Friday, January 31, 2014

Self-driving Cars

You can hardly turn around these days without hearing or seeing news about self-driving cars.  NPR interviews a Google engineer.  CBS does a segment with a Honda engineer.  Science shows on TV bring updates from the US and Europe demonstrating the latest features.  This article, for example, tells about work between Ford and MIT to give cars “intuition,” the ability to detect not-yet-visible dangers.  This all seems wonderful, but critical thinking and economic understanding often lead to discovery of unintended consequences.  What could lie ahead in the case of self-driving cars?

There are several steps in development.  We already have backup cameras and collision-warning/braking devices on some higher-end cars.  Even today “current vehicles can self-park, self-drive in slow-moving traffic and redirect drivers around heavy traffic. The second step will see vehicles communicate with one another, allowing them to wirelessly link up and travel together to ease congestion.  The third and final step, according to Ford, will be fully autonomous vehicles.”  The ultimate goal is the elimination of all traffic accidents, saving over 30,000 lives a year.

Imagine all the cars moving down the road at the same speed, evenly spaced, in a smooth flow, anticipating each other’s movements while the passengers relax and read, text or sleep.  It will be like having a personal chauffeur or riding on a small train.  It sounds like a dream.  Children born 50 years from now will wonder why we ever wanted to spend all that stressful time behind the wheel.

Now think more broadly.  If they can do that with cars, what about trucks and busses – and what about all the jobs that go with them?  Will future Americans just hop into taxis with no driver and enter their ID and destination on a touchscreen?  Will that smooth flow on the highways also include driverless 18-wheelers moving freight from warehouses to stores?  Will trash trucks, which have already replaced some workers with a hydraulic lift, soon replace the driver too?  Could someone design a robot to deliver mail from an autonomous vehicle?  Wouldn’t school buses be safer being driven by the computer than by a human, school buses with closed circuit cameras and other systems so that the kids dare not stir out of their seats?  Will all these jobs, including those of traffic cop, highway patrol and parking monitors, go the way of the elevator operator?  What happens to the insurance agents, processors, and investigators, and lawyers whose jobs depend on road mishaps?

It’s a short step from this seemingly innocent and very promising technology to a scary science fiction scenario; and with the prospect of saving 30,000 lives a year, there is really no stopping it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Richest 1% Own Nearly Half of World’s Wealth

This news headline from last week was designed to elicit negative reactions.  The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow, not only in the US but in the majority of countries.  "In the last thirty years seven out of 10 people have been living in countries where economic inequality has increased," and we don’t have the political will to curb the growth.

Wow.  This situation sounds very serious.  Who are these cheats and swindlers?  Where did their money come from?  Why are they getting richer while the rest of us are not?  It’s not fair!

To answer these questions, at least for the US, I went to the Forbes list of the richest 400 people in the country.  This helpful reference tells how much they have and the source of their wealth.  

Starting with the top 10 we find Bill Gates.  He’s rich because we all like our computers and most of us use MS products to run them.  We make choices.  Next is Warren Buffet, who made money investing in companies that sell us things either directly or indirectly.  Both are famous for their charitable efforts and don’t seem to be bad or greedy people.  Next is Larry Ellison, also in software (Oracle).  Then come the Koch brothers who have a private company, which means they took all the risk with their own investment and were successful.  They are also identified as “mega-donors.”  The next four are members of the Walton family.  If you resent the fact that they are rich or think it’s unfair, stop shopping at Wal-Mart.  They made their money selling you things you wanted at bargain prices while providing jobs for over 2.2 million.  Some may disagree about the quality of the jobs, but their employees have the option to quit just as their customers have the option to shop elsewhere.  Michael Bloomberg rounds out the top 10.  He also started a company, has given away almost $3 billion and is so "evil and unpopular" that he was elected Mayor of New York City.

The next page shows a similar group:  Jeff Bezos of Amazon, two founders of Google, and three members of the Mars family – the candy company.  If we resent their wealth we can stop shopping on line, stop eating M&Ms and use a different search engine.  Everyone knows how Mark Zuckerberg became number 20.

Down the rest of the list are those who made their money through hedge funds, investments and real estate, but they didn’t make much money off the little guys.  We also run into Jerry Jones at 164 (Dallas Cowboys), Charles Schwab at 88, George Lucas at 109, Oprah at 184 tied with Robert Kraft (NE Patriots).  The list of sources of wealth includes familiar names like Nike, Menards, SC Johnson, Campbell Soup and Little Caesar’s Pizza.

These people did not make their money by lying or cheating or ripping people off.  Most of them made it by working hard to give us what we wanted at a price we were willing to pay.  Some of it we didn’t even need, like $200 sneakers, but we were willing to stand in line or even fight our way to the front of the line to get it. 

Sure, there might be some crooks and scoundrels and some people who are making a lot more than they deserve to be paid.  Sure, there may be some unfairness or misalignment of priorities, but nobody seems to be concerned about that when cheering for the quarterback making $50 million or the golfer making $78 million.  Most of these people got their money from us, and we happily parted with it.  It didn't fall from trees.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Lure of Supplements

A young man out walking was involved in a serious hit-and-run accident and ended up in the hospital in a coma.  The doctors told his parents that the best course of action was to wait and see how, and whether, his brain healed.  They were very distressed and did not want to accept this passive approach; they wanted to do something.  After multiple surgeries and time on a ventilator, they began secretly administering high doses of omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, through his feeding tube based on the advice of a friend.  “Fish oil is what the family believes ultimately -- dramatically -- altered his life course, and healed his brain.”  This is a wonderful story of a miraculous recovery.  After hearing it, it may be tempting to start taking high doses of fish oil hoping to enhance our already healthy brains, but this would be a mistake.

The CNN article reports that there is some science behind it and seven published instances where using fish oil helped heal damaged brains.  The treatment has advocates but the article warns:  “there are other cases -- likely many more than have been successful -- when fish oil was tried and did not work.  And there is a concern among doctors that high doses of fish oil could cause excessive bleeding.”  There is really no way of knowing if the family was right to do what they did or correct in their conclusions.  Remember, they were acting out of desperation.

Fish oil, like all nutritional supplements, is not generally tested or regulated and should be handled with care, if at all.  A renewed warning comes from Johns Hopkins about this lack of testing:  “That leaves the effectiveness, quality and safety of herbal supplements questionable.”  They go on to list eight bullet points to consider before taking them.  The FDA continues to investigate safety concerns by urging doctors and manufacturers to report adverse reactions.

It can be dangerous to be lured by wonderful stories, the recommendations or even news reports in the media.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Blame Game - Part 2

I just finished reading a book called Scapegoat:  A History of Blaming Other People.  In it the author tells how, back as far as the Garden of Eden, we have been finding others to blame for our problems and shortcomings, even the weather.  We have blamed foreigners, other religions, the rich, the poor, bankers, God, Satan, witches, priests, kings and animals.  I think he left out all the “Bigs”:  big business, big pharma, big tobacco, big oil, big government, big banks and the rest.  No one takes responsibility and it supposedly began with Adam blaming "the woman" and Eve blaming the serpent.

This was coincident with two news articles:  one about a common whipping boy, MacDonald’s, and the other about our lack of faith in the government.

The first is in the form of a video.  A high school science teacher from Iowa challenged his students to develop a diet for him based purely on the menu from McDonald’s.  They were instructed to vary his meals and keep the total intake of calories and fats to within set guidelines.  After eating three meals everyday from MacDonald’s and beginning an exercise program where he walked for 45 minutes a day, he lost 37 pounds and his cholesterol dropped from 249 to 170.  This flies in the face of popular opinion and documentaries like “Super-size Me” that try to shift the blame from individual behavior to the fast food industry.  As the teacher says, “It’s our choices that make us fat, not MacDonald’s.”  Behavior has consequences.

The second related piece of news is the results of a recent poll showing that about 70% of Americans have little faith in government.  “The percentage of Americans saying the nation is heading in the right direction hasn't topped 50 in about a decade.”  Many are looking for fundamental changes in the structure of government, as “61 percent are pessimistic about the system of government overall and the way leaders are chosen.”  The underlying premise here goes against the idea of responsibility as we look to the government to solve our problems.

Perhaps it’s time to stop looking for someone else to blame, whether it be the government, fast food, or any of the other popular targets.  It’s time to start solving our problems with better choices all the time, including at the polls.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Words, Words, Words

I understand that English is not a dead language, that it is growing and evolving; but language is also meant to convey thoughts and ideas, which should entail some sense of precision.  If your language is sloppy, this will impede your ability to convey information accurately.  Sloppy language may reflect poorly on how you are perceived intellectually.  Choice of words is one area where this is apparent.

Why do people say anxious instead of eager?  Anxious implies, or should imply, a sense of anxiety – worry, nervousness, or unease.  Are the kids anxious to go to the swimming pool because they are afraid of drowning or bacteria?  They are probably eager to go to the pool to see their friends and get some relief from the heat, or they just love to swim.

Why do people say less instead of fewer?  Less is a quantity word, like much.  Fewer is a counting word like many.  How many (counting) cars are driving by? – Fewer (counting) than yesterday.  How much (quantity) gas is in the tank? – Less (quantity) than when we started driving.  “Fewer” means not as many; “less” means not as much.

On a related subject, to say the amount of people is incorrect.  People are countable.  The number (not the amount) of people voting or buying new cars is greater than last year.  Describing the amount of people would require a scale or tape measure.

Why do people describe so many people, things and experiences as awesome?  Awe is a reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder.  Few things are truly awesome.  When people say awesome, it comes from habit and lack of imagination, not as an attempt to express fear and wonder.  Awesome has gone from a description of profound feeling to a knee-jerk, silly, near-meaningless adjective.  So many other, more suitable words more precisely convey feelings of the team’s play, the paintings in a museum, the concert, etc.  Possibilities include:  wonderful, fabulous, sensational, terrific, great, colorful, enjoyable, unbelievable, magnificent, formidable, striking, glorious, or superb (but probably not amazing, another overused word).  Let’s save awesome for gods and tornados.  Of course, awesome and amazing are what cool and groovy were in the 60s so they will probably die out eventually.

What do you say instead of literally when you mean literally?  Recently, “the informal use of the word ‘literally’ – as a term for emphasis when a statement isn't true – has been included as a definition in the Oxford English Dictionary.”  Literally once meant that something really happened or existed, but people misused it so often to emphasize figurative comparisons that it now can mean either literally or figuratively, that is, metaphorically.  His head was literally so big that he could just barely get in the door –I don’t think so.  It’s literally the chance of a lifetime – perhaps, but probably not.  What do you say to make it clear that you are not exaggerating?  How do we distinguish between a big ego and some weird health condition that causes heads to expand?

Words have meanings.  Thoughtful people use the right word.