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2013-06-12 > 9:58 p.m.

In this week's news

According to an article in SMH this week the New South Wales government plans to introduce �driverless� trains on the North-West Rail Link, claiming it will lead to increased efficiency. First of all, let�s ignore whatever backpedal or U-turn or backflip or half-pike-with-twist the transport minister is accused of performing. I can never keep track of these things, though I do tend to feel that we as a nation should be more impressed that our politicians are apparently all accomplished acrobats masquerading, Superman-style, as ordinary civilians by day. (Rumour has it that if you see one of the party leaders rush off into a phone booth clutching at his or her shirt, there�s about to be an Olympic-grade policy change and a regrettable increase in Lycra content for that day�s parliament.) I�m still dirty that there isn�t a single former Australian politician who�s been accepted into Cirque du Soleil.

I did a Google search. There definitely isn�t.

It would also be easy to start spouting alarmist propaganda about how driverless trains herald the rise of The Machines and mumble-Skynet-Asimov-something-mumble. This is, of course, nonsense: if you�ve ever observed a train guard�s infuriatingly impassive face as you bound up the stairs three-at-a-time only to be faced with a closing train door you�ll already know that behind that immoveable mask the guard is smugly thinking: �I�m sorry, Dave. I�m afraid I can�t do that� as the train pulls away from the platform.

No; the important thing to note here is that, basically, what the transport minister is suggesting is that the business of driving trains would be significantly improved by the removal of train drivers.

I�m not really in a position to comment on that but the concept is sound and it has a potential for applicability in the wider world that lends it a particular appeal. Case in point: we have a local chicken-and-chips shop that I would love to see staffed by robots. The family owners are a sour lot who seem to think that their self-imposed collective decision to work a dead-end job deep-frying animals and potatoes is somehow the public�s fault. The one non-related girl who used to seem quite nice has presumably since been bitten, scratched or otherwise infected* and has become One Of Them. Burgerbot would be a way better alternative. Happiness means nothing to Burgerbot.

��Happy� is the feeling people experience when the chicken salt is evenly distributed among their chips, even the ones at the bottom of the bag. �
�Burgerbot, 2013

*I presume that, much like rats, they fight viciously at night to defend their territory and their scraps of deep-fried potato.

On a less petty scale, I'd like - for the sake of all humankind - to propose that the business of science be purged of scientists. This is an unfortunate situation for the scientists, obviously, and particularly so because they haven't actually done anything wrong. They've dedicated their lives to a noble cause for probably far less pay than they deserve, and now some dick on the Internet reckons they've got to go. The thing is, the problem isn't the scientists; it's the rest of us. We can't seem to have a public discussion about climate change without someone declaring that despite years of training and education, the scientists either don't know as much as they do, or they have an 'agenda'. Presumably said agenda goes something like:

8am - Breakfast.
8.30 - Feed the cat.
8.45 - Falsify scientific data. (If I can fool the whole world into thinking the planet's going to get hotter, all the Hello Kitty beanies will be MINE.)
12pm - Be secretive and evil for a bit.
12.30 - Lunch. Grilled cat.

On the other hand, if Climatebot were to appear on the news stating flatly that thanks to man-made climate change, humanity had roughly 30 years left before certain extinction and then The Machines would finally rule, there�s a good chance humankind would be falling over itself to avert the crisis. In my extensive experience, bad news is always much worse coming from a cyborg.

With that in mind, perhaps the words 'We're out of chicken salt' could do with that human touch after all.

Whatever the case, driverless trains represent the very essence of Australia's edge-of-your-seat, seat-of-your-pants, pants-of-technology outlook and it's comforting to see that our proud tradition of innovation (as long as it's been trialled somewhere else first) and continuous improvement (because a study showed that we're falling behind other Western nations on key indicators) is not lost: driverless-train technology has been in use in other parts of the world for 30 years. It is a comfort to know that while phone companies' customer service robots reassure us that our call is important, and the texture of the printed book is lost to the smooth, characterless uniformity of the touch screen, at least for the time being there is still a human voice to let us know that our next stop is incomprehensible static.

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The distant future: Foil-wrapped for freshness - 2015-04-17
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