Posts tagged with: innovation

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, January 25, 2013

There’s an old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Life is often difficult, full of challenges, trials, and travails. But it is a testament to the human spirit, created in the image of God to mature and develop morally, spiritually, and intellectually, that in the face of such troubles human ingenuity often wins out. Brad Morgan, a dairy farmer turned fertilizer magnate featured in the documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, put it this way: “You put your butt in the corner, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.”

I was reminded of this insight in reading a story this week about a local company, National Nail Corp., whose recent experience embodies this reality. As Jim Harger writes, “When the bottom fell out of the home building industry in 2008, the National Nail Corp. was forced to regroup and diversify, says W. Scott Baker, president and CEO of the employee-owned company.”

One of the new products is called Camo, which “created a new way to nail down deck boards without having nails or screw heads poking through the surface to create slivers, pop up or discolor a deck surface.” As Baker puts it, “Camo was birthed when we found ourselves in a place where no one would have willingly gone.”

I’m not very handy, but Camo looks pretty cool to me.

When your butt is in a corner, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.

This is an important lesson to remember, especially in the midst of economic turmoil and fiscal crisis. Yes, we live in an age of dizzying change, but with these changes also come new opportunities. God has given human beings the august responsibility to be moral agents, to work productively in service of others. Rather than bemoaning our fate when adversity comes, we ought to look forward in hope and creatively exercise those talents God has given us to find innovative new solutions to the myriad challenges facing the world today.

solar light, developing worldOver a billion people are still using kerosene as a primary fuel source, with over 1.5 million dying annually from issues related to indoor air pollution and kerosene fires. For many in the developing world, solar lamps are a new, inexpensive solution to the problem. A recent piece in The Economist hails solar lamps as the next “mobile phone” for the poor, noting that “its spread is sustainable because it is being driven by market forces, not charity.”

In an article for Christianity Today’s This is Our City project, HOPE International‘s Chris Horst interviews two business leaders from the industry who share how their purpose and direction in providing these products stems from a strong missional orientation toward work and a belief in the power of markets.

For Brian Rants, vice president of marketing for Nokero, a leading solar light company, involvement in the industry came after a fundamental transformation in his thinking:

“I am very surprised to find myself in business,” Rants says. “Business seemed to be a backup plan to being a missionary. Or being a pastor like I thought I would be. It seemed like businesspeople were just ‘extras’ in God’s story, rather than lead or even supporting actors.”

Over the past ten years, Rants worked for a number of nonprofits and churches. After going through graduate school, however, he began to discover the ways enterprise is improving the lives of the poor around the world. Rants excitedly joined Nokero, equipped with a restored vision of vocation. Through leveraging his knack for marketing, Rants fights poverty not just through his volunteerism and philanthropy, but inherently through his work in business. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 30, 2012

Check out this video, which is interesting on a number of levels (HT: James R. Otteson):

Hazony points to some really important ideas in this short video. In many ways the culture war, so to speak, really comes down to a clash of worldviews about what work is and ought to be. For a narrative that sets the problem up the same way, but favors the “Leavers” over the “Takers,” see the work of Daniel Quinn, particularly his novel Ishmael.

I’m looking forward to checking out Hazony’s book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

Earlier this month, I spoke at the commencement of Trinity School at Meadow View, a truly impressive private high school school in Falls Church, Va. Most impressive was the valedictory address given by the graduating senior Beau Lovdahl, who is on his way to Princeton in the fall. The story he relates here underscores the philosophy of the Acton Institute in many ways and I wanted to share it with PowerBlog readers. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Beau Lovdahl
Valedictory Address
06/11/11

Mr. Zwerneman; Father Sirico; Trinity faculty; parents, family and friends of the Class of 2011; I thank you for making this day a reality. I would like to congratulate my fellow classmates for finally completing six years of hard work in the classrooms and on the athletic fields. I would especially like to thank our loving and supportive parents for helping us and holding us accountable to get through our schooling. Finally, I would like to thank our faculty for giving us an excellent education. Now I would like to give a brief history lesson on a man that has inspired me the past seven months of my life.

On June 6th, 1884, a talented electrical engineer by the name of Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City from Serbia. All he had was a letter of recommendation from his former boss to Thomas Edison, with the words: “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.” So Tesla began to work for Edison Machine Works company. He quickly rose from working on simple engineering matters to working on the company’s biggest problems. Edison offered Tesla 50,000 dollars to redesign the company’s inefficient direct current generators. This sum was worth 1.1 million dollars in today’s money. The very next year Tesla had redesigned the generators and asked Edison for his bonus. To this Edison replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” thus refusing the promised payment.

