Thursday, July 19, 2007

Garage tinkerers and Infrastructure

A few weeks ago I was reading an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine titled The Amateur Future of Space Travel. The article talked about competitions offered by NASA for a variety of their engineering needs - the example I remember is the glove competition. They were looking for someone to invent/create/engineer a glove for astronauts that would solve the problems of the presently used glove.

Here are a few paragraphs of that article:

Americans, perhaps more so than people of other nations, have great faith in the idea of the outsider inventor. The stories of inventors who made it out of their garages (Steve Jobs) and those who stayed there (Philo T. Farnsworth) are part of the national mythology. Ever since Benjamin Franklin broke with his apprenticeship in Boston as a teenager and recreated himself as a freethinker and fearless inventor (a narrative, some say, he simply repeated and wrote large with the founding of the nation), amateurism has taken on different connotations in this country. Old World use of the word “amateur” intimated lower-class status, even incompetency, but in America, the land of second acts, “amateur” has accrued some of the more positive meanings we associate with the concept of the autodidact. Americans seem drawn to the story of the outsider-made-good with an intensity that has riveted the nation from the earliest amateur contests featured regularly in Vaudeville to the latest versions of such shows, like “American Idol.” In America, the self-made citizen is a kind of superhero.

In the 1970s, when the first gas crisis hit, I remember hanging out in hours-long lines with other drivers, and one story you heard was about an always-unnamed sheik from OPEC. At some big meeting, the story went, he warned his fellow energy barons that they dare not raise gas prices too high. Why? The sheik explained that you didn’t want to upset Americans too much with higher prices because they would just invent something better than oil, returning their fertile sands once again to useless desert. It was the feel-good anecdote of 1975, not unlike the earlier one told about rubber during World War II. (When supplies got cut off by the war, Americans simply invented synthetic rubber.) The veracity of these stories, like that of any good bit of folklore, hardly matters. The bigger truth is that Americans have always believed that however great the facilities might be at Bell Labs or at M.I.T., there is another place, the backyard/cellar/garage of the self-taught inventor, where sweat and commitment and zealous tinkering may lead him through one failure after another until he breaks through to an ingenious, patent-pending solution.

I was reminded of this article today when I explored a website of a charitable foundation. My research partner and I are looking for some funding to continue the development of our work on Student Investment Clubs. We believe that student investment clubs established within a high school, that carry on over the four years of high school and that use real money (if possible) would be of great benefit to high school students - as they become present and future employees, employers and financial managers.

Teresa (my research partner) is an independent scholar and I work at a Canadian university.

The objectives of the Foundation I was looking at practically begged for the kind of project we are developing. Student Investment Clubs will give the students the opportunity to learn economic concepts. The students will come to understand business and the stock markets in ways that are both practical and self-protective. The investments the students make as members of the Club and subsequently as people making their way through life will enhance and support economic activity. These are all of interest to this particular Foundation - and they have money to support people doing this work.

They do have one restriction when they offer the money - the grant must be accepted by an organization that has a well developed, established infrastructure that can manage and account for the monies received.

That means that the grants will be made to large organizations (like universities or other foundations) Our problem of course is that Teresa is an independent scholar (and perfectly capable of managing and accounting for grant monies) and I work for a Canadian university - according to what I saw on the website they haven't made any grants to institutions outside of the U.S.

On one hand the garage tinkerers are seen as the repository of an untapped pool of creativity, inspiration and genius and on the other hand all of that needs to have a well developed, established accounting department!

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