Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dinky little lights

The early onset of snow and ice forced me into the car more than a month sooner than in past years. This has given me a lot of time to look at fellow road users through the windshield, the way the vast majority of road users view those of us who aren't in a motor vehicle.

I've seen the whole range, from people with no lights to people with conspicuous outfits combining illuminated and reflective elements. The more brightly lighted are certainly more noticeable, but even the most conspicuous is hard to see.

I've discussed the drawbacks of aggressively conspicuous lighting before. That's a different problem. What I noticed most recently is the way night lighting and reflectivity for non-motorized users fails to define them even if it makes them quite noticeable.

Starting at the dark end of the spectrum, pedestrians and cyclists start right out with different minimum recommended lighting. Way back when I was a kid, my father said we should carry a flashlight when walking the dog at night, so that drivers could see us when cars came by. Flashlights are a lot better now, and pedestrians are a lot rarer. I appreciate it when I'm in my car or on the bike and people on foot have a light. But from the car it still doesn't provide instant and definite positioning. The same goes for cyclists with the minimum required lighting, or even a notch better. Any oncoming motor vehicle blasts out the smaller lights of the non-motorized travelers and narrows the space in which to pass safely. More than once I have pulled over and stopped completely rather than go forward into the visual field of blaze and blackness. Any normal driver will just bull through and hope for the best.

More powerful lighting definitely improves the situation for a bicyclist at night. The most powerful head and tail lights define you as a vehicle better than in daylight. But the sheer size of the headlight is never as large and definitive as the lights on a car or truck. If you're on a road where it's inadvisable to take the full lane, you're off to the side a bit, ambiguously lighted and generally moving more slowly than the large, motorized sensory deprivation tanks in which most teens and adults spend most of their lives in developed countries.

The lights on motor vehicles are designed not only to allow drivers to see where they are going in the absence of other light. They also define the shape and size of the vehicle. They are a symbolic language and an aid to navigation. At a glance, a driver can identify the other vehicles by their lights, determine their direction of travel and approximate their speed. Non-standard lighting causes immediate confusion. You will notice this at accident scenes where emergency vehicles are in unusual positions and emergency responders with reflective vests and lights are moving around a scene, particularly early in the response, when drivers are still flowing through the area. You'll see it at construction zones. You'll see it when a motor vehicle is escorting people on foot who might for some reason be using the public right of way for something like a long-distance charity relay or similar event. I have been unable to dig up a link to a story about it, but I recall years ago -- pre-internet -- that a mixed group of fraternity and sorority students were doing a charity run, escorted by a truck with floodlights on the back of it. They were in the right lane of a four-lane, divided highway when a driver ploughed into the runners, killing several. The white floods on the back of the escort truck made it visible, but not identifiable.

At highway speeds -- and even at the lower speeds -- drivers need automatic cues that trigger automatic responses, because they are so conditioned to business as usual. Are they wrong? Of course they're wrong. Drivers should be on the alert at all times for unusual circumstances that require them actually to pilot their craft. Wrong they may be, but they are also normal. The vast majority of the time, they only encounter each other, normally lighted and operating within a fairly narrow range of deviations. Even the speed changes and weaving of a texting idiot fall closer to the norm than the dinky little lights of a bike or pedestrian, or the bright but unfamiliar look of a motor vehicle engaged in non-standard activity.

Take your super-equipped rider with fully reflective garments and lots of lights. You will trigger reports of space aliens, but you still don't give drivers a quickly assimilated spatial reference that they can use to set up a seamless pass. You're just weird looking. I don't say that you shouldn't do it. Just don't be surprised when it fails to provide anything close to perfect safety and confidence. On the approach, even that display can be obliterated by the lights of oncoming traffic. And it didn't really claim your space in the first place. The illuminated human outline of a full reflective suit does reinforce that you are at least humanoid. But that very spectacle might lead to target fixation, as the driver gravitates toward you, gaping in fascination at this apparition floating through the darkness. You're little better off than the rider with just a really decent head and tail light, reflector leg bands and an odd couple of blinkies.

Are there statistics on this? Probably not. Someone would have to care, and get the funding for the study, tabulate and publish the results. I base my conclusions on my own observations as a prisoner in my car, going off to grub for my pittance each day.

Out of the car, we riders and walkers have adapted to the night. It's easy to forget how invisible you are under even the best of circumstances. That's why I don't feel like a pampered pet of the machine age, wallowing in my privilege as I loll in the recliner and pilot my chariot. I feel like I'm making a sacrifice for the team, performing anthropological and sociological research by spending time as a motorist, and studying its effects both physical and psychological. I would prefer to spend more of the time as a brave outrider, facing the elements and making the world a better place one pedal stroke at a time. But the world isn't there yet. Someone has to guide the transition.

Autonomous elements in a semi-autonomous vehicle would improve the passing situation independent of lighting at night. If motor vehicles had sensor systems that could identify the size, speed, and direction of any object in their space, both oncoming and overtaking vehicles could take over from their meat pilots to slow down and make space for a bicyclist or pedestrian. With the push for fully autonomous vehicles, and new models advertising range-finding features, this could be a reality fairly soon. Meanwhile, most of us poor schmucks have to drive vehicles from the current fleet of rust buckets, and depend on our own poor senses to get us safely around.

