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Sunday, January 27, 2013


People who change the world for the better do so because they are led to do it by their conscience. Sometimes it's intuition of what the future should look like. Sometimes it's belief in enriching people's lives. Sometimes it's a feeling about what makes the best experience. Sometimes it's the sense that they are meant to do this.

Once in a generation

When you find yourself in the presence of greatness, there is no way to ignore it. You are stricken by the clarity, the simplicity, and the inarguably correct statements. Their way of understanding is fresh and insightful. Imagine talking with a scientist or mathematician that changed the world: Euclid, Sir Isaac Newton, Karl Friedrich Gauss, Srinvasa Ramanujan, Nikola Tesla, or Albert Einstein! Imagine spending the afternoon in conversation with a great leader that forever changed the way society works, like King Solomon, Charlemagne, Emperor Augustus, or Abraham Lincoln. How I would like to sit and exchange musical ideas with a composer who forever changed the language of music such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, John Lennon, or Paul McCartney (I still have that chance, since McCartney is still around!). And what could I do but sit in admiration at the brilliance of the artists and geniuses that forever affected style and ignited our imaginations, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, or Maurits Cornelis Escher?

When I was an idealistic kid, I wondered about each of these people. I wondered what it would be like to be one of them. Was that even something I would want? How did they accomplish what they did? What sort of difficulties did they go through?

I had so many questions! And I was bursting with ideas also. How should I channel my creative energies? How would people look at my life's work?

It was an interesting motivation, to imagine myself in the shoes of someone great. Soon I forgot all about it, though, and immersed myself in number theory, computer programming, music, and analytic geometry.

I couldn't figure out how they did what they did. All I had was their work to look at. But, once exposed to it, I began to want to create my own music, write my own programs, investigate my own areas of mathematics. It was the start of a journey that I am still on today.

The weight

Talented people are also flawed. It's a bit like they carry the weight of their greatness that is always with them. This theme, with the ring of truth to it, has been expressed in fiction several times. For instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a beloved character adept at following clues and making deductions, was only the intense, enlightened sleuth when the game was afoot. During off times, he fell prey to cocaine addiction.

But is the theme of the tortured genius only around because it makes a better story? No.

Beethoven went deaf at the pinnacle of his fame. Einstein had his remorse at unleashing the atom and yet urged Roosevelt to build the atomic bomb. Van Gogh courted madness and tinnitus, even cutting off his ear. Newton's mother abandoned him, remarrying when he was only 3, which left him a furiously competitive, ruthless, and paranoid man who never had any romantic relationships of any kind. Ramanujan lived in squalor much of his life, starving at some points, and yet made discoveries of such genius that even today we are still struggling to decrypt them. When they tried to school him in modern mathematics, he spouted ideas at such a furious pace that it became useless to continue.

So let's look behind the curtain. What makes this happen?

Some people believe, once they have exerted great change on the world, that they deserve more than mere humans. This is a corrupting influence borne of pride, conceit, even megalomania. Such people may make great changes, but they are rarely truly great. This kind of flaw has brought us dictators, generals, and warriors.

Other people find, when they are working obsessively on a very hard project, that it is their destiny to solve the problem. Even that it is their duty to humanity to build it. I know that, once I am wrapped up in a problem, I often think of nothing else. It is this vacuum, however, that leads to the pathways of delusion. Still, you have to get your motivation from somewhere!

It's true that people can be driven to overcome their difficulties in life. If they are hurt by those around them, they might easily escape into a self-created world where they can feel comfortable. Such a world allows them to channel their genius. Or they might be disabled in some way. The compensating behavior for a disability can also become a framework for channeling their specific talents. This was certainly the case in Beethoven's career. In his silent world, he was no longer influenced by the local styles and instead created his own. Work can be a distraction from a painful existence. In Karl Friedrich Gauss' case, the death of his wife and son in 1809 led to a depression that he couldn't shake. Only his work could give him respite from the blackness.

Madness can be an influence that compels the genius to excel. There can be ideas in the head that are literally struggling to get out. Sometimes creation is the only therapy that helps. This was certainly the case with Vincent van Gogh. Nikola Tesla suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, finding it ever necessary to do things in threes and loathing to touch round objects.

