Saturday, November 27, 2010

Steampunk in Pictures at the Charles River Museum of Industry

The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation sits on the former site of the Waltham Watch Company in Waltham, MA, one of the wonders of 19th-century American industry.  It's not far from the spot where Francis Cabot Lowell founded the first textile mill in America to manufacture cotton-to-finished cloth in one building, another wonder of American ingenuity.  In fact, if nearby Bunker Hill and Lexington/Concord are hallowed ground for the American Revolution, this spot in Waltham would be hallowed ground for the Industrial Revolution.  

Along with its textile and watch exhibits, the Museum in October launched Steampunk Form & Function--an Exhibition of Innovation, Invention and Gadgetry which celebrates art, imagination and industry.  (If you are unfamiliar with steampunk, Wikipedia has a good summary here.  If you have some time over the upcoming holidays and want to sample a steampunk novel, begin at the source with William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine.)

I've captured a few images of this fun exhibit from a recent visit, and would encourage you also to visit the Museum and support this important historical site.

It's easy to see why this spot along the Charles River, not far from Boston, attracted industrialists.  Besides reliable water power, the entrepreneurs who founded the Waltham Watch Company were also seeking "clean air" (predecessor to the clean rooms we require for manufacturing), something hard to find in the rapidly-growing, smoky and filthy urban centers of mid-19th-century America.

A view of the Waltham Watch (and successor) site.  This now houses light industry, offices, artist lofts, the Museum and other uses compatible with its suburban neighborhood.

And off we go. . .

One of my favorites: a Steampunk Trans Foraminal Image Perambulator With Stand, something no home should be without.

This is a very cool pinball machine where a winning score creates life, something that is done from time to time (as is alchemy) in steampunk novels.

Better than a Harley.  Seat-warmer standard.

Just the new keyboard you need for Christmas.

Or maybe this steampunk iPhone docking station?

Or perhaps this steampunk clock for your mantel?

And what child wouldn't want a steampunk Etch-a-Sketch under the tree?

There's lots more, including additional steampunk exhibits (and lots of good background material), the Museum's superb watch exhibit, and great demonstrations on how the old factory distributed power among its machines.  Elln Hagney and her team do a terrific job maintaining and growing the Museum, even as they continue recovering from a foot of floodwater earlier this year.

One last one. . .

Eat your heart out, Lucille.

The Museum even has steampunk music available, and our tribe picked up a CD on the way out the door.  It wasn't exactly my or my wife's cup of tea (as we discovered on the drive home), but it sounds as if it's being loaded onto teenage MP3s around the house even as I write. . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Happy at Work? You Should Be 8 Feet Tall

Earlier this month the Boston Globe printed a glossy magazine insert entitled "Top Places to Work 2010."  Inside, segmented into "large, midsize and small," were dozens of companies ranked by the engagement and contentment of their employees.

These sorts of articles come out on a regular basis--top places to live, top lawyers, best schools and pizza and podiatrists--and are clearly designed to increase circulation and drive business to advertisers. Consequently, we shouldn't take these lists seriously, though the winners undoubtedly do.

In this case, the Globe invited 1,160 employers to participate.  236 companies had enough critical mass to complete the process to the point where confidential surveys were offered to 133 thousand of their employees, 82 thousand of whom elected to participate.  Criteria included Direction (confidence in leadership), Execution, Managers (listening, praising, etc.), Career (opportunity), Conditions, and Pay/Benefits.

That seems like a pretty good list, though I cannot help but think about the Acura service manager who badgers me in person, by phone and by email for ratings of "10" on the survey Acura corporate inevitably sends after one of my visits to get the oil changed.  I'm not sure I even know what a "10" oil change is.

Of the winners of the Globe survey, one company offered unlimited vacation. Another free catered lunches, Fridays off in the summer, an iPod for every new employee, and a "kegerator"--a refrigerator that dispenses beer from two kegs on Friday afternoons.  One arranges for a tricycle to deliver local produce every Thursday in the warm weather months.  Another placed a masseuse and manicurist on site.  Who wouldn't be happy with those sorts of benefits?

Height and Benefits: A Quick History

Bear with me for a moment.

In 1800, the average native-born American white male worked six days per week, ten-hours per day on the farm and averaged 5'8" tall, a full two inches taller than his English counterpart.  Some of this height advantage was from living in a dispersed population where contagion wasn't as devastating to the population.  Most, however, was likely from eating better food, especially more protein.  Of course, by modern standards, nobody in 1800 had a balanced diet.  If our 60 hour-per-week, 5'8" ancestor lived in the North, he/she ate lots of beef and wheat, and in the South tons of corn and pork.  All of this came with plenty of milk, cream and butter.  As one historian summarized, this diet was "monotonous and constipating."

Now, cast ahead about 140 years to World War II.  The average native-born American white male enlisting in the Army was--guess?--5'8" tall.  No change in 140 years.

Though, in fact, a funny thing happened on the way to WWII.

It was called the Industrial Revolution.  It meant the growth of high stress, smoky, dirty, dangerous factories and urban areas.  And part of this so-called "urban stress" was nutritional.  People on meager wages tended to pay their rent before they bought good food.  Reliable logistics from farm to city were still being invented.  

