Research principles from the legendary Xerox PARC

Founded in 1970 as Xerox's R&D division, PARC was a dream factory that brought the world laser printing, Ethernet, the graphical user interface that led to Windows and the Macintosh, ubiquitous computing, and many other technologies that we now take for granted. Why made the place so damn special? Alan Kay, who pioneered networked computing while at Parc, lays out a few of the principles of the research community of which Parc was a hub:

1. Visions not goals

2. Fund people not projects — the scientists find the problems not the funders. So, for many reasons, you have to have the best researchers.

3. Problem Finding — not just Problem Solving

4. Milestones not deadlines

5. It’s “baseball” not “golf” — batting .350 is very good in a high aspiration high risk area. Not getting a hit is not failure but the overhead for getting hits. (As in baseball, an “error” is failing to pull off something that is technically feasible.)

6. It’s about shaping “computer stuff” to human ends per the vision. Much of the time this required the researchers to design and build pretty much everything, including much of the hardware — including a variety of mainframes — and virtually all of the software needed (including OSs and programming languages, etc.). Many of the ARPA researchers were quite fluent in both HW and SW (though usually better at one than the other). This made for a pretty homogeneous computing culture and great synergy in most projects.

7. The above goes against the commonsense idea that “computer people should not try to make their own tools (because of the infinite Turing Tarpit that results)”.

Read the rest

Experiments with thermochromic hair dye

Lauren Bowker's UK-based firm The Unseen is currently working on a bunch of cool thermochromic textile and dye applications, like this hair color that responds to heat. Read the rest

Watch formerly homeless people make jackets that double as sleeping bags

The Empowerment Plan is a Detroit-based organization that creates manufacturing jobs making EMPWR coats that double as sleeping bags:

Via designboom:

the empowerment plan is a detroit-based, nonprofit organization focused on permanently elevating families from the generational cycle of homelessness. it hires single parents from local shelters and provide them with training and full-time employment as seamstresses so that they can earn a stable income, find secure housing, and regain their independence. the individuals it hires manufacture a coat designed to meet the needs of those in the homeless community. the durable ‘EMPWR coat’ can transform into a sleeping bag at night or an over-the-shoulder bag when not in use. since 2012, it has provided employment to 34 homeless individuals—all of whom have now secured permanent housing for themselves and their families—and distributed over 15,000 coats to those in need across the US and canada.

REDFworkshop.org (Vimeo / The Empowerment Plan via designboom) Read the rest

Wishlist for the ultimate music phone

DJ Jesse Jarnow polled a bunch of "hardcore music nerds" to get their feature wish-list for a music-centric phone for Wired; here's what I suggested: Read the rest

Save iTunes: how the W3C's argument for web-wide DRM would have killed iTunes

The World Wide Web Consortium's plan to standardize web-wide digital rights management is based on the idea that if an entertainment company doesn't like a new technology, it should have the right to prevent that technology from coming into being. Read the rest

The Big List of What's Wrong with the TPP

The Trans Pacific Partnership: it's thousands of pages' worth of dense bureaucratic language setting out the give-and-take of years' worth of secret negotiations. Figuring out what it means for you is a transcendentally difficult process. Read the rest

MIT and EFF's Freedom to Innovate Summit: defending students' and hackers' right to tinker

The Oct 10/11 event is run jointly by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Civic Media at MIT and will be hosted at the MIT Media Lab. Read the rest

How to talk to your child about Elon Musk

Brian Sacks: "Tell your child that before he/she was born you too had a groundbreaking idea for a rainbow-powered washing machine. Let them know you were on the verge of getting a patent and becoming fabulously wealthy but then they happened." Read the rest

If phones were designed to please their owners, rather than corporations

Your smartphone was designed to deliver as much value as possible to its manufacturer, carrier and OS vendor, leaving behind the smallest amount of value possible while still making it a product that you'd be willing to pay for and use. Read the rest

Comic about how a man and his dog invented velcro

Over at Backchannel, Andy Warner's comic about how in 1941 a Swiss electrical engineer returned from a hike with his dog in the Alps and came up with velcro. Read the rest

Is American invention at risk?

Comedian, commercial director and documentarian Jordan Brady hosts a great podcast on commercial filmmaking called Respect The Process. He recently interviewed Ryan Berman, Chief Creative Officer for San Diego ad agency I.D.E.A. The interview is a smart casual conversation between old colleagues about the modern advertising agency, the challenges of staying forward-thinking, and keeping your team fresh and energized.

Late in the podcast (14m30s), the talk turns to Berman's own documentary film on the current state of U.S. patent law, Inventing To Nowhere, which recently screened at SXSW. Though Berman is quick to point out this was a sponsored project for The Innovation Alliance, a tech-industry lobbying group, it is not branded content. The doc is an impassioned plea for inventor protection under whatever patent reform comes from congress.

The Innovation Alliance website SaveTheInventor.com features a petition declaring:

...we oppose efforts by some multinational companies in Washington, DC to weaken patents and make it harder for inventors and start-ups like us to live out our dream of creating something and calling it our own. With our ideas, willingness to take risks, and hard work, we have just as much right to succeed as they have.
On a lighter note: also check out the hilarious PSA Brady directed, Scooter The Neutered Cat which he made for animal protection group GiveThemTen.org Read the rest

Interview with man who coined the phrase “the Internet of Things"

Arik Gabbai of The Smithsonian interviewed innovator Kevin Ashton, who coined the phrase “the Internet of Things." He has a new book called How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery. Read the rest

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 Read the rest

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!" Read the rest

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." Read the rest

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.

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. Read the rest

More posts