Monday, December 28, 2009

Rising Expectations and Engineering Ethics

Most engineering is carried out in a context of complex global economic and social interactions that share certain underlying assumptions. One of these assumptions is that progress is something like a metaphysical necessity, without which great sectors of the technical economy would dry up and blow away. Why is this, and is it an assumption that should be questioned?

First we should say what we mean by "progress." Progress implies a goal, or at least a desirable direction, and a way to measure movement in that direction. For a simple example, take the memory capacity of flash drives, the little pen-size USB-connected memory sticks that have become ubiquitous in the last four or five years. I think the first one I bought had a capacity of 512 megabytes and cost somewhere around fifty bucks, but I doubt if you can even buy one so small today. Now, a few years later, you can get 16-GB (gigabyte) drives, a factor of 32 larger, for only $27, and next year I expect the price of those will drop and new ones with even more capacity will come along. In this case, progress is easy to measure. Everybody agrees that having more memory on a single flash drive is better, assuming there are no compensating disadvantages such as slower access time, etc. So other things being equal, people will want to buy a drive with more memory over one with less, and the price structure of the market reflects this.

There's nothing automatic or inevitable about the rising memory capacity of flash drives. It's part of a great "roadmap" that the semiconductor industry has planned for many years, a kind of coordinated progress chart that guides research and development, plant investment, and related matters. As long as the underlying physics allows improvements, chip makers will continue to pile more transistors onto each square millimeter, and the memory capacity or processing capabilities of the chips will rise. And the same thing is true of many other technical fields, from software to medical equipment to transportation.

It was economist Joseph Schumpeter who coined the phrase "creative destruction" to describe the way entrepreneurial capitalism constantly developed new products and services that essentially destroyed the markets for previous ones. If Company B can make a 16-GB flash drive and sell it for $27, but Company A can make only 4-GB units that cost them $40 each to make, Company A is out of luck. It has to change or die, and in most of the productive sectors of the economy, change is the rule.

From the consumer's perspective, creative destruction leads to rising expectations: the idea that next year's product will either deliver better performance for the same price, or a lower price for the same performance. In fields where this can truly happen, such as computer hardware and software, this expectation is a reasonable one. But it can lead to a kind of overgeneralization problem, an expectation that since software gets better every year (or at least more complicated), every other product ought to get better too. While great strides have taken place in the application of technology to medicine, for example, I sometimes wonder if we ask more of medical technology than it can deliver. And if we do, especially in the United States, that may explain why our health-care costs are such a large fraction of our total gross domestic product.

From an individual engineer's perspective, creative destruction leads to a kind of employent instability or instant obsolescence that is hard to avoid. Last June, a company in Austin called Silicon Laboratories announced the development of a TV tuner on a chip. Despite the integration of every other part of a digital TV, until recently the "front end" that dealt with the wideband RF signals to be demodulated took the form of a tuner "can" of hand-assembled coils, capacitors, and other components. These tuners were expensive and bulky, but the problems of designing a TV tuner in a CMOS IC were too daunting until a team of about fifteen engineers met the challenge and succeeded. I recently saw a photo of the team, and judging by their faces, not one of the engineers was much over 40. Nobody had gray hair, but a few were bald. To an old geezer like me (I turned 56 last week), this says that certain engineering activities are practically limited to younger engineers who are conversant with technologies and approaches that are generally too hard to master if you are older. I'm sure there are some conventional "can" TV tuner engineers out there who see the handwriting on the wall, or the Silicon Labs chip in the catalog, and are wondering what they'll do next.

Despite the problems this assumption of progress may cause, I'm not sure there's a viable alternative. The grand (and deadly) experiment of managed economies in the old Soviet Union and China showed that market forces are pretty necessary if you are going to have a thriving, up-to-date economy that doesn't limit freedom in a profound way. The few remaining little pockets of traditional Communism around the world (mainly North Korea and Cuba) show by contrast what a dismal thing it is to "freeze" an economy by legal fiat. On a small scale, communities such as the Amish and Mennonites have shown that an organized and thoughtful limitation of new technology is consistent with what appears to be a fruitful, if circumscribed, way of life, although such communities are sort of parasites on the larger unrestricted economy that surrounds them. That is to say, if some bizarre tragedy occurred and killed everybody in the world outside the few Amish and Mennonite communities in the U. S., they would have a much harder time surviving on their own, although they might stand a better chance than the rest of us.

