Thumbs Out

Yesterday (at time of writing) I went hitchhiking for the first time, for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that covering around 100 miles in the back seats of strangers’ cars was both a surprisingly fun and eye-opening experience, and one that has made me far more inclined to pick up a hitchhiker in future. And so, in recognition of this event and in solidarity of those with outstretched thumbs across the land, I thought I’d dedicate a post to this strangest and most inventive of transport solutions.

Hitchhiking is an American invention, and when one considers the the very nature of hitchhiking in a historical context it becomes easier to see why. For hundreds and thousands of years of human civilisation, the main method of transport (other than walking) was the horse, and since horses a) didn’t travel much faster than humans could walk most of the time and b) don’t usually have space for two, standing by the side of the road with one’s thumb out was unlikely to solicit a faster passage than using one’s own two feet. The only people capable of offering lifts would be merchants with carts, and although they doubtless would have offered lifts from time to time, it would be a rare and abnormally trusting merchant who would let an unknown stranger travel with them on what was usually a journey of several days, or at least hours at a minimum. Thus, hitchhiking in its current form could not develop until the development and widespread use of a mode of transport fast enough to allow a hitcher to travel large distances in a quite short space of time (much more than they could walk), too fast for them to approach by simply asking the driver as they trotted past, and with enough space that an empty seat was a regular occurrence. The car, in other words, and the first place where cars caught on in a big way was the USA.

America first fell in love with the car during the economic boom of the 1920s, during which cars such as the Model T Ford sold in their thousands and thousands- whilst cars were a rare luxury in Europe, in America they became a far more ubiquitous. However, this didn’t mean they were a car ‘for everyone’; ’20s America was a place of huge economic disparity*, with abject poverty being especially common amongst the black and (rapidly growing) immigrant community. This only got worse as the 1930s rolled around and America plunged into the Great Depression- huge sectors of the lower middle and upper working class collapsed into poverty and homelessness, far from any position in which they could afford a car of their own. And so, hitchhiking became increasingly common practice; America had the crucial ingredients of a society becoming increasingly built around the car yet a population not rich enough to universally own them, so the practice of essentially ‘borrowing’ transport from strangers made an awful lot of sense.

From its American origins, hitchhiking (along with widespread use of cars) spread to Europe and eventually across the whole world. However, its popularity has fluctuated heavily with both the passage of time and across continents. Hitchhiking in Britain blossomed during the post-war years among students: as the socialist reforms of the first labour government began to rejig the country’s social structure, the number of people from poorer backgrounds going to university grew. For many students, hitchhiking was the only practical mode of transport: few could afford their own car (Britain hadn’t taken social equality quite that far yet) and the train network was expensive, unreliable and impractical for many. However, from the mid-1970s onwards hitching began to slowly decline in Britain and America, although it remained common practice until the late 1980s: the introduction of the young person’s railcard made train travel a much more feasible option for many, and the increasing prosperity of the western world over these few decades made it increasingly feasible for students or their families to organise car travel on their own. Perhaps partly due to this reduction in the number of students in the hitchhiker population (and thus increasing the relative proportion of dodgy folk among their number), and definitely thanks to a couple of well-publicised murder cases around this time, public trust in hitchhikers began to steadily decline and the whole activity began to take on a decidedly shady appearance in the public eye: risky for both halves of the equation and advised against for safety reasons. As the population of students unable to afford/acquire their own transport home shrank still further, hitching almost died off completely, becoming almost solely the reserve of Eastern European migrant workers (who have a public image problem of their own that has done nothing to redress the shady public perception of hitchhiking). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the practice is more common, and it is currently beginning to enjoy a tentative renaissance (from ‘all but dead’ to merely ‘very uncommon’) in Britain as a) former hitchers have begun to bemoan the loss of such a once-beloved practice and b) students have started hitching as a charitable/competitive event.

Like so many other things, hitchhiking is by its nature along neither good nor bad- at its best it is just people helping each other out & getting some conversation in the bargain, and at its worst is plain dangerous for both parties. Whether it ends up being the former or the latter is, in the end, merely the luck of the draw regarding the practitioners on both sides of the exchange. Since so many hitchers have reported completely safe and uneventful trips, I guess, on balance, that shows we aren’t such an awful bunch after all.

*It’s worth noting that, although the poverty is infinitely less widespread, in terms of the sheer magnitude of the gap between rich and poor our society today is far more unequal than the 20s ever was.

One Foot In Front Of The Other

According to many, the thing that really sets human beings apart from the rest of the natural world is our mastery of locomotion; the ability to move faster, further and with heavier loads than any other creature typically does (never mind that our historical method of doing this was strapping several other animals to a large heap of wood and nails) across every medium our planet has to throw at us; land, sky, sea, snow, whatever. Nowadays, this concept has become associated with our endeavours in powered transport (cars, aeroplanes and such), but the story of human locomotion begins with a far more humble method of getting about that I shall dedicate today’s post to; walking.

