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A holiday card to the industry, 2010

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Recently, scientists at CERN split mercury nuclei for the first time. They expected two zirconium nuclei. What they got was ruthenium and krypton.

For some of us, it’s remarkable enough that they could tell. Knowing enough about fission that this result is surprising is even more remarkable.

For the particle physics community, the gift was the surprise itself. Expected results tell researchers they’re on the right track, but unforeseen results? They can open a whole new field of inquiry. If you’re a scientist, that’s what you hope for.

* * *

Avatar was visually stunning. The production technology was astounding. The movie itself? As my daughter Kimberly put it, Avatar was Pocahontas without the music. 162 minutes of nothing unexpected.

Contrast that with Field of Dreams. The special effects were unimpressive, but when I watched it for the first time there wasn’t a single moment when I knew what was going to happen next. Marvelous!

* * *

In business we expend tremendous effort to avoid surprises. It wouldn’t be wrong to define professional management as the discipline of surprise prevention. The best-run businesses understand their marketplaces and inner workings well enough to predict the impact of every initiative they envision before they put them into practice.

This, in fact, is why business theorists have been so fascinated … obsessed might be a better term … with process design and management. Process is supposed to provide repeatable, predictable results.

But that isn’t where value comes from. Value comes from uniqueness, and from surprise. Apple, for example, succeeds by developing products that aren’t just like everything else. Does Apple have a process for innovating unexpected products?

I’d say no, by definition. A practice, perhaps, but not a process. No series of steps can, in the absence of inspiration, lead to the brilliantly new. The formulas I’ve seen resemble Sidney Harris’s famous mathematical proof … the one whose key step states, “And then a miracle occurs.

Processes that prevent innovation, on the other hand? Heck, that’s what most of ’em are for.

* * *

My wife and I enjoy a local event called “Art Attack.” Not because every artist’s work is brilliant … far from it, many had only one idea, painted on a hundred canvases … but because a handful are unique and startling.

That’s the difference between art and decoration: The greatest art is so valuable in part because there’s only one original Starry Night, I and the Village, and Abduction of Europa. Or none: The “original” of Picasso’s Flashlight Centaur vanished as he drew it.

Uniqueness alone isn’t artistic merit, of course. The best art is also disturbing in some way … not necessarily in the sense of creating distress, but necessarily in the sense of moving things to a new and unexpected arrangement.

Art shouldn’t leave you unchanged.

* * *

Neither should people. Yes, I know, we’re each unique, just like everyone else. Even being unusual is something of a challenge on a planet that’s getting close to 7 billion human inhabitants.

And yet, when I think about what I treasure in the people I know it’s their ability to occasionally surprise me. And no matter how well I think I know my friends and family, every so often they’ll pop out with a remark that makes my jaw drop.

* * *

The holiday season is filled with awful trends. There’s the trend of having it start earlier every year … I think it now begins January 23rd. There’s the dueling trend of being afraid to mention Christmas and taking offense when someone doesn’t.

There’s the annual showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But the worst trend is the joyous swapping of gift cards. What’s the point? Let’s cut out the intermediary — instead of buying gift cards for each other, why don’t we each just go shopping for ourselves and have done with it?

The most fun you can have when unwrapping presents is discovering something someone else found for you that you didn’t even know was a thing. Gift cards? Bah, humbug.

* * *

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy tells of psychologists so advanced they can predict with precision how society will evolve, and how it would respond to any imagined stimulus.

Asimov was personally brilliant. He was a wonderful raconteur. He was one of the pioneers who invented modern speculative fiction.

His characters, however, rarely achieved two dimensions … even those who lived in four or more … and so he never described the debilitating depression that would have afflicted members of the “Second Foundation.” What a horrible world they must have inhabited, with little chance of ever experiencing a surprise.

* * *

Predictability is overrated. Here’s to a year of surprises.

Have a Happy Holidays Season (no, that isn’t a typo). I’m taking a break until after the New Year. See you then.

Comments (14)

  • >far from it, many had only one idea, painted on a hundred canvases …

    Look again, gentle reader. The fastest way to mastery is to paint that idea out it all its iterations. Many in industry would do well to understand the value of playing around with small modifications.

    Agreed, it’s no Starry Night. But we (collectively) didn’t think too blinking much of said Starry Night during the equivalent of Art Attack during Vincent’s day.

    Personally, I’d vote with the guy who knows about how to develop the one miracle flash of an idea into something worth an entire painting, rather than counting on the flash itself being developed all the way into a life-changing painting on the first try.

    Most corporations could stand a bit of the repetition in their practices.

  • I love reading your email.
    Basically it reminds me most of dibert.
    And he is so on the mark I have look at my daily dilbert before getting out of bed!

    I also like your blend of it and tech stuff.

    I share your email quite often with fellow workers
    But never my wife.
    She does not like dilbert therefore……….

    Happy holidays

  • I agree with you about Avatar and Field of Dreams, but I still liked both of them and I think they both achieved the goal of entertaining most viewers

  • Just thought it time to say how much I enjoy and look forward to your column. I’ve tweet referenced it on several occasions and have recommended it to others.

    I’m a software engineer, and I find it refreshing to have business issues discussed with clarity and insight.

    Enjoy the holidays.

  • I LOVE that Sidney Harris cartoon. Good cartoonists are often unpredictable; good jokes are the same way. I didn’t enjoy Asimov’s Foundation as much as some of his others – while the characters weren’t necessarily fully developed, there were surprises. (And when I read that he would type the whole story without mistakes or corrections – wow!)

  • Art is a process. The artist has an idea for a work, formulates a plan of execution, uses a combination of new and familiar techniques, and proceeds towards a goal.

    The difference between artists and the technicians is the artist’s willingness to embrace his or her mistakes, to accept them as part of the process, and most importantly, to be inspired by them.

    It seems to me that what we’ve lost in the last 20 years is an appreciation for research and development. These days a development efforts starts at “hey we need this” and goes right into planning and scheduling. I can’t even guess how many times I’ve been told, “we can’t go wasting time or effort on throw-away code.”

    There are two elements of the Mona Lisa that make it so evocative, her smile, and the unusual background. I like to imagine Da Vinchi thinking, “This landscape is not so good. Perhaps I should paint a pretty girl instead.”

    A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.
    – James Joyce

  • Amen Brother.

    Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Have a Happy Holiday! (That about covers em all…)

  • I was pleasantly surprised by your reference to Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. And while I understand the point you were going for, I must address an inaccuracy.

    The psychologists could predict the evolution of whole societies, but were totally unequipped, and therefore did not try, to predict any individual’s actions and reactions. Therefore the Second Foundation’s citizens could still have full lives, filled with unpredictable friends, random local events, and relationships with uncertain outcomes. All the while they were secure in the knowledge of the eventual unfolding of the bigger picture. Until of course, the unforeseen stimulus occurred….

  • Just on observation, not a criticism: I’ve found using movies/books/television as support for arguments usually fails unless you have a very controlled audience. Examples: I thought “Field of Dreams” was trite. And while I thought you were dead on about Asimov, there are hordes of people who think otherwise, and who would therfore not be convinced.

    On a separate topic, I think you fail to fully differentiate between physical uniqueness and conceptual uniqueness. You could replicate the art masterpiece of your choice till you’re hip deep in it, and it would still be a masterpiece. Just not monetarily valuable. That’s why photographers can still be artists yet crank out print after print. It’s replicating a concept that cheapens the artistic value. At least that’s what they told us in art school

  • Thank you for another thoughtful read. I am usually surprised by your train of thought. With most people I am rarely or never surprised. Just a thought on Asimov: he wrote quantity every day and did not edit. It showed. As I grew and read his later works I eventually realized that he envisioned a fascist future, man and superman, eugenics and central command. His early works are his best, because I read them as a child- they were youth fiction.

    Best wishes to you!

  • Thanks, Bob. I really enjoyed your observations here.

  • Bob, you might find Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury interesting. The book is a thinly-veiled look at Asimov’s Foundation and considers what the likely result of such an attempt to control all human society. The author is a skilled mathematician and I found many of his ideas interesting, such as defining entropy as a loss of information (probably well-known in certain disciplines, but new to me).

    Without giving away too much of the story, I appreciated his conclusion that the very attempt to control human society would lead to the failure of that control – something that my own study of history suggests is correct. To paraphrase a common expression: surprise happens. The question is, will we be ready for it?

  • Thank you, Bob, for years of wonderful columns. I hope the next year brings mostly *good* surprises!

Comments are closed.