So on balance, it looks like rising expectations and creative destruction are things that we'll have with us for a long time. They are the economic engines that drive many industries, and while we should never take the assumption of progress for granted, we should acknowledge the good it has done.

Sources: I consulted the Wikipedia article on creative destruction. A news release from Silicon Laboratories describing their TV-tuner chip can be found at

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gold Farming: Not Just a Game

It might have been Isaac Asimov who was once asked in an interview about the future of the job market, and how advances in computing might lead to technological unemployment. (I'd check the quote but my internet modem died yesterday, and all I'll have time to do today is upload this column without any time for online research.) His reply was interesting. He said not only did he believe technological unemployment would not be a problem, but if you looked at the job market ten years from now, many of the jobs people would be doing wouldn't even have names today. They simply didn't exist yet.

I can't think of a better example of this right now than the weird service industry called "gold farming," a byproduct of the rapid expansion of massively multi-player online role-playing games that occurred over the last fifteen years or so. Next month's issue of Scientific American carries a good article describing the rise of this business, which I must admit was news to me, since I am of a generation to whom online role-playing games are as unfamiliar as writing Sanskrit.

It turns out that in many of these games, which millions of people play all around the world now, the designers have seen fit to introduce a medium of exchange, which in World of Warcraft, for instance, is called "gold." Like real money, you can both earn it and spend it. The ways to earn it tend to be pretty boring, much like real life: working in a "mine," cutting "timber," and "killing monsters." (The last one might not be so boring, but still you might get tired of it after a while.) You can spend it on things like medicine to "heal" your "wounds" or "improvements" to your "spaceship." You get the idea: in the shared mental universe of the game, online gold has as real a value as anything else in the game. Only its value transfers to the real world, and players are willing to pay real dollars, yuan, or whatever to get online gold. And as any good economist will tell you, enough demand on the part of enough people will create a market and a supply.

So it turns out that in China, especially, there are rooms full of low-paid service workers "playing" (the quotes now mean it's really working) games with the sole purpose of accumulating gold to sell, usually in online markets separate from the game itself. The game operators and designers try to discourage this sort of thing, but like most online gray markets (e. g. international online gambling), enforcement of a prohibition like that is difficult or impossible.

In absolute terms, this is not a huge market. Although estimates are hard to come by, numbers range from $200 million to $3 billion annually traded in online value. But depending on what happens with virtual worlds, it is an industry that could get a lot bigger in the future.

Ethically speaking, the whole business is under a cloud since the game companies see gold farming as a gross misuse of their service. I suppose it's a little like ticket-scalping, in the sense that gold farming is a purely parasitic activity that would vanish if its host went away. Just as different organizations take different views of ticket-scalpers who resell legitimately purchased tickets despite laws that sometimes make it illegal, you'd think that some game companies would figure out a way to join the farmers instead of fighting them. Why not just make it a part of the game and set up your own online store? The game companies would be at an advantage since they sit at the controls that make the gold in the first place—they wouldn't need to pay roomfuls of people to make gold, it would just come out of the store, like Uncle Sam makes dollar bills. Which of course could lead to online hyperinflation, and a whole nest of other economic nasties.

The reason they don't do this, I suppose, is that they don't want to undercut or short-circuit the whole reason for playing online games in the first place, which is to demonstrate some kind of skill or prowess in front of other real human beings, however disguised. And there is a kind of pretense or implied fraud committed by a person who has purchased a new spaceship or sexy avatar or what have you, with real money instead of earning it in the "proper" way (I promise that's the last pair of quotation marks I will use in this piece.). There is a kind of ethics of gamesmanship or sportsmanship, and in that sense, buying online gold in the real economy is not unrelated to an athlete taking steroids. In both cases, you have people abusing technology to achieve goals in a way that is not admissible under the rules of the game. But some people go ahead and do it anyway.

Well, I've rambled on for eight hundred words without solving the problem of gold farming. Like many other ethical problems, what you think about it depends on your point of view. From the viewpoint of a former real farmer in China, sitting inside and typing all day for what looks to him like good, reliable pay is a step up in the world, never mind that it's against the rules of some company in some country he's never visited. And a truly effective way to do away with gold farming would put all these folks out of work, at least until the next technological job we don't have a name for yet came along. Maybe I'm just the wrong person to consider this subject. The end of yet another year next week reminds me that our time in this real world is finite, and I prefer to spend it dealing with real people in person most of the time, rather than getting dressed up as some screwy avatar and going around doing things I'd never do in real life, or even consider doing. But that's just me.

Sources: The January 2010 issue of Scientific American carries the article "Real Money from Virtual Worlds" by Richard Heeks, pp. 68-73.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The EPA's New CO2 Teeth

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has just got itself a new pair of choppers. It did this last week (Dec. 7, to be exact) by finding that greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide, in the EPA's own words, "threaten the public health and welfare of the American people." Their reasoning is that if we keep emitting GHGs at the current rate, we will contribute to the apocalyptic disaster of global warming that many nations of the world are currently talking about in Copenhagen. And admittedly, if Manhattan turned into a scuba-divers-only tour and the entire Midwest became a North American version of the Sahara, you could argue that the public health and welfare of the American people was threatened, to say the least. But there is more to the story than that.

Why does just finding this officially give the EPA sweeping new powers? Because in 2007, the U. S. Supreme Court found that GHGs fit within the Clean Air Act's definition of air pollutants. In calling these findings "long overdue," EPA head Lisa Jackson managed to get in an indirect swipe at the Bush Administration, which quite reasonably refused to rush out a bunch of new regulations following the Supreme Court ruling. What does this latest EPA action mean for industries and consumers who depend on engineered products such as gasoline and automobiles?

Potentially, a lot. Earlier in the fall, the EPA announced a new set of fuel-economy standards it was hoping to implement, once it figured out if GHGs were really a threat. Now that it has done that, there's nothing other than Congress to stand in the way of the EPA implementing those standards. Briefly, they ramp up the light-duty vehicle average fleet fuel economy from about 30 MPG to over 35 MPG by 2014. Something bad will happen to any automaker whose fleet doesn't meet these standards. There are other ways of meeting these standards besides raising fuel economy, but they are things like increasing the number of all-electric vehicles in the fleet, which is even harder than making cars that guzzle less gas.

In times of low to moderate fuel prices, the American consumer has historically shown little interest in fuel-efficient cars. But if the EPA has its way, Mr. Consumer will buy fuel-efficient vehicles or go without. I drive a Honda Civic that gets just about 35 MPG, and I like it. But some people have large families or other valid, non-environmentally-hostile reasons for needing a bigger vehicle that gets fewer miles per gallon. To me, it is a restriction of freedom to tell these people that they simply can't get what they need, or if they do, there better not be very many of them because the automakers can't make that many gas-guzzlers without making an equal number of toy cars that get 50 MPG or something. The whole thing becomes a headache, and starts reminding me of old stories out of the former Soviet Union.

Forgive me if I've told this one before, but it's supposedly true. After the Revolution of 1917, a bureaucrat was put in charge of nail production. His job was to figure out how to set the goal for nail factories. So he decided to make them produce X number of nails per year, and sent out telegrams to all the factories with the order.

Only a couple of months later, he got back telegrams reporting compliance with his order—somehow the factories had fulfilled their entire year's quota in only a few weeks. This pleased him greatly. Then he started hearing rumors on the street that all was not well at hardware stores. Going to a nearby store, he found that the only nails you could get were tacks and finishing nails—in other words, the smallest nails the factories could make and still call them nails.

Well, he knew how to fix that. He went back to his office in the Kremlin and sent out another telegram revoking the first order, and setting the new quota in terms of pounds of nails. You can imagine what happened next. Pretty soon he went to the hardware store and found the only kind of nail you could buy were giant spikes weight a couple of kilograms each.

