Tag Archives: Michigan

Self Driving Cars, Pitttsburg, Uber, and Us, Overlooking the Atlantic

So I’m here in a very nice seaside rented home on an obscure North Carolina island with the family. The kids and grand kids are off in various swimming/biking/exploring modes and rain is forecast. I’ve been working on my congressional campaign, and so distracted from blogging. Nevertheless, there is some new raw material that beg for expression, I’m on the porch watching storm clouds gather for the first time this week, so let’s organize the news of the last month and see if there’s anything that we on the commission need to heed.

Kris retired two years ago and decided that she liked to travel with me as I do locums work. This means that we take a taxi to and from the airport, a truly awkward experience. We call a day ahead, call half an hour beforehand, and still they don’t show up. The drivers are invariably African and hostile until my alcoholic personality disorder kicks in; “Africa, big place, where in Africa?” “Ethiopia.” “The Highlands or coast?” “Oh, you know Africa! The HIghlands.” Kris; “You’re Christian? Did you get kicked, go to Libya?” By this time the guy is wracked with emotion, ready to talk about his family, hopes, past, and we’re at the end of the journey. It costs $13.40. I try to give the guy 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark or worse yet, raining. Awkward.

Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. We at the city commission should investigate.

This diktat caused me to rebel. I downloaded Uber and we have since had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives, an African American who was damned if he would ever work for somebody again.) In creative moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; maybe get rid of one of our cars……

Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly running, that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s, then go off to pick up yet another customer.. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.

Wow.

Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Ford Focuses that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg.    Pittsburg!   Fifth Avenue is the only straight street in the whole region. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.

Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but can’t make it work.)

Daughter who has lived in P’burg for 7 years is here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, roof has a bubble so distinctive enough for it to be known if they fail somehow.

I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a few 100,000 Priuses modified to self drive? another year? maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

We on the commission had better think on this.

Some thoughts.

The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive luxury pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with a metal attached.

Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elites in the NY to Washington corridor;  even as I write, there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken, NJ) and intercity buses will be replaced in their roles of moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses, kaput.

Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?

Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and then delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? A warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots will no longer need to be located on our main streets.

Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities. That’s my opinion but maybe others can marshal opposite arguments.

Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes? How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?

The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto, where these have been standard for years, are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the patient self drivers are scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for- and punishing of speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines, busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work of lurking for speeders that police do. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department.  Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.

The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.

Will our fleet of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.

The folks who will first use self drivers are the old who are still living in their own home. They can more easily take care of themselves if they have the increased mobility, so forestall moving into retirement villages. So what happens to the explosive growth of these corporations that depend on a aging and dependent population?

I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so our connection to Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

Well the rain passed us by, a watery sunshine, temperature 78, moderate wind,  and I see an osprey hunting off shore.  Commission meeting next Tuesday, so gotta get back in the next few days. Life in retirement is hard but yo gotta do what ya gotta do..

City Hall Wants a Communications Officer; the Real Motives Unmasked. Castration by the Hatch Act.

The next commission meeting is this next Tuesday. On the agenda is a request to approve 78K to hire a “specialist” to communicate good news etc about Kentwood (and here I thought that I did a pretty good job.)

One of the provisions gave me a start. This employee is tasked with “Develop(ing) and execut(ing) campaigns and/or associated materials to support City millage initiatives.”

Wow.

First of all, what millage initiatives or tax increases does City Hall envision. What shortage of funds exists to justify this assault on our benighted taxpayer? And who exactly wants to raise taxes? Someone who promised not to when (s)he was elected?

I’m going to vote against this entire fraud on laws well established nationally and apparently also copied into the Michigan law. (I can’t link for some reason.)

https://www.michigan.gov/documents/wda/00-16_Hatch-Act_454709_7.pdf

Supporting this schema would be against the law and I’ll vote no.

The MEDC, Believing that Signs are God’s Gift to Liars

On the agenda for the 11 April meeting is a request for the city commission to approve two signs that the MEDC wants to put on the road which brackets an unnamed food processing company where the MEDC claims it created 91 jobs in Kentwood

I’m going to vote no. The MEDC has claimed the creation of 150,000 jobs in Michigan over the decade, but only about 13,000 actually materialized (Mlive.) In a more recent  report, they claimed that 75% of the jobs that they had arranged were in place. An audit found only 19% existed.

I’d vote to let them put up their signs if the MEDC signs said something like, “We scam job creation” or similar truths.

 

Our Commissioners Attend the Annual Strategizing Conference. I Emerge Not Terribly Depressed

We “city fathers” and heads of department spent an otherwise sunny Saturday at a well planned and executed meeting in which an imported facilitator led us along the usual pro-forma, management-approved ruts that these affairs always follow. I will relate a few of the bland recommendations. We needed to foster the Kentwood brand, speak well of the city government,  continue to foster the feeling of safety and orderliness that our residents may (or may not) treasure, keep costs and taxes low, and guard against threats coming from the economy, from civil unrest, or from other governments that could derail our plans. By way of boosting Kentwood, the meeting was held in downtown Grand Rapids.

There were no ringing calls for spending money to reach the Promised Land or for imposing new onerous regulations on the citizenry. I participated actively and at the end, had no idea about what future we had designed. The upside is that not having a concrete plan about where we should be going will allow the future to come as a complete surprise rather than as an continuously visible failing goal pinned on every cubicle wall, viewed daily with dread and anxiety.

I am of course not without some personal ideas about what we in the commission should do to manage our future. I start from a perspective of an outsider gazing down from a longer distance, darkly. Kentwood, it seems to me, has numerous threats, both internal and external, any one of which could thwart any well thought out plans.

Some are internal problems that we can address. We have debts and a defined pension plan about half invested in stocks.  Inflation, reaching only 0.7% in the USA last year, has been on a steady decline for 35  years. The inflation rate in much of the industrialized world is less than zero. If deflation takes hold, our equity markets would undoubtedly collapse, shriveling our defined pension plan and plunging the city into deep financial crisis. We should invest the defined pension plan money in long term treasury bonds or offloaded our risk by buying annuity policies for covered employees. We should also pay off our bonds when they are due rather than refinancing them at “low” interest rates. If deflation reaches 5% per annum, our real interest rates will look more like 8% at a time when real estate, income and sales taxes are all falling  making governmental revenues scarce. Deflation threatens the general US and world-wide economy but handled properly, it could make Kentwood with its relatively low debts the shining diamond of our region.

We can’t do much about the rest of the threats that we face.

We in Kentwood are tied in with the economies of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Detroit and Chicago/Illinois with their huge debts; defaults will cramp our finances and economy.

The average Kentwood  income has diminished from 49k to 39k in the last 10 years. I’d argue that the diminution is not because our citizens are working less, but rather because economically less productive residents are moving in.

Our real estate market has not recovered back to its admittedly bloated 2007 level.

Michigan’s DEQ (of Flint water fame) wants all new developments to retain all storm water on the property, but we have impenetrable clay soil and so may not be able to develop empty areas of our city.

The Feds have fantasies about distributing poverty to all neighborhoods in an apparent pursuit of equality, thereby improving our collective protoplasm, or something.

Our diversity, seen unaccountably as a virtue, could turn on itself turning ugly and cause devastating costs and hatreds.

Large portions of our city are were built in the 1920s and are on the cusp of economic obsolescence.

So I would plan working only for our survival. We should bend our energies to forestalling crippling losses and parrying threats that could destroy the vaunted peace and perception of orderliness in Kentwood.

I’m glad that the conference didn’t advance any new adventures in which we would fritter away our money. Opportunities in our city will come irregularly and from eruptions in the private sphere or in nature that no official can anticipate. (Who would have foreseen North Dakotans as being transiently wealthy due to fracking or more recently becoming a center for drone research; they had merely to let prosperity happen.) Hopefully, if and when opportunities come knocking, our city will still be functioning and able to benefit. Our leaders should curb their impulses to snuff out spontaneous and often disruptive innovations with regulations and planning, or, heavens forbid, subsidies.

Sobriety, Academic Probity, and Why Don’t our Kentwood Cops Arrest these Prostitutes?

Sturgeon’s Revelation states that 90% of everything is crap, so I immediately detected odor (not the first whiff in the commission chambers that evening) when our highly respected city judge proposed that his Kentwood court host a sobriety court,  you know, the contrivances imposing substance-abuse interventions and treatment on defendants who plead guilty of driving while intoxicated or impaired.

Some background; I had served on the Grand Rapids Mayors Task Force on Drugs 15 years ago and researched the scientific literature. There was only one good clinical trial and it showed that even a well funded alcohol rehab trial was no better than threatening the miscreant with severe punishment if he were caught drunk again. Our judge cited some “case-control” studies (close to worthless, but convincing enough for the commission) to put me down. Some other political body would provide the $160k, and it was a partial return to Kentwood of taxes that would be sent elsewhere.  I voted “yes” with everyone else and he implemented the hustle. The judge was told that he should not expect ongoing funding from Kentwood when the 3 year grant ran out.

Not content with the status quo, the judge recently sent out a widely noised study funded by “The Michigan Association of Treatment Court Professionals” which touted the Ignition Interlock Systems that detect alcohol on the breath of drunks and prevents them from starting their cars. He misinterpreted it as showing the effectiveness of sobriety courts. The actual research focused only on Interlocks, commercial products imposed on clients in sobriety courts as allegedly diminishing recidivism as well as other crimes. The authors, trying to bolster their argument, included not just one but two comparison groups, one from a sobriety court and the other from a court using traditional probationers. On page 40, you’ll notice that there is scarce difference in alcohol recidivism between these two groups at 1,2, and at 3 years.

My point is not especially that sobriety courts are useless (although they are.) The main researcher, (a professor from GVSU, my old haunt) was doing marketing work on Interlocks, a series of commercial products. He never gave the data comparing sobriety courts with standard probationers’ courts a second glance; it supported his objective on Interlocks, so he innocently reported raw data on sobriety courts. His job was to “Evaluate Interlocks. What are these sobriety courts?” Like many social science “studies” that get reported, this one showed a favorable result for Interlocks, just like previous studies that compared standard probationers courts to sobriety courts showed the superiority of the latter.

This study illustrates the degradation of enquiry in colleges and universities; most of what the social sciences investigate is thinly disguised marketing research done to please someone in business, the press or for our purposes, government. Tools used to investigate human affairs, surveys, experiments with students as subjects, retrospective looks at large data bases and the like, always require investigator interpretation on input variables, what criteria and tools to use in analysis and what studies to report. Negative studies never get reported. Publicity always gets a better deal than integrity, and a researcher who finds unfavorable answers, even once, loses funding.

Social science researchers tout their probity in the daylight. At night and in the dim lights of academic offices, the prostitutes want their money.

Bacon Davis, Free Choice, the Public Weal. The City Commission is not Inert and I Answer a Bridgemi Assertion.

“The public body is not allowed to consider differences between the quality of the bids”-bridgemi

Nonsense. I just went through my 2 June 15 Kentwood city commission meeting packet looking for bids on projects that our city funded, namely buying park equipment, fixing up some buildings and the like. Costs were in the $2000-60,000 range so relatively small potatoes- contractors with a half dozen employees, guys selling stuff made in small shops….
We rejected the low bidder 2/4 times, meaning that we elected to go with slightly more expensive companies, based on our experience with using them, the time it would take for them to complete the job, the helpfulness of the bidder in pointing out inadequacies of the city’s own requirements, etc.

Using the “Davis-Bacon” formulae imposed on the state’s projects increases those hourly costs by 6 or more dollars per hour, and does nothing to protect the taxpayer. In fact, these provisions limit the bids made and the choices available to decision makers at the state and federal levels, interfering with the free markets while granting monopoly powers on one construction union.

Prevailing wage provisions confers on this illegitimately coercing group the the extra money needed to continue to lobby the state legislature, an excellent investment from their point of view. I’d look into the campaign finance and political support of state legislators who vote to retain this relic from the Hoover era to ferret out their motives.

And supporting Bacon-Davs should make the outfit that terms itself “non-partisan, fact-based journalism alive in Michigan” cringe.
Bacon Davis was passed in 1931 at the behest of labor unions seeking to exclude African Americans from competing on federal construction contracts. Is that what you want to protect?

Prop 1-15 goes to the Wall, and Voters’ Lists are now Filtered.

One quarter of registered voters came out and they crushed Prop 1-15. The whining by the well-funded losers has started. M-live has already published one of their vapid editorials. Bridgemi pontificates on the choices that they deem the state legislators must consider. But no one has commented on the political implications of who came out to vote and what that means for politicians and future elections.

I’ll note that virtually every “professional” meaning leftist writer, teacher, academician and petty politician at the city and county level publicly supported Prop 1-15. The city commission in Kentwood voted unanimously to support with only Commissioner DeMaagd voicing any reservations. (I was not there for that meeting.)

I’d intuit that the arrogance of this snooty group infuriated the peasants who came out in droves to waylay this crude power grab by their betters. But the trashing that they inflicted on Prop 1-15 is just the short term casualty. The election created a list of voters who were probably fiscally conservative and who were motivated to react to the political highway robbery (really, I just now stumbled on this image) such as Prop 1-15. They will still be outraged by the affront for some years and may well want to punish politicians who aligned themselves with the ballot question. Anyone who has the funds can use the May ’15 voter list to efficiently contact and mobilize an electorate that is primed to help oust office holders who foolishly supported this political cock up..