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Isaac Asimov Mulls “How Do People Get New Ideas?” (1959) (technologyreview.com)
269 points by Dnguyen on Oct 20, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

This reminds me of Walter Isaacson's biography on Steve Jobs and how it detailed his many eccentric habits and behaviors early on before starting Apple... how he never took showers while working at Atari, his odd dietary habits, his daily wardrobe, etc. But that's why he was able to "think different"...

"A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others. Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)"

Also very good is Richard Hamming's "You and Your Research" talk - http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html

I think things are a bit different in the age of the internet. Seeing into the private lives of others, their quirks and eccentricities, you might find that these traits are fairly common, and even desirable by certain sociocultural groups to be as 'odd' and 'quirky' as possible, as it seems to correlate with success and the capacity to think differently.

Self confidence, I agree is huge, but it can't be faked. It has to actually be known. Sometimes that seems to mean letting your mind go for a loop, coming back again, and realizing you can never know anything while also knowing something.

I just don't really think any of the side effects of being a percieved genius matter as much as the work actually done. Sometimes it means going against the crowd, sometimes it means going with.

That reminds me of the story of how Walt built Disneyland.

When he went around asking others what they thought, every single person said he was nuts and it would never work. That made him extremely excited - and more determined than ever - because he knew he was on the path of doing something truly different.

Does this mean Reddit is a more auspicious environment for new ideas to flourish? HN is way too confined of a place for "foolishness", that Asimov sees as conductive, to be permitted without things going haywire.

I would absolutely agree with that assessment.

One of the (potentially) negative sides of the same phenomenon is the acceptance of and tendency towards memes. They can certainly be annoying, but a strong flow of memes is indicative of a lot of culture and ideas bashing up against each other until some of the bits stick together in a novel way.

A cleverly applied meme comment on a Reddit thread can easily get hundreds or thousands of upvotes. Front page HN threads don't even get any meme comments, because people here know that their comment would be buried immediately, if not outright deleted (I admit to being much less familiar with the inner workings of HN than Reddit). Reddit threads are definitely a place of quantity over quality, but the sheer volume of creativity swirling around is bound to uncover a couple gems.

All of that said, I've never viewed HN as a place for ideas to be generated. This is a fantastic whetstone with some brilliant minds, but it can also be merciless.

HN is a fantastic display of creativity, but it is certainly not one where creativity happens. That's OK and I bet most of us prefer it this way.

To put it in simpler terms, Reddit is more input-oriented, while HN is more output-oriented.

>but it is certainly not one where creativity happens //

I disagree - I've had a few novel ideas here, they may not have been universally novel but were definitely ideas that came up from threads I read, that I'd not seen or considered previously.

Sure HN isn't structured towards this sort of creativity but it still provokes it on occasions.

Forums are as input or output orientated as one chooses IME.

Edit: this, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8487385, might be an example - I've not seen config undo-history in browsers before?

I've always felt that a part of the problem on sites like reddit is that upvoting has essentially zero cost: just move your mouse and click the up arrow on whatever tickles you to do so. This means that a lazy comment which mildly amuses 1,000 people will get as many upvotes as an incredibly thoughtful comment which profoundly touches 1,000 people, and ten times as many upvotes as one which only 100 people appreciate, even if the appreciation runs far deeper.

If each account had a limited vote rate (perhaps tied to that user's activity), I think this might help to reduce this effect somewhat. Much the same analysis probably applies to downvotes: currently users will click the down arrow on anything they disagree with, rather than only downvoting comments that severely detract from the conversation. Of course you'd have to be careful about this system being gamed, but all voting systems can be gamed and it's not obvious that this approach is any more vulnerable than usual.

To some extent I think Hacker News' greater discussion quality is due to its poor user interface, as weird as that may seem. Upvoting/downvoting on a mobile device, for example, generally requires zooming in to hit a small target, whereas on reddit I don't need to do that on my iPad at all, and on my iPhone not as much. Commenting on Hacker News also requires visiting another URL, whereas on reddit it happens more effortlessly. These are small things but they can be the hurdle that causes someone not to bother to post that joke or upvote the 17th reply in a meme sequence.

I know this probably sounds like a technical solution to a social problem, and I don't mean to deny the important effect that cultural norms and community policing play. After all, subreddits have widely varying qualities of discussion depending on their community standards, and there's no question Hacker News' quality survives in large part due to community vigilance. But I do think the effortlessness of voting on reddit is a factor which contributes to the prevalence of lowest common denominator comments, and I'd be very interested in seeing reddit or other social forums experiment with imposing a scarcity of voting power.

