Smart society

Many of the sites have made me think about how society becomes smarter.  For instance, the Hagia Sophia is an interesting example of a building that has shifted uses dramatically over its history before landing as a museum in 1934.  I thought it was a great place to visit.


Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

Conversions like this have been, and continue to be, contentious.  The “other” Hagia Sophia, in Trabzon, had been a museum since 1964.  The Economist notes that a 2013 court decision saw it converted back to religious use as the culture ministry was deemed to have illegally occupied it for presumably cultural purposes.

I’m biased towards museums. I think they play a major role in smart society and ought to be subsided to a large degree.  London, an otherwise expensive city, has an amazing collection of free museums.  I made it to the British Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the Tate Modern. There was a deal where you get three for basically the price of one with the National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark.  Not free but a great deal.  The much smaller Transportation Museum, which was ok, cost £15.00 — steep for an hour’s visit.  It cost more than it ought to have because the cantankerous old man there declared that my U of Alberta student card was a fake.  Lovely.  Anyway, having physical cultural and educational infrastructure is going to be more important as trends towards digitization increase — see things like MOOCs for instance as tremendously exciting educational innovation.  After hunching over a computer for learning it’s great to amble around a museum for an afternoon.

The connection between museums and religious buildings is often notable.  The name Hagia Sophia means holy wisdom.  So the wrangling in Turkey may shed some light on changing trends towards the sources of wisdom.  For instance, the Natural History Museum looks very much like a religious building.

0 Nat Hist 1

The grand marble statue in the background is Charles Darwin.  Reverence is a fluid concept.

0 darwin

Smart society is a worthy goal and ought to be pursued much more vigorously.  There are some major considerations of course, chiefly revenue loss and over-crowding, but there may be ways to avoid this.  Much like London’s traffic calming has been successful, perhaps museums could be free but only at certain times.  A price discrimination scheme could all them to be free during non-peak times.  That would ensure people can either plan to go for free or drop by whenever and risk paying the regular rate.  Crowding is also an issue.  Amsterdam’s museums were spectacularly busy despite charging admission.  Granted, Amsterdam does a great job with the I Amsterdam card that includes museum admission and full transit access for a subsidized price, so they are clearly on the right track.  Well, it didn’t include a bicycle which was the only drawback.  Amsterdam’s cool city pass would be fun to replicate. It makes me wonder if there are political considerations – Taxi lobbies?  Funneling throngs of tourists onto public transit on the cheap is good for everyone but cabbies.  Yet, there will always be a market for door-to-door service.


Another aspect of Smart Society should be ubiquitous free Wi-Fi.  There are so many things to look up or stay in touch with during lines and queues or any downtime.  I think it will pay dividends for societies that treat this as a worthy goal.  I’m partial to the adage:

In an age of information ignorance is a choice.

Smartphones and tablets are the future.  It doesn’t really matter what information is consumed – silly to serious – as any new knowledge gained is good knowledge.

Barriers to information are frustrating.  I hope that they have their place in the dustbin of history in short order.  At Ataturk International Airport, a place I uncharitably described previously, the Wi-Fi was a debacle as I would have expected. If the man for whom it was named was alive today he would be awfully unimpressed.  The airport, or some consortium of vendors, are kind enough to provide free internet.  They even translate the log-on page to English.  The result however is an Orwellian nightmare.  The invasiveness is preposterous.  I had a pocket full of Lira to spend and would have some willingness to pay to not have some sinister database overlord get their hooks into the work history, education history and birthdays of the 500+ people that I have on Facebook.


Such a bargain.


Maybe it wasn’t all that bad.  There were terms and conditions to read.  They are only in Turkish.  Chrome dutifully offers to translate to English but only once the internet has been connected.  Oh, the circularity.

Granted, I’m a tougher critic when the infrastructure is generally good.  A country like Ethiopia deserves much more slack.  In Addis Ababa I was on the right track but then the WiFi broke.  It stayed broken for the next two days.  The plus side was I got to find a local internet cafe… but then the power then went off.  Eventually as the clock ticked down to flying into Tanzania blind with nowhere to stay, not the worst thing of course but can make customs a hassel, I made a booking on my friendly driver Yosi’s iPhone. I didn’t know what the data use was like (probably expensive) so I set a speed record and booked the first place I saw.  Now I’m in a way-too-nice place catering to business execs.  They all ask my what line of work I’m in.  So, the lack of WiFi was merely an adventure in Addis.

Ironically, one of the few things I managed to look up in Addis was at 5:00am after getting in from the airport.  I googled the  practice of using loudspeakers for prayer times.  It’s Ramadan so it’s quite pronounced — I was staying near a mosque..  It was noticeable but nothing objectionable.  What I found though was in in Indonesia there is a movement away from the status quo of prayers-blasted-through-huge-loudspeakers that everyone, even the faithful, agree with.

Now, here in Dar Es Salaam I’m behind walls in my room and it is piercing.  Behind a set of loud headphones and still hearing it all.  It is far and away the loudest set of loudspeakers I have heard.  I’d put it somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 decibels at the source, at least.  Far too loud.  One abuses their right to be heard at their own risk — the movement to limit the noise in Indonesia could catch on in Tanzania as well.


Back to WiFi access, it’s crucial for me as a Canadian.  We have some of the highest-cost telecom service in the developed world.  It’s frustrating to have to deactivate a phone rather than get prohibitive expensive service for very basic functionality on the road.  This is clearly an anomaly.  Not that I base all my research on what I see in the Cairo Airport, but Vodophone and Verizon seem to have very competitive international rates.  The former is showing a list of the teleco who’s-sho (everyone but Canada pretty much) who can get home court data rates for the same plus about $2.50 Cdn.  Not bad — I’d love something like that.


With Addis a government monopoly runs the teleco.  They say it’s to ensure rural service happens and not just the economically-viable urban markets.  They also don’t work on Saturday and Sunday (the days my access was down.)  Maybe there is some parallel to Canada which I’m sure took a lot of capital to wire up.  Fair enough.  But myself circa  2005 to 2012 (perpetually in the 110 dB range in the north) perhaps ought to have been paying a lot more for cell service than my more urban incarnation.  I think that Verizon can’t enter the Canadian market soon enough.  Telecommunications have become inexorably linked to smart society and we need better rates driven by stronger competition.

Anyway, /rant.  Off to Arusha for the Kilimanjaro climb shortly.

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