The Zombie Car Phenomenon

Several years ago, while I waited on the curb at the San Diego airport watching traffic flow by, I noticed something about the cars. They were different from the local vehicles in Northwest Montana, and although I’d lived in San Diego for twenty years, I had never made the connection. It wasn’t just the obvious preference for SUV’s and Subarus in the rugged north—no, it was something else, too: the city vehicles were shiny and updated. Many of them looked high-end. I thought of the beaters I often spotted in my Montana town—the 80’s sedans, the classic trucks, and the boxy early style of Subaru—and it made me realize the degree to which residents of my town make do with what they have. I was proud to be one of them.

In recent months, this trend toward junky vehicles seems to have gotten worse—or better, however you choose to look at it. Before I explain, however, I have to admit that my own little red car has its own issues. I will remove the log from my own eye first. This is a beloved vehicle that won’t quit, even though we’re at 198,000 miles. Each blemish tells a story. The longish dent on the driver’s side—that was a tangle with a tall stand of bamboo at the side of our driveway when we were in San Diego. My husband could not understand how I did that, as I had backed down our long, steep driveway a couple thousand times by then. I could understand, because I had backed down that impossible driveway two thousand times without incident, and it was only a matter of time before it got me, especially now that there was a giant, unforgiving stand of bamboo to complicate things.

Similarly, the dust-up with the deer happened because it had to, because a decade had gone by with no incidents in a landscape dense with these thick creatures (or thick with these dense creatures, if you prefer). My daughter and I were deep in an interesting discussion when she said, “Mom, deer!” By the time my brain processed the emergency, it was too late to stop. I had, however slowed down enough to give a witless, fleeing animal a good bump with the front of the car and a quick but frenzied backwards sprint when she got caught on my side mirror for a few moments. To my relief, she and her compatriots then dashed off into the woods and there was no need to bring anyone back to the site with a gun. The encounter had left a visible dent, however. Later, a friend helpfully brought attention to it by inscribing “Bambi” in the layer of dust coating my car.

Even with its dents, dimples, and rusted out spots, my vehicle does not yet resemble what I would call a “zombie car.” Zombie cars are vehicles still in service that are so badly damaged they look uncannily like animated car corpses. An obviously totaled vehicle will swing by in the turn lane, with damage so telling that one could do an accurate play-by-play of the accident, and the visceral reaction is “Whoa!”

I understand not taking one’s car to the body shop after being creamed in an intersection. One, it’s expensive. It makes more sense financially to just drive your older car into the ground. Not only are your insurance rates stable, but your permanent registration is still working for you. Two, body shops are pricey. No matter what the problem is, no matter how subtle the damage, the employees always announce that they have to order the whole piece from the manufacturer, and that item always costs a healthy percentage of the car’s current value. (I’ve experienced when they opted to not order the piece, when a teenager hit our parked car and was liable. I learned that it’s best to believe what they say and let them order away. In this case, someone at the body shop had whaled away on our panel with a hammer and then painted over that, leaving a mass of stipples. It gave me the heebie-jeebies.) Three, it costs a lot to have your car fixed, and it’s not a sensible expense given how brutal this area is on vehicles—potholes, dirt roads, salt, filthy slush, and impatient drivers at intersections all take their toll. It’s better to pay the rent than maintain a sleek, gleaming car.

Other mutilations I’ve noted lately: gaping, sightless holes where headlights should be, missing back windows crisscrossed with duct tape, a hood (and possibly the whole left front of the vehicle) secured with a rope. Cars go nonchalantly by with driver-side doors caved in, whole sections hideously ripped off, mangled bumpers. Rope, tape, tarp, and other materials at hand are pressed into service to make the thing driveable as soon as possible. My favorite fix is on a small, grey car that just happens to be in our church parking lot every day. Apparently, the front and back bumpers were having a problem severe enough to necessitate the use of black zip-ties as stitches. There are small series of them, front and back, in a careful ‘X’-shaped pattern. One can’t help but appreciate the resourcefulness of whoever saw fit to do this. And he did a nice job.*

I know our area has come a long way since the eighties, when more families subsisted on venison, and residents had to drive all the way to Missoula for Easter dresses. That’s what I’ve heard from native Montanans, anyway. Now our town offers Costco, Target, REI, many grocery stores, chic shops, a grand movie theater, chain restaurants, quiet planned neighborhoods, multi-million-dollar estates, Internet everywhere—almost anything you could get in urban California. But the sordid state of our region’s vehicles show that perhaps Montanans haven’t changed all that much. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Not to be sexist, but of course it was a “he.”

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Damn winter….

Damn winter…

Well, this morning my 09 truck would not start, battery problem. So I used the 96 to get to work. Parking the 96 in the employee’s lot steam was emanating from beneath the hood. Upon opening the hood and closer examination  I found that the bushing on the water pump was leaking. I nursed it halfway home to Wally-World and purchased two gallons of 50/50 antifreeze mixture and a new battery for the 09. One gallon or the premixed antifreeze went in the vehicle and I nursed it home. I jumped the 09 with the new battery to get it started and drove it into the driveway. Changed out the battery and I hope it’s good to go in the morning. But probably all my radio stations were wiped because of the battery change.

