May 08 2015

The Breakfast Club (Self Driving Trucks)

breakfast beers photo breakfastbeers.jpgI think I should make it clear up front that I’m not a big fan of self driving anything and part of it is because I’m a programmer.  The wonder of computers is not that they screw up (Blue Screen of Death anyone?), it’s that they work at all.

In many respects I’ve had an advantage in the applications I’ve created because I’ve rolled my own from User Interface to Processing Input to Formating Reports and I intimately know each of the variables and the transformations they’ve been subjected to.

Mistakes are easy to make at each stage of the process producing unexpected results that must always be tested to make sure they conform with reality.

There are at least 3 primary points of failure (the examples I provide are just that, examples, nor is this list intended to be comprehensive).

  • Unexpected Input- If I ask you for a number and you type in ‘Strawberry’ what do I do?
  • Unintended Consequences- I accept unlimited input (High Frequency Trading) and I overflow the limitations of my infrastructure or reporting capabilities (Flash Crash).
  • Cloning of Errors- Every copy of a program is exactly the same, so a single error is duplicated in every installation.

This is why, though modern planes are theoretically capable of landing themselves and have (under test conditions), we insist that they have not only a pilot, but a co-pilot and flight engineer.  Now this is no safeguard against a crazy pilot locking everyone else out of the system and doing something suicidal (I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my Grandfather, not screaming in terror like his passengers) but it does mitigate against computer failure with the exception that the control systems must function as expected.

You read a lot of stories about pilots attempting emergency interventions that computers decide the airframe is not capable of.  How safe is that?  The human response is to try harder and most reports blame the pilot.  The aircraft crashes just the same, usually killing everyone on board.

Now extend the limited universe of planes to the wider universe of cars and trucks.  295,900 trucks in 2009 were involved in accidents.  Now I’m sure most of those may be blamed on intoxication or exhaustion and computers never get drunk or tired but while computer assisted flight controls have been extensively tested and refined but are still flawed, vehicle controls are in their infancy.

This is not a technology that is ready for prime time however much big trucking desires to fire all their drivers and send double trailer semis careening down our highways.

Hell, even trains have engineers and they run on rails.

Are you ready to get side swiped by a driverless truck into the guard rail and who will you blame?

Nevada clears self-driving 18-wheeler for testing on public roads

by Sam Thielman, The Guardian

Wednesday 6 May 2015 14.24 EDT

Drone trucks could soon be plying US highways after Nevada authorities on Wednesday granted a license to test self-driving trucks on public roads.

While companies such as Google and luxury brands like Lexus have dominated the headlines with advances in driverless cars, Daimler board member Wolfgang Bernhard told reporters autonomous trucks were likely to hit the roads first.

Daimler’s 18-wheel Inspiration has now been certified for use on public roads in the state, and yesterday the non-human (well, less-human) big rig rolled out across the Hoover Dam, negotiating some (but not all) turns and twists all by itself. For the tougher curves, it had some help from a driver inside the cab.

The licensing process was a lengthy one, said a Nevada department of motor vehicles spokesman, David Sierro. “I’m just getting out of the truck now,” he told the Guardian. “You’re talking about a series of different technologies; crash avoidance, blindsight, camera technology,” he said. “Rather than being a single autonomous [device] it’s a series of technologies they’re developing. They’re building it in an incremental way.”

Sierro said Daimler tested the truck on areas like the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the trucks could read pavement markings without endangering other drivers or pedestrians. “It’s fascinating to see how it’s reading the lines,” Sierro said. “When there’s something [too complex for the autopilot] coming up, there’s a warning that lets the driver know he’s going to have to take over.”

Tony Illia, of the Nevada department of transportation, said the state gave Daimler the option to start out simply. “There are huge stretches of empty, government-owned land [in Nevada],” he said. “Our population is centered in the Reno area and the Las Vegas area”, so trucks going between the two mostly have to navigate long straightaways. Daimler had a request of the Nevada government, too: “The one thing [Daimler] did ask was to brighten up the lane-striping and the buttons, to make sure they were clean and bright,” Illia said. “I think that helps the cameras on the truck.”

Companies like Lowell, Arkansas-based JB Hunt have reported a driver shortage across the country and are looking at consolidation in order to meet demand. The company is also worried about changing emissions standards for Class 8 trucks (that’s the class of truck demoed today, which Daimler says is more efficient), so a vehicle with a driver who has to do less work, or requires no driver at all, could provide companies like Hunt with a cost savings on labor.

“Could provide companies like Hunt with a cost savings on labor.”

There you go.

Science Oriented Video

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)

Science News and Blogs

Obligatories, News and Blogs below.


Welcome to The Breakfast Club! We’re a disorganized group of rebel lefties who hang out and chat if and when we’re not too hungover we’ve been bailed out we’re not too exhausted from last night’s (CENSORED) the caffeine kicks in. Join us every weekday morning at 9am (ET) and weekend morning at 10:30am (ET) to talk about current news and our boring lives and to make fun of LaEscapee! If we are ever running late, it’s PhilJD’s fault.

I would never make fun of LaEscapee or blame PhilJD.  And I am highly organized.

This Day in History


The Trans-Pacific Partnership will lead to a global race to the bottom

by Rose Aguilar, The Guardian

Friday 8 May 2015 07.30 EDT

Today, President Obama is visiting Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon to garner support for the trade deal, which would be signed by the US and 11 Pacific Rim countries. That’s an apt place for Obama to beat the free-trade drum – Nike, like the TPP, is associated with offshoring American jobs, widening the income inequality gap, and increasing the number of people making slave wages overseas. Since the passage of NAFTA in 1993, we’ve seen the loss of nearly five million US manufacturing jobs, the closure of more than 57,000 factories, and stagnant wages. This deal won’t be any different.

Wages in Vietnam, a key TPP partner, are even lower than Indonesia. Nike’s largest production center is in Vietnam where 330,000 mostly young women workers with no legal rights earn just 48 to 69 cents an hour, according to the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights (IGLHR).

According to the IGLHR’s A Race to the Bottom report, Nike symbolizes the destructive impacts of trade deals like the TPP. Those $100-$200 Nike shoes you see in stores carry a declared customs value of $5.27 per pair, according to a sampling of ten shipments of Nike shoes from Vietnam destined for the US market.

In 2014, Nike contracted 150 factories in 14 countries to produce more than 365 million pairs of shoes, according to IGLHR and Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at the NPD Group. Vietnamese workers made 43 percent of those shoes; Chinese workers made 28 percent; and Indonesians made 25 percent. Not one pair was made in the United States.

Rather than create jobs that pay a living wage with benefits, multinational corporations like Nike, Disney, Walmart, and others have offshored jobs to countries where workers are paid slave wages and have very few, if any, basic rights. Now that Chinese workers are organizing and taking to the streets to demand dignity and a living wage, these same corporations see Vietnam as the next best country to exploit.

There will be no TPP if there is no Fast Track, which would require Congress to give away their constitutional authority to the president. If they don’t have the votes, they won’t bring it to the floor. As the president pressures Democrats to vote for Fast Track, now is the time to speak out, stand up for workers and stop the TPP and global race to the bottom.

Trade with Asia Isn’t About Jobs

By CHAS W. FREEMAN, Politico

May 05, 2015

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter is a very smart man who’s at home in the military-industrial complex, but he’s not very sharp on trade issues. Case in point: Carter’s recent claim in a speech at the start of his Asia trip: “We already see countries in the region trying to carve up these markets.”

That was Carter’s attempt to show his support of the Obama administration’s big push to obtain fast-track authority to win eventual passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the implication being that without TPP, America will lose ground in Asia. But all Carter did was show that when it comes to economics, he’s stuck in an earlier century.

But it’s important to note that the administration has generally stopped touting big job gains from TPP ever since Secretary of State John Kerry’s claims that it would do this received four Pinocchios from The Washington Post fact checker. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture modeled a version of TPP that eliminated all tariffs (an unlikely outcome), it found the pact would produce zero growth gains for the U.S. economy.

A key reason is that the U.S. already has free trade pacts that eliminate tariffs with six of the 11 TPP negotiating countries. Optimal U.S. access to those markets already has been achieved.

And in Japan, which comprises 88 percent of the combined gross domestic product of the TPP countries that do not already have an FTA with the United States, the average applied tariff is 1.2 percent. Such low barriers are why prominent economists like Paul Krugman have scoffed at the economic significance of TPP in the real world.

Of TPP’s remaining potential member countries – accounting for the additional 12 percent – the largest is Malaysia. That country’s GDP is smaller than Maryland’s.

Meanwhile, the inclusion of Vietnam (with a per capita annual income of $1,740) signals that American firms seek low-cost offshore production venues. Most Vietnamese do not have the wherewithal to buy U.S. products.

This is where the real strategic question arises: How are such small new market access “opportunities” for U.S. financial, retail and communications giants worth the potential loss of U.S. jobs and downward pressure on wages that would result from a TPP-spurred wave of offshoring? TPP sends lots of political signals. But what U.S. economic problems does it fix?

It’s understandable that some parts of the U.S. business community are so resolutely behind the effort. It includes special protections for their particular interests.

But the U.S. government’s insistence that TPP include the intellectual property terms demanded by Hollywood, Big Pharma and patent-trolling American lawyers clearly has more to do with appeasing domestic lobbies than with creating jobs by increasing exports.

Justice Department to launch federal investigation of Baltimore police

By Sari Horwitz, Washington Post

May 7 at 9:00 PM

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts welcomed any federal review. “I think it’s a good thing,” Batts told WBAL-TV on Thursday after a conference of police chiefs. “We could use the extra weight. Lawsuits are down. Citizen complaints are down. Officer-involved shootings are down. But the community doesn’t feel it.”

Mosby said Gray was arrested illegally, was treated callously by the officers and suffered a severe spinal injury April 12 in the back of a police van while his pleas for medical help were ignored.

Since 1994, the Justice Department has been able to investigate local police departments under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The departments in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland are undergoing federal civil rights investigations. A white police officer in Ferguson fatally shot unarmed teen Michael Brown in August, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in November.

“The situation in Baltimore involves a core responsibility of the Department of Justice – not only to combat illegal conduct when it occurs but to help prevent the circumstances that give rise to it in the first place,” Lynch told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies. “When there are allegations of wrongdoing made against individual officers and police departments, the Department of Justice has a responsibility to examine the evidence and, if necessary, implement changes.”

Since 1994, the Justice Department has been able to investigate local police departments under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The departments in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland are undergoing federal civil rights investigations. A white police officer in Ferguson fatally shot unarmed teen Michael Brown in August, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in November.

Chicago to Pay $5.5 Million in Reparations for Police Torture Victims

By Kristen Gwynne, Rolling Stone

May 6, 2015

Chicago made history today as the first municipality in the United States to pass legislation providing reparations for victims of police torture. The landmark policy will allot financial compensation to the mostly African-American men tortured from 1972 to 1991 under Area 2 Commander John Burge and his infamous “midnight crew.” The legislation gives victims access to psychological counseling, education and job training, and mandates that public schools teach about the torture; a permanent memorial will also be erected in the city.

More than 100 victims are estimated to have been subjected to heinous abuse under Burge and his cohorts, and still suffer from the psychological aftermath. “People were electrically shocked on their genitals, people were suffocated with plastic bags, people were beaten with telephone books and flat jacks, others were subjected to mock execution,” including via stimulated Russian roulette, Joey Mogul, an attorney who has worked with victims of Chicago police torture for 18 years, tells Rolling Stone.

“In some cases [the torture] led to false confessions,” Mogul says. One of those cases was that of Mark Clements, who was arrested at age 16 for allegedly starting a fire that killed four people in 1981. “I had my genitals grabbed and squeezed – that is, of course, after I had been beat by a detective that worked under John Burge,” Clements tells Rolling Stone. Clements confessed in order to stop the torture, and then was sentenced to life without parole. He spent 28 years in prison before a professor working on a juvenile innocence project helped secure his release and clemency.

‘Our Demand Is Simple: Stop Killing Us’

By JAY CASPIAN KANG, The New York Times

MAY 4, 2015

Since Aug. 9, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police Department shot and killed Michael Brown, Mckesson and a core group of other activists have built the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century to date. Their innovation has been to marry the strengths of social media – the swift, morally blunt consensus that can be created by hashtags; the personal connection that a charismatic online persona can make with followers; the broad networks that allow for the easy distribution of documentary photos and videos – with an effort to quickly mobilize protests in each new city where a police shooting occurs.

We often think of online activism as a shallow bid for fleeting attention, but the movement that Mckesson is helping to lead has been able to sustain the country’s focus and reach millions of people. Among many black Americans, long accustomed to mistreatment or worse at the hands of the police, the past year has brought on an incalculable sense of anger and despair. For the nation as a whole, we have come to learn the names of the victims – Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray – because the activists have linked their fates together in our minds, despite their separation by many weeks and thousands of miles.

In the process, the movement has managed to activate a sense of red alert around a chronic problem that, until now, has remained mostly invisible outside the communities that suffer from it. Statistics on the subject are notoriously poor, but evidence does not suggest that shootings of black men by police officers have been significantly on the rise. Nevertheless, police killings have become front-page news and a political flash point, entirely because of the sense of emergency that the movement has sustained.

Germany Limits Cooperation With U.S. Over Data Gathering

By ALISON SMALE, The New York Times

MAY 7, 2015

Germany has curbed its cooperation with United States intelligence, pushing back against a key ally amid new revelations of spying on Germans and other Europeans that have set off a domestic firestorm.

The decision to limit Germany’s collection of information as part of joint intelligence efforts signals a breach in a long and close relationship – one that until now had been protected by Chancellor Angela Merkel, even when documents revealed in 2013 that American surveillance in Europe was so extensive it had swept up her cellphone number.

For the United States, it is another blow to its intelligence apparatus, which in the past few weeks has seen a reassessment of its drone program after the inadvertent killing of Americans; an appeals court ruling on Thursday that bulk collection of surveillance data is illegal; and Congress taking up renewal of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

In Germany, it leaves Ms. Merkel still struggling to explain to her critics whether her government had done enough to monitor surveillance by Germans and Americans, and had acted swiftly enough to curtail overreach. She has also maintained that Germany needs the Americans to help keep its 80 million citizens safe.

Republicans put plans to reauthorise Patriot Act on hold after court ruling

by Dan Roberts and Sabrina Siddiqui, The Guardian

Thursday 7 May 2015 18.18 EDT

Senate Republicans have conceded they may have to temporarily suspend plans for a long-term reauthorisation of the Patriot Act after a court ruling against its use by the National Security Agency dramatically turned around the prospects for surveillance reform in Washington.

Three US appeal court judges threw the existing plan – to extend the NSA’s power to collect bulk metadata from American phone records for five years – into chaos on Thursday when they ruled that it was unlawful even under the old legislation.

Now, with the relevant section of the Patriot Act due to expire at the end of the month, Republican leaders in Congress are scrambling to find a shorter-term fix to keep the programme alive as it looks likely that the court ruling will prevent them from securing the necessary votes for a full extension in the remaining six days of this legislative session.

“Obviously this is going to be part of the discussions as we go through the reauthorisation of the Patriot Act, and the authorisation of this bulk data collection method,” Cornyn said, adding that there would probably not be enough time before the Patriot Act expires to reauthorise it in any permanent way.

The Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who has led the charge for Fisa reforms, said a simple extension of the present law “in effect means reauthorising for five years a statute that right now is deeply flawed”.

“It fails to protect essential rights and clearly could be improved by having an adversarial system for example, changing the makeup of the [Fisa] court, reforming the system as needs to be done,” Blumenthal told the Guardian, adding that there is bipartisan support for NSA reform. “There is a lot of receptivity to these kinds of changes that in no way involve imperilling our national security but simply better protect our constitutional rights.”

Of Snowden and the NSA, only one has acted unlawfully – and it’s not Snowden

by James Ball, The Guardian

Thursday 7 May 2015 16.18 EDT

Now, almost two years later, a US court has vindicated Snowden’s decision, ruling that the bulk surveillance program went beyond what the law underpinning it allowed: the US government used section 215 of the Patriot Act to justify the program. A US court of appeals has ruled the law does not allow for a program so broad. In short, one of the NSA’s most famous and controversial surveillance programs has no legal basis.

Of Snowden and the NSA, only one has so far been found to have acted unlawfully – and it’s not Snowden. That surely must change the nature of the debate on civil liberties being had in America, and it should do so in a number of ways.

The first is the surprisingly thorny question of what to do with Snowden himself. The whistleblower is in his second year of exile, living in asylum in Russia, as he would surely face criminal prosecution should he return. The nature of the punishment – and pre-trial mistreatment – meted out to Chelsea Manning shows his fears are well founded.

But now the courts have ruled that Snowden’s flagship revelation, the very first and foremost of the programs he disclosed, has no legal basis, who now might challenge his status as a whistleblower?

Certainly not Judge Sack, who in his concurring opinion alongside today’s rulings acknowledged Snowden’s revelations led to this litigation, and likened his disclosures to Daniel Ellsberg’s famous “Pentagon Papers” leak.

Congress should allow this ruling to reinvigorate that debate, and in a sense the ruling forces it to do so. If Congress want a law that allows phone surveillance on the scale of the NSA’s existing programs, it will have to explicitly create that: gone is the option of trying to push through something near the status quo with a fringe of reform.

For domestic bulk surveillance to continue and be legal, Congress must explicitly vote for it – and then, in time, the judicial branch will consider the constitutional case in earnest.

If Congress sincerely wishes to curb it, it now has substantial backing from the judicial branch to push forward and do that. Reformers finally have the jolt in the arm they needed to prevent the positive impact of Snowden’s revelations dribbling away.

The president could also use this ruling as an opportunity to consider his stance. The line endlessly aired by the administration and its officials is that all surveillance is legal. That line is no longer valid. Rather than just seeking a new script – or as is almost certain, merely appealing against the decision – this could be a great opportunity for some introspection. These surveillance programs are wildly expensive and have very few proven results. Why not look at which ones the US really needs, and whether old-fashioned targeted surveillance might not keep us all as safe (or safer), and freer too?

The final debate is one that is unlikely to happen, but should: the US needs to start considering the privacy and freedom of foreigners as well as its own citizens. The US public is rightly concerned about its government spying on them. But citizens of countries around the world, many of them US allies, are also rightly concerned about the US government spying on them.

Considering Americans and foreigners alike in these conversations would be a great moral stance – but pragmatically, it should also help Americans. If the US doesn’t care about the privacy of other countries, it shouldn’t expect foreign governments to care about US citizens. There’s something in this for everyone.

These are the debates we could be having, and should be having. The judiciary has spoken. The legislature is deliberating. The public is debating. And all of it is enabled thanks to information provided by Edward Snowden.

How America’s biggest swamp could become fracking wasteland

by Julie Dermansky, Al Jazeera

May 7, 2015 5:00AM ET

One hundred miles west of New Orleans, Belle River is considered the gateway to the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland in the U.S. The area is famous for its plentiful seafood and cypress-tupelo swamps. “This is no place to dispose of toxic chemicals,” said Dean Wilson, the head of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper grass-roots environmental group.

But that is precisely what FAS Environmental Services has done since the mid-1980s. The company receives industrial waste from processes ranging from conventional oil drilling to hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. The waste can often contain high concentrations of methanol, chloride, sulfates and other substances. “Produced water,” the industry’s name for waste from fracking sites, can also contain toxins like benzene and xylene.

The waste arrives via truck and barge at an FAS transfer station close to the Hines residence, on the flood protection side of the levee. It is then transferred onto a shuttle barge for a 2-mile trip on the Intracoastal Waterway to the company’s injection well, where it is pumped at high pressure deep below the surface into rock formations, where it is meant to remain permanently.

Now FAS wants to build a new facility directly across the waterway from the injection well. Its plan requires a pipeline to be built under the Intracoastal, connecting the new facility to the injection well, allowing waste to be moved under the waterway and eliminating the need for the current shuttle barge system. According to FAS, the new station would end the use of shuttle barges, cutting down on the risk of water-borne accidents.

But the proposed facility is in a residential neighborhood not zoned for heavy industrial use. When FAS requested that the local zoning commission rezone the land, its request was denied.

The company could have appealed the decision to the St. Martin Parish Council. Instead, circumventing local laws, it applied for a permit from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) office of conservation, which regulates oil and gas drilling in Louisiana. A decision on the permit application will be made before the end of June.

Greek PM forecasts ‘happy end’; Eurogroup chief cites progress in talks

By Karolina Tagaris and Gavin Jones, Reuters

Fri May 8, 2015 10:28am EDT

Greece’s leftist-led government, which was elected earlier this year on promises to end austerity policies, has dragged its feet on accepting unpopular reforms promised by a previous government under the country’s EU/IMF bailout program.

The country faces the risk of defaulting on debt repayments and being forced out of the euro zone, but negotiations have moved so slowly that the lenders have ruled out an agreement at next Monday’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers.

Tsipras, who has taken personal charge of the negotiations, told parliament in Athens: “I am confident that we will soon have a happy ending and that despite the difficulties… we will carry out the agreement which will be concluded soon in Europe.”

The leftist leader said his government was “doing whatever it should in order to reach … an honest and mutually beneficial agreement with our partners”, but gave no indication of yielding on the lenders’ core demands for painful reforms.

The government has said its “red lines” are that it will not make further pension cuts or legislate to ease layoffs in the private sector. It has given some ground on privatizations and value-added tax but wide gaps remain.


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