Sunday, January 30, 2011

20th Century 20 - 10

“If anybody ever flied to the Moon, the very next day Trippe will ask the Civil Aeronautics Board to authorize regular service.”

Orville and Wilbur Wright invented sustained heavier than air flight. Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart glorified it, becoming icons in their own right. Howard Hughes broke records.

But most people treat planes not as amazing wonders, but peanut-providing shuttle busses, or air-trains. Thanks to Juan Trippe.

Trippe was the head of PanAm, now defunct. The 19th century had been reliant on trains for connecting the world, but the 20th would usher in planes as the means of bridging the long-distance gaps. Pan American airways grew like a small business, slowly expanding its destinations further south of the Caribbean. While Lindbergh had impressed all by crossing the Atlantic, Trippe offered anyone service across it or the Pacific.

He didn't invent air travel for tourists. He just made it affordable, creating the economy class. Without it the airlines may have been left in the hands of the very few and privileged. We tend to think of those people as the 'jet set' but Trippe was there at the beginning of the jet set, and made everyone a part. When was the last time you didn't take a jet-powered flight?

These advancements weren't out of the goodness of his heart, but his profits. The 747, which he commissioned from Boeing, was because he needed more seats for more passengers, and therefore more tickets, and more money into PanAm.

So too, did the 747 represent a new development for planes, one which had been used moderately in WWII, but emerged in a big, if rather unnoticed way, with the jet age: the cargo plane. Each piece of mail you get from overseas that didn't come from a boat? That's the small view. Think of all the millions of tonnage that comes to our shores, and leaves them, to stock our store shelves.

Now that space planes and elevators are actually being investigated it is only another step on the path that Trippe began to blaze: making people comfortable and eager to fly, and making the world dependent on the jet engine.

Friday, January 28, 2011

20th Century 20 - 9

The most disgusting invention of the 20th century is obvious. It is the invention and proliferation of nuclear weapons. No other innovation can claim to touch every human being's life. The A- and H-bombs are the only thing in the whole world that everyone can come in contact with, and they are designed to destroy us.

So who to burden with this? Oppenheimer is the obvious choice. Einstein would make sense as well. But what about Sakharov?

Andrei Sakharov was a courageous Oppenheimer. He worked on the Soviet Union's Atomic and Hydrogen bombs. He undoubtedly helped create the arms race, and the Tsar Bomba: the largest nuclear device ever detonated, with a 50 megaton payload. Just after these developments he turned to the positive forces of nuclear power, trying to make nuclear reactors and facilities safer.

Further, we have Sakharov to thank in large part for the Partial Test Ban which ensured that neither power used nuclear weapons underwater, or in space. Eventually, under Khrushchev, he began to vocally complain about nuclear weapons and their impact. In the process he became one of the most important critics of the USSR from within.

Different people in the U.S. mirror bits of Sakharov's work, Linus Pauling for example. But it takes more to stand up to a Premier than a Kennedy. Sakharov left the world a more dangerous place by being instrumental in the Soviet hydrogen bomb particularly, but he immediately began to campaign against what he knew had been a fatal error.

His disarmament and pro-democracy legacy continue, as does his hope that nuclear power may be reigned in for humanity's benefit. Of all persons involved in creating these terror-instilling devices, he is remarkable as the least offensive, even being positive role for the future of their use.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

20th Century 20 - 8

“Just follow your nose!”

“They're Grrrreat!”

The Pillsbury Doughboy, Jolly Green Giant and Marlboro Man all owe their existence to one man. But these advertising characters are really not such a big deal, you could point out. Internationally they would be trifling alongside Ronald McDonald or Mickey Mouse.

Leo Burnett didn't just come up with these, and other, corporate characters. He came up with the very idea of putting, literally, a face on a product. Without this Ronald wouldn't have even existed.

More basically, Burnett knew a lot about the human mind. His big discovery was that we think in pictures, not words. You can write a page as to why I should by product x, or you can show me a picture of it that makes it look appealing. Before Burnett most admen did the former. After him its all been the latter.

Lets say I get a book of coupons in the mail. How often is it an image something, say bananas, with a price next to it? How much time in commercials is really spent describing the product. How much shows the confident man driving his sleek car around at night?

Brand loyalty owes him much. The proliferation of advertising owes him even more. You can't have detailed descriptions on a highway billboard. Words and speed don't mix. As we've sped up the pace of life everything needed to be presented faster – through images. It is no different for advertising, except that advertising began it.

