Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Way The Future Used To Be

Last night, perhaps because I had watched this video of two people lucky enough to enjoy a summer ride in Amsterdam, chatting about the bike culture in that city and in Copenhagen, I wondered where the future had gone.
I still was mulling over thoughts I'd had since my previous post on the surveillance creeping into our lives (proudly Foucault-free, and that took work); that kind of Orwellian future is more than fulfilling its promise daily, but what about the other one ? No one would be hungry. People would be sheltered, the old cared for, our land used well. I suddenly pictured myself old and simultaneously felt time running out and against me. One day, we will, no doubt, have high speed trains carrying us throughout the country as a matter of course. Roads and paths and trails will make it possible for us to bike and walk and otherwise locomote around our towns and cities without having to start up the car each time. I felt a real sense of despair for this country, for possibilities lost, resources mispent, potential of what is still a young country unfulfilled and sidetracked. A few months ago, I was in line at the drug store when a quite elderly woman mentioned to the pharmacist that she was really debating continuing a medication or not, since the price kept going up (she did buy it). When I came up to the counter, the pharmacist admiringly mentioned that the woman was ninety-five years old. On principle, I thought, if you make it to ninety, you ought to get a break. You should get your medicine free, your property taxes abated. By eighty, you should be getting a pretty steep discount. Proper care and comfort at the end of life should be a given, not a privilege. The theme of this post, I suppose, is that it would really take very little for us to make life easier for each other, wouldn't it ? Alas, that future has not yet arrived, but in glimpses at life in one place or another, we see that it is possible now. Ever the optimist, if I make it to ninety or so, I fully intend to haul myself, my artificial hips, vat grown organs and longevity-enhanced cats onto those clean-running high velocity trains if I have to crawl off my Segwacycle.

Afterthoughts: I really debated posting this at all. I don't usually rant, and have done something akin to that in this post and the last. And I am fully aware of the intracies of argument and political theories that lie behind what I have casually presented here. It was the despair and the hope raised by the particulars that was the catalyst here (are you really telling me that we can't make a wide shoulder on every road built in America and mark it for non-car use: pedestrians, bikes, non/motorized wheelchairs, slow scooters, and, yes, Segways ? I mean, how hard could that really be ??). Okay. Enough. To bed. Il faut cultiver notre jardin. (Sorry.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In fact, we don't think choice is a good idea...

I think I'll go for a bike ride, let the wind blow through my hair, walk barefoot across the grass and watch the kids skateboarding in the local park, maybe then go home and have a nice onion bagel (not whole wheat or multi-grain)with Parkay on top. Ah, the crimes and misdemeanors that used to pass for normal life.
I remember telling some pre-teen cousins how great it is in the summer to ride down a country road at dusk, the cool from the trees brushing your skin and the breezes lifting the hair off your neck. At last, one of them ventured, meekly and disapprovingly, "that's before they had helmets, right ?" Now that it's tantamount to child abuse to let an unsunscreened child go barefoot anywhere, and skateboarding is forbidden anywhere in public except in special parks that look curiously like oversized dog runs, you'd think that we'd be catching on. Only a matter of time before we make children of ourselves. And children don't get choices; these are introduced gradually, usually per the just-enough-rope-to- (almost)-hang-yourself, until the increasingly delayed factor of personal responsibility makes adulthood a reality. And so, the way to limit real human freedom, to ultimately make people forget all about it while thinking they enjoy it every time they choose between twenty brands of canned peas or laptops, is first to reduce real human freedom to consumer choice, and then to take away that choice altogether. The reduction of RHF is at the moment heavily dependent on selling human beings the idea that being monitored is something that is done for you, not to you. Since this is what the current generation of parents ---and I mean that current generation in the news, you know my favorite paper----, "helicoptering," e-mailing summer camp because Susie didn't get her favorite juice, going to the dean over Timmy's first B+ since fifth grade, building game rooms at home so they don't go out (yes), calling their adult children's bosses on the phone (yes), considers healthy and necessary, it has been very easy to reverse engineer the process, and reduce them to a state they associate with safety, and worse, moral superiority. Or as one twenty-something, who is a thirty-something by now, put it to me during a discussion of privacy rights and data collection some years ago: "I don't worry about that stuff; I'm not doing anything wrong."

So, I could not help but notice the pattern I've just outlined make itself so clearly obvious in this AP article over the weekend. Note the phrases in bold especially, then, gee, I don't know, go ride your bike on the sidewalk to your local cafe and have a nice, cool martini before your insurance company offers to put a probe in your liver. For a discount, of course...

