Mommy, Where Do Ideas Come From?

We wrote up an astounding old use of technology – François Willème’s 3D scanning and modeling apparatus from 1861, over 150 years ago. What’s amazing about this technique is that it used absolutely cutting-edge technology for the time, photography, and the essence of a technique still used today in laser-line 3D scanners, or maybe even more closely related to the “bullet time” effect.

This got me thinking of how Willème could have possibly come up with the idea of taking 24 simultaneous photographs, tracing the outline in wood, and then re-assembling them radially into a 3D model. And all of this in photography’s very infancy.

But Willème was already a sculptor, and had probably seen how he could use photos to replace still models in the studio, at least to solidify proportions. And he was probably also familiar with making cameos, where the profile was often illuminated from behind and carved, often by tracing shadows. From these two, you could certainly imagine his procedure, but there’s still an admirable spark of genius at work.

Could you have had that spark without the existence of photography? Not really. Tracing shadows in the round is impractical unless you can fix them. The existence of photography enabled this idea, and countless others, to come into existence.

That’s what I think is neat about technology, and the sharing of new technological ideas. Oftentimes they are fantastic in and of themselves, like photography indubitably was. But just as often, the new idea is a seed for more new ideas that radiate outward like ripples in a pond.

38 thoughts on “Mommy, Where Do Ideas Come From?

  1. And then you’ve got your da Vincis, trying to design helicopters and tanks a few hundred years before we’ve got the materials and manufacturing tech to build them.

    1. Some of it comes from observation. Da Vinci was busy looking at the world, so he saw things. It maybe helped that he was before the times, so it was all new. It’s harder later when helicopters already existed.

    2. Creativity follows a pareto distribution, which is essentially an inverse exponential curve. This can be measured by the statistical results of the creative achievement test (which you can find online).

      Almost no one is creative. In society, some people have a small spark of creativity, a tiny subset have some creativity, and a vanishingly small number of people have almost all the creativity.

      You can see this in various fields. Stephen King has almost all the horror book sales, Elon Musk has most of the tech innovations, Kanye West is worth $6 billion, Joe Rogan has most of the podcast listeners, and so on and so on.

      Creative success builds on itself. Writing your first book is hard, but when you sit down to write your 2nd book a lot of the uncertainty is gone (agents, publishing houses, &c) and you can focus on the content more, and learn from prior mistakes. At this point in his career, Stephen King is an expert at making stories that people want to read.

      That your chance of success is proportional to the number of successes you already have make creativity an inverse exponential curve.

      The take-away is to keep trying, and not to let failure stop you. Creative talent typically has a long string of failures before finally getting one that works: Stephen King notes (in “On Writing”) that he had 140 rejections before he sold his first article.

      1. > the creative achievement test

        Does not measure creativity, but accolades, which is an important difference. Elon Musk for example is not creative, he’s just good at promoting himself and taking credit for ideas, and creating controversy that people talk about. This is known as the “Kardashian Effect”.

        The fact that Stephen King sells very well doesn’t say anything about him being an expert on making stories that people want to read, because being a celebrity changes peoples’ perception of your value. There might be a better author you like more than King, but you don’t know he exists, or you don’t think you’d like that guy, because Stephen King is on the billboard and not that guy.

        The point is to get to that position where you become famous, so you get to define what people like. It hasn’t got anything to do with creativity or being good at what you do – people are not objective and rational when judging you. They take the heuristic that you’re famous, therefore you’re good, therefore you become famous. You just have to break through that barrier and make people believe that you have some merit. It helps if you actually do, but it is by no means necessary.

        1. The celebrity effect also causes what many people observe about the creative types: they work really hard at first to explore different ideas and put in real effort to implement them, making some of their best work to push through to the market, but once they do break through and become widely known they begin a long decline in quality. The first few albums of a musician for example are usually the most interesting, the others just follow the pattern, until finally you find yourself looking at “best of” compilations.

          People are most creative when they’re struggling to solve a problem. Once you find your “winning formula” and become a celebrity, the struggle ends and people become formulaic and conservative in their actions. Yet they can continue building up in fame and money.

        2. I’d argue Musk must be fairly creative, to have generated the wealth in the first place and then be able to dream enough to create the teams to produce this idea with that wealth. Certainly he didn’t do it all himself, but much as he seems like a snake oil salesman at times there has to be creativity in there as well.

