Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Quotation for the Day

Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats.

Howard Aiken, U.S. Computer Scientist (1900 -1973)

[As quoted from The Quotations Page]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Antikythera Mechanism Update

About 18 months ago, I wrote a blog entry describing when I first learned about the Antikythera Mechanism, a two thousand year old astronomical computer. You can read the original post here but the short version is that this device was discovered in an ancient shipwreck site more than a hundred years ago. People have always been fascinated by the complex gearing of this long-lost antiquity. Research has now shown that it is a very sophisticated and complex small scale planetarium able to predict the motion of the sun, moon, the five known planets, the eclipses of the sun and moon, and even the dates of the Olympic games.

For the past several years, a new research team has been using some of the most recent lab analytical tools to examine the mechanism (which is in Athens). Both digital computed tomography and surface reflectance measurements have allowed previously unknown details of the device to be seen for the first time.

There is a very interesting post about the mechanism at the Network World website. The news brief also connects you to a YouTube video showing a modern reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism based on the latest research findings. It is truly a mind-boggling accomplishment for the mechanical technology of any age but most especially dating from an age when such technology was completely unheard of and thought not to exist.

Much of the new research has been published in Nature which has produced a very nice Flash video describing the new results on the mechanism.

It is indeed humbling. I highly recommend checking it out.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Common Causes of Innovation

I was reading a Business Week interview with Marissa Mayer, VP of Google, about how her company is doing during the economic downturn. The article covered a lot of ground but one thing that caught my eye was the discussion of the 20 Percent Innovation culture where people within Google can spend up to 20 percent of their time on projects of their own choosing. The idea behind this is to give people some protection from the dictates of management, dictates which can often stifle the next innovation.

Mayer was asked if some of the Google culture could be replicated in other companies? Her reply was that each company is unique and the systems need to fit the company. But she went on to say:

But there clearly are things that can be replicated, like having small teams, awarding a lot of ownership to those teams so you stretch and grow those people. Or really focusing on and demanding that innovation come from everyone and everywhere throughout the organization. One of the worst things you can do in a company is to have an R&D segment or an innovation group. Once you have some people whose job it is to innovate, everyone else stops innovating.

I worked at 3M for thirty years. The company was famous for "The 15 Percent Rule" which basically was the precursor of Google's 20 Percent Time. The thought process was exactly the same: give people some space (i.e., time) to tinker with their ideas that was outside the jurisdiction of management. This was sort of a Get Out of Jail Free card that an R&D person could pull out at any time if the supervisor wanted to shut down this "non-productive" activity. And it worked. Many of the really great product ideas at 3M grew out of the 15 Percent Rule.

It's worth looking a little deeper behind these examples from Google and 3M. What do these cultural norms imply? First, it points to some very savvy senior management who understand that really innovative ideas often come from the brains of people who have been given some intellectual freedom. This culture of innovation is usually established by the very same senior managers who often founded the company or at least sweated to see that the organization survived through those crazy early years. They know that they didn't have the perfect business plan or that often the business that eventually succeeded was not the business they set out to develop. Innovation has to be nurtured by a sensitive gardener. Savvy, growth-oriented managers know this and allow for it.

The second thing worth noting about this norm of cultural innovation is that even the greatest idea is just an idea unless it can be developed into something that can demonstrate its merit. The person with the idea often only has part of what is necessary to move the idea along. But the idea person has colleagues who also have 15 or 20 percent of their time to work on ideas of their own choosing. The idea they choose to work on doesn't have to be their own. They might have just the right expertise or equipment to move the idea ahead another step. Networks of innovators start to grow. People have every reason to talk to anyone they think can help. And that fosters yet other new ideas. This networking juices everybody up. Well, everybody but the manager focused on efficiency and the ego that says that the only good ideas are his ideas.

So that is yet another aspect of an innovation culture: egos are kept in check. "Alpha" managers may force efficiency and performance out of their organizations but they will never get innovation. Innovation cannot flourish in a high-ego culture or a culture of fear. Even for the person with the original idea, by the time the idea has been developed a little further it is owned by an ad hoc team of people who all feel they are the proud parents of something beautiful.

Cultures of innovation are born most often at the same time innovative companies are born. They are tough to bolt on later. They are also fragile. There is a relentless pressure to not "waste" resources on "unproductive" ideas. And to be clear, most of the ideas coming out of the 15 or 20 percent time don't go anywhere. But the ones that do... these can change the very future of the company. It is always a balance between innovation and efficiency. Always.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Roots of the Industrial Revolution

I came across a very interesting television program that was produced for the BBC as part of the Millennium celebration. The series was entitled "The Day the World Took Off". It is a look at the roots of the Industrial Revolution in England and the events over a long history which enabled that revolution to happen. The episodes are available on YouTube and the first can be seen below:

You can watch the other episodes by looking at the links in the sidebar at the right on the YouTube page.

It is still a much debated question as to why the Industrial Revolution began where it did, when it did. Why the Midlands of England? Why the late 1700's and early 1800's? Why was the textile trade the first truly mass production industry? We like to think we understand the events of history and perhaps the historians really do. I am fascinated by the questions as well. But the answer(s) may be rooted in complexity, simultaneity, and even random chance. Still, the series is worth the time to at least ponder one set of ideas about this extraordinary point in time.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Which Comes First, Innovation or Profit?

The New York Times ran a story this morning entitled "At G.M. Innovation Sacrificed to Profit". The story contained a long litany of missed innovation opportunities within GM that were not limited to fuel-efficient cars. GM had started a minivan project a decade ahead of Chrysler but the project was killed by the GM finance people. Same story with Saturn. Same story with the EV1.

Micheline Maynard, the NYT journalist wrote in her article today:

For the last half-century, virtually all of G.M.’s chief executives, including Mr. Wagoner, have come from its financial side, which has judged most initiatives based on whether they will be profitable.

