In the self-driving seat – May 31st 2014

Google is miles ahead of its rivals in the race for autonomous motoring

Not quite as glamorous as “Knight Rider”

TO GOOGLE is now in broad usage as a verb for retrieving information from the internet. If the tech giant has its way, “I Googled” will become a standard reply to the question, “How did you get here?” On May 28th Google said it would build 100 prototype driverless cars devoid of pedals, steering wheel or controls save an on/off switch. It is the next stage in its apparent quest to be as ubiquitous on the road as on computer screens.

People have dreamed about driverless motoring since at least the 1930s, but only in recent years have carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo given the matter more thought, kitting out test cars with the sensors and sophisticated software required to negotiate busy roads. Google has roared ahead by designing a driverless car from the ground up.

But bringing autonomous motoring to the world is proving harder than Google had envisaged. It once promised it by 2017. Now it does not see production models coming out before 2020. The technology is far advanced, but needs shrinking in size and cost—Google’s current test cars, retrofitted Toyota and Lexus models, are said to be packed with $80,000-worth of equipment.

Google’s latest efforts may have as much to do with convincing the public and lawmakers as refining the technology. The firm stresses the safety advantages of computers being more likely than humans to avoid accidents. The cars will have a top speed of just 25mph and a front end made of soft foam to cushion unwary pedestrians. The benefits could indeed be huge. Driving time could be given over to working, snoozing or browsing the web. Rather than suffer all the costs of owning a car, some people may prefer to summon a rented one on their smartphones whenever they need it. However, the issue of liability in the event of a driverless car crashing has yet to be resolved.

Turning cars into commodities may not be good news for traditional carmakers. But reinventing motoring as a service fits neatly with Google’s plans to become as big in hardware as in software. And unlike car firms, which talk vaguely of becoming “mobility providers”, Google has pots of cash to make that a reality and no worries about disrupting its current business. Google admits it still has “lots of work to do”. But one day Googling to the shops may be a common activity.

Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki resigns after report – 30 May 2014 Last updated at 15:35 ET

 “I want somebody who’s spending every minute of every day figuring out, ‘Are we fixing the system?'”

Embattled US Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned amid a scandal over delayed care and falsified records at the agency’s hospitals.

President Barack Obama said Mr Shinseki told him he did not want to be a distraction as the agency tried to fix Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.

Mr Obama said he accepted the resignation “with considerable regret”.

A recent report found veterans at an Arizona hospital waited an average of 115 days for an initial appointment.

‘New leadership’

On Friday morning after an Oval Office meeting with Mr Shinseki, a retired four-star general wounded in Vietnam, Mr Obama told reporters Mr Shinseki had “worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care”.

“But as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them,” Mr Obama said.

“We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.”

The US president said he had named Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson to be acting head of the agency.

Shinseki: “I apologise as the senior leader of Veterans Affairs”

Mr Shinseki’s decision to step down came as his support among Mr Obama’s own Democratic Party steadily eroded. Republicans in Congress and at least one major veterans group had called for him to step down earlier this month.

On Friday, Jeff Miller, Republican chairman of the House veterans affairs committee, said Mr Shinseki’s tenure had been “tainted by a pervasive lack of accountability among poorly performing VA employees and managers, apparent widespread corruption among medical centre officials and an unparalleled lack of transparency”.

And House Speaker John Boehner said the resignation “does not absolve the president of his responsibility to step in and make things right for our veterans”.

Mr Shinseki’s resignation is the culmination of months of tumult at the agency over reports that administrators at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, had falsified records to hide a lengthy backlog of veterans awaiting care.

On Wednesday, an internal VA inquiry revealed veterans in Phoenix waited an average of 115 days for a first appointment, but the hospital reported to the agency an average wait time of only 24 days.

The VA inspector general’s report also said at least 1,700 veterans were not even on official waiting lists because they had not been properly registered.

The Carl T Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix is seen 28 May 2014
The Phoenix VA hospital was the first focus of the investigation into veterans deliberately left off waiting lists

A separate internal audit released on Friday found 64% of the more than 200 VA sites investigated so far had at least one instance of questionable scheduling procedures.

VA strained

Mr Obama acknowledged the misconduct was not limited to Phoenix but had occurred in VA facilities across the country.

“It’s totally unacceptable,” he said on Friday. “Our veterans deserve the best. They’ve earned it.”

Mr Shinseki had begun sacking senior officials at the Phoenix hospital, and has also cancelled bonuses for top VA executives and ordered the agency to contact any veteran in Phoenix waiting for care.

The US veterans health system serves about nine million former US military service members.

