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Category: Technology

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” – Words on the plaque left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11

There have and will be many words written and numerous commemorations broadcast this week to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first time humans set foot on the moon. For that reason, and others of a more personal nature, this will be an account of my own journey leading up to that momentous event, and since, and not any kind of historic or scientific record of the flight of Apollo 11 or the first moon landing. Yes, it’s long. But it’s been a long trip.

What happened on July 20 and 21, 1969, to me was the culmination not just of my own interest in space and space exploration that I had pursued since I was a child, but the result of many centuries of human scientific development and evolution, and also the climax of the eons that preceded them when primitive humans looked up at the moon with wonder, yearning, and maybe even fear. That phrase on the Apollo 11 plaque, “We came in peace for all mankind,” best summed up my feelings on that historic night.

The Early Years

I can’t say specifically what triggered my early interest in space, except perhaps a general interest in science, but I do know that by the age of 9 I was writing novellas about future space explorers engaged in both dramatic and mundane tasks in the far reaches of the solar system. Starring protagonist Fairleigh Starr and his intrepid crew aboard the space freighter Euphrates, I still have those little string-bound books and their illustrative covers, hand-drawn in crayon on cardboard, somewhere in my archives. I also still have some of my early astronomy books.

I don’t remember the exact year or my age, but at some point my father got me an actual, real, reflecting telescope, and this opened up new vistas beyond our planet to me. Many were the nights he and I would brave the cold out in our driveway pointing the telescope toward the moon and beyond. Under the red skies of Northeastern New Jersey, illuminated as they were by the myriad lights of the New York Metro area, it was hard, if not impossible, to see much beyond the biggest and brightest celestial objects, the moon being paramount among them. All these decades later I can still picture in my mind’s eye the distinct craters and the bright silvery surface of earth’s sole natural satellite as seen vividly through that telescope.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were heady times for anyone interested in space exploration. In fact, they were heady times even for those not so interested. As the United States faltered through one failed launch after another, the Soviets – known more generally to us as the Russians – were succeeding in their advance into space. The thing that got our attention more than anything was the successful launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957. More than attention, it struck fear into the hearts of many, including my own mother, who tucked her 7-year-old son, being me, into bed one post-Sputnik night, saying as she did, “I don’t think we’re going to live to see Christmas this year.” Thanks for that, Mom.

As it turned out, we did survive to see that Christmas, and many since. But again it was the Russians who were first to send a man not just into space, but into orbit, when cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin circled the earth one time on April 15, 1961. Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, the U.S. finally succeeded in launching the first American into space, astronaut Alan Shephard, on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight launched atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral. Watching the launch and recovery of the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule on TV still remains in my memory, as do the other Mercury launches and recoveries to follow. And then, nine months later on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, three times, aboard the capsule Friendship 7, and the U.S. took the lead in what was clearly a space race. By then I was hooked on space, and there was no looking back.

What led us on the path to the moon was a speech President John Kennedy gave to Congress on May 25, 1961, when he said that the U.S. “. . . should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Kennedy repeated the same objective in a now-famous speech he delivered to 40,000 people in the stadium at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962, saying, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The course was set to the moon, and despite a chorus of naysayers, the objective was reached, Kennedy’s challenge fulfilled, on July 20, 1969.

The mission of Apollo 11 had lifted off four days earlier, on July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m. EDT (13:32 UTC), from Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral – known at the time as Cape Kennedy in JFK’s honor – carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins toward the moon. A product of the work of Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers brought to the U.S. following World War II, the Saturn V rocket that bore them aloft was, and remains, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, so loud on launch its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 12 miles away. Armstrong later described the initial ascent as a very bumpy ride, at least until first-stage separation, when he said things became smooth and totally silent. At that point, the world waited, and watched.

“The Eagle Has Landed”

July 1969, exactly a half century ago, was a personally tumultuous time for me. At 19 ½, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Rutgers University, I was in the midst of my first real affair, and that in itself was proving more challenging than I had bargained for (Sheila was an artist, she didn’t look back – thank you Bob Dylan for summing things up so well). I had a summer job mowing grass and picking up litter on the New Jersey Turnpike, out of the Secaucus yard in the most congested and polluted sector of the Pike in its final miles between Newark Airport and Exit 18, the northern terminus and gateway to the George Washington Bridge. I was living back at home for the summer and in a state of ongoing conflict with both my parents. Worse was how I sensed my father often didn’t have the heart for the conflict, but my mother goaded him into it and to appease or please her, he’d rise to the occasion.

It also was perhaps the most creative time of my life. On the many and prolonged breaks my maintenance team on the Turnpike would take, once Moe, our supervisor, had driven off and left us to our own devices, we would drop our mowers and tools and retreat to the shade under an overpass, or occasionally wander off the Pike to some nearby diner for a late breakfast. While the other guys sat around and shot the shit for hours, I would sequester myself to write and draw in my own imagined, but productive, world. Along with my writing, I was able to draw in ways I had never before, nor since, been capable of. If you can imagine completely changing the gears in your head, that was what it was like that summer.

I don’t remember all the details or reasons, but the small group of friends of which Sheila and I were a part could not be together the night of the moon landing. It was a Sunday night, July 20, and I had work the next morning, moon landing or no moon landing. As I recall, my high school friend John Horohan was with his girlfriend Jane, who had introduced me to Sheila, and I don’t remember whether Sheila was with them or somewhere else. She wasn’t with me, though, nor I with her, which was the main thing.

The lunar lander had touched down on the moon’s surface earlier that afternoon, almost out of fuel and in a different location – the Sea of Tranquility – than initially planned, at 4:17 p.m. EDT (20:17 UTC). As it turned out, Armstrong had to take over the controls of the lander following a computer overload and finding too many bus-sized boulders at the initial West Crater landing site. It was with relief when Mission Control, along with the rest of the world, heard Armstrong’s words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The actual moon walk was planned for later that night, and that to us was the big event. I had been sleeping out on our enclosed back porch, as I was wont to do in the summers spent at home, and that night I was watching there in the dark, on the small TV we kept on the porch, the events unfolding 240,000 miles away on the moon. On the moon! My parents were upstairs in their room also watching on their TV, and we could have been on separate planets for the divide between us on that historic night. Other than some forays my mother would make down to check on me – mostly to harass me for staying up past my alleged bedtime, as I recall – we had little or no contact that night.