Obsession can be a weight as well. Someone driven to solve a problem will exhibit behavior that is simply obsessive. This can drive them to forget about the responsibilities of life such as relationships, food, and sleep.

Producing greatness

To make a great thing is not just something that is done in a few minutes. The first thing you must do is to understand fully what the concept is for what you are making. And write it down. Clarify it. Make drawings. But never lose sight of what makes it great. Spend some time thinking about the concept. Figure out what its value is. Put the concept away and return to it later. It happens that the best things might come to you when you are driving, shaving, or even dreaming.

To produce it may take many, many tries. I have mentioned before that a large fraction of things tried often must simply be thrown away. This is the way it is when I am solving an unbounded, difficult problem with no general closed-form solution. Examples of this are common.

When Thomas Alva Edison was working on the light bulb, he tried 2000 different materials before he settled on the carbon filament. Isaac Newton spent a laborious eighteen months working on his Principia, itself the result of a decade of thought. In it, he developed the infinitesimal calculus, laboriously rewriting it in standard geometrical terms so astronomers of his day could understand it.

When producing a great product sometimes the product is not the only thing you have to produce. It is clear in many cases that you have to build a whole system of capabilities for it to live in. A context of usefulness.

For Edison, it wasn't enough to create the light bulb. He also had to create a generator of electricity so there was an ecosystem to support it. When Newton was writing his Principia, he had to incorporate and prove the work of people before him, like Johannes Kepler, whose second law, shown above, had already been empirically verified.

For Steve Jobs, it wasn't enough to produce the iPod, iPhone and iPad. He also had to build the iTunes media store, the app store, and several other web services. These are considered to be essential to the success of the iDevices.

You learn things along the way to creating and perfecting it. Some aspects of your product don't even occur to you until it gets used.

This wasn't the case with Albert Einstein, whose General Theory of Relativity finally provided the framework that superseded Newton's physical laws. While it was introduced in 1915 and correctly accounted for the procession of Mercury's perihelion (part of its orbital mechanics), it wasn't until 1959 and later that a systematic series of precision test had verified many of its provisions.

Productizing greatness

Most inventions are not so theoretical. With these, you get a chance to make sure they are right. And the best inventions, the ones that really have an effect, are productized.

If you are making a product, decide what it is that you want this product to be. Do you want it to be the lowest price product so you can sell a lot of them? Or do you want it to enrich the life of the person who buys it? You must deeply care what happens after they buy the product. It's not about what they will do with the product. It's about what the product will do for them. You must understand how it will transform their lives. How will they feel about the product? You must find a way to own the customer because they believe that their life is better. What you don't want to happen is for the user to not care at all about the product. Then it will just sit in a drawer. Instead of being on their person at all times.

To ship a product without first perfecting it is not a good thing. So, when developing the product, use it for everything. Keep on improving it and its main modes of use. Make sure that everybody using the product will appreciate it as a fundamental advancement. Ensure that it will change their lives as well as the nature of all products that come after it.


Great people don't fear change. They embrace it, right? No, that misses the point! You should realize it's much more than that.

Change is their most valuable tool. Let's look at a key example that is already changing things.

In the recent conference call, when asked about the iPad, which appears to be cannibalizing Mac sales, Apple's CEO Tim Cook said this:
We’ve learned over the years not to worry about cannibalization of our own products. It’s much better for us to do that than somebody else to do it. The far, far bigger opportunity here is the 80 million to 90 million PCs that are being sold per quarter. There’s still over 300 million PCs being bought per year, and I think a great number of those people would be much better off buying an iPad or a Mac. So that’s a much bigger opportunity for Apple, and instead of being focused on cannibalizing ourselves, I look at it much more that it’s an enormous incremental opportunity for us.
Instead of fearing the cannibalization effect, he is using the effect to gain entry into a larger market. He's seeing the forest for the trees. Disruption thus becomes a useful tool and a cantilever to huge potential growth.

Disruption is necessary for change. So, if you want to change the world, think about what comes next, and how that process of disruption will occur.