I never found out how the bureaucrat solved his nail problem, but the point is clear. When the free-market mechanism of prices and supply in response to prices is replaced by any kind of government-imposed regulation, things tend to get out of whack, and the wants and even needs of consumers tend to go by the wayside. The right to drive a big gas-hungry car is not enshrined as such in the Constitution, but the right of property is. And if the EPA starts biting the industry which helps make Texas the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the nation—the oil-refining industry—it may effectively render this multi-billion-dollar investment worthless, and drive refining offshore to countries whose regulations are less hostile to industry, but whose governments may be more hostile to us—Venezuela, for instance. How would you like our gasoline supply to depend on whether Hugo Chavez got up on the right side of his bed this morning? That seems to be a "threat to the public health and welfare of the American public" that takes precedence over some longer-term, uncertain, and politically charged issue which in any case could turn out to be a waste of our effort if the other countries of the world don't regulate GHGs as strenuously as we do. And China and India have so far shown very little inclination to get serious about it.

Before we wreck our economy in order to help fix something that others may break anyway (if it breaks at all), I hope the Congress will take a second look at what the EPA is doing and have a spell of calm reasonableness, which will allow them to restrain that agency from doing serious and perhaps irrevocable harm to the U. S. economy. But their recent performance does not encourage me in this hope.

Sources: The EPA's own news release on its finding is at A Wall Street Journal article describing some industries' reaction to the finding is at The Dec. 21, 2009 issue of National Review (p. 40) carries an excellent article "Priceless is Worthless" by Kevin D. Williamson on how necessary prices are to the proper functioning of any important sector of the economy. And I blogged on the EPA's proposed finding last Apr. 20, 2009 when they announced it for public comments, 380,000 of which did not dissuade the agency from going ahead anyway.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Power to the Television: California's Challenge

California likes to think of itself as leading the nation in various progressive measures such as environmental consciousness. Last Nov. 18, the California legislature passed a law that will require all televisions sold in the state to comply with increasingly restrictive regulations on power consumption. By 2013, new TVs sold in that state will have to use only about half the power they do now, on average.

Why single out TVs for power-consumption laws? For one thing, the big flat-screen devices that have chased the old cathode-ray tube models out to the garbage dump (which is another environmental issue we won't go into right now) tend to use a lot more power than all but the largest older-style TVs. Of course, those with long enough memories can recall the really old days of early vacuum-tube color televisions. The first guy in our neighborhood to buy a color TV bought his about 1964. He had it installed in a wall in his living room, and the thirty or so tubes generated so much heat it had to have its own cooling fan. Transistors improved this situation drastically, but when large-screen flat-panel liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) and especially plasma displays were introduced, the power required went back up to what it was in the pre-transistor days. For example, a 65-inch plasma unit (the Panasonic TC-P65S1), even though it is "Energy-Star qualified" (a voluntary industry rating), takes as much as 700 watts from the wall socket, although its average power consumption is a more modest 360 watts. Still, that's like running six 60-watt bulbs all the time, or a dozen energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs.

Should California do this? Or is it an unfair intrusion of government into private enterprise's business?

Manufacturers are unhappy about it for two reasons. One, if they do nothing and keep making some energy-hungry models, they won't be able to sell them in California, which by some estimates is a tenth of the 35-million-unit annual TV market in the U. S. Two, if they bite the bullet and redesign their TVs to use less power, they spend engineering capital on a feature that isn't all that attractive to the consumer—capital they could otherwise use for developing new features or improving the product in other ways.

But efficiency is such a reigning watchword in engineering that I expect the power consumption average would have come down on its own sooner or later, if not quite as fast as it would have if California hadn't shoved its oar in. Already many models meet the new standards, which shows that the lawmakers are not flying in the face of physical reality, which some regulations do. Which reminds me of a cautionary tale.

Over Thanksgiving, I was talking with my brother-in-law, who works for one of the largest privately-held refining companies in the U. S. He told me the story of some new diesel-fuel regulations that require refiners to blend in 10% biodiesel with all the diesel they sell. This is fine, he said, except that biodiesel tends to wax up at a very high temperature compared to ordinary diesel fuel. At a meeting with the new Obama-administration regulators, his engineers mixed up a batch of diesel according to the new regulations and put it in a cooler to simulate typical January weather in Minnesota. When they pulled it out of the cooler at the meeting and passed it around, it was a cloudy, jelly-like mess, which would run a diesel engine about as well as a tankful of Jell-O. They asked the regulators what they should do about it. "You'll be having to replace a lot of fuel filters," they said. In other words, it's not our problem, it's yours. His company eventually found a workaround that involved asking retailers to do some mixing on their own, but if they forget, their customers end up with jelly in their tanks and the whole situation is not a happy one at all.

