The pencil story by mister Leonard Read

There is a funny detail about this video. I used to think that it was Milton Friedman himself that came up with this pencil story. But it seems that the actual unquoted and unmentioned source of this pencil story is mister Leonard Read. So when Milton Friedman explains the story, he could have finished his story by saying that he could not have told this story without Leonard Read and his essay “I, Pencil”. That would have been a fair mention of sources and a tribute to what I assume was his colleague or friend. If you watch Matt Riddley’s TED movie about ideas and how they have to mate to be productive. Matt Ridlley does quote the right source for the pencil story as Leonard Read. Mister Friedman had me fooled for a rather long while.

Please be aware and also be warned: this video is old footage and can possibly harm the MTV generation. So use Milton in low doses to prevent brain damage (-;


The toaster project

Already some time ago,I was struck by this artist trying to mine the ingredients for a toaster. Great empirical experience and evidence in basic raw material usage.
We love experiments like these. I put it here because it is referenced in the talk by Matt Ridley, which you can see and read about below this post.

No individual knows, but collectively we do

I have been reading some of Matt Ridley’s books in the past with great interest.
The books Genome and the Red Queen are great popular science books about human biology and the role of DNA. Little did I know that this aristocratic man of science would als try to lead a bank. During his term, he would face a near bankruptcy, walk away unharmed and write a book. His dad was also a banker, so it must have been a matter of the right DNA.

Here is the TED talk which is also the opening chapter of his book “The rational optimist”. During this talk he touches upon the toaster project, which you can see and read about in my other blogpost. Making a toaster without the power of the division of labour is not so easy. Especially when you decide to make all components of the toaster from scratch. This talk stresses that no individual knows enough by him or herself to make (for example) a toaster or a computermouse, but that collectively we do.

Post from China

The reason that I could actually not write this post from China is because the wordpress blogosphere is not accessible from within China.

I want to raise a point about imitation and innovation. I have seen so much of the first in China that I actually started wondering abut the innovative aspect of imitation.

What does it actually take to make a good imitation? When you start out you might have no idea how the actual thing that you want to imitate is made. On the other hand alot of imitations are originals without the right labeling and a different price level. But I am talking about the real fakes here. The pictures below give you some hint about what type of imitation we are talking about: Adivon and Adidas, both sportshoe brands, not necessarily unrelated shoe designs (-;

But is imitation of an existing design actually simple? And is imitation inherently contrary to innovation? I don’t know. My visit to China has not given me the evidence that imitation is a simple and dumb process. The toaster project from the English artist Thomas Thwaites has made me doubt even more whether it is actually easy to imitate things of which the design is publicly available and generally regarded as a simple technology. Watch and enjoy the toaster project, he explains thouroughly his complex imitation process of an industrial toaster.

The interesting thing is that the Chinese do alot better job at more complex items than simple standard toasters, look at this beautiful selection of highly complex car designs.
Please disregard the annoying music and enjoy the similarities.

Feng Shui innovation for Hong Kong… and some clean tech please

We arrived a couple of days ago in Hong Kong. The first night we spent at a Hong Kong Island Hotel in a room with a commanding panoramic view. That hotel and the roof top pool were great to sleep off and swim off the jet-lag. After the leasure comes the traveler’s hard work. So from the international hotel we moved to a rented flat in downtown Kowloon. The place is surrounded by hundreds of textile front stores. These stores take orders for the mainland Chinese manufacturing facilities and ship the goods globally via the harbour. After all the “Hong” in Hong Kong stands for trading company and that is exactly the vibe of Kowloon: Trade with a capital “T”. Somebody here threw out the “F” of Feng Shui long ago and replaced it with the “F” of Finance and trade.

The elementary profit and loss for Hong Kong gives plenty of room for clean tech innovation:
Water: can not be drunk from the tap and better not swim in the harbour waters.
Air / Wind: hard to breath because of the fine dust particles and exhaust related smog.
Earth: where there was a village of 500 people there now is a HK newtown housing 80,000 people, stacked.
Fire: every day HK burns the massive amounts of fossil fuels, required for it’s trade and transport.

So let the simplified P&L of the elements guide the Chinese to a brighter Hong Kong, from the smog into the light. No wonder that Hong Kong’s neighbour Shenzhen is trying to become an industrial clean tech giant. The market and real life laboratory for clean tech lies right next door.

Payola: management of incentives

in reply to Rutger’s question: have you got an example of audiences being paid. I had the pleasure of having Richard Mackenzie as one of my professors. In his course I wrote a paper on the economic effects of payola e.g. Paying audiences and dj’s to be positive about your music. A nice thought experiment for me back then.

One could even say that subsidies are a form of paying audiences to listen. Government payola. The audience is rewarded for it’s attention by attending a cultural production that is more expensive than the whole of the tickets sold. Or am I being absurdly strict?

The rise of Urban Playing

Like many people I consider cities as a giant playground. Amsterdam seems to be particularly suited for this role. Skateboarders and rollerskaters have more or less pioneered the urban playing aspect of cities. Now also the more conservative sport of golf is turning towards playing in public city parks. At least the Vondelpark in Amsterdam was temporarily altered into a public golf course last Tuesday. I was wondering if litigation laws in the US would permit such a sport like golf to be played in a truely public park. Surely it is played with hard litte balls, that travel at fairly high speed,  that can essentially hit unexpecting pedestrians in the park. Question to the blog visitors: what other sports do we see taking themselves into the public domain? Do you see innovative businesses being built around them?

Art Reserve Bank – Kunst Reserve Bank @ Amsterdam Zuidas

Update of 22-06-2012 : The Art Reserve Bank announces on their website that they have recently been invited to the headquarters of the Dutch National Bank to talk about the usage of the word Bank in Art Reserve Bank. The Dutch National Bank seems to ask (or command) them to let this part of the name go. If the word bank needs to go, I propose they rename their initiative to the Federal Art Reserve (-;

Yesterday I visited the Art Reserve Bank (Kunst Reserve Bank). They ask themselves a few questions about money down there. For example: Is there ever enough money in the world? Central banks in the US and Europe have been and still are creating dollars and euros at high volumes during the latest crisis. The Art Reserve Bank questions if there will ever be enough stuff (value) in the world to cover all the money created. The Art Reserve Bank has hence set up shop in the financial district of Amsterdam Zuidas. Their mission to create a new reserve currency. Real money with real value. At the teller window you can exchange your common money for limited edition artworks designed by top artists like John Körmeling, Marte Röling, Merijn Bolink, Jonas Staal, Erik van Lieshout and Marlene Dumas. Rumour has it that also Tracey Emin and Banksy will join the party. Unique artworks from € 100, the current exchange rate to the euro of this freshly created reserve currency. The money is stamped at the premises of the KRB. If this sounds to good to be true, then visit  Act quickly, because the exchange rate could start rising! Opening hours are on the site.

The gender factor of innovation

Innovation is relevant to the field of technology and humanity.  There can different aspects of innovation carried forward by the same person.

  • The technology aspect: being the first to achieve a level of achievement in a certain technological domain.
  • The humanity aspect: being the first woman to reach a certain level of achievement in society.

Let’s take the rather unkown Belgian scientist Ingrid Daubechies, as a point in case. She was the first female professor of maths at Princeton University. She also was the first to crack and make publicly available crucial algorithms that have formed the basis of some of the most widespread image compression techniques. So she contributed to an innovation that we enjoy today on our computers, devices, screens and cameras.  She is now also the first female president of the International Mathematical Union. What is the most striking part of this story?

  • should women thank her for becoming a leading lady in maths as an innovation to society, as an example.
  • or should we focus on her masterful technological work for image compression, something we take pleasure in daily when we use our phones and apps.

NOTE: In the mean time I am still waiting for the first female president of the US of A, Europe or China. Curious how long it will take each of these three nations?