Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Reawaken your inner lizard

A radically new hypothesis proposes that we inherited our basic creativity from ... lizards:

The specialization of each hemisphere in the human brain, we argue, was already present in its basic form when vertebrates emerged about 500 million years ago.

Our hypothesis holds that the left hemisphere of the vertebrate brain was originally specialized for the control of well-established patterns of behavior under ordinary and familiar circumstances. In contrast, the right hemisphere, the primary seat of emotional arousal, was at first specialized for detecting and responding to unexpected stimuli in the environment.

Humans' ability to create new environments, like factories or cities, is fairly recent on the evolutionary time scale. Nevertheless, human creativity itself must have ancient origins because even small children can generate counterfactual "what if" scenarios. Assuming that one hemisphere is responsible for well established patterns and the other for reacting to unexpected stimuli, both of them need to work together to imagine environments with new stimuli and realize that old reactions might not work.

Monday, June 29, 2009

CNet interview with Bob Borchers, the former head of Apple's worldwide marketing for the iPhone:

Simple can be hard in the sense that you have to say no to lots of things. From a cultural standpoint inside a big company, sometimes it's difficult to focus and narrow things down to a few products that you will develop extremely well. If you look at Apple, the product portfolio only consists of about 20 or 30 products. That's small compared to other companies that have hundreds or thousands of products. But if you look at revenue, Apple is much bigger than some of these other companies.
iTunes is a good example. At first it was all about music and people got that. And over time Apple has been able to layer on different pieces. And now it's a digital playground with movie and TV show downloads, podcasts, video rentals, etc. If you started that on day one, the consumer would have said, "Holy smokes. This is too complicated." Apple takes a very methodical approach and features and elements are added step by step, so that consumers aren't trying to drink from the fire hose.

Apple is particularly good at managing consumer learning cycle. And they always go for vertical (salient) differentiation, rather than horizontal (price).

-- I wish blogger had a sketch tool, so that I could easily describe the strategy on a 4q diagram.

The weakest link: web ads.

The tsunami of traffic related to Michael Jackson’s death brought down news web sites on Thursday because those sites had to wait for third-party content, such as images for ads, according to a new analysis.
...sites collapsed from the traffic because they were built the wrong way. Those web sites waited for every image to be downloaded from a third-party ad service before displaying the web page to the reader.

The control system failed because it was built, or - more accurately - evolved, with no regard for the variety of payloads and their delivery routes.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An excellent problem for a class discussion:

Michael Jackson's death Thursday had as great an impact on the Internet as anything in the history of the medium that didn't involve the World Trade Center.

The statistics are amazing: Akamai said worldwide Internet traffic was 11 percent higher than normal during the peak hours between 3 p.m. PDT and 4 p.m., when news of Jackson's death was breaking. That traffic forced even Google to its knees for a brief period of time Thursday afternoon.

Can a system that has trouble keeping up with ever-increasing demand for its services be considered a reliable source of information when a true crisis emerges?

Solutions proposed by the debaters and their commentators are quite inadequate.

Creativity as a choice.

Malcolm Gladwell in The NewYorker(October 10, 2005):
Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.

On the personal level, since you cannot select a different personality for yourself, it makes sense to bet on the treatment effect. That is, you should find training and environment that turn you into a better person. This holds true for personal creativity - developing it is a choice that implies further education.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rational addiction to junk food

Kevin Murphy , now on the rational addiction theory:

That theory has some pretty simple implications. One is, if I learn today that smoking is going to harm me in the future, then I will smoke less—that is, people will respond to information about the future.

People will also respond to future prices. If they think cigarettes are going to be more expensive in the future, developing a taste for cigarettes is a more expensive habit, and they will have an incentive to avoid building up a smoking habit.

If we believe that junk food will stay cheap - forever 99 cents for a burger - then our addiction to junk food is more likely to persist.

Also, in the same interview a great insight into the impact of patents:
in a world in which people can make copies very rapidly, it breaks down and there’s a major decline in incentives, and you need copyrights and property right protection (or a substitute mechanism) to maintain incentives in that case.

Why learn how to invent?

Economist Kevin Murphy:

If we look beyond education, we see an increase in the skill premium generally, the gap in wages between skilled workers and unskilled workers, whether highly skilled high school graduates compared to less-skilled high school graduates, or highly skilled college graduates compared to less-skilled college graduates, those differences have gone up as well. So the return to being more skilled today is higher than ever.

