The Paradox of Invention, Product Flip Cycle Part 2


By Yonatan Gordon

For background material to this article, we encourage you to first read “Explain It to Me Again, Computer: What if technology makes scientific discoveries that we can’t understand?” by Samuel Arbesman.

The Half Life of Products

In this entry we hope to explain how we can create something that we can’t understand, and what Samuel Arbesman calls the “Half-Life of Facts.” As we will explain, the relativity of intuition relates to both these concepts. This is because the life on an inventor is one of paradox. On the one hand, it seems that they have developed and produced something very knowable; a product that can be readily purchased on the shelf for instance. But the truth is this is only half of the story. While there is a part that seems perceptible, there is another half that remains concealed from the normative realm of human logic.

In our introduction to the Product Flip Cycle, we mentioned that at some point, one version of a product flips over to the next. Can it be said that this something was fully used before the next one is purchased? Especially in the world of technology, but likewise for other things as well, many of the products consumed today are discarded half-eaten or half-utilized. Like the bright sunlight that shines at midday, before we reach the afternoon, these products that we just recently in the spotlight have already been discarded for the next. Why is this? It has to do with what first attracts the public to the product to begin with. There is some attraction then that we need to explain before we can understand why people move on.

In order to explain this, let’s first bring an expression from common vernacular, “boy toys.” When is this said? It specifically relates to men that still play with advanced gadgets as if they were childhood toys. This phrase then is not a question on how children interact with products, but on the nature of how adults interact with products.

Introducing the Paradox

Maybe this half life of products is only in some cases? But the truth is we see this everywhere. It doesn’t just apply to gadgets, but to scientific pursuits (as noted in Arbesman’s article), and so on. Things flip over time. Even that which we think is common-sense is relative and can change in an instant when some new discovery is revealed.

This discussion has to do with what it means to progress forward in the world, to pave your way. What is the drive that propels these new versions, updates, etc? This is because ultimately, there is no such thing as the perfect product. The fact that an inventor needs to turn his thoughts into something tangible is the greatest of paradoxes. Why do products go through so many variations? Because the inventor keeps looking, searching for the most noble representation of his ideas. Like the waxing and waning of the moon, these variations are also a search to find the product that most resembles something truly new and innovative. But of utmost important is that the inventor not get caught up with thinking that these products are ideas themselves.

Why do products have a “half” shelf life? Because the source of the product was found out of nothingness. Where did the the inventors first insight behind this product come from? Such a thing can never be packaged and sold on the shelf. Like the first ink drop mentioned in our Squidoo article, the first expression of a concept is when it is first published or produced into the world. This is when the inventor first shows the world what he was thinking about all along. Like with the “show and tell” school activity, the main marketing and publicity (e.g. “tell” components) occurs once the product is announced or released.

From Toy to Tool

But in some ways, the “show and tell” activity is more related to adults. Who is the one that most bring the “boy toy” expression? Most often it is the wife of their gadget playing husband. As we will now explain, the concept of “half life” product is also something only related to adults than children.

To explain the difference in the way children and adults interact with products, we will call this the distinction between seeing products as toys or tools. The reason “half life” is an adult question is because this is when productivity and progress become important. While adults desire to pave their way in the world, the approach of children is more to play with these interesting, flashing things. These gadgets may be good for everyone, but the deciding factor is productivity. As mentioned in Part One, when Nike comes out with a shoe and says this is the “most flexible,” the adult sees greater “flexibility” as a means to achieve more; to be more productive in the world.

Our task then is to dissolve the product, to train ourselves to seek the progression of concepts through these product updates. When kids mature into adults, they also join the workforce, run a household, or take on any other type of leadership role. We all start off as responsible for ourselves, but then we mature into being able to feel the responsibility for others. While under their parents, each child primarily takes care of their own needs. But the ability to properly make use of products also means to begin taking responsibility at a communal level. To see how these products, these tools can benefit the world. Being able to devote oneself to communal affairs also means taking on the responsibility for a community of others. To form a group or circle around you that is dependent upon, and benefits from your actions. To be concerned about the needs of the public is part of growing up.

Once a person enters the marketplace, they can start making a living and being responsible for people on a communal level. But there are many people who have reached full adulthood, but they are still only interested in saving themselves. What does it means to be devoted to the public then? To see everything in terms of how it can most benefit others. For products this means to see the usefulness, the benefits of enhanced productivity and collaboration that it can provide. To see that products only have a “half life” is to realize that they are only half of the equation. In order to make a full product, it first needs to be joined together with someone else.

