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NASA Space Science Technology

Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation' 437

Posted by timothy
from the hitler-did-a-lot-of-stuff dept.
Geoffrey.landis writes "In an essay discussing the space program, author Neal Stephenson suggests that the decline of the space program 'might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.' He suggests that we may be suffering from innovation starvation: 'Innovation can't happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.'" Though the context is different, this reminds me of economist Tyler Cowen's premise that the U.S. has for decades been in a Great Stagnation.
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Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation'

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  • by pieterh (196118) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:37PM (#37613862) Homepage

    Actually I'd conclude that patents are a main cause that innovation has stagnated in the last 20 years. Innovation depends on sharing knowledge.

    What I really wonder is whether the strangulation of research will put our survival at risk at a time in history when we need to be smarter than ever about how we use energy, land, water, and raw materials? Why patents are evil. [ipocracy.org]

    • by Anrego (830717) * on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:42PM (#37613946)

      So what is the solution?

      Not snarky, I'm serious. I totally agree, patents have created a world where unless you are a huge company, it's pretty damn hard to invent something new. All the patent nonsense has raised the bar way above the head of the garage tinkerer, and given that this is where a lot of earlier innovation came from, that seems like a really bad thing.

      But at the same time, I don't like the idea that if I spend a year of my time developing something, someone else can spend 2 weeks making a slight improvement and start selling it.

      How do we let people invent stuff while at the same time preventing blatant rip-offs and ensuring inventors get paid for their work.

      • by 0123456 (636235) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:02PM (#37614250)

        But at the same time, I don't like the idea that if I spend a year of my time developing something, someone else can spend 2 weeks making a slight improvement and start selling it.

        If your idea is so simple that someone else can copy it and improve it in two weeks, why should you have the armed might of the state preventing them from doing so?

        If I also spend a year of my time developing the same idea, but complete my work a week after yours, why shouldn't I have the same rights you do? I spent all that time and now you're saying I can't use my own invention just because you finished a few days earlier?

        • by Anrego (830717) * on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:16PM (#37614434)

          I spent all that time and now you're saying I can't use my own invention just because you finished a few days earlier?

          Hold on there, I didn't say that anywhere. In fact, I agree that this is a big problem with the current system. The whole point of my post was that the current system is flawed (but that simply having no system wouldn't work either).

          If your idea is so simple that someone else can copy it and improve it in two weeks, why should you have the armed might of the state preventing them from doing so?

          Both time figures were somewhat unrealistic, but the point is copying something is usually a lot cheaper and quicker than developing something from scratch. Certainly I think something could be ripped off after release long before an inventor would see his profit.

          That, and some "simple" things come out of long periods of trying to solve a problem. The end solution might be a simple widget, but coming up with that widget as a solution to the problem may have involved significant resources. If someone can then just start producting that widget with no money going to the people who came up with it, you'll see people a lot less willing to spend money inventing.

          • by smellsofbikes (890263) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:52PM (#37614914) Journal

            Both time figures were somewhat unrealistic, but the point is copying something is usually a lot cheaper and quicker than developing something from scratch. Certainly I think something could be ripped off after release long before an inventor would see his profit.

            That, and some "simple" things come out of long periods of trying to solve a problem. The end solution might be a simple widget, but coming up with that widget as a solution to the problem may have involved significant resources. If someone can then just start producting that widget with no money going to the people who came up with it, you'll see people a lot less willing to spend money inventing.

            I'm not sure this answers your question: I work in an area -- integrated circuit design for consumer markets -- where we can patent things until we're blue in the face, and someone else can still come up with another implementation that does the same thing we do, and get it to market. (Despite what so many people claim, the US patent office *does* reject things for being too obvious, like, oh, say, building an LED driver that can work with wall dimmers, so if you want to build those you have to build a specific implementation of a dimmer driver, and patent that, and then someone else will just find another clever way of doing it.) So we do the research, build a product, and everyone else copies it. But we still make money, and the way we do that is by choosing markets where we know it'll take long enough for the copies to hit the market that we'll have already repaid our investment and made a profit. I'm not saying that's the best way of doing things, but one nice side-benefit is that instead of just one solution to the problem, there are a half-dozen, and that's a huge amount of information being dumped into the public pool for future inventors to use. We almost don't need patents at all, because they don't actually help us -- but they do help the world, by requiring people to publish their implementations to problems. We keep investing on innovation because we make money, and the world gets a lot of value from that, as a very nice side-effect.

