Pedestrians to be preceded by a robot holding a red flag?

A RECENT edition of the BBC’s All in the Mind radio programme delved into the way humans react to self-driving vehicles.

A trial in London found that people crossing the road tended to give Autonomous Vehicles less room than normal cars once the pedestrians realised the AVs would always slow down or stop if a human got in their way.

The pedestrians figured that, since the AVs in the trial drove themselves slowly (max. 15mph) and deferred to other road user, a self-driving car environment would be place where vehicles picked their way through the pedestrians not the other way round.

This finding made the experts unhappy. Not about the possibility that the cars might make a mistake and hurt someone, but because people were exhibiting undesirable behaviour by showing insufficient deference to vehicles.

Such behaviour by pedestrians clearly won’t scale up into the picture of AV transportation the auto business wants to peddle, which is of super-dense vehicle traffic that’s both fast and safe thanks to the wonders of artificial intelligence. In urban settings, you can’t have safe AVs that aren’t also slow AVs.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. One thing you can do with AVs that you can’t with what one guy on the BBC programme called ‘driver cars’ is daisy-chain them together into mini convoys: slower but more efficient.

Even then, the best the professor running the London AV trial had to offer was ‘peaceful coexistence’ between AVs and pedestrians. Like, say, North and South Korea. Or driver cars and pedestrians at the moment.

The big lie about AVs is that they’ll suddenly be perfected and become ubiquitous overnight, enabling them to seamlessly take over an existing ecosystem. People are increasingly pointing out that this won’t happen and that, for instance, cities will need to make radical planning changes to accommodate driverless cars.

I fervently hope the planners come up with something more imaginative than the 60s/70s approach of using miles of railings to corral pedestrians on to narrow pavements to give traffic unimpeded access to lethal estuaries of tarmac sliced between shops, houses, parks and other human spaces.

The French are very good at altering streetscapes to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles equably but these schemes are expensive, no to mention predicated on a level of national/civic pride that Brits only seem capable of applying to royal weddings, not the places we live in every day.

While I believe that AVs’ progress will be slower, more problematical and ultimately much less complete than their fans expect, it will be a very good thing if they force a rethink around the place of mobile steel capsules in human spaces like cities.

If not, you can see some tech wizard coming up a red-flag-holding robot to walk in front of pedestrians to make sure we show the requisite deference for self-driving cars.

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Truth lies gasping in Douma.

Martha Gellhorn. Chester Wilmot. Clare Hollingworth. All war correspondents admired for their independence and tenacity. When Gellhorn wasn’t selected to cover the Normandy landings in 1944, she got herself smuggled on to a beach on D-Day. Wilmot sacrificed his press accreditation in Papua in 1942 by refusing to keep silent about what he regarded as incompetence in the Australian forces’ generalship.

Then there’s Robert Fisk.

Robert who? You may well ask, given the complete lack of attention he’s afforded by the rest of today’s, mainly chair-bound, UK media. Fisk was one of the first journalists from a ‘western’ outlet to get on to the ground in Douma on Tuesday.

He looked for evidence of the alleged chemical weapon attack that the UK, US and France, used as the pretext for that rusty oxymoron, a ‘humanitarian missile strike’. Fisk went to the hospital where the video of children being sprayed with water was filmed. The scene was real, he was told by a doctor, but the people were actually being treated for hypoxia caused by inhaling dust and smoke created by a conventional bomb strike.

The panic and water spraying shown began when the person with the camera shouted ‘Gas!’ Then the camera person just left. Soon afterwards the ‘chemical attack’ video went online along with apparently-posed and re-posed photos of dead people at the alleged site of the ‘chemical’ attack.

Fisk talked to many people ‘amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups’. He didn’t find any of the 500 people said by the World Health Organisation to have been treated in Douma for chemical weapon after-effects.

In short, Fisk did what a war correspondent should do. He went and saw for himself. Walked the streets. Talked to people. Checked out the scene of the ‘atrocity’.

He reported what he saw and what he was told by those who lived through the fighting in Douma between Syrian forces and the US and Saudi-backed Islamist rebels.

He found no evidence of the alleged chemical weapons attack, which the leaders of the UK, US and France – the FUKUS coalition – claimed to have been totally convinced about by their intelligence services and social media.