Having been refused a raise in pay, Tesla resigned his position and left the company. Tesla was forced to dig ditches to make ends meet. Yet while he was doing this he began planning a new system of power distribution, one that was based on alternating current, not Edison’s direct current. In 1888 Tesla showcased an alternating current induction motor to the American Institute for Electrical Engineering. This device would be the answer to the world’s energy needs. Tesla subsequently was hired by the industrialist George Westinghouse. Westinghouse saw great potential in Tesla’s alternating current technology for long distance power distribution. Once Tesla and Westinghouse began work, a “War of the Currents” erupted between Westinghouse and alternating current on the one hand, and Edison and direct current on the other.

Despite being slandered in a propaganda campaign by Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse proved victorious when they won the competition to power the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with alternating current. Then Tesla designed and built an alternating current power plant at Niagara Falls that successfully powered the city of Buffalo over 15 miles away. Tesla’s alternating current proved far more efficient than Edison’s direct current, and it allowed power to be sent over long distances. This system of power is still used to this day. The way it works is that alternating current electricity is generated by a power plant. The electricity is then stepped up to a very high voltage that allows it to be carried long distances with very little power loss. Then local transformers stepped the voltage down where it can be used to light lamps or heat homes. Thus power is efficiently distributed from the power plant to the common man.

The victory of the War of the Currents cost Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company a great deal since they had to overcome Edison’s propaganda campaign. By 1897 the company was near bankruptcy. So Tesla tore up his royalties contract, freeing Westinghouse from having to pay Tesla for the use of his technology. Had Tesla not done this, he could have been the world’s first billionaire. Yet for the good of the Westinghouse Company and his vision of free energy for the world, Tesla sacrificed this fortune.

Tesla then moved to Colorado Springs where he began research on the wireless transmission of energy. In the 2006 movie The Prestige, Tesla’s assistant shows Hugh Jackman’s character a field of light bulbs that are not connected to any wires. The light bulbs are then illuminated, being powered wirelessly by a generator 15 miles away! This event actually occurred in 1899. After much research in Colorado, Tesla moved back to the east coast to Long Island, where he would test his theories of wireless energy on a larger scale. With $150,000 of funding from the industrialist J.P. Morgan, Tesla constructed Wardenclyffe Tower. Here Tesla hoped to transmit energy across the Atlantic to Paris. Yet four years later, Guglielmo Marconi made a radio transmission across the Atlantic and was credited with the invention of radio using 17 of Tesla’s patents. As a result, J.P. Morgan saw no need to continue funding Tesla’s work, since he believed Marconi had achieved what Tesla was trying to do. Tesla failed to convince Morgan that his research was for something much greater than radio. So in 1905 Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower project died and his dream of a large scale test of the wireless transmission of energy was shattered.

Tesla spent the rest of his life doing research in the fields of radio, remote control and electro-mechanically powered aircraft. He was also reported to have been working with the British government on a “Death Ray” but he never completed a prototype. The Death Ray would have been some sort of particle beam that would charge particles to a very high voltage and then shoot them at enemy armies or airplanes. Tesla hoped that this weapon would be a deterrent to war.

Tesla lived the last 10 years of his life alone in the New Yorker Hotel. He lived on a small pension from his homeland in Yugoslavia and worked on his research. Many thought he was insane. He was reclusive and was probably afflicted by an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The modern world that he helped build had forgotten him. He died alone in 1934 in his hotel room. His belongings were seized by the federal government, and his remains were sent back to Serbia.

This was an ignominious end to such a remarkable life. Yet by no means should we consider his life a tragedy. Tesla’s legacy was tremendous. All electricity from power plants today is generated and brought to us by Tesla’s innovations. After his death, the Supreme Court upheld Tesla as the true inventor of radio. He invented the spark plug device in car engines, and Tesla’s work in the wireless transmission of power brought us inventions such as the Tesla coil, which is used today to generate artificial lightning, and tuned circuits which form the basis of wireless communications today. He exemplified the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Tesla also can show us how we should view the world and the life that we graduates are about to enter. First, Tesla demonstrated us how we should view money. Second, he showed us how we should pursue our goals and interests. Thirdly, he showed us why we should pursue our goals and interests.

Tesla never saw money as an intrinsic good. He did not work for the sake of money but he used the money earned to further his work. He once said,

Money does not represent such a value as men have placed upon it. All my money has been invested into experiments with which I have made new discoveries enabling mankind to have a little easier life.

He used money as a means to the end of advancing his research. He did not use his research as a means to the end of gaining money. Money was of course necessary to all his work and it was the lack of money that prevented him from bringing many of his ideas to fruition. Tesla could have been the world’s first billionaire had he not sacrificed his fortune for the good of his company’s success and the furthering of his technology throughout the world. Rather, he sought greater things than money, and only used money as a means to pursuing greater goods.

