Computers & Optimism – Then vs Now

Looking back at the optimism I felt about computers and technology when I was young

Ever since I was very young, I was enamoured with computers (and this should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me). But from the very beginning, I was also excited about the potential of computers – of computing in general – to improve the world and to help people.

Even as a little kid playing pretend (because I couldn’t afford a computer; they were too expensive back then), I realized how world-changing computers could be.

I looked forward to the day when we’d be able to have the complete sum of all human knowledge instantly available to everyone, to being able to communicate almost instantly with one another regardless of distance – all for free or at virtually no cost, because why wouldn’t you?

As a side note, this is why I was so excited when Wikipedia first started up – in many ways it is a realization of at least part of the dream I had, to bring together all the knowledge that humanity has and share it freely for the benefit of all.

Now it’s been some 30 years since I was that naive little kid playing pretend computer – but I still hold on to that same belief, that computers (and all the technology that goes with them) can – and should – be used to solve problems and improve the world.

Indeed, I think we have a responsibility to do so, which is why it pains me so when I see computers and technology used to create problems rather than solve them, to hurt people rather than help them, to hold on to systems of the past rather than new and better systems for the future.

There is a moral aspect to computers and technology in general that I think I missed when I was a kid – but maybe that’s just what being naive means – you don’t think about how things could be used for evil; it never enters your head that someone would even want to take something so fantastic and twist it in that way.

As I grow older, I continue to think about these things, about how we can learn from our failures to use computers in the way that most benefits us all… and I hope other people think about these things as well.

On Endings & Beginnings

My God, what have we done?
Well, it happened. America voted a racist, misogynistic, fear-mongering idiot as its chief executive, head of state, and commander-in-chief. This is arguably the first President elected entirely out of spite.

He campaigned on fear and hate and it worked – and what do you think that says about us? It says that we are a bunch of fearful, small-minded, and angry people, and now we have to put up with the consequences of our choices.

We put so much emphasis on “winning” that we chose our candidates and elected someone based on whether we thought they could win, rather than if we thought they were actually going to be good at their job.

If we don’t want this to be the start of an ending that has been a long time coming – a long, slow decline that has now come to a precipice – we need to stop being so concerned about “winning” (or preventing someone else from “winning”) and start being more concerned about “doing well.” From how we choose candidates to how we compromise on differences of opinion, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about doing good and avoiding the most harm.

I suspect this is going to be very difficult – change always is – especially with all the momentum we’ve built up as of late. “Cooler heads prevail” is a nice thing to say but it rarely happens in practice. Yet we must do it, or else that same momentum will take us right over that precipice, and future historians will look back to this time and say “2016 marked the beginning of the end.”

Our divisiveness has allowed this to happen, has made it virtually inevitable, and continuing to be this divisive can lead to only one conclusion, and that is that nobody wins, and everybody loses. We must stop this, we must stop being so divisive, being so afraid of ourselves that we can’t work together.

United we stand; divided… well, you know the rest.

It’s Time to Let Go of American Individualism

America has long cherished the spirit of individualism, but these days we could stand to maybe loosen up a bit in regards to it.
America has always had an obsession with the idea of “Individualism” but this is increasingly becoming a dangerous and unhealthy obsession, especially since lately we seem to be holding ever tighter to the idea, almost to the point of fetishizing it, instead of letting it go (or at least relaxing our grip a bit).

The dictionary defines “individualism” as “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant,” and “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control,” which sounds great on the face of things – though in today’s interconnected world I question how truly independent or self-reliant an individual can really be.

The American idea of “Individualism” though goes beyond just “I can take care of myself” and “I want to be free to do what I want without the government telling me what to do.” Instead, the American idea of “Individualism” twists it into “I should take care of myself (and so should you)” and “I should be free to do whatever I want and the government must not tell me what to do, ever.”

We’ve always valued individualism, ever since our earliest colonial days. The United States is a big country, and back in the days when the fastest mode of travel was by horse, it seemed even bigger. As a result, when you were building your home in this big New World, you had to learn to depend on yourself and only on yourself – because there was no one else around! And in these early days, individualism was a good thing, a positive trait, something that you almost needed to survive here.

law of self-reliance
We’ve taken the idea of self-reliance way, way, way beyond this.

Even as cities and railroads and even cars came along, this spirit of individualism remained – again, partly because the US is just such a big country that even with motorized travel there were still huge sections of the country where you would be more or less all on your own. So this idea of being independent, of being reliant only on yourself, became ingrained as part of our culture.

