Great ideas that changed the world, and the people they rode in on

To inaugurate the publication of his brilliant new book How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (also a PBS/BBC TV series), Steven Johnson has written about the difficult balance between reporting on the history of world-changing ideas and the inventors credited with their creation

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Video: Ferdinando Buscema on "The Magic of Breaking Ideas"

At the recent TEDxCaFoscariU in Venice, our co-conspirator Ferdinando Buscema, magician/author/engineer, explores "The Magic of Breaking Ideas." And don't miss Ferdinando's Boing Boing feature, "The Magic of Hacking Reality!"

Thinking about Walt Disney's bench


Grad writes, "According to Walt Disney, the idea for a Disney-themed amusement park came to him while sitting on a park bench."

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Tesla vs. Edison vs. The Great Men of History

Whether you think Tesla > Edison or Edison > Tesla, perhaps you’re missing something important. In reality, technology isn’t shaped by one guy who had one great idea and changed the world. Instead, it’s a messy process, full of flat-out failures and not-quite-successes, and populated by many great minds who build off of and are inspired by each other’s work.

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Honeywell's Kitchen Computer: the 1969 behemoth that didn't sell a single unit


Wired's Daniela Hernandez has an in-depth history of the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, a minicomputer that could track recipes and offer meal plans, which was listed in the 1969 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog, though none ever sold. Not only were the technical challenges associated with installing one of these were formidable, they were also pitched for solving a problem that wasn't really much of a problem.

I always imagined the design meeting for this going something like:

"I bet rich people would love to have the bragging rights you'd get from having a computer in their house, it'd be like having your own personal Apollo mission."

"Yeah, but what would they use 'em for? Let's ask Poindexter if he's got any ideas."

"Mrr, yes gentlemen, well, you see, computers are very good at tabulating long columns of numbers, solving differential equations, and managing 'data-bases', these being complex records, such as those used for human resources departments to keep track of the various attributes of employees and such..."

"Oh."

"Oh."

"So, uh, these data-bases, is that something you know, normal people might use? Something you'd keep around the house?"

"Oh yes! Your Christmas card list on 3x5 cards, or a list of recipes --"

"Recipes, you say?"

And off they went. Of course, in trying to improve things that worked well already (and without any input from the people whose problems they were notionally solving), Honeywell fell into the pit of "insufficient weirdness" -- imagining a future that was much like the present, only moreso. Computers that organized recipes, not computers that let you take pictures of your lunch and instantaneously share them with friends around the world.

Without a teletype, a programmer would need to enter software into the Honeywell using the 16 buttons on the front panel, each of which corresponds to a bit. A pressed button represented a one, and un-pushed button signaled a zero. “The chances that you would get a program right doing it one bit at a time like that were so low,” Spicer said. “The first peripheral people bought for [the Honeywell] was a teletype so they could speak to it.”

Now try to imagine all that in late 1960s kitchen. A full H316 system wouldn’t have fit in most kitchens, says design historian Paul Atkinson of Britain’s Sheffield Halam University. Plus, it would have looked entirely out of place. The thought that an average person, like a housewife, could have used it to streamline chores like cooking or bookkeeping was ridiculous, even if she aced the two-week programming course included in the $10,600 price tag.

If the lady of the house wanted to build her family’s dinner around broccoli, she’d have to code in the green veggie as 0001101000. The kitchen computer would then suggest foods to pair with broccoli from its database by “speaking” its recommendations as a series of flashing lights. Think of a primitive version of KITT, without the sexy voice.

Before the iPad, There Was the Honeywell Kitchen Computer

Be thankful for turkey cooking patents


On TechDirt, Canadian Leigh Beadon helps Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with a roundup of all the weird patents the USPTO has granted for preparing turkey. Be thankful that deboning poultry is patentable (and has been repeatedly patented), otherwise, what would incentivize butchers and chefs to innovate?

Luckily, there are plenty of open alternatives for the patent-savvy chef. Who needs those fancy new turkey cutlets when you can use this classic "method of preparing turkey ... in the form of a flat elongated slice or slices of raw fowl free from bones, tendons, membranes and skin." Mmmmmm. This patent was granted back in the 60s, so it's long since expired.

Or you could try this "method of preparing barbecued poultry such as turkey which closely simulates barbecued pork", patented in the early 70s and now free for all to follow in handy flow-chart form...

So Long And Thanks For All The Turkey Patents

Fact-checking US patent-boss's defense of his job



This week, David Kappos, head of the US Patent and Trademark Office, gave a speech at the Center for American Progress where he dismissed critics of the patent system, telling them to "give it a rest already." He insisted that his office was doing a great job, and was the center of American innovation, citing various stats to back up his claim.

