Friday, July 31, 2009

Doing first, thinking ... maybe later.

Just thinking about privacy makes people more cautious about sharing personal information:

A recent study by Alessandro Acquisti and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, points to why making privacy protection more conspicuous may actually deter users from sharing information.

In the paper, posted this month on the Social Science Research Network, college students were asked to complete a questionnaire about their attitude towards coursework. The team found participants were less likely to reveal wrongdoings if they were first made to think about privacy – even though that was done through an assurance of confidentiality.

This effect, called "privacy saliency", makes social networks loathe to make visible their efforts to protect privacy, says Acquisti.

via NewScientist.
Solar power as a security application:

The U.S. Army on Friday detailed what it expects to be the Department of Defense's largest solar energy project--a 500-megawatt installation at the Fort Irwin base in the Mojave Desert in California.

The location of the base in the high Mojave Desert, midway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, is ideal for solar generation, both of the photovoltaic and concentrating kind. There are a number of large solar installations at military camps which have available land and a well understood electrical load.

The Fort Irwin project is the first step in what the Army calls a far-reaching strategy to make energy supply of military installations more secure.

Predictable sunshine and predictable electrical load predictably make a good match. Also, the approach is consistent with the principle that to succeed a new technology has to be deployed in a new market (security), rather than compete on price with established technologies in established markets (commercial energy generation).

via CNet.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

On Sept 10, 2007 I wrote, "My prediction is that they [drones] will replace helicopters as high resolution air vehicles: from traffic monitoring to neighborhood policing to forest fire detection to geological research."

Today, this prediction is getting closer to reality:

Your local police may soon be packing flying surveillance bots. At the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit, Aeryon Labs President Dave Kroetsch gave a compelling pitch on his company, which makes a two-pound robot helicopter that has enough on-board intelligence and stability control to allow it to be flown by people who just point to locations on a Google Map-based interface.

Just in time for chapter 5 rewrite on the 10X Diagram.

Choose your parent right!

Scientific American on genes and brain:

...molecular imprints silence genes; certain imprinted genes are silenced by the mother, whereas others are silenced by the father, and the result is the delicate balance of gene activation that usually produces a healthy baby.

...researchers are also uncovering clues about how our parents’ genes influence our brain—it seems that maternal genes play a more important role in the formation of some brain areas, such as those for language and complex thought, and paternal genes have more influence in regions involved in growing, eating and mating.

In books about creativity you can find a lot of discussion on the topic of parental influences. Unfortunately, this is something we, as children, have no control over. Yet.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Strategy Deficit Disorder (SDD)

Opera Software SA is a Norwegian company that develops the Opera browser family. They started as an independent company in 1995 and had an IPO in 2004. Their primary market is embedded software - Opera browsers run on Nokia phones, Wii playstations, Nintendo DS' and other consumer electronics devices.
Opera engineers were the first to implement a number of now-standard browser features: modular design for mobile phones and PDAs, CSS support, Small Screen Rendering (SSR), support for multiple windows, cross-platform support, and etc.

Despite its engineering capabilities, Opera's share of the PC browser market today is about 1 percent. This is mostly due to a poor business model. Until relatively recently, Opera Software required customers either buy its browser or see ad-sponsored content with every page. No wonder, users prefered free Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. In addition to that, Opera's Intellectual Property(IP) strategy undermined its own technology and business position. The United States Patent Office web site shows that  they started filing patent applications in 2006 - 11 years after starting the company! A lot of the value of their pioneering IP, which could've been licensed or sold to more successful competitors, is now lost along with the product market share.
It might be that with the recent change of strategy, they will recover more value in the future.

Why emotions are contageous.

From Descarte's Baby, p. 115

This could be another human brain reaction that might be broken in a sci-fi context. What if we could control mirror neurons to process information before it is acted upon. One could argue that our emotional system developed long time ago when instant action was critical for survival. Today, it might be a maladaptation that leads to stock bubbles, copycat killings, etc.

