Innovation, Abstraction, and Raptor Hoodies

Reddit is a river of content. Sometimes different posts collide in my mind in interesting ways. Because I like to think about innovation, these collisions sometimes relate to how interesting things are created.

Comic crosswords and Raptor Hoodies

Take for instance a post on comic crosswords, where the format of newspaper crosswords is merged with that of comic strips; that is, instead of words that overlap, the crossword consists of funny overlapping mini-comics, where intersecting comics must share a common frame.

It’s an innovative take on comic strips, an unexploited comic-niche. I would read more of them if they were well done (which this one is). It reminds me of the artist that only draws comic strips on the back of business cards. The format, whether of shared frames or the inherent size limitations on a business card, imposes interesting constraints. When these constraints are met in clever ways they can impress and entertain us.

A separate example is of a raptor hoodie that has awesome integrated functionality: If a kid crosses his arms in front of himself, they act as the movable jaws of the raptor that can be chomped. When I first saw this, I was impressed by the cleverness of the design; the form of the shirt acts on two levels, the sleeves are reinterpreted as jaws that interact with the shirtfront. If I were a 10-year old boy I would have loved something like this.

Innovation and Abstraction

Now, you might wonder why I believe these examples relate to innovation in general — why should someone trying to create care about raptor shirts or strange comics? We can learn from these examples — in an abstract way — to help us become more creative.

Take the crossword comic example. The nature of the innovation is a clever recombination of comic strips and crossword puzzles. Can we analyze this particular example to create other clever combinations? What is the general spirit of a crossword puzzle that allows it to be melded with other concepts? This is all about searching for a good abstraction.

The main abstract concept underpinning a crossword is one-dimensional sequences of atoms [letters] that form larger holistic units [words] that are embedded and overlap in a two-dimensional space. In a traditional crossword, the sequences are of letters and the larger unit is a word. In the crossword comic, the sequences are of comic frames atoms, and the holistic unit is a cohesive joke formed from the frames. In this case, the innovation comes from varying the units.

Variations on a Theme

Here’s the interesting part: We can think of other things with the same abstract properties and recombine them as well to make something cool and new. The trick is to think of examples where we build from some smaller vocabulary a larger coherent construction. Each individual part of the vocabulary should be ambiguous enough to serve a different role in multiple constructions, e.g. a letter serves different purposes when at the intersection of two words.

A poem is a sequence of words, a book is a sequence of pages, a song is a sequence of notes or phrases, a dialogue is a sequence of alternating sentences, and a computer program can be seen as a sequence of statements. Any of these also could be substituted for crossword units in a similar way as the comic strip idea, a creative way to engage with your favorite medium.

A trivial straightforward example would be cross-poems, where lines (or even stanzas) of a poem form the lower-level units that compose an entire poem. Because lines of poetry are sensitive to context (like individual letters or frames of a comic), they can be utilized creatively in the intersection point for different ends in both of the resulting poems. Two poets could take turns laying down short poems as a fun collaborative exercise.

But the point is that working on the abstract level lets you consider other possibilities for crosswords easily;  you clearly state the rules of the game you are dealing with so you can vary them. The dimensionality can be varied (you could have 1d sequences embedded in 3d space for a 3d crossword, or 2d patterns embedded in a 3d space), additional constraints can be added (the sequences must make sense when interpreted both forwards and backwards), the 1d sequences can curve in space rather than be strictly linear (imagine crosswords not based on a strict grid, but with spaces of varying sizes and connectivities, e.g. hexagon-based crosswords). There are many creative possibilities, many never-before-explored, ripe for discovery.

Form and Multiple Function

Taking a closer look at the other example, the raptor hoodie is a really cool example of exaptation, where things created for one purpose (sleeves of a shirt) are adapted to an unforseen context (acting as the moving jaw of a raptor). The abstract idea here is that a functional item [t-shirt] can have its aesthetic properties [design] hijacked to serve a secondary function [raptor jaws]. Now this is an interesting abstraction as well to play with as well, but I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to think of fun generalizations or to examine if there are other ways to learn from the raptor hoodie.

The point of this post is just to illustrate that by deeply examining something that we find interesting, we can learn the meaningful degrees of variation that may lead to many more interesting things in the same spirit. In other words, we reverse-engineer to isolate the meaningful conceptual knobs we can twist to further create.

