Thursday, December 29, 2011

Small Can Be Beautiful

I realize that the title of this post is something of a rip on E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful, but small is not always beautiful. Sometimes small just leads to being crushed.  I started thinking about this when I was listening to an interview on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. She was talking to  Stanford historian, Richard White, about his book, Railroaded: The Transcontinental and the Making of Modern America.

In his book, White lays out the mostly-sordid business history of the building of both the Transcontinental Railroad and other major expansions of the railroads in the late 19th Century. Railroads were the first large corporations in America. It was not possible to build something as capital intensive as a railroad without major investment. It was also not possible to operate such a large enterprise without layers of management. The Transcontinental Railroad was built mostly through political favors, bribes, and kickbacks. There was no business reason at the time of the Civil War that could justify building a rail line through mostly unpopulated areas. But the railroad got built because there was money to be made in railroad construction costs, land grants, and subsidies.

My purpose here is not to revisit the seamy sides of the railroad business. What got me thinking was how the railroads were once the dominant transportation system in the United States - at least for passenger travel. The over-used term of the time was how railroads "collapsed time and space", and it was true. Travelers depended on the railroads to get where they wanted to go. And in the late 19th Century, you could get almost everywhere on a railroad. Of course, you had to travel on the railroad's timetable and if the town you wanted to get to wasn't on a rail line, you were on your own.

Model-T Assembly Line
At the end of the 19th Century, a laughably obscure technology began its unstoppable derailment of railroad passenger travel.  I refer, of course, to the automobile. From the very beginning, people loved the idea of being able to decide where and when to travel. Roads of the day weren't great, but people started to lobby for better roads. When Henry Ford's assembly line made the Model T affordable to almost every middle-class family, the automobile exploded onto the roadways.  For trips under a hundred miles, people would drive rather than take the train. They could leave on their own schedule and get to any town served by a road - even a bad road.  The family didn't have to have invest in a massive corporation to be able to drive. The large corporations like Ford Motor Company put the individual in charge of their own transportation.  It took decades, but gradually the railroads stopped running passenger trains and the country is now laced with interstate highways that carry the bulk of ground travel.  In the end, the individual would rather have control than give it to a large corporation. Small can be beautiful,

A second example is the main frame computer. When computing  came of age after World War II, it was the large companies like IBM that controlled the industry.  Once again, development was helped by government support - mostly from the Defense Department. Users were allowed limited access to these huge computing machines, mostly through leases to other corporations and universities.  The large capital required to build and operate these machines called for huge corporate investments and specialized technical people to operate the machines.

Then in the early 1980s, the personal computer became available from both Apple and IBM (and a host of smaller players). Computing was now available directly to the individual without an intermediary. People loved it. PCs were found in more and more homes and businesses. The individual became empowered and took control of computing virtually overnight. It didn't take the decades it took to move from the railroads to the automobile. Within a decade, PCs were ubiquitous. And those PCs when hooked to the emerging network called the internet gave people even more individual freedom to communicate and create thousands of new uses for the personal computer. Today, personal computers are in your pocket, in your smart phones, and tablets are becoming the new laptops. Given a choice, people will always opt for more control of their technology.

With these examples in mind, I started to muse about what the next big waves of personal control might be?  The starting point is to look for high capital intensity today. What demands a large corporation to provide the capital to make the technology possible?  I think it would be fair to eliminate those corporations that supply network services like power and oil companies. But even as I write this I think of Skype which has done a lot to eat into the phone companies' business. Maybe the two areas that might come to pass next are manufacturing and health care.

Right now, if you want a new widget, you have to look for someone who makes it and offers it for sale. But 3-D printing is changing the paradigm. Now, you can design or scan an object and send it directly to a 3-D printer that can pop a widget out in nothing flat. The technology is still early and you won't find a 3-D printer in your neighbor's house but give it a decade or two and see where we are. I predict that  manufacturing is going to undergo a sea change - and that sea change which will put more power into the hands of the individual.

The second area that comes to mind is health care. Right now, hospitals and clinics are capital intensive. Most people have to go to a physical facility to talk to a nurse or doctor. Medical records are closed for both privacy and competitive reasons. I think the forces of personal computing and the internet are going to change the way a lot of health care is practiced.  Small sensors built into your smart phone or tablet will measure your physical status and convey it to a doctor who will make electronic "house calls" to you via video links. For most minor situations, you will no longer have to go to the clinic or hospital to be seen.  Even for major procedures like surgery, you will be able to choose an expert who might live half-way around the world to do your procedure via robotic surgery.  Health care is ripe for change due to its taxing infrastructure and exploding costs.

People want control of their lives and technologies. New technologies that give them the sense of control at affordable costs will be rapidly embraced.  The world awaits the next waves of change. Small can be beautiful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Have you seen the new Martin Scorsese movie, Hugo? I highly recommend it for multiple reasons - a great story, a love of silent films, wonderful cinematography (in 3D, no less), and the recreation of an automaton. The film is based loosely in real people and events. Georges Melies. the first creator of silent fictional films, is one of the central characters of the film - wonderfully portrayed by Ben Kingsley. The film is set in Paris's Montparnasse train station some time after the end of World War I. Melies is selling toys in a tiny stall in the train station where he meets the film's protagonist, Hugo.

Jacques de Vaucanson
Automata are what today we would call robots. They were an attempt by their builders to render a life-like creature from machine parts. The history of automata goes back millenia. Even Leonardo da Vinci drew designs for automata and built at least one in the shape of a lion. Various builders followed with increasingly sophisticated automata. One of the earliest masters was Jacques de Vaucanson who exhibited in 1738 the mechanical figure of a flute player which could actually play this difficult instrument through subtle recreations of the lips, palate, and facial muscles (not to mention the fingering of the keys). This automaton was a smash hit and other builders followed with their own mechanical recreations of life.  Much later, as we shall see, Georges Melies became fascinated with automata.

