When Bad Things Happen to Good Content: Form(at), Function, Perspective and Possibilities

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On the surface, MOOCs—Massive Online Open Courses—look like such a good idea. A year ago, startups Udacity and Coursera were Silicon Valley darlings and every major university was rushing to be part of a movement promising to level an educational playing field distorted by spiraling costs and limited access. By digitally repackaging top tier college courses for free online distribution, the pendulum was supposed to swing toward a true meritocracy defined by hard work and talent. 

That remains a worthy goal, despite recent studies revealing Massive Online Drop-out Rates. Beyond technical and logistical glitches, it was probably folly to think that almost any topic could be MOOCicized. Like all new formats, there is a learning curve. This one for MOOCs just happened to be a little steeper than tech-giddy investors and promoters first thought. 

Over the last few months, I have tried three MOOCs, two through Coursera (Northwestern’s "Understanding Media by Understanding Google" and University of Pennsylvania’s "An Introduction to Marketing") and one from Udacity (The Design of Everyday Things”). All three were a bust and largely for the same reason: There were better ways for me to learn the material on my own.

Features such as discussion forums promoted as a way to provide a social dimension to learning often ended up doing just the opposite. In a recent NPR story, Tracy Wheeler, an educational consultant who tried five MOOCs (and completed three) talked of disappointment and frustration:  

…She had read the professor’s book and was excited and upbeat.

"I thought I’d go in deeper and come out wanting to move to India and help her with one of her experiments," she says.

…(S)he says she hated being chained to the computer screen and found the entire MOOC experience mechanistic, dreary and ineffectual.

"I’m a very social person. There was nothing to grasp on to," she says. "There were no people; there was no professor. In a sense you’re just learning in this void. … I would come away from my computer just kind of despondent and feeling really reduced somehow."

She says the courses’ online forums — the key support structure for many MOOCs — were isolating and largely absent of meaningful back-and-forth — or joy.

"It was like going up and scrawling your name on a graffiti wall. You know, there was no sense of community…"

—The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course / NPR

It turns out that it is not easy to digitally recreate a real life learning experience. It also risks recreating the flaws. 

WHAT I REALLY LEARNED IN SCHOOL AND A PERSONAL WORKAROUND

University courses are designed to fit university schedules, so a MOOC can stretch for weeks on end even if the material doesn’t support it. The Coursera classes were an all too accurate flashback to my college days, where I quickly learned to avoid large quiz-addled survey courses (the MOOCs of their day) at all costs. They were almost always bloated and boring, designed to knock the stuffing out even the most interesting subjects. Clearly, if I was going to make it though to graduation, I needed another approach. By the time I was a senior, I had maneuvered my way into several graduate seminars by finding good teachers, then semester after semester signing up for their increasingly higher level courses. It was basically “Jeopardy: The University Edition” (I’ll take Soviet Geography for $800!”)—and how I ended up with a degree in East European history and a minor in fine art photography. A gifted teacher can bring depth to almost any subject and in the process also teach how to learn.

By nature and profession journalists are lifelong learners. They ask questions, do research and try to make sense of things. The big perk is what you get to discover along the way. I had no idea, for example, that I would become so deeply interested in microbiology or energy until I was assigned stories on those beats. My experience in print (newspapers, magazines, books), broadcast, digital and exhibitions, also taught me something about packaging information.

Content is clay. Almost anything can be translated into or out of a digital format and endlessly reused, remixed, recut, recombined  and repackaged. The challenge, then, becomes one of matching format(s) to needs. 

BUILDING A BETTER MOOC

So why have MOOCs largely flopped while TED talksInstructables and Khan Academy videos flourished? It is the same reason YouTube has become my go-to resource for everything from “How do I make a GIF?” to “How do I install batteries in a Swiffer WetJet?” They get right to the point, delivering useful and compelling information in a readily accessible format. MOOCs on the other hand, tend to get leggy and lose focus over the weeks and months it takes to complete a course..

The technical glitches plaguing MOOCs will eventually be worked out, but equally pressing is the need to develop metrics for determining what subjects are best suited the format and identifying the characteristics of a well-produced MOOC. Udacity is already pivoting from its original model, taking on corporate partners, shifting focus toward training and charging tuition. 

A few thoughts:

1) Make sure the format adds value:  Ironically, the Udacity course on user-friendly product design was presented through very confusing user interface. After a few hours or fiddling around, I gave up, figuring it would be faster to read the suggested text by designer Don Norman and scout YouTube for some of his lectures. Indeed, I would have much preferred seeing Norman, the Sir David Attenborough of his field, share his insights in a BBC-style documentary. Similarly, I didn’t have the patience for the Google course where questions such as “Can you imagine your life without Google?” filled the discussion board. There are plenty of articles, books and videos covering the same material. Just Google Google.

2) More teaching, less dazzling: MOOCs often present a checklist for each class consisting of several short videos, podcasts and article links. That’s a lot of jumping around. It is usually more effective to use one or two formats (a video lecture, a narrated slide set or a text excerpt) to cover key material. Teaching is a kind of storytelling and clarity counts. Everything extra belongs in the reference bibliography. 

3) Design the course to fit the material: If the content can be presented in one or two lectures rather than ten, don’t pad it. A MOOC doesn’t have to be semester-long or a quarter-long or a half-semester-long. It can be as short or long as it needs to be. The design course with Don Norman was set up as a two-week sampler to test out the format. Here is hoping the bugs can be fixed. 

4) Cut anything that isn’t essential or contributing value:  Discussion forums have developed a spotty record so may not always be necessary. 

5) Consider other ways to package the information: For example, create a course-specific digital textbook containing the same content. Off-the-shelf digital platforms such as Inkling or MAZ can accommodate weblinks as well as video embeds and graphics. Students would still need to go to the course site to upload homework and take exams, but the digital book format could make it easier to search for specific information, review material and see the arc of the course. Students could bookmark and highlight content and write notes in the digital margins. This is an “and” not an “or,” so there could be small fee ($10 to $20) for students who would prefer this format. 

PLAYING TO STRENGTH: SOME WRONG ANSWERS AND MANY, MANY RIGHT ONES

The brilliance of digital media is its endless flexibility. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, content naturally wants to nest, so a blog post can be…

  • linked in an article…
  • that’s quoted in a digital book…
  • that’s printed out as a physical book…
  • that’s scanned and turned into a 3D print of a book
  • that’s photographed and photoshopped and turned into an art element…
  • that’s used in a video…
  • that’s discussed in a podcast
  • that’s embedded in yet another blog post…

Around and around it goes, one big glorious ever-evolving mesh of information. Which is why it so baffling that the translational quality of digital information is so often overlooked. Content can become a kind of stranded asset, frozen into a single format, its potential value never fully realized.

Consider the conference video. In the wake of TED, every conference now deploys squadrons of videographers to capture every precious talk and break-out session. Yet unless the conference is as heavily promoted and networked as TED, the number of viewers for any single video typically tops out between a few dozen to a few hundred. When videos are uploaded to a proprietary player on a conference website rather than to YouTube, it can difficult, if not impossible, to embed them in articles and blogs. They are less likely to be shared. On YouTube, new content is added at an astonishing rate of 100 hours per minute, so videos can easily get lost in the shuffle there without some smart tagging promotion  The upshot: thousands of dollars invested in content production for paltry results. 

The picture can change dramatically when digital content is seen and valued as a mutable asset.

1) Provide multiple ways to access content: Videos require a time commitment and tethering to a computer. It is easy for viewers to get distracted, flipping through email, checking social media, web surfing and doing actual work. Anything more than a few minutes long is unlikely to watched all the way through. Most conference videos, however, can also function brilliantly as audio podcasts, which can be listened to on a train, in a car, while working out, etc. Strip off an audio track, repackage it as a podcast and voíla! two digital assets for nearly the price of one. 

2) The more urls, the better: Each video or audio podcast should have its own url. MIT’s Emtech 2013 conference did not do this, which was really unfortunate. Videos were uploaded as two batches, one for each day of the conference, each batch given a collective url. The videos were also uploaded to a proprietary player so it was impossible to share an individual talk or embed a video. Per TED, sharing content after an event can help brand and promote the event, so it was a fumbled opportunity. 

