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43 Hours on the Amtrak Southwest Chief

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In September 2022, after watching many YouTube videos of other people on long-distance Amtrak trips, I finally embarked on a journey of my own: I took the Amtrak Southwest Chief train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Continue reading to learn more about it and why I’ll do it again on another route.

“Why would you want to do this?”

This is a question I got a lot. When I told friends that I booked a ticket to be on a train for over 40 hours, many didn’t understand why anyone would want to do this when you can fly for cheaper and in so much less time, enjoying comforts like in-flight entertainment, drinks, snacks, and the airport lounges.

The idea behind such a trip was to experience the country differently. I moved to the United States from Germany only 7 years ago and have flown all over it so many times, but never seen much of it up close. I can give you directions to a good bar or restaurant in dozens of cities, but I have never seen Arizona. I can navigate 20 airports blindly but never saw a sunrise in Kansas. Taking a train slows you down and gets you 34,000 feet closer to life on earth.

The Amtrak Southwest Chief at Chicago Union Station

Treating the Trip Like a Cruise

I had no reason to be in Chicago or Los Angeles. In fact, I flew to Chicago only to take the train, and from Los Angeles, I flew straight back home. Yes, it will take so much longer to get to your destination, but in this case, the journey is the goal.

Not only can you experience much more of the country, but you are also almost forced to do nothing. On many other trips, I pack my schedule full of things I want to do. It is easy to be stressed about the feeling of missing out on something and being so busy that you don’t get to relax very much. On a train trip? Not so much. You can do nothing except eat, drink, listen to music, and watch the scenery pass by. Internet access is unreliable, and you can’t do much with your phone. It’s you and all the other people on the train with no schedule except the stops on the journey. More on this later, but I found this trip to be extraordinarily relaxing and recharging.

On top of all that, you will meet people. Everyone has nothing to do, and if you want to talk, you’ll find someone else who also wants to talk. I’ve had fantastic conversations that stuck with me, and I made a new friend.

Most importantly, I am constantly searching for silence. An Amtrak Superliner pulled by 4,000 hp diesel locomotives, rumbling over New Mexico standard gauge railway tracks, is not silent. But you cannot achieve real silence ever. If you are not meditating, there will be your inner monologue; even if every sound is drowned out, you’ll start hearing your own heartbeat.

For me, silence is the absence of noise. Noise is having to do something else than just being. Noise is the chores of the day. Phone notifications are noise. On a train, in the middle of nowhere, with no mobile reception and a cold beer in my hand, and nothing to do but watch the mountains pass by, I am experiencing silence.

Picking a Train

For many, Amtrak is an operator of commuter trains. Readers on the eastern seaboard will likely have experience with Amtrak as an easy way for short to medium-distance trips between the significant population centers. Those commuter trains are similar to most trains I’m used to from when I grew up in Europe: Somewhat comfortable but designed to move people around for only a few hours. You might get a snack, but meals are not a priority or available at all. You can enjoy the scenery from your window like on any other train, and there are no sleeper cars.

The long-distance fleet of Amtrak is designed to move you across the entire country. While many people travel long distances on a simple chair in Economy class, you can also book different types of rooms in sleeper cars. An observation car with huge windows and outward-facing seats is available for sleeper car passengers, and meals are made to order in an onboard kitchen.

Every long-distance route is served by trains with specific names. For example, the train taking you from Chicago to San Francisco or the other direction is called the “California Zephyr.” I was interested in three routes:

All those trains had an enticing distance, each en route for at least 40 hours.

I decided to take the Southwest Chief for my first-ever Amtrak long-distance trip. The reason for me was simple: The California Zephyr route takes you through the Rocky Mountains, and I wanted to take it in the winter. Also, I wanted to take a slightly less famous or beautiful route to get some experience first. The Empire Builder route was another option, but I felt like that particular route would be more beautiful in the winter, too.

The Chicago to Los Angeles route is served by two trains: The Southwest Chief and the Texas Eagle. The Southwest Chief takes you south of the Rocky Mountains through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. If you take the Texas Eagle, you will go south to Texas and west to California – A significantly longer route and the longest scheduled travel on Amtrak.

I went with the Southwest Chief because it seemed to be a good combination of long but not-too-long travel time on a beautiful but not the most famous route. I was setting myself up to take another trip on the California Zephyr with more experience at another time.

Planning the Trip

Now that I knew which train I wanted to take, I could start planning the trip and buying tickets.

