Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel
Here's why generalists triumph over specialists in the new era of innovation.
David Epstein is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and The Sports Gene. He has master's degrees in environmental science and journalism and has worked as an investigative reporter for ProPublica and a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He lives in Washington, DC.
DAVID EPSTEIN: One of the researchers I spoke with was himself an innovator and was picked by R&D Magazine as the Innovator of the Year. But he also studied innovation. And what he found in studying patent databases is maybe a change in the importance of specialists and generalists over time. And he defined this by looking at people's work histories.
So, creators who are very specialized did all their work in one or a small number of areas of technology as classified by the US Patent and Trademark Office. Creators who were more broad spread their work across a large number of technology classes, sometimes merging many into one project. And since about the 1990s, the explosion of the knowledge economy, what he found was that these more generalist inventors, or sometimes they were even polymaths with some depth and breadth, were making larger and larger and more and more important contributions whereas the specialists, who were still very important, were often making less impactful contributions.
And he thinks that this is part of the rise of rapid communication technologies, that the information created in many cases by specialists is so rapidly and thoroughly disseminated that there are many more opportunities than ever before to invent something new by taking things that aren't new and combining them in new ways. And one of my favorite examples of this is a Japanese man by the name of Gunpei Yokoi, who didn't score well in his electronics exams so he had to settle for a job in Kyoto as a machine maintenance worker at a playing card factory while a lot of his peers went off to big companies in Tokyo.
He realized that he wasn't equipped to work at the cutting edge, but that so much information was easily available that specialists were overlooking that he could just combine older and well understood technologies in ways that specialists couldn't see because they didn't have a broad enough view. In doing that, he started a toy and game operation at that playing card company -- that playing card company is called Nintendo -- and he continued combining old technologies for his magnum opus, the Game Boy. All of the technology was long out of date by the time it appeared and yet it became the best-selling video game console of the 20th century.
Yokoi called his creative philosophy 'lateral thinking with withered technology'. What he meant by lateral thinking was taking information from one area that may not be new, but just bringing it somewhere else where suddenly it's new to that area, combining technologies in ways that other people hadn't. By withered technology, he meant this older, well understood, often cheaper technology so he didn't have to worry about competing at the cutting edge.
And that's a nice story, but I think it also fits with multiple studies of patent research that show in many cases the biggest impacts come not from the people who drilled the deepest into a technological class, but those who spread their work across a large number of technological classes. And incidentally, there are analogous findings in other industries. In a really interesting study of comic book creators, researchers guessed at what would make comic book creators make commercially valuable comics, and also what would make them more likely to make a blockbuster comic. And it was a great study because they could track the value of comic books both up and down, it didn't suffer from the survivor bias that a lot of studies of excellence do. And they posited pretty intuitively that the resources of a publisher would make a creator better, or their years of experience would, or the number of comics they'd made previously. And they were wrong, wrong, and wrong. The most important factor was the number of different genres that a creator had worked in. The genres ranged from comedy, and crime, to fantasy, adult, horror, non-fiction.
And it was true that you could make a team and combine teams of genre specialists to get some of that diversity. But that was actually pretty limited. So if you had an individual who'd worked in two genres, you were better off having a team of three who had worked in one genre each. But after four genres, then an individual who had worked in more than four genres did better than a team who had the same genre experienced by platoon. So you could not re-create the diverse experience of an individual entirely with a team of specialists.
So these researchers named their paper 'Superman or the Fantastic Four'. They said, if you can find a Superman who has worked in a very diverse array of genres, do it. And if not, then create a fantastic team with diverse genre experience by platoon.
- Since the explosion of the knowledge economy in the 1990s, generalist inventors have been making larger and more important contributions than specialists.
- One theory is that the rise of rapid communication technologies allowed the information created by specialists to be rapidly disseminated, meaning generalists can combine information across disciplines to invent something new.
- Here, David Epstein explains how Nintendo's Game Boy was a case of "lateral thinking with withered technology." He also relays the findings of a fascinating study that found the common factor of success among comic book authors.
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Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.
- During the 1930s, thousands of Americans sympathized with the Nazis, holding huge rallies.
- The rallies were organized by the American German Bund, which wanted to spread Nazi ideology.
- Nazi supporters also organized summer camps for kids to teach them their values.
A Bund parade in New York, October 30, 1939.
