John Diebold

John Diebold
 

Isaac Asimov and I often argued, though seldom rancorously — it was our idea of fun — but on questions of fact I knew better than to disagree with him. He had a wonderfully retentive and accessible memory, which allowed him to speak extempore a lot more comfortably than I. From time to time we discussed the question of which of us was smarter, especially when we were speaking on the same program.

On one occasion when we had been discussing collaborating on a book about the environment. I said, “It shouldn’t be too much trouble. Between the two of us, we know everything there is to know about the environment already.”

And Isaac cut me down to size with, “And what is the one fact about it that you know and I don’t?”

With all the lecturing we both did, we wound up now and then on the same program, frequently at a science-fiction gathering, but pretty often at almost anything that inspired groups of human beings to want to listen to someone talk about possible futures. Business and management groups in particular seemed to have an unslakable appetite for what we had to say, and one of the most high-end such groups was run by a man named John Diebold.

I was always glad to take part in a Diebold event, because you met such interesting people, but there was one in particular that is particularly vivid in my mind for three reasons: 1) It occurred while the first American rocket was landing on Mars. 2) In my after-dinner talk I made two of the wrongest predictions of future events that any human being has ever made. And, 3) it was the only time in my life that I ever saw Isaac Asimov drunk. (Maybe the only time he ever was.)

That particular John Diebold event was in one of the big Boston hotels, and for once in these as-I-remember-it recountings, I can tell you exactly when it happened. That is, I can if I’m correctly remembering which flight it was. I believe it was Mars 3, and I believe the meeting took place on 12 December 1971. The first American spaceship to make a soft landing on the planet Mars was going into its landing maneuvers while we were getting ready to sit down to our dinner. No one else in the room seemed greatly worried that they were missing a historic event, but Isaac and I were yearning to get to a TV. As soon as we could we sneaked out of the conference rooms and headed for my room on an upper floor of the hotel.

Our timing was splendid. The spaceship was on its way down with its cameras pointing toward the area where our Eagle was to land. Although the ship was still high in the lunar sky it and its cameras were so close to the Martian surface that we were seeing more detail than any previous human eye, with even the greatest of modern telescopes, had ever been able to make out.

One of those previously unseen details drew a yelp from Isaac. “Look at those craters! But I didn’t ever talk about craters on the Martian surface!” Come to think about it, neither had I.

We lingered until the spacecraft was down. (It was what you’d call a partial success — made an exemplary soft landing but seconds later stopped transmitting for good. Still no other spacecraft, U.S. or U.S.S.R. had done even that well at that time, so we were cheered,)

But then I had to get back because it was my turn to be the after-dinner speaker, and that is where I made a fool of myself twice in a single talk.

John Diebold had asked me to talk about the future of business, and I was explaining how wise America’s heads of major corporations had become. As an illustration, I mentioned some planning sessions I had recently sat in on at one of General Motors’ subdivisions, perhaps the one that specialized in transmissions. I had been impressed by the free and easy discussions and by the way each executive seemed to be familiar with the problems, and solutions, of all of the others. After telling my audience about some of the things I had observed I added, “That’s why I have confidence in the future for General Motors. If something should happen so that they couldn’t make cars and trucks any more they would transition quite smoothly to some other kind of business — maybe even some kind we’ve never heard of before, like importing Martian artichokes — and they would make a great success of that, too.”

2008 conclusively demonstrated the folly of that asinine opinion, which was probably brought about by the amount of time I had been spending with B-school graduates with their pernicious doctrines. (“If you’re on a search committee to find a new president for a grocery chain, you don’t want to hire an expert grocer to run it. You want someone skilled in business management who will have expert grocers under him.”)

The other stupidity was even worse. I called it the Corporate Leisure Time scenario. When successful businesses reach a certain stage in their development, I said, they often decide to devote at least a small fraction of their corporate energy on projects that are not directed at making a profit but are good for the community — underwrite college courses; support libraries and theaters; Forbes has its open-to-the-public art galleries; AT&T allows its scientists at that jewel in the diadem of American research facilities, Bell Labs, to spend part of their time working on pure science problems, etc.

Anyway, my point was that American business was doing what it could to make the world better, and I anticipated it doing more and more. (Oh, so wrong! What actually happened was that the practice of giving enormous bonuses to top executives even if they lead their businesses right over the cliff sopped up all the money and there wasn’t any much left for making a better world. Bell Labs still exists, though in diminished form, and much of the other business generosity to the community has simply disappeared. )

That was my record for wrongness in a single evening. I’ve been even wronger now and then, but not in public.

