Keyless

I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and many of my travels have required me to rent a car.  Through the rentals, I’ve been introduced to the wonders of keyless automobiles — at least, keyless in the sense of the old-fashioned, cut metal, keychain jangling in your pocket, keymaker and locksmith keys that I associate with cars.

img_3660We bought our Acura just before the keyless revolution really took hold.  It’s got a kind of awkward interim technology, bridging the gap between metal keys and totally electronic unlocking.  There’s a plastic part of the key with buttons that open and lock the doors and the rear gate, but there’s also a little button that you push to make a metal key flip out, and the car’s ignition requires the insertion of that metal key.  It’s as if the designer recognized the simplicity of electronic access, couldn’t quite bring himself to go the Full No-Metal Monty.

When you’ve been using metal car keys all your life, the electronic gizmos take some getting used to.  When I get into a rental car, habit compels me to look for the key in the ignition switch — but of course there is no ignition switch, just a button.  The “key” is a plastic device sitting in the cupholder.  You don’t need to touch it, or do anything with it; it’s very electronic presence is so powerful it allows you to start the car by stepping on the brake and pushing that button.  Because you don’t use the key to turn the car on or off, I always wonder how many people inadvertently leave the key in the car when they’ve completed their journey.  I don’t, because I’m anal about locking any car I use even if it’s totally empty, but I’m guessing that forgotten keys, and perhaps also stolen cars because the keys have been left in them, are a lot more common now than they were before.

I don’t mind the electronic keys, really; we’re living in an increasingly electronic age and you’ve just got to be ready for the next technological leap forward.  But while pushing a button and hearing the engine start is perfectly fine, in my view it doesn’t really compare with the tactile sensation of sliding that key into the ignition switch, feeling the rasp of metal on metal, and turning the key to hear the throaty thrum of the engine.

Jetsons, Here We Come

Brace yourself:  we’re apparently on the verge of a world with flying cars.

Airbus Group, the world’s second largest aircraft manufacturer and largest manufacturer of commercial helicopters, has been working on flying cars for a while now, and the CEO of Airbus recently announced that the company hopes to test a prototype vehicle by the end of the year.  Airbus formed a division called Urban Air Mobility — which would be a pretty good name for a rock band — and it is working on both a vehicle that individuals could use and a multi-passenger transport that could be summoned by riders using a smartphone app, a la Uber.  The prototype that Airbus hopes to test this year is the single passenger vehicle, called the Vahana.  Airbus thinks that in 10 years fully vetted products may be on the market that make urban air transport a reality.

22a6bb3543a28cd162bceb3c6937b684The Airbus business rationale has a decidedly futuristic vibe to it.  The concept is that the vehicles would be used in cities, where roadways are jammed but the skies aren’t.  Airbus is forecasting that a growing percentage of the world’s population will congregate in cities, increasing the traffic congestion, and also envisions that cash-strapped governments might welcome air-based transportation because it doesn’t require investment in asphalt, concrete, steel supports, construction workers, and orange cones to shore up the crumbling ground-based traffic infrastructure.  And, because some cities are struggling with pollution — just ask China — Airbus is designing its vehicles to minimize emissions and to avoid adding to the pollution mix.

Do we have the technology for flying cars?  Airbus says yes:  the batteries, motors, and avionics needed are well underway, and the company and others are working on the artificial intelligence and detect-and-avoid sensors and navigation that would be needed to make flying cars a practical reality.  And, of course, there would need to be lots of related developments before flying cars fill the skies.  Would municipalities designate particular flying zones — such as over existing roadways — or just allow fliers to take their cars anywhere?  How would drivers be trained?  And what kind of safety features would regulators require to make flying cars crash-worthy?

For decades, when people have thought about the future, they’ve thought about flying cars.  Now we may be on the cusp of that reality.

“Meet George Jetson . . . .”

Damned Mouse And Cursed Cursor

Technology is great, but of course it poses its own frustrations — like when the batteries suddenly die in your mouse, the cursor freezes on your screen and can’t be moved, point and click becomes inoperative, and the ghostly “connection lost” notice floats up on your screen.  And, of course, there’s not a freaking AA battery to be found in the house, because nobody except an obsessed survivalist is motivated to actually buy batteries until some battery-operated device conks out — and by then it’s too late.

Hey, what did people do to pass the pre-dawn hours in the pre-internet age?  Play Spider Solitaire on their handheld device?

‘Twas The Day After Christmas

It’s the day after Christmas — which for some beleaguered people in the package delivery business is probably about as important as Christmas itself.  This year online retailing once again set a record, which means the package delivery guys have been busting their behinds for weeks and probably are still hustling to deal with the last-minute orders.  As I reflected on the plight of these uniformed soldiers of the modern economy, the poetic muse once more took hold:

The Day After Christmas
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‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the land

Fed Ex and UPS remained fully manned

They’ve set a record for deliveries this year

But the last-minute orders have yet to appear

Oh, Amazon!  Oh, Apple!  Oh, Pajamagram!

Your specials and discounts created a jam

The packages and boxes were stacked to the ceiling

The onslaught of orders left deliverers reeling

And because so many waited ’til the last minute

The Christmas Crush?  They’re still in it!

The delivery guys are trying their best

But it’ll take time before they can give it a rest

So if your order hasn’t yet come to your door

Don’t take it out on the delivery corps!

And by the way, I’ll be doing whatever is necessary to avoid going within a one-mile radius of any shopping mall today.

Ending The Email Chain

There’s a colleague at my office — we’ll call him the Young Fogey — who hates being thanked.

It’s not that he thinks people should be unappreciative.  No, he just hates getting that “thanks” email that frequently serves as an awkward effort to finally bring the lingering email chain to an end.  The first email poses a question, the response seeks clarification, the next email provides it, the following email gives an answer . . . and when the process finally ends, the Young Fogey gets that “thanks.”  He hates it, because it clutters his inbox.  “You don’t need to thank me!” he thunders.

I understand the Young Fogey’s point, because sometimes email conversations can be an exhausting, protracted process.  How are you supposed to end that long email chain in an appropriate way?  Just moving on after you ultimately get the answer to your question seems kind of cold and curt, like you’re ignoring what the other party to the conversation did.  On the other hand, the closure process can be . . . ungainly.

But I don’t think we should discourage people from saying “thank you” when they’ve been helped, either.  We could always use more manners and politeness in the world, and people who routinely say thank you just tend to be more pleasant to be around.  In fact, when I get the final “thanks” email, I often respond “No problem!  Happy to be of assistance.” — which no doubt would really drive the Young Fogey around the bend.

I’m not a fan of a cluttered inbox, and sometimes it can be a challenge keeping it to manageable levels.  Those “thanks” emails, though, aren’t really the problem.  I think the Young Fogey needs to take a deep quaff of Metamucil, accept those “thanks” emails with good cheer, and reflect on the positive fact that the people he’s working with feel the need to express their appreciation for his help and insight.

Have A Happy Wi-Fi Christmas

You go to the food court at a mall, a coffee shop, or some other public space over the holidays, open your laptop or power up your tablet, and start checking for available wi-fi.  When you see a “free” network, you click on it with a chuckle, take a hearty sip of your peppermint stick latte, go through your email, and then start making sure your checking account is squared away before you buy gifts for the last people on your Christmas list.

p1264m1066840fWhat’s wrong with this picture?

Pretty much everything, say data security experts.  It turns out that fraudsters love to set up fake “free” wi-fi networks at public spaces over the holidays, hoping that busy shoppers taking a break, or the bored people accompanying them, will use the networks and expose their personal data, whether it’s passwords, bank or credit card information, or personal data that could lead to identity theft.  Many people who routinely use “free” public wi-fi networks are altogether too trusting, and are willing to agree to just about any terms to get the internet access they crave.

In fact, as the story linked above reports, an 11-year-old kid in Texas won his school science fair this year by proving that point.  He set up anonymous free internet access portals in shopping mall food court areas that had the most draconian conditions available — including allowing the portals to do things like “reading and responding to your emails” and “monitoring of input and/or output” — and more than half of the people offered those conditions agreed to them.  That’s a pretty stiff price for something that supposed to be “free.”

Hackers are everywhere (just ask Yahoo!) and are eager to get to your personal data.  So please:  use precautions and common sense.  Don’t go onto just any “free” network and start exposing your most important and intimate personal and financial data to whoever might have set up that network, or hacked into it.  Think about whether the network really seems to be bona fide.   And consider whether some activities — like on-line banking — really should be exclusively reserved for a network you know and trust.

This holiday season, don’t get ho-ho-hacked.

Learning From The Strangest Creatures On Earth

Tardigrades are extremely weird, extremely small creatures — but it looks like they’ve got a lot to teach us.

tardigrade_imagelargeTardigrades are eight-legged microscopic creatures that were first discovered about 450 years ago.  They are undeniably ancient, having diverged from precursor animal species more than 600 million years ago.  That makes them one of the oldest species on Earth.  In close-up photos, they look like manufactured animals . . . or perhaps characters in a video game.  They’re also called water bears, and some people curiously describe them as “adorable.”

But here’s the most interesting part:  tardigrades are the ultimate survivors.  In fact, they might be the hardiest species in the world.  Recently, scientists successfully revived a tardigrade that had been frozen solid for more than 30 years — that’s since the Reagan Administration, in case you’re counting — and the species also can withstand dehydration and a total vacuum.  Of particular interest to scientists, tardigrades also can survive radiation levels that are lethal to most organisms.

Scientists studying one of the toughest tardigrades learned that the little guys have a special protein that provides protection against radiation.  Dubbed “damage suppression” or “Dsup” by researchers, the protein envelops tardigrade DNA and protects it from radiation injury while allowing it to maintain all of its normal functions.  Even more intriguing, scientists think “Dsup” could be developed in human beings, and provide protection for humans engaged in space travel or that need extreme radiation therapy.  It may be that, in the future, humans are thanking our little water bear friends for providing us with a method that allows us to safely explore the far reaches of our solar system and the galaxy beyond.

Well . . . maybe they are kind of cute and cuddly after all.