Monday, October 17, 2011

Witold Rybczynski’s One Good Turn

When you see a bucket of screws at the hardware store, you probably don’t think of them as technology. After reading One Good Turn by Witold Rybczynski, you will think different.

Rybczynski argues that the screw was an exceptionally creative solution to the problem of fastening things. To illustrate what we take for granted today, he provides this capsule history of another fastener:

[A] useful device that secures clothing against cold drafts, [the button] was unknown for most of mankind’s history. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans wore loose tunics, cloaks, and togas. Buttons were likewise absent in traditional dress throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. True, the climate in these places is middle, but northern dress was likewise buttonless. Eskimos and Vikings slipped their clothes over their heads and cinched them with belts and straps; Celts wrapped themselves in kilts; the Japanese used sashes to fasten their robes. The Romans did use buttons to ornament clothing, but the buttonhole eluded them. The ancient Chinese invented the toggle and loop, but never went on to the button and buttonhole, which are both simpler to make and more convenient to use. Then, suddenly in the thirteenth century in northern Europe, the button appeared. Or, more precisely, the button and the buttonhole. The invention of this combination—so simple, yet so cunning—is a mystery. There was no scientific or technical breakthrough—buttons can easily be made from wood, horn, or bone; the buttonhole is merely a slit in the fabric. Yet the leap of imagination that this deceptively simple device required is impressive. Try to describe in words the odd flick-and-twist motion as you button and unbutton and you realize just how complicated it is. The other mystery of the button is the manner of its discovery. It is difficult to imagine the button evolving—it either exists or it doesn’t. We don’t know who invented the button and the buttonhole, but he—more likely she—was a genius.

I have quoted at length because the passage is a miniature version of the book. Replace button with screw, and you’ve got Rybczynski’s thesis: Whereas nails came from spikes, which were crude and obvious implements, the screw came from what? Its key feature—and the source of its superior holding power compared to a nail—is the helical thread that winds around the shaft. The helix was neither obvious to conceive nor easy to implement in materials.

Like a genealogist tracing older and older descendants, Rybczynski searches for evidence of the earliest screws and screwdrivers. He profiles key innovators along the way, such as those who created the precision machine tools necessary for mass-manufactured, standardized screws; or inventors that improved on the flathead screw, namely Phillips’ x-shaped socket and Robinson’s square socket. The patent wars of yesteryear were about such things.

As much as One Good Turn is about screws, screwdrivers, and other tools, it is also about an intellectual quest. Unsatisfied with the literature on the subject, Rybczynski narrates his way through libraries and museums, each holding clues to the further history of the screw. He assembles new evidence of screws as fasteners in the Middle Ages. Then he keeps going in search of the ur-screw, back to ancient Greece.

Like the societies that had the button but not the buttonhole, the Greeks (and later the Romans) had the screw but not for fastening. Rather, the Greeks had large-scale helical screws for mechanical use. It was there and then that Rybczynski believes the original insight of the helical screw occurred, likely by the great engineer Archimedes.

So the next time you think about technology and a computer comes to mind, One Good Turn will remind you that technology has a far longer thread back through history.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Changing Gears

Having reached a good outcome with CNET Intelligent Cross-Sell’s transition to RichRelevance, I will be taking this opportunity to switch gears: I am going into independent-consultant mode. That will include remaining on the RichRelevance team in a consulting capacity. I will be working with a few other consulting clients as well. I will also be using the flexibility of consulting to reserve some time for myself.

I realize that some people say they’re doing consulting as a euphemism for looking for a job. To be clear about my situation, consulting is currently what I want my job to be. Having been deep into a single thing for five years, with very high-stakes customers, I’m ready to come up for air. And if I’m coming up for air, I might as well breathe deeply. ;)

I’m fortunate to have clients right out of the gate, but I am always happy to hear of interesting opportunities where a little bit of my expertise and abilities can have significant impact. The areas I’m covering are product design, product marketing, strategy, company evaluations for M&A and venture capital, and advising middle- to later-stage startups on internal innovation for “next act” products (those that come after the core product that the entire company has been built around).

Feel free to drop me a line if there’s a connection or discussion to be had.

CNET Intelligent Cross-Sell @ RichRelevance

Six months ago, CNET Content Solutions announced a strategic partnership with RichRelevance regarding Intelligent Cross-Sell, the product I co-created and the team I led at CNET. This blog post by RichRelevance’s CEO, David Selinger, describes what Intelligent Cross-Sell does and how it adds value to RichRelevance’s product line.

Other than posting a link to the CNET-RichRelevance announcement on Twitter, I didn’t say much about the deal when it was announced. My feeling was, I’ll talk about it when we’ve accomplished something more than announcing the partnership. Now is the time.

Having spent six months working closely with RichRelevance, I am pleased with the result: 100% of the customers are transitioned, the technology is migrated, the ICS team is at RichRelevance, and we’ve already done deals for new customers as part of RichRelevance. Meanwhile, CNET Content Solutions continues to bring product data, industry expertise, and sales support to the partnership. It’s a win/win as both sides now benefit from a bigger Intelligent Cross-Sell business than would have been possible from CNET alone.

In the next post, I’ll say what this means for me going forward.