The strange stories of the driverless car and the ship that was piloted by rats

Admiral has a special interest in things that go missing – and things appearing again.  Not missing from our storage facility, I hasten to add, but missing from the range of property owned by our customers.  Not that our clients are more forgetful than anyone else, it is just that they know they have something, but can’t find it, and then wonder if they stored it at Admiral at some stage.

Normally they didn’t, but of course they are always fully entitled to come and have a look.

As a result I often get talking to our customers about things that go missing, things have have been found, and occasionally things that were never there in the first place.

And indeed, it was while discussing this with one of my customers that he pointed out to me that for several years we have been told that drivers were soon to go missing from cars.

Now there’s nothing new in this, but in fact the story of the driverless car is rather interesting because it is just about the only story I have ever come across which focuses over and over on something that is about to go missing but which actually never does.

The whole thing started with a clarion call in Extreme Tech – a website that claims it is the Web’s top destination for news and analysis of emerging science and technology trends, bringing us the latest on software, hardware, and gadgets.  So it ought to know about what is about to happen, and in 2012 it told us that Ford would have driverless cars in showrooms by 2017 – this year in fact.  I went out a-looking just to check, but nope, I couldn’t find any.

This prediction looked a little foolhardy when in the same year Time told us that it was going to be 2019 not 2017.  So maybe we just have to wait.

Although it appears that in 2013 CNN jumped in on the act and told us that Nissan would have driverless cars for sales by 2020.  Of course we ain’t got there yet so I can’t validate that one.

The next report came from the car and tech comparison website Recombu in 2013 which proudly announced that everyone had got it utterly wrong and that it was not a case of 2017, but of 2014.  And it would not be Ford or Nissan but Volvo that would launch driverless cars that year.  I might have missed it, but I don’t think I’ve seen any.

TechRadar (“the source for tech buying advice”) then came along in 2014 and told us that Audi promised the driverless car in 2016.  But it seems we were let down again.

Of course, what we obviously needed was not a load of “aren’t we clever” hi tech whizz kids making predictions, but a group of people who are really, really in the know about such things, and have a long history of accurate future predictions.

So step forward The Sun (always good on astrology) which in 2016 gave us the prediction that all Tesla cars would be self-driving by 2018.  They might still have got it right.

Maybe, but I have got a little sceptical on this future prediction lark and had confined the issue to my dustbin when I was suddenly reminded of the tale of MV Lyubov Orlova, reported in the esteemed magazine New Scientist (although reported I must add with a lot of tongue in cheek).  This ship was seemingly on automatic pilot heading for a ship breaker’s yard, and without any crew on board when it vanisheed in 2013.

Since then various news outlets in the UK (or should I say “newspapers that tend to make things up because real live journalists are just too expensive these days”) reported it had been spotted occasionally, only to disappear again.  One of the tales is that the ship has now been overrun by cannibalistic rats.

So, any sighting of such a vessel is something that one might need to be rather wary of, especially since the rats in charge of the ship now not only eat each other but appear to have learned navigation skills to such a degree that they have navigated the north-west passage.

Now as you may recall from geography lessons at school, the North West Passage takes ships just south of Greenland and then around the islands to dot the northern coast of Canada, just missing the arctic ice, and finally down the western coast of Canada and into the warmer climes of the Pacific waters off the western United States and south to California.

This requires some pretty good navigational skills even for humans, I am sure you will agree, but for rats it is something else.  But no less a service than the Science Channel in the United States clearly identified the ship as the missing liner, and were waiting for expeditions to go out and make contact with the obviously rapidly evolving rats.

And yes indeed when people looked there was a ship there.  Although unfortunately it was, New Scientist tells us, the SS Monte Carlo which was one of a number of boats that ran casinos and sold alcohol during Prohibition in the US.  This ship has been resting on the sea bed since 1937, and so it looks like the US West Coast guard will no longer be facing some difficult questions as to how it failed to notice the rat ship making its way along the coastline from Alaska, south.  Geneticists too will not be questioned on how rats could evolve into pilots while eating each other, which must be a relief.

