Archive for the ‘Snowflake’ Category

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”.

Snowflakes don’t need to stand out to be special

November 12, 2008

It has been an interesting and very informative experience to bring the Snowflake Effect to Japan.  When doing the overview of the Snowflake Effect I often first explain that the name comes from the common experience most of us have had where our parents or loved ones tell us that we are a snowflake, special, unique, there is no one quite like us.  As I often go on to say, in my case when my mother said “Wayne, there’s no one quite like you!” she was not being complimentary! <g> 

snowflake on stemYet in Japan one of the fundamental themes in the culture and one that is emphasized throughout their education is what translates to “don’t stand out.”  How would the Snowflake Effect play out in this situation?  How would I explain it in such a way as to not offend this audience or make false assumptions about how they view themselves?  Turns out it was not too difficult at all and the whole concept went over extremely well.  What I did was emphasize the second point I usually make with the basics of the Snowflake Effect which is that it is not simply about the recognition of the fact that we are unique as individuals but that each and every situation we are in, each moment, is unique.  People in Japan identified with this very much and they were in fact one of the most engaging groups I’ve been with.

They recognize the uniqueness of each individual and more so the uniqueness of every moment and were extremely receptive to the concept of the Snowflake Effect and are seeing similar trends all around them.  However they choose to be more subtle about it all and their concern is about “standing out” which should not be confused with being unique.  They related very well for example to the metaphor of LEGO blocks, where all the blocks are very similar and have a great deal of commonality of size, shape, pin sizes, etc.  However these same uniform and common blocks can be assembled into a very unique combination.

So I learned a valuable lesson from the whole experience which is that being a snowflake does not mean that you have to “stand out” as being different or unique.  As I thought more about real snowflakes I realized this lesson was there for me to see all along.  You don’t notice the uniqueness of each snowflake until you look very closely, and each snowflake does not stand out as being different. Yet of course upon closer inspection of their beautiful crystalline structure, we see how wonderfully unique each snowflake truly is.  As my mother used to also say, “Wayne, you’re a snowflake, you’re completely unique; just like every other snowflake!”

Snowflake Coffee

November 6, 2008

This story has been brewing and percolating or a while now and I’ve been meaning to write up this example of the Snowflake Effect hitting coffee and now appearing at Starbucks of all places. 

First the basics of what we are talking about here; the Clover coffee machine.  This relatively new machine is a great story and example to me of innovative thinking around an old or common idea and an example of the Snowflake Effect of mass personalization and uniqueness.  The links below will give you more details but basically this is a story of a few individuals who decided that there had to be a better way to create a great cup of coffee and one that was “just right” for each individual.  As with most such success stories there were a lot of failed attempts leading up to this great success and it makes for fun reading and inspiration.

The Snowflake effect comes from the coffee making process and how these Clover machines enable the very precise control of three key variables (in addition to the beans of course); water temperature, volume of water and steeping time, to create just the right coffee experience for each and every user.  While you would obviously need to be a coffee lover both in order to afford a cup of this coffee and to care this much about how it tastes, these new machines, coupled with great beans are able to deliver a truly personalized and high quality coffee experience.  Mathew Honan wrote about his experience in his Wired article “The Coffee Fix: Can the $11,000 Clover Machine Save Starbucks?”

“He measures out 46 grams of beans, grinds them, and then slides them into the recessed chamber on top. Next, he programs a new brew time and temperature, raising the heat from 205 degrees to 207 and increasing the brewing time from 45 seconds to 50.

A few tweaks and I have a new beverage. And it’s not just the chocolate flavor; the mouthfeel and acidity are completely different from the first cup. All Latourell did was adjust the brew time and temperature and add 6 grams of beans. Taste-testing it against the earlier brew, I wouldn’t have guessed they were the same bean. I’m starting to become a Clover convert.”

So one Snowflake scenario that emerges is that after some experimentation to find it, you could carry your “formula” for “just the right” coffee around with you and have it brewed up to just right perfection at your local Starbucks.  And it does need to be a Starbucks because CEO Howard Schulz was so impressed with these Clover coffee makers when he first discovered them and tasted the coffee last year, that he bought the whole company!  And it won’t be your local Starbucks for a while as they are only just starting to introduce these pricey machines in a few select stores around the USA.  But you can find  store locator on the Clover page at

You can read more detailed accounts on how these new Clover coffee makers work such as:

And you can watch this video on the Wired magazine site to see how it works.


One is the Biggest Number?

November 3, 2008

In our TWiST (This Week in Snowflake Talk) conversation last week Erik and I got to talking about scarcity and particularly the scarcity of control.  In our context scarcity was in reference to the reduction in control of authorities, suppliers, experts, publishers, producers, and the like. Erik mentioned for example how as a professor he has less and less control over his students.  We are seeing other examples all around us such as how producers and publishers of things like music and entertainment are having less and less control over our access to and use of media such as music and video. 

However I also look at this from a different perspective and see how control is becoming more abundant and being  ‘snowflaked” in that it is rapidly migrating towards the individual.  Consider the degrees to which each of us is in control of when, where and how we listen to the music for example or the powers you now have over viewing television content. 

Seems to me that ONE is becoming the biggest number of all as the Snowflake Effect takes hold and the focal point becomes each individual snowflake.  Let’s just keep in mind that as control shifts so too does responsibility.

What if the impossible isn’t?

November 1, 2008

More and more I see just how profound and accurate William Gibson’s famous quote is:

“The future is already here, it just isn’t very equally distributed.”

However it is also more and more troubling to me as I see one of the biggest barriers we have in going after things like the Snowflake Effect is our lack of awareness of the art of the possible. 

Going after any goal or vision has to be based on the belief that is it possible to achieve and based on my discussions with the many people I have the privilege to interact with around the world I think the lack of such belief is a fundamental reason why there is not more change and pursuit of what I am convinced is the very achievable vision of a world predominated by design for unique , mass personalization and the Snowflake Effect.  Possible in this context includes not only technically possible but also things like accessible, affordable, and most of all awareness of what is already possible.

It is understandable that this is a major challenge when we live in a world of exponential change, yet our ability to be aware and up to date has never been greater so this is a solvable problem I think.  I’ll be pondering this further and especially ways to raise the collective awareness of the art of the possible.  Or to Gibson’s quote, looking at ways to equal the distribution of the future. In the interim I have always found it to be extremely smart and successful to adopt the approach and attitude that pretty much anything is possible and always be asking

What if the impossible isn’t?

Global Snowball has a Heartbeat?

October 31, 2008

As per my posting a few days ago “Indi-Groups?” and continuing some comments from my discussion with Kevin Kelly, I was struck by his observation and phrasing (my best attempt to paraphrase from the conversation):

“we are living in a very new and special time when we simultaneously have dramatic increases in the power of individualization AND the power of the group”

In the vernacular of the Snowflake Effect I had been pointing out similar ends of the spectrum from individual Snowflakes to the collective Snowball such as Pluralization of Personalization and “Snowballs are Snowflakes too!”


Kevin noted this startling charting of the October 2008 financial market crash from a recent New York Times article which shows how we are truly living in a global economy that is now acting more like a single organism.  As I recall Kevin captured this nicely when he referred to it as “an economic heartbeat”.


Sure seems to be powerful proof that we are indeed living in a time characterized by the simultaneous powers of the individual Snowflakes and collective Snowball.


October 30, 2008

As per many of my previous comments here, articles on Off Course – On Target and many of my presentations, I see more and more examples of a meta trend where basic human functions are being transformed from distinctly separate roles into a mashup of combined roles.  I credit Alvin Toffler with spotting and naming one of the first of these when he coined the term Pro-sumer in his book The Third Wave to describe what he saw as a future society where rather than being either a producer or a consumer we would all take on both roles simultaneously.  Toffler wrote about this back in the 60’s and 70’s and I think we can now clearly see how prescient he was as we live in just such a society in many parts of the world today.

I’ve been speaking about these trends for many years and noting more and more examples of the same kind of integration and blending of fundamental human roles.  I’ll be addressing more of these in coming postings, podcasts and articles but for today I wanted to reference one that came up in my discussions with Kevin Kelly yesterday.  Kevin noted how this is a very new and special time when we simultaneously have dramatic increases in the power of individualization AND the power of the group.  If we were to use Toffler’s example of creating a new dual term word we could call this Indi-Groups. 

A few days ago I wrote about how the Snowflake Effect applies equally to both individuals and groups in the posting “Pluralization of Personalization” and yesterday Kevin went on to point out things like the need to distinguish between “the wisdom of the crowd and the stupidity of the mob”.  I pondered whether things like focus groups might now represent “the stupidity of the mob” or group think, which so typically end up concluding the opposite of what the larger group they are supposed to represent will actually prefer and choose (Erik has talked and blogged about this extensively in some of his previous postings)

To my perhaps biased perception these are all further examples of the growing influence and affect of the The Snowflake Effect and precisely why Erik and I are so passionately pursuing it.

How Far Can We Go?

October 28, 2008

Had a fantastic time with Kevin Kelly today here at the Learning 2008 event when I was privileged to be his “escort” and host.  Had a chance for some very stimulating discussion with him as well as the chance to listen to him on stage as well as in a one hour Q&A session afterwards.  In the next few days I’ll post a number of other topics and observations that emerged from these various discussions and interactions .

for now the one I’ll just post the short question he posed which was “How far can we go with linking and assembling small pieces together? “ and his own answer which was “We don’t know” 

This was in reference to the continuous ramp up of piecing small things together to make larger yet single functioning things and systems.  We had a great discussion on our mutual view of the power of mashups and the expansion of this term to be a much larger conceptual model.  Wikipedia was used as an example and covered in some depth as we also had the benefit of having Sue Gardner from Wikipedia with us.  However Kevin shares a fascination with mechanical things and tools and how these too have more and more examples of being mashups.  His point was that we continue to find that these can be larger and larger and more and more functional end results that come about largely on their own, quite unexpectedly and we really don’t know what the upper limit is to the pattern.  Kevin noted how this is very similar way that living organisms evolve to larger and larger more complex species.

My favorite comment though was his observation that we are witnessing more and more examples of things which are as he put it:

Impossible in theory and possible in practice.

Sure matches with my experience and our need to focus on increasing our awareness of the art of the possible.  Stay tuned, more to follow.