However, as the country grew – as towns became cities and urbanization took hold, and as transportation and communication tied us all together into a connected whole rather than isolated pockets – the need to be individual and the benefits of individualism have become less important, or even counterproductive. Truthfully, in the 21st century, the idea of being completely free and totally self-reliant is basically dead. Oh sure there are still wide open places where you’d better be able to take care of yourself, but we are an interconnected society now, and we all rely on one another to some degree. Individualism will only get you so far. We’re all in this together (for better or for worse) and believing otherwise is just deluding yourself.

We’ve romanticized the idea of individualism too much – we’ve placed this ideal on such a high pedestal that it is quite literally impossible to reach.

Furthermore, this idealized individualism has a dark side. The higher we hold the standard of self-reliance, the lower we hold those who aren’t. If being self-reliant is great, then having to rely on others must not be great – it must be bad, or even shameful. If being free and able to do whatever you want is the ideal, then being subject to group rule – no matter how much or how little – must always be undesirable.

It’s fine to want to be able to take care of yourself (indeed, I think this is still a worthy goal to have), but it’s not OK to look down on those who can’t take care of themselves. It’s great to strive to be independent of others (as much as is realistic these days), but it’s foolish to base every decision, without question, on whatever lets you depend on others the least amount.

There’s another flip side to all this as well – the idea of individual responsibility. As an example, if you’re self-reliant and you built your own home completely yourself, from scratch, that’s great – but when a tornado comes along and knocks your house flat, individualism says that you and you alone are responsible for rebuilding it.

It is important to realize the limits of self-reliance and what individualism can mean, and not delude ourselves into thinking it’s more (or less) than it is.

The key here is balance: as with most things, it is important to strike a balance between extremes. Too often we pursue individualism & self reliance at any cost and prioritize it above any other concern. Over-emphasizing and over-valuing the idea of self-reliance and individualism necessarily causes the de-emphasis and under-valuing of the opposing ideas of needing help (from family, community, society, or government) and being part of a larger whole. This extremism is not helpful to anyone, in the same way that extremism/polarization in politics doesn’t help anyone, either. (The subject of WHY we’ve trended towards such extremism and such black & white thought is a topic for another post.)

After all, I don’t think anyone is arguing for true total freedom of action and self-determination – otherwise we’d all be free to run around and murder one another – so really the discussion is about where on the spectrum of “some freedom of action” and “some self-reliance” we should be. The problem comes when that over-emphasis of the value of individualism causes us to consider decisions solely in light of whether they decrease self-reliance or individual rights, and not whether they actually make sense or benefit the most people.

Like it or lump it, we are a collective society. Individual rights are important and good, yes, but the idea that they are paramount and should always trump any other concerns is simply not workable in a world with as many people in it as there are today. In order for society to function we must, of a necessity, give up some individual rights (how much we give up is of course open to continuous debate – and, again, a topic for another post.) Given this, continuing to idealize and romanticize individualism (and denigrate non-individualism) is fundamentally counter-productive.

As a nation, we Americans need to come to grips with the fact that we’re not living on the frontier anymore, that there are some 318 million of us and that we are all deeply interdependent on one another (whether we realize it or not) and, most importantly, that this is not at all a bad thing. It’s fine to try and make it on your own, sure, but don’t take this as the only measure of success – and especially don’t think that failing to do so makes you less of a person.

Individualism was great when our country was just getting started, but our country is grown up now and we need to be as well – we need to let go of this idealized fantasy of individualism and total self-reliance and come to grips with the fact that things aren’t like they used to be, and this is not a bad thing. No man is an island, as the saying goes, but together we form the better part of a continent, and I think that’s something we can all be just as proud of.

Behind the Wheel: 1996 Chevrolet S-10

The Keithmobile-C in 2003Continuing the series of Behind the Wheel reviews of cars I’ve owned, we now move on to the predecessor of my current car… which was actually a truck. Specifically, a 1996 Chevrolet S-10 LS Extended Cab 2-wheel drive pickup truck.

This truck was a lot of “firsts” for me:

  • My first non-throw-away car (all my previous cars had been mid-80s K-cars that cost around $1,000)
  • My first car where I had to take out a real car loan
  • My first manual transmission
  • My first new(-ish) car (bought it in 1998)
  • And, of course, my first truck!

I was in college/university (living on-campus in the dorms) when I bought this truck, and having a pickup truck is great when you’re a college student and need to move in & out of the dorms each year. Although it also means that other people might come to you asking to help them move as well!

