This morning I called USAA after looking over my auto claim on their website and seeing no movement whatsoever; I bypassed the extension of the adjuster who had haphazardly contacted me and tried to get someone else on the phone, but they were too smart for me and I wound up in her voicemail box again. After leaving a clearly dissatisfied message, I put it aside until this afternoon. Checking back in on the site, I found no movement. I looked away from my laptop and when I looked back I saw a prompt for a review of their service. Fed up by this point, I left them a not-so-friendly but detailed summary of my frustration and hit send.
Two minutes later the house phone rang and a rep from USAA—not the one who I’d previously been playing phone tag with—introduced himself politely, stepped me through the details, and gave me a valuation on the car quite a bit beyond what I’d been thinking it would be. He advised me on next steps, answered my questions, and said goodbye. It was like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders; this was what I’d been asking for the whole time.
There’s a phenomena that I’ve noticed at times like these, when I’ve reached my boiling point, I’ve been frustrated by poor customer service, or just ignored: the Sky Pilot will provide me with some means of griping through an official channel, and seconds after I’m done spewing bile I’ll be contacted by someone else at the offending organization who is absolutely the nicest person in the world, who answers all my questions and provides the best experience possible, and I wind up feeling like an entitled asshole.
There’s clearly some kind of message I’m being sent. Should I start mass-producing scathing Yelp reviews?
We still haven’t heard anything from the USAA about the Accord as of this morning, but they assure me the very expensive rental bill for the shiny Chevy Trailblazer out in the driveway will be covered. It was a very comfortable car to drive home: heated seats, dual climate controls, CarPlay, and a host of other whiz-bang features we are not used to at Lockardugans’ Luddite Car Emporium and Repair Facility. It’s a CUV, so it’s slightly smaller than the CR-V and suffers from the same annoying design problems other CUVs we’ve driven do: little to no visibility over either shoulder, tiny rear porthole windows, and a bit of cheapness to the finish. This one is the RS model so it’s “sportier” (I suspect that just means some badging, racing stripes and fancier seats) but we averaged about 36MPG on the way home according to the on-board computer. Not too shabby.
I spent some time over the break doing some research into new and used cars and broke my top choices into two main categories: midsize pickup trucks and SUVs. I’m really only interested in Honda for the latter, but I think I might have to add the RAV-4 to this list just to be complete:
What I’m seeing is that the Fords and the Honda are the top contenders; as much as I’d love a new Tacoma, the gas mileage on this and the Ridgeline are just terrible. Apparently the Tacoma is brand new for 2024 but I wouldn’t buy a first-year model of anything for any amount of money. I’m thinking ahead to the next five years and having to haul a ton of stuff in and out of houses and (hopefully) to college; for that I’d like a quad-cab pickup with towing capacity—ideally the Travelall will fit this role too, but that would be toward the end of the 5-year plan for that truck unless we win the lottery. And to be honest, stuff like heated seats and CarPlay are exceptionally nice—I’ve been very spoiled to jump in the car and have it immediately pair with my phone to start displaying my route on the touchscreen. The other big consideration is price; I don’t know what they’re going to give us for the Accord but I’m shooting for $10K down on whatever vehicle we decide upon. I’d like to get the payment below or as close to $400/mo. as possible; we’ll see who can give us the best interest rate and terms before we go shopping.
I’ve been dreaming about what kind of new car I’d buy for years now, after we bought a Honda Accord to replace Jen’s Saturn. The thinking then was that we’d have two kids and I’d need a commuter with enough space to move them and all their crap, and I wanted something that got reasonable gas mileage. For some reason I focused on a midsize sedan, and we looked at several Accords at the local CarMax. This decision was also influenced by a trip to Gettysburg I took with my folks; my Dad had just come back from a serious health scare and wanted to do some things on his bucket list while he was feeling healthy, and I needed something big enough and easy enough for him to enter and exit without a child seat. We looked at several Accords and I settled on a gray off-lease LX model with the barest of options available.
It’s been a solid car for our family since we got it, rarely complaining and completely dependable over the course of 60,000 miles and eight years. I paid it off as quickly as possible, and without that monthly hit to the bank account I’ve been maintaining it carefully, knowing it would be with us until the wheels fell off. But it’s a sedan and not a wagon (I am solidly a wagon person), the steering wheel is completely uncomfortable for long-distance travel, the passthrough from the trunk to the rear seat is tiny (big enough for a pair of skis or four 2×4″s) and the headlights are way too dim. and, it’s a sedan. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of replacing it for something else that we all like better (Jen is not a fan) and which might provide more utility vs. the lack of a car payment for several years now. I clearly missed the most obvious gift I could have been given: sky-high resale rates on used cards during the pandemic. Oh, well, I thought. I’ll just keep on keepin’ on with the Gray Ghost here.
[cue ominous foreshadowing music]
Finn and I loaded up for a trip to Mom’s house for Thanksgiving and set out Tuesday afternoon, and made our way through rain and fog and the darkness in Pennsylvania with little trouble. We were about 3 miles from Mom’s house, Finn was asleep in the seat next to me, and I had a podcast playing in my AirPods. A flash appeared from my left and suddenly the windshield filled with a very large buck, who we hit at 65mph pretty much head-on. Both airbags blew immediately and the car slewed to the left; I turned into the skid but all four tires had lost grip and we did a 360 until we were sitting in the fast lane facing back over the other way. Finn woke up and asked why the airbags were in her lap, and I asked her to roll the window down to help air out the car. I tried to call my Mom but the phone failed to connect, and found that I couldn’t call anyone in my contact list. I did call 911 and while I was talking to that lady a cruiser passed us on the other side, hit the lights, and made a U-turn to get to us.
