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the difference engine

inspiration is a tricky thing. you keep thinking that if you clear your head and just let your brain roam like a buffalo across the rolling plains, you'll find the waters of inspiration. unfortunately, it doesn't really work like that. it does sometimes and keeping yourself in the habit of writing is all important, even if all you're writing is snippets. [i'm a big proponent of snippets, because they can often be threaded together when you have enough of them.] but sometimes, you become more like a large buffalo stuck in a mud hole. you need someone else to come and pull you out. 

i'm too proud and stubborn to actually ask for help, but i'm lucky enough to live with someone who's not afraid to intervene when he sees i'm suffering, so he suggested that he just give me a key word and i could work from there. i told him to take a shot, because nothing was going to be more helpless than me floundering in my own creative muck. 

his choice of word: technology.

i tried thinking about it for a few days, but nothing was coming to me. finally, dom intervened again, when i was so struck with a combination of energy and boredom that i was almost literally starting to climb our walls. he persuaded me to just take some time and focus on it, which would be more fun than climbing the walls for both of us. 

since i didn't have any particular idea, i decided to start out by making notes for myself on the subject of technology, not trying to create a story, just writing whatever popped into my head thinking of the subject. i didn't know what to expect, but within minutes, i had the beginnings of this piece. it took only about half an hour to come up with the concept, including doing some research on the technologies mentioned. [although the museum is a figment of my imagination, all of the technologies in it are real. the pictures included in this post are of the titular difference engines.]

from initial notes to completion, this took me about three and a half hours. it's a first draft and rough as such, but it's still a good example of what can happen when you stop beating yourself up about what to write and just put pen to paper. [i still always start out that way, although i move to the computer when i get to the story-writing part.] it's also a great example about having a motivator near you can help rescue you from a creative sinkhole. 


Hello. Welcome to the Stevenage Museum of Technology. This is what we call the “Icarus Wing” dedicated to some of technology’s more notable historical failures. You’ve arrived very late, I must say and we’re closing shortly, but I suppose I can still show you a few of our more interesting exhibits. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll have to come back another time. If you’re going to come back, you should come in the morning, since all the students doing research projects don’t generally arrive until after lunch hour. Once they’re here, there’s likely to be a crowd in front of all the best exhibits, although there’s none right at the moment, since you’ve arrived so close to closing time.

I suppose Claire from the central wing sent you over here. She’s always got her head in the clouds, that one, never looking at the clock, fluttering around the museum, always wrapped up in something the rest of us will never know about. Doesn’t understand that some of us don’t want to live here every minute the way that she does. She’s the one with the yellow dress on today, or a kind of yellow, at least. Sort of a light goldenrod, I guess you’d call it. I like to be precise in my descriptions. Her hair is sort of titian red, pulled back in a pony tail all the time. Makes her look a little severe, if you ask me, but she’s such a pretty young woman that she can get away with it. She’s fresh out of university, a bachelor’s degree and the board pretty much gives her the run of the place. Personally, I think that it’s because she’s so very lovely that all those old men- and who knows, maybe the women too- like having her around to look at.

Are you two married? Yes? On your honeymoon you say. Well, congratulations, then. Although I must say that you’re a shade older than what I would normally expect of newlyweds if you don’t mind my saying so.

Ah, second time around, I see. For both of you? Well, I hope that the second time is the charm, then. I thought about getting remarried myself after my divorce, but I never got around to it. I suppose I’m getting on a bit to think about that- don’t flatter me, I know that a woman my age isn’t a prime candidate for romance and I know that I’m not exactly a prize even for my age. I’m a little heavier than I once was, before my children were born- Do you have any? No? I have two, a girl and a boy, twenty and eighteen. Almost adults, I suppose, although I can’t think of either of them that way, they’re both so flighty, so- and I hate to put it this way- so immature. The girl is off studying dance, wants to be a ballerina and the boy is spending a year in Australia, trying to figure out what he wants to do. You’d think that they’d want to study so that they have some reasonable career to turn to later on, but no. I guess they consider that too much like what I did and they don’t seem to have a lot of respect for their poor mum, always wrong about everything, they think. They’re their father’s children, that’s for certain. I suppose that’s why we’re not terribly close. They’ve lived with him since the divorce and now they’ve picked up all his ways. I already spent quite enough time with him, thank you very much.

So here’s our first exhibit, one of the newer ones in this wing. We try not to make a habit of collecting too much of the modern technology flops. There are so many, we’d have room for little else and part of the point of the Icarus Wing is to reassure us that failure has always been there. Some would even say that success can result from earlier failures, although as far as I can tell, the main thing that comes from it is just more failure.