It is thought that the first walkers were creatures that roughly approximate to our modern-day crustaceans; the early arthropods. In the early days of multicellular life on earth, these creatures ruled the seas (where all life had thus far been based) and fossils of the time show a wide variety of weird and wonderful creatures. The trilobites that one can nowadays buy as tourist souvenirs in Morocco are but one example; the top predators of the time were massive things, measuring several metres in length with giant teeth and layers of armour plate. All had bony exoskeletons, like the modern insects that are their descendants, bar a few small fish-like creatures a few millimetres in length who had developed the first backbones; in time, the descendants of these creatures would come to dominate life on earth. Since it was faster and allowed a greater range of motion, most early arthropods swam to get about; but others, like the metre-long Brontoscorpio (basically a giant underwater scorpion) preferred the slightly slower, but more efficient, idea of walking about on the seabed. Here, food was relatively plentiful in the form of small ‘grazers’ and attempting to push oneself through the water was wasteful of energy compared to trundling along the bottom. However, a new advantage also presented itself before too long; these creatures were able to cross land over short distances to reach prey- by coincidence, their primitive ‘lungs’ (that collected dissolved oxygen from water in much the same fashion as modern fish gills, but with a less fragile structure) worked just as well at harvesting oxygen from air as water, enabling them to survive on land. As plant life began to venture out onto land to better gain access to the air and light needed to survive, so the vertebrates (in the form of early amphibians) and arthropods began to follow the food, until the land was well and truly colonised by walking life forms.

Underwater, walking was significantly easier than on land; water is a far more dense fluid than air (hence why we can swim in the former but not the latter), and the increased buoyancy this offered meant that early walkers’ legs did not have to support so much of their body’s weight as they would do on land. This made it easier for them to develop the basic walking mechanic; one foot (or whatever you call the end of a scorpion’s leg) is pressed against the ground, before being held stiff and solid as the rest of the body is rotated around it’s joint, moving the creature as a whole forward slightly as it pivots. In almost all invertebrates, and early vertebrates, the creature’s legs are positioned at the side of the body, meaning that as the creature walks they tend to swing from side to side. Invertebrates typically partially counter this problem by having a lot of legs and stepping them in such an order to help them travel in a constant direction, and by having multi-jointed legs that can flex and translate the lateral components of motion into more forward-directed movement, preventing them from swinging from side to side. However, this doesn’t work so well at high speed when the sole priority is speed of movement of one’s feet, which is why most reconstructions of the movement of vertebrates circa 300 million years ago (with just four single-jointed legs stuck out to the side of the body) tends to show their body swinging dramatically from side to side, spine twisting this way and that.  This all changed with the coming of the dinosaurs, whose revolutionary evolutionary advantage was a change in construction of the hip that allowed their legs to point underneath the body, rather than sticking out at the side. Now, the pivoting action of the leg produces motion in the vertical, rather than horizontal direction, so no more spine-twisting mayhem. This makes travelling quickly easier and allows the upper body to be kept in a more stable position, good for striking at fleeing prey, as well as being more energy efficient. Such an evolutionary advantage would soon prove so significant that, during the late Triassic period, it allowed dinosaurs to completely take over from the mammal-like reptiles who had previously dominated the world. It would take more than 150 million years, a hell of a lot of evolution and a frickin’ asteroid to finally let these creatures’ descendants, in the form of mammals, finally prevail over the dinosaurs (by which time they had discovered the whole ‘legs pointing down’ trick).

When humankind were first trying to develop walking robots in the mid-twentieth century, the mechanics of the process were poorly understood, and there are a great many funny videos of prototype sets of legs completely failing. These designers had been operating under the idea that the role of the legs when walking was not just to keep a body standing up, but also to propel them forward, each leg pulling on the rest of the body when placed in front. However, after a careful study of new slow-motion footage of bipedal motion, it was realised that this was not the case at all, and we instead have gravity to thank for pushing us forward. When we walk, we actually lean over our frontmost foot, in effect falling over it before sticking our other leg out to catch ourselves, hence why we tend to go face to floor if the other leg gets caught or stuck. Our legs only really serve to keep us off the ground, pushing us upwards so we don’t actually fall over, and our leg muscles’ function here is to simply put each foot in front of the other (OK, so your calves might give you a bit of an extra flick but it’s not the key thing). When we run or climb, our motion changes; our legs bend, before our quadriceps extend them quickly, throwing us forward. Here we lean forward still further, but this is so that the motion of our quads is directed in the forward, rather than upward direction. This form of motion is less energy efficient, but covers more ground. This is the method by which we run, but does not define running itself; running is simply defined as the speed at which every step incorporates a bit of time where both feet are off the ground. Things get a little more complicated when we introduce more legs to the equation; so for four legged animals, such as horses, there are four footspeeds. When walking there are always three feet on the ground at any one time, when trotting there are always two, when cantering at least one, and when galloping a horse spends the majority of its time with both feet off the ground.

