October 11, 2011
Leave the Driving to It: How would lives and landscapes change if every car had a computer in the driver’s seat?
October 11, 2011
Jane has a meeting this morning, so the car comes to pick her up at 8:15. En route, she finishes her breakfast, reviews her PowerPoint slides, updates her Facebook status, and does her daily KenKen. After the car delivers her to the office, it drives to a parking garage on the outskirts of the city, where it slips into a low, narrow slot. Later it will take young Judy and Elroy to their music lessons, then stop for a load of groceries before bringing Jane home. The car also has an errand of its own on today’s agenda: the quarterly inspection and recertification required of all licensed autonomous vehicles.
Cars that drive themselves were already a cliché of futurist fantasies 50 years ago, and their long association with cartoonish fiction and dioramas at the World’s Fair makes it hard to take the idea seriously. Nevertheless, sober thinkers believe it may be only a decade or two before the family car has a computer in the driver’s seat. It’s not too soon to ponder the social, economic and cultural consequences of such a development.
Already, some cars come equipped with “driver assistive technologies.” There’s adaptive cruise control, which keeps an eye on the car ahead and maintains a steady separation. Another system warns the driver if the car begins to stray outside its proper lane. And a few models even offer hands-free parallel parking.
More ambitious levels of automation are at the research-and-testing stage. In 1997 eight cars paraded down a San Diego freeway with the drivers waving both hands out the window, like kids showing off on a roller coaster. That demonstration was performed on a lane studded with magnetic markers to guide the vehicles, but more recent trials have not required such aids. In contests sponsored by the U.S. military, autonomous vehicles have successfully traversed rough terrain and dodged city traffic. Google has built a fleet of seven computer-controlled cars, which have driven 140,000 miles on public roads (with a human driver present but seldom intervening). And last summer four mostly driverless electric-powered minivans completed a 15,000-kilometer trip from Italy to China.
Even with these milestones behind us, huge challenges remain. Later in this column I’ll return to those scientific and engineering obstacles, but first I want to play the what-if game. If we could put a cybercar in every garage, how would that change the rhythms and routines of daily life?
The automobile itself has already worked quite a radical transformation on the human environment. In the 19th century, cities were full of horses. New York had more than 100,000 horses stabled on the island of Manhattan, and vast meadows in the outer boroughs were mown to supply the animals with hay. Caring for horses, hauling their food and manure, driving horse-drawn wagons and carriages—these were occupations that formed a major segment of the urban economy. All this equine infrastructure was swept away by the advent of mechanized transport—first the electric street car, then the automobile, finally the truck.
Of course cars and trucks gave rise to a new and larger infrastructure of their own, encompassing everything from parking meters and traffic signals to the entire worldwide petroleum industry. New York lost its 100,000 horse stalls and got millions of automobile parking places. Cities everywhere have grown fairy rings of suburbs and exurbs. A lacework of highways knits together distant communities, while sometimes dividing nearby ones. In most parts of North America, the automobile is how people get to work, how they get away on vacation and how they get home for the holidays. And a car is not just a means of transport; for many of us it’s also a medium of self-expression—both what you drive and how you drive make a public statement. For adolescents, getting a driver’s license is an important rite of passage and a step toward emancipation.
A hundred years ago, when sales of the Ford Model T were approaching 100,000 a year, an astute observer might have been able to foresee some of these developments—if not the specifics of Levittown, McDonalds, Walmart, Holiday Inn, NASCAR and Jiffy Lube, then at least the general trend toward a culture shaped by and dependent upon automobiles. If society eventually shifts to computer-driven vehicles, many elements of that culture will have to readjust. The details are inscrutable, just as they were a century ago. What effect will driverless cars have on pizza-delivery services or on the speed-trap revenues of small towns in the Midwest? As yet there are no quantitative answers to such questions. Still, the future is not completely opaque…
October 11, 2011
Two years before the revolution, the French director Jean-Louis Martinelli contacted me and told me he had decided to produce a play based on my novel Chicago. Martinelli is one of the most important theatrical directors in France, has managed several important French theatres, and is now the director of the famous Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers in Paris. He is known for his refined culture, his liberal ideas, his commitment to humanitarian causes, and his defense of human rights regardless of the official position of the French government. Artistically he is distinctive for his creative ideas and his constant innovations in theater, with an emphasis on the humanitarian aspect, offering a form of theater that is new and accessible to everyone. Martinelli gave the play the title J’aurai voulu être égyptien (‘I would have liked to be Egyptian’). It opened at theAmandiers theater on September 16th and will run until October 21st. Watching the play, I felt a mix of happiness and amazement: these characters, that I had imagined and had spent months depicting in words, suddenly appeared before me in the form of actors moving and talking as I had imagined them.
