Redefining “Cooperation”

I’m sure the job of a TSA agent isn’t an easy one. They’ve got to remind travelers of the ever-changing rules for screening, enforce the security standards, and review the x-rays of countless suitcases and computer bags every shift. They are also regularly dealing with stressed-out people who left too late and are now are trying desperately to get through security and catch their flights. There’s bound to be some friction.

Still, I thought this sign that I saw in an airport recently in the TSA checkpoint area was an interesting juxtaposition. After announcing in bold letters that any threats, verbal abuse, or physical violence against TSA agents are strictly prohibited and could give rise to criminal charges and thousands of dollars in fines, there’s a polite thank-you to travelers for their “cooperation.” Typically, you wouldn’t think of “cooperation” as describing compliance with instructions in the face of monetary penalties and criminal prosecution.

Don’t get me wrong: I think TSA agents are just doing their jobs and should be treated with respect and consideration–which in my traveling experience is exactly what happens. I’ve never seen any kind of incident in the security area, and I hope that I never do. But the TSA’s definition of “cooperation” is a bit more elastic than mine.

The Road Home

Yesterday I got up early and drove from Savannah, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio. It’s an interesting ride that took me on I-95, then I-26, then a long stretch on I-77–one of the major north-south arteries in the eastern part of the country, running from the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio to Lake Erie–before finally rolling through southeastern Ohio on Route 33.

My journey began in the coastal low country, where the roads were flat as a pancake. The roads were so flat for so long, in fact, that it was mildly startling to encounter my first hill in inland South Carolina. But the countryside quickly becomes hilly, and then mountainous, as you intersect with I-77 and head north through the Blue Ridge Mountains and and later the Appalachian Mountains. Before you know it you are dealing with numerous switchbacks and driving through the long tunnel at Big Walker Mountain.

I-77 is apparently notorious for truckers; it is ranked as one of the most dangerous roads in the country for drivers of the big rigs, primarily because of its unpredictable weather. The weather is so unpredictable that I-77 has its own weather tracker website, which provides information like that shown in the screenshot above. I got a taste of the squirrelly weather yesterday, when I hit a significant amount of thick fog in one of the mountain passes. The drive also features lots of steep inclines and declines and significant curves as you maneuver through the mountains. It’s impressive work by the traffic engineers and road builders, but surely no treat for tractor-trailers.

As I drove, I once again appreciated the investment in our national road system, which allowed me to make a reasonably straight-line drive back home and complete the trip in a single morning and afternoon. The only sour taste came when I hit two “pay to drive” stretches–a paid “express lane” option in North Carolina, and three toll booths, requiring payments of $4.25 each, in southern West Virginia. The express lane option would have really irked me if the traffic was heavy, but fortunately it wasn’t. The toll payments in West Virginia made me wonder why tolls were required there when the rest of I-77 was, literally, a freeway. The road went through rugged country at that stretch, and at least it seemed that my toll payments were keeping the road in good repair. In the grand scheme of things, paying $12.75 and buying a few tanks of gas to complete a 670-mile journey is a bargain.

The Low Country

They call the coastal area around Savannah Georgia, extending up the coast to South Carolina, the low country. Crisscrossed with rivers, creeks, and other waterways, it is flat country where the live oak trees sport thick beards of Spanish moss.

This is an area where people pay attention to the tides. This is not surprising when you literally live at sea level, and an especially high tide could wash over the coastal properties. Much of the seaside territory is salt marsh that stretches for miles, as seen in the photo above. At high tide, the reeds are largely submerged; as the tide recess, the reeds are exposed. In the distance you can see the barrier island that separates the area from the open sea.

We live in a big country with lots of different environmental areas and zones. The low country area is a good example of our ecological diversity.

Family Art

I’m in Savannah, Georgia for a brief family visit. It‘s been a nice opportunity to catch up with my uncle and aunt after a long absence, but also a chance to appreciate some of our family art that is displayed around their house.

My grandfather on my Dad’s side was a bookkeeper by trade, but with the soul of an artist. Some of my earliest memories are of his workspace, where he kept his palette and brushes and an easel that held his latest creation. He was an accomplished painter with a meticulous eye for detail.

Grandpa painted still lifes, landscapes, city scenes. dreamy symbolic pieces, and portraits. I like them all, but particularly like these two portraits of my grandmother and grandfather. If you look carefully at the bottom right of the portrait below, you’ll see that it is signed with Grandpa’s neat “AWWebner” signature—but the portrait of Grandma is not. That’s because Grandpa liked his self-portrait, but was never really happy with his painting of Grandma and kept reworking it (even though I think is a good likeness). He only signed pieces when he was satisfied with his work.