There is one downside to walking as a method of locomotion, however. When blogging about it, there isn’t much of a natural way to end a post.

Pineapples (TM)

If the last few decades of consumerism have taught us anything, it is just how much faith people are able of setting store in a brand. In everything from motorbikes to washing powder, we do not simply test and judge effectiveness of competing products objectively (although, especially when considering expensive items such as cars, this is sometimes impractical); we must compare them to what we think of the brand and the label, what reputation this product has and what it is particularly good at, which we think most suits our social standing and how others will judge our use of it. And good thing too, from many companies’ perspective, otherwise the amount of business they do would be slashed. There are many companies whose success can be almost entirely put down to the effect of their branding and the impact their marketing has had on the psyche of western culture, but perhaps the most spectacular example concerns Apple.

In some ways, to typecast Apple as a brand-built company is a harsh one; their products are doubtless good ones, and they have shown a staggering gift for bringing existed ideas together into forms that, if not quite new, are always the first to be a practical, genuine market presence. It is also true that Apple products are often better than their competitors in very specific fields; in computing, for example, OS X is better at dealing with media than other operating systems, whilst Windows has traditionally been far stronger when it comes to word processing, gaming and absolutely everything else (although Windows 8 looks very likely to change all of that- I am not looking forward to it). However, it is almost universally agreed (among non-Apple whores anyway) that once the rest of the market gets hold of it Apple’s version of a product is almost never the definitive best, from a purely analytical perspective (the iPod is a possible exception, solely due to the existence of iTunes redefining the music industry before everyone else and remaining competitive to this day) and that every Apple product is ridiculously overpriced for what it is. Seriously, who genuinely thinks that top-end Macs are a good investment?

Still, Apple make high-end, high-quality products with a few things they do really, really well that are basically capable of doing everything else. They should have a small market share, perhaps among the creative or the indie, and a somewhat larger one in the MP3 player sector. They should be a status symbol for those who can afford them, a nice company with a good history but that nowadays has to face up to a lot of competitors. As it is, the Apple way of doing business has proven successful enough to make them the biggest private company in the world. Bigger than every other technology company, bigger than every hedge fund or finance company, bigger than any oil company, worth more than every single one (excluding state owned companies such as Saudi Aramco, which is estimated to be worth around 3 trillion dollars by dealing in Saudi oil exports). How has a technology company come to be worth $400 billion? How?

One undoubted feature is Apple’s uncanny knack of getting there first- the Apple II was the first real personal computer and provided the genes for Windows-powered PC’s to take the world, whilst the iPod was the first MP3 player that was genuinely enjoyable to use, the iPhone the first smartphone (after just four years, somewhere in the region of 30% of the world’s phones are now smartphones) and the iPad the first tablet computer. Being in the technology business has made this kind of innovation especially rewarding for them; every company is constantly terrified of being left behind, so whenever a new innovation comes along they will knock something together as soon as possible just to jump on the bandwagon. However, technology is a difficult business to get right, meaning that these products are usually rubbish and make the Apple version shine by comparison. This also means that if Apple comes up with the idea first, they have had a couple of years of working time to make sure they get it right, whilst everyone else’s first efforts have had only a few scance months; it takes a while for any serious competitors to develop, by which time Apple have already made a few hundred million off it and have moved on to something else; innovation matters in this business.

But the real reason for Apple’s success can be put down to the aura the company have built around themselves and their products. From their earliest infancy Apple fans have been self-dubbed as the independent, the free thinkers, the creative, those who love to be different and stand out from the crowd of grey, calculating Windows-users (which sounds disturbingly like a conspiracy theory or a dystopian vision of the future when it is articulated like that). Whilst Windows has its problems, Apple has decided on what is important and has made something perfect in this regard (their view, not mine), and being willing to pay for it is just part of the induction into the wonderful world of being an Apple customer (still their view). It’s a compelling world view, and one that thousands of people have subscribed to, simply because it is so comforting; it sells us the idea that we are special, individual, and not just one of the millions of customers responsible for Apple’s phenomenal size and success as a company. But the secret to the success of this vision is not just the view itself; it is the method and the longevity of its delivery. This is an image that has been present in their advertising campaign from its earliest infancy, and is now so ingrained that it doesn’t have to be articulated any more; it’s just present in the subtle hints, the colour scheme, the way the Apple store is structured and the very existence of Apple-dedicated shops generally. Apple have delivered the masterclass in successful branding; and that’s all the conclusion you’re going to get for today.