Georges Melies
Georges Melies was born in France in 1884 and trained to become a shoe maker, like his father. But while training in London, he became enthralled by the magic he saw performed in the Egyptian Hall.  When he returned to France he worked in his father's business until his father died. At that point, he sold his share of the business to his two brothers and used the money to buy the dilapidated Parisian theater of magician, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (from whom Houdini took his stage name).

Robert-Houdin started life apprenticing as a watchmaker but was always fascinated by magic. While working in the Loire valley, he became seriously ill and was nursed back to life by a magician named Torrini. Torrini, it turns out, had several automata that he used in his magic shows. The automata were badly in need of repairs and Robert-Houdin used his mechanical skills to bring them back to working condition. He also immediately saw the link between magic and the seemingly life-like power of these mechanical androids.

Robert-Houdin went back to Paris and began his work building clocks, astronomical instruments, and automata.  In 1844, he won a medal at the Paris Exposition for his writing automaton.  Robert-Houdin now started to devote all his energy to automata. His 1844 model was enhanced to where it could perfectly recreate Robert-Houdin's signature. Ironically, P.T. Barnum bought the automaton while on a tour of Europe with Tom Thumb. The automaton was exhibited in England and then sent back to America where it was displayed in Barnum's museum of oddities. It was eventually destroyed in a museum fire.

Robert-Houdin had opened a magic theater in Paris during this time period. He died in 1871 and his sons managed his theater for 17 years until one of the son's widows sold it to George Melies.  The theater came with all of the props including Robert-Houdin's remaining automata.  Melies immediately repaired the theater and the automata.  The movie would have us think that the writing automaton was still in Paris but this was not the case as mentioned before.

Soon after, Melies became fascinated with photography and moving pictures when he saw the early work of the Lumieres brothers.  He tried to buy one of their cameras and when they turned him down, he went on to build his own. Melies started making his own films and by 1897, the magic theater was mostly a movie theater. Below is his 1902 classic, A Trip to the Moon.

In the film, Hugo, the boy, must repair the writing automaton to try to retrieve a message he felt that his dead father had left encrypted in the automaton. When he finally did get the machine repaired, it drew pictures which lead Hugo to the secret past of Georges Melies, who had long ago  fallen out of favor as a film maker and was now a toy seller in the train station (Melies did, indeed, fall out of favor as a film maker and ended his working years selling toys from a tiny stall in Montparnasse Station).

In the film, the automaton is meant to cast a mysterious grip on us. But that's nothing new. Automata have always delighted and confounded people with a mechanical imitation of life.  We still find robots fascinating. The word "robot", by the way, comes from a 1921 play by Karel Capek entitled, Rossum's Universal Robots.  Today, robots are literally part of our everyday life - whether it is the GPS navigation system in our car or the Scooba that scrubs our floors. But we still want to instill life and personality into these machines (Disclosure: we have named our GPS systems in our cars Jeeves and Prudence and talk to them regularly).  Robots populate our films and stories (who can forget HAL in 2001?). Robots might seem like our future.

Maybe someday these machines will become so sophisticated we might not be able to tell them apart from human beings. Personally, I doubt that it will happen. Even if we could create such creatures, our sensibilities would demand some form of visual recognition that tells us that this creature is not human. We are fascinated by machine life but we are very wary of losing the boundaries of our own humanity.  Robots will become ubiquitous but not invisible.  The line between man and machine is not easily transgressed.

[For a much more in depth treatment of automata, mechanical life, and Georges Melies,  I would recommend Gaby Woods 2002 book entitled (in the U.S.), Edison's Eve, and in Britain, Living Dolls.}

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Artist's Rendition of Curiosity on Mars
This morning, we witnessed the launch of the latest Mars roving explorer, aptly named, Curiosity. What a wonderful moniker for a machine that will, hopefully, spend the next few years exploring the surface of Mars and sending back gigabits of new types data to the anxiously awaiting scientists here on Earth.

Curiosity is something that you don't hear much about these days but it is very clear that curiosity has been one of main drivers of our technological advances for millenia.  Certainly, a lot of technology developed less from curiosity and more from simply trying to fill a need.  But with all the potential solutions that people tried, there had to be a lot of, "I wonder what will happen if...".

Boulton and Watt Steam Engine
You might argue that curiosity is more a driver of science than technology. Science is almost entirely based on the desire to learn and understand - not a bad definition of curiosity itself. As technology developed, it often preceded the science of understanding how the physical world worked. Steam engines, for example, developed before the thermodynamics of steam were understood. Once the science caught up to the technology, major advances and refinements became possible.  James Watt had the benefit of 50 years of scientific investigation of steam before he made his much-heralded advances in the improvement of Thomas Newcomen's original steam engine design.

It seems to me we live in an age of curiosity but most people experience it in ways that aren't so much related to science and technology. We are social creatures and seem to be endlessly fascinated with what other people are doing.  We try to keep up with them through any number of social networking websites. We are curious about the rich and famous and scan the gossip magazines and newspaper columns for juicy tidbits.  We check our smartphones to find out the latest football score or read our email. As humans, we cannot help but be curious.

As you can tell, I am all for curiosity.  We need to follow our desire to know more than we do.  But what we seek out is at least as important as the desire to seek in the first place.  We might need to lift our sights a bit and seek to know something more interesting than what's the latest on Lady Gaga. We might want to spend just a little time learning more about what is going on in our world. What's behind Occupy Wall Street? What's happening in Egypt? What's happening in electric vehicle design, or climate change, or even green energy initiatives?  Most of what I see going on in social networking is like a candy bar - a quick energy boost but no substance.

Personal Disclaimer: I also spend a fair amount of time each day on Twitter and somewhat less time on Facebook. What I follow on Twitter are posts that relate mostly to news, technology, science, and culture. Why? Because I find them interesting. There is so much that is being put out there each day that it is nearly impossible to keep up with it. I try to screen the Tweets that relate to technology and technology history and put them up on my own Twitter Stream - TechAlmanac1.  As I screen this torrent of information, I learn a lot that I otherwise would be unaware of. 

I am not advocating for Twitter or any other particular  web tool. I am not even advocating for the internet. Curiosity can be pursued anywhere.  Curiosity is like a muscle - use it or lose it. The more you open yourself to wondering about something, the more you find the world an interesting place.

