Self-driving cars meet risk compensation theory

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As HAL 9000 used to say in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, "it can only be attributed to human error." Nowadays, we have real A.I., and the people should still be blamed when A.I. freaks out and starts killing people. 

Police in Tempe, Arizona, said the "safety driver" behind the wheel of that self-driving Uber that killed a pedestrian in May was watching TV on her phone at the time of the crash. (Specifically, she was watching "The Voice" on Hulu.)

The department's 318-page report claimed that driver Rafaela Vasquez kept taking her eyes off the road before hitting and killing Elaine Herzberg. The crash was avoidable.

Their conclusions were based in part on in-car video, which showed Vasquez glancing up occasionally, but mostly looking down at her phone. The car was in self-driving mode at the time of the crash. 

After the accident, Vasquez claims she was not using her phone in any way. But Hulu's records showed that she was streaming "The Voice" at the time of the crash. 

Police estimated that in order to avoid hitting Herzberg, Vasquez would have had to brake for 5.7 seconds. But she was watching TV for 5.2 seconds of that time, looking up only at the last half-second. 

The cops' conclusions match NTSF's -- Vasquez was to blame. 

Here comes the (disturbing) video

The crash, which represents the world's first fatality from a self-driving car, highlights an underappreciated challenge with self-driving cars: human nature. 

Specifically, the better they get at driving, the more likely humans are to assume they'll handle everything and not pay attention. 

This is similar to the psychology behind other safety features like seat belts. The increased survival rate from drivers wearing seatbelts are partially offset by the fact that people tend to drive faster because they feel safer wearing the seatbelts. 

This phenomenon is described by an idea called the risk compensation theory. The safer people feel, the less careful they are. 

Someday, no doubt, self-driving cars will be amazingly safe. But in the transition, we do need to hold safety drivers totally accountable, and to constantly remind them that they're every bit as responsible as any other driver. 

And we need to figure out some way for safety drivers to remain vigilant, even after thousands of hours of safe autonomous driving. 

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Why you can't trust sports reporters


A sports reporter says that a woman's black eye sustained from a hot dog shot from a hot dog canon by a giant green bird is "no laughing matter." 

After the mascot for the Philadelphia Phillies Major League Baseball team accidentally sent a fan to the emergency room, CBS Sports reporter Dayn Perry wonders alarmingly in his headline, "Is this the end of the hot dog cannon?" 

I'm sorry, but if this isn't a laughing matter, I don't know what is. 

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Where American English accents come from

Interestingly, American English accents come from exactly where you might think they come from.

American English at its foundation is closer to how English people spoke in the 1600s. The most identifiable pronunciation feature is rhoticity -- the hard "R" sound in words like "hard," which was common in English on both sides of the Atlantic 400 years ago, which was largely abandoned in the UK over the centuries but not in the US. 

UK and US English are different in many other ways, as well

Also, American English tends to be unusual in the use of flat vowels, short "a" sounds and the use of the "Rhythm Rule," which is the tendency of American English speakers to alternate between stressed and unstressed syllables. 

Beyond that, most regional American accents can be explained by the movement of people from outside the United States, and movement within. 

Here's a tour of American regional accents by Amy Walker

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Finally: champagne aged underwater


Abysse Grand Cru is a chardonnay champagne aged four years in the conventional way, then for one more year underwater in a secret location 200 feet deep off the coast of a remote French Island. 

Now you can buy a bottle for $1,900. It's dry, with notes of caramelized peach, toasted almonds and a "refreshing minerality." (I hope that's not a euphemism for "tastes like salt water.")

Sure, it's a gimmick, but a good one!

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Why Smart Displays are all about work and business


It’s early days in the burgeoning smart-display universe. Still, it’s important to understand how very different it will be compared with virtual assistants and their audio appliances.

Ultimately, the core attributes of virtual assistants, virtual assistant appliances and smart displays are very different.

The core attribute of virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and others is ubiquity. You’ll be able to interact with them on your watch, phone, laptop, desktop, car dashboard, smart glasses, home appliance, office appliance and others. They’ll always be “there,” even outdoors.

The core attribute of audio-only virtual assistant appliances such as the original Echo line or the current Google Home product is indoor “ambience.” To use an Amazon Echo, for example, you don’t even have to know where it is. You just “talk to the room,” and the room talks back. It seems logical to put virtual assistant appliances in every room of a house. They're perfect for consumers. 

But smart displays are completely different. Instead of offering ubiquity or ambience, they’re used like a terminal. To take advantage of their screens and cameras, you’ll face the device from a close distance, and they’ll face you.

