words among

Monday, June 04, 2007

There's not much, if any, hard proof of the existence of a God, at least not enough that most people aren't convinced specifically by it. Theories about God's intentions towards our world are formulated in a way that claims our faith will be more useful if tested by the lack of evidence, and encourage lip service by promising superb penalties. Yet none of us can really be sure, and if indeed God designed us then he knows this about us. Since we have no communication from Him, we have little reason to think that He cares so much whether we are certain in our belief. And again, He should and would know that none of us would ever be completely certain.

Yet the houses of worship that focus on these things have the unfortunate policy of insisting that their attendees claim to be certain of His existence. Since no one is certain, this amounts to insisting that we all lie. And that creates an atmosphere wherein people are never sure when they can be honest and when they cannot.

Lies beget more lies, and in this atmosphere, it becomes difficult to distinguish truths from lies told centuries ago, or even from lies told weeks ago. So many lies and misinterpretations sneak their way in among many wise aphorisms that serve to justify the lot. Many of these writings are useful sometimes, so followers may lose sight of the fact that they are utterly untrue in other scenarios, and try to cultivate a habit of blind obedience. This is not a tactic that fits comfortably into the human psyche, and anyone who employs it, or has it wished upon them, will undergo a lot of torment by it.

Now that we can see, not only how our living world functions, but also how our brains and remarkable bodies do, we no longer need religious answers to our unanswered questions. We can see that there exist morals in terms of the probability of good or bad consequences for different sorts of behavior, so we don't need religion for moral guidance. Yet we can make good use of the centuries of moral and psychological tradition that our houses of worship have evolved. But we must end our insistence upon lying that we are certain that God exists.

I know that some religious leaders claim that failure to express certainty will be punished in hell, and even that failure to attempt to convert the uncertain will also be. But because of the way human brains and bodies work, these claims are the cause of endless misery, and even deaths. Surely it can be conceded that it's at least as likely that God would want us to be happy, mentally healthy, and living, and could forego the conceit of endless adoration so that the billions of minds we have could create something truly amazing, which would glorify Him. As we are we can barely hold our societies together.

And if it really is possible to live a moral life, do good unto others, turn the other cheek, give to charity, and still go to hell for faithlessness, then that's civil disobedience, which, as you know, is totally worth doing and makes you feel better than just about anything else. If God is so self-obsessed that He'll punish good people with the utmost severity just because they didn't bow down to Him, then I'm not sure if I'd feel comfortable worshipping Him. And I'm not the only one who's speculated that hell might just be more tolerable than you'd think, or even better than heaven.

This weekend I attended a panel of atheist authors at the Book Expo, which when addressed with a question about agnosticism, offered arguments intended to prove that God can't exist. One said that if God was good, it was impossible that He would let us go through this disgraceful ruckus and not simply reveal Himself. Another said that Ocham's Razor indicated that there was no Creator. But I found both of these utterly unconvincing, and I'm not even invested in thinking that He does exist, I'm merely aware of the flip sides of both of these logical tricks. Because, as I said, I believe that no one, not even these vocal atheists, feels completely certain whether God exists or not, I find denying it just as dubious, if not quite as destructive, as affirming it.

Yet because most of what our religion tells us to do would be good policy anyway, we can do that part of it without bringing God into it more than He already is. As for the sexism, hetero-normativism, human exceptionalism, and other anti-social trappings, we'll just have to do without them and trust in God to know that we're doing the right things.

The time is ripe to begin repair on our transportation system. Since the middle class has so many new and increased financial burdens, including a war, a prohibition-induced black market, a corporate class that lives off billions in welfare, and crisis-level emergency-room bills that result from business acting like there's no tomorrow and more profit today is always better. There are a lot of families that could afford a car three years ago, but within three years will not be able to. With the cost of owning and fueling one rising steadily, the sooner we can cut out those expenses the better.

Paris is rolling out twenty thousand rental bikes - nice ones that they're paying over a grand for. Unlike the many rental bike programs that you might be familiar with, these do not charge a flat rate up front, and they are also not totally free. They are free for the first half hour, 1.30 for the next, 2.6 for the next, and up from there. This system is very popular and very clever because many of the trips people take are under 30 minutes, and for longer ones they may be willing to pay because a taxi would cost at least ten times more (unless the route permitted unusually fast driving).

Now, you might think this is an unproven model, but it has already worked in Lyon. Thirty minutes is a long grace period - people love being treated like that. It's one thing we're maybe not as good at here in the states. But we need to save some money right now. And we can even make a system that's far better than this one Paris is debuting.

First, we offer several types of bikes. At this point there are a few pretty distinct styles. A lot of the people who are serious about going fast and pedaling strong actually use fixed-gear bikes that don't shift, don't coast, and sometimes don't even have brakes. Others prefer traditional road bikes with ten speeds or so. Older riders tend to prefer cruisers whose handlebars reach back so they can sit up straighter. Some kids from my generation like their bikes to be tough enough for moderately off-road terrain. And in a lot of neighborhoods it's more fashionable to ride small bmx wheels.

