Curating the Internet: Science and technology digest for January 18, 2020

Researchers find that generalists innovate before specialists; A pigeon-bot flies with real feathers; A hardware device self-assembles at the nano scale and enables smaller and more efficient neural networks; Virginia man arrested for participation in dozens of "swatting" attacks; and a Steem post with two recipes for home-made deodorant

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First posted on my Steem blog: SteemIt, SteemPeak*, StemGeeks.


  1. The Business Case for Becoming a Jack-of-All-Trades - September research from Harvard's Frank Nagle and USC's Florenta Teodoridis examines the role of specialists and generalists in innovation. They find that although companies frequently drive people to become specialists in order to gain a perceived competitive edge, the actual competitive advantage often goes to generalists. By having experience across a broad range of domains, generalists are able to incorporate new knowledge earlier and accomplish more with it. When it comes to innovation, the research suggests that "sometimes a Jack-of-all-trades is the master after all." The researchers reached this conclusion by looking for indicators of adoption of the Microsoft Kinect device in IEEE papers on the topic of motion-sensing. In particular,
    they found that the top 25 percent most diversified researchers were 3.1 times more likely to use Kinect in their research within the first four years of its launch than those in the bottom 25 percent. What’s more, the papers they produced were also higher quality—3.8 times more likely to appear in the top 10 percent of papers cited by their peers.
    The article suggests that by having knowledge of information outside of just a tight discipline, generalists are better positioned to jump on new information when it emerges. It also notes that many universities are pursuing cross-disciplinary effort, but that institutional inertia imposes limits on what can be accomplished. Nagle advises that if you want incremental improvements in a particular arena, then specialists are best suited to the task, but companies that want to achieve major breakthroughs should be sure to involve generalists.

  2. PigeonBot Uses Real Feathers to Explore How Birds Fly - Birds have been flying for hundreds of millions of years. Humans, for about a century. One of the distinguishing differences between human and bird flight is that human devices generally use rigid wings and propellors, while birds make use of their feathery flexible wings. There have been a number of attempts at flight with simulated feathers, but they have met with limited success. Now, a new paper in Science Robotics describes robotics work that makes use of real feathers for flight. The work is providing insights into the physiology of flight, and also into the way that feathers operate as a material. For example, the researchers found that feathers fit together at the micron scale in a way that permits them to slide freely in one direction while resisting motion in another, a mechanism they describe as "directional velcro". This prevents gaps from emerging in the flight surface. The researchers also observed that the pigeon's roll can be managed with just the finger-joint of the wing, and the technique is more stable than the aileron-roll technique that is used by airplanes. Corresponding author, David Lentink says they think that the technique enables birds to control roll rate instead of roll angle, which is inherently easier to manage.

    Here is a video embed from the article:

  3. Brain-like device may forecast future of computer technology - A new paper in Science Reports describes a device that is able to self-assemble at the nanoscale in a way that mimics some brain functions that are important for machine learning. Because of the way the material assembles itself, it enables a neural network with millions of connections on a chip that is just 10 square millimieters. This is far smaller than traditional micro-circuitry and it also consumes less power. UCLA's James Gimzewski participated in this work. Previously, Grimzewski produced a similar device that was able to predict Los Angeles traffic patterns. Adam Stieg, who also participated in the creation of both devices, adds that the goal is not to replace existing technologies, but to complement them by providing a hardware mechanism that can speed up machine learning computations. The researchers add that the cost of energy for machine learning under existing architectures may not be sustainable as demand grows, but the new devices may help to reduce the overall power footprint. Stieg also noted that there is a need for increased funding for this area of research, and Gimzewski added that it's important to consider ethical implications of investment and make sure that things are pursued for the "for the benefit of society". -h/t Communications of the ACM: Artificial Intelligence

  4. FBI arrests man suspected of orchestrating dozens of “swatting” calls - One suspect is in custody and two others are sought in a series of "swatting" attacks that targeted "prominent gamers, journalists, and government officials". The FBI alleges that the group used Tor and IRC to organize their attacks. The suspect was identified when he allegedly called in a bomb threat to his own school, and then followed up with a second call, but failed to block his phone number in the follow-up call. In swatting attacks, people call in false reports of violent crimes in order to generate a police response against a targeted person. The FBI believes that the person in custody was mostly a researcher and a support person, but the two others who are sought were the ones who made most of the groups' calls.

  5. STEEM Natural Medicine Travel Packing: Homemade Deodorant - In this post, @riverflows describes the author's preparation for international travel by creating and vacuum-packaging two different recipes for home-made deodorant. The recipes include things like coconut oil, bees wax, and butter, but you'll have to click through for details. (A 10% beneficiary setting has been applied to this post for @riverflows.)

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Comments 4

I am overly happy to read that generalism is a primary source of disruptive innovation rather than specialism, as I am an inveterate generalist, and use that breadth of experience practically daily to incessantly innovate means of repairing residences. Folks that aren't experienced in fixing structures subjected to rot generally don't grasp the diversity of problems and solutions that are necessary to understand in that field. There is not any specific list of procedures to repair a rotten structure that does not include extremely general instructions like 'survey the extent of rot, remove, and replace.'

For example, automotive mechanism repair can often specify exact procedures, even to how many twists to apply to a nut, while in residential repair whether a nut is even called for is entirely subject to the experiential base of the worker. As a result I innovate every single day on every aspect of every job I do, which is gloriously boredom proof. I have innately believed that this is potentially very useful in technological innovation and advance, despite that corporate institutions have strongly focused on specialization and neglected generalists financially.

I have participated in consulting with innovation vectors, facilitating ad hoc groups of specialists working to solve problems and meet industrial challenges faced by corporations, and saw that principle in action, while observing the strong resistance of institutions to it, despite the observable results of innovation that spanned disciplines.

It is this principle that most encourages me regarding decentralization of industrial production and how that will transform society by increasing individual prosperity and freedom. Institutions necessarily specialize industry, as that produces economies of scale that are the source of their potential to create profitability. Individuals necessarily generalize in order to meet their diverse needs, and I observe that decentralization is the cutting edge of technological advance across all industries today, suggesting we have reached or crossed a threshold which denotes the limit of institutional power relative to individual power.

I believe that freedom will either increase as technological advance proceeds, or that institutional power will increase and technological advance will decline, or even reverse. I'm betting on increased prosperity and freedom, but cannot deny the increase in governmental oppression ongoing globally today. The fact is that the breadth of the market includes subsets where one aspect gains, and subsets where the other does. I hope that market forces ultimately prevail, rather than force and oppression undertaken to prevent loss of privilege of the ruling class.

We shall see whether reason and good faith outproduce venal self interest in the long run.


18.01.2020 21:38

I was encouraged by the finding in favor of generalists, too. I think there is a time and a place for both, but in today's corporate world I think generalists are undervalued. I really liked the way Nagle described it. If you want incremental improvements in a narrow area, use specialists, but for disruptive change, generalists are preferred.

It's been my experience in the corporate world since the 1980s that many companies desire to promote things like "eliminating silos", "empowering employees" and "sharing knowledge", but (as with the article's example of cross-disciplinary activities), bureaucratic momentum often works in favor of specialization.

I share your hope that the new decentralized platforms will lead to a better balance between specialists and generalists.

One caution that I kept coming back to while reading, however, is that it was a single study of a single technology, so additional supporting research on the topic is definitely needed.

19.01.2020 20:55

Thanks so much. Honoured x

19.01.2020 01:27

Shared for #posh, here.

24.01.2020 18:12