Driverless Taxis By 2017?

Here's the latest on the driverless car front:

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. within a year will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry.

This is all in addition to a whole bunch of companies claiming they'll have fully autonomous vehicles commercially available by 2020. If this really happens, it's impressive as hell. I'm a longtime optimist on artificial intelligence, but even I figured it would take until 2025 for truly driverless cars to become a reality. Will I have to pull in my prediction of 2040 for full-on strong AI too? Maybe. The next few decades are going to be very interesting indeed.

When last we saw our friends from Marvel, they were doing…something. What was the last film? Ant-Man? I don't really remember much about Ant-Man, except that Paul Rudd fought the drug-addled congressman from the first season of House of Cards.

When last we memorably saw our friends from Marvel, they were…fighting James Spader…in a fictional European country. Tony Stark wanted to help people so he built a robot (James Spader) to protect people. But then the robot decided to kill people, like they do, and blah blah blah, eventually the Avengers beat James Spader but not without a lot of people in this fictional European country dying.

So here we are now in a bold new world, post-James Spader rampage.

Captain America: Civil War.

Thor and the Hulk and some other pals seem to be off somewhere, but the rest of the team is up to their old tricks. In the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, the eponymous main superhero leads what could be called "The Avengers: The New Class," including Wanda Maximoff (the Olsen sister who has witch powers), The Vision (aka Paul Bettany's sex robot), and Captain America's buddy Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as they head to Africa to kill some Hydra member of no particular importance. One thing leads to another, and civilians die.

Dammit! Not again, Avengers!

The world will not stand for this. (Sad truth: The only time when the world won't stand for civilian death is when it comes to superhero films.)

So leaders of the world get together and pass a treaty to combat climate change incorporate the Avengers into some sort of United Nations command structure.

Captain America is not thrilled with this idea because Captain America doesn't need some bureaucrat in Brussels to tell him when to right a wrong. (Also, and coincidentally, his best friend—the Winter Soldier, aka Bucky Barnes, being played by Sebastian Stan—is a fugitive superassassin on the run.) Tony Stark, having been chastened by the events of the second Avengers film—it was him, after all, who built James Spader and was ultimately responsible for the deaths of all those fictional Europeans—sides with the pro-regulation (anti-Captain America) team. Voila, tension. Plus, not only does Tony Stark not wear his Iron Man suit very often, he doesn't even tie up the tie on his normal suit all the way. It just sort of sits there, loosened.

Then when the powers of the world gather to sign the "Sit on it, Captain America" act, there is—surprise!—a terrorist attack. In superhero movies, world leaders are not allowed to gather without there being a terrorist attack. (Every superhero film is the way a young Dick Cheney imagined every prom night would be: Everyone's very attractive and there's a terror attack.) One of the world leaders who perishes is the King of Wakanda. Chadwick Boseman, as the slain king's son vows to avenge his father.

Dun dun.

So who did the blowing up? Captain America's buddy the Winter Soldier of course! Or was it? The law enforcement community seems to think so, but Captain America doesn't care what the law enforcement community thinks. He catches up to Sebastian Stan and Sebastian Stan is like "no way did I do that" and Captain America is like "I believe you. You were in Gossip Girl."

Imagine a lot more of this. For a pretty long time. Eventually the stage is set for the titular civil war wherein Tony Stark, War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Panther, Vision, Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), and Spiderman (Tom Holland) try to stop the fugitives—Captain America, The Winter Soldier, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Ant-Man, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)—from…trying to prove Sebastian Stan's innocence, I think? It isn't really clear.

Throughout this film, people often say to Captain America, "Should we tell Tony Stark about this new and revealing information?" And Captain America says, "That neo-liberal shill wouldn't understand." Everything could be sorted out if they just talked, and there's a perfect place to do so in the second act. But of course, this is a Captain America movie, and Captain America is the star and he gets to be right despite obviously not being right. The film goes to great lengths to make Captain America accidentally correct about a lot of things. The choices Captain America makes when he is making choices are bad choices but the film flips over itself to justify him by sheer luck. In this film, Captain America fails upward.

My main problem with this movie: Captain America is sort of just a selfish hypocrite. Also, boring. And he isn't even super. (He is strong, though.) And he could just be shot with a bullet. (There are a bunch of times in this movie when he loses his shield.) His whole team, in fact, save the Olsen twin who is a Witch, could just be shot to death by any old infantry unit.

Also, with so many superheroes in this movie, writers clearly had to find reasons to peel them off. Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) just sort of shrugs and walks away after one fight. I have no idea where Vision went after the second act. As far as I can tell, no explanation is made for why he is gone. Falcon, War Machine, Spiderman, Ant-man, and Hawkeye are all given some nonsense dialogue to deliver about why they are crapping out, but Vision just sort of ghosts out. Of course, they have to peel off so we can have Tony Stark fight Captain America.

No surprise: They are all being tricked into fighting each other by some shady German character (the dude who played the other race car driver in the 2013 film Rush) with dubious motives, but that's because it doesn't matter. Here's the most surprising thing: It isn't a bad film! It's enjoyable, even. When the Avengers actually fight, it's fun! The movie's themes and those of the infamously brooding Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Sadness seem somewhat interchangeable, but at least Captain America: Civil War rolls them out with Marvel's trademark humor.

Best of all: Spiderman and Black Panther! I'm looking forward to seeing their movies!

In short: If you like fun dumb blockbusters, you will like this fun dumb blockbuster.

I think everyone is badly misinterpreting this tweet from Donald Trump:

This is not an awkward and embarrassing outreach to Hispanics. It's not aimed at Hispanics at all. It's aimed at white people. This is the kind of thing that Trump's base—the white working class—views as a perfectly sincere appreciation of Mexican culture. It says, "Yes, I want a wall, and yes, I want to deport all the illegal immigrants in the country. But that doesn't mean I hate Mexicans." It's basically an affirmation to Trump's voters that they aren't racists.

Plus it gets a ton of attention, and it also induces loads of mockery from overeducated PC liberals who don't understand a compliment when they see one. It's really a genius tweet.

Does everyone understand now? Trump is playing this game at a higher level than most of his critics.

How do Americans feel about the economy? Here is Pew Research:

Americans are now more positive about the job opportunities available to them than they have been since the economic meltdown....Today’s more upbeat views rank among some of the best assessments of the job market in Pew Research Center surveys dating back 15 years.

There's no significant partisan difference in views of the job market. However, older, poorer, and less-educated folks all report less optimism about employment than younger, richer, and better-educated respondents.

Here's Why OxyContin Is So Damn Addictive

Why has OxyContin become the poster child for opioid abuse? The LA Times has a long investigative piece today which suggests that a big part of the blame should be laid at the feet of Purdue Pharma, the makers of the drug. When OxyContin was launched, it was billed as a painkiller that would last 12 hours—longer than morphine and other opioids. That 12-hour dosing schedule was critical to its success. Without it, Oxy didn't have much benefit. Unfortunately, it turned out that it wore off sooner for a lot of people:

Experts said that when there are gaps in the effect of a narcotic like OxyContin, patients can suffer body aches, nausea, anxiety and other symptoms of withdrawal. When the agony is relieved by the next dose, it creates a cycle of pain and euphoria that fosters addiction, they said.

OxyContin taken at 12-hour intervals could be “the perfect recipe for addiction,” said Theodore J. Cicero, a neuropharmacologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a leading researcher on how opioids affect the brain.

Patients in whom the drug doesn’t last 12 hours can suffer both a return of their underlying pain and “the beginning stages of acute withdrawal,” Cicero said. “That becomes a very powerful motivator for people to take more drugs.”

But Purdue refused to accept shorter dosing schedules, since that would eliminate its strongest competitive advantage. Instead, they launched a blitz aimed at doctors, telling them to stick with the 12-hour dosing but to prescribe larger amounts. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn't, and when it didn't it increased the chances of addiction:

In the real world practice of medicine, some doctors turned away from OxyContin entirely. San Francisco public health clinics stopped dispensing the painkiller in 2005, based in part on feedback from patients who said it wore off after eight hours. The clinics switched to generic morphine, which has a similar duration and costs a lot less.

“What I had come to see was the lack of evidence that it was any better than morphine,” Dr. Mitchell Katz, then head of the San Francisco public health department, said in an interview.

The whole piece is worth a read. Purdue has known from the start that 12-hour dosing didn't work for a significant number of patients, but they relentlessly focused their marketing in that direction anyway. Why? Because without it, Oxy wouldn't be a moneymaker. As for the danger this posed, that was mostly suppressed by keeping documents under seal in court cases "in order to protect trade secrets." Welcome to the American pharmaceutical industry.

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and here's what presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump tweeted to celebrate the occasion:

 

Stop tweeting. 

The CFPB has proposed a new rule that would prevent big companies from forcing their customers to accept mandatory arbitration in place of an actual trial in an actual court. Iain Murray is unhappy:

Like most of the CFPB’s rules, this may sound good at first hearing. In fact, it will be a disaster for the average consumer who enters into contracts like credit-card or mobile-phone service agreements....The inefficiency of the legal system has to be budgeted for, and so without arbitration, fees will go up and some people just won’t be offered a service at all.

....Those won’t be the only ways the consumer will suffer — those who are currently “denied their day in court” will as well. Because arbitration services are much cheaper, companies that use them generally pay all the fees for the consumer as well as their own. That’s not the case in court, where the consumer bears a considerable cost. If you are lucky enough to get a contract after this rule goes into effect, you’d better budget something for your day in court, because you’re going to have to lawyer up. Of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll be asked to participate in a class action lawsuit, which this rule is primarily designed to facilitate.

Fair enough. As it turns out, corporations all offered their services quite widely back in the dark ages before arbitration clauses, but it's true that arbitration does indeed have some benefits. Still, we're all free marketeers around here who believe in contracts freely arrived at without undue coercion. Right? So here's what I propose: my bank and my cell phone company should offer me the choice of accepting arbitration or not when I first sign up. If I accept, they offer me a discount. The CFPB's only role will be to ensure that the discount is reasonably in line with the actual cost savings from arbitration. Deal?

No? I guess there must be something else going on. I wonder what?

This comes as no surprise, but...

Facing a prospective tab of more than $1 billion to finance a general-election run for the White House, Donald Trump reversed course Wednesday and said he would actively raise money to ensure his campaign has the resources to compete with Hillary Clinton’s fundraising juggernaut....“I’ll be putting up money, but won’t be completely self-funding,” the presumptive Republican nominee said in an interview Wednesday....The campaign will tap his expansive personal Rolodex and a new base of supporters who aren’t on party rolls, two Trump advisers said.

The new plan represents a shift for Mr. Trump, who has for months portrayed his Republican opponents as “puppets” for relying on super PACs and taking contributions from wealthy donors that he said came with strings attached.

Needless to say, this about-face will have no effect. Trump has long made it clear that he doesn't really mean anything he says, and his supporters are OK with this. If he attacks you, it's only because he wants to win. He'll take it back once you drop out. If he offends an important constituency on a policy issue, he explains that he was just providing "an answer." Nobody should have taken it seriously. If he's caught in an outright lie, he simply denies ever having made the offending statement—even if he made it just yesterday and even if it's on tape.

This is all fine. His supporters accept that this kind of behavior is not just OK, but positively admirable. After all, once he wins he's going to deploy this kind of combat on their behalf. Right?

You betcha.

Will the 2016 Campaign Be All About Race?

Greg Sargent says that Donald Trump is in for a rough time:

The general election will differ from the primaries in an important sense: Unlike Republicans, Democrats will not be constrained from brutally unmasking the truly wretched nature of his racial appeals. Trump’s GOP rivals had to treat his xenophobia, bigotry, and demagoguery with kid gloves, because many Republican voters agreed with his vows to ban Muslims and carry out mass deportations. But the broader general electorate does not agree with those things. Indeed, many voters that populate key general election constituencies are likely horrified by them. As a result, Democrats will be able to prosecute Trump mercilessly in ways his GOP rivals simply could not — with a relentless, non-diluted, non-euphemistic focus on his white nationalism.

I'm a little less sure about this. Highlighting Trump's racial appeals will help Hillary among liberals, but those are votes she's going to get anyway. The question is whether it will help her among centrist folks who are undecided, and I'm less sure about that. I suppose we'd need some polling data to get a clearer picture of this, but I suspect there are plenty of people in the middle who favor building a wall; are suspicious of Muslim immigrants; and really hate it when support for those things is called racist. Hillary doesn't have to tread as lightly as Trump's Republican opponents, but she might still have to be careful on this score.

Luckily, there are plenty of other avenues to attack Trump. Unluckily, there are plenty of avenues for Trump to attack Hillary too. I expect a pretty brutal campaign. Here's the opening salvo:

Every living Republican president has decided not to endorse Donald Trump:

Bush 41, who enthusiastically endorsed every Republican nominee for the last five election cycles, will stay out of the campaign process this time. He does not have plans to endorse presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, spokesman Jim McGrath told The Texas Tribune.

....Bush 43, meanwhile, "does not plan to participate in or comment on the presidential campaign," according to his personal aide, Freddy Ford.

I agree that Republicans partly brought Trump on themselves. But only partly. They were hoping for an ideological extremist, and before this year it wasn't obvious either to them or to liberal critics that they might instead get a demagogic populist extremist. All of us assumed that eventually Republicans would nominate a hardcore conservative, and we were all taken by surprise when Trump stepped in instead.

So the truth is that I feel sorry for them. A lot of conservatives have an agonizing choice to make now: either support Trump or, effectively, support Hillary Clinton, a candidate they loathe. If I had a similar choice—say, between supporting a liberal Trump or supporting Ted Cruz—what would I do? I'd like to think I'd bite the bullet and support Cruz. But honestly? I don't know. Serious Republicans have a helluva rough six months ahead of them.