            Now where that doesn't work is, say, drugs. It costs us like I dunno let's say a million dollars to bring a new IC to market. We can recoup that in six months. It takes more like a billion dollars to get a new drug on the market, so you either need to find something that is going to sell a billion dollars in six months or you need long-term patent protection. Maybe that means we should have variable patent lengths, maybe patents should expire in 5 years unless you reapply for continued protection. I don't know. But patents have some obvious and huge benefits over trade secrets. We have trade secrets we've kept for 30 years, and some of them appear to me to be exactly the sort of stuff that'd really help a lot of other designers. I don't think that's a great idea either.

            • The $1 billion cost from pharma R&D has been questioned [slate.com].

              Even if it were true, pharma can easily make that in the patent life of the drug. Let alone the derivatives that they will patent after it.

              • I don't think $55 million passes the smell test, either. Why would it not work for a public company to do (revenues-profits)/FDA_approvals over a two decade time span? Even then, it doesn't prove that Pharma couldn't have brought good two drugs to market for the cost of one home run. It suggests that Pharma believes one home run is worth a pair of extra base hits.

                Then usual PR ruse then kicks in. After you pack your squad with nine 50 home-run hitters, divide your Yankee payroll by total number of hits

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Because many things seem simple in hind sight.

          As to your other questions. it's called 'tough luck'. Sorry, but life is filled with 'tough luck'.
          Would a more equitable way be better? yes. However I can't thing of a way that wouldn't escalate the patent trolling problem even more.

          For the record, much of what gets called 'patent trolling' in /. isn't actually patent trolling.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:05PM (#37614296)

        Not trying to steal the thread, and these are not perfect solutions but I suspect they would have a huge impact on bogus litigation and create an ongoing boom innovation investment...

        * 5 year legal monopoly beginning the day you file the patent.
        This will force patent holders to put up or shut up. You invest in your patent now or forfeit your monopoly.

        * A producer requirement rule, you automatically lose in infringement litigation if you do not produce a product or service based on your patent.
        I witnessed first hand an engineer who was paid per technical drawing to develop "innovative" patentable designs based on the work of others he found on the internet. He and the patent troll that paid him never invested time, money or effort into creating prototypes or marketable products. The product was a stream of patents that the troll marketed to patent holding ventures to use in future lawsuits against actual producers which may even include the original developers who posted pictures and video of their work online.

        A producer rule would not stop lone engineers developing ideas and selling them but they would end up in the hands of producers who would have a limited amount of time (see the 5 year rule) to invest in actually producing the product or service based on the patent.

      • by pieterh (196118)

        The solution is legally enforced sharing of knowledge. That is, you can steal anyone's ideas and they can steal yours right back. This is how the fashion industry works and the notion that "big guys will steal your precious ideas" is shown to be bogus. The state should enforce mandatory share-alike on every aspect of technology. The large firms will complain they have no motive to invest. Fine, allow the small ones to.

      • by ArcherB (796902)

        So what is the solution?

        Well, there are several solutions.

        First, stop the patenting of the obvious. For example, multi-touch [cnet.com] on a touch screen. Or a patent for a rectangle smart phone with icons. [cultofmac.com]

        Next, stop patenting how people use things. The multi-touch (above) is an example. Could you imaging what the GUI would be like if Apple were able to patent the double-click?!!? How about if Ford patented where hands were placed on a steering wheel? Could Gibson patent a guitar chord or method for rock stars to bash a guitar on st

    • Patents aren't evil. Only in a perfect utopian world could somebody develop an idea and not have to fear it being ripped off for the profit of others. Intellectual property laws protect innovation - not deter it. There is so much ignorance in that link you have there that I wouldn't even know where to start to tear it apart.

      And you make it seem like patents are something new but it existed during America's greatest years of innovation.

      • by 0123456 (636235) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:55PM (#37614152)

        Patents aren't evil. Only in a perfect utopian world could somebody develop an idea and not have to fear it being ripped off for the profit of others.

        I've worked in a patent-heavy industry. There was no 'innovation' being protected, because every company had to cross-license their patents with every other company in order to remain in business. The only things the patents did were keep more efficient competitors out of the market and keep patent lawyers well paid.