What can we do as individuals, and what can we do as a society? The answer is obvious: Invest more in skills, and doing so will provide benefits for individuals and for society as a whole. That’s the opportunity that’s become available.

via marginalrevolution.com

Friday, June 26, 2009

Today, after researching the topic for the last couple of months, I submitted a new course proposal to the Stanford Continuing Studies program. Here's how I see it:

Course Title: The Greatest Innovations of All Times: Past, Present, and Future.

Course Description: This hands-on interactive course treats the current global crisis as a unique opportunity for breakthrough innovation. As it happened in the past, individuals, businesses, and societies that take advantage of such opportunities propel themselves to the next level of prosperity and growth. Our goal is to explore five areas that are essential to modern human endeavor: energy, information and communications, money and commerce, transportation, and health services. Each session of the class will be dedicated to a specific opportunity domain and have two parts. First, we will look at long-term technology and business trends. We will analyze how people solved seemingly insurmountable problems before and understand how and why original recipes for success turned into recipes for disaster over time. Secondly, we will use brainstorming and other creativity techniques to come up with solutions to today's critical problems, identify short- and long-term business/technology opportunities, and outline potential paths for breakthrough innovations.

The idea is ambitious, yet very simple. I am going to take the system model and trace the evolution of key fundamental functional elements from ancient to modern times, focusing on 100X disruptions. Here are my preliminary lines of attack:
1. Energy: Fire -> Horse/Oxen -> Water/Wind -> Steam Engine -> Electricity Generator -> Internal Combustion Engine -> Nuclear -> Solar (?).
2. Communications: Language -> Writing -> Printing -> Digital -> Fractal(?).
3. Money: Barter -> Shells -> Coins -> Promisory Notes -> Paper -> Electronic -> Derivatives/Futures -> Virtual (?).
4. Transportation: ( this will run somewhat parrallel to the Energy line, with emphasis on  carrying capacity, delivery precision, territory coverage, and speed). Wheel -> Road -> Navigation -> Maps -> Sattelites -> Virtual Worlds(?).
5. Health Services: Shaman -> Herbs -> Tools -> Doctors -> Alchemy -> Pharma -> Genetics -> Bio-cyber-augmentation(?).

Books for the course: Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jarred Diamond; The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam.

Mobile bets

Chipsets that deliver high-performance low-power graphics are going to rule the next generation of mobile devices. Here's more evidence for you:

Today, Apple purchased 2.2 million shares at 1.43 British pounds ($2.36), for a total cost of 3.14 million pounds ($5.19 million). The purchase brings Apple's stake in the company to 9.5 percent.

Little by little, Apple has become a silicon design powerhouse. And with the recent alliance between Nokia and Intel, the battle lines on the hand-held side of cloud computing are becoming more pronounced.
Hardware: Apple & Samsung vs Nokia & Intel.
Software: Apple/iTunes vs Google/Android vs Nokia/Symbian.

Short-term bet: Apple
Long-term bet: Google

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Dilemma of the Day: the politics of carbon emissions.

Faced with opposition to his legislation,

"Mr. Waxman [the Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee] was forced to water down the cap in early years to please rural Democrats, and then severely ratchet it up in later years to please liberal Democrats."

Henry Waxman's dilemma: the cap should be low(for rural Democrats seeking re-elections in conservative districts), and the cap should be high (for urban Democrats in liberal districts). Solution: separation in time. Very low cap now; very high cap later. A good solution to a political problem, but, due to a future carbon tax shock, a bad solution for the economy.

A better solution would be to additionally localize the caps in space, e.g. rural areas, and/or provide local subsidies to offset the initial impact. On the political side, this gives rural Democrats points for defending voter interests in their own districts; on the carbon reduction side, enables better control and coverage of CO2 emissions in the country as a whole.

GPSed pigeons and the wisdom of crowds.

NewScientist (17:20 25 June 2009 by Ewen Callaway):

A new electronic gadget simultaneously measures brain activity and GPS-location of homing pigeons in flight. Initial tests of homing pigeons indoors identified several different bands of brain waves, connected to what the pigeons were looking at.

...activity in one particular frequency range plummeted as the birds flew across the featureless sea. Brain waves in this band, however, perked up as pigeons neared the coastline.

Pigeons flying in flocks also produced fewer of these brain waves than pigeons flying solo.

Will Neurologger-like devices eventually replace RFIDs and CAT scans? With embedded body sensor we can detect events, e.g. epidemics, before they start.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

10X change: a baby in one month from 9 pregnant women.

