Past and Future of Education

When I was a freshman in high school, I sat chafing at the horribly slow pace of droning lectures on material that I had already read in the assigned textbooks.  I would often find myself nodding off to sleep (teenagers’ circadian clocks are time shifted such that early morning classes are too early) or day dreaming.  I still got near perfect scores on exams.  I had, after all, read the textbooks cover to cover at the begining of the term.  In my day dreaming, I often envisioned my ideal university experience.  Mine were always in ‘Ox-bridge’ like settings, where tutors who sat in cozy wood paneled rooms with floor to ceiling bookshelves guided one’s reading lists while serving ‘tea & bisquits’, lectures were always optional, and neither were part of a set course, but were meant to provide opportunities for learning to prepare one for comprehensive exams to demonstrate competence in the material.  I took the phrase, “reading for the exams” literally.  You can imagine my disappointment to learn that university was the same as high school, but with bigger lecture halls.

But I took a different route.  I earned my lower division general education requirements from part-time attendance, and occasionally challenging courses, at community colleges, but earned the lion’s share of my college credits entirely by comprehensive exams after self-study.  I bought many of my text books at the Stanford University bookstore, others I borrowed from my roommate who had gone to CalTech before Stanford Med School.  I got very decent scores on the exams.  After earning my BS, I was admitted to Stanford Graduate School as a part-time (Honors Co-op) student, sponsored by my employer, Fairchild Semiconductor, to take or audit classes on semiconductor device theory and fabrication.  (I audited more than I took, as I needed to learn fast for my job, more than I needed the credit hours.)  I was looking forward to graduate school at Stanford, having projected my high school vision of what a graduate level education would be like.  Sadly, graduate school was very like undergraduate, but with smaller lecture halls.

OK, for a bit of honest self-disclosure.  I was born hard-of-hearing.  I get almost nothing from lectures.  Yes, I wear hearing aids… but they amplify noise just as well as voices.  The background noise of hundreds of other students squirming in the seats partially masks the teacher’s voice.  When s/he turns his/her back to write on a board, I can no longer augment my hearing with lip reading.  Oh and that sound of nails on chalkboards that can make one cringe(?); that’s what ordinary chalk on chalkboards sound like when amplified.  What I hear is, “Now, ‘ooking a’ ‘is equat’n, it is obvious ‘at mmff..mmm {sskrsksk} and thus we have proo’ ‘at mmff.n..mmm.  Any questions?”  Although my hearing problem made it harder for me, the lecture method of instruction given our modern technology and tools, is perhaps the most antiquated and least efficient means of delivering needed information.  Can there be a better way?

But first, let’s look back at history to learn why we do this?

In pre-historic times, much of instruction came in two forms, one was oral tradition the other was direct.  Studies of hunter gatherer cultures have documented that a pre-literate society depended upon story telling to pass down history, culture, and lore.  They also pass on skills by direct demonstration and correction of mistakes by younger members of the group.  One could say that the lecture method of instruction is the direct descendent of the campfire story.

But that’s not the whole story.  As population density increased, people gathered in ever larger settlements.  With these came the need for a means of communications over both distance and time.  This lead to literacy.  But oral culture continued in full flower along side written accounts.  Further, literacy was far from universal.  It was dependent upon class and in places even gender.  Instruction in literacy was private, handed down within families or exclusive institutions.  As cities became civilization, higher education was often conducted in small group settings, again limited by class and often gender.

During these times, the written corpus was expensive.  The materials upon which they were written were either time consuming to manufacture, in limited supply, or both.  Consider the problem for the European scholars in the Middle Ages.  Their prefered archival material was parchment, which was sheepskin that had to be laboriously processed.  It was so valuable that, to us, priceless texts from the ancient world were scraped off to provide a surface for religious texts.  These palimpsests occasionally yield historically important texts as modern methods to recover the original writing have become available.  Also consider the means by which one published a new or repuplished and old work.  The handwritten manuscripts had to be hand copied by caligraphic copyists.  This was manpower intensive work that could only be done by skilled workers.  It meant that books were horrendously expensive and not easily obtainable.

