Self driving cars are coming and they are good.
Safety is an obvious benefit. Some people I have talked to about this talk about overcoming fear to get into a self-driving car. But over a million people per year are killed on the road. It is clearly technically possible to make a car very safe: if some safety problem emerges with the driving software, a fix can be made and the update sent to all cars at once. You can’t do that with people, who make the same mistakes over and over again. Furthermore I don’t anticipate anyone marketing a self-driving car until it is orders of magnitude safer than a human because in the case of an accident the reputational damage to the developer would be so high. I expect self-driving car accidents to be reported in the press even more vigorously than exploding batteries in cellphones are today. And cases of exploding batteries, even in the case of the infamous Samsung Note 7, are vanishingly rare. If car accidents were anywhere near as rare as that we would already be living in a much better world. And that’s just safety.
I think self-driving cars have the capability to completely change the landscape. Charlie Stross talks about what a time traveller from thirty years ago would notice when they visited. Such a traveller might notice different fashions but the urban landscape would be very much the same. To paraphrase Charlie, the most obvious difference would be that people are walking around staring into glowing bits of glass as if they were windows onto the sum-total of human knowledge.
Thirty years from now things could look very different indeed.
No-one will own their own cars any more — at least not as a matter of course. When the only advantage of owning one’s own car is the ability to store one’s own junk in it, it simply won’t be worth the cost. It is already possible to do some short commutes by Uber for a few thousand pounds per year, rivalling private car ownership. A company could operate a fleet of self-driving cars on a very similar model and make big savings on scale. So for any given journey you just tap your destination and select what kind of vehicle you would like, and it would roll up to your door in a few minutes. No paperwork, no maintenance, no re-fuelling, no keeping a big car for the occasional times you need it, and no difficulty moving a large object because hiring a specialist vehicle is equally straightforward.
For that matter, cars can be far more specialised because they don’t need to look like cars any more. No-one has to sit in the driver’s seat looking out and it won’t crash so you don’t have to wear seat-belts. If you need to do some work on the way to your destination, hire an office on wheels. If you want to travel by night, hire a hotel room on wheels. Some journeys don’t need to be made by people at all: to drop off a parcel, hire a self-driving locker. Forget drone deliveries, Amazon will use self-driving delivery vehicles.
There is no longer any need for car parks or cars parked along residential streets. Our time traveller will wonder where all the cars have gone: children will be playing in the streets once more and houses will have gardens where once there were driveways.
I am not sure how busy the roads will look. Automated cars can travel close together and co-ordinate with each other so there will be no traffic lights and no traffic jams. Multi-lane highways will be unnecessary. But as travelling is easier and cheaper people will do it more. People will live further from their place of work because journey times will be shorter and consistent. No more leaving half an hour earlier *in case* of a traffic jam. You will know exactly how long it will take every single day. If people put up with two hour commutes today, there is no reason to think they won’t in future. But that two hours will reliably get them a lot further. So it will be easier to change jobs because a given house will be in range of more jobs, and it will be easy to have offices in different locations because a given office will be in range of more houses. There will still be advantages to working close together, and people often don’t like *living* close together, so perhaps people will continue to work in cities but live in them less.
Towns and cities will look different because much of the land used for roads can be reclaimed for other uses. There is no need for giant roundabouts or other large, complicated junctions that are used today to improve traffic flow. In many cases even roads with two lanes can be converted to narrow, single lanes because bi-directional traffic can pass at specific points. We can finally get rid of the temporary Hogarth Roundabout flyover.
Cars will probably be mostly electric because they can drive off and recharge themselves. I suspect they will travel very fast on highways because there is no safety disadvantage and people will demand shorter journey times.
Today, old people can find themselves immobile. Children have to scrounge lifts. With self-driving cars, anyone can go anywhere. You can send your children to a better school in the next town instead of nearly bankrupting yourself moving into the catchment area.
There are likely to be problems along the way. My vision so far relies somewhat on all vehicles on the road being automated. I think there will be a short time during which automated vehicles will have to co-exist with human-driven ones, but the advantages will be so huge and so immediately apparent that people will switch to exclusively using automated cars faster than they adopted smartphones.
I am not sure how well things will work out for people living in remote areas. Right now I can get an Uber in three minutes. This is because of the population density where I am. People in the sticks will have to wait longer for a ride and costs will be higher. But, then again, population distribution and economics are likely to change.
Some people enjoy driving, or riding motorcycles. Those things can be done on the track. You’ll have to hire a self-driving car to tow your Ferrari or your Ducati to the track.
