Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015

"DSCOVR Liftoff", Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

“DSCOVR Liftoff”, Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Towards the end of each year, much of the tech and business media traditionally make predictions about which technologies to watch during the following year. These prognostications are always of interest to, among others, people working in technology, the sciences, startups, academia and financial services. However, many of these predictions often do not live up to their hype or expectations.

Nonetheless, on November 20, 2014, correspondent Sam Grobart hosted a 45-minute presentation on Bloomberg Television entitled The Year Ahead: Innovation about ten technologies ranging from food to virtual reality that conveyed a remarkable sense of excitement and anticipation from start to finish. Any of these ten could reasonably be expected to find their markets and break out, but only time will tell. All of them are offering highly imaginative and innovative systems that could potentially and significantly impact domestic and global populations and markets.

Be assured that this is not a puff piece on these innovators and their work. Rather, this is a declaration of the work being done by very smart and resourceful people striving to make a difference in their fields. I highly recommend viewing this in its entirety.

This intriguing peek over the horizon featured the following:

  • Soft Robotics Inc. is working on the design and materials for robots with soft exoskeletons for applications in rehabilitative medicine, space exploration and athletic clothing.
  • Thalmic Labs has created an input device called the Myo Armband for computers and other electronics that consists of a band of sensors worn on the user’s forearm that interprets different physical movements as gestural input.
  • Hyve 3D – As discussed in a Subway Fold post on August 28, 2014 entitled Hyve-3D: A New 3D Immersive and Collaborative Design System is a very agile and extensible virtual development platform. This program takes you inside of it with its director, Tomas Dorta, at the University of Montreal and further reports on how Hollywood is now using the system to create virtual storyboards and other projects are in for building construction.
  • AeroFarms is fabricating and implementing “vertical farms” using aeroponics to grow crops, faster and more energy efficiently than under traditional farming, in a system using mists of water rather than planting in soil.
  • Beyond Meat is creating imitation chicken and beef products using plant components to achieve comparable tastes and food textures.
  • Akahn Technologies is growing industrial diamonds and integrating them into computer chips in place of heat sinks thus significantly reducing heat generation and enabling much slimmer computing devices to be manufactured.
  • Suneris is working on a product called “Vetigel” that fully stops major bleeding from wounds and burns within a matter of seconds.
  • The Zephyr from Airbus a solar powered, geostationary hybrid drone and satellite being built and tested to provide broadband network access to underserved territories.
  • Groundwater Replenishment System by the Orange County Water System is purifying waste water and groundwater back into drinkable water in drought-stricken Southern California.
  • Jaunt is developing an entirely new platform and 360 degree camera to create fully immersive virtual reality movies to be viewed using the versatile new Oculus Rift headset.*

Mr. Grobart’s reporting and the production values on this show are absolutely top flight in every journalistic respect. None of the ten endeavors are over- or undersold, but rather, objectively formatted and presented. The production is internally consistent in its narratives about each one and sequenced in a logical order. Thus, the micro view of each startup or project and the macro view of these innovators innovating is done in a highly professional and accessible manner. IMHO, these are all great stories well told.**

In a world filled with so much troubling news each day, it was incredibly refreshing and inspiring to watch this program and try to assess the potential these undertakings.

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*  See the cover story from the May 2014 issue of WIRED entitled The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality by Peter Rubin for comprehensive coverage of this technology and company.

**  X-ref to this November 6, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

Minting New Big Data Types and Analytics for Investors

Along with the exponential growth of big data in terms of its quantity, myriad of collection points, nearly limitless storage capabilities, and complex analytics, investors are keenly interested in discovering unique advantages from this phenomenon to be applied in the securities markets.* While financial institutions of all types have used sophisticated metrics and predictions to gain tactical advantages in their trading operations for many decades, burgeoning big data methodologies have recently created new opportunities for entrepreneurs to provide the financial services industry with ever more original and arcane forms of predictive analytics.

Investors now have data services available to them offering insights never previously feasible or even imaginable. Yesterday’s (November 21, 2014) edition of The Wall Street Journal carried a fascinating report highlighting three of these operations entitled Startups Tip Investors to Hidden Data Pearls by Bradley Hope. (A subscription to the WSJ Online is required for full access to this report on WSJ.com, but this piece was available here in slightly different version on CBS’s Marketwatch.com.) This additional extract page from the article is also available online and contains explanatory graphics of their formats and analyses.

