Posts Tagged ‘Public Transport’

Counterpunch on the Dangers of the Driverless Car

July 1, 2017

Ralph Nader in an article posted on Tuesday’s Counterpunch took to task the current hype about driverless cars following a day long conference on them at Washington University’s law school.

Driverless cars are being promoted because sales are cars are expected to flatten out due to car-sharing, or even fall as the younger generation are less inclined to buy them. Rather than actually investing in public transport, the car industry is promoting driverless automobiles as a way of stimulating sales again.

Nader is rightly sceptical about how well such vehicles will perform in the real world. There are 250 million motor vehicles in the US. This means that real driving conditions are way more complicated than the simple routes on which these vehicles are developed and tested. And while the car industry claims that they will be safer than human-driven vehicles, the reality is most people won’t want a car that they can’t control, whose guiding computer can malfunction or which could be hacked into, whether by the manufacturers or others. Along with such vehicles come increased pressure from the manufacturers for less protective regulation for their drivers, passengers and the general American public.

As for developing a driverless car, which can be taken over by its human occupant in an emergency, researchers at MIT have already shown that this won’t work. Instead of producing driverless cars, we’d be better of concentrating on creating vehicles that are safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

He concludes

The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades in favor of a technological will-o’-the-wisp.

He also links to a report by Harvey Rosenfeld into the dangers posed by driverless cars. It’s quite long – 36 pages. This makes it very clear, however, that driverless cars are disastrous. They’re literally a car crash waiting to happen. The report also claims that much of promotion of such vehicles comes from the insurance. Although driverless cars are likely to be much less safe than ordinary cars, the claims that they will be less liable to accidents will allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for those driving ordinary vehicles.

Driverless cars have been under development since the 1980s, but I can’t see them becoming a viable reality any time soon. Last year the industry proudly announced two types of driverless car, one of which was called the Tesla, after the great Serbian physicist and inventor of Alternative Current. These were withdrawn after accidents in which people were killed.

I have to say, I don’t know anybody who wants one. The various pieces I’ve read about them say that for their owners, using them will actually be quite boring. This is despite the claims that people will be able to read, work or relax instead of driving. But you can do all of that anyway by simply travelling by bus, rail or tube.

Then there’s the threat of unemployment. Two-thirds of all jobs are expected to be lost to automation in the next decade. There are about 40,000 truckers in Britain. That’s 40,000 people, who may lose their jobs if driverless lorries are every produced. And they have been trying to develop them. I can remember Clarkson nearly bursting with excitement while riding in one during an episode of Top Gear a few years ago.

My guess is that the reasons behind their development is far more sinister, and almost certainly connected to the military. For years the military has been trying to develop autonomous, robotic weaponry. I’ve blogged about some of the war robots that have been created and which were featured a few years ago in the popular science magazine, Frontiers. These included various types of jeep, which had been altered so that they carried guns. Such machines have been under development for a very long time. Kevin Warwick, a robotics scientist at Reading University, describes how the US army created a robotic jeep equipped with a machine gun way back in the 1950s. This looks like another step along the way to producing the type of autonomous war robots, which Warwick and some other robotics scientists fear may pose a very real threat to the human race as they become more advanced and their intelligence greater. We are creating war machines very close to the Daleks of Dr. Who or The Terminator franchise.

It also seems to me that the navigation software and computer hardware needed for driverless cars will also find a major general applications in other types of robot. Despite claims by some neuroscientists that the human brain is a load of inefficient ‘kluge’ created by blind evolutionary forces that select for survival, rather than particular skill, cyberneticists have found it very difficult in practice to replicate the way living things, from insects all the way up to humans, actually navigate their way around the world.

Think about the way robots have to work their way around objects. They have to estimate exactly how far away the obstacle is, then work out a path around it, all done using maths. A human, meanwhile, rather than estimating how many steps it takes to the object, and then planning a path of some many steps, precisely laid out, are needed to walk around it, simply does it.

