Category Archives: The Future

A Letter of Apology to Labourers

18 September, anno domini 2010

Dear Sir or Madam,

Two weeks ago today I made a promise to you that I could not, as it turned out, keep. In an effort to remove from my back the burden of shame I have borne these many years for failing to live up to my family’s duel legacy of hard work and criminal activity, I intended to write a week-long tribute to outstanding men and women labourers. I could not live up to that promise. The only explanation I can offer you for my actions is that I was engaged in what I hope you will accept as a more fitting tribute to your labours: I was working.  I would like to extend a special apology to the intended subjects of my tribute, Messrs Henry and Heracles and Mmes Riveter and Virgin.

Were it not for you and your hammer, John Henry, the world may not have become aware of the intrinsic evil of machines. We would have been doomed to an apocalypse at the hands of our own creations. Because of you we — and by ‘we’ I mean ‘Hollywood movies’ — are ever vigilant against the machinations of technology, and the world is safe. For now.

Heracles, of your many labours, the cleaning of the Augean Stables stands out as particularly verendic. There are heroes enough in this world to face lions, boars and hydras; but rare is the man who would clean up a 30-year-old pile of whatsit. You stepped in a pile that even Mike Rowe would fear to tread in, and you came out victorious. Stinky, but victorious.

Rosie the Riveter. In Europe’s darkest hour, with the last of the free countries on the brink of collapse, you roused America to action. “We can do it!” you told us, and you were right. Japan may have awakened a sleeping giant when they bombed Pearl Harbor, but it was you who filled him with terrible resolve. The free people of the world owe you a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Mary, the only labour for which you will ever be famous might have been over in a matter of hours, but from it you brought forth the Saviour of the human race. The ramifications of this act are so mind-blowing, the whole world is still trying to figure out what to do with it. On behalf of the faithful, I thank you for agreeing to an insane job offer from an angel you’d only just met. We will be marveling in the mystery of the Son you bore  — yet who created you — for eternity to come.

You are all worthy of  recognition for your awesome labours. If the opportunity presents itself, I plan to follow through on my promise and dedicate posts to you in the future. I sincerely hope I have not offended any of you.

Tenderly I remain your verendicompendist,

S. Hamley Bildebrandt

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Filed under History, Lore and Legend, Technology, The Future, Unsung Heroes

Liquid Pencils

Despite its gloomy title, 'The Book of the Dead' topped the summer reading lists of all of Egypt's fashionable periodicals.

Pencil technology hasn’t changed very much over the millennia.

Long before paper made its way over the long silk road from China, the western world recorded information on papyrus, a paper-like material made from the eponymous Egyptian reed. The ancient Romans would use a tool called the stylus to write on papyrus. Styli were small rods, pointed at one end and blunt at the other. When inscribing in soft materials like wax, the sharp end was used to etch letters while the blunt end was used to scrape away the writing entirely. Styli were generally made of lead, a very soft metal. So when a scribe was writing on papyrus, the stylus not only scratched but left faint grey lead markings.

In other words, the stylus was to the pencil what the quill is to the modern pen.

There was very little development in pencil technology for well over a thousand years until the 16th century, when a large deposit of graphite was discovered in England. Graphite has many qualities similar to lead that make it ideal for pencil use: it’s a soft, brittle material that leaves a mark when scratched against another surface. In fact, graphite leaves a much darker mark than lead. It also helps that, unlike lead, graphite isn’t a dangerous poison. Of course they didn’t know or care about this at the time. They were eagerly putting lead in everything: water pipes, paint, makeup, dishes, toys.

One of the earliest wooden pencils

Originally people wrapped the graphite in string to make it easier to handle, but eventually someone came up with the idea of digging a groove into a stick of wood to contain the graphite, and thus the first modern pencil was born. It was in the late 1600s in Germany that the first mass-produced pencil was made. Other companies caught pencil fever and were scrambling to get a piece of the pencil pie.[i] One of these companies, Faber-Castell, established in 1761, is still a major player in the winner-take-all battle for pencil supremacy, a battle the outcome of which only time will tell.

That is until this year, the year twenty-ten, when Sharpie changed everything.

Once people figured out how to jam a brittle stick of graphite into a tiny hollowed out log, they figured they’d reached the pinnacle of pencil technology. There was little left to challenge them, so no progress was made for the next two hundred years. Frankly, they got lazy.

Some developments were made in the periphery of pencil production: pencil sharpeners were invented and later replaced by the superior electric pencil sharpener. But the design of the pencil itself remained relatively unchanged until the invention of the mechanical pencil.

The mechanical pencil sounds cooler than it is. Instead of encasing graphite in wood, pencil companies encased it in plastic and found a way to retract the lead when it isn’t being used. This eliminated the need for pencil sharpeners but created the need for those little plastic boxes of graphite refills. In spite of its snazzy new shell, the mechanical pencil still works on the same principles as the wooden, plus the wooden is still the standard in the pencil industry. Little has changed.

That’s where Sharpie comes in. Sharpie recently announced the result of what must’ve been some dark Faustian bargain, an innovation that defies the natural order and seeks to seat mankind among the gods. It is an event simultaneously celestial and diabolical, exhilarating and terrifying. I speak of none other than the liquid pencil.

The harbinger of our doom

Through undisclosed means — some mixture of science and dark alchemy — Sharpie has discovered a way to turn graphite into a strange liquid metal. The new pencil writes with liquid like a pen, but once on paper it acts like, and erases like, solid graphite. After three days, whatever has been written on the page becomes permanent.

The good news is this is probably the first genuinely exciting news to come out of the pencil industry since coloured pencils. And it’s truly revolutionary. The very core of what makes a pencil a pencil has been changed. Literally. The graphite core has been changed into a futuristic liquid metal. This also bridges the seemingly eternal gap between pen and pencil. There were erasable pens in the past, but they never really worked as they were intended. And so if one wanted something dark and permanent, they needed pens, but if they wanted to erase they needed pencils. Now we finally have a tool that is both fully erasable because it’s truly a pencil, but fully permanent because it’s truly a liquid pen. Surely this is an irrefutable indicator that we have arrived in the Future.

And thus the bad news. We all know where this is going. Liquid metal pencils utilizing strangely advanced technology. It’s only a matter of time before Sharpie is bought out by a shadowy corporation called Cyberdyne, bringing us one step closer to Judgment Day and the war against the machines. The Sharpie liquid graphite technology will eventually form the basis of the T-1000 who will be sent back in time to kill John Connor. I’m even inclined to believe that the Sharpie pencil itself was sent back in time by the machines, utilizing technology that will push the Judgment Day timeline ahead by several years.

Robert Patrick playing a Sharpie liquid pencil

So as cool and exciting as Sharpie’s new pencil is, in creating it they have doomed the human race to nuclear destruction and a post-apocalyptic robot war. Fortunately for us, there is a fundamental yearning in the human soul to kill robots, and — I would argue — it’s the only time we truly shine.  So I say bring on the liquid pencils, and bring on the war with the machines.
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[i] A real dish in England, by the way, and even nastier than it sounds.

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Unsung Heroes: Cool Air

Presumably everyone who reads this blog has skin. If you’re reading this and you don’t have skin, I sincerely apologize.

Unless you’re an android, in which case you don’t understand the concept of remorse. Or contractions, which there have been four of so far, so you’re beyond lost.[i]

But androids aside, I think I have statistics on my side when I say that most of you have skin. So I don’t need to extol to you, O be-dermised reader, the glories of cool air. We all know the refreshing, life-giving feel of a cool breeze on our skin; how it renews body and spirit alike. I could recount for you the many splendours of cool air, but I won’t. Today’s post focuses on an oft-neglected benefit of cool air that, frankly, puts all its other, more obvious charms to utter shame.

We’ve probably all heard some version of the story involving a bush pilot in the Amazon/Congo/Australian Outback/Sumatran jungle/Camden, NJ who swears he saw a snake swallow a cow/water buffalo/bouncer — whole. I’ve never put much stock into such stories. For no other reason, really, than that bush pilots are notoriously unreliable people — blackguards and knaves, the lot of them. That and because if there were snakes that big, one of them would have killed Jon Voight by now.

But there was a time when giant snakes slithered their way across the earth. Snakes so big their midsections would be three or four feet in diameter. Such monsters could easily swallow a cow — and much larger things — whole. Jon Voight wouldn’t stand a chance. And neither would the rest of us.

A life-size papier-mâché replica of a baby prehistoric demon-snake.

Many people like to have pythons and boa constrictors as novelty pets. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it’s because it gives people a taste of danger without any of the nasty drawbacks like injury and death. Pythons and boas are big enough to kill us, but just a bit too small to bother. We wouldn’t quite fit inside. But if the monster snakes of primordial earth were still around, we’d make a tasty treat. Fortunately for us, snakes have gotten much, much smaller since then.

And to what do we owe a debt of eternal gratitude for ridding the world of voracious dino-snakes? Who is this unknown benefactor of the human race? This shrinker of snakes, this defender of Jon Voight.

Cool air.

Angelina Jolie's dad (somehow). Pre-death-by-snake.

Snakes, we all know (especially you, android), are cold-blooded. Cold-blooded animals can’t regulate their own body heat like mammals can. That’s why lizards are always hiding in the shade and then sunning themselves on rocks. It’s how they keep themselves from hypothermia or overheating. The bigger a reptile gets, the higher the ambient temperature it needs to keep its body temperature at a livable level. For reptiles to be as large as they once were, as in the case of dinosaurs and snakes the size of pine trees, the overall temperature of the earth would have to be much higher than it is now. And so it once was, but it has cooled down a lot since reptiles ruled the earth. It’s the very coolness of the air that is keeping reptiles from getting as large as they once were.

That’s why the farther north one goes in the Northern hemisphere, the smaller the reptiles get. It’s also why all those stories about giant snakes swallowing large livestock come out of tropical climes, not the remote forests of Alaska or Tibet, for example.

In short, the only thing keeping you, me, and everyone you love from a painful, slow death in the belly of a slithering behemoth monster-snake is cool, refreshing air. That just makes me want to breathe in its breezy freshness all the more deeply.

And we’d better all hope and pray there’s nothing to this global warming thing, or else Jon Voight’s days are numbered. And while that might not sound all that bad, allow me to remind you that in spite of the full force of reptilian rage being unleashed against her, J-Lo survives. I don’t know about you, but if I have to live in a world where J-Lo survives, I’d prefer it to be one not dominated by predatory über-snakes.

Our future if we take this global warming thing lying down.

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[i] That makes five.

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Filed under Animals, History, Lore and Legend, The Future, Unsung Heroes

Bee Fears, Bears and Beards

I had intended to write this post about the etymology of the word carnival, because it’s quite an interesting one. This got me researching useful carnival terms like the fear of clowns, coulrophobia, and the fear of bears. But wait. Five or six consecutive Googlings, in which I employed the sum of my knowledge from almost fifteen years of search engine experience, netted not one single credible source for a term meaning ‘the fear of bears.’

Terrifying. Utterly terrifying.

This could mean several things, all of which confuse and concern me.

It could mean there is no confirmed psychological condition for the fear of bears (if there were it would probably be called ursophobia, and so we will call it henceforth). After all there is a veritable plethora of fake or medically unverifiable phobias drifting about the internet these days. Hippopotomonstrosequippedaliophobia — purported to be the term for ‘the fear of long words’ — is a prevalent find, though I have serious doubts about the medical credibility of the term, which itself appears to be nonsense (hippopoto- coming from the Greek for ‘river horse,’ the literal translation of hippopotomus, and by extension a synonym for ‘big’; monstro- coming from the Latin root for ‘monstrous,’ also by extension a synonym for big; and sesquipedalian, a real English word meaning ‘pertaining to long words,’ literally ‘foot and a half long’ in Latin.) and more than likely a mean-spirited joke at the expense of people who have such a fear. So maybe ursophobia is just another fake phobia. But that’s the problem. The fake phobias are just as easy to come by on the web as the real ones. Fictional phobia or not, a search for ‘the fear of bears’ should result in more than just a few unfounded conjectures on forums suggesting the existence of such a condition.

It could mean people, on the whole, don’t fear bears at all. The idea that there is no psychological condition called ursophobia is a reasonable one. That’s where a great deal of these fake phobias come from: people have a fear of something that doctors have not observed and confirmed as a psychological condition, so people make a word for it themselves. My, admittedly so-unqualified-it’s-ridiculous, understanding is that a phobia is more than a fear or distaste for something, but an irrational, crippling fear or hatred. And that’s why it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a real ursophobia: because it’s completely and solidly rational to fear bears.

I don’t trust animals that 1) can walk on their hind legs, 2) recognize themselves in a mirror, or 3) have thumbs. As scientists learn more about the mysteries of animal intelligence, it becomes clearer and clearer all the time that we humans might just be holding onto our position as the dominant species by our fingernails[1]. Bears are one of the few animals that can walk on their hind legs. That should scare us enough, especially if they ever learn how to carpool and wear suits. But they’re also much, much bigger than humans, with giant claws and teeth that could tear us to shreds in a matter of seconds. Don’t let the fact that they eat berries mislead you. Don’t be fooled by their beguiling cuteness and huggability. These are adaptations designed to trap their human prey. Bears are stone cold killers whose very nature it is to hunt down and eat people. There’s probably a bear watching you right now. Whatever you do, don’t look him in the eye and don’t rub his belly, no matter how much his lovable smile makes him look like he wants you to. It would be the last thing you ever did.

And so, if we want to keep our job as the dominant species on this planet, we need to fear bears. It’s right and rational for us to.

Which brings me back to the first issue raised: why isn’t there a phobia of bears? There are so many other zany phobias out there. And I mean real, medically documented phobias. Take linonophobia, which is, I kid you not, the fear of string. Not the fear of rope (or hanging by one), not the fear of chains, not the fear of whips, garrotes or wires. The fear of string. Then there’s pogonophobia, which is the fear of beards, a word many foreign people confuse readily with bears, but still — it’s not ursophobia.

And speaking of confusing bears with other words: melissophobia. Despite it’s appearance, melissophobia is not the fear of women named Melissa, though both words have the same root. It’s the fear of bees.[2] But if one Googles the phobia of bears, melissophobia comes up most frequently. That’s because people are stupid; another reason we need to watch out for bears and other ambitious species who might exploit our intellectual failings. In fact, I’m willing to bet money it was a bear who posted the misinformation about melissophobia in the first place.

I am officially a honeybeephobe.

You might be asking yourself ‘what’s so awesome about any of this?’

Well, it’s awesome that enough people have the good sense to fear clowns that we had to coin a word to explain it. Clowns have lost the element of surprise. That means we’re safe from clowns taking over as the dominant species, at least for now.

It’s awesome that melissophobia is a real condition, and it may just be the key to protecting us from a unified ursine power play. Everyone knows bears love honey. It’s like catnip, crack and coffee for bears all rolled into one. Bees have stingers, in part, as a means of defending the honey from animals such as bears. For their own survival, bears have adapted to become melissophobes. If the human race learns to use this to our advantage, we can deal the bears a blow so crippling, they’ll never recover. If we fail, it could mean the end of us all. And I fear the bears may have struck first. They are, after all, the most likely culprits behind the mysterious deaths of honey bees. That should tell us something about their resolve; that bears are willing to give up their favourite addiction forever in order to win the great Urso-Human Wars.

We could all learn something from the bears.

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[1] Even those we share with other primates, who meet all three of the aforementioned criteria above, earning my eternal mistrust.[i]

[2] Ironically, honeybeephobia is the fear of women named Melissa. The scientist who named these two phobias is a direct descendent of the Viking in charge of the Greenland/Iceland debacle of ’86 (886, that is).

[i] or is it distrust?

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Future Week, Part V: The Space Race

There was a time when America was more futuristic than it is today. It was the 1950s and 1960s. The USA and the USSR were locked in a deadly game of threats, intimidation and brinkmanship known as the Cold War. Whoever lost would have to accept the other as the world’s only superpower, and would very likely have to abandon their way of life. Whoever won would be the dominant world power and would have exclusive rights to having the name of its country start with “US.” Needless to say, America won. That’s why the USSR is just Russia now. The United States and the USSR never actually met each other on the field of battle, thus why it was called the “Cold War” – no fire was exchanged. Instead they chose to fight each other through threats, propaganda, and through other countries, among other things. One of the most interesting Cold War battles, and by far the most futuristic, was the Space Race: a competition between Russia and the United States to achieve goals in space exploration before the other nation.

Space Dog

Laika the dogstronaut in her space kennel.

Russia had the upper hand for a while, but mostly by achieving things no one really cared about. Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into space in October 1957. The Russians were so excited about their achievement that, like drunk college guys with a deep fryer, they just started sending anything they could find lying around into space, just to see what would happen. They sent old rubber tires into space, car batteries, three fur Cossack hats, two empty bottles of vodka, Joseph Stalin’s hair pomade, and, eventually, political dissidents. When the excitement wore off, the Russian government realized how silly they’d been acting and decided to send people into space for serious research. Well, sort of. They sent a dog up first just for poops and giggles. But then they sent up a voluntary person. The first human being in orbit!

 

The overt silliness of the Russian space program really gives you some perspective on how lazy the Americans were being.  While Russia was still messing around with sending trinkets into space “just ‘cuz,”[i] America somehow managed to be behind on every major development in space exploration. America was second in launching satellites, second in sending an animal into space (Although, they did send apes instead of dogs. NASA gave them all typewriters too in hopes that one of them would randomly type out the works of Shakespeare – in space – giving America eternal bragging rights.[ii] If that didn’t work out, at least America could brag that their space animals had opposable thumbs.[iii]), and second to have an astronaut in space.

Space Chimp

Ham the chimp after his return to earth. Shortly after this picture was taken, he signed his last words, “Tell my wife I poop chair,” and then he died.iv No one was sure what he meant.

But America’s all about the wow factor. They just love pulling themselves together in the last minute for the win. And so, in Hollywood hero fashion, complete with the aforementioned confident slow-mo swagger and thumbs up, America went for the tie-breaking score in overtime: they put a man on the moon. Several men, in fact.

If the tried and true rules of colonialism still apply, and I see no reason why they don’t, America didn’t just go to the moon, America colonized the moon. In the first age of exploration (what we will call the Terrestrial Age of Exploration, to differentiate from the Age of Space Exploration, and because it sounds more futuristic), all a country needed to do to colonize another country is send men to that country in a ship and plant a flag in the soil. If a local population lived there, they had to find a way to force them into compliance. According to these rules, the moon is property of the United States of America. The US government sent men there who set foot on lunar soil and planted an American flag. America is the only country to have done this.[v] It just so happened there wasn’t a local population to subdue, but let’s face it. If there were, America would have subdued liberated them.

 

Union Jack

Moon Flag

 

When you look at it that way, the only reason the moon still exists is because America hasn’t decided to nuke it into oblivion. There’s a great deal of conjecture among historians and political scientists about why America didn’t blow up the moon as a demonstration of power to the USSR. Some propose America feared it would invite the Soviets to retaliate by extinguishing the sun, but there’s little proof the Russians even knew the sun exists, so that seems a little farfetched. Others theorize, and I’m in this camp, that the greatest display of power America could have chosen was to not blow up the moon. That way its nightly appearance sends a clear message to planet earth: “If the moon shines on your country, it’s because America wants it to.” And in perhaps the greatest example of propaganda in history, it also turned the moon into a symbol of the light of democracy shining on the dark and oppressed places of the earth. It is for this reason that we will henceforth refer to the moon by its Cold War title, the Light Orb of Democracy.

The Space Race gave Americans an enemy to overcome, which is, if we’re honest, the only time when America is truly great. But the Space Race has also done a lot of good for the world that is often overshadowed by the exorbitant price of sending men beyond the atmosphere. A great many modern inventions that we could not, or would prefer not, to live without would never have been discovered without the space program. The truth is, people aren’t willing to spend billions of dollars into researching life-improving technology unless it stirs up their hope and imagination. The space program provides just that, thus it enables the government to research important technology we otherwise would never discover. A new, far more powerful version of rechargeable batteries was created by Black & Decker for the drills and tools used by the Apollo Light Orb of Democracy mission, because you can’t run a power cord 239,000 miles from earth to the Light Orb of Democracy. That technology is now in use in countless items like cell phones and laptops. Pacemakers use satellite telemetry technology; the millions of dollars spent on satellites literally save lives now. It’s doubtful if we would have pacemakers without having launched satellites first. I could name several other examples, and perhaps in a later post I will. But try going a week without your cell phone or laptop, and imagine a world in which men and women with heart defects can’t get a second chance at life, and think about how the space program has improved our lives. That, my fellow citizens of earth, is a very awesome thing.

<Future Week, Part IV


[i]Their words. Not mine.

[ii] “Hey, Yuri, remember the time you guys sent a dog into space and it piddled in orbit? That was right around the time our monkey MoMo typed out the complete works of Shakespeare in zero gravity. Ah, the memories!”

[iii] In space exploration, opposable thumbs are practically a requirement, as is the ability to walk on one’s hind legs. Otherwise, how is an astronaut to do the heroic, slow-mo walk onto the launch pad and give the confident thumbs up before take off? That’s why using chimps was such a big deal. They’re the only ones besides us who can pull it off.

[iv] No, he didn’t. He lived on until 1983.

[v] I was speaking with an English friend of mine about this topic once, and he said, and I quote, “The sun may never set on the British Empire, but neither has the earth risen on it.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Future Week, Part IV: American Cheese

American cheese isn’t delicious, appetizing, or even cheese, for that matter. But oh, boy, is it American! American cheese isn’t just another post-industrial processed food-like product. It’s a microcosm for the determination, ingenuity and spirit of the American people. And that makes it awesome.

Americans don’t like to be told they can’t do things, especially by Europeans. For some reason, Americans seem to have this idea that Europeans have been “pushing us around” for eons. And that’s what the Revolution was all about: stopping King George III from pushing them around. In reality, the Revolution had more to do with Great Britain leaving America alone long enough to develop their own identity, so when the Crown started to reassert its own authority, everyone got angry about it. Regardless of the reasons for the Revolution, it happened, and Americans were determined from that point onward not to be pushed around by anybody.

Don't Tread on Me

Even the flag is the colour of American Cheese.

And pretty much every decision America has made as a nation since then has been to ensure that someone can’t push someone else around; and the culture as a whole is characterized by this confident defiance in the advertisements, movies, television, news, clothing, cars, professional sports, and food which seems to say, “don’t tell me what to do.” And nowhere is this more evident than in American cheese.

Europe makes better cheese than America. Everyone knows it. It’s something Europe won’t let America forget about. In fact, when you drive across the border to France the sign says, “Bienvenue en France. Mieux que l’Amérique du fromage!” which means, “Welcome to France. Better cheese than America!” Americans have never been too concerned about consuming high-quality cheeses the way Europeans do, anyway. Aging cheese is just too long a process for the typically convenience-driven American people. And besides, Americans only really want to use cheese for a few things, the most important being putting it on cheeseburgers.

And that’s where Europe decided to stick its cheese-loving nose into America’s business again and tell them what they can’t do. They said that you can’t put good cheese on a hamburger. And they were right. Good cheese tends to growshard and crumbly when aged, making it difficult to slice and stack on a hamburger. The protein and fat in cheese separate when melted, making a greasy, lumpy, unappetizing mess. Cheese also re-solidifies after a time, but never in the same appealing form it had when first used.

American Cheese

But the Americans were not to be put off. Rather than give up on the dream of a delicious cheeseburger, they rolled up their sleeves, dug in their heels, and did what America does best: they forced nature into compliance. They invented a new kind of cheese that slices and melts nicely on a cheeseburger, but isn’t technically a cheese at all. American cheese has cheese in it, and many of its ingredients are cheese-related items, making the result a cheese analogue that replicates many cheesy qualities while avoiding many of its drawbacks. American cheese is basically cheddar mixed with vegetable oil, whey, milk protein, milk fat, enzymes, chemicals and food colouring. Unlike real cheese, American cheese is able to be formed into any shape desired, including pre-packaged, sandwich-sized slices perfect for putting on cheeseburgers. American cheese doesn’t separate into fats and proteins like real cheeses often do, so what one gets when one melts American cheese is a smooth, evenly melted product with little mess. Once melted, American cheese never really re-solidifies. It always stays kind of melted, which is also great for putting on burgers. The cheese keeps the same consistency at the end of a meal that it had at the beginning.

American cheese might not sound that awesome. And, admittedly, on a purely culinary level, it isn’t. But cheeseburgers are delicious, and, while this awesome-compendicronologist prefers his burgers with real cheese, In-N-Out and Five Guys burgers just wouldn’t be the unspeakably delicious guilty pleasures they are without American cheese. The Food Quality section of the In-N-Out website even proudly proclaims, “Our American cheese is the real thing.” And who am I to argue with In-N-Out?

American cheese might not sound that futuristic either. But what it comes down to is this: America faced a problem – how to efficiently and deliciously melt cheese on burgers – and they solved it by defying the very laws of nature; using science to create a new form of cheese that never existed before; a cheese made in a lab that comes wrapped in sterile plastic sheets. That’s about as futuristic as things get. Besides, I’m pretty sure with the crazy shelf life American cheese has, and its unnatural properties, it will long outlast the human race, and any Zombie Apocalypse, Alien Invasion, or Nuclear Holocaust, to infinity and beyond.

<Future Week, Part III Future Week, Part V>

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Future Week, Part III: Airplanes

Two of the most futuristic inventions in the history of mankind are the microwave oven and the airplane. The microwave I’ve already discussed in a previous post, so I’ll just address the airplane here. You might be thinking to yourself that there are plenty of other, far more futuristic inventions than the airplane out there. Perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps you should be quiet and leave the awesome-compendation to the full-time awesome-compendents.[i]

There are a few universally accepted criteria for determining the futuricity of an invention. Many people think one criterion is whether or not an invention has a lower-case ‘i’ in front of its name. Surprisingly, the ‘i’ is not a mark of being futuristic. In the Future the ‘i’ is the electronic gadget equivalent of the McDonald’s “Mc,” making iPods the McNuggets of the Future. The real letter of the Future is ‘X.’ Pretty much anything worth anything in the Future has an ‘X’ in its name.[ii] Another criterion is how closely an item is associated with space. In fact, space is so influential in the Future that an item need only have the word “space” in its name to have real Future street cred, even if it has nothing to do with space at all. That’s how dang futuristic space is. Take space blankets, for example. They don’t have a whole lot to do with space, and they don’t make particularly comfy blankets, and yet everyone uses them in the Future, even aliens, and they come from space and should totally know better.

Space Blanket

The criterion for determining futuricity I wish to particularly highlight here is how much an invention would blow the minds of people 150 years in the past. This is perhaps the best measure of how futuristic something is. If it would make Victorian people scoff at you for “acting a right tomfool” and “uttering tommyrot” – that is, call you an idiot for saying ridiculous crap – then you know the thing you’re talking about is quite futuristic indeed.

It may come as a surprise, but I don’t think people would have been terribly shocked by the concept of things like mobile phones or television 150 years ago. The telephone was invented in that period, itself an improvement on long-distance communication technology already in existence, like the telegraph. It might seem like a stretch to the average person in the 1800s to imagine people communicating with pocket telephones with no wires, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Photographs also existed in that time period and the film projector was invented shortly thereafter. Contrary to popular movie gags of time-travelling people being completely unable to comprehend the idea of “how those people got in that box,” I don’t imagine a person from any time period in the last 500 years responding that way. Even before photographs, people had puppet shows and plays. They understood the concept of a written plot with fictional characters in a staged environment. Television is just the next logical step after photographs and film. I’m not saying it wouldn’t make a person from the 19th century marvel. It just wouldn’t seem utterly and unequivocally impossible, because it built on existing technology and artistic concepts.

Airplanes, however, are a different story. Everyone knows people can’t fly. And it’s not for a lack of trying either. Pretty much as long as people have been advanced enough to shake our fists at God for making us primates[iii], we’ve been trying to find a way to fly. The ancient Greeks have myths of people trying to craft wings and soar into the heavens. Leonardo da Vinci even came up with designs for the first airplane and helicopter all the way back in the 16th century. Countless people over thousands of years on pretty much every continent have tried to make artificial human flight possible, and until the 20th century, without exception, they have all failed. Miserably. Painfully. Sometimes fatally. So the idea of people getting into a machine and actually taking to the heavens isn’t just an unexpected development of existing technology like the mobile phone or television, it’s an all-out rebellion against millennia of established truth and common sense: people just can’t fly.

So if you went back in time 150 years and said, “By the time your grandchildren are your age, people will no longer travel by ship. Instead of going to seaports to travel by boats, people will go to ports – we call them “air ports” – to travel in sky boats – which we call “air planes.” These airplanes are long, shiny tubes of metal where people sit down in comfort and luxury, are served meals, and watch moving pictures contained within the seats in front of them. These metal tubes take to the sky, flying much higher than even the clouds, and within a day, or even a matter of hours, these airplanes can descend into another airport at any location in the world,” they would never believe you. And you know what? They shouldn’t believe you. Because it’s ridiculous. Even having grown up in the late 20th century and having flown more times than I can remember in my life, I hardly believe it.

The next time you have to fly, take a look around you. Look at the stark, geometrical, futuristic lines of the airport architecture, think about how sci-fi the name “airport” really is, think about how airports are just about the only place in the world where we stand on moving sidewalks like the Jetsons, ponder the reality of the fact that there are fleets of thousands of shining, flying machines that transport humans to the farthest reaches of planet earth every day, and try and convince yourself that isn’t one of the most futuristic things we’ve come up with yet. I dare you.

Seoul Airport Robot

A robot employee of the Seoul International Airport

< Future Week, Part II Future Week, Part IV>


[i] Please don’t go. I didn’t mean it.

[ii] Wait till Apple unveils the xPod. That thing is going to be too sweet for words. Just reading the name makes me as giddy as a schoolgirl.

[iii] And you have to be a primate to make a fist in the first place. Sadly, the irony was lost on us.

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