For reporting these things, Fisk is labelled by many fellow British journalists as an ‘apologist for Assad’ – that 21st century repackaging of the 1930s traducement, ‘appeaser.’ Journalists who would burst into tears of rage if you called them a useful idiot who served our own WMD dossier-concocting establishment are happy to call Fisk a useful idiot who serves Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies.

QuadRanting owes Robert Fisk an apology. Fifteen years ago, when QuadRanting was still fully immersed in the hologram, he switched from the Independent to another newspaper because he disliked Fisk’s polemical presentation of stories like his December 2003 report on the aftermath of what appeared to be a Coalition missile strike on a Baghdad marketplace crowded with civilians

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it could have been one of ‘our’ missiles, or that I didn’t know that such incidents are a commonplace or war, or (especially) that I believed Tony Blair and his dodgy dossier designed to deal us into a war he must have known would kill hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It was because Fisk was telling the truth – that is the facts, truthfully with not just the blood and bandages but a palpable sense of the wrongness of what he’d witnessed. And at the time, to coin a phrase, I couldn’t handle the truth.

When Fisk filed his report from the market place at Shu’ale, he was holding a shard of metal from the missile: maybe weighing only a few ounces but nevertheless much, much more solid than the ‘evidence’ on which Mrs May based her personal decision to send in the Tornadoes this weekend.

We’ve rarely needed more than now to give ourselves time for sober reflection and to painstakingly strip away the noise to arrive at common interpretations of the signals before rushing to judgement and the missile launchers.

In the absence of state actors we can trust, and in the presence of a completely cognitively-captured mass media, we need the Robert Fisks and Patrick Cockburns of this world more than ever. Mr Fisk, I’m sorry for 2003.

What May Deems (W.M.D.)

I see the neocons and likuds as very damaged and traumatized individuals. They carry a set of internal wounds that express on the outside as a very belligerent and hostile set of postures and actions.”

Chris Martenson, Peak Prosperity Blog, 2016

QuadRanting would like to believe that the Prime Minister privately feels profoundly ashamed about her role as the UK’s propagandist-in-chief. After all, that’s an appellation with the most sordid history imaginable.

Mrs May’s assertions that the only possible candidate for orchestrating the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury is the Kremlin have been widely discredited. The Government has resorted to bullying its own chemical warfare experts to try to get them to lie about the level of certainty surrounding the provenance of the Salisbury nerve agent.

Although the Skripal-Russia story still has a lot of unravelling to do before it’s as dead in the water as Trump-Russia, or the infamously cooked-up Iraq WMDs story, it will carry on echoing down the years in the minds of those who don’t or won’t bother with critical thinking. Which of course is the point of propaganda.

The truly sad thing about Mrs May is that she could choose to pin her flag to the mast of addressing the very real predicament facing our (and every other advanced) nation. She could tell some truth for a change. She could say that there’s a lot of toil, tears and disappointment ahead. Because the reality of declining global net energy per capita will trump all dreams of carrying on as we have for the last couple of centuries, and bits will keep dropping off the economy for many, many decades.

Try uniting us to tackle the problems in our own backyard, Mrs May, rather than merely baring your teeth and dancing to the neocons’ war drums. That would be being tough, Mrs May. That would show strength and stability.

I mean why? What, or who, close to you, is so scary and powerful that you prefer to play to the stalls with tired old, Cold War era, chest-beating than to look like a grown-up who works with international experts and proceeds only as fast as hard facts become available?

How sad must it feel to sit at Chequers at the weekend, watching your corner in the propaganda campaign being fought by a politician whose CV serially lists ‘caught out by my lies’ as the reason for leaving jobs?

What could you be doing for your country and the world, Mrs May, if you didn’t allow yourself to be railroaded by those many damaged and traumatised people whom you think you can trust in the UK’s permanent government?

 

Poisoning our chance of a safer future

QuadRanting is depressed by current events. From the limited viewpoint afforded by his rural hermit hole, he cannot for the life of him get the apparent assassination attempt in Salisbury to smell right.

What would the Kremlin stand to gain by attacking a former (alleged) spy who was exposed, jailed and swapped-out for rival spooks many years ago? Why, if the Russians are so brilliantly fiendish at the dark arts of subversion and subtle revenge-taking, would they show their hand at a time of rising tensions and when the man has his very photogenic daughter with him – which makes the story a full house in Tabloid Bingo terms ?

Why aren’t supposedly impartial media outlets like the BBC asking the same questions? Their main story on the affair this morning read like a masterclass in state smearology; full of ‘is-believeds’, ‘thought-to-bes’ and ‘sources-says’. Endless references to Alexander Litvinenko but none to Georgi Markov. Perhaps that’s because the Bulgarian secret service killed Markov – and they don’t count – whereas all the players in the Litvinenko case were Russian. And a UK official enquiry into Litvinenko eventually got round to pointing a finger at the Kremlin – though only when it suited the UK Government to do so.

The key point, some 24 hours after the Salisbury incident began, is no-one yet knows what apparently poisoned the two Russians, or when, where, how or by whom the mystery substance was administered. All we have is speculation backed up by large photos of police in anti-contamination suits and of the late Mr Litvinenko (in case we’re not making the required connections fast enough).

It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that we’re looking at an overdose of some recreational material, although that hardly looks likely. Assuming the poisoning was deliberately done by a third party, the possibilities at this stage are endless.

Secret services? If so, whose? The US permanent government is plainly intent on driving up tensions between its putative allies and Russia. The UK, mindful of past kickings dealt to it over non-participation in Vietnam, and other disloyal moments, has always harboured plenty of spooks willing to play Mutley to Washington’s Dick Dastardly.

Crime? Possible. The carve-up in Russia, post Soviet collapse, epitomised Honoré de Balzac’s saying about great crimes lying behind great fortunes. Who knows what might one day pop out from the labyrinths of old scores and rivalries, and why and where?

Trade? Anyone who thinks our top Brexiteers are patriotically devoted to reclaiming British sovereignty, rather than to their own chances of becoming the UK’s next oligarchy, probably doesn’t have an internet connection. Poisoning pension-age ex-spies in Wiltshire might not impinge directly on trade but it does throw a lifeline to the likes of Boris Johnson, who gets to direct stern international noises at Putin instead of having to listen to everyone stifling their laughter at his incoherent pronouncements around Brexit.

And yes, it could be a Russian state hit job. But the question comes back to why and why now? The victim was a guest of the Russian state for four years after his conviction, until swapped in 2010. Violent places, many Russian prisons. But you wait eight years to get your revenge, until a few days after your winter sportsmen and women have been officially readmitted to the Olympic fraternity and only months before hosting the soccer World Cup?

Doesn’t smell right. Doesn’t smell right at all. Not that that will prevent our fearless politicians and media from doing everything they can to instil the belief that it was the Russians wot done it, short of actually coming out and saying so.

And at least in this case there’s an actual incident to use as a launching point. Not like the incident of the mythical Russian sub in Swedish waters. The US papers that clarioned the story in 2014 never got round to telling their readers when it eventually emerged that there never was a sub and the whole thing was merely a red scare in a teacup. Funny that.

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Two visions of utopia

Quadranting loves sharp, intelligent comedy. Therefore it loves Bridget Christie’s Utopia on Radio 4.

She gets plenty of mileage from the idea that our current civilisational trajectory is “not good; rapidly getting shittier” (my phrase not hers). There are too many humans now for us to reverse course – as per Quadranting First Law1 – so, as individuals, our best recourse is to find a way of coping with the knowledge that billions of our fellow beings, with the best of intentions, are striving with all their might and main to bury humanity’s future under piles of vanity projects like self-driving cars and colonising Mars.

You can see how fucked up we are by doing a Google search for pictures of Utopia. You get this as the top result:

The Prologue and the Promise. McCall Studios

Painted for Disney World (where else?), it reads from the pyramids and Acropolis on the left – the prologue – to a glorious near-futuristic metropolis around now and lastly to the lifeless, radioactive void of space interstellar civilisation – the promise.

What does this tell us – apart from suggesting that Disney was already plotting to get its hands on the Star Wars franchise back in the 1980s?

It tells us a lot about hubris. Essentially it’s the myth of progress writ large. Who is promising the viewer a passport to the City on a Hill and then the whole Universe? Is it God? The Almighty Inevitability that our dirty, temporary, fossil-fuelled living arrangement (notably absent from the mural) will shortly pupate into CGI-ed heaven because that is What Is Ordained.

Human scale is absent from the picture. People scurry along roads that lead away from, or at a safe distance from, the symbols of civilisation in the background. Perhaps that’s because all the empires represented, from Egypt to Washington, rested to a greater or lesser extent on human slavery because that’s all there was before industrialised carbon came along.

The future is a monstrous, towering, machine-made environment stripped of vegetation and animal life, lit by a Hiroshima-like sun. It takes for granted that the essential millions of fossil, fission or fusion-supplied energy slaves will continue to multiply endlessly, although the mural paints all energy conversions out of history.

You can say ‘Oh well, it’s just a feel-good painting from an amusement park’ but it’s more than that. The Prologue and the Promise still fits the official narrative, peddled in everything from smartphone adverts to the never-ending Star Wars series. Which is that this type of techno-grandiose utopia is what we should be heading for. And if your own life feels like an unfulfilling, exhausting farrago of debt slavery and pointless consumerism apparently designed expressly to exacerbate pollution, congestion and inequality, it’s because you are not trying hard enough to keep up.

Oddly enough, although our ancestors lacked almost every advantage of modern life from property rights and freedom of speech to pain-free dentistry, vaccination, clean water, ample food and insecticides, they seem to have had a far more achievable and sustainable vision of an idealised living arrangement.

Lucas_Cranach_the_Elder_-_The_Golden_Age

Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Golden Age, 1530

Surely there has to be a middle way between Disneyfied hubris and a level of existence so precarious that the idea of going for a swim in a wildlife park seems like paradise?

The infuriating thing is that we could be working towards a balanced approach now, if humans en masse weren’t so utterly fuckwitted. Instead of being prepared to nuke each other for the right to live on the right end of the Prologue and the Promise, we could be making an honest appraisal of planetary limits, not lying to ourselves about the potential to run industrial civilisation at current scale on future energy flows, and generally building a worthwhile future for our grandchildren, not indenturing their lives in service of an impossible fantasy.


  1. Humans are wonderful in smallish groups but batshit crazy in large numbers  

Match of the cephalopods: the elites’ house mag vs. Vlad the Impeller

For all its family resemblance to the the witch sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Russiagate is turning dangerous.

Very predictably, we now have the Economist weighing in on behalf of the one per cent it exists to serve with a cover story representing Putin as an octopus threatening Western democracy with his sinister tentacles.

eco-putin-octo

The Economist: Cover 22 February 2018

Russiagate started out as a comforting story that the permanent government in Washington made up for itself, to wish away the uncomfortable fact that its anointed successor to Obama had been bested by a louche chancer with unfeasible hair and a bad Twitter habit. Then it went ballistic.

This frankly ridiculous meme, whereby a handful of trolls with no proven connection to the Kremlin supposedly stole the US election by spending a minute amount of money, which most American candidates wouldn’t even answer the phone for, is now the thinnest of wafery excuses for a stance of Imperial aggressiveness that the deep state warmonger faction had hoped to reach “democratically” if their apparatchiks in the Dem party hadn’t so badly misread the electoral runes.

The chief characteristics of the alleged meddling are that it was indistinguishable from the vastly larger volume of ongoing American-on-American political trolling, and it had no measurable effect.

However, the Economist has a response to this:

”It is futile to speculate how much Russia’s efforts succeeded in altering the outcomes of votes and poisoning politics. The answer is unknowable. But the conspiracies are wrong in themselves and their extent raises worries about the vulnerabilities of Western democracies. If the West is going to protect itself against Russia and other attackers, it needs to treat Mr Mueller’s indictments as a rallying cry.”

Or to paraphrase the Economist’s position: “Don’t matter that there’s no evidence – burn the witch!”

And don’t overlook the pernicious elision of a troll factory – that could easily be just another group of cyber criminals sifting flyover America for easily-led suckers to scam for cash – with Russia the nation.

The subtext of the Economist story is that meddling is supposed to be very much a one-way street to be indulged-in solely by the Imperium.

Time-Yeltsin-Cover

“The Secret Story of how American Advisers helped Yeltsin win” 1996

Try to find a country where the US hasn’t meddled to some extent over the last 50 years. America’s interest in your freedom or mine comes a long way behind its own freedom to do whatever it wants wherever it wants. Its problem with Putin is not that they think he’s a bastard; it’s that he’s his own bastard, not theirs.

While we’re here, let’s not forget that Russiagate is also about controlling America’s domestic ‘enemies’, who include every citizen who has the temerity to believe that US democracy ought to offer them genuine freedom of choice.

Social media and all other forms of handy peer-to-peer opinion-sharing are anathema to a system used to controlling thought via centrally-controlled media – what Joe Bageant memorably called ‘The Hologram’. When the Economist speaks of vulnerabilities and rallying cries, it means finding ways to hamstring social media sharing and independent websites to restore the influence of officially-sanctioned pravda (‘truth’) peddled by a handful of billionaire-owned media groups.

Lastly in this brief peer into the murky depths of early-stage Imperial decline, what’s with the cephalopod meme? Surely the Economist can’t still be influenced by Matt Tiabbi’s accurate but doubtless hurtful characterisation of Goldman Sachs?

What Bitcoin tells you about the likelihood of self-driving cars succeeding

As the Bitcoin bubble neared its zenith in 2017, the internet filled up with dire predictions that “crypto-mining” would melt the world’s power grids.

Whole countries’ energy consumption levels became yardsticks for Bitcoin’s thirst for power. Ireland, Hungary, New Zealand – take your pick. Call it the Ohms Race: so-called miners frantically pumped electricity into processors in the hope of flushing out that elusive $100,000 cryptic coin. Or $10 cryptic coin, depending on which side of the peak they were on when it turned up.

And although Bitcoin brownout alarmism quickly died down, the episode should ring alarm bells in the autonomous vehicle community. Because the amount of power needed to mine virtual coins doesn’t even represent an amuse-bouche in relation to the stonking torrents of amps required to make self-driving cars work.

This was explained in the FT yesterday, with all the insouciance that the house journal of neo-liberal techno-grandiosity could manage. (FT – Driverless cars: mapping the trouble ahead)

You see, for AVs the map is the territory. For the tens of thousands of dollars-worth of on-board sensing gubbins to work, it has to be fed a massively-detailed 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings. Everything that doesn’t move, from trees to signs to sandwich boards to rubbish bins, needs to be there for the vehicle to compare with what it ‘sees’ at any given microsecond.

Data-wise, these maps are colossal. Gigabytes to describe a modest stretch of uninterrupted blacktop in the middle of nowhere. God-knows-what-abytes for urban streetscapes. There’s no way of streaming so much information to the vehicle fast enough when it’s travelling so it must be loaded aboard on hard drives and carried around everywhere the vehicle goes.

There’s brave talk of perfecting AVs’ artificial intelligence so they can interpret their way along streets using simpler data. But for the foreseeable future they’ll need these 3D mega-maps. And presumably they’ll be restricted to operating within the area of mega-map they can practically carry around.

3D electronic maps may be new but the territory we’re moving into with them isn’t. Joseph Tainter covers it in The Collapse of Complex Societies: he shows that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity and their energy subsidies reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Theoretically, AVs are the answer to several problems Namely, ordinary cars’ huge redundancy (idle 95% of their lives),  congestion, and the cost of accidents caused by human mistakes that machine-driven cars supposedly wouldn’t make. The most happy-clappy proponents of AVs enthuse over their potential to completely eliminate jams and accidents while slicing 60% off the cost of motoring by replacing inefficient car ownership with 24/7 ‘ridership’.

If AVs were simply ordinary cars but with added sensors and a clever brain to do the driving, these pipe-dreams might be valid. But they’re not. It turns out that for AVs to work as intended we’re going to have to build nothing less than a 3D virtual copy of most of the surface of the planet within five or 10 yards of a road.

Creating, storing, updating and transmitting that data will require a huge network of servers – plus fall-backs up the wazoo to ensure 100% uptime. Between the servers and the vehicles will be a layer of energy-gobbling supercomputers performing the gazillions of calculations per second required to coordinate traffic and feed individual vehicles the data they need to make their own decisions.

AV developers and their would-be customers simply assume the necessary power will be there. And this at a time when the cost and complexity of building a single power station is proving a stretch even for an advanced economy like the UK.

There’s every reason to think that Level 5 vehicle automation will be as near-impossible to achieve as commercial nuclear fusion. The torrents of capital and talent going into AV development are pouring into, if not a dead end, a neither-here-nor-there scenario of partial automation and fiendishly complex lash-ups aimed at allowing semi-AVs and  conventional cars to coexist.

It’s a question of whether the game is worth the candle. That originally referred to a game of cards where the stakes were less than the price of the candle burned to light the play.

Will the outcome of the billions poured into self-driving cars be worth it? No. Not when you find out you’ll have to build and maintain a massively expensive 3D facsimile of the world before any AV can even think of operating in the real world like an ordinary car.

Should we stop and do something more useful, or at least redefine our goals for AVs? Of course.

But we won’t. Humans simply aren’t smart enough.