Category Archives: Must watch or read

Hopeful Monsters

‘What are hopeful monsters?’ I said ‘They are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it’s not known if the environment is quite ready for them.’
Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley [P. 71]

Hopeful Monsters could have been startups, but it is a novel, a marvelous novel written in 1990 and that I am reading again these days. I had read it in another century, when there were only books in paper and independent bookstores still existed. I had bought it in the late Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California.

Bruno held out his hands to the flames and talked to them in an unintelligible language. Minna said ‘What do you say to the fire?’
Bruno said ‘I say “Come on up! Do as I say or I’ll punish you!” ’
Minna said ‘And does it?’
Bruno said ‘If it wants to.’

The first 3 chpaters begin this way:
Chapter I – if we are to survive in the environment we have made for ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?
Chapter II – if we are talking about an environment in which the acceptance of paradoxes might breed, then this can happen in an English hot-house, I suppose, as well as in a melting-pot of Berlin streets.
Chapter III – if, for the sake of change, old ground has to be broken up, one or two seeds lie secret – what terrible opportunities there were during those years!

I had never read a novel which mixes philosophy and science with beautiful story-telling. Not an easy read. Not sure it is a masterpiece either, though…

“Don’t f**k it up” – Advice to founders

I should not like “Don’t f**k it up”. Just because I am not a big fan of “how to” books in high-tech entrepreneurship. There is another reason why I should not like, i.e. the subtitle: “How Founders and Their Successors Can Avoid the Clichés That Inhibit Growth”. Usually I think foudners should not have successors. But I did not hate les Trachtman’s book at all. The reason is Les gives good advice to founders, the main one being “Trust and Empower”.

Let me give you examples:

I know that every founder believes his company is special, exceedingly complex, and unique. I can assure you that the challenges confronting you are just not that different. Ninety-five percent of your problems are shared by other founders, which is good news because it means your problems are solvable. They’ve been seen and handled many times before—all that is required is the smarts and the courage to address them. [Page 2]

“Employees who are taught to mistrust their own instincts are not very likely to trust their colleagues’ instincts, either.” Fear of failure can easily poison a company culture. Team-building efforts are useless when everyone’s first imperative is CYA — cover your ass. [Page 12]

The process of building a team is not that different from raising a healthy, self-sufficient child. […] You want them to learn from their mistakes and the
resulting painful consequences.
[Pages 15-16]

Micromanaging can often be an excuse for not developing and committing to mid-range and long-range goals. It can also serve as an excuse, changing your mind about what’s most important from one day to the next. A lot of founders run small companies that way, and they never scale those companies because it’s impossible to run a larger company on the basis of what the founder is feeling that particular day. [Page 20]

and his advice to foudners is to give more and moe importance to strategy by [Pages 31-33]:
1. Track your time.
2. Decide what not to work on, and stick to it.
3. Plan for the unexpected.
4. Write down your goals and revisit them quarterly.

More in another post…

Mathematics again: Unexpected, Inevitable and Economical

“La libertad es como un número primo.” Roberto Bolaño, Los Detectives Salvajes

Michael Harris’ mathematics without apologies, I said it elsewhere, is a must-read if you are interested in mathematics. And probably even more, if you are not. But again, it is not an easy reading.

After the claim in his Chapter 3 that mathematics was “Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful”, Harris goes on with provocative and thoughful arguments about the relations that mathematics have with Money (Chapter 4 – Megaloprepeia), with the Body (Chapter 6 – Further Investigations of the Mind-Body problem), with Foundations (Chapter 7 – The Habit of Clinging to an Ultimate Ground) and even with tricks (Chapter 8 – The Science of Tricks), Harris finally comes back to Apologies after a personal chapter about inspiration and work (Chapter 9 – A Mathematical Dream and Its Interpretation).

