Archive for the ‘innovation’ Category

Snowflaking the Sounds of Silence

January 9, 2009

silence One of the things I have learned this year is how much I value silence.  Actually that’s not quite true, what I’ve learned the value of is the ability to control the sound that surrounds me.  I often wants lots of it in the form of things like music, one of my great loves and which I usually choose to be surrounded by.  But I also like to choose to be surrounded by natural sounds such as the a following sea rolling down the hull of my sailboat, waking up as I recently did near the volcano of Mt. Arunel to the sounds of all the birds in the rain forest outside my window.  And sometimes I love the sound of the throbbing turbocharged six cylinder Cummings diesel engine as it powers Learnativity and I out of troubled seas. 

What I don’t like and have less and less tolerance for is sound sound pollution and the lack of my ability to control the sounds around me.  How about all those people who still seem to think you get a better cell phone signal by shouting into their mobile phones and seem to think we all want to know the deepest details of their latest business transaction or personal activities?  And while I love the general cacophony of the open street markets where I buy most of my food here in Central America, the food stalls are now interspersed between stalls of the ubiquitous pirated music and movie CD sellers who’s sales and marketing strategy seems to be to have a bigger speaker and amplifier system than their neighboring competitor and they are only outdone by the cars and vans driving around the streets with an even louder set of hailer speakers mounted on their rooftops blaring out advertisements and political messages. Up to a point it is ambiance and part of the culture and I love it.  And maybe it is just me but I find that I just can’t take too much of this for too long.

Some solve this problem by pushing their MP3 player or iPod ear buds deeper into their ears to keep out the external sounds and supply their own.  But for me that is too isolating when I’m walking around and is only something I enjoy when I’m on a plane or other stationary situation.

What I’m looking forward to in the future is the promise of some of the research being done various ways that we can gain the ability to control the sound around us.  One that I’ve been following for some time is the ability to create invisible and virtual vertical columns that can surround one or more people and within this column the only sound that exists is that which is allowed to pass through or is supplied.  Imagine for instance if this was provided in restaurants around each table, so you could have a different set of music that was just right for you and your dinner companion(s) and the only conversations you heard, or were heard by others was that at your table.  Or a similar setup in conferences that would enable very effective impromptu “un conference” sessions to happen within a large group space.  Start thinking about this and I think you’ll soon start coming up with more and more of your own scenarios where this would be an amazing help and improvement.

Once again the characteristics of the Snowflake Effect are exerting themselves here where we can have all those conditions and environments that are just right.  In this case, just the right sounds, or lack thereof, at just the right time for just the right people at just the right volume and fidelity.

Good Luck Trying to Copy a Snowflake!

December 5, 2008

In a previous posting I had mentioned a favorite quote from Jerry Garcia that;

“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”

I brought this up in a recent conversation with a business colleague in a discussion about his concerns that others were trying to compete or eliminate him by copying what he was doing.  This lead to a long conversation about how to not only be competitive but also to be true to yourself and a great frustration to those who may want to copy your work.  He said he found it to be extremely valuable and clarifying for him and so I thought I’d share the basic idea with you here.

The great thing about using the Snowflake Effect to guide your work is that you focus on being just what Jerry was referring to, the only one who does what you do.  This is NOT about being different for the sake of being different, this is about being true to yourself, your calling, your passion.  If you do that, you’ll be unique by design and essentially impossible to copy because your pursuit of your passion and getting to “just right” is a constantly evolving and changing process.

Something I’ve learned in practicing this for most of my life is that to you it all seems like a continuum and in that context it seems “the same” and there is not much change in that you are still following the same dreams, visions and values you always have.  However to everyone else, you will often be seen as constantly changing because you are trying many different things and different paths towards that end state you have in mind. 

In my past work on what I called “perfecting the irrelevant” I noted how it seems to be very common for people, organizations and business to confuse their actions, that which they do, with their value proposition, the true and lasting value of your actions.  I often cite examples such the case of ice delivery companies, none of which made it into the refrigeration business because they thought they were in the ice delivery business (what they actually did, their actions) when in fact they were in the “keeping things cold” or food preservation business. (their value proposition)  The trick is to have clarity and understanding of what your true value proposition is, as a person, and organization, or business and then be as innovative and creative as possible in ways to deliver on that value proposition.  Done successfully you are simultaneously very focused yet to most others you seem to be constantly changing and thus very difficult to copy.