The telephone provided the link between me and my friends, a kind of lifeline as it were, and we stayed in touch intermittently via it as the time approached for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step out of the lunar lander and descend the craft’s ladder to the surface of the moon. As we and 600 million other people around the globe watched, that came at 10:56 p.m. EDT (02:56 UTC on July 21), when Armstrong stepped down onto the lunar surface, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (controversy has dogged those words ever since, and it’s pretty well believed that a blip in the radio transmission changed the intended and spoken “one small step for a man” to what is commonly attributed to Armstrong). Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder, and together, as we watched in fascination and through bleary eyes and blurry black and white video images, the pair bounced around on the lunar surface, collecting moon rocks as they did, for the next two and a quarter hours. Meanwhile, Collins, in the command module, named Columbia, orbited the moon, keeping an eye on things from 69 miles above the lunar surface.

Little did I realize at the time what connections I would have with Armstrong, and especially Aldrin, and other men who set foot on the moon, a decade and a half later.

The Aftermath

What I saw in the lunar mission and the success of Apollo 11 was not just a victory and amazing achievement for America, but the culmination of centuries of discoveries and achievements of many people of many nationalities. There was Copernicus, a Pole, who in the Sixteenth Century, postulated a universe with the sun, not the earth, at its center. He was preceded in the heliocentric theory by Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek, eighteen centuries earlier, and followed in the next century by Galileo, an Italian, who was declared a heretic for his beliefs by the Catholic Church in 1633. It took the Church three more centuries to finally concede that it’s supposedly infallible belief was, well, wrong. Galileo’s theories of gravity also proved to be correct, not bad for a heretic.

There was Newton, an Englishman, and his discoveries of the laws of physics. And Lippershey, a Dutchman, who invented the telescope. And da Vinci, another Italian, who had invented an actual flying machine – the helicopter – and the parachute, and who also had postulated a heliocentric universe. The Chinese in the Ninth Century invented the rocket, but Goddard, an American, invented the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. And von Braun and the other German rocket engineers brought it all together, with American support and funding, with the Saturn V. I don’t mean this list to be inclusive, but simply illustrative of the worldwide, global contributions over the centuries that finally resulted in Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

Indeed, as the plaque said, “We came in peace for all mankind.” And at the moment of mankind’s first steps on the moon and the days that followed, the world was largely united in hailing a feat that previously existed only in the realm of dreams and the imagination. Of course, there are still those on the fringe who continue to imagine that the whole moon landing was staged, that the astronauts descended to some hidden chamber under the launch pad or went to Hollywood, where there was a set made to look like a moonscape and the whole thing was an elaborate deception. And when I was posted as a diplomat to Albania in the 1990s, people there said they had been told by the previous Communist regime that it was the Russians, not the Americans, who had landed men on the moon.

A week after the lunar landing and walk, on July 27, 1969, my father died, unexpectedly, in front of me, in the midst of one more of our low-level conflicts. He had gotten to witness people walking on the moon, something almost unimaginable at the time of his birth in 1913, and then he was gone. And thus, with his death, began the rest of my life, the half century that followed.

After Apollo 11, there were just six more lunar missions – five lunar landings, one short of what was planned when Apollo 13 ran into serious problems en route to the moon and had to return to earth without reaching its destination. Later, as a journalist covering the space program, I lost count of the number of times when engineers and managers who had been involved with the Apollo program told me that getting men to the moon was not the big challenge of the Apollo program. It was getting the crew of Apollo 13 back alive. In any event, with the splashdown of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972, the moon program was over, less than three and a half years after the launch of Apollo 11. The country, embroiled in the Vietnam War and deeply divided, was withdrawing into itself, and Congress cut NASA’s funding. What was left of funding for manned space flight was directed toward the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviet Union and three missions of Skylab, the world’s first space station. After all the years of striving to reach the moon, and meeting the challenge President Kennedy laid down, we reverted to missions in low earth orbit. To this day, that is where we have remained.

What struck me then, and continues to trouble me, is how for eons people looked to the heavens and wondered and dreamed of what it would be like to walk on the moon. And now billions of people, billions of children, and adults, were born and lived since the last human left the moon, and again are left to look toward the heavens, toward the moon, and wonder and dream, just as primitive humans did millennia ago.

As America and the space program drifted through the 1970s, I looked inward, too, and essentially cut myself off from what was going on in the world, and what remained of the space program. I had this peculiar idea that if I cut off the news of the world and its problems those problems would go away and leave me alone. It didn’t take more than several years to realize that’s not how things work.

A Return to Space

My return to space came in 1982. After detours through Woodstock and Key West and grad school at the University of Florida, I wound up taking up a reporting job in Cocoa, Fla., at the doorstep to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. While I was with the weekly paper, The Tribune, I struck up a friendship with the lead reporter, Peter Adams, at our sister daily, TODAY (now FLORIDA TODAY). Perhaps it could only happen in Brevard County, Fla., but the lead reporter was the Science Writer, formerly known as the Aerospace Writer, whose primary duty entailed covering the space program.

The Space Shuttle program was under way, with the launch of the orbiter Columbia and STS-1 in April of 1981. Peter invited me to accompany him to witness a launch of the Shuttle at KSC, the launch of Columbia and STS-5 on November 11, 1982. It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever witnessed, and again, I was hooked. I later finagled my first assignment actually covering a space launch, as a freelancer for The Globe and Mail of Toronto, reporting on the launch of a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral carrying a Canadian satellite that subsequently failed to go into orbit and was lost. Peter and I continued to remain in close contact, and when he left the paper to go to The Orlando Sentinel, our main competition, he recommended me for the choice position of Science Writer. I not only moved to my first position on a daily, but to the premier reporting position, with the charge to report daily on the space program and other science topics.

The first launch I was to cover as primary reporter was the maiden launch of the new orbiter, Challenger. But before it could launch I received a phone call from a confidential informant late one night in the newsroom. The word was that a problem with the Shuttle’s main engines had been discovered and the launch would be delayed, possibly for months. I was able to chase down other sources to confirm the report, and we were first to break the story of Challenger’s impending lengthy delay, which turned out to be totally correct. I had already managed to win the confidence of those closest to the Shuttle program and to break my first big story.