Two Melons

Yesterday I had breakfast at a breakfast buffet at the conference I was attending. Like every breakfast buffet in the history of conference breakfast buffets, it featured slices of orange melons and green melons. You never see one without the other, and people who want to add a healthy item to their plate will take a few slices of each—only to remember with their first bites that while the orange melon is delightful and delicious, the green melon is a tasteless fibrous mass that no one really enjoys. I suspect that most abandoned breakfast buffet plates include a few uneaten slices of green melon.

So, why do breakfast buffets inevitably feature the unwanted green melon along with the succulent orange melon? Either the green melon growers have an exceptionally powerful lobby, or there is a National Melon Balancing Act lurking in the federal statute books that mandates that any establishment that decides to offer a breakfast buffet must include both.

Where Have All The Bicycles Gone?

In Columbus, as in all major cities around the world, bicycle theft is a significant problem. The city has tried to address the problem by encouraging cyclists to “bug your bike” by putting RFID chips in one of two specific locations on their two-wheelers and registering them with the city; the chips allow participating groups to scan bicycles and, hopefully, return them to their rightful owner. There’s also a Central Ohio Facebook group called Bike Snoop that promises to be on the lookout for stolen bikes and bike thieves. Community involvement apparently helps; a local media outlet recently reported on one distinctive, bright orange bike that was stolen and recovered thanks to attentive community members.

One of the issues with stolen bikes is: where do they go? Do they stay in the area where they were taken, or is there a stolen bicycle network that carts them to neighboring towns to be sold as used bikes to unsuspecting purchasers? A recent study in Amsterdam, in which there are 11,000 reported bike thefts each year, tried to answer that question by putting mobile trackers on a fleet of bikes and then tracking them. The effort determined that stolen bikes in Amsterdam got resold to unwary buyers, who then rode the bikes in the same area where the bikes were stolen in the first place. There are so many bicycles in Amsterdam that the stolen ones evidently just get lost in the mass of thousands of bikes in the city.

If the Amsterdam study findings hold true in Columbus, that suggests there is some value in participating in the “bug your bike” program, taking a picture of your ride so you can share it if theft occurs, and trying to get the police and the community involved if your bike is stolen. Doing something to distinguish your bike from the mass of other cycles would help, too.

The Driving Option

Like many people, I’ve had some evil luck traveling by air over the past year or so, and have had to deal with delays and outright cancellations of flights that have left me stranded. In view of those unhappy experiences, I’ve vowed to use the driving option as an alternative method of transportation when I think it makes sense to do so. Yesterday I put the driving option to the test by driving from Columbus to Atlanta for a meeting.

The stated flight time for travel from Columbus to Atlanta is one hour and 40 minutes. Build in the time needed to get to the airport and get through security to your gate with time to spare and the time needed to get out of Atlanta’s airport, which is one of the nation’s largest and busiest, and you’re probably looking at about five hours, all in. In contrast, the drive time is about eight and a half hours, door to door. That’s at the outer limits of what I would consider to be a reasonable driving alternative zone–that is, anything within an eight-hour drive should be considered for a visit by car rather than by plane.

If you’re interested solely in speed, the airline flight is the obvious choice. Of course, there are other advantages to driving (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective). With driving, you are an active participant in the process, rather than a passive passenger. With driving, you control when you leave and arrive, rather than being subject to flight schedules. With driving, you take the weather, technological, and scheduling snafus that have affected airline flights over the last year out of the equation–although of course you might hit a traffic jam. And there’s always the chance that, GPS system notwithstanding, you might get lost.

The drive from Columbus to Atlanta is a pretty straight shot: you head down I-71 to Cincinnati, join up with I-75, cross the Ohio River, and then follow I-75 through Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia all the way to Atlanta. I left a bit before 7 and got in a bit after 3 p.m., and in the process I got a taste of the country that I would never have experienced from above 10,000 feet.

I knew I had left the Midwest behind when I rolled past Florence, Kentucky, where the water tower says “Florence Y’all.” That perception was confirmed when I got a chicken sandwich for lunch from a Bojangle’s (a chain we don’t have in Cbus) somewhere in Tennessee and the woman staffing the drive-thru kept calling me “darlin'”. The drive takes you past cities (Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, and Chattanooga) with a lot of countryside, and Civil War battle sites, in between. My Ohio sensibilities were touched when I saw that “Cleveland” and “Dayton” are also places in Tennessee. I listened to music and reflected on the fact that I am fortunate to live in a big, diverse country with an interesting history.

I like driving, and for me the journey from Columbus to Atlanta showed that the driving option is a viable one. I’d do it again.

Atlanta Skyline

I’m in Atlanta for meetings. The meeting site is some distance from the “main” downtown, shown above, but is next to a kind of second downtown with a few tall buildings. In this respect, Atlanta is like Houston or Phoenix, each of which has multiple downtowns.

In the Midwest, we try to concentrate the taller buildings in one downtown area. I like that approach.

The Change in Teenage Attitudes About Driving

Statistics show that American teenagers are less likely to get their learner’s permit and their driver’s license than they once were. In fact, they are a lot less likely to take what used to be viewed as a first step toward adulthood.

The Washington Post reports that in 1983, 46 percent of 16-year-olds had licenses; today, it’s 25 percent. In 1983, 80 percent of 18-year-olds had a license; today, it’s 60 percent. This phenomenon will seem surprising to those of us who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when getting your driver’s license was a crucially important rite of passage. We all were eager to get behind the wheel of a car with a brightly colored, 100 percent plastic interior, like the one shown above, and head out on the open road. The only people I knew who didn’t have their licenses at the earliest possible moment were those who had choked on the parallel parking part of the in-car test.

That’s no longer true, and the big question is why this significant change in teenage attitude has happened. The Post article approaches the story anecdotally, through the tale of several families and their kids, and identifies a series of potential reasons. They include things like digital connectivity, which allows kids to hang out on-line without being physically present, the allure of video games and the gamer community, and the ready availability of Uber and Lyft if you need a ride. One kid confessed that he thought driving was boring, and he’d rather just ride and be able to look at his phone. Some parents also may not be pushing their kids to get their driving privileges like they once did.

Other, darker factors may be at work, too: the perception that driving has become very dangerous, thanks to reports of road rage incidents, the fact that many kids are dealing with depression and anxiety for other reasons and driving is an additional stressor, and, potentially, the fear of getting older and having to shoulder the many burdens of responsible adulthood. Some kids have mentioned, too, that it bugs them that their parents have put apps on their phones that allow the parents to track their every move–including how fast they are driving.

If you are wondering whether this shift is COVID shutdown-related, it apparently isn’t; the statistics show a gradual declining trend in licensure of 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds since the high water mark in the early ’80s.

This reluctance to drive on the part of some of today’s kids may strike us as weird, but it really isn’t. The world has changed, the life experiences of kids have changed, and it’s therefore not surprising that teenage attitudes about driving would change, too What do those changed attitudes mean, long-term, in other areas of life, for the generation that is currently coming of age? We’ll have to see–but the reluctance by many to drive suggests that we certainly shouldn’t expect them to share all of our viewpoints.

End of (Tech) Life

It seems like virtually every kind of consumer device that is available these days can be purchased in a “smart” form. Smart phones, smart toasters, smart lighting systems, smart refrigerators, smart TVs–they all are equipped with software, they all are linked to the internet in some way or another, and they allow you to do cool things, like control your lights turning on and off from hundreds of miles away or get messages from your fridge when you’re low on milk.

Recently, though, people have begun focusing on one of the downsides of the “smart” stuff: the fact that, like any software-based product, at some point the manufacturer is going to stop providing technical support, software updates, and patches. The manufacturers call this having an “end of life” policy for their tech. Purchasers of the product get notice of the policy being invoked, and they often feel blindsided when they realize that they are either going to have to replace a perfectly good device that isn’t being supported any more, or, after the end-of-life Grim Reaper visits, they are going to have to run the significant risks involved in continuing to use an outdated internet-connected device that is thereby especially vulnerable to hackers.

The manufacturer-customer push-and-pull of tech end-of-life policies recently played out with a security camera manufacturer called Arlo and its customers. Arlo announced that some of its cameras were reaching their end of life and software support and cloud storage services would be ending, the customers pushed back, and Arlo announced that it was deferring the end-of-life point for the devices–although the end of life will inevitably come.

You can understand why manufacturers want to establish a clear and definite end of life for their products. They want to focus on the new products that are on the market right now and new products that are under development, and not have their software designers and code-writing wizards focused on fixing problems or vulnerabilities with old tech. What some might call planned obsolescence others would call an efficient allocation of workforce resources and brainpower.

But for consumers, the end-of-life issue means thinking carefully about what you really want before making your purchase. We all accept the need to periodically obtain new laptops, smartphones, and other devices where the software and internet access are a core element of the product’s purpose. But do you really want to buy a “smart” toaster, oven, refrigerator, or other major appliance, knowing that one of these days you’re either going to either have to replace a perfectly functional object or run the risk of a security breach? Smart appliances might have some cool bells and whistles, but their dumb cousins might just be the better option as a long-term strategy.

