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Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

11 FEBRUARY, 2013

Thomas Edison, Power-Napper: The Great Inventor on Sleep & Success

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“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”

It took Thomas Edison superhuman feats of biology to fuel his astoundingly ambitious to-do list. He reportedly slept a mere three to four hours at night, “regarding sleep as a waste of time, ‘a heritage from our cave days,'” as James Maas tells us in his 1997 productivity bestseller Power Sleep (public library). In fact, Edison is often accused of having forever disrupted our internal clocks with his invention of the lightbulb — some researchers go as far as estimating that artificial light has stripped modern life of 1-2 hours of sleep per night. David K. Randall writes in Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, one of the best science books of 2012:

Thanks to Edison, sunset no longer meant the end of your social life; instead, it marked the beginning of it.

[…]

Yet all of the artificial light in use around the world before Edison developed his lightbulb amounted to the brightness of a match compared to the lights of Times Square.

The Incandescing Electric Lamp, one of Edison's 1,093 inventions, was patented on October 30, 1883. His first functional incandescent electric lamp was successfully tested at his Menlo Park Lab on October 21, 1879, which marked the beginning of the electrical age.

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Indeed, Edison had so much faith in the power of his invention to liberate people from the burden of sleep that he made some boldly outlandish causal inferences. In Sleep Thieves (public library), Stanley Coren quotes the inventor:

When I went through Switzerland in a motor-car, so that I could visit little towns and villages, I noted the effect of artificial light on the inhabitants. Where water power and electric light had been developed, everyone seemed normally intelligent. Where these appliances did not exist, and the natives went to bed with the chickens, staying there until daylight, they were far less intelligent.

So contemptuous was Edison’s attitude towards sleep that he wrote in 1921:

People will not only do what they like to do — they overdo it 100 per cent. Most people overeat 100 per cent, and oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient. The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake — they have only different degrees of doze through the twenty-four hours. … For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It’s real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities. Just to satisfy my curiosity I have gone through files of the British Medical Journal and could not find a single case reported of anybody being hurt by loss of sleep. Insomnia is different entirely — but some people think they have insomnia if they can sleep only ten hours every night.

In hindsight, of course, his assertions were not only scientifically misguided but also rather hypocritical. We now know that sleep is essential to overcoming creative blocks, and it turns out, so did Edison. While he carried his lack of sleep as a kind of badge of honor, he had a duplicitous little secret: Power-napping. Not only were napping cots scattered throughout his property, from labs to libraries, but he was also frequently photographed sneaking his stealthy shut-eye in unusual locations.

Edison's office, with napping cot

Image: Mike Roush

The cot in Edison’s library

Image: Holly Korus

Thomas Edison taking a midday nap under a tree in the Blue Ridge Mountains (1921)

Image: Bettman/Corbis via TIME

Thomas Edison sleeping at his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory (1924)

Image: Henry Ford Foundation

Thomas Edison napping at the Ford Edison Camp in Hagerstown, Maryland, with President Warren Harding (right) and automobile tire magnate Harvey Firestone reading the newspapers in the background (1921)

Image: Edison-Ford Winter Estates Museum / Brian Bennett

'Tearing off a nap after 72 hours of continuous work' (1912)

Image: National Museum of Education

Edison used napping to counterbalance the intensity of his work. Most days, he took one or two brief naps — on his famous cots, outdoors in the grass, and even on a chair or stool if no better option was available. Per multiple first-hand accounts, he always awoke from his naps reinvigorated rather than groggy, ready to devour the rest of the day with full alertness and zest. Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Martin write of the West Orange laboratory in Edison: His Life And Inventions (public library):

As one is about to pass out of the library attention is arrested by an incongruity in the form of a cot, which stands in an alcove near the door. Here Edison, throwing himself down, sometimes seeks a short rest during specially long working hours. Sleep is practically instantaneous and profound, and he awakes in immediate and full possession of his faculties, arising from the cot and going directly “back to the job” without a moment’s hesitation…

Edison’s diary, which he kept only briefly while on vacation in the summer of 1885 and which was eventually published in 1971, reveals an even more conflicted and ambivalent relationship with sleep. On Sunday, July 12, he writes playfully, but in evident circadian distress:

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Awakened at 5:15 a.m. My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams. Turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion. Succeeded. Awakened at 7 a.m. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G. Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination a la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

Awakened at 8:15 a.m. … Arose at 9 o’clock, came down stairs expecting twas too late for breakfast. Twasn’t.