What happened?  The average height of the native-born U.S. male population fell by nearly two inches from 1800 to a low point in the 1880s, and did not recover to 5'8" until the 1920s.

At the same time--as you might expect--male life expectancy declined from about 47 in 1800 to 41 in 1850.  Women had it even worse; as a group, they went from 48 to 37.1 years--and undernourished women carrying smaller babies was probably the most direct link to a shorter population. 

A Short History of American Capitalism adds:
The evidence so far indicates that females began to experience nutritional stress earlier than men during a downturn and were less likely to show improvements in an upswing. . .Social class and occupation also played a large part in the decline. . .In all studies without exception, the positive relationship between social status and physical stature has been consistently documented in various societies and at different times. . .
Out of nine industrialized capitalist countries, the United States experienced the longest decline in stature—sixty years.  The antebellum years constituted the bulk of this period. . .Growing inequality of wealth combined with rising food prices, and the falling birth weights of babies of poor women suggest that the quality of life may have decayed for the lower classes.
Clearly, when Americans made their move from farm to factory in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, they found working conditions tougher, sometimes much tougher, than on the farm.  And good, plentiful protein was harder to come by.  At the Chicopee Manufacturing Company, a Massachusetts textile mill that began operating in 1823, the average workday began at 5 a.m. and lasted until 7:30 p.m. with two half-hour breaks for breakfast and dinner.  13.5 hours of daily industrial misery.  Cotton fly filled the air, permanently damaging lungs.  Heat was oppressive.  Dangerous machinery sat everywhere.  When England limited children to 48-hour weeks, a factory manager complained that it became hard to get anything done.

Today, the average height for an American male is approaching 5' 10".  

Back to Today

Imagine, now, if you were employed by one of the Globe's "Top Places to Work."  Unlimited vacation.  Free catered protein.  A kegerator!  If poor work conditions and nutrition make you shorter, what would Top Work Conditions, Copious Protein and Beer Every Friday do for you?

You should be, what. . .about eight feet tall?!

Next time I'm in Boston, I'm finding the happy eight-footers walking the streets, following them to their offices, and dropping off a resume.  Those are clearly the companies we all should be working for.  Besides, this 5'8" stuff is for the birds.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I'm Off the Future. . .

. . .at least for a while, anyway.  All of this future shock stuff is wearing me down.  No robots mowing our lawn.  No jetpacks.  No "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" popping out of the wall.  Just doom and gloom.  Friend Jerry sent me an email after my last Armageddon post telling me to get the heck offline and visit the mountains.  I think he was politely telling me to stop worrying (and maybe get a life, too). 

Still--no jetpacks.  Weren't we supposed to have jetpacks by now?

Nonetheless, for reasons best explained at some future date, I've been plowing through most every credible thing I can get my hands on concerning forecasts of what the world will look like over the next 50 years or so.  This includes Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, George Friedman's The Next Hundred Years, and now, Laurence C. Smith's The World in 2050.

This latest by UCLA's Professor Smith is a terrific book.  He tells compelling stories, deals in data and facts, and tries hard (though with only modest success) to be anything but an alarmist.

Let's start with the bear.  In 2006, a hunter on Banks Island, 2,500 miles north of the United States in the Canadian Arctic, shot and killed a polar bear.  But it was a small, odd polar bear with patches of brown on its back, paws and nose, and rings around its eyes.  The shape of the face wasn't right for a polar bear, either.  Off went the DNA sample and back came the results: this was a half-breed, the product of a grizzly bear father and a polar bear mother.  A first.

Think about that for a moment.  Don't you just wish National Geographic had been able to film that little tryst in the wild?  It reminds me of something that happened to my roommate at 33 Dunster Street in Cambridge my first year in business school.  (We weren't able to get that on video, either.)

Another pizzly (grizzlar?) was found this year.  That means it was more than a one-night stand.  The grizzlies and the polars are breeding.

(Not to get too far afield, but if this can happen, don't you think it might just be possible--contrary to what most anthropologists tell us--that the Neanderthals didn't die out but simply bred-in with the dominant Homo erectus?  I mean, could that have been any more intimidating then a wayward grizzly stumbling upon a fetching lady polar bear?  And there's a really good joke here that I can't tell, cause this blog is rated PG, but it starts "a lady Neanderthal walks into a bar". . .and the punch line is: "They don't call me Homo erectus for nothing!")


It might also explain certain aspects of the Tea Party, but I digress.

Anyway, grizzlies are not the only thing moving north.  A 2003 global inventory found that, on average, plants and animals are shifting their ranges about six kilometers toward the poles, and six meters higher in elevation, every decade.  Spring is coming to us, on average, four days earlier every decade.  As Smith writes, "If these numbers don't sound large to you, they should.  Imagine your lawn crawling north, away from your house, at a speed of five and one-half feet each day."

The result, the megatrend here, is important: Smith believes that the northern quarter of the planet--a "New North" lying roughly above 45N (think Minnesota and N. Dakota)--will be a place of "increased human activity, higher strategic value, and greater economic importance than today." The winners in this scenario (Smith calls them "Northern Rim countries" or "NORCs") will be the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.  Most of those places are already pretty nice places to visit and live, so in a sense, the strong are going to get stronger.

