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Name: Rex Stetson
Occupation: Masked Avenger Type
Base of Operations: Washington, DC
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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before

I don't understand why the media is covering this so much. Big deal, China finally puts a man in space 42 years after the Soviet Union, 41 years after the US did it. What's next, transistor radios?? Color television? Touch-tone dialing? Actually, far worse- Rumor has it they are on the verge of developing a 500Mhz microprocessor!

I guess the theoretical "reason we should care" is that this supposedly heralds the arrival of China as a significant world player on par with the US or Russia or Europe, etc. Well, maybe that's news to the media. For years, theyve already had nuclear weapons, high-tech spy satellites, top-notch fighter planes- and everyone's known about it. The standard reaction was that these were backward folk ruling their people by ancient means, and pursing the still-trendy-in Asia Stalin/Sparta command economy. Which results in a pretty good military/industrial complex- but at the cost of economic decline and stagnation, high poverty, not to mention a less-than rosy human rights picture. True, the Chinese are slowly incorporating a form of capitalism into their socialism- so they're not quite as bad off as other practicioners of the Stalin/Spartan model- like North Korea. But the feeling among westerners up til now was that they really aren't a threat in anything other than a military capacity. And maybe to our Action films- but again, that was capitalist Hong Kong.

Well, I for one say that's still the way we should view China. Launching a guy into space is no big deal. The Soviet Union did 40 years ago- and they did it with an even more backward economy, 1950's-or-earlier technology, and they did it first- they invented manned Spaceflight!

The Russians also had the first space station, but if China puts one up, I'm sure the media will flip out about that too. If they went to the Moon, I could see that being noteworthy- the Russians never made it there. That's a much better benchmark. If they were smart, they'd skip everything else and go straight to Mars. Claim it as Chinese territory- It is the Red Planet, after all... then I'd be impressed!

I think it was Confucious who said "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". Maybe this launch is just a brief pitstop on the way to conquering Mars. Well all that "single step" talk sounds like a buncha Chinese hooey to me. American astronaut Neil Armstrong used the same "step" metaphor, calling the US Moon Landing "one small step" for the US, but a "giant leap" for all of mankind. That's the kind of casual, offhand modesty that only those boldly go where no man has gone before can generously toss around. The chinese have indeed made a "small step", but it's a giant leap 42 years backward for the rest of mankind! Still, by chinese standards, that's cutting edge: their economic system is leap about 75 years backward, their political system is a leap thousands of years backward...

Which reminds me, the Chinese invented Rocketry like, 4000 years ago.
It's guess good to see they've finally gotten a little ambitious finally about doing something with it- even if it's passe by Western, first-world, 21st Century standards. And to be fair, the rocket itself did look kinda cool, with a pinkish orange exhaust flame out the bottom- the cool retro "flash gordon movie serial" look wins them some points for style. But let's put this in a grand sweeping historical perspective: They had rocketry and gunpowder 4000 years ago, which is equivalent to, say, 17th Century Western military technology. And it took them what, 3900 years to figure out how to use it, after the west invented guns and bullets. What the West could have done with gunpowder 4000 years ago! While the Chinese were beginning their long domination of the fireworks industry, Alexander the Great was conquering the whole Middle East, the Mediterranean, North Africa, Egypt, and a lot more places with fucking swords... Swords! Try conquering that those areas today with even the most advanced military technology! You might be able to do it if you used nukes. Maybe.

Apart from the fireworks, the only other continuously Chinese-dominated field is the knockoff industry: today this is mostly Gucci handbags, but historically they have knocked off cheap copies of Western military technology: cannons, then guns, then fighter planes, nukes, and so on. I guess the same thing has happened with space travel now that they've made a knockoff Soyuz capsule (itself a knockoff Apollo). Or actually, years ago when the Chinese started putting up military satellites with their space rockets- back when they were knocking off Goddard and Oppenheimer. The Chinese are master knocker-offers, and they are reasonably quick studies if they perceive a military application. Which almost makes up for their near- total lack of technological innovation in the last 3000 years, tea and silk being the two sort-of-exceptions. I say sort of because they weren't so much of inventions as ways of making something moderately pleasant out of weeds and bugs that were laying around. Also Kung fu is pretty cool.

But what NEW stuff have they done lately?

I really doubt the Chinese will win any space race, assuming we were even racing into space anymore or breaking any new ground whatsoever, which we aren't. . Maybe this Chinese launch can inspire the US to get off their asses and back into Space where they belong. We can build a Mars coalition with the Europeans and the Russians and beat those Chinese to Mars, laughing all the way as we "accidentally on purpose" buzz their dinky one-man orbiter, covering it with space dust and fusion exhaust...

Posted by Rex @ 1:20 PM

Monday, October 13, 2003

Harley Earl, Haunt The Boys In Marketing!

