When will driving be made illegal?

April 28, 2016

By the time my children are old enough to learn to drive, they won’t need to bother.

By the time my grandchildren are old enough to learn to drive, it will be illegal.

There are already self-driving cars on public roads. Right now, the technology is in its early stages, but like most areas loosely gathered under “artificial intelligence”, the speed of progress is fast and accelerating. Most of the real hurdles in the path of ubiquitous self-driving cars are legislative, not technical. It is a given that self-driving cars are inevitable.

Before they gain wide acceptance, they’ll need to be really, really safe. They’ll never be perfect – for years, headlines about people killed in and by SDCs will proliferate. But they’ll be headlines because they’re rare and unusual. The fact is driverless cars will be of necessity much, much safer than human-operated ones. They’ll never try to drive and text, they’ll never be drunk or tired or distracted by a screaming child. They’ll never speed or take a corner too fast in the wet.

Sooner or later, the public will be presented with annual figures something like this:

  • Number of human-driven cars on the road: 20 million
  • Number of self-driving cars on the road: 20 million
  • Number of deaths and serious injuries caused by human operated cars: 5000
  • Number of deaths and serious injuries caused by self-driving cars: 50.

What that initially suggests is that if there were only self-driving cars, 4950 people would still be alive. But it’s worse than that. Chances are, quite a few of the 50 people killed or injured in or by SDCs were hurt in collisions with or caused by human-driven cars. Take the humans out of the loop entirely, and the SDCs get even safer.

When that happens – and it’s inevitable – driving a car under your own control on a public road will come to be seen as a deeply selfish and irresponsible act, like smoking in a maternity unit or flying a plane drunk. Sooner or later, it’s bound to become illegal.

You’ll still be able to drive a car, of course… but you’ll need to take it to a track, where you can risk your own neck under controlled conditions. Driving will cease to be something we all have to do, and become just another hobby, like riding a horse.

Eventually, people will look back at this time in horror, wondering why we permitted the annual holocaust on our roads to continue for so long.

Sooner the better, I say.

Flying guns – an idea overdue

July 24, 2015

There was some kerfuffle this week over a video that showed a quadcopter with a mounted handgun. The only question I had when I saw it was: “Why not sooner?”. As in, how is it that we’ve not already heard of people being killed by these things?

A possible answer is that, done right, a drone hit would be nigh-on impossible to solve, or even identify as such.

Consider first the equipment. While it’s possible to buy a ready-to-fly drone with a nice gimbal mounted camera for about ¬£1,000, it’s also possible to build one for a good deal less. Mounting a gun on such a thing is relatively trivial, assuming you have ready access to handguns. Similarly, the skills to program these things to do clever stuff are relatively common and easy to acquire. Batteries are readily available to allow arbitrarily long flight durations.

So: say I want to kill you. In the olden days I need to be somewhere where you are, in line of sight, and get close enough to you, myself, to put a bullet through you. Now, “close enough” is a relative concept. For the right person with the right weapon, a mile and a half is close enough. But that takes a special weapon and a great deal of skill… plus a line of sight. I don’t have time to get that good.

Now, assuming you at some point come out into the open, all I need to know is where you are. I can sit a mile away, out of sight. I can be the other side of any arbitrary barrier – a fence, a wall, a forest or river – and send my gun-equipped drone to loiter over the location. Sitting two or three thousand feet above the ground it is invisible and inaudible to anyone on the ground. You’d have no reason to suspect it’s there. I sit and watch through the onboard camera until you come outside – to get in your car to go to work, say. When I see you, I press a button. At that point, my drone’s rotors all stop. It drops, silently, to the ground like a rock. Again, you have no suspicion it’s there. A few feet from the ground, the rotors re-engage and arrest the fall. Now, finally, you have a clue something is up. There’a a noisy device about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage, hovering steady as a rock in front of you. I can see you through the onboard camera, complete with a cross hair. A minor adjustment on a joystick controlling a gimbal, and I push another button, and a bullet goes where the crosshair is pointing. Casings ejected from the gun (assuming it’s a semi-automatic) are collected on board the drone rather than dropped. I do this a couple more times to make sure, then press one more button. Following a pre-programmed routine, the drone engages all four rotors on full power and shoots straight up at about 80mph. In a matter of three to five seconds, it is out of sight. I switch off the controller, and it automatically returns to its launch point. I put it in the boot of my car and drive home. You’ve been shot, but at the scene there is absolutely no forensic evidence of anything – no footprints, no DNA, no fibres, no casings. The only thing I’ve left behind are the bullets in your body.

None of that is anything that you couldn’t do with drones that are already available to buy for cheap off the internet. Living in the UK, the only part that would be hard to do would be getting hold of the handgun. In other countries it’s harder to buy the drone parts than the gun. This is such an easy, cheap and above all unsolvably safe way to kill people I’m only surprised that organised crime or for that matter hobbyist nutters aren’t already doing it in droves.

TasteDating – an idea offered for free

August 27, 2014

Right now, I can go on Amazon and it will recommend stuff I might like to buy. However, it only fairly mechanically recommends stuff which is like the other stuff I’ve already bought from them. Given that I don’t buy EVERYTHING from them, this massively restricts what they recommend, and much of it I’m not actually interested in or already own. It does work, sometimes, but serendipity is rare. Result: I buy relatively few things there and spend more time adjusting my preferences to avoid things I know I won’t like.

Right now, I can go on Rotten Tomatoes or imdb, and see the aggregated, averaged opinions of people I know nothing about and have nothing in common with. I can get an averaged out figure which expresses the lowest common denominator overall societal opinion on each film. This has some value, but it’s limited. Result: I rent or buy movies which have good reviews, but because of quirks in my taste I don’t enjoy, and miss movies I would have liked because they’re not mainstream.

Right now, I can buy a magazine and read its movie reviews, or listen to a radio show, or whatever. But there I get the opinion of a single reviewer, and it takes time and a good deal of effort to work out how much weight to give to each reviewer’s opinion. I am in 92% agreement with Jonathan Ross, who scored this film four stars, but I’m in 81% agreement with Mark Kermode, who gave it five. Should I watch it or not? Pass the calculator…

Right now, I can go on a dating site, answer an extensive questionnaire about what sort of person I am, and be given a mathematically determined matchup with any number of potential partners with whom I’m allegedly compatible. You are a 92% match for DeepBlueEyes. You are an 83% match for foxy_fun. Whatever. Result: many, many soul destroying experiences meeting people who on paper I should hit it off with.

Now, the idea: taste dating. The front end of a dating site, attached to the back end of a review/shopping site.

Imagine: log in. Fill in a questionnaire, like a dating site. Except this one doesn’t ask what you look for in a partner – it asks what you look for in a book/film/tv show/DVD/magazine/song/album/comic book. It further asks you for a score out of ten for your favourite ten or twenty things are in each of those media. The more you fill in, the more reviews you provide, the better the matches you’ll get. It also asks you for a review of at least one thing in each category that you DIDN’T like, and for, say, five things picked off a list just to see what you think.

When your profile is complete, you are matched with other users. Your scores are compared with theirs to provide an overall score of how much your tastes coincide. This step is, crucially, FREE. The site works better the larger the database of people who’ve done reviews, so the signup and review process has to be fast and very, very easy.

You are a 98% match for Dessicate_Dan. Congratulations.

Now here’s the thing: you might want to meet Dan, you might not. For now, that’s not important. The primary point of the site is this: Dan loves the things you love, hates the things you hate, and is ambivalent about the same things as you – except there’s 2% of his “love it” stuff that you haven’t reviewed. It’s extremely likely that, if you knew what it was, you would LOVE that 2% also. Want to know what’s in that 2%? That’ll be a fiver please, and that’ll sort you for a year.

For a small subscription, TasteDate will match you up with other people who have the same tastes as you, and then tell you what they’ve enjoyed that you’ve not yet tried. It’s a way of making sure you never again pay money for something you don’t love. It’s a way of serendipitously discovering new things, with some confidence they won’t be rubbish.

Crucially, it’s based not on what they’ve *bought*, or what they *own* – it’s based on what they’ve *enjoyed*. On what they actively recommend. I’m not aware of any site offering something like this.

So step 1 of the business plan: subscriptions.

You pony up the cash and discover Dessicate_Dan’s comic book collection contains all the same ones you have, except he also recommends Batman: The Long Halloween. Do you want to buy this book? Click here to order… and if you’re choosing something from someone who has a 90% match or better to your tastes, we offer a no-quibble, 30 day money back guarantee. If you don’t LOVE your new book, send it back for a refund.

Step 2 of the business plan: a shopping portal for all the stuff you now want to buy. This is where I think the real money could be made, because you wouldn’t need to be the cheapest site to get good traffic, because of the confidence your customers would have that they’ll love what they’re buying.

Finally, thanks to Dan you’ve discovered a bunch of stuff you never knew you’d like. Want his email address? That’ll be a tenner.

Step 3 of the business plan: bringing it full circle to a contact/dating site mechanic, for those people who really want it.

I have not the skills, time or inclination to take this idea and make it a reality. I’m convinced that if someone does, it will make them a millionaire. I’d like it if, in the event someone does that, they grant me a financial consideration, but I won’t hold my breath. Mainly, I’m putting this idea out for free simply because I want it implemented so I can use it.

Any comments? Any takers?

If life is a video game, can I trade up?

May 17, 2012

So John Scalzi made this post.

And he’s closed the comment thread for reasonable reasons, so I figured I’d respond here, on my blog that I hardly ever use and that nobody reads.

Apparently, as a straight white male, I’m playing the RPG that is real life on the lowest difficulty setting. I get it. I understand the analogy, and it’s precisely the analogy I’d expect from a straight white male who has the additional privileges of a reasonably good start in life and a good education in a first world country. Which is to say, I think it’s entirely flawed to the point of being blinkered, hopelessly parochial and borderline racist. For starters, it seems predicated on the assumption that everyone lives in a place where white people are a step ahead of everyone else. Is it really the case that in China I’ll have an easier time of it if I’m white?

Leaving aside the parochialism, which is defensible on the grounds that the intended audience was not global, I still think the model is flawed. I propose an alternative. Not everyone is familiar with the tropes of RPGs. I for one have no idea what a “dump stat” is. Most people have, at some stage, seen or played a video game that involves driving a car in competition with others. Many will have played Mario Kart, or some variant of it. Everyone understand what is meant by “braking”, “acceleration”, “top speed” etc.

Karts come with variable sets of stats. Some accelerate slowly to a high top speed. Some shoot off the line but braking is poor. Some can turn on a sixpence and accelerate well but don’t have the top end speed.

So here’s the thing. Being a straight, white male is, I’ll grant, to be privileged. Straight = lightning acceleration. White = great handling in corners. Male = extremely effective brakes. Even if we all start the race from the same place, I’ll grant those things are objectively advantages, particularly over people who, other things being equal, don’t have them.

But other things are not equal. And for an enormous number of working class (or in this economy, NON-working class) white, straight males, in the F1 Grand Prix that is life 0-60 in two seconds doesn’t feel like much of a privilege if your top speed is 61. The fact you don’t skid in the corners is scant comfort when you can see the reason is that you’re not capable of going fast enough to lose traction. And being lectured about how you should be grateful for the privilege of your effective brakes can make you react poorly as you’re being passed left and right by people who, although their brakes may be technically worse than yours, are still comfortably overtaking you every single lap, even though they started way behind you.

Class and wealth are your kart’s top speed. Playing with a kart that’s got its top speed dialled right back may be objectively easy, but it also means that barring some extraordinary luck, you’re still going to lose, like most people. And this applies even if ALL YOUR OTHER STATS are as good as it gets.


September 30, 2010

There are many forms of comedy – standup, monologue, sitcom etc. One of the most enduringly popular forms of the last fifty years has been the television sketch comedy. Celebrated practitioners have included Monty Python, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Fry & Laurie and Little Britain. All of these teams have produced sketches which bear repeated performance by fans in bars and common rooms, to much hilarity. Almost invariably, however, such sketches depend to a large extent for their effect on the quality of performance, at least as much as the quality of the script. Many of them work to set up punchlines, or take time to develop. NTNOCN’s classic Gorilla Interview, for instance, doesn’t get a laugh at all until Gerald says “Sixty eight”, and doesn’t get a whopper until he uses the word “Livid”.

For me, there is one comedy sketch which stands out as an almost Zen-like example of perfect comedy.
In the first instance, it transcends performance. Almost the entire impact of the sketch is in the script. You could have the whole thing read out by a couple of computer speech synthesisers, and it would be at least 80% as funny as the original.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no flab whatsoever. Not a single word is wasted, barely even a syllable. If it were a poem, it would be a haiku, or a perfectly proportioned sonnet.
The sketch is The Two Ronnies “Mastermind”, here:Mastermind

Observe, every single thing Barker says is a set up, and every single line Corbett delivers is a punchline, without any exceptions, starting with the very first line.
Admittedly, some of the references are now a bit dated, but that’s not a weakness of the script per se, and in any case such references could be updated without compromising the structure or effectiveness at all.

But structurally, and verbally, I truly believe that that sketch is not only the best one the Two Ronnies ever did, but in fact the single best comedy sketch ever written in English. It’s hard, to be honest, to imagine one ever beating it, given my criteria.

I’d be very happy to hear alternatives, however. If there’s anything, by anyone, which approaches the economy, structural purity and performer-independence of that script, tell me.

Awe in the Imagination

September 10, 2010

There are, I think, three categories of awe related to a place.

The first is raw awe. You need only functioning senses to be awed by somewhere with this. Get off a ski-lift ten thousand feet up, where you can see five hundred mountains all covered in snow, and you don’t need to even know the name of the one you’re standing on to think “Wow.”

The second is awe of the imagination. Some places look unassuming, dull even. Being awestruck by them requires knowledge and imagination. Stand in the huts at Bletchley Park, or walk round the Los Alamos National Laboratory or Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, and all you see are non-descript buildings. It is with the knowledge of what happened there that the awe comes.

The third, and my favourite, is when the two combine. You find yourself in a location which is, in and of itself, beautiful or shocking. Add a little knowledge of history and a little imaginative empathy, and one can step back in time.

An example of this is Hardknott Pass in Cumbria, England. The steepest road in the country, with a view to catch the breath, it’s already somewhere special. But a little imagination can put you back two thousand years, in the sandals of the poor old Roman soldiers who manned the fort that was built on the pass. In this rainiest corner of the coldest country the Romans ever conquered, auxiliaries recruited from around the Mediterranean must surely have wondered what they’d done to deserve such a posting. Standing at the fort in a Goretex jacket, microfibre fleece and modern boots, you feel for these people who walked thousands of miles to reach and live in this spot.

Angst and disappointment in the new millenium

July 13, 2010

One of my catchphrases, as anyone who knows me personally can attest, is “Isn’t it great living in the future?”. Sure, I don’t have a jetpack, but I grew up early-adopting as much technology as I could afford, and being regularly bitterly disappointed with how it was half-finished, unreliable and in some cases physically dangerous to its owner.

Nowadays, however, most technology just… works, in a way I think you really need to be an engineer to truly appreciate. I get a little thrill when I fire up a new bit of technology and discover some feature of it that speaks to me of an engineer in an office somewhere thinking “Really, in order for this object to truly delight its user, it should do this thing, either when the user obviously wants it to, or possibly without even being asked.” And more to the point, a manager somewhere NOT saying “That doesn’t add to the bottom line, so we’re not doing it.”

So since I’m not bitterly disappointed on a regular basis by the technology these days, what does disappoint me? Muesli yoghurt. About thirty years ago, muesli and yoghurt were, to my working class eyes, exotic things. To combine the two? Unheard of decadence and luxury. Marks and Spencers had that vision, producing a pot of natural yoghurt adorned with a little clear tub of nuts and fruit that you could stir in. The very idea! (This was decades before Muller Fruit Corners).

I absolutely loved these things. I’m sure someone at M&S head office found out this fact, because almost as soon as I’d discovered them, they were discontinued.

What has any of this to do with anything happening in the 21st century?

Blogs and podcasts are the M&S muesli yoghurts of the 21st century. You discover one you like. You realise it’s the best thing you’ve ever come across. You indulge in an archive binge, if there’s an archive, and you check back religiously for new content at regular intervals. And for a while, your desire for new content is sated.

Then, one day it stops. Or it slows to a crawl. Or it just… disappears. And you have to move on, trying another flavour, never really recapturing the way these things were.

Roll of disappointment:

Adam&Joe’s 6Music Podcast.

Jon Richardson’s 6Music Podcast.

Tenser Said The Tensor Blog.

Nightjack’s Blog.

Cectic comics.

… and others.

Death Penalty

July 7, 2010

I often see people suggesting, as a kneejerk response to some atrocity or other committed by some recidivist career criminal, that we should string ’em up, as it’s the only language they understand. It’s tedious to have to point out the mountain of evidence that capital punishment has no deterrent effect, that many countries with capital punishment have far more violent cultures and higher murder rates than our own, and additionally that, by the way, the British government does not, in any case, have the power to bring back capital punishment, what with us being part of Europe and all.

All of this is academic, as I’ve yet to meet anyone who really, truly believes there should be capital punishment. Nobody with the courage of their convictions, anyway, nobody prepared to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. Nobody who would give a fully positive answer in my capital punishment referendum.

It’s often pointed out that if we were to hold a national referendum, public opinion would favour a return of the death penalty. Well whoopy doo – public opinion reads horoscopes and thinks Derek Acorah can speak to the dead. Public opinion reads the Sun. ¬†Public opinion is demonstrably as dumb as a rock.

But let’s have a referendum, by all means. Let it be simple, and feature just two questions:

1. Do you favour the return of the death penalty?

2. If you voted YES to Q1, do you volunteer to be the first innocent person executed?

YES votes only count where there’s a YES to BOTH questions. Anyone else obviously isn’t really, truly in favour of the death penalty in all respects. Anyone voting YES/NO is a fantasist, who believes that you could build a system where you’d only execute people you were “sure” were guilty, as though our existing system doesn’t already make “sure” people are guilty before it jails them for life. People like Stefan Kisko, or the Birmingham Six, or the Guildford Four, or Colin Stagg. You know, people who are definitely guilty.

Either that, or someone voting YES/NO is a person who wants the death penalty back, but only if it applies exclusively to other people.

In the unlikely event the YES/YES voters win, we will of course round the lot of them up and execute them, as per their request. The referendum can then be rerun, safe in the knowledge that the IQ of the nation has just doubled.

Not much is certain in a society with the death penalty. It’s hard to know whether it would be applied equally across races (probably not). It’s hard to know whether it would act as a deterrent, ever (probably not). It’s hard to know whether it would save public money (probably not).

One thing is certain, however – certain beyond any possibility of sensible argument. It would be administrated by fallible humans, and sooner or later, an innocent person would be killed by the state. I don’t volunteer to be that person. Do you?

Mid-life crisis

August 4, 2009

Male mid-life crisis is going to die out, or at the very least become a lot less common.

A few decades ago, it was a cliche that in his late thirties or early forties, a man would grow a pony-tail behind his bald spot, start wearing leather trousers, buy a sports car and have an affair with a younger woman, all in a bid to recapture something he felt he’d lost or missed out on. This was understandable, because men in those days generally left home in their teens and put away “childish things”, either to go to work or university, and never went home again. They entered the world of work, marriage, fatherhood and responsibility, and wouldn’t question it at first because everyone else would be doing it. Then at some point, when they’d been doing it for about 20 years, a number of things would happen at once. They’d reach a plateau in their career and see no prospect of further advancement, their hair would start going grey or falling out, and their parents would begin needing their help to do things. It would be brought home to them forcefully that this, their one and only life, was slipping away from them, and they’d react badly.

But the world has changed. Consumerism and advertising has extended adolescence well into the thirties – it’s more socially acceptable to simply play around. In the 1980s the concept of a videogame with an 18 certificate would have been ridiculed, whereas now such things are commonplace, indeed, bestsellers. Meanwhile rampant house price inflation sees men in their twenties and thirties still living with their parents. With no jobs for life, the idea of a career plateau is laughable. People in their forties are less likely nowadays to be worrying about whether to put their parents in a home, and more likely to be trying to keep up with their tweets from Thailand or Canada or Spain.

Mid-life crisis was something that happened to men who had been forced by society to grow up quickly. But society doesn’t do that to men any more. If anything, it encourages them to behave like teenagers until they’re physically incapable of continuing. On that basis, I predict that the incidence of mid-life crisis will fall dramatically over the next decade. Bad news if you’re a Porsche dealer…

July 29, 2009

Shall we try again? All I want to do is post a line of justified text. Let’s see if the posting engine can cope with that or whether it will do what it’s done before and simply make the text into the world’s widest column until I press carriage return as though this incredibly complex and expensive machine was a Smith-Corona typewriter circa 1922.