Author Archives: Hervé Lebret

Techno-critics according to François Jarrige

I write from time to time and perhaps even more often about this other fact of innovation and entrepreneurship (which remains my passion, positively), a face that is darker, more negative, a vision that is more critical of the impact of innovation on society. I read these days, in French, Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences (Technocritics – From the refusal of the machines to the challenge of the technosciences) by François Jarrige. It is a rich, harsh, demanding but exceptional book for all those interested in the subject.

Even if extremely critical at first sight, the book shows that the positive and negative aspects of progress have always developed in parallel. My closest reading of this work was probably that of Bernard Stiegler, In Disruption – How Not to Go Crazy? without forgetting the works of Libero Zuppiroli, such as The utopias of the 21st century. Thanks to him for mentioning this remarkable book.

Here is a full translation of a long and exciting passage on pages 87-88. It looks like it describes our world, it does describe an older one.

“If we were to characterize our time by a single epithet, we would not call it a heroic, religious, philosophical, or moral age; but the mechanical age, for that is what distinguishes it from all the others.” [1] Carlyle embodies the romantic denunciation of “mammonism” (that is, the religious worship of the god Silver), whose mechanical surge of his time is one of the manifestations. Why always strive, thanks to mechanics, to sell “at a lower price than all other nations until the end of the world”, why not “sell for equal price”, he asks? [2] He invites “ingenious men” to find a way to distribute products more equitably rather than always looking for ways to achieve them at the lowest cost: “A world of simple patented digesters will soon have nothing to eat: such a world will be extinguished and by the law of nature it must be extinguished.”

At the same time, Michelet, the great French romantic historian, discovered the gigantism of machinery during a trip to England in 1834. He also describes the ambivalence of the effects of machines. Impressed by the “beings of steel” who enslave “the being of blood and flesh”, he is nevertheless convinced that one will continue to prefer to the “uniform fabrications of the machines the various products which bear the imprint of the human personality”. If the machine is undeniably a “powerful agent of democratic progress” by “putting a host of useful objects within the reach of the poorest”, it also has its terrible setback: it creates a “miserable little people of men-machines that live half [and] that engender only for death “. [3]

The anxiety about machinery diminished in the Victorian era, with the expansion of the prosperity of the imperial period, the decline of workers’ violence, the rise of the political economy. However, it continues to arouse the fears of some moralists, such as John Stuart Mill, a complex radical thinker, a liberal fascinated by socialism and a feminist justifying imperialism. In his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill proposes an inventory of the political economy of his time. He distances himself from economists who are overly optimistic about technical change, expresses reluctance about the beneficial effects of the division of labor and considers that the state must compensate for the detrimental effects of mechanization. But his criticism goes beyond these classic questions because John Stuart Mill proposes a theory of the “stationary state” that breaks with classical economics. He describes this “stationary state of capital and wealth” as “preferable to our present situation”, marked by the struggle of all against all. He sees it as a world shaped by “prudence” and “frugality,” in which society is composed of “a large and well-paid body of workers” and “few enormous fortunes”; this “stationary” world, where everyone would have enough to live, would leave room for solitude and contemplation “of the beauties and grandeur of nature”. In this world, the “industrial arts” would obviously not stop, but “instead of having no other goal than the acquisition of wealth, the improvements would reach their goal, which is the diminution of work. [4]

To be followed, maybe …


[1] Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Edinburgh Review vol. 49, 1829, p. 439-459
“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends.”

[2] Thomas Carlyle, “Past and Present” (1843), Cathédrales d’autrefois et usines d’aujourd’hui. Passé et présent, fr. transl. of Camille Bos, Editions of the Revue Blanche, Paris, 1920, p.289
I admire a Nation which fancies it will die if it do not undersell all other Nations, to the end of the world. Brothers, we will cease to undersell them; we will be content to equal-sell them; to be happy selling equally with them! I do not see the use of underselling them. A world of mere Patent-Digesters will soon have nothing to digest: such world ends, and by Law of Nature must end, in ‘over-population;’
P. 229-31,

[3] Jules Michelet, “Le peuple”. Flammarion. Paris, 1974 [1846]

[4] John Stuart Mill, “Principles of Political Economy,” fr. transl. Léon Roquet, Paris 1894 [1848] Pages 138-142.

