Uber Silent

I’m a taxi kind of guy.  When I get to a new city and need to get from the airport to the hotel, I’m hard-wired to look for the taxi line and the next available yellow vehicle.  But I realize that times are changing, and that sometimes, in some places where cabs might be hard to find, it’s just easier to use Uber to get from one place to another.

0723-bus-taxi-death02But Uber sparks inner conflicts for a taxi guy like me.  With Uber, I don’t have the same sense that the person driving me is a trained professional who does this for a living.  It’s almost as if, with cabs, the little taxi light on the roof of the cab and the cab company information on the side of the vehicle create a presumed level of competence in my mind.  It’s probably silly, but when I get into the rear seat of a cab I don’t typically feel the need to fasten my seat belt — although I eventually do just to be safe — because I trust the driver to be a good driver.  And cab drivers always seem to know where they are going, too.

Uber is obviously different.  The outward trappings of a professional driver that you find in a cab are absent.  In some of my handful of Uber trips, the drivers have promptly established their competence with their driving and their behavior, and I quickly experience that familiar cab ride feeling.  With other Uber drivers . . . not so much.  Recently I took an Uber ride where the young, highly tattooed driver immediately confessed that she was new to town, and she drove the whole trip with her cell phone on her knee, looking at her map app to follow the directions to get to the airport.  Her car smelled like cigarette smoke that had been only partially masked by air freshener, and she talked non-stop for the entire drive.  Even worse, when she asked why I was in town and found out I was a lawyer, I got an earful of her family’s ongoing legal problems.  When I got to the airport — admittedly without any driving mishap — it was a relief.

The experience made me appreciate that cabs are typically clean and smoke free, and most cab drivers just drive without trying to engage you in conversation.  I suppose there are some riders who want the driver to be talkative, but for those of us who want the silent treatment, Uber should add an “Uber silent” option when ordering a ride.

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Self-Made Celebrities

Technology and social media have made possible an entirely new kind of celebrity.  Along with movie stars, and sports stars, and rappers, and singers, we’ve now got people who apparently are famous, at least among a segment of the population, for their YouTube videos or some other kind of social media presence.

africa-broadband-it-internet-technologyI’ve come to realize that there is an entirely unknown field of “personalities” when I’ve seen them as the subject of articles on the msn.com website, or the news stories that now pop up when I access the Google website on my phone.  One recent example was an article about the untimely death of somebody I’d never even heard of — a woman named Emily Hartridge, who was described as a popular YouTube personality for her video posts about herself and relationships.  And given the size of the internet and the different channels for social media communication, for every Emily Hartridge there are probably hundreds or thousands of other people who have become famous to their specific cadre of followers.

It’s an example of the how modern communications technology is more democratic and a lot more diverse.  You don’t necessarily need to be found by an agent or producer or record company executive to become famous these days.  Anyone who has a cellphone and a computer and something to say or something to show can take a shot at posting self-made videos and hope to carve out a niche for themselves and find an audience.  These days, people can become self-made celebrities.

It’s a step forward in some ways, but of course there are hazards, too.  How many videos out there espouse political views that contribute to the splintering of society?  How would the Hitlers of the past have used social media to disseminate their hateful ideologies?  And how many people, in their lust for self-made celebrityhood and “likes,” are tempted to film themselves doing dangerous things in hopes of attracting more followers and becoming one of those new personalities?  Just this week, a Chinese “vlogger” died while livestreaming himself drinking and eating poisonous geckos, centipedes, and mealworms in hopes of attracting new followers.  It’s hard to believe that any rational person could be so desperate and so reckless — but a personal tool as powerful as the internet and social media is bound to bring out the crazies, too.

Apollo’s Lasting Legacy

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon — which happened on July 20, 1969 — we’ve seen a lot of interesting articles about the space program, the Apollo program, and NASA’s lunar missions, including a fascinating Smithsonian article about Apollo 11 specifically.  Popular Mechanics also has reprinted an interview with Buzz Aldrin from 25 years ago about why he went to the Moon, and why he thinks we should go back.

as16-113-18339hrsmOne of the most intriguing pieces I’ve seen was a UPI article that sought to identify products and technologies that can be attributed to the Apollo program and that still are in use today.  (That means that “Space Food Sticks,” an awful-tasting product from my youth that quickly went out of production, doesn’t qualify.)  The UPI writer found that Apollo’s legacy goes beyond Tang, velcro, and computer chips.  Products such as the “Dustbuster” hand-held vacuum cleaner, high-performance athletic shoes, communications headsets, credit card swiping machines, and even the “memory foam” in your mattress all trace their roots back to developments that occurred during the Apollo program.

These technological advances are important, of course, and show what can happen when you hire a bunch of really smart, creative, highly motivated engineers and problem-solvers, give them a mission and adequate funding, and establish a meaningful deadline to achieve the goal.  Technological developments are a pretty predictable result of such an effort, which is one reason why I think the United States should end the 50-year drought and get back into the manned space arena in a significant way — whether through government programs, or through partnership with the private companies that are focused on space, or through some other creative means.

But new technology and techniques are not, perhaps, the best reason to go back into space.  For those of us who grew up during the ’60s space program days, and dreamed about being an astronaut like the courageous adventurers of our youth, there will always be a part of our make-up that is interested in space, and science, and the stars.  Perhaps it would be impossible to fully recreate the conditions that made the early astronauts celebrity-heroes in those innocent days, but wouldn’t it nevertheless be valuable to give the current generation of young people role models who are smart, well-educated, selfless, and brave, and encourage those young people to dream about discovery and scientific advancement?

The technological legacy of the Apollo program is impressive, but I think the real legacy is aspirational — something that touched us deeply and leaves even 60-somethings like me still keenly interested in space and hoping that one day, perhaps, I’ll follow in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps and be able to visit the Moon.  The real legacy tells you something about the power of a dream.  We should give the children of today, and tomorrow, the chance to experience such dreams again.

Where Would We Be Without Willis?

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As we deal with another day of sweltering heat in the Midwest, let’s all acknowledge the huge debt we owe to Willis Carrier — the guy who invented air conditioning.  Where would we be without Willis and his life-changing invention?

Interestingly, Willis Carrier did not invent air conditioning to increase human comfort on scorching summer days.  Instead, he came up with his invention, in 1902, to try to deal with the problems heat and humidity were causing for a Brooklyn printing business.  It was so hot and humid during the summer months in the printing plant that the ink would not adhere to the paper, so Willis came up with the idea of moving air over cooled coils to lower the temperature and the humidity so the printers could function.  The decreased temperature in the no-doubt sweltering area near the printing presses was just a pleasant by-product of the invention.

Willis’ invention caught on and air conditioning was implemented in many businesses, but it would be decades before air conditioning became common in American homes.   The first two houses I remember living in didn’t have central air conditioning.  But now, 117 years after Willis Carrier was touched by a stroke of genius, central air conditioning is commonplace, and it’s really hard to imagine life without it.

Thank you, Willis Carrier!

The Last Beetle

This week Volkswagen will make its last Beetle.  At a plant in Mexico, the last few newly manufactured vehicles will roll off the assembly line, and one of the most iconic car designs in the history of the automotive industry will end.

c7853e1d42303ca7b0e084c948a284e6The VW Beetle probably has the weirdest back story of any popular car brand, ever.  It was originally conceptualized by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a people’s car, although mass production never began under the Nazi regime.  Its production began in earnest after World War II, when it helped to lead the post-war economic revitalization of what was then West Germany.  Volkswagen sold huge numbers of its “Type 1” — known to pretty much everyone as “the Beetle” because of its familiar rounded, humped design — and then made serious inroads in America, where the VW Beetle was a cheap, small, efficient, easy to repair and customize alternative to the gigantic gas-guzzlers Detroit was cranking out in those days.

The Beetle — and especially the chronically underpowered VW van — became associated with the hippie movement in the United States, and when I was a kid it wasn’t unusual to see VW cars and vans decorated with peace symbols, bright flowers, and other signs of the tie-dyed set.  It’s no coincidence that 1968, when the hippie culture was at its zenith, was the year the most Beetles were sold in America.  In that year, Americans bought more than 560,000 of the cars.  But Japan and Detroit started to be more competitive in the small car market and their efforts made inroads into Beetle sales, and then Volkswagen started to focus on other designs.  A more high-powered Beetle was introduced that was specifically intended to target retro buyers.  Now, Volkswagen is placing its corporate bets on a newly designed compact, battery-powered car.

