Pretty safe to say that 16.000 on the Muddled Calendar is the strangest of times to be saying Elevator, Ocelot, Rutabaga (so far). Still I wish you, each and every one, a happy and prosperous new Muddled Year.
I’m trying to write an episode that is actually interesting, but it hasn’t been going well. And that was before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” came on the TV/Internet/Radio music distribution system.
It all starts with the simple bass line and the clock-ticking percussion, and I get sucked in. Then Peter Murphy takes direct control of my brain. It’s haunting, and even when it’s loud it’s all somehow far away.
It’s over now, and I just have to remember what I was writing about.
Earlier this month I mentioned that the streets of San Jose are awash with robot cars (five out of a sample of several thousand along a particular high-robot-volume street qualifies as “awash”).
I mentioned that one of the cars was a test vehicle for an outfit called Nuro, and I further mentioned that almost all the content on their Web site is a big treatise on safety. I went on to say that I had not read that document.
Well, today I was thinking more about it, and I went back to Nuro’s site to poke into their safety information. First impression: A document for non-experts that tackles very complex technical issues, but it seemed pretty legit.
Final impression: Nuro must have some pretty serious cash behind it, to take this long and winding road to achieve public trust.
The safety paper opens with the observation that 20% of car trips in the United States are people going shopping, and another 20% are people running errands. For many of those trips, the human is there simply to ferry stuff around. If robots can accomplish that task, that directly reduces the exposure of people to injury in automobile accidents — they’re not in their cars at all! Instead they are home moving the American economy forward by playing Candy Crush.
Nuro also mentions near the start of the document that 94% of all traffic accidents are due to human error. Remember that number when someone someday says, “30% of all robot-car crashes are due to software failure!
Nuro is creating a vehicle that doesn’t have people inside it. That gives it some very interesting advantages in the safety realm — the vehicle can choose to crash into a light post rather than hit the idiot that ran out in front of it. Self-sacrifice is an option for a vehicle without people in it. And the vehicle itself can be squishy, since it doesn’t have to protect occupants. The “windscreen” is a shiny panel on the front of the vehicle designed to give humans visual cues about the behavior of the car, but it doesn’t have to be layered tempered glass. It’s just shiny bouncy plastic.
Not having an impatient human to appease means the robot can putter along at a speed that increases decision time and shortens stopping distance. I think that’s important… but 25 mph max might be a little too slow for the streets around here, until we can get rid of all the impatient humans.
There are many, many words used in the document about when the robot decides it can’t operate safely and will pull out of traffic until a remote human operator can take over. While I see the necessity of that short-term, I expect with a few improvements to civil traffic control (flagman signs that can interact directly with robot cars springs to mind), that before too long the robots will learn to outperform the human backup.
I chose the word “learn” because there is a sort of cyber-attack I had not heard of before. You have probably heard of machine learning, although it’s frequently (and incorrectly) labeled artificial intelligence. Many companies have developed sophisticated systems that, after exposure to countless examples, are able to generalize information. It’s super-slick.
Nuro’s cars work that way. They are constantly gathering data from the environment and using that to refine their behaviors, and they share that information with the rest of the fleet.
But when your data comes from the environment around you, assholes can manipulate that environment to teach the machines falsehoods. Sometimes yield signs are octagonal and red, things like that. (Although to be successful the false data would have to be about something subtler, I suspect. I can easily imagine college-me arranging traffic cones differently every time a Nuro vehicle passed by. It’s an obvious parallel to my “yeeech” experiment, which shall not be documented in this episode.)
Of course there’s all the other usual stuff to keep the vehicles from being hacked, and one advantage of “safety as a priority before the first line of code is written” is that security also can be built in at the ground level.
Also mentioned more than once: the “whole widget” concept. If the software and the hardware are developed together for a single focussed purpose, it will work better and be safer. Steve Jobs would be proud.
And if you consider air quality to be a safety concern, then something like this makes everyone safer.
