Baby, Won’t You Drive My Car?

So, would you buy a self-driving car?

How about a car that can park itself, stays in its lane, makes sure you stop safely, and makes sure you don’t accelerate too fast?

I’m not sure how a car that can do all that would not be a self-driving car, but apparently it isn’t.

It has been interesting to me to watch the developments as self-driving cars improve.  There was a race some years ago where cars were competing to drive a hundred miles without a driver.  I think one made it six hundred yards.  (Don’t quote me on that – I didn’t bother to do any research on that.)  The next thing we know, Google has self-driving cars licensed to operate in multiple states, and political positions have been staked out.

Google has been developing self-driving cars: you get in them, they take you where you want to go.  Other car companies have been incrementally developing computer assistance to human driven cars.  Honda, for example, had a recent TV ad showing off how all of its cars now come with automated parking assist.

The distinction made was that Google’s model had a car driving, a human around in case something went wrong, while other car companies had humans driving but with the car able to take over.

Neither version is even market-ready, and the distinction has nearly vanished.

Except, apparently in the world of marketing.  Check out this article.  Apparently people do want self-driving cars.  They just don’t want anyone to say it out loud.

By the way, I was particularly amused by Ford making a car that will stick to the speed limit, but they’re afraid to sell it in the US.  I recall a story – which I will present only as urban legend – that when Japanese cars were first sold here back in the 1960s, the speedometers only went up to the speed limit, and broke if you went any faster.  Allegedly the conformist, rule-following Japanese could not fathom an American’s need / desire to defy the speed limit.  Anyway, it has Ford worried.

So: car companies make a product that has, for four or five generations now, been sold based on freedom, excitement, and personal power.  How do you promote it when it’s become so built up with safety features that there is arguably little of any of those things?  If my car is just going to go the speed limit anyway, why should I buy something with 265 horsepower?

I was posing the question of self-driving cars a few years ago to a friend of mine.  He said no way – he’s written too much software to trust a car run by a computer.

Other people raise the insurance question: if a computer-driven car runs into something, who pays?  Google – recognizing the blocking issue represented there – stepped up to say it would be the responsible party for its cars.

For my part, I’m not very interested in the incremental features.  I already know how to parallel park, but I also do so little of it, I don’t need that to be something else that can break.  But everyone’s got their thing.  Mine is navigation: I trust that they’ll be able to build a car that won’t crash and kill me, but I just don’t trust that the car will actually get where I want to go using a route that won’t drive me insane.

Everyone has their own pet peeve.

So, while I’m not particularly interested in the bells and whistles, if you want to sell me a car that I can sleep in while it drives me, I’m interested.  Don’t sell me a car anymore: sell me transportation.  The experience of rail travel, without coach class.

Some people think that the destiny here is shared cars.  After all, if the car can drive on its own, it can go do something else after it drops you off at work.  It could deliver packages for Amazon or pizza for Domino’s.  And if all the cars are going to follow the same rules, there’s no point in getting a fancy sports car, as we’re all going to be in the same line of expressway traffic going 54 miles an hour.

I rather like the idea of shared cars.  I absolutely love the idea that we could revolutionize car design if a human doesn’t have to drive it.  Who needs a windshield?  Or a steering wheel?  Why do the seats all have to face forward?  Okay, there’s actually a decent reason for that last one (it’s called motion sickness), but think of what you could do with car design.

It’s possible that some science fiction movies have given us some insight there.  In “Total Recall” (the Arnold Schwarzenegger version), the cabs are automatically driven, but their layout is basically the same as if they had a driver.  With the addition of an annoying robot, however.  In “The Demolition Man”, the cars have exactly the same configuration, only you can’t actually do anything to influence how the car drives.  This turns out to be a plot point when Sylvester Stallone has to break into a museum to steal a car he can drive himself in order to chase the bad guys.

So, were the movie-makers lazy here, creating a fascinating, multi-level futuristic society, but not bothering to redesign the car?  Maybe, but I suspect something else.  It might just be a reluctance to accept something new.  More likely, we’ll want to believe we’re in control, even while we’re handing all the important work over to a computer.  Make it do everything, just give us a steering wheel so we can pretend we’re driving.  Just like a kiddie ride at an old amusement park: you’re in a car, it’s got a steering wheel, but it happens to be on tracks.  But it sure is fun to turn the steering wheel!


