Our Vehicular Future

Buying a new car introduced me to the next-generation safety systems. All cars have seat restraints, air bags, anti-lock brakes, and other such improvements from the early days. We take these upgrades for granted now, but I remember a time when disconnecting the seat belt buzzer was the first thing people did to a new car! Now we have computer-assisted driving that can protect us from inadvertent lane changes, alert us to cross traffic, and even take control of the brakes and steering in an emergency.

We opted not to pay for those upgrades in our vehicle choice, but that’s mostly due to the cost difference, and that fact that we don’t drive a lot. And we don’t typically drive on crowded freeways or in dense urban environments where the safety features would play better. Also, there was a certain annoyance factor that was part of the decision. There are a lot more distractions in today’s automobiles! Seems like we need the computers to protect us from our distractions. I will say that I really like backup cameras—seems like every car has those now.

With all the talk and hype about autonomous driving you don’t hear much about the successes. It is going to be a while before a robot can take you in your car on a nice, safe trip. Right now the cars just aren’t smart enough for prime time. But there’s one place where autonomous vehicles are not just the future, but the living present, and that is in mining.

Caterpillar has self-driving trucks, big massive ore-haulers, that work not only continuously but safely as well. They’ve recently reached a milestone at a mine in Western Australia: a billion tons of ore hauled successfully without an operator in the vehicles. They expect to have 175 autonomous trucks in operation at that site by next year. These are seriously big trucks:

cat 2

But it’s the software that makes them go, and Caterpillar designed theirs to work with other brands of vehicles, too. Smart move. Lots of companies make mining trucks.

Another place where robot drivers are establishing themselves is agriculture. Autonomous tractors can do much of the work on a modern farm. What was science fiction when I was a boy is actually happening in the real world today.

Of course no one wants the robot-computer system to take over completely. The Boeing 737-MAX tragedies were caused by a “glitch” in the software. That’s a geek word, and it fits, but it seems too cavalier. That problem in the programming sent hundreds of innocent people to their deaths.

But people died when only humans flew planes. Now they are such complex beasts the pilots have to have the tech to help them. Our cars, it seems, are becoming like that as well.

I want the computer-robots to take over. I want to go on long drives where I don’t have to drive at all, where I can just stretch out in the back, sip whiskey, smoke a fattie, and watch the scenery. I doubt I’ll be around when that becomes a reality, but it sure sounds good.

The people who are mining the minerals we need to build cars and roads and the folks growing the food we need to live are going autonomous. Why should they have all the fun?

FIVE Nobel Prizes in SCIENCE!

I read this newspaper called the Capital Press. It is one of the few West Coast independents left. It is based in Eugene, Oregon, comes out twice a week weekly, and reports on agriculture and such things. In yesterday’s mailing we got one of those advertising inserts that comes from another planet. I wrote about the “chemtrails” guy last year, and this new stuff is right up there. Here’s one of the best lines:

Highly-engineered and computer-driven, this immune-modulator has earned five Nobel prizes in science.

Dude! An immune-modulator! I gotta get me one!

The stuff they are selling on this professional-looking 8-1/2 x 11 two-sided glossy sheet is an aerosol supplement called Liquid Gold Rx. They list the 38 ingredients thusly:

alfalfa, wild celery, anise, lemon balm, basil, greater burdock, celery, dill, hyssop, rock weed, fennel, ginger, cola nitida, marjoram, great mullein, Abyssinian myrrh, parsley, dog-rose, rosemary, saffron crocus, sage, elder, tea plant, garden thyme, turmeric, verbena, white willow, black cherry, yarrow, garlic, artichoke, motherwort, hop, red raspberry, hawthorn, elecampane, fennel bulbs, juniper

They feed alfalfa to cattle.

Just sayin’.

I suppose we all want to be immunized from the dangers of living. And this aerosol supplement—yes you really do spray it in your mouth, 4x daily—will fight off the toxins and replace it with all the goodness from the “eleven herbs and spices.”

Here’s how it works:

Upon contact with your saliva, the body immediately recognizes LGRx as the perfect, uncontaminated superfood and opens the blood vessels. The liver responds by removing the toxins you’ve taken in from your blood . . .

You know, the usual stuff. But at least they’re honest:

Every individual varies, but within 30 to 60 days, everyone will have his or her own unique experience to share.

Yes. That is exactly what will happen. Every person will have a unique experience. Whether they want to share them is another matter, in fact several may want to when they discover they’ve been ripped off.

One side of the sheet is almost entirely devoted to glyphosate (the stuff in Round-up) and how this fabulous product neutralizes the negative effects of exposure to herbicides. Targeting their ag-oriented audience, I’m sure.

Snake oil is alive and well in the American West.

Let’s put the future behind us

What’s the best kind of prediction? The one you know will come true? Or the one you can’t lose on?

Here’s what I mean:

What do you want this year, Scorpio? What are you passionate about? Your dreams are the focus of 2019, and guess what? Some of them could come true in a big way!

That’s from horoscope.com and by the way I was born on the 13th of November so that makes me a Scorpio. I note that some sites now include Ophiuchus, the Physician or Serpent-bearer, in their list of zodiac signs. That makes thirteen instead of the usual twelve. Even the astrologers have to recognize physical reality once in a while! But that’s later in November, my sun is still in Scorpius.

scorpius_600

That’s the best kind of prediction. Some of my dreams “could” come true! They could! If they do, the prognosticators were right. If they don’t, the prognosticators were still right. That’s like flipping a two-headed coin, man. That’s the way to win in the business of astrological forecasting.

Did you know there is a new field called superforecasting? I’ll bet the astrologers could teach those guys a thing or two about hedging your bets. And if the horoscope-types adopted some superforecasting strategies I suspect they’d be right more frequently. Not that it matters, horoscopes are always right, that is, they work by self-fulfillment. You don’t want reality to intrude too far into the prediction racket.

Superforecasters are the type of people who treat everything as testable hypotheses. Certainty is their enemy, oddly enough. They have to be flexible and adaptable, and they adjust their outlook when they get new information. They don’t have biases, or if they do, they have workarounds. Astrology (and other rackets like Freudian analysis) are the opposite—they have an answer for everything. The logic is circular, and the solutions can always be found in a careful re-reading of the text.

The future is heady stuff. You have to be really smart, or a con artist, or both. More likely both.

I say stick to the present.

Big science, small results

In January of 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded seconds after liftoff, destroying the spacecraft and killing the crew.  Lots of finger-pointing followed but eventually the infamous O-rings became the focus of the investigation. Panel member Richard Feynman famously dropped the O-ring material into his ice water during the hearings. And he got a clear and unambiguous result—the goddamn stuff hardened!

Feynman was a “let’s see what happens” kind of guy, and that was one of those moments where a simple experiment could cut through the B.S.

But big science isn’t so simple. Things like clinical trials involve not only an awful lot of money and time but generate mountains of data. All that information is hard to handle. It requires quite a bit of analysis before any real conclusions can be arrived at, and even then the results can be interpreted in multiple ways.

This is frustrating for regular folks. We want clear and unambiguous evidence that acai berries will protect us from cancer or that meditation will lower our blood pressure.  Big science is particularly hard on journalists who want to write about “breakthroughs” and other dramatic things. Big science isn’t very dramatic. It is slow and incremental. Conclusions are couched in vague or conditional language (“the evidence seems to suggest . . .”). Scientists are like everyone else, they want fame, fortune, and glory, but as a general rule they are circumspect about grand, far-reaching statements.

Part of the problem is that scientists are not statisticians. Most experiments require significant statistical analysis. The data have to be examined and processed, and these mathematical skills are often outside the realm of the scientists’ expertise.

Designing experiments is hard. A scientist has to have the free-thinking, synthetic brain of the artist to explore all the necessary questions. And he or she has to have the constraint-driven, analytical mind of the engineer in order to turn those questions into proper experiments. You have to be imaginative and rigorous at the same time.

A lot of clinical trials use something called NHST—null hypothesis significance testing. Here’s how it goes: you create a hypothesis, something like “drug XYZ will shrink bladder tumors.” But you don’t really test that, at least not at first. You create the null hypothesis, which is just saying that your experimental hypothesis is invalid. “Drug XYZ will have no effect on bladder tumors.” Then you run your test.

This seems sort of backwards but it is just a way of cross-checking. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself. If the null hypothesis is not supported, that is, it is refuted by the results, you can go forward. It’s like the train conductor checking your ticket and saying it is OK and that you can continue your journey.

The problem is that you knew this already. You knew the null hypothesis was invalid. After all, you’d played around with drug XYZ beforehand and knew it had promise for shrinking tumors. That’s why you designed the trial! You aren’t going to waste valuable lab time on a fruitless endeavor.

The problem comes when you get the result you expected. That is, the null hypothesis is not supported. Now you have to see if the data back up the experimental hypothesis. And this is where you need the math geeks. There is a lot of noise out there. It is not always easy to get the signal, to pull it out of the background.

Researchers don’t go into these investigations blind. They have mathematical models of the phenomena they study and they use these to make projections. They know, in advance, what the data ought to look like. They make predictions with the models. And they test the “significance” of the data, that is, they see if the numbers they got are close to what they predicted. If they get the “statistical significance” they hoped for then they can conclude their experimental hypothesis is valid.

Maybe. Sometimes there are flaws in the experimental design. There are variables that were not accounted for. There are alternative explanations for the results. And it is easy to fall into the logical trap of “the null hypothesis is false so that must mean my hypothesis is true.” Which of course is nonsense as there could be many useful competing hypotheses.

So they learn two things from all this. One, they confirm what they knew from before. Two, that they have to run another experiment to see if the results were just noise or not!

That’s not very exciting. Demonstrating an unequivocal outcome in front of a bunch of bureaucrats and politicians is much cooler.

Big science does not live up to its name. Its results are usually pretty damn small!

It’s a secret!

Here’s a story that the US is engaged in “secret talks” with one of Nicolas Maduro’s cronies. The guy’s name is Diosdado Cabello and it is reported that he has had preliminary talks via intermediaries with a Trump Administration official. Here’s my favorite line from the article (italics mine):

It’s not clear if Maduro knows of and/or has endorsed such talks between Cabello and a contact linked to the U.S. administration, the AP says.

Hmm. I found out about these “secret” talks on the internet! All I was doing was perusing my normal news sites (this time oilprice.com).

Gee, how big of a secret can these things be? I mean, they are on the internet! Nothing is a secret on the internet! Doesn’t Maduro have guys who can read? Can’t they find out about the “secret talks” the same way I did?

I can only conclude that this is really bad journalism. If you are reporting it, it is hardly a secret. Or it was never a secret at all! The writer is calling them “secret talks” because that’s more dramatic than just “talks.” Either way, it’s hella stupid.

The Caryatids

The_Caryatids_Bruce_Sterling

I don’t know how I missed this ten-year old Bruce Sterling novel as I am usually tuned in to his latest stuff. It turns out to be the best book I’ve read in a while! Sterling has one of those overly-fertile minds and stuff spills out of him so fast it can hardly be contained on the page. Sometimes his novels are so energetic and enthusiastic he forgets to finish them and they peter out disappointingly. The ride is usually worth it though, even if the structure of the book is sometimes a little lacking.

In The Caryatids he solved his plot problem with an ‘afterword’ and an ‘epilogue’ which tie together the different threads of the narrative rather neatly and give the story a satisfying conclusion.

The story, as usual, is set in a dystopian near-future and involves clones, orbital colonies, surveillance technology, and a host of other typically Sterlingesque notions. My favorite thing was his description of a state-of-the-art LA freeway system that is robust enough to withstand major earthquakes. It’s not just a bunch of roads but an intelligent, adaptive network. Residents are encouraged to head for the freeways in a natural disaster as they will be the safest spots!

Sterling’s world is dominated by corporations and other private entities as most nation-states have collapsed from the climate crisis. What’s interesting about The Caryatids is its hopeful, encouraging tone. Despite all the disasters people demonstrate remarkable resiliency and continue to be creative in the face of new problems.

The best SF isn’t so much about the future as it is about the times right now. Sterling is tuned in to contemporary trends and twists them around and amplifies them so that we get a better look at them. He’s always stimulating and illuminating and The Caryatids has some of his best stuff and reminded me of his early Shaper/Mechanist works like The Schismatrix.

By the way “caryatids” are female figures in architecture that serve as pillars. They are Greek in origin.

caryatid

 

 

Chandrayaan

rocket

It means moon-craft in Sanskrit. India just launched Chandrayaan2 into space. Fifty years after America’s Apollo triumph the world’s second-most populous country is on a mission to the moon. Their plan is to put a lander—Vikram—near the lunar south pole.

There are no astronauts. This is the smart way to explore space. Humans need too much air, water, and food. And they have to deal with hygiene, waste disposal, and safety while performing high-level tasks in zero-g. Astronauts are a lot more dramatic. Those missions make for better stories, but they come with considerable risk. The US Shuttle program lost two entire crews, not to mention the orbiters themselves, in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. One was during a launch, the other during re-entry.

No, humans in space is mostly for propaganda value. The Cold War gave the US a powerful incentive to flash our astronautical muscles. That’s not to say that one day humans won’t be living in space. I do think the sci-fi trope of orbital colonies will come true. Getting a rocket up to a low-earth orbit is a well-established, robust technology. Payload is the limiting factor. The Saturn V that Apollo needed is still the biggest launcher ever. All that survival gear is heavy, and the moon landing was the ultimate wilderness backpacking adventure.

Orbital habitats would require regular cargo runs to sustain them but could mostly operate on solar panels. The ISS proved that. You’d have to be rich, though. It’s no coincidence that space travel is now the purview of billionaires. Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk can afford to have expensive hobbies. It’s hard to tell whether the spaceflight companies these guys own make money, so I’m not sure whether they are businesses or not!

I’m a big fan of spaceflight so I have no beef with these goofy celebrities chasing their dreams. Hey, that’s capitalism. But I think publicly-funded space exploration should rely primarily on computers and robots. It’s just too damn expensive. Hell, it’s expensive—in fuel as well as funds—just to maintain earth-orbiting satellites, and we are completely dependent on those.

India already has a human spaceflight program going, it is called Gaganyaan (sky-vehicle) and the plan is to have three people in orbit by December 2021.

I wish ’em luck.