Tag Archives: Innovation

Innovation Hiding in Plain Sight

A few weeks ago, Tim Harford wrote an excellent article in the Financial Timeswhat we get wrong about technology. It’s chock-full of things worth considering. For instance, in the opening paragraph, Harford reminds us of a scene from the sci-fi movie Blade Runner. In particular, he draws our attention to the disparateness of having such sophisticated technology that a robot is indistinguishable from a human [Rachael, for those that remember the 1980s classic!], but people still use payphones for communication [Emphasis Added]:

There is something revealing about the contrast between the two technologies — the biotech miracle that is Rachael, and the graffiti-scrawled videophone that Deckard uses to talk to her. It’s not simply that Blade Runner fumbled its futurism by failing to anticipate the smartphone. That’s a forgivable slip, and Blade Runner is hardly the only film to make it. It’s that, when asked to think about how new inventions might shape the future, our imaginations tend to leap to technologies that are sophisticated beyond comprehension.

Later on, Harford reviews the revolutionary invention of the printing press. As it happens, the printing press might have gone the way of the EV1, if not for another invention [Emphasis Added]:

But it would have been a Rachael — an isolated technological miracle, admirable for its ingenuity but leaving barely a ripple on the wider world — had it not been for a cheap and humble invention that is far more easily and often overlooked: paper.

The printing press didn’t require paper for technical reasons, but for economic ones. Gutenberg also printed a few copies of his Bible on parchment, the animal-skin product that had long served the needs of European scribes. But parchment was expensive — 250 sheep were required for a single book. When hardly anyone could read or write, that had not much mattered.

Paper had been invented 1,500 years earlier in China and long used in the Arabic world, where literacy was common. Yet it had taken centuries to spread to Christian Europe, because illiterate Europe no more needed a cheap writing surface than it needed a cheap metal to make crowns and sceptres. Paper caught on only when a commercial class started to need an everyday writing surface for contracts and accounts.

It has to make you wonder… what have we already invented today that will be necessary for the success of a “revolutionary” invention that’s yet to come?

Toilet paper seems a long way from the printing revolution. And it is easily overlooked — as we occasionally discover in moments of inconvenience. But many world-changing inventions hide in plain sight in much the same way — too cheap to remark on, even as they quietly reorder everything. We might call this the “toilet-paper principle”.

Harford goes on to recount many instances of the ‘toilet-paper principle’ in action. He cites barbed wire as the reason for settlers to invest in their land, where previously they had no way of cost-effectively keeping things in (or keeping things out). This quote is particularly apt:

It takes a visionary to see how toilet-paper inventions can totally reshape systems; it’s easier for our limited imaginations to slot Rachael-like inventions into existing systems.

While we’re busy imagining life with flying cars or teleportation, I wonder what innovations we’re missing that are hiding in plain sight.

Advertisements

Famous People Alive at the Same Time — Visualized!

One of the things that I’m passionate about when I compose new posts on here is offering some sort of new perspective or a fresh perspective. Naturally, these are my two most often used tags (perspective = 66, fresh perspective = 71). This means that, of the nearly 600 posts I’ve written, in 66 of them, one of the most apt words for describing the post is perspective. Similarly, for 71 of the posts, fresh perspective is one of the most apt phrases. Also:

The primary focus of this site is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the “Blind Men and the Elephant,” it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a ‘tusk’ or a ‘leg.’ Some of the topics include: psychology, business, technology, education, politics, philosophy, and even history.

In today’s post, let’s focus on that last word — history.

Within the last 6 months, I came across a post that made me think, “Yes — thank you for doing this!” The post is found on a website that is absolutely brilliant in its aim — Wait But Why. The title of the post — Horizontal History. A short excerpt:

Normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of physics breakthroughs or the progression of western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers—but we’re not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other. If you think of history like a tangle of vines growing upwards through time, studying one type of history at a time is like following the path of one particular vine while ignoring the other vines around it. It’s understanding history in a vertical sense.

And while vertical history has its merits, it doesn’t leave you with an especially complete picture of any one time. An econ buff in the year 2500 might know all about the Great Depression that happened in the early 20th century and the major recession that happened about 80 years later, but that same person might mistake the two world wars for happening in the 1800s or the 2200s if they’re a little hazy on the history of wars. So while an econ buff, that person would have a pretty poor understanding of what our modern times are all about. 

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s—it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

What an innovative way to look at history, right? If you take the time to head over to the post, you’ll see that the author has a number of helpful graphics. I’m hesitant to include any in this post because I want to make sure you take the time to patronize that website. Just to take a moment to describe some of the more important ones: on the left side, you’ll find the year and then to the right, the author has charted the births/deaths of plenty of famous people throughout history. In this way, you’re able to see when certain famous people were alive at the same time.

After the author has done that, they’ve pulled out a number of “smaller” versions of these bigger graphics to talk a bit about some examples. For instance, there’s here’s a quick example:

Every time I look at the lifespan diagram, a new interesting horizontal pops out to me. Here’s one more: People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history’s greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869). These guys were all in their primes at the same time. So was Lincoln. . .

I’ve spent at least a couple of different occasions looking through this graphic trying to place who was alive together. One of the interesting things I found was that much of Johann Sebastian Bach (certainly one of my favourite composers) and Benjamin Franklin’s lifespan overlapped and that Adam Smith’s (economics) lifespan is almost wholly contained within Benjamin Franklin’s (save for two months at the end of Smith’s life). In the philosophy world at this time, John Locke died when Bach was a teenager, Voltaire’s life mostly overlaps with Bach’s, and Kant was in his 20’s when Bach died. Oh, let’s not forget that Isaac Newton was in his 40’s when Bach was born and lived for about another 40 more years. And since I’ve started with Bach, I might as well tell you that Pachelbel was born about 30 years before Bach and Vivaldi was born before Bach by about 20 years.

Quick Thoughts on HBO’s Confirmation

This past weekend, I had the chance to watch HBO’s Confirmation. It’s a dramatized version of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States. I probably shouldn’t be wading into an issue like this, especially without a fully formulated opinion, but I wanted to put proverbial pen to pad to work out some of the things that came to mind during (and immediately following) my viewing of the film.

The first, and probably most important thing that came to mind was the undue hardship that society places onto the victims of sexual assault. I can’t imagine what it was like for Anita Hill (or her friend and family) to have to experience what she experienced, especially given that she was approached, rather than her seeking out someone to tell her story. This seems wrong. It’s unjust. Victims of sexual assault shouldn’t have to weigh the potential consequences to their lives should they come forward. It shouldn’t be part of the equation — at all. Just the fact that they’ve experienced sexual assault first hand is enough trauma for one lifetime and then to put them through the media circus… that doesn’t sound like justice to me.

Of course, most sexual assaults aren’t escalated to a high-profile nature like that of Thomas/Hill’s. That doesn’t make them any less painful or any less difficult for the victims to come forward in their communities. In fact, some might argue that it’s harder in these kinds of instances because there might not be the kind of support (i.e. skilled lawyers, etc.) for the cases that aren’t high-profile.

The second thing that came to mind was the timing of the confirmation hearing. It took place in the fall of 2011. About six months later, there were the Los Angeles riots. And about two short years after that, the OJ Simpson trial. I’m sure there were other key events that took place (as an elementary school student, I wasn’t really interested in national/world news, mainly whether or not the Blue Jays or the Leafs won). Any of these events taken on their own seem like touchstone moments for a country grappling with race relations, but then to have three like this grouped so closely together…

Some may quibble with my inclusion of the confirmation hearing with the LA riots and the Simpson trial, but to my mind, there’s a thread that links all three. I mean, I can’t know this for sure, but I bet that most people would agree that if Anita Hill were white, Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing may have gone very differently.

~

I want to circle back to my point in the beginning. Injustice. It seems that there’s a perversion of justice when someone who has suffered harm has to then consider suffering more harm in the pursuit of justice. That’s not right. Given the structure of the justice system in the US, I don’t know what the solution would be, so that there’s protection for the victim, but that the accused is able to face their accuser. It seems like this is an area ripe for innovation.

Protection from Nuclear War: Look to the Cockroaches

Yesterday, I saw a post from Mental Floss about whether or not cockroaches would be able to survive a nuclear war. That is, not whether or not the cockroaches would put up a fight in a nuclear war, but whether or not they would survive the radiation from a nuclear war that happened where they existed.

The post cited research done by MythBusters that concluded cockroaches have a much higher tolerance for radiation.

Does anyone else see an opportunity for innovation here?

If I were a scientist, (aside from ethical conundrum), I might be interested in seeing how much radiation cockroaches could withstand before it affects their ability to function. Why? Because then I would want to study what it is about the cockroaches that allows them to withstand such radiation. Then, I’d want to see if I could design some sort of protection for humans. To be fair, it’d be very hard to get this to pass through any kind of Institutional Review Board (IRB). That is, the IRB would probably balk at any kind of research where humans were being used to test the strength of some kind of cockroach shield. Though, I imagine that scientists might be able to work around this by using human cells in the lab, right?

Room for Innovation in Wind Energy Industry

I was driving down the 401 in Toronto and I noticed a wind turbine setback from the highway. As I looked at it, I remembered seeing it when I used to live in Toronto over 10 years ago. That’s a long time. On one of my first trips across the USA, I drove north through the California desert. As you’d expect, there were lots of wind turbines. When I traveled through New Zealand, there were lots of wind turbines there, too.

The extent of my knowledge (at this point) of wind energy is that the energy is captured through the use of a wind turbine. And because of the structure of the turbines, there are lots of folks who oppose wind turbines. There concerns are understandable and shouldn’t easily be dismissed. That being said, I think about the abundance of wind on the planet I think that there’s gotta be room for innovation in this industry, right?

If I had to choose, my guess is that solar energy is going to be what revolutionizes energy on our planet, but while we’re still trying to perfect energy storage (batteries just won’t cut it), I have a hunch that there’s something we can do about the wind energy industry. I don’t have a grand idea to propose in this post, but there are many inventions or discoveries that come from people who weren’t working inside that industry. My guess is that I don’t have many readers who work in the wind energy industry, so it might be people like you and I who come up with an idea that revolutionizes the wind energy industry.

The next time you get a few minutes, think about the abundance of wind on the planet and how we might capture and store that energy. It just might be a million dollar idea…