Challenger finally did launch on April 4, 1983, carrying a tracking and relay satellite into orbit. The flight, the first of many Space Shuttle missions I would cover, also featured the first EVA – Extra-Vehicular Activity, or space walk – of the Shuttle program. In my time as Science Writer, I got to cover many other firsts: The first flight of Spacelab. The first American woman in space. The first flight of two women in space, and the first space walk by an American woman. The first African-American in space. The first Shuttle night launch. The first launch of the orbiter Discovery. The first Shuttle landing at KSC. The first recovery and return to earth of orbiting satellites. The first classified Department of Defense Shuttle mission. The first in-space repair of an orbiting satellite. The first flight of a politician in space. Many of my stories got national play via the Gannett News Service and appearance in USA TODAY, for which TODAY served as the model.

I approached my work as a Science Writer the same way I approached other reporting positions I had filled, which was to build in as much diversity and have as much fun with it as I could, all while doing a competent and credible job of reporting. I felt my specialty was taking highly complex scientific and technical details and issues and translating them in a way that just about any reader could understand, without dumbing them down. In the course of my term, I managed to score a wonderful stint at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., got to visit the WET-F – the huge water tank where astronauts practice doing EVAs in simulated weightlessness – in Houston, launched my own weather rocket, the Yacenda-1, from Cape Canaveral, flew aboard a NOAA hurricane tracker plane through a tropical storm, rode on the huge transporter that carried the Shuttle to the launch pad, and sat at desks of scientists with actual moon rocks on them. I came up with the term “astroworker” – a word my editors hated and took out at every chance they could, which is why you’ve never seen it – to encapsulate the kind of manual activity many astronauts and mission specialists engage in while in space.

More than anything was the thrill of meeting, interviewing, and in some cases spending time with people who had helped establish America’s place in space, people that had just been names bordering on mythological to me, and now I had the opportunity to be face-to-face with them. I got to interview and know half the men who had walked on the moon. It was said even then that Neil Armstrong rarely granted interviews. I had a telephone interview with him while he was a professor in Ohio, and he was indeed the humble, quiet, non-self-aggrandizing person I had been told he was. And I got to pal around for several days with Buzz Aldrin, who was and is every bit the character he was ascribed to being, though also knowledgeable and serious about America’s space pursuits. He told me of what was to be his next mission, setting up a space science program at the University of North Dakota. I love that the President featured Aldrin at the most recent State of the Union address.

I got to visit Edgar Mitchell and meet his family aboard Mitchell’s yacht when it was docked in the Brevard County. I had the opportunity to interview Alan Bean about his art and Alan Shephard about his beer business. I had a number of encounters with Fred Haise, of Apollo 13 fame, both as a reporter and later as someone bidding for business from the company with which he became an executive, Grumman Aerospace. As then chief of the astronaut corps, John Young was someone I got to see and quote in numerous news conferences. I was able to meet Tom Stafford at an evening event. Though he wasn’t an astronaut, I got to interview Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to tell about it. And, a high point, I got to hang out with Walt Cunningham of Apollo 7 fame during some very entertaining days at Cape Canaveral when I had invited him to speak at a conference I helped organize, and then some time later have lunch with him at Brennan’s in Houston. I still remember the moment when we were waiting to board a tour bus at KSC and Cunningham was sitting on top of a waste basket, just as a place to rest. The bus driver informed us we needed to get tickets to take the tour, and then, realizing who the unassuming guy sitting on the trash can was, came bounding back off the bus, practically giddy and shaking, blurting out, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cunningham! I didn’t recognize you at first! Of course you don’t need a ticket! Anything you want, Mr. Cunningham!”

Along with all the other names and personalities, I got to interview Judy Resnik, one of my most memorable interviews. I still have the tape of that interview in which Resnik said she didn’t fear going up on the Shuttle since NASA took such care looking after the astronauts’ safety. When Challenger blew up on the bitterly cold morning of January 28, 1986, taking the lives of Resnik and her six crew mates with it, NASA wasn’t looking out for the astronauts’ safety, and neither was it when Columbia disintegrated on reentry on February 1, 2003. Both were avoidable disasters.

Looking Forward

I was no longer covering the space program at the time of the Challenger disaster — in fact, earlier the very morning it occurred I had looked toward the space center and said to myself, “One day that thing is going to blow up and I won’t be there when it does” — but I still was involved with space through my public relations firm, ITech International, which specialized in aerospace and high technology, among other areas. To me, the Challenger disaster was personal, both on account of the needless death of Judy Resnik and the other astronauts and specialists and the civilian school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, aboard, all of whom I had seen in news conferences and reported on, but because I helped bring Challenger into the world, covering its first launch, and the issues that had delayed that launch.

Following the Challenger disaster my old paper, TODAY, invited me to write an op-ed piece about the disaster and my views on where the country should go in its wake. In it I wrote how the Space Shuttle was equivalent to the early iterations of airliners that eventually led up to the DC-3, the first commercially successful airliner, and rather than expending money on another Shuttle orbiter, the nation should dedicate itself to new iterations of space transportation systems and go on to further space exploration. Obviously, Congress and NASA felt otherwise, and the space agency went on to build the orbiter Endeavour, which launched for the first time on May 7, 1992. And then, with the landing at KSC of the orbiter Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle program came to an end.

And now, 50 years after the triumph of Apollo 11, we remain confined to low earth orbit. The International Space Station, development of which began when I was still involved with the space program, is the sole embodiment of humans in space. Since the end of the Shuttle program, the U.S. doesn’t even have the means of bringing our own astronauts to and from the ISS, depending on Russian rockets to do so. There are commercial rockets in the late development stage that are expected to be able to carry people to and from the ISS, but they’re not certified for this purpose yet. In fact, much of what holds promise for the future of space exploration rests with private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing and several others.

