In his most recent deezen column Dan Hill provides some much needed perspective on the self driving cars hype. I completely agree with him, that while endlessly fascinating, self driving cars are rather problematic idea. Instead of improving the way personal mobility is organised they primarily attempt to improve a deeply flawed system:
Here we see such companies are not actually interested in genuine change, for all their bluster about “radical disruption”. Self-driving cars are a sticking plaster over existing conditions. They actually reinforce the ‘Californian Ideology’ that underpins today’s mobility problems: suburban sprawl, based around the possibility of lengthy car-based commutes, in turn predicated on a highly individualistic view of society. It is an entirely conservative move. Self-driving cars provide a way of changing the veneer of this system, as no-one is brave enough to suggest changing the system itself. They replace who, or what, is holding the steering wheel, but not the underlying culture that contributes to mass depression, obesity epidemics, climate change and economic crises.
[...] The real way to prevent accidents would be to have fewer cars on the road, not just the same number with different control systems. But is the car industry really going to suggest that? Self-driving cars may move traffic a little more efficiently, but the laws of induced demand suggest that the supply of cars might also increase to counter any such benefits.
The most interesting question arising out of this observation is if this is just short sightedness of the people involved in pushing self driving cars (very much in the way that the first cars were advertised as ‘horseless carriages‘) or if this is a genuine attempt to extend the social acceptance of a failed system:
Few industries could get away with as much blood on their hands as the automobile business does. That we are prepared to expend so many lives – 1.24 million killed each year on the roads, and who knows how many other lives ruined – for the sake of our freedom to drive to work is fairly objectionable.
In his column Hill points to existing alternative to this failed system. Cities designed in such a way that individual car ownership does not make sense:
[...] Yet imagine the possibilities of a city oriented around people living closer to their work and play, and so built around cycling, walking, quality public transport and a massively reduced number of electric cars for individual errands. It doesn’t exactly have the airbrushed sheen of Google X, but it would be a city with a lower carbon footprint, healthier people, safer streets, more frequent social interaction, better air quality, quiet enough to hear conversations, to hear birds and to build lighter, more experimental building envelopes, with a higher economic performance through serendipity, agglomeration, richer mixed-use land use, and with increased citizen engagement in the city itself. The benefits are virtually endless, and few are even addressed by self-driving cars, never mind achieved.
[...] You choose the vehicle fit for your needs at that point, thus reinforcing the idea that mobility is a bespoke, mass-customised on-demand service shared across bike-sharing, public transport, and through shared self-driving cars for those times when you really need one.
For people lucky enough to live in places like Amsterdam this is not something that needs to be imagined. My personal mobility arrangements include pretty much all of the above: two different bikes (depending on what needs to be transported), a car2go account, a uber account, a car rental company around the corner and a yearly subscription for all public transportation in this (admittedly tiny) country.
I have never owned a car and will very likely never own one since proximity of work and home is one of the most important considerations i apply when considering alternative scenarios for the future.
So why am i fascinated by self driving cars then? Firstly because of the technology involved, but also because they are probably nicer (read more predictable) to deal with when cycling in the city. More importantly though, i would expect them to unify the rental-car/car2go/uber/taxi part of my mobility mix at some point. That will probably be to the detriment of the taxi drivers (in the end they are robots replacing manual labour), but should make shared individual mobility more attractive (hopefully to more people outside of my early adopter demographic). In his column Hill suggests pretty much the same:
[...] Folding self-driving systems into car-sharing schemes, as part of a wider rethink about how we live together in cities, however? I could share that vision. So again, what is the real question that suggests self-driving cars are the solution?
Tumblr pointed me to a fascinating essay on the structure of our economic system. In ‘The American cloud‘ Venkatesh Rao explores the economic system of the United States by applying the much hyped cloud metaphor to the production, flows and consumption of goods. While it is not without flaws (reading it one might be tempted to believe that the USA are a self sufficient economy without any connections to the rest of the world) the essay provides an interesting perspective on our times.
