Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On cars with autopilot

I'm writing this post in the context of the recent Tesla Model X crash.  But there have been other failures of the autopilot here and here.

Cars with autopilot normally require the driver to be able to take over when the car malfunctions or is unable to function, whether or not the car is able to alert the driver.  This is a system that is designed backwards.

Let me explain what I mean by starting with driver-assist technologies such as lane departure warning and pedestrian detection, where the driver does most of the work, but is assisted by the car.

Machine watching human waiting to take over when human makes a mistake ==> Great idea.  Why?  A machine never tires of doing the same thing (monitoring conditions and making sure the human driver is doing the right thing).  Examples of these are technologies such as lane departure warning and pedestrian detection.  Should these fail, the human is still responsible, because the human was supposed to be alert and watching for these problems anyway.  The computer may help step in and save the day should the human make an error.

Now let's look at the flip side where we have autopilot.  Here most of the work is done by the car with the human expected to take over when things go wrong.

Human watching machine waiting to take over when machine makes a mistake ==> Bad idea.  Why?  Humans have a really short attention span.  Unless we are totally involved in a certain task, our minds tend to wander off into the boonies and often times even audio or visual alerts may take a while to get our attention.  That's because we learn to tune out external stimulus when doing something else.  This is why autopilot systems should never be sold unless the car is capable of controlling itself in all situations including the event of total system failure without any input from the user.  Whoever designed this system expecting the human to be able to take over in any reasonable amount of time doesn't understand how the human mind works.

How many users actually go through a training for using the autopilot systems that gives them experience with the various ways in which the system can fail and the consequences of those failures?  There are many cases where airline pilots fall asleep when the plane is on autopilot.
More than half of pilots have fallen asleep while in charge of a plane, a survey by a pilots' union suggests. 
Of the 56% who admitted sleeping, 29% told Balpa that they had woken up to find the other pilot asleep as well.
Fortunately, there have not been any fatalities due to that.  I should note that, with airline pilots, this is for folks who are paid to stay alert watching the machine and they are unable to do so.  This despite the rigorous training that they go through.

It clearly illustrates that just because we say "the driver should be fully engaged even when autopilot is in use" doesn't mean the driver will actually be able to do so.  As mentioned in this article, there are situations where the car would fail to alert the driver altogether which means a driver has to be 100% engaged during autopilot use, and yet that is not realistic given how the human mind works.

So with Tesla putting full responsibility on the driver, Tesla is marketing a car with an autopilot feature but in reality they are having the driver pay Tesla to be a beta tester of their autonomous driving technology.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

My favorite camera of all time -- the Yashica T4 Super

I'm not a big photography buff, having attended only a couple of classes on photography.  I also do not have the patience to lug around DSLR-style equipment.  I have always owned compact cameras that are lightweight, easily portable, and offer only a little, if any, manual control.  But don't get me wrong--I used to really enjoy taking pictures with my main focus being composing the shot.

At the recommendation of a colleague at work, I bought a Yashica T4 Super, for, IIRC $135 back in 2002.  I gave the camera away a few years ago because the battery door broke and it was going to cost me $75 to get it fixed, and also I thought film was going out of fashion.  Big mistake because of all the junk that I have gotten rid of over the years, I really really miss my T4 Super.

Some of the things I really enjoyed about it were:
  • Superb aesthetic design.
  • A Carl Zeiss 35 mm f/3.5 lens that took very sharp photos with amazing color accuracy.
  • Lightweight at ~7 oz (200 gm) and compact while still very easy to hold.
  • Ability to imprint date on photos in a variety of formats.
  • An absolutely awesome top-level viewfinder which allowed taking photos from waist level.
  • Infinity focus/landscape mode.
  • Decent battery life.
  • Weatherproof.
  • Red eye reduction that worked very reliably.
There was a slight learning curve because the shutter release button was ultra sensitive (i.e. the shutter would release while you were trying to get it to focus), but once I learned how to operate it the results were awesome.

I have never had another camera that I liked so much.  The Yashica T4 embodied all of things that I cared about and nothing more.  It showed that the designers cared about and put a lot of thought into what they were doing.

I have owned several point-and-shoot digital cameras but they have all had one issue or another -- too big, too heavy, pictures not as good, view finder/LCD display not as good, shutter lag, etc.  Not to mention every single one of them was way more expensive than the T4 Super.

At this point, my smartphone is my only camera.  I have lost my passion for taking photos altogether and mostly only take pictures that are required for documentation (e.g. reporting car damage to insurance) rather than taking pictures for fun.

I guess I'm getting old, because I tend to use the phrase "they don't build them like they used to" a little too frequently.  The current state of the economy means companies have lost their passion to build great products and instead focus on financial engineering and other interesting ways of making money such as quality (mis)management.

