When Your Autopilot Fails

Cars have always fascinated me. This likely dates back to what I can recall of my earliest memories—sitting next to my father, riding with him in his 1962 Ford Fairlane, and watching him manually shift on the column. He’d even let me grab the shifter and after he depressed the clutch, I got to throw the Ford into third gear.

My earliest driving lessons were in a 1962 Ford Fairlaine.

The 1962 Ford Fairlaine: Back when men were men, and cars were meant to be driven.

I’ve just spent much of the past week trying to get JBE1 back to where he was pre-breakdown. For some reason, when my electrical system failure related to losing the serpentine belt, the incident also threw off my air conditioning. All seems to be right in the world, or at least with my car, at the moment.

The automotive world, like much of the rest of the things in our lives, has been increasingly altered by technology. Techno-utopians always consider technology’s upside, while minimizing and often, whitewashing any of the negatives of computers controlling most of our lives—and now, our cars.

For a year now, I’ve been writing for trade magazines about cars. Being a freelance writer who loves cars, it doesn’t get much better than getting paid to write about a subject that you are interested in and have a passion for. Even better, I’ve been getting assigned some articles of late that touch on  the intersection between our vehicles and said technology. Here’s just one example—this one covering hackers and today’s hyper-networked cars.

In the course of researching these articles and speaking to knowledgeable car and computer people, I’ve picked up a host of new things that I didn’t know before. I’ve also become less critical about some of the technological innovation than I might have been before. I’m still not ready to join the evangelical wing of the techno-utopian movement yet, especially when it comes to the autonomy of my car.

Associated Press writer Joan Lowy’s article the other day about self-driving cars and the human element piqued my interest. Lowy touched on a previous story about autonomous cars that didn’t have a happy ending. It also highlighted one of the major pitfalls and concerns the prevent Google from ruling the highways and byways of America—at least for another week or so.

Joshua Brown was a 40-year old tech company owner from Ohio who I’m guessing was in the techno-evangelist camp when it came cars and his Tesla Model S. Brown had ceded driving to his Tesla’s Autopilot near Gainsville, Florida when it didn’t recognize the danger directly ahead, failing to brake when a tractor trailer made a left turn and his car drove into the side of the trailer. After hitting the trailer, Brown’s Tesla went under it, then veered off the road, hitting two fences and a power pole, killing Brown.

What I noticed about Lowy’s article, and the accompanying NY Times piece about Brown’s accident, is that both of the journalists take a “distant” approach to the outcome. What I mean is that they are careful not to assign blame to the Autopilot (which obviously failed to recognize the clear and present danger of a tractor trailer directly ahead), or offer any obvious critique of technology moving at a pace that exceeds the human capacity to adapt to it. Better, at least in Lowy’s article, it’s humans that are at fault—our brains are just too unreliable to step in when our Autopilot decides to check out. I’m sure that the way our brains function in these situations is due to how we’re hard-wired to adapt based on the previous 300,000 years as hunter-gatherers, prior to the recent Happy Motoring epoch, with cars covering the earth. Perhaps we’ll adapt, or maybe we just simply cede our driver’s perch to a robot.

I don’t want to be too critical of Lowy or any other person writing about technology. It’s the landscape that anyone who hopes to get paid to write has to trod, whether they’re covering progress, politics, or automobiles. Being overly critical of technology only gets you labeled as a crank—and who wants that?

Hot in Cleveland

I’ve never been to Cleveland. I did drive a U-Haul truck through the middle of the city on a couple of occasions between Mike Pence’s Indiana and Maine. They tell me that the GOP is having their convention in the place where rock and roll is lionized, at least by the arbiters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I do remember a night from Cleveland’s past, filled with smoke and burning records. That took place at a strange intersection where baseball and disco came together—at a stadium by the lake that’s a mere memory.

Rock and Roll and disco are like oil and water.

Rock and Roll and disco are like oil and water.

Not much to say today, at least nothing that I can say that won’t get me on the wrong side of the PC fence from the real fascists and censors.

