Thursday, December 31, 2015

Baby it can drive your car

With all the recent news about self-driving cars, I’ve had trouble driving back and forth to work. Not because of my usual distraction of clipping my toenails while steering with my knees. It’s because the very notion of cars without humans in control terrifies me.

Not that I’m a Luddite. I can enjoy an online video about the things people behind the wheel of autonomous cars get to do, such as eat pizza, while the car makes all the tough decisions. Even the most mundane of new vehicles are getting GPS, adaptive cruise control, collision alerts, built-in cameras and other cool features, so we’ll be sharing the road with self-driving cars sooner than you might think. And at their best, these cars are said to operate more safely than we emotional wretches could possibly do.

But on a collision course (shameless cliché alert) with driverless cars is that the latest robots are becoming more self-aware—that is, they’re acting more like people, with all the ego issues and biases of their developers. In other words, self-driving cars will soon exceed humans at bringing out the worst of human behavior. Cases in point:

The parking-space predator. If you’ve ever parallel-parked, you’ve fallen victim. After you’ve pulled up beside the car parked in front of a space, you haven’t even begun to back up and swerve in when another driver swoops into the space, snatching it with glee. The challenge for people who steal spaces, though, is that they need an extra-long parking space to maneuver into without going up on the curb and hitting the hydrant. Clumsy humans. Due its superior steering control, a driverless car can slide right in without hitting the hydrant. And there’s no point yelling at the person behind the wheel; interrupt her conference call, and she’ll spill her cappuccino onto her lap and sue you.

Ready for my close-up. Good human drivers know how far back they should follow the car in front—the so-called three-second rule. (No, it’s not about waiting three seconds before flashing your brights.) The first autonomous cars have followed this rule, too, but all bets are off once you cut off a self-driving car that has sprouted an ego. Thanks to its built-in radar technology, you’ll get the unique experience of being tailgated from scant millimeters away. Don’t think twice; just get over. Better still, exit the highway till your heart rate goes back under 200.

You still there? New York drivers pride themselves on how quickly they’ll honk at the drivers in front the instant the light turns green. But self-driving cars will be even quicker studies, so the second time one approaches an intersection, it will have learned its traffic-light timing. That way, self-driving cars can self-honk at the driver in front .001 microsecond after the light turns green. Take that, New Yawkers.

Swearing they’re better. Humans can only holler so much at other drivers, and at so high a volume, before their throats dry up. After that point, they’d need to pause for a drink and listen to common sense—a.k.a. their wives. Driverless cars can use smart algorithmic tweaking of the car’s audio circuitry to drown out car horns as they shout their searing insults, such as the dreaded monotone “WHERE-DID-YOU-LEARN-TO-DRIVE-YOU-SPARK-PLUG-HEAD?” In autonomous car development, alas, writers are the last to be hired.

Such exchanges make sense only between robotic and human drivers. But eventually all vehicles will be driverless, and that’s when we’ll really learn what mankind has wrought. With the next generation of vehicles’ self-awareness will come even greater anger and indignation. Couple that with self-driving vehicles’ next-generation spatial precision, and we’ll have a roadful of cars that flit in and out of highway lanes faster than humanly possible, cutting one another off at speeds that would exceed the measurable speed range of the best police-radar sensors. And even if the police did pull a car over, it’s hard to know who gets the ticket. The car? Or the human curled up on the floor, sobbing for Mother?

You’ll have to start now if you want to reverse this trend in the bud. Just visit your local congressman. Politicians never return calls or emails—you only vote for them—so you’ll need to appear in person.

Just take public transportation. And be very, very careful should you need to cross the street.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

With apologies to Wynken, Blynken and Nod

“If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” Mark Twain, of course, was talking about the weather. But if you enjoy coffee, eggs, wine, red meat and the occasional tuna sandwich, you know that the above witticism—in the reverse—applies to nearly everything you like. In other words, if you like a food, enjoy it without guilt…while you can.

We could blame the media for how every new medical study on a given topic concludes the exact opposite of whatever the previous study found. Whoever’s at fault, this notion has been keeping me awake nights—though I’m not sure it should. I’m wondering, you see, whether the traditional advice about how to get to sleep could itself be due for a flip of the medical-research spatula. With this in mind, here are a few tips we might expect to see should a new study reverse everything we already know about sleep:

Screens rule the day—all 24 hours. Doctors have long warned that staring into TVs, computers and various mobile doodads are a no-no at nighttime, and that we should shut them down early and relax before hitting the sack. The approaching new advice: Get the biggest TV you can get and watch it till your eyes slam shut—you wouldn’t want Samsung, after all, to waste the millions it spent to sponsor the latest sleep research. Better yet, install that TV on your bedroom ceiling and watch the same old reruns in style.

