Crime Control and Public Spending: Two Ships Passing in the Night

When it comes to policing and public safety, governments tend to “buy in bulk.” So even when resources are tight, police departments get tons of money from municipal coffers. Those municipalities must often cut other services to fund the police, even when those other services offer front-end crime prevention that would cost considerably less than we spend on policing. On top of that, local police forces receive tons of federal money and equipment, and are incentivized into over-policing to keep those coffers flowing. 

And all of this occurs despite the lack of any consistent relationship between public spending on law enforcement and overall crime rates. The conventional wisdom is that if we spend more on police and policing, there will be less crime. It doesn’t appear to be that simple. Writing for the Washington Post, Philip Bump points out that an examination of spending relative to crime since 1960 concludes “that there is no correlation between the two.” Bump says this is especially true of violent crime, and is even true when you account for the delayed effects of increased or decreased spending.

There’s also no correlation between overall crime rates and public perceptions of crime rates, but that’s beyond the scope of this short post. This lack of correlation should tell us that we are making decisions about public spending, law enforcement and criminalization, itself, using obsolete tools.

Broadly speaking, the reason we don’t know how to properly spend money on public safety is that we don’t actually know what genuine public safety is. Furthermore, we don’t know what causes or prevents crime because the parameters of “crime” are themselves so artificial. “Crime,” write Paul and Patricia Brantingham, “must be thought of as a broad range of actual behaviors, which, while sometimes appearing similar, may be the results of many different incentives or etiological processes.” As for cause, they continue, crime is like backaches, “never . . . attributable to any single cause . . . the result of a variety of causes. No single factor or etiology is likely to explain all similar criminal events.”

In 2011 the DOJ argued that the complete absence of police (due to strikes) is consistently correlated with a sharp increase in crime. But does this assume a unitary kind of “policing?” Does it preclude different conceptions and structures of public safety? The Defund movement points out that police don’t often intervene in ongoing violent crimes, but if such intervention is warranted, “a service that provides expert specialized rapid response does not need to be connected to an institution of policing that fails in every other respect.” Rather, a hyperspecialized conflict intervention, criminal apprehension, or other service is just that — a service, that specialists rather than generalists (masses of cops with weapons, often incompetent, often looking for trouble themselves) could provide for a fraction of the resources we spend now. 

Taylor Miller Thomas and Beatrice Jin at Politico explain further: “Studies have shown that an increase in sworn police officers reduces instances of crime. However, increases in other factors — such as social welfare, access to health care, employment and other social services — have also been shown to decrease crime rates. It’s unclear the extent to which increases in police spending are responsible for falling rates of violent crime.”

In other words: cut armed policing, fund social services and do good social policymaking in general. Leave actual instances of violent crime up to well-trained and strictly regulated security specialists.

That’s the kind of thinking that needs to replace the “buying in bulk” model of police spending. More is not better. While the thought was, perhaps, that lots of patrol officers would mean lots of successful interventions stopping or solving crimes, while also having a deterrent effect on future crimes. Instead, we’ve created a large-scale public legitimacy crisis, drained local budgets, and haven’t influenced crime rates. Solving the causes of crime at the earliest possible time, designing genuine crime prevention programs tied to security and well-being for everyone, might mean not only defunding most policing per se, but also most of the need for it. That would be true fiscal responsibility.  

Strange Superpower Roundup

Consider this my meta-analysis of strange superpowers. After reading a number of posts purporting to list the weirdest, strangest, most esoteric superpowers, I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the weirdest among the actual, non-satirical superheroes. 

Although I think it’s probably true that it’s easy to run out of ideas when you are creating comic book characters, I don’t think that can explain the most bizarre of the bizarre among superpowers. I actually think the writers and artists have fun coming up with weird powers, and some of them also serve as artifacts of social criticism. 

From ScreenRant’s list of seven weird powers, the following stand out: Sweating and/or vomiting acid (yes, I know… this is a pair of heroes in Marvel’s X-Force), and a villain named Ruby Thursday who can shape shift only her head (organic matter of such has been replaced with “an organic computer made of malleable plastic”). Bonus: Ruby can make her head explode.