 
When my talk was over, the hotel waiters brought out the wine fountains. Those were a sort of cute example of modern technology that was just becoming popular around then, and Isaac was intrigued. He watched to see how it was done, then picked up a glass and filled it under the red-wine stream. He drank it down, then got in the white-wine line and refilled his glass. He saw me standing there near the red fountain and came over. “The red wine is good,” he informed me, “but I like the yellow better.”

Then we were talking to other people and then, a while later, I saw him standing by himself, holding onto the back of a chair and looking concerned. And that was the last I saw of him that night, though someone said he’d lurched up to his room. When I saw him the next day I asked him how he’d liked the wine fountains. “Interesting,” he said, and would go no farther, and I never saw him touch an alcoholic drink again.

 

John Lindsay

    John Lindsay
 

There was another Diebold occasion that I remember well, although I’m not sure whether Isaac was present at it or not. This one was a party at the Diebold home on East End Avenue. Among the guests was New York City’s mayor, John Lindsay. He was one of the few Republicans I admired, and he and I found ourselves chatting as the party wound down.

I had been explaining to him that a plan he had just announced for curing some of New York City’s ills was unlikely to work, because the city had become too big, and too divided, to be governable in that way. He put his watch away and frowned. Then he asked, “Did you say you were going to Penn Station? I’ll be going right past it, so why don’t you let me give you a lift?” So after we had said our good-byes and got into the mayoral limousine he politely and friendlily explained to me the numerous ways in which I was out of my cotton-pickin’ mind, with twenty or thirty minutes of statistics, polls and quotes that lasted him until we pulled up in the station — and not in any crummy old taxi rank but in the police entrance that took us right into the heart of the structure.

Lindsay had been plausible and persuasive, and he fairly nearly convinced me I was wrong. All the same, I think I may have won the argument. About ten days after that, I picked up a paper and discovered he had just announced that he wasn’t going to run for reelection after all.

 
Next installment coming up when I write it.

 
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13 Comments

  1. RAB says:

    Perhaps the Corporate Leisure Time scenario can be considered a useful mistake rather than stupidity? Maybe your proposal made one or two businessmen in the audience believe things really were going to work out that way, and act accordingly. That is, someone in that audience may have undertaken some specific act of corporate philanthropy in the mistaken belief that this was the wave of the future and he would benefit personally from being seen as a leader in that direction. Clearly it didn’t work out on the larger scale, but wouldn’t it have been something if it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy this way?

  2. Jeff Gondek says:

    Mr. Pohl,
    While I think your predictions may not have hit the nail on the head exactly, I think in one case you’re more right than you think, and in the other, it’s still really interesting why the prediction was wrong.

    With the GM talk, it showed how they had planned on being nimble, but in their success and assumptions about how to be nimble, they actually blinded themselves as to what it would take to actually be nimble and react to stuff like rising health care costs. The unions kind of take a bullet too for lack of foresight because they really lost sight of that factor too. The employees were more expensive, so they lost jobs, so they influence, etc etc vicious circle. If nothing else, it makes a really great lesson, no?

    As for the corporation using marginal time to do interesting stuff, Google actually is pretty close to hitting that mark. They do a 20% program, where that much of their time can be dedicated to pursuing whatever the employee is interested in. While the acts themselves aren’t directly altruistic products, according to this info graph ( http://royal.pingdom.com/2010/02/24/google-facts-and-figures-massive-infographic/ ), half of Google’s offerings came from these 20% time projects, and that contributes to Google’s success. And with that success, Google does do a lot of community healthy altruistic works, so I think you actually get a win there. What do you think?

    Jeff

  3. Ross Presser says:

    In The Bicentennial Man collection, Asimov mentions how he got drunk on two grasshoppers. “A year or so later during the course of a science fiction convention, Judy-Lynn persuaded me to have two grasshoppers and I was instantly reduced to a kind of wild drunken merriment, and since then no one lets me have grasshoppers any more. Just as well!” From the context this would have been about 1969 or 1970.

  4. David S. says:

    Mars 3 was a Soviet probe, not American, that landed on Mars on Dec 2 1971 and stopped transmitting information 14.5 seconds later. Could your meeting have been on Dec 2 rather than Dec 12 1971?

    The first American probe to land on Mars was Viking 1, on July 20 1975.

