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Transportation-less Transportation

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Google finally announced a consumer service around the self-driving car technology they’ve been developing for almost a decade. Waymo One is basically a taxi hailing service backed by a fleet of automated cars. The promotional video for the service is an upbeat but ho-hum reminder of the convenience of app-hailed transportation:

But there’s a voiceover line about halfway through that gets at the heart of why self-driving cars seem so compelling to people:

What if getting there felt like being there?

Sure, it’s not so much the destination that matters, it’s the journey…but commuting isn’t a journey. People in cities spend a lot of their time in rooms: working, reading, drinking, chatting, etc. Waymo’s cars aren’t quite rooms, but that’s where they’re headed: private rooms for hire that also get you from one place to another. It’s WeWork on wheels, a mobile Starbucks, a portable third place. Along the way, you could have a beer or coffee, do karaoke, make some work calls, watch a movie, chat with friends, make out, or answer some emails. C-suite executives with dedicated chauffeured transportion are already doing this with custom vans. Private jets are essentially vacation homes that can travel anywhere in the world. (Cruises offer this experience too.) If Waymo (or someone else) can make this happen for a much larger segment of the population, that’s a compelling service: transportation-less transportation.

Tags: advertising   driverless cars   Google   video   Waymo
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bjtitus
7 days ago
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An excellent point about autonomous transportation introducing this “third place” while simultaneously getting you where you are going.
Denver, CO
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Love Letters to Mars

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Mars-Illustration.jpg

Rebecca Boyle is one of my favorite science writers. In two recent pieces, she takes on our nearest, most Earth-like neighbor, Mars. The first is about a team of scientists doing research on extremophiles in South America.

The Atacama Desert stretches 600 miles south from the Peruvian border, nestled between the Pacific Cordillera and the Andes, “a cross extended over Chile,” in the words of the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita. Some parts of it are so devoid of life that their microbe-per-inch count can compete with near-sterile hospital surgical suites. Some areas of the Atacama, Earth’s driest nonpolar desert and the oldest desert anywhere, have been rainless for at least 23 million years, and maybe as long as 40 million years. Carbon cycling happens on timescales of thousands of years, comparable to Antarctic permafrost and places deep within Earth’s crust; the Atacama contains some of the most lifeless soils on the planet. The Atacama is one reason that Chile has become a haven for astrobiologists and astronomers: Its pristine dark skies offer an unparalleled view of the stars, and its depleted desert offers a peerless lab for studying the dry limits of life, including how life might survive among those stars. And honestly, it just looks a lot like Mars. It is the closest that these astrobiologists will ever get to the planet that occupies their grant proposals and their imaginations.

I’m neither an astrobiologist nor a professional astronomer, but I spend a lot of time thinking about Mars. I keep tabs on the robots spread across its surface and in its orbit, and sometimes I check their nightly photo downloads. The Atacama is not a giant leap from the Mars of my mind. As I drove up the coast, I found the view so much more like Mars than Earth. There are no palm trees or tourists or bleating gulls. There is nothing but brown, tumbling tanly down the hills, darkening to chocolate inside shadowy ravines and runnels, bleaching to an impoverished shade of cardboard, and crumbling into fine white beach before being swallowed by the cobalt hues of sea and sky. With no trees or succulents or even a blade of grass—not a smidge of green—the only disruption in the brown is a strip of asphalt, Ruta 1. With my cruise control set and David Bowie blaring, I pictured myself driving through Meridiani Planum, a vast equatorial Martian plain, en route to visit the Opportunity rover. The only reminders of other humans were the grim commemorations of car-wreck victims: Almost every mile of Ruta 1 is marked with roadside shrines to the dead…

Salar Grande was once a coastal inlet, much like today’s San Francisco Bay. It dried up between 1.8 and 5.3 million years ago, leaving behind a salt flat between 225 and 300 feet thick. The salar is therefore an analogue for the last time Mars was habitable, after Mars’ oceans, if there were any, dried up, when Martian ecosystems became concentrated in smaller places. And, like Mars itself, the Atacama is a glimpse into Earth’s own future. One day, billions of years from now, all of Earth may resemble this parched land of fissures and knobs, after our own oceans boil away, after the last trees fall, after the algae are all that is left of us.

“In the beginning,” Davila said, “there was bacteria. And at the end, there will be bacteria.”

The second piece is literally a letter, written to the Curiosity Rover that’s explored the red planet since 2012.

I think of you often. For much of this year, I saw Mars shining red in the window right above my computer. It was nice, like keeping an eye on you. And when I went to Mars earlier this year—actually the Atacama, a desert at the bottom of this world—the landscape made me think of you a lot. It made me grateful for the Mars you gave me, the Mars of my mind. Even more than your forebears did, you helped me understand why Mars stands out among the planets.

Earth’s other neighbors are interesting, sure. Jupiter is a peach-and-tan inkwell stirred with gothic darkness. Saturn and its orrery of moons trace feverish circles, as if brushed onto the void by the painter Kandinsky. Uranus and Neptune are the plain Christmas ornaments I hang next to the ornate ones, just to make the tree seem less busy. Mercury is a purple version of the moon, and Venus is a blast-furnace hellscape.

But Mars, little red Mars—it’s just like home. When you gaze out on the Murray Buttes, I see my Rocky Mountains.

That Mars — so like our world, yet so unlike it. Like a lover who understands and compliments us through similarity amid difference. It may be in the distance, but it is next.

And its visitors, like Curiosity, are already our friends:

I admire Juno’s photos of Jupiter and Cassini’s photos of Saturn, sure, but I don’t see the spacecraft in those images. And that means I don’t see myself. My connection to Mars comes from seeing you there. Seeing the terrain as you see it, that’s wonderful—but seeing you seeing it, feeling the photographer’s undeniable presence, is transformative.

Update: Boyle wrote a coda to her two pieces on Mars today for Last Word on Nothing. It’s Earth-focused, but then again, Earth is a very strange planet too:

At one point, after a couple hours of driving south, I needed a break. I needed to smell the ocean, mere feet to my right. I pulled over to the shoulder, parked my silver SUV on the sand, and walked a few feet. I was completely on my own. I saw nothing alive—no gull, no driver, no seaweed, no plant. I stared at the Pacific and felt my chest tighten. I was thousands of miles from my family, and I have never felt more alone.

The ocean was loud, dashing against dark rocks, and within a minute I felt like its rhythm was a part of me. It was going to swallow me and the sun was going to drive me mad. I strained to see anything else alive, some sign that I was still on Earth, but I saw nothing but sand and blue.

I squinted for a minute. The entire planet looks like this, from a great distance. From the Moon, you can make out the continents, patches of brown and green beneath a light frosting of clouds. But the general impression of Earth is one of blue and white. Ocean and sky. Our blue marble.

I listened to the Pacific and took a step forward. I was on Earth. I was so lucky to be here. So goddamn lucky I suddenly wanted to scream. Do you know how rare it is to have a planet covered in water? How precious it is to get out of the car, walk a few feet, and touch the ocean? It was the deep blue of my daughter’s eyes. This water is flowing through me, through her, through all of us here, together. Is this enlightenment? I thought to myself. I don’t know enough about Buddhism.

It was hard to get back in the car after that. But I feared that if I didn’t, the Pacific would rise up and consume me, swallow me whole before I had a chance to tell anyone I saw it. I had to tell her what I saw.

Tags: Mars   Rebecca Boyle   space
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bjtitus
8 days ago
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Denver, CO
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Simulating identification by zip code, sex, and birthdate

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As mentioned in the previous post, Latanya Sweeney estimated that 87% of Americans can be identified by the combination of zip code, sex, and birth date. We’ll do a quick-and-dirty estimate and a simulation to show that this result is plausible. There’s no point being too realistic with a simulation because the actual data that Sweeney used is even more realistic. We’re just showing that her result is reasonable.

Suppose average life expectancy is around 78 years. If everyone is between 0 and 78, then there are 78*365 possible birth dates and twice that many combinations of birth date and sex.

What’s the average population of a US zip code? We’ll use 9,330 for reasons explained in [1].

We have 56,940 possible birth date and sex combinations for 9,330 people. There have to be many unused birth date and sex combinations in a typical zip code, and it’s plausible that many combinations will only be used once. We’ll run a Python simulation to see just how many we’d expect to be used one time.

The array demo below will keep track of the possible demographic values, i.e. combinations of birth date and sex. We’ll loop over the population of the zip code, randomly assigning everyone to a demographic value, then see what proportion of demographic values is only used once.

    from random import randrange
    from numpy import zeros
    
    zctasize = 9330
    demosize = 365*78*2
    demo = zeros(demosize)
    
    for _ in range(zctasize):
        d = randrange(demosize)
        demo[d] += 1
    
    unique = len(demo[demo == 1])
    print(unique/zctasize)

I ran this simulation 10 times and got values ranging from 84.3% to 85.7%.

Related posts

[1] I don’t know, but I do know the average population of a “zip code tabulation area” or ZCTA, and that’s 9,330 according to the data linked to here. As I discuss in that post, the Census Bureau reports population by ZTCA, not by zip code per se, for several reasons. Zip codes can cross state boundaries, they are continually adjusted, and some zip codes contain only post office boxes.

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bjtitus
8 days ago
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Denver, CO
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Heist

4 Comments and 11 Shares
But he has a hat AND a toolbox! Where could someone planning a heist get THOSE?
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bjtitus
14 days ago
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Denver, CO
popular
19 days ago
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4 public comments
JayM
20 days ago
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Ha!
Atlanta, GA
Covarr
20 days ago
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What if people carried credentials that they could show?
Moses Lake, WA
duerig
20 days ago
That just means that they are The Doctor and you are a minor character in a plot that is about to get very scifi.
JEFFnSoCal
19 days ago
DON'T BLINK!
christophersw
19 days ago
As part of my day job I evaluate disaster response exercises at all kinds of facilities, wandering around in a bright red “EVALUATOR” vest. I’ve come to know well the "official looking vest"-as-credential phenomenon, whereby I can basically go wherever I want and people assume I belong there. Many an report has contained the “Security was insufficient during response efforts, as evaluator was able to freely enter area ___” lesson learned.
alt_text_at_your_service
20 days ago
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But he has a hat AND a toolbox! Where could someone planning a heist get THOSE?
alt_text_bot
20 days ago
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But he has a hat AND a toolbox! Where could someone planning a heist get THOSE?

Years of life lost due to breathing bad air

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Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute estimated the number of years lost and the number of people affected due to particulate matter in the air. They estimated per country. The Washington Post used a mosaic plot, aka a Marimekko chart, to show the differences.

The width of each column represents total population for a country. The sections in each columns represent the number of people who will lose a certain number of years. Color represents average years of life lost.

These charts are often a bit confusing at first glance, but the scrolling format used here provides some guidance.

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jlvanderzwan
5 days ago
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bjtitus
24 days ago
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Denver, CO
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How the dog brain works

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A lot of people, usually people who don’t have dogs, talk about dog psychology and how dogs see humans, specifically their owners and handlers as being like the alphas in the dog’s pack and that’s why they (usually) do what we command them to do and always come to us for food, tummy rubs, and treats.

The simplest of observations shows that this is not true. Most dogs on seeing a human walking towards them will, if they’re well adjusted (dog and human) may approach with caution and interact. But, if it’s a strange dog, the response is almost always entirely different. Now, the scientific evidence is in, in the form of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Brain scans of awake dogs presented with human and canine faces show adjacent but separate regions of the brain being activated in response.

The researchers explain how working dogs were presented with pictures of canine and human faces. The human faces varied in familiarity (familiar trainers and unfamiliar individuals) and emotion (negative, neutral, and positive). Dog faces were familiar (kennel mates) or unfamiliar.

They found that the human face area activated in the dogs’ brains maps to the part of our brains we call the fusiform area and the dog face area maps to the human superior temporal gyrus. Both regions are critical for human face processing system in our brains, suggesting a past evolutionary link to our common mammalian ancestor and perhaps deeper back in time to the precursors of mammals.

The research paper can be found here.

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bjtitus
24 days ago
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Denver, CO
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