Chris X Edwards

Based on Moravec's paradox, we should really be designing cars that dogs can easily drive and just hire them as chauffeurs. I'd feel safer.
2018-04-19 09:21
I find that the more erudite the joke, the more funny it is to have been made than its content.
2018-04-13 08:24
Did people breeding smart sheepdogs ever worry about them taking over their own eugenics and destroying humanity? #AI
2018-04-09 08:57
The never used word "emplace" (except in STL) lets me imagine how programmers who don't speak English feel about typical syntax.
2018-04-08 13:32
I wonder if people will ever say "post space age civilization". Comsats are more like tall cell towers with weird physics than spacefaring.
2018-04-08 11:51

Review: Sapiens

2018-04-17 22:07

I really enjoyed Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. That’s not surprising since it combines the most interesting bits from all history with a particular attention to two of my favorite topics: philosophy and the history of consciousness.

I’ve been to natural history museums with a conga line of evolving hominids. I’ve never been able to really care too much about the details of that kind of history, but this book really put a fresh spin on it. It really stressed the concept that we homo sapiens (of the book’s title) weren’t the only humans. Like fictional Vulcans or Hobbits, our Earth was once home to quite a few real species of people who were not sapiens. The fact that they were contemporaries of our species is about as interesting as it was for Star Trek’s writers. Maybe even the basis for ancient myths that ultimately inspired Tolkien.

Of course those other folks don’t get to the end of the story with a particularly happy ending. Neanderthals, we are told, could be fair skinned according to DNA evidence. DNA research also suggests that certain modern people, such as East Asians and Europeans, have maybe 2%-3% of Neanderthal genes. Modern humans also have genes from other hominid species too like the 3% of Denisovan genes in modern aboriginal Australians.

We can follow the story of these animals through paleontological evidence. For a long time they were just apes doing ape things like gorillas do today, but a couple million years ago or so, they started making stone tools. Of course stones can comfortably lie around for millions of years waiting to be found; it’s not unreasonable to assume these creatures were crafting other artifacts now lost to time. After a long time of being the weird animals that made mineral tipped sticks, the hominid species figured out something even more awesome: how to use fire. At first it was probably just scavenging the carnage of natural fires, but of all the earth’s animals, humans (many species of them) learned to produce fire on demand. This was a big deal, not just for us, but for the entire planet.

The book talks about how this technology of fire coincided with the massive dispersion and success of early humans. It also pointed out that it is likely that early humans used controlled fires to burn down forests as a food gathering strategy. The rise in human populations coincides suspiciously with a serious decline in the planet’s terrestrial megafauna. As I read about this I wondered if these people ever wondered if killing so many mammoths could just wipe them all out completely, but I figure probably no more so than someone today who eats a tuna sandwich is worrying about devastating the ocean’s megafauna. Basically throughout history, when humans achieve access to a new realm, all the big animals are pretty much hunted to extinction. Of course sapiens, us, are prime suspects in the ongoing investigation into the extermination of all the other species of humans.

If you could teach your dog to write book reviews, that would be a pretty interesting read. Yet it’s no exaggeration to claim that some mysterious factors caused a species of ground ape to learn to write book reviews. I believe the most interesting question ever asked is, how did this happen?

After killing our hominid cousins and most varieties of the big animals, and burning down a lot of forest, things start to get really interesting. With less shadowy forest, grasses become more competitive. Humans who may have created this grassland are in the right place to learn how to forage in it. By collecting the kernels of these early grains, sapiens start to figure out that these plants can be controlled. They can be induced to grow for the convenience of humans. The selection of these plants can furthermore stop being natural; they start to co-evolve with and for the convenience of humans. Domestication of animals starts about this time too. After getting so good at herding them off cliffs and trapping them in canyons, etc. it was just a small refinement in technology to keep some animals alive. By constantly killing and eating the unruly ones, our ancestors created new strains of animals that were relatively easy for humans to completely control.

The book is peppered with philosophy. The author really is a philosopher who figured that a history PhD was going to pay the bills better. At this point in the story of our species the author hits us with a quirky bold suggestion that is, true or not, delightfully thought provoking. He points out that our transition to agriculture may not have been "progress". I pointed out in my review of Traffic that if you try to alleviate traffic congestion by building more roads, you are likely to just get a lot more cars which will perversely cause even more traffic problems. Harari thinks this kind of thing may have happened with our transition to agriculture. By the time humans perfected taking care of wheat and barley plants they found themselves in a strange situation where they could sustain many more people in a given area, but that each person had to work a lot harder to do so.

And with the ability to support more people, more people appeared. Populations exploded. People were crammed into dense clusters for the first time. Diseases became more dangerous. They now had possessions and big investments in particular parcels of territory. Conflict became more coordinated and serious. Foragers who were defeated by their warring neighbors could run away and forage elsewhere; farmers on the other hand would fight to the bitter end knowing that leaving the farm was a death sentence.

The book casts the transition to agriculture as a kind of trap; it is described as "History’s Biggest Fraud". Nobody masterminded it or made some obvious catastrophic mistake, but as things developed we found ourselves in a position that may not have been "better" in the ways we normally assume. The book figures that we spent more time and toil with early agriculture than we did hunting and foraging. Of course maybe being neurotic weird apex predator apes in our modern milieux is better than being more harmonious with our evolutionary character. It’s hard to say. I think asking the question is cool. Certainly it’s a precedent for other subsequent "advances" that some members of our species view with a bit of chagrin.

