The History Lens

For me, World War Two has always been something that happened a long time ago. But consider this: when I was born, the war had ended less than twenty years before. Now it’s been over for more than seventy years. But to me, it doesn’t feel three times as distant. It was always far in the past.

The Wild West was still a credible idea in 1900, sixty-four years before my birth. Now those days are 116 years in humanity’s rear-view, essentially twice as distant, but to me that era is no farther than it always has been.

For all the future shock and whatnot we’re supposed to be reeling from, from where I sit the last fifty years are “now”. Everything that came before is ancient history. We have phones that surpass Star Trek technology, but I’ve been alive since the first airing of the show and the technology has all been part of a logical continuum. As a kid I rode in Jetliners and looked at pictures of B-17’s. Since I didn’t live through the transitional times, giant propeller-driven planes seem absolutely disconnected from my world. Ancient history.

There are still plenty of people out there for whom B-17’s are “now”. First-person memory. They experienced the intervening decades and it all ties together. But here’s a funny thought: I don’t think there’s much in my “now” that’s not also in kids-these-days’ “now”. The Old West, a couple of world wars, those are things that are truly over. But during my lifetime, what with its prosperity and unprecedented period of world peace, there hasn’t been that thing that historians hang their hat on. There have been major events, sure, but nothing like a world war, or the annexation of a continent and the glorified subjugation of its indigenous peoples.

Jet airplanes, the electric guitar. My parents remember a time before those. Between my birth and now, nothing’s really changed. We’ve just gotten better at doing the same stuff. Yeah, Internet blah blah. But Facebook is just a phone with everyone talking at once.

I was going to stop there, but then I had another splash of blended scotch whiskey (to avoid the oxymoron I call it “gluggin’ scotch” in my head) and projected forward. What might make the life I live now ancient history?

Sure, kids born in the near future will never know what it was like before the human genome was sequenced, and will never appreciate the Las-Vegas methodology we use to create medicine right now (which is itself a huge improvement on what came before). But will they feel it? Will they look back on Amoxycillin the way I look at a B-17? I doubt it, but it would be cool if they did. “Back in those days someone who had cancer would drink poison and hope it killed the disease first.” They’d say that like they were looking at a black-and-white photo of General Custer.

That is the happy science-fiction ending. I have a feeling, however, that tomorrow’s B-17’s are the outline of Florida as we know it and the existence of New Orleans. Corpus Christi, Seattle. There will be people who remember Venice and those who for whom it is a legend. Ancient history.

A Lesson in Contrast

On my ride to work today I passed several school zones. Near one school a mother and son, helmeted, were stopped at the side of the path, straddling their bikes, looking at their phones.

“What does that mean?” Mom asked as I rode past.

“You got rid of it,” the kid answered. He was teaching his mom to play Pokémon Go.

There are so many things I like about that little vignette. Parent and child, doing a healthy, safe, and fun activity, and even letting the kid be the teacher.

A few miles farther along I was passing near the entrance to another school. A woman in a Ford hybrid with a kid in the back ran a stop sign turning left, and almost get T-boned by another mom in a big-ass SUV in a frothing hurry to reach the school entrance.

We should all take a breath and be more like the first mom.

Maybe if I Assert Harder…

When I unleash the testing robots on my code, I very often see messages like this:

Failed asserting that false is true.

It seems like there should be a metaphor in there somewhere.

A Long Night

Lying in bed, left hand clamped over my eyes, my right arm wrapped around my head to apply pressure so my sinuses don’t blow my face off. Everything hurts. My teeth hurt. Looking forward to the next sneeze, building somewhere in the background, a feeling of squirrels chewing my nasal passages, but when it comes, fifteen seconds of bliss. Or at least reduction in discomfort.

There are no more pills to take. I lie, wheezing, and think, “Maybe whiskey will help…”

Life in the Matrix

The other night I had a dream. In that dream I had a truck, but it was the wrong kind of truck. So I changed its CSS.

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Return of the Weekenders

Sitting on my back patio south of the San Jose airport, enjoying a very pleasant day, and watching the planes come in. For every commercial airliner there are four private jets. Welcome to Silicon Valley.

Badass

This color is badass:

OK, actually it’s #bada55.

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Why the phrase ‘Zero-Emissions’ Irks me So.

A few days ago I made a comment on a Facebook post that rather cheesed some Tesla drivers. I said zero emissions was a lie. (I also said that if Tesla made a convertible on their new platform, I’d buy it.)

I linked to an article here on my Blog about that lie, and about the even bigger lie concerning the emissions of gasoline-powered vehicles. Whether they read it or not before rebutting me is debatable, but I’m going to spend a little time comparing the two lies in a different way. My goal is to have the drivers of electric cars reject the zero-emissions label, and insist on a full reckoning of emissions for all vehicles.

Teslas come out looking pretty good in that comparison.