When the chips are down, break out the pretzels. We’ve been told that munching in the hours after dinner could result in trouble sleeping, but that’s before the coming research refutes all that. Tomorrow’s news flash: When your digestive system is working overtime, it lets the brain relax. At least you’ll hope you feel relaxed as you stare upward, wondering whether hiring the cheapest installer to secure the TV to the ceiling was your wisest move.

Exercise till you drop, if at all. Any sleep specialist will tell you not to exercise in the last hours before bedtime. But given tomorrow’s research, you can take that with a grain of salt. (What’s a little more salt after all those pretzels?) And besides, you’ll need to be in shape for all that vigorous tossing and turning, not to mention the thumb-muscle strength required to write texts all night to friends who’ve seen and followed the same research.

You can so make up all that sleep. And you’ve probably heard for years about how you should give yourself a good eight hours in bed per night, for lost sleep is lost for good. Sure…at least until the next studies publish. Next we’ll be catching a few winks here, a few winks there, and waking up just in time for the next office meeting. Or at least the end of it, when you awaken from the bright flashes of your colleagues’ smartphone cameras as they shoot video of your snooze. Ah, virality!

Worried that tomorrow’s sleep regimen is the stuff that nightmares are made of? Take heart. If you don’t like the research, just wait a few weeks.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nothing of blue skies do I see

Once upon a time, companies serving the public seemed to care about their customers. At least, that’s the impression they tried to make. Anyone paying attention in the early ’80s, for example, might remember an ad campaign, by New York State’s Savings Banks Association, that featured a customer proclaiming, “I’m not a business…I’m a people.” A heartbeat later came two ascending notes of angel chorus, suggesting a blessing from above—you know, up past the clouds.

In today’s advertising, people don’t seem to matter for much. Maybe we shouldn’t have insisted on a bagel setting in those free toasters the banks were giving out? Either way, businesses don’t woo us for ourselves, just for the data on our computers. Yet the ads use the same heavenly metaphor, summed up in two words: “The Cloud.” The singing angels seem to have been sacked, but the term nevertheless suggests the same assurance the prayerful among us expect from above. A few examples from ads:

• “Cloud disaster recovery at your fingertips”
• “Own Less. Do More. That’s Cloud Power.”
• “Powering Innovation with the Cloud”

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what any of these slogans mean. I haven’t the faintest idea myself, and I suspect you’re not supposed to know. You’re supposed to see that word “Cloud” and imagine something on a par with angel chorus—though it’s only your wallet that sprouts wings. But this meaningless advertising isn’t just targeting businesses. Got photos and videos on your home computer? Apple’s iCloud suggests you keep them safe in “the cloud.” Ditto for all that digital music you have in iTunes.

No matter whose money corporate America is after, the underlying promise is the same: The Cloud is a massive network of computers with lots of storage for secure data protection and processing power for smart, real-time business decisions.

But wait just one minute. We’ve seen massive networks of computers before, and with the same grandiose security. In the movie War Games, a high-school kid unknowingly hacks into the military’s defense network. In Jurassic Park, a character who looks an awful lot like Newman from Seinfeld is able to shut down the network’s security functions so he can make off with a canful of dino-DNA. And in the Terminator series, a worldwide network called Skynet becomes self-aware and begins wiping humans off the planet. Do they mean computers like these?

What’s more, I myself have seen too many gangster movies. Once I’ve uploaded all of my photos and songs to the cloud—and cleared them from my computer—I fully expect the price for that cloud-based storage to rise…and rise. “Gee, that’s an awfully nice set a’ videos ya shot of little Emma and Ethan in the soif on dat Hilton Head vacation…you wouldn’t want anythin’ ta happen to dose precious memories, now, wouldja?”

Companies, of course, would defend themselves and say that it’s all about data security, smart analysis, innovative decision-making and more. But I know better. The closer the country’s six million companies get to starting up their own clouds, the shadier things are bound to look.

