Saturday, February 23, 2013

For the Cynics: Unobtanium & Obtanium

I used to work on space-related projects that drew considerable skepticism from my peers. If any of them read this, they know EXACTLY to what I'm referring. For everyone else, don't sweat it too much. My friends who worked those projects with me were not so skeptical and we usually enjoyed ourselves in the work we did. We didn't always (ever?) accomplish what we set out to do, but we did learn other useful things along the way.

In the last project I worked, though, one particular skeptic framed his concerns well. He asked for a special explanation from me. If I was to avoid wasting his time in a pitch, he wanted to know precisely how I intended to accomplish what I said I could do. It was obvious to me he believed I couldn't. He was more than a skeptic; he was a self-admitted cynic. I was honest enough with myself to admit he could be correct too. I pondered his discussion requirement for awhile and then decided not to pursue him because I was fairly sure I would fail to convince him. 

Along the way, though, I worked up the terms and descriptions I include below. They are an expansion on the tongue-in-cheek terms obtanium and unobtanium. If you are unfamiliar with those terms you obviously haven't tried to build rockets and spaceships and convince people to invest their cash and time in your ideas. Don't worry about it, though. It is enough to realize that obtanium includes the first three entries below while unobtanium includes the last two. If you have tried to do such a project, though, I invite you to think VERY carefully about what you need to build what you have in mind or deliver the service you think can be brought to market at a profit before explaining any of it to me. I'm not the cynic my compatriot is, but I am decidedly more skeptical than I used to be.


Cotsium: (COTS-ium)

This is the stuff we can buy in retail outlets. It includes goods and services that share a common experience when one buys them. If one can pick them off a shelf and carry them to a check-out clerk, they are cotsium. If one can pick a service from a menu of options and pay a market price, it is cotsium. For example, internet access is a service we buy. It is cotsium today, but 30 years ago it wasn't. There are places on Earth where one cannot yet buy it, but that doesn't change the fact that is is still cotsium. If the market provides it in some places and not others, that is simply a demonstration of the profitability of the stuff being sold.

The boundary between cotsium and specialorderum is a little fuzzy, but here is a guide to help know where the line is. The key is to know the acronym. [Commercial Off-The-Shelf = COTS]

  1. Secret menus at restaurants still list cotsium products. Just because you have to ask to have your burger made with a veggie patty instead of beef doesn't mean you aren't buying the burger retail. The vendor might refer to your request as a special order, but they are just trying to make you feel better and return next time you want to had over cash to them.
  2. If you are buying a service from a small business owner and that owner pauses before quoting a price to you, it is possible you stepped over the line and are no longer buying cotsium stuff. The key to knowing is to figure out if the business owner knows how to price the service they provide to you. It is easy to mistake their pause for this, but be aware that they may simply be thinking about how to shake as much money out of you as possible.

SpecialOrderum: (Special-Order-Um)

This is the stuff that we can buy from craftsmen, artists, and other talented people, but it is generally sold in low volumes or involves unique events so no one including the seller knows how to price it at first. If you hire a photographer to take pictures of your kids, the photography service is generally cotsium, but if you extend the request and ask them to help make your kids look really good because they are competing as a team in a talent show the extension is a special order. The photographer might not know how to price that service at first, but will usually settle for charging for their time as much as they think they can get from you.

The key descriptor for specialorderum is the 'Um' people think or say as they try to figure out the price they are willing to ask or pay. We all know what it is like to ask for special things, but when the market volume for such a thing is small, the duration of the trade can become quite extended. Those with little experience bartering might not even know how to do it.

  1. If your kid asks for help on their homework or science fair project, they are asking for a special order from you. How you price it is up to you, but don't imagine for a moment that they won't remember the trade later when they want another special order and have something to compare.
  2. If you want some warm, fuzzy art you can buy a Kincaid print. It is cotsium. If you want a flattering portrait of your wife to make up for something senseless you said the other day, that is specialorderum and you'll pay dearly whether you get the painting or not. Your choice is how you pay.

NotYetium: (Not-Yet-ium)

This is the stuff that we can't buy yet, but we know it is coming. When we can buy it, it might be a special order or cotsium depending on the situation, but for now we can't get it and anticipate that we will soon. The new, spiffy smartphone you want with the next, spiffy feature and OS upgrade might not be on the market until summer, but you know it will be available because the vendor produces these upgrades like clockwork. You put yourself on a waiting list and stand outside the vendor's store the night before it is released. When you get it, you might bargain with their support staff to get your information migrated from your now dull and uninteresting smartphone to the new one. For a small fee they do it. They might even accept your old one in partial payment as a trade-in, but the amount they will give you depends on how well you have treated it. Condition matters after all.

Notyetium is wonderful stuff if you are a marketing person. You can sell it long before your company produces it and use that cash to finance your operations. If your customers aren't willing to hand over deposits to get on the waiting list, you can still borrow at reduced rates and pay off the loans with with the revenue you raise when your notyetium finally arrives. Do it well and you probably don't have to borrow much money anyway.

