Mechanical jokes and flat cats

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

I never read any of Heinlein’s “juveniles” while a juvenile, but I recently listened to the audiobook version of The Rolling Stones, which includes a rant about cars:

Despite their great sizes and tremendous power spaceships are surprisingly simple machines. Every technology goes through three stages: first a crudely simple and quite unsatisfactory gadget; second, an enormously complicated group of gadgets designed to overcome the short-comings of the original and achieving thereby somewhat satisfactory performance through extremely complex compromise; third, a final proper design therefrom.

In transportation the ox cart and the rowboat represent the first stage of technology.

The second stage may well be represented by the automobiles of the middle twentieth century just before the opening of interplanatery travel. These unbelievable museum pieces were fro their time fast, sleek and powerful — but inside their skins were assembled a preposterous collection of mechanical buffoonery. The prime mover for such a juggernaut might have rested in one’s lap; the rest of the mad assembly consisted of afterthoughts intended to correct the uncorrectable, to repair the original basic mistake in design — for automobiles and even the early aeroplanes were “powered” (if on may call it that) by “reciprocating engines.” A reciprocating engine was a collection of miniature heat engines using (in a basically inefficient cycle) a small percentage of an exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second. Much of the heat was intentionally thrown away into a “water jacket” or “cooling system,” then wasted into the atmosphere through a heat exchanger.

What little was left caused blocks of metal to thump foolishly back-and-forth (hence the name “reciprocating”) and thence through a linkage to cause a shaft and flywheel to spin around. The flywheel (believe it if you can) had no gyroscopic function; it was used to store kinetic energy in a futile attempt to cover up the sins of reciprocation. The shaft at long last caused the wheels to turn and thereby propelled this pile of junk over the countryside.

The prime mover was used only to accelerate and to overcome “friction” — a concept then in much wider engineering use. To decelerate, stop, or turn, the heroic human operator used his own muscle power, multiplied precariously through a series of levers.

Despite the name “automobile” these vehicles had no autocontrol circuits; control, such as it was, was exercised second by second for hours on end by a human being peering out through a small pane of dirty silica glass, and judging unassisted and often disastrously his own motion and those of other objects. In almost all cases the operator had no notion of the kinetic energy stored in his missile and could not have written the basic equation. Newton’s Laws of Motion were to him mysteries as profound as the meaning of the universe.

Nevertheless millions of these mechanical jokes swarmed over our home planet, dodging each other by inches or failing to dodge. None of them ever worked right; by their nature they could not work right; and they were constantly getting out of order. Their operators were usually mightily pleased when they worked at all. When they did not, which was every few hundred miles (hundred, not hundred thousand), they hired a member of a social class of arcane specialists to make inadequate and always expensive temporary repairs.

Despite their mad shortcomings, these “automobiles” were the most characteristic form of wealth and the most cherished possessions of their time. Three whole generations were slaves to them.

The book is also the source of the original tribble and its associated troubles:

The similarities to the flat cats and the some specific story events involving them was brought to the attention of the Star Trek staff when Desilu/Paramount’s primary in-house clearance group, Kellam de Forest Research, submitted a report on the script on August of 1967, noting the similarities of “a small, featureless, fluffy, purring animal, friendly and loving, that reproduces rapidly when fed, and nearly engulfs a spaceship”. So worrisome was this matter that the producers contacted Heinlein and asked for a waiver, which Heinlein granted. In his authorized biography Heinlein said he was called by producer Gene Coon about the issue and agreed to waive claim to the “similarity” to his flat cats because he’d just been through one plagiarism lawsuit and did not wish to embroil himself in another. He had misgivings upon seeing the actual script but let it go, an action he later regretted.


  1. Kentucky Headhunter says:

    The Rolling Stones is one of the more disappointing Heinlein juveniles, along with Space Cadet. If The Rolling Stones hasn’t put you off completely, try Tunnel In The Sky or Farmer In The Sky.

  2. Mike in Boston says:

    De gustibus non est disputandum. I remember liking Kentucky Headhunter’s two rather less than Have Space Suit, Will Travel and Citizen of the Galaxy. Then again, I was in fifth grade at the time.

    I can’t believe that so many Heinlein juveniles are out of print. Heinlein may be a Politically Incorrect Dead White Man, but I would be surprised if the books didn’t still sell rather well.

  3. Kentucky Headhunter says:

    I enjoyed “Citizen” as well; it’s better than “Farmer” but I think “Tunnel” has the best main character arc. I’ve read several in the few years looking for good reads for my younger boys.

    Looking forward to passing on The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers in another few years.

  4. Neovictorian says:

    I remember laughing out loud as a 12-year-old when I read that passage about the automobile. “The heroic human operator” indeed.

    I’m a self-admitted huge Heinlein fan, and I don’t think any of his books are not at least very, very good, but of the juveniles I think Red Planet is my favorite.

  5. Kirk says:

    Well, he wasn’t wrong… If you were to try to bring the car into common use today, in the environment we have, well… Can you imagine the insanity that the bureaucracy would bring into it? Hell, historically, there were requirements in place for an automobile driver to have someone walking in front of their car waving a red lantern, like it was some sort of siege engine come to destroy the town.

    It’s like aspirin–A doctor familiar with medical testing once told me that if you were to try to bring aspirin on the market in today’s regulatory environment, you’d never be able to do it. Too many “risk factors”; the FDA would never allow it. Plus, we’re really not too damn sure how aspirin even works, to this day. Safer to just not allow it…

    Which is one reason I seriously doubt that anyone will ever get flying cars off the ground, in large numbers. The FAA simply won’t allow it, and it will be adopted, if at all, in some country that’s still delightfully unregulated.