        • by Anrego (830717) *

          I said this in an earlier post, but I think we need a better system. We need to protect people from getting ripped off, but we need to allow people to innovate and invent without needing a huge team of lawyers.

          I haven't got any ideas.. does anyone?

          • by pieterh (196118) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:21PM (#37614486) Homepage

            Yes, it's quite simple. Take existing models that work, copy those. Use science, not philosophy. Fashion, food, open source. Industries that are incredibly innovative and where ideas are properly treated as worthless. It's execution that counts, not ideas. Here's an idea: "send a man to the moon". Now execute that.

            To suggest that innovation needs patents is like suggesting reproduction needs divorce lawyers.

            • Food is innovative?

              Brother, the last time I was surprised about a bit of food was Tang.

              And it wasn't a particularly good surprise.

              Keep working on the analogies.

        • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:38PM (#37614700) Homepage

          I've worked in a patent-heavy industry. There was no 'innovation' being protected, because every company had to cross-license their patents with every other company in order to remain in business. The only things the patents did were keep more efficient competitors out of the market and keep patent lawyers well paid.

          .

          Same here. And I've been told directly by corporate patent lawyers not to see if anything I'm inventing might infringe on someone else's patents, because 1) something involved in what I'm making almost certainly does and 2) if you do a patent search that can show willful violation which is treble damages and screws up the "we both infringe each other so let's create a sharing agreement based on the relative value of our portfolios" negotiations.

          As you say, the main real effect is to create an artificial barrier to entry into an industry when it's a minefield of patents.

          The other real effect is to give patent trolls free reign to ruin the real innovation that these patent-holding corporations are engaging in because they're immune to the "well you're infringing too so let's just strike a deal and get on with business" tactic, having no products of their own.

      • Developing an idea does not mean you can claim whole ownership of it. You OWE for what our forebears wrought. All inventions draw on millions of years of human existence and progress. Intellectual Property laws draw a line in the sand, only perspective dictates if that line provides net good or ill. As it stands now, from my perspective, if you stripped away all IP protections, people would still invent shit.
      • by pieterh (196118)

        So kindly point to any argument in my blog on patents that you consider "ignorant" rather than making blanket dismissals. If you don't know "where to start to tear it apart", you're showing the emptiness of your position. Patent (not "intellectual property") laws protect big business, which is why the only ones lobbying for them are big business.

      • by itsdapead (734413)

        And you make it seem like patents are something new but it existed during America's greatest years of innovation.

        As technology advances and becomes more specialized, patents become less and less workable. Patents ultimately depend on patent offices and courts being able to make judgements on whether the patented invention is novel or obvious, whether the patent describes it in sufficient detail, whether another product infringes or, even, whether the subject area should be patentable - what sort of incredible polymath is actually qualified to do that with modern technology? (if you want a laugh, go over to Groklaw and

      • by cpt kangarooski (3773) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:38PM (#37614692) Homepage

        Intellectual property laws protect innovation - not deter it.

        Well, that statement is overbroad and wrong anyway.

        Trademark, copyright, trade secret, publicity, etc. all fall under the umbrella of 'intellectual property' but have nothing at all to do with innovation. You're really only talking about patents, and it would help matters if you'd say so more clearly. The whole term 'intellectual property' really just adds confusion; it's best avoided.

        In any case, what patents are meant to encourage is the invention, disclosure, and bringing to market of useful, novel, nonobvious inventions that otherwise would not have been invented, disclosed, and brought to market, whilst placing no or minimal restrictions on the public in terms of scope and duration, all in order to provide the greatest public benefit for the least harm to the public.

        But make no mistake; patents can discourage innovation:

        For example, patents aren't free; it costs a fair bit of money to get a patent. Thus, an inventor who comes up with numerous patentable inventions, all of which he could invent, disclose, and bring to market, might have to spend time and money seeking a patent, thus reducing the resources he has available to spend on his inventions directly. If the inventions he chooses to pursue first turn out to be duds, he could be left unable to pursue the others for a lack of resources.

        Another example is that patents don't confer a right to practice the invention, or build devices embodying it, etc. Patents are a negative right, and only allow a patent holder to prohibit other people from using the invention in certain ways. Thus, if Alice invents something, and Bob invents some improvement to that thing, they can both get patents, but Alice cannot use Bob's invention without Bob's permission, and Bob can't use his own invention without Alice's permission, and neither of them is obligated to grant permission to the other. This means that an invention can exist, and be well-known, and be entirely kept off of the market for many years (perhaps longer than it's of any value, if the later invention is eclipsed by things that are better still), depriving everyone of most of its value to society.