Besides that wonderful feeling, I was thinking about something more important: that an Egyptian writer now has his works performed in one of the most important theaters in France. This is the place Egypt deserves. The lights went out for the start of the performance but suddenly a group of men and women burst into the auditorium, shouting in an unpleasant manner, to the objections of some of the audience. But we quickly discovered that these were the actors themselves. The great Martinelli was up to his magical tricks. He had decided that the actors should enter the theater through the stalls and not from the wings. The whole concept of the play was original. We saw a group of actors sitting at a long table to read their parts in the play, so that the director could control the plot as he wished. One moment an actor would move into position to perform his role, then retire to a corner or go back to the table as another actor stood up to perform his part. Martinelli also adopted an original and surprising method in casting the actors, choosing them without reference to their appearance. In the novel, there’s a character called Ahmed Danana (an Egyptian studying for a doctorate in Chicago and simultaneously an informer for State Security), and he was was played by French actor Eric Caruso, who wore a fake paunch to match my description of Danana in the novel. Why didn’t Martinelli choose an Arab actor to play the part of Danana? He wanted, he told me, to emphasize the character’s universal nature, because he believes that all humans share similar characteristics, and literary characters recur everywhere and in all ages, and so he decided to challenge the audience’s stereotypical thinking by having a French actor play the part of an Egyptian from the depths of the countryside. Within minutes the actor succeeds in convincing you that he is indeed Ahmed Danana. When the play ended the audience burst into enthusiastic applause. The director invited me up on the stage and I shook hands with all the actors. I met them again and chatted with them after the show, and I sensed that they had a deep and genuine understanding of the value of what they were doing. They believe that we need art now more than ever. They are all professional actors but they see themselves as people with a cause in art and in life, not just people who are hired to act, as one of them told me.
I should mention here that the Amandiers theater and most major theaters in France receive government subsidies. There is an established principle in France that the state cannot leave the theater to private funding alone because then it would seek profits at any price and this would lead to two outcomes: firstly, high art would be sacrificed for the sake of entertainment and possibly sexual titillation, and secondly, ticket prices would be so high that only the rich could attend and sectors of society would be deprived of serious theater. The tickets in the Amandiers theater and French theaters in general do not cost more than a meal in a cheap restaurant. Culture is the people’s established right. This principle is entrenched in France and rightist governments have not been able to change it. On top of that, Martinelli and most of the major directors in France are leftists who overtly and publicly oppose the policies of President Sarkozy, but they continue to receive subsidies from the French state to perform their duty as artists in the service of the people. The reason for that is that no one in France sees the president as the father of the French people or as a symbol of France or any other of those vapid and useless expressions that were used for years to justify despotism in Egypt…
The Price of Failure: The collapse of Somalia cost the world $55 billion — and here’s where it went.
October 11, 2011
On the morning of Oct. 4, a truck bomb exploded on a well-trafficked street outside the Ministry of Education in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, killing upwards of 80 bystanders, many of them university students. The attack brought an end to the relative lull that had held in Mogadishu since August, when fighters for the al-Shabab guerrilla forces withdrew from the city, and offered a stark reminder that the world’s most notorious failed state remains just that.
