Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Long-Distance Drive to Tomorrow

The future, playground of poets and prognosticators, often seems tantalizingly close. Yet it remains out of reach, wishful thinking notwithstanding.

Take self-driving cars, for example. 
While we may never get beamed up via transporters or see Martian colonies in our lifetimes, autonomous autos are being talked up as a reality that will be ours to enjoy sooner rather than later.

Indeed, the technology already exists. It would work something like this:

You have errands to run, kids to deposit at school, a friend to visit, a concert or a football game to attend.

You hop into your car and punch in the destination. It is the last driving decision you will make during the trip.

Your car 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.

In fact, you may not even have to own a car. Perhaps you can simply call Acme Driverless Cars and the company will send you a vehicle which will pick you up, drive you to your destination, return to pick you up when you’re ready and take you home again. Think of it was your own personal Uber.

Many big-time automotive manufacturers — BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Nisan, Toyota, GM and Ford among them — plan to introduce vehicles with autonomous capabilities in the next few years.

Think of the benefits: Insurance rates would decline, drunk driving accidents would be largely eliminated (and with it, a lot of ambulance chasing attorneys), gas mileage and traffic flow would improve. After all, robots drive better than people.

What clouds could possibly darken this big, bright, beautiful tomorrow?

Meet Stanford engineering professor Chris Gerdes, who might be bringing the entire self-driving car phenomenon to a screeching halt.

Gerdes is raising questions about ethical choices that must inevitably be programmed into the robotic minds that will be serving as our chauffeurs.

He recently provided a demonstration as reported by Bloomberg News:

Using a dune buggy on a cordoned-off street, he put the self-driving vehicle into harm’s way. A jumble of sawhorses and traffic cones simulating a road crew working over a manhole forced the car to make a decision — obey the law against crossing a double-yellow line and plow into the workers or break the law and spare the crew. It split the difference, veering at the last moment and nearly colliding with the cones.

That demonstration raises the following issues, according to Gerdes. When an accident is unavoidable, should a driverless car be programmed to aim for the smallest object to protect its occupant? What if that object turns out to be a baby stroller?

 If a car must choose between hitting a group of pedestrians and risking the life of its occupant, what is the moral choice? Does it owe its occupant more than it owes others?

Which means that driverless autos, in addition to making left turns, will also have to make moral and ethical and perhaps even life or death choices.

And that brings us face-to-face with the concept of artificial intelligence.

The field was founded on the claim that a central property of humans, human intelligence—the sapience of Homo sapiens—can be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.

Renown Professor Stephen Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.

"Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded," he said.

Think HAL in “2001.”

Or as one expert explained: “We cannot quite know what will happen if a machine exceeds our own intelligence, so we can't know if we'll be infinitely helped by it, or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it."

To put it in real-life terms, imagine you program your car to take you to a fast food restaurant but the car refuses because it knows fast food is bad for you.

Then there is another fundamental problem.

Our robotic cars will be operated by computers and computers are anything but fail safe. Earlier this year, a Tesla Model S computer system was taken over by hackers who shut down the car’s systems, bringing it to a halt.

And, of course, the matter of quality control:  there have been more than 2 million cars recalled this year. Are you ready to trust your life to an industry with that kind of track record?

Robotic cars? Maybe someday but not today.

Raj Rajkumar, director of autonomous driving research at Carnegie-Mellon University, summed up the situation by saying that the artificial intelligence necessary for a driverless car would not be available "anytime soon" and that Detroit car makers believe "the prospect of a fully self-driving car arriving anytime soon is pure science fiction.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Color Us Orange

There was a time not too long ago when you did three things with a pumpkin:

You carved it into a jack-o-lantern, you made it into a pie filling or you baked it into bread.

It was a simpler time.

Nowadays, America has become one giant pumpkin patch.

We are deluged with pumpkin lattes, marshmallows, Pringles, Pop Tarts, cookies, cereal, ice cream, M&Ms, beer, air freshener, lotion, shampoo, candles and, heaven forbid, whiskey. There are even pumpkin dog treats.

Some say this strange obsession with a bulbous orange squash is all about nostalgia. It's represents an idealized idyllic farm life, a place of moral virtue.

Others call it a seasonal thing. Pumpkins signal the advent of Fall, with its colorful foliage and crisp weather. 

That tune doesn’t play well in Southern California where Fall means Santa Ana winds, high temperatures, low humidity, brush fires, dry skin and short tempers.

But here in the land of make believe, if we can’t have a real Fall, we’ll pretend. What better way to do that then to have a house full of pumpkin products?

And just to add a touch of authenticity, we adorn our homes and shopping centers to look like an Amish farm at harvest, all within the cozy confines of an impossible   megalopolis.

It’s been a long road to popularity for the lowly pumpkin. In the old days, according to one report, pumpkin beer was used when there was no barley. If there was no wheat for bread, pumpkin was used. It was considered food for desperate times.

So what led to pumpkin popularity? On the Rector Scale of Unappetizing Food, it ranks right up there with Brussel Sprouts. Nobody takes a bite out of a pumpkin.  At least with sprouts, you can douse them in melted Velveeta.

Most people credit/blame Starbucks which introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003. Since then, sales of pumpkin-flavored items continue to soar, rising 11.6 percent to $361 million for the year ended July 25, according to Nielsen. 

It is Starbucks' most popular seasonal beverage with more than 200 million sold since it was introduced.

It may be the only beverage on earth with 94,000 Twitter followers. 

All of this despite the fact that fresh pumpkin sales dropped in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Last year, volume fell 5.2 percent.

Which means that thanks to the miracle of modern science, we can now make pumpkin-flavored products without an actual pumpkin.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Starbucks seasonal beverage contains no real pumpkin; a spokeswoman said it "contains a natural and artificial pumpkin spice flavor."

In what can only be described as an amazing coincidence, Starbucks recently announced that the Pumpkin Spice Latte will be undergoing a change of recipe, now with real pumpkin.

And in all likelihood, at a higher price.

There could be an underlying factor behind our pumpkin addiction.

Alan Hirsch, founder and director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, told Fortune magazine he thinks that there might be something physical going on.

Hirsch said that in one of his studies, he looked at the effects of 30 different scents on the sexual arousal of 31 male volunteers.

He found that the scent causing the highest level of arousal was a combination of lavender and pumpkin pie. Doughnut and black licorice came in second, and the combination of doughnut and pumpkin pie came in third.

So guys, if your yearning for pumpkin pie lasts for more than four hours, contact your doctor.

What does the future hold?  At the rate the popularity of pumpkin products is growing, they may become abundant and commonplace.

When that happens, pumpkin will become the new vanilla.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dress Rehearsal

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Trend setter and bon vivant that I am, I realize that one of the most important celebrations of the year is rapidly approaching and I am totally unprepared.

Halloween is right around the corner and if I want to repeat past triumphs at the local costume party, I had better start getting into character.

Past triumphs may be a bit of an exaggeration:  At the last celebration, I wore all white with a piece of yellow felt on my stomach and told everyone I was a fried egg.'

But I regress.

Zombies, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and Barrack Obama are so yesterday.  Gone are the days of Sarah Palin, Brittany Spears, Elvis and any and all super heroes.

It’s enough to tax one’s imagination.

People in Washington, D.C, for example, are dressing up as their favorite Metro stops. Nothing says good times like public transportation.

A woman I know is going fully dressed with a sign that says “New Playboy Centerfold.”

Tom Brady will be big this year. Just wear a New England Patriots jersey and carry a deflated football.

There will be a lot of Donald Trumps out and about. All you need is his trademark “Make America Great Again” cap, a snarl and a lot of loud and ludicrous promises. It will help if, like Trump, you look foolish wearing a cap.

Other political costuming will be tough. That quiet guy over in the corner being ignored by one and all could be imitating Jeb Bush.

The man with tears in his soulful eyes and a painted on tan is being John Boehner.

The Joe Biden look is simplicity itself. Just wear a conservative suit, bright blue tie and make a lot of inappropriate and embarrassing comments.

Hillary Clinton: Just add an exaggerated laugh that conceals barely controlled hostility and you'll be an exact copy.

Ben Carson?  As one wag noted, just hold a scalpel in one hand and a Bible and a flat tax plan in the other.

Movies will be big. There’s a new “Star Wars” flick coming out so be prepared for lots of Wookies, Chewies, Storm Troopers and Princess Leas. Likewise the dinosaur look from “Jurassic World,” in what seems like the 500th spinoff of the Jurassic franchise.

I may choose a “Sharknado” theme if for no other reason than to celebrate the best worst movie ever made.

Looking for something edgy?  There’s a Caitlin Jenner outfit. And in the 15 seconds of fame category, someone will undoubtedly come as Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk jailed for refusing to issue same sex marriage licenses. Best not to wear in West Hollywood.

But let’s face it.  Halloween is really for the kids. I remember when I was young thinking that being an adult must be truly awful because you can’t trick or treat anymore.

But even trick or treating has its downfalls.

I remember being miffed after racing home to open my goodie bag only to find pennies, rock hard bubble gum, raisins, butterscotch flavored hard candy or a toothbrush. 

Add to that list jawbreakers, peppermint, something awful called Bit-O-Honey, candy corn, pretzels, apples and wax lips.

If you really stuck out, you got a bag of religious propaganda.

Here’s the last word on Halloween as stated by Douglas Coupland:

“If human beings had genuine courage, they'd wear their costumes every day of the year, not just on Halloween.”

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Hoax Folks

“Tomorrow, Facebook will change its privacy settings to allow Mark Zuckerberg to come to your house while you sleep and eat your brains with a grapefruit spoon.  To stop this from happening, go to Account/Home Invasion Settings/ Cannibalism/Brains and uncheck the “tasty” box.  Please copy and re-post.  It will save lives.”

This bit of whimsy made its way around Facebook the other day, poking fun at a real hoax that appeared on the social network at about the same time.

That hoax went something like this:

“As of September 27th , 2015 at 2:24pm Pacific standard time, I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with Facebook permission to use my pictures, information, or posts, both past and future. By this statement, I give notice to Facebook it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, or take any other action against me based on this profile and/or its contents. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of privacy can be punished by law (UCC 1-308- 1 1 308-103 and the Rome Statute). NOTE: Facebook is now a public entity. All members must post a note like this. If you prefer, you can copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once it will be tactically allowing the use of your photos, as well as the information contained in the profile status updates. DO NOT SHARE. You MUST copy and paste."

Or a variation that read:

“Now it's official! It has been published in the media. Facebook has just released the entry price: $5.99 to keep the subscription of your status to be set to 'private.' If you paste this message on your page, it will be offered free (paste not share) if not tomorrow, all your posts can become public. Even the messages that have been deleted or the photos not allowed. After all, it does not cost anything for a simple copy and paste."

None of which was true. 

That’s because Facebook doesn’t claim copyright rights to the personal information, photographs, and other material that their users post. It can share it  but not own it.

Brad Shear, a Washington-area attorney and blogger who is an expert on social media, told USA Today that the message was "misleading and not true."

He said that when you agree to Facebook's terms of use you provide Facebook a "non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any content you post. You do not need to make any declarations about copyright issues since the law already protects you. The privacy declaration [in this message] is worthless and does not mean anything."

As far as a privacy charge, Snopes, the myth-busting site, said “the claim that Facebook would be initiating user charges was but the bait to lure people to [a] protest page and its hidden malicious payload…"

So why did a number of my well educated and well-meaning friends, along with untold thousands of others, buy into this?

Are they unsophisticated rubes who fall for any and all Internet scams that pop up on their screen?

Hardly. A more likely scenario is that they understand that Internet firms like Facebook, Google and Netflix among others have in the past been accused of violating their users’ privacy.

Indeed, Facebook was hit with a class action lawsuit for allegedly violating its members' right to privacy. The suit claimed that the company intercepts private messages, without consent, to mine the data for its own profit.

All of which is taking place against the backdrop of a government that has been spying on its own citizens.

So, yes, there is a good reason why many may be quick to embrace some sort of protection, a shield, a talisman to protect us from electronic evil, no matter how misdirected that effort might be.

After all, we have every reason to worry.

Additionally, unless you’re a spy, a pedophile, an axe murderer or a regular on the Ashley Madison web site, when we talk about privacy we’re really taking about identity and credit theft. 

And that's no hoax: 

--- An investigation by MSNBC revealed that a hacker posted tens of thousands of stolen credit card numbers on a Web site; he offered to share more for $1 apiece.

--- That investigation also revealed that existence of dozens of Internet Relay Chat rooms where stolen personal profiles - names, addresses, phone numbers, and credit card numbers - are bought, sold and traded out in the open.

--- A California couple began tapping into a neighbor’s wireless Internet router. This led to them raiding the neighbors’ personal data. Thirty victims were affected ultimately by the time the pair was arrested.

--- A busboy using a library computer attempted to steal the identities of 217 of the wealthiest Americans - including Oprah Winfrey, Michael Bloomberg and Steven Spielberg. If successful - and he was almost successful - his haul would have been in the neighborhood of $80 million.

--- A Russian website called trafficking in stolen and fake credit cards was believed to be responsible for around $50 million in losses around the globe.

--- The Treasury Department was drained of an estimated $5.8 billion in tax refunds by identity thieves filing fraudulent returns during the 2013 tax-filing season.

Time may not heal this wound. An expert quoted in a Pew report on the future of the Internet had this to say: “Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and those who practice them will have new capacity to make life miserable for others.”

This Facebook hoax was benign as these sorts of scams go. The worse thing that could happen is that by believing it, you would throw caution to the wind when posting on Facebook.

We should be skeptical about any unattributed material we run across on Internet.  If it has not been reported by a major media outlet, chances are it's baloney.

It's easy to get entangled on the Web.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.