3) Mine and repackage content as a value add: Every  conference and trade show is a gusher of information that can be repackaged in a variety of ways, including a digital reference book—designed as a must-have for anyone interested in a particular industry. The basic recipe is simple: Start by asking each speaker to provide a short digital bibliography (links and pdfs) along with the standard bio submitted for the event program. Pair this content with video recorded during the conference (embed video and audio versions and also provide links for easy sharing). Include a 300 word summary of each talk and provide a linked list of related talks from the conference. Add a table of contents, an index and an intro overview essay or two. The cost can be wrapped into the conference fee. The digital reference book can also be made available for a separate fee. Indeed, such a timely industry-focused reference would make a good supplement to a university course or a MOOC. Additional revenue can be generated through trade show vendor content, created as a separate “advertorial” section.  

ONCE YOU GET THE HANG OF IT…

…it is nearly impossible not to see the potential to mine and reconfigure content everywhere. I see a lavishly produced coffee table book and want to deconstruct it for a series of digital reference books. Each format plays to a different strength: The heft and gloss of the book are designed to make a statement while the digital content can make a difference.

Similarly, the Smithsonian is currently reimagining its museum collections through the use of 3D scans. A museum is itself a format with physical objects as content. The scans make it possible to transcend the original package,  liberating the content so it can be used, shared and distributed in entirely new ways:  

••••••••••••••••••••••

The grand MOOC vision of a world where anyone with a desire to learn can learn about anything, undeterred by barriers of cost and access, may still be off in the distance. But it is getting closer. We have the tools. It is just a matter of figuring out how better to use them.  

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED: 

The Sum of Its Parts: Autozone Meet Autodesk (please) / On Supply Chains, Carbon Footprints and How 3D Printing Can Change the Game (again)

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The “check engine” light is the the most insidious light on a car’s dashboard. Mine began to glow an acid yellow-green during a cold, rainy rush hour last week in bumper to bumper traffic on Chicago’s Western Avenue. “Service car soon,” it admonished in an ominous yet distinctly unhelpful way. I patted the steering wheel reassuringly. “What’s wrong, baby?” I asked, willing my usually reliable gas-guzzling steed to hang on long enough to make it home. 

It was too late to go the dealer that night, which left plenty of time to surf the web and worry. A check engine light can mean anything from a cracked fuel cap to a cracked engine block—a few dollars to a few thousand dollars—and the only way to know for sure is to hook the car up to a computer. There is an app for that. Actually several. But they all  require a bit of rooting around in the alien world beneath the dashboard to plug in a cable or dongle. Having neither cable nor dongle, nor the ability to fix whatever the problem might have turned out to be, I headed straight to the dealer at dawn.

Car repair roulette is the worst. My spin landed on “vent valve,” a three inch piece of plastic pipe vital for regulating the mix of oxygen and fuel. After 60,000 miles of trusty service, it was coated with carbon, stuck in the open position. Apparently, a vent valve is not something that can be cleaned, but rather must be replaced. A few hours and several hundred dollars later, the car was fixed and I had a bonus souvenir. 

I stared at the small hunk of plumbing the mechanic had fished out of the garbage for me, appalled that something so doohickey-looking had the potential to wreck my car. Then I was appalled that countless millions of cars and trucks on the road are similarly vulnerable, some more than others according to a quick Google scan. How could this be designed so poorly that it could not be cleaned? It was plastic with a little bit of metal inside—why did it take so long and cost so much to fix? 

Chalk up one more reason to cheer on Tesla: electric cars don’t have vent valves. Still, until batteries replace gas tanks in the global fleet, the $2 trillion auto parts market will be churning out a near infinite number of pricey parts designed for a truly dizzying variety of petroleum powered makes and models. The carbon footprint of a car goes beyond fuel efficiency and manufacturing supply chains. It also includes all the spare parts required for years of maintenance and repair.  Each one of those parts has its own long meandering supply chain, many traveling by ship from Asia, then by freight train and truck to a mechanic near you. 

It is an industry easy to game. This past September, nine Japanese auto parts suppliers pled guilty to an ongoing global antitrust investigation spearheaded by the US Justice department:

"…More than a dozen separate conspiracies involving more than 30 kinds of parts affected sales to Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, as well as the American subsidiaries of Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.

“These international price-fixing conspiracies affected more than $5 billion in automobile parts sold to U.S. car manufacturers,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “In total, more than 25 million cars purchased by American consumers were affected by the illegal conduct….” 

— New York Times

In other words, it is a racket, just as every grumbling car owner hit with a pricey repair job involving a small cheap-looking part has long suspected. Although the fines against the car part conspirators tallied nearly three quarter of a billion dollars, that may not be enough to deter others from trying to find sneakier ways to pad pockets. It is just that tempting. 

In the meantime, the average lifespan of a car in the US now tops 11 years. The average car owner shells out thousands upon thousands of dollars for repairs and maintenance. It is like buying another half car, one part at a time. 

GAME CHANGER IN 3D

3D printing could help change the equation, obliterating long supply chains, slashing carbon footprints, cutting costs, frustrating fraudsters and affecting the way cars and their parts are designed in the first place. The technology is already popular with car designers. It is both a faster way to prototype designs and also dramatically cheaper. Creating a prototype  engine with 3D printing, for example, can reduce costs from a million dollars to a few thousand. That’s money that drops straight to the bottom line. 

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD7yB9gZDIk)

It will still be a few years before my mechanic has a 3D printer fabricating parts out in the garage that might translate to savings to my bottom line. Antique car collectors such as Jay Leno, however, have already embraced the technology. 

"…If you went to a machinist and asked him to make this (part) for you…it would take weeks to do. Here you design it on a computer and the same day you have a replacement part. There are no lost motors any more. There are no lost pieces you can’t reproduce.." 

— Jay Leno

In the video below, watch how easily Gonzalo Martinez, Director of Strategic Research at 3D software-maker Autodesk, is able to improve the design an antique engine part on a computer. Within hours, a new part—far better than the original—is ready to be installed.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3SVTBrKyZk)

Mass production excels at economy, quantity and uniformity but at the expense of agility: It is hard to make the kinds of small quick changes that Martinez was able to make. Like a pebble in a pond, even a tiny change can cause ripples throughout the process. Mediocre designs can persist because they are good enough to last a while, like my vent valve, rather than as good as they might be. 

A NEW APPROACH

Local Motors, a six year-old automaker based in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, aims to change the paradigm, reinventing the car business from the ground up, beginning with design. Cars are “co-created” incorporating ideas and feedback submitted by thousands of LM members from around the world. In turn, specs for LM-designed car parts are open-sourced to the community (most parts, however, are sourced from outside suppliers generally less keen to share intellectual property). 3D printers are used extensively for prototyping and production. 

"The last 100 years attributed to Henry Ford was the last industrial revolution. The next industrial revolution is the ability to take data, digital plans, and print something without having to spend a lot of money on tooling, and that’s what’s so exciting about our community," said Justin Fishkin, Local Motors chief strategy officer. "The ability to collaborate on digital designs and then share them with a machine that will make whatever the data tells it to make, in batches as small as one unit, is changing the game."

from “Can the 3-D printer help ‘green’ the auto industry?” by Julia Piper / E & E publishing

So far Local Motors has produced one car model (the Rally Fighter) and two motorcycles (the Racer and the Cruiser), each available in limited runs. Buyers are encouraged to be involved directly in the building process at one of the company’s micro factories—a second just opened in Las Vegas. They can even bring a few friends along for what is more of an assembly party than an assembly line. 

The company has more than doubled in size in the three years since founder and CEO Jay Rogers gave a talk at TEDxPhoenix (embedded below). Though dated, it is still a good overall backgrounder on the Local Motors vision: 

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFrMl_5T0Rc)

Local Motors may forever be a niche player, but it has already had impact well beyond its size. Its track record for rapidly prototyping and producing working vehicles caught the attention of the US military. In 2011, LM helped DARPA, the military’s R&D arm, launch an online competition to design a combat support vehicle. Now LM is working with the US Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) on a new website to create “a community of soldier-focused innovators” to design a range of combat gear: ArmyCoCreate.com. 

BY THE NUMBERS

At every turn, 3D printing is bringing big changes to the auto industry. In a recent blog post, John Hauer, chief marketing officer at online design marketplace 3DLT, crunched the numbers. 

