How Lucky!

I’m starting to think Larry Niven was right.

One of the subplots in his Known Space stories involves, in short, breeding humans to be lucky. He postulates strict birth control laws combined with a lottery to distribute one-child exceptions to the laws. After several generations, there will be people whose ancestors are all lottery babies.

Whether that constitutes luck, I’ll let you decide.

But in the context of the stories, the eventual result is a group of people who are so lucky that nothing bad can ever happen to them. Even things that seem unfortunate will ultimately prove to have been the best thing that could have happened to the person.

With me so far? Okay, now consider this quote from “Flatlander,” one of Mr. Niven’s stories set before the rise of the lucky. The protagonist is watching a group of hobbyists who restore and drive old internal combustion engine cars on a stretch of freeway (which they also have to restore and maintain).

They were off. I was still wondering what kick they got driving an obsolete machine on flat concrete when they could be up here with us. They were off, weaving slightly, weaving more than slightly, foolishly moving at different speeds, coming perilously close to each other before sheering off — and I began to realize things.

Those automobiles had no radar.

They were being steered with a cabin wheel geared directly to four ground wheels. A mistake in steering and they’d crash into each other or into the concrete curbs. They were steered and stopped by muscle power, but whether they could turn or stop depended on how hard four rubber balloons could grip smooth concrete. If the tires loosed their grip, Newton’s First Law would take over; the fragile metal mass would continue moving in a straight line until stopped by a concrete curb or another groundcar.

“A man could get killed in one of those.”

“Not to worry,” said Elephant. “Nobody does, usually.”


You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

We don’t need no steenkin’ breeders’ lottery to breed ourselves for luck. We’re already doing it. Every time you get into a car, you’re taking your life in your hands.

The Interstate Highway System has encouraged drivers to drive faster and faster, generating impatience with anyone who doesn’t get with the program. Merriam-Webster claims the first known use of the word “gridlock” was in 1980. Certainly the phenomenon, along with “road rage” (1988), has been around longer than that.

But even if we go with 1980, that means roughly 130,000,000 Americans have been born only because their parents were lucky enough to survive on the roads long enough to breed. By now, we’re into at least the third generation.

And it shows. People keep finding new ways to ramp up the danger level.

Drivers are no longer content to honk if the car in front of them doesn’t move fast enough when the light changes. Now they honk and pull around the laggard, using the shoulder, adjoining lanes, and even the oncoming traffic lanes. In the rain, regardless of the presence of pedestrians, and despite the drivers in the adjoining lanes doing exactly the same thing.

Somehow, most of them survive. How lucky!

The next couple of decades are going to be interesting, but at this rate, by the time the kids born in 2050 are old enough to drive, they’ll be too lucky to ever have an accident. Think of all the money they’ll save on insurance, vehicle maintenance, and transit infrastructure!

An Unsolicited Rant

Bear with me, please. I feel the need to vent a bit. And yes, I know I’m beating a dead horse and, given the quality of my readers, probably preaching to the choir. Neither fact makes venting any less satisfying.

The number of drivers doing stupid things on a regular basis continues to climb. The thing is, most of those stupid things fall into one of two categories. Fix those, and we’ll eliminate hundreds, if not thousands of accidents a year.

First, stop crossing solid lines–yes, even solid white lines. Yes, I know it’s legal in some states and in some circumstances. It’s still a bad idea.

Solid white lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices show places where crossing is discouraged, i.e. where it’s unsafe, or outside normal driving practices.

That’s why you see solid white lines just before a freeway exit and just before an onramp merge: drivers are concentrating on merging into or disentangling from freeway traffic; adding another vehicle disrupts the smooth flow of cars and makes the process more complicated. You may need to cross the lines in an emergency, so there isn’t a firm prohibition against it–but a traffic jam is not an emergency*. Neither is missing your exit because you were checking something on your phone.

