Tag Archives: innovation

anti-monopoly politics

This Intercept article talks about an anti-monopoly message some Democrats are trying out. I like the idea in principle. Productivity growth has been stuck in second gear for close to 50 years now, and yet we hear about record corporate profits and stock market returns. These things happen at the same time only if big business is able to make unfair profits by rigging the system unfairly in its favor. That way their profits can grow while wages and innovation both stagnate. This is not a recipe for long-term growth for the economy as a whole.

Big business has been able to hijack the “free market” message for a long time now. Of course, a truly free market is about a truly level playing field for businesses of all sizes, and one where innovators can compete with established big businesses. I would argue that it is also about an economy where entrepreneurs and small business owners can take chances and innovate against a backdrop of health care, childcare and retirement security. But maybe that should not be the focus – one appeal of an anti-monopoly message could be to give the devisive social issues a rest for awhile and focus on inclusive economic growth.

The author gives several examples of monopoly power hurting both rural and urban interests:

FRERICK TALKS ABOUT running a Teddy Roosevelt-style campaign. In rural towns in southwest Iowa, he has challenged the merger between Monsanto and Bayer, which would give two companies (the other is Dow/DuPont) control of 75 percent of the U.S. corn seed supply. Add the company created by the merger of ChemChina and Syngenta, and three companies would sell 80 percent of all seeds. Farmers have no ability to bargain for corn seed, which has doubled in price over the last decade, even while crop prices have dropped…

But Frerick has a broader case to make on monopolies. In urban areas of Des Moines with less connection to farm life, he’s talked about cable companies who take hours to answer customer service calls, or shrinking local newspapers due to Facebook and Google’s capturing of prized eyeballs for advertisers. In older communities, he’s condemned pharmaceutical companies that funnel patients to expensive drugs with little or no competition. A separate 2016 paper Frerick wrote while at Treasury explained how drug companies use corporate charity as a profit center, by paying discounts for individuals so insurers and government plans have to pay exorbitant rates for medications…

Most hospitals buy supplies in bulk through group purchasing organizations (GPOs) which carry a “90/10” requirement. Hospitals must continue to purchase at least 90 percent of their supplies from inside the GPO to qualify for discounts and avoid millions of dollars in penalties. This contractual obligation fortified BD’s monopoly, despite selling a more dangerous, more expensive product.

September 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Fueled by supercharged sea temperatures, the 2017 hurricane season was a terrible, terrible season for hurricanes devastating coastal regions of the United States. One reason is that these storms not only were powerful and hit densely populated areas, but they set records for rapid intensification. Beyond all the human suffering, one thing I find disturbing is that I feel desensitized at this point when I think back to how I felt after Hurricane Katrina. The first major city destroyed is a shock, but later you get numb to it if you are not actually there. Then finally, a remote island territory is all but wiped out in what should be shocking fashion, and the public and government response is decidedly muted. This is what the age of climate change and weapons proliferation might be like, a long, slow process of shifting baselines where the unthinkable becomes thinkable over time.
  • In a story that U.S. media didn’t seem to pick up, China seemed to make a statement in its  official state-run media that it would defend North Korea in case of an unprovoked attack by the U.S. and its allies. John Bolton  and Lindsey Graham made comments suggesting they think any number of Korean dead would be a price worth paying for an unprovoked U.S. attack. The Trump administration is openly using Nazi propaganda.
  • During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.

Most hopeful stories:

  • It’s possible that a universal basic income could save the U.S. government money by replacing less efficient assistance programs.
  • There are also workable proposals for a U.S. single-payer health insurance program, although this one would somewhat obviously mean the government spending more money, which it would have to collect in taxes. People would come out ahead financially if the taxes were less than the premiums they are paying now, which doesn’t seem that hard, but of course this is politically tough given the incredibly effective propaganda the finance industry has used to kill the idea for the last 50 years.
  • Utility-scale solar energy cost dropped 30% in one year.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • The FDA has approved formal trials of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • In automation news, Tesla is testing automated truck platoons. And there’s a site that will try to predict whether robots will take your job.