[…]

Had dinner at 3 p.m. Ruins of a chicken, rice pudding.

[…]

The sun has left us on time, am going to read from the Encyclopedia Britannica to steady my nerves and go to bed early. I will shut my eyes and imagine a terraced abyss, each terrace occupied by a beautiful maiden. To the first I will deliver my mind and they will pass it down down to the uttermost depths of silence and oblivion. Went to bed worked my imagination for a supply of maidens, only saw Mina, Daisy and Mamma [G]. Scheme busted. Sleep.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

On July 14, contradicting his contention that he never dreams, Edison notes:

In evening went out on sea wall. Noticed a strange phosphorescent light in the west, probably caused by a baby moon just going down Chinaward, thought at first the Aurora Borealis had moved out west. Went to bed early dreamed of a demon with eyes four hundred feet apart.

Then, on July 19:

Slept as sound as a bug in a barrel of morphine.

Image: The Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers

Only July 21, another poetic vignette:

Slept splendidly — evidently I was inoculated with insomnic bactilli when a baby. Arose early, went out to flirt with the flowers.

One thing that becomes apparent from Edison’s habits and cognitive dissonance about sleep is his extreme compulsion for productivity. In fact, Dyer and Martin cite an anecdote in which Edison tells his friend Milton Adams:

I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.

And hustle he did. Writing in 1885, Sarah Knowles Bolton marvels at Edison’s remarkable work ethic:

Five feet ten inches high, with boyish but earnest face, light gray eyes, his dark hair slightly gray falling over his forehead, his hat tipped to the back of his head, as he goes ardently to his work, which has averaged eighteen hours a day for ten years, he is indeed a pleasant man to see.

You perceive he is not the man to be daunted by obstacles. When one of his inventions failed — a printing machine — he took five men into the loft of his factory, declaring he would never come down till it worked satisfactorily. For two days, and nights and twelve hours — sixty hours in all — he worked continuously without sleep, until he had conquered the difficulty; and then he slept for thirty hours.

He often works all night, thinking best, he says, when the rest of the world sleeps.

In the same fantastic 1901 tome that gave us Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success, Orison Swett Marden sets out to discover the secret to Edison’s success, camping out in the vicinity of the inventor’s New Jersey laboratory for three weeks awaiting a chance to interview him. When he finally does, he is particularly interested in the inventor’s “untiring energy and phenomenal endurance” and asks 53-year-old Edison a number of questions about his daily routine, including his relationship with sleep:

‘Do you have regular hours, Mr. Edison?’ I asked.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I do not work hard now. I come to the laboratory about eight o’clock every day and go home to tea at six, and then I study or work on some problem until eleven, which is my hour for bed.’

‘Fourteen or fifteen hours a day can scarcely be called loafing,’ I suggested.

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘for fifteen years I have worked on an average of twenty hours a day.’

When he was forty-seven years old, he estimated his true age at eighty-two, since working only eight hours a day would have taken till that time.

Mr. Edison has sometimes worked sixty consecutive hours upon one problem. Then after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.

Still, Edison used much of the time others invested in sleep not merely for mindless sleeplessness but for building his networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity:

‘I’ve known Edison since he was a boy of fourteen,’ said another friend; ‘and of my own knowledge I can say he never spent an idle day in his life. Often, when he should have been asleep, I have known him to sit up half the night reading. He did not take to novels or wild Western adventures, but read works on mechanics, chemistry, and electricity; and he mastered them too. But in addition to his reading, which he could only indulge in at odd hours, he carefully cultivated his wonderful powers of observation, till at length, when he was not actually asleep, it may be said he was learning all the time.’

Marden proceeds to inquire about Edison’s legendary work ethic, producing an anecdote you might recall from the timelessly fantastic How To Avoid Work and affirming the recurring theme of focused persistence as the key to success:

‘You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life,’ I ventured, ‘working eighteen hours a day.’

‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘You do something all day long, don’t you? Every one does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.’

Complement with the science of internal time and how dreaming regulates depression.

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25 OCTOBER, 2012

100 Ideas That Changed Art

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From cave paintings to the internet, or how art and cultural ideology shape one another.

On the heels of yesterday’s 100 Ideas That Changed Photography comes 100 Ideas That Changed Art (public library) — a succinct account of the most influential developments in the history of art, from cave paintings to the internet, compiled by art historian and broadcaster Michael Bird. From conceptual innovations like negative space (#98), color codes (#33), and street art (#94) to landmarks of communication like making books (#21), propaganda (#12), and handwriting (#24) to ideological developments like “less is more” (#30), protest (#79), and the body as surface (#9), each idea is contextualized in a 500-word essay with key visual examples.

Bird writes in the introduction:

What does it mean to ‘change art’? Art, in any definition, is so much a business of transformation that change is always and everywhere part of its nature, whether you think of it in physical terms (stone into statue) or in intellectual or spiritual ones (giving form to invisible things). No sooner has an idea changed art that art reformulates that idea, allowing it to recognize itself. Around the early fifth century BC, for example, Greek sculptors changed the way they represented naked figures, probably under the influence of certain intellectual attitudes to the human body. At the same time, their nude statues endowed fifth-century Greek ideas about what it means to be human with an extraordinarily long and fertile posterity. As so often where art is concerned, the transformation works both ways, more on the analogy of a chemical reaction than the introduction of a new material in engineering or a new process in politics.

IDEA # 7: NARRATIVE

On Trajan’s Column in Rome significant moments in the story of Trajan’s Dacian campaign are grouped to align vertically, so that they make sense from several standpoints when viewed from the ground. Like a mime show, Masaccio’s The Tribute Money fresco conveys the drama of emotionally charged confrontation and resolute action even to modern viewers unfamiliar with the biblical story.

Whereas stories are diachronic — they take time in the telling and involve the unfolding of events through time — visual images work synchronically, being interpreted almost instantaneously by the viewer. Visual artists have therefore developed a wide range of strategies for the task of storytelling.

IDEA # 11: CONTRAPPOSTO

Polykleitos was credited with 'the idea that statues should stand firmly on one leg only.' Greek artists were said to derive the rules of art from his Doryphoros 'as if from a law.'

IDEA # 32: TROMPE-L'OEIL

Renaissance artists put the newly perfected technique of linear perspective to light-hearted as well as serious uses. The trompe-l’oeil ceiling opening Andrea Mantegna painted for his patron Ludovico Gonzaga is a virtuoso demonstration of perspective.

IDEA # 34: ALLEGORY

In devising his great allegory Primavera (Spring, c.1478), Sandro Botticelli followed Alberti’s advice to painters, to take their themes from literary sources. In the center Venus and Cupid represent love, while Flora scatters flowers.

IDEA # 54: THE ARTIST

A detail from Courbet’s The Studio of the Painter (1855) shows the artist painting a landscape, observed by a nude female model and, to the right, people he called 'shareholders'—friends and supporters from the art world.

IDEA # 59: CAPTURING THE INSTANT

John Constable’s studies of clouds over Hampstead Heath, London, in 1821-1822 are so accurate that they correlate with meteorological records. Art’s subject here is not the permanence of landscape but 'the ungraspable, the fleeting.'

IDEA # 65: ARTIFICIAL LIGHT

In George de la Tour’s Saint Joseph Carpenter (c.1640), the young Jesus holds a candle while his father drills a wooden beam, foreshadowing the Crucifixion. Candlelight intensifies the spiritual drama of this apparently everyday scene.