Creativity according to Isaac Asimov

While travelling in the USA in January, I was mentioned a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity “How Do People Get New Ideas?”.

Isaac Asimov by Andy Friedman (Source: MIT Technology Review)

I have always been skeptical about how to teach creativity or even how to encourage it. I felt very much in agreement with what Asimov had written way back 60 years ago. Let me quote him:

– the method of generation [of ideas] is never clear even to the “generators” themselves,

– what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected,

– once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious,

– making the cross-connection requires a certain daring,

– a person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance; since (s)he occurs only rarely, (s)he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us,

– my feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required; the creative person is, in any case, continually working at it; his (her) mind is shuffling information at all times, even when (s)he is not conscious of it,

– the presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing; nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself,

– the optimum number of the group [i.e. such people just before] would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted.

This is quite fascinating: according to Asimov, creativity is an isolated act; making connections possible maybe helped by small groups, but even this, Asimov is not totally convinced of… I have often read interesting articles about creativity in art, science, technology and the idea that freedom to think combined with obsession to solve or do something might be much more critical than social interactions.

Why society cannot be put into equations by Pablo Jensen

My former colleague Boris advised me to read French book Pourquoi la société ne se laisse pas mettre en équations (Why society cannot be put into equations) and I must thank him for the advice 🙂

Author Pablo Jensen – his personal and wikipedia page will tell you more – is a physicist and his book tries to explain why equations in social sciences (even in physics by the way) may be tricky. Truth is a complicated topic. But whereas there is (some) truth in natural sciences which can always be revisited, the concept of truth in social sciences is even more difficult, just because the human behavior is full of feedback loops so that what is true today, not to say yesterday might be taken intro account to modify the future… If you read French, it is really interesting, if not, let’s hope for a translation soon.

As a really nice illustration of truth in physics, Jensen mentions how Galileo struggled with the mechanics of falling bodies [pages 42-5].

Source: Galileo’s notes on motion, Folio 116, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence; Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence; Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Galileo never published his data as he did not understand why they looked wrong. The answer is a sliding ball does not have the same speed has a rolling one. Rotation absorbs a fraction of the energy (apparently √(5/7) or 0.84) which was close to Galileo’s apparent mistake.

Then Jensen reminds us of how difficult weather forecast and climate modification are (chapter 4). So when he jumps to social sciences, he is quite convincing about the reason why mathematical modeling may be a very challenging task. On a study about analyzing tweets to predict success, he writes the following: Le résultat de leur étude est clair: même si l’on connaît toutes les caractéristiques des messages et des utilisateurs, le succès reste largement imprévisible. Techniquement, seule 20% de la variabilité du succès des différents messages est expliquée par ce modèle, portant très complexe, et d’ailleurs incompréhensible, comme cela arrive souvent pour les méthodes utilisant l’apprentissage automatique. Il est intéressant de noter qu’on peut doubler le niveau de prédiction en ajoutant une seule variable supplémentaire. Il s’agit du succès passé de l’utilisateur. de son nombre moyen de retweets jusque-là. […] La vie sociale est intrinsèquement imprédictible, de par les fortes interactions entre les personnes. […] La masse des données permet d’opérationnaliser des vieux dictions comme “qui se ressemble s’assemble”, “dis-moi ce que tu lis, je te dirai qui tu es” et surtout “je suis qui je suis”. (The result of their study is clear: even if one knows all the characteristics of the messages and the users, the success remains largely unpredictable.Technically, only 20% of the variability of the success of the different messages is explained by this model, even if it is very complex, and in fact incomprehensible, as it happens often for the methods using machine learning. It is interesting to note that the prediction level can be doubled by adding a single additional variable. This is the past success of the userm through its average number of retweets so far. […] Social life is inherently unpredictable, because of the strong interactions between people. […] The mass of data makes it possible to operationalize old sayings such as “birds of a feather flock together”, “tell me what you read, I will tell you who you are” and especially “I am who I am” [Chapter 12, Predict thanks to big data? [Chapter 12, Predict thanks to big data? Pages 150-3].

