Six Things

Quick! Name 6 things we take for granted, but without which our world would be quite different! Read all about it here.

I’ve been racing through a great read: How We Got To Now, by Steven Johnson. He describes 6 innovations that shaped our world. I wish I had a job writing about stuff like that! Making connections from hither and yon. It reminds me of the series “Connections,” with James Burke, on TV long ago. (Johnson’s stories are also from a series: on PBS.)

Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342
Medieval Monk with Glasses, 1342

The first chapter is about glass. It’s impact in everything from windows to lenses, to fiber optics. The writing is loaded with fascinating facts. Johnson proposes that while Gutenberg’s printing press made books available to the populace at large (making them affordable, both to buy and to print), it was lenses that made it possible for the majority of people to read. Up until then, with more than half the population far-sighted, it would not have been practical to buy a book and bring it home and read it. This assumes one had already gone to the trouble of learning to read, which was not taught in schools, there being no public schools in the sixteenth centuries!

One aspect of glass that Johnson glosses over (pardon the weak attempt at a pun), is how glass made possible windows. Not windows in homes, which he does describe. But windows in vehicles.

I propose that, although the steam engine and the internal combustion engine made possible long distance travel, none of that would have gone far (okay, a better pun) without glass for windows. One can make a powerful engine, a vehicle, even a carriage way (for trains and then cars). But without windows one would be limited to about 20 miles per hour. Beyond that, the force of wind – and inclement weather – would have made piloting the vehicle impossible. And what about air travel? I suppose one could have an aircraft with a periscope.

There would have been no need for an interstate highway system. No aircraft industry. No long distance vacation travel, except for the wealthy.

It’s fun to contemplate such a world. Maybe a good plot line for a sci-fi novel. Or on a world not made with a silica crust.

So, the next time you look out the car window at the rain pouring down, think about the fall of Constantinople in 1204. Confused? Read the book.

P.S. I noticed this on YouTube (of course): World without Glass. Hah!

P.P.S. Johnson writes that glass making would not have been possible without 1,000 degree furnaces. Those would not have been possible without ceramic bricks. From whence did furnaces evolve? Although no one knows, it may have been from ceramic glazing or metalworking.

Stock Market Crosses 21,000 – so what?

Is the DJIA increase of 1,000 points in “a little more than a month” really something exciting?

On the business news this week: amazement at how quickly the Dow went 1,000 points, from 20,000 to 21,000. “In a little more than a month,” Tanya Rivero exults on Wall Street Journal Video. Yes, a whole 1,000 points.

But I got to thinking: what’s the real math going on here?

21,000 from 20,000 is an increase of about 5 per cent (using my skills at estimating, which I learned in grade school long, long ago). Did the Dow ever increase by more than 5% in “a little more than a month” before this?

Well, looking all the way back to January of this year, we see that the DJIA went from 19,000 to 20,000 in two months. That’s 5.26%. Of course, it was recovering what it lost in the run-up to the election.

I searched and found historical data from the Dow. I was amazed at how tough it was to find free information to download. Apparently, the Dow data is copyrighted, so here is my attribution: Copyright © 2016, S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC. All rights reserved. I hope I haven’t broken any rules. I got the data from Yahoo.

Anyway, I created a spreadsheet, added formulae to look back one month, then calculated the “one month increase” in per cent. Here’s the chart:

DJIA Percent Change in 1 Month
DJIA Percent Change in 1 Month

You may see that there are many months for which the increase was more than 5%. In 1998, there were months – many months – with more than 10% or 12%!

So? Big deal about 20,000 to 21,000. If the market were all about increases in absolute terms, then we could get excited about an increase of 1,000. But the market is driven by percentage increases: increasing one’s investment to stay ahead of inflation, save for retirement, etc.

I’m not asking for the hyper-growth of 1998, because we all remember what happened next back then. But let’s keep things in perspective.

Virtual Reality – Where will it end?

Okay, I’m still on the subject of Virtual Reality. In our newspaper, the venerable San Jose Mercury News, there’s a big article on the Business page, right up front: “Rent-a-Reality”. (I found the article here, but not yet on the SJMerc’s own page.) The story is about how some amusement parks have combined their rides with virtual reality goggles, to put the physical sensations of roller coasters and the like into a new world of attacking monsters and such.

In concluding the section on Six Flags’ coaster ride, the author, Ryan Nakashima, writes: “Pro tip: go around twice, once with the header on and once without…”

Yeah, I can imagine how captivating the VR experience might be!

But the article goes on with examples of fans being teased by a VR image of their heartthrob, all for $18; and one of shooting at ghosts at the wax museum in New York, for $55.

James Brooks, of the Associated Press, writes of the London experience that “Museum officials say they aren’t worried these experiences might one day replace traditional museums.”

Well, let’s see. Children today are spending more and more time in front of screens of one sort or another. Once VR goggles come down in price and the software and networking challenges are solved (all of which is inevitable), what will hold children of all ages back from spending more and more time wearing goggles, and living in imaginary settings?

How about put on some real goggles and go swimming with your friends? Or run around in the back yard, getting sweaty and stinky for real? Or go climb a real mountain and experience the real thrill of heights and depths of Nature’s creations?

I guess once we perfect virtual reality experiences, we won’t need real wild animals or real national parks or real mountains to climb.

But then maybe it won’t matter because – as Stephen Hawking recommended this week – we ought to be planning to leave the planet anyway.

Pave paradise and put up a parking lot. Thank you, Joni.

Unfamiliar Sounds

This afternoon an unfamiliar sound wafted through the house. I remembered it from long ago. It was a pleasant sound, a sound I associate with family and elementary school kids, and trying to give them a “well rounded” youth experience.

She plays the piano: some tunes from memory, some reading the music unearthed from the piano bench, some from new material. All of it – even the missteps – sounds beautiful to me!

I wish I had learned to play a musical instrument. Not necessarily the piano, although that’s the most convenient most of the time. I’ve been bugging my good friend, Joe, to give me electric guitar lessons. I tell him “It’s on my bucket list.” Unfortunately (a) Joe lives 3,000 miles away; and (b) I don’t own an electric guitar and can barely read music.

So, it stays on my bucket list, and I have to rely on daughters and sons to make the music around me. Not a bad deal, actually!

Complexity or Chaos?

Are the challenges we engage to solve becoming too complex for our current methodologies? I believe that, in the last 50 years, we have lost sight of the exponential relationship between “problem complexity” and “problem management”.

I got to thinking about this once again while reading this intriguing article in The Atlantic: ‘Trust in Government is Collapsing Around the World‘. (Thanks to my well-educated friend, Ari, for pointing me to it.) Thinking in terms of “definition of experiments”, the number of independent variables is expanding like crazy, and the standard deviation in each variable is also increasing: bigger variety of people, more sub-cultures with power, higher expectations of government, etc.

Take a look at modern computing devices. Within this class I would include laptops, tablets, smart phones, and the like. They contain a powerful computing engine, plenty of memory and storage, access to the world of information we call the Internet, and claim to provide a platform on which any number of challenges can be addressed. Manage your money? No problem. Write anything from a note for the fridge to a doctoral thesis to a novel? No problem. Digest news feeds to something palatable for each user? Again, no problem.

But I would suggest that the software world has delegated the actual solving of the problem to the users, not the computer and its software. A word processor can do many things, but to do it bug-free requires legions of users writing in about this-and-that problem they encounter. Fix the problems one-by-one, and you end up with a solution to the problem. Wait! Haven’t we moved the problem from “how to write a manuscript on paper with pencil and then use a typewriter” to “how to diagnose or live with bugs when you want to get fancy”? Why not test the software and find all the bugs before it leaves the factory? That takes a different type of resolve, and using experts to create the final system, not the user community.

Uri Friedman writes ““we may not know how to architect trusted institutions at scale in public space,” quoting a former Department of Homeland Security official. She continues, “Our institutions—their weight-bearing effectiveness for social problems of enormous complexity is being called into question now across the board.”

The ‘public space’ has scaled dramatically with the shift to social media and away from ‘juried’ publications. Yet people are reading less. But why put these institutions in the public space at all? Apparently trusting direct democracy is not a new issue: according to Wikipedia, it was an issue for the Founding Fathers. Are we going to put “beta social policy” into the public sphere, and let the users find the bugs?

(I’m beginning to see S.T.E.M. efforts evolving to S.T.E.A.M. – including the arts and history. I predict this will be a “pendulum swing” like the one in 1958, when Sputnik caused American politicians to direct more effort to science and math. When the competitive crisis had passed, we went back to social studies.)

This article could go on and on. Parting thought: I wonder when our political and cultural system will begin to look a lot like ancient Athens? A ‘direct democracy’, as we learned in school, but it ignores the castes of slaves and non-citizens. (See Wikipedia article, paragraph #2.) I wonder how ‘direct democracy’ has changed in Vermont’s “town meetings” in recent decades.

Democracy: it’s still better than the alternatives!