New Year, New Tests

One of the interesting things about getting older is that, as you hit new age milestones, you’re recommended for new medical tests and scans that you’ve never heard of (or, for that matter, thought of) before.

This month I was introduced to two of them, both of which involved my new friend the ultrasound machine. I last encountered the ultrasound device when we were in the child-bearing years, and it was used to produce dark and murky images that were indecipherable to anyone who wasn’t having a baby. The new tests obviously had a different purpose.

The first test was an abdominal ultrasound scan to look for aortic aneurysms, which is a one-time test recommended for men over a certain age. Aneurysms are bad things, and the scan is an early screening tool designed to allow doctors to spot and treat them before they burst. That made sense to me–who wants to deal with a burst aneurysm, really?–so I found myself lying on a treatment table and lifting up my shirt so a medical technician could apply some transmission gel to my stomach and then use the scanner to move gradually around on my torso to get a good look at my abdominal aorta. The scan took about 30 minutes and was no big deal.

The second test was a carotid artery ultrasound, which is designed to look for blocked or narrowed carotid arteries. Since the carotid arteries carry blood directly to the brain, blockages are bad and can lead to strokes. This test was even easier, didn’t require any clothes adjustment, and literally took about five minutes. I reclined on a treatment table next to the machine and the gel and the ultrasound scanning tool were applied first to one side of my neck, then to the other. The technician gazed intently at her screen, we heard the rhythmic whooshing of my heart pumping blood through the carotids, and then I was done.

My primary care doctor is a big believer in preventative medicine and early testing and using the amazing tools that are now available to detect and avoid potential medical issues. With the wear and tear inflicted by years of use, I’ve become a prime candidate for blockages, burstings, and other bodily breakdowns. Now that my aorta and carotid arteries have been checked out, I’ll wait patiently until I hit another milestone that puts me in the age range for another recommended screening or scanning. I expect I’ll be seeing my new friend the ultrasound machine again.

A Mad Man Bun Tale

Some people, at least, seem to really dislike man buns–be they the top knot, the pineapple, the undercut, or any other random styling of long hair rubber-banded on a guy’s head. But how do you assess the degree of disdain for man buns? The extent of absolute contempt for this coif is notoriously hard to measure.

Here’s one bit of tangible evidence of just how much people despise the man bun. A story circulated widely on social media recently about a guy out in Los Angeles who was allegedly caught after accosting 37 men and cutting off their man buns, saying that he was “doing the Lord’s work.” Of course, the story is fake–an attempt at humor published by a satirical website. The story had obvious elements of implausibility (really, a guy grabbing 37 man bunners and hacking off their offending hairstyles?) and other signs of phoniness, like overtorqued quotes, but some people readily believed it.

I’m guessing that you were far more likely to fall for this ruse if you felt an underlying scorn for the man bun, with your antipathy rendering you especially gullible. People who really can’t stand man buns would be far more likely to accept that another, more extreme bun-hater might be motivated to take forcible bun removal into his own hands. What better evidence of broad bun dislike could there be?

Books As History

One of the world’s oldest books is being put up for auction. Called the Sassoon Codex after one of its prior owners, the book is one of the earliest and most complete copies of the Hebrew Bible–including the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings. The book, pictured above, is thought to be about 1,100 years old. And, because it dates to a time centuries before the development of the printing press, the book was painstakingly handwritten by a careful scrivener, line by line.

Books contain history, but they also can become history. The Sassoon Codex includes some notations that reflect its personal history, including its sale in the 11th century, its dedication to a synagogue in a community in northeast Syria, and its entrustment to a member of the community when that community was attacked by invading troops long before Columbus sailed the Atlantic. And reading the book now (assuming you speak Hebrew) or simply turning the pages to admire the craftsmanship of the drafter would provide that sense you get whenever you touch an old object, or walk in an ancient place, of feeling physically connected to those who have been there long ago.

The sale of the Sassoon Codex made me wonder about where it ranks on the list of the oldest known books, as opposed to scrolls or tablets. One article listing 10 of the oldest known books (a list that does not include the Sassoon Codex, by the way) identifies the oldest known book as the Etruscan Gold Book, a six-page book made entirely of 24-carat gold that dates back to 660 B.C.–or more than 2,600 years ago. By way of comparison, the Gutenberg Bible, the world’s first book produced by a printing press, was produced in the 1450s, more than 2,000 years later.

Books that literate people can carry, treasure, and enjoy have been around for a long time.