Bill Buxton: An Unsung Hero of the iPad

C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success.
-Dennis Ritchie

For whatever reason, the lead singer of a band nearly always draws all the attention. But perhaps the drummer is the one writing all the songs, and surely she and the bassist are the ones laying the foundation of the song upon which the singer and guitarists will build.

The unfortunate closely-timed deaths of technological superstars Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs echo the lead singer phenomenon. Both men were geniuses, yet Dennis Ritchie’s pervasive influence through co-developing both C and Unix surely is of greater historical significance — in fact, Apple’s OS is a descendant of Unix, and the Objective-C language prevalent in iOS descends from C’s legacy. As a result, there was a bit of unrest in the computer science world when memorial to Jobs vastly out-shined that given to Ritchie.

There is nothing particularly surprising in this, it is simply that Jobs was the lead singer and Ritchie played the drums. But the stories of the drummers are as interesting of those of the lead singers even if they aren’t as often told.

From Drums to iPads

Another drummer that I learned about from NPR a week ago, is Bill Buxton, a musician turned computer scientist that was a pioneer of the multi-touch technology underlying the iPad. In 1975, he was trying to invent a drum synthesizer, but ended up facilitating computer interfaces:

I wasn’t trying to make a computer interface, I was just trying to make a drum. It turns out that if you want to make a hand drum, that you want to be able to tap it and at the same time have your palm drag against the ‘virtual skin’ of the drum so to speak to change the tone, that was all we were trying to do.

Buxton admits that at the time he had no expectation of changing the world; the only reason he was able to accomplish a multi-touch interface before anyone else was that he had no idea how difficult it was:

In many cases, people who come from outside the normal discipline [have an advantage]. I was trained in music and not in technology, and no one told us it was hard. It [multi-touch] seemed like a pretty obvious thing to do at the time.

But what wasn’t clear is [because of our outsider status] that we had different insights and just the right people around to make it happen.

And I love that part of things, when people just completely open up their imagination trying to do creative things, and have no business doing that kind of technological innovation, and they actually have insights that turn out many years after the fact to have had huge impact.

I like it in that sense that its just your imagination that’s driving it, and you’re not trying to be so deliberate, about trying to something really important. That usually just makes you uptight and strained.

It’s far better to find something you love doing and chase it down, and the rest will just fall out.

While it may be sexier to be a lead singer, the world will always depend on drummers to lay the beat.

Van Gogh Didn’t Like The Starry Night

“It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.”
-Vincent Van Gogh, two months before his suicide.

Though the tormented life of Vincent van Gogh can be interpreted in many ways, I’d like to paint it today as a parable: Accurately evaluating what you’ve created is a difficulty all its own.

The starry night is widely regarded as Van Gogh’s magnum opus, yet Van Gogh himself was not impressed with it. A short while after painting it he sent it and a few other paintings to his brother Theo along with a letter.

The paintings were separated into two categories, four studies (something done for practice) and four works Van Gogh considered more complete. Starry night, was first called by van Gogh, “Study of the night.”  He said of these paintings:

In all this batch I think nothing at all good save the field of wheat, the mountain, the orchard, the olives with the blue hills and the portrait and the entrance to the Quarry, and the rest says nothing to me, because it lacks individual intention and feeling in the lines

In other words, he did not consider his magnum opus at all good. One problem in judging one’s own work is the intimacy you have with it, that intimacy that no one else will have on first viewing.

We become blinded by our singular perspective resulting from our immersion in our own work. In other words, other people do not share the long history of your creative efforts — they are examining your creation in a more objective context.

The moral is not that we must rudder our ship based on popular opinion but that we must admit that our evaluations of our own work can become colored and disengaged from the perception of others.

What is also interesting is that just from reading a single letter from van Gogh to his brother you get a sense of his tireless work ethic and his passion for his craft:

I have now seven copies out of the ten of Millet’s “Travaux des Champs.” I can assure you that making copies interests me enormously, and it means that I shall not lose sight of the figure, even though I have no models at the moment.


I should also like to copy the sower and the diggers.


I am going to copy the Good Samaritan by Delacroix too.


Many people do not copy, many others do – I started on it accidentally, and I find that it teaches me, and above all it sometimes consoles me.


