Posts Tagged digital age

Amtrak Philadelphia crash, Positive Train Control, and the tech zeitgeist

NJ Transit commuter trainAfter the horrific Amtrak crash in Philadelphia earlier this week that killed eight people, it’s natural for railroad officials, regulators, and the public to reflexively search for something to do.

Tragedies like this shouldn’t happen, and it’s natural to want to respond with some sort of action that ensures they don’t.

A lot of discussion in that regard seems to focus on the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a technology that’s designed to slow or stop trains when crews ignore signals and speed limits, and that railroads are already mandated to start using soon.

The general consensus is that a functioning PTC system would have stopped Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188 from entering a 50 mph curve at the 100 mph investigations indicate it was traveling at.

That seems fairly definitive, but the discussion shouldn’t end there. Today we’re used to jumping to the conclusion that technology is the only answer, but perhaps as much because of its flashiness as its superiority.

PTC uses sensors, wireless, signals, and control computers to determine a train’s position and speed, decide whether said train is operating within acceptable parameters (i.e., obeying speed limits and signals), and can slow or stop a train if necessary.

The Federal government requires all major railroads to put PTC systems into operation by December 31, although the industry has repeatedly said that deadline is unrealistic. Legislation has been introduced to extend the deadline by varying amounts.

Congress passed the mandate as part of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, and it’s been vigorously debated by politicians and industry personalities since then. But it’s only recently been brought to the attention of the broader public by the Amtrak crash, as well as another deadly crash back in December on the New York-area Metro North Railroad.

That’s led to headlines like “Could technology have prevented the crash?” (CNN) and “Speed control technology could have stopped Amtrak derailment (NPR), which appear to frame the debate purely in terms of why a life-saving technology wasn’t available.

In an age where we look to Apple and Google to save the world, and our phones, tablets, smartwatches, and other digital ephemera to run our lives, that’s a comfortable perspective. But it’s also problematic.

Because while Congress requires railroads to deploy PTC, the regulations don’t comprise a technical standard. PTC systems exist–Amtrak already uses it on the Northeast Corridor where the crash occurred–but none that have proven to be interoperable across all railroads and all pieces of rolling stock.

In 2013, former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman remarked that it took NASA less time to land a man on the moon than it’s taken railroads to implement PTC.

At that’s despite the major freight railroads spending over $5 billion to date on PTC. Amtrak and state and local government-operated passenger carriers are getting massive infusions of cash as well.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation tentatively approved a $976 million loan to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to cover PTC installation on Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, according to Trains magazine.

Over the past few years, Congress has shown consistent hostility when it comes to merely approving a budget for Amtrak. PTC will likely require additional infusions of cash into railroad infrastructure; will it really show enthusiasm for that?

But there is an alternative to the technical and financial challenges of PTC.

The crashes that sparked interest in PTC all have one thing in common: lone engineers in the cabs of speeding trains who all got distracted or otherwise incapacitated. So why not just put a second person in the cab?

Like a copilot in an airliner cockpit, a second crew member in a locomotive cab could act as a backup. And unlike PTC computers, railroads already have a pretty good idea of how to train humans for this job.

But adding ensuring that there are two people in the cab of every train will still cost money, and like most other businesses, railroads don’t generally like to hire more people than they feel they need. Two-person crews are still required for freight trains, but there’s already talk of eliminating that requirement when PTC goes live.

So in a way, PTC and expanded crews sit in opposition to each other. Regulations and the constant search for costs to cut mean the public could have to pick one or the other. And even though it’s the simpler solution, expanding crews will likely lose out to PTC.

Positive Train Control is simply the more dramatic solution. It makes for a better story, fits in with the current technological zeitgeist, and catches the public’s attention. Simply hiring more people isn’t very dramatic, or disruptive, or any other Silicon Valley buzzwords, even if it might be the better solution.

We’ll probably never know. Congress has already committed to a PTC mandate, and railroads have already spent billions of dollars on it. It’s also much easier to sell the public on a magic technology than the competence and effectiveness of multiple human beings working together.

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Faceless in the crowd

As in a good fantasy story, there are parts of the Internet you just shouldn’t go to.

Peruse the comments section of just about any website, and you’re likely to run across vitriol-spewing trolls, hurling obscenities–and sometimes even rape or death threats–in arguments about seemingly everything.