After a long time of hazy relatively slow moving anthropological history, civilizations begin to emerge and big changes start happening very quickly on the path towards apes writing book reviews. Harari highlights the fact that we sapiens are quite receptive to coordinated beliefs in imaginary things. Just like your dog thinks you’re the greatest thing in the entire universe, we humans are even more skilled at fervently believing in things that are obviously complete fictions. The book contrasts the Code of Hammurabi (~c.1776 BC) with the Declaration of Independence (1776) and notes that they have some radical differences that were both believed by their contemporaries to be fundamental truths. For example, the Babylonians believed that the required reparations for killing a woman was in the ball park of 30 raisin-sized nuggets of silver, unless she was a slave in which case about 20 would suffice. That fiction was a truth as obvious to those people as the fiction "that all men are created equal… with certain unalienable rights" is to us. The progression of which wacky fictions we’ve been taking as divine truths is as good a proxy of our species' "progress" as anything.

The book covers a lot of territory. There is a nice history of literacy and math and scientific thinking. A nice high level overview of major civilizations rising and falling and the role of empire in catalyzing the whole circus. The importance of religion is noted. There’s a brilliant presentation of the weird collective fiction that is money, the god that brings together Arabs and Jews and everyone else. And credit, the god that buys now and pays later, weirdly providing for no small amount of domination through growth.

In a blink of an eye, we have some Industrial Revolution and human rights and a Space Age and Gilligan’s Island reruns. The book ends wondering what’s next? Given how awesomely interesting the story has been so far, we’re in no danger of boring ourselves anytime soon.

Tunnel Vision

2018-03-25 17:25

I mentioned Brad Templeton recently. I’m a regular reader and fan of his blog. He’s a smart guy who has been directly involved in autonomous car technology for a long time (advising Google, for example). He’s usually got something interesting to say on the topic. That said, he and I have a profound disagreement about the core of the technology. He believes that robotic cars must be programmed to handle situations encountered on roads as they exist today. An autonomous vehicle, he believes, needs to be able to handle itself in the exact same traffic system that humans operate in. Knowing roads and human drivers like I do, I am deeply skeptical.

In this post he emphatically asserts, "I have declared it to be the first law of robocars that you don’t change the infrastructure." In the post’s comments, responding to my skepticism, he says, "Even the most tiny of changes to infrastructure take many decades to become universal. The progress in AI is much faster. Nothing here involves strong AI." To me every one of those claims is dubious (e.g., e.g., e.g.).

To me the absurd part about this is the aversion to building infrastructure. I don’t know why the autonomous vehicle industry can not conceive of special road lanes or other accommodations to make autonomous driving much more reliable and less complex. They just can’t believe that the costs can be tolerated. Yet look at freeways. Freeways are a special purpose modal infrastructure to accommodate high velocity cars somewhat more safely. Obviously we can do this.

The example I want to focus on which proves that extensive infrastructure can be built is trains. Even more infrastructure intense are underground trains.

Rails have excellent energy saving features and trains should probably figure into a healthy balanced mixed mode transportation system. However, Brad and I both believe that many subways could possibly be replaced by subterranean roadways. He doesn’t think it’s worth digging a tunnel while I do, but if the tunnel’s dug, we agree that rail may not be optimal today. The problem with trains is that they only enjoy their efficiencies when pulling a lot of cars on a pretty static route, the longer the better. Urban subways, however, tend to prioritize flexibility and low latency.

This discussion was prompted by this article where Brad discusses some extension of a BART subway. Brad points out many important advantages to using special purpose autonomous shuttles.

  • Stations would be radically simplified for passengers. They wouldn’t even need to be underground. This would imply much cheaper stations.

  • For energy efficiency, shuttles could mostly surface instead of brake at station stops. The reverse when departing.

  • Elevators or ramps (like a parking garage) can work fine too.

  • Works fine in a dense urban area.

  • Can be integrated with other dedicated routes.

  • Flexibility of pick up and drop off points.

  • Can interface directly with other transport (trains, surface cars in parking lots, ferries, etc).

  • Powered by sliding contacts like trams or batteries as needed.

  • Vehicles involved could be cheaper than the rail steel.

I add to that these further advantages.

  • In a tunnel shuttles can do quite well with aerodynamics by drafting. Or even ventilation pressure tricks.

  • Different capacities are possible to fine tune logistics and rider preferences.

  • Better flexible routing would reduce stopping/starting energy.

  • Less stopping can improve passenger travel times.

  • Coordinated pullouts allow bidirectional travel on one bore.

  • The "road" minimally would only need to be two strips.

  • Intersections and changing route is relatively simple.

  • Unlike trains they can employ underground roundabouts (e.g. Vallavik Tunnel).

  • Tunnel fires are always bad news, but non-preferential bi-directional drive could help orderly evacuation.

  • Tunnel fires can be fought with unmanned fire trucks.

  • Tunnel fires won’t be gasoline fires.

  • Better emergency braking. More responsive than trains to people or objects in the wrong place.

  • New infrastructure could be explored without disturbing existing systems.

  • Doesn’t block main conduit during loading. This could be nice for freight or handicapped access.

  • Can run a noisy high throughput transportation line through a "quiet neighborhood".

  • Efficiency improves when load is more consistent, not mostly empty or mostly full as with current mass transit.

  • If the energy savings of rail is still compelling, the shuttles could be designed to roll on rails also and they could drive themselves from the pick up to the tracks, engage the train wheels, and zoom away. They could even hook on to each other as an ad hoc multi-car train.

  • It might be a good precedent to send our high energy transportation underground where it doesn’t kill people willy nilly.

  • It would help to smoothly transition to the autonomous vehicle future that seems inevitable at some point.

That last point is more important than it might at first seem. Brad advocates rubbing the machine learning lamp until the AI genie is smart enough to deal with, say, me on my bicycle. Although that’s unlikely to ever happen comprehensively (as the recent fatality shows), there is a more poignant aspect to that vision. Once autonomous vehicles are successful, facilitated by superhuman AI (endorsed by Brad and the entire industry) or dedicated infrastructure (me), it is clear that superhuman AI definitely will not be necessary. This is because the only serious problems that remain for autonomous vehicles are the human drivers they are trying to eradicate. I say if the AI helps, great, but rather than wait another half-century to find out that human level intelligence isn’t just around the corner, let’s do the obvious stuff, isolated from human randomness, and start eliminating driving in a way we know we can! Obviously people are willing to build things like subways. Let’s make that investment more effective with the smartest technology possible.

Here is an inspirational rough sketch I made of what this idea could sort of look like (if the world was designed by someone who needed Blender practice and reduced to 32 colors for your downloading convenience).

Xed’s Concept Sketch

This concept provides an illustrative look at the advantages of autonomous vehicles without worrying about cost, integration, safety, consumer acceptance of sharing, loading areas, parking, trolley problems, zoning, noise and disturbance of 24/7 operation, fare payment systems, liability, "taking away jobs", etc. — the subway already had to deal with all that! It’s an ideal case to objectively compare one big complicated expensive transportation system to another. I believe the case for autonomous shuttles over rail is compelling but what is truly compelling is at least opening our minds to the possibility.

UPDATE 2018-03-27

I just noticed this project from The Boring Company. Seems like a good idea.

Robocar Success Story - Uber Gets People To Care About Road Carnage

2018-03-20 21:29

Today we learned of the sad and inevitable news that history had been made—one of the autonomous vehicles being tested killed someone.

This was huge news, like a traffic jam where everyone is gawking at the aftermath of a crash. There were tons of stupid clone articles saying almost nothing ( e.g.)

If you’re curious and want to read more about it you should read Brad’s excellent coverage and follow-up.

As you can see from the title, my first question was what percentage of the other 102 human beings who will get killed by cars today in the US (based on 2016 stats) will have nothing to do with car driving? Or the 12000 Americans that get injured? Today?

I did have some grim amusement reflecting on how if I am lucky enough to be killed by an autonomous car, that the media will speculate about my homelessness. However, when I finally do get killed by an ordinary idiot driver, it will go pretty much unnoticed.

The preliminary reports by the Tempe police chief indicate the car was not at fault. As regular readers know, I’m a bit of a stickler about people brandishing guns or cars, killing someone, and then blaming the victim for doing something "wrong". Let’s set that aside for the moment and respond to the stupid claims that this incident somehow creates a "safety record" (or lack thereof) for autonmous cars and that they are now statistically more dangerous than idiot human driven cars.

Obviously the sample sizes are stupidly weak. But there is a more serious problem with such thinking which can be summed up with the following rhetorical question: What feature of the autonomous control system (which, by the way, was augmented by a professional human sitting there to prevent this exact thing) was contributory to the tragedy? I’ll give you a hint - I don’t know.

Brad and I kind of suspect that this should have been handled better by the car but if this situation was extremely unlikely to be avoided by a human driver in the exact circumstances, it is wrong to attribute the failure to the autonomous driver. In fact, what we have here is a garden variety example of the fact that cars kill people.

If later it comes out that there was some programming or engineering deficiency that should have been addressed that might have prevented the crash, well, that’s not a great sign. But all indications so far look like this poor woman was just one of the 100 who will die today by car because that is just how the whole system is set up.

Another way to look at it is to divide casualties into three categories. Autonomous vehicle at fault, human at fault, and a car crash because cars are fundamentally dangerous (we all, as a civilization, share the blame). I’m thinking this incident goes in the third category further emphasizing the need for the first to exist.

It also struck me as unlucky that it’s a fatality or are there tons of lesser incidents we’re not being exposed to? Maybe animal road kills or hitting mailboxes, etc.? In other words, is there a ton of non-fatal non-reported mishaps and mayhem caused by these research cars that goes unreported? Or was this a super unlucky first strike? I’ve heard of some sensational and vague reports of problems, but who knows? Perhaps this is the tip of the iceberg. All I can say is that when I went to see autonomous cars in the wild, all the ones I personally saw behaved no worse than humans.

Now we turn from the abstract to the peculiarities of this specific incident. Does this poor woman really want to walk 200m out of her way to cross the street? You can easily say in hindsight she should have done that. Bullshit. In hindsight she should have crossed anywhere else or at a different time. This is because crossing at the light is ostensibly safer, but in real life it is not. That’s where you get cars making unpredictable turns, maybe on red, maybe on green yet into the pedestrian "right of way", maybe with turn signals, maybe not. I would have crossed exactly where she did.

