As the markets crash rumbles on, it is time for a little fun with forecasting. Of course I have to begin with the traditional quotation that “It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future.” I believe that came from the philosopher Yogi Berra. Today on the BBC’s Business Daily I heard ex-Chancellor Norman Lamont quoting a statistician who said “the past had its own uncertainty, though on the whole, it wasn’t as great as that of the future”. That is because statistics about the past also change and come with their own uncertainties.
But I would like to turn to the Ladies Home Journal December 1900 issue which ran an article by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. titled “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years”. I heard about this in a lecture by Peter Norvig, Google’s Director of Research, about the quality of predictions.
Many of the predictions came out close, for example, that “Trains will run two miles a minute, normally”, “There will be air-ships” and “Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance”. Some are sad because they once were true but are now slipping away: “A university education will be free to every man and woman”. And others are worrying because they might come true – “There will be no wild animals except in menageries” – although at the time the prediction was made as an advance waiting to happen.
But my firm favorite is:
There will be No C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet. They will be abandoned because unnecessary. Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas, and will be more extensively spoken than any other.
It is time for this prediktion to kome true!
I am currently reading The Social Life of Information, another Harvard Business School text that critiques the IT industry. It is annoying me like IT Doesn’t Matter did, but is full of interesting historical background like The Big Switch is, so as a history junkie I am hooked. I guess the fact that I find the book annoying marks me as the techno-jingoist that they are critiquing.
The book’s main thesis, so far in my reading, is that there is a lot more social context around information and its technology than information technology enthusiasts (e.g. me) would claim. Furthermore, that social context is important and overlooked leading to problems in deployment. I will not be cruel enough to say that MIT invents the future while Harvard publishes scholarly critiques of it (oops, but Dan Bricklin’s audience agrees with me).
There are, as you might expect from the strong praise the book has received, lots of good stories and fair points. For example, there is the hilarious account of the attempt by Chiat/Day’s senior management to create the office of the future, documented by Wired News in issue 2.07, and then fittingly recanted in 7.02. The dystopian visionary CEO created office space with no offices, where hierarchy was “eliminated” as each employee had access to any desk at the beginning of the day that they wanted to take.
The reality was the employees had to rush to grab desk. Field staff would arrive in the middle of the day with no idea where the rest of their team had sat. Team members could not sit together, and turf warfare began as senior managers tried to pull rank over junior members of other teams so that they could get their own team members to sit together. These same post-hierarchical managers sent their secretaries to grab desks for them in advance. Amongst all this bullying the CEO would walk around asking people if they were sitting in the same place they had sat yesterday. If they answered yes, he would move them to another place.
And the computers, of course, were a pain to recustomize each day for each worker’s preference. No employee had any personal computer, instead they would pick up a fresh device each day. And it turns out that desks are more than just place on which to pile paper, instead the location of each pile of paper had meaning and value. You get the idea.
By contrast, I was surprised to learn how keenly socially aware Alexandar Graham Bell was with the new technology he invented, the telephone. His investors were dismayed at how useless the telephone seemed compared to the telegraph and tried to sell the patents to Western Union at rock-bottom prices. Western Union turned them down and I recently discovered (see Brunelleschis Patent in the sharing medical techniques post) that these are still the most valuable patents to date.
Instead, Bell tried to get his telephones into hotels and encouraged hotel guests to use the phones to call reception staff. He also put the phones into offices so that office staff would experience the advantages of telephones. Such social interactions must have been great for creating his market of home customers.
It is interesting to me to contrast Bell’s approach with Day’s when thinking about doctors learning and the Department of Health’s plans for modernising education. Six years ago, as I was beginning my residency, Modernising Medical Careers included bold talk of restructed teaching that fit the increasingly unstructured schedules of doctors. As junior doctors worked fewer hours with fewer overlaps with other doctors’ shifts the idea of time- and place-shifted teaching was attractive. Each doctor could watch each lecture alone.
At the time it sounded good and I was heavily in favour of it. But now, after reading this annoying book, I am annoyed to admit that I am rethinking the advantages.
As I read the rest of the book I am curious to see what else it covers. Certainly, the index does not include Google, and it has only one mention of GNU, and thus open source software, a highly social technology endeavour. And as far as I can tell, there will not be any mention of social software as the book was published in 2000, around the same time that web 2.0 began to crystalize. Social software may not fix the social problems that the book describes, but it does provide a variety of social solutions to problems that were previously intractable.
As happens to most people who visit him, I learned a lot of things from Dr. Eran Bellin when I met him last week. One story he told stayed with me because of a mild obsession I have with the social pressures around sharing information.
The story he told was the one told to him by his father, Lowell Bellin as a medical student. It was about the secrecy surrounding the invention of the obstetric forcep, a tool that would have saved many lives had other physicians known about it earlier.
