Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Highlights From My 2009 Reading

With the year (and the decade) drawing to a close, I thought I would give my own version of the ever-popular "best of" listings for the year.  When I went back over the books I read in 2009, I realized that  my selections are not to be found on any current bestseller list.  Truth be told, I am much happier burrowing like a mole into some musty corner of a used bookstore.  Nonetheless, I think the books below are definitely worth a look if you relate to anything I write here.  So here is my list in no particular order:

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, by William Cronon.  This book provides a fascinating history of the growth of Chicago. But moreover, Cronon describes how the city and its surroundings were inextricably linked. Without the Great West, there would be no Chicago.  He focuses on railroads, lumber, meat-packing, and commerce to illuminate his points.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larson.  This is to show that contrary to popular opinion around our house, I do indeed read novels.  This recent book tells the tale of a precocious young genius (Spivet) who wins a fellowship to the Smithsonian. What they don't understand is that Spivet is a 12-year-old boy from Montana.  The story is full of humor and interesting little drawings in the margins (supposedly drawn by Spivet, himself).  One of the things that captivated me was Larson's wonderful descriptions of the world including a Union Pacific freight train that Spivet hops to get to D.C.  Lots of fun.

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, by Daniel Walker Howe.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning history from the Oxford History of the United States series is long, detailed, and very really well-written.  Howe makes that blank period in my understanding of American history come to life.  For those who find current events to be full of partisan bickering and yearn for the "good old days", Howe makes it clear that things haven't changed.  There has always been partisan bickering (and worse). The title is the famous line that Morse used to open the telegraph which was one of the two technology revolutions that Howe talks about.  The other was the railroad.  Worth the read despite the length

The Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America: 1865 - 1900, by Jack Beatty.  I added this one to the list with mixed feelings.  Beatty lays out a litany of Gilded Age sins in this book but I found his treatment to be sometimes compelling and sometimes tedious.  His narratives on the injustices committed against the recently-emancipated slaves in the South will make your blood boil.  His descriptions of some of the rulings of the Supreme Court of that era should do the same but these are less clearly told. Still worth the read.

Invention in America:  With Images from the Library of Congress, by Russell Bourne.  This slim volume is very well-written and well-illustrated.  Bourne does a great job in looking under the hood of American invention to fill in the blanks on much of what we think we know on the topic.

Wedding the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, by Peter L. Bernstein.  The Erie Canal really was a Big Deal.  Bernstein tells the tale of the politics behind its construction, the engineering prowess of the amateurs who built the canal, and the canal's impact on American history. It was the marvel of its age - and deservedly so.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America, by James Green.  Before reading this book, I had this fuzzy image that, yes, there was something special about the "Haymarket" but I couldn't have told you what it was.  Green's book brings history to life, describing the events in Chicago in the middle of the 1880's when labor was being systematically exploited by very wealthy capitalists.  This story makes clear that our fear of Communism is much older than the McCarthy Era.  This is a tale of injustice, well told.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It, by Arthur Herman.  This is really a tale of the Scottish Enlightenment.  The number of 18th Century thinkers coming out of Edinburgh and Glasgow was (and is) astounding.  Almost everything that we consider to be modern has at least a trace that goes back to this period in Scottish history.  The mystery is why Scotland didn't continue to be an intellectual leader.

The Big Switch:  Rewiring the World:  Edison to Google, by Nicholas Carr.  Carr shows us the parallels between Edison's world and the world of the Internet.  Both depend on large networks for their impact.  Moves right along but an interesting read.

The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, by Kevin J. Hayes.  This biography of Jefferson will appeal to any bibliophile as it tells the story through both the books that influenced Jefferson, the works that he wrote, and the libraries that he built.  Jefferson is famously quoted as saying, "I cannot live without books". This book tells you why.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Inventor or Innovator?

Was Thomas Edison an inventor or innovator?  How about Henry Ford?  The Wright Brothers? Robert Fulton? Fred Smith (FedEx)?  Steve Jobs?

Our language leaves lots of room for ambiguity on the meaning of some words, especially words that have fuzzy boundaries.  When does something stop being an invention and start to be an innovation?  Are these two concepts simply degrees on the same scale?  Why care at all?  I think the reason to think about it is that we are inundated with news stories, blogs, and websites on the need for innovation to jump-start the economy. If only we were more innovative in this county (the stories go), unemployment would plummet, business would prosper, and we would be back on the road to prosperity.  Of course, there are many reasons why this isn't so simple but I want to propose that part of the reason is that we are not clear about what differentiates innovation from invention.  Moreover, we are not clear about the differences between innovators and inventors.  If you were forced to describe yourself as one or the other, which would you be?