Each mature adult is responsible for helping others. There is a general sense of responsibility for the community that enables us to go out of ourselves and help another. But part of being concerned for others, and taking responsibility for the community, is to judge new products by how useful they are. Otherwise, without this sense of communal responsibility, products are just playful, interesting “boy toys.”

Collaborative Products

The law of half life is a lesson in what’s termed “mirror symmetry” in physics. To view my half as identical to your half, even though you are standing opposite me. What is the relationship to the world of consumerism? As a child, we think products are just toys, but then with adulthood we realize that we only understand half of the equation. Our understanding about products becomes complete when we learn to see our product as a reflection of our friend’s needs and concerns. When my half, becomes your half (i.e. something communal and shared). Before it was a toy, but now it a productivity tool to benefits groups. This is what we meant when we said that adulthood is a time when we join the workforce. This is when we realize that these toys are not tools for group collaboration. How do you attain a “mirror symmetry” state for products? To see the product that I am not holding in my hand as something that could just as easily be held by my friend standing opposite me.

As parents and teachers we teach child to share and play nicely with others. But as adults, the lesson becomes stronger. The test for adults is not to play with it with self-interest, but to always see how it can benefit everything. Each group or “tribe” must work together so that their contributions can benefit everyone. First they huddle and collaborate, then they share their findings with the world. Not only do groups make use of products, but there are also groups that develop new products.

Many times (like those funded by seed accelerator Y Combinator), these groups actually speed up the development of the next product; shortening the shelf life of the previous version. This is also in line with our discussion. As mentioned, the main thing is to advance the manifestation of concepts forward in order to benefit the public.

A true inventor though is not caught up with what the most current version of the product looks like. The best among them never “look at” the products because they remain idealists, focused solely on the concepts (as discussed in our article “Aaron Swartz and Open Source Idealism”). .

While these inventions may bring in a lot of money, this is not the motivation of an inventor who remains idealistic. He always has the best version of the product in mind, even when he develops some current update. He knows that whatever he creates, it’s never going to be the full representation of the idea that he first had. To be stuck in the past means to be concerned with the previous versions, to be looking over your shoulder at what was done in the past. But to take responsibility for the public, to revolutionize the world, is to see things in their most pristine state. Even though there are specific technicalities as to how to manufacture each product, this is not the primary concern. Instead this inventor’s focus is on productivity, how these new items will help people live better lives.

So what makes an idealist? To hold tight to this vision, and not get caught up with what gets produced at each stage. To be in the incubator, but also to keep one’s thoughts on the clear and pristine state of these ideas. Money and business is either clean or dirty. To stay clean means to keep your hands clean while you handle it. Not to get caught up and view it as the final outcome of your thoughts.

The benefit of viewing products as “half” is that it allows us to both be focused on the community, and the concept. We’re always only halfway there, but every step forward is worth something. To be an inventor you need a product, to manufacture something in very specific ways; but the inventor also needs to maintain his role as an idealist as well. Not to mix in other elements into his pursuits. Not to mix in any element of falsehood, or to cheat anyone with the money from these new products. If he stays true to himself, then he will be able to keep developing more great products. Otherwise, as we have seen, the future versions will not be as trustworthy and true as the original. When the drive the money itself, then corners start being cut, etc…

Product Comparison

We like to make comparisons, to say that this product from company A is better than that product from company B. What does it mean to suggest or encourage people to use one product over another? It means to say that my product is a truer representation of the concept than yours. But companies also do this with their own products as well, as we saw in the Part One example of Nike’s more flexible shoe.

The question then becomes why should we leave it up to the idealists to invent product. Wouldn’t this task be better left for engineers who better understand the technical aspects of manufacturing?

But the intention is that worthwhile ideas should benefit the world in tangible form. This is a paradox though. To expect the most idealist among us to make something that, on the surface, seems very much commercial.

The answer is that in order to benefit the public, to encourage groups and teams to work together, you need to provide them something for them to work with. Products weren’t created for individuals because then they become toys. For most children, a toy smartphone that looks like the one their parents have is good enough. The reason an idealists becomes an inventor is in order to help people work together. In some ways, products are an excuse to gather people together. In our Apple series, we noted that Steve Job’s product announcement speeches seemed more compelling than the products he was presenting. While you need to make the product so that people will show up, ultimately the best result is the concepts and ideas being presented.

