Sunday, May 07, 2006

Night of 1000 Nerds: Inventors Hall of Fame Induction Dinner [UPDATED]

Welcome. You have accessed this page over the internet – a network of computers that communicate using a Transmission Control Protocol. No doubt, you are viewing my writing on a computer that uses a dynamic random access memory. Quite possibly, the data that makes up this page traveled over fiber optic cable on its way to you. Scroll down and you will see some low-quality digital photographs. Tonight I shared a room with the inventors of all of the above and more.

While I gave kudos to Peppermint for her Issue 1 endorsement, I take issue with her post title; Akron does not suck. One thing that definitely Does Not Suck about Akron is the National Inventors Hall of Fame and one thing that Does Not Suck about my life is Prof. W’s connections that get us tickets to the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Tonight the inductees were Willard Boyle and George Smith, who invented the charge-coupled device, a light-sensitive microchip that forms the basis for digital photography; Vinton Cerf and Robert Khan who wrote the Transmission Control Protocol; Robert Gore of Gore-Tex fame; Ali Javan whose helium laser is used in optical fiber telecommunications; Robert Langer who has over 300 patents for medication delivery processes and Julio Palmaz, inventor of the cardiac intravascular stent. Presenters included inventors of fiber optic cable and random access memory. MC was NPR alum and current XM talker Bob Edwards.

I ran into David Giffels before dinner which bears a mention to give him a hat tip for the title. He noted that Akron has made moves to be “cool,” but this highlight of Akron’s year is a celebration of nerds. My reply was that nerd is the new cool, so it works. This is literally a black tie, red carpet event celebrating the smart folks.

The Hall of Fame Induction defies hyperbole. The [mostly] men and women that make up the inductee class and returning members are truly among the brightest and most accomplished people in the world. The sit atop the ultimate meritocracy where the only measure of success is making something that works that no one has made before and that changes the world. That’s all you have to do to get in. Oh, and secure a U.S. Patent for your trouble.

At the same time, one message that comes through in the speeches inductees give is the power of serendipity. Gore was trying unsuccessfully to carefully stretch heated Teflon when, in frustration, he gave it a yank and stretched the stuff to he full arm span. Prof. W once met at one of these the inventor of PVC and bubblegum. He called PVC and bubblegum his two biggest mistakes in the lab and concluded, “The lesson is: Patent your mistakes.”

A second lesson is the necessity of failure. George Smith said that the philosophy he shared with Boyle was that if their projects worked 90% of the time, the weren’t being adventurous enough; they should fail 90% of the time. Langer said of one of his early projects that he discovered “200 ways to get this not to work” before finding the way it does.

We live in the time of the cult of data-driven decision-making. While I’m all for following the data where they point to a clear decision, we have to admit the limitations of purely quantitative analysis. I can’t but wonder if in today’s bottom-line, stock-price-driven business climate if a 90% failure rate is tolerated in our corporate research laboratories. One of the dangers of an overreliance on quantification is devaluing those aspects of life that cannot be quantified. Creativity defies quantification. No standardized test can tell if a curriculum is opening or closing a curious mind.

By now the internet junkie who wandered in here by Googling “Vinton Cerf” is getting impatient to hear what he had to say. The answer is: not much. For an “Internet Evangelist” he didn’t much seize the opportunity to evangelize. The format for each induction is: Introduction by some connected eminence, a short film with a narrated description of the invention and its significance intercut with interview quotes from the inductee(s), then an acceptance speech. In the film and after, Kahn did most of the talking. Cerf’s was pretty much an Oscar speech, with this chestnut in the middle: “This is a technology that has no boundaries. Software has no limits . . . we hope to see an outflow of continuous innovation.”

Vinton Cerf and Robert Khan receiving their medals from National Inventors Hall of Fame President Teresa Stanek Rea and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Jon Dudas.

Terrible picture of the monitor when Cerf was speaking.

Kahn picked up that theme in his speech. First, he talked a little about how their work came to pass. The story that the Department of Defense wanted its research facilities to be able to communicate and contracted for the Arpanet is familiar enough that even a tech minimalist like I have heard of it. It sounded like Kahn was lead on the project and asked Cerf to join him, though the partnership was essentially equal. He also said that together they did far more than the sum of what they could have accomplished solo.

Somewhat better shot of Kahn on the monitor.

Hitting on another theme echoed by other speakers, Kahn said that people didn’t see their work as valuable at the time. In fact, colleagues told them they were throwing their careers away working on networking.

Then he spoke about the nature of the internet. It’s essence, he said, is its open architecture. Just like America is more than the dirt and buildings and people within its borders, the internet is more than the hard and the soft* that makes up its architecture. “It isn’t just what Vint and I created, but what everyone has created on it.” Why, you’re welcome, Bob. But more than that, thank you.

It’s practically a Congressional mandate that you can’t talk about these two guys being fathers of the internet without an Al Gore reference, and Bob Edwards dropped one as Kahn and Cerf were leaving the stage. It must cause them some distress as they felt sufficiently moved during the 2000 campaign to issue statements acknowledging Gore’s importance in providing legislative support to the growth of the internet.

The event will be broadcast on 45/49 on May 26 at 10:00 p.m. It’s not the same as being their live, but it’s worth catching. At some point, streaming video will be available online. Keep an eye out, its worth a look.

UPDATE: Giffles quotes me in his story on the event. My quote is at the very end. We didn't plan it, but the two stories complement each other nicely with David more completely describing the vibe of the evening and me running down more of what was said.

*Also, I forgot to mention that 40 PhoPoints are available for anyone who can identify the source of "the hard and the soft," (20) and the name of the character who says it (20). Sorry k-pho, you aren't eligible for this one.


Kyle said...

Pho, good post. I'm glad to hear the inventors hall has events. Everytime I go by it seems empty.

Also, keep those pictures coming. Pretty soon your load time will be as long as ours.

peppermintlisa said...

for the record, i take issue with my post title as well. because it's not really true.

i've been a proponent of Akron since I've lived here (ok, only 3 years) but I've been getting frustrated with it. the levy loss compounded that frustration.