Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Nobody expects the technological revolution!
From the economist's: Technological Quarterly
From a study of 197 product innovations consisting of 111 successes and 86 failures, (apparently available only in hebrew
taking advantage of random events
is the most effective strategy for creating successful products. The two worst? Trend following and mental inventions. Need spotting produced twice as many successes as failures, market research generated four times more, and solution spotting (finding a new way to use existing technology) created seven times more successes than failures.
I liked these divisions of ideation, but there's two things I'd like to note.
One: The study was done in 1999, a time of a great many innovations. Long tem market stable business models (e.g. of the 111 successes - how many survived til 2003?) need to be followed up on.
Two: at the end of their editorial the Economist makes a trendy prediction: "With the pace of innovation hotting up, any enterprise that fails to replace 10% of its revenue stream annually is likely to be out of business within five years".
Bull. These two ideas don't logically follow each other. I'd go into it more but I figure I'll try for an invite to their Innovation Summit, Sept 23rd, to try and figure out just what the heck they are talking about.
The rest of the quarterly (behind the paywall, sad to say) is full of gee-whiz bang extrapolations of interesting technologies. The most promising articles: - "A web address for every car?" - I'm not as much into using satelites like OnStar but more into 802.11 and bluetooth to provide a "docking station" for your car much like one for your laptop - but yea, every car is going to be networked somehow, soon.
Then there's an article on Webfountain
. I've been busy exploring the limits of google - webfountain (and a few other search engines on the drawing boards) may take us to the next step of increasing our global IQ.
There's a bit on IT - penny-pinching being all the rage nowadays - Great quote: Few things in technology have promised so much and delivered so little as CRM software
. Yep, after suffering through multiple instantiations of Seibold, SAP, and Oracle, etc, over the past 10 decades, I gotta say that I agree.
Great article on increasing LCD technology to the size of plasma displays... I don't know how likely that LCDs will increase in size, but I sure would like them to increase in density and decrease in power consumption - the screen cost dominates that cost of your typical handheld and laptop, and that cost ratio is getting worse - not better. 640x580 in a palm sized form factor would make for some really readable text-reading experience - I'd settle for monochrome at this res...
Too bad most of these articles are behind the paywall...
Lastly: After 10 years of the economist being online - I'd like to see someone publish how accurate the economist has been at spotting successful technologies - and for that matter, successful studies.
XHTML, HTTP 1.1, Xanadu, Mozblog, and a profusion of painful standards
I like blogger for a lot of reasons - I trust them to do the backups, posting an article is easy, they take care of posting to RSS newsreaders (at least I think they do, I'm still in the dark ages on that protocol), etc, etc.
It's getting harder and harder to ignore the flaws of the web.
- Tedium: In 1982 I typed in printer codes into Wordstar documents to make them look good. It was tedious and painful, and printer specific. I spent a lot of time learning semi-secret ways of getting good output from my trusty Okidata dot matrix printer. From there I moved to TeX and Troff, which were painful, but portable. Getting the printer to work properly was Somebody Else's Problem.
From 1988-92 I switched to using an awesome editor, called Lotus Manuscript, to bang out extremely complex, beautiful documents. The way Manuscript worked had an elegance matched by the XHTML specification, except that... Lotus discontinued that product.
In 1993 I started coding web pages. I was pleased by the display resolution independence, so much like postscript but simpler. but I grew quite annoyed at one tiny little detail missed by the first html standards - there was no way to get a form feed - so no matter how you tried you couldn't get a page to print properly. That one little detail helped lead to the rise of the .pdf file format - which I hate because it's basically read-only.
Then html tables came out. The web all went to hell. The idea of display independence went out the window. People started targeting 640x480 screens, then 800x600, and now, most commercial sites target 1024x768. The webmasters and marketers want to take over your entire screen so they can. get. their. message. to. dominate. your. eyeballs. Grumble. Grumble. Grumble. I want to be able to WORK and surf at the same time. I want PDAs and cell phones to make sense of what I write, and I want future standards to be able to read it, and...
Here I am, in 2003... typing in xhtml codes manually to make a blog that's clean, and simple, struggling to find a way to make it look good down to 320x240 (it works well down to 640x480 and up to any size).
I struggled today to make the whole thing XHTML standards-compliant.
The raw tedium and attention to detail required to do this properly is mind boggling - I ran my blog through the w3 validator and it pointed out over 500 errors. Html that was perfectly valid 10 years ago, although still accepted by browsers, isn't rigorous enough for the xhtml standard.
OK. I'm not a machine! I don't want that much rigor, I just want to write and be done with it. I do want the structure that is in XHTML that I don't get from word or open office - I sorely miss the ability to make a good outline and retain the logical structure of the document - I want the format to be display independent.