Innovation or profit, which comes first? The answer, obviously, is innovation. But real innovation is by definition something new and different. And innovation comes with a whole variety of unique challenges. The minivan was not a technological innovation but a marketing innovation. The technology to build a minivan was no different than that needed to build the cars and trucks of the day. The bet, and it was a huge bet for Chrysler, was that people would ditch their station wagons for the boxy little utility vehicles. Chrysler won the bet, handsomely. Hybrid technology is a doubly challenging innovation. First, the technology itself needed to be developed. And then there was the ever-present marketing innovation challenge. Toyota made the bet. GM didn't. Now it looks like Toyota is a run by much smarter people than the U.S. automakers.

(Disclosure required here: I own a Prius and I love it. I have also owned a Chrysler minivan for the last 20 years.)

But I don't think it is quite so simple as laying the blame on the current US automaker management as though they couldn't see the value in innovation. This has much more to do with the stages of the corporate life cycle than it does with out-of-touch executives. Little companies want to become big companies. They usually have to invest a fair amount of money in the beginning to get started on the growth curve. All the US automakers did that in the early part of the 20th Century. Their investors sweated bullets wondering if they would ever see a return on their investments. Over time, of course, the investments started paying dividends (literally) and investor pain turned to investor pleasure. When profits go on long enough they start to feel like an entitlement. The company can do no wrong, it is simply a mechanism for printing money. The result is an arrogance in management that now feels like it can dictate to the market. Remember the "What's good for General Motors is good for the country" quote by a former GM CEO? The reason that the company exists at all is lost in the giddiness of profits.

There are always multiple stakeholders that have needs that must be met if a company is to be successful: the customer, the shareholder, and the employees. When the raison d'etre for a company becomes only to "increase shareholder value" (which I have actually heard directly from executives in my own corporate experience), the company is probably going to start ignoring the very customers that keep it in existence. Don't get me wrong, this is not about chasing after every little demand that the marketing department might hear from their customers. Most of these are incremental changes anyway. The real changes and the big bets come from sea changes that look like they are coming but you can't be sure (but if they do, you better have put some big bets down years earlier to be prepared) or they come from needs that customers don't even know they have (who knew that Post-it Notes would become ubiquitous?).

Great long-term executive management at large successful corporations is a rare commodity. The whole system is biased in favor of near-term profits over long term viability. Most of us are notoriously bad at deferring near-term pleasure for being better off later. I would take my hat off to management that can resist the temptation to maximize quarterly profit and instead think on a five-year or longer time scale. Wall Street would want their heads on a platter. The ability to do the right thing for the long term, even if if means a little less today, is the secret of success. That kind of attitude is what supports the investments necessary for innovation to prosper. That is what the U.S. automakers (and most of the rest of U.S. business) have forgotten.

So what comes first, innovation or profit? Maybe what really comes first is a clear, sustainable vision. And just as importantly, it is a vision which has the ability to change as the world itself changes. No wonder it is so hard to find truly great executive management.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Technology and Terror

I read a story today in the Washington Post that described how the terrorists in Mumbai used technology every step of the way to carry out their plans. From GPS units for navigation, Blackberries loaded with Google Earth maps and images, and satellite phones, these suicide terrorists were well-trained and well-versed in the use of technology. But should any of us be surprised by this? After all, these were young men in their twenties, most likely, well educated young men. The technologies they used are available to anyone simply by going to a Best Buy or any other electronics store. This is not the stuff of James Bond but the stuff of any modern business or college campus.

On the other side of this horrible conflict, most of the real-time reporting came from cellphone video cameras uploaded to YouTube, Twitter accounts that gave a blow-by-blow account of events as they were unfolding. Technology was there for both sides to use (although reports suggest that the Indian forces were a generation behind in the tools they should have had). The standoff was brought in living color, in real-time, into homes around the worlds. The Post story described how Indian families could not tear themselves away from their televisions during the siege. Kids were mesmerized and terrified by the images they could see unfolding in front of them.

So what are we to make of technology in this new age of terror? First, it seems to me that in all ages, people who perpetuate terrorist acts have always used the latest technologies that they could access. Technology is what it is. It is part of the fabric of our societies. But ignore how it can misused at your peril. One thing we keep re-learning is that people whom we like to think of as living huddled in some cave in a remote mountainside in Pakistan are not technology illiterates. Quite the opposite. These people at the fringes are masters at exploiting the technologies available to everyone in the mainstream. They don't have to have a big R&D budget to develop the tools they need. The tools are commercially available at your friendly electronics store.

The second observation I would make is that people whose jobs are to monitor and protect us from such attacks should be savvy not to what is coming out of a DARPA-funded government lab but what is being introduced at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. As soon as a new technology appears, people will think of creative new ways to use it, for good and for evil.

Finally, we live in a world that is connected and wired as never before. I am old enough to remember sitting in front of the TV during the coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That was the first time that the news was reported as it happened. Now, it is as close as your cellphone, Blackberry, or iPhone. We live in a world where the real-time news feeds give us little time to react to what we see in front of us. Yet, it is thoughtful reflection...and then action...that will help us avoid the next Mumbai.

Post Script: If you want to see a little more of how technology changes the way we live with current events, look at the extremely detailed account of the Mumbai attacks that is continuously being updated in Wikipedia.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Technology of Debt Collection

I read a story in the New York Times business section today which I found somehow profoundly troubling. The story (free registration required) entitled
"Debt Collection Done From India Appeals to U.S. Agencies" which describes the growing use of technology-enabled collection firms based in India. The gist of the story is that U.S. bill collectors are now beginning to outsource debt collection because they can get the service in India for about a quarter of what it would cost in the states. Technology, sophisticated database query systems, web technology, and global communications systems, are making all of this possible.

