Thursday, May 28, 2020

How Innovation Works In Tobacco Fermenting

Whenever there's some kind of rioting, all I want to do is crawl under my blankets and hide there. All of the rage and vitriol is so depressing. Instead of blogging about what's going on in Minneapolis and LA, let's talk about something fun.

I recently listened to the podcast version of this episode of Uncommon Knowledge

I then went out and bought the audio version of Viscount Ridley's book, How Innovation Works. His primary thesis is that innovation is the product of trial and error more than anything else. I have a couple of patents and spent some time as a research scientist in my younger days. His assertion didn't ring true to me until I started thinking about my experiment with tobacco.

He's spot on as far as I can tell. When I thought about my inventions and documents, I realized that a great deal of trial and error went into all of them.

Going back to tobacco, my experiment failed when the leaves molded in the last step, fermentation. My postmortem made me wish I could try about a half dozen different ways of fermenting the stuff. Hobbyist fermentation of tobacco is trying to replicate what happens when you pile up the leaves in bulk in hot and humid places like the Carolinas or Cuba.

Since I don't have mounds of leaves and I live in arid San Diego, what I really want is a set of parallel experiments to try different ways to ferment small quantities of tobacco. What I want is trial and error.

Trial and error acknowledges that there are more variables or more candidate values for your variables than you can solve for analytically. As far as I can tell, the Viscount is right. Innovation owes a great deal to trial and error.


tim eisele said...

As someone who is currently doing a lot of research and development work, I agree that trial and error is critical. Keep track of what you did and how it went so terribly, fatally wrong, but definitely get in there and try something). I have almost never had a project where I started with a plan, designed a process, built it, ran it, and had it work exactly as expected. When you are doing anything new, it is almost inevitable that the first attempt will be some variety of fiasco. As will the second, and likely the third, fourth, and fifth attempts. And without actually building it and seeing how it goes wrong, actually anticipating any of those failures is almost impossible.

I constantly have this battle with my students. I will assign them a project, and they will start planning, and calculating, and trying to create models, and looking for advice from other people, and basically going into a state of analysis paralysis. They are so scared of the "error" part of "trial and error" that, left to their own devices, they will never get to the "trial" part. I keep telling them that of course the first tries are going to go cockeyed, because if we already knew for sure that it was going to work, it wouldn't be research, now would it? So I generally have to practically force them to put together something, anything, just so they can actually see what happens in the real world, figure out why it went pear-shaped this time, and actually make progress.

So keep going ahead with your tobacco, and don't worry if you end up with a dozen failures, because as long as you learn from them, that is the path to ultimate success.

Ohioan@Heart said...

Tim - Totally agree. I have vivid memories of the one experiment I did that worked exactly like I wanted on the first try. I spent days trying to figure out how I had actually messed up and then fooled myself into thinking it was right. I was never really comfortable reporting those results.

On the other hand, Mrs Ohioan has the artist’s touch when she plans and runs experiments. They seem to work first time, every time. It would almost be enough to pi55 me off I wasn’t so crazy about her.

K T Cat said...

Great anecdotes, both.

I'll be blogging Tobacco II: Virginia Boogaloo as soon as my new set of seeds arrive.