Isaac Asimov was right, as usual

In 1959, Isaac Asimov wrote this essay on creativity, postulating on the elements that fostered creativity in humans. As usual, he was right and I have a story from my PhD that somehow proves his statements.

The story proves the baseline argument from the essay: isolation is definitely necessary but it’s the informal discussions within small groups that allows the teams to nurture novel concepts and apply abstract ideas to other environments.

At the beginning of my PhD, when I was dwelling around algorithms to improve the location of resources in absurdly large distributed networks, I wasn’t really able to produce anything of value and the only good idea that I had (in theory) proved to be catastrophic. The work environment at the time wasn’t helping, since there were too many distractions. So, I decided to force some isolation to really analyse the problem and try to understand why my previous idea (that seemed so reasonable in theory) had such bad results.

I started thinking of nothing else but complex search algorithms in distributed networks. I visualised them in my head. I went to sleep with those in mind and sometimes even dreamed about them. And little by little, a new idea started to form. Not only that, but I finally realised why my previous idea would never work.

While developing the new algorithm (which proved not only to be better than the previous idea but also better than the current state of the art), I also came up with the idea of a new data structure that would optimise the way the algorithm would store and search data. After the implementation, when I tested the algorithm with and without that data structure, I was marvelled at my genius for creating such an elegant and efficient solution.

It was only when I presented the results to my advisor that he stated: “this data structure that you created here is nothing more than a more complex instance of a Trie“. “A Trie?”, I asked. “Yes, a Trie, a data structure that has existed for decades”, he replied.

So much for “marvelling in my genius”. But at least I was satisfied that I reached the same conclusion as some brilliant scientist several decades ago. But this shows that isolation  only works up to a point. Sharing your ideas with others is still necessary.

A few months later, my advisor suggested that the department should do some seminar sessions in which all the professors and researchers presented their work to foster  discussion and originate potential partnerships in our research areas. So, in the following weeks, we did exactly that: everyone would present their work to the rest of the department and at the end, the interested parties would discuss the issues further to help generate new ideas or form new partnerships.

By the time it was my turn, I had already implemented my new algorithm with the Trie data structure and was quite happy with the results. However, after presenting my work, when I was discussing the algorithm with a smaller group of colleagues (that have never seen my work before because they work in completely different areas), two of them suggested simple ideas to try and improve the performance of the network as a whole that it never occurred to me.

At first I was like: “How dare they? Thinking they can improve my algorithm which they have just learned about…” But even though that thought crossed my mind, I tried to implement their simple ideas. And surprise, surprise, I got an almost 30% increase in the performance of the network behaviour.

I was happy with this, of course, but what bothered me the most was the fact that I didn’t think of that before. And I realised that this was the by-product of isolation, again. While isolating myself to look at the problem I forgot to see the problem from another angle, with the mind of a person that is looking at it with a fresh pair of eyes. And these colleagues that were looking at my work for the first time had simple solutions for things that I didn’t even think of.

So, yes, Isaac Asimov was right in 1959. Creativity is the result of focused and isolated minds that are not afraid to, every once in a while, gather and discuss abstract ideas that contribute to the collective improvement of the whole.

The age of instant marketing

Even if you’re not a follower of the World Cup you’ve probably heard by now of the strange appetite of a certain Uruguayan player: Luis Suárez.

If you haven’t (under which rock have you been?), here’s the juicy part:

Suarez hungry for some Italian

As usual with this kind of stuff, the Interwebz went crazy with it:

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But the amazing part is that it’s great to see that, in this age of global social networks, brands are picking up on the opportunity for some instant marketing. Check out some of these examples:

One Reader to rule them all

OneReader

Yes, it’s as simple as that: this is a reader app that merges several different news sources (which includes facebook, twitter, feedly, feedbin and app.net) into one convenient place for binge reading.

I’ve been beta-testing this app for the past few weeks and I can say it’s absolutely perfect for this purpose. And once you get used to the gesture-based UI, it turns into a great productivity tool as well, especially for RSS feeds.

So, if you’re tired of using several different apps to catch up on all your reading, give OneReader a try.

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“I will never know how long we wept with her”

I made the mistake of reading this post in the beginning of a work day. I couldn’t think after having read it. I couldn’t even feel right away. I was just stunned. I spent the next few minutes just paralyzed without knowing what to think or do.

I was “awakened” from that state by the sound of the door of my office opening with the arrival of my colleague, so I had to brush what I’ve just read from my mind and try to act normal. A busy day was ahead of me, so I really had to start forcing my brain to enter  programming mode.

Thankfully, in this case, I had a very busy and stressful day, which allowed my brain to shun that story into oblivion. It was only later that day, as I was stuck in traffic, that the story came back to me. There I was, complaining that I was sick and tired of being stuck in traffic, when the story promptly comes back into my head. And I don’t know if it was the stress of the day or the simple fact that I simply haven’t been able to sleep well for over a week and was really, really tired, or (probably more to the point) that the story had touched me so profoundly, but I too wept the whole journey back home.

What affected me so much about this story was not only the fact that a little girl was going to die of a brain tumor. Was the way this little girl was confronting the situation. This was not one of those movie-like scenes where you see the child embracing the parents and saying beautiful things only kids, that still don’t understand death, say. This is the harsh truth of powerless parents that have to say to their little child that she is going to die and the child shows the most humane and heartbroken of reactions: she’s afraid to die.

And as a parent, this is the most awful moment in life: when you see your kids suffering and you feel powerless to help your kids. What do you do then? You just embrace them and weep with them.

Two movie recomendations

I’ve recently watched two movies that are quite different but equally great. I just feel I should share them with you:

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About Time

This a time-travel movie that is not actually about time travel. So if you’re thinking about discussing how this would be possible from a physics point of view, forget it.

It’s a simple movie about the choices of a time traveler and how those affect him and the ones around him.

It’s quite beautiful and endearing and the last 15 minutes or so are surprising and will make you want to hug your family. It’s lame, I know, but sometimes this is just what you need.

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Enough Said

This is not a romantic comedy (although it is filled with amusing moments). This is a movie about real people and real relationships and you can definitely feel like this could happen with you or with someone you know.

What caught me by surprise and made me like the movie so much was not the plot (as that is more less revealed in the trailer). It was the amazing acting and chemistry between the two main actors. James Gandolfini (now deceased) has always been great in almost everything he starred in, but you couldn’t shake that Soprano’s shadow always lurking around. In this movie, he was definitely able to leave that behind and present a completely different and fragile person.

But Julia Louis-Deyfus definitely steals the show and is able to go quite beyond her comedy background and reveal a very powerful dramatic actress. Just superb.

If you find yourself in need of comfort feel-good movies with great stories and actors, these are the ones you should be looking for.