An even more striking example of the incomprehensible nature of machine learning is about image recognition: the best way to predict the presence of curtains in a room was to identify a foot in a bed. Just because most bedrooms had both [Pages 154-5]. Jensen also criticizes the ranking of universities and researchers (pages 246-53), a topic I had addressed in the past in La Crise et le Modèle Américain. In chapter 20, “are we social atoms?”, he adds that for human beings [Page 263]: “for now, we do not know internal characteristics which are both pertinent and stable” without which analyzing human beings as a group becomes problematic.

Already in Chapter 13, Jensen explains that there are four essential factors that make the simulations of society qualitatively more difficult than those of matter: the heterogeneity of humans; the lack of stability of anything; the many relationships to consider, both temporally and spatially; the reflexivity of humans, who react to the patterns of their activity. […] No single factor produces anything on its own […] In the social sciences, a dense network of causal conditions is needed to produce a result. […] There is no guarantee that the consequence of [one factor] will be the same in other situations than it will be combined with other causal factors. The only possible answer is “it depends”. [Pages 162-4]

To discuss the greater or lesser stability that can be expected from these internal characteristics, we must go back to their origin. For the physicists, the answer is clear: the origin of the forces between atoms is to be sought in the interactions between these really stable particles that are the nuclei and the electrons. […] The origin of human actions is at the heart of sociology. Its first intuition was to seek the determinants of practices not in the inner minds of people studied by psychology, nor in a universal human nature, but in social influences. [Page 264] The social world is more like a swirling fluid than neat combinations of bricks. […] Of course this image is too simple, because it neglects the memory, the strong viscosity of the social. But it shows the limits of the static vision of the economy or of social physics, which start from individuals already made, ready to function, to generate social life by association, under the impulse of their independent natures. [Page 270] Social life does not therefore consist of a series of discrete interactions as the formula or the simulations suppose. Rather, it must be conceived of as the result of the unfolding of relationships. The distinction between interaction and relationship is crucial, because the latter involves a series of interactions followed between people who know each other and keep the memory of past exchanges. In a relationship, each interaction is based on past interactions and will in turn influence those that will come. A relationship is not a simple sequence of one-off interactions, but a process of continuous creation, of the relationship and therefore of the people involved. [Page 271]

Jensen does not say society cannot be analyzed, qualitatively or quantitatively. He gives a subtle analysis of the complexity of society and social behaviors which we should always remember before accepting as facts often too simplistic analyses from big data…

Goomics (Part III) – About Patents

My final post about Goomics deals with Manu Cornet’s views on Patents. They are not that different from mine: I copied his view below (I hope he does not mind this limited copyright infringement) whereas you can read my slideshare contribution. You may also try to guess what invention Cornet’s is referring to and what is the Australian patent I use in my class. It was granted and then revoked, shoudl you be interested to know about it…

Goomics by Manu Cornet (Part II)

I’ve reached letter O of Goomics by Manu Cornet. (you can see my previous post about the book here). My favorite piece is at letter N for Nerds. I hope this author will not complain about my copying it here…

I agree with the author. That much for lousy jokes, but I love it. And a more serious one, the amazing growth of Google with its 4 CEOs.

Thanks a lot for the author for new contribution about Google.

