What is Wrong With People?

When I do need to go into work, I have a short commute. I mean really short, as in seven minutes on a bicycle. I also go early in the morning, so there is hardly any traffic. I guess I’ve gotten out of touch with what happens in the savage gladiatorial world that is the roadway. It has gotten so bad that I am actually calling for GOVERNMENT ACTION to get things under control.

This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig at the home of one of the least-known founding fathers of the United States, Oliver Ellsworth. It was great fun while I was digging, but it meant four hours of highway driving every day for two weeks. (At this point, I think my father would mumble something about “wear and tear on the car.” Does he mean the seat upholstery will tear?) Here are some of the behaviors I observed:

  • People using hand-held cellular telephones while driving. “Of course,” you’re saying. “Those damn kids again.” Wrong! Out of thousands of cars (actually, I have no idea of the number; it may have been thousands per day), I only saw one teenager breaking the law this way. The rest were professional types in their 50s wearing leopard-print dresses in their Audi SUVs (sub-utilized vehicles), and tradesmen wearing Oakley sunglasses (aerodynamics is important when painting a house) in beaten-up American pickups. These are supposedly-mature adults who are so desperate that we all think they’re with it that they will endanger the lives of everyone around them by stroking their screens. If this doesn’t demonstrate the addictive characteristics of hand-held electronics, what could?
  • People passing in the slow vehicle lanes on hills. Every single time. There was not a single instance when someone didn’t jump into this lane (which, in case you’ve forgotten, is marked “SLOW VEHICLES!”) and pass on the right, thinking he was putting one over on all of us suckers. EVERY SINGLE TIME. “Why is this dangerous,” you ask? Because when one of these morons finishes passing on the right, he invariably barges back into the middle lane, endangering those of us who pass legally on the left and then move to the middle again. Don’t tell me it’s my responsibility to watch out for people who are breaking the law.
  • People using on-ramps as illegal passing-on-the-right zones. This was a completely new one on me. I have been driving for thirty years and I had never seen this happen until my two weeks of highway commuting. The solid white line on the right side of the road means “DON’T CROSS THIS.” Why? Imagine you’re minding your own business and starting to get up to speed on an entrance to merge onto a highway. Out of nowhere, some irresponsible jerk jumps into your way. He’s wrong, but you’re still damaged and/or injured if you collide.
  • People driving through construction zones to pass on the right and merge later than anyone else. Are you kidding? I have always wondered why drivers in heavy traffic allow late mergers to enter ahead of them. But this takes it to a whole new level of entitlement and stupidity. THE SHOULDER IS CLOSED BECAUSE PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT COCOONED IN TWO TONS OF GLASS AND STEEL ARE WORKING THERE! People you could kill while you look at low-quality pictures of your “friend”‘s sushi. And, of course, when you barge your way back into traffic (why isn’t there more tire-puncturing construction debris left about?), you will be one of those
  • People turning and changing lanes without signaling. I know; that’s none of my business. Why would someone driving near you need to know what your self-propelled killing machine is going to do next? I’ll stop being voyeuristic and go back to looking at cat videos. While you’re at it, why don’t you disconnect your brake lights, too? That way, the rest of us will simply need to gaze at you in anticipation at all times. But seriously, did I miss something? Have turn signals become illegal since Inauguration Day? Probably not, because quite a few of the drivers who did this had Bernie Sanders stickers on their cars. (They’d vote to share everyone’s income, but can’t be bothered to share the road. Interesting.) After the first three days of this lunacy, I actually brought a pitch counter with me and kept track. (I know what you’re thinking, but it’s just a small cube of metal with a button on it that moves a mechanical counter. No screen tapping required.) Fewer than half of the movements cars made had a turn signal associated with them. People didn’t signal more than often than they did, and that was only what happened near me.

After this two-week eye-opener, I started to notice similar behavior among drivers everywhere. People aren’t just committing California stops at intersections. They’re simply driving through without even touching the brakes. Not a signal light to be seen anywhere. Passing on narrow country roads abounding with deer, pets, and playing children. And, most annoying and distracting of all, why doesn’t anyone turn down their high beams any more? I think I know the answer to this one, and it led me into the steps I think we need to take.

