The Meaning of Invention

I ‘ve been trying to understand what it means to invent something and found this site very useful Wright Brothers History: The Tale of the Airplane A Brief Account of the Invention of the Airplane researched, written, and designed by Gary Bradshaw.

This graph really sums it up. You don’t have to be first but you do have to change the Paradigm.

Early flight distances

The Figure above depicts the longest flights made by various aircraft in the period 1890 to 1909. Green points represent the various Wright craft during this period. Blue points represent non-Wright craft made between 1890 and 1905, while red points represent non-Wright craft made from 1906 to 1909. Lines on the graph are regression functions. The flat blue line indicates that the field as a whole was making NO sustained progress through the end of 1905. This lack of progress is almost invariably true of individual inventors as well as the group as a whole. The positive slope of the Wright brothers indicates a steady progression in the ability of their heavier-than-air craft. Once details of the Wrights methods became public when their patent was issued in late 1905, other inventors quickly copied the important discoveries of the Wright brothers, and developed airplanes as capable as those of the Wrights.

I saw a Blackpool tram on the Embarcadero in San Francisco today. The destination on the side said “Tower“. At first I was dumb-struck and then I thought “That’s a bloody long way on a tram!”

Blackpool Boat Tram

I particularly liked the description of San Francisco’s Blackpool tram on the Market Street Railway website Every time I read it I hear Fred Dibnah‘s accent.

In England, “trolleys” are shopping carts. This is a “tram” and a special one at that….”

The tram drivers on the newly extended F-line that runs the length of Market Street and then along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf seem to like this tram. At lunchtime they park a few trams outside the newly renovated ferry building at the end of Market Street and all sit in the Blackpool tram to chat and eat. It really is quite a site. It’s even illuminated! For those who don’t know the Blackpool illuminations are a national institution in the UK and date back to the days when electric street lights were such a novelty that people would travel miles to see them.

Anyway all this got me thinking about trams and more particularly their rise, fall and recent resurrection as a serious form of public transportation.

In the UK Trams were introduced in the late 1800′s. Manchester, for example, had its first horse drawn tram in 1877. Steam power was tried for a while but rapidly replaced with electricity at the turn of the century. By 1927 British tramways as a whole operated 14,481 cars on 4110 km of track. The internal combustion engine soon proved a more flexible power source. Busses did not require expensive track or electrical power supply systems and private automobiles delivered the ultimate in personal transportation flexibility, not to mention increased social standing. After the second world war the automobile came within the financial reach of the average person and the trams were slowly phased out. The last tram in Manchester ran in January 1949, on the Manchester to Hazel Grove route. Its number was 1007.

By the 1970′s and 1980′s the automobile had became ubiquitous in many cities in the developed world. These cities became severely congested during the morning and evening rush hours. The virtues of the old trams that had been scrapped in the 1950′s slowly became self-evident. A well organized and run public transport system based on trams can carry greater numbers of people with more efficiency in and out of major cities than open access to private motor cars can support. This is definitely true of the relatively compact cities developed before the motor car but the sprawling cities developed since its invention, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, can probably never be saved.

Trams returned to Manchester with the opening of the Metrolink in 1992 the first test run through the City streets was made by vehicle number 1007. The Metrolink has proved so successful that other UK Cities are following Manchester’s lead and reviving tram systems. lists 41 current light railway systems being built in cities around the world.

I think the trend of rebuilding tram systems in major cities is a response to the way automobile congestion affects transportation networks. All commuters act out of self-interest by trying to shorten their journeys both in duration and distance. By having their own single or double occupancy vehicles commuters also have the convenience of traveling to a particular location at a time that is convenient for them. This strategy is more efficient than top down regulated systems of multiple occupancy vehicles with limited routes (Busses). But only up to a point. That point is somewhere just short of gridlock when journey time increase significantly. Here it becomes more efficient to travel together in multiple occupancy vehicles on a limited number of routes. Or at least it would be if everyone did so, the problem is that multiple occupancy vehicles get caught in the same traffic. There are two main ways of solving this problem.

  1. Reduce traffic by punishing travelers for using selfish, low occupancy, modes of transportation. London’s new tax on entering the city in an automobile is exactly this type of punishment.
  2. Provide segregated routes for multiple occupancy vehicles. Bus lanes, car pool lanes, and segregated tram lines all provide this form of advantage. This still leaves the question of why trams and not busses? A debate that appears to have been going on for years with no clear conclusion.

On 24 July 2003 Reporters Without Borders was suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Commission for one year. For details of why this injustice happened see my previous entry Farce at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Reporters Without Borders have published a press release and a report on the commission’s accelerating decline, entitled UN Commission on Human Rights Loses all Credibility. Wheeling and dealing, incompetence and non-action.

The results of the vote on the suspension of the consultative status of Reporters without borders :

In favour (27): Azerbaijan, Benin, Bhutan, Brazil, Burundi, China, Congo, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Iran, Jamaica, Kenya, Libya, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Against (23): Andorra, Australia, Chile, El Salvador, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Peru, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and United States.

Abstentions (4): Argentina, Ecuador, Japan, and Senegal.

Taken from the Reports without Borders press release

It seems Argentina, Ecuador, Japan and Senegal were too spineless to even have an opinion! The report by Reporters Without Borders makes clear that the noble idea of the United Nations Human Rights Commission is far from it’s ignominious reality.

I just watched Lawrence Lessig‘s speech, Free Culturefor a second time. The recording below was made at the O’Reilly Open Source Convention 2002 where Lessig delivered the keynote. It is a superb example of a well designed and delivered power point presentation. It is also very persuasive.

Throughout the presentation Lessig repeats the refrain:

  1. Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  2. The past always tries to control the creativity that builds on it.
  3. Free societies enable the future by limiting the past
  4. Ours is less and less a free society.

He concludes with the observation…

Extending copyright perpetually… is itself a form of theft – a theft of our common culture.

It worries me when a lawyer as smart as Lessig calls on people to defend long held freedoms. He strikes me as very level headed and clear thinking and when he claims there is something to be defended I believe he is probably right.

Cooperation in Balinese Rice Farming by J. Stephen Lansing and John H. Miller

This great article explains in clear terms how Balinese rice farmers acting in self interest and following a few simple rules have caused the emergency of a large scale system that tends to maximize rice yields given the prevailing constraints.

Balinese rice fields

For centuries Balinese rice farmers have engaged in cooperative agricultural practices. Without centralized control, farmers have created a carefully coordinated system that allows productive farming in an ecosystem that is rife with water scarcity and the threat of disease and pests.

It seems to me that P2P computing networks are in some ways analogus to the rice famers networks of fields and irrigation channels. Yet they have so far failed to produce any large scale emergent features, unless you count the destruction of the music industry as an emergent feature! The current crop of P2P systems seem to lack the simple rules that lead to emergent properties. I suspect it will not be too long before we see P2P systems that feature these simple rules and produce large scale emergent features.