Damn winter…. Too cold to replace the water pump, ( about #5 for that vehicle ), gonna have to take it to a garage and pay to have it done.

Damn winter…. Batteries will usually go when it’s either extremely cold or hot.

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Ion-powered aircraft flies with no moving parts

Ladies and Gentlemen, we truly live in a wonderful age, an age of inventions not ever imagined by anyone before us, (us being those of this time).

Continue reading “Ion-powered aircraft flies with no moving parts”

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it really has me worried….

A little over a year ago I purchased a vehicle, a Dodge Ram 1500, circa 2009. Since then I put new tires on it, mud flaps and step bars. It runs great. It looked great, not a spec of rust on it.

On the way to work someone rear ended me. His insurance company admitted the fault. I’m driving a rental car, paid for by them. I finally came to the appointment time to have it repaired. I dropped it off yesterday, and the repair shop, a good one, increased the estimate from what his insurance company said, ($3,600),  to around $9,000. Similar vehicles cost in the area of $14,000 today. I still owe $8,000 on it. I had a good deal when I bought it, maybe about $5,000 less than what it was worth because of higher mileage.

I fear that his insurance company may say the vehicle is totaled. It’s still drivable, still runs great, at a minimum it needs a new bumper and brackets for the bumper and a tailgate.

Damn it, I liked that truck and hate to have another insurance company, not my own, say it’s totaled when it’s not.

I’ll just have to wait until his insurance company contacts me or the repair shop.

Any suggestions or similar experiences with anyone out there?

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New York and Chill

The Grand Ave subway station in northeast Queens is a madhouse at 7:15 am. Young people tryna get to school, grownups tryna get to work; it’s crowded; it’s uncivil; nobody gives way; nobody is polite; elbows are out; people are squished; if I don’t get on this train I’m gonna be LATE. (Continual delays and disruptions  are a microagression against all New Yorkers, but I’ll let others moan about that).

However, the same station at 7:00 am is nice. It’s tranquil. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. There’s a place to stand, maybe even a seat.

So I leave my house much earlier than I need to, just to have a peaceful ride to the city.  I spend the extra time at Starbucks composing original content for all you fine people.

So yes, I’d rather wake up earlier, and get to work earlier, in order to have extra time to chill.

How is your commute? Would you leave your house earlier just to avoid unpleasantness?

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AI Can’t Drive

The previous discussion about AI put me in mind of the accident in which a self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian last March. This was of particular interest to me because, at that time, I was evaluating some lidar technology for this application for some investors.

Uber vehicle post-collision (from NTSB report)

Details were sketchy shortly after the accident. It was clear that the overall system failed but it was unclear which part. It was hard to believe that the sensors were not able to detect the presence of the pedestrian in time even though the street was dark. After a few months it became evident that the AI was at fault, not the sensors.

According to the preliminary NTSB report,

The vehicle was factory equipped with several advanced driver assistance functions by Volvo Cars, the original manufacturer. The systems included a collision avoidance function with automatic emergency braking, known as City Safety, as well as functions for detecting driver alertness and road sign information. All these Volvo functions are disabled when the test vehicle is operated in computer control but are operational when the vehicle is operated in manual control.

Therefore, safety was in the hands of Uber’s AI system. While the sensors detected the pedestrian’s presence six seconds before impact, while the vehicle was traveling at 43 mph (20 m/s), there was almost no attempt to slow the car; impact was at 39 mph. Instead, the system only decided that there was cause to apply the brakes at 1.3 sec before impact, which would not have been enough time to stop. The human operator, who had previously been watching TV instead of the road, finally took action less than one second before impact.

Even though “…the self-driving system determined that an emergency braking maneuver was needed to mitigate a collision,” it turns out that “…emergency braking maneuvers are not enabled while the vehicle is under computer control, to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior.” This somewhat hysterically-titled article in The Guardian (I know, I know) fleshes out some more details. Ignoring the hysteria and other silly aspects in the Guardian piece, it seems that the algorithm was unable to distinguish a valid hazard from something spurious. Or, as we say in remote sensing, to distinguish signal from clutter. Any human would have had no trouble determining that this was a person pushing a bicycle, or at least something worthy of a panic stop.

The AI system failed to solve the classification problem. Classification is key because it requires a judgment: deciding which detections are worthy of action. If the judgment errs too often on the side of caution, the ride is jerky with many sudden changes in the motion. If it goes the other way, someone gets killed.

Opinions can reasonably differ on whether computer-generated voices are realistic. The situation is less ambiguous for self-driving cars. While computers have managed to excel in games with rules on a well-defined domain (chess, go), the real world is far more varied and unpredictable. Humans in the wild do not obey all the rules and often do unexpected things. The accident victim was crossing the street illegally, away from an intersection, and may have been under the influence of drugs. AI guys, this problem is harder than you think.

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Vacation Ramble from the Curmudgeon and the Red Headed Irish Wisecracker

Just got back from the latest vacation after driving 600 miles from Montana to Oregon in ten hours. I am both tired and wired.

