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Posts Tagged ‘innovation

“Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start”*…

As we noted in an earlier post, Robert C. Baker– “the George Washington Carver of chicken,” a member of the American Poultry Hall of Fame– is best-remembered for his invention of the chicken nugget. But on his home turf, he’s remembered for something else entirely…

In 1950, Robert C. Baker, a professor at Cornell University, published Cornell Cooperative Extension Information Bulletin 862, which changed summer in upstate New York forever. Entitled “Barbecued Chicken and Other Meats,” the bulletin describes a simple vinegar-based sauce that can be used to turn broilers—chickens raised for their meat rather than their eggs—into juicy, delicious barbecue heaven.

At the time, this was an innovation. When Americans ate meat, they preferred beef and pork, and the poultry industry was just beginning to increase production. As an agricultural extension specialist, part of Baker’s job was to convince Americans to eat chicken. Before he passed away in 2006, he invented chicken bologna, chicken hot dogs, chicken salami, and, most famously, a prototype chicken nugget.

Cornell Chicken Barbecue Sauce, though, was his first great triumph, and what he is best known for in upstate New York. All summer, every summer, Cornell Barbecue Chicken features at backyard parties and family get-togethers. Younger generations of Finger Lake residents don’t even recognize this as a regional specialty so much as the default way to cook chicken outdoors. “Every fund-raising event, every fire department cookout, every little league barbecue, must serve this recipe or nobody would come,” writes barbecue expert Meathead Goldwyn

The way Baker told the story, he first came up with the idea of the chicken barbecue when he worked at Penn State and the governor came to visit. When he went to Cornell a short while later, he started putting on barbecues regularly, enlisting his family and the young men who worked with him at Cornell as basters and turners.

“My father was quite a promoter,” says Dale Baker, the eldest of Baker’s six children. “He would have me and others go out in high school and cook for groups.” Roy Curtiss, who worked with Baker as a Cornell undergraduate, remembers killing and butchering chickens in the basement of Rice Hall, on campus, freezing them, and using them all summer long to create barbecues for 50 to 100 people.

“We’d charge them a buck and half, for a roll, an ear of corn, and half a chicken,” Curtiss says. All summer, they set up for church groups and farm bureaus, toting collapsible grates in the back of a pickup truck, all around the Ithaca area. “It was very popular,” he says. “People would hear about this, and think it was a great alternative to hamburgers and hot dogs.”…

Perhaps the most ambitious use of the sauce, though, has been at Baker’s Chicken Coop, the barbecue stand Baker started in the 1950s at the New York State Fair. (His daughter still operates it today.) “We would cook, when I was younger, 22, 23,000 half-chickens in 10 or 11 days. It was a pretty big thing,” says Dale Baker. When he finished college, he and his dad estimated how many half-chickens they had cooked up until that point in time. It was more than a million…

The recipe (* today, many use less salt)

The true legacy of the Cornell professor who invented the chicken nugget: “Why All of Upstate New York Grew Up Eating the Same Barbecue Chicken.”

* Anthony Bourdain

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As we baste, we might recall that on this date in 1982 Saturday Night Live viewers decided the fate of Larry the Lobster. In an early example of interactive television, Eddie Murphy held Larry, a live lobster, aloft and declared that the show’s audience would determine whether he lived or died. He read two “900” phone numbers, one for those who wanted to spare Larry, and another for those who wanted to see him cooked. Calls cost $0.50 each.  (Murphy tended to read the number to save Larry very quickly, as opposed to his giving the number to cook Larry very slowly and clearly.)

Updates on the voting were given by other cast members over the course of the episode, and in the span of 30 minutes, viewers made nearly 500,000 calls, sending phone traffic soaring– indeed, the heavy phone use stood as a record or near-record for many years.

Larry was spared by about 12,000 votes; 239,096 callers voted to save him and 227,452 voted for him to be boiled. (Though on the following week’s show, a lobster– reputedly Larry– was eaten on-air.)

To this day the sketch is cited in discussions of classic comedy routines, cruelty to animals, and in rosters of famous animals.

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“If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today.”*…

From the Wright Brothers’ patent filings (source)

… It’s illuminating to point out that all three transformative technologies of the twentieth century – aviation, the automobile, and the digital computer – started off in patent battles and required a voluntary suspension of hostilities (a collective decision to ignore patents) before the technology could truly take hold.

The Wright brothers won every patent case they fought, and it did them absolutely no good. The prospect of a fortune wasn’t what motivated them to build an airplane, but ironically enough they could have made a fortune had they just passed on the litigation. In 1905, the Wrights were five years ahead of any potential competitor, and posessed a priceless body of practical knowledge. Their trade secrets and accumulated experience alone would have made them the leaders in the field, especially if they had teamed up with Curtiss. Instead, they got to watch heavily government-subsidized programs in Europe take the technical lead in airplane design as American aviation stagnated.

If you are someone who believes that the Internet and computer software are a transformative technology on a par with aviation, you may find it interesting to note that there is now a patent cease-fire in effect in the world of software, the occasional high-profile infringement case notwithstanding. The reason for the cease-fire is simple: if companies like IBM, Xerox, and Sun were to begin fully enforcing their patent portfolios, it would mean an apocalypse of litigation for all software developers. Everyone understands that the health and growth of the Internet are contingent on ignoring the patent system as much as possible.

At the same time, more patents are being granted than ever before, for broader claims, and with an almost complete disregard for prior art. Entire companies – and not just legal firms – are basing business models on extracting money from the patent system without actually creating any products. And the boundaries of patent law are expanding. For the first time in history, it’s possible to patent pure mathematical ideas (in the form of software patents), or even biological entities. The SARS virus was patented shortly after being isolated for the first time.

But if the patent system doesn’t even work for the archetypal example – two inventors, working alone, who singlehandedly invent a major new technology – why do we keep it at all? Who really benefits, and who pays?…

Learning from (the unhappy experiences of) the Wright Brothers– Maciej Cegłowski explains why the U.S. patent system is counter-productive: “100 Years of Turbulence.” Eminently worthy of reading in full.

See also, Bruce Perens: “Software Patents vs. Free Software.”

* Bill Gates, Challenges and Strategy Memo, Microsoft, May 16, 1991

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As we apply our intellects to intellectual property, we might recall that it was on this date in 1976 that Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne signed a partnership agreement that established the company that would become Apple Computer, Inc.– a company all about the IP– on January 3, 1977.

Wayne left the partnership eleven days later, relinquishing his ten percent share for $2,300.

Apple in Steve Job’s parents’ home on Crist Drive in Los Altos, California. Although it is widely believed that the company was founded in the house’s garage, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak called it “a bit of a myth”. Jobs and Wozniak did, however, move some operations to the garage when the bedroom became too crowded.

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“Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.”*…

This story starts with a Swedish business school graduate studying in the U.S. in the early 1920s and seeing something unfamiliar to him: A self-serve grocery store.

We take advantage of it these days, but there was a time when grocery stores required employees to directly package goods for consumers. In the U.S., goods were sold “over the counter” before the early 1920s, when a truly innovative concept, self-service shopping, came about thanks to a grocery store that’s still around today, Piggly Wiggly [see here]. As noted in a trade publication of the era, Piggly Wiggly was incredibly profitable right off the bat…

But while the concept quickly gained popularity with consumers in the U.S., it had yet to cross American borders in 1920 or so. Which is where Ruben Rausing comes into play. Rausing, then a graduate student at Columbia University who had spent time working in the printing industry, saw a self-service grocery store, and it made him realize something: packaging was about to become very important…

After Rausing finished his education and returned to Sweden, he spent nearly a decade at the printing company Sveriges Litografiska Tryckerier (SLT) before leveraging his contacts and knowledge to create a packaging company, Åkerlund & Rausing, with business partner Erik Åkerlund.

Starting with the packaging of dry goods such as sugar and salt, the company began to focus on liquids around the time of World War II, with paperboard the primary tool.

Prior to the refrigerator getting a global footprint, milk was notoriously difficult to store safely. To give you an idea, when Rausing first came to the U.S., the way that milk was often delivered in his native Sweden involved the use of metal containers that were owned by consumers who cleaned the containers themselves, then went to local stores to get them refilled. This was not a perfect system, and often led the milk to spoil. (Refrigeration was not really common even in developed countries until the 1930s or even the 1940s.)

Meanwhile, the dairy industry in the U.S. had landed on reusable glass bottles that manufacturers cleaned themselves, a more sanitary process than consumer-cleaned metal jugs, but one that relied on a delivery method that had allowed dairies to get monopolies over local markets. Unfortunately for them, paperboard had simply proven too efficient a delivery mechanism to ignore.

“Dairies preferred bottles because they effectively created a monopoly where they established their collection system,” writer Gordon L. Robertson wrote for Food Technology magazine in 2002. “Cartons extended the range beyond the 20–30 miles over which a dairy could operate effectively with bottles; enterprising companies saw the potential and moved to cartons.”

Much as with every other major packaging trend that happened in the first half of the 20th century, Europe got there second. But in the process, they may have built the most innovative model for packaging.

Rausing’s contribution was called the Tetra-Pak, and the corporate line was that he was inspired to have the idea after he saw his wife making sausages. While he may have had the spark of inspiration, it was another inventor, Åkerlund & Rausing employee Erik Wallenberg, who followed the idea through. Essentially, the packaging style was stored with the help of geometry. With the help of a couple of quick turns, the container could close with only three seals, minimizing costs of manufacturing with only a couple of twists. The only issue was that the final shape was non-standard—it was a tetrahedron, essentially a four-sided triangle.

This design nonetheless had multiple advantages, including (with the right packaging materials) the ability to store dairy in a sanitary way over longer periods. With the right packing materials, milk didn’t even need to be chilled in a Tetra-Pak. 

Soon, Rausing created an Åkerlund & Rausing subsidiary that was named for the innovative packaging method, Tetra-Pak. And that company, today, is the largest packaging company in the world—and it did so without the benefit of its original form of packaging winning over the U.S. market.

In 1961, the company produced its first aseptic packaging, using a mixture of packaging (plastic, paper, and metal), manufacturing process (a modified form of the tubular packaging that the Tetra-Pak used), and chemical treatment (hydrogen peroxide, to be specific) to allow for a shelf-stable form of packaging that did not need refrigeration and could extend the shelf life of products without the use of preservatives. This was an important innovation whose benefits linger today.

The second innovation came in the form of design, with the Tetra Brik taking many of the lessons learned from the original Tetra-Pak design and applying them to a more rectangular package, allowing for more standardized shipping.

The combination of sanitized packaging and a normalized design seemed like a surefire starting point for American success. But there was a problem—Americans were already used to their cartons that required refrigeration, and so were the companies that sold the milk.

“The major drawback to adoption by American companies is the tremendous cost of changing over from present systems of pasteurization and packaging,” one 1968 article explained of the Tetra Brik. “Since virtually every American family has a refrigerator, the need is not so great as in other areas.”

However, there was still a big world out there for the Tetra Brik, and its shelf-stable nature meant that areas where refrigeration wasn’t quite as quick to appear could get the advantages of having milk distributed in shelf-stable ways.

Americans would find their way to this packaging style through another path: the juice box…

The estimable Ernie Smith (@ShortFormErnie) with the fascinating story of a lunch box staple, the juice box: “Tangential Juice Innovation.”

* Wallace Stevens

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As we poke in the straw, we might send shelf-stable birthday greetings to Reuben’s son, Hans Anders Rausing; he was born on this date in 1926. After many years in the family business, he sold his share of Tetra-Pak to his brother, Gad, moved to U.K., and became a philantropist. His daughter Lisbet, a historian of science at Kings College, London, co-founded (with her husband, UCLA history professor Peter Baldwin) one the the U.K.’s largest and most foresightful foundations, Arcadia.

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“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all”*…

In the early two-thousands, Merlin Mann, a Web designer and avowed Macintosh enthusiast, was working as a freelance project manager for software companies. He had held similar roles for years, so he knew the ins and outs of the job; he was surprised, therefore, to find that he was overwhelmed—not by the intellectual aspects of his work but by the many small administrative tasks, such as scheduling conference calls, that bubbled up from a turbulent stream of e-mail messages. “I was in this batting cage, deluged with information,” he told me recently. “I went to college. I was smart. Why was I having such a hard time?”

Mann wasn’t alone in his frustration. In the nineteen-nineties, the spread of e-mail had transformed knowledge work. With nearly all friction removed from professional communication, anyone could bother anyone else at any time. Many e-mails brought obligations: to answer a question, look into a lead, arrange a meeting, or provide feedback. Work lives that had once been sequential—two or three blocks of work, broken up by meetings and phone calls—became frantic, improvisational, and impossibly overloaded. “E-mail is a ball of uncertainty that represents anxiety,” Mann said, reflecting on this period.

In 2003, he came across a book that seemed to address his frustrations. It was titled “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” and, for Mann, it changed everything. The time-management system it described, called G.T.D., had been developed by David Allen, a consultant turned entrepreneur who lived in the crunchy mountain town of Ojai, California. Allen combined ideas from Zen Buddhism with the strict organizational techniques he’d honed while advising corporate clients.

To someone with Mann’s engineering sensibility, the precision of G.T.D. was appealing, and the method itself seemed ripe for optimization. In September, 2004, Mann started a blog called 43 Folders—a reference to an organizational hack, the “tickler file,” described in Allen’s book. In an introductory post, Mann wrote, “Believe me, if you keep finding that the water of your life has somehow run onto the floor, GTD may be just the drinking glass you need to get things back together.” He published nine posts about G.T.D. during the blog’s first month. The discussion was often highly technical: in one post, he proposed the creation of a unified XML format for G.T.D. data, which would allow different apps to display the same tasks in multiple formats, including “graphical map, outline, RDF, structured text.” He told me that the writer Cory Doctorow linked to an early 43 Folders post on Doctorow’s popular nerd-culture site, Boing Boing. Traffic surged. Mann soon announced that, in just thirty days, 43 Folders had received over a hundred and fifty thousand unique visitors. (“That’s just nuts,” he wrote.) The site became so popular that Mann quit his job to work on it full time. As his influence grew, he popularized a new term for the genre that he was helping to create: “productivity pr0n,” an adaptation of the “leet speak,” or geek lingo, word for pornography. The hunger for this pr0n, he noticed, was insatiable. People were desperate to tinker with their productivity systems.

What Mann and his fellow-enthusiasts were doing felt perfectly natural: they were trying to be more productive in a knowledge-work environment that seemed increasingly frenetic and harder to control. What they didn’t realize was that they were reacting to a profound shift in the workplace that had gone largely unnoticed.

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects…

From Georgetown professor Cal Newport (@CalNewport2), a history of personal productivity– how it transformed work… and at the same time, utterly failed to: “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.”

* Peter Drucker

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As we tick our to-do lists, we might recall that it was on this date in 1810 that Baltimore jeweler Peregrine Williamson was issued the first patent for a metal writing pen.  (His patent, #1168, is among the “X Patents,” those lost in the Patent Office fire of 1836.)

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“In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists”*…

In the 21st century, innovation has become the heart and soul of economic policy. Developed and developing nations alike are in the race to leave industrialization behind, adapting instead to technology-focused, entrepreneurial societies.

Customized cancer treatment, faux meat products, and the smart home technologies are frequently positioned as ‘the next big thing’. But which countries are consistently innovating the most?…

The seventh annual Bloomberg Innovation Index highlights the 10 most innovative economies, and the seven metrics used to rank 2019’s top 60 contenders, e.g.:

Review it in full at “The World’s 10 Most Innovative Economies.” (But do note that the metrics are largely scaled to the size of the countries and their economies: e.g., China, which ranks 16th on that mainly proportionate basis, surely ranks higher when one considers the absolute scale/impact of innovation there.)

* Eric Hoffer

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As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that Al Gross went public with his invention of the walkie talkie.  Gross had developed it as a top secret project during World War II; he went on to develop the circuitry that opened the way to personal pocket paging systems, CB radio, and patented precursors of the cell phone and the cordless phone.  Sadly for him, his patents expired before they became commercially viable.  ”Otherwise,” Gross said, after winning the M.I.T. lifetime achievement award, ”I’d be as rich as Bill Gates.”

200px-ALGROS2

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While Gross himself is almost unknown to the general public, he did achieve one-step-removed notoriety in 1948 when he “gifted” his friend Chester Gould the concept of miniaturized radio transceivers, which Gross had just patented.  Gould put it to use as the two-way wrist radio in his comic strip Dick Tracy.

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