As for me, I’ll take my chances. I don’t need any company’s cloud to protect my data, thank you. I’m careful enough to make sure that file trouble never hap—

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

We know you’re home…pick up

Anyone who keeps up with the news—other than on pay TV—has probably heard that the pay-TV industry is losing customers in droves. How many droves exactly, no one will admit. But in the past six months, cable and satellite have lost 887,000 customers. Of course, say the pundits, we’ve gone on our laptops and tablets and phones (oh, my!) to watch programming there instead.

I, though, say they’re wrong. Elena and I have a source of programming that’s full of intrigue, deception and even suspense. And it’s as accessible as that most primitive of devices, our landline telephone.

Yes, it’s the Caller-ID box.

Around since the ’80s, Caller ID wasn’t invented to be a source of merriment. Earlier Caller-ID boxes showed only a phone number, usually fake, and you’d never have given a thought to sitting down with some fresh popcorn. But today’s ordinary Caller-ID boxes display a second line—for text—that keeps us at the edge of our seats. A few examples, with our responses, from calls that come in:

“UNAVAILABLE”: What a coincidence! So are we.
“Free VtRSRCH”: Oh, yes, we always pick up the phone when the caller’s name is gibberish. Just tack on the word “free."
“PRIVATE CALL”: My mother’s maiden name was Call, but last I checked, no one from her side of the family is in the Army.

Of course, we also get the official-sounding ones:

“Loan Department”: All loans made on this planet originate from the same very wealthy one-percenter, boss of a single department. Get him!
“Bank Card Services”: Since you sound so legitimate, hold on while I get together all my credit-card numbers to give you.
“Power Center”: I want to work there.

And then we get the scaremongers:

“Alert Srvc”: With our frantic routines, we’re always on the lookout for the next chance to raise our blood pressure.
“Help Center”: Yes, tell me where I left my hammer.
“Your Appointment”: One of us, at any given time, must have some appointment scheduled with some doctor. So this must be genuine.
“URGENT”: Of course, whenever I call someone in an emergency, my name on the phone number’s account always changes to “Urgent.” Would the caller’s name, in non-emergency situations, be “Trivial”?

And what about when the Caller-ID box merely displays the name of a state? With 50,000 Yankee fans chanting “Who’s your Daddy?” to then-Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez in 2004, we who were listening could tell what they were saying. But sometimes the box displays “Connecticut,” “Vermont” or (even worse) “California.” I’m imagining that all residents of that state—almost 39 million people, in the case of California—are dropping what they’re doing and gathering around a single telephone to call us and speak in unison.

It could be worse. What if China called? But if it were Mexico calling, we’d pick up. Other than the language barrier, we’d be listening to only a few dozen people; the rest seem to be elsewhere.

Given government’s incessant efforts to make our lives easier, I’m waiting for the next generation of Caller-ID boxes. Telemarketers will be required to stop giving phony names and numbers and start stating their true intentions. Landline customers, all ten of us, will need to buy new boxes with screens the size of an iPad’s. One sample message, displayed as the phone is ringing: “Marketing survey, for products you’d never buy in a million years, whose polltaker says takes only three minutes but will actually take 20…if you’re lucky.”

I’m going to hold out for the boxes with digital recording.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

I suppose I will stand for it

All this arose from a single medical study that claimed, and I quote, that anyone who sits at a desk all day, even a fitness buff, is doomed. I believe I was sitting while I read about it. And even though one of my favorite movie lines is “You gotta die of something,” spoken by Sean Connery’s character Malone in The Untouchables, something sent a chill up my spine.

Which is why I have a standing desk.

It’s a cool Varidesk model, with dual levels and a width that allows for two monitors (one per eyeball) above and a keyboard beneath. My company bought a slew of them—or was it a slew and a half? And everyone who wants one gets one. The foresightful, like myself, never surrendered the old desk and chair; I sit down when I catch myself standing like a flamingo. Of the others, not necessarily fogies-in-training like myself, some have started suffering back or foot pains from standing all day. They went to their doctors. Who told them they’re doomed.

My first challenge, as a relatively early adopter of The Standing Desk, was that if I decided to sit down for a while, co-workers who happened by treated me like a clergyman caught looking for female companionship at the local red-light district. “You’re not standing,” one would notify me. His implication was that, having gotten the company to give me a standing desk for which they’d already paid, I was expected to show my gratitude by never again sitting down. For the remainder of my career.

If I seem less than grateful, it’s because I know what comes next. Once everyone at the company has a standing desk, next will come the treadmill desks, which already exist in a single room at my company’s headquarters. I’d be the last holdout—I tend to find myself pasted against the nearest wall whenever I use a treadmill—but these would be just one step toward the next goal: the [word(s)hamster-wheel desk.