Also relates to Neurologger research and this laughing babies video:

"Indistinguishable from magic"

Wed Jul 29, 2009 12:29pm EDT
LONDON (Reuters) - Organic food has no nutritional or health benefits over ordinary food, according to a major study published Wednesday.
A systematic review of 162 scientific papers published in the scientific literature over the last 50 years, however, found there was no significant difference. "A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance," said Alan Dangour, one of the report's authors

Organic food was a great invention that created a whole industry. I don't believe the industry will go away after this announcement.
An excellent post on Moore's law and other high-tech trends. Here's what Carver Mead, who named the trend "Moore's law", said about it:

After [it] happened long enough, people begin to talk about it in retrospect, and in retrospect it's really a curve that goes through some points and so it looks like a physical law and people talk about it that way. But actually if you're living it, which I am, then it doesn't feel like a physical law. It's really a thing about human activity, it's about vision, it's about what you're allowed to believe. Because people are really limited by their beliefs, they limit themselves by what they allow themselves to believe what is possible.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A small step for a man

Potentially, a huge step forward in development of technology for delivering nano-drugs:

Nanoparticles able to make basic decisions about whether to release their contents offer the prospect of delivering drugs exactly when and where they are needed, say chemists.
Their particles only respond to two distinct and simultaneous stimuli, acting like an "AND" computer logic gate that only produces an output signal if it receives two input signals.

From a system perspective, this technology adds the Control component, which makes the system complete. Huge.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Great Pyramid of Facebook

Facebook says that over 5 billion minutes are spent on Facebook each day (worldwide). Let's put this in perspective: each year humanity spends approximately 3.5 million person-years building Facebook. Mind you that this number does not include work hours of actual Facebook employees and independent Facebook application developers. For comparison, it took seven time less effort, "only" about 500 thousand slave-years, to build the whole Great Pyramid of Egypt, which served as a tomb for pharaoh Khufu (died in 2566 BC), the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty.

Thanks to the advances in business methods, technology, and health care, we can now construct huge mausoleums in almost no time at all.
Scientists distinguish between "splitters" and "lumpers," between those who favor fine-grained distinctions and those who tend to put entities together into broad categories.
For the most part, we are lumpers. Our minds have evolved to put things into categories and ignore or downplay what makes these things distinct.
Why does the mind work this way?
We lump the world into categories so that we can learn. When we encounter something new, it is not entirely new; we know what to expect of it and how to act toward it.
Someone without the right concepts might well starve to death surrounded by tomatoes, "because he or she has never seen those particular tomatoes before and so doesn't know what to do with them." Decartes' Baby. p.39-41.

Flexible thinking techniques allow us to be both, splitters and lumpers, depending on the problem at hand. They provide guidance on how to split and how to lump. For example, lumping iPhone with phones would cause us lose sight of its ability to run thousands of applications, including voice-based ones. On the other hand, splitting it from phones creates, at least initially, a problem for consumers, who might think that having a powerful mobile computer with thousands of potential applications on it would be an overkill for making simple phone calls.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 26, 2009:

BEIJING, (Xinhua) -- Another 10 million users had access to the broadband Internet in China in the first half of the year, adding the total to 93.5 million, data released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has shown.

China had 338 million Internet users by the end of June, up 40 million from the end of last year, according to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in the mid-July.

Population of the United States of America is 307,009,706, which 30 million fewer than the number of Internet users in China.

Observing humans in their natural habitat

Eyeworks TV begins social experimentation on children:

The California mother of octuplets born earlier this year has signed a $250,000 (£152,000) deal for all 14 of her children to star in a reality TV show.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rich as Croesus, take 2.

King Croesus of Lydia, born in 595BC, introduced one of the most important innovations of the ancient Greece: minted gold and silver coins. Riding the growth of Greek commerce enabled by a new standard way to exchange value in the market, the king and his city-state became rich and famous. Today, EBay aims to imitate Croesus's success with PayPal's digital coinage:

"PayPal is a business that will be bigger than eBay," CEO John Donahoe said in a talk at the Fortune Brainstorm: Tech conference here. However, he said that shift will take four to six years.

"We need to evolve on an auctions site to an e-commerce site."

Will government stimulus slow down green energy?

In 2003, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published The Sources of Economic Growth in OECD Countries, reporting on a comprehensive regression analysis of the factors that might explain the different growth rates of the world's 21 leading economies between 1971 and 1998. This indicated that only privately funded R&D led to economic growth, and that publicly funded R&D did not. Worse, the public funding of R&D crowded out private funding, and thus slowed economic growth.

We should look for areas of faster growth where the government plays no role in R&D funding, e.g. software, entertainment, mobile networks, gaming, etc.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A 35,000 year old game-changing technology:

...innovation transformed India. The advent of stone microblades set the stage for the subcontinent's explosive population growth, new research suggests.

The easy-to-manufacture tools – also known as microliths – were a vast improvement over larger stone flake tools used previously, says Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the study. Because microblades could be cut from stone more quickly and in higher volumes than flakes, hunting probably became a vastly more efficient endeavour.