Insurer offers discounts to drivers with monitors
July 28, 2008 4:15 PM EDT

TRENTON, N.J. - A high-tech monitoring device makes it possible to reduce insurance premiums for drivers who avoid jackrabbit starts and slam-on-the-brakes stops, an insurance company says.The catch? Bad drivers who take a chance on the program may wind up paying a surcharge instead.Auto insurer Progressive Corp. has begun offering its drivers the chance to cut their costs based on how they actually drive, not only on their age, credit score and number of tickets or accidents on their record.The monitoring device - sort of like a black box for cars - tells Progressive what time people drive, how many miles they've driven, how fast they accelerate and how often they hit the brakes. It does not track where people go.Under Progressive's program, customers can earn a first-term discount of up to 10 percent just for signing up. When they renew their policy, their rate could decrease by up to 60 percent based on their driving habits. But it could also increase by up to 9 percent.Richard Hutchinson, a Progressive general manager, said the program is designed for drivers who are consistent and safe."We want people to know that the program is not right for everyone," Hutchinson said."It's for people who drive at low-risk times of day and who keep alert for others on the road," he said. "They don't make fast lane changes or follow too closely behind other drivers so they don't have to overreact or slam on the brakes."

Progressive began the program in Alabama in late June. It's also been made available in Minnesota, Oregon and Michigan. A national rollout of the program will continue through 2009.It starts in New Jersey on Aug. 8. The company will be the first to offer such a program in the Garden State, whose motorists have the highest auto insurance rates in the nation at an average of $1,184 per vehicle.Other companies also recently began offering similar options.GMAC Insurance and OnStar vehicle services last year started a new program that allows motorists to earn an extra discount based on the miles they drive."The consumer is really being given an opportunity to potentially reduce their auto insurance premium in exchange for giving their auto insurer access to information that currently isn't available to them," said Michael Barry, a vice president at the Insurance Information Institute.The concept has been utilized elsewhere, too. After conducting a pilot scheme beginning in 2004, Norwich Union launched a pay-as-you-drive insurance program in 2006 in Great Britain.

Several insurers in recent years have offered monitoring of a particularly vulnerable population of drivers - teenagers. Under American Family Insurance Co.'s program, for example, a camera records audio and video images of the road and the teen driver when motion sensors detect swerving, hard braking, sudden acceleration or a collision.There's an extra benefit to monitored driving programs - they help cut traffic congestion and pollution, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. But Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, told The Star Ledger of Newark for Monday's editions that the group has worries about privacy ."We see this as kind of a creeping abduction of people's data," he said. "Basically, once they collect that data, it belongs to the insurance company. That's a big problem."Progressive spokeswoman Tara Chiarell disagreed, saying the customer owns the data and Progressive doesn't sell it or share it. The company uses it only for claims purposes. She also said Progressive has never been subpoenaed by a court to submit pay-as-you-drive data.Customers can access their data on a secure, password-protected Web site, which allows them to get an up-to-date view of their driving habits and how those habits are affecting their rate, she said.AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman David Weinstein said if a link between electronic monitoring and accident probability becomes clear, they would like to see all drivers' insurance premiums based on that information, "not just select drivers who grant their permission."

The Word Field, Deconstructed

Courtesy of something called Wordle, the thoughts on this page reduced (?) to color and frequency (=size), courtesy of some semi-randomizing algorithm. Common words are removed.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Nor Yet Asleep With Our Lamp Unfurnished..."

Beth, the author of The Cassandra Pages (see sidebar), lost her father-in-law on Friday. He was ninety-nine years old, lucid until just about his very end. She has written of him often and well, the posts about him collected under the title of The Fig and the Orchid. A long and fascinating life, that, alas, proves once again how very short and precious life is indeed. No orchids, but almond blossoms here, as Beth spoke several times of how he longed for the green almonds of the land of his youth.

Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Having A Life is No Excuse

Welcome to any who have found their way here via John B's blog, Cycling in Wichita. I'm days late in getting to the welcome, so apologies if you've been circling in a holding pattern, waiting for a new post. Can anyone translate that sign in the last post ? (Those photos open up much larger in a new window, you know.) John B apparently has a life and three blogs: I merely have a life that, of late, has gone from tumbling from one cesspool of exhaustion to the next to one in which I have rested, deservedly, I hope and think, on some cushiony pockets of sloth. But he is right: I see bikes everywhere. Unless the NYTimes city blog (see previous post) is playing with my head, I really need to get out more, because I see bikes everywhere only in one place. Here is another vehicle one doesn't see often (or at all) in the wastelands between city and country.

Why, O why, I wonder, do we not build for to accomodate walkers, bikers, segways, wheelchairs, etc. Could it be that it suits the infrastructure that we keep off the streets ? I have a whole big post tangent to this topic coming up. Stay tuned. Am off to the bike shop for few things, then to the garden before it gets too hot to do anything.

One note to do with biking, and then another about something that is probably worthy of a separate post all together, but which I had best write down before I forget. First: my area has police on bikes. This is a surprise, since I have never seen them in my part of town before, but ran into them, almost literally, the other week while they paused on the road across from a small park/playground, of necessity standing on the small and rutted shoulder between curb and street. It was dark. Though it looked as if their bikes had lights mounted on the handle bars, they were not turned on. They were wearing no reflective clothing at all. I understand the need for stealth (if that's what it was about), but it was all I could do not to roll down the window and give them a lecture on how not to get killed. I felt about eighty, imagining in my head what I did not do, as I drove too close to, and then past, what I at first thought were tree branches moving in the wind (no, cops on bikes): "Sonny, a helmet won't help you if a car drives into you and across your midriff. Here, Sonny, I've got some reflective tape in the car. Let's at least get some around your wrists and ankles so that you can get home alive to your mother..." If I live so long and keep my brain to boot, it will be fun to do this when I'm old. At present, after almost circling back, I decided not to risk being harassed for the rest of my existence for telling representatives of the peace and safety realm what they surely already know.

Completely unrelated item: as many of you must also, I can see the names of a number of wireless networks in the area when I connect to my own (my computer shows anything within range, locked or not). Of late, a new one has appeared. Its name is "White Power." This disturbs me to no end. I wonder if: a) they are too stupid to know everyone can see it; b) perfectly aware that everyone in this diverse community, which includes a number of ethnic groups as well as nationalities, can see it, and they are offering up this ugliness to affront and to intimidate.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hidden Bicycles

Okay, one not so hidden, and, as is evidenced from my last post, I've got biking on my mind lately (and happy for the company: thank you, John B., for your comment !). Both of these pictures come from today's NYTimes. The first, of the not-too-hidden-bicycle genre, is from the international section containing an article on the rise of the Dalit politician Kumari Mayawati, pictured on the posters shown in the market. At the center of these posters is a flag of a bicycle and a raised hand. Nothing to do with the story, I'm sure, but I'd like to know what's up with the bicycle. I can't read the script or the language, and would be grateful to know what it says.

Next up, from the City Room blog (but found in print in today's Metro section), is a picture of a mural, already literally whitewashed ---sometimes the metaphor is so literally true that it is painful--- because the rat signalled an anti-snitching campaign that the city has been trying to overcome. To the left of the rat, is, I believe, an abstract image of a cyclist, maybe a messenger, crouched low over the handlebars. My primitive photo editing did allow me to add a big yellow arrow pointing at what would be the cyclist's nose.
From there, you can see the shape of the helmet atop his head, and in the strong vertical line to the right, a strong, squared arch of the shoulders and jacket/messenger bag caught in motion, the legs and body folded over the frame of bike. Do you see it, too ? Alas, gone with the rat. Instead of painting over all of this art, couldn't our dear censors simply have found the artist and/or changed the caption of the noosed rodent's stop sign ? "Stop Poverty ?" "Stop Strangling Free Expression ?" Or with a few brush strokes, transformed the slipknot to a nice tie (rat race and all), and added a simple "Stop for Bicycles ?" I hate it when good art is wasted. Damn.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bespoke Money

Wow, it has been a long time. All unintentional, as almost every day I have thought of something to post, but then have fallen asleep or into a book as I have (now, finally), segued into a new phase of my life. I now have a very short commute (a little over nine miles, round trip), and last summer's purchase, the incredible gas-saving car. It is not a hybrid, but gets 38/40 easily. I could also, as it turns out, bike to work. So courtesy of Bike Commuter, I plugged the numbers into the mileage/carbon footprint/money to be saved calculator ----under commuter tools---- and assuming that I would be steady, but lazy (I picked 3 days a week for frequency), you'd think with the short commute and the wonder car I would not save much money, but, wow, was I wrong:
Your daily gas savings is $4.95 dollars and 22.85 lbs of CO2 will NOT be added to the atmosphere
Your weekly gas savings would be $14.85 dollars and 68.54 lbs of CO2 will NOT be added to the atmosphere
Your monthly gas savings would be $59.40 dollars and 274.15 lbs of CO2 will NOT be added to the atmosphere
Your yearly gas savings would be $772.20 dollars and 3,564.00 lbs of CO2 will NOT be added to the atmosphere
Sorry. I know that these numbers should be in green. Still, I am greedily impressed. If I add a fourth day, I would save over a thousand a year. A thousand. Now, this is important, because I took a pay cut for a happier life, and in the back of my mind, I've been scheming about how to make up the difference. My new and happier career will be rather all-consuming, so I've been looking at ways of simply cutting costs. Geez S, she cried, Holy Moly. This is really an almost painless way to do better. Now, don't get me wrong: I have a strong love and/or use for new electronics, sushi dinners and lunches, a good drink, dry cleaning, espresso. So I am not in a dire situation at all. Luckily, my question has been about how to maintain my current lifestyle without, if you follow me, cutting back on it. Here, I thought, is a perfect example of how "nickel and dime stuff" can turn quite substantial. It would mean, even with a short commute, that if you did not have a bike, it would pay for itself over the course of a year. So every time I bike to work round trip, I pay myself 4.95 into a special account (or whatever the daily rate is, per the calculator), and by the end of the year, I have quite a premium in addition to shapely calves. Nice.