Letter to the Editor

To the editor:

Some issues back, Andrew Wasson spent a lot of time figuring out who designed Pizza Hut’s iconic roof, and why. Other than the fine story of the restaurant’s early history, my favorite part of the article his research produced was the final paragraph and its evaluation of the tedious roof research process.

In it, he asks, “As the inquiries become more and more narrow the obvious question is at what point is it pointless?” His answer is that you can only decide pointlessness vs. utility by making all the possible inquiries that arise during a project like his.

We don’t always have the time or inclination to make all possible inquiries. There, the mercurial role of curiosity comes into play. As inquiries become more and more narrow, you accrue more and more information, and you have to dismiss more and more of it if you want to solve the original problem. But if you’re a curious person, how can you maintain that dichotomy? If you’re obsessed with figuring out why school buses are orange, are you really going to be able to ignore a book about why fire engines aren’t?

Speaking for myself, obscure interests have me on the lookout for anything related to them. I’m not just interested in the music of Gastr Del Sol, I’m interested in all the related projects, whether David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke still talk, and what exactly Markus Popp contributed to the last Gastr album. So I can’t imagine a rigid, spearlike curiosity that could have a guy obsessing about who designed Pizza Hut’s roof but indifferent to the history of Pizza Hut.

There’s an obvious solution to this paradox, and although it’s rigid and spearlike, it’s not curious. It’s the student, employee, or anyone else who sometimes researches out of obligation. This person wants to figure out who designed the roof and be done with it.

Fortunately, the awkward task of the student, intern, or research associate – retrieving an obscure bit of data – is an uncommonly vertical kind of research. Modern, wiki-style presentations of information are far more horizontal; an article on p links to v, n, r, and t, and has information on p1 and p2. Unless p’s a real big deal, it’s not going to have p26 and p27. Wikis – and the internet in general – reduce the effort required to find the next book or knock on the next door..

I make that obvious claim because Wasson’s interest in the Pizza Hut roof makes a neat point about mass production. He writes, “the more obscure the target, the more difficult the task of tracing back the path.” In fact, this is truest of common, ubiquitous targets like Yum! Brands, of which Pizza Hut is a subsidiary. The cooks and delivery guys found in any Pizza Hut are unlikely to know the origins of the roof above them. Accordingly, Wasson did not cite an interview with a local Pizza hut employee in his article. On the other hand, occupants of singular buildings tend to be more knowledgable of their enclosures. Anyone living in a Frank Lloyd Wright home will probably tell you all about it. Many unique homes house their builders, and you might only need to knock on the door to meet the roof’s designer.

That kind of thing’s on the decline, though. Information’s getting more accessible, and research is getting less memorable. I haven’t made many memorable internet searches, but I can often source what I regurgitate something from a book I read or a person I interviewed. The journey’s fun! For better and worse, those curious about the origin of Pizza Hut’s classic roof are now unlikely to interview ’60s pizza parlor tycoons, but may find Wasson’s article (currently Google #26 for “pizza hut roof design) and satisfy their curiosity that easily.

Robin Sinhababu

Austin, TX

Metaphysical Determinism: “The intuitive idea of determinism may be summed up by saying that the world is like a motion-picture film: the picture or still which is just being projected is the present.  Those parts of the film which have already been shown constitute the past.  And those which have not yet been shown constitute the future.” Karl Popper, The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism 5 (1956, Bartley ed. 1982).  As the title suggests, Popper argues against determinism in all of its forms (styled metaphysical, scientific and religious).  The film metaphor aligns most closely with Popper’s conception of metaphysical determinism.  Popper mounts the most convincing argument against scientific determinism but admits that it is impossible to definitely prove or disprove metaphysical determism.  But see Presentism (the view that the future and the past are fictions).