Let's start with invention.  The Patent Office defines an invention as something that is useful, new, and non-obvious to someone skilled in the art.  That is a pretty broad definition of what constitutes an invention, hence the protracted arguments between would-be inventors and the Patent Office.  This definition sweeps in everything from the slightly modified laundry detergent to fundamentally new technology.  I tend to think of true invention as being on the latter end of the scale.  New means new, as in a significant capability that has not existed in the past.  Small product improvements don't count as a true invention in my book.  I agree with the non-obvious provision.  If it were obvious, it would have qualities that were so apparent it would not constitute an invention.  The usefulness requirement is where things get sticky.  Many really fundamental inventions may not be useful at all in the sense of being a product (even though they might be patentable).  Think of Wright Brothers first airplane.  No one was standing in line to buy one.  The Wrights had to do a lot of promotion to the military of a number of governments to get them to see that airplanes might be useful mobile observation platforms.  Usefulness is in the eye of the potential customer.  The more radical the invention, the less current customers will find it of interest.  Real invention is almost by definition outside of the norms of current products.  And the corollary is equally true: real inventions work, but sometimes only marginally and only with a limited set of capabilities.  The first powered airplane flew only a few hundred feet.  It was a true heavier-than-air flying machine but not very useful (yet). Inventions are more than improvements.  They offer fundamental new capabilities that haven't existed before.  Most people would use words like prototype to describe the first embodiments of new inventions.  They have a long way to go before they are new products.

Why were they created, or put another way, what motivates inventors?  Often it is not due to obvious market needs.  No one knew (including the Wright Brothers) where the airplane was going.  No one could foresee any day soon when airplanes would transport large numbers of people or be the lethal military weapons.  The Wright Brothers invented the airplane to prove that a heavier-than-air machine could fly.  Period.  Inventors are motivated by the challenge of creating some capability that has never existed before.  The very act of creation is one of the rewards that drives them to invent.  Of course, recognition, fame, being the first to accomplish something, also plays a part.  So does money, but to a surprisingly small degree.  Generally, inventors don't need any customers or existing markets to motivate them.  Inventors are internally motivated. They share much with artists who feel a compelling need to create.

Innovations have a completely different origin.  They are driven by perceived needs in the marketplace.  The needs may be stated directly by potential customers or they may be unspoken but believed to be real by the innovator.  Innovations can be incremental improvements in a product or a process but that does not make them either trivial or easy.  Real innovation can be very difficult and expensive to implement.  Think of what Fred Smith had to put in place to build FedEx:  airplanes, warehouses, trucks, and information systems all needed to be there before the system would work.  The innovation was to see a way to create an effective system and build it.  Fred Smith didn't invent anything but he surely innovated.

Unlike inventors, innovators are people of and for the market.  They think about customer needs.  They also think about the customers' ability to spend money.  Innovators are motivated by building systems, by doing things in a better way, and by making money -- lots of money.  Innovators are externally motivated.  Robert Fulton wasn't the first to operate a commercial steamboat in the United States but he was the first to build a steamboat that filled a large unmet need to move passengers and freight on the Hudson River.  He was unapologetically in it for the money and the glory.  Steve Jobs also fits the definition of an innovator.  His early partner, Steve Wozniak, was the inventor in the duo.  Jobs is a genius at identifying and fulfilling unmet customers' needs.  He uses largely existing technology to meet those needs.

Thomas Edison was a much better inventor than he was an innovator.  He created new-to-the-world machines and devices but he wasn't very good at seeing how to use them.  He thought the phonograph would be the answer to office stenography, not the birth of a music industry.  His lighting system was built for DC power which was unscalable to meet wide-spread customer needs.  Henry Ford was also an innovator.  He did not build the first gasoline-powered automobile.  He didn't even invent the moving assembly line.  That idea was borrowed from the Chicago meat packing plants and their disassembly lines.  Ford saw the unmet customer need for an inexpensive automobile and did everything in his power to give it them.  He focused relentlessly on that single idea, even to the point of painting all of his cars black to reduce costs and hence price.

