Thursday, November 28, 2013

Visions of the Future

I have seen the future and it is very much like the present - only longer. ~Kehlog Albran

Predictions of the future have one thing in common: They're almost always wrong. I'm sure you have seen those predictions from the 1920's and 30's showing wonderful art deco buildings, monorails, and flying cars. However, if you compare actual pictures of, say, New York in that period versus pictures today, all you see is some newer, more boring buildings and newer cars. If you picked up a New Yorker from 1920 and plunked him into New York of 2013, he'd probably be able to find his way around just fine. He'd also wonder why so little had changed.

Don't get me wrong. Some things did change. Airplanes use jets, television has arrived, nuclear bombs bring the possibility of total annihilation, and there's the computer, bringing along the Internet.

Ah, yes, the Internet. There are those who believe that the Internet has been some sort of massive improvement to the human condition. Consider David Gerrold's view: “If it's a choice between the flying car or the internet, tablets and smartphones, I'll take what we've got." Now, Mr. Gerrold is something of a sci-fi author (his greatest claim to fame seems to be creating the tribbles on Star Trek), so he's supposedly an expert on this sort of thing. Perhaps if the only choices are flying cars and the internet, he's right. But, it's a lousy choice.

A much closer approximation of the effect of the computer was given by Isaac Asimov in his short story, “A Feeling of Power.” He portrays a society so dependent on computing that the ability to do arithmetic has been lost. And he doesn't even get into the impact on a society of constant misinformation and wasted time using such things as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The amazing thing is that futurists (ugh) have no clue about how progress works. Progress occurs in sudden leaps. Consider the impact of the invention of the car, the telephone, radio, and the integrated circuit (Mr. Gerrold's favorite). Much of what we consider high technology is merely incremental improvements on these inventions. In other words, kids, ain't much changed in the last hundred years.

The problem is that it isn't easy to remake cities because there's a city in the way already. It costs a lot of money to tear down, say, the Chrysler Building to replace it with some space-needle type building that doesn't hold nearly as many people. Also, there's the matter of infrastructure. Replacing all the power plants serving New York City would run into prohibitive amounts of cash. So doing this sort of thing requires planning years in advance.

Long-term advanced planning isn't something that's a strong suit of human beings. I guess it gets in the way of warring with your neighbors. The one exception I can think of are Egyptian pharonic tombs. But, they had this down to a routine. New pharaoh takes power, tomb builders go to work. As long as he can hold out for twenty years, they'll get the job done. The success of the tomb builders is more a matter of strong organization than planning skills. Besides, tomb styles, from mastabas to pyramids to underground chambers changed very slowly, hardly demonstrating rapid innovation.

In fact, history is one long march of slogging forward, and occasionally backward, punctuated with sudden bursts of advancement, usually thanks to remarkable individuals like Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and Bohr. Or from the pure technology side, you have the likes of Benz, Ford, Morse, Marconi, Edison, and so on. In between, you have minor improvements to major technologies or incremental additions to scientific theories.

But you have something else: inertia and lack of imagination. That's where Mr. Gerrold comes in. He's something of a Candide seeing this as the best of all possible worlds instead of realizing that the potential of networking is being wasted by telecommunications monopolies and frivolous usages.

It's even beginning to affect the views of the future. A while back, the BBC came up with a view of the world of 2050. It's actually an hilarious agglomeration of minor changes from today like wearable computers (already available) and delivery drones (which could be done with current technologies) combined with big changes to cities that aren't going to happen, like “farmscrapers”, big open spaces in cities, and robo-taxis. The first two won't happen because money talks and utilizing sections of cities for non-monetary or low-return structures doesn't appeal to those who put up the dough. As to robo-taxis, well, again technology has existed for self-driving vehicles for years and it gets nowhere. Perhaps some very limited route vehicles will exist, but generally available self-driving vehicles won't make it by 2050.

I strongly suspect 2050 is going to look a lot like 2013, except maybe more run down.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

War of the Roses Redux?

Bad is the world, and all will come to naught when such ill-dealing must be seen in thought. ~ William Shakespeare, Richard III

It was little more than a year ago that the bones of Richard III were found in a car park in Leicester, England.  The general public perception of Richard has been formed for most of us by Shakespeare's brilliant depiction of him in his play.  Richard is one of the foulest, nastiest, most unprincipled villains in all of history.

Well, maybe not.

On further review, as they say on sporting broadcasts, he may have been no worse than many another English monarch and better than some.  For starters, Shakespeare has to compress events in time rather drastically for dramatic effect.  While it makes for good drama, it makes for lousy history.  For example, the execution of his brother, the Duke of Clarence occurred years earlier and came about because King Edward was sick and tired of the Duke's taking sides against him.  After Clarence tried to cut a deal with France, Edward had enough and did him in.

In another example, Richard is shown wooing Lady Anne, the woman he would marry, yet he actually married her 8 years or so earlier and even had a son with her.

There has risen a sort of cottage industry in rehabilitating Richard.  One book that covers this well is Richard III by Paul Murray Kendall.  Seems that Richard may not have been the monster that Shakespeare dramatized after all.

One fact that everyone can agree upon is that Richard met his end on Bosworth Field at the hands of the troops of the Earl of Richmond, one Henry Tudor.  Henry would become Henry VII, grandpappy of one Elizabeth I, who was in charge when Shakespeare was knocking out his little plays.  Not wanting to tick off the ruling monarch may account, in part, for Shakespeare's take on Richard.

At any rate, as was standard at the time, the body of Richard was paraded through some localities for all to see.  This was done to ensure that somebody wouldn't pop up claiming to be Richard and cause more trouble for Henry.  Ultimately, Richard's body was deposited in Leicester, but no one was quite sure where.  It was presumed he was buried in or near the Greyfriar's friary, which is now a parking lot.

Once it was established through DNA testing against Richard's nearest living relative(the Brits do keep excellent family histories), a new War of the Roses suddenly erupted.

To begin with, the people of Leicester, sensing serious tourist cash, decided that Leicester had always been one of Richard's favorite places.  Also, he was buried there by "royal edict", although Henry wasn't king yet when he dumped the body there.  At any rate, figuring possession in 9 points of the law, the local government set up creating a proper tomb.

Well, who should come out of the woodwork but the people of York.  Calling themselves, the Plantagenet Alliance, these folks felt it was obvious that Richard was one of theirs (he was a son of the Duke of York).  These Yorkists, who have a Richard III museum, insist Richard would have wanted to be buried in the old home grounds, so they want him shipped up there.

Leicester puts it baldly by saying York has plenty of tourist attractions, while Leicester has few, and removal of Richard means they would "have one less."  York, of course, claims money has nothing to do with it.

But, they do have a museum, now don't they?

There is a great irony in the fact that a man who was once the most despised monarch in English history should now be in such demand.  Of course, being dead, it isn't likely he'll be throwing people into the Tower, so he's a lot safer to have around now.

As Shakespeare said in Henry IV Part II, "A man can die but once."  Being buried, however, can be quite another matter.