I’m sure there is a lot of important work that goes on aboard the ISS, but I would venture that few people outside the program can name even one or two projects, specifically, that the ISS crews are working on. There is even credible argument that space is an expensive and not terribly great place for doing science. Regardless, whatever they are doing, it doesn’t provide the kind of excitement and global attention that deep-space exploration, most notably the Apollo lunar voyages, provided, and can provide. I am not denigrating the tremendously exciting and important and truly amazing unmanned space missions we’ve conducted. Our knowledge of the solar system and the universe beyond has been expanded enormously by these missions, and they should be continued. But somehow they lack the appeal and drama of manned missions of exploration to new destinations.

NASA and the space program reached its nadir in 2010 when its then-Adminstrator, Charles Bolden – himself a former astronaut – told Al Jazeera television that he had been charged by President Barack Obama with three primary tasks: Encourage children to learn about math and science, improve relations with foreign nations, and, Bolden said, “perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

Compare that with President Kennedy’s challenge, that the nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. In the intervening decades, it seems we have come down not just from the moon, but from rising to the kind of challenge the nation responded to in the 1960s.

Now there is talk of going to Mars. I’m happy to see that. While recognizing the costs and dangers involved in such missions, I think it is inevitable that the human spirit is always going to drive us on to bigger and more daring ventures, whether on earth or in space. I think it makes a lot of sense for us to go back first to the moon, and establish a base there. It takes a whole lot less energy to launch a rocket from a place where the gravity is one-sixth what it is on earth. There may be other justifications for a base on the moon, but that one alone provides justification if, in fact, we are intent on going to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

Most of my space interest these days is constrained to looking at the full moon, when it appears and the skies are clear, and watching for night launches from Cape Canaveral. I’m living 120 miles from the launch site, but in the dark of night I can get pretty clear views of the launches, which continue to excite me. Recently, during the latest SpaceX launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket from Pad 39A on June 25, the same launch pad from which Apollo 11 launched, I actually got to see the return to earth of the two first-stage boosters that came back to land at KSC. I think that was even more exciting than the launch, all the more so since I wasn’t expecting to be able to see that, just as watching the first Shuttle landing at KSC from the grandstand beside the runway was so exciting 35 years ago. I’m sure that one of these days I’m going to need to go back down to the space center and watch a launch from closer up.

And now, fifty years after that first footstep on the moon, I and the other 7.7-whatever billion people on this planet can only look up at the moon, and wonder: Will mankind ever again set foot on that celestial body? Will my children get to go there? Some might even wonder if they, themselves, will get a chance to go to the moon.

It is of such wonderment that giant leaps are born.

Watch the actual ignition and liftoff of Apollo 11 shot by a NASA camera at the launch pad

All images by NASA except the last image which is by SpaceX

This is a joint posting with my fiction site. It also appears on Medium.

Going Off the Rails With No Way Back

Going Off the Rails With No Way Back

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon once again, there are some things that need to be said. If I’m a curmudgeon — I don’t think I am — so be it.

What brought this sudden bout of curmudeonness on, you ask? It began Saturday morning with telephone conversations with two different bankers in Maryland. I’d written two checks to a friend of mine visiting from Albania, repayment of an old debt. She took the checks to a local branch of Wells Fargo Bank (I’m naming names this time), the bank on which the checks were drawn, and someone from the branch called me to verify the checks’ legitimacy. Okay, I can see the point of that, though I wonder if they would have done the same if my friend was American or had, say, a British or Canadian passport and not an Albanian one. I also have questions about the need for a call given that Wells Fargo seems to have policies in place that deliberately make it as difficult as possible for customers to access their own funds. But that is a whole other story.

In any case, one of the checks was for $2,000.00, and the other one was for $9,000.06. I put the numerical amount as I always do, $2,000.00/100 for the first check, and $9,000.06/100 for the second one. And then I wrote out the amount in the proper format, the one I’ve been using for some 50 years virtually without incident: Two Thousand and No Hundreths Dollars, and Nine Thousand and Six Hundreths Dollars. Okay, granted, the proper spelling is hundredths, but close enough for government work since the words spell out what the numerals already show, and in my haste I dropped the “d.” But that wasn’t the issue.

Now, I don’t know, but I think anyone from about the age of 5 should know that a hundredth of a dollar is a cent. A penny. One hundredth of a dollar is one cent, six hundredths of a dollar is six cents. Even misspelled, I’d bet most 5 year olds can figure that out. But apparently this fine point is lost on Wells Fargo bankers, and I had to explain to two different genius bankers that Nine Thousand and Six Hundreths (sic) Dollars was not $9,600, but $9,000.06. The first banker said their branch policy was not to accept checks with the cents expressed that way. That made no sense to me, but finally he conceded and said they’d cash the checks. All good, right?

Not quite. A few minutes later another banker, the first one’s manager, called me, and after a few unnecessary and unwanted pleasantries, she repeated that the branch didn’t normally accept checks where the cents were expressed as they were on my check. She had me read off the amount of the check, and confirm the intended amount. I was rapidly losing my patience with this whole thing, and I told her I’d been writing checks like this for 50 years, it was the proper way to write a check, and what exactly didn’t she understand? She then feigned a brief reconsideration of the matter, and finally confirmed that they would accept the check. Hurrah. I got to tell a banker what should have been obvious to her by reading the check as it had been written. Duh.

Now I have better ways of spending my Saturday mornings than explaining the obvious to bankers, but this whole affair served to remind me the extent to which this country is going to hell in a hand basket. The signs are increasingly everywhere, how far off the rails we’re going, this just being the most recent one. It seems people, and the country as a whole, just get stupider and stupider by the day.

I’ve railed against the madness in the direction we’re headed before, but it’s time to do it again, drilling down a bit this time.

In the course of a typical day, I get messages – obviously written on a phone with a run-away spell corrector – that are virtually incomprehensible. I’m asked questions that I already answered, sometimes multiple times. And I get abbreviated messages that fail to respond to issues I raised. In short, I can almost always tell when someone is writing me from a phone, and the communication is seriously impaired as a result. This is a significant matter, since communication should be primary, not to mention I don’t understand how people don’t go crazy typing and reading on a small screen. Well, maybe they do, and we just don’t have a name yet for this mental illness.