All of which is the (very) long way to the point of Smith's superb book, which is a thought experiment.  There are four ground rules: No Silver Bullets (technology will improve in increments), No WW III, No Hidden Genies (a meteorite impact, a pandemic, etc.), and The Models Are Good Enough (focus on robust conclusions, not the outside limits).

There are also four Global Forces (with great associated discussions) that Smith puts in play: Demography (ridiculous growth and rapid aging), Natural Resources (ridiculous consumption growth), Globalization, and Climate Change (think halfbreed bears and moving lawns, but there's other compelling data here).  Spinning through all this is technology, of course.

Smith then describes what happens as each of these Forces evolve.  He talks about the rise of megacities and the fact that we are adding one complete Seattle to the planet every day.  He forecasts that we will have 9.2B people on earth in 2050, and that for every 100 born, "fifty-seven will open their eyes in Asia and twenty-two in Africa, mostly in cities."  He compares the elegant way Singapore has created healthy growth with a place like poor old Lagos, Nigeria.  He shows that water-rich Norway has 82,000 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per person while Kenya has just 830.  He suggests that rising temperatures could leave the Southwest U.S. with a "drought worse than anything ever seen in modern times."  (In fact, he quotes experts that believe we are already eight years into such a drought.)  He reasons that "stationarity" (the notion that natural phenomenon fluctuate within a fixed envelope of uncertainty) is dead; from personal experience, I think we've had three "hundred year floods" in our town in the last decade.  He shows that we are already locked into global warming--it's just a question of degree.  He projects that by midcentury the Lyme-disease tick will be all over Canada and smallmouth bass will live in the Arctic Ocean.  (In the last 40 years Atlantic warm-water species have pushed northward 700 hundred miles.)  He writes that skinny polar bears are, for the first time, eating one another.

He predicts that 15% to 37% of the world's species will be committed to climate-change extinction by 2050, marking the sixth great extinction on earth.

So now I'm thinking, maybe the Singularity ain't such a bad thing after all.

Smith ends with a few words of hope, but I think he's just being a good guy, like telling someone who is about to ride a barrel down Niagara Falls that you'll buy them dinner when they reach bottom and dry off.

I do take some solace in the fact that all of Roosevelt's best economists tried to forecast life in the United States a generation ahead in the 1940s and completely missed the Baby Boom.  That television was supposed to put movies out of business.  That 19th-century minds were fearful that horse manure would smother 20th-century cities.  That the local weather people never get the snowfall amount on my driveway correct.

Still, based on Smith's narrative, my best advice is: Buy a home in Frostbite Falls, preferably in the path of a glacial run-off, and put all your money in pharmaceutical stocks.  And, when the Singularity comes knocking and asks if you'd like to live forever, take a day or two to think about it.

Anyway, I'm off the future for a while.  Maybe back to the mountains, Jerry.  Maybe get a life, or at least focus on the present great one I've got going.  Stay tuned.

(P.S.--"They don't call me Homo erectus for nothing!"  Ha.  Sometimes I just crack myself up.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Weekend in Armageddon

I'm a little depressed this morning.

Every Saturday I read Peggy Noonan's column in the Wall Street Journal, and, generally speaking, find that the sky is falling somewhere that she's visited.  Mostly it's falling on Democrats, but it's falling for sure.  And usually I don't think twice about it because I grew up on Chicken Little and know it all ends well.  However, she kind of laid it on the line this weekend when she wrote that "We are in a crisis.  Our spending is ruinous, the demands of government are too great. . .We have only a short time to fix things, we have to move now."

So, we've got that Armageddon scenario going for us politically.

Then, my other favorite Jeremiah, Thomas Friedman, goes to bat every Sunday and often piles on a dose of technological and geopolitical Armageddon.  This Sunday it was the good folks in India lecturing us on the American dream.   Amazingly, when they talk they sound just like a Tom Friedman book, as when a "few Indian business leaders want to ask the president. . .Didn't America export to the world all the technologies and free market dogmas that created this increasingly flat, global economic playing field--and now you're turning them against us?"  Meanwhile, an Indian journalist wrote that our country has "worn-out infrastructure, [a] failing education system and lack of political consensus."  Another says we've lost our self-confidence.  Another wonders if we're going to cede our leadership to China.

All of which pales, frankly, in relation to the coming Singularity.  We tackled Ray Kurzweil and his followers just a while ago here.  Kurzweil says things like, "At the onset of the twenty-first century, humanity stands on the verge of the most transforming and the most thrilling period in its history. It will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged, as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity."

I'm here to say that I'm not sure I like any of this.  I can't decide if I'd rather have economic collapse, or be lectured to by non-Americans about the American dream, or allow my brain to turn to molten jello, or stand on the precipice of an era when we no longer even know what it means to be human. 

I have either seen the Four Horseman of the American Apocalypse this weekend, or I have seen the way modern mass media and publishing place absolutely everything on the brink to boost circulation.  

Either way, I'm going for another cup of coffee this morning.