Forget Brainstorming and More

From the opening paragraph of the Newsweek article Forget Brainstorming

Brainstorming in a group became popular in 1953 with the publication of a business book, Applied Imagination. But it’s been proven not to work since 1958, when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team’s creative output: the same number of people generate more and better ideas separately than together.

Creative thinking is everything but collaboration. When people discuss or even vote for the inspirations flashed in one’s mind, it’s much unlikely that the best ideas would be on the final list, as nothing could be new if it’s widely accepted once born. Every piece of advice is a package of the originality, making it harder to be out of box.

In fact, according to University of Oklahoma professor Michael Mumford, half of the commonly used techniques intended to spur creativity don’t work, or even have a negative impact. As for most commercially available creativity training, Mumford doesn’t mince words: it’s “garbage.” Whether for adults or kids, the worst of these programs focus solely on imagination exercises, expression of feelings, or imagery.

There is definite boundary between creation and imagination. When we talk about creative works, it means they provide “reasonable surprise” to the customers, compared to the “pure surprise” irrelevant of the real world and social rules. Now, since it is astonishing and unexpected to us, how could it be produced as designed?

The only thing one would bless is the brain itself, instead of its working method.

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Minimalism and Japanese Web Design

From The puzzle of Japanese web design, where the author discussed the paradoxical style of Japanese websites.

Given Japan’s world-leading preference for the boldly simple in the applied and graphic arts, it’s puzzling that so many Japanese website designs prize clutter over clarity. The online presence of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare is typical of the style. See also Japan Airlines,, and so on. Even web consultancies show off their capabilities on sites that are models of this strangely cluttered aesthetic—an aesthetic that is doubly strange coming from a culture that has long prized elegant simplicity.

First, I am holding a baseline that users prefer to find their information with the least efforts, including the action of eye-moving and clicking. So the so-called minimized design is never “highly usable”, unless the original purpose is to concentrate focus. This assumption again seems abstruse as most minimalists try to attract the website visitors to the dedicated vector arts or illustrative icons.

The examples given above are mostly from organizations who provides services or information. Now the web designers have two choices. One is to gather all the information together so that users can skim between lines and words. The alternative is then to sort all the mess carefully so that no one could get lost during navigating. Unfortunately, very few websites could come up with a perfect categorization.

Just like this xkcd comic implies, for the majority of the visitors, the most useful things are seldom on the front page. Then why not left the choices for user’s eyes? It’s utilitarianism to the maximum. It has nothing to do with Bauhaus.

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Does Extrinsic Reward Work? Again No

The book DRIVE says no. This article from the Economist seems to disagree. From Satchel, uniform, bonus: Pay-for-performance for school students is no silver bullet.

The results of the experiments where scholastic performance was rewarded were uniformly disappointing. … Plenty of money was paid out, but Mr Fryer found absolutely no evidence that paying students led them to do better than their peers in the control schools. …

What explains this disappointing result? Some argue that the external push provided by money erodes an inherent love of learning. But participating students also took tests that measured how much they enjoyed studying. There was no indication that the payments affected those sentiments. Nor was it the case that students were uninterested in the programme.

I am interested in the real meaning of the “tests”. Students get paid due to excellent performance on exams, which should be the results of hard studying. So it’s well expected they will enjoy studying, no matter whether they really love studying itself or the delicious rewards. Researchers will find difficulties, actually, to explain if students dislike it just because of the extra pocket money.

The designed purpose of the tests, aka proving that money doesn’t erode the inherent love of learning, cannot be easily achieved in the short term. The effect of money rewards seems to be more destructive in the long run. We say money is evil because it replaces the long-term love of the activity itself with the short-term love of pure results. The experiment has nothing to do with the intrinsic love.

The key point of this story is based on the argument that extrinsic reward does work when properly designed. See

… leaving it up to participants to find the best way to earn goodies will not work either if, as Mr Fryer believes, pupils have very little idea how to go about improving their own scores.