If you’re a parent in this country, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that your little darlings are no longer expected to learn cursive writing. At one point, some 45 states and the District of Columbia had dropped the requirement to teach cursive writing, and the dreaded Common Core was at least in large part responsible for that since Common Core doesn’t require cursive as part of the curriculum. Now blaming Common Cause for stupidity is a bit like blaming phones for errors. It’s the people behind Common Core who are exhibiting their ignorance, and the curriculum is just the symptomatic outcome of that.

There has been some retrenchment in a handful of states that realized the folly of dropping cursive writing from the curriculum, but overall this country is on the verge of entering a new Dark Ages where kids can’t even sign their own names. The idea is that they can do everything on a keyboard, but somehow that seems equivalent to saying they don’t need to learn to walk since they can get driven around everywhere by their parents.

Additionally, as studies confirm, the ability to write, and not just type, promotes some cognitive and motor skills that typing does not. Writing is not the same as typing, and while both skills might be worthwhile, school districts and states don’t want to spend the money teaching both. So out goes cursive writing, and with it one of the traits of an educated person. And people wonder why I’d never put any child of mine in a public, and probably most private, schools.

While this has been going on in more recent years, another long term trend – grade inflation in the nation’s colleges and universities – has been underway for more than half a century. It’s true that a degree of grade inflation began during the Vietnam War years, Recent GPA Trendswhen I was in college. Some attribute this to the desire on the part of many professors to keep students out of the draft, which worked for awhile, but based on my own experience it also probably had to do with the proliferation of pass-fail grading during the turmoil of years of sit-ins, walk-outs, and student strikes that closed some institutions, including the one I attended, for nearly entire semesters. But the grade inflation of that period pales to what has been going on since the 1980s, when grade-point averages have been rising an average of 0.1 points a decade, and the percentage of A grades given has gone up 5 to 6 percentage points a decade.

Since the 1990s, the A grade is the most common grade given in four-year colleges, and As are now three times more common than they were in 1960. At that time Cs were most common, and in my own era, Bs were most common. Now if they don’t get an A, students are at the professor’s throat as if the failing rests with the prof and not with their own performance. If you believe that is because college students have gotten that much smarter since 1960, I have a nice athletic building on a fine campus I’d like to sell you. Very good price. Just sign right here. Oh, wait, you can’t sign, because you never learned cursive. Okay, put your “X” on the line there.

Having been a college professor, I can tell you there is a strong tendency toward treating what are supposed to be young (and sometimes not so young) adults as 50 Years Rise of A Gradechildren. There is a stress on not offending the students, sandwiching any critical remarks in between praise, not being unduly harsh in comments even in the face of abject and repeated refusal on the part of the student to follow guidance. This is called the Student as Consumer Era, and it is indicative of schools that need to cultivate their students to stay enrolled and to pay the exorbitant tuitions and fees charged them and their parents. And instead of challenging their minds and belief systems, these educational institutions allow students to retreat to so-called “safe spaces” and to drive speakers with views divergent from their own off campus, allowing a new form of Fascism and sheltered closed-mindedness to run rampant on college campuses.

Moving from the swamp of so-called education, we have cars that stop themselves or keep themselves in their own lanes, ostensibly so their owners (“drivers” is too strong a word for them) can text and talk on the phone. Things seem increasingly geared toward the lazy and the ignorant. My own car turns its own lights on and off, doesn’t have a key, and tells me how many miles I can go before I run out of fuel. Thank goodness it doesn’t stop itself or do that lane thing, which would be way beyond what I would tolerate of my car. It does open its own trunk, though, for unknown reasons and at very inconvenient times, sometimes multiple times in a row. I guess taunting its owner is part of the deal. I can almost hear it laugh when it does this.

In the course of all these trends, we continue to lose human contact at an almost alarming rate. My most recent two forays into paying entry fees – one at a movie theater, the other at a major conference I attended – were done at terminals. Gone were the friendly ticket girl and the helpful conference gatekeeper, replaced by screens and credit card readers and keyboards. That may all be more efficient, but it’s a bit disconcerting, too. My local Walmart has installed all sorts of self-check-out equipment, but I have never found self-check-out to be faster or more efficient than dealing with a human cashier, and it’s also a tad insulting, I think. If the store wants my money, it should at least have a sufficient number of humans on hand to take it. So, unless I have just one or two items and am in a major hurry, I won’t use the self-check-out.

Meanwhile, the medical profession – one area that might benefit from more, rather than less, technology in enabling improved communication between physicians and patients – remains mired back a century or two. If anyone is able to email their doctor, or even their doctor’s office, I’d love to hear about it. And our prescription drug system seems designed to breed frustration and inefficiency, and we wonder why healthcare costs continue to escalate. I’ve written on these things before, and on the inherent inequities and inefficiencies of the medical system, and the most I’ve gotten in response from doctors is a smile and a laugh, as if I were proposing absurdities.

Call me a curmudgeon if you like, but somehow this all feels like we’re headed off the rails with no way back. Maybe, as the illustration says, you’ll get it eventually, but by then it might be — probably will be — too late. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Am I only the only one who feels this way? I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this, regardless which side of things you come down on.

Charts from //www.gradeinflation.com 

Guest Post: Something Is Very Wrong With Parents

Guest Post: Something Is Very Wrong With Parents

I have been wanting to put up a guest post for some time, and finally I have one that is worth sharing. Originally posted on Medium, this piece by Gabriel Iosa precisely mirrors the things that concern me about how people are raising their children these days, exposing them to social media from birth, and substituting devices for actual communication and interaction with their kids. The result is what we are witnessing in rapidly growing trends among young people of de-personalization, alienation, depression, suicide, violence, and other social and mental ailments. You can visit the author’s web site at www.gabrieliosa.com.

Complete lack of privacy, iPad addiction and mental struggles from an early age are the ingredients of a hard adult life

Baby

The online life of the new generation starts early, way before the actual life of the newborn begins. Pictures of the mother and her big belly, wandering around in a forest or at the hospital, waiting for her son or daughter to come out into the world are spread online on Facebook and Instagram like wildfire. Even the moment of birth is captured on camera, from the womb all the way out into the hospital delivery room.

