Category Archives: Truth and Trivia

Penrose Was Right

Roger Penrose has long suspected that quantum gravity would not be computable. Looks like he is right.

No, not financial. But huge. Huuuuge.

Self-Driving Cars

Probably the most dramatic innovation in transportation since 1885 (the first car, Daimler-Benz Patent Motor Car, Model 1) is the self-driving car.

But what does self-driving really mean? These are the SAE levels:

Level 0: Automated system issues warnings but has no vehicle control.

Level 1 (”hands on”): Driver and automated system shares control over the vehicle. An example would be Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) where the driver controls steering and the automated system controls speed. Using Parking Assistance, steering is automated while speed is manual. The driver must be ready to retake full control at any time. Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) Type II is a further example of level 1 self driving.

Level 2 (”hands off”): The automated system takes full control of the vehicle (accelerating, braking, and steering). The driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to immediately intervene at any time if the automated system fails to respond properly. The shorthand ”hands off” is not meant to be taken literally. In fact, contact between hand and wheel is often mandatory during SAE 2 driving, to confirm that the driver is ready to intervene.

Level 3 (”eyes off”): The driver can safely turn their attention away from the driving tasks, e.g. the driver can text or watch a movie. The vehicle will handle situations that call for an immediate response, like emergency braking. The driver must still be prepared to intervene within some limited time, specified by the manufacturer, when called upon by the vehicle to do so.

Level 4 (”mind off”): As level 3, but no driver attention is ever required for safety, i.e. the driver may safely go to sleep or leave the driver’s seat. Self driving is supported only in limited areas (geofenced) or under special circumstances, like traffic jams. Outside of these areas or circumstances, the vehicle must be able to safely abort the trip, i.e. park the car, if the driver does not retake control.

Level 5 (”wheel optional”): No human intervention is required. An example would be a robot taxi

Levels 0 and 1 are widely available today. Tesla is at level 2. The new Audi A8 is available with level 3 (up to 37 mph.). It appears that level 3 will be widely available in 2018-2019 when level 4 will be on a few models. By 2020, level 5 will be available.

Here is the 2017 CES presentation from Toyota that covers this issue. Their concept is 9 minutes in, discussion of safety and levels 19 minutes or so. It even explains why the Audi is limited to 37 mph.

This is a revolution, folks, that will change all our lives. Pay attention.

Steppin’ On The VIX

I’ve been trying to come up with new lyrics for “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” starting with a new chorus – “Steppin’ on the VIX.” So far, abject fail. I guess I’m not a poet or songwriter.

But this market is all about selling volatility. The trade has worked well for a long time. But it has built up a huge short position, figures in excess of $40 billion are being bandied about. I hear that this is mostly retail interest at this point. The pros are well aware that there are two sides to every trade, and somebody is on the long side, big time. Don’t forget the crazy fat kid.

DACA

The Trump administration announced the end of the DACA program, that allows undocumented immigrants who arrived as children to obtain work permits.

The administration’s point is that the program, established by the Obama administration, was a direct violation of black-letter law and exceeded the President’s authority. Like many other immigrant-friendly policies, of course. True enough, but one can reasonably hope that Congress will act to change the law and the administration has provided time to allow that to happen, if it will.

The good reason for acting is that these people are the innocent victims of their parents’ bad acts and should not be penalized for them. Many have little or no connection with their country of birth and may not even speak the language. The bad reason for acting that is being bandied about is the resultant shortage of workers for low-wage jobs. The shortage has nothing to do with immigration and everything to do with the “welfare trap,” which makes it foolish for many Americans to seek employment because the withdrawal of benefits will more than offset any wage income they might receive.

To fix the shortage, the government needs to remove the trap.

Miagra

Apparently I was wrong to say that EU officials weren’t talking about the African fertility crisis:

“The biggest migration movements are still ahead: Africa’s population will double in the next decades. A country like Egypt will grow to 100 million people, Nigeria to 400 million. In our digital age with the internet and mobile phones, everyone knows about our prosperity and lifestyle.” — German Development Minister Gerd Müller.

“Young people all have cellphones and they can see what’s happening in other parts of the world, and that acts as a magnet.” — Michael Møller, Director of the United Nations office in Geneva.

“If we do not manage to solve the central problems in African countries, ten, 20 or even 30 million immigrants will arrive in the European Union within the next ten years.” — Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament

$15 Reality In Seattle

From a paper by UW professors on the effects of raising the minimum wage:

Our preferred estimates suggest that the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance caused hours worked by low-skilled workers (i.e., those earning under $19 per hour) to fall by 9.4% during the three quarters when the minimum wage was $13 per hour, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million hours worked per calendar quarter. Alternative estimates show the number of low-wage jobs declined by 6.8%, which represents a loss of more than 5,000 jobs. These estimates are robust to cutoffs other than $19.45 A 3.1% increase in wages in jobs that paid less than $19 coupled with a 9.4% loss in hours yields a labor demand elasticity of roughly -3.0, and this large elasticity estimate is robust to other cutoffs.

Importantly, the lost income associated with the hours reductions exceeds the gain associated with the net wage increase of 3.1%. Using data in Table 3, we compute that the average low-wage employee was paid $1,897 per month. The reduction in hours would cost the average employee $179 per month, while the wage increase would recoup only $54 of this loss, leaving a net loss of $125 per month (6.6%), which is sizable for a low-wage worker.

Fitzgerald Update

Latest press reports are that the container ship was on autopilot with no-one on the bridge, and did not even notice that a collision had occurred for quite some time. Illegal, of course, but not in the least unusual with a crew of only 20.

More worrisome is that the USS Fitzgerald is reported to have failed to detect the container ship. Seriously? With a crew of nearly 300 and many millions of dollars worth of the most sophisticated radars in existence? What about, oh, lookouts?

Money Isn’t Everything (Any More)

Last night’s special election in Georgia was interesting in that the Democratic Party attempted to buy the election. Their candidate spent $22 million, largely raised in California, against the Republican candidate’s $3.1 million. The most expensive Congressional election in history, and a spending ratio of 7 to 1.

But it didn’t work. Wow. I draw no conclusion other than that there’s something interesting going on here. And that’s a good thing.

Inconceivable

Sorry, I just watched “The Princess Bride” again. What? How on earth did the crew of the USS Fitzgerald allow the billion-dollar vessel to collide with a container ship?

Not only is the Fitzgerald stuffed full of super-sophisticated radars (note the phased-array antenna right above the collision damage), it has a large crew trained to keep bridge watch and should have been doing so. From the position of the damage, it appears likely that the Fitzgerald was the give-way vessel.

In addition, the container ship was, as required by law, squawking its identification, position, course and speed over AIS. The track is recorded, it appears that the ship made a slight turn to port a few minutes before the collision but simply resumed that new course after the collision, implying it was on autopilot, holding a steady course and speed. Whether or not anyone was keeping watch or on the bridge is an open question. Container ships tend to believe in Bahamian rules “The big boat has the right of way.”

Most military vessels do not squawk on AIS. Understandable in wartime, highly questionable in peacetime. The container ship would have a collision alarm driven by AIS, which would not have been activated. But surely the Fitzgerald would have an AIS receiver which would have set off an alarm.

The only possible explanation I can think off was that the Fitzgerald was stopped and unable to move for mechanical reasons, and could not contact anyone on the container ship. We’ll see.

Long Distance Travel

One of the implications of self-driving vehicles that I had not thought about is the impact on airlines.

Let’s say I’m traveling from here to, say, New Orleans. Google says it is nine hours by car.

Expedia says it is four and a half hours by plane from Orlando. Plus I need an hour and a half to drive to Orlando, then another hour and a half to navigate TSA, etc. Then at the other end probably an hour to get downtown. Looks like eight and a half hours, except that the car leaves whenever I want, with no hassle, as much baggage as I want, far more comfort, and my food, drink, communications and entertainment of choice. Cost looks about the same for a single passenger, but half for two and so forth. I would say, advantage car. And this is a non-stop airline route.

For even longer trips, a fully autonomous car can keep driving while its passengers sleep – there is no driver, of course. So at least notionally I could make the trip overnight without giving up a night’s sleep, assuming the car had the necessary comforts for sleeping. Which they will.

Looks to me that the autonomous car will disrupt airline transport.