        Only in a perfect utopian world would patents have only beneficial effects. In the real world, they cause both good and ill, and it's important not to lose sight of that, lest you become unable to steer the system so as to produce the most good effects and the fewest bad effects.

        And you make it seem like patents are something new but it existed during America's greatest years of innovation.

        Not so much as you think. Patents existed, sure, but a patent is just a piece of paper. You have to go to court in order to enforce it on someone else, and for many long stretches of American history, courts tended to find against patent holders for various reasons. From, oh, the 1930's to the creation of the Federal Circuit in 1982, a patent holder stood little chance of success when suing an infringer in the US. I wouldn't go so far as to say that patents may as well not have existed during that time, but they were vastly weaker than they are now. It certainly didn't seem to do much harm during some of our greatest years of innovation. Perhaps you'd agree that weak patents might not be such a bad idea after all?

    • by ArhcAngel (247594)
      The submission has the main cause in it. Fear of losing. Our society has come to treasure the status quo so much they aren't willing to risk what they have to make something else. The use of Patents is just one of the ways we are using to keep what's ours. Take all our toys away and watch how creative we become.
    • by sosume (680416)

      Dude, all these 'evil' patents will expire within the next 20 years. If these 20 years are crucial for the existence of mankind, we made some booboos in the past and we're beyond repair already. Just sayin'.

    • Far too many times we read about how some schools do away with valedictorians and the like, where no one can be better than another person. Everyone gets to be on the team in some sports for young children around here, barely stopping that at High School.

      We have built a system that does not celebrate the best of us but instead tries to convince us that everyone is born equal and should be treated as such. You cannot bring down the brightest to bring up the dimmest. It just doesn't work. If anything we shoul

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Since the first paragraph is factual wrong, I didn't bother to read the rest of the link.

      You're conclusion is wrong. We had patents during strong innovation and big project days.
      Patent are the cornerstone to all that work. Removing the monopoly removes the incentive.
      Now, the counter argument is the inventor will invent anyways; however what is always overlooked is cost of development. For most modern development it take a lab and a team. These cost money and resources. No company would back any RnD they did

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The cold war was great for this. Massive amounts of money were dumped into stuff with the only goal being "get it done before the other guys". Some stuff needs a tonne of money and time sunk into basic research with only a thin vision of the end goal to happen.

    These days, we are very good at the standard cycle of:
    a) release product
    b) collect feedback
    c) update product based on feedback
    d) release updated product

    A business man can understand "if we spend 2 years an $xx researching hard drive technology, it wil

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      The cold war was great for this. Massive amounts of money were dumped into stuff with the only goal being "get it done before the other guys".

      And mostly it was a collossal waste of money. Trillions of dollars spent and nothing much of use at the end of it which wouldn't have been created anyway for far less.

      • by marnues (906739)
        You can back up that statement how? Your dogma is showing. Might be best to understand why it's uninspiring and certainly doesn't add anything to this conversation.
        • by Smallpond (221300)

          Nuclear weapons research, ICBMs, Trident missile submarines - many trillions of dollars. None of it contributes to civilian uses, all innovations since the 40's are still classified.

          • by jklovanc (1603149) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:00PM (#37615040)

            ICBMs contributed to launch vehicle technology which contributed to satellite technology which contributed to a lot of things.
            Yes there were a lot of money spent on things that are now obsolete due to the end of the cold war. There were also a lot of things that may never have been built without it. GPS is an excellent example of this. It was originally a Defence Department project because the military needed a way to target munitions accurately and to track it's assets. Private companies have tried and failed to put up satellite constellations, think Uridium, but the Government paid for GPS and ensured that it worked. Another major project that was advanced by the military was the US Interstate system. There was a lot of opposition to paying for the system but the defence department chipped in quite a bit because one of the considerations in the placement of these highways was the movement of troops and materials during time of war.

            Look at all the things that come out of DARPA [darpa.mil]. Many DARPA technologies are now in civilian use.