We need more well-directed curiosity.  The great thing about curiosity is that it requires no particular preexisting expertise.  It only requires a desire to learn something new.  I believe that if we are not learning something new our minds are stagnating and even going backwards. Let's hear it, then,  for Curiosity.

p.s. Stay tuned over the coming months to Curiosity, the Mars Rover. Its landing on Mars eight months from now will be one of the most technically challenging landings ever attempted by a space craft. JPL has put together a really good animation of how they plan to get Curiosity on the surface.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Art of the 20th Century Limited

Having just written in my previous blog post about the 20th Century Limited, the premier passenger train run by the New York Central Railroad, I thought I might share a couple of iconic poster images of this train made by the well-known graphic artist, Leslie Ragan. Ragan was born in Woodbine, Iowa in 1897 and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. He taught there for awhile and later moved on to New York and then Europe. During the 30s and 40s, Ragan did quite a bit of commercial illustration for the NYC RR. But Ragan's poster images of the streamlined Hudson locomotive - with industrial design by Henry Dreyfuss - stand as icons of what we today call the Machine Age. These images seem to exude the power of the mighty locomotive at its pinnacle of success.

Poster from 1938
Poster from 1946
Railroad posters fell out of favor after WWII. The automobile took over the medium and  long-distance travel that use to be the domain of the railroads. The advent of the interstate highway system in the 50s was the final nail in the passenger train coffin.  But the images live on and give us a sense of what once was - or more accurately - what we like to think once was.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

High Speed Rail Redux

I frequently see articles in various news sources about the controversies of building high-speed rail in this country. The proponents argue that, rather than getting on an airplane, the lines will provide much easier and more pleasant ways to travel between distant cities. High-speed rail will rejuvenate outlying areas along the route that will see a new wave of investment in housing and business. Critics argue that high-speed rail will never pay for itself. People much prefer to drive or fly. If too many stops are planned along the route, the line will no longer be high-speed.  And because passenger rail is now run by Amtrak, a government-owned corporation, high-speed rail will turn into a taxpayer boondoggle.

It's worth remembering that long before the current debate, the U.S. had many "high-speed" passenger lines run by private railroad companies. These lines were profitable even as automobiles became the preferred mode of local transportation.

Perhaps one of the most famous of these early high-speed trains was the 20th Century Limited, operated by the New York Central Railroad between New York City and Chicago.  The service was inaugurated in 1902 and ran for 65 years, finally being discontinued in 1967.

In the early days of the 20th Century Limited, it took 20 hours to make the overnight run. By the 1930s, the time had been reduced to 16 hours. The train left New York City at 6:00PM Eastern time and arrived in Chicago at 9:00 AM Central time the next morning. The train consisted of Pullman sleeping cars, a dining car, a postal car, and a baggage-club car - usually nine or ten cars per train. Passengers entered and left the cars over specially-designed red carpets, giving rise to the expression "the Red Carpet treatment". Men were given carnation boutonniers and the women perfume when they boarded. Everything was meant to convey taste, efficiency, and good service.

NYC RR J3-a Hudson by Henry Dreyfuss
The trains became decidedly more beautiful in 1938 with the advent of the streamlined trains of industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss. The powerful Hudson-class locomotives oozed an impression of power and speed, even when standing still. Compared to the brick-like design of today's Amtrak engines, the Dreyfuss-designed trains made people feel they were partaking in something special.

The 20th Century Limited, like the European Orient Express, became an iconic image for American culture and was used as a backdrop in many films including Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Hard to imagine a similar movie on the Acela.  The 20th Century Limited was only one of dozens of "named trains" that crisscrossed the country in the middle of the last century. The ghosts of some of those trains now reside in the few long-distance Amtrak trains that make their way (usually slowly due to outdated trackage and equipment) between distant cities .

I, for one, would like to see high-speed rail brought back into wide usage in this country. While some argue that it is a waste of resources, the future belongs to fast, efficient transportation with a low-carbon footprint. Most of the rest of the industrialized world gets it - the last century's transportation options will not be adequate for the coming century. A little classy design by a modern-day Dreyfuss would also be much appreciated.  Oh yes, and bring back the Red Carpet.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

USS North Carolina(s)

Military technology has an amazingly short life for the amount invested to develop it. I was reminded of this fact when a couple of days ago, some friends and my wife and I visited Wilmington, NC for a quick getaway. We poked around the historic Old Town on the Cape Fear River. My friend and I decided to tour the USS North Carolina, the World War II battleship which is now a National Historic Landmark and floating museum.

We started our tour in the informative shore-side museum. I was surprised to learn that there had not been one USS North Carolina but four ships bearing that name. There was also one CSS North Carolina to add to the complement. These ships span the eras of naval technology as a startling-clear indication of just how quickly naval technology has changed.

Model in Museum
The first USS North Carolina was a sailing frigate commissioned for duty in 1824. The ship usually carried 74 cannons but was designed to handle as many as 102 guns. She (ships are always referred to in the feminine) was considered the most powerful naval vessel afloat at the time of her commissioning.  The ship spent most of the middle 1820s in the Mediterranean, showing the U.S. colors to demonstrate the strength of the country and to open trade with the region. She also spent time in the Pacific in the late 1830s defending American trade routes. By 1839, she was taken off the line and converted to more mundane duties as a receiving ship to house young naval recruits. Her time of active duty amounted to only 15 years. The reason she was considered to be obsolete was that she was too large and bulky for the nimble duty needed in naval maneuvers of the day.

The next North Carolina was a Confederate ironclad of the Civil War era. Already, fighting ships were converting from sail to steam and armor plating was the newest technology, even as cannons to pierce such armor grew ever larger. The CSS North Carolina was built in Wilmington, NC in 1863 but the new marine engineering of ironclad ships was not the long suit of the local builders. The ship was unstable and the hull was riddled by sea-worms within a year.  It sank in the Cape Fear River leaving an inauspicious record but it did demonstrate that the era of the sailing ship had passed and steel armor and steam were the technology of the future.

