Monday, November 27, 2023

Corpus Christi Gets a New Harbor Bridge --- Eventually


When my wife and I took a short vacation down to the Gulf Coast in October, we used part of a day to visit the Texas State Aquarium in the North Beach part of Corpus Christi.  To get there, we had to take the (old) Harbor Bay Bridge that crosses a large industrial canal through which pass tankers going to the main industry of Corpus Christi, which is oil refining.  That bridge was built in 1959, and about twenty years ago, plans began to be made for a new bridge.  As we saw from miles away, the new Harbor Bridge is well under way and may be completed as soon as 2025.


The new bridge will be cable-stayed:  two tall pylons will hold sets of cables that slant out and down to connect to the bridge deck.  And I do mean tall.  One of the pylons is complete, and the builders are extending the deck out from it in both directions.  It is by far the tallest structure for hundreds of miles around, and the cantilevered-out parts extend so far that I got a little giddy just looking at the thing.  When it's finished, the bridge will allow much taller ships to pass underneath than the current bridge, and will have a pedestrian walkway and LED lighting.  Its planned cost is some $800 million, but that was before some delays occasioned in 2022 when an outside consultant raised safety concerns.  That halted construction on a part of the bridge for nine months, but the five safety issues were addressed, and construction resumed last April.


Later that month, as the Corpus Christi Hooks were playing a baseball game at nearby Whataburger Field (the eponymous fast-food firm's first restaurant was in Corpus Christi), a fire began near the rear of a construction crane on the bridge.  Subsequent videos obtained by news media show a load on the crane falling rapidly to the ground, and flying debris injured one spectator at the ball game.  A battalion chief for the Corpus Christi Fire Department said a cable failure caused enough friction to set grease on a cable reel afire.  An Internet search has not revealed any other major accidents since the bridge project formally began in 2016, but it is possible that some have escaped the news media's attention.


Originally scheduled to be completed in 2020, delays and engineering-firm changes have pushed back the anticipated completion date to 2025.  That's only two years from now, and while a good bit has been accomplished, there is still much remaining.


While any injuries or fatalities from construction projects are tragic, we have come a long way from the days when it was just an accepted fact that major bridges and tunnels would cost a certain number of human lives. 


In 1875, the 4.75-mile Hoosac Tunnel was completed in the hills of Western Massachusetts.  It took twenty years to build, and 135 verified deaths were associated with the project.  One of the worst accidents happened when a candle in the hoist building at the top of a ventilation shaft caught a naphtha-fueled lamp on fire, and the wooden hoist structure burned and collapsed down the shaft, trapping 13 workers at the bottom, who suffocated.  While the hazards were severe enough to inspire a workers' strike in 1865, this failed to stop construction, and the following year saw the highest number of fatalities: fourteen.


In 1937, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge opened after four years of work.  Its safety record was better than the Hoosac Tunnel, and would have been almost perfect except for a scaffolding failure that sent twelve men plunging through the safety net to the bay.  Two survived, and there was one other unrelated fatality, making a total of eleven.  Nineteen men fell into the safety net and survived to form an exclusive group they called the Half Way to Hell Club.


This completely unscientific survey of major construction project fatalities and injuries seems to indicate that over time, we as a culture in the U. S. have grown less tolerant of having workers killed on the job.  Credit for this improvement can be parceled out in a number of directions.


The contractors and engineers in charge of construction projects deserve a good share of the credit.  They are the ones who determine how the work will be done, and how important safety is compared to the bottom-line goal of getting the job done. 


The increased mechanization of construction labor has to be another factor.  One modern construction worker equipped with the proper tools can do the work that required several workers decades or a century ago.  So the simple fact that fewer people are needed to do a given job has made it less likely that people will be injured or killed on the job.


Government agencies—federal, state, and local—also deserve some credit.  The Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was founded in 1970, and its influence has undoubtedly led to safety improvements, although doing a cost-benefit analysis of OSHA would be a daunting task even for a team of historians and safety analysts. 


Labor unions hold safety as a high priority, and while there are probably statistics supporting the contention that unionized workers have better safety records than non-union employees, a lot of non-union workers manage to work safely too. 