            Yes, there has been a lot of money spent on the military in the 20th century. It is also debatable whether or not it was a waste. Is it a waste for a bank to spend millions of dollars on a safe that will never be attacked by thieves because the thieves know they can never get in? I have a saying; any state not sufficiently protected by military assets will soon become the property of another state. Were the Trident submarines a waste? Maybe. Did Trident submarines ever fire a nuke in anger? No. Did they deter the USSR from attacking the US and the countries it protects? Maybe.

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      We are less good at "hey you smart guys! here's a few billion dollars and a huge lab... give us something cool".

      It's worse than that. Especially here in the US, it's more like "hey you smart guys! We hate and resent you, and our twisted religion says that you're all blasphemers."

  • Its the war (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sgt scrub (869860)

    The space program was killed in the 70's because of the Vietnam war. Carter tried to return the U.S. to a space and science society but got caught up in the beginning of the newest form of war.

    • by Hartree (191324)

      Carter tried to return the US to being a space and science society? I'd sure not agree on space.

      His VP was Walter Mondale, who along with William Proxmire with input from James Van Allen nearly got the office of manned spaceflight shut down.

      Nasa did not do well under his administration. The great achievements were from long previous. The shuttle was completed in spite of them rather than due to them. And do you really think they would have done something better if it had been abandoned? Remember that was th

  • by vlm (69642)

    Did he hibernate thru the dotcom era?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by marnues (906739)
      The dotcom world is a service sector based on solid technology. It is not a manufacturing sector and the hardware necessary is not manufactured here, let alone requires anything like a big R&D project. The Internet/WWW are another conclusion of refining technologies developed in the 40s and 50s. Very big and important in a social context, but it is not itself a moon landing or a smallpox vaccine. Cowen's belief is the Internet will enable us to create a new big thing. The new big thing must be real
      • by geekoid (135745)

        It's a false premise to presume next big things aren't based on previous things. That always are.
        And the internet was the next big thing. To say otherwise s to be living under a rock.

        "real innovation"
        that's a nonsense statement that makes me think you don't know what innovation means.

        "something novel"
        Please name one novel big thing? Small pox vaccine was based in previous technology and knowledge, the moon landing was all based on previous technology.

  • by Hatta (162192) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:37PM (#37613882) Journal

    Sounds a lot like today.

  • by toxygen01 (901511) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:39PM (#37613908) Journal
    Even though I'm not a big fan of cutting the NASA budget, here is some (reasonable) reading about why is it good:
    http://tech.mit.edu/V130/N18/nasap.html [mit.edu]

    For fans of Neal, there was recently interview on goodreads with him (however, interviewer was, nicely said, boring):
    http://www.goodreads.com/topic/video_chat/14 [goodreads.com]

    and the evergreen of Neal @google (a lot of interesting ideas - e.g., about wikipedia):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnq-2BJwatE [youtube.com]
    • LOL yes because the same people who are cutting NASA's budget and think "government is too big" despite all the government services they rely on *really* care about the poor, don't they?
  • Markets do not work (Score:5, Interesting)

    by damburger (981828) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:42PM (#37613956)

    The period that Stephenson identifies with a decline in the ability to get 'big' things done coincidence near perfectly with the rise of neoliberalism in the west. The more markets are deregulated, the less ability we have to actually get things done, because corporations will break up anything large scale for profit - with the full cooperation of sleazy, dishonest politicians who are in their pockets.

    But a whole bunch of us are ingrained with a kind of market fundamentalism, that the 'invisible hand' will make things right if you just deregulate some more, that you simply cannot see any way to stave off this decline.

    It isn't just technology. This deregulated, global market lets 25,000 people starve to death each year, despite global agriculture producing enough food for each person get 3000 calories per day.

    Now cue the stream of /.ers defending their dead ideology because they can't face up to the fact that something they support, both with their ideas and their everyday activities, is so corrosive and destructive to our prospects for survival, happiness, and development.

    • by 0123456 (636235) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:43PM (#37613970)

      The period that Stephenson identifies with a decline in the ability to get 'big' things done coincidence near perfectly with the rise of neoliberalism in the west

      I believe you mispelt 'big government welfare statism'.

    • by DarkOx (621550) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:01PM (#37614234) Journal

      I don't see the evidence. I see plenty of cases where we can't get things done because the "rules" don't allow it. All they way down to the girl down the street can't open a Day Care or a Hair Salon because compiling with Government requirements written in by existing rent seeking industry or liberals who put risk avoidance ahead of basic pragmatism always seeking to eliminate any personal responsibility from everyone.

