How China Plans to Control Hong Kong’s Elections

HONG KONG — China’s sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s election system will give national security bodies vast power over who can run for office, a move that could sideline the pro-democracy opposition for years to come.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy figures had long enjoyed a greater share of the vote in direct elections, but the system was stacked against them, ensuring the pro-Beijing camp controlled the legislature. On Tuesday, the standing committee of the Communist Party-controlled National People’s Congress in Beijing approved changes that would ensure an even stronger legislative majority for the establishment.

The changes give Beijing and its handpicked local leaders vast powers to block any opposition candidate China deems disloyal, aiming to stamp out the intense antigovernment sentiment that fueled protests in 2019.

charged 47 pro-democracy politicians, including most of the camp’s most prominent figures, with subversion under a national security law. Others are in court on charges of unauthorized assembly. The prosecutions have effectively silenced much of the opposition.

The security law has also loomed over the city, curbing its environment for free expression. Some politicians have warned that Hong Kong’s new art museum, M+, risks violating the security law if it displays works from artists like the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei.

A local broadcaster, TVB, said this week that it would not show the Oscars after 52 years of televising the event. It said the decision was commercial, but this year’s awards include two nominees that are politically sensitive in China. “Do Not Split,” a nominee for best documentary short, focuses on the 2019 Hong Kong protests, and Chloé Zhao, the first Chinese woman and the first woman of color to be nominated for best director, has stirred a backlash over a 2013 interview in which she criticized her native country.

Trump and Biden administrations imposed financial sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials deemed as having undermined the city’s autonomy.

Several nations have also announced they would make it easier for people from Hong Kong to immigrate. Britain has opened up residency and a potential pathway to citizenship for millions of people from Hong Kong, a former British colony.

As the political changes pushed by Beijing continue to shake Hong Kong, more people are likely to consider options for leaving, said Sonny Lo, a political analyst based in Hong Kong.

“This will have a kind of chilling effect on society,” he said. “I expect a wave of migration. Because in the minds of ordinary citizens who don’t know about politics, who don’t know the complexities, they are really scared off.”

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Shanghai.

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Suez Canal Live Updates: Aided by Moon and Tide, Giant Ship Is Partially Refloated

celebrated the moment on Twitter, writing that “Egyptians have succeeded today in ending the crisis of the stuck ship in the Suez Canal despite the great complexities surrounding this situation in every aspect.”

However, others involved in the operation urged caution.

While the ship was moving, what remained unclear was whether the bulbous bow — a protrusion at the front of the ship just below the waterline — is totally clear of dirt and debris. If it is still stuck in clay or obstructed by rocks, the early morning optimism could quickly fade.

Peter Berdowski, the chief executive of Royal Boskalis Westminster, which has been appointed by Ever Given’s owner to help move the vessel, told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS on Monday that he understood the bow to be stuck “rock solid.”

“The ship is like a giant whale that we have to slide off the beach, back in the water,” he said early Monday. Pulling the stern lose, he said, was the easy part.

“We shouldn’t start cheering just yet,” he cautioned.

The high tide on Monday morning peaked at 11:42 a.m. local time, and crews will continue maneuvers as long as the water remains high, according to the authority. The next high tide will crest around midnight.

Despite the note of caution, workers at the scene could be seen in images circulating on social media celebrating their progress in the predawn hours.

There was widespread hope it was a a turning point in one of the largest and most intense salvage operations in modern history, with the smooth functioning of the global trading system hanging in the balance.

Each day the canal is blocked put global supply chains another day closer to a full-blown crisis.

Vessels packed with the world’s goods — including cars, oil, livestock and laptops — usually flow through the waterway with ease, supplying much of the globe as they traverse the quickest path from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the East Coast of the United States.

With concerns the salvage operation could take weeks, some ships decided not to wait, turning to take the long way around the southern tip of Africa, a voyage that could add weeks to the journey and more than $26,000 a day in fuel costs.

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The army of machine operators, engineers, tugboat captains, and other salvage operators know they are in a race against time.

Late Saturday, tugboat drivers sounded their horns in celebration of the most visible sign of progress since the ship ran aground late Tuesday.

The 220,000-ton ship moved. It did not go far — just two degrees, or about 100 feet, according to shipping officials. That came on top of progress from Friday, when canal officials said dredgers had managed to dig out the rear of the ship, freeing its rudder.

The company that oversees the ship’s operations and crew, Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, said 11 tugboats were helping, with two joining the struggle on Sunday. Several dredgers, including a specialized suction dredger that can extract 2,000 cubic meters of material per hour, dug around the vessel’s bow, the company said.

Salvagers were determined to free the vessel as the spring tide rolls in, raising the canal’s water level as much as 18 inches, analysts and shipping agents said.