When students in New York or Chicago were asked how they would earn the rewards on offer, they came up with all sorts of ideas about test-taking strategies, but not one mentioned reading the textbooks or doing practice questions. On the other hand, those whose performance improved in the Israeli experiment had clear ideas about how to go about making sure they graduated. They took more practice tests and were much more likely to attend free coaching sessions.

If students do not know how to improve their own performance, the best strategy may be to pick a simple task, reward pupils for doing it, and hope that this translates into higher grades. This was the approach Mr Fryer took in Dallas, where second-grade students were simply given $2 for every book they read if they passed a computerised comprehension test on it. Predictably this spurred them to read more books and improved their vocabularies. But it also improved their school grades substantially, although this is not what they were paid for. A year after the payments had stopped, students in the schools that had offered money were still outperforming those in control schools, although the gap had narrowed. It may have helped that the Dallas students were younger. Middle-school students in Washington, DC, gained little from being paid for inputs like attendance. But the results from Dallas suggest that payments can help at least some students get more out of school.

If the students never read ever, a little cash can gently remind them of the importance of reading.

So does the reward really work? Students are paid to read books now. Will they lose interests in reading after the payments ceased? They outperform others because they read more; the advantage cannot lose in days or months. So even they stop reading immediately, they can stay among the top for a while.

So money can do no more than a reminder like post-it notes. Once you are rather accustomed to this system, the absence of the reminder will throw you into the dis-organized again.

Reference: * “The Effects of High Stakes High School Achievement Awards”, by Joshua Angrist and Victor Lavy. Forthcoming in the American Economic Review. “Financial Incentives and Student Achievement”, by Roland G. Fryer junior. NBER Working Paper 15898, April 2010.

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Always See, Never Lie

From Eye position predicts what number you have in mind, published in Current Biology (also see Jonah Lehrers article)

Here, we demonstrate how the eyes and their position give an insight into the nature of the systematic choices made by the brain’s ‘random number generator’. By measuring a person’s vertical and horizontal eye position, we were able to predict with reliable confidence the size of the next number — before it was spoken. Specifically, a leftward and downward change in eye position announced that the next number would be smaller than the last. Correspondingly, if the eyes changed position to the right and upward, it forecast that the next number would be larger. Apart from supporting the old wisdom that it is often the eyes that betray the mind, the findings highlight the intricate links between supposedly abstract thought processes, the body’s actions and the world around us.

Our results are therefore particularly interesting because they demonstrate links between numbers, magnitude and movement in a task where no action planning was required — especially as they relate to a task-irrelevant oculo-motor system. Our study is also noteworthy because it demonstrates that simply thinking of random numbers is accompanied by systematic changes in eye position. Lateral eye movements have previously been linked specifically to the computation of mental arithmetic problems, such as addition and subtraction.

Also cognitive scientists use the movement of eyes to investigate the moral life of babies.

It’s a challenge to study the cognitive abilities of any creature that lacks language, but human babies present an additional difficulty, because, even compared to rats or birds, they are behaviorally limited: they can’t run mazes or peck at levers. In the 1980s, however, psychologists interested in exploring how much babies know began making use of one of the few behaviors that young babies can control: the movement of their eyes. The eyes are a window to the baby’s soul. As adults do, when babies see something that they find interesting or surprising, they tend to look at it longer than they would at something they find uninteresting or expected.

There are things you cannot lie eventually. This is the Shannon Limit for behavior-based social science.

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Quote: Booklist from DRIVE

The book DRIVE is all you need to understand what really motivates us. For depth research, this book also provides some books for further reading.

1 Finit and Infinite Game: A Vision of Life as Paly and Possibility By James P. Carse

Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.

2 Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else By Geoff Colvin

If you set a goal of becoming an expert in your business, you would immediately start doing all kinds of things you don’t do now.

3 Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

4 Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation By Edward L. Deci with Richard Flaste

(The questions "How do I motivate people to do…") are wrong because they imply that motivation is something that gets doen to people rather than something that people do.