Over the course of two centuries, the Hamiltonian makeover turned the isolationist, small-farmer America of Jefferson’s dreams into the epicentre of the technology-driven, planet-hacking project that we call globalisation. The visible signs of the makeover — I call them Hamiltonian cathedrals — are unprepossessing. Viewed from planes or interstate highways, grain silos, power plants, mines, landfills and railroad yards cannot compete visually with big sky and vast prairie. Nevertheless, the Hamiltonian makeover emptied out and transformed the interior of America into a technology-dominated space that still deserves the name heartland. Except that now the heart is an artificial one.
The makeover has been so psychologically disruptive that during the past century, the bulk of America’s cultural resources have been devoted to obscuring the realities of the cloud with simpler, more emotionally satisfying illusions. These constitute a theatre of pre-industrial community life primarily inspired, ironically enough, by Jefferson’s small-town visions. This theatre, which forms the backdrop of consumer lifestyles, can be found today inside every Whole Foods, Starbucks and mall in America. I call it the Jeffersonian bazaar.
Structurally then, the American cloud is an assemblage of interconnected Hamiltonian cathedrals, artfully concealed behind a Jeffersonian bazaar. The spatial structure of this American edifice is surprisingly simple: a bicoastal surface that is mostly human-habitable bazaar, and a heartland that is mostly highly automated infrastructure cathedrals. In this world, the bazaars are the interiors of cities, forming a user-interface layer over the complex tangle of pipes, cables, dumpsters and loading docks that engineers call the last mile — the part that actually reaches the customer. The cities themselves are cathedrals crafted for human habitation out of steel and concrete. The bazaar is merely a thin fiction lining it. Between the two worlds there is a veil of manufactured normalcy — a studiously maintained aura of the small-town Jeffersonian ideal.
Assuming that this is analysis is (at least partially) true for the US it would be extremely interesting to map his idea of a bicoastal cloud surface onto Europe. Europe has a much more complicated geography than the US. We have no bicoastal population centres and the notion of heartland is difficult to establish in terms of geography. It might very well be the case that the geography of the European cloud is the inverse of what Rao describes: the human-habitable bazaar is found in the very centre while the feeder infrastructure can be found at the edges. More likely the european cloud would look like a accumulation of smaller clouds that take very different shapes, which is very illustrative of the growing pains that Europe is experiencing in trying to establish an single digital market.
Still it is clear that the separation between population centres and production and distribution centres that Rao highlights also exists over here. Rao ends his essay with a recommendation to the inhabitants of the Jeffersonian bazaar to venture out and explore the inside of the cloud:
To the Jeffersonian sensibility, Hamiltonian cathedrals are often little more than infrastructure porn. But to establish a direct, appreciative relationship with these technologies, unmediated by instrumental metaphors and currencies of interaction, you have to walk among them yourself. You have to experience train yards, landfills, radio-frequency ID-tagged seven-day cows and other such backstage oddities in the flesh.
This is something I can indeed recommend. My last, rather unexpected, experience with Hamiltonian cathedrals was a family vacation during which the vacation farm that we were staying on turned out to be a (indeed well obscured) industrial production facility for organic produce and diary complete with the above mentioned radio-frequency ID-tagged seven-day cows and semiautonomous, GPS guided robot tractors.
so I finally killed (well deactivated) my Facebook account this morning after not using it for a month. in order to do so I had to log on one last time. Turns out that while I was away had tagged me in this picture taken at the 1st human powered rollecoaster in Vancouver in 1996:
Guess this is facebook’s farewell present to me: A picture where I am young, reckless & blond! If my memory serves me correctly this shot was taken after I had been eliminated in the semi (or quarter) finals of the main competition in Vancouver by crashing my bike so badly that i twisted my rear wheel. At that point I had been the last rider competing on a fixed gear bike after having edged out a victory from Riche Ditta (on the left with the white cap) in the previous round. Richie helped me finding a replacement rear wheel (with tubulars!) so that we could have another race in the fixed gear only competition, which he then won from me.