Amtrak makes it very easy to buy train tickets using their website, and it’s very similar to buying a plane ticket. I could not find a pattern of pricing differences, so I simply picked a ticket for a week that worked well with my work schedule: Departure from Chicago on Labor Day. Prices did not seem to be very different.

Flying from my hometown of Houston to Chicago is easy; both cities are United hubs. I booked a one-way ticket to Chicago and a one-way ticket back home from Los Angeles.

You can get a bedroom or roomette on an Amtrak sleeper car. A roomette fits two people, with the second person having to sleep on a bunk bed contraption under the room’s ceiling. I was going alone on this trip, and a roomette seemed to be the best choice.

The ticket cost me around $1,200. I could have bought an economy ticket for $150, but sitting for so long was out of the question. If I treat this as a cruise, I want a good level of comfort. Also, economy does not include meals in the dining car and gets you no access to the observation car. With two flights and the hotel room for a night, I ended up spending a little over $2,000. Not cheap. At least the food and some drinks on the train will be included in the price.

Long-distance Amtrak trains are known to often accumulate enormous delays. Amtrak does not own pretty much any rail lines (the physical tracks on the ground) outside of the Northeast USA, and freight trains have priority. You can easily be 10 hours late at your destination. If you treat the trip like a cruise, like I did, you might treat this as a positive thing. It will, however, complicate your flight schedule. I decided to play it somewhat safe and book my flight back for 12 hours after the scheduled train arrival in Los Angeles. Worst case, I could have always rebooked.

During booking, I could not pick a room or car. I ended up in a room in the center section of the upper floor and heard that those are better because you are further away from the vibrations and sounds of the wheels and track. On this route, I didn’t care much about which side of the train I was on because the scenery is very similar, no matter which way you look. This is more important if you take a train along the coastline, for example, the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle. I have no idea if you could call Amtrak and get another room if you ask nicely. Still, I believe there is a chance depending on availability.

The departure timing is the other side of the trip you want to play safe. A delayed flight should not jeopardize making it in time for the train; this is supposed to be relaxing, and I hate travel stress. That’s why I decided to fly into Chicago the day before the train departure and spend a night there.


It was clear to me that I wanted to travel with a single backpack. Hauling a second bag or carry-on through the airports and train stations did not seem like a great plan. Also, the somewhat uncertain exact time of return from Los Angeles called for maximum flexibility. On top of that, it was only a three-day trip, and packing a single bag was absolutely possible.

One complication was that I also wanted to pack some camera gear, but my tiny Ricoh GRIIIx, Sony a6400, and few lenses don’t take up much space.

My packed backpack for the trip

I chose my favorite backpack for short, single-bag trips: the Peak Design 45L Travel Backpack. It’s large, but carry-on approved for the flights. The small camera packing cube was enough for the photo and video gear, leaving me with enough space to comfortably pack clothes and other utensils.

Everything else was just like packing for a regular short trip. Toothbrush, deodorant, cables, chargers, Kindle, iPad, and so on. The Amtrak sleeper car rooms have USB charging ports and reliable power outlets. I recommend packing 6-10 foot charging cables because the outlets are only on one side of the room, and it might not be the closest to you, depending in which direction you’d like to sleep.

Your room will have a dial to control the temperature, but the hallway of the sleeper car was extremely cold on my trip. I recommend you bring a hoodie or something for when you want to leave the door open.

You won’t need anything special for “life” on the train. You will have breakfast, lunch, and dinner included and can always get small meals, snacks, drinks, and even alcohol in the little store on the lower level of the observation car. You can pay with a credit card and even Apple Pay there. I recommend bringing cash to tip the dining car staff and your sleeper car attendant. More on that later.

In Chicago

I had been at the Chicago O’Hare airport many times before but never in Chicago itself. I was happy to learn that Chicago has a decent public transit system. You can quickly get from O’Hare to downtown using the blue line train. The trip takes about 45 minutes and is not very scenic, but effective.

The commuter train station at Chicago O'Hare

In a Chicago blue line train

My train left in the early afternoon on Monday, so I had a lot of time to explore the city on Sunday night. My friend Kyle recommended the Centennial Bar on La Salle St for dinner and beers. It turned out he quickly texted the owner, letting him know that I was coming. It’s a short walk from downtown, and the food, beer, and conversations were fantastic. 10/10. Thanks, Kyle!

Downtown Chicago by day

Downtown Chicago by day

A bottle of Malort at the bar my friend recommended

Downtown Chicago at night

I checked out from my hotel the following day and walked to the Chicago Union Station. Amtrak owns and operates it; it serves as a long-distance train terminal and handles several commuter lines. It opened in 1925, replacing an older station built in 1881. Today, it handles about 140,000 passengers on an average day and is the busiest Amtrak station outside of the Northeast corridor.