Nuro recognizes that the biggest obstacle to their success is social. Will people seeing Nuro’s placid robot cars poking along through the neighborhood think good thoughts or bad thoughts? Will appreciation of reduced traffic congestion, better air quality, and a more convenient life outweigh the fear of a robot uprising, and perhaps even worse, the fuming rage of being stuck behind a little robot car doing 25 in a 35 zone?
Tonight I have seen ads from two entirely distinct restaurant chains offering a free sandwich in exchange for your personal information.
I’m all right with that. Your info is yours to sell. Just be sure you understand the transaction. And here at least, you can establish a concrete value for your personal information. One sandwich.
So every time you give your information out, ask yourself: Am I at least getting a sandwich?
When you fill out an online quiz, are you getting a sandwich? When you sign up for notifications, are you getting a sandwich? When you send email to someone with a gmail address, are you getting a sandwich? If you use a gmail email account, are you getting a sandwich for every email you send or receive?
Google gives no sandwiches. Google pays you nothing for your personal data, and despite legislation in Europe and California, is skating around your ability to force them to delete your data. Facebook, also. All the social media assholes. They make three sandwiches of profit off you, but give you no sandwiches.
What is called for is a data marketplace, where your information is yours to sell, and you can negotiate terms. The cornerstone of that is that your personal information is NOT something someone else can sell.
Today as I used public transportation to go to work, I saw five robotic cars, operated by three different companies.
Three of the five cars were Urban Automated Driving vehicles operated by Bosh and Daimler, running (human monitored) robot taxi service along the same corridor my bus takes. The Mercedes c-class vehicles are equipped head-to-toe in lidar units (lidar is like radar… with lasers!) and if I loaded the app I could ride in one. Which… is tempting, for purely journalistic reasons. My biggest question: How bored is the human monitor? Super-bored means things are going smoothly; super-bored also means that the human will never spot the emergency in time.
The second company was Nuro. The vehicle was a Toyota or whatever with sensors all over it, but what the company is actually developing is an autonomous vehicle that doesn’t have seats in it at all. Their dream: order your groceries and have the robot bring them to you. The vehicles are electric and since there is no need to account for human comfort, they could theoretically be much, much cheaper. It is easy to imagine that many companies that sell stuff would be interested in having something like that. Nuro’s Web site doesn’t have a lot of information, except for a pdf with a major discussion of safety (that I didn’t read).
There was a third, but my most humble apologies, dear readers, I don’t remember the company name painted on the car. It was not Google; I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Apple, should they even still have experimental cars, would keep them anonymous (which, as I think about it, would be just as definitive as putting a neon logo on the side — no other company would operate vehicles with a bunch of extra gear strapped on without missing the chance to brag about it).
As cities go, San Jose and the rest of the unplanned, disorganized sprawl that is Silicon Valley is… meh. And the cost to live in meh is staggering. But one thing I do enjoy is that it feels like we are just a little bit closer to the future here. And there’s nothing like Bay Area traffic to make you really, really, look forward to the day when people are not in control of giant deadly machines.
It’s something I learned from my asshole brother.
This evening I’m sitting in an agreeable bar in San Jose and the party at the table next to mine has been expanding. Before long there were more butts in the party than seats to put them on.
A woman from that group saw the unused seats around my table and put her hands on one of them, while asking “Do you mind if I take this seat?”
“Five dollars,” I said.
This was absolutely not the response she was expecting. She hesitated, her face clouding in confusion and perhaps suspicion.
After a pregnant moment I let her off. “I’m kidding,” I said, “Go ahead.” She relaxed from a confrontation she was not ready to manage, and moved the stool from my table to hers.
Not long after, as the party at the next table grew, another woman asked for another of the seats at my table. “TEN dollars!” I announced.
She laughed as she took the stool. “Hourly, I assume?”
Over the holidays I took a trip back to the homeland to hang with my family for a few days. I flew in to Albuquerque then rented a car for my trip north into the mountains.
I reserved an economy car, of course, in the cheapest price tier available. Certainly no need for anything more.
