Auto-propulsive asphyxiation

The driverless car as beau idéal continues to fascinate. The question of whether self-driving cars will work morphs into ‘can it be done at all’ and escapes the gravity of the actual world even as the fantastically expensive contraptions are tested on real people in real streets of real cities:

Waymo’s app, Waymo One, looks and works just like Uber’s does. Riders enter their destination and get an estimated wait time for a ride. Once you enter your requests, the company dispatches from its fleet of 250 white Jaguar vehicles it operates across the city. The cars are staggeringly expensive, outfitted with high-tech sensors and cameras, and are worth as much as $200,000.

The link within that paragraph goes to a 2021 article that paws at the question of the bottomless investment barrel being emptied into autonomous vehicles. And maybe we’re already onboard the 30-year odyssey toward the achievement. But if this is the way home, what is home supposed to look like once we’ve emptied every pocket to get there? We might ask, is the journey worth it? In a way, yes robotaxis can work. But… is this actually an achievement, or just the most expensive movie of all time?

Note how the writers/riders describing their self-driving taxi rides were mostly meh about the futuristic experience.  Sounds familiar.

Image: A Waymo driverless car arriving in front of the Painted Ladies on Monday. Credit…Andri Tambunan for The New York Times

What can you see from your car?

Or truck.

Other cars, lane lines, hopefully*. Traffic lights, parking lots. Some trees, a pedestrian*. A cyclist**.

A sidewalk – don’t stop looking at your phone.

Without a shift in perspective, it’s readily seen how none of this changes until people get out from behind the windshield. And no one will make you – that’s not how this works, at least not here, not yet. The costs could sway your decision-making, you could think about doing something differently. Not because you have to, but because you’re curious. You don’t live out in the country, but you also can’t quite walk to the store, much less to work. Still, you want to check out the view, have a look at the street from up close, from the other side of the windshield.

The prospect of seeing other drivers, reifying our fellow road-users, in recent parlance, into something other than the abstractions that we experience, which allow us to disconnect what we are doing from the consequences of doing it. That abstraction is what has to go. And if it’s only that, maybe we won’t feel like we’re losing so much.

See how fun this is? Fiddling with ways to trick ourselves into doing what’s best. So very child-like, this dependence on unsupportable habits to maintain, to remain in, abstract suspension, protected from the outside and other people, things that don’t actually mean us harm. “But I need to get from here to there,” though I don’t want to re-consider here or there. Just want to stay wrapped in this steel cocoon.

Conveyance. Economic drivers. These notes for later betray an urgency beneath the wheels, outside the windows.

Lines on the map

Actually, little pairs of lines, close together, with cars on them, all fastened together to move a lot of people from here to there:

The state Senate vote authorizing initial funding for California’s high-speed rail project was hailed by backers Friday as a pivotal step in building the controversial project.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who had made repeated trips and telephone calls to California to push for the project, called the vote a “big win” for the state.

“No economy can grow faster than its transportation network allows,” LaHood said in a statement. “With highways between California cities congested and airspace at a premium, Californians desperately need an alternative.”

It is unclear when construction on the largest infrastructure project in the country can begin. The state still needs a series of regulatory approvals to start the first 130 miles of track in the Central Valley. The plan also faces lawsuits by agriculture interests and potential opposition by major freight railroads.

Passing this funding was really hard to do, and not only because the money will go toward building the route in a very rural area, where not many people are. But the whole point of the line is to connect S.F. and L.A. via high-speed rail, and it’s going to go through some rural areas as these two cities are very far apart. Have a look at a map. But it’s easy to demagogue hsr, as it is health care, as it is education, but these are long-term needs that require attention, commitment – and fortitude to stand up to all the whiners that would prefer to give the money directly to already rich people.

Not to mention all the people who will be working to build this route. People need jobs for the whole thing to work. Come on. Better conservatives, please.