If the worst accident that happens during the construction of the new harbor bridge in Corpus Christi turns out to be the flying-debris crane mishap, that will be a truly exemplary record for a project that will have taken nearly a decade and cost nearly a billion dollars.  The project still has a long way to go, and it's possible that the most hazardous operations lie in the future:  putting the rest of the cables in place and connecting the deck to finish off the bridge.  But the contractors have enforced safety sufficiently to get this far with no major incidents, and the hope is that this trend will continue.


The other question about the bridge is, of course, will it stay put once it's built?  The original engineering firm for the bridge, FIGG, was kicked off the project in 2022 after an independent review.  FIGG, by the way, was involved in the ill-fated Florida International University pedestrian bridge that collapsed in March of 2018.  Recent reports indicate that all the engineering concerns have been adequately addressed, but we won't know for sure until the bridge is finished and has withstood its first hurricane.  Stay tuned.


Sources:  I referred to the following sources:,,,, and, as well as the Wikipedia articles on the Hoosac Tunnel and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Cruise Gets Bruised


General Motors' autonomous-vehicle operation is called Cruise, and just last August, it received permission (along with Google's Waymo) to operate driverless robotaxis in San Francisco at all hours of the day and night.  This made the city the only one in the United States with two competing firms providing such services.


Only a week after the California Public Utilities Commission acted to allow 24-hour services, a Cruise robotaxi carrying a passenger was involved in a collision with a fire truck on an emergency call.  The oncoming fire truck had moved into the robotaxi's lane at an intersection surrounded by tall buildings and controlled by a traffic light, which had turned green for the robotaxi.  Engineers for Cruise said that the robotaxi identified the emergency vehicle's siren as soon as it rose above the ambient noise level, but couldn't track its path until it came into view, by which time it was too late for the robotaxi to avoid hitting it.  The passenger was taken to a hospital but was not seriously injured.


As a result, Cruise agreed with the Department of Motor Vehicles to reduce their active fleet of robotaxis by 50% until the investigation by DMV of this and other incidents was resolved.


In many engineering failures, warning signs of a comparatively minor nature appear before the major catastrophe, which usually attracts attention by loss of life, injuries, or significant property damage.  These minor signs are valuable indicators to those who wish to prevent the major tragedies from occurring, but they are not always heeded effectively.  The Cruise collision with a fire truck proved to be one such case.


On Oct. 2, a pedestrian was hit by a conventional human-piloted car on a busy San Francisco street.  This happens from time to time, but the difference in this case was that the impact sent the pedestrian toward a Cruise robotaxi.  When the unfortunate pedestrian hit the robotaxi, the vehicle's system interpreted the collision as "lateral," meaning something hit it from the side.  In the case of lateral collisions, the robotaxi is programmed to stop and then pull off the road to keep from obstructing traffic.


What the system didn't take into account was that the pedestrian was still stuck under one of the robotaxi's wheels, and when it pulled about six meters (20 feet) to the curb, it dragged the pedestrian with it, causing critical injuries. 


California regulators reacted swiftly.  The DMV revoked Cruise's license, and the firm announced it was going to suspend driverless operations nationwide, including a few vehicles in Austin, Texas, and other locations.  There were only 950 vehicles in the entire U. S. fleet, so the operation is clearly in its early stages. 


But now, after Cruise has done software recalls for human-piloted vehicles as well as driverless ones, it is far from clear what their path is back to viability.  According to an AP report, GM had big hopes for substantial revenue from Cruise operations, expecting on the order of $1 billion in 2025 after making only about a tenth of that in 2022.  And profitability, which would require recouping the billions GM already invested in the technology, is even farther in the future than it was before the problems in San Francisco.


The consequences of these events can be summarized under the headings of good news and bad news.


The good news:  Nobody got killed, although being dragged twenty feet under the wheel of a robot car that clearly has no idea what is going on might be a fate worse than death to some people.  After failing to heed the warning incident in August, Cruise has finally decided to react vigorously with significant and costly moves.  According to AP, it is adding a chief safety officer and asking a third-party engineering firm to find the technical cause of the Oct. 2 crash.  So after clearly inadequate responses to the earlier incidents, a major one has motivated Cruise management to act. 


The bad news:  Several people were injured, at least one critically, before Cruise realized that, at least in the complex environs of San Francisco, their robotaxis posed an unacceptable risk to pedestrians.  I'm sure Google's Waymo vehicles have a less-than-perfect safety record, but whatever start-up glitches they suffered are well in the past.  Cruise does not have the luxury of experience that Waymo has, and is in a sense operating in foreign territory.  Maybe Detroit would have been a better choice than San Francisco for a test market, but that would have neglected the cool factor, which is after all what is driving the robotaxi project in the first place.


Back when every elevator had a human operator, there was a valid economic and engineering argument to replace the manually-controlled units with automatic ones.  The main reason was to eliminate the salary of the operator.  Fortunately, the environment of an elevator is exceedingly well defined, and the relay-based technology of the 1920s sufficed to produce automatic elevators which met all safety requirements and were easy enough for the average passenger to operate.  Nevertheless, some places clung to manual elevators as recently as the 1980s, as I recall from a visit to a tax consultant in Northampton, Massachusetts, whose office was accessed by means of an elevator controlled not by buttons but by a rather seedy-looking old man.


Being an old man myself now, I come to the defense of everyone on the street who would like to confront real people behind the wheel, not some anonymous software that may—may!—figure out I'm a human being and not a tall piece of plastic wrap blowing in the wind, in time to stop before it hits me.  Yes, robotaxis are cool.  Yes, they save on taxi-driver salaries, but this ignores the fact that one of the few entry-level jobs that recent immigrants to this country can get which actually pays a living wage is that of taxi driver, many of whom are independent entrepreneurs. 


Robotaxis may be cool, but dangerous they should not be.  GM may patch up their Cruise operation and get it going again, but then again it may go the way of the Segway.  Time will tell.


Sources:  An article from the USA Today Network in the online Austin American-Statesman for Nov. 16, 2023 alerted me to the fact that Cruise was ramping down its nationwide operations, including those in Austin.  I consulted AP News articles at

(Nov. 8, 2023) and at (Aug. 19, 2023). 

Monday, November 13, 2023

Should Social Media Data Replace Opinion Polls—And Voting?


Pity the poor opinion pollsters of today.  Their job has been mightily complicated by the rapidly changing nature of communications media and the soaring costs of paying real people to do real things such as knocking on doors and asking questions.  In an age when even the Census Bureau has mostly abandoned the in-person method of counting the population, opinion polls can't compete either.  For a time—say 1950 to 2000—their job was made easier by the advent of the near-universal telephone.  But the rise of robocalling, mobile phone proliferation with the caller ID feature, and the consequent general aversion of nearly everybody to answering a call from someone you don't know, has made it much harder for opinion poll workers to approach the ideal of their business:  a truly representative sample of the relevant population.


So why not take advantage of the technological advances we have, and use data culled from social media to do opinion polling?  After all, we are told that some social-media and big-tech firms know more about our preferences than we do ourselves.  Out there in the bit void is a profile of everyone who has anything to do with mobile phones, computers, or the Internet—which is almost everyone, period.  And much of that data on people is either publicly available or can be obtained for a price that is a lot less than paying folks to walk around in seventeen carefully selected cities and countrysides knocking on one thousand doors. 


Well, anything a piker like me can think of, you can bet smarter people have thought of as well.  And sure enough, three researchers at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland have not only thought of it, but have collected nearly two hundred papers by other researchers who have also looked into the topic. 


In surveying the literature, Maud Reveilhac, Stephanie Steinmetz, and Davide Morselli apparently did not find anyone who has gone all the way from traditional opinion polling to relying mainly on social-media data (or SMD for short).  That is a bridge too far even now.  But they found many researchers trying to show how SMD can complement traditional survey data, leading to new insights and confirming or disconfirming poll findings.


With regard specifically to political polls, a subject many of the papers focused on, one can imagine a kind of hierarchy, with one's actual vote at the top.  Below that is the opinion a voter might tell a pollster in response to the question, "If the Presidential election were held today, who would you vote for?"  And below that, as far as I know, anyway, are the actions the voter takes on social media—the sites visited, the tweets subscribed to, the comments posted, etc. 


It only stands to reason that there is some correlation among these three classes of activity.  If someone watches hours of Trump speeches and says they are going to vote for Trump, it would be surprising to find that they actually voted for Bernie Sanders as a write-in, for example. 


But there is a time-honored tradition in democracies that the act of voting is somehow sacred and separate from anything else a person happens to do or say.  Because voting is the exercise of a right conferred by the government, in the moment of voting a person is acting in an official capacity.  It is essentially the same kind of act as when a governor or president signs a law, and should be safeguarded and respected in the same way.  A president may have said things that lead you to think he will sign a certain law.  He may even say he'll sign it when it comes to his desk.  But until he actually and consciously signs it, it's not yet a law.


There are laws against bribing executives and judges in order to influence their decisions, and so there are also laws against paying people to vote a certain way.  That is because in a democracy, we expect the judgment of each citizen to be exercised in a conscious and deliberate way.  And bribes or other forms of vote contamination corrupt this process.


Despite the findings of the University of Lausanne researchers that so far, no one has attempted to replace opinion polls wholesale with data garnered from social media or other sources, the danger still exists.  And with the advent of AI and its ability to ferret out correlations in inhumanly large data sets, I can easily imagine a scenario such as the following.


Suppose some hotshot polling organization finds that they can get a consistently high correlation between traditional voting, on the one hand, and "polling" based on a sophisticated use of social media and other Internet-extracted data—data extracted in most cases without the explicit knowledge of the people involved.  Right now, that sort of thing is not possible, but it may be achievable in the near future.


Suppose also that for whatever reason, participation in actual voting plummets.  This sounds far-fetched, but already we've seen how one person can singlehandedly cast effective aspersions on the validity of elections that by most historical measures were properly conducted. 


Someone may float the idea that, hey, we have this wonderful polling system that predicts the outcomes of elections so well that people don't even have to vote!  Let's just do it that way—ask the AI system to find out what people want, and then give it to them.


It sounds ridiculous now.  But in 1980, it sounded ridiculous to say that in the near future, soft-drink companies will be bottling ordinary water and selling it to you at a dollar a bottle.  And it sounded ridiculous to say that the U. S. Census Bureau would quit trying to count every last person in the country, and would rely instead on a combination of mailed questionnaires and "samples" collected in person. 


So if anybody in the future proposes replacing actual voting with opinion polls that people don't actually have to participate in, I'm here to say we should oppose the idea.  It betrays the notion of democratic voting at its core.  The social scientists can play with social-media data all they want, but there is no substitute for voting, and there never should be.


Sources:  The paper "A systematic literature review of how and whether social media data can complement traditional survey data to study public opinion," by Maud Reveilhac, Stephanie Steinmetz, and Davide Morselli appeared in Multimedia Tools and Applications, vol. 81, pp. 10107-10142, in 2022, and is available online at

Monday, November 06, 2023

The Biden Administration Tackles AI Regulation—Sort Of


In our three-branch system of government, the power of any one branch is intentionally limited so that the democratic exercise of the public will cannot be thwarted by any one branch going amok.  This division of power leads to inefficiency and sometimes confusion, but it also means that the damage done by any one branch—executive, legislative, or judicial—is limited compared to what a unified dictatorship could do.


We're seeing the consequences of this division in the recent executive order announced by the Biden administration on the regulation of artificial intelligence (AI).  One take on the fact sheet that preceded the 63-page order itself appeared on the website of IEEE Spectrum, a general-interest magazine for members of IEEE, the largest organization of professional engineers in the world. 


It's interesting that reactions from most of the technically-informed people interviewed by the Spectrum editor were guardedly positive.  Lee Tiedrich, a distinguished faculty fellow at Duke University's Initiative for Science and Society, said ". . . the White House has done a really good, really comprehensive job."  She thinks that while respecting the limitations of executive-branch power, the order addresses a wide variety of issues with calls to a number of Federal agencies to take actions that could make a positive difference.


For example, the order charges the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with developing standards for "red-team" testing of AI products for safety before public release.  Red-team testing involves purposefully trying to do malign things with a product to see how bad the results can get.  Although NIST doesn't have to do the testing itself, coming up with rigorous standards for such testing in the manifold different circumstances that AI is being used for may prove to be a challenge that exceeds the organization's current capability.  Nevertheless, you don't get what you don't ask for, and as a creature of the executive branch, NIST is obliged at least to try.


The U. S. Department of Commerce will develop per this order "guidance for content authentication and watermarking to clearly label AI-generated content."  Cynthia Rudin, a Duke professor of computer science, sees that some difficulty may arise when the question of watermarking AI-generated text comes up.  Her point seems to be that such watermarking is hard to imagine other than seeing (NOTE:  AI-GENERATED TEXT) inserted every so often in a paragraph, which would be annoying, to say the least.  (You have my guarantee that not one word of this blog is AI-generated, by the way.)


Other experts are concerned about the use of data sets for training AI-systems, especially the intimidatingly-named "foundational AI" ones that are used as a basis for other systems with more specific roles.  Many training data sets include a substantial fraction of worldwide Internet content, including millions of copyrighted documents, and concern has been raised about how copyrighted data is being exploited by AI systems without remuneration to the copyright holders.  Susan Ariel Aaronson of George Washington University hopes that Congress will take more definite action in this area to go beyond the largely advisory effect that Biden's executive order will have.


This order shares in common with other recent executive orders a tendency to spread responsibilities widely among many disparate agencies, a feature that is something of a hallmark of this administration.  On the one hand, this type of approach is good at addressing an issue that has multiple embodiments or aspects, which is certainly true of AI.  Everything from realistic-looking deepfake photos, to genuine-sounding legal briefs, to functioning computer code has been generated by AI, and so this broad-spectrum approach is an appropriate one for this case.


On the other hand, such a widely-spread initiative risks getting buried in the flood of other obligations and tasks that executive agencies have to deal with, ranging from their primary purposes (NIST must establish measurement standards; the Department of Commerce must deal with commerce, etc.) and other initiatives such as banning workplace discrimination against LGBT employees, one of the things that Biden issued an executive order for in his first day of office.  This is partly a matter of publicity and public perception, and partly a question of priorities that the various officials in charge of the various agencies set.  With the growing number of Federal employees, it's an open question as to what administrative bang the taxpayer is getting for his buck.  Regulation of AI is something that there is widespread agreement on—the extreme-case dangers have become clearer in recent months and years, and nobody wants AI to take over the government or the power grid and start treating us all like lab rats that the AI owner has no particular use for anymore. 


But how to avoid both the direst scenarios, as well as the shorter-term milder drawbacks that AI has already given rise to, is a thorny question, and the executive order will only go a short distance toward that goal.


One nagging aspect of AI regulation is the fact that the new large-scale "generative AI" systems trained on vast swathes of the Internet are starting to do things that even their developers didn't anticipate:  learning languages that the programmers hadn't intended the system to learn, for example.  One possible factor in this uncontrollability aspect of AI that no one in government seems to have considered, at least out loud, is dwelled on at length by Paul Kingsnorth, an Irish novelist and essayist who wrote "AI Demonic" in the November/December issue of Touchstone magazine.  Kingsnorth seriously considers the possibility that certain forms and embodiments of AI are being influenced by a "spiritual personification of the age of the Machine" which he calls Ahriman. 


The name Ahriman is associated with a Zoroastrian evil spirit of destruction, but Kingsnorth describes how it was taken up by the theosophist Rudolf Steiner, and then an obscure computer scientist named David Black who testified to feeling "drained" by his work with computers back in the 1980s.  The whole article should be read, as it's not easy to summarize in a few sentences.  But Kingsnorth's basic point is clear:  in trying to regulate AI, we may be dealing with something more than just piles of hardware and programs.  As St. Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, ". . . we wrestle not against flesh and blood [and server farms], but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." 


Anyone trying to regulate AI would be well advised to take the spiritual aspect of the struggle into account as well.


Sources:  The IEEE Spectrum website carried the article by Eliza Strickland, "What You Need to Know About Biden's Sweeping AI Order" at  I also referred to an article on AI on the Time website at  Paul Kingsnorth's article "AI Demonic" appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Touchstone, pp. 29-40, and was reprinted from Kingsnorth's substack "The Abbey of Misrule."