Bye, Bye, Blackbird

I watched the most fascinating hour on The History Channel (one of my favorite stops on the dial) very early last Saturday morning.

And I ended up in awe.

And pissed.

Really, really, really pissed.

And sad, too.

It was the story of the “Blackbird”, the United States’ revolutionary, amazing, mind-boggling feat of engineering – the SR-71 reconnaissance (spy) plane that debuted in the early 1960’s.

She’s a sexy beast, ain’t she?

It flew at speeds greater than mach 3, and at altitudes reaching 80,000 feet.

And it was the brainchild of the amazing Kelly Johnson, just a kid from Ishpeming (don’t you just love that name?) Michigan, who took many challenges on, and is probably best known for his Blackbird.  

With slide rules, protractors, lots of pencils and many erasers, Mr. Johnson and his team set about meeting the challenge of creating an aircraft that left virtually no radar ‘footprint’ and could fly so fast that by the time a SAM (surface-to-air-missile) was loaded and launched the airplane was already way past the target area. The Blackbird could gather recon images so amazingly clear that individual license plates on vehicle were easily read….from 80,000 feet at over 1,000 miles per hour

Let that soak in for a minute.

I could go into the details of the SR-71, but that’s not what this rant is about.

I wanna know, dammit, where the hell are all the geniuses?  The people who could go out into the wilderness with a pocket knife and build a shopping mall, or sit at a conference table with other geniuses and design an over-the-top spy plane.

Those types.


That’s what I kept thinking as I watched the special.

Where are all the smart people?

Granted, there are some and innovations are still being made.

But, it seems nowadays they’re geared towards the individual and less for the greater good.

The iPhone 5 was just announced, and so what?  Will it make us safer?  Will it take pictures at 80,000 feet, traveling at over 1,000 miles per hour?

No, it’ll just make Angry Birds work faster on a larger screen.

Tesla, Edison, Einstein, Shelby, Wright, Carrier, Ford, Goddard, Sikorsky, and Cousteau – to name a few – were all brilliant minds of the 20th century and they gave us everything from practical applications of electricity to the first scuba gear.

In the 21st century?  We have a birth control patch, the glorified scooter called a ‘Segway’ – remember that hype? – and a log for your fireplace made from coffee grounds.

You see how we’ve gone from greater good to individual gratification?

What has happened to us?

And by ‘us’ I mean collectively, as a race, what has happened to humans? 

Are we lazy? Complacent? Self-centered?

I submit we are all of the above.

We can’t turn back the clock, but if we could I’d outlaw the personal computer.

It’s a pet peeve of mine, and even as I use one every day I’ll take a good book or a History Channel documentary on an amazing airplane, over the automated machine that is useful as a tool and Lord, please save me from the day it ever becomes my master.

And, yes, the irony that I’m a self-centered blogger bent on sharing my every thought with the world via a personal computer is not lost on me for a moment.

I said I use the tools, I didn’t say I liked using them.

I’d also like to believe there are smart people out there, who never read a blog and instead are wondering around the wilderness, pocketknife in hand, scouting a good place to build a shopping mall.

Posted on September 18, 2012, in In All Seriousness, Things That Annoy, Things That Will Piss You Off and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Oh, sauce, the PC isnt to blame for this. I’ve talked to friends about this before. We should be smarter than we have been at any time in the last. We have more information available at our fingertips than we could ever get at the local public library, in an instant, and with Google to find it for us. And as a society, we are smarter. We live longer, few of us die in childbirth or from infectious diseases.

    But then, we have this tendency to romanticize stupidity. We watch Jersey Shore and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, and when a politician says that “smart people” will never be on his side, his audience cheers him on.

    The PC isn’t to blame. We are to blame. We have institutionalized disdain for both education and intelligent people. We should be ashamed.

    • Warning: Science rant ahead.

      DDM hit it pretty square on. We have have a mini-downturn in scientific progress due to a resurgence that reviles new thought and the old fears of things that are new or different. Too much of what we’re trying to accomplish in the science world is conflicting with the old-ways, and being rejected by the populous. Not nearly as bad as the dark ages where scientists were hunted as witches and whatnot, but still we’ve slowed down quite a bit. It happens every few decades or so. Science is vilified by the public mind, money stops flowing to new inventors, and the idea that the old days were simple and glorious stalls the progression of anything new. Basically we have to wait for the social progress to catch up with where science is, and that can be a bit of a wait at times. We need more education, better science awareness, and more people breaking the mold. We’re not very good at those things right now, unfortunately.

      A good example of this was the panic involving the Large Hadron Collider. Even though it was entirely safe, it got tons of bad press because somebody fallaciously made up the rumor that it could destroy the planet/universe/whatever. The rumor spread like wildfire and a project that would (and is) producing significant test data on quantum physics, particle physics, and string theory that will take several years to fully appreciate. Yet, the great glut of the populous feared and hated the project. A device that could take us to the next level of physics understanding was the focus of a witch-hunt that continues to go strong today. Such is how we slow our own progress.

      Even so, we continue to move forward. Part of the reason we don’t see the inventions today is that hindsight of revolutionary technology is delayed about 30 years. We’re just now starting to realize how amazing and critical the development of computers was to science as a whole. In another 10, we may see the original feats of portable media being astounding. But at the time they were relatively unknown or thought to the toys of scientists that nobody really needed to bother themselves with.

      But there’s more going on right now too, even with the slowdown. In fact, we’re rapidly approaching the very first set of cold fusion generators, a technology that will be absolutely groundbreaking since it’ll produce large amounts of clean energy, effectively solving our looming energy crisis. A working fusion generator would be the single greatest accomplishment of the last 100 years, and yet few people realize just how close we are to seeing it become a reality. The first prototype is slated to begin testing sometime in the next 5 years (called a shockwave fusion generator):

      Actually, it’s probably a good thing that people don’t realize how close we are to fusion power generators because they’re likely to react the same way as they did with the Large Hadron Collider.

      Similarly the field of robotics is exploding right now. We’ve started building robots that can learn and adapt, the precursors to artificial intelligence (though we have a long, long way to go before AI is really “a thing”). Yet AI is another science that is feared and reviled. As are many of the biological sciences. It’s hard to come up with new ideas when a lot of people are standing around telling you to stop thinking new ones up.

      On the biology front we’ve now created the first bacteria colonies that can convert light directly into electricity. With more research, it’s quite possible that we could create bacterial solar cells that produce energy at far greater efficiency than any solar cell on the market today. This could make solar energy a viable low-cost, high-yield source of power and lead to other biological energy devices, such as bio-batteries.

      It’s not that we’ve stopped inventing, but it’s that the critical inventors are rarely appreciated and seen while they’re alive. For instance one of the great inventors of our time is James Dyson, but few have ever heard of him. His inventions and forays into theoretical technologies have started a few breakthroughs in the past 40 years, but most people can only list him as being the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner (though ground-breaking in it’s own right), if they even know that.

      In this way, inventors are really like artists. Rarely appreciated while they’re alive, but the recognition will eventually come and their names will be remembered for the contributions we trivialize or fear today.


  2. ahem… “few” should be “fewer.” That’s iPad for ya.


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