In “The Epidemic of Facelessness,” a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Stephen Marche attributes the rise of casually monstrous behavior on the Internet to the fact that attackers never see their victims’ faces.

Pulling examples from a diverse catalog that includes ancient Roman law, French phenomenology, and neuroscience, Marche argues that actually seeing another person’s face is the key to empathy.

That doesn’t typically happen online, hence the ease with which rape and death threats get thrown around.

It also means people need to work to imbue others with humanity. Attackers need to realize the people they’re threatening are, well, people, and their attacks should be understood in the context of a complex human psyche.

Remembering not to leave our humanity online is an admirable and necessary goal to work towards, but it will likely get harder to do as we rely more on indirect digital communication.

Because while society still shuns Internet trolls, it also continues to devalue humanity  at the expense of performing discreet tasks more efficiently.

That’s what digital technology does. It lets us do everything from shopping to wishing each other “Happy Birthday” quickly, cleanly, and efficiently.

Saving money and time is good, of course, but it’s possible this obsession with digital efficiency is also grooming people to be less tolerant of each other.

The number of situations where strangers are forced to candidly interact in everyday life is diminishing. Does using one of those self-cehckout machines really save that much time, or do you just prefer not having to exchange pleasantries with a human cashier?

It’s not that people need to be in the mood to talk to each other all of the time, but with Internet-related technology making it so easy to put each other at a distance, it’s hard to see how the “epidemic of facelessness” can be cured.

Beneath the shiny confidence of Silicon Valley futurism, the way of life being constructed around the Internet is potentially damaging to human empathy, even if it is easier.

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The Apple Car is coming

Apple logoThe news that Apple could possibly be investigating the development of a future production car is quite simply the biggest automotive story since the car was invented.

Apple’s reported hiring of around 200 people with automotive-related experience indicates that the Cupertino, California,-based company is preparing to redefine the automotive industry the way it has redefined so many other industries in the past.

Even though no one outside of Apple knows anything specific about the car—or if it will ever be sold to consumers—we can tell that it will completely change the industry and the fundamental act of moving from one point in space to another.

Here are some predictions about what the car will be like, how Apple will bring a fresh Silicon Valley approach to the moribund Detroit auto industry, and why your car will soon be so hopelessly obsolete that you might as well go out into your driveway and set it on fire right now.

The Apple Car will change everything about the way cars are made and sold. Like the company’s other products, it will be built in a factory in China by underpaid workers entirely using components sourced from anonymous suppliers, but will be designed by Apple in California. No car today is made like that.

Tesla Motors pioneered the idea of selling cars directly to customers instead of through franchised dealers, but Apple will take things further.

Instead of selling cars through its trademark Apple Stores, it won’t sell them anywhere. This streamlines the buying process, saving consumers valuable time they’d normally have to waste test driving, researching, or finding out what a car looks like before buying.

And should those consumers accidentally stumble upon an Apple Car through this disruptive, innovative, new distribution system, they’ll find a vehicle that’s like nothing else on the road today.

The Apple Car won’t be fast, luxurious, spacious, or particularly reliable. Early reports suggest it will feature “minivan-like” styling.

So while existing car companies are stuck in the old way of building cars based on qualities people find appealing or that enable said vehicles to fulfill a practical purpose, Apple will shake things up by being disruptive and innovative.

The Apple Car will transcend these petty considerations of “practicality” and “desirability,” ushering in a new era of transportation the same way the iPhone changed communication. Even though we have no details of the car itself, it’s clear we’re looking at that much of a seismic change here.

In fact, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to predict that the Apple Car will fly, or drive underwater, or maybe even both. It will also be thought controlled.

In addition, the Apple Car is going to end world hunger. Now, you might ask how selling a car is in any way related to a complex global socioeconomic issue like food distribution, but given Apple’s past record of innovation, it’s safe to say that we can expect big things.

To sum it all up, we are essentially primitive beings living on the cusp of the invention of fire in this pre-Apple Car epoch. The Apple Car is coming, and once it’s here we won’t be able to imagine living without it, and not just because we will willfully ignore that recent past out of an intense obsession with feeling technologically savvy.

We pray the merciful Tim Cook and his ministers take pity on us and produce the Apple Car soon, so that we don’t have to wallow in this sad, unfulfilled existence for long.

