Death by Self-Driving Car

I’m not surprised by this:

THE POLICE HAVE released video showing the final moments before an Uber self-driving car struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing the street, on Sunday night in Tempe, Arizona.

The video includes views of the human safety driver and her view of the road, and it shows Herzberg emerging from the dark just seconds before the car hits her. And based on this evidence, it’s difficult to understand why Uber’s self-driving system—with its lidar laser sensor that sees in the dark—failed to avoid hitting Herzberg, who was slowly, steadily crossing the street, pushing a bicycle.

The video itself is here:

As I said after that self-driving Tesla crashed in 2016 having failed to differentiate between the sky and the side of a lorry:

The mistake people make is to assume every action in driving is one of simple measurement, and conclude that computers are far better at measuring things than humans are in terms of speed and accuracy.  However, driving is often about judgement as opposed to pure measurement (and this is why it takes a while to become a good driver, judgement improves with experience), and much of this judgement relates to the interpretation of visual information.  The recognition of objects by computers is still only in its infancy, and nowhere near robust enough to deploy in any safety-critical system.  Given the pace of development of other areas of computing abilities, such as sound recognition in apps like Shazam, object recognition is seriously lagging behind and I suspect for very good reasons: software, being made up of pre-programmed algorithms, simply isn’t very good at it.  And even then object recognition isn’t enough, a self-driving car would need to be able to not only accurately acquire visual data but also interpret it before initiating an action (or not).  Computers are unable to do this for anything other than the most basic of pre-determined objects and scenarios, while the environment in which humans operate their cars is fiendishly complex.

This latest incident doesn’t do much to convince me otherwise. And here’s Longrider:

A human driver can look at a situation developing and reading body language and little subliminal cues to react long before the situation has become dangerous, long before the AI has even suspected that a situation is developing.

Quite. Also:

This woman was unlawfully killed and someone, somewhere should be prosecuted for it. If it was a human driver, then that would be straightforward. However, now we get into who programmed the damned thing, how was it set up, what failed? But bottom line here is that someone was criminally negligent and should be doing jail time.

After the Tesla crash, I said:

What does amaze me though is that computers are being put into cars with the belief that they can do things they demonstrably can’t.  A hefty lawsuit and tighter regulations can’t be too far away.

Both politicians and the public seem keen on self-driving cars being rolled out onto public roads while still dangerously unsafe, wooed by the idea that “technology” is safer than humans and any errors – even those resulting in someone’s death – can be rectified with a few lines of code. Someone’s going to make a lot of money out of these things, and it won’t be the manufacturers.


A Lightbulb Moment

So today I go into France’s biggest DIY chain to buy a lightbulb. The type I’m after is one of the small, spiral-wound fluorescent bulbs which fits neatly into a ceiling lamp. Only they no longer sell fluorescent light bulbs: they’ve all been replaced by LED bulbs, which are better. But they’re not the same shape, having a more bulbous glass piece (similar to the old incandescent ones) for the same connection size, and it doesn’t fit the lamp.

No doubt I can buy the bulb elsewhere, but answer me this: which fucking dickhead persuaded governments worldwide to force hundreds of millions of people to switch to fluorescent bulbs when LED bulbs, which would make them obsolete, were just a few years over the horizon? Can we get hold of them and string them up by the balls please, followed by each and every politician who went along with this idiocy?


Material Technologies

Thanks everyone for sharing enough stories to make me feel comfortable that I was not alone in driving a dangerously unsafe car back in my youth. Like I said at the beginning of the post, there was a time when taking possession of your first banger was a rite of passage for young men. (It may have been different for women: the first car of my ex-housemate was a Nissan Micra that, although in very good condition, was ginger in colour.)

Back around 2001 I had to commute between south Manchester and Warrington, so bought a brand new Renault Clio, 1.2l at the very bottom of the range (I got a new one because I knew it would work and the finance deal was pretty good). It was about as much a girl’s car as you could find, especially being bright red, but having done that job delivering cars all over Manchester I knew what it was like to drive compared to Fiestas, Polos, and the other cars in its class. I went for the bottom of the range of a small car simply to save money. I had that car for about two years and not a thing went wrong with it, it was perfect except for being a little to small for my legs. On long journeys, my knee would hurt.

