Monday, June 18, 2007

How Good Are Expert Predictions?

Magazines are ephemeral, but some of my friends compulsively keep stacks of copies of old magazines. I've always wondered what possible use these collections can be, but here's a lovely contribution one of my readers sent, taken from Popular Science of May, 1967, page 93.

"Time sharing, most experts agree, is the key to the computer's future, at least for general use. A few years ago, when people thought about household computers at all, they though of some small, inexpensive, individual unit that would keep track of the family checking account and automatically type of Christmas-card labels. Now we know it won't be like that at all.

"The reason is economic. The bigger and faster the computer, the cheaper it makes each computation. Consequently, it will be far cheaper to build one monster computer with thousands or even millions of customers hooked into it than to have small, individual machines in individual homes."

Now we know that "most experts" were wrong: we know it would be like that, because today, 40 years later, it is like that. I was something of an "expert" in 1967, and I'm proud to say that I wasn't one of those who made such a piss-poor prediction. That's probably because I don't make predictions—except the prediction that almost all of the predictions we make today will turn out to be piss-poor 40 years later.

Why do I make such a meta-prediction? Well, I've researched the past, and, as Patrick Henry said, "I only know the future from the past." But don't take Patrick's or my word for it. Here's how you can find out for yourself. Beg, borrow, or steal a copy of some old computer magazine. Spend as much time reading it as you typically spend on this month's issue of the same publication (or an equivalent one, if the old one is no longer around). I guarantee that the time spent on the old one will be more productive.

Because I was an "expert" in the 1960s, I published a number of articles in the leading computer magazine of the time, Datamation.. I do save my old articles, so I happen to have a copy of Datamation. from September, 1962. My article in that issue is entitled, "How to Automate Demonstrations."

Although the print magazine Datamation. itself shuffled off this mortal coil in 1997, I'm proud to say that my 1962 article would stand up pretty well even today. Perhaps even better today. Now that hardly any part of the computer moves, demonstrations are much more challenging to create. Of course, this was supposed to be a humorous article, though not everyone realized it at the time. I received a dozen requests for the Demonstration Compiler—that is, the compiler that compiled fake demonstrations. (Hmm, is there any other kind?)

On page 79 of that issue of Datamation., there's an advertisement from Computer Dynamics of Silver Spring, Maryland. (What ever happened to them.?
Solve your computer problems efficiently and economically by using our 32K, 10 tape IBM 7090 at $450 per hour." (That's about $5,000 per hour or more in today's dollars.)

Today, 45 years later, I own five computers, each of which is far more powerful than that 7090. As far as their value, I've thrown away a more computing power than that because nobody wanted it. Yes, the ten tape drives would still be a bit expensive today, but why would I want them? I own more than a dozen disk drives, each of which stores far more than those ten tapes.

The list of advertisers from that issue contains many forgotten names of companies selling computers, plus a few companies that are still around but no longer selling computers. Here's some examples:

PHILCO "Philco's on the move."

RCA "What's new at RCA is news in EDP."

GENERAL PRECISION (Surely everyone remembers the RPC-4000.)

ASI "More computation per dollar—on the ASI-210."

GENERAL ELECTRIC "Progress is our most important product."

FRIDEN "This is Practimation."


TRW "Be operational now with the TRW-130 (AN/UYK-1)"

BENDIX "Is your programming career in a closed loop?"

Bendix didn't actually advertise their machine (no, it wasn't a washing machine), but they were crying out for programmers. And so were most of the others, "from $7,000 on up."

Even IBM (who, at last look, was still around), was desperate for programmers to "shape the future of a new technology." Sound familiar? Although machines are millions of times faster and cheaper, some things—human things, mostly—don't seem to change in 45 years:

"IBM programmers ... are devising programs that in turn use machine capability for formulating new programs. They are creating programs that enable computers to diagnose their own faults through self-checking. And they are helping to design the systems that will let scientists and engineers 'talk' to machines in the everyday language of science and engineering."

Gee, I hope they finish these projects soon. I've been waiting a long time to talk to my computers.

Perhaps, in the end, all this flux of companies and jargon and sales promises is merely an illusion. Perhaps it's what doesn't change that teaches us the most important things about ourselves.

And what is it that doesn't change?