The minute they come out of their moms, newborn babies are online. Their first picture on Facebook is live in about 60 minutes after birth. The baby is not even considered a legal person yet, has no legal name and all of the gist, but he or she is already on social media, getting likes and comments from people that care little about them, but consider it to be the social norm to felicitate the parents for their achievement and for the fact that they posted the whole thing online. And fast!

“Pictures of newborns appear online within an hour of birth. Of the parents surveyed, the average time it took to share their newborns’ first photo on a social media site was 57.9 minutes. They surveyed 2,367 parents of kids 5 and under. Seventy-seven percent of baby photos appear on the parents’ Facebook page, with Instagram trailing behind at 48 percent” — Huffington Post

Between 3 to 14 days later, they have their first professional photo shoot. I’m not talking phone cameras and a toy that the mom dangles in front of him and then the baby laughs and gets photographed for the family album. I’m talking two photographers, costume changes, sets, scenes, lights and so on. The whole thing lasts for hours and the results are immediately posted on the internet, with parents having no clues about the consequences.

Camera

Their first walk, which was once a private, emotional and unforgettable moment, sometimes captured on an old camera that barely worked is now rather transmitted live on Facebook or Instagram, or simply recorded and then posted online, losing its spiritual, private values but being available online immediately for everyone to see and like, for some reason.

For the first birthday of the child, the whole thing goes off the charts. Photographers, camera guys, drones, a huge buffet and even live bands celebrate the event in front of friends and family, and the whole thing is posted on Facebook as it happens.

The first bath of the baby, the first burp, the first caroling, first haircut, the first trip to the store and the first laugh crisis, they’re all posted online by the parents, some hoping that they’ll go viral probably, as if the only reason for that baby being alive is to gather as many likes and shares and comments as humanly possible.

Baby at Laptop

But it doesn’t end here. No, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not only that kid has absolutely no privacy, probably the hardest thing to get as a kid or a person in today’s world, from the second he takes his first breath onwards, but he gets his own Facebook or Instagram account, with his own smartphone or tablet at age 2 or 3. That’s when I started walking, and now kids that age are already developing an addiction to games and social media, as they see their parents are doing. There’s even a Messenger for Kids app now.

“ I opened my eyes to find our three-year-old, William, standing at the bedside table in his pyjamas. He pulled the duvet, to make sure I was awake, then grabbed my hand.

‘Daddy,’ he announced, with a sense of urgency in his little voice. ‘I need the iPad.’

I checked my watch, stumbled to my feet, and marched him back to his room.

‘You don’t need the iPad,’ I told William, tucking him back into bed. ‘You need to lie down and go to sleep. It’s the middle of the night.’

At 7am, my alarm clock rang. Getting out of bed, I noticed something amiss: the white iPad, which I had left to charge overnight on the sofa next to our bed, had vanished.

I walked to the sitting room. There sat William, cross-legged on the floor, with the stolen device in his hands. He was playing a noisy video game called Peppa Pig’s Puddle Jump. The battery was already half empty, suggesting he’d been using it for at least two hours” — Daily Mail

By age 4, they’re spending hours upon hours in front of a huge, LED screen TV watching brainwashing Youtube videos generated by an algorithm, singing along and “learning” about the alphabet and colours from monstrous-looking creatures that hop around and dance on rhythmic music. It looks cute, the scene is “Facebook material”, but in reality, it’s life-altering.

“These videos, wherever they are made, however they come to be made, and whatever their conscious intention (i.e. to accumulate ad revenue) are feeding upon a system which was consciously intended to show videos to children for profit. The unconsciously-generated, emergent outcomes of that are all over the place. To expose children to this content is abuse.

We’re not talking about the debatable but undoubtedly real effects of film or videogame violence on teenagers, or the effects of pornography or extreme images on young minds, which were alluded to in my opening description of my own teenage internet use. Those are important debates, but they’re not what is being discussed here.

What we’re talking about is very young children, effectively from birth, being deliberately targeted with content which will traumatise and disturb them, via networks which are extremely vulnerable to exactly this form of abuse. It’s not about trolls, but about a kind of violence inherent in the combination of digital systems and capitalist incentives. It’s down to that level of the metal” — Medium

By age 7, the child has his first dizziness crisis, the first heart palpitations and the first panic attacks. You read that right, more and more toddlers have severe anxiety disorders because they’re never going out, never playing on the playground and never having normal social interactions, but just staying indoors with an iPad and a PlayStation controller hooked around their arms.

“While that result set might not be surprising in the teen search rankings, it’s interesting to note that “porn” ranks fourth in the “seven and under” category, receiving more searches than “Club Penguin” and “Webkinz.” Meanwhile, “sex” is fourth for teens and tweens alike. Facebook, YouTube and Google take the other top spots.

The data was compiled from 14.6 million searches made using Symantec’s OnlineFamily.Norton, which lets parents track their kids’ online activity. And while Symantec is almost certainly hoping to sell more software as a result, it’s also a timely reminder that kids are growing up fast these days” — Mashable

Comes age 10, and the kid is already searching online for porn and sex, and by age 12, he’s most likely had it’s first intimate contact, regardless of its form. By age 14, most children have already lost their virginity and are in their second or third intimate relationship. Their lives are all online, with great moments, love deceptions, depression episodes and everything else posted on Facebook as they happened.

Girl Taking Selfie

When finally reaching the supposed maturity at ages 16 to 18, the children are suffering from a disorder in the anxiety, depression or phobias sector. There’s no privacy for them, there are no social connections that are stable and valued enough, but just internet and more internet, Facebook and more Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and Netflix and so on. Instead of being out and getting their heart broken in the real world, kids are so sensitive that even an SMS text can drive them into suicide.

“Messages that are delivered electronically are very powerful,” said Barbara Greenberg, a teen, adolescent and child psychologist. “Kids aren’t aware of how powerful their messages are and how their messages might impact others.”

Key issues that trip up texting teens include expecting their messages not to be seen by other friends, parents and potentially the police; misinterpreting the tone of messages; and navigating peer pressure and other coming-of-age hurdles, experts told journalists” — CNN

Parents are doing parenting wrong. Some of them even go way too far with posting everything that they do on Facebook (WARNING: Disturbing Content) and it takes a lot of time even for Facebook to stop the spreading of some of the acts that are unspeakable but are still posted online.

