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Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Whatever happened to the paperless office?

In a recent article, The Economist discussed one of its predictions gone awry:

In a 1980 briefing in The Economist entitled “Towards the paperless office”, we recommended that businesses trying to improve productivity should “reduce the flow of paper, ultimately aiming to abolish it”.

After all, even in 1980 there were centralized systems that allowed electronic storage of documents. And this is even more true today, when anyone can obtain storage in “the cloud,” in some cases at no cost whatsoever.

As the Economist notes, and as you have probably observed, usage of paper has increased. The Economist created an infographic that shows, for selected countries, the number of 12 meter/40 foot trees consumed per person per year. While noting that certain measurement factors can distort the results, it still indicates that many industrialized countries consume the equivalent of four 12 meter/40 foot trees per person per year. (The figure for my country, the United States of America, is 5.57.)

So why don’t we have a paperless office? Gordon Kelly reports a common explanation:

All too easily the answer is put down to human nature: the idea that we could not accept change after centuries of paper use or an unbreakable dependence upon secretaries, dictation and aversion to reading from a screen.

But Kelly postulates two more likely reasons:

…computers were unreliable and printing became cheap.

Read the rest of Kelly’s thoughts here.

What circumstances are required for Arthur C. Clarke’s “magic”?

In 1961, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the following:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I was reminded of this recently while catching up on my blog post reading. Back in mid-March, Jake Kuramoto went on an adventure – namely, the export of information from a private Posterous blog. If you know both Jake and myself, you know that Jake is more advanced in technology matters than I am. However, even Jake was eventually stymied by the steps that had to be taken to export his information. Despite changing default storage locations, ports, passwords, and performing a number of other tasks, Jake still couldn’t get things to work.

Then Jake read one additional suggestion:

I finally got lucky after even more search keyword string refinement. The key piece: clear the browser cache.

Things were fine after that, but it should be noted that clearing the browser cache didn’t solve the problem; it merely revealed that the problem had been solved. Jake concluded:

We’ve all been there with technology problems.

Yes, we’ve all been there. We’ve cleared a cache to fix something, or we’ve turned something off and on to fix something, or we’ve taken a walk around the building to fix something. But at the end of the day, the system in question is so complex that we don’t know exactly how we fixed it…and we probably never will know.

Chalk it up to magic.

We laugh at the people from thousands of years ago who thought that magic fixed things, but are we any more “sufficiently advanced” than they were?

Apple – a risky business in the 1970s

Everyone remembers that the company originally known as Apple Computer began in a garage. But it took some efforts to get the company out of the garage – efforts that were primarily undertaken by Mike Markkula. Markkula donated a document to the Computer History Museum – a previously confidential document (PDF)” that was used to solicit additional investors into the company.

By the time the document was issued, Apple had achieved revenues of nearly a million dollars, and projected revenues of $13 million in the coming year. These would be achieved by targeting a market known as the “Personal Computer Market,” a market that Apple Computer anticipated would grow rapidly.

However, although the Steves might not have realized this, Markkula was well aware that any investment solicitation had to state the risks to the potential investors. If an investor were misled, the company could face significant legal issues.

Therefore, the document listed the following risks:

Operating History: Apple Computer Inc. is a new company which has not established a long history of operation upon which to base opinions of accuracy of forecasts, financial projections or operations efficiency.

Manufacturing: Apple has experienced extreme difficulty in obtaining its custom injection molded cases. There is no assurance that this problem will be solved through establishing additional sources of supply.

Cash Flow vs Rapid Growth: Apple management expects that rapid growth and potential market fluctuations may present severe cash flow management difficulties.

Management: Apple Computers’ Management team is young and relatively in-experienced in the high volume consumer electronics business.

Now in hindsight one can say that this was just an example of business people (and perhaps lawyers) being overly cautious. After all, Apple was making insanely great products, and would continue to do so. And who in 1978 could have anticipated that electronics companies would be able to take advantage of the labor force and technical skills available in Communist China?

But before you dismiss the risk factors, think of all the computer companies from the 1970s who are not around today. With the exception of Microsoft, pretty much all of those companies are gone, since they succumbed to their own risk factors. If you look through the computer history of the late 1970s, you see names such as MITS, Tandem, Commodore, and Digital Equipment Corporation – long since gone via merger, sale, or dissolution.

Why did Apple and Microsoft succeed when MITS and Commodore didn’t?

For Technorati


“Hey Jude” – the top song of 1958

There are many traditions that are observed in the United States. Taco Tuesday. Hump Day. Beatles Sunday.

