TDS 12 - Violence, Sharp Trucks, Automated Sexism, and Siachen

Another good week ended. Here’s what made the news -

Quite a lot of violence, to begin with. A protester in Hong Kong was shot by the police at practically point blank range. At the same time, a group of protesters apparently set a man on fire, and shot a police officer in the leg with an arrow (!). And a 70-year old man died from injuries after being hit by a brick on Wednesday night.

Westward, in Iran, we saw people angry at a 50% hike in the price of petrol; to protest against the hike, they poured petrol on cars and buses on the street and set them on fire, because the best way to protest about expensive things is to burn them.

Israel killed a notable leader of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine (they also ended up killing his wife, in a typical Israeli “targeted assassination”). In return, Israeli people had to repeatedly run into rocket shelters for the better part of two days, while the Iron Dome system worked overtime to intercept close to 90% of the rockets fired by the Palestinians. The 10% of rockets that did get away landed in roads, people’s homes, and other such places.

My man Elon demo-ed the Tesla truck this week.

Firstly, the truck doesn’t have Outer Rear View Mirrors (ORVMs). Are cars allowed to ply on the roads without them? I have my doubts. But then again, this was a prototype, so we can expect the road car to definitely ship with ORVMs.

Second, there was an incident when the supposedly indestructible “armor glass” (pardon my American spelling) broke at the demo. It’s all right, sometimes incidents like these happen, and they’re a part of a marketing guy’s life. Maybe, just maybe, Elon could sell the metal ball that shattered the glass to the military, by saying that he’s developed a ball that can shatter bulletproof glass. Jokes apart - what I wonder is, do I, as a prospective Tesla owner, really want a car with “indestructible” windows? I’m not a wanted guy, you know. No one’s sending John Wick to assassinate me. And I also know that there has been one lawsuit filed against Tesla alleging that first responders were unable to open a Tesla Model S’ doors when it caught fire, leading to the death of the man inside. It is definitely something to think about.

Third, do this car’s sharp edges signify a change in the styling of cars in general? Because the age of lithe, curvy, graceful cars is just getting started, you know. It took us a lot of trouble to build machines could beat metal into curvy shapes like that of the Mercedes AMG Roadster or the Aston Martin Vantage. I’d hate for cars to go back to the boxy, knife-like designs that were popular in the 80s and the 90s. They look good to some people, yes, but they don’t work for me.

Last, in the company’s Q4 2018 earnings call, their CFO clearly stated that car “reservations aren’t relevant to us”. Even then, on Saturday, 23 November, Musk announced that Tesla had garnered 146,000 bookings for the Cybertruck. It doesn’t take much to book the Cybertruck, by the way. Just US$100 and a working internet connection can earn you a spot in line for one of them, when they roll off the factory in end-2021. Does the announcement, however, mean that Tesla reservation numbers are important? A little clarity from Musk would be helpful here.

David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) is the archetype of the successful all-rounded coder. He runs a successful software firm called Basecamp, races at Le Mans (LE MANS!!!), and created a web development framework called Ruby on Rails, which has been used to create more than 2.3 million websites (sites like Airbnb, Github, Shopify still run on Rails). He’s ticked all the boxes, then.

So our master-of-the-universe here applied for an Apple credit card (which Apple offers in partnership with Goldman Sachs), as did his wife. They live in a community-property state in the US (states that decree that all assets obtained after marriage are “community property”, i.e., belong to the man and the woman equally), and file joint tax returns, so you’d expect for the two of them to get similar credit limits on their credit cards. But that was not to be. DHH got 20x the credit limit of his wife (link here opens a Twitter thread laced with profanity). Maybe he got a higher limit because he races Le Mans while his wife doesn’t? He isn’t the only one who faced such a problem, though. The Great and Powerful Woz (Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers) faced the same issue - the credit limit algorithm determined that Woz would get 10x the credit limit of his wife, even though they share all assets and incomes. So essentially, when the co-founder of Apple Computers applied for an Apple credit card, the credit limit algorithm decided that while he can be trusted, his wife cannot.

Soon enough, this issue blew up on the internets, and Goldman announced that it’d be looking into how the algorithm works. We’ve seen variations of this issue before, i.e., an “AI” algorithm does things you don’t expect it to - Amazon created an experimental algo to make hiring decisions, and shut it down soon after when it was observed that the algo ended up discriminating against women. As a code monkey, I can say with certainty that no (normal) person wakes up in the morning and decides to build an algo that discriminates against a certain group of people. But when an algorithm is created, it may so happen that it does not capture certain situations (called edge cases). These edge cases are hard to determine - sometimes you can logically arrive at an edge case, while at other times you need to run a large amount of data through your algo to see what’s happening, because it is really hard to anticipate what might happen in the case of complex algos. Basically, you will hear a number of similar stories as we turn more decisions over to algorithms in the time to come.

The highest battlefield in the world is Kashmir, India. Situated between 17000 - 25000ft (5.4 - 7.7km) above sea level, it’s called Siachen, which in the local language means “land of roses”. Ironic name, since nothing grows there. Siachen was always ignored when it come to Indo-Pak conflicts, because who in their right mind would fight over a land that’s so utterly useless?

After India won the 1971 war against Pakistan, both sides sat down to formally demarcate territories. But as it happens, they forgot to specify who got Siachen - both sides thought that they did. In 1981, India discovered that Pakistan had been handing out climbing permits to random foreigners. This raised eyebrows in Delhi, and surveys of Siachen were conducted by the Indian Army. In addition, plans were put in place in case Pakistan decided to take over Siachen. A couple of years later, India discovered that the Pak Army placed a large order of winter clothes and mountaineering equipment for their Army with a supplier in London (the two countries used the same supplier, as it turned out) - this confirmed India’s suspicion that Pakistan wanted to take over Siachen. The logical next step for India thus was to take over Siachen itself, which it promptly did. Turns out, India pre-empted Pakistan only by half a month. In turn, Pakistan occupied the lower slopes around the glacier. Armies of the two nations haven’t moved from there to this day.

Siachen is a barren wasteland. The warmest day would be -10°C (14°F), and the coldest can be as cold as -60°C (-76°F). Because of its height, the air is thin (so helicopters can’t fly well), and oxygen is in short supply (soldiers aren’t allowed to be there for more than 3 months at a stretch, because the lack of oxygen hampers brain functioning). Everything in sight freezes. For a full list of issues, check out this article.

Anyway, you have me recounting all of this because 6 Indians (4 soldiers, 2 porters) were killed in an avalanche in Siachen on Monday. Since the tussle over the glacier began in 1984, more than 2000 people on both sides have died due to the extreme conditions, and of course, bullets. The worst avalanche in Siachen took the lives of more 140 Pakistanis (129 soldiers, 11 porters) in 2012. The way things are going, though, the death toll is only going to go up, for a piece of land that both sides want, but neither can really live on.

Hope you have a great week ahead.