Hey, it’s summer, it’s hot, and there are several early articles that appeared before most people knew this blog existed.

So, allow me to recommend three interesting posts that you may have missed:

The first is entitled The Ultimate Road Trip. It’s about the astonishing story of the interstate highway system–a system that is now beginning its old age, with not much attention to its replacement.

The second is about Boxie, a fascinating (and friendly and cute) MIT robot.

The third is about the cost of educating America’s children, one by one.

I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing!



The Google of Its Day

No, it’s not easy to detect the precise moment when the trouble began, when the world began to change, when everything that worked for a century suddenly stopped working. There are theories, and books written, and somehow, the old ways seem distant, and inconceivable in their naiveté. And there are new ideas, new companies, new ways of thinking and connecting that don’t much resemble the old. But one thing is clear: everything else may change, but in my world, in your job, in our town, everything is going to be just fine if we just cut some costs, say the magic words “social networking” three times daily, and reinforce one another’s thinking about the value of maintaining the status quo.

I keep thinking about Kodak. George Eastman was 24 years old when he (and other hobbyists) figured they could build an industry by making photography easier. From 1878 until 1883, he opened a factory, and by 1888, he was selling shares. He struggles to find a market in the US, finds one in Europe, brings it all back home, and by 1900, Kodak is the hot start-up company. It sells cameras for $1 and rolls of film for 15 cents. By 1907, Kodak employs 5,000 people (about the number it employs today). By 1914, Kodak builds a skyscraper. By 1924, George Eastman gives half of his $75 million (in today’s dollars, $2 billion) fortune to charitable causes–including $12 million in start-up funds for what becomes MIT. In 1932, at age 77, Eastman kills himself (the suicide note read: “Why wait?”). Still, Kodak kept on growing: in 1935, Kodak introduced Kodachrome color slide film, in and jumping ahead to 1962, Kodak sales exceeded $1 billion, and the company was heavily invested in future technologies, a strategy employed well into the 2000s, when the company was an early leader in digital photography at all levels, from medical imaging to consumer cameras.

Kodak was the Google of its day. — The Economist (see history or official Kodak history)

Today, Kodak is almost non-existent. Nearly gone. After closing its factories, leaving the camera business and nowadays, selling off its patents, a century’s success is fading like the (Polaroid) snapshot in Back to the Future 2.

Why did Kodak fail? Some theories:

Kodak did not fail because it missed the digital age. It actually invented the first digital camera in 1975. However, instead of marketing the new technology, the company held back for fear of hurting its lucrative film business, even after digital products were reshaping the market. — Forbes.

And then there are companies like Kodak — which saw the future and simply couldn’t figure out what to do. Kodak’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing on January 19 culminates the company’s 30-year slide from innovation giant to aging behemoth crippled by its own legacy. — Knowledge@Wharton

The company might have been able to innovate more quickly on the digital front if it had set up a separate lab in Silicon Valley, then allowed it to grow independently and tap into the area’s tech culture and expertise.” — Knowledge@Wharton

And what should Kodak have done?

— Enter the cell phone business? It tried this a bit. Didn’t work.

— Recognize that it was really in the memory business and diversify into storage? Nice try.

— Increase its R&D? Kodak did that, spending most of the money on improving film technology.

— Diversify into healthcare? It did that too. Didn’t work.

— Spin off its chemical business? It did that, generating some cash. But small potatoes.

— Integrate backwards into semiconductors? Way out of its competency.

In the end, Kodak (now on the brink of bankruptcy) was a well run company that failed. It was an early technology company, and it never lost its technology roots. It then became a marketing behemoth and a superb consumer company. It then morphed into a financially run enterprise and it did that well–until it failed. — Information Week

And what does this mean for the rest of us?

That’s a question I want to explore in future blog articles. Clearly, the digital revolution in motion, gaining considerable momentum as the spookiness of the bubble fades from memory. I would imagine that schools and education will be the next frontier, the next “it can’t happen here” that will be utterly transformed, but there are significant political and economic class issues driving the status quo. I wonder whether the top ranks of the Fortune 500 will continue to be dominated by companies associated with cars and fuel in thirty years (remember: thirty years ago, Kodak was still hot stuff). We’re been seeing tremendous technology-driven changes in health care, and now, with new rules and an increasingly stable economy, and the dreadful statistics about health care needs of aging baby boomers, the opportunities in this area seem rich, particularly in the digital space (tele-medicine,  patient education, digital tracking of patience care, etc.)

Meet Boxie

Boxie is a friendly little robot who lives and works at MIT Media Lab. He’s a busy little guy, and his story may change your perceptions of robots in our future.

Boxie Labcast

Siri, meet the family

The UK cover is more interesting than the US cover, which is, somewhat appropriately, covered with the repeated words "The Information."

James Gleick nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography about Isaac Newton, and another about Richard Feynmann, a colorful physicist who pioneered nanotechnology and quantum mechanics. His best selling book (more than a million copies sold) is the step-by-step, scientist-by-scientist, idea-by idea story of chaos theory entitled Chaos: Making a New Science.

Gleick’s 2011 book is called The Information. it begins with the European discovery of African talking drums in the 1840s, a percussive idea he eventually connects to Samuel Morse’s dots-and-dashes telegraph code, and, we’re off on a long tale not unlike the best of James Burke’s TV series, Connections. Gleick takes us through the development of letters and alphabets, numbers and mathematics, numerical tables and algorithms, dictionaries and encyclopedias. These stories, and their many tangents, set us up for Charles Babbage whose boredom with the Cambridge curriculum in mathematics leads to an early, impossible-to-build, 25,000 piece machine, awesome in its analog, mechanical, Victorian design. This, then, leads to the further develop of the telegraph, now caught up in a new conception called a “network” that connected much of France, for example.

By the early 20th century, MIT becomes one of several institutions concerned with the training of electrical engineers–then, a new discipline–and with it, machinery to solve second-order differential equations (“rates of change within rates of change: from position to velocity to acceleration”). This, plus the logic associated with relay switches in telegraph networks, provides MIT graduate student Claude Shannon with his thesis idea: connecting electricity with logical interactions in a network. Shannon’s path leads to Bell Labs, where he works on the “transmission of intelligence.” By 1936, a 22-year old Cambridge graduate named Alan Turing had begun thinking about a machine that could compute.

Well, that’s about half the book. Now, things become more complex, harder to follow, dull for all but the most interested reader. The interweaving connects DNA and memes (and, inevitably, memetics, which is the study of memes), cybernetics and randomness, quantification of information, and Jorge Luis Borges’ 1941 conception of an ultimate library with “all books, in all languages, books of apology and prophecy, the gospel and commentary on that gospel, and commentary upon the commentary upon the gospel…”

Eventually we obsolete CD-ROMs (too much information, too little space), and create Wikipedia and the whole of the Internet. In the global googleplex, the term “information overload” becomes inadequate. And yet, Gleick promises, it is not the quantity that matters, it is the meaning that matters. After 420 pages of historical text, I’m still wondering what it all means–and whether the purpose is mere conveyance as opposed to deeper meaning or its hopeful result, understanding.

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