After all that time, the stone microblades are the only artifacts we can discover archeologically. There's no written or voice records of the period, so we automatically assume that a specific tool caused the population explosion. The reality was probably a lot more complex. New hunting tools and strategies had to develop to take advantage of the new weapon. New tribe organizational structures had to emerge to manage relationships between diverging groups of specialists. New manufacturing techniques had to be taught and deployed at scale to make a difference in the life of the whole continent. Unfortunately, we don't have access to any information about that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Digestion index needed?

NewScientist informs us that our food labels are way out of date. They don't take into account energy required for digestion:

...digestion - from chewing food to moving it through the gut and chemically breaking it down along the way - takes a different amount of energy for different foods. 2003, a team led by Kyoko Oka at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, investigated the effect of food texture on weight gain. They fed one group of rats their usual hard food pellets, while a second group received a softer version. Both pellets had exactly the same calorie content and flavour. The only difference was that softer ones were easier to chew. After 22 weeks, the rats on the soft food diet were obese and had more abdominal fat.
(Journal of Dental Research, vol 82, p 491)

Patent Value: the haves and have-nots

     In search of data on patent values, I've found a survey of German inventors by Dietmar Harhoff and Karin Hoisl(2006). The paper studies the impact of the German Employees' Invention Act(GEIA), a German law that regulates how employees are paid for their patents.
Check out the payment distribution chart: only 1% of patents results in a payout above 20% of salary; the remaining 99% barely make a dent in the inventors' income. Since patent awards are calculated as a percentage of value to the company, most likely, patent values vary as dramatically.

Interestingly enough, planned inventions are more valuable than spontaneous ones:

"Somewhat unexpectedly, two other R&D process variables turn out to have a significant impact. First, patented inventions that are the planned product of R&D projects are more valuable than unplanned results or mere by-products of R&D.
The surprise lies in the second R&D process variable with a positive coefficient – inventions made during the inventor’s leisure time are considerably more valuable than other types of inventions."

Dietmar Harhoff and Karin Hoisl. 2006. Institutionalized incentives for Ingenuity. Discussion Paper.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Healthcare has become a hot topic even for the reality TV.

TLC has ordered a six-episode series that chronicles the lives of a morbidly obese family facing everyday realities.

The family to be chronicled on the show consists of a 40-year-old man weighing 340 pounds; his 35-year-old wife, who is close to 400 pounds; and their 330- and 340-pound teenage kids.

via The Hollywood Reporter.

Why quantum mechanics might be hard to learn

From Decarte's Baby, by Paul Bloom:

The developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke lists four properties that all humans assume physical objects possess:

1. Cohesion. Objects are connected masses of stuff that move as a whole. If you want to know where the boundaries of an object are, ... grab some portion of stuff and pull -- what comes with what you are pulling belongs to the same object.
2. Solidity. Objects are not easily permeable by other objects;
3. Continuity. Objects move in continuous paths; the travel through space without gaps.
4. Contact. Objects move through contact. The exceptions to this rule are animate creatures.

Looks like a good list of principles to violate in a sci-fi thriller. For example, the main character(MC) encounters a creature whose eye-ears leap through space and suddenly appear in front of MC's face to perform a close-up observation. They sound like hummingbirds and "nest" in the creature's body. While gap hopping, they talk to the creature's brain via a wireless nervous system. Can be shared by a family of creatures and carry tiny but deadly poop charges :) A dragonfly with eye facets that violate principles 1 and 3 would also be a good option.
I believe there was something like that on the Incrediboy's island in the Incredibles movie. But those surveilance devices didn't leap and where clearly delineated as separate entities. Also, Michael Crichton used smart swarms in Prey.
We would need to run Altshuller's fantasy matrix to see if there's anything left to discover.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Scaffolding ideas

Our Mystery Novel course instructor, writer and editor Kathrine V. Forrest, tells us that, "the only interesting thing in a story is conflict."

Well, in invention workshops conflict is the most destructive thing. Creative juices dry out completely when people begin arguing about whose solution is better or start criticizing each other. For me, the most dangerous conflict is the one between a strong thinker, who insists on following his or her intuition, and the moderator, who wants to involve other people and/or pursue a more systematic approache. Unless it is diffused early with a joke or a credible commitment to pursue the idea at a later time, the conflict can escalate into something that resembles a fight between alpha dogs, rather than a creative session. Because of that, as a moderator and coach, I take to heart insights like this one:

One of Vygotsky's most interesting ideas in his study of the ontogenesis of higher mental functions is what he called the "zone of proximal development (ZPD)". He defined it as: ". . . the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers".

