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]
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.
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.
Posted by Gregg McPherson at 10:39 AM
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.
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.
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.