This is what it means to keep your hands clean while still holding the money. Even if you are up there in front of millions, with the latest new iPad in your hands, for you it’s still all about the concepts. This is something very hard and difficult for an idealist to come to grips with. It’s much easier to philosophize, but much harder to produce. The idealist first thinks whether they can philosophize without making things. That perhaps products, like the hot potato game, are simply too hot to hold? But an inventor realizes that you need both.

What makes for a successful inventor? To realize that we are creating things that we still don’t understand. Now we can explain the article we referenced in the beginning. To be able to become both an idealist and an inventor is to realize that we can never fully understand the idea. That any product, no matter how complex it seems, is always going to be something limited. By nature, products are only finite remembrances of those pristine ideas that came to the mind of the inventor. So citing Arbesman’s example, no matter how complex or advanced the algorithm is, it is just as limited as any other product.

We mentioned the Y Combinator program above. The real difficulty with combining is when we are asked to combine two things that are unacceptable to a person. Using our example, for us this means to combine the true idea of the idealist with what seems the false world of commercialism. But this is the secret for changing the world. To be able to keep ideas pristine without falling into the trap of commercialism.

To make something physical means to keep your idea separate from what your are making. This is the question of the idealist, how to keep one’s thoughts clean while making some distinct product. Something that seems separate from the idea as it exists in its pristine form. This is why the primary test is not in the university, but when the idealist sets outs to become a product inventor. The test is whether, after he has ventured forth into the world of products, this will lead to a path toward commercial thinking.

The Inventor Paradox is the focal point of what makes a product flip. To transform something, is to come to the realization that ideas are not known. How does the idealist keep his idea separate from the products he produces? The secret is to learn the art of flipping products. In this discussion we mentioned two types of flipping. The first is a lesson is collaborative efforts. To take my half and see that it could just as easily be your half. This is a continual process. So when viewed as “mirror symmetry,” products have the potential to be flipped at every moment.

To show the general enjoyment for products is to show that I can only hold onto a most a half. The nachas of products (Arbesman also uses the word nachas) is not personal enjoyment, but the general enjoyment focused on making the world better. This is what is so difficult for the idealist. It’s hard enough to decide to become an inventor to begin with. But even more difficult is to wait for the time when the products will more closely match the source for the ideas. Not to be patient enough not to get caught up in the product, but to always reach ever deeper to understand these concepts.

On the one hand products feel like something separate and distinct, but they also have the ability to stay clean. This comes from the ability to flip them. To flip from one version to the next in the search for more clean presentations of the concepts. We start with something on the shelf, then our understanding gets finer and finer until the computers develop those things that we can’t even consciously comprehend. When we reach this level, we don’t stop, but we keep on going deeper and deeper, further and further in our exploration.

What is the great benefit to the ideas presented in his article? That we don’t need to be limited by the intellect. By realizing that we don’t know even those things that we think we do, we expand human potential even further than ever thought possible.

No  longer are products to be found as something “by themselves” on the shelf, but the world of commerce itself then ventures forward into something less and less tangible.

Flipping People

Sometimes it is also necessarily to flip past people. To find someone who is your complete and total opposite in every which way, and flip past them. We can now mention something that we alluded to in our Becoming a Great Marketer series. In those articles, we had in mind that in order to become a great marketer, we first had to flip past the marketer who we felt was the worst. In our to attempt raise up what we consider the truest notion of what it means to be a great marketer, first we had to flip past the person who we felt represented the falsest notion.

That marketer, who has made himself into an action figure, who belittled a street artist who later became an observant Jew, who encourages people to become heretics, as well as many other misdeeds, is Seth Godin.


The above article was written based on about 75% of the first 7 (out of 10) pages of the 19 Adar 5773 shiur (lesson) by Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh. Instead of copying those 7 pages below, we thought to try something different this time. Think of the below transcript excerpts and summaries as a key of sorts to reading the original. The link to the transcript then follows. As always, comments are always welcome!

The Torah portion of Ki Tisa begins with the mitzva to give a half shekel, which is given as a donation to the Temple by every male 20 years and older.

Throughout our article, we “translated” this the mitzval to give a half shekel as relating to the “half life” of products. The basis for this, as it is explained in Chassidut, is that in order to make a full shekel, one person needs to join together with the next. This is why products that are being used a personal toys are fine for kids, but from 20 and older (and some say 13 and older) products need to be seen as something communal. We also decided to implement a teaching from Pirkei Avos (The Ethics of our Fathers) 5:10: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a chassid. Meaning that even though I may be holding onto this product, I view it as if you are holding it as well. As noted in the article, this relates to the scientific concept of Mirror Symmetry.