To summarize, invention is not innovation.  Inventors are more like artists motivated by the creative act.  Innovators are more like farmers growing new crops.  Because our society tends to give credit to the person who successfully commercializes an idea, we tend to remember the names of innovators more than we do inventors.  Often, inventions have a very long incubation period of trials and failures before they have enough capability to be commercialized. By that time, the inventor(s) have been displaced by innovators who have a much better commercial sense. Innovators tend to change the world using incremental technology.  Inventors create new technologies.  Both are important.  While the news media focuses on innovation, maybe it would be worthwhile to also give some virtual ink to the need to foster invention.   Innovators can change the rules of the game.  Inventors play a new game altogether.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Charles Babbage

NPR produced a story recently about Charles Babbage, the British mathematician who conceived of both a Difference Engine and an Analytical Engine that would have been two of the earliest computing machines. I say "would have been" because they were never built in his lifetime.  He tried to build the Difference Engine but ran out of money after ten years to support his efforts.  He never knew with certainty whether it would work.

A museum curator, Doron Swade, at the Science Museum in London came across Babbage's drawings in the 1980's and was amazed to find out that no one had ever tried to build Babbage's Difference Engine.  Swade organized a team of engineers who built the machine using Babbage's original drawings and only materials that would have been available in Victorian England.  The finished machine weighs five tons, has over eight thousand parts, and is powered by a hand-crank.  But most importantly, it works just as Babbage said it would.  I won't repeat the whole NPR story here.  It is well worth the time to click through to their website.  You should particularly take the time to watch the short video which shows the machine in action. The Engine has a mesmerizing beauty in its revolving gears and wheels.

This story reminded me in some ways of the efforts of museum curators to recreate the hand-cranked Antikythera Mechanism from Ancient Greece that I have written about several times previously, here and here.  Technologists and historians find it fascinating to recreate an old idea that has never been seen in modern times.  And when these old designs do work as described, it delights and amazes us.

I was also not surprised to read about how difficult it was for Babbage to get funding to support an idea that was so far ahead of its time.  While he was a brilliant mathematician/inventor, he was a difficult personality and not a great entrepreneur.  His inability to sweet-talk the money out of investors left him a frustrated and bitter old man.  So often, inventors who may have truly novel ideas can still lack the interpersonal skills to sustain their work.  If Babbage had prevailed, there might have been a Victorian Information Age that would have moved computing forward by fifty years almost overnight.  Who knows where we might be now had Babbage realized his Difference Engine? It's fun to speculate.

(See my related post on the origin of punch card computing by way of the U.S. Census Bureau here.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

EPCOT: The Future is Past

We visited Epcot in Disney World over the holidays.  Actually, we have been to Epcot many times since it opened in 1982.  As we went from pavilion to pavilion in Future World, I was struck by how much the future was becoming the past, how dated some of the exhibitions now seemed.  My daughter remarked that it might better be called EPCOY (Experimental Prototype Community of Yesterday) rather than the acronym where the T stands for Tomorrow.

I have always loved riding inside the huge sphere of Spaceship Earth.  For those who have not been there, it is a fifteen minute journey through the history of communication with your little car going by Disney Animatronic sets showing the evolution from cave painting to papyrus to the printing press to the personal computer.  It used to be that the last displays were about communicating in some not-too-distant future by videophone.  Now, the exhibition ends with someone who looked a bit like Steve Wozniak cobbling together a personal computer in his garage in 1979.  There is no future.  There is not even a Now.  I guess it got be be too expensive to keep chasing the rapidly evolving world we live in.  Still, a long dark tunnel does not seem to be a good way to end the ride.

In the Universe of Energy, the multimedia show is at least fifteen years old.  It is terribly out of date with regard to this rapidly changing field and only alludes in the smallest possible way to the importance of climate change.  Given the central place of energy, it seems a disservice to not update this pavilion.  Even our automated, moving theater seats seemed dated because the ride broke down midway through and we had to trudge off through an emergency exit.  This pavilion used to be sponsored by Exxon, then Exxon-Mobil, but they dropped sponsorship completely in 2004 and now there is no corporate sponsor.

By the way, Spaceship Earth, which used to be sponsored by AT&T, is now sponsored by Siemens.  The Land pavilion used to be sponsored by Kraft but is now also unsponsored.  The GM Test Track pavilion is still sponsored by its namesake, but who knows for how much longer?  Maybe it will become the Kia Test Track.  The film footage is way out of date, as are even the television monitors.  How can this be Future World?

