Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Right Direction

Want to develop a better mouse trap? Easy. Just go to war.
The billions spent on military research and development in this country not only results in ever more sophisticated weaponry, it also provides us — sometimes accidentally — with consumer products that we might not have if we weren’t engaged in smiting our enemies.
We wrote recently about drones, those pilotless search and destroy aircraft that have been used extensively in the Middle East. Kinder and gentler versions are now in production that will be used to deliver everything from packages to pizza.
Thanks to the military, we also enjoy cargo pants, the brainchild of the British; duct tape, which was originally intended to seal ammunition cases; the microwave oven, discovered in researching radar; the Jeep, which, during World War II, did not come equipped with a leather-wrapped steering wheel; jet engines; digital photography; and, of course, the Internet.
We mention all this because we are celebrating the anniversary of another military invention that we would be lost without.
Let’s hear it for the Global Positioning System.
We have come a long way since we fumbled through the glove compartment to find an Auto Club map that, once unfolded, could never be folded correctly again.
Or lugged out a Thomas Brothers guide that left us dazed and confused as we tried to follow a route from one page to another.
Now, 25 years after the launching of the first GPS satellites, we can use our car’s navigation system or our smart phones to guide us to our destination.
And it works just great. With a few exceptions:
One blogger reported that if you went to one GPS service and requested a route from Trondheim, Norway to Haugesund, Norway it gave you the direct route between the two cities, a distance of about 476 miles.
But if you reversed the cities and asked for directions from Haugesund to Tronheim, it told you to take the ferry to Scotland, drive to London and take the Chunnel to France, and then drive through France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden to get back to Trondheim.
It must be the scenic route.
Meanwhile, in Australia, three Japanese tourists decided to take a day trip to North Stradbroke Island, according to news reports. They trustingly followed their GPS system’s instructions to drive directly through Moreton Bay to the island, forgoing real roads.
The students were able to navigate the rented Hyundai about 50 yards into the bay before they realized they would be unable to drive farther.
They attempted to turn around, but the incoming tide forced them to leave the vehicle behind.
One of they three defended their decision to attempt the drive, saying, “[the GPS] told us we could drive there.”
Apparently, they haven’t learned to program common sense into these devices yet.
A pizza delivery driver in Michigan, listening to his GPS, made a wrong turn, landed on some railroad tracks and lost his car to an oncoming passenger train. Fortunately, the driver and the pizzas escaped unharmed.
A group of California tourists became lost in Utah at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. They attempted to use a GPS to plot their route to the Grand Canyon but the GPS route they took included a series of rough roads that ended in cliffs. The group eventually was led back to safety with the help of sheriff’s deputies.
The first GPS system I ever saw was stuck to the dashboard of a friend’s SUV. He was a bit of a rascal so he would make wrong turns on purpose, then chuckle as the otherwise soothing female voice that gave directions grew annoyed. But he had nothing on German drivers. BMW had to recall early GPS systems in its autos because German men refused to take directions from a female voice.
My first GPS system, a portable unit, refused to recognize the 210 Freeway. On a trip from Glendale to Big Bear one weekend, it implored to me to exit on every offramp I passed and take surface streets to the 10 Freeway. I ended up unplugging it and throwing it in the back seat.
These days, of course, the GPS system is a commonplace tool for the traveling public. But apparently, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
GPS-like devices are already in development that will provide turn-by-turn directions in large indoor spaces such as airports, museums, schools and hospitals. One is already in use in New York City where it provides a map of all 11 levels of Macy’s iconic Herald Square store.
The inventor of the GPS believes its future is in self-driving cars.
“I think (the future) leads to robotic cars. I think there will come a time when you go down the highway and you don’t have to have your hand on the steering wheel at all,” Bradford Parkinson told CNN. “It’ll be a combination of GPS, radar and other sensors.”
Which would take the device from saving time to saving lives.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Flights of Fancy