The flights went well and I was on the ground in Albuquerque at the appointed time. I made my way to the car rental place, where a man named Mario helped me out. He asked me where I was heading. When I told him I was heading to Los Alamos he said, “It’s snowy up there! Snowed yesterday, gonna snow again tonight!”
“I grew up there,” I said. “I’ve driven in the snow before.”
“All right,” Mario said. He tapped some keys. “I’m going to be putting you into a Mustang tonight.”
Because there’s nothing like a muscle car for slick conditions. “You don’t have anything with front wheel drive?” I asked.
Mario tapped the keys for a while, but I’m not sure why he bothered, since they didn’t have any other cars except giant (and expensive) trucks. Mario muttered quietly to himself as he scanned the inventory, “Muscle car… muscle car… muscle car…”
“Normally I’d love the chance to play with a muscle car,” I said, “But as you said, things might be slick up there.”
He kept pretending to look for a different answer, but there was none.
I’ve kept an Alpha Romeo on the road during snowstorms up there; a Mustang shouldn’t be that bad as long as I’m light on the gas. “OK,” I said, “Put me in a Mustang.”
A few more key-presses later, and Mario handed me the fob-without-a-key for the car I would be driving for the next few days. Not just any Mustang, but a Mustang GT with the five-liter V-8. Because when you’re in slick conditions, what you really need is more power.
I will leave my impressions of the car for another day, except to say that it was my first time driving a car with a touch screen or one that had a backup camera. I liked the latter much more than the former.
While in the Atomic City, I met with old friends. One chilly afternoon I pulled up at Bill’s mom’s house and saw another Mustang on the street.
Yep, that was John, with his rental from the same company.
It was about a month ago that I read on the pages of deadspin.com how corporate assholes had destroyed Sports Illustrated. There are no more journalists at that respected institution, and actually not even any more photographers. Three months ago Sports Illustrated broke a huge story about an athlete, rape, and intimidation. It was a careful, researched piece of journalism.
That will never happen again at SI. The new corporate masters want clickbait but no actual content. Many staffers — the ones involved with journalism or, ironically, illustrating sports — were let go.
One of the journalistic institutions that railed most loudly about the corporate machine silencing the voices of writers was Deadspin. They seriously do not pull their punches there. They will tell you exactly why your favorite team sucks (technically they are a sports outlet), but they will also tell you why mainstream journalists are so lost when covering a man-child president — looking for a plan when there is none, looking for a policy when the man in charge is incapable of formulating one.
But now Deadspin has fallen to the same corporate bullshit. Their media owners tried to impose a mandate that they only cover sports, and the social issues that were directly related, but to stay away from pop culture and politics in particular. The deputy editor said no, and was fired. Much of the staff quit in response.
This is not small.
Over at ESPN, there has been a slow, quiet purge of columnists who dare talk about race and gender inequality in the context of sports. Although management says they have “clarified” their rules about only talking about politics and race when it is directly germane to sports, it’s pretty much impossible to say that Jemele Hill crossed some invisible line. Her essays were always in the context of sport. But that wasn’t what the ESPN bosses really wanted, no matter what they said. The didn’t want anyone rocking the boat.
Deadspin, if you squint at the name just right, looks like it might have been born to mock ESPN. And up until this week, it was a fearless voice. Boat-rockers one and all. But in the last couple of days, in the wake of mass resignations, many recent “political” articles have been replaced by straight-up sports stories. Three years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee, even the “renegade” media outlets have been coerced to the idea that somehow that athlete’s protest was not related to sports — even if it was a protest about something that touched athletes and their communities directly.
To the writers who quit Deadspin, who have put their livelihoods at risk for a matter of principle: I have an underutilized little server in a bunker outside Las Vegas, Nevada. If you want to fire up Rebornspin, I’ll host you no charge.
Hey, for the two gamers that read this blog, I have a question. Has there ever been a game where the world is quicksand bureaucracy and the goal of the gaming party is to get some on-the-surface-insignificant-but-actually-world-changing policy adopted? Somehow that sounds like fun, given a well-realized bureaucracy.
