Saturday, November 18, 2017

Robotically Trucking Ourselves

     It's probably a good thing, and not nearly as icky as it looks.  It's almost certainly inevitable: robots are going to start doing more and more big-rig driving, especially on freeways, especially when conditions aren't challenging.

     The good news?  They don't fall asleep.  They aren't going to be texting or Facebooking on smartphones.  They won't even be yelling at one another on CB radios.

     The bad news is that they don't cope well with the unexpected.  So far, they don't like snow, rain can be problematic, and as for ice on the road, they have more trouble seeing it than you do.  They --and more to the point, us, including the people who are testing them -- aren't hugely comfortable on busy city streets. 

     But they are coming.  Listen -- my line of work once took a lot of people, mainly doing kind of dull jobs that occasionally got very busy but mostly consisted of setting things up ahead of time, pushing buttons on precise cues, and putting the material back into storage, over and over.  The busy times, each job ran very close to as much as one person can reliably do at one time.  Busy or slow, the work required attention at all times. Scheduling what happened when was a complex game, like three-dimensional Go.  And then, we got computers.  Scheduling got them first; you still needed a human to double-check and adjust, but a job that took five or six people eight hours now took one or two.   And step by step, the computers started running more and more of the, well, drudge jobs.  The equipment changed.  The jobs for people changed.  One day, what uses to take three or four people could be done by one person and multiple computers -- who still is, at the busiest times, doing as much as one average person can manage to do at one time.

     That's the model for trucking.  We're liable to have drivers behind the wheel for many more years -- but increasingly, they'll be managing the machines that will do most of the work instead of doing the work themselves.  Truck "trains" are a distinct possibility.  And the routine parts of the job where a human fails -- the long, dull stretches of highway -- will be handed off to a machine.  You can count on it.

     The question is, where does the human fit in?  Can one person behind the wheel of one truck manage multiple trucks?  (It certainly works on rails -- though there are usually two or three people, and the traffic and its management are an altogether different process.)

     Automatable jobs will be automated eventually.  Me, I moved to fixing the automatons

     The other side of this is what powers the trucks.  It's easy and fun to sneer at electric vehicles -- after all, the power plant is most likely to burn coal, hundreds of miles away from the vehicle itself.  The flip side is, it's a lot easier to hang a really effective muffler on one big coal-fired generating plant than on ten thousand scurrying cars and trucks.  Some heavily-used truck routes are looking into overhead catenary cables to power trucks, an ugly but very mature technology you can find running trains and buses in many cities, and a system that can pay off in states with restrictive emissions regulations for vehicles.  I think you can count on it.  (Personally, I've always liked Robert A. Heinlein's open linear induction motor truckways -- one of the better descriptions can be found in Starman Jones -- but they're inefficient and expensive.  On the other hand, they're a lot less ugly than overhead wires, which would help with NIMBY concerns.  On the other other hand, the infrastructure would be considerably more costly to build, even before you get around to putting truck-analogs on it.)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Continental Breakfast

     Juice, coffee, buttered rye toast, a few Castelvetrano olives, a couple of caperberries and sneering at politicians.  Could not just one of them be conducting a torrid, illicit affair with a grown-up adult-type person (and the two of them married, but not to one another), rather than leering after teenagers or immaturely groping sleeping women?

     A little bit of old-fashioned adultery -- emphasis on the "adult" -- would be a blamed relief.

     I kind of expect politicians to be creepy, lecherous, larcenous and two-faced, but I thought they were adults.  Wrong!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Structural Failure, A Success Otherwise

     This morning's omelette was a disaster, if you measure success as turning out a perfect golden half-moon of egg mixture around a savory filling.  The blamed thing stuck and shredded when I folded it, then fell apart when I tried to flip it over a few minutes later.  There were Words.

