Surely context matters?

January 31, 2013

Yesterday to hear Jared Diamond talk about ‘Growing Older in Yesterday’s World’ – insights from his new book, at a talk in Cambridge (  His new book has chapters on issues such as growing old, dispute resolution, child rearing, and perspectives on risk.  This talk focused on growing old, and the tribal practices that constitute ‘natural experiments’ in different approaches to managing the elderly.  He provided comparisons between tribal practices and those of the USA and the UK, discussing cultural norms, attitudes and the practices arising.  Among other examples, he pointed up the value of the elderly as repositories of valuable information, especially memories from rare events, in pre-literate societies – a value no longer seen in the west.

The most important question asked of him was about the transferability of his ideas and insights to modern society.  Surely tribal societies are systems in their own right and the practices interrelate.  Disappointingly, his answer focused on the means of transferring insights (e.g. individual action versus state action) and did not address the more interesting aspect of the validity of the insights without their cultural context.

It seems to me that context matters.  One cannot extract a ‘practice’ from one industry sector and just drop it into another context and hope it will work.  Usually history, culture, values and the dynamics of the industry and the company are what make that practice effective in that instance – so beware transfer of a single practice.

But he didn’t answer the question – so I suppose I’ll have to get the book and see if he addresses it there.


Idea plus implementation meets significant need at target cost.  How’s this for a development?

Mead or Stirling?

January 27, 2013

Just finished building a cheap and simple model ‘Stirling Engine’.  As ever, the name by which the technology is known is that of the first man to make a success of such an engine, even though his key invention is absent in so many ‘Stirling’ engines.  In 1816 Robert Stirling invented the regenerator, a heat exchanger that raised the efficiency of closed cycle air engines such that his of 1818 was the first to work in practice.  But who’s ever heard of Thomas Mead, his predecessor  whose patented ‘displacer’ of 1791, was an early unsuccessful design but is today at the core of most models including mine?

If you want your name to be remembered it’s not enough to be an inventor – you’ve got to actually get it to work commercially.

BTW, the model is from and is well-explained at