So, we have an economy which uses sophisticated technology to market products to U.S. consumers, encouraging people to overspend, and then the same technology enables low-cost overseas operations to collect when the payments are late. Many U.S. companies use this type of technology to both outsource production of their products and for the collection of the payments and debts from customers, many of whom are over their heads. All of this is driven by the lower cost of labor outside the country that is enabled to work from such a distance by our highly innovative technology. I am not sure where the companies think Americans are getting their income to make all of these purchases but clearly many of the jobs people use to do (like production and bill collection) are now moving off-shore. Technology makes it all possible.

Don't get me wrong, I am a great supporter of technology and innovation and in the long run I think it does far more good than harm. The Times story seems to me, however, to be one of those that goes under the heading of "Unintended Consequences". At least to me, this reinforces the need for the U.S. to stay at the forefront of innovation in order to be able to pay the higher wages that are required to keep people afloat in this global economy. Otherwise technology enables companies to look for the lowest cost labor pool they can find, no matter where it exists.

Of course, Americans could better watch what they spend and not have to get a call from a debt collector (even an Indian debt collector). But somehow, I think that this would raise the concerns of the very companies who depend on these same consumers to buy products they might not be able to afford.

The Times story ends on this (ironic) note:

Encore pays its collectors in India an average base salary of 17,000 rupees ($425) a month, and they earn bonuses — sometimes more than $1,000 a month — for getting customers to pay. In contrast, collectors in the United States, make about $6,500 a month. Thanks to the income, a windfall in India, where the average monthly income is $63, collectors are amassing some of the status symbols that probably got their clients into trouble in the first place — new scooters, iPods, Swatch watches and exotic vacations.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Art of Riveting

I was interested to read a recent article by William Broad in the Science section of the New York Times entitled "In Weak Rivets, A Possible Key to Titanic's Doom". The article summarized investigations by historians of science who have looked into the question of whether Harland and Wolff, builders of the Titantic and her two sister ships Olympic and Britannic, used sub-standard rivets on the Titanic (see my previous post about these ships). Deep submersibles investigating the Titanic's wreck site have seen that the plates in the forward part of the ship's plates sprung open from the impact with the iceberg. The bow and stern of the ship were put together with iron rivets while the center, higher-stressed, portion of the hull was riveted using stronger steel rivets. The evidence seems to suggest that poor quality material and poor riveting techniques lead to brittle rivets which fractured more easily when the ship hit the iceberg.

What caught my eye in the article was a description of the riveter's art:

In their research, the scientists, who are metallurgists, found that good riveting took great skill. The iron had to be heated to a precise cherry red color and beaten by the right combination of hammer blows. Mediocre work could hide problems.

This really speaks to my blog of a couple of days ago about defining what is technology? The Greeks would have easily called the art of riveting "techne". It was something that took a highly skilled and experienced worker to do correctly. Done right using good material, iron rivets were perfectly acceptable fasteners. But done poorly (the builder couldn't find enough qualified riveters for the massive project) and with inferior materials (the iron ordered was often of a lower grade), then the integrity of the rivets were very much in question.

The article went on to describe how iron gave way to steel in later riveted construction and hand riveters were upgraded with automatic riveting equipment to insure more consistent results. Certainly, these were steps in the right direction to insure the safety of structures. But somewhere along the way, another art died, the art of the hand riveter. We probably don't need many of them anymore but it is a great example of how so many other artisans have disappeared to progress. Stone masons, wood carvers, glass makers, steel workers, these occupations and more have become part of the "lost arts", part of the "lost techne". TItanic was lost for the lack of techne.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Why I Don't Read Innovation Business Books

Hardly a week goes by without the publication of a new business book on innovation. Most of these books purport to teach the art of innovation within your company. If only you follow the author's recipe, you can kick-start your company's innovation processes, accelerate growth, and reach some new level of creativity and productivity. Don't get me wrong, I think most of the authors of these books are quite sincere in their beliefs about their methods. But I take a contrarian point of view.

In fact, most companies of any size are not organized for innovation, they are organized for efficiency and profit growth. Innovation is a messy, expensive process with a low probability of being either efficient or profitable in the short run. Most of what the business books describe as innovation in companies is really about incremental improvement in existing products and processes. It is not hard to understand why existing companies resist innovation: it is not a good bet for their quarterly returns and in our economy, the quarterly earnings statement has become virtually the sole measure of the worth of a publicly traded company.

No, innovation processes are hard to teach to companies because they so rarely happen within an existing company. It is for good reason that most real innovations happen in academic research labs and start-up companies. The people who want to be in these places are the antithesis of the types of people you find in big companies. They hate bureaucracy. They want to do it their own way, even if it means they risk their very livelihood in moving an idea towards the market. These people would never describe themselves as reckless risk-takers but they have a much higher tolerance for ambiguity than their corporate counterparts. Moreover, they usually have a downright ornery streak of independence coupled to a high sense of self-confidence. Having to have every idea reviewed by multiple levels of management using conservative corporate processes is anathema to them. They know what they want to do and they just do it.

So is it possible to bring innovation to a large company? Yes, but it almost always has to be built into the DNA of the company from the start. I worked for 3M for 30 years. 3M is known for its innovation. That innovation came from a very organic business model. The core of the idea was to divide every business when it reached a certain size and let the parent division protect and nurture its offspring. This model had lots going for it. People who had an entrepreneurial streak could champion a new business and grow with it. The model was self-replicating: every division general manager was measured on the growth of the parent divisions AND the number of offspring created. The really innovative part of the equation was summed up in the corporate axiom that "technology belonged to the corporation and products belonged to the divisions". That meant that technology could be mixed and matched and recombined across all of the businesses to create new synergies that were not possible within any one division. Conversely, it meant that the divisions could jealously protect their products and markets as any small independent company would do.

This business model served 3M very well for its first 80 years. Finally, however, growth began to slow, the customers became confused by the multiple divisional sales forces that called upon them, global markets demanded more coordination, and competition in what use to be 3M's core markets made the going tougher. These forces began to be felt in the 1980's. Like most companies, 3M focused more on central planning and more on efficiency. The organic growth model gave way to a planned efficiency model. Not surprisingly, the makeup of the people in the company began to change. The entrepreneurs and risk-takers were harder to find. Some left the company, others went underground. Innovations still happen at 3M but the organic business model that was the core of the company has changed. Perhaps it had to given the scale and multi-national nature of the company.

