The New York Times’ Year in Ideas

Stephen DeAngelis

December 24, 2009

For all of the usual reasons, this is my favorite time of the year. One naturally begins thinking more about family, blessings, and giving to others. But I also like this time of year because the New York Times publishes its “Year in Ideas” section that highlights “noteworthy notions of [the current year] — the twigs and sticks and shiny paper scraps of human ingenuity, which, when collected and woven together, form a sort of cognitive shelter, in which the curious mind can incubate, hatch and feather” [“The Ninth Annual Year in Ideas,” 11 December 2009]. The article looks at ideas in the areas of: arts, business, culture, design, health, natural science, politics & policy, social science, sports, and technology. It also alphabetizes the ideas from A to Z if that is the way you prefer to surf the ideas. Below I discuss the ideas I found particularly interesting in the areas of business, culture, design, natural science, and technology.

Business Ideas

The Myth of the Deficient Older Employee by Lia Miller – “Although workers who were 45 and older had lower unemployment rates in 2008 than younger workers, they stayed unemployed for longer periods, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is not surprising. Employers are often reluctant to hire older workers, not only because they have higher health care costs and sometimes command higher salaries but also because of their reputational stigma. Older workers are commonly thought of as being less productive and less willing to learn than younger workers, as well as overly cautious. But this year economists presented a more nuanced picture than the above stereotypes suggest. In The American Economic Review in June, Gary Charness, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Marie Claire Villeval, a colleague from the University of Lyon, published the results of a study in which they pitted ‘seniors’ (those over 50) against ‘juniors’ (those under 30) in three different decision-making tasks. These were formulated to test risk taking, competitiveness and cooperation. As it turns out, the ‘seniors’ more than hold their own. The seniors were also more cooperative, contributing more to their group during the cooperation test. The seniors outperformed the juniors on one competitive word game — and were only ‘very slightly less’ competitive overall, Charness says. … Another welcome finding of the study came during the cooperation portion, when Charness and Villeval found that groups with a mix of ages outperformed homogeneous groups. For an optimum work force, Charness says, it is best to have a range of ages in the office.”

I’ve certainly found this true in my business. A good mixture of experience and youthful enthusiasm produces great results.

Subscription Artists by Clive Thompson – “This summer, Allison Weiss, a 22-year-old singer who writes melodic songs about ‘hopeless hope,’ wanted to produce a 1,000-CD run of a new album she was recording, but she wasn’t sure how to get the money to do it. Then she heard about Kickstarter, a Web site unveiled in April. At Kickstarter, creative types post a description of a project they want to do, how much money they need for it and a deadline. If enough people pledge money that the artists reach (or surpass) their financial goals, then everyone is billed, paying in advance as you would for a magazine subscription. For goals that aren’t reached, nobody is charged. In essence, Kickstarter offers a form of market research for artists. For perhaps the first time, an artist can quickly answer a nagging question: Does anyone actually want my art badly enough to pay for it? If the goal is reached, the artist now has a list of subscribers to her vision. And if the goal isn’t reached? “It’s painful, but it’s better to find out early,” rather than spend precious time and money on a project nobody wants, says Yancey Strickler, who helped found Kickstarter. More than 1,000 projects have been started on Kickstarter since April, raising money for projects as diverse as a solo sailboat trip around the world ($8,142 raised) and a book by Scott Thomas documenting how he developed the graphic design for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign ($84,614 raised). Weiss picked a goal of $2,000, and like many Kickstarter users, offered a clever set of tiered benefits for fans: $40 got someone a signed copy of the album (17 fans paid for that), and for $500, the donor could pick any subject and Weiss would write a song on it. (Two people bit.) Weiss raised the $2,000 in less than 10 hours, and eventually amassed $7,711 from 195 backers, which meant she could pay for more mixing. Perhaps even more important was the validation of her fan base. Weiss says, ‘I was surprised to find I had a more dedicated Internet following than I thought.'”

Great idea. Every entrepreneur knows how painful raising capital can be. Kickster is like finding a group of angel investors but investors who aren’t looking for the same kind of return normally associated with venture capitalists.

Cultural Ideas

The Advertisement that Watches You by Christopher Shea – “‘It happens when nobody is watching.’ As the tagline on a poster raising awareness about domestic violence, that’s not bad. But it was the poster itself that was truly attention-grabbing — for it brought the issue of being watched (or not) toAdvertisement life. The poster, placed in a bus shelter in Berlin, was a one-time installation sponsored by Amnesty International. When a person in the shelter was looking at the poster, he saw, along with the words, a photograph of an amiable couple: a stocky, professional-looking man in a blue oxford-cloth shirt, his arm around the shoulders of his girlfriend or wife. If no one in the shelter was paying attention to the poster, though, the image switched: now the man was raising his fist against the woman as she leaned away and protected her face. (There was a slight lag in the switch, so viewers could notice that the poster was changing its image.) Designed by the Hamburg-based firm Jung von Matt (which bills itself as being in the business of ‘attention warfare’), the ad worked via a camera attached to a computer outfitted with face-tracking software with a working range of about 16 feet. A Potsdam company called Vis-à-pix created the technology. Jung von Matt described the ad as the first of its kind, and it won a silver prize at the 2009 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and a gold prize at the New York Festivals International Advertising Awards. The technology has since improved, according to Vis-à-pix. New posters can even identify the sex of onlookers. Consider a poster created for the service counters of the rental-car company Sixt: when a man gets close, he is tempted with an image of a limousine; if the customer is a woman, she sees, instead, a spunky Cabriolet.”

