A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars

Feet-first into fire! This short essay was written in response to the 2016 Report of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) for CS 343H, Artificial Intelligence Honors.

Although I am ostensibly a student of computer science, I am also an urban studies minor, transportation geek, and public transit advocate. Thus, the One Hundred Year Study is of special interest to me, and its analysis of urban transportation doubly so. Continue reading “A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars”

A Tour of Austin’s New MoPac Bike Bridge

A shiny new bicycle and pedestrian bridge opened across Barton Creek in June, right next to the MoPac expressway. I finally got a chance to check it out last Sunday morning.

Here’s a photo tour, starting from the north toward Zilker Park and moving south toward Sunset Valley. You can also check out my corresponding editorial on The Daily Texan.

Coming from Zilker Park, the cycling route is on a wide sidewalk (only Austin would call it a “multi-use trail”).

Continue reading “A Tour of Austin’s New MoPac Bike Bridge”

Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto

Several weeks ago, I came across a lovely article on Kotaku about the opening act of Grand Theft Auto IV, in which immigrant protagonist Niko Bellic first arrives in a fictionalized United States and explores his newly adopted home of Liberty City.

As the author Kirk Hamilton explains, it’s a rather slow start for a GTA game. Niko undertakes some decidedly ordinary tasks — defending his cousin Roman from loan sharks, driving for his cab company, going out on a date — that ease us into the game’s driving and shooting mechanics. In the process, we are gradually introduced to Niko’s new social circle — a girlfriend, criminals to do business for, and Russian mobsters — and his surroundings, the run-down industrial neighborhood of “Hove Beach.”

While GTA IV was cautious and restrained, other Grand Theft Auto games thrust you immediately into the action. Just after the opening credits of Grand Theft Auto V, you were stealing a pair of supercars from a wealthy residence, racing through the streets of downtown Los Santos, and then escaping from the police. Similarly, 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas inserted you right in the middle of a gang war, fleeing a drive-by shooting on a BMX bike and then smashing up a local crack den.

In GTA IV, we get a sense of how the Liberty City criminal world operates before we dive into the over-the-top car chases, assassinations, and SWAT shootouts — we see the loan sharks at Roman’s throat, the neighborhood crack dealers struggling for turf, and the shopkeepers being extorted for protection money. Taking things slow allows us to connect with Niko’s brave new world in a way that the chaotic exposition in San Andreas and GTA V does not, so suggests Hamilton in a brilliant summary of his GTA IV experience:

Each time I return to GTA IV, I want to leave Hove Beach less and less. I know I’ll never feel more immersed and attached than I do in those opening hours. Nowhere else in GTA IV feels as real or familiar to me as Hove Beach. Nowhere in GTA V does, either. For all of the newer game’s candy-coated indulgences and technical wizardry, it never matched its predecessor’s powerful sense of place.

I was struck by the idea that a video game like GTA IV could have a “sense of place” — what I would call a sense of a distinct culture and community within a specific moment, location, and universe. Urbanists, geographers, and sociologists alike speak of the greatest cities as having it. Architects strive for it. As Hamilton has already noted, one way GTA IV achieves a “sense of place” is through its meticulously crafted introduction. But how else does the game outshine GTA V, its universally acclaimed sequel? Continue reading “Placemaking in the World of Grand Theft Auto”

In Defense of Boost Sonic

Sonic the Hedgehog. A video game franchise about a cool blue hedgehog who runs, jumps, and platforms through a variety of vast, intricate worlds. Sonic’s fast, thrilling gameplay was critically acclaimed during the series’ early days as a 2D sidescroller and won millions of gamers over to Sega and the Genesis console. But Sonic’s transition to the 3D world, marked by the arrival of Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast, was much more divisive. Over the years, Sega experimented with many wildly different play styles, even within a single game. This lack of consistency has resulted in critical reception that ranges from “pretty good” (Sonic Generations) to “downright awful” (Sonic the Hedgehog 2006).

Sega’s first attempts at a 3D Sonic game resembled Super Mario 64 augmented with sprawling, linear levels and speed-oriented controls. Sonic could grind on rails, snap on to enemies with the “homing attack,” and gain an instant burst of speed with a charged “spin dash.” This style was featured in Sonic Adventure, its direct sequel Sonic Adventure 2, and 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Critical reception of the Adventure series was very positive on release, but the re-releases and ports have not fared as well. Critics praised the games’ sense of speed but criticized their uncooperative camera and physics systems. Sonic 06 was universally panned for a multitude of technical and level design issues that stemmed from a rushed release.

In 2008, Sonic Unleashed debuted a new style of 3D platforming, often referred to by fans as “boost Sonic.” Sonic gained a new signature move, the “Sonic boost,” which granted him an instant, visually spectacular burst of speed that could be sustained as long as he collected rings. Critics widely derided Unleashed for its inclusion of a “Sonic the Werehog” mode that turned Sonic into a slow, repetitive beat-em-up character. However, they were generally receptive to the new boost style, even as they chided it for a lack of polish. With minor tweaks, boosting was subsequently featured in Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, both of which were well-received.

Sonic fans have been divided over the boost gameplay. Some really enjoy the style, but others criticize the boost for abandoning Sonic’s traditional emphasis on momentum and exploration in favor of a singular focus on speed. They usually prefer the Sonic Adventure style, which plays slower and requires some skill and finesse to build up velocity. While these critiques have some merit, I believe that boosting Sonic is the best version of Sonic that’s ever been in 3D. It succeeds in being fast and fun as well as accessible to old and new Sonic fans alike. Examining the history of the Sonic boost, from Unleashed to Colors to Generations, demonstrates how Sega has improved the gameplay style over time to make it the most polished rendition of Sonic yet — and the reason I’m excited for this year’s Sonic Forces. Continue reading “In Defense of Boost Sonic”

Polymathic Scholars Transit Talk

I have been meaning to publish this for awhile, but it sat on my back burner.

On March 3, I gave a talk to my fellow Polymathic Scholars on the importance public transportation. It’s sort of a hybrid presentation that explains both how to use transit and also how it’s planned.

Check out the slides here.

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”