In today's interview with MSNBC, Warren Buffet, while talking about the sorry state of the world's economy, uses the famous "one-month baby" metaphor. Describing the government's inability to jump-start a new growth cycle he says,

"But you can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant, you know. (Laughs.) It just doesn't work that way. So you can be throwing things at the economy and they will have an impact, but they haven't had much impact yet."

Economic issues aside, why is it considered impossible to produce a baby in one month? Think about it: 255 babies are born every minute in the world. This means that with the right impregnation strategy we can produce a baby every quarter of a second! This simple calculation shows that producing one baby in a month must be a pretty trivial task. All you need to do is to run an infinite process that impregnates one woman every month. Once you decide to have a baby, you are guaranteed one in no more than 30 days. Maybe even less. So, why do we have this notion the problem is impossible to solve? What are the assumptions that prevent us from thinking creatively?

With this background, here are some tasks for class discussion:

1. Draw a 10X diagram for the "baby in one month problem".
2. Identify key parameters of a disruptive, rather than "normal" impregnation/birth business model.
3. Come up with technologies that enable this disruptive business model.
4. Draw a 10X diagram for an economy in recession.
5. Come up with a disruptive growth business model.

New device category -> new business model

Times Co. is considering paid subscriptions on devices including Apple Inc.’s iPhone because they allow for less advertising than the Web, Martin Nisenholtz said in an interview today in New York following a speech. The publisher hasn’t yet determined whether or how to charge for access to its sites, he said.

Blanket ads don't seem to work on a small screen, therefore mobile web business models will have to run on a targeting engine that is significantly different from the "regular" web. On iPhone the content will be packaged and sold as "applications"; on Android - as search-based relevant ads and/or sale transactions. In the nearest future, application aggregators will emerge to provide access to certain information packages (apps, channels, libraries). Bloomberg is already doing a good job at supplying business articles. And, for now, they are free.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Real-time encyclopedia: from 0 to 2009

NYTimes via Cnet:

Recognizing that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is increasingly used by the public as a news source, Google News began this month to include Wikipedia among the stable of publications it trawls to create the site.
The graph shows several qualitative (10X) historical changes in the technology. The authorship transition is remarkable: from a person (Pliny The Elder) to a private company (Britannica) to a world-wide community of volunteers (Wikipedia).

A brief history of the technology:
- 77AD - Pliny The Elder produces encyclopedia of the natural world;
- 1768 - first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica;
- 2001 - Wikipedia is launched.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

According to R.B.Cialdini and his colleagues, here's how the Fundamental Attribution Error plays out in everyday life:

If you've made a mistake, an error in judgment, or a bad decision, you should admit the mistake, immediately followed by an action plan demonstrating that you can take control of the situation and rectify it. Through these actions you'll ultimately put yourself in a position of greater influence by being perceived as not only capable, but also honest
...research suggests that if you play the blame game - pointing your finger at external factors rather than at yourself - both you and your organization will likely end up as the losers. p.123.

1. Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive (Hardcover), 2008.
2. Lee,F., Peterson,C., and Tiedens, L.A.(2004). mea culpa: Predicting stock prices from organizational attributions. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 15:108-16.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Problem-solving, the Congress-style.

It is a well established fact that the growing obesity of the US population is one of the major factors contributing to the rising medical costs. To address the problem we have to deal with obesity, which is largely caused by eating too much junk food (fat+sugar+salt). Taxing junk foods, including burgers and lattes, and related ads seems like a very logical solution: it works to reduce consumption and collects money from people who are more likely to use medical services in the future.
Well, this is too logical for the US Congress. Here's how they propose to fix our health care:
- Increasing the price of soda and other sugary drinks by 10 cents a can.

- Applying a potential 2 percent income tax increase to single taxpayers earning more than $200,000 a year and households earning more than $250,000.

- A new employer payroll tax could target 3 percent of employers' health care expenditures.

Compared to a $2 per pack cigarette tax, the 10 cents soft drink tax seems tiny and ineffectual. It is not going to make any significant difference in consumption. The other taxes is just a politically expedient way to move money from one pocket to another. The Congress doesn't even attempt to address real long-term issues behind the rising medical costs. The health care bill is driven by problem-solving in party politics, not health care.

Distance commerce circa 1947.

A 1947 Tampax ad. Note how unreliable and slow is the payment method: coins or stamps. No credit card over the phone, no paypal, no ... what's next?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A waterless washing machine:

The dirty job is done by small nylon beads that pull stains off garments and lock them into the nylon's molecular structure. The beads don't even seem to suffocate easily--they can continue to absorb dirt over hundreds of washes.