A New Yorker article about 2 Google developers : The Friendship That Made Google Huge

The New Yorker just published a beautiful article abotu two google developers. The Friendship That Made Google Huge is subtitled Coding together at the same computer, Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat changed the course of the company—and the Internet.

The company’s top coders seem like two halves of a single mind.
Illustration by David Plunkert

Here are some extracts:

Sanjay Ghemawat, [is] a quiet thirty-three-year-old M.I.T. graduate with thick eyebrows and black hair graying at the temples. Sanjay had joined the company only a few months earlier, in December. He’d followed a colleague of his—a rangy, energetic thirty-one-year-old named Jeff Dean—from Digital Equipment Corporation. Jeff had left D.E.C. ten months before Sanjay. They were unusually close, and preferred to write code jointly. In the war room, Jeff rolled his chair over to Sanjay’s desk, leaving his own empty. Sanjay worked the keyboard while Jeff reclined beside him, correcting and cajoling like a producer in a news anchor’s ear.


Today, Google’s engineers exist in a Great Chain of Being that begins at Level 1. At the bottom are the I.T. support staff. Level 2s are fresh out of college; Level 3s often have master’s degrees. Getting to Level 4 takes several years, or a Ph.D. Most progression stops at Level 5. Level 6 engineers—the top ten per cent—are so capable that they could be said to be the reason a project succeeds; Level 7s are Level 6s with a long track record. Principal Engineers, the Level 8s, are associated with a major product or piece of infrastructure. Distinguished Engineers, the Level 9s, are spoken of with reverence. To become a Google Fellow, a Level 10, is to win an honor that will follow you for life. Google Fellows are usually the world’s leading experts in their fields. Jeff and Sanjay are Google Senior Fellows—the company’s first and only Level 11s.

And more about dual creativity. Quite fascinating!

It took Monet and Renoir, working side by side in the summer of 1869, to develop the style that became Impressionism; during the six-year collaboration that gave rise to Cubism, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque would often sign only the backs of their canvases, to obscure which of them had completed each painting.
In “Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs,” the writer Joshua Wolf Shenk quotes from a 1971 interview in which John Lennon explained that either he or Paul McCartney would “write the good bit, the part that was easy, like ‘I read the news today’ or whatever it was.” One of them would get stuck until the other arrived—then, Lennon said, “I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa.”
François Jacob, who, with Jacques Monod, pioneered the study of gene regulation, noted that by the mid-twentieth century most research in the growing field of molecular biology was the result of twosomes.

You should read the article…

Swiss Startups : new analyzes, without real surprise …

A new and interesting report on Swiss startups has just been published by Startupticker, the Swiss Startup Radar.

It shows a fairly new information, the number of startup created a year, about 300,

and their slow growth …

Interesting testimonials also:

Is it due to the much-cited conditions? (Page 80)
No, Switzerland’s regulatory and fiscal framework is first-rate. But I identify two deficits in the support services available in Switzerland: first, there is a lack of contact points for entrepreneurs in the low and no-tech sectors, and, second, we tend to address young people.

More money is one thing, but is it spent differently? Page 89)
In Switzerland, I observe a strong focus on the survival rate. Startups are encouraged if they have collateral, such as patents, and take a cautious course. As a result, eight out of 10 startups from ETH Zurich are still active five years after their foundation. In Israel, on the other hand, more attention is paid to the economic impact. What matters when assessing a project is the prospect of growth and the creation of new jobs.

The awareness that investing in startups can lead to losses is undoubtedly more pronounced in Israel. This is particularly evident in the financing of very young projects. In Switzerland, seed rounds are worked on with thick business plans, PowerPoint presentations and sales projections. In Israel, this paper war has been largely dispensed with. The business angels and VCs accept that there can be no absolute security in the high-tech segment.