In 1905, the keel was laid on the next USS North Carolina, a cruiser of the era of the Great White Fleet. The ship was enormous by previous standards. It was over 500 feet in length and displaced 14,500 tons.  The cruiser carried a powerful array of cannons with the largest being 10-inch bore main guns. The cruiser (also known as ACR-12) saw combat service in World War I escorting convoys of ships across the North Atlantic. From the time she was commissioned to decommissioning amounted to 13 years.

Model of Bridge and 10-inch guns of ACR-12 in Museum

By far the largest of the ships bearing the name USS North Carolina was the battleship BB-55. This was the ship we were about to tour. The BB-55 was commissioned in 1940, just before the beginning of America's involvement in World War II. The new North Carolina was 728 feet long and displaced over 40,000 tons - three times what her predecessor had displaced. The battleship was on sea trials in the Caribbean when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. She spent the first part of 1942 hunting for the German battleship Tirpitz before being deployed to the Pacific Theater in the middle of that year. For the rest of the war the ship was engaged in protecting aircraft carriers in virtually every campaign across the Pacific islands. She was torpedoed once and left with an enormous hole in her bow but it was not enough to sink her. When the war ended in August of 1945, she sailed back to Boston and was decommissioned in 1947 - a service life of six years and eight months. Her undoing? Aircraft. The modern aircraft found on ever-larger aircraft carriers were easily capable of destroying even a hardened battleship.

The Navy kept four of the World War II-era battleships in the reserve fleet for years and the USS Missouri actually participated in the shelling of Baghdad during the Iraq War. But the North Carolina's days of service were over. She stayed in mothballs for 14 years and was going to be sold for scrap when the enterprising citizens of Wilmington and North Carolina decided to try to save her as a memorial and museum. She was moved to her present berth in Wilmington in 1961 and opened as a museum.

But this was not the end of the ships named USS North Carolina. The latest in the long line of ships is the most advanced class of atomic submarines. The new sub, which is configured to be able to deliver not only missiles and torpedos, but complete Navy Seal teams to trouble spots, was commissioned in 2008. She is now stationed at Pearl Harbor.


Side View Looking Towards bow

It was a beautiful fall morning with crisp, cool air as we strolled the teak decks of this state-of-the-art (for 1936) battleship. Even today, some 75 years later, she is still impressive.

Aft 16-inch Gun Turret

The massive 16-inch guns, three mounted in each of the turrets, one aft and two forward are the heart of the battleship's armament. We scrambled inside the aft turret and I was astounded to see the amount of hardware and control systems needed to make these guns work.

Inside Aft 16-inch Gun Turret

What we saw in the turret was only part of a huge support system that went down five decks from the main deck. These 16-inch guns could propel a 1200 pound shell out of the barrel at over 1500 mph, with a range of 20 to 25 miles!

Diagram showing multiple levels in gun turrets

The tour below decks was visiting a city - bakery, laundry, doctor, dentist, operating rooms, soda fountains, sleeping quarters, shoe repair - it was all there to maintain the crew of 2400 sailors.

GE Turbine powering one of four propellors

The ship was propelled by four main steam turbines that each powered a propellor, moving the ship forward at almost 30 mph. In places, the ship's armor was 16-inch thick steel plate. In fact, about 40 percent of the total weight of the ship was accounted for in the armor alone.

If you are ever near one of these large World War II battleships, I would certainly encourage you to go. While the BB-55 remains, Her sister ship, the USS Washington, was scrapped. A very similar class of battleships (known as the Iowa class) has several ships still in existence.  The USS New Jersey is berthed in Camden, NJ. The USS Missouri is part of the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Hawaii and the USS Wisconsin is now a museum in Norfolk, VA.

Each generation of vessel carrying the name of USS North Carolina was an example of state-of-the-art naval technology in its day. None of these vessels remained at the cutting edge for even a decade. The enormous investments in design and development for most weapons systems has a very short half-life.  It would be pleasant to think that a day might arrive when such investments are no longer necessary. Until then, the ever-evolving technology of war will be part of the price of peace.

I wonder what the next ship that carries the name USS North Carolina will look like? Given the brief lives of these vessels, we might not have to wait that long to find out.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What Does Technology Want?

I just finished reading Kevin Kelly's book from last year entitled, What Technology Wants. When I first heard about this book when it was published it sounded a little too woo-woo for me. Technology wants something? Isn't technology simply a manifestation of our own ideas and creations? When I found a used copy of the book, I decided to check out what Kelly was trying to say.  After finishing the book, I would have to say that I pretty much agree with his premise.

So what is Kelly's thesis?  He basically believes (and provides many supporting pieces of data) that the universe is not only governed by entropy (the thermodynamic force leading to increasing disorder) but by a force he dubs "exotropy"- a tendency for the universe to become more ordered with an ever-increasing energy density associated with each layer of order. Since the Big Bang, particles have self-assembled into atoms which have self-assembled into molecules which have lead to solar systems, planets, water, and the building blocks of life. The self-assembly goes on with the evolution of simple cells, multi-cellular organisms, animals and plants, and finally primates and humans. All of this has been well-documented in the scientific literature.

According to Kelly, the next level of exotropy is the human creation of technology - simple at first (think fire and stone axes), but becoming increasingly complex as different technologies are combined and recombined into evermore complex technologies. The highest energy density in the universe can now be quantified as being, not in the core of the sun or a star, but in a Pentium computer chip.  The sum of all this technology is what Kelly dubs the "technium" - a complex web of everything that humans have created.  All the technology that exists can now be recombined at an ever-increasing rate to lead to new capabilities. This is the basis for Moore's Law and a host of other trends that can be shown to be increasing at an exponential rate.

While not truly thinking or sentient (yet), Kelly argues that technology now is on a path that is moving beyond the control of its creators.  Think about the internet. We would have a hard time drawing an exact map of every server and page on the internet because it is constantly changing. The changes are not organized from one central planning organization. They happen because of the spontaneous activity of millions of people. And yet the system works beautifully, rarely failing us and never going completely dark. The internet is not sentient but there is the sense that it is more than the sum of its human-created parts.

