Learning to drive is (still) difficult

An interesting visualisation of all the reasons why creating safe self-driving cars is harder than the hype would have us believe.

How does a self-driving car work? Not so great.
The autonomous vehicle industry has made lots of cheery projections: Robocars will increase efficiency and independence and greatly reduce traffic deaths, which occurred at the rate of about 100 a day for the past three years nationwide. But to deliver on those promises, the cars must work. Our reporting shows the technology remains riddled with problems.

There are flaws in how well cars can “see” and “hear,” and how smoothly they can filter conflicting information from different sensors and systems. But the biggest obstacle is that the vehicles struggle to predict how other drivers and pedestrians will behave among the fluid dynamics of daily traffic …

Gill Pratt, the head of the Toyota Research Institute, said in a speech earlier this year that it’s time to focus on explaining how hard it is to make a self-driving car work.

Enigmatic Estonia

It might have a picturesque mix of medieval architecture and stomach-churning TV towers, but Estonia isn’t your average ex-Soviet country.

Concerned about Brexit? Why not become an e-resident of Estonia
And that’s the opportunity, because Estonia is working on linking its tax office with its counterparts in other regions of the world. The Estonians want to offer the option for, say, UK citizens to run their UK companies through the Estonian system, which would in turn, in the background, with no extra work for the user, make sure that the UK tax office receives all the money it is legally due. A UK-based entrepreneur, they hope, will decide to open her business in Estonia, use an Estonian bank and pay for some Estonian services, even if the company was only going to be trading in the UK, because she would find Estonia’s national infrastructure far easier to deal with than the UK’s. In other words, a nation is now competing with its neighbours on the basis of the quality of its user interface. Just as you might switch your bank to one with a better mobile app, the Estonians hope you’ll switch your business to a country with an infrastructure that is easier to use.

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Innovative in other areas, too.

Estonia to become the world’s first free public transport nation
Who is profiting the most from free buses, trams and trains in Tallinn?
“A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.”

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It had its own tiny, imaginary kingdom for a while, due to an unseen clerical error.

Kingdom of Torgu, Laadla, Estonia
500-odd people who lived in the area were surprised by this negligence, but soon decided to take advantage of the mistake. They came up with the idea of starting their own country, and calling it a kingdom. The throne was offered to a journalist and political activist named Kirill Teiter, who accepted it and became the first (and only) monarch to reign over the newly formed Kingdom of Torgu. The kingdom has its own flag, a coat of arms with a “snail-dragon” as the emblematic animal, and its own currency in coins, the “kirill,” with the worth of 1 kirill fixed to the price of a half-liter of local vodka.

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But what really caught my eye was this article on its language (the summary is from The Browser).

“Did you eat the whole cake?” On learning Estonian
Estonian is popularly known as a difficult language to learn. Much of its vocabulary is unfamiliar, as the only other national languages it’s related to are Finnish and, more distantly, Hungarian. It’s even been described as the most difficult Latin-alphabet language for a native English speaker, and some of its features have assumed an almost mythical status.

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I loved the exasperation in The Browser‘s summary of that last article.

How to learn Estonian. You have to grow up in Estonia, pretty much. The complexities of the language have an “almost mythical status” among scholars. Estonian nouns decline through fourteen or more cases, each with a singular and a plural. The essential cases — nominative, genitive, partitive — are also the most irregular, often involving changes in the stem of the noun. Verbs come in 149 varieties, each with five moods. But there are only two basic tenses, past and present. The future has rules of its own.

Goodness me. And I thought learning French at school was hard.

Collapsing time, increasing order

What do you get if you cross the patient fastidiousness of Pelle Cass with the diligent meticulousness of Ursus Wehrli? This guy.

Cy Kuckenbaker’s time collapse videos let you see daily life as you’ve never seen it before
His “time collapse” videos stemmed from a desire to get to know the city in which he lives with the same vigor he brought to bear as a Peace Corps volunteer in his 20s, exploring Iraq, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

This impulse might lead others to join a club, take a class, or check out restaurants in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

For Kuckenbaker, it means setting up his camera for a fixed shot, uncertain if his experiment will even work, then spending hours and hours in the editing room, removing the time between events without altering the speed of his subjects.

