Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

What are fifty inventions that helped shape the modern economy? This book doesn't attempt to find the 50 most important inventions, but 50 that have had impact. Some of the things are classical physical inventions like the plough and plastic. Others like management consulting and Seller Feedback are modern, abstract innovations that are important to our economy. There are also cautionary tales. Attempts were made to ban leaded gasoline in the 1920s. However, lobbying get it going for another half decade before it was eliminated. What other things in our current society are still being forced upon us by the regulatory framework and inertia. (Cars seem to come to mind.)
The book does a good job provided self-contained stories of individual innovations together with the glue that holds it together. Paper money is in interesting innovation, but the story of how it came about makes it come alive. The Smart Phone has quickly become an integral part of our lives. However, it is an amalgam of technologies produced primarily via government sponsored research. Compilers allow code to be more easily programmed, bringing programming to the masses and allowing higher and higher level programming. The barcode had been "invented" multiple times. The technology was the easy part. Getting producers and retailers to agree on to use it in a standard way was the challenge.
While a number of different innovations could have been included here. The author does a good job justifying the ones included and providing an informative and entertaining work.

Monday, January 01, 2018

A Mind at Play

A Mind at Play deifies Claude Shannon as a renaissance-type genius who is able to make contributions to any field he desires, yet is likely to leave his greatest ideas unfinished. You would have a tough time finding any criticism in this work. He grew up a tinkerer in small-town Michigan. He was super smart, and was great at understanding and applying math. He was also able to pick up domain knowledge of other fields and made great contributions to genetics research (that were only recently "rediscovered"). However, his primary contribution was the theory of information transmission. Alas, only briefly discusses what this theory is, leaving us wondering why he is so important. (Though this may be in part because it seems so obvious today.) He made some of the earliest "thinking machines", such as a "maze running mouse" and chess computers. He lived to see the dawn of the information age, but was suffering from Alzheimer's at the time and was thus barely able to comprehend it.
While I found the book to be a excessively laudatory, I did enjoy the descriptions of the time at Bell Labs. Having a bunch of people turned lose at doing whatever they wanted seems to be one of the advantages of monopolies. Any research that could be tangentially related to phone company business was fair game. The huge number of innovations that arose from Bell Labs validates its value. Imagine if we allowed more researchers the freedom to investigate ideas rather than spend endless hours writing grant proposals or helping the companies short-term bottom line? We see some of that with the big tech companies like Google and Facebook these days. Alas, a lot of the innovation today is in the small startups, and that funding is driven by the ability to appease the venture capitalists.