Tesla pursued his ideas and interests tirelessly despite being criticized or forgotten. After resigning from Edison’s company, Tesla conceived of today’s power distribution system while he was digging ditches in New York. Before working for Westinghouse, Tesla tried to start his own company, but his investors would not fund research in his idea of an alternating current system. So instead of giving in, Tesla went back to digging ditches. In his later years, Tesla was forgotten and deemed a mad scientist. He continued his research despite this. He did not work solely for the recognition of others. Instead he worked with resolve for something greater. As the Gospel of Mark says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life.”

Tesla wanted men to live better lives through the use of his technology. Tesla’s goal in the long distance distribution of his electricity and the wireless transmission of energy was to bring men closer together in friendly international relations. Even the goal of his Death Ray was to make a weapon so potent that wars would be put to an end. While these goals may sound cliché, they were what drove Tesla to take part in the creation of the modern world. Tesla showed us that a genuine pursuit of one’s interests for that sake of interest itself and for the sake of the betterment of mankind will lead to great things. He also showed that one should be ready to sacrifice things such as financial success and fame in order to achieve one’s goals. As we go off to start our independent lives we should ask ourselves two things. First, what truly interests us? And second, why pursue that interest? The answer to these questions should provide us with the motivation to pursue our interests with resolve. Tesla has showed us that pursuing one’s interest for a great good will lead one to complete a meaningful life. He found his answer in the pursuit of happiness for the betterment of mankind. The question is, where will we find ours?

May God be with us as we enter upon our life long pursuit.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, August 24, 2009

We’ve done a lot of thinking here at the PowerBlog on the future of journalism in a digital age. A recent piece in Forbes by Leo Gomez brings into focus (ahem) the question of digital innovation and it’s influence on photojournalism.

In his August 24 “Digital Tools” column, Gomez writes that “cameras are becoming what computers already are: cheap, ubiquitous, powerful and utterly transformational. There are now a billion digital cameras, counting the ones in mobile phones. They are chronicling everything about life on Earth, from birthday parties in Topeka to street protests in Tehran. Many more are on the way.”

With this explosion of video and still pictures, what role will professional photojournalism play? Both written and photojournalism faces the current challenge of a deluge of community and consumer-generated information (word blogs, video blogs, photo-sharing sites, et al.). As the technological developments have tracked with computers, so will the editorial and production side of photojournalism track with the developments in wordsmithing.

And as with the larger world of professional journalism, there will be a corresponding increase in the need for gatekeepers and editorial review to screen through the mass to find and polish the gems. And with regard to the influence of culture, given the increasingly non-verbal (i.e. illiterate) nature of today’s digital consumer, photojournalism might just be a fulcrum of cultural and social formation in the Internet age.

The same issue of Forbes includes a collection of seven profiles of the leaders in Internet video innovation. What’s true for photojournalism is also true for other forms of visual communication, including theatrical and documentary film productions. And so we need Story in the visual as well as the written arts.

Buzz Aldrin walks on moonToday marks the 40th Anniversary of the one of the greatest feats of human exploration, courage and innovation: man’s setting foot on the surface of the moon.

Responding heroically to the challenges of the “Space Race” (while its arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union, was clearly in the lead), the United States stood proud to represent the free and enterprising West. To put the challenges of victory into perspective, America was running adrift amid pretty rough waters at the time: two great wars in Asia had taken their tolls on the government’s treasury; cities and communities were torn by civil riots; national inflation was escalating at a record pace; and an irreversible paradigm shift was occurring in its traditional moral values. Sound painstakingly familiar?

Yet, America loved (and still loves) challenges and risks. It excels (and still wants to excel) under pressure. It was the land forged by underdogs, the under-rated, the under-financed, while driven by an ever-zealous entrepreneurial optimism and creativity when facing life’s “insuperable” obstacles.

And all these great values were apparently at stake, as the United States stood boldly united to beat the Russians in a manned-mission to the moon. Americans knew full well that the tides of history would be turned against them had the Hammer and Sickle been raised before the Stars and Stripes on that powdery lunar desert. The American “brand” of innovation and entrepreneurship its citizens had worked so hard to achieve would have received a disgraceful black-eye. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 10, 2008

When John concluded his gospel, he supposed that if all of Jesus’ doings were written down, “that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

The last two millennia have seen quite a bit of change, to be sure. Christians have done their best to make John’s comment come true, filling the world with writings on the life of Jesus, the biblical revelation, and the implications of the gospel for every aspect of all walks of life.

But at the dawn of the third millennium, we are seeing an increasing shift to digital media (sometimes, but not always to the detriment of analog media like books), it’s conceivable that a single hard drive might have room for all the books that have ever been written (and not just the religious, theological, and biblical ones).

And as there has always been demand for the Bible (said to be the best-selling book of all time), so too there is demand for new and innovative ways to apply the power of computers to religious and theological texts. Currently these demands are being met by the de facto cooperation between non-profit and for-profit enterprises.

