d(IoT)/dt – Musings on The Internet of Things Thing

iotFestsmallThe other day I attended a gathering at MIT titled “Internet of Things Festival“. If I wrote that ten years ago you would probably wonder what I was talking about (unless of course you worked with or knew Kevin Ashton). In the past few months the phrase “Internet of Things” has gone from obscurity to ubiquity. The issue for me is that people are still trying to get their thoughts around what devices make up this IoT when they should be fleshing out what IoT could really mean. This festival was good in that it had presenters covering a wide variety of technologies underpinning the Internet of Things as well as what futures the Internet of Things might bring about. The list presented in the introduction  as “What IoT is” had line items that included products that could fall in this category, technology that enables IoT, and concepts that are already becoming commonplace like cellphone control of appliances. What Internet of Things should be associated with is not the things themselves but what we will be able to do once we have tracked how we use these things over time. A user experience can be guided and improved by the prior interactions and normal wear and tear on everything we use. It is this combination of the data acquired over time and how it is made actionable that will make the Internet of Things a real thing. Without this we are just connecting lightbulbs so we don’t have to get off the couch to turn them on and off and we’ll never get past the mental model of the remote control. Google did not buy Nest for billions simply to have a connected thermostat. Nest got this idea of collecting data over time and making it actionable. If we want to really make an Internet of Things that is world-changing we need to develop products that use the data from these devices and from that data create a net increase in the quality of our lives.

mentor…advisor…update

I’ve updated my portfolio website for the first time in a while. Since the spring I have been involved in mentoring and advising many different companies and individuals. Through my non-stop networking I’ve managed to meet people with innovative ideas that range from a non-profit intergenerational golf program to a wearable baby monitor device. There are many more as well that are either in stealth mode or simply to early to report on (i.e. they haven’t finished pivoting yet!). These innovators are from 14 to 40+, both genders, diverse socio-economic backgrounds…it has been very rewarding to hear these novel ideas come from so many great places. As I continue to search for the next great paying gig I hope to continue to stay engaged with all of these creative people and help in any way I can.

still working hard

I sure am glad I did that last post. After having full-time employment for all of five months I am once again the subject of another layoff and back  in a full-time position of finding employment and staying current. I’ll be using those things mentioned in my previous post as well as some new connections made along the way….and I forgot to mention one other way to stay very busy:

Volunteer Work

There are lots of great organizations in the greater Boston area to fill ones time with “good work”. Here are a couple worth checking out that tie into technology and/or engineering:

YouthCITIES

Engineers Without Borders

…and my favorite has been working as an advisor and mentor for a local youth group at First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington. We are travelling to Williamson West Virginia to help build some community gardens. You can follow that action here.

 

working hard

One year ago the Thanksgiving break occurred one week into my unemployment…this year it occurs one week before I start my new job. The past year has been a whirlwind of activity and for the most part I was just as busy as I would have been had I been gainfully employed. In the end I landed a job through a colleague with whom I had worked in the past. But along the way I did a ton of work towards both finding employment and staying current. From some of this I ended up with a small amount of financial income and got to collaborate with a good number of very innovative entrepreneurs but mostly this work simply helped me maintain my psychological health.

Here are a few things that really worked well for me. For better or for worse my interests lie in smaller companies or companies that have a very strong startup culture.

Hackathons
There are many if these in the Boston area and many more in other centers of technology and innovation around the world – the Bay area and Shenzhen both come to mind. Some are more welcoming to non-developers like me. These events are full of creative and energetic people with lots of good ideas and quite often just need some people with industry experience to bounce their ideas off.
AngelHack 
Health and Wellness Innovation 
Hacking Medicine
Music Hack Day

Meetups etc.
The Meetup website is great for pulling together like-minded people for networking. There are a good number dedicated to startups and idea sharing across a number of different industries. ..and there are other similar meetings that are not strictly “meet ups”.
Boston New Technology
Boston Music Technology
Boston Quantified Self
Co-Founders Wanted
Mass Innovation Nights

LinkedIn
I had the chance last spring to meet Reid Hoffman and I thanked him personally for his website. It was a significant piece that helped me continue to feel like there was still a place in the professional world for me. Connect with EVERYONE you know – family, friends, etc. I also made a point of posting there regularly interesting articles or blog posts I found relevant to the areas of my professional interest.

Twitter
Follow as many people and companies that are working in the areas that interest you. Cross-post the LinkedIn items from above to twitter. Re-tweet items of interest from people you follow. All of these etchings lead to people being aware of you and you learning more about what is going on.

Startup Competitions & Incubators
These vary in size and content but they are a great way to get to know the latest innovative ideas that people are trying to commercialize. Getting to know the people who run these is a great way to up the level of your interaction.
Mass Challenge
Sandbox
MIT 100k

Coworking Spaces
I found that occasionally going out and spending time in a cowering space was a great way to change my environment, meet people and again, feel like I was still part of the more that was going on. Many have public events or free times to visit.
CIC’s Venture Cafe
Workbar Boston

daydream believer

Recent readings have included number of books and journal articles. “The Innovator’s Dilemma“, is a seminal business treatise from Clay Christensen and “Ulysses” by James Joyce (admittedly I’m only a few chapters into that one) is one of the great 20th Century tomes. One might wonder why I would write about these two together in a post. I made a connection when I came across an article in an issue New Scientist I picked up at the Bio conference last week. In the article “Daydream Your Way to Creativity” Richard Fisher puts forth that concentration is overrated and that we need to let our minds wander to reach new heights of creativity. In “Ulysses” Joyce has an amazing ability to capture the wandering mind with his prose. The characters feel like they truly come alive as the dialog is seamlessly interspersed with the distractions and meanderings of their thoughts. I am amazed at Joyce’s ability to capture so closely the “feel” of how the mind wanders. Maybe this “feeling” is due to some of the same ideas in the Fisher’s article…it is just how our mind “wants to work”. It is what is truly needed by our cognitive processes in order to be able to properly cope with the flood of information that is continually coming at us. In Christensen’s work, rather than a human mind requiring the distractions to be able to cope, it is the product development entity of a corporation. In order for a corporation to flourish with continuous innovation, it must be able to be “distracted” by smaller disruptive technologies and markets, all while continuing to maintain it’s core business. I’ve tried to follow this type of development strategy ever since being introduced to the Third Generation R&D concept back at Arthur D. Little. Part of the recommendation there was to always make sure some amount of your budget is allocated to the long haul of developing “the next big thing”, even if it is not contributing to this year’s profits.

I’m not saying that focus is not important. Clearly distractions at a personal and corporate level are important, but like everything else in life, moderation would seem to be prudent. Otherwise we would always…wait, what was I just writing about?

spring at the media lab

I’ve had the honor to be a collaborator at the MIT Media Lab for the past couple months. In addition to being able to lurk in one of the coolest technology-centric places on the planet this also enabled me to attend the recent Spring 2012 Member Meeting. This had in previous years been referred to as “Sponsor Week” but under the leadership of Joi Ito it has been re-branded and more importantly opened up to interested outsiders via web streaming of all of the presentations and panel sessions. What the outsiders still didn’t get was the hands on demonstrations and discussions in each of the groups on the many and varied projects underway. My time spent there over the last few months has been focused on one specific project, the Ambient Furniture Project with David Rose as part of the Tangible Media Group. While coming and going I would always see lots of busy researchers but never got a chance to delve into what they were doing. This event enabled me to walk around and see some of these most amazing projects in action. While the “camera that can see around corners” is clearly mind-blowing, there are many additional interesting projects underway, some with some very relevant applications. Here are small sampling of my favorites…. The NETRA project in that same Camera Culture Group has developed a portable and inexpensive solution for estimating refractive errors in the human eye. This has exciting implications for getting quality eye care to underprivileged areas of the world. In the Affective Computing Group the Cardiocam project is a low-cost, non-contact measurement system for physiological signals such as heart rate and breathing rate using a basic webcam.  The High-Low Tech Group focuses on integrating high and low technological materials and processes further enabling the DIY culture that is flourishing around the internet these days. This is also the same group that is developing a build-it-yourself cellphone. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group is getting ready to release version 2.0 of their wonderful development tool, Scratch, which makes it easy for users of all ages to create their own interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations and share them online. There are many, many more deeper and wilder projects. The videos from the sessions (Tuesday & Wednesday)show highlights from many of these and are well worth watching. The Media Lab is an amazing space and seems to often be two or three steps ahead of the rest of the world in technology applications.

Side note – Joi Ito has also assembled an amazing advisory council among whose members include Peter Gabriel. I managed to talk with him on two different occasions and was amazed that even though I was struggling to not be a stuttering fanboy he took the time to ask me about the work I was doing and even apologized to me for not having been able to come by and see it in more detail. This fanboy was very happy.

Neal Stephenson at MIT

ImageI didn’t have it in me the other night to get in line for the microphone during the Q&A with science fiction author Neal Stephenson after his discussion at the Tech Review Science Fiction event the other night. If I had I would have asked him something to the effect of “How can you possibly take the time to sit here and talk with us and still manage to keep putting thousands of pages of densely written prose into each book?”. While Stephenson is certainly a page-prolific writer, he was a soft-spoken man of remarkably few words in the hour-and-a-half-long session. He did have a number of really good sound bites though… In response to the question of why all of his bad guys are men and his women always good he responded that maybe it was because he likes women. Also when talking to the rapid change in technology he quipped that we used to put up with Mac screens with 512×342 pixel displays and now we use that resolution for icons. He was remarkably humble when asked about his predictive capabilities. He says that he feels the whole “predicting thing is rigged” in that it is more of a shotgun approach where all of the incorrect predictions are forgotten. For instance he admitted that he did not see “the whole social thing coming” art all. He went on later to talk about how he feels that the the internet and upcoming alternate reality technologies will be nothing like what was represented in his seminal novel, Snow Crash. He went off on two tangents that were both interesting and fun, one about his passion for lost European sword-play battle art forms and the other for his new-found health improvement technique of doing everything while standing and/or walking. He now uses a specially designed treadmill when reading, writing and presenting. I’m not sure why he kept saying things about us not understanding that he would be tedious…the audience was full of fans of of his writing after all. You can read the MIT Tech Review piece on this event here.

On a side note, the blackboards in MIT 10-250 were arranged in a 3×3 grid, each with some cryptic equation, diagram  or series or glyphs all relevant to the worlds he has created or written about. At least one attendee seems to have cracked some of it.

TEDxVille

ImageWhat city in the United States is second only to New York in the number of artists per capita? Unless you live there you probably would not guess that it would be Somerville, Massachusetts. That statistic along with its proximity next door to Cambridge, one of the country’s centers of innovation and technology development, made Somerville a natural choice for a TEDx event. Historically Somerville encompassed many railway and industrial lands and was home to the birth of Marshmallow Fluff, the Bertucci’s restaurant chain and the chain that would become Stop & Shop. Today Somerville is a wonderful mix of students, artists, working class people and demographically it is a mix of long-time Irish-, Italian- and Portuguese- American residents and newer immigrant populations from Brazil, Haiti, El Salvador, India, South Korea and Nepal.

The day-long independent TED event brought more than 25 presenters and at least five different musical acts to the stage at the Arts at the Armory facility, a repurposed armory that now is home to a wide range of visual arts, dance, theater and musical performances. The presenters at TEDxSomerville ranged from the mayor of Somerville, Joseph A. Curtatone, to Joe Grafton, the Director of Somerville Local First, a key player in the advancement of the local movement in Somerville, to Brian Whitman, a co-founder of EchoNest, a music Discovery platform to Monica Poole, one of the organizers of Occupy Boston, to Alex Feldman, performer and comedian who specializes in non-verbal communication methods. The presentation of the concept of “Community Supported Manufacturing” from Chris Templeman was particularly interesting. He talked about a great concept for a community funded cooperative to make every day appliances be much nicer constructions.

Image

The music included contemplative folk from Jenee Halstead, old-school analog experimental synth from Keith Fullerton Whitman, and energetic sounds from both Grooversity and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. The “house band” that played between the sessions was the Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, who wrote an entirely new set of songs, each one themed with the material from the presenters. Sheer brilliance!

The truly eclectic nature of the presenters, the art installations and delicious food from local restaurants (the Chocolate from Taza and the Ethiopian food from Fasika was particularly delicious) made this event a perfect TED experience.og

unity 2012

My son asked me “so when the room is not full of hundreds of people playing board games, what do they use it for?”. That day, at the Woburn Hilton Hotel, it didn’t really matter. The main ballroom (as well as a few surrounding hallways) was packed with tables full of people playing games. In the Eastern Massachusetts area there is a loose coalition of gamers and game-groups known as Unity Games. Occasionally they hold full-day gaming events and this past Saturday was one of those. As most people who know me know, when I say boardgames, I don’t mean one of the hundreds of licensed Monopoly re-treads. I am referring to the growing market of games that have a bit more depth and are a lot more fun.

On Saturday we managed to play five different games. We started with a light game that could be played two-player, just to get into the swing of it. Dungeon Raiders was a fun light card game that captured the idea of a dungeon crawl pretty nicely. I think it needed to be played with 3-5 to get a bit more competition on the adventure cards. Next we played a 3-player game of Elder Sign, one of many recent H.P. Lovecraft-themed games from Fantasy Flight. This one is a cooperative game that uses a currently very popular mechanic of very Yahtzee-like sets of six-sided die rolls. Given the theme, multiple choices for characters to play and the random “big bad” that sets the tone for the game, I think it will have a lot of replay value – that is if you don’t mind lots of random die rolls. We did get one key rule wrong in this one that made our victory a little too easy. I look forward to playing this one again. Following this we played a four-player game of Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, an area control game that has lots of funny randomness which follows the theme of Terry’ Pratchett’s universe very nicely. I liked this one a lot but we ran into a player who seemed to suffer form analysis paralysis and took forever to take his turns. ImageThis of course was ironic in a game that had so much chaotic randomness. Next up, a familiar game of Race for the Galaxy. We taught a new player how to play the game so it was a little slow but fun as always….and my son won again, as always. Lastly we played a four-player game of Kingdom Builder, with my gaming friend Aaron (who of course won). I’ve played Donald X. Vaccarino‘s newest game twice now and I think I am starting to like it. It could suffer from the “multi-player solitaire” problem like his previous hit game Dominion does, but savvy players will start to add defensive moves where possible to try to block others from romping.

All in Unity was a great day. I also managed to sell off a number of game stat had been collecting dust in my basement  – and I only bought one new game. There is nothing like being in a ballroom packed full of people enjoying your favorite hobby.

brother

ImageDue to a serendipitous alignment of schedules and events I got to spend some time in the world of my brother Bob this week. Technically I got to spend some time in a place where my world and my brother Bob’s world intersect. Bob Franzosa is a professor of mathematics at the University of Maine in Orono. His specialty is in topology. This past week he was in Boston attending the largest annual mathematics meeting in the world held at the Hynes Convention  center. As I am currently “between  assignments” I had the time available to join him there. On Wednesday I attended the talk he gave on his lifetime passion “The Baseball Simulator” which was born as a dice game he created in the 1960’s and grew into an interesting tool to evaluate baseball using minimal statistics. Yesterday I sat in with him on a session dedicated to puzzles. While the relevance of the orthoganality of Magic Sudoku puzzles was a bit lost on me, the discussions on the construction and solving of puzzles was right up my alley….and the excitement over the potential proof of the 17-clue minimum for sudoku was great. Sometimes the dice of the universe give you a critical miss but it is ok because you find that the next roll yields something even better.

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