We Are All In This Together

John Glenn. Alan Shepard. Gus Grissom. Wally Schirra.

We all know these names. They were the first Americans in space. They were astronauts and they were heroes.

But getting them into space required the dedication and effort of thousands of people.

Robert Gilruth–does anyone know who he was?

Not me. But today I saw the movie Hidden Figures and started looking into the character of Al Harrison. Obviously, I didn’t know about the three women whose lives are the main focus of the movie–Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. But according to NASA, there were so many people involved in getting the Mercury astronauts into space that even the white, Anglo-Saxon men are obscure to us today.

Only the names of the heroes have survived.

Yet, for every hero celebrated in the popular imagination, there are the scores and scores of unsung people without whom those acts of heroism would never have happened.

Sir Edmund Hillary had all those Sherpas getting him to the top of Everest.

Jacques Cousteau had all those workers to run the Calypso and keep tabs on things topside when he was underwater.

All the men and women who ever served in the armed forces have to thank the designers and builders of every single ship, aircraft, armored vehicle and piece of weaponry they’ve used from the beginning of history. When the call goes out to celebrate the troops, do we ever hear about those unsung people who’ve made it all happen?

No.

The next time you hear the currently popular rhetoric about how everyone who has served in uniform is automatically a hero, I challenge you to think about the entire community that supports those troops–the supply chains, the families, the employees who pick up the slack when the soldiers deploy.

Because it is time to set aside the rock star mentality and realize that, to be a nation, to be a community, we are all in this together.

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To Be Young and Smart and Opposed to Driverless Cars

My 15-year-old son, like most boys his age, is growing interested in getting his driver’s license. So I asked him the other day what he thought about self-driving cars.

He thought they were a bad idea because, if everything were automated, “there would be no challenges left in life.”

See? Even kids know that the research into and development of driverless cars is a waste of time and money.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

Try doing this in your self-driving car.

It continues to be unclear to me what problem the developers of automated vehicles are seeking to solve–just as it is unclear to my kids and to most Americans.

One of the arguments put forward is that if you don’t have to pay attention to driving, it will allow you to do other things while traveling. This assumes that all driving is a form of drudgery that we desire to be freed from by robots.

But not all driving is drudgery. In fact, driving a sporty car along country roads on cool, sunny days with the wind in your hair is a hell of a lot of fun. Only commuter driving–where your time is sucked to oblivion by the traffic jams–is drudgery. And there are already solutions to that. It’s called public transportation.

Besides, what we want at the end of the day is to feel in control. We harbor fears of airline crashes because we are at the mercy of the pilot and the aircraft. At the same time, we discount the risk of automobiles precisely because we feel we are doing something while at the wheel.

But my son also was touching on a deeper point, one that has been discussed in an engaging way by the author Sebastian Junger. “Life in modern society,” writes Junger, “is designed to eliminate as many unforeseen events as possible, and as inviting as that seems, it leaves us hopelessly underutilized.” He goes on to argue that everything in human history leading up to this point has made us want more out of life than just having everything done for us, by robots or otherwise. Having some risk and excitement is healthy.

The automated car cartel is not talking only about safety. (There really is a cartel — click on the link. Really.) The Googles and Ubers of the world say they are pursuing innovation. My son pointed out that we could innovate in other, more useful ways that do not involve autonomous cars and still improve safety and provide other benefits.

For instance, a smart driver’s license could prevent a car from operating if you were drunk or if your license was suspended, two of the biggest safety hazards on the road today. I think this is a great idea, and it’s coming coming from a 15-year-old. Why has this not been done already?

And yet the driverless car proponents continue to live in their own echo chamber, pouring money into technology nobody really wants, and thinking they are improving the world for future generations.

Unfortunately, it is a world that my son has no interest living in.

Updated Oct. 21, 2016, at 11:05 a.m.

go Uber go. yay.

So, Uber has launched its driverless car service in Pittsburgh, under the ruse that it is a benefit to humanity.

According to Raffi Krikorian, Director of Uber Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh, “We think it can make transportation cheaper and more accessible for the vast majority of people.”

Except that there already are cheaper and accessible modes of transportation. They are called buses, trains, subways, vanpools, and trolleys. Public transportation is the cheapest and most accessible forms of transportation for people in urban areas.cityatnight

But what about rural areas, you ask, where there public transit is poor or nonexistent? Good point, but last time I checked, Pittsburgh is not a rural area. Presumably, the delusional Krikorian is talking about Pittsburgh, where Uber is testing this technology, not some hypothetical future service in Wyoming.

Pittsburgh already has public transportation. The Port Authority of Allegheny County operates more than 700 buses and more than 80 light rail vehicles in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. I guess Uber finds this unimportant.

Every dollar spent on driverless cars ($300 million by Uber alone, according to this article) is a dollar not spent on improving the accessibility and reliability of public transportation. And yes, it is a zero-sum game, people.

As I have said before, this plunge into autonomous cars is ill-considered. But it’s the wave of the future! you say. Maybe it is for the Silicon Valley elites, but unlikely for the vast majority of people.

This is not making our lives better, folks. Someone needs to pull the plug.

Maybe I Am Smarter Than NPR

It was once pointed out to me that, more often than not, things that seem like a great idea but never really become popular are probably just not very good ideas.

This is counter to the school of thought that there are All These Great Ideas out there that Nobody is paying attention to, but would Really Change Things As We Know Them if we would just embrace them. I have been a victim of this way of thinking on many occasions, so I know how seductive it can be.

So I have this idea for solving the ongoing problem of uncivil online conversations. This is a real and growing problem.giphy

The problem is so bad that NPR announced last month that they were discontinuing their online comment system for their news stories. This is despite the fact that Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news, has said that they “believe strongly in the value of audience conversations about the news and our work.” This is in spite of eight years of trying to make it work. This is in spite of saying they wanted a “forum for infinite conversations.”

And they finally threw in the towel. According to Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, they got “overwhelmed” using staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls. They upped their game in 2011 and again in 2012, “trying to find a workable solution.”

But they seem to have never considered one potentially workable solution. As I have discussed before, the biggest problem with online comments is that they are anonymous and free of charge. One way to fix that is to charge money for the privilege of leaving a comment. It would provide revenue and encourage more thoughtful discussion.

NPR–like most news organizations–is operating under the perception that online comments must be free, or not exist at all. Why they have not considered a compromise option is a mystery to me.

In real life, the exchange of money serves many purposes. One of them is as a gauge of how much you really want something. Do you value it highly? You pay more money. Don’t care? You look for cheap or free.

This is basic economics.

When people leave nasty, uncivil comments on news sites, it is because they have nothing at stake. So it seems obvious that NPR and other news services would find a way for their readers to care more about the things they say.

Make them put their money where their mouths–or keyboards–are.

But maybe this just isn’t a good idea.

Remembering What We’ve Accomplished

On Friday, President Obama had this to say when visiting Hiroshima, Japan:

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines. The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.

His thoughts are my thoughts too, this Memorial Day. Technology does have a way of finding its own worst use.

Indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot about where we’ve been and where we are, and where we are headed, as a nation and as a society.

Maybe it’s too much thinking. But we are all living with some measure of discomfort.

It can’t be too much to ask that we could be putting our efforts toward making things just a bit better.