  • US auto aftermarket (parts and services) is worth $300 billion+ 
  • Amazon dominates online sales
  • eBay Motors moves a half million parts per week
  • Brick and mortar stores such as Pep Boys and Autozone carry as many 20,000 different parts at each location, with as many 500,000 different sku’s company-wide

Yet most parts are designed using CAD (computer assisted design), which means they also exist digitally, which means they can be printed.

"…3D printing squashes the supply chain. How? 3D printable files can be stored in an online database. 3D designs can be retrieved, manufactured and packaged, when and where they’re needed, on demand. The effort, technology, and costs associated with mass manufacturing whither away. There’s no consolidation, shipping, receiving, sorting, repacking, warehousing or delivery of finished goods. There’s also less redundancy at thousands of retail locations. At Advance Auto Parts for instance, the average store does about $1.7 million in sales. It also carries about $600,000 in inventory. Assume 70% is redundant, multiply it across 4,000 stores, and it equates to $1.7 billion worth of inefficiency.

If 3D printing could eliminate even one percent (pardon the cliche,) it could save the company $17 million per year – roughly the sales volume of 10 stores and at an operating margin of 10%, the gross profit of 100 stores…”

— “3D Printing In The Automotive Aftermarket” 

It is only a matter of time—probably sooner rather than later—before 3D printers are good enough, fast enough and cheap enough to be worth installing in auto parts stores, garages  and in regional auto parts supply hubs. 

Independent designers and hobbyists are already forging the path, 

"…One of 3DLT’s designers, Ray Pierson, is a great example. He works as an engineer in the defense industry by day, but creates 3D printable car parts in his spare time. It started when Ray identified an opportunity with his own car. He drives a Volkswagen Touareg and didn’t like the way the cup-holders held his drinks. So, he designed a plastic tray to fit over the opening. He bought his own 3D printer and used it to print the tray. Others saw it and liked the way it worked. He started getting orders from other VW owners. Soon people with other makes of cars saw Ray’s tray and asked if he could design one for their model. He got to the point where he couldn’t keep up with production and joined 3DLT so he could focus on designing great products. Crowd-sourced designs like these could be a profitable source of content for an auto parts supplier with 3D printing capabilities…"

—”3D Printing In The Automotive Aftermarket”

Brilliant.

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

My car is a necessity, but I would like to need it less. In the not too distant future, I can imagine a mix of commuter trains, biking and walking getting me where I need to go most of the time. Still, a car is often the best option, especially when the weather is bad (this is Chicago after all), there are things to schlep, it is late or it is the most efficient way to get where I need to go. 

My next car will likely be electric—perhaps even a Tesla—a car that most definitely will not need a vent valve. That is still a few years off,  but my current car, theoretically in the prime of its mechanical life, can still benefit from automotive innovation. 

Imagine cheaper, better designed parts that make repairs simpler, faster and cheaper. Imagine supply chains radically shortened and carbon footprints shrunk. With some good 3D printers, my existing car can become at least a little eco-friendlier, improving its big picture life-cycle efficiency and economy. Yes, please. 

RELATED: 

 3D print precise prototypes and tooling that can take abuse: case studies and more from 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys 

 3-D Printed Car Is as Strong as Steel, Half the Weight, and Nearing Production / by Alexander George, Wired magazine

Kor Ecologic / 3D printed car project website

• 5 reasons 3-D printing isn’t quite ready for prime time / by Clay Dilllow, Fortune magazine

• Jay Leno’s Garage: NextEngine’s 3D Scanner  (also embedded below)

— J. A. Ginsburg

It Takes an Economist: Tallying Natural Capital

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From the Archives: This post was originally published on July 5, 2011, on a platform called webdoc, which is no longer in operation

A little advice for governments, NGO’s social entrepreneurs and anyone else hoping to help the “bottom billion” live better lives: Unless and until ecosystems services are taken into account, all efforts at poverty reduction will fail.

That’s the blunt, sobering message banker Pavan Sukhdev delivered in an address to the London School of Economics last April:

"Half to 90% of the livelihood incomes of the poor…are actually coming to them from nature. So if you are careless about managing these resources, or indeed the access of the poor to those resources, then you are, in fact, cutting at the very root of the livelihoods of the poor."

Protecting what has been called natural capital—the services nature provides—can be as direct as safeguarding a watershed, or as abstract as defending a rainforest. The value of the forest extends far beyond its trees and atomospheric carbon-absorbing capabilities. Above the forest, an “aerial river” forms that cycles freshwater critical to the survival of subtropical grain belt farms downwind. 

Over a billion people in the developing world rely on fish as their main source of animal protein, so ailing oceans and faililng fisheries are at once a natural tragedy and a human calamity. Decades of industrial-scale ocean trawler-fishing, clear-cutting mangroves for shrimp farms and the loss of coral reefs from pollution, disease, a warming climate and acidifying oceans have left millions of people hungry and out of work.

Their options are limited. They cannot survive where they are and often have nowhere else to go. 

The  economic gains of such rapacious fishing and shrimp farming tend to be short-lived and, once government subsidies are figured in, a financial wash, or worse, for local and regional economies. 

GDP as a measure of economic health is simply too narrow and flawed a tool, says Sukhdev. A full accounting—one that includes ecosystems services in the mix—tells a very different story.

In other words, the books are as cooked as the climate.

Assigning a value to what has always been free is not easy, so the G8+5 commissioned TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, naming Sukdev, a Deutsch Bank veteran, as its Study Leader. Its mission: to describe, quantify and propose mechanisms for capturing the worth of nature’s largesse.

Over the last four years, TEEB, which is hosted by the United Nations Environmental Program, has produced a series of reports aimed at a key players: national and local policymakers, the business sector and private citizens through its Bank of Natural Capital website.

Connecting the dots between environmental and economic health is about shifting incentives—the “enabling conditions—into better balance.”The sheer waste from wrong-headed development schemes and business-as-usual practices is staggering,” notes Sukdev. 

Each year, the top 3,000 global companies use an estimated $2.2 trillion worth of ecosystems services. Add in private and public sector consumption and “…you end up with something like upwards of $6 trillion per annum in social costs imposed by business-as-usual. That’s like 1/10 of the global economy,” says Sukdhev.

Atlhough the economist strongly believes in policy-driven solutions, changing course quickly will require a strong buy-in from the private sector, which accounts for 70% of the global economy and nearly 80% of employment. It would be in their best interests. The “free” stuff is running out.

Ecosystems & Epidemiology

TEEB’s list of ecosystems services is a long one, from double-duty mangroves that serve as fish nurseries and storm protection and double-duty rainforests that soak up carbon and regulate local climate, to plant compounds with medical potential, waste water-filtering swamps and soil microorganisms essential for crops health

Pathogen containment is another, often overlooked, benefit.

According to a study published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has triggered an increase in malaria cases. Presented with acres upon acres of puddle-prone habitat in which to lay eggs, the malarial mosquito population did just that and their blood-sucking numbers exploded. The economy took a hit as well from people who were either too sick to work, or preoccupied with taking care of family members.

A warmer climate has also provied a boon for all sorts of insect vectors, including ticks. More survive through the winter and ranges have expanded. 

If you happen to be a moose in North America, this is potentially fatal news. In the old days, a single animal could easily pick up 30,000 “winter” ticks in the fall. But istead of falling off and dying in the snow come spring, ticks are landing on bare ground and surviving. Earlier thaws have also meant a longer tick breeding season. Now, some moose have been found with as many as 160,000 ticks. They literally are having the blood sucked right out them.

Back on the human medical beat, the tick that carries Lyme Disease also carries babesia and the Powassan virus and the incidence of all three diseases is on the rise. 

Babesia, a parasite causing an illness similar to malaria, is particularly worrisome because asymptomatic blood donors can contaminate the blood supply.

If that were not enough bad news, a single tick can deliver multiple pathogens, causing simultaneous illnesses, making diagnosis and treatment tricky.

Other strains of babesia affect cattle. In fact, babesiosis is among the most serious diseases threatening livestock all over the world and there is no vaccine.

Babesia was eradicated in the US during the 1940s, but veterinarians say it could easily stage a comeback. Ticks are starts to show resistance to the chemicals used to protect cows.The cost for managing for the first year of an outbreak is estimated $1.3 billion.

Just add it to the natural captial tally…

— J A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

RELATED: 

Pavan Suhkdev’s website

• Global Climate Change and Infectious Diseases / NEJM, Emily K. Shuman, M.D.