What I noticed when I lovingly washed it every weekend was how much of it was actually plastic. The front wings were, and the sills covered in a rough plastic coating which didn’t chip easily. Parked outside in Manchester weather, there wasn’t a spot of rust on it even after two years. When I walked to work this morning, I tried to spot a rusty car on the way. I didn’t see one. But back when I was growing up in the 1980s? Oh boy. I read stories about how British Leyland would stamp out car panels in one factory, load them onto an uncovered flatbed truck, and drive them through the rain to be painted and installed elsewhere. Little wonder they started rusting from the moment you took it off the forecourt. It wasn’t just British cars, though. My parents had a VW Beetle which one of my school chums nicknamed “measles”, and we had two successive Mark I Golfs whose wheel arches rusted through in a few years. Back in those days, Halfords used to sell sheets of wire mesh that you’d fix over the gaping holes in the bodywork and cover with a sort of polyfilla, then sand it smooth. If you were lucky, you’d find some paint to match but a lot of people just left it at that. I doubt anyone does this any more, save for those working on classic cars.

What’s changed, aside from the demise of state-run disasters such as British Leyland, is materials technology. The steel will be of a higher quality these days, and I expect all cars are galvanised as standard. Plastics are used wherever possible, and the coating and painting systems will have advanced beyond recognition. The paint on old cars used to be very brittle, and would flake off around a stone chip. Nowadays the paint is more rubbery, and stone chips cause small pitting but don’t usually penetrate to the metal.

In my lifetime, the two massive advances in technology have been the internet and mobile technology. These have overshadowed other advances which are possibly of equal importance in terms of quality of life and wealth. Being an engineer, I have a habit of looking at modern equipment and comparing it to the kit I grew up around. The difference is incredible. Clothing is an obvious example. When I was an army cadet between 1992-1996, we were decked out in Falklands-era uniforms: heavy cotton smocks and trousers, woolen military jumpers, 58-pattern webbing made of a sort of woven canvas. This stuff was only waterproof if you sprayed it, and although it kept you warm even if wet, it trebled in weight and took a week to dry. A few of us got hold of Norwegian army shirts made from towelling, which were very warm but if they got wet the arms would increase in length by about fifty percent. By the mid-90s Gore-Tex was well established in civilian clothing lines, and fleeces were starting their period of dominance which continues to this day. Nowadays when I go hiking or skiiing, I’m amazed at how warm, light, and waterproof everything is, and not just the clothes. Footwear, tents, rucksacks, head torches, straps, buckles, and every other piece of equipment is now made from plastics optimised for that precise application. I’m sure the same is true for other pursuits, too. I don’t know much about sailing and nothing at all about golf, cycling, or motorbikes, but I’m confident the material technology in these areas is space-age compared to what it was in the 1980s.

Back then, when we went on holiday, my parents used to pack our clothes into these brown vinyl suitcases in the traditional style. They were awkward, not very strong, and the straps were splitting. Wander into a Samsonite store now and you’ll see suitcases which look to be made of body armour that weigh nothing. Even the arms of the glasses I’m wearing now are made from carbon fibre. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a piece of equipment whose usability, quality, durability, weight, and ergonomics hasn’t been improved massively thanks to the invention and adoption of new material technologies. It’s something a lot of people probably miss, blinded by the more obvious technological changes around them. We probably ought to give a small nod to the men and women who brought it about though, especially when people start railing against hydrocarbons.


King Conned

From The Telegraph:

German car-makers have “blood on their hands” due to rigging diesel exhaust tests which led to the deaths of thousands of Britons, the Government’s former chief scientist has said.

Professor Sir David King said it was “simply astonishing” that Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler had performed rigged experiments on monkeys and that such duplicity had caused the deaths of large numbers of people in the UK.

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser until 2007, Sir David described being duped into believing diesel capture technology was safe during a trip to a British testing lab in 2004, prompting a policy shift in favour of diesel cars.

I can see why David King is so angry. He used to get paraded around in the Blair years as some sort of high priest of science, his words clung to by the political establishment even when he came up with such idiocy as suggesting ExxonMobil should move Fawley refinery inland to avoid being flooded by rising sea levels. I expect he also subscribed to the same view as much of Britain’s political establishment that Germans, when it comes to industry, can do nothing wrong and we should stand in awe of their brilliance (have a look at how the Remainer press fawns over Merkel and every pronouncement on Brexit from German “business leaders”).

And it turns out he’s had the wool pulled over his eyes. Leaving aside the irony that a government appointee who was instrumental in pushing the climate change agenda should now complain of being misled, there’s a bigger issue here than King’s ego. Sweeping legislation such as that which encouraged millions of British people to buy diesel cars ought to be based on something a little more robust than an individual’s opinion after visiting a lab with seemingly no interest in ensuring what he was seeing was a legitimate test. I suspect King didn’t enquire further because the lab told him what he, and his political masters, wanted to hear; the lab knew in advance what King and wanted to hear, and so rigged the test; and VW simply wanted to flog more cars while keeping politicians happy.

The lesson here is that governments, even ones containing extremely clever folk like Professor Sir David King, are susceptible to being hoodwinked by people who understand the details a lot better than they do, causing them to bring about disastrous policies. The answer is to get rid of positions such as Chief Scientific Adviser and sack politicians who put their beak into places where it doesn’t belong bringing harm to the rest of us.


What happens when the robots come?

On Saturday I was at a party and got chatting to a nice French chap who was involved somehow in environmental management. We had good fun bickering over climate change and pollution, but there was something else we discussed which is worth expanding on. He raised the question that many others are asking, which is what we’ll all do for work as technology makes jobs obsolete and there isn’t enough work to go around. What was interesting is he, like others, spoke as though this was something coming in the future whereas I replied that I can answer his question because the situation has already arisen.

Rather than look to a future in which robots do all the work, we can look backwards to the closure of the factories and mills and the decline of labour-intensive industries and blue-collar jobs and see what happened. From what I can tell, we’ve simply replaced those jobs with mass bureaucracy. Governments everywhere have made it central policy to get more women into the professional workforce, and for more people to go to university. Vast numbers of these new graduates entered jobs in government created largely to provide work for otherwise unemployable people, and they set about creating more work for themselves, i.e. expanding government. One method of doing this was to dramatically increase regulations with which private businesses and individuals must comply, thus forcing them to create their own bureaucracies in order to avoid non-conformity and prosecution. Thankfully, companies had no problem filling these positions thanks to hordes of new graduates with soft-skill degrees seeking cushy process-driven roles in air-conditioned metropolitan offices.

Every year the government bureaucracies grow, the number and complexity of regulations increase, and companies respond by employing ever-more people in roles related to “compliance”. This has been going on so long that it’s obvious many departments in large organisations – public, private, or third sector – exist purely to provide jobs for middle-class graduates. In other words, they’re part of a giant welfare system that few seem willing to recognise. I’d love to know, as a percentage, how many overhead jobs in modern organisations didn’t exist thirty years ago. You’d expect some jobs to change – especially those related to new technologies – but I’d be willing to bet most of these new positions are a result of ballooning government departments and whole armies of people necessary to navigate the current thicket of rules, regulations, and requirements.

It beats me why people are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of robots taking all the jobs, and worrying over how the work will be shared around when we’ve already found the answer: we’ll invent jobs, and pretend it’s real work.


Cowardly Communication

Last night a story broke about a Google employee circulating an email to his colleagues regarding the company’s diversity policies. From skimming it, the email seemed reasonable, i.e. it wasn’t deliberately offensive or insulting. However, some people are appalled that someone working in Google holds such opinions, let alone shares them, and are calling for him to be sacked. Others are urging people not to read the email, as if it were a gorgon’s head.

This is wholly unsurprising. The immediate response from many people when faced with opinions they don’t like is to try, using fair means or foul, to silence that person. This has been going on for years, and the latest weapon in the censors’ arsenal is to try to get the person sacked, and to deprive them of their livelihood.

This situation is likely a natural progression from what these people got used to on a personal basis. Some years ago, everybody moved their online presence from forums, blogs, and message boards to Facebook, and then Twitter. It’s taken me a while to realise this, but the shift was quite fundamental. When you read a blog or join a forum, you have no way of filtering out content you might not like. Similarly, there’s no way of restricting the audience of what gets published, aside from a requirement to register. Everything you write can be accessed by anyone, and there is no restriction on what you might read.

Facebook is quite different, and you can select what you see and who gets to read your posts. This is understandable because it initially started out as a social networking site, but quickly became a platform for (supposedly) public content: Facebook has been used for campaigning, promoting events and businesses, and politicking almost since the beginning. Then came Twitter, which was never about keeping friends and family updated on your life, it was always supposed to be a platform for sharing your views with the big wide world and connecting with like-minded people. Only they included an option to block people. Now I can perhaps see the value of being able to block people you don’t like from contacting you, but from seeing what you are writing? What’s the point of that, especially on Twitter? It’s like an author publishing a book and placing restrictions on who can buy it, or standing on a rooftop and yelling but asking half the people on the ground to cover their ears.

This makes no sense to me whatsoever. I’ve been blocked from reading Louise Mensch’s Twitter feed. If she doesn’t want people reading it, why the hell is she writing it? The answer is obvious: she only wants certain people to read what she’s writing. We used to call this “private correspondence”, but nowadays people try doing it on the most public, open forum the world has ever seen. In other words, they want the prestige and attention that comes with being a public voice, only keeping the benefits of private correspondence. For me, this is a cop out, and one of the reasons I don’t like the blocking functions on Twitter. When I write this blog I assume everyone who knows me, including friends, family, and employers, might read it. This sharpens the mind somewhat, and keeps me from writing bollocks I can’t defend. If your public thoughts need to be hidden from certain people, perhaps your thoughts are the problem, not them.

Hence we have the Twitter generation who, at the click of a button, can stop people communicating with them and stop them seeing their public pronouncements. Little wonder they think the entire world can be made to run like this as well, hence the calls for the Google employee to be sacked and Charles Murray to be denied a platform to speak at American universities.

And you see this spilling over into people’s personal lives. Like a public blog forces you to think about what you write, so interacting with people in the real world forces you to think about how you behave. Before online dating, you’d have to find a partner among your friends or social peers. Even if you met in a bar or club, chances are you’d be mixing in the same circles and not living too far apart. Whatever the case, you had to approach them (men), or wait for them to approach you (women). The way of filtering out the riff-raff was to mix in the sort of circles you’d want to find a partner in, i.e. if you’re a student you’d normally hang out with fellow students and go to student bars, not down in some biker bar the wrong side of the railway tracks. To stay in that social circle, you’d have to adopt acceptable behaviours. Those behaviours might seem pretty ugly, especially where students are concerned, but nevertheless you had to conform to some sort of socially acceptable behaviour when interacting with others. If you didn’t, you’d face a negative response, be it criticism, nasty remarks, ridicule, or rejection from those around you. In short, in the absence of a method to block all negative responses, you had to think a little about your behaviour.

Young men are often cads and young women are often loose, but one of the main things which modify such behaviours is the social opprobrium that follows. I know guys who went out of their way to dump a girl gently because they didn’t want a huge negative reaction from her and her friends which would leave him feeling like a heel. Ending a relationship is never nice or easy, but it’s part of life and – like so many other things – it’s something one must learn to do as an adult.

The mobile phone probably changed that, initially. If you had to finish with a partner, you’d normally have to do it face-to-face, therefore she would have the opportunity to respond. If you did it by rotary phone, she could call you back. If you did it by letter, she could write a response. Then mobile phones came along and you could block her number and any response, and with texting the whole process became much simpler and cleaner: “Were dun luv, lol xxx” followed by a block and that’s that. In the age of internet and fragmented communities, you’d probably not even see them again: gone are the days of dating a girl in the village.

I’ve had girls hurl abuse at me or cry down the phone or via text message or email when I’ve split up from them, and I’ve probably done the same thing in return. Unless things start getting really psychotic, and they never have, I feel obliged to listen and soak it up. An emotional response is by definition irrational, and if one’s aim is to end up down the road with both parties reasonably happy and free of hated and humiliation and having kept face, then the emotional period must be dealt with properly.

A few years back I had a good friend come out of an appalling relationship, which she ended leaving the man (rather justifiably on some measures) absolutely livid. She had her reasons, but he had reason to feel rather aggrieved. He didn’t take it well, and she complained to me that he had sent her a flurry of nasty text messages when he was drunk a couple of weeks later. My response was something like this:

“Yes, he’s upset, understandably so. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason. What he’s said to you is awful, but there are reasons for it: he’s not saying it in isolation. My advice is to ignore it, because it’s angry correspondence. Respond to him when he’s nice, ignore him when he’s not, and be willing to communicate provided you remain firm that you’re not getting back together and he understands that. He needs to save face, and he needs time. If he’s still doing this in six months or a year, that’s a different matter. But right now…well, it’s to be expected.”

My friend took my advice and things became more civil. Eventually the guy moved on and she stopped hearing from him, both with their heads held (reasonably) high. Had she ignored him completely or responded in kind, things could have escalated. At best, he would have felt permanently aggrieved, and this is never a good thing. Of course, the modern advice is ignore, ignore, ignore – as if the whole thing happened in isolation. I suppose it depends on who you are, but I’m the sort of guy who thinks a woman who you’ve been in a relationship with deserves a period after the breakup of being pissed off, and she has a right to communicate with you. Guys who say “it’s best just to cut them off completely” are usually saying so for their own benefit (although they’ll say it’s for the girl’s) and it calls into question how serious the relationship was anyway. They’re hurting, and most of the time they want to save face, not get back together. If you won’t help them do that, then yes, the relationship should have ended – at her hand.

The Twitter generation are having none of it, though. These days I hear guys laughingly saying how they blocked some girl they recently dumped, because she kept texting him. What did they expect? I have seen women go running to the police complaining of harassment because some guy who they utterly humiliated had the temerity to let her know via email exactly what he thought of her. Unsurprisingly, Plod leaped into action and started issuing blanket threats of arrest and prosecution without even getting the guy’s name right, as is their wont. Modern men and women want to enter into something as complicated as a relationship but expect to be able to exit at the push of a button as if it never happened. I’ve seen women declaring love and talking earnestly with a man about long-term plans and then a few days later end the relationship by phone and block all communication saying “it’s best we both move on”, like some toad of a politician who’s been caught breaking the law. Men do the same thing, and it puts a serious question mark over anything which happened prior to that: if you’re prepared to pull the plug and run away like that, it was probably never serious in the first place – and he or she is certainly not ready for the give-and-take of a proper relationship. I’ve always seen a refusal to talk as simple cowardice.

Last year I wrote this:

Communication is everything in a relationship. When things are going well, communication tends to go well. But when things go wrong it often suffers, and you can quickly see who is in it for the partnership and who is in it for themselves.

Whatever the issue is, no matter how bad, keep the lines of communication open. Sure, take a ten minute break, or take a couple of hours to reply to a message. But tell the other person you’re doing that, and let them know when you’ll reply. The moment one party or the other decides they’re going to fall silent for a period of more than a few hours, or (worse) a few days, or (even worse) an indefinite period; or they’re going to completely ignore a message or an email; the relationship is over. Dead. It won’t recover.

Sure, I get people say nasty things, and if a situation breaks down into a slanging match of hate-filled invective and insults then it is wise to take a step back and have some time off. But the lines of communication must stay open: clearly say you’re having a break, and that you’ll be ready to talk again the next day at the latest. Get back to talking as soon as possible. Stomping off into indefinite silence and dragging it out over days will result in only one thing: a failed relationship. If one party doesn’t want to talk then better to just end the whole thing right there and then, because the outcome is inevitable.

The same is true at the end of a relationship:

Your partner might not be your greatest ever love, but if they’re your friend they’ll not fuck you over and will keep talking to you no matter what. If he or she stops communicating, they’re not your friend, they don’t have your interests at heart, and they’re in it for themselves: walk away.

The irony is that, in the age of unprecedented means of communication, many people have forgotten how to do it. It’s far easier to block, filter, ban, and silence than to talk, read, and listen as the latter requires effort on your part.

I don’t actually think it is iPhones and Twitter that have caused this: I think they’re merely responses to what people want. I have my opinions on why people have become like this, and I’ll write about them shortly. Doing so is likely to make me quite unpopular with some people, so I will have to tread carefully. No block function, see?


Laurie Penny’s Authorial Fantasy

Everybody’s favourite feminist Laurie Penny engages in a spot of authorial fantasy where she envisages a world where robots have taken all the men’s jobs, forcing them to become more like women.

ROBOTS ARE COMING for our jobs—but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men.

Perhaps Laurie is unaware of the Industrial Revolution which saw huge swathes of farm work move from man to machine. She also appears to have missed the de-industrialisation of the west as the factory jobs moved to Asia, which is strange for somebody who places all the world’s ills at the feet of Thatcher. The changes she is describing have been happening for decades, if not centuries.

Millions of men around the world are staring into the lacquered teeth of obsolescence, terrified of losing not only their security but also their source of meaning and dignity in a world that tells them that if they’re not rich, they’d better be doing something quintessentially manly for money.

Oh, I don’t know. I see plenty of men mincing around with useless degrees working useless jobs.

Otherwise they’re about as much use as a wooden coach-and-four on the freeway.

You said it, sister!

Some political rhetoric blames outsourcing and immigration for the decline in “men’s work,” but automation is a greater threat to these kinds of jobs—and technological progress cannot be stopped at any border.

Right, but that process has been going on for quite some time and, for men working blue-collar jobs, the worst is probably over.

A recent Oxford study predicted that 70 percent of US construction jobs will disappear in the coming decades;

Unless construction itself is going to come to a halt, it’s hard to see how. Robots aren’t going to be building things any time soon, even if there is one that can lay bricks.

97 percent of those jobs are held by men, and so are 95 percent of the 3.5 million transport and trucking jobs that robots are presently eyeing.

Oh right. Self-driving vehicles will put millions of men out of business. Presumably the fusion-powered jet-packs will make airlines obsolete, too?

That’s scary, and it’s one reason so many men are expressing their anger and anxiety at home, in the streets, and at the polls.

You can almost smell the glee.

While all of this is going on, though, there’s a counter­phenomenon playing out. As society panics about bricklaying worker droids and self-driving 18-wheelers, jobs traditionally performed by women—in the so-called pink-collar industries, as well as unpaid labor—are still relatively safe, and some are even on the rise.

Firstly, how many of these pink-collar jobs are absolutely necessary, and only exist due to government policies looking for ways to keep women occupied now the washing machine, fridge, and tractor have been invented, paid for in their entirety by the surplus wealth – taxes – generated by those blue-collar men you despise so much?

Secondly, a lot of these pink-collar jobs exist in order to “manage”, administrate, and generally get in the way of those men doing the work. Will we really need sprawling HR, diversity, and compliance departments if robots are doing everything? Who will pay for them?

Thirdly, Laurie seems to think a lot of this pink-collar stuff can’t be offshored to the Philippines where ladies called Cherry will deal with your pointless HR paperwork.

These include childcare. And service. And nursing, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will need a million­-plus more workers in the next decade.

Which might be why the Japanese are working on a Care-Bot. But is this what our womenfolk with English degrees from Oxford and law degrees from Harvard have in mind for the sisterhood? Caring and nursing? Somebody ought to tell them.

According to the logic of the free market, when jobs are destroyed in one area of the economy, people will shift to new areas of productivity, acquiring new skills as they travel. So you might imagine that factory workers are becoming nannies. Not exactly. That’s because we’re talking about “women’s work.” Women’s work is low paid and low status, and men are conditioned to expect better.

The reason these nannies are needed is because the mothers have all decided they’d rather work than look after their own children. Now some say this is forced on them, but if robots are doing all the work, why can’t mothers look after their own kids? And the main reason factory workers won’t become nannies is because mothers who hire nannies generally prefer cheap brown women to do the job rather than white men – at any cost.

Whether or not you believe men are about to go the way of the portable CD player depends entirely on how you define manhood itself.

I’d say so, yes.

A great many men have been trained over countless generations to associate their self-worth with the performance of tasks that are, in a very real sense, robotic—predictable, repetitive, and emotionless.

But nevertheless a job that needs doing.

The trouble is that machines are far better at being predictable, repetitive, and emotionless than human beings.

It amuses me she thinks this applies more to craftsmen and technicians than women in process-driven roles in a giant bureaucracy.

What human beings do better are all the other things: We are better at being adaptable, compassionate, and intuitive; better at doing work that involves actually touching and thinking about one another; better at making art and music that elevates us above the animals—better, in short, at keeping each other alive. We have walled off all that work and declared it mostly women’s business,

Sorry, what? Art and music are the preserve of women? And what about sales, management, even engineering – all require adaptability, compassion, and intuition. Methinks Laurie – having been a freelance writer since she left university – hasn’t the faintest idea what various jobs actually entail.

even as exhausted women have begged men to join them.

Oh please! Sure, women are just crying out for more men to take up primary-school teaching, psychology, and nursing!

Feminists have, in fact, been arguing for a basic income for decades as compensation for unpaid domestic labor.

Women want to be paid to keep their own house clean.

Now that men might find themselves with more time to perform household tasks, they’re finally starting to listen.

What decade is Laurie living in? Most men I know can cook, clean, and iron as well as their partners, if not better. None of them has yet asked to be paid for this.

Work is work, and as men come to realize that, society as a whole might start valuing pink-collar and unpaid labor more highly and—as men take these jobs and join the call for increased wages—compensating it more fairly. Benefits only multiply.

Cleaning your house is work, just like building a bridge. Uh-huh.

No longer forced to choose between work and family life, more women can remain and thrive in, say, fast-growing STEM fields, increasing the pool of talent and expertise.

If I’m reading this right, Laurie thinks robots will make men redundant, meaning they will campaign for a universal basic income, which will in turn mean women can thrive in STEM fields instead of being forced to look after their kids. Like all good ideas, it’s obvious when pointed out.

Automation doesn’t have to make men obsolete, not if they’re willing to change their mindset. As long as men aspire to be cogs in an outdated machine, robots may well replace them.

The irony here is that it is women who stand to lose the most from robots: if sex-bots ever become realistic enough to replace a woman in bed, real women are going to have a hard time of it. We’ve already seen the effect Tinder has had, providing men with a means of getting laid without all the bother of a relationship.

But if they have the courage to imagine different lives of service and dignity, and then demand that those lives be made feasible in terms of both hours and pay, automation can help all of us be more human.

So if only men become wetter than a weekend in Wales and emasculate themselves such that legions of feminists can rule the roost, they will be permitted a role in Laurie’s Brave New World.

Well, how generous!


Politics, Technology, and Electric Cars

I suppose this is what passes for leadership these days:

France is set to ban the sale of any car that uses petrol or diesel fuel by 2040, in what the ecology minister called a “revolution”.

Nicolas Hulot announced the planned ban on fossil fuel vehicles as part of a renewed commitment to the Paris climate deal.

He said France planned to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Hybrid cars make up about 3.5% of the French market, with pure electric vehicles accounting for just 1.2%.

Firstly, a policy that will only come into force years after the government has left office should be ignored as a matter of course: it’s posturing, nothing more. It’s akin to the schoolkid who boasts he can do a double back-flip but not today, and tomorrow is a Saturday.

Secondly, the announcement implies that everything is on course for electric cars to eventually replace petrol or diesel cars, and all that’s needed is a government push to fund the infrastructure and overcome the inertia. Indeed, that’s what most people seem to think, that electric cars are inevitable and the only thing standing in the way of a wholesale switchover is the mindset of the public, hence the government should intervene to forcibly change it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are several massive hurdles to be overcome before electric cars will become widespread.

1. Where is the electricity going to come from? Charging a few thousand cars is one thing, millions is something else. Whatever energy is currently being expended by burning petrol will have to be generated as electricity, minus any efficiency gains. The current grid is woefully undersized to meet such a demand, probably by an order of magnitude when you consider peak loadings. We could build lots of nuclear plants, but the people who want electric cars don’t like them. Wind is never, ever going to generate much useful power and dependence on solar power requires a step-change in technology which I think will come, but we’re not there yet. Will we be there in 2040? I don’t know, and nor does anyone. Otherwise, we’ll have to build more gas-driven power stations. Will this be better or worse for the environment than the internal combustion engine? Nobody knows.

2. As I wrote here, the problem with electric cars is not so much their range but the charging times. Nobody is going to want to sit around for more than ten minutes waiting for their car to charge unless it’s overnight or while at work, but that seriously restricts the car’s use to regular, short journeys. To overcome this we need a step-change in battery or energy storage technology which isn’t even on the horizon yet. So that’s two technological step-changes we need by 2040.

3. Nobody has really looked at the environmental and economic costs of tens of millions of electric cars. The batteries are big, heavy, and expensive and contain nasty substances. They don’t last long, so how will they be disposed of? How much will they cost to replace? What effect will this have on the used value of the car? Electric cars require nickel, copper, and cobalt. Where do we get this from? Where are the mines? All these issues can be solved but only once the real costs and externalities are known and compared with the situation today. Right now nobody has a clue, but governments have picked a winner anyway. That rarely works out well. In their efforts to improve the quality of air in western cities, politicians might well be make the environment in the developing world worse, especially around the mines. Also, the upgrade of infrastructure to handle mass car charging is enormous. Thousands of miles of new copper cabling will have to be installed, but at what cost – both in cash and environmental terms? Apparently this is something governments think they can do – the same governments that can’t manage to install proper cladding on apartment blocks.

Some humility wouldn’t go amiss, would it? Slim chance of seeing any, though:

Mr Hulot, a veteran environmental campaigner, was appointed by new French President Emmanuel Macron. Mr Macron has openly criticised US environmental policy, urging Donald Trump to “make our planet great again”.

I don’t know if today’s politicians are so thick they believe the bullshit they come out with, or they’re simply adept at saying whatever their core voters want to hear. What amuses me is so many people think this immature posturing is leadership, and cheer it loudly.

Norway, which is the leader in the use of electric cars in Europe, wants to move to electric-only vehicles by 2025, as does the Netherlands. Both Germany and India have proposed similar measures with a target of 2030.

None of this will happen. The idiots who proposed it will either start lying about what they promised, or they’ll be turfed out of office.


Droning On

From Reuters, via Twitter:

General Electric Co has begun testing autonomous drones and robotic “crawlers” to inspect refineries, factories, railroads and other industrial equipment with an eye on capturing a bigger slice of the $40 billion (31.6 billion pounds) companies around the globe spend annually on inspections.

In trials with customers, aerial drones and robots are able to move around and inside remote or dangerous facilities while photographing corrosion or taking temperature, vibration or gas readings that can be analysed by computer algorithms and artificial intelligence, Alex Tepper, head of business development at Avitas Systems, a startup GE formed for this business, told Reuters.

Hmmmm. I think somebody might be overselling something to impress a journalist here. I have heard of drones being used to scope pipeline routes and to look for leaks, which makes perfect sense. Normally this is done by helicopter, so a drone is simply a cheaper and easier way of doing the same thing. And the insides of pipelines are inspected by a sort of robot called an “intelligent pig”, which detects corrosion among other things. This is an evolving technology, but it has been around a long time. I have also seen remote control helicopters used to inspect flares.

But carrying out inspections of refineries and factories? No such facility is that remote, they are all manned to some degree. Why not just send an inspector? And a dangerous facility? Okay, I get that drones and crawlers could be useful in assessing the damage done to a plant that has just blown itself to smithereens or leaked poisonous gas everywhere, but is this their target customer? One that can’t operate its facilities safely?

This looks to me like a solution in search of a problem. The throwaway line about artificial intelligence points in that direction. Photos from a drone might give an inspection team some useful idea on the condition of something that is hard to reach, as will temperature readings, but they’ll not be analysed using artificial intelligence or even an algorithm. If and when drones are used on refineries and in factories, they’ll not be autonomous.


Bit of a risk for a few bitcoins

I am reading from various reports that the Wannacry ransomware attack that has laid bare the deficiencies in the IT security of the NHS has also affected many Russian companies, not least Sberbank and the Russian railways.

Sberbank is a state-owned company. A lot of the most skilled and prolific hackers and IT security experts are Russian, many of whom will be living in Russia. Depending on whose toes have been trodden on at Sberbank or the other affected companies, some nasty people might well be deploying considerable resources in trying to find out the origins of this software. If so, don’t be surprised if those responsible are found. And then found again, some months later, badly decomposed in a shallow grave in a forest.

I doubt anyone will have much sympathy.