In an article by Techcrunch, 30 European startup CEOs call for better stock option policies, we also talk about the gaps in the framework conditions in Switzerland:

with the following recommendations:
1. Create a stock option scheme that is open to as many startups and employees as possible, offering favourable treatment in terms of regulation and taxation. Design a scheme based on existing models in the UK, Estonia or France to avoid further fragmentation and complexity.
2. Allow startups to issue stock options with non-voting rights, to avoid the burden of having to consult large numbers of minority shareholders.
3. Defer employee taxation to the point of sale of shares, when employees receive cash benefit for the first time.
4. Allow startups to issue stock options based on an accepted ‘fair market valuation’, which removes tax uncertainty.
5. Apply capital gains (or better) tax rates to employee share sales.
6. Reduce or remove corporate taxes associated with the use of stock options.

Goomics by Manu Cornet

I must thank sincerely Nicolas for offering me today Goomics by Manu Cornet, subtitled Google’s corporate culture revealed through internal comics.

It looks great though I have read only the 1st two chapters (A is for Android and B is for Bonus). It is funny for sure if you know a little about Google.

It begins with a Foreword this way: “Forewords are boring. I never read them myself. Please go ahead and turn the page now.” I did not and was right not to! I think this may become another bestseller about Google… I might tell you more as I read it…

Harari is already back! 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Part II)

Another short post following my initial one about Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Harari is clearly a broad, deep and impressive thinker. Whereas I was a little concerned with his first chapters, the middle ones are great. I will give you a few example below. But first have a look at the subtitles of all these 21 lessons:

Part I: The Technological Challenge
1. DISILLUSIONMENT – The end of history has been postponed
2. WORK – When you grow up, you might not have a job
3. LIBERTY – Big Data is watching you
4. EQUALITY – Those who own the data own the future

Part II: The Political Challenge
5. COMMUNITY – Humans have bodies
6. CIVILISATION – There is just one civilisation in the world
7. NATIONALISM – Global problems need global answers
8. RELIGION – God now serves the nation
9. IMMIGRATION – Some cultures might be better than others

Part III: Despair and Hope
10. TERRORISM – Don’t panic
11. WAR – Never underestimate human stupidity
12. HUMILITY – You are not the centre of the world
13. GOD – Don’t take the name of God in vain
14. SECULARISM – Acknowledge your shadow

Part IV: Truth
15. IGNORANCE – You know less than you think
16. JUSTICE – Our sense of justice might be out of date
17. POST-TRUTH – Some fake news lasts for ever
18. SCIENCE FICTION – The future is not what you see in the movies

Part V: Resilience
19. EDUCATION – Change is the only constant
20. MEANING – Life is not a story
21. MEDITATION – Just observe

In his 14th chapter, secularism, he uses a few keywords which are very enlighting. If puzzling for you, you will need to read his book. Secularism is defined by a coherent set of values: truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsability [Pages 203-14]. In his next chapter, Ignorance, he has a very interesting analysis of power and truth: It is extremely hard to discover the truth when you are ruling the world. You are just too busy. Most political chiefs and business moguls are forever on the run. Yet if you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom. If you cannot afford to waste time – you will never find the truth. […] You need to waste a lot of time on the periphery – they may contain some brillinat revolutionary insights, but they are mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Leaders are thus trapped in a double bind. If they stay in the centre of power, they will have an extremely distorted vision of the world. If they venture to the margins, they will waste too much of their precious time. [Pages 220-2]

Grigori Perelman according to Masha Gessen

I had mentioned Grigori Perelman in a rather old post: 7 x 7 = (7-1) x (7+1) + 1. I discovered recently a new book about this exceptional mathematician, not so much about his achievements but more about his personality.