From this perspective, the methods I teach and practice enable people to solve problems that are often beyond their individual abilities. It's not just about collaboration. Rather, it is about setting up the right environment and pace of exploration so that each of the participants, including myself, can perform for others the role of a "more capable peer".

Wertsch, J.V. From Social Interaction to Higher Psychological Processes: A Clarification and Application of Vygotsky’s Theory. Human Development 2008;51:66–79. DOI: 10.1159/000112532.
Swiss Post Office is going digital:

NYT: July 13, 2009
A new program lets subscribers view images of unopened envelopes and specify which ones they want opened and scanned so they can read them via the Internet.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

It looks like the Japanese have implemented our old "Emulet" idea:

Wearable Sensors Help Analyze Behaviors of Factory Workers

DSS Co Ltd, a Japanese firm that edits and processes digital maps based on survey data, started a service of recording the actions of factory workers for long hours and visualize them.

Toasters unplugged!

Nikkei Electronics:

Showa Aircraft Industry Co Ltd developed a contactless power supply system that is an electromagnetic induction type and can supply power even when two coils are placed adjacent to or 1m apart from each other.
The company had a demonstration of lighting ten 100W incandescent lamps using coils that are 60cm apart from each other. In addition, when a metal frying pan was placed between the coils, it did not heat up. The size of the coils was 50 x 50cm, and the thickness was about 5cm.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bill Gates talks about Feynman physics lectures and mentions, among other things, his involvement with Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures:

That's been really exciting to take this idea of gathering top scientists from a broad set of areas and think about problems that can be solved. And in the case of the foundation, you know, Nathan (Myhrvold) has used that ability to convene great scientists to look at things like how do you deliver vaccines without having to use as many refrigerators, or how do you pasteurize milk in a better way, some very interesting things. And then I also sit down with that group when they're looking at their rich world applications, including things around energy, and one of those has actually led to creating a company called TerraPower, which is focused on a new, very radically improved nuclear power plant design, which is a hard thing to get done, but extremely valuable if it comes through.
A further confirmation of the hypothesis that mobiles are going to displace PCs as the next innovation platform for personal computing:

For the first time criminal hackers may have succeeded in creating a network of "zombie" cellphones, infected without the owners' knowledge with software that can be used to send spam or carry out cyber attacks.

via NewScientist.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tricky Question of the Month

via Cnet:
Say goodbye to spark plugs, a 19th century technology about to be supplanted by lasers. The UK paper The Telegraph reports that Ford is working with the University of Liverpool to develop a laser ignition system for internal combustion engines. That's right, engines with frickin' lasers strapped to their heads.

10 years from now, what kind of spark plug will you get with your electric Ford car? ;)
Not much progress for Microsoft's Bing (via VentureBeat):

Comscore’s latest search engine rankings reveal that Microsoft’s newest effort Bing is taking a little — but just a little — market share from Yahoo in the U.S.

Bing moved 0.4 percent over the last month to account for 8.4 percent of the total search market. Meanwhile, Yahoo declined by 0.5 percent to 19.6 percent. Google, Ask and AOL remained flat at 65 percent, 3.9 percent and 3.1 percent respectively.

Even with Microsoft's resources going after an established market leader is really tough. Practically hopeless for startups.
Lack of communication paralyzes strategy rather than tactics. This year, Tour de France organizers decided to ban radios from Stage 10 of the three-week race across four European countries. Team managers were unable to provide their riders with up-to-date information about competitors'. As a result, General Classification(GC) leaders (riders competing for the overall win of the Tour) could not make strategic decisions. Alberto Contador, who is currently the second in GC with 6 seconds behind the first place, said that "there was a degree of chaos", and "to ride without radios means that a fall in an evil moment may rob you of victory".

On the other hand, sprinters and riders low in GC didn't mind the ban because it gave them a chance to surprise leaders at the finish line.

Who won?
Mark Cavendish, the world's best sprinter today.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Another illustration to the superiority of the junk food business model:

By 2007, France had become the second-most profitable market in the world for McDonald's, surpassed only by the land that gave the world fast food.

see a related 10X diagram in my earlier post.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Another possible reason why brainstorming feels good:

...unpredictable rewards were more pleasurable than predictable ones...this must be occurring at a subconscious level.

Gregory S. Berns, Samuel M. McClure, Giuseppe Pagnoni, and P. Read Montague. 2001. Predictability Modulates Human Brain Response to Reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, April 15, 2001, 21(8):2793–2798


A case study for typical inventor mistakes: payload mis-identification.

Ray Kurzweil describes his approach and demonstrates a "forward-looking" implementation of a text-to-speech application for the blind:

Assignment for BUS 75 students:

What is the problem the inventor is trying to solve?
Can you improve on his solution?
How would you approach the problem in a "system" way?
Can you name a US company that markets a better solution?

Monday, July 13, 2009

More background material for the Greatest Innovations course:

Over the centuries, New York City has survived crisis after crisis—the British defeat of the Dutch, Leisler’s Rebellion, the 1863 draft riots, the 1929 crash, the attack on the Twin Towers. But none of these shocks struck as hard as the American Revolution. New York’s recovery from that shock stands as a testament to the importance of human capital in reinventing a city.

Infrastructure for efficient distribution of goods and information seems to be the key for the reinvention cycles (e.g.):

Manhattan’s largest industry today, printing and publishing, also grew out of its port. It wasn’t just that books, like any other good, had to be shipped to their customers. It was also that European ideas came to the United States by sea. For example, New York’s shipping prominence allowed the Harper brothers to get pirated British books before their Philadelphia competitors could. The Harpers’ ability to access bootlegged books easily was an early example of Gotham’s role as America’s most international city—a role that it still plays.

via Greg Mankiw's blog.
Ray Kurzwell, arguably the Edison of our times, talks about patterns of exponential growth in information technology (YouTube video). He illustrates his predictions with various graphs, including successive accelerating S-curves (screen shot below):

Interesting throughout.

The snob effect in startups with strong academic IP.

"When do start-ups that exploit patented academic knowledge survive?", a 2003 paper by Atul Nerkar and Scott Shane that shows that radical innovation backed by strong IP has a much better chance to survive in a new rather than established market.
Researchers have generally suggested that new technology firms should exploit radical technologies with broad scope patents to compete with established firms, implying that new firms founded to exploit university inventions will be more likely to survive... However, the existing empirical evidence indicates that the effectiveness ... of new firm strategy is contingent on the industry environment, specifically industry concentration. In this paper, we explain why this industry-specific relationship should exist and use a unique data set of new technology ventures originating at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to test our arguments.

Ungated version.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

If you are into it.

From Explaining Creativity (2006), by Keith Sawyer:

Many of these [creativity] studies found that the most important characteristic of creative people is an almost aesthetic ability to recognize a good problem in their domain. They know how to ask the right questions. That’s why highly creative people tend to be creative in one specific domain: it takes a lot of experience, knowledge, and training to be able to identify good problems. p. 47.

That's why I strongly emphasize search for high-value problems in all my courses and invention workshops. The Reverse Brainstorm, the Three Magicians, the 9-screen view, the 10X Diagram, the 5-element analysis - all these tools are necessary for accomplishing what creative people have to do: recognize a good problem. Furthermore, these tools allow you to go beyond the basic creative ability and recognize a good problem outside of your domain of expertise.

Of course, only if you are into it.
From "Cortical Computing", by Greg Snyder:

A back-of-the-envelope calculation is useful. A human cortex has a density of about 1010 synapses/cm2. Today's microprocessors pack roughly 109 transistors in 1 cm2 of complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS). Thus, to build biological-scale neuromorphic circuits, electronic synapses will have to be about one-tenth the size of an average transistor. This is one important reason intelligent machines are not (yet) walking around on the street.

A 10X change in computing is coming. From what I know, the hardware side of this change is going to happen within the next 10 years. But it will probably take a lot longer for the software to catch up.

Also see: DB Strukov & KK Likahrev, 2006. A Reconfigurable Architecture for Hybrid
CMOS/Nanodevice Circuits. FPGA’06, February 22–24, 2006, Monterey, California, USA.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

I've started collecting notes for my potential Winter '09-10 Stanford CSP class - "The Greatest Innovations of All Times: Past, Present, and Future." This FT interview with Larry Summers, director of the US president’s National Economic Council, has a couple of paragraphs that paint a certain future for the US:

"The president made two things clear to us early on... He would do what he had to to fix the banking system, to get the economy out of the rut in which he was inheriting it. But he had run for president to do long-run, fundamental things, like fixing healthcare, like having real energy policy, like reforming education."

This new American economy, Summers hopes, will be “more export-oriented” and “less consumption-oriented”; “more environmentally oriented” and “less energy-production-oriented”; “more bio- and software- and civil-engineering-oriented and less financial-engineering-oriented”; and, finally, “more middle-class-oriented” and “less oriented to income growth that is disproportionate towards a very small share of the population”. Unlike many other economists, Summers does not believe that lower growth is the inevitable price of this economic paradigm shift.

Patent Value Chasm for Startups

It is a common knowledge among Intellectual Property(IP) professionals that the vast majority of patents have no value. Optimists think that the share of such useless patents is about 95 per cent; pessimists contend that it is at least 99%. That is, out of a portfolio of 100 patents only 1 or 2 will be worth something over their 20-year lifespan. But even the useful patents bring most of their value during the second part of the term. This is due to the fact that it takes a decade or so for the mainstream to adopt a technology. By licensing a portfolio for royalties or preventing a competitor from entering a mature mainstream market, the portfolio owner can extract higher profits because, compared to the earlier stages, the market is much bigger and it is more difficult for competitors to implement and diffuse workarounds.

9 out of 10 startups don't live 20 years to collect on the value of their patents. Most investors(VCs) want to sell the company (liquidity event) by the end of a 5-year term. By that time, the startup doesn't have a strong patent portfolio because the majority of its patents are still in the application phase. Therefore, at the time of sale the value of the startup's patents and applications is largely discounted by the buyer. As the result, we've got what I call a "Patent Value Chasm" - a situation when a patent portfolio owner doesn't have the time to wait until his or her portfolio matures to the point when it starts bringing its real value. Essentially, the owner has to give the porfolio away.
As we can see, the incentives in the IP market work against startups with time horizon of less than 10 years.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Back to Edison

Green energy should cost less to consumers because it allows power companies to lower distribution costs. As soon as the battery technology catches up, we can go back to local AC-DC hybrid grids fed by a variety of power sources, including emergency generators.

Consider Duke Energy's smart-grid trial in Charlotte, N.C. A substation--the point that distributes electricity from long-haul transmission lines to a neighborhood--is equipped with 213 solar panels and a large battery. About 100 households have smart meters and in-home energy management tools.

When the sun is shining, the 50-kilowatt solar array makes electricity for the homes in the neighborhood. It also feeds the battery, giving the area a few hours of backup power in the case of an outage and a buffer to draw from during peak times. Consumers can take part in demand-response programs, too, to get a reduction on their electricity bill.

via CNet

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Kids from two to 11 years of age are spending 63 percent more time online than they did five years ago, says a report released Monday from Nielsen Online. Children in that age range were online an average of 11 hours in May 2009 versus just 7 hours in May 2004.

The difference between boys and girls seems negligible, which means that the next generation of consumers will not have the net gender gap. And it looks like they are moving away from TV-watching.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Building good inventor habits

NYT quotes a chapter from a book on how to be an effective CEO, which quotes "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", by Stephen Covey:

- Habit 1: Be proactive.
- Habit 2: Begin with the end in mind.
- Habit 3: Put first things first.
- Habit 4: Think win/win.
- Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
- Habit 6: Synergize.
- Habit 7: Sharpen the saw. ( work on personal growth in multiple dimensions).

Not surprisingly, Inventor's habits develop along similar lines. For example, habit 1 is built into the Reverse Brainstorming technique. It allows us to anticipate rather than react to problems. Habit 2 is represented in the Ideality Principle. You find your best solutions after you formulate the ideal solution. Habit 3 - grouping and prioritization during the second stage of Reverse Brainstorming. Habit 5 - The Three Magicians and Five Elements Analysis. A good solution comes out of a thorough understanding of all aspects of the problem. Habits 4 and 6 - System thinking. All elements of the system have to work together to achieve the outcome. Problems arise when interfaces break. Habit 7 - Inventor must work on developing imagination skills that don't necessarily relate to the narrow field of his/her expertise. It is also useful to cultivate what in Buddhism is called "The Beginner's Mind".

Of course, there are differences in habits. Executives often have to make quick decisions. Inventors must have time to think. As G.S.Altshuller used to say, "Inventive thinking is slow thinking." Good solutions come out of what David Kahneman calls System 2, "which is the reasoning system. It’s conscious, it’s deliberate; it’s slower, serial, effortful, and deliberately controlled, but it can follow rules." Developing this system takes time and effort.
How highly educated powerful clueless people run the financial world:

From June 2004 until June 2007, Wall Street underwrote $1.6 trillion of new subprime-mortgage loans and another $1.2 trillion of so-called Alt-A loans—loans which for some reason or another can be dicey, usually because the lender did not require the borrower to supply him with the information typically required before making a loan.

...when Park [one of AIG quants] decided to examine more closely the loans that A.I.G. F.P. had insured. He suspected Joe Cassano didn’t understand what he had done, but even so Park was shocked by the magnitude of the misunderstanding: these piles of consumer loans were now 95 percent U.S. subprime mortgages. Park then conducted a little survey, asking the people around A.I.G. F.P. most directly involved in insuring them how much subprime was in them. He asked Gary Gorton, a Yale professor who had helped build the model Cassano used to price the credit-default swaps. Gorton guessed that the piles were no more than 10 percent subprime. He asked a risk analyst in London, who guessed 20 percent. He asked Al Frost, who had no clue, but then, his job was to sell, not to trade. “None of them knew,” says one trader. Which sounds, in retrospect, incredible. But an entire financial system was premised on their not knowing—and paying them for their talent!

A camera that understand the nature of the soldier's world:

A key feature of the system is that it is made up of a large number of tiny imagers. These are small, simple cameras, each directed independently by a MEMS-controlled micro-mirror. Because there is no large lens, Pantoptes can be made flat, unlike other cameras.

A central processor combines the images into a single picture, producing a higher resolution than the individual imagers. The intelligence is in the way that the system identifies areas of interest and concentrates the sub-imagers on the relevant part of the scene. Christensen gives the example of the Panoptes system looking at a building in a field.

“After a first frame or two was collected, the system could identify that certain areas, like the open field, had nothing of interest, whereas other areas, like the license plate of a car parked outside or peering in the windows, had details that were not sufficiently resolved,” he tells Danger Room. “In the next frame, subimagers that had been interrogating the field would be steered to aid in the imaging of the license plate and windows, thereby extracting the additional information.”

"A central processor" seems to be an artifact of traditional thinking. Most likely, the processor will be distributed as well. A memristor-based neural network would work even better here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Porn leads the Great Mobile Disruption:

“A mobile is far handier than a computer for Internet access -- I seldom use a PC outside the office,” said Tokyo travel agent Takeshi, 32, who declined to give his surname.

Takeshi and other pornography fans are feeding a surge in demand for movie downloads in Japan, home to the world’s first third-generation wireless network. While profiting from the traffic, Tokyo-based mobile carriers DoCoMo and KDDI Corp. say they’ve been forced to impose limits on the heaviest users as the $74 billion network feels the strain.

Ask and tell

June 23, 2009. Amazon Technologies received a US patent for obtaining customer reviews of purchased items. US 7,552,068. What's the secret for getting customer reviews? Very simple: ask!

And, while you are asking for feedback, don't forget to recommend something else that the customer might like to buy.

A critical hole in the claim, though. If the content is streamed, you might know in real time when the user completes or stops watching the video, so there is no need for estimation of the evaluation time. Based on that, a simple workaround can be constructed to avoid infringing this patent.

Monday, July 06, 2009

New McDonald has a farm. Electric battery farm that is.

What a smart move by McDonald's! They are going to build a network of Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations:

With 30,000 restaurants serving millions of customers around the world, McDonald’s claims its participation in the EV space could help make plug-in electric cars and their requisite infrastructure more commonplace — lowering the barrier to mainstream adoption.

With this move they can kill two birds with one stone: steal fast-food customers from gas stations and make money on electricity sales. And if they add a solar and/or wind generator with appropriate storage capacity to every restaurant, they get a low-cost solution to the EV charging problem. Brilliant.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Green gone red

The latest on VC investment into green tech:

Despite the financial recession, venture capital investment in green technology rose, for the first time in six months, during the second quarter of 2009 – and the biggest winner was transport-related technology, according to the report, issued this week by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte.

Although green technology was up 12 per cent on the first quarter of 2009, rising to $1.2 billion, that's still 44 per cent down on a year ago – and venture capitalist investment in some areas continues to fall.

Solar power has been particularly badly hit. Investment dropped from $1.2 billion in the third quarter of 2008 to $114 million by the second quarter of 2009.

Cars are the easiest green target because, compared to solar electricity generators, they don't require a massive change in the existing delivery infrastructure. If the auto industry succeeds in stimulating development of good battery technology, the solar industry will follow very quickly with localized distribution networks.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Dilemma of the Day: writing about invention and innovation.

This summer, on the insistence of my dear wife, I am taking several Continuing Studies courses at Stanford, including Writing Today's Mystery Novel taught by Katherine Forest, a popular author and editor. Most of the people in the class are either amateur mystery writers or avid fans of the genre. Actually, everybody in the class is totally into mystery. Except me. I took the course just to expose my mind to something totally different, something completely outside of my field of expertise. So far, I have not been disappointed. There's a lot for us to learn in a mystery writing class.

For example, the last session was about characterization . Katherine explained to us that the reader experiences book through its characters. Development of the main character is the story, so everything that relates to him or her has to be done with care and precision. She said, "What the character does should be inherent in the character."