There’s no doubt about it that putting the entire life of the child online from the moment of birth all the way into toddlery, and then letting the kid himself do it afterwards and continue using technology from an early age into teenagery is causing the now adult, 18-year-old or older person a series of problems that take years or even a lifetime to cure. Some of them are unfortunately life-lasting, and there’s nothing parents can do about them.

“50 percent more teens in 2015 (versus 2011) demonstrated clinically diagnosable depression in the NS-DUH national screening study.(It’s important to note that all of these sources are surveys of unselected samples of teens and not those who seek treatment — thus they cannot be explained by greater treatment-seeking). The teen suicide rate tripled among girls ages 12 to 14 and increased by 50 percent among girls ages 15 to 19. The number of children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or self-harm doubled between 2008 and 2015. iGen’ers were experiencing a mental health crisis. As if that weren’t enough, no one seemed to know why” — Psychology Today

The only way from stopping the new generation from becoming the Facebook addicted, anxious and depressive, medicated population of tomorrow, which is happening as we speak, is by stopping doing parenting in the wrongest way possible. No more newborn photos online. No more Facebook Live’s.

No more iPads and video game consoles for toddlers. No more weird cartoons. No more expensive laptops for 12-year-old kids. No more total freedom for them to go and use the internet whenever they want, as much as they want and how they want.

Disaffected Youth

Do some “bad” now, but think of the better good. Enjoy your healthy kid and see him grow as a normal person, not a privacy-deprived, mentally exhausted, brainwashed and scared teenager who, turning into adulthood, has no taste of the real world, but only for the virtual one, which provides him with no food, no clothes, no money for rent, no human contact and no mental stability.

Bringing a baby into the world is the most beautiful gift any two people can receive in life. But if you’re not sure that you’ll be able to dedicate your time and effort into raising that kid well, know how to do it and be financially and mentally capable of doing it, just don’t! Use a condom. You are the one who should raise your kid, not Facebook, not video games or cartoons and definitely not medical professionals.

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket left Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, it confirmed the company’s commitment to establishing an ever-larger presence in space. And SpaceX is doing so as a private enterprise, a leader in an industry only vaguely foreseen just a few decades ago, at the time I was a science writer covering the nation’s space program on a daily basis.

As it lifted off, the Falcon Heavy became the world’s currently most powerful launch vehicle, capable of boosting 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into low earth orbit (LEO). The imagery of the giant rocket rising into the sky from the same pad where the moon rockets of the Apollo program took a dozen humans to the surface of the moon wasn’t lost on the tens of thousands of onlookers at Cape Canaveral. Nor was it lost on SpaceX founder and chief Elon Musk, who sent his personal red Tesla roadster – a product of another of his companies – with a mannequin at the wheel that Musk named Starman – after the David Bowie song – into deep space orbit around the sun.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy seemed designed to give birth to a renewed vision of space exploration, a vision that had gone off the rails from the fading days of the Space Shuttle program and which reached its nadir in June 2010. That’s when then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that the space agency’s primary mission was outreach to the Muslim world. Bolden said he had been charged with three missions by President Obama, this being the foremost one, and none of which had anything to do with space exploration. While the White House later insisted Bolden misspoke and that such outreach was not part of NASA’s mission, all indications were that there was little commitment to setting a new course for America’s drifting space program.

It was a different vision on Aug. 30, 1983, nearly 35 years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger left that same Pad 39A at 2:32 in the morning. The mission, officially named STS-8, just the eighth Space Shuttle mission, was the first night launch of the Shuttle. It also carried the first American black astronaut to fly in space, Guion “Guy” Bluford. But the element that often is omitted from accounts of that mission was the fact that its launch nearly was scrubbed due to the weather.

The night of Aug. 29-30 at Kennedy Space Center was marked with thunderstorms. Applying normal parameters, the launch almost certainly would have been postponed given the danger posed by a lightning strike on the vehicle or the conductive contrails of its solid rocket boosters. As I sat at my desk in the KSC Press Center that night, I had already completed the draft of my story stating that the launch had been scrubbed due to weather. I was about to file my story when a hole opened in the clouds over Pad 39A, the launch window was extended and the countdown resumed, and Challenger raced into space through that hole, lighting up the Cape like it was day and illuminating the night sky from Havana to Hatteras.

There was talk at that time, in the early years of the Shuttle program, whether the vehicle would ever be run like an airline, keeping to a schedule of frequent launches and dropping costs. I saw the willingness of flight controllers to bend the rules and launch through the hole in the clouds that stormy August night as a major step in that direction, and I said as much in the piece I finally filed. In some ways, my prediction was prescient, and Tuesday’s launch of the Falcon Heavy was the logical extension of what I saw through that hole in the nighttime clouds.

There were other things that I didn’t see that night, though. I failed to make allowance for things like political pressure, human miscalculation, and the arrogance of managers not willing to admit when they are wrong. In some cases – like launching Challenger in sub-freezing temperatures that clearly exceeded launch parameters on Jan. 28. 1986, or failing to heed the warnings of flight engineers regarding penetration of Columbia’s heat-protective tiles prior to the orbiter’s reentry on Feb. 1, 2003 – dead wrong.

The Challenger and Columbia disasters, like the fatal Apollo 1 test module fire of Jan. 27, 1967, remind us that space exploration is not without its risks, nor without its losses, including and especially human losses. At least until this point, space travel is not analogous to contemporary airline flight. I accuse myself of missing that key point in my STS-8 prognostication, but not of missing the point of where things were headed. And now, with private space enterprises, like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, and others developing new vehicles, taking over more of the functions formerly unique to NASA, and putting private capital at risk, a new chapter is being written in America’s venture into space.

Make no mistake. America still has a long way to go before it reestablishes its place in space. It has always struck me as tragically sad that there are people alive on earth today who were born after the time when men walked on the moon. A dream humans held for thousands of years had come and gone, and now we are back looking into the heavens and dreaming of a return to the moon and beyond. And as impressive as Tuesday’s launch was, to put things in perspective, in 2018 the Falcon Heavy generated just half the lift of NASA’s Saturn V lunar rocket, first launched from the same Pad 39A on Nov, 7, 1967, half a century earlier. The Saturn V could lift 120 metric tons to LEO, a launch capability that has yet to be matched. So powerful was the Saturn V that its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 10 miles away.