  5. Lee Gold says:

    Viking 1 landed on July 20, 1976, not 1975, according not only to a song I wrote about it some years later (at the request of a friend who worked at JPL and was upset that nobody remembered the Viking 1 landing) but also to the Wikipedia article.

    THE TWENTIETH OF JULY
    by Lee Gold, Copyright October, 1989
    to the tune of “The Rising of the Moon” (aka “The Wearing of the Green”)
    [Viking I landed on Mars July 20, 1976 and sent back observations until November of 1982. Three years earlier the Soviet Mars 4 had landed on Mars and sent back a few seconds worth of observations before falling silent.]

    Oh, we dreamed and planned and built her, and we watched her rocket flare,
    And we waited as she spiraled on her course from here to there.
    And then finally she landed, and we realized with a sigh
    That nobody would recall her, on the twentieth of July.

    CHORUS:
    On the twentieth of July!
    The twentieth of July!
    Our first soft Martian landing
    Was the twentieth of July.

    Oh, she cast off all her lens caps, and her cameras purred like new,
    And we had to tell the film lab that the sky was pink, not blue.
    Oh, she ran all our experiments — and nothing went awry,
    But there’s nobody recalls her on the twentieth of July.
    CHORUS

    Now we’re not grudging credit to the Eagle’s gallant men;
    Let’s hope that someday NASA gets us back up there again.
    But when you count up countdowns, don’t let this one go by.
    The Viking 1 softlanded on the twentieth of July.

    CHORUS

  6. Matt McIrvin says:

    Viking 1 landed in 1976. The originally scheduled landing date was July 4, for the Bicentennial; it was delayed slightly to July 20, the seventh anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

  7. steve davidson says:

    Mr. Pohl,

    I’ve been greatly enjoying this series – thank you very much for working on it.

    Just a quick note about Bell Labs. I was working there when they replaced the head of the division (think it was Penzias) – a research scientist – with someone who came from the marketing side. We were all appalled to hear them discuss how they were going to concentrate on ‘results-based research'; the sub text was ‘not gonna waste any more money on pure research’. Those of us familiar with the history of the labs were quick to point out that most everything the labs had excelled at had its origins in ‘pure research’, but the mental climate had changed. It was the beginning of thinking about short term profits ahead of long term growth.

  8. Derek L says:

    The first soft landing (which was also the first American landing) was in 1976, not 1971, and wasn\\\’t carried live or even capable of imaging its descent anyhow.

    Mars 3 (which reached Mars on Dec 2 1971) also had no capability to image its descent, as its cameras were housed until after its (hard) landing.

    Martian craters were discovered in 1965 by Mariner 4.

  9. John Armstrong says:

    I’ll bet that conversation with Lindsay sounded a bit like some passages in Years of the City, which I just read. You have no idea how happy it makes me to find a book of yours that I’ve yet to read. You’re going to have to start cranking them out a little quicker though – I’m catching up.

    Also, “friendlily” is about the ugliest word I’ve ever read. Why would you use it – sheer pity? You felt sorry for it?

    Best wishes,

    John

  10. Giles B says:

    Isaac Asimov mentions having several whisky sours forced on him by his lab partners following his successful PhD. defence. It’s in one of the volumes of The Early Asimov.

    I’m delighted to be posting to the blog of an author that I really admire. Thanks for your reminiscences!

  11. Jeff says:

    Would that be the same Diebold as was previously in the business of making unverifiable, easily-hacked electronic voting machines?

    It’s a vastly different corporate world out there. I’m not certain that your predictions wouldn’t have turned out right, had things continued as they were going. But at some point, the bean counters took over because American industry discovered it could make more money gambling on wall street than making things people want to buy.

  12. Michael Walsh says:

    Jeff,

    If you were to click the link for John Diebold at the beginning of the article you would get his NY Times obit, with this correction:

    “An obituary on Dec. 27 about John Diebold, a businessman and engineer who helped shape modern industrial development in America, misstated a business venture of John Diebold Inc., an investment firm he founded in 1967. It did not finance Diebold Election Systems, a maker of polling machines that, despite its name, has no connection to John Diebold.”

  13. Johnny Pez says:

    Fred doesn’t mention it, but his collaboration with Isaac resulted in a book called Our Angry Earth. It is — unfortunately — even more relevant now than when it came out in 1991, so go ahead and get a copy and read it (though not from Amazon, because they suck).