Friday Free-for-All #66: Invention, app, legal, historic

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What was the best invention of the last 50 years?

First of all, it’s really bizarre to realize that 50 years ago it was 1971, which just seems so modern day and yet — in 1971, the year 1921 must have seemed ridiculously distant. And humankind saw so many earthshattering inventions in those fifty years that it would be hard to pick one from that group.

Jet airplanes? Nuclear bombs and energy? The pacemaker or artificial heart? Television? It’s a long, long list, and things you might think were relatively new in 1971 weren’t.

Solar panels and fax machines? Oh, wait, no — those were both invented in the late 19th century, believe it or not and, oddly enough, about fifty years apart, with the fax coming first.

The pace of development continued to explode after 1971, and we’ve basically seen a constant stream of invention ever since, a lot of it driven by or connected to the internet — but I’m not going to call that the greatest invention, even though its official birthday is January 1, 1983, well within our timeframe.

No, I think the internet was just the precursor to and enabler of the invention I have in mind, but there are some honorable mentions.

Far too many come from the field of medicine and biotechnology, with mRNA vaccines, GMO food production, and CRISPR providing amazing benefits — and yes, I said benefits. If any of those three things scares you, go educate yourself. None of them does anything that nature doesn’t already do.

Speaking of genetics, though, another great invention, or at least innovation, is the ability now of cheap DNA testing for consumers that we can do on ourselves or our pets. What once would have cost thousands of dollars and taken months to carry out can be done in a few weeks and, depending on how much and what you test, can be had for less than a hundred dollars.

Almost every industry has been revolutionized by advances in technology, from retail sales to restaurants to logistics and beyond. Film and TV production, in particular, have made huge strides in computer assisted (and created) images.

One standout recent example is Lucasfilms’ latest efforts with what they call The Volume, which is a 360-degree wrap-around high definition LED screen that can basically create digital backgrounds in real time without the need for greenscreens. It’s how the Disney+ series The Mandalorian has been shot, for example.

Bonus points: When working in The Volume, actors don’t have to imagine what’s around them. They’re seeing it live.

But, anyway, my nomination for the best invention of the last fifty years is quite possibly the one you’re reading this on right now: The Smartphone, which basically debuted in 1992 as IBM’s Simon, although the term “smartphone” wasn’t coined until three years later.

Basically, it combined a portable phone with a personal digital assistant (PDA), which was your contacts, calendar, and email device. It had a 4.5” x 1.4” portrait mode LCD touchscreen (stylus only), and cost the equivalent of $1,435 at the time, plus monthly service contract.

It never really caught on, but electronic PDAs and cellphones both took off from there, but it wasn’t until the late mid-00s that real smart phones came onto the market, with Apple’s iPhone debuting in late June 2007, and the first Android phone, the HTC Dream, following in September 2008,

To say that both of them ran laps around the Simon is an understatement. What they basically did was to take the functions of a ton of devices, squash them into one, and fit them in your pocket. Telephone, computer, camera, video camera, music player, calendar, calculator, alarm clock, GPS, and more.

Sure, our old flip-phones did some of that, but more slowly and at much lower resolution, and they were hardly internet ready.

In a sense, we’re really carrying The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy with us, plus what’s essentially the compendium of all human knowledge. And games. Oh so many fucking stupid games.

Which app seemed like magic the first time you used it?

I’m not sure the name of it at the time, but it was Google’s star map, which I actually saw someone else use on their smartphone at a party in the hills above Malibu — where it’s actually dark enough, because you’re facing the ocean, to be able to actually see the starts in the sky.

Anyway, I think that someone has asked where a particular constellation was, and she pulled out her phone, did some slides and taps, then held it up and voilà. The app outlined the constellation and indicated when the phone was pointing at it.

And there I was with the second version of a non-smart phone that I thought was so amazing because it had a slide-out keyboard to accommodate my huge fingers.

This use of the technology amazed me so much that not long after I took the plunge and upgraded to my first smartphone, and I’ve never looked back.

