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Category: Technology

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 http://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!

Stop the Madness

Stop the Madness

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, since I’m not, really, but there are some things that just need to be said about how things clearly are headed in this technological world we inhabit.

News of interactive appliances, self-driving cars, bots and algorithms that determine what gets fed to us over the Internet has gotten to be pretty much old hat. Those things would be enough to give us pause, but no, nothing is about to stop there, it seems.

It’s bad enough that we have to fear our washing machine or refrigerator turning us in for some transgression, or feeding our habits to an advertising program that will just try to sell us more stuff we probably don’t need. And if I can’t open the door of the fridge to see how much milk or eggs or cream cheese is left, someone really needs to put me out of my misery, and soon. But things have already reached that stage.

There is a way of looking at things that seems to have gotten lost in the quest to come up with the next technological advance. It’s pretty simple, really: Just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it. That’s where we’re at, maybe already well past it, and the lesson seems to be lost on those who are planning our “brave” new world of technological wonders. It’s time to stop the madness, though I’m not encouraged by what I see and hear about almost on a daily basis now.

Take cars, for example. Now there’s a subject. Some of us actually don’t want our car making decisions for us. Cars that stop on their own, keep us from wandering into the next lane, open and close their own doors, and which park themselves already go further than some of us, those who were taught to drive properly and enjoy being in charge of the process of guiding a machine down the road, want. Now we’re looking at cars, and even trucks, that drive themselves. They’re already out there, sharing the roads with us. But apparently that is not enough for those who think up these things. The next step – I am not making this up – are cars that will carry on a conversation with us while they drive us around.

Am I some sort of raving radical when I say I don’t really want to have a conversation with my car? I don’t even like riding in taxis since I’d rather not converse with the driver. How much less will I want to speak with a machine? Just guessing here, but I’d say a lot. A really lot. A lot a lot. What could my car even have to say that would interest me? At least with cab drivers I can learn about other cultures and the kinds of things that brought them here. I really don’t need to hear from my car how things were in Korea or Mexico or Canada or wherever before they came here, or how they’re running hot and they just don’t feel up to par these days. And suppose their hearing or grasp of the language isn’t so good? One can only imagine the misunderstandings that might ensue.

Now we’re hearing about pills that send out little signals so that our doctors can spy on us and see whether we’re taking the bloody things as they’ve instructed. I can’t get my doctors on the phone or even send them an email, but now they’re going to be listening in on what’s going on inside my stomach? Sorry, I don’t think so. The manufacturers of these spybot pills say they’re perfectly safe. Well, I’m less concerned about that then I am about what other purposes they might be put to, like programming our refrigerators not to let us touch the bacon or the ice cream that dwells within them. Or someone hacking into those interactive pills to find out more about us, things our insurance company or Russian scammers might want to know.

We’ve become so hungry to consume that having packages delivered to our doorstep isn’t enough anymore. Now Amazon is offering “in home” delivery – literally, their delivery people will come inside our home to drop off our latest gizmo. But do I want strangers coming into my home? Hell, no. It’s bad enough they know where I live. I certainly don’t want them crossing the threshold and coming inside. And I don’t care if some hidden camera or Alexa, Amazon’s other way of getting into our house and life – and two more things I don’t want in my home — is there to observe them.

Increasingly bots and algorithms determine what we read, what ads are fed us, what vids pop up on our computer screens. Google thinks its algorithms are so smart they can tell where we are and feed us local ads. Ha, Google. FYI, I don’t live in Chicago, nowhere within a thousand miles of it, even if my ISP is located there, so you can stop sending me all those ads for vendors in the Windy City. We’re still a long way from when these things will be fool-proof, if ever, but meanwhile they’ve been unleashed on us. For instance, now we read that with the YouTube Kids application – Google owns YouTube, too, if you didn’t know – the algorithms are feeding the little darlings cartoons in which the characters drink bleach, appear as gore-covered zombies, or get it on with other characters. With parents increasingly substituting screens for actual parenting, who couldn’t see this coming? Nothing like a bot to handle the babysitting, right?

When I was a kid, my dad would take me outside on cold nights to look through a telescope at the moon and the planets. I wonder how many parents and kids do that today, and I’d be willing to wager that the only way most kids today see celestial bodies, if at all, is on a screen.

More and more we’re seeing machines and electronics and robots taking over ever-more things that used to be the province of people, of actual human beings, to do. We’re told that many manufacturing jobs will never come back because technology and robots have replaced the workers that used to be in them. And while the machines, for all their faults, get smarter and smarter, it seems people are getting dumber and dumber, with no end in sight for either trend.

There has been a question on my mind for a very long time, long before the popular future vision began to become a reality. And that is, if machines and technology can do all this stuff, what will people do? Or more precisely, what will people do to earn a living to pay for all these luxuries, all these gadgets, all these robots and technological advances? The vision of the future was a place where people could live lives of total leisure, never having to lift a finger. It seems that’s what the people developing these technologies have in mind, but is anyone thinking about the economics and the politics of it all?

I can just imagine sitting at home drinking mint juleps, prepared by Alexa, and watching on a screen as my self-driving car heads out on a scenic road that I get to enjoy vicariously from my living room. Drones are dropping off packages I’ve ordered online and bots carry them inside, while my robot vacuum cleaner does the den and my refrigerator orders up restocks of the bananas and hot dogs. My imaginary kids are playing video games and learning about life from cartoons, and all the while ads and click-bait stories about celebrities pop up on screens all over the house.

If that’s my life, who is paying for it? I can easily see a society – we’re almost there now — where a permanent underclass is forced to support the more privileged among us. Proles who support members of the Inner and Outer Party (thank you, George Orwell, for painting such a vivid picture of this notional future in the perhaps prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four, the year in the title maybe just four decades early).

At one time we used to worry about big corporations taking on too much power and controlling our lives too much. Yet, these new corporations of technology have become bigger, more powerful, and with more influence on our lives than any ITT, GM, IBM, or AT&T of the past. Somehow we’ve come to see the Googles and Apples and Microsofts of the world as benign, looking after our well being and making our lives better and easier, and not as the profit-making, market-share-grabbing machines that they are. Maybe a comparison could be drawn with the Omni Consumer Products (OCP) corporation of 1987’s RoboCop film.

I also have to wonder what politics all this will lead to, with the political order mirroring and supporting the economic one. Already we’ve become polarized and divided almost as never before, and I can only see this trend growing as our societal dialogue becomes increasingly fractured, splintered, and Balkanized, with each individual picking and choosing what version of reality he or she prefers. And with the decline of the national dialogue and the dumbing-down of the population, it will become easier and easier for Big Brother (who also comes to us from Nineteen Eighty-Four) to simply manipulate and control a society whose creature comforts and diet of electronic pap fed them will take precedence over more traditional political values, like dissent and the freedoms of speech and association.

Already otherwise intelligent people appear to have a hard time writing anything that exceeds 140 (or 280, for the truly verbose) characters, and what at one time would be intelligent correspondence and debate has been reduced to gibberish, repetition, and name-slinging. A large proportion of the population sees the world through the medium of a phone, and the quality of their communication reflects this.

I’m not going to claim that technology is inherently bad – after all, I’m writing this on a laptop computer, and the thought of doing so on a typewriter is a chilling one – but we need to think about how far things can be carried before the beneficial becomes detrimental. Like I said near the outset, just because it’s possible to do something doesn’t mean it should be done.

It’s time to stop the madness.