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Even cheap cars can be cool

1972 Datsun 510 SedanA common narrative in the car industry these days is that “Millennials” don’t like cars. They’re more interested in playing with smartphones, the experts say.

Yet there might be another explanation: there are no appealing cars.

Whether they’re a recent college graduate or a high school student competing with a mother of two for a job at McDonald’s, young people today aren’t exactly having an easy time in the job market.

So it stands to reason that if a Millennial is looking for a new car, they’re probably looking for something cheap.

With a base price of $12,780 (including destination), the 2014 Nissan Versa sedan is one of the cheapest new cars around. It’s also tragically boring.

From its flabby exterior to its modest powertrain, the Versa seems to have been designed with indifference; a car built to a price. Then again, what else can you expect from the bottom of the market?

If you shopped for a small, economical car in 1971, you could have picked up a Datsun 510 two-door sedan–the Versa’s direct ancestor–for $1,990, according to Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car. That’s about $11,000 today.

2013 Nissan VersaAt first glance, the 510 doesn’t seem better than the Versa. It’s not fast, it’s not pretty, and compared to the average car of 2014 it’s as basic as Tevye’s milk wagon.

Yet the 510 excels where it counts.

For one, the 510 is known as a great car to drive; Datsun used the BMW 1600 as a benchmark, after all. It was even raced by the likes of Paul Newman and Bob Sharp.

The simple styling has endeared this boxy Datsun to many, who view it as honest and, yes, cool.

The 510 is on its way to becoming one of the first truly collectible Japanese cars. Do you think collectors will pay attention to the Versa in 40 years?

Clearly, a cheap car can be cool. The Versa isn’t, which may be partly why Millennials don’t want to buy it and other cars like it.

Nissan itself seems to recognize this. At the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, the Japanese automaker unveiled a pair of concept cars, the IDx Freeflow and IDx NISMO.

Nissan IDx Freeflow / IDx NISMOTake one look at these square show cars and it’s hard not to think of the 510. The performance-oriented NISMO version even wears a variation of the 1970s Datsun racing colors.

In its press materials for the IDx pair, Nissan said it involved Millennials in the design process, and found that they wanted a basic, more “authentic” car. Sounds a lot like the 510 to me.

A production IDx wouldn’t replace the Versa or any other entry-level Nissan, but hopefully the concepts will show that subjective qualities are just as important as practicality, fuel economy, or reliability.

If people are going to continue viewing their cars as more than just interchangeable appliances, carmakers have to give them a reason to.

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All work and no pay

“Millennials” have a lot to answer for.

We don’t buy cars, and we don’t buy houses. All we need to do is refrain from having 2.5 children, and we’ll have destroyed the American Dream.

Analysts often attribute my generation’s spending habits to some form of contrary thinking, but there’s a simpler explanation: we have no money.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights the problem of unpaid internships, which have replaced many entry-level jobs, leaving young people with no way to enter the working world.

Some college graduates spend the rest of their twenties in a cycle of internships, with no ability to advance to real jobs and, of course, no money to show for it.

Employers seem to think that they can run businesses without employees or, at least, without paying them.

In addition to replacing entry-level jobs with internships, they’ve turned increasingly to freelance or temp workers for jobs even the most desperate person won’t do for free.

Since these people aren’t technically employees, a company doesn’t have to offer them benefits, or pay its share of certain taxes–like Social Security–that are regularly deducted from employee paychecks.

Then there was the tantrum some companies threw when the Affordable Care Act mandated that they provide health insurance for all full-time employees. They delayed the employer mandate, then threatened to eliminate full-time positions just to get out of the requirement.

Unpaid internships, the cutting of full-time positions, and oppressively-low minimum wages may be good for business, but they’re not good for society.

People are quick to judge someone who borrows too much, or makes an extravagant purchase they really can’t afford. Maybe we should do the same with businesses.

A business that makes money while keeping its workers poor is operating on as false a pretense as a janitor who buys a new Mercedes.

The latter would be judged irresponsible, so why shouldn’t McDonalds’ be criticized for claiming massive profits while refusing to pay its employees a living wage?

That probably isn’t going to happen It’s always easier to blame the individual than the organization, especially when the organization is judged according to different standards.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is in the news because of the comical list of companies that appear to be worth less than WhatsApp.

