seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Vaclav Smil

This guy is sharp. Vaclav Smil.

Motivation and Economics

I'm not familiar with Clay Shirky, but after this article in Wired, I want to read up on his work. I've heard his name frequently, but this article reminded me of the many many flaws with classical economics - flaws that led me to totally disregard the entire field of economics for many years.

Pink: Which is nonsense. Both of us cite research from University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci showing that if you give people a contingent reward—as in “if you do this, then you’ll get that”—for something they find interesting, they can become less interested in the task. When Deci took people who enjoyed solving complicated puzzles for fun and began paying them if they did the puzzles, they no longer wanted to play with those puzzles during their free time. And the science is overwhelming that for creative, conceptual tasks, those if-then rewards rarely work and often do harm.

Shirky: You talk about the laws of behavioral physics working differently in practice from what we believe in theory.

Pink: Yes, often these outside motivators can give us less of what we want and more of what we don’t want. Think about that study of Israeli day care centers, which we both write about. When day care centers fined parents for being late to pick up their kids, the result was that more parents ended up coming late. People no longer felt a social obligation to behave well.

The faster we can move beyond outdated ideas of what motivates people to action, the better.

Computer: Enhance!

Photographers and computer-literate people have long laughed at the cop dramas and movies where the good guys have the "enhance" button for some grainy photo. For instance, they get a photo off some red-light camera where some pass sideview mirror has a 2.5 pixels covering a key license plate. "Can you enhance it," is the question. The answer is always yes.

That just might be possible. Scary. Some math geeks came up with an algorithm called "Compressed Sensing" and it is already being used in medical imaging to improve MRI scans.

I'm not going to further spoil the story, but you read it yourself at

Too Cheap to Meter, 2009 Edition

Chris Anderson gets it. The editor-in-chief at Wired magazine, I find him uniquely insightful when it comes to describing modern technology and its effects on culture and society. This article, Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It's Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity explains why we need to change the way we think about technology - particularly when it comes to communications and data storage.

When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world.

The problem is that abundant resources, like computing power, are too often treated as scarce.

And then there is YouTube -- where some folks recognized what is scarce and what is abundant and how each was changing over time. Though the bandwidth that site consumes is quite expensive, it is becoming less so over time, allowing the owner (Google) to gamble that it will be able to get more benefit from it despite the increasing popularity and traffic (and no obvious means of generating revenue without sacrificing popularity).

But then there are the critics - the gatekeepers (sometimes self-appointed, sometimes not) - who say that most people are incapable of producing "good" content ... perhaps music or movies or amateur porn. Anderson has an answer to them:

Perhaps the best example of a glorious embrace of waste is YouTube. I often hear people complain that YouTube is no threat to television because it's "full of crap"—which is, I suppose, true. The problem is that no one agrees on what the crap is. You may be looking for funny cat videos and think my favorite soldering tutorials are of no interest. I want to see funny videogame stunts and couldn't care less about your cooking tutorials. And clips of our own charming family members are of course delightful to us and totally boring to everyone else. Crap is in the eye of the beholder.

This is the power of abundance! I love television shows that are often cancelled because most Americans do not share my views. Fortunately, as video content distribution goes from being scarce to being abundant, the need to capture a mass audience actually diminishes. So I can have my Dollhouse and someone else can watch their bullshit unscripted brain-numbing "unscripted" television (not that I would judge).

We have less of a need for high minded critics that just don't get the appeal of Transformers II and more of a need for finding others we trust to get our reviews. The future of newspapers may be dim, but I would hope there is a brighter future for local reporters than local movie reviewers. I actually like the local Star Tribune movie reviewer, but I would rather see the Strib investigating local government than reviewing movies released nationally.

Of course, many thought that electricity would soon be too cheap to meter. It isn't there yet. But it is damn close - why else would we have so many inefficient devices that few care about? Your computer, television, and cell phone charger are sucking electricity even while turned off? Big deal! It is more of an effort to unplug them than to pay the extra $.02 they rack up each month. These inefficiencies do add up, but so do all the inefficiencies resulting from treating an abundant resource as though it were scarce. Sometimes you just have to revisit your assumptions.

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