How can we encourage genius?

Almost 20 years ago, I read an article in NewsWeek that made a significant impression on me. Because of today’s guest, I thought it would make a perfect resource.

It was a feature entitled The Puzzle Of Genius, written by Sharon Begley in the June 28, 1993 issue of Newsweek. I mention this because I will be quoting it frequently.

The essence of the article is this question: What is genius?

Is it intelligence? Knowledge? Education?

There are a lot of intelligent, knowledgeable, well-educated people in the world. Some of them may even be brilliant. But brilliance is not the same as genius.

 Genius is diverse. There are philosophical geniuses, math geniuses, and physics geniuses. There are artistic geniuses, musical geniuses and literary geniuses.

 And let’s not even get into so-called ‘idiot savants’; people with severe mental handicaps who nonetheless have seemingly impossible mental or artistic talents. Must we also call that a form of genius?

So, what is genius?

If we can’t define precisely what genius is, how then can we recognize it?

Genius is paradigm-shifting. Genius is seeing how the parts of a puzzle fit together, when other people didn’t even see the puzzle!

Genius is the perfect confluence of knowledge, intellect, curiosity, and experience, leavened by creativity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to explore the allegedly impossible. It’s also influenced by intangible things like talent or insight, and a little serendipity doesn’t hurt.

In his 1988 book “Scientific Genius,” Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California/Davis suggests that geniuses are geniuses because they form more novel combinations than the merely talented. He says that “… In a loose sense, genius and chance become synonymous.”

Simonton calls this “the permutation of mental elements”–images, phrases, snippets of memory, abstract concepts, sounds, rhymes.

Intelligence fills the brain with more of these elements, giving  the highly intelligent person a greater chance of forming novel combinations of ideas, images or symbols.

So … Can we create genius? Is it genetic? Environmental?

Biologically, the difference between being potentially average, brilliant or genius may be related to how the brain is physically wired. Also, environment can have some effect on brain development and future wiring. But there’s obviously more to it than that, or every over-stimulated baby would grow up to be a genius.

Personally, I think it’s education that helps tip native talent or or intelligence into genius. But not just education in the usual sense.

I’m talking about education in every sense. Everything we see, hear, and read. Every random idea, comment and happenstance.

 Scientific genius is often marked by interests in unrelated fields, making novel combinations more likely. Gutenberg combined the mechanisms for producing playing cards, pressing wine and punching coins to create movable type. The computer punch card has roots in automated looms, which may trace THEIR roots back to music boxes and organs.

The common thread here and in many other cases is diversity of experience. Not only the willingness and ability to take ideas from one area of expertise and make improbable connections to other disciplines or industries. Also the diversity of experience to enable those connections.

Thus the importance of effective schools, free museums and zoos, a Liberal Arts general education, and the lifelong seeking of new knowledge and experience outside your comfort zone.


THOUGHTS ON “Study of Bush’s psyche touches a nerve”

I was sent this article by a friend. As a Democrat, it naturally agreed with all my pre-existing assumptions and biases :), but as a fair-minded, fairly empirical, anally accurate person, I wanted to go look for some other confirmation that this wasn’t a gag or some other sort of allegedly humorous flimflammery. In that vein, I did some digging of my own.
I would point out that I didn’t find this article cited or reported by any other major new org, and that it’s almost 6 years old.
On the other hand, I would also point out that there is an actual link to the original press release at the UC-Berkely website: The press release discusses the article in more detail, talking about the researchers sources and how the material was analyzed. It comes from across 12 countries with very different cultures and histories. The researchers take some pains to say that their research is not intended to be judgmental, and talk about liberals in the context of their research:

[Assistant Professor Jack Glaser of the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy] acknowledged that the team’s exclusive assessment of the psychological motivations of political conservatism might be viewed as a partisan exercise. However, he said, there is a host of information available about conservatism, but not about liberalism.

The researchers conceded cases of left-wing ideologues, such as Stalin, Khrushchev or Castro, who, once in power, steadfastly resisted change, allegedly in the name of egalitarianism.

Yet, they noted that some of these figures might be considered politically conservative in the context of the systems that they defended. The researchers noted that Stalin, for example, was concerned about defending and preserving the existing Soviet system.

At least one of the authors, John Jost, has his own web page at NYU, where he cites this paper as one of many pieces of scholarly research and authorship ( His research summary does not give me the impression that he particularly has an axe to grind with Conservatism.

I strongly recommend reading the Guardian article and the original Berkeley press release, and then forming your own opinion.

In light of all of the above, though, I’d take the work described in the article seriously, and think that Conservatives should do some soul searching. On the other hand, I’ll be interested in seeing their research article on Liberalism. :)


Miscegenation: It’s Not Just for Ignorant, Racist Southern Whites Anymore.

Below is a recent is e-mail exchange that I thought interesting. I include it here for your contemplation and consideration.


From: David W.
Sent: Monday, September 07, 2009 5:20 AM
To: ‘Mike H’
Subject: Pretty Depressing, and Fulfilling of a Stereotype

Please see:

Apparently, Michael, the Israelis would disapprove of your marriage and “assimilation”.

I’ve long held the believe (feel free to offer criticism) that it is and has long been the Jews’ collective refusal to assimilate into the cultures of other nations with the consequence that they become viewed at best as ethnic enclavists and at worst as dangerous outsiders that has prepared the ground for their persecutions.  Now, I see that anti-assimilation is openly advocated.

I’m reasonably confident that this is at least in part due to the demographic time bomb that will in the decades to come engulf Israel as the Arab reproduction rates far exceed that of the Israelis.  Likewise, the trend of emigration from Israel to, well, elsewhere has proven unstoppable.  But to tell Jews outside of Israel to marry only Jews and this so as to make them more inclined to move to Israel seems at best unworkable and at worst an uncovering of deeply-rooted Israeli fears.

Mike Responded:

Ah yes, Miscegenation: It’s not just for ignorant, racist Southern whites anymore.

But to be fair, it never has been. Most ethnic and religious groups (whites, blacks, Chinese, native Americans, Europeans, Muslims, etc., etc.) prefer that their children marry within their group. In some cultures, a child can be killed — legally — for marrying or even dating an ‘outsider’.

Among Jews, since we’re singling out this group, there have always been ‘purists’ and ‘assimilationists’. One of the ironies of Hitler’s “Final Solution” is that the great majority of Jews that were rounded up and exterminated were ‘assimilated’ Jews who considered their German-ness (or Polish-ness, or whatever-ness) as a bigger factor in their lives than their Judaism. Many were no more religious than me, which is really really non-religious.

Israel has real demographic birthrate concerns, and their concerns are legitimate in the context of their country’s theo-democratic identity. Israel is not, after all, a secular democracy. In some ways, it’s as theocratic as many Muslim countries. The difference is that the government is a Parliamentary democracy, and the people making and changing laws are at least democratically elected. Israel also has an odd system of representation (I’ve read) which allows tiny ultra-religious parties to have disproportionate power.

Here, of course, we call them Republicans.

A voiceover asks anyone who “knows a young Jew living abroad” to call the hotline. “Together, we will strengthen their connection to Israel, so that we don’t lose them.
— Article Excerpt

Well, at least that leaves me out. I passed that ‘young Jew” designation about 20 years ago. ;)


E-Books Won’t Catch On Until …

It seems like E-Books have been on the verge of being “the next big thing” for at least 10-13 years.

Sony has had an e-book reader. RCA had one, too. Others have tried. Now it’s Amazon and iRex. (See Article: 5 Ways iRex’s E-Reader Will Challenge Amazon Kindle)

Experts have speculated in endless discussions and articles over the years about why e-books haven’t caught on.

“It’s copyright issues.” “It’s title availability.” “It’s compatibility across devices and format.” “It’s the price of the device.”

All these arguments and speculations are valid, especially that last one. But I think I know the clincher, and it’s one that consumers probably know intuitively, but which seems to elude the experts: The e-books cost too much!

Let’s think about this…

You see an $8.99 paperback you want to buy. You go to Amazon and check to see how much you can save if it’s available as an e-book.

Searchiiinnng… YES! There it is! How much?!$8.09?!?! What’s the bloody point of that?! They expect me to buy a Kindle or iRex for $200-300 so I can save 90 whole cents on a book? And it’s intangible? And I can’t archive it or copy it off the reader? Or lend it? Or re-sell it or donate it?

90 cents?

Screw that. I’ll buy the paperback!

So there you have it. The publishers don’t actually have to print it (so they don’t need presses, ink, paper, buildings, or people to do any of that), store it (no warehouses), ship it (no boxes, handling or freight costs), or take it back (eating the cost of unsold books). The booksellers don’t have to receive it, warehouse it, handle it, or invest in it. Everyone at the publishing and resale end is saving a bundle.

And all I get is a lousy 10% discount? Who’s kidding whom, here??

And there you have the oddly elusive and yet most obvious answer. E-books haven’t caught on because THEY COST TOO MUCH FOR WHAT THEY ARE!

What we seem to have here are publishers and book resellers — mostly the publishers, I suspect — being really, really greedy (and foolish too, I think) — and believing that they can save all this money in the production and sales process, and pass along virtually none of the savings to their customers.

When I can buy an e-book “paperback” for about 3 bucks instead of $8.99, I’ll seriously think about buying an e-reader. Until then… I’ll just look forward to getting up and smelling the ink and paper.