Posts Tagged ‘innovation’

Today’s post is brought to you by fiber optic cable, the innovation currently being inserted into my lawn.

In a discussion about grass vs. clover lawns today, I mentioned that our neighborhood is being wired for fiber internet. For weeks, we’ve had orange-vested dudes (and they’re all dudes) roaming in packs, hauling giant spools of multi-colored cables, digging up driveways and yards (and reseeding with industrial-strength grass seed), and generally doing their best to drag our 1990s development into the modern era.

Now we’ve got cable ends sticking up everywhere, a new panel in the grass looking like a secret bunker entrance, and neighbors wondering whether all this fuss is worth it. 

It also led to the question, how do fiber optics work, exactly?

Answer: I have a layman’s understanding of the technology (data becomes light and zoom zooms down a shiny glass tube) but yeah, better look that up:)

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Here’s a quick backgrounder about fiber optics from the folks who invented it.

Educational Resources | Optical Fiber | Optical Communications | Corning

Corning scientists Dr. Robert Maurer, Dr. Peter Schultz, and Dr. Donald Keck invented the first low-loss optical fiber in 1970. Inspired by their belief that information could be transmitted through light, Drs. Maurer, Schultz, and Keck spent four years experimenting with different properties of glass until they succeeded, creating the first low-loss optical fiber for telecommunications use.

How does it work?

Encoded into a pattern of light waves, information travels through each optical fiber by a process of internal reflection. The waves move through the fiber from a given source to a destination such as a cable box where it is then decoded.

(So is it a little like a super sophisticated version of an Aldis signal lamp? I guess that’s one way to think about it.)

For more (and more scientific) details, check out this excellent video:

And just for fun, how do they connect North America to Africa to Asia, and everywhere else?

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Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

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A century ago gasoline-powered cars really came into their own. (In 1920, if memory serves, Ford sold a million Model Ts for the first time.) Now, a hundred or so years after that milestone, we’re living in the midst of another significant change. 

Mr Man and I were discussing electric vehicles today. As an example, in the space of a block we spotted half a dozen Teslas. Regardless of what one thinks about the company (or its owner’s shenanigans), it has been a pioneer and visible symbol of the shift from fossil fuels to electrification. Despite decades of resistance from established interests, that change is now happening at a rapid pace. 

That also got me thinking about the speed of technological change over humanity’s history, which brings me to this article. 

Technology over the long run: See how dramatically the world can change within a lifetime

…we live in a time of extraordinarily fast technological change. For recent generations, it was common for technologies that were unimaginable in their youth to become common later in life.

The graphic captures this well. 

Click for more detail. Used under CC-BY, credit to author Max Roser

It makes me think of my grandparents, born around the time of that Model T milestone. They lived to see the moon missions, internet and smart phones.

It’s been said before but it bears repeating. We’re living our ancestors’ dreams. Let’s make them good ones.

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Photo by Simon Zhu on Unsplash

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Most mornings I stop by the MIT homepage to see what new projects are in the works. Today I was particularly struck by the sense that these folks are freaking rockstars. 

Designing a flexible graphene supercapacitor for solar energy storage?


Researching cell-based treatment for Type 1 diabetes?


Advising the White House on space policy?


Reducing concrete emissions, making affordable air quality sensors, supporting collaborative action, and addressing disparities in health care?

Rockstars all.

As someone who imagines the future, I love to see it being built. 

And it’s not just MIT, of course. The world is full of creative innovators at all levels, from cutting-edge research to finding solutions to everyday issues. Scientists or not, that’s kind of humanity’s thing.

Take a moment to remember a time when you identified a problem and worked to fix it. Have you ever soaped a sticky drawer, had a stoplight installed at a dangerous intersection, added pollinator-friendly plants to your garden, or tackled any of the many (many) problems we face every day?

Then you’re a rockstar too.

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Photo by Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash

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This article from 2016 highlights the terahertz spectrometer, which is a technology that can read books without opening them.  

This new machine can read book pages without cracking the cover | PBS NewsHour

The machine uses beams of radiation to creep in between pages and scan individual letters. This new tool wasn’t made to create disdain among classic readers or for those too lazy to lift a cover. Rather it may unlock the secrets of old books or ancient texts too fragile to be disturbed by human touch.

Scanning an object layer by layer and deriving meaning from the images? Cool, nifty, amazing, a breakthrough for archaeologists and antiquarians everywhere!

Also, remind me again why mammograms still require what is, in effect, a highly sophisticated panini press?*

And yes, it is exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds.

* I know, I know, living tissue is not the same thing as parchment or an Italian sandwich. Still, it’s hard not to think that the gap between the current and ideal mammogram experience represents an untapped opportunity for innovation. Ladies, can I get an amen?