5 Mindset: The New Psychology of Success By Carol Dweck, []

·         A fixed mindset might hurt your resiliency

·         Interpret challenges not as roadblocks, but as opportunities to stretch yourself

·         Use the language of growth, like "I’m not sure I can do it now, but I think I can learn with time and effort."

6 Then We Came to the End By Joshua Ferris Novel

7 Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet By Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Wiliam Damon []

8 Outlier: The Story of Success By Malcolm Gladwell

It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine-to-five. It’s whether our work fulfills us.

9 Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln By Doris Kearns Goodwin

·         Lincoln was self-confident enough to surround himself with rivals who excelled in areas where he was weak

·         He genuinely listened to other people’s points of view, which helped him form more complex opinions of his own.

·         He gave credit where it was due and wasn’t afraid to take the blame

10 The Amateurs: The Story of Four Young Men and Their Quest for an Olympic Gold Medal By David Halberstam

11 Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes By Alfie Kohn, []

Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.

12 Once a Runner By John L. Parker, Jr.

If he could conquer the weakness, the cowardice in himself, he could not worry about the rest; it would come.

13 The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles By Steven Pressfield

The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.

14 Maverrick: The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace By Ricardo Semler

I want everyone at Semco to be self-sufficient. The company is organized not to depend too much on any individual, especially me.

15 The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization By Peter M. Senge

People with a high level of personal mastery are able to consistently realize the results that matter most deeply to them – in effect, they approach their life as an artist would approach a work of art. They do that by becoming committed to their own lifelong learning.

A pleasant reading experience. We can never imagine our world when everyone understands Motivation 3.0.

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Behavioral Economics and Motivations – Notes on DRIVE

I am reading Daniel H. Pink’s new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. One minor idea from this book is

·         All of economics is meant to be about people’s behavior.

From this point I can see a great fuse of economics, psychology, management, and other related social science, all of which are based on the human’s behaviors. This is also one highlight of this book.

This reminds me of one PBS NOVA program Mind over Money, which tries to illustrate an irreconcilable conflict between (traditional) rational economics and behavioral economics. I find myself difficult to accept this point, considering the only difference of the two framework, as I think, is the boundary of rationality. Their relationship is somehow similar to the connection between classical physics and quantum physics, each of which are in charge of their own empire. It proves to be exhausted to analyze the motion of a falling ball using the frameworks based on Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

As Daniel’s book indicates, the era of carrots and sticks is leaving us. It becomes less effective the techniques to design and predict our performances. Extrinsic rewards can only motivate us to pursue rewards themselves. In that sense, limited rationality is no longer a mere assumption.

Following is the Anthropology of an Idea: "Behavioral Economics", from Foreign Policy.

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Seeking the Mirrored Partner

Previously I mentioned the greater the age difference from the husband, the lower the wife’s life expectancy. Here is another evidence from Booth School of Business, University of Chicago. Also see Steve Landsburg’s The Big Question.

(Part III. E) As expected, we find that the users of the dating service prefer a partner whose age is similar to their own. Women who are single try to avoid divorced men, while divorced women have a preference for a partner who is also divorced. Similarly, single men avoid divorced women, but divorced men have no particular preference to date a divorced woman. Both men and women who have children prefer a partner who also has children. Members with children, however, are much less desirable to both men and women who themselves do not have children. …

Regarding height, we find that men typically avoid tall women, while women have a preference for tall men. Men have a strong distaste for women with a large BMI, while women tend to prefer heavier men. The estimates of income preferences show that women place about twice as much weight on income than men. … Regarding education, we find that both men and women want to meet a partner with a similar education level. While women have an overall strong preference for an educated partner, but also have a relatively small tendency to avoid men who are more educated than themselves, men generally shy away from educated women. The estimated same-race preferences show that both men and women have a preference for a partner of their own ethnicity. Finally, we find that both men and women have a preference for a partner of the same religion.

