Thursday 13 October 2011

Another letter to Mark Steyn.

Mark Steyn's latest Happy Warrior column is utter tripe. He appears to be under the impression that no engineering or invention worth mentioning has happened since the 1950s.

Their first car is no different from my first car. Which was no different from my grandfather's first car. To be sure, they've dispensed with the hand crank and rumble seat and installed a GPS and iPod dock, but essentially it runs on the same technology as a century back. Which are the faster-moving times? The age that invents the internal-combustion engine? Or the age that plugs a Justin Bieber download into it?


Imagine that Vermont class a century ago, the summer of 1911. The Model T had just gone into production a couple of years earlier, the age of manned flight had gotten off the ground. And they had their version of Justin Bieber downloads, too ... There were so many inventions for singers to sing about, they had no time left to sing about the novelties of their own industry, in which the wax cylinder was about to be superseded by the 78-rpm phonograph record. In the years that that Vermont Class of 1911 had been in college, the Nickelodeon had led to a boom in what we would soon call motion pictures. And yet, what with all the other things going on — with electrification and the internal-combustion engine enabling man to conquer both night and distance, time and space, and other footling stuff — these exciting showbiz novelties were generally regarded as peripheral to progress. Instead of the be-all and end-all of it. In the second decade of the 21st century, technological innovation means we're thrilled if Apple invents a device for downloading Katy Perry that's an eighth of an inch slimmer than the previous model. So today, instead of songs for the age of invention, we have inventions for an age of songs.

So I just had to write to him again.

Dear Mr Steyn,

Speaking as someone who generally agrees with you (apart from your reliably wrong film reviews), I was very disappointed to read your laughably inept "Gliding On Empty" piece.

You claim that the first half of the Twentieth Century was the bit where all the invention happened, because that's when inventors concentrated on vehicles Mark Steyn can travel in, while no engineering worth mentioning has happened since around 1950, because cars and civilian planes haven't changed all that much in that time and computer technology doesn't count because it is possible to use computers to listen to Justin Bieber records.

Can anyone play this game? Let me have a go. Just as Ipods are useless because they don't get us from New Hampshire to Mongolia any quicker, the automobile was a crap invention because I can't use it to peel oranges. And just as modern computers are essentially trivial because we can listen to Katy Perry on them, so the aeroplane is an evil invention because it was used by Stalin.

It will be news to every mechanic in the world that modern cars are "no different" to the cars of a century ago. "essentially it runs on the same technology as a century back" you claim. Yet most mechanics under the age of thirty don't even know how to deal with a carburettor, because they've never seen one — because the modern car engine, while still operating essentially on the principle of internal combustion driving pistons, has been continuously refined and improved beyond all recognition. And I like the way you dismissively mention in passing that they've "installed a GPS", as if building and maintaining a network of satellites orbitting the Earth that enables a small handheld device to pinpoint its exact position to within centimetres is a trivial exercise.

Of course, the modern technology you dismiss can be used for some things other than the ones you mention. Mobile phones not only allow us to listen to music but have also enabled billions of people to get connected to the global communications network without the prohibitively expensive building of old-fashioned cable-based networks. Since communication is the key to human progress, that's rather a big thing. Computers can be used not only to listen to records but to control power stations, compose symphonies, maintain life-support systems, and perform some truly astonishing feats for the military — including the control of the modern fighter jets you ignore. "Air travel went from Wilbur and Orville to biplanes to flying boats to transatlantic jetliners in its first 50 years, and then for the next 50 it just sat there," you write. But it wasn't air travel that progressed in this way; it was aeroplanes; commuter travel is merely one way of using them. And what happened with planes is that they continued to become more and more advanced, progressing far past the speed and acceleration and comfort that any mere passenger would be willing to put up with while drinking G&T and watching a film, so the latest planes, which are inconceivably amazing compared to planes from the 1950s, aren't used for commuter travel. Mind you, Burt Rutan flew a plane into space a couple of years back, and has now teamed up with Richard Branson to found Virgin Galactic, who have every intention and reasonable expectation of selling tickets for spacerides to us plebs. Of course, they might play music during the flight, so presumably it's not real progress, then.

You say "In the second decade of the 21st century, technological innovation means we're thrilled if Apple invents a device for downloading Katy Perry that's an eighth of an inch slimmer than the previous model." Yet the reason computers keep getting smaller is that teams of engineers keep figuring out ways to make subatomic particles do what they're told in increasingly complex and innovative ways. The quantum ratchet is a truly impressive invention, even if you can't ride in it.

I can put an entire university library in my pocket. Or I can put a record label's entire output in my pocket. The fact that you don't much like the latter doesn't make the former unimpressive.

Yours sincerely,

Joseph Kynaston Reeves

OK, that's quite enough writing to Mark Steyn. I'll figure out something else to blog about now.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Still not quite right.

Kellogg's have angered the God of Nominative Irony.