          Though on the whole I agree, Stephen King might be a solid author producing books folks like to read, as are some other big names like Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Patterson etc. Doesn’t mean they are actually better writers or more creative than Undiscovered authors, just that they got lucky enough to get published and then also got enough sales/readers to get follow up books published and eventually grow into the big names.

          However I don’t agree you get famous so get any ability to create definitions of what people like – you write a few books, a TV show or whatever I like but your next ones I don’t like I won’t suddenly like them because you made it. At the very most all that gets you is an ‘OK I will try this genre I don’t usually enjoy because you created it’.

          1. There are various psychological effects and biases that operate to make you like stuff, that has nothing to do with how good that stuff is on any objective measure if such can be measured at all. Things like confirmation and anchoring biases, bandwagon effect, the familiarity principle, the endowment effect, sunk cost bias…

            Once you buy into something, you’re liable to like it better, and you’re likely to promote it to others, who are likely to buy it as well because they see many others doing so. That’s what I mean by defining what people like. Once the society or group has decided that you are a celebrity, what you do becomes the definition of good. Everyone will say “He’s okay, but he’s no Stephen King.”

            >but your next ones I don’t like I won’t suddenly like them because you made it.

            It’s likely that you would. That’s called the halo effect.


          2. Of course, real people are not irrational zombies that will blindly follow the Kardashians simply because they’re on TV.

            It’s just that some people are, and many others are a little bit like that, so on average the society operates in a manner where marketing and promotion is a far bigger driver and explains the success of celebrities better than their creative abilities.

            It’s not helped by the fact that publishers and studios with a lot of money and connections are constantly trying to construct new superstars and celebrities to sell to the public. If Robbie Williams hadn’t been picked up by the studios who were trying to make a British copy of the “New Kids on the Block”, he would not be an internationally recognized superstar today. Think of all the kids who didn’t get selected – where are they now?

          3. What people like has no objective measurements because it really never can have them. There are some objective measures inside most things, like Vi is better than Emacs or C better than Python at doing some elements of their overall job by some measure – perhaps deleting words/lines needs less button presses or smaller deviations from the home row – really doesn’t matter, but also so very much is personal preference as any of them are valid and functional choices…

            There is a massive difference between “I liked Book/Movie/Music/Game x”, and because its by the same writer/director/band/studio I like something else they do. Or Person X suggested something I did like, so obviously I must like everything they suggest… At best that gets you an ‘hmm this might be worth looking at’, which in my experience is so often followed by a note to self never to listen x about y subject, their tastes are awful or basically all identical so seen one seen ’em all, but if they suggest something in z subject maybe…

            Getting famous and so becoming a comparison bench mark just for being famous has no relevance to folks liking anything else or defining somebody else’s opinions. All you are in that situation is a common enough denominator to give some frame of reference, and remain that only if you stick to a pretty narrow persona. Saying something sounds like Hawkwind for instance as they have traversed so many genres of music its utterly pointless – so instead even though Hawkwind are a big name that has made some really good, very famous and very comparable music you are more likely to reference a more obscure band that is less comparable but (so far) has a more consistent sound… Unless Hawkwind is the only comparable reference you have, at which point it will be Hawkwind’s x era/album/track being compared in the blind hope that the audience has that same frame of reference…

            Not being Stephen King might actually be a good thing! That is all down to if the person reading/hearing that comparison actually likes Stephen King or not, they may simply tolerate him because they like some elements of his work and haven’t yet found somebody doing those bits in a way they prefer. Its nothing but a frame of reference!

          4. >Getting famous and so becoming a comparison bench mark just for being famous has no relevance to folks liking anything else or defining somebody else’s opinions.

            On the contrary. It’s literally the Bandwagon Effect – highly studied in marketing and politics.

          5. Except Dude the bandwagon effect requires you to actually somewhat like the benchmark – a benchmark you hate doesn’t do anything to make you like it just because they are famous and popular. There is a degree of herd mentality that means if folks similar in existing taste to you like it, you are likely to “hop on the bandwagon” and give it a longer trial before deciding what you feel about it, and maybe it gets a minor bump towards you liking as your friends do so you have something to talk about.

            But being the benchmark in and of itself is of no relevance, anybody/thing can be that benchmark. You as a benchmark don’t really get to make folks like anything, the best you get is by being associated with x similar thing rather than y nearly identical thing, x does a little better – but both x and y would probably have been enjoyed as its the type of thing the person wanted anyway! They already liked whatever x/y is, and just picked the one they associate with Benchmark they like.

          6. > a benchmark you hate doesn’t do anything to make you like it

            Obviously, but that’s not the point. Most people are more or less neutral and can be swayed either way.

          7. >They already liked whatever x/y is

            That’s not actually what happens for a great part. Behavioral studies point out that what people “like” is not a fixed variable. Consistent and particular preferences arise out of the person’s self-narrative and the attempt to maintain a coherent self image, which is influenced by society and your beliefs. I’m a rock and roll type of person, he’s a metalhead, she listens to Abba… etc. which isn’t truly accurate at all. It’s auto-stereotyping.

            This has some curious side effects. There’s been some experiments where people had to choose between A and B, and then a week later the researcher lied to the person about what their choice was. Those who were induced with the false memory swapped their preferences around, and explained very lucidly why B was better than A completely contrary to what they did a week earlier.

          8. That sort of swapping isn’t a great leap though, its not like if you prefer very sweet green tea you can suddenly be duped into a love the bitterest coffee you can get. Though it is possible to actually like both in this case assume they really do have a genuine sweet tooth preference or significant dislike of bitter flavours – it only works when the stuff involved is neutral enough to them either is acceptable or practically identical enough that you don’t have greatly different feelings either way.

            And if both are fine its fair to say you already liked both, as you at least don’t much care either way – you would he happy enough with either one even if you would actually prefer something else if it was available. The brain can be played with, and people are very good at rationalizing pretty much arbitrary decisions, but really changing somebodies likes is another matter far beyond such simple tricks.

          9. >but really changing somebodies likes is another matter

            Indeed, but that’s not even necessary for the point – just that the average person is swayed to prefer whatever the already famous people do.

          10. >swayed to prefer…

            Indeed, but that is a far cry from really defining other peoples likes – they already liked the idea – all the celebrity endorsement may get is for the them to pick the “pastel pink” instead of “coral pink” paint.

        3. “Elon Musk for example is not creative, he’s just good at promoting himself and taking credit for ideas, and creating controversy that people talk about.”

          Wow somebody’s been spending too much time reading Twitter. Who can forget that at age 12 Musk coded a video game (in the 80’s) and sold it to PC magazine.

          1. I also learned very early on that you don’t need to be creative to be successful, you just have to find the right strings to pull.

            In 3rd grade, I was struggling with a writing exercise. Couldn’t think of anything to write about, and my writing wasn’t very good to start with. Kids using drugs was a big moral panic at the time, so I got cynical and deliberately wrote a scare story about a boy getting brain damage from eating a “drug sticker”.

            My short story was read out aloud in front of the class and got 10/10 because it was a “very important message”. It was pulling the right string. That day I learned that people have interests that cause them to drop all their normal standards because that thing is more important.

            I was not rewarded for being a good writer. I put the teacher in a bind: what would the kid think if they didn’t get good grades about such a topic? That was also an excuse for the teacher to preach about the “very important topic”, so I was being politically expedient for her.

            Maybe that actually is being creative, but not in the same sense as what puts people on the moon or comes up with a way to 3D scan objects. It’s more along the lines of how to make people invest in you when you haven’t actually got anything to sell.

        4. Saying Elon musk is not creative is basically repeating something you heard on the news. It’s a political position intended to sway opinion.

          Lots of people own businesses and have 1 good idea. Mark Zuckerberg is a good example of this, he had one (and only one) idea, and there’s evidence that the idea wasn’t his to begin with.

          Musk has started a bunch of companies based on on innovative ideas, including underground tunnels, rooftop solar, AI, and brain/computer interfaces. It’s hard to argue that he isn’t a visionary who sees opportunities and makes them happen. Starlink is essentially a creative use of unused rocket cargo space while developing rockets.

          Jeff Bezos is also creative, he started with Amazon as a used bookseller and branched out into general sales, took computer resources that were only needed during the holidays and rented them out during off-peak hours (to become AWS), he bought out Whole Foods, his warehouses are mostly run by robots, he experimented with delivery drones, lots and lots of innovation behind the scenes at Amazon that you don’t usually see because the system runs seamlessly.

          Steve Jobs is another example of creative, someone who has a vision of a new type of thing and brings that vision to fruition.

          Saying Elon Musk isn’t creative is simply ignoring reality.

          1. Elon Musk’s creativity is in the field of pulling peoples’ strings to make them pay money – not in the field of innovation and technological invention.

            He picks on topics that are “too important to ignore”, so people will give him a lot of slack for not delivering what was promised, which is the whole game. He’s a hype monger, not much else.

          2. >Steve Jobs is another example of creative, someone who has a vision of a new type of thing and brings that vision to fruition.

            Wozniak was the visionary, Jobs was the salesman. When they parted ways, Jobs tried to do many things that just didn’t make sense and his engineers had to keep sneaking past him to correct and add back the features that were really needed.

            Jobs was a visionary, but his success was because other people prevented him from actually achieving his visions. He just took the credit for other people’s hard work and formed a cult of personality around himself.

      2. You hold up Joe Rogan and Kanye as an example of someone who’s highly creative? (Moreso than most of humanity?). Methinks you are the type who admires Trump for being “self-made”… If billionaires have automatic value, then creativity is irrelevant? Your metric for creativity seems to be financial success and popularity. You might need to examine your priorities.

      3. I was working on a software project when a new tech writer waltzed in and announced that things were going to be better now that we had a ‘creative’ on the team.

        A F’n instruction manual writer that had take way too much acid told that to a team that had _created_ the new unique project he was writing a manual for. I don’t think he ever understood what the application did, their was math required.

        The one thing I’ve observed is self described ‘creatives’ aren’t. It’s just their excuse. Like ‘artists’.

        Stephan King writes terrible books.

        1. “Stephan King writes terrible books.”

          Who is Stephan King? If you intended to type “Stephen” then allow me to retort:
          Utter tripe. Nobody can characterise like King, & I read a crapton – everything & anything I come across, like a locust.
          You obviously haven’t read much by him.
          (Cue something about reading the Bachman Books or similar 20 years ago & you knew he was terrible then…)

      4. I’m not a fan of the word “creativity”, likely because it emplies success and the “creation” of something, despite being destructive sometimes.

        What happend to “phantasy” and “imagination”? Or “thought experiment”?

        There are many unsuccessful souls out here with fine ideas, dreams and hopes.
        The never ending focus on “creativity” and success is de-valuing them, in my humble opinion.

        1. I agree, although the definition of creation is “the action or process of bringing something into existence. Usually “something” refers to something that never existed before, which can be a blend of a previous idea in a new field or application. Thus while it is technically correct, it doesn’t imply that it is completely original, but rather, the the new “thing” cannot be reduced further in the new field, since it has no equal (in that field).

          Several years ago, I recall reading that free software advocates do not prefer to call themselves software creators or inventors, but rather authors. In that sense, they are writing software, which has fewer connotations of “inventiveness,” especially if the GPL license encourages reuse and modification under their terms. thus, authoring may be a closer term to what you are searching for. Even video games companies typically call themselves “publishers” rather than “software,” as they may prefer the association with free speech over a mechanistic instrument. :)

  2. Can confirm. I’ve written logs for all my project ideas and they’re tracable to another idea I or someone else had. It’s like unlocking a new item in a video game skill tree and the game showing more mystery items to discover.

    1. “The more you know, the more creative you can be.”

      A lot of innovation is based on building on or combining other ideas in new ways. That’s why Isaac Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants, acknowledging the contributions other made before him, which going on to discovcer or invent many new things (including a refelcting telescope)

    1. This makes sense, yes.
      Sometimes it needs a bit of relaxation and daydreaming to open the mind, too.
      To break free from existing, maybe bogged down thought patterns.
      The last thing you mention is of relevance here, even though controversial in our time.
      It’s something people not willing to accept, maybe, due to its stigma also.
      On the other hand, many of what we consider great minds were temporarily under influence of it in the past. Musicians, most popularly.

    2. Probably a cosmic ray particle through the frontal lobes.

      A philosophically perfect, deterministic and faultless brain, could never come up with anything new because it makes no errors. New information or interpretation that comes “out of nowhere” or “for no reason” would be a mistake in the process. Making no mistakes and being perfectly rational and logical, it is also perfectly impartial to the world and makes no judgement or preference over anything. It has no reason to. In fact, such a brain doesn’t actually understand anything at all, because the information it is processing is not “grounded” to anything that would be personally meaningful to it.

  3. Fortunately ideas aren’t patentable. That also means there’s no such thing as a stolen idea. The Supreme Court is hearing a case on whether Andy Warhol substantially altered a photograph by Lynn Goldsmith for it to be considered a transformative art or commentary.

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