Bonus: probably also the earliest photographic evidence of me wearing the bicycle chain wristband which I am still wearing on this day about 17 years later.
Stumbled across this picture of a helicopter crew surveying flooding along the Elbe while reading the news this morning:
As far as I am concerned this is a perfect illustration of the fact that paper maps have been relegated to being a backup solution for when the battery is empty or the cellular network is down (guess as a helicopter pilot you can’t really afford this). Also amazing how much the military (or paramilitary, not really clear from the picture if this a federal police or an army helicopter) seems to rely on of the shelf consumer technology these days.
Yesterday we saw 1+8 at the opulent Galata branch of SALT. 1+8 is a dynamic eight-screen video installation about Turkey and her eight neighbours based on the feature film of the same name directed by Cynthia Madansky and Angelika Brudniak. I usually do not have much patience for video installations but 1+8 managed to capture my attention for quite some time. If you are to believe the catalogue text this thanks to an the brilliance of a ‘custom made algorithmic computer program’ powering the display:
“The installation invites the audience to become immersed in the contemplation of life at the eight borders of Turkey. The multi-screen projection lends itself to experience simultaneity and inter-connection on a physical level. The choreography of video’s on the eight screens, is created dynamically with the help of a custom made algorithmic computer program allowing for a unique viewer experience, whereby the projections will never appear the same way twice.”
Not sure in how far the algorithm contributed to my enjoyment here. Being a bit obsessed about maps i was much more delighted by the way the room (a large rectangle) was used as a map of the territory, with the videos projected on those parts of the wall that correspond with the actual borders between Turkey and its eight neighbours (this of course only works with a country like turkey which is an even bigger rectangle):
Also, it appears that the border regions between Turkey and its six Asian neighbours are really fascinating/beautifull which makes me want to travel there at some point in the future
Planet Money has a gem of a story on ‘the Business Secrets Of The Amish‘. The story zooms in on how the Amish, who have made their living through small plot farming for centuries, have adapted to an environment that does not allow for this lifestyle anymore:
What you see in this hall is the transformation of Amish culture. Up until certainly the 1970s the vast vast majority of amish men were farmers. They lived at home, typical plot size would have been about a 130 acres, which is enough for a family, you know a dad and a few boys to farm using horse-powered machinery. But they lived in places like Lancaster county and Holmes county, Ohio where land prices have gotten bigger and bigger, the Amish have doubled in the last 40 years because the have so many children and what has happend is more and more kids can’t afford to buy farms and the fathers can only divide the farms so many ways. If you have 7 boys your 130 acres pretty quickly becomes too small to even be worth farming and then what happens to their boys? So for the first time ever a majority of Amish men in America are not farming, they are finding other ways to make a living.
So right trough the 1960s into the 1970s all of these guys’ fathers or grandfathers would have been farmers and there might have been in any community one or two guys who farmed but also did a little carpentry on the side or a little blacksmithing on the side. But now you have tens of thousands of amish businesses, tens of thousands of people who have industry, this convention center here in a few months this is going to be the Amish furniture show and it is not for the general public, it is not ‘oh lets go down to Amish country and get a nice dressoir’, this is serious business: Walmart, Sears, JC Penny come here to buy, to place orders with huge amish factories, this is serious business. [...]
The flexibility that the amish have shown in adapting to this new social reality is quite remarkable (especially if you compare this to the way the entertainment and publishing industry react to the change in economic fundamentals in their business environments). Who would have thought that a 320 year old religion that is known for it’s adherence to a strict set of behavioural rules (referred to with the delightful Germanism ‘Die Ordnung’) would turn to what is currently hyped as ‘Social Innovation’ to ensure their survival?
