Chris X Edwards



2016-10-11 08:18

I loved this long article in The Guardian. It covers quite a few topics that are important to me. Its general theme is how automation or making a task "easy" can actually have rather perverse consequences. It starts just talking about the absurdity of a particular plane crash but eventually winds up talking about autonomous cars and why traditional road signage is often not helpful to anyone, especially cyclists and pedestrians.

Here is an excerpt.

The paradox of automation, then, has three strands to it. First, automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate and by automatically correcting mistakes. Because of this, an inexpert operator can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent – his incompetence is a hidden weakness that can persist almost indefinitely. Second, even if operators are expert, automatic systems erode their skills by removing the need for practice. Third, automatic systems tend to fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations, requiring a particularly skilful response. A more capable and reliable automatic system makes the situation worse.

Now having read that let me just plant three little letters in your mind: G-U-I. Nothing better describes my frustrations with pointless graphical interfaces, especially Windows. But it’s not just computer systems for "dummies" that tenaciously insulate you from the truth of what is going on. Even pretty serious computer work can have this paradox of automation.

Last week I spent about 20 hours solving a completely maddening problem with the latest version of CentOS Linux (7). A user complained that some required technical software stopped working. I discovered that not much of anything was working. I tried to use yum, the automatic package manager to do an update and it was broken too. Hard to use yum to fix things when it itself is broken. This is exactly the kind of problem that automation prepares us to concede as unresolvable.

I finally tracked the problem down to misbehavior in Python itself, which yum is written in. Fortunately I do have the skill to manually reinstall all packages having to do with Python and yum without using yum. Unfortunately, the problem still persisted. I then had the idea to check an identical system to see if it was working and then see if I could find any differences.

The highlight of the riddle came when I checked the md5 hash fingerprint of the Python executable on both systems. They were identical. However when I ran each of them with the --version option, they disagreed about what version they were. The point is that simply doing yum update to keep this machine operating properly all these years was not what prepared me to know how to actually discover the correct answer. (I won’t spoil the riddle for you but if you’re curious the answer is here.)

The article’s views on autonomous cars are not quite on track in my opinion (which I provide in my last post). They seem to be thinking more about adaptive cruise control and lane keeping systems. They’re basically envisioning an autopilot for cars that is similar to an autopilot for planes in the sense that humans should be ready to take over at any moment (like Tesla’s). I think all of the points of the article apply to that kind of system. The paradox correctly means that as a part-time driver you need to be more careful, not less.

The kind of full autonomous vehicle I’m envisioning will need human intervention as much as a train needs steering. My radical departure from mainstream thinking in the field is that road vehicle autonomy will require some operating environment concessions just as train steering does.

In light of this paradox, the goal for autonomous cars is clear. Passengers should need to worry about road driving to the same extent as airplane passengers should need to worry about flying. But behind the scenes, let’s hope the engineers designing and running the systems resist the temptation to go on autopilot themselves.

So You Think Driving AI Is Easy? It Could Be

2016-10-08 12:20

Think it’s easy to write car driving AI? Watch this epic autonomous car pile up (in GTA5) until you’ve changed your mind.

It’s a damn hard problem.

I have been meaning to write about the results of the 2015 Simulated Car Racing contest since, well, 2015. But entering the event was so taxing that I’ve not really been able to do anything too special with it. I did win 100 Australian dollars as the 3rd place entry so that was nice. Woo hoo! But I’m somewhat burned out on it. It was a profound learning experience.

Even with polite environments in closed race track conditions, getting a car to not do very stupid things is quite tricky. Throw in real world street driving issues and it becomes orders of magnitude harder. Throw in trying to replicate how the human mind turns absorbed light into conceptual models of the world and the problem gets way more complicated yet. One of the best examples of that is this interesting video of the Hyundai autonomous car having trouble with rain.

I’ve been a big proponent of the idea of autonomous cars since I first realized they were completely feasible after hearing a talk by one of the DARPA entrants in 2006. What I mean is that we should have all stopped driving in 2006. The technology problems were all 100% solved. The computer technology was 100% ready. But of course we didn’t stop driving. I believed then and I still do that the DARPA challenge was far more challenging of a test than the minimum level of robot sophistication necessary for relieving humans of the soul-destroying chore of driving cars.

The discrepancy is a major difference of opinion I have with the entire field of autonomous vehicles. The conventional wisdom is that for a car to take over driving duties, it must be able to handle all of the situations that a human can handle as well or better than a human. I think this mentality is tragically wrong.

For some reason that I can not understand, people working on the problem of autonomous vehicles seem to believe that the ideal environment for autonomous vehicles is the exact same environment which is ideal for humans. If they don’t believe this truly stupid thing then they believe that it is completely infeasible to transition the driving environment from one that is idealized for humans to one that is favorable to robots (or both). They believe the road infrastructure is utterly immutable and any progress on autonomous vehicles must work within existing (i.e. 1950s) infrastructure and imitate human drivers in all ways. I think this is tragically wrong.

Humans have proven several times (roads, canals, railroads, freeways) that deploying infrastructure improvements on a massive scale is completely feasible if the pay off is sufficient. It is a failure of imagination to misunderstand the profound benefit to eradicating our modern civilization’s last real source of mass toil and horrific routine physical danger.

My experience with designing my own autonomous race cars and my close attention to the topic of autonomous vehicles have emboldened me to make some radical predictions. And they’re not good.

Autonomous cars are not coming soon.

I predict that I will not take a ride in a fully autonomous car that is generally available to the public until at least 2030. 2040 would not be the least bit shocking. Because the necessary technology to replace my manual labor in automobile transportation existed in 2006, it won’t go much longer than that, but there will be some surprises for groups like Google. The only reason we will ever escape the scourge of driving is that special niche applications will slowly move along a more sensible path. At first it will probably be simply limited driving scope. For example, long haul trucking on freeways is such an obvious application that it is eerie that it is not already saving someone money (here are some recent developments on the topic). The adaptive cruise control as found on Teslas and other cars is an example of severely limited driving scope with the appearance of progress toward a completely replaced driver.

Some of these projects and driving aids are nice and generally welcome but I think real progress will only come when people start to make the driving environment more hospitable to computer chauffeurs. Once people concede to make the relatively minor adjustments to the infrastructure necessary to impart surety to autonomous cars, we will finally see some progress towards a truly comprehensive solution. This is what we are waiting for. To wait for a Google style autonomous car is folly.

I predict that this vision of fully human-like autonomous cars is too hard and will be for at least 20 years. Perhaps 50. Perhaps we’ll never know because, like getting aircraft to have flapping wings, it’s a dead end strategy even if it seemed obvious to us at one time.

I feel like autonomous cars are where AI was in the late 1960s when extrapolated progress meant it was just a matter of a few more years before the whole of human intelligence was replicated with computers. Really, people believed that. But of course we all learned that while computers were damn good at many things, getting them to be more "human than human" was way harder than your mother made it seem when she built a human brain. I am more and more suspecting that the problem of driving like a human on human-centric roadways is just as vexing.

So that’s my official prognostication. I’m publicly declaring it in the hope that I can be humiliatingly wrong. I hope either some smart people at Stanford, CMU, Google, Bosch, Volvo, Uber, etc. make some kind of unimaginably major leap in the state of the art. Or that people in the field start to overcome their fear of changing the infrastructure to make it easy for cars to drive themselves. What exactly do such changes look like? Here’s someone (else) from San Diego having a go at the problem. But for the most part we have no idea what the future of autonomous cars will look like. Just like the future of computers weren’t HAL 9000, I believe the future of autonomous cars won’t look anything like Google’s misbegotten projects.

Again, I could be wrong. Please, for the love of god, make me a fool.

UPDATE: I just noticed I’m not the only one who is thinking like this.

Take Me To Your Leader

2016-10-04 18:07

Before I get to today’s topic I have to say I don’t usually like the political views of Libertarians. There is definitely merit to the idea of "liberty" and I’m all for that. However Libertarians often seem to me to be obnoxious children of privilege who think they’re some self-made Ayn Rand hero. The thing that usually makes them irredeemably insufferable to me is the nonsensically juxtaposed belief in 1. strong property rights and 2. an absolute absence of government. Number two may seem like hyperbole (or Anarcho-capitalism), but no, once these self-professed Libertarians start talking about how their taxes are a type of robbery, they soon outline a plan that promises to cure all problems by gun ownership and the unregulated free market which acts as a panacea but only in the complete absence of government structure. At least that’s the gist of it that I hear all too often.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not categorically against well considered free markets or guns or property rights, but that zero government stuff is barbaric. I understand people are frustrated with bad government, as am I, but Libertarians are special in that they don’t seek optimal government in size or quality; they seek zero government. That position is weird and, I think, dangerous. Stupidity is added to the platform when that position is combined with the popular Libertarian notion of strong property rights. I always wonder, in the absence of the state, property rights upheld by whom?

Despite my deep appreciation for socially workable liberties, especially civil liberties that involve critical freedom of expression, I am no fan of Libertarians in general.

But I am a good sport.

First off, the number one problem plaguing democracy in the USA is the tricky dissonance between the big money of wealthy special interests and the well-being of the populace. This problem which is the at the core of most practical political problems is, in my opinion, greatly exacerbated in the USA by the limitations of the two party system. This is why I think that any exposure and credibility given to minor party candidates who can infuse new competitive ideas into politics is a positive thing.

With this in mind, let me come to the defense of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president who was recently ridiculed for not being able to name a foreign leader that he respected.

When I first heard about this story, my own Trivial Pursuit instinct kicked in and I thought smugly, well, what a fool, I certainly wouldn’t have drawn a blank. For example… Uh… Hmm….

Actually, yes. In fact I did draw a blank. But this was a rather obnoxious question. To see why, let’s divide it into two parts. Part one is the pure trivia part - can you name a foreign leader? Part two is more subjective - from a list of foreign leaders, which ones do you respect?

I was able to finally come up with a decent list for part one from memory. Vlad Putin, Frau Merkel, Comrade Bob, Ninja Abe, Net&Yahoo, the Castro Brothers, Justin Trudeau… And that was about it. Like Gary Johnson, I couldn’t quite remember who the current presidente of Mexico was but I knew it was either Vincente Fox or Pena something (mentally add your own ~ please). I actually knew it was the one that was a member of the PRI political party (I do live 50km from Mexico). That was admittedly after thinking about it for a couple of days.

I could also just barely recollect that my own current prime minster is a woman named May but that circumstances there were murky (apparently she’s a "liberal conservative", whatever that means). I’m pretty sure it was formerly David Cameron until quite recently.

Anyway… Eventually I got curious and just checked.

Here are some more I knew but that I didn’t think of immediately: Bashar al-Assad, Jacob Zuma, Daniel Ortega, Francois Hollande, Xi Jinping, and… well, that’s pretty much it. About a dozen total.

Ok, what about part two, whom among them do I respect? I knew I couldn’t extemporaneously name Jose Mujica and I ignorantly had no idea he’d left the Uruguayo presidency 18 months earlier. But I did think of him and to me that guy is a genuine hero.

I guess I would have said Justin Trudeau who seems like quite a cool guy. I had heard about his shocking stance on marijuana prohibition with its lack of the usual mountain of hypocrisy. Libertarian Gray Johnson probably should have too!

Looking at the list also reminded me of a couple of others that could have been mentioned whom I have heard of and respect. The first is Pope Francis (born just across the River Plate from Mujica) who is head of state of the Vatican. Frankly he’s pretty cool too, certainly for a pontiff.

I must confess that I needed to be reminded of the head of state who currently presides over no less than 18 countries and is my personal sovereign. I have mixed feelings about Elizabeth II. On one hand she’s shown her endurance by "ruling" for 64 years. She’s also pretty cool as far as I can tell. On the other hand this monarchy thing is as anachronistic as the Electoral College and I would be in favor of letting ER finish up her reign and then transitioning to a proper self-respecting democracy.

The point here is that many of the leaders you might hear about in the news are notable because they are not worthy of respect. The media likes its villains. Oh ya, let’s not forget that Korean nut sack. And many countries place much less importance on their heads of state. I met many people in Switzerland who weren’t sure who their own president was.

If you were thinking about voting for Gary Johnson instead of the Republican nominee, please, don’t let Mr. Johnson’s putative lack of world politics knowledge stop you.


2016-09-30 12:43

San Diego, California has pretty good weather really. Most people from a normal climate would love to come here on vacation just like most people like ice cream. But when it’s ice cream and only ice cream for every meal day after day, year after year, well, it can get tiresome. Rain can ruin a picnic but sunny days kill way more people than lightning storms.

Often in September the weather finally stops getting hotter and in October, it actually starts getting cooler. But then the wind changes and the desert comes blowing in. Almost over night the temperature rockets up.


That feeling you get when you’re baking cookies and you open the oven to check on them is how your whole body feels for days at a time. Often that desert wind is strong and it can be like standing in front of a scaled up hair dryer. It’s a very strange sensation really.

It’s not just summer either. I haven’t lit the pilot in my furnace for at least 6 years. I can not remember ever spending a day where I was generally too cool (where I wasn’t hiking above 1500m).

The best weather related fact about San Diego is not the "nice" days. It’s that these so-called nice days are so harsh that they also discourage insects. Unfortunately they also discourage plants (that are not on fire). One can’t have everything though I suppose and bug-free is pretty nice.

If you like being very hot very often, then San Diego has one of the best climates you’ll find. I, however, am looking forward to leaving.

It’s the edge of the world
And all of western civilization
The sun may rise in the East
At least it settled in a final location

Internet Denied

2016-09-25 16:04

Last week my cable modem suddenly died and that single point of failure cast me into the prehistoric world of no internet. While I was sorting that mess out, computer security hero Brian Krebs was also having internet trouble. He came back on line today after being squeezed off the internet for a few days by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, a rather nasty one it seems. He wrote an interesting report and a follow up, worth taking a look at. It kind of makes my head spin. A lot of technical details but it seems like the internet is sick.

Let’s take a look at some of the rotten parts. First is DDoS itself. I never much paid this too much attention. It seemed like a craven and clumsy kind of petulance more than anything serious. "These are non-professionals who use DDoS…to instigate attacks out of boredom or spite" says this report. Do we really need to be worried about bored punks? Maybe. It seems this stuff is becoming professionalized which is making it more prevalent. Beyond denying you service to a legitimate resource you’d like to have access to, the aforementioned DDoS clumsiness pollutes the entire internet with junk packets. It basically degrades everyone’s bandwidth or increases everyone’s cost or both. I can’t find a solid number but it seems like between 2% and 5% of the internet are bogus packets. I don’t even know if that counts spam.

Brian mentions the Internet of Things. I find the notion somewhat cloying since I’ve been waiting for computers to interact with the real world for a long time. And like the sadly clumsy applications that have been contrived for our marvelously small and efficient new computers, the dumb things that are being envisioned for the IoT makes me think, don’t bother. Brian’s experience (many of the attacking hosts were IP webcams) show that these devices, which are really just difficult-to-manage computers with bad proprietary controls, are a security nightmare and a threat to the internet of data.

Brian mentions border gateway protocol, BGP, in his last article before the recent attack (perhaps not coincidence). I’ve been concerned about BGP hijacking since last year when I learned about it. (It didn’t cause my problem, but it easily could have. You have been warned.) We’ve already figured out that DNS is pretty much sucker bait for computer criminals. We knew that when you typed in a name, you might go to the wrong number. I think we’re going to see a rise in cases where you get the right number, but the mysterious routers deep in the internet send you to the wrong machine anyway. All I can tell you is learn to appreciate SSH host keys and don’t use the WWW for anything serious.

These Krebs articles also tipped me off to RFC1701, Generic Routing Encapsulation. Is this some kind of joke? You’ve heard of Voice over IP; this is IP over IP. Or am I missing something here? But should I be surprised? VMs run the world now and the virtual machine, like IP over IP is an admission of failure. It’s basically saying, ok, we’ve mismanaged (the OS|the network) so badly let’s just start again with a pristine one, (emulated|encapsulated) in the mismanaged one. On the other hand, if you screw that up, the same recursive solution is always available to you. So there’s that.

Oh well, enjoy your internet while it lasts. Hopefully it all just stumbles along sufficient to requirements. But it might be wise to cultivate a lifestyle, or at least some hobbies, that don’t require it at all. A prolonged internet outage would probably do many of us some good.


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