• Deforestation and Malaria in Mâncio Lima County, Brazil / CDC, Sarah H. Olson, Ronald Gangnon, Guilherme Abbad Silveira, and Jonathan A. Patz

Riders of the River / Texas Tick Riders (video) 

Beyond Measure: da Vinci’s Genius, Peripheral Vision, the Prepared Mind, Metric Traps and Hacking the Filter Bubble

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…Leonardo da Vinci was the first in long line of scientists who focused on the patterns interconnecting basic structures and processes of living systems. Today, this approach is called ‘systemic thinking.’ This, in my eyes, is the essence of what Leonardo meant by farsi universale. Freely translating his statement into modern scientific language, I would rephrase it this way: ‘For someone who can perceive interconnecting patterns, it is easy to be a systemic thinker.

— Fritjoj Capra, author, The Science of Leonardo

While the best—which is to say the most privileged—minds of his generation were drilled into complacent conformity, studying for tests to prove they had interpreted the classics “correctly,” Leonardo, a bastard offspring denied entrance to university, was left to think for himself. 

Wandering the Tuscan hills, he learned about nature from nature. And when it was time to get a job, he took a position as a sculptor’s apprentice in Florence. Long before anyone had heard of STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)—much less STEAM (just add Art)—Leonardo’s self-directed education was steeped in it. He was Maker’s maker, an imaginative inventor, a visionary artist. 

Centuries later, we still marvel at da Vinci’s brilliance—and that of his polymath kindred spirits, from Ben Franklin to Buckminster Fuller to Steve Jobs. All intuitively understood the importance and serendipity of peripheral vision: an awareness of what’s happening at the edges. Theirs were the kind of “prepared minds” that chance so famously favors.  

You would think we would want to do everything we possibly could to follow in such fortunate footsteps. Instead, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, led by ever-more powerful—and profitable—analytical tools designed to filter, slot, slice, dice, separate and blinder. Everything that can possibly be scored and ranked, including "Klout," has been. The metrics too often become the mission: the tail wagging the dog.

Peripheral vision, by its nature, is metric-defiant, specializing in kismet connections, collections of stray facts, flashes of insight and epiphanies that can be years in the making. It is the how and the why a college dropout—Jobs—could sit in on an obscure calligraphy class and, years later, draw on the experience to spark a revolution in digital publishing. 

Peripheral vision is also the key to solving the nine-dot puzzle which inspired the term, “thinking outside the box.” It is the essence of "think different." 

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LOST IN (ALGORITHMIC) SPACE

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," famously noted former Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher in a 2011 BusinessWeek interview. “That sucks.” 

Well, yes, it does. It may be a slight step up, perhaps, from the the test-cramming so prevalent in Leonardo’s day, but still a rather disappointing, though lucrative, use of talent.  

"Search Engine Optimization"—SEO—has become a multi-bazillion dollar industry, a never-ending keyword-and-ad-based competition to capture the top, most-clickable spots on a Google search page. 

Each click online contributes to our individual profiles, analyzed constantly by social media sites and search engines for targeting ad sales. Bizarrely, so detailed has the profiling become that two people using the same identical search terms are likely to pull up two different lists of links. We have become trapped in "filter bubbles" of an algorithm’s making. 

Quite literally—and scarily—we are no longer on the same page, nor are we free to see all there is to see. A wall of metrics has blocked the view. 

A BRIEF DIGRESSION ON BURSTING BUBBLES, SCALING WALLS & THE TRACKERNEWS PROJECT…

A few years ago, I developed a news aggregator as a demo project for a small, independent spin-off of Google.org called InSTEDD (named for Dr. Larry Brilliant’s TED wish—a double pun on TED and Early Disease Detection). 

The TrackerNews Project’s beat covered health issues (microbial to planetary), humanitarian response and technologies relevant to both. Its mission was to bring a multidisciplinary perspective. For example, since most infectious diseases are zoonotic (affecting multiple species, including humans), most public health crises have a veterinary component. A country’s demographic profile has huge implications for its economy. Extreme weather affects food supplies. And, of course, climate change affects everything. 

Working with a small budget as a side project to the organization’s main mission—developing digital tools to improve public health and disaster response—TrackerNews was perfectly positioned to experiment. In the era of Digg, we didn’t care how many hits a particular link tallied. Popularity wasn’t our guiding metric: context and connection were. 

The site was loosely modeled after one of the first major news aggregators, The Drudge Report: three columns with news stories snaking up and down as they cycled through. Instead of singleton articles, suites of related links would cycle through together. A breaking news story might be paired with research papers, videos, archival articles, interviews, relevant technology websites and book links. 

Long before Pinterest, we included small photos and short content descriptions with each link. Each link tagged for a searchable database. Later, we added overview blog posts to provide another way to access the information.

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We also experimented with a personal aggregation tool, where it was possible to generate as many categories and sub-categories as needed; move elements by drag’n’drop anywhere on the page; and clone individual links for slotting into multiple categories.

While TrackerNews was focused on bridging silos, the personal aggregation tool was designed  for special projects and collaborations: a kind of public bookmarking, providing context, in a format designed to maximize at-a-glance utility. 

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TrackerNews put the human algorithm back into the mix. Search engines are programmed to skew toward content that either new, popular, cleverly tagged for SEO or flat out paid for. That doesn’t always line up with what may be the most relevant and useful information. Unless or until Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy-champion computer, comes online, it takes human insight to bring contextual value. There is still a filter bubble, but the metrics are determined by human users, rather than calculated for them by machines. 

Although TrackerNews developed a loyal following of UN’ers, NGOs and energy wonks—and I developed a bit of a reputation as a general “go to” reference—the project was more proof-of-concept than a game-changer. I kept the twitter feed going after we closed down the demo, and shifted the blog into this tumblr, which is now more of a personal blog. 

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN

I have never really stopped thinking about the issues that TrackerNews tried to address: contextual utility, bridging disciplines, the human algorithm, collaboration, peripheral vision, poking holes in search engine filter bubbles. 

In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I created a spin-off blog—For the filesas a kind of TrackerNews Lite to try make  some sense of all the stray links piling up in my Pocket account. Daily forays through aggregators Zite and Flipboard, various social media, news sites and searches had left me with digital ADD. This, I thought, would be a way to connect some dots: each post a mini-bibliography of two to five links. 

For the files posts are really quite fun to write, a daily wander among the peripheral in all its non sequitur serendipitous glory. So far, it’s covered everything from a climate-changing Pleistocene asteroid, Chinese language apps, a Robot-a-looza and Woody Allen’s prescient take on the Internet of things.

But the limitations of the format, a tumblr blog, quickly made me long for the TrackerNews aggregation tool that never made it beyond prototype.

Sure, few of us will ever match Leonardo’s gifts as a great systems thinker, but with the right tools to help organize information, it would be at least a little easier to see patterns and bask in the glitters of insight. 

Pinterest, Evernote and my much adored Pocket all have their charms for gathering, organizing and sharing digital treasure, but there is still room for improvement. My specs wish list for an aggregation tool:

• generates as many categories and sub-categories as required, each with its own shareable url within a master template

• accommodates all types of digital data  

• Individual links, sub-categories and categories can be moved by drag’n’drop

• individual links can be cloned for inclusion in multiple categories

• no limit for descriptive copy 

• discussion threads

• maximum at-a-glance utility 

• content scraping for a Flipboard / Zite-style presentation on tablets

• public and private options 

• ???

"IF IT’S FREE, THEN YOU’RE THE PRODUCT"

The above quote has been cited so often, it has become a meme. From Google to Twitter to Facebook to Tumblr, personal data are regularly traded for services. The fairness of the deal, however, can become murky when data are used to determine access to content and opportunities. The line between the convenience of personalization and unfairness of segregation can be a fine one.

Machine learning tools are designed to tailor content to an individual’s interests. Past choices determine future selections. Incremental changes, however, can quickly add up to distortions. For example, the Zite account on my iPhone delivers more tech news than the one on my iPad, which “thinks” I am more interested in renewable energy stories. It is a daily reminder that people identifying the same set of interests don’t always access the same information. 

Metrics, of course, can only measure what they have been designed to measure. There is much that is simply beyond measure. Yet the relentless competition for “clicks,” combined with data mining and the linearity of machine learning have led us down a narrow path where focus trumps vision.