August 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Around 200,000 people may be dying prematurely in the U.S. each year due to air pollution. Meanwhile, the Trump administration may be trying to censor the National Climate Assessment, which presents the consensus among serious scientists in the United States government that climate change is very real and a very real threat to our country.
  • The U.S. may already be in the middle of a soft military coup. We have a batshit-crazy President playing nuclear chicken with all our lives. And with the legislative branch not even trying to do anything about this, we are actually hoping the generals who are running our country will be the coolest heads in the room when it comes to preventing nuclear war. North Korea may be closer to submarine-launched nuclear weapons than previously thought. Meanwhile, there are three ways for terrorists or other non-state actors to get their hands on nuclear weapons: “transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.” And the U.S. and Russia are no longer cooperating on non-proliferation.
  • The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (in July) that could eventually, maybe lead to the total elimination of nuclear weapons on Earth.
  • The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are some very specific numerical targets that have incorporated in the 2015 Sustainable Goals.
  • Great Transitions are ideas for how the world could transition to a sustainable state without going through a major setback along the way.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • When you sow seeds, it makes sense to sow the ones that have the most trouble establishing at the highest density.
  • You can use R to recreate the famous plot of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

As I am writing these words on Labor Day, the news is about a North Korean nuclear test. In a strange coincidence, I happened to see both the USS New Jersey, which was involved in the Korean War, and the Korean War Memorial here in Philadelphia yesterday (which never came). That war caused a lot of pain and suffering on all sides. It would be a tragedy to let it flair up again, and an even bigger tragedy if nuclear weapons were to be involved.

OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2016

The OECD publishes a Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook every two years. They name “ten key emerging technology trends”:

  1. The Internet of Things
  2. Big data analytics
  3. Artificial intelligence
  4. Neurotechnologies
  5. Nano/microsatellites
  6. Nanomaterials
  7. Additive manufacturing / 3D printing
  8. Advanced energy storage technologies
  9. Synthetic biology
  10. Blockchain

This report has a little bit of everything. They talk about the “water-food-energy” nexus and how it is likely to interact with new technologies, climate change, the drop in public research funding and increasing importance of non-state actors, and cities as engines of innovation.

The last part of the report talks about the future of research, research funding, private vs. public research, and research policies. One term that was new to me was Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) which attempts to manage risks and ethical concerns of new technologies.

the tech revolution and the engineering, architecture and construction industry

This article from Engineering News Record tries to answer the question of what the tech revolution means for the engineering, architecture, and construction industry.

As the world around us becomes more technology-driven and sophisticated, what will that mean for A/E/C? It’s been well-documented that the construction industry productivity gains in the past 40 years have been paltry, and that’s perhaps stating it lightly. So how can we go to IBM’s Watson for legal advice (yup, Watson will put a lot of lawyers out of business), get advanced health screening on our smartphones, obtain a master’s degree on our tablet computer, and then turn around and tolerate 20th century design and construction approaches? How can we allow technology companies to create massively personalized customer experiences, and then deal with a lack of communication and transparency on our construction projects, or dumb models (even worse, 2-D printed drawings!) with meaningless data?

We can’t. Our clients won’t. We need to embrace technology, get comfy with data, and revolutionize the client experience.

I figured the article would elaborate on the three suggestions above, but it doesn’t, really. I think our industry lags behind for a few reasons. First, we design and build things that last a long time, like highways, sewer pipes, buildings, etc. Even if the level of knowledge and technology relating to these things is increasing, they don’t get replaced very often. When individual little pieces of our transportation and water systems break, we replace them with similar or incrementally improved pieces, because it doesn’t seem to make sense to replace the whole system with something radically different all at once, even if that could be the right long-term answer. University curricula, professional groups, labor groups, institutions such as utilities and authorities, licensing and credentialing programs, and their associated lobbyists arise to resist change and perpetuate the status quo. Engineers and architects aren’t really trained in long-term planning or system thinking. There is a planning field that sort of is, but we constantly beat them down and encourage them to conform to short-term thinking so they can remain employed in our industry. In private consulting we talk about serving our clients all day long, but there is really a revolving door between private industry and public clients and not a whole lot of room for new and revolutionary thinking to enter the mix. Truly disruptive technology like self-driving cars leading to drastically reduced demand for private vehicle ownership, and drastically reduced demand for paved surfaces, could eventually push out some of the old thinking. It’s hard to imagine the water or environmental equivalent, but maybe a truly revolutionary toilet that doesn’t require a sewer system at all could be an example. Truly revolutionary building materials like cheap carbon fiber could be another.

