Colored Lights

Don’t you wonder about colored lights:  the kind that you see on ambulances and police cars?  Don’t you think it’s getting out of hand? There was a time, I think, when all police cars were furnished with a simple rotating red lamp. That rotating red lamp seemed — and seems — like plenty.

Now, a rotating red lamp would seem quaint. Red lights, blue lights, white lights! Flashing, sliding, circling! This morning, while driving to work, I thought a circus had come to town.  It was a cop car, stopped behind an empty car, which was abandoned by the side of the road.  Traffic snarled.  Necks stretched.  Children’s noses were pressed up to the window, wondering what had happened.  Perhaps the driver had stopped to take a leak.  Now he was afraid to come back to his car.

I wonder how that circus came to be.  At some point in history, I assume, the policeman, if he was interested, may have stopped his car, gotten out, and perhaps, if necessary, waved traffic around. Very low-tech.

Over time, however, when it became available, that same policeman turned on the red light on his roof.  He may have had one already installed, turned on for chasing down speeders.  The red light was intended to alert passers-by that something was going on, that others should slow down.  Eventually, the policeman’s training program had a paragraph inserted, instructing him to turn it on as an alert to passing motorists. Someone got a demerit for failing to turn it on.

Inevitably, someone observed that, if it rotated, the light might be distinguishable from the rear lights of passing traffic.  Also, it was visible in all directions — 360 degrees — which made it seem more important. Sometimes, it was important.  So they did it.  A rotating red light.

But then it took off!  Such a phenomenom!  First, perhaps, a red and white combination light.  Then a blue and white combination, because the blue became associated with police, and red with an ambulance. And then a red, white and blue combination!  Now there were three colors!  Maybe with sound.  Would firecrackers be next?

The motion also seemed to undergo refinement.  The single rotating red light had given way to an array of lights:  sometimes three, sometimes five, some blinking, some pulsating, some moving around on a track. Apparently, someone decided that a pulsing strobing multi-color display, had more stopping, warning, or signaling power  than a simple rotating red light.

I know: an audio-visual firecracker simulation.

Who, I wondered, was responsible for these decisions? Was there a meeting of police commissioners, mayors, traffic cops, ambulance drivers, concerned citizens, etc.?  Was there a report: the impact of multi-colored variable-patterned light displays on vehicular traffic at rush hour?

Or did some purchasing agent go to a Las Vegas emergency equipment convention, where he was enticed by competitive vendors, dancing lights, and scantily dressed girls?  Did one township feel its emergencies were treated as inferior because they only warranted a standard display versus another township’s deluxe display?

Forgive me.  I can’t help but think that our police and other emergency workers are suffering from some sort of hero complex: that all the circus effects are really to call attention to themselves.

Or perhaps it is reversed:  we, the public, feel that these emergency workers aren’t recognized, that they do not get their share of fame or wealth. We feel guilty.  Inevitably, we hear, like the sonorous voice of God:  “Safety First.”  I have never heard anyone challenge any governmental expenditure on the grounds that spending on a little bit more safety is not worth the cost.

Which is not to say that we’re willing to pay them what they’re worth.  But, on the other hand, if some lights and noise make them feel better, perhaps it will boost morale.





The Curmudgeon

I’ve been thinking recently. About smart phones. I don’t have one yet. I’ve been tempted. Not because they offer something I’ve wanted. But because everyone seems to have one. Except me.

So I ask, doubtfully: How would I use it? What would it do for me?

Understand, I’m no digital Neanderthal. In the early 80s, I was punching stacks of IBM cards for the government, which believed a natural gas company was systematically making several cents each on thousands of transactions. They settled.

I had an Apple IIe before it was fashionable. In 1985, in business school, I had to explain what I could already do with Multiplan and what she, my instructor, was proposing I do after taking a required course using an IBM and Lotus 1-2-3. She was mystified and adamant.

By 1986, I had joined a company which developed business simulations for big money-making companies.  They paid me bigger money. In 2002, I even patented some software for facilitating debates. My partner thought people would like to argue. We wanted to move them along.

All told, I’m on about my tenth personal computer. In my closet, I have an original MacBook. And several more; all well used; all superseded. My current one is about 7 years old. Getting up there, but it serves. I look forward to the new new thing.

In short, I don’t dislike computers. I’m not scared of them. On the other hand, I never really wanted to get close to one. I once named a handheld voice-activated-recorded-kind-of-thing.  Lucille, I called it. Lucille took messages and memos; held addresses and phone numbers; responded to my voice. Lucille fit so snugly in my hand. But the love affair didn’t stick. Its battery died and I lost it all. I would have had to start over again. Again, it’s in my closet.

I now feel as warmly toward these devices as I feel towards a hammer. When I’m confronted with a nail…

I look at how people are using their smart phones. In general, they are talking to friends. Some are texting. To me, texting is typing, and was called that once upon a time. My wife says texting is different than typing: shorter and faster than e-mail. In either case, though, talking was generally supposed to be better. We used to travel thousands of miles for a face-to-face: a smile, a warm handshake, a hug, something more.

There’s an advantage to texting though. You can do it silently, secretly and while you’re supposed to be doing something else. Like paying attention. Excuse me: multitasking.

Some, of course, are also listening to music on their smart phones. Recorded music, that is. So their ears are plugged in. I have an ipod: much smaller than an iphone. And it’s separate, which is, as I see it, an advantage. When it’s broken or lost, I’m only out the phone or the songs: not both. When I lose the combo-phone-addressbook-music-maker-emailer-brower-camera-…., there goes my life. Start again. And back it up, this time.

Speaking of cameras… Many are using their phones to take photos – or movies – and showing them to others. Again, I have a real camera: my antique old-school substitute.  Actually, it’s a 12 MB Canon but it’s falling into disuse. There is a lot of excellent photography: in magazines, on postcards, on television…. On the other hand, they don’t have me in it. Or my family. There is nothing my friends enjoy more than seeing hundreds of photos of me and my family.

And so much more people do. They play games. Read maps. Check sports scores or stock prices. They read or blog or read blogs. Some are dangerously distracted, motoring down the road, glued to their screens while they negotiate traffic. Smack!

In general, these devices, connected to “the world,” make us feel important. They massage the ego. That may be their most important value, though the last we admit. It reminds me of my first class in business school, attacking my first quantitative finance problem, watching my colleagues earnestly pounding their new high-powered calculators. Looking down. I thought, “If Harvard could see us now….”

As one of the unconnected, I confess feeling envious of my co-connected peers. Facebook. Twitter.

So I’m torn. Should I try to be “in the loop?” Always with something more to say or hear or share? Or am I hopelessly estranged? A un-digitized wallflower? Too self-centered to see, hear, and accept what’s good for me? I don’t know. What I do know is that too many people are looking down, fiddling with buttons, searching in their small, electronic windows, making their small talk smaller.