Finn and I waited while the cops set up some flares, and another officer loaded us into his cruiser to take us over to the Costco to wait for Mom. I sat in the perp cage and gave him my info and he gave me a printout of the police report to pass on to the insurance agency. We both made out fine; there’s no injury at all other than a slight burn on my right hand from the airbag, but the car is totaled. I stopped over to the towing lot to empty it out the next morning and was shocked to see how much it had pushed the radiator backwards into the engine. She isn’t coming back from this one.
With a heavy heart I emptied out all of our stuff, going so far as to pull the jack and tools from the trunk and all of our registration information, and left her to her fate in a rural impound lot miles from home. She was a good car and treated us well, and I’m sad this was the way she went out.
So now I’ve got to figure out what we’re going to replace her with. I have looked longingly at crew cab pickups for years, and the utility of having a four-door vehicle with a bed outside the crew compartment is very tempting. I’d go with a mid-size Tacoma or maybe even a Ford Maverick depending on their price. Another option is to double down and get a newer CR-V, although their interiors have gone more upscale and the U in utility has been downgraded somewhat. Jen has requested a manual transmission but the options there are few and far between; basically we’d need to buy an astronomically-priced sportscar or one of three crossover-type vehicles (hello there, Bronco) but she doesn’t want a Subaru.
I’m going to take some more time with this decision and try to find a vehicle we’ll all be happy with for a long time; working from home means there are only a few times when not having a car will jam someone up—but it’s going to be tricky.
The New Yorker ran an issue on AI this month, and one of the articles inside is by a programmer who has been wrestling with what ChatGPT means for his career and balancing the old paradigm of figuring out a problem for yourself through code vs. figuring out how to speak to AI to help develop that code faster. He talks about the steep learning curve he faced when starting out, and how persistence and determination help push through the hardest parts of learning that new language; how rewarding it is to sit back and think through a problem, then be able to write the code properly to solve it. It’s like painting or cooking or any one of a number of difficult skills that take time to master: there’s a particular satisfaction that comes with finishing that artwork or serving that food where everyone appreciates the craft. The successful completion of the struggle is what keeps us going. But now a bot seems to be able to do the same coding work without effort, in minutes.
Bodies of knowledge and skills that have traditionally taken lifetimes to master are being swallowed at a gulp. Coding has always felt to me like an endlessly deep and rich domain. Now I find myself wanting to write a eulogy for it.
The author is rightfully worried that his career will disappear if all we have to do is type a question into a box and have the box write the code for us. But he comes to realize that this new technology speeds up the drudgery of writing the code, and we’re still using our brains to solve problems; the box is helping by speeding up the process—and in that process, we’re learning a new kind of language: the translation. We have to learn the language the box needs to complete our requests properly. And you have to know how to think about programming, and understand what proper output is, to know how to ask the right questions.
I spent a lot of time in the late 90’s learning a couple of different languages through books; the first was a language called Lingo used by an application called Macromedia Director. I started using it after learning the basics in a continuing ed course at MICA and got good enough that my boss at the time (who was smart enough to know that the Web was the future, even if he was a lousy boss) hired me out to make an animated screensaver for a government agency. I read the Lingo book and learned enough to build a primitive randomizer to play different clips so that the screensaver showed something different each time it looped. When I was finished and my code worked, I was quietly stunned. A new world had opened up, the one my Dad had been telling me about (and which I resisted until college, when it became clear that this was the future) and I saw my place in it for the first time.
With that experience, I got my first web design gig. I learned some Perl first, and then PHP as I got further into producing my own sites. I was never completely fluent in either language—I couldn’t sit down and write a web application from scratch—but I could read and understand what things were doing, and I knew enough to fix things that were broken and add logic to change the behavior of the apps we worked on. And most importantly, I could talk to the programmers who could build things, which is a skill all on its own. I was very good at translating the concept to the people making the code.
Had I been a smarter man I would have focused solely on learning and mastering PHP, and I might have pursued a different career path. But my skills were more suited to UI/UX and I made a good living in that specialty for years until I burned out. Around that time I began to notice that the shop I worked for was leaning more heavily on templatized solutions: instead of estimating 80-100 hours for someone like me to generate two concepts, mood boards, and the designs to flesh out all of those requirements, they were finding templates they could modify to suit their needs and banking that extra billing as profit. What had once been a bespoke craft I’d trained myself to do was becoming commoditized, and I was lucky to get out when I did.
I don’t think AI is going to be able to take over art direction or brand creation anytime soon, and ChatGPT certainly can’t walk into a room and convince ten skeptical personalities to approve a concept or mediate a discussion; I’m thankful I’m not walking into programming or web design fresh out of school. And I’m extremely glad I’m not a writer by trade.
I sat down with my ChatGPT account last night and asked it to produce a couple different examples of PHP code to do simple tasks: create a form field to capture several inputs and write them to a text document; build a randomizer to display a different image on a page at reload, and write an AppleScript to resize an image. It wrote simple code that did exactly what I asked and worked flawlessly. I can see how asking it to build something with more functionality would be challenging, and require some iteration to learn how the AI needs to be asked, but it’s frightening how fast and easy the bot did its job. I’m going to practice my translation and see if I can make it do bigger better things.
The Washington Post ran a story about gun violence in the US, using photos and video that mostly haven’t been published before.
The impact is often shielded by laws and court rulings that keep crime scene photos and records secret. Journalists do not typically have access to the sites of shootings to document them. Even when photographs are available, news organizations generally do not publish them, out of concern about potentially dehumanizing victims or retraumatizing their families.
More of this please. Stop trying to be nice or “fair” or whatever and just publish the fucking pictures so we can outlaw assault rifles and adopt some logical, reasonable, actionable gun control laws.