Kelly argues that technology wants what life itself wants:

  • Increasing efficiency
  • Increasing opportunity
  • Increasing emergence
  • Increasing complexity
  • Increasing diversity
  • Increasing specialization
  • Increasing ubiquity
  • Increasing freedom
  • Increasing mutualism
  • Increasing beauty
  • Increasing sentience
  • Increasing structure
  • Increasing evolvability
He goes into detail in his final chapter of what each of these mean in more specific terms.

Kelly is not a wholehearted devotee of technology. He sees the dark side of technology as well. In a chapter entitled, The Unabomber Was Right, Kelly writes:

I, too, argue that the technium is guided by "technical necessity." That is, baked into the nature of this vast complex of technological systems are self-serving aspects - technologies that enable more technology, and systems that preserve themselves - as well as inherent biases that lead the technium in certain directions, outside human desire. [Ted] Kaczynski [the Unabomber] writes, "Modern technology is a unified system in which all parts are dependent on one another. You can't get rid of the 'bad' parts of technology and retain only the 'good' parts."

Kelly sees technology and the technium as being, on balance, a little more slanted to good than evil. If it weren't that way, that particular technology would eventually die out. Nonetheless, both sides are always with us. The internet brings great connectivity but also a loss of privacy. Fossil fuels have powered the technium for over a century but they bring on climate change.

One particularly interesting chapter entitled, Lessons of Amish Hackers, delves into a society that actively rejects some technology and yet embraces other technologies readily. The fundamental reason for the rejection of, say, electricity to the home is that it connects the Amish to the grid which invariably leads them to being drawn into a tainted society. Yet, the Amish have no problem with putting a diesel generator behind their barn which run an air compressor which pipes compressed air into the house to run everything from the washing machine to a food blender. The difference?  They are off the grid. Kelly argues that their basic ability to make such choices is facilitated by the very technology they reject. Without machined parts and transportation systems, they couldn't live their lives in the way they choose. Kelly is not against the Amish. In fact, he finds their lifestyle to be attractive on many levels. But he argues that one of the prime reasons to embrace technology is that it expands individuals' choices for the pursuit of their own fulfillment. The Amish limit schooling to the 8th grade level. There are no Amish doctors or lawyers. Their lifestyle limits their choices.

In the final analysis. Kelly believes that the trajectory the technium is on is the right one, or maybe more accurately, the only one in could be on. But he also observes that we are moving into an era when technology will start to become decoupled from human control and this is a totally new era for humanity. Where it will all lead is anybody's guess. What Technology Wants is a thought-provoking book that should be on the reading list of anyone who is interested in the broader questions of where we are going.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

In Defense of Steve Jobs

It seems that everyone with any sort of digital soapbox has felt the need to write about Steve Jobs.  I was particularly interested to read a couple of articles that tried to either make or dispel the idea that his impact on society equalled that of Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.

I think Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal might have started the comparison in a very personal article he wrote about the thoughtful and personal side of Steve Jobs.  Rick Newman at US News and World Report picked up on the theme but threw mostly cold water on the comparison of Jobs to either Edison or Ford. Even the Christian Science Monitor got into the act with a followup article to Newman's.  At this particular moment in time, the loss of a leader in any field is felt acutely and the loss of someone with as many proven leadership skills as Steve Jobs is perhaps all the more strongly felt amongst the rest of us.

Of course, only history will be able to sort out the contributions of Mr. Jobs. But it seems safe to at least question some of the aspersions that Rick Newman made in his piece. Mr. Newman writes of Edison:

By the late 1800s, Thomas Edison developed an electric-lighting system that literally turned darkness to light and ushered in sweeping second- and third-order changes, from the improvement of working conditions in factories everywhere to safer homes no longer lit by candles.

Thomas Edison was a persistent, egocentric, dynamic leader of highly skilled technologists whom he employed to help create his vision for new products. (Sounds kind of like Steve Jobs to me.)  He never pursued anything without thinking about its likely commercial impact. He was a master of managing his image in the media. His work on the incandescent light was innovative not because he found a filament that could endure long durations of being heated, but because he envisioned that to make lighting successful he would have to build the whole system. This included the dynamos, the distribution wiring, the switching, and the end appliance - the electric light. That he pulled it off was a testament to his determination and persistence in the face of many, many hurdles.

Having said that, Edison didn't get it right when it came to extending his vision. He defended his direct current (DC) approach in the face of Tesla's clearly better alternative of alternating current (AC). AC power could be distributed without losses over much greater distances than could DC power. Edison even went so far as to mount a public relations campaign against AC power as being much more dangerous than DC. To prove his point, he was instrumental in the development of the electric chair for executing criminals. In the end, it took another generation of innovators beyond Edison and Tesla to make commercial lighting a reality for most people. Samuel Insull, who made commercial electricity a reality in Chicago, was the first of many of these innovators who built large electric distribution systems to bring power to the people.

Edison didn't get candles out of the home. Most people in the late 19th century were lighting there homes with either piped in gas or with kerosene. Factories were often lit by simply more windows or if night work was required, lighting was provided by arc lamps which predated Edison's invention of the lightbulb.

So who gets the credit?  Edison for the first embodiment of an electric lighting system or Tesla or Insull?  The answer is, of course, all of them, not just Edison alone.  If Edison hadn't developed his system, someone else would have done it within the next five to ten years. It was the focus of too many innovators who wanted to be first to show the new power of electricity.

Henry Ford is a different case but he also shares many similarities to Steve Jobs. Ford was neither a particularly talented machinist or even all that literate. What he did have in spades was the ability to envision a new type of automobile and the charisma and passion which attracted really good engineers to work with him to make it a reality. His first focus was not on a car for the masses but on racing cars (which were the earliest means of demonstrating automotive technology and reliability). He was a partial-founder of two automobile companies that failed to achieve his vision. It was only when he decided to be the founder of his own company - where he controlled the vision - that he began to succeed.