So what would I put on a manager's reading list is they wanted to learn about innovation? I would suggest histories and biographies that portray how some of the great innovators of the past have done it. Check the reading list in the sidebar of this blog for some starting points. The most basic lesson may ultimately be that if you really believe you have a paradigm-changing idea, you will need to leave the safe haven of your current company. That is a scary proposition, especially in a recessionary economy. But going back to some of those earlier entrepreneurs, they won and lost fortunes, often several times over. Money was not their primary goal. Seeing their idea come to life was all that was important. Ask yourself, "What would Edison (insert your favorite innovator) do?" You might come away with some new ideas.

[Image of The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1566). From Wikipedia]

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Technology: I Know It When I See It

Technology. We live with it every day. It creates our life experiences as much as we create technology. We can't pick up a publication without reading about what is hot in "tech" (the shortened version of hi-tech which is itself the shortened version of high technology). Our current list of what wears the "tech" accolade consists of biotech, nanotech, infotech, and other esoteric topics. Carl Sagan once remarked,

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology,in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.

I am trying to do my little bit to remedy that. I have started planning a short course on the history of technology. It seems that a practical place to start such a history is to define the word "technology". The word is used so frequently and so casually that surely a good definition would be easy to find. Not so. The word has its roots in the Greek words "techne" and "logos". For the Greeks, techne related to the arts and crafts and contrasted with "episteme" which usually referred to the sciences. More specifically, techne referred to the skills that were needed to make or build something. The term "logos" meant "word" and has been broadened to mean "knowledge". So, techne+logos has been interpreted to mean the knowledge of skill and crafts.

It's not clear who first used the word "technology" in its modern form. One candidate whom has been suggested is Jacob Bigelow, a professor at Harvard who wrote a book in 1829 entitled The Elements of Technology. This book was intended to be a catalog of technologies from ancient to modern. Bigelow was the first to hold the Rumford Chair at Harvard, a chair endowed by Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thompson) who had been born in Massachusetts in 1753 and who died in Paris in 1814. Thompson, a loyalist, fled the colonies for England during the American Revolution. He was named Count Rumford in 1792 while working for the Bavarian Government (the name he took, Rumford, was the early name of Concord, New Hampshire where he taught school). But Rumford would have been very much in tune with Bigelow's book.

Bigelow wrote extensively in the introduction of his book about the "arts and sciences" (the same as the Greek techne and epsiteme). This is an older pairing than our more current "science and technology". In Bigelow's world, the arts included all of the practical arts embodied in the Greek word "techne". Technology was part of the arts and separate from the sciences, which focused more on discovery than on crafts. As technology has become evermore based on science, we have coined the phrase "applied sciences" to represent the intersection between pure science and the more pragmatic technologies. The boundaries between these domains get ever blurrier and we probably will never have something that is pure technology.

But I still am looking for a good definition of technology. Perhaps a good working definition is:

The systematic knowledge and the methods and procedures which can be used in a specific area in order to resolve practical problems.(ref)

What makes up what we call technology changes with every generation and often much more often than that. A century ago it was airplanes, automobiles, electric power distribution, motion pictures, and a host of other things that have since receded into the background fabric of our lives.

The late Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy gave a great tongue-in-cheek description of the evolving stages of technology in a 1999 essay on the internet:

1) Everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) Anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) Anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

I love this description because it not only helps to define the "newness" angle on technology but also our ambivalence about the new dimensions of tech that threaten our status quo. The New New Thing is still trying to solve some practical problem in our lives. It seems to often happen that the original target for the technology proves to be unworkable but technology is amazingly resilient and seeks an application as surely as water seeking its own level. The reservoir of technology, of knowledge of the practical arts, keeps rising.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rome, Inc.

I have been reading a fair amount lately about ancient civilizations. I mentioned in an earlier post Susan Wise Bauer's excellent book, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. Another really great read is Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? which thoughtfully explores the parallels between the Roman Empire and the United States today. The latest book on my reading table is Peter Watson's Idea, A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. My hat's off to Watson for a one-volume romp through the great ideas that have driven our civilization.

With all of this ancient history rattling around in my head, it occurred to me that there are some remarkable parallels that can be drawn between Greece and Rome and today's companies. What I'm thinking about specifically is innovation. Greece is almost universally acknowledged as the foundation of Western culture. The innovations that came from the Greeks span almost every domain you can name: architecture, theater, philosophy, science, history, the list just goes on and on. The Greeks loved exploring new ideas. The Romans' focus was twofold: empire and efficiency. They believed in the mantra that bigger is better. They were ferociously productive at building everything from roads to amphitheaters. They originated much of what has come down to us as law, perhaps because of the needs for contracts. They borrowed from everyone, especially the Etruscans and the Greeks and then improved upon and replicated the ideas. Rome was Big Corporate. Greece was Silicon Valley. Scale versus creativity, operations versus innovation.

Why were the Greeks so innovative and the Romans not? This is a complicated question with lots of dimensions but I can't help but wonder if it didn't have a lot to do with the small, independent nature of the Greek City-States, the polis. Greece was a loose amalgam of many independent small governments that were fiercely independent. Yet many Greek scholars traveled widely between these independent City-States pollinating new ways of thinking and new innovations. While some of these cities rose to central power for a time (I think of Athens in the 5th Century BC), there was generally no long-term "Rome", no corporate headquarters that enforced one way of doing things.

The Romans had Rome and they built everything from roads to aqueducts to frontier garrisons on a common blueprint. There was one best way to do everything and Rome knew what it was. As a result, the Romans were highly successful in expanding their empire, the ancient equivalent of corporate growth. All of this worked until growth slowed and finally stopped in the 2nd Century AD. The weight of complexity, bureaucracy, and dictatorial control began to eat the vitality of the Roman Empire from within.

