Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Patents are Worth Less

Never confuse motion with action. Ben Franklin

Leonardo da Vinci - painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, cartographer, botanist, geologist, writer and...


Helicopter, parachute, machine gun, musical instruments, stream cannons, scuba gear, robots, tanks and so much more are attributed to da Vinci.

But what did he really invent? I spent some time trying to find an actual da Vinci invention, one that existed outside of a drawing and functional in his day. It seems there were either none or they were unremarkable in history.

I did find one example of an attempt to reduce his drawings to practice. It seems he had a variety of ways to improve kitchen productivity. In implementing this vision, he installed conveyor belts which never could be timed to the actual needs of the cooks so that food piled up or arrived too late. He also built an oven which operated at a much higher temperature with the vision of cooking food faster but simply resulted in burnt food.

Now, much to da Vinci's credit, his conveyor belts and oven worked exactly as he planned, but the result was not the desired improvement. And this is the stumbling block of many inventions. It is not enough to be able to solve one aspect of a problem, but rather the solution must be made into a functioning part of the whole.

An invention must be more than a drawing and a few words on a piece of paper. It must add real/practical value to its user, must be manufacturable, must meet government safety regulations, must integrate into the way people want to behave and, of course, must conform to the laws of nature...and, must be significantly better than the existing alternative. Collectively, accomplishing all this is often called commercialization.

But, perhaps you think, that da Vinci provided us with the first ever vision of such possibilities. This, however, is not the case. All of his drawings evolved from prior art. Not to argue that da Vinci had not proposed more elegant and perhaps more pragmatic solutions, but simply that he was not the sole visionary.

In the most important ways, da Vinci's drawings are equivalent to the modern day patent. Much like da Vinci's drawings, for all their beauty, originality and vision, these patents are economically valueless until someone has commercialized them. (For more on this, see my blog on the master of commercialization, Thomas Edison.)

While a patent can be important in protecting the economic viability of an invention, it is important to remember it is only a part of the invention and that in the process of commercialization, the vision of the patent must often be significantly modified.

Certainly, da Vinci had a beautiful vision for the future, but it took far more than that vision so that it could BE different.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sex and the Arab Spring

Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere. Helen Gurley Brown

Burning bras, 'Maude', and Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King are my strongest memories of the second wave feminist movement. They weren't THE movement, but, like a less tragic version of a burning Mohamad Bouazizi launching the Arab Spring, they provided powerful symbols which invited the commoner to the debate.

These symbols were powerful motivators, but they left the motivated wanting for an action to take. By definition, these were people with no individual political or economic power and they lacked an education for self directed action. They knew what they wanted, but lacked the knowledge of how to get it.

In the Arab Spring, Gene Sharp's 'From Dictatorship to Democracy' provided these actions. In general, these were simple things that required no resources and minimal coordination.  Boycotts, sit ins, strikes and other actions focused on attacking the establishments weakest points and shifting control of power. Perhaps most importantly, he gave those who followed his advice confidence and a feeling of power over their own lives.

The feminist movement had its guide too. Helen Gurley Brown's 'Sex and the Single Girl' with its follow on monthly guidance provided by 'Cosmo'. Like Sharp, Brown pointed out to her readers the weaknesses of the establishment and provided mostly simple steps that could be taken to exploit the weakness and shift the control of power.

Just as Sharp's guide was not accepted by the more militant minded, Brown's guidance was (and still is) scorned by factions of the feminist movement.  Whether owing to the peaceful methods of Sharp/Brown, or militant efforts, or most likely a combination of the two, the efforts ended with shifts in political power that enabled the lawyer/politicians to codify change.

And so, today, in the shadow of Helen Gurley Brown's death, it's worth acknowledging her contribution to humanity, and that she knew it could BE different.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Smart Enough to Not Know Better

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. Leo Tolstoy

I have had the good fortune for the past seven years of gathering with the same nine friends to play cards every few weeks. The group as a whole is excessively educated, always current on events and, by any standard of measurement, intelligent. They're also good men, engaged equally well with their families, businesses and communities.

While our conversations are most typically around poker, sports, cars, guns, fishing, music and women (in that order as we are a fairly old group), it is rare for the political issue of the day to not be the first topic.

So I wasn't the least surprised that Chick-fil-a's CEO was at the center of discussion this past week. The arguments fell along the general lines of freedom of speech versus gay rights (and the irrelevant to this blog arguments that Chick-fil-a should be boycotted for reasons more relevant to food quality).

Replace Gay with Black, or Jew, or Irish, or Native American... and it is the same debate that has been held since the founding of the US. 

Setting aside the merits of the arguments past and present, they provide a recurring model of change which makes them of interest to this blog.

We intuitively think that it could BE different if only we could get the slow-witted people out of the way. But, whether for good or bad, it is often the most intelligent that truly stand in the way of change.