Marvels of the 20th Century

2 05 2010

Looking backward, the 20th century was pretty remarkable in a lot of ways. Major wars, we found lots of new ways to kill people. Major medical discoveries, many diseases were mostly wiped out. Antibiotics saved many lives and also helped generate new and deadly dangers. Jonas Salk brought us the Polio Vaccine. Things remembered as a child that I hope will never occur again: classmates crippled by polio. I remember a little girl who lived up the street from my family in Houston who was in an iron lung. The neighborhood kids would kind of hang out sometimes, trying to look in through the front door and see the poor girl in the living room, at least we did until we were told that was very rude.

I remember watching an episode of The Loretta Young Show—strange interlude—whatever happened to that show? Why doesn’t it ever appear in reruns, somewhere? Ha, and Bob Hope describing Ms Young as “A chocolate-covered black widow spider. So there was this episode where Loretta’s…her husband, I think…was in an iron lung, and the power goes out during an electrical storm. And the hand crank on the lung doesn’t work and she is frantic trying to keep him alive until the power comes back on. That episode had a powerful effect on me, for me to still remember it 50 years later.

I remember the first round of polio vaccinations. It was at school and we were in some sort of tunnel, perhaps a tent had been erected out front. I was near the back of the line, having a terrible fear of injections. But that was worse because I had to watch all the vaccinated kids walk out crying or white-faced. Subsequent rounds were given on sugar cubes, but that first one was a shot.

So, back to a century of marvels, good and bad. What is my favorite invention from last century? Hmmm. Well, I certainly love this computer on which I am currently writing, and I spent half of the 1990’s building and installing CAD machines. I was in the first real television generation. The family used to laugh about me, the child: I asked my mother what she watched on television when she was a little girl.

Marvel that it is I have to put television on both sides of the line. It was a wonderful invention and certainly shaped my life and I would not be anything like what I am today without it. I guess The Twilight Zone pointed me toward science fiction. And I always wanted to be part of the Cleaver family where mothers vacuumed whilst wearing pearls, fathers had heart-to-heart chats with their children in the den, and the houses were two stories. But I didn’t want a goofy next door neighbor like Larry Mondello. Actually, all of Beaver’s friends were creepy.

But television is evil, too. It broke up families. I was still pretty young when I started begging to eat my dinner in front of the TV. And we got TV trays and the very first god-awful Swanson TV dinners in those tin trays—or were they aluminum?—and I watched television whilst I ate and my parents sat in the kitchen at the kitchen table, and conversed during dinner, which is what families should do.

I suppose I will have to condemn the computer then, too. I am fortunate in that I work for a company that makes table top roleplaying games where people actually sit down together to play. Computers engendered computer games and now folks sit and stare at a screen for hours. Sigh. I often think we are indeed moving toward Asimov’s world of R. Daneel Olivaw where humans only see one another in person in order to procreate. And shucks, we really don’t even need personal contact for that anymore. Oy, is robot sex on its way?

All right. So what other marvels came into being or grew to enormity in the 20th century? Automobiles. Sure they began in the 19th century, but in the 20th they dominated. We went from Henry Ford and his Model T, to the incredibly indulgent Hummer. The surface of our planet crawls with cars like cockroaches on a chocolate cake. We became mobile. You could get from here to there in nothing flat.

Perhaps nothing contributed more to the breakup of the extended family than the automobile. If you lived in Tennessee and heard about a good job in California…well just get in your flivver and roll on out. Or if you lived in Oklahoma and all the topsoil blew out into the Pacific Ocean, load up the family and move to Beverly…wait, I’m getting confused. Henry Fonda didn’t play Jed Clampett.

And how we love our automobiles. I have a friend who collects Ferrari’s. Collects. Whoa, and they went to China for a race and 250,000 people gathered at a track in Shanghai to watch folks drive in circles. And every year I go to the Books-a-Million show in Birmingham and it often coincides with Talladega and the hotel is awash in drunken folks who loves them some auto racing. Ha, one year two drunken women got into a fight in the lobby over who was going to steal the standee of Will Ferrell.