When you say in your letter that I have done nothing but work, no – that is not right. I am myself very, very dissatisfied with my work, and the only thing that comforts me is that people with experience say you must paint for ten years for nothing. But what I have done is only those ten years of miserable and unwelcomed studies. Now a better period may come, but I shall have to get the figure stronger and I must refresh my memory by a very close study of Delacroix and Millet. Then I shall try to get my drawing clearer. Yes, misfortune is good for something, you gain time for study. I am adding to the roll of canvases a study of flowers – nothing much, but after all I do not want to tear it up.

The other moral we already know; producing great things is lubricated by mastery achieved through consistent deliberate practice.

What Louis CK learned from George Carlin: Throw it all away

“What do dogs do on their day off? They can’t lay around…that’s their job already.”
-George Carlin

I was struck by a video peaking on reddit earlier today of Louis CK honoring George Carlin in March 2010. It’s a fascinating monologue giving insight into how Louis eventually became a great comedian, after languishing for fifteen years:

I spent 15 years as a comedian, going in a circle that went nowhere. I hated my act, I had been doing the same hour of comedy for 15 years…and it was shit, I promise you. [...]

I was sitting in my car after the show [in a Chinese restaurant] , just feeling like this was all a big mistake: I’m just not good enough; I felt like my jokes were a trap.

In the car I listened to a CD of George Carlin talking about comedy, talking about it seriously.

The thing that blew me away about this fellow was that he kept putting out specials. Every year there would be a new George Carlin special, a new George Carlin album. How did he do it? It made me literally cry, that I could never do that. I did the same jokes for 15 years.

On the CD they ask him, how do you write all this material? And he says, each year I decide I’d be working on that year’s special, then I’d do that special, then I would throw away that material and start again with nothing. And I thought, that’s crazy, how do you throw away? It took me fifteen years to build this shitty hour, and if I throw it away, I got nothing.

But he gave me the courage to try it — and also I was desperate, what else would I do?

This idea that you throw everything away and you start over again. After you are done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, you throw them away. What do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes until they’re gone.You gotta dig deeper. So then you start thinking about your fears andyour nightmares and doing jokes about that. And then they’re gone. And then you start going into just weird shit.

It’s a process that I watched him do my whole life. And I started to try and do it.

For Louis CK, focusing on perfecting one set of jokes led only to fifteen years of comedic stagnation; he didn’t even enjoy his own act. It was only when he was able to let go the idea of these perfect jokes and explore comedy in a fuller sense, to push the boundaries in comedic space, that he became successful. And his role model, George Carlin, followed a similar process of throwing stuff away and trying to push as far away into new zones of joke-space.

In another part of his talk, Louis CK mentions he recognizes and actively seeks strange and controversial new jokes:

I was having a hard time being a father, and I wanted to say it on stage. So I thought, forget all the old jokes, start again. And I said the first thing I thought of: “I can’t have sex with my wife, because we have a baby, and our baby is a f**king a**hole.” It was how I was feeling, and I just said it. And the audience went Whoa! And I thought…oh, I’m somewhere new now.

And I said, “I never got babies in the dumpster before…but now I get it.” [audience gasps] And they did that! And I thought, I’d rather have that, then the shit tepid laughter from my fifteen-year old jokes. So I started going down this road. And he (George Carlin) was the beacon for me, always. He always gave me the courage.

For me, the larger implication of all of this is that success or prolific creativity is often not the result of directly trying to write great jokes or even of endless practice of a craft (although that often helps, e.g. John Mayer reminds us of the importance of writing terrible songs).

It may instead be more important to actively challenge yourself to do something fundamentally different from what yourself or others have done in the past. In doing so, you’re engraining more, and deeper, knowledge of what jokes are, internalizing joke-ness through your intellectual questioning.

Perhaps our metrics for weekend hacks and start-up ideas shouldn’t be judged on profitability or technical virtuosity. Perhaps we should just ask ourselves — does this make the audience go “Whoa!”? Does this project force me in new directions and is it exploring along the fringes of what is possible but not yet realized?

Entrenched interests and corrupted systems

A great post from Andrew on Everything discusses the problem where a “game” can be gamed to such an extent that what you achieve violates the original spirit or intent of the game.

He gives many examples, including the patent system (exploited by patent trolls), stock markets (exploited by high frequency trading firms), politics (exploited by politicians great at getting elected but bad at governing), and test taking (exploited by those who take intensive SAT prep courses.)