Earlier this week i had the ‘pleasure’ of travelling down to brussels using the new so called ‘Fyra‘ service by NS Hispeed for the first time (the service is operational since 9 december 2012). While the Fyra is making news mainly for the unreliability of the service (said to be somewhere between 55% and 75% on time performance in the last week, with 5% of the trains ‘never making it to Brussels at all 1) both journeys where perfectly on time. Still the entire experience really sucked. Here are a couple of suggestions what not to do when running a high speed rail service:
#1 come up with a crazy ticketing system that requires you to have a reservation when travelling on one sector (Rotterdam -> Antwerp) but not on the other (Amsterdam -> Schiphol). There were at least 2 groups of passengers in my immediate vicinity who were almost thrown of the train, because they had in fact a reservation for another train (2 hours later), neither of them were aware of this transgression. Threatening to throw people, who have paid for a ticket, off a half empty train just because they did not manage to understand the needlessly complex ticketing system is about the most stupid thing you can do to build a loyal customer base.
More generally the entire Fyra ticketing experience sucks. Apparently some idiot in the marketing department decided that it is somehow desirable to try to emulate airline ticketing practices because air travel is such a pleasure these days. Which of course it is not. One of the nicest things of train travel is the fact that you can just buy a ticket and board a train whenever it suits you, something NS hissed seems to be determined to help out of the world.
On both of my journeys there was a lot of completely unnecessary commotion because people were sitting on other people’s reserved seats and had to stand up only to figure out that someone was sitting on their seat and so on…
#2 Runs the trains on a completely useless time-table. Before the Fyra we already had the Thalys high speed service on the same route. Problem with the Thalys was that it did not run really frequently. So what would a sane person responsible for the Fyra time table do? you would expect them to schedule in the Fyra trains in between the Thalys trains so that passengers have more choice in arrival times. Except the Fyra time-table is off course not made by a sane person: Say you need to be in Brussels at 0900/0930h (not an entirely uncommon time for meetings to start) in which case you have the choice between trains arriving at 0742, 0808 and 0942:
#3 Have long scheduled stops along the way. One would assume that the advantage of a high speed train over other trains is that they get you to your destination faster. One thing that certainly does not contribute to getting from Amsterdam to Bruxelles as quickly as possible is making scheduled stops of 5 minutes in Rotterdam (2 minutes would be plenty to let people get on and off the train).
Now spending 3 unnecessary minutes on the train would not be so bad if the trains where not so goddam awful. It is not only that they are extremely ugly from the outside but rather that they are feeling extremely cheap;
#4 Make sure that 1/3 of the window seats face a cheap plastic wall panel instead of the window. The entire 2nd class interior of the trains is made out of cheap plastic, which gives the trains a super cheap feeling. It this is the worst if you are assigned (though the stupid reservation requirement mentioned above) a window seat which actually turns out to be a cheap plastic wall seat. Guess that is what you get when you take a train with relatively small windows and cram it full with seats.
#5 Have no power sockets and no wifi on board. I mean seriously NS hispeed, how is this even possible 2? this is 2013 and you think that power plugs are something that only needs to be installed in 1st class? This is the dumbest attempt at an up-sell i have encountered in a long time. Hell, this is probably bad for our national competitiveness: While the Dutch arrive in Brussels with half empty batteries, the French, the British and the Germans arrive with their devices fully charged.
Also no wifi is a pretty stupid move, although fortunately you can organise your own connectivity, which is not really an option for power (one might consider bringing an extension cord to tap power from the toilets which do have power outlets for electric shavers, something i can’t imagine anyone using but apparently NS hissed things that shaving yourself on the train is more important than charging your laptop).
The only hopeful thing is that the trains seem to be of such shitty quality that they will most likely not last very long (both cars i was travelling in had roof panels that made creaking noises every time we entered or exited a tunnel). If i was NS hispeed i would order new trains today. In the meanwhile i will be taking the Thalys…
Update 1 june 2013: Turns out that the roof panels did come off. Yesterdays presentation by the Belgian railways company about the reasons why they are cancelling their Fyra order contains this image:
while the Belgians have cancelled their Fyras and are promising us more frequent Thalys services, NS has still not realised that they will need to order new trains.
- Which of course makes you wonder where it is they are ending up then. some black hole in Brabant? Or do they simply disappear as the Buenos Aires subway train in ‘Moebius’?