At the Train Station

I had never taken an Amtrak before and planned two hours of a buffer. I used that time to familiarize myself with the station and where to find the trains. The trains leave from a separate building, but access is easy, and many signs point you in the right direction.

Chicago Union Station from the outside

I immediately noticed a lot of Amish people sitting in the large hall. This is because travel by plane is considered too modern and travel by train appears to be very popular amongst them. Something to read more about.

Chicago Union Station from the inside

Chicago Union Station from the inside

As an experienced and frequent flyer, I headed to the Amtrak lounge after feeling familiar enough with the station. The lounge was quiet, clean, and comparable to a US domestic airline lounge, with snacks, a little bar with wine (out of plastic cups), beer, and plenty of space to sit. You can access the lounge if you have a certain member level or a same-day first-class or sleeper car ticket.

Coffee and boarding pass at the Chicago Union Station Amtrak lounge

I spent about an hour in the lounge, waiting for my train to board. The staff at the lounge will print out a physical paper boarding pass if you prefer that over the mobile app. (I believe you don’t have to have a printed boarding pass.)


I can only describe the boarding process I experienced from within the lounge. I was ready to head to the tracks a few minutes before boarding time, just like you would at an airport. While sitting at the lounge and enjoying a very average red wine, I heard announcements for passengers of other long-distance trains (I believe the California Zephyr and the Capitol Limited) asking to meet at the front desk for boarding. It turns out that all passengers with lounge access can board their trains directly from the lounge: An Amtrak attendant will guide the group through the train station and straight to the train. This pleasant surprise made the whole thing feel like a class trip.

If you are not in the lounge, you can just walk to the platform when it’s time to board.

Boarding the Amtrak Southwest Chief at Chicago Union Station

A conductor checks your ticket at the train, directs you to your car, and tells you if your room is upstairs or downstairs.

Boarding the Amtrak Southwest Chief at Chicago Union Station

Settling in on the Train

I boarded the train and headed upstairs through a small staircase to find my roomette. The room had about the size I expected and was very clean and fresh.

The hallway in an Amtrak Superliner

After spending a few minutes exploring the room, I was greeted by the car attendant Tony. She quickly ensured everyone felt at home and explained how things worked on the train and in the room.

A roomette has a bunk bed layout with two seats connecting into a bed and another bed under the ceiling. I was traveling alone and did not need the top bed, which also had no window view.

A Roomette in an Amtrak Superliner

View out of the window of an Amtrak Superliner at Chicago Union Station

Tony explained that I could reserve a time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the restaurant car. They do this because the car can’t hold all eligible passengers at once. She took my reservation for dinner and the next day’s breakfast.

An Amtrak dinner reserveration ticket

I spent the few hours until dinner in my room, watching parts of Illinois and Iowa pass by.

View out of the window of an Amtrak Superliner

The Southwest Chief has 31 stops on the 2,265-mile-long journey. You can get out for some fresh air at every stop, but there will be an announcement to let you know how long you can expect to have. Some stops are just a few minutes long, and some are long enough to explore the area around the train station if you are brave enough to risk getting lost or losing track of time. In case of delays, you could be at a station for hours. The train staff set expectations very clearly and communicated frequently.

An Amtrak Superliner at a short stop during daytime

The First Dinner

I had a 7pm reservation and walked over to the car right in front of mine, the restaurant car. Because space is limited, you will sit with other passengers at tables holding 4 people. This is something I personally enjoy, but you should consider this if you are a little more introverted.

An Amtrak Superliner restaurant car

I sat with a British couple that night and had a great conversation. Those random collisions in the middle of nowhere are a great part of this slow form of travel.

Dinner on an Amtrak Superliner

An Amtrak Superliner has a full kitchen on the lower deck of the restaurant car. This is why the food is surprisingly delicious. I heard the steak was good and picked it for my dinner. It was cooked to order and tasted great. I had not expected such good food on the train.

You get one alcoholic drink with each meal but can always order more-Which I did.

Tips are appreciated, and, just as with any other service job, if you tip well, you might end up with a lot of free wine for you and a friend you made on the way the next day.

After returning from dinner, I discovered that Tony had used the time to convert my room from the “day configuration” to the “night configuration.” This means she set up the bed and brought fresh bed linen, pillows, and fresh towels for the shower.

An Amtrak Superliner roomette at night

An Amtrak Superliner roomette at night

The shower was hot, with good water pressure and plenty of space. I was ready for the first night.

