Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Zeno’s motorcar

Jerry Stratton, September 12, 2010

I bought a relatively new used car a couple of months ago; it’s a 2005. I’m really enjoying it. The process of researching cars, however, really has to be annoying for anyone in the tech industry. The car industry is stuck in a last-generation mindset. Here are a couple of simple examples:

  • Even as late as 2005, some luxury vehicles still had options for integrated phones but no option for bluetooth.
  • Even today, there is no standard for steering control of car stereos. If you replace the car stereo and want to continue using steering controls, you need to get a special adaptor designed for the manufacturer of your vehicle.

The steering control thing really gets me. Car makers should have jumped on USB in 1998 when the first iMac came out; even if they didn’t think that the combined market power of attractive, well-designed computers plus three or more marques of cars would ensure that USB lasted, they should have gotten on the bandwagon by 1999 when it was clear that USB was here to stay.

The state of attaching portable devices to car stereos is even worse. It isn’t until 2006 that car stereos really started including stereo jacks. And even then, the inclusion was haphazard at best. The 2006 Chrysler 300, for example, included a stereo jack on the base model stereo. But if you upgraded the stereo to a better model—you lost the jack.

Stereo jacks should have been standard on all car stereos since at least 1987, when Sony Walkman clones became ubiquitous. There was no excuse for being caught flatfooted when the iPod came out fourteen years later in 2001. There should never have been a market for cassette adaptors.1

These are not dangerous, untested advances. They’re simple to implement—simpler even than the current, less useful solutions2—and they would make using car stereos far easier for the average person. But the automakers don’t even seem to have thought about using them until long after they were obviously necessary.

I blame regulations. The state of industry regulation today is such that people prone to innovate are not going to do well making cars. Take this recent bit of news: Tesla Motors was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for not having their car tested for direct emissions.

Tesla only makes fully electric cars. Their cars have no direct emissions. If I make a hand-operated blender with no electrical parts, it will never occur to me to check it for stray electricity. That would be a waste of money and time better spent innovating a better hand-operated blender.

Who would think that a car that burns no fuel needs to be certified that it doesn’t emit fuel byproducts? The kind of person who would think that is the kind of person who doesn’t like innovation. There is no limit to the regulations you have to watch out for when you have to watch out for regulations on matters that don’t apply to your product.

Should they have known about it? Given the state of regulations in the United States and especially California, yes. Should they have had to know about it? Of course not. The requirement fosters an environment in which businesses have to be paranoid about any kind of change, because it is literally impossible to know what kind of regulations you’re going to run afoul of.

It’s unlikely that there are regulations that keep manufacturers from using intelligent standards for electronics when they become available. But the safe bet is to assume that there are; and in any case, the kind of company that succeeds in this environment is the kind of company that is not going to change, because the companies that succeed in this environment will be companies that hire people who don’t like innovation.

April 16, 2015: How to make life easier for car thieves
Reagan For the Little Guy

This is how over-regulation blocks and retards technological advancement: the Code of Federal Regulations Title 49, Subtitle B, Chapter V, Part 541:

The purpose of this standard is to reduce the incidence of motor vehicle thefts by facilitating the tracing and recovery of parts from stolen vehicles.

How does it do this? By requiring that about eighteen parts that are normally interchangeable and thus candidates for stripping be labeled or inscribed with an identifying mark, usually or always the VIN or some subset thereof. Now, as a consumer, you might be thinking, that doesn’t really reduce theft, it just makes tracking the stripped parts easier, which doesn’t really help get your car back in one piece. And as an automotive engineer, you might be thinking, individually stamp that many interchangeable parts? The main purpose of interchangeable parts is to reduce the cost of the vehicle by making them exactly the same and easily reproduced on an assembly line.

Ah, but you would be thinking like an engineer, not a politician or government regulator. It’s only one change, how much more expensive can it be? To which the engineer rolls their eyes and thinks, sure, it turns standard parts into custom parts. But the politician gets their way, and now the automotive industry has to lobby them with money and support to get exemptions from the new rule.

Thus, the Code of Federal Regulations Title 49, Subtitle B, Chapter V, Part 543, “Exemption from Vehicle Theft Prevention Standard”.

The purpose of this part is to specify the content and format of petitions which may be filed by manufacturers of passenger motor vehicles to obtain an exemption from the parts-marking requirements of the vehicle theft prevention standard for passenger motor vehicle lines which include, as standard equipment, an antitheft device if the agency concludes that the device is likely to be as effective in reducing and deterring motor vehicle theft as compliance with the parts-marking requirements. This part also provides the procedures that the agency will follow in processing those petitions and in terminating or modifying exemptions.

April 9, 2012: The Star Trek Experience: Stanley Jaffe was right
Restored Neon Signs Fremont Street Las Vegas

The old neon signs at Fremont Street are the best reason to go. (Photography: Pete Angritt; Signs originally built by Young Electric Sign Co. (YESCO), CC-BY-SA 3.0)

There’s a great story making the rounds about what could have been an amazing attraction in Las Vegas. The basic story is that, in 1992, Vegas was looking for a plan to revitalize the Vegas downtown area so that it could compete with the Vegas strip. Two plans floated to the top: one of them an innovative, epic experience, the other a sort of mini-strip leveraging what was already working on the real strip.

Everyone loved the innovative, epic experience and it was the sure-fire winner… until a far-away bureaucrat whose permission was necessary to move forward said “no”. So everyone settled for the more boring, time-tested project instead.

The two projects were a life-sized Starship Enterprise from Star Trek vs. the Fremont Street Experience. The far-away bureaucrat was Stanley Jaffe. Asked to approve the licensing on the Paramount end for the Star Trek franchise, Jaffe said something like:

“You know, this is a major project. You’re going to put a full-scale ENTERPRISE up in the heart of Las Vegas. And on one hand that sounds exciting. But on another hand, it might not be a great idea for us—for Paramount.”

Everyone in the room was stunned, most of all, me, because I could see where this was going.

“In the movie business, when we produce a big movie and it’s a flop—we take some bad press for a few weeks or a few months, but then it goes away. The next movie comes out and everyone forgets. But THIS—this is different. If this doesn’t work—if this is not a success—it’s there, forever…”

I remember thinking to myself “oh my god, this guy does NOT get it…”

And he said “I don’t want to be the guy that approved this and then it’s a flop and sitting out there in Vegas forever.”

Gary Goddard tells the story from the side of the designer of the Enterprise project.1

This really shouldn’t have been a surprise, however. The kind of person who would approve a life-sized Starship Enterprise license is not the kind of person who would do well in studio administration. Studios are well-known for extreme caution. Even in 1992, movie studios had to navigate a thicket of confusing regulations and vague laws. In the case of movies, one source of vague and confusing law is copyright.

  1. That’s another thing. The CD had won the market wars by 1991; iTunes made CD burning popular in the mainstream in 2001. Looking at 2004-2006 vehicles, I was still able to find options to get cassette tape players in the 2004 models. But given that prior to 2006, there were no options for audio jacks at the time of sale, I wonder how many people upgraded to cassettes in order to listen to portable music.

  2. When I installed my after-market stereo, Crutchfield provided me with a harness that plugged into the car’s stereo connection; it was color-coded to make it dead easy to wire the new stereo up—except for one thing. Ignoring that I shouldn’t have had to wire anything up in a world of cheap USB, I had to snip one wire behind the car end to connect the steering wheel adaptor. Which would have really sucked if I snipped the wrong wire.

  1. <- Facebook Notes
  2. Death-page 2000 ->