For the Week of December 11, 2006
A-Clue.Com will cease in its present form at the end of the year. That does not mean it will cease, not at all.
A-Clue will become a regular weekly feature of the DanaBlankenhorn.Com blog. It's actually been that way all this year. Most of this past year's Clue essays are already archived there. The main A-Clue site will stay open with the old archives, and links to the rest of my work.
I'm doing this mainly because e-mail is a dieing e-business model, and I don't ever want to be yesterday. I'm also spending several hours each week coding and loading each week's issue, time that could be spent writing.
To celebrate this change I have five essays on the main topics this blog has covered in its decade of e-mail existence, looking mainly at their present and future. First, last week, was e-commerce, the original beat here. Today I have an essay on Moore's Law. Next week features The World of Always-On, then we go on Political Cycles, before finishing up with a big Internet Future essay.
By all rights we should be in the middle stage of a tech revolution as important as the commercial Internet itself.
I am talking here about what I call The World of Always On.
The vision is simple. Extend applications into the air by using 802.11 WiFi routers as application platforms. Use sensors and motes to collect data on our bodies, our homes, and our property, creating new valuable applications that live in the air. Use Internet standards to let you control these applications from anywhere.
I first began exploring this idea in 2003, after the dot-boom went dot-bust. Having explained (for myself if no one else) how progress was inevitable with Moore's Law, I sought out the new direction it would take.
I was struck by two things. First, how small powerful chips were getting, with line widths reaching the nano-level. Second by the need for people to "age in place," and the monitoring requirements of that.
I posited a true "killer app," a heart monitor linked to an 802.11 router. Perhaps, I speculated, it might have a bluetooth link to a cellphone, so the whole thing could live wherever the user went? At the same time, I noticed, Intel was doing fascinating work with Alzheimer's patients, creating multi-chip systems that could identify when a patient was acting confused, and when they were not, lowering the load on care-givers.
These stories hit close to home. My best teacher in journalism school, Dick Schwarzlose, had died of a heart attack while bicycling, which is my favorite sport. And my next-door neighbor, Frank Flint, had recently passed away from Alzheimer's.
I was also thinking of a friend I made here on the Internet, Martin Bayne. Martin was known as "Mr. Long Term Care" in the 1990s, but now he was moving into a nursing facility as his symptoms got worse. It is hell, he said, again and again. I wondered how technology might change that.
I took my ideas to Stanford in late 2004, where they got a modest hearing. But nothing ever came of it.
One reason is that I myself am not an entrepreneur. I'm a journalist. Doing a story that hasn't happened yet can sound, on the surface, to be quite loony. A second reason was that there are differences between the scale of even today's mote chips and true nano-scales – they're like aircraft carriers in a nano-sea of PT boats. This means power is a concern. Do you just replace chips and systems whenever their on-board batteries wear out?
But two other reasons also occurred to me. One is that these systems would need to collect vast amounts of new data from our environment, and the privacy laws (as presently constituted) give control of that data to corporations, not people. A major overhaul of American privacy was needed, but the Bush Administration was engaged in a concerted campaign to seize all the data we were already creating for its "War of Terror."
Just as important, the move of electronic supply to the Far East meant that only high-volume goods could be created. Imagine if Steve Jobs had to export his first Apple II before it could be produced – would the PC revolution have even happened? That is the economic situation we face now. Confirmation of the industry's Luddite tendencies came that same year when Cisco, after finding out one of its 802.11 routers used open source code (and could thus become a true platform), simply replaced that model in its line with an identical product that used closed source.
The good news is that all this led me to ZDNet, which offered me a part-time position from which I could draw at least a semblance of a living. But it didn't, and doesn't, solve the underlying problem.
Thus I am forced to conclude that Always On is a "canary in the cold mine" for American technology generally. A decade ago, two decades ago, three decades ago, logical concept extensions like this would have been quickly seized by an army of hobbyists and entrepreneurs. Now those lower rungs on the innovation ladder are gone.
Until they are rebuilt we will continue to fall further behind the rest of the world. And the crisis of aging will just get worse.
You can have every entry from DanaBlankenhorn.Com, including our lead Clues, e-mailed to you from the main blog page. (It's the Feedblitz button in the corner asking for your e-mail address.) What you will receive is a daily e-mail with all of the previous day's entries, plus links.
You can also get the www.DanaBlankenhorn.Com copy in your newsreader by using its subscribe feature
I'm continuing to produce a special blog on Open Source for ZDNet. I am pleased to say it has grown into a real money-maker. This blog too has an RSS feed and e-mail subscription.
I am also the editor Voic.Us, which aims to become a political "super-site" and offer mobile marketing services. So far we have over 2,800 subscribers to its RSS feed. Please visit that blog as well.
Finally I have begun working with Connexxions at Rice University to turn my work on the Internet Political Thesis into a book and college level course.
Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...
Best of the Week
One key difference between the Nixon Thesis of Conflict era that we are leaving and the Open Source Thesis era I'm exploring here lies in how political change occurs. Open source is a model for the process change I'm talking about.
There is a community consensus on what open source means, thus a market consensus on what it means, and anyone who violates this consensus risks the rejection of its market.
The real price of freedom is that you give it to others, even those who disagree with you.
If there were a national championship in chemistry, Rice would be Ohio State.
The first priority at this point is keeping our own people alive, minimizing the further damage we do to the cradle of civilization.
The purpose of politics is to create policy. Elections are separated widely in time so that events can have their say. It's not really about the pros - either in Washington or the grassroots. It's about what happens and how we feel about it.
There's a disconnect between our assumption of rights as Americans and the responsibility we accept in exchange for those rights, and there's a lot of important work that is going to have to be tackled, even absent a war, by strong hands and young hearts.
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in is Charles Rangel, for launching an important discussion.
Clueless is Carly Fiorina. Think Gordon Gecko in pumps.
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