It was a beautiful late Spring day and I found myself of singing a song from The Mikado as I strolled down West College past the Conservatory. I'm not a good performer, but my rendition must have been recognizable as a chap walking next to me took the one of the other parts and we were doing a bit of harmony as our paths became a formation. We stopped for the light, stopped and continued until we had finished. I smiled and nodded. He reciprocated, but then he started into the first song from Pirates - We sail the ocean blue. He had a strong voice and I followed him in whatever harmony I could muster.
We crossed the street and continued a block to the intersection next to the conservatory and more magic - two others joined and we continued walking until the song was over smiling broadly and nodding before we parted.
Oberlin, Ohio is a tiny town and we had all probably overshot our destinations as we sang together that day late in April 12 years ago. It was a powerful manifestation of how serendipity - at least a certain type of serendipity - is possible when the mean free path between people with similar interests is small.
In physics mean free path roughly means the mean distance between objects that may collide - the mean free path between molecules in a very high pressure gas is less than that of one at a low pressure. There is also a social mean free path and it is one of the reasons why cities, Silicon Valley, the restrooms and central atrium of Pixar, the old Bell Labs, and any number of other concentrations of talent are important. Bring people within a few meters of each other and they interact. Bring passionate and talented people within a few meters of each other and you may just get the unexpected.
These clusters may not be stable over time as people migrated - Brooklyn has become one of the East Coast regions that shrinks the mean free path between creative residents. Take a look at the Outlier video Om has featured for an excellent example of what a low mean free path can mean for someone interested in something novel in dungarees.
Brooklyn has become so important for a certain type of young creative that the new Pixar building in California is known in some quarters as "Brooklyn"...
Now back to Oberlin .. There is enough talent in the Music Conservatory that it is possible for someone without great means (me) to have a piece of music composed. You need to be tapped into the roots of the beast - I was an adjunct professor there for several years as part of a joint AT&T Research/Oberlin College Music Conservatory project.1 This position gave me a rich interaction with students and faculty often into the wee hours of the morning with drink and good food. Ideas would bounce around and people began to sense a few new possibilities that would normally remain hidden. These things can and do happen over the Internet, but their cross section - the probability of them happened and being recognized as interesting - is much lower. Our online environment, rich as it is, is much less sophisticated and rich than the real world
Under the right conditions the Internet can decrease the mean free path between parties. Long distance mentor relations and even a few projects. The problem is finding people well matched for serendipity and creativity. A large amount of research has gone into creativity in individuals and groups. To date online creativity - the connecting the dots/serendipity kind - is still a loooooooong way from face to face human interaction.
But the Net can help creative enterprises - often at crucial movements. Om has recently talked about Kickstarter. Now most projects proposed on Kickstarter fail, but well thought out and articulated projects do succeed providing enough money to get them over a critical initial hump.
Perhaps just as important is a funded project also gives insight into potential market size. Horace Dediu has an extremely insightful blog and a fairly well known podcast. Some people had encouraged him to make a transcript of all of the shows aired to date available for sale. Unfortunately the problem with this is he had about sixty hours of material and even the cheapest transcription services would introduce a risk of several thousand dollars if people didn't purchase the final product. There was also an issue of understanding how to price it and if a print or ebook version should be made.
He decided to turn it into a Kickstarter project and learned (a) there was a market large enough to support the transcription and editing effort, and (b) the price he picked was considered reasonable by those who bit - two absolutely vital pieces of information acquired with almost no risk. His success gave me paused and made me think of a few small projects I've seen fail due to incorrect estimates of these questions.
The Kickstarter approach may be superior to funding it yourself even if you have the money as it provides a sandbox to answer potential market size and price questions
One of you (the Jheri of the Jeri/Jerry/Jheris I know) happens to be very tall and hard to fit - not only clothing, but also airline seats, countertops, chairs and so on. She introduced me to her taller friend Colleen. Both of them don't think about their poor fit that often as you get used to your environment and learn to compromise, but being different can take a physical toll with bad backs being far too common in that crowd. It is good to have friends like this as they provide a rich problem space you may not have considered.
I decided to work on a simple cutting board for Colleen who happens to love to cook. It turns out there have been numerous studies on work surface positioning for almost every body type and physical condition. It became clear a raised wooden board would be the best bet and I had one made for her as the cost of hardwood is so high that a woodworking shop could do it at a lower cost than I could and they would probably do a better job. The owner of the shop became interested in the idea of making this a product and Colleen put together a page promoting it as she loved hers.2 A bit of asking around got the attention of a well-known women's tv show and they wanted to feature it. The problem was they also demanded a copy be given to everyone in the audience in a special "tall" show. In the end the cost of doing that was greater than the profit made selling these online. The product remains as it is custom made for the user, but I don't think they have made profit on it.
In retrospect this may have been a great Kickstarter project. Although it is custom made by a small shop the more important function of Kickstarter would have been gauging the size of the market before any major effort was undertaken. It may also have allowed a volume purchase of hard maple as well as specialized shipping materials.
The other project that should have been done on Kickstarter was an attempt to make very long inseam jeans for tall women. The designer spent about a year online lining up customers, finding a boutique manufacturer and so on. He rounded up about 2,000 firm commitments that they would buy - enough to allow an initial low volume production run and sell them at a reasonable price. Based on these commitments he went ahead with a somewhat smaller run to err on the side of caution thinking 500 or so would bring him close enough to break even that he could proceed. Unfortunately only about 25 orders materialized and he lost a large amount of money.3 The beauty of Kickstarter is that not only must a threshold be reached to start a project, but the money will be there once the threshold is signup period has successfully concluded.
We are moving to a world where individualization and shared design and intellectual property will become much more common. The Maker movement provides some fuel for this and grassroot interaction street fashion is likely to become important. Sites like Etsy as outposts for the tiny manufacturers and spaces like Pinterest for matching interests with the makers. There will probably be a lot of evolution and new thinking in this area - current sites and tools aren't up to the task. We may be at a diamonds on the beach period.
1 At once the least musical and most mathematical faculty ever associated with the place
2 It turns out the standard countertop height in the US is 36" and was determined in an ad hoc fashion when cabinets began to be mass produced for the great suburban expansion after WWII. This turns out to be optimal for a 5'4 to 5'5" cook. Significantly shorter or taller cooks will have ergonomic issues and those who are seriously away from average can experience pain bending or an inability to comfortably reach the surface. On the tall side the threshold is around 5'10 - certainly cooks 6' or taller should use a higher surface. The shop own and I both thought this meant a market might exist. If you think you might use one I can give a strong recommendation to AWP.
Before settling on a simple raised table I was interested in an adjustable board. It presented a challange so I attempted to crowd source some solutions from readers of another blog of mine here and here adding some notes on design. Some ideas were submitted, but nothing earth-shattering, so I went with a simple table. There are times when brute force is appropriate.
3 It turns out 20:1, 50:1 or even 100:1 ratio between people who say they will order a product and those who follow through is common in apparel
And a recipe. I needed chocolate and pistachios recently. In order to manage my weight and deal with Sukie's chocolate allergy a few neighbors had a happy evening.
Chocolate Pistachio Cookies
° 185 g (6.5 oz) shelled pistachios
° 28 g (2 tbl) unsalted butter
° 115 g (4 oz) unsalted butter, sliced into tablespoons
° 115 g (4 oz) bittersweet chocolate, chopped - I used Lindt
° 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
° 60 g (1/2 cup) AP flour
° 35 g natural cocoa powder
° 1/2 tsp baking powder
° 1/2 tsp fine grained sea salt
° 100 g (1/2 cup) white sugar
° 2 large eggs
° 1.5 tsp vanilla extract - you need the real stuff - mine is rum based
° 120 g chopped milk chocolate - again I used Lindt .. reliable for baking
* Place one oven rack at the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F
° Line two cookie sheetswith a silicone mat or parchment paper.
° Spread the pistachios on an unlined baking sheet and bake for ten minutes until golden brown, Remove from oven and immediately add the 28g butter and stir well. Set aside to cool.
* Melt chocolate and remaining butter together in a microwave oven. Stir together until smooth and set aside to cool slightly as you beat the eggs. While the chocolate is melting combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt in a food processor and pulse to blend completely.
* Combine the eggs and sugar and beat until they become pale yellow and light in texture. Stir in the chocolate. When it is mostly incorporated, add the vanilla. When the vanilla has been incorporated, add the flour mixture and stir gently to blend. When the flour is almost completely absorbed, add the pistachios and milk chocolate folding into the batter. It will be dark and shiny with a texture similar to marshmallow Fluff.
° Spoon about a heaping tablespoon (or 1.5 inch ice cream scoop) of dough onto the sheet tray for each cookie, arranging them in a 3X4 pattern on the tray. Bake the trays one at a time on the center rack in the oven for 10-12 minutes. The cookies will rise slightly, develop a shiny crust and appear to be just set. Let them cool for two minutes and then loosen the bottoms from the lined tray. Let them finish cooling on the sheet trays or move them to racks depending on the final texture you want - experiment the first time.