But the Falcon Heavy is not the end of SpaceX’s design train, and the company’s Big Falcon Rocket or BFR – the mundane name is actually Musk’s play on words, with the “F” a stand-in for another less polite word – will be a monster affair capable of lifting 136 metric tons to LEO. Musk sees the BFR as the rocket that will take colonists to Mars, or carry up to 100 paying passengers into space. Meanwhile, the company has been flying unmanned missions for years, and it expects to bring astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its smaller Falcon 9 rocket paired with its Dragon space capsule later this year.

The TSA isn’t going to be setting up security checkpoints at KSC any time soon, but an era when space travel becomes accessible to more and more people is increasingly easy to envisage, and in large part it’s due to the vision and perseverance of private space entrepreneurs. It’s an era that, while it will come a bit later than I saw at the time, there was a small glimpse of through a hole in the clouds one stormy night in 1983.

 

Photo of STS-8 launch by NASA

‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season

Indeed, ’tis the season to find a deal on a new car. Even I’m sniffing around to see what I might find to sate my very limited preferences to replace, or at least supplement, my current ride, the Ford Windstar I’ve had for 14 years (and which is actually 21 years young), is pushing 250,000 miles/400,000 kms, and stubbornly refuses to die.

In these parts, the commercials run on local TV are mostly for car dealers, tort lawyers, back surgeons, furniture vendors, and, of course, drogas. There is hardly a station break (of which there are lots and lots) without at least one car ad.

It’s interesting observing the different kinds of buyers each marque is aiming for through its TV advertising. For instance, Chrysler-Fiat and Nissan appear pitted in a competition to see which can appeal more to the remaining muscle-car drivers out there. You know, the kind of drivers who get their thrills driving through walls and burning rubber on the open road in a quest to see who can be first to the finish line somewhere out on the salt flats, or accumulate the maximum number of speeding tickets. Meanwhile, Chevy mostly makes use of supposed buyers in its ads, revealing in those chosen to appear the low opinion in which GM must hold its customers. Lately, though, in the spirit of the season, Chevrolet has been running its employee-discount commercials, and based on those apparently Chevy employees are vastly more intelligent and appealing than Chevy buyers. For its part, Ford also makes use of prospective buyers in its commercials but, based on the ads, Ford buyers are a great deal smarter and more likable than Chevy buyers.

Kids, you may have noticed, figure in a disproportionate number of car ads. Car manufacturers and their advertising proxies have calculated that kids help sell cars to families, and a little child exploitation is worth the bump in sales. This trend is all the more apparent in this festive holiday car-selling season.

I’m not sure to what kind of people Honda is appealing with its advertising, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to meet them. Hyundai, on the other hand, mixes music and humor to appeal to buyers’ lighter side. Upscale Lexus, though, both in its advertising and design philosophy, seems intent on appealing to buyers who like cars so aggressively ugly it would not be unfair to characterize them as the Darth Vaders of the automotive world. Meanwhile, Kia takes on Lexus directly in its Sorento commercials, belittling the Lexus driver for not realizing he was being out-flanked by the supposedly off-road competent Kia Sorento.

Taking a different tack, Lexus competitor Infiniti focuses on the kind of nice people having fun with its cars that it’s hoping to attract, while Acura, word in the industry has it, is focusing more on mobile advertising, with a barrage of vertical images and music by Kid Ink, aimed at a younger yet upscale audience.

Among European manufacturers, Volkswagen is out there slugging, its commercials aimed at mostly younger buyers, maybe folks out buying their first new car, and looking it. At the other end of the spectrum is Mercedes-Benz, which futilely attempts to convince us that kids (speaking of unbridled child exploitation) fantasize about owning a Daimler when they grow up. I recall my childhood car cravings, and Mercedes never once figured into them, the marque more associated in my mind with stodgy old people, crooked lawyers, and wearers of mink coats. Not the kind of car most kids would aspire to driving. But at least the current breed of Mercedes commercials, unlike an earlier iteration, don’t feature cars sliding sideways and crashing through plate glass windows, apparently careering into young children dreaming of Mercedeses inside those windows.

In fact, for awhile it seemed that the only direction most cars in automotive advertising went was sideways. That unfortunate trend seems, happily, to be reaching an end, or at least tapering down. But now the latest thing is to show how a car stops by itself, or comes veering back into its lane after nearly sideswiping a passing vehicle. Or, clever trick, parallel-parks itself, positively impressing lovers and prospective relatives. Drivers, passengers, and passers-by all seem incredulous at these amazing feats of the semi-self-driving cars. Of course, one would not be faulted for wondering what drivers would have done had the car not stopped itself or corrected course. Would they have just allowed the car to plow ahead into whatever caused it to stop itself, or maybe paid a bit more attention before drifting out of a lane? Or, gasp, perhaps going to the trouble to learn how to parallel-park? Increasingly, possession of those skills seems to be too much to hope for in late 2017 on the cusp of 2018. My guess is that all these car tricks can only encourage more distracted driving, leading careless drivers to believe they can get away with texting or yakking away on the phone while behind the wheel.

Indicative of how things are going, Volvo, the Swedish car maker now owned by the Chinese after its sale by Ford, previously always focused on the safety features of its cars in its advertising. Now it looks, based on recent Volvo advertising, that the car’s self-driving features can compensate for brainless drivers who find it bothersome to pay even modest attention to their driving. And then there are the other Volvo commercials showing cars just driving in ordinary ways on ordinary roads, with the warning in small type at the bottom of the screen admonishing, “Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt.”

And I guess that’s where we’re headed out on the road. If you don’t have a car that does everything for you, don’t attempt to drive. Or if you’re one of those drivers who actually are in control of their vehicle, maybe you shouldn’t attempt to drive, either, given all those other idiots out there whose cars have taken over for them.

Come to think of it, judging by some of the driving I see regularly, maybe it’s better to just stay home and watch car commercials, and let the admen and adwomen do the driving for you.

Happy New Year, everyone!