Preferences vary by rider and by trip - and the more possibilities are covered, the more popular the system will be, and the more impact it will have on our collective budget and fuel economy. The more bikes we can get on the street, the better the flow of traffic will be. The rules of the road will evolve, and I could be wrong about the eventual outcome, but I suspect that enough cars will be off the road that travelling by car will be faster than it is today, and travelling by bike will be faster than travelling by car for a supermajority of intra-city trips.

And since bike traffic is so lightweight and maneuverable, it will be easier to cross streets and pull moves like running in the road if you want to get somewhere fast or just get some exercise en route. Of course, all but the most hardcore can probably settle for the exercise of riding one of the free bikes, but if it were safe to run in the street I bet you'd see people doing it. And they might not even be the most hardcore.

Sidewalks and subways would be less crowded because lots of folks would opt to ride instead. On the other hand, both would pick up some traffic from the population would would have been in cars in the old transit network. It's likewise probable that car and taxi traffic would go down, but as the annoyances related to congestion go down, more drivers usually show up to fill the gaps. If riding among hundreds or thousands of bikes turns out to be annoying, even more may opt out of cars, which would be great news for our safety, health, community awareness, and even our social skills - you can look people in the eye when you're on a bike.

In Paris bikes have to be returned to locking stations, but we could use better wireless technologies to just stop the clock when the bike is parked anywhere, and detect theft in other ways. We could allow or even commission people to paint the bikes so they wouldn't all look the same, would have some flair and some individuality. They could be identifiable as rentals in other ways, like LEDs or a computer mounted to the frame. It would perform functions like wirelessly identifying the rider, recording data about the route, speed, and time of trips, and keeping track of whether any repairs or tuning was needed. It would use a cell radio to transmit and an RFID reader to identify - and if it didn't pick up your RFID signal after the first few blocks it could apply the brakes until you called some authority, to identify yourself, and told them where you were, to identify the bike (or just identified its number or paint job). The transmitter could be embedded in the frame so it couldn't be disabled without destroying the bike; and if one rider was using the same one over and over then anti-theft investigations could take place.

Yet it's quite possible that it would be less expensive to not even have an anti-theft staff. If the need is met well enough, riders would have no reason to steal the bikes. Once enough data about use is collected, most needs will be predictable and able to be met (trucks and subways could carry bikes to where they were needed or people could be paid a modest sum to ride them there). And pricing models that charge prohibitively large fees to riders that use the same bike over and over without interruption would discourage theft because once the thing identified you and the cell radiod it in, you'd be better off leaving it for someone else rather than taking it inside. Even if theft is a relatively serious problem despite all this, it might be more cost-effective to simply replace the bikes, because the demand will decrease with every theft, and the more bikes in use, the greater the societal savings and gains.

Yet compared with the hassle of always locking up a bike, bringing it up the stairs or elevator to your apartment, and taking it through the turnstyle and on the subway, it would be a lot more convenient to just leave it and find another later. And if we get nice enough wheels, this is exactly what many current riders will do. Because although the subways and buses may try their best, it's not that convenient to take a bike there and this is why most of us don't ride. A smart bike program would therefore not only get bikes out of the subway, but also get more of us on the trains and buses and out of taxis. The only problem would be a taxi shortage when it rains. Of course, all the bikes would have fenders to stop spray.

Why is this feasible? Why do I imagine that Americans can overcome fifty years of car-reliance and just welcome this new system, sweatiness and all? Because cycling is faster than driving, it's counterintuitive but true, and our cities and our cars may be shaped differently here than they are in France but it's still true here. People will be drawn by the saved time, convinced by the saved money, and addicted by the thrill.

We can also have a funky website that allows people to make their rides public, so you can see who else has used the bikes you've ridden. Pointless, maybe, but I think people will enjoy it and it will even help them connect to each other and break the ice. You can see who added which decorations to the paint job, see which routes others use and how long the take, and relive some of the thrilling moments of recent history or your own life years ago. Or study the paths of individual bikes to learn about urban patterns and probabilities (and see which routes are fastest at which times of day). I also think that having this site would make people more eager to ride the bikes - just to see who each one would link them to.

This plan is especially feasible because the populations in our cities have relatively weak and worn-out bike fleets. A fair number of people have crap bikes, but the number that has nice ones is, at my guess, under one percent. So the rentals will be filling a need that is very largely unmet, and for those who really want to own their bike, the price will come way down. The feasibility of going without a car will go way up, and the viability of delivery services will go up so their cost will come down, as will the cost of gas. And this will help the motorcycle market grow, granting affordable intercity mobility.