Wednesday, June 11, 2008

1000 AD

I'm feeling a bit guilty about leaving the blog fallow for so long, in spite of the fact that, yes, I really don't have any enough time to give it the attention that it deserves.

That said, he's a little something to chew on in the meanwhile.

The Marginal Revolution blog has posted an interesting question: if you were suddenly transported back to the year 1000 AD and found yourself somewhere in Europe with nothing but the clothes on your back, what would you do to survive and prosper?

The comments section is lively with many thoughtful proposals. My own feeling is that people who dream of becoming uber-Edisons would be in for a rude shock: advancing technology is a lot harder than it looks. A lot of people, for instance, suggest inventing the steam engine. That's a great idea that's very likely to get you killed given the poor quality of the metal involved and the fact that even reasonably well constructed steam engines have been known to blow up.

Natalie and I both side with the idea that the real advantage that the average person has is a superior system of arithmatic. It's far easier to do calculation with Arabic notation than in Roman notation (try dividing CLXX into MCMIV without converting the numbers into decimal form if you doubt me). Given this, I think that the smartest course of action would be to hook up with the local nobility as soon as you can manage the language and take over their book keeping. If you know even basic double-book accounting, you'll be a indespensible asset to his lordship.

Once you have some social and financial capital, you can work on more ambitious projects (preferably letting someone else actually do the dangerous experiments).

In any case, the commentary is well worth reading and I invite you to post your own ideas, here.


Ron Smith said...

"superior system of arithmatic"
And hopefully, superior spalling! :)

Andrew Lias said...

See Ron, I told you I didn't have enough time to do a good job on the blog! ;-)

magidin said...

Arithmetic works, yes; or as L. Sprague de Camp noted many years ago, inventing whisky and distilled beverages in general can also get you a long way towards getting started. (-:

Me, I've rather fantasized about being transported to the end of the 19th or early 20th century, and make my fame proving all sorts of important theorems and starting entirely new branches of mathematics...

Andrew Lias said...

Distilling is certainly a good idea, but I'm not sure how capable the average person would be at setting up a still.

When I consider these options, my first question is could I -- knowing only what I know without doing any reseach -- actually do whatever it is that I'm contemplating. In most cases, the answer is no.

Now, if I could plan on taking a trip back in time, the situation changes rather dramatically. It's the *poof*, you're there scenario that's problematic.

That said, Arturo raises an interesting corollary question. What point in time would your own set of knowledge skills be most useful or interesting for you to exploit?

I suppose that, as a database developer, it might be productive for me to travel to the early 1960s and "invent" modern relational database design. It's not exactly a going to earn me glory and fame, but it is what I know best.

If I were really ambitious, I could go back to the Enlightenment and try to advance philosophy by introducing some of the 20th century philosphical concepts and arguments but, honestly, I'm not sure I'd be up to the task of going one-on-one with the big brains of the time. :-)

magidin said...

It might be worth pointing out that even double book keeping and arabic numerals are not a surefire thing... Arabic numerals were "introduced" to Europe numerous times before Fibonacci actually managed to make them "stick", and 300 years more before it spread beyond mathematicians. Notational inventions, even such superior ones as those given by Euler (functions, exponentiation, etc) and the Bernoullis, often took decades to take hold; the equals sign was invented in 1557, and there were still several competing symbology around by the late 1700s.

As for distilling, making brandywine by evaporation and concentration of wine is relatively straightforward; it's what de Camp's hero does, if I remember "Lest Darkness Falls" correctly, and is likely to make you a reasonably tidy sum quickly, to get you started, though getting the copper for the tubing will probably be difficult (lead was the metal of choice at the time).

As for computer programming, you could probably do reasonably well for yourself anytime in the 60s and 70s. Just knowing how to program would do you well, if not exactly make you the next Bill Gates. That said, maybe you could just go back to the 70s and bankroll Bill Gates. (-:

magidin said...

By the way: the idea of introducing double-book accounting and arabic numerals/positional notation also appears in de Camp's "Lest Darkness Falls". I'm not trying to rain on your parade, but if either of you read that book at some point, that may be the source of your common idea.

Andrew Lias said...

Neither of us have read it, but it doesn't surprise me. I think that the idea is relatively evident if you give the idea some thought.

magidin said...

You've never read "Lest Darkness Falls"? Hmmm... I'm going to have to put it in my Amazon Gift suggestion. It's probably one of the best early alternate history/guy travels to the past SF books around.

Andrew Lias said...

I'm afraid that the only de Camp I've read has been The Incomplete Enchanter (or the Complete Incomplete Enchanter, to be precise).

I'll be sure to add this to my list of books to read, though.

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