Driverless vehicles

The general consensus seems to be that self-driving cars are inevitable, that the barriers are technical rather than epistemologicical. I suspect that the widespread use of self-driving cars may mark the end of an era of post-war culture and society.

A self-driving car that requires no human operators will undoubtedly be safer, more reliable, and therefore much less sexy. When cars become, even more than they are now, just a device to move you from A to B, the mid-century romance associated with them disappears. Can you imagine Chuck Berry writing about a Tesla CommuterMax 9000? Where is heaven, if not the back seat of my Cadillac? This may be the last moment in history that having a driver’s licence in Australia or the USA is near-mandatory. I believe that the rate of licence take-up is declining in American teenagers already.

The logical next step is the airline industry. Planes are half automatic already, it can’t take too much extra technology to make them fully machine-driven. Besides, we already have drones. It’s been a long time since air travel was glamorous, but automated aircraft will make an Airbus something literal, and equally boring.

I remember visiting London in 2010 and being quite amazed that the Dockands Light Rail didn’t have a human driver. I hadn’t realised that it was driverless until I boarded at the very front carriage and found that instead of a driver’s cabin there was a window onto the track in front. Less than ten years later, this is unremarkable in many cities of the world.

That is only the beginning. The obvious safety and effiency advantages of driverless vehicles mean that no amount of legislation, employee unions, or technical hitches will stop them becoming near-universal. Probably sooner than we think. Right now is probably the last time that choosing to become a transport worker or pilot or is a reasonable career move.

And maybe, if you buy a brand new car now and look after it carefully, it might be the last one you ever drive.

Public Holidays

Public holidays in Victoria are a confusing mess. They give people an extra day off (which is nice), but strange and contradictory dates have accreted over the years. While no-one would suggest that we have fewer holidays, perhaps we should reorganise them a bit to make them more reflective of contemporary life in this State. Certainly some of the justifications for a holiday are a bit on the nose – we should address that.

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New Year’s Day – Retain. The first day of the year is a good time for a holiday.

Australia Day – Move to a different day. Celebrating the arrival of the First Fleet is understandably offensive to indigenous Australians, for whom the First Fleet was a catastrophe. The culture of Australia day is now one of alcoholism and is a flashpoint for the worst racist tendencies of some Australians. We can probably do better.

Labour Day – Retain. Work is important, and it’s worth celebrating by… not working.

Easter – Retain. The religious side of the holiday is less and less relevant, but it’s a beautiful time of year for a long weekend. And we should make an effort to remember the spirit of the great chocolate bilby that laid eggs for our sins, or something.

ANZAC Day – Retain. Even though the “ANZAC Spirit” is probably overblown as a cultural touchstone, this is a tangible connection to the way Australia was in the formative first half of the 20th century.

Queen’s Birthday – move and rename. She’s the Queen of the Great Britain, and it’s not even her actual birthday. Although I bear her no ill-will this is a pretty silly excuse for a holiday. I suggest we move it to the middle of August when everyone is really depressed by the weather, and celebrate staying indoors with a mug of tea and some biscuits.

Grand Final Eve – Retain. A controversial addition to the roster from a few years ago, Grand Final Eve celebrates the most inclusive and widely-practiced religion in Victoria – AFL Football. Of all the holidays, this one is probably the most in keeping with people’s actual beliefs.

Melbourne Cup Day, AKA Horse Day – Rename. Horse racing is increasingly frowned upon from an animal welfare point of view, and frankly the idea of taking a holiday for it strikes me as very silly. The celebration of Cup Day seems to mostly revolve around dressing up in order to get plastered, lose money gambling, and then fall over in the mud and ruining your nice frock. Oh, and you also either get hypothermia or sunburn. Sometimes both.

Possible substitutes could be Summer’s Back Day in October when people get briefly excited about the return of warm weather, or possibly Daylight Savings Recovery, where we get a holiday after the clocks go forward so that we’re not sleep deprived and confused for days afterwards.

Christmas Day – Retain. It’s Christmas.

Boxing Day – Retain, but rename as “Cleaning Up Day”. Let’s be honest, that’s what we do. That, and sigh with relief that Christmas is over again for a year.

 

Fertility fraud; or How to have lots of great grandchildren

A (now deceased) Dutch IVF doctor is presently being accused of having substituted his clients’ sperm with his own a large number of times. This has allegedly resulted in 22 children being conceived in the 1980s via imposter sperm, and who were then brought up by men other than their families in the manner of a cuckoo (“brood parasitism”). DNA tests are currently being arranged in order to confirm this.

There are two main things which I find interesting about this. This first is that we’re now in the situation where some of the children are considering taking legal action against the estate of the doctor in question. Their main concern is of “wrongful birth”; which is to say that living humans are suing the estate of a dead man because they claim that they shouldn’t exist. It sounds like a language puzzle.

The second interesting thing is that from an evolutionary perspective, this doctor has been spectacularly successful. Few men father 22 children in any “natural” context, so already he’s doing better than most. Wrongfully born these children may be, but I rather doubt that it will stop them having children and living their lives like other people. IVF fraud may be one of the most successful evolutionary strategies currently available in our society.

This is shaping up to be a distinctly weird century.