Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

August 2008

It's the promise, stupid! Obama's DNC speech

The pre-speech favourite would no doubt have been “change”. Some thought it would be George Bush. Others John McCain, or Iraq. Others again thought it would actually be the economy, stupid – or something related, like jobs. Some commentators were speculating about Martin Luther King, given the date of the acceptance speech. Admittedly, very few thought it would be bowling and only the most tongue-in-cheek observer would have said frappacino or Chardonnay. Still, on the topic of what Obama talked about most when accepting the nomination for President from the Democratic party, they were all wrong!

So what was the top topic on Barack Obama’s mind – or at least in his mouth – when he gave his DNC acceptance speech yesterday evening in Denver? It turns out to have been promise – at least according to the official version of the speech given to the media. A full word cloud of the speech is below and makes for interesting reading, at least if you go away first and try to come up with a list of words you expect to make the top five:

Word cloud from Barack Obama's DNC acceptance speech, Aug 2008
Obama DNC speech word cloud

Does this really tell us anything? Well, for a start, there were indeed lots of good old reliables. John McCain and George Bush do feature strongly, while change and the economy also feature. But the singular prominence of promise is striking. And I think it does go back to Martin Luther King.

To me, the concept of “promise” – both in the sense of something that is owed and in the sense of potential for the future – ties in quite strongly with the theme of the promissory note from Dr King’s speech 45 years ago. The exact passage from Dr King’s speech is:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

You can see quite clearly both sides of promise coming out in that speech too. It then got me thinking about what were the great themes in Dr King’s speech. What did his word cloud look like? The answer is below:

Dr King I have a dream speech cloud
Dr King I have a dream speech cloud

Freedom is of course the clear winner, Negro probably wouldn’t make too many speeches these days, but if you look closely, you can of course see ‘promissory’ up in the top.

Interesting that a motif of Dr King’s speech could emerge as the key theme, replacing ‘change’, for Obama’s campaign. It will be interesting to see over the coming weeks whether “promise” suffers from the same problem “change” suffered from, and which all currencies suffer from when there is over-supply, a fall in real value!

Any takers on what McCain’s top phrase will be?

The world in 2100

Lots of people are probably familiar with the TED.com videos and podcasts. For those that are not, check out ted.com – it’s got a category called Most Jaw-dropping for a reason!

Through work, I was sent this link for a talk by Dr Janine Benyus, given all the way back in early 2005. It’s about biomimicry, how humans can learn innovation from other species (as distinct from bioprocesses, such as domestication, where humans can use other species, such as bacteria to clean water). In it, she describes just 12 ways in which we can use the 3 billion-odd years of R&D undertaken by 10-30 million species on the earth. Even if this list of 12 were exhaustive, and of course it’s not, it’s just the start, the implications in terms of inventions and research possibilities are huge.

I’m not an expert in the area of biomimicry, but here are some possibilities of what may exist by 2050 or 2100 that really excited me:

  • A world without car-crashes, learning instead from locusts, which have a neuron that prevents them from bumping into each other, even when there’s millions of them per square kilometre
  • A world where water is harvested from air
  • A world where metals are mined without quarries
  • A world where products self-assemble (like shells), giving themselves particular colours without using pigments (like peacock’s feathers) and then which disassemble or decay after a set period of time (like some breeds of mussels)
  • A world which treats carbon not just as output, or indeed waste, but as plants do, as an input, for example in constructing plastics and other materials that need carbon

These are just some of the ideas in the talk, which itself is just an overview. Already at the time of the presentation, architects and designers were beginning to talk to biologists about how to incorporate some of the lessons that nature has learnt about ‘product design’.

Between talks like this, and scattered reports about the occasional breakthrough in quantum computing, it’s enough to keep sci-fi-heads and futurologists dreaming for years to come!