Compared to that, the California regulations are mild and well within reason. As LCD technology improves, the plasma screen may go the way of the vacuum tube in any event. It is an inherently less efficient technology, and the only reason it's out there at all, that I can see, is because it was easier to make large plasma displays a few years ago than it was to make LCD displays of equal resolution. And as LED light sources become more efficient, that efficiency bonus will be available to the flat-panel makers, and things will tend to improve in the efficiency department almost naturally. There is a huge incentive to make efficient displays for battery-powered devices anyway, and a lot of that technology can be adopted by the plug-in-device manufacturers without a lot of trouble.

My own feeling of what the best thing is to do about TV power consumption, is to turn the durn thing off, but that's just me.

Sources: A good summary of the California regulation and its effects can be found in the Washington Post online edition for Nov. 27 at

Monday, November 30, 2009

Engineers, Scientists, Climate Change, and Politics

A little over a week ago, according to the New York Times, someone posted a large number of emails and other internal correspondence that the University of East Anglia said was stolen from their computer systems. What makes this important news is that the material shows the inner workings of the university's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), a leading research center that advises the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, in turn, has largely taken the lead in convincing the rest of the world that global warming is the issue of our times upon which the fate of the world turns. Or at least that's the way their outlook seems to me.

I have not examined the emails in detail, and so will not try to make a judgement on what some sources allege is a cavalier and even conspiratorial attitude the emails reveal, on the part of the CRU's leading climate scientists, to stifle papers written by researchers who oppose the idea that global warming is as serious or severe as the CRU claims. Rather, I'd like to ask the question: what are the roles of engineers and engineering organizations in a situation so fraught with politics and uncertainty as the controversy surrounding global warming?

First, there is the nature of the issue itself. We had next to no idea about what prehistoric climates were like until the last three or four decades, when techniques of ice-core measurements at the South Pole and similar methods began to enable us to reconstruct. with impressive detail, the temperatures and carbon dioxide content of ancient atmospheres. The story these data tell is a complex one, and gives us no direct information about what will happen next. The earth has been considerably warmer in the past than it is now, and certainly much colder. There is more carbon dioxide in the air now because of anthropogenic causes than there ever was before. But the more you try to pin down climatologists as to exactly what is going to happen when, and the farther into the future you go in your request for forecasts, the fuzzier and less certain the answers get. This is just the nature of trying to forecast a strictly chaotic system, which is what the global climate is. Chaotic systems always operate within certain broad boundaries, but they can produce short excursions beyond those boundaries and predicting exactly when these extremes occur is next to impossible. Only in this case, "short" may mean a century.

So the scientific problem itself is fraught with uncertainty, since it is in the class of problems that cannot be exhaustively explored either in the laboratory or with a computer. Unfortunately, since it involves the whole world, the playing out of the problem in real time will involve us all to some degree, so it combines intractibility with universality. A worse situation for the application of engineering design and prediction techniques could hardly be devised.

But if (and that is a big "if") global warming really is the crisis of our times, engineers are at least partly responsible for getting us into the difficulty. What is their responsibility in getting us out again?

There seem to be two distinct schools of thought on how to answer that question. The first school, favored by the IPCC and its political allies, says basically that modern industrial society has been a bad boy and needs to go sit in a corner for a timeout. The timeout consists of throwing over most of the fossil-fuel infrastructure and drastically restricting energy use (by governmental fiat, since free-market economics won't do the job) until we can retool our lives to live with a much smaller "carbon footprint." Doing all this would fit into the ambit of engineering, which is the application of science and technology to the wants and needs of man. But the wants and needs in this first course of action would be artificially imposed, for the most part, by a small elite who have convinced themselves that they are averting global disaster by exerting a form of political control over the vast unwashed multitudes, which will otherwise plunge themselves like lemmings into the rising seas caused by unchecked global warming.

