Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Unexpected Turn (Roller Coasters, Past and Future)

Engineers who design roller coasters will tell you that speed is essential for a great ride, but it’s the unexpected turn that makes for a truly unforgettable experience.  That helps explain, for example, the success of Disney’s Space Mountain; it’s not the biggest or fastest roller coaster in the land, but being in the dark--where every turn is unexpected--can make for a memorable ride.

Such is true of the future.  We’re fixated on the speed of change, but it’s the unexpected turn that can be so memorable.  Everyone anticipated the PC becoming smaller, sleeker and smarter, but almost nobody expected the iPad.  Those of us who live in the pitch black of consumer technology’s space mountain really enjoyed that unexpected turn.

Anticipating the unforeseen is how futurists, technologists, stock-pickers, and sci fi writers make their mark.  All the vectors point right, but they anticipate left.

What works with roller coasters and the future, I’ve discovered recently, also works--somewhat unexpectedly--with the past.

One of my favorite movies of 2011 was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.  Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, falls in love with Paris while his wife pines for Malibu, a good indication that their troubles are more than just geographic.  In the course of the movie Pender experiences the true magic of the city when, one midnight, he stumbles into a kind of time warp, stepping out into the 1920s with the likes of Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway.

That’s the first unexpected turn.  As an audience we’re suddenly thrust into a whole new time period, and Allen does it convincingly enough--though Hemingway is an absolute hoot, and Salvador Dali sees nothing unusual about time travel--that it takes a few minutes to adjust.

As Pender spends a series of evenings in 1920s Paris, he meets and falls in love with Picasso’s mistress, Adriana.  It turns out that she is also pining for the past, but the past of 1890’s Paris.   When they (and we) are suddenly transported to a night club peopled by Tolouse-Latrec, Gaugin and Degas, it’s like a second unexpected turn of the coaster, a double turn of history that is as enjoyable as it is preposterous.

I had a similar experience at Gettysburg battlefield a few years ago, stepping out of our 21st century world to immerse myself in a 19th-century battlefield.  In fact, Gettysburg is about as convincing as time travel gets.   But, just as I was feeling comfortable in the milieu of 1863, I strolled into the battlefield’s museum and encountered videos of the 1938, 75th-anniversary reunion of veterans at Gettysburg.  (The video is here.)

It’s something akin to an abrupt turn in the dark to return from walking Pickett’s Charge to suddenly see aged Yanks and Rebs, decked out in dress suits of blue and grey, shaking hands across a stone wall in Depression-era America.

Last week I read about the opening of the New York Stock Exchange’s impressive new building at 18 Broad Street in April 1903.  For almost two years the Exchange had been in hired quarters.  The ceremony that April day included thousands of visitors, ticker tape floating down from neighboring skyscrapers, and the Seventh Regiment Band playing popular tunes near the bank of telephone booths on the east side of the new building.  Around 11 a.m., J. Pierpont Morgan strode to the speakers’ platform, and after introductory remarks and the formal transfer of the building from the construction committee, the president of the Exchange, Rudolph Kempler, spoke. 

He reminded the crowd that they lived at a time when “every portion of the civilized globe is so linked to the other by means of modern scientific methods and devices of transmission that every important happening in any part of the world is almost instantly recorded in every city, on all the continents. . . .”  The mayor of New York, Seth Low, told the crowd that without the Exchange “the great improvements now contemplated by the railroads entertaining this city would be impossible.” (Low also served on the committee building the Brooklyn Bridge.)

The New York Times painted a wonderful old scene from the turn of the century when, suddenly, Kempler introduced William Alexander Smith, the oldest member of the Exchange--too old, in fact, to deliver his own address.  Kempler read for Smith, “When I entered the Exchange in 1844. . .I remember the dignified body of middle-aged gentlemen I found there, numbering less than 100, seated around tables with the cumbersome books in which they scrupulously recorded each transaction as made, and which was duly recorded by the Secretary upon the rostrum, which record, after being read, became binding upon the members.”

Just as I was settling into the world of J. Pierpont Morgan, the expanding railroad and the emerging telephone, I took the unexpected turn back to the New York City of the brand new telegraph, Washington Irving and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Way cool, as they say around here.  A completely unexpected turn.  Another mild case of historical whiplash. Better than a roller coaster.  Heck, even better than a Woody Allen movie.

Still not as good as an iPad, though.