Anatomically, the area of focus is just 3% of the visual field. The other 97% is peripheral vision, providing both awareness and context. Why would limit ourselves to such thin slice of all there is to see and know? 

To quote Leonardo: 

“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

— J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews

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RELATED: (since text embedded videos do not appear on the tumblr dashboard or iOS app, links have also been provided) 

• Leonardo da Vinci: Eco Designer and Systems Thinker / Fritjof Capra (video) 

• When in Roma…On the Way to the Piazza Navona: China, Africa & The Lessons of Leonardo / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

STEM TO STEAM / RISD (website)

• 'You've got to find what you love,' Jobs says / text of Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address

“Think Different” / Steve Jobs narrates “The Crazy Ones” commerical / (video)

• Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles” / TED talk  (video)

• The Information Diet: You Are What You Read…Really (so read this) / J. A. Ginsburg / TrackerNews blog

Clay Johnson, “Is SEO Killing America?” / Tools of Change conference (video)

Who Owns the Future? / Jaron Lanier (book) 

• Who Owns The Future? | Keen On… / TechCrunch interview with Jaron Lanier (video)

What Amy Larkin’s “Environmental Debt” has to do with a Meander through a Martian Ocean, the Great Chicago Fire, Aliens in the Muck; and Amory Lovins on Why Efficiency Rocks and Coal Has a Bleak Future

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It must have been quite a sight, all those eons ago on the shore of a Martian ocean. According to scientists at Cal-Tech, much of the red planet was very likely a blue planet in the deep past, with rivers fanning out into broad Mississippi-style deltas, lazily meandering to sea. There was an atmosphere, too, “possibly even cushier than Earth’s.”

But something happened four billion years ago—researchers aren’t exactly sure what. Solar winds, cosmic collisions and a fatal lack of magnetic poles probably had something to do with it. Whatever it was, it was powerful enough to shred Mars’ delicate gaseous cocoon rich in carbon dioxide, argon, nitrogen, oxygen and carbon monoxide, leaving only tell-tale isotopes behind. Once that was gone, the ocean, or oceans, simply evaporated into space. The only surviving water literally stayed underground, filling aquifers at the poles that scientists dream of one day tapping.

Was Mars covered in a primordial soup that boiled away, dooming any and all life-forms that might have navigated its depths to a thirsty extinction? Did anything have a chance to crawl onto shore to stake a pre-cataclysmic claim? Could recently discovered, super-giant, seriously alien pandoraviruses have a Martian past? As unlikely as that sounds, these viral Godzillas are so unlike anything else on Earth—discovered  slithering around in actual muck—scientists haven’t entirely ruled it out.

Yet even if a few ancient microbial Martians somehow managed to find safe haven on our planet, the point is there is not much, if anything, happening in the way of life on Mars today.

No atmosphere. No water. No life.

So, is this a cautionary tale for what could happen to our tiny blue dot? Barring a truly catastrophic run of luck, no. But it shows how fragile a planet can be.

The illustration below comes courtesy of Dave Gallo, a marine biologist  at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. On the left is the Earth, Mars-style, minus all its water. The blue sphere represents all the Earth’s saltwater and the itty bitty dot is all its freshwater, including frozen glaciers and aquifers. Compared to the mass of the planet, it’s not much, but it is all we have, and all we are going to get.

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Although Gallo doesn’t include the atmosphere in his illustration, it can also be thought of as a kind of ocean: an “aerial ocean,” circulating massive amounts of water through evaporation and storms. It also provides a shield against deadly ultraviolet rays, moderates temperature and, of course, contains the oxygen we need to live. Proportionally, Earth’s atmosphere is thinner than the shell of an egg.

THE NEW NORMAL / LESSONS OF 1871

It is bad enough for a planet to have the life knocked out of it for cosmic reasons, and quite another to willfully poison Eden. Yet we humans have managed to do just that, pumping out such copious quantities of carbon pollution into the air to have busted through the record for the fastest rise in atmospheric CO2 in the Earth’s history ever, ever, ever. So severely has the global environment been trashed, we have triggered a mass extinction, only the sixth in the entire history of the planet. The climate has changed. The old normal has given way to a new normal, riddled with extreme weather and increasingly dire insurance industry reports.

Resilience has become the new “sustainability.” The goal of maintaining  environmental balance has been shifted to one of survival. Even that has been buffed into the false optimism of “bouncing back,” that it is possible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But we have crossed a line: There is no “back,” only onward.

There is an onward, though, something I am reminded of every time I see the skyline of my home city, Chicago. Every gleaming, curtain-walled, high-rise, engineering-marvelous bit of it was made possible by Mrs. O’Leary’s famously klutzy cow who, according to legend, cleared the decks by kicking the bucket. Well, actually it was a lantern, which, one  hot, dry October evening in 1871, sparked the Great Chicago Fire.

The city was not only rebuilt, but re-imagined in ways so profound, it changed cities all over the world. New ways of building were invented. Architects flocked to Chicago for the chance to try out new ideas. The critical mass of talent was astonishing, inspiring and challenging one another to often literally new heights.

So deeply ingrained is the story of innovation made possible by the Fire that 141 years later, Chicago’s premier tech hub was named 1871.

Our planet’s new normal is full of Chicago Fire-style devastation, from entire towns scoured off the map by tornadoes, to ever-hotter wildfires that singe cities and suburbs that have sprawled into what was once wilderness. Heat waves shred infrastructure. Hurricanes and “superstorms” pummel coastal cities—already treading water from rising seas. Rivers burst levies. Droughts shrivel crops. Blizzards paralyze whole regions. The line between natural and human-enhanced disasters has blurred.

There is also Chicago Fire-style opportunity in the rubble, a chance to start fresh, to re-imagine cities, buildings, power grids, water supplies, transportation networks, farms, manufacturing—everything about the way we live.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEBT

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"Nothing except for nature can transform the world as swiftly as can business—for better and worse. Indeed, the two concurrent crises in the news virtually every day are global financial turmoil and escalating environmental uncertainty. All business, all economies, all living and man-made systems depend on nature. Growing an economy that destabilizes nature is just plain foolhardy…"

Amy Larkin, author, Environmental Debt

Amy Larkin, former director of Greenpeace Solutions, is not the first to link economic and environmental health, but provides a clear-headed, sensible framework for how business can spearhead a path to low-carbon prosperity. Our planet’s future, it turns out, depends on accountants—which, as the daughter of a CPA, makes me rather proud.

In her new book, Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of the Changing Global Economy, Larkin lays out a framework—”Nature Means Business”—designed to level the regulatory playing field, reward long view decision-making and provide catalyzing governmental support.

Key to it all is including externalities—the costs businesses traditionally haven’t paid for, such as carbon pollution—in the bottom line. This speaks to our innate sense of fairness: Whoever makes a mess really ought to take responsibility.

Instead, those costs have been paid by everyone else in all kinds of ways, from scarce tax dollars that have been diverted to fight climate-fueled wildfires and make repairs to crumbling infrastructure, to higher grocery bills, water shortages and political unrest.

She cites a Harvard Institute for Global Health study from 2011, for example, that tallied the unreported life cycle costs of coal to be a minimum of $350 billion, and as high $500 billion—a half trillion dollars—annually, just in the U.S. 

"These hundreds of billions of dollars represent actual bills paid by unwitting families, fisheries, businesses, schools, municipal water systems and health-care providers as well as the victims of asthma, black lung and other medical problems. So, despite conventional wisdom, coal is not a cheap energy. Its price is cheap only because it is subsidized by its own victims."

For the big picture, Larkin turns to a report by financial consultancy KPMG, which “calculated that if corporations actually paid for the services provided them by nature, it would eat 41 cents from every dollar of revenue.” That’s the environmental debt.

Yet as the climate tips, the costs of this conveniently obscured windfall have hit businesses hard, too, and right where it hurts the most: the bottom line.

The floods in Thailand in 2011 were made exponentially worse by decades of commercial logging during the 20th century. Despite a ban in 1989, the damage was so severe that a generation later, it was still a factor. Thai factories were shut down for months, stranding hundreds of thousands of workers and impacting supply chains that stretched around the globe. Toyota’s car output alone was down 3.4% from the previous year.

According to a recent study by APQC, a nonprofit specializing in business benchmarking (cited in an HBR post on why companies are regularly blindsided by risk), ”three quarters of the 195 large companies surveyed…got hit by an unexpected major supply chain disruption in the last 24 months.”