  1. Mark, about feeling a need for Greatness, we have a global employment abyss ahead which is indirectly the result of woefully inadequate primary school computer science education. Please take a moment to read the following linked comments (JustSaying is my pseudonym).

    I am making an initial attempt at solving this:

    For more details and research data, see the following which I wrote:

    I promise this is not Malthusian nonsense. I have been arguing since 2007 that the earth's resources are not a constraint and now I see the USA is producing more oil and natural gas than Saudi Arabia. I was correct.

    1. Rambling account written in extreme rush follows...

      I also did not take care of my health and made some strange decisions to the effects of deprivation of father leaving at age 5, years of 14 x 7 x 365 Deep Hack Mode.

      But on a positive note, I determined that my peripheral neuropathy is likely caused by a high strain (carcinogenic) of incurable HPV I acquired in 2006, and I have been successfully reducing the HPV viral load with correctly produced (golden colored water, not clear which can cause Argyia) colloidal silver (CS). The key is the silver ions are missing an electron and are so small and reactive that they bind with the sulfur or chloride and get lodged inside the cells. The silver nanoparticles (several complete atoms) reflect the greenish-yellow spectrum and are only reactive in the body at the oxidation layer (where the electron microscopy shows them killing pathogens in vitro). Shown to be active against bacteria, HIV, and SARS in vitro.


      I almost died in May of an acute peptic ulcer due to H.pylori bacteria from spoiled food. After an all night programming session, stomach exploded with a hole in the morning and I curled into a ball and couldn't walk. Had to be brought to ER by ambulance.

      Want to know what it feels like to have a fire burning inside on your internal organs for a few days? I made is 6 hours before begging for morphine. They don't give it here in Philippines even to terminal cancer patients. After a day, I was able to coerce some Nubain. I took it twice and got 3 hours of "floating in the clouds" relief and did not get addicted. It was otherwise 72 hours of counting "1, 2, 3, ...", breath, want to die to release the pain, repeat.

      After that the HPV went bezerk for several months and I had papilomas breaking out all over my body for months. Blood test showed the lymphocytes after over 50% indicating huge viral load.

      Finally getting back to normal after 200+ml per day CS since late November.

    2. Whoa Shelby! It sounds unpleasant! Well, I guess there are some downsides to living in the Philippines. I have heard of colloidal silver treatment. And I know it's quite effective in the loci you stated.

      The point of my article, which I gather from your first comment you understand is that it is necessary to produce greatness right here, right now. Your posts focusing on the housing and job crises show your concern for the downturns of society. Most of which are the result of inevitable disruption of various industries. However, I wouldn't be so quick to assume robotics can quickly replace all the things that people are good at. When one aspect of their capability gets replaced by a robotic tool, we find other things for the people to do that makes use of their recognition, agile hand-eye coordination, and higher-level reasoning skills. This has happened over and over again.

      For instance, can a machine write code? Sure it can. I write code that writes code all the time. It's part of the unique set of tools I use to solve statically complex problems. But writing the ode that writes the code is still a complex, time-consuming task. Luckily it saves a lot of time writing the base level code.

      By writing this code, and employing a compiler, then maybe the I am writing code that writes code that gets translated into code by another program. We tools people are always standing on each others shoulders. And sometimes we stand on our own shoulders, too.

      One might wonder whether it's a good thing to replace the tens of thousands of workers assembling gadgets in an Asian factory, for instance, with robotic assembly lines. When I was younger, I witnessed assembly lines here in Silicon Valley and I know that this kind of labor is sheer agonizing drudgery. Yet so many people call it their livelihood, and cash therefore circulates in places where it otherwise wouldn't. So robotic disruption would cause plenty of currency disruption, I have no doubt.

      (Meanwhile, my kids are watching "I, Robot" in the next room, for a bit of irony!)

      Your assumption that we must now teach people new, less disruptable jobs is absolutely, incontrovertibly correct. And in that throng of people who are learning how to program, we might just find a little bit of greatness. Actually, that is the only way a factory can keep in step with the ever-changing demands of their clients: learning. People are not dumb assemblers. They are constantly learning new things and updating their skills to remain relevant. The factory actually has an investment to protect and so this is what they are forced to do.

