Sunday, January 31, 2010

The first principle of Invention

Greg Mankiw, professor of economics at Harvard and the author of one of the most popular economics blogs, cites Ten Key Principles of Economics. The first principle includes this piece of common wisdom:

There is no free lunch. There is always a trade-off.

Thanks to prof. Mankiw, I can now formulate the first principle of Invention:

A breakthrough invention must violate the first principle of economics, i.e. break through a commonly accepted trade-off.

For example, when everybody thinks that a good reliable car must be expensive, Henry Ford comes up with a system that allows him build inexpensive reliable cars. When everybody thinks that an inexpensive reliable car must be black, GM and DuPont come up with a color enamel that makes it possible to have a car of any color. When everybody thinks that to provide a wide selection of books you have to have lots of retail shelf space (remember Barnes&Noble), Jeff Bezos of comes up with a way to sell an almost infinite amount of books with zero shelf space. When everybody thinks that web and application experience on mobile phone must include a trade-off between the number of apps or pages and number of clicks through complicated menus, Steve Jobs of Apple comes up with iPhone that lets people access lots of information through a simple intuitive touch interface that need no menus whatsoever.

Finally, when everybody thinks that green energy must be expensive, somebody has to invent a way to make it cheap. After all, sun and wind are free, aren't they.

tags: trade-off, course, example, economics

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Use your head!

A wilder version of brainstorming:

tags: brainstorming, battle, video, youtube

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sky 2.0.

Surveillance with unmanned drones is the most practical robot application of the early 21st century. I Over the last couple of years, it's been moving steadily from military to civilian environs:

Police in the UK are planning to use unmanned spy drones, controversially deployed in Afghanistan, for the ­"routine" monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers, in a significant expansion of covert state surveillance.

The arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which produces a range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for war zones, is adapting the military-style planes for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police.

In the future, this technology will have an even greater impact on our everyday lives, e.g. in "drive-by-wire" semi-automated car navigation systems, neighborhood security, home and auto insurance, virtual reality, life hacking, and etc.  And don't forget that drones can draw power directly from the sun - the ultimate green robot.

tags: information, tool, control, detection, system, evolution, scale

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

One of many interesting insights from an "in vivo" experiment with the real-life scientific method:

When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. (That’s because, unlike the E. coli group, the second lab lacked a specialized language that everyone could understand.) These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.

It is a very difficult task indeed to recognize your own assumptions. That is why systematic methods-metaphors that force you to look at the situation from various perspectives often help us find novel solutions. My own role as a moderator during an ideation session is to shake people out of their normal ways of thinking.

tags: method, metaphor, creativity, example, book, brainstorming, magicians
An improved deal for authors from Amazon:

Starting on June 30, Amazon says that for each Kindle book sold, authors and publishers who select the new 70 percent royalty option will receive 70 percent of the list price, minus delivery costs. This new option will be in addition to and will not replace the existing DTP standard royalty option, which is set at a 65-35 split, with 65 percent going to Amazon.

Will authors make more money from now on? Maybe, initially. But over time, the most likely outcome will be a steep drop in price for electronic books. Trade "paperbacks" will probably go down to the $3-5 range. Even at this level authors will make more money than with traditional publishers. We should also expect new formats that allow embedded media: video, audio, animations, and etc. One obvious choice would be a portable $1 application that feeds content, e.g. one episode at a time. Apple is already doing it with iTunes, and publishers, like New York Times or cable networks, will follow the model.

In 5-element analysis terms, this is a change in payload packaging, which usually precedes an expansion and drastic changes in other system elements.

tags: system, five element analysis, content, apple, information, computers, payload, evolution

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Independent runs a story about the original Newton's apple as told by people who talked to Sir Isaac himself:

"Why sh[oul]d it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the Earth's centre? Assuredly the reason is, that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. And the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the Earth must be in the Earth's centre, not in any side of the Earth.

"Therefore does this apple fall perpendicularly or towards the centre? If matter thus draws matter; it must be proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the Earth, as well as the Earth draws the apple."

The recent episode of hacking against Google and other US companies highlights an emerging problem: supply chain security. Since US consumers, corporations, and the military import most of their electronic gadgets from overseas, it is highly advantageous for hackers to plant viruses and sleeper exploits into the gadgets themselves or their components sometime during the production/distribution cycle.