Oh, the faces change. The names change. But the behavior, the hopes, the visions, the gullibility—they don't change. Maybe that's a prediction you can safely make.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Exception is the Rule

Recently, I was trying to help a client (let me call them "StartupCompany") mired in conflicts, exceptions, errors, anomalies, lapses, modifications and other deviations from the norm. These annoying exceptions were playing tricks with my blood pressure, so I had to be wired to a wearable blood pressure computer for twenty-four hours. As if StartupCompany didn't have enough interruptions, now my wearable computer was inflating a blood pressure cuff at random intervals throughout the day.

Every time the cuff inflated, I petulantly asked myself: Why can't they run a project like real people living run-of-the-mill, low-blood-pressure lives?

That night, I was using the Yellow Pages, and in the A categories in the Yellow Pages index, I chanced to notice a curious pattern. Here are the first few items:

Abortion Services and Alternatives. These were the first two entries in the index. I decided to skip them both, so as not to take sides in the pro-choice/pro-life conflict. I had enough conflicts within StartupCompany.

Abuse - Men, Women, Children. I decided to continue my scan of the index, and this was the next entry. The normal process of family living involves people loving and respecting each other, communicating well, and behaving appropriately according to societal norms. But when people start behaving inappropriately, they need Abuse Services. In StartupCompany, people normally respected one another, communicated well, and behaved appropriately according to societal norms. But they sometimes didn't, and they lacked "abuse services" for coping.

Academies (including private schools and special education). When the formal education system doesn't provide special knowledge or handle special cases, private academies and special education are called for. People within StartupCompany often needed to know things they hadn't learned in the public schools, but StartupCompany had no provision for special education.

Accident Prevention. Accidents aren't "supposed" to happen, StartupCompany had accidents. In order to improve, they needed processes to prevent accidents and to mitigate their consequences.

Accordions. Despite what some people think, accordions are perfectly normal, though not everybody learns to play them or appreciate them. Still, StartupCompany could have used some entertainment to lighten the mood once in a while.

Accountants. Accounting is also normal, but, if everything always went according to plan, we wouldn't need to account for things so carefully. We have to protect our financial well-being from mistakes and misbehavior, and that's what accountants do - and also what they should have been doing in StartupCompany.

Acetylene Welding. Some welding is normal, and some is for repairing things that are not supposed to break - but do anyway. StartupCompany lacked a "welding team" to handle lots of stuff that broke.

Acrylic Nails. Most normal people have fingernails, so why is there a nail business? Oh, yes, it's the human interface, and StartupCompany had to cope with conflicting ideas of what made a system beautiful - but they had no special beauty experts to resolve the conflicts.

Acting Instruction. We all need to "put on an act" now and then when we're caught by surprise. StartupCompany's people certainly needed training in how to behave in improvisational situations, but there was no acting instruction.

Acupressure/Acupuncture. If we were all healthy all the time, we wouldn't need medical services, and if "normal" Western medical services worked all the time, we wouldn't need acupressure and acupuncture. So, there are not only abnormal services, but meta-abnormal services - the services when the normal abnormal services fail - certainly true in StartupCompany.

Addressing Service. Have you ever tried to maintain a mailing list? Almost all the work is not the mailing itself, but maintaining the addresses. It's even worse for email, because email services haven't yet evolved "normal" ways of dealing with changes. Gee, neither had StartupCompany.

Adjusters. Adjusters, of course, are an abnormal service from the get-go. Without accidents, we wouldn't need insurance, and if things stayed on course, StartupCompany wouldn't have needed risk analysis. But they did.

Adobe Materials and Contractors. Adobe materials may not be "normal" where you live, but here in New Mexico, adobe is a normal building method. StartupCompany, too, has its idiosyncratic processes that are not normal in other projects - and newcomers have to learn about them or pay the price. But StartupCompany had no special services to bring newcomers up to speed.

Adoption Services. Yes, sometimes people are not wanted by their parents, and StartupCompany certainly had some unwanted people. But, they lacked "adoption" services for moving unwanted people around.

Adult Supervisory Care. "Normal" adults can take care of themselves without supervision, and normal workers wouldn't need much managing at all. But StartupCompany had two adults who could not take proper care of themselves, and the managers spent an inordinate amount of time on these two out of a hundred.

I stopped there, sobered by my reading. It was now clear to me that StartupCompany, being a startup, had an overly simplistic picture of what it takes to run a company. I needed an adjustor to adjust my blood pressure - I needed to see that my job as their consultant was to teach them that deviations are normal, and that they (and I) could do what real people do:

• stop whining and deal with them

• create systems to deal with them

• create systems to prevent them

And, of course, I have to do these three things in my own company - like not whining about my blood pressure.