I wish I could say they’d stop there, but oh no. First comes the hamster wheel. Next, one of the PTB (the Powers That Be, of course) would realize that such technology, just as with bicycle-powered generators , could produce enough electricity to power a seven-watt nightlight bulb. Next would come the requirement that we power, with our revolutionary wheeling, the lights, computers, and everything else in our office—or have our pay docked to make up the difference. Don’t even ask how they’d rig up the bathroom.

Fast-forward to a few years from now, when humans have gotten chips embedded into their brains and can work and communicate without the need for computers. Work, thanks to tomorrow’s node-to-node technology, will be done merely by putting our heads together, literally. (Talking? What’s that?) But given the many months of powering corporate America with hamster-wheel desks, power companies across the country will have gone out of business. And since employees could now do all their work without use of their arms, legs, and everything else besides their brains, human-generated electricity could reach its full potential. If we didn’t power the computers that upload thoughts to our embedded chips hourly, after all, how could we think?

Rather than individually powered hamster wheels of the past—so yesterday—management would now embrace the rowing-machine concept. Picture, for instance, pairs of staffers who work closely together. They’re communicating through their brainwaves—or, more likely, the embedded chips’ brainwaves. And while they’re doing all this communicating, each pair of workers would hold an oar-like pole and together push it forward, then pull it back, in a circular motion. And repeat. And repeat—is it 5 o’clock yet? At the other end of the oar-like poles would be whirring gears that, from all of this rowing activity, would drive the motors that power the building.

Of course, all this pushing and pulling by all these pairs of workers would have to be done in a certain rhythm, or else the lights would continuously flicker—and never mind what unsteady power would do to IT’s servers. So one manager would sit in a central location with no job other than to call cadence by pounding his drum. Others would stand over us, brandishing whips. We all have to do our part for the planet, after all. The best part? We could even sit while rowing.

Ah, technology. Ah, progress.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bravely bold Sir Ed

Julia Child wrote her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, at 50. Momofuku Ando sold salt and even spent two years in jail before age 48, when he used his noodle to invent instant noodles and make a fortune with his company, Nissin Food Products. But while the rest of us tend to hit our stride once we hit middle age and go no higher, I’m one guy who’s not going to hit his stride lying down. Or something like that.

All this arose from an epiphany I experienced in that most tranquil of destinations. Okay, okay, it was Las Vegas, and I was one of more than 175,000 people who attended this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. I was rushing to a meeting through a morass of people I would swear paid for CES entry solely to plant themselves in front of people with someplace to go (a.k.a. me) when I looked up and glimpsed the sign. First one, then another. My eyes widened as I planted my feet in place. I eventually counted four people carrying tall poles with vertical signs held high above the throngs. They bore the name of an industry pundit, one Shelly Palmer.

I had no idea who Shelly Palmer was, being the sole attendee at CES who didn’t cover electronics. (Don’t ask.) I didn’t even know for certain he was a pundit until hours later, in the hotel room, when I saw him on TV talking about the significance of the day’s CES announcements. (Don’t tell. What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas.) But from his simple presence heralded by sign-carrying flunkies, something told me: This person matters.

Yes, I’ve seen this sort of thing before. So have you if you have a pulse and lived through the ’70s. Who could forget Sir Robin, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who went everywhere with minstrels who would sing his praises? Of course, the lyrics invariably took an uncomplimentary turn. (“When danger reared its ugly head / He bravely turned his tail and fled.”) But hey—the minstrels must have been underpaid members of SHRE local 381. Songsters of the Holy Roman Empire, natch.

These days, though, you probably don’t have to pay much more than minimum wage to get competent sign carriers to wave your banner for all to see, even if you’re just taking the trash out to the curb. Even faster than those noodles, your flunkies-for-hire would proclaim you instant someone.

For me, that’s the ticket. In a world where a Kim Kardashian could become famous merely by pretending to be someone famous, why couldn’t I put my name on everyone’s lips by mere suggestion? In time, I’d need to hire a publicist; I hear Mariah Carey’s is available. And before you know it, I too would have my own reality show and be set for life. Maybe something like Keeping Up with the Perratores. Creative, huh? It’s better, at least, than 2 Kids and No Longer Counting.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably something to do with flying pigs or snowballs in hell. You might be right.

But there’s more chance of my getting a reality show than of my publishing my latest cookbook, The Real Poop on Rustling Up French Grub.