Science

Watching the most recent film version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine tells a much different story about why humans study the world and why we invent.

The original book is about a man of science inventing a time machine, and the adventure he has testing and then using the device. The protagonist discovers how to travel in time, creating a machine with spinning wheels and big levers that allows him to go into the future. At first, he relatively slowly advances through time, finally getting to a future Earth that has suffered some sort of apocalypse, or perhaps steady decline, and is populated by a simple people with no technology, living off the land, and trying to survive under the thumb of the underground dwelling “morlocks,” a vicious species who apparently feed on the above-ground living folk.

In the late 70s, Malcolm McDowell played H.G. Wells, as a writer/inventor, who travels to the future in pursuit of his friend, who turns out to be Jack the Ripper, who has used the invention to get to modern times. This trip gives “Jack” a brand new hunting ground, where he quickly targets Wells’ new 20th century girlfriend. Rather than use the original title, this movie version is called Time After Time.

The most recent telling of the story, starring Guy Pierce (The Hurt Locker, and the excellent Count of Monte Cristo) reverts to H.G. Wells’ title, and the protagonist’s construction of the time machine, but inserts as motivation, the untimely death of his fiancee, the device’s purpose now to change history and restore her to life. He’s depressed over her loss, and seeks to use science to correct the tragedy.

More dramatic for today’s audiences? Absolutely. And herein lies the sad truth that discovery for its own sake is no longer that interesting to us. In H.G. Wells day, inventing a machine that allowed the scientist to travel through time was its own reward, the adventure that results a bit of added drama. We’re sadly, no longer thrilled by exploration and scientific advancement, and need a personal stake in the pursuit to make it worth doing. In today’s world, the individual is all that’s important, and something that doesn’t necessarily derive some personal gain, whether it be a huge payday or keeping our girlfriend alive isn’t worth accomplishing. Why can’t Pierce’s character’s development of this amazing step forward in scientific study of our universe be its own reward? I think the filmmakers correctly understood that today’s film-going public wouldn’t care, unless there was something in it for the character they’re being asked to identify with. It’s unfortunate that we’re so self-centered that we have to have more skin in the game than pure scientific advancement to spend our time and money and potentially risk our life on.

I understand that in order for a story to be embraced, the audience must want to do what the protagonist does, and am disheartened that not enough of us would believe in the purity of the motivations of a character who didn’t stand to gain something other than discovery in their endeavors. I think that’s one of the reasons we haven’t been back to the moon, or pushing to travel to the stars. When proponents of space travel have to talk about all the everyday products that we wouldn’t have, if not for the space program, we’re on the wrong track. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Tang and the Space Pen, but scientific advancement and the opportunity to travel to the stars should be enough to keep going, shouldn’t it?

Leaf Blower Culture

imgresComing home after dropping my son off at school this morning, I turned onto our street and was again assaulted by the noise of two or three leaf blowers being fired up by landscapers getting a start on their day in my neighborhood. I often wonder what happens when the landscapers of next-door neighbors show up to do their work at the same time. I’m assuming that, by mutual agreement, they turn their blowers away from each other toward the houses on the other sides, otherwise, unless one of the landscapers had a much more powerful leaf blower, they would be there all day.

Because leaf blowers don’t really clean anything up, they just transfer the ownership of a problem (leaves) from one person to another. Hey, I’ve got some junk on my lawn. I’m going to blow it on yours, ok? Except there’s never an “ok?” involved. The landscaping industry has really done something brilliant here. They basically get paid to litter, and create more work for their fellow landscapers. My landscaper blows leaves and dust onto my neighbor’s property, which means my neighbor’s landscaper (who used to be mine, until I fired him because his work sucked) has work, mostly involving blowing dirt and leaves toward the neighbor on the other side, or (more probably) toward the lawn of his former customer (me).

It’s the same thing as “dusting” inside the house (or, as Amelia Bedelia calls it, “undusting”). I never got that, either. I mean, when you use a feather duster to brush the thin coating of dust on tables and furniture, unless you’re brushing it toward a teeny-tiny black hole that sucks in the dust, sending it through a wormhole to another point in the space-time, you’re wasting your time, creating a temporary sense of clean. When the dust settles back down, however, you’re right back to where you started. When science does give us the ability to create tiny black holes, we’ll be recreating the landscaper problem, sending the dust from our fireplace mantles, end tables and lamps into either another part of the universe, or a different universe altogether. I hope whoever lives there don’t have huge space battleships that could trace the small black holes back to our universe/planet, and come and kill us. I’d hate to see the end of the human species be over a desire to have dust and crumb-free living room furniture.