His first cars were not particularly different from scores of other startup auto companies. Everyone was selling to a customer who had the means to spend several thousand dollars on a car. Ford's genius was to see that if the cost of the car could be reduced dramatically, a mass market could emerge for the automobile for the first time. Ford not only hired great engineers, he hired a great business manager, James Cousins, to manage the finances of his company. Ford didn't invent the assembly line. That idea emerged from his engineers touring the disassembly lines of the Chicago meat packing plants. Ford provided the single-minded focus to pursue the dream of a mass market car when everyone else told him he was crazy. The result was the introduction of the Model T in 1908 (This was not his first model. There had already been Models A through S before the T came along).

Ford was a true innovator. He was the first to recognize the value of vertical integration in the automotive industry - owning everything from the iron mines to the steel mills to the final assembly plants in the giant River Rouge complex. Ford pioneered the five dollar day for his workers - not just to have them earn enough money to be able to afford a Model T but to get them to not quit (employee turnover on those first assembly lines was in the hundreds of percents).  Ford's vision proved to be correct and his company dominated the industry. But unlike Steve Jobs, Henry Ford did not die young. He lived long enough to have his initial vision become an impediment to Ford Motor Company's future. He would not give up on the Model T even when it was outdated and sales were plummeting. He micromanaged his son, Edsel's, period of running the company after Henry ostensibly retired. It would take Ford's grandson, Henry II, to put the company back on track.

So the traits that seem to recur in these three men of different eras and different industries are incredible vision, an awe-inspiring sense of determination, dictatorial decision-making, charisma, passion, and an ability to hire the best and the brightest and give them the environment to create. Each had the ability to see a future, not a future that others couldn't see, but a future which was holistic - one that went further than just one product to see what was needed to make it valuable to millions of people.

So in defense of Steve Jobs, I think he will, indeed, go down in history as being in the same league as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a host of other visionaries who have helped to create the world we live in.  His legacy will be felt for generations in the digital devices that are the offspring of the iPods, iPhones, and iPads.  His legacy will be felt in the digital animation studios that come after Pixar.  His sense of what the market needed was truly remarkable. But even more remarkable was his willingness to bet the company on his vision - not once but over and over again.   Steve Jobs was the quintessential American Innovator.  Even though I never met the man, I will miss him.

(Disclaimer: I have been a longtime user of Apple products. I am typing this on my iMac desktop computer.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Technologies R'Us

The Conservation of Energy is one of the fundamental laws of our physical universe. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can - and is - transformed continuously from one form to another.  Potential energy to kinetic energy. Heat to work. Work to motion. Energy moves constantly through our universe making the universe as we know it possible.

I sometimes think of technology in its broadest sense as a form of energy. While it gives the illusion of having been created through countless inventions, new technology always comes from a convergence of older technologies which make the new technology possible.  It is a flow, not an aggregation of static ideas. In the 18th Century, a new understanding of steam and other gases opened the door for the first steam engines to pump water from mine pits.  Coal powered not only the first steam engines but it also made possible the scientific fabrication of steel. Steel and the steam engine opened the door to manufacturing on an industrial scale.

In the 19th Century, iron and steel and the steam engine morphed into a revolutionary form of transportation - the railroad.  With the easy movement of goods and people, more trade evolved. The movement of goods and people became faster and cheaper. Costs dropped dramatically as manufacturing increased in scale. For the first time, almost everyone in the 19th Century owned at least something that was factory made.

Paralleling the advances in manufacturing and transportation came equal advances in communications, illumination, and motors - all based on a growing knowledge of electricity. The telegraph made communications across long distances virtually instantaneous. Eventually, transoceanic cables made the world a much smaller place.  As the century progressed, people wanted the electric lights, telephones, and electric street cars made possible through new technology. By 1900, the world was poised to explode on a wave of mass production facilitated by transportation, communication, and distribution networks.

The early parts of the the 20th Century were dominated by the emergence of the automobile.  The lure of being able to travel where you wanted when you wanted, free of the train and trolley schedules, was irresistible to anyone who could afford a car. New and better roads led to everything from suburban living to extended vacation travel across the country.  Mass consumption demanded a ready-made mass market which was created by raising consumer advertising to a virtual science.  Now, people commonly owned the products of technology - radios, refrigerators, washing machines, irons, and telephones. Not only did people buy these products but an ever-wider array of choices became available. There were products for people to buy not just for their function but as symbols of a rising status in the world.

The 20th Century unleashed people's feelings of autonomy. They could travel when they wanted, where they wanted. They could listen to any number of radio programs, choose the style of clothing that suited them best, and furnish their homes with a seemingly-endless array of consumer goods.  After World War II, new technologies and mass consumption kicked into yet a higher gear. Radio gave way to television. Live broadcasting was supplemented with video tapes and DVDs. A panoply of cable channels supplemented the major television networks. Music was unfettered from the home and car radio and became a more personal and portable form of entertainment through the Walkman and later the iPod. Electronics opened the floodgates to affordable information technologies starting with the personal computer which morphed into the internet and then to the wireless world of smart phones in an endless variety of models and capabilities.

We stand at the doorway of the 21st Century which will surely be the age of ubiquitous and constant information. Everything will communicate in some way with everything else. Information will wrap the planet in a garment of bits so thick that we will no longer remember what it was like to have to write a physical letter, or find a pay-phone, or do our taxes by hand and mail them at the post office (which may also disappear).

The advances of the last three centuries have been mind-boggling.  We have gone from a mostly agrarian world to a predominantly urban and connected culture.  But each advance has carried its own costs - its own Conservation of Good and Bad.  As people moved to the mill towns of the 18th century, they lost their independence and became dependent on the mill owners for a (usually poor) wage. The air became fouled with smoke and pollution. The density of housing with poor sanitation brought epidemics of disease. Eventually, of course, the worst of these ills of the mill towns started to be addressed - by new and better technology. Technologies moved on but so did the side effects.

