Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Death by self-driving Uber car puts all autonomous vehicle research in jeopardy

Uber has called a halt to its driverless car testing after a woman pedestrian was killed by an Uber car operating in autonomous mode in Tempe, Arizona.
Uber had already suspended its self-driving car tests once before, after a crash - coincidentally, also in Tempe, Arizona - about a year ago, in which, miraculously, no-one was hurt. In that case, the Uber car was not able to react to another car unexpectedly failing to yield, despite the presence of a human in the driver's seat who could theoretically take over the controls when needed.
In this latest case, it is not yet clear exactly what the circumstance were, although police have said that the victim had "not been using a pedestrian crossing", i.e. she was probably jay-walking. Nor is it clear why the "driver" was not able to intervene. But it is nevertheless tragic, and also embarrassing for the whole driverless car program, which is being aggressively pursued in several states by several companies including Ford, GM, Tesla and Waymo, among others, as well as Uber. All of these companies are now looking hard at their own programs, and the USA is in the process of drawing up national safety guidelines for such cars.
In the meantime, organizations like Consumer Watchdog, which has been warning for years that the technology is being deployed before it is ready, and that such an accident was just waiting to happen, are saying "told you so", and calling for a moratorium of the testing of all self-driving vehicles on public roads. Autonomous cars may seem like a relatively straightforward technology and already well-tested, but it seems it is no match (yet) for the vagaries of human behaviour and the sheer number of possible situations that might arise in the real world.
The Center for Automotive Research is counselling perspective, and saying that this single fatality should be taken in the context of the 37,000 vehicle deaths (including 6,000 pedestrians) that occur in the United States every year. But their voice is a lone one in the wilderness, and this could be enough to drive a final nail into the coffin of autonomous car research.
A death by self-driving car seems somehow qualitatively different from a regular vehicle death (even if it shouldn't). Part of the problem is the hype that has built up around the technology, and the excessive and unrealistic promises that autonomous vehicles will one day eliminate all road fatalities. Even if it is actually a safer mode of transportation, its road to acceptance has just become that bit harder.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The best Trump speech Trump never made

Comedian Candy Palmater offered a wonderful off-the-cuff improvised impression of a Donald Trump speech during this week's edition of the (almost) always-funny Because News quiz on CBC Radio:
"I'll tell you what, some have them, some don't. It's going to be good, or it could be bad, it could be good. I'll tell you what, it's tremendous. Also it could be bad. It's sad, I feel sad. This is good. Thank you."
Well, maybe it doesn't look so funny out of context, but trust me, it was funny. More specifically, it was in response to Trump's recent briefing about that damned wall:
"The problem is, you have to have see-through. You have to know what's on the other side. I mean you could be two feet away from a criminal cartel if you don't even know they're there ... So, we're looking at the walls where you have some see-through capability. If you don't have some see-through, it's a problem ... Who would think? Who would think? These are, like, professional mountain climbers. They're incredible climbers. They can't climb some of these walls. Some of them they can."
So, no, no-one does it quite like Trump, but full marks to Ms. Palmater for at least coming close.

The Cold War in the age of Twitter

The Russian Embassy's Twitter goading of British PM Theresa May in recent days can only be described as Trumpian.
In response to May's expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, @RussianEmbassy tweeted: "The temperature of Russian-British relations drops to -23, but we are not afraid of cold weather". Oooh!
This, and other jokey and sarcastic tweets in recent days, comes in stark contrast to the official response from the embassy, which, while full of outrage and righteous indignation, was at least serious, terse and measured.
I still can't really believe that governments, embassies and politicians are using Twitter for official and semi-official pronouncements. It may or may not be a reflection of technological progress and the modern Zeitgeist, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a totally inappropriate medium. Donald Trump was not the first politician to use the platform for official business, but he has been almost single-handedly responsible for dragging the tone of worldwide political discourse down into the gutter. Now, everybody feels obliged to slum it down there too. What a state of state affairs!