  1. Ban any innovation in cars that takes away the need to be careful or concentrate on driving. It all started with the automatic transmission. “I don’t need to worry about shifting gears. The car will do it for me.” BAD IDEA. First of all, this frees up a driver’s gearshift hand to eat, put on makeup, or send and receive meaningless, stupid, self-congratulatory text messages. Ask any driver who still uses a manual stick shift how much closer attention he must pay to the terrain, his speed, and his engine revs. These are good things. he is concentrating on DRIVING. But besides shifting, look at all the things cars claim to do for you now: warn you about drifting out of your lane, warn you when you get too close to another car (and sometimes even apply the brakes for you), turn on your headlights, turn on your wipers, parallel park. . . When will it end? (And, no, Americans will never take to self-driving cars. We already have them. They are called busses and trains, and people only use them in places where driving is too miserable an experience, like New York.) I think all of the drivers that leave their high beams shining at me, forcing me to take my eyes off the road or go temporarily blind, think that the car will switch to low beams for them. Why should they need to bother? Maybe some of them think the cars will signal turns automatically. “Great! I’m too busy ‘liking’ some anti-Trump posts to signal my turn.” Even safety innovations create hazards. I’ll say that again. Safety innovations like computerized four-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, and air bags make the roads more dangerous. Why do you think idiots go bombing around on icy roads looking at their phones? They think the cars will keep them from crashing, and in the unlikely event of a crash, safety features will protect them from any bodily harm. People need to understand that, besides raising children, driving is the most awesome (in the Biblical sense) responsibility they have. Citizens should be a little nervous and cautious when they pilot a four thousand pound object at speed within inches of others.
  2. Sue cellular telephone companies for creating an addictive product and not providing enough warning in their marketing. Remember when the Clinton Justice Department under Janet Reno sued tobacco companies for the same reasons? Everyone applauded that. This one needs no further explanation.
  3. Ban the use of the word “accident” to describe an automobile mishap. We seem to feel that “accidents happen.” Well, that means I’m not responsible when I drive into another car, right? WRONG. If something goes wrong on the road, it happens because one or both drivers chose to do something illegal or unsafe. No exceptions. Even encountering deer or fog. When traffic authorities set speed limits, they take into account everything that might happen, and set an ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM speed you may drive under ideal conditions of traction and visibility. If it’s raining or dark or foggy, you must slow down. (Not many drivers seem to know this. See Point #4 for details.) So what term would I substitute for “accident?” Some have suggested “crash,” but I don’t think this asserts enough blame. I would use NeRD. It would stand for “Negligence Resulting in Damage/Death.” Then people might realize that nothing is accidental when negligence is involved.
  4. Require annual written and on-road testing for every driver. This is the most obvious one of all, but the one sure to cause the most outcry. But think about the absurdity, in any other arena, of certifying competence once and then turning someone loose for the rest of his life. You would fight that with every fibre of your being. We had the Revolution and gained independence from Great Britain because one person became a leader and held the position for life. He could not adapt to changing conditions and realities (read the Declaration of Independence for details), so we substituted a system with periodic recertifications of leaders (elections). We require doctors (who do hold our lives in their hands) and classroom teachers (who do not) to participate in professional development learning throughout their careers. Airline pilots must pass both physical and professional exams every year, despite the fact that, worldwide, only 325 people died from air travel in 2016 out of 3.5 billion who flew. Drivers can operate cars from age 16 to age 116 without any periodic health or skill checks, and automobiles killed 40,000 in the United States alone that same year. Our population is about 350 million. Hey, they want all decisions made on the basis of BIG DATA, right? The data could not possibly paint a clearer picture. People who operate motor vehicles should be reminded every year about the laws, about dangerous behaviors, and about their responsibilities. “No way! That’s too inconvenient!” Too bad. If safety is inconvenient for you, don’t drive.

I wish, too, that it were more difficult to obtain a driver’s license in this country. I wish all of the tests were given on manual-transmission cars, and I wish drivers had to be able to proceed safely in hazardous conditions like ice and snow. The first time you slide should not be in the middle of rushing to work, but under skilled supervision. And won’t all of this cost more? Sure, but think of all of the increased revenue from the more-frequent testing. More money? Hey, I just thought of another reform:

5. Require police to ticket infractions with zero tolerance. “Wait! That’s too much work. There aren’t enough cops to do all that!” Gotcha. #s 2 and 4 would give us lots more money to hire police. And I’m tired of hearing about how minor violations should be overlooked. For the sake of what? People’s feelings? Rubbish. Any official, whether a federal employee, a cop, a school administrator or teacher, or a parent, who does not enforce the rules is a coward. If you don’t like confrontation, get another job. When people get away with breaking “small, unimportant” rules and laws, that behavior becomes habit. The more someone gets away with, the more he will try. And so we get the driving behavior I started with. THAT KILLED 40,000 PEOPLE LAST YEAR.

Once again, Ronald Reagan had the right idea:

“There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”

 

 

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How Far Can My Addenda Take Me?

If my last couple of posts have made you wonder whether I’m always for change and innovation, fear not. Let me tell you about

 

Some Things I Don’t Do Because They Do Not Make My Life Better

(By no means a comprehensive list.)

