Category Archives: History

Does someone have to die first?

double-classroomBlogpost for ACM Ubiquity, intro here:

Digital technology changes fast, and organizations change slowly: First using the technology as an automated, digitized version of the old way of doing things, then gradually understanding that in order to achieve productivity and functional breakthroughs. We need to leave the old metaphors behind. For this to happen, we need new mindsets, unfettered by the old way of using the technology. I wonder if my generation has the capability to do it.

Read the rest at ACM Ubiquity: Does someone have to die first?

Sapiens unite!

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (recommended by Grady Booch in his recent talk) attempts to give a brief history of mankind – specifically, Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Neanderthals and other hominids – in one book (a bit reminicent of Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the World.) As such it is interesting, especially the early parts about the transition from hominids to collaborating humans and the cognitive revolution 70000 years ago. It is very clearly written – for instance, the chapter on capitalism and the importance of credit and creditworthiness is something I could hand out to my students directly as a brief explanation of what the fuzz is all about.) The book has been a success, and deservedly so – very rationalist, well informed, if a bit narrow in perspective here and there. The author seems to have a soft spot for hunter-gatherer societies (leading him to describe the agricultural revolution as a step backward for individuals, if not for the human race) and a digression on whether humans are more or less happy now (has historical progress done anything to our serotonine levels (answer: no, it hasn’t, which sort of renders the argument about agrarianism mot) veers towards ranting.

The best part is the way the author describes how much of history and out place in it now is based on inter-subjective fantasies – such as money, religion and states, which exist purely in our minds, because we agree between ourselves that they do.

And easy read, entertaining, and with quite a few very quotable passages here and there, for instance these on our bioengineered future:

Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects.


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An oratory masterclass

“We no longer think the world will be saved by politics and rock’n roll. We now believe it will be saved by the life of mind.” “…playing gracefully with ideas.”

Watch this. If nothing else, study Stephen Fry’s technique.

Unfortunately, I own a lawnmover. Oh well.

(There is a Q&A session as well, available as separate videos.)

WWII deaths in graphics

This video by Neil Halloran shows how many people died in the second world war, and what has happened in the world since (in terms of war deaths.) It really makes an impression, and is well worth the 18 minutes.

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

70 million people died during WWII, more or less (since the numbers, particularly on the Eastern front, are in dispute.) The video shows that most losses were suffered by the Soviet Union (the way the column grows and grows is heartbreaking, you just want it to stop) and China, that Poland had the most dead as a percentage of the population, that some individual incidents – massacres, battles, bombings – made for a surprisingly large portion of the dead. Stalingrad alone had more deaths than all wars since WWII combined.

The video has roughly the same message as Steven Pinker: That violence and war is on a downward trend, and that this is to be understood and appreciated. And, given these statistics, that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU in 2012 perhaps wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

The complicated path from innovation to acceptance

One of my favorite essays is Elting Morison’s Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study of Innovation, from his book Men, Machines and Modern Times (1950, MIT Press, PDF here). In it, he details the story of Captain Percy, US Navy, who by making changes to the sights and elevation mechanisms of the cannons on his ship increased the accuracy by about 3000%, which should be considered relevant. Subsequently, his innovation took a long time to be accepted throughout the Navy, for reasons having to do with the innovator himself (he was a rather controversial figure), the rate of innovation (simply too good to be believed) and the fact that the innovation went against certain organizational and cultural norms (no news there, I am afraid.) One of his conclusions is that no military service should be allowed to reform itself, a point I think we can extend far beyond the military.

But this well told and well documented story is not the only reason this essay is one I keep coming back to. I also like (and frequently retell) the introductory story, which goes like this:

In the early days of the last war [i.e., WWI] when armaments of all kinds were in short supply, the British, I am told, made use of a venerable field piece that had come down to them from previous generations.  The honorable past of this light artillery stretched back, in fact, to the Boer War.  In the days of uncertainty after the fall of France, these guns, hitched to trucks, served as useful mobile units in the coast defense.  But it was felt that the rapidity of fire could be increased.  A time-motion expert was, therefore, called in to suggest ways to simplify the firing procedures.  He watched one of the gun crews of five men at practice in the field for some time.  Puzzled by certain aspects of the procedures, he took some slow-motion pictures of the soldiers performing the loading, aiming, and firing routines.

When he ran these pictures over once or twice, he noticed something that appeared odd to him.  A moment before the firing, two members of the gun crew ceased all activity and came to attention for a three-second interval extending throughout the discharge of the gun.  He summoned an old colonel of artillery, showed him the pictures and pointed out his strange behavior.  What, he asked the colonel, did it mean.  The colonel, too, was puzzled.  He asked to see the pictures again.  “Ah,” he said when the performance was over, “I have it.  They are holding the horses.”

