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Swaine's Flames: Piggybacking at the Skunkworks

It might have been a farmhouse back in the days when this valley was all orchards. It was the sort of building that realtors grab onto for their own offices, and had probably seen many renovations and all sorts of tenants over the years, but today the sign above the wide front porch read "Piggyback Skunkworks."

"Pardon the mess, we're still moving in," my Cousin Corbett said as he led me through the din of carpenters and masons working in the front hallway and into his office, which would probably have been called a parlor when the building was young. The noise level was only relatively lower there, since his office was currently lacking a door.

"I'm glad you're writing for Dr. Dobb's again," he said as we sat in uncomfortable but trendy chairs at a round glass table in the center of the otherwise almost empty room. Aside from some building materials, the only other thing in the room was an antique telephone table next to the door with what from this angle looked like some sort of gameboard on it. I was about to thank him when he added, "Now you can write about Piggyback Skunkworks."

Several sheets of plywood that had been leaning precariously against the wall behind me fell to the floor with a sound that sent me to my feet, my heart doing a Buddy Rich impersonation.

"What we do," he went on, ignoring the interruption and my reaction... "are you going to write this down? What we do is develop incremental innovations."

I picked up my chair and reoccupied it, fumbling for my pen and notepad. "That means something, I suppose?" I was beginning to discern individual themes in the general cacaphony outside. Mixed in with the melodic lines of carpentry and stonework, I was fairly sure I could pick out empassioned voices, telephones ringing, at least one pinball machine, and, distantly, gunfire.

"It means that we seek out centers of high creativity, identify promising innovations, and come up with a minor tweaks that leverage them."

"You feed off other people's creativity."

"Piggybacking is what we call it. Our company slogan is 'Standing on the Shoulders of Giants'."

I identified the source of the pinball sounds. Looking across the hall I could see into a larger office or workroom where several games were in use. "What do you mean by 'centers of high creativity'?"

"Oh, it could be a company that innovates a lot, like Google, or a company that people innovate around, like Twitter, or it could be a technology that has the potential to drive new ideas, like WiFi, or a single invention that attracts a lot of press, like the Segway."

"Okay, let's take those one at a time. How do you piggyback on Google?"

"Easy. Google invents so many things it can't keep track of all of them. Take its logo variations, or doodles."

"Its logo var -- oh, you mean like how they change 'Google' on holidays and other special occasions?"

"Right. Google has created so many of those one-off logo variations that they've given up trying to keep track of them, so a third-party website could do well just warehousing those things so they don't disappear like old TV show kinescopes."

"You had the brilliant idea of archiving Google doodles?"

"I wish. There are several websites like that already. But that's the kind of thing we plan to do."

"So let me see if I understand the concept. You take some innovation like Google Wave and try to take it to the next step? But a baby step?"

"Bingo. In fact, I can't tell you too much about it, but we're working on a piggyback for Google Wave right now. In Wave, Google is trying to integrate every kind of communication, okay, but we push it to the next step: we ask, 'What did they leave out?'"

"So what did they leave out?"

"Nonverbal communication." He raised his eyebrows and lowered his voice. "We're developing a way to integrate emotions and facial expressions into Google Wave."

"Like Smileys?"

He made a facial expression at me. It wasn't smiley.

"Oh," I said, "I think I can do this! Google Maps for the inside of buildings! Beyond Street View to Hallway View! Cubicle View! Your-Boss's-Office View!"

"It's been done. Ankit Agarwal beat us to that one."

"Hmm. This is harder than it looks. I guess sometimes there isn't a next step."

"There's always a next step, Michael. I'll show you, I'll make up a next step for your example. Google Maps: The Fantastic Voyage."

"You mean like that Raquel Welch movie where these people shrink down to microscopic size and are injected into some guy's bloodstream?"

"We'd just need to set up a company, acquire venture capital, license the technology, the DoD probably has what we'd need, and promote it. That's bigger than the kind of thing we hope to do, but it's just a for-instance."

"It's just weird, is what it is. Let's try something sensible. You said Segway? Segway was a genuine innovation and it's been around for a while. Can you piggyback on a Segway?"

He smiled. "So to speak?"

"So to speak."

"We could, but that's also been done. There's a four-wheel-drive Segway, which is really innovative, given that a Segway only has two wheels, and there's a Segway autopilot. There are just amazingly creative people out there solving problems that don't exist. It's inspiring. That's why our R&D division is so crucial; we've got to get out in front of all that innovation. I'd introduce you to the team, but they're in the field right now."

The outer door opened and several people came through the hallway carrying trashbags that looked like they were full of trash. It surprised me that they would be carrying trash into the building, and then I realized that I was probably looking at the crack Piggyback Skunkworks R&D team in action. "Um, how about WiFi? And by the way, is that gunfire?"

"Skeet shooting. At Piggyback Skunkworks we believe in providing a wide range of break-time recreational opportunities for our employees. WiFi, you said. WiFi's tough. We had a pilot project to mod a WiFi network to turn it into a device for seeing through walls, but a couple of guys in Utah beat us to market."

"Okay, how about Twitter?"

"There's a lot of good piggybacking out there already, like Twitter for Your Jewish Mother. We're thinking about a plug-in that automatically inserts your name into the Twitter Suggested Users List. We know we could sell that to Robert Scoble and Dave Winer."

"It seems like..." I paused as I realized what it was on the telephone stand: a Ouija Board. "Uh, it seems like the Twitter challenge comes in figuring out new things to do with it, right? Like, what can't be said in 140 characters?"

"Given that a court order has now been served via Twitter, apparently there is nothing that can't be said in 140 characters. The idea that a lawyer could ever hold himself to 140 characters is truly inspiring. Even a Twitter sonnet is not impossible."

"I have to call you on that. How can you write a sonnet in 140 characters?"

"Do the math, Michael. A sonnet is 14 lines of iambic pentameter. An iambic foot is two syllables, with the accent on the second. Pentameter is five feet per line. That's 10 syllables per line. That works out to exactly one syllable per character. Totally doable."

"Prove it." I thought I had him, but Cousin Corbett is not easily had.

"Okay, Here's the first line of a sonnet titled 'The DaVinci Cone' by Dan Beige of our staff. It's about an employee in a Dairy Queen trying to decipher a hard-to-read handwritten note from a customer:


"It's very McLuhanesque. Literally, it's about the employee referring to the individual letters of the note, a 'D,' a 'Q,' and so on, but reading between the lines, or rather between alternate letters, we find the customer's message."

I shook my head. "If I actually saw that written in a tweet I'd never know it was a poem, or even meaningful. But recited as you did in iambic pentameter, it makes a twisted, pathetic sort of sense."

"You know how to fill that customer's order, don't you?"

"Sure. He wants a DQ, and he wants it PDQ. What else is in this alleged poem?"

"It's kind of an historical mystery; the customer's note turns out to contain obscure, dramatic references to the Nazi era:


"In that line Dan fits 10 syllables into five letters and a numeral, cutting himself some slack for punctuation."

I eyed him warily. "How far are you going to take this, Corbett?"

"You're right; quoting more than two lines of a sonnet probably exceeds the limits of fair use. I'll stop there."

I'm not sure about fair use, but he was sure pushing some kind of limit.

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