Sites like Slashdot have this kind of system, however there are still a lot of comments that get buried, which means you have to browse at -1 or 0 in order to not miss something. Kind of like reviewing your spam filter periodically.

What I think could be a better system is for everyone to be able to mark what they like and don't like, then have the option of sorting by votes of other people that typically vote the same way you do. So people that like a lot of meme humor will see that more, and those that don't won't. Add in the ability to select from various "clusters", so you can also have the experience of reading comments based on alternative tastes, then I think you would have something that is immune from being gamed.

The idea of a non-accessible user interface leading to greater quality in content posted is very interesting and something that's played on my mind for years and have noticed in some communities. Would love if there was any research on the topic.

Yes. HN is often outright hostile to new ideas. How often is the top comment something along the lines of "here's why that won't work" or "here's what the author forgot."

HN comment threads are heavy on criticism, light on creation.

I personally feel that's just blow back from the spam of "cancer is cured!" "marijuana heals quadriplegic man!" "fusion is solved!" and similar clickbait articles with little substance and big claims to rope in readers.

The fact that one can after reading an online article almost inevitably see all the problems they neglected to mention is less the readers fault and more the writers for presenting a biased opinion-piece under the guise of news. HN critics can of course be wrong just like everyone else but the majority of the time those comments are pointing out serious issues and providing the counterbalance.

Even more-so a place like 4chan, hence why it seems to churn out memes and follow on's more than anywhere else.

Any open market is the same, it will always innovate more than a closed market.

As an example the indie games or games on mobile will always be more adventurous and maybe 1% true gems better than other markets because the market is so big and allows anything. Contrast to the old school console days where mobile didn't exist, filled with greatly cookie cutter clones and rarely an innovation because it was 'too risky'. The ideas were there, just no avenue because it was curated away.

I personally believe any open market will always beat a closed one even if 99% of the open market is not as good. The broad differentiation of games/apps for instance only happens when many, many compete. A closed/curated market too closely will lose out on some big innovations. The same goes for internet vs old school publishing.

Side note: reddit moderations and subreddit moderation provides participation and value but is also somewhat limiting in terms of creativity. Reddit has shifted from heavily voted/democracy to a bunch of smaller partial democracies with a few dictators (similar to workplaces) and does threaten that creativity a bit. However the ability to setup any subreddit and comment with any vanity account have added exponential value in terms of creativity.

I'm of the mindset that an important part of creativity lies in the clarity and precision with which a particular individual's idea is expressed (whatever form or medium that takes).

Someone else mentioned that HN is a great display of creativity which is a good way of putting it. This (and places like Reddit, Digg, et al) are merely museums for the real art, which is being wrought out in the world.

I agree.

If everything on reddit interested me or was of the same quality there would never be any experimentation (foolishness) and I'd get lost in my own little world.

A lot of people love the way the sausage tastes but they stick up their noses at how it's made.

> To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

Feynman has a similar story about playing with ideas and just enjoying the process instead of worrying about the pressures associated with being great: https://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~kilcup/262/feynman.html.

From the same book, there's also his comment on Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study from which he refused an invitation:

"When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don't get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they're not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. Nothing happens because there's not enough real activity and challenge: You're not in contact with the experimental guys. You don't have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!"

Very disappointing. The author seems ignorant of the entire science of Psychohistory. Since it is now possible to predict human development hundreds of years into the future no idea is really new anymore.

May you elaborate ? How you claim that is possible to predict the human development ? In which way ? It to me seems a very over-simplification...

Anyway, from the wikipedia the first time the term "psycho-history" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory#Emergence_as_a_di...) is been used is 1958, it is a good guess to say that the article is been written no later than the 1960...

I guess we can forgive Asimov...


ronilan is referencing Asimov's Foundation trilogy, which has the premise that psycho-history has developed into a hard science and a reliable technology.

Still I don't get it...

> Since it is now possible to predict human development hundreds of years into the future no idea is really new anymore.

It is just sarcasm then ?

If not can somebody elaborate ?

From a ways down the Wikipedia article on "psychohistory":

"Science fiction author and scientist/science writer Isaac Asimov popularized the term in his famous Foundation series of novels, though in his works the term psychohistory is used fictionally for a mathematical discipline that can be used to predict the general course of future flow."

So the humor lies mostly in the second line about how Asimov is not applying the discipline of psychohistory to his thinking about the future, when he wrote an entire fictional trilogy about people using said discipline. The comment you're confused by is written from the perspective of someone who lives in that fictional world.