The author made me discover, shame on me, that “apology” does not mean only praise, but also excuse or defense. Difficulty and confusion of the vocabulary, indeed a recurrent theme of Harris’ book. Let me be quite clear again. I did not understand everything and I imagined Harris could have created a new index. As you may know if you read my blog, I mention Indices from time to time, like the Erdős Index, the Tesla Index. This new Index could be 0 for Maths Giants or Supergiants, humans who could be awarded the Fields Medal, the Abel Prize or equivalent, 1 for those who can understand (everything) that has been written in mathematics by those with 0 Index; then 2, for those who can understand (everything) that has been written in mathematics by those with 1 Index, etc… I do not know where the index would stop and perhaps it already exists… I woudl like to believe that I was at the Index 3 but not sure! But then I made my discovery about “apology”, I put myself down at Index 5…

Harris goes even stronger than Hardy with his “No Apologies” even if he quotes him: Irony has not spoken its last word on the flight from utility [of science], even when utility is understood, with Hardy, as that which “tends to accentuate the existing inequalities in the distribution of wealth”. [Page 296] I think harris has written a very useful book about mathematics. I add another example on the nature of mathematical beauty: “there is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy” [Page 307].

When looking for more information about harris, I found his web page which begins with the quote i give above from Bolaño. When I discovered Bolaño a few years ago, it was such a shock that I read everything I could find. Again without understanding everything. But if you read Harris’ chapter 9, you will undestand that “not understanding everything” may not be that important, compared to the impact that (apparent) confusion may create…

PS: I could have added that while I was reading Harris, a controversy arose around a new solution for the P vs. NP problem. More about this in a detailed pdf and on its author’s blog. I also should have mentioned the Langlands program and Alexander Grothendieck, whom I also mentioned here. But again Harris book is so rich…

Mathematics – Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful

“It’s not the marbles that matter. It’s the game.” Dutch proverb

“In mathematics, the art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” Cantor

Mathematics can be made simple, even obvious; and beautiful, and even useful. Just read my previous post about Ian Stewart’s 17 Equations That Changed the World. But there are other more provocative views. You just need to read Michael Harris’ mathematics without apologies.

Harris is certainly not as easy to read as Stewart. But it is as (maybe more) enriching. His Chapter 3 for example is entitled Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful. In this world of increasing pressure to justify the usefulness of science, the author fights back. “There is now a massive literature on the pressures facing university laboratories. These books mostly ignore mathematics, where stakes are not so high and opportunities for commercial applications are scarce, especially in the pure mathematics.” [Page 55]

But even Truth seems to be at stake.“If one really thinks deeply about the possbility that the foundations of mathematics are inconsistent, this is extremely unsettling for any rational mind” [Voevodsky quoted on page 58] and a few lines before “Bombieri recalled the concerns about the consistency, reliability, and truthfulness of mathematics that surfaced during the Foundations Crisis and alluded to the ambiguous status of computer proofs and too-long proofs.”

Finally Harris mentions some confusion about Beauty quoting Villani: “The artistic aspect of our discipline is [so] evident” that we don’t see how anyone could miss it.. immediatley adding that “what generally makes a mathematician progress is the desire to produce something beautiful.” Harris then quotes an art expert advising museum-goers to “let go of [their] preconceived notions that art has to be beautiful”. [Page 63]

Harris adds that “the utility of practical applications, the guarantee of absolute certainty and the vision of mathematics as an art form – the good, the true and the beautiful, for short – have the advantage of being ready to hand with convenient associations, though we should keep in mind that what you are willing to see as good depends on your perspective, and on the other hand the true and beautiful can themselves be understood as goods.” [Pages 63-4]

The short answer to the “why” question is going to be that mathematicains engage in mathematics because it gives us pleasure. [Page 68]

Maybe more in another post…

Instead of another post, here is a short section extracted from page 76 and added on August 27:

The parallels between mathematics and art

“Here the presumed but largely unsubstantiated parallel between mathematics and the arts offers unexpected clarity. Anyone who wants to include mathematics among the arts has to accept the ambiguity that comes with that status and with the different perspectives implicit in different ways of talking about art. Six of these perspectives are particularly relevant: the changing semantic fields the word art has historically designated; the attempts by philosophers to define art, for example, by subordinating it to the (largely outdated) notion of beauty or to ground ethics in aesthetics, as in G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, which by way of Hardy’s Apology continues to influence mathematicians; the skeptical attitude of those, like Pierre Bourdieu, who read artistic taste as a stand-in for social distinction ; the institutions of the art world, whose representatives reflect upon themselves in Muntadas’s interviews ; the artists personal creative experience within the framework of the artistic tradition ; and the irreducible and (usually) material existence of the art works themselves.
Conveniently, each of these six approaches to art as a mathematical counterpart: the cognates of the word mathematics itself, derived form the Greek mathesis, which just means “learning”, and whose meaning has expanded and contracted repeatedly over the millennia and from one culture to another, including those that had no special affinity for the Greek root; the Mathematics of philosophers of “encyclopedist” schools; school mathematics in its role as social and vocational filter; the social institutions of mathematics with their internal complexity and heir no-less-complex interactions with other social and political institutions; the mathematicians personal creative experience within the framework of the tradition (the endless dialogue with the Giants and Supergiants of the IBM and similar rosters); and the irreducible and (usually) immaterial existence of theorems, definitions and other mathematical notions.”

