She said, he said

Friday evening we were waiting for a table for dinner, or a place at the bar, everything was looking pretty busy. I stood at the bar by a couple that looked like they were finished eating, but couldn’t get the attention of the bar staff. “She” spoke up to get the barmans attention. I thanked her and after we’d got our drinks, and cleared up that I wasn’t from Australia, the conversation went like this:

Her: How are things in Europe?
Me: Not so good, Nice sounds terrible. I suspect though at 7pm tonight, at a bar somewhere in Europe a couple were chatting and saying “what about all the gun violence in America, it’s not safe to go there anymore”.

Her: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that perspective.

Does the Austin Mayor use Cabs?

NYC-Taxi-Drivers-2014-Calendar-9[1]In the fallout from the withdrawal of Uber and Lyft from Austin, following a defeat on Prop-1, Mayor Adler has come up with his 7-point plan to manage the vacuum.

He, along with many others are hoping that Austin is such a jewel in the Uber/Lyft crown, that they’ll soon be back, tail between their legs asking to be allowed to operate in Austin again. I’m not so sure.

This farce could have been completely avoided if Austin, and by implication Mayor Adler, and more importantly his predecessor, Mayor Leffingwell, had actually been planning for the future rather than retrospectively legislating for the past.

What I find staggering about Adlers 7-point plan is that it contains NOTHING that addresses how shitty the current taxi cab service is in Austin. There is nothing magical about Uber and Lyft, or for that matter other transportation networking companies (TNCs).

Instead of focusing on issues which, while valid, are not a major problem, Austin should have renegotiated and mandated the cab companies have to deliver the innovation that the TNC’s have bought to transportation.

I’m sick of getting a cab at Austin Bergstrom airport with a driver in a cab who doesn’t know where the address is; doesn’t understand my accent; and misses the turns that I’ve told him to make; and then says can’t do anything about the fee as its “on the meter”… How about we legislate to make transportation modern and efficient… I could care less if the drivers can’t speak English, or can but don’t understand my English…

There are way too many other many things like this… credit cards… “yeah sorry, my machine isn’t working”…. stinky cars full of trash and worn out seats, worn out suspension, no real ability to feedback or rate the service; no feedback; no drivers ID’s displayed, and buttons clipped all over them… when you get out the car after a disagreement, no way to track or feedback about the service, the list goes on and on…

Letting “them” win.

US AlertThe “media” (rather than actual news) is all over the US State Departments general, extended travel warning. The warning is pretty useless, anyone paying attention should have assumed most of this already.

Despite the worldwide spying, intelligence, phone hacking, the NSA has carried out, this is the best they can come up with?

At the same time governments are using this as a reason to demand more intrusive technology, and less privacy for us. Remember, the French bombers did not use encryption… yet the cries to break or insert back doors into encryption grow daily.

I’m travelling anyway…  If two planes get blown up,  or 100 Americans killed,  that would be terrible, but you are still more likely to die of heart disease or a traffic accident,  or shot by a white guy with a legal gun in the cinema or at a school. The fact that 100,000 people every year are wounded  or killed in America by guns every year, puts the Paris tragedy into context.

The worst thing about these vague, generalized threats is they are being used as a justification for more war, even boots on the ground. There is no easy answer, but lets remember that the middle east is a western created mess going back over 100-years.

The US never really fixed Korea, or Vietnam, or for that matter Afghanistan. The memorial wall for the Vietnam soldiers alone killed in action contains some 58,000 names. Does anyone really think that letting in Syrian Refugees in would cost 58,000 lives? If you have kids, are you willing to let your kids be part of the draft?

It’s impossible to imagine we can fix the Middle East by bombing alone. [See this, and this].

Remember, if you have NOT been protesting the bombing done in our names, you have no right to protest the refugees.

Don’t be intimidated over travel, ask yourself,  what would chuck Norris do…  Otherwise you are letting them win…

Them being the war mongering American politicians,  and ISIS.

Will self driving cars save Austin from itself?

If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

There has been a lot written recently about (semi) Autonomous Vehicles (SAVs) aka Self driving cars. Especially yesterday following the Tesla announcement, see also this NPR report.

Self driving cars have long been held out as a solution. They arrive when you need them, they take you to your destination at regulated speeds, they can adjust to traffic congestion, and collisions, road work etc. Once you’ve arrived, they disappear not requiring a parking space either in a building, or on the street. Nirvana.

Proposing self driving cars as a solution to traffic congestion, where the congestion is caused by constraints is simply a nonsense. They are a first world solution, to a first world problem. “Why can’t I text/read/sleep while I’m stuck in traffic?”

There has long been discussion among the urban transportation advocates, while they promise to reduce accidents and better manage traffic density and improve capacity through stable and reduced “headway” (the distance between cars). Anyone who proposes they can solve traffic congestion without understanding the constraints and capacity issues, just doesn’t understand the challenge. This Forbes article screams “Self-Driving Cars Would Slash Traffic, End Street Parking” yet aside from the obvious nod to headway and predictability doesn’t address the problem. This Qoura discussion covers many of the points

Here is a response I wrote yesterday on the issue to the #ATXRail mailing list. It refers to an earlier post that discussed in some technical detail the problems of scheduling and capacity.

Again, I find myself being the naysayer, Roger Cauvin made some extremely salient and possibly too technical points about any transit system design, but especially as it relates to individual transit options such as autonomous cars. The problem that most simply don’t understand is the scheduling and availability of these cars at scale.

First, whats scale? How many would be needed to make a real difference? Scale certainly isn’t a hundred, it’s not a thousand, it’s probably 10,000 maybe more. Second, lets assume these are free movement vehicles, they don’t run on track or are constrained by guide rails. Third, lets assume that they are capable of transporting 2-3 max. but the assumed capacity is one passenger. Fourth, lets also assume these are not individually owned vehicles, or at least if they are, they are available ala Uber/Lyft for other people to book. Fifth, lets assume they are electric and capable of driving themselves to charging stations where they either connect or are connected to a recharge point.

Now we have the basics of your capacity based system and you can start working on its constraints. What you don’t have is any real clue about the usage patterns, how they’ll be used, who by, for what, at what time and so on. Until you can produce even a first pass for this you cannot make any assumption that autonomous vehicles can solve anything except perhaps more consistent traffic flow, and improved emissions. Anyone who claims autonomous cars can solve anything without this data is simply blowing smoke and must be pushed back on.

They are great for private vehicle journeys. I have a Mercedes that will already follow a GPS journey, has variable cruise control that will slow down and speed up the car based on the MAX speed of the vehicle a set distance in front and will bring the car to a stop based on either breaking vehicles or an obstruction in front; it pretty much does everything except steer, but it vibrates the steering column to let you know when to turn and when you’ve are moving out of a lane etc. This type of vehicle which we’ll see for all new vehicles in the next 5-7 years, if not before, will much better regulate driving.

They’ll minimize the concertina effect of drivers speeding up, jumping lanes and breaking too hard which will make congested roads flow much more smoothly. In practice they can also stop people jumping traffic lights, travelling faster than the legal speed limit and other traffic law infringements.

This begs question will drivers allow this to happen, and can insurance companies be convinced to drive the adoption of it?

So assuming all that gets done, autonomous vehicles will become totally acceptable and usable. And then we’ll have the scheduling issues that Roger alluded to. They are real.

Having self driving parks valet park themselves is cool, the question is where? At scale, say 5,000, you need at least say 2,000 spaces, and over night, probably 4,000. Lets those spaces also need to be charging points. Someone has to invest in building and powering those points. The “free” market will(really?). Then all you have to go is schedule cars between where they are, the users, the users destinations, and the parking spaces. When the primary destination is still downtown Austin, you have some massive constraints, not magical relief.

Although I don’t work in that area now, I work on computer systems scheduling for 15-years, specializing on at-scale systems. These were airline, banking and transaction systems. That had very similar constraints in so much as they all used run one one or two mainframe systems. I was the lead architect for a system we spent more than 2-years modelling an internet banking system that eventually successfully supported 900,000 concurrent users on two servers. I helped fixed the design and scheduling for a single system that supported 23,000 concurrent users, a record at the time. Before you all say but yeah cloud computing has changed all that, it really hasn’t.

The design and use pattern considerations Roger discussed are key. If you had 100 destinations you’d have removed some of the major bottlenecks, but we don’t. We have the Central Business District. It’s a major constraint and getting people in cars in and out of it no matter how automated the cars are will have the same fundamental problems and constraints. Anyone who says otherwise really doesn’t understand the problem.

It’s true, as automated cars become standard features of our cities, it will be easier and easier to write the scheduling rules to make them work within the unique constraints each city has. Austin will have more than many cities constraints because of the sprawl, because of the access road problems, and especially if we have not viable alternatives.

On the “self driving” Mercedes observation, I had never thought of trying this.

Update: 1:23 added in Qoura link.

DVT and the American Way

As we approach the holiday season, I am reminded to check the American Way magazine to see if they’ve updated their advice about Deep Vein Thrombosis, aka DVT. My legs are sore from Sundays race, so better safe than sorry.

Looks like I’m still in with a chance to win the 100,000 award miles for my letter to the editor last month, after all they have not changed the advice. Here is what I wrote:

I’m in 22a of AA 1149, I’ve been here for about 3.5 hours since boarding. The guy in the exit row seat in front, despite a polite request, refuses to put his seat upright.

The space left between us is so small, I can only use my laptop as an oversize MP3 player, lid closed. I’ve read American Way cover to cover and it’s a great issue.

I did though find the diagrams for avoiding DVT hilarious. I can barely do the ankle rotations in the space I have, knee/chest lifts even knee lifts are simply not possibly. Perhaps you could update the diagrams?

Yours, 3-million miler(almost) 6ft triathlete with a 35 inch waist…

and yes, the following illustration is still there in the December 2014 issue.

See page 106
See page 106

After all, you wouldn’t want find out that you needed seat savers in order to prevent a real problem.seat

Austin Traffic: Poor planning

So prop-1 failed, no bad rail, no gloating from me. We still have a major commuting problem. Repeat after me though, we don’t have a traffic problem.

One of the problems we have, that comes from growth is so many places are having infrastructure work. Google are all over south Austin laying underground conduit for fiber optic cables, mostly though they are not the problem, apart from a half day here or there where the close off a lane.

The RapidBus dedicated lanes have caused some problems downtown, but slowly people have got used to not using the bus lanes, although you still see the occasional complete screw-up with cars stuck in the bus lane, usually turning into the lane too quickly to make a left or right turn, and then along comes the bus.

However, at least as noted before, what we have downtown is a really poor  planning and implementation of the infrastructure work. As I said in this post back in January, This is another example of small city planning, big city desires. Lavaca St a core south/north route has now been effectively reduced to one lane for the most part of 18-months.

Google maps unfortunately has some gaps, but streetview shows last year, with a picture from this morning. I wrote to city planning today, but I’m guessing there will be some plausible reason.

The city needs to take control, there needs to be better coordination, less adhoc, private work, traffic lane planning and so on. I’d even have the city coordinate through the special events office to make sure that even temporary closure of roads to move cranes, scaffolding and other large construction materials in and out are coordinated. Finally, I’d implement a series of fines for companies that over run on repairs, irrespective of whom they are working for, or what the reason was.

Congestion has a very real financial impact, if Austin really wants to be a big city, it has to start acting like one.