Whistling Ducks

 

 

Rare sightings prompt flocking
By Sheryl DeVore Special to the Tribune  5.29,14

Irene Kaufman glanced through her screened-porch window this month and spotted nine unusual-looking, mallard-sized birds beneath her feeder in York-ville.

CHUCK BERMAN/TRIBUNE PHOTO The appearance of black-bellied whistling-ducks in Yorkville has caused birdwatchers to flock to the area.

Hear various calls

 Since then, dozens of birdwatchers have flocked to see the birds she soon discovered were called black-bellied whistling-ducks.“I had never seen such a thing before in my life,” said Kaufman, 77, who was talking about the birds but could as easily have been talking about the birders.Since May 22, the birdwatchers have been showing up in small groups from early morning until dusk to see ducks that are common in Texas but rare in Illinois. The species has never been reported this far north in Illinois, experts say.“Cars will pull up, and the people will get out with all their equipment,” Kaufman said. “And what amazes me is the cameras. … One of them had a lens that had to be 8 to 10 inches across. It’s like they’re going to Hollywood taking pictures.”The whistling-duck looks like a cross between a duck and a goose, said Josh Engel, a research assistant at the Field Museum. The bird has a reddish breast and black belly offset by a bright, pink bill and legs. Its call resembles a whistle.

The birds have been spending time beneath Kaufman’s feeders as well as on the pond in her backyard.

By Tuesday, nearly 140 duck-watchers had signed a guest book. For their comfort, Kaufman also supplies lawn chairs and bug spray.

“We walked up and saw eight black-bellied whistling-ducks. We didn’t even have to wait for them,” said Dave Antieau, of Chicago.

Engel said the ducks occasionally have been seen in central and southern Illinois, but never as far north as the Chicago area.

“They’ve been expanding their range dramatically in the last two decades,” he said. “No one knows why.”

Birders from as far south as Carbondale, Ill., and as far north as Minnesota have come to see the ducks, Kaufman said.

“Personally, I think it’s silly to travel hundreds of miles to see a bird, but that’s their thing,” she said. “I didn’t know there was this world out there where people did this kind of thing. They certainly are dedicated.”

 

 

 

 

Deer from the Sky

 

 
Deer drops into windshield from Interstate 90 overpass
By Taylor Goldenstein Tribune reporter   Chicago Tribune 5.28.14

A West Dundee woman driving down Interstate 90 near Barrington didn’t have much of a chance to avoid the deer that crashed into her family’s van over Memorial Day weekend.  It came from above.

STACEY WESCOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO Heidi Conner and a son suffered only minor injuries in the freak accident Sunday. The deer, however, did not survive.
“We’re two exits from home, and right before (Illinois Route) 59, we’re going under the underpass and then boom out of nowhere it’s like something fell from the sky on top of us,” said Heidi Conner, 37. “Next thing I know I look down, and there is a deer lying next to me in the car, and I think I was just dumbfounded.” The deer, which a witness said hurtled to the interstate from an overpass, slammed through the windshield of Conner’s vehicle, striking her and her son and ending up with its head in the center console and its body extending into the back seat.  Four of Conner’s children, the youngest age 5, were with her in the car, but neither she nor any of the kids was seriously hurt. The deer was killed in the collision, which happened about noon Sunday. Joel Samuels was driving behind Conner and said he saw the animal plummet from the Illinois Route 72 overpass. Samuels, 55, said he wasn’t sure what he had seen until he pulled over to help. “I didn’t even know it was an animal, it happened that fast,” Samuels said Tuesday. “I was absolutely shocked. Here it is, the middle of the day, and a deer falling from where? An overpass that construction’s going on? I was perplexed. I couldn’t believe it. It doesn’t make any sense.” Conner slowed and drove across three lanes of traffic with the deer still in the car before she was able to pull over, Samuels said. Illinois State Police Trooper Justin Novarro, who responded to the accident, said in a statement that the accident was “somewhat of an anomaly.” Conner, who was returning to the northwest suburbs from Tennessee, was driving about 70 mph at the time of the crash. Her 13-year-old son, who was in the passenger seat, was scratched up, and she suffered some bumps and bruises from the impact of the deer, but she considers the family’s survival a miracle. Doctors and nurses at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, where Conner and her son were taken after the accident, “just can’t believe it,” Conner said. “They kept coming into the room and looking at the pictures,” she said. “In fact, if I didn’t have the pictures, I don’t think anybody would believe what happened.” tgoldenstein@tribune.com

Our Bullfight

 

In Salamanca, we met friends as planned  in the Plaza Major, and someone noticed a  poster  in a restaurant window for a bullfight the next day.  Asked whether we might buy the poster, the woman there smiled, waved her hand, said Vale, vale, giving it to us free.  Probably on someone’s wall now.