I have hope that the new version of openoffice generates good xhtml.... I sit here, typing in text, and think - there's gotta be another way... fantasy sets in - give me a time transporter to 1988! I'll raid Lotus's labs, grab their source, and then find an island somewhere to hide for 15 years so I can write an editor that works like I think and outputs valid xhtml.
I look back on all these different formats I've had to write in, all the documents I've lost due to conversion problems, all the useless knowledge I have about obsolete systems... stuff that is still in use, but obsolete, like Troff and TeX - and look at a future filled with even more standards - 10 years from now, will a web page truly be browsable? I find myself wishing for something that was common and standard for a 80+ years. A typewriter.
- Blogging Tools: I can't get mozblog to work. Both BlogThis and mozblog assume a single topic post per link for a blog, and I don't write that way. I write essays. I'm always synthesising from dozens of links on the web. The method I have now for doing that is primitive and 80sish. I copy and paste links into one of a dozen emacs buffers from mozilla and go from there. It's really tedious - I used to use xemac's web mode but it hasn't kept up with web standards... I think the solution to this is:
- Bitch and moan about it.
- Learn enough xpi to modify mozblog.
- Blogger tags: I don't like being tied to tags that aren't standard, and when compared to a language like php or perl - or even for that matter cfm or shtml, the blogger tag language is weak. I understand the power of simplicity, but I miss the power of... power. I wish it was there when I needed it.
- Google. I'd like the title to my blog to change on every post, I'd like the summaries on google to make more sense, and I'd vastly prefer google always switched to a permalink when spidering me - but kept the attribution to the current stuff. I've been reading up on ways to make googling better. I'm starting to have lots of issues with google - one key part of the algorithm seems to be tied to the age of a given web page - so a posting that is 5 years out of date has more rank than one that's relevant today - there's no way to expire documents, which gets me to my last point...
- Transclusion for text: Bloggers do manually what Ted Nelson wanted to do automatically - quote parts of textual articles - and while his goal was lofty, I've gradually come to the conclusion that he was right. All the mass duplication of partial texts, all the work that we do to ensure credit is given - would have been handled by Xanadu. The ability to quote partial texts exists in the http 1.1 protocol, but nobody uses it. (It's byte specific, and buried deep in the protocol). It's possible to use it just as easily as we copy and paste today.
Anyway, off to AAS for a little mind bending exploration of science. I sure hope they have WiFi there.
Weird ideas - for a R.E.M. aware alarm clock and an audiophile CD ripper... and the nuclear airplane
I've spent a lot of my life, lying in bed, too tired to move, but unable to sleep - thinking. I used to think that the extra think time was the primary source of my creativity, now I believe that I put in my dream time in while awake, and sleptwalked through the corporate world. Normal people get three periods of dreaming per night, for years I got much less than that. No matter, now - I sleep better than I ever have - but I've thought about sleep a lot while I wasn't sleeping!
There are hundreds of patents filed for devices that sense brain patterns, usually for devices to awaken you when falling asleep operating heavy machinery. I haven't found one for one that wakes you up at an appropriate time
in your sleep cycle. Hmmm.
An alarm clock... that senses when you are in the lightest stages of sleep: stage 1 or 2 sleep. If you need to get up at 7AM and are passing into deeper sleep at 6:45 - it wakes you up a touch early. Perhaps it also has a setting to awaken you towards the end of a dream, if you want. I think a lot of people would get up easier if their alarm clocks were sensitive to their brain pattern.
Those of you that have trouble getting up in the morning sometimes, raise your hands! If your hand isn't up you aren't listening, or lying!
I like markets that are this big... that use really small embedded devices.
OK, OK, there's problems. R.E.M. sleep is not the best time to wake someone; detecting subtler levels of sleep is harder. Sensing brainwaves from a distance takes Star Trek level technology. If we could do it, for any price, it probably would be in use elsewhere. So, you need to be willing to add a sensor net to your sleep ware, with at least 5 sensors placed at inconvienent places on your head. The sensors cost about 20 bucks apiece, and age quickly.
Boom, end of good idea, right? Well, this hurdle would be difficult - but millions of people are tied to apnea machines every night - a mask on the face is not much more invasive than a couple sensors.
So instead of just an alarm clock, start with a higher end device targeted at markets like that... that tracked sleep states and other brain wave patterns - and then work on cost and invasive-reducing the sensor net so you could mass market an alarm clock....
Wouldn't it be great to know how much and what kind of sleep you got, to always awake refreshed?
My favorite feature of a smart alarm clock: if you haven't got quite enough sleep, it could let you sleep in without having to slap the snooze alarm every 5 minutes.