And there you have it – people just don’t want change (unless it is more of the same). Let me illustrate this with the following story, from back in the 80s when I ran user support for the Norwegian Business School:

One user came running up to the IT department’s help desk informing us that “the printer has gone”. The printer in question was an IBM mainframe printer, roughly the size of a large freezer, and was situated, all by itself, in a small (about 2 x 3 meters) dedicated room, like this:


The help desk person consulted his terminal, which after a few keystrokes reported the printer as present and ready. Still, the user maintained that the printer was no longer there. An investigation was launched, and a small investigation party, consisting of the user and two or three incongruous IT people set out for the printer room. After a few minutes, the IT people returned, reporting that a) IBM’s service personnel had been there and serviced the printer, and b) for reasons unknown, they had changed its position thusly (and note, the printer and a few cases of paper were the only things in this room):


This episode proved to me that Morison definitely was right – most people cannot handle change, and get rather upset when things are in any way out of the normal.

Furthermore, most people do not think about why the world is the way it is, but that is the subject of another essay.

May the change be with you – mostly, it is good…

Computing’s cathedral history

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a tour de force history of the birth of the modern computer – and, specifically, the role of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study in it. Their “IAS machine” was a widely copied design, forming the basis for many research computers and IBM’s early 701 model.We hear of John von Neumann (who tragically died of cancer at 53), Alan Turing (stripped of his security clearing and probably driven to suicide at 41), Stan Ulam, and many others, some famous, some (quite undeservedly) less so. I continue to be amazed at how far ahead some of the thinkers were – Alan Turing discussed multiprocessor and evolutionary approaches to artificial intelligence in 1946, for example.

On a side note, I was pleased to see that a number of Norwegian academics, mostly within meteorology, played an important part in the development and use of the IAS computer. Nils Aall Baricelli, an Italian-Norwegian, was someone I previously had not heard of, one of those thinkers who is way ahead of his time and (perhaps because he was independently wealthy and led a somewhat nomadic academic existence, hence may have been considered something of a dilettante, though Dyson certainly don’t see him as such and credits him with the ability to see a possible way from programmed computer to independently learning mechanism (and, perhaps at some point, organism).

The book is a bit uneven – partly standard history, partly relatively deep computer science discussions (some of them certainly over my head), and partly – with no warning – brilliant leaps of extrapolating visioneering into both what computers have meant for us as a species and what they might mean in the future. It also shows some of the power struggles that take place in academics, and the important role IAS played in the development of the hydrogen bomb.

All in all, an excellent history of the early days of computing – a more recent history than many are aware of. As George Dyson says in his Ted lecture (below) in 2003: “If these people hadn’t done it, someone else would have. It was an idea whose time had come.” That may be true, but it takes nothing away from the tremendous achievements of the early pioneers.

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Close-hauled on a bowline

image …or something like that. The effects of reading Patrick O’Brian‘s Aubrey-Maturin novels (which I bought about five years ago and have now read for the second time) is that of slowly sinking into another world altogether, a world where communication may take months and even years, where a shipment may not even get out of harbor for want of wind, where bread has parasites (teaching one to learn to choose the lesser of two weevils) and meat has to be softened by towing it alongside the ship before it is even close to edible.

image Despite the success of the Master and Commander movie, these books are unlikely ever to be made into more movies or a TV series – for one thing, it would be prohibitively expensive, for another, much of the excitement and readability of the books lie in their historical accuracy, their wealth of detail, their quiet humor, and most of all in the wonderful language. I love the the descriptions of political intrigues, the reflections on medical and other science of the times as experienced by Stephen Maturin, and the intricate and confusing legal details of Jack Aubrey‘s fighting commons inclosure and other (usually unsuccessful) adventures.

image As the novels progress (and they are all good, by the way, no reduction in quality over time, in fact, they get better), you gradually learn to appreciate the main protagonists as people – initially cardboard figures, they gradually, through what they do and what they say, emerging as more complete personalities. Much more believable than Hornblower and Bush or Holmes and Watson, Aubrey and Maturin emerge as multifaceted and complex characters with personalities, flaws and qualities understood and appreciated not just by the reader, but by the vivid and rich set of characters met throughout the series.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books the first time I read them, and they improve upon the second acquaintance. Above all, the language is a delight. Like Frans Bengtsson’s incongruously titled The Long Ships (best enjoyed in its original Swedish version, Röde Orm) the novels are held in a language close to that of the times – close enough that I find my own English growing increasingly orotund with each page. Oh fie, O’Brian, for inciting me to top it the knob and engage in idle prating…

Highly recommended!

image(Incidentally, should you decide to buy the series, make sure you buy the paperback versions from Norton, either individually or all at once, with the original paintings by Geoff Hunt. The boxed complete set from 2004 has, unfortunately, been scanned and then poorly copy-edited, introducing many irritating errors (or, rather, vexing imperfections.) And by all means, get the companion volume Sea of Words, which will explain bowlines and capstans and gratings and tompions and weather-gage and other essential terms.)