A Slob’s Reform

When I was in college, I admittedly was a slob. Dirty dishes were piled up in the sink of my apartment, I never made my bed, I never cleaned the refrigerator, and the bathroom was a horror show of mold and grime and dirty towels. It is embarrassing to admit this now, but my apartment was so trashed that my mother forced my poor sisters to come over to clean it–thank you for that, sisters, by the way–only to learn a week or so later that, after a party my roommate and I hosted, it was a disaster area again. But it was college, there was a lot going on, and I couldn’t be bothered to spend time on something mundane like cleaning up.

At some point after college, though, my attitude changed, and I experienced a radical shift on the rank messiness to obsessive cleanliness scale. I realized that clutter in my living space kind of bugged me, and that I favored a spotless, gleaming countertop over one that was smeared with grease and littered with crumbs. I found that I enjoyed making the bed in the morning, picking things up and stashing them in their proper place, and doing simple chores like putting dishes in the dishwasher and polishing a tarnished tray to a decent shine. And, at the office, I found that I liked a clean desk and that, as between loose papers and documents stashed neatly in folders and then in boxes, I much preferred the latter.

As I puttered around this morning, putting away dishes from the dishwasher and wiping down the sink, I found myself wondering: what caused the change? Was there always a neatnik buried beneath the slouching college laissez-faire attitude about dirt and grime? I don’t think so, because I don’t remember being troubled at all about my crummy college living conditions. I suspect that, as I moved from college to the working world, I realized that maintaining some degree of cleanliness was a part of responsible adulthood. And I think I also came to appreciate the simple pleasures of doing a basic chore than can be brought to a complete conclusion in a short period. If you work at a job where you might not see results from your labors for weeks or months, you find real value in the immediate gratification of a completed task on the home front.

I wonder how my current self would react if given the opportunity to see my grubby college apartment. I suspect I’d collect some cleaning supplies, roll up my sleeves, and happily accept the challenge of bringing it up to code–so my poor sisters didn’t have to do it.

Content For Content’s Sake

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve read about recently released content-producing artificial intelligence programs that can draft a letter, create a PowerPoint, or write a chat message, or news article, or legal brief in about as long as it takes Google to do a basic search. The technology evidently represents a pretty amazing advance in the ability to rapidly sift through, synthesize, and reassemble reams of existing material to produce “new” content.

The reaction to these AI programs is even more interesting. Setting aside the articles that ring the legal alarm bells–there are issues galore under the copyright and trademark laws arising from where the AI-generated content comes from and whether it represents fair use, for example–the reactions seem to fall into two general camps. One reaction thinks the technology is like a super-cool new toy that can do a credible job of mimicking virtually every form of actual human work product, and goes on about how the new tech can be used to write a speech in 15 seconds that could then be given virtually without editing to an unsuspecting audience. The other camp presents dire forecasts about how the new software will eliminate the jobs of reporters, marketing professionals, and even lawyers, allow tech-savvy students to skirt any remaining vestiges of academic honor codes as they use the AI to write their papers, and cause other calamitous changes to life as we know it.

I think the predictions of calamitous consequences are probably overblown. Much of the clickbait content you see on the internet is so formulaic it has probably been produced by robots for years, and we know that one of the longstanding issues with Twitter has been how many of the tweets on the system are bot-generated. For high school and college students, the internet has already provided them with a handy tool they can use to avoid doing their own thinking and work, if they are so inclined. As for the pieces extolling the uber-coolness of the new AI programs, I suspect that the bloom will wear off, and people will tire of asking for and receiving generic writing.

One question about the new AI that seems to be overlooked in all of the current buzz is why any well-intentioned person would want to use it. If, like me, you enjoy the process and act of writing, you’ll view the new AI programs as anathema. Part of the fun of writing is coming up with your own idea of what to write about, and the rest is trying to do honor to your idea and put something of yourself into the effort –to write a compelling paragraph, to think of just the right word or phrase to best express what you are trying to get across, and to tackle the other challenges involved in creating your own work. AI allows you to come up with the idea (like asking the AI to write a best man’s speech in the style of Winston Churchill) but the second part of the process–the part that stretches your brain and your vocabulary and, perhaps, your perspective on the world as well–is totally missed. Why would anyone want to pass off generic AI-generated content for content’s sake as their own work, and miss the opportunity to truly express their own thoughts in their own words?

I’ll never use these new AI programs because they eliminate the fun of writing. I enjoy facing the empty laptop screen and keyboard first thing in the morning and trying to come up with something to get my brain started for the day. If you read a post on WebnerHouse, you can always count on it–typos, triteness, predictably ill-advised opinions, and all–being the legitimate work product of an actual human being