Audiophile CD ripper
The mp3 players - in handhelds, cars, and computers, all have one thing in common. They sound like shit. It's not the players fault, most mp3s are ripped and encoded at a fairly low bitrate. To a vendor, everyone making mp3 players stress one thing - quantity. "Store 1000s of songs!" "New, with 128MB of Flash". Etc.
Lots of music sounds pretty decent on mp3, and lots of music gets listened to because it is on mp3, so the artifacts and quality doesn't matter as much as the pulsating techno beat and samples.
There's no real instruments on most records, and few people have gone to a quality acoustic concert of anything, so they don't know what they are missing... alright, alright... I'm an audiophile... a purist... I can't stand listening to music on any but the highest bitrate mp3, and I have issues with the sound quality of both CDs and DVDs (give me a DAT any day).
I'll never listen to records like Pink Floyd's Animals or Keith Jarrett's Koln concert on mp3. Never. Never. Never.
I want something more, something that doesn't really exist yet, but has become seriously possible in the last couple years. It's easy to give a 30 second pitch for it now:
"It's a TIVO for audio, only with a pure fiber-optic digital toslink output and a sound quality identical
to the original CD. It sidesteps the entire mp3 issue - it doesn't use them. You put your (purchased) cd in, it looks up the information for the tracks on the intenet, and then, boom, you never have to use the cd again. "
There's a lot of devices
that store and play mp3s, but all of them (that I'm aware of) stress quantity over quality. The mp3 revolution was a revolution of available bandwidth and storage over quality... Most people participating listen to music in cars, on cheap speakers on their computer, or on headphones, while doing something else. Few people go into a room to just. listen. to. music.
There are, however, enough people doing that - that maybe, just maybe, there exists a market for people, like me, that want a sound as close as possible to the original sound of the record, but don't want to hassle with finding and preserving CDs. The hardware can be built cheaper than a mp3 encoder/recorder and with better fidelity, especially if you just skip on-board D/A converters and rely on the amplifier to take the digital signal.
Nobody's building it. It seems odd to me. With disk storage capacity rising at a rate of 100% a year, and 120GB hard disks going for 84 dollars (roughly 240 uncompressed CDs) today... hmm.
I want my dollah!
If I were Edison I'd just hand ideas like this off to a patent attorney and sit back and wait for investors, but I'm not. Usually I've been an employee of the modern corporation where the intellectual property license agreements are frightening: as soon as you have an idea, unless you can absolutely prove you had it in your spare time, it is not yours, but your employer's. You have to hand it over. Typically you get your name on the patent (ego-boo) but that's it. No fame, no bonus, no royalties.
No incentive, either. That's what bothers me about patents today, my reaction on having a new idea has typically been - oh, my god, did I have that on work time?
Ownership of copyrights and patents was originally conceived (I think) as a contract between a person
and the government for a limited monopoly on the idea itself. I don't know if this is true, or when it changed, but it stopped being true long ago, if it ever was. Also - you used to have to have a legal exchange of currency - a formality, typically a dollar - in order to assign the idea to the owner rather than the creator.
During WWII, as part of their contract with the government, the physicists of the Los Alamos project were asked to come up with patentable ideas for th e use of nuclear technology. When you are surrounded by people inventing the future, a lot of things seem obvious that aren't, as Dr. Richard Feynman found out, after one brief conversation with a patent attorney
. He spent an hour describing "obvious" ideas like atomic submarines, rockets, and airplanes to the attorney... and was much surprised when a few months later the attorney told him: "That the submarine was taken... but the nuclear rocket and airplane are yours!"
Feynman came up with these ideas in an hour. He had to struggle a lot harder to get his two dollars. That story's on record, it's called "I want my Dollah" - you will laugh your ass off at what he did with his two bucks. The CD, with more stories like this, is at TuvaTrader
. I have an mp3 around here somewhere...
The internet connects so many people inventing the future. To freely publish ideas on the internet - is to create public intellectual property that anyone can use - and to make the synthesis of other ideas more probable. Ultimately, when enough ideas accumulate, on top of each other, a new market - like the one for Linux - arises.
A single idea, in isolation, isn't worth much. But that's an old story - no-one's ever built a nuclear airplane. It was, however, the subject of a Tom Swift novel. I guess the idea was worth a dollar. Nuclear rockets... that's another story - good idea - no market here on earth. A good idea combined with a viable product and market, held secret and funded in the classic stealth mode - does that still happen anymore?
I keep thinking of things that are not products, yet - and I keep struggling to project myself 3-5 years, minimum, into the future. Is it worth gearing up to manufacture it, etc. ? That question usually stops me, but I figure from now on I'll publish even the really unworkable ideas and see how much faster the future comes. If any of them work out... I want my Dollah!
