January 15, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:22 PM


Drivers With Hands Full Get a Backup: The Car (JOHN MARKOFF and SOMINI SENGUPTA, 1/13/13, NY Times)

Someday soon, few drivers will have to worry about car crashes and collisions, whether on congested roads or on empty highways, technology companies and car manufacturers are betting. But even now, drivers are benefiting from a suite of safety systems, and many more are in development to transform driving from a manual task to something more akin to that of a conductor overseeing an orchestra.

An array of optical and radar sensors now monitor the surroundings of a growing number of cars traveling the nation's highways, and in some cases even track the driver's physical state. Pedestrian detection systems, like the one that Dr. Levinson, a research scientist at Stanford's Center for Automotive Research, has helped design, are already available in luxury cars and are being built into some midrange models.

The systems offer auditory, visual and mechanical warnings if a collision is imminent -- and increasingly, if needed, take evasive actions automatically. By the middle of this decade, under certain conditions, they will take over the task of driving completely at both high and low speeds.

Posted by orrinj at 9:15 PM


Nissan Leaf Is Now Cheaper, Made In The U.S. (Chelsea SextonPosted 01.15.2013, Popular Science)

Not that he's known for anything else, but Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn once again aggressively underscored his company's commitment to electric vehicles by dropping the MSRP on the 2013 Nissan Leaf by 18 percent. A newly added S trim level of the five-seat EV will now start at $28,800 which means a net price in the high teens in states that offer supplemental incentives to the $7500 federal tax credit. Nissan is also offering a 36-month lease on the Leaf at $199/mo, far below other vehicles in that price range.

Posted by orrinj at 9:05 PM


Rubio Immigration Plan Conservatives Love Looks a Lot Like Obama's (Adam Serwer, Jan. 15, 2013, Mother Jones)

Rubio, who is widely considered to be a strong contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, hasn't introduced actual immigration reform legislation, or gone beyond the broad strokes outlined in his interview with the Journal. Nevertheless, in the days following the interview's publication on Saturday, conservative pundits have showered Rubio with praise. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin called Rubio's proposal "bold," and the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis writes that "although there is opportunity here, this is still an act of political courage." Rubio also drew approval from 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who wrote on Facebook that "I support the principles he's outlined."

Conservatives hailing Rubio may not realize how close to President Barack Obama he has moved on immigration, but opponents of reform, such as the Center for Immigration Studies' Mark Krikorian, certainly noticed. "There's nothing substantive in Rubio's proposal that wouldn't immediately be agreed to by President Obama," Krikorian says. "This is the Rubio-Obama immigration plan." In fairness, Krikorian notes, it's also broadly similar to the George W. Bush immigration reform plan conservatives derailed in 2007.

...we'd have avoided the credit crunch.

Posted by orrinj at 2:52 PM


What fiscal cliff? Shoppers push up retail sales, prices fall (Tiffany Hsu, January 15, 2013, LA Times)

Also on Tuesday, the Labor Department released data showing wholesale prices taking their third monthly dive in December. The so-called producer price index slipped 0.2% last month after a 0.8% slide in November.

The slide was largely due to a 0.9% decline in prices for finished consumer foods - the first since May and driven heavily by a 4.8% drop in beef and veal prices. Lower prices for vegetables and cheese also contributed.

Posted by orrinj at 9:32 AM


The End of Labor: How to Protect Workers From the Rise of Robots (Noah Smith, 8 JAN 14 2013, Atlantic)

For most of modern history, inequality has been a manageable problem. The reason is that no matter how unequal things get, most people are born with something valuable: the ability to work, to learn, and to earn money. In economist-ese, people are born with an "endowment of human capital." It's just not possible for one person to have everything, as in the nightmare example in Econ 101.

For most of modern history, two-thirds of the income of most rich nations has gone to pay salaries and wages for people who work, while one-third has gone to pay dividends, capital gains, interest, rent, etc. to the people who own capital. This two-thirds/one-third division was so stable that people began to believe it would last forever. But in the past ten years, something has changed. Labor's share of income has steadily declined, falling by several percentage points since 2000. It now sits at around 60% or lower. The fall of labor income, and the rise of capital income, has contributed to America's growing inequality.

What can explain this shift? One hypothesis is: China. The recent entry of China into the global trading system basically doubled the labor force available to multinational companies. When labor becomes more plentiful, the return to labor goes down. In a world flooded with cheap Chinese labor, capital becomes relatively scarce, and its share of income goes up. As China develops, this effect should go away, as China builds up its own capital stock. This is probably already happening.

But there is another, more sinister explanation for the change. In past times, technological change always augmented the abilities of human beings. A worker with a machine saw was much more productive than a worker with a hand saw. The fears of "Luddites," who tried to prevent the spread of technology out of fear of losing their jobs, proved unfounded. But that was then, and this is now. Recent technological advances in the area of computers and automation have begun to do some higher cognitive tasks - think of robots building cars, stocking groceries, doing your taxes. 

Once human cognition is replaced, what else have we got? For the ultimate extreme example, imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.

The replacement of human cognition by machines is, by definition, just another improvement in efficiency.  This presents us with an interesting question--how to distribute the ever greater wealth we create ever more efficiently--but to pretend that maximizing efficiency is a problem is just Luddism.

Posted by orrinj at 9:25 AM


How can anyone who loves music enjoy musicals? (David Sexton, 10 January 2013, Evening Standard)

Other critics have nitpicked over particular aspects of the movie -- finding its use of close-ups claustrophobic, Russell Crowe a bit tuneless, Eddie Redmayne surprisingly good ... But nowhere properly represented yet are those to whom all such considerations are irrelevant -- because, quite simply, we can't bear musicals at all. The very idea of having people acting and then singing at the same time, and quite possibly dancing too, repels us.

We don't get it. These things don't make any sense together. We find people doing this on stage and on screen no more acceptable than we would find it in life, if we were chatting to a neighbour or asking for directions. It's embarrassing and stupid.

And our objection is essential, not accidental. No, we wouldn't be converted if only we saw the right musical. It's not just that so many of the big musicals, Les Mis pre-eminent among them, have such bad music, banal lyrics and wallowingly melodramatic plots, although, heaven knows, they do. And that's without even venturing into the entire world of inflated tastelessness created by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which nobody over the age of five who has any taste at all could possibly like.