We drove out of Salamanca to the town of Fuenteseca (Dry Fountain) for the corrida Arriving there, we saw no bull ring, plaza de toros,  but stopped a  typically small man to ask. He signalled for us to follow him and his family.  At the box office he asked in Spanish how many we were and whether we wanted sol o sombre, seats in the sun or the more expensive shaded seats.  We gave him money for sol and followed his group into the portable arena and sat with them.  During the afternoon they passed us food and when it began to drizzle they gave us plastic garbage bags to wear.

Most fun for me came before the bulls.   Young men came running and dancing in groups, penas,  wearing white shirts and pants, and a neck-scarf in their club’s color,  with their small bands playing continuously, even after the groups had taken their places in the arena where the excited people bounced up and down.

The opening parade was nice with the various participants marching in with their groups to the music.Layout of the opening parade, the 'paseíllo'

A trumpet announces the bull which charges into the ring, probably goosed with an electric prod.  The beautiful, specially bred animal stops, disoriented, and then is taunted by several toreadores waving their colorful capes.

All the participants in the corrida wear tight-fitting, elaborately decorated suits

Next the picador rides in on an unhappy blindfolded horse with a huge pad on one side.  He repeatedly jabs a long lance between the bulls shoulders, bringing a flow of blood.

Then the energetic banderiellos enter the ring one at a time to run and dance to attract the bull, holding high in each hand a stick, banderiella, wrapped in colored paper or a flag,  which they plant in the bull’s shoulders.

Now the bull is ready for the star, el matador, the killer.  He is expected to draw the bull into repeated charges, to stay close to the bull, executing  classic moves with his cape, and finally bringing the bull to an exhausted standstill.  Then he is to make a quick, clean kill, driving his sword deep into the bull at a certain point at the base of its neck.  It doesn’t always happen that way.

 

 

After the first bull was tortured and killed, I wanted to leave, but it would have been difficult to get to an exit and walking out would have insulted all the people present.  We sat through all six bulls on the program.

One matador won such approval for skill and grace that he was given an ear of his bull.  He walked around the ring with the ear under the first row of seats for congratulations.  An excited woman several rows up threw her sweater to him.  He wiped his head with it and threw it back to her.  Imagine her excitement !

Major bull-fighting is done in large facilities and is conducted according to formal rules and traditions.  Our bullfight was a fairly informal, traveling show, held in a portable structure, clearly minor league, but the real thing nevertheless.

Watching the video I made of the first bull today, I saw that the killing was badly botched.  The matador’s first attempt was not effective, nor the second, nor the third.  Somewhere in there the rules would have called for a quick severing of the bull’s spinal cord and a quick death.  It took about eight attempts before the animal went down.

Back in Salamanca after dark, we got lost.  Alice went to a parked police car to ask directions to our hotel.  After some conversation, the cops said to follow them.  They led us a long way through winding streets until we came to a corner with a stop sign from which I could see the sign for our garage.  The police crossed, made a u-turn and stopped.  I tooted a thank-you and turned left for the garage — wrong way on a one-way street!

The stop signs in Spain say STOP.

Note: Two of Spain’s large autonomous communities have banned bullfighting–Catalonia and Canary Islands.

Wikipedia article

Youtube

rjn

Bulls Fight Back

 

Spain’s San Isidro bullfighting festival suspended after three matadors injured.

Suspension is first in 35 years after two bulls turn tables on all three matadors on programme, leaving one with serious injuries
Agence France-Presse in Madrid  theguardian.com 
Spanish matador David Mora is gored

Half-tonne fighting bulls gored or trampled all three matadors in an extraordinary upset at Madrid’s prestigious Las Ventas bullring, forcing the spectacle to be cancelled.

For the first time in 35 years, the San Isidro festival, which opens thebullfighting season in Spain, had to be suspended because all the matadors had been injured.

“Drama in Las Ventas” ran the front page headline of conservative ABC daily over a full-page photograph of a bull plunging its right horn into the side of the most seriously injured matador, David Mora.

Spanish media devoted widespread coverage to the turning of the tables at Las Ventas.

“The festival had to be suspended … because of the gorings suffered by the three matadors,” the venue said in a statement.

“In the 68-year history of San Isidro, two bullfights have been suspended for gorings of matadors, both in 1979,” it said.

The first bull on the programme, a black, 532kg animal named Deslio, knocked Mora over during a pass as his yellow and pink cape swirled in the wind.

Mora fell to the sand beneath his cloak, but the bull immediately turned on him, head down, ramming its horn deep into his leg and tossing him over repeatedly.

“The somersault was horrific, shocking, chilling, impossible for the human eye to witness yet evident to the mind,” wrote Antonio Lorca, bullfighting correspondent for the El País newspaper

Mora suffered a 30cm gash in the thigh and another wound in the armpit, a medical report from the bullring said.