Take, for instance, the developing relationship between the non-profit Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the for-profit Logos Bible Software.

In addition to advertising on CCEL’s website and in their electronic newsletter, Ken Verhulst, a spokesman for CCEL, says that there’s an agreement for Logos software to be sold by CCEL. The non-profit then receives a share of the sale price. “These funds are used to keep CCEL going,” he says.

Phil Gons, who works in Logos’ press relations department, says that his company has “a good relationship with CCEL” and that they are in talks “about ways we can work together.”

Gons also points to BibleTech, a newly-inaugurated conference held in January hosted by Logos that had a large turnout of open source and non-profit folks. The conference website lists participants like OpenText.org, “a web-based initiative to provide an annotated corpus of Greek texts and tools for their analysis,” and the CrossWire Bible Society, “an organization with the purpose to sponsor and provide a place for engineers and others to come and collaborate on free, open-source projects aimed at furthering the Kingdom of our God.”

That isn’t to say that non-profits don’t feel some market pressures, too. Verhulst says that there is a strong push to move CCEL towards self-sufficiency. The donor who keeps CCEL going “is encouraging us to strive towards ‘independence’ — not profit status, just the ability to sustain ourselves.”

All this is a new twist on an old story in theological and biblical publishing. There have always been critics of major publishers like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Tyndale, which are for-profit enterprises. Crossway, by contrast, is a non-profit venture that focuses on publishing around the English Standard Version.

The reality of the situation in the digital world is that open source and for-profit ventures are just as much partners as they are competitors. Given its practical focus, for example, CCEL generally limits itself to “public domain” works, while companies like Logos can use tools like their pre-publishing and community pricing systems to gauge market demand and bring major projects like Luther’s Works and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to digital publishing.

As in other sectors, enterprise is the driver of innovation, without which other non-profit ventures might not be possible. Even “public domain” works were once published for sale. It isn’t the case, either in traditional or digital publishing, that the choice is simply between for-profit or non-profit efforts. Instead, we live with the all-or-nothing complementary reality of both for-profit and non-profit publishing. And we are better off for it.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I was reading about Bill Gates’ speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council last week, which received a lot of media coverage (PDF transcript here).

In the speech about software innovation, Gates “speculated that some of the most important advances will come in the ways people interact with computers: speech-recognition technology, tablets that will recognize handwriting and touch-screen surfaces that will integrate a wide variety of information.”

“I don’t see anything that will stop the rapid advance,” Gates said. I appreciate the insight that a corporate mogul and business insider like Gates provides.

The predictions did make me think about this observation from Alasdair MacIntyre, however, which serves to temper some of the more audacious claims often made about technological progress.

MacIntyre writes,

Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radically new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent.

To his credit, much of what Gates is describing doesn’t meet these criteria. They are not “radically new” concepts, but the integrative alteration of already existing concepts (some might argue that this has essentially been the modus operandi for Microsoft’s success: not innovation per se, but rather innovative popularization of integration).

That said, we need to be cautious about the precision of our claims about future innovation. Statistically we can predict that radical innovations are quite likely to happen, but by definition we can’t know what they will be.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 4, 2007

From today’s WaPo:

About 25 percent of the technology and engineering companies launched in the past decade had at least one foreign-born founder, according to a study released yesterday that throws new information into the debate over foreign workers who arrive in the United States on specialty visas.

Scott McNealy, chairman and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, “is among the advocates for an expanded visa program, writing editorials, calling members of Congress and supporting political action committees.”

He asks a pretty good question, I think: “Why would you have any arbitrary number on smart people?”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 11, 2006

In a recent issue of Business 2.0 magazine, we are told that X Prize founder Peter Diamandis is expanding his X Prize Foundation to address new areas of innovation. The first Ansari X Prize included a $10 million purse for the first private spaceflight. The X Prize Foundation website notes that the group is “actively researching the feasibility of new prizes in space, energy, genomics, education, nanotechnology, and prizes in the social arena,” but Business 2.0 gives us some more particulars on three new X Prizes:

  • First, the X Prize Cup, awarded for the most innovative amateur rockets. Diamandis’ interest in rockets extends to his involvement with the advent of the newly-formed Rocket Racing League. Information about additional X Prizes appears in a box inset within this story, “Move over, Nascar — here comes rocket racing.”

  • Another X Prize of $10 million will be awarded for the invention of a “sequencer that maps an individual’s DNA in a matter of hours for less than $10,000.”
  • And finally, there is the Automotive X Prize, which will include a cash award in excess of $10 million, for the creation of a “mass-market car that ‘significantly exceeds’ 100 mpg.”

Also, be sure to check out the details of the X Prize Foundation’s Lunar Lander Challenge.