Credit: Library of Congress
Credit: Herald Tribune
Postcards from Camp Siegfried
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Maybe you should enjoy this article with a cup of coffee or tea.<p> The <a href="https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001252?T=AU" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> involved 4,923 type 2 diabetics living in Japan. The average participant was 66 years old. All of the participants were taken from the rolls of the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry, a study geared at learning about the effects of new treatments and lifestyle changes on the health of diabetics. <br> <br> The participants filled out questionnaires concerning their health, diet, habits, and other factors. Among the questions were two focused on determining how much green tea or coffee, if any, the participants consumed over the course of a week. The health of the participants was recorded for five years. During this time, 309 of the test subjects died from a variety of causes. <br> <br> Subjects who drank more than one cup of tea or coffee per day demonstrated lower odds of dying than those who had none. Those who consumed the most tea and coffee, more than four and two cups a day, respectively, enjoyed the most significant reductions in their risk of death. This level of consumption was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201020190129.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p><p>Most interestingly, the effects of drinking tea and coffee appear to combine to reduce risk even further. Those who reported drinking two or three cups of tea a day and two or more cups of coffee were 51 percent less likely to die during the study, while those who drank a whopping four or more cups of tea and two or more cups of coffee had a 63 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-coffee-and-green-tea-might-reduce-death-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p>
So, should I start swimming in a vat of coffee and green tea?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LY0E-JQxeoY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Not quite. </p><p> The primary takeaway from this study is that Japanese adults with type 2 diabetes who drink a lot of green tea and/or coffee die less often than similar people who do not. If this effect is caused by something in the drink, lifestyle choices people who drink that much tea all make, or something else remains unknown. The finding must be considered an association at this point. <br> <br> The eye-popping reductions in mortality rates are compared to the risk of death of others in the study. The people who died reported drinking less tea and coffee than those who lived. Unless you have several demographic and conditional similarities to the subjects of this study, you probably won't suddenly be at a two-thirds lower risk of death than your peers because you drink green tea. </p><p> Like all studies that depend on self-reporting, it is also possible that people misstated how much they consumed any one item. The study also did not look into other factors like socioeconomic status or education level, also known to impact death rates and potentially linked to coffee and tea consumption. </p><p> However, it is yet another study in the pile that suggests that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coffee</a> and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">green tea</a> are good for you. That much is increasingly <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreed</a><a href="https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/health-benefits-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> upon</a>. This study also suggests the benefits are additive, which is a new development.</p><p><br> So, while it isn't time to start the IV drip of green tea, a cup or two probably won't <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20201022/coffee-green-tea-might-extend-life-for-folks-with-type-2-diabetes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hurt</a>. </p>
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.
The Three Gods Problem<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyOGZk7WbIk" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> One of the more popular wordings of the problem, which MIT logic professor George Boolos <a href="https://www.readersdigest.ca/culture/hardest-logic-puzzle-ever/" target="_blank">said</a> was the hardest ever, is:<br> <br> "Three gods A, B, and C are called, in no particular order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for <em>yes</em> and <em>no</em> are <em>da</em> and <em>ja</em>, in some order. You do not know which word means which."<br> <br> Boolos adds that you are allowed to ask a particular god more than one question and that Random switches between answering as if they are a truth-teller or a liar, not merely between answering "da" and "ja." <br> <br> Give yourself a minute to ponder this; we'll look at a few answers below. Ready? Okay. <strong><br> <br></strong>George Boolos' <a href="https://www.pdcnet.org/8525737F00588A37/file/31B21D0580E8B125852577CA0060ABC9/$FILE/harvardreview_1996_0006_0001_0060_0063.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">solution</a> focuses on finding either True or False through complex questions. </p><p> In logic, there is a commonly used function often written as "iff," which means "if, and only if." It would be used to say something like "The sky is blue if and only if Des Moines is in Iowa." It is a powerful tool, as it gives a true statement only when both of its components are true or both are false. If one is true and the other is false, you have a false statement. </p><p> So, if you make a statement such as "the moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Rome is in Russia," then you have made a true statement, as both parts of it are false. The statement "The moon has no air if, and only if, Rome is in Italy," is also true, as both parts of it are true. However, "The moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Albany is the capitol of New York," is false, because one of the parts of that statement is true, and the other part is not (The fact that these items don't rely on each other is immaterial for now).</p><p> In this puzzle, iff can be used here to control for the unknown value of "da" and "ja." As the answers we get can be compared with what we know they would be if the parts of our question are all true, all false, or if they differ. </p><p> Boolos would have us begin by asking god A, "Does "da" mean yes if and only if you are True if and only if B is Random?" No matter what A says, the answer you get is extremely useful. As he explains: <br> </p><p> "If A is True or False and you get the answer da, then as we have seen, B is Random, and therefore C is either True or False; but if A is True or False and you get the answer ja, then B is not Random, therefore B is either True or False… if A is Random and you get the answer da, C is not Random (neither is B, but that's irrelevant), and therefore C is either True or False; and if A is Random...and you get the answer ja, B is not random (neither is C, irrelevantly), and therefore B is either True or False."<br> <br> No matter which god A is, an answer of "da" assures that C isn't Random, and a response of "ja" means the same for B. </p><p> From here, it is a simple matter of asking whichever one you know isn't Random questions to determine if they are telling the truth, and then one on who the last god is. Boolos suggests starting with "Does da mean yes if, and only if, Rome is in Italy?" Since one part of this is accurate, we know that True will say "da," and False will say "ja," if faced with this question. </p><p> After that, you can ask the same god something like, "Does da mean yes if, and only if, A is Random?" and know exactly who is who by how they answer and the process of elimination. </p><p> If you're confused about how this works, try going over it again slowly. Remember that the essential parts are knowing what the answer will be if two positives or two negatives always come out as a positive and that two of the gods can be relied on to act consistently. </p><p> Smullyan wrote several books with other logic puzzles in them. If you liked this one and would like to learn more about the philosophical issues they investigate, or perhaps if you'd like to try a few that are a little easier to solve, you should consider reading them. A few of his puzzles can be found with explanations in this <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/11/obituaries/smullyan-logic-puzzles.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interactive</a>. </p>
But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.