Thursday, January 26, 2012

more trains AND fancy cars

Amanda Marcotte was disappointed with Wired's article on robot-driven cars, because trains are apparently the only technology we need.

Owning a self-driving car doesn't mean that it always has to be on autopilot; on those occasions when you're driving through the mountains, car commercial-style, you can turn it off. But most time spent in the car is a drag: going to work, going to store, trying to find a parking space, boring crap like that. I bet a lot of people would love to pass the responsibility on to a robot, so they can then, as Vanderbilt admits, use the time for texting or looking at Facebook on their phones.  
Which brings me to why I was frustrated. These companies are spending a lot of money on researching self-driving cars to address the desire of people to be able to commute without having to drive. But there's already a superior solution to that problem, one that addresses both the desire to not drive and it's better for the environment: public transportation. People don't need self-driving cars! They need better trains and buses, and more accessible trains and buses. Imagine if the resources being devoted to self-driving cars were instead aimed at expanding the public transportation infrastructure and making in more comfortable. For instance, Vanderbilt is right that people's desire to surf the net instead of watch the road could incline them to want to avoid driving to work, if that were an option. Well, why not put high-speed wi-fi internet on all public transportation, and then advertise the shit out of it? Instead of spending money on developing self-driving cars, what about high-speed trains? What about more subway systems? There's a serious "reinventing the wheel" problem here. 
It is certainly worthwhile to point out that some of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles are also the selling points of tried and true train technology. So yes, I second the notion that we should build more rail networks. But opposing autonomous vehicles for this reason strikes me as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. After all, another selling point of robot-driven cars is that humans are dangerous drivers. Robots on the road will in all likelihood save lives. Unless automobiles are going to be outlawed in favor of trains, people will be riding in cars for the foreseeable future. Why not encourage a technology that will make everyone on the roads safer? This either/or mentality also fails to appreciate possible spillover effects of autonomous vehicles. For all we know, this is the stepping stone to the Jetsons-style flying cars we've been promised.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is America free?

Jonathan Turley has a piece in the Washington post offering ten reasons why America is no longer a free country. (I'm sorry if the link is behind a paywall.) His list:

1.  New presidential powers to assassinate Americans
2.  Indefinite detention
3.  Arbitrary justice (the president can decide whether someone receives a trial in a federal court or a military tribunal)
4.  Warrantless searches
5.  Secret evidence
"Even legal opinions, cited as the basis for the government’s actions under the Bush and Obama administrations, have been classified. This allows the government to claim secret legal arguments to support secret proceedings using secret evidence."
6.  War crimes (alleged war crimes of the Bush administration and the refusal of the Obama administration to investigate and try Bush administration officials, in violation of international law)
7.  The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, with its secret warrants and secret searches
8.  Granting immunity from judicial review for companies who aid in warrantless surveillance
9.  Warrantless GPS monitoring of citizens
10. Extraordinary rendition (outsourcing justice to countries with more ... flexible justice systems

None of this is probably new to anyone who reads my blog or follows me on the Google +, but Turley has summed up the authoritarian aspects of the national security apparatus very well. He also compares the items on his list with the situation in other countries commonly accepted as authoritarian.

I don't like the phrasing of the question "Is America no longer free?" because that threatens to get the discussion stuck in the quagmire of people arguing back and forth that for women, blacks, and most minorities, liberty has obviously expanded since even fifty years ago. That's an important conversation, but it can cloud the issue too.

I've talked before about the trouble with the instinctive reflex to define America as free. What I wonder is if there is any kind of strategic or rhetorical upshot to coming out and declaring America is not free (whether or not it ever has been in the past). Does it matter at all to the argument? Are people more or less likely to take civil libertarians seriously if they describe America as authoritarian? Could the shock value of hearing that frank description (perhaps over many conversations and articles) perhaps jolt people into examining their assumptions?

Or will hearing this description close more minds to civil libertarian arguments? Does describing America as unfree or authoritarian violate the patriotism many people feel and feel is very important? Could it cause people to view the civil libertarian as a member of an out-group because he or she is seen to be casting aspersions on the big American in-group?

I just don't know!