Nobody seems to have heard of WhatsApp, yet it’s worth more than some of the tech companies that produce the devices needed to use it, as well as Harley-Davidson, News Corp, and others.

Yet, like Facebook itself, WhatsApp doesn’t produce anything. It’s just an app.

It seems that actually making goods or providing services is bad for business, let alone taking care of employees.

And how can employees stand a chance when money is flowing to businesses that don’t even need to pay for factories or stores to operate?

Karl Marx said the only way for workers to secure their rights was to gain control of the means of production, but when nothing tangible is produced, what is there to take control of?

The economy is becoming increasingly ethereal; the rise of the Internet has made eliminating expenses the main priority of businesses, not being good at what they do, or playing a responsible role in society.

The fundamental purpose of a business is to make money, but when businesses make that their exclusive purpose, everybody loses.

The snide criticism of the “Millennial” lifestyle will probably turn to panic is this generation reaches middle age, and is still getting other people’s coffee.

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The generational mirror

I really need to stop being so nosy.

“The world has changed, and not for the better,” I heard an older gentleman say to one of his friends while waiting online for takeout. He was discussing how he never does anything online, because “they always ask for your credit card.”

“It’s not just that, the fundamental moral fiber of the country has changed,” the friend said in agreement.

I’m not saying that I disagree with them, but I do think it’s interesting how people of a certain generation can decry society’s moral degradation when their peers are the ones that caused it.

“Millennials” are often described as feckless denizens of their parents’ basements, willing to sacrifice any freedom in the pursuit of technological connectivity.

That simply isn’t true. While the younger generations are the first to come of age with smartphones in their hands, this situation–and the concept that digital “smart” technologies are a catch-all social savior–was created by the Baby Boomers, who count Steve Jobs and Bill Gates among their ranks.

It’s the same story in politics. It’s easy to reminisce about the good old days of Jacob Javits, and blame Millennials for not being more politically active, when you forget who’s actually in Congress now.

Society has a lot of problems, but idly criticizing it without acknowledging where those problems came from won’t solve anything.

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The algorithms of progress

After 200 posts, I still have a love/hate relationship with the Internet.

I mean that in the most literal sense: I love the opportunities the Internet has made possible, but I hate most of what comes with using it and interacting with people through it.

Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have a job right now. I certainly wouldn’t be able to cover the car industry from a house in Connecticut.

However, the Internet has also de-valued skills.

For many jobs, remote working has opened up a pool of applicants that literally spans the nation. People with job-specific skills are much more interchangeable than they ever have been.

That’s great if, like me, you want to write about cars without moving to Detroit, but it also means that being good at something just doesn’t cut it anymore.

People are expected to bring much more than relevant skills to a job; they’re expected to bring specific training, connections, and name recognition.

Some call this the entrepreneurial spirit; I call it blurring the line between work and life.

Because when people expect less from organizations, organizations expect more from people. So much for punching out at 5:00 p.m.

Those aren’t the only terms the Internet dictates.

We work for it: we design content for it, adapt messages to suit it, alter our language so that both humans and Google will comprehend it.

Then someone invents a new “breakthrough in communications” that must be satiated on its own terms.

Earlier this year I got a Twitter account, because everyone else has one.

As far as I can tell, Twitter is just a forum for anyone who has ever been involved with Star Trek, and a gruesomely effective way to relay information during a disaster.

Every time a celebrity does something, it explodes like a healthcare exchange website on October 1, 2013. I can’t see how this leads to productive discourse.

We shouldn’t feel obligated to make room for new social media in our lives, but we do. That’s what frustrates me the most about living in the shadow of the Internet.

After several generations of continuous technological progress, people seem resigned to the Digital Age being just another part of an inexorable historical movement. Nothing stays the same forever.

When I was in first grade I learned to type on beige Macs and play with floppy disks. The teachers said computers would one day be an important part of my life. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if we use a piece of technology, we should still be allowed to evaluate its effect on us, and tailor it to our lives–not the other way around.

The Internet has certainly changed the way people live, but whether “different ” really means “better” — and doesn’t mean “worse” is a determination we need to make. It’s easy to assume we have no agency in the face of progress, but we need to take account of how we use technology.

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