     Taste without looking and it's a triumph: the eggs were beaten with smashed up Lavosh Seed Overload flatbread mixed with water; the filling is applewood-smoked bacon and sliced fresh mushrooms that I cooked in truffle butter.  It's gooooood!  Appearance bedamned.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017


     It looks as if there are a number of interesting pools I could leap into this morning -- a (so-far) bloodless revolution in Zimbabwe! Judge Roy Moore's alleged predilections! -- though at least one of them is actually a cesspit.

     The fact is that right now, Roy Moore is Alabama's problem and Alabama -- both the government and the citizens -- has demonstrated profoundly mixed feelings toward the man on issues far wider in scope than the current horrible ickiness: this is the fellow who famously hung up a copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.  That could be unremarkable; you'll find Moses holding a couple tablets in a sculptural grouping over  the back entrance to the U. S. Supreme Court building where he's hanging out with Confucius and Solon, and inside the courtroom in a frieze with the likes of Hammurabi, Mohammad, King John(!), Solomon and Napoleon. Nope, it was Judge Moore himself who made the Commandments a problem, by specifically stating he had a religious purpose in posting them.   This was not unpopular with the voting public; he rode the publicity to the office of Chief Justice of the state's top court and installed a much larger version of the Commandments in the court's rotunda, in granite.  This, coupled with his public statements, roused the ire of ACLU and others and resulted in further legal action culminated by the removal of the monument and, eventually, Judge Moore -- who then managed a comeback via the ballot box! And then got crosswise again over an issue of judicial authority in a controversial matter and was, once again, removed from office.  Yet it's a creepy habit of getting involved with High School girls that is the big issue with this guy?  There are lots of folks still saying, "Better him than a Democrat."  Personally, were I an Alabamian, I'd even take for a flippin' Communist instead, if the commie understood and followed the laws of the state and the nation, pledged to do an honest job of representing his constituents and didn't cheat.  In fact, Judge Moore himself was a Democrat until 1990 and you still don't see a whole lot of communism among Alabama Democrats.

     And speaking of commies...!  Too soon to tell if Robert Mugabe's actually on the outs in Zimbabwe or if the government there will see much change, but one can hope.  They'd've been better off with an honest commie, too, instead of the crappy strongman socialism that has impoverished and starved a country that used to export food.  It's too much to expect that the government will dip much of a toe in democracy, but if ever a place was ripe for it, Zimbabwe is.  It's about time the people there got a break.  Will they?  If past history of even freely-voting people is any guide (see above), they will not; they will opt for more of the devil they know.  Still, sometimes you flip a coin and it stands on the edge.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


     I'm taking a few days off -- well, they're making me take a few days off; I had deferred some vacation time earlier in the year and it's not as simple as "use it or lose it;" it cannot be carried over and we are required to use it.*  So here I am.  I'll have to work a half-day tomorrow (a thing that can't be rescheduled) but the rest of the week is free time!  I'll be able to stay off my bad knee and work on getting better.

     Celebrating with a nice bowl of sausage, fried potatoes and mushrooms plus scrambled eggs.
* Vacation and sick leave polices at my workplace are byzantine and I'd say they border on punitive, except I have worked many jobs where there was no such thing as "paid sick time:" if you were too sick to work, you didn't get paid.  Compared to that, five paid sick days a year and a requirement to burn vacation days for any extended medical absence past that point plus three-quarter pay for really long medical leave is actually pretty decent. And individual sick days once you're over the limit can be taken as unpaid leave or vacation, which I think is fair.

Monday, November 13, 2017

...But My Rights...!

     Imagine the howl and outcry if you had to show ID, fill out a Form 4473 and wait for the FBI background check to be completed before you could join a church (or start one), buy a book, write for a newspaper, or vote.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

As Expected

     Yesterday, I had to take care of the fallen leaves.  My knee has been acting up. but Tam's got a torn intercostal, and is working a lot, so it was my job.

     The new electric lawnmower has a bagging attachment and does a pretty good job.  The lawn needed mowing anyway, and so -- I mowed 'em.  Filled three big leaf bags (all I had) and got all of the front yard and about a third of the back.

