Have we lost the ability to innovate our way out of the problems facing us?

This is on my mind because of reading comments on Facebook. A friend had a bad medical experience: the bill was problematically high even though the insurance in question was supposed to be good. Some people latched on to this as a reason to complain about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. “If you think things are bad now, wait until there aren’t any more doctors!” was one refrain.

I’ve held for several years that the healthcare debate was ill-served by Republicans abdicating any responsibility in being part of the solution. The ACA is basically Republican’s version of health reform from previous generations. It stands in stark contrast to the left’s Holy Grail: the single payer system, or “Governmentocare” to predict Republican nicknames for the plan. Or you could just call it Medicare since that’s basically what it is.

During the debate leading to the passage of Obamacare, a lot of people pointed out how badly single payer systems were in other countries. It’s arguable that Canada is going through a healthcare crisis when their 75,000+ doctors made an average of $300,000 Canadian last year, but I digress. The thing that struck me then was that no one was standing up saying, “If we put our heads together, we can do better.” You had the president on one side pushing a Republican-devised plan. On the other side, you had Republicans standing with their fingers in their ears shouting, “NO WE CAN’T!”

This same thing has reared its head in regards to the environment. Instead of thinking, “We can come up with a way to use energy that doesn’t kill life on Earth!” you have either the same “NO WE CAN’T” or even worse, “There’s no way we could hurt Earth.”

While I acknowledge the problems with the idea of “American Exceptionalism,” why is it we no longer have the smarts to innovate our way out of problems?

I’ve been thinking about it for about 15 minutes and have a couple of potential answers.

First, we’ve done so much to decrease innovation that the proverbial chicken has come home to roost. Originally patents and copyrights were designed to reward people for creating and innovating, but only so much that they would continue to do so. In other words, you don’t want someone to strangle innovation and produce people like Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy–a man living his life off royalties derived from a one-hit-wonder Christmas song his dad wrote and recorded. A well-functioning system works more like the pharmaceutical industry: They receive a period of exclusivity for their discovery, but a few years later, the information has to be released into the wild so that “generic” drugs can be produced. It keeps drug companies researching while keeping people (relatively) healthy. With copyrights sitting at nearly 100 years, there’s little reason for people to create or innovate when they can simply live off their one good idea/creation.

Second, we punt. It’s no wonder that with the success of (American) football, play tactics would work their way into our society. For the uninitiated, a punt is what a team does when they’ve used all their chances to progress in their time with the ball. The object is to kick the ball as far away from the other team’s goal as possible thereby increasing the time/effort needed for them to score. Outside the game, this gives us a chance to completely ignore any possible solutions to problems and dump them off on future generations. Sometimes this can work well. Right now, the US economy is shuddering at the thought of hoards of retiring baby boomers. If we punt those costs 30 years into the future, as the population balances out as baby boomers die, all those retirement costs will go back to their earlier levels.

At the same time, punting means that problems that won’t solve themselves will become harder to solve. The idea of global warming started getting traction in the 90s. We ignored it for nearly 20 years. Now the problem is harder to solve because more, worse pollutors have entered the fray *cough*China*cough*. Had we done something 20 years ago, we’d have been ready for Asia’s industrial revolution. As it stands now, you could argue that only Elon Musk is working to address this problem.

Proffering solutions should always be part of an argument. In this spirit, I suggest reducing the duration of protections for innovating in general. That’s simple enough, but it doesn’t really work towards solving our problems. The second step is to prioritize coming up with solutions to our long term problems. For that, I propose creating categories of problems and rewarding workable solutions with longer term patent protections. An extension to exclusivity is the carrot for solving problems.

There are respectable people already working to prime the well of ideas for solving our global energy problems like Dr. Don Flournoy. Dr. Flournoy created and leads the Sunsat Design Competition that pairs scientists with media students. The idea is that they will work together to create visualizations of potential solutions so that laypeople might better understand the concepts discussed. The competition currently has funding to reward in the neighborhood of $30,000 in prizes for good ideas paired with good visualizations.

If you are a scientist or media professional, think about getting involved. If you are simply a citizen of Earth, think for a moment about whether you want to help move towards a solution to today’s problems or whether you’d rather ignore them ostritch-style.

4G Arrives

One major negative living in a rural area is lack of access to broadband. There were several things that were supposed to happen to fix this situation. First, as of December 31, 2007, everyone in the Bellsouth service area was supposed to have DSL as per the Bellsouth/AT&T merger agreement. We’re a day shy of five years passed that deadline, but there is no DSL here, nor is there any indication there ever will be. Even using backdoor channels to talk to people in charge of DSL for the state reveals there are no plans to ever offer DSL to us even though there is a telephone box just a couple of miles away that could service us.