And why is that? Why cross at such a weird place? During the 80 minutes of my commute today that was as a pedestrian, I did the same thing crossing the execrable La Jolla Village Drive. Yes, in the dark too. Sometimes ameliorating someone else’s problem by standing there like a dork for several minutes while autonomous traffic cops make brainless wrong decisions about who deserves special priority treatment is just too much to bear. I understand the victim’s plausible state of mind. The fact that there is a "Use Crosswalk" sign exactly at the scene screams "There are compelling reasons to cross here!"


Why is there a weird bike path in the median right where this poor woman was killed? Very strange. Of course the real and only law, which I managed not to break today, is do not get killed.

It turns out that the crash site is an extremely dangerous place for people with bicycles, but not like this. Just crossing the road is relatively risk free. Sure she died, but try doing exactly what the traffic engineering has provided for cyclists! That takes extreme vigilance not to die. This is because the scene of the crime is where the marked bike lane is just given up on. Oh, uh, here is, uh, where I guess cars need to just drive right into your space. Obviously the onus (not legally, but for all serious considerations) is on the soft target on the bike to not get mowed down. That’s getting increasingly difficult with people stroking their phones instead of driving.

Then check out the sign right before the crash site, perfectly placed to warn of exactly what it was warning of.


Some early reports said that the vehicle was speeding, 40mph in a 35mph zone. At first that really bugged me. (Autonomous cars should not speed.) But checking it myself, it does look like the speed limit is actually 45mph. Frankly, the woman probably got hit because she was confused by this. She was probably expecting the car that hit her to be going 60mph like all the other cars. More information will no doubt be interesting.

There are a couple of other points of interest with this sad spectacle. First I’m glad to see that the requirements for bicycle wheel reflectors (§1512.16) has relaxed a bit. This is because wheel reflectors are stupid. Ironically, this situation may have been one of the few where wheel reflectors could have been helpful (had a human been driving; the AV has night loving LIDAR which doesn’t care). But, as was the case here, wheel reflectors would probably not have been seen in time. Alas, this woman had none, hopefully not reigniting the regulatory fervor for bad wheel reflectors. (Reflective strips on tires are much less stupid. Get those.)


I’m not blaming the victim but as an expert in certain two-wheeled topics it might be a good opportunity for me to reiterate how dangerous I think it is to hang swinging cargo to the handlebars of two-wheeled vehicles. Don’t ever do that. Seriously. But nothing indicates it was contributory in this case. In fact, it seems that the victim wasn’t even riding the bike, despite what that news caption implies.

I think that’s about all I can say about this incident. As I said with the first Arizona Uber Autonomous Volvo crash, the good news is that, unlike when I and my bicycle were hit, this incident will not be a mystery. It is no doubt extremely well documented with recorded telemetry and video. If some defect in the control software caused this fatality, I’m sure it will be fixed. Unlike human caused traffic deaths, with autonomous vehicles, in theory, the exact same stupidity never gets repeated twice. And it’s looking quite likely that there was no particular stupidity on the part of the car beyond what normal people are complacent about.

UPDATE 2018-03-22

Video of the crash has been released.

On one hand it’s not obvious that a normal human driver could have easily avoided this. On the other hand, why this car let itself drive into something which was clearly out on the road and on a trajectory for a collision is a mystery and something Uber should be unsettled about.

The victim was wearing black which is LIDAR’s worst case situation. LIDAR doesn’t need/want ambient light but if it can’t pick up this, then it’s not ready for prime time.

Hmm… Brad’s latest update seems to think there is a rumor that the LIDAR was turned off for some kind of testing. It would have been crazy not to keep it on independently as an auxiliary back up. It will be interesting to see what the exact LIDAR situation was.

It does seem like this video footage is crap quality. Shouldn’t there be 10 cameras on a test vehicle? I personally recorded better forward video on my way to work this morning. Maybe this is just a cheap dashcam like mine and not the cameras they use in their control system. Let us hope.

This video is a perfect demonstration for why wheel reflectors are pointless. While they possibly could have helped here, remember that in this situation, she wasn’t even riding the bike. If she were, then she’d have been in and out of the car’s headlight beam so fast that reacting to wheel reflection would simply not be an option. If you still think it makes sense to have wheel reflectors because of this video, then you must advocate mandatory reflectors on shopping carts, golf bags, backpacks, and shoes, etc. Let me also reiterate that reflective strips on bike tires are smart and should always be used. I personally put reflective tape in between spokes on the inside of the rim. But mandatory spoke-mounted wheel reflectors don’t help people actually riding bikes.

My thought on why the pedestrian was in the wrong place at the wrong time is that the AV was doing the speed limit. You can see another car well ahead. The woman probably waited for a bunch of normal (speeding) traffic to go by and started crossing in the break. And then came the straggling (since the last stoplight) Uber car (doing the speed limit correctly) and surprised her. That’s my best guess at the psychology here.