A number of radio stations like to play Beatles music on Sunday morning, along with a nice mix of Wings music, Plastic Ono Band music, and anything else that can be related to the four most famous members of the Beatles. (Or perhaps beyond that – maybe some radio station brings out some old Pete Best Four hits or whatever.)

So anyways, last Sunday one of these programs spent some time playing “Hey Jude.” You know, that revolutionary hippie song from the late 1960s that broke all conventions. It was about seven minutes long, and AM radio stations played it anyway, because it was the Beatles. And it had some Sergeant Pepper-like horns, and AM radio stations played it anyway, because it was the Beatles.

However, the Beatles, despite the fact that some considered them an entirely new force in music, were in many ways steeped in tradition. This was certainly in evidence later in that year of 1968, when Paul McCartney was the major force behind a song called “Honey Pie.”

But there are two elements to the song “Hey Jude” that remind the listener that the Beatles drew heavily from past artists.

As I previously mentioned, the released song was about seven minutes long. And while the first part consisted of mod lyrics such as “The movement you need is on your shoulder,” the last part – the one with the Sergeant Pepper horns and all that, consisted of the following verses:

Na na na na na na na,
Na na na na,
Hey Jude.

Were these the lyrics of the new post-Monterey and soon-Woodstock (and Altamont) generation? Did these reflect the new youth world order? Not hardly. In a December 2011 editorial, the Guardian mentioned these lyrics of “Hey Jude” and compared them to other lyrics.

[W]hen the Beatles ended Hey Jude with that repeated “na-na-na na-na-na-na” they gave their audience a wordless chorus that unifies wherever it is sung; and who can’t hear how sexy the Crystals find that man Bill when they chant “Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron”?

Yes, the lyrics of the Beatles could be compared to earlier artists such as the Crystals.

Significantly, the Guardian mentions one artist that predates the Crystals.

Little Richard’s shriek of “Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom!” is the purest expression of the teenage lust for life committed to vinyl….

This is significant when you realize that the lead singer of “Hey Jude” was Paul McCartney. Before McCartney became the poster boy for LSD and marijuana – even before McCartney became known as “the cute one” – McCartney was well known for something else – something that assured McCartney’s place in the Quarrymen, later to become the Beatles. Quarrymen bassist Len Garry:

“I remember Paul doing a Little Richard impersonation, and I said to John ‘that’s good – let’s get him in.'”

As Marc Myers of Jazzwax notes, McCartney later receive some advanced lessons from the master.

JW: You taught Paul McCartney your signature falsetto “Wooo” in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962, before the Beatles were the Beatles.

LR: Oh yes. Paul’s my buddy. He’s a real gentleman. He’s beautiful. The Beatles were barely known then. They opened for me at the Star-Club [laughs]. I had gotten the inspiration for that ‘Wooo’ from gospel singer Marion Williams.

Now remember what McCartney was doing at the end of “Hey Jude” – he was basically digging out his Little Richard impression and doing it for several minutes straight.

While the rest of the Beatles were singing lyrics that could have been taken from Richard or from any old fifties doo-wop band.

And even the horns, taken from Sergeant Pepper (and other Beatles songs such as “Got To Get You Into My Life”) were a nod to old British marching bands.

So this “brand new song” of 1968 could, in some ways, have been at home in the radio playlist of 1958.

Although the radio programmers of the day probably would have cut the first part of the song, and might have taken the strings out of the mix.

Wigging out

When comparing men and women, one complaint is that women spend too much time working on their appearance, while men are less vain about it.

The complaint is unfounded, and has been for centuries.

Take a look at any eighteenth century picture of people, and you’ll find that a lot of the men are wearing wigs.


Wigs were worn in colonial times to make class distinctions clear. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation explains that even the color of wigs could indicate class and position. Professionals frequently wore gray wigs; tradesmen usually donned brown wigs; white wigs were reserved for judges and military officers. White wigs were also worn for formal occasions, but many men simply powdered a colored wig white because they did not own a white wig.

And some men would have multiple wigs for different occasions. (We’ll return to this later.) To read more about eighteenth century wig habits, go here.

Of course, after we gained independence, the whole wig thing died down and has never been resurrected since.

Um, not exactly – especially in the entertainment world. Mental Floss listed a number of confirmed wig and toupee wearers, ranging from Bing Crosby and John Wayne to Howard Cosell and Ted Danson.

But the champion of 20th and 21st century wig wearing has to be Phil Spector. Long a man of questioned mental stability, Phil Spector’s trials provided watchers with a bizarre assortment of hairstyles. The Telegraph has gathered a variety of these styles together, as well as Spector’s natural look (from his prison mugshot), and shared them here.

As for me, I don’t wear a wig or a toupee. But perhaps I should consider it.

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