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Photo by Dmitry Stepanov on Unsplash

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A young family member tried her first root beer float this past week. She preferred straight ice cream, in the end, but it got me thinking about the complex history of what appears to be a fairly simple treat.

From a societal standpoint, the road to such a dessert requires an understanding of the science of crystallization as well as carbonation, plus the ability to package and distribute the ingredients while maintaining temperature and freshness. 

From an entrepreneurial perspective, who came up with the idea of merging frozen dessert with thirst-quenching beverage in the first place?

A lot of folks, it seems.

Meet the people who claim to have invented (some version of) this classic dish:

  • Robert McCay Green, 1874, Philadelphia

The Delicious History of the Root Beer Float

As he was serving soda to his costumers, he ran out of ice to put in their drinks, so he decided to put ice cream in them to make them cold.

The Root Beer Float Was Invented In 1893 By A Gold Miner In Colorado – South Florida Reporter

The full moon that night shined on the snow-capped Cow Mountain and reminded him of a scoop of vanilla ice cream. He hurried back to his bar and scooped a spoonful of ice cream into the children’s favorite flavor of soda, Myers Avenue Red Root Beer. After trying, he liked it and served it the very next day. It was an immediate hit.

Whether these somewhat fanciful stories reflect the full truth we can’t know. What we do know is that by the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S. was awash with ice cream floats.

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Why so many instances of similar inventions, all around the same time? That takes us back to the bit about this particular creation being part of a complex system of social, technical and economic factors. Simultaneous invention happens all the time, with ideas big and small. 

In the Air | The New Yorker (Malcolm Gladwell)

The history of science is full of ideas that several people had at the same time.

So don’t worry that your idea for a vampire story or cake recipe or video game or mousetrap has already been done. The world needs new creations, and new versions of old inventions, all the time. Learn from what’s gone before, of course, but if a project captures your attention, pursue it.

It hasn’t been done your way. And your way may be exactly what the world needs right now.

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The purple cow (with grape juice and vanilla ice cream) has always been my favorite. Photo by Ryan Song on Unsplash

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I love seeing ideas move from imagination to reality, even if I’m not the one doing it. Take this robot mani/pedi machine idea, for example: 

Want Your Nails Done? Let a Robot Do It. – The New York Times

This ideas has been in the back of my mind for some time.

Now, I don’t polish my nails. I think I have a bottle of clear somewhere that I bought for a wedding once (my wedding? Quite possibly, but the fact that I don’t remember tells you something). I keep it around to use in the workshop and the garage.

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So why did I start thinking about an automated mani/pedi machine years ago, and why am I excited to see it now?

Because a lot of things are hard for the elderly, and doing your nails is one of them.

These particular machines aren’t there yet, but the fact that innovators are working on polishing suggests that shaping won’t be far behind. And that means anyone could keep their nails in good condition without having to rely on someone else or popping a hip joint, and stay healthier for it.

If the end result is effective and affordable, it’s good for people, and, as the population continues to age and boost demand for adaptive technologies, good for companies.

And I’m all about win-wins.

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Photo by silviannnm on Unsplash

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Today is Earth Day. Happy 4.543 billionth birthday, Earth! Here’s hoping for many more.

Much of my day job is based in current news and events, which means I spend a good part of most days knee-deep in the internet. Yeah, it can be exactly as fun as it sounds. That said, I’m not looking for the bad stuff, or not only the bad stuff.

I’m looking for the uplifting, the hopeful, the rays of light. For a path to something better. So for every article I read telling me that in recent years, there are more Starbucks locations in California than overwintering monarch butterflies, there are pieces on what’s good, like these:

Let These Stunning Photos of a Year of Virtual Youth Climate Activism Inspire You

Halifax-based developer of CO2-injected concrete wins multimillion-dollar prize

It’s hard to miss the evidence of change, but the good news is that we’re not just discussing it, we’re beginning to take concrete action.

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You already know that doing big things is hard. Like ”saving the planet.” Human beings are small, and I suspect that at the root, most of us are plagued by the niggling feeling that we are just bit players on an unimaginably vast stage. That at some fundamental level our actions don’t matter much at all in the bigger picture. Not really.

But we’re wrong. And the world is made up of smaller pictures.

Photo by Martijn Baudoin on Unsplash

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It’s the question every hero is asked: The future is uncertain. The path is unknown. What are you going to do about it?

What you can, wherever you can. As a minor example, I spent time today researching ways to turn our absolutely useless lawn space into a pollinator garden.

