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Guitar innovator Paul, news buff Snyder earn honors

President Bush presented the nation's highest honors for achievements in the arts and humanities to Les Paul and Henry Leonard Snyder, whose innovations in music and the digital preservation of newspapers, respectively, transformed their fields.

The honors form part of the programs of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bush spoke at a Nov. 15 ceremony during which several other leading lights in the arts and humanities received honors for nontechnological achievements.

Paul received a National Medal of Arts 'for his innovation as a musician, his pioneering designs of the electric guitar and his groundbreaking recording techniques that have influenced the development of American jazz, blues and pop music, and inspired generations of guitarists,' according to his National Endowment for the Arts citation.

Snyder received a National Humanities Medal 'for his visionary leadership in bridging the worlds of scholarship and technology. His direction of massive projects in the digital humanities has opened new frontiers in cataloging and preserving ideas and documents for future generations.'

Snyder has pioneered the field of preserving newspaper content. His work has includes cataloging 1,200 newspaper titles and microfilming 800,000 pages of deteriorating newsprint as part of California's participation in the U.S. Newspaper Program. Snyder's team has received a grant from the humanities foundation of more than $500,000 to continue the project.

Paul played a key role in the invention of the electric guitar in the 1930s, according to published biographies. Other researchers such as Leo Fender and Adolph Rickenbacker were also working in the field, but Paul is credited with some of the most important innovations.

One of his most famous early designs is known as the Log. It comprised a length of common four-by-four-inch fence post with a bridge, guitar neck and electric pickup attached, according to one online biographer. Paul, who was already an accomplished recording artist, added a hollow-body guitar sawn lengthwise for the sake of appearance, according to another biography.

The invention of the Log solved feedback problems because the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound and instead sustained it because the energy of the strings was not dissipated via the generation of sound through the guitar body, according to the online biography.

Although the field of music is different than that of government service, Paul's success offers some lessons for the government technology executive.

First of all, Paul was a musician before his work on the electric guitar. So never discount your domain expertise as a resource for giving the edge to new technological solutions'turning them from geegaws to something we all could actually use. It is the domain expertise that will make things work.

Secondly, we sometimes forget that technology, when it does what it is supposed to, ceases to be technology in our minds: It is just another tool that makes our lives easier or more enjoyable.

Nobody thinks of an electric guitar as a piece of technology any more, much less a tool of information technology (though anyone who has been to a good rock n' roll show can attest to the communicative force of a few well-played power-chords). But the electric guitar was what we like to call a game-changer, moving popular music into an entirely new (and considerably more raucous) era.

And that is ultimately the goal of innovation. If some piece of technology is making your life more complicated, then it is not yet good enough, technically. The electric guitar was a success because it ceased to be considered a technology at all'it was the world that it entered that changed.

Posted by Wilson P. Dizard III on Nov 26, 2007 at 9:39 AM


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