  6. David Foster says:

    “Well, he wasn’t wrong… If you were to try to bring the car into common use today, in the environment we have, well…”

    Imagine in you tried to bring *electricity* into common use in today’s political climate. Edison would have gotten away with his sleazy fear-based campaign against AC, and no would could get electricity unless they lived within 3 or so miles of a generating plant.

  7. Kirk says:

    I can’t remember where I read it, but there’s an essay or research paper out there that goes over the factors that go into a society’s ability to adapt and change over its lifespan (and, societies have them, just like any other organism…), describing the process by which things ossify and become “fixed”. It was an interesting read, and I really wish I could remember more about it–The author pulled in a bunch of stuff ranging from the Venetian Republic to the Industrial Revolution, and made some really good cases for the parallels and syndromes that overtake societies.

    I think there are some good questions to be asked here, and when you look at things like Apple, where Steve Jobs formed the company, got thrown out of its governance, and then was brought back to figurehead its renaissance… Well, you start to see some interesting things about the people who are involved in these things.

    A parallel I’ve noted from my military service is that there are some interesting factors that go into this–A case in point that I’m personally somewhat knowledgeable of is the Engineer School’s (nee Center…) Sapper Leader Course. Originally, that course was designed to serve as a means of bringing junior Engineer leaders up to Light Division leadership standards, due to the Ranger School not having enough slots or interest in providing Engineer leaders with that sort of training–Which was absolutely required for the Light Division to work. Sooo… The Engineer School handed off a mandate to a bunch of folks that they needed to come up with a training course that would enable the cadre for the Light Division Engineer Battalions to at least meet the minimal standards for the Division. This was met, and the early days of the Sapper Leader Course saw some pretty intense training, because the initial cadre were a bunch of semi-outcasts and misfits with the “program”. Those guys did a lot of good things, because they were allowed the room to do it, and because they were dedicated men with clear vision of what they wanted to do. The career-minded folks? They all wanted nothing to do with the program, ‘cos… Hard work, and they didn’t see it as being “good for their careers”, and was risky, to boot–They might not make it through the Ranger School prerequisite training, and that whole SERE School requirement was scary, as was the Airborne thing.

    So, flash forward a few years, and the guys who started the place were successful, and were ready to move on to bigger and better things. All of a sudden, the Sapper Leader Course cadre slot wasn’t seen as a risk, and was “good for the career”, aaaand… The careerists took over, colonizing the place. They eventually ran it into the ground, and then the usual sine wave of excellence started happening–One set of cadre would come in, screw the place up, and then the leadership of the Engineer School would go “Oh, my God… We gotta fix that place!!”, and send in good men with a mandate to un-f**k the situation.

    It’s a friggin’ life-cycle, once you start to recognize the whole thing. You see similar syndromes down at the micro-level in military units, with regards to things like the Arms Room in a company. Usual cycle there is that a commander comes in, takes over, and then comes to a realization that “Holy f**k-nozzles, my Arms Room is f**ked-up…”. This sometimes happens because the previous commander got relieved due to Arms Room issues, but not always… It’s usually neglect. So, the commander recognizes he has a problem, and then fixes it via assigning a Really Good Soldier(TM) to the Arms Room, and closely supervising them, giving them plenty of support. The Arms Room is thus eventually fixed, and goes on to demonstrate excellence in management under that specific commander. Follow-on commander? The Arms Room isn’t an issue for him, so a policy of benign neglect and ignorance follows, which over a succession of a couple of commanders, results in the Arms Room becoming a disaster area again. Thus, the “Sine Wave of Excellence” syndrome I refer to–You can see this same thing take place across society in governance, schools, and commercial life.

    The rate of innovation in a society is somewhat connected to this, because the progression is similar. Main difference is that as a new technology or commercial practice comes into use, it’s usually covering fallow ground, and the original innovator can quite literally get away with murder. The Internet is like that, and by virtue of the fact that the founders like Google have abused their resultant power, we’re going to see trust-busting come in and break them up over the ideological BS they’re pulling. Monopoly issues don’t come into play just over economic factors–You have in our society a demonstrated problem with intellectual monopoly as well, when you see that 90% of political donations in the academy and some highly influential tech companies are going to one ideological side and political party. Action will have to be taken, and it will be interesting to see what works out.

  8. Sam J. says:

    Kirk says,”I can’t remember where I read it, but there’s an essay or research paper out there that goes over the factors that go into a society’s ability to adapt and change over its lifespan…”

    Could this be it?

    William Playfair,”Inquiry Into The Causes Of The Decline Of Powerful Nations”

    I wonder if I read that. I would sure like to I have interest in these sort of things.

  9. Kirk says:

    That’s not it. The one I’m trying to remember was written sometime after the 1960s, because one of the examples it used was the failure of the war in Vietnam.

    I’m thinking it was a doctoral thesis or something that I picked up from one of my bosses who was an instructor in military history at West Point. It was a hell of an interesting read, because it pulled in stuff from the Venetian arsenal system and made connections between that and the rate of innovation in Venetian commercial shipbuilding that didn’t take advantage of the things done in the arsenals.

    Come to think of it, it may have been a doctoral thesis for the Naval Post-Graduate School down in California, because that’s where he’d gone for his post-grad work. It wasn’t his, but it was something he’d grabbed a copy of while he was there, if I’m remembering right. I don’t think it made it into commercial print, but I think it damn well should have.

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