Rome could not have happened without the Greeks and many other cultures. Large corporations could not survive without the acquired innovations of small companies. Were the Romans more successful than the Greeks? What's your definition of success?

So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history.
Greek biographer & moralist (46 AD - 120 AD)

[Bust of Pericles, leader of Athens' Golden Age, from Wikipedia]

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Quotation for the Day

And speaking of the telephone, I just came across this...

For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.
Alice Kahn

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Exchanging Numbers

and my number is
Beechwood 45789
You can call me up and have a date
Any old time

I was in a fast food joint the other day for lunch. The Muzak in the background was a string of 50's Rock and Roll oldies to go with the Faux-Diner decor. The song that caught my ear was "BEechwood 4-5789" by the Marvelettes. (If you are a little older, maybe the song of choice is PEnnsylvania 6-5000). The song somehow triggered memories of my early childhood days when our own telephone number in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan started with the exchange named MElrose. That got me to wondering about exchange names: where they came from, how they were derived, how unique they might be.

My first stop was Wikipedia, which was somewhat helpful. In the early days, phone system switching (e.g., connecting the caller with the receiver) was handled through operators using patch cords to literally plug the two phone lines together. With automatic switching equipment, most local calls could be completed without an operator. A geographic area would be covered by a telephone exchange that might cover up to 10,000 numbers. When more people subscribed to the phone system, the limitation in the number of unique, short (four or five digit) numbers became a problem. Hence, a group of subscribers in one physical exchange were given an exchange name (such as MElrose) that made it easier to remember than a longer, seven digit phone number. Instead of seven digits, the subscriber's number was the exchange name plus five digits (BEechwood 4-5789) the "B" stood for 2 and the "E" for 3, hence 234-5789. Using exchange names greatly expanded the number of available phone numbers. (Our more modern equivalent was the addition of area codes and we seem to keep needing to subdivide areas into more area codes for just the same problem: not enough unique phone numbers.) The exchange names also were selected to be phonetically clear on otherwise low audio quality lines. "No, no, I said MELROSE not MILHOUSE" (This brings to mind the ever-present cellphone conversation, "Can you hear me now....?")

Most of the exchange names went the way of the old black dial telephone in the 60's and 70's. But like so many other technology memorabilia, there is a group of people out there working hard to assemble a huge database of old exchange names for towns and cities all over the country. I learned from this database that my home town had two exchanges: MElrose-2 and MElrose-5. That would seem about right for a town of 15,000 people. Check out your own town here. This group is even trying to get people to back-convert current numbers to an old exchange name. The telphone prefix for my current address starts with 941. Hmmm...WIlson, WIndsor? How about something more current like "WIi" for the game machine?

Now if I could just get that stupid Marvelettes song out of my head.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Roads More Traveled

I live in Florida during the winter. My house is about two miles from I-75. If I go south on the Interstate, I will reach the end of this highway in about 200 miles at Hialeah, FL. From Hialeah, it is 1785 miles to the terminus of the highway in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. I spent most of my childhood growing up in the "Soo". My dad still lives there.

We take the Interstate highways for granted. They connect us in a highway grid that lets us get to virtually any area of the country. According to Wikipedia, there are 46,837 miles of road in the Interstate Highway system. The need for the highway system emerged from experience during World War I when the army found that the railroads could not transport all the needed supplies to support the war effort. Truck convoys were added to supplement the railroads. I can just imagine what that must have looked like in 1917. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower set off from Washington on a coast-to-coast truck convoy to San Francisco to explore highway readiness in the event of another war. His experience then, coupled with his later experiences with the autobahn in Germany during World War II convinced him of the need for a high-speed national highway network. At the urging of President Eisenhower, legislation was passed in 1956 to begin the network and it was completed in 1991. The cost was originally projected to be $25 billion. The 2006 estimate for the cost of the system is $425 billion.

I was prompted to write about the highway system while reading a book called, Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy. Murphy draws many parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire. Murphy points out that this is not a new idea. The Roman Republic was, in fact, the model of the Founding Fathers. Murphy makes the comparison of the Roman road system to the Interstate highways. The Roman system at its peak consisted of about 53,000 miles of roads. The rationale for the two systems was the same: a way to rapidly move military supplies. The Roman mileposts were all tied to a Golden Milepost in the Forum in Rome. The Zero Milestone of the Interstate system lies in the Ellipse in Washington, just south of the White House. The old saw, "All roads lead to Rome." was based not only on a political reality but an engineering one as well. The same could certainly be said for Washington, DC today.

The Interstate highways make our lives immeasurably easier (disregarding the traffic jams around major cities). But they need to be maintained, not something we seem to be fond of doing. Just last summer, the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis. The cause appears to be a combination of design flaws and poor maintenance. There is very little glory in a keeping a good highway system least, until we see it fall apart. The glory is all in the new project, the new bridge, the new interchange. We would do well to take better care of what we already have.

We merely want to live in peace with all the world, to trade with them, to commune with them, to learn from their culture as they may learn from ours, so that the products of our toil may be used for our schools and our roads and our churches and not for guns and planes and tanks and ships of war.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
34th president of US 1953-1961 (1890 - 1969)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Technology Tribalism

Dad is a "GM Man". Except for one small misadventure into a Ford station wagon in the mid-50's, he has never owned a non-GM car. Over the years, he has owned Buicks, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and now an Oldsmobile (one of the last of that nameplate). I know other men of my father's generation who were "Ford Men" or "Chrysler Men". It isn't the same today. Sure, you have your Lexus owners, BMW zealots, and the Volvo for the learned among us. But these are not the "company men" of the last generation.

Today, cars seem to be less the center of technology loyalty than, say, computers. I'm a "Mac guy" while my brothers are "PC guys". Or maybe it is PDAs (Treo vs. Blackberry), or even game machines. We somehow have a desire to count ourselves into technology tribes. We need to feel the kinship with others like ourselves that reinforces our choices and our beliefs about both what we use and the (junk) that others mistakenly choose.

I suppose this is just a subset of the more common sort of affiliations that you see in sports teams, nationalities, or even countries. But I kinda miss the days of hearing someone say, "I'm a GM man." I am sure that GM misses those days even more than I do. When I was a kid, I was just sure that my dad knew what he was talking about. I thought that I, too, would be a GM Man (I now own a Chrysler and a Toyota. Sorry, Dad). The world was alright as long as you belonged to the right technology tribe. Boy, does that seem simple now. I know as I write this on my Mac (the best of all computers) that I would never pass such nonsense on to my son and daughter...who also owns Macs.

All American cars are basically Chevrolets.
Herb Caen

Monday, February 4, 2008

Forever New

I've been reading quite a bit lately about ancient history. I just finished a very interesting summary entitled, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, by Susan Wise Bauer. This was a whirlwind tour in a little less than 800 pages beginning (literally) with the The Flood and ending with the decline of the Roman Empire. It gave me new insight into the idea that power in ancient days was obtained almost universally by the sword. In fact, the king/pharoh/emperor was more often than not murdered by his son/wife/uncle/general in order to take the throne by force. Having read this (very readable) work, it would be easy to take the view that our shared history was simply one of war and violence. But that would be to miss the point of the simultaneous great achievements in art, literature, architecture, and natural philosophy (science) that also emerged from those distant times.

We remain fascinated with the past. We continually go back to dig into almost every aspect of those distant days. For example, I became interested in the Pyramids as a result of reading Bauer's book. The Great Pyramid of King Khufu at Giza is probably the most carefully studied and measured building in human history. The scale and precision of its stone construction boggles the mind. It was built 4500 years ago without the aid of modern tools or instruments and yet it is probably more precisely constructed than ANY modern building.

The accuracy of the pyramid's workmanship is such that the four sides of the base have a mean error of only 58 mm in length, and 1 minute in angle from a perfect square. The base is horizontal and flat to within 15 mm. The sides of the square are closely aligned to the four cardinal compass points to within 3 minutes of arc and is based not on magnetic north, but true north. (from Wikipedia)

It remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for 4000 years until the Lincoln Cathedral in England exceeded its height in 1311. There wasn't a taller building in America until 1885 when the Washington Monument was completed. It is humbling, to say the least.

Another example: The Parthenon in Athens. Built in the Fifth Century, BC it became one of the most architecturally-emulated buildings in the world. The level of craftsmanship is simply exceptional. The Greeks had learned how to compensate for the apparent curvature in large structures built with many parallel lines by slightly curving the columns and structural platforms to deceive the eye into seeing the lines as parallel (known technically as entasis). Nova and the Smithsonian Magazine jointly produced a very interesting program on the efforts to restore this structure. The Parthenon is the model for buildings throughout the western world including our own Supreme Court Building. There is even a complete full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Memphis, TN.

A final example: the Old Penn Station in New York. Built in 1910 (and sadly demolished in 1964), Penn Station took as its inspiration the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The exterior was modeled after the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The architects saw in the structures of antiquity an eloquence in design that millennia have not been able to improve.

The great structures of the past speak to us still. There is something that resonates in their proportions, their symmetry, and their scale that we have only rarely been able to improve upon. The past remains "forever new".

Monday, January 28, 2008

Changing a Tire

I came across a new collection of Library of Congress photos that are being posted on Flickr as Flickr: The Commons. The intent is to use Flickr to get wider dissemination of the photos and hopefully some additional identification and comments on those that are not well documented.

The collection contains some beautiful color photographs from the 1930's and 1940's. One that particularly caught my eye was an image of changing a "tire" on a steam locomotive drive wheel. Funny, I had never thought about the fact that steel tires could be changed in the same way rubber tires are changed. But as the photo demonstrates, changing a tire in the locomotive shop can be a hot job. The steel tire has to be heated to a red-hot temperature to allow the steel to expand and slip off of the inner wheel. Reversing the process, the hot tire is put back on the wheel and allowed to cool and contract to keep it anchored in place.

In both the steel tire and the rubber tire, the principle is the same: pressure keeps the tire anchored to the wheel. In the case of the steel tire, the pressure is in the form of high stresses within the tire compressing it to the wheel. For the rubber tire, it is air pressure forcing the edge of the tire against the rim of the wheel.

If you have an interest, it is worth the time to browse this collection of color photos. There are some amazing shots that cover both towns and industries and, in the later years, the war production efforts. Who knows? You might even see places or people that you know.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Quotation for the Day

This is an interesting quote from one of my favorite books. It might be better titled "Everything is connected."


Connections between innovators are ubiquitous— - one good innovation deserves another. LEO BAEKELAND corresponded with EDISON, the WRIGHT BROTHERS, FORD, WILLIS WHITNEY of General Electric, the DUPONTS and BELL. That the engineering potential of Bakelite might be greater than the chemical was ELMER SPERRY’’S contribution. SAMUEL COLT was friends with SAMUEL MORSE. GIANNINI’’S Bank of America took a risk by investing in WALT DISNEY’S’ early movies, including Fantasia in 1940. Disney hired the young BILL HELWETT and DAVID PACKARD to build some of its first electronic equipment for Fantasia. THOMAS WATSON SR. was probably the first passenger in a car with an electric self-starter built by his friend CHARLES KETTERING, who needed Leo Baekeland’’s new plastic for insulation. HENRY FORD used Bakelite for his fenders. Ford’ assemble lines were inspired by the beef and pork disassembly lines in the Chicago factories of the meatpacking innovators ARMOUR and SWIFT. ARNOLD BECKMAN backed WILLIAM SHOCKLEY who hired ROBERT NOYCE and GORDON MOORE whose circuits were used by NOLAN BUSHNELL, the founder of Atari, who hired STEVE JOBS, and TED HUFF, creator of the chip that made personal computers possible, worked for Intel, which called in GARY KILDALL, the most important innovator in computer operating systems, who was betrayed by IBM.

