Brilliant (the evolution of artificial light)

Brilliant is the title of Jane Brox’ book on the history and evolution of artifical lighting, from the lamps that the cave painters at Lascaux used until today’s LED lighting.

“Brilliant” also is my summary of how Jane Brox accomplished her task.

She vividly describes each of the successive forms of lighting in the context of the societies of their times: the quality of the lamp light, the impact of the lamp on social life and the labor and cost to acquire the source for the lamp.

With great empathy, past civilizations and their use of artificial light are recalled.

I came to realize again that not just in ancient Rome, but also in renaissance Florence, the absence of streetlights meant that social life came to a halt after sunset.

The candle was the reference from around 20.000 BC to around 1800 AD, when gas lighting entered the stage. Less than a century later, electric lamps drove the electrification of the world: and once the infrastructure for distribution of electricity had been established, a flurry of electrical products followed.

And now, again one century later, the incandescant lamps we’ve all grown up with are faded out. The future is “cold light”, light that hardly generates heat as side effect, and not surprisingly is less dependent on the central electricity system its predecessor helped to establish.

That Jane Brox is able to tell the whole story in less than 400 pages means that she came well prepared: the storyline is very efficient, fact-based, and empathetic. I didn’t encounter one chapter that I felt like it could be skipped. On the contrary, especially the last chapters on environmental lighting and the new, smart, energy grid beg for more. That may be a nice subject for her next book.

Inspirational links

This page contains links to communities, organizations and individuals that offer inspiration and new ideas.

  • TED
    ideas worth spreading: video presentations and audio podcasts
  • The Long Now Foundation
    The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.(video presentations and audio podcasts)
  • Arts & Letters Daily
    Daily updated news, magazine articles, book reviews, … from all over the world.
  • Annals of Improbable Research
    Improbable research is research that makes people laugh and then think.
    They also organize the annual Ig® Nobel Prizes
  • The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
    This site is dedicated to promoting critical thinking, reason, and the public understanding of science. The weekly 80 minutes SGU podcast is very popular. The show features discussions of myths, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and the paranormal, from the point of view of scientific skepticism. The show also features discussions of recent scientific developments in layman’s terms.
  • Posted on October 20, 2012 in Ideas

    Wrong predictions

    Forecasts that come true are easily forgotten. The prophet who live to see his prediction falsified by reality wishes it would slide into oblivion. But precisely these statements are echoed hilariously because, with superior hindsight, we know better than the famous person who made the prediction.

    There are several interesting books about the phenomenon. Steven Schnaars’Megamistakes is one of the nicest. Several websites also carry nice collections of bad forecasts, e.g. this Wikipedia page.
    Here’s a collection of my favourite forecasts that are off the mark.

  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
    — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
    — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
    — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
    — Western Union internal memo, 1876.
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”
    — Attributed to Bill Gates, 1981, but believed to be an urban legend
  • “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
    — H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers

  • Collected forecasts

    The one thing that’s certain about forecasts is that they never come true. That doesn’t mean they’re useless. In mature markets, sales don’t change overnight and the error usually is marginal. In emerging markets, the hockey stick forecast can be too early and/or too high. By collecting curves of two or three years in a row their reliability will become clear.
    Market research companies love new markets with uncertain and dynamic outlooks, since that’s when they can sell and sell again their research reports to product marketeers who need to justify their new product business and investements with company management. In fact “in every new business area there’s a period in which the only people making money are market researchers and conference organizers”. (I call this Odijk’s rule)

    An alternative to buying a complete well-digestible report is to collect the snippets of data that appears in newspapers, press releases of market research firms etc. Analyze and compare data from various sources and moments in time, and most often a good picture of the market arises.
    This is a page of snippets (just started: I forecast that the data will double every week, for the next 4 weeks) . See if you can get the big picture.

    btw: For, often funny, forecasting mistakes see the post “wrong predictions”

    Mobile devices, software and Apps

    Tablet sales

    The next graph by IHS iSupply is looking back, so these numbers are an estimate of actual sales.

    And here’s a prediction from IDC:

    Chart: Worldwide Media Tablet Shipments Split by OS Historical and Forecast* 2010 – 2016 (Units in Millions)Description: Kindle’s latest performance threatens the iPad’s future.Tags: IDC, Tracker, Worldwide, Media Tablets, Media Tablet, OS, Android, iOS, Apple, iPad,Author: IDCcharts powered by iCharts


    Apparently, the ww sales of apps are 11.7 B$ in 2012. If that’s true, the number for 2015 number of $ 37 B makes sense. A further check shows that Gartner states 15.1 B$ for 2011, an even bigger market already.

    Wireless technologies

    Devices with embedded wireless local area networking (WLAN) capability

    Below figure comes from a study published in April 2011 by IHS iSuppli

    The growth in WLAN-enabled devices has been led by cell phones, with 512.8 million units projected to ship this year. Mobile PCs are a distant number two, with 230.1 million set to ship in 2011.
    Future WLAN-enabled device growth, however, will be spurred by newer categories of embedded devices. IHS iSuppli contends that automotive installations will lead the growth curve, with a compound annual growth rate of 98.2 per cent from 2010 to 2015. WLAN-enabled televisions will be close behind, with a growth rate of 77.8 per cent during the same period.

    More to follow ….

    Art, Innovation and S curves (on Anish Kapoor)

    An excellent documentary by Heinz Peter Schwerfel, “The world according to Anish Kapoor” lets the artist talk about his impressive and intriguing sculptures. Last night when the ‘Ars Longa’ art circle of Son en Breughel replayed the documentary, it struck me that it was as if you hear a silicon entrepeneur talk about his start-up’s business approach.
    “The studio is a place of experimentation. So what I want to do is fail, and fail often, fail fast.Not to take months or years to fail at something, that’s terrible. I want to go through ideas as quickly as possible and fail at them if they have to, but fail fast.”
    Compare that to what Steven Johnson has to say in “Where good ideas come from”:   “It’s no accident that one of the mantras of the Web startup world is fail faster. It’s not that mistakes are the goal— they’re still mistakes, after all, which is why you want to get through them quickly. But those mistakes are an inevitable step on the path to true innovation.”

    Or take Tina Seelig, Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program: “The secret sauce of Silicon Valley is failure. To develop more successes, entrepreneurs have got to take a risk. Venture capitalists fund risk and, by association, failure, in order to find the “hits” in the haystack. Failure is a perfectly acceptable part of the entrepreneurial process, provided that the smart entrepreneur learns from their errors along the way.”

    Kapoor’s risk taking can’t be denied. His Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago was estimated to cost $ 6M, but came out at $ 23M and it wasn’t publicly funded, that’s all individual & corporate donations. (of which $ 3M came from the opening’s gala diner)
    And …”Kapoor’s contract states that the constructed piece should be expected to survive for 1,000 years.
    The entrepreneurial artist is a collateral effect of the economic crisis, as new courses, institutes, and a European Commission report testify. \So if that’s what you aspire, take a look at the rest of this site and find that I have the required skills and experience to teach and assist you in becoming an entrepreneurial arist. And as for fees: I’m entrepreneurial too and ready to be paid in paintings or sculptures – that’s my business risk and incentive for success.
    Oh. by the way, let’s go back to Anish Kapoor for one moment. In 2006 he delivered another great sculpture, and which nicely fits one of my themes: Here’s Anish Kapoor’s S curve

    Smart TV Alliance

    A new Alliance for standardization of a Smart TV app platform

    As was to be expected, a consortium has now been established to standardize a platform for apps on TVs. Using the motto “build once, run everywhere”, the Smart TV Alliance aims to create a single cross industry platform making it easier for customers to share apps across multiple TVs and encourage more developers.

    The founders of the Alliance, which was announced on June 20 2012, are LG, Toshiba and TPVision (who took over Philips’ TV branch). Other members (contributors) are Mstar, a chip manufacturer, and Obigo, a mobile browser supplier


    The alliance already has a draft version 2 specification.that describes which parts of which existing standards are used in the Smart TV Applications API: HTML5, A/V streaming and DRM. Apparently the participants approved a version 1 on June 14 2012, 6 days before they publicly launched the alliance. The draft v2 spec and a software development kit (SDK) can be downloaded from the
    alliance website.
    The TV is an obvious next screen for consumers to expect apps to run on. Since an app platform requires a rich ecosystem of hardware and softwaremakers to be atttractive, the objective of this alliance is certainly justified. The question then is: why does it consist of only three TV manufacturers and two software platform developers, and no app developers? Why didn’t big Asian TV manufacturers and settopbox makers join?

    Some companies like Panasonic have a proprietary platform and their own appstore (which reminds of the walled garden web solutions of a decade ago, unsuccessful against non-fenced, open, solutions). Then, of course there’s another standard contender – Google TV – and Samsung, Sony and LG already showed or introduced Google TV products.
    Google TV has two modes: android apps optimized for TV, and web apps: html5,css3 based interactive websites. And indeed, Google provides the equivalent of an SDK for these web apps. If only part of the mobile app makers convert their offering to the tv, there will be a wealth of apps.
    In this context the annual fees or $125,000 for a board membership or even $25,000 for a contributor membership look too high for the privilege of joining a standards war that may be lost before it begins. Or is this a case of generals fighting the previous war?

    The origins of the S Curve (about Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations)

    50 years ago today (2012), Everett Rogers published his book Diffusion of Innovations in which he described the lifecycle of innovations. His theory of innovation has become a standard model in the marketing world, and has been further developed from an explanatory model to a marketing tool, aimed at influencing speed of take up and penetration of innovations.

    Rogers’ is still worth reading, as I found out recently and it contains some nice surprises. Given the current use of the S curve, one would expect this book to be about the introduction and adoption of consumer products. Actually, most cases in the book are about the spread of agricultural innovations in communities of farmers, in the USA and other countries. The measurements from extensive fieldwork are plotted in many graphs and reveal the well-known sigmoid pattern. There’s no case in the book about consumer products, but marketeers got the picture and were eager to apply it. Their favorite picture is the derivative function, showing the number of adopters over time. It’s adopter categorization lead to the notions of innovators, early adopters, early and late majority and laggards, the first target group “segmentation” in the history of marketing. Continue reading

    Adages, Rules, Laws and humour

    An adage is a short but memorable saying which holds some important fact of experience that is credible through its long use or broad endorsement.  Somes adages are interesting observations, practical or ethical guidelines, or skeptical comments on life; ohers are products of folk wisdom. When engineers or behavioural scientists coin them, they are often called “laws” in imitation of physical laws, “rules” or “principles.
    Some of the adages that I grew up with, like Peter’s principle, Parkinson’s law, Hofstadter’s law and others, are endangered species with younger generations, despite their ability to provide well-targeted and often humorous explanations of everyday situations and “facts of life”. To avoid extinction, this post is a collection of adages that I like. Have fun!


    Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

    articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in the book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress (1958). He derived the dictum from his extensive experience in the British Civil Service where he finds that the number of employees inside a bureaucracy rose by 5-7% per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done”. He identifies two forces for this phenomenon: (1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and (2) “Officials make work for each other.”

    This is a basic adage for understanding and dealing with burocracies (in government and large companies). Usually a positive feedback system exists where managers that take action (i.e. create new work for subordinates) are preferred, and manager rewards are proportional to their responsibility ( i.e. the number of subordinates).
    Most job cutting announcements by companies shows ignorance of Parkinson’s law. Often, companies state they are “trimming the fat” meaning they gained Parkisonian weight and thus didn’t manage their headcount. Often also, soon after the cutting is done, new hiring starts and new Parkisonian fat is developed. Cutting work by stating priorities is the true remedy.


    Peter’s Principle: employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.

    formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book “The Peter Principle”. The principle states that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Their last promotion is to a position at which they are no longer competent.

    Another adage that explains burocratic phenomena. Incompetent managers take wrong decisions and hire subordinates that won’t challenge them, and that’s how quality diminishes.

    Generals always fight the last war.

    a wisdom without an identified originator
    This adage not just relates to the army but also to businesses with fast developing technologies. When a manager’s own experience is rooted in a previous technology, he can have the wrong intuition about today’s technology and competition. No wonder you then lose the current “war”.


    Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter’s Law into account

    Hofstadter’s Law was a part of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. The subordinate clause is a wonderful representation of the book’s major theme of recursion
    It’s interesting that it took so long for someone to formulate this well known difficulty of accurately estimating the amount of time it will take to complete tasks of any substantial complexity.


    Stigler’s Law: No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer

    proposed by University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler in his 1980 publication “Stigler’s law of eponymy”.
    Stigler named the sociologist Robert K. Merton as the discoverer of “Stigler’s law”, and thus consciously made his law exemplify itself.


    There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

    Uses of the phrase date back to the 1930s and 1940s, but its first appearance is unknown. It was popularized by Robert Heinlein’s SF novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Milton Friedman’s 1975 book with the same title. The bio-ecologist Barry Commoner used this concept as the last of his famous “Four Laws of Ecology”.

    Parkinson’s Law of triviality:organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues

    Also known as bikeshedding; First mentioned in C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1958 book.
    Parkinson dramatizes his law of triviality with a committee’s deliberations on an “atomic reactor”, contrasting it to deliberation on a bicycle shed. As he put it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualize a bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions.