can see the data used to generate a plot and the code (in multiple languages) that will generate it.  This would be really cool to see in journals!   It ties in nicely with the recent posting by Nature about hosted iPython consoles.

Given the variety of graphs, I can understand why they went with d3.js—we went with jqplot for a number of our online plotting solutions because I thought the learning curve would be shallower for our high school/college interns.   Also, I think we started back in the days of Flot, before d3 was out there.    I somehow thought that d3.js was only SVG, but one of my coworkers told me that it now supports canvas as well, so it could be fast—but apparently producing pdf files from canvas is painful...

I hope their company survives and I can definitely see using it for sharing plots with my collaborators.   Because of our use of interactors, I doubt that I will be able to replace a number of existing projects though due to our need for custom interactors.   Hopefully they develop a plugin system in the future!

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I went for a jog today and thought back to an insight that I had in graduate school.   During my phD, I studied frustrated magnetism.   In frustrated magnets, you consider a material where the atoms are arranged in triangular motifs.  If these atoms have unpaired spins on them and only nearest neighbor antiferromagnetic interactions, then the interactions will be unable to be simultaneously satisfied and the material will never order, despite having strong interactions.   However, in practice, I found that Nature is tricky and that a number of these materials would order.  In some cases, thermal or quantum fluctuations would result in ordering.  In other cases, order in the system could be stabilized by a structural phase transition which would favor some interactions over others.   However, one thing that gradually became clear was that there were interesting phases near such frustrated magnets and the interesting question is how a small perturbation might result in interesting physics.


I think this could be a general strategy for searching for switchable phenomena.  Find a phase which is subject to an instability through some type of perturbation.  For example, pressure, electric field, etc.   If you can move the system towards the instability using one control parameter you’re half way there.  The next challenge is whether you can use another perturbation to move it back across the boundary using another control parameter.   If so, then you have a chance to build something interesting...

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