Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Techno Samhain

Tonight is Halloween, and the ghosts and goblins are making their annual trek from WalMart and beyond to grace our doorsteps with threats of mischief and requests for colorfully wrapped pieces of high-fructose corn syrup.

The name Halloween is derived from the night preceding a Christian holiday. All Hallows' Eve, or the Eve of All Hallows, comes the night before All Hallows' Day (also called Hallowmas, All Saints' Day, or All Souls Day). All Hallows' Day (and all its related names) is celebrated on November 1st, or the first Sunday after Pentecost in honor of all souls, known and unknown, who have departed this world for the next.

The ritual of remembering the dead is not unique to Christianity. In Wiccan circles, October 31st is known by the name Samhain, which is a celebration of and for the dead. The departed (family members, loved ones, and ancestors) are remembered and often invited to participate in the celebration and ceremony to offer guidance and remind the living of their connection to the past.

Learning from our past connections is extremely valuable. As we move further into the 21st century, our connections with technology become almost inseperable. So as we push technological innovations in every facet of our lives, it can be useful to periodically reflect on their progenitors (especially as we obsolete them at an every increasing pace).

Take, for example, digital and high-definition television technologies. The promise of hundreds of truly life-like HD channels is upon us. Within 2 years, HDTV will become ubiquitous, as the broadcast spectrum of the 20th century is retired. Within one generation, labels such as "VHF", "UHF" and "broadcast networks" will have become long forgotten.

So, on this night, let's remember one of the ancestors of modern entertainment technology.

In 1963, a revolution in television was taking place as color was replacing black and white. Television programming was just beginning to move into this uncharted territory, and the number of shows that were filmed in color would depend on the adoption of this new technology in a market that was filled with black and white television sets. RCA, in its continued reign as a television technology pioneer, began to market a line that would help guarentee that color would replace black & white as the standard set in every home.

It was not the first time that "Vista" swept the nation...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Paving over constraints...

This morning, I was commenting over on Innovating to Win in reference to a recent New York Times article covering the latest re-think on the automotive industry.

Shai Agassi is lining up venture capital firms to the tune of about $200 million to invest in modifying the current electric grid with an intelligent battery charging and replacement infrastructure, on the idea that most of the major car manufacturers are already well down the road to mass-production electric cars.

Any engineering design involves tradeoffs. In my comments over on Innovating to Win, I pointed out that a petroleum sourcing problem which the automotive industry is clearly facing, will be replaced with a toxic waste disposal problem.

It made me think about a recent (and I'll go out on a limb and say one of my all time favorite) example of innovation, constraints, and trade-offs, which recently aired on the BBC's "Top Gear" program.

This is a speed test of the Bugatti Veyron, which is one of the fastest production cars in the world. What I find so entertaining in this piece are the tradeoffs apparently required to push the Veyron to sustained speeds of 250 miles per hour (including a fuel to tire lifecycle ratio that approaches 1, and a straight stretch of road that disappears over the curvature of the earth).

A note to anyone who might be in sales at a growing company (say perhaps, of innovation software) - If your CEO sponsors a contest for the top sales executive of the year which includes a new car "to be determined", suggest the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 (and let me know how it goes).

More likely, if your company is operating under tighter fiscal constraints, you could still do very nicely to suggest this politically correct, hip, and environmentally savvy Peel P50 that was apparently way ahead of its time in 1963.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Enjoying one day at the top...

About every ten years or so, my friend Sheila makes a personal, brief and insightful comment that gets me thinking for a long time (usually until she makes another, similar comment). In my early twenties, she told me that I was going to become a very interesting person. When I turned thirty, she told me that the best years of my life were about to begin.

According to any number of timepieces, calendars or cosmic clocks, I've recently turned 41. The past decade has marked the usual assortment of milestones (both good and bad) that one might expect on a journey towards the universal finish line. During the past 5 years, I've been part of a great turnaround story with my current employer. As a result, our company has very recently grown out of our offices in the north end of Boston, and we now find ourselves occupying the 39th floor of the Prudential Tower.

As with many cities, Boston's skyline is distinctive and highly recognizable by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. Several skyscrapers (including the Prudential Tower) stand out as landmarks, and having a business at this address is highly coveted. The view from the Prudential Tower is something that relatively few people get to experience first hand. On my first visit to our new office, I made it a point to bring a camera and create a panorama to remember the vista I currently share with my colleagues from our position high above the city.

Our view from the east-facing side of the building stretches from Cambridge and points north on the left to 111 Huntington Street and points south on the right. I sent this picture to a number of my colleagues and friends, including Sheila. Sheila wrote back to me with a simple comment that, as with her comments in the past, has got me thinking, and will likely follow me for at least another ten years. Her comment was very simple.

Enjoy life at the top.

To me, that's a very powerful statement at this point in my life. A top implies a pinnacle, or a height which sits above a much larger landscape of places one could be, both physically and figuratively. It reminds me that what goes up, often comes down. As much as a journey worth taking holds the promise of rewards at its peak, ignoring the rewards the journey can offer along the way is mistake far too many of us make in our lives. We can choose to follow a path with the single-minded goal of getting to its end, or we can let the journey teach and enrich us many steps along the way.

So I decided to make it a point that today, October 24, 2007, I would enjoy as much as life had to offer me where ever I could during this day.

The first thing the day has to offer is that I am making a rare trip into our new office, which is a stone's throw (at least from the roof) from Fenway Park, where this evening, the 2007 American League Champion Boston Red Sox will host the Colorado Rockies in Game 1 of the World Series. I can't say that I've ever had a reason to travel to a city on the first day of a World Series before, and my new commute has put me in the thick of the excitement.

I'm still figuring out the new commute. I have a home in the western suburbs of Boston, and the move the Prudential Tower means that I'm now parking at Riverside Station and taking the Green Line into the city. The Boston subway system is the oldest in the nation and has a rich and colorful history. More recently, Boston was one of the last metropolitan transit systems to eliminate a token / turnstyle fare system for an electronic "stored value" system which was branded as the "Charlie Card" by the MBTA. The character of 'Charlie' is in reference to a famous folk song that told the unfortunate story of a man (Charlie) doomed to ride the subway on principle after being trapped by an in-transit fare increase.

The spur of the Green Line that I need to ride to the Prudential Tower stops at Fenway and Kenmore Station just prior to where I exit to complete my walk to the tower elevators. Today's ride was certainly more packed than usual as many of the local chapters of Red Sox nation wanting to be part of the excitement were flocking to Yawkey Way. This made for a very long commute and a rather cramped subway car. It did not, however, impede the trolley conductor from being diligent in collecting fares from folks entering the rear of the trolley cars who would normally be expected to walk forward and swipe their Charlie Cards or Charlie Tickets.

A number of the incidental riders likely heading in for today's festivities (young students) would get on from the rear of the car, and assume that the car was too packed for the conductor to hold up the trolley. They were wrong. The conductor soon announced that at the next stop, he was going to come back and count the Red Sox t-shirts he hadn't seen come forward to pay their fares and ask them to get off the trolley.

So as we rumbled and squeaked our way to the impending showdown, life began to imitate art in a way which could make Nick Reynolds come out of retirement. A number of the would-be fare evaders pulled out their cell phones and called ahead to friends (presumably living one or more stops ahead of us) trying to convince them to come down to the (upcoming) subway stops and pass a Charlie Ticket through the door when it arrived, allowing them to continue the trip to Fenway Park.

Through the miracle of modern communications, a small flurry of Charlie Tickets entered the car at the next stop, which made me reflect on why Charlie's wife even bothered with sandwiches for all those years....

Before long, I emerged from underneath the city, and made my way down Newbury Street, across Boylston Street and into the Pru, finally arriving at the 39th floor. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I was supposed to be in New Mexico, but a last minute change from my client had kept me in Boston for once.

The last time the Red Sox won to the World Series …ok…the only time in my life (and the lives of several billion others) that the Red Sox won the World Series, I was in San Jose. I cheered along with the dozen or so from Red Sox nation who were trapped on business at our hotel while the Prince of Darkness was being fitted for ice skates. I had to settle for a Californian color commentary on the celebrations in Boston except where I could find low-bandwidth streaming video from WHDH or other Boston stations.

Now, at the start of another World Series, I’m not just in the area, I’m less than 2 miles from the park, and less than 12 hours from the start of Game 1. While I have a better chance today at getting a parking ticket than a ticket to the game, the lure of the ballpark, today of all days, is simply irresistible. My mind made up, I decided to experience opening day of a World Series outside Fenway Park.
In the early afternoon, I walked down Boylston Street, looped around Ipswitch Street, and soon was facing one of half a dozen or so surface parking lots that surround Fenway.

If you didn’t know that the eyes of the world were descending onto Landsdowne Street and Yawkey Way, the lack of any lot parking due to an invasion of satellite trucks might have tipped you off that something was up. There were trucks from all the New England and Mid-Atlantic media, Denver, FOX Sports, and rented rigs with armies of reporters, technical staff, make-up artists from as far away as Japan. (I stopped counting at 50 trucks.)

I continued my stroll, first up Yawkey Way, making a stop at the official team store to pick up some souvenir ALCS championship attire (knowing full well that I was paying exhorbitant prices for the priveledge of saying that I bought it at Fenway Park). I noticed something particularly interesting about the championship banners that adorn the ball park, and I realized that I had an opportunity to witness a very unique and all too rare transformation. I'll keep my insight a secret for now, but let's just say it fits with the season (especially in New England). I might come back to this topic after the World Series is over.

Coming around to the Landsdowne side (gateway to the Green Monster), I encounted a tent city of sorts. A line of over 600 people had formed almost immediately after the Red Sox won the ALCS several days earlier. An entire micro-economy had sprung up overnight providing the most hard-core of Red Sox nation with services and goods including tent rentals, wireless internet access, and media relations (at least based on the efforts I saw some fans go through to make sure they made it onto the pre-game shows).

Even the food vendors opened up early to accomodate the hundreds of hungry fans who would not pass up an opportunity to put down $75 for an obscured view seat.

Speaking of prices, a sausage and beer have gone up just a tad from what I remember you could get them for when the sausage carts were still allowed to go up and down the streets leading to Fenway.

Soon I had to head back to the office, but already I had enjoyed more simple pleasures in the last few hours that I might have all week if I hadn't received Sheila's simple reminder.

Years from now, I'll probably going look back on this day with far more romanticism than is warranted, except for a last part of this story which I'm going to leave as a mystery, but could be called "the garage of dreams"...

Thanks, Sheila.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Getting rid of our shelves...

I was commenting on an article I saw this morning about how modern society puts blindfolds on innovation research, whether its schools that ban students from using WikiPedia, or companies that ban engineers from reading patents.

Traditional barriers, organization, ways of doing things, (etc) all have one thing in common - they provide a structure that for better or worse, limits change.

After I published my comment, I caught up on a bit of work-related (knowledge management) reading and came across an interesting video that elegantly documents the changes that are happening all around us when it comes to organization, sharing, and creating knowledge.

I'm reminded of a quote given to me by a person who used to work for our company. She would often remind me, whenever a company would espouse a way of doing business, research or anything else as a sacred cow, that:

"Sacred cows make the best burgers."