Thursday, November 07, 2019

Autonomous vehicles will only be as safe as their software

About a year and a half ago, an autonomous vehicle being tested in Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian. It was the first-ever fatality involving a self-driving car. Now, we may know why this incident occurred: the vehicle's software didn't know that humans could jaywalk:
The software inside the Uber self-driving SUV that killed an Arizona woman last year was not designed to detect pedestrians outside of a crosswalk, according to new documents released as part of a federal investigation into the incident. That’s the most damning revelation in a trove of new documents related to the crash, but other details indicate that, in a variety of ways, Uber’s self-driving tech failed to consider how humans actually operate.
As it turned out, the vehicle's software did detect the victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, with more than enough time to stop, but did not do so because it did not recognize that Herzberg was, in fact, a human. (The car did have a human back-up driver, Rafaela Vasquez, but she didn't see Herzberg until it was too late.)
It never guessed Herzberg was on foot for a simple, galling reason: Uber didn’t tell its car to look for pedestrians outside of crosswalks. “The system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians,” the NTSB’s Vehicle Automation Report reads. Every time it tried a new guess, it restarted the process of predicting where the mysterious object—Herzberg—was headed. It wasn’t until 1.2 seconds before the impact that the system recognized that the SUV was going to hit Herzberg, that it couldn’t steer around her, and that it needed to slam on the brakes.
That triggered what Uber called “action suppression,” in which the system held off braking for one second while it verified “the nature of the detected hazard”—a second during which the safety operator, Uber’s most important and last line of defense, could have taken control of the car and hit the brakes herself. But Vasquez wasn’t looking at the road during that second. So with 0.2 seconds left before impact, the car sounded an audio alarm, and Vasquez took the steering wheel, disengaging the autonomous system. Nearly a full second after striking Herzberg, Vasquez hit the brakes.
Self-driving vehicles will only be as safe as the design of the systems, sensors and software upon which they operate. The software design flaw that occurred in this case - an inability to recognize a human outside of a marked crosswalk - is so obvious as to beggar belief, and makes me wonder how many less-obvious but nevertheless lethal programming errors might still be imbedded in Uber's self-driving software. This is one of many reasons why we still have a long way to go before self-driving cars become commonplace on streets and highways.

Uber settled a lawsuit with Herzberg's family shortly after her death, and has made changes to its safety program for automated vehicle testing.

There's also this tidbit:
Another factor in the crash was the Tempe road structure itself. Herzberg, wheeling a bicycle, crossed the street near a pathway that appeared purpose-built for walkers, but was 360 feet from the nearest crosswalk.
Yikes! Along with the safety of autonomous vehicles themselves, we cannot ignore the design of the environment in which they - and the pedestrians and bicyclists they are supposed to detect - travel. The safe deployment of self-driving cars could require significant and expensive modifications to streets, sidewalks, pathway and bikeways.

A lot of work remains to be done.

Houston 29, Central Florida 44

Another competitive game, but another loss.

The Good: The first half. The Cougars jumped out to a quick start, leading by as much as ten points on two different occasions in the first quarter thanks to two rushing touchdowns by RB Mulbah Car. The Coogs racked up 357 yards of total offense in the first half and led at the break.

The Bad: The second half. Central Florida rallied to score 21 unanswered points in the third quarter alone and shut down Houston's offense, allowing only one additional score late in the game. The Knights sacked QB Clayton Tune five times, including in the endzone late in in the game for a safety. The Houston offense was simply shut down in the second half; all of its possessions except one ended in a punt, turnover on downs, or a safety.

The Ugly: How bad was Houston's offense in the second half? Seven of the Coogs' eight second-half possessions ended in a punt, a turnover on downs, or the aforementioned safety.

In spite of the loss, the Cougars dominated the Knights in time of possession, 41:31 to 18:29. Further proof that TOP is the most meaningless statistic in football.

What It Means: In order for the Coogs to avoid their first losing season since 2013, they need to win their final three games. Considering that two of their final three opponents - Memphis and Navy - are ranked, that's looking highly unlikely.