She is absolutely right. This is exactly what good literature does - it shows us actions of highly believable characters. For instance, when we read or watch a movie about Edison we follow his path from problems to solutions; from a dark lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, to the proverbial light bulb in his head, to the lights on the streets of the 19th century Manhattan. As readers, we expect and get what we desire: great characters whose actions follow from their personal traits - goodness, badness, complexity, creativity, and etc.

And here lies the problem. By following the character and deriving his achievements from his personal traits, we further strengthen our natural tendency to commit what psychologists call The Fundamental Attribution Error, i.e. overvalue internal personal factors and undervalue external, situational influences. As a result, after reading a good book about a famous inventor like Edison, we are much more likely to think that the success of his inventions is due to his unique personal "inventiveness", rather than important external factors, like the availability of industrial capital, the growing influence of the media, a certain maturity of the underlying technology, and etc. Instead of learning how to analyze and take advantage of major business or technology trends, we are made to believe in "creativity", a unique trait of rare individuals.

Thus, my dilemma: on one hand, to write a interesting book about invention and innovation, I have to populate it with very special, highly believable characters; on the other hand, to expose powerful underlying patterns behind invention and innovation trends, I have to de-emphasize the characters and their personal creativity.

What and, more importantly, when something is a problem?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the noun problem as:

1 a: a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution b: a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done;
2 a: an intricate unsettled question b: a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation c: difficulty in understanding or accepting.

Basically, the first meaning talks about something that needs a solution; the second - about a feeling that something is going wrong.
The Madoff pyramid scheme is an excellent example of how the same thing at different times can be considered, first, as a solution, and, later, as a problem. In 2004, the Securities and Exchange Comission had information about irregularities at Madoff's firm, but at the time the scheme was supposedly making money for its investors, so nobody bothered to investigate. In other words, it was not a problem then. But in 2008, the exactly same financial arrangement became a problem when people decided to treat it as such. The result of this sudden change of heart?

Madoff, 71, was sentenced to a prison term of 150 years on Monday after he pleaded guilty in March to a decades-long fraud that U.S. prosecutors said drew in as much as $65 billion.

Obviously, out ability to detect problems is rather limited, even when it concerns vast amounts of money and involves a government agency dedicated to the task. Moreover, having a powerful agency that thinks that something is not a problem is a big problem in itself. One of the ways to deal with it would be to stimulate the public's perception that huge mistakes by government agencies are inevitable and transparency of information flows is essential in detecting such mistakes.

From an inventor/innovator perspective, developing a bank of problems, e.g. by running periodic reverse brainstorms, and monitoring the change in people's perception would be an effective strategy for determining the timing of a product or service introduction.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The brain's energy consumption reaches full adult levels at around two years of age. By three the little child's brain is actually twice as active as an adult brain. ... It begins to decline around [nine or ten] but reaches adult levels only at about eighteen.
At birth, each neuron in the cerebral cortex has around 2,500 synapses. The number of synapses reaches its peak at two o three years of age, when there are about 15,000 synapses per neuron. This is actually many more that in an adult brain. -- The Scientist in the Crib. p. 186.

Does this neuron connectedness with elevated levels of activity lie at the source of child creativity?

The non-existing road to nowhere.

In one classic experiment, the Nobel Prize winners David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel covered one eye of newborn kittens. The kittens continued to do all the normal things that kittens do, but one eye rather than two. After several months, the scientist uncovered the eye and looked a the connections between the two eyes and the brain. The surprise was that if the eye had been covered beyond a particular amount of time, it was effectively blind. It was not connected to the brain. This despite the fact that the eye was perfectly normal from an optical point of view. - The Scientist in the Crib. 183.

Connections without stimulation die out. This probably holds true for social networking as well.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Banner ads are the least useful type of advertisement. That is why in early 2000s, despite the fact that search results were the same, people moved away from Yahoo to Google.

via The Business Insider.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

CeaseFire, a violence reduction program in Chicago, achieved significant reduction in neighborhood shootings and killings by treating the problem as an infectious disease.

it relies on simultaneously changing attitudes and behaviour and will work anywhere.

The key is to change social norms so that violence is seen as "uncool" both by potential perpetrators and their communities, instead of being the automatic way to settle a dispute.

It would be great if we, as a society, handled the obesity epidemic and the swine flue pandemic the same way. If it were considered uncool to market junk food to people and not to wear a mask in public when sneezing and coughing.

Maybe I should start a CeaseBurger campaign :)