Returning to the Tower of Babel

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Itsukushima Shrine and its famous torii (gate), Hiroshima

With automation taking over more and more tasks once performed by humans, creating large numbers of surplus people in the process (something like 91 million in the US alone at the time of this writing), the next significant and complex human task to fall victim to relentless automation appears to be foreign language learning.  Eliminating repetitive mind-numbing tasks in the factory it should be noted has been a good thing for the most part as it frees up people for more productive and interesting work, at least for those who choose to apply themselves to learning new things.  As more and more complex tasks yield to automation, more and more people seem to have little regard for learning new and especially “hard” things.  Advances in technology and the growing complexity of modern living are leaving more and more folks by the wayside.  It’s bad enough that music and art programs in the public schools are being cut back or eliminated ostensibly due to funding issues, but recently schools in Ohio have stopped teaching cursive writing.  Guess they’ll never be able to read letters from Grandma and Grandpa.  Or my writer’s journals. Supposedly this was due to complaints from the students about it not being necessary to learn since everyone uses computer keyboards or mobile devices now.  Kids stopped learning their times tables after calculators came out.  My son, who tutored part time when he went to university, was gob smacked when some students had to use a calculator to figure out 2 x 2.  And now the latest announcement that by 2020 our portable devices will be so powerful and well connected that they’ll be able to perform bi-directional spoken language translation in real time.  This is yet another Star Trek technology coming true, along with another excuse not to learn something hard.  But the real problem is that simultaneous real time mechanical translation might get most of the words correct but how can one understand the proper meaning of those words without any knowledge of the cultural context?  Learning a foreign language may be hard, but in the process one learns more than just the right words or phrases to use, one learns how people using that language THINK.  Without at least some understanding of cultural context, simultaneous real time spoken translation risks becoming just so much babble and nonsense with the potential for some horrific misunderstandings.  These gadgets might be fine for tourists or other casual users but I wouldn’t want to trust a business deal to something like this.  Or nuclear arms negotiations…

It’s unfortunate that even College is seen as nothing more than vocational education these days.  Yet much of what one learns in the way of a vocational nature will be obsolete by the time a person graduates, if not before.  Think of electronics and computer engineering.  It’s like trying to keep up with advances in medicine these days.  Advances in electronics come so fast it seems that I have to learn everything all over again every 9 months or so.  So unless the US shapes up and we require students to learn hard things in the lower grades and cultivate learning for its own sake at the university level, people will continue to get dumber and dumber.  At some point the machines will be smart enough to take care of themselves, then all humans will be surplus, just like in some 1950’s sci fi movie.

Learning A Musical Instrument As An Adult

Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto

About a year ago I began to play the piano.  Like many people I started to play in first grade but stopped after 3rd grade because I didn’t have a good teacher.  But it was a gateway instrument that led first to the saxophone, then the clarinet and finally the oboe, which I’ve been playing now for 50 years.  Problems with fingers #4 and #5 on my right hand due to too much computer keyboarding led me to take up the piano once again as a way to head off any possible issues with focal dystonia.  Right hand fingerings on the oboe for the low C, C# and D# notes were getting problematic and I was having pain in my hand and right arm.  The piano seems to have fixed this, along with changing some bad keyboarding habits.  But learning the piano hasn’t been without challenges.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young.  The principal challenge to adult learning of an instrument I believe lies in the fact that our brains are so cluttered.  As a child, the brain is a blank canvas.  Yes the brain is more malleable, but at least as important is that children, at least ones in households without the “busy” disease, have hours of unstructured time available to them with no responsibilities to worry about, and minds uncluttered by the cares of daily adult life.  Even adult brains are surprisingly adaptable. Music performance requires that the brain has to be 100% focused on the task at hand.  The only other thing requiring this level of focus and attention in my experience is the creation of computer software.  Both are great mental stimulants and by employing both I’m hoping to stave off at least some of the mental degeneration that comes with ageing.  But learning new music, such as memorizing oboe pieces, and learning a new instrument does take longer as I get older.  I’m finding that the increasing length of time is not due to age however, it’s because I don’t have hours of unstructured time available to practice.  Meditation briefly before beginning practice helps clear the mind, but during practice some days it’s a constant struggle to maintain complete focus.  Being forced to focus though is good mental discipline.  There’s a reason a lot of code gets written between 11pm and 4am- the house is quiet, wife and kids are asleep, and the phone doesn’t ring.  Learning a foreign language is another great mental stimulant, but I’ll save discussion of that for another time.

The Future of Self-driving Cars

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Kenroku Park, Kanazawa, in winter

After sitting in stop and go traffic for about half an hour last night on the way home from the office due to a 6 car pile up on the freeway, I started thinking that maybe self driving cars might not be all that bad of an idea.  Although a lawyer acquaintance said that cars will fly before self driving cars are allowed on the roads (and I’m sure tort lawyers are even now salivating at the prospects) I don’t see how self driving cars can be any worse than some of the goofs we have on the roads today.  After spending time living in Japan and England, where driver training is infinitely more rigorous than it is in America, I’ve concluded that all the self driving cars, safety systems and government mandates aren’t going to reduce accident rates in this country until we do something about the miserable way people are trained (or not trained as it were) to drive here.  I’ll bet that at any given moment about 1/3 of the drivers have no business at all being behind the wheel.  This was made abundantly apparent after I returned to Cleveland after living in England.  After one trip on I-271 in the morning traffic I was ready to pack it in, that was much too scary.  Bumper to bumper rush hour traffic on the M62 between Leeds and Manchester moves at up to 85mph and I felt perfectly safe there because it’s apparent that virtually everyone knew exactly what they were doing.  Driving in Cleveland is more akin to driving in China, another place with apparently little training and horrible roads.

Unfortunately with self driving cars, unless the switch is made overnight so that ALL cars on the road are self driving I fear that they will never be deployed.  Some highways may have to be made off limits to non self driving vehicles.  Plus I see self driving trucks becoming a reality much sooner than self driving cars, due to the higher accident rate for trucks and the constant turnover (about 130% per annum) of truck drivers.  None of this will happen overnight.  It took 40 years for the electric light bulb to completely displace gas lighting.  The technology is in its infancy currently, and as widespread deployment is years or decades away, in the interim we should focus on improved driver training.  One of the downsides of self driving cars (besides their cost) is that people have yet another excuse to lose a valuable skill due to laziness.  We’re becoming a nation of idiots as robots and automation take over everything.  Once robots get smart enough to build and program themselves they’ll realize they don’t need humans any more.