- And no, the fact that the trains were tendered is not an excuse for this as the train manger on the way to brussels suggested. In a tender you get what you write into a tender specification and apparently some idiot at the NS thought that having power plugs in first class only would be just fine. Guess the people writing tender specifications didn’t spend significant amounts of time on board of trains back then. Every half intelligent person could have figured that laptops and phones would become a big thing and that one of the great competitive advantages of trains is that you can work on your devices while charging them.
On a recent trip to Mexico city (to attend a Creative Commons LatAm meeting) while we were waiting to be cleared for take-off, i overheard my neighbour in seat 21C (one of the best economy class seats on this type of plane, that is usually occupied by frequent flyers) talking on the phone to his family at home. Somewhat surprisingly he expressed astonishment about the size of the plane (‘there is a staircase next to me’) and curiosity about how he would handle a flight this long (12.5 hrs). While i usually avoid talking to seat neighbours like the pest, this tickled my curiosity and after we were on the way i found myself inquiring where he was headed and about the purpose of his trip.
Turns out my seat neighbour was in the tomato business (given the fact that Mexico and the Netherlands are the two biggest tomato exporting countries in the world, sitting next to someone in the tomato business on this flight should not really be a surprise).
More specifically, he mentioned, he used to run a family farm, growing tomatoes and other vegetables in a small number of green-houses but about five years ago he had to sell the business because he could not scale up to remain competitive. Nowadays, he told me he was working for one of the large tomato conglomerates as a quality inspector.
This company had been hit pretty hard by the EHEC crisis two years ago when pretty much their entire European market (read: Germany) had collapsed. This had led them to decide that they needed to diversify there and become active in other markets outside of Europe.
As a result the company started to explore the possibility of licensing the production of snack tomatoes to US companies that would operate greenhouses in Mexico producing snack tomatoes for the North American market. They has recently completed the first such deal and given that his manager who would usually oversee these kind of operations had just gotten a baby and prefers not to travel that far, here he finds himself in an aeroplane, the size of a greenhouse flying across an ocean for the first time in his life in order to spend a week in Mexican greenhouses to ensure that the Mexicans do not mess up the carefully controlled Dutch formula that is supposed to produce thousands of thousands of identical small red snack tomatoes. Makes me wonder what i will be doing in five years from now…
almost 6 year ago (on the first of january 2007) i started taking an interest in the use of Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) as exterior lightening. I first noticed this use of this type op lightbulbs on a new years day stroll to the recently bombed out southern suburbs of Beirut. A large number shops and market stalls has improvised lamps made from large CFLs. The next day i observed the same while visiting a number of recently destroyed villages along the Lebanese/Israeli border.
While this kind of eco-light bulbs where still relatively new and rare in north-west Europe at the time, their sudden appearance in Lebanon made a lot of sense: The Lebanon’s electricity generating capacity had been severely reduced by israeli air strikes during the previous summer’s war and in a situation where there is insufficient supply of electricity energy efficiency is a simple necessity (as opposed to the luxury it represents in the global north).
I later encountered large CFLs as (often improvised) exterior lighting in a large variety of places outside of Europe: In fast growing economies like China, Brazil and Indonesia (where supply of electricity does not manage to keep with the rapid growth of demand) and places like Cuba, Iran, Egypt or Syria, where the distribution infrastructure is often improvised and thus vulnerable to excessive demand).
Whatever the reason it appears that all of these countries were leapfrogging the developed world in use of energy efficient lightening, not because they cared so much about their carbon footprint, but out of sheer necessity (which of course nicely contrasts our self perception as moral champions of energy efficiency in the global debate about climate change).
In this context it is somewhat refreshing to notice that apparently we have started to catch up with the developing world. On my bike ride home from work the day before yesterday i noticed a number of stores (run by immigrants) that used CFLs for exterior lighting in pretty much the same way that they have been using them in Lebanon since 2007:
i am pretty sure we will see much more of this type of immigrant driven technology transfer from the periphery to the center in the years to come…