I did have the strangest of dreams last night. I was at the Democratic National Convention and I was supporting Hillary in the most lukewarm sort of ways. Oddly, she had morphed from the frumpy and shrill, to slender (in a female volleyball player’s body) and unassuming. All the attendees were pudgy white males and women worshiping their queen. Bernie Sanders’ gang were not present, so no graying ponytails. Continue reading

My Car Let Me Down

I was looking forward to Wednesday night. Not because I was planning a night on the town, nor was it a high-end date night at one of Portland’s finer restaurants, either.

Wednesday wasn’t even my “day off”; that happens to be Tuesday nowadays—me with my five variant shades of work. After knocking out six hours of financial coordination at the credit union, I was off to umpire in South Portland, at SMCC. The night was comfortable, especially with the school’s ball field situated, overlooking Casco Bay.

What was the source of my anticipation? A night when I wouldn’t be beckoned while being on-call at the funeral home. I’d finally have a night where I could finish my game, drive home, eat dinner, have a beer or two, and somewhat approximate the normal end-of-the-day experience of most Americans.

Instead, JBE1, aka my 2008 Ford Taurus, had other plans. He would choose Wednesday night to shed his serpentine belt and offer a glimpse of the night ahead.This was foreshadowed while we were tooling along Broadway in South Portland, headed towards the college. A red battery icon began glowing, while a message of “check charging system” commenced flashing across the car’s instrument panel. Continue reading

Pride and Prejudice

Everyone’s looking for a tribe to run with. Sometimes, people find it when they embrace a certain way of seeing the world—religion and politics being two of these.

Turning on the Tee Vee is always fraught with the potential that it could ruin one’s day. I was reminded of this again on Sunday.

After standing in the rain for 5 ½ hour, umpiring two AAU tournament games, I got home late on Saturday, cold, hungry, and exhausted. If you were out in the elements on Saturday, you’ll remember it was unseasonably cold, with precipitation alternating between light drizzle and downpours.

With yet another game on the books for Sunday afternoon, I was looking for a weather forecast, while also wanting to see if the local news puppets bothered to cover the Moxie Festival parade from Saturday, I flicked on the television after pouring my first coffee of the morning.

Oddly, I was treated to a series of social justice warrior gatherings in the first 10 minutes of the newscast. Maine, like the rest of the country, seems to be in the midst of some kind of collective meltdown.

The second story, about a group of white people, mainly women, caught my attention. They had gathered on Saturday in Belfast, Maine, and held a Black Lives Matter rally, or so I was told by the newscaster, reading from his teleprompter. Have there been a rash of racially-motivated shootings in Maine that I missed?

Blacks Lives Matter in Belfast.

Blacks Lives Matter in Belfast.

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Dream Sequences and Baseball Fields

Dreams get referenced often, yet I contend that they’re one of the least understood elements of our brains and subconscious.

All of us dream. Researchers tell us that people can spend two hours of their sleep in some stage of dreaming.

Sometimes reality impersonates the dream fugue. Visiting former haunts and places that once occupied significance in our lives can unleash memories that we’d stored away.

The Ballpark in Old Orchard Beach was built in 1983, principally fueled by the vision and dream of a successful Bangor lawyer, Jordan Kobritz, who didn’t want to practice law anymore. Kobritz believed that OOB’s summer influx of tourists and vacationers would provide the population necessary to support a minor league baseball team, one played at the AAA-level.

Baseball meets the beach at OOB.

Baseball meets the beach at OOB.

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The 5th Always Follows the 4th

While the candidates for president were out and about on the 4th of July, lying to American voters, I spent the long weekend uncharacteristically relaxing, even attending a wonderful family gathering and cookout hosted by “the hostess with the mostest,” Aunt Tomato.

Alas, another work week’s begun. There are still a few jobs to be done in what remains of the Republic.

In this age of truncation and Twitter, I thought something I read in Jay Parini’s biography of Gore Vidal was fitting and Twitter-ific. It was also noteworthy enough to break my silence on politics here at the JBE.

Vidal (just prior to the nation’s Bicentennial year, working on his new book at the time, 1876) was being interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, and he gave an answer to Wallace about the reporter’s claim that Vidal was being overly cynical about the nation’s fate at the time, 40 years before we’d suffer from an election choice of Clinton vs. Trump.

Vidal explained that “cheap labor and cheap energy” were gone, and the results would be dire. He continued, “We’re never going to have that again. We’re going to have to have less gross national product, not more.” Prescient, I’d say.

