Category Archives: History

Innovation Hiding in Plain Sight

A few weeks ago, Tim Harford wrote an excellent article in the Financial Timeswhat we get wrong about technology. It’s chock-full of things worth considering. For instance, in the opening paragraph, Harford reminds us of a scene from the sci-fi movie Blade Runner. In particular, he draws our attention to the disparateness of having such sophisticated technology that a robot is indistinguishable from a human [Rachael, for those that remember the 1980s classic!], but people still use payphones for communication [Emphasis Added]:

There is something revealing about the contrast between the two technologies — the biotech miracle that is Rachael, and the graffiti-scrawled videophone that Deckard uses to talk to her. It’s not simply that Blade Runner fumbled its futurism by failing to anticipate the smartphone. That’s a forgivable slip, and Blade Runner is hardly the only film to make it. It’s that, when asked to think about how new inventions might shape the future, our imaginations tend to leap to technologies that are sophisticated beyond comprehension.

Later on, Harford reviews the revolutionary invention of the printing press. As it happens, the printing press might have gone the way of the EV1, if not for another invention [Emphasis Added]:

But it would have been a Rachael — an isolated technological miracle, admirable for its ingenuity but leaving barely a ripple on the wider world — had it not been for a cheap and humble invention that is far more easily and often overlooked: paper.

The printing press didn’t require paper for technical reasons, but for economic ones. Gutenberg also printed a few copies of his Bible on parchment, the animal-skin product that had long served the needs of European scribes. But parchment was expensive — 250 sheep were required for a single book. When hardly anyone could read or write, that had not much mattered.

Paper had been invented 1,500 years earlier in China and long used in the Arabic world, where literacy was common. Yet it had taken centuries to spread to Christian Europe, because illiterate Europe no more needed a cheap writing surface than it needed a cheap metal to make crowns and sceptres. Paper caught on only when a commercial class started to need an everyday writing surface for contracts and accounts.

It has to make you wonder… what have we already invented today that will be necessary for the success of a “revolutionary” invention that’s yet to come?

Toilet paper seems a long way from the printing revolution. And it is easily overlooked — as we occasionally discover in moments of inconvenience. But many world-changing inventions hide in plain sight in much the same way — too cheap to remark on, even as they quietly reorder everything. We might call this the “toilet-paper principle”.

Harford goes on to recount many instances of the ‘toilet-paper principle’ in action. He cites barbed wire as the reason for settlers to invest in their land, where previously they had no way of cost-effectively keeping things in (or keeping things out). This quote is particularly apt:

It takes a visionary to see how toilet-paper inventions can totally reshape systems; it’s easier for our limited imaginations to slot Rachael-like inventions into existing systems.

While we’re busy imagining life with flying cars or teleportation, I wonder what innovations we’re missing that are hiding in plain sight.

Advertisements

Shaping a Generation’s Hopes and Fears: What’s the First Major News Story You Remember?

In this morning’s Eurasia Group newsletter, Signal, there’s this snippet:

Our life experience shapes what we want, what we hope for, what we fear, and what we think. Our generation has different expectations and assumptions about the world than our parents, and a new era gives our children perspectives that are distinctly different from ours. In a political context, it matters that there’s usually a generational divide between leaders and many of those they govern. I was about 7 years old before I first became (dimly) aware of national and global events.

Like Willis Sparks, I was young when I first became aware of national and global events. This reminded me of something that’s been making the rounds – what’s the first major news story you remember from childhood?

One of the first ‘global’ events I can remember is the Gulf War (the first one). In particular, I remember the Superbowl that happened right near the beginning of the war. It wasn’t so much the Superbowl itself (honestly, I had to double-check that it was the Giants who beat the Bills that year), but the festivities just before kickoff – the national anthem.

That year, Whitney Houston performed slayed (can I say that?) the national anthem.

It’s become relatively standard for there to be an honouring of military service members at sports events and frankly, it might have been a “thing” before the 1991 Superbowl, but watching Whitney Houston sing the anthem with patriotic images of officers in uniform and images of the flag… that was a truly memorable moment.

As it happens, I wasn’t the only one moved by the experience. I had no idea that that particular event inspired both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga!