Burnett wanted us to pick up things subliminally. He wanted his message and ideas stored. I don't eat Fruit Loops, or Frosted Flakes. But Tony and Sam I can identify and quote with no problem. That's a powerful force, right there. When that power has now been codified and fine-tuned in such a way as to trigger emotion and longing, that's...the legacy of Burnett.

Monday, January 24, 2011

20th Century 20 - 7

Singapore used to be a rubber colony. Rubber was big business: tires and all that. Nowadays rubber is no longer such a big business. It's replacement came from Leo Baekeland.

Baekeland invented Bakelite. Bakelite is goo that can be both molded and hardened. For eons gold has been prized for this quality: hard enough to be a metal, but soft enough to be manipulated. In 1909 Baekeland showed off something nearly as precious: plastic.

What was quickly discovered was that plastic wasn't just good for things like insulating cables (the initial use). The hard plastic was as valuable in the filmy, or rubbery varieties. It was only the first big hit of many plastics to be created.

Stop reading, and look around you, taking note of the plastic you are surrounded by. Your computer wouldn't exist without it. Your credit cards: what would they be made of? Metal? The film on your paint and on your scratch-free pots and pans. Lampshades, furniture, television sets, the lot. Even your polyester clothes. The only area plastics hasn't made significant progress is inside you body: provided you've not had any major surgery in your life.

From the dentist's office to the barber shop, and the supermarket shelves, plastic is totally omnipresent. But these are still child's toys compared to the real power of plastic. Change requires fluidity, adaptability. The 20th century could not have existed with the rate of change it has enjoyed and been oppressed by, were it not for this miracle material. Ideas only go so far – substantive materials are also needed to excite change. Unlike ideas marble, wood and metal aren't fluid. But plastic is.

The economies of millions of people and countries, besides Singapore's rubber plantations, have been effected. Now every human on earth has been fundamentally altered by the stuff with a million uses.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

20th Century 20 - 6

“Children should be seen, not heard.”

At the turn of the century only the wealthy, as ever, invested in their children. For many families, globally, children were an investment: another source of income once they were old enough to work.

Most of the time we forget that the 20th century was still in the grip of child labor. Up to, and through, the early 1930s children were still being employed in the factories of the United States and other 'first world' nations.

The changing attitude about children didn't come from the U.S., though, but from Sweden, from the psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget. He watched and listened to children.

Children don't think like adults. Many would say this is obvious, but it didn't use to be. Often it still isn't. Consider child abuse: when a parent blows up at their kid, or in depths of frustration tries to get them to do it right, they, the parents, are victims of this basic lack of understanding. They want their child to process things rationally, or 'use common sense': skills which their child simply does not have.

Piaget's model for children came at a time when many models were being developed, but Piaget thought a child is, basically, like a scientist: curious, exploratory, meaning-making. Childhood play, he observed, is a creative act. Children's answers and questions have a logic of their own, a wonderful and weird logic, that teaches us much about the human condition.

Unlike most adults, he didn't spend all of his time trying to correct children's mistakes and answers: rather he simply noted them and made theories based on his research that would impact education and how adults see children. We are moving away from the rote all the time: a kindergarten now is not what it once was. The idea that children need time and space to themselves, that childhood was itself an important and distinct time of life: all credit to Jean Piaget.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

20th Century 20 - 5

Brian Moynihan is not, at the moment, the most beloved of CEOs.

Unlike Bank of America's current President Moynihan, the bank's first President, Amadeo Giannini, was fiscally thrifty, and terribly generous. His former Bank of Italy went defunct on April 18th, 1906, when San Francisco was shattered by an earthquake and fire. Out of the rubble he began lending.

Giannini's Bank of America worked with small businesses: his policies are the same as those now used around the world. But in 1906 these decisions were still fairly radical. Nowadays Bank of America is the largest lending bank in the United States.

Not only that, but B of A started something new: non-local banks with branches over large areas. Before Giannini, and Monette his co-creator, banks were local affairs. By creating a California-wide bank Bank of America set in place a whole new way of doing business, and, from a consumer standpoint, a whole new way to think about banks.

These steps set up the rise of international commerce in a way not seen since the East India Company. Modern global trade needed national banks, and later international ones. Branch banking paved the way.

Many anecdotal loans come from Giannini's Bank of America: one to Disney for Snow White, one to a start-up run by Hewlitt and Packard. The formation of national banks, and national bank businesses, is one of his great legacies. The other is the inverse: the foundation of banks with personal and small business loans and lending. The American, and world, economy would look very different without them.