Why green energy is like a bicycle on a freeway?

I am still trying to find a good metaphor for the current green energy problems. Here's my latest attempt:

Small payload
Hostile infrastructure
Weather dependency

Update: A good example of misguided thinking on the subject. People just don't get the idea of the infrastructure mismatch:
"Maximizing the number of people who go solar is a paramount policy — it affects air pollution consideration, climate change considerations and the development of green jobs," said Adam Browning, executive director and co-founder of Vote Solar Initiative, a San Francisco nonprofit seeking to bring solar energy into the mainstream. "So why are we talking about stamping on the brakes when we should be talking about pushing on the accelerator?"

Creativity: assorted quotes

from Jeff Hawkins' book "On Intelligence":

- creativity is an inherent property of every cortical region. It is a necessary component of prediction. p. 183.
- Prediction by analogy - creativity - is so pervasive we normally don't notice it. p.185.
- highly creative works of art are appreciated because they violate our predictions. p.186.
- Creativity is mixing and matching patterns of everything you've ever experienced or come to know in your lifetime. The neural mechanism for this is everywhere in the cortex. 187.
- Whatever the difference between brilliant and average brains, we are all creative. And through the practice and study we can enhance our skills and talents. 189.
- To succeed [in solving a problem] you must ponder the problem often but also do other things so that cortex will have the opportunity to find an analogous memory. 190.
- False analogy is always a danger. 192. Our brains are always looking at patterns and making analogies. If correct correlations cannot be found, the brain is more than happy to accept false ones. 193.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Laura T. Thomas and Alejandro Lleras, researchers from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, confirmed earlier findings that tracking even an unrelated pattern with your eyes can improve your problem-solving performance. Here's their 2007 Psychonomic Bulletin & Review paper.

I think it might explain that drawing things out during a problem-solving session, e.g. The Three Magicians exercise, helps people come up with better ideas.

Also, a recent book by Dan Roam, The Back of the Napkin, describes some really cool methods to "solve problems by drawing".

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The National Research Council (via cnet) brings some much needed reality to the debate about "green" energy:

...renewable energy sources--wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, and biomass--could supply 10 percent of U.S. electricity supply in 2020 with existing technology.

Getting to 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2035 is possible with sustained policies and investment.

Another important, but largely ignored, aspect of the problem is a bad fit between today's grid and renewable sources. Over the last 100+ years, the grid evolved to accommodate industrial-scale, reliable, on-demand generators. Now, we are trying to augment it with relatively small, inherently unreliable, when-the-sun-shines-and-the-wind-blows sources. Bad thinking. It commits a very common problem-solving mistake when people attempt to "graft" a piece of advanced technology onto an old infrastructure. Doesn't work. The new energy sources require new infrastructure and new distribution logic. I would argue that energy storage and supply/demand localization are much more important here than solar panel and wind turbine efficiency. It's the system, stupid!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Expanding contraction.

How real American towns become flexible like virtual Sim-cities:

The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature.

Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area.

Flint, sixty miles north of Detroit, was the original home of General Motors. The car giant once employed 79,000 local people but that figure has shrunk to around 8,000.

Unemployment is now approaching 20 per cent and the total population has almost halved to 110,000.

The exodus – particularly of young people – coupled with the consequent collapse in property prices, has left street after street in sections of the city almost entirely abandoned.
The process of decay that took place in ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Rome, can now be executed on a time scale of decades rather than centuries.

Also related:
Esther Boserup. 1982. The Impact of Scarcity and Plenty on Development. Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Volume 14. Issue 2. (Autumn, 1983), 383-407.

Necessity is the mother of sex.

Aphids, tiny plant-eaters, can reproduce both sexually and asexually. When there's plenty of food and other life conditions are good as well, they

"increase exponentially via asexual reproductive strategies to take full advantage of the rich supply resources.
When food sources have been depleted, the climate becomes hostile, or individual survival is jeopardized by some other adverse change in living conditions, these organisms switch to sexual forms of reproduction. Sexual reproduction ensures a mixing of the gene pool of the species.

Does technological innovation follow the same set of strategies? When funding is good every startup seems to  develop Web 1.0 or 2.0 or whatever the latest buzzword-compliant application is. When funding gets scarce or changes in the environment come fast and furious, people (even the military) tend to become more willing to mix things up, broker, rather than kill, ideas, and transfer technologies from different fields of use. In some ways, layoffs in hi-tech can be considered as a way to reshuffle knowledge and skills.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Problem creation problem: Apollo vs Cassandra.

Ancient gods are particularly good at creating problems for others. Apollo, one of the most powerful Greek gods, fell in love with Cassandra, the daughter of Trojan king Priam. Apollo seduced the girl by promising that he would teach her the art of prophecy. Having learnt the art, Cassandra rejected him. Angry Appollo, unable to take back her knowledge, decided to put a curse on it, by declaring that Cassandra's prophecies will never be accepted or believed.

As a result, Cassandra's last tragic prophecy that Troy will be destroyed by the Greeks fell on deaf ears of her compatriots. According to the legend, during the sack of the city, which she so perfectly predicted, Cassandra, the daughter of a Trojan king, was captured, raped, and then killed by an ordinary Greek soldier.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Problem creation problem

There seems to exist a whole class of problems, in which solution involves creation of an unsolvable problem for one's opponent. As an example, here's how in the 9th century two enterprising Venetian merchants fooled Alexandria port officials and smuggled Saint Mark's body out of Egypt:

...two Venetian merchants returned from Egypt with a corpse which they claimed to be that of the Evangelist (St Mark), stolen from his Alexandrian tomb.
...[as the body was sitting on a Venetian ship in Alexandria's harbor] the odour of sanctity that issued from the body was becoming so strong that, in the words of one chronicler, 'If all the spices of the world had been gathered together in Alexandria, they could not have so perfumed the city.' Suspicions were understandably aroused, and local officials arrived to search the ship; but the Venetians had covered their prize with quantities of pork, at the first sight of which the officials, pious Muslims to a man, cried 'Kanzir, kanzir!' - 'Pig, pig!' - and fled in horror. -- A History of Venice, by John Julius Norwich. ISBN 0-679-72197-5. p.29.

As we can see, the solution to the smugglers' problem was to make it impossible for the port officials to inspect the ship. Using our "inventorese" language, we can say that the merchants achieved their goal by preventing their opponents from solving a detection problem.
Given that the vast majority of such problems are solved by applying the Separation Principles, problem creation problems must have a solution based on certain anti-Separation Principles. In other words, to create a problem for an opponent, one should find a way to bundle useful and harmful functions. In the case of the stinking St.Mark's body, the useful function, from the Alexandrian official's point of view, was the highly detectable odour of the body. To neutralize this useful function, the two Venetian merchants bundled it with an extremely harmful (for the official's) function - untouchable pig carcasses. As the result, the officials became incapable of detecting St Mark's body, despite its highly conspicious odour.

Smart grid. Stupid grid.

NewScientist on a mismatch between sources of renewable energy and the existing grid:

Fears over energy security and climate change have led to record investment in renewable energy. But a major problem threatens to stall progress towards a more sustainable future: national electricity grids are far from ready to cope with the unreliable output from the new technologies.
If energy generation doesn't match energy use, power cuts or overload is the result.
The best solution suggested so far is a concept known as the "virtual power plant", says Lang. Each virtual plant consists of several hundred or thousand microgenerators lumped together in cyberspace into a unit comparable to that of a large power station.

Looks like a pretty lousy solution to me. It requires aggregation and shuffling of electricity over significant distances. Storing and re-distributing locally would make much more economic sense.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Stuart Taylor, of Cisco Systems:

Cisco projects that global mobile data traffic will double every year, increasing 66 fold between 2008 and 2013. This phenomenal growth is not without challenges:
  • Revenues are not increasing anywhere near the speed of traffic growth. In fact, mobile data revenue is growing at 10 percent to 20 percent per year compared to annual traffic growth of 100 to 200 percent. How can mobile operators monetize this growth?
  • Delivering a good customer experience on an increasingly congested network is going to be a challenge. A single user accessing BitTorrent, or some other bandwidth-intensive application, threatens to destroy the experience for all users.

Looks like an excellent problem to solve: a mismatch between the business model and technology. It could provide an opening for Wi-Max. A tiny one, though.

more on the subject from VentureBeat

Zipping to money

June 10 (Bloomberg) -- Zipcar Inc., the world’s largest car-sharing company, is gearing up to publicly sell shares in 2010 as it fends off rivals such as Hertz Global Holdings Inc.

Below is a 10X diagram that describes the disruptive nature of ZipCar. Note that their business model, i.e. control sub-system) targets delivery of a $10 transportation service on a community scale (delivery resolution) with a 1hr usage interval. Traditional car rental agencies are less nimble. You can't move them with a tenner, and you would have a hard time getting a good service outside of a major airport or attraction (town vs community delivery scale).  

On the left is a screenshot of ZipCar's price list. Note that they don't compete with Car Rental majors in the daily rental category. Not yet.

update: 1. Hertz' response
2. NYC cab rates.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

BizTech Dilemma of The Day: Google vs Microsoft

== To be used as an illustration for a Dilemma-busting session (Separation Principles) ==


The tandem of the Microsoft e-mail client (Outlook) and server (Exchange) has been a dominant force in corporate IT world for years. Now, Google is trying to break into this lucrative market by offering companies a competing product - Google Apps, a software-as-a-service suite of cloud applications for e-mail and information sharing. Unfortunately for Google, there's a problem:

there apparently is a sizable enough number of workers that refuse to move off Outlook, meaning that IT directors who want to sign up with Google were forced to maintain a Microsoft Exchange server to placate those folks while moving everybody else to Gmail. An alternative where Outlook users are connected to Gmail through IMAP got the job done, but at the expense of a severe performance hit, said Chris Vander Mey, a senior product manager with Google.

Dilemma formulation

Thus, we can formulate the first-level dilemma:
- on one hand, IT managers need to continue maintaining the Microsoft software, because it is familiar to their company's workers (Condition 1)
- on the other hand, IT managers need to stop maintaining the Microsoft software, because, for some of them, Google provides a more cost-effective solution (Condition 2).

By separating in space, we arrive at a configuration, where Outlook remains on the client (Condition 1), while Google Apps becomes the new server (Condition 2).

The IMAP solution moves us in the right direction, but it doesn't go far enough. The dilemma it tries to avoid can be formulated as follows:
- one one hand, the e-mail client should use the MS Exchange interface, because it provides the best performance (Condition 3);
- on the other hand, the e-mail client should not use the MS Exchange interface, because the new IT infrastructure runs GoogleApps servers (Condition 4).

In other words, the client should speak natively both "languages". The question is: When? By separating in time, we get a client that at one time speaks Exchange, and at another time speaks GoogleApps.
When does it need to speak Exchange? When it talks to Outlook user interface application. When does it need to speak GoogleApps? When it talks to a GoogleApps server.
As a result we get a solution of a plug-in that leaves Outlook unchanged, but "fakes" an Exchange interface for it.

An alternative solution would be to separate in space, i.e. have a server-side Exchange-GoogleApps translation module (e.g. a virtual implementation). Does it makes sense? Maybe for Microsoft, but not for Google. Mostly, because Google wants to, eventually, get rid of Outlook clients altogether. Also, e-mail clients that don't have Outlook, e.g. mobile devices, can sync with GoogleApps directly, and they don't need an Exchange translation module.

The end-result: a set of configurations where legacy Outlook clients (PCs) with lots of processing power and bandwidth use a plug-in, while mobile clients use native GoogleApps interfaces.


Also, see Principle #24 (Intermediary) in the contradiction resolution matrix. It would be ok to apply it here right away, but it won't be specific enough to provide adequate criteria for configuration choices.

Three diagrams are needed to illustrate various problem configurations.
Softbank Mobile, Japan's biggest cell phone carrier, ...has a plan to equip the same amount of elementary-school students with GPS phones.
...the purpose this time is ...to test how GPS-enabled cell phones can help track the spreading of an infectious disease and stop it from becoming a pandemic.

The idea is really close to what we discussed during the last session of the Spring '09 Principles of Invention class. Specifically, we talked about enabling users, e.g via twitter, to report sneezing and coughing incidents around them. Coupled with GPS data, this information would provide a fairly accurate map of a swine flu pandemic. Furthermore, a P2P networking technology could even allow for "tagging" disease carriers.The system could also track people who live in "dangerous" zones and intend to travel within the disease incubation period.

Of course, this will only work if people tell report their true observations. Long term, sensors in public places, e.g. subway cars, might do a much better job at tracking the spread of a contagious disease.

Below is the "Original map by Dr. John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854."

Monday, June 08, 2009

Necessity is the mother of diffusion

A good example of forced innovation (diffusion):

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled a plan to save money by phasing out school textbooks in favour of internet aids.

From the beginning of the next school year in August, maths and science students in California's high schools will have access to online texts that have passed an academic standards review.

Heavy backpacks no more!
Criminal creativity seems to be domain-specific:

June 5 (Bloomberg) -- White-collar fugitives such as Sam Israel and Marcus Schrenker often fail to escape the law because of what prosecutors and bounty hunters say is a lack of preparation for the rigors of life on the lam.

Israel, 49, convicted of running a $400 million Ponzi scheme at hedge-fund firm Bayou Group LLC, and Schrenker, 38, accused of fraud as president of Heritage Wealth Management Inc., were captured within a month of fleeing. White-collar fugitives often run out of money or lack the mental sturdiness to elude police.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Berners-Lee talks about Web Science - a discipline of "studying the effect of the web within disciplines like social science, economics, psychology and law."

So, I started thinking about the web as a sensing and perception ability, like vision, hearing, and all other human senses. The key difference, of course, is that the web is a collective, rather than an individual "perceptor". To explore the idea further, I asked myself several questions: How does the web perceive my favorite subjects, invention and technology? Is there a way to find out? How can we find applications for our sixth web-sense?

Either by accident or design, I decided to use Google Timeline, which helped me once before. And see what I got (click on the picture below to enlarge):

To me the contrast between the graphs looks amazing! According to the web, invention (the top graph) reached its peak in the mid-19th century. And right after that, technology (the bottom graph) took off. I will do some more data digging, but a new question is already on my mind: What is going to succeed technology?
CNET runs a pictorial retrospective of GM cars (photos copyright GM). Here's some "firsts":

1927 - the first production vehicle created by a professional designer
1937 - the first concept car
1940 - the first mass production automatic transmission
1954 - a fiberglass body

1956 - a rear-mounted television camera;
1960 - Chevrolet Corvair, "unsafe at any speed";
A corollary to the post about the superiority of the junk food business model:

Starbucks is McDonald's for the affluent.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Great Junk Food Disruption

As an illustration to my yesterday's post about why and how America is getting fat, here's a 10X diagram that shows how the junk food industry disrupted the traditional family meal model.

In the traditional family meal "business" model, a homemaker, most often the wife, cooks once a day for the whole family at $10 per meal (the blue spot on the diagram).
In the junk food industry model, a packaged Fat+Sugar/Salt meal, e.g. candy or snack, is dispensed from a vending machine or a Starbucks store every minute at a cost from 10 cents to a few dollars (the red spot on the diagram). The model targets individuals, rather than family: children, teenagers, busy morning commuters, workers, and etc.
The junk food model is disruptive relative to the "family meal" one because it delivers a "good-enough" ultra-low price product to a large target market.
We can further anticipate that the obesity epidemic that is currently raging in the United States will spread around the world. Countries with weak cultural constraints and high demand for inexpensive high-calorie meals are especially vulnerable.

Friday, June 05, 2009

David Kessler, "an American pediatrician, lawyer, author, and administrator", gave a talk at Google about why Americans are fat and, increasingly, diabetic (youtube video link).

Key points:
- Food is powerful because it is rewarding;
- We feel very good when we anticipate palatable food;
- Repeat exposure to palatable foods changes the brain, conditioning it to respond to salient cues triggering wanting and desire;
- Evidence suggests in conditioned hypereaters stimulated brain areas don't readily shut off;
- Food with high Fat+Sugar+Salt content is very palatable;
- The food industry's business model is:
         a) make Fat+Sugar+Salt available anywhere any time;
         b) make food cues ubiquitous (e.g. via ads);
         c) make it socially acceptable to eat all the time (snacks, starbucks coffee on the run, in the car, meetings, etc.);
- Experiments with rats show synergistic [conditioning] effect of Sugar+Fat;
-To break the conditioning cycle we needs to take control over the content and the timing of our meals:

Tomorrow I will add, either to this post or make it a separate post, a 10X diagram of the food industry's strategy.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Microsoft's Bing and Palm's Pre would work as good incremental improvements, but they are not good enough to challenge the established industry leaders, Google and Apple respectively. Challengers need to offer a "10X-differentiator" feature to change people's habits. Here's a couple of quotes for my records:

WSJ (via BusinessInsider):

The Yahoo CEO also dismissed Microsoft's newly revamped search engine, dubbed Bing, as an improvement that will spur temporary interest among users, but do little to alter their long-term search habits.
"It's interesting but not over-the-top interesting," she said. "People will keep the same habits."

CNet review:

Palm has really made a solid and smart platform and one that doesn't just match the capabilities of its competitors but offers something more in its multitasking and personal information management capabilities. Palm might not have completely knocked it out of the park with the Palm Pre, but at least it's back in the game, and we look forward to more WebOS devices the future.

Market growth and market dominance.

- What's good for America is good for General Motors.

- What's good for movies is good for Hollywood.

- What's good for personal computing is good for Microsoft.

- What's good for cell phones is good for Nokia.

- What's good for e-mail is good for AmericaOnline.

- What's good for the Internet is good for Google.

- What's good for Social Networking is good for Facebook.

- What's good for the future is good for children.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

First college graduation ceremony in Second Life:

The college[Bryant & Stratton] will bestow diplomas on Wednesday to about 40 graduates who have earned online degrees. Besides Rosedale's speech, the event will include a virtual procession for students dressed in their digital regalia.

It took a bit over a thousand years to move college graduation from physical to virtual. I wonder, what will be the next step.
Let's see. It  is  quite possible that in the future individualized education will render all graduation ceremonies obsolete. Just to think of it, there's no fundamental reason, besides convenience for university administration, why people have to get their degrees in the beginning of each summer. It would probably be even better for the economy if the education system stopped producing its output in lumps of million+ people at a time. So, rather than having a coming-of-knowledge party associated with a thousand-year-old bureaucratic tradition, the future should have huge world-wide "knowledge download" parties all the time. Furthermore, the only thing that holds back this wonderful idea is the lack of good virtual beer and wine. You just can't have a decent graduation party without the right booze :)

History of the paperclip

officemuseum.com has a picture history of the paperclip. Somewhat surprisingly, the most successful paperclip design, created in the 1890-s, was never patented.

Today's equivalent of the paperclip would be an e-mail attachment protocol that binds together the text of the message and the file attached. Given how many times people forget their attachments while sending e-mail, the modern "paperclip" is not as good at providing visual clues of its function as the old one. That is, it's easy to forget to attach a file and not to spot the mistake, while it's almost impossible to forget a paper attachment without realizing that the paperclip is missing.

Speaking of visualizations, Google's Timeline search option helps quickly identify relevant time frames for history-related searches. On the graph below, the first spike shows inventions for the original paperclips; the second - WWII operation "Paperclip"; the third - stories about a dude that managed to trade a paperclip for a house.
To me, the picture also tells a story of how over time an object (paperclip) evolves into a metaphor ("cheap as a paperclip").

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

New Scientist reports a study that tries to link musical abilities to genes that control social bonding. From the abstract of the study:

Composing, improvising and arranging music are complex creative functions of the human brain, which biological value remains unknown. We hypothesized that practicing music is social communication that needs musical aptitude and even creativity in music. ...Data on creativity in music (composing, improvising and/or arranging music) was surveyed using a web-based questionnaire. Here we show for the first time that creative functions in music have a strong genetic component in Finnish multigenerational families. We also show that high music test scores are significantly associated with creative functions in music

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Washington Post debunks one health-care myth, but promptly introduces another:

Here is the bottom line: Most health-care inflation is the result of new technologies.

This claim is false. Even a cursory look at historic prices for hi-tech products outside of health-care or defense markets shows that technology innovation drives costs down, not up. Every year PCs, TVs, phones, GPS systems, software and data services are getting more sophisticated AND cheaper. So far, even huge companies, the likes of Intel and Microsoft, had little success in raising prices. Almost everything on the Internet is free. Commoditization is rampant. Nowadays, people in poor developing countries can easily afford hi-tech gadgets, but people in the developed world can hardly afford hi-tech health-care. Outside of heavily regulated health-care and defense, the economic impact from new technologies has been deflationary, not inflationary.

All this gives me reasons to believe that health-care costs are driven by factors other than technological innovation. It's much more likely that the industry problems are structural  (e.g. dominant business models are based on high barriers to competition entry) and they cannot be solved by changing the amount of money or technology that flow in or out of the system.


More green energy project proposals:

The idea is to link solar thermal power from Northern Africa to Europe via high-voltage undersea cables. The proposed 3- to 3.5-gigawatt power plant would cost an estimated $32 billion to build. Steinberger believes that 80 percent of Europe's energy needs could be met by solar thermal power plants in the Sahara by 2050.

Sounds like fun. I can visualize Somali pirates demanding a huge ransom for not blowing up Europe's major power supply. Or, on the positive side, if you cut one of those high-voltage cables, the whole Mediterranean basin might turn into a vast bowl of fish soup. This could feed millions of hungry people! :)