Although this clever idea was in the culture section, it could just as easily have been categorized in the business section. Getting noticed in today’s world of advertising is difficult — clever ides can help. The next idea could also have been put in the business section.

Good Enough is the New Great by Robert Mackey – “‘Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere,’ Robert Capps of Wired magazine wrote this summer in an essay called ‘The Good-Enough Revolution.’ Companies that had focused mainly on improving the technical quality of their products have started to notice that, for many consumers, ‘ease of use, continuous availability and low price’ are more important. High-definition televisions have turned every living room into a home cinema, yet millions of us choose to watch small, blurry videos on our computers and our mobile devices. Cameras capture images in a dozen megapixels, yet Flickr is filled with snapshots taken with phone cameras that we can neither focus nor zoom. And at war, a country that has a fleet of F-16 fighter jets that can cover 1,500 miles an hour is now using more and more remote-controlled Predator drones that are powered by snowmobile engines. Lo-fi solutions are now available for a range of problems that couldn’t be solved with high-tech tools. Music played from a compact disc is of higher quality than what comes out of an iPod — but you can’t easily carry 4,000 CDs with you on the subway or to the gym. Similarly, a professional television camera will produce a higher-quality image than a phone, but when something important happens, from the landing of a jet on the Hudson River to the murder of an Iranian protester, and there are no TV cameras around, images recorded on phones are good enough. In February, a music professor at Stanford, Jonathan Berger, revealed that he has found evidence that younger listeners have come to prefer lo-fi versions of rock songs to hi-fi ones. For six years, Berger played different versions of the same rock songs to his students and asked them to say which ones they liked best. Each year, more students said that they liked what they heard from MP3s better than what came from CDs. To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. Good enough is now better than great.”

This notion appears to be gaining real traction. Indian innovators have embraced a philosophy called jugaad for some time. Jugaad involves using ingenious ways to overcome obstacles and scarcity. For more information on jugaad, see yesterday’s post entitled Innovation, Development, and India.

Design Ideas

The Kitchen Sink that Puts Out Fires by Jesse Ashlock – “House fires are most likely to begin in the kitchen. Yet aside from expensive sprinkler systems, the only tool for fighting kitchen conflagrations is the common fire extinguisher, which some risk assessors consider a fire hazard itself, because it encourages untrained people to battle the blaze rather than to evacuate. What’s more, over the last two decades many countries have phased out one of the most effective extinguishers because it uses the ozone-depleting chemical halon. Yusuf Muhammad and Paul Thomas, industrial-design students at London’s Royal College of Art, learned this after a school assignment prompted a conversation with members of the Chelsea Fire Station. The firefighters mentioned water mist, a firefighting technology used on oil rigs and cruise ships because of its advantages in a confined space. After picking the brains of specialists at the conference of the International Water Mist Association, the duo began prototyping a low-cost means of taking water mist into the family kitchen. Their patent-pending product, Automist, consists of a ceiling-mounted heat detector that triggers a pump under the sink that sends water to a special unit at the base of the kitchen faucet. There, six high-pressure nozzles emit jets of mist that rapidly turn to steam, creating an inert atmosphere that starves the fire of oxygen and reduces the heat of the room. ‘It’s almost like being in a wet sauna,’ Muhammad says. In tests conducted in a roughly 13-feet-by-13-feet space, the duo found the system could contain any type of blaze (including oil fires) in less than five minutes. After winning the James Dyson Award for emerging designers in September, Muhammad and Thomas are now working to get to market by summer a commercial version of Automist, which a licensed plumber will be able to install with any standard faucet.”

This idea is not only clever it could save lives. There is a good animation of how the system works on the New York Times’ website.

Natural Science Ideas

Massively Collaborative Mathematics by Jordan Ellenberg – “In January, Timothy Gowers, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge and a holder of the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor, decided to see if the comment section of his blog could prove a theorem he could not. In two blog posts — one titled ‘Is Massively Collaborative Mathematics Possible?’ — he proposed an attack on a stubborn math problem called the Density Hales-Jewett Theorem. He encouraged the thousands of readers of his blog to jump in and start proving. Mathematics is a process of generating vast quantities of ideas and rejecting the majority that don’t work; maybe, Gowers reasoned, the participation of so many people would speed the sifting. The resulting comment thread spanned hundreds of thousands of words and drew in dozens of contributors, including Terry Tao, a fellow Fields Medalist, and Jason Dyer, a high-school teacher. It makes fascinating, if forbiddingly technical, reading. Gowers’s goals for the so-called Polymath Project were modest. ‘I will regard the experiment as a success,’ he wrote, ‘if it leads to anything that could count as genuine progress toward an understanding of the problem.’ Six weeks later, the theorem was proved. The plan is to submit the resulting paper to a top journal, attributed to one D.H.J. Polymath. By now we’re used to the idea that gigantic aggregates of human brains — especially when allowed to communicate nearly instantaneously via the Internet — can carry out fantastically difficult cognitive tasks, like writing an encyclopedia or mapping a social network. But some problems we still jealously guard as the province of individual beautiful minds: writing a novel, choosing a spouse, creating a new mathematical theorem. The Polymath experiment suggests this prejudice may need to be rethought. In the near future, we might talk not only about the wisdom of crowds but also of their genius.”