If you have read this trilogy (which is one of the early classics of science fiction), there may be an additional layer of irony, as much of the story concerns the grand plans based on psychohistorical predictions going horribly awry due to not accounting for a wild card that comes up.

Neither. It is the type of comment that takes two opposing concepts and instead of contrasting them on both edges of the idea spectrum places them one inside the other.

Is big data essentially psychohistory?

That's what it seems like, but it was really just robots all along.

(Spoiler alert needed for a book published in 1986?)

I am reading a short story collection of Asimov compiled in a book called Gold.

The second half of the book contains extensive commentary by Asimov on how to write science fiction. He delves into a lot of topics like writing style, grammer, ideas and many other things.

There is a whole chapter on a how to generate a story from an idea and how to get the idea to start with. In it, he stresses on thinking. As in real, solid literal thinking, what we would normally call brainstorming. As a science fiction author, he says that the brainstorming is not something that he used to do in short bursts like someone would normally do. He writes that a science fiction author has to think to a point where her/his head starts aching, literally.

"If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish."

This is something I've always felt, but remained unable to express as well as Asimov did here. I'm so grateful for those with a gold mine of information who resist temptation toward arrogance and scornful correction, and instead show patience and joy in teaching the foolish.

Reading biographies about Einstein, I came to the conclusion that the man wasn't really a genius in the intellectual sense, but a genius when it came to ideas, and had the passion to pursue them.

Interesting idea here:

Draw from a pool of people who wish to be involved in cerebratory pursuits, and who are willing to accept and give ideas freely to others. Out of this pool, some combination of 4 or 5 individuals within the same geographical region can be drawn randomly from this group for cerebration sessions following a few Asimov Cerebration Guidelines (ACGs):

-"ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness."

-"short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems, [and be paid for that]"

-"educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts."

-"meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant"

-"a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point."

After the session, the session can be given an evaluation by each of the participants:

A. did the session feel neutralized by any of the participants reputations?

B. was any insight gained?

C. was the session jovial?

I think I, as well as some others, would be interested in attending something like this if it could be organized well.

“Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/groupthink

This is a very interesting idea. Perhaps taping a sample session with some extraordinarily easeful people and showing it to participants can help model the openness involved. I'd be game.

I am not sure that one can learn to have that kind of openness without practicing it oneself. An equally esoteric practice that might help to foster this is the Bohm Dialogue.[1]


This sounds like a Melvyn Bragg radio show on BBC Radio 4 ...

A bit offtopic, but a necessary interpretation from my perspective is how the so-called "corporate culture" with all its dresscodes and formal manners doesn't promote the ascent of new ideas - Asimov even goes on to suggest they could actually come from an informal dinner, etc.

I'll be sure to save this one to read periodically. Thanks for the submission.

"Feynman's Rainbow" has a dialog on how to get new ideas, with some advice from Feynman. Chapter five I think.

   "It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions 
    is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants 
    in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts."
For me the best meetings, conferences and conversations are the ones that come closest to this description.

Just last month, I finished reading "Magic", Asimov's collection of small witty stories, which were NOT SF, but Fantasy.

Although the stories themselves were quite mundane, what struck me as I somehow forced my way forward in the stories, was Asimov's clairvoyant tone while writing. Most of the things he wrote, even in apparent jest, hold true today.

And never have I been so enthralled by a bunch of essays as Asimov has done it... Reading his second momoir and many more essays underline his wisdom more and more.

This reminded me of Bret Victor's great talk Inventing on Principle[0].


Since this Asimov essay is about groups functioning in a space, Brett Victor's seeing spaces talk also seems rather relevant. Give people new ways to think about things, and great places for them to think together.

Great talk. Do you know what tools was he demonstrating?

Are these tools available to use?

Though those exact tools are not really available, there are a couple of "alternatives" when it comes to live coding; a HTML5 canvas playground[0] and another similar one[1].

If you are interested more in live coding you might want to check http://toplap.org/?title=ToplapSystems



For anyone interested in this subject, highly recommend reading Steven Johnson's book "Where Good Ideas Come From".

To get a summary of the book you can also view his TED talk:


I don't come to HN looking to generate new ideas. I come to be exposed to things I might potentially be interested in, and to learn from those who might know more than me. If I generate any new ideas at all, it's outside of the time I'm engaged here (when things have time to percolate and my focus isn't so narrow).


You take an old idea, and you pull out all the variables and you start permuting upon them.


... but which variables?

Permutations grow exponentially as you add dimensions, so you can't have too many.

You want Systematic Inventive Thinking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systematic_inventive_thinking

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