Harold Evans, They Made America

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, statesman, inventor, scholar, businessman, and scientist, was born on January 17, 1706. Franklin strikes me as being about as close as we get to America's Da Vinci. He was a man that seemed to be good at virtually everything. He left his mark on our language (Poor Richard's Almanac), our daily life (lightning rods, fire departments, bifocals), and most especially our country (Founding Father and diplomat extraordinaire).

Franklin always had an inquiring mind. Self-educated, in 1727 he organized a club for philosophical inquiry that he named the Junto (Latin for club). He wrote of it in his Autobiography:

I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss'd by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

One spin-off of the Junto was Franklin's later founding of the American Philosophical Society in 1743. This is America's oldest society for inquiry in science and technology.

The Junto, however, seems to me to be an idea worth reviving. Where in our society today can we find a place where people can talk with friends and colleagues about such a broad range of topics? Most of us find what discussions we can through our work environment. But this is a limited substitute for a group like the Junto.

Recently, I have begun attending meetings of a group called the Socrates Cafe. They are held in many places across the country - coffee shops, book stores, churches - and they are always open to new participants. Socrates Cafe shares some things in common with Franklin's Junto. The meetings consist of groups of people who come together freely to discuss a philosophical questions suggested by the attendees themselves. I find these meetings to generate some great discussions but they do not usually allow inquiries into science and technology. With the rapid advancements in science, perhaps discussions groups are more critical now than ever. We need to be better informed about issues like climate change, energy utilization, nanotechnology and a host of other areas. Something like the Junto may be needed now more than ever. Franklin would have understood completely.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Quotation for the Day

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is unfamiliar with it.

Max Planck, A Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (1949)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Origin of the Computer: Counting Noses

I was interested to learn that it was the U.S. Census that provided the compelling need for the development of the calculating machine, the predecessor of the computer. Herman Hollerith was a young engineer who went to work for the U.S. Census Bureau in 1880. He witnessed firsthand the long and tedious hand tabulation methods used on the 1880 Census data. It took the Census Bureau eight years to finish the tabulations! Hollerith saw the need but nothing came of it immediately.

Hollerith left the Census Bureau for a teaching position at MIT in 1882. He began looking at ways to encode information in punch marks on a continuous paper tape. The needle penetrating through the holes would complete an electric circuit and trigger an electric counter. But the paper tape had too many problems to be practical. On a train ride, Hollerith observed the conductor punching his train ticket. As Harold Ellis relates in They Made America:

The train ticket that Hollerith handed the conductor was also a form of identity card, called a punch photograph, which matched the presenter of the ticket with the purchaser. "The conductor punched out a description of the individual as 'light hair, dark eyes, large nose, etc.' said Hollerith, who then commented on his adaptation of this system to the census: "So you see, I only made a punch photograph of each person."

On January 8, 1889, he was issued U.S. Patent 395,782 , claim 2 of which reads:

The herein-described method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material, and bearing a specific relation to each other and to a standard, and then counting or tallying such statistical items separately or in combination by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets, substantially as and for the purpose set forth.

Hollerith's invention intrigued the Census Bureau but it did not take it by storm. The Bureau arranged a trial between three competing systems on a limited set of data. Hollerith's machine trounced the other two contenders. The Census Bureau ordered multiple machines, machines that Hollerith had no factory to produce. He contracted his electric tabulators to Western Electric and his punch card machines to Pratt and Whitney. Where it had taken eight years to complete the 1880 Census, it took only one year to complete the tabulations for 1890, even though the population had grown by twenty-five percent.

You might have thought people would have been thrilled. Hollerith's tabulations showed that the United States in 1890 had 62,622,250 people. Some people felt that the numbers were much too low to represent the grand growth they saw everywhere around them. The New York Herald even ran a headline stating:

Speed Everything, Accuracy Nothing!

Hollerith's calculations stood the test and the he was vindicated. Hollerith's invention found immediate acclaim and for the next 15 years it was used to tabulate census data not only in the U.S. but also in many other countries. But success was not to last. Hollerith charged exorbitant fees to census bureaus to lease his machines. The U.S. Census Bureau balked after the 1900 Census and invented a machine of their own. The competition soon surpassed his devices and his company languished.

In 1912, Hollerith sold the company to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company. This company was created from a variety of lackluster companies in the general field. It continued to languish until Thomas Watson, Sr. took over as the head of sales and marketing. Hollerith was still chief design consultant for the company, but he hated Watson. They hardly ever spoke. Hollerith finally left the company entirely in 1921. The company was renamed the International Business Machine Company (IBM) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Bridge and a Man

Nor is it always in the most distinguished achievements that men's virtues or vices may be best discovered: but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person's real character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battle.

Greek biographer & moralist (46 AD - 120 AD)

Seventy-six years ago this month, construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge. Surprisingly, at least to me, the bridge was not an idea that was immediately embraced by everyone living in the San Francisco Bay area. Vested self-interest reared its head, as it almost always does, in the form of opposition and law suits from the ferry boat companies and even the labor unions (who worried that jobs might be given to non-union workers). Despite the delays in beginning of construction, the compelling need for a bridge finally prevailed and work began in January, 1932.