A year ago, Insignia digital picture frames were pulled from shelves and online sites after Best Buy learned they could be carrying a virus. Also reported to be infected then were digital frames from Advanced Design System, Digital Spectrum, and Castleton. But digital frames aren't the only electronic items found to carry a hidden payload. Other malware-infected devices have included MP3-playing sunglasses, a flip video camera, and Maxtor external hard drives, according to the SANS Internet Storm Center.*

Products and components are now "intelligent". That is, by design their behavior changes over the lifetime of the system, e.g. by hosting or executing new software. The old supply chain security and quality control took care of material or structural defects. The new one should learn how to deal with threats that are much more intelligent and fluid.

* I remember an episode from my work at a Fortune 500 corporation when I had to re-image a new laptop. I did a clean install, but the first thorough virus scan of the system revealed a backdoor trojan that came "pre-packaged" on an official corporate OS distribution disc.

tags: security, information, control, system, evolution, computers, google

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Trade-off of the day: security vs convenies

...if you want to take a significant step in keeping prying eyes away from your electronic correspondence, one good encryption technology that predates Google altogether is worth looking at. It's called public key encryption, and I'm sharing some instructions on how to get it working if you want try it.

Unfortunately, better security typically goes hand in hand with increased inconvenience. (CNet)

Can be relatively easy to implement on a server-hosted e-mail system like Google Wave. People would get their encryption keys when they sign up for the service, or join a company that uses Wave as its main e-communications tool.

tags: security, information, tradeoff, problem, solution, google, control, payload

Friday, January 15, 2010

A CNet video about hacker attacks on Google and other US companies

tags: video, security, information, cloud,  control
Kindle is getting more attractive to authors:

Authors worldwide can now self-publish Kindle versions of their books, said Friday. ... its Digital Text Platform will now support books written in German and French.

Authors can set their own prices and in return grab 35 percent of sales.

35% doesn't sound like much, but, in comparison, royalty rates in a typical entry-level contract with a "paper" publisher are in the 10-15% range. I wonder, how copyright works with digital content - can Google scan and index Kindle versions of the text and make it available through the search engine? If not, Amazon can gain a strong advantage in access to books as more authors migrate to the new publishing platform.

tags: book, information, commerce, distribution, payload, network

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Australians catch on video an octopus using tools

A video of an octopus that uses coconut shell as a vehicle, hiding cover, protective gear, and lots more.

Abstract of the publication in Cell:

The use of tools has become a benchmark for cognitive sophistication. Originally regarded as a defining feature of our species, tool-use behaviours have subsequently been revealed in other primates and a growing spectrum of mammals and birds [1]. Among invertebrates, however, the acquisition of items that are deployed later has not previously been reported. We repeatedly observed soft-sediment dwelling octopuses carrying around coconut shell halves, assembling them as a shelter only when needed. Whilst being carried, the shells offer no protection and place a requirement on the carrier to use a novel and cumbersome form of locomotion — ‘stilt-walking’.

tags: biology, tools, youtube, science,

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Imagination by combination

In the Middle Ages cotton was cultivated in Asia and shipped to Europe either as raw fiber or cloth. Through their contacts with Asian traders, Europeans learned that cotton originated as a plant, but the only source of fiber they knew was sheep. That is, sheep produced wool, which was a major European, mostly English, trade good at the time. Putting two and two together, a) cotton is a plant; b) fiber grows on sheep, people came up with Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a plant with sheep fruits.
By today's standards, this creature would represent a marvel of genetic engineering.

Wool loomed large in medieval thinking in England. Here's how King Charles II stimulated consumption of this strategic product:

Subsequent to the BURIAL IN WOOL ACTS 1667 and 1678 all bodies were to be buried in wool only, unless they have died from the Plague and an affidavit sworn accordingly. The penalty for not doing so was £5. These were repealed in 1814.
It was decreed that: 

"No corps should be buried in anything other than what is made of sheep's wool only; or put into any coffin lined or faced with any material but sheep's wool, on pain of forfeiture of £5."

So, here we have a new imagined animal created by a simple combination of two common very important natural objects: plant and animal. Their regular sizes and functions do not change: plant produces fruit (sheep), the sheep produces cotton.
Nowadays, we got a lot more sophisticated imagination. For example, in Avatar they have the Na'vi people, who look like a combination of a cat and a human. But to make the new creature appear more fantastic, designers doubled her size, made her skin blue, and added the ability to connect her nervous system to local plants and animals. Why? Probably, because network looms large in our lives today, just the way wool loomed large in medieval England.

tags: imagination, brainstorm, movie, economics, biology, information

Monday, January 11, 2010

A 10X change in military surveilance technology

NYT points to an ongoing revolution of command and control architecture in the modern warfare:

Air Force drones collected nearly three times as much video over Afghanistan and Iraq last year as in 2007 — about 24 years’ worth if watched continuously. That volume is expected to multiply in the coming years as drones are added to the fleet and as some start using multiple cameras to shoot in many directions.

Instead of carrying just one camera, the Reaper drones, which are newer and larger than the Predators, will soon be able to record video in 10 directions at once. By 2011, that will increase to 30 directions with plans for as many as 65 after that. Even the Air Force’s top intelligence official, Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, says it could soon be “swimming in sensors and drowning in data.”

The data overload problem is obvious and the military is trying to solve it the traditional way, by adding more bodies, specifically, 2,500 analysts, to watch and analyze video feeds. Since in real life attacks don't happen continuously, these highly trained people will be, literally, watching the grass grow most of the time.

As the result we have a dilemma: a) we want to watch drone video feeds all the time to detect important events that are unpredictable and outside of our control; b) we don't want to watch the feeds because it's a huge waste of time (nothing happens).

The next step is application of the separation principles (space, time, action) - probably, some time during the Spring '10 Principles of Invention class.

tags:10x, dilemma, problem, tradeoff, solution, military, video, , 3x3, bus74

Friday, January 08, 2010

With power supply being a major datacenter cost driver, Google steps in to become an electric power marketer:

The Internet search company, which consumes vast amounts of electricity to run the computers in its data centers, created a subsidiary last month called Google Energy. It then applied for approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to be allowed to buy and sell power much like utilities do.

Google said it did not have specific plans to become an energy trader and that its primary goal was to gain flexibility for buying more renewable energy for its power-hungry data centers.

Looking beyond data center applications, future smart grid power meters are going to generate lots of information. Access to and processing of this information would be consistent with the overall Google's mission to "organize the world's information". To speculate further, Google could become a catalyst for the next generation auction-based power market, similar to the one they run for their keyword search adds.

tags: energy, information, market, control, computers, google, efficiency, magicians, five element analysis,

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Looking beyond the 3D hype

More news about 3D:

ESPN and Discovery Communications announced plans Tuesday[1/5/10] to launch the industry's first 3D television networks.

The sports programmer will introduce a 3D network this summer, while Discovery is joining forces with Sony and Imax for a 3D network to launch in 2011.

I predict that in three years BluRay+3D will be a standard feature on high- and even medium-end PCs. All it takes is a slightly better graphics card, some clever software, and availability of content. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if the porn industry jumps onto the 3D bandwagon.
Strategically, the entertainment industry has a chance to pull away from youtube amateurs and initiate the next round of video arms race. The price of equipment and skill required to produce 3D is still beyond what most of the people used to flip cameras can afford money and time-wise.
Nevertheless, fairly soon prosumers will be able to take still 3D pictures. After Avatar, the visual art is no longer about flat images. Rather its about the real or virtual world as we would it with our own eyes.

tags: content, entertainment, information, computers, evolution, system, payload, tool

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Green energy, 19th century-style

Over a hundred years ago, just like today, concerns over the price and accessibility of a major energy source of that day, coal, lead to development of novel technologies. Eventually, oil emerged as "the fuel" of the 20th century.

Sir William’s [Lord Kelvin] 1881 paper attributed to the heat of the sun — directly or indirectly — almost all the sources of motive power or work on earth. Echoing the central argument of William Stanley Jevons’s book, The Coal Question (1865), he noted that as the subterranean coal stores of the world were becoming exhausted, ‘surely and not slowly’, the price of coal was upward-bound, making windmills or ‘wind-motors’ as well as water-wheels likely to come into their own. Indeed, one of the principal aims of the paper was to point out the feasibility of economical power transmission over long distances by means of electric current generated by water power through the use of efficient vortex turbines of the kind patented by his engineer brother James.

Source: Smith, C. 2006. Dreadnought Science: The Cultural Construction of Efficiency and Effectiveness. TRANSACTIONS- NEWCOMEN SOCIETY. 2007, VOL 77; NUMB 2, pages 191-216

tags: military, innovation, energy, transportation, source, payload,

The 3D light in the end of the tunnel.

Director Jeffrey Katzenberg on 3D technology (Bloomberg video):

When I look at it and I see what the qualitative enhancement is to film making, story telling, and presentation, I cannot imagine it is not our future.

I believe the entertainment industry will be one of the main drivers that will pull us out of the current recession. Over the next several years it will create demand for 3D-enabled PCs, TVs, high capacity storage and playout devices, special 3D(sun)glasses, communication services, software,  games, virtual environments, and etc.
For now, the 3D movie experience cannot be counterfeited, therefore the traditional (P2P) "free" content distribution networks are not competitive yet. Remarkably, in Russia, a country where pirated content still rules, Avatar attracted the largest theater audience ever.

tags: video, content, payload, distribution, system, innovation, technology, information