Let’s talk for a minute about gasoline. It comes from oil. Oil comes from the ground. Those rocking-horse pumps scattered around our nation run on electricity. How much? In California, the energy to pull enough crude from the ground to make a gallon of gasoline is about 17kWh[1]. That’s actually quite a bit. Enough to send a Tesla about 40 miles.

So while I’m standing next to a pump with a bucket full of smelly goo, my Tesla-driving friends are forty miles down the road, thinking that the day would be perfect if they could only put the top down. Meanwhile, my Leaf-driving friends are more like fifty miles down the road, and are made even happier because from inside they don’t have to look at their hideously ugly car.

Meanwhile, my bucket of goo has to be transported, refined (a very energy-intensive process), augmented with various chemicals, and transported again. By the time that gallon of gas reaches my tank, my Tesla friends could be well over 100 miles away, all for a similar amount of environmental harm.

Yet, up to this point, nothing has come out of my tail pipe. The tailpipe emissions from burning the gasoline are dwarfed by the environmental harm getting the gas into my tank. Optimistically 60% or more[2] of the energy consumed by a gas-powered car is not reflected in the tailpipe emissions.

“I had no idea!” you say! To which I say, “EXACTLY!” The numbers I cite aren’t easy to come by, and as long as all cars were gas-powered, the film-flam didn’t matter much. But now we have electrics, and tailpipe emissions are a terrible way to compare the two.

And we’re not even talking about babies dying as a result of fracking-related pollution, or the cost of keeping our oil coming in from other countries, or mitigating climate change. We are just comparing the energy consumed to drive a mile.

Taking into account the inefficiencies of power generation and the electric grid[3], ‘zero emissions’ hides the impact of generating about 1kWh for every mile a Tesla is driven. And it lets the gasoline junkies have it both ways. “Those electric guys ignore their own pollution!” they say, while simultaneously ignoring almost all their own emissions. Focusing on tailpipe emissions allows Miata drivers like me to ignore the impact of at least 3kWh for every mile driven. And that big-ass pick-em-up truck? It’s not pretty.

So come on, electrics! DEMAND an even reckoning. Mark your Tesla 30MPGe (due to the inefficiencies above), and insist that my Miata be rated at 8MPG[4]. Tops. Probably less. It’s a more honest number.

Even out the reckoning and watch your favorite electric vehicle flourish like never before. Say NO to ‘zero emissions’!

______
[1] State of California

[2] I backed these numbers way off from my previous post, as the sources I found back then have dried up, and 4-7kWh/gallon seems to be the consensus for electricity used in refining. That ignores very large amounts of fossil fuels (mostly natural gas) used alongside the electricity, but if the numbers are out there for that, I can’t find them anymore. Energy companies aren’t terribly motivated to make that easy to find.

Just know that I might be making things look way better for gasoline than they actually are. This is partially offset because I’m ignoring the other useful products of the refining process.

Updated to add: I tried, I really did, to get the answer from energy.gov. Unfortunately I could not make numbers that jive with other sources that seem trustworthy-ish, so I suspect my math and interpretation of the data are off. On the one hand, I came up with about 4.6 kWh/gallon strictly for the gasoline product of the refining process, much better than I expected. On the other hand, according to that document fossil fuels used in the energy mix during refining dwarf the electrical component, so if the electric estimates I use above are even remotely accurate, then my analysis of that PDF is way off. The latter seems more likely to me.

[3] American Physical Society

[4] Yeah, I know it will never happen. Both for political reasons and because the number varies wildly depending on where your gasoline comes from.

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Banana Stickers

A banana sticker; this one an obvious ripoff of Andy Warhol

A banana sticker; this one an obvious ripoff of Andy Warhol

In the cartoon-for-grownups Metalocalypse, one episode involves the dysfunctional band’s agent hiring a counsellor to help the members get along. The members of Dethklok are given banana stickers when they act nicely toward each other. This works for a while, as the band covets the special prize, but in the end they discover they can buy banana stickers by the gross. The lead singer, Nathan Explosion, says, “We have found out that you can just, you know, buy psychological validation, so…” The band turns back into a bunch of backbiting jerks.

The Internet is filled with banana stickers. Little bits of feel-good validation that ultimately have no value. One site gave me a sticker for filling out my profile. MapMyRide gives me little trophies for my fourth best ride (out of four). My phone gives me banana stickers. LoseIt.com had me going for a while; some of the stickers they throw around are utterly meaningless, but others are not trivial to earn. So banana stickers don’t all have the same value. Someday I’ll get a sticker on Strava.

For the Web sites that offer these stickers, the reward is more tangible: return visitors. Getting banana stickers make you come back for more banana stickers.

The other day my allergies were kicking in and I pulled out the Flonase. I went to their site to review the instructions, and when I was done, a little window popped up that said something like:

“Achievement unlocked! You have read the Flonase instructions!”

There’s one for the resume.