There will be technical difficulties making the first car that can completely self-drive on any road. There are software, infrastructure and mapping problems to solve. If there were no human driven cars the problem would be easier, but I think there will be a few years when human and automatic cars will have to co-exist. Only a few years: but it is still a hurdle. However, there are people who are working on it and they think it is possible and they are making progress. There is no reason to think it is impossible. And the benefits are so huge and so universal that it is hard to imagine any amount of human effort into this problem that won’t quickly be paid back. We won’t be able to predict the moment of success but when it comes, change will be fast.
There may be computer security challenges, but in an intelligence race between bad guys and good guys I have some confidence that the good guys will ultimately win. Failures here will be as embarrassing as car crashes or exploding batteries to manufacturers.
The government will regulate where you can go and track your every move. This is a problem anyway: self-driving cars don’t fundamentally change it. And people always choose convenience over freedom and privacy so it is going to happen anyway.
How many man-hours are wasted sitting in control of a vehicle or being stuck in traffic? Further economic growth will come from the time and effort freed up. Self-driving cars are coming, and they are good.
The true mark of the civilized society is not that it defends the rights of people who are loved by the bulk of the population, for those people need no defense. No one, after all, will arrest a popular person for saying or doing popular things. The true mark of the civilized society is that it defends the rights even of those who are universally reviled.
Indeed, in a truly civilized society, there would be no question but that you would defend the rights of people who disgust you provided they do no violence to others.
Our society is not civilized.
There has been much huffing and puffing recently about gender neutral pronouns. In principle, I rather like the idea. The fact that I dislike some of the other people who like the idea ought not to affect that. Not, I hasten to add, that I feel any animus against anyone purely on the grounds that they prefer to be referred to by one sound rather than another, or that their gender is difficult to specify externally, or that they feel that neither “he” nor “she” describes them, or that they advocate for lexical change. While it is true that the set of people currently talking loudest about gender-neutral pronouns would, if displayed on a Venn diagram, have considerable overlap with the set of people who wish to get others arrested for using the wrong word, that is a symptom of the addiction of our society to the use of force rather than persuasion, not a logical necessity.
The cause of the gender-neutral pronoun is ill-served by many of its current advocates. But in itself, it would be handy. That’s “it” as in “having a third person singular pronoun available to use to describe human beings without specifying gender”, not “it” as in “it”. It (as in the situation, not a person) tends to get an itty-bit hairy when one person refers to another (by which I mean another person, not another situation) as “it”. Thus, if I may reiterate, using “it” (as in “‘it'”) as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a person would put the user in a bad situation, even if they (here used in the singular) were not a singularly bad person. Wouldn’t it?
OK, I got drunk on words there. Sobering up, I am not seeking perfect “representation” for every one of Facebook’s 71 gender options. They can represent themselves. I just think it would be nice to have one more option, and to settle on one. That way those prone to being easily offended, and the subset of them that resort to bullying, could be kept from unhappiness and the occasion of sin.
I do think that the traditional use of “he” and “man” to include the female is a little, y’know, presumptuous. I am not one to go through old documents cutting out every offending “he-including-she” with a razor, but I would just as soon have some more inclusive style in new documents. It is tedious have to write “he or she” every time.
Singular “they” sounds all right when the subject is indefinite (e.g. “If anyone wants more details, give them a brochure”) but sounds wrong if the gender is known. At this point someone usually pipes up to say that Shakespeare used it in their plays. Only they don’t say their plays, they say his plays, unless they (gender unspecified here: no problem) are making some sort of claim that Shakespeare was a collective, a Borg or a woman.
The distinction between singular and plural third person is useful. We feel its lack in the second person. The singular/plural distinction keeps trying to creep back in “youse” and “y’all”. In some dialects spoken in Northern England, “thou” never went away, merely faded a little into “tha”. If making no difference between singular and plural is sometimes confusing when talking to people, it is a swamp when talking about people. Imagine an action scene in a novel where all the characters including the protagonist were referred to as “they”.
This link takes you to a piece called “The Need for a Gender-neutral Pronoun” which lists some of the leading contenders for a new pronoun. By clicking on the suggested pronoun itself (or the title of the set in the case of the Spivak pronouns named after their creator), you can read an extract from Alice in Wonderland using that set of pronouns. The author also rates the proposed words by ease of pronunciation, distinctiveness, and how truly neutral they are. The author prefers the set of pronouns based on “ne” in the nominative case. If you agree that a gender neutral pronoun would be desirable, which option would you like to take hold in the language? If you object to the whole idea, what would you like to see become dominant – strict use of “he” (or “she”), or “they”, or “s/he” and variants?
The thing is, I will not be the first in my circle of acquaintance to start writing “xe” or “ne” in any other context but science fiction for the same reason that I will not be first in my circle to start taking a daily stroll in the nude.
I would if you would, but I know and you know, neither of us will.
Looking back, it’s hard to overstate the cultural significance of GamerGate: it marked when the Left suddenly and unexpectedly lost control of social media, right at the point where the influence of social media actually started to matter. In a sense, it was the second wave of discontent that started with the arrival of anti-MSM blogs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but within a very different internet environment compared to ‘The Golden Age of Blogging’ 2001-2010. As has often been the case in military campaigns, when one side becomes greatly overextended, they only realise they have lost the initiative when they seek to advance and experience a completely unexpected reversal: a result that may seem obvious and perhaps even inevitable to a historian looking back, but which was far from obvious to the people on the ground at the time.
So certain was the Left that they had won the culture war, so confident with the established media under their effective control that ‘truth’ was theirs to declare, that they gave up on any pretence of objectivity. After all, their enemies had been swept from both airwaves and print (I sometimes cannot tell the difference between the Times and the Guardian and the Economist). And so they began to manoeuvre with the assurance and arrogance of an army under an umbrella of complete air(wave) supremacy, a supremacy that suddenly proved to be illusory because opinions had moved on-line.
I could just as easily be talking about Brexit or Trump, for it was a widespread tone deaf lack of introspection by establishment folk that made those things possible (albeit for very different reasons)… but the way I see it, GamerGate was the canary-in-the-coal mine. And almost no one on the Left noticed that particular canary had fallen off the perch and dropped dead. I imagine when the history of Brexit and Trump are written, GamerGate will probably be a forgotten footnote (and it is indeed a mere footnote), but I think it was (and sporadically still is) a more significant series of protracted skirmishes in the culture war than a lot of us Old Farts realise, a very successful clash that radicalised many younger people in ways that horrify the Tranzi Left.
And their response every time has been to double down as if nothing has changed, eventually stripping words like ‘misogynist’, ‘racist’ and ‘nazi’ of any meaning in the process.
Scott Adams has described three categories of people: Rational people, word-thinkers and persuaders.
Word-Thinkers: Use labels, word definitions, and analogies to create the illusion of rational thinking. This group is 99% of the world.
Word-thinkers are people who fail to make the map-territory distinction that I wrote about years ago. Persuaders are people who are good at the rhetoric that I more recently wrote about disliking the necessity of. Scott Adams is talking about the same kinds of things, but he is a better communicator than me. I like that I can now accuse people of being word-thinkers and supply a link.
“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can stand the despair. It’s the hope.”
– said by John Cleese playing stressed headmaster Brian Stimpson trying to get to an important conference while the fates conspire against him in the film Clockwise.
This morning’s Guardian reports, “poll leads and Sun backing for Brexit prompt Remain ‘panic'”. However polls in referenda tend to overstate the vote for change and there often is a late surge for the status quo.
With nine days to go, which way do you think the referendum will go?
The value of the Pound is reacting to every last little bit of news about the EU referendum. The mainstream media would like us to worry that its value could drop if we vote to leave. Everyone is talking about it. Even City AM, though the two comments point out that it depends what time spans you look at. In any case, past Guardian articles bemoan a high value Pound, so Guardian readers must now vote to leave.
The value of the Pound also reacts to traders with fat fingers. I conclude that there is nothing to see here.
Anyway it is quite obvious what will happen to the economy in the event of Brexit: some short term turmoil while things reconfigure themselves to the new arrangements, followed by a bit more growth than there would have been otherwise thanks to slightly less friction from interfering politicians.
It is sometimes all too easy to fall into the ad hominem fallacy when you see a juicy target. The problem, however, is that if you are trying to change minds, appealing to prejudice and resentments either doesn’t work, or provokes revulsion. For example, in the Daily Mail there is an article by someone called Chris Deerin, entitled: “Pass the quinoa, comrade! Hypocrisy of the middle-class revolutionaries”.
Here is a taster:
Radical politics is a pursuit for the moneyed conscience, an indulgence for those who can afford to fight the good fight, who are feather-bedded enough to give their lives over to peripheral causes, doomed campaigns and utopian schemes. When you’re skint, funding the next meal or paying the leccy bill or covering the rent tends to be more of a priority than shouting slogans at students through a megaphone in Freedom Square.
Well it may well be the case that much radical politics today is the occupation of the middle class. But the error that Deerin is making here is that while some middle class supporters of socialism, environmentalism and the rest of it may well be hypocritical wankers who should be boiled in oil (or whatever else Daily Mail readers presumably favour as a punishment) that doesn’t mean that socialism, environmentalism, etc, are therefore wrong. To show that, you have to make the case: you need to debunk the disasters socialism creates (including massive environmental problems, as shown in Soviet Russia), and take on the assumptions of environmentalism (such as how a lot of Greens ignore economic substitution and embrace Malthusian myths, as well as endorse forms of naturalistic fallacies and a false view of nature, etc). Saying that “Greens are posh arseholes” backfires if it turns out that some of what Greens might say is true. And does this also mean that a working class person is also a hypocrite if he or she later espouses capitalism and is a class traitor? The trouble with the ad hominem tactic is that works in both directions.
In the current political scene, I have, for example, seen a lot of this resentment-as-argument tactic being used, such as among some of the pro-Trump folk in the US (taking shots at “the Establishment, ignoring that Trump is part of it, in a way), and among the pro-Sanders people attacking Wall Street (in a blanket attack on anyone in finance). We get it in the UK (resentment at the Cameroonians for being posh, rather than for their actual views.)
Zikavirus, which is now spreading rapidly throughout South America and the Caribbean, is just the latest mosquito-borne disease to plague mankind.
Mosquitoes spread Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever, a variety of forms of encephalitis (Eastern Equine Encephalitis, St. Louis Encephalitis, LaCrosse Encephalitis, Japanese encephalitis, Western Equine Encephalitis, and others), West Nile virus, Rift Valley Fever, Elephantiasis, Epidemic Polyarthritis, Ross River Fever, Bwamba fever, and dozens more.
I’ve been unable to find a reliable overall death toll for mosquito-borne disease. However, it is likely that at least a million people die a year from malaria alone. Countless more die from the other diseases. It is known that the number of people infected with one disease or another by mosquito bites every year is in the hundreds of millions.
In short, the mosquito is one of mankind’s greatest enemies.
Thanks to the recent development of CRISPR/Cas9 based gene drive technology, the human race is now at last on the cusp of having the capacity to drive those varieties of mosquito that feed upon humans (which are a minority of the 3500 known species) entirely into extinction, by producing mosquitoes that will produce fertile male descendants but no fertile female descendants. [See my explanation after the end of this essay on how this might be done.*]
Few actions could reduce human misery and improve the condition of mankind so greatly as the permanent elimination of mosquitoes and the myriad of diseases they spread throughout the world. It would be worth doing even if it required decades and vast expenditures to accomplish. The fact that it can be done at fairly low cost and quite quickly (over years rather than decades) is almost icing on the cake.
I am certain that some people will vocally and perhaps even violently oppose this work, both because of an irrational fear of genetic engineering technology and because of a misplaced belief that eliminating mosquitoes will somehow damage the environment. The general consensus is that it will not. However, I strongly feel that even if there was minor collateral damage to the environment, it would be well worth that cost to prevent at least a million deaths a year.
Some would caution we should consider an act such as the deliberate extinction of a whole class of parasitic insects with great caution and take such steps only quite slowly. However, in a world where a child dies of malaria every 40 seconds or so, I think we should, if anything, be racing ahead as fast as we can possibly manage.
Now that we have the capacity to exterminate mosquitoes, not to do so strikes me as a gravely immoral act.
→ Continue reading: Exterminate All Mosquitoes
I have been spending a bit of time in Foyles, recently. It is my favourite bookshop in London for the vastness of its selection, though if any readers know better I am all ears. It does contain, however, the bookshelf from Room 101:
Can you imagine what kind of dinner party guests these authors would make? Just look at the blurb on the back of the Fischer book:
In recent years a set of radical new approaches to public policy, drawing on discursive analysis and participatory deliberative practices, have come to challenge the dominant technocratic, empiricist models in policy analysis. In his major new book Frank Fischer brings together these various new approaches for the first time and critically examines them. The book will be required reading for anyone studying, researching, or formulating public policy.
Required, good and hard, as punishment for being involved in such a dismal endeavor, perhaps. Opaque writing like this always makes me wonder if there is real content to be dug up. I had a quick look inside. Irritatingly, from the point of view of trying to poke fun, I found (on page 170) what might be some insight.
It is common in politics to portray our opponents as engaging only in ‘rhetoric’: that is, concealing the real story, they offer us a version of events constructed to promote their own interests and concerns. Missing from this view, however, is the recognition that all politics operates this way. Symbolic representation, in short, is basic to political argumentation. […] An important feature of symbols is their potential ambiguity. Symbols often typically mean two (or more) things at the same time: ‘equal opportunity in education can either giving everybody tuition vouchers for the same dollar amount’, or it can mean ‘providing extra resources for those with special needs’
For the empiricist conception of science, of course, this is problematic. The interpretation of events, social as well as physical, has to remain clear and constant for the work of the empiricist.
I have written before about the problem of language being used deliberately to muddy thinking. It seems likely that, since libertarianism is correct, looking at the world empirically leads inevitably to it. Therefore libertarians are likely to be empiricists. And bad at rhetoric, and therefore bad at winning at politics. (And often more interested in more empirical pursuits, like building rockets.)
Can we possibly beat them at their own game? I used to think that just sticking to the facts of the matter in debate would be good enough. That on-the-fence observers would detect who was making the most sense and pick the right side. I am starting to think that rhetoric has its place: if you really want to convince people, and, empirically, people are convinced by rhetoric, perhaps it is unavoidable.
Vox Day, in what amounts to a manual for beating Them at Their own game, wrote a whole chapter on it. He quoted Aristotle: “Before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are some people whom one cannot instruct.” Mr Day goes on to explain:
I strongly prefer communicating in dialectic myself, but that is a language reserved for those who are intellectually honest and capable of changing their minds on the basis of information. So I speak dialectic to those capable of communicating on that level, and I speak rhetoric to those who are not.
Before I even opened the Fischer book I found myself writing, in a Facebook discussion about heavily drinking relatives who had nonetheless lived to a grand old age, in response to others who complained that this was mere anecdote: “Anecdote is not evidence but it *is* rhetoric, and you need to develop good rhetoric to win at politics.” I am beginning to see how I might start to use rhetoric without feeling dirty, as a means to a well-intended end. I am not sure whether I would be any good at it, though. Worse, I sense that it is the road to hell.
Stefan Stern wrote the standard Guardian article about the awfulness of Uber, only this time it wasn’t Uber it was a bunch new to me called “Deliveroo”: “Deliveroo and its ilk are serving up low wages, insecurity and social division”. He wrote,
But we have clearly not even begun to think deeply enough about the implications for workers in all this.
A commenter called “narnaglan” replied,
There is nothing in this for you to think about. Deliveroo has nothing to do with you, since you are not a shareholder. The people who work for it choose to do so and are not forced. It is entirely legitimate, and ethical.
Your only response to Deliveroo, if you have a feeling that they are not doing it “right” is to start your own business, where the delivery people are under contracts and conditions that you feel are acceptable. If you are correct in your assumptions, Deliveroo will be driven out of business, and your new, ethical delivery service will immediately dominate.
But you will not do this.
Why? Because you are comfortable sitting on the sidelines telling other people how to live and run their affairs. You are not willing to take risk yourself, and have no original ideas of your own. All you are able to do is react to what other people invent, and criticize it through your distorting and inverting Guardianista Socialist lens.
Deliveroo and all other businesses that allow people to start work are useful and beneficial. The more companies in the market like it, the more jobs there are, and the better off people are. Someone with an idea will disrupt Deliveroo, which is the latest in a line of home delivery services that have existed for at least 18 years, one of the first being the Room Service delivery service that did not even have a website.
You people simply do not understand the market, innovation and how things really work. All you know how to do is destroy, call for people to be made unemployed and business to be made inoperable because you think you have the right to tell other people how to live, how to organize and what private contracts they make between themselvs are ethical.
You are wrong. About everything.
The UK media is getting quite excited about British astronaut Tim Peake and his trip to the International Space Station. I was watching on Sky News. Their guest expert was space journalist Sarah Cruddas, and after the launch they allowed her to gush excitedly about private space travel for a couple of minutes.
She was not entirely coherent as she was talking excitedly — but that is the point. She mentioned “Space 2.0”, a new term to me, and Elon Musk, and Planetary Resources who want to mine asteroids which contain enough wealth to make everyone a billionaire. She talked positively about wealthy people making money in space. She talked about how Internet access in the developing world has an “absolutely revolutionary effect on the number of people on our planet who will have access to knowledge”, improving education and increasing the pool of talent and getting them rich. She talked about businesses making space travel more efficient. She talked about the UK space industry, which “does exist and should be celebrated”.
It struck me that all this private enterprise and wealth creation should be brought up and positively plugged during a government space launch.
In the ’50s and ’60s it seems as if it was normal to be optimistic and excited about technology. In the ’90s and recently we seem mostly to hear about how greedy rich industrialists trample the poor and destroy the planet. Perhaps that pendulum can swing back the other way.