How are these new data points being mined, examined and spun into forecasts? To briefly sum up the work of these startups covered in this article:

  • Orbital Insight analyzes satellite photos of building sites in 30 cities in China, cornfields, and parking lots in order to assess how their capacities might influence the markets in various ways. They are seeking to intuit “early indicators” of trends and influences. Their clients include hedge funds.
  • Dataminr sifts through a half a billion daily tweets in order to spot potential market moving trends ahead of the news services.** The link above to the graphics from the WSJ article contains a very effective infographic on this process.*** The company’s proprietary systems categorize and analyze all tweets in real time, discerns potentially useful patterns, and then distributes the results to their clients.
  • Premise Inc. uses a global system, now in 18 countries, that provides cell phone credits as payments to individuals who monitor the prices of various goods. From this input, the company tracks early inflation rates and other economic data. They believe that their data can differ from official government sources.

I recommend reading this story in full for all of its compelling details.

My follow up questions include:

  • Who watches these watchmen? Will market forces determine which of them are producing valid and actionable collection and analytics or should they somehow be subject to regulatory oversight?
  • Because these data types and analytics are so new, how are these companies and others like them addressing the distinctions between correlation and causation in their reports to their clients? Would it be beneficial for them to form a trade association to address this and other issues that might arise in the future for this nascent industry?
  • Are there entrepreneurial opportunities here for another type of new startups to vet the practices and products of such companies? That is, analysts who produce no new data types themselves, but rather, apply existing and, perhaps develop new, analytical tools for such assessments?
  • What other fields, markets and professions might benefit from this trend to discover and assess new data types in addition to finance?

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*    Please see this April 9, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Roundup of Some Recent Books on Big Data, Analytics and Intelligent Systems.

**   Please see this July 31, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled New Analytical Twitter Traffic Report on US TV Shows During the 2013 – 2014 Season.

***  Please see this January 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Timely Resources for Studying and Producing Infographics.

Music Visualizations and Visualizations About Music

There is a rare neurological condition called synesthesia where a person’s senses become linked in unusual ways. People affected by this may perceive, among other things, numbers as having specific colors or shapes as having tastes. Such people are termed “synesthetes” and this condition is not always seen as a detriment by them. This phenomenon has been studied and written about extensively in scientific literature as well as used as a plot element in fiction writing.

A number of inventive and strikingly beautiful visualizations of music have appeared online that can best be described as “sythesthetic”. That is, they are video creations to show what the music looks like to the graphics artists who have created them. Here is a sampling of some:

There are also two new tools available to provide innovative perspectives on:

All of these links produce big musical fun and I highly recommend clicking through to entertain and enlighten you eyes and ears.

Book Review of “The Mother Court”

When an author writes a book about his or her lengthy and distinguished career and infuses the text with an endless passion for their work, the reader’s attention is likely to be quickly captured. It is rare indeed when someone truly loves what they do and can convincingly convey their experiences, insights and commentary for all readers to thoroughly enjoy and absorb the lessons within. Attorney and author James D. Zirin has done a masterful job of achieving this informative and entertaining mix in his new book entitled The Mother Court: Tales of Cases that Mattered in America’s Greatest Trial Court (American Bar Association, 2014).

The “Mother Court” is the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY). Mr. Zirin has had a remarkable career which has provided him a wealth of material to explore. He began his career as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the SDNY, working for Robert Morgenthau. He then continued on to become a distinguished trial attorney in private practice. He is a prolific writer and the host of the ongoing TV show Conversations in the Digital Age. (Click through the link above to his site to review his extensive work richly linked within it.)

The book is organized into sections about a series of landmark cases tried in the SDNY, trial techniques, judges he has appeared before, the changes and challenges in the court during his career all the way through modern trial technology and sentencing guidelines. His skillful prose, storytelling technique*, and endless enthusiasm for the law and respect for the SDNY as an institution, permeate each page. I believe he would have achieved the same possession of the reader’s attention if he had, in some alternative life, been almost anything else from a doctor to professor to inventor.

He presents an insightful array of legal practice stories and subject analyses that are not just meant to be “inside baseball” for lawyers only, but rather, a genuine and granular sense of litigation practice from his admiring point of view. Thus, I believe that anyone who works in the legal profession as well as anyone who does not, will enjoy reading Zirin’s paean to the SDNY.

In the midst of all this legal lore, there is also a brief and hilarious story near the end about a sidebar conference during a trial concerning an observer in the courtroom who might have been creating a distraction. The inclusion and execution of it also speaks very well of the author’s literary craft.