Evolution could be hastened -- albeit harshly -- by equipping the newer vehicles with weapon systems that would identify and destroy older motor vehicles and their occupants, thus reinforcing the de facto minimum financial threshold for full participation in society and making the roads and highways safer at the same time. I'm not saying this is a good idea. But I guarantee that someone, somewhere, has been thinking it, along with plenty of other judgmental prescriptions for "improving" our species. Real classic antique cars would have to be equipped with transponders to mark them as better than old junkers driven by low-income dregs.

Of course in America the powers that be would rather keep requiring low income people to dig up some kind of personal transportation, preferably a junky car, than expend public monies on public transportation or alternative transportation infrastructure. There's no profit in that stuff, and profit is God.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Evolution is a popularity contest

When you walk into a store or other public place that has music playing over a sound system, you have to listen to it. You may be distracted enough not to notice it consciously, or you may find it inescapably intrusive. Or you might even enjoy it. And it changes you. Like it or not, because the popular hits soundtrack is so ubiquitous, you will have songs that autoplay in your head when you hear the first three notes. Regardless, you have to go through the experience with everyone else in that environment, because someone, somewhere, determined that music in public places was the more popular choice.

Think of the mass of humanity's environmental and social choices the same way. If everyone else set themselves on fire, would you set yourself on fire? You might prefer not to, but you will still have to breathe in the stench of charring flesh. And one or more of the happy incendiaries might careen into you and set you ablaze against your wishes.

In the USA, some percentage of people are unquestionably law abiding, and another percentage are automatically resistant to, and defiant of, any authority. In between lies the greatest number, fluctuating between the poles of obedience and defiance as they analyze each situation they happen to notice. A lot of us are oblivious to larger implications most of the time. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we should have been paying attention to the first bits of debris leading up to the avalanche of deferred consequences our species now faces, the Baby Boomers were focused instead on the basics of life: finding paying work, establishing homes, reproducing. Even the politically savvy tended mostly to view it from a personal perspective, multiplied through an uncounted legion of their theoretical allies who would all benefit if a particular policy made things better for one of them. It's hard to imagine a life very different from one's own. You really have to go try it out. Even the most detailed book or movie can't drag you right in and trap you in it. Interactive video games may come close. I don't know, because I have never tried one. As detailed as they may be, every single thing that happens in one was created by the mind of someone else and is known to them.

Believers in an almighty deity say that the simulation we think of as real life is also the product of a creator to whom everything is known. That really takes the fun out of it. I see how the notion can be comforting, but it's also limiting in more ways than moral strictures and mandatory rituals.

Now that the Teachable Moment has come, environmentally, we find that a substantial portion of the class wants to act up. Look at the scorn and ridicule that greeted California's plastic straw ban. Read the back -- and sometimes all sides -- of a truck or van belonging to a really jacked-up paranoid who sees threats to sacred liberty in every admonition to throttle back and lighten up. You won't have to wait long to see some sentiment that will make you want to retire to a cave and live with the few surviving animals.

In the 1980s I had the same vision that I have today: we could use the grid for good as much as ill. Convenience is not a sin. But conveniences required adjustment to keep them from becoming the engines of global destruction that they eventually did. And eventually was pretty rapidly, because moderation was scorned and ridiculed.

The slogan in the 1980s was "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." It was the golden age of the loaded roof rack, when Yakima and Thule products on the roof of your increasingly large vehicle needed to be locked securely. More than once we heard from friends who had made a day or evening jaunt into a city, only to find their roof rack stripped of every unlocked accessory. We were Recreation Nation, and anything related to the popular activities had really good street value. My attempt to steer that behemoth hinged on trying, through my published writings and in my day jobs, at least to get more people thinking about doing it without internal combustion. Try to get an appreciation of nature to sneak up on them, because Americans -- and probably most humans -- are very resistant to confrontational change. We love confrontation, but only to demonstrate how we can stick to our original position until it kills us. Think of the Confederacy.

I'm approaching a deadline for my quarterly environmental cartoon. The cartoon has been increasingly hard to draw because so many great causes make poor subjects for a single panel image. And I have realized the uselessness of mockery. Humor will only work on someone already inclined to agree with it. The inclination may be deeply buried, unknown to its owner, but it has to be there. Are the few who seem to be awakened worth the stiffened resolve of the outraged opposition?

I don't mind preaching to the choir. It keeps morale up. But nothing seems funny. The extent of the problems that begin with simple individual choices and multiply instantly to a global epidemic, like air pollution or the proliferation of plastic is better served by animation and real video, compressing the sequence of events into a much more visceral revelation of the ugly truth.

One of the hardest things to get used to when you're out there riding a bike and trying to live a low impact life is finding out how many people hate you for it and think you should die. It doesn't have to be the majority. You only have to encounter one homicidal jerk. That's true whether you get tagged by a hit and run driver or you happen to be at the mall the day one of them shows up and opens fire.

Less dramatic and more deadly is the steady accumulation of pollution and degradation by one individual at a time, repeated across a global population in the billions. The system that has evolved funnels gains to a small number of dominant apes, requiring that the lesser apes -- regardless of good intentions -- play some form of the game just to survive. The lifestyle is as inescapable as the music in a department store. It touches every place on this small planet. "Pristine" places are not pure because they are out of reach. We could strip mine the Himalaya, and eventually we probably will.