Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

Prints Charming: A New App Combines Music With 3D Printing

"Totem", Image by Brooke Novak

“Totem”, Image by Brooke Novak

What does a song actually look like in 3D? Everyone knows that music has always been evocative of all kinds of people, memories, emotions and sensations. In a Subway Fold post back on November 30, 2014, we first looked at Music Visualizations and Visualizations About Music. But can a representation of a tune now be taken further and transformed into a tangible object?

Yes, and it looks pretty darn cool. A fascinating article was posted on Wired.com on July 15, 2015, entitled What Songs Look Like as 3-D Printed Sculptures by Liz Stinson, about a new Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for the NYC startup called Reify working on this. I will sum up, annotate and try to sculpt a few questions of my own.

Reify’s technology uses sound waves in conjunction with 3D printing¹ to shape a physical “totem” or object of it. (The Wired article and the Reify website contain pictures of samples.) Then an augmented reality² app in a mobile device will provide an on-screen visual experience accompanying the song when the camera is pointed towards it. This page on their website contains a video of a demo of their system.

The firm is led by Allison Wood and Kei Gowda. Ms. Wood founded it in order to study “digital synesthesia”. (Synthesia is a rare condition where people can use multiple senses in unusual combinations to, for example, “hear” colors, and was previously covered in the Subway Fold post about music visualization linked to above.) She began to explore how to “translate music’s ephemeral nature” into a genuine object and came up with the concept of using a totem.

Designing each totem is an individualized process. It starts with analyzing a song’s “structure, rhythm, amplitude, and more” by playing it through the Echo Nest API.³ In turn, the results generated correspond to measurements including “height, weight and mass”. The tempo and genre of a song also have a direct influence on the shaping of the totem. As well, the musical artists themselves have significant input into the final form.

The mobile app comes into play when it is used to “read” the totem and interpret its form “like a stylus on a record player or a laser on a CD”. The result is, while the music playing, the augmented reality component of the app captures and then generates an animated visualization incorporating the totem on-screen.  The process is vividly shown in the demo video linked above.

Reify’s work can also be likened to a form of information design in the form of data visualization4. According to Ms. Wood, the process involves “translating data from one form into another”.

My questions are as follows:

  • Is Reify working with, or considering working with, Microsoft on its pending HoloLens augmented reality system and/or companies such as Oculus, Samsung and Google on their virtual reality platforms as covered in the posts linked to in Footnote 2 below?
  • How might Reify’s system be integrated into the marketing strategies of musicians? For example, perhaps printing up a number of totems for a band and then distributing them at concerts.
  • Would long-established musicians and performers possibly use Reify to create totems of some their classics? For instance, what might a totem and augmented reality visualization for Springsteen’s anthem, Born to Run, look like?

1.  See these two Subway Fold posts mentioning 3D printing.

2.  See these eight Subway Fold posts covering some of the latest developments in virtual and augmented reality.

3API’s in a medical and scientific context were covered in a July 2, 2015 Subway Fold Post entitled The Need for Specialized Application Programming Interfaces for Human Genomics R&D Initiatives.

4.  This topic is covered extensively in dozens of Subway Fold posts in the Big Data and Analytics and Visualization categories.

Book Review of “More Awesome Than Money”

The rapid rise and ubiquity of Facebook during the last ten years has been a remarkable phenomenon. The figure currently used to express the company’s breadth is that they have more than 1.3 billion user accounts. They have successfully monetized their social platform using a variety of means including, among others, advertizing, networking, communications, and harvesting vast amounts of user data, on their site and elsewhere online, to make the users’ experience more “personal”.

Nonetheless, while most users have become highly dependent on their regular use of Facebook, there are many others who still feel somewhat uncomfortable with its privacy policies and intensive data gathering and analytics.

In 2010, four NYU students heard a presentation by Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, about the lack of online privacy and overall invasiveness of all of the data relentlessly vacuumed up across the web and used for a multitude of largely invisible purposes. This was the inspiration point for them to join together and try to create a privacy aware and fully decentralized social networked called Diaspora. Most importantly, users would own their individual data and be able to take it with them if they chose to leave. They established it as a non-profit entity that operated on an open source basis for its dedicated global corps of  developers.

The compelling story of the founders and Diaspora has been now been deeply and dramatically told by author Jim Dwyer (the About New York columnist for The New York Times and the author five other books), in his latest book entitled More Awesome Than Money (Viking, October 2014). With their full access and cooperation, he followed these four young men during every phase of Diaspora’s founding, funding and construction and implementation. They were driven by their desire to make a difference to like-minded social network users who wanted true ownership of their own data, rather than many of today’s other typical startups who are looking to strike it rich.

Their noble quest, with its many high and low points, has been very poignantly captured and told here. This not just another geeked out tome about a tech startup that struggles and then hits the jackpot. Rather, this text operates on multiple levels to very skillfully present and weave together, with much pathos and insight, the lives and motivations of the founding four, their rapid relocation and education in the startup culture of Silicon Valley*, and the complexity of achieving their objectives.

Despite their goal to assemble a true technological and philosophical alternative to Facebook and the support they received in their Kickstarter funding campaign, open source coding support, and the goodwill of many potential users seeking something utterly new like Diaspora, there were many obstacles along the way. These included differences that emerged among the core four, overly ambitious release dates and correspondingly high user expectations, funding challenges, and a tragic personal issue of one founder.

Dwyer recounts, with great internal consistency and engaging prose throughout the text, the complex trajectory of Diaspora. Readers will very quickly be drawn into the narrative and the multiple challenges encountered by the young company. As well, for anyone currently involved in a startup or considering taking the leap to launch one, More Awesome Than Money should be considered required reading. Its cover price alone, consider it a form of nominal seed capital if you will, is certain to yield valuable insights into the unique world of the startup.

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*  For another very high quality piece of journalism about a completely different startup in Silicon Valley, see  One Startup’s Struggle to Survive the Silicon Valley Gold Rush, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the April 2014 issue of WIRED.