Returning to a concise and critical phrase we always used to include in all of our book reports at Public School 79 in Queens, I definitely recommend this book to everyone in the class.

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*  See also this Subway Fold post on November 4, 2014 about the power of effective storytelling.

Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

Everyone loves a good story and, in turn, a good story is always made even better by a great storyteller. Some people just have a natural inclination for delivering the beginning, middle and end of a story that captivates the listeners. We all know people like this. The highest complement you can pay them is to say “that was a great story well told”.

They are indeed a far cry and a great yarn away from the more common and seemingly endless PowerPoint presentation many of us have had to endure where the speaker drones on and on. Little or any substance rarely stays stuck to the audience’s gray cells a few seconds after the meeting has ended.

The innately skilled storyteller knows how to evocatively set the stage, animate the players, and draw you into the drama, fact or fiction, no matter if the story takes 2 minutes or 2 hours. Moreover, they can readily deliver a verbal and animated replay of something that happened just minutes ago with the same finesse of a story they heard years ago passed down through their family. Such raconteurs know they have this skill and can employ it to communicate with others in a wide variety of situations. Even those who don’t quite have the skill at first can readily be taught to improve their delivery and enjoy the benefits it can bring.

The science supporting engaging storytelling was explored in a fascinating post on the Harvard Business Review Blog entitled Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling by Paul J, Zak on October 28, 2014. To recap the main points, a decade ago, the author’s lab discovered a neurochemical called oxytocin, whose role arises in many social situations. Simply stated, this substance’s activation in the brain is an integral part of experiencing and expressing empathy, trust, kindness and cooperation. More recently, his lab has conducted experiments that have shown oxytocin also plays a role in “character-driven stories”. The more oxytocin released in a subject’s brain showed a relationship to the extent to which he or she is willing to assist other people.

The next step in his research was to study the reasons why storytelling had an effect upon gaining someone’s voluntary cooperation. A key element of this involves maintaining the listener’s attention such that they “share the emotions of the characters in it”, both during and after the story had been told. In the business world, “character-driven stories with emotional content” produce increased comprehension and later recall of a speaker’s main points. Zak advises business clients to start off their presentations with “a compelling, human scale story” to put this science to good use and to persuade listeners. He further describes how stories are quite valuable within businesses to motivate employees, increase sales, understand customer concerns, and solve problems. He also discusses how an “organization has its own story” concerning its founding and objectives.

I highly recommend read the full text of this piece for its highly valuable details and pragmatic lessons. Indeed, it is a story about stories well told.

Whenever I tell a story, either in a business situation or to friends and family, I also try to do the following:

  • Never introduce a story by first telling listeners that the tale you about to tell is the funniest, saddest or weirdest thing they will ever hear. Rather, just start telling it without any introductory adjectives that might raises or lower the listener’s expectations.
  • Be as economical as I can with words and time. Brevity counts and getting to the point quickly always counts.
  • Introduce the key characters first in order to get listeners to identify with the people involved and then move on to the details of the story.
  • Adding a slightly misdirecting component to the narrative can be helpful in distracting the briefly distracting listeners and then bringing them quickly back towards the resolution of the story.
  • It’s always true that timing is everything. Pace the plot so that it continues to accelerate.
  • Humor helps but should be used judiciously depending on the context and subject matter of a story.
  • If you have some room, stand up and move around a bit so as to enact certain key points.

November 5, 2014 Update:

There was a timely post on SocialMediaToday.com today* entitled Storytelling 101: Who Are You? by Rachel Parker that fits in well here. The author’s main point is that often strangers in various circumstances will ask “Who are you?” How you reply can potentially turn scenario into a business development opportunity. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, potential client’s want to know, in fact, who you really are before they will consider doing business with you and your firm. Thus, having a compelling story about your company’s origin, products and services, and likewise being prepared to deliver all of this succinctly and effectively can be a valuable skill. I suggest clicking through to the full text for the particulars.

December 19, 2014 Update:

In a very practical and insightful article in the December 12, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Alina Tugend entitled Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Start-Up there are some helpful applications for today’s marketplace. As concisely stated in this piece “You need to have a good story.” It describes in detail how there are now consultants, charging meaningful fees, with new approaches and techniques who assist people in improving their skills in order to become more persuasive storytellers. Among others interviewed for this story was Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the recent article on The Harvard Business Review Blog which was the original basis for this November 4th Subway Fold post. It concludes with five helpful pointers to spin a compelling yarn for your listeners.