Additionally, because I know what dashcam footage is like and I have cheated death in very similar circumstances hundreds of times, I have some doubt that this particular car did as well as a normal human paying proper attention. The worst possible case here is if the woman thought she had this car’s attention but didn’t. For example, if she thought that the car was going slower than other cars as I speculate, maybe she thought the car had seen her and was slowing for her. Never take this for granted ever! But that may be what she did.

Also if you go through the footage and you note where on the frame the lane line is (I’ve written software which can do this so I’m pretty attuned to it) you’ll see that near the point of collision, rather than swerving away left like a human who had just seen an obstruction would do, the car actually starts shifting right (into her). My strong suspicion here is that the car was already setting up for this right turn and that behavior may have looked weird and unnatural to the victim. The weirdest thing about the NPC AI cars in Euro Truck Simulator is how they turn corners unnaturally. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been surprised by an AI car turning when I was sure it would be going straight. I have crashed my truck plenty of times because of this. Humans do drive differently in subtle ways.

The biggest difference between humans and AI however is on fine display with the safety driver recording a perfect advertisement for fully autonomous vehicles ASAP. I timed that the safety driver was looking at the road and paying attention to the driving for about 4s in this video; that leaves 9s where the person is looking at something in the car. If it’s not a phone and it’s some legitimate part of the mission, that’s pretty bad. If it is a phone, well, folks, that’s exactly what I’m seeing on the roads every day in cars that haven’t been set up to even steer themselves in a straight line.

The video shows a situation that an autonomous car should have been able to catch better than a human and one day will. It also highlights the problem with our current car oriented civilization. Instead of thinking of this woman as homeless (as widely reported for no good reason, she looks less homeless than I do when on a bike) and wildly speculating about her inebriation, imagine instead that she is returning from cancer treatments and can’t drive because of her medication. Although there are signs that say "don’t cross here", was she supposed to stand there for the rest of time? At that location, she needed to do some kind of crossing somewhere to get off that (very weird) bike path in the median. Don’t be so quick with victim blaming on this one.

It pains me to be a part of a society that universally accepts this kind of lethal force applied so carelessly. In this incident the lethal force actually killed somebody. The next time it could be me or anyone who drives a car doing the killing. Or me or anyone who ever rides a bike or steps off a sidewalk doing the dying. This is the message that I’ve been annoying all my friends with for the past 30 years. All I can say in my defense is that I’m doing everything I can to improve this unfortunate system.

UPDATE 2018-03-23

People are posting dashcam and mobile phone video of the crash site. Here’s one and another. While it’s difficult to get a read on this accurately, my expertise with dashcams and dashing across busy streets with a bike makes me think this is a more serious failing of the Uber car than the original crash video suggests. It is hard to say and I’m just speculating, but my guess is that the victim thought the slower than normal car must surely have seen her, maybe had already slowed for her, and would make the trivial course correction to avoid hitting her, certainly not make a strange course change towards her. I can not stress enough how bad all of those assumptions are! My rule as a VRU is that if a car can mow you down, it will mow you down. If you live by that rule, you possibly might not die by it. That’s just advice to humans. Cars, of course, should not be killing people they can avoid. And if the Uber car could have avoided this, which seems increasingly plausible to me, they’ll have to answer for it.

UPDATE 2018-03-24

This article talks about Uber’s AV woes. The part that I found interesting was this.

Uber also developed an app, mounted on an iPad in the car’s middle console, for drivers to alert engineers to problems. Drivers could use the app anytime without shifting the car out of autonomous mode. Often, drivers would annotate data at a traffic light or a stop, but many did so while the car was moving, said the two people familiar with Uber’s operations.

This is very uncool. We know that the system is bad because the system that Waymo uses, according to the article, is obvious and comparatively safe—recorded audio messages.

It would not shock me at all if Uber abandons its autonomous vehicle program. I can think of dozens of companies who have just as much incentive to be a leader in this technology. I appreciate Uber giving it a go, but I’m not surprised they have run into trouble.

UPDATE 2018-03-26

Some people said that they couldn’t see the car drifting from the video. To help make it clear I prepared this by downloading the video, this particuar one, and doing some simple things to each frame. I used ImageMagick to add a static line to show both lane lines and then I cropped it down to just the relevant lane part. I did keep the full width so that it was more clear that lines I added are in the exact same place each time. The idea is that with a fixed camera, they should be indicating where the car is on the road.


This car is clearly veering to the right at the end, into the victim. You can even see in the video that the blinking turn signal is reflecting in the watch-out-for-bikes sign on the right. Hopefully we can get some better answers about this.

Here are the important ImageMagick details if you want to try recreating what I’ve done.

-strokewidth 5 -stroke red -draw "line 480,970 890,750" \
-stroke green -draw "line 1395,970 1040,735" \
-crop 1920x300+0+675 \

UPDATE 2018-03-28

Nice of Brad to make a special mention of my right turn hypothesis. And he further explores the idea that Uber still may not know what happened. His data ditching ideas (upload the most recent log backwards immediately after a crash) are the same as I was thinking.

Autonomous Vehicles Could Drive To Space

2018-03-04 13:50

I just finished reading Hieroglyph which is a collection of short science fiction stories (which has its own website). The idea behind the book was to present "stories and visions for a better future". That’s nice. What caught my attention was that Neal Stephenson was a contributor and as a fan I wanted to check that out. Stephenson’s story, Atmosphaera Incognita, was about a very tall tower. Bruce Sterling also wrote about this in a fanciful story called simply "Tall Tower", but his story was less technically serious so let’s focus on Neal’s.

Why would tall towers be a thing for optimistic science fiction? Basically when spaceships leave a planet, the difficult thing they must do is break free of the planet’s gravity. It turns out that if you can start your trip to space from a very high altitude, you can reduce the gravity problem substantially. At 35786m above the sea level of the earth, the centrifugal force that wants to fling you out to space perfectly cancels the gravity holding you back. That is a geostationary orbit. The idea of the tall tower is to get as close to that as possible; in Stephenson’s story the tower top was at 20000m altitude. From there, spacecraft can be launched quite easily radically reorienting design priorities for space travel (double payload compared to sea level).

Neal had all kinds of clever ideas for how this could be done. He mostly envisioned a steel structure being assembled on the ground and being jacked into space piece by piece. That’s fine. One of the problems with this is that between 9000m and 16000m our planet’s atmosphere has some very brutal weather called the jet stream. It’s hard to imagine a tower handling that well. Strangely, in the notes, Stephenson credits none other than Jeff Bezos with the idea to stabilize the tower using basically computer controlled aircraft engines. Although imaginative, that sounds pretty precarious to me.

Obviously above 4000m, it’s difficult for normal people to breathe and above 8000m only super human people can avoid dying without bottled oxygen. A little higher up, radiation exposure becomes a problem and it’s always extremely cold. About halfway up Neal’s tower, you really need a spacesuit.

So I read all about that and it seemed cool. Maybe doable, maybe not. I felt like if something as dumb as a tower could be worth investigating, maybe there were other dumb approaches worth looking at. My thought was a mountain.

In all of my travels around the world I’ve been quite impressed by the natural wonder of the natural world, the Grand Canyon, Denali, Iguazu Falls, etc, but what has really impressed me is barbed wire. Yup, that pernicious stuff that mapped from space completely strangles the entire USA in a fine weave. What’s important about that idea is that humans did that. Humans are bad ass when it comes to massive engineering projects. Besides the endless barbed wire (flanking every inch of the equally impressive system of roads), I’ve also seen magnificent engineering works from the tar sands of Alberta to the giant but typical landfill right in San Diego. To me the earth’s mountains are less impressive than man’s ability to flatten them.

Can humans make a mountain? There is no doubt; that is not in question. Just check out these massive mines.



The question is only can we design and build an absolutely enormous mountain far higher than any that naturally exist? I suspect that if humans were suitably motivated (as in this excellent Stephenson story), the answer is yes.

Once I started thinking about this I realized that there are some favorable design elements to this approach. First off is that it would seem to go nicely with mining. If you’re going to dig some absolutely enormous holes to get, say, copper, why not put the tailings into a big pile? Also that jet stream is less of a problem for a mountain than a tower. Instead of requiring tons of energy pumped up to active stabilizing engines, the mountain could have wind turbines at strategic altitudes.

One of the big problems with a tall tower that pokes out of the atmosphere is that it is very hostile to human activity. This is where the autonomous vehicles come in. I keep telling people that autonomous vehicles are not some futuristic technology. They exist today. You can go to your dealer and buy a fully autonomous vehicle today. People think that Waymo or Uber are leading the way in autonomous vehicles. As far as I can tell, the real leaders are Komatsu and CAT.

Check out this video of the awesome work being done by Komatsu for autonomous mine haulage.

If ever there were a technology that could create a mountain, that is it!

Currently they’ve already automated traditional mine hauling trucks, however this design has no operator cab. Perfect for driving around in space!


These autonomous mine trucks have tons of advantages for this kind of work. They can go forward or reverse with no preference. They can have complex four wheeled steering, drive, and regenerative braking that senses unstable situations. They can be very precisely positioned. A small team of humans can manage an arbitrary sized fleet. They can be powered by overhead wire or other sliding electrical interface requiring close driving precision (normally associated with rails in city trains). There is no load size that would overwhelm a human pilot’s abilities. Perfect coordination with other vehicles is possible (imagine coordinated pullouts to let an upward and downward pass on the same road).

Hopefully you can visualize how these kinds of machines could build a mountain.


The question is can a big mountain be feasibly synthesized?

What does the engineering say? Well, I’m lazy and about as much of a mining specialist as Neal Stephenson is a high altitude iron worker so this will necessarily be for inspirational purposes only. I’ve started this science fiction off by dreaming up a design I think seems plausible and efficient, but of course this is just a wild guess and smarter analyses could produce much more effective designs.

My favorite civil engineer tells me that the angle of repose can be pretty variable and 2 to 1 (width of base to height) is normal for small slopes but that taller ones may need 3:1. Natural mountains tend to settle in around 5:1 (roughly matching the steepest roads you’re likely to drive).

The design I made is more optimistic. Maybe some technology that can keep a steep slope stable is possible. Let’s pretend that’s true and look at the industrial engineering on a shape like this.


This has the three points circumscribing a triangle with a radius of 1. The height is 2. The volume is a .5 cube. If we built this in the Bolivian high desert at 4000m elevation, we might want a 15,000m high mountain. This would mean that the volume would be about a 4km cube which tells me is about 1.7 times the volume of Mount Everest. Seems about right. How hard would it be to move a 4km cube of rocks?

Let’s wildly assume that the hauled rock will be 3000kg/m3. So multiplying that by 4e9m^3 gives 1.2e13kg to haul. These trucks can move up to 400,000kg per load. This divides out into a cool 30 million loads. With enough trucks to allow one to depart full and arrive empty every second, it would take slightly less than one year. To put that in perspective differently, the DOT says that each person in the U.S. requires the movement of 40tons (36,287kg) of freight per year. For 327e6 people this works out to moving roughly the same amount as what I’m talking about.

Is this feasible? Certainly it shows that humans can move that amount of stuff if they’re really motivated. I’m just trying to rough in the concept, but obviously there is a lot of detailed design work to do. Not only do I not have a clear view of all the answers, I can barely understand all of the questions. My favorite civil engineer further points out…

Any (really good) kind of soil will be limited to say 30 psi compressive strength. The pressure at the bottom of the pile will be about 50,000 psi. Good concrete crushes at about 6000 psi. This may be a limiting design variable for mountains - which don’t usually get much above 8000 m. Modern steel of course has a yield strength of upwards of 80000 psi., so some kind of tower may be more feasible.

I don’t exactly know how a pile of dirt fails (landslides?, settling?), but apparently that could be a problem and at that scale it could be pretty serious (earthquakes?, regional weather changes?).

Still, if you can talk optimistically about an absurdly tall tower waving back and forth in the stratosphere, it seems like you should make absolutely sure a tall mountain isn’t a better solution.

Here’s my artist’s rendition of the thing set in the Bolivian Andes (high altitude plus equatorial launch latitude plus copper mining).


The mountain concept has a lot of benefits. For example, it could be an excellent designed facility for entombing nuclear waste. The Yucca Mountain fiasco reminds us that this is not easy to do. With clear up front access to the base of the mountain I also imagine a geothermal energy source could be engineered. The mountain could be built over a pretty long time horizon and each improvement would incrementally help space travel as the altitude increased.

If you were following the math, you might have noticed I did a 15km high mountain starting at 4000m; what happened to the other 1000m to 20km? It seems like you could combine the mountain idea with the tower idea. Since the geometry and features of the mountain are controlled completely, a vertical shaft as deep as the mountain can be inset. This could contain a tower which could be hoisted during launches. And although the Stephenson/Bezos tower idea seems doomed to technical failure to me, a temporary tower could be hoisted only when conditions were ideal and above jet stream and lightning problems. And this hoisted tower could be actively aligned by thrusters (to clear-line-of-site lasers) like a big vertical snake, powered through cables/pipes from the ground. This would be energy intensive and precarious, but it would extend from the center of the mountain with a spacecraft on top, do the launch, and retract.

Perhaps real astrophysicists could figure out a way to just shoot cargo into space using rail guns lined in the bore of the mountain. This mountain would also make one heck of an observatory. I could go on and on. At the very least, this idea would be a fresh addition to science fiction where hand waving is better tolerated.

Review: The High Cost Of Free Parking

2018-02-25 19:09

Last year I wrote a bit about the topic of parking and how that might be of interest to those interested in autonomous vehicles. After I wrote that, it stuck in my mind and I was observant for interesting information about parking. I kept seeing references to UCLA professor Donald Shoup’s book, The High Cost Of Free Parking. Finally I was able to get the book from the library and I just finished slogging through its 700 pages.

I’m not going to lie; that was tedious. Shoup is not a bad writer, but the editing in this book is terrible. It should have been trimmed down to about 200 pages. Shoup makes the same (absurdly good) points over and over again in a jumbled order. There is a vast landfill of industrial engineering studies and numerical data. If you are a professional city planner, you need to own this book and read every bit of it. Maybe twice.

But here’s the thing, for the rest of us, well, if you’ve got a brain the title is enough. This especially superb article in The Economist is actually an extremely sensible synopsis of the entire 700 page book. Just as I’ve suggested, the article paraphrases the title, "Free parking is not, of course, really free."

As I started reading the book, Shoup was just pounding on that idea over and over from the get go. By about page 30 I got it. Free parking is not free. Got it. By about page 60 I was horrified at myself for failing to consciously think of this disturbing fact every time I had ever parked a car in my life. How had I failed to sense this issue as one of civilization’s most important? By the end I was starting to have a mental breakdown and looking into how I can donate large sums of money to the John Birch Society.

You see, they say that communism is dead (here’s our friends at The Economist saying just that). But it is not true in one area. In Russia it thrives, in Britain it thrives, but nowhere does it thrive like the USofA! The greatest communist plot ever conceived has been enormously successful and that insidious agenda has been to give every person, as a matter of human rights, socialized parking.


You don’t need to read this book, do you? Come on, just think it through. Let’s say that every bank, veterinarian, dry cleaner, yoga studio, shooting range, Walmart, hotel, etc. was required by law to give customers all the ice cream they could eat. Who could argue with that policy? Ice cream is delicious! Are you some kind of ice cream hating monster to oppose such a brilliant plan? Well, free parking is exactly like this.

Do you think if free ice cream were mandated by law that people would be healthier? How would ice cream consumption be different? Would it really be free ice cream? No, of course not. Just as I pointed out last year that parking lots are really quite dangerous yet until 2008 nobody bothered to keep statistics on just how bad the situation was, the same is true with the cost of parking in general. Who is thinking about this explicitly? Nobody!

The reason for this is that planning departments create a situation where businesses automatically must pass the costs of parking on to customers. They do this by requiring certain levels of parking to go with certain land uses. For example, maybe a prospective hair salon is required to provide two parking spaces for every 1000 square feet of their business. The planning departments don’t pay anything or even see how much this costs. The hair salon buys N times 1000 square feet of land for their business and then another half N more land for parking. Here in California where land is absurdly expensive, this slashes proper utility of the potential space. And obviously the hair salon will pass on what costs it can and simply not exist where it can’t. This replaces consumer choice with poorly utilized wretched parking lots.

In a word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.

— Communist Manifesto

Besides the Communist Manifesto, where do these requirements come from? Shoup goes into painful detail about the provenance of these guidelines and, to my satisfaction, demonstrates that they are completely bogus and nonsensical. The planners may know the requirements, but I’m properly convinced they have no idea why those requirements exist. Mostly because they are spurious. The whole question of whether it is a good idea or not to a create a communist plot giving every human being parking "to each according to his needs" is never even considered. (I should point out that Shoup just tries to sensibly address a planning problem; the sardonic Red-baiting is mine.)

When you arrive somewhere, looking for parking sucks, right? So isn’t it good that it’s plentiful? Nope. It turns out, strangely, not really. As was pointed out in the book Traffic (which I reviewed here) building more roads doesn’t make less traffic; it just makes more cars. Ditto parking. Shoup convincingly shows that free parking actually exacerbates congestion in several different ways.

As I mentioned, parking can be quite dangerous. Of course as a society, we don’t really care about pedestrians and the last couple of cyclists need to be quietly killed off as soon as possible, but I was surprised to learn some things I didn’t already know about how parking reduces safety. For example, off street lots break up the sidewalks with dangerous curb cuts leading to dangerous car/pedestrian interactions. Shoup actually lauds San Diego’s idiotic diagonal parking which, from my point of view, is a life-threatening nightmare (especially tragicomic are the diagonal spots on E. Mission Bay Dr. that drivers are required to back into; what a circus of death that is).

Shoup talks a lot about "cruising" which is the term of art for someone who is at their destination, but can’t find a place to park. Apparently this is a much bigger problem than one would imagine (if you gave it no thought as is the custom). The pollution, congestion, and, perversely, parking problems this creates are pretty serious.

Obviously parking lots are ugly. If you disagree, just let me know about any beautiful car park anywhere in the world that you know of. I have seen some beautiful bicycle parking garages in Germany and Holland, but if cars are parking there, everyone wants to get that part of their day over with as soon as possible. I know of no exceptions.

The more parking you require, the more parking there will be which means that the distance between places will be puffed out with parking lots. Where a cross town trip in 1920 would be a mile, today, with parking lot metastasis, it would be maybe double that. I’m making up numbers because I was too tired to follow Shoup’s details here but, suffice it to say, again from obvious first principles, this sprawl comes with problems.

Although Shoup didn’t spend too much time on it, I personally suspect that having so much of a city be impermeable to rainwater can’t be good for the region’s climate. I’d also be curious about how all that asphalt changes the weather by soaking up heat in the day in an unnatural way.

Thanks to the glorious communist revolution we are basically screwed, right? Well, probably. I actually don’t think the John Birch Society is going to see this communist plot as worth fighting. But there are some things that could be done if there was a will to do them. Shoup points out that parking meters are good. Fancy modern ones are convenient and quite fair. He’s a fan of peak demand pricing. Basically the panacea, which you’d think that every gun loving red neck Ayn Rand blathering American with crappy privatized health care would be delighted to switch to immediately is…. capitalism. Yes! Free markets! What a concept! Don’t hold your breath comrade.

UPDATE 2018-02-26 Looks like this topic is on the mind of the NYTimes. They just published this article which talks about a very similar issue of just charging cars for being in congestion zones in general. The main point is that subsidizing the enormous cost of cars will make people choose to use them stupidly often. Passing on the correct market costs to drivers causes people to make more sensible decisions about driving.

UPDATE 2018-02-28 I was just reading this sensible article at Naked Capitalism about the world’s greatest welfare queens, the US military. The article says "Most Americans are probably aware that the Pentagon spends a lot of money, but it’s unlikely they grasp just how huge those sums really are. All too often, astonishingly lavish military budgets are treated as if they were part of the natural order, like death or taxes."

Parking is like this too apparently, but this reminded me of something specific from Shoup’s book that I wanted to write down so I wouldn’t forget it. Shoup claims that the cost to society for providing free parking is greater than the cost of our cars. That’s pretty impressive right? He goes on to say that the cost of our free parking is actually even greater than the cost of our roads. With cars parked 95% of the time, this seems plausible I guess. But what really made it sink in for me was that Shoup claims that the cost of parking was greater than the cost of national defense. Now, maybe he’s wrong. Maybe all the math and figures he cites to demonstrate this are wrong. If you feel that’s the case, get the book and set us all straight. Details aside, I think we can all see that parking is not just not free; it is enormously expensive, perhaps contending to be the most expensive expense you can imagine.


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