The bridge was a dream of many but it found its most outspoken champion in Joesph B. Strauss. Strauss owned a bridge-building company that was well-known for building much smaller lift bridges, but he had never built anything of this scale before. Strauss was a dreamer, having studied poetry as well as engineering in college at the University of Cincinnati. His senior thesis was a proposed design for a railroad bridge connecting Alaska and Russia across the Bering Strait. But Strauss also suffered from an almost unquenchable need for personal recognition and glory, traits which would become apparent during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Strauss proposed an ugly cantilever-style bridge in his early designs for the Golden Gate project. The first design was a mass of steel girders that would also have cost far more than the city of San Francisco was prepared to spend. Strauss made the acquaintance of Charles Alton Ellis who was a well-known structural engineer (despite the fact that he had no engineering degree, only a background in math and Greek). Ellis in turn collaborated with New York-based Leon Moisseiff. The two proposed to Strauss that a suspension bridge could be built with far less material and hence lower cost. Not inconsequentially, the bridge design was also graceful. Strauss was a pragmatist and quickly got behind the design which was the basis for the bridge that we see today. Also leading the design team was a relatively unknown San Francisco architect named Irving Morrow who provided many of the design details including the art deco designs of the towers, lights, hand rails and other details. He also proposed the characteristic red-orange color for the bridge that is so characteristic of the landmark. (The color was chosen both for its visibility in the fog as well as the aesthetics of fitting into the earthen landscape of the area.

Strauss made sure that he was the public face for the creation of the bridge. The recognition of his other chief collaborators was long downplayed and their major contributions have been recognized only in more recent years. Strauss in a fit of jealousy ordered Ellis to take a vacation shortly after construction got underway. While away, Strauss wrote to Ellis that he need not return as his employment was terminated. Ellis tried to find other work but this was the Depression and he could not find anything else. Ellis continued to work on his own time seventy-hour weeks for over six months to check the design calculations on the bridge that he loved so well.

Strauss made it to the dedication of the bridge in May, 1937. He even wrote a poem for the dedication and there is a statue of him at the south end of the span. But his moment in the limelight was to be short-lived. He died of a stroke the next year at the age of sixty-eight. While his realization of the dream of a bridge across the Golden Gate remains a testament to the best in the man, his exclusion of his key collaborators from the recognition they deserved tells us much more about his character. Strauss would have been far better to share the recognition to create the lasting legacy that he craved.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lighting the Night

I'm looking for a replacement for the hanging light on my front porch. After ten years, the light is looking a little worse for wear. The design is pretty typical - traditional lines and beveled glass. It got me thinking about why even in the 21st century, we seem to still need to emulate the designs of lanterns that are hundreds of years old. We clearly derive comfort from the continuity that comes from tradition. The source of the light within the lantern has gone through a lot of changes - candles, gas, electricity - yet the shape of the lantern stays much the same.

This led me to wonder about the history of outdoor lighting. I'll quickly breeze past the open fire and burning torch stages, but planned civic lighting seems to date back thousands of years. Hazel Rossotti in her book, Fire: Servant, Scourge, and Enigma, describes how the ancient Egyptians required that each house or store that bordered a street have a brightly lit front room to cast light out onto the avenue. Similar findings have been reported in Pompeii. By the 4th Century AD, street lights consisting of oil lamps hanging from ropes lit the streets of Antioch and Caesarea. Paris had the first compulsory street light law, passed in 1367. Lights were required to be hung at specified distances to deter crime. The French scored another first with a new design of oil lamp that lit the entire road from Paris to Versailles (where else?) in 1777.

Gas lighting emerged as the preferred source of outdoor lighting in the 1820's and persisted in some places until after World War I despite the rise of the incandescent light. But electric lighting inevitably carried the day (or night). Now we have to deal with the problems of light pollution which make the night sky all but invisible in high population density areas. A lot of us live in a very well-lit world, indeed.

But I see beauty returning even to modern street lighting with better designed fixtures. They are reducing light pollution and many of them once again mimic the external designs of a prior century.

Which brings me to yet another recent example of modern lighting mimicking an older technology. My wife was in a Brookstone store over the holidays and found a candle, well, sort of a candle. It looks like a candle, wax and all but in place of a wick it has two LED lights that flicker when powered on. It also has an aroma chamber that emits a candle scent from a small pump. Hmm. I am sure there are places where this device would indeed be safer than a real candle but is this really progress? I can see the ad: Scented Candle (Batteries Not Included). We go forward while reaching back. It seems to give the comfort we need to progress.

[Image of candles from Brookstone. US at night from NASA]

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Quotation for the Day

We have the habit of writing articles in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about blind alleys or describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn’ any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get the work done.

Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Lecture, 1966

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Born to Build

I haven't posted much of late. I have been on vacation without an internet connection and it was just too difficult to post. Being without a connection for an extended period was tough but I discovered (rediscovered?) how much I like to read a book or play a game with family or just take a walk. It was a very nice break. In any event, now I am back and I hope to continue my musings when I think I have something to say.

Yesterday, we were down at the beach (we winter in Florida) and it struck me just how deeply embedded is our desire to build. I watched toddlers still in diapers tripping across the sand to dig a hole or fill a bucket with shells or water. Kids just a little bit older were busy making more elaborate holes and simple sand castles with a mote. Their parents...usually, their dad...was into a kind of sandy empire building with multi-layer castles, motes, shell decorations, and generally outdoing their neighbor's sand castle.

Why the deep urge to build? Where did this desire come from? Do we have it programmed into our genes? Does a sandy beach and a pail and shovel simply demand to be tamed? I don't know but I think it says a lot about us. Not only do we build but we build simply for the fun of it. We don't need a reason. We just like to see what might be possible to create with the world right in front of us. Sand (and water) turn out to be a particularly rich combination of building materials. The sand is plentiful. A little water turns the grains into a moldable material that stays put, within limits. Sand is so easy, to dig it is literally child's play. The only things that comes close to sand and water is mud and clay. But sand is a lot more fun.

Given this early exposure to building for fun, it doesn't surprise me that our ancestors first built with mud and simple bricks. I can easily imagine a child of six or ten thousand years ago doing just what kids today do and in the process learning the basics of brick making. It would take millennia for the art of building to move to more substantive and difficult materials. But the world did pretty well for a very long time with only the simple mud brick. I like to think it started with a child and a pile of sand or mud. We were born to build.

[Image of ancient city of Mohenjo-daro from Indus Valley, 2600 BC, Wikipedia]