Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Bumpy Road to the Future

It is the stuff of science fiction.
You have errands to run, a friend to visit, a concert or a baseball game to attend.
You slide into your car and punch in the destination. It is the last driving decision you will make during the trip.
You own a driver-less car. It has no steering wheel, no gas nor brake pedal. It will take you to your destination, leave on its own to find a parking space, then return to pick you up when you summon it.
During your journey, you can read a book, take a nap, have a cocktail. Nothing is required of you except, I suspect, to have the kind of money it will cost to afford this kind of sophisticated technology.
This is no 22nd Century scenario. The technology exists now. Several automotive manufacturers — BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Nisan, Toyota, GM and Ford among them — plan to introduce vehicles with autonomous capabilities in the next few years.
Experts predict that by 2035, most self-driving vehicles will be operated completely independent from a human occupant’s control.
In the meantime, four electric autonomous vans successfully drove 8,000 miles from Italy to China in 2010. The vehicles were developed in a research project backed by European Union funding by the University of Parma, Italy.
That same year, a driver-less Audi reached the 14,000-foot summit of Pikes Peak in 27 minutes. A Prius modified by Google successfully managed the famously twisty Lombard Street in San Francisco along with the Golden Gate Bridge.
Google made a splash on the social media circuit this past week by showing off its version of the driver-less car. They were prototypes but they met the most important requirement of the autonomous vehicle: They operated entirely on their own.
In a short film clip, various passengers were given a demonstration ride. All responded with enthusiasm. The most intriguing was a blind man who spoke of the “big part of my life that would be brought back to me” with such a vehicle.
So this all good news, right? The future belongs to us. After all, robots drive better than people, accidents would decline along with the number of traffic cops, ambulance-chasing attorneys and the cost of insurance, drunk driving would be marginalized and gas mileage would improve.
But there are more than a few bumps in the road.
Jonathan Swift once observed, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Who among us wants to be the bold man who trusts a driver-less machine to safely transport his family? It’s kind of like the first guy to try the parachute. Everyone says it should work, but….
Highways are dangerous places, full of speeders, red-light runners, jaywalkers, road ragers, people with a belly full of booze or a head full of dope. Unless every driver on the road is in a driver-less car, the dangers are great even with collision avoidance and GPS systems.
Which leads me to believe that the earliest generations of these cars will provide the security of a steering wheel and brake pedal. At least any one that I’m riding in.
And much as I appreciate the genius and dedication of the engineers who are bringing this phenomenon to pass, I can’t help but dwell on the auto industry’s record on safety and its decided lack of ethics.
General Motors, for example, has already recalled more cars and trucks in the U.S. this year than it has sold here in the five years since it filed for bankruptcy, according to CNN. Since that filing in June 2009, GM has sold 12.1 million vehicles in the United States. Total U.S. recalls: 13.8 million.
Chief among them was 2.6 million of its small cars due to faulty ignition switches, which could shut off the engine during driving and thereby prevent the air bags from inflating. At least 13 deaths have resulted from the flaw which had been known to GM for at least a decade but never publicized prior to the recall being declared.
Of course, that doesn’t touch Ford that once famously recalled 21 million vehicles from 10 model years for a problem that caused some vehicles to slip from park into reverse. Records show Ford’s solution for that problem, which investigators linked to 6,000 accidents and nearly 100 deaths, was to send drivers a warning sticker to put on the dashboard.
Then there’s Ford’s famous Pinto. Before the car ever reached the market, concerns emerged that a rear-end collision might cause the Pinto to blow up — the positioning of the fuel tank sparked fears it could be punctured in a crash and cause a fire or an explosion. But instead of fixing the Pinto’s design, Ford determined it would be cheaper to settle any lawsuits resulting from the car’s flaws.
Are these the people I want to whisk me away on a robotic magic carpet?
There are other issues, of course. Who’s liable in an accident if nobody is driving? These cars are products of computer software. What if you car’s system was hacked and your car is stolen? With you in it. Or someone thinks it would be funny to send you off the Santa Monica pier?
According to one published report, autonomous cars relying on lane markings cannot decipher faded, missing, or incorrect lane markings. Markings covered in snow, or old lane markings left visible can hinder autonomous cars’ ability to stay in lane. Given the state of this country’s infrastructure, that could take a lot of paint.
It would seem as though a lot of real-world problems need to be solved before we run, checkbook in hand, down to our local robo-car dealer.
If and when they are, it will be a fascinating leap forward into the future.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Go Figure

There are several undeniable truths about statistics:   First and foremost, they can be manipulated, massaged and misstated. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Aw, you can come up with statistics to prove anything…Forty percent of all people know that.”

Second, if bogus statistical information is repeated often enough, it eventually is considered to be true.

As to Point One, consider a presidential debate.  In 2012, when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney squared off, the President was heard to declare that "Over the last 30 months, we've seen 5 million jobs in the private sector created."

But 30 months only dates back to January 2010. And the president took office in January 2009.   It turns out that in his first year in office, the country lost some 5 million jobs. While things got better, the cumulative job creation in the private sector during Obama's first term is in fact a more humble 125,000.

Romney, for his part, said that "If I'm president I will create -- help create 12 million new jobs in this country with rising incomes."  While that may have seemed impressive,   it's the exact same figure that had been used by economic forecasters for how many jobs they already expected the economy would add over the next four years given a stable economy. And it had nothing to do with who was in the White House. 

As to Point Two, consider these Things We Believe But Shouldn’t: 
The teen pregnancy rate is on the rise.   No, it isn’t.   According to a report in the Washington Post, the teen pregnancy rate in 2009, of about 38 per thousand girls, was 39 percent lower than the 1991 peak of 62.  Just four years later, in 2012, it reached a record low of about 29.

People only use 10 per cent of their brains:   Nobody knows for sure where this nugget came from, but as psychologist Scott Lilienfeld explains: “The last century has witnessed the advent of increasingly sophisticated technologies for snooping in the brain’s traffic... Despite this detailed mapping, no quiet areas awaiting new assignments have emerged. In fact, even simple tasks generally require contributions of processing areas spread throughout virtually the whole brain.” Which means you’re using all of your brain, even if you don’t feel like it on occasion.

Men think about sex every seven seconds: Calculated over 16 waking hours that adds up to 8,000 salacious thoughts in a day. While we’ve know a few guys who met or maybe even exceeded that mark, a 2011 Ohio State study found that young men think about sex 19 times a day, compared with 10 for young women.

We’re discussing all of this because of the emergence of one Tyler Vigen, a law school student at Harvard, who has once and for all exposed just how absurd statistical data can be in the wrong hands.

He has created a website called Spurious Correlations (found at which, he says, isn’t meant to create a distrust for research or even correlative data but instead foster interest in statistics and numerical research.  Perhaps.   We prefer to think he has a wicked sense of humor. 

Using data from the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. Census, he intertwines the numbers to reaches statistical conclusions which are based on real data but which have to actual correlation whatsoever.  

In his first example, he has illustrated in graph form that the number of people who trip and fall over their own feet is in direct correlation with the number of lawyers in Nevada.   

Next up is a chart that show the number of people murdered by being pushed from high places corresponds with the precipitation in Tuscola County, Mississippi.

Vigen has showed that the age of our Miss Americas declines in concert with the number of murders by steam, hot vapors and hot objects.

Then we are shown that the number of sociology doctorates awarded is in direct proportion to the number of deaths caused by anticoagulants.

By the same measurement, we find that the per capita consumption of mozzarella cheese is in statistical lockstep with civil engineering doctorates awarded.

More intriguing is the chart that illustrates that the number of people who drowned by falling into a swimming pool correlates with the number of films in which Nicolas Cage has appeared.

Where else would you find that the letters in the winning word of the Scripps National Spelling Bee correlates with the number of people killed by venomous spiders.

Or that the total number of political actions committees in the U.S. is matched by the number of people who died falling out of their wheelchair.

All of which recalls the remark from American humorist Evan Esar that statistics is the science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Send In the Clowns

Don’t blink.
If you do, you might miss the California primary election, which will take place on Tuesday, June 3
Miss it and you won’t be alone. According to one analyst, a 25 percent turnout would not be improbable.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. In 2012, voters approved a new primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of political party. It was intended to encourage greater turnout. It has not.
Lest we conclude that our fellow citizens of the Golden State are a bunch of knuckle-dragging, gimlet-eyed know-nothings, consider that a Gallup poll released this past week found that just 35 percent of registered voters nationwide are more excited than usual about voting in November’s midterm elections.
Breaking news? Hardly. Midterm elections generally generate a lot less enthusiasm than those in a presidential year. The 35 percent who said they are “more excited” are probably candidates, their family members, party apparatchiks and bumper sticker manufacturers.
Then there is this factor: Thanks to the 2012 elections and the never-ending slugfest between President Obama and the loyal opposition, Americans are suffering from a major case of political battle fatigue. And they intend to take a nap.
Too bad. Those who have decided to sit this one out are missing out on a veritable parade of — how shall we say it — unique personalities who reveal themselves on this year’s sample ballot.
Take the governor’s race. Incumbent Jerry Brown has an approval rating of nearly 60 percent among registered voters, according to a recently released Field poll.
So who’s lined up to take on this formidable opponent?
Republicans include Glenn Champ, a registered sex offender who spent more than a decade in state prison, convicted of crimes including voluntary manslaughter and assault with intent to commit rape. He explains that he “found the Lord when I got arrested for picking up the prostitutes.”
Also running is Tim Donnelly, is a state assemblyman from Twin Peaks and a Tea Party favorite. To call him a firebrand might be soft-selling it a bit.
When first elected to the Legislature, he announced that “I’m going there to reach across the aisles to the enemies of freedom and annihilate them and pound them into the ground and take back our power.”
Shortly afterward, he was caught by airport security with a loaded handgun registered to an 83-year-old woman.
He certainly stands up for his beliefs, calling for stricter immigration measures and more liberal gun laws. But in a state with a largely Democratic legislature and one that historically has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, he might find it useful to be moderate in word and deed. He doesn’t have to mean it. After all, he’s a politician.
Donnelly’s chief rival is Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official whose social views — he supports same-sex marriage — are more moderate.
Donnelly recently ran afoul of his own party leadership for suggesting Kashkari supported the United States submitting to the Islamic, Shariah banking code.
However, Kashkari is Hindu, not Muslim. An honest mistake. We all know that people with funny-sounding names are extremists.
Other gubernatorial candidates include Janel Buycks, a nonpartisan minister from Lakewood, who claims she has Jesus Christ’s endorsement. And then there’s Democrat Akinyemi Agbede, a Fresno doctoral student and self-proclaimed “super-genius” who wants to ensure that “the beautiful smiling faces of the people of California will forever be permanent.”
Who should appear in the Attorney General contest but Orly Taitz. Perhaps you would might best remember her as the Queen of the Birther Movement.
Among many other things, Taitz alleges that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and is therefore ineligible to serve as president. She claims he was born in Kenya and that he falsified his Selective Service papers and his application to the Illinois bar.
“I believe (Obama) is the most dangerous thing one can imagine, in that he represents radical communism and radical Islam: He was born and raised in radical Islam, all of his associations are with radical Islam, and he was groomed in the environment of the dirty Chicago mafia. Can there be anything scarier than that?”
Well, yes, Orly. Guess who?
She is one of seven candidates, including incumbent Kamala D. Harris.
Now on to the judicial selections. Let’s face it, few know anything about the candidates for the bench. Many folks skip the entire category when voting.
But what’s interesting here is the occupations of the candidates for judge of the Superior Court. In 15 races, the candidates listed their profession as sex crimes prosecutor, child molestation prosecutor, gang homicide prosecutor, criminal gang prosecutor, government corruption prosecutor, sexual predator prosecutor, gang murder prosecutor, major narcotics prosecutor and violent crimes prosecutor.
How many lawyers does it take to prosecute the scum of the earth? Apparently a lot.
And while there may be a bit of hyperbole at work here, it’s ultimately a sad comment on our society.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Blood Lust

“Young blood….I can’t get you out of my mind.” — The Coasters, 1957

Want to live to be 100?  Or beyond?
I’m not sure I want to hit three figures on the birthday scale unless I’m assured of a sound mind and body. As we have all learned, however, life doesn’t come with a guarantee.
Besides, not even the godfather of fitness, Jack LaLanne, could make it to that milestone. And my lifestyle falls somewhat short of his Spartan existence.
So I won’t be packing my roller blades when I get sent off to the elder shelter. A nice pair of slippers will do.
Then there’s the fact that the Century Club is pretty much ladies only. According to the U.S. Census, 81 per cent of centenarians are women.
Case in point: My dad at age 94, seeking to revisit the rough and tumble world of male fellowship, tried to start a Men’s Club at this retirement home.
It was not well attended. At the initial meeting, three other gentlemen showed up. All were in wheelchairs. Two of them slept through the proceedings. Meeting adjourned.
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, most Americans don’t want to stick around much longer than current life expectancy (approximately 77 for men, 82 for women). Sixty percent don’t want to live past 90. Thirty percent don’t want to live past 80.
People who make lots of money don’t want longer lives any more than the rest of us do. Nor do people who think there’s no afterlife.
And yet....
There are some 55,000 centenarians in the U.S. these days, and the number could increase as the population ages and health care evolves. A century ago, the number was near zero.
Bottom line: They may drag you kicking and screaming to 100 whether you want to go or not.
What’s it like to be 100? According to a study by United Healthcare, 36 per cent of those who reach that age feel “blessed” and 31 per cent say they are happy. Most of my friends and I would fall into a new category: “shocked.”
When asked which stage of life they remembered most fondly, nearly 25 per cent chose their 20s. Almost none embraced their 70s, 80s and 90s. Of course, being centenarians, a majority said they don’t remember.
Many in the study said they would like to have dinner with President Obama although he was facing stiff competition from Betty White. Least likely to be invited to dine were Kim Kardashian and Kayne West but most admitted they had no idea who they were. I doubt familiarity would have changed the result.
The secret to a long life?
More than 90 percent answered “staying close to friends and family” followed by maintaining a sense of independence, eating right and having a sense of humor.
Well and good. But there is a new factor in the longevity game, one recently disclosed by scientists that re-interprets the old saying that “youth is wasted on the young.”
A trio of new studies has discovered that the blood of young mice appears to reverse some of the effects of aging when put into the circulatory systems of elderly mice, according to a story in the Washington Post.
After combining the blood circulations of two mice by conjoining them — one old, the other young — researchers found dramatic improvements in the older mouse’s muscle and brain.
They later discovered that injections of a special protein found abundantly in young blood — or even transfusions of whole young blood — give the same advantages as sharing a blood supply.
Old mice who were injected with the protein or who received a blood transfusion navigated mazes faster and ran longer on treadmills. They easily outperformed their control peers, who were given only saline.
I presume the young mice in the experiment became instantly grumpy, yelling "get off of my lawn."
While this may be news to scientists, many of us suspect this is exactly the sort of thing that has kept Mick Jagger and Keith Richards alive for years. Then there’s the whole Dracula legend although I’m not sure the Count was finicky about the age of his subjects since he is reportedly several centuries old.
Aside from the amusing if not bizarre notion of seniors becoming an army of bloodsuckers, there is a serious side to all of this.
Neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray of Stanford University said he hopes to dive into human studies immediately. His new startup, Alkahest, is planning the first young-blood clinical trial at Stanford this year, according to the Post story.
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease will be given young blood, with researchers measuring their cognitive condition before and after.
“Right now we can’t do anything for Alzheimer’s patients, and this seems so easy and simple,” Wyss-Coray said.
The young mice in the three studies were the human equivalent of people in their 20s, so this would probably be the age range for donors used in a clinical trial. He said treating the big-picture issue of aging could in turn ease the burden of many diseases.
There is one of word of caution from researchers:   No matter how tempted, don't try a transfusion at home.