In a world saddled with an unstable climate, competitive advantage can mean simply being able to get your goods to market.

LEVERAGE

Larkin, whose charge at Greenpeace was to support large corporations transitioning to cleaner, greener technologies, is in a unique position to point out barriers and highlight successes.

Working with the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), which represents 400 top global brands and retailers, she helped craft an agreement for a sector-wide shift to an environmentally friendlier refrigerant, which will trim two percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the global total over the next four decades.

That may sound incremental, but it is, in fact, monumental. This is just one technology, but adopted en masse by large companies whose business practices have enormous influence. The scale guarantees significant impact and lowered costs for installation, making it easier for smaller businesses to make the change, too. Collective corporate clout for good.

Much of Larkin’s book is devoted to case studies of companies trying to forge a new paradigm for business, designed to reduce environmental debt while growing profits. For example, multinational consumer goods giant Unilever has done away with quarterly reports, finding they hobble long term planning. It has also publicly committed to cutting its businesses’ environmental impact by 2020, while doubling sales.

Unilever is leading by example, showing other companies how such a bold goal might be achieved. Although Unilever’s efforts alone won’t fix the climate, the comfort of business as usual is no longer an option. We are in an era of the unusual. Nothing is as it was.

For its part, shoe company, Puma, produced its first Environmental Profit and Loss statement in 2010. It was an ambitious, if imperfect, effort and very sobering. If environmental costs had been taken into account, net earning would have dropped by three quarters. Rather than shove the news under the rug and sprint back to business as usual, Puma has used it as inspiration for improved practices throughout its business. Shoe boxes, for example, were redesigned as trendy bags made from recycled plastic, “saving 1 million liters of water and 8,500 tons of paper” in production inputs, along with savings in shipping costs. Small steps, but in the right direction.

Like the new normal of extreme weather, new style accounting can come as a shock. But, like the Chicago Fire, it also clears the way to develop a better foundation, full of innovation, unimaginable potential and better information for investors.

Really, who would invest in coal if the bill for externalities—the environmental debt—actually had to be paid by the companies?

EFFICIENCY & THE BOTTOM LINE

Even without the burden of environmental debt, coal has become a tough sell.

"Coal has lost 19% of its market share in just two years," says Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), “displaced not only by gas, but also by renewables and by efficiency.”

While evidence of gains in renewable is easy to see—just look at all those new solar installations and wind farms!—efficiency seems less tangible. We are all too aware of the bills we have to pay, but who keeps records of bills that don’t have to be paid? Yet those no-need-to-pay bills can really pile up. 

Since the 1970s, notes Lovins:

"We’ve cut our energy use by more than half by dollar of GDP (gross domestic product). That’s not bad. I would wish that we had done even better, but we now see how to triple efficiency all over again. And it’s now cheaper than it was.

Saving electricity now costs only 1/3 what it was in the early ’80s because the technologies have improved faster than we’ve installed them…

We would be using over twice as much energy we actually use today in the US if we were still as inefficient as we were in the mid ’70s. I think that’s considerable progress, but we now can do a whole lot better.

I think the difference now is that as we get, not just better technologies and designs, but better financing, marketing and delivery channels, we have the proven ability at historically reasonable rates to fix up our buildings and our factories faster than they grow.

So we are starting to see electricity demand stagnate or falling, even as our economy grows. And, indeed, as a major engine of economic growth because it frees up so much capital…”

—Amory Lovins, WBEZ (NPR) interview

With a new accounting framework designed to reflect both economic and environmental costs, efficiency is a big win: a competitive advantage that drops straight to the bottom line.

Clearly, though, the books have been cooked for the last few hundreds years, along with our planet. Who knows? Perhaps that’s what happened on Mars, too, so long ago.

Nature’s accounting, it turns out, is the only one that really matters.

— J. A. Ginsburg  / @TrackerNews

RELATED

Amy Larkin Says Business, Environment Crisis Connected / Bloomberg (Audio)

Let’s Talk About Environmental Debt  / Amy Larkin / Huffington Post

Dave Gallo at TEDxSMU

Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute talks climate and sustainability / WBEZ (NPR)

Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era / RMI

President Obama Speaks on Climate Change

Happy Trees! The Right Way to Plant and Mulch a Tree

TREE PLANTING TIPS

If you see a badly planted or mulched tree, print this out to share with the tree’s owner. Here’s to happier, healthier trees!

  • Start by digging a hole 3 times the width of the root ball and exactly as deep as the root ball. 
  • Cut any twine or wire holding burlap around the root ball. Get rid of as much as you can. Fold the rest down.
  • Fold the burlap down so it doesn’t get in the way of spreading roots A stunning 90% of most trees’ roots are found in the top 18” of soil. They grow laterally.
  • Be very careful not mound up soil or mulch around the tree trunk. Bark that becomes too moist rots. 
  • Instead, build a 3” to 4” deep “saucer” of mulch around the tree. It should be deeper at the edges to better help funnel rain. 
  • If you use wires to help stabilize a young tree, make sure to use a soft webbed material to cushion anything touching branches. Also, make sure there is enough play in the wires to allow the tree to sway and move. 
  • If you wrap the trunk—a good idea for very young trees—make sure the wrapping is put on by Thanksgiving and removed by Mother’s Day. Otherwise, bark can rot from being too moist in the summer

Copy adapted from “City Trees: The City of Chicago’s Guide to Urban Tree Care,” which I wrote for the City of Chicago several years ago and is now out of print. The Guide was edited by Suzanne Malec-McKenna, then with City’s Department of Environment, and illustrated by Susanne Roubik. 

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

Yet More 3D Fun! On Buddhas, Vending, Arty Caterpillars, an Ancient Archer and Puzzling Cubes

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There is something completely mesmerizing about watching a 3D print being made. The machine hums, the extruder head moves with possessed purpose and layer by infinitesimal layer a shape emerges. The journey from conceptual to physical is a miracle every time, no matter how mundane the object may be. 

Maybe one day it won’t seem so magical. I keep a old print of a NASA photo of Saturn stashed in my drawer to remind me of past wonders. It was printed during a visit to a friend who lived on small farm in the rolling hills of southern Indiana—the middle of beautiful nowhere. Yet we could see Saturn, up close, in all its ringful glory. A spec in the night sky was beamed into a big old desktop computer, printed out on a color printer—itself a marvel—and presented as a souvenir.

And now I have a Buddha in my phone. As part of an Intro to 3D Printing workshop, I walked around a two foot sculpture, snapping 37 iPhone pictures, which were then stitched together using a free app called 123D Catch. I can twirl my digital Buddha in every direction, view him from every angle, and, once he’s cleaned up, make prints. I can make Buddhas for everybody. Inifinity and beyond, indeed. As a bonus, my smartphone seems to have found a new inner peace and now says, “oooooohhhhmmmm" when it rings. 

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STORY ROUNDUP

Four more stories for the files: 

Dreambox

“In a way, we’re automating Kinko’s,” says Will Devno, one of a team of three Berkeley students who prototyped a Makerbot-powered vending machine called the Dreambox for $10,000. The first one was installed on campus last March  as and has apparently been doing quite a business. 

Customers upload printing files on the 3Dreambox.com website and pay via PayPal. The next day, a text is sent out with a code to unlock a drawer in the vending machine where the finished prints await pick up. Most prints cost about $15.00.

Once all the glitches are fixed, the plan is for a national roll out, installing Dreamboxes in shopping malls and stores. Who knows? Maybe Kinko’s will buy them… 

• The Silk Pavilion

Across the country at MIT’s Media Lab, the printers are silkworms. Sixty-five hundred silk worms, to be exact, that collaborated in the creation of an ethereal dome structure in the building’s foyer. 

A project of Neri Oxman's Mediated Matter Lab, the Silk Pavilion explores a new paradigm for additive manufacturing, one that breaks free of the traditional CNC-style gantry framework. 

After careful observation of how silkworms create webs (not the cocoons which are harvested for silk), a steel and silk framework was constructed and the worms—actually caterpillars—set loose to finish the piece. This “swarm approach” to 3D printing has all kinds of implications. 

“…(I)magine a swarm of small-scale printing units collaborating to ‘print’ something bigger than themselves,” Oxman writes. “Future research aims to unite 3-D Printing with Artificial Intelligence to generate printing swarms operating in architectural scales depositing structural materials.”

