Computerized Toasters, Colliding Warships, Collapsing Civilization

By | September 6, 2021 | 2 Comments


Generally I try to maintain a positive attitude. But sometimes I recall the parody of Kipling: “If you can remain calm when those around you are panicking, maybe you just don’t understand the situation.” I’m not saying we have reached that point, but it seems to be getting closer. Consider these news items:

Two U.S. Navy destroyers are involved in collisions with merchant ships in clear weather, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. The merchant ships may have been controlled by automatic pilots, but what was the problem on the Navy ships? Did we replace human lookouts with computer screens?

In view of these collisions, plus hostile actions by North Korea and escalating tensions between China and Japan, an admiral is asked what is the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region. His answer: climate change.

Car with automatic braking suddenly screeches to a stop unexpectedly, when driver attempts to accelerate before passing slow-moving truck. Fortunately, there were no vehicles behind, or a serious collision would have resulted.

Keyless car ignitions are now common but cause problems, including refusing to start when fob is present, shutting down in traffic, allowing car to be shut down without shifting to Park, and not allowing runaway car to be shut down.

Keyless car refuses to start. Owner calls tow truck. Car is towed three blocks, then starts normally. Nearby radio station interferes with fob-car interaction. What other radio sources will interfere – cell phone towers, for example? What other problems will this interference cause – car won’t shut down, for example?

iPhone freezes after automatic update. Visit to Apple store required to unfreeze it and allow calls, including emergency calls. More updates to follow.

Successive versions of Internet Explorer, now called Edge, are able to do more things, but less able to surf Web without crashing.

New toaster is unable to toast two slices of raisin bread and goes into spasm of blinking lights. The plug must be pulled to reboot it, but why should a toaster be computerized?

Old liquid-containing thermometer was hard to read and harder to shake down. New electronic thermometer is more convenient, but gives readings varying by 0.6ºF. How could this inaccurate instrument be “certified”? And what do you do when your child is ill but the battery is dead? Do convenience and newness really trump accuracy and reliability?

I could go on for pages, but you get the idea. We complain about stress, but then we needlessly complicate our lives with computerized gizmos that work erratically.

We live in an area where ATT is unable to provide uninterrupted DSL or phone service, and Verizon is unable to provide adequate cell-phone service. If we did not have an old land-line phone, we would be unable to call 911 during outages. So much for the “information economy.” Even worse, we have a power outage every few months ‒ but not from storms.

Often when I phone a major business such as a bank, insurance company, or auto dealership, I am barely able to understand what is said, though I have normal hearing. The phone systems these corporations bought were probably the cheapest they could find, were probably made in China, and are probably serviced by people who can barely speak English.

If you want to have an “information economy,” it doesn’t take an Einstein to know that first you must have reliable information, and then you must be able to communicate it. Smoke signals or yelling loudly just don’t suffice.

To take a more mundane example, the supermarket where we shop used to carry inexpensive kitchen knives made in Brazil. The blades were reasonably sharp, the handles were comfortable wood, and the knives had full tangs – the steel went all the way through the handles. But now the store carries knives made in China. The blades are thin, the handles are cheap plastic, and the tangs are short. I would hesitate to cut a crisp apple for fear that the blade would snap off.

The idea of American-made no longer occurs to us. The idea of quality no longer occurs to us.

The quality of the knives is lower, but the price is similar – so this doesn’t count as inflation. Also not counted as inflation is the “big roll” of paper towels, which is about half the size of the old roll, or the “large” box of tissues, which now has 190 sheets instead of 280. The shrinking of toilet-paper rolls is painfully obvious. Inflation is claimed to be less than 5%, and increases in wages, pensions, and Social Security are based on this figure. But if we take declining quality into account, I believe the true inflation rate is higher.

How long can the decline in quality of goods and services continue before many things just don’t work? How long will it be before phone, Internet, and power outages become the rule rather than the exception? How long before America comes to resemble a Third World country?

You can make a phone system cheaper, a knife blade thinner, and young people less educated for only a finite amount of time. Then, at a point that is not predictable but will surely come, the whole thing will break down. The time to reverse the downhill slide is before that point is reached, not after. After is only the time for regret.

China is not our “strategic partner,” no matter what politicians tell us. China’s rulers are becoming increasingly belligerent toward Japan regarding some little-known but important islands. China does little to restrain the delusional ranting of the ruler of North Korea. When a North Korean police state with nuclear weapons fires missiles with long-range capability, and Chinese rulers remain silent, we are justified in suspecting that the Chinese are using North Korea to make trouble to distract us from what the Chinese themselves are up to.

And what about Iran, which claims to be observing the ban on developing nukes? Could Iran be testing its nukes in North Korea? No one even asks this question. Do we really want to continue enriching China with our massive trade deficit, thereby strengthening its military capacity? Do we really believe that military officers will be able to keep us safe, if they fear climate change more than they fear nuclear-armed enemies?

There is just plain stupid, and then there is dangerously stupid.

These are some of the thoughts that ramble through my mind as I sit here, hoping that my toaster will toast, my DSL will function, my Internet Explorer will surf the Net, my cheap knife will slice an apple without snapping, and a self-driving car won’t fail to see my car at an intersection. I wonder if this is how the ancient Romans felt, as they watched the mighty civilization their ancestors had built slowly disintegrate – partly from external pressure, but mainly from internal decay.

And I wonder how long it will be before we, like the Romans, will be left looking at the structures we admire, but have no idea how to repair, much less how to build. They looked at temples, roads, and aqueducts. We will look – in some cases are already looking – at Internet connections, keyless auto ignitions, autopilots for cars and ships, and computerized everything ‒ made in China, and serviced in India.

But how will young people who can’t read cursive writing or make change be able to keep these complex gizmos running? And how will military officers who are politically correct but don’t know how to do their jobs be able to keep us safe, or even alive? Stay tuned.

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