So where do all these stories come from?

The most likely explanation is that tourism out to see the partially submerged wreck of the old casino ship has been in decline for a few years, so renaming the casino ship a cannibal intelligent rat ship seemed like a good idea to someone.

A bit like thinking up the date of the first driverless car.  Unless, of course, those rats have got the hang of how to shoot up the M1 without being noticed.

What is the most effective way of enhancing the speed at which you can learn a foreign language?

A customer of mine who very occasionally shares a sip of Italian wine with me after he has deposited items of Italian origin (but not I hasten to add great antiquarian value) in the Admiral storage facility.   And in so doing he has occasionally been known to say, on taking a sip, “In vino veritas” which I am sure you will know from your Latin at school (or can work out even if you didn’t study Latin at school) means “In wine there is truth.”

A profound saying, if ever I heard one.

Anyway, this saying has existed in Western civilisation for around 3000 years, give or take a few centuries, and is used to suggest that a person under the influence of alcohol is more likely to speak their hidden thoughts and desires than someone who is stone cold sober.

A more boring version of the phrase runs, “In vino veritas, in aqua sanitas“, i.e., “In wine there is truth, in water there is health.”

Anyway, apparently this phrase has spread to the Netherlands.  In Dutch, we have the phrase “De wijn in het lijf, het hart in de mond. Een dronken mond spreekt ‘s harten grond” (“Wine in the body, heart in the mouth. A drunken mouth speaks the heart’s meaning”).

Now, of course, in that part of Europe they do take their linguistic research most seriously, for it seems that they have set up at Maastricht University a research department to see what other effects wine can have.

Of course, you may think you know perfectly well what effect imbibing wine has on a person, but the Dutch are sticklers for research and they really, really did feel that they had to establish the effects of wine under proper and complete scientific conditions.

“You mean that we have all heard the story that a person who drinks a lot of wine eventually slumps in his or her chair and starts talking gibberish, but the Dutch wanted to prove it scientifically,” I suggested.

“Not exactly,” said my customer.  “You see in the Netherlands there is a story that circulates quite widely that having a drink or two helps non-Dutch speakers learn Dutch.”

“I imagine the research proving that theory to be true was conducted by a wine importer,” I said.

“Quite possibly,” I was told, “but nevertheless a group of researchers wanted to see if it were true.  So they got a group of native German speakers who spoke no Dutch, plied them with a glass or two of wine, and then taught them some of the researchers’ native tongue.

“Then they asked their volunteers to read a few sentences of Dutch, and the undisputed result was that the volunteers who had had a drink, all spoke better Dutch than those who had not.”

“So what was the outcome of this finding?”

“A massive increase in the number of volunteers for research programmes at Maastricht University,” said my customer.  “Plus multiple applications from university research teams across Europe to see if the same outcomes can be shown with other languages and nationalities.  It is a very important point to establish.”

“This all sounds a bit like something from the Institute of Certain Things,” I said.

“Quite possibly,” said my customer.  “Mind you at the University of Pennsylvania they run a seven hour course in existential despair – a course designed to show that despair is real and that it exists.  The students have to read a set text in silence for around four hours on a topic such as the end of a relationship, the struggle to know who you really are, the end of one’s life and so on.”

“So what is the experiment?” I asked.

“There are three groups,” I was told.  One has no special set up procedure and just reads the text and has a discussion.  In the second group each student can drink as much red wine as he/she wishes during the process, and the third also listens to the 6pm news bulletin in full.

“And what are the results?” said I.

“The no special set-up group end up miserable, the drinking group end up drunk and miserable, while the 6pm news group have to be stopped from ending it all.”

“And what is the purpose of this research?” I asked.

“To increase the number of British students applying to do research in Dutch universities,” my customer replied, And then, with a flourish, he pulled out two miniatures of Italian red, and following their consumption we found we had both rather forgotten the question.

Which only goes to show.