IDEA # 82: SHOCK

Defending Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) from accusations of 'obscene intent,' the novelist Emile Zola took the scandalized public to task for being preoccupied with subject matter and ignoring the painting’s qualities as art.

100 Ideas That Changed Art comes from British publisher Laurence King, who previously brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture.

Images and captions courtesy of Laurence King

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11 OCTOBER, 2012

As We May Think: A 1945 Essay on Information Overload, “Curation,” and Open-Access Science

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“There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”

Tim O’Reilly recently admonished that unless we embrace open access over copyright, we’ll never get science policy right. The sentiment, which I believe applies to more than science, reminded me of an eloquent 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush, then-director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, titled “As We May Think.” As the war, with its exploitation of science and technology, draws to a close, Bush turns a partly concerned, partly hopeful eye to where scientists will rediscover “objectives worthy of their best” and calls for “a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.”

Much of what Bush discusses presages present conversations about information overload, filtering, and our restless “FOMO” — fear of missing out, for anyone who did miss out on the memetic catchphrase — amidst the incessant influx. Bush worries about the impossibility of ever completely catching up and the unfavorable signal-to-noise ratio:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month’s efforts could be produced on call. Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

More than half a century before blogging, Instagramming, tweeting, and the rest of today’s ever-lowering barriers of entry for publishing content, Bush laments the unmanageable scale of the recorded “human experience”:

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

Marveling at the rapid rate of technological progress, which has made possible the increasingly cheap production of increasingly reliable machines, Bush makes an enormously important — and timely — point about the difference between merely compressing information to store it efficiently and actually making use of it in the way of gleaning knowledge. (This, bear in mind, despite the fact that 90% of data in the world today was created in the last two years.)

Assume a linear ratio of 100 for future use. Consider film of the same thickness as paper, although thinner film will certainly be usable. Even under these conditions there would be a total factor of 10,000 between the bulk of the ordinary record on books, and its microfilm replica. The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van. Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled at by a few.

To that end, I often think about the architecture of knowledge as a pyramid of sorts — at the base of it, there is all the information available to us; from it, we can generate some form of insight, which we then consolidate into knowledge; at our most optimal, at the top of the pyramid, we’re then able to glean from that knowledge some sort of wisdom about the world, and our place in it, and what matters in it and why. Bush himself notes the challenge of transmuting information into wisdom given the scale of what’s available — a scale that has grown by an incomprehensibly enormous magnitude since 1945. He stresses, as many of us believe today, that mechanization — or, algorithms in the contemporary equivalent — will never be a proper substitute for human judgment and creative thought in the filtration process:

Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.

[…]

We seem to be worse off than before — for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.

[…]

Selection, in this broad sense, is a stone adze in the hands of a cabinetmaker.

He then gets to the essence of what we talk about when we talk about “curation”:

The real heart of the matter of selection, however, goes deeper than a lag in the adoption of mechanisms by libraries, or a lack of development of devices for their use. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

The memex

He goes on to envision something called the “memex,” a kind of personal hard drive decades before those became a common way of organizing information, emphasizing the importance of what we now call hyperlinks and metadata — information about the information, often based on associations — in making this personal library navigable and useful:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.… [A]ssociative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another, [is] the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

He proceeds to give an example of how the memex would be used, essentially presaging hypertext, the internet, and even Wikipedia — and, perhaps more importantly, laying out a model for what excellence at the intersection of the editorial and curatorial looks like:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

Bush nails the value of what we call today, not without resistance, “information curation”:

There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

He concludes by considering the cultural value and urgency, infinitely timelier today than it was in his day, of making our civilization’s “record” — the great wealth of information about how we got to where we are — manageable, digestible, and useful in our quest for knowledge, wisdom, and growth:

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.

[…]

The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.

Luckily, for every Sherry Turkle pushing to “terminate the process” in today’s information society, there’s a Steven Johnson cheering on its incremental improvement with a fundamental belief in its potential for wisdom and “true good.”

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