Entertainment website CBR.com lists the weirdest powers in anime and the most interesting of those deal with things growing from bodies, including Bobobo-Bo Bo-Bobo’s nasal whip. He can literally whip people with his incredibly long nose hairs (!). Meanwhile, another anime character, a chef, can slice things with his nose hairs — I guess that lethal nose hair is a thing. Moreover, a character in My Hero Academia has grape-like growths on his head, which he rips off and throws at people. 

Comics Alliance, another reliable comics site, posted their list of “most bizarre” superpowers and mentioned characters like the “cibopath” detective Tony Chu, working off “psychic impressions from the food he eats.” Then there’s Silver Age Superman — that is, Supes in the 1950s when the comic books had to compete with George Reeves’ TV Superman. Silver age artists and writers took interesting turns, including giving him the power to project a foot-high version of himself, emanating from his hands. The miniature projection has all of Superman’s powers. As far as I know, this only happened in one story; and, given how wacky it is, I doubt it had any continuity value. Nor can we forget Swarm, a very evil villain entirely made of bees. This is not only a creepy kind of weirdness, but a somewhat poetic one. We tend to valorize the collective consciousness of a society of bees. Why not make a story, and a character, out of that collective identity? Perhaps a reiteration of Swarm as fighting those forces who are hastening colony collapse is presently in order. 

Superman, by the way, has a bunch of other really esoteric powers that are hardly ever used. Blogger Chris Arrant made a list of little-known Superman powers last year that included telekinesis, shapeshifting, and super-ventriloquism. 

But my vote for weirdest superpower goes to X-Force’s Gin Genie, who first appeared in 2001. Gin Genie grows more powerful as she consumes more alcohol. In other words, she’s the authentic iteration of what many heavy drinkers mistakenly believe about themselves. The power is the generation of seismic waves. Richard Milner devotes a whole piece to Gin Genie at Grunge, where he points out that “it’s basically always in her best interests to be an ornery drunk while strapping some brown jugs of whiskey to her belt as she slurrily slides into combat,” and he laments that, like many of her X-Force teammates, Gin Genie died in a helicopter gunfight against terrorists. A fittingly dissonant end to such a tragically premised hero. 

Quantum Phones Today, Quantum Communication Tomorrow?

Last year, Samsung developed the world’s first smartphone with quantum technology, installed as a security package. This year, Korean technology company KT launched its own “scrambler-free quantum smartphone” enabler. Quantum scrambling and quantum generation of randomness are vast improvements on conventional cryptography. In its basic sense, cryptography encrypts data by “converting plain text into scrambled text” readable only by a key. But quantum cryptography uses the randomness of quantum mechanics, through the medium of quantum computing, to transmit data in a way that is so radically random it can’t be predicted to the degree required to hack it. 

This is astounding in and of itself, but I want more. The only thing quantum about your quantum phone, for practical purposes, is cryptography. Granted, there is an additional sense in which smartphones “use” quantum mechanics — they are designed with quantum theory in mind to control the “billions of transistors and other semiconductor elements” inside the things. But the data processed by these transistors are quite traditional and subject to the limitations thereof.  

But if I can be greedy for a second, I want quantum communication on my quantum phone. Unless I have friends traveling to other planets, delays in cell communication on Terra are pretty innocuous. But it’s the principle of the thing. Ever wonder why the Star Trek universe gets faster-than-light communication and we don’t? It’s “subspace” and its theory seems unachievable, reliant on loopholes humans aren’t likely to be able to create or control anytime soon. “As a very rough approximation,” BBC Future reported a few years ago, “you would need the energy the sun produces over 100 million years to make a wormhole about the size of a grapefruit.” And who would we trust with that kind of power over energy production, given who produces our energy now? There must be a better way. 

Quantum physics has a different approach: communication can be instantaneous because we’re already there. That’s an oversimplification, but not by much. According to Astronomy Magazine as cited by the QuantumXChange blog, “quantum entanglement occurs ‘when two particles are inextricably linked together no matter their separation from one another . . .'” Einstein described all this as “spooky action at a distance.” It would make communication instant because it would activate that part of the universe where two particles are essentially existing as one. And we haven’t figured out how to do that; but if we have a theory, that’s a start. 

