This Week in Upgrades: July 11

Hello, friend. You hanging in there? If I’m honest, I’ve been too stunned and saddened by recent current events to write. Alton Sterling. Filando Castile. Dallas. Why does it seem like every day lately gives us new violence and injustice?

Our hope in such seeming hopelessness is action. What that action is will take time, reflection, and intentionality. When I can gather some of my own thoughts, I’ll write more about it to create a space for dialogue.

Some other things worthy of consideration from this week, and a few lighthearted ones to help with the emotional and empathy fatigue:

This June was the hottest June the US has ever had.

Here’s a great little video on how North America got its shape.

Google’s self-driving cars can now understand hand signals. Automated vehicles require a lot of nuance (because driving is nuanced, obviously).

Likewise, the Tesla autopilot accidents are a reminder that we’re too trusting, too soon. That is not a fully automated system. Don’t be dumb.

Faced with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, many Americans wish there was a third choice. We need more than two political parties in the United States, and this election has brought that to the fore.

This young man is bound for great musical things.

Another reminder about democracy and the middle class in an age of automation. If we don’t act now, it’s not going to turn out well.

Why are salt and pepper on every dinner table?

Have a great, safe week.

 

This Week In Upgrades: May 9

Hello there! Happy Monday to you. I’m still wondering where the weekend went, but let’s make this week a good one.

This past week gave us a mixed bag. We found out Alaska is absurdly warmer than it should be. Alaska is a bellwether of climate change, and things like this are not good signs.

In less dire but still saddening news, we also found out that Disney plans to replace the Tower of Terror with a Guardians of the Galaxy ride. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy, but I’m not sure how I feel about this. Tower of Terror was my first true thrill ride as a kid. I suppose change is inevitable though–especially for theme parks trying to stay current.

In really encouraging things, there’s a movement now even among many doctors for a single-payer healthcare system. Pretty soon this is going to reach a tipping point–to the benefit of American doctors and patients alike.

Also very encouraging, this long-term study appears to show that there is no link between cell phones and brain cancer. I hope other studies confirm the same findings.

A review of clinical trials has demonstrated that acupuncture has real health benefits. Have you done it? I would really like to try it sometime.

To be sure, here’s an important reality-check on scientific studies in the media from Mr. John Oliver. Thank God for Last Week Tonight. Let’s all stay a little bit skeptical.

The ride-sharing app Lyft has found their vehicle, and apparently they’ll start launching their self-driving electric cars in 2017.

Google has also found their self-driving vehicle, but why did it have to be a minivan?

Did you grow up on Barbies or Transformers? Can we let toys be toys?

SpaceX has hired a renowned costume designer to make sure their suits are as badass as their mission programs.

Have a brilliant week! Whatever happens, try to focus on self-compassion instead of self-esteem.

 

This Week in Upgrades: February 8

Good Monday to you! I hope you’re well. Here in Southern California we’re set to break record high temperatures. I wasn’t prepared for 90° weather and fire warnings in February. Are you having unseasonal weather? I don’t think this is the way things are supposed to be.

Did you watch the Super Bowl? What did you think about the game and the rest of the spectacle? Plenty to talk about: the Broncos’ incredible defenseblatant product plugging, and the implications of Beyonce’s performance.

I’d imagine many fans are already starting to think about the next NFL season. Here’s how we might be watching games in augmented reality in the future. Is that awesome or overwhelming?

The New Hampshire primary is tomorrow, and I’ll keep reminding everyone to vote until we all have. Things are just starting to get good.

Lots of interesting human things in the last week. Here are just some of them:

Do you use cologne, perfume, body spray, or other body products with a scent? Fragrance may be making us really sick.

Are paper books immortal? Amazon will open at least 300 actual bookstores.

Google is providing free gigabit Internet to public housing in Kansas City. Well done.

I love the National Parks, and I’m happy whenever others go. But nature is not for Yelp-ing.

I am not a wine person, but I admire people like Madeline Puckette who are de-snobbing the craft.

Your moment of heartfelt silliness: James Corden carpool karaoke with Chris Martin.

You’ve probably heard of circadian rhythm. But do you know how it works and how to find your daily flow?

Are you familiar with the genre “competence porn?” From The Martian to Sherlock Holmes, we love the power of rational problem-solving.

One of the more important aging discoveries ever.” Will we see therapies for people based on this research in the near future?

The sooner we can move beyond racial stereotypes and outright racism the better. Really like BuzzFeed‘s “I’m…, but I’m not…” videos. Recently, “I’m Native, but I’m not…” and “I’m Black, but I’m not…”

The trailer for Netflix’s Cooked, based on Michael Pollan’s book. Looking forward to watching this.

Have a great week!

This Week in Upgrades: December 19

Have you seen The Force Awakens? 10 burning questions from Episode VII (spoiler alert).

 

Why is English such a weird language?

 

We’re in the midst of peak beards. Is there an evolutionary explanation for male facial hair?

 

Google’s self-driving car will become a standalone company in 2016. Why we need these sooner than later.

 

Norway is the best country in the world for humans for the 12th year in a row. Scandinavians do things right.

 

Butter, sugar, flour, eggs. Why do these ingredients perfectly combine to make cookies?

 

What causes the end of the world in pop culture? The 10 types of fictional apocalypses.

 

Always be light on your feet.

 

You Suck at Driving (And So Do I)

On July 1, one of Google’s self-driving cars was rear-ended. It’s the 11th back-end slam they’ve incurred on the open road, and this time there were some minor injuries to the passengers riding inside. Overall, the autonomous vehicles have been in 14 accidents, and not a single one was the fault of the Google-mobile. Each time, terrible human driving led to an unnecessary collision.