The performance occurred less than 2 weeks after the start of the war and because of the war, the Superbowl was being broadcast for the first time in countries like Australia and Russia, which means that you could probably count this event as one of those times when a significant number of people on the planet were attending to the same thing.

~

Returning to Signal:

With that in mind, consider how the following numbers will shape politics in important places.

Russians under 24 won’t remember Russia before Putin, and those under 34 have no memory of the Soviet Union. South Africans younger than 30 won’t have clear memories of apartheid. They know the African National Congress as the party of power, not the party of liberation. Chinese under 35 can’t recall a time when their country was not the world’s rising economic power. Iranians under 45 have no memory of life before the revolution. French, Italians, and Germans younger than 22 have never paid for a meal with francs, lira or Deutsche Marks. Brazilians younger than 39 and Nigerians under 25 have no experience of military rule. Americans under 23 won’t remember the world before 9/11. Those under 34 didn’t experience the Cold War. Those under 53 won’t remember racial segregation. Something to think about when trying to predict what citizens will want from their governments.

There really is something to the idea of how global events shaping our way of thinking about the world. Not only do Italians, the French, and Germans under the age of 25 only know their currency as “the Euro,” North Americans under 25 have only ever known the Euro to be the standard currency of Europe. Might that mean that in 15-25 years when the twentysomethings are in power in these countries, there could be a push to re-establish their own currency? Maybe… but today’s post is not meant to debate monetary policy.

~

Consider the idea of institutional memory. In some companies, there’ll be people who have been through a number of organizational changes. For instance, the people who’ve “been there long enough” to remember when “that function was decentralized” and “why we decentralized it.” These people (and this knowledge) is so important, especially if there’s a push to move in a ‘new’ direction that just turns out to be what the company was doing 10 years ago. [Aside: this adds a different flavour of the importance age diversity in work teams.]

Reflecting on how global events can have a cascading effect on generational shifts can make it easier to understand how companies (or countries) can oscillate between extremes.

For some folks, “Mr. Gorbachev — tear down that wall!” is the first thing they remember.

For others, it’s: “Not Guilty!”

As Sparks said above, most people under 25 read about 9/11 in a textbook, rather than watching it panic-stricken on a Tuesday afternoon.

The next time you frame your understanding of why a company, country, or even your work team (!) is returning to a policy that was retreated from many years ago, consider the generation of the leaders in charge and some of the global events that may have shaped their understanding of the world.

NOTE: This was cross-posted.

On the Virtue of Being “Set in Stone”: The Cornerstone of the Supreme Court of Canada

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to participate in Doors Open Ottawa. This is an annual event in Ottawa where some of the oldest (or most celebrated) buildings in the city open their doors to the public for free tours. While visiting the Supreme Court of Canada, I heard a fascinating tale that I hadn’t heard before involving the Queen and the laying of the cornerstone for the building that houses the Supreme Court of Canada.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “set in stone?” I’m sure you have — you’ve probably even used it yourself. Well, it turns out that there just might be a bit more wiggle room than previously thought when it comes to something being set in stone.

In 1939, there was a Royal Visit to Canada planned for Queen Elizabeth. On this trip, the Queen was set to lay the cornerstone for the building that would house the Supreme Court of Canada (until that point, the Supreme Court had been operating out of one of the buildings on Parliament Hill). As the schedule was meticulously crafted, the person responsible for carving the date into the cornerstone already knew when it was going to be laid. So, the date on the cornerstone was etched in as the nineteenth day of May, 1939.

Given that this was going to be a Royal Visit to Canada, there were other things on the schedule, besides the laying of the cornerstone for the Supreme Court of Canada. There were plans to take a train across Canada to visit all the way to Vancouver! However, there was one thing that wasn’t accounted for in the timeline of the trip — the weather. That is, when the Queen travelled by sea to Canada from the UK, there was heavy fog that delayed the trip. As a result of this fog, the meticulously planned scheduled had to be amended in places. One of those places that had its schedule amended: Ottawa. In particular, the day that the Queen was set to be in Ottawa was no longer than 19th!

In fact, instead, the Queen wasn’t in Ottawa until the twentieth. I suppose you can see where this is going. So, when the Queen “laid the cornerstone” for the building that houses the Supreme Court of Canada, the date was May 20th, 1939. However, the date on the stone read, May 19th, 1939.