In the 19th Century, more and more people gave up the farm for the factory, for what clearly seemed to be a better way of life. The route to prosperity was through the middle class with its better wages and better education for the children. More people worked for larger companies which, with the advent of the railroads, gave rise to the modern corporation. People were no longer just owners or laborers but occupied intermediate rungs on the corporate ladder.  Time became regulated by the clock to dictate everything from the hours of work to the schedules of the trains. The world became more networked with the sharing of stock prices by ticker tape and the creation of world time zones to unify travel and communication. Cities grew ever larger and more congested.

The 20th Century gave people a sense of autonomy while at the same time making them evermore interconnected and interdependent.  There were more choices of products but fewer choices on how to earn a living without being part of the interconnected web of commerce.  The population continued to grow and with it came more cars and traffic jams, more need for electricity and more air pollution. The world was both much richer and much more complex than ever before.

Now we face the Knowledge Age with only the slightest grasp of how pervasive and powerful it will become in our lives. We gain a sense of exponential connectivity while at the same time we face the specter of losing our privacy almost completely.  We will live in a world where our actions and intentions become the stuff of marketing research and directed advertising. Our children will never know what it was like to live in the Prewired World - and likely they would not choose to live there if they could.

We live in a world where we are becoming increasingly inseparable from the technology that we create and that surrounds us. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it should give us at least some pause for thought.  Can we control our technology or has it moved beyond our control into a stage of evolution that is almost biological in form?  Technologies now define us, define how we work and how we play.  We use communications technology ubiquitously. We social networker on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.  We are hooked to our iPhone even while we watch a movie in a theater. We drive and talk on our cell phones and think nothing of it.  Technologies make our everyday life possible. Do we know how many functions in our automobiles are now controlled by computers?  Digital electronics run our refrigerators and even our furnaces.  We have crossed the threshold and there is no going back.  But this is not a new phenomenon. The same was true a century ago - just to a lesser degree. We live in a world that is evermore shaped by our own hands and minds but that same technology is now shaping us.  We may no longer be masters of our own destiny.  Ready or not, Technologies R'Us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

That Should Still Be Us

I saw an article in our local paper, the Raleigh News and Observer, entitled, Industries Fear New Wage Rules. The article was exploring the new wage rules that are being imposed by the Department of Labor on industries that hire immigrant workers on H2-B, temporary work visas.  Wages are projected to increase, on average, almost 50 percent - from $7.43 an hour to $11.18 an hour under the new rules. The higher wage is in line with the minimum wage paid in most regions. The reporter interviewed a number of small industry owners such as oyster processors, reforestation services, and even hotel owners for the impact of the upcoming change in the law. Not surprisingly, the owners are not happy, feeling that the increase in the wages they will have to pay will drive many of them out of business. Not a good deal.

But what struck me in the story was a couple of paragraphs in the article:

Employers say that they rely on foreign workers for the dirty, back-breaking tasks that Americans aren't willing to do - even with the current high unemployment rate.  And, they stress, they're required to document their efforts to hire Americans before the government permits them to hire foreign workers.

Further on, the article states:

Susan Pentz, 60, who along with her husband owns the 18-room Harborside Motel on Ocracoke Island, has been bringing in two housekeepers each tourist season for the past decade. She turned to foreign workers, she said, after struggling to hire locals and discovering that those she was able to hire soon quit or showed up only when they felt like it. "The bottom line is, I ended up cleaning the rooms because... no wanted to do that kind of manual labor," Perez said.

I read this article just after I finished reading Tom Friedman's and Michael Mandelbaum's new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. The authors of the book are trying to get us to focus on the multiple forces are in play that are causing us to slide from the leadership position we have enjoyed since at least the end of World War II.

The Big Challenges in their minds are:

  1. Globalization and  the Information Technology Revolution
  2. The Return of Strong Middle Class Jobs
  3. Rising National Debt and the Deficit
  4. The Need for Green and Clean Energy
They spend quite a bit of time documenting each of these areas in what amounts to a rehash of other news articles and their own past opinion pieces. Still, the case is compelling that these are. indeed, major issues that need to be addressed.

To address these issues, they outline what they call the Five Pillars of Prosperity:

  1. Providing much better public education for more and more Americans
  2. Continuing to build and modernize our infrastructure
  3. Keeping America's doors open to immigration
  4. Government support for basic R&D
  5. Implementing limited but necessary regulation on private economic activity
The authors make the case that we basically got fat and happy when we won the Cold War.  At just that moment, we should have been redoubling our efforts to compete in a global economy. Instead, we borrowed our way to an unsustainable way of life.  But the bills have now come due on both a personal and national level. Worse, the current political system is so broken as to prevent any meaningful action to address the Big Challenges. 

Their solution? They think we need a strong, centrist, third-party Presidential candidate. They acknowledge from the outset that the candidate most likely won't win. But the candidate could force whoever does win to take note of their more centrist platforms. They even suggest three past third-party candidates who did just that - Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose candidacy to continue to build Progressive reforms in 1912, George Wallace in 1968 who forced Washington to pay attention to the South, and Ross Perot in his 1992 bid to address national budget deficits (they didn't mention Ralph Nader).  Each of these candidates caused the incoming President to enact reforms that the Third-Party candidate strongly campaigned to bring to the nation's attention. The authors call this strategy political Shock Therapy. 

And what does all this have to do with the history of technology? Everything. This country was built on the backs of immigrant labor manning the steel mills and garment sweatshops. The entrepreneurs who built American business developed countless new technologies that changed our way of life. Think telephones, automobiles, televisions, personal computers, and cell phones. To make all of these objects that we now take for granted required more and more skilled labor in the factories. A Middle Class with rising expectations that their lives would be better, and their children's lives better yet, was born, at least in part from a strong public education system. By comparison, for the last decade, data indicates that the Middle Class has not advanced economically one dime. In fact, they may be worse off than they were ten years ago.

Technology and democracy have always played key roles in making the United States a place where people wanted to live. For many in the Third World, it still holds that attraction. But I agree with Friedman and Mandelbaum - something needs to change and change fast. We are well past the dithering stage. 