An Amtrak Superliner stop at night

An Amtrak Superliner stop at night

An Amtrak Superliner roomette at night

An Amtrak Superliner roomette at night

During the Day

I slept well, but please take that with a grain of salt because I can sleep in pretty much any environment. If you can sleep on a international first-class plane seat, you will sleep comfortably in an Amtrak room. The upstairs rooms on a Superliner are further away from the tracks, and my room was in the middle of the car, at the most distance away from the wheels. All this reduced noise and vibrations, and I was very much unbothered.

I fell asleep and woke up still in Kansas. It turns out that state is really large if you cross it diagonally.

An Amtrak Superliner roomette in the early morning

After brushing my teeth, I walked over for breakfast. I sat with a guy from the East Coast, and we had a great conversation. The eggs were fresh, and the fruit was delicious. My new friend and I had a great discussion, so we decided to check out the observation car together.

Breakfast on an Amtrak Superliner

Breakfast on an Amtrak Superliner

The observation car is located right behind the restaurant car. It can also only be accessed by first-class and sleeping car passengers. (UPDATE 2/3/2023: Readers on Hackernews pointed out that this might not be the case and that everyone has access to the observation car. I might be wrong here. UPDATE 2: Yes, I was definitely wrong. Amtrak says on their website that everyone can access the observation car.) Not only is there a bar with snacks and drinks downstairs (it takes Apple Pay!), but also it has seats facing outside and huge windows. At some stops, workers will even clean the windows from the outside.

Observation Car of an Amtrak Superliner

Observation Car of an Amtrak Superliner

I spent almost the entire day in the observation car, with only a break for lunch, where I met a gentleman who had boarded earlier and was going to California.

The many stops along the route allow for some fresh air and stretching your legs.

Amtrak station in La Junta, CO

Amtrak station in Raton, NM

Amtrak station in Albuquerque, NM

Amtrak window cleaning in Albuquerque, NM

A coffee at an Amtrak station

You will have an entire stretch of daylight to see the most interesting sceneries on the westbound Southwest Chief route.

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

It is an amazing experience to sit down with a drink and watch the ever changing landscapes of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona pass by in front of you.

For dinner, we closed the place down. The friendly staff had a bottle of wine to empty, and we were there, talking until almost midnight. This was one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip.

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

View from the Amtrak Southwest Chief observation car

Arriving in Los Angeles

After another good night of sleep, I woke up in California and headed for breakfast around 7am to find a crowded restaurant car. I sat with a large group of travelers connecting to the Coastal Starlight Amtrak train to Seattle. Many boarded in San Bernadino to take the short trip to Los Angeles.

Early morning on the Amtrak Southwest Chief

Breakfast on the Amtrak Southwest Chief

The Amtrak Southwest Chief arriving at Los Angeles Union Station

I packed my things and waited for our arrival in Los Angeles. After arriving, I spent some time in the Amtrak Lounge and took a FlyAway shuttle bus from the station to LAX airport. There was no delay, and we were actually a few minutes early, so there was no rush for me to get to the airport. We arrived before 8am, and my flight was not until 6pm. I had chosen a late flight on purpose and was ready to rebook in case of a significant delay of the train.

Los Angeles International Airport

What’s Next?

This trip was great. I was able to completely shut down and find some silence without all the noise and distractions. I cannot think of a single uncomfortable moment along the journey.

I plan to take the California Zephyr to San Francisco or the Empire Builder to Seattle next. A friend even had the idea of going from coast to coast and starting in New York City.

I am encouraging you to explore the Amtrak network yourself and give it a try. It is worth it.

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4 days ago
I think I would enjoy such a trip but will likely never do it.
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AI Is About to Dump More Work on Everyone

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Have you been worried that ChatGPT, the AI language generator, could be used maliciously—to cheat on schoolwork or broadcast disinformation? You’re in luck, sort of: OpenAI, the company that made ChatGPT, has introduced a new tool that tries to determine the likelihood that a chunk of text you provide was AI-generated.

I say “sort of” because the new software faces the same limitations as ChatGPT itself: It might spread disinformation about the potential for disinformation. As OpenAI explains, the tool will likely yield a lot of false positives and negatives, sometimes with great confidence. In one example, given the first lines of the Book of Genesis, the software concluded that it was likely to be AI-generated. God, the first AI.