A couple of years ago, there were several horrifying wildfires in California. (Trump blamed all the dang trees.) It turns out many of those fires were caused by criminally negligent practices by Pacific Gas and Electric.
Remember Erin Brockovich? That same PG&E is still around.
LONG diversion coming, but it’s an interesting story. If you don’t want to enjoy my ground-rehashing journalism, scroll down to “But anyway…”
Then there was the period where California tried to bring a market economy to power distribution. I lived in San Diego at the time, and our deal was different than the rest of California. SDG&E was the pilot for phase two of the program. I could choose my own power generator. Obviously I chose a company that generated electricity (relatively) responsibly. And while the electricity that my ultra-hippie power-generation company actually produced probably didn’t reach my outlets, it all evens out on the grid.
But the grid isn’t a magical system that transparently moves power to where it’s needed. The grid has choke-points, and there are critical spots between northern and southern California that PG&E and Enron and Ross Perot identified early on.
The evil companies were actually contracted to write the software that tied electric rates to supply, and they built in a key weakness: If they could contrive a shortage in one part of the state, they could charge everyone extortionist rates. The film-flams even had cute names in the internal memos at Enron and their pals. I don’t know how much California paid them for this service.
PG&E was a pal.
The system went into place, and after a few months the energy companies started actively fucking with California. They COULD have subtly and gently influenced the energy market over the course of years, and might still be doing it now, but greedy fucks will always be greedy fucks and the evil energy companies decided to loot California for as much as they could get as fast as they could get it.
Rolling blackouts hit Southern California, as too much electricity was bottled up in the north. People lost the contents of their freezers. Businesses failed. Hospitals scrambled. People died. The energy companies made a quick billion dollars.
The narrative at the time, guided by a credulous media was, “those darn Californians sure waste a lot of energy!” And none of us down in the rolling blackouts thought to consider that energy companies like PG&E would intentionally do this to us.
But they had. And when the dust settled and California scrapped its free-market energy experiment (the energy companies made sure there would be no actual free market), PG&E was sitting on a giant pile of fraudulent cash. The lawyers would be coming.
Lucky for PG&E, Enron was even more evil, and had been destroying the lives of their own employees while they ripped off California. In slick maneuvering the lawyers defending Enron’s top criminals managed to seal the documents implicating the evil energy companies in collusion and fraud on a scale this country has not seen before or since. (Before the docs were sealed, they were widely reported on, but once they were sealed, they could not be used for other prosecutions.)
Meanwhile, PG&E split itself in half. One half had the money, the other half could be sued. Both halves are owned by the same motherfuckers; they were just pulling yet another fast one. Without the smoking gun of the sealed documents, that was enough to protect the dirty money they had made. SDG&E did similar sleight-of-hand. My hippie electricity provider apologized for not being to do business in such a toxic environment.
We’ll pass over the time when PG&E’s negligence led to a gas line explosion that blew up a few houses. “Decaying infrastructure,” the headlines said, as if a company making billions using the infrastructure wasn’t responsible for maintaining it.
Then there were the fires, and the roughly 2400 lawsuits that followed when people figured out that PG&E was a bunch of assholes that doesn’t mind killing people for profit.
PG&E faced a lot of ire. One of the biggest criticisms was, “If you’re not going to do the work to make your part of the grid safe, at least turn off the power in at-risk areas before another disaster happens.”
When we think of the grid we think of giant skeletal frames bearing wire, marching in eerily straight lines across the landscape. But there’s another part of the grid, where those massive lines terminate and split into smaller high-voltage transmission lines. There are a bazillion of those power poles in California, and they are not all inspected as often as they should be. Branches get close to lines, the wind blows, lines come down and fires start.
In the face of lawsuits and PG&E’s contrived dodge-the-consequences bankruptcy and generally bad PR, PG&E is determined this year to not be the cause of another deadly wildfire. Today they have shut down the power to large chunks of Silicon Valley for safety, along with widespread shutdowns in more rural areas up north.
People are somehow surprised about this, even though PG&E has been saying they would do it for more than a year now.