Come to think of it, I still have the same smartphone, but don’t judge me! I like to run my tech into the ground, and the only reason I finally upgraded my computer this year was because the old one finally decided to stop booting at all. That one’s hard drive, however, is now connected to the new machine and my other external hard drive, meaning that I’ve suddenly got three terabytes of storage going on.

That’s a lot — but not as much as it used to be.

What’s legal now, but probably won’t be in 25 years?

I’ll keep this to the U.S., but the big trend seems to be tobacco, and possibly vaping. In 1971, it was apparently pretty much legal to smoke anywhere — in theaters, restaurants, grocery stores, on airplanes, probably even in your doctor’s waiting room.

In the 1980s, that started to change, with smoking originally banned in workplaces and elevators, and it eventually expanded, depending on state, to cover most any indoor spaces. Fun fact: Restaurants used to have “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections. However, they didn’t do a whole lot to separate the airspace between them. Oh well.

Another fun fact: When I had reason to go to Dallas several times in the mid-90s, it always blew my California mind to enter a restaurant and have the host ask, “Smoking or non?”

Of course, I quit this gross, disgusting, and deadly habit almost five years ago and haven’t looked back — if you do smoke, stop! If you don’t, never start. But all the while, and particularly in this century, the habit has become more marginalized, at least in the wealthier, more urbanized states.

In California, smoking is banned in a lot of public places, like parks, as well as within 25 feet of doors and windows of commercial and residential buildings. It’s also become a lot more common for apartment complexes to not allow smoking anywhere on their grounds, although when they made the changes, they had to grandfather in anyone who was already a smoker.

Another method that’s been used to lower the smoking rate is increasing the taxes on cigarettes, and I can tell you that had I kept up the pack a day habit I used to have, smoking would have cost me more a month than my health insurance does now.

Of course, New York has California beat. The base price for a pack of cigarettes here is $8.31. In New York, it’s $10.47. The cheapest state, by the way, is Missouri, at $4.91 a pack.

In California and elsewhere, the current big push is to ban vape flavors because — surprise, surprise — tobacco companies have been subtly marketing them to children. And the astroturf campaign against this is really ridiculous.

So, yeah. By 2046, or earlier, I’d love to see all tobacco products banned, or for a ban to be redundant because there was suddenly no market for them a lot sooner than that.

What was the most historic thing you witnessed in person or took part in?

That night when Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre… Oh, wait, no. That wasn’t me. It was definitely the day, back in 2012, when the Space Shuttle Endeavour was flown to Los Angeles to take up its permanent home at the Museum of Science and Technology near USC, just south of downtown.

All over the city, everyone came out into the streets to look to the skies, and it was an unforgettable, breathtaking experience.

At the time, I worked in the Valley in a very odd complex that we used to refer to as The Bouncy Castle. The great part about it was that it was very easy to get up onto the roof of the back building, and from there we had a 360-degree view.

Now, there had been kind of a vague schedule of the flyover posted online, but nothing definite, so we wound up spending a long time up there waiting for nothing. However, thanks to our smartphones, we were able to watch live news broadcasts announcing the progress.

And, eventually, it paid off, as the 747 carrying the Shuttle suddenly appeared, following the crest of mountains between the Valley and the L.A. Basin, following the ridge traced out by Mulholland Drive. It did a nice, fairly slow flyover, becoming visible probably somewhere over Tarzana in the northwest and continuing on to turn over Griffith Observatory to the northeast.

However, contrary to the published flight plan, it proceeded to fly back to the west after the turn and repeat the trip, so we all got to see it twice.

And there were people everywhere — on top of adjacent buildings, in the street, you name it. What I didn’t know was that it was quite possible that someone I would meet a couple of years later was actually in the crowd on the street because, at the time, he lived right down the block from that office, although before he worked for the company, which is where I met him, in a different building in a different zip code.

That would be Peter Bean, whom you’ve met here before, and he has an even better Endeavour story, because he was also able to go watch as it was slowly towed from its landing site to its final destination — an epic journey that took three days and three nights.

Now, to be sure, I’ve certainly witnessed lots of historical moments in my life, but those have been second-hand, via the media. This one was live and in person and it was incredible.

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.