The world has had its first self-driving car fatality: a Tesla autopilot failed. So far the world hasn’t freaked out. I think self-driving cars will be way safer than human-driven cars. But there’s a lot of shaping the truth in Tesla’s announcement.
(Fair warning: this blog post is uninformed hot take territory. I’m reacting to Tesla’s description of the crash, published two months after the death. We’ll know a lot more after an independent investigation.)
Tesla’s press release is masterful. It characterizes the cause of the accident like this:
the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.A truck pulled out in front of the car on the highway. It may well have been an unavoidable accident. We’ll know eventually.
But note the facility of claiming the “driver” didn’t notice the truck. How do we know that? The man is dead, we have no idea what he saw. I don't know about you, but I've never once failed to spot a white truck against a bright sky, particularly when I'm driving towards it at 70mph. I could see how a computer vision system would fail that test though.
“The brake was not applied”. It takes time to apply the brakes after you see your death coming at you. Doubly so if you’re not actually driving. The passenger-behind-the-wheel was almost certainly not having his foot hovering gently near the accelerator / brake like an engaged driver would. That slows reaction time. I do this all the time with my simple cruise control and it scares the hell out of me when some slow jerk pulls in front of me and I don’t react quickly.
(I also admire the comfort of “he never saw it coming”. Sort of takes the sting out of the next sentence, which describes the unfortunate’s grisly decapitation.)
The real problem here is Tesla’s autopilot is a half measure, “driver assist”. It doesn’t fully drive the car. This design is the most dangerous of all worlds. I had this experience with my airplane’s autopilot all the time. At some point when the automation does enough work, you can’t help but check out mentally, let the machine take over. But if the machine isn’t capable of taking over entirely you can end up dead.
That’s why I’m in favor of fully autonomous vehicles. No steering wheel, no accelerator, maybe just a single brake or other emergency cutout. Of course in this situation the software has to work reliably. Let's say a fatality rate of 50% of human drivers. And insurance and the law have to adapt to this shift of control to software. I believe the technology nerds are very close to having systems that can fully drive a car with no “driver assist” ever needed, at least in clear weather. It will be a better future. And those robot cars will kill some of their passengers. Far fewer than humans are killing now.
Discord is good software. It’s a sort of Slack clone aimed at the gamer market, with the marquee feature being group voice chat. But the non-voice features work well too and there’s no reason the product has to only be used by gamers. It’s particularly interesting because Slack is clear that it is an enterprise product. All those free-tier Slacks of 100s of people don’t work very well. Discord could capture the consumer market.
Discord works well and is free. The browser client, desktop client, and mobile clients are all solid and reliable. The voice chat is good quality. The login model works better than Slack if you are a member of multiple communities. It’s very easy to get Discord up and running as a Slack replacement and as a Teamspeak / Skype replacement for voice chat.
But the product still has some rough edges. The typography and design are not as beautiful as Slack. There’s no reacji, no custom emoji support. The API is not yet gelled, although the unofficial stuff works great. Discord is also not an enterprise product; there’s no message search, little file sharing support, fewer administrative features. But it’s a very good free consumer product.
Speaking of free, so far Discord hasn’t monetized. They say the core functions will always be free and they will sell “optional cosmetics like themes, sticker packs, and sound packs”. I’m a little skeptical that’s going to be enough but I appreciate they’ve at least not talked about ads (yet).
The company has $30M in venture funding from top tier investors. It was founded by the team that built OpenFeint, the iPhone gaming social system that Apple destroyed when it launched its terrible GameCenter product. I’m excited that this team is building something like Slack, but for consumers instead of companies.
What’s nice about Hover is it’s no bullshit. It’s a simple registrar with simple DNS service. And excellent support with questions answered by real, thinking humans. They’re not the fanciest registrar. They don’t offer all the TLDs in the world, their DNS services are limited, they’re not the cheapest. But they are simple and trustworthy. In a business as scammy as domain names it’s nice to buy service from someone decent.
I just had a terrific experience where I asked them why there’s no whois privacy offered on one of the new novelty TLDs. I’d seen a few domains registered there with hidden whois data but Hover wouldn’t do it for me. We went back and forth a few times and he finally explained that the TLD’s policy didn’t allow for whois privacy, but that other registrars might do it anyway and that if I really wanted whois privacy I should use them instead. I appreciated the frank answer.
This description of the Brave browser sounds like an unethical business. Brave markets itself as making a safer and faster Web by blocking ads. I’m all in favor of blocking ads. But Brave also replaces ads with its own and then only gives about half of the revenue to the content publisher. That seems wrong to me.
I don’t like ads. Blocking ads is good: it stops the intrusion into my mind and makes for a technically better Internet experience. Replacing ads is not good. Seeing different ads does not help me keep my mind clear. And substituting one ad server with another does not significantly improve my Internet experience, even if the ad company pinkie-swears its ads are technically better.
But the real problem is that ad replacement is siphoning revenue from content producers. I’m OK with denying content producers revenue entirely, it’s a shame but Internet ads are odious enough in 2016 I think it’s necessary. But a third party interjecting itself to siphon off half the revenue is wrong.
The situation is even uglier with ad blocking extensions. AdBlock Plus skims 30% of ad revenue to let Google, Microsoft, and Amazon ads slip through their blocker. That sounds like pure extortion to me, bad for the ad networks and bad for the end users. A similar racket is developing in mobile ad blockers. These businesses are unethical.
We went through an era in the 2000s with ISPs and DNS services injecting their own ads into web pages. They claimed for a year or two it was OK and better for users, until legal action (and SSL) stopped them. Let’s not reproduce that experience with software vendors.
Maui is rural and full of natural beauty but with some upscale tourist hotels as well. We stayed down in Wailea which has nice resorts, restaurants, and beaches. We also drove all over. The famous Road to Hana made much better with this audio guide, although I regret not planning more time to stop and go swimming in the waterfall pools. Also Lāhainā which is interesting for its 19th century history. The helicopter tour of Molokaʻi was also phenomenal.
Oʻahu is much more urban. The North Shore has some nature but we never left Honolulu. Waikiki is remarkably convenient for a simple carless visit, I totally understand why people go just there for short vacations, but then Hawaiʻi has so much more to offer than one tourist mall! One highlight of Oʻahu was the Heart of the USS Missouri tour at Pearl Harbor, crawling around the engineering rooms of a 1940s battleship. The other was the Bishop Museum’s phenomenal collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, made more special by visiting with a friend who is an anthropology professor. We’re not really relax-on-the-beach tourists so it was nice to have some more organized activities in Honolulu.
We are food tourists though! Got some great advice from folks. On Maui my favorite meals were at Monkeypod and Mama’s Fish House. Spago was also very good although not particularly Hawaiian. On Oʻahu the most interesting local meals we had were at The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. We also really enjoyed Hy’s for wood-fired steaks and La Mer offers an excellent fine French dining meal.
As a white American I feel a strong sense of guilt and responsibility for the injustices African Americans still suffer today. Not abstract collective responsibility: concrete, personal. But first the abstract. America was built on slave labor. The legacy of that slavery is deprivation for many black families even now, seven generations after emancipation. Moral white Americans have an obligation to help undo the harm America’s original sin has done to our fellow countrymen and our country.
But that’s abstract, and I keep thinking of the personal. Of my white Texas family’s history. I know they were racist, but just how bad were they? Were they slave owners? Lynchers?
The particular cruelty in my family’s history I’d like to understand better is the murder by lynching of Ted Smith in Greenville Texas on July 28, 1908. I know the date because there’s a souvenir postcard (warning; image of burned dead man). White people in the early 1900s were so proud of lynching black men there were frequently postcards.
My great-grandparents lived in Greenville in 1908. White people, town folks, he was an educated professional. Was he at the lynching? Did he approve? Are they in the crowd in that postcard? I got thinking about these questions after reading an article about the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia. They made souvenir postcards too. One thing the article notes is that in 2000, someone made a list of some of the lynching participants. I wonder if such a list could be made for Greenville? Would my great grandparents be on it?
The motto of Greenville, TX was The Blackest Land, the Whitest People. They displayed that proudly on a banner over the center of town through the 1960s. These are my people.
Adapted from a Metafilter comment
This is outrageous. I install software on my computer to block ads, a clear statement of user preference. The Economist colludes with PageFair to ignore my choice, to run software on my computer that I explicitly don’t want. That software they run turns out to be installing malware.
The folks who write things like PageFair need to be sued into oblivion. Not just the company; stop the people who built this abusive technology from ever creating software again.
The Louvre is one of the world’s great museums. It is enormous and full of riches and totally worth several repeated visits. I particularly like the sculpture, but I discover something new every time. The Louvre is also a poorly designed tourist experience. Some notes below on making it better.
My discovery this last visit was the Marie de Medici cycle. Phenomenal series of 24 enormous Rubens paintings of the life of Marie de Medici, commissioned by Marie herself in 1622 for the Palais du Luxembourg. It’s painting on a scale that can only exist in a place like the Louvre. The story they tell is fascinating, you could spend a whole day looking at these paintings with Wikipedia’s competent explanation. Long story short she married the King of France and took over as regent when he died. When her son wrested power from her she was exiled. Part of her securing her legacy was having Rubens make these elegiac paintings telling her side of the story. They’re particularly unusual in that it’s a woman being lionized. They are fascinating. And being Rubens, they are amazingly well executed.
My other discovery at the Louvre was how difficult it is to get inside the door because of the security theater. This article describes your options. The tacky Carousel de Louvre mall seems best. While it only has a single security line, it has fewer visitors. The fancy main entrance is an hour+ disaster, the Porte des Lions is often unstaffed, and the Rue Richelieu entrance requires a hard-to-buy advance ticket. Past security, the fastest way to get a ticket is from an automated machine. Don’t follow the sheep; look for the machines without a line.
Once inside the Louvre not everything is available; rooms are regularly closed. Why? Hard to say, but much of it appears to be staffing. Also be sure to check the Louvre is open at all; sometimes some part of the staff goes on strike and the whole museum is closed.
One should approach the Louvre with a plan but I never manage. “Avoid the crowds” is a good heuristic; the Mona Lisa is lovely but the experience of shoving in to see it is not. This time I amused myself taking bad snapshots of painting details: one and two. Next time I should finally get to their ancient Egypt collection.
One last thing: a plan for lunch. You need a break. Unfortunately there is no longer a good proper restaurant in the museum, just some mediocre cafeteria options. We did well heading outside to the Brasserie du Louvre, surprisingly well really. Best salade niçoise I've had in awhile.
Machine learning is becoming a mainstream technology any journeyman software engineer can apply. We expect engineers to know how to take an average and standard deviation of data. Perhaps it’s now reasonable to expect a non-expert to be able to train a learning model to predict data, or apply PCA or k-means clustering to better understand data.
The key change that’s enabling high end machine learning like Siri or self driving cars is the availability of very large computing clusters. Machine learning works better the more data you have, so being able to easily harness 10,000 CPUs to process a petabyte of data really makes a difference. For us civilians with fewer resources, libraries like scikit-learn and cloud services make it possible for us to, say, train up a neural network without knowing much about the details of backpropagation.
The danger of inexpert machine learning is misapplication. The algorithms are complex to tune and apply well. A particular worry is overfitting, where it looks like your system is predicting the data well but has really learned the training data too precisely and it won’t generalize well. Being able to measure and improve machine learning systems is an art that I suspect can only be learned with lots of practice.
I just finished an online machine learning course that was my first formal introduction. It was pretty good and worth my time, you can see my detailed blog posts if you want to know a lot more about the class. Now I’m working on applying what I’ve learned to real data, mostly using IPython and scikit-learn. It’s challenging to get good results, but it’s also fun and productive.
The addition of ad blocking capability to iOS has brought on a lot of hand-wringing about whether it’s ethical to block ads in your web browser. Of course it is! Blocking ads is self preservation.
Ad networks act unethically. They inject huge amounts of garbage making pages load slowly and computers run poorly. They use aggressive display tricks to get between you and the content. Sometimes negligent ad networks serve outright malware. They violate your privacy without informed consent and have rejected a modest opt-out technology. Ad systems are so byzantine that content providers pay third parties to tell them what crap they’re embedding in their own websites.
Advertising itself can be unethical. Ads are mind viruses, tricking your brain into wanting a product or service you would not otherwise desire. Ads are often designed to work subconsciously, sometimes subliminally. Filtering ads out is one way to preserve clarity of thought.
I feel bad for publishers whose only revenue is ads. But they and the ad networks brought it on themselves by escalating ad serving with no thought for consumers. The solution is for the ad industry to rein itself way in, to set some industry standards limiting technologies and display techniques. Perhaps blockers should permit ethical ads, although that leads to conflicts of interest. Right now Internet advertisers are predators and we are the prey. We must do whatever we can to defend ourselves.