We know about these incidents because Google self-driving car project director, Chris Urmson, is openly talking and blogging about them. The whiplash-inducing collision did not have a police report filed, even though officers were at the scene, making it one of the likely millions of crashes that are more hidden from public awareness than ones that were officially filed. Based on all available information, reported and unreported crashes, in 2010, “there were 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million injured, and 24 million vehicles damaged in motor vehicle crashes in the United States.” Those are hard to wrap your brain around.

I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but living in the Los Angeles area–one of the most car-saturated places in the world–I get genuinely worried when I see some of the people behind the wheel or about to be. Not just the drunks or the sleep-deprived; those are blatantly disqualifying for driving, and should be immediately reported. As worrying are the regular people who clearly have bodies and minds that are not fit for driving at any time, or are noticeably preoccupied.

There are some in their golden years–not all–whose cognition, hand-eye coordination, or general bodily strength and dynamism has diminished to the extent that they likely should not be on the road. Every so often crashes suggesting this as a cause become newsworthy. In February, a 92-year-old driver became panicked in his minivan in a parking lot and pinballed into 9 vehicles. It’s hard to understand how a focused, competent driver would do what he does in the surveillance video of the incident. Thankfully no one was hurt. Crashes like this make you wonder why all states do not require people to eventually retest on the actual driving portion and not just an eye or written exam. Only a few do.

Before this whole thing takes an ageist turn, let’s quickly note that the highest rates of reported crashes are among drivers 16- to 24-years-old. Just as in later years our bodies are less than their peak, in our teenage and early adult years they are still forming toward their prime–especially the faculties necessary for driving well. When we’re young, we make a lot of mistakes on the path to developing mature coordination, sensitivity to context and spatial awareness, and sound decision-making. When I was 15-years-old with my driving permit, I cleared the side view mirror clean off a parked car with the side of my vehicle while breezing down the street. Asking teenagers to command a vehicle is probably the most complex, demanding task they’ve ever encountered in their lives to that point. It’s undoubtedly compounded by the ubiquity of smartphones and the compelling urge to engage with them anytime they’re close at hand.

Which, of course, affects drivers of all ages. I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve seen on the road with one hand on the wheel and the other tapping and swiping away on their phone. They think vehicles grinding to a halt is an ideal opportunity to send or read a text, photograph, or another kind of message. And it often continues as the gridlock loosens and things are moving at regular speed again. Driving is an immensely involved task, and this kind of distraction is obviously dangerous, but most don’t appear to care. Several surveys suggest that the majority of drivers think they can smartphone and drive without any complications.

In fact, we all seem to be increasingly thinking of driving as more of a time suck when we could be doing other, “better” things. I’ve got that call to make; that text to reply to; that novel to finish; that album to listen to; that trumpet to play (Urmson’s team observed this actually happening). As Sheila Klauer notes in her book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, which Urmson cites, people “drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time — one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat.”

Whether it’s the immaturity or decline of our bodies, distractions or substance-induced impediments, or just general human error, our frailty causes a lot of unnecessary collisions–a lot of unnecessary injuries and deaths, property damage, and general heartache.

With roadways full of only self-driving cars, it all could be made obsolete.

The Google vehicles’ culpability-free streak is over nearly a million miles of driving. Urmson notes, “Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted.” They are free of the limitations and inherent vulnerabilities that human drivers have. Unless a car is hacked (certainly possible, but probably preventable) or goes rogue on the driver (quite improbable, but that Ford Anglia in Chamber of Secrets was pretty bonkers), there aren’t significant foreseeable negatives. Even if the vehicles are expensive when they’re first publicly available, with the security they would bring there is much to be saved: insurance costs, necessary emergency infrastructure, vehicle replacement, road repair, the productivity and priceless individuality of people protected from fatalities, and more.

And, intriguingly, with autonomous vehicles, people of all ages get to retain their autonomy and dignity. If you’re 16 and inexperienced–parents hesitant to give you the keys on a Saturday night–or not yet licensed, you could quickly meet up with friends on the other side of town in a self-driving car. If you’re 85 and know that your mind, vision, and strength aren’t what they used to be, you could still run errands of your own accord, ride to your child’s house for a weekend road trip, or go out dancing with your soulmate. If it’s your 40th birthday and you have bacchanalian inclinations, you can fulfill them. The only errors you might make on the ride home are throwing up in the cupholder, passing out in the backseat, or bringing home a one-night stand that you later regret. That’s worlds better than potential drunk driving fatalities. Everyone gets to be where they want when they want.

Isn’t that precisely what we’re all after in getting behind the wheel? Don’t we crave a license in our teens so we can finally be the master of our mobility? Don’t we clutch our license with aged knuckles because we can feel the independence slipping away? It’s difficult for us to be dependent on others to get around and at the same time realize the kind of dignity and freedom we crave. The promise of self-driving cars means we can all be safe, egalitarian travelers. We’d rather be doing other things en route, anyway.

This Week in Upgrades: June 6

Counting Calories
annafrajtova/Bigstock.com

I’m an avid Spotify user, but give up when it comes to classical music. Why are streaming services terrible with some of the best music ever made? NPR

No time to waste. With corrected data, we now know there’s been no slowdown in global warming. NOAA News

Good on IKEA, which consumes 1% of the world’s commercially logged wood, to set aside €1 billion ($1.12 billion) to fight climate change. Grist

Google thinks it can combat obesity by counting the calories in your Instagram food photos. Popular Science

In the battle against cancer, profit still trumps health and well-being. NBC News

For those with kids: are you excited about smart diapers with poo alerts? Fast Company

Your body has a complex rhythm for maintaining energy. Are you undermining it by drinking coffee at the wrong time? Washington Post