And, if we can achieve instantaneous communication via the quantum field, can’t we reverse part of that field and thus communicate into our own past? That’s the basic thesis of the movie Primer, which relies on a theory expressed in the “Feynman Diagrams.” It illustrates how a quantum-based cycle can flow both forward and backward in time. If I could call backwards in time, I could call myself, for example, and warn me not to do something stupid. I could also call myself with sports scores and stock tips, of course, but you should watch the movie to see why that’s a bad idea. 
Richard Bach’s anarchist morality fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull presciently created a metaphor for the “perfect speed” we seek and which quantum theory may fulfill. A mentor magic gull-being tells the main character: “You will begin to touch heaven, Jonathan, in the moment that you touch perfect speed. And that isn’t flying a thousand miles an hour, or a million, or flying at the speed of light. Because any number is a limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits. Perfect speed […] is being there.” That’s what we want — to just be there. Is that too much to ask?

Three Weird Retrofuture/punk Subgenres

Bruce Bethke has a wonderful post describing what led to his creation of the word “cyberpunk” and his publication of a short story of the same name, forty-one years ago in 1980. He writes, “I would have bloody well trademarked the thing” if he’d known how revolutionary the word was  which is pretty un-cyberpunk, if we take as a cyberpunk axiom that the self is, if not a completely artificial construct, at least very much bound up with the artifices around it. 

Those ties between the self and the artifices around the self are the thematic ground for cyberpunk’s derivatives. Some of those derivatives are “retrofuture” (such as steampunk, atompunk and dieselpunk) and others are post-cyberpunk and contemporary-to-futuristic (including the very-optimistic solarpunk and other less-optimistic derivatives). 

The subjectivity with which characters encounter the technology around them has been a central feature of cyberpunk and its derivatives from the start. “Classic cyberpunk characters,” writes Lawrence Person, “were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change. ” And while that alienation and pessimism is not an essential trait of the “punk” meta-genre, in each iteration there is a clear intent to make the reader feel encircled by the aesthetic of the age. We feel steampunk, for example, seeing its archetypal goggles. The image of characters’ arms wired and connected to machines is iconic to original cyberpunk. 

Here are three -punks I find especially interesting: 

First, Clockpunk: Clockpunk is “a little further back” than steampunk. “Clockpunk machines may literally have to be wound with a key. Science-savvy audiences may note that the amount of energy stored in a clockpunk device often seems far greater than the amount of energy it takes to rewind them.” It is renaissance/Baroque in aesthetic. Thus, in L’apprendista di Leonardo, Luca Tarenzi re-tells the Second Italian War in 1499 as a murder mystery contextualized by complex weaponry and enhanced human abilities through the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci’s apprentice. 

What’s interesting is that there is at least one historically organic “clockpunk” novel written in 1666 by English writer Margaret Cavendish called The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. Submarines figure significantly as a mode of transportation in the story. 

Next we have Rococopunk.Talk about the centering of aesthetics on these derivatives! I think that the visual manifestation of rococopunk is its defining characteristic. “Rococo” itself is defined by elaborate ornamentation from the late baroque period. Artist Prince Poppycock and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood both manifest rococopunk. While in the 1980s, Adam and the Ants dressed in and played what we would now perhaps call rococopunk rock, a seductive new wave/postpunk sound contextualized by their rich costumes. 

Rococopunk stories are still rare, and this would be a great subgenre for the up-and-coming, romantic-minded alternative history/sci-fi writer to explore. 

Finally, my personal favorite: Islandpunk. The Best Science Fiction Books blog points out that islands have been a staple setting for science fiction. Islandpunk isn’t just science fiction set on islands, though. It’s about island-based technologies that develop when castaways or pilgrims build micro-civilizations on islands. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and most especially the television series Gilligan’s Island manifest this sub-genre. The technological development is tied to immediate needs and limited by availability and the skills of the characters. The technology helps define the mini-society’s sociology and social parameters, and is always integral to the plot lines. What results is a microcosmic analysis of human behavior and our relationship to technology — a foundational feature of speculative fiction. 