The second school of thought, which is not discussed much in the circles frequented by the IPCC and its friends, takes the attitude that, well, if global warming's going to happen and we've got all this carbon dioxide in the air already, let's see what we can do to deal with the consequences. There are proposals to spray sulfur-dioxide particles in the air to produce global cooling that would counteract the global warming we are trying to avoid. And there are the thousand-and-one adaptations to whatever circumstances global warming will produce, from rising sea levels to changed weather patterns, which in the nature of things people would come up with one by one. If South Pacific islands slowly disappear and coastlines change, people aren't passive sheep. They won't just sit at the dinner table while the waters rise over their heads. They will move to higher ground, and complain, and the poorest will suffer the most in many cases, which is too bad. But global warming might not be the unqualified ill wind it is advertised by the IPCC to be. It might actually blow some good somewhere. This second school of thought takes a positive view of humanity's ingenuity and adaptability, which can turn what looks initially like a bad situation to advantage.

In case you haven't figured it out, I belong to the second school of thought. If indeed the leading climatologists at the University of East Anglia have, consciously or unconsciously, formed a kind of peer-review mafia to protect their own prominent political positions and resources at the cost of sacrificing scientific truth to personal advantage, well, that is too bad as well. But it wouldn't be the first time such a thing happened. Even if global warming is as bad as they say and they were simply doing wrong in a good cause, there are sound economic reasons to believe that the resources we should spend on global warming should not be so large as to seriously disrupt the world's economies, which are not in stellar shape right now anyway. Even if engineering got us into this fix, whatever it is, my view is that engineering, based on truth, as good engineering always must be, can get us out of it again.

Sources: A good summary article on the CRU email release appeared in the New York Times on Nov. 27, 2009 at In my blog of Feb. 18, 2008 ("Should We Discount Global Warming?") I discussed some of the economic arguments relating to global warming.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ethics: Evolved or Given?

Every now and then we take a look at ethics in general: what ethics is, how to think about it, and, although you don't have to figure this one out to do engineering ethics, where ethics comes from. Where you say ethics comes from depends on your philosophical presuppositions. People who think the physical universe is all there is will generally say something different about the origins of ethics than those who believe there is something beyond nature, that is, supernaturalists such as myself. But the surprising thing is, even researchers who take no account of supernatural explanations end up with a conclusion about the nature of ethics worldwide, that is surprisingly close to what believers in the supernatural claim.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has developed what he calls Moral Foundations Theory. It is based on data gathered from over 100,000 surveys of people all around the world, so you would have a hard time accusing Haidt of ethnocentrism. What he and his colleagues have found, is that our sense of right and wrong can be traced to one or more foundational principles or ideas that essentially all cultures he studied share in common. These principles are: (1) "Harm/care"—the ability to understand pain and other results of harm in others, and to empathize and care for them; (2) "Fairness/reciprocity"—the kind of thing that makes even three-year-olds scream, "That's not fair!!" in every language; (3) "Ingroup/loyalty"—the ability to identify with and sacrifice for a group one belongs to; (4) "Authority/respect"—the sense that legitimate authority and traditions should be obeyed; and (5) "Purity/sanctity"—the notion of sacred spaces and the purity of the human body. On his website (which contains basically all I know about his theory), Haidt traces each of these traits to an evolutionary root. The trait of purity/sanctity, for instance, which Catholic author Flannery O'Connor called "the most mysterious of the virtues," derives from the evolutionary psychology of "disgust and contamination."

The details of each foundational principle (or should I say foundational/principle?) are not as important as the fact that according to Haidt, they are shared universally among all cultures he has studied. This gives the lie to people who say that ethics is always relative to the specific culture, and what is right in one culture could just as easily, and logically, be wrong in another one. Details differ, of course. What passes for modest apparel in Tahiti would not pass muster in Times Square (not now, anyway), but the remarkable thing is that there really are universally shared moral mechanisms or tendencies at all. One would think that evolution would have come up with a splendid and contradictory variety of ethical notions, just as we see a tremendous variety of colors and shapes among birds or reptiles in different parts of the world.

For supernaturalists, this is no surprise. There is an old, somewhat battered, but nonetheless still vigorous concept called "natural law" which says, in a nutshell, the laws of morality are written on the heart of every person, and the Author is God. According to natural law, there are certain innate principles of morality that people know by nature, even if they later convince themselves otherwise for various, often self-serving, reasons. Just as Haidt has found, natural law says these basic principles are universal, though details can vary according to customs and cultures of different peoples. For example, the Christian tradition says a man can have only one wife at a time. Islam and some other religions allow four or more wives at once. But there is no culture anywhere (Margaret Mead notwithstanding) which says you may simply have any woman you like anytime. This is not to say that some people don't act that way; but if they do, they are going against the morality of their culture.

