Adjusting to Autonomous Trucking

Some enthusiastic tech pundits have been speculating that we could see fleets of self-driving trucks in the next 5-10 years(!). And that's the most common profession in the vast majority of central states in the US. As Shane Greenstein explains, though, it's not likely to be the armageddon we're worried about, (instead more likely a slow displacement which our society will hopefully figure out how to cope with):

Trials in long-haul trucking involve training the vehicles for trips between depots adjacent to high-ways. At those depots, the trucks are handed off to drivers, who take them into cities for short-haul delivery. Judging from recent prototypes, humans are not disappearing anytime soon. Nobody is talking about installing robots in trucks to do the loading and unloading. The hard work today focuses on other high-value propositions, such as reducing safety issues from things like inattentive driving. A little automation can go a long way for that purpose—it can stop vehicles sooner, issue warnings to drivers, and relay information to dispatchers for use by others in a fleet. The prototypes also continue trends that began with the introduction of electronics into trucking long ago. Partial automation can enable longer continuous vehicle operation, better fuel consumption, and reduced maintenance expenses.
So what limits progress? Like many applications in machine learning, there are too many “edge cases” that the software cannot yet satisfactorily handle—such as road construction, a vehicle stopped at the side of the road, unexpected detours, pedestrians unexpectedly on the side of the highway, a dead animal carcass in the road, and so on. AI researchers know this problem well. Routine work is not as routine as it seems. Humans are pretty good at handling millions of variants of the little unexpected aspects of road work, police stops, bad weather, poor drivers, and break-downs.
The statistics of edge cases are quite demanding. Software can be trained to handle much of this, perhaps 99 percent of the issues in a typical drive. But 99 percent is not anywhere near good enough. If, say, 1 percent is still left for humans, that translates into more than half a minute every hour in which a human needs to intervene. It is necessary to do much better than that to justify removing constant human awareness, and much better performance is required to get a sufficient return on the investment in the equipment to make it all work. In the lingo of the industry, partial or conditional automation is the most ambitious goal for the next several years. Full automation is a long way off.

The Whole Republican Party Seems to Be Going to Jail Now

I hope Trump's administration is what this country needs in order to wake up and get serious about reforming.... well, everything: the justice system, racism/sexism, money in politics, etc. Too few have paid attention to the slow erosion of freedom and justice, and good efforts have been quashed by increasingly-concentrated economic and political force.

Trump's administration will go down as one of the most corrupt in US history, but it's unique in degree, not in type. There has been a decades-long buildup to this point. Nearly everyone close to him is enriching themselves through their offices at public expense—a new level of graft—but this is the result of increasing impunity for the wealthy, the result of 40+ years of declining justice, coupled with increasing inequality and a party that decided to embrace (predominantly white) racism in order to keep a hold on the (mostly white) middle class.

We need to treat the Trump administration like the unique threat it is to a healthy society, but we can't kid ourselves that everything's fine if only we could go back to Obama (or earlier). Obama refused to prosecute any of the banks that blew up the economy, in spite of overwhelming, direct evidence of fraud. Bush gave us an illegal war of aggression against Iraq, likely in order to control Middle Eastern oil, while giving sweetheart contracts to Cheney's former company and ramping up the use of private contractors instead of paying for military and other publicly-accountable personnel. Clinton's NAFTA "free trade" deal was designed to benefit wealthy financiers over nearly everyone else (and especially small manufacturers and farmers). And his "entitlement" and criminal justice "reform" were a legitimation of racist and classist stereotypes. And if we go back even farther, there are Nixon and Reagan committing treason in order to win the presidency (the latter with the help of Bush Sr as CIA director at the time). Trump's behavior is unique only in that he's openly crass and willing to commit any number of former presidential crimes all at once instead of just one here or there. And he doesn't care what his cronies do, as long as they get away with it or don't harm his own schemes. E.g., as Jonathan Chait lists:

The entire Trump era has been a festering pit of barely disguised ongoing corruption. But the whole sordid era has not had a 24-hour period quite like the orgy of criminality which we have just experienced. The events of the last day alone include:
(1) The trial of Paul Manafort, which has featured the accusation that President Trump’s campaign manager had embezzled funds, failed to report income, and falsified documents. His partner and fellow Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, confessed to participating in all these crimes, as well as to stealing from Manafort.
(2) Yesterday, Forbes reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross may have stolen $120 million from his partners and customers. Meanwhile Ross has maintained foreign holdings in his investment portfolio that present a major conflict of interest with his public office. (The “Don’t worry, Wilbur Ross would never do anything unethical just to pad his bottom line” defense is likely to be, uh, unconvincing to the many people filing suit against Ross for allegedly doing exactly that.)
(3) Also yesterday, ProPublica reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs is being effectively run by three Trump cronies, none of whom have any official government title or public accountability. The three, reports the story, have “used their influence in ways that could benefit their private interests.”
(4) And then, this morning, Representative Chris Collins was arrested for insider trading. Collins had been known to openly boast about making millions of dollars for his colleagues with his insider knowledge. He is charged with learning of an adverse FDA trial, and immediately calling his son — from the White House! — urging him to sell his holdings.

AT&T, Time Warner, and the Need for Neutrality

The biggest tech firms now have so much power that even minor changes to, say, Facebook's Feed algorithm can detectably alter the national mood, or change voter turnout patterns. Yet there are few regulations around how this power can be used, and most applicable laws are incredibly outdated. Antitrust laws haven't been updated in two or three generations, and relevant privacy laws concerning tech were written in the 80s.

Thus we are in the unfortunate scenario where a bad case by the government has led to, at best, a merger that was never examined for its truly anti-competitive elements, and at worst, bad law that will open the door for similar tie-ups. To be sure, it is not at all clear that the government would have won had they focused on zero rating: there is an obvious consumer benefit to the concept — that is why T-Mobile leveraged it to such great effect! — and the burden would have been on the government to show that the harm was greater.
The bigger issue, though, is the degree to which laws surrounding such issues are woefully out-of-date. Last fall I argued that Title II was the wrong framework to enforce net neutrality, even though net neutrality is a concept I absolutely support; I came to that position in part because zero rating was barely covered by the FCC’s action.
What is clearly needed is new legislation, not an attempt to misapply ancient regulation in a way that is trivially reversible. Moreover, AT&T has a point that online services like Google and Facebook are legitimate competitors, particularly for ad dollars; said regulation should address the entire sector. To that end I would focus on three key principles:
  • First, ISPs should not purposely slow or block data on a discriminatory basis. I am not necessarily opposed to the concept of “fast lanes”, as I believe that offers significant potential for innovative services, although I recognize the arguments against them; it should be non-negotiable, though, that ISPs cannot purposely disfavor certain types of content.
  • Second, and similarly, dominant internet platforms should not be allowed to block any legal content from their services. At the same time, services should have discretion in monetization and algorithms; that anyone should be able to put content on YouTube, for example, does not mean that one has a right to have Google monetize it on their behalf, or surface it to people not looking for it.
  • Third, ISPs should not be allowed to zero-rate their own content, and platforms should not be allowed to prioritize their own content in their algorithms. Granted, this may be a bit extreme; at a minimum there should be strict rules and transparency around transfer pricing and a guarantee that the same rates are allowed to competitive services and content.
The reality of the Internet, as noted by Aggregation Theory, is increased centralization; meanwhile, the impact on the Internet on traditional media is an inexorable drive towards consolidation. Our current laws and antitrust jurisprudence are woefully unprepared to deal with this reality, and a new law guaranteeing neutrality is the best solution.

The War for a White Electorate

This is an increasingly dangerous time we're living in. An extremist nativist movement is fueling  (an actually rather-politically-moderate) backlash, following decades of increasing corruption at the top, and polarization at the bottom. Too few people have been involved in politics, or even paid attention; we need to educate ourselves about what's going on, then run for office or support those who are.

Our present trajectory resembles nothing more than the early 20th century, where rampant nativism, racism, and economic inequality produced a broad politics of dispossession and disenfranchisement. Mass immigration from southern and Eastern Europe brought a radically restrictive immigration regime meant to preserve the political and cultural dominance of “Anglo-Saxons” as well as cumbersome registration laws meant to curb the influence of those immigrants, who settled in the urban north. America in the early 20th century saw a “sustained, nationwide contraction of suffrage rights,” writes historian Alexander Keyssar in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, its causes ranging from deep racial hostility and prejudice to an economic and social elite who “found it difficult to control the state under conditions of full democratization.”
Even in a moment of progressive activism, political experimentation, and labor militancy, it took economic depression and war to fully reverse that contraction and infuse American government with substantive democracy. With luck, we can accomplish the same for a new generation without requiring the same trauma and catastrophe.

Trump Can't Reverse the Decline of White Christian America

If Trump is not literally a demon from Hell, he is among the most committed self-idolators I can think of. Yet a majority of self-identifying "conservative" "Christians" in America would vote for someone so evil. This was a bargain with the devil. You reap what you sew...

One of the most perplexing features of the 2016 election was the high level of support Donald Trump received from white evangelical Protestants. How did a group that once proudly identified itself as “values voters” come to support a candidate who had been married three times, cursed from the campaign stump, owned casinos, appeared on the cover of Playboy Magazine, and most remarkably, was caught on tape bragging in the most graphic terms about habitually grabbing women’s genitals without their permission? White evangelical voters’ attraction to Trump was even more mysterious because the early GOP presidential field offered candidates with strong evangelical credentials, such as Ted Cruz, a longtime Southern Baptist whose father was a Baptist minister, and Marco Rubio, a conservative Catholic who could talk with ease and familiarity about his own personal relationship with Jesus.
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It is perhaps an open question whether Trump’s candidacy represents a true change in evangelicals’ DNA or whether it simply revealed previously hidden traits, but the shift from values to nostalgia voter has undoubtedly transformed their political ethics. The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.
Fears about the present and a desire for a lost past, bound together with partisan attachments, ultimately overwhelmed values voters’ convictions. Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, bending or even discarding core principles as needed to achieve a predetermined outcome. When it came to the 2016 election, the ends were deemed so necessary they justified the means. As he saw the polls trending for Trump in the last days before the election, in no small part because of the support of white evangelicals, Russell Moore was blunt, lamenting that Trump-supporting evangelicals had simply adopted “a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it."
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White evangelicals have entered a grand bargain with the self-described master dealmaker, with high hopes that this alliance will turn back the clock. And Donald Trump’s installation as the 45th president of the United States may in fact temporarily prop up, by pure exertions of political and legal power, what white Christian Americans perceive they have lost. But these short-term victories will come at an exorbitant price. Like Esau, who exchanged his inheritance for a pot of stew, white evangelicals have traded their distinctive values for fleeting political power. Twenty years from now, there is little chance that 2016 will be celebrated as the revival of White Christian America, no matter how many Christian right leaders are installed in positions of power over the next four years. Rather, this election will mostly likely be remembered as the one in which white evangelicals traded away their integrity and influence in a gambit to resurrect their past.
Meanwhile, the major trends transforming the country continue. If anything, evangelicals’ deal with Trump may accelerate the very changes it was designed to arrest, as a growing number of non-white and non-Christian Americans are repulsed by the increasingly nativist, tribal tenor of both conservative white Christianity and conservative white politics. At the end of the day, white evangelicals’ grand bargain with Trump will be unable to hold back the sheer weight of cultural change, and their descendants will be left with the only real move possible: acceptance.

Michael Pollan on Psychedelic Drugs and How to Change Your Mind

Interesting interview with Michael Pollan on the therapeutic uses of LSD and 'shrooms (when used correctly, assisted by professionals). This sounds like an incredibly promising line of research: non-addictive, with uses for helping ease or cure addiction, depression, etc.

Push to Abolish ICE Takes National Spotlight

What HSI proposes is merely splitting the two ICE sub-agencies, in order to avoid the current politicization of the whole organization. But both agencies have very little oversight (as seen in the latest fraud scandals just now coming to light). ICE either needs to be abolished and its functions returned to their pre-9/11 departments, or Congress needs to create drastically more stringent accountability rules, and the leadership swept away and replaced with people of character.

Special agents in charge of most field offices run by Homeland Security Investigations now support eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
HSI is one of two subagencies within the department known as ICE, created 15 years ago under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security.
Reacting to the recent executive order on immigration by President Donald Trump, federal agents representing 19 of the country’s 26 HSI field offices have written a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kristen Nielsen that recommends dissolving ICE altogether and spinning off HSI and another subagency, Enforcement Removal Operations...

Largest US nail manufacturer 'on the brink of extinction' because of the steel tariffs

Trump either doesn't know or doesn't care about the basics of trade. He implements policies that he thinks will sound good on tv, damn the consequences. Instead of taxing imported "finished goods" (products) which we have a competitive edge in, he taxes "inputs" (raw materials) which our high-tech manufacturing needs as cheap as possible. This likely means we're going to trade higher-wage jobs for a few lower-wage jobs. And the specific tariffs are mostly harming our closest allies' economies, giving China more leverage.

The Mid-Continent Nail plant in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, laid off 60 of its 500 workers last week because of increased steel costs. The company blames the 25% tariff on imported steel. Orders for nails plunged 50% after the company raised its prices to deal with higher steel costs.
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Glassman called President Donald Trump's trade policy misguided. He noted that the company had doubled its work force since 2013, and thrived despite increased competition from China.