An example of how difficult robots actually find such navigation in practise was given by Warwick when he appeared at the Cheltenham Festival of Science over a decade ago. There’s been a kind of robot Olympics held in Reading. The various competing teams had tried to produce robots that could navigate their own way around the town. Warwick’s team had created a robot with an infrared detector, which would simply follow the light source planted on the back of the human running in front of it. Which to me sounds very much like cheating.

All went swimmingly, until suddenly the robot veered off the road and started shooting off somewhere else entirely, before it collided with something, fell over and stopped. Warwick and his team wondered what happened until it finally occurred to them that the robot had fixed on that big, infrared light source in the sky, the Sun, and ran off trying to pursue that.

This was a decade or so ago. I’ve no doubt that things have improved since, but I doubt that they’ve improved quite so much that driverless cars, or completely autonomous robots, are going to be appearing in the next few years.

And until they do, I shall be very suspicious of the hype.

Advertisements

C.A.R. Crosland on the Anti-Democratic Nature of the British Public School System

June 28, 2016

I found this description of the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the British public school system, and its pernicious effect in creating class inequality and blocking genuine modernisation and social, political and technological improvements in British society in C.A.R. Crosland’s The Conservative Enemy: A Programme of Radical Reform for the 1960s (London: Jonathan Cape 1962). Despite the fact that this was written well over fifty years ago, it’s still, unfortunately, very true and is amply demonstrated by the current Tory government, headed as it is by the old Etonian limpet, David Cameron.

The public schools offend not only against the ‘weak’, let alone the ‘strong’, ideal of equal opportunity; they offend even more against any ideal of social cohesion or democracy. This privileged stratum of education, the exclusive preserve of the wealthier classes, socially and physically segregated from the state educational system, is the greatest single cause of stratification and class-consciousness in Britain.

It is not, of course, the only cause. The effect of being for so long a great imperial power, and the psychology of discipline, hierarchy, and master-subject relationships which this induced; the persistence (and indeed continual reinforcement ) of an hereditary aristocracy; the absurd flummery surrounding the Monarchy; the obsessive snobbery (even amongst a section of the intelligentsia) about birth and titles; the deep-seated differences in accent; the national propensity to kowtow and manoeuvre for precedence – these would produce strong feelings of social deference and superiority whatever the educational system.

But the school system is the greatest divisive influence. It is no accident that Britain, the only advanced country with a national private elite system of education, should also be the most class-ridden country. The Scandinavian countries, the least class-ridden, have no significant private sector; such few private schools as exist are mainly for backward children. In France, while many private primary schools exist, middle-class children normally go tot he public lycee at the secondary stage. In Germany there are half a dozen would-be-English public schools. But only an insignificant minority even of wealthier children attend them, and the carry no national prestige; an Old Salem boy may care as passionately about his alma mater as an Old Etonian, but his prospective employer or bank manager, let along the rest of the population, could not care less. In the United States, it is true, there are not only a large number of non-exclusive private Catholic schools, but a growing number of ‘smart’ upper-class private schools which, being often academically superior to the state schools, confer an advantage in getting into the best universities. But disturbing as this trend is, these schools still do not constitute a nation-wide elite system with the divisive social influence of the English public schools; nor, given the anti-elitist psychology of the American people, are they ever likely to.

No historically-minded champion of the public schools could possibly deny that schools can have either an integrative or divisive social influence. For it was indeed the historic function of the public schools in the nineteenth century to assimilate the sons of the new and self-made middle class into the ranks of the hereditary ruling class; and even today they fulfil an integrative role for the sons of self-made men. Similarly the American high school, whatever else may be said about it, has brilliantly fulfilled the function of assimilating ethnically diverse groups into a common national culture. (As a matter of fact, most of what else is said about it by English critics is false. They always assume that its lower educational standards are due to the fact of its being ‘comprehensive’, whereas in reality they are due, as the quite different Swedish experience demonstrates, to certain specifically American factors – the attachment to ‘life-adjustment’ education, the automatic ‘social promotion by age groups and the lack of grading by ability, the preference for vocational courses, the acute shortage of teachers, the low quality of many of the teachers, and so on.) A school system can either increase or diminish social disparities; and the British public schools manifestly increase them.

And they do not even, today, provide efficient leadership. It is again no coincidence that Britain, the only country with a national elite system of private boarding schools, from which its leadership is still disproportionately drawn, should be falling so badly behind other democratic countries in the achievement of widely-accepted national goals – behind western Europe in economic performance, Scandinavia in social welfare and urban planning, the United States in technology and innovation. In the nineteenth century the public schools, disagreeable as they may have been, did at least train a leadership perfectly fitted to the needs of a growing empire. For this training, their characteristic features – the boarding, the hierarchical discipline, the emphasis on games, the carefully-nurtured sense of innate superiority – were precisely apt. They are not, however, (although now considerably modified), equally apt for a mid-twentieth-century world full of computers, Communism, trade unions and African nationalism. This is hardly surprising. The quality of leadership is not, after all, an absolute and unvarying quality. It is specific to particular situations; and what makes for good leadership in one situation may make for bad leadership in another. The public schools today, although providing ‘a good education’ in a rather narrow sense, do not generate the right type of leadership for a democratic, scientific, welfare world.

Almost every emphasis which they inculcate – on manners and ‘character’, on the all-rounder and the amateur, on the insular, the orthodox and the traditional – is wrong from the point of view of contemporary goals. it is this which partly explains those national characteristics which are at long last becoming the subject of widespread hostile comment: the reluctance to innovate, the refusal to grapple with problems, the lack of pride in maximum professional achievement, and the cult of the gifted amateur, of the smooth and rounded Wykehamist who can turn his hand to anything with a natural, effortless superiority, and with no need to stoop to the humourless professionalism of Huns or Yanks. Fundamentally this reflects a failure of English elite education to achieve the highest of all education ideals: that of fostering inquiry, dissent, and critical intellectuality. A country in which the most damning insult which Lord Salisbury could fling at Mr Iain Macleod was that he is ‘too clever by half’ is not a good prospect in the modern world. Some of our upper classes are as anti-intellectual as the Know-Nothings.

But this attitude might be attributable to aristocracy, not to the schools themselves. Unfortunately, parallel faults can found in those fields which traditional represent the culmination of the British elite system of education: the Civil Service, and Oxford and Cambridge. Beautifully adapted to its pristine task of administering a going concern without excessive interference, the British Civil Service remains notable for its honesty, industry and administrative competence. But it has failed to adapt to a world which requires the long rather than the short view, active planning rather than passive administration, novel rather than traditional ideas. Thus the Treasury has been astonishingly behind France, Holland and Sweden in adopting long-term economic planning. The Foreign Office was ponderously slow to wake up to the existence of new and revolutionary post-war situations in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Ministries of Health and National Insurance have introduced new social policies without even a research unit to investigate their probably effects. The Ministry of Education takes decisions for or against different types of school without conducting any research into their different consequences, and has little idea of how many teachers we need to carry out its own policies. The typical Whitehall attitude of mind-thorough and precise, but pedantic and unadventurous – is in part a reflection of the Oxford and Cambridge background from which most Civil Servants come. But are Oxford and Cambridge really as good as Harvard and the Sorbonne! Their farcical performance over the introduction of sociology – a lamentable compound of hidebound traditionalism and facetious superciliousness – makes one doubt it….

The need is not for more public-school-type education for the top few per cent of the population. Indeed, the whole notion of an elite-type education is inappropriate in Britain today. For both our greatest need and our largest untapped resource now lie below the level of the cleverest few per cent – although disastrously many even of these are still slipping through the net. From the viewpoint of efficiency as well as equality, we need less concentration on an educational elite and more on the average standard of attainment.

The case against the public schools, then, has grown stronger even in the last few years. First, the type of leadership which they provide is seen to be less and less appropriate to the national goals of the 1960s. Secondly, as we grasp the fact that intelligence is partly an acquired characteristic, we see even more clearly that the whole notion of an exclusive and privileged education is inconsistent with equality of opportunity. Thirdly, despite the gradual process of democratic reform in other directions, the socially divisive influence which these schools exert show disturbingly little sign of abating. (pp.174-8).