Maybe more in another post…

How much do you know (and love) about mathematics?

A tribute to Maryam Mirzakhani

From time to time, I mention here books about science and mathematics that I read. It is the first one I read by Ian Stewart. Shame on me, I should have read him a long time ago. 17 Equations That Changed the World is a marvelous little book that describe the beauty of mathematics. A must read, I think

So as a little exercise, you can have a look at these 17 equations and check how much you know. What ever the result, I really advise to read his book! And if you do not, you can have a look at the answers below…

And here is more, the names of the equations and the mathematitians who who discovered them (or invented them – depending on what you think Math is about).

The Rainforest by Hwang and Horowitt (Part III) – the Recipe

After my initial notes (part I) and the importance of culture (part II) in the Rainforest by Hwang and Horowitt, here are my new notes about their recipe to build efficient ecosystems for entrepreneurial innovation. I will finish with a part IV about venture capital.

Again the authors remind us that “innovation is chaotic, serendipitous and uncontrollable, so processes that are linear and controlled are rarely self-sustaining. In contrast, what we strive for in a Rainforest is a system that yields immense impact, is low-cost, and generates internal sustainability. The only possible way to achieve these goals is to build a community of innovators where transaction costs have been reduced through the creation of trust, social norms, connectivity and diversity.” [Page 183]

So their recipe is not so much a recipe as a cure. In fact they say “rather than thinking like macroeconomists, to change behavior, we must think like psychiatrists […] We build rainforests by shaping the outward behavior of innovators. Over time, those behaviors can create changes in attitude, and eventually, the changes in attitude can lead to change in beliefs”. [Page 200-1]

In the recipe [pages 194-200], there is Hardware made of 4 “P”s: People, Professional, (i.e. institutions), Physical (i.e. infrastructure) and Policy. Hardware is necessary but not sufficient. There is also Software, with 5 pillars, Diversity, Extra-Rational Motivations, Social Trust, Rules (see my previous post) and Interpretation of the Rules. The Keystones will make all this possible.

The Rainforest canvas may be a helpful tool to assess the situation of an ecosystem in its physical and cultural components:

About Role Models, they have the interesting Porsche principle. “This principle holds that one of the greatest motivators for professors or graduate students on campus to start new companies is when one of their colleagues drives up in a new Porsche after selling their startup”. [Page 210] To be honest, today, at EPFL and probably elsewhere, I would call it the Tesla principle… (see my previous post…The University-based Startup Porsche Principle. Or is it the Tesla Principle?)

In their epilogue, the authors explain that “Perhaps, instead of fighting the chaos, we need to become more comfortable with it. Perhaps we just need a better map. The Rules of the Rainforest provide a useful map – one that shows the way to balance the freedom of chaos with the beauty of collaboration. […] It requires a ‘joyful participation’ in the ups and downs, the mistakes and the failures that are inevitable. Thus, love is like a solution to chaos. ” [page 280] They use a magnificent quotation from Richard Feynman to whom a student asked to write a message to his mother so that she would be interested in science. Here it is: “Tell your son to stop trying to fill your head with science – for to fill your hear with love is enough. Richard Feynman (the man you watched on BBC ‘Horizon'”.

Here is a slideshare presentation by the authors, which beautifully summarizes their vision.

The Rainforest by Hwang and Horowitt. Part 2: the Importance of Culture

After my introductory post about The Rainforest – The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt, which focused on the importance of trust, here is a second piece about culture. The final part will describe how the authors claim they know the recipe to build rainforests. What is remarkable with the Rainforest is the ambition to explain that innovation is mostly cultural so that at the micro-level it cannot really be engineered, but at the macro-level rainforests can be built. I am not sure the authors are right, but the effort is really to be recognized.

