Herein you’ll find articles on a very wide variety of topics about technology in the consumer space (mostly) and items of personal interest to me.
If you’d like to read my professional engineering articles and whitepapers, they can be found at Control System Space
My rental vehicle in the US was a Kia Optima FE and it had a lot of extra little features I’d never been exposed to before. The one of most interest was auto-steer, or “lane keep assist” it’s sometimes referred to as.
The way I discovered it had this feature was when I was driving to Austin on a slow left hand bend when I felt the steering wheel start to pull me off the road. Ever so slightly disconcerting at 70mph! What the heck was tugging on the steering wheel? I initially thought the car needed a wheel alignment or the tyre pressures were badly off.
Thinking back I’d been having warning alerts go off in the hour previously but didn’t know what they were for. I realised that it was complaining about my lane position. One of the challenges when you’re driving on the other side of the road is that the sight-line you’re used to using from the driving position to the center or outside lines of the road to get your correct road position is thrown out by sitting on the other side of the vehicle.
After a few days driving on the right hand side of the road I’d retrained my brain so that’s fine but the car was pointing this out to me for several hours before I realised what it was doing. (Please note: I wasn’t drifting OUT of my lane, but I was too far across to the right hand edge of my lane, not enough to cause an incident but enough to upset lane-keep).
Back to Auto-steer. I realised through observation that the green steering wheel icon would appear at speeds above 40mph when the car could “see” solid or regularly dashed lines on either side of the roadway ahead of it. If it did see them I could let go of the wheel for a period of time and the car would then keep itself in the lane. It worked well enough but there were a few little problems.
- Sharper bends were a fail: I pushed the car’s limits a bit on this one, with my hands at the ready as I let it steer through ever-sharper turns but ultimately I learned when I pushed it too hard to not trust it to steer itself on anything other than the most gentle of curves in the road
- Missing lines caused jerking: This is what happened in the first incident I mentioned - there was a gap in the outside line of the road due to a series of driveway entrances on a more rural section of the highway which confused the auto-steer system
- The no-hands on wheel alarm: After about 20 seconds of not touching the wheel the system would alert you to the fact you hadn’t been holding the wheel and cut out auto-steer if you didn’t grab the wheel. In practice when I was lightly holding the wheel it wasn’t detected at all especially on a straight stretch of roadway and I had to forcibly inject a small correction into the wheel even if it wasn’t warranted to convince it I was actually holding the wheel.
- On freeways with lots of merges it’s rough: Particularly in heavy traffic I just turned if off and stopped using it. It wasn’t safe and I didn’t trust it. To be fair I have the same policy with a cruise control - it has no place in heavily congested traffic at those speeds.
It’s not all bad news and limitations however:
- You don’t drift if you look away anymore: You can say it as much as you like, “always keep your eyes on the road” and if you need something from the passenger seat, glove box, sometimes even the radio, the advice is “pull over until it’s safe to do so”. The counter-argument with freeways is that this isn’t usually practical - most freeways don’t have wide enough shoulders to safely stop, there’s too much traffic to safely stop, they don’t have enough exits set aside for breaks - once you’re on it, you’re stuck on it. Hence if you do look away from the road, the direction that you look or lean no matter how good a driver you are, you’ll start to drift the car in that direction. With this feature - that’s no longer an issue.
- Less tiring: I wouldn’t have thought it would have such an impact but driving back late at night when you’re tired the Auto-Steer made a huge difference. I found I could focus more on the cars around me (the few that were) and the map guidance and let the car take that cognitive load off of me. It worked really well.
I’m strongly considering a Tesla Model 3 or Model Y in a few years time when it’s time for my next car and I’m now more excited than ever that this kind of technology is becoming cheaper and hence more accessible and whilst the Kia implementation (according to others reviews I’ve read) isn’t as good as Teslas, it’s still good enough to be useful and I’m glad I had it.
It’s been nearly two decades since I was in the USA and understanding how and when to tip has evaporated from my memory. I do recall however that tipping used to be a bit less, perhaps 10% of the bill whereas this trip the helpful suggestions were starting about 20%. My understanding is that the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation and as a result people are relying more on tips today in the USA than ever before.
Having said that, I was told that tipping through drive-through isn’t generally the done thing and whilst you are technically served by someone in Target, Best Buy or a goods purchasing store, tipping isn’t required in those instances as they have a higher hourly rate that factors the lack of tipping in.
The idea seems to be the more personal, face to face, “service industry” (which can be confusing since someone telling me about a product in Best Buy is still ‘serving’ me) this industry is where you’re expected to tip, proportional to the service that is offered by the staff.
Okay so far I’m wrapping my head back around it. Next problem: when I came to the USA previously there were two types of transactions in the majority: cash and credit card. Cash was easy - they give you the bill and you pay them that amount plus a bit extra for the tip. Then you can ask for a receipt if you like. Super simple.
With credit cards in a sit-down restaurant environment you’d be given a small folding wallet thing, with a bill in it and a slot for your card. You’d fill in the tip amount, insert your card in the wallet and hand it back. Then they would wander off with it and hopefully come back without skimming your card and you’d sign and you’re done. Although requiring some degree of trust that was also straight forward to me.
Where I got lost this time was the introduction of payment at the till using a credit card either inserted (chip), swiped or pay-wave. In these cases they’d show me the amount, I’d usually insert my credit card, they’d print a receipt then I’d sign it, add a tip, then total it, then hand it back to them. At that point what happens? I’m assuming the original transaction is re-run or something? It’s not clear how that authorisation happens but they all seemed to accept this. Oh well, hope that worked. In those cases sometimes they’d give me a second receipt that included the tip amount, other times they wouldn’t with some looking confused when I asked for a receipt since I was still holding a pre-tip-filled-in copy.