So, higher education was limited to those who could afford first to be privately tutored to become literate, and then rich enough to afford either a library of their own, or to travel to that innovative institution of the late-middle-ages, the university.  But even at the university, access to the limited supply of books was effectively metered and controlled.  Their value so high that they were seldom allowed outside of the library walls.  This meant that much of the instruction from the university professors was still given orally, during lectures.  This established a tradition that continues today.

But things did change.  The introduction and rapid evolution of the printing press brought the end of hand copied manuscripts.  The mass manufacture of paper to replace the far more expensive parchment lowered the cost of the media.  The combination dramatically increased the availability of books.  This meant that university libraries burgeoned and reading for one’s exams became a real activity.  But it did not eliminate the cost and cultural barriers to education.  Enrollment in ‘public’ schools took money that working class people simply had limited access to.  Higher education at the universities was out of the question for the vast majority of working and even the middle-classes as they developed from first expanded mercantile trade and later the early industrial revolution.

Around three hundred years ago a new institution began to change all of that.  The grammar or elementary school began to be introduced, increasing literacy rates.  The introduction of the “lending library” wherein one could check out the now lower cost book increased access to scholarly (and not so scholarly) materials.  Benjamin Franklin said, “The public library is the people’s university.”  Many people, Franklin included, obtained the equivilant of a univerisity education nearly exclusively by extensive reading.

But somehow, our universities continued their tradition of mass lectures, despite that fact that reading was more instructionally and cost effective.  When our high schools were instituted, they slavishly copied the format.  Tradition dies hard.

Which brings us to today.  A recent innovation in universities is to record lectures and make them available online (MOOCs).  This extends the cost effectiveness of lectures, as more students view them per lecture.  But this is still a lecture, with an even bigger (virtual) lecture hall.

But with technology, the cost of books have come down as well.  Not only is the printed codex, or random access paper books, so cheap that paperbacks are more often thrown away after reading than stored, we now have means to provide digital electronic materials that make the nth copy of the book essentially free.  Our textbooks should be all available on our tablets (using a PenTile Matrix high resolution display, of course!).  Every reference book, every text book, that one will ever need for school from elementary through graduate school and beyond, should be instantly available and essentially free to all.  But they’re not.

Why aren’t they?  Part of the reason is again historical.  While many advanced textbooks are written by university professors, they are published by traditional hardcopy publishers.  Indeed, there is such a cachet attached to hardcopy, that people are willing to pay high prices… partly because they have no choice.

How can we fix this?  First, we should recognize that it is a national (if not international) imperative that such materials be freely available, as the new “people’s university”.  Second, we should have our universities work together to create national course curricula and materials for use in digital form.  Digital media, as opposed to the printed word or photograph, can directly meld text, diagrams, photos, video, and even interactive tutorials.  Consider the educational value of simply producing and maintaining these materials by the various university departements involving their students in the endeavor.  These should cover material from early elementary school to graduate school, in nearly all of the basics of a modern education.  This does not mean the end of the specialized text book.  These will always be with us… and yes their authors should be compesated by the reader.  But the core materials and textbooks should be universally available at no cost to the student.

Secondly, we need to have a national (if not international) means of educational measurement and evaluation.  This means a series of comprehensive examinations that are also available free.  They should be proctored at public schools, accessable to all by being local.  It should be possible to earn diplomas, certificates, and degrees, entirely by examination.  Admittedly, many professional degrees (e.g. nursing, medicine, etc.) cannot be truly earned entirely by autodydactic means, but a basic undergraduate and some graduate liberal arts education with most majors / concentrations should be.

Online discussion fora can take the place of classroom discussion.  Indeed, among many lifelong learners, social media often becomes such (when self-selected to eliminate the anti-social “troll” element).

This does not mean the end of traditional campus life.  Universities will still be needed.  Research graduate degrees, preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers will still require lab classes and R&D facilities to conduct doctoral work.  Advanced studies in the performing and fine arts will still want and need hands on instruction.  Many people will still want the on campus experiences that help take callow youth into adulthood.