The ideal place to interact with a smart display is when you’re alone in a room with it — or when a group of people are all using the device. In other words, it’s the ultimate office or meeting room appliance, with very highly defined practical functions.

And that’s why smart displays are better for offices, work and productivity

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A Chrome Extension that's better than Tweetbot for macOS

My journey from a Macbook Pro to a Pixelbook has been filled with happy surprises. One of them is how much better Twitter is on a Pixelbook. 

On the MacBook Pro, adding a couple dozen Chrome extensions would cripple browser and system performance. But the biggest benefit of the Pixelbook is that I can add extensions with impunity -- no performance hit. 

As a result, I've actually transformed how I use Twitter by simultaneously running a large number of Twitter-focused Chrome extensions. These extensions show me Twitter search results in my Google search results. I can instantly tweet the current site I'm looking at. I can switch Twitter accounts with the push of a button. I can capture screenshots of tweets to share with the push of a button. My browser-based Twitter feed auto-refreshes. I can see all the Twitter accounts associated with any website with the push of a button. I can hide images, videos, promoted or liked tweets on the Twitter timeline. And a whole bunch of other things. 

Here are the Twitter extensions available for Chrome

But the best and most surprising new capability comes from a Chrome extension called Notifier for Twitter

Before I give you the facts about Notifier, first let me tell you how I use Twitter. 

I have my normal Twitter account, which is @MikeElgan, and I use it in all the normal ways one uses Twitter. 

I have a second account, called @TheNewNewNews, which I use both as a place to post breaking news and as a news-only stream to follow. All the accounts I follow on this second account, in other words, are great sources of news and information that keeps me informed. I've been curating this list of news Twitter accounts for nearly a decade. 

On the Macbook Pro, I used the Tweetbot application to keep a live, self-updating stream from my news Twitter account. I basically keep the stream as a skinny, tall column on either the right or left of my main browser window. 

Giving up Tweetbot was one of the major hesitations I had about switching to the Pixelbook. 

Today, however, I discovered Notifier for Twitter. In terms of the self-updating stream, Notifier works better than Tweetbot for macOS. 

I have it set in default mode to show new tweets on my news account as regular Chromebook notifications. That enables me to have Chrome full-screen. By clicking on the mini icon in the browser, I get the fuller look at the stream. And by detaching that stream and placing it to one side or the other of my browser window, I get the Tweetbot-like self-updating stream. 

When I click on a link in from my @TheNewNewNews account, it opens in the Chrome browser where I'm logged in to Twitter with my @MikeElgan account, and I can interact with the information using that account. 

It's the perfect way to use Twitter. 

If you use Chrome and Twitter, I highly recommend Notifier for Twitter. And if you love Chrome Extensions like I do, I highly recommend the Pixelbook. 

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Why you'll love your dual-screen laptop


Dual-screen laptops will be better tablets than tablets, better laptops than laptops and better desktops than desktops.

They'll be better tablets, because they can work just like today's tablets, with twice the screen space.

They'll be better laptops, because the bottom screen can be a writing pad or any number of other input devices, and not just a screen.

And they'll be better desktops than desktops because, by turning the clamshell sideways and opening up the screen, then using wireless keyboard and mouse, you'll get more screen real estate than today's average desktop screen gives you.

Here's what else you need to know about the future of your computer

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Get a third opinion on every Google Search

When you search Google, the search results are crowdsourced, with all the benefits and risks crowdsourcing entails for the reliability of information. 

Google usually adds a Wikipedia entry in the sidebar, giving you a second opinion on the results, but another crowdsourced one. 

A new Chrome extension from the Encyclopedia Britannica gives you an old-school, non-crowdsourced third opinion on every search result. 

Called Britannica Insights, the extension appears on the right of results, just above the Wikipedia card, given you a summary with a link to the full Encyclopedia Britannica article.

Sadly, the Britannica Insights results appear only if you launch your search from the home page. (Who does that anymore? Doesn't everybody search from the URL address bar?)

Anyway, it's a great new Chrome extension and another example of how Chrome users using the best extensions have access to a superior Super Internet. 

Why Trump should be allowed to block people like me

Long story short: A federal judge ruled May 23 that President Trump cannot legally block people on Twitter. 

Twitter is a "public forum" and, as such, blocking on Twitter is a violation of the First Amendment, the judge argued. 

The White House this week appealed the ruling. 

Over the past couple of years, Trump has blocked critics like novelist Stephen King, comedian Rosie O'Donnell -- and me. (Here's WIRED's list of the people Trump has blocked.)  

While I am among the blocked, although not part of the original lawsuit that prompted the ruling, you may be surprised to learn that I think the White House is right on this one. 