How following medical advice can sometimes have the most unexpected consequences

Now I am not normally a reader of “Work and Health in Canada” but one of my customers apparently is, for noticing just how much of the day I spend standing up, he pointed out to me an article in that august magazine in which it states that standing up at work is bad for one’s health.

It appears that workers who stand up all day are twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who sit down all day.

And this is not a health risk to be sneered at because standing up all day generates pretty much the same level of propensity to heart disease as can be gained from smoking regularly.

I found this particularly interesting because I think traditionally the idea has been that standing up is better than sitting down.

But the news  got one of my friends worried.  He does have a job which requires being seated at a computer terminal and he has recently been told by his GP that he should never be seated for more than 30 minutes at a time.  After that he should get up and wander around.

The trouble is, he told me, what to do and where to go when taking a break from sitting down.  One can of course go to the toilet but, he said, one’s colleagues notice if one suddenly starts popping off in that direction 10 or more times a day.

“I tried going over to the desks of one or two colleagues to pass the time of day, but both my supervisor and my colleagues quickly got tired of this one.  So in the end I just went for a walk around the building.  It takes about three minutes, but that is apparently enough to save me from whatever terrible illness it is that I can get from sitting down too much.”

“Did that resolve matters?” I asked.

“Not really,” he told me, “because one of the directors apparently had watched my new habit of getting up and leaving the building, and accused me of sneaking out either to smoke or to have clandestine meetings with a member of a rival company to whom I was passing over state secrets.  It seems that some of the smokers in the office had devised the tactic of walking around the building as if going to the annexe where we store past files that are kept ‘just in case’ and having a fag on the way.”

“So what happened then?”

“It turns out there is no easy way to prove that one is not a smoker without actually inviting others to sniff your clothes and breath – which is not normal procedure when talking to the boss – so my chum told the boss exactly what he was doing.  Also when a rival comes up with a similar advertising campaign to one’s own it is very hard to prove it was stolen.”

“Did that satisfy the boss?” I naturally asked.

“More than that.  My pal is one of those guys who never uses five words when 250 are available, so he expanded his exposition somewhat and said that the health benefits from the walk were not just longer life and less likelihood of various cardiovascular diseases suggesting the activity also makes the brain work better, because it involves a greater intake of oxygen that one gets by just sitting at the desk.”

“I guess he had to let you all carry on in the light of that,” I said.

“More than that.  The boss told everyone in the offices that they had to go for a walk every half hour to improve productivity.”

“And did it improve productivity?”

“No, not at all, quite the reverse,” I was told.  “The smokers liked it of course and took full advantage, but several members of the team who are, what shall I say, a little on the heavier side, objected, and one who did try it was taken to hospital with exhaustion before he could make it back inside.   But the biggest problem was that the boss failed to signify in the order about going out for a walk, just how far that walk might be.  Quite a few of the staff got into the habit of walking to the local supermarket and doing their shopping, while a group from marketing formed a walkers’ club.”

“There’s surely not much wrong with a walkers’ club is there?” I asked.  “I would have thought that such a thing would just make everyone healthier.”

“You obviously don’t know too many people in marketing,” he said, and I agreed that was true.  “They are phenomenally competitive,  and after the first couple of days they began to challenge each other as to who could walk the furthest in a limited amount of time.   By the end of the first week they were coming in in track suits, doing limbering up exercises, bunching at the door five minutes before the off and then racing out across the car park and into the great wide spaces.

“They had time keepers, route checkers to make sure no one cheated, referees, a panel of judges to resolve finish line disputes, and charts showing who had done what each day.  Within a week they had a team of sponsors lined up, a TV deal with Channel 4, and a series of interviews with the Financial Times about how healthy living was helping the company make ever greater profits.

“And was the company making ever greater profits?”

“Strangely yes,” he said, “but no one can work out how.  As far as I can see no one is doing any work at all now, and yet our turnover has just doubled.”

A silence settled over the room.

“Odd that,” I said.

“Very odd,” said he, and we decided to take a quick stroll around the warehouse.