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Defining serendipidata

serendipidata (noun): information that is useful for a purpose different from what its collector intended, usually applied by someone outside the collector’s peer group. It can also refer to the pleasant feeling of realization when something turns into serendipidata.

Incremental improvements come from consistently applied efforts. These advances usually increase linearly with time. More dramatic improvements often come from changing the fundamental approach to a problem.

One way to achieve these dramatic shifts is to recombine ideas from different fields. While serendipity is by definition unpredictable, environments that cross-pollinate ideas between people from different backgrounds consistently produce innovations.

This blog will document bits of information that I find useful and hope to use again. It’s hard to predict which things you learn will be useful in the future. As a data visualization engineer, I explore how technology may help people to find actionable insights from data, which is a fairly broad topic. While my focus may narrow in the future, I am currently content to be an open-minded bricoleur.

I coined this term because I wanted a word for the feeling of effective reuse. Foreign poetry is difficult to translate when some words do not have equivalents in the target language. Having the right word for a sensation makes it easier to notice when that feeling happens. I wanted to capture this one more often, because I find serendipidata delightful and motivating.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claims that the words one knows shape the thoughts one can have. I’m optimistic that having this word will help me to notice more opportunities for finding new homes for useful ideas.

Through browsing this blog, I hope that that you will learn useful bits of info, and be inspired to bring the pursuit of serendipidata with you wherever you go.

Readings

Curious to see concrete examples of serendipidata in practice? Many people have written about different facets of this idea. Here are some of the resources that influenced my thinking.

  • Why Greatness Cannot be Planned: The Myth of the Objective (via Jahed)
    • Think of all possible ideas in a high dimensional vector space. Most of the space is empty or nonsensical. “Interesting” ideas tend to be near other interesting ideas. Pursuing “stepping stones” in this vector space is a good idea that strikes a healthy balance between aimless wandering and over-planning.
  • Seeing What Others Don’t by Gary Klein (via Jarrod)
    • This psychologist collected many examples of people uncovering “insights” (from scientists to firefighters), and shares a bottom-up framework for understanding patterns in the conditions that led to each discovery.
  • Exaptive on Exaption (ODSC East, Boston, 2015)
    • Exaptation Examples
    • Draws from Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Stephen Jay Gould’s paper on exaptation in biology.
  • Steal like an Artist - Austin Kleon
  • Gong Kai (Pirate Innovation) and Open Source - Bunnie Huang
    • Learning from an environment that produced a $12 Cell Phone
    • I haven’t typed up his notes from a presentation at the School of Architecture, but this article touched on similar ideas.
  • How do People Get New Ideas - Isaac Asimov (1959)
    • Description + reasoning behind good brainstorming conditions
  • The Evolution of Beauty
    • An elective that I took exploring biological origins for where sense of aesthetics in living things comes from, including arts, play, and our sense of wonder
  • Accidents May Happen: 50 Inventions Discovered by Mistake - Charlotte Foltz Jones
    • A very memorable book from grade school

In the future, I may add further notes from my old notebooks about these texts.

Footnotes

  • serendipidata is a portmanteau combining serendipity and data.
  • A portmanteau is a word that combines the sounds and meanings of two other words. It is also a type of suitcase. :)
    • My friend Quentin pointed out that in French, a portmanteau is actually a “coat rack”. Both suitcase and coat racks literally “carry clothes”. It is fascinating how the meaning of this word diverged after translation. Read more about this “false friend” on Wikipedia.
  • Roberto Stelling observed that Portuguese has the word serendipidade for an unexpected learning experience, so an equivalent Portuguese portmanteau could be serendipidados.