Friday, April 26, 2019

Sluggish or Catastrophic? Five Months of Autonomous Vehicle Non-Progress - I

Since early December, something has been missing.  The weekly and sometimes even daily updates on technical, legal, and organizational driverless car progress have disappeared.  The hottest information-related issue of 2018 (sorry, smartphones), it has been replaced this year by various insights into other applications of artificial intelligence and scattered updates and opinions.  What, though, has been published? 

The most comprehensive article I have seen on this change actually came out near the beginning of it.  Alexis C. Madrigal’s “7 Arguments Against the Autonomous-Vehicle Utopia” (The Atlantic, December 7th), after calling pertinent progress “oversold,” offered a compendium of its largest real and potential obstructions, which was a genuine mixed bag. 

“Bear Case 1:  They Won’t Work Until Cars Are as Smart as Humans” may be why we are lagging behind my most recent forecast (see, with “the sheer number of “edge cases,” i.e. unusual circumstances, they’d have to handle,” and, quoting “legendary roboticist” Rodney Brooks, “perceptual challenges… that are way beyond those that current developers have solved with deep learning networks, and perhaps a lot more automated reasoning than any AI systems have so far [2017] been expected to demonstrate.”  One by one the edge cases can be solved, but if there are indeed vast numbers of them, that will consume some time.  Overall, if the worst issue with driverless technology now is that it isn’t as proficient at dealing with full-contact driving by now as we had anticipated, we’re looking at delays.

Madrigal’s Bear Case 2, “They Won’t Work, Because They’ll Get Hacked,” is a known problem with fixes completed or in progress, and has shown no signs of being uncontrollable.  Bear Case 3, “They Won’t Work as a Transportation Service,” called not only for Uber and Lyft to lose money indefinitely but for them to tire of that and quit, and made the erroneous assumption that “calibrating and maintaining” onboard equipment would be done by individual owners.  The fourth, “They Won’t Work, Because You Can’t Prove They’re Safe,” depends on how people see the 30,000 annual American deaths caused by human drivers, and Bear Case 5, “They’ll Work, But Not Anytime Soon,” ignored that they are functional now, though it seems likely that roll-outs will not be, say, state by state or even city by city, but a square mile or so at a time.  Bear Case 6, “Self-Driving Cars Will Mostly Mean Computer-Assisted Drivers,” confused preliminary progress with the end product.

The most interesting part of Madrigal’s article was “Bear Case 7:  Self-Driving Cars Will Work, But Make Traffic and Emissions Worse.”  As I see it, electric cars have reached a crossroads.  Despite 130 years of technical progress after their first United States production, being beloved by environmentalists (despite over a quarter of their fuel supply coming from coal), being subsidized by the IRS and other parts of the federal government, being facilitated by sufficiently available charging stations at least regionally, and being the recipient of feverish efforts to correct their prohibitive flaw of short battery life, fully electric vehicles still comprise well below 1% of new cars sold, with hybrids sitting at only 2%.  From there, areas recently discontinuing cash grants for their purchase have seen sales drop 75% or more.  Clearly, those working on driverless technology cannot afford to tether it to all-electric platforms.  That means gasoline and diesel engine exhaust not only from people taking driverless trips, but from the vehicles reaching riders.  As for traffic, autonomous cars could end up replacing transit vehicles, and, by providing transportation for more and more people not currently alone in cars due to age or temporary or permanent infirmity, would put additional ones on the road.  All of that means that driverless technology could be seen by most environmental groups as a problem instead of a solution, which could worsen the industry’s second most severe problem, that of legal barriers. 

Three and a half months after that, we got Kara Swisher’s New York Times “Owning a Car Will Soon Be as Quaint as Owning a Horse,” in which the author predicted that she would die before her next auto purchase – meaning, apparently, that she had no plans to move to the country.  Yet the past two months’ other articles were better – see in three weeks. 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Admissions at Top Colleges: Oboes, Guatemala, and Four Questions

It was quite a news item last month that some of our country’s most selective universities had been taking bribes to admit students with more family money than credentials.  Several schools and several known celebrities were involved, with an unknown, probably massive, number yet unrevealed. 

Yet, other problems have come up over the past year.  The bigotry of affirmative action has been revealed by Harvard, which has apparently considered certain eastern Asian cultures too effective in providing learning environments, valuing education highly, and getting children to excel not only at school but in ACT and SAT performance, and have been limiting their numbers.  On the other end, black students, who since at least the 1970s have had nothing to complain about with their relative chances of top-school admission, have been in some places given bogus high school transcripts to enhance their outcomes even more.  It is clear that applicants’ chances to get into the likes of Yale or even UCLA are not determined solely by academic and test performance.

So what questions should we be asking?

First, what do we need to know about these universities?  Two things.  They are stinking rich – it’s not only Harvard’s $38 billion 2015 endowment, but Yale’s $26 billion, Stanford’s $17 billion, Princeton’s $16 billion, and so on.  They profit immensely from a correlation-causation misunderstanding where their students, most with the very highest intelligence, motivation, knowledge sets, and family support before their first day on campus, tend to excel in post-college careers, which through commensurate donations pushes endowments even higher, makes these institutions even better places to spend those four years, allows them to become even more competitive, and perpetuates the cycle.  Although universities do spend some of their money, mostly they seem to keep it and make it grow, which means they have a strong interest in filling their classes with people who rate to facilitate that.

Second, how do top schools maximize their intake of wealthy students?  Many things, while not indicating high net worth themselves, tend to go along with that, and it is remarkable how many are highly valued in prospective students.  Dartmouth and Williams will take a much higher share of oboe and bassoon players, since those instruments are rarely used outside classical music and thus studied mainly by those in the upper classes, than those excelling at accordion and folk guitar.  Highly selective colleges have millions of high school football and basketball players to choose from, but pick similar numbers from those doing fencing, lacrosse, and crew, many or most of whom are from expensive prep academies.  Admissions officers have long been high on applicants who have done the likes of altruistic, Peace-Corps-like trips to places such as Guatemala, even though such ventures cost too much for many families, and volunteer work, even though those with less money need paying part-time positions instead.  Legacy admissions, of less-qualified children of that school’s graduates, are also inclined to have more money than most, and are real and undisputed.  Overall, not a few individuals who would otherwise complain about income inequality are working, in their university jobs, to cement it into place, with the recent celebrity dishonor being only another way.

Third, how can we get high-end college admissions to be fairer?  Ross Douthat, in his March 17 New York Times column “The Scandals of Meritocracy,” suggested that those discontented with this situation from both the left and the right could be satisfied by a “centrist prescription for reform,” in which “elite schools should emphasize class-based rather than race-based affirmative action," while “phasing out preferences for jocks and legacies.”  Another even more meritocratic way would be to excise sex, race, and ethnicity information entirely, perhaps by electronically removing names and pictures from applications before evaluation.  A third choice would be to admit that the current system strives to neutralize cultural strengths and weaknesses, and admit the top few percent of each group.  Another would be to cut the cord between universities and government, denying them the likes of favorable tax treatment but freeing colleges to admit whoever they see fit. 

That brings us to the final question:  Is pure meritocracy really what we want?  American life is full of competitions, for recognition and career success as well as university admissions and their consequences, incorrectly represented as rewarding only excellence.  Douthat named “three ways that a ruling class can be legitimated – though intergenerational continuity, through representation (of minority groups) and through aptitude.”  He also asked if Harvard’s average SAT score, 1512 out of 1600 for the class of 2022, would be truly better if it went to 1570, and said the “essential premise that intelligence alone merits power is the premise that has given us many present difficulties.” 

My personal bias is toward merit.  I think demographic group membership is far less significant than individual attributes and choices, but, from talk of “reparations” for those many generations removed from slavery to votes for second members of the Clinton and Bush political dynasties, oceans of others clearly disagree.  In our many pretenses that merit is the only meaningful criterion, governing bodies will continue to do what they think they should.  And that is as far as we can go, today, on the issue of unfair university admissions. 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Three on American Social Problems Just Beyond Politics and Employment: Is This Where We Are Now?

Our country is in pain.  There are plenty of perspectives from which we can say that, with the most obvious our political polarization, widespread opioid abuse, and the seeming reduction of civil discourse.  Yet there are more, as three authors have pointed out.

The first is Arthur C. Brooks, president of the conservative think-tank American Enterprise Institute, in the November 23rd New York Times “How Loneliness Is Tearing America Apart.”  He called that an “epidemic,” saying that it is shown by almost half of our country-people claiming that they “sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.””  Last year I wrote a three-part series on one large component, insufficient access to sex, but Brooks wrote on something more encompassing.  In reviewing a new book by Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal, he said that instead of from general civic life “people find a sense of community in the polarized tribes forming on the left and the right,” and named “the changing nature of work,” where jobs provide far less togetherness than in the past.  Brooks’s and Sasse’s recommended solution of finding a small-town-like place with plenty of community is, though, hardly an answer for tens of millions of lifetime city dwellers. 

Second, in the April 7th USA Today, we heard from Warren Farrell, a long-time freethinking author on the rights of and relationships between the sexes.  In “’Boy crisis’ threatens America’s future with economic, health, and suicide risks,” he defined another problem area, “a global crisis… particularly egregious in America.”  He saw it as evident in education (males well behind females in school achievement and falling), mental health (he cited the stunning statistics that, despite much press on the pressures on female adolescents, 15 to 19-year-old men and boys kill themselves at triple the rate of same-aged women and girls, which goes up to 4½ times for those 20 to 24), “shame,” with “boys feeling that their masculinity is toxic” (about time somebody mentioned that!), and “economic health,” with technological changes hitting men’s jobs much harder.  Farrell considered the real problem to stem from boys not having involved fathers, or fathers present at all, which, as an effect as well as a cause, leads us to the hardly-valuable conclusion that prosperity is good, and to me the judgment that much of what he discussed is an ultimate result of not enough jobs and commensurate devaluation of people who would otherwise be stabilized through working. 

Third was a piece which I expected to get much more attention than it did.  David Brooks’s February 18th New York Times “A Nation of Weavers,” revealed the author and columnist’s other activity, working on “Weave:  The Social Fabric Project,” a comprehensive attempt to build and strengthen communities nationwide through the nonpartisan Aspen Institute think tank.  After along with Sasse and Arthur Brooks blaming “social isolation,” reminiscent of George H.W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light David Brooks lauded those with involvements from teaching boxing to visiting hospital patients and a teenage-activity-provider for saying she did things not for or to people but with them, and said they comprised “a movement that doesn’t know it’s a movement.”  He named the real problem as how to “change the culture” and thereby to “change behavior on a large scale,” and said those who “assault and stereotype a person” have “ripped the social fabric.” 

Can we realistically hope to become “a nation of weavers”?  In decades maybe, but not now, for several reasons.  First, our political alliances are too fixed, and civic improvement efforts in almost all cases do not appeal to the Trumpist tribe, as accepting lying, distrusting community, and assaulting and stereotyping vilifying political opponents are, sadly, planks of their platform.  Second, too many efforts are rejected – I for one could name a half-dozen community-building efforts for which I had both interest and ability to help or even lead, which the beneficiaries simply did not want – and armies of potential “weavers” have since become discouraged.  Third, as David Brooks wrote it, the standards for public benefactors are just too high, if indeed “Weavers are not motivated” “by money, power, and status” – there is plenty of room for people seeking such achievements to help where they live as well.  And fourth, Brooks’s piece is generally too vague, with its overall idea, that we should do something to build our communities, not showing a clear path toward action.  

Yes, this is where we are now.  These are real problems.  All have possible solutions, but none are easy.  They may be helped someday by the iGen, who will understand the limitations of technological connections more than any other cohort, or their children.  In the meantime, if we want to improve our lot as human beings and Americans, it is up to us to change – individually. 

Friday, April 5, 2019

March Jobs Data: American Job Shortage Number Down 400,000 to 16.1 Million in Peaceful, Reassuring Month

Most of us eagerly anticipated February’s data, as it showed the state of the economy better than January’s shutdown-marred edition, so what about March’s? 

Heading the Bureau of Labor Statistics data was a 196,000 net new nonfarm payroll jobs gain, a tad above a published 180,000 estimate and not only more than needed for population growth but in line with the 162,000 January-February average.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment held at 3.8%, with the unadjusted version down mostly seasonally 0.2% from 4.1% to 3.9%.  Adjusted official joblessness sat at 6.2 million, with those out for 27 weeks or longer (1.3 million) and average private nonfarm wages (up 4 cents per hour, or about the same as inflation, to $27.70) also treading water.  However, the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, both worsened, the former down 0.2% to 63.0% and the latter off 0.1% to 60.6%.  As well, the count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time jobs they were not yet successfully able to upgrade, grew 200,000 to 4.5 million, losing half of its January and February improvement.

The American Job Shortage Number, the figure showing how many positions could be quickly filled if getting one were easy and routine, got 388,000 better, as follows:

The largest differences were from official unadjusted unemployment, which fell 250,000, and an almost 200,000 drop in those wanting work but not looking for it for the past year.  There was little change elsewhere.

Compared with a year before, the AJSN improved 179,000, with a difference of more than that from unemployment.  Despite March’s reduction, the count of those not looking for a year or more is still up 200,000, but nothing else seems a cause for concern.  We have almost leveled off, but not quite.

That describes this morning’s data well, February’s disappointing 20,000 jobs gain reversed itself, and unemployment did not increase.  I don’t like the cuts in the labor ratios, but they have fluctuated enough so we can’t call them a trend or even a worry.  Nothing dramatic on the American employment front is now happening.  April’s data may disagree, but for today, the good times continue.  The turtle, once more, took a tiny step forward.