That whole diversion above was mainly to let you all know I’m no shill for PG&E. I hate those fuckers. I hate them more than you do. I hate them almost as much as the poisoned families Erin Brockovich represented do.
But there is outrage today against the evil bastards that is misplaced. We TOLD them to stop causing deadly wildfires. That is what they are doing. They TOLD us that they might have to turn off the power, and we should be ready.
THIS IS NOT A SURPRISE. It is not out of the blue.
It is not some screw-job by PG&E. They don’t make money when we eat barbecue by candlelight.
On the other hand, I do have to wonder. I can sense a petulant child behind these shutdowns, a pudgy frowny sweaty child-face saying “you want safety? I’ll shut all you fuckers down and then you’ll appreciate what I do for you!”
Obviously I can’t prove that.
But these shutdowns do prove what perhaps we’ve known for a long time. The grid sucks. The grid has given the evil bastards at PG&E and Enron and the rest the power to jerk us over. The grid has been inconvenient for those same bastards to maintain, so they don’t, and it kills people.
Even when the grid is working perfectly, it is terribly inefficient. More than half the energy generated is lost in transmission.
We need to destroy PG&E, cut through the bullshit corporate layers and recover the money they have stolen from us. Don’t sue the shell companies, sue the people. But it’s not just enough to destroy PG&E. We have to destroy the grid.
The grid gives them power. The grid causes deadly fires. The grid consumes half the electricity generated in this country even before it reaches an outlet.
The technology exists, now, to make electricity a cottage industry. I imagine my neighborhood making a deal and turning all our rooftops into a solar collective. Those panels wouldn’t cover the energy use of the park, but we could partner with local energy companies and because of local generation, the transmission loss would be reduced, so the price could be reduced as well.
“Buy local” is especially appropriate when referring to electricity.
The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas decided to challenge herself to writing a Blog post every day in October (the month also known as “Holy Heck, it’s Almost November”).
Seems like a good idea to me, forcing me to do at least some damn thing with words each day.
Even if it’s just some cheap quickie episode about how it’s Blogtober.
A few months ago the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked ideas and I were looking for a good mouthwash that was not made by a company that engages in animal testing. There are a lot out there, actually, but the trouble is that none of them left our mouths feeling clean the way Listerine did. Listerine feels potent, whether of not it actually is; there’s no substitute for that alcohol bite.
I had always imagined that Listerine was more… sciency that what it turns out to be. There’s the whole American Dental Association endorsement and all that. But it turns out that Listerine comes from the heyday of Snake Oil medicine, and was first marketed as a surgical disinfectant. It was almost certainly better than nothing, which is what most surgeons used back then.
But the thing is Listerine is just a combination of water, grain alcohol, and some essential oils like menthol and thymol. All the ingredients are easily purchased.
OSMRHBI realized that if no one else was making the right mouthwash, that she could just make her own, and tweak the essential oils to better suit our tastes. (This is one of her Superpowers, to say “fine, I’ll make my own.”) It took a couple of iterations to dial in the recipe, but now I would never go back. Our home-brewed version is simply the best mouthwash I’ve ever used.
Is it as effective? I’m not sure how to measure that, considering Listerine’s efficacy claims are maybe not all that scientific either.
It makes smooching better, though, I can promise you that.
Call yourself a Reublocrat or a Democlan, I think when pressed you would have to agree that the presence of hungry children in this prosperous nation is preposterous. It’s mind-boggling to me that we even have to have fundraisers to make sure kids in this country have enough to eat.
But here’s a fundraiser so that at least a few kids can get a meal at least once a day, for a while. Structural change is needed, but for now, let’s just make sure the kids get enough to eat.
In this case, you can get a signed photo of Harlean (taken by me). I am sometimes surprised at the results our shoots. Even better, there are books by the most awesome William Taylor Jr., a writer of words that make you think.
On top of all that, there’s the painting based on the photo I took of Harlean.
But if you don’t want any of that stuff, you can just throw cash, and let my employer match magnify your contribution.
It starts at https://poeticpinup.com/nkhfundraiser/
It ends when we don’t have to do shit like this.