The immigrant workers who come to North Carolina to take temporary jobs are looking for a better life, just as millions of immigrants did before them. They are willing to do what Americans are not, and I'm not just talking about the menial jobs they do. They are willing to leave their home country and families to try to make a little better living than they can at home. How many of our own, even highly-educated people, are willing to leave their country for better opportunities in China or India?  Not as many as those who come the other way for poor wages and lousy living conditions. 

Let's try to get technology back to producing the jobs we need to help all of us be in the position where we can look forward to a better future.  We are still the best hope for a brighter world. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Technology and the City: For Better and For Worse

Roosevelt Center
Greenbelt, MD
The city was created by technology. Technology has also made the city a poorer place to live. This cycle of creation and degradation has gone on since people started building their mud and straw huts close together. The by-products of cohabitation, whether sewage or air pollution or even epidemic diseases, has been the price one paid for living close to markets or places of work.

This pattern was reinforced for me by a film I happened upon entitled simply The City. The  film is a documentary created for the 1939 New York World's Fair City of Tomorrow which was part of the Futurama exhibit.  The film was the brainchild of Catherine Bauer Wurster who was the leading member of a small group of idealists known as "The Housers" who were committed to improving housing for low-income families. The New York architect, Robert D. Kohn, shared her interest in low-income housing and commissioned the documentary.

The film focused much of its attention on the planned community of Greenbelt, Maryland which was constructed under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as a model community. The idea was to build an ideal community near Washington, D.C. to relieve a severe housing shortage in the area of the Capital which existed at that time.  Two other cities were also planned and built - Greendale, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee) and Greenhills, Ohio (near Cincinnati).

The film was originally written by FDR's filmmaker, Pare Lorentz, but was re-scripted by the noted architectural critic and advocate of planned suburban communities, Lewis Mumford. Interestingly, the documentary's music was the first commissioned film score for composer Aaron Copeland and had largely been forgotten until this film was rediscovered in the archives a few years ago.

When I watched the film (which is available on YouTube in four parts), I was struck by how many of the problems we face today were already there in 1938: traffic congestion, over-crowding, air pollution, and terrible housing for low-income people. The model city of Greenbelt, MD looks like a little utopia compared to the squalor of the mill towns and the congestion of New York City. In many ways, however, the future longed for in the film has come to pass. Many of us live in nicely laid out suburban communities with good roads, schools, housing, and shopping. Yet many of the problems are still with us or have even grown worse over time. Despite our advancing technology, the city remains challenged to perpetually come up with new - mostly technical - solutions.

Quite coincidentally, the latest special issue of Scientific American is about the future of cities.  Must be something in the air about cities lately. I keep coming across all these connections. In any event, the 1939 documentary is linked below. If you want a better view, click through to the YouTube site and watch it as a 480p video.

Parts 1 to 4:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Creating the City

I like maps. Maybe it's a guy thing.  Maybe maps appeal to my sense of organization. But whatever the reason, when I hear or see something related to an extensive map of a place, I get interested. I was even more interested to come across a short video on Vimeo that explores the maps of Jerry Gretzinger. Jerry didn't just draw an extensive map of an existing city, he created one, Ukrania, from scratch and he has been doing it over decades. Watch and see some real creativity in action!

Jerry's Map from Jerry Gretzinger on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Self-Similarity: Fractals and People

Last night, I was watching a rerun of a PBS Nova program on fractals entitled, Hunting the Hidden Dimension. I don't think the full episode is online at the moment but you can see the trailer here. (As I look at the preview image below, the full episode may be available via the link below the preview).

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

The essence of fractals is the concept of self-similarity - the idea that patterns repeat themselves at ever smaller dimensions. The discoverer of fractals, Benoit Mandelbrot, was initially chastised by his mainstream mathematical colleagues as  a bit of a nut. These patterns weren't real, they said, they were more like an entertaining parlor game. Those days are long gone, of course, and fractals (and their associated concept) Chaos theory are now being used to investigate everything from thunderstorms to heart arrhythmias.  In fact, Mandelbrot's initial insight into the nature of fractals came from his investigation of noise patterns on long distance data transmission lines while at IBM Research Labs.  The patterns are everywhere once you know how to look for them. 

As I was listening to the narrator talk about Mandelbrot's initial rejection by his colleagues, I began to think about the nature of groups and how they come to all conform to certain ideas that make up the status quo. Could it be that groups of people follow some of the same concepts you find in fractals? Let's look at a couple of hypothetical examples.

What if you have two university professors, both highly respected in their fields. One carefully chooses his or her grad students on the basis that they are bright, are seemingly willing to take their direction very closely from the professor, and are relatively conformist in nature. The other professor also wants bright grad students but hires non-conformists and students that have some strong ideas of their own they want to pursue.   

The first lab is going to really churn out productive research that augments the professors views. The ideas will be tight and reinforcing.  The students are self-similar to the professor and so a pattern of conformity emerges.  When they graduate, they go out into the academic world and what do they do? The look for students like themselves and the pattern is replicated again and again. The field begins to develop norms that are much based on self-similar thinking as they are on the underlying science. 

The second professor has a few mavericks in his lab.  Not everyone but a few. These people mix it up and challenge the professor and the other students to look at their way of seeing the problems. The lab is probably a little less successful at churning out papers but every now and then a new idea emerges that comes from the lack of self-similarity. After the mavericks graduate, they go forth in a new academic position and try to hire a few mavericks of their own.  More new ideas emerge.

The reality of the way people are made is that far more of us are conformists than mavericks. It is much easier to get along in the world if you are self-similar than different. Hence, conformist thinking dominates and the Mandelbrot's of the world have to push back hard to be heard. 

The same is true, by the way, in corporations. The pressure to conform to the company's culture can be very high in a large and established corporation.  Certainly, you can see examples where this is not the case in tech startups but in general, once a company has a formula for making money, it likes to keep making money. The business leaders feel they know the formula and don't want to mess with it. Non-conformists are not welcome. 

So the principle of self-similarity that drives fractals may also drive human group dynamics.  Mavericks pay a high price for their independence. But in many cases, like that of Benoit Mandelbrot, the world is far better for it.