Promising things they can't deliver.

Promising things they can’t deliver.

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Using New Words

I am fascinated with words. That goes with the territory of being a writer, as we’re “arrangers of words.”

When I was in elementary school, Mondays were when my classmates and I would receive new spelling words for the week. We’d have to copy them down, and then, define them. Sometimes we’d be asked to use them in a sentence.  I’d always go home at night and ask my mother to query me to make sure I knew how to correctly spell my words. I took pride in knowing my spelling list when we’d have our spelling quiz on Thursday.

Dictionary.com offers a daily email. They send out their “word of the day.” I’ve been able to add new words to my vocabulary on the strength of their emails. Reading regularly also contributes to having a healthy vocabulary, too.

I don’t recall where it was this week that I ran across the word nadir. Something about the look of the word (the “ir” at the end also adds to its appeal) and the fact that I never hear anyone in my life using it only adds to the word’s mystique.

Nadir means, the lowest level; a low point; rock-bottom. As in, “the United States still has a ways to go before reaching its political nadir.”

An antonym of nadir might be, zenith.

Go ahead and look it up. Feel free to use it in a sentence, too.

Looking for an Answer Man

In another time, answers seemed ascendant, or at least, you knew how and where to find them.  Knowing your way around a good library was helpful. Sometimes it was as simple as asking dad. Our culture was built around a functional model that’s now nostalgic at best. Now if a youth in school suggested that his information source was good ole’ dad, he’d probably be suspended for some violation or another. Now, it’s all about Google.

Those of us of a particular vintage remember The Shell Answer Man and the series of commercials that Shell Oil ran during the 1960s into the early 1990s. Again, a time not that long ago (when viewing history’s arc) where assurance, rather than uncertainty was trumpeted. Perhaps Americans were simply less skeptical than they are at the moment.

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Pedaling to work

The last time I biked to work, Bush 41 was in the White House. Hillary’s husband, who would come next, was still an obscure governor of a Southern backwater. It was the early 1990s and I was working for a large power company in Brunswick.

From my home in Durham, the ride took just over an hour. Luckily, my employer had a locker room with two showers. I developed a routine of bringing clothes to change into the day before and kept a few other supplies in a locker to dress for work.

Six weeks ago, I accepted a position with a local credit union. They have a branch in Topsham, 12 miles from my house. On my first day, during the tour, I noticed a downstairs locker room and shower. I said to the branch manager, “I’m going to have to bike into work some day.”

Today is finally “bike to work day.” I’m kind of excited. I’ve had to wait ‘til now for a number of reasons, including afternoon and early evening commitments that prevented me from being able to meander back home following work.

I had to do some thinking about it and some pre-planning. A week ago Saturday, I even pre-rode the route, which is a different one than the one I normally take in the car. It’s slightly longer (just over 16 miles). The bike route takes me through Brunswick, a bicycle-friendly community with a designated bike route. In essence, a bike-friendly designation provides a welcoming environment for people on bikes. This is accomplished through providing safe accommodations for bicycling and by encouraging people to bike for transportation and recreation. It allows cyclists an environment that’s safe, comfortable, and convenient for all ages and abilities. Bike-friendly, or not, biking in traffic during rush-to-work time requires vigilance and some experience riding in traffic.

Keeping to the bike route.

Keeping to the bike route.

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A New Standard for Beer

The first beer I ever tasted was probably a Carling Black Label. How do I know that? There’s a grainy picture taken when I was three or four, with my Uncle Dick letting me have a sip of his beer. He was big on that brand.

Given our current culture wars and the binary battles being waged that extend even to beer, this might be the time to step away from the people who flaunt particular lifestyles. Or, if you are part of a group that’s not in the vanguard—stop hiding your uncouth behavior away from the bright lights and your Facebook profile.

I mean, what kind of country are we living in that certain arbiters get to decide the brands of beer we’re all supposed to be belting down? Given the explosion of craft beer and brewing, especially in burgs like Portland, Maine—where a new craft brewer opens every other week—or so it seems, admitting that you like “lawnmower beer” is liable to get you exiled to a place with a much lower hipster quotient.

Cold beers on the patio: the stuff of summer.

Cold beers on the patio: the stuff of summer.

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