Perhaps the whole idea of Epcot is also confined to the past.  Walt Disney imagined it to actually be a planned community built within Disney World, hence the name.  He could never get the board of directors to go for it.  They wanted Disneyland East.  Walt died in 1966 and his dream for the Experimental Community died with him.  His brother, Roy (who also just recently passed away), tried to carry on, and did build the Magic Kingdom and a much more commercial version of Epcot.  What opened in 1982 was more like a World's Fair than an experimental community but it did incorporate some of the infrastructure originally imagined by Walt Disney.

I still like Epcot.  I will probably go there again.  It just seems like a lost opportunity to say more about the future.  Maybe once the recession is over, Disney can get some corporate sponsors to ante up the money to update some of these pavilions.  But it isn't 1966 or 1982 and it is hard to find U.S. companies with the muscle or interest.  Maybe that is for the best as the future is likely to be with the Multinationals anyway.  I guess I am just nostalgic for the times when we seemed to be a leader in business and technology.  I'll get over it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Urban Exploration

The Boston Globe ran a piece the other day on exploring some of the abandoned sections of the subway system.  The "T", as it is known to all who inhabit Boston, is the backbone of the public transportation system in that city.  A reporter followed a historian of the T into a number of essentially secret and obscure sections of the tunnels (legally, and accompanied by Transit Authority police) to see some of these long-lost areas.  The Globe even posted a neat little video which you can see here.

The article shows us something that an entire sub-culture of people have been doing for years.  Termed Urban Exploration, or Urbex, for short, people have been crawling around in old factories, grain elevators, subways, abandoned buildings, and tunnels for years.  The allure is described in a Wikipedia article on the topic as the beauty of decay in abandoned spaces.  There have even been television programs on the Discovery Channel and documentaries on these intrepid explorers.  Most of the time, we become aware of them only when someone falls down an abandoned elevator shaft to their death.  Obviously, prowling around old, abandoned structures can be extremely dangerous, not to mention illegal.

So why do such articles continue to pop up in newspapers such as the Globe?  What is it that fascinates even those of us who are not likely to put on a headlamp and prowl in the small hours of the morning?  This is probably the modern equivalent of the nineteenth-century Egyptologists who wanted to see what no one else had seen in a very long time.  Of course, the Egyptologists had the added incentive of possibly finding golden treasures and beautiful art objects.  Not so for the urban explorers.  I think what we find is ourselves, or maybe our former selves.  We find out how we constructed our world for function or sometimes even beauty.  We love the idea of seeing the things that we built decades or centuries ago but have been lost to the common eye.

I have written about this before in my post on the abandoned Michigan Central train station in Detroit. I am as curious about these places as the next guy.  Maybe we even need to have a certain number of these abandoned artifacts left for just the purpose of exploration.  If we pulled down every last abandoned structure, we would lose something.  Certainly, we would clean up a lot of eyesores but we would also lose another connection to our built past.  We would still have our histories but we need to have something tangible as well to link us to those former times and our former selves. As we accelerate into our future, it can help to have something to hold onto from our past.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Then and Now

We love the new.  New has become a synonym for Improved.  New is novel, something we haven't experienced before.  New is progress.  New is fun.

But, as the old adage says, "There is nothing new under the sun."  You would think that technology would be the exception.  In the details this is, in fact, true.  We have only just begun to explore nano, bio, and eco technologies.  What we take to be new technology systems, however, are not so new. Here are a couple of examples in what I might call the Then and Now category.

Light-rail transportation (the Now) is being brought to cities that for years have had no public transportation except buses.  But light-rail is not a new concept.  You might think the Then parallel to light-rail is the streetcar but the better comparison is the interurban rail network that connected towns and cities in much more of a commuter-like pattern.  Interurbans were the marriage of the electric motors of the streetcars with the heavy coaches of the passenger train.  The interurbans exploded onto the transportation scene (particularly in the midwest) in the first fifteen years of the twentieth century.  From virtually no trackage at the turn of the century, by 1916 interurbans accounted for over 15,000 miles of track in the United States.  The reason for their emergence was the need for more cost-effective and frequent connections between small towns and cities that the railroads might not have served or served infrequently.  Another major factor was that while the automobile was becoming more common in cities, the roads between cities were poor at best and a more reliable transportation system was needed.