Need a new toaster or coffee maker? Simply go online, choose the model you like, and it will delivered to your door in 30 minutes.
Want a pizza for dinner? One mouse click or phone call and it’s on its way to you in 15 minutes. No tip necessary. Want beer with that meal? A six-pack arrives so fast it’s still ice cold.
Ditto for your dry clearing, groceries, shoes and clothing and other everyday items from baby needs to books.
Just call 1-800-Drone and it will be swiftly directed through the air and gently deposited in your hands before you can say “the future is now.”
OK, we may be getting ahead of ourselves a bit here. But not by much. Drones, familiar to most Americans as military hunter/killers, are about to be tamed. In an unprecedented image makeover, we are on the verge of converting a weapon of war into an airborne convenience store.
And if you think it’s a fantasy, know this: Amazon is developing a fleet of delivery drones called octocopters.
If that project flies, it won't be long before Target and Wal-Mart will be launching their own air forces. Knowing Wal-Mart, it will probably equip its drones with air-to-air missiles to eradicate the competition.
Dominos Pizza has the DomiCopter, which has already been tested in Great Britain. Soon you will be able to get mediocre pizza in minutes.
At a recent music festival in South Africa, small robots provided beer to fans who placed orders through a smartphone app.
Lakemaid Brewery in Wisconsin recently posted a video of their product being delivered via drones to ice fishermen on a frozen lake in Minnesota. However, the Federal Aviation Administration was not amused and shut down the operation. The brewery, not to be deterred, has started a petition on to get their suds in the sky.
Drones are also being developed to assist in firefighting, search and rescue operations, border surveillance and scientific and environmental research. Yamaha has sold more than 2,600 remotely piloted helicopters for agricultural use in Japan. The drone costs $100,000, weighs 140 pounds, stands three and half feet tall and 90 percent of farmers use it for crop dusting, spot spraying, weed and pest control and fertilization.
Several media outlets have experimented using drones to film news events, meaning, I suppose, that reporters will soon be required to have a background in aeronautics.
But wait just a darn minute.
There is inherent personal and professional danger in praising a federal agency for pursuing a wise and prudent path, but the FAA appears to be doing exactly that.
Currently, the FAA issues domestic drone authorizations on a case-by-case basis, according to published reports. They are limited to government agencies, universities and law enforcement. But now the agency must finalize plans for allowing drones in domestic airspace by 2015 under a law passed by Congress in 2012.
The FAA has set six test sites to review safety issues, but has said it likely will not meet the 2015 deadline.
That’s a good thing. We shouldn’t rush into this.
I’m trying to envision life in my neighborhood with drones flying about at all times of the day and night. Would it disrupt the sense of peace and serenity? Would it be hazardous? I assume drones, like many mechanical devices, fail from time to time.
Would packages left on the doorstep attract thieves? Could drones be used by drug dealers?  Or terrorists?
What if some yahoo decided to pump a couple of thirty aught six rounds into a drone to exercise his Second Amendment rights?
If you lived near an Amazon distribution center, the number of drones coming and going could blot out the sun.
And who’s going to be piloting these things? The same kid who used to deliver your pizza? 
What about commercial aviation? According to a story from UPI, the U.S. has one of the largest passenger fleets in the world and its airspace is significantly more complex than, say, that of Japan, especially at lower altitudes where drones fly, said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA expects 7,500 drone-like craft in the skies within five years of the regulations being set.
“We don’t have a complete understanding of where this might go in the future,” he said, in what could charitably described as an understatement.
Perhaps most importantly, what about privacy? According to the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of domestic drones for surveillance.
“Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America,” the ACLU states. “Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government.”
Some would argue that we’re already in a surveillance society. Having a drone watching your every move because someone considers you “a person of interest” would validate that point of view.
In the meantime, I’ll get my own pizza and beer in the fervent hope that we are making sure we remain in control of technology instead of the other way around.
Robert Rector is a former editor with the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times. His columns can be found at He can be reached at

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Super Bowled

     Can it be?  Why yes, it’s Super Bowl Sunday once again. For the XLVIII time.

      It was just XII months ago that we enjoyed the action of Super Bowl XLVII when XXII football        warriors battled for LX minutes before the Baltimore Ravens emerged victorious over the San Francisco 49ers by the score of XXXIV to XXXI.

      This year the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks will meet at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the game time temperature is expected to be in the neighborhood of XL, dropping to below freezing at night.

     That’s ridiculous weather for a championship game but, hey, that’s just my II cents worth.