This is a Qube, spelled with a Q. It was introduced in 1977 and it was supposed to be a revolution in television. It made the whole thing interactive, so that you wouldn’t just have to sit there and watch it. And it wasn’t like a videogame, but like real television, with programming and everything. The problem was that the device itself was expensive to manufacture and, of course, the company had to create all the programming to go with it. You couldn’t just plug in to any television program and start playing around with it. So to support their little devices, the company had to create hours of programming on different channels. They had a children’s network call Pinwheel, which actually lasted and eventually got named Nickelodeon, which you might have heard of. And they had a music channel, before there was MTV.

But their biggest mistake was that they overestimated their consumers. They thought that people would jump at the chance to interact with their favourite shows, but the sad truth was that people were stupid and lazy and just wanted to sit on their sofas and be entertained. They weren’t interested in doing any work themselves. So in 1984, Warner Brothers killed the Qube, although it took a long time to go away completely. And now, of course, everyone interacts with their television all the time, recording and pausing and skipping and what have you. But you don’t need special networks to do it. I suppose the idea was ahead of its time, but really it was just doomed by bad planning.

And when I said that we aren’t interested in contemporary technology just because we don’t focus on collecting it. We use the technology all the time, we have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, more things Claire set up and she manages them with Angela, her little intern who’s grateful just to see the inside of a museum, because she has no experience to speak of. Thick as thieves, the two of them. I swear they’re carrying on an affair behind everyone’s back. Claire always seems to flirt with everyone, another reason why she’s so popular, I suppose and Angela’s still at that stage where I’m sure she doesn’t know what she wants, so why wouldn’t she like this tall, elegant girl she sees every day?

But you should definitely like us on Facebook if you have a minute. You’ll be able to see our schedule and everything on there, so you’ll know when it would be best to come back and see the whole thing. Not that I meant to assume you were both on Facebook, it’s just that everyone seems to be now. Even I finally broke down and got an account last year and I have to admit that I sort of like it.

It’s a decent way to find out what my kids are up to, although they just seem to post photos all the time and don’t say anything. Doesn’t really surprise me, since their father was never the most articulate thing. When he left me, he just packed his things and walked out. Wasn’t for another woman, wasn’t because of anything he could describe. He just walked away with his suitcase and a few weeks later, the kids decided they wanted to go with him. So go, I told them, because I could already tell they’d turn out like him no matter what I tried to do, that they already resented me and thought I was boring, or whatever it is they think, since they never talk much either. You’re lucky to get five words from them over the phone.

Anyway, what I’ve really enjoyed is being able to reconnect with the people I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve found all these people from high school and university and it’s always interesting to me to see what’s befallen them. Most of them seem just so small and ordinary in a way. I guess because they seemed like they filled up the whole world for me in school, always these people I couldn’t approach, since I was so shy and didn’t fit in well.

For instance, there was this one boy, I guess you could say I liked him, although it was in that high school way that just rubs off you in a few weeks, but nonetheless, I liked him for a time, when we were singing in the choir together. He wasn’t tremendously popular, but he had enough friends and I don’t think he was more than vaguely aware of my existence. He was certainly never interested in me and I remember being horrified when someone else in the choir, someone who I’d spoken to in confidence, mind you, told him that I liked him. I still remember how awkward he became when I was anywhere near him after that. Like me liking him was the worst thing that could have happened.

I tracked him down on Facebook and found out he’s working now as an accountant. He’s married to a woman who must weigh double what I do and as you can see, I’m not exactly starving. She has bad skin, too, like a teenager, but of course she must be in her forties at least. And he’s lost most of his hair. So there you have it. My one time high school crush is just living out his days with, frankly, an ugly wife in a prefab suburb.

Now this is fascinating and I wish I had more time to show it to you, because there’s a whole video, but what you see is a series of photographs of something called Difference Engine No. 2. It was designed by Charles Babbage in the nineteenth century. Babbage was unquestionably a genius, but, as befits his inclusion in something called the Icarus collection, his genius often outran his talents. He designed his Difference Engines to calculate and tabulate polynomial functions- essentially, a sort of computer. He even got funding to build the first one, but he ran out of money part way through and he never even tried to build a working model of the second.

It would have been a real undertaking too. It was made up of eight thousand mechanical parts and would have weighed five tons. Not exactly a weekend project, even if you are supposed to be a genius. The photos and the video are from the London Science Museum, where they built not one but two of the things decades after Babbage was dead and wouldn’t you know it- they worked. Nonetheless, the Difference Engines were quite spectacular failures of their time, because this so-called brilliant man could never even figure out how to build the thing that he designed.