And then there is air pollution. I suppose nothing has contributed to particles in the air we breathe and possible heat released into the atmosphere like the automobile.

Well, it seems that everything is two-sided. Nothing is completely good or completely bad. Okay, so I mentioned antibiotics and the Salk vaccine. Well, misuse of antibiotics has brought us MRSA and it kind of gets worse every day. But nothing wrong with the Salk vaccine, methinks.

What else? Airplanes. They kind of fit into the same category with automobiles. I have spent an incredible amount of time in automobiles and airplanes. Ha, if old Albert Einstein is correct, then I am somewhat younger than my contemporaries because of all this travel.

And then there is the telephone. And electricity! Combine those with the computer, and, perhaps, television and you wind up with those little marvels we walk around with in our pockets that do everything but make toast. Of course, Thomas Edison was not a nice man, and Nicola Tesla was, at the least, obsessive-compulsive, and at the worst kind of mad…and do cell phones cause brain cancer? Ha, using cause and effect, watching people drive with a cell phone stuck to their ear, I must conclude that they at least cause stupidity.

Holy moly but last century was indeed packed full of marvelous inventions. And I mean this as things at which we marvel, good or bad.

And then there are nuclear weapons. Can anyone say anything good about the atomic bomb? Well, without it Dr. Strangelove would never have been made. And it all depends on perspective. It ended World War II, and damned fast. But the Japanese were running out of young men and food and equipment and maybe we didn’t need to nuke a couple of their cities. But tell that to folks whose sons were coming home in a box from the Pacific Theater. I don’t know.

Nuclear weapons still hang over our heads today and sooner or later a terrorist group will get hold of one and blow up a city. But Pandora’s Box tells us that once something is let loose upon the earth we just have to learn how to deal with it.

I spent a great deal of time as a child scared out of my mind waiting for the war to begin. We watched movies showing us how to lie down in a ditch and cover ourselves with something or other just in case one was caught out in the open during a nuclear attack. And we cowered under our desks and were cautioned to stay away from windows and all this engendered the joke about kissing your ass goodbye.

And Ray Bradbury wrote that incredibly poignant scene in The Martian Chronicles, wherein the shadows of dead children playing with a ball are burnt into the side of a house. And the robotic house of the future continues to operate after everyone was dead and it lets the poor radiation-sick dog into the kitchen.

But when Pandora’s Box is opened you cannot close it again. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. When someone invents something it will get used, one way or another and humans have always had this nasty habit of trying to find more efficient ways to kill one another.

Now, what else? I had a friend in Dallas who wrote for the Dallas Times Herald in the 1980’s who always swore that the greatest invention of the 20th century was Velcro. He never quite convinced me, but many wonders did come out of the space program. Which brings us to rocket ships. I suppose the rocket first came into its own with the German V2, the sound of which certainly brought nightmares to an entire generation of Brits. And the space race came about because we couldn’t let the Russians get ahead of us, but lordy that was a fine day watching the first men on the moon. I would go into space if I could. And like Delos D. Harriman, “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” Thank you very much Mr. Heinlein, dying on the moon is kind of a cool idea.

So good and bad, yin and yang, is balance achieved? I have decided that my favorite invention is refrigeration. Despite warnings from my Chinese doctor about the evils of cold beverages, I just had a lovely glass of ice water, thank you very much. I guess if I had actually put ice cubes in it, it would be iced water. I adore cold drinks. Pop, beer, wine, juice, give it to me cold.

Of course, I was born and grew up in Texas, which in the summertime is hell misspelled. Texas Monthly magazine once ran an article about the heat factor and Texas. With elements such as wind and humidity included, much of Texas in the summertime is hotter than Death Valley. And without air conditioning, a large part of the populace would now be living somewhere else.

As a child in humid, bug and critter infested Houston, I remember our having one air conditioner. It was a window unit installed in the dining room. In the summertime we would hang sheets up over the doorways and move beds into the dining room. That became our total living space for a large part of the year. And lordy the kitchen was indeed hell on earth and we ate a lot of fresh, uncooked food, or went out and got hamburgers from Prince’s Drive-in.