So, why am I telling you this?

Well, the next time someone tries to tell you that something is “set in stone,” you have a perfect story to tell them about what it might mean to be “set in stone.”

Where on the Internet is Jeremiah Stanghini – June 2016

One of the first few posts I wrote when I first started writing was a collection of the different places I could be found on the internet. That post was more than five (!) years ago. The other day, I happened to come across that post almost by accident and actually, even though I wrote two ‘updates’ to that post, it turns out that I wrote a second post almost a year and a half after that. In looking at those posts, I thought it might be fun to write an update to the series.

Even though I’ve already written an updated post to the first post, I thought I’d still look back on some of the places I used to frequent in that very first post five years ago.

Five years ago, it looks like I had planned on developing a presence on YouTube:

I have a channel on YouTube where I upload videos of presentations. You’ll also find videos that I “like” on YouTube along with videos that I have commented on.

As it happens, there really isn’t much more to my YouTube profile than links back to other places you can find me. I do have some things on YouTube, but that’s only if you’re a student in one of my classes (and have access to the lectures I’ve uploaded).

Similarly, I used to do a lot of writing for Squidoo. It’s been so long since I’d visited any of the things I’d written for that site that it’s not even called Squidoo (!) anymore — HubPages acquired them.

I also let my BodyTalk certification lapse, as my career went in a different direction.

It looks like I used to be a frequent commenter at other sites. In particular, I had profiles with IntenseDebate and Disqus (two popular commenting services). It looks like I haven’t had a comment with either of those two services in more than 2 years (almost 3.5 years with IntenseDebate).

Lastly, I highlighted two Toronto sports blogs that I used to be an active member of: Bluebird Banter and Pension Plan Puppets. If I check-in on my comment history for both those sites, it won’t even let me discern when I last made a post (as it’s been that long).

~

If I look at the second post I wrote (in late 2012), the only carryover from the first post (of places I’m no longer that active) is the two commenting services: IntenseDebate and Disqus.

Now, let’s look at some of the places that I still frequent (in one way or another).

In that first post, I talked about writing posts (I’m nearly up to 600 on here). I also highlighted my LinkedIn profile (it’s up to date!), and my Twitter account (I like to share articles that I think people will find useful).

In the second post, I added two other places: Facebook and Quora. At the time, I used to be a frequent contributor to Facebook. Like Twitter, I liked to share articles that I thought people would find useful. I also liked to share pictures I found on the Internet that were either beautiful or provided a different perspective. Somewhere along the way, Facebook changed its algorithms and the people who “liked/followed” your page were no longer receiving all your updates. As a result, I stopped actively contributing in that environment. However, whenever I publish a new post, a link to that post is automatically uploaded to Facebook.

As for the second place — Quora — at the time, I did spend some time trying to build a presence on Quora. I wrote more than 60 answers, but it looks like I haven’t written anything for Quora in almost 3 years. I didn’t realize this until writing this post, but it looks like there are a number of answers that I’ve written for Quora that have more views than some of the things that I’ve written for this website.

~

So, in the last 3+ years, how have my internet frequenting habits changed? Well, the best place to find me is still here on this site. Twitter and LinkedIn are also places that I continue to update. Two new places: Business2Community and Research Blogging. Business 2 Community is one of the top business blogs and Research Blogging is a community and collection of posts written about academic research.

The Most Commonly Spoken Languages in Canada, Besides English and French

A couple of years ago, I came across an map that I found fascinating. It showed the most commonly spoken languages in the US (after English and Spanish). Some were fairly intuitive (French in Louisiana, Arabic in Michigan, etc.), but some forced me to think about the history (recent and past!) of a given state. For instance, I wouldn’t have guessed Chinese as the most commonly spoken language after English and Spanish in New York! I probably would have guessed Italian or Polish in thinking about the early immigrants to Ellis Island.

After seeing that post, it made me wonder what the most commonly spoken languages in Canada were (after English and French, of course). Sadly, my Google Fu kept turning up ‘snake eyes.’ It wasn’t until early last year that I saw tweet from Conrad Hackett, a demographer with the Pew Research Center, that linked to the very map I was looking for the year before. However, this map is even better, because it’s interactive!

