Saturday, April 24, 2010

Emptying the Freeways of LA

We've been out visiting our daughter in LA for the weekend.  LA's traffic problem is notorious but I still couldn't get over the sea of cars that were clogging the freeways, even when it wasn't rush-hour.  There are simply too many cars and not enough space.  Every one of these vehicles is consuming fossil fuel and emitting gases to the atmosphere.  The thing about LA is the sheer number of cars that are on the road. There has to be a better way.

I am doubtful that I will live long enough to see people voluntarily give up their automobiles.  But that doesn't mean that solutions to the fuel and emission problems aren't possible.  The new government-mandated fuel economy standards will help.  So will the expansion of hybrids and the introduction of plug-in hybrids.  But something more will still need to be done.

I was envisioning a transit system for cities like LA that would be the equivalent of light-rail for cars.  Small, all-electric commuting vehicles would be quickly driven onto commuter trains that would carry the cars 30 to 50 miles across a major metro area like LA.  The commuter vehicles would then be driven off and be used for local driving within, say, a 30 mile radius of the station.  If a rail-car system was specifically designed for this kind of commuter network, it might be possible to get a large number of cars off the freeways for longer commutes. In Switzerland, car-trains routinely take people through long tunnels under the Alps while the passengers remain in their cars. Why not across town?

While local governments might make some headway in encouraging people to carpool or take the bus, most people are highly resistant to giving up the freedom that comes from a personal vehicle.   Something like a car-train might just overcome some of the resistance.  Given that California is broke, this might also be an opportunity for a private company to create such a system.  Perhaps one of the auto companies might want to rethink its strategy and go beyond simply developing hybrids and expand into a different kind of transportation business.  The idea of private enterprise developing the networks is not so far-fetched.  Virtually all of the railroads that were built in the nineteenth century (with the exception of the transcontinental lines) were built by private investment.  And at one point, railroads carried 98 percent of all inter-city traffic, so the effect of private transportation networks was huge.  It's at least something to think about. It is certain we can't keep going the way we have in the last fifty years.  How about a little innovation (or maybe a lot of innovation)?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Food, Inc. - We Are How We Eat

I had a chance tonight to watch Robert Kenner's documentary, Food, Inc., on the PBS series, POV.  If you haven't seen it, I would highly recommend the film as a sobering look at the industrialization of the food we eat.  It touches on many issues that resonate with what I write about in this blog, including the effects of industrialization, patent issues, innovation, and an open society.  The film was nominated in the Best Documentary category for the 2010 Academy Awards.

One of the themes of the film had to do with Monsanto's patents on soybean seeds which were genetically modified to resist Monsanto's own herbicide, Roundup.  This means that soybean fields can be sprayed with Roundup and everything but the soybeans will be wiped out.  But, Monsanto insists that farmers who wish to use this seed have to re-buy their seed stock each year from Mansanto.  If they try to reuse seed that comes from last year's crop, Monsanto will sue them for patent infringement and even blacklist the farmers so they cannot buy seed.  Monsanto has a team of around eighty private investigators that roam the countryside looking for growers who might be reusing their seed and then strong-arming them into signing agreements that are favorable to Monsanto.  This is the case even if pollen from an adjacent field where another farmer has planted Monsanto seeds cross-pollinates his neighbor's field that was not grown from Monsanto seeds.  Monsanto can test the soybean plant and determine if it contains their patented gene.  If it does, all hell breaks loose.

I am a supporter of a strong intellectual property system to encourage innovation, but the Monsanto case seems to be a situation where the patent owner has too much power.  The way these cases are being identified and handled could easily make someone who is paranoid believe that industry and government are working hand-in-hand for the benefit of  the Monsanto's profit and not for the greater good of society.  Not surprisingly, Monsanto (like other large agribusinesses) declined to be interviewed for the film.  I can't say I am surprised.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Aging of Innovation in America

[Image of Edison's lightbulb from patent application of 1880]

As individuals, it is pretty easy to know when we have passed our prime.  If we are lucky, the first sign isn't that we read our obituary in the paper.  It shows up in little things: pants that seem to have shrunk, skin that seems to hang a little looser, difficulty in remembering what I had for dinner last night, stairs that seem to have gotten steeper.  We fight it or we deny it, but biology has the last word.  And everyone passes beyond their prime at some point.

How about an economy, or more specifically, the American economy?  Nations grow and decline like all things based on living systems.  Where's the United States on the curve?  What is the equivalent of a "sagging chin line" for an economy?  Three things come immediately to mind.  One is the rate of growth of the economy, with the operative word being "rate".  This is the good-old Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, statistic. A second is innovation, which is one of the key drivers of growth. This is a little trickier to measure objectively.  Patents might be a measure but most studies say they are not a good surrogate for innovation. The third is a steadily increasing personal income.  If people aren't finding themselves any better off over time, people catch on to that fact quickly.