The reason is that blocking on Twitter doesn't actually block. 

All you need to do is log out of Twitter, and log into another account (which anyone can set up in a few seconds). Once logged in, you can see Trump's tweets, comment and all the rest. 

In other words, a president says lots of things and his comments are available in lots of places. But a tweet, even for a blocked user, is among the easiest of those comment types to find -- and comment upon.

Granted, when I log in with a different Twitter account, my second account is not verified and, as such, has less priority in the list of comments. But Twitter verification is not a Constitutionally protected status. 

I also think there's some distinction to be made between a president's @potus account, which belongs to whomever is president and therefore more or less belongs to "the people," and any president's own personal account, which belongs to that citizen personally.

I don't see why getting elected president removes a citizen's right to use Twitter like everybody else can. 

Just say no to smartphone-controlled tea makers


Brewing tea is the simplest, most low-tech process in the world for creating a hot beverage. I use the George Orwell method -- put some tea in a cup, then pour boiling water on it.

So, no, you don't need the $330 Teforia Tea Infuser, which requires plastic "pods" full of tea and which can be controlled with an app on your smartphone. 

The tabletop kitchen revolution is sometimes awesome (for, say, beer brewing) and sometimes idiotic (for tortilla making). But all the problems of brewing tea were solved in like the Han Dynasty. 

Just say no.

Parents: Don't teach kids to be polite to machines

Google announced "pretty please," a feature for the Google Home virtual assistant appliance (and third-party Assistant-compatible devices) that encourages children to speak politely to the appliance.  

When kids issue a command, such as: "Tell me the weather," the feature says: "Say the magic word," and gives the weather only when children say "please." The feature is a parental option, not a hard-wired requirement.

This is a terrible idea, a toxic trend.

Children should be polite to people, and respectful of adults. They should be kind to animals. And kids should be gentle with robots, not because robots have feelings, but because a robot is property that belongs to someone.

But we should not teach children to be polite to virtual assistants.

In fact, early exposure to virtual assistant appliances like Google Home is a "teachable moment" -- a moment when we can teach kids that A.I. that speaks and sounds like a person is not, in fact, a person. It has no feelings. It's an object, like the toaster.

Many adults feel the impulse to be polite to virtual assistants. And adults can feel uneasy hearing children be abusive or commanding toward them. This is a human impulse, and one to be examined and overcome. 

Kids need to learn that it's OK to be polite to virtual assistants. And it's OK to be rude. It doesn't matter. The object has no feelings, and no harm is done. 

In fact, when kids or adults use Google Search, they don't say "please." They issue a command and the servers obey. Just because engineers have constructed a natural sounding voice to interact with doesn't change the reality that a human is using a tool. 

Worse, the be-polite-to-virtual-assistant trend places machines in positions of authority over children.

What we're teaching them is that the machines legitimately may judge us, shape us and control us. It's the worst possible lesson to teach a generation that will encounter very sophisticated A.I. in their lifetimes.

Now is the time to teach them that A.I "personalities" are mere tools, not people.

Google isn't doing anything wrong here. It's a weird problem. And, in fact, it's off-putting for adults to hear children berate, insult or be rude to a voice that sounds like a human adult.

But this is a cultural fork in the road, and we need to choose the right path. We can teach kids that A.I. are sentient beings to be obeyed and respected. Or we can teach them that A.I. "personalities" are a constructed delusion.

Don't teach your kids to obey machines.

iCloud spam is the new Windows laptop sticker

For years, Apple fans taunted Windows users over the fact that most Windows laptops came with garish, shameless, ugly, sloppily applied stickers saying "Intel inside" or "Windows 7" or "Lenovo Enhanced Experience." Or whatever. 

Worse, they were often applied with a semi-permanent glue that made them hard to remove. 

Apple users correctly pointed out that Apple would never do something so tasteless, ugly and shameless on Apple laptops. Apple hardware is elegant artwork. In fact, the "out of the box" experience for Apple products, including Apple laptops, is pure, elegant, convenient and somewhat thrilling. 

That's why it's so confusing that Apple does what is essentially the equivalent of ugly stickers: They spam and harass users without mercy over iCloud passwords and upgrades. 

I'm guessing that most Apple users get harassed constantly via email and pop-up messages to upgrade and pay for iCloud storage, or enter or change their iCloud password. 

It's possible to make the harassment stop, but almost nobody knows how to do it. 

This is called "dark patterns" interface design, where companies design products to trap you into giving them what they want at your expense. 

The OS installation process on any kind of Mac involves additional harassment about iCloud usage and changing passwords and more. 

Like Windows laptop stickers, it's a form of spam marketing that's supposed to fly under the radar of unacceptability. It's just a little thing, so why would you care enough to complain?

But I complain for the same reason I complained about Windows laptop stickers. It's cheesy. It's ugly. It's greedy. And it's annoying.

That's what I think. What do you think? 

Amazon is building a home robot


Amazon is building a home robot, according to Mark Gurman  and Brad Stone writing for Bloomberg. 

Codenamed "Vesta," the project is headed personally by Amazon’s Lab126 chief Gregg Zehr. Amazon has been working on the project for years, but has recently started hiring aggressively, according to job listings

Prototypes could be tested in homes as early as this year and products could ship as early as next year. 

The robot will reportedly be able to navigate a home like a self-driving car. 

The stock price of robot maker iRobot fell on the news

Interestingly, Amazon is already a robotics powerhouse. They make their own warehouse robots, which are the life-blood of Amazon's business. 

Turns out haptics has its own uncanny valley

An article in Science Robotics claims that virtual reality experiences can produce an "uncanny valley of haptics."

The "uncanny valley" phenomenon is normally reserved for robotics, where the closer a humanoid robot gets to realistically imitating a human, the more it creeps out real humans. 

One example is that if two separate handheld controllers provide haptic sensations in a specific way, the user experiences that feeling not in their hands, but in the space between their hands. This is a trick of the brain, which assumes the sensations have not two sources, but one source, and places that source between the hands. 

Why Deadpool is the answer to superhero fatigue


I'm suffering from superhero fatigue. Are you? 

The first and most obvious reason is that there are just too many superhero movies. 

The second reason is that too many of them bring together many superheroes into a single movie. They're churning out this brand of movie so fast they don't even have time to give characters like Aqua Man their own movie before dragooning him into Justice League movies. They don't even have time to CGI-out Superman's mustache competently. 

Third, this bringing together of superheroes makes no sense. It pits heros with weak powers against strong ones — Batman vs. Superman. Gimme a break. 

Fourth, they're too self-serious. Some have subtle joking around. Some, like Thor: Ragnarok, are outright comedies. But most demand that we take too seriously a bunch of men in tights. 

Fifth, they've fallen into the trap that the stakes must grow higher and higher with every new movie. In the old days, Superman was just trying to save Lois Lane. Eventually, the entire world and fate of humanity was in danger. Now, even that's not enough. Now half the universe has be in peril. It's trotted out so mechanically that they've actually gotten us to not really care about the fate of half the universe. 

That's why Deadpool is so refreshing. It's constantly referring to, and making a mockery of, the tropes and themes of all comic book movies. 

It's also comically creative. Case in point: The upcoming Deadpool has a "superhero" named Peter who joins the "X-force" (which Deadpool calls "a super duper fucking group") not because he has super powers, but because he "just saw the ad." (Peter has his own Twitter account, by the way.) In a cinematic world overpopulated by ridiculous super heroes with super powers, Peter is the hero we need. 

Another superhero named "Domino" has the superpower of luck. She's just really, really lucky. Wonderful!

Ryan Reynolds is perfect for the role, too. Most of the comic acting in the movie has to be done through body language, because you can't see his face. Reynolds is really good at it.

I'm really looking forward to Deadpool 2, and I'm not looking forward to any other superhero movie. 

Facebook makes a mockery out of Europe's new privacy law


Europe's GDPR requires companies like Facebook to ask permission before using your personal data or applying face recognition to your pictures. Facebook is making changes to comply, which it will roll out globally.

Now Facebook is pretending to ask permission with a dialog box that requests permission and offers an "Accept and continue" button, but no button to decline. The word "continue" is designed to make user's think that continuing to use Facebook requires the "Accept" part. 

Instead of the option to "Decline," the dialog offers a "manage data settings" button, which puts up another barrier to opting out. If you click that button again — the same option you have already selected — only then can you choose to opt out. 

This is classic "dark patterns" design, which is to use interface design to trick users into doing what's in the company's interest, but not the user's. 

That's not the end of it. If you do opt out, Facebook will come back later to try to convince you to opt back in. 

"Dark patterns" is an example of how companies use and cultivate user ignorance as a necessary part of their business model.

Here comes "parallel reality" computing!


A startup called Misapplied Sciences has developed technology, which it calls “parallel reality,” that enables hundreds of people to look at a single screen and see completely different, customized views. I could look at a screen and see information in English, while the person standing next to me sees the same information in Mandarin and a third person sees French. Or, for that matter, I could see my texts and the others could see theirs.

"Parallel reality" technology could bring us something like augmented reality, but without the glasses.