When we talk about driverless cars, we usually talk about driverless cars. But I was musing the other day about other driverless vehicles, and in particular how driverless technology will affect mass transit. I suspect it will make mass transit far more useful and more popular. I'm sure others have written about this in more detail, but here are my musings:

  • Driverless buses. First of all, if we can build driverless cars, we can also build driverless buses and driverless light rail/subways.
     
  • Cheaper buses. Especially in the case of buses, labor is a big part of the expense of operating a mass transit system. If buses become driverless, mass transit becomes cheaper, and that means metro authorities can afford to run buses more frequently. Frequency is one of the key features that determines how popular mass transit is, so this is a virtuous circle. The cheaper it is to operate buses, the more frequently they can run, and the more frequently they run, the more people will use them. Rinse and repeat.
     
  • The last mile. Driverless cars solve the "last mile" problem. If I want to use a bus or train to commute to Los Angeles, I still need to get from the station to my workplace. If that's inconvenient—maybe my workplace is two miles away from the nearest bus stop, or maybe I'm just lazy—then I'll skip mass transit entirely. But it's easy to see how you could subscribe to a service that would track your progress and have a small driverless car waiting for you when you get off the bus. Hop in the car and it takes you the last mile. And since the car is driverless, it's cheap and efficient.

None of this means that cars will go away, of course. Commuting via car will also become more appealing if you get to sit back and relax the whole time. That said, if buses can be made a lot more convenient by a combination of more frequent operation and fleets of little cars for the last mile—and a lot cheaper than commuting as well—driverless technology could be the greatest boost for mass transit since the invention of the subway.

Last night I decided to buy a bunch of old-man albums from my youth that I've never gotten around to getting before. But old man though I might be, I am 21st century in my listening habits. I don't need a bunch of CDs cluttering up my house, just digital downloads. And yet, I ended up with a bunch of CDs winging their way to my house.

Why? Because out of a dozen purchases at Amazon, the audio CD was cheaper in all but one case. And about half the time, the audio CD included download rights. So I was buying a CD plus a digital download for less than the price of the CD alone.

Can anyone explain this? I know Amazon has some weird pricing policies sometimes, but this seems even weirder than usual. They could have saved themselves both warehouse picking/packing time and shipping costs if they'd priced the digital a buck less than the CD, rather than the other way around. Possible explanations:

  • Most people consider digital files a convenience they're willing to pay for. It saves them the time of having to rip a CD.
  • License rights something something something.
  • I was a subject in a large-scale study to find out how irrational consumers are.
  • Amazon is so used to losing money they just don't care.

Any other guesses?

It's Hilbert's turn this week, so he has the honor of hosting the final catblogging of the year. Here he is camping out on our neighbor's roof two doors down. He's about a hundred feet away from me, but in this era of cheap superzoom cameras that posed no problem. If you're wondering what it is that's caught his attention, the answer is Hopper. She was on the fence down below, and a few moments later jumped up to explore the roof too. There is no acrophobia among our cats.

Last April, Sprint announced that it planned to hire 5,000 workers to deliver cell phones to customers at their homes. A few days ago it announced it would be hiring 5,000 new workers for...something. I surmised that these were actually the same 5,000 workers, and Sprint wasn't doing anything new. But apparently I was wrong. Max Ehrenfreund reports:

Representatives of Sprint have said the company will create positions for about 5,000 more people in the United States, counting both new employees and workers at Sprint's contractors.

....[Spokesman David Tovar] said that the new positions would be in addition to Sprint's previously announced plans to expand its presence on the street with 2,500 new stores and a fleet of vehicles for delivering phones. However, he added, the company has not yet determined exactly what the new workers will do or how many of them will work for Sprint as opposed to contractors.

Well...OK. But this is damn peculiar. We're going to hire 5,000 new people, but we don't really know what they're going to do. What kind of company does something like that? It's nuts. But they do know that a bunch of them will work for contractors. How do they know that? It's all very mysterious. But I guess Masayoshi Son wanted to suck up to Donald Trump, so he sent down word to hire 5,000 people and find something for them to do. Welcome to free enterprise, Trump style.

Readers who are extremely long in the tooth will remember a blogger named Steven Den Beste from back in the day. He was a gung-ho warblogger who wrote very long, very nerdy pieces about the urgent need to invade Iraq (with occasional forays into cell phone standards), so one day Daniel Davies decided that what we all needed was Shorter Steven Den Beste. Davies' version was usually a withering sentence or two.

Today, things have changed. I can think of all too many folks who could stand to cut their word count in half, but for now I'd settle for Shorter Glenn Greenwald. Yesterday he wrote this:

The Guardian’s Summary of Julian Assange’s Interview Went Viral and Was Completely False

According to Microsoft Word, the article clocks in at 2,645 words, so here's the nickel version. A few days ago Julian Assange gave an interview to Italian reporter Stefania Maurizi. (It is illustrated with the photo on the right, which I hope they don't mind me re-using since it makes me like Assange a little better than I usually do.) Here are the relevant sections:

Most of WikiLeaks' biggest revelations concern the US military-industrial complex....Why aren't human rights abuses producing the same effects in regimes like China or Russia, and what can be done to democratise information in those countries?

In Russia, there are many vibrant publications, online blogs, and Kremlin critics such as [Alexey] Navalny are part of that spectrum.....In Russia there are competitors to WikiLeaks, and no WikiLeaks staff speak Russian....WikiLeaks is a predominantly English-speaking organisation with a website predominantly in English. We have published more than 800,000 documents about or referencing Russia and president Putin, so we do have quite a bit of coverage, but the majority of our publications come from Western sources....The real determinant is how distant that culture is from English.

....What about Donald Trump?...What do you think he means?

Hillary Clinton's election would have been a consolidation of power in the existing ruling class of the United States. Donald Trump is not a DC insider, he is part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States, and he is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities. They do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilising the pre-existing central power network within DC. It is a new patronage structure which will evolve rapidly, but at the moment its looseness means there are opportunities for change in the United States: change for the worse and change for the better.

The Guardian's piece, written by Ben Jacobs, made several claims: (1) Assange "long had a close relationship with the Putin regime," (2) Assange said there was no need for WikiLeaks to undertake a whistleblowing role in Russia "because of the open and competitive debate he claimed exists there," and (3) Assange gave "guarded praise" of Trump.

The first is unfounded, and the Guardian has now retracted it. The second is false as well. Whether you choose to believe him or not, what Assange said is that WikiLeaks isn't a local player in Russia and mostly appeals to English-speaking leakers. The third is hazier. Personally, I'd say Assange is wildly naive about Trump not representing an "existing power structure," and disingenuous in calling part of Trump's inner circle "idiosyncratic personalities." That said, "not a DC insider" plus "destabilising the pre-existing central power network within DC" plus "change for the worse and change for the better" could reasonably be described as "guarded praise." Those are all things that Assange pretty clearly views favorably.

This is a lot more than two sentences, but I'm not as witty as Dan Davies. In any case, I agree with Greenwald about two out of three of these things, and hopefully corrections will go as viral as the initial article. That's how things usually work in social media, right?

Abby Huntsman promised to "address" her baseless story about food stamp fraud on Fox & Friends today. So how did she do? Mediaite tells us:

Huntsman admitted the error the following day, reading a correction twice on-air: “We reported that back in 2016, $70 million were wasted on food stamp fraud. That was actually incorrect.”

“The latest information from 2009 to 2011 shows the fraud at 1.3%, which is approximately $853 million for each of those three years, and nationally food-stamp trafficking is on the decline. So sorry about that mistake,” she said.

"Food stamp trafficking is on the decline." I wonder how much of her audience understands that this means "food stamp fraud is on the decline"? Oh well. At least she mentioned it.

I have to say, though, that what I'm really curious about is where the original $70 million figure came from. Made up out of thin air? Somebody read the wrong column in a report? Or what? I literally can't think of what sort of data you could dig up that would lead to this number, even in error. I suppose we'll never know.

Here's another chart. I don't know why I did this one. I was looking at some other stuff, and then one thing led to another. But it seemed kind of interesting. Even after you account for ever-rising health care expenditures, personal income has been steadily rising for 60 years.

This does not show medians, so don't make too much of it. Especially over the past couple of decades, it's skewed by the massive income increases of the top 1 percent. A more interesting measure, I suppose, would be median disposable income after median out-of-pocket health care expenditures. Maybe I'll root around one of these days and see if I can find that.

Whenever you point out that inflation is pretty low these days, you can expect a flurry of responses along the lines of, "Have you seen the price of eggs lately?!?" As it happens, yes, I have. More to the point, the US government tracks food inflation, and it's really low right now. As in negative. Food bought in stores (as opposed to restaurant food) is 2.2 percent cheaper than it was a year ago. This means the average family is spending about $150 less on groceries than they did in 2015. Happy Holidays!

From the Wall Street Journal:

Not Everyone Wants to Shop on Amazon

[Chris] Outwater is among the 17% of U.S. primary household shoppers who say they never shop on Amazon, according to data from Kantar Retail ShopperScape. While the percentage has steadily declined over the past five years, roughly 22 million American households didn’t use the retailer this year.

Those Amazon holdouts tend to be older than U.S. shoppers overall, with an average age of 57 versus 49, respectively, according to Kantar, and they tend to earn less—$45,700 in annual income, compared with $62,800 among all shoppers. They are less likely to have or live with children.

Talk about burying the lede. Maybe I just haven't been paying attention, but the news to me is that 83 percent of "primary household shoppers" shopped at Amazon at least once last year. Compare that to this from a June story in the Journal:

While total online spending comprised 7.8% of all retail purchases in the first quarter, according to the Commerce Department, more than half the population, or about 190 million U.S. consumers, will shop online this year, according to Forrester.

This is roughly 80 percent of all US adults, which jibes pretty well with the Kantar number. Basically, about 80 percent of all US adults shop online at least a little, and every single one of them has shopped at Amazon once or more. In other words, among online shoppers, close to 100 percent have shopped at Amazon. Is there any other retailer on the planet who can claim anything close to that number?

A few days ago I wrote about an odd Fox News report which said that SNAP (food stamp) fraud was at an "all-time high" of $70 million. The odd part of this was not that Fox was lying about SNAP fraud being at an all-time high. What do you expect from Fox? The odd thing was that actual SNAP fraud clocks in at nearly a billion dollars. Why did Fox lowball it? I couldn't figure out where Fox got its number, and as near as I could tell the Department of Agriculture hadn't published anything about it more recently than 2011 anyway.

Today, the Washington Post's Erik Wemple does some shoe-leather reporting and makes a few phone calls:

The Agriculture Department is asking Fox News to correct a report from Tuesday morning’s edition of “Fox & Friends” alleging new heights for food-stamp fraud in the United States....“We are not quite sure where this came from,” a USDA spokesperson tells the Erik Wemple Blog. “We saw that there was a story on Breitbart. We have not issued a report on this recently. There is no new rate that we’ve published. So we’re not quite sure why they’re so interested in stirring this up.”

....A Fox News spokesperson indicates that this matter will be addressed on tomorrow’s program.

OK then. It sounds like someone at Fox just made this up, though I'm sure they'll put a more positive spin on it than that. I'm also sure they'll be eager to correct the fact that SNAP fraud is actually far higher than they suggested. But given all this, why did the Post's Philip Bump include the following graphic in his story about this on Wednesday?

It's fine to write about Fox's misinformation, but why was it credited to the Department of Agriculture? That's how Fox credited it, to be sure, but that credit shouldn't have been passed along without verifying it independently.

One final note: this story demonstrates the value of being numerate. The reason I first noticed it was because the $70 million figure was so obviously absurd. SNAP is a $70 billion program, and it's nuts to think that it could have a fraud rate that low. Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta probably had a higher fraud rate than that. Anybody with even the smallest working knowledge of SNAP, normal fraud rates, and basic arithmetic should have heard alarm bells going off immediately.

But no one did. Nearly all of the response to the Fox report was either (a) mockery of their suggestion that SNAP should be ended, or (b) mockery of their belief that 0.1 percent was a high rate of fraud. Nobody really seemed to notice that it couldn't possibly be correct. More numeracy, please.