Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In grip of the past

A few months ago I came across an interesting email forward. Without the illustrations to accompany, it looks like this -

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8.5 inches. That's an rather odd dimension for such a mundane task as guiding a rolling vehicle. Why is that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways and that's the gauge they used. Why did they use that gauge? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particularly odd wheel spacing? Well, if they used any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break when used on some of the old, rutted, long distance roads in England. So who built those old roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions and were used long after that.

And the ruts? The initial ruts, which the wagon builders had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels and wagons, were made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for, or by, Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot which, naturally, were made wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

Space Shuttles have two large solid rocket boosters (SRBs) attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit larger in diameter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains and the SRBS have to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and, as a result, is somewhat wider than two horses' behinds.

So, a major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a horse's ass! Specifications and bureaucracies live forever. The next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse's ass came up with it, you may be closer to the truth than you think.

Now there are a lot of questionable facts in the article above, but the central idea doesn't strike as preposterous.

I would not be surprised to find other things that are remnants of the past but ubiquitous in our daily lives. While it could be arduous to identify the vestige of a distant past, it would be comparatively easier to identify relics from our immediate past. 

We live in the age of information technology. Computers, mobile phones and networks have seen accelerated change in the last twenty years. Swift changes in technology are hallmark of first few decades after a breakthrough invention after which the technology matures. 

Consider Twitter. While it is perfectly natural for the current generation to try and express itself in 160 characters, this limit was not an obvious choice. The 160 character limit is a vestige of a past where network resources were scant and device memory expensive. SMS format was arbitrarily limited because somebody thought that was adequate, and today we have a whole medium of expression built on that paradigm.

Consider the modern universal (QWERTY) typewriter. We are using practically the same letter arrangement as was used by  Sholes in the initial design. It is not necessarily the most efficient. There are other designs like the DVORAK keyboard which is much more efficient. But for Legacy reasons we QWERTY is the most popular in modern computers. QWERTY was designed so that frequently typed together letters are a safe distance so that the mechanical keyboard does not jam. This constraint does not exist anymore. But we are still stuck with the past.

We are certainly moving forward in science and technology and creating new products and more efficiency, but there is also room for retrospective innovation where gaps created by constraints of the past need to be filled with current knowledge and technology.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Idea Summary : Minsky's money theory etc

Since all money is created as debt, every unit of money outstanding is A's asset and B's debt, someones surplus and someone else's deficit. In any particular economy, all government deficit will be equal to private sector surplus unless their is trade imbalance (current account mismatch). If it is able to run a trade account surplus then both private and public sector can run in surplus. But if there is a trade deficit then either or both public and private sector will be in deficit. This is not sustainable. Once Private sector runs in deficit it leads to recession.

Situation is different for US because it can pay the rest of the world in its own currency. In this case it can just pay the currency and record it as a liability in a computer and forget about it (until the money comes back to the US to be used). Hence the ability to sustain a deficit is maximized by having a currency accepted by the rest of the world. Of course the rest of the world loses by accepting the currency that is continuously being diluted.Naturally, countries will try to limit their holding of the USD, unless they have other reasons to hold USD, eg. to keep their currency suppressed for active Mercantilism. This is possible by trading with each other without going through the USD. This could be one of the reasons for emergence of the Euro block. It is an attempt to by pass the USD, by having one currency so that the individual holdings of the USD can be minimized.

Having rest of the world accept your currency is a major reason and manifestation of USA's global hegemony. All the world accepts its currency and so it has greater ability to spend. Greater spending power results in big military power used to control the world. That is not to say it is the only reason. The ability to deliver innovation and leading the world forward technologically is probably a bigger reason. But what sustains it all is the economics, which is tremendously skewed in USA's favor.

Book Summary - Guns Germs and Steel

This book is an inquiry into human history. It seeks the answers to some basic and important questions. Why did Europeans come to dominate the world and subjugated people all over the world - Aztecs, Incas, African Blacks, Zulus, Pygmies, Khoisan,  Australian Aborigines etc.? Is it a co-incidence or are Europeans a superior race than all other? Jared Diamond presents an overwhelmingly convincing argument which should be a deathblow to racists and white supremacists everywhere.

When Europeans reached America, they dominated the battles eg. when Pizarro faced the Aztecs in South America - 168 Spanish soldiers defeated thousands of Aztecs in a quick and dirty battle. They had horses guns and cannons, technology that was far superior to anything natives had. Generally more than 90% of native population was wiped out even before the battles took place by coming in contact with the germs that Europeans were resistant to while natives were not. Why was it that Europeans had better technology and germs? Why not the other way round?

The key event in human history, from which all the development followed - was start of food production. This started in fertile crescent area around 10000 years ago.  This area was particularly suitable because it had the temperate climate, wild forms of the crops which are were developed for farming, wild ancestors of animals suitable for domestication. Nearly everywhere else in the world, this technology was imported along with the seeds, animals etc. Food production enabled mankind to support higher population density and emergence of organized society.This led also to invention of writing in the fertile crescent , which was also adopted by all other civilizations over the world. Germs and germ resistance developed as a result of humans living in closed societies and close to domesticated animals (like Influenza virus came from the domesticated pig)

Everywhere else in the world, no suitable crops were available. For example in America, only suitable crop was corn , there was no wheat, rice, millet, barley etc. and even the wild ancestor of corn was 6 cm so it took thousand of years of selection to develop corn to its modern form. Also there were no animals worth domesticating. Only Llamas, which could not be used over all of america but only some specific parts.

Technology traveled faster along the east west axis in Asia. Because same crops could be used in similar climate. While on the north south axis the propagation of technology was very slow. America and Africa being aligned North-south was also a big disadvantage.

Human brain is similarly developed in all major races. Brain evolution stopped around 40000 years ago.It was only a matter of chance and circumstances why these technologies were developed in Asia and traveled to Europe through land. Everywhere else humans showed same kind of ingenuity in understanding their environment - crops and animals. But it was not possible to achieve a lot with what was available, so a lot of races did not develop or even went back to hunting gathering lifestyle.

Technologically, most of Asia and Europe was at a similar level at around 1500 AD. For the rest of the world, differences in technological development can be explained purely from the variables outside human control. Since then Europeans made amazing progress reasons for which have not been explained as convincingly as for period before that. Reasons presented are mostly idiosyncratic - as in Europe benefited from being fragmented and plural while China was unified and not plural. Diamond proposes that there is an optimum fragmentation/unification level.  In any case, it is not the main purpose of the book to explain the differences created in the last 500 years, which have already started to be normalized and probably will disappear in next 500 years. The book presents a very long term view of human history, one which has presented insightful arguments and enriched me immensely.