The Cougars have a week off before entering the final quarter of the season.

Quito, Ecuador: the city and its subway

Curbed's Jeff Andrews writes a fascinating history about the capital of Ecuador, its historic urban form, the changes to that urban form caused by continued growth, and the fact that these changes have required the city to build a subway.
Looking down on the city of Quito from the teleférico that rides up the eastern slope of the Pichincha Volcano, buildings as high as 30 stories dot an urban landscape that includes the former citadels and centuries-old churches of what was once a Spanish colony. 
But someone looking at Quito from that same view 50 years ago would have seen a considerably smaller city full not of high rises but of single-family homes. 
The discovery of oil in Ecuador in the late 1960s triggered growth in the country’s capital that pushed the city not only out but up. Quito’s population has grown from 350,000 then to almost 3 million today. 
Now, Quito’s transformation from sleepy town to vibrant metropolis is entering perhaps its most important phase: The population explosion has created the need to overhaul the city’s transportation infrastructure. Having already moved its airport out of the city center, Quito will open a brand new subway line in 2020, just seven years after the first phase of construction began. The metro could usher Quito into a new era as a regional economic power.
Quito is highly geographically constrained, with Mount Pichincha to its west and the Tumbaco Valley to its east. While the city has seen some residential development spill over into the Valley in recent decades, these geographic constraints otherwise means that the city's urban core can really can only grow in two directions - north and south. As a result, Quito's core is over twenty miles in length, but only about two and a half miles in width at its narrowest points.

This, necessarily, means that north-south commutes are the norm, which in turn causes significant congestion:
Quito’s topography, shaped by the city’s position in a valley of the Andes, provides residents with breathtaking views of the two mountain peaks on either side of the city. But as the city’s population has ballooned, Quito’s topography also contributes to traffic problems weighing on the city. 
Take El Panecillo, a hill in the center of Quito, just south of the city’s historic Old Town. On top of it lay a 135-foot-tall aluminum statue of a winged version of the virgin Mary, known locally as the Virgin of Quito. The statue is visible throughout Quito and is a source of local pride.
The hill is also an impediment at the center of traffic flow between the north and the south, as is the Old City itself, which has narrow roads originally built in the 16th century. Numerous ravines snake down the mountains in the east and cut through Quito’s center before flowing down to the valleys in the west. The bridges and infrastructure over these ravines weren’t built for the number of cars that now use them, and the available public land for new roads is limited, narrow, and expensive. 
The result is, for some commuting Quiteños, a traffic nightmare.
“The economic booms and the consumer patterns in Quito are very car-oriented,” [former Secretary of Territory for the Municipality of Quito Jacobo] Herdoiza said. “One of the first priorities for a new labor force is to have their own car. So you have an increase in the number of vehicles that doesn’t match with improvements in road networks or in public transportation.”
I remember very clearly how chaotic Quito's transportation network when I spent my summers there in the late 1980s; the city, while already large, was much smaller then than it is today.

Beginning in the 1990s, municipal officials tried to combat congestion by improving public transportation options. The Trolebus, an electrically-powered Bus Rapid Transit line running in the median of major Quito thoroughfares such as Avenida Diez de Agosto, opened in 1995. Diesel-powered BRT lines, such as the Ecovia and Metrobus, opened thereafter. Given the fact that Ecuador is an impoverished country, this type of transit infrastructure was probably all that was fiscally feasible at the time. But as at-grade bus systems, the Trolebus and Ecovia were limited in terms of the parts of the city they could serve and the number of riders they could carry. These riders were, for the most part, laborers commuting from the working-class neighborhoods on the south side of town to the businesses and industries in the north.
These commuters have to deal with every topographical impediment the city center has. Only about a third of Quiteños own a car. The rest rely on existing public transportation—the bus system and the bus rapid transit (BRT) system, or trolley buses that run north-south along major avenues. Low-income people in the south who work in the north often have to take multiple modes of transportation, spending as much as 20 percent of their income on that transportation. The commute can be as long as two hours each way, with delays caused by bus drivers who, Correa says, often bypass stops with fewer passengers in favor of more crowded stops that bring in more fares. Laborers who spend four hours on a bus every day not only waste time they could be working or being with their families, but they’re also exhausted during work hours from the long commute.
Thus, the Quito Metro, which is completely underground and which will run for about 14 miles along a north-south route featuring 15 stations. The project began construction in 2013 and is expected to open in 2020. Building a full subway - especially one beneath and earthquake-prone city - is an ambitious project for a relatively low-income country. But it could be transformative to both Quito's mobility and its urban form.
The metro alone will not solve these problems, of course. Because it only runs north-south through the city center, it won’t do much to alleviate congestion along Quito’s second busiest commuting route—people in the valleys who drive to Quito’s business district in the middle of the city center. 
And the metro stops also are not close to each other—1.5 kilometers apart, on average—so the metro will need to integrate into the existing system to truly meet commuters’ needs. At worst, the bus system and BRT could end up competing with the metro instead of working in concert with it, jeopardizing the financial sustainability of the subway.
If local officials can't get a subway, a BRT network and local bus systems to work together to provide complementary and interconnected services - e.g. longer north-south trips on subway, shorter north-south trips on BRT, and east-west and feeder trips on local bus - rather than competing services, then they're doing it wrong (and they need to hire someone like me to help them figure it out).
But if it works, the metro could unlock Quito’s potential to be a regional economic power. New developments around the metro stops are already well underway, which could create pockets of urban density that allow for more walkability and less reliance on cars and buses, something that younger Quiteños desire.
Quito already sees itself as something of a hidden treasure in Latin America, with a budding nightlife and restaurant scenes, and tourist attractions to rival any city on the continent. With two new ways of getting around the city, and phase one of an ambitious new metro system that took only seven years to complete, Quito may not be “hidden” for much longer.
Just another reason why I need to go back.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Astros fall to Nationals in 2019 World Series

For the first time in the 115-year history of the World Series (and for that matter, any seven-game NHL Stanley Cup or NBA Finals series), the road team won every game. Unfortunately for the Astros, the last game happened to be in Houston.

I guess I shouldn't be too upset. This is only the third time the Astros have even been to the World Series in their 58-season history. And the Washington Nationals were certainly no slouch: they had the league's best overall record since late May and blazed through the postseason, upsetting the favored Dodgers and sweeping the Cardinals.

But still... The Astros won a league-best 107 games, had a 60-21 record at home, were being compared favorably to the 1927 Yankees, and were favored to win this year's Fall Classic. The 2019 World Series was theirs to lose. And lose it they did.

Manager CJ Hinch will forever be questioned for his decision to replace Zack Greinke with Will Harris in the seventh inning of Game Seven, a decision that changed the course of the game. But that decision aside, the reason the Astros couldn't clinch their second championship is easy to pinpoint: they simply could not manufacture runs.

In their three wins, the Astros stranded 24 runners on base and were 11 of 28 with runners in scoring poisition. In their four losses, they left 36 men on base and where an abysmal 4-19 RISP. They simply couldn't bring runners home. Jose Altuve, for all of his postseason heroics, had exactly one (!) RBI the entire World Series.

This isn't to completely excuse the pitching - the bullpen's meltdowns in Games Two and Seven were inexcusable, and when the time comes for Justin Verlander to be considered for the Hall of Fame, the fact that he is 0-6 in World Series games with a cumulative ERA of 5.68 will need to be taken into account. But if the Astros lineup, whose bats went through cold spells throughout the entire postseason, could get a few more of those aforementioned stranded runners home during the course of the series, the pitchers would have had more room for error.

All in all, the better team won. I'm just sorry it wasn't the Astros.

ESPN's Brad Doolittle describes the Astros as a team that fell just short of true greatness, while Sportsmap's Fred Faour notes that this loss should remind local fans why the 2017 championship was so special. Paper City's Chris Baldwin describes the scene in the locker room after "the most talented team in Houston Astros history" failed to win a championship.

Houstonia's Timothy Malcolm shares his thoughts, as does the Houston Press's Jeff Balke. The Chronicle ranks this game 4th on their list of most heartbreaking Houston sports defeats; I will have to decide where it falls on my list of top Houston sports chokejobs*.

*Given that gave the Astros a 81% of winning the World Series after Game 5, the 'Stros had two chances - both at home - to win one game, and had a 2-0 lead with eight outs remaining in Game 7: yes, I think this qualifies as a chokejob.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Houston 31, #16 SMU 34

I will say this about the Cougars: while it's been a rough year for therm, they've generally been competitive in every game they've played so far. Such was the case against the SMU Mustangs last Thursday, as the Cougars pulled within 3 late in the fourth quarter and even had a chance to win in the waning minutes. Alas.

The Good: Marquez Stevenson scored on a 75-yard catch-and-run from Clayton Tune in the third quarter, and Marquez Stevenson did the same from 96 yards in the fourth quarter. The Coogs actually outgained the Ponies in total yards, 510 to 385.

The Bad: The Cougars turned the ball over three times, and the Mustangs turned two of those turnovers into touchdowns. Clayton Tune was also sacked a disheartening seven times. The UH defense surrendered a 62-yard touchdown run to SMU running back Xavier Jones.

The Ugly: The cougars have generally played clean football this season, but during this game they got flagged eleven times for 129 penalty yards.

What It Means: Not much. It's another loss in a season that has basically become a lost cause.

The Cougars now travel to Orlando to face Central Florida.

New Orleans's new airport terminal will be a flying foodie's paradise

New Orleans's Louis Armstrong International Airport is about to open a new passenger terminal to replace its dingy and decrepit existing one, and it only makes sense that the new facility will feature some of the Crescent City's best culinary offerings for hungry travelers.
The $1 billion terminal was designed by the late Argentine architect César Pelli and will replace the original terminal, which was constructed in 1959.  
The 972,000-square-foot structure features a long list of upgrades, including free high-speed internet; chargers at half of the seats in the gate areas; water bottle refilling stations; parents’ rooms; and music venues both pre- and post-security. 
But the upgrade we’re most excited about is the food. There will be 40 retail stores throughout the terminal, including some standout dining venues. Sure, the standard airport fare like Auntie Anne’s, Chili’s, and Panda Express are in the mix, but there are some notable culinary highlights that will likely have us heading to the airport a little early the next time we’re flying out of New Orleans.
One of the centerpiece venues will be Leah’s Kitchen, an homage to the late, self-taught Creole chef Leah Chase, who died earlier this year at age 96. The New York Times reported that Chase’s grandson, Edgar Chase IV, will operate the restaurant, which will serve classic Creole cuisine. 
Chase’s storied restaurant Dooky Chase’s, located in the city’s Tremé neighborhood, has an outpost in the airport’s old terminal, but that will shut down when the old terminal does on November 6. At Leah’s Kitchen, diners will be able to indulge in Leah’s famed fried chicken and gumbo to the backdrop of a large mural depicting her image.
Another star player will be Folse Market from Louisiana native chef John Folse, who has become a global ambassador for Cajun cuisine. Together with New York chef Rick Tromato, Folse is at the helm of the upscale Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans’s French Quarter. The forthcoming Folse Market at the new terminal will serve seafood, po’boys, charcuterie, coffee and wine; it will also sell merchandise.
Showy chef Emeril Lagasse will have a presence at the new terminal, as will Carrollton landmark Ye Olde College InnCafé du Monde will have an airport outpost to cater to your beignet needs, and Angelo Brocato will be serving its famous Italian gelatos and desserts. Locally-based chains such as PJ's Coffee and Smoothie King will naturally be represented as well.

Mixed in with familiar New Orleans establishments will be some newer offerings:
One of the newcomers we’re most excited about is the highly acclaimed New Orleans venue MoPho from chef Michael Gulotta, which marries southern favorites like shrimp and grits with Vietnamese standards, including, of course, pho soup. MoPho’s interpretation of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches offers fillings such as “Nola hot sausage,” fried shrimp, and fried oyster with more traditional banh mi fixings.
But what if you just want a drink while you're waiting for your flight? The new MSY has you covered there, as well:
And of course, no trip to or from New Orleans would be complete without a proper cocktail. Bar Sazerac will be serving them up in a sophisticated, speakeasy-style setting. And for one last hit of live music as only New Orleans can deliver, at Heritage School of Music you can get a drink while musicians play on stage.
The new 35-gate airport terminal is the largest infrastructure project that the City of New Orleans has undertaken since building the Superdome. It was originally scheduled to open last May, but due to construction delays will now open November 6th. It is located on the north side of the airport property (the old terminal is located on the south side); more information about the facility, including how to access it, can be found here.

I was looking forward to checking it out in an upcoming trip to because it was designed by one of my favorite architects. Now I'm looking forward to grabbing a bite to eat there, as well!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Houston 24, Connecticut 17

The Cougars traveled to East Hartford, Connecticut and eked out a seven-point victory against a really bad UConn program. It's still a better outcome than the last time the Coogs
played there.

The Good: Cougar safety Grant Stuard made his presence known, accounting for 15 tackles, including six solo tackles and two tackles for loss. RBs Kyle Porter an Bryson Smith combined for 91 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Punter Dane Roy continues to have one of the best legs in the nation, averaging 47.5 yards on his six punts.

The Bad: The fact that Roy had to punt six times tells you what you need to know about the offense. With QB Clayton Tune still nursing a hamstring injury, it was up to the head coach's son, Logan Holgerson, to run the offense. He completed only 7 of 15 passes for 123 yards and one touchdown, and the Coogs converted only 3 of 11 third down attempts. The UH defense continued to be woeful, as the Huskies outgained the Cougars, 438 yards to 284.

The Ugly: Pretty much the entire game. The Huskies are one of the worst programs in all of FBS, and the Cougars played down to their level of competition. The result was a boring slog of a game.

What it means: The Cougars now have their third win and first conference victory of the season. Looking at the upcoming schedule, however, this could very well be their last win of 2019.

This may also be the last time the Cougars play the Huskies for a while, if ever. Connecticut is leaving the ACC in 2020 to return its basketball program to the Big East; this move may sound the death knell for its struggling football program.

Next up is a Thursday night game at TDECU against an SMU Mustang program that is ranked for the first time since the Death Penalty.

I'll never get tired of this

It's always good when the Astros clinch a trip to the World Series (this is their third appearance). It's even better when it's against the New York Yankees and their arrogant, classless fanbase. But to accomplish these feats via an amazing walk-off two-run homer against one of the best closers in baseball? Absolutely insane.

Given what it meant, Altuve's blast instantly became one of the all-time great moments in Houston sports history. Housto Sportsmap's Fred Faour, in fact, puts this at #3 on his list of the top five most memorable moments in Houston sports history, just behind Alex Bregman's walk-off single in the wild Game 5 of the 2017 World Series and the Rockets' winning their first NBA title (over another New York team!) in 1994. (I generally agree with his picks and rankings, although it is incomplete without Mario Elie's Kiss of Death in the 1995 NBA Playoffs; for that matter, Faour could have expanded his list to include Chris Burke's 18th-inning walk-off in the 2005 NLDS or the "Game of the Century" between Houston and UCLA in 1968.) 

The bottom line is that Jose Altuve gave Houston sports fans one of the most amazing and unforgettable moments they've ever witnessed, as evidenced by some of the fan reactions being put on YouTube (the radio call is a classic, too).

I am completely amazed by how the Astros have absolutely owned the Yankees in the postseason since they've switched leagues: the play-in game in 2015, the 2017 ALCS, and now this. I'd love to see this trend continue, because the New York Yankees are evil and their fanbase sucks.

As meaningful as Altuve's heroics are, however, his home run will become even more legendary if the Astros actually complete their quest and win a second World Series. Alas, things didn't go well for them in Game 1 tonight against the red-hot Washington Nationals, as pitcher Garrit Cole had his worst game since May and the Astros left 11 runners stranded on base. I'm hoping for better things tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Houston 23, #25 Cincinnati 38

This was another competitive effort by the Cougars - they found themselves trailing by only five points midway through the fourth quarter - but a interception returned by Cincinnati for touchdown late in the game sealed the Coogs' fourth loss of the season.

The Good: The weather. The first true cold front of the fall rolled in the day before, providing a mild, sunny day for the game.

On a day that featured multiple quarterbacks for UH, wide receiver Bryson Smith got behind center and threw one pass - a beautiful 50-yard touchdown strike to Jeremy Singleton. UH special teams blocked a Cincinnati field goal, while Dane Roy averaged 54 yards on his four punts.

The Bad: Houston turned the ball over five times, allowing the Bearcats to score 21 points off turnovers. When the Cougars weren't turning the ball lover, their receivers were dropping passes, including some that should have been easy completions. Houston's defense didn't have a good answer for Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder, who ended the day 14 of 24 for 263 yards and three TD passes.

The Ugly: Houston's clock management at the end of the first half. They had two time outs remaining, and could have used them to at least get into field goal range. Instead, they just let the clock tick away. I expected better from an experienced coach like Dana Holgorsen.

Also, the officiating. What should have been a clear targeting penalty against Cincinnati in the first half was overturned, and a ticky-tack hit out of bounds call against Houston turned what should have been a fourth down into a first down and eventual Bearcat touchdown. Shortly thereafter there was a blatant hold by a Cinci lineman that everybody in the stadium except the refs saw. I'm not going to claim that any of these calls changed the outcome of the game, but these referees (and the league as a whole) should be ashamed of themselves for their incompetence.

What It Means: The Cougars are now 0-2 in conference and staring a losing season the face. They now travel to New England to face Connecticut.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Houston 46, North Texas 25

New quarterback? No problem! The Cougars got back to their winning ways by upsetting North Texas (yes, the Mean Green were favored) in Denton, notching their first win against an FBS opponent for the season and emphatically answering questions as to the team's "will to fight" after starting quarterback D'Eriq King opted to redshirt for the rest of the 2019 season.

The Good: With King no longer behind center, it was up to second-string quarterback Clayton Tune to show that he could direct the offense. He performed well, completing 16 of 20 pass attempts for 124 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 100 yards. Patrick Carr ran for another 139 yards and three scores. The UH defense, meanwhile, held UNT's rushing attack to less than 100 yards on the evening.

It was a great night for UH special teams, as they scored touchdowns on a kick return (Marquez Stevenson, 82 yards) and a punt return (Bryson Smith, 60 yards) - the first time since October 1973 that the Coogs had two such returns for touchdowns in the same game.

The Bad: The Cougars’ pass defense continued to struggle, as UNT quarterback Mason Fine lit them up for 353 yards and two touchdowns. UNT actually outgained the Coogs in this game, 456 yards to 359 (however, these totals do not include kick return yards).

When the UH secondary wasn't covering poorly, they were tackling poorly. UNT’s final touchdown occurred because Cougar safety Deontay Anderson hit UNT wide receiver Jason Pirtle but failed to wrap him up, allowing Pirtle to bounce off of him and walk into the endzone.

The Cougar defense’s 21-game streak of recording at least one turnover also came to an end, as neither team turned the ball over in this game.

The Beautiful: the Green Brigade and the Spirit of Houston joined together at halftime for this wonderful rendition of America the Beautiful:

The announced attendance of 30,123 was an Apogee Stadium record.

What It Means: This was a much-needed win for the Cougars, and Clayton Tune showed that he is capable of running Dana Holgorsen's offense for the remainder of the season. UH now gets a much-needed week off before hosting Cincinnati on October 12.

The all-time series between Houston and North Texas is now tied at seven games apiece. The next edition of the Mean Green Cougar Red Bowl will occur at TDECU Stadium next year.