Scientific Determinism:  Scientific determinism (according to Popper): “the doctrine that the state of any closed physical system at any given future instant of time can be predicted, even from within the system, with any specified degree of precision, by deducing the prediction from theories, in conjunction with initial conditions whose required degree of precision can always be calculated (in accordance with the principle of accountability) if the prediction task is given.” Open Universe 36.  Refutation of this definition may be critical to certain theoretical scientists.  Takery isn’t one of them.

Quasi-scientific Determinism: More interesting, hidden in a footnote, a “quasi-scientific” view without the demand of prectability from within: “There exists a theoretical system which, in conjunction with a true description of the present state of the world, entails every event of the future.”  Open Universe 88 n.1.

Laplace‘s Demon: “Present events are connected with preceding ones by a tie based upon the evident principle that a thing cannot occur without a cause which produces it” called by Laplace, “the principle of sufficient reason.”  Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (Truscott and Emory translation, Wiley & Sons 1902) at 3 .  From this principle follows: “[w]e ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow.  Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis – it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.” Id. at 4.

Exercise 1:  Refute Laplace‘s Demon.

Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace:  Born 1749, Beaumont-en-Auge France, “the Newton of France,” noted astronomear and mathematician, founding member of the Bureau of Longitudes, champion of infinitesimals, politician.   http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Pierre_Simon,_Marquis_De_Laplace

Causation: “When we look about us towards external objects, and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connection; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and renders the one an infalliable consequence of the other.  We only find, that the one does actually, in fact, follow the other.  The impule of one billiard-ball is attended with motion in the second.  This is the whole that appears to the outward senses.  The mind feels no sentiment or inward impression from this succession of objects; Consequently, there is not, in any single, particular instance of cause and effect, any thing which can suggest the idea of power or necessary connection.”  David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.  Section VII.  Compare Favorably Popper’s note that the common-sense ideas of “events” and “causes” are mainly qualitative.  Open Universe 10-11.

Futures Studies:  “What is Future Studies?  Professional futurists emphasize systemic and transformational change as opposed to traditional forecasters and planners who focus on incremental change based on existing conditions and trends. Since long-term predictive forecasts are rarely correct, futurists describe alternative plausible and preferable futures, in addition to the expected future. Instead of limiting themselves to traditional forecasters’ quantitative methods, futurists also use a balance of qualitative and quantitative tools. The program provides collaboration and innovation with multiple perspectives on foresight, business and marketing, consumer science and retailing. Our experience suggests that the demand for strategic foresight graduates in commercial and public sectors will continue to rise.”  http://tech.uh.edu/Programs/Futures_Studies/ — N.B. the program can be completed entirely online in “as little as 18-24 months” (full time).

Spaceship Earth (the book):  “I recall that in 1927 I set about deliberately exploring to see how far ahead we could make competent forecasts regarding the direction in which all humanity is trending and to see how effectively we could interpret the physical details of what comprehensive evolution might be portending as disclosed by the available data. I came to the conclusion that it is possible to make a fairly reasonable forecast of about twenty-five years. That seems to be about one industrial “tooling” generation. On the average, all inventions seem to get melted up about every twenty-five years, after which the metals come back into recirculation in new and usually more effective uses. At any rate, in 1927 I evolved a forecast. Most of my 1927’s prognosticating went only to 1952—that is, for a quarter-century, but some of it went on for a half-century, to 1977.”  Buckminster Fuller.  http://www.bfi.org/node/422

Spaceship Earth (the ride):  “A new communications supernetwork is being built before our eyes. Spaceship Earth glows with billions of interactions carrying news and information at the very speed of light.  But will these seemingly infinite communications become a flood of electronic babble? Or will we use this power to usher in a new age of understanding and co-operation on this, our Spaceship Earth.”   http://www.wdisneyw.co.uk/atse2.html

Tomorrowland: “Nothing of the present exists in Disneyland. Tomorrow Land is a showplace for science where audiences can ride in the rocket ship to the moon or peer into a simulated atom furnace, and see the amusement center of the future.  Children can get into small gas driven cars and get a drivers license to drive on the Freeway of Tomorrow.  In the same land a child can learn how to handle a scaled down speed boat on the lake.” Miami News. 5/1/1955.