It is a delicate mission, with crews trying to move the ship without unbalancing it or breaking it apart.

With the Ever Given sagging in the middle, its bow and stern both caught in positions for which they were not designed, the hull is vulnerable to stress and cracks, according to experts. Just as every high tide brought hope the ship could be released, each low tide puts new stresses on the vessel.

Teams of divers have been inspecting the hull throughout the operation and have found no damage, officials said. It would need to be inspected again once it was completely free.

And it would take some time to also inspect the canal itself to ensure safe passage. With hundreds of ships backed up on either side, it could be days before operations return to normal.

Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting.

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A ship has been wedged in the Suez Canal in Egypt since Tuesday evening, shutting down traffic in both directions.CreditCredit…Sima Diab for The New York Times

From the deck of a tugboat in the Suez Canal, where the Egyptian authorities allowed journalists to glimpse the salvage operation for the first time on Saturday, the Ever Given looked like a fallen skyscraper, lights ablaze.

Three boats that barely reached halfway up the word EVERGREEN painted on the ship’s side, for its Taiwan-based operator, had nosed up to its starboard side, keeping it stable.

A powerful tugboat sat near the ship’s stern, waiting for the next attempt to push and pull it out.

Together, the armada of tugboats — their engines churning with the combined power of tens of thousands of horses — have been pushing and pulling at the Ever Given for days.

Then, before dawn on Monday, the ship broke free from the shore and was partially refloated — a moment both shipping and Egyptian officials hoped marked the beginning of the end of the saga.

Once fully afloat, the ship can be easily controlled by tugboats and safely pushed out of the way.

It was a possible turning point in a drama that had been building for days, where optimism seemed to rise and fall like the tides themselves.

With the ship too heavy for tugboats alone, the effort on the water was being aided by teams on land, where cranes that look like playthings in the shadow of the hulking cargo ship have been scooping mountains of earth from the area where the ship’s bow and stern are wedged tight.

As the dredgers worked, a team of eight Dutch salvage experts and naval architects overseeing the operation were surveying the ship and the seabed and creating a computer model to help it work around the vessel without damaging it, said Capt. Nick Sloane, a South African salvage master who led the operation to right the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that capsized in 2012 off the coast of Italy.

If the tugboats, dredgers and pumps are unable to get the job done, they will be joined by a head-spinning array of specialized vessels and machines requiring perhaps hundreds of workers: small tankers to siphon off the ship’s fuel, the tallest cranes in the world to unload containers one by one and, if no cranes are tall enough or near enough, heavy-duty helicopters that can pick up containers of up to 20 tons — though no one has said where the cargo would go. (A full 40-foot container can weigh up to 40 tons.)

All this because, to put it simply: “This is a very big ship. This is a very big problem,” said Richard Meade, the editor in chief of Lloyd’s List, a maritime intelligence publication based in London.

An aerial view of ships stranded in the Red Sea on Saturday.
Credit…Mahmoud Khaled/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

With hopes rising that the partial refloating of the Ever Given means the Suez Canal will soon be reopen for business, shipping analysts cautioned that it will take time — perhaps days — for the hundreds of ships now waiting for passage to continue their journeys.

Shipping analysts estimated the traffic jam was holding up nearly $10 billion in trade every day.

“All global retail trade moves in containers, or 90 percent of it,” said Alan Murphy, the founder of Sea-Intelligence, a maritime data and analysis firm. “Name any brand name, and they will be stuck on one of those vessels.”

The Syrian government said over the weekend that it would begin rationing the use of fuel after the closure of the Suez Canal delayed the delivery of a critical shipment of oil to the war-torn nation.

And in Lebanon, which in recent months has been suffering blackouts amid an economic and political crisis, local news outlets were reporting that the country’s shaky fuel supply risked further disruption if the blockage continued.

With the backlog of ships now stuck outside the canal growing to over 300 on Sunday, the threat to the oil supplies in Lebanon and Syria was an early indication of how quickly the disruption to the smooth functioning of global trade could ripple outward.

Virtually every container ship making the journey from factories in Asia to consumer markets in Europe passes through the channel. So do tankers laden with oil and natural gas.

The shutdown of the canal is affecting as much as 15 percent of the world’s container shipping capacity, according to Moody’s Investor Service, leading to delays at ports around the globe. Tankers carrying 9.8 million barrels of crude, about a tenth of a day’s global consumption, are now waiting to enter the canal, estimates Kpler, a firm that tracks petroleum shipping.

The Syrian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said the blockage of the canal had “hindered the oil supplies to Syria and delayed arrival of a tanker carrying oil and oil derivations to Syria.”

Rationing was needed, the ministry said in a statement, “in order to guarantee the continued supply of basic services to Syrians such as bakeries, hospitals, water stations, communication centers, and other vital institutions.”