However, it should be the job of every high school to prepare every student to become an autodydact for life, by using and encouraging these new digital course materials.  Every human being should have access to higher education at any point in their life.


Thinking Big

For the past seventy years, our greatest inventions and innovations have been realized by thinking ever smaller.  No, that’s not meant as a criticism, merely a witticism.  Back in the 1950s, Richard Feinman gave a lecture at CalTech entitled, “There’s Always Room at the Bottom”.  In it he extolled the virtues and opportunities of minaturization, of making things ever smaller, presaging Moore’s Law of exponential increase in transistor number in microelectronic integrated circuits.  He also talked about making miniture machines, challeging his listeners (and readers of his lecture series, of which I have the full set in our library) to build a motor only one sixtyforth of an inch.  He was far too modest in his challenge.  We long ago acheived motors measured not in fractions of an inch, but in nanometers.

While I don’t want to state anything so silly as to prognosticate the end of Moore’s Law (too many have done so and been wrong) I do lament that we as a world culture have seemingly abandoned the big.  For decades, our buildings and bridges have seemingly inched their way to larger sizes, but once upon a time, in the 19th and early 20th, we thought big and built big.  Collectively, we dared build projects so big that they staggered the imagination.  Sullivan built new skycrapers.  The Victorians built the Crystal Palace.  Paris built the Eiffle Tower.  All of these stretched and challenged both the imagination and the engineering skills of our best and brightest.

But as I described in my previous essay on the lamentable slowdown of development in the late 20th Century, it seemed to me that we abandoned the ‘big’ challenges.  Oh, we still build “big”.  But they aren’t amazingly big and audatious, not like the first Panama Canal was audatious.  With the possile exception of the Chunnel, the tunnel under the English Channel, we just don’t seem to think BIG anymore.  Consider, where are the domed cities we dreamed of in the mid-20th Century, the cities floating in the sky, the underwater cities?

So, purely as an excercize in creativity, lets think BIG for a brief moment, throwing out ideas, both good and bad:

Ever watch the awsome power of a thunderstorm?  Ever think about how much energy is being released?  Could we not capture and use some of that energy?  Consider building a several tens of thousands of feet high chimney that is a thousand feet wide.  When conditions in the atmosphere approach those conducive to generating thunderstorms, when the lifting index is high, a contained and sustained mini-thunderstorm will develop inside of it.  The air will rise inside of the chimney driving huge wind turbines.  Sized and positioned right, the mini-thunderstorm will be self-sustaining over long periods of time.  There are places in the world where this might be an excellent means of providing renewable energy.  The American South, especially Florida, would seem to fit the bill; imagine dozens of them along the Florida penisula.

Ever watch the tides move in and out of a bay?  In some places the amount of water and its speed could easily be harnessed to provide huge amounts of renewable energy.  Already, small scale tidal power projects have been or soon will be built.  But we should think BIG.  Consider the Sea of Cortez.  There are amazing tides there.  More interestingly, there are several islands mid-way that nearly block the northern and southern portions from each other.  The water moving here could be easily harnessed.  Imagine huge underwater turbines between these islands, providing power for the growing cities of Mexico.  There are other places in the world where these underwater turbines may be placed.

For decades, I’ve day dreamed of how to build floating cities above our already crowded city real estate, places that would probably welcome a bit of shade to reduce the thermal island effect.  Imagine huge blimp like bags of hydrogen lifting lace like lattice structures dotted with lightweight housing.  Anchoring guywires and cables carrying power, water, and sewage would tie them in place.  Gondolas would provide transporation to and from the floating city.  Imagine living in an apartment thousands of feet above the city, with panaramic views that stretched for miles.  The walls and furniture would be lightweight polymer foam to keep the lifting requirements minimized. Oh, and before you complain that hydrogen is dangerously flammable, you might want to read up on how HARD the British Royal Aircorp found it to ignite the hydrogen in German dirigables during WWI.  And about the Hindenburg disaster… that almost certainly was sabotage.  But in the case where no one trusts hydrogen as a lifting gas, we can always punt and use low pressure heated air.  It would cost more in terms of energy to maintain, but would be completely safe from fire.

So, its your turn.  Think BIG !!

How to Build a Creative Team

Executives of Fortune 1000 and start-up companies alike are asking, “How do we build a more creative company?”  Here I hope to share some insights I’ve gained doing just that.

I’ve previously written about how to be more personally creative and how to encourage creativity in one’s children.  Here I explore what team leaders and executives can do to encourage creativity, inventiveness, and innovation in one’s organization.

Obviously, it starts with hiring.  The organization that makes a commitment to hiring creative people will have creative teams.  But how do you recruit and select for creativity?

There is a problem in recruitment in that the best way to attract creative talent is to already have creative teams.  Creative people love being around other creative people.  If you are working to change an organization that is not already recognized as creative, it is time to change the organization’s ‘brand image’ for creative thinking.  Getting professional advice on brand messaging is essential.  The start-up company has the advantage here because they don’t have to undo a previous message.  But even a staid Fortune 500 company can change the way that potential talent views their opportunities inside of the firm.  A bit of warning though, saying it isn’t the same as doing it.

One of the ways to become a creative team is to start with a seed of creative types with which to encourage others to join.  Get the ball roling, and change will come.  Thus, it may be a very good idea to recruit senior executives known to be inventive and innovative.  In such a senior role, the qualities one is searching for are similar to those of other executives, but with the added requirement that they be skilled and diplomatic “change agents”, able to earn and hold the respect of both old guard and newly hired creative talent.

How does one recognize creative talent?

An easy answer is that prior demonstrated creativity is a good predictor of future creativity.  Candidates that have previously been granted patents is an obvious indicator, but not the only one available.  Asking candidates interview questions that are open ended regarding their prior experiences solving problems creatively should be a part of the hiring process.  Research has found that the psychological trait of “openess” is highly correlated with creativity, while “conscientiousness” is mildly correlated.  A good sense of humor, especially using puns demonstrates creativity.  Interestingly, a keen interest in music, especially music performance, is also correlated with creativity, or at the very least, the ability to become creative in the right enviroment and encouragement.  As I pointed out in my previous essays, creativity is a learned skill.  Employees who are open to learning to be more creative can do so.

The key is creating the right environment and providing encouragement.

The first thing I did when I founded Clairvoyante in 2000 was to order Patent Notebooks and issue them to each new hire, not just the technologists, engineers, and technicians, but the sales, marketing, finance, and yes… even the administrative staff, including the receptionist.  I made it very clear that EVERYONE was capable of being creative, in both their own spheres, and any other sphere.  I made it clear that they should document any ideas that they have, good or bad, and that I personally would be available to review and discuss them.  Now, admittedly, the CEO of a far flung multinational corp could never personally review every idea, but it should be made policy that someone in the managerial chain responsible for creative review will do so.  I know that this would be a radical move in a large traditional organization, but consider the message it would send when even the night guard and janitorial staff know that their ideas have value and will be heard.  Consider the message to middle management when they know that they are entrusted to encourage creativity, not dismiss it.

Training is essential.

Even the best and brightest from our leading universities have rarely been instructed on how to be creative.  Our engineering schools teach convergent thinking skills, but rarely teach, or even acknowledge the value of, divergent thinking.  Consider that each and every class assignment that they have likely ever work on had a single “right” answer and no other.  But novel problems require novel solutions.

A good training series for all employees would include the three basics, divergent thinking skills, convergent thinking skills, and continuing self-education skills.

Brainstorming kills creativity.

Really?  Yes, really.  Brainstorming only works in environments where already proven, self-confident, and often extroverted staff are involved.  But even then, the divergent ideas will tend to be self-censored because they will likely be judged too soon.  True creativity is not performed under pressure, but within relaxation and thoughtful… OK, I’ll say it out loud, day dreaming.

But if brainstorming is bad, what does work?