      If hey are not doing this then they run the risk of being quickly disrupted.

      Learning: As a suggestion, I find that interactive study makes for the best learning. An example is my son, who is fascinated with Minecraft. One mod for the simple game features wires and circuits. He downloaded and installed it (he's 8YO) and learned how to use it. How did he know how to do this? YouTube videos, of course! He watched them again and again to learn how to do it all. He even does command-line programming so triggering something can generate a string or play a sound.

      Minecraft, which many teachers are apparently in the process of discovering, is a great way to teach spatial reasoning skills, and also things like barter, simple programming concepts, and even machine concepts like solenoid action.

      And it does it by letting the kids discover them on their own.

      And OMG dude! Try to stay alive!


    3. Thanks Mark, I agree. Technology creates more jobs for human ingenuity. Remember we agreed in the past comments that Kurzweil's Singularity is not going to replace humans.

      The USA will probably be the low cost leader in electricity cost with abundant cheap natural gas due to fracking. Thus we could see the manufacturing return from Asia, with robotics. I think this would be best, and will hopefully destroy the communist party system in China, i.e. the 200 families that rape the country holding the people down. Hopefully the transition won't be violent. Honda has cars that run on LPG.

      Unstructured interactive learning is best, because experimentation brings out creativity and the ability to recognize and solve new problems. Thanks for the tip on Minecraft.

      Thanks for your concern. My athleticism is coming back. At 48, I haven't lost strength, perhaps just 10 - 20% of my speed and agility.

    4. Shelby,

      It's hard to believe that a static robotic installation will be able to anticipate all the manufacturing issues that come with constantly updated hardware design specifications. This is primarily why a factory like Hon Hai can get the business, I feel. People can be retaught (and they are, constantly). They are fantastically quick to shift to new demand from their clients.

      So I would think that, in order for your speculation about the overthrow of the Chinese manufacturing and export oligarchy to come true, we will have to do some real thinking about robotics. Maybe it is faster to reprogram robots than to re-teach humans, but if redesign is required, and it most certainly will be, then the viability of the robotic solution will certainly need to be proven.

      The US does seem to be producing more oil and natural gas thanks to the questionable process of fracking. In 5 years we could be the world's top oil producer and in another few years we may be exporting oil rather than importing it. That's a major development I would say.

      Compressed natural gas (CNG) is a highly-viable fuel, though volume-bulky compared to gasoline. I still have my sights set on electric vehicles. Tesla is leading the way with their supercharging stations. But as I say in my various blogposts, batteries have a ways to go before instant recharging becomes a possibility. Supercapacitors are a key technology that needs to be developed.

      But the production of electricity must also be environmentally friendly. As China has found out; if you use coal to generate electricity then you have a real problem!

      We will still need petrofuels for Airplanes. Unless somebody figures out how to produce positrons at a rate of grams per day.

      Yes, I do believe things like Minecraft are part of the future of education and intelligence garnering. Something like that for programming (say, specifically targeted to producing good programmers and teaching them concepts of computation) is something I have been thinking about for some time.

      Teaching people about computers, monitors and hard drives and the difference between hardware and software is a bit outdated since computers are changing so fast. And some of those differences are being erased as we speak. My solution is to make everything virtually-tangible, putting the ecosystem of computation into a form that is more easily manipulated in a constructive form. What we need is people who can grasp logic and algorithms. And things like parallelism, graph theory, and geometry.

      Not everybody can do that. So the computing game must be able to weed out who can and who can't do the various things. Will there be classes of programmers? Specialization? Of course. Probably we can determine "who can be what" very early.

      IDEs have been getting better for decades. I wonder what the next generation of IDEs will look like? And where are they heading? If I knew these things, then I could design the game much quicker, I think.


    5. The 60 Minutes program I linked to shows that the Baxter robot can be trained in a few minutes to do new tasks and it costs $3.40 per hour roughly. And the price will be declining of course. Also the other robotics firm featured in that show, said they have so many variants of robots and can reprogram them to do new tasks.

