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Where Good Ideas Come From

There is no clearer sign of us entering a new era than reading a book from 2010. Not so long ago, wide-eyed journalists still described the Internet — note the capitalization1 — as a force for good, an incubator of ideas whose capacity to connect people will lead to an exponential growth of innovation and prosperity. If one was to build a case against journalisitc blindness to externalities, Where Good Ideas Come From would make for a good exhibit.

The case against journalistic ignorance of patent law, too. The author, Steven Johnson, describes patents as means of rewarding inventors — and surely we can find a better way to reward them than a device that restricts the all-important distribution of knowledge. Only, that is not why the patent system was introduced, as described clearly if not succinctly by Vannevar Bush. Why a science journalist would straw-man a crucial factor of western technological superiority before attacking it is beyond the scope of this brief review.

The third feather in Johnson’s cap of muddled thinking is his conflation of discoveries and inventions, putting both under the broad category of “ideas”. The problem with that is apparent in the last few chapters of the book, where a series of 2x2s of ideas distributed according to the number of people involved (individual versus networked) and whether the enterprise is commercial (market versus non-market) “proves” Johnson’s case that non-market networked operations are superior, and should be supported above others. After all, from the 1800s onwards, most of the dots have been in their quadrant!

But here is a random2 sample of the 54 ideas listed in the non-market/networked quadrant: electron, RNA splicing, chloroform, cell differentiation, EKG, cosmic rays, universe accelerating, genes and chromosomes, atoms form molecules, radiocarbon dating. Only one of those ten, EKG, is now a physical product being sold and used. Two more, RNA splicing and radiocarbon dating, are methods that could be commercialized. Those three I would describe as inventions, and all three have a rather limited scope of use. Everything else are discoveries, telling us things about how the world works but not directly improving our lives in any meaningful way, other than satisfying our thirst for knowledge.

Now here are 7 ideas randomly selected from the 35 listed in the market/networked quadrant: contact lenses, washing machine, plastic, elevator, steel, television, radio. If Johnson’s quadrants prove anything, it is that having market forces involved is strongly associated with invention. We can, of course, discuss the direction of that particular arrow, and whether markets co-opt inventions they deem useful rather than actually developing them. The distinct lack of inventions in parts of the world where market forces aren’t in play hints at my preferred answer.

Having said that, there are some good ideas in this book about good ideas. One of them, the adjacent possible, a mental model for both discovery and invention, is also the name Johnson now uses for his (rather … good) newsletter. That is the concept that made me remember the book fondly after my initial reading, 10 years ago, and it is the newsletter that made me re-read it. And a good thing too — because even though the book is the same, both I and the world have changed enough to make it irrelevant. It won’t be in my re-read list.


  1. Also note that the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press both revised their stylization to lowercase in 2016, Year Zero of the New Era. This was not, of course, the year’s only notable event. 

  2. Randomization was performed by my hovering a pencil above the page and dropping it with eyes closed. If the pencil hit an empty space, the first idea straight down from the spot was chosen regardless of distance. 


The French Dispatch 👍

The Wes Andersoniest of all Wes Anderson movies, at least the live action ones. Every frame is a painting here, or a New Yorker front page, and in that regard this is also his most artful work. But The Grand Budapest Hotel is still a better movie.


Pieces of the Action

Old men and their tales are good for many things: knowledge, inspiration, amusement, and, occasionaly, ridicule. Vannevar Bush provides all four in this series of (mostly war) stories about innovation and how to kill it. The anecdotes are loosely grouped into themes, and are even more loosely chronologically arranged; an opportunity for a joke, a pun, or a humble-brag trumps any attempt at organization. The feeling is very much like sitting crossed-legged on the carpet next to your grandfather’s airmchair as he — pipe in one hand, tumbler of scotch in the other — spins you a yarn.

Quite a yarn, though. Bush spent time as a leader in academia, government, and industry, in that order, and has good and bad things to say about all three. His preference is for strict hiearchy; his favorite part of government is the military, his most hated subordinates are those who don’t follow chain of command. One doesn’t win a World War without gaining some appreciation for epaulets and funny hats, I suppose.

That said, his is the most convincing case for patents that I’ve come across: they should be seen as a way to secure a return on investment for the venture capital, not a monetary incentive for the inventor. Having a few patents in his name, he knows an idea by itself is worthless without the resources to implement it, resources which won’t come unless there is a guarantee someone else won’t be able to come and lift the final product, bypassing the costly process development. Fifty years after this clear and concise explanation, people still make the mistake of describing patents as rewards (more on Steve Johnson’s book — which if we are being pedantic came out 40-some years after Pieces of the Action — some other day).

So an intelligent, wise, industrious man in the twilight of his career retells his life’s story — all well and useful — but he also gives some predictions: that American politicians are becoming more leader-like and that we should expect to see even more leadership in high-quality politics in the coming days, possibly thanks to that new darling of American intellectuals, the television set. Pieces of the Action came out in 1970, two years before the Watergate break-in and four years before Nixon’s resignation. The difference between metaphorical peaks and real ones is that you don’t know you are on the former until you are well on your way down, and if you spent your life inventing the modern world, running corporations and fighting Nazis, the way down is hard to imagine.


January reading

So far so good. If the first month is anything to go by, I will have the 2022 reading list licked by September.


Safe Haven

My infatuation with Karl Popper’s philosophy of science didn’t survive actual experience in the lab, which was far messier and more nuanced than the strict Austrian hypothesis falsification workflow Popper described. What, then, to make of this book, which is Popperian science applied to financial risk mitigation? It makes sound and persuasive arguments, but then again so did Popper when discussing general scientific progress.

In the dilemma also lies the answer — unlike Popper, who never conducted practical research, Mark Spitznagel is investor first, philosopher of finance last. He needed a framework to impart his wisdom and Popper’s served nicely, though I suspect just as much knowledge transfer would have occurred had he used verse.


How to Live

Continuing the “How to…” series, we’ve come to the pinnacle of self-help schlock… or so I thought. How to Live is a good book. So good, in fact, that I plan on ordering a half-dozen or so copies to give out as birthday presents throughout the year.

Please read slowly. One line at a time. ” says the preface. And it is the perfect advice, for what follows are pithy comments on life grouped into chapters by predominant mood. “Be independent” advises Chapter One, “Commit”, retorts the second; the chapters are internally consistent but mutually conflicted, if not exclusive.

So here is what happens: you will start reading a chapter with an agreeable-sounding name, nodding along in the beginning, until a turning point comes where that particular line of thinking is brought to (what you think are) extremes only found on BBSs, internet forums, and private Facebook groups. Or you may start the chapter by shaking your head in disagreement only to find a line, or two, or ten that are actually quite sensible, for you, at that particular moment in time.

Some savvy operator — a pioneer, the author Derek Sivers might call them in what is the only trollish chapter of the book — could have created a speaking gig, an LLC, or maybe even a cult based on what’s here. Lucky for us that he didn’t: you can order the book online in hardcover, paperback, and many electronic formats.


Twilight of Democracy

Confesions of a neocon boomer, horrified with what her generation has wrought upon the world. That it is written without a hint of irony makes it all the more amusing.

We really did have everything, didn’t we?


Four Thousand Weeks

The subtitle is Time management for mortals, but Making peace with middle age would not be too off the mark. Don’t waste your life micromanaging workplace minutia while waiting for the conditions to be right to start working on what’s important to you. Just do it.

The Nike slogan echoing throughout is not the most GenX thing about it either.

There is an important point there, but I can’t help thinking it could have been made without denigrating other books on time management. From Stephen Covey’s ladders against the wrong wall to David Allen’s 50,000-foot view, most systems have a way of reminding you about the big picture — though only as a footnote and without fancy diagrams so no wonder there are some who miss it. Good thing there is now a whole book about the big picture to add to your workflow.


The Scout Mindset

A brisk account of mental models and cognitive techniques to get you out of idea-defending and into idea-falsifying mode, or from solider to scout mindset, to use the author’s terminology. Soldiers care about status and will use evidence and rhetoric to shore up their established position; scouts care about reality, and will use evidence and rhetoric to seek out and build a better and more trustworthy map.

Yes, we could all do with some more of the scout mindset in our lives — the easiest person to fool being ourselves and all that. It is too bad, then, that people most likely to read and internalize the book are already the most scout-like among their friends. Back in early 2020 many a scout asked for more evidence and even went looking while others were digging ditches and building barricades; they are still pariahs.

Being a scout is a lonely endeavor. No surprise, then, that most humans actively avoid becoming one.


How to Speak and How to Listen

Continuing my streak of self-help indulgence, I decided to re-read Mortimer Adler’s less known work, the one about speaking and listening.1 Parts of the book aged rather poorly.

Lamenting the decline of liberal arts colleges — decline of the 1980s, not the deep dive that was yet to come — he offers some words of self-praise about teaching marketing executives on the importance of ethos, pathos, and logos in controling people’s actions and minds. Oh, how professioral he must have looked — my mind brings up images of a bespectacled jowly professor in a tweed suit; the internet agrees with my assessment and even adds a pipe — educating these know-nothings on the works of Demosthenes. Oh, how tragic is the path to which he led them, and the world.

But I kid. Mortimer Adler the man had little to do with the attention economy of days present, but his ponderings on how to be a good dinner host, impress CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and rile up a crowd to do your bidding are a good example of the tango mortale that academia played with industry in the mid-to-late 20th century. And we are all worse for it.


  1. The best-known one being How to Read a Book, which is good despite itself and its author’s pretentiousness. 

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