Monday, October 31, 2022

Tesla Knows How You Drive—Should You Care?


In an article in the October issue of the engineering professional journal IEEE Spectrum, Mark Harris investigates the depth and volume of customer-generated data that Tesla acquires every day from millions of its cars on the road.  The reasons for all this data collection appear to be benign for the time being, but it's truly a new thing in the automotive industry, and potential misuse of the data is something to worry about.


In common with all other new cars, Teslas have what are called "event data recorders" (EDRs).   Similar in function to an airliner's black box, the data recorder keeps a constantly updated 5-second record of speed, accelerator and brake conditions, steering, and other data relevant to diagnosing a crash.  In the event of a wreck, the last data set is preserved so that investigators can reconstruct the conditions leading up to the accident.


But Tesla cars go way beyond the EDR minimum.  Every minute, the car's GPS location and certain other data are recorded.  And when (not if) the car next gets in touch with its designated wireless hub, it uploads an anonymized version of the data to Tesla HQ through the Internet.  Technically, the car's owner is not linked to the randomized ID number that accompanies the upload, according to an engineer under the alias of Green, who has examined scrapped Teslas (as well as the one he owns) to determine what the famously close-mouthed company is doing.  But as Green points out, if you have anonymized data showing that the car leaves a certain residential address at 8 every morning and returns there at 5 every evening, it's not going to be hard to figure out whose car it is. 


Besides the location data, the vehicle's Autopilot system can do something called Shadow Mode, according to former AI head of Tesla Andrej Karpathy.  While the human driver is in control, Autopilot pretends to drive the car and compares its steering and control outputs with what the human actually does.  When there's a discrepancy, Autopilot can take a data sample, including camera images and other details, and upload it to Tesla HQ to enable continuous improvement of the Autopilot algorithms.  Multiply this by the several million Teslas on the road, and you have the world's best test bed for improving autonomous-driving software.  This is yet another example of the tech world's powerful largest-network advantage.  Once a player in a networked system gets to be the biggest, that organization has a huge advantage over the other players because of the synergistic effects of network nodes supporting each other, roughly speaking. 


Of course, Musk and his engineers say that is the only reason they're collecting all this data:  to improve the Autopilot system.  But it's come in handy in court at least once, when the father of a teenager who died in the fiery crash of his Tesla sued the company.  Tesla was able to present the judge with a detailed catalog of many times when the driver tore around town at up to 130 MPH, establishing that the teen was not driving responsibly. 


In fairness to Tesla, they are only doing what any sensible company would do in the same situation.  If Ford or Volkswagen had happened to climb to the top of the U. S. electric-vehicle heap first with an autonomous car, they would probably be doing more or less the same data-gathering.  In principle, even Tesla owners can decline to have any Internet connection made to the car, but no one knows of any owner who has actually done this.  This is probably because the intersection of (people who buy Teslas) and (people who don't want their hardware connected to the Internet) is the empty set. 


Should we worry about Tesla, or any other car company for that matter, collecting huge piles of data on where we drive every minute, and how fast we drive, and how safely we drive?  There are two entities that have strong reasons to access this data, and the main concerns may come from them.


The first entity is government—Federal, state, and local.  Already, state governments are beginning to wonder how they will keep collecting highway-tax revenue as more drivers turn to electric vehicles, which completely evade the X-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax that has up to now been a mainstay of highway funding.  It's always seemed to me that if you take a libertarian point of view, the people who use the roads should pay for them.  Up to now, it was impractical to tell who was using which road, but as more cars get equipped with follow-me-everywhere software, the technology to assess road taxes by miles used wouldn't be that hard to do.  But for various political reasons, the states seem instead to be leaning toward a flat annual tax on electric vehicles that will more than make up for the lost gasoline-tax revenues.


The other entity that would like to get their hands on the data is the auto-insurance industry.  It's not hard to imagine developing algorithms that would take in a year's worth of digital driving data on you and assess a personalized insurance cost that would precisely reflect your driving habits.  This would be very popular for safe drivers and highly unpopular for the other kind.  Of course, as Autopilot and its ilk get better, the insurance companies are going to have to deal with increasing numbers of vehicles driving themselves, and the liability implications of that situation are far from being sorted out.  But it's likely that the insurance industry will develop some kind of certification process that you'll have to deal with in order to obtain insurance on a car with a given type of autonomous driving capability. 


Finally, there is the general creepiness factor that some software somewhere knows where you've been.  But as we've gradually gotten used to that with mobile phones, I suppose it won't be much different if our cars know what our phones know already.


For now, just being aware that this data gathering is going on may be the most we can do about it.  But while improving autonomous-vehicle software is a laudable goal, it won't be surprising if hackers or other malevolent actors eventually exploit the data stream that Tesla extracts every day from their cars.


Sources:  "The Radical Scope of Tesla's Data Hoard," by Mark Harris appeared on pp. 40-45 of the Oct. 2022 print edition of IEEE Spectrum.

Monday, October 24, 2022

I Take It Back (But Only With iOS 16)


Everybody has said something they later regret saying.  If the person you're talking to is right there in front of you, there's nothing you can do to unsay it.  As country singer Jon Langston says in one of his song titles, "I Can't Take Back Words."  But according to tech guru Kim Komando, the new iOS 16 operating system for iPhones (version 8 and later) lets you do that with text messages—sort of.


Ever since commercial text messaging became available on mobile phones in the mid-1990s, it has shared with verbal interchanges the fact that once you send a text, it's gone and you can't take it back.  As texting has become easier, people all over the world have incorporated it into their everyday lives, with all sorts of consequences, both good and bad.


One might think that the same message spoken to another person in your presence is no different in its effects than one texted to the person on the other side of the world.  But consider some of the differences.


Suppose you are with someone whose respect you value, and you say something you immediately regret saying.  Body language, both yours and  your listener's, is a crucial part of the exchange.  If your listener's expression shows hurt or surprise, you have a clue right away that you've said something you shouldn't have.  If the listener moves away, you can try to follow and explain yourself, or at least apologize. 


On the other hand, texting the same injudicious message to the same person who is not in your presence can have graver consequences.  The recipient may be so mad that you don't hear back at all, and so you may have no idea how your poorly chosen message was received.  It's also possible that a sentence uttered in jest is clearly a joke in person, but in cold text looks like an insult, leading to misunderstandings and possibly even a breach in the relationship. 


I'm not aware of any surveys on this subject, but I wouldn't be surprised if millions of relationships over the last three decades have been damaged by ill-chosen text messages.  Finally, Apple comes to the rescue with the take-it-back option on iOS 16 for iPhones.


According to Komando, the feature isn't quite as good as it's advertised to be.  Say you send a text message to someone and change your mind and want to take it back.  First off, both you and the recipient must be running iOS 16 on iPhones.  That's a problem with Android right there. 


If your operating systems match, the recipient will be able to see your text until you unsend it.  And you have only two minutes to do so—after that, it's carved in digital stone and Steve Jobs himself couldn't take it back (well, maybe he could, but ordinary mortals can't).


And even if you succeed in jerking the message away before your recipient sees it, the receiving phone shows a notification that you sent something and took it back.  Depending on how imaginative your recipient is, this could be even worse than letting the message stand.


What if you don't regret the whole message, but just want to take out parts of it—a few cusswords, for example?  The new iOS lets you edit messages, but only within 15 minutes of sending them, and guess what—the recipient can see all your edits if they know to tap your message.  What's the point in that? 


Tongues (and now thumbs) get us into more trouble than almost any other part of the body.  As St. James says, ". . . no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison."  (James 3:8).  Most of us are at least teenagers before we learn to control our tongues with even partial success, and some people never learn at all. 


Writing emails and texting only makes ill-chosen words worse, for the reasons I stated above, so we need to be especially careful when using electronic media.  Unfortunately, the pressure brought to bear by Facebook, Twitter and company is all the other way.  The last thing they want people to do is text mild, well-considered, and charitable statements back and forth.  The mean zingers get the attention, especially from people with millions of followers. 


Apple's move to allow retraction and editing of texts is a move in the right direction, but obviously isn't going to solve all the problems that thoughtless or mean texts cause.  If the texter is thoughtless or mean, it's going to come through in the texts, no matter what kinds of fancy software is in use.  But those of us who try not to be harsh sometimes slip up anyway, and the editing and retraction features may help some.


For what it's worth, I follow some practices that have kept me out of trouble with texts and emails many times.  I own a flip phone for which it is rather tedious to send texts—the screen is so small I have to use a stylus, and it gets about every fifth letter wrong and I have to back up and fix it.  I know this would drive 90% of the mobile-phone public insane, but the intentional slowness with which I have to text gives me time to think about what I'm saying. 


And for any emails that I want a record of, I usually keep a log of activity and write a draft of the email first.  Only when I think it's what I really want to say do I copy it into the email software and send it. 


And for any messages that contain bad news, I usually just call or meet the person face to face.  Texting and emails can be misunderstood, and I'd rather hear or see a person's reaction in real time than just hope it goes okay.


I'm glad that those with iOS 16 can now take back or change what they text, but even Apple can't run time backwards, so think before you type.


Sources:  The Austin American-Statesman carried Kim Komando's article "What really happens when you edit and unsend iPhone texts?" on p. 6F of the USA Today portion of its Sunday online edition for Oct. 23, 2022.  Jon Langston can be heard singing "I Can't Take Back Words" at


Monday, October 17, 2022

The Case for Nuclear Power


In the fall 2022 issue of the technology-and-society journal The New Atlantis, authors Thomas and Nate Hochman examine the pros and cons of building new nuclear power plants in the U. S.  The case of nuclear power is fraught with political issues that are inextricably tied up with technical issues, but the Hochmans do a good job of laying out the problems facing nuclear power and some possible solutions.


If nuclear power had not been invented until 2010, say, it would probably be welcomed as the keystone in our society's answer to climate change.  Imagine a source of the most fungible type of energy—electricity—that takes teaspoons of nuclear fuel compared to carloads or pipelines full of fossil fuels, emits zero greenhouse gases, and when properly engineered runs more reliably than wind, solar, hydro, or sometimes even natural gas, as the misadventure of Texas's Great Freeze of February 2021 showed.  What's to oppose?  Well, a lot, as the Hochmans admit.


It is perhaps unfortunate that the first major use of nuclear technology was in the closing days of World War II, when the U. S. became the only nation so far to employ nuclear weapons in wartime, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese with bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The long shadow of nuclear war has cast a darkness over the technology of nuclear power ever since, despite optimistic but misguided attempts to promote peaceful uses in the 1950s. 


The Hochmans describe the golden era of U. S. nuclear power plant construction, which ran roughly from 1967 to 1987, as a period in which the two major U. S. manufacturers—GE and Westinghouse—offered "turn-key" plants that were priced competitively with coal-fired units.  The utilities snapped them up, and the vast majority of existing plants were built in those two decades.


The turn-key pricing turned out to be a big mistake, however.  Manufacturers expected the cost per plant to decline as economies of scale kicked in, but for a variety of reasons both technical and regulatory, the hoped-for economies never materialized.  The particular pressurized-water technology that was used was adapted from early nuclear submarines, and in retrospect may not have been the best choice for domestic power plants.  By the time the companies realized their mistake and switched to cost-plus contracts, they had lost a billion dollars, and utilities became much less enthusiastic when they had to pay the true costs of building the plants.


In the meantime, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed in 1970, making it much harder to obtain permits to build complicated things like nuclear plants.  In the pre-Act days, permitting a plant sometimes took less than a year, but once NEPA passed, such speediness (and the resulting economies of fast construction) was a thing of the past. 


Then came the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 and the Chernobyl plant fire and disaster in 1986, further blackening the reputation of nuclear power in the public mind.  Add to that the not-in-my-back-yard problems faced by attempts to find permanent storage locations for nuclear waste, and by 1990 the U. S. nuclear industry was in a kind of coma from which it has not yet recovered. 


The Hochmans point to France as a counterexample of a nation that made a conscious decision to go primarily nuclear for its electric power, and even today about 70% of France's power is nuclear.  But even France is having problems maintaining their aging plants, and French nuclear promoters face the same sorts of political headwinds that prevail in the U. S.


Now that climate change is an urgent priority for millions of people and dozens of governments, the strictly technical appeal of nuclear power is still valid.  It really does make zero greenhouse gases in operation, and when properly engineered, it can be the most reliable form of power, providing the essential base-load capacity that is needed to stabilize grids that will draw an increasing amount of energy from highly intermittent solar and wind sources in the future.  Eventually, energy-storage technology may make it possible to store enough energy to smooth out the fluctuations of renewables, but we simply don't have that now, and it may not come for years or decades.


In the meantime, there are plans on drawing boards for so-called "modular" plants.  If every single automobile was a custom design from the ground up, including a from-scratch engine and body, only the likes of Elon Musk could afford to drive.  But that was how nuclear plants were made back in the day:  each design was customized to the particular site and customer specifications.


If manufacturers had the prospects of sales and freedom to develop a modular one-size-fits-all design, they could turn the process into something similar to the way mobile homes are made today:  in factories, and then shipped out in pieces to be simply assembled on site.  And newer designs favoring gravity feeds over powered pumps can be made much safer so that if anything goes wrong, the operators simply walk away and the plant safely shuts itself down.


Standing in the way of these innovations are (1) the prevailing negative political winds against nuclear power, enforced with more emotion than logic by environmental groups and major political parties, and (2) the need to change regulations to allow such technical innovations, which currently are all but blocked by existing laws and rules. 


In the Hochmans' best-case scenario, the U. S. begins importing modular plants from countries where an existing base of nuclear know-how allows efficient manufacturing, which these days means places like China.  Even if the U. S. nuclear industry turned on full-speed today, it would take a decade or more to recover the expertise base that was lost a generation ago when the industry collapsed.  Regulations and regulatory agencies would change from merely obstructing progress to reasoned cooperation with nuclear-plant manufacturing and installation.  And we would derive an increasing proportion of our energy from a source that has always made a lot of technical sense. 


On the other hand, things may just go on as they are now, with old plants closing and no new ones to take their place. That would be bad for a number of reasons, but reason hasn't been the only consideration in the history of nuclear energy up to now.


Sources:  Thomas Hochman and Nate Hochman's "Nuclear Power Comeback?" appeared on pp. 3-19 of the Fall 2022 issue of The New Atlantis.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Social Media Faces the Supreme Court


In an insightful article in National Review, Dan McLaughlin lays out the spectrum of how discussion platforms, online video, search engines, and the whole social-media megillah are regulated by a 1994 law called Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and why the U. S. Supreme Court is probably going to weigh in soon on some apparently irreconcilable lower-court decisions.  While at first glance this may seem to be an obscure matter for legal specialists, it has the potential to affect everything from childrens' mental health to the survival of democracy.


When the Act was passed in 1994, there was no Google, Facebook, or YouTube, and legislators felt that the infant web-based communications industry needed some special protections to keep it from being nipped in the bud by lawsuits.  So they passed the two parts of Section 230 which now receive intense attention, because they do complementary things.


The first part protects providers of interactive computer services (e. g. Google, Facebook, etc.) from being treated as though they originated stuff that a third party came up with.  This sharply distinguishes them from conventional print publishers, for example.  National Review itself was the target of a costly lawsuit by climate scientist Michael Mann, who claimed the magazine and its writer Mark Steyn defamed him.  If Steyn had instead posted his article as a blog in online-only form, it's possible that the magazine could have claimed Section 230 immunity.


The second part of Section 230 more or less exempts private companies operating interactive computer services from being liable for consequences of their own censorship actions.  This almost makes it seem like the services can have their cake and eat it too.  If someone objects to a third party's content on a company's site, the firm can claim they aren't publishers and they're protected under the first part of Section 230.  But if the firm squashes a client organization's posts, as for example banning Donald Trump from Facebook after the Jan. 6, 2021 riots, the company can claim it can't be held liable because of its protection under the second part of Section 230. 


In general, organizations such as Facebook have tried to steer a middle ground between the two extremes of letting absolutely anything show up (protected by the first part of Sec. 230) and being the Mrs. Grundy of the Internet (protected by the second part of Sec. 230).  As there isn't much profit in censoring salacious material, the main abuses of censorship that have been most widely objected to concern political speech or postings on controversial topics such as abortion. 


Compared to the pre-Internet days when anyone could print nearly anything they wanted, but distribution was a difficult and expensive proposition, the Internet has reduced the cost of distributing speech to nearly zero (or even negative numbers, if you consider monetizing).  And a feature of social media which is not really addressed by Section 230 at all is the fact that in order to increase hits and thus advertising revenue, social media companies have developed sophisticated and exquisitely tuned algorithms to make using their platforms as habit-forming as possible.


As with other habit-forming enterprises such as alcohol and tobacco, users of social media form a spectrum.  Some like me rarely deal with it, and others spend eight or ten hours a day on it.  With the exception of Prohibition, now conceded by all hands to be a failure, society has chosen to deal with such habit-forming enterprises by restricting their use to adults and by taxation which is not prohibitive, but definitely inhibitory. 


Most of the commerce in the form of advertising and data sales that goes on in social media avoids direct taxation, and although some voices have been raised in favor of restricting the use of social media to those over 18, it's hardly a groundswell of opinion.  So for the time being, social media will continue on its merry way doing unknown but tremendous things to the democratic process and exerting incalculable powers to mold public opinion.


While it is probably a good thing that the Supreme Court will finally get to pass judgment on some issues regarding Section 230, the two extremes that the law regulates are more like guard rails than they are like lane markers.  By the time someone is either kicked off a social-media platform or decides to sue one for something online, some pretty serious damage has been done, at least in the eyes of the person getting censored or suing.  It's unlikely that the Court will turn the steering wheel violently toward one or the other guard rail.  I don't think anybody wants to see a completely unrestricted social-media world, although the type of restrictions that are currently imposed have huge blind spots influenced by profits (I'm thinking especially of online porn).  And it's just as obvious that we aren't likely to see companies clamping down on all sorts of questionable content, because it would cut into their revenues.


The problems caused by social media today are real.  Teen suicides, the polarization of political speech and resultant paralysis of government functions, online bullying, and many other abuses cry out for some sort of solution, or at least a mollifying influence.  Unfortunately, given the choices that the Court will face, its response will probably amount to tinkering with technical legal details, rather than making any wholesale revolutionary changes to Section 230 or how it is enforced. 


In any event, the Court—or any court, for that matter—is not where we should look first for improvements in human behavior.  As G. K. Chesterton responded to a question posed by a newspaper:


"The answer to the question, 'What is Wrong?' is, or should be, 'I am wrong.'  Until a man can give that answer, his idealism is only a hobby.  But this original sin belongs to all ages, and is the business of religion."  (from The Daily News, Aug. 16, 1905)


Neither the Supreme Court nor Google nor Facebook can do anything about original sin.  But they can make it easier for people to avoid sinning, and let's hope for some progress in that direction.


Sources:  Dan McLaughlin's article "The Supreme Court Joins the Section 230 Fight—Halfway" appeared on the National Review website at  I also referred to an article about the true origin of the Chesterton quote, which is often misquoted, at

Monday, October 03, 2022

Artemis versus Apollo: An Invidious Comparison?


In Greek mythology, the sun god Apollo and the moon god Artemis were twins born to Leto after she had an extramarital affair with Zeus.  As the main point of  NASA's Apollo program of the 1960s was to land men on the moon, not the sun, Artemis would have been a better name for it. 


There's an old saying in engineering that if there's not enough time to do it right, there's somehow always enough time to do it over.  I'm not sure that applies to NASA's Artemis program, which is currently aimed at what looks to me like an Apollo do-over, but it all depends on your point of view.


One point of view that's very popular in some circles these days is what might be called the Original Sin of the White Male.  In the dark ages preceding the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and second-wave feminism of the 1970s, if you were not a white male you were out of luck.  Most doors to professions were slammed in your face, and these injustices tainted any cultural or national achievements with racism and sexism, including the successful landing on the moon in July of 1969 by—you guessed it—white males.


In many historical religions, people tried to make up for their past sins by sacrifices designed to please the gods.  If you look at the main webpage for NASA's Artemis program, the first sentence you will see is this:  "With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before." 


When I read somewhere that one of the main goals of the Artemis program was to remedy the white-males-only record of lunar flights, I didn't want to believe it.  But there it is, in—pardon the expression—black and white, right on their webpage.  When you look into the history of the program, it's a little more complicated than just wanting to make up for Apollo by sending women and people of color to the Moon.  But obviously, NASA has chosen to make that feature a big selling point to the public.


The problem that democracies have with any large-scale program that lasts longer than four years is to keep them going despite the winds of political change that blow through Washington at least that often.  In the early 2000s, NASA conceived something called Constellation, which was its effort to put people back in space after the end of the Space Shuttle, which wound down in 2011.  The Obama administration cancelled Constellation except for the Orion spacecraft, which was then folded into something called the Space Launch System (SLS).  One way or another, with various name changes (the name was changed to Artemis during the Trump administration), the program has limped along with funding that is, relatively speaking, a pittance in fraction-of-GNP terms compared to Apollo. 


Well, not that much of a pittance, actually.  One estimate places the total cost of Artemis, assuming it actually gets off the ground by 2025, at $93 billion.  If expressed in 2020 dollars, the 1960s Apollo program cost $257 billion, not quite three times as much.  So Artemis isn't that much of a bargain.  And we still haven't got a single person—of any color or sex—off the ground under its auspices, while Apollo spent most of the 1960s in rehearsals of various kinds.


Until Hurricane Ian came along, NASA was planning to launch Artemis 1, the first shot in the Artemis series, on Sept. 23.  Problems with fuel tanks on Sept. 12 led launch officials to postpone the scheduled launch, and then concerns about Hurricane Ian pushed the next tentative launch date to November of this year. 


Artemis 1 will not be a manned (womaned?) flight.  Only some satellites and flight-test dummies will be aboard.  The SLS rocket is attributed to (I kid you not) the Aerojet Rocketdyne Northrop Grumman Boeing United Launch Alliance.  If that isn't a creature of politics, I don't know what is.  The newer private-rocket company SpaceX is prime contractor for the Human Landing System (HLS), which is planned to get people from lunar orbit down to the moon.  But that won't be an active part of the Artemis 1 launch, which is mainly to see if the launch rocket works.


After a certain point, large organizations develop a kind of default mode that they will operate in unless strong external forces are brought to bear on them.  NASA's default mode, for the last decade at least, has been to seek funding for projects that have a political appeal wide enough to motivate enough federal support to provide contracts for as many contractors as possible, while keeping one eye on a goal that can be achieved if NASA only had about twice as much funding as it ever gets. 


For a time, around 2010, several of my undergraduate engineering students spoke admiringly of space programs and expressed a desire to get involved in them.  One of them, the smartest undergraduate woman I've had in my electromagnetics class in twenty years, even ended up working for Blue Origin.  But lately, the bloom has come off the space-exploration rose, and the highest ambitions many students have these days is just to land a job that will let them pay off their student loans before they retire. 


When Neil Armstrong uttered his first words on the moon—"one giant leap for mankind"—I wasn't aware of any women or girls who felt excluded because he said "mankind" and not "humanity."  He couldn't get away with that today, because the original sin of the white male plays such a prominent role in the public's consciousness these days.  It's an open question as to whether redressing this wrong at a cost of $92 billion is worth it.  Of course, a lot of other good and useful things may be done by returning to the moon with an eye toward using it as a base for wider-ranging exploration of space.  But can't we concentrate on the job at hand, and take integration of people of color and women and other minorities in stride, rather than making it the main focus, which is what NASA seems to want it to be?  The problem with that is that we'd have to decide what the main job is, and the answer to that question is far from clear.


Sources:  NASA's Artemis webpage is at 

The Artemis project cost estimate is from, the Apollo cost estimate is from, and I also referred to the Wikipedia pages on the Artemis program and the Artemis HLS development program.