Oh, and so would San Francisco's skyline. He bankrolled the Golden Gate Bridge, as well.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

20th Century 20 - 4

Bill O'Reilly lives in Levittown, Nassau County, New York. Thankfully, he's not one of the twenty.

Levittown is named for it's designer and founder: William Levitt. There are a few Levitt-towns around the U.S. The one in New York was the first, and it was just far enough outside of the city to be in easy commuting distance. It wasn't a real separate town, though. It was subservient to the urban community. A suburb.

The 1950s were a time of interstate highways, duck and cover, Eisenhower, and the burbs. In the post-war atomic family environment the suburbs became the backdrop for the American story: the set behind the story of James Dean, the appeal of John Ford's landscapes, the personal garage. Levitt's towns were planned communities: of the gated and white variety, rather than the old-timey Main Street.

Suburbs have totally changed main street. The main street of a town is practically an attraction anymore: not a principal place of business or work, or life. And so with the burbs on the rise the new stores, in new strip malls, followed.

Most Americans, I bet, shop at a strip mall on a weekly basis. The supermarket doesn't fit in the store fronts of main street. More than just a change of perspective recall that Americans consume more stuff, 25% of all stuff, the planet has to offer. Where do we find it? The WalMarts and other box stores that have now begun to live off of suburban gluttony.

Peripheral urban spaces are ancient. But they usually were slums and shanty-towns. Levitt made the outskirts a desirable location, and further, made the city itself a place to visit, rather than live, giving space to the megastores around the world.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

20th Century 20 - 3

Last year Gordon Brown made the following apology:

“So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry. You deserved so much better.”

Alan was not a spy, or a war hero of the conventional sense: Alan Turing was a codebreaker.

The reason for the apology? Turing was arrested and chemically castrated for being gay.

Besides his cryptographic brilliance, which got through Germany's WWII Enigma machine, Turing will be immortalized for his machines.

Turing machines were grounded in the heady stuff of formal symbolic logic and Turing's work on Kurt Gödel's theories. The basic concept is that you set the machine to recognize a specific symbol, from a finite set. The machine uses an algorithm to do this.

It's a computer.

The basis for all computer language, programming, and functioning has its roots in Turing's machines. We tend, nowadays, to make fun of the old computers: vast room sized, hot computational boxes. But even these primitives, like ENIAC, could solve in two hours what it would take a hundred humans one year to calculate.

When the internet arrived some, who obviously didn't study history, thought our lives would become more leisured. Of course the result was speeding things up: making deadlines shorter still. But this simple, now vital process, began with Turing.

Friday, January 14, 2011

20th Century 20 - 2

Alexander Fleming seems like less of a genius and more of a lucky guy. We've most of us heard the story about how he discovered that mold could be a good thing: his original name for penicillin was 'mould juice'. Antibiotics were born.

So screw him. I'm giving this one to Maurice Hilleman.

The reasons are many. First, as the 21st century starts out, the dependency on antibiotics is becoming apparent as a mixed blessing. Vaccination, on the other hand...well, who doesn't get vaccinated any more?

Not that Hilleman invented the vaccine. (Thanks, Pasteur!) Nor did he convince the public of it's usefulness and safety: that honor goes to Jonas Salk, whose polio vaccine saved generations.

Hilleman's many reasons are that he invented the vaccines for: measles, mumps, Hep A and B, pneumonia, meningitis and chicken pox. That's seven out of thirty.

In the U.S. 1 out of every 5,000 people had polio in the 40s and 50s. How many people used to get chicken pox, or measles? Pneumonia? Don't think these are minor diseases, either. In developing nations the top five causes of infant death are: respiratory, dehydration, malnutrition, malaria, and measles. Hilleman's work continues.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

20th Century 20 - 1

“I shot an arrow in the air,
it fell to earth, I knew not where.”

Robert Goddard, from Massachusetts, went about fixing that. Not with arrows, or any other weapon, but with his own invention in 1926: the rocket.

Louis CK once complained about how good we have it. In particular, the people who annoyed him this time, were impatient with how long it takes a cell phone to make a call.

“Give it a second! It's going to space!”

Rockets not only have totally changed telecommunications, they've made space travel possible. Goddard's early experiments were out of a yard, and showed that a liquid-fueled rocket could go up a mile. Besides the altitude the liquid fuel is crucial, as well. Anyone can make a projectile.