  1. A shipload of spices brought back by the Dutch to 17th century European markets was notyetium until it arrived in port. A shipload of gold taken by the Spanish from the New World at about the same time was notyetium until the ship arrived safely in port without getting raided by the Dutch or English. A CPU with double the transistor density compared to the one in your cutting edge computer is notyetium. Moore's Law tells us roughly when it will become cotsium or specialorderum depending on just how fancy your system is.
  2. If you think you can build a new, improved device and have experience building others like them, it is possible your new device is notyetium. If you have little experience, though, it probably isn't. If your device involves extracting free energy from the universe, for example, the odds are pretty high it isn't notyetium even if you think it is. If you want to buy Yeti fingernail clippings, though, I'm sure someone somewhere will figure out how to get them for you. Gullibility is definitely cotsium.


This is the stuff no one can get you, but no one can explain why it CAN'T be acquired either. It is a special category of magical stuff where no one can adequately argue the magic can't or won't be understood some day. Two hundred years ago our computers were unobtanium, yet we had the root knowledge for the mathematics that helps to describe them. We had rudimentary knowledge of algorithmic thinking and working examples of programmed looms to weave complex patterns into cloth. A solid-state CPU was unobtanium, though, for the simple reason that we didn't have the physics and engineering knowledge let alone the experience to build them. The magic needed wasn't yet known, but we know it now.

Unobtanium is really quite special. It is the stuff of dreams that aren't necessarily romantic fluff. We might learn later that the necessary magic isn't possible, but for know we don't know. People find this stuff to be quite motivating and even if the magic fails, they might move mountains in pursuit of it. Romanticism is powerful stuff.

  1. If you plan to put together a new website to provide social media services, you might be motivated by a dream to do it, but your product isn't unobtanium. We know most of the magic necessary to make a website work. You might argue that we don't know the magic that makes such a site successful, but I'll argue that it isn't magic at all. You just have to do the most difficult thing imaginable. You have to serve a useful function to others AND get them to notice you AND do it all for a price they find palatable. Good luck with that. Do it right and you'll be rich. Do it wrong and you'll be like everyone else because you'll wind up using the product your competitor made better than you did.
  2.  If you plan to take tourists to the surface of the Moon and back at a profit, you might be motivated by a grand vision of humanity expanding into space. Unless you know most of the technical details involved in such an effort, though, you need unobtanium before you'll make a profit. If your investors have a lick of sense, they will know that too. Good luck with that. Do it right and you'll have FAR more than a service for tourists. Your investors will know that too and will probably focus their questions on everything else besides your vision of tourists on the Moon. You might think you are in the space tourism business, but you are really in the R&D business.

Fantasticum: (Fantastic-Um)

This is the stuff no one can get to you and anyone with a modicum of education can tell you why it can't EVER be done. Your critics might be wrong, of course. To err is human. To engineer is human too. Unfortunately, there is a class of unobtanium where we are pretty sure the necessary magic is not possible. If your visionary product or service depends on such stuff, you need fantasticum. Basically, you need your fantasy to come true before you can succeed. Remember those Yeti fingernail clippings?  Maybe you have an idea for how to fuel a warp drive with them. The stars are within your grasp if you can just find a cooperative Yeti.

This is the realm of the dreamer who doesn't understand the physics well enough to know what can't be done. This is where you will find people who want to extract energy from the universe for nothing to build their utopia. This is where you will find the readers of science fiction who believe just a little too strongly that the stuff they read about in a story can surely be built. This is where you will find many of the romantics. They are the people who think that the world will flex for them if they can just find the right incantation and occasionally they are correct so it is easy to confuse them with people who pursue unobtanium. The key difference is that most everyone KNOWS the magic for fantasticum can't be done.
  1. Prior to the time the Chinese discovered the recipe for gunpowder there were many known incendiary and burning devices. Try to imagine those early days and the research done to find the recipe. It is thought the person who funded the work was after immortality and his alchemists tripped across a different kind of incantation. Mix the right ratio of sulfur, salt peter, and charcoal and you get an explosive. How magical is that, hmm? To the alchemists, gunpowder was unobtanium because they could believe the magic was possible and had no reason to believe otherwise. It turns out they were correct. Immortality through alchemy, though, appears to be fantasticum.
  2. Known science gets revised now and then. Because of this the border between unobtanium and fantasticum moves too. What we think we know to be impossible is difficult to nail down, but ask any scientist when they have had one beer too many and aren't overly worried about being precise and they will tell you. Most of them will agree on most of it too. Being tipsy only stops them from offering up their usual self-skepticism. If they still say they don't know something after two beers too many, maybe they really don't. To the less educated person, though, the border can be wished to be just beyond where they are now. No beers are necessary for that. If your work is like that, enjoy your romantic vision, but I'll go find some other project in which to invest my money.

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