      We have never ever "deregulated" anything! Financial deregulation did not make it any more possible for me and few neighbors to get together and open bank! What it did was simply remove oversight from a group "winners" government had already picked, and continued to preserve them with barriers to entry.

      Real deregulation would be just that it would be repealing laws, WITHOUT writing new ones. Its never been tried, on any kind of scale. Still everyone points at "deregulation" as some failure of libertarian policy ideas when what the "deregulation" that has actually occurred does not even remotely resemble what and real libertarian would call deregulation!

      • by damburger (981828) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:04PM (#37614282)

        My entire life (born 1981) has been a history of market deregulation, so don't come at me with all that 'government gets in the way' horseshit. Deregulation has not protected pre-appointed 'winners', otherwise the dot com bubble would never have happened. Government has been rapidly getting out of the way for 3 decades plus, and the result has been a market running out of control with greed and bad information (which, according to the prophets of neoliberalism, shouldn't happen)

        Libertarians have their ideal, utopian state - its called Somalia. Kindly go live there.

        • by Plugh (27537)
          Actually, libertarians are actively engaged in creating a State with as little government as possible. ... and it's working [freestateproject.org]
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by damburger (981828)

            Its not a state, its a petition. You can try and create your pathetic little Galt's Gulch if you want, but after you've realised that you aren't quite the innovators you've convinced yourselves you are, and that you rely heavily on public goods, you will come crawling back.

          • by geekoid (135745)

            "Are you frustrated at the loss of freedom and responsibility in America, while the growth of government and taxes continues unabated?"
            see both those statement are false, I have a hard time getting on board with this thing. It's working, as in there getting there goal, but it won't work as a form of government. Because libertarians seem to be afraid to actually read history, here is a clue: we did that. Please look at robber barons, and industrialist of the late 19th and early 20th century.

            So it's been trie

    • by Toonol (1057698)
      It isn't just technology. This deregulated, global market lets 25,000 people starve to death each year, despite global agriculture producing enough food for each person get 3000 calories per day.

      No. Market forces allowed billions of people to be fed. Political forces starved 25,000 people. Plenty of people and businesses would have been glad to get food to them.
      • by damburger (981828)

        Wrong

        People are starving, primarily, because they can't afford food (The journal Nature did a good, sourced, infographic on this a few months back.) The idea that its Big Bad Government stopping the magic invisible hand supplying us with a utopia is not supported by the fact that the massive global deregulation of the last few decades has failed to make a significant dent on hunger. Furthermore, consider that the last time Russia got anywhere close to famine was not under the nasty old commies, but immediat

  • by RazzleFrog (537054) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:43PM (#37613972)

    The problem is that the education system teaches children only how to work towards passing an exam. There is no incentive to learn just for the sake of learning.

    • by toxygen01 (901511)
      This was actually basis for one of the questions asked in the interview with him which took place recently on goodreads (I pasted link to the video few posts above). I believe the question is asked somewhere between 0h:50m and 0h:51m
    • by Jeng (926980)

      Why is it the educations systems responsibility to provide incentive to learn for the sake of learning?

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        Why is it the educations systems responsibility to provide incentive to learn for the sake of learning?

        Kids go into the 'education system' wanting to learn. The 'education system' is what destroys that natural desire.

        I'm still amazed at the level of skill required for my teachers to take subjects that are naturally interesting and make them boring.

      • What other purpose does the education system serve if not to promote learning? Is it just to train another generation of unskilled laborers? I hate to tell you but those unskilled jobs are in other countries now. We better start teaching our kids how to embrace knowledge.

  • by hey (83763)

    is pretty big

    • Indeed it is. Bigger than Tevatron, which was bigger than the Cyclotron, and so forth. The technology in question has been *slowly marching ahead incrementally since the 1960s, which is what Stephenson is pointing out.
  • Cowen is good agitprop. Take some meaningless facts and irrelevant contradictory statistics, and suggest some absurb policy choices that are internally inconsistent with his own wrong data. Its good agitprop because on the agit side, read on an extremely small scale and out of context, some quotes are pretty rabble rousing, and on the prop side it does a good job of muddled thinking to maintain the status quo. Other than that, its just great.

    • by damburger (981828)

      Perhaps, but stagnation is definitely real. Here is a more scientific account of the exact problem:

      http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/

      (Those blog posts are best read in order, there aren't many.)

  • by lymond01 (314120) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:50PM (#37614060)

    Kennedy's Moon Speech [youtube.com]

    "We go to the Moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard."

    There's lots of innovation, but it's based around CEO income and stockholder investments. When we went to the Moon, we were threatened with the possibility of becoming #2 on a public stage. We may see this again with China, and redirect our public funds accordingly back to the space program. Or America may just roll over this time, financially broken after fighting multiple wars over the past 8 years. Or it may be that private industry, not public industry, gets the backing of huge investors and the Industrial Revolution begins again, this time to construct space-based mining platforms.

    I realize that most great achievements come from either survival instinct or financial gain (which are related). "What's in it for me?" seems to be how things generally work. I'd like to see more basic research funded so we can have better nanotubes, more efficient RAM, and light sabers. Oh, and teleportation.

  • Did you know that the vast bulk of New York's complex subway system, without which the city wouldn't function today, was built in about 25 years? Hundreds of miles of tunnels and bridges and stations. Meanwhile, today the city is struggling to build a couple miles of the 2nd Avenue Subway in less than a decade.

    Ditto Interstates and improved intercity rail. Our society's ability to do big projects just seems to be on the decline.

  • The risks of trying something hard (and expensive) and failing are too high. The media has convinced us that any failure must be followed by a blood-letting of the offenders rather than applauding their best efforts even if they failed. Until we can become a society that celebrates trying instead of only celebrating success we won't be doing hard stuff. Oddly, we give kids medals for getting last place in a banality contest and then when they become grown ups we accept no failure regardless of the original

  • We have lots of innovation - where we allow it.

    We do have several problems, as I see it: Science is being denigrated:

    1. By the leftish 'safety for all' crowd. The day we let some shmuck say our kids can't play with model rockets because they count as fireworks was the day we lost the space race. Truthfully, we half lost that war the day they said we couldn't buy fireworks. Scientists do experiments. Sometimes they blow things up. That is why the DOD hires them. If we want adult scientists we

  • by medcalf (68293) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:57PM (#37614186) Homepage
    Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as "bad luck."
  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:59PM (#37614194) Journal

    All the big unknowns appear to have shifted from physical to intellectual projects, like Finance. Credit default swaps were amazingly new, and amazingly risky on the down side, but we built that manned rocket to Jupiter and then watched it explode before our eyes as it tried to pick up too much speed around Mars and went careening into the planet, packed from stern to stem with all of our retirement money.

    And who would have thought that spending money on all sorts of interesting things, and deciding that nobody had to pay for it because we could borrow the money for just a couple cents on the dollar (and the people who could pay for it found ways not to pay), would end in tears. And yet, here we are in the US, desperately trying to figure out how to lock in that pennies rate to long term debt, 'cause if we see bond rates like we did under Reagan we're going to look like the dumb, ugly sibling compared to Greece.

    If you think big risks aren't being taken, you're wrong - they're just in different places.

  • big money. And right now there are a bunch of luddites coming to power who are economically clueless.

    We should have a program for solar power as large as the highway system
    We should be building new technology nuclear plants
    We should be poring money into energy storage research.
    We should be revamping the whole grid
    we should be building schools, and getting more educators.
    we should be improving public health.
    We should also tarif any country whose minimum work environment doesn't meat are federal guidelines.

    Ev

  • Innovation can't happen without accepting the risk that it might fail.

    The political reaction to a failed investment in Solyndra is a prime example. The company had some interesting solar cell technology that looked very promising. It has been argued that by increasing our investment in alternative energy we can kick oil and coal and become leaders of the new energy economy. Unfortunately we don't have the stomach for high risk/reward investments like we used to.

    • by couchslug (175151)

      "We" don't need to lead to benefit. Just as the US carried the ball for the rest of the world for decades, now the world can innovate and WE can get the benefits without risk.

  • by ideonexus (1257332) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:08PM (#37614328) Homepage Journal

    I appreciate the second link's take on things, with the "Low-Hanging Fruit" metaphor, but I think the author misses some key elements in how it applies to modern society. Fifty years ago, discovery and innovation was much easier and the things invented were just lying around (like oil) to be simply picked up and applied. Just as the Enlightenment 200 years ago resulted in an explosion of discoveries about the natural world because the realm of scientific knowledge was so small at the time... You couldn't investigate any natural phenomena without discovering a new element or species.

    It's getting harder and harder to push the frontiers of knowledge, and nearly impossible for and individual acting alone to do. In America we have this mythos of the "Great Man" a single inventor like Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Edison, but in reality these people are the exception while the rule is that it takes large teams and incredible financial investment to innovate today, but our mythos of innovation downplays the collaborative side of invention.

    Space Exploration is an important example of this. We emphasize Capitalism as the best engine for innovation, but it was Socialism that took man to the Moon. Capitalism is only just now reaching space, 40 years later. Teamwork accomplishes great things, but in America we emphasize individualism and personal profit, which are great motivators, but create silos of productivity that are disadvantaged for lacking the cross-pollination of ideas that comes with collaboration.

    Queue the "Marxist" ad hominem attack in 3... 2... 1...

    • by damburger (981828)

      I actually think Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Edison are examples of why the "Great Man" myth is bullshit, rather than counterexamples. Zuckerberg built a single application, that relied on billions of dollars worth of labour being invested in free software, and billions of dollars of R&D being done to develop the Internet in the first place. Jobs just gave a stylistic flair to some fairly ordinary hardware (which, again, drew heavily on expensive research someone else paid for). Edison basically stole a bunch

    • by rAiNsT0rm (877553)

      Socialism is a great thing for many areas of daily civilized life, I can't see how anyone would attack this notion except out of sheer ignorance. Roads, infrastructure, education, emergency systems, space, healthcare, etc. (I would say basic food, shelter, and clothing as well personally, and the arts.) Why we think these things need to be privatized or that they would somehow flourish if they were is beyond me. Anyone that has worked in private industry sees the incompetence, waste, and greed... why in the

  • by Fishbulb (32296)
    Reminds me of the premise behind the entire Dune series: humans won't do jack until they're oppressed (or feel that way).
  • It took like 50 years to build the pyramids.. they are a huge achievement not just from an engineering standpoint but a political view. Today, it's basically impossible for any long term project to survive multiple administrations/congresses without some politician cancelling it at the slightest excuse. That's what killed a long of scientific research projects.

  • While I agree with other comments about the downward trend of patents, and the lack of knowledge sharing, patents trend downwards in direct correlation to the increased concentration in wealth --- the US Chamber of Commerce, and other droids who repeat their talking points: "We must innovate our way out of this..." --- obviously ignore the fact as more and more people are heavily involved in day-to-day survivial (and Dumpster-diving for food, etc.) --- there is shrinking time and access to requisite resourc
  • by Baron von Daren (1253850) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:51PM (#37615736)

    I don’t think it is as much an issue of innovation as resource outlay. We live in a world where profit is the prime motive, and thus the prime value. This is fine for markets, but this mindset has overreached markets themselves and become the default value system for societies as a whole.

    In the past societies invested in large scale visions for reasons that aren’t always easy to articulate, but that were certainly not limited to economic gain. Whether it’s space exploration or building cathedrals and monuments, large scale projects require massive resources and corporate (as in group) commitment. Our epoch is dominated by self-interest (some might argue enlightened self-interest), market forces and market mentalities. Obviously, there is no incentive for corporations to outlay massive resources for projects that are either risky and/or that offer limited or negative ROI. But that’s not really the issue; I wouldn’t expect them to do so. The problem is that the market mentality has so thoroughly usurped dominance across all facets of society, the common opinion is that everything should be run like a business.

    If you run government like a business, or put differently if you govern your society as though it was a giant company, society has no place for grand vision. We are constantly told that only markets know what society needs and are best equipped to efficiently provide those needs. Of course it isn’t profitable to engage in these kind of projects (or not obviously profitable), so markets will not engage in them. Moreover, if government engages in them, it will require resources, i.e. taxes revenues, and we are constantly told that taxes destroy markets (though the actual data doesn’t bear this out). Anyway, I could follow this tangent into a political debate, but salient point for this thread is that we have become a market society and a market only values grand vision if it leads to obvious monetary profit. If the same resources can be spent toward a greater profit elsewhere it would ‘be foolish’ not to spent to spend it elsewhere.

One man's constant is another man's variable. -- A.J. Perlis

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