The final conundrum was when it wasn’t a seated meal in a restaurant, when you’re just getting takeaway but it’s not via a drive-through I was given conflicting advice on whether to tip. The most regular example of this was a Barista. I defaulted to a tip for them however in the end I did it because I didn’t want to upset anyone, rather than it being a reflection of service.
The problem is that if you don’t grow up in a tipping culture, there’s no accepted set of rules and a lot comes back to the potential to reward good service or if you’re confused about whether tipping is the right thing to do, you end up insulting someone that’s good at their job that probably deserved a tip, at least in their opinion or based on the rules they are told apply.
I was once lectured by someone that grew up in that culture after they visited my country and they were horrified by a bad experience in a hotel blaming it all on our country’s lack of tipping leading to poor customer service. That was 20 years ago mind you, but I’m not entirely sure it’s that simple.
Either way towards the end of my trip I was so confused about the tipping grey areas I realised I was developing a ‘tipping anxiety’ where I was starting to avoid situations where it was unclear when I should or shouldn’t tip or how much to tip. Sigh.
Maybe I’ll do better next t(r)ip.
When driving through Texas this past week I was greeted by those overhead digital signs that have an inspirational or perhaps cautionary message. Of the messages I saw, one in particular stuck out in my mind. Whilst I didn’t write down the exact wording the message in essence was 2,871 people had died on the roads in Texas in 2019 so far.
Given that the message was up the entire time I was there, I expect this was for January to October inclusive (about 300 days) which is 19 people killed every two days in Texas alone.
Okay, so Texas is a big state and has a big population, so what’s that equate to in terms of people killed per head of population? There are 28.7M living in Texas as of 2018 which isn’t that different from all of Australia (25M). So the current statistics in Australia from January to September 2019: 914 people killed (1,015 corrected over 10 months) for an average of 6.6 every two days, which means that in Texas there are 2.5-3 times as many people killed than in Australia.
In conjunction with this I’d like to point out a few other observations with comparisons to Australia:
- Speed Cameras: In the whole time I was driving in the USA this week I counted one speed camera - a roadside trailer mount unit. I never saw a speed camera on a traffic light, intersection, or mobile van. I’m sure they exist and maybe I missed them? In Australia scarcely a day passes when I’m driving when I don’t see at least one mobile unit, or trailer mounted unit and my commute takes me through one twice each day. In Australia the detractors would tell you they are merely revenue raising machines but the truth is they make a lot of people think twice about speeding.
- Speeding: In Australia I sit on the speed limit and on the freeway I’ll get overtaken maybe every 15-20th car at most, whereas in Houston and driving between Corpus Christie and Austin I was driving on the speed limit and was overtaken by almost every car! My best estimate was that most cars were driving 5-10mph over the speed limit. It was slightly scary.
- Dangerous Driving in Wet Weather: During the wet weather in Houston on Thursday I was tailgated, cut off multiple times and the other drivers seemed to not care that it was wet with many still speeding and overtaking as they had in the dry. The amount of risk taking was insane, and whilst I won’t pretend that Australian drivers are angels, there was far more respect, slower driving speeds and caution in the wet, especially heavy rain.
- Running Red Lights: On a typical commute in Brisbane I’ll see maybe one or two cars run a red light, however we have red light cameras fitted at many intersections so most of the time people don’t or won’t risk it. I lost count of how many cars blatantly ran red lights and honestly I began to pay additional attention to make sure everyone had stopped before I entered intersections, much to the annoyance of those behind me. Self-preservation y’all.
It’s likely that the high-density traffic in major cities is a focal point for accidents and it’s possible that due to large Texas cities having many freeways and congestion that this amplifies impatience and may go some way to explaining the tripling of the road toll compared to my home country.
In the end there’s probably a lot of complicated reasons why it’s so horrific but either way you slice it that’s a massive amount of bloodshed on the roads. There are other places in the world where people drive their cars just as much or even further on average, at or above those speed limits with significantly less fatalities. It can be better.
Anywhere you’re driving, drive safely. Please. Really, seriously please drive safely.
Once I knew the conference dates in the States I realised that the IndieWeb meetup in Austin would be happening on the first Wednesday of the month, which was an evening when I would be in Houston. Noting it was a mere 2.5 hour drive (far closer than a 28 hour door to door flight) I decided to drop by.
I arrived at 6:30pm exactly, met a fellow geek who recognised my geekiness from my shirt and mentioned it was his first time coming to a meetup, not knowing what anyone looked like. Initially we didn’t see anyone else obvious so I ordered a coffee and then we checked again.
I recognised Manton immediately and we found a table to fit us all - seven in total. After introductions we talked about web development, the differences between ActivityPub and WebMention, different projects and sites we’re hosting and how, podcasts we’re involved with and lots and lots more.
It’s odd but for most of us being complete strangers it really felt quite comfortable and as I look back as I’m writing this I realise just how much I’ve missed out on not living in or near hubs where like minded software developers tend to live. Austin has become a focal point, San Francisco has been for some time as well whereas in Australia there aren’t really any I know of, perhaps Adelaide up to a point, certainly none near me.
As the evening was closing Manton walked through the upcoming IndieWebCamp which sounds really interesting so if you’re a developer in the area I’d check it out.
We talked for over 1.5 hours in total and I had a great time. If you’re in the Austin area and you’re interested in becoming or already are a web developer then I highly recommend dropping by to a meetup. The venue is usually Mozarts Coffee, which make great coffee and have a wonderful setup and no issue parking, though to be safe I’d follow Manton for announcements and updates.
Thanks to Manton Reece for organising it and to everyone else that attended and made me feel welcome.