In the 1990’s, I went west of Fort Worth to visit my cousin Elizabeth in the little town of Strawn, Texas. Her sons had just built her a new house on her property and we sat in the air conditioning and chatted whilst the sun beat down everything outside. In my head, I could hear Steve Fromholtz singing “And it’s hotter than hell when the sun hits the land…” And Elizabeth, who was near 90 then, talked about the old house and how the kitchen was outdoors. There was a wooden shed with a wood-burning iron stove and it was open on all sides. When the wood finally got sufficiently grease-soaked, you just tore it down and built a new shed.

So refrigeration in general and air conditioning specifically has played a large part in my life. And of course it has its price too, that being an enormous use of electricity and the yin for its yang, putting out lots of heat. If you chill something over here you have to heat something over there.

The current issue of Saveur magazine has an excellent little article on the history of refrigerators. I highly recommend it, and the entire issue may be the best, cover-to-cover in the history of that fine magazine.

When I was a kid, it was quite a treat to go down for the Saturday matinee at the movie theatre for a dime and sit in air conditioned comfort watching serials and cartoons and usually some cheesy “B” feature. The theatre had a blue and white sign out front advertising the air conditioning.

Now, what have I missed? What marvel of the 20th century most thrilled you?


Space, the Moon, and I

14 02 2010

This article makes me kind of happy:

I learned to read at age three, sitting in my father’s lap. He would hold me and we would read comic books. About age five I began using the public library. I exhausted their supply of books on earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Then I went on to dinosaurs and archaeology in general. I still remember how enthralled I was by Roy Chapman Andrews’ chronicles of his adventures in China and other parts of the far East exploring for fossils.

Next came a novel entitled “Danger, Dinosaurs!” by Richard Marsten. It was science fiction, and I was hooked. All through my extreme youth I read about space exploration and other planets, solar systems, even other galaxies. The universe was mine, all between the covers of a book.


 And now the International Space Station is really beginning to take shape. I know I am too old to go into space, but oh how I would love to visit the space station. Robert A. Heinlein wrote a story, “The Man Who Owned the Moon” about a millionaire who felt the same way I feel, and was able to make it to the moon to die. How glorious it would be to view the Earth from the Moon. And Mars, ai-ya, to stand on the red sand of the planet Mars, well, that would be indescribable.

Alas, I cannot and will not, but at least I can live vicariously and read about the astronauts on the internet, on the effing internet, hoo, real science no-longer-fiction at the tips of my fingers—I can read about the space station as I read about Roy Chapman Andrews 57 years ago. I should call someone on my cell phone, cell phone, ha!, on my little handheld computer, but, it’s still too early in the day.

Holy Moley Addendum: or maybe, Addendum: Holy Moley. I was just toodling around the web and discovered that Richard Marsten was a pen name for Evan Hunter. Crikey, that means the book might even have been well-written. But the few remaining Winston Science Fiction Series copies are too rich for my blood. Oh I long to go once more, dinosaur hunting in a time machine. Wait, I can do that with Ray Bradbury, too.

The Soul of the Old Machine

13 09 2009

StarchildForty years ago, as my formal matriculation was nearing its final stages, the formula signaling the end of civilization as we know it became clear. Sophistication equals fragility. I do not remember now, but this was probably prompted by reading how an electromagnetic pulse such as one generated by a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere over the central United States would destroy all of those new-fangled electronic devices such as automobile ignitions and computers.

As our world progressed scientifically feeding on all of the discoveries generated by World War II, the Cold War, and the Space Race, we were putting more and more of our increasingly sophisticated eggs into an alarmingly fragile basket.

Forty years later, my thoughts on this have not changed as we become even more dependent on sophisticated technology. I am not a scientist, but I suspect, or at least hope, nanotechnology or something that comes out of nanotechnology might pull our fat out of the fire.

However, this is all prelude. My real purpose being a short paean to homo sapiens and especially to parents. Consider the human being as an ultra-sophisticated machine. Look at it folks! It is self-replicating, self-repairing, and self-programming. It can turn all sorts of organic matter into fuel, and it can even chemically alter this matter to create super fuels such as sugar and white bread.