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Just Put Me in the Shed

Today I drank a bottle of Glacéau smartwater and felt like a tool.

Bowie Thoughts

Ziggy-Stardust-ziggy-stardust-8526918-497-584By now pretty much everything there is to be said about David Bowie has been, but sometimes sorrow, like wine, needs a little time to mature. David Bowie was never my favorite musician, and some of his songs don’t appeal to me much at all. Others, well…

I got Ziggy Stardust on cassette in the Safeway in Socorro, New Mexico, and while I’d heard plenty of Bowie before, and I’d even heard some of the songs on that album, I’d never immersed myself in his music the way I did as I played that tape at high volume while I drove across the desert. Big, buzzy guitars, lyrics that didn’t quite make sense in a poetic sort of way, all wrapped up in showmanship.

Many years later, I wrote a story that opens with a man in a spaceship, floating far above the world, a story I called “Tin Can.” Was I thinking of “Space Oddity” as I wrote it? Not really. But the song was there, part of my science fiction education, a story about loneliness as much as anything else. It’s a vibe that you can find in most of my favorite stories. There’s a little bit of Major Tom in all my favorite heroes.

My guilty pleasure: “China Girl”. I don’t hear that one mentioned in the eulogies that have sprouted up everywhere. Perhaps it just landed at the right time in my life, or perhaps I’m the only one on Earth with the taste and sophistication to appreciate it. That song’s kissin’ cousin, “Let’s Dance,” really doesn’t do much for me.

Recently, semi-accidentally, my sweetie and I watched Labyrinth. It’s… not very good. It sounds like all the dialog was re-recorded in the studio and without any regard for the environment the action was taking place in. Mr. Bowie, well, he does not succeed in rescuing the show. But I’m glad I watched. It was the last time I will experience David Bowie without the knowledge that he is gone, without wondering what he might do next.

And so we move on, flying through space, looking for something, not sure what, that was here a minute ago but doesn’t seem to be where we left it. That’s the hole we didn’t even know David Bowie was filling. He’s still here, of course, but everything he did is now tinged a little blue.

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The Wrong Way to Celebrate a Goal

I’m at a bar where mariachi is playing and the TV is showing sports. Sports in this case is the most popular sport in the world, the version of football that involves both foot and ball.

It’s a listless game, for the most part; I hadn’t even realized the game had started — players were just milling about. Then I noticed the clock was ticking. I went back to my writing.

I looked up again when the guy watching the TV to my right turned up the volume. “GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLL!” There were celebrations and then the guy who scored the goal ran to the sidelines and began furiously unlacing his shoes. A flunky ran up with a new neon-green pair, and the player put them on with a great show of urgency.

While the clock was ticking. The other team waited for him to finish. Perhaps they had to, it looked like he was on the wrong side of the center line. If he was stopping the game by being offside, it seems to me it was a yellow card offense. If not, I say let the guy change his jock for all I care, but his team’s going to have to play without him while he promotes his own agenda. If the clock’s ticking, the ball should be moving.

And what about the rest of the team? This guy was busy immortalizing his own damn wardrobe (and no doubt profiting from it), with no recognition that a whole bunch of other guys worked to create that moment.

While this example was particularly awful, don’t think for a moment it doesn’t happen in other sports. American football even has rules to limit celebrations. But honestly, I have no problem with guys throwing a brief party after they accomplish something. I do have a problem with a player delaying the game to profit personally.

If if turns out he auctions his shoes to support an orphanage, then I will suddenly applaud the opposing team for supporting his philanthropy by not putting the ball in play. I’m not optimistic.

A Tip of the Hat to the Folks Who Designed the AMC Pacer

The Pacer's greenhouse. CC BY-SA 2.0 Daniel R. Blume

The Pacer’s greenhouse. CC BY-SA 2.0 Daniel R. Blume

When the AMC Pacer came out back in the 1970’s, it was freakishly ugly. Now, it’s just plain ugly. The designers of the Pacer took a running leap at the future… and missed. But all these years later, we can see that curved-glass, wide-stance aesthetic in many attractive modern cars. We just hadn’t developed the vocabulary back then to assess what they had done. “The wide-track people have a way with cars” didn’t really sell it.

By golly, AMC was actually decades ahead of its time (at least where style is concerned). But without the materials, and, most importantly, other designs to evolve from, the Pacer remains mired in the ’70’s even while it crosses into the third millennium. It’s a mix that doesn’t work. At all. But I wonder whether any of those big-name designers that went on to build the bridge between 1970’s and now credit the peek into the future the Pacer afforded them.

Really

Good health habits will resume any day now.

Any day now.

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How We Will Know When Artificial Intelligence has Truly Arrived

I just asked Siri to set my alarm for never o’clock. I did not get a courtesy chuckle, or even a roll-eyes emoji or a “gee, I’ve never heard that one before” retort. So, for the nonce, our machines remain our faithful servants.

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