     Didn't do my knee any good at all.  It started to hurt and was hot by bedtime.  I slept with a cold pack on it -- heck of a thing, thin sweat pants, cold pack over that, a hand towel wrapped over that and an electric blanket over all of me -- but it is worse this morning.  I'm off to soak in the tub, then try to get some things done.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Armistice On The Hidden Frontier

     The Agreement of 1989 ended the war between the Federation of Concerned Spacemen -- the non-government of the Far Edge -- and the U.S. plus selected NATO members. But it almost did more than that--

     There's a new story -- more a vignette, really -- at I Work On A Starship!

Armistice Day/Veterans Day

     Let's talk about people -- starting with the people who, 99 years ago this day, managed to put an end to the First World War and who thought they were going to be able to fix the peace in place, like a beautiful moth on a collector's display.  It didn't work.  With the war over, six months of peace negotiations were entered into with the highest of hopes -- the first three of Wilson's Fourteen Points are a libertarian dream -- and the parties built a peaceful Europe that carried the seeds of its own destruction.

     But they had hope.  The weary soldiers had hope -- and for nearly eleven years, that hope soared.  Don't lose sight of that.  People fail; our institutions fail on a grand scale -- but we get up and try again.

     As time -- and wars -- have passed and piled up, the focus of this day has shifted, from the agreement that ended the War To End All Wars, from politicians and their fine words to the people who have fought all wars and the peace in between: the veterans.

     You can, I suppose, look at the sidewalk and mumble, "Than kew for y'service," like you were tipping a waiter.  A little recognition is better than none.  But better yet, make eye contact, listen -- maybe the veterans you know spent four years, or twenty, as a glorified filing clerk in uniform; maybe they did brave or dangerous things.  They served.  Lend them your attention for even a little time.

     I have worked with a guy who did comms on a big SAC airplane, with an African-American commercial artist who would smile sadly and look off in the distance when his service in WW II was mentioned, with Army, Marine and USAF vets who fought in Vietnam; with a man the army spent a few months teaching high-speed Morse Code and then sent off to radio in radar plots to fighter bases in the Pacific -- by voice.  I had an Uncle who served on a tiny Naval patrol craft in the Med (that once bumped into an Italian submarine with a crew bound and determined to surrender and figured a Chief Petty Officer was as good for that as anyone), a brother who served as a chaplain in the Middle East and a great, great grandfather who got through Army training, was kicked on a hip by mule en route to his first assignment, and sent home after (mostly) recovering.  They all stepped up.  They all had hopes -- and put themselves at risk to preserve them, and yours as well.  Thank them and know who you are thanking, and why.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Jack Woodford On Writing

     Jack Woodford was the pen name of a prolific writer of fiction and film scripts.  His fiction, I'm told, was largely ephemeral, what might be called "airport books" today.  But he also wrote several books on how to write, and they are highly regarded.

    Robert A. Heinlein found Woodford's Trial And Error of use.  An expanded version is available from Amazon as Write And Error.  I'm reading it now, and it is indeed full of good and useful advice.  Some of the information on markets is out of date; there's barely any market for short fiction these days and unless you are really amazingly extra-special or well-known -- or better, both -- it's no way to make money, but that's just one aspect of a multi-faceted book.  If you write or would like to, it's worth your time.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

A Story About Crutches

     In response to my recent report of trouble with my poor, abused right knee, one piece of online advice was "get a cane."

     Get?  I've owned a cane since the late stages of my recovery from the 2006 motor scooter wreck* that damaged my right knee (and broke the thighbone, an ugly spiral fracture).  And a knee brace, and the crutches I used and came to loathe for months before (and then a little while after -- my immune system took issue with the plate and screws used to hold things together while the bone healed, so I had to go back in and have all the metal bits taken out).

     Loathe?  Oh, yes.  Crutches and canes are perverse, annoying things.  Other than the four-footed cane -- with its own problems -- they won't stand up on their own and yet if you need them, you're probably not in shape to bend or kneel and pick them up.  They get caught on things.  There's rarely a good place to put them when you don't need them.  Driving, dining, desk work -- it's all made more difficult by having to mange those blamed sticks.  But try to cross a room without them, and--  So you come to resent the darned things.

