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April 27, 2007

The way the future was*
Posted by Teresa at 04:09 PM * 105 comments

Debra Doyle has pointed me at Paleo-Future, a blog about the way the future used to be, and in particular to this collection of postcards, printed by a German chocolate manufacturer around 1900, which show the world as it’s going to be in the year 2000.

Along with the usual flying machines and glass-roofed cities, this one has an interesting bit of technology: slidewalks. I have to wonder whether Heinlein ever saw that image. Outdoor slidewalks aren’t an intuitively obvious development—which is a polite way of saying that as an engineering solution to the problem of overlong or congested pedestrian routes, they suck.

Comments on The way the future was*:
#1 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:05 PM:

As an engineering solution to the problem of wearying or overcongested pedestrian routes, they suck.

But that wasn't what he proposed them for; he proposed them for an even more unreasonable role -- metro area and even intercity transit.

That postcard is interesting; are those layered platforms moving the same direction at different speeds, as Heinlein described?

#2 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:16 PM:

All those interesting ideas on personal transport of the future -- and they have nothing but horse-drawn vehicles on the roads...

#3 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:19 PM:

A mobile trattoria? If I'm reading the title correctly? Which would make it not exactly transportation.

It does look like the right and center platforms are moving in opposite directions.

#4 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:23 PM:

#3: The people interacting does make it look like those two platforms are moving in *opposite* directions, yet. But that makes the third platform that you see the edge of at the far left hard to explain.

#5 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:35 PM:

PJEvans #3:

Don't get misled by any supposed similarity between German and Italian (this is a new concept to me!). "Trottoir" = "pavement" or "sidewalk".

#6 ::: Clark E. Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:39 PM:

I wouldn't say Heinlein proposed slidewalks so much as he made them a McGuffin for his version of the techno-Jimmy Hoffa story - certainly he killed them off quickly enough without even a meteor strike.

On the other hand the combination with sun-screens offering free power so long as it's a stationary engine makes it work (GM/Firestone/Standard Oil had in reality killed the electric interurban only recently as Roads was written) - Shipstones were in the future.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:45 PM:

Considering how often I've seen San Francisco's short BART escalators break down, and how long they took to fix, I'm glad we don't have mile-long slidewalks. (If they were around though, it'd interesting to see the kind of futuristic junk that'd accumulate under the slidewalk.)

#8 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:47 PM:

Sadly, Summer Holidays at the North Pole is the most plausible of the ones we haven't yet achieved. (Well, except that I'm pretty sure there's no landmass at the North Pole, so it may not look anything like the picture.)

#9 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:56 PM:

Summer Holidays at the North Pole may shortly sound like "glub-glub-glub..."

#10 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 04:59 PM:

BTW, we do indeed have undersea tourist boats here in Hawaii. Atlantis Adventures runs a very popular line of submarine tours. (Alas, no visits to Atlantis nor even to Col. Churchward's Mu.)

#11 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 05:06 PM:

joann @ 5

Well, I wasn't real sure on that one, and German has been known to borrow words. (It isn't a speelign you'd find in 'native' words, so I figured they pulled it from , most likely, French.)
My German dictionary is in one of the Magic Boxes. I doubt that the OED or Y Geiriadwr Mawr would help on this!

#12 ::: Jakob ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 05:18 PM:

Great postcards. I was just the other day pointed at a list of 1900 predictions about the year 2000, which were similarly entertaining - I thought you might appreciate them, too.

#13 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 05:25 PM:

Re #7: I was thinking much the same thing about moving walkways in airports. The long ones between C and D terminal at PHL in particular seem to be down about as often as they're running.

#14 ::: sburnap ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 05:53 PM:

Apparently the reason BART escalators break down so much is that they are not covered, and the rain has negative effects on the machinery. They were not covered because it was deemed "too expensive". Those covers would, of course, have cost far less than all the repairs that have since been made.

#15 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 05:57 PM:

sburnap @ 14

Also the LA subways. They spent lots of money on making the entrances attractive, and didn't bother to put canopies over them. To be completely fair, though, the inside escalators, between the ticketing level and the platform, also break down a lot. Usually the up escalator. Especially if it's more than two flights of stairs.

#16 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 06:02 PM:

Time was when I wished for a future that would have jetpacks and hovercars and teleporters and spaceships.

Now, I wish for a future that has ice caps.

Thing is, I don't know if I've lowered my expectations, or raised them unrealistically high.

#17 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 06:39 PM:

Actually, I've seen a fair number of slidewalks not only in France (Charles de Gaulle airport, Les Halles m├ętro station), but in airports in the U.S. as well. I don't think they're practical for long distances, but when you have to cover a long stretch of ground fast and there isn't a scooter, skateboard, bicycle, etc. handy, they work just fine, especially if you walk while you're riding.

#18 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 06:51 PM:

Future nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

#19 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 06:55 PM:

Kip: I think you mean "Future nostalgia wasn't what it will have been."

#20 ::: Jeff ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 07:38 PM:

If I walk at 3 mph on a slidewalk moving at 2 mph (most I've seen go slower than I can walk), am I moving at 5 mph? I often do this on the slidewalks at airports, since I like to get from here to there as rapidly as possible and relax.

#21 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 07:43 PM:

Slidewalks, especially long slidewalks, especially FAST long slidewalks, strike me as extremely brittle systems.

A failure anywhere along its length means a failure everywhere. The belt has to be continuous, right? Even if the "belt" is a series of segments, one of them busting means all the ones behind need to stop. Quickly, but not so quickly that the occupants don't keep moving.

#22 ::: Chris Azure ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 07:47 PM:

It reminds me of the Mid-Levels Escalator in Hong Kong. Despite the name, a large portion of it is actually (elevated) moving walkways that go up the mountainside at a slight tilt. Or down the mountainside during morning rush hour, when everyone's coming down to work (since there is only one lane of flat walkways - anyone going in the other direction has to take the more traditional concrete)

#23 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 07:52 PM:

#8: "Well, except that I'm pretty sure there's no landmass at the North Pole, so it may not look anything like the picture."

That's landfill.

#24 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 08:05 PM:

In a similar vein, y'all have seen Modern Mechanix, right? No? Well, enjoy. The six-foot cigarette holder was a particular gem for this hopeless nicotine addict.

#25 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 08:13 PM:

One thing that always struck me as intruiging about Middle to Late Victorian England* was that you could catch a train from London to just about anywhere, travelling at 50-60 mph, but when you got to the nearest station to your destination, you then had to get a horse and trap (usually there was only one - either the one you had wired for, or the one that waits at the station for the train**) which would make 6 mph at best for onward travel. Under those sort of conditions, predicting a moving walkway seems as likely as a super-rail-tram system, and more likely than some sort of auto-mobile steam-car.

* See various Sherlock Holmes stories for details on the logistics
** Which tells us something else about Mid-Late Victorian travel, although what exactly I don't know - too late at night, too much to drink etc.

#26 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 08:58 PM:

Stefan Jones @ 21

Slidewalks are a problem waiting for a nanotech solution. Instead of one continuous belt with a lot of motors and shafts and drivebelts to drive it, suppose every few millimeters is a separate belt, with almost no gap between them, and each driven by its own micromotor or motors. To the pedestrians, the entire belt seems to be traveling as one piece*, but failures will be highly localized. This also allows one part of the moving surface to move in one direction while another part moves in another at a different speed, making entry and exit much simpler than for large belts.


* I haven't mentioned the control system to make this practical. There has to a separate controller for each motor, and the network that connects them all will probably require IPv6 just to have enough addresses. It's the mother of all distributed systems.

#27 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 09:00 PM:

Re 26

And just wait 20 years or so to see how far off that prediction is!

#28 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 09:18 PM:

Re:#12

The ones that came true make me realize how much we've come to take for granted in little more than a lifetime.

#29 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 09:29 PM:

Stefan @ 21

Asd I recall from Worldcon in '79, the slidewalk at Gatwick had segments between gates; at each gate you had to step off, walk ten or fifteen feet, then step onto the next segment.

#30 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 09:32 PM:

Going through the Trek thing in Las Vegas is interesting: you look at a data pad and it's 'Aha, PDA!' and the communicator is 'Right, cellphone!'

I'm still waiting for the matter transmitter, either as a transport unit or as stepping disks.

#31 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 11:12 PM:

I'm rather worried that Bill Higgins hasn't replied yet. This is really his thread.

#32 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2007, 11:27 PM:

OK, just six URls then. I'm really surprised no-one here remembers the Worlds Fairs' slidewalks.

The World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago 1893) - Moving Sidewalk:
http://www.chicagohs.org/history/expo/sidewalk.html
The photo is kind of small, but I think I've seen close-up shots showing the benches it was equipped with.

the moving sidewalk at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris:
http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/arch/1900fair/paris26.jpg
http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/arch/1900fair/paris27.jpg
http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/research/digital-collections/goodyear/thumb.php?grp=Paris.1099

A moving sidewalk proposal for Atlanta, 1924:
http://www.jolomo.net/atlanta/movers.html

Includes some history of moving sidewalks:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escalator

#33 ::: Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 02:27 AM:

I think you misunderstand the role of the moving sidewalk: it's not for brisk transportation -- what's wrong with a horse? It's for a passagiata. It's a slow-moving flirtway. The people on it are not commuting. They are socialising.

Don't look at it as a primitive device for mass transportation. I don't think there is any suggestion of a consumer society in these postcards. Think of it as something more like the Prater in Vienna. If and when the machinery does break down, there will be couples scampering into the bushes all along its length.

#34 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 07:47 AM:

Jakob@12: We were just talking about that somewhere around here...maybe on the open thread? I note that the ladies of the Ladies' Home Journal did rather better than Heinlein did, despite his 50-year head start on them.

JC@8: If you want to see what the North Pole looks like, have a look at the North Pole Webcams. They've been putting these up to gather data about the arctic for the last five summers or so...this year's edition is just going in now.

#35 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 09:31 AM:

Andrew @32, yes! That was my firstthought; it looked like a "nice" way of meeting folks of the opposite sex without the constrictions of the ballroom and formal introductions.

#36 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 10:31 AM:

PJ Evans wrote at #11: My German dictionary is in one of the Magic Boxes. I doubt that the OED or Y Geiriadwr Mawr would help on this!

Now that would be a very futuristic solution!

Send No Money Now for Geiriadwr, the power drink for tomorrow's world, and expand your vocabulary with just one handy travel-size bottle a day. Nobody will ever kick sand in your face in the library again!

#37 ::: Calton Bolick ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 11:09 AM:

...it's 'Aha, PDA!' and the communicator is 'Right, cellphone!'

Which is why I only buy mobile phones that flip open, and why I always practice flicking them open one-handed. I draw the line, though, at making the beeping noise.

I see a number of slidewalks here in Tokyo. In Tokyo Station, it's a few hundred meters from the main area down to platform area for the Keiyu Line, where you have to catch the train to get to Tokyo Disneyland: slidewalks go most of the way, carrying crowds of people past lots of lighted adverts for The Happiest Place on Earth in Japan*

There's also a 300-meter slidewalk, covered, between a local shopping galleria/office complex (Yebisu Garden Place) and the nearest train station. No, they couldn't have built it closer since it's a development on the site of the old Sapporo brewery.** Lots of continual traffic from commuters and shoppers.

*The ads don't make much sense to me, as I assume most of the people riding past them are already heading there -- unless they're counting on impulse business from the shoppers heading for the big-box retailers in the area: "Screw IKEA, I'm going to Disneyland!"
**Kind of like San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square -- if it had been completely flattened and replaced with an office tower, roofed plaza, an exact copy of an 18th-century French chateau, and a beer museum. Okay, nothing like, then.

#38 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 01:28 PM:

See A Journey In Other Worlds, by John Jacob Astor; it seems to be a terrible novel, entirely composed of tendentious info-dump, but his plans for urban transport are quite something.

The heroic engineering of the story is the 'rectification of the earth's axis', pumping water on an enormous scale to stop the seasons and bring 'perpetual spring' to the Earth, at least in its better neighborhoods. And there's a Mars landing, and 'marine spiders', and the entire coastline has been rebuilt, and ground level in Manhattan is entirely given over to battery-powered wheeled traffic, with pedestrian sidewalks built on the next floor up...

#39 ::: Naomi ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 01:56 PM:

Chris @22, I also immediately thought of the Hong Kong public escalator. From what I read, they built it to solve the problem of everyone wanting to hop in a taxi to save themselves the walk uphill at the end of the day, and it's worked beautifully.

I've ridden on it. It's pretty nifty, and built in segments -- this facilitates hopping off to run your evening errands on your way home, and also means that if one segment breaks you just walk up the stairs for a short distance and then hop back on at the beginning of the next segment.

#40 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 02:13 PM:

James E #24: That one's just scary.

#41 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 02:15 PM:

Neil Wilcox #25: Mid-to-late Victorian suburbs developed around the railway stations, so that it was usually not more than a mile's walk to the nearest station.

#42 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 03:32 PM:

At 11:12 PM EDT last night, in #31, the lovely and talented Erik V. Olson wrote:

I'm rather worried that Bill Higgins hasn't replied yet. This is really his thread.

The thread dates from 4:09 PM EDT.

I departed my office. I had a bowl of soup. I watched TV and paid the bills. I went to sleep. I woke up and had coffee and kissed K goodbye, as the poor darling must see clients today. I exercised. I took a hot bath. I gathered some laundry and moved it downstairs for washing.

Only now have I paused to peer into a computer and discovered this thread. Erik, if you dispatched police to my house to check on me, they haven't arrived yet.

You may rely on me to comment on visions of the future, but I won't commit to doing so within 23 hours of the thread's initial appearance.

(On the other hand, last evening I also shopped in a store whose location I divined using a Navigo-Map-Atlascope. While traveling there, I listened to my Pocket-Phonographo-Pod. I heated my soup in a Hertzian-Wave-Bombardment-Chamber. Before sleeping, I instructed my Showbizatronic-Automaton to watch entertainment on my behalf. In the bathtub, I read a technical paper on Anti-Vacuum-Cosmic-Travel-Suits. I emptied the Electro-Hydraulic-Porcelain-Scrubber and put the dishes back in the kitchen cabinets (which, interestingly, are virtually identical to 19th Century kitchen cabinets). I spoke to people on the Wireless-Voco-Message-Conveyor. So it's a pretty good future. But it could still be better. See Bishop Romero.)

#43 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 03:45 PM:

Oh bravo, Bill!

#44 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 03:50 PM:

Want some more of this kind of stuff?

I recently mailed a copy of Albert Robida's self-illustrated novel the Twentieth Century to the Foglios. 'Cause they needed to see it.

#45 ::: RedMolly ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 04:00 PM:

A quick corollary: one of the links at the end of the postcard entry goes to a Ladies' Home Journal article from 1900 titled "What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years." Can you imagine LHJ, or any other "women's" magazine found at the grocery checkout, publishing anything similar now? ("The Trials and Triumphs of Katie Couric?" "Lose 50 Pounds with the Cabbage Soup Diet?" Now that's news you can use.)

(Said article includes among its predictions "There will be no C, X or Q in our every-day alphabet"--how quixotic! Also, "There will be no wild animals left except in menageries. Rats and mice will have been exterminated.")

#46 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 04:52 PM:

RedMolly #44: The startling thing is the complete absence of any idea that heavier-than-air flying craft might be possible (and would make their first successful flight three years later).

#47 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 04:54 PM:

Further to #14 and #15, the Washington Metro also was originally built with escalators that weren't covered; many of the stations have since had canopies added.

Meanwhile, the MBTA has many escalators that don't work, despite always having been under cover.

#48 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 07:38 PM:

About that asterisk: I love The Way the Future Was. I once came across a stack of them on a remainder table for a dollar apiece, and bought every one.

Highlights: becoming a teenage editor of two professional SF pulp magazines. Learning the science of direct-mail campaigns in the 1950s. But it's all good.

Maybe it's time Fred Pohl wrote a second volume.

#49 ::: Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2007, 09:05 PM:

Erik, if you dispatched police to my house to check on me, they haven't arrived yet.

They were distracted by the new Ikea.

#50 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 06:37 AM:

Fragano@46:

The startling thing is the complete absence of any idea that heavier-than-air flying craft might be possible
The fourth or fifth card in the series shows people flying with sort of personal winged gliders. That's heavier-than-air. To be sure, it misses the key insight: that you can attach an internal combustion engine to the glider. But after all there's only so much you can ask of them.

#51 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 07:01 AM:

#41 Fragano - all very true about Victorian housing patterns*, but it still interested me that in, say, the Hound of the Baskervilles, you could go maybe 10 miles from a station** and you're in an area where you can't rule out that supernatural hounds might be prowling.

On the other hand people continue to report the Beast of Exmoor, and it no longer takes two hours to get to an out of the way station to communicate with the outside world.

* In East Kent, buildings built before the railways got here (depending on where you are within a decade either way of 1850) have local tiles. After the railways arrive, everything is roofed in Welsh slate, until after the war when slate became expensive (and/or tiles cheaper) and everything is tiled again.
** I've not researched this

#52 ::: Nyrath the nearly wise ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 09:00 AM:

I was just reading an anthology entitled SCIENCE FICTION OF THE 30'S edited by Damon Knight. He mentions that moving sidewalks appear in the 1932 short story "Slaves of Mercury" by Nathan Schachner (Astounding Sept. 32)

That anthology also contains my favorite example of why an SF story should not try to go into technical details: "Into the Meteorite Orbit" by Frank K. Kelly.

It starts out so good. It predicts air-traffic controllers, the 22nd century as being dominated by the energy crisis, it even has the hero finding a recorded message on his video-telephone.

Then the reader's willing suspension of disbelief crashes and burns as the hero pulls the wax cylinder out of the video-telephone, puts it in the replay unit, and places the needle on the groove.

A friend of mine mentioned a Van Vogt story where there were slide rules connected to the ship's computer by radio, but I do not know which story that appeared in.

Another friend is trying to revive the SF universe with Heinlein-esque atomic rockets. He calls the genre "Rocket-Punk"
http://rocketpunk-manifesto.blogspot.com/

#53 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 10:16 AM:

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey @48: About that asterisk: I love The Way the Future Was.

Enjoyed that book thoughly. Fred Pohl had been a guest of honor at an SF convention in Rochester in the 80's. A Q&A had questions like 'So, when's the 'Last Dangerous Visions' going to come out?'. Pohl complained that for as many people who read James Blish's Star Trek adapations, few people seemed to appreciate Blish's other works. A friend wanted to ask about (as described in The Way the Future Was) how a right-winger such as RAH lent money to such an avowed leftist such as Pohl.

I won an award for Best Costume (judged in part by Pohl - the award was an autographed copy of Heeche Rendezvous).

Isaac Asimov has been there too. I was within 5 feet of him, and didn't have the nerve to speak to him.

This is my con career in a nutshell.

#54 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 10:22 AM:

Re: @53: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, not Heeche Rendezvous. All other details can stand as described.

#55 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 10:37 AM:

David Goldfarb #50: You're right.

I made a reference recently to the 'paperless office' (a prediction of the 1980s, you'll recall) to a young person. Her immediate response was 'what an absurd idea!'

#56 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 10:45 AM:

The Mid-Levels Escalators are a solution to a slightly different problem: moving a lot of people up and down a fairly steep hill, rather than along a flat surface. As such, they have an advantage that's irrelevant to flat slidewalks: they can go straight up rather than in switchbacks along the side of the mountain (as the roads do). That reduces travel time significantly.

And it's definitely a commuter thing (though anyone who wishes can ride them): hence downhill in the morning and uphill the rest of the day.

#57 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 10:45 AM:

Neil Willcox #51: By the 1880s, there was a railway system extensive enough that the most remote places wouldn't have been more than 30 miles from a station (in England; certainly, Scotland would have been a bit different). This would, of course, produce the result that you could travel by steam power most of the journey, but would have to rely on horse power or leg power for the last stage.*


*Of course, if you were affluent enough you could wire ahead to be met at the station.

#58 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 04:26 PM:

I think "Galactic Gageteers" (Astounding Science Fiction, years ago) had FTL travel calculations being made on really huge slide rules. And I think there were also really huge vacuum tubes in the communication devices.

#59 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 04:31 PM:

And I seem to recall reel-to-reel tape technology in Babel 17.

My earlier post with URLs to photos of slidewalks at two world's fairs seems to be held up indefinitely, though I was careful to unly use six URLs.

#60 ::: Another Damned Medie ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 04:56 PM:

That is such a cool blog! Almost wish I were a modernist, so I could teach a class in 'views of the future'

#61 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 05:22 PM:

And then there's Heinlein's _Starman Jones_, with the decimal to binary conversions for the computer being carried out by looking them up in a book.

#62 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 05:38 PM:

joann @ 61

I don't know which part of that is sillier in hindsight: looking the conversion up in a book, or having to do that conversion for the computer.

#63 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 05:54 PM:

P J Evans: Remember machine code?

#64 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 06:03 PM:

joann, 61: What really cracks me up is the part where it's a secret book because the guild won't let anybody learn how to use log tables. Guiiiiilds--innnn--spaaaaace!

But I still love the part where he gets beat by a gurl! at chess, that manly sport for manly men!

#65 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 06:32 PM:

#52: Another friend is trying to revive the SF universe with Heinlein-esque atomic rockets. He calls the genre "Rocket-Punk"

I was going to add "Winchell Chung has a great site along those lines too," then I remembered that Nyrath == Winchell Chung:

Atomic Rockets

#66 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 06:36 PM:

#52: One of the few really discordant notes in Brave New World is the media used to store hypnopeadia recordings: Punched paper tape.

Mmmm, there's also a reference to 88 cubic meters of card-index, used to track the products of the London Hatchery.

#67 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 07:20 PM:

joann @ 61

Talk about cognitive dissonance. I read "Starman Jones" in the early '70s while working for a small electronic design company in Cambridge (Mass, that is). I can remember reading about the computation they did, then going to the supply cabinet at work the next day and taking out a 4-bit Binary-to-BCD IC and holding in my palm, thinking "This costs about $4.00 in quantities of 100." I doubt they even make those chips anymore; the memory to hold the program to do the conversion costs thousands of times less than the package the IC came in.

#68 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2007, 11:13 PM:

#53:

I last ran into Pohl at I-Con in '97 or so. I got to ask a question that had nagged me for years.

Answer: Yes, the novel JEM is set in a variation of the shared-world setting of Medea: Harlan's World.

Rant from Pohl's "Day Million.":

"Go ahead, glare and grumble. Dora doesn't care. If she thinks of you at all, her thirty-times- great-great-grandfather, she thinks you're a pretty primordial sort of brute. You are. Why, Dora is farther removed from you than you are from the australopithecines of five thousand centuries ago. You could not swim a second in the strong currents of her life. You don't think progress goes in a straight line, do you, Do you recognize that it is an ascending, accelerating, maybe even exponential curve? It takes hell's own time to get started, but when it goes it goes like a bomb."

Pohl understood, in 1966, that the future will be wonderful and strange and untidy and perverse.

#69 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 04:12 AM:

Mr, I've fot hold of some scans of the Eagle, from the first couple of years. There's Dan Dare, of course, and we know it's the future becaouse Colonel Dare wears a green uniform with a red necktie. The ordinary clothes are solidly 1950-English, and the aliens land during a cricket match.

And there are the two warring species on one planet: it's a pretty obvious source for Terry Nation's Skaro. Davros as a substitue for the Mekon?

And there are helicars, jet-powered monowheel jeeps, rocketships launching from right next to the boss's office window, and when a rocketship crashes, they just build another and carry on.

Oh, and space-fighters attacking ships with gun-turrets.

But I wonder if it's after a nuclear war. All the younger men seem to have a mutation for big chins.

#70 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 06:31 AM:

"Space Cadet" (1947) has a mention of the "giant strain-free computer" in orbit - you see, you put your big computers in orbit because in free fall there isn't so much strain on the axles and gears. Also referring to "cutting a cam" for the autopilot before you land your rocket ship on Venus. But also mobile phones!
Dave Bell: have you looked at "Ministry of Space"? Beautifully done, obviously inspired by Dan Dare; it's an AH in which Britain leads the space race, and very believable right up to the last panel, where Warren Ellis succumbs to The Stupid.
Gur ynfg cnary, frg va nebhaq 2000, fubjf n oynpx srznyr Eblny Fcnpr Sbepr cvybg yrnivat n qbbe znexrq "Aba-Juvgr Srznyr Crefbaary Bayl". Ertneqyrff bs gur snpg gung gur ENS qvqa'g unir n pbybhe one rira va 1940 - oynpx naq Vaqvna crefbaary syrj nf nveperj - jr'ir nyernql frra gur svefg zna ba Znef qrcvpgrq nf n oynpx bssvpre, naq n fravbe EFS bssvpre jrnevat n Fvxu gheona. Naq abj jr'er fhqqrayl fhccbfrq gb oryvrir gung vg'f n qrrcyl enpvfg fbpvrgl? Re, ab. Fbeel.

#71 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 06:51 AM:

Ajay #70: Just as a historical aside, I happen to have known some of those black WWII pilots. (As Betjeman put it, 'gallant blacks from far Jamaica/Honduras and Togoland'.)

#72 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 07:23 AM:

Yes, profoundly ahistorical. I wonder if he was closer to the mark with it being a sexist future?

#73 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:08 AM:

PJEvans #62, TexAnne #64:

The really stupid part (for me) was the notion that Our Hero would have *read* all the tables--or even looked at each page. (Yes, I know, the photographic memory part of the plot requires it, but still ...)

#74 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:13 AM:

I'll have to have a look for "Ministry of Space". I'm doing a bit of quasi-fifties CGI design. There's something about the look you get when you combine RAF officers in battledress, plastered with medal ribbons, with a live ballistic missile on the launchpad.

I think we sometimes forget how the people who set up the Cold War had experienced a hot one.

#75 ::: Jakob ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:27 AM:

Dave Bell #74: You might even be able to find genuine pictures of that, depending on your definition of 'live'. The RAF operated Thor IRBMs from 1959 to 1963, although the warheads were under US control.

#76 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:30 AM:

#62: doing decimal conversions manually might look silly with hindsight, but it was actual practice with early computers. There wasn't enough computer memory to use on doing things that humans could do perfectly well themselves. (This is, of course, not a good reason to assume that would always be true.)
(IIRC Turing assumed that humans would learn to use hex as easily as decimal when computers were common, so the conversion would be unnecessary.)

#70 (in free fall there isn't so much strain on the axles and gears): How silly. Everyone knows it's because in space you can build really complicated vacuum tubes with no actual "tube" (and no strain on the weightless filaments).

#77 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:31 AM:

Xopher @ 63

Actually, yes. (Somewhere in one of the Magic Boxes: a reference card for EBCDIC. I don't want to go there, really.)

I think it was the binary part in the decimal-to-binary conversion that hurt my brain. (I seem to remember that at one point there were computers that actually ran in decimal.)

#78 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:42 AM:

When I was in grade 7 or 8, in the early '70's, I remember the math text pushing octal as the great new coming base, beacuse it was easier to use than binary and easily convertible to/from binary (and ergo would be an important tool for those using computers).

Since then, aside from a very few situations where I've had to use octal escape codes (some VT Terminals, I seem to recall -- DEC loved octal), and in a very few circumstances where I had to do conversion of dot-form IP addresses, I can't say that I've seen much use of octal actually requiring conversion. True binary, yes, when bitmask properties or when the precise format of signed integers are important in multi-platform work.

The assumption that we would have to adjust our math rather than having our tools do it for us is strange, but it seems to have been a pervasive meme for a while.

#79 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:47 AM:

James @ 78

At that age, they were teaching me bases 7 and 12, so we got the idea of number bases. (In base 7, all the fractions are repeating decimals. It's good practice for 'Hebrew National' hot dogs, though.)

#80 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 11:58 AM:

Not only was there the Thor IRBM, there was also the UK rocket research programme up to 1971 - the only one to launch its first and last satellite into orbit some weeks after the government cut off its funding, and the most reliable first stage rocket in the world at the time.

There's also a wonderful photo of Harold MacMillan inspecting an RAF base, in his trademark tweeds with the jacket pocket flap "casual", i.e. half-tucked in, in front of a white, sfnal Handley-Page Victor B2 jet bomber.

#81 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 12:36 PM:

72:I wonder if he was closer to the mark with it being a sexist future?

I didn't read the last panel as depicting a sexist future - I thought that she was just coming out of a locker room or a ladies' toilet or something. I mean, she's a space pilot, for heaven's sake - the personal pilot of the architect of the entire British space programme. Doesn't look too bad from a gender equality point of view.

(Or a racial equality point of view - which is what makes it such a damn stupid last panel. I mean, if you segregate black people because you're a nasty racist society, you tend not to then give them high-skill, high-paid, high-status jobs as well as separate lunch counters.)

Seriously, I think they should just airbrush over the offending words in future editions. Makes it a much better story.

#80: Try "Backroom Boys" by Francis Spufford, or just look up the Black Knight programme. For the way it would have gone, get in touch with Alan Bond and talk to him about the Skylon/SABRE project. He'll talk your ear off; I've seen it happen.

#82 ::: Trip the Space Parasite ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 01:06 PM:

In the "Venus Equilateral" stories by George O Smith, the highly advanced technology of the vanished Martians was... super vacuum tubes.

#83 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 01:14 PM:

Alan Braggins @ 76

(IIRC Turing assumed that humans would learn to use hex as easily as decimal when computers were common, so the conversion would be unnecessary.)

This seems to have been a common assumption in the 50's and early 60's. One of the important plot devices in Pohl & Williamson's "Starchild Trilogy"* is that the computer that rules humanity will only take input whistled to it in binary (or was it hex?) code by specially-conditioned "acolytes" who have perfect pitch. Non-robustness due to lack of redundancy, anyone?

* I'm fairly sure this was Pohl's idea, he was fascinated by ways humans could use binary; see his article "How to Count on Your Fingers".

#84 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 04:54 PM:

As I've mentioned before, I lived a couple of mile from one of the RAF Thor IRBM sites.

And some of the structures are still apparent on the OS 1:25000 maps, a sort of cross of concrete.

I looked up "Ministry of Space" on Wikipedia, and I suppose gur nccneragyl enpvfg/frkvfg ynory ba gur qbbe zvtug or na nggrzcg gb znxr bhg gung gur fbpvrgl unf orra creiregrq ol gur fbhepr bs shaqvat. Ohg znxvat n oynpx jbzna n cvybg frrzf irel pbagenqvpgbel.

#85 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 08:40 PM:

I used to read and write hex. I haven't tried since the stroke, though.

#86 ::: Ross Smith ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 10:10 PM:

Re "Ministry of Space": Well, Warren Ellis is a big Spaceflight Fan. The impression I got was that he was having so much fun with the alternate world -- British Empire In Spa-a-a-a-ace! -- that he couldn't really bring himself to do a "Down In Flames" on it. He tried to show that their world had its dark side, but his heart wasn't really in it.

#87 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2007, 10:33 PM:

#77 - there still are; off the top of my head, the IBM AS/400 and Z/390 still have decimal instructions. Decimal hardware is a good thing if you need to do financial computation. One of my first jobs was writing a payroll program, and I quickly learned that there are actually no really good ways to do that in BASIC. The best is working in integer cents - and handling the amount over 327.67 carefully! Bigger word sizes cure that one, fortunately.

If you don't work in cents, you get floating point artifacts all over the place.

COBOL gets no respect; but it's quite a good solution to some genuinely hard problems.

#88 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 12:10 AM:

I use hex and binary directly quite a lot. If the type of programming you do (low-level graphics, embedded stuff) involves a lot of bit-flipping, it makes sense.

#89 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 05:55 AM:

#86: fair enough, but the "dark side" aspect was already covered rather well by the revelation of the source of funding, wasn't it? It just annoyed me immensely. I got the trade paperback from the library and I was all set to buy my own copy - when I reached the last panel. Now it just annoys me.

(I think this phenomenon should be called the Tehanu Effect: in which the immense lameness of the last item in a series immediately causes distaste for all the preceding and in themselves excellent items.)

#90 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 06:30 AM:

Ajay @81: I didn't read the last panel as depicting a sexist future - I thought that she was just coming out of a locker room or a ladies' toilet or something. I mean, she's a space pilot, for heaven's sake - the personal pilot of the architect of the entire British space programme. Doesn't look too bad from a gender equality point of view.

True. But - "Mickey, one mouse making it to the top doesn't mean we've got equality!"

(Or a racial equality point of view - which is what makes it such a damn stupid last panel. I mean, if you segregate black people because you're a nasty racist society, you tend not to then give them high-skill, high-paid, high-status jobs as well as separate lunch counters.)

This is, of course, what doomed South Africa as an Afrikaans Nationalist state. Having benefited from a one-off delivery of highly skilled immigrants after the second world war, they could find enough nuclear physicists for a while, but once they began to retire...you can't substitute smart, and the nature of a racist state seems to work against economic vigour.

You've got to offer advantages to the whole of your in-group, which usually consist of a) servants and b) jobs in the "spying on the blacks" and "pointless bureaucracy" industries. So you will by definition have a sizeable population of whites employed above their Peters level of incompetence, and an even bigger population of blacks employed well below it - both of which are a loss to society.

Of course, this is where the path-dependence kicks in. Group the first has every incentive to resist change savagely.

Pik Botha, IIRC, believed that it would be possible to have a Ministry of Space-endpanel solution, buying off opposition with material goods, but as Ajay points out, this was damn stupid. Revolutions always start with the middle class.

#91 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 07:17 AM:

Ajay @81: I didn't read the last panel as depicting a sexist future - I thought that she was just coming out of a locker room or a ladies' toilet or something. I mean, she's a space pilot, for heaven's sake - the personal pilot of the architect of the entire British space programme. Doesn't look too bad from a gender equality point of view.

The reading I took from that was that she's a spacepilot, but she's basically a chauffeur.

Obviously it's flawed, but it does point out some of the unspoken assumptions behind Dan Dare etc. It would have been more interesting and realistic to reveal a dark class system in the last panel, but I can't think of anyway you'd do that. ("I don't think we need any Grammar School pilots in the deep space program, do you?" is the best I can do.)

#92 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 08:09 AM:

"Technical Non-Policy Grades' Canteen"..you'd need to spooge quite a lot of British civil service and RAF or Royal Navy culture into the story to make it take.

Neil @91: the capital requirements are such that it's the nature of being a pilot that it's always someone else's train set. Goes double for space.

Note: You think you're the middle class. You're actually a proletarian with unusually high marginal productivity..

#93 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 09:08 AM:

Henry Troup @ 87

COBOL gets no respect; but it's quite a good solution to some genuinely hard problems.

Apropos of another discussion on another thread, I wouldn't be surprised if, in an alternate universe, COBOL is quite well respected because it was created by Adm. Ray Hopper.

Incidentally, the Intel x86 architecture (meaning most of the computers in the world) has some instructions to make BCD binary conversion faster and easier. It's a partial solution, but at least it's not dependent on compiler design*.

* You want excitement? You want drama? You want rants and flames? Try attending a portable language standards working group meeting. I have seen an entire day taken up with the question of how long an integer should be.

#94 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 09:14 AM:

Ministry of Space -- three issues, pretty clearly envisaged as a single story, but with a long gap between the first two, in 2001, and the last in 2004.

Anyone know why?

There were a lot of British experimental jets in the Fifties. The first Jet airliner was British. And there were some dumb decisions made at times. People blame Duncan Sandys a lot.

#95 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 09:16 AM:

Alex @ 92

Note: You think you're the middle class. You're actually a proletarian with unusually high marginal productivity.

Precisely what much of the upper class (especially owners and owner/managers) think of the middle class in general. It's what Bush and Cheney want to make explicit by, e.g., restricting higher education to the deserving class.

#96 ::: Jakob ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 10:20 AM:

Dave Bell #94: As I understand it, the script for #3 was half-finished when Warren Ellis's father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; by the time he finished the script Chris Weston (the artist) had taken on other projects to pay the bills, and there were also unspecified business issues with his publisher. When his and Weston's schedules could be aligned again the last book was produced.

There was also talk of Ellis writing a series called American Space Force, using Flash Gordon rather than Dan Dare as the inspiration. I'd buy it.

#97 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 02:21 PM:

Warren Ellis is working on a series set in a shabby spaceport where all of the space heroes of old have gone to retire.

I bought a used Dan Dare compilation after reading "Ministry of Space." Juvenile, but interesting.

My take on the Last Panel: The cultural attitude displayed is an side-effect of the Ministry's sin - of - origin:

Ryyvf vf gelvat gb jenc uvf zvaq nebhaq jung n Qna Qner shgher zvtug ernyyl unccra, naq jung vg zvtug ernyyl or yvxr.

Gur Zvavfgel'f bevtvany shaqvat pnzr sebz pncgherq Anmv tbyq . . . tbyq ybbgrq qhevat gur Guveq Ervpu'f pbadhrfgf naq fgbyra sebz crbcyr frag gb qrngu pnzcf.

Vg jnf rnfl zbarl, naq qvegl zbarl. Vg yrg gur Zvavfgel jbex grpuavpny zvenpyrf, naq nyybjrq Oevgnva gb znvagnva n frzoynapr bs pbybavny fhcre cbjre naq vgf "hapunatvat nfcrpg." Va bgure jbeqf, *Oevgnva arire Terj Hc*.

Hu, lrnu, gur pbybavnyf znl or cvybgf, naq V vzntvar gurer'q or ybgf bs tehqtvat erfcrpg, ohg qnearq vs gurl'q or nyybjrq va gur orfg Pyhof.

#98 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 05:05 PM:

So there's this ancient VIP, Dashwood, with a young, black, woman as his personal pilot?

It couldn't be that obvious, could it?

#99 ::: Jeff ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 09:05 PM:

Bruce @ #93:
Apropos of another discussion on another thread, I wouldn't be surprised if, in an alternate universe, COBOL is quite well respected because it was created by Adm. Ray Hopper.

I'm not sure that's the case. COBOL was quite well-respected for many years, and it's been te influx of "cool" languages like C, C-Sharp, Java, etc that make it not-so-well respected. I doubt if one programmer in a hundred* could tell you what COBOL stood for, much less who created it.

* The number will be higher here than in the general population, though.

#100 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 09:20 PM:

Jeff #99: I doubt if one programmer in a hundred* could tell you what COBOL stood for, much less who created it.

I knew what it stood for, but I checked Wikipedia to make sure--and discovered that everything I knew about who created it was way wrong.

#101 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2007, 09:50 PM:

joann @ 100

Hmm... thanks for mentioning that. See, COBOL predates even me, and I didn't know that either. The article also has a quote from my favorite programming curmudgeon, Edsger Dijkstra. It was he who caused me to invent the programming construct,

dykstra;

artskyd;

which contains no useful statements or expressions.

#102 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2007, 06:58 AM:

One of the joys of P2P networks is that, even when some idiot at the publishers loses the original artwork. there are digital copies of the comics all over the place.

Dan Dare will not vanish so easily.

#103 ::: Jakob ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2007, 07:47 AM:

On British comic titles and the sensibilities of another age: 'Commando' reaches its 4000th issue.

I remember these from my (not *too* distant) youth, and wasn't aware that they were still publishing, although I had seen the Carlton anthologies in my local bookshop.

Another feature about the writing of Commando stories by the author of the BBC piece, with more details on the production process. The downthetubes website it is hosted on looks rather good too, with lots of info on Brit comics.

#104 ::: Howard Peirce ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2007, 08:32 AM:

I saw this last week, but I only realized last night that it might be of interest to the Fluorosphere.

X Minus One -- the animated series (YouTube)

It's a teaser trailer for a proposed animated series featuring modern CG animation in various styles, using episodes of the 1950s radio drama X Minus One as the soundtrack. Stories by Frederick Pohl, Clifford B. Simak, Fritz Leiber, etc.

Sort of has a "retro-future meets future-retro" feel.

#105 ::: mds ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2007, 10:39 PM:

COBOL gets no respect; but it's quite a good solution to some genuinely hard problems.

Well, many people who know COBOL seem to get plenty of respect from corporations with all that legacy code.

it's been te influx of "cool" languages like C, C-Sharp, Java, etc that make it not-so-well respected.

Er, well, several old-timer computer science purists of my acquaintance seemed to have fairly fundamental philosophical objections. Then again, they also thought Modula was the wave of the future. And they certainly didn't foresee so much serious programming being done in interpreted languages, as if we all had Apple ]['s again.

I have seen an entire day taken up with the question of how long an integer should be.

Long enough to reach the ground.

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