Of course, a lot of what needs to happen on climate change isn’t just about individual action. Deciding not to eat meat on Tuesdays matters, but standards and infrastructure for energy, transportation, agriculture and construction, to name a few sectors, will need to modernize too.

It means working together on new ideas, new innovations, and new legislation. More and better targets, the kind that make a positive difference in people’s lives.*

Because humans are a social species. There is never just one, and when it comes to saving our home that’s a challenge but also a benefit. Sea shanties swept the globe in a matter of weeks. Why not this?

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It sounds big, and it is, but we do big things all the time, often by accident.** It’s just time to do this particular big thing on purpose. Here’s the mantra I try to stick with: Pick a goal. Break it down. Start today.

We are never just one. None of us are. We are legion. And we got ourselves into this mess. We can get ourselves out.

Starting today.

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* Like clean air and water. And I really enjoy the fact that one day, for example, I’ll be able to put my seat belt on, drive an electric car down well-maintained roads, sit in a non-smoking section at a restaurant, and eat food that won’t kill me. And that my nephews don’t spend their summers swimming in a creek laced with PCBs (like we did). Crazy, I know!

** I mean, who sets out to upend civilization? They just want to see what happens if they burn that dirty rock or invent the light bulb or the assembly line or freaking Facebook. There is no button a curious monkey will not poke. Wouldn’t it be nice if we can make it work for us for a change?

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“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand… To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

— Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

NASA via Voyager 1 Spacecraft, Feb. 14, 1990.

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Last week was National Library Week in the U.S. I’m coming to it late* but as far as I’m concerned, most weeks should involve a library:) Why, you may ask? So many reasons! And for those of us North of the Border, stay tuned because October is Canadian Library Month!

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.
— Ray Bradbury



* I blame a hectic work schedule but mostly the glorious backlog of library books on my shelves, just waiting to be read:)

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A friend with a shared love for Harry Potter sent me a link the other day. Some creative and determined person decided to make a Weasley clock.*
The magical ‘Harry Potter’ location clock exists in DIY form

For those who may have missed this detail from the HP book and/or movie, the Weasley clock is a magical JK Rowling invention that tracks each Weasley family member’s location and displays it on an antique clock face.

Rowling thought it up, and a Muggle made it real. How cool is that?

So with thanks to my friend, today’s installment of #ThingsILike is the real-world power of fiction.


“If you just focus on what you know, you’re blinding yourself to new opportunities.”
— Tyler Jacks, MIT

There are a lot of discussions of this topic out there, both contemporary and historical, but it’s a point I like to touch on periodically. A writer imagines a thing and someone else finds a way to make it real.

That’s magic right there.

This applies to specific items like the clock but also to everything from emotional states to broader goals. Want to generate ideas, stir up communal interest, and apply creativity to complex problems like living in space long-term? Tap the power of fiction:
The White House Wants To Use Science Fiction To Settle The Solar System

How to get into space? Excite the minds of young (and not so young) people with stirring tales of adventures in space. This applies to stories from Asimov, Clarke and other Golden Age of Science Fiction authors, but also to more recent blockbusters like Andy Weir’s The Martian.

The latter was particularly good at building future versions of current technologies, and NASA was happy to help Weir build his fictional (for now) world from the Popular Science article on the support NASA gave Ridley Scott as he turned the book into a blockbuster movie:

If you want to understand why it is that NASA loves The Martian and is so gung ho for this movie, you have to realize that this movie more or less presents exactly their future vision, minus all the drama.


I’ve cited this quote before but it’s so fitting I’ll use it again:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

That’s the power of fiction.


* There may be other such clocks out there (in fact, I hope there are) but this is the version that caught my attention. Feel free to build more!

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Wait, what?

Yep, that’s the takeaway from a recent Bloomberg article about humans with (very, very) rare genetic mutations:

These Superhumans Are Real and Their DNA Could Be Worth Billions

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus of the article is on drug companies exploiting such mutations to develop new blockbuster products, but let’s just take a second to look at the bottom line:

Rare mutations > affect a tiny percent of the human population = superpowers.
/enough said

Yes, it’s Unbreakable all over again, only this time for real. If there’s a way to convert such mutations into useful (rather than simply profitable) innovations, great. Without (hopefully) the evil mastermind willing to sacrifice innocent lives in the search for outliers.

Are there challenges to life as a “superhero”? Of course, the most obvious being the dramatic downsides for those with dangerous mutations like insensitivity to pain, but I have to say: I find this hopeful.

Why? Because it’s a reminder that there is no one “normal” and that the continuum of human evolution isn’t done with us yet, not by a long shot.

That the range of human experience is deep and varied, and that there is room in our world for everyone.

And that the impossible can, under extraordinary circumstances, become possible.

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