But most of the interurbans, while technically successful, were poor businesses from the start.  They were under-capitalized, expensive to maintain, and always starved for enough revenue-paying business to support themselves as private enterprises.  By 1930 and the Great Depression, most of the interurban companies had gone into bankruptcy.  The emergence of light-rail in the last two decades is largely predicated on a new business model:  public ownership.  The common gripes about light-rail is that they must be supported by taxpayers who don't use the system and that they only serve a small geography.  Those arguments are true for the first line that is built.  But like all networks, the power of the network goes up as a power function of the number of nodes in the network.  More lines bring even more power to the entire network.  Eventually, as can be seen in the robust networks in some of our larger cities, people choose to take the public transportation system even if they own a car.

So, light-rail is the reincarnation of an older concept of interurban rail networks.  The second New but Not-So-New concept is the mega on-line retailer.  Think Amazon.  Amazon revolutionized the book trade and has been moving into adjacent markets in other consumer product lines.  Their business model recognized the power of two things: the internet and package delivery services.  By selling to such a wide market, they can increase their volume and hence offer lower prices.  Neat but not new.

In the 1870's Aaron Montgomery Ward began his catalog retailing business in Chicago.  It was based on the concept of customers in the rural country-side ordering their products directly from his catalog and having them delivered by the post office.  He was one of the first to innovate the idea of a money-back guarantee return policy.  If you didn't like it, send it back.  No questions asked.  Ward's concept was quickly copied by Sears and for the better part of a century, these two catalog retailers were among the largest in the country.  They were Amazon pre-internet.  It is interesting to speculate how they might have survived had not the automobile created the shopping mall in the years before the internet.  If the internet had been born earlier, perhaps the catalog retailers would simply have morphed onto the internet and still be dominant.

My point is only that while a specific technology might be new, a technology concept can be reused multiple times.  Then and Now.  The new New.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Transportation Systems: Centralize or Decentralize?

I have commented from time to time on these pages about transportation.  Most recently, my musings have been about the well-understood insight that speed collapses distance. It also increases our sensitivity to time.  We have the railroads to thank for the first modern example of this phenomenon.  The network of rails which crisscrossed the country in the middle of the nineteenth century united the country in a way that would have been impossible just a few years earlier. With the increased speed of transportation, the whole trajectory of the country's development shifted westward and took on an east-west orientation as opposed to the north-south orientation that had dominated the earliest days of independence.

What I hadn't fully appreciated was how the railroads tended to be a centralizing force in the development of the United States.  The huge capital investments and the need to maximize the amount of freight carried on every train led to some cities growing to dominance as the railroad lines coalesced on regional hubs.  Chicago is probably the best example of a city that grew from virtually nothing to a metropolis due to this centralizing effect.  Farmers wanting to get their crops to market needed railroads.  The railroads that fanned out west of Chicago provided just such a transportation network.  The produce (especially grain) from the Western farms was then transported on trunk railroads to the East.  Like Chicago, those cities which had some early advantage in the developing railroad network in a region tended to grow much more rapidly.

Highway transportation networks of the twentieth century had just the opposite effect.  Farmers and manufacturers were no longer governed by the fixed schedule of the railroads.  Trucks could be scheduled to pick up and deliver freight at any time and in any location, even those far removed from the railheads.  As a result, the earlier concentrations of industry began to drift away from the small number of hub cities.  Manufacturers moved their operations to be closer to their sources of supply, or nearer their markets, or to access cheaper labor.  The result has been a rebalancing of the differences between some of the earlier metropolitan leaders and their former junior cities.

Technology creates patterns and just as easily an even newer technology can fundamentally change those patterns.  Over the last twenty to thirty years, we have been living in a different pattern yet again: globalization.  Now the patterns of transport and connections span the globe.  The lure of cheap labor, capital incentives, and the low cost of ocean transport has resulted in industry after industry moving their operations offshore.  And as already mentioned, transportation is again at the heart of some of those influences.  This time, the transportation revolution has been in container ships which have dramatically lowered the cost of shipping manufactured goods of all kinds.

What new patterns will emerge next?  Surely, we will continue to see changes.  Perhaps these changes will span decades and hence be less immediately apparent.  But it is impossible to imagine that we are now living in a static world.  If I was trying to predict what the future patterns might be, I would put some of my money on watching innovations in transportation systems.  No matter how much we move into the Knowledge Economy, we still need physical products and they have to arrive where we can purchase them.