Four on Insight

Friday, March 18, 2011

I always enjoy good examples of insightful thinking, and I came across several this week. I will present them here in no particular order.

1. Reader Dismuke emails a link to a post at Watts up with That? describing an intuitive way to think about radiation doses.

Many foods are naturally radioactive, and bananas are particularly so, due to the radioactive potassium-40 they contain. The banana equivalent dose is the radiation exposure received by eating a single banana. Radiation leaks from nuclear plants are often measured in extraordinarily small units (the picocurie, a millionth of a millionth of a curie, is typical). By comparing the exposure from these events to a banana equivalent dose, a more intuitive assessment of the actual risk can sometimes be obtained.
It is interesting to note that this is the first time I've heard this useful analogy in years. It's easy to imagine why -- ignorance or worse -- you won't hear this analogy used by the fear mongers. The more interesting question is this: Why aren't those working to calm the hysteria bringing it up now? Speaking for myself, I simply hadn't thought of it. But I can also see someone used to thinking about nuclear power focusing too much on getting out technical details and too little on the problem of communicating them to a general audience.

2. Over at the Endeavour, John Cook presented three good quotes about originality some time ago. I particularly like Paul Graham's (and Howard Aiken's):
People like the idea of innovation in the abstract, but when you present them with any specific innovation, they tend to reject it because it doesn't fit with what they already know. … As Howard Aiken said, "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."
I'll hasten to add my own codicil to Aiken: "The fact that someone is ramming his idea down your throat does not necessarily make it a good idea."

That said, Graham and Aiken show insight about the processes of both innovation and communication here. The innovator makes a connection nobody else has ever made: But that very fact means he will have to figure out how to help people appreciate what he has seen before he will profit from that insight -- or he will have to find someone else who can sell it for him.

3. And, speaking of Paul Graham and sales, the venture capitalist presents an interesting email exchange in which, as he puts it, "You can see [the investor's] mind at work as he circles the deal." The investor has to consider several difficult issues, among them: Is this a sound idea? If so, is there room in the existing marketplace for this idea? If so, who are these people, and do they have what it takes to make money off this idea?

In other words, we have an example of part of the other side of the communications dilemma facing any innovator, mentioned above. For any potential supporter, evaluating an idea will occur in multiple steps in all of the areas concerning (for example): the merit of the idea, the market conditions, and the quality of the people. On top of that, such questions will often be interrelated. For example, "Is this a good idea?" can be asked at a broad, conceptual level, a brass-tacks practical level, and at the level of whether it hasn't already been implemented in some non-obvious way (for a few examples). Part of evaluating the idea hinges, for example, on questions as to the competence of the people putting it forward both within their fields and on evaluating things outside their fields.

4. Back at the Endeavour again, we have a war story that shows an amusingly easy-to-explain insight that was made in a very counterintuitive way:
During WWII, statistician Abraham Wald was asked to help the British decide where to add armor to their bombers. After analyzing the records, he recommended adding more armor to the places where there was no damage!
Wald's insight came, not from myopically zeroing in only on the data he had, but by also making masterful use of the context from which his data arose.

-- CAV


Vigilis said...

Gus, "...the first time I've heard this useful [banana radiation exposure] analogy in years." In 3-1/2 years, probably. Likewise.

Gus Van Horn said...

Heh! You, or someone else from the submarine force!

Realist Theorist said...

The Wiki has an article on the "banana-equivalent dose"!

Gus Van Horn said...

As short as it is, I am glad to see that it at least touches on the fact that BED is not all one needs to know. (e.g., the particular hazard of radioactive iodine). It is thus inaccurate to call BED a "concept." It is, rather, a rule of thumb.