If you missed Krugman today… well, you shouldn’t miss Krugman today:

These days Americans get constant lectures about the need to reduce the budget deficit. That focus in itself represents distorted priorities, since our immediate concern should be job creation. But suppose we restrict ourselves to talking about the deficit, and ask: What happened to the budget surplus the federal government had in 2000?

The answer is, three main things. First, there were the Bush tax cuts, which added roughly $2 trillion to the national debt over the last decade. Second, there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which added an additional $1.1 trillion or so. And third was the Great Recession, which led both to a collapse in revenue and to a sharp rise in spending on unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs.

Sure we can talk about and quote long passages from books about the French Revolution, as I’m so fond of doing about any kinds of books, and draw comparisons between now and the run-up to that ghastly epoch. But I’m not sure how much good it will do (though I think a film about Saint Just would be great right about now).

But the more people with megaphones like Krugman take-on and takedown nonsense like the gospel of Greenspan and all of the other Randian balderdash that has so permeated the air waves, sunk most of the newspapers and razed the public squares, replacing them with parking lots for multi-aisle wish fulfillment, the harder the Greenspans et al will have to fight to maintain the BS level that now floats so effortlessly over us all.

Though there is no one like Krugman, there are plenty of others. I heard Stiglitz on NPR this morning and when Steve Inskeep (?) tried to question him about weren’t the stimulus and tax cuts strategies all just the same anyway and the debt was the most important blah blah blah, Joe was having none of it. And called him on the nonsense right away. Can’t believe they had him on. Listen here.

Anyway, these are important steps out of the cow field and here’s to sustaining them. But… no way around the woodshed.

What does (a) Green (card) mean?

Do you know any illegal immigrants? Your kids go to school with their kids. And if they don’t, well I think this begins to explain a great deal of the antipathy expressed toward them and their fates. Reminder: They = We.

A local situation came up over dinner a couple of nights ago and I had to (try to) explain to les enfants vertes the whys and hows of said situation. A  bright, local girl who had excelled in school and won the notice of several teachers along the way had gained attention again because she, now a h.s. graduate, was cleaning houses for a living instead of going to college. Some of these teachers are my kids teachers now, so we’re all increasing cognizant of the situation. And now the kids know, too, that some of their friends at school will, upon gradation, not be availed to entry – much less any financial aid that would make it possible – to continue their education, to continue on any path they may have devised under the strain of all the pressure to success we put them under. These kids will be, in fact, consigned to a future of menial labor, inconsistent and under-employment and less overall income (and tax contributions) than their classmates, all because someone who brought them to this country was undocumented.

Suddenly, I’m having a conversation with my kids about birthright citizenship and why it is crucially important to be that country that people want to come to, want to bring their kids to, want to sneak into, if necessary, and become a part of… I was suddenly defending the nobility of a country – a country that would and does force some of its own school children into that situation that started the conversation.

There are all flavors of examples of this kind of exclusion going on – NPR just this morning. Whether its anti-Islamism or don’t-take-our-jobs hysteria, nothing is more pernicious than the proclivity to cut off access to the future that runs through this country. Hint: Future arrives anyway.

Drilling It into Your Head

NPR has apparently found a very sturdy drum and they’ve been beating it night & day. This Morning’s Edition:

President Obama’s approach to domestic oil drilling has shifted over this year. Taken together, those shifts have managed to anger just about everyone in the oil drilling debate at one time or another.

Great. 100% chance of this, right? What an excellent, safe, can’t miss, no interest news story. Dog bites dog. We’ll trot out an oil industry shill and an officer of the Sierra Club and they’ll light up the night with worry. Think I’m kidding?

“It’s risky, it’s dangerous, and there’s a better way to meet America’s energy needs than to engage in a set of activities that are proven to be unsafe,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.

“Why six months? What does that mean?” asks Rayola Dougher, a senior economic adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.

