Monday, May 23, 2016

Jurassic Park, Ethan Canin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald Present 3 Can't-Miss Stories

I've been doing a good job of getting back to reading novels lately after a few pretty sparse years in which raising two young kids has tested my ability to keep two eyes open for too long on the written page.

Before I dig into an epic I've been trying to get at for many years, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, I've recently finished West of Sunset, Jurassic Park, and A Doubter's Almanac.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is obviously the most classic of these. Somewhere between horror and science fiction, the book is a page turner that is better than any of the four films in the series, all of which I've since watched with my 8-year-old Jackson, who loves them. The book has more detail about the dinosaurs and several scenes that are left out of the movie, like at the start when a little girl gets pecked apart by mini reptiles on the mainland of Costa Rica away from the island where the human-created creatures are supposed to be contained.
5 out of 5 stars

My favorite contemporary author is the Iowa- and Michigan-based Ethan Canin, and his novel For Kings and Planets is still my favorite book of the past 20 years. His new one, A Doubter's Almanac, is an epic and every bit as much of a page-turner as Jurassic Park. But it's gripping because it explores the dynamics of a family over generations that has a gift (or is it?) for mathematics. Nobody is better at nuanced characterization than Canin, and this touching story about how we never truly know all that much about our parents' lives is no exception. Not as great as For Kings and Planets, but as good as his most recent, America America, and a must-read.
5 out of 5 stars

Keeping the string of winners going is West of Sunset. I've always struggled to read The Crack Up and anything else at the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald's life, but Stewart O'Nan makes it easy to dig into and transplant ourselves into the final days of Fitzgerald, which is a fascinating and sad place to be. Still devoted to his wife Zelda and daughter Scottie but separated by the country, the author hunkers down in Los Angles to reap increasingly disappointing returns on his movie scriptwriting. His health is failing as famous characters like Ernest Hemingway and Humphrey Bogart drift in and out of his life. This is impossible-to-put-down fictional history.
4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 20, 2016

After first test, the Hyperloop still has to convince public it’s a worthy option

This article first appeared at Mobility Lab.

When Mobility Lab and other experts discuss improving transportation connections for people, we often mean within their local areas. A recent test of the Hyperloop, however, suggests we should allocate a bit more time considering how to better connect the entire country.
Think about it, the recent travails of the Metro subway in Washington, D.C., almost seem  idyllic when compared to our options for getting from city to city. Across car travel, Amtrak, and the hassles of flying, a trip from D.C. to New York are all essentially a wash, time-wise.
Footage of the test from CNET.
Enter Elon Musk’s Hyperloop concept. The electromagnetic rail system got a test in the Nevada desert on May 11, marking a first for one of the two firms currently constructing the technology. The system looks to average around 600 miles-an-hour and max out at about 760 mph. If it becomes serviceable, the first line is likely to be Los Angeles to San Francisco. That 383-mile trip would take about 35 minutes, meaning the 226-mile trip from D.C. to New York might run between 20 and 25 minutes.
It sounds like a big improvement, especially if we could connect every city in the country. Businesses and people would flock to the Hyperloop hubs, which could become mass centers of commerce. However, how travelers move outward from those central hubs could be a disaster if primary transit networks aren’t part of the considerations and flexible mass-transit options aren’t lined up.
As entrepreneurs like Musk march toward the science-fiction future that many have imagined for decades, even tougher than creating the technology will be winning the court of public opinion.
Zack Huhn, a startup expert and blogger notes that “every major paradigm shift relating to transportation has been met with great resistance.” He writes:
“The automobile, for example, was disallowed from many city streets because unfamiliar noise startled the horses. When Tesla introduced an effective plan for rolling out electric vehicle infrastructure nationwide, the proposition was ridiculed and essentially disallowed by big auto and oil lobbies. These interests shared an initial lack in public support – including implications such as a lack of public policy influence, and equally as important, a lack of funding or resource allocation from the public and private sectors alike.
“The most important impact from successful Hyperloop testing will be a shift in public opinion not only to become more open to ideas of different and improved means of transportation, but to be more demanding of them.”
We know that people in the U.S. rarely think of adjusting their transportation choices. So could we take the leap from mostly driving in our personal vehicles alone and riding on airplanes right past public transit and Amtrak trains all the way to Hyperloop?
In order for this to happen, public officials and transportation experts will need to focus on:
  • Making sure it works with existing transportation systems
  • Acquiring land rights and making cross-jurisdictional agreements
  • Quantifying how regional economies react, and
  • Determining its impact on the environment.
Meanwhile, the public will concern itself with questions like:
  • How much will it cost?
  • How safe is it?
  • How reliable is it? and
  • How comfortable will the riding experience be?
Given the unprecedented speeds involved, safety will be a key point for companies to get ahead of and address, as is the case with many new transportation technologies. Think of bikeshare, which has never had a fatality in the U.S., and driverless cars, which have only had one self-caused crash after millions of miles of testing. Once testing grounds prove safe, as long as riders agree to start boarding, over time people begin to think more rationally about their levels of safety.
NASA Ames research psychologist Lee Stone claims the ride will be comfortable and similar to riding a bus, that Hyperloop passengers can “drink a Coke” while traveling at high speeds. Other experts say that Hyperloop companies are planning to make takeoff and slow-downs similar to airplane acceleration levels.
Musk also seems to have the costs worked out so that the Hyperloop would truly be the best intercity option for all income levels. He has claimed that 840 people per hour could be moved between Los Angeles and San Francisco at a ticket price of $20 per passenger. But, not surprisingly, many experts disagree, and some have said that a more realistic single ticket price would be around $1,000.
The ultimate consumer cost – as with many of the specifics for operation – remains a major unanswered question as the Hyperloop moves toward reality.
Photo, top: Hyperloop One’s sled test decelerating (photo from Hyperloop One).

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

10 Things You Should Know About the Ramones, At Bare Minimum

I was never a super huge Ramones fan, although I did play their End of the Century LP pretty routinely as a kid. There's no denying that much of their material sounds very three-chord samey. The good news is that those samey songs are so darn catchy.

Rolling Stone Magazine recently has a cover feature by my favorite contemporary rock biographer, Mikal Gilmore. Here are the most interesting things the article told us about one of New York's finest, up there with the likes of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, The Strokes, Television, De La Soul, Gumball, Steely Dan, Kiss, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, Simon and Garfunkel, Madonna, Talking Heads, and Vampire Weekend.
  1. All four original members are dead, and guitarist Johnny Ramone rarely ever talked with singer Joey Ramone over the course of the band's 22-year history.
  2. Joey was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his teens and told he would be a vegetable, but he claims rock totally saved him. Cool.
  3. Their name originated from Paul McCartney, who used to call himself Paul Ramon when checking into hotels to keep from being detected.
  4. The reason they sounded so poppy was because they were way more influenced by bands like the Beach Boys and Bay City Rollers than other punkers like the Stooges and MC5.
  5. Phil Spector produced End of the Century, insisting that the band stay at his mansion during the  sessions, and once pulling a gun on Dee Dee Ramone for attempting to leave.
  6. Johnny's dying wish was that someone would de-Spectorize End of the Century.
  7. Johnny took Joey's girlfriend away and married her.
  8. Rolling Stone named the Ramones' 1976 self-titled album the best punk record ever.
  9. Joey suffered from OCD and, already suffering from lymphoma, had to go retrace his steps one night and in the process fell and broke his hip. That caused his cancer treatments to be cancelled temporarily and it basically killed him at age 49 in 2001. Marky Ramone was the only band mate to come visit him at the hospital.
  10. In 2002, Dee Dee died of a heroin overdose and in 2004, Johnny died of prostate cancer. Tommy died in 2015, also of cancer.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Would you have sex in a driverless car?

I love getting contacted by journalists to be interviewed about slightly off-kilter stories.

Our specialty where I am communications director at Mobility Lab is how people think about their transportation options. Seems pretty straight-forward, right? But really, we've found that people are mostly sleepwalking through these decisions, accepting that they will climb into a car and drive alone somewhere without even thinking there could be options.

We think things like Uber, Lyft, electric and driverless vehicles, and even new trends like bikesharing, the return of carpooling, and working from home are starting to make changes in our societal sleepwalking.

At first glance, this article I was quoted in yesterday in The Daily Dot, a respectable online news source that has been around since 2011 and is mainly geared towards millennials, seems similarly off-kilter. But it looks pretty smartly at one issue policy-makers will surely consider in the years ahead: when we no longer need our hands on the steering wheel and our feet on the pedals, will we do new things while traveling in cars down the road? New things like having sex. And is that a good or bad thing?

For now, our take on it is this:
"Having sex in a driverless vehicle seems like a pretty wacky concern, but it’s actually good foresight by Barrie Kirk [the cofounder of a Canadian autonamated-vehicle research group]. After all, much of the reason car companies and governments are so hopeful about driverless cars is because distracted driving has made car travel so dangerous in the first place," Paul Mackie, communications director at the transportation research organization Mobility Lab, said in an email. "Once driverless cars are fully on the roads, there is no doubt many, many lives will be saved. And if that means more texting, sleeping, and having sex in those vehicles as they move down the highway, well, we as a society will be much better for it.”
The article goes on to poll a small sampling of 211 people. And 81 percent of them say they would "have sex while riding in a driverless car." I wonder if those numbers would be any different if we polled Mobility Lab's audience in comparison to The Daily Dot's readers. It seems pretty safe to say you could poll any group and the number would be high for any question that begins, "would you have sex while ______."

In the end, I again agree that this may seem like a wacky issue, but safety is a major focus of the U.S. federal government's $4 billion investment to bring driverless cars into the mainstream. So by the time fully autonomous vehicles are all over the road, it seems that laws will be in place to curtail distracted behavior.

One out of four accidents in the U.S. is caused by texting and driving, way more often than accidents from drunk driving. It’s a national epidemic that isn’t going to get any better as we love our devices more and more. And driverless cars are having an easier time being accepted into the mainstream because future generations are excited about being able to text and be productive while they get places in a car. Better still if it’s a shared car because you don’t have to park it, make monthly payments on it, or take it to the shop for repairs.

Photo by Simon Lefebvre in Flickr.