I have seen a number of articles recently that make me seriously worry about where we are as far as the country's economic maturity is concerned.  We seem to be, more and more, rushing into a period of serious aging as though we had blown the diet and stopped going to they gym for a little toning. The most recent article I saw was Business Week's annual list of the 50 Most Innovative Companies.  In an accompanying article, the Business Week reporters, Michael Arndt and Bruce Einhorn,  wrote:

The shift [in U.S. innovativeness] is more apparent when this year's class is compared with the first ranking in 2005. Back then, only six of the Top 20 were headquartered outside the U.S., vs. 13 of 25 this year. In addition a third of 2005's American champs—such names as 3M, Starbucks, and eBay—no longer make the Top 50.

The article also reports that most management in Asian companies treat innovation as a high priority with over 90 percent stating that they plan to invest in increased innovation efforts.  U.S. managers, by comparison, are planning similar investments in only 48 percent of the companies interviewed.

It's nice to see that Apple, Google, Microsoft, and IBM are the top four on the 2010 list.  But this isn't nearly enough to offset the relative losses which show up not only in innovation rankings but in 2.4 million off-shored manufacturing jobs in the last decade.

Looking at my other two leading indicators, GDP in the U.S. has been decreasing for the past six years - well before the current recession began.  Personal income adjusted for inflation has been flat for a decade or more.

All in all, our Economic Report Card is definitely looking more like a C- than something that might get us into the National Honor Society.  But it is not enough to simply rant about needing more innovation (although venting can be useful at times).  I might have thought that the near total collapse of the auto, banking, and housing industries would raise some serious concerns about the viability of the economy and our competitiveness.  I wonder what it will really take to get us to pay attention?

In the past, the American economy grew not because there were calls from Washington or from editorials to be more innovative.  The economy grew and innovators had an impact because there were opportunities to exploit.  Innovators and entrepreneurs saw unmet needs and worked their tails off to fill the need.  It's still happening.  Apple, Google, Microsoft, and IBM all employ lots of very smart people.  The problem is that the rest of the economy, the manufacturing and service economy that pulled up the middle class has been farmed out to low-wage countries.  That's the gap that has to be filled.  How do we bring innovation to create jobs that pay decent wages for the people in the middle-class of a post-industrial society?  I don't know the answer but I think it is the right question.  That's at least a start.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Back in My Library

I'm finally home after our week-long trip north from wintering in Florida.  Spring is arriving early all over the country, even here in Minnesota.  Now that I am back, I hope to pick up the blog again on a more regular schedule.

One of the nice things about being back is that I have access once again to my books.  My wife can tell you that I can't seem to travel without an inordinate number of books but even those are only a small portion of my library on the history of technology.  As I look at the titles that I can see next to me by the computer, I feel like I am with learned old friends.  The titles and art work beckon with a promise of interesting stories of entrepreneurs and inventors who tried to changed the world.  And some even succeeded.

I can never see a shelf of books without thinking about the authors who labored over the research and the manuscripts.  Each one of them wanted to write something that would be well received by their readers.  They wanted to see their names on the covers, offering at least a little immortality.  They probably even made a little money along the way. I am thankful that they made the effort.

Lots of my books are older editions.  Some date back fifty years or more, but that makes them no less appealing to me.  Sometimes these older books are even more interesting for the different perspective they provide.  The worn dust jackets and linen covers reveal a book that has been "around the block" a few times and has survived the recycle bin or landfill. (The image is a stock photo.  My books aren't yet that old!)

When I think about reading some of these old histories on a Kindle or iPad, it just doesn't feel like it would be right somehow.  If, as Marshall McLuhan said, "the medium is the message", then  I need an old medium for my history of technology books.  The musty pages have a certain aroma that connotes time.

It is always fun to travel but it is good to be home.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Technology Reshapes the Landscape

As we were driving across I-64 in Kentucky today, headed back to Minnesota, I started to really notice how technology has changed the landscape in front of me.   We were in a beautiful, rural area on the eastern side of the state.  Of course, my attention was first drawn to the highway stretching out in front of me: the concrete, the guardrails, the traffic signs, the mile-maker stakes.  Then I started to notice that the landscape itself had been sculpted to allow the road to unwind smoothly across the rolling hills.  There were deep cuts blasted out of the rocky hills and massive bridges over the deeper ravines.

Looking farther afield, I noticed..,well, the fields.  Again, man-made, cultivated, plowed, stripped clean of trees.  Fences divided the fields into neat squares to clearly indicate that the land had been surveyed and was recorded in plat maps somewhere.  There were high-tension towers and power lines, windmills for pumping water for the livestock, and billboards to lead us to the nearest McDonalds.  Even the livestock and crops most likely came from deliberate breeding programs.

In the distance on the rolling hills, forests made soft blankets over the contours of the land.  But even these were at best second-growth forests.  The original trees had long since been logged for lumber.  I even wondered how many of the plants growing in the ditches along the roadside were invasive species brought there by passing automobiles?

As far as I could see over this rural landscape, I could see nothing that had not been altered in some way by technology.  Don't get me wrong on this.  I am not saying that technology has completely ruined the land.  Far from it.  In many ways, technology has allowed us to move more easily, to feed ourselves, and to provide a living to people who live in rural areas.  It is not all bad.  It is just that it has changed our world without our being aware of it.  Barring some nuclear winter scenario, what I was looking at today will probably always be a domesticated landscape.