Fossil Fuel Death Count

We are on the cusp of ending our reliance on energy sources that kill us and kill the planet. But the cusp often feels like the longest part of the journey. Even as we can envision, and are materializing, a world where the majority of inputs to the power grids are clean and renewable, many are still choking on the dirty air of the carbon age — and choking at different rates, depending on circumstances beyond their control.

We received the highest cost estimate of pollution from fossil fuels ever, in brand new research that says 8.7 million deaths a year occur from particulates generated by diesels, gasoline-powered vehicles, coal-fired power plants, and other fossil fuel-based energy and transportation sources. The researchers point out that this 8.7 million death toll (based on analysis of 2018) is much higher than previous estimates, and is “roughly equal to deaths attributed to smoking.” 

Particulate pollution is ubiquitous. Not only that, it moves around, ignoring human conceived borders. Its mobility is partly attributable to the fact that the particles “hover in the atmosphere ‘up to one to two weeks,’ and can therefore “be transported long distances.” And it doesn’t take much: even a little bit of particulate pollution can be deadly. That’s a newer finding — we had never really asked before how much it takes to be linked to mortality.

But now we know. And, combining this new information with our existing knowledge, we also know that most of the people who will die from fossil fuels will be poor. The most concise statement of this disproportionality comes from the United Nations Environmental Program, citing the World Health Organization. 

“The poor,” UNEP says, “tend to be priced out of the leafy suburbs where there are fewer highways and air quality is better.” This disparity can be found at all scales: municipal, regional, national and international. 

A post by the Borgen Project goes into greater detail, explaining that it’s not just location, but the entirety of inequality — material inequality — between rich and poor. “Even when both affluent and impoverished people experience the same exposure,” the post reads, “air pollution affects the health of the impoverished more.” This is because of other differences that compound exposure or which are comorbidities, like access to healthcare and the likelihood of working in hazardous or polluted environments. According to this Atlantic article, In China, a vast portion of urban workers are internal migrants or disproportionately outdoors in very polluted cities like Beijing. Workers delivering messages and packages via bike, walking or public transit, or those who work in industries with poor air circulation, will breathe a lot more of those particulates than executives working in air-filtered and environmentally-controlled offices. 

A shift to renewables will make things better eventually, but in the meantime large infrastructure projects, automobile traffic, and the burning of coal — among other things — continue to produce more deadly particulates. And, building the infrastructure for renewables still produces particulates, along with (ironically) CO2. 

What’s clear, however, is that the problem we are contending with is not simply the use of fossil fuels but environmental racism and classism, as well as the refusal to give up long outdated and toxic forms of production, construction, energy use, and transportation. With new indications that the death toll of fossil fuels is even greater than we thought, a transition to renewable and non-toxic energy sources is all the more urgent. 

Edgy Science Roundup

The lifeworld and deathworld meeting and overlapping; viruses evolving into unique protective bodily organs; ethical questions raised by VR communication “with the dead”; a nation’s official insistence that it isn’t building a time machine. In this post, we look at some recent science on the edge — or several edges — of lifeworlds and deathworlds, of the possible and impossible. 

First, we have the placenta, which is unlike any other organ, and which evolved from a retrovirus over a hundred million years ago. One of the coolest science pieces I’ve ever read describes a scientist’s early experience watching a birth and being fascinated by the placenta, and then subsequently learning that “once upon a time some retrovirus infected an egg-laying vertebrate. And by chance, that virus settled into that animal’s egg cells. And it just so happened that that particular infected egg was fertilized. The baby that was hatched — whatever kind of protomammal it was — now had copies of that virus’ DNA in all its cells.” What this shows is that things can be both agents of breakdown/death and incubation/birth — that’s what edgy science is all about. 

Second is the rumor (substantiated by some weird documents) that Chinese researchers are messing around with time. “Earlier this month,” according to Popular Mechanics, “unsubstantiated documents began circulating online that seemed to suggest the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics is partnering with the private Ruitai Technology Development Technology on something called the ‘Space-time Tunnel Generation Experimental Device.'” The article then includes a series of leaked documents including a powerpoint presentation about a device that can allegedly “distort time and space, control the flow rate of time,” and be used to travel through time. The documents include mention of a “base” for the experiment eventually being built at some select location in China. 