One lesson of the Rainforest is that outcomes cannot be engineered. […] Serendipity itself cannot be engineered but an environment that is conducive to serendipity can be. [Page 65]

In their chapter 3 about People, they begin with Keystones, not Entrepreneurs. “What defines a Keystone? Over the years, we have observed certain individuals practicing a unique manner of human interaction that is critical to the growth of entrepreneurial innovation. […] These people are usually missing, or at least too scarce, in almost all regions that have failed at generating significant amounts of entrepreneurial innovation.” [Page 71]

These people are integrative, influential and impactful, they are brokers of social trust (by contrast to entrepreneurs who are people who absorb information, learn from practice and seek opportunities). “The San Francisco Bay Area has a vastly higher percentage of people who are involved in multiple firms. 4.5% of the actors counted in the Bay Area were involved in three or more startups, compared to 2.9% in Boston, 2% in San Diego, […] 1.2% in Austin […] 0.7% in Portland. […] The bay Area has a significantly higher share of individuals who are extremely connected and contribute to the growth of multiple startup ventures”. [Page 74]

The authors also show the diversity of psychologies, the diversity of backgrounds in people which are still connected and work together. “We see these unconscious behaviors at work with innovators everywhere in the world. Scientists versus entrepreneurs. Startups versus large corporations. Investors versus investees. These tribal conflicts can be obstacles to the development of Rainforests.” [Page 109] All the more that: “Similarly the process of building a startup company is one in which people must often rely on gut-level decision-making. Entrepreneurial innovation, by its nature, is virtually a never-ending series of educated guesses. Almost every decision is based substantially incomplete information.” [Page 106]

America is the building of a society not burdened by historical tribes. […] They are less chained to the past. Instead Americans tend to be identified by self-reliance. […] People still run to California today. It is commonly regarded as the land of pioneers, nonconformists, artists, and rebels. [Page 116] Culture is critical to the way economic systems function because it provides the rules of engagement between people that hopefully can maximize their collective well-being. [Page 118] The authors are not naïve but claim that all these people need to find the right balance. A venture capitalist is caught between trying to own as much of a company as possible and trying to leave enough equity in the hands of the entrepreneurial team to keep them fully incentivized. […] A VC wants to preserve a reputation. [Page 119] Innovative behavior is not driven by rational maximization. There are in fact other forces, which can be called extra-rational: competition, altruism, adventure, discovery, creativity, meaning, concern.

Here I cannot avoid mentioning the great (counter-)example of Orson Welles about the Scorpio and the Turtle… Hopefully nature is not everything, culture matters.

One mistake of policy makers is to underestimate these extra-rational motivations. “Governments and corporations often try to incentivize innovation by focusing on financial mechanisms, such as tax breaks, subsidies, grants and loans. But overall, this strategy has been poor. They cannot be only the ends in themselves.” [Page 127]

Traditional incentives, benefits and costs: [Page 124]
Some possibility of making more money
Sacrifice a stable income and career perhaps forever
Risk social disapproval from family, friends, potential spouses
Difficulty and fear of working with strangers outside conventional circles of trust, culture, ethnicity, language
Difficulty and extra effort in communicating effectively
Huge investment of time, effort, stress
Possibility of losing everything (depending on laws, regarding bankruptcy, partnerships, etc.)

Rainforest incentives, benefits and costs: [Page 126]
Perceived and possibly real opportunity of making more money (following role models that have validated the path already)
Joy of discovery, novelty, adventure, creativity, passion
Social approval (as a peer member of a community of innovators)
Joy of friendship, sharing, love working on a team, building new trust, common values and goals
Fulfillment from the possibility of making a difference in society, leaving a legacy for future generations
Thrill of competition
Freedom and independence
Little social punishment, often encouragement, from family and friends for taking a worthwhile risk
Some anxiety from meeting new people, but offset by the joy of making new friendships
Huge investment of time, effort, and stress, but viewed in a neutral or even positive light because pursuing a personal passion
Little risk of losing everything because new opportunities emerge in the process of experimentation
Much lower probability of failure from a broad community of fellow innovators.

And the authors claim what are needed are 7 rules [Page 156]:
– Break the rules and dream
– Open doors and listen
– Trust and be trusted
– Experiment and iterate together
– Seek fairness, not advantage.
– Err, fail and persist.
– Pay it forward.