On Ars Technica, Timothy Lee does a masterful job of fact-checking the patent boss's claims, driving a Mack truck through the logical flaws in his argument:

"Our patent system is the envy of the world," Kappos said. In his view, the key question in the patent debate is "do we demand today's innovation on the cheap via a weaker patent system that excludes subject matter, or do we moderate today's consumption with a strong patent system so our children enjoy greater innovations?"

This argument ducks the central question in the software patent debate: do patents, in fact, provide a net incentive for innovation in the software industry? Many entrepreneurs say that just the opposite is true: that the disincentive to innovation created by the threat of patent litigation dwarfs any positive incentive effects created by the ability for a firm to get patents of its own.

Empirical evidence backs this up. For example, in a 2008 book, the researchers James Bessen and Michael Meurer found that for nonchemical patents, the costs of patent litigation began to exceed the benefits of holding patents in the 1990s. Software and business patents were particularly prone to litigation.

More recent research has estimated that litigation by patent trolls costs the economy at least $29 billion per year, and that figure may be as high as $83 billion.

US patent chief to software patent critics: "Give it a rest already"

3DS sues innovative new 3D printer company Formlabs & Kickstarter for patent infringement


3D Systems, one of the big, incumbent 3D printer makers, is suing Formlabs, an innovative new 3D printer company that prints in resin (see previous mentions), for patent infringement. They've also named Kickstarter to the suit.

3D Systems' complaint asserts that the sale and use of the Form 1 3D printers sold by Formlabs and Kickstarter infringe a U.S. patent relating to stereolithography. Formlabs sold the Form 1 3D printers to backers of its Kickstarter campaign in September and October 2012.

"3D Systems invented and pioneered the 3D printing technology of stereolithography and has many active patents covering various aspects of the stereolithography process," said Andrew Johnson, General Counsel of 3D Systems. "Although Formlabs has publicly stated that certain patents have expired, 3D Systems believes the Form 1 3D printer infringes at least one of our patents, and we intend to enforce our patent rights."

Many of the key patents in 3D printing start expiring in 2013, and will continue to lapse through '14 and '15. Expect a big bang of 3D printer innovation, and massive price-drops, in the years to come.

3D Systems Announces Filing of Patent Infringement Suit Against Formlabs and Kickstarter

Radio documentary on elections and America's energy future: The Power of One, with Alex Chadwick

BURN: An Energy Journal, the radio documentary series hosted by former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, has a 2-hour election special out. It's the most powerful piece of radio journalism I've listened to since—well, since the last episode they put out. You really must do yourself a favor and set aside some time this weekend to listen to “The Power of One.”

Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years. In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.

The documentary examines how "individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential Election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence." It was completed and hit the air before Hurricane Sandy, but the energy issues illuminated by that disaster (blackouts, gas shortage, grid failure, backup power failure at hospitals) further underscore the urgency.

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Viruses to the rescue

Technology Review's list of 35 Innovators Under 35 includes Timothy Lu, an MIT researcher who is engineering viruses designed to seek out and destroy biofilms — bacterial colonies that stick together on a surface, like bits of pear suspended in the world's most disgusting jell-o salad. Biofilms have been implicated in human disease, especially chronic infections like those that can happen in the urinary tract and inner ear. But the first place Lu's biofilm-eating viruses will likely be put to work is cleaning out ducts in industrial HVAC systems. (Via Carl Zimmer)

Student disciplined for improving campus course-selection system


Timothy Arnold, a student at the University of Central Florida, produced a app called U Could Finish that automated the process of hunting for vacancies in popular courses. After the app was the subject of a popular Reddit post, the administration at UCF punished Arnold for doing this, on the grounds that it had overloaded their servers. As a persuasive presentation from Arnold and friends documents, this claim is not very plausible. Nevertheless, the project has been terminated and Arnold faces three semesters of academic probation, a paper in which Arnold must explain why what he did was naughty and why the system's administrators are good people, and a coaching session on making good life sessions.

The Reddit post on the shutdown is full of good examples of universities that rewarded students who improved their systems rather than reacting with immediate and thorough reactionary discipline.

UCF student penalized for writing program to simplify searching for open university classes (ucouldfinish.com)

Declaration of Internet Freedom

I've signed the Declaration of Internet Freedom, a short, to-to-point manifesto for a free and open Internet. It's attracted some very august signatories, including Amnesty International, Hackers and Founders, Global Voices, Mozilla, the NY Tech Meetup, Personal Democracy, Fight for the Future, Yochai Benkler, danah boyd, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Aaron Swartz and Jonathan Zittrain. You can sign it too, and talk about it here or on Reddit.

We stand for a free and open Internet.

We support transparent and participatory processes for making Internet policy and the establishment of five basic principles:

* Expression: Don't censor the Internet.