* Unless you’re driving a police car, fire truck, or ambulance. But in those cases, you’re exempt from normal driving standards anyway.

Seriously, people, if you’re trying to get off the freeway, don’t do it by crossing the solid lines, even to get out of a tie-up. You’re either blocking people trying to get onto the freeway or people trying to exit legally. Similarly, if you’re trying to get onto the freeway, don’t do it across the solid lines: they’re probably there because you don’t have enough of a sight line to be sure the lane is clear.

Second, stay close to the speed limit–ideally within five miles per hour–or the prevailing speed of traffic. The arguments against speeding have been made over and over. I’m tired of seeing them. You’re tired of seeing them. Consider them included by reference.

But traveling significantly slower than the speed limit is just as bad. You become an unexpected obstacle to other drivers. Anywhere that sight lines are reduced, you’ll trigger abrupt slowdowns that can avalanche, causing major traffic tie-ups, even if nobody gets into an accident.

Worse yet, you become a challenge to the sort of person who exceed the speed limit. They’re going to start playing the Slalom Game: whipping around you without slowing down, and coming as close to your front and rear bumpers as they can to show you just how insignificant they think you are.

Again, there are circumstances where you might need to slow down. Snow, heavy rain, or high winds, for example. The zombie apocalypse*. In the Berkeley/Oakland area, a protest moving onto the freeway**.

* Maybe. One school of thought says you should slow down to minimize the danger to others when your passenger turns into a zombie and goes for your throat. The other school says you should speed up to maximize your ability to flatten the zombies wandering through traffic. A full analysis is, of course, outside of the scope of this rant.

** Be careful not to confuse a peaceful protest with a zombie apocalypse! Hint: protesters rarely, if ever, eat human flesh during the protest. That said, however, if zombies are carrying protest signs, you’ll have to solve the ethical dilemma yourself.

Bluntly, if you don’t feel capable of driving at least fifty on the freeway, take city streets. If you can’t drive at least twenty-five on city streets, take a cab. And if you’re incapable of driving less than eighty anywhere, get out of the car and take public transportation.

Thank you. I feel better already.

The Road to…

Civilization as we know it is doomed (again). And in some ways, that may actually be a good thing. It’s the “as we know it” that’s important here.

Modern civilization is built around the automobile.

Before I go on, does anyone have a serious counter to that statement? No? Write a comment if you think of anything, OK?

The problem is that driving has become so unsafe that it now threatens its own existence.

Consider: I drove Maggie to the BART station this morning. In the course of a thirty minute drive, I saw the following:

  • A high-speed lane change without signaling
  • A change from the left turn lane to the through lane without signaling or looking.
  • The second car in line to make a left turn make the turn before the first car in line–
  • –because the first car was waiting for a pedestrian to clear the crosswalk
  • A car stopped in the traffic lane to let a passenger out–
  • –forcing a second car to cross the yellow line into oncoming traffic–
  • –and then also stop in the traffic lane (still facing the wrong way for the lane it was in) to let a passenger out.

And you know what the most remarkable thing about this trip was? I didn’t see a single case of a car slaloming around multiple vehicles.

That particular maneuver, usually conducted at ten or fifteen mph over the prevailing speed (not the posted speed, the actual speed) has become so common that on any trip of more than a couple of miles, the question isn’t whether it’s going to happen, but how many times.

The universal standard disclaimer about anecdotes not being data certainly applies here. The stretch of freeway I travel is always in the top five “worst commutes” lists. But I see the same behavior everywhere–and let’s not forget that all but one of the stupid, dangerous, and illegal activities I saw were on city streets, not the freeway.

In short, driving is risky. And it’s only going to get worse. Consider this item that showed up on Kickstarter recently: “Pain-Free Sociable Headphones“. Leave aside the question of whether the world actually needs “sociable” headphones (you can broadcast whatever is playing through your headphones to any other set within 100 feet). The two purposes of these headphones are to eliminate the “pressure and…heat” generated by normal headphones so you can wear them longer and to allow “you to interact with your environment while listening to your audio”.