Itinerary: We drove up for a quick grandchildren visit in Seattle with the three girls 8,6 and 4. Delivered each a complete set of Incredibles 2 toys from McDonald’s (courtesy of Grandpa hitting six locations in a week to get all the characters). Once again had a big hit.

Lit out for the border, allowed in despite being an admitted knife owner, and headed northwest into British Columbia, stayed in Kamloops, (Not a breakfast cereal).

On to Jasper National Park in Alberta. Many natural wonders to behold.

A wondrous and awe filled journey down the Icefields Parkway, which runs the spine of the Canadian Rockies from Jasper Park in the north to Banff Park in the south and runs up to 6800 ft above sea level.

Stayed in Banff at a very classy place, treated ourselves to Victorian Luxury in service, atmosphere and food.

Lit out for the US border into Montana and revisited Glacier National Park which we had seen thirty years earlier.

Drove Going to The Sun Road across Glacier Nat Park.

Woke up in Kalispell MT, 605 miles from home in Oregon and drove it today on one tank of gas.

Still tired and wired.

Ground covered- 2685 miles, five hotels from Super 8 to Five Diamond class.

Casualties- One Windshield, One tire

See pics.

First- The wildlife knew their lines, made well rehearsed entrances and put on a good show. All these were shot from the truck window with no telephoto.

Then we suffered from Vacation Interruptus- a truck threw a rock chip into the windshield of the Faithful 150 and a small starburst crack turned into a three foot slice within an hour. We added a day, and the local Ford dealer suggested a little glass shop just outside the park. Next morning, I was there, drank coffee for 90 minutes while a very competent auto glass guy got the windshield in, connected the embedded sensors to the truck network so I could sense rain, maintain lane and sundry other stuff the windshield does for me. Even my insurance worked, so I just paid my $100 deductible in Canadian and was off.

Our highlight was one of the World’s best scenic drives- the Icefields Parkway. You climb almost 4000 feet over 140 miles and there is a photo of awesome nature in every mile. Do it.

On our way back to the States, about thirty miles out from Cut Bank Montana, just on the edge of the Blackfoot Indian Res. We were barreling down a two lane and my dash flashed a low tire pressure warning. My diagnostics panel showed my left rear tire was running at 28 pounds to the other three’s 40, and seemed to be dropping a pound every ten minutes or so. (I was still rolling hot down the road).

So we decided to keep rolling and make it to town. We did with 24 pounds left.

The tire place in town was just closed, but the guy told me to bring her in at 7am the next morning (Saturday) and he would open up and fix it.

On the next morning, of course the tire is flat, so I grab the inflator from the toolbox, plug it into the dc outlet and bring it back up to 40 pounds. Rolled down to the tire place and the owner waved me right in. He apparently had been working at tires since high school and he was my age, so he was what you could call a Master Craftsman of Tire Repair. He and his Blackfoot sidekick worked their magic, plugged the hole made by a small jagged piece of iron, remounted it and I was on my way, happy to pay the whole of $15.00 American, as requested.

I ran the diagnostics the whole trip over Going to the Sun Road and the tire never lost a bit of pressure.

It was great to see real folks who know what the heck they are doing and happy to do it.

Lesson learned from the trip. Even though I was tethered to work by the magic of the interwebs, it was easy to run that from my mind and refocus on the scenery, the sights and the people we met.

It was a good thing.

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What was your first “NEW” car?

Well, mine was bought new in 1972, while I was on active duty in the Army, in Corpus Christi Texas, it cost $2,800. I took it home and after a few days had to take it back because the finance company backed out. I had a loaner for a week and then financed it through Beneficial Finance, (are they still around?). I had it through the 70’s and it finally gave up the ghost in the early 80’s. At best I clocked over 50 MPG! I had it behind the house, where I was working on it, then had a marriage break up. She sold the car for scrap I think. So what was it?

Continue reading “What was your first “NEW” car?”

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A View From The Deplorable Culture

Starbucks, always much in the news and on the lips for the wanna be elites prides itself as the gathering place where the elite meet to transact business over burned and expensive coffee as a vehicle for sugar delivery.

I have spent my time meeting a certain class of clients at such places, usually off the rush hours. It has all the aspects of a tribal place, with the common rituals and intonations.

My current clientele is more oriented to construction trades and manufacturing. Their place to meet seems to be the ubiquitous Golden Arches.

I had to meet my excavator in Chapter 11 client today to exchange data and a review of upcoming contracts he is bidding. He chose the usual place and I pulled up in my F150 around 10am. It seemed the parking lot was about 90% similar Fords, Rams, Silverados, all fairly new with a variety of racking rigs.

Inside it was guys and gals in jeans with laptops, blueprints and folders of bids and RFQs, all reviewing stuff with a serious eye over black coffee and egg mcmuffins.

McDonalds even had a hostess who walked around refreshing coffee and greeting the patrons.

I looked out at the Starbucks across the parking lot and wondered if the cultures would keep moving farther apart, like galaxies after the big bang.

One parking lot full of Beemers, Priusi and Volvos, the other Pickup trucks.

Heck, at least the coffee is not burned beyond recognition at the Arches, and still a dollar a cup with free refills.

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