by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VII, No. XXXV

This Week's Clue: Bucky Fuller Saves The World

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This Week's Clue: Bucky Fuller Saves The World
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
Bringing Back The Album
Smart Card Tower Of Babel
Uniform Broadband Rules Still Years Away
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of September 1, 2003

Rice University has always been a tolerant, inquisitive, strange little island in a vast conformist sea . It's a college no bigger than my high school , which until a few years ago competed regularly with multi-versities like Texas A&M in the old Southwest Conference.

Howard Hughes spent a year there, and we count him as an alum. John Doerr got his B.A. from Rice a few months before I arrived there. James Treybig used to keep everyone in his company on a one-page org chart, even after Tandem became a $500 million outfit. The founding editors of "Texas Monthly" were Rice people, as was the producer of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

But the ultimate Rice person, to my mind, neither attended nor taught there. He spoke there for just an hour, and I remember him vividly. He was a very old man then, but he stood ramrod straight, and his voice rang clear, and as he grew excited the words and sentences and concepts would overflow so you could barely keep up with him, the way a small child will overflow his buffer and start gurgling at his mother, so she just has to smile.

His name was R. Buckminster Fuller , or Bucky to his friends. He wasn't rich, and he wasn't really famous. He talked a bit about his Dymaxion car, and his geodesic dome, but his real message didn't have to be spoken. His presence spoke it for him. Don't care what "they" think of you, any of them, his presence said. You keep to your vision, no matter how strange it may seem it's yours. It's only when they say you're crazy that you will really know you're on to something new, so embrace the repression for what it is, simple ignorance.

This was one of the events that made me a journalist, and a journalist of a peculiar stripe. I don't care for hierarchies. I don't work for editors, I work for readers. As with Bucky this is not the way to wealth and fame, but it is a great way to keep young. The calendar calls me 48, but in my heart I will always be 13, foolish and angry and spitting fire.

Bucky's influence at Rice survived long after his passing. Nearly a decade later some chemists working with carbon detected a strange new particle, a carbon molecule that seemed to curl in upon itself, like a soccer ball, its atoms arranged along it in a perfect imitation of Bucky's geodesic dome. Naturally they called it a "Buckyball," and when pressed for a complete name dubbed it a "Buckmister Fullerene."

Had it stopped there it still would have earned a Nobel Prize (which it did, in 1996) . But of course it didn't stop there -- it just started there. If these atoms could align themselves into a ball, perhaps they might be persuaded to make themselves into a tube. You call them carbon nanotubes. We call them "Buckytubes."

As a ball Bucky was cute. As a tube Bucky can change the world.

Add it to wire and it conducts like copper at a fraction of the weight. Spin it long enough and you have an elevator to the stars. Money is flowing into the field borne of Bucky, dry nanotechnology, at a rate that biotech envies.

How did it start? Where it always starts, with one man who didn't care what others thought of his ideas, who saw the word "no" as an endorsement, and who cared less about money, fame or comfort than about being right in the end.

You don't have to nurture your Buckys, just tolerate them, give them a sandbox they will enjoy playing in, and mine the ore they develop. America's genius isn't that it grows Buckys, but that it draws them, all kinds. If India or China become better at this than we are, they will bury us. For the last few years they have. This must change.

Bucky demands it. No, he doesn't demand it, he would take your ignorance as a challenge. But you must demand it, now, or your children will pay the price in poverty and hopelessness.


SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

I currently work as a business analyst with Progressive Strategies , a New York research firm that has the ear of the world's top technology companies.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know . Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

Bringing Back The Album

A lot of analysts have been speculating that the move to online music sales will mean the "death of the album." (That's CD to you, son.)

In the U.S. music CD sales continue to fall while they're rising in the U.K. . Loyal fans in the U.S., however, seem able to keep even the most controversial artist's sales humming along .

The move by some older artists with long catalogs of hits (like the Rolling Stones into online music distribution is putting a new fear into the industry. Why would people buy an integrated set of songs one hour or more in length if they really just want one or two?

>From the music consumer's perspective there are plenty of reasons. A CD offers an hour-long journey, a single recording just a few minutes. Building a party (or a workout) out of singles from a hard drive takes time. And while singles are candy they are not a balanced diet.

Still, the idea of an album will change. I think many consumers will want to buy "mixes," an integrated collection of songs that may come from a variety of artists and are geared to specific tastes or tasks. I think that many artists (and their managers) will find themselves pushed into building "fan" Web sites, where they can try to drive monthly income with "special offers."

I also think the Apple idea of selling music by the "song" is going to be replaced by my concept of selling "time." (With perhaps a discount for buying an album's length of time.) All the incentives in the Apple plan, after all, point to shorter-and-shorter songs, if you're going to get the same money from two minutes as from five. And as we age, we demand more span in our attention. (I'm talking here about aging from 14 to 16 as well as from 40 to 60.)

In other words, going to online distribution is just one step in the evolution of music sales. It's up to artists, retailers, and music companies to offer consumers better value and better experiences. Those who are smart will adapt, but so long as the RIAA remains dedicated mainly to putting kids in jail rather than fighting the Russian Mafia's CD piracy, they won't benefit.


Smart Card Tower Of Babel

Smart cards, like many other Always-On technologies, have the opportunity to evolve in a standards-based way, based on privacy and consumer service.

That's not the way it's going. Instead we're seeing application-specific introductions, based entirely on the paranoia or other needs of the issuer, with the consumer's needs ignored.

That's certainly the case with the U.S. government's move to require biometrics on passports . They're going with a pretty second-rate technology, containing just 32 Kbytes of storage. They're demanding that all countries which want visa-free travel to the U.S. for their citizens be in compliance with its rules on the day it starts issuing the new technology. It's all take and no give. Which means that travel into and out of the U.S. will wind up taking the hit.

Instead, the U.S. should be looking to follow Europe's lead , with a higher level of technology and compatibility. This could enable banks and other service providers to base new services on the cards and their biometric identifiers. Instead, such services will have to build their own, separate infrastructures, and we're all going to see our wallets bulging with special-purpose cards that all contain the same information.

Unilateralism is as bad in business as it is in war.


Uniform Broadband Rules Still Years Away

The FCC's final decision on broadband rules pleases no one , and will likely not be enforceable until long after 802.16 technology is perfected.

Unable to unite on a single (even if stupid) set of rules, the FCC commissioners decided to let states set their own guidelines, guaranteeing the rule of the lobbyist (as opposed to the technologist) will continue. The new rules are certain to be appealed to court as well, so you'll have lawyers benefiting on both the state and federal level. This will do more to reduce competition in broadband than the impact of the rules themselves, which let the Bells gain exclusive control of their lines with every mile of fiber they install.

I have said this before, and I will say this again. Competitive ISPs need to be investing in wireless infrastructure, in 802.16 backhaul and 802.11 networking, cherry-picking the best business customers and the best neighborhboods, and preparing to offer "Pentium Broadband" speeds of 6-10 Mbps that trump what the Bells and cable operators plan. The game will not be in signing people on to a base service, but in gaining the greatest potential revenue per customer.

That means you support Voice over IP, you support the sharing and management of wireless networking, and you encourage your bit-hungry customers to upgrade to ever-faster lines, rather than trying to extend your market share. It's much better to be making $100-200 per month from happy, tech-savvy customers than to be trying to scratch $30-50 per month out of a lot of angry consumers, but it's the latter game the cable and Bell companies want to play. I say, let them.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is the Mars Global Surveyor , even though it found a world that has always been dry and desolate. More will be known once probes from around the world land on the planet in the next several months.

Clueless is Microsoft's move toward mandating "auto update" on its operating systems . All this does is increase its liability for viruses and other nasties in line with Moore's Law. That's a logarithmic game you don't want to play.


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