Cargo ships in the Red Sea near the opening of the Suez Canal, on Monday.
Credit…Sima Diab for The New York Times

From the outset, when winds of more than 70 miles per hour whipped up the sands surrounding the Suez Canal into a blinding storm and the Ever Given ran aground, the forces of nature have played an outsize role in the drama that has disrupted the free flow of goods and oil around the planet.

Since the 1,300-foot cargo ship laden with nearly 20,000 containers found itself wedged in the single lane of the canal, salvage teams have had to calculate complicated questions regarding not just engineering and physics, but also meteorology and earth science.

And no natural phenomenon has been as critical as the tides.

“The rising and falling of the sea is a phenomenon upon which we can always depend,” according to the National Ocean Service, which is part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Tides are the regular rise and fall of the sea surface caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun and their position relative to the earth.”

The tides are constant, but they can rise higher and fall lower depending on the location of the sun and moon.

When the sun and moon are in alignment — as was the case with the full moon on Sunday — their combined gravitational pull results in exceptionally high tides, known as Spring Tides.

That is the case at the moment in the Suez, with water levels rising some 18 inches above normal. The most recent high tide peaked at 11:42 a.m., and the next will peak around midnight.

High tides occur 12 hours and 25 minutes apart, according to NOAA. It takes six hours and 12.5 minutes for the water at the shore to go from high to low, or from low to high.

This is the window for salvage crews to free the Ever Given. Each time the tide rises, the 220,000-ton vessel stands a better chance of becoming buoyant, and the scores of tugboats can use the tidal forces to help them in their struggle to free the ship.

But every time the tide falls, new stresses are put on the hull of the ship and the dangers rise.

The tidal flows in the Suez were at their peak Sunday and Monday, meaning this is a critical moment to finally free the ship. If the salvage crews cannot build on their progress to completely free the ship before the day is out, the tides will not be as favorable for weeks.

Pictures of the ship, from satellite views to those on the ground, reveal the true scale of the issue.

Tankers and freight ships near the entrance of the Suez Canal.
Credit…Ahmed Hasan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Oil prices fell and then rose again Monday as news reports suggested that the Suez Canal drama might be drawing to a close.

Prices dipped more than 2 percent early in the day after tugboats and dredgers succeeded in partly freeing the giant containership Ever Given, which has been blocking the canal since early last week. News reports raised the prospect that the tankers waiting at the entrances to the canal might be able to transit within days and deliver their cargoes to Europe and Asia.

But then prices crept back up again after the Suez Canal authorities said there was more work to be done before maritime traffic could resume. By midday in London, Brent crude, the international benchmark, was selling for $65.15 a barrel, up 0.9 percent on the day.

The Suez Canal is a key chokepoint for oil shipping, but so far the impact on the oil market of this major interruption of trade flows has been relatively muted. Though prices jumped after shipping on the canal was halted, oil prices still remain below their nearly two-year highs of about $70 a barrel reached earlier this month.

Analysts say that traders are focused on other factors beyond the logjam, including the reimposition of lockdowns in Europe that may hold back the recovery of oil demand from the pandemic.

From a global perspective, oil supplies are considered adequate, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Russia and other producers, the group known as OPEC Plus, are withholding an estimated 8 million barrels a day, or about 9 percent of current consumption, from the market. Officials from OPEC Plus are expected to meet by video conference on Thursday to discuss whether to ease output cuts.

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The Ever Given container ship on Saturday remained lodged in the Suez Canal in Egypt, where it had been stuck since Tuesday. Authorities said the jam has caused a backlog of more than 300 ships waiting to cross.CreditCredit…Sima Diab for The New York Times

The operators of the Ever Given have said that the vessel ran aground because of the high winds of a sandstorm. While shipping experts said that wind might have been a factor, they also suggested that human error may have come into play.

Egyptian officials offered a similar assessment at a news conference on Saturday.

“A significant incident like this is usually the result of many reasons: The weather was one reason, but maybe there was a technical error, or a human error,” said Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, chief of Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s operators had said this week that its stacked containers had essentially acted like a giant sail amid the sandstorm.

But villagers in nearby Manshiyet Rugola noted that other ships in the same convoy had passed through the canal without incident. So had previous ships in previous storms, they pointed out.

“We’ve seen worse winds,” said Ahmad al-Sayed, 19, a security guard, “but nothing like that ever happened before.”

Shipping experts have asked the same question.

“I am highly questioning, why was it the only one that went aground?” said Capt. Paul Foran, a marine consultant who has worked on other salvage operations. “But they can talk about all that later. Right now, they just have to get that beast out of the canal.”