Now of course, there are those landscapers who use leaf blowers to gather lawn detritus together so they can scoop up, bag and transport it. But, the vast majority are just walking around, leaf blowers blowing, making their customer’s problem someone else’s.

Unfortunately, this strategy isn’t limited to lawn work, and we’re increasingly applying leaf-blower techniques to other areas of our life. Think about the things you do today, and ask yourself, am I really solving problems and getting things done, or am I just “leaf-blowing” away the things that get in my way? Take the example of Crypto Code. Many people think it’s a quick fix, but what’s really important is its longevity and staying power — which can only be achieved if you really take to heart how this industry works.

One of the biggest examples of this, is debt. The United States has anywhere from $17 to $30 TRILLION in debt (depending on who you ask and how honest they are). Our government spends more every year than it collects in tax revenue, and puts the difference on a big credit card that they get to determine the credit limit on. Doing this is just like firing up a big leaf blower and blowing it to where are kids and grandkids will be living when they grow up and start working (if there are any jobs left). We need to stop this.

First of all, we need to put someone in charge to collect all the leaves (debts), bag them, and find a way to, in an environmentally kind way, get rid of them. To overextend the metaphor, I’d recommend not burning them (defaulting), but finding a way to use them as we cut down on the number of leaves that fall in the first place. Okay, the metaphor is officially over-extended. That would mean cutting down the tree and replacing it with a plastic tree-like structure. Bad idea. But you know what I mean. Right now, we’re blowing the leaves mostly into the yard of the Chinese family that lives next door. If we start burning the leaves we’ve sent them, it may catch their house on fire, and that’s a bad idea, because they’ve got more than a billion relatives, and lots of nuclear weapons. Who wants to piss off neighbors like that?

Hey, maybe this metaphor has some legs after all.

At any rate, lets try and start to go easier on the leaf blowers, but in the meantime, let’s not piss off the Chinese people next door.

Gray Eagles and Dead Trees

I’ve always loved to read. At times, my dedication to consuming the printed word rivaled my son’s devotion to Minecraft, as hard as it is to believe. A couple weeks after Amazon introduced the first Kindle, I bought one, and over the next couple years, transitioned to first mostly, then completely, ebooks. I don’t buy bound (dead tree) books anymore, but it’s not out of a sense of ecological responsibility, just the desire for simplicity. I love having virtually my entire library on a small device that’s with me all the time, whether it’s a Kindle, a tablet, or my phone.

Reading recreationally is no longer a thing that requires preparation (did I remember to bring the books I’m reading? All of them? Jeesh, this bag is heavy).

One of my favorite novels of all time, is by Duane Unkefer, titled “Gray Eagles.” It’s the story of a group of former World War Two Luftwaffe pilots who are invited to a flying vacation complete with fully restored Messerschmidt 109s, not only painted up like the planes they all flew three decades before (the story is set in Phoenix in the 1970s) but armed to the teeth. Naturally, they proceed to use the terrible warplanes as they were intended, striking one more blow for the Luftwaffe.

The action in “Gray Eagles” is good, the flying sequences accurate and believable, the characters well-drawn and likeable. It’s a really good novel. I first bought and read “Gray Eagles” right after the paperback came out, in 1986, and loved it. A few years ago, I went on Amazon, looking for a hard cover edition so I could make it a permanent part of my collection. Despite the book being out of print now, I found a hardback and bought it. I came across that book a few days ago, and decided to read “Gray Eagles” again, and it’s just as delightful, thrilling and suspenseful.

It’s also a pain in the ass.

I’ve become so accustomed to the convenience of reading on a Kindle, iPad or Nexus 7 tablet, that flipping pages and trying to keep the book propped open so I could read without my hands having to be constantly engaged proved to be a challenge. Sad to say, it’s really annoying. In many circumstances, I like old-school tools, pens, notebooks, and my beloved Blackwing pencils, but reading the printed page, ink on paper, machine bound, is simply…A pain in the ass.

I love “Gray Eagles,” but as soon as I’m done with it, I’m back to my Kindle. I’m a little bummed about this, and not completely comfortable abandoning the tactile joy of a well bound book, but the benefits definitely outweigh the loss.