Midday Traffic Time Collapsed and Reorganized by Color: San Diego Study #3

A dazzling early-morning commute

Certainly more vibrant and kaleidoscopic than my sleepy 98 bus.

D A Pennebaker transformed documentary filmmaking. This is his first film
With its frenetic pace, early morning hues, avant-garde touches, and playful use of shapes and patterns, Pennebaker’s first short, Daybreak Express (1953), made for a precocious debut. The sounds of an eponymous Duke Ellington composition form the film’s clattering backbone, as Pennebaker crafts an urban mosaic from Manhattan’s soon-to-be demolished Third Avenue elevated train line. While more experimental than much of the work he would be celebrated for later, Pennebaker’s career-long knack for kinetic editing, adventurous storytelling and skilfully marrying music and images still permeates nearly every frame.

Daybreak Express

Wonky world

Let’s start in Germany.

A partially submerged train car provides a dramatic entrance to Frankfurt’s Bockenheimer Warte subway station
Subway stations are typically just a means to an end, simple structures that allow a large overflow of commuters to enter and exit at will. It is less common for the design to be a destination in itself, like the popular Bockenheimer Warte subway entrance in Frankfurt, Germany. The station, erected in 1986, was built to look as if an old tram car had crash landed into the sidewalk that surrounds the station.

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Then up to Norway.

The world’s largest undersea restaurant
Located 5m below the sea off the coast of Lindesnes, Norway, Europe’s first underwater restaurant serves fresh seafood with a one-of-a-kind view.

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The world’s largest underwater restaurant in Norway

Then across to Scotland.

Mach 1: Arts & event venue made from a tangle of shipping containers
The shape of the new building takes inspiration from piles of rocks on the Fife coastline, the color of nearby Forth Bridge and the industrial heritage of the area. Once completed, Mach 1 will stand 15 meters (about 49 feet) high and stretch 50 meters (about 164 feet) at its longest point. Inside, visitors will find a coffee bar and double-height exhibition space used to showcase the Edinburgh Park masterplan through drawings, information boards and scale models.

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“Shipping containers are really interesting to me architecturally. They are really honest and are also really familiar to people. They also go all over the world. But this will be different to anything else that has been built of them before, which is what you really want as an artist.”

Futuristic noise pollution

This story of unforeseen consequences of new technology reminds me of those energy-efficient LED traffic lights that couldn’t cope with snow.

Here’s The Guardian last year.

New law to tackle electric cars’ silent menace to pedestrians
They are green, clean and make very little noise. It is this latter quality, initially seen by many as a good thing, that has become an acute concern for safety campaigners, who fear that the rising number of electric vehicles constitutes a silent menace.

When they travel at under 20kph (12 mph) the vehicles can barely be heard, especially by cyclists or pedestrians listening to music through headphones. “The greatest risks associated with electric vehicles are when they are travelling at low speeds, such as in urban areas with lower limits, as the noise from tyres and the road surface, and aerodynamic noise, are minimal at those speeds,” said Kevin Clinton, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

But the days of silence are numbered. From July next year, all new electric and hybrid models seeking approval in Europe will have to emit a noise when travelling at low speeds. Existing vehicles are expected gradually to be retrofitted with devices.

So, it’s now ‘next July’, and has the situation improved?

Futuristic sounds to make electric buses safer hit wrong note
John Welsman, from the policy team at Guide Dogs UK, who attended a TfL presentation last month, described the sounds as “all very spaceshippy” and said he would prefer electric buses to be fitted with a canned recording of the old Routemaster bus.

Welsman added: “They did play us a sound like someone blowing bubbles through a pipe. That just wouldn’t work. And there was an intermittent bleeping sound like an email alert that would increase or decrease in rapidity depending on the the speed of the vehicle. It was very irritating.”

Buses that sound like e-mail, cars that sound like something out of Star Wars.

Electric cars could sound really weird thanks to new EU regulations
After mood boards, focus groups, and plenty of testing, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) came up with a futuristic sound akin to a spaceship in a sci-fi film – a suitable representation of the modern, sleek vehicle. But then they tested it on people, rather than looking around for the oncoming car, they looked up – apparently wondering where the alien spacecraft was. “It was very futuristic and did cause people to look in the wrong direction… upwards rather than outwards,” says Iain Suffield, noise, vibration and harshness engineer at JLR …

Some carmakers are already trying to be a bit different. Citroen’s concept car, the Ami One, has a unique sound design for its AVAS. Here, the aim is to use a human voice — not to shout warnings to pedestrians while it glides by them, but as the basis for the sound, layering a male and female voice together into the sustained sound required by regulations. It sounds a bit like a digital backup singer, or a robot humming.

Perhaps they should copy these old electric vehicles and use the clinking of hundreds of glasses bottles.

A Bentley on the Fury Road

Like something out of Mad Max.

Russian mechanic adds giant tank treads to a Bentley Continental GT turning it into a badass ‘ultratank’
As Kosik added giant tank treads and made other adjustments to the Bentley, he carefully documented every step of the process in a series of progress videos until the final reveal on May 8, 2019.

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Bentley Ultratank. First Run. Eng Sub.

What an incredible project. Here’s Miller’s version, a little less immaculate.

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A first look at Mad Max: Fury Road’s killer vehicles: Peacemaker
In the mix-and-match world of classic Australian muscle, the 1971–78 Chrysler Valiant Charger is something of a companion to Ford’s XB Falcon that plays so prominently in the Mad Max mythology. So in Fury Road there are at least two Valiant Chargers featured. This one, called Peacemaker, isn’t so much a Chrysler of any sort as it is some classic sheetmetal stretched out over a U.S.-made Ripsaw light-tank chassis.

The first Fury Road

Someone on Quora joked about the differences between driving in the UK and US: “in the US you drive straight ahead, ridiculously slowly, on lanes three times as wide as your already huge automobile; whereas in the UK you drive microscopic cars with 25 manual gears along roads that are made for half a car’s width, and you will do it with courage, or be shot for cowardice at the next traffic light.”

It raised a smile and got me thinking of Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, and its leisurely introduction. The chase seems positively sedate by today’s standards, but it’s a thrillingly tense ride nonetheless. Don’t tell anyone, but you can watch the whole film on YouTube.

Duel (1971)

It’s a great film, but I appreciated it all the more after watching this documentary about it, listening to Steven Spielberg explain how he tackled minuscule production schedules, truck casting and makeup, and demanding studios.

Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 1

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Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 2

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Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 3

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And here’s an interesting fan-made comparison of the film’s locations, then and now.

Duel / Duell by Steven Spielberg – then and now 2018 (Manfred Furtner)

Trying not to crash out

Crash test dummies. We all know how they’re used, but where do they come from? (Not the Canadian ones.)

Here’s what purports to be a look at how society’s expanding girth is affecting model manufacture. But really it’s more an exploration of the strained economics within this singular industry.

Crash-test dummies are getting fatter because we are, too
The business of making and selling crash dummies is odd, and not only because it involves faceless mannequins acting as proxies for the mangled and the dead. Dummy makers spend years and millions of dollars developing products that customers profess to admire but decline to buy. Vehicles and drivers have changed dramatically, but the model of dummy used in many government-required crash tests has been around for four decades. The industry sells a mere 200 to 250 dummies in a decent year and generated $111 million in revenue globally in 2016, according to market-research company Technavio.

[…]

There are good reasons to use dummies like this. Millions more elderly drivers are on the road now that the baby-boom generation has entered its 70s. They tend to have bigger waists and additional thigh fat, which can allow a seat belt to slide above the pelvis to the soft tissue covering organs. To create a dummy that addresses those issues, Humanetics has spent six years and more than $2 million. “This is our halo dummy, our Corvette,” Beebe says, gesturing to the grandma stand-in. But the company has yet to sell a single one. “We’ve seen some car companies say, ‘We like it,’ but nobody has said, ‘We want to buy one,’ ” O’Connor says.

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Strange moves

A couple of music videos that have caught my eye recently.

Little Big – Skibidi

No idea. Psy meets Begbie?

Loyle Carner – Ottolenghi

Here’s some more on the making of that.

Oscar Hudson reveals (some) of the secrets behind his video for Loyle Carner
Set on a train, which looks like a classic (unreliable) Southern or South Eastern network model from the seat pattern, Ottolenghi switches from VHS footage filmed by Ben (Loyle Carner) on a real train before switching to a set built in a studio. The beginnings of the video developed from a “super simple” idea of Ben’s: he would fall asleep on a real train journey, and then “start to dream a train journey,” Oscar explains. “I wanted to do something that ‘woozed’ back and forth between dream and reality where details from real life get amplified and warped in the dream.”