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*  As I was writing “SocialMediaToday.com today” I was reminded of the time when I worked with someone named “Tamara” and another colleague asked me “Have you seen Tamara today?” and I could not resist replying “No, but I expect to see Tamara tomorrow”. Fortunately, this did not result in any disruptions in the time and space continuum for either Tamara or myself.

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[The most amazing storyteller I have ever heard was the legendary New York City radio personality and satirist Jean Shephard. The following is a review of a biography about him that I originally posted on July 6, 2005 on a much earlier incarnation of The Subway Fold.]

Many people are only familiar with Jean Shepherd’s work from his uniquely charming and hilarious perennial holiday film A Christmas Story. Yet to a large number of people in the metro NYC and surrounding areas his greatest creative contribution was the late night radio show he did on WOR in New York from 1955 to 1977. He wrote five critically acclaimed collections of stories and was a columnist for various magazines.

Shepherd was a local phenomenon unlike any other in the long and rich history of local radio here. Long before the days of concentrated station ownership by a small number of conglomerates, severely limited playlists and call-in formats, Shepherd’s show was a shining beacon of originality, humanity and humor unlike anything else before or after it. Describing the experience of listening to him is always presents a challenge to anyone who never heard him.

I was one of those people who, while I was in high school and college, listened to him faithfully almost every night. Although his show was not for everyone, his large legion of fans were often incredibly devoted to him. He shaped many of our sensibilities about the media as well as our perspectives on daily life. To this day, whenever I come across a fellow fan we immediately have an understanding between us of that shared experience of years of listening to Shepherd’s unique riffs about, among many other things, growing up, life in the Army, his friends and family, modern culture and the travails of living in New York City.

Listening to Shepherd was just like having a good friend over for a talk on the porch. It was as if he was speaking directly to you in a friendly and familiar manner. His uncanny attention to detail, strikingly original POV, embrace of ideas new and different, and most importantly his sense of humor made it essential for us “night people” as he often referred to us, to listen as often as possible. Despite his Midwestern accent, there was something so utterly New York in his voice, delivery and infectious laugh. However, he was by no means a “2 guys walk into a bar” comedian. Rather, he was far more sophisticated while being wholly accessible.

Eugene Bergmann has just written a remarkable biography about him entitled Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. I first learned about this publication on 5/13/05 when it was the subject of two programs on the local NPR station here, WNYC. The author appeared on both the Brian Lehrer Show and immediately following on the Leonard Lopate Show.

I picked the book up and was completely absorbed by it. Bergmann has accomplished a considerable achievement by skillfully capturing the essence of Shepherd’s life, philosophy and work. To bring order to such a large body of public work and a complex personal life, he began by listening to and transcribed hundreds of tapes of Shepherd’s shows. He then formatted this biography with generous portions of those transcripts throughout the text. This succeeds as the “voices” effectively and seamlessly alternate between the biographer and his subject. Indeed, Shepherd’s voice and delivery are vividly evoked in every section of the transcriptions. In many passages, I even recall hearing them as they were originally broadcasted years ago.

For a faithful listener, this book is worthy and respectful homage to the subject’s multifaceted talents and achievements. Bergmann has found the right language and insight to illuminate the work of an artist who worked in words, imagery and ideas as, Shepherd used to say “a sculptor worked in clay”. While I so fondly recalled many particular shows while reading this book, it more importantly caused me to reconsider how and why so many people were such a devoted fans: He spoke to us and we could relate during a time in my life when our views were constantly changing and being challenged. The author succeeds in deftly building a intricate accumulation and integration of artistic and intellectual reasons for our devotion, never before presented with such clarity, that were always axiomatic for all of Shepherd’s fans.

The book does not shy away from Shepherd’s considerable off-the-air personal faults. While these revelations do remove some of the gloss from long-enduring warm and friendly reputation, they also makes him more human. The performer and the man are brought to life on each page. As Bergmann emphasizes, what Shepherd did, more than anything else, was to examine the human condition. What the author has accomplished so skillfully here is to examine in fine and critical detail, the condition of one uniquely imaginative human.

Jean Shepherd died in 1999. His work and his fans will continue to live on for many years. Even if you never heard his show, read his books or saw A Christmas Story, I highly recommend this book for its integrity, internal consistency and literary accomplishment. Nowadays when modern media platforms, content and influence are changing on a daily and worldwide basis, this is an opportunity to learn about a definitively original media talent.