I am not sure if I have the exact story he was talking about, but a little Googling around led me to the Chamberlen family. For perhaps a whole century only the Chamberlen family knew and kept the secret.
Apparently Peter the Elder was the inventor of the forceps. The brothers went to great length to keep the secret. When they arrived at the home of the woman in labor, two persons had to carry a massive box with gilded carvings into the house. The pregnant patient was blindfolded as to not to reveal the secret, all the others had to leave the room. Then the operator went to work. The people outside heard screams, bells, and other strange noises until the cry of the baby indicated another successful delivery.
Eventually, different members of the family sold the secret to other people, and then someone leaked the secret to the public.
What is interesting to me is how late the dates are: the 16th and 17th century, well after patents had become common in Europe. Dr. Bellin’s mention of the story, and its implicaitons for patient care, inspired me to scan two articles I have that cover the invention of patents in 15th century Florence (Brunelleschis Bargain and Brunelleschis Patent). The idea was to give inventors a way to make more money from sharing their inventions rather than they would from hiding them.
Fillippos Brunelleschi, the architect of Florence’s remarkable cathedral, won the world’s first patent for a technical invention in 1421. Brunelleschi was a classic man of the Renaissance: tough-minded, multi-talented, and thoroughly self-confident. He claimed he had invented a new means of conveying goods up the Arno River (he was intentionally vague on details), which he refused to develop unless the state kept others from copying his design. Florence complied, and Brunelleschi walked away with the right to exclude all new means of transport on the Arno for three years.
The reason that Dr. Bellin mentioned the forceps story is the same that he had created Clinical Looking Glass software and joined the Emerging Health Information Technology company. He wanted doctors to learn from each other what works, and then to use what they learned to help patients. For that I congratulate him.
But the story of Chamberlen family saddens me, and I would go further to say that a doctor doing this today would be acting unethically. I hope, at least, that there are enough incentives that such a doctor would also be acting foolishly.
Update: Dr. Bellin kindly corrected a couple of mistakes I made in this post. First, he heard the story about the Chamberlens not as a medical student, but from his own father, also a physician committed to the duty of physicians to share knowledge. And second, Emerging Health Information Technology was created by its current CEO, Jack Wolf, who in the words of Dr. Bellin “had the vision to realize that the only way to afford cutting edge technology in the health care sector was by creating virtual cooperative communities of hospitals sharing infrastructure costs through a trusted outside entity”.
Another character from “Justinian’s Flea” is Anthemius, one of the two architects who built the extraordinary Hagia Sophia. The building was one of the reasons for his wealth and thus in Constantinople he lived amongst notable neigbours like Zeno, a famous orator. Apparently the two quarreled over something, Zeno sued and won. Anthemius was a geek, however, and so “he took his revenge like a proper engineer, first simulating an earthquake with a steam line that he surreptitiously ran into Zeno’s apartment, then exploding noisemakers to mimic the sound of a thunderstorm”. What really made me laugh was his next trick:
[E]mploying a pivoting parabolic reflector to shine light at all hours into Zeno’s sleeping chamber. When Zeno asked Justinian to intervene, the emperor decline to punish his architect, writing that even he “cannot intervene against Zeus the Thunderer and Poseidon the Earth-Shaker”.
For my birthday this weekend my wife gave me a voucher for my Kindle. This gave me a blissful weekend reading “Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe“. It is full of charming anecdotes about characters from antiquity, including emperor Anastasius:
In what is almost certainly the first documented exercise of what would come to be called trickle-down economics, Anastasius abolished a wide range of taxes that fell heavily on the empire’s most productive classes, its craftsmen and merchants. The emperor had argued, it turns out correctly, that a prosperous merchant would pay even more in fees that the treasury lost in taxes. Thus, despite three major wars, and several revolts by subjects opposing the emperor’s Monophysitism, the treasury at Anastasius’s death was richer by 320,000 pounds of gold than it had been at his accession.
A good friend of mine from the USA sent me a link to a page titled The World’s Most Toxic Value System. The author has an interesting background, and the stories he has from the Arab world sound plausible to me and are great to read about as people usually only talk about them in private.
But the article is full of historical statements and interpretations that I disagree with, and they betray misunderstandings that I find common in the USA. All of which make me bristle against the author’s suggestion of introducing the word thar into the English language.
Let me start by saying that I agree with the author, and Ralph Peters that he quotes, that the following values are bad, that my own countrymen should get rid of them, and that I find these values more prevalent in the Arab world than I do in the West:
- Restrictions on the free flow of information.
- The subjugation of women.
- Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
- The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
- Domination by a restrictive religion.
- A low valuation of education.
- Low prestige assigned to work.
But for the rest of this I wanted to focus on correct usage of the Arabic language properly. Here is a short glossary of, and rant about, misuses, starting with:
Thar, which the article suggests as the new name for the toxic value system for revenge that is only so virulent in Arabic and Islamic societies. First of all, it should be tha’r, not thar. The apostrophe should be pronounced like the u is in “unbelievable”. Otherwise, “thar” is closer to the word for the past participle of the verb to get angry.
Second, tha’r in Arabic means revenge, it does not mean “the most toxic revenge system in the world”. So let us not use an Arabic word to associate a concept in the English language with with a race or culture, which this article seems to want to.
Finally, the article itself reminds me of a charming book I am now reading, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay. In particular, the chapter on dueling. The author of the article is a fan of chivalry, but to be honest one man’s chivalry is another man’s sexual jealousy. I had known that dueling was a problem that afflicted the leadership of Western countries for many years, costing them dearly in manpower. The Burr-Hamilton duel killed off Alexander Hamilton, my favourite founding father, and opponents of Andrew “Jacksonian Democracy” Jackson tried several times to kill him by insulting his wife to force him into duels. What is so interesting in the dueling chapter of the book is how he describes the evolution of this custom as a way of wresting power from the clergy, who have given us such judicial innovations as trial by water: if you drown you were innocent, if not, you are guilty, so must be executed.
Madrasa, which is assumed to mean nursery school for terrorists. It actually means school, which is why my parents named their school Al-Madrasa for Arts. What the Arab world needs is more madrasas, enough to teach all our children about arts and sciences, and how to speak English, as my parents learned in their own madrasas (i.e. schools) when they were young. A small minority of madrasas use a curiculum that is Qur’an-focused, which is bad, and a tiny minority are focused on misteaching from the Qur’an that the West should be attacked, which is very bad. But the solution is more funding for better madrasas.
Incidentally, education has a high value in Islam, even if many Muslims today are undereducated and poor. The first word that came to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qu’ran was “Read”, an order that all Muslims should learn how to read. The Prophet also introduced the custom of releasing a prisoner of war if the prisoner taught ten Muslims how to read – the customs of the times had been to release in exchange for money or prisoners from your own side. Most of the texts that Europeans read during their Renaissance were actually in Arabic, even the ones that were translations of ancient European texts, because Muslims had been busy translating the teachings of all other civilizations so that they could read and learn from them as good Muslims. And Al Azhar is the world’s first university, with studies beginning in 960 A.D.
Fatwa, which is assumed to mean a death sentenced from a Muslim leader. It actually means a religious ruling, a regular and common occurrence on by different leaders on many difference regular and common aspects of modern living.
Incidentally, I say different leaders because Islam has a long tradition of many leaders as opposed to the Pope in Christianity. Long before Martin Luther came up with the revolutionary idea that ordinary men should be able to read the Bible, and that they should make independent interpretations of its meaning, Islam asked of its followers that they learn to read Arabic, so that they can read the Qur’an. And making an independent interpretation of the Qur’an is called ijtihad, which brings me to…
Jihad, which is assumed to mean an attack on the West, Infidels, and Freedom. It actually comes from the verb “to expend effort” or to struggle. Think of it as you do the US War on Drugs, War on Cancer and War on Poverty. As far as Arabs and Muslim are concerned, the word for religious attack on a civilization by religious zealots is cusade, not jihad. The chapter on this topic in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is also well worth reading.
Here is another reminder of how society changes over time. When I was in college, at the height of the dot-com boom in England, my dream was to attend a First Tuesday meeting. The company’s founders organized a meeting on the first Tuesday of every month in many major cities, starting with London. Attendees would get one of three badges identifying each person as an investor, an entrepreneur or a technologist, if I remember correctly (the Wikipedia article looks like it has been mutilated by company’s current PR department). The ideal was for conversations involving people with different colour badges.
I never got to attend any of those events as college lectures always got in the way and then the hospital work began. And then the crash came, and the current First Tuesday company is a shadow of its former self.
I remembered them yesterday because my brother, who regularly spends time browsing the Wikipedia, sent me this extract about Bethlem Royal Hospital, AKA Bedlam, used to have its own first Tuesday meetings:
Bethlem Royal Hospital became famous and infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the mentally ill. In 1675 Bedlam moved to new buildings in Moorfields designed by Robert Hooke, outside the City boundary. In the 18th century people used to go there to see the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the “show of Bethlehem” and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature or violent fights. Entry was free on the first Tuesday of the month. Visitors were permitted to bring long sticks with which to poke and enrage the inmates. In 1814, there were 96,000 such visits. The lunatics were first called “patients” in 1700, and “curable” and “incurable” wards were opened in 1725-34.
Funny how times change.