Have you ever heard the oft repeated phrase, “Think outside of the box?”  Phooie!  That’s also a very bad notion.  The right way to go about finding novel, useful, and economically successful ideas is to find the right box and think inside of it.  While brainstorming new ideas doesn’t work, collectively finding the right box does.

The right box is formed by finding and defining the desired boundaries to the solution space.  The more and better defined this solution space becomes, the easier it is for the human mind to couple divergent and convergent thinking skills to finding an optimal solution.  In mathematics, an ill posed problem is like a multi-equation problem with more variables than equations.  To find a solution, one must constrain the problem.  So, don’t brainstorm solutions, brainstorm the box.  Then tell everyone to go home, take a long walk or bath, watch a sunset, relax  Day dream.

Day Dream.

How To Be More Creative

Many people would like to be more creative.  After all, as a society, we value creativity very highly.  Many people see creativity as a gift, something we are born with.  While it may be somewhat true for artistic creativity, it is definately not true for inventive and innovative creativity  But if that’s so, how does one go about become more personally creative?

I have thoughts about this that I feel I can and should share.  After all, if more people become more inventive to solve the world’s problems, we will all benefit by living in a better world.  My thoughts are largely from my own experiences and observations.  So if I go wrong, I take full responsibility.

First, I should point out that inventive and innovative are two quite different phenomena.  One can be both, but that is not always the case.  Consider Nikolai Tesla.  He invented polyphase electrical power generation and inductive motors.  But he was a rather poor innovator in that his inventions were always implemented and promolgated by someone else.  Ray Kroc did NOT invent the fast food resturant “McDonalds”.  But he knew a great idea when he saw it and turned a small operation into an international franchise, with hundreds of copy-cats.  Kroc was a great innovator.  Thomas Edison was both a great inventor and a great innovator.  (He was also an intellectual property pirate… but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

In my last essay, I pointed out that to be a successful inventor, one must have three ingredients, divergent thinking skills to create novelty, convergent thinking skills to create usefulness, and an extensive and deep knowledge base to create economically competitive ideas and inventions.  Getting an engineering degree is a great way to get the basic training one needs for convergent skills.  But it is only a modest begining on aquiring a knowledge base.  What most engineers lack however, is training and skills building in divergent thinking.

So lets talk about divergent thinking skills.  Quick!  Think of as many uses for a brick in one minute!  Ok, that’s the ultra short version of the old Torrence test of creativity.  Seems silly, but the ability to fluidly come up with novel and useful answers is a good test for divergent thinking.

In my last essay, I wrote about how boredom helps motivate one to be creative and how imaginative play and day dreaming promote creativity.  While I mentioned in in the context of children, I believe that it still works for adults.  To improve one’s divergent skills, practice day dreaming.  But not just any day dreaming.  Wish fulfulment day dreaming isn’t very good practice at divergent thinking.  But thinking about “what if” designs do.  So, here’s a series of “what if” topics for you to explore:

What if you could design the most wonderful house ever.  What would that be like?  Draw it.  Design it.  Specify it.

What if you could design the most cool car, boat, airplane, motorcycle, etc.  Would would that be like?  Draw it.  Design it.  Specify it.

What if you could design the best future city in the world.  What would that be like?  Draw it.  Describe it.

Note that some of this day dreaming leads to both divergent and convergent thinking, as it should.  Also note that it naturally leads to creating drawings and writing down ideas.  This is where it would really be helpful to keep a notebook for your ideas.  It doesn’t need to be formal.  But you might consider treating it seriously and keeping an Invention Notebook.

Our third requirement that to be successful, one needed to have extensive and deep domain knowledge about the state of the art in a given field (or better yet, many fields) can best be met with extensive reading.  Buy textbooks and read them.  Keep up to date.  Read technical and scientific journals.  Take advantage of the USPTO patent data base.  When I got interested in display technology, I spent at least 500 hours at the Silicon Valley patent library, wading through stacks of hardcopy of patents, educating myself on the state of the art.  It also gave me an insight into which companies were doing what.  Today, you can do all of this online.

If you are casting about for a source of inspiration for inventions and creative ideas, you may wish to explore what nature, through evolutionary processes, has found.  Developing technologies that have been inspired by a biological solution for the same or similar problem is called biomimicry.  For this, I would highly recommend that one study biology.  In fact, if you are a college student reading this, consider a dual major in an engineering field and biology.  I combined my dual degree in physics and psychology, with a very strong minor in biology, in developing better color flat panel displays.

In the end, like any skill worth having, one must diligently practice and excersize that skill.  One starts out with weak skills that become stronger with use.  Further, even after one gets good at it, not every idea is “the one”.  It works much like a pyramid.  You need thousands of ideas and potential inventions to get a really good one.  For every ten ideas, only one will be worth thinking on more.  Of ten of those, one only will be a really useful idea.  Of ten of those, only one will really be economically so impressive as to become a major invention.  And of ten of those, only one of them will be worth starting a company to commercialize.

Keep inventing.

Creativity Training

I’m often embarrassed when someone gushes over how “creative” I am.  I’ve noticed that some folks seem to feel this is something one is born with.  But is it?  If one researchs the subject, the first thing that one notices is that there is often a confusion as to what constitutes “creativity”.  After reading up on the subject, it has become clear that there are several different phenomena that are given that label.  One is artistic expression.  Another is novel ideation.  But the one that I seem to evince the most is novel solutions to problems, that is to say, being an inventor.

To say that one is a creative inventor, the solutions need to be novel AND useful.  To be truly successful as an inventor, one has to produce novel, useful, and economically competitive with other potential solutions (especially an incumbent one) inventions.  To be able to do this, one must master both divergent thinking (novelity) and convergent (useful).  To be economically competitive, one must already have an extensive knowledge of the state of the art.

Engineers are highly trained in convergent thinking but graduate from college often woefully behind the state of the art.  Their employers typically train them up to the state of the art of that firm’s technology.  If the new engineer is lucky, that firm has a wide range of technologies and has remained at the cutting edge themselves to be able to pass that onto their staff.  If the company has a narrow focus or they flounder in a technological backwater, the poor hapless engineer will never gain the required extensive knowledge unless they take the initiate to educate themselve by extensive and constant study.  Many good engineers and technologist do exactly this.

However, engineers are only rarely trained in divergent thinking.  But fortunately, many already had practiced that ability from their earliest childhood.  We call it “imaginary play” and “day dreaming”.  I was the day dreamer.

This brings us back to the issue of whether creativity is something one is born with, or develops.  This is an empirical question that can be answered with science.  Interestingly, recent studies have shown that artistic creative output (accomplishment) is highly heritable according to studies comparing identical vs. fraternal twins, but scientific and inventive creativity is not.  This strongly suggests that inventive creativity can be learned and improved.  One is NOT born inventive.  One trains to be inventive.

So if one can become more inventive, how does one go about doing so?

We need to break this up into three groups.  One is the individual engineer who wants to improve themselves.  Another is the company executive that wants to increase the creativity of their staff.  The final group is parents that want to encourage their children to be creative and inventive.

Let’s start with parents and their children.  I’ll cover the other two cases in separate posts.

During a Q&A session after a panel discussion on innovation (which is not quite the same as invention) for a group of highly talented engineers at Xerox PARC, a woman in the audience asked me how we might encourage and enable children to be more creative and inventive.  My response truly surprised the audience when I said bluntly, “Boredom, let your children become bored.”

Boredom is the neccessary driver for imagination.  Children use their imaginations only when they are bored first.  Consider the modern upper-middle-class child’s typical day in which each moment is scheduled and blocked-in: school, homework, sports, music or dance lessons, etc.  And if there is a moment of free time, there is the computer, tablet, or smartphone to keep them entertained and never bored.  This is a perfect way to ensure that these children remain passive and uncreative.

So what is a parent to do?  First, in their earliest childhood, read stories aloud in which imagination is key.  Start with L. Frank Baum’s Oz books or others that are filled with fanciful ideas that expand the imagination.  Avoid stories with cliched storylines that are disabling to children, especially stories that tell girls that women are only to be admired for their beauty, never their cleverness.  Provide books and encourage reading.  One of the best genre for stretching one’s imagination is science fiction.

Next, pull the plug on the TV.  Seriously, even for yourself.  Model the behavior you wish to see in your children.  Read.  Do something creative.  Join the Maker movement.  Provide a bunch of junk for the kids to tinker with including magnets, assorted optics (lenses, mirrors, polarized films, etc., a low cost telescope, microscope, etc.), an electronics breadboarding kit, a chemistry set, and of course, lots of books on science and technology that are age appropriate and a few that are beyond their present age.

But what ever you do… DON’T provide toys and kits that only have one function or outcome!  There’s no scope for imagination in such as these.  Today, even Lego toys come with assembly instructions!  Throw the instructions away and let the kids play in a way that they are encouraged to invent their own uses and functions.

Don’t over schedule your kids.  Don’t make “play dates”, let them choose their own friends.  Don’t insist that you drive them everywhere.  They can walk or ride a bike to school.  Don’t insist that their games and sports be supervised and coached.  Let your kids invent their own games.  Become a “Free Range Parent”.

Don’t let other parents or teachers insist that you are being a bad parent for letting your children have their own time to play, explore, do daring and “dangerous” things… and especially don’t let your child’s teacher chastise your child for day dreaming.  Day dreaming is the key to becoming more creative.

Above all, don’t rush to jump in every time your child says, “I’m bored”.  Instead, say, “Good.  Now think up something that will interest you.”

Daydreaming Superpower

Whitney Johnson gave me a shout out in a recent article on Mashable, “How to figure out what you’re good at (not just what you’re passionate about)”,

What made you stand out as a child?

As children we do what we love to do — even if it makes us an oddity. When you look back on your childhood pastimes, you are likely to discover an innate talent. In elementary school, Candice Brown Elliott’s classmates teasingly called her “Encyclopedia Brown” after the character in the children’s books. She recounts, “All the kids thought I was the smartest kid in school, but most of my teachers were deeply frustrated because I got only average grades. I was labeled an underachiever.” Instead, she says, “I daydreamed of having animated conversations with famous people like Madame Curie. I daydreamed of building the first true Artificial Intelligence (AI) that would reside in my bedroom closet. I daydreamed about how to build floating cities, great inventions, and new forms of art.”

Four decades later, Elliott holds 90 U.S.-issued patents. Her most famous invention, PenTile, color flat-panel display architecture, is shipping in hundreds of millions of smartphones, tablets, notebook PCs, and high-resolution televisions. She founded a venture-backed company to develop this technology, and later sold it to Samsung. As a child, Elliott’s daydreaming was considered odd by her classmates and tremendously frustrating by her teachers. As an adult, her daydreaming, autodidactic approach is her superpower.

Is there something that made you peculiar when you were young? Could it actually be your superpower?

Ad Hoc Public Display Using Cellphones

Have you ever seen, or maybe participated, in an event where colored cards are held up by people in a stadium?  Each card deck is assigned to a given seat location.  Upon a given signal, a given card to held up for the rest of the folks in a stadium to see.  Each person is acting as a pixel and the cards are the pixel values.  I personally love the effect.

I suggests to me that maybe we can do the same at many outdoor venues, anywhere hundred or thousands of people have gathered, using our cellphones.  Each cellphone has a display that can light up in a wide range of colors.  We just need an app to turn on the cellphones to the right color.  The trick would be to know where a person was standing… but that’s not hard, given the amazingly accurate and precise location hardware in most smartphones today.

Think of the possibilities, twinkling fireworks, socially conscious, or even political protest messages… or just pretty patterns.  Anything could be shown on the group’s ad hoc display.  Think of the fun that the participants would have being a part of the show, holding up their smartphone as their pixel contribution to the collective image.

So, here’s a challenge to any like minded app developers.  Care to write and promote an app that would enable giant ad hoc smartphone based displays?