solar phone chargers

I love the idea of charging my phone and other small devices with solar power. So, here is a Wirecutter article on doing that. One thing I learned is that you generally want to pair your solar panel with a battery so you can charge the battery during the day, then charge your phone all night. Otherwise you would have to leave your phone sitting near the charger for several hours during the day, which is probably exactly when you want to be using your phone for other things.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!


Isaac Asimov on Creativity

In 1959, Isaac Asimov was briefly part of a panel tasked with “out-of-the-box” brainstorming about weapons technology. He very quickly recused himself from this, but before he left he wrote an essay advising the panel about the nature of creativity and creative people.

Who is creative?

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us.

Should creative people think alone or in groups?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.

Okay, so creative people tend to think up ideas alone. But should they then get together to share those ideas, and if so, how?

the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

I am no Isaac Asimov, but I’ll give my two cents on my own creative process. Step one is to take in a lot of information and ideas, in somewhat random combinations. For me, reading is the best way to do this, although other forms of media and more formal education can be helpful. This takes a lot of time, time that I certainly don’t have when working a 9 to 5 job and supporting a (wonderful) family. The job and family also tend to physically and mentally wear me out, and some of the bullies and unimaginative types I encounter on the job not only shut down my creativity but the creativity of everyone around me. Then there is the fact that, as Isaac mentions in his essay, whoever is paying you is unlikely to be sympathetic to the idea they are paying you to screw around.

Anyway, there have been a couple times in my life when I have had the time to just sit and think and screw around a little bit. So along with the steady inflow of information and ideas, there has to be some unstructured downtime, and that is when the creative ideas pop into my mind. Exercise, drugs and music may be helpful in moderation, although you could obviously overdo the drugs. Insights are unpredictable and fleeting, so it is critical to have a notebook or the electronic equivalent to capture them.

Step three is to take those brilliant snippets of ideas from the notebook and do the hard work of turning them into something, whether it is a book, a computer program, an artwork, or whatever. I find that this process is not all that creative. It is just work. But it is the critical step of taking your insights that last mile to a fully formed, coherent story that other human beings might gain something from.

Detroit leading the self driving car race

Despite all the hype around Google, Uber and Tesla, this report from Navigant Research says GM, Ford, Daimler, Nissan and BMW are leading the race to bring self-driving cars to market. Waymo (Google), Hyundai, Toyota and Tesla are in the middle of the pack, while Honda and Uber are bringing up the rear. To me, it’s an interesting example of how big, powerful, but stodgy corporations can innovate when they are threatened by small upstart players. I wouldn’t have predicted the Detroit companies would pull it off, or that the big Asian players would lag behind. I also thought we might see some partnerships between traditional car companies and tech companies, but the car companies seem to be developing the tech on their own.


Finnish-ing school

Certain countries just lend themselves to English puns. Hungary? Try some Turkey Chile fried in Greece. The Finnish must get particularly tired of this sort of thing. But luckily they can be smug in the knowledge that their schools are good.

Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best…

Children at this and other Finnish public schools are given not only basic subject instruction in math, language and science, but learning-through-play-based preschools and kindergartens, training in second languages, arts, crafts, music, physical education, ethics, and, amazingly, as many as four outdoor free-play breaks per day, each lasting 15 minutes between classes, no matter how cold or wet the weather is. Educators and parents here believe that these breaks are a powerful engine of learning that improves almost all the “metrics” that matter most for children in school – executive function, concentration and cognitive focus, behavior, well-being, attendance, physical health, and yes, test scores, too.

The homework load for children in Finland varies by teacher, but is lighter overall than most other developed countries. This insight is supported by research, which has found little academic benefit in childhood for any more than brief sessions of homework until around high school.