March 2004 Archives

Lantronix has released two interesting products for the embedded hardware market, the WiPort and the Xport. These are tiny Ethernet transceivers (one wireless, the other not) that add connectivity to devices without requiring a whole lot of knowledge about how the connectivity works. Each one has a complete "TCP/IP network stack and OS" and, most usefully, "an embedded web server that can be used to remotely configure, monitor, or troubleshoot the attached device." In the case of the Xport, all of this is in a package barely bigger than the 10BaseT connector that fits into it (not that 10BaseT is going to be meaningful for consumer products for much longer, but it's a cool hack).

It's clear to me that as the market for embedded intelligence matures, plug and play modules like these are going to become more popular, which will further increase the speed at which embedded communicate and intelligence appears in consumer products. I can envision a point, oh say five years from now, when not having some kind of embedded communication in devices will be bad design. There's probably going to be all kinds of interference and interoperability issues at that point, but everything will likely be able to talk on the Net. I'm excited!

In the March 11 "Technology Quarterly" the Economist had a story on domestic robotics (The gentle rise of the machines) concluded with a summation that captures my thoughts on the subject pretty well:

Commercial airliners fly and even land themselves using radar and satellite-positioning systems to navigate through fog and storms. Autonomous trains, akin to giant robotic snakes, drive themselves. All of these devices are autonomous computer-controlled machines, capable of responding to changing circumstances in accordance with orders from their human masters. They are, in other words, robots. But they are not the general-purpose mechanical men that most people associate with the term.

Why not? The answer, ironically, could lie in the rapid advance of computing power. Back in the mid-20th century, when the robotic future was being imagined, computers were huge and expensive. The idea that they would become cheap enough to be integrated into almost any specialised device, from a coffee-maker to a dishwasher, was hard to imagine. Instead, it seemed more likely that such intelligence would be built into a small number of machines capable of turning their robotic hands to a range of different tasks. In place of the general-purpose housebot, however, we are surrounded by dozens of tiny robots that do specific things very well. There is no need to wait for the rise of the robots. The machines, it seems, are already among us.

I think the article's point is to clarify the definition of "robot" and "robotics," but I think the sentiment is in the right place, too. Finding words that describes our relationship to the technology of our lives helps us understand and manage those relationships. As technology becomes ever more pervasive, and as it becomes ever more intelligent, these definitions are going to start to matter more while simultaneously meaning less. People will need the words to talk about their lives, but the words will become less and less precise as new technology subverts definitions--this is continuously happening.

It's so long that I've written here that it's embarrassing, and how I'm repurposing a halfbaked email I wrote to a friend. Blog shame.

On my recent flights I've been reading a lot of books, since all the travel has removed my--hitherto cherished--ability to sleep on all flights. Now I have to read, and I've been reading a lot.

One book was Making Modernism by Michael Fitzgerald, which analyzes Picasso's career as more than just an artistic achievement, but a key entrepreneurial one that became the archetype of artistic careers throughout the 20th century. The book is, frankly, boring, (the art historical version of the begats: "Then Picasso had this show, which had these paintings...and then a couple of months later, there was this show which had THESE paintings in it...") but it's a fascinating story to see how Picasso and his dealers (and, in the 30s, the Museum of Modern Art) carefully managed his image, cultivated his relationships and played the art market not just to maximize prices in the short run, but to brand him--in the modern marketing sense--as "The Greatest Living Artist" for most of his career after his 30s.

It's quite remarkable and it's not clearly not just that Picasso had the chutzpah to proclaim himself as such and have some gut-level savvy coupled with luck, but that he carefully managed his reputation (and his contacts, and his image--while he and Paul Rosenberg carefully controlled his inventory and the prices for his work) to make the most of his position at all points. He was an active shaper of his reputation, dispelling all of the art-for-art's-sale mythology of the French Academy and taking the final step to bringing his art to the open market as the Impressionists had wanted.

From a corporate standpoint, it was a classic CEO-CFO marriage: he was the CEO, whose job it was to maximize revenue in the long run through innovation and brand-building; while Rosenberg was the CFO, maximizing profit (which generally means controlling costs and carefully pricing). There's an interesting story in the book about how worried gallerists--especially Rosenberg--were after WWII as government started auctioning off large quantities of 1930s Modernist work that had been confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish dealers; the worries came true and the auctions depressed prices for Picasso's paintings until the late 40s because everyone who wanted a Picasso was able to get it at bargain prices right after the war.

It's also interesting to contrast Picasso to Duchamp. Duchamp is the Steve Jobs to Picasso's Bill Gates (and Rosenberg's Steve Ballmer?) and he was never able to achieve the same level of market penetration or popularity, despite the fact that he was the more innovative and radical by far (at least when their careers are compared after Cubism). Duchamp's brand identity rested on constant radical innovation, which is a much more difficult position to maintain than Picasso's, which was mainly built on being consistently Picasso. Picasso had to produce interesting work that was understandable and appreciable by his target audiences, and in sufficient quantity to keep interest high but without overheating or alienating the market, which is a much savvier position.

It's fascinating to take the Picasso archetype and look at how other artists and working the artist-gallery-museum ecology to manage their careers. Warhol seemed to understand this, but he did not understand it as well as Picasso. Jeff Koons made the game so apparent that the other players may have burned out on it. Matthew Barney's career seems like a particularly sophisticated example, the high art equivalent of a boy band (or maybe just Justin Timberlake). (And that's only bad if one insists on the platonic purity of art as strictly self-expression and a way to actually make a living.)

Courtesy of The Long Now Foundation, The Rosetta Project and the European Space Agency, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a historic space mission, the Rosetta comet probe, launch.
Jim Mason, my friend and the director of the Rosetta Project, and I went to French Guiana to see it:
Jim and Mike in Kourou.
Backup Stage 3
(pictures by Michel van Pelt of ESA)

It was no ordinary launch, in many ways. It was in the middle of the night, during Carnaval, with the most expensive piece of scientific space hardware ever built in Europe. The contrast between the earthly chaos of Carnaval, the heat of the jungle and the space mission with its cryogenic fuels was one of the peak experiences of my life. Despite the fact that I was actually unable to see the thing lift off (Jim stayed for it, but getting in and out of French Guiana is tough and I took the charter back with most of the rest of the observers), I had an amazing time. Thank you to everyone who made it possible!




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