So Obvious It’s Brilliant (Plus the Secret Origin of Atomic Avenue)

I love this story–not just because it points toward a possible way of fighting a devastating disease, but because of the sheer simplicity of the approach.

Now, I have no idea whether this sort of approach is the Next Big Thing in oncology, but I’m attracted to the story because it seems to be a great example of someone looking around, seeing how something (in this case, advances in cloning technology) has changed the game, and revisiting an old problem with a fresh set of eyes. Suddenly, an amazing insight like, “Hey, if this guy’s immune defenses are being overwhelmed by cancer cells, why don’t we just send in an army of cloned reinforcements from his own cells?” becomes almost blindingly obvious.

Of course, once the first person thinks of something like this (and it works), everyone in the audience can just sort of shake their head and look sadly at the other researchers who’ve spent decades trying to perfect other approaches and wonder why they were wasting their time on something that now looks like a hopelessly pointless and old-fashioned way to address the problem.

To wit: Obviously the way to stop dealing with scratches and crackles on record albums is to encode and play back record albums digitally! Obviously it makes no sense to haul around a huge, battery-sucking boom box on your shoulder to listen to music when a tiny set of headphones attached to a Walkman (or later CD or MP3 player) lets you listen to your tunes wherever you want without annoying everyone else around you.

Sure, we say “obviously” now, but until someone thought to use the decades-old technology of Analog-Digital converters and lasers to record and play back music digitally, all the “smart” audiophiles were spending countless hours trying to de-static and dust their record albums, and researchers were focused on devising avant-garde tone arms and improved, diamond-tipped record styluses. Similarly, before Sony introduced the Walkman, music lovers were more concerned with how big (and heavy!) the boom box needed to be in order to hear good bass, and whether Duracell or Energizer made the best batteries. Had the Walkman not disrupted everything, the next great area of research would no doubt have concentrated on making and perfecting rechargeable D-cells.

In the crazy world of computer software, the technology shifts come even faster. There are any number of fashions and fad involving feature sets, languages, and technology platforms. Often, the wise path is to hold your fire until the picture clarifies a little, or you really sense that a trend is catching on (otherwise, we’d have likely done a ComicBase for the Apple Newton or Pippin—anyone remember those?). At the same time, ComicBase has been among the first programs anywhere to embrace internet-driven software patches, CD-ROM data distribution, DVD (and dual-layer DVD). ComicBase is even down in tech history as the first software program ever distributed on Blu-ray Disc. Not too shabby for a program whose whole purpose in life is to keep track of comic collections!*

Still, all those technologies were years in development, and the uses were pretty much built into the technology itself. What’s really exciting is when someone takes an older technology (like Analog/Digital converters and lasers) and applies them in a game-changing new way (storing and playing back digitally recorded music on a CD). These are the shifts that take the world by storm and make being in technology so interesting. (Right now, my #1 hope is that there’s something in the works—somewhere—which is going to let me get where I’m going without paying $4.49 or more per gallon.)

One of the big new changes in our life here is the much faster internet pipe that was part of our new office location. Computer folks like ourselves are always after more speed, but what started as an imperative to keep up with the growth of Atomic Avenue has already turned as well into a way for us bring in on-demand cover picture downloading (part of the Archive Edition of Atlas), new online services like renewals and product downloads, and more.

But as cool as all this is, what I really wonder is: What’s the next “blindingly obvious in retrospect” innovation whose components are already here…and we just don’t know it yet?

*Probably the biggest “Blindingly Obvious In Retrospect” moment for us was Atomic Avenue itself. After a decade or so of doing ComicBase, we were bemoaning the largely theoretical nature of guide values for comics, along with the paradox of a comic market that seemed almost entirely dysfunctional in that most store inventory would never actually sell, while comic fans would drive themselves crazy looking for rather ordinary comics they needed but which nobody was bothering to bring to conventions or post at auctions.

Suddenly, we thought to ourselves, “You know, there are tens of millions of comics that have been entered into ComicBase—all with prices. What if we just gave everyone a big button marked “Sell” which would let them post their comics to a central site. Then, anyone looking for a regular comic like Hellblazer #85 could not only find it, but probably find a dozen copies in various conditions. And whoever sells their comics on the system would be able to put their books before the entire world and just wait for orders to roll off their printer!”

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