How long after release will it be before somebody decides to wear his “pain free” headphones while driving? My bet is less than an hour.

I’m in no position to complain about people listening to music while they drive; I almost always have the radio on when I’m behind the wheel.

But headphones are a more immersive environment. Even if they’re designed, as these are, to allow environmental noise into your ears, just by virtue of placing your head in the center of the sound stage, they’re going to command more of your attention than speakers.

More attention on the music, less on the traffic means more dangerous behavior.

I’m not suggesting that the crew behind this particular Kickstarter are deliberately setting out to cause traffic accidents. I’m sure they’re not. But I’m also sure that they, like pretty much every other tech company isn’t giving enough attention to the consequences their products will bring.

The near-universal push today is to make it easier for mobile devices to claim more and more of the users’ attention. And I’m not seeing anyone giving much thought to what their attention had been on before.

Self-driving cars? Well… Until fully autonomous cars are universal, it’s not going to help. The evidence suggests that the people who most need their car to take over the driving are going to be the ones least likely to let it. Not when their unsafe behavior is the result of impatience with slower-moving, law-abiding vehicles.

Things I Learned

Warning: Some NSFW language in this post.

Things I learned during the holiday season.

  • There are a lot of stupid people driving cars. Weaving between lanes at ten miles per hour over the speed limit really doesn’t save you much time. Unless your commute is over a hundred miles, you’ll probably wind up spending more in increased fuel costs and vehicle wear and tear than you’ll earn in the few extra minutes you’re at work. And the less said about accelerating in an attempt to cross intersections in front of oncoming ambulances the better.
  • It’s not just drivers. Kudos to Caltrans for reaching new depths in planning. If you were going to close a major connecting street for three months and detour thousands of cars to an alternate route, wouldn’t you re-time the traffic lights so traffic on the detour route can move? Yeah, me too. Not Caltrans, though.
  • Tradition is not dead. Parents finding their kids’ toys obscene is nothing new. In 2002, there was the Harry Potter vibrating broomstick. Every couple of years since at least 2000, there’s a furor over a swearing Furby. And now parents are in an uproar over a phallic toy from the Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset. (If you’ve missed the uproar, there’s a picture of the object in question on Gawker–and probably a few million other sites.) I’m a little disturbed by the number of reports that say the toy looks “exactly” like a penis. Have the reporters ever seen one? Let me tell you, I’ve seen several, and none of them had screw threads. Nor do they come with those stimulating bumps behind the head and at the base. At least not as delivered from the factory; those are typically third-party aftermarket add-ons.
  • America is losing the candy war. It’s an R&D problem. Major manufacturers are content to rest on conventional wisdom, cranking out endless combinations of milk chocolate, peanuts, caramel, and wafers. Outside the US, however, candy makers aren’t afraid to try new things. Consider these offerings from Nestle:
    That’s right. In Japan, Nestle offers a green tea KitKat. And in the UK, it’s dark chocolate. Dark chocolate, people! And not the wimpy 50-60% the US sees on the rare occasions that the major manufacturers dabble in dark chocolate, but a solid 70%!

    In the interest of Science!, Maggie and I tried both variants. The experiment wasn’t entirely successful. We enjoyed both, but probably wouldn’t buy them again. The dark chocolate completely overwhelms the delicate flavor of the wafers. Contrarily, the flavor of green tea is a little weak, present mostly as an aftertaste.

    But the success of Nestle’s experiments is beside the point. What is important is that, first, Nestle is continuing their attempts to identify an ultimate candy bar, and second, they’re trying to hide their work from America.

    What, you don’t believe me? Take a closer look at that sticker on the Japanese candy.cg3
    That’s right. “…not a product authorized…for importation…”

    In the immortal words of General Buck Turgidson, “Hershey and Mars, we must not allow… a candy gap!”