Jul 13 2015

Acquia announces it is ready for Drupal 8 | Dries Buytaert

Acquia — (Ah-kwee-ah, from the Navajo word for locate, or spot) — is where I do my thing and have been doing that thing for the past year. We’re about the next big thing in web site development — “digital experiences — and built on top of Drupal, the open source content management framework that was invented by Acquia’s co-founder Dries Buytaert in 2001.

I first built with Drupal in 2005 at IDG — driven to open source out of desperation with a customer of CIO.com needed a microsite with a community in less than two weeks time. The commercial content management solutions were too expensive and unwieldy, so with a sense of piratical naughtiness a few of us downloaded the source code and had a Drupal site up and running in a few days.

I remember the whole experience was a little brutal — but hey, fast-forward to 2011, I’m doing web consulting in NYC for big brands and musicians, and I start recommending Drupal again because this Boston-area company — Acquia — is offering it on a platform-as-a-service model from the cloud and kind of blowing up past points of webmaster hell like the dreaded “slashdot” effect coined at Forbes.com when a stiff wind would knock down our anemic home-made infrastructure.

Drupal has been on version 7 since 2011. Some massive sites run on the system (best described as a framework for building custom content management systems), including big brands, government agencies, big media and more. In the spring of 2011 the Drupal community — the largest open source community in the world with more than 1 million registered users — kicked off the process of building Drupal 8.

I’ve been around content management way too long but D8 is one of the more  impressive advances because of its architecture approach to what Dries is calling the post-browser web. The reality for modern site builders and digital types today is that the concept of the “site” is being replaced by a far more complicated set of different distribution channels ranging from different devices to aggregators such as Facebook, Apple News, Flipboard and online merchants like Amazon and eBay. In short — the art and science of making stuff and publishing it on the Internet has gone far beyond the days when I started out in 1994 writing HTML with a text editor and worrying about launching Forbes.com or this blog in the days of the command-line driven Internet.

Today Acquia sucked it up and declared it’s ready for its customers to start planning and building with Drupal 8 on the Acquia Platform right now, even though the code is still in beta and declared to “be ready when it’s ready.” I admire the grit it took for Acquia’s CEO Tom Erickson and CTO Dries Buytaert to go out on the diving board and tell their customers and the digital agencies that serve them that now is the time to take the plunge and make the move to the next big thing in delivering amazing digital experiences to a world that has declared in a very big way that online is the first place they go.

 

Source: Acquia announces it is ready for Drupal 8 | Dries Buytaert

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Jul 10 2015

When Algorithms Discriminate – The New York Times

Published by under General

Recent research has shown how some websites can produce results that perpetuate bias.

Source: When Algorithms Discriminate – The New York Times

I’ve been obsessing about machine learning for some reason — probably due to reading the Project VRM mailing list assiduously and looking at the massive flaws in so-called marketing automation systems.  The idea that algorithms can reliably target and personalize media and messages is showing some signs of collapse as the technology does more to expose the ignorance of the sender than true understanding of the recipient.

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Jul 07 2015

Watch our startup recklessly blow through $500,000 | The Hustle

Published by under Journalism

“We’re about to publicly blow our wad launching our media company and we want you to watch.”

Source: Watch our startup recklessly blow through $500,000 | The Hustle

Full disclosure: I know these guys and I love what they’re doing. I spoke to Sam Parr the co-founder a couple weeks ago about the shitty state of online “content” (the fact we call it “content” is indicative of how grey-goo it has become) and he’s got the swagger.

And that is not my daughter on the swing…..

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Jul 06 2015

The Wall of Sound

Published by under General

The Grateful Dead’s Original Wall of Sound: I stood in front of this beast many a time in the mid-70s which explains my selective deafness today.

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Jun 26 2015

ThinkPad Time Machine? | Lenovo

Published by under General

Step with me now into the ThinkPad design time machine. Fasten your seat belt, settle in and share your thinking.