Its resources have been strained by the ageing population of Korean and Vietnam War veterans as well as the large influx of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Experts puzzle over $2-billion bid for Clippers – CHARLES FLEMING, WALTER HAMILTON, ANDREA CHANG May 31 2014

Steve Ballmer’s $2-billion offer for the Los Angeles Clippers — nearly four times the record sale for an NBA team — has experts puzzling over how the former Microsoft chief plans to make any money on the deal.

But Ballmer, with a net worth estimated at about $20 billion, may have little need for profit. The eye-popping bid from the world’s 34th richest man underscores the explosion in tech wealth and the nonchalance with which billionaires chase trophy brands.

“This reflects an enormously wealthy person buying a toy,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. “It’s not a financial investment.”

If it were, the prospects for near-term profitability are at best questionable, according to experts in valuing sports franchises. Some observers believe the scarcity of available professional sports franchises makes almost any deal a good bet for the long term. But others see no financial justification.

“When I try to make sense of it economically, I can’t,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. “You might be able to justify a price that’s maybe half of that, but you can’t justify $2 billion.”

The sky-high offer grew out of a sudden and rushed bidding war for the team. Ballmer’s winning bid beat a $1.6-billion offer from entertainment moguls David Geffen and Oprah Winfrey, who partnered with principals of Dodgers owner Guggenheim Partners and others. Another offer, at $1.2 billion, came from a team of Los Angeles investors led by Tony Ressler and Bruce Karsh and former basketball star Grant Hill.

Even the jilted suitors, who were not given a chance to match Ballmer’s higher offer, seemed stunned by the $2-billion number.

“I just can’t understand what exactly Ballmer was thinking when he decided to pay this price, but it’s fair to say he was determined to own it,” said one of the bidders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on behalf of his investment group. “It did not make financial sense based on where the team is today.”

All three bids were far higher than any previous estimates of the Clippers’ value or the highest price ever paid for an NBA team — the $550-million sale price for the Milwaukee Bucks this month.

The Clippers were purchased in 1981 by current owner Donald Sterling for $12.5 million. Although the real estate billionaire had no intention of selling the team, it came into play after last month’s public airing of tapes in which he chastised a female friend for socializing with black people.

This week’s auction was led by Sterling’s wife, and Clippers co-owner, Shelly Sterling, in an apparent attempt to complete a sale before a meeting Tuesday at which NBA owners were scheduled to vote on whether to strip the Sterlings of ownership. The NBA announced Friday that the meeting had been canceled because of the deal with Ballmer.

Donald Sterling has not publicly agreed to the deal. The embattled billionaire has said, through representatives, that he will never relinquish control of the team.

In the days following the release of Sterling’s remarks, a widely reported Forbes estimate valued the Clippers at $575 million.

Joe Maloof, whose family once owned the Houston Rockets and sold the Sacramento Kings last year, agreed that Ballmer is overpaying. And yet he insisted the bid is a smart move.

“These teams are rare gems,” Maloof said. “Owning a sports franchise in today’s world is a very secure investment. They always appreciate in value.”

One sports investment banker said that, if projected increases in television revenues are extended well into the future, the Ballmer offer doesn’t look so crazy.

Why We Enjoy Chili Peppers, S&M, Gruesome Movies, and Other Unpleasant Experiences – By Matthew Hutson May 30, 2014 11:04 a.m.

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This summer, millions of people will crowd into theaters to watch the latestParanormal Activity. They’ll visit Coney Island to ride the new Thunderbolt. They’ll challenge their friends to chili-dog-eating contests and guffaw at jokes about the digestive results. Why do we enjoy aversive experiences, from horror flicks to roller coasters to spicy foods to gross-out humor? Scientists are discovering that such enjoyment comes not from the raw experience itself, but from our reflections on our pain.

Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania has done the most to elucidate what he calls “benign masochism.” Three decades ago he wrote about people’s enjoyment of chili peppers. (He found that for many, the preferred level of hotness is just below what’s unbearable.) “I presented the idea in the 1980s, but nobody noticed,” he said — with a few exceptions such as Paul Bloom’sHow Pleasure Works. So he decided to reintroduce it in a more systematic way. In a paper published last year in Judgment & Decision Making, he and his collaborators provided the most thorough survey of unpleasant experiences to date.

The researchers asked about 400 college undergrads and internet users to rate 30 items some might consider unpleasant on how much they enjoyed each one. They found that the items could be categorized into eight distinct groups based on shared appeal: sad works of art; spicy foods; gross-outs such as disgusting jokes, popping pimples, and medical exhibits; thrill rides and scary movies; pain from things like strong massages, hot tubs, and cold showers; the taste of alcohol; physical exertion and exhaustion; and the taste of bitter food and drink.

The most popular single item was physical exertion, which garnered an average score of 60.4 out of 100. The next most popular were thrill rides (56.5), the physical exhaustion you feel after exertion (55.2), spicy food (55), and sad music (47.6). There wasn’t much of a difference between men’s and women’s preferences, except that women tended to like sad items more, and men liked the taste of alcohol more.