Behavioural tricks within Japanese train stations

An interesting look at some of the behavioural tricks and nudges that have been designed into Japan’s train stations. The millions of commuters that move through them aren’t just helped by things like reliable trains or better signage, but by their own unconscious actions triggered by light and sound.

The amazing psychology of Japanese train stations
Compounding the stressful nature of the commute in years past was the nerve-grating tone—a harsh buzzer used to signal a train’s imminent departure. The departing train buzzer was punctuated by sharp blasts of station attendants’ whistles, as harried salarymen raced down stairs and across platforms to beat the train’s closing doors.

To calm this stressful audio environment, in 1989 the major rail operator JR East commissioned Yamaha and composer Hiroaki Ide to create hassha melodies—short, ear-pleasing jingles to replace the traditional departure buzzer.

Not all of the aural additions are as melodic, though.

To address the Japanese fear of loitering and vandalism by young riders, some train stations deploy ultrasonic deterrents—small, unobtrusive devices that emit a high-frequency tone. The particular frequency used—17 kilohertz—can generally only be heard by those under the age of 25. (Older people can’t detect such frequencies, thanks to the age-related hearing loss known as presbycusis.) These devices—the brainchild of a Welsh inventor and also used to fend off loitering teens in the U.S. and Europe—have been enthusiastically adopted in Japan.

Standing outside one of Tokyo Station’s numerous exits on a recent summer day, it was easy to see the effectiveness of this deterrent in action. Weary salarymen and aged obaachan passed under the sonic deterrent without changing pace. Among uniform-clad students, however, the reactions were evident—a suddenly quickened pace, a look of confusion or discomfort, and often a cry of urusai! (Loud!) None appeared to connect the noise to the deterrents placed almost flush in the ceiling panels above.

Strange to contemplate a sound that I’ll never hear. The article links to a YouTube video of the hassha melodies, but there’s nothing about that 17 kilohertz one, unfortunately. (Or maybe there is and I just can’t hear it.)

But it’s not just the built environment that uses these behavioural tricks. The train conductors, drivers and platform attendants do too.

Why Japan’s rail workers can’t stop pointing at things
Known in Japanese as shisa kanko, pointing-and-calling works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations to prevent errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers”—according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Japan. Rather than rely on a worker’s eyes or habit alone, each step in a given task is reinforced physically and audibly to ensure the step is both complete and accurate.

キレキレ指差呼称で安全確認キレキレ車掌The conductor of metro who to confirm safety by a splendid pointing and calling.

Something I should try myself, perhaps?

*points to keyboard, mumbles something about e-mail*

Degree level parking skills

A slightly tongue-in-cheek look at university parking facilities from Paul Greatrix at WonkHE.

Between the lines: the first UK HE car parking ranking
There is much to get excited about in here, not just about which university has the most spaces and which is best able to meet the needs of staff and students (for car parking, not the other things Clark Kerr suggested) and how early do staff at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Guildhall School of Music and Drama have to get up to secure one of their two (2!) car parking spaces. There is much, much more to chew on.

I’m continually surprised how different HE institutions are across the land. The University of Manchester is not that much larger than the University of Leeds, yet has nearly twice as many car park spaces. Oxford has half as many as Cambridge, but a lower demand means it’s a lot easier to find a space. And I liked this comment from Mike Ratcliffe:

Of those who have both car and bike spaces, special mention needs to go to Guildhall who might only have 2 car parking spaces, but as they have 147 bike spaces their 1:73 ratio is the clear sector winner. Sadly, Bolton get to be last with 1:0.4 (526 car parking spaces, 24 bike spaces)

Asleep at the wheel (kind of)

Who, what, why: What is a micro-sleep?
This sudden head jerk is how people commonly know they’ve had a micro-sleep as the brain doesn’t remember such short naps. “Sleep has to last beyond a minute or two for your brain to remember it,” says Prof Horne, who studied driver tiredness for 10 years. “With micro-sleep, you are just left with a feeling of not knowing if you are coming or going.”