In almost every area where people connect, good things happen. I say “almost every area, because, of course, when terrorists connect, bad things happen. But I’m an optimist and believe that most people want to make this world a better place in which to live. I’m inspired when people get together to make something good happen. As Ellenberg implies, it’s pure genius.

Weapons of Mosquito Destruction by Lia Miller – “Mosquitoes, though vulnerable as individuals to the swat of a hand, are as a group maddeningly difficult to kill or control. For some of us, this is a source of irritation. But in countries where mosquitoes spread malaria or other diseases, it can be fatal. Though netting and bug sprays offer some help, this year marked the promising advance of higher-tech antimosquito weaponry. Szabolcs Marka, a Columbia University astrophysicist whose main occupation is searching the universe for black holes, received a grant this year from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a kind of futuristic mosquito net. He and two colleagues are working on a project that creates a ‘light shield’ through which mosquitoes and other airborne insects will not fly. Marka says the project has had promising results. In a series of tests, mosquitoes were released into a box partitioned into halves by a laser beam. The mosquitoes stayed in one-half of the box, treating the laser wall as if it were solid (though it did not constitute an actual physical barrier). Marka envisions his laser shield covering doors and windows or encircling a bed with a cone of invisible light shining down from the ceiling. Other scientists have also seen the future of mosquito combat in lasers — a field of innovation that this year The Wall Street Journal called ‘Weapons of Mosquito Destruction,’ or W.M.D.’s. The company Intellectual Ventures is developing something called the Photonic Fence. Lowell Wood and Jordin Kare, astrophysicists who have worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative, have conceived and developed this scheme, in which mosquitoes are blasted with lasers. Marka notes that his method has the benefit of not upsetting the ecosystem by killing too many mosquitoes indiscriminately. He says he hopes that before too long he will have ‘something practical’ for sale for around $10.”

High tech gadgets are always fascinating and exciting, but not always practical for use in low tech places. All of the schemes mentioned above require reliable electrical power. Effective and reliable power is not always available in the areas that need it most. Fortunately, a number of people are working on alternative and renewable energy schemes that could provide reliable, affordable power to remote villages. Once that happens, laser window screens could prove very useful and lifesaving. Until then, I expect that a lot of backyard barbequers would love to install laser screens on their decks.

Technology Ideas

Man-Made Greenery by Michael Silverberg – “Nature may well be the art of God, but that isn’t keeping mere mortals from trying their hand at it. This year, a group of British engineers recommended building a forest of artificial carbon-filtering ‘trees’ across the United Kingdom to combat climate change; and a Brooklyn designer completed a working prototype of leafy-looking solar panels that could one day replace ivy on buildings. The treelike devices, which were created by Klaus Lackner, a Columbia University geophysicist, resemble giant flySky scrubbers swatters in one design. They use carbon-capture and storage technology similar to the kind that will be deployed at large power plants, but they aim to absorb carbon from dispersed emissions sources, like vehicles and residences, whose mobility or small size makes individual filters impractical or inefficient. This summer, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimated that a forest of 100,000 such trees could mop up half the United Kingdom’s carbon emissions, making the forest thousands of times more effective than its natural counterparts. Down the botanical scale from tree to vine is the designer Samuel Cochran’s Grow system, a set of leaflike modules that harness both solar and wind energy. Solar panels aren’t typically used, as Cochran’s are, on the sides of buildings, because they work best when the sun hits them at a 90-degree angle; but Grow’s foliagelike shape is designed for capturing oblique light. And when a breeze rustles Grow’s leaves, tiny piezoelectric generators in their “stems” create a small charge. Neither project presumes to replace nature with Franken-forests. Because of the limits of carbon storage, artificial trees might be effective for only about a hundred years — long enough, according to Tim Fox of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, to buy time as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels. And Cochran, nostalgic for the creeping vines of his childhood neighborhood, hesitates to claim Grow’s superiority over ivy. ‘We haven’t been bad-mouthing the actual plant,’ he says.”

I’m a bit surprised that sky scrubbers are making the 2009 list of ideas; not because the concept is bad but because it’s not exactly new. I first mentioned the devices in a 2007 post (see Far-out Ideas for Saving the World). In that post, I noted that over 300 million sky scrubbers would be needed to make the U.S. carbon neutral. There are a lot of other ideas mentioned in the article and I recommend that you read about all them. Great ideas always make interesting reading.