     The Super Bowl is an American institution, Roman numerals notwithstanding. And while we like to think of the game as a tribute to civic pride, skill, fair play and sportsmanship, it’s largely about wagering.

      According to one estimate, more than $8 billion is wagered every year on the Super Bowl alone. An estimated 200 million people bet on the outcome of the game worldwide.

Then there are the side bets. For example, you can bet on what color Gatorade will be dumped on the     winning coach.  Or how many members of the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers, the halftime entertainment, will appear shirtless.   Or the jersey number of the first player to score a touchdown.   Or how long will it take Renee Fleming to sing the national anthem, if she will forget or omit one word or if she will be wearing gloves. If so, you can wager on what color gloves she will wear. 

You can also put your hard earned cash on who the Super Bowl MVP will mention first in his speech:  Teammates are at 2/1, followed by God (5/2), Fans (5/1), other team (7/1), coach or family (12/1), owner (25/1) and none of the above at 4/1.

Besides betting, the Super Bowl is about eating.  Super Bowl Sunday can make Thanksgiving look like a day of fasting.  And we’re not just talking about your famous football shaped cheese log or 50-layer dip. 

The National Chicken Council estimates that 1.25 billion chicken wings will be consumed during the Super Bowl. There are expected to be 48 million take-out pizzas ordered. Some 80 million avocados will be consumed along with 11 million pounds of chips.  It will be washed down with 325 million gallons of beer.  The diet business will take in millions the following week.

The Super Bowl pregame show on Fox will last four hours.   I defy you to find anyone who will admit to watching the entire thing.  Somewhere in the midst of hours of sleep-inducing analysis, commentator Bill O’Reilly will interview President Obama.   Expect some frank but cordial trash talking.

 The game, including half-time show, will last another four hours.  That should just about take up your day.  But rest up.  Marathon coverage of the Winter Olympics will begin and last more than two weeks. Break out the Stroganov and vodka and raise a toast to the fact that you don’t live in Russia.

Of course, there’s more to the Super Bowl than gorging and gambling.  In fact, there’s more than just football involved.  Who can forget these memorable moments?

The great blackout:  In the middle of the 2013 game at the Superdome in New Orleans, the lights went out giving the proceedings an eerie third world feel.  It lasted 35 minutes and was blamed on a faulty relay switch.   That explanation didn’t sit well with Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis who opined, “You cannot tell me somebody wasn’t sitting there and when they say, ‘The Ravens [are] about to blow them out. Man, we better do something.’ … That’s a huge shift in any game, in all seriousness. And as you see how huge it was because it let them right back in the game.”

The worst national anthem.  Christina Aguilera’s version in 2011 was pretentious and bizarre ("What so proudly we watched at the twilight's last reaming.")  Fortunately for her, it sounded like grand opera compared to the “Star Spangled Banner” as performed in other venues by the likes of Steven Tyler and Roseanne Barr.

Worst (or maybe best) halftime show:  The great wardrobe malfunction of  2004 in which Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed for about half a second by the ham fisted Justin Timberlake.  Also known as Nipplegate , it resulted in one of the greatest overreactions in the history of American entertainment:  The FCC fined media conglomerates involved with the broadcast including Viacom and CBS, and subsidiaries MTVClear Channel Communications, and Infinity Broadcasting,  It also enforced a blacklist of Jackson's singles and music videos on many radio formats and music channels worldwide.  Timberlake, meanwhile, faced no such backlash.

Worst commercial:   Anything produced by Go Daddy, which every year offers up cheesy ads that are just this side of porn.  After all, sex sells.   And what does it sell?   Go Daddy is primarily an internet domain registrar and web hosting company.  Could have fooled me.  Based on their ads, I thought it was an escort service.

A close second was the Bud Bowl commercials in which a bunch of long neck beer bottles banged into each other in a simulated football game.   It was so cartoonish and silly, it couldn’t hold the attention of a five-year-old.  

Honorable mention:  an ad showing Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner 10 years after he died.  Dishonorable mention:  In 1996, Giants quarterback Phil Simms became the first Super Bowl champ to announce “I’m going to Disney Land.”

Let the game begin.