What difference does this make to engineering ethics? In one sense, very little, and in another sense, everything.

In the sense that engineering ethics deals with practical applications of generally accepted ethical principles to specific problems, the field is not that concerned with where the ethics come from—whether evolution or God. This is why engineering societies composed of people from many religions, or no religion, can nevertheless agree on certain basic codes of ethics to follow worldwide. Although bribery is a widespread practice, nearly everybody agrees that to live in a world without bribery would be better than to live with it. People who take and receive bribes make the excuse that they simply couldn't get things done otherwise. While that may be true in a particular case, it doesn't change the fact that a country or system without bribery is a better thing morally than one where you have to bribe people to get even legitimate things done.

On the other hand, if you ask yourself "Why be moral at all?" the origins of moral principles make all the difference in the world. Engineers often pride themselves on their ability to reason logically. If we are really just products of a blind evolutionary process that came from nowhere and leads nowhere—I don't know about you, but if I believed that, I would have trouble just getting out of bed in the morning, let alone devoting years of study to a profession that will produce only a transient gleam in the eternal void. A common alternative, according to mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, is to distract oneself from the awful reality of death, and engineering is as good a distraction as any, for a while, anyway. But in this view, it's only a distraction.

Next time we'll examine some specific technical matter with an ethical angle to it, and life will go on. But every now and then, it's good to ask why right and wrong is there at all, and where it comes from.

Sources: I discovered the Moral Foundations Theory website from reading a piece by skeptic Michael Shermer in the December 2009 issue of Scientific American. The website is at

Monday, November 16, 2009

Air Accidents In Perspective

A good fraction of classic engineering-ethics cases are concerned with accidents involving air transport of some kind, with commercial airline traffic taking the lead in terms of fatalities involving members of the public (as opposed to astronauts, for example). For example, in the early 1970s, problems with a DC-10 cargo door latch led to one near-fatal accident, halfhearted attempts to remedy the problem, and then a serious crash in France on Mar. 3, 1974, that killed 346 people. This case is held up to generations of engineers as an example of how not to fix a mechanical flaw in a life-critical system.

Although we have dealt with individual air accidents in this blog from time to time, before last Saturday I had never come across a book that takes a thoughtful, coherent look at the whole history of air accidents and the intriguing problems associated with investigating them. A small bookstore had opened a few months ago in what passes for downtown San Marcos, and I had a few minutes to poke around in it. (Small independent bookstores are going the way of the newspaper before the onslaught of the Internet, but that is a discussion for another time.) My attention was attracted by a striking photo of the French Concorde in flames as it left the ground, and after perusing David Owen's clear, unsensational prose inside, I concluded to buy Air Accident Investigation.

Owen, a former engineer turned journalist, has the disciplined rhetorical skills that one finds more often than not in good British writers. While not pretending to write an exhaustive history, he does start with the early days of commercial aviation, with an even-handed treatment of both U. S. and European practice. I was intrigued by a photo of what has to have been one of the largest biplanes ever built, a Handley Page H. P. 42 flown by Imperial Airways in trans-Channel service in the early 1930s. It was about four stories high and had four engines clustered around the fuselage. Owen's point in including it was that although there were plenty of accidents back then, early commerical aviation was operated so conservatively that in ten years of use, the H. P. 42 never lost a passenger to a fatal accident.

All this changed after World War II, when jet aviation and economic growth transformed the flying public from a few privileged individuals into hordes of airborne bus passengers. Higher speeds and long over-water flights raised the cost of in-flight mechanical failure to the point that surviving a commercial airline crash was a dubious proposition at best.