Cameras I have owned

Listed in order of purchase.
  • Canon Owl (36 mm film)
  • Canon ELPH (APS film)
  • Kodak DC240i (1.3 MP digital)
  • Yashica T4 Super (36 mm film)
  • Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W1 (5 MP digital)
  • Leica DLUX 4 (10 MP digital)
I don't currently own a camera, other than what is available in my smartphone.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A fine quote

Many years ago, I was having difficulty with my life situation and I came across someone that offered to help.  They sent me the following quote:
The warrior code says:
I have no friends; those who need me are my friends
I have no enemies; my lack of awareness is my enemy
This was the same person that gave me the first nudge in the direction of meditation.  

Thursday, November 2, 2017

On the American economy

This article by Joseph Stiglitz discusses the problems facing the American economy.  It is well worth a read.  The way the game is setup and is being played, it leads to tremendous amounts of wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few and the trend is getting worse with time.  While the net worth of the richest folks is reaching new heights, so is the homeless population in many cities.

As has been said, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  A number of the symptoms that we see like astronomically rising prices of medical care and education are due to the abuse of such concentrated power.

A lot of the imbalances in the stocks and real-estate are due to monetary policy.  Instead of focusing on building good products, corporations are focused on making a quick buck and using cheap access to money to get bigger via various financial engineering schemes and drive their competitors out of business using pricing.  I have noticed this to be true in all areas of the economy -- automobiles, appliances, apparel, hospitality -- you name it.  It's the reason why an ex-stalwart like Kodak stops innovating in photography and instead floats a cryptocurrency of all things.

Here are some interesting charts from the WSJ since the financial crisis of 2008.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Equifax data breach

Just read about this hack -- 143 million Americans just had their personal financial information stolen from Equifax.

Aside from a damage control message, they have offered to sign everyone up for free for their credit monitoring service called TrustedID.  What they don't tell us upfront, in a typical sneaky pretending-to-care-but-really-don't fashion, is that they are offering it only for one year.  This means after the first year we are on our own.  In fact, it's a great sales strategy, because they would expect people to continue to enroll in this service after the first free year, paying out of pocket and helping increase their revenues.

Per the terms of service, if one does accept the free offer, one would waive one's right to participate in any class action lawsuits against them.  Not that those are worth anything for the consumer.

What they should have offered

At the very least, Equifax should instead have offered everyone a choice of free service from their own and competitors' offerings since, at this point, why would anyone want to trust Equifax to do credit monitoring on their behalf?  And it should have been offered for life since the data can be misused pretty much forever.  They are already making money by selling consumer information to banks and other financial institutions.

Ethics

Three of their company executives dumped a bunch of stock before the data breach was revealed to the public.

In addition, their security head was a music major!

Was your data compromised?

The official link provided by Equifax to check if your data was impacted is here.  Unfortunately, there is no way to tell if the above link is even reporting accurate results.

Freezing credit files

Many folks recommend calling the credit bureaus and freezing your credit files.  Freezing must be done at all of the agencies.  So far, I'm aware of the following:
Most folks are only aware of the big 3 in this space -- Equifax, Experian, Transunion -- but freezing only those would provide only partial protection.

Credit is not the only problem

As noted in this article:
What’s more likely is that stolen information will be used to take over existing accounts, such as banking, brokerage, phone service, and retirement accounts.
And even more as described in this article:
If the stolen information from Equifax gets into the wrong hands, experts say data thieves can open bank accounts, lines of credit, new credit cards and even drivers' licenses in your name. They can saddle you with speeding tickets, steal your tax refund, swipe your Social Security check and prevent you from getting prescription drugs.
What else can be done?

Sign up for a credit monitoring service.  Experian is offering this for free.

Buy identity theft insurance, preferably from a regular insurance company--the same one that sells your renters or homeowners policy.  Some policies will cover financial losses (it is moot as to whether this is needed because assets are typically restored once it is established that fraud was involved) and pay for someone to fix the issue when it happens.

Simplify your financial life and check all of your accounts often -- bank accounts, credit cards, brokerage accounts. That way, if an account is hacked, one may be able to detect the issue sooner rather than later.

Equifax's free offering

Personally, I will not be signing up for any services offered by Equifax.  Based on the way they have handled the data breach, I don't think they can be trusted.  As this article notes:
Equifax already waited six weeks to tell the world about the hack -- that gave hackers a six-week jump on all of us, Nunnikhoven noted.
The lack of urgency is a clear indication that the management at Equifax is completely clueless about the severity of the problem that they have created for the public.  The information that was stolen can be misused for years to come.

But, worse, they had 2 whole months to fix the vulnerability that was exploited in this attack and did nothing about it as noted in this article:
Equifax told USA TODAY late Wednesday that the criminals who potentially gained access to the personal data of up to 143 million Americans had exploited a website application vulnerability known as Apache Struts CVE-2017-5638.

The vulnerability was patched on 7 March 2017, the same day it was announced, the foundation said. Modifications were made on March 10, according to the National Vulnerability Database.

Equifax said that the unauthorized access began in mid-May. That's a period of two months in which the company could have, and should have, say experts, dealt with the problem.
The long term fix

Longer term, the US needs to come up with a better way for authentication than using social security numbers, as noted in this article:
The Republic of Estonia uses such a system to identify members of its e-Residency program, even with no physical presence. Each e-resident has a public numerical key that serves as a unique identifier, and a corresponding private key that is never revealed. During the authentication process, the private key is used to generate an irreversible digital signature. The signature is shared and verified by the public key without ever exposing the private key.
Problems are not limited to Equifax

I have had credit monitoring services from a different bureau, courtesy of my data being hacked from several financial and health care companies.  Whenever I have tried to access customer service at that bureau, I find it to be so incompetent that I wonder whether the company even deserves to be in business, let along be in the business of managing the most sensitive data of all Americans.

Additional reading/resources

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The stock market and paper wealth

This post explains what I have learnt about the stock market and the creation and destruction of paper wealth.

Let's a company issues 1000 shares at $10 at its initial public offering.  This means $10,000 of new money enters the market from the sideline.  Thereafter people bid on those 1000 shares.  So let's say someone (Person A) wants to buy 10 of those shares and is willing to pay $12.  They would put in a bid for that price, and if a seller emerges (Person B), they exchange 12x10 = $120 dollars and the buyer of the stock (Person A) now becomes the owner of those 10 shares.  In this process, everyone holding a share of this company now thinks that their shares are also worth $12.  So the collective total of all 1000 shares of the company is now considered to be $12000, even though there was only one transaction of 10 shares at that price.  So if some other person (Person C) that was holding 100 shares of the stock that they bought at the IPO price of $10 (worth a total of $1000), they see their wealth has now increased by $200 because those 100 shares are now worth $1200 even though they didn't buy or sell anything themselves.  Paper wealth destruction happens in a similar fashion.  If everyone tried to sell at the same time and there were no buyers, the value of the stock would drop to nothing (this is what happens in the case of companies that declare bankruptcy).

So many news articles talk about money on the sidelines.  This is very misleading.  Every time someone sells a stock and takes money out of the market, there is someone else that is putting an equivalent amount of money into the market.  The only time money enters the market is during IPOs and secondary IPOs (issuance of additional stock).  The only time money leaves the market is when a company has its shares bought out for cash and discontinues trading.

New money enters the economy through other methods that I do not yet fully understand such as monetary policy, fractional reserve banking, and changes to the money supply.  These methods affect the amount of money that is available to chase assets such as stocks, bonds, and real-estate.

The number of publicly traded companies

The number of publicly traded companies has been steadily going down as reported by Fortune:
37% decline in the number of U.S.-listed companies since its 1997 high. With more companies opting for private fundraising over the hassle of public markets (looking at you, Uber), the number of public companies has fallen to 5,734, about on par with the early ’80s.
This may be a potential contributor to the current overvaluation of stocks because more and more money is chasing fewer stocks.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Glad trash bags

I've been buying these bags for a few years and didn't have any problems. With more recent purchases I found that they leak. I incorrectly assumed it was because I was somehow putting in items with sharp edges. So I started discarding items with sharp edges separately and found that didn't help. I then started double-bagging and found that it helped quite a bit. Yet there were times when even despite double bagging and avoiding sharp edge objects, there were still issues with leaks (minor leaks enough to mess up the trash can and also spill a few drops while transporting the bag to the outdoor trash bin). Finally, I also experienced snapping pulls sometimes resulting in a spill. When I contacted Glad, they offered to send coupons. I refused them. Why would I want to get another set of such bags? It is sad to see how Glad has completely engineered the quality out of these products resulting in significant inconvenience to customers--imagine stuff dripping all over the carpet when you pull it out of the trash can and having to clean up that mess and then having to clean the trash can to avoid getting mold.

Now for some humor--I can imagine a conversation like the following going on at Glad headquarters.

Person 1: We can't raise prices, so let's get creative about how to increase sales.
Person 2: I have an idea. Let's make the bags thinner.
Person 1: What if the bags puncture?
Person 2: That's the whole point! People will start double-bagging and we will have instantly doubled our sales.
Person 1: What if they complain?
Person 2: Most people are too disconnected to complain. For the minority that do, we'll offer coupons for free product. In fact, we'd be known for our excellent post sales customer service.
Person 1: That's brilliant. I love the idea. Why didn't I think of that?
Person 2: You need to get an MBA.  I was taught to think outside the box in business school!