Now back to my quad opteron toaster.... hmm, a tight loop with 4 floating point ops ought to do for the blacken setting... but how to cook light toast? Maybe I can fool the power management code into believing the battery is low, so it goes into a light sleep mode. No, no, the solution is to re-factor the power management code to be toaster-aware! Oh my god, I didn't realize: toast comes in different sizes - maybe installing a sensor and putting a conditional branch in the blacken routine - ah... screw it, I'll contact the ietf, it's obvious we need an international standard for toast size...
The Toasted Kingdom
In the story following I see myself in both the description of the engineer and the computer scientist... and, well, last week I got mistaken for someone in marketing.
design a quad Opteron toaster
, if only I could get the OS to boot quick enough to cook toast AND perform useful work. I'm grooming myself for a job description that doesn't exist yet.
The Toasted Kingdom - original author unknown
Once upon a time, in a kingdom not far from here, a king summoned two of his advisors for a test. He showed them both a shiny metal box with two slots in the top, a control knob, and a lever. "What do you think this is?"
One advisor, an engineer, answered first. "It is a toaster," he said. The king asked, "How would you design an embedded computer for it?" The engineer replied, "Using a four-bit microcontroller, I would write a simple program that reads the darkness knob and quantizes its position to one of 16 shades of darkness, from snow white to coal black. The program would use that darkness level as the index to a 16-element table of initial timer values. Then it would turn on the heating elements and start the timer with the initial value selected from the table. At the end of the time delay, it would turn off the heat and pop up the toast. Come back next week, and I'll show you a working prototype."
The second advisor, a computer scientist, immediately recognized the danger of such short-sighted thinking. He said, "Toasters don't just turn bread into toast, they are also used to warm frozen waffles. What you see before you is really a breakfast food cooker. As the subjects of your kingdom become more sophisticated, they will demand more capabilities. They will need a breakfast food cooker that can also cook sausage, fry bacon, and make scrambled eggs. A toaster that only makes toast will soon be obsolete. If we don't look to the future, we will have to completely redesign the toaster in just a few years.
"With this in mind, we can formulate a more intelligent solution to the problem. First, create a class of breakfast foods. Specialize this class into subclasses: grains, pork, and poultry. The specialization process should be repeated with grains divided into toast, muffins, pancakes, and waffles; pork divided into sausage, links, and bacon; and poultry divided into scrambled eggs, hard- boiled eggs, poached eggs, fried eggs, and various omelet classes.
"The ham and cheese omelet class is worth special attention because it must inherit characteristics from the pork, dairy, and poultry classes. Thus, we see that the problem cannot be properly solved without multiple inheritance. At run time, the program must create the proper object and send a message to the object that says, 'Cook yourself.' The semantics of this message depend, of course, on the kind of object, so they have a different meaning to a piece of toast than to scrambled eggs.
"Reviewing the process so far, we see that the analysis phase has revealed that the primary requirement is to cook any kind of breakfast food. In the design phase, we have discovered some derived requirements. Specifically, we need an object-oriented language with multiple inheritance. Of course, users don't want the eggs to get cold while the bacon is frying, so concurrent processing is required, too.
"We must not forget the user interface. The lever that lowers the food lacks versatility, and the darkness knob is confusing. Users won't buy the product unless it has a user-friendly, graphical interface. When the breakfast cooker is plugged in, users should see a cowboy boot on the screen. Users click on it, and the message 'Booting UNIX v.8.3' appears on the screen. (UNIX 8.3 should be out by the time the product gets to the market.) Users can pull down a menu and click on the foods they want to cook.
"Having made the wise decision of specifying the software first in the design phase, all that remains is to pick an adequate hardware platform for the implementation phase. An Intel Pentium with 16MB of memory, a 300MB hard disk, and a SVGA monitor should be sufficient. If you select a multitasking, object oriented language that supports multiple inheritance and has a built-in GUI, writing the program will be a snap. (Imagine the difficulty we would have had if we had foolishly allowed a hardware-first design strategy to lock us into a four-bit microcontroller!)."
The king wisely had the computer scientist beheaded, and they all lived happily ever after.
The future of computing
I got the above story from a slashdot piece on embedded Linux for consumer electronics
. Originally I was miffed that the CELF forum
and the heavies (Sony, Phillips, etc) got all the coverage in the press release as my ex-company, the company that defined
Linux for consumer electronics, MontaVista Software
, wasn't mentioned. I was also miffed - the CELF web page is designed via Microsoft's Frontpage and run on a Solaris site - and it looks lousy.
Big names win out over small. Convienence beats clarity and cost. Pragmatism wins out over ideology. Frustrating, but in reviewing the timeline of the development of various technologies and the competition of DEC vs Sun, Mac vs Windows, and PalmOS vs PocketPC, I've got an observation or two to make about the future of Linux based computing that I'll hopefully get to finishing before I leave for the AAS conference...
If I only had a toaster.