26 May 2015

Self-driving cars have a big obstacle to success: your brain

Around the time of the recent Amtrack crash, Vox published an interesting piece called Cars kill more people. But there's a good reason train crashes seem scarier. Most of us are fully aware of the statistics: traveling by plane or train is much, much safer than travel by car. While fatal automobile accidents are not that common relative to the sheer volume of cars on the road, they're still far more common than deaths by plane or train — Vox puts it at 7.3 deaths per billion miles for driving, and just .43 and .07 for trains and planes, respectively.
And yet we're more afraid of flying, and there are two reasons. The first is a cognitive bias: the availability heuristic. This is a tendency for us to overestimate the likelihood of events that are easily recalled and/or have a strong emotional component. When a plane crashes and 80 people die, it's big news that can get days or even weeks of coverage; but 80 people die on roadways every day, and we hear almost nothing about it. 

The other reason is that we're more afraid of something when we don't have control. From a study cited in the Vox article:
Similar to the voluntary aspect, risks perceived to be under one`s own control are more
acceptable than risks perceived to be controlled by others. Under normal conditions we are unwilling to enter “out of control” situations because we lack security under such
circumstances. We have the impression that as long as we maintain control we can – at least partially – remedy that evil. Being unable to gain control of a situation creates a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness: the individual suffers risk!
What does this have to do with self-driving cars? Well, everything. Google and other companies are going to have their work cut out for them to convince people to hand their cars over to a computer at highway speeds. Even if the crash statistics are well on the side of the computer-controlled cars, the human brain is wired to think that they're better off when they're in control; there has to be an active process of re-conditioning.
Just.... no.
JUST.... NO.
The other problem is that since self-driving cars are an emerging scientific frontier with hugely disruptive potential, any crash is going to be big news. Google cars have been involved in 11 crashes, but none of them were the fault of the cars. It's a safe bet that a computer is ultimately going to be a much better driver than you or I. But, if it happens, that .0001% of the time that the computer miscalculates will do much more harm to the autonomous cars' marketability than any human-caused crash.

Of course, the really big obstacle for self-driving cars will be the simple fact that Americans love to drive. Sure, we may see Google cars replacing taxis or (hopefully) becoming a safe means of transportation for the elderly, but most of us enjoy being behind the wheel and driving is not a pastime we'll be giving up anytime soon.

17 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road is incredible

When the credits rolled at the end of Fury Road, I took a deep breath. It felt like the first breath I'd taken in two hours. I've seen lots of action movies in my life, and in our modern era of CGI-drenched superhero flicks that often feel like they're trying to tick boxes to make sure they've shoehorned in every cliche, it's refreshing to watch a movie that's executed with such uncompromising focus.

The action, which uses a surprising amount of astounding practical effects and doesn't overdo the CG, looks absolutely amazing. When I wasn't caught up in the urgency of every scene, I was in awe of the sheer spectacle of it all. It's violent as hell, too. But, as with the CG, the violence isn't overdone. It could have easily been like Rambo (2006), with body parts flying everywhere; but instead the gore is saved for a couple of key moments when it has real impact.

What's amazing to me is that despite the sheer kinetic madness of the movie — which is nearly non-stop through the entire film — it tells a memorable story and gives us characters we cheer and jeer, and struggles that are believable. There's not much room for humanity in the Wasteland, but George Miller manages to find it. And the nearly non-stop action is itself a remarkably effective narrative device, and its ballet-like precision imparts a strange elegance within the brutality.

I feel like Fury Road has raised the bar for action movies, and it might be a while before we see something of this caliber again.

13 May 2015

Can you make a moral argument for eating meat? Because I can't

I'm not a vegetarian. Not even close. My absolute favorite food in the world is a perfectly cooked medium-rare USDA prime filet mignon (or, sometimes, a ribeye). One restaurant here in Tulsa prepares theirs soux vide style, in which it's vacuum-sealed with seasonings and very gently cooked in churning water that beats and tenderizes the meat for 45 minutes; then it's quickly flash-seared to finish the edges with a nice char. It's heavenly.

  And yet when I enjoy a meal like that, I'm aware of the costs. They are not small. California is facing a water crisis, and the biggest drain on water in the state is animal agriculture. I won't comb through all the statistics because they're everywhere, but it takes vastly more water to raise a pound of animal protein than a pound of plant protein. Animal waste contaminates soil and groundwater; methane, released by billions of farting animals, is a major source of greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change.

Then there's the grim reality of factory farming. We are so far removed from the mechanized process of meat production that we often give little to no thought about how the neatly-packaged meat we're eating got to our table. But, it's not good. Animals are confined to cramped quarters, sometimes so small they can't even turn around. They might wallow in their own filth or that of nearby animals. Disease is so rampant because of the squalor that animals have to be fed large doses of antibiotics for much of their lives. Babies are dispassionately taken from their mothers, who cry out in distress. And while after a short life in such abysmal squalor and cruelty they are killed with mechanical efficiency, some inevitably slip through the fast-moving process and die an agonizing death. 

And we don't need any of this. We don't need to eat animal protein. We live in an era in which we could, should we so choose, invest in high-protein plant foods. We'd do vastly less harm to the environment, spare billions of animals from short and miserable lives, and we'd almost certainly be healthier — as the saturated fat and high caloric density of animal tissue is far more than we actually need. Meanwhile, plant proteins are loaded with fiber and nutrients that are often deficient in the American diet. 

The best I can argue is that it's not in principle wrong to eat animals and/or use them for various products. The problems come when we force them into unnatural habitations, behaviors, and lifestyles. We breed chickens with such large breasts (because we don't like dark meat) that their legs sometimes break under the weight of their own bodies. But it doesn't have to be that way; there can be, and are, sustainable and humane animal farming practices. The problem is that they're so rare that the cost of eating that way is a privilege of the upper-middle class and beyond.
Millions of male chicks are killed every year shortly after hatching, because male chicks do not lay eggs and are not suitable for meat production. [Why?]
Of course eating vegetarian is not cheap, either —  red bell peppera, which EW mostly water, cost around $3/lb here in Tulsa. And I think that's where animal advocates have failed: they've focused on the environmental and ethical issues, and haven't addressed the economic ones. Poorer people eat animal protein because it's cheap, nutrient-dense, and tastes good. Vegetarian alternatives are often comparatively expensive, difficult to prepare, and lack the rich taste and pleasing mouth feel (that's the fat) of animal proteins. Until vegetarian alternatives can compete with animal proteins on those fronts, those 10 billion or so farm animals we consume every year don't stand a chance — no matter how many gruesome "inside factory farming" videos are produced.

And that's why I haven't gone vegetarian. I do make an effort to seek out humanely raised and sustainable meats, but it's not always available. My wife and I are making an effort to reduce the amount of meat we eat by eating vegetarian dinners a few times a week and really, that's the absolutely best way to change the industry: quit supporting it. But do we always do it? No. Do we love the taste and texture of meat, eggs, and cheese? Yes. Can we really defend our omnivorous tendencies? Not really. Can you?

04 May 2015

Age of Ultron is, like, totally fake

I saw The Avengers: Age of Ultron over the weekend, and I liked it a lot. I actually liked it better than the first film, which I didn't love quite as much as everyone else seemed to. I thought the characters went through more personal struggles this time around, and that the plot and climax were more compelling — especially in how they tie into Stark's ambition. The Chitauri in the climax of the first film had always felt kind of shoehorned in to me, so it was good to see a more cohesive plot surrounding the villain, played in superbly sinister fashion by the mighty James Spader (who's been one of my faves for a long time). And I giggled like a schoolgirl at the end-credits sequence for how the Marvel cinematic universe continues to come together.

Okay. So, I recommend it. But there was one part that bugged me. MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!

At the end, Ultron has made an entire city and a good chunk of earth beneath it to turn it into a meteor (actually, meteorite) that will destroy Earth. He's launching it into the upper atmosphere with his super-duper vibranium rockets, and a big battle ensues as the chunk of earth ascends into the sky.

Alright. Physics, and scientific accuracy in general, are not important to this film. I mean, where does Ultron get the resources to manufacture all those robots so quickly, in secrecy? The answer is fuck you. You don't hesitate to suspend disbelief about the super powers, because they're super powers — they're not meant to be 'explained'. But there are those little inaccuracies, like how Quicksilver would kill all the civilians he 'rescued' because you can't accelerate and decelerate a human body like that without smashing its innards into a bloody pulp (and yes, that includes Tony Stark).

I kept waiting for someone to say either "It's getting really cold!" or "I can't breathe!" as the earth-meteor ascended far above the clouds. I mean, the chill of the upper atmosphere was even used as a combat gimmick in the first Ironman film. Twice. Remember? Sure you do. And yet here is everyone running around and screaming, when they probably all would have passed out and possibly died from hypothermia or hypoxia.

I don't know why shit like that bugs me in a fantasy film. It reminded me of Sunshine, which had a totally absurd premise and was a decent movie, but nonetheless bugged me because of some glaring scientific inaccuracies. Maybe I'm anal because while I'm totally fine with stretching science or even going full-on magic for the sake of a plot or premise, I think movies can stay closer to the boundaries of science and still be awesome. It might have made the climax more intense if the Avengers knew that people were running out of oxygen and freezing to death as the earth-meteor flew higher, or if the upper atmosphere weakend the Hulk or something. I dunno.

But yeah... I loved the movie despite myself. Go see it.