This is clearly a dated piece, as Britain was, until we left the EU, something like the fifth largest economy in the world, and England has led the world in the number of patents that come out of our universities, quite apart from the more obvious points such as the collapse of Communism. But as this government’s policies amply demonstrate, the wealth is increasingly concentrate in a very narrow circle of the extremely rich, at the expense of everyone else. And while Britain may be scientifically immensely innovative, those innovations have tended to be developed elsewhere. Maglev transport is a case in point. The idea of trains powered by magnetic levitation was the idea of the British scientist, Laithwaite. There were serious experiments in its application by British Rail, until this was axed during the cost-cutting of the early 1970s. Research was then taken over by the Germans. Which partly explains why Volkswagen’s slogan, Vorsprung durch Technik – something like ‘Advance through Technology’, isn’t translated into English.

In short, the main function of the British public schools is to lock the upper classes in power, and the rest of the country in a quasi-feudal class servility. And one of its products, Boris Johnson, looks like he’s going to be the next PM.

Oh, couldn’t we have at last at least one leader, who went to a comprehensive!

Omar Mateen: Islamist Warrior, or Just Angry Nutter?

June 14, 2016

Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, apparently phoned up ISIS and swore allegiance to the murdering scum, before going out to commit his own horrendous atrocity. He had been investigated by the FBI before, as one of his friends had been a suicide bomber. They’d let him go. Now questions are being asked about the investigation and the soundness of their decision.

My guess here is that the FBI probably did have to face a genuinely difficult decision. Many people know someone personally who is a ‘bit dodgy’. For most people, it’s low-grade criminality, nowhere near the level of mass murder. The problem with looking at networks of people is that just because person X knows Y, who might be a known crim, or be a member of an unpleasant political or religious organisation, doesn’t mean that person X is either. Of course, ISIS are bound to claim him proudly as one of their own, because they are, after all, a gang of cut-throats with a twisted sense of morality and a need to kill and maim. But that doesn’t mean that Mateen joined them out of any deep religious or ideological reasons. He could just have joined them because he was an angry, nihilistic thug with a need to take out his rage on innocents, and ISIS gave him a pretext, a rationale for his atrocity.

Way back in 19th century France, Paris was rocked for a time by a series of bombings committed by Ravachol, an anarchist. Yet when Ravachol himself was caught, his self-declared ideological reasons for blowing up cafes and their patrons looked less than sound. He has no connection to other anarchist groups, and far from attacking the ruling classes, his bombings were of working class bars and cafes. He might have been genuinely motivated by the ideas of Bakunin and the other advocates of ‘propaganda of the deed’. Or he might simply have been a maniac with a need to kill and maim, and seized on anarchism for his rationale. Just as Mateen used ISIS.

After all, if Mateen was a dedicated Islamist, it looks like he left it rather late. Rather than phone them up before going out and shooting people, you’d have thought he’d have done it long ago. And then there’s his choice of venue. He had a very specific hatred of gays. I think this is remarkable, because in previous Islamist atrocities, they target the general population indiscriminately. They’re just interested in killing Western unbelievers, which includes those Muslims, who don’t share their warped views. You think of the 7/7 bombers. They targeted public transport. They didn’t target gay pubs. I’m not saying that they didn’t hate gays. It’s highly likely they did. But specifically targeting one particular group wasn’t their aim. They wanted to kill all infidels generally. The same with the Boston bomber. He targeted a marathon in order to kill the maximum number of people in a public place, irrespective of their sexuality.

Now it could be that Mateen was a genuine Islamist, and that from killing the patrons of the nightclub, he would have moved on to other sections of the population, apart from gays. But I wonder. At the moment, it looks to me like he was a nasty homophobe with a specific desire to kill gay people, rather than being a warrior for Islam.

Empire Files: The Tyranny of Big Oil

January 19, 2016

This is another excellent video from the Empire Files. In this edition, the presenter, Abby Martin, discusses the power and corruption at the heart of the industry, from the emergence of the first oil monopoly under the Rockefellers, to the effect control of the market, the economy and US and global politics by a few firms, such as Standard Oil, Chevron, Mobil and, of course, BP. These firms have reaped massive profits, and are able to act with impunity to trash the environment, and destroy lives and livelihoods by buying the loyalty of politicians in both the Republican and Democrat parties. Through their influence in the media and in academia, they suppress or distort climate science to allow the continuing massive destruction of Earth’s fragile ecosystem through oil spills, global warming and the effects of fracking.