Later on Goddard came up with the first means of stabilizing and controlling the flight of rockets. His technology made Apollo 11 possible. It made Sputnik a terrifying thing. It has cluttered the post-atmosphere Earth with satellites orbiting, precisely, to let us call people in a manner of seconds.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Those Were The Days

I'm teaching a class on the latter half of the 20th century (or will be, come February). Life for the average person is so radically different in 1999 from 1899 one wonders where to start.

Most of the big developments were pre-WWII, perhaps. But the post-war years were also critical to changing our lives. It's all very James Burke. Thinking about all of this lead, perhaps predictably, to a list.

20 people for the 20th century. Who were the most important, over-all?

This list is unranked. Whose to say which was more important to our psyche or pocketbooks, or commutes? I leave that to you. Here's an idea: make you own list, and then see how it compares against mine. Teaching exercise? Could be.

If you want a hint I provide, below, the areas of their influence. Don't expect politicians: their spheres of influence are too limited. (The exceptions are influential as inspiration, which is nice and all, but I'm going tangible.) First one will be posted later this week.

Entertainment Networks

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Monkey-Man and Sun

I was recently doing some research on the Chinese epic Journey to the West about the clever and slightly mischievous Monkey (Sun Wukong). The epic was passed down for centuries from an oral tradition. Based on historical events of the Tang Dynasty the story goes that a pure monk is accompanied by Monkey, Pig, and Friar Sand as his bodyguards: former wretches who would absolve their past crimes by journeying West and collecting the Buddhist scriptures.

Multiple versions of the story exist. As time went on the stories were condensed and codified. In a particularly interesting and very early version, Sun Wukong and the rest of the band run into Hanuman: a Hindu monkey deity. This chapter was later cut, but their conversation is delightful, as is often the case when Monkey gets talking. I reprint it here from the Lawrence translation:

[Sun Wukong, has left the others and wanders around the mountain bend, looking for dinner.]

"Just then Monkey heard a rustling in the bushes. 'Well,' he thought, 'I can probably flush out a fine rabbit for master.' And, taking up his golden cudgel, he brought it down on the bush with such force that all of the leaves fell off. But instead of a rabbit he had knocked a head that looked awfully like his own.

'Tell me, my younger cousin' Monkey began, 'why you've deliberately denied my master his dinner! Don't you know that I am Sun Wukong, master of all ape kind? By all rights I should split your head open with my cudgel!'

At these insults the monkey-face in the bushes turned red and angry, and standing up Sun Wukong realized that this was no ordinary monkey.

'How dare you call me your younger cousin! I was born eons before you hatched out of a rock! It is you who should be apologizing to me, Wukong!'

'I did not recognize you, fabled big-brother. Are you Hanuman?'

'How can you ask when I stand right before you?'

'Then we are not cousins but brothers! Come, tell me of the lands that lie ahead. Is my master going to be safe on his journey?'

'Oh hells no. These mountains contain an ethereal flame that destroys only those who are pure of spirit. You should be fine though.'

'As doubtless, brother, you have no difficulty in crossing them. But my master certainly will.'

'Maybe if you spent more time with him your sleaze would rub off on your master and he'd be able to come through the pass safely.'

'Certainly, certainly. But since I have found you I think it would be better if it was your honorably hairy self that did it. I have been with him for months and he is still pure. Doubtless your overwhelming lack of grace would prove toxic to him within minutes.'

'Doubtless you had to be born from a stone since no mortal could have bared the sight of you as a child.'

'Whereas your mother, as everyone knows, was a hermaphrodite.'

'Hey now. It's a Hindu thing.'

'So tell me, are we going to be long in this shitty kingdom?'

'Not if I can help it!'"

[At this point the two of them fight an epic battle lasting forty-three rounds, only to find they are evenly matched. The narrative abruptly breaks off with Monkey going back to camp to recruit Pig to help him.]

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Food - the first two weeks

Durian candies.

Fried egg rice with chicken.

Soursop and watermelon juice.

Korean Barbeque: Beef and chicken with oodles of sides from salad to tofu to pickles and kim chee.

Mrs. Fields cookies.

Macaroni fried with seafood and chili.

Pasta Carbonara.

Mango smoothies.

Nasi Lemak: fried chicken (or hot dogs or fish cakes) with rice, egg and chili.

Duck and noodles.

Spareribs and noodles.

Ayam Pagan: Grilled Indonesian-style chicken with sauce and rice.

Chicken rice: Steamed or roasted chicken with rice (a local favorite).

English bratwurst with mustard.

Fish and chips with crab bisque.

Indian mutton curry.