     Decades ago, I worked with a man who'd suffered polio in early childhood, well after the vaccine was available but before he'd received it.  It got his legs and left them weak and spindly.  He had braces, but still needed "elbow crutches" to get around -- the kind with a loose cuff for the upper arm and a grab handle that sticks out at ninety degrees, about as small and light and "convenient" as crutches ever get.  They're tricky to use, which is why hospitals send you home with old A-frame full-height crutches, but if you're a long-term user, the smaller ones are better.

     He hated them.  He was a big, muscular guy of Scots-Irish ancestry, with a bushy blond beard and a volcanic temper.  A good man, good at his job, but perpetually short-fused and never more so than at the frustrating behavior of his crutches, always in the way, often out of reach, and when stowed, occasionally falling over unexpectedly.  A storm of profanity would follow, often accompanied by a door slamming and the thumps and clicks of a man moving rapidly on crutches.

     Time passed and he was offered a better job in a distant state.  It was a big step up and he went for it.  That meant finding a new doctor in his new city--

     About a year later, he showed up at the business where we'd worked for a visit -- walked right in the front door, all smiles.  Walked in!  He had been going to his family doctor for years, keeping the same hardware he'd used in High School; his new physician had taken one look at his old braces and half-crutches and sent him to a specialist.  The state of the art had advanced considerably, and before he knew it, he was up on his own two feet (with a little technological assistance) and shopping for a tasteful cane for occasional use.

     Hearing his tale that day, seeing the light in his eyes and the persistence of what had been a rare and fleeting smile, I thought I knew how frustrated he must have been before.  Twenty-five years later, I broke my right knee badly enough to put myself on crutches (and in a knee brace) for six months -- and only then did I begin to have a glimmering of how he must have felt.

     I own a cane.  I keep it in my car (and there's a backup stashed in the garage) so that I can always get it no matter where I am.  I've been using my cane this week.  I don't much like it -- but there's way worse and I'd like to avoid that as long as I can.
* A wreck, mind you, for which I have no one to blame but myself.  I'd owned the scooter for a couple of weeks and had commuted to work on it.  I was on standby for the ABATE Rider's Course. Went out to pick up lunch and on the way back to work, got the shifter stuck between gears on a bumpy stretch of road.  Fought it back into gear with the throttle open, hit a bump, got the front wheel briefly up and came back down turned to one side.  Loss of control was immediate and irreversible and as the scooter wobbled, I stuck out a foot.  It went road, sky,  road, sky and then I was on my back in the road, a little way from my scooter, which was on its side and idling.  I tried to get up, felt blinding pain, wormed over to the scooter and turned it off.  This was right outside work; coworkers came out, called an ambulance, and some of them were walking my scooter off to the building by the time the ambulance arrived.  The ER was sure I just had a bad sprain, so I lay there on a gurney and ate my lunch.  I was just finishing when the X-rays came back: "Okay, looks like you do have a broken leg.  You'll be going into surgery in a few hours-- hey, is that corned beef?"  It was, and I was off the surgery list and off food until the next morning.  That evening my cellphone rang: "Miss X?  We have an opening for the ABATE class this weekend...."  I replied, "How do you feel about irony?"  Turned out they weren't so keen on it.  Six months later, I took the class. 

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Stupid Trick Knee Tricks

     My right knee is not happy.  Sleeping with a nice sealed cold pack on it helped -- the swelling is way down and it is not as painful -- but it still hurts plenty.

     Sunday, Tam and I walked about two-thirds of the width of the State Fairgrounds and back again, with the slow Gun Show Shuffle through the Indy 1500 in between.  It was a nice show, nice they way they often are when I go without any fun money to spend, and the elfin young woman who has taken over the knife-sharpening work at these shows did a wonderful job with my Japanese carpenter's knife.  But the hard-floor slow walk at these events is always rough on my bad knee and the long walk before and after does not appear to have helped.