Tag Archives: statistics

Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.


Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

Math, Statistics and the Social Sciences  at The Kentwood Challenger Elementary School.

We had our early December meeting at the nearby Challenger Elementary School, held there specifically to showcase the ARCH ( A.R.C.H. (Academic enrichment, Recreation and the arts,Community and family services, Healthy Relationships) Programs. These are free to qualified public school students and made possible through a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant and sponsored by the Michigan Department of Education. Our program is unique because it’s one of a few in which a city,  Kentwood (basically Parks Department), partners with our public schools to make this supplemental learning program available to the 15 schools in our city limits. ARCH is funded ultimately by our federal government. It is an attempt to help the bottom 30% of the students (mostly minority from the presentation and observation.) The kids stay after school for up to 3 hours, get a free dinner and snacks, participate in sports and get supplemental teaching in various academic topics, of which math seems to be the main deficit requiring attention.

We in the commission have to approve the funding and resource allocation of this 2.5 million dollar a year program which is currently in its second of a five year cycle. ARCH in Kentwood first started about seven years ago as smaller program and was expanded last year to involve all 15 of the public schools in our city.

It was important to the folks involved to make city commissioner buy into ARCH and so they mounted a two pronged assault. The first was for us to meet at a school and walk through the building observing this program operate so that we could experience the process. You know,  the Montessori touch, participate, “play with it with your hands method” of proselytism, if you know what that means,  


The second was more conventional didactics; teachers and a few students were present and spoke. The main speech was from yet another coordinator of the program who gave her statistical analysis of how effective the program has been in bringing poorly achieving, minority and often non English speaking students up to grade level. This attempt to create legitimacy by doing an analysis, purportedly a “scientific study” caught my attention. A rough summary suffices for my purposes.

Some 1600 kids in our Kentwood PS (charters, parochial schools need not apply) students, nominated by teachers because they were in the lowest 30% in their classes, are invited to join. About 68% sign on; 500 don’t bother to enroll. Actual participation is about 600 per day, which I calculate to be about 37% of those eligible. The further confounding issue is that the kids in ARCH are in unstable families, they move frequently to other schools or cities, and have problems with English. There is a huge turnover of kids in the programs. The numbers for older kids were too small for reliable numbers and no one mentioned the high school dropout rate for Kentwood schools.

A lady named Maria had crunched the numbers. She compared the grades of kids in the program with kids who were too successful to merit inclusion with the poorly performing cohort. The original grades differences were fairly marked before ARCH and improved, although not nearly to equality. The implication was that ARCH was worthwhile and might be a harbinger of continued academic achievement among the poorest performers.

No one, including your reporter, openly challenged these unwarranted assertions. There was a general air of satisfaction in the room; we in government had done something good. It’s hard to stand up and explain why and how this assertion was not warranted based on the “scientific analysis.” I did privately share some of my doubts with Maria, but, in public, I’m a coward. It’s a familial trait that I’ll never overcome, so a week later I blog to expiate my guilt.

My main concern here is not whether or not ARCH is good for these kids and worth the 4000 dollar per year per kid cost; my complaint is that 30 or 40 college graduates in the room were happy to spend other people’s money based on an essentially worthless and potentially misleading analysis. The overall arc of reasoning in this and similar studies is; we have an idea that might work, namely prolong the school day to deliver more of the quantity called “education” which will improve the kids. We then have to try it out. After a while, we’ll need to support the original hypothesis by analysing whatever data we can cobble together, and when we find that the data can’t support the effort, we assert the legitimacy of the original hypothesis anyway and spend more money on it..

As with almost all social sciences research, is that these “studies” have become thinly disguised marketing studies, in this case, an attempt to convince the city commission to support this program as it is now structured. The criticisms that I as a somewhat trained researcher (12 articles in the juried medical literature) advanced have to do with selection biases. Why did some parents decide to send their kids to ARCH, and how do these differ? Why compare them to successful kids? Wouldn’t the proper comparison group be those who were eligible for the program but whose parents didn’t let their kids participate? Or, maybe compare to those kids whose parents who signed them into the program but who didn’t bother to show up?

Beyond the selection biases lie statistical problems of treating changing populations of kids as they move in and out of the district as though they had all benefited from the entire program.  Maybe the reported improvements were caused when smarter kids moved in, or maybe not. The unanswered question of drop outs in the senior high school levels was troubling; what are the dropout rates in Kentwood public schools?  We had no way of knowing.

There are more abstract considerations like why ARCH is not offered at charter or parochial schools in Kentwood. What effect does keeping these kids away from their families for 11 hours each day have on their emotional involvement in their own families?

The physical sciences concern inanimate objects and delve into reproducible, boring and non human phenomena. They can be used to make things like rockets, computers and allow wealth creation to pay for stuff like ARCH.

The social sciences attempt to explore the most fascinating of all subjects, man himself. The social sciences try to imitate the physical sciences by marshalling man’s actions as though they were cause and effect instead of being motivated. The subject never changes his nature but constantly changes his attentions and intentions; the interplay is too complex and shifting to be predictable but is endlessly thought provoking. The social sciences produce studies riddled with non valid and not reliable results.They are useless in predicting much of anything and at best deal in hopes and fantasies. The social sciences can entertain us with analyses of why something, say,  the Great Depression, the rise of Islamism or slavery happened in the past. None of these analyses agree and these differences provoke argument, foster major industries in the conspiracy theories, government programs and of similar charlatans. They make money from gullible students who major in these topics and from doing marketing studies that influence the news media, government officials and an inattentive public.
In other words, the social sciences do not produce evidence that can be used for human engineering, but only for human entertainment. I suppose that most of the 30 or 40 college grads that evening at Challenger School left with a warm fuzzy feeling and a few of us fantasized that it was of the wool being pulled over our eyes.