Archive for December, 2016

I am now a Luddite

It was just a matter of time.

As someone who spent his prime driving years in Buffalo, NY, the notion of self-driving cars has struck me as pretty absurd. Thus far the guidance systems for these cars tend to miss potholes and black ice. They are hardly better at avoiding lurching pedestrians, like drunken revellers hopping across busy streets from one bar to another (or jumping off a balcony and hoping to hit a snowbank but missing).

Uber’s attempt to test-launch its autonomous vehicles in San Francisco this month did not go well.

Without permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the company rolled out self-driving cars in San Francisco, albeit the kind that have a human pilot in the front seat just in case. The cars were almost immediately caught running red lights and stop signs and barely missing pedestrians, prompting the DMV and state Attorney General Kamala Harris to demand that they cease operations. Uber refused, citing an “important issue of principle.”

Days later, Uber acknowledged that the vehicles have a problem with unsafe turns across bike lanes, something they knew in pre-launch tests before placing the cars on roadways with lots of bikes, like in San Francisco. It must have been an important principle or something. Eventually, Uber bugged out of San Francisco after the DMV revoked registration on all its vehicles. But don’t weep for Uber: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey welcomed them into the state for a pilot project in Phoenix.

Maybe concerns about beta-testing robotic steel projectiles alongside American citizens amount to mere griping. But it actually reveals a core conundrum with this whole self-driving car model. Most experts on autonomous vehicles believe that only real-world field tests, not simulations, will refine the technology so it can interact with often imperfect and irrational humans without killing them. Yes, ordinary humans kill 35,000 people a year while driving, but I suspect people will have far less tolerance for machine errors leading to similar levels of carnage.

h/t eschaton


From Clarissa’s blog:

Sociability is difficult not because it’s hard to socialize but because I never know if my sociability switch will turn on at any given time. When I approach people or people approach me, there are two possible scenarios:

  1. Sociability switch flips, and I become the most charming, gregarious, exciting person ever.
  2. Sociability switch decides to remain inactive and I feel intolerable boredom. I can try to conceal it but the boredom is overwhelming.

The bad part is that I can’t predict when each scenario will unfold. I don’t suffer from not knowing how to engage with people or how to make small talk. I’m actually great at it because I don’t understand the concept of worrying what people think about me. What I do suffer from is frequent and uncontrollable attacks of not wanting to engage.

It feels very weird when in the middle of a conversation I lose all interest and become extremely bored but not because of anything the other person said or did.

It’s equally disturbing when I open my mouth and all of a sudden this very charming, talkative persona appears.

Saint Robert

ROBERT OF KNARESBOROUGH (1160 – 1218), hermit. The son of an important townsman of York, Robert became a cleric early in life. As a subdeacon he was a novice at the Cistercian abbey of Newminster, but he stayed only a few months. He then chose to live as a hermit at Knaresborough in a cave where another hermit, also in residence, was a knight in hiding from Richard I, on whose death (1199) he returned to his wife. Robert continued there for some years, until a wealthy widow offered him a cell and chapel at Rudfarlington, near by. A year later this hermitage was destroyed by bandits, so Robert lived at Spofforth under the church wall for a few months, then at Hedley (near Tadcaster), where he found the monks too easy-going, before returning to Rudfarlington. Here he had four servants and kept livestock, but was soon in trouble with William de Stuteville, constable of Knaresborough castle, for harbouring thieves and outlaws. The charge may have been true, for Robert was well known for charity to the destitute. The hermitage was destroyed by William; Robert returned to his cave at Knaresborough, where he lived for the rest of his life.

His benefactors included King John who gave him forty acres of land in 1216, which he eventually accepted for the poor and so refused to pay tithes on it. William de Stuteville also gave him land and cows. Robert had a companion named Yves, who remained with him for the rest of his life.

Robert’s death, like much of his life, was controversial. Cistercian monks from Fountains tried unsuccessfully to aggregate him to their Order on his death-bed and, after his death on 24 September, to bury his body in their church. But he refused the first and foiled the second by arranging for his burial in the chapel beside his cave.

– from ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Saints’ by David Hugh Farmer (Clarendon, 1978)

I do love this St. Robert.

The entrance to his cave, dug out of limestone, is shown below.


Merry Christmas!

This is very funny.

God bless Patti Smith

And Mr. Dylan.

“If not …”

It is practically impossible to make it through the day without seeing or hearing someone use “if not” to mean “maybe even,” as in: “Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of his era, *if not* of all time” when what’s clearly meant is this: “Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of his era, *maybe even* of all time.”

We will lose this usage battle, alas, and “if not” will join that list of words or phrases that are their own opposites.

The authors of The Hobo Ethical Code (1889) used the phrase “if not” poignantly (and correctly):

When jungling* in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.

The Code did not ask its hobo readers to imagine that others might be even worse off than themselves, for to do so might play down the troubles of someone who was at rock bottom, better off than no one.

Now read the quoted sentence again, replacing “if not” with “maybe even” – and experience how different it feels.

*About the “hobo jungles.”



Fences and crowds

A comparison worthy of Thomas Szasz (so poignant, so clear – and, that it tells us about ourselves, from two sides of mortality) – from my friend Clarissa:

In Ukraine graves are separated by fences so that people can get some boundaries around them at least in death. Of course, they still have family members crowding them inside the enclosures but at least the strangers stay out.

In North America, graves are not separated. This brings people out of isolation at least in death.