About Asperger’s Syndrome

I will not tell much Perelman here, Masha Gessen does it with talent. Let me just translate here form the French version I am reading: “It seems to me that many of the whistleblowers,” wrote Atwwod, “have Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve met several who have applied the code of ethics of their company or government to their work and have reported wrongdoing and corruption in the workplace. All of them were surprised to see that their management and their colleagues did not understand their attitude. ”
So it is perhaps not a coincidence that the founders of dissident movements in the Soviet Union were among mathematicians and physicists. The Soviet Union was not the place for people who took things literally and expected the world to work in a predictable, logical and fair way.
[Pages 215-6, French edition]
One can also interpret the difficulties he experienced when he presented his solutions. If Perelman was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, this inability to see “the big picture” is perhaps one of the most surprising traits. British psychologists Uta Frith and Francesca Happe talked about what they call the “low central coherence” characteristic of autism spectrum disorders. Autistics focus on details, to the detriment of the overall picture. When they manage to reconstitute it, it is because they have arranged the various elements, a little like the elements of the periodic table, in a systemic scheme that satisfies them to the extreme. “… the most interesting facts, wrote Poincaré, one of the greatest systematizing minds of all time, more than a century ago, are those who can be used many times, those who have a chance to happen many times. We have had the good fortune to be born in a world where there is are many; suppose that instead of sixty chemical elements we have sixty billion, that they are not common ones and rare ones, but they would be evenly distributed, so every time we pick up a new pebble, there would be a high probability that it would be made up of some unknown substances… […] In such a world, there would be no no science, perhaps no thought and even life would be impossible because evolution could not have developed the conservative instincts; thanks to God it is not so.”
People with Asperger’s syndrome apprehend the small pebble world by small pebble. Speaking of the existence of this syndrome in society, Attwood resorted to the metaphor of a five thousand-piece puzzle, “where normal people would have the full image on the lid” which would allow them to have global intuitions. Aspergers, they would not see this big picture and should try to nest the pieces one by one. So maybe rules like “never take off your hat” and 2lis all the books that are on the list “formed for Gricha Perelman a way to see the missing image on the lid, to encompass all the elements of the periodic table of the world It was only by clinging to these rules that he could live his life.
[Pages 217-8, French edition]

About power

Another interesting topic addressed by Misha Gessen is on page 236 of the French edition again:
– When he received the letter from the commission that invited him he replied that he did not speak with committees, said Gromov, and that is exactly what he did. They represent everything that one should never accept. And if this attitude seems extreme, it is only in relation to the conformism that characterizes the world of mathematics.
– But why refuse to talk to committees?
– We do not talk to committees, we talk to people! exclaimed Gromov, exasperated. How can we talk to a committee? Who knows who is on the committee? Who tells you that Yasser Arafat is not one of them?
– But he was sent the list of members, and he continued to refuse.
– The way it started, he was right not to answer, Gromov persisted. As soon as a community begins to behave like a machine, all that remains to do is to cut ties, and that’s all. The strangest thing is that there is no longer a mathematician who does the same. That’s what’s weird. Most people agree to deal with committees. They agree to go to Beijing and receive a prize from President Mao. Or the king of Spain, anyway, it’s the same!
– And why, I asked, could not the King of Spain have the honor of hanging a medal around Perelman’s neck?
– What is a king? Gromov asked, totally furious now. Kings are the same morons as the Communists. Why would a king award a medal to a mathematician? What allows it? It is nothing from a mathematical point of view. Same for the president. But there is one who has taken control of power like a thief and the other who inherited it from his father. It does not make any difference.
Unlike them, Gromov explains to me, Perelman had made a real contribution to the world.

It reminds me of a colleague’s quote: “There are not many statues for committees in public parks.”

It’s also worth mentioning here an article from the New Yorker that Gessen mentions too: Manifold Destiny. A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber. On a related topic, the authors quote Perelman whom they met: He mentioned a dispute that he had had years earlier with a collaborator over how to credit the author of a particular proof, and said that he was dismayed by the discipline’s lax ethics. “It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens,” he said. “It is people like me who are isolated.” We asked him whether he had read Cao and Zhu’s paper. “It is not clear to me what new contribution did they make,” he said. “Apparently, Zhu did not quite understand the argument and reworked it.” As for Yau, Perelman said, “I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse . Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.”