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Dealing With All Our Stuff

Innovation and insight are contextual. Their worth is a function of the problem they solve, the darkness they cast light into. I have this cycle of insights I run through every so often.

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As the number of simultaneous projects I'm working on builds up, or the sheer mass of stuff in my home or office piles up, I start to complain that I need more time, I need more space. No sooner do I reach this conclusion than I realize that this is the wrong insight. Or at least it's impractical. Nobody's going to give me more time or space. The helpful insight is that I have too many projects going on. I have too much stuff. I need to simplify.

No sooner do I reach that conclusion than I realize that I enjoy my projects. I like my stuff. My life has grown complicated, it's true, but while I'm not in love with this complexity, I like all the elements of it.

So finally, I come to the boring conclusion that I just need to get organized.

And that's always true, and always possible. I can always get better at managing my projects and my stuff. There are always new tools and strategies that I can apply to manage the complexity. I've decided that constantly having to come up with new ways to deal with all your stuff may be a sign of maturity.

Let me tell you about two relevant startups.

In March, Yahoo revealed that it was acquiring Summly, a mobile app company started by a 17-year-old from London. Actually, Nick D'Aloisio launched Summly two years ago, when he was 15. The app summarizes news stories. It has won a best-of-the-year award from Apple and the latest version has seen 3/4 of a million downloads just since November.

The hook for most of the news stories about the acquisition (which, presumably, Summly would pick up on) was D'Aloisio's age. And why not? A bright young kid comes up with a good idea and becomes a millionaire overnight. It's an inspiring story. But what I want to focus on is the problem that Summly attempts to solve, a problem that Yahoo thinks is worth (reportedly) 30 million dollars to tackle.

What Summly does is to grab news articles relevant to the user's interests and summarize them in a couple of sentences. It uses genetic algorithms and machine learning for its summarizing, according to D'Aloisio.

Let's gloss over the thought that if a news story is written in good journalistic inverted-pyramid style, you ought to be able to summarize it in two sentences by just grabbing the first two sentences. Yahoo surely knows more about this than you or I, and if Yahoo thinks there's 30 million dollars of value in the technology, there probably is. Anything that reduces the amount of information we have to process is a good thing in my book. As others writing about the acquisition have pointed out repeatedly, we live in a tl;dr world (You know: "too long; didn't read"). Summly was designed to address that problem.

That's one startup story.

The other story involves another young man with an idea. Mario Facusse was a sickly boy, spending much of his childhood in hospitals in his native Honduras. His condition wasn't diagnosed until years later. Spending a lot of time in bed, he got heavily into computers. His bedroom was apparently one big game machine. After a while, his health improved enough for him to attend college, where he studied engineering and played around with physics.

Facusse got intrigued with the idea of passive cooling and started looking for a way to cool all the hardware he had accumulated in his bedroom. All those fans were keeping him awake at night.

Eventually he hit upon an efficient, practical solution for cooling computers passively. He shopped the idea around and found people who were interested, but the plan didn't really come together until he realized that the right market was servers. About then, his condition medical took a turn for the worse and he began to doubt that he would live long enough to bring his technology to market. Then, an experimental treatment in Germany reversed the condition and apparently brought about a cure. Three years later, his company, Xyber Technologies, is going strong, developing and selling passive cooling systems for server farms.

So yes, another young man with an idea who triumphed over adversity and turned his idea into a successful technology firm. And you might think that there was no other connection between the two stories. But they are really about the same thing.

In 1961, Rolf Landauer theorized that there was a fundamental connection between the processing of information and the production of heat. Just last year, researchers at the University of Augsburg in Germany appear to have proven Landauer's theory. To reset a single bit, they showed, generates a minimum amount of heat; and the point is that this is a fundamental limit set not by the design of devices, but by the nature of information itself. Heat dissipation in computer chips is not merely a matter of mechanics, but is inherent in the processing of information.

So Facusse was really addressing the same problem as D'Aloisio. Ultimately, both their innovations were designed to address the glut of information, even though one was dealing with news stories and the other with heat. The information age is afflicting us with a fever of information, and more and more, we are looking for tools to let us chill a little.

So if the breakthrough technologies of today are really all about coming up with new ways to deal with all our stuff, both mental and mechanical, does that mean that the industry is maturing?

For many years, Michael Swaine wrote the "Swaine's Flames" column in Dr. Dobb's Journal.

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