The venue’s surgeon, Maximo Garcia Padros, reportedly said Mora had needed a blood transfusion during a two-hour operation.

“The goring in the femoral vein placed his life in danger. If you don’t act it empties like an open tap, but that’s why we are here,” he said.

The second matador, Antonio Nazare, appeared before the shocked audience to finish off the animal with his sword.

Nazare then faced his own opponent, however, a 537kg brown bull named Feten. The animal dragged the matador along the sand, injuring his knee and forcing him to seek treatment at the bullring’s hospital, the medical report showed.

 

The third matador, Saúl Jiménez Fortes, entered the ring to fight the same bull. The animal skewered him in the right leg and the pelvis, leaving three 10cm-deep injuries, the bullring doctor said. Fortes managed to kill the beast before he, too, sought medical treatment.

Critters In the Back Yard

Picture 1707Joe and Jenifer Canzoneri know their visitors very well.  On this side is yearling Tank, originally Tink for Tinkerbell, but they realized when his antler buds came out that he needed a masculine name.  Behind Tank is his mother Liza, and old friend who is larger than Tank though she doesn’t look it here.

Picture 1710First ever visit by an indigo bunting. Blue feathers glow in direct sunlight.

Picture 1712

 

Click for article Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Crazy Horse

 

Crazy Horse sketch.jpgA 1934 sketch of Crazy Horse made by a Mormon missionary after interviewing Crazy Horse’s sister, who claimed the depiction was accurate.   Photos Wikipedia

By George Lynch

If you were around in 1947 and Korczack Ziolkowski, a West Hartford resident, asked you to invest in his newest project, carving a mountain in South Dakota, a sculpture he admits he wouldn’t finish, would you have advanced the money?

Some did.

Ziolkowski actually knew something about carving mountains, having assisted with the Mt. Rushmore memorial in the South Dakota’s Black Hills.  What happened was that, while working on Mt. Rushmore, he became known to several chiefs from the local Lakota tribe.  They eventually approached him about a monument honoring Native Americans, “to let the white man know that the red men had great heroes too”.

Mount Rushmore

They wanted a memorial to Crazy Horse carved into a 563-foot high mountain  in the sacred Black Hills.  Their idea was to depict him as a Oglala Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance.  It was to be a memorial, not to one man but to a race of people.

Crazy Horse was a warrior and brilliant military strategist who among other things, led a war party to victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.  He was also remembered for his concern for the elderly, the ill, the widowed, and the children.

Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear officially started Crazy Horse Memorial on June 3, 1948.  Because of several factors, such as the uncertainty of the weather, the availability of financing and the challenges of the mountain engineering, there is no way to predict a completion date for the mountain carving.  If it is completed, it may become the world’s largest sculpture.

The land on which the Memorial is located is owned by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation. It was pieced together from mining and homestead claims, and land exchanges with the government and other sources.The mission of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians.  The project will include an Indian Musuem of North America, a Native American Educational  and Cultural Center, the Indian University of North America and Medical Training Center for American Indians.  The memorial receives no federal or state funding.

When completed the Crazy Horse mountain carving will be 641 feet long by 563 feet high. The horse’s head, currently the focus of work on the mountain, is 219 feet or 22 stories high. By comparison, the heads of the four U.S. Presidents at Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet high.  The hand will be about 35 feet tall. The extended left index finger pointing into the distance. will be nearly 28 feet long.

 

Crazy-horse-comparison.jpgA model of the planned statue, with the Crazy Horse Memorial in the background.

Crazy Horse resisted being photographed and was deliberately buried where his grave would not be found.  His image is being carved not so much as a lineal likeness but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse — to his people.”

Crazy Horse Memorial

As with every land art, there are controversies.  The most criticism has been leveled at Crazy Horse pointing with his index finger.  It is said that Native American cultures prohibit using the index finger to point at people or objects, as the people find it rude and taboo.

In his book, Dine’ Bizaad; Speak, Read, Write Navajo (1995), Irvy W. Goosen states that American Indian people do not point with a solitary finger. To be correct, the hand should be open with all fingers pointing outward or pointing with the thumb as described by Sioux Chief Luther Standing Bear.

Other traditional Lakota oppose the memorial.  In his 1972 autobiography, John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota medicine man, said: “The whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain into a statue of him is a pollution of the landscape. It is against the spirit of Crazy Horse.” In a 2001 interview, the Lakota activist Russell Means said: “Imagine going to the holy land in Israel, whether you’re a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, and start carving up the mountain of Zion. It’s an insult to our entire being.”

There are also several scholarly writings that argue whether land art is “worth the ecological and environmental costs that are incurred in its creation”.  Is it “ethically justified” in the way that the land is used?  Some researchers find similarities between mountain carving and strip mining.