On the one hand, OpenAI appears to be adopting a classic mode of technological solutionism: creating a problem, and then selling the solution to the problem it created. But on the other hand, it might not even matter if either ChatGPT or its antidote actually “works,” whatever that means (in addition to its limited accuracy, the program is effective only on English text and needs at least 1,000 characters to work with). The machine-learning technology and others like it are creating a new burden for everyone. Now, in addition to everything else we have to do, we also have to make time for the labor of distinguishing between human and AI, and the bureaucracy that will be built around it.

If you are a student, parent, educator, or individual with internet access, you may have caught wind of the absolute panic that has erupted around ChatGPT. There are fears—It’s the end of education as we know it! It passed a Wharton MBA exam!—and retorts to those fears: We must defend against rampant cheating. If your class can be gamed by an AI, then it was badly designed in the first place!

An assumption underlies all these harangues, that education needs to “respond” to ChatGPT, to make room for and address it. At the start of this semester at Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach, our provost sent all faculty an email encouraging us to be aware of the technology and consider how to react to it. Like many institutions, ours also hosted a roundtable to discuss ChatGPT. In a matter of months, generative AI has sent secondary and postsecondary institutions scrambling to find a response—any response—to its threats or opportunities.

[Read: ChatGPT is dumber thank you think]

That work heaps atop an already overflowing pile of duties. Budgets cut, schoolteachers often crowdsource funds and materials for their classrooms. The coronavirus pandemic changed assumptions about attendance and engagement, making everyone renegotiate, sometimes weekly, where and when class will take place. Managing student anxiety and troubleshooting broken classroom technology is now a part of most teachers’ everyday work. That’s not to mention all the emails, and the training modules, and the self-service accounting tasks. And now comes ChatGPT, and ChatGPT’s flawed remedy.

The situation extends well beyond education. Almost a decade ago, I diagnosed a condition I named hyperemployment. Thanks to computer technology, most professionals now work a lot more than they once did. In part, that’s because email and groupware and laptops and smartphones have made taking work home much easier—you can work around the clock if nobody stops you. But also, technology has allowed, and even required, workers to take on tasks that might otherwise have been carried out by specialists as their full-time job. Software from SAP, Oracle, and Workday force workers to do their own procurement and accounting. Data dashboards and services make office workers part-time business analysts. On social media, many people are now de facto marketers and PR agents for their division and themselves.

No matter what ChatGPT and other AI tools ultimately do, they will impose new regimes of labor and management atop the labor required to carry out the supposedly labor-saving effort. ChatGPT’s AI detector introduces yet another thing to do and to deal with.

Is a student trying to cheat with AI? Better run the work through the AI-cheater check. Even educators who don’t want to use such a thing will be ensnared in its use: subject to debates about the ethics of sharing student work with OpenAI to train the model; forced to adopt procedures to address the matter as institutional practice, and to reconfigure lesson plans to address the “new normal”; obligated to read emails about those procedures to consider implementing them.

At other jobs, different but similar situations will arise. Maybe you outsourced some work to a contractor. Now you need to make sure it wasn’t AI-generated, in order to prevent fiscal waste, legal exposure, or online embarrassment. As cases like this appear, prepare for an all-hands meeting, and a series of email follow-ups, and maybe eventually a compulsory webinar and an assessment of your compliance with the new learning-management system, and on and on.

New technologies meant to free people from the burden of work have added new types of work to do instead. Home appliances such as the washing machine freed women to work outside the home, which in turn reduced time to do housework (which still fell largely to women) even as the standards for home perfection rose. Photocopiers and printers reduce the burden of the typist but create the need to self-prepare, collate, and distribute the reports in addition to writing them. The automated grocery checkout assigns the job of cashier to the shopper. Email makes it possible to communicate rapidly and directly with collaborators, but then your whole day is spent processing emails, which renews the burden again the next day. Zoom makes it possible to meet anywhere, but in doing so begets even more meetings.

ChatGPT has held the world’s attention, a harbinger of—well, something, but maybe something big, and weird, and new. That response has inspired delight, anxiety, fear, and dread, but no matter the emotion, it has focused on the potential uses of the technology, whether for good or ill.

The ChatGPT detector offers the first whiff of another, equally important consequence of the AI future: its inevitable bureaucratization. Microsoft, which has invested billions of dollars in OpenAI, has declared its hope to integrate the technology into Office. That could help automate work, but it’s just as likely to create new demands for Office-suite integration, just as previous add-ons such as SharePoint and Teams did. Soon, maybe, human resources will require the completion of AI-differentiation reports before approving job postings. Procurement may adopt a new Workday plug-in to ensure vendor-work-product approvals are following AI best practices, a requirement you will now have to perform in addition to filling out your expense reports—not to mention your actual job. Your Salesforce dashboard may offer your organization the option to add a required AI-probability assessment before a lead is qualified. Your kids’ school may send a “helpful” guide to policing your children’s work at home for authenticity, because “if AI deception is a problem, all of us have to be part of the solution.”

Maybe AI will help you work. But more likely, you’ll be working for AI.

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6 days ago
Another bleak and likely true view.
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Missing radioactive capsule found in WA outback after frantic search

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A tiny but potentially deadly radioactive capsule has been found in WA’s outback, after it sparked a frantic search and unprecedented public health warning spanning hundreds of kilometres.

Key points:

  • The radioactive capsule was found just outside Newman
  • Its loss sparked an unprecedented public safety warning over 1,400km
  • It had been likened to 'finding a needle in a haystack'

WA Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said it was found just outside Newman this morning.

"I do want to emphasise this is an extraordinary result," he said at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

"The search crews have quite literally found the needle in the haystack."

The capsule was found by a team from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

A map showing the approximate location of the capsule, using arrows
A map showing the approximate location of where the capsule was found.(ABC News)

Capsule found near side of the road

The Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner, Darren Klemm, said the capsule was found two metres from the side of the road.

He said a search vehicle was driving past at 70 kilometres per hour on the Great Northern Highway when a detection device revealed radiation.

A close up shot of DFES Commissioner Darren Klemm.
Commissioner Darren Klemm says the area around where the capsule was found will be remediated. (ABC News: Jessica Warriner)

A 20 metre "hot zone" has been set up around the capsule to ensure the public's safety and it will be placed into a lead container.

The capsule will be stored at a secure location in Newman overnight before being transported to a WA Health Department facility tomorrow where it will be examined.

"In the extremely unlikely situation that the capsule leaked, we will remediate the area," Commissioner Klemm said.

An urgent public warning was issued after the caesium-137 capsule was reported missing on January 25 when it apparently fell off a truck transporting it from a Rio Tinto mine to Perth.

It vanished between January 11 and January 16, but its loss was not reported for more than a week.

The capsule which measures 6mm in diameter by 8mm in height is used in mining equipment but can lead to dangerously high doses of radiation if mishandled.

Western Australians were warned of the dangerous misplaced capsule in an extraordinary press conference held late on Friday afternoon.

The state's Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson warned at the time it could be anywhere between Perth and the Pilbara, an area stretching for 1,400 kilometres.

Capsule hadn't moved after falling off truck

Dr Robertson said it was a great result the capsule had been found because although it was tiny, it "did pose a significant public health risk".

Dr Robertson said the capsule did not appear to have moved after falling from the truck which was transporting it and it was pleasing no one had been harmed.

A man holds up an A4 piece of paper at a press conference
WA's chief health officer Andy Robertson holds up a diagram of the radioactive capsule alongside a 10c coin.(ABC News)

He said he would now be investigating all aspects of the event to make sure the capsule was appropriately managed.

"We have the ability to prosecute under the radiation safety act and we will certainly look at such prosecutions, and we've done that in the past," he said.

The investigation was expected to take "a number of weeks" at least.

The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, this morning joined those disappointed to learn the maximum penalty for mishandling radioactive material in such a manner was $1,000.

"It shouldn't have been lost, that's the first thing. And second, yeah of course that figure is ridiculously low," Mr Albanese said.

Higher penalty won't be applied retrospectively

Stephen Dawson said the government was looking at updating the relevant act but said there would be no opportunity to retrospectively issue higher penalties.

"Let's wait and see what happens with the investigation as to who we can apportion blame to," Mr Dawson said.

"But certainly, I do want to state Rio Tinto have been exceptional in terms of how they have reached out to us and offered all levels of support, so I'm very grateful for that offer from Simon Trott."

The caesium-137 radioactive source was part of a radiation gauge commonly used in processing plants, and was being transported from a Rio Tinto mine site in WA's north to a depot in Perth for repairs.

Rio Tinto's iron ore division chief Simon Trott issued an apology earlier this week, and said it was a contractor hired by the company that lost the capsule in transit.

"We are taking this incident very seriously," Mr Trott said in a statement.

"We recognise this is clearly very concerning and are sorry for the alarm it has caused in the Western Australian community."

"Rio Tinto engaged a third-party contractor, with appropriate expertise and certification, to safely package the device in preparation for transport off-site ahead of receipt at their facility in Perth," he said, adding that Rio was also conducting its own investigation into how the loss occurred.

It was believed the capsule fell through the gap left by a bolt hole, after the bolt was dislodged when a container collapsed as a result of vibrations during the trip.

The mining company was expected to provide another update on Wednesday afternoon.

Lost capsule mocked overseas

It was not yet clear what the final cost of the search exercise was expected to reach, but the government admitted it had been "costly".

"Over the last few days, we've probably had about 100 personnel involved in the search," Stephen Dawson said.

"That includes career and volunteer fire fighters, it includes WA Police, it includes people from the Health Department and of course over the last few days in particular it includes people from the ADF."

The missing capsule attracted global attention and was even mocked on US talk show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

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The Australian Defence Force has been asked to verify the recovered capsule by checking its serial number.

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7 days ago
Wow! I'm amazed they found it.
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If Robots Eat Journalism, Does It Have to Be With Personality Quizzes?

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One might assume that when your boss finally comes to tell you that the robots are here to do your job, he won’t also point out with enthusiasm that they’re going to do it 10 times better than you did. Alas, this was not the case at BuzzFeed.

Yesterday, at a virtual all-hands meeting, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti had some news to discuss about the automated future of media. The brand, known for massively viral stories aggregated from social media and being the most notable progenitor of what some might call clickbait, would begin publishing content generated by artificial-intelligence programs. In other words: Robots would help make BuzzFeed posts.

“When you see this work in action it is pretty amazing,” Peretti had promised employees in a memo earlier in the day. During the meeting, which I viewed a recording of, he was careful to say that AI would not be harnessed to generate “low-quality content for the purposes of cost-saving.” (BuzzFeed cut its workforce by about 12 percent weeks before Christmas.) Instead, Peretti said, AI could be used to create “endless possibilities” for personality quizzes, a popular format that he called “a driving force on the internet.” You’ve surely come across one or two before: “Sorry, Millennials, but There’s No Way You Will Be Able to Pass This Super-Easy Quiz,” for instance, or “If You Were a Cat, What Color Would Your Fur Be?

These quizzes and their results have historically been dreamed up by human brains and typed with human fingers. Now BuzzFeed staffers would write a prompt and a handful of questions for a user to fill out, like a form in a proctologist’s waiting room, and then the machine, reportedly constructed by OpenAI, the creator of the widely discussed chatbot ChatGPT, would spit out uniquely tailored text. Peretti wrote a bold promise about these quizzes on a presentation slide: “Integrating AI will make them 10x better & be the biggest change to the format in a decade.” The personality-quiz revolution is upon us.

[Read: ChatGPT is dumber than you think]

Peretti offered the staff examples of these bigger, better personality quizzes: Answer 7 Simple Questions and AI Will Write a Song About Your Ideal Soulmate. Have an AI Create a Secret Society for Your BFFs in 5 Easy Questions. Create a Mythical Creature to Ride. This Quiz Will Write a RomCom About You in Less Than 30 Seconds. The rom-com, Peretti noted, would be“a great thing for an entertainment sponsor … maybe before Valentine’s Day.” He demonstrated how the quiz could play out: The user—in this example, a hypothetical person named Jess—would fill out responses to questions like “Tell us an endearing flaw you have” (Jess’s answer: “I am never on time, ever”), and the AI would spit out a story that incorporated those details. Here’s part of the 250-word result. Like a lot of AI-generated text, it may remind you of reading someone else’s completed Mad Libs:

Cher gets out of bed and calls everyone they know to gather outside while she serenades Jess with her melodic voice singing “Let Me Love You.” When the song ends everyone claps, showering them with adoration, making this moment one for the books—or one to erase.

Things take an unexpected turn when Ron Tortellini shows up—a wealthy man who previously was betrothed to Cher. As it turns out, Ron is a broke, flailing actor trying to using [sic] Cher to further his career. With this twist, our two heroines must battle these obstacles to be together against all odds—and have a fighting chance.

There are many fair questions one might ask reading this. “Why?” is one of them. “Ron Tortellini?” is another. But the most important is this: Who is the content for? The answer is no one in particular. The quiz’s result is machine-generated writing designed to run through other machines—content that will be parsed and distributed by tech platforms. AI may yet prove to be a wonderful assistive tool for humans doing interesting creative work, but right now it’s looking like robo-media’s future will be flooding our information ecosystem with even more junk.

Peretti did not respond to a request for comment, but there’s no mistaking his interest here. Quizzes are a major traffic-driver for BuzzFeed, bringing in 1.1 billion views in 2022 alone, according to his presentation. They can be sold as sponsored content, meaning an advertiser can pay for an AI-generated quiz about its brand. And they spread on social media, where algorithmic feeds put them in front of other people, who click onto the website to take the quiz themselves, and perhaps find other quizzes to take and share. Personality quizzes are a perfect fit for AI, because although they seem to say something about the individual posting them, they actually say nothing at all: “Make an Ice Cream Cone and We’ll Reveal Which Emoji You Are” was written by a person, but might as well have been written by a program.

Much the same could be said about content from CNET, which has recently started to publish articles written at least in part by an AI program, no doubt to earn easy placement in search engines. (Why else write the headline “What Are NSF Fees and Why Do Banks Charge Them?” but to anticipate something a human being might punch into Google? Indeed, CNET’s AI-“assisted” article is one of the top results for such a query.) The goal, according to the site’s editor in chief, Connie Guglielmo, is “to see if the tech can help our busy staff of reporters and editors with their job to cover topics from a 360-degree perspective.” Reporting from Futurism has revealed that these articles have contained factual errors and apparent plagiarism. Guglielmo has responded to the ensuing controversy by saying, in part, that “AI engines, like humans, make mistakes.”

Such is the immediate path for robot journalism, if we can call it that: Bots will write content that is optimized to circulate through tech platforms, a new spin on an old race-to-the-bottom dynamic that has always been present in digital media. BuzzFeed and CNET aren’t innovating, really: They’re using AI to reinforce an unfortunate status quo, where stories are produced to hit quotas and serve ads against—that is, they are produced because they might be clicked on. Many times, machines will even be the ones doing that clicking! The bleak future of media is human-owned websites profiting from automated banner ads placed on bot-written content, crawled by search-engine bots, and occasionally served to bot visitors.

[Read: How ChatGPT will destabilize white-collar work]

This is not the apocalypse, but it’s not wonderful, either. To state what was once obvious, journalism and entertainment alike are supposed to be for people. Viral stories—be they 6,000-word investigative features or a quiz about what state you actually belong in—work because they have mass appeal, not because they are hypertargeted to serve an individual reader. BuzzFeed was once brilliant enough to livestream video of people wrapping rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded. At the risk of over-nostalagizing a moment that was in fact engineered for a machine itself—Facebook had just started to pay publishers to use its live-video tool—this was at least content for everyone, rather than no one in particular. Bots can be valuable tools in the work of journalism. For years, the Los Angeles Times has experimented with a computer program that helps quickly disseminate information about earthquakes, for example. (Though not without error, I might add.) But new technology is not in and of itself valuable; it’s all in how you use it.

Much has been made of the potential for generative AI to upend education as we’ve known it, and destabilize white-collar work. These are real, valid concerns. But the rise of robo-journalism has introduced another: What will the internet look like when it is populated to a greater extent by soulless material devoid of any real purpose or appeal? The AI-generated rom-com is a pile of nonsense; CNET’s finance content can’t be trusted. And this is just the start.

In 2021, my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote about the dead-internet theory, a conspiracy rooted in 4chan’s paranormal message board that posits that the internet is now mostly synthetic. The premise is that most of the content seen on the internet “was actually created using AI” and fueled by a shadowy group that hopes to “control our thoughts and get us to purchase stuff.” It seemed absurd then. But a little more real today.

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12 days ago
Well said.
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Mercedes-Benz is the first to bring Level 3 automated driving to the US

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Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot
Image: Mercedes-Benz AG

Mercedes-Benz announced that it was the first automaker to receive government approval in the US for a Level 3 driving feature. The company said it had self-certified in Nevada for use of its Drive Pilot feature, in which the car does all the driving but the driver needs to stand by to take control at a moment’s notice.

Mercedes certified that its technology meets Nevada’s “minimal risk condition” requirement that requires Level 3 or higher “fully autonomous” vehicles to be able to stop if there is a malfunction in the system.

“Nevada law allows all automation levels to operate on public streets,” a spokesperson for the state’s DMV said in an email. “Nevada does not issue any permit or license based on an autonomous vehicle’s level of...

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12 days ago
This is a terrible idea. Humans are terrible at vigilance. Given the chance we will check out.
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Punch

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Note, this morning, when I have a lot of drawing to do, my stylus isn't working.

Today's News:
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15 days ago
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3 public comments
12 days ago
Arguably, if we punched _enough_ computers, we could do something about a major source of our discontent.
Boulder, CO
13 days ago
This may explain why I prefer the big bulky but indestructable thinkpads over ultrabooks
14 days ago
I like this theory
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