Is Small the New Big?

Topic: Small is the new big

Chris Anderson: I do think this is the golden age of small business. It may not feel that way to a lot of small businesses, but I think time will show that in this current crucible that whether people started small business either because they could or they had to because they were being employed by big businesses, that we will see the seeds of a stronger economy going forward. To answer the question with a little historic context, Ronald Coase, the famous economist, prize winning economist, in the 50s and 60s came up with a theory to figure out why companies exist. It is kind of paradoxical on some level. Countries work best among democratic principles.

Markets work best among free market principles and yet companies work best among very dictatorial lines. Very top down, organizational lines. Why is it that companies exist? What is the purpose of us going to work every day to work in an office next to others? He came up with the concept of lowering transaction costs. That it was – The reason companies exist is to make it easier to get things done. That rather than sort of saying, well I need this thing made. Where can I find a guy that makes things? Instead I turn to the guy seated next to me whose job it is to make things and say do this. And he understands. He’s got tools. We have the conventions. We have the trust relationship. We’ve got [that] things can happen more quickly. What’s interesting is that era defined the 20th century. Lower transaction cost was the advantage of the firm. Now we’re in an era where it’s completely reversed. Now big companies have bureaucracy. They have red tape. They have long procedures. They have certain profit requirements. The transaction costs are actually higher inside the walls of a big company than they are outside. The reason that when Ronald Coase was talking about this that transaction costs were closer was that it’s hard to find that person that’s just the right person to work with you. Now it’s easy to find. The fact that I can – It’s often – Bill Joy famously said that the smarter people in the world for any given project don’t work for you. That’s a problem if you can only work with people that work with you. I mean, why are you working with this guy? Is he the best person in world?

No, he’s the closest person in the world. Now it’s incredible easy to find the best person in the world and to get them to work with you. The internet has provided a sort of global lowering of transaction and so we can now, it’s often more efficient to look outside your company and, you know, I’m joking on some level. The idea of finding the right person via Elance versus your internal HR is actually often easier to go outside and get things done. What that’s done is that it’s said we have a diseconomy of scale with big companies. The bigger they are, the harder it is to get things done. Small companies are nimble. They’re focused. The cost base is lower. They don’t need big markets so they can target more narrow opportunities. Not to say that it’s easy to raise capital or that all small companies will succeed but this is a great time because it’s never been cheaper to start a company with all this free stuff. I’ve been talking about free products, but they’re also consumers of these products. Open source software, hosted solutions, all this cloud stuff, those will lower the cost of starting a company. The internet has lowered the barrier of reaching products. These global markets of talent have lowered the cost of finding people the right people to work on your project. All of it is really creating an army of competitors to the large company model. Large companies are still great at mass but there is a long tail. And large companies are bad at the long tail. Small companies are perfect for the long tail. And we’re not going to see a battle between the two.

Let’s take a classic software – I have a company like that called BookTour.com. We are four guys with laptops, basically, no infrastructure. We have no office. We have no servers. Ten years ago we’d have some servers and rooftop parties and an office and no doubt t-shirts. Now we have nothing. The software’s on Amazon’s web services. The code is open source. We work out of our homes. I’ve worked off my iPhone in between meetings. It’s all on the credit cards. This a company that didn’t need to raise venture capital. Increasingly you’re seeing companies like this where you can start a company on a credit card. You can offer products for free to thousands of people. Once you reach tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions, you start to deal with real costs and at that time, you probably do have to raise some money. We did in the end, when we got there. But what’s nice is you can sort of test your product. You can reach that sort of, is there really something here? You know, are my premises correct? You can do the reality check before you raise the money. When you do raise the money, if you do raise the money, you’re raising it from a position of strength. You’ve proven your utility and the question now is scaling money rather than creation money.

Recorded on September 30, 2009

 

It’s the golden age for the little guys, says author and journalist Chris Anderson. What will it mean for large companies?

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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