Martin begins by describing how oil wealth is at the very heart of US imperialism. Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Qatar have all been set up as ‘oil monarchies’ founded on its power. She describes how John D. Rockefeller climbed to his position as the world’s first oil billionaire through strong arm tactics used against the other oil firms. Rockefeller was the owner and founder of Standard Oil. He made a deal with the railway companies, which he used to force the other companies in the nascent oil companies to sell up to him. When this didn’t work, he bought their pipelines, and then used his power there to force them to give in. Eventually, Standard Oil owned 90% of all US refineries, and had a workforce of about 150,000 men. Rockefeller was, unsurprisingly, bitterly anti-union, and so they had no union representation. And since him the power of the oil tycoons subverts democracy in the US and imperils the Earth.

Martin then interviews Antonia Juhasz, the author of the book, The Tyranny of Oil, written during the final years of the Bush administration about the massive political, human rights’ and economic abuses of the oil industry. She states that Obama is not as tied to the oil industry as Bush was, but nevertheless he was not confronting the industry’s power. She then moved on to discuss the rise of deep drilling in oil rigs off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The age of easy oil, where all you had to do was stick a pipe into the ground and out it would come is over. Most of the world’s oil is already claimed, and that which isn’t, is difficult to get to. As a result, oil drilling went further out into the ocean and deeper. And the results were blow-outs and spills. Such as the BP blowout in 2012. This resulted in the deaths of a million birds. To disperse the oil, 2 million gallons of a chemical were used which made it 42% more toxic. It also caused the deaths of eleven men. During the investigation it became clear that BP actually had no plans what to do in the eventuality of a spill. They simply counted on learning it ‘on the fly’. And the result was the world’s largest offshore oil spill to date. Juhasz states that she herself saw some of the resulting ecological devastation from a submarine. All the local wildlife that could get out of the area, did. The animals and plants that couldn’t, in her words, ‘were nuked’. There’s nothing down there except a tarry blanket of oil that will be there forever.

Martin also has as another of her speakers the left-wing journalist, Greg Palast. He reveals that BP had a spill 17 months previously in the Caspian Sea. This was covered up by the company itself, the Azerbaijani government – which he terms the Islamic Republic of Azerbaijan, because it’s so completely owned by BP – and also the American government’s State Department under Condoleeza Rice. Why the American government? Because the spill was partly due to BP using an American quick-drying cement. Despite this, the US Defense Department doubled their contracts with BP.

The Gulf Coast blow-out cost BP $17 billion in fines. This is a staggering amount of money, but not nearly as much as the company should have been fined. The Bush administration passed a number of extremely strict environmental laws. If these had been properly applied, then BP would have been hit with a fine of $200 billion. This would have made it difficult for the company to continue operating. As it was, the company said that the fine they eventually got was ‘manageable’.

The programme also discusses the immense political power the oil industry has through the banking lobby, and the power of the big corporations over the Senate. In the early part of last century, pressure from the Progressive Party and mass protests and agitation caused the US government to pass the anti-trust laws and break up Standard Oil, not least because they also wanted to destroy the unions. This was fragmented into 34 separate companies. These, however, are beginning to coagulate and reform back into a single giant trust as they merge and buy each other out. BP was a prime example of this. The company only got into America because it bought a US company, Arco. By the time Standard Oil had been broken up in 1911, Rockefeller was the world’s first billionaire. At that time the world’s oil industry was owned by only three dynasties – the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds and the Dutch royal family.

This dependence on oil and the power of the oil industry has shaped the structure of American cities. The oil industry has done everything it can to destroy public transport systems. In 1949 the system of streetcars in one US city was destroyed through illegal action taken jointly by General Motors and the oil industry. The legislation passed to protect the environment contains massive exemptions for the oil industry. The corruption goes deep into government. Three of every four lobbyist for dirty energy used to work for the US government. 430 + congressmen have ties to the oil industry. And the industry has already given $35 million to political candidates for 2016. Dick Cheney was part of the industry, duly drafting legislation in its favour. Condoleeza Rice sat on the board of Chevron. And under Obama America has become the world’s top producer of oil and gas.

The programme then moves on to fracking, and the disastrous effects this has had on North Dakota. This state has been overnight transformed into an oil-producing environment. It contrasts with the other areas, where the industry has been around longer and so people have had time to get used to it and organise resistance. The state’s beautiful countryside of rolling hillsides and buttes, including a Native American reservation, are now disrupted by flaring, in which natural gas is burnt off. In neighbouring Oklahoma there have been 600 earthquakes in a single year due to the dumping of the waste water produced by fracking.

As for politics and the oil industry, the programme states that the oil industry now is the American political process. It’s not as bad under Obama as it was under Bush. Then big oil was the American government. The power of the oil industry is still there, but it’s now more subtle. Palast describes how every Republican candidate in the US elections is frantically in favour of the Excel pipeline, to the point where one of them even said that ‘you have to love it.’ This is directly due to the Koch brothers. The Koch brother bought a big refinery on the coast. However, there are laws that prevent them from using Texan oil. So they have to import ‘heavy’ oil from elsewhere. This is either Venezuela, where they’ll have to try to remove opposite by ousting Chavez or Madura, or to import it from Canada. This is the Excel pipeline, from which the Koch brothers will each get an extra $1 billion a year. Just as the Republicans are connected to the oil companies, so the Democrats have their links to BP. Obama has approved drilling in the Arctic. Palast describes how he was at one of the communities that may be affect, Qoqtovik, where he was told by one of the local Inuit that if drilling started, ‘it was over for them as a people there’. And if there is a spill in the arctic, it’ll go under the ice cap all the way to Norway.

Martin and her guests also discuss why it is Americans are so ignorant about climate change. The problem is that the oil industry buys up America’s academics. Palast states that almost every biologist in America is on BP’s payroll through grants from the Lawrence Livermore laboratory, which were donated by BP. And what happened to biology has also happened to climate science. The oil industry will also exaggerate the importance and status of dissenting scientists through the press. One flagrant example of this was when NPR, which Palast calls National Petroleum Radio, stated that the oil spill in the Gulf would be eaten by ‘oil-eating’ bacteria. This piece of disinformation came courtesy of a $1/2 billion grant to Lawrence Livermore by BP. The press, however, never informed its readers that the release and the science was paid for by that company. America no longer has an investigative press. They simply state that some people say this, while other have an opposite opinion.

Another example of corporate control over academia was in the case of Von Heerden, a meteorologist at Louisiana’s Hurricane Center. One month before Hurricane Katrina hit, Von Heerden warned that New Orleans could be under water due to the oil industry’s destruction of the neighbouring mangrove swamps for 100 miles. And 30 days later, New Orleans was under water. Instead of celebrating this man for his warning and efforts to save the city, the state closed down the Hurricane Centre and replace it with a Wetlands Centre. This was due to the state receiving a massive cheque from the oil companies, who specified that they would also choose the staff to be employed in the new Centre.

And globally the environmental damage from the oil industry is devastating, to the point where the future of the planet is in grave danger. The UN in 2015 stated for the very worst effects of climate change to be avoided, three-quarters of the world’s fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. Yet in the US alone there have been 20,000 oil spills a year. In the Niger Delta they have had to put up with the consequences of the devastation equivalent to an Exxon-Mobil spill every year for the past fifty years, due to untouchable oil corporations. In 2013, 1.15 million gallons of oil was spilled due to derailed trains. The preferred mode of transport for the oil industry nevertheless remains road. From 2008 to 2012 550 workers in the oil industry were killed in industrial accidents. This is a deathrate eight times higher than the other industries. And yet the world’s use of oil is completely unnecessary. Stanford University developed a plan to transfer America entirely to renewable energy, state by state, by 2050. The cost of the Iraq War alone could have financed the world’s transition to renewables. However, the power of the oil industry will only be destroyed when the power of the American Empire is also destroyed.