Friday, September 30, 2011

Problem-solving in action.

Some time ago I mentioned that to produce a high quality solution, inventor has to break laws of conventional thinking. For example, despite the fact that the so-called first principle of economics states that "everything is a trade-off," breakthrough inventions destroy rather than enforce trade-offs.

Today, I've found another instance of "inventing by breaking the law." This time it relates to formal logic. Here's what Bertrand Russell writes about one of Kant's laws of thinking:

Let us take as an illustration the law of contradiction. This is commonly stated in the form 'Nothing can both be and not be', which is intended to express the fact that nothing can at once have and not have a given quality. Thus, for example, if a tree is a beech it cannot also be not a beech; if my table is rectangular it cannot also be not rectangular, and so on.

In contrast, classical TRIZ requires the problem-solver to break this law by formulating the problem as a dilemma: element X has property A, and element X has property anti-A. At the same time we  focus on useful and harmful functions provided by the element, which allows us to escape from the constraints imposed by the existing implementations.

Just the other day, when I was working with a client on a problem considered to be almost insolvable, we did find a solution by systematically applying the dilemma-busting rule. Psychologically, it was very difficult. But once we managed to overcome the inertia of taking the existing implementations for granted, the solution became almost obvious.

Though I can't disclosure the client's solution, I can show a case study from my Principles of Invention class. Here's an example of a real-life technology dilemma I solved to get US Patent 7,529,806.

tags: trade-off, dilemma, problem, solution, philosophy, logic, invention

A trillion dollar question.

I wonder what happened in China at around 2000. Was it the decision of the Olympics committee to award Beijing with the 2008 Summer games?

The chart is from The US Energy Information Administration.

tags: s-curve, synthesis, energy, entertainment

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Invention of the Day: Toaster.

I started reading Adapt, by Tim Harford, a book about problem-solving in a complex world. In the introduction he shows that even simple devices like toaster are made up of mind-boggling number of technologies we take for granted. Re-inventing the toaster from scratch is a daunting task.

I agree with his thought, but we must understand that today's toaster and the toaster as it was originally invented over a hundred years ago are very different devices. Re-inventing is a totally different task than inventing, just like synthesizing a baby in a vat is different from conceiving and giving birth to one. The outcome sought in both cases is the same, but background technologies used for achieving it are at different levels of maturity. 

Below is the picture of one of the first commercially successful toasters created by General Electric. Note the screw-in "plug" at the end of the wire. It's a piece of Edison's lasting legacy in the world of electric appliances (see my earlier post).

Thirty years from now the USB wire connector on the iPhone will probably look as ridiculous as the light bulb plug on the toaster.

tags: invention, problem, solution, interface, tool

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Problem-solving through insightful learning

An amazing chimp uses water as a tool to get food.

A systematic study of creativity in animals was pioneered by Dr. Wolfgang Kohler. His most famous experiment involved a chimpanzee who figured out how to make a telescoping stick to reach for a banana lying far away from the cage.

In 1917, Kohler published The Mentality of Apes (1917), where he described his experiments and proposed the concept of Insightful Learning, a process of problem solving by manipulating information about objects in one's mind. His work lead to the Gestalt theory of creativity.

tags: psychology, creativity

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beyond the Web.

Infrastructure build-up is a precursor to a major technological expansion. The construction of the cloud and proliferation of high-performance networking shows that we are moving beyond the web, as it was envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee. (Also of note is the gradual abandonment of WiFi, a PC-based wide area networking technology).

Google has begun building its free high-speed network, which promises speeds of 1 gigabit per second for both downloads and uploads using fiber-optic lines to the home. "We believe the uplink capacity is the real game-changer here," Lo said. "We're going to light up our customers in the first half of next year."
Sprint's 4G LTE network would give the carrier a network on par with Verizon's, supplying the nation's third-largest carrier with an additional selling point beyond attractive pricing plans and an unlimited data offering. By employing LTE technology, it will be able to tap into a larger pool of vendors already racing to build 4G devices and equipment at a lower price. The additional network will also allow Sprint to offload some of its 3G data traffic onto 4G, relieving a growing burden.
The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority turned on wireless service in four subway stations in Manhattan Tuesday, marking the first time a straphanger could reliably use their cellphone while waiting for their train.
...the same capabilities have been available in other cities including San Francisco and Boston.

tags: infrastructure, distribution, s-curve, system, growth, mobile, evolution

Monday, September 26, 2011

Invention of the Day: Supermarket.

On October 9, 1917, Clarence Saunders received US patent 1,242,872 for a new kind of retail store. His key idea was customer self-service, a concept that is alive and well today after almost a century of shopping innovation. Here's a quote from his patent application (reads like a description of a modern IKEA store):

The object of my said invention is to provide a store equipment by which the customer will be enabled to serve himself and, in so doing, will be required to review the entire assortment of goods carried in stock, conveniently and attractively displayed, and after selecting the list of goods desired, will be required to pass a checking and paying station at which the goods selected may be billed, packed, and settled for before retiring from the store, thus relieving the store of a large proportion of the usual incidental expenses or overhead charges, required to operate it, all as will be hereinafter more fully described and claimed.

A photo of his original Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Memphis, Tennessee (below).

tags: invention, business, model, problem, scale, patent, innovation

Too much progress.

Reuters reports that a recipe for scientific success is turning into a recipe for economic disaster:

Some 12 million people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer each year and that number is expected to rise to 27 million by 2030. The cost of new cancer cases is already estimated to be about $286 billion a year, with medical costs making up more than half the economic burden and productivity losses account for nearly a quarter, according to Economist Intelligence United data cited in the report.

A paradox of modern healthcare is that specialization increases costs, a trend opposite to what is going on with other major products and services.

tags: health, evolution, medicine, problem, solution, s-curve, infrastructure, economics, 10X

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Healthcare as a social network.

New sensors, many as easy to apply as a small bandage or stick-on tattoo, can wirelessly track body heat, heart rate, perspiration and other vital signs and send the information wirelessly to a mobile phone, tablet or computer.

10-15 years from now this technology will go mainstream. It will produce large amounts of very useful health information that can be analyzed to prevent lifestyle-related diseases: from heart attack to diabetes to carpal tunnel syndrome. Since no doctor today can process that much information, we should expect a revolution in healthcare services. Or rather than expect, we should start making it happen.

Also related: Reality Mining.

tags: health, source, detection, system, s-curve, problem, 10X, cloud

Friday, September 23, 2011

The dark side of innovation.

Amazon is making Kindle-compatible e-books available at libraries.

The introduction of the Kindle, the biggest-selling e-reader, opens up library e-books to a wider audience, heightening the fears of publishers that many customers will turn to libraries for reading material. If that happens, e-book buyers could become e-book borrowers, leading to a potentially damaging loss of revenue for an industry grappling with a profound shift in consumer reading habits.

Innovation is called "Creative Destruction" for a reason: it relentlessly destroys business models built on older technologies. If you see a major wave of innovation coming, this means a major destruction is underway somewhere else. People who happened to be on the wrong side of innovation are going to lose big in the process of restructuring. In his book The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen argues that America has been stagnating (since the early 1970s) because there was not enough innovation. I think it is a bit misleading.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Edison's most important invention.

In 1890,  10 years after the introduction of his longer-lasting light bulb, Thomas Edison came up with the idea of a screw-in socket.  Before that, asking "How many engineers does it take to screw in a light bulb?" would make no sense whatsoever.
This basic socket design outlived all other light bulb technologies. Even today, 120 years later, the latest and greatest LED lights are manufactured according to the standard based on Edison's original idea.

tags: invention, problem, interface, control point, system, patent

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

And the world's best user experience creator is...

A data-driven view on Steve Jobs' design contributions to user experience:

Steve Jobs is cited as an inventor on 313 patents and is the first listed inventor on over 10% of them. Almost all are design patents, running the gamut from MP3 players to power adaptors to the stairs in the Apple Store. Pretty interesting for someone with no formal design or technical training, much less the CEO of a major corporation.
Designer Jonathan Ive was named as co-inventor on 64% of those 313.

Design patents cover non-functional ornamental aspects of the implementation. They are used to protect functionality-related aesthetics of the product: the look, the feel, the touch. Here's a couple of examples of Steve Jobs' patents:

(D638,835. Electronic device with graphical user interface  -- looks like iPhone 4):

(D641,021. Keyboard):

Compared to utility patents, the process for getting design patents is short and inexpensive. You can align it with the launch of a new products, so that copycats have harder time to sell knock-offs 1-3 years after the initial introduction. A good strategy for a market leader in consumer products/services.

tags: patent, apple, innovation, creativity, interface

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The ancient roots of modern misconceptions.

Finally, I have found the philosophical origins of the common view that our abilities, including creativity, are predetermined at birth. In Lecture 2 of "Great ideas in psychology" Professor Daniel N. Robinson mentions that the idea goes back to Plato's Republic, a highly influential philosophical treatise written about 2,400 years ago. Here's the paragraph I believe Robinson refers to:

Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxillaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children.
Nevertheless, Plato did not see this as a Nature vs Nurture issue. Rather, he believed that education was essential to the development of one's natural abilities.  Though over time, his Nature & Nurture approach turned into today's Nurture vs Nature debate about IQ and general intelligence factor.

tags: creativity, philosophy, psychology

Monday, September 19, 2011

Internet weather forecast: cloudy, with lots of smartphones.

Transition to Internet cloud is becoming unstoppable. One of the strongest indications of impending massive growth is concerted industry efforts to standardize a new technology. By standardizing, market players try to turn a unique technical solution into a commodity so that they can ship boatloads of cheap substitutes as well as complimentary products.

Today, the Open Virtualization Alliance, a standards consortium of companies focused on server-side virtualization, announced new membership numbers - 200 from 65 three month ago. According to CNet, the key issues they are trying to address:
  • Economics--VMware [the dominant virtualization vendor] currently controls pricing. Having a credible choice gives customers an ability to negotiate with their vendors. An open alternative gives more leverage.
    •  ...They [VMWare] are also seeing customers moving from testing private clouds to starting to deploy automated, standardized infrastructure at scale.

Even if the consortium does not succeed for a while - standards always take time - the standardization effort itself shows that:
a) the technology works and many people know how to produce it;
b) the technology scales, i.e. it can be deployed in a large number of instances;
c) the need to scale the technology is real.

In addition to that, Microsoft announced that Windows 8, its next generation OS will be more virtualization friendly than Windows 7, and [separately] the company is in discussions with Comcast and Verizon to enable video streaming to XBox. Again, the intent is to make the cloud cheap and scalable.

tags: cloud, system, s-curve, infrastructure, information, computing, 10X, growth, source, microsoft, internet

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Laughter as pain (and creativity?) management

NYT reports Dr. Dunbar and his colleagues at Oxford, England, have determined that laughter is a form of pain management:

The results, when analyzed, showed that laughing increased pain resistance, whereas simple good feeling in a group setting did not. Pain resistance is used as an indicator of endorphin levels because their presence in the brain is difficult to test; the molecules would not appear in blood samples because they are among the brain chemicals that are prevented from entering circulating blood by the so-called blood brain barrier.

Being originally from the Soviet Union, I can attest that political jokes did help ease the pain of absurd ideological rules and regulations.

— Является ли коммунизм наукой?
— Нет. Если бы он был наукой, его бы сначала попробовали на собаках.

-- Is the theory of Communism scientific?
-- No. If it were scientific they would test it on animals first.

On a more serious note, laughter might also help in solving difficult problems. Studies show that fear and frustration, two psychological conditions often encountered when we face a tough challenge, cause physical pain. If laughter is a natural pain killer, then an occasional joke can reduce stress and improve group creativity.

tags: creativity, psychology, problem, science, brain, biology

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fast-paced TV cartoons leave children mentally exhausted:

"When children have to process a lot of information very quickly, it is difficult to process because it's unusual. In this case [SpongeBob episodes] a lot of things are happening that can't happen in real life," she explained. "We think it leaves them mentally exhausted -- at least for a short time."

This is one of the conclusions from a study published this week in Pediatrics. It appears to be consistent with the research that shows adults suffering mental fatigue from interacting with fast-pace media (I wrote about it earlier).

The difference between books and video is that we lose control over the pace of events. Even when an adult reads to a child, the child still has a chance to slow down the process, e.g. by asking a question. The same is probably true about interactive, but not real-time games. What's particularly bad about fast-paced "out of control" media experiences is that for many people they define what a mentally challenging activity should be. In other words, high-speed brain processing becomes confused with hard mental work on solving a difficult problem. The same way creativity is being assessed by what one feels about the idea (the so-called "aha!" moment), instead of the value of the outcome.

tags: creativity, mind, brain, psychology,

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The web is dead. Implications for e-commerce.

The low quality of recommendations was one of the problems we looked into during my Summer '11 BUS 74 Principles of Invention class. The class did not select it for the problem-solving session, but I felt the topic was important to the next generation of e-commerce. My intuition was that the traditional web-page + links + search approach was not going to work in the social networking space (the web is a dying media). Here's more evidence for that.

Gallup published a study that, in their opinion, debunks what they call Social Media Myths. One such myth is that consumers can be moved to purchasing decisions by brand-sponsored campaigns.

I can see that young unmarried people, i.e. the most desired target demographic, is mostly influenced by parents, friends, and experts. In the social world it boils down to just friends. Therefore, any effective ad campaign should target "circles", getting one or two members of the circle evaluate the promoted stuff. Having a campaign page or twitter account is a waste of effort.

In contrast, I think a product page [or reference application] on Amazon is a great promotional tool because it captures practically everybody in top influencer categories.  Getting people to cross-post their reviews ("Like", +1, etc) to Facebook or Google+ would be an excellent way to influence purchasing decisions. You may even want to create a dedicated "Shopping" circle so that your friends don't get mad at your spamming. Thinking along similar lines, Google's purchase of Zagat also makes sense.

Conclusion: web page promotions, created either through the traditional web, Facebook, twitter, or Google+ are ineffective. Consumers prefer accounts of immediate experience to product descriptions developed by an interested party.

For the philosophical logic behind this thinking, you can further read Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy, published in 1912. Chapter 5 talks about the difference between what he calls acquaintance and description.

tags: social, networking, commerce, internet, control, facebook, course, detection

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why building cars is not fun?

NY Times recently pointed out the vast difference in jobs and market value between information and manufacturing companies

Facebook has about 2,000 employees worldwide. Google has about 29,000. Even in its new, slimmed-down state, General Motors, a decidedly less valuable company, has about 200,000 employees.

What escapes this analysis is that hundreds of millions of people work for Facebook and Google for free. That is, Facebook is built around users creating its content; Google is built around people searching free content created by others. Gaming is another area where millions of users spend innumerable hours on building free stuff: virtual farms, cities, worlds. Sometimes they even pay their own money for doing that. But nobody wants to design or build cars for General Motors for free. The next breakthrough in social networking will probably come when we get the online community to produce sellable electronic stuff beyond virtual gold. Just 1% of the total effort could produce huge value.

VBeat: :

Game publishing company Electronic Arts‘ newest social game, The Sims Social, has passed social gaming supergiant Zynga’s Farmville and now has 36 million monthly active users just under a month after its launch,

Electronic Arts is now the second top Facebook app developer with 77.8 million monthly active users. Its well behind Zynga’s 273 million monthly active users, but it’s much further than the next closest social game maker Wooga, which has nearly 40 million monthly active users across all its games.  Before The Sims Social launched, Electronic Arts had around 29 million monthly active users, according to AppData.

tags: games, social, networking, commerce, economics, market, technology

Monday, September 12, 2011

Brief notes on America Invents Act

Goodwin Procter, LLP published a good summary of the changes the pending America Invents Act brings to the current patent law. If you are interested in the subject, read the whole article - it's quite short. To summarize even further (bear in mind I'm an inventor and IP licensing professional, not a lawyer):

10 days within enactment
- fees go up 15%;
- for additional $4,800 you can expedite examination of your patent application, so that a final disposition will provided 12 months after granting the application expedited status.

12 to 18 months
- First-to-File (18mos) - application priority will be determined by the filing, not invention date (same as in Europe now).
- Third parties (12mos) will be able to submit materials or objections relevant to an application, either 6mos after its publication, or 9mos after the patent is granted.

With regard to practical invention/IP work: a) you have to file sooner and do a better job at elaborating your idea; b) you have to monitor competing IP development efforts and intervene when necessary.

tags: patents, control

Creativity is no longer an option.

The Economist (Sep 10, 2011) has an interesting article on the relationship between global trends and unemployment in the US. This paragraph in particular attracted my attention:

Michael Spence, another Nobel prize-winning economist, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs agrees that technology is hitting jobs in America and other rich countries, but argues that globalisation is the more potent factor. Some 98% of the 27m net new jobs created in America between 1990 and 2008 were in the non-tradable sector of the economy, which remains relatively untouched by globalisation, and especially in government and health care—the first of which, at least, seems unlikely to generate many new jobs in the foreseeable future. At the same time, says Mr Spence, the mix of jobs available to Americans in the tradable sector (including manufacturing) that serves global markets is shifting rapidly, with a growing share of the positions suitable only for skilled and educated people.

If you look at the "Creative Crowd" chart below, you can see that mass manufacturing processes (upper left corner) simply moved overseas where pay rates for routine labor are lower. First, the creation of a highly effective shipping industry that started in the 1950s, and then the addition of inexpensive communications in the early 2000s, lead to a situation where exchanges between the right and left parts of the chart became very easy. The housing bubble of the 2000s masked the fact that in the US not being entrepreneurial and/or creative  means competing with people who live on $100/month.

tags: creativity, business, model, process, scale, 10X, commerce

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Stop digging ditches. Invest in clouds.

The world of books, including basic technologies and business models involved, is undergoing a major change. According to CNet:

Amazon is reportedly planning a Netflix-like subscription service for e-books, in a move that would be another perk for Amazon Prime subscribers.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon is in talks with book publishers about subscription access to a library of e-books.

It's quite possible that for certain schools and cities it would be less expensive to contract with Amazon than build and maintain public book collections. Quiet study rooms that libraries provide today can be also replaced with interactive online lessons, etc.

I wish that instead of using stimulus money on roads and powerlines, which are elements of the 20th century infrastructure, we spend our taxes on broadband access and building new educational tools. Rather than forcing Amazon to collect state taxes, the governments should work out deals with the company to provide communities with access to knowledge.

Mr. President, do you hear me?

tags: education, information, distribution, business, model, cloud, 10X, bet, infrastructure

Friday, September 09, 2011

Amazon: making long-term innovation bets.

Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO, talks about his company's approach to invention and innovation:

we started working on Kindle almost seven years ago….  There you just have to place a bet. If you place enough of those bets, and if you place them early enough, none of them are ever betting the company. By the time you are betting the company, it means you haven’t invented for too long.

If you invent frequently and are willing to fail, then you never get to that point where you really need to bet the whole company.

We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work.

Most of our customers shop with us from desktop or laptop computers, but people have a different posture with tablets,” he said. They “lean back on their sofa. People leaning back on their sofa, buying things from Amazon, is another tailwind for our business, so I’m very excited about that.


Tablet is going to be a huge boost to e-commerce and many other ways of content creation/consumption. The sooner the Internet sheds shackles of the browser,  the better.

tags: 4q diagram, bus75, course, bet, innovation, strategy 

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Organizing the world's users.

Google acquires Zagat, a service hosting user reviews of local businesses.

Having free content is essential to Google's search-related advertisement model. As people switch to social networks and apps on mobile devices, more and more content is streamed to them directly from the service providers. As a result, the share of free quality searchable information continues to decline. Since Apple controls in-app ads on iPhone, Google needs content; the more, the better. They already have Youtube and Maps, which they  favor heavily in their searches. There's no doubt in my mind that Google's acquisition of Zagat is another attempt to stay relevant in social/mobile networking. Therefore, the answer to CNet's question, "whether the company will give the information it owns preferential treatment over information owned by others," is Yes.

In the world of mobile social networking, organizing information means organizing users as well. And you can organize them and their information only if you have access to it.

tags: social, network, information, advertisement, model, business, google

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

How many posts a day does it take to maintain interest?

Research from shows that a link shared through social media stays of interest just a few hours:

The mean half life of a link on twitter is 2.8 hours, on facebook it’s 3.2 hours and via ‘direct’ sources (like email or IM clients) it’s 3.4 hours. So you can expect, on average, an extra 24 minutes of attention if you post on facebook than if you post on twitter.
The surprise in the graph above is links that originate from youtube: these links have a half life of 7.4 hours! As clickers, we remain interested in links on youtube for a much longer period of time.

A simple calculation shows that to keep people consistently interested in a feed, you have to generate interesting posts at least 5 times a day.

But for a news site, the magic number is 24*60/5 = 288. That is, news links become not that interesting only just 5 minutes of sharing.

In many ways this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. To keep people interested you have to produce a lot of new content, but as you do so the older content disappears below the horizon of attention.

tags: information, attention, 10X, payload, social, network

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Invention of the Day: Virtual guest of a real event.

Bill Gates and a dozen of other people from Microsoft invented a virtual guest:

From the US Patent 8,012,023 issued today:

... a virtual reality generation component that emulates real-life activities of a guest that is remotely viewing a spectator event that takes place outside of a virtual environment into corresponding virtual activities of a virtual guest representation in the virtual environment;
The idea is to let virtual and real guest mingle during a spectator event. The figures from the patent (below) show a bunch of bio sensors, but the physical can also be a brain reader too.

The best part of the patent is that it references our ( Mike Schmitt and I) 2002 patent application, where we claim a system that allows external spectators watch and participate in online games.

tags: games, virtual, social, information, biology, patent, example, ideality