Most of Owen's examples date from the period of about 1953 to 1990, and are organized by the type of accident: mechanical failure, weather-related, pilot error, and finally terrorism. One theme that emerged out of the dozens of individual tales of smooth takeoffs followed by unexpected tragedies is the role of metal fatigue in airline safety, or lack thereof. It was metal fatigue, poorly understood at the time, that caused the terrible series of accidents to the first British jetliner, the de Havilland Comet, in the early 1950s. And right up to the 1990s, fatigue continues to exact a toll on airliners, their designers, and maintenance personnel who fail to exercise the utmost diligence in checking for and combating this all-too-common problem. I came away with the strong impression that a modern airliner is a kind of chessboard showing the long history of how human ingenuity can checkmate aluminum's tendency to crack under repeated stress caused by the thousands of takeoffs, flights, and landings in a plane's useful service lifetime. Owen points out that although there is no fixed "retirement age" for airframes, the problem of so-called geriatric aircraft will only increase as the industry's fleet ages.

Another factor that is familiar to those who have read a number of engineering-ethics cases is the way that serious accidents have of coalescing from a number of relatively independent small mistakes, each of which if taken in isolation doesn't seem that serious. The investigation of a runway accident between two 747s on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries in 1977 revealed a chain of problems beginning with a terrorist bomb that shut down a better-equipped airport nearby, and ended with fortuitous radio interference during the last control-tower message that could have conceivably avoided the accident. As a result, one 747 trying to take off collided with another on the ground, killing over 500 people in all. This emphasizes the importance of keeping track of the "near-miss" kind of error which could have resulted in fatalities, but didn't simply because other factors were not also wrongly aligned at the time. Good engineering practice is to establish a system for reporting such incidents and making sure that even mildly dangerous problems do not arise in the future.

The book is illustrated with helpful original diagrams that clarify the often complex situations involved in many accidents. Owen's engineering background gives him a confident familiarity with the technical aspects of aviation, but he always makes sure that the essential details are clear enough for the reasonably intelligent reader to follow. Add to this the inherent suspense of reading about unexpected death and destruction, and how investigators painstakingly piece together evidence (sometimes quite literally) after a crash, and you have a book that is both a valuable addition to the engineering ethics literature, and a fascinating read as well. Which is, frankly, an unusual combination, although it need not be.

Owen's book is still in print (in fact, it's in its third edition), so I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the technology of aviation or the drama of accident investigations. Notably, the rate of serious accidents has fallen off in the last decade or two, largely because jet aviation is now a mature technology. Many of the major ways aircraft and air transportation systems can fail are pretty well known by now and avoidable. We can only hope that, in spite of terrorism and war, air travel safety keeps improving to the point that major air disasters will recede into the distant past.

Sources: David Owen's Air Accident Investigation (3rd edition, 2006) is published by Haynes Publishing, Somerset, England (ISBN 9978 1 85260 614 5).

Monday, November 09, 2009

To Patent or Not To Patent: Supreme Court to Judge

Most historians recognize the development of the legal framework of patents as an important, if not essential, part of the Industrial Revolution. The proper function of patents and patent law can perhaps be understood best by considering two extremes.

For most of history, the world was at one extreme: no patents or patent law at all. If a clever inventor came up with a new way of doing something or building a useful device, he had to keep it secret in order to maintain the competitive advantage his invention provided for him. Because if the goldsmith or millwright next door found out how the invention worked, the original inventor had no legal way to stop the imitator from using his invention. Consequently, processes and techniques were handed down from father to son or closely held in small guilds whose members were sworn to secrecy. And the pace of technological development during much of this time was consequently slow.

Now suppose we have a patent law, but instead of providing a limited-term monopoly to the inventor of twenty years (in current law), suppose it provided protection in perpetuity. Once somebody invented something, no one else could ever use that invention without the inventor's permission. Paradoxically, this opposite extreme would land us in a situation not too different from the one that prevailed before there were any patents at all. More information would be available, but you couldn't use it legally. Or at best, people would spend most of their inventive time and energy trying to get around the ever-growing forest of issued patents, rather than simply concentrating on inventing new stuff that the market needed.

In the last few decades, the situation in U. S. patent law has moved closer to the extreme of perpetual patents on anything—not so much in terms of the time limits on patents, but in terms of what can be patented. Unfortunately, the effect is much the same. If you can do one little tweak on someone else's patented idea and get a patent on it yourself, the situation is ripe for exploitation by patent lawyers and general confusion. By many accounts, that is more or less the state we're in today. Given enough money, I'm pretty sure you can patent anything these days, whether it's been around for decades or not, because the patent office has tended to neglect its former duