Business – Cool Idea – Crowdfunding platform aims to teach kids about how they can use crowdfunding to get their projects off the ground.

Bali’s Green School is an example of an educational institution putting an emphasis on nurturing the business skills of young people, but with numerous opportunities for entrepreneurs and startups now being offered through online avenues, Piggybackr is a new platform that aims to teach kids about how they can use crowdfunding to get their projects off the ground.

Given that many of the major funding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo don’t allow campaigns run by minors, even young people who are aware of crowdfunding don’t have a chance to try it out for their own moneymaking ideas. Piggybackr is compliant with COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the US, by ensuring that users under 14 years old have the approval of a parent or guardian before launching a campaign. Children can also only send out invites to members of their family, school or society, enabling them to use Piggybackr as a place to learn about and experiment with crowdfunding before they’re old enough to launch more serious enterprises. Before users begin their campaign on the site they are offered hints and tips to help make their projects more effective, such as suggested backer incentives and email templates. When a task is completed, the site awards effort points and badges, so even if the projects don’t reach their target, children can still feel a sense of accomplishment.

For children who have known mobile and web devices all of their lives, it makes sense to open up the most current and exciting business possibilities to those willing to explore and learn, so they’re well equipped for the future. Are there other online business models that kids could engage with?

Website: www.piggybackr.com
Contact: support@piggybackr.com

via Springwise

Idea – Top 10 ideas from Retail over the last 12 months

1. Jeans store uses QR codes to make shopping easier for men

Shopping can be a trial for some, and it’s a widely held belief that many men can find it more of a chore than women. Aiming to improve the experience for men, Hointer added QR codes to their jeans so that customers could simply scan the code in order to get their desired size delivered to a changing room ready for them to try on. This streamlined process saves customers from having to wade through piles of clothing to find their size, ultimately speeding up a shopping trip for those who would rather be elsewhere.

Read more about Hointer »

 

2. Facebook app lets runners pay with kilometers completed

We’ve seen apps that reward their users with motivational phrases when they exercise. However, Nike Mexico took this a step further with their Facebook auction, Subasta de Kilometros, which allowed runners to accrue points for every kilometre run and then use these points to bid on Nike-branded running gear in the auction. Through this app Nike Mexico cannily provided an extra incentive for runners to keep fit, at the same time as promoting their products.

Read more about the Subasta de Kilometros »

 

3. In China, virtual reality stores turn open spaces into a supermarket

With the aim of providing a more interactive shopping experience, Yihaodian in China developed augmented reality stores that can only be accessed in certain public locations. When customers point their smartphone in the right direction at locations such as public squares, a virtual store is displayed where items sit on shelves or hang from the walls. This app provides a simulation of a physical retail store so shoppers can feel more immersed in their online shopping trip.

Read more about Yihaodian »

 

4. In Denmark, supermarket crowdsources suggestions for local products

As concerns grow over food air miles, and more consumers want to buy local, SuperBrugsen in Denmark has come up with a novel way of ensuring that the produce they stock will appeal to eco-minded consumers. Through their website, customers can suggest particular local items they would like the store to stock, after which managers will taste-test the items to ensure their quality. A clever way to use customer crowdsourcing to ensure that the store only stocks items that will sell. The crowds have also been put to good effect in the Netherlands through the Avoid The Shopping Crowds app that analyzes social media feeds to tell the user how busy a shop is before they enter it. Both businesses use crowdsourced data to improve real life experience.

Read more about SuperBrugsen »

 

5. Mobile app lets retail store shoppers skip the checkout lines

The convenience of popping to the shops for a few grocery items can be hampered by long queues. This was something the brains behind QThru recognized when they developed their app, which allows shoppers to browse, scan and buy products all through their phone. Skipping the queues is an appealing prospect for many, and with that in mind we also saw SoPost, which uses customer’s email addresses to deliver purchases, rather than the traditional home or work address. An interesting idea that reflects the increasingly mobile lives many lead.

Read more about QThru »

 

6. Brazilian fashion retailer displays Facebook ‘likes’ for items in its real-world stores

We’ve seen those involved in retail adjust impressively to the increasingly online world we live in. C&A provided a good example of how the real world and the online can converge to create a modern shopping experience. By displaying Facebook ‘likes’ on small screens embedded in articles’ hangers, the retailers showed the increasing tally of ‘likes’ different items of clothing were receiving from web users. The hope was that approval from the online community would encourage shoppers to purchase an item of clothing.

Read more about C&A »

 

7. Machine accepts cards for tips

Increasingly, cash is being passed up in favor of card payments. This makes for a lighter purse, but can also mean that cash rituals such as tipping can be left by the way side. DipJar aims to remedy this by offering an easy way for cardholders to tip, in the form of a machine placed near the till that customers need only place their card into quickly for a USD 1 tip to be taken. If they wish to give more they can just place the card the desired amount of times. A simple innovation for the retail industry that encourages generosity in a world where plastic is paramount.

Read more about DipJar »

 

8. Calming UK store campaign includes quiet shopping areas and debranded products

Facing the shops can be a fraught experience, particularly at busy times such as seasonal sales or the lead-up to Christmas. Nowhere are the staff more aware of the stress involved in shopping than at Selfridges, a huge UK department store, and they decided to lessen the burden for customers by introducing the No Noise campaign. Specifically, when customers entered designated silent areas they had to remove their shoes and hand over their phones. All products in these zones were de-branded. Concern for customers will rarely go unappreciated, and Selfridges may well have earned themselves a few life-long customers with this campaign.

Read more about the No Noise campaign »

 

9. In New York, bedroom furniture store lets customers nap for free

Making customers feel comfortable can only increase the likelihood that they will make both a purchase and a return visit. COCO-MAT took this truism quite literally, and offered a try-before-you-buy approach for their beds. Visitors to the store were allowed to nap in the beds for a couple of hours and received a free glass of orange juice, but were not obliged to buy after trying. The idea behind the campaign was to spread word of the bed store and consequently increase footfall.

Read more about COCO-MAT »

 

10. At Brazilian retailer, RFID tracks merchandise from manufacturer to customer

Shop assistants must dread the words “Have you got any more of…?” seeing as it often prompts a trawl through the back room to see if an item is available in a particular size. But Brazilian Memove’s RFID stock tracking technology could consign such headaches to the past thanks to tags stitched into the clothing that monitor all items from manufacturing to the moment the customer walks out of the shop with the purchased product. Keeping track of the stock supply chain can be made much simpler through the use of technology, and Memove provides a fine example.

Read more about Memove »

Business – List of Most Popular VC, Angel & Startup Investor Blogs – April 2013

 

By the Numbers

  • 68 investor blogs have been updated since the beginning of 2013
  • 17 investor blogs rank above the global Alexa 100,000
  • According to Alexa the 5 most widely read investor blogs are Y Combinator, Dharmesh Shah, Paul Graham, Fred Wilson and Mark Suster.
  • 2 female VCs are blogging (as of publishing): Christine Herron and Rachel Strate (not updated since 2009).

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   Investor  Investment Firm  Blog URL  Last Updated Alexa Global
  Y Combinator Y Combinator http://blog.ycombinator.com/ 4/9/2013 3,376
  Dharmesh Shah Angel http://onstartups.com/ 4/9/2013 19,794
  Paul Graham Y-Combinator paulgraham.com 11/15/2012 26,397
  Fred Wilson Union Square Ventures avc.com 4/9/2013 28,753
  Mark Suster GRP Partners http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/ 3/21/2013 35,533
  Rob Day @Ventures http://www.greentechmedia.com/cleantech-investing/ 4/4/2013 50,824
  Brad Feld Foundry Group http://www.feld.com/wp/ 4/9/2013 60,507
  Guy Kawasaki Digital Garage http://blog.guykawasaki.com/ 1/26/2013 66,676
  Openview Partners Openview Partners http://blog.openviewpartners.com/ 4/9/2013 70,232
  Josh Kopelman First Round Capital http://redeye.firstround.com/ 3/19/2013 80,094
  Chris Fralic First Round Capital http://nothingtosay.firstround.com/ 3/11/2013 80,094
  Howard Morgan First Round Capital http://waytooearly.firstround.com/ 8/21/2012 80,094
  Rob Hayes, First Round Capital http://permanentrecord.firstround.com/ 7/18/2012 80,094
  Naval Ravikant & Babak Nivi http://venturehacks.com/ 3/22/2013 85,803
  Chris Dixon Founder Collective http://cdixon.org/ 4/6/2013 90,864
  Andrew Chen Angel http://andrewchen.co/ 4/8/2013 94,373
  Michael Arrington Crunchfund uncrunched.com 4/7/2013 96,713
  Mark Cuban Mark Cuban Companies http://blogmaverick.com/ 4/3/2013 125,891
  Jeremy Liew Lightspeed Venture Partners http://lsvp.com/blog/ 4/8/2013 131,553
  Ben Horowitz Andreesen Horowitz http://bhorowitz.com/ 3/4/2013 137,641
  MG Siegler Crunchfund http://parislemon.com/ 4/9/2013 147,935
  Jason Cohen Capital Factory http://blog.asmartbear.com/ 4/9/2013 159,153
  Union Square Ventures Union Square Ventures http://www.usv.com/ 4/4/2013 175,892
  Sean Ellis Angel http://www.startup-marketing.com/ 1/28/2013 198,984
  Multiple Authors True Ventures http://www.trueventures.com/blog/ 4/3/2013 264,147
  Mendelson/Feld Foundry Group http://www.askthevc.com/blog/index.php 4/2/2010 265,044
  Tony Tjan Cue Ball Capital http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/tjan/ 4/7/2013 318,470
  Bill Gurley Benchmark Capital http://abovethecrowd.com/ 12/26/2012 352,232
  Joanne Wilson Gotham Gal (angel investor) http://www.gothamgal.com/ 4/10/2013 391,765
  Nic Brisbourne Esprit Capital Partners http://www.theequitykicker.com/ 4/9/2013 392,432
  Bijan Sabet Spark Capital http://bijansabet.com/ 4/9/2013 395,396
  Multiple Authors Foundry Group http://www.foundrygroup.com/wp/ 3/26/2013 403,187
  Don Dodge Google Ventures (previously) http://dondodge.typepad.com/ 4/5/2013 410,402
  Marc Andreessen Andreesen Horowitz http://blog.pmarca.com/ 3/26/2013 428,812
  Boris Wertz Version One Ventures www.versiononeventures.com/blog 4/9/2013 447,430
  David Hornik August Capital http://www.ventureblog.com/ 3/6/2013 458,981
  Albert Wenger Union Square Ventures Continuations.com 4/9/2013 464,176
  Paul Kedrosky SK Ventures http://paul.kedrosky.com/ 4/9/2013 479,613
  Jason Calacanis Angel http://calacanis.com/ 2/12/2013 535,141
  Jeff Clavier SoftTech VC http://blog.softtechvc.com/ 12/17/2012 540,832
  Paul Singh 500 Startups http://resultsjunkies.com/blog/ 3/28/2013 636,592
  Dave McClure 500 http://500hats.com/ 4/9/2013 645,665
  Fred Destin Atlas Venture http://freddestin.com/ 4/7/2013 658,955
  Reid Hoffman Greylock http://reidhoffman.org/ 3/18/2013 688,977
  Maveron Ventures Maveron Ventures http://www.maveron.com/blog/ 03/2013 703,138
  Ryan Spoon Polaris Venture Partners http://ryanspoon.com/blog/ 4/7/2013 961,156
  Seth Levine Foundry Group http://www.sethlevine.com/blog/ 2/27/2013 1,024,492
  Jeff Bussgang Flybridge Capital Partners http://bostonvcblog.typepad.com/ 4/1/2013 1,153,479
  Andrew Parker Spark Capital http://thegongshow.tumblr.com/ 4/9/2013 1,381,730
  Ed Sim Dawntreader Ventures http://www.beyondvc.com/ 1/15/2013 1,603,885
  David Beisel Venrock Associates http://www.genuinevc.com/ 4/4/2013 1,795,029
  Jason Mendelson Foundry Group http://www.jasonmendelson.com/wp/ 3/19/2013 1,833,233
  Larry Cheng Fidelity Ventures http://www.larrycheng.com/ 10/23/2012 1,953,260
  Christopher Allen Alacrity Ventures http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/ 4/4/2013 2,119,248
  Baris Karadogan Com Ventures http://baris.typepad.com/ 10/22/2009 2,161,392
  David Cowan Bessemer Venture Partners http://whohastimeforthis.blogspot.com/ 12/17/2012 2,196,188
  Rich Tong Ignition Partners http://www.tongfamily.com/ 4/8/2013 2,309,676
  David B. Lerner Columbia Seed Fund http://www.davidblerner.com/david_b_lerner/ 2/8/2013 2,715,171
  Brett Hurt Austin Ventures http://lucky7.io/ 4/4/2013 2,854,733
  Ouriel Ohayon Lightspeed Gemini Internet Lab http://ouriel.typepad.com/ 12/16/2012 2,888,901
  Stewart Alsop Alsop-Louie Partners http://www.alsop-louie.com/blog/ 9/30/2012 3,047,907
  Andy Weissman Union Square Ventures http://blog.aweissman.com/ 3/7/2013 3,219,569
  Jason Ball Qualcomm Ventures Europe http://www.jasonball.com/techbytes/ 5/17/2007 3,287,372
  Christine Herron Intel Capital http://www.christine.net/ 10/23/2012 3,447,591
  Sarah Tavel Bessemer Venture Partners http://www.adventurista.com/ 3/12/2012 3,481,967
  David Feinleib Mohr Davidow Ventures http://www.vcdave.com/ 5/15/2012 3,570,079
  Dan Rua Inflexion Partners http://www.floridaventureblog.com/ 9/20/2010 3,605,507
  Jacob Ner-David Jerusalem Capital http://vcinjerusalem.typepad.com/ 11/18/2012 3,698,431
  Multiple Authors Highway 12 Ventures http://highway12ventures.com/blog/ 2/8/2013 3,779,753
  John Ludwig Ignition Partners http://theludwigs.com/ 3/31/2013 3,902,739
  Paul Fisher Advent Venture Partners http://www.thecoffeeshopsofmayfair.com/ 4/6/2013 4,097,030
  Michael Eisenberg Benchmark Capital http://sixkidsandafulltimejob.blogspot.com/ 2/18/2013 4,161,083
  Ryan McIntyre Foundry Group http://www.ryanmcintyre.com/blog/ 3/2/2012 4,607,575
  Joshua Baer Austinpreneur / Capital Factory http://www.austinpreneur.com/ 4/10/2013 4,704,472
  Raj Kapoor Mayfield Fund http://vcinme.typepad.com/ 7/12/2012 4,852,480
  Jerry Neumann Neu Ventures http://reactionwheel.blogspot.com/ 4/8/2013 4,913,482
  Cem Sertoglu iLab Ventures http://csertoglu.typepad.com/sortipreneur/ 4/8/2013 4,938,333
  Renee DiResta O’Reilly Alpha Tech Ventures http://blog.noupsi.de/ 4/4/2013 5,191,448
  Philippe Botteri Bessemer Venture Partners, http://cracking-the-code.blogspot.com/ 10/24/2012 5,235,989
  Matt McCall DFJ Portage Venture Partners http://www.vcconfidential.com/ 3/31/2013 5,928,762
  James Chen, CXO Ventures http://www.purevc.com/pure_vc/ 7/23/2011 6,266,558
  Anna Khan Bessemer Venture Partners http://www.annakhan.com/ 4/5/2013 6,812,937
  280.vc   http://280.vc/ 3/28/2013 7,058,101
  Mo Koyfman Spark Capital http://www.mokoyfman.com/ 4/5/2013 7,408,773
  Max Bleyleben Kennet Partners http://maxbley.typepad.com/maxs_blog/ 10/28/2011 7,539,929
  Tim Oren Pacifica Fund http://due-diligence.typepad.com/ 3/28/2011 7,700,448
  Jeremy Levine Bessemer Venture Partners http://nothingventurednothinggained.blogspot.com/ 3/2/2012 7,714,427
  Allen Morgan Idea Lab’s New Ventures Group http://www.allensblog.typepad.com/ 6/11/2012 7,743,162
  Mike Hirshland Resolute.vc http://vcmike.wordpress.com/ 11/24/2011 7,798,967
  Will Price Hummer Winblad http://willprice.blogspot.com/ 2/19/2013 7,799,153
  Peter Rip Crosslink Capital Partners http://earlystagevc.typepad.com/   8,004,682
  David Aronoff Flybridge Capital Partners http://www.geekvc.com/geekvc/Blog/Blog.html 3/28/2013 8,149,983
  Don Rainey Grotech Ventures http://startups.typepad.com/ 11/15/2012 8,517,590
  Scott Maxwel Openview Venture Partners http://scottmaxwell.wordpress.com/ 1/8/2010 9,230,149
  Simon Olson DFJ http://galaxy.blogs.com/venture_capital_thoughts_/ 12/27/2011 9,387,967
  Adi Pundak-Mintz Gemini Israel Funds http://adisababa.wordpress.com/ 9/5/2012 9,849,814
  Saul Klein Index Ventures http://www.localglo.be/ 3/4/2013 9,932,326
  Jeff Joseph Prescient Capital Partners http://www.venturepopulist.com/ 12/20/2010 10,162,584
  Stu Phillips Ridgelift Ventures http://1vc.typepad.com/ 6/7/2010 10,913,977
  Marc Goldberg Occam’s Razor http://mgoldberg.typepad.com/ 12/26/2006 11,962,092
  Greg Foste Noro-Moseley Ventures http://southernvc.com/ 9/16/2011 12,136,836
  Daniel Cohen Gemini Israel Funds http://coheda.typepad.com/israel/ 2/20/2012 12,792,445
  Max Niederhofer Sunstone Capital http://maxniederhofer.com/ 4/8/2013 13,354,211
  Steve Jurvetson DFJ http://jurvetson.blogspot.com/ 3/6/2008 13,407,250
  Rick Segal JLA Ventures http://ricksegal.typepad.com/pmv/ 1/22/2010 13,624,659
  Allan Veeck Pittsburgh Ventures http://www.pittsburghventures.com/ 7/16/2011 13,898,253
  Santo Politi Spark Capital http://santopoliti.tumblr.com/ 3/16/2013 14,583,663
  Chip Hazard Flybridge Capital Partners http://hazard.typepad.com/ 2/26/2013 15,214,970
  Brad Burnham USV http://bradburnham.tumblr.com/ 2/8/2012 15,709,881
  Jason Caplain Southern Capitol Ventures http://southeastvc.blogs.com/southeast_vc/ 3/15/2013 16,305,644
  Gil Dibner Genesis Partners http://techtlv.com/blog/ 3/29/2011 19,695,750
  Matt Winn Chrysalis Ventures http://punctuative.com/ 7/13/2009 20,223,511
  Richard Dale Sigma Ventures http://venturecyclist.blogspot.com/ 2/24/2013 21,383,839
  Steve Brotman Silicon Alley Venture Partners http://brotman.blogs.com/ 9/19/2012 23,828,141
  Michael Greeley Flybridge Capital Partners http://ontheflyingbridge.wordpress.com/ 1/10/2013 25,418,706
  George Zachary Charles River Ventures http://senseandcents.blogspot.com/ 12/4/2009 25,751,301
  Peter Lee Baroda Ventures http://seeingeyetoeye.wordpress.com/ 7/21/2009 25,852,759
  Kent Goldman First Round Capital http://thecornice.com/ 3/19/2013 26,395,264
  Martin Tobias Ignition Partners http://www.deepgreencrystals.com/ 9/7/2012 29,020,163
  Sagi Rubin Virgin Green Fund http://sagi.typepad.com/ 10/13/2010 30,329,919
  Rob Schultz IllinoisVENTURES http://robschultz.typepad.com/rob_schultz/ 4/9/2013
  Lee Hower AgileVC http://www.leehower.com/ 4/2/2013
  Adam Fisher Bessemer Venture Partners http://savantsinthelevant.blogspot.com/ 10/31/2012
  Marc Averitt Okapi Venture Capital http://ocvcblog.com/ 9/27/2012
  Josh Sookman RBC Ventures http://sookman.blogspot.com/ 8/9/2012
  Ho Name Altos Ventures http://altos.typepad.com/vc/ 6/20/2012
  Mike Speiser SutterHill Ventures http://laserlike.com/ 5/16/2012
  Derek Pilling Meritage Funds http://derekpilling.com/ 3/30/2012
  John Abraham Arrowpoint Ventures http://abejma.blogspot.com/ 11/28/2011
  Todd Klein Legend Ventures http://wildrumpus.typepad.com/mediavc/ 10/27/2011
  Dan Grossman Venrock Associates http://www.aventureforth.com/ 10/5/2011
  Multiple Authors Brightspark Ventures http://brightsparkventures.typepad.com/ 9/22/2011
  Sid Mohasseb Tech Coast Angels http://sidmohasseb.blogspot.com/ 6/8/2011
  Ed Mlavsky Gemini Israel Funds http://golb.typepad.com/isthisisrael/ 2/22/2010
  Rachel Strate EPIC Ventures http://www.wasatchgirl.com/ 10/4/2009
  Vishy Venugopalan Longworth Venture Partners http://longworthvp.wordpress.com/ 7/8/2009
  David Dufresne Desjardins Venture Capital http://capital-risqueur.blogspot.com/ 4/6/2009
  Ted Driscoll Claremont Creek Ventures http://evolvingvc.blogspot.com/ 12/4/2008
  Art Marks Valhalla Partners http://thequest.typepad.com/entrepreneurial_quest/ 10/30/2008
  Vineet Buch BlueRun Ventures http://ventureexplorer.typepad.com/ 10/22/2008
  Gregoire Aladjidi Techfund Europe http://techfundinfo.wordpress.com/ 7/1/2008
  Charles Curran Valhalla Partners http://charlescurran.typepad.com/vc_blog_on_storage_wirele/ 12/24/2007
  Justin Label Bessemer Venture Partners http://ventureagain.blogspot.com/ 11/6/2007
  Robert Goldberg Ridgelift Ventures http://robertgoldberg.typepad.com/tahoevc/ 3/13/2007
  Rob Finn Edison Venture http://www.ventureblogalist.com/  
  Brian Hirsch Greenhill SAVP http://www.ny-vc.com/ Error
  Jon Seeber Updata Partners http://vcjon.blogspot.com/ Error
  Multiple Authors Tech Capital Partners http://blog.techcapital.com/ Site Temporarily Unavailable
  Rob Go Spark Capital http://www.robgoblog.com/ Chome Could not Find
  Satya Patel Battery Ventures http://venturegeneratedcontent.com/ Error
  Anupendra Sharma Siemens Venture Capital http://anupendra.blogspot.com/ 10/5/2011  
  Larry Marcus Walden Venture Capital http://www.wvcblog.blogspot.com/ 5/17/2011  
  Todd Dagres Spark Capital http://todddagres.tumblr.com/ 12/21/2010  
  Mark Peter Davis DFJ Gotham Ventures http://www.markpeterdavis.com/getventure/ 404  
  Pascal Levensohn Levensohn Venture Partners http://www.pascalsview.com/pascalsview/ 404  
  Eileen Burbidge Passion Capital http://catalyses.wordpress.com/ 10/28/2010  
  Whitney Johnson Rose Park Advisors http://blogs.hbr.org/johnson/ 3/18/2013  
         

This Explains Everything: 192 Thinkers Each Select the Most Elegant Explanation of How the World Works

“The greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way.”

Every year since 1998, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been posing a single grand question to some of our time’s greatest thinkers across a wide spectrum of disciplines, then collecting the answers in an annual anthology. Last year’s answers to the question “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” were released in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.

In 2012, the question Brockman posed, proposed by none other than Steven Pinker, was “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” The answers, representing an eclectic mix of 192 (alas, overwhelmingly male) minds spanning psychology, quantum physics, social science, political theory, philosophy, and more, are collected in the edited compendium This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (UK;public library) and are also available online.

In the introduction preceding the micro-essays, Brockman frames the question and its ultimate objective, adding to history’s most timeless definitions of science:

The ideas presented on Edge are speculative; they represent the frontiers in such areas as evolutionary biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, cosmology, and physics. Emerging out of these contributions is a new natural philosophy, new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions.

[…]

Perhaps the greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called ‘beautiful’ or ‘elegant.’

[…]

The contributions presented here embrace scientific thinking in he broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything — including such fields of inquiry as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, language, and human behavior. The common thread is that a simple and nonobvious idea is proposed as the explanation of a diverse and complicated set of phenomena.

Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, eloquent as ever, marvels at the wisdom of the crowd and the emergence of swarm intelligence:

Observe a single ant, and it doesn’t make much sense, walking in one direction, suddenly careening in another for no obvious reason, doubling back on itself. Thoroughly unpredictable.

The same happens with two ants, a handful of ants. But a colony of ants makes fantastic sense. Specialized jobs, efficient means of exploiting new food sources, complex underground nests with temperature regulated within a few degrees. And critically, there’s no blueprint or central source of command—each individual ants has algorithms for their behaviors. But this is not wisdom of the crowd, where a bunch of reasonably informed individuals outperform a single expert. The ants aren’t reasonably informed about the big picture. Instead, the behavior algorithms of each ant consist of a few simple rules for interacting with the local environment and local ants. And out of this emerges a highly efficient colony.

Ant colonies excel at generating trails that connect locations in the shortest possible way, accomplished with simple rules about when to lay down a pheromone trail and what to do when encountering someone else’s trail—approximations of optimal solutions to the Traveling Salesman problem. This has useful applications. In “ant-based routing,” simulations using virtual ants with similar rules can generate optimal ways of connecting the nodes in a network, something of great interest to telecommunications companies. It applies to the developing brain, which must wire up vast numbers of neurons with vaster numbers of connections without constructing millions of miles of connecting axons. And migrating fetal neurons generate an efficient solution with a different version of ant-based routine.

A wonderful example is how local rules about attraction and repulsion (i.e., positive and negative charges) allow simple molecules in an organic soup to occasionally form more complex ones. Life may have originated this way without the requirement of bolts of lightning to catalyze the formation of complex molecules.

And why is self-organization so beautiful to my atheistic self? Because if complex, adaptive systems don’t require a blue print, they don’t require a blue print maker. If they don’t require lightning bolts, they don’t require Someone hurtling lightning bolts.

Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, who famously coined the seminal theory of multiple intelligences, echoes Anaïs Nin in advocating for the role of the individual and Susan Sontag in stressing the impact of individual acts on collective fate. His answer, arguing for the importance of human beings, comes as a welcome antidote to a question that suffers the danger of being inherently reductionist:

In a planet occupied now by seven billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference that one human being can make. Think of classical music without Mozart or Stravinsky; of painting without Caravaggio, Picasso or Pollock; of drama without Shakespeare or Beckett. Think of the incredible contributions of Michelangelo or Leonardo, or, in recent times, the outpouring of deep feeling at the death of Steve Jobs (or, for that matter, Michael Jackson or Princess Diana). Think of human values in the absence of Moses or Christ.

[…]

Despite the laudatory efforts of scientists to ferret out patterns in human behavior, I continue to be struck by the impact of single individuals, or of small groups, working against the odds. As scholars, we cannot and should not sweep these instances under the investigative rug. We should bear in mind anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous injunction: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.’

Uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who also contributed to last year’s volume, considers the parallel role of patterns and chance in the works of iconic composer John Cage and painter Gerhard Richter, and the role of uncertainty in the creative process:

In art, the title of a work can often be its first explanation. And in this context I am thinking especially of the titles of Gerhard Richter. In 2006, when I visited Richter in his studio in Cologne, he had just finished a group of six corresponding abstract paintings which he gave the title Cage.

There are many relations between Richter’s painting and the compositions of John Cage. In a book about the Cage series, Robert Storr has traced them from Richter‘s attendance of a Cage performance at the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus in Düsseldorf 1963 to analogies in their artistic processes. Cage has often applied chance procedures in his compositions, notably with the use of the I Ching. Richter in his abstract paintings also intentionally allows effects of chance. In these paintings, he applies the oil paint on the canvas by means of a large squeegee. He selects the colors on the squeegee, but the factual trace that the paint leaves on the canvas is to a large extent the outcome of chance.

[…]

Richter‘s concise title, Cage, can be unfolded into an extensive interpretation of these abstract paintings (and of other works)—but, one can say, the short form already contains everything. The title, like an explanation of a phenomenon, unlocks the works, describing their relation to one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century, John Cage, who shares with Richter the great themes of chance and uncertainty.

Writer, artist, and designer Douglas Coupland, whose biography of Marshall McLuhan remains indispensable, offers a lyrical meditation on the peculiar odds behind coincidences and déja vus:

I take comfort in the fact that there are two human moments that seem to be doled out equally and democratically within the human condition—and that there is no satisfying ultimate explanation for either. One is coincidence, the other is déja vu. It doesn’t matter if you’re Queen Elizabeth, one of the thirty-three miners rescued in Chile, a South Korean housewife or a migrant herder in Zimbabwe—in the span of 365 days you will pretty much have two déja vus as well as one coincidence that makes you stop and say, “Wow, that was a coincidence.”

The thing about coincidence is that when you imagine the umpteen trillions of coincidences that can happen at any given moment, the fact is, that in practice, coincidences almost never do occur. Coincidences are actually so rare that when they do occur they are, in fact memorable. This suggests to me that the universe is designed to ward off coincidence whenever possible—the universe hates coincidence—I don’t know why—it just seems to be true. So when a coincidence happens, that coincidence had to workawfully hard to escape the system. There’s a message there. What is it? Look. Look harder. Mathematicians perhaps have a theorem for this, and if they do, it might, by default be a theorem for something larger than what they think it is.

What’s both eerie and interesting to me about déja vus is that they occur almost like metronomes throughout our lives, about one every six months, a poetic timekeeping device that, at the very least, reminds us we are alive. I can safely assume that my thirteen year old niece, Stephen Hawking and someone working in a Beijing luggage-making factory each experience two déja vus a year. Not one. Not three. Two.

The underlying biodynamics of déja vus is probably ascribable to some sort of tingling neurons in a certain part of the brain, yet this doesn’t tell us why they exist. They seem to me to be a signal from larger point of view that wants to remind us that our lives are distinct, that they have meaning, and that they occur throughout a span of time. We are important, and what makes us valuable to the universe is our sentience and our curse and blessing of perpetual self-awareness.

MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle, author of the cyber-dystopian Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, considers the role of “transitional objets” in our relationship with technology:

I was a student in psychology in the mid-1970s at Harvard University. The grand experiment that had been “Social Relations” at Harvard had just crumbled. Its ambition had been to bring together the social sciences in one department, indeed, most in one building, William James Hall. Clinical psychology, experimental psychology, physical and cultural anthropology, and sociology, all of these would be in close quarters and intense conversation.

But now, everyone was back in their own department, on their own floor. From my point of view, what was most difficult was that the people who studied thinking were on one floor and the people who studied feeling were on another.

In this Balkanized world, I took a course with George Goethals in which we learned about the passion in thought and the logical structure behind passion. Goethals, a psychologist who specialized in adolescence, was teaching a graduate seminar in psychoanalysis. … Several classes were devoted to the work of David Winnicott and his notion of the transitional object. Winnicott called transitional the objects of childhood—the stuffed animals, the bits of silk from a baby blanket, the favorite pillows—that the child experiences as both part of the self and of external reality. Winnicott writes that such objects mediate between the child’s sense of connection to the body of the mother and a growing recognition that he or she is a separate being. The transitional objects of the nursery—all of these are destined to be abandoned. Yet, says Winnicott, they leave traces that will mark the rest of life. Specifically, they influence how easily an individual develops a capacity for joy, aesthetic experience, and creative playfulness. Transitional objects, with their joint allegiance to self and other, demonstrate to the child that objects in the external world can be loved.

[…]

Winnicott believes that during all stages of life we continue to search for objects we experience as both within and outside the self. We give up the baby blanket, but we continue to search for the feeling of oneness it provided. We find them in moments of feeling “at one” with the world, what Freud called the “oceanic feeling.” We find these moments when we are at one with a piece of art, a vista in nature, a sexual experience.

As a scientific proposition, the theory of the transitional object has its limitations. But as a way of thinking about connection, it provides a powerful tool for thought. Most specifically, it offered me a way to begin to understand the new relationships that people were beginning to form with computers, something I began to study in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From the very beginning, as I began to study the nascent digital culture culture, I could see that computers were not “just tools.” They were intimate machines. People experienced them as part of the self, separate but connected to the self.

[…]

When in the late 1970s, I began to study the computer’s special evocative power, my time with George Goethals and the small circle of Harvard graduate students immersed in Winnicott came back to me. Computers served as transitional objects. They bring us back to the feelings of being “at one” with the world. Musicians often hear the music in their minds before they play it, experiencing the music from within and without. The computer similarly can be experienced as an object on the border between self and not-self. Just as musical instruments can be extensions of the mind’s construction of sound, computers can be extensions of the mind’s construction of thought.

This way of thinking about the computer as an evocative object puts us on the inside of a new inside joke. For when psychoanalysts talked about object relations, they had always been talking about people. From the beginning, people saw computers as “almost-alive” or “sort of alive.” With the computer, object relations psychoanalysis can be applied to, well, objects. People feel at one with video games, with lines of computer code, with the avatars they play in virtual worlds, with their smartphones. Classical transitional objects are meant to be abandoned, their power recovered in moments of heightened experience. When our current digital devices—our smartphones and cellphones—take on the power of transitional objects, a new psychology comes into play. These digital objects are never meant to be abandoned. We are meant to become cyborg.

Anthropologist Scott Aran considers the role of the absurd in religion and cause-worship, and the Becket-like notion of the “ineffable”:

The notion of a transcendent force that moves the universe or history or determines what is right and good—and whose existence is fundamentally beyond reason and immune to logical or empirical disproof—is the simplest, most elegant, and most scientifically baffling phenomenon I know of. Its power and absurdity perturbs mightily, and merits careful scientific scrutiny. In an age where many of the most volatile and seemingly intractable conflicts stem from sacred causes, scientific understanding of how to best deal with the subject has also never been more critical.

Call it love of Group or God, or devotion to an Idea or Cause, it matters little in the end. This is the “the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only” of which Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In The Descent of Man, Darwin cast it as the virtue of “morality,” with which winning tribes are better endowed in history’s spiraling competition for survival and dominance. Unlike other creatures, humans define the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they strive to achieve a lasting intellectual and emotional bonding with anonymous others, and seek to heroically kill and die, not in order to preserve their own lives or those of people they know, but for the sake of an idea—the conception they have formed of themselves, of “who we are.”

[…]

There is an apparent paradox that underlies the formation of large-scale human societies. The religious and ideological rise of civilizations—of larger and larger agglomerations of genetic strangers, including today’s nations, transnational movements, and other “imagined communities” of fictive kin — seem to depend upon what Kierkegaard deemed this “power of the preposterous” … Humankind’s strongest social bonds and actions, including the capacity for cooperation and forgiveness, and for killing and allowing oneself to be killed, are born of commitment to causes and courses of action that are “ineffable,” that is, fundamentally immune to logical assessment for consistency and to empirical evaluation for costs and consequences. The more materially inexplicable one’s devotion and commitment to a sacred cause — that is, the more absurd—the greater the trust others place in it and the more that trust generates commitment on their part.

[…]

Religion and the sacred, banned so long from reasoned inquiry by ideological bias of all persuasions—perhaps because the subject is so close to who we want or don’t want to be — is still a vast, tangled and largely unexplored domain for science, however simple and elegant for most people everywhere in everyday life.

Psychologist Timothy Wilson, author of the excellent Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, explores the Möbius loop of self-perception and behavior:

My favorite is the idea that people become what they do. This explanation of how people acquire attitudes and traits dates back to the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, but was formalized by the social psychologist Daryl Bem in his self-perception theory. People draw inferences about who they are, Bem suggested, by observing their own behavior.

Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. … Hundreds of experiments have confirmed the theory and shown when this self-inference process is most likely to operate (e.g., when people believe they freely chose to behave the way they did, and when they weren’t sure at the outset how they felt).

Self-perception theory is an elegant in its simplicity. But it is also quite deep, with important implications for the nature of the human mind. Two other powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book, we would know exactly how honest we are and how much we like lattes. Instead, we often need to look to our behavior to figure out who we are. Self-perception theory thus anticipated the revolution in psychology in the study of human consciousness, a revolution that revealed the limits of introspection.

But it turns out that we don’t just use our behavior to reveal our dispositions—we infer dispositions that weren’t there before. Often, our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. As a result, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition.

Harvard physician and social scientist Nicholas Christakis, who also appeared in Brockman’s Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology, offers one of the most poetic answers, tracing the history of our understanding of why the sky is blue:

My favorite explanation is one that I sought as a boy. It is the explanation for why the sky is blue. It’s a question every toddler asks, but it is also one that most great scientists since the time of Aristotle, including da Vinci, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Euler, and even Einstein, have asked.

One of the things I like most about this explanation—beyond the simplicity and overtness of the question itself—is how long it took to arrive at correctly, how many centuries of effort, and how many branches of science it involves.

Aristotle is the first, so far as we know, to ask the question about why the sky is blue, in the treatise On Colors; his answer is that the air close at hand is clear and the deep air of the sky is blue the same way a thin layer of water is clear but a deep well of water looks black. This idea was still being echoed in the 13th century by Roger Bacon. Kepler too reinvented a similar explanation, arguing that the air merely looks colorless because the tint of its color is so faint when in a thin layer. But none of them offered an explanation for the blueness of the atmosphere. So the question actually has two, related parts: why the sky has any color, and why it has a blue color.

[…]

The sky is blue because the incident light interacts with the gas molecules in the air in such as fashion that more of the light in the blue part of the spectrum is scattered, reaching our eyes on the surface of the planet. All the frequencies of the incident light can be scattered this way, but the high-frequency (short wavelength) blue is scattered more than the lower frequencies in a process known as Rayleigh scattering, described in the 1870′s. John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh, who also won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1904 for the discovery of argon, demonstrated that, when the wavelength of the light is on the same order as the size of the gas molecules, the intensity of scattered light varies inversely with the fourth power of its wavelength. Shorter wavelengths like blue (and violet) are scattered more than longer ones. It’s as if all the molecules in the air preferentially glow blue, which is what we then see everywhere around us.

Yet, the sky should appear violet since violet light is scattered even more than blue light. But the sky does not appear violet to us because of the final, biological part of the puzzle, which is the way our eyes are designed: they are more sensitive to blue than violet light.

The explanation for why the sky is blue involves so much of the natural sciences: the colors within the visual spectrum, the wave nature of light, the angle at which sunlight hits the atmosphere, the mathematics of scattering, the size of nitrogen and oxygen molecules, and even the way human eyes perceive color. It’s most of science in a question that a young child can ask.

Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell considers the beauty of a sunrise, echoing Richard Feynman’s thoughts on science and mystery and Danis Dutton’s evolutionary theory of beauty:

Scientific understanding enhances rather than destroys nature’s beauty. All of these explanations for me contribute to the beauty in a sunrise.

Ah, but what is the explanation of beauty? Brain scientists grapple with nuclear-magnetic resonance images—a recent meta-analysis indicated that all of our aesthetic judgements seem to include the use of neural circuits in the right anterior insula, an area of the cerebral cortex typically associated with visceral perception. Perhaps our sense of beauty is a by-product of the evolutionary maintenance of the senses of belonging and of disgust. For what it’s worth, as exoplanets pour out of our telescopes, I believe that we will encounter astrochemical evidence for some form of extraterrestrial organism well before we achieve a deep, elegant or beautiful explanation of human aesthetics.

But my favorite essay comes from social media researcher and general geniusClay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, who considers the propagation of ideas in culture and the problems with Richard Dawkins’s notion of the meme in a context of combinatorial creativity:

Something happens to keep one group of people behaving in a certain set of ways. In the early 1970s, both E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins noticed that the flow of ideas in a culture exhibited similar patterns to the flow of genes in a species—high flow within the group, but sharply reduced flow between groups. Dawkins’ response was to assume a hypothetical unit of culture called the meme, though he also made its problems clear—with genetic material, perfect replication is the norm, and mutations rare. With culture, it is the opposite — events are misremembered and then misdescribed, quotes are mangled, even jokes (pure meme) vary from telling to telling. The gene/meme comparison remained, for a generation, an evocative idea of not much analytic utility.

Dan Sperber has, to my eye, cracked this problem. In a slim, elegant volume of 15 years ago with the modest titleExplaining Culture, he outlined a theory of culture as the residue of the epidemic spread of ideas. In this model, there is no meme, no unit of culture separate from the blooming, buzzing confusion of transactions. Instead, all cultural transmission can be reduced to one of two types: making a mental representation public, or internalizing a mental version of a public presentation. As Sperber puts it, “Culture is the precipitate of cognition and communication in a human population.”

Sperber’s two primitives—externalization of ideas, internalization of expressions—give us a way to think of culture not as a big container people inhabit, but rather as a network whose traces, drawn carefully, let us ask how the behaviors of individuals create larger, longer-lived patterns. Some public representations are consistently learned and then re-expressed and re-learned—Mother Goose rhymes, tartan patterns, and peer review have all survived for centuries. Others move from ubiquitous to marginal in a matter of years. . . .

[…]

This is what is so powerful about Sperber’s idea: culture is a giant, asynchronous network of replication, ideas turning into expressions which turn into other, related ideas. … Sperber’s idea also suggests increased access to public presentation of ideas will increase the dynamic range of culture overall.

Characteristically thought-provoking and reliably cross-disciplinary, This Explains Everything is a must-read in its entirety.