Psychohistory:  “Gaal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli….Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large enough for valid statistical treatment.”  Entry for Psychohistory in “Encyclopedia Galactica” in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.  The citizens compiled a compendium of their knowledge in order to forestall a disaster.

Time capsules: “The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) is an organization established in 1990 to promote the careful study of time capsules. It strives to document all types of time capsules throughout the world. The group is headquartered at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.”  Founding members include: Knute “Skip”: Berger, Dr. Brian Durrans, Paul Hudson and William Jarvis.  “Oglethorpe University is an appropriate location for the study of time capsules. It is the site of the famed Crypt of Civilization. The Guiness Book of World Records (1990) identifies the Crypt as “the first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants ….”” The ITCS is currently working on a registry of time capsules worldwide.  http://www.oglethorpe.edu/about_us/crypt_of_civilization/international_time_capsule_society.asp

The Jetsons:  “The feeling around our shop was that the public was intensely interested in what the future held for them in terms of space exploration, better things for better living, etc.”  Jetsons as sequel to the Flintstones.  Reading Eagle – Aug 24, 1962http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=eA8rAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wZsFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4724,2669035&dq=jetsons&hl=en.  Theme song by Hoyt S. Curtin (“Originally writing “The Jetsons” theme for a small combo, he adapted it to a full orchestra at William Hanna’s request.”) http://www.spaceagepop.com/curtin.htm.  See also U.S. Patent No. 4,103,943 (inventor Hoyt S. Curtin), directed to, “[a] coupling for unthreaded pipes of a sprinkler system, which permits the replacement of a small damaged pipe section without bending the pipes already emplaced in the ground.”  http://www.google.com/patents?id=O7IuAAAAEBAJ&printsec=abstract&zoom=4#v=onepage&q=&f=false.

Googie Architecture: The architecture of the future. Generally, believed to have sprung from “Streamline Moderne”, a stripped-down late Art Deco look.  The name “Googie” was coined by architeture critic and professor Douglas Haskell when he famously proclaimed: “This is Googie architecture!” outside of Googie’s now-demolished coffeeshop on Sunset Boulevard.  Said Haskell: “The other is that Googie accustoms the people to expect strangeness, and make them the readier for those strange things yet to come which will truly make good sense.” Douglas Haskell, “Googie Architecture” House and Home (Feb. 1952).

Space Age: The term “Space Age” had been used sporadically starting in 1950, according to Google News Archive, but was not widely used until October 1957, coinciding with the launch of Sputnik.

Future  shock: “Future shock is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society.  It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one.  It is culture shock in one’s own society.”  Alvin Toffler, Future Shock 13.  “Future shock will not be found in Index Medicus or in any listing of psychological abnormalities.  Yet, unless intelligent steps are taken to combat it, millions of human being will find themselves increasingly disoriented, progressively incompetent to deal rationally with their environments.” Id. See also Herbie Hancock album of same name, released 1983.  Toffler took pains to prove how this lifetime (“the 800th lifetime”) was qualitatively different from any preceding lifetime in the acceleration of change.  But see Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project 65-66 (Eiland and McLaughlin trans.): “A kindred problem arose with the advent of new velocities, which gave life an altered rhythm…The loop-the-loop came on the scene, and Parisians seized on this entertainment with a frenzy…The new tempo of life is often announced in the most unforseen ways.  For example, in posters.  ‘These images of a day or an hour, bleached by the elements, charcoaled by urchins, scorched by the sun — although others are sometimes collected before they have dried–symbolize to a higher degree even than the newspapers the sudden shock-filled, multiform life that carries us away.'”

Back to the Future:  1985 film starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

Current preoccupations with the future of… (via google autocomplete): (1) food; (2) the internet; (3) technology; (4) children; (5) an illusion; (6) computers; (7) cell phones; (8) america; (9) music; and (10) television.

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