Chapbooks for the 21st Century

So, who out there knows what a chapbook is?  Raise your hands – don’t be shy!  I’m not seeing many hands up…

Permit me to enlighten you, then.  It’s my pleasure.  No, really – it is my pleasure!

Chapbooks basically vanished from popular culture around the mid-19th century.  They were the grocery store tabloid of their time: they usually were made up of poems, ballads, and badly written popular fiction and history.  Think “National Enquirer” without the fact-checking and high journalistic standards.  Besides the Bible, they often the only written material people in rural areas could ever get their hands on, and so were a considerable influence on popular culture.

Well you might say, gosh, we don’t need more cheaply produced popular entertainment around here.  We’ve got plenty of the expensive kind!

How true.  However, the point here is not to reproduce the content, but take a concept and see what we can do with it, meeting modern needs and using modern means.

A rough equivalent of the chapbook existed in the Soviet Union: samizdat.  Samizdat was self-written, self-published material, covering themes such as literature, poetry, politics, and religion.  The quality of the physical product was about that of chapbooks: bad printing, bad binding, lots of typographical errors, and bad illustrations.  However, the medium avoided official censorship and was a significant way to communicate among the artistic elite.

Like chapbooks, samizdat (and its relatives in other repressive regimes) was a product of its place and time.  What our own place and time have given us is the opportunity to reinvent the concept for our own purposes.

Image goes wavy as we move to the flashback scene

A bunch of years ago I got back into writing.  I’d done a lot of fiction writing in college and right after it and then given it up.  I was convinced I wasn’t going to ever be published, and I had also come to the conclusion that I wasn’t all that good a writer.  Years passed, and I came to an idea for a novel that I simply had to write.  The result was “The Last Great Act of Defiance”.  After showing it to a select and highly biased audience, I decided to share it with some other friends and family.  However, even as short a novel as this cost something close to $50 to photocopy.  Then I discovered print on demand.

Print on demand services produce a bookstore-quality book at a bookstore price.  I’m referring to the physical product there: if you want help on the content, that’s an extra fee.  (No seriously – the service I use offers editorial and marketing services at a cost.)  They also offer a web page for sales, and now, with some effort, you can get your book linked to websites like Amazon.  For example, here’s my latest book’s entry on Amazon.  I’m not doing any real marketing, so it’s not like this placement is turning my book into a best-seller, but it’s still out there.

Now, you might come to the conclusion that this is just Pinterest and Etsy for frustrated authors and poets.  Maybe you’re not a writer, or maybe you think there’s no point in being a writer if you’re not published so that people can find your books in a bookstore, so where’s the so what?

Here’s where it’s time to open your mind to the possibilities.

Don’t think of books.  Don’t think of three hundred pages of highly edited, well-thought out and structured content.

Think of anything you’d want to have all in one place.  It could be all your favorite poems.  Lyrics to favorite songs.  Links to your favorite YouTube videos.  Meaningful magazine articles.  Every poem your daughter ever wrote, organized chronologically.  Your diary or journal entries.  Your blog articles.

Just as MP3 players let us create our own albums (a.k.a., playlists), you can create your own anthology or reference book.  Always wondering what book had that great line you always want to quote?  There’s your answer.

You don’t even need to create physical books.  I believe sales of e-books surpassed sales of physical books in the United States a couple of years ago, which suggests that we’re all pretty much walking around with some form of e-reader.  You can use print on demand to create e-books, or you can go simpler and make PDF files.  If you’re the only audience, you can use OneNote, Evernote, Word, Google Docs – whatever you want to collect your thoughts in.

You can keep it to yourself or share it.  I’ve assembled my favorite poems, articles, and so on into two volumes (so far), conveniently accessible on my local e-reader device.  You do have to be mindful if you want to share, however.  “Fair use” only goes so far: you can’t sell works that someone else copyrighted!

Time Machine to the Present

On the Chicago Tribune site today was a link to the scanned-in version of the January 12, 1969, edition of the Tribune.  In particular, there was a front page article entitled “Experts Preview ‘Good Life’ for Chicagoans in 21st Century”.  That was the hook that grabbed me: I’m always a sucker for past views of our future paradise.

In my “Old Wombat’s Concise History of the World”, I wrote a section on the history of the future.  The point was that we are constantly redefining what the future is going to look like.  Usually people ask, “Where’s my flying car?”  Some authors, however, have dealt more specifically with social predictions.  Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” (1888) and H.G. Wells’ “When the Sleeper Awakes” (1899) are two classics in the genre.  In the end, both elements can be entertaining.