Then there is the general grievance of the commercialization of Indian names, images, stories, religious practices and patterns

Ziolkowski eventually got married and had 10 children.  The second generation of Ziolkowskis began writing a new chapter of the unique Crazy Horse story when Korczak died October 20, 1982. His parting words to his wife were, “You must work on the mountain-but go slowly so you do it right.” The torch was passed, and his wife, her sons and daughters, together with the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation board of directors, now are guiding Crazy Horse and the ongoing progress.

 

Welcome to Crazy Horse Memorial

Wikipedia     Crazy Horse

                    Crazy Horse Memorial

 

Airlifting Prairie Chickens

 

 

E. JASON WAMBSGANS/TRIBUNE PHOTO

The transport of greater prairie chickens from Kansas to Illinois, paid for with state and tax dollars, has ruffled feathers.

Source   Chicago Tribune
Counting prairie chicken eggs before they hatch
JOHN KASS

The old-time reporters at the City Hall press room had a running joke years ago: Too many phone calls can ruin a good story.  Even a wild goose story, or in this case, a wild chicken story.  And what a story it was, with reports of $520,000 in state and tax dollars being wasted on a few stupid birds.      With so many people wanting to leave Illinois, and a recent poll showing absolute loathing of our state’s government and corruption, I figured any minute there would be a cartoon of Gov. Patrick Quinn with wild egg all over his face.

 Prairie chicken eggs, actually, since greater prairie chickens are the creatures being captured live in Kansas and shipped by special costly flights to Illinois, where they’re released at the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area downstate.

“It started with an anonymous letter I received,” state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, told me over the phone. “The letter was about waste in government, asking why the state needed a fleet of airplanes, five planes and two helicopters.”  That’s one of Mitchell’s issues, and it’s a good one, involving the state Department of Transportation.   “I can see one plane, if the governor has an emergency and has to get from Chicago to Cairo,” Mitchell said. “But a whole fleet? Please. That’s millions of dollars. The government shouldn’t be arrogant about how they spend the taxpayers’ money.”

So where do the chickens come in?   “Down at the bottom of the letter,” Mitchell said. “There were a couple sentences about the chickens. That’s what started it.  So Mitchell started asking around during the budget hearings about the airplane fleet and the chickens and the Democrats got nervous and he didn’t get any answers.

He got peeved, and a wire service reporter saw the anonymous letter, and within a day or so, the great Wild Bird vs. Beleaguered Taxpayer saga took flight.  “They shipped less than 100 birds,” Mitchell said. “What did it cost, $1,000 per bird? One of my assistants called the U.S. Postal Service and they could ship them for $35 per bird. That’s just plain crazy.”

   A state Department of Natural Resources official confirmed that the prairie chicken rescue is a three-year project, and it is indeed reall.  The feds kicked in $337,500. The state kicked in $181,730. And the Illinois Audubon Society is to contribute $30,000, the DNR said.  There were 16 flights to Kansas and back this spring, at a cost of $7,363.91.    That’s not quite the $55 million spent by Quinn for his controversial anti-violence initiative — the program dubbed a political “slush fund” by Republicans and being investigated by the feds.  Or other multimillions spent by Republicans in their own pig-in-the-trough years under Govs. Thompson, Edgar and Ryan.

But it sure seems stupid to spend all that money to fly greater prairie chickens to Illinois when you could just as well call the post office or throw them in a burlap sack and get in a truck.

So I was all set to sit down and have fun ripping government for wasting our money on some stupid chickens when I was gripped by the strange urge to make one last call.  To Tom Clay of the Illinois Audubon Society.    He told me that some 150 years or so ago, there were 14 million greater prairie chickens in Illinois. The grass was loud with their thrumming, the roosters dancing, and the strange orange air sacks along their necks called “timpani” pounding and pounding across the plain.

“But last spring there were only 62 birds. From 14 million to 62, think of it,” Clay said.

  When I was a boy going hunting with my father and brothers, there was plenty of bird habitat in Illinois. But these days, farmers use every square foot they can.  “And that’s hurt the grassland birds, the northern harriers, the short-eared owls, meadowlarks, bobolinks. Today you’ve got to look around to find them.” 

He said Illinois Audubon has spent millions at Prairie Ridge to buy land and protect it. And the three-year prairie chicken program is necessary, he said, just as past programs to save the wild turkey and river otter were necessary.

Using the Postal Service to ship the greater prairie chickens wouldn’t work, he said. “I wish it was as simple as throwing them in the back of a pickup truck with John Candy and Steve Martin,” Clay said. “But it’s not.”

After the capture in Kansas, biologists take blood samples and try to get the breeding birds onto the Illinois breeding grounds in a day. “We’re fighting time,” said Clay.

For all the money I’ve seen wasted on Illinois political deals and patronage hiring, all those pink hogs in blue suits gorging, their curly tails in the air, spending a few hundred thousand to save the greater prairie chicken doesn’t seem like much.

That doesn’t diminish Rep. Mitchell’s concerns about the state’s air force. His criticism is absolutely valid. And I’ll write more about his efforts.

But this wild chicken business was an add-on. “This grant money couldn’t have gone for anything else,” Clay said. “It was dedicated to wildlife preservation. I know the temptation to make this a wasteful budget story. But now you know.”

I’m just glad I picked up the phone. Next spring, I hope to visit, to watch those wild birds and their prairie mating dances.

Because we need to protect the wild things too. The wild chickens, and we free-range taxpayers, we’re all endangered in Illinois. jskass@tribune.com   Twitter @John_Kass

Tympanuchus Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken (T. pallidicinctus)       Wikipedia
Males display together in a communal lek (group) where they raise ear-like feathers above their heads, inflate orange sacs on the sides of their throats, and stutter-step around while making a deep hooting moan.  Source

Google’s Self-driving Car

 

​Google’s self-driving car turns out to be a very smart ride

Don’t mock Google’s robo-cars. A ride in one shows that you, the driver, may soon be obsolete.

2014-05-13-google-self-driving-car-1.jpg
Members of Google’s self-driving car team, left to right: Chris Urmson, project lead; Brian Torcellini, driving program manager; Dmitri Dolgov, software lead; Andrew Chatham, mapping lead; Ron Medford, project safety director.Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

A white Lexus hybrid SUV inches to the left, creating a slightly wider buffer as it passes a bicyclist in the bike lane on a busy and unseasonably hot Tuesday afternoon not far from Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.

If the car was being driven by a human, that would be no big deal — except to share-the-road advocates. But this is Google’s self-driving car we’re talking about, and that seemingly unremarkable maneuver turns out to be one of the highlights of a day spent with members of Google [X]’s Self-Driving Car Project team.

“People hate driving,” Self-Driving Project director Chris Urmson said at a press event held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., near Google’s headquarters. Once you get to work in the morning, “it takes 30 minutes to decompress from that jackass who cut you off.”

Google’s self-driving car is an ambitious project that hopes to end human error behind the wheel with a very Googley solution: software. The tech titan’s robo-cars have logged more than 700,000 hours since it began working on the vehicles in 2009. Google expects to have them ready for public use between 2017 and 2020.

The goal, as Urmson describes it, is to imagine a world where cars are safe. Not only are more than 33,000 people killed annually (PDF) in the US in car crashes, but such accidents are the leading cause of death (PDF) for people under the age of 45.

“Google is uniquely positioned to solve this problem,” said Dmitri Dolgov, the software lead on the project. “There’s a whole research field in taking a map and comparing it to your position.”

That is essentially what Google’s self-driving cars do — on a vastly more complex scale — because here “you” are a multi-ton vehicle hurtling through the real-world “map” at velocities fast enough to pulverize, if not kill, on impact.

The map that drives the Self-Driving Car Project

At the heart of the technology, what separates it from other sensor-driven autonomous vehicle projects, is a Google-made topographical map that gives the car a sense of what it should expect. The map, different from Google Maps, includes the height of the traffic signals above the street, the placement of stop signs and crosswalks, the depth of the sidewalk curb, the width of the lanes, and can differentiate lane markings from white and dashed to double-yellow.

The cars depend on this prebuilt map, which is why their urban excursions are limited to Mountain View for now, but the project’s lead mapping engineer, Andrew Chatham, made it sound like the goal is to wean the car off such heavy reliance on the map in the future.

“We’re certainly relying less on the perfect accuracy of the map as time goes on,” he said. “We’re also improving our ability to build the maps.”

The software solution that Urmson, Dolgov, Chatham, and their team are betting on can be seen in action in Google’s recent wireframe video (see above) of what the car “sees” as it moves down a street. It combines the prebuilt map with real objects detected by its laser-powered Lidar and camera systems.

These objects can be in motion, such as vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists like the one that the car I was in gave more room on the road to. In California, where motorcycles can legally “lane-split” by riding along lane markers, the car will make room for the motorcyclist if there’s extra space in the lane for the car to give. But the car takes note of construction, potholes, and other immobile obstructions, too.

“Instead of having to rebuild the world from scratch every time we turn it on, we tell it what to expect when it’s empty and then respond to when it’s filled,” Chatham said.

Chatham told CNET that the car’s mapping does not use technology related to Project Tango, Google’s 3D mapping tech for smartphones, although he has “heard of it.”

Although the Google team was reluctant to quantify the amount of data that the cars produce, they did explain that all the information from the roof-mounted Lidar, strategically placed cameras, and assorted sensors gets processed through Google’s machine-learning algorithms to spit out essentially two numbers: how much to throttle, and what angle to turn the steering wheel.

Miles and miles to go

Watching the car execute a perfect left-turn from inside the vehicle as our driver, Google’s Ryan Espinoza, kept his eyes on the road but his hands in his lap was the first major test I experienced in the car. It’s something that you know a self-driving car must do, but requires awareness of so many variables — oncoming vehicles, lane width, the ability to smoothly accelerate through the turn’s arc — that it was impressive just to see it done.

The system is so advanced that Urmson said that the Google cars can even avoid placing themselves in other vehicles’ blind spots, a remarkable feat that most human drivers can’t manage, but he cautioned that the cars still need work.

That was evident from the moment I squished myself into the middle back seat of the Lexus SUV, flanked by two other reporters. The car’s front leather seats were occupied by a Google driver and “co-driver,” a team present in every Google self-driving car that hits the road.

2014-05-13-google-self-driving-car-7.jpg
Google monitors the system with a laptop connected directly to the sensor array.Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

The driving teams spend nearly eight hours a day, every day in Google’s two dozen self-driving cars. The Lexus SUV hybrid I rode in appeared to be a late-model RX 450h, rated for 30 mpg — best in class, according to Lexus’ website. At an average of $4.20 per gallon in Mountain View, estimating six hours of actual drive time to accommodate for stops, and assuming an average speed of 30 mph, Google is spending around $600 to fuel its self-driving fleet every day, five days a week.

The driving pair performs two tasks. As you’d expect, they’re there to take control of the car in case of an emergency. There’s even a large, custom red button about 2 inches across and mounted to the right of the gear shift that can be hit to disable autonomous control instantly, although our driver and co-driver, Espinoza and Nick Van Derpool, said that they couldn’t remember a time when they had to use it except to test that it worked.

The second task is to track the car’s progress. While the driver sits in the driver’s seat, hands and feet idle except when called upon to take over from the computer, the co-driver sits with a laptop displaying the real-time wireframe of the world around them, as constructed by the roof-mounted Lidar. The co-driver logs both well-executed maneuvers and situations where the car could do better. That information is then fed over a high-latency mobile data connection into a database that is used to improve how all the cars handle road situations.

It’s that reliance on human input that highlights how much further the car has to go, despite its successes. While the car I was in knew to stay nearly four car lengths back from a Mini Cooper that swerved into our lane unexpectedly until it could begin to predict what its path would be, our trip began with Espinoza manually driving us out of the Computer History Museum parking lot and onto La Avenida Street. Once there, he was enable to activate autonomous control, but who wants a self-driving car that can’t get itself on the road?

Another problem that the Google car has yet to conquer is weather. Urmson said that the car can handle heavy rain and fog about as well as a human, but that high-velocity freeway driving and rain are problematic. The team has not yet tested the cars in snow. Given the lofty goal of making driving safer, a system that’s as good as a human driver isn’t going to cut it.

Where do we go from here?

Use cases are easy to imagine. The elderly and people with disabilities, even temporary ones, will be able to get around more independently than they can today. The challenges of getting people in suburban areas to and from public transportation hubs, often referred to as the “first and last mile,” could be obviated by fleets of self-driving cars.

And just as the Tesla Model S has a “frunk,” a front trunk, where the nonexistent internal combustion engine goes in other cars, widespread use of the self-driving car could eventually lead to a complete redesign of the driver-centered car, or change how we develop cities just as we approach a point where globally more than 50 percent of people on Earth live in them.

2014-05-13-google-self-driving-car-2.jpg
The face of the car of the future?Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

But as with many of Google’s moonshot projects, there’s more to the story than just figuring out the technological solution. The success of the self-driving car raises questions that the Google team isn’t working on.

How are self-driving cars insured? Who pays if a robo-car is involved in a crash? What happens when there’s a 90 percent reduction in car-caused deaths? Are self-driving cars coming too late for the US, as annual miles driven has begun to dip below the peak of 3 trillion from a decade ago? How do you prevent self-driving cars from getting hacked? And what happens to all that data that Google and its self-driving car competitors will be collecting on their passengers?

At least for the last two, the Google team offered concrete answers.

“One of the things about Google is that we have an incredible resource in security,” said Urmson, citing Google’s computer security work in the Chrome browser and advancing encryption. “We’re bringing some of that experience” to the cars, he said.

“There is a big red button [in the car],” said Chatham, “[but] there is no silver bullet for security. We take a multilayered approach.” That approach, they said, means that even if a hacker can get access to the car, additional security measures prevent a command like “turn left now” from being successfully executed.

They declined to specify further what those measures were. And what about Google’s pervasive need to convert everything about you into data?

Chatham said, “Right now we’re not sharing the data with anyone.”

Urmson said, “Right now, the data is used exclusively to improve the vehicles,” and then later added, “We want to be careful with all of our customers’ data.”

The fear of our vehicles becoming the largest deployment of robots was depicted hilariously on last weekend’s episode of “Silicon Valley,” where a self-driving car that looked suspiciously like Google’s set a destination for a tiny desert island 5,000 miles away and pulled into a shipping container to get there.

But the reality is that these cars are coming, and quicker than you might think. Volvo just announced in Sweden that it’s building a system to allow autonomous cars to run a 35-mile loop around Gothenburg for 2017. While Google’s plans call for a window between then and the end of the decade, Urmson has a different reason to beat that deadline.

Urmson noted that teenagers are terrible drivers and the statistics reflect that.

“I have a 10-year-old son, so I have six years to get this done,” he said.

War Story

 

After braving gunfire to save comrades, Army vet gets highest U.S. military honor

By Greg Botelho and Ashley Fantz, CNN
updated 6:27 PM EDT, T13, 2014
 
(Listen to exciting, moving radio story with White’s own words.))

medal of honor image

 

KYLE WHITE, awarded Medal of Honor by President Obama today.

The Washington state native joined up after high school, following the lead of his father, a former Army Special Forces member. His service had, like many other members of the military, earned him a ticket to Afghanistan as his platoon’s radio telephone operator.

He was there (Afghanistan) on November 9, 2007, walking back from a meeting with elders with his unit of 14 and a squad of Afghan army soldiers.

“They knew not to stop, they had to keep moving,” Obama recalled of the group walking single-file with a cliff to their right and a steep, rocky slope to their left. “They were heading into an area known as ambush alley.”

In an interview prior to the award ceremony, White told CNN how the group walked “down this little incline and looking into the valley, (when) I hear this single shot. Then two shots, then the echo, then fully automatic gunfire.”

Taking so much fire, members of his patrol were separated as they tried to take cover. White was finishing off his first magazine and beginning to load another one when an rocket-propelled grenade exploded, knocking him unconscious.

Moments after he came to, an enemy round hit a rock just inches from his head. The shrapnel and rock fragments cut his face.

Dazed, he struggled to take in what was happening. He and four others had been separated from the other soldiers, who’d jumped from a cliff. White administered first aid to one wounded soldier using the only cover available: a single tree. That soldier would survive.

It was at that point in the attack that White realized his radio wasn’t working.

He looked out and saw a member of his patrol about 30 feet away whose wounds were so bad that he could not move. White ran toward him, braving enemy fire.  White was able to drag the wounded man back to the tree.

But the man’s injuries were too severe, and he died.

Risking death, again and again

White continued to risk himself to help his fellow warriors, again running from cover into enemy fire to reach the platoon leader. White told the military publication Stars and Stripes that he could see the leader’s helmet and assault pack, but he couldn’t tell whether the leader was alive. White had to see, he said.

White crawled toward the man. It was too late. He was dead.

White figured he would be killed. But he would do what he was trained to do. He would carry out his duty.

“It was never a choice,” he explained to CNN. “I told myself from the beginning that I was going to be killed, you know… just the amount of fire … I’m not gonna make it through this.”

But he kept focused. The soldier White had dragged to the tree earlier was hit again, this time in the knee, so the White wrapped his belt around the man’s leg, creating a tourniquet.

Then White found a working radio on a deceased comrade and called for artillery and helicopter gunships to help.

Finally, maybe, there could be hope. But then a friendly mortar round landed near White.

“I remember just red hot chunks of metal like the size of my palm just flinging by your head,” he told Stars and Stripes.

Suffering a concussion, White managed to hang on, waiting for helicopters to evacuate him and others with him that day. When help arrived, he told his rescuers to put the other wounded aboard first.

A soldier, changed

Speaking with National Public Radio this week, White said the experience — from the violence to the wait — seemed like “forever.” And it hasn’t entirely gone away, all these years later.

“It’s something you still think about every day,” White said. “I still have these images from that day burned into my head. But it’s something, as time goes on, it gets easier.”

But something inside him changed, he said.

“Even to this day, you know, I can’t say if it was something good or bad. …” he told NPR. “And that was pretty much the reason why I decided to leave the Army.”

Climate Change Hurts Now !

 

U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods

By JUSTIN GILLIS MAY 6, 2014   Source

Rising Temperatures

The effects of human-induced climate change are being felt in every corner of the United States, scientists reported Tuesday, with water growing scarcer in dry regions, torrential rains increasing in wet regions, heat waves becoming more common and more severe, wildfires growing worse, and forests dying under assault from heat-loving insects.

Such sweeping changes have been caused by an average warming of less than 2 degrees Fahrenheit over most land areas of the country in the past century, the scientists found. If greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane continue to escalate at a rapid pace, they said, the warming could conceivably exceed 10 degrees by the end of this century.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the scientists declared in a major new report assessing the situation in the United States.

“Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,” the report continued. “Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”

 The report is the latest in a series of dire warnings about how the effects of global warming that had been long foreseen by climate scientists are already affecting the planet. Its region-by-region documentation of changes occurring in the United States, and of future risks, makes clear that few places will be unscathed — and some, like northerly areas, are feeling the effects at a swifter pace than had been expected.

Alaska in particular is hard hit. Glaciers and frozen ground in that state are melting, storms are eating away at fragile coastlines no longer protected by winter sea ice, and entire communities are having to flee inland — a precursor of the large-scale changes the report foresees for the rest of the United States.

The study, known as the National Climate Assessment, was prepared by a large scientific panel overseen by the government and received final approval at a meeting Tuesday.

The White House, which released the report, wants to maximize its impact to drum up a sense of urgency among Americans about climate change — and thus to build political support for a contentious new climate change regulation that President Obama plans to issue in June.

But instead of giving a Rose Garden speech, President Obama spent Tuesday giving interviews to local and national weather broadcasters on climate change and extreme weather. The goal was to help Americans connect the vast planetary problem of global warming caused by carbon emissions from cars and coal plants to the changing conditions in their own backyards. It was a strategic decision that senior White House staff members had been planning for months.

White House on Climate Change Report

In the Northeast, the report found a big increase in torrential rains and risks from a rising sea that could lead to a repeat of the kind of flooding seen in Hurricane Sandy. In the Southwest, the water shortages seen to date are likely just a foretaste of the changes to come, the report found. In that region, the report warned, “severe and sustained drought will stress water sources, already overutilized in many areas, forcing increasing competition among farmers, energy producers, urban dwellers and plant and animal life for the region’s most precious resource.”

The report did find some benefits from climate change in the short run, particularly for the Midwest, such as a longer growing season for crops and a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes. But it warned that these were likely to be countered in the long run by escalating damages, particularly to agriculture.

“Yes, climate change is already here,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in writing the report. “But the costs so far are still on the low side compared to what will be coming under business as usual by late in this century.”

The report was supervised and approved by a large committee representing a cross section of American society, including representatives of two oil companies. It is the third national report in 14 years, and by far the most urgent in tone, leaving little doubt that the scientists consider climate change an incipient crisis. It is also the most slickly produced, with an elaborate package of interactive graphics on the Internet.

One of the report’s most striking findings concerned the rising frequency of torrential rains. Scientists have expected this effect for decades because more water is evaporating from a warming ocean surface, and the warmer atmosphere is able to hold the excess vapor, which then falls as rain or snow. But even the leading experts have been surprised by the scope of the change.

The report found that the eastern half of the country is receiving more precipitation in general. And over the past half-century, the proportion of precipitation that is falling in very heavy rain events has jumped by 71 percent in the Northeast, by 37 percent in the Midwest and by 27 percent in the South, the report found

In recent years, sudden intense rains have caused extensive damage.

For instance, large parts of Nashville were devastated by floods in 2010 after nearly 20 inches of rain fell in two days. Last year, parts of Coloradoflooded after getting as much rain in a week as normally falls in a year. Just last week, widespread devastation occurred in the Florida Panhandle from rains that may have exceeded two feet in 24 hours.

The new report emphasized that people should not expect global warming to happen at a steady pace, nor at the same rate throughout the country. Bitterly cold winters will continue to occur, the report said, even as they become somewhat less likely. Warming, too, will vary. While most of the country has warmed sharply over the past century, the Southeast has barely warmed at all, and a section of southern Alabama has even cooled slightly.

The report cited the likely role of climate change in causing an outbreak of mountain pine beetles that has devastated millions of acres of pine forest across the American West and the Canadian province of British Columbia; warmer winters and longer summers have let more of the beetles survive and reproduce at an exponential rate. And the report warned of severe, long-lasting heat waves. For instance, it cited research saying the type of record-breaking heat that scorched Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 had become substantially more likely because of the human release of greenhouse gases.

On rising sea levels, the new report went beyond warnings issued in September by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said that by the end of the century, sea levels could rise by as much as three feet globally if emissions continue at a rapid pace. The American scientists said the rise could be anywhere from one to four feet, and added that six feet could not be ruled out. Along much of the East Coast, the situation will be worse than the global average because the land there is sinking, the scientists said.

Historically, the United States was responsible for more emissions than any other country. Lately, China has become the largest emitter over all, though its emissions per person are still far below those of the United States.

The report pointed out that while the country as a whole still had no comprehensive climate legislation, many states and cities had begun to take steps to limit emissions and to adapt to climatic changes that can no longer be avoided. But the report found that these efforts were inadequate.

“There is mounting evidence that harm to the nation will increase substantially in the future unless global emissions of heat-trapping gases are greatly reduced,” the report warned.