Category Archives: U.S. News
All the things that still baffle self-driving cars, starting with seagulls

This Feb. 14, 2016, photo provided by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority shows damage to a self-driving Lexus SUV, operated by Google, that collided with a public bus in Mountain View, Calif. Cameras aboard the bus recorded the Lexus edging into the path of the bus and hitting its right side. (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

To watch a self-driving car park itself seems like magic. Pull back the curtain, it’s a lot messier. Cars mistake snowflakes for obstacles, lose lane markings, and miss cars on the side of the road.

Engineers are racing to make cars perform better than humans, with the aim of saving millions of lives each year. Human error is to blame for 94% (pdf) of annual US traffic fatalities, according to the US National Center for Statistics and Analysis. Autonomous vehicles promise to prevent most of them. Even today’s off-the-shelf features, such as lane departure alerts (now widely available), could cut fatal crash rates by 86%, estimates the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Yet we’re still a long way from “self-driving,” despite marketing to the contrary. Driver-assist technologies capable of steering, braking and following traffic rules (with human oversight) are now entering the market, led by Tesla. Yet “it’s important to note that none of these vehicles is capable of driving safely on its own,” says David Zuby, IIHS chief research officer. “A production autonomous vehicle that can go anywhere, anytime isn’t available at your local car dealer and won’t be for quite some time.” IIHS tested five of the leading brands’ systems on track tests over hills and curves. While none crashed, almost all of them missed the mark multiple times by crossing or touching lane lines, or disengaging during driving.

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That’s still impressive, and machine learning continues to revolutionize what’s possible. Uber and Alphabet’s Waymo are ferrying passengers in self-driving vehicles (with safety drivers) in cities from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Phoenix, Arizona. Yet the first fully self-driving cars may come first to retirement homes, corporate campuses and private communities: controlled environments where computers can easily map their world. “I challenge any car company to drive through a complex urban environment without a diver under any weather conditions,’” says of Ryan Chin, co-founder and CEO of Optimus Ride, which reportedly has a dozen or so campuses and communities ready to pilot its self-driving technology. “We’re not there yet as an industry. Even the best systems aren’t there yet.”

What fools today’s semi-autonomous cars? Raindrops and obstacles, and even masking tape and seagulls, all throw algorithms for a loop. Quartz assembled some of the most prominent challenges for self-driving cars below.

Altered stop signs:

Computer science researchers subtly altered (pdf) stop signs to see if minor alterations could confuse self-driving cameras, even if a human driver might miss the change. Fake graffiti caused algorithms to misidentify the stop sign as a speed limit sign two-thirds of the time, while applying random tape, called an “abstract art sticker attack” by the researchers, resulted in the miscategorization 100% of the time.”

Falling snowflakes

Snowflakes and raindrops are notorious for scattering sensors’ signals. They can create the illusion that obstacles exist all the way around a vehicle. Algorithms are getting better at using lasers to paint a high-resolution 3D map of the environment to differentiate between H20 and solid objects, but winter remains one of self-driving cars’ biggest challenges. Snow blurs where computers perceived the road to start, and alter traction for tires. “In a lot of [cold and temperate] regions, it’s going to be a lot longer before we see autonomous vehicles than some people would like you to believe,” says Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant research. “You’re not going to have autonomous vehicles running around Toronto in the wintertime in 2020.”

Seagulls:

Birds, too, can confound computers. In Boston, NuTonomy had to reprogram its cars to disperse stubborn seagulls. “For the local breed of unflappable seagulls—which can stop autonomous cars by simply standing on the street, unbothered by NuTonomy’s quiet electric cars—engineers programmed the machines to creep forward slightly to startle the birds,” reports Bloomberg.

Foam

Researchers at the University of South Carolina disoriented a Tesla S by covering obstacles in sound-dampening foam so ultrasonic sensors did not detect them. Similarly, $40 worth of Arduino computers and an ultrasonic transducer (for generating sound waves) could trick a Tesla into avoiding a parking spot, or jam ultrasonic sensors to miss actual obstacles at close range.

Exiting vehicles:

Cars orient themselves using other cars. That’s fine at higher speeds on the highway, but may lead to an unexpected swerve as cars begin to follow another car onto off-ramps. “When a car is traveling too slow to track lane lines, active lane-keeping systems use the vehicle in front as a guide,” IIHS states. “If the lead vehicle exits, the trailing car might, too.”

Hills

IIHS test drivers in the hills of Central Virginia found even advanced driver assistance systems could miss lane markings as vehicles crested hills. Without visibility ahead, cars swerved left and right to find the center of the lane, alarming drivers who were not warned to assume control of the vehicle.

Bridges

Bridges are a black-box for autonomous cars, reports Electronic Component News. Because bridges lack many of the environmental cues present on roads, they can prevent sensors from keeping the vehicle on track. The magazine compared it to “walking a straight line from one end to the other in a massive room, and the lights go out when you’re halfway across. While you don’t see anything, you have a general idea of the direction to continue, but are very susceptible to getting thrown off-course.”

Tree shadows

Tesla’s Model 3 made “unnecessary or overly cautious” braking maneuvers 12 times in 180 miles. Seven of those times were where trees cast shadows on the road, while the rest involved oncoming vehicles in another lane or crossing the road far ahead. “The braking events we observed didn’t create unsafe conditions because the decelerations were mild and short enough that the vehicle didn’t slow too much,” IIHS says. “However, unnecessary braking could pose crash risks in heavy traffic, especially if it’s more forceful. … Plus, drivers who feel that their car brakes erratically may choose not to use adaptive cruise control and would miss out on any safety benefit from the system.”

Source: https://qz.com/1397504/all-the-things-that-still-baffle-self-driving-cars-starting-with-seagulls/

These underwater kidnappers wear sea snails like backpacks

There are criminals in the Southern Ocean. As deep as 470 meters below sea level (1,540 feet), tiny shrimp-like crustaceans are kidnapping sea snails and wearing them like knapsacks.

Hyperiella dilatata and antarctica are underwater amphipods, no longer than a watch’s minute hand. They spend their lives floating around near Antarctica, trying to avoid being gobbled up by fish and other predators. It’s here that the hapless sea snails come in: These pea-sized pteropods leach a potent chemical cocktail that serves as a deterrent to hungry passersby. In a new study published in the journal Marine Biodiversity, biologists from the Alfred Wegener Institute and the University of Bremen observed the amphipods, which are immune to the sea snails’ toxins, pulling the snails onto their backs as a kind of shield against predators, and holding them in place with two pairs of their tiny legs.

For the amphipods, it’s an ideal solution: Cod icefishes and other predators quickly learn that shrimp with a sidecar don’t taste very good, and so avoid eating them. Though it’s not known whether different amphipods favor particular species of pteropod, they seem to barely discriminate, enthusiastically snatching snails up to half their own size, as well as females with a clutch of eggs.

For the pteropods, however, it’s very bad news. Completely unable to forage for food, they often starve to death on their kidnappers’ backs. (In a grisly twist, the shrimp continued to cling on to the sea snails after they have died.)

Not every amphipod embraces a life of crime. Of the 342 collected by researchers, only four individuals had snails on their backs—a merciless display of survival of the fittest, on a teeny-tiny scale.

Source: https://qz.com/1389358/these-tiny-antarctic-shrimp-kidnap-sea-snails-and-wear-them-like-backpacks/

Elmo wants to help prepare you for Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Florence, a Category Four hurricane, is currently bearing down on the east coast of the United States. As families brace for the storm, the Weather Channel and Sesame Workshop have paired up to help parents talk to their kids about how to prepare.

Elmo joined Weather Channel anchor Stephanie Abrams to talk about what hurricanes are, why they’re so scary, how to make a disaster kit, and who to turn to for help in an emergency. The video is part of Sesame Workshop’s “Sesame Street in Communities” initiative, which aims to help parents and their kids deal with difficult topics, from building healthy habits to dealing with divorce.

Florence is projected to make landfall between northern South Carolina and North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Thursday, according to the Weather Channel. Flash flooding is projected, and more than 1.5 million people have been ordered to evacuate coastal areas.

The video on Florence is the first in a series on disaster preparedness, which will cover tornados, floods, thunderstorms, blizzards, and more, and will air throughout the next few months. Nora Zimmet, a senior vice president at The Weather Channel, says that events like Hurricane Florence are a reminder of the need “to talk to our children about how to stay safe.”

Sesame Street also offers resources to help children deal with the aftermath of a hurricane. Studies have shown that the toxic stress and emotional upheaval brought on by extreme weather events can have an especially negative impact on children (pdf), and that those effects are often long lasting. In the aftermath of other weather-related disasters like Hurricane Harvey, relief organizations have focused their efforts on helping kids and families recover emotionally from the trauma of the storm, but also prepare them for the next difficult experiences that may come their way. Now, Sesame Street hopes it can do the same.

Source: https://qz.com/1386300/hurricane-florence-elmo-and-the-weather-channel-are-here-for-you/

US President Donald Trump’s Ireland visit cancelled

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The US president was due to visit Ireland in November.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-45488589

Cannabis stocks are on fire after a $220 million M&A deal

Canadian weed producer Aurora Cannabis has gained a new foothold in South America by acquiring ICC Labs, another Canada-based company, which has a competitive advantage in the region. The deal, worth C$290 million ($220 million), has sent weed stocks soaring.

The takeover is the latest in a series of acquisitions by Aurora, which has gobbled up at least 10 companies in the last two years in the rapidly consolidating industry. Aurora shares rose as much as 4.1%, and ICC added 5.6%.

Vancouver-based ICC currently holds licenses to produce medical marijuana in Colombia, and an agreement to export cannabidiol, or CBD, products to Mexico. The company also has a more than 70%market share in Uruguay, which became the first country to fully legalize recreational cannabis in 2017. According to a press release, ICC also plans to increase its production capacity to 450,000 kilograms of cannabis per year, and two new facilities are under construction in Colombia and Uruguay.

“We see ICC as the jewel of the South American market,” Cam Battley, chief corporate officer of Aurora, told Bloomberg. “This is going to be our anchor in South America and we have very big plans for that continent,” he said.

Other Canadian cannabis companies saw gains after the Aurora and ICC deal was announced. MarketWatch reports that Valen GroWorks rallied 19%, Tilray Inc. increased 15%, Cronos Group rose 1.5%, and Canopy Growth was up 2%. Cannabis stocks rose in the US too—Nevada-based Cannabis Sativa increased 11%, while Colorado-based GrowGeneration Corp rose 5%.

According to Bloomberg, the Cannabis stock index has gained 35% since mid-August, when Canopy Growth announced a $4 billion investment into Corona beer maker, Constellation Brands.

Source: https://qz.com/1385285/weed-stocks-are-on-fire-after-aurora-and-iccs-220-million-ma-deal/

US Postal Service issues commemorative John Lennon stamp

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A commemorative stamp has been issued by the US Postal Service to celebrate the Beatles’ legacy.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-45460370

Russian authorities have charged a feminist blogger with “inciting hatred”

A Russian feminist blogger is being tried for extremism

A feminist blogger in Russia faces five years in prison under a charge of “inciting hatred” with insults against men, in the latest in a spate of cases that human rights groups call an “assault” on free speech.

Lyubov Kalugina, who describes herself as a “radical feminist of a separatist breed,” is being prosecuted under an “anti-extremism” law that bans “incitement of national, racial or religious enmity.” The law was notoriously used to prosecute feminist punk protesters Pussy Riot, and last year, a 22-year-old blogger received a two-year suspended sentence under the rule for playing Pokemon Go in a church.

Kalugina, a Kazakh blogger based in the Siberian city of Omsk, says the investigation was spurred by an anonymous resident of the city of Birobidzhan complaining that 12 of her social media posts insulted “the ‘male’ social group,” she told Russian media.

She says investigators showed her screenshots of the offending passages, which include a meme of a woman with a frying pan, captioned “Beat up a brute, save Russia!” Kalugina says that 90% of the screenshots are either jokes or arguments between feminists. “I didn’t think you’re not even allowed to make jokes,” she told the website MediaZona.”It’s completely absurd to equate little jokes—even silly ones—to calls that actually lead people to go and kill other people.”

The respected anti-extremism watchdog SOVA Center said that some of her posts could be seen as calls for violence towards men, but that they pose little societal danger, since “there’s no tradition of real violence” among feminist groups. It writes that there’s no need to criminally prosecute Kalugina, but that demanding that she delete the “aggressive content” could be “quite appropriate.”

Source: https://qz.com/1379673/russian-has-charged-a-feminist-blogger-with-inciting-hatred/

US school faces backlash after black student’s ‘unnatural hair’ criticised

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A girl leaving a US school because of hair braids has led to discussion about black people’s hair.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45269540

The stacks of cash needed to buy basic goods tell Venezuela’s insane inflation story

In a desperate bid to curb its runaway inflation rate, Venezuela has lopped five zeros from its currency. The move yesterday, which came along with a 95% devaluation of the currency—known as the “strong bolívar”—was also accompanied by a hike in gas prices and a 3,000% increase in the minimum wage.

New banknotes for the currency, now called the the “sovereign bolívar”, were introduced. The redenominated bolívar is now pegged to the petro, a state-run cryptocurrency that doesn’t trade and some consider a scam.

In a more practical sense, though, the move will lighten the load. Before this week, Venezuelans needed stacks of cash to buy the most basic goods, as captured by a remarkable series of photos by Reuters. With the IMF predicting that inflation will hit 1,000,000% by the end of the year, this latest fix may not last very long.

A kilogram of tomatoes cost 5,000,000 bolívares ($0.76) before Aug. 20.

A toilet paper roll cost 2,600,000 bolívares ($0.40) before Aug. 20.

A package of sanitary pads cost 3,500,000 bolívares ($0.53) before Aug. 20.

A kilogram of meat cost 9,500,000 bolívares ($1.45) before Aug. 20.

A kilogram of carrots cost 3,000,000 bolívares ($0.46) before Aug. 20.

A kilogram of rice cost 2,500,000 bolívares ($0.38) before Aug. 20.

A kilogram of cheese cost 7,500,000 bolívares ($1.14) before Aug. 20.

A kilogram of pasta cost 2,500,000 bolívares ($0.38) before Aug. 20.

Source: https://qz.com/1364695/the-stacks-of-cash-needed-to-buy-basic-goods-tell-venezuelas-insane-inflation-story/

Idaho inmates hack prison system and steal $225,000 in credits

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The scheme was discovered after the prisoners transferred large sums of money into their accounts.

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-44975944

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