      I intuitively agree that the more static processes will be likely the first to be automated, e.g. the razor factory that was moved back from China to Holland. But I also think it will be a continuous progression with more and more variance being incorporated into robotics as the technology matures and builds R&D capital momentum from the early adopters.

      It is just a matter of time for us to work out the technologies for modularity and reconfigurability. I think this is already under way and accelerating. Humans will over the next decades be valued for their minds, and not for the dexterity of our opposing thumbs and the ability to learn new repetitive tasks.

      China's capital intensive growth model can't continue much longer in any case, due to the massive debt their model has created. See for the details on that.

      I suppose natural gas will be a cleaner alternative to coal for the interim while we transition to safer nuclear generation, i.e. either breeders, thorium or fission. And more solid-state cooling systems, e.g. sodium salts coolants, such as the units Toshiba has which can be buried and power a small city. Somebody is purposely retarding nuclear generation improvements. My guess is it has to do with profits that can be made on a carbon tax :wink:

      I only applied a single page to hardware versus software, and the bulk of my presentation is about classifying programming languages according to the key properties of Declarative, Turing-complete, Typing, and Object-oriented (I have improved the elucidation since you previously saw it):

      I agree that getting the student into interactive learning and experimentation as soon as possible is key. And also to find motivations for them to apply computational theories and/or discover them independently.

    6. Typo: I meant nuclear fusion.

    7. Foxconn (Hon Hai) which is the manufacturer of Apple gadgets, has plans to replace 1 million workers with robots, but they are behind schedule:

    8. On interactive learning, I may be the first to have implemented real-time HTML linting in JavaScript for unstructured learning with the editor in my (now superior to HTML Intro.

    9. Interactive learning will almost certainly be dominated by iPad-like devices, if not iPads themselves.

      Robotics may simply be a foray into the future, with those articles raising alarmist concerns, like so much of the media does. And I'm sure that Terry Gou really knows what the future will bring. His batting average is not really very good.

      The factories are miracles of bringing the adaptable element up to speed very fast. By this I mean humans. When a change in demand occurs, then they can turn on a dime. This is because they work for all the companies. HP, Microsoft, Apple, etc, etc. And they always need to repurpose their resources. Natural product lifecycles make sure of that.

      It's a programmer's dream and also a complete, utter fantasy that robots can adapt as quick as humans to a given task. Because, more often than not, the new task is very different from the last one. Often each new product brings a completely new set of difficulties in manufacturing. I suspect that the robots will be doing the tasks that are most likely that they can perform, and the humans are still going to be doing the more complex work. Gou's comments even reflect that reality. Quality is always an issue at Foxconn, particularly as industrial design standards are getting higher and higher.

      They need robots so they can do *more* work and maintain yield levels. The humans will obviously be doing inspection work and making sure the quality is up to spec. Recognition is our strong point, after all.

      It's hard to turn out millions of high-quality devices at such a pace. I suspect Apple has had the largest influence on Foxconn's necessity to change.

    10. In the "Computer is the Bicycle of the Mind", Steve Jobs pointed out that the computer amplifies the capability of the mind analogous to the bicycle amplifies the human legs (allowing us to rise above the condor in efficiency of locomotion).

      If we assume programming will become part of most creative activities, then a tablet without a keyboard won't suffice. Programming will likely remain an unambiguous language (e.g. we don't want grammar that allows dangling-else embiguity), unlike human language. I don't think voice recognition and touching with fat fingers can be faster than typing for editing programming languages.

      In theory, any repetitive task can be programmed and done more efficiently and accurately with a machine, including repetitive recognition. If the tasks changes after every X repetitive units produce, then machine has to be reprogrammed. The limiting factors are a) how fast we can reprogram, b) how adaptable is the hardware, c) technology. All of these factors are advancing very fast. We even have the 3D printer for making custom parts rapidly, even a personal version for $1500.

      Humans will be valued for their creative minds, i.e. software, not for their repetitive hardware (which includes repetitive recognition).

      I assert the future is everyone will program.

    11. The 78 year cycle that repeats throughout history supports my theory: