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Comment: Re:It's obvious how Uber does it (Score 2) 224 224

I used Uber for the first time on Satur^W Sunday morning in London, and although the registration number of the car was correct, the driver wasn't the one pictured. I assumed they were sharing a single car / account.

In that case you do not get into the car, but contact Uber and tell them why you didn't take the ride. It is against Uber policy for multiple drivers to use the same account. Uber should refund your cancellation fee.

Comment: It's obvious how Uber does it (Score 1) 224 224

I am amused by the continued anti-Uber diatribes. Uber doesn't "take over" by lobbying, or by defrauding their customers. Uber succeeds by providing a far superior, less expensive, more convenient transportation service than existing taxi companies.

I've had enough horrible cab rides in enough cities to have zero sympathy for traditional taxi services. I will take Uber or Lyft over a regular cab any day of the week. I have never had an experience with either one of those services that could hold a candle to some of the nightmare stories I could tell you about cab rides. All my friends are in complete agreement. Everyone I personally know who has tried Uber loves it.

When the politicians love Uber too (and they certainly do in Washington D.C.), then you know that cab services are on the wrong end of history. All the blather about how taxi companies are superior because they are vetted and regulated by the government is laughable. Taxi companies can and do sidestep or ignore those regulations. Despite the supposed criminal background checks, some cab drivers do rape, assault, and rob their customers. (Just Google 'cab driver rape' and read the stories.)

At least with Uber I know I'll be in a clean vehicle with a driver whose name and face are shown to me before I get in, and who will take me to my destination without trying to cheat me because I'm from out of town. I'll have a fairly accurate estimate of the price before I get in the cab. And best of all, if something goes wrong, Uber will actually have a record of my trip, the name of the driver, the vehicle I'm in, etc. "Lack of privacy" is not something that bothers me when I'm using a service like this.

Comment: It's feasible, but not practical (Score 4, Insightful) 36 36

Magnetic levitation is certainly feasible, but it is almost certainly economically impractical.

For example, Ken Pence at Vanderbilt University has built a prototype magnetic levitation platform that uses spinning NdFeB magnets. I've seen it in action. It requires an aluminum sheet underneath the platform, and uses about 20 kW of power to lift a maximum of 300 pounds. Prof. Pence's ultimate goal is to make it steerable and have a demo with students driving it around a room.

However, Prof. Pence will cheerfully admit that the technology is far from practical for consumer use. You'd need to install aluminum sheeting under every roadway, and the power requirements for the amount of load being lifted are excessive. 20 kW is enough to push an electric car down the road at 60 mph. He will jokingly admit that his magnetic platform would only do 60 mph if you drove it off a cliff.

So why build it? His students constructed it as part of a Management of Technology course, where they learn firsthand the practical limitations of building a "gee whiz" device. I've seen some pretty interesting gadgets come out of that class (e.g. a wireless power transmitter), but as his students figure out, just because something is possible doesn't make it the least bit practical.

Comment: Re:Bars thrive (Score 1) 389 389

Not sure where you're coming from on this; how? Do you think the automated cars are going to be free/cheaper than existing taxi cabs and public transit?

A rent-on-demand autonomous car would absolutely compete with existing taxi cabs. Have you paid for a twenty-mile cab ride lately? On top of that, you wouldn't have to worry about being cheated a dishonest cab driver (particularly a problem with elderly passengers).

Cheaper than public transit? No, but certainly much safer than the public transit in most cities, and far more convenient (e.g. door-to-door service without forcing elderly people to walk several blocks to the nearest bus stop and wait 15 to 30 minutes for the next bus).

Comment: Re:Or, alternately ... (Score 5, Insightful) 389 389

The world isn't going to rush out and buy self-driving cars just because the people who want to sell self-driving cars tell us how awesome they'll be. It just doesn't work that way.

Thirty years ago, you could just as easily have written the following:

"The world isn't going to rush out and buy cellular phones just because the people who want to sell cellular phones tell us how awesome they'll be. It just doesn't work that way."

Back then, Ma Bell ran the U.S. telecom industry. Nearly every home had a landline, with regulated rates. Public phones were everywhere. What possible motivation could people have to buy a $400 smartphone every two years, and pay $50 or $100 a month in connection fees on top of that? Yet here we are today.

Self-driving cars aren't going to overturn transportation because they're "awesome", but because they'll be so damned useful to so many people, not the least of which will be the large segment of the population that wants the convenience of personal transportation, but cannot drive.

Add to that the estimated 250 billion USD cost each year in the U.S. alone due to auto accidents, along with 35,000 deaths and millions of injuries (some permanently disabling), and there is in fact an enormous financial (and humanitarian) incentive to get self-driving cars on the road ASAP.

Twenty years from now we'll be looking back and wondering how we ever managed without autonomous transportation, just as we now wonder how we managed before the cell / smartphone era. People can kick and scream about the future all they want, but it's coming nonetheless.

Comment: Re:Nokia phones did this years ago. (Score 3, Interesting) 248 248

However, every now and again, I would receive a "text of death". The phone would receive a text message, crash, reboot, attempt to download text messages again, crash .... etc.. It continued to do this until the network would decide to give up attempting to send that MMS message.

I've got a better story than that. Back in the mid-80's, when I was working at IBM, we did almost all of our programming in REXX and APL2 using dumb terminals.

One of the features of the system was the ability to send a message to another user that would appear directly on his or her screen like a text message.

By accident, one of the guys in my group discovered that by sending a certain string of characters to another user, he could force the receipt's terminal to automatically log off. Predictably, this led to a campaign of various people sending the "message of death" to each other, hearing the recipient yell and curse, and then quickly closing any open file before the victim fired back with a message of his own. This went on for about two weeks before we all got tired of it.

And of course I could also talk about the REXX worm that shut down the entire IBM internal email system for more than a day, but that is another story. :-)

Everything old is new again.

Comment: The death of privacy (Score 1) 294 294

More than a century of research establishes that monitoring workers actually reduces the ability to perform complex tasks, such as operating a train, because of the distractive effect.

Of course, the same observation could be made about monitoring police officers, day care workers, teachers, etc., but that hasn't stopped the demands to put them under video surveillance, has it?

Train engineers are federal employees, and the lives of hundreds are in their hands. Now it's their turn to be watched.

Comment: Three skills (not exactly tech skills) (Score 3, Informative) 302 302

Three skills that will be invaluable to any HS student later in life:

(1) Good writing, i.e. being able to write well enough to communicate ideas effectively and convincingly (requires a lot of recreational reading, by the way, which doesn't seem particularly popular among the younger generation nowadays).

(2) Being able to stand up in front of an audience and give a good presentation.

(3) Knowing how to touch type.

Invaluable at age 18, and equally invaluable at age 68, no matter what direction your career leads you in.

Comment: That's one reason the iPhone is so popular (Score 4, Interesting) 434 434

In a nutshell, this shows one reason why the iPhone (and iOS) are so popular.

I have an iPhone and I'm happy with it, but if Apple disappeared tomorrow, I could easily move to the Android ecosystem. The differences in usability between iOS and Android aren't that compelling.

But one thing I absolutely refuse to do is buy a phone where the manufacturer washes its hands of it, and forces me to either root the phone, or deal with the carrier to get updates. No. I'm done with that. I learned my lesson back when I owned Palm OS phones, and I'm not going back again.

Android fragmentation exists because manufacturers refuse to maintain their phones. Pushing that job onto the carriers is a recipe for customer dissatisfaction and security breaches. If Google wants to solve this problem, they need to force the manufacturers to accept responsibility for updating their own hardware.

Comment: Darwin by proxy (Score 5, Interesting) 616 616

This Wednesday, however, the bill passed that committee after its authors tweaked it, adding amendments that would expand the definition of home schooling to allow multiple families to join together to teach their children or participate in independent study programs run by public school systems.

I hate to say it, but maybe this is for the best. Unfortunately, what may be needed to kill the anti-vaxxer mindset once and for all is for a whole classroom of unvaccinated children to come down with measles or polio or smallpox or whooping cough, and for several of them to die.

Horrible? Yes, but the parents who have bought into this insanity are endangering everyone, not just their own children. Some of these people are quite literally proclaiming that vaccines have never worked, and that it is only improvements in hygiene that have resulted in the elimination of most deadly childhood diseases. A good cold dash of reality is the only cure. It is just a damned shame that some innocent kids will have to pay the price.

Comment: Re:Honestly (Score 3, Interesting) 587 587

It does seem like a big deal. I mean, last year there nominations titled "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love", which was an unusual choice for both a Nebula (a different SF/F award, chosen by a jury) and a Hugo nomination. The genre is floundering fairly hard.

How about the actual Hugo short story winner, "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere"? John Chu may be a talented writer, but that story was NOT a science fiction story. It was a cliched story about a guy bringing home a partner that his family didn't approve of, with a silly "you get wet when you lie" bit tossed in at the beginning to somehow qualify it for the Hugo with a mild fantasy element.

It was another "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" plot retread, only this time the "Who" was gay. So what? It was still a story we've all heard or seen a hundred times in the past 30 years - just substitute your race / religion / ethnicity of choice. What makes this one memorable, besides the sexuality of the main characters?

I cannot believe there wasn't a better science fiction short story published in 2013 than Chu's story. It's not the genre that's floundering, it's what the people who are running the Hugo consider to be "worthy" that has plummeted.

Comment: Re:Um... How will it change society? (Score 1) 477 477

The trolly-switch dilemma that people keep bringing up is so ridiculously contrived that I just don't see it having a bearing on the reality of day to day driving and safety of the vehicle for a couple of reasons.

Not to mention that these silly trolley-switch arguments completely sidestep the bigger ethical question: If switching to an all-autonomous fleet results in traffic fatalities being cut by an order of magnitude (3,000 vs. 30,000 per year), isn't it unethical not to switch to SDCs as soon as possible?

Autonomous cars may not be perfect, but they will almost certainly be a damned sight better than 99.9% of all drivers out there today. We kill 30,000 people a year in the U.S. alone, maim another 2 million, and somehow that's acceptable because a human being was behind the wheel? That's what makes the whole "what if the car kills my child instead of yours" argument so laughable. Hey, how about we stop killing a lot less of everyone's kids? How's that for a solution?

SDCs are coming, and the knee-jerk reaction of "You'll pry my steering wheel out of my cold dead hands" is entirely predictable. No doubt people were making similar arguments about keeping their horses a hundred years ago. And here's why SDCs are inevitable: once the technology exists, and young people start using it, they will see no point in having a driver's license or learning how to drive. Then, as the older generation ages to the point where their eyesight and reflexes fail, they will be demanding SDCs, with the AARP pushing for their adoption. In a generation, manual automobiles will be curiosities owned by collectors.

Comment: Re:Ballsy, but stupid ... (Score 5, Informative) 308 308

But, honestly, trying to gate crash an Army base and then getting into a shooting match with the guards ... well, that's a special kind of stupid.

Having visited the NSA facility myself many years ago, it is incredibly stupid. The military guards at the NSA are extremely alert, extremely competent, and very well armed. They will not hesitate to point a gun in your direction, or open fire if you fail to immediately comply with their orders.

They are not your typical security guards or your typical police. They are a level above that, and you do not want to mess with them.

Comment: Re:Why is bitcoin popular again? (Score 0) 254 254

Well, this is why you should keep your own bitcoin wallet. Bitcoin theft isn't a problem with bitcoin itself. It's a problem with where you're keeping your bitcoins.

No, BTC theft is indeed a problem with BTC itself. Evolution operated a BTC escrow service between its buyers and sellers. Unless the buyer and seller trust each other implicitly, escrow is essential for large remote transactions to ensure that no one gets ripped off, because (as we all know) BTC transactions are irreversible.

What Evolution did was empty out its escrow accounts and run off with the BTC from all the pending transactions. There is now essentially zero likelihood of them being punished, or the BTC being recovered.

And there you have the problem with BTC in a nutshell. Whether you use an exchange to transfer BTC to fiat, or use an escrow service to hold it pending a transaction, who do you trust to do the job? Particularly in an unregulated, pseudo-anonymous economic model where theft and graft go unpunished on a regular basis?

BTC has jumped the shark and is now moving into the long-term "let's keep fleecing the newbies" phase, just as you see with gold and silver "investment" companies. As long as there are suckers willing to exchange good money for BTC, there will be a very long line of criminals ready and willing to take it from them.

Much of the excitement we get out of our work is that we don't really know what we are doing. -- E. Dijkstra