With the car now being retired, eight decades after the Nazis first thought of it, are there any other cars currently being sold in America that have an iconic image and design even close to the Beetle?  I can’t think of any.  Peace, love, Beetle!

Grip Evolution

Here’s another story to add to the slew of news articles about general health trends:  human beings, on average, are getting weaker.  In this case, the indicator is grip strength — that is, how much holding and squeezing force can a person generate with just the fingers of their hand.  Recent studies have indicated that grip strength has declined significantly, even in the last 30 years.

best-hand-gripper-exercisesSo what, you might ask?  You’re less likely to encounter the guys who give you a bone-crushing handshake, and you don’t see people walking around flexing those hand exercisers anymore.  What’s the big deal?  The big deal is this:  grip strength is one of those inverse health indicators lurking in the human body, with lower grip strength associated with increased mortality from all causes and cardiovascular mortality in particular.  And, especially for those of us who are getting up there, grip strength is a key indicator of sarcopenia, the loss of muscle that occurs as we age, and may also indicate issues with cognitive performance.

Why is grip strength declining?  Of course, gripping is a key part of the evolution of homo sapiens — whose distant ancestors needed a strong grip when they were swinging through trees, and whose more recent predecessors used their hands to create and then wield tools and weapons that allowed them to survive predators and gather food.  In short, humans needed that strong grip to make it through the natural selection melee and emerge at the top of the evolutionary pyramid.  But in recent years, the need for hand strength at home or on the job has declined.  White collar workers need hand dexterity as they tap away at computers, not hand strength, and even blue collar workers now use automatic tools that don’t need the kind of personal strength that hand wrenches of the past, for example, required.  Mix those factors in with a general decline in fitness and increase in obesity, and you’ve gone a long way to explaining why human beings increasingly are becoming a bunch of unhealthy softies.

In short, as a species humans may be losing their grip.  It’s not a positive development.

Idagio

I’m admittedly something of a cheapskate, and my cellphone is pretty much app-free as a result.  I’m willing to pay for music, however, and when my old iPod started to show signs of its age I began looking for a new, reliable source for music to listen to on my walks.

220px-beethovenAfter doing some research, I decided to subscribe to Idagio, a classical music app, and it has been a great choice for me.  I really enjoy classical music, but I feel like my knowledge — of the scope of the works of different composers and of pieces from different genres and periods — is both narrow and shallow.  When your exposure is confined to the stuff you’ve personally added to your iPod, it’s going to be limited by definition.  For the cost of only a few bucks a month, Idagio has fixed that problem.  Now I’ve got access to a sweeping library of works by composers I’ve never really listened to before, and I feel like I’ve been launched on a pleasant voyage of discovery.

I like how Idagio is organized.  The “discover” section of the app highlights new works from artists, new albums, and playlists that have been created for Idagio.  When you go to the “browse” section of the app, you can choose among composers, ensembles, soloists, conductors, instruments, genres, or periods,  If you pick a favorite composer, you can listen to the composer’s “radio,” which is a random selection of pieces by the composer, or you can listen to their work sorted by popularity or pieces that were recently added.  If you like baroque music, as I do, you can focus on that period, listen to an assortment of music, hear composers you’ve not heard before, then do searches of the “composers” library to take a deeper dive into what they’ve created.  If you then hear something that you like, you can download it and create your own library of personal favorites.  The app also organizes music into “moods” — like “gentle,” “happy,” “exciting,” “passionate,” or “angry” — and the Idagio-created playlists include a range of options, from collections designed to increased concentration and focus to composer-specific and period-specific options, like Mozart piano music or “baroque meditation.”

In short, there are lots of different ways to hear the music, which increases the ability to use Idagio as a tool to broaden your exposure to the sprawling world of classical music.  And that’s a big reason why I’m a fan of this app.