Checking emails less often will make you a nicer person

Being constantly connected via your phone really does increase your stress levels. It's no longer just anecdotal or commonsense arguments that show that. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior a few years ago now followed the reported stress levels of two groups of office workers, one of which was allowed to check their emails just three times a day, the other group being allowed to check whenever they wanted. The group that only checked emails three times a day was noticeably more relaxed. However, in order to show that it was the phone-checking that was actually causing the stress, and that this was not just a false impression created by a particularly stressy group of people, the two groups then switched over and, sure enough, the previously relaxed group was now the anxious and stressed group.
So, what can be done to ameliorate the problem? A Globe and Mail article today offers five simple practical steps that can be taken to cut down obsessive phone-checking for business people:
  1. Delegate some of the checking to a trusted assistant who can alert you to any urgent messages, but free you up to get on with the rest of your job.
  2. Use a real old-fashioned alarm clock to wake you up in the morning, so that you are less likely to check emails and texts first thing in the morning.
  3. Similarly, and for the same reasons, use a watch to check the time, not your phone (you'd be surprised how often you do it during a day), or leave your phone on airplane mode so that you can check the time without getting caught up in emails and messages.
  4. Set specific times to check emails, say once an hour or even less frequently, and limit the time spent checking to say 15 minutes so that you can at least deal with the urgent issues on a timely basis (trying to keep your inbox empty is likely self-defeating, because every email you answer will probably trigger another response).
  5. Take yourself a bit less seriously: the world will keep on spinning regardless of whether you respond to an email immediately or not.
Sound advice, I'd say, and although it is mainly aimed at the busy business person or entrepreneur, much of it also translates to the regular Joe or to a student.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The coywolf in Toronto

I watched a coyote stroll through the park in front of our Toronto house early this Sunday morning. Really, it was more of an easy trot than a stroll, but it was certainly in no great hurry; seemed perfectly comfortable and at ease in this city park by the beach.
This is the coywolf, or eastern coyote (or just coyote), big cousin to the more common western coyote. First identified in the early 1920s in the southern part of Algonquin Park, this "new" hybrid of the western coyote and the eastern wolf (now extirpated in the area), with a bit of domestic dog DNA thrown into the mix, the wily and adaptable eastern coyote has been extremely successful, and in recent years has started moving into the cities of Southern Ontario, where it can make a good living from the plentiful small mammals in ravine parks (as well as the odd domestic cat or small dog).
So, if you see a scruffy wolf-like large dog in a Toronto park or even on the city streets at night - grey/brown, with erect ears and a bushy, often black tipped tail - it's probably a coywolf, or eastern coyote. Keep Tiddles out of sight, and please don't feed it; just let it go about its business.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Boycotting the Russian election will achieve nothing

For what it's worth, the Russian people go to the polls to vote on March 18th (with a second round three weeks later in the unlikely case of no absolute majority winner). Or at least some of them do - many opposition supporters are calling for a boycott of the election, on the grounds that Putin had stacked the odds in his own favour, and any results will be marred by irregularities and fraud.
As usual, Vladimir Putin holds all the cards. Popular opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down under suspicious circumstances three of years ago. The current de facto opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been disqualified from taking part in the election due to a 2014 criminal conviction that his supporters say was trumped up by the Kremlin in order to sideline him and his threat to Putin's re-election. A late challenge by society gal Ksenia Sobchak, a popular figures but a political lightweight and family friend of Putin, is widely seen as a Putin-inspired play to split any remaining opposition.
Unfortunately, election boycotts just do not work. Perhaps they are a nice idea in theory: it gives an immediate message to human rights groups and the world at large that there is an unresolved issue, and they may conceivably help the protestors to obtain some minor concession. But in effect, the withdrawal of opposition votes just give the offending party an easy ride - it goes on to win legitimacy with minimal effort.
According to a major 2010 analysis of 171 recent cases, boycotts have just a 4% success rate. Examples across the world, from Egypt to Venezuela to South Africa to Lebanon, have drilled this point home.
Boycottting, the so-called "third option", is no option at all - it just throws away a vote, and voids the collective voice of dissent. How could it be otherwise? I don't have a good solution to the current impasse in Moscow, but I'm pretty sure an election boycott is not it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Redundant phrases in journalism and police work