One thing appears to unite all the items: They are unpleasant but harmless (in moderation). The concept of benign masochism springs from an important realization: Despite feeling discomfort, one is actually safe during these activities. Because of the role metacognition plays in this — “it’s a mind over body idea,” Rozin says — the researchers also think the phenomenon is uniquely human. Dogs in Mexico don’t form a preference for spicy foods. “I’ve tried to get chimps and rats to like hot pepper,” Rozin said. “I got a little bit of success with chimps … but not much.” He also said he has no knowledge of “an animal, like, standing on a railroad track just before the train comes by, or voluntarily going up a cliff, or anything like that.” Cattle are not sensation-seekers. (Some animals, however, do play-fight, which I’d argue is in the realm of benign masochism. They even emit panting similar to laughter.)

Related to the work on benign masochism, Peter McGraw, a psychologist at the University of Colorado and co-author of the new book The Humor Code, has been developing his “benign violation” theory of humor. A joke must find the right balance between threat and harmlessness in order to be funny, he argues. In his most recent paper, he reported that three Hurricane Sandy jokes the researchers tracked through Twitter became gradually funnier and then less funny after the event, as they swept through that sweet spot of tragicomedy in between “too soon” and “old news,” peaking in hilarity a month after the storm:

The common thread in our enjoyment of hot peppers, dark humor, and all the rest is a salient understanding that no real danger is afoot. A few years ago, a study by Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen explored the importance of a “protective frame” reminding us that an experience is safe. Two groups of subjects, those who love horror movies and those who avoid them, watched a scene from Salem’s Lot while continuously rating how happy they were and how scared they were. In one experiment, everyone simply watched the film. Both groups equally reported being scared, but the horror fans were simultaneously happy, while the non-fans were made unhappy by the mayhem. Then, in another test, horror lovers and haters first read short biographies of the actors, and while watching the scene they saw photos of the actors next to the film. The tweaks offered a protective frame reminding viewers: It’s just a movie! This time, both groups found joy in being scared.

No discussion of this subject would be complete without a mention of sadomasochism. A meta-analysis by Joseph Critella and Jenny Bivona of 20 studies found that between 31 and 57 percent of women have erotic rape fantasies. What psychologically separates these scenarios from actual rape is that they’re fantasies, and women know they’re fantasies. It’s hard to enjoy domination if you don’t ultimately trust your partner. Having a “safe word,” besides adding real protection, can enable pleasure even when it goes unused.

Other researchers have studied various aspects of the metacognitive process that extracts joy from misery. Most notably, the economist George Loewenstein wrote that mountaineers enjoy their dangerous adventures in part because of a sense of mastery. The realization that you can weather pain and fear and still conquer your environment brings a sense of control and self-confidence.

Recently, Werner Wirth and colleagues showed that when watching Hotel Rwanda, sadness was associated with not just a sense of mastery over negative feelings but also a sense of personal growth and the feeling that important life values had been illuminated. In the lingo, sadness reduced hedonic value and raised eudaimonic value, trading happiness for meaningfulness. Relatedly, Mary Beth Oliver and Arthur Raney found that preferences for nonfiction, drama, and sci-fi movies are negatively correlated with the desire to have fun while watching a movie, but are positively correlated with a desire for meaning — reflection and a challenged worldview.

And sometimes, unpleasantness appeals simply for its novelty. Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz have looked at “collectable experiences”: many people choose unusual activities (e.g., staying in an ice hotel) over pleasurable ones (staying at a Marriott in Florida) as a way to build their “experiential CV,” thus feeling productive. In other words, it seems we want to map and master the full range of potential human experience.

U.S. warns China against aggression as allies seek more cooperation – BY DAVID BRUNNSTROM AND RACHEL ARMSTRONG SINGAPORE Sat May 31, 2014 4:32am EDT

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (L) talks with Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera as they wait for South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin to arrive to begin their meeting in Singapore May 31, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool

(Reuters) – The United States warned China on Saturday to halt destabilizing actions in Asia, as Washington and its allies sought to boost defense cooperation in the face of what Japan called an “increasingly severe” security environment.

Using unusually strong language, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told an Asia-Pacific security forum that the United States was committed to its geopolitical rebalance to the region and “will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged”.

“In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” he said in the speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Hagel said the United States took no position on the merits of rival territorial claims in the region, but added: “We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.”

Hagel later held a bilateral meeting with the deputy chief of staff of the Chinese army, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, who expressed surprise at his comments.

“You were very candid this morning, and to be frank, more than our expectations,” Wang said at the start of the meeting. “Although I do think those criticisms are groundless, I do appreciate your candor … likewise we will also share our candor.”

In Beijing, President Xi Jinping said China would not initiate aggressive action in the South China Sea but would respond if others did, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

“We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary way to the provocations of countries involved,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying in a meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tokyo perceived an “increasingly severe regional security environment”.

“It is unfortunate that there are security concerns in the East and South China Seas,” he said. “Japan as well as all concerned parties must uphold the rule of law and never attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force.”

China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Seas, and dismisses competing claims from Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. Japan has its own territorial row with China over islands in the East China Sea.

Tensions have surged in recent weeks after China placed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, and the Philippines said Beijing could be building an airstrip on a disputed island.

Japan’s defense ministry said Chinese SU-27 fighters came as close as 50 meters (170 feet) to a Japanese OP-3C surveillance plane near disputed islets last week and within 30 meters of a YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft.

On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told the Singapore forum that Tokyo would offer its “utmost support” to Southeast Asian countries in their efforts to protect their seas and airspace, as he pitched his plan for Japan to take on a bigger international security role.

In a pointed dig at China, he said Japan would provide coast guard patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam.

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House votes to defund Justice Dept. program that targeted legitimate gun dealers

Attorney General Eric Holder gestures while speaking at the annual Attorneys General Winter Meeting in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Holder said state attorneys general are not obligated to defend laws in their states banning same sex-marriage if they don't believe in them.  (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Attorney General Eric Holder gestures while speaking at the annual Attorneys General Winter Meeting in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Holder said state attorneys general are not obligated to defend laws in their states banning same sex-marriage if they don’t believe in them. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The House of Representatives passed an amendment Thursday to stop all federal funding to be used for the Department of Justice’s Operation Choke Point, an anti-fraud operation that was found to be cutting off legitimate businesses from their banking lines.

“This is a major victory for consumers, law-abiding businesses, and anyone who believes in due process and restraint of government encroachment,” said the Community Financial Services Association of America, a trade group opposed to the operation, in a statement Friday. “Additionally, our banking system benefits as it will not be put in the position to police customers or make judgments about the political popularity of businesses and industries.”

SEE ALSO: Congress: Obama uses Justice Dept. to target gun sellers, ‘high risk’ businesses

The amendment was brought to the floor by Rep. Blane Luetkemeyer, a Republican from Missouri, who is a member of the House Financial Services Committee and is vice chairman of the House Small Business Committee. The amendment was sponsored by three democrats and two more republicans.

The voice vote came as part of the debate on the annual spending bill for theJustice Department and needs Senate approval to become law.

A House panel Thursday said the Obama Administration has been using Operation Choke Point to target and “choke out” businesses it finds objectionable, from gun dealers and payday lenders to drug paraphernalia sellers and porn merchants.

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House Blocks DEA From Targeting Medical Marijuana – Ryan J. Reilly Matt Ferner Posted: 05/30/2014 12:24 am EDT Updated: 05/30/2014 12:59 pm EDT

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WASHINGTON — Reflecting growing national acceptance of cannabis, a bipartisan coalition of House members voted early Friday to restrict the Drug Enforcement Administration from using funds to go after medical marijuana operations that are legal under state laws.

An appropriations amendment offered by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) prohibiting the DEA from spending funds to arrest state-licensed medical marijuana patients and providers passed 219-189. The Senate will likely consider its own appropriations bill for the DEA, and the House amendment would have to survive a joint conference before it could go into effect.

Rohrabacher said on the House floor that the amendment “should be a no-brainer” for conservatives who support states’ rights and argued passionately against allowing the federal government to interfere with a doctor-patient relationship.

“Some people are suffering, and if a doctor feels that he needs to prescribe something to alleviate that suffering, it is immoral for this government to get in the way,” Rohrabacher said, his voice rising. “And that’s what’s happening.”

The debate pitted three House Republicans who also are doctors against one another. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) and Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) opposed the amendment, while Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) supported it.

Harris insisted that there were no medical benefits to marijuana and that medical marijuana laws were a step toward legalizing recreational pot.

“It’s the camel’s nose under the tent,” said Harris. He cited piece of anti-marijuana propaganda published by the DEA this month that claimed medical marijuana was just “a means to an end” — the eventual legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. The taxpayer-funded report uses scare quotes around the word “medical.”

“I don’t think we should accept at all that this is history in the making,” said Fleming, who lamented earlier this month that it wasn’t realistic to make alcohol illegal.

Broun said there were “very valid medical reasons” to use marijuana extracts or products. “It’s less dangerous than some narcotics that doctors prescribe all over this country,” Broun said. He said medical marijuana was a states’ rights issue and Congress needed to “reserve the states’ powers under the Constitution.”

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) co-sponsored the amendment with Reps. Rohrabacher, Don Young (R-Alaska), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Steve Stockman (R-Texas), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

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