After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Kevin Costner’s Moxie in the Gulf

Posted on May 26, 2010
Filed Under Business, Technology | Leave a Comment

Another blog got to this first, but if you’re Kevin Costner with a good idea, we have to agree, Field of Dreams-like, “He built it, so let him come.”

In this instance, we’re referring to Costner’s centrifugal oil separation machines, which are being checked out by BP in the Gulf of Mexico. They’ve been developed by Costner’s company, with $24 million of his own money and the wonderfully appropriate name of  Ocean Therapy Solutions.

A great technical tale appears to be unfolding here, powered by a visionary sense of environmental utility that was triggered by the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Kostner was ticked off about that, big time. So, as The New York Times’ Green blog reports, he bought the emerging centrifugal technology from the government and invested heavily in getting it ready for another big spill.

Perhaps providentially for Costner, along came BP’s gulf spill. The oil giant has approved six of Ocean Therapy’s 32 machines for testing. They’re supposed to, says The New York Times, “suck oil from water, separate the oil, store it in a tanker and send the water, 99.9 percent purified, back into the gulf.”

Costner is confident they’ll do just that. “I’m very happy the light of day has come to this,” he said at a news conference in New Orleans, explaining he was “very sad” about the spill “but this is why it’s developed (the centrifugal technology).”  Costner’s barrel-like machines will be mounted on barges and trundled out to spin oil from water. Details of any contractual relationship between BP and Costner, should the machines indeed work, have not be disclosed, The Los Angeles Times reports.

This is the way it is with technology – an idea and the vision to extend it, the ingenuity to perfect it, and the commitment of resources, personal or borrowed, to prove it out. All those images of “Waterworld,” “Field of Dreams” and other Costner films that flickered on so many movie screens around the world may now be contributing to a happier reality than would have been likely without Costner’s moxie, providing he’s proven out,  which many people along the gulf are hoping for.

Right on, Kevin! – Doug Bedell

Tesla and Toyota Acting Smartly Together

Posted on May 20, 2010
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Here’s an exciting story of two carmakers collaborating for mutual advantage and serving U.S. energy goals in the bargain. Toyota and Tesla Motors are parterning to reopen the former General Motors/Toyota NUMMI plant at Fremont, CA, to build electric cars there – and potentially recall thousands of laid-off workers.

Tesla Motors, advises Wikipedia, “is a Silicon Valley-based company that engages in the design, manufacture, and sale of electric vehicles (EVs) and electric vehicle power train components. It is currently the only automaker building and selling highway-capable EVs in serial production (as opposed to prototype or evaluation fleet production) in North America or Europe.” It produces at least 15, mostly custom-ordered cars a week.

Here’s the essence of the Tesla-Toyota deal, as reported on the GreenBeat blog:

“1. The joint development  of a brand new,sub- $30,000 electric car, that will contain Tesla’s unique powertrain design, with everything else built by Toyota;
“2. The purchase of the NUMMI plant, where Tesla plans to manufacture both its Model S sedan due out in 2012, a new $30,000 Tesla-designed vehicle, and the more affordable jointly designed “third-generation” vehicle;
“3. A $50 million investment from Toyota into Tesla when the company goes public, probably later this year.”

Another electric car initiative in the U.S. will enliven the marketing scene that’s been developing around the forthcoming Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. 4,700 people worked at the NUMMI plant and it’s possible that when Tesla’s Toyota-assisted sub-$30,000 car rolls out even more than that number will be employed.

This is all great news involving intelligent energy policy and enlightened management thinking as well. A win-win partnership very much in the public interest. – Doug Bedell

*  *  *

This is a significant development. I lived only about 10 miles away from that plant and it was a big employer when I was young. I recall touring the plant with my Boy Scout troop.

I understand Tesla’s existing models sell from about $50,000 to $100,000, so a sub-$30,000 vehicle is a big step forward. I’ve read reviews of their existing models and they have amazing acceleration.

This is a nice example of a Silicon Valley startup thinking outside the box and coming up with a way to ramp up production quickly. – Dennis Owen

Candidates for Summer Reading

Posted on May 16, 2010
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We’re not great fans of lists (though we sometimes get curious about what made a given list and what didn’t). But here’s one that anticipates a prime seasonal activity: Summer reading.

Two gents who write for the blog, Iain Thompson and Shaun Nichols, have compiled a list of the “Top 10 science fiction writers.”  “We’re going to get hammered on this one,” they note right off. And  they’re  getting lots of comments, some critical of their choices and others supportive.

In the interest of providing summer reading possibilities, some of which you may have forgotten about, here’s their 10 science fiction icons. They include explanations of their choices, which gives the list more heft then on than one simply plucked from the blue:

1. Arthur C. Clarke – “The most popular question asked by SF authors is ‘What makes us human?’, a query that Clarke regularly made with his most popular works,” including, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2. Jules Verne – “Verne’s writings predicted a host of inventions, including everything from air conditioning to helicopters….Some of his writing was also prescient. One story involved three astronauts launched from southern Florida in a capsule that splashes back to Earth.”

3. Douglas Adams – “Adams thrived because he mixed a great sense of humour into his work. Starting as a television writer and making a brief appearance on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Adams was later employed to write a radio series for the BBC. What followed was one of the most beloved works of SF in the past half centure…The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

4. Isaac Asimov – “Asimov wrote some great SF to be sure. The Robot stories were light years ahead of their time in terms of understanding the thinking behind artificial intelligence (AI) programming and the consequences of getting it wrong.”

5. Harlan Ellison – “His dark, edgy works helped pave the way for contemporary SF styles such as cyberpunk, and helped the genre mature and adapt to changing attitudes.”

6. Robert Heinlein – “In addition to excellent stories, Heinlein contributed the idea that you can make a poignant social and political commentary while still telling a great story.”

7. Neal Stephenson – “While Stephenson’s earlier work, particularly Zodiac, is more scientific than technical he hit his SF form with Snow Crash and followed through in 1995 with Diamond Age, a brilliant examination of nanotechnology and the way society, commerce and computing systems will be changed by new technology.”

8. William Gibson – “Barely a year after IBM introduced its first PC, Gibson described the future of online communications and the story potential of artificial intelligence in such an environment. It was a mental leap that left the rest of the SF world scrambling to catch up. Gibson’s style and subject unleashed a whole new form of SF onto the market in the form of ‘cyberpunk’.”

9. H. G. Wells – “Works such as The Time MachineThe Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, which dealt with the fields of physics, chemistry and biology respectively, are still watched and reworked today, with varying degrees of success.”

10.  Iain M. Banks – “Most of his SF output takes place in the Culture universe, a polyglot society of roughly humanoid ancestry tens of thousands of years ahead of today. It’s a society where computer and human minds meld, where technology comes close to magic and yet the same old human (and alien) concerns come to the fore.”

And two Honorable Mentions: Gene Roddenberry (author of the original Star Trek series) and Charles Stross (Glasshouse).

Be sure not to forget the sun tan lotion. – Doug Bedell

Information Isn’t Knowledge, and We’re Drowning In It

Posted on May 9, 2010
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Phil Murray argues in a meaty article in KM World that we’re paying too much attention to information, trying too hard to cope with its rising tides, and not enough to meaning. He’s got a point, a truly profound one, actually.

We’re preoccupied, for instance, with all the coverage of possible damage from the  BP oil spill, and not giving enough attention, at least not yet, to whether it’s smart to drill in 5,000 feet of water in the first place. We’ve had the information that it can be done, but is it wise to do it? What’s the current meaning of our energy situation, anyway? In what context are we looking at that?

“Meaning? Yes, ‘the thing one intends to convey especially by language,’ according to the Merriam Webster dictionary,” Murray writes. “…The connections among things. Causes and effects. In the context of work: the relevance or importance of those connections. The subject of logic, argument and epistemology. A pervasive, essential aspect of rational human activities that is accepted as critical to creation of value and economic progress, and yet an idea routinely dismissed as unusable, elusive and unmanageable at the same time…”  So keep piling up the information, without asking whether it’s really worth the risk of an explosive gas bubble surging up from the ocean floor.

Knowledge is information refined by a disciplined approach to reality exercised on a different plane than those of incoming flows or profit projections.

These sorts of things ought to be concerns for knowledge workers everywhere, Murray (whose article went to press a couple of months before the BP spill) rightly insists.

“The stunning reality is that we, as knowledge workers, often spend more than half our time doing work that has no formal description, no standards for best practices and no appropriate metrics. What’s more, that work is not formally or explicity connected to specific outcomes, whether they are services or products.”

So let’s try hard to get focused on relationships and meaning, along with information. That’s where the real value in knowledge work (I almost slipped and said “intellectual work” ) lies.

Murray’s lengthy piece is one to ponder and pass along, seriously. – Doug Bedell

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