Most recently Erik Duval, my favorite snowflake of all, has experienced an intriguing new form of “flattery” where someone has been copying his blog postings by literally cut and pasting them with no reference to their original source and thus appearing to be the content of this other blogger.  Unfortunately not a rare occurrence these days and very easy to do.  However I think we are now in an era where there is an inverse correlation of ease of copying with value.  In Erik’s case, ALL this other blogger is able to do is copy some of Erik’s content.  He certainly can’t copy Erik!  Erik is a snowflake and just about everything he does is similarly unique and different, yet very focused on a consistent vision and value proposition of (my interpretation only) assisting the world to be a better place through faster, better, deeper, learning. 

Good luck trying to copy that!  You might just as well try to copy an actual snowflake.

One gets MUCH Bigger!

November 21, 2008

I continue to find great fascination with the notion that “one is the biggest number” and with the thinking and writing of Kevin Kelly, and I believe that most of you share a similar interest in both as well.

Kevin has been writing and speaking for some time about his observations on the similarity between biology and technology and how as he puts it “technology is evolving to the point where it can be thought of as the 7th kingdom of life.”

When I was recently speaking with Kevin we discovered that we are both often use the “talk to think” model when giving presentations.  Thanks to TED Talks (Technology Entertainment Design) you can watch Kevin as he “thinks out loud” in this TED Talk from last year (Jan 2007) and see an excellent example of the power of inverted thinking, asking interesting questions and looking at things from different perspectives.  I particularly enjoyed how Kevin ponders the question “what does technology want?” and tried to look at it from technology’s view of the world.

These are very thoughtful ideas and Kevin is as prolific as every about them so I can heartily recommend that you spend some of your very valuable time watching this video and/or reading some of his writings on these and related topics such as this version on “The Seventh Kingdom” from his Technium writings.

You can also read Kevin’s views on how the combined networking of technology is creating a singular “computer” and covering the planet with its own “nervous system in his Technium article on “Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism” and his article from July 2008 Wired magazine “The Planetary Computer” where he comments:

“I suspect, but cannot prove, the seeds of progress lie not in increasing numbers of human minds, or artificial minds, or more powerful individual minds, but in the emergence of a more complex group mind, made of fewer humans, many more machines, and a new way of thinking.”

For me, this perspective on technology and our relationship with it are all part of the “perfect storm” that is emerging and enabling the Snowflake Effect to not only be possible but probable.  After you’ve spent some time considering these points of view please let me know your reactions and if you too see a future predominated by a snowstorm of mass personalization and design for uniqueness.

Snowflakemobile! LEGO Block Cars?

November 18, 2008

I’ve been following the story behind a new car being developed by Tata Motors in India called the Nano.  It is one of those stories that you follow with equal parts fascination and fear, and it is very much worth following whatever your reaction.  The short story is that this car is being developed as an alternative to the use of small motorcycles and mopeds for transporting multiple people.  If you’ve traveled to many other countries as I’ve been fortunate enough to, you may have witnessed the same scene that inspired the Nano when you’ve seen three to six people, often a whole family, riding on a single moped as they dart and weave their way through traffic on their way to work, school and home. 

I’ll leave you to read more about the car and the story behind it as a quick search will turn up plenty.  The July 2008 Wired magazine has an article for example called “The $3000, 33-Hoprsepower, Snap-Together ride to the Future” that will provide you with a good overview and insight.  Basic specs for the four door version include:

  • about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide.
  • 623cc two-cylinder 33 HP rear engine
  • capable of 65 miles an hour
  • projected cost new, 120,000 rupees, including road tax and delivery in India, = ~ $2500-3000

As interesting and scary as the whole concept of providing four wheels for the masses of the world is, what has caught my attention of late is the focus on cost  and other reductions which they are taking to a whole new level.  For example they are looking into reducing shipping volume and costs by shipping the cars in a snap together kit form which would be assembled at the destination.  Right now this is very UNsnowflake like in that these cars are in many ways the epitome of mass production and sameness.  However as they develop this LEGO block approach to car manufacturing and start to design for snap together modularity, it is easy to imagine how quickly this would morph into a mashup model that would enable each person to quite literally design their own car, have it shipped to them and and assemble their own snowflakemobile.

Want to try your hand at designing your own Nano?  Head over to this “design your own Nano” site to get an idea how this might work when the choices were much more in number and detail so you could truly create your own Snowflakemobile!

$1 Million Snowflake Prize

November 15, 2008

When explaining showing example of how The Snowflake Effect is already at work I often use Netflix as an example.  This DVD movie subscription service has been a huge hit since it first began by eliminating the need to make the trip to the video store and by eliminating any chance of late fees.  They did this through an ingenious combination of old and new by using the postal service to mail DVD’s to your home and by having a simple per month subscription fee that entitled you to keep the DVD’s for as long as you liked before mailing them back. 

To get started you went online and created an ordered list or queue of movies you wanted to watch.  Depending on which subscription level you chose you could have 1-3 DVD’s at a time and so to start they mailed you the first 1-3 DVD’s on your list.  You could keep the DVD’s as long as you like and whenever you were finished you sent them back in pre-paid mailers and they would send the next one in your list to you.

Handy to be sure and the service was a huge success from the very beginning.  However the real value turned out to be a little noticed feature at the time which was the feedback loop that they built into the system.  Each time they received one of the DVD’s you sent back they would send you an Email to confirm that they’d received it and tell you they had sent out the next one on your list.  Then they added the real value item, a simple 5 star rating system asking you to indicate how well you liked the movie you had sent back.  Netflix then took this preference data and used it to create an additional  list of Netflix recommended movies. 

Based on talking to many people who used Netflix, it was typical to pay very little attention to this additional list at first but after some time of using the service they would start to have some  difficulty choosing good movies to add to their list and so they would try some of the ones from the Netflix recommended list.  This would continue for a while and then because you were asked to rate each movie after watching it, people would begin to notice that more and more of the movies they really liked were the ones Netflix had recommended.  Netflix had developed was a movie recommender technology they called CinematchSM and most people found that Cinemax was better than they were at choosing movies they’d love!

To their credit, Netflix soon began to realize that their true and lasting value proposition was NOT delivering DVD’s via the mail or even avoiding late fees.  The real values was in helping people resolve the “paradox of choice”, Netflix lists over 100,000 movie titles, and growing, by helping them consistently choose movies that THEY really loved to watch. .  In fact Netflix as recently struck deals with cable TV and other companies to deliver their movies directly and almost instantly to your home via the internet and so the mailing service will likely soon be a thing of the past.  

In looking for ways to improve on their ability to deliver on this value proposition Netflix began to pay more and more attention to Cinemax and then they got REALLY smart and decided to “crowdsource” the next big improvement in Cinemax by creating a contest they called the “Netflix Prize” which offered one million dollars to the first person or team who could improve Netflix recommendations by 10%.  And therein lies the story I’ve been fascinated to follow since it started back in October 2006.  In February this year (208) Wired magazine had an article “This Psychologist Might Outsmart the Math Brains Competing for the Netflix Prize” wrote up a good account of how the competition had taken off with thousands of entries submitted by everyone from large corporations to research departments to single individuals who were from countries all over the world.  One individual, and the feature of the Wired article identified himself simply and quite accurately as it turns out, as “Just a guy in a garage”.

To help the competitors, Netflix did something which has turned out to be a “prize” in itself to the data mining world at large when they posted what is apparently the largest dataset to ever be published, consisting of 100 million of the preference ratings from Netflix customers.   This enables contestants to write their recommender algorithms that are more and more accurate at recommending movies that users will like.  When competitors submit their latest algorithm, Netflix tests it against a different set of ratings data which they keep secret and the post the results of this testing to the Netflix Prize site.  The competition is still running and you can keep up with the progress of the top contenders on the Netflix Prize Leader board.  As of this writing (Nov.14, 2008) they leading entry is at 9.44% and so while the last 1% of improvement is estimated to be more difficult than the first 9%,, the steady progress would seem to indicate that the prize will soon be awarded.

An additional item of note is that the participants have taken a surprisingly open approach to the competition by openly posting details of their methods and many are analyzing these and building upon them for their own models so there is quite a cyclical improvement happening.  Netflix also took what I thought was a very smart and novel approach in that the winning team retains ownership of the solution they come up with and must license it (non-exclusively) to Netflix. And according to the Wired article;

“The company is already incorporating some of BellKor’s ideas into its own system and in the future may buy code from other contestants, as well.”

For me this is great fun to watch not only for this specific contest but also for an intriguing and replicable way to promote innovation and creativity.  This is proof positive of the extremely tangible value there is in amplifying The Snowflake Effect and moving us further along the continuum towards the end goal of “just right”.