If not now, when? If not me, who?


In his novel "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurís Court", Mark Twain described conversations between the Yankee and various citizens of King Arthurís kingdom in which the Yankee tried to explain things and the locals just didnít get it. What follows is a similar fable in which our Yankee (from the 20th century) is in conversation with an upright, sensible citizen of the 17th century on their way by wagon to London in 1666.

Yankee: It sure takes a long time to get to there in this wagon. Why it takes at least 15 minutes to go even a mile. Why back where I come from in the 20th century, we could go a mile in just one minute.

Teamster (wagon driver): Youíre kidding me. Thereís never been a horse born that could run 60 miles an hour.

Yankee: But in my day an automobile can easily go 60 miles an hour.

Teamster: Whatís an automobile?

Yankee: Well, itís like a wagon only it has a steering wheel.

Teamster: You use a wheel to steer? What do you do, put your foot on one front wheel or the other to slow that side and make the wagon turn that way?

Yankee: No. You donít get it. The steering wheel is another wheel in addition to the other four. Itís right in front of the driver. If you rotate the steering wheel clockwise, it angles the front wheels to the right. If you rotate it counter-clockwise, it turns the front wheels to the left.

Teamster: Thatís crazy. It will never work. Your automobile idea is insane. The wagon tongue will hit the horses. Not only that, if you use your hands to turn that steering wheel, you canít control the reins. The horse would be completely out of control. Youíd have to have a second driver to hold the reins and the whip. Yankee: But there is no wagon tongue because there is no horse involved.

Teamster: Horse, mule, donkey, oxen, whatís the difference. No matter what you have pulling the wagon that steering wheel is just useless trouble.

Yankee: You donít understand. There is no animal or person pulling the automobile. Teamster: Then what makes it go? Fairies? Haw.

Yankee: What makes it go is an internal combustion engine.

Teamster: "Combustion?" Thatís fire isnít it? You got a burning wagon? Oh, thatís rich. Of course that fire is going to scare the horse but it still wonít make it run at any 60 miles an hour.

Yankee: No, thereís no horse at all. The internal combustion engine has cylinders in which gas explodes to makeÖ

Teamster: You mean you have cannon on the wagon? Iíve been around. Iíve seen those cannon on wheels. They have horses or oxen to pull them. You canít tell me that those things can go any 60 miles an hour.

Yankee: Wait, you donít understand. There are no cannon. The cylinders are in the engine block. Itís a solid piece of steel with four or six or eight cylindrical holes where the gas and air mixture explodes to push a piston.

Teamster: You got six or eight cannons on one wagon? That must weigh tons. It would have to be huge. And when it rains that sucker would sink in the mud up to its axles or deeper. It would break every bridge you tried to move it over. Youíre just making this up, arenít you?

Yankee: Wait, let me explain. The tubes in the engine block have a piston, a short cylinder of metal that just fits the tube so that when the gas explodes it pushes the piston and that turns a crankshaft.

Teamster: You canít make me believe that. You plug the barrel of the cannon and expect it to work? That cannon is going to explode and kill everyone around.

Yankee: No, the explosion is just enough to push the piston down and turn the crankshaft. Thereís no way such a small explosion can destroy the engine block.

Teamster: Well after the cannon fires it takes several guys to swab out the barrel, push in more power, set the fuse, and, I guess, put the ďpistonĒ thing back in the barrel. And only a little explosion is not going to move that huge mass of iron anywhere. So you have two guys driving and several more guys loading and firing the cannon. Just think how rich youíd have to be to run one of those things.

Yankee: Look, the engine uses liquid oil like whale oil and the carbÖ, well, thereís a little machine that spritzes a mixture of air and a tiny bit of that liquid oil into the cylinder while the piston is at the far end. The piston never comes out of the engine. So then the piston is forced back to the other end of the cylinder and that compresses the gas / air mixture and then a spark ignites the gas making it explode and send the piston to the other end again. There are no men required in any of that.

Teamster: Well who is striking the flint and steel to make that spark? You canít fool me.

Yankee: No, the sparkís not made by flint and steel, itís an electrical spark, like lightning.

Teamster: Oh thatís rich. Youíre going to have to wait for a thunderstorm to make this automobile run and then youíre going to have to get struck by lightning again and again? Why donít you just say a magician makes it go? Your lies are just stupid.

Yankee: You donít need lightning. You know how you can get a little spark when you pet a cat? Itís a spark like that. It comes from a battery.

Teamster: Look, itís bad enough saying you have 6 to 8 cannon on one wagon. Now youíre telling me you have a whole battery of cannon on this automobile thing?

Yankee: No, itís an electrical battery. Itís got a set of tubes with acid in them that generate electrical current which goes through wires to the spark plug which makes the spark in the cylinder.

Teamster: Thereís no use just making up words to try to bamboozle me. Itís not going to work. What youíre describing is clearly impossible. Besides, nobody in their right minds would ever ride on such a thing. They could get killed by the explosion or burned by the acid. And all those explosions would drive all the other horses on the road crazy. It would be a mass panic. So even if you could make it work, and you canít, nobody would ever buy one. Besides, thereís not enough whales in the whole ocean to keep a bunch of those things on the road.

Yankee: Look. What if I wrote a book explaining how everything works with diagrams and directions and everything? Would you read it?

Teamster: Look, friend. I stopped and offered you a lift because I wanted somebody to talk to. And IĎve got to admit that youíve given me a lot of laughs and a good story to tell over a mug of ale down the road. But youíre crazy if you think Iím going to read a whole book just to understand something thatís impossible anyway. Iíve been in the transportation business for 30 years and have made good money at it. I know what Iím talking about. What expertise do you have? Have you ever driven a wagon with a team of four horses? Have you ever repaired a wheel? Have you ever been in the hauling business? No, I didnít think so. Now you show me some teamster who has some experience with these "automobiles" of yours who recommends them and then I might give your ideas another look. But until then Iím not going to waste my time on fantasies.


Letís examine some of the reasons why the description of the automobile given by Yankee did not impress Teamster.

First, Teamster snatches the first thing he comes across in the description and assumes that Yankee is talking about the 17th century level of technology. No human transportation in the 1600s could move at anything like 60 miles an hour. Thus teamster considers it to be impossible.

Each time Yankee mentions some aspect of an automobile, Teamster takes just that one aspect and pictures how it would work on the wagon they were using. Of course, any one aspect of an automobile, taken by itself, would be ludicrous on a horse-drawn wagon. Teamster comes to his conclusions immediately rather than waiting for a complete description of all the parts of the automobile and how they work. He is quite sure he knows all about wagons and what makes them go. Teamster thinks Yankee is the ignorant one who knows little about horse drawn wagons so Yankee canít know anything about transportation by any other means.

So Teamster never achieves understanding of what an automobile actually is nor of how it works. He never gives his mind a chance to understand because he is set on rejecting whatever Yankee says and is only looking for flaws to criticize. He demands that Yankee gain the support of some authority before he will even continue to consider the idea. Teamster is convinced that no one could possibly adopt such a device.

I suggest that this is one of the means by which static societies prevent changes in memes. It opposes all new ways of viewing things and criticizes anyone who attempts to present any new viewpoints. Rather than seeking understanding, it insists on maintaining the current situation. This approach also warns others against expressing any views that are not traditional because those expressing them will be punished. These techniques and responses have been going on for thousands of years and are very human. It would be a surprise to come across a person that does not react in this way.


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