Anyway, I was fascinated to check into what people in 1969 thought the future would look like.  Through a “day in the life” scenario, we get shown some of those predictions.

–              [Chicago] Metro population reaches 12 million – Nope.

–              Per Capita Income Tops $10,000 – Not sure whether that was supposed to be for Chicago, Illinois, or U.S., but we got that one covered.

–              City [African-American] Population Exceeds White – Whites are 45% of Chicago’s population as of 2010 compared to Black / African American at 32.9%; if you compare White, non-Hispanic, though, that’s only 31.7% – I’ll call it a tie.

–              200-story vertical community open – Nope.

–              Breakfast prepared in a microwave oven – Since microwaves were pretty cutting edge in 1969, I give points for vision here, but I’m calling this a tie also, as we don’t prepare as much food in microwaves as past futurists thought we would.

–              Automatic laundry center washes, dries, and folds clothes – Nope.

–              Using computers to prepare for standardized tests at school – Yes.

–              That computer is a leased service (time share) – Wow, missed that one by a mile.  Maybe I’m being pedantic on the service used, however.

–              Wireless microphone for household intercom – I’ll call that a tie: we’d probably just use a cell phone to text across the house.

–              Dad drives electric car to work – I’ll give that a yes: electric cars are mainstream enough for that.

–              Dad recharges the car at a plug-in at the commuter station parking lot – Yes.

–              Student at school uses “electronic study carrel” to access the campus library, Chicago public library, and the Library of Congress – That’s pretty insightful, really: it’s halfway to the internet.  Calling it a yes.

–              Mom uses wireless telephone to plan a shopping trip with a friend – Yes, if still a bit sexist.

–              6 and a half hour day, 4 day work week – Uh, no.

–              Mom makes television-telephone call – Yes, but we call it Skype.

–              “Highway cruiser” car (which still runs on gasoline) has many comforts of home, including a coffee maker – Gotta say no on that one.

–              Speed limit on the expressway is 100 miles an hour – I’m calling this one a tie.  The official limits on Chicago expressways are still 55, but when the traffic’s moving, 80 isn’t a rarity.  100 isn’t unknown, but it’s still dangerous (and illegal).

–              Mom and friend take electric tramway through suburban shopping / business complex – No.

–              Mom shops using electronic payment – Took the writer a whole paragraph to describe what we call a debit card, but yes.

–              Kids walking home listen to music through ear buds – Yes.

–              Mom watches giant screen TV while making cooking – Yes.

–              Mom dictates recipe notes and then edits them on a computer – Calling this a tie: the technology described exists but I really don’t think anyone does this.

–              Mom reviews video tape library and erases tapes the family doesn’t watch any more – Yes, only we call this a DVR.

–              Kid asks mom when they’re going to get a 3-D wall TV set – Yes, only I think we’ve decided that 3-D TV is kind of a fad.  Also giving this a nod because it was specific about the TV being on the wall, which is rather common now.

–              House has built-in heating and cooling panels in the walls – Nope.

–              Kids play with mathematical puzzles on community center computer – Yes, only we call those puzzles Angry Birds.

–              Sanitation district uses lasers to eradicate waste that can’t be recycled – Partial points for the recycling, so I’ll give this a tie.

–              Kids want to go on vacation to an orbital resort – Nope, we still don’t vacation in space.  Stop asking.

–              Dad tries to make the trip to Singapore sound more fun (okay, the actual point is that the flight to Singapore is only supposed to take 45 minutes) – No.

So, to the scoreboard: 13 for yes, 10 for no, and 6 ties.  Pretty good, really, and no mention of flying cars.

And what was even more interesting?  Reading the rest of the newspaper.

For one thing, this was the Sunday newspaper, which was 360 pages.  Let me write that again in words: three hundred and sixty pages!

Some of the interest lies in the style of writing, with headlines (and stories) like:

–              “Mrs. Johnson Glad that LBJ is Retiring” (this was a week before Nixon was inaugurated)

–              “2d Airliner of Day Hijacked to Havana”

–              “Mysterious Natural Chemicals May Be Key to Better Life” (some things never change!)

