The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Tue, 2008-Nov-25, 09:11

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Telephone Calls from Your Plants is So Last Year

I've heard from Kate Hartman again; it seems that phone calls from your house plants are just too dated for advanced thinkers. She and Kati London and the rest of the gang now have a kit that lets your house plants contact you via Twitter.

This is a team to watch, with tremendous creativity.

Tue, 2007-Mar-06, 09:12

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When Your Plants Talk Back to You

When I was off at ETel 2007 last week, one of my plants didn't get enough water and was clearly distressed by the time I returned. But that's because I didn't have the Botanicalls system available.

Botanicalls is project of the Interactive Telecommunications Project; Kati London and Kate Hartman staffed the demonstration and presented the project as one of ETel's "Lightning Talks."

In the Botanicalls project, a sensor determines if a plant is receiving enough water; if it receives too little (or too much), the sensor dials a number to report the problem. And because this project is about art as much as it is about technology, each plant has a unique "voice" based on its botanical characteristics. You can even dial a main number to interact with the plants — well, I wrote that, but I actually mean the computer that controls the project, not the plants themselves — to learn about the plants' "personalities."

I like this project because it illustrates an important point: Internet-based telephony doesn't require an actual telephone; in other words, the old link between "telephone call" and "telephone instrument" is now broken, a revolutionary development. I've said before that it's now possible to have your washing machine send you text messages ("wash done") or receive phone calls from your refrigerator ("It's too warm in here!"). This plant project blends art and technology to illustrate the same idea in a way that's fun, informative, and intriguing.

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Mon, 2007-Mar-05, 09:47

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Brilliant Example: Giving the Caller Some Authority

A group of students from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU traveled to ETel to present their projects, and all of them were excellent. But I'd like to single out one project in particular because it provides an example of brilliant, outside-the-box thinking that also illustrates one of the principles of revolutionary innovation.

Summer Bedard, a graduate student with the program, presented "The Human Race, a new way to wait on hold. If you call a company today and have to wait on hold, your place in the queue is determined by the system administrators — first-in, first-out, with perhaps some precedence for "priority" customers. Ms. Bedard decided to disaggregate this authority — to give some authority over the place in the queue to the callers themselves. As they wait on the call, instead of hearing "your call is important to us," callers are asked a series of questions; the answers to these questions move the caller up and down in the queue.

While the questions in the system are humorous (and everyone enjoyed the tape Ms. Bedard played during her presentation), the issues she raises are quite interesting: Who controls your place in the queue? You? The administrator? Or should this authority be shared?

Fri, 2005-Nov-11, 06:08

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SAP Sailing Off to Oblivion

Can European software giant SAP survive in the modern world? Will the company foster innovative new ideas or squash them?

The president of the technology and product group at SAP, Shai Agassi, recently dismissed open source software as "socialism" and stated that open source software was more likely to cause problems than solve them. Chapter 10 of The Pebble and the Avalanche, "Marx, Lenin, and Gates: Failed Counterrevolutions," discusses in detail the relationship between open source software and creativity.

Open source software is revolutionary because it breaks apart the old infrastructure that supported the development of software. By way of analogy, the "free range" programmers who develop open source software are healthier than the programmers who work in factory "cubicle farms."

In the same article, Agassi also dismisses his competitors at Oracle as a bunch of pirates — and also declares that software code should never be rewritten! SAP is fighting hard against the adoption of open source software in Europe and recently formed an alliance with Microsoft to lobby against adoption of open source software by European governments. In short, Agassi is pushing his company's party line by spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt ("FUD") against Linux and open source; but regardless of whether he truly believes what he's saying, if SAP's response to modern developments is counterrevolutionary warfare, SAP will join Microsoft on the scrapheap of history.

Tue, 2005-Oct-11, 07:31

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Smart R&D Better Than Expensive R&D

"The skills and the process" are more important than the amount of money spent on R&D, according to the results of a survey published in the print edition (page A2) of today's Wall Street Journal.

This result might seem obvious, but in fact it's rather subtle. Many scientists, myself included, believe that undirected research brings unaticipated and very valuable results. For example, the invention of the Post-It note was the result of someone fooling around in the lab, not directed research.

I suspect the study focused on R&D for particular tasks, such as building an automobile, rather than forward-looking research.