There is a new series of GM car commercials airing these days, which feature the ghost of car designer Harley Earl (creator of the corvette) talking to today's designers, in an effort to inspire them to think "outside the box". At the end of the commercial they create a high-tech, though fairly standard-looking SUV. Hm. Still, I like the commercials, especially the one where Harley talks about how 50 years ago the world wasn't ready for the car he wanted to make then -but makes now. It shows Earl giving a press conference trying to promote GM's latest SUV to a bewildered public:
Harley: "This SUV has room for your laptop, GPS, DVD, Internet and Videogames, etc"... The reporters don't understand a word.... it's hilarious and clever.

It's a great campaign, designed to show that GM is embracing the spirit which made American cars great. I lke the campaign becasuse (perhaps unwittingly) it highlights the major problem facing detroit automakers today- the reason Harley Earl's restless spirit feels compelled to haunt the designers:

What is needed among American automakers is a return to the spirit of innovative design that made American cars the best- as in the days of Harley Earl.

And there are some great designs coming out of Detroit these days. GM's Hummer H2 is a powerful, heavy-duty SUV from Hell! it looks like it could drive through a brick wall and carry its passengers safely through. It might be able to. This past weekend I saw the single coolest vehicle I have ever seen, the Dodge Tomahawk. For those of you not familiar with the Tomahawk, I cannot recommend visiting this link strongly enough. It is the best thing to come out of Detroit in 10 years, if not longer.

Essentially, the Tomahawk is a motorcycle built around a V-10 Dodge Viper engine. Its top speed is theoretically a little under 400 mph. It goes from 0 to 60 in 2.5 seconds. It is sleek and industrial in design, and looks less like a motorcycle than a distillation of pure speed and power.

Of course, don't look for it in any showrooms. You won't be able to order it from Dodge dealers. Ever. You see, this is a "concept" vehicle, like the "concept" cars you see at car shows.

The "concept" car is a beautiful, but horrible concept. The concept car is generally a forward-thinking design- techinically and stylistically, that can captivate the audience with its beauty. But for some wierd reason, the Detroit automakers rarely, if ever, put these into production, preferring to sell us the same old crap. Showing off what they "really" are capable of with the cool concept cars ( that they never intend to sell us) thus adds insult to injury, rather than evoking admiration for their admittedly unparalleled designs.

Sure, there have been a few concept cars that have made it into limited production: the Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler, The Dodge Viper, even the PT Cruiser. But even chrysler, with its above-average track record of releasing their better concepts, has left so many great concept cars unavailable to the admiring public: the Chrysler Atlantic and Crossfire and Chronos andPhaeton spring immediately to mind.

Meanwhile, the visionary designers of the import cars put their ideas into production: the Audi TT, the VW MiniCooper, the Honda ModelX/Element, the Nissan Z, just to name a few. All of these cars are best-sellers! Americans love cool designs, but we have to turn to imports to get them!

Oh sure, there are a few good American designs out there, the newly relaunched Ford Thunderbird, for example. The new Mustang also shows off Detroit's design prowess a bit. But these two designs only succeed moderately, because they incoroprate retro styling- evoking the days of old, when American cars were the essence of cool: sleek, powerful, luxurious, sexy. Again, though, this has the opposite effect on the viewer than what detroit intends: instead of inspiring admiration, it evokes nostalgia and wistful remembrance of that time, and illustrates that Detroit has no new ideas whatsoever.

The saddest thing is, that it's simply not true! There are all sorts of edgy, cool, sexy cars designs out there- if they would only put them into production, instead of the same old crap! There is fantastic work being done by the detroit designers, that isn't all clever retro styling, some of it's even - gasp!- innovative! And the retro styling, when present, is of the retrofuturistic variety: it's the cars we always imagined we would drive in "the future" - come to life! Almost.
Take the most boring car on the road today: the Buick. Time was when the Buick was cool- sure it was always a big, luxury kinda car- but remember the cool Buick Roadmaster from the movie "Rain Man"? they don't make them like that anymore, do they? Well, they design them that cool, still. Check out the Buick Blackhawk Eight!

A car like this could make Buick Billion$! It would be the hottest carmaker in the world! But, NOOOOO!!

In all fairness, Chevrolet is apparently releasing their retro-styled pickup truck , the SSR, which is fairly cool-looking.

American automakers should be commended for these baby steps in the right direction: reimagine and redesign, and revive the classics- recall and reference the glory days. But what is needed is not so much retro styling, but retro thinking and retro marketing. Think like Harley Earl, or Carroll Shelby! Give us the futuristic power, speed, and style of an optimistic America- where the best days lie ahead! Give us a new Mustang or Thunderbird, but give us also NEW Vehicles with their heart and innovative design!

Draft their ghosts to play muse to the design teams, certainly- but what is desperately needed is to have them talk to the VPs of Marketing- haunt these guys into putting these beautiful concepts into production!! Then and only then can American designs recapture the greatness of old.

Posted by Rex @ 11:32 AM

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