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Becoming Well-Adjusted Towards the Future

ITEM 1 ....

         The Boston Globe and New York Times recently reported on the death at 88 of Fred Tomlinson, a singer and leader of a group of vocalists on Britain's “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” TV comedy show of decades ago. What could be the possible relevance to our seemingly comfortable residents of Cambridge?

          Tomlinson is most famous for his participation in a Monty Python sketch and singing the “Spam Song.” The sketch began with two of the Python characters being dropped into a little restaurant. The Tomlinson singers were seated around several nearby small tables – dressed in fur coats, long blonde wigs and curve-horned Viking helmets. The cook proprietor when asked what is on the menu replies with all sorts of variations of spam ... including spam and sausage ... and spam and beans ... and spam & spam.  When the customer complains and wants something without any spam in it, the Tomlinson singers start up their Norse chant : “spam ... spam ... spam ... spam” and at a repeat opportunity they stand up and chant ““spam ... spam ... spam ... spam.”

          The news articles do not record what happened next, but it seems some wag in the Internet business came up with the label “spam” to identify all the unwanted, ubiquitous and inescapable e-mails being sent into peoples' computers. The label stuck, and today there is all sorts of anti-spam software in use, with spam-guards and spam-catchers, but the spamming habit persists. Today our computers seem more like Spam-a-lot than Camelot.

          Fortunately through the marvel of technology, there is a playback of the Python skit on YouTube, with a cameo appearance by John Cleese, famous for his portrayal in “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” For those with in inclination to understand how private business bureaucracies actually work, you can also look for “The Argument Clinic,” a somewhat overlooked masterpiece.

           Every time you get a spam message, remember the nutty characters who gave it its name.



         Next in line is a report from the Associated Press about some technical glitches in the computer system of Delta Airlines.  Early Monday Delta had a massive worldwide shutdown of its computer systems, which conveniently happen to be all interconnected. The local electric company, Georgia Power, reported that the original cause was in a Delta switchgear (like a fusebox). A surge of current burned out a transformer and cut off the flow of electric power to Delta's entire computer system. When the computers crashed, the airline had a shutdown of ticketing, boarding, airport kiosks, websites, mobile phone apps, and – most important of all – thousands of air flights.

         Most power outages last only a few seconds, as backup systems trigger on and return the computers to standard operability. It seems this didn't happen for Delta. When the transformer burned out, the automatic switchover to a backup computer system did not work properly. The computers woke up as if they were recovering from an all-night bender. They were groggy, wobbly, and had a terrible time getting back up to speed. What was a two or three-hour power outage became a world-wide crisis now going into its fourth day, with thousands of flights delayed or canceled. In the confusion Delta’s flight-status information computers crashed too. People were coming to the airport without knowing the system was down ... and getting trapped in crowded airports.

        The Wall Street Journal reported that the problem with airline computers is the result of turmoil in the industry, including numerous mergers. Taking two different companies with different computer systems, and then combining and upgrading them becomes a massive task that can result in overloaded power systems, mixtures of old and new computer equipment, and a resulting potential for prolonged computer failures.

         1000 flights were canceled on Monday, 800 on Tuesday and 300 on Wednesday, with the hope of being back to normal by Thursday afternoon. The return to “normalcy” had to be delayed by a day because of human problems – crews located at places distant from available planes and dealing with all of the angry passengers and rescheduling complications. Modern airlines have become more reliant on smart-phone reservations, so that rescheduling a flight in a hurry becomes a tedious problem if people must wait in lines for human attendants to help. In other words, the more splendidly the system works when it is right, the more horrible is the crash when things go wrong.


          This past July 20, Southwest Airlines was hit with a computer meltdown and was forced to cancel 2,300 flights over a four-day period. Southwest's problems were due to the failure of a single computer router at its data center in Dallas. The airline had to shut the entire computer system and take twelve hours to reboot it.







          Last February 18, Amtrak had a glitch at South Station when a computer controlling all of the track switches for both Amtrak and Commuter Rail trains crashed and no one could get it restarted. For almost a day virtually no service could function because the system was dependent upon computer control for safety. Amtrak described the computer problem as unprecedented.

           Engineers worked all day, but they could not get the computer restarted. They did not have a back-up computer or program. Everyone was getting frustrated. Finally, an Amtrak official arranged to have someone from Amtrak headquarters in Washington hop a commercial plane flight and bring up a laptop computer with the replacement program inside. By the next morning it worked. Even as train service was up and running, Amtrak officials still did not know why the computer system crashed.



            Now a brief item from almost fifty years ago. It was another era of transportation mergers, this time bankrupt railroads. The once mighty Pennsylvania Railroad merged in 1969 with the also once majestic New York Central System, to create the Penn-Central Railroad. The major problem is that both railroads had different computer systems, each tracking their trains a different way. Penn Central became famous for losing entire trains. They did not know where they were and had to send out search parties. Fortunately there were no reports of severe accidents and fatalities.



           Research engineers working on driverless cars are spending billions of dollars to create successful automated cars that drive themselves. Among the several groups at work (Google, Tesla, Ford, General Motors, Volvo, etc) there is a running argument of how to phase-in driverless systems. Tesla has a partially completed system that operates on cars that consumers can purchase today. The problem is the system does not work at intersections (with traffic lights or without), and has major problems with turning traffic. It cannot tell the difference between an overhead sign and a trailer truck.

           Meanwhile Google insists that the only way to go is complete automation, with no steering wheels and no possible driver control. Having both manual control and automated control is like having two bosses. Google's approach is actually quite cautious.  However, they have attracted much interest from government officials, car companies, Silicon Valley and the general public.  In the end the biggest challenge may be cost.  The radar unit alone for a Google car reportedly costs $75,000.

           One evident social problem is caused when driverless cars are parked at peripheral lots and then are called like a taxi. We end up with more cars on the streets and fewer cars in parking garages. The likely result is a worsening in traffic congestion. Even cutting edge companies like Uber are saying we need to emphasize transit more.   Government will need to establish a public process to discuss all the pros and cons.  It cannot trigger another process like the failed effort to "reform" public education  through new technology, high-priced consultants, Gates Foundation money, and autocratic imposition of change by insular government action.  With driverless vehicles, lawyers are not leading the discussions, and their contributions are likely to provide prolonged introspection.





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