General Rabie said that ship captains are asked to keep any material that might be required for an investigation. He noted that 12 northbound ships had passed through the canal ahead of the Ever Given that day, and another 30 ships had traveled through from the opposite direction.

Last year, General Rabie said, 18,840 ships had traversed the canal without an accident.

After 10 years of hard labor — during which tens of thousands of Egyptian workers died — the barrage of the Suez plains reservoir was breached on Nov. 17, 1869.

For the first time, waters of the Mediterranean flowed into the Red Sea and the canal was opened for international navigation. For nearly a century, it was mostly controlled and operated by the French and British.

In 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the waterway. But almost as soon as his government took control, it was forced to briefly close after an invasion by an expeditionary force of British, French and Israeli soldiers.

The canal was reopened in 1957 and, firmly under Egyptian control, it became a symbol of the end of the colonial era.

A second closing occurred after the June 1967 War with Israel and lasted until 1975, when Egypt and Israel signed the second disengagement accord.

President Anwar el‐Sadat called the reopening the “the happiest day in my life,” according to an account of the event in The New York Times.

He “stood in an admiral’s white uniform on the bridge of the destroyer Sixth of October as it cut a thin chain across the canal’s entry and sailed south from Port Said harbor at the head of a ceremonial convoy.”

Doves were released to celebrate the moment.

Thousands of people identified with the vessel’s stubborn determination to stay lodged across the vital waterway.
Credit…Sima Diab for The New York Times

The saying goes that all good things must come to an end. But when it was announced that the ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal for days had been set partially afloat again — and could possibly be freed before the end of the day on Monday — social media users lamented the news.

“PUT IT BACK” became a trending topic on Twitter in the United States.

In the five days that it has blocked the canal, the gargantuan Ever Given had single-handedly snarled global trade, shaking up global shipping paths and costing billions of dollars.

But the light relief that the vessel’s situation had brought to the world? Priceless, in some people’s eyes.

Thousands of people identified with the canal and the vessel’s stubborn determination to stay lodged across the vital waterway.

Others shared handy guides on how everyone could do their bit to help.

The photo of a tiny digger working away at the mammoth task of trying to unstick the stuck ship firmly established itself as one of the most shareable memes 2021 has produced so far.

And after closely monitoring the situation, many shared their tongue-in-cheek answers to getting the boat dislodged, if only the teams attempting the rescue would listen.

After the news of the partial refloating, how long do internet users have to squeeze in the last of their jokes about the Ever Given? It’s anyone’s guess.

While President Sisi of Egypt declared his countrymen had “succeeded in ending the crisis,” shipping officials warned that the efforts to completely free the vessel were ongoing.

So is the ship still stuck? For the website built specifically for that question, the answer on Monday was: “Sort of?”

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Leon Black to Step Down as MoMA Chairman

In the face of mounting pressure from prominent artists and activists about his financial ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the investor Leon Black told colleagues Friday that he would not stand for re-election as the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, according to two people with knowledge of his decision.

Mr. Black announced his decision to the board’s executive committee at a specially convened remote meeting on Friday afternoon, according to someone with knowledge of the meeting who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it. He planned to inform the full board of his intentions when it meets next week.

The news that Mr. Black did not plan to run for re-election as the museum’s chairman in June was the latest fallout from the revelation earlier this year that he had paid $158 million to Mr. Epstein for tax and estate advisory services — payments that began several years after Mr. Epstein had pleaded guilty in 2008 to soliciting prostitution from a teenage girl.

After the size of his payments was revealed in January, Mr. Black had initially announced that he would step down this year as chief executive of Apollo Global Management, the giant private equity firm he co-founded, but added that he intended to remain Apollo’s chairman. On Monday, Apollo made the surprise announcement that Mr. Black, 69, was stepping down as chief executive earlier than anticipated and giving up the chairmanship, citing his and his wife’s health as major factors in the decision.

his dealings with Mr. Epstein, who killed himself inside a Manhattan jail cell in 2019 while facing federal sex-trafficking charges.

By several accounts, Mr. Black had also wrestled with how to proceed at MoMA. Mr. Black decided to tell the executive committee that as a longtime supporter of MoMA, he did not want to become a distraction to the institution by seeking another term, said two people briefed on his decision. He is expected to remain on the board after stepping down as chairman.

Several artists and supporters of MoMA had said that Mr. Black’s decision to pay large fees to Mr. Epstein after his conviction — he also lent Mr. Epstein $30 million — raised questions about whether he should continue to represent the institution. Several MoMA trustees came to believe that Mr. Black had become a damaging distraction.

“I would feel ashamed to be associated with the MoMA if it takes a firm position in keeping someone who has been confirmed to have hurt basic values or has worked against truth and fairness,” the artist Ai Weiwei said in an email interview last month. “If so, I hope they won’t include any of my works in their collection.” He said Friday that it was “the right decision” for Mr. Black to step down.

And the recent pressure on Mr. Black from prominent artists and activists promised to escalate, with a 10-week “strike” against MoMA planned to start April 9.

in February had spoken out about Mr. Black, said that he believed that Mr. Black, and several other MoMA board members, should step down from the board altogether.

“MoMA has refused comment on every story that has emerged about Leon Black,” he said in an email. “The museum stays silent while we as artists are asked to speak. Beyond speaking, I look forward to collectively imagining an ecosystem that does not enlist our content to go on display in institutions whose board members create the very conditions in the world that many of us are devoted to dismantling.”

It was not immediately clear who would succeed Mr. Black at MoMA. Among those expected to be in contention are the board’s several vice chairmen as well as Marie-Josée Kravis, its president emerita.

There has been some concern among MoMA trustees that Mr. Black’s stepping down as chairman might jeopardize his potential future gifts of art or money to the museum, given his wealth and his museum-quality personal art collection.

In 2018, the same year he became chairman of the museum’s board, Mr. Black and his wife, Debra, gave $40 million to the museum, prompting MoMA to name its film center after them.

In 2012, he lent MoMA Edvard Munch’s 1895 version of “The Scream” — which he purchased for nearly $120 million — and in 2016, Mr. Black won the right to keep a large Picasso bust for which he had paid about $106 million and that featured prominently in MoMA’s acclaimed Picasso sculpture show.

extended Mr. Lowry’s contract until 2025, making him the longest-serving director since the museum opened in 1929. Mr. Lowry did not respond to requests for comment.

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‘Insult to the Country’: Hong Kong Targets Art Deemed Critical of China

HONG KONG — With its multibillion-dollar price tag and big-name artists, M+, the museum rising on Victoria Harbor, was meant to embody Hong Kong’s ambitions of becoming a global cultural hub. It was to be the city’s first world-class art museum, proof that Hong Kong could do high culture just as well as finance.

It may instead become the symbol of how the Chinese Communist Party is muzzling Hong Kong’s art world.

In recent days, the museum, which is scheduled to open later this year, has come under fierce attack from the city’s pro-Beijing politicians. State-owned newspapers have denounced the museum’s collection, which houses important works of contemporary Chinese art, including some by the dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Hong Kong’s chief executive has promised to be on “full alert” after a lawmaker called some works an “insult to the country.”

The arts sector broadly has endured a blizzard of attacks. A government funding body said last week that it has the power to end grants to artists who promoted “overthrowing” the authorities. A front-page editorial in a pro-Beijing newspaper accused six art groups of “anti-government” activities.

arrested opposition politicians and moved to overhaul elections. They have also pulled books from library shelves and reshaped school curriculums.

projected a Chinese flag onto the ground for viewers to walk on. Another used Tibetan script to express fears that Hong Kong would become similarly controlled.

Concerns about independence have dogged M+ from its conception more than a decade ago . The museum acquired a number of high-profile works, including an image of Mr. Ai raising his middle finger in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and photographs by Liu Heung Shing of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations there. Immediately, officials warned the museum to steer clear of politics.

But optimism also coursed through Hong Kong’s art world over the past decade. The government had increased financial support. Art Basel, the international arts fair, hosts an annual show in Hong Kong.

turned tents used to occupy the central business district into canvases. In 2019, they hauled a 13-foot statue of a woman in a gas mask to marches.

Mr. Ai said he supported the museum’s 2012 acquisition of his works from Uli Sigg, a renowned collector, noting Hong Kong’s ambition to become a world-class art city and the M+ team’s reputation.

“I was very positive at the time,” said Mr. Ai, who left China in 2015. “I felt that if my work could be displayed where there were many Chinese people, I’d be very happy.”

fearful anticipation.

Then the pro-Beijing camp pounced this month with a full-out barrage. On Mar. 15, the Hong Kong Film Critics Society canceled sold-out screenings of a documentary about the 2019 protests, after a pro-Beijing newspaper urged banning it. Two days later, another paper accused six arts organizations of violating the security law and called on the government to revoke their funding.

said during a question-and-answer session with Carrie Lam, the chief executive.

The criticisms have extended beyond politics to a sort of moral policing. Some have denounced M+ holdings that depict nudity or homosexuality.

Evans Chan knew some considered his work too provocative. A Hong Kong venue in 2016 canceled a screening of a documentary he made about the 2014 protests, citing a desire to remain “nonpartisan.” Last year, he finished a sequel, only to cut a scene for Hong Kong audiences that featured China’s national anthem; a new law forbade disrespecting the song.

Still, Mr. Chan said, the security law was a “watershed moment.” He had planned to make a third film about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. But he is unsure if he could find people to participate or places to show it — not just in Hong Kong but overseas, in venues with ties to China.

“We are coming to a point to ask, what kind of space is left by global capitalism?” he said. “Where does China fit in? Where does artistic expression from and about Hong Kong fit in?”

Others have urged artists to experiment with the space that remains. Clara Cheung, who runs an arts education space, said she had promoted projects like community murals or a map of Hong Kong’s heritage buildings. Though not explicitly political, they could encourage open-mindedness and civic engagement.

Sampson Wong has focused on small-scale, privately funded projects for the past few years, after officials suspended his temporary lights display at Hong Kong’s tallest building in 2016. It featured a countdown to 2047, the year that China’s promise of semi-autonomy to Hong Kong expires.

“I’m confident that we have already explored the ways” to keep operating independently, Mr. Wong said.

Still, he said he hoped that world would not become entirely siloed from the more institutional, popular art sphere.

In that space, the authorities may be harder to sidestep.

Mr. Ai said staff at M+ had recently called him to affirm their commitment to their principles, and he had been moved by their integrity.

But “with these kinds of things, bottom-up resistance is useless,” he added. “If it is decided from the top that such works can’t be exhibited, then there is nothing they can do.”

Joy Dong contributed research.

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Those Self-Driving Cars In San Francisco And The Victorian House That Rolled Down The Middle Of The Street

 

Sometimes, you can be quite surprised by what you might see on the sunny streets of San Francisco.

For example, this proverbial City by the Bay is a Silicon Valley favorite right now, allowing an abundance of self-driving cars to crisscross the steep hills and teeming streets, doing so in a visionary flurry of experimental tryouts for emergent driverless cars (for my coverage see this link here).

If that isn’t enough of an unusual scenery for you, there is something else that San Francisco also is known for, namely houses that from time-to-time are rolling throughout the avenues and keep afar from the fabled cable cars. Though some have jokingly said that these slinking along homes have a mind of their home, the reality is that there is a long history of putting treasured houses up on giant dollies and moving them to other parts of town.

To be clear, there are humans at the wheel of those moving homes (not driven by ghosts and nor any venerated AI-based driving systems).

In this latest case, a picturesque Victorian home that is popularly known as the Englander House was moved to make way for a proposed apartment complex. One supposes the easiest path would have been to simply demolish the now outdated and somewhat dilapidated house, crushing it to the bone and carting away the remains. Instead, the more than five-thousand square-foot structure was carefully and gently rolled to a new spot, which though admittedly only six blocks away, nonetheless constituted a heck of a distance to cart an entire two-story home.

By lifting the home onto rollable wheels, the affair became one of trying to navigate the winding and hilly streets of famed San Francisco, known as being one of the hilliest cities in the world. Fortunately, no need, in this case, to try and shove the house across the Golden Gate Bridge. The local streets that would witness the inching along house were prepared beforehand to make way. This included cutting back overstretched tree limbs, removing parking meters, temporarily taking down road signs that were potential obstructions, and the like.

 

You might be wondering whether the posted speed limit signs were also removed, and in which case, could the house opt to sprint its way to the new location. Sorry to disappoint, the speed limit still applied, though it wasn’t a consideration since the rolling process had a top speed of about 1 mile per hour anyway. No sense in laying out rubber on the roadway from doing any kind of tire screeching starts or donuts, and just make sure that the house safely reached its ultimate destination.

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Here’s a question for you.

Suppose you were driving your car in San Francisco on that particular day, and also assume that you did not know beforehand that a house was being moved. In that scenario, you would have been quietly driving along, minding your own business, and upon turning a corner on some ordinary street there would suddenly be looming ahead of you a house.

Mind you, not a house that was on the sides of the street and sitting still, nailed to the perch, but instead a home smack dab in the middle of the street. Perhaps you would end-up going head-to-head with this menacing figure. In a street duel involving going face to face with a house versus a car, consider the likely winner of this driving battle. The house weighs a lot more and has quite a hefty size advantage, while your car is nimble and can make circles around the snail-paced home.

I’d bet that most drivers would have let the house win.

The odds are that you would have been caught off-guard at seeing a house coming down the street toward you. Since this was happening in slow motion, you would have plenty of time to take in the sight and mentally calculate what was taking place. Other than a mild surprise and perhaps giving you a bit of a chuckle, it seems likely that you would have taken the matter in stride.

That being said, it is not every day that you manage to observe a house in the middle of the roadway and that is moving along too. Someone visiting San Francisco as a tourist might immediately assume it was a touristy act being undertaken by the authorities that run Frisco, possibly attempting to gain renewed attention to the Golden Gate City. I suspect that it would be easy to shrug off the experience and maybe make a posting on social media in a nonchalant manner, doing a trendy insta-bragging or a so-called humble-brag about what you just saw.

The odds are that you would have made a U-turn and made your way beyond the reach of the iceberg-slow moving house. Of course, the reality is that you probably would not have gotten especially close to the being-moved home anyway. There were plenty of barricades and road closures, along with bright and flashing warning signs and police enforcing the right-of-way for this Victorian-style masterpiece.

All told, a human driver would have presumably remained calm and at most been curious about how a house managed to get onto the street. Despite never having seen such a roadway condition before (how many of us have ever experienced a rolling home coming down the street?), a person witnessing such a spectacle can readily make a mental sense of what they are seeing.

It is a house. It is on the street. It is slowly moving. It poses no immediate danger. I can drive away without difficulty. That’s the extent of the driving mental contortions, and the remaining cognitive action can entail the why and how of the story behind a house confronting you while on a normal driving journey.

Shifting gears, the future of cars consists of self-driving cars. The AI-based true self-driving cars are driven entirely by an AI driving system. There isn’t a human at the wheel, and in fact, the expectation is that most self-driving cars will not provide any provision of human-accessible driving controls. The AI will be the sole driver and no human will directly be involved.

This gives rise to today’s intriguing question: What would a self-driving car do when suddenly facing a house that was moving down the middle of the street?

Let’s unpack the matter and see.

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones that the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.

These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5 (see my explanation at this link here), while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems).

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there.

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend, see my coverage at this link here).

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different than driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable).

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.

Self-Driving Cars And Those Rolling Houses

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task.

All occupants will be passengers.

The AI is doing the driving.

One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that today’s AI is not sentient. In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can. For example, current AI lacks any semblance of common sense and nor has any kind of common-sense reasoning (for further background, see the link here).

This is important to keep in mind when considering the matter of a house coming down the middle of a street on a driving trek.

Humans comprehend that the object ahead of them is a house. Houses are usually not in the middle of the street. Houses rarely move, other than perhaps shifting here and there due to earth movement or seismic activity. Overall, a human would readily grasp that this is an unusual situation and would realize that this Victorian house is in the wrong place and doing something it should not be doing, namely cruising along on a presumably active street meant for cars, bikes, motorcycles, vans, and the like.

The house is altogether out of place. A human would reason that there must be some logical explanation for this oddball circumstance. How could a house get into the street? It is not as though a house is like a pet dog that got off its leash and sneaked out to play in the middle of the roadway. A house is not a dog. Houses do not customarily of their own volition opt to stray.

A quick visual scan of the driving scene would undoubtedly showcase the special roadway and moving crews that were shlepping along with the house. The street would be barren of all of the usual trappings that you’d expect to see on a typical everyday roadway. Thus, even if you somehow did not notice the blizzard of warning signs and somehow avoided getting stopped by those esteemed guardians securing the route, you nonetheless would reason about what you are seeing and be able to turn the extraordinary setting into something sensible and understandable.

What would an AI driving system do?

As mentioned, today’s AI is not sentient. It cannot “reason” in the manner that humans can. Let’s trace the technological aspects of what might occur.

The odds are that the sensors would detect that things were amiss. Self-driving cars are loaded with various sensors such as video cameras, radar, LIDAR, ultrasonic devices, and the like. You can certainly assume that all of those sensors are pretty much going to detect a house that is sitting in the middle of the street.

Realize though that the various sensors each have their own range of detection. This means that some of the sensors would sooner detect the object than others. Within the AI driving system, there is a function or component that undertakes Multi-Sensor Data Fusion (MSDF). This capability is programmed to compare and contrast the results of the sensor data collections and try to resolve any differences and also amplify any similarities. The visual imaging interpretations would be indicating that a large object is blocking the roadway. The radar and LIDAR would likewise be reporting that a large object is straight ahead. Etc.

The AI driving system maintains a virtual world model, essentially an internal frame of reference about what the outside world of the surrounding driving scene seems to consist of (for my analogy to the block’s world of Minecraft, see the link here). Based on the sensor data and the algorithmic interpretation of the sensor indications, the AI driving system likely would make a mark in the virtual world model that something rather monstrous in size is blocking the roadway ahead.

Notice that I have carefully worded that description to refer to the thing as an object and not refer to it as a house.

We don’t know that the AI driving system would necessarily classify the massive object as a house per se. For some AI driving systems, a house is considered an object that sits outside of the roadway. It could be the case that the AI driving system would be trying to compare the house to objects that are usually found within the path of the street, such as other cars, trucks, moving vans, pedestrians, and the like.

The AI doesn’t “know” that a house is a house, at least not in the manner that you and I understand the meaning of the word. Any programming related to the object that is being called a “house” would likely have simple attributes associated with it. There is no semblance of realization that a house can have a family that grew-up within the home and lived a wonderful life there, enjoying the company of others and the raising of children, and so on.

Consider for a moment all of the memories and thoughts you might embody about the nature of houses and homes. Essentially, none of that robust wealth of knowledge and understanding is within the reach of today’s AI systems.

Okay, we hopefully all agree that the AI driving system is unaware of what a house per se is (and, please avoid anthropomorphizing AI). At this juncture of the step-by-step exploration, the AI driving system has detected a large-sized object, taking up the majority of the ahead driving scene. This is beyond the size of a tumbleweed. It is beyond the size of a piece of furniture that might have dropped off the back of a truck.

All told, the odds are that the AI driving system would feed this indication about a colossal blockage up ahead into the portion of the driving system that plans what to do next. The routing algorithm would potentially have various digital maps and would refer to the maps. If the street ahead is unavailable for traversal, the AI driving system would be seeking to identify an alternative path.

We can assume that the self-driving car would seemingly aim to make a U-turn, and head some other way, utilizing other streets to avoid getting blocked by the object on this particular street.

In that case, consider this matter from the perspective of a car. A human driver would likely have made a U-turn and found some other path to proceed. An AI driving system would also have likely made a U-turn and opted to take a different route to proceed on its driving journey. If you were standing on the street and watching a car that came up to the situation, you would see the car make a U-turn and try to navigate away from the house coming down the roadway.

Could you immediately discern whether the car was being driven by a human versus being driven by an AI driving system?

Not really.

Sure, if you could see into the car, you would obviously have seen a human sitting in the driver’s seat in the case of the human-driven car, and you would presumably have observed that there wasn’t anyone sitting in the driver’s seat of the self-driving car. In that manner, you could readily tell the difference.

But suppose you couldn’t see into the car or the car was far enough away that you couldn’t discern the nature of what might or might be inside the car. From the external behavior of the car, you would not seemingly be able to discern whether it was being human-driven or being driven by an AI driving system.

Is that good or bad?

Well, you have now reached a vociferous question that many are scratching their heads about.

On the one hand, yes, the AI driving system seemed to do the same thing that a human driver would have done. That seems reassuring.

Per my aforementioned depiction about the AI driving system, you undoubtedly realize that the AI didn’t know anything at all about a house or a home, at least in comparison to a human. In this specific setting, it would seem that not “knowing” about houses or homes did not make a notable or discernible difference. The resulting driving actions were the same.

Not all driving actions are of the same ilk.

There are driving actions that entail human thinking that AI driving systems are not yet able to attain, and for which it is unclear if such AI will ever be possible. As such, the AI driving systems are going to be quite rudimentary and lacking in the depth of comprehension that humans have and that humans seemingly leverage when driving a car.

Some worry that as a society we are going to piecemeal allow ourselves into having self-driving cars on our roadways that seem or appear to be driving as though a human was at the wheel, and yet the AI driving system is not even in the same ballpark as human cognition.

The other side of that coin is that humans have all kinds of human foibles that come to play when they are driving. There are about 40,000 car crash-related fatalities each year in the United States alone and approximately 2.5 million related injuries (see my listing of crucial driving stats at this link here). Much of those statistics are due to drunk driving and distracted driving. The AI driving systems won’t be driving while drunk and will not be watching cat videos when driving the vehicle.

Are we willing to trade off the advantages of AI driving systems over the foibles of human drivers, though also realizing that the AI is not sentient?

We will need to accept the notion that the AI will be of a merely mechanical and programmatic capability, and overcome a false sense that the AI is of caliber with human thinking and intrinsic human capabilities.

Conclusion

You might have been surprised to discover that the mere presence of a slowly rolling house in the middle of a street could spur this kind of illustrious discussion.

Turns out fortuitously that the quirkiness and mystery of a house existing where it is not expected serves as a marvelous foil upon which to reveal the oft unspoken aspects about AI and the capabilities of today’s AI driving systems. The day-to-day acts of self-driving cars starting to roam our streets can inadvertently lull us into assuming that AI driving systems are the same as human drivers, embodying the same cognitive capacities, and meanwhile excising the adverse role of human emotions and human faults that occur while driving a car.

There is no free lunch.

The AI driving systems are limited in what they can do. A tough tradeoff is going to occur as society has to decide between the advantages of self-driving cars versus the advantages of human drivers. If driving a car is relatively routinized, and some sufficient range of driving scenarios are programmed to be handled, this might be enough to weigh the scales toward those AI driving systems and avert the downsides of human-driven cars.

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, I am determined to put some sturdy wheels onto my house and take it for a spin, including refining my homegrown AI driving system to be able to drive a house rather than a car. One thing seems pretty sure, my AI driving house can stomp on any of those pesky AI self-driving cars, in a heartbeat.

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