  1. Buy new “improved” sporting goods every year. Whether they golf, play tennis, or ride bicycles, some people seem eternally hopeful that the next new tweak of equipment will be just the thing that makes them great. I disagree. It’s my responsibility to improve my forehand or my top sprint speed. I mean, are you playing against me, or are our racquets battling it out? Are you racing me or my bike? Who gets the trophy, me or my Ben Hogan clubs? I think Olympic sailing has it right: everyone competes in identical craft, so the winner is the best sailor, not the sailor with the fastest boat. I think sporting goods manufacturers are like politicians. They need you to think they are taking care of your problems so you will continue to send them money, but if your problems ever went away, you would not need them any more. If acquiring equipment makes you happy, keep doing it. Just don’t call yourself an athlete.
  2. Carry a device that lets people contact me when I want to be alone (which is all the time). I do not want to pretend to Laugh Out Loud at pictures of overpriced restaurant hamburgers posted by “friends.” I have no need to show the world distorted close-ups of my face in front of the places I visit. These tasks were created by the devices. They did not exist before the cellular telephone. You are not making your life more efficient by quickly doing something that you did not do at all in the past. Just eat your food and let me enjoy mine.
  3. Read books that require batteries. Does this one really need an explanation? How much must you be a slave to change for its own sake to complicate reading with electronics?
  4. Make a single cup of weak coffee from a plastic pod, made from petroleum, that winds up in a landfill.
  5. Drink water out of plastic bottles, made from petroleum, that wind up in landfills. No one who does #4 or #5 can claim to be concerned about the environment.
  6. Computerize the telescopes I make. For me, the fun of stargazing comes from the tracking down of distant galaxies using my map reading skills. I enjoy the challenge of seeing objects that are on the limits of my vision. I do not want to reduce astronomy to “checking off” of some master list objects that a computer showed me. Why is that any different from looking at pictures of objects on line? How could you be sure some graphic designer did not create images of fictional galaxies and put them on line to fool you? I enjoy becoming familiar with the cosmos, getting in touch with our ancestors who knew their way around the sky. I know what I’m seeing is real.

It seems that everything in our society is about shortcuts. This makes people feel helpless and causes them to rely on people and machines that “know better.” For me, the process is always more important than the product. I wish more people approached life that way.

Do We Really Want This?

On the desk next to me sits the June issue of The Atlantic, face down. Staring up at me from the back cover, there is an ad for Qualcomm. It is built around a picture of a brain made of electrical wires:

 

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and it reads: “When will our devices think for themselves? When we connected the phone to the Internet, the phone became smart. When our next inventions connect billions more things, life will be even smarter. Why Wait™”

I would ask a different question: who in his right mind would want devices to think for themselves? (I know, and you’ll need to read on to find out.) I find so many facets of this ad objectionable that I have a hard time knowing where to start.

Consider how many inanimate objects popular culture calls “smart.” Cellular telephones

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miniature automobiles

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performance goals

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white boards for presentations

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and even grade-level assessments in schools. But, how smart are they? I’ll bet you have no trouble remembering an occasion where a work presentation or a phone call or a car ride came to a screeching halt because of a technical glitch. After tapping a few keys and maybe jiggling a plug or two, everyone looked at everyone else, grinned sheepishly, shrugged, and said, “Technology!” Then, they either proceeded without it or CALLED A PERSON with technical expertise to fix it.

If the device had actually been smart, it would have diagnosed and remedied the problem by itself, or even prevented the glitch in the first place. On the other hand, the guy who saved your bacon actually is smart. Machines cannot do anything more than follow directions from people. (Remember this point for later.)

Consider my experience house sitting recently. The owners had collected quite a few machines that were labeled as “smart.” One was an electric kettle. Why was it “smart?” Because it could bring your water to any temperature less than or equal to the boiling point and hold it there. How could it accomplish such magic? It contained A THERMOSTAT, a simple mechanical device found in virtually every house and automobile engine throughout the TWENTIETH CENTURY. A second was a water dispenser on a refrigerator that could also make crushed or cubed ice. The Brady Bunch ‘fridge could do that!

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The third was a stick blender. A hand-held device that used a motor to spin blades. (?) Why are we as a society so eager to call things smart that aren’t?

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As humans evolved,  our physical prowess was much less than that of the animals against which we competed. We only survived as a species because we could figure out solutions with our brains. Indeed, our species name, Homo sapiens, means “wise man.” Look at any classic science fiction.

 

Pundits predicted that, in the future, machines would be for manual labor, freeing up humans to do what they do best: think and solve problems. But we have actually done the opposite: we want our machines to think while we do more manual labor than we used to. (Photographing food, anyone? Doing thousands of curls a day by checking the ‘phone?)

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We already feel helpless to spell, navigate while driving, or talk to “friends” without devices. How soon until we completely become the victims, like the extinct animals who did not have the thinking ability of humans? I experienced the early stages of this during the aforementioned house sitting episode.  Every night, I would set the temperature control to make the room comfortably cool while I slept. By the early morning, I would wake up sweating. The system “thought” the proper temperature for the overnight hours was ten degrees higher than what I wanted, and there was nothing I could do to change it. How bad will it get when we let computers control our shopping habits?

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Oh, right. They already do that. And people want to introduce voting by personal device?

We should also think about the emphasis schools now place on “integrating technology into lessons.” Learning now equals being surrounded by computerized gadgets. What is this except government-sanctioned product placement? Everyone knows that President Eisenhower warned about the danger of empowering the military-industrial complex. Few remember that, in this farewell speech, he identified a decrease in intellectual curiosity as an important symptom of the problem. And how would we recognize that the decrease was occurring? Computers in schools would outnumber blackboards. Really. Read the speech.

So, who really wants this? Who wants society to believe that machines can think and people cannot? Who wants individual humans to be completely reliant on devices?

 

 

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(The guy who gives directions to the devices, whom you’re making rich by buying them.)

So, Why Wait™ for our devices to think for themselves? Because it means they will no longer be ours. Jane, get me off this crazy thing.