By the way, when I was saying that that girl my old crush married was ugly, you mustn’t think that I have any illusions that I’m so much better. As I said earlier, I know I’m plain- not ugly, just plain- and I don’t have a lot to show for myself. I’m working at a tiny museum and I probably don’t have to tell you that this isn’t exactly high paying. Seven years of university and a Masters in Fine Arts and this is what you end up with. Working for some pretty young thing with half your education and experience, shuffling people through the exhibits- not that I don’t enjoy talking to people like yourselves, of course. It’s all sort of shocking, like the board here don’t realize what they have at their disposal.

When I started, of course, I figured that they’d see my potential right away, I figured I might end up running the place with all my qualifications. But here I am five years later, still doing the same things as if I’m someone who just wandered in off the streets. There’s no respect for higher education anymore. I guess that’s why my kids reject it so utterly. Really, though, I think it’s because doing a graduate degree is hard work and they just don’t have it in them. Not workers, those two. That’s how we differ. I’m a believer that you always need to work hard and while you get stuck in some places that won’t appreciate it, like this one, I’m afraid, you’re not going to get anywhere in life doing anything else.

So I work my full days here, I show up on time and do my little tours when I have time, like now and at least I can feel proud of my honest work, even if the people that run this place couldn’t be bothered to notice. They’d rather have someone like Claire flitting about. That’s their business.

Now these are plans for the Ford Nucleon. You probably haven’t heard of this one, but it’s a fascinating chapter in automotive history. In 1958, everything was all about nuclear power, so some enterprising designer at Ford came up with the idea of having a nuclear powered car. It was going to be state of the art with a fully functional nuclear reactor in the back. I know, I know. What were they thinking? I suppose that’s the sort of logic that got the American auto industry in the state it’s in today. Thankfully, we don’t have swarms of Nucleons flying around the streets today. Can you imagine?

The other thing that I use my Facebook for, of course, is to stay in touch with my sister. We don’t get to visit often, or she can’t get away too often to come and see me. She and her husband have had terrible trouble with their son. He’s a year younger than mine, but he’s been like a demon for the last three or four years. I told her when he started acting up, getting in trouble in school, that she had to come down on him hard. I must have told her a dozen times, stop trying to understand what he’s going through. Lock him in his room and throw away the blessed key (although I didn’t say “blessed”). But she didn’t want to listen to her old sister, even though I’ve had two kids of my own and, whatever else is wrong with them, they never got in any kind of real trouble.

So then this kid gets into drugs and hanging around with those sorts of people and there’s my sister and brother-in-law still thinking they can cure everything if they just show him enough love, whereas if he were mine, I’d have told him to get out and go live on the streets to see how he liked it. But they’ve spent thousands- thousands- of dollars getting him into rehab and hiring lawyers to keep him out of jail and enrolling him in schools that he just drops out of in a few months, because the rest of the world can see he’s not the most gifted thing. They’re close to bankruptcy, to be honest and they still won’t just give up on him. I’ve said it to her so many times, I know he’s your only child, but there’s no reason for you to keep punishing yourself by trying to save something that’s unsalvageable. It’s like holding on to expired meat, I tell her, it doesn’t get any better with time, it only gets worse.

But as I said, she doesn’t listen to me and now they’re almost broke, so even if they didn’t have the kid driving them crazy, she doesn’t even have the money to come visit me. So we talk to each other on Facebook and I do what I can, which is really just give advice.

We really do have to close soon, but before you leave, I do want to show you one of our prized possessions. This is an automaton, popularly known as “The Defecating Duck”- don’t worry, it doesn’t, at least not anymore. A man named Jacques Vaucauson made it in 1738. It was an extremely realistic duck that seemed almost alive when it could move. It could preen and stretch its wings and even ruffle its feathers, just like a real animal, but what really amazed people was the fact that it seemed to eat and digest and afterwards defecate- hence the name- as if it knew how to do these natural behaviours. Of course, in 1783, some enterprising soul pointed out that the eating process was a fraud and that the food simply passed through some internal chambers in the model without being digested at all, but earlier on, it was thought that Vaucauson had made something that was almost alive- a living machine.

We haven’t managed to get ours working yet, which I suppose is a failure for us since, and you almost never see this, all of the parts are in the duck, intact and waiting to amaze us again. Perhaps if you make another visit, we’ll have fixed it up, although the way things move around here, I’d be surprised if they ever got it running.

Anyway, I really must close up again, but do come back again at a better time and have a look at the whole place. There’s much more to see, even in this section and, if I can make a little plug for my territory, I find that there’s nothing more fascinating than observing all the ways in which other people have failed.


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