But the article goes on to say that shortly after the leak of the powerpoint, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics put the nix on the rumors (or at least tried to), denying the accuracy of the documents and calling the whole thing “false propaganda.” In fact, to make things weirder, one of the companies mentioned in those leaks, Ruitai Technology, was created at the end of 2020 — right on December 31. The documents also refer to a Nobel Laureate who doesn’t actually exist. Upon further investigation, it also appears that the processes upon which these phantom researchers are speculating aren’t so much “time travel” as hibernation — suspended animation so that people can “journey” into the future without getting old. That’s moving forward through time I suppose. 
Third and finally: though avatars of the dead are ubiquitous and pre-date digital technology, a new type of projection has been developed and parents of deceased children are now able to visit with those kids via VR. A company will collect data about the child, including their favorite places, aspects of their voice and personality, and other unique information, and program it into a visual image using a child actor as a model for the simulation. The grieving parent can then don VR equipment and visit with the child. It is, however, not very interactive… yet. But as Futurism.com asks: “how far can we be from a platform that lets anyone upload footage of a deceased loved one and then interact with a virtual version of that person? Years? Months? And what sort of impact will that have on the grieving process?” The article notes that a handful of startups and entrepreneurs are collecting data on people, both generally and specifically, to create templates for eventual simulations, which might even include “robot clones of real people.” Naturally. Or, unnaturally.

Going-Where-No-One-Has-Gone-Before Roundup

Human flight is an iconic preoccupation throughout human history. Journey into inner space is lesser-known but still well-established in speculative science and literature. And human augmentation is part of both outward and inward super-travel aspirations. Combine that with the excitement of DNA research and Canadian ice-river rats and you have a cross section of bizarre and somewhat amusing technological advancements from the last couple of years — achievements that seek to put people where they haven’t gone before, even if they never leave Earth, or even their own neighborhoods.

Canadian Weedwacker Ice Jet!

Some humans like to take things apart and use the resulting components to make other things. 

Before we get into actual jetpacks, here’s a fun metaphorical one. A Canadian man made himself a “jetpack” out of some weedwacker fans to assist him in skating up an icy river. What a display of ingenuity!

Hovering Across the English Channel! 

Jetpacks are gadgets long-promised and, for the past several years, rather amazingly realized. They are examples of the congruence of imagination and feasible technology. Characters from Buck Rogers to Gilligan used them time and again, from the dieselpunk to atompunk periods. “We were promised jetpacks” is a joke that became a band name. Thus, humanity has been hard at work to deliver on that promise for a while now. 

2019’s jetpack across the English Channel story is still timely. An eccentric French inventor named Franky Zapata had been trying to cross the channel on a hoverboard for some time, coming up short at a refueling station platform in the middle of the journey once and splashing into the water for his troubles. But then he managed to get from Sangatte to Kent over a 22-mile stretch of the channel. 

The catch, of course, is that the hoverboard, a Flyboard Air model, only had enough fuel for about 10 minutes’ worth of flying before needing to be refueled. His first attempt was a close miss, so Zapata’s team used a bigger boat for the station the second time after negotiating its permittance with French authorities.

Inner space is just as exciting as outer space!

If channel flights or motorized ice skating doesn’t strike your fancy, maybe you’d like to inscribe something on strands of DNA. That’s what CRISPR (usually pronounced “crisper”) can do for you. The acronym is for a DNA sequence: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. It’s also shorthand for the methods or “systems that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations,” such as what happened here. Somewhat whimsically (if you’re a nerd), bioengineers programmed a DNA sequence to lay out binary 1s and 0s to spell “hello world,” a longtime robot/android prototype opening line in robotics lore. 

These three incidental journeys are reminiscent of details golden age science fiction authors used as background details. The protagonists of Red Planet skate across frozen Martian canals. Jet packs and hoverboards are everywhere. And, literally or metaphorically, we shrink into inner space. Here we are in the future

Minecraft and Statecraft

Outschool, a supplemental class service for ambitious kids from k-12, is offering a course called Metrocraft. In it, students collectively design and build (in Minecraft) a city that they then govern. The class combines architecture, public administration, and politics. 

Although the designers of the course likely didn’t intentionally make this connection, the class is similar to Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy project, which attempts to re-think opinion polling and fold it into the deliberative process. Respondents are first given questions to answer, but then go through a deliberative process of discussing the issues and listening to different points of view. Then they’re polled again. 