Well, Rayola, part of what it means, if you must know, is that we’ll call off all drilling for six months and try to find out WTF happened to make all the shellfish have a sad when all they were doing was preparing to become food. It (the story) trudges on and on.

But then, this evening, they were striking up the band again. I mean, I only have a ten-minute drive both ways. This time it was workers from the oil industry, including medical personnel living along the Gulf who treat injured workers. It seems that they are all for not having another accident in the Gulf, and even understand some the malformations the industry itself has performed on the wetlands guarding the land and sea from each other. But

The uncertainty has rippled through the oil services industry, and puts some workers in a difficult position as they consider what the moratorium can achieve.

Lavonne Martin of Baton Rouge works for a company that provides offshore medical care.

“As an environmentalist, as a fisherman, as someone who loves our Louisiana coast, I understand it. … However, as somebody who, you know, makes a living working in the oil industry, I’m very concerned about it and what the future … economic impact may be,” Martin says.

The environment and all that… becomes a blur when connected to livelihoods through the paycheck, especially for those so close to the action. There is truth to this and it is painful and complex – the withering of a way of life, and specifically the means for powering it but not just that, is very difficult to separate from the idea that life will continue. Much less how it will. There are no poetic terms for this, not at first. These are only the first hard questions. But the reporting seems to still hold the outcome in the balance, to still pull for business and people who depend on a paycheck (!) to prevail, as if we can sustain a way of life that is being destroyed by our efforts to sustain a way of life. It’s that or nothing so that it must be.

And the preoccupation with uncertainty is… certainly curious. We’ve come to absolutely depend upon some outlandish by its very premise level of confidence in what to expect – or else panic sets in. This type of caution, need for guarantees, this quest for certainty, especially with regard to large scale endeavors, leads eventually in all the wrong directions.

Maybe we should actually embrace uncertainty for a while. Maybe it could mean many of these same people would be as loyal to and hardworking for schemes that weren’t concentrated on a dwindling resource. Who can be sure?

Green Jobs, Green Shoots

These are two of the big catchwords of the year so far. What do they mean and, what is their relation to the Eco-logy/Eco-nomy mash-up from which they emerge?

Hard to say on either of these counts, without squaring the circle – that we have to cut down on consumption but keep on making things (have job for people to do). Not exactly business as usual.

Even as most of the new green jobs end up going to robots, we (third-person, sentient) still have to do certain things. This should settle back into two fundamental questions – what are these certain things, and of course, what does green mean?

Because as we settle on the parameters of the first, the elements of the second become more clear, or at least a matter debate. We can see how imposing costs on carbon dioxide emissions, for example, can trigger changes in the things we make and the ways we make them. Despite what you watch and hear, people are thinking about this. And despite what you watch, hear and read, this will require great amounts of thinking. And schooling. And cross pollination of everything we think about business and most of what know about technology, engineering, credit and risk.

In short, it could be sexy. It could capture the popular imagination and re-direct it toward more productive ends. I don’t mean to sound too optimistic on this count; things are as dire as we are lazy and easily amused. But we did go to the moon once, many years ago today.

So, who knows?

walking, working

Here’s a follow-up to the smallholder farms I mentioned yesterday. Microfinance and it effects on the environment.

I was walking back from doing a radio interview earlier, thinking about some of the conversation. I often talk about walking or biking to work, and it’s become a little bit of a cudgel in some ways. And in some ways, it should be.

But I can walk to work because I live in the small town where my job is. I was thinking about an article I saw recently, about the ever-crowded planet and the difficulty of doing something about over-population without crafting laws that are inhuman. There’s something to that, related to my ‘walking to work’ idea that “we can’t tell people where to live.”

But isn’t that what we’ve been doing anyway? Encouraging people to live in certain places, and selling them houses and cars without including the prices of the negative externalities of living/driving there. That’s how they could live there. Otherwise – and now many are realizing this – they couldn’t live there.

Anyway. As you were.