Sadly, the more “ordinary” it looks, the more hard we could find some persuasive but non-trivia explanations for the situation. It’s like air, existing long before realized.

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【Discover World】Art and Science, Sand and Marshmallows

This striking art has been on Youtube for quite a while.

Sand Animation by Kseniya Simonova

For the science part, here is how to write sounds on sound in the language of waves, equally interesting.

Chladni Singing by meara o’reilly

Additional note on wavelength. Here is how to measure the light speed using marshmallows from Orbiting Frog.

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Regretting What I have done Correctly?

A short article in Cheap talk

David Leonhardt had an interesting column on underestimation of risk.  BP’s possible underinvestment in protecting against a gross accident is exhibit one.:

The people running BP did a dreadful job of estimating the true chances of events that seemed unlikely — and may even have been unlikely — but that would bring enormous costs.

Perhaps the easiest way to see this is to consider what BP executives must be thinking today. Surely, given the expense of the clean-up and the hit to BP’s reputation, the executives wish they could go back and spend the extra money to make Deepwater Horizon safer. That they did not suggests that they figured the rig would be fine as it was.

But this does not prove the case.  You may buy a stock given the odds of it going up or down.  If it goes down you will regret your investment.  This does not prove it was wrong to invest in the first place.  It might have been right given your initial assessment. The same logic applies to BP.

This is a simple point: regret does not imply that the ex ante decision was bad.  Leonhardt is  a great economics commentator and journalist.  The fact that he makes this elementary mistake shows how easy it is to make.

It is quite against intuition to say regretting does not indicate sub-optimal estimation. For the stock example given. it was a wrong investment when you have already sold out the stock at the point lower than expected. The weakness lies that the uncertainty is still on the going before any buy-or-sell actions. Once lost is declared, surely people will feel regretted for the wrong decisions before.

The only possibility to regret a right deed is wrong regretting itself, which once you have realized.

Back to the original column,

For all the criticism BP executives may deserve, they are far from the only people to struggle with such low-probability, high-cost events. Nearly everyone does. “These are precisely the kinds of events that are hard for us as humans to get our hands around and react to rationally,” Robert N. Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard, says. We make two basic — and opposite — types of mistakes. When an event is difficult to imagine, we tend to underestimate its likelihood. This is the proverbial black swan. Most of the people running Deepwater Horizon probably never had a rig explode on them. So they assumed it would not happen, at least not to them.

Out of sight, out of mind; BP has definitely underestimated the extremely negative social effects from rage readers.

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The Catastrophe of Insomnia

One third of our life time is left ungoverned by the conscious. But for the only animal “who cannot sleep in the world known so far, to switch the brain off to certain spontaneous mode seems much harder than just to fully control it. Simply enough, it is easy to think a white bear than not to think of it, since right now you are thinking about what on earth is to un-think, or to dis-think, what so ever.

As the column article Can’t sleep, don’t sleep points out

As the persistently sleep-deprived won’t need telling, such ironies run deep in insomnia, which is victim to what the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner calls “ironic processes of mental control”: trying to get to sleep is a sure-fire way to fail. And this is only one example: efforts to suppress negative thoughts or to eliminate anxiety are all prone, Wegner argues, to the same devilish mechanism. You try to control your own mind in some way, but can’t help triggering an internal monitoring process that watches to see if you’re succeeding – and that disrupts the whole business. You grow hyper-alert about not being asleep, anxious about your anxiety, upset about failing to think happy thoughts.

This also reminds me of one Hayek quote from The Fatal Conceit

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Not only economics, but almost everything. We have many rules in every science field which strictly prohibit us from releasing all the design freedom. The first law, the second law, but never the last law. Luckily, even with those numerous restrictions, probably thanks to the rules, we are dancing gracefully within predefined orders.

Back to the annoying sleeplessness, can we come to the conclusion: the best way to fight against insomnia is to not fight anymore?

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