The US map I linked to above shows the most commonly spoken language (after English/Spanish) by state. The map for Canada allows you to zoom in and look at specific areas within Canada. For instance, instead of grouping all of Ontario into one bucket, you can see some differences, depending upon which part of Ontario you’re viewing. For instance, in the Census Division (er, Census Division in Canada is kind of like “County” in the US) or York and Toronto, the most commonly spoken language after English/French is Chinese. However, in Peel, it’s Punjabi. Having lived in all three of those areas, those would have been my guesses.

However, I’ve also lived in Victoria and I’m not sure what I would have guessed. The answer is Chinese and I suppose that’s somewhat intuitive given that many immigrants from China choose BC (Vancouver or Victoria) as their place to call home). Similarly, right now, I live in Ottawa and I wouldn’t have guessed Chinese, nor would I have guessed Arabic for Gatineau (which is part of the National Capital Region).

One thing that should be immediately striking about the map is how much “Aboriginal” there is. It appears to be the account for the most land size. It’s probably not fair to group all the Aboriginal languages into one, so here’s a note on the methodology from the creators of the map:

We thought about this a lot when creating the map, and the primary reason is that there are simply not enough colours in the visual spectrum to use a distinct colour (and texture) for each language so that the map is actually visually pleasing and comprehensible. The editorial decision was made to combine the Aboriginal languages into a single colour (while retaining the distinctions and language-specific details when hovering). Why do we think this was a good decision? Almost all of the feedback we’ve received has been “Wow, I’m so happy there’s so much purple, it’s so great how much of Canada is dominated by indigenous languages!”. The purple wave is so striking, so visually stunning, and it clearly communicates the strength of the Aboriginal population across much of Canada — this effect would have been lost if we had selected different colours, and it would look just like everyone else. So we believe we struck a good balance.

One other part of the country that stands out is the Northwest Territories (near the top of the map). You probably could have given me a dozen guesses and I wouldn’t have said “Arabic” as the most commonly spoken language after English/French.

 

Famous People Alive at the Same Time — Visualized!

One of the things that I’m passionate about when I compose new posts on here is offering some sort of new perspective or a fresh perspective. Naturally, these are my two most often used tags (perspective = 66, fresh perspective = 71). This means that, of the nearly 600 posts I’ve written, in 66 of them, one of the most apt words for describing the post is perspective. Similarly, for 71 of the posts, fresh perspective is one of the most apt phrases. Also:

The primary focus of this site is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the “Blind Men and the Elephant,” it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a ‘tusk’ or a ‘leg.’ Some of the topics include: psychology, business, technology, education, politics, philosophy, and even history.

In today’s post, let’s focus on that last word — history.

Within the last 6 months, I came across a post that made me think, “Yes — thank you for doing this!” The post is found on a website that is absolutely brilliant in its aim — Wait But Why. The title of the post — Horizontal History. A short excerpt:

Normally, we learn about history’s storylines in isolation. We might have a strong sense of the history of physics breakthroughs or the progression of western philosophical thought or the succession of French rulers—but we’re not as clear on how each of these storylines relate to each other. If you think of history like a tangle of vines growing upwards through time, studying one type of history at a time is like following the path of one particular vine while ignoring the other vines around it. It’s understanding history in a vertical sense.

And while vertical history has its merits, it doesn’t leave you with an especially complete picture of any one time. An econ buff in the year 2500 might know all about the Great Depression that happened in the early 20th century and the major recession that happened about 80 years later, but that same person might mistake the two world wars for happening in the 1800s or the 2200s if they’re a little hazy on the history of wars. So while an econ buff, that person would have a pretty poor understanding of what our modern times are all about. 

Likewise, I might know that Copernicus began writing his seminal work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in Poland in the early 1510s, but by learning that right around that same time in Italy, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I get a better picture of the times. By learning that it was right while both of these things were happening that Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon in England, the 1510s suddenly begins to take on a distinct personality. These three facts, when put together, allow me to see a more three-dimensional picture of the 1510s—it allows me to see the 1510s horizontally, like cutting out a complete segment of the vine tangle and examining it all together.