We live so closely and constantly with technology that we hardly notice its effects.  We think we are seeing nature when we are really seeing the handiwork of people.  Awareness at least lets us make a conscious choice about how we alter our environment.

I am glad that there are places like our National Parks where nature has at least half a chance of being itself for a while longer.  I think of Henry David Thoreau's classic quote:

"In wilderness is the preservation of the world."

It is, quite literally, true.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Show Me the Facts!

Today is my dad's birthday.  He died a couple of years ago, but today I honor his memory.  When I was growing up with my three brothers, we would often be sitting at the dining room table talking about the day.  I, or one of my brothers, would make some wild assertion about something we had heard.  My dad, who was trained as an engineer, taught us the art of "skeptical inquiry" by looking at us with a raised eyebrow and saying, "Really? Show me the facts!"  We would be forced to defend what we had said - which, of course, we often couldn't do.

So on your birthday, Dad, here's to you.  You taught us well.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stopping a 70-Foot Long Truck On a Dime

Driving on I-95 today, we passed many semi-trucks (and a few even passed us).  As we passed these 53-foot rigs (that's just the length of the trailer, not the whole tractor-trailer which is closer to 70 feet), I was thinking back on one of my earlier careers where I worked for a time developing anti-skid braking systems for big rigs like the ones we were passing.

In the early 1970's, the Federal Government passed a law that said that heavy trucks (e.g., tractor-trailers, cement carriers, and even school buses) had to be able to stop in a straight line within something like 350 feet from a speed of 60 mph.  While the regulation didn't specify how this was to be done, the only practical way was by using anti-skid (otherwise known as antilock) brakes.  Brake systems like this had long been employed on passenger aircraft and the systems were becoming more common on automobiles.  But antilock brakes were completely new to trucks.  The trucking companies hated the idea.  It would mean that they would have to invest in expensive, new (and as yet unproven) technology.  To save money in those days, lots of trucking companies would take trailers on the road with at least some of the wheels having brakes that were known to be defective.  With the mandate, not only would they have to buy the antilock systems, they would have to actually fix the brakes.  I thought about this often as I was next to a truck on the highway.  I still do.

Nonetheless, the braking requirement was already a law and we set about developing a system that would work on heavy trucks.  I will spare you the gory details except to say that we finally managed to get a system working.  The company that I worked for (Kelsey-Hayes) had a test track that had been an Army Aircorps runway during World War II.  Here I was, a 25-year old engineer, driving a truck that was configured to weigh as much as a fully loaded cement truck, going down a runway at 60 mph.  The truck had been fitted out with our antilock brakes and in the cab next to me were all of these recording instruments to measure various parameters of the braking system while we put it through its paces.

After getting up to speed and making sure everything seemed to be working.  I literally stomped on the brake pedal to see how fast I would stop this monster.  I don't think I can convey what it felt like to be riding in this rig that seemed to actually be hopping down the pavement like some bucking bronco as it shuddered to a halt.  The instruments were banging back and forth against the dash...and so was I.  But the truck stopped in the required distance.  I had to peel my fingers off the steering wheel and sit there for a few moments before I could even look at the test results.

A system like this is never developed in one test or even a hundred tests, but eventually we had a working system.  And what happened?  The trucking companies lobbied the government and had the law rescinded.  Antilock brakes were no longer required and without the legal mandate, there was no market. Our system died.  As far as I know, they are still not required on heavy trucks.

I have driven a lot more miles over the intervening years and I have seen quite a few accidents where trucks have either careened off the road or been involved with multi-vehicle crashes.  I often wonder what might have happened if these trucks had been equipped with antilock brakes?  I know it wouldn't have prevented all these accidents but I believe that it would have helped.  But when the choice for the trucking companies came down to cost or safety, cost won.

From what I read, the NHTSA has had a mandate in place for a number of years which requires a stopping distance from 60 MPH of 335 feet or less.  In 2012, the mandate is going to get even stricter.  Heavy trucks will have to be able to stop in 225 feet.  There is still no explicit requirement for how the technology to meet the requirements but at least the limits are getting tougher.  Who knows?  Maybe a new generation of young engineers will develop the antilock truck brakes that we had attempted to bring to the highway.  I hope so.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Text 2.0: Coming Soon to a Book Near You

Tomorrow brings the launch of the iPad.  The first experience comments coming back from various sources make the device seem even more promising than I had first thought.  Of course, there is so much hype around this at the moment that it is hard to see the iPad clearly for it might or might not become.  What is undeniably true is that we are in the middle of a sea change in the way we interact with what we experienced before as words on paper.  While we might lament the lack of innovation in other parts of our economy, there is ample evidence of innovation being alive and well in rethinking our reading experience.

Now comes another level of innovation being dubbed Text 2.0.  Imagine if your book knew what words you were looking at on the page/screen.  What would that mean?  A group in Germany has been experimenting with just such a concept and has put together a really interesting little video to give you a sense of the power of such technology.

I saw this first at a blog called Becoming-A-Writer-Seriously and then at an old favorite, TechCrunch.  Enjoy.