* Access: Promote universal access to fast and affordable networks.

* Openness: Keep the Internet an open network where everyone is free to connect, communicate, write, read, watch, speak, listen, learn, create and innovate.

* Innovation: Protect the freedom to innovate and create without permission. Don’t block new technologies, and don’t punish innovators for their users' actions.

* Privacy: Protect privacy and defend everyone’s ability to control how their data and devices are used.

Declaration of Internet Freedom

Fewer options, better healthcare?

Over at Discover, Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn makes an interesting point about flaws in our current healthcare system. Historically, we've put a lot of effort into innovation, and not enough into building solid bases of evidence about which treatments actually work. Her argument: Americans would be better off if we had fewer options when it came to medical care. The assumption she's making (and it's not out of line) is that if we did more of the kind of large-scale, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that offer useful evidence about effectiveness and safety, then many of the treatments options we now have would turn out to be useless.

Horror stories from the history of surgery

Sometimes, it's a little mind blowing when you remember just how recently medicine passed from the world of art/magic/tradition and into the realm of science. There's plenty of reason to argue that the transformation still isn't complete today, but I'm really mesmerized by stories from the 19th century, when every surgery was something of an experiment and the same, cutting-edge doctor could vacillate between modern techniques and medieval bio-alchemy in his treatment of the same patient.

Until that time, the prevalent method of cataract treatment was “couching,” a procedure that involved inserting a curved needle into the orbit and using it to push the clouded lens back and out of the line of sight. Warren's patient had undergone six such attempts without lasting success and was now blind. Warren undertook a more radical and invasive procedure—actual removal of the left cataract. He described the operation, performed before the students of Harvard Medical School, as follows:

"The eye-lids were separated by the thumb and finger of the left hand, and then, a broad cornea knife was pushed through the cornea at the outer angle of the eye, till its point approached the opposite side of the cornea. The knife was then withdrawn, and the aqueous humour being discharged, was immediately followed by a protrusion of the iris."

Into the collapsed orbit of this unanesthetized man, Warren inserted forceps he had made especially for the event. However, he encountered difficulties that necessitated improvisation:

"The opaque body eluding the grasp of the forceps, a fine hook was passed through the pupil, and fixed in the thickened capsule, which was immediately drawn out entire. This substance was quite firm, about half a line in thickness, a line in diameter, and had a pearly whiteness."

A bandage was applied, instructions on cleansing the eye were given, and the gentleman was sent home. Two months later, Warren noted, inflammation required “two or three bleedings,” but “the patient is now well, and sees to distinguish every object with the left eye.”

That's from an amazing essay on the history of surgery published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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Innovation Under Austerity: Eben Moglen's call to arms from the Freedom to Connect conference

Last week saw the latest installment of David Isenberg's Freedom to Connect conference in Washington, DC. One of the keynotes came from Eben Moglen, formerly chief counsel of the Free Software Foundation, now the principle agitator behind the Software Freedom Law Center. Eben's keynote is one of the most provocative, intelligent, outrageous and outraged pieces of technology criticism I've heard. It's a 45 minute lecture with a 45 minute Q&A. I ripped the audio and listened to it while walking around town today and kept having to stop and take out my headphones and think for a while.

I found out about it via a message forwarded to me by the Open University's Marian Petre from the ACM's SIGCSE mailing list, where Adelphi's Stephen Bloch cherry-picked some of the best quotes from the talk, which I've pasted in below to give you a taste of what awaits you, should you be willing to give Eben such a generous chunk of your time. I think it was a very good use of my time.

Innovation under austerity is not produced by collecting lots of money and paying it to innovation intermediaries. [Several examples of disintermediation: TV, encyclopedias, book publishing, music recording, magazine publishing] Disintermediation -- the movement of power out of the middle of the net -- is a crucial fact about 21st century political economy.

Intermediaries that did well in the past ten years are limited to two categories: health insurers in the U.S., owing to political pathology, and the financial industry. Health insurers in the U.S. may be able to capitalize on continuing political pathology to remain failing and expensive intermediaries for a while longer, but the financial industry crapped in its own nest and is shrinking now and will continue to do so.

The reality that disintermediation happens and you can't stop it becomes a guiding light in the formation of national industrial policy. The greatest technological innovation of the 20th century is the thing we now call the World Wide Web. That innovation both fuels disintermediation by allowing all sorts of human contact to take place without agents, and is itself a result of disintermediated innovation.

The browser made the Web very easy to read. We did not make the Web easy to write. So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man-in-the-middle attack on human civilization. That's the intermediary innovation that we should be concerned about. We made everything possible... and then intermediaries to innovation turned it into the horror that is Facebook. It's intermediated innovation serving the needs of financiers, not the needs of people.

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