The caterpillars eventually turn into moths, which can produce an estimated 1.5 million eggs. That’s enough worms to weave another 250 pavilions. Additive manufacturing meets Malthusian logistics. Just make sure you have plenty of mulberry leaves.

 • The Ancient Archer 

Meanwhile, at Swansea University in Wales, researchers have been reconstructing the past. 

In 1545, Henry the VIII’s favorite warship, the “Mary Rose,” sank near the Isle of Wight. Five hundred men and, apparently, some sea dogs, went down with the ship. Thirty years ago, the ship was raised and about 90 skeletons retrieved. Ten were sent to Swansea. 

Now, with the aid of 3D printing and some very clever facial reconstruction artistry, we know what one of the soldiers—presumed to be an elite archer based on artifacts found on near his body—looked like. 

"…What’s so exciting is that we can reveal the face of a man who has been hidden from history. We wouldn’t have portraits of him, as we do for wealthy and powerful people from the past – for example we’d already seen the face of Richard III on paintings before his remains were discovered.

This is a face of an ordinary man, albeit in a crack regiment, and he hasn’t been seen for almost 500 years. Thanks to 21st century technology and expertise, we can bring him vividly back to life, and understand more about his world…”

• The X Cube

Nearly four decades ago, Hungarian Erno Rubik unleashed his eponymous Cube unto the world, fascinating and frustrating millions of people for billions of hours. One of them was an American seventh-grader named Dane Christianson, who spent countless hours on the bus rides to and from school mastering its quirks. Two years later, as a freshman in high school, he created his own riff on the puzzle, turning it into a rectangle, then made a video

Recently, Christianson, now a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology, posted the video on Reddit where it racked up 1.5 million hits in a little over a week. 

Wow. 

So Christianson went back to the drawing board—and 3D printer—to create yet another puzzle: the X-Cube. Since Erno neglected to take out a U.S. patent on the Rubik’s Cube, the X-Cube is going commercial with a  Kickstarter to raise funds. 

Notably, Christianson is not taking out a patent: 

"…I would rather spend my time sharing the puzzle than suing people over it. A patent is for keeping something out of someone’s hands, which runs opposite to the spirit of the puzzle.

Knock-offs happen. It’s inevitable with any product in today’s world. But  knock-offs can reach markets that I cannot! I just want to get the X-Cube out to the world. I’m sure it will be successful whether or not it is patented…”

He is also making the 3D files open source, so anyone can print an X-Cube if they would like, rather than buy one. 

But that takes away precious time from getting to the fun part, which is why, with almost three weeks still to go, Christianson's Kickstarter is now 25% above his funding target. Couple that with interest from puzzle and game retailer Marbles, and the X-Cube may be the “it” toy for Christmas 2013. 

"The X-Cube has 52 moving parts, 102 stickers, and 125 decillion possible permutations. 

That’s 125,486,757,308,950,508,983,252,156,416,000,000 (1.254x10^35) permutations! That’s over 2 quadrillion  times more permutations than the original 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube for all you cube geeks, over 208 billion  moles of permutations for all you chemistry geeks, and all you math geeks can check my math.”

Oh dear. Where’s my Buddha? 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

Competitive Edge, Ten Types of Innovation & Why a Minimum Viable Product Isn’t Enough

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…The rule of thumb here is that if you use four, five, six or more types of innovation, specifically choosing the ones that others in the industry that you’re in, or hope to be in, have chronically ignored, you will almost always get disruptive innovation…It means you’re setting the new rules and everybody else has to respond to them.

—Larry Keeley, co-founder, Doblin (video)

Think fast: What set Henry Ford apart from the competition? The invention of the assembly line, right? It turns out that is just part of the story. When Ford started his company, there were nearly 90 automakers vying for a nascent market. Ford was the only one to focus not only on building a car, but also on building the market. Ford was the first to create a nationwide network of  franchise dealerships, vastly improving distribution. He also paid most of his workers twice the going rate. If the Model T was to be a success, Ford needed a middle class that could afford to buy them.

There were yet more innovative strategies driving (literally) the Ford success story—which you can read about in The Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs, a new book by Larry Keeley, Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn and Helen Walters (Wiley, 2013).  

For the last 15 years, Keeley, cofounder of Chicago-based consultancy, Doblin (now part of Deloitte), and his colleagues have systematically reviewed thousands of businesses—from Ford to Toyota, Dell to Apple and Zappos to AirBnb—to better understand the nuts and bolts of innovation—defined as “the creation of a viable new offering.” 

Beyond Lean Startup ”pivots” and Design Thinking Post-its, the Dobliners' have focused on the underlying dynamics of innovation: the process over the product.

The discovery of ten distinct types of innovation led to an analytical framework for spotting weaknesses and identifying opportunities within a business, a corporate division, or across an industry sector. It works for startups, companies at their peak, businesses past their prime and for non-profits. It is a powerful tool for due diligence. And it helps to broaden perspective beyond the narrow, potentially fatal incremental thinking that can come from too tight a focus on “pain points.” Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) are just that. If innovation stops there, a budding business won’t get very far. 

The Ten Types of Innovation is part textbook, part workbook and part treatise to show innovation as a discipline. “Anyone can (and should) learn to innovate and, with practice, anyone can become better at innovating,” the authors insist. 

While that sounds a little like Ratatouille’s Chef Gusteau—”Anyone can cook!—it is true and for the very same reason. It is about mastering the basics. 

Rather than recipes, though, the Ten Types are presented as a kind periodic table for business, sorted into three broad categories. Each Type is further divided into specific “tactics”—the business equivalent of the elements.

THE TEN TYPES OF INNOVATION

1) Configuration:  logistics 

  • Profit Model: how you make money
  • Network: how you connect with others to create value
  • Structure: how you organize and align talent and assets
  • Process: how you use signature or superior methods to do your work

2) Offering: core product or service

  • Product Performance: how you develop distinguishing feaures and functionality
  • Product System: how you create complementary products and services

3) Experience: customer facing 

  • Service: how you support and amplify the value of your offerings
  • Channel: how you deliver your offerings to customers and users
  • Brand: how you represent your offerings and business
  • Customer Engagement: how you foster compelling interactions

Note that invention, insight, creativity, discovery and inspiration are not innovation, though all have roles to play. Product extensions—more colors, flavors, sizes—also don’t count as game-changers. In fact, they can be distractions to developing more profitable strategies. This dovetails into one of the book’s key messages: product is only one type of innovation. 

In the history of successful innovations, it was always the case that people were using multiple types of innovation. Nevertheless, if you ask people to innovate inside your own enterprise—you decide you have some crisis of growth—what happens almost every time is somebody runs around all the cubicles, thumps everybody on the head, picks the ones that sound ripest and sticks them in a room and says, “Okay, innovate now!”

When asked to innovate, what people assume they are trying to develop is some new product…So somebody focuses on the product per se. If there are engineers on the team, they will have axioms. They will say, “The product has to be 10x better than whatever it’s replacing.” They will have a variety of cost metrics.

But people will invariably focus predominantly on the products. We can prove this is the dumbest place to start and a completely inadequate way to finish…

—Larry Keeley, Corporate Venturing & Innovation Partnering conference  

The problem is products can be copied, so are the most difficult type of innovation to defend. Henry Ford’s genius was leveraging other types of innovation to support the Model T. He set his company apart by innovating  across the framework: Profit Model (affordably priced, half payment upfront), Network (vertical integration—he bought rubber plantations to supply tire production), Structure (better pay and hours reduced employee turnover) Process (assembly line), Product Performance (the Model T was designed for DIY repairs using inexpensive parts), Product System (modification kits to transform a car into a tractor, etc.), Channel (dealerships) and Brand (created an in-house film studio to make films that promoted Fords). 

Or, to use a more contemporary example. there are now dozens of smart phones, but Apple’s iPhone still commands nearly 40% of the US market due to the innovation of iTunes and an apps platform, but also the network of Apple stores, staffed with helpful genii happy to explain all the bells and whistles, inspiring customers to buy even more. 

The product becomes enmeshed in a series of virtuous circles. It is the alchemy of the aggregate that makes for a thriving business and an enviable bottom line. 

••••••••••

DESIGN MATTERS

These days I tend to prefer my nonfiction digital, but the clever designers at Pentagram have done such an elegant job making a truly daunting amount of information accessible, old-timey print may be the better format to take in all that the book offers. 

