Self-Driving Cars: a Reality Check

Today, the media is awash with buzz about the inevitable arrival of autonomous automobiles, personal vehicles that could transport passengers under complete computer control. Writing for Forbes, David Galland predicts that ten million autonomous cars will be on American streets by 2020 (Galland). He expects the adoption of autonomous cars to have profound, transformative effects on our society, by “reducing the number of traffic accidents by upward of 90%,” offering new mobility options for seniors and people with disabilities, eliminating the need for expensive and scarce downtown parking, and “[banishing] the whole idea of rush hour … to the history books” (Galland). Ford plans to sell “true self-driving cars” without controls for human drivers such as pedals or steering wheels by 2021 (Isidore). Not to be left behind, US Senators Gary Peters and John Thune have announced they plan to introduce new legislation to foster the development of autonomous vehicles that will “[leave] room for innovators to reach their full potential” (“Joint Effort”). They believe that autonomous cars “have the potential to dramatically reduce the … lives lost on our roads and highways every year and fundamentally transform the way we get around” (“Joint Effort”).

But before we speculate on the long-term impacts of autonomous cars, and especially before we formulate sweeping national policies concerning them, we ought to consider just how soon they will become reality. There are difficult ethical, technical, and human interface challenges that the industry has not yet addressed and hard questions that our society has not yet answered. Should autonomous vehicles favor the survival of passengers or pedestrians in the event of an accident? How will we produce and maintain high-resolution maps of every road on which autonomous vehicles will be expected to operate? How will we keep passengers alert and prepared to retake control in the event of an emergency? We are not five years away from autonomous cars, as Ford claims, much less six months away from “full self-driving” Tesla vehicles, as CEO Elon Musk claims (@elonmusk). The barriers to designing safe and reliable autonomous cars are so massive that they will preclude their mainstream introduction for many decades, if not indefinitely. Continue reading “Self-Driving Cars: a Reality Check”

The Ryan Guide to Frugal Air Travel, Part One

Modern commercial air travel is a miracle. Everyday, it whisks thousands of Americans across the country, connecting anywhere to anywhere within a few hours. It’s hard not to admire the mammoth international airport, processing and discharging a never-ending stream of travelers efficiently and comfortably. And it’s hard not to admire the technological marvel of the commercial airliner, soaring 30,000 feet above the ground at hundreds of miles an hour, gently and gracefully from takeoff to touchdown. Air travel, by the way, is the safest mode of transportation in existence.

Equally miraculous is the American free market, one of the few cornerstones of our democracy in which our faith has never been shaken. Unbridled competition has led to lower prices and more choices for consumers in every sector of the modern economy, and the airlines are no exception. Thanks to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, one of President Carter’s bolder initiatives, air travel today operates in an affordable and efficient free market. Since deregulation, fares have plummeted, the number of Americans flying has exploded, and dozens of airlines have taken to the skies to offer travelers more choices and innovative service.

Visiting relatives? Need a vacation? Have urgent business? Let’s explore what the miracle of modern air travel can do for you, the frugal traveler. Continue reading “The Ryan Guide to Frugal Air Travel, Part One”

Cities: Skylines, a New Boring, Lifeless Take on the City Builder

Some time ago, I wrote about 2013’s SimCity, a disappointing entry in a beloved city-building franchise. 2015 saw the release of Paradox Interactive’s Cities: Skylines, a brand new city-builder from a much smaller studio. Much hyped and heavily anticipated, the game has been very well received by the gaming community. Many have praised it as “the SimCity we wanted” and “the game that shows AAA studios how it’s done.”

My opinion is more mixed. Though Skylines is an impressive technical achievement that gives players some nice tools to build creative cities with, its gameplay and depth of simulation are disappointingly shallow. It is passable as a city builder, but it is not a worthy followup to the challenging and interesting gameplay found in the older SimCity games. Continue reading “Cities: Skylines, a New Boring, Lifeless Take on the City Builder”

The Student Ghetto

Thousands of University of Texas students, myself among them, live in the crowded West Campus neighborhood adjacent to the university. The insatiable demand for housing close to campus has spurred a construction spree of high-rise apartment buildings catered to affluent student residents. Tiny apartments fit two, three, four, or even five students, usually randomly matched by management. To cut costs, many split bedrooms, doubling the number of roommates. The newer student apartments have an expensive look to them, with large, gleaming windows and picturesque balconies. Luxury amenities such as pools, patios, and multi-story garage parking come standard.

Make no mistake; despite its increasingly upscale appearance, West Campus contains not young professionals and urban gentrifiers but rowdy college students. Explore the neighborhood on a given weeknight and you’ll find roving gangs of them looking to have a good time. The streets are filled with noise from loud conversations, party music, and the shouts of drunken students, emanating from the rooftops and balconies of apartments that collect multiple thousands of dollars of rent. Trash, in the form of beer bottles, plastic drinking cups, and even condoms, is everywhere. Austin police officers shuttle between frat houses and cooperative student living homes – the hardest partiers, and hence the biggest offenders – responding to noise complaints and stopping the most outrageous gatherings. Continue reading “The Student Ghetto”

The Case for Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment

The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution shifted the responsibility of selecting Congressional senators from the state legislatures to the people through direct elections. Proponents of the amendment asserted that this change was more consistent with the American principles of democracy and popular sovereignty, and would curtail corruption in Congress and make it more responsive to the people’s concerns. This significant change to the construction of Congress introduced by the Seventeenth Amendment is inconsistent with the principles of the Constitution as expressed by the framers. The direct representation of the state legislatures in Congress was considered an essential defense against possible encroachments by the national government, and the Senate was envisioned as that branch of Congress distinct from and not susceptible to the pitfalls of the democratically elected House. A balanced American republic that adequately administers the local sphere requires a representation of the states at the federal level and a bicameral Congress with a check on popular sovereignty. Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment would achieve this. Continue reading “The Case for Repealing the Seventeenth Amendment”

Proposition One “Mobility Bond” Represents Business as Usual for Austin Transportation

This piece was originally submitted to The Daily Texan as an op-ed, but wasn’t published.

Soon, Austin voters will decide on the $720 million so-called “Mobility Bond” that promises much-needed relief for our city’s traffic woes. Though overshadowed by this year’s unprecedented presidential election, there’s plenty of enthusiasm to go around for this important local issue, too. “Vote Prop One” signs line my daily walk to campus. The Daily Texan endorsed the bond a few days ago.

Everyone agrees that something must be done about Austin’s transportation crisis. But for years, our city has lacked the political will to deploy truly efficient and cost-effective solutions. First came the Red Line commuter rail “starter line” between downtown and Leander. After several years of operation, it’s a drain on Capital Metro’s resources that carries very few riders. It’s no secret why: the line does not serve UT or much of downtown. Service is very limited, with trains running half-hourly at rush hour and hourly off-peak, and no evening or Sunday service. Continue reading “Proposition One “Mobility Bond” Represents Business as Usual for Austin Transportation”

A Portrait of Wilmington, Delaware

Take a ride on DART route 11, and by the mere act of considering it, you feel as though you were in some exclusive club.

One glance at the schedule leaves you immediately overwhelmed. A stylized map purports to depict the general layout of route 11, but the geography is so distorted that whether the route traverses Wilmington or some vague recollection of the city, you cannot tell. The tables of departures are populated with enigmatic, inconsistent times and buses that only serve specific portions of the route; lists of cryptic destination signs for each trip add to the confusion. Reading route 11’s schedule is an achievement in and of itself.

Take a ride on route 11, and begin your trip in the desolate Wilmington suburbs. A few minutes later than scheduled, the bus pulls up. The driver is curt, but in a hurry. A display next to his dashboard reads “7 minutes behind.” Much to your surprise, he pulls away as you are still paying the fare.

The bus speeds down the narrow suburban thoroughfare, lined with humble New England homes with proud grass lawns out front and the forest looming in the back. Route 11 passes underneath the busy Interstate 95, navigates the maze of intersections between its offramps and the local streets, and turns onto the four lonely lanes of the Washington Street Extension, flanked by wilderness on both sides. Continue reading “A Portrait of Wilmington, Delaware”

My Thoughts on Avatar: the Last Airbender

American cartoons will always hold a particular place in my heart. They defined my world when I was a kid, for better or worse, and instilled in me a penchant for good stories.

I didn’t follow any cartoon regularly; I sort of tuned in to whatever was airing and considered each episode as a standalone experience. This tended to define my impression of a given show.

Most of my television consumption occurred in the latter half of the 2000’s, and much of it was of reruns of older shows. The ones I remember most vividly included contemporary shows like Codename: Kids Next Door and Code: Lyoko as well as classics from the 1990’s such as Hey, Arnold and Ed, Edd, ‘n’ Eddy. But one show always set itself above the rest thanks to its continuous story and sheer emotional grip: Avatar: The Last Airbender. And following a chance encounter with some quotes from show, I decided to rewatch it this summer.

It was just as good as I remembered. In fact, I had an even greater appreciation for the show’s writing and production values, and of course, I was a more informed viewer. Continue reading “My Thoughts on Avatar: the Last Airbender”

The Technology Gap

As written in an application for the East Bakersfield Rotary Scholarship:

The greatest enigma that we face today is that people do not understand how technology works.

While we are quick to admit that our elders have trouble using computers, the younger generation gets a pass on technology education. We don’t usually think of Internet hipsters using Facebook on the latest iPhone as “technologically challenged.” But in reality, we are all in the same boat. We do not really understand the devices that we use everyday.

The average person knows how to use a web browser to open websites and type a document using Microsoft Word. That is all. He can barely navigate files and folders, he cannot solve computer problems by himself, and he almost certainly cannot maintain the machine properly. Good security practices will stop nearly any computer virus, but he runs out to buy the latest copy of his favorite anti-virus software. Computers are modular and can be progressively upgraded, but he purchases a new system every year. And the mere thought of the average man being able to program a computer is simply ludicrous.

This lack of comprehension is disturbing because it can be so easily exploited. TV infomercials advertise miracle virus-removal programs that actually scam ignorant computer users out of their money; shady websites and tech startups offer low-quality software that over-promises and fails to deliver, frustrating customers who didn’t know any better; people buy the latest and greatest models every year because their old devices, thanks to neglected maintenance, have become “too slow.” It’s almost as if the tech industry profits from our lack of computer education.

But the most concerning development has been the rise of cloud computing: services that entice computer users to upload their data onto Internet servers. Google, Microsoft, and Apple tempt consumers by marketing these services as easy to use and safe. What most people don’t realize is that there is a hidden cost. Companies make money on their cloud services by selling the data to advertisers – and government agencies such as the NSA can also snoop through it.

If American youth expect to get ahead in the 21st century, they must be able to use technology to its fullest potential. Today, computer education is stuck in the 1990’s. Students are only taught how to write documents and, occasionally, create presentations. We need to change this! Computer classes should expand their curricula with lessons about keyboard shortcuts, installing new software, using files and folders, and maintaining operating systems. And of course, schools must embrace the exciting new field of computer science! Teaching basic programming logic could benefit all students by giving them new insights into science and mathematics. And for those who want to dive deeper, low-cost minicomputers like the Raspberry Pi could allow schools to create truly innovative robotics and electronics courses.

We have been taught how to use computers, not how to understand them. Today’s children deserve better.