From the transcript’s discussion of the half shekel, and Arbesman’s discussion about the “half life of facts” we then developed our essay from there.

What is special about age 20 is that at this age a person is able to go to the army. The Arizal says that at age 20 a person receives his mochin d’abba, מוחין דאבא…As age 20 a person is able to be recruited to the army, and is to be counted in a census, and is able for any kind of public leadership role…It says that “20 years old to pursue” people understand that this means to pursue one’s livelihood.”

This is where we began making a distinction between “boy toys” and productivity and communal “tools.” Aside from 20 being the time for marriage, it is also a time to enter the army (or the present day workforce). To begin taking responsibility for running a household and helping others in the world. The shift in consciousness from seeing these products as tools (instead of toys) is the addition of mochin d’abba. This level of mindfulness is world oriented, making use of one’s ideas and relating them to benefit the entirety of the “army” (i.e. groups, circles of friends, etc…).

Why is the [holy shekel] called “holy”? … If money is called holy, then it means that there is holiness in the money. The most difficult type of craving is craving for money, which a person has to break free from. Why did [Moshe Rabbeinu] call it a shekel?

Why not call it something else? Because it is “pure” (שקול טהור) if it is made of silver, it is 100% silver, there is no other metal mixed in. What this means is that [Moshe Rabbeinu] is 100% trustworthy, and he doesn’t cheat anyone with his money.

The Yerushalmi…states that Moshe Rabbeinu had difficulty understanding what they should give, until God showed him a coin of silver whose weight was 10 geirah … Now what exactly was so difficult for Moshe Rabbeinu about this coin? The word coin is the source for the word “nature” (טבע). You can drown (לטבע) in nature…So what Moshe Rabbeinu had difficulty with was how one can sanctify the nature is one’s consciousness.

These lines are representative of our dialogue between the Idealist and the Inventor. On the one hand, the idealist sees the perfect idea behind the product (the image of the coin that God showed Moshe). But the difficulty and hesitation for the idealist is whether his hands will get dirty from embarking on this commercial endeavor. The lesson we learn then is that a person can be holding onto the “shekel” (or product) and still keep his hands clean. The more CEOs, for instance, realize this, the more they will emphasize the message or meaning behind the products they sell. We spoke about this at length in our Apple Turnaround Series, and Part One of this series.

The other lesson here, is that the shekel was brought by individuals for communal benefit. This is why we explained that the goal of a manufacturer is that products should benefit others; not only be used individually as personal toys and gadgets.

Moshe Rabbeinu’s question was how can natural consciousness be sanctified. The kelipah’s consciousness is described as “being (existing) and separate unto itself.” How can such consciousness be rectified? The being does not need rectification, but the feeling of being separate, and being “unto oneself,” these need to be rectified.”

From here we began to summarize our essay, and highlight the primary paradox for an idealist: how can they ever accept that their pristine ideas should be relegated to the shelf? This feeling of being separate is like the product that is viewed as an end unto itself (like the Golden Calf also in this Torah portion) instead of a beneficial tool to assist the community.

On Purim we explained that regarding Achashverosh the sages say that he was the same from beginning to end. One the other hand it says that he was transformed, turned upside down, ונהפוך הוא.

The first thing you may notice is that ונהפוך הוא is a similar concept to our Product Flip Cycle model. These words are indeed the conceptual basis for that model and this series of articles. The story of flipping products is a Purim story. Flipping from Haman to Mordechai, etc…

So how can it be that he remained the same yet completely transformed? This is the secret of “not knowing” on Purim; this is what cannot be understood. This is exactly the problem that Moshe Rabbeinu had with the half shekel. How can nature remain being and separate, and yet be holy? What’s explained in Chassidut is that in every mitzvah there is a taste, a reason, pure Divine enjoyment…

In these quoted lines (and the continuing paragraph on page 7 of the transcript), we ended off the article with some “take home” messages.

We related this section to Arbesman’s discussion about creating something that is not knowable. As we said, really no product is knowable … the question then becomes “how nature can remain being and separate, and yet be holy”? For this we need to flip the products (or Achashverosh) until they are longer unto themselves. This is why we emphasized the communal aspects to products throughout this article. To show that products were created for a purpose, and in that merit, they can be seen more as messengers of concepts that just another Golden Calf. Also nice what that this paragraph also explain the concept of nachas, a term that Arbesman bring in his article as well.

For the full transcript, please Click Here.


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