The Metrocraft class is different from the CDD project in its level of sophistication.  It is nominally training people to think of themselves as “leaders” rather than just deliberative citizens (though the two are obviously complimentary). Still, they fall under a common umbrella: the idea that simulations, dialogues, debates, and involving people in deliberative processes are good things. They are educational, collectively pedagogical, and assume that people learn things and become better — collectively better, even. This is an optimistic course. 

The use of technology and, in particular, gaming technology is also a significant attribute of the Outschool class. We’ve always used games to teach and learn, and this might be the best example yet. The Guardian called Minecraft the best videogame of the 21st century, and that’s merely one among many mountains of praise it has received. Time ranks it the #6 video game of all time. With its simulations, walk-throughs, and parodies of other cultural artifacts, Minecraft is more a paradigm, a basic framework, than a game; and, it is premised on building. Combining construction and public administration, and teaching students to do so democratically and mindful of processes, might be Minecraft’s most socially useful application yet.

One of the myths that has driven the U.S. into a series of political dumpster fires, civil conflict, and political hostility has been the argument that government “doesn’t work.” Corporate donors have given hundreds of millions of dollars to think tanks over the past five decades to spread that myth and turn it into an axiom for half the country. It’s a curious conclusion, because “government” is nothing more than a collection of people working to achieve goals. If “government doesn’t work,” why do businesses work? Why does the military “work?” Is this an argument against all collective endeavors, or just public management? 
Participatory simulations of government can teach us governance experientially — students learn about processes and rules, but also about what they should and should not do themselves. They also learn what their own limits are — the things they enjoy or which do not interest them, the things they excel at or which are their limitations. Although such simulations might be competitive games with competitive pressures, they are more often cooperative, where incentives to “win” are not at other players’ expense; rather, the goal is to win in conference with those players. My guess is that a virtual classroom full of 13 year-old Minecraft players will run a smoother society than the one we’ve experienced lately.

Weird Musical Instrument Roundup

Have you ever heard of the Katzenklavier, or cat piano? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a design (and thankfully only a design) for a keyboard that sits “in front of a line of cages, each of which has a cat trapped inside.” Pressing a particular key causes pain to a cat, which then screeches accordingly. Different screeches across the scale produce different notes. This inhuman contraption was designed a few hundred years ago as a therapeutic device for psychiatric patients. Thankfully, it was never built (and, therefore, never used). 

What the Katzenklavier does do, however, is reveal how people do strange things with controlled noise. On the bright side, many of these auditory manipulations are beautiful, and many are even delightfully absurd (and harmless). Here’s a cross-section of strange, and often beautiful, musical instruments. 

Let’s begin with the Toha, designed to resemble the nests of the now-extinct weaver birds of southern Africa. Weaver nests have a totem-like quality and are tall and filled-out as they are built in close-knit bundles to create communities of bird dwellings. The Toha looks tall and full, and it has 44 strings divided into two sections of a diatonic scale, each section containing three octaves. It can be played by two people, facing one another and is a perfect “improv instrument,” meaning the two people playing can feed off of and respond to each other, thus creating a beautiful duet. It sounds blissful, like harp music, but also has a kind of aspirational, reach-to-the-heavens sound when the lower octave notes and the higher octave notes seem to be in dialogue. It’s a deliberative instrument that thrives on interactivity. 

While the Toha is a contemporary instrument built to emulate ancient birds and celebrate timeless harp music, the Hornucopian Dronepipe is actually a celebration of the future we inhabit. It is entirely 3D-printed and has a weird shape that has been described as “dystopian.” It sounds like a deep, cyberpunk didgeridoo. Pictures and videos of the Hornucopian Dronepipe remind me of musical scenes in sci-fi classics, like the Cantina scene from Star Wars. The instruments therein — the Dorenian Beshinquel, the Fanfar, the Ommni Box, Bandfill, Kloo Horn and more — are detailed here. The Dronepipe would be an appropriate addition to this musical scene, though not for every song as its music is not particularly bouncy or upbeat.   

