A famine of ideas?

Have we trained ourselves out of thinking about big ideas?

That’s the thesis behind a recent NYT editorial titled “The Elusive Big Idea” by Neal Gabler. While much has been written about the decline of attention spans and the distractions created by social media and the general motion towards shorter sound bytes at the expense of longer, thoughtful analysis, this article takes such criticism a step further.

“[W]e are living in an increasingly post-idea world,” writes Gabler. By “post-idea” he means a deliberate choice not to think! He argues that we’ve come to focus on collecting knowledge and given up on actually thinking about it.

“We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.”

Information overload is not a new concept, but Gabler’s sketch of a society in which we are not only overwhelmed with information but we deliberately choose to continue glutting ourselves on it instead of taking the time to carefully chew over what we already have disturbs me in the way that only an idea with a kernel of truth can. Every time I glance at my RSS feed, I get that exact feeling: there is too much information, too much that is new and interesting and that I want to read, and nowhere near enough time to really think about it. This observation is exactly one of the reasons that I have this blog: a chance to stop and think about something, not just skim and nod and move onto the next nugget. This goes beyond a missed opportunity for reflection and increased insight. If Gabler is right, it could be habit-forming. Is there no room today for a Thoreau, an Emerson, a Twain? If they did appear, would they be systematically ignored, their essays too long, their ideas too musing, their observations demanding too much of the limited time any reader can bear to spend on any single source?

Gabler hints at the impact such a shift in priorities can have for society. How can we find space and time to incubate the next Big Ideas? How can we recognize and pay attention to these insights when they don’t fit into 140 characters? We have more people alive today than ever before, more thinking capacity at the ready — if we choose to engage it. This isn’t just about being an intellectual, engaging in some elite snobbery; it’s the chance to choose between cultivating what is new and exciting and valuable, the unique outcome of human cognitive capabilities, versus drowning in a vast, passive sea of trivia and unending distraction.

I thank Mr. Gabler for his timely essay and for giving me the inspiration to indulge in a moment of reflection myself. I’ve repeatedly come across advice about journaling in a work context, just taking 5-10 minutes every day to write down the thoughts bubbling in the back of your head. Every time I’ve made time to do this, I’ve had new ideas pop up or crystallize or point the way to some new direction. I won’t claim that these qualify as Big Ideas, but maybe they can guide the way. This is an activity I already hoped to indulge in more regularly during my sabbatical. After reading this essay, I’m all the more motivated to create a new habit, one dedicated against the post-idea slump.

Money by the pound

A chance discussion at work raised the question of how much our leaders at Caltech and JPL earn. Some investigation turned up interesting results.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the president of Caltech (Jean-Lou Chameau) was paid a staggering $765,260 in 2009 (most recent numbers). He also serves as a director of MTS Systems Corporation, earning ~$150,000 per year in fees and stock awards. Impressive.

In contrast, the most recent salary reported for Charles Elachi, director of JPL (which is a division of Caltech), was $455,820 in 2006. At that time, the president of Caltech (David Baltimore) was paid $590,000. It is not clear whether Elachi’s salary has grown with the president’s; turnover in Caltech presidents seems higher than that of JPL directors, which could lead to faster salary growth.

Now a point of comparison. The president of the United States is a job with a fixed salary dictated by Congress. My understanding has been that one goal is to never position this job as something one might do for the money — that being perhaps a poor motivation for applying. The reality is a little more complex. Most of us learned in school that the president earns $200,000 per year. This had been in effect since 1969 (a long time for any salary to remain fixed!), but changed in 2001, when the salary was bumped up to $400,000 per year (at the instigation of Bill Clinton, whom it didn’t benefit; George W. Bush was the first to enjoy the increase).

Initially it seems a little strange that the head of Caltech (or JPL) is compensated at a higher level than the president of the country. But again, the president isn’t meant to be the highest earner in the country. And when you dig a little deeper, total presidential compensation tells a different story. In addition to salary, the president of the U.S. receives “a $50,000 expense account, a $100,000 non-taxable travel account, and $19,000 for entertainment.” Further, the president is provided with a home (while in office), meals, transportation, security, etc. After leaving office, the president continues to earn a $191,300 per year pension and also receives a government-provided office with staff and travel funds. Wow!

I present these figures not in any way to snipe at our institutional (and national) leaders, but more as an awed observation of the fact that any individual could be paid so hugely. I know there are other individuals that undoubtedly are paid more (we’ve all heard about crazy CEO salaries and compensation), but it just boggles my mind that anyone could even make use of such a huge sum in any practical fashion. No doubt they have good financial advisors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they contribute large sums to charitable institutions, which can certainly make use of the money. But otherwise — how much can a single individual (or family) realistically spend in getting through life? And once those needs are met, what else is there?

For people with this kind of disposable income, it seems a perfect opportunity to think big. Fund research for diabetes! Make that mission to Mars happen! Invest in technology that can fundamentally change how we interact with, or how we understand, the world (and each other). No one person can solve every problem or investigate every idea. But money can be the lever to swing the massed efforts of others in a productive, world-changing direction. In that way, these seeming excesses of compensation instead can compensate us all.

Multiplication eureka

From the What I Learned Yesterday files…

I have always loved numbers, especially in terms of manipulating them. Remember those arithmetic drill books, endless columns of 3 + 6 and 12 – 5 and every other possible combination? I loved paging my way through them, filling up all of the blank spots. My grandmother’s living room had a big bay window with a flat base I could crawl onto (I don’t think it was intended as a seat), behind the curtains, and I loved to hole up there with that book. Even *better* was when I encountered those drills in elementary school, and they were *timed*! Hooray, a race!

But even before those memories glows a beautiful eureka moment I hope I’ll never forget. I was in daycare, somewhere between 4 and 5 years old, musing about multiplication (for no reason I can recall), when suddenly I Got It. I jumped up and ran around trying to share the shining vision that I’d had. The best I could do then was, “But it’s so simple! Two times two is just 2, two times!”

I still remember those words, and I remember the lack of a similarly excited response from the other kids. Was it incomprehension? Disinterest? I couldn’t seem to put my revelation into words that made sense to anyone else, and I was buzzing with commingled frustration and joy. At that moment, the “x” sign had ceased being an arbitrary symbol specifying a relation to be memorized. Instead, it had *meaning*. I was swimming in triumph at the feeling of having *cracked the code*, seeing yet another pattern but also the whys behind the pattern. (Of course, when I reached elementary school, I then got to memorize the multiplication tables, like everyone else. So much for eureka…)

I have a handful of other memories from that daycare. Conspiring with a friend to stash our pears from lunch, which we hated, in our pockets for later disposal. Sprawling on threadbare green carpet in front of the TV and goggling at afternoon cartoons. Singing “This Old Man, he played one, he played knick-knack on his thumb…” Discovering awe and predation on finding a black widow spider out back. Discovering how surprisingly hard other kids can pinch if you don’t wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Shivering at horror stories about loose baby teeth being tied to a door and extracted with a slam, then rushing to the bathroom to inspect my own teeth for any worrisome looseness. But these have all faded in a way that my “2, two times” moment has not. And it left me with an appetite for that feeling of “Oh wow, I get it!” that is what makes the study of anything new so very delicious. More learndorphins, anyone?


I recently encountered a few poems about poems, in terms of both crafting and appreciating it. These are too delightful not to share (click through for the full versions):

  • Introduction to Poetry

    … all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it…

  • The Trouble with Poetry

    … the trouble with poetry is
    that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
    more guppies crowding the fish tank, …

  • Sonnet

    All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
    and after this one just a dozen…

All three poems are by the talented Billy Collins, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001–2003. He is also the man behind Poetry 180, which aims to give high school students a taste of poetry every day of the school year. I admire his dedication to his work as well as his ability to step back and poke fun at it, in a clearly affectionate way.

His meta-poetry is an inspirational reminder of the fun and the value of reflecting on one’s own work, perhaps in the form of the work itself. Maybe I could write a program about programming, or a grant proposal to support work that aims to propose (there already exist slides about how [not to] create PowerPoint slides). Surveying one’s work from a high vantage point can lead to new insights about how to improve efficiency or satisfaction–or even just how to explain what it is and why it matters to a friend or family member.

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