–              “Proposed Bill to Regulate Use of DDT: Aims at Protection of Lake Michigan”

–              “Intensified Police Training to Include Sociology” (could probably use a little more of that)

–              “Fishing Through the Ice Can be Enjoyable” (really)

Some things, of course, never change.  There’s a front page article about the outgoing governor of Illinois, Samuel Shapiro, naming 11 Circuit judges to the bench just before he yielded to the incoming governor, Richard Ogilvie.  Front-page headline in the Tribune for today (January 13, 2015): “[Governor Patrick] Quinn lays political traps for [Governor Bruce] Rauner on way out door”.  That’s Illinois politics for you.

Also interesting are the ads, especially prices.  There were a lot of ads for fur coats, for example.  How about a turtleneck sweater for $1.99?  Or a “giant screen handcrafted 21″ diag. portable television” for $169.96?  That’s in an “elegant, vinyl-clad metal cabinet that is a masterpiece in clean modern design”, by the way.  In the real future, no one will ever say “elegant, vinyl-clad” – and mean it.  While some amount of inflation has hit just about everything over the last 45 years, for electronics, we’re making out pretty well.  Wieboldt’s, for example, is selling an Admiral 23″ color TV – with both VHF AND UHF! – for $498, formerly $549.95.

Oh, yes – Goldblatt’s is selling “The New Senator … Electric Multiplier” for $139.88.  It adds, subtracts, and features automatic short cut multiplication.  Eventually, in the classifieds, I’d find listings for “comptometer operators”.  I had to look that one up.  A comptometer was a device where you selected all the digits at once for a number to add.  The technology was invented in the 1870s and lasted into the 1970s, when devices such as the New Senator finally killed them.  But you could have gotten a job just for knowing how to run one of those things.

Some of the bigger employment ads were especially interesting because the companies and the roles haven’t changed in all this time.  Texas Instruments needs sales engineers, Abbott needs engineers, Blue Cross Blue Shield needs auditors and system analysts, Continental Coffee needs food technologists, United Air Lines needs programmer analysts, Quaker Oats has numerous openings, and Loyola University Medical Center needs programmers (to do COBOL on an S/360, but hey!)

On that last one, even in 1969, companies knew that programmers were hard to find and needed special inducements.  One classified proclaims, “We have a swimming pool, a trout pond, profit sharing, and an IBM 360”.

One of my favorite headlines was “Miniskirt Ban Spurs Debate in California”.  This included the statement: “The Democrats promptly accused the Republicans of imposing on their constitutional right to look.”  This sort of sets the stage for noting the pervasive sexism in the paper, and not just in the view of the 21st century in which mom is still a homemaker.

For example, the want ads are actually divided into “Help Wanted – Men” and “Help Wanted – Women”.  Honest.  Unbelievable, in our day and age, but there it was.  There was a “Help Wanted – Men and Women” (also one for Miscellaneous) but it was very small.  In the “Employment Agencies – Women” section were such ads as “Mature Office Girls – Age Completely Open”.  There’s an entire category of job called “Girl Friday”; Jane Arden Personnel “Needs 100 Girls”; there’s also an opening for “Baby Doctor’s Girl”.  Comptometer and keypunch operator positions were very open for women, apparently.  One ad asked, “Want a Man’s Job?”  The Federal Reserve Bank invited interest with an ad headed “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS”, just like some burlesque show neon sign.  How did this not seem inappropriate, even then?

However, the seeds of hope are there to be found, if you look hard enough.  On page 130, deep in Section 5 after a column by Vincent Price – yes, that Vincent Price – is Mary Merryfield’s column.  Mary looks like she was born full-grown in 1951, put on her librarian glasses and hasn’t changed a bit since.  But she reports on a study conducted by the Sociology of Family Living classes at Niles Township high school, surveying kids and their parents about the proper role of a woman in tomorrow’s society.

The parents were in favor of girls finishing college, having outside interests and (gasp!) even part-time jobs … as long as that didn’t interfere with responsibilities at home.  Many mothers also noted that they did not want their daughters to compete with men professionally.  Promisingly, however, girls generally responded that they wanted a job that they could enjoy, and that would be fulfilling and rewarding, although some questioned finishing college if they would end up as housewives anyway.  Most, though, wanted homemaking and a career.

Perhaps the real indicator of where society headed comes from the viewpoint of the boys, who said “the ideal life of the modern woman is one of opportunity equal to others, male and female.  She should travel, finish college, establish a career…”

The experts didn’t see that one coming, apparently, but the high school boys at Niles Township did!