What an innovative way to look at history, right? If you take the time to head over to the post, you’ll see that the author has a number of helpful graphics. I’m hesitant to include any in this post because I want to make sure you take the time to patronize that website. Just to take a moment to describe some of the more important ones: on the left side, you’ll find the year and then to the right, the author has charted the births/deaths of plenty of famous people throughout history. In this way, you’re able to see when certain famous people were alive at the same time.

After the author has done that, they’ve pulled out a number of “smaller” versions of these bigger graphics to talk a bit about some examples. For instance, there’s here’s a quick example:

Every time I look at the lifespan diagram, a new interesting horizontal pops out to me. Here’s one more: People in the US associate the 1860s with Lincoln and the Civil War. But what we overlook is that the 1860s was one of history’s greatest literary decades. In the ten years between 1859 and 1869, Darwin published his world-changing On the Origin of Species (1859), Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861), Lewis Carroll published Alice in Wonderland (1865), Dostoyevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866), and Tolstoy capped things off with War and Peace (1869). These guys were all in their primes at the same time. So was Lincoln. . .

I’ve spent at least a couple of different occasions looking through this graphic trying to place who was alive together. One of the interesting things I found was that much of Johann Sebastian Bach (certainly one of my favourite composers) and Benjamin Franklin’s lifespan overlapped and that Adam Smith’s (economics) lifespan is almost wholly contained within Benjamin Franklin’s (save for two months at the end of Smith’s life). In the philosophy world at this time, John Locke died when Bach was a teenager, Voltaire’s life mostly overlaps with Bach’s, and Kant was in his 20’s when Bach died. Oh, let’s not forget that Isaac Newton was in his 40’s when Bach was born and lived for about another 40 more years. And since I’ve started with Bach, I might as well tell you that Pachelbel was born about 30 years before Bach and Vivaldi was born before Bach by about 20 years.

Quick Thoughts on HBO’s Confirmation

This past weekend, I had the chance to watch HBO’s Confirmation. It’s a dramatized version of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States. I probably shouldn’t be wading into an issue like this, especially without a fully formulated opinion, but I wanted to put proverbial pen to pad to work out some of the things that came to mind during (and immediately following) my viewing of the film.

The first, and probably most important thing that came to mind was the undue hardship that society places onto the victims of sexual assault. I can’t imagine what it was like for Anita Hill (or her friend and family) to have to experience what she experienced, especially given that she was approached, rather than her seeking out someone to tell her story. This seems wrong. It’s unjust. Victims of sexual assault shouldn’t have to weigh the potential consequences to their lives should they come forward. It shouldn’t be part of the equation — at all. Just the fact that they’ve experienced sexual assault first hand is enough trauma for one lifetime and then to put them through the media circus… that doesn’t sound like justice to me.

Of course, most sexual assaults aren’t escalated to a high-profile nature like that of Thomas/Hill’s. That doesn’t make them any less painful or any less difficult for the victims to come forward in their communities. In fact, some might argue that it’s harder in these kinds of instances because there might not be the kind of support (i.e. skilled lawyers, etc.) for the cases that aren’t high-profile.

The second thing that came to mind was the timing of the confirmation hearing. It took place in the fall of 2011. About six months later, there were the Los Angeles riots. And about two short years after that, the OJ Simpson trial. I’m sure there were other key events that took place (as an elementary school student, I wasn’t really interested in national/world news, mainly whether or not the Blue Jays or the Leafs won). Any of these events taken on their own seem like touchstone moments for a country grappling with race relations, but then to have three like this grouped so closely together…

Some may quibble with my inclusion of the confirmation hearing with the LA riots and the Simpson trial, but to my mind, there’s a thread that links all three. I mean, I can’t know this for sure, but I bet that most people would agree that if Anita Hill were white, Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing may have gone very differently.

~

I want to circle back to my point in the beginning. Injustice. It seems that there’s a perversion of justice when someone who has suffered harm has to then consider suffering more harm in the pursuit of justice. That’s not right. Given the structure of the justice system in the US, I don’t know what the solution would be, so that there’s protection for the victim, but that the accused is able to face their accuser. It seems like this is an area ripe for innovation.