People usually think of Silicon Valley as an anomaly in the otherwise “normal” history of the world, but what if we reversed that proposition? What if we envisioned Silicon Valley as the natural endpoint of a 50,000-year story? Perhaps it could be the latest stage in the evolution of human society, from a culture based on tribes to a culture based on pragmatic individuals. [page 152]

Look at Harari again if you have not not already…

Notes on the Rainforest by Hwang and Horowitt

I must thank here first Bogdan Ceobanu from the European Commission. After spending a few hours discussing the challenges (and opportunities) of innovation in Europe, he sent me his copy of The Rainforest – The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt. Bogdan is one of the leading voices behind Startup Europe. Thanks 🙂

There may be nothing really new in this book about ecosystems, but the messages are strong and clear. You may need an infrastructure, but without culture, nothing will happen, no innovation will emerge. I might write a few posts about this book as I just began reading it recently. And as usual, here are my notes / extracts.

Despite hundreds of books and thousands of papers on the subject, real-world innovation is little understood. […] Having the right ingredients will not necessarily result in successful innovation. You need to prepare those raw ingredients, combining them in just the right way. […] We argue that the two pillars of innovation’s conventional wisdom – free markets and clusters – are unable to provide comprehensive answers to the mystery of systemic innovation. [Pages 18-20]

Funnily enough, I gave my own recipe in 2007: “Two main ingredients are needed, rich people and nerds; this has been said already. Do not add any bureaucracy, do not add concrete. In order to attract and keep enough nerds, there is a need for a large and nice plate. A university is a good choice. But it must not be a university like any other; it must be a superb university. There are some; a few are being built from scratch. It needs a unique personality, and it needs to be creative. Not only on its campus, but also in its surroundings, so that the ingredients feel comfortable in the plate. They should be fresh, i.e. they should be young and dynamic. Young and dynamic people are the founders of start-ups. Graham also mentions liberal environments, which, he claims, tolerate strange and brilliant individuals. Then the ingredients have to be put in the oven for a very long time. Silicon Valley began in 1957, Silicon Fen in 1960. It took ten years, maybe even twenty years, to make these two regions successful; it is about the time it takes to grow infants into adults. The oven should not be too hot, so that the desire is not killed, then the temperature should be increased to maintain the enthusiasm. A temperate, pleasant climate is therefore necessary. If all the conditions are in place, the result will probably be interesting”. [Page 176. Start-Up: What We May Still Learn From Silicon Valley]

The world of innovation does not happen at the macro-level. Innovation is a “body contact sport.” It is a micro-level phenomenon. When applied to innovation, rational choice theory might make sense if you’re a theorist thinking abstractly about the way the world should work. It does not accurately describe the way the world actually works. [Page 37] You cannot understand the macro without understanding the micro. […] the world is far more complicated – one must deal with a range of complex social and psychological factors, personal networks, and information flows. [Page 48]

Free market proponents sometimes support investments in scientific research as a way to stimulate new innovation. […] Scientific research, however, does not always lead to economic growth. Each $1 increase in scientific research does not necessarily result in a $1 increase in economic activity in the overall system. The research alone is not sufficient. […] In the real world, the path from discovery to commercial product is so long, tortuous, and serendipitous that the vast majority of world-changing technologies never see the light of day. Society has a surprisingly huge backlog of scientific discoveries that are “stuck in the pipeline”, stalled by the human barriers that prevent them from reaching the marketplace. [Page 40]

For instance, the state of Kansas actively invested in its high-tech entrepreneurs. The University of Kansas provided research grants to develop products for commercial application. The university promoted regional collaboration, entrepreneurial training and even direct assistance. The results of these endeavors, however, were nothing like those of Silicon Valley. And the vast majority of the world looks a lot more like Kansas than California. [Page 41] A cluster is a description of a phenomenon, not a prescription for policy. [Page 42]

Whereas a company is a group of individuals working together, a cluster is a region of individuals or companies working together. In both cases, these relationships result in lower transaction costs. And in both cases, those savings are derived from the fact that people are closer together, can communicate more easily, and trust each other more. [Page 46]

And again let me give you an extract from my book, now quoting Richard Newton: “The Bay Area is the Corporation. […When people change jobs here in the BayArea], they’re actually just moving among the various divisions of the Bay Area Corporation.” [Page 102 – Start-up]

I am not sure anyone has “The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley”, but I will post more when I am more advanced in reading the Rainforest!