Okay, so maybe that mostly describes ants, too, but humans are probably the pinnacle of Earthly super-machine development. Let us say we are  at the top of the organic machine chain when it comes to sophistication, neh?

FamilyNow, as stated above, this sophistication comes at a price, namely, fragility. We are cantankerous little creatures. As machines, I am tempted to call homo sapiens a prototype. I mean look at us. We were not built to stand upright, but our survival programming pushed us that way anyway, perhaps so we could look out across the drought-ridden plains of millions of years ago, watching for danger or food or love. But the original specifications did not allow for this, so today, back problems are legion and for back doctors the living is easy.

I have read that the human head of an unborn baby is too large for the birth canal which cause all kinds of birthing problems and lots of pain for the delivery mechanism: mothers. But we needed more computing power so the brain grew. Sigh, I guess we can fix that problem in the next iteration. Nuff said.

So here comes a brand new machine, fresh off of the…well assembly line isn’t quite right, unless there are twins or better, but here comes the new machine and the specialist technician: doctor, midwife, or what-have-you picks up this new device still slick with protective packing fluids and pushes the start button. For dramatic purposes we shall designate the old tradition of a slap on the butt as said start button.



Once the technician has ascertained that the new machine is running properly–let’s call this new machine a “baby,” the baby is sent home with parents, who, in the best of all possible worlds Dr. Pangloss, are also given an operator’s manual, which, like all good humans they will not read unless something goes wrong.

But here is some of the really cool stuff about the new machines. The old machines, the parents, are pre-programmed with operating instructions. It’s kind of like coming home with a brand new plasma TV and having the genetic in-born ability to hook it up and turn it on. Wow! We are pretty cool.

There are genetic triggers like neoteny-ha, calls neoteny “larval characteristics.” Anyway, big eyes, big head, it sets off parenting instincts…I mean it launches the parenting program. In fact it does it so well, neoteny in other species sets it off too. “Oh, look at the cute little kittens, aren’t they adorable?” Many, many years ago Natural History magazine ran a swell article on the neotenous evolution of Mickey Mouse. Oh, and there are many other triggers, like the smell of a baby’s breath. “Read the manual, ma!”

Puppies are so-o-o cute.

Puppies are so-o-o cute.

So the proud new mother unit and father unit have launched their parenting software and taken the baby unit home. Let us revisit the original premise, sophistication=fragility.

When one brings home a new computer and turns it on for the first time, most likely the Operating System is launched, and this could take a few minutes, or longer, and the computer asks for additional programing and we provide it. Although, some computer owners are more saavy than others and some do not provide the additional programming properly, and, well…they screw up the computer and either continue on like that, or bring in an expert to fix things.

And babies get colds, other “viruses,” but the human being is a damned sophisticated machine and its anti-virus software and hardware–ha, ha antiviral hardware, too, white blood cells moving around wiping out viruses–is pretty darned incredible and with a little TLC from the parent units, most babies survive the constant assault from viruses and other program and machine contaminants.

Well, our sophisticated little machines do survive at an incredibly high rate, considering how many things are after them. Not only microbes, but other organic machines are just waiting to gobble them up. Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

Being sophisticated, our babies are incredibly fragile and require constant attention and protection if they are to develop into the next generation of self-replicating devices. Remember, these are prototypes, so parent units and technicians: doctors, teachers, and clergy, have to continually tweak the little critters. An unsupervised baby can get into all sorts of trouble. And once they begin growing and develop independent motility, ai-ya, nothing but problems.

The parent-units must spend at least 20 years correcting glitches and faulty programming, not to mention hardware repairs. But they do. And our little baby units wobble and grow and stumble off into the sunrise of a new generation to produce their very own baby units. Remarkably, humans continue to learn and while each individual unit is still fragile, the basic machine model, for all the problems inherent in a Beta product, does pretty darned well, not only pumping out new baby units by the billions but also extending its own life span.

Sophisticated we might be, fragile we are, but we are also a tested and trusty design.