The horizontal orientation and softcover binding is—how to put this?—lap-friendly. I read through focusing on thematic arcs and key advice, knowing that I would return to the book as a reference. The number of examples and case studies analyzed through the rubric of the Ten Types is dazzling. Very quickly, I began looking at all kinds of businesses through this lens, trying to figure out why some have succeeded and other seem headed off the rails. It helped me identify the part of a project in which I am involved has a serious weakness and what might be done about it (see chapter 19: Innovation Tactics). The discovery wasn’t necessarily a revelation, but brought greater clarity.

•••••

Innovation itself also benefits from good design. The penultimate secton of The Ten Types focuses on prototypes and pilots. 

"There are two main reasons to use innovation prototyping. The first is to reduce risk and uncertainty. To accomplish this, focus your attention efforts on the things you have to get right for the innovation to succeed. Starting with the easy problems is a recipe for disaster in commercializing innovations—it shoves all of the critically important work to the end of the process, when accumulated expense and exposure to customers is at its greatest. Instead, ask yourself which elements of the innovation idea matter most—without which your concept will simply crumble. It is an aspect of customer behavior, the feasibility of the offering, or the viability of the business model? These central elements should be the focus of your prototyping efforts. 

The second reason to use prototypes is to evolve and improve your innovation iteratively. This means that prototypes are fundamentally transitional and ephemeral; much like a lost wax mold or a miniature model, they will be consumed and discarded in the development process. Start with the cheap methods—paper, digital visualization and simple models—and transition toward higher-fidelity and higher cost methods only as uncertainty declines and validation of your concept emerges. Otherwise, you risk wasting money on prototypes you will need to discard—or worse, have cost and effort bias your judgement and lock you into flawed designs.” 

—Ten Types of Innovation (p. 218)

Of course, successful innovation only means your business has survived another round in a game that never stops. Like voting in Chicago, innovation is best done early and often. 

So get to it. 

— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

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Chicago’s 3D Printer Experience: On Ratus plasticus, 3D Natives, Lions with their Heads Screwed on Straight and Topology Optimization

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I would know that rat anywhere. The curve of his spine, the delicate perfection of his rib cage, legs bent in classic rodent crouch and that built-for-mischief rodent skull. The rat, or, more specifically, his white plastic skeletal facsimile, is a star, a celebrity whose photo has been splashed all over geek publications, including Wired magazine. 

So when Tom Burtonwood, master printer at Chicago’s brand spankin' new 3D Printer Experience (3DPX)—a hybrid store, workshop and studio/classroom—handed me the plastic skeleton, almost literally hot off the press, it was like meeting an old friend. The magic, of course, is that Ratus plasticus (not its official name…), who was a mere 10 months old when he made his history-making voyage through a medical CT scanner, is very likely still alive, white fur and adorable whiskers intact. 

Almost 120 years after the accidental discovery of the X-ray gave us a way to peer inside bodies sans scalpel, it is now possible to recreate exactly what’s inside—and to make copies wherever and whenever we’d like. Ratus plasticus is immortal, an instant artifact slicing through time, space and imagination.

"We are like archaeologists," notes Burtonwood, “but unearthing objects from the future.” Or recent past. Or, since virtually anything can be scanned, ancient history. Burtonwood, who also teaches at the School fo the Art Institute of Chicago, began to experiment with 3D printing by scanning pieces from the museum’s collection, turning them into plastic tchotchkes. Not even the iconic lions were safe…

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The playfulness of the objects masks the serious potential of the technology. The lion’s screw and socket system, for example, was designed on a computer and printed so precisely to spec that the head twists on perfectly straight. 

Likewise, the popular “head scans” offered at 3DPX, are a kind of “gateway” amusement. It is fun—and funny—to stand on a platform in the window, spinning in place for a scan. But when you see a file of you in neon green being twirled and tweaked on a computer screen, your every gesture mimicked to perfection, the ramifications of what just happened begin to sink in. Mini-me is a kind of clone.

At least on the surface. The literal strength of additive manufacturing—as 3D printing is also called—is on the inside. “Topology optimization,” to use the fancy term, is about finding the perfect balance of strength and lightness, often biomimicking nature. 

"…The results of topology optimization are structures that have outward dimensions identical to normal load-bearing elements such as beams, yet have interior dimensions that look very different from traditionally manufactured parts.  In place of triangular or circular voids, these parts have remarkably organic, almost bone-like shapes. The reason is, topology optimization software systematically analyzes the stresses on these shapes and then removes the most superfluous material from the design. This process is repeated over and over by the optimization software, and by the end the computer design leaves only a skeletal interior structure…"

—Brian H. JaffeTopology Optimization in Additive Manufacturing: 3D Printing Conference

Additive manufacturing is a whole new way of thinking about how things can be created, whether it’s rat skeletons, fashions, or buildings. And just as there are “digital natives”—children who never knew a world without smart phones, touch screens and tablets—there will be “3D natives,” for whom the miracle of printing objects will simply be a regular part of everyday life.  

Indeed, a new middle school tech academy set to open in Charlottesville, Virginia, will have one 3D printer for every four students. Charlottesville is a pioneer, but as the costs of printers, scanners, computer software and feedstocks keep dropping— in no small measure due an onslaught of virally popular crowdfunded projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo—more schools will follow.

Almost every day—and from seemingly every part of the globe—someone is coming up with a nifty new way to play with 3D printing. For example, Doodle3D from the Netherlands, provides a child-friendly way to turn drawings into objects, no computer programming experience required. Tellingly, though, as the company’s Kickstarter video shows, it also brings out the inner-inventor in adults as well. 

"I still think it’s a little miracle," says Frans Beelen, who designed a colorful handle to more easily carry several shopping bags at once. 

Yes, Frans, it really is. 

– J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

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3D Update: Try This at Home / Biomimicry edition…

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Great tech innovations have a way of morphing from gee whiz wonder to part of the daily landscape in the blink of a cyber eye. Life before smart phones and tablets? Barely imaginable. Life before the Internet? Really

The current torrent of 3D printing breakthroughs is a little different. The gee whiz came with the realization that it could be done by almost anyone. Now it is about the riff and variation of what to print (houses? body parts? guns? tchotchkes?) and how to turn almost any material into a 3D “ink.” 

What’s amazing is that it is not surprising a rat skeleton can be printed from a scanned live rat: We have come to expect the miraculous, though still marvel at the detail. 

3D printing is a multi-disciplinary playground, where the outlandishly imaginative is applauded, experimentation encouraged and a sense of fun seems to permeate everything. Led, and perhaps liberated, by a joyous makers’ ethos that made a thriving Thingiverse possible, the 3D revolution is driven not by a tech elite, but rather the universal human need to create. 

The tools and software for 3D printing are getting simpler and cheaper all the time. Comparatively inexpensive laser scanners designed for home use, such as Makerbot's Digitizer and Indiegogo favorite, the Photon 3, are just months away from market. Paired with open source software compatible with Mac, PC and Linux, these scanners will uncork yet another round of inventive genius.  

 (T)he Photon isn’t just for 3D Printers, it’s the best tool for 3D animators, designers, hobbyists, prototypers, engineers, or anyone in the business of 3D creation. It’s perfect for reverse engineering, prototype development, duplicating objects, modifying existing products, archiving, generating content for video games, experimenting and so much more. Scan models, tweak them or combine them. The options are endless.

—Indiegogo

Biomimicry

Biomimicry is the ultimate cheat sheet: mining eons-worth of evolution for a fast insights to design problems. Nothing iterates like nature. 

Strictly speaking, the printed rat skeleton was copied rather than bio-mimicked, but it is hard not to consider the potential in light of two other recent breakthroughs: printing cell-like material complete with pores that provide nervous system functionality; and self-assembling materials inspired by the ways proteins fold, create using "4D" printing (time is the fourth “D”).

Each technology is remarkable in its own right. Imagine a surgeon printing a scan of a patient’s organs and bones before an operation, or a doctor printing “cells” for artificial tissue to treat a burn victim. And with materials that self-assemble, it’s a hop, skip and jump to thoughts of the Singularity

What if you could combine them, using a Photon scanner and a Makerbot printer…at home? 

What would Yoda, Star Wars sage and resident Thingiverse poster geek, say? 

"Me real make! I live want to! Hmmmmmm.”

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— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews