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Pournelle Interview (from long ago) 
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
If you carry this too far, you fall into what I long ago termed teslaism... the tendency to attribute the slightest obscure note, scribble or utterance by your hero as "the real invention of" something.

There is a long, long road between a brief description - or even a detailed external description - of something and the effort and insight it takes to make something real and functional. The massive stacks of sf around us are filled with inventions and ideas thought up by someone with no more engineering skill than being able to type. That doesn't make them inventors.

Or, more succinctly: Every junior high kid in the world can draw a really cool ftl starship. The smartest people on the planet can't build one. When Steve Hawking IV manages to build one, it doesn't make Willie Boogington (Eisenhower Middle School, class of '53) the inventor... or Spielberg, or Roddenberry, or Heinlein.


Sat Apr 21, 2012 6:40 am
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
You're right, Jim. Saying Pournelle "invented" the pad was a poor choice of words. What I meant was what I said in my previous post, that he was presenting the idea in a public forum where it likely had not been seen before. It was new to the TV audience even though it was not a new idea to the science fiction reading audience.

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Sat Apr 21, 2012 10:01 am
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
This is actually something worthy of in-depth discussion... if not here I'm sure Facebook could handle it :-)

Let's leave "inventing" out of it; that's a red herring. Let's talk about envisioning. I think we can stipulate that just because Jules Verne didn't provide blueprints for a submarine or H.G. Wells a time accelerator, that they weren't spectacular visionaries (recall that Wells was a hero of Heinlein's). The ability "merely" to see things that most others don't has merit.

Thats not necessarily related to futurism. Wells wasn't claiming that invisibility was possible, just that it would be cool to imagine what would happen if it were. Ditto for Heinlein and air cars. Yet every time one of these guys scores a goal we figure they were being prescient rather than lucky. If you sling enough mud at the wall of future possibilities, some of it will stick.

Complicating it again (I think this is on the third hand by now) is the fact that these authors *did* engage in prognostication at times. You can't tell me that Heinlein wasn't taking his best shot when he came up with Drafting Dan, or the waterbed. I think it's a continuum; all their speculation had some proportion of deliberate prediction and deliberate fantasy. Hell, Tom Clancy is the same way. A book about Japan declaring war on the United States in present day is fantasy, no? He clearly wanted to tell that story and looked for the way he could tweak current affairs just enough to get him there.

On yet another hand, famous futurists get an undeserved free ride in much of their credit. I've lost count of the number of times some talk show darling got fawned over for making some profound statement I came up with independently years before they did, yet they're credited with inventing it. They just have a louder platform. But heck (how many hands?), having a platform counts for something too; if a prediction falls in the forest with no one to hear it, does it matter?

Hand waving aside, original thinking counts. Wells and Verne stood head and shoulders over even the Industrial Revolutionaries, even if we were never invaded by Mars or went to the center of the Earth. Maybe a few other people had similar thoughts but the vast majority didn't. Bush's Memex was original thinking for its time and even though we can look back with comfy hindsight and say "Meh," he was doing exceptional thinking. It doesn't matter whether it contained blueprints. No, you can't build an iPad from it; I was just posting that link to tweak the previous posters. But visions have value in inspiring people who *do* go and draw blueprints. Countless NASA engineers are there because of Star Trek. Many of the private rocketry folks are self-admitedly in their profession because of Heinlein. Without that kind of inspiration we'd have a lot fewer iPads and other inventions.

What I wrote above is darn close to a null program, of course. But it would be interesting if we could enumerate useful criteria for judging the type and value of original visionary thinking.


Sat Apr 21, 2012 5:34 pm
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
Incidentally, Tesla did invent a lot of damn cool stuff. He had the misfortune of being a geek who got bullied and blindsided by Edison, who rewrote history to suit himself.


Sat Apr 21, 2012 5:58 pm
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
There's no question that Tesla was a particular sort of genius and invented at least two or three key technologies that helped build the 20th century, the mastery of AC power among them.

But beyond that, he was rather limited in his accomplishments. He invented or conceived little of consequence (and nothing that worked) past about age 30 (approximately... IIRC), typical for innovators in physics and developmental engineering. He spent decades on nonsense like transmitted power, basing his ideas on speculative theory that has proven to be somewhere between fantasy and idiocy. He spent his last 25-30 years telling everyone about the monumental discoveries he had made, none of which ever came to anything. His last years were spent nattering about death rays and superweapons, trying to get the attention of the War Department before he died in 1942, broke and feeding the pigeons in NYC.

The reason he has become such a cult figure and so massively overinflated in popular imagination is Margaret Cheney's biography, which was something more suited to a Hollywood figure (and written entirely as if from publicity office statements) than a sober life of a scientific figure. Maybe the Barnumesque autobiographies of hucksters such as Walford Bodie and H.H. Holmes are better comparisons. She's the one who set off this notion that every faint squiggle in Tesla's papers represents the "real" invention of some similar concept later created and worked through to practicality by someone else. Cheney goes positively breathless and purple in almost every chapter, repeating hokum as if it were biographical gospel.

It's all nonsense. Tesla was a great figure in a narrow sense, like many of his time and before it, and is due respect and a place in the pantheon for his accomplishments. But for the majority of his life, he was a misguided, deluded, seriously obsessive-compulsive nut. Had he not been cheated of his Westinghouse royalties, he simply would have been a wealthy nut.

The notion that Edison steamrollered him is about 10% fact (it happens in every competitive arena) and 90% Cheney.

Example: He never accepted atomic theory. Vehemently so. The scientific world was wrong and he was right. (See: any number of perpetual-motion and free-energy types in the 80 years since.)

Example: His "transmitted power" theory did not rely on power input to the transmitter, but that if the system "plucked the strings of earth power" the harmonic resonance could be tapped at a distance.

Example: Cheney and others indulgingly smile at his later-life habit of compulsively computing the cubic volume of his food intake. They leave out his compulsive computing of the opposing bodily functions.

Which is why I coined (AFAIK) the term teslaism - which applies in full to attributing inventions to some person who made a black-box, fantasy-tech, boy-I-wish sketch of some item later truly invented by someone else.


Sun Apr 22, 2012 7:34 am
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
Back to the discussion, though, I'm not sure that there is all that much value in, say, golden age prognostications as they relate to later inventions. For every one that is a sober attempt at futurism, there are a thousand that are much closer to being story or gee-whiz gimmicks.

When Asimov wanted Hari Seldon to have something cooler than a giant Marchant mechanical calculator, it takes no more than five minutes of staring out the window and five more minutes of typing to "invent" a hand-held, belt-slung, touch-screen calculator that could handle the extraordinary calculus of psychohistory.

It took more than twenty years to get a hand-held 4-function calculator, and nearly fifty to get to something like what he described (and gosh, it plays Angry Birds, too!) I can't see that his description or any similar ones led to the real invention (series of inventions) except in the vaguest way, and I can't see that his fictional whomp-up constitutes the "real" invention of the device.

Put very succinctly, most "concept inventions" are simplistic, shallow and obvious - either obvious as a function of evolving technology, or obvious as something that would be very desirable to have in a "if Best Buy sold it, I'd go buy it" sense. The only ones that deserve credit are where the prognosticator put together nonobvious ideas to create a concept beyond the obvious AND outlines the exact technologies that will be needed to make it work... the equivalent of an engineering development sketch.

If it seems like I am being harsh and bitter about this, I am. As with the dreamy-eyed spaceflight discussions, I am bone-weary of cloistered religious discussions shorn of any connection to reality. Spending too much time preaching to the other choir members about the wonderfulness of How Things Should Be leads to half-assed efforts the rest of the world does not understand - the pointless ejaculation of Apollo, the K-Mart accomplishment with Nordstrom price tags of the shuttle, and now the way-off-target, realized-way-too-late, the-proles-were-right spectacularly expensive waste of space - to use the precise phrase - of the ISS.

I was supposed to be vacationing on Mars by now. It was within our national/global grasp 50 years ago. That I might soon be able to exhaust a good portion of my personal wealth to hop past the 100km line for a few minutes is just a tad disappointing... and I lay the blame at the feet of those who could talk a good game but not truly see the future.

So whether it's past history (Tesla and rocketships) or present (a manned spaceflight program that has accomplished nothing of consequence) or future (most alternative energy proposals, or ten thousand other things)... I don't really want to huddle in the choir room and sing paeans of wonderfulness any more.


Sun Apr 22, 2012 7:58 am
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
JamesGifford wrote:
So whether it's past history (Tesla and rocketships) or present (a manned spaceflight program that has accomplished nothing of consequence) or future (most alternative energy proposals, or ten thousand other things)... I don't really want to huddle in the choir room and sing paeans of wonderfulness any more.


Oh I'm with you on that. Only the advances in information technology have matched the breathless extrapolations of the fifties and sixties. Materials science, energy storage, propulsion, power transmission - all suck. Fusion is still as far away from break-even as it ever has been. Solar cells are as inefficient as they were 30 years ago, and nanotechnology is still a pipe dream (although I am not in a huge hurry to find out whether we solve the gray goo problem). Disney's Futureland went from being the roadmap of our destiny to a cruel hoax, and they had to reimagineer it as a retro view of what the Victorians thought the future was going to be. The irony is industrial strength.

My hat is doffed to those visionaries who keep swinging the pick no matter what. The Leik Myrabos, the Mollers (of the Moller air car), the Michael Laines, the Peter Diamandii - I would erect a thousand monuments to them but none would be as grand as the legacies they have already left us. Better to light a candle, etc.


Sun Apr 22, 2012 10:52 am
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
PeterScott wrote:
...the Mollers (of the Moller air car)...

You pushed that button on purpose, didn't you?

The only reason Paul Moller isn't a fraudster is because he is honestly deluded.


Sun Apr 22, 2012 11:07 am
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
JamesGifford wrote:
PeterScott wrote:
...the Mollers (of the Moller air car)...

You pushed that button on purpose, didn't you?

The only reason Paul Moller isn't a fraudster is because he is honestly deluded.
Perhaps "the Molt Taylors" would have been more apt.

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Sun Apr 22, 2012 9:38 pm
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Post Re: Pournelle Interview (from long ago)
beamjockey wrote:
Perhaps "the Molt Taylors" would have been more apt.

No, no. Most airplane/car hybrids (and there have been MANY, the peak coming in the late 1950s - I find it hilarious that the press fell for M-T's "first of its kind" claim) actually, you know... flew. That they are lousy cars and lousier airplanes (sometimes vice versa) and exceeding impractical is neither here nor there.

There has never been a working example of a Moller AirCar (any model) in 40+ years. His demo flights consist of 'flying' the current model around on a long cable attached to a 100' boom crane, like a carnival ride. Which is what his investors (many) get taken for. Moller can apparently talk all four legs off a donkey and then get it to take him for a gallop.

Moller was in my California back yard. I used to work within spitting distance of his facility; I walked under the shadow of the boom crane going to my car most evenings. One of my bosses/company owner was an investor. That was an amusing coincidence, coming long after my interest began from reading PopSci etc. from the mid-1960s forward. He and his vehicles have been something of a fascination most of my life, but I was only gullible about them until I was 15 or so and doped out the unsolvable problems.

Moller himself is honest, just deluded. The AirCar is somewhere between ftl-grade fantasy and Lamborghini supercar/deep submersible hybrid impracticality, and can never be anything else. Only one of its five critical flaws has been fixed in nearly 50 years; the others are not fixable. One, in fact, has gotten much worse.


Mon Apr 23, 2012 9:11 am
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