Finally, you may have heard of “road musicals,” movies from the mid-20th century combining long trips and hokey songs, but how about musical roads? Sometimes when driving and making contact with rumblestrips, I immediately notice the musical quality of the resulting sound. The rumblestrips clearly produce different “notes” and when one slows down, they play “lower.” I have long wondered whether I was the only one to notice this, but no more. Honda built a strip of road in California designed to play Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and it’s quite the project. It’s designed following a simple rule: “Closeup ridges give a high note, further apart lowers the frequency.” The tune is, unfortunately, quite off in places, and hitting the strip at 100 miles per hour sounds particularly weird, but one can’t help feel a little warm inside that a car company took the time to do something so gratuitously creative, based on the quirky idea that if rumblestrips’ effectiveness comes from their loud tonal qualities, why not experiment with those qualities? 

The ability to manipulate sound into music isn’t uniquely human, but music and sound form an inexorable part of human culture. And It is great to see that people are still innovating. 

Who or What Was the First Robot? A Debate

The definition of “robot” is quite controversial. The most common definition is that a robot is a machine capable of carrying out complex tasks or series of tasks based on programming from a human. But culturally, and in the science fiction literature, a robot not simply such a machine. It also has added character — traits that, if they don’t make the machine mimic a human, they at least make appear as some kind of distorted reflection of a human. Linguistically, “robot” comes from the czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labor;” and, to labor seems to involve some degree of autonomous control post-programming and post-activation. 

According to these definitions, “robot” lies somewhere between a strict “it’s only a machine performing tasks” that would arguably make a photocopier (or sorter or stapler) a robot, and an anthropomorphic machine that isn’t quite an android. Humans have been making such machines for a very, very long time, but what was the first robot?

Hardcore prehistoricists, what we might call “ancientpunk” students of technological history, would argue that Archytas’s bird of 400 BC was the first documented robot. Born in Italy in 428 BC, Archytas belonged to the Pythagorean school of mathematics and was a friend of Plato. Archytas created a bird that flew up to 200 meters, powered on steam. Based on the minimalist definition, if we call flying a complex task, and acknowledge that the bird flew “on its own” after its initial release, and also give some recognition to historical relativity (nobody else was making machines that could be launched and then perform tasks at least momentarily independent of an operator), the mechanical bird was the first robot, as well as one of the first flying machines. 

Of course, this glorious bird was neither anthropomorphic nor semi-autonomous. In 1927, Ron Wensley created a humanoid-looking machine capable of performing a variety of simulated human-like tasks, including (eventually) speaking two simple sentences as well as listening to the speech of others and performing a very limited range of tasks based on what it had heard. The machine’s name was Herbert Televox, which only added to the already science fiction-like nature of the thing. Televox’s job was to operate a telephone switchboard. If we consider historical relativity, this was most certainly a full-fledged robot, and the first of its kind. Televox is my personal favorite, and definitely the archetype proto-robot of the early electrical era. 

Over time, however, the functional definition of robot departed from a conscious engagement with science fiction and evolved into full industrial and commercial telos. That’s why, if you ask many tech historians what the first robot was, they’ll say it was the Unimate, which was built by George Devol in 1954 and sold to and deployed by General Motors in 1961 to lift burning-hot metal pieces from die casting machines in its automobile plant in West Trenton, New Jersey. The robot’s tasks were both complex and dangerous. Unimate pulled the parts from their burning hot source, dipped them into cooling liquid, and then placed them into an apparatus for workers to trim and refine them. Significantly, the widely varied tasks were stored in Unimate’s memory drum. It is this distinguishing feature — a programmable memory enabling the performance of tasks contingent on commands and conditions — that made the industrial machine the “first” robot of its kind. 
In the end, my science fiction soul still believes that Herbert Televox was the first robot; but my analytic mind admits that Unimate was more robotic than Televox. In both instances, programmers made use of what were, for their times, elaborate “if-then” parametrics. Culturally, however, Televox is more likely to pop up in our minds when we mention robots. Perhaps Unimate would be more likely to pop up if we were to specifically think robotics — especially industrial robotics. Archytas’s bird gets an extremely honorable mention, because someone had to kick the whole trajectory off, and mechanical flight in the 4th century BC is nothing to shrug off.