Somalia’s ruin can’t simply be chalked up as a case of Western neglect. For decades, the United States and international organizations have poured money into Somalia despite its relative geopolitical insignificance — first as a Cold War bulwark, then as a humanitarian emergency, and now as an effort to contain crime and terrorism. Just how much has Somalia cost us? To figure out the true financial burden that Somalia’s conflict has imposed on the world since 1991, we used a variety of official and unofficial sources, combined with some educated guesswork, and came up with an estimate of $55 billion. That figure includes everything from aid supplied by the Red Cross and defaulted World Bank loans to naval patrols off Somalia’s piracy-plagued coast and CIA-run detention facilities within the country.
$55 billion may be modest in comparison with the cost of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan — which together are likely to end up costing the United States more than $1 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office – but what’s remarkable is how little we have to show for it. For all the treasure expended there, Somalia is no closer to stability than it has been at earlier points in its two-plus decades of chaos. The country is currently experiencing the worst famine the world has seen in two decades, with more than three-quarters of a million people at grave risk of starvation, and remains riven by civil conflict, piracy, and extremism.
The world’s approach to Somalia has long been trapped in an unhappy middle: It has been insufficiently robust and well-designed to resolve the country’s conflicts but far too heavy-handed and frequent to allow the country to resolve its own problems. An entire generation of Somalis now views the “state,” whether it is the Transitional Federal Government or al-Shabab, as a largely predatory institution to be feared, not as a source of stability. Perhaps more than anything, the spending on Somalia demonstrates how the world — and Washington in particular — keeps groping for quick tactical fixes while failing to embrace the sensible diplomacy and the kinds of patient engagement that might help Somalia achieve peace.
Humanitarian and development aid: $13 billion
Somalia’s tilt into chaos has been first and foremost an enormous human tragedy. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and relief agency data, between 450,000 and 1.5 million Somalis have died due to the turmoil since 1991, more than 800,000 have fled as refugees, and another 1.5 million are internally displaced. One in four Somalis is either displaced or a refugee. Humanitarian aid has thus constituted a sizable chunk of spending on Somalia, and this figure is sure to grow sharply given the horrifying famine now under way; the United States alone has offered up$500 million to stem the tide of starvation in the Horn of Africa this year, and the United Nations estimates that a worldwide contribution of at least $2 billion will be needed to address the situation in the horn this year alone.
But although $13 billion is a lot of money, aid experts note that Somali refugees and internally displaced persons receive far less aid per capita than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. The average annual cost of assisting a single refugee from Somalia is just over $300, and the average Somali internally displaced probably receives half that amount in aid, according to estimates prepared by Mercy Corps International for our report. The amount of aid reaching those displaced within southern Somalia remains strikingly low, in part because insecurity, al-Shabab obstructionism, and U.S. terrorism restrictions have made access to these populations incredibly difficult.
Peacekeeping, military responses, military aid, counterterrorism, and diplomacy: $7.3 billion
The international community has tried just about every trick in the book to contain and mitigate Somalia’s instability, ranging from peacekeeping to military aid, counterterrorism efforts, and even Predator drone attacks. The initial U.S.-led international military intervention in Somalia in December 1992 began as an effort to protect food aid shipments from looters, only to quickly morph into an ill-conceived effort to oust the powerful warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. After the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993 that brought a sudden and tragic end to the last U.S.-led intervention, the United States has largely exerted force through proxies, including Ethiopia, Uganda, and Burundi. African Union peacekeepers have made some progress in recent months as al-Shabab has retreated from Mogadishu. But it’s clear that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government would collapse without this outside support.
Spending on arms transfers and military approaches has dwarfed the resources invested in diplomacy or institution-building. Indeed, our research indicated that only about $42 million was spent on extraordinary diplomacy — i.e. not including embassy staffing and other normal costs — related to Somalia, most of it on crisis monitoring and a series of poorly planned peace conferences. This is a shame because heavy diplomatic spadework is precisely what is needed to help Somalia’s clans reconcile and establish a functioning central government. The Transitional Federal Government, which countries including the United States continue to strongly back, remains incredibly corrupt and broadly unrepresentative…
October 11, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.