I was listening to the radio today, when a police spokesman talked about someone incurring a stab wound in a "lower extremity". I had trouble visualizing some being stabbed in the foot, and it was only when there was a mention of a second stab wound to an "upper extremity" that I realized that "lower extremity" actually means "leg", and "upper extremity" means "arm".
So, why don't they say "leg" and "arm"? The use of "extremity" is no more accurate, formal or legal, and it is certainly more confusing. Do they think they sound more intelligent, or that their job somehow sounds more difficult amd technical? Who knows?
This same kind of circumlocution is also rampant in court cases and in newspapers, and I came across this informative list of redundant journalese phrases:
  • fled on foot = ran away 
  • high rate of speed = speeding 
  • physical altercation = fight 
  • verbal altercation = argument 
  • reduce expenditures = cut costs 
  • terminate employment = fire 
  • reduction in service = layoff 
  • blunt force trauma = injury 
  • discharged the weapon = shot 
  • transport the victim = take him/her 
  • lower extremities = legs 
  • officers observed = police saw 
  • at this point in time = now 
  • express concerns = complain 
  • incendiary device = bomb 
  • obtain information = ask or interview
  • deceased = dead 
  • sexual relations = sex 
  • roadway = road 
  • fail to negotiate a curve = missed a curve
  • determine a course of action = consider options 
  • vehicle = car or truck 
  • citizen = person 
  • individual = man or woman 
  • commence = begin 
  • emergency personnel = police, firefighters 
  • utilize = use 
  • complainant = victim 
  • fatally injured = killed 
  • motorist = driver 
  • juvenile male/female = teen boy or girl 
  • respond to the scene = arrive 
  • precipitation = rain, snow 
  • purchase = buy 
  • intoxicated = drunk 
  • controlled substances = drugs 
  • appendages = arms, legs 
  • contusion = bruise 
  • head trauma = head injury 
  • laceration = cut 
  • provide leadership = lead 
  • obstruct = block, get in the way 
  • came to the conclusion that = decided, figured out 
  • arrived at a decision = decided 
  • reside = live
These are phrases we read and hear all the time in newspapers and on the radio and television. And most of them are absolutely indefensible, and mere exercises in official obfuscation.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Older generation needs to let go of power and ego

Elizabeth Renzetti is one of my favourite Globe and Mail journalists, a voice of reason and of sharp wit, and I am looking forward to reading her new book of essays, Shrewed, A Wry And Closely Observed Look At The Lives Of Women And Girls.
What I was particularly struck by in her recent interview on CBC was her graciousness. As a proverbial elder stateswoman of Canadian feminism - well, actually, she's only a good-looking 52 years old, several years younger than me, but she was involved in the second wave of feminism, even if not the first - she does not expect the younger generation of feminists to kowtow to her superior years and experience. In fact, she specifically says that she feels that older feminists should actually take a step back and listen to and support younger people, cognizant of the fact that their concerns and their approaches may be different: "I think we need to be quieter as older feminists and listen, promote and amplify their voices ... taking cues from them because they know how the world actually works now".
What a refreshing attitude! And how different from another recent article I read (and which I can't now locate online), this one by the executive director and publisher of The Walrus magazine, Shelley Ambrose. Ms. Ambrose's article annoyed the hell out of me, coming across as whiny, curmudgeonly and entitled. She maintained that younger people did not have enough respect for us older folks, and that they needed to listen to us more and defer to our greater wisdom and experience.
No, absolutely not! Like it or not, we live in a young people's world, and we should not be foisting our outdated attitudes on another generation. We have made (and continue to make) enough of a mess of the world: let someone else have a crack at it - it would be hard to do worse. We should not be resting on our laurels and perpetuating the orthodoxy, but, as Ms. Renzetti suggests, supporting the next generation in their contemporary struggles. This applies to feminism, just as much as to environmentalism and other aspects of progressive thought.