The problem is that the rules do not evolve to avoid exploitation, and so the ‘spirit’ of the system is increasingly corrupted. For example, high-frequency trading demonstrably increases market volatility, which is bad for the average investor. It also is nearly completely orthogonal to the original intent of stock exchanges, which is to allow companies to raise money and citizens to put their money to work. The only parties that benefit are the high-frequency trading firms and the exchange, which caters to HFT because of increased revenues.

At some point the rules, even if they no longer make sense, become entrenched. There becomes a large financial interest with significant power that will oppose changing those rules because they benefit from exploiting them. Political parties are a good example of this; the two-party system in the US with its archaic electoral college system, is definitely not the best way to decide who runs the country. Who benefits from this ridiculous system? The entrenched parties and the professional politicians, but definitely not the average citizen.

One thing to be aware of, is that these perverted systems can also be opportunities. The existing exchanges cater to HFT but not average citizens; could an alternate exchange that adheres more strongly to the original intent of investment transform the system? Tests like the SAT become meaningless when money can buy access to intensive over-optimizing prep courses that will not increase the student’s ability to succeed in college; they no longer measure what they are supposed to. Could a test that better correlates with college performance transform the testing market?

Although examining these examples of perverted systems can make one cynical, it seems like there ultimately must be some way to change them; those that are hurt by the systems so far outnumber those that benefit from it, if only they could organize or were actively offered the choice of an alternative.

Book Review: Breakthrough

I just finished reading Breakthrough: Stories and Strategies of Radical Innovation by Mark and Barbara Stefik, which is built from many interviews of successful innovators at famous research labs like Bell, PARC, and MIT’s Media Lab.

The book provides some interesting stories about how innovation works. However, rather than the author’s synthesis of the material (although it is sometimes insightful), what I found most interesting was just good quotes from really smart people on the nature of innovation.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Chuck Thacker was quoted as saying:

You can’t build railroads before it is railroad time.

What a cool sound-bite! My interpretation is that sometimes the pieces you need to get somewhere don’t yet exist, and you can’t force it to come together without it. Railroads needed a steam engine to be feasible. If the algorithm or market necessary for your super-cool idea to flourish doesn’t yet exist, it may not yet be railroad time no matter how hard you try.

Allan Newell:

People think that science is riskier than it actually is. If you take a group of smart people and send them down some path, they generally come back with something interesting.

In the context of start-up culture, this could imply that it may be more important just to collect a group of inspired hackers and set them loose rather than have some kind of methodical plan for what you want them to do. You may know that no matter what project Hacker X works on, it will end up being cool.

Walter Bishop Jr. (a jazz musician):

Once you’ve created your own sound and you have agood sense of the history of the music, then you think of where the music hasn’t gone and where it can go — and that’s innovation.

This is exactly what start-ups do, they are typically exploring the fringe of what is possible. To do so, you have to understand what has been possible in the past, and what the emerging tools of new technology are making feasible that wasn’t before. And among those things that are newly feasible, which are the most compelling or interesting that could potentially create monetary value?

John Mayer on Finishing Projects (even if they are awful)

John Mayer came to Berklee to talk with the music students there. One quote stood out to me:

“I can’t stress enough how important it is to write bad songs. There’s a lot of people who don’t want to finish songs because they don’t think they’re any good. Well they’re not good enough. Write it!  I want you to write me the worst songs you could possible write me because you won’t write bad songs. You’re thinking they’re bad so you don’t have to finish it. That’s what I really think it is. Well it’s all right. Well, how do you know? It’s not done!”

The quote reminds me of the unfinished game projects written in GW-BASIC that littered the diskettes of my childhood. I would start to write a new game, driven by an unrealistic vision in my head. Then after I’d made the menu and a few lines of the main loop, the initial burst of excitement would subside. The reality of the hard work necessary to make any progress and the immaturity of my skill set were insurmountable.

Rather than finish something terrible or try a smaller project, I’d accumulate these stillborn games. My embryonic ideas never got the chance to develop. And so my talents remained relatively stillborn themselves until I gained the self-discipline necessary to follow through.

In order to make something great, you usually have to make a lot of bad things first. And while everyone wants to make awesome things, few have the patience and persistence to slog through the necessity of first making the awful things.