For the longest time, there was no cell service here either. Finally in 2008, AT&T stuck equipment on a tower that has line of sight visibility from us. It worked great, although only at EDGE speeds, until August 2011 when AT&T removed their stuff from the tower recreating a cellular hole here. In the investigation of that, we found that Verizon had 3G service here. After my brother’s family switched to a local mobile provider, all of us followed suit. That company only had 2G CDMA service, but by March of 2012, they updated the tower to 3G, although it was very weak considering we can see the tower with the naked eye. Verizon’s 3G had a similarly weak appearing signal, but it was much better quality.

All Bellsouth/AT&T ever offered here was dialup. In 1998, it wasn’t bad, although it was only ever about 26KBs, about half what modems should have been able to do at the time. Over the next decade, that service got worse and worse finally ending up being a bits per second service instead of kilobits. My dad had hoped DSL would arrive eventually, but mom got tired of waiting and pressured him to sign up for Wildblue’s satellite internet. It was certainly better, although amazingly expensive. Mom was satisfied, and with the launch of their new satellite a year ago and the introduction of the Excede service, the speed has been nothing short of revolutionary. The problem with it is that once a month, usually when there is no one home, the entirety of our month’s allotment of internet is completely used. If we’re on the 25GB package, it uses 24GB. If we’re on the 15GB package, it uses 13GB. This usually happens in the first three or four days of the month. We’ve complained and had our situation escalated by their customer service. That process took a week and hours on the phone with them. Someone was supposed to call us after investigating and let us know what was going on within a week of the last call, but it’s been nearly eight weeks. No one has called or emailed, but the situation continues.

I read earlier in the month that Verizon planned to upgrade their entire network to 4G by the end of 2013. As I have a 4G device that works on their network, I was pretty happy with the 3G service they offered here. The fact that within a year, more or less, that service would be upgraded was pretty exciting.

At some point on December 28, Verizon turned on 4G equipment on that same cell tower that we see from the patio. Now there is a full 4G signal. No more of the partial 3G from them. The provider we use for cell phones says 4G is coming, but they don’t yet list our area on their update page, so it’s reasonable to assume that it will be at least months before they offer 4G. I’ve respected Verizon’s commitment to their network, though, and certainly don’t mind the monthly fee I’m paying for data on the device I use on their network. While their customer service isn’t the best, at least they have a compelling service to sell.

Thanks, Verizon, for the great Christmas/New Year present!


It’s funny how things will categorize themselves in your life.  Last week, I had a great dinner with another American.  Among the topics of conversation were education and ICTs.  We both noted that some people think technology is a way to bridge the gap in schools.  Our conversation veered in another direction before I got to note that money spent on technology is not always well spent, but based on the rest of the conversation, I think my friend agrees.  I did talk about the much lamented Hazlehurst School District, and how the students there are missing out on so much that even if they all had access to the latest technology in the classroom, it probably wouldn’t make a difference.

The next morning while reading through the news, the New York Times backed up my thinking with this article.  In it, they noted how poorer students tended to end up wasting time with technology instead of harnessing the tech to do educational-type things.  They mentioned a couple of problems being that the usually working class parents didn’t have enough knowledge to properly manage their children’s online habits.  Also, poorer students are more under the influence of the media as they see more of it than their more affluent peers.  The article noted,

… “access is not a panacea,” said Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft. “Not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.”

Later the same day this article appeared in my RSS reader.  Here we see technologists and development practitioners pushing technology as a solution.  Technology is a solution, but only if you know the question to which it is the answer.  The young girl who mentions using her phone to record lectures is a great example.  In my experience she is the exception rather than the rule.  In the classrooms in which I worked in the developing world, mobiles were used for playing games and listening to music usually during class.  Of course this experiences were in middle income countries.  Somehow I doubt that makes much difference in the end.

Ultimately development practitioners need to carefully evaluate the claims technologists make.  They also should insure that proper education accompanies any technological “gifts.”  If the parents aren’t included in technology education, how can they do their jobs as parents?  It would be the exact situation these parents in the USA face.

A Quick Nook Look

Barnes and Noble has knocked it out of the park. The new Nook (the nookcolor) is, in a word, amazing. I haven’t done much with an iPad, but I have to say the form, screen size and sheer readability of it make it a great upgrade from the original I prepurchased a year ago.

Other reviews have talked about the revised Nook Store. Honestly, this is the one area where I am underwhelmed. It’s still not as easy to browse into the ebooks as I would like. That said, the browser means I can use it and bypass the store.

I am going to give it a real run through later as far as the A/V system works. Since I haven’t tried any of that, I can’t say it’s a full iPad replacement. As it stands, though, feel free to upgrade simply for the best ebook reader on the market.

Kindle, you are going to have a lot to respond to in your next iteration…