Source: ThinkPad Time Machine? | Lenovo

David Hill, Lenovo’s original and greatest blogger and the bearer of the ThinkPad design torch has lit up the  Faithful with a tease of bringing back the best of the original Richard Sapper bento-box inspired design. I’ve been ThinkPad free for a couple years, suffering on a MacAir and buggy Microsoft Surface — and missing the hell out of the Thinkpad keyboard before island keys and fuzzy magnetic clip on keyboard covers took over my typing-obsessed fingers.

This is the machine I’d hit my personal funds to buy. I mean the current crop of ThinkPads are “nice” but not the power-boxes that just scream out professional writer, astronaut, carnivorous captain of industry. Give the frat boys and sorority girls their Apple toys.  Give the suffering masses their Dulls. I want this Thinkpad.

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Jun 23 2015

Dries Buytaert: Winning Back the Open Web

Published by under General

Dries Buytaert is the inventor of Drupal — the open source content management framework — and co-founder of Acquia, the Boston based provider of services, support and tools to build, deliver and optimize websites and other digital brand experiences built on top of Drupal. I work at Acquia as the vp of corporate marketing, but offer this link to a post published on his personal blog because it resonates with my view and concerns over the direction of the open web

Dries invented Drupal as a student in Antwerp and was inspired to put it into the open source world because of his admiration for such legends as Linus Torvalds and other pioneers. Today Drupal is the basis for some of the world’s most crucial and well-known sites, powering countries, cities, Fortune 500 brands and yes, even blogs.

Coming the day after this chapter from a forthcoming book — Follow the Geeks (chronicling the career of my friend Om Malik, another Open Web visionary) I sense something in the wind, a questioning reflection as the web moves into its third decade and takes on a new meaning as it shifts from browsers and desktops to apps and phones and tablets.

 

 

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May 27 2015

Be Here Now

Published by under General

Richard Alpert was the Boston born son a railroad executive who tuned in,  and then dropped out at Harvard in the 1960s under the siren song of Timothy Leary and LSD. He was reinvented as  Ram Dass and began to preach a transcendental mantra of “Be Here Now.” There were copies of that book in many a college dorm room in the 1970s as I experienced the sunset of the hippies and the rise of the Grim Professionals.

Nick Bilton wrote a essay in the New York Times about seeing the world through an iPhone as he snapped a shot of a Pacific sunset and realized he was staring at devices and not the world around him.

“Then, I stopped. Here I was, watching this magnificent sunset, and all I could do is peer at it through a tiny four-­inch screen. “What’s wrong with me?” I thought. “I can’t seem to enjoy anything without trying to digitally capture it or spew it onto the Internet.”

There used to be plastic laundry baskets outside of the conference rooms at the Googleplex for people to park their phones and laptops so they could focus on the agenda and the meeting and not use the time to catch up on email and IM back and forth. I’ve been in meetings where CEOs have demanded PCs be closed and unless I am expected to present, I try to attend a meeting with nothing but a notebook and a pen.

Yet more and more I find myself in meetings, sitting attentively, watching people on their PCs, tapping away, half there, half not, enduring long pregnant pauses as the meeting turns into a strange communal exercise in “bowling alone together.”

Hang up people. Put down the fucking phone. Look up and watch what’s going on around you. You might pick up some important cues you’re missing. Be here now.

2 responses so far

Apr 20 2015

Published by under General

http://i.4cdn.org/b/1429583441204.webm

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Mar 19 2015

Squirrels Eating Pizza

Published by under Weird,WTF?

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Feb 12 2015

Adventures in Robotics

Published by under General

I can’t embed this in the post for some reason, but for some reason this video fascinates me. Why the spinning Popeye Arms?

Hunts

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Feb 12 2015

Another day, another annoyance

Published by under Rants

So two new types of spam to hate.

First are the LinkedIn abusers who send the guilt inducing emails asking me to buy their super-duper marketing automation systems; and then a week later act all butt-hurt and demand a yes or no answer. Those dickheads get to meet the Man in the Chair.

The-Man-in-the-Chair

LinkedIn has turned into a shallow money trench of desperate lead generators and sleeve-tuggers. As a so-called “thought leadership” platform it is where good ideas go to die on the altar of buzzword bingo. Once a resume network, it’s now a bazooka of spam. At least About.me leaves me alone.

Second inbox trend are the morons who think it’s okay to sign up for an app that spams people asking them to confirm their contact details. Brewster is the big villain. For example I get a few of these ever week.

brewster

Jamie — whoever he is — is “so close” but in reality is so deleted. Do your own legwork people. Figure it out. If you don’t know who the right person at my company is who is going to buy your amazing social analytics Big Data customer delight solution, then you’re not looking hard enough. If you can’t be bothered to managed your own contact list, please don’t ask some drone service to bug your contacts for it.

One response so far

Feb 11 2015

Inn Keeper’s Disease

Published by under General

The blizzard's moving in
Looks like you're wrong again
When cabin fever hits
It sends us into fits
Of innkeeper's disease
And screaming in the trees
The blizzard never ends
The blizzard buries them

Blizzards, Buzzards, Bastards -- Scissorfight

I haven’t been outside for more than five minutes at a time over the last three weeks of this wretched winter. My skin feels like I’ve been belt-sanded while I sleep. Vitamin D levels are at all-time lows. The cars have slush udders and are rusting out before my eyes. The driveway is where hips go to break. Yesterday I staggered to the shower, turned it on, stepped in and shrank my head in water piped down from the taiga thanks to an empty oil tank (who knew the oil guy can’t get his hose from the street over a eight-foot tall cornice of grey plow drifts to the pipe around the back of the house?). The dog defecates freely inside the house, having long ago called bullshit on any of my attempts to drive it out into the drifts to do its business. Strange birds desperate for food and water hang around the feeders and fight among themselves. The 180 miles of daily driving on the wonderful highways of eastern Massachusetts each and every morning are doing evil things to my soul.

People my age who live in this wretched snow globe all have a Blizzard of ’78 story and every single one has the following structure:

  1.  It begins in a frat or dorm in Allston, Brighton, or the Back Bay
  2. It involves a “packy run”
  3. on x-country skis or a sled
  4. A guy named Sully
  5. An arctic expedition through snowdrifts
  6. Fruit-flavored brandy or schnapps
  7. Massive intoxication
  8. The police

This winter seems to be more about lynching the new governor, Charlie “The Darkness” Baker, the decrepit MBTA, and sucking it up. In the words of the Norwegians, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.

But I love it here. For this makes us Spartans.

4 responses so far

Jan 15 2015

Why the recent podcast revival?

Published by under Journalism

Over the holidays my daughter spent hours sitting in an armchair, headphones clamped to her ears, staring at the window at the bird feeders, listening intently to her iPhone. She was addicted to “Serial” — the 12-episode tale of a 1999 murder of a high school student in Baltimore and the detailed investigation by public radio reporter Sarah Koenig. Each episode is about an hour long and so last night, during my evening commute I listed to all of the first installment and most of the second. It’s pretty compelling stuff and apparently has become the most downloaded podcast in history on iTunes.

I despise wasted commute time and as far back as 2000 listened to stuff like the history of opera on cassettes sold by The Great Courses. When I was making a weekly four hour commute from the Cape to Manhattan I listened to Audible books from my android phone Bluetoothed into the car’s FM radio, finishing Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire over the course of countless drives through Rhode Island and Connecticut.  Over the past few months I’ve switched to more contemporary fare ranging from books on IT and the cloud to the pearls of wisdom of Peter Thiel, Chris Anderson at Wired, and others. I also use the time to listen to Acquia’s (my current company) podcast, hosted and produced by the inimitable Jeffrey A. McGuire, better known as “JAM.”

I was really into iTunes enabled podcasts ten years ago when I was working at IDG. I was a big fan of Christopher Lydon’s OpenSource podcast as well as the Gillmor Gang hosted by Steve Gillmor. But, overtime I lost interest in the medium. They felt like a pain in the ass to produce, I have never felt the urge to do one myself because I’m a writer and not a talker.

Anyway, I’m back into podcasts now. Mostly thanks to a great Android app called PocketCast. I subscribe to the JAM/Acquia podcast, Lydon’s OpenSource, O’Reilly Radar and of course the Serial. I don’t think I’d listen to one in an idle moment of leisure, but as a way to salvage some value from the brain dead purgatory of a commute it does make me feel a bit like Doctor Evil’s father, the “relentlessly self improving” baker given to outlandish claims such as the invention of the question mark.

Cover art

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Jan 11 2015

Frozen Harbor

Published by under Cotuit,General

I’ve had to do this and it is not fun. The way it works is this: you leave the boat in the water through January expecting to do some clamming, then one night the temperatures dip into the teens and you realize your beloved watercraft is about to get locked into the ice. So what to do but don those waders and find some friends and do a little ice breaking?

IMAG0340

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Jan 11 2015

The best tree in Cotuit

Published by under Cotuit

There are many good trees in Cotuit, but only this tree makes me happy to see standing year after year. This is at the Bell Farm property managed by the Barnstable Land Trust. My daughter calls it the “Crazy Tree.” My son calls it “The Tim Burton Tree.”

The Tree

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Jan 11 2015

At random…

Published by under General

I know. I suck. I’ve been ignoring this poor blog and that’s not right. So, in no particular order, here’s a dump:

  • Boston Olympic Bid: As an Olympic junkie I’m all in favor. We have the infrastructure with all the collegiate venues available. We’re a big sports town. And I want to see Olympic Rowing on the basin of the Charles. These things aren’t that disruptive to the population. Trust me. Yes there will be a lot of athletes and their families in town. Lots of big brand hospitality programs, but it didn’t kill Beijing, it won’t kill us.
  • Daily Constitutional: I went FitBit before the holidays and also installed a Withings digital scale. I’m trying not to be obsessed with the “quantified self” thing, but I do weird things (like march to Loop Beach in the dark after work) to hit my daily quota of 10K steps. This is all a preliminary phase before getting back on the erg. And no, no CRASH-B’s this year. Paired with a new set of awesome Asolo trekking boots (the Ferrari’s of footware), I am a walking machine. These things are amazing. Got mine under the Christmas tree (that tree is now in the burn pile ready to spark off the annual spring burning of the brush) and I would wear them to bed if I could. They are that comfortable. Walking is the most underrated thing in the world and I prefer to refer to it in 19th century terms as my “constitutional.
  • Banned words: I am repulsed by the following corporate words:
    • Pivot: VC-speak for “your business is failing, now figure out plan B before you run out of cash.”
    • Impactful: shut the fuck up please
    • Content: “content” is dead and makes a book commit suicide every time it is uttered. Engineers who can’t write call whatever their systems “ingest” (another despised word) “content”
    • KPI: they are not key, they don’t perform, and they are noise indicating nothing.
    • and many many more. “omnichannel” needs to be buried. “Inbound marketing” is hooey.
  • Good words: 2015 is the Year of Empathy and doing unto others, etc. Is also the year of getting shit done.
  • Reading list:  I’m going back in time to the marketing wisdom of Regis McKenna and reading his “Relationship Marketing” which merely proves the more things change, the more they remain the same. I am also delighted that Doc Searls and David Weinberger have come back to the Cluetrain Manifesto with some “New Clues.” Their pronouncements on “content” and “native advertising” are worth the read. Son gave me a volume of Rilke poetry which is up next.
  • Movies: saw the Interview on the xBox over the holidays and was ashamed to say it felt like a pretty weak blow for freedom of speech and democracy. Personally I find North Korea to be a good source of entertainment in itself. I know people are starving and there are nukes, but still…… if the best they can do is hack some Hollywood emails then bring it on.
  • Consumer Electronics:  other than the Fitbit, no new toys in my life worth talking about. And no, I don’t miss going to Vegas for CES.
  • Cooking:  I’m teaching myself to cook a decent Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut chicken soup) thanks to a great cookbook and the tutelage of Acquia’s CEO, Tom Erickson.
  • Boozing: messing around with different single malts. Highland Park is scoring high. Also the Balvenie scotch that ages in old rum barrels is way too sweet. I’m totally a peat freak and keep coming back to good old Talisker.

8 responses so far

Dec 08 2014

Om

Published by under General

A poignant post by Om Malik  that I guess was sparked by my maudlin post on the good old days. Funny how  he celebrates his eight years off the cigs when I posted a snapshot of the entrance to the old Forbes.com newsroom where we’d loiter on the sidewalk smoking his Dunhills talking trash talk about our corporate overlords.

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Dec 06 2014

Note to a new journalist

Published by under Journalism

Hey Kid,

I introduced myself as the “Flak” when you sat down next to me for the media dinner with the executive I was guarding. There’s no use in glossing over the word “flak” with an excrementitious title like “Vice President of Brand Marketing.” I know what you think about 50-something ex-reporters like me who turn into corporate whores. I thought the same thing about them in my 20s. They were the middle-aged burn outs who couldn’t hack a mortgage and college tuition on the thin gruel of an editorial salary; Quislings who betray their knowledge of the secret rituals of a newsroom with them to the executive suite and whisper them into the ears of CEOs, divulging the the secrets of manipulating the press with Jedi mind tricks.

Flak. Mouthpiece. PR professional. What became of old reporters in the early 20th century before Edward Bernays adopted the psychological tricks of his father-in-law, Sigmund Freud, and persuaded the people of America that their weekly Saturday night bath wasn’t enough to prevent them from smelling and in the process sold a lot more soap for his clients at Listerine, the brand that made the word “Halitosis” a nightmare of every Babbitt and Dale Carnegie in the 1920s; thus inventing the art of Public Relations? Did those old hacks suddenly turn into Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success, going from the hustle of the newsroom and barking “Get me rewrite!” into pay phones, to whispering night club calumnies into the ears of whatever J.J. Hunsecker they doted and depended on?

I know you wonder if that’s the fate that awaits you on your reporter’s road. I wondered about it too. I knew then that people like me didn’t especially like me, or thought my insights were as brilliant as they pretended. I knew my twenty-something powers and influence were vested in the names of the newspapers and magazines I worked for and not my sparkling words or probing mind. A week after I hit the big time and started working for Forbes I reached the chairman of General Motors five minutes after calling the generic switchboard of the company’s Detroit headquarters. He took a call from Forbes. Not from Churbuck.

Your enthusiasm for your beat was like a tonic. “I’d have hired this kid,” I thought as your eyes lit up talking about hackers and botnets and the seamy underside of the Internet. I chased that beat once. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It can make a career. Ask Adam Penenberg.

I asked you about life in a modern Internet newsroom. About the Buzzfeed-ification of the press. Of Nick Denton’s focus on dashboards and traffic. Of your need to not only report the news, check the facts, write the words, but also distribute it — like a digital newsboy — tweeting and “plus-oneing” and cross-linking and  hoping you found the magic combination of keywords and techniques to make Google love your post.

Then you spoke about your influence and the challenge of getting someone at Google to talk to you. “It’s about my audience,” you said. The numbers. The bigger the numbers, the more the influence.”  I couldn’t tell if you were resentful of the old media cows and their 100-year brands, inferring I rather be talking to some old reporter from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal than a bright guy from Techcrunch or GigaOm. So I probed with a question, begging forgiveness before asking it: “Would you rather be where you are, in the new world working with an awesome content management system, in a hot, hip newsroom. Or would you rather be working that beat for the New York Times?”

You were honest. You picked the Times. I didn’t feel vindicated, only sad that you would probably not have the experience of walking through an airport and seeing your story on the cover of Fortune or Forbes, sitting there for the world to see and read for a week or two. Wistful that your best efforts, doubtlessly as good as mine back when, would slip down the river of news into the memory of the Google. That you knew sticking a numeral in a headline made it perform better than one that didn’t. That no one would give you two months to develop a 10,000 word monster of a story that would make headlines of its own.

It must be grueling. We talked about fact-checking, holding back when there were doubts about the facts, about the shame Newsweek felt when it identified the wrong inventor of BitCoin….the fast twitch Adderal-fueled news cycle where any flak like me can claim to be a Forbes contributor thanks to a new model where any semi-literate can build their Klout score by submitting drek to their LinkedIn feed.

It was edifying for me and I wanted to tell you to take a second to appreciate your beat and to soak it all in. That you were doing what every new generation needs to do, inventing the new way, the new methods and models.

Yes, I’m a flak now. I walked away from the newsroom in 1995 when I filed my last print piece on the retirement of Bill Ziff for Forbes in the twilight of his brilliant career, a long, thoughtful and emotional piece (at least the first version was) where he said from the wisdom of his years, “Business saved me from a life of abstraction.”

I’m not sure what those words really meant — I think it was a comment on how the death of his father while he was a student studying abstract philosophy in Germany pulled him out of academia and into the hurly-burly world of New York publishing — but, like my other mentor, Jim Michaels, who pressed into my hands a VHS tape of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara just to hear Undershaft the arms merchant’s defense of profit and progress,  they were passing on a torch and understood that the raw talent and energy of a twenty-five year old is a very short walk away from taking on the same solemn responsibility to do the same with the next generation.

The trick is not to be portentous about it, because nothing is worst than bad advice delivered under the veil of earned wisdom.

I wish I could offer encouraging words about the future of journalism, but it’s no less under-appreciated and challenging than it was in 1980 when I wrote my first piece (on a sewer bond hearing which my editor cut in half and said, “Don’t cry kid. This isn’t a short story about granny’s funeral you know.”). And I hope it is every bit as weird and fun as it was for me — there’s no better place I can think of than a newsroom on a good news day for, as General Gavin said to the nervous paratrooper approaching the drop-zone over Normandy  on D-Day: “Buck up son. Don’t be nervous. Don’t you like jumping out of airplanes?” And the soldier said, “No sir, I don’t. But I like hanging around guys who do.”

wpid-imag0295.jpg

I walked past the first offices of Forbes.com the next morning, the entrance to 85 Fifth Avenue where a couple dozen of us in 1995 made up a new medium through trial and error. We knew it was likely going to be the so-called best years of our lives and thankfully we had the energy of our youth to pull through late nights of hard work and even harder play. The names that passed through that drab open newsroom on the second floor on Fifth Ave. went on to do even more marvelous things. We were you once and now you are us. Good luck. You will walk by that Tribeca loft in thirty years, look up and remember when the tidal wave crested and carried you onwards. And don’t worry about being a flak, it’s actually a ton of fun. Trust me.

 

 

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Nov 29 2014

Sucker for an aerial photo

Published by under Cape Cod,Cotuit

Cousin Tom from Maine was in Cotuit for Thanksgiving and brought over his quadcopter drone for a demo flight on Friday afternoon. After some calibration and set-up he lifted it off the ground and drove it around the neighborhood, using the onboard camera and a Nexus 7″ tablet to provide some thrills.  Here’s a shot of the Chatfield compound in the center of the village with the all-but-boatless harbor in the background, the barrier island of Dead Neck.Sampson’s and Nantucket Sound beyond (double-click the picture for a full view).

wpid-cotuitair.jpgHe has the DJI Phantom 2 drone with GPS and a first-person view camera mounted on under-belly gimbals  It’s good to an altitude of 5,000 feet and a range of 3/4 of a mile. The tablet view works best if you stand in the shade. This is his second rig in as many months, the first suffering a “sudden loss of altitude” and a splashdown in Damariscotta Bay. At $1,000 and change, that is an expensive rowboat anchor, and having myself once turned a huge radio-controlled, gas-powered Piper Cub with a seven-foot wingspan into an expensive lawn dart thanks to not remembering to fully extend the controller’s radio antenna, I know the anguish and expense of airborne disaster.

I want one. I really want one. Yet I also realize it would turn me into that guy: the paste-eating weenie freaking out the neighbors with his eye-in-the-sky. While an aerial movie of a Cotuit Skiff race would be very cool, I think the fun would wear off after the sixth flight or first disaster. Cousin Tom is a realtor, so he gets some benefits in displaying the houses he’s listing.

Here’s a shot of the Cotuit Kettleers’ home field, Lowell Park, taken by Tom on Thanksgiving with the leaves all blown down by the recent rain storms. All those woods from right field to the lower left corner of the picture are for sale and the Barnstable Land Trust needs to raise $560,000 in the next four weeks to save them from the invasion of the Starter Castles. Dig deep people. I’m going to give twice (and don’t forget to throw some $$$ at the Cotuit Athletic Association to keep the Kettleers and Lowell Park the best they can be.

unnamed

 

 

One response so far

Nov 26 2014

What I’m Reading: The Innovators

Published by under Books,history,Technology

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

 

I have succumbed to the world of books-on-tape and been using the 90 mile/2x daily commute from Cape Cod to Burlington to do more than listen to NPR and curse my hollow, rat-on-a-wheel existence. I’ve been a fan since my commute to and from Manhattan for Eastman Advisors, but perhaps Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t the wisest first choice for an automotive literary experience. In 2001, when I briefly did the same commute to McKinsey & Co’s short-lived TomorrowLab, I listened to lectures from The Learning Company, thinking I was being super efficient and relentlessly self-improving like Dr. Evil’s father the baker who claimed to have invented the question mark.

Audible is definitely making the commute a lot more enjoyable. I’ve tried dictating into a voice recorder and plugging the results into Nuance software’s speech recognition software, but I can’t compose via dictation and feel like an utter asshole in bumper-to-bumper holding a little red Sony recorder under my chin and pretending I am composing literary genius (note to self, search to see if any significant piece of literature has ever been dictated).

So far this fall I’ve listened to The Map Thief; Peter Thiel’s From Zero to One; and Chris Anderson’s Free, along with a steady diet of podcasts, usually Drupal and open source related. I was always impressed by the anecdote that George Gilder, the Forbes columnist and newsletter writer wrecked a couple cars out in the Berkshires because he was fond of driving around listening to technical lectures and proceedings from the IEEE and other deep-geek gatherings. The story, unconfirmed, was he put a car or two in the ditch because he’d get so wrapped up in talks about erbium-doped fiber amplifiers.

Now I’m into Walter Issacson’s breezy history of the computer, Internet, and digital revolution and I’m liking it, even if everything is old news because I’ve worked in the industry since the early 1980s and have read pretty much all the histories and biographies of the computer age. Walter’s biography of Steve Jobs was a huge bestseller and I enjoyed it very much as it taught me two things about Jobs which I did not know before: Jobs didn’t flush toilets and he banned Powerpoint.  In Innovators, Issacson does a fine job of keeping the history from falling into the rat hole of theoretical science, injects some good human drama and tales of eccentricity, and connects it all together in a way that a Millenial obsessed with hooking up on Tindr and managing their social networks might actually pause and pay some respect to the geniuses (mostly men, mostly working during the Great Depression) who invented the vacuum tube powered 50-ton monster computers that got things rolling.

He begins with the tale of Ada Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, a passionate mathematician who is regarded as the first computer programmer because of her work with Charles Babbage during his development of the mechanical calculator, the Analytical Engine during the first half of the 19th Century. Then a leap to the second half of the century, and the mechanization of the US Census by IBM’s early founder Herman Hollerith (this cutting down the analysis of the census from an eight year manual process to just one); and then to 1937 — the year it all came together in the US, England and Germany for a bunch of unconnected inventors and scientists who looked at the technology available to them and managed, through a combination of vacuum tubes, hardwired circuits, electric-mechanical relays, “memories” made out of rotating tin cans and lots of scrounging, to independently invent variations on what are now regarded as the first working computers.

There’s something about listening to the excitement caused by the Mother of All Demos (Douglas Engelbart’s demonstration of the first mouse, graphical user interface, and network in 1968), the founding of Intel by Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore and Andy Grove, the impact the MITS Altair had on the Bay Area’s hacker/maker subculture, the development of the Internet’s protocols out of ARPANET…..all familiar stories, but very chilling when told through an Android phone mounted on the dashboard of a car, a pocket computer with more storage and power that ever could have been conceived of and yet…..

That future was always in the minds of people like Vannevar Bush — the man who forged the collaboration between the military, academic and industrial research during World War II and was the “Scientist-in-Chief,” advising presidents from FDR through Eisenhower: he described the personal computer he called a “Memex” in a famous essay published by The Atlantic, “As We May Think.” Alan Kay at Xerox PARC and his vision of the DynaBook in the early 70s. Ada Lovelace speculating in the 1820s that someday there would be machines that could help create art.

The theme that fascinates me — a theme emerging from listening to Chris Anderson, Peter Thiel, and Issacson — is that the greatest invention in all of the Information Age is debatable, but the one that is most intangible is the way “innovation” is defined and happens. I personally detest the way “innovation” is tossed around by buzzwordists along with “impactful” and “pivot” like verbal styrofoam peanuts; but a tangible definition and set of conditions conducive to it occurring is coming together in my mind. Hence, Churbuck’s Theory of Innovation:

  1. Those who talk about innovation generally don’t understand it.
  2. Innovation is not a synonym for creativity or discovery — creativity and inspiration are required, but the words are not synonyms. Galileo didn’t innovate his heliocentric view of the universe — he proved through a telescope that the planets orbit the sun (and pissed off the Church in the process).
  3. Innovation strictly defined in my mind is the commercialization of invention. Bear with me, for this is the fine distinction between discovering some new truth: “Silicon doped with impurities will become a semiconductor” that’s a discovery, an invention.  Putting a logical circuit on a base of doped silicon by printing a pattern of conductive lines is an invention and can be patented. Realizing you can cram all the logical functions required by a computer’s central processing unit onto a single chip and then selling the hell out of them (as Intel did) I argue is an innovation. Science leads to discoveries. Innovation applies those discoveries to products or processes.
  4. Innovation is an “aha” moment to be sure, but it usually doesn’t happen alone, by a lone genius in a garage, but in a group of collaborators in the right combination of environment and management structures. Flat organizations based on a meritocracy are far more conducive to innovation than old command-and-control structure. Open sharing of invention and discoveries is the fuel for innovation — innovation is derived and borrowed from many sources and crushed by patents and secrecy.

I highly recommend the Thiel book — his view of what it takes to build a company, as well as Issacson’s — it’s more about the management and culture breakthroughs than anything else. Flat organizations, rewarding individual contributors with a piece of the action, and leadership that makes decisions and shepherds projects towards clear goals while deflecting distractions are as important as any factor, technical or creative. Issacson provides an excellent example: Texas Instruments took the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs and made the first transistor radios — reducing a bulky device that sat on a table and required tubes to a form factor the size of a stack of index cards. As luck would have it, the first transistor radio coincided with the emergence of rock-and-roll, and for the first time teenagers could listen, in privacy, to the music their parents hated on the living room Philco. The invention — the Regency TR-1 — was the innovation of a new “use case,” the transistor itself was introduced to the public consciousness, and the result was as profound (if not more so) than the iPod 50 years later.

It’s a long way of my saying, it’s good to stop and take stock of the invention that surrounds us and realize that in a very short span of time — 50 years essentially — we’re gone from “Shake Rattle and Roll” in our pockets, to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on our dashboards.

 

 

 

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