Still, this was a very good truck for me – very practical, reliable, and with a manual transmission and a small 4 cylinder engine it was also very fuel efficient (good when you’re a poor college student with little gas money!). It also helped that at the time gasoline prices were ridiculously low (remember when gas was $0.89/gallon?).

This particular S-10 was an extended cab, with a small 3rd door behind the driver’s door, and a little fold-out jump seat behind the passenger seat. This extra space was very handy for when you didn’t want to put stuff in the bed of the truck (e.g., in the rain or snow), though it was of little use for actually carrying a 3rd passenger – that little fold-out seat was not at all comfortable unless you were a little kid.

The engine in this S-10 (a Vortec 2200 LN2) was also really great – although not particularly powerful (just 118 hp). Still, when coupled with the relatively light truck body and manual transmission it had no problem moving this truck around. In fact, this truck was surprisingly nimble, all things considered.

The S-10 was also a very fun truck to drive – there wasn’t much horsepower, but it did have plenty of torque (140 lb-ft, specifically) which made it easy to… have fun in ways that my 20-something self found quite satisfying. I did always wish I had gotten 4-wheel drive, though – especially in winter. But the upside was that I learned a lot about how to drive carefully in the snow – despite the 2-wheel drive and no weight over the drive wheels, I never got stuck.

The steering was quite good, especially for a pickup truck – it wasn’t going to win any awards, but it was precise and had a good feel.

The interior of this S-10 was rather spartan by today’s standards, but for the time it was actually quite nice. The S-10 used Chevy’s then-standard instrument cluster and controls, but they were all well-laid out and easily reachable and useable without taking your eyes off the road.

truck's instrument cluster

This particular S-10 didn’t have much in the way of options – no air conditioning, manual wind-up windows, and cloth seats – but again, at the time this was fairly standard for pickup trucks. (It did have a combo radio + tape player, though!)

All in all, this was a tough little truck – hardworking, reliable, and economical – that served me well through all the years I had it. I realize I am looking at this truck squarely through the lenses of the nostalgia goggles, but I really did like this truck quite a lot – I took care of it, and it took care of me.

Behind the Wheel: 2011 Kia Soul

amanda's new kia soul 3Long-time readers will remember that I’ve reviewed the Kia Soul before – but that was the 2010 model. About a year after I wrote that review, my wife bought the 2011 model, and Kia had made enough changes to it to warrant reviewing it again. Plus, I’ve had much more time to get to know the Soul, so I can give a bit more of an informed view on its strengths… and weaknesses.

First and foremost, my biggest complaint with the 2010 Soul was the shine-shatteringly stiff ride – mercifully, this has been improved in the 2011 Soul. It is still a fairly stiff ride, but it’s no longer likely to shake the fillings out of your teeth.

The 2011 Soul retains the fuel-sipping 2.0L engine and easily manages 28-30MPG with both city and highway driving. It’s also incredibly nimble – this is a great city car that’s easy to maneuver in tight quarters and parks or makes sharp turns with ease. The engine is small and quite buzzy at times, but it suffices to get the car moving quickly – though it often needs to downshift to make that happen (the transmission itself likes to stay in higher gears; presumably for fuel efficiency). And once you’re going, the 4-wheel disk brakes do a great job of stopping you in a hurry – indeed, I almost think the brakes on this car are overkill for such a lightweight vehicle.

All models of the Soul are front-wheel drive only, which further cements them as “tall wagons” and not “crossover SUVs.” The Soul does have a traction control system though, which is actually quite useful since it is very easy to get the narrow front wheels to slip when accelerating if the roads are even just a little bit slick.

Forward visibility in the Soul is great – you sit up high enough to see right down the front hood and can easily tell where your front bumper is – but rear visibility suffers terribly due to the very thick rear pillars (and relatively small rear hatch window).

Interior room in the Soul is good (considering its size), but nothing to write home about.

All that said though, I honestly can’t say I like the Kia Soul. The steering wheel is just a little bit too small for my taste, and the steering can be a bit twitchy on the highway. The steering wheel itself has the awkward large spokes so common to cars that have radio & cruise controls on the steering wheel itself. At low RPMs there’s hardly any power in the engine, and though the transmission will downshift to get you into the power band, it doesn’t sound like it likes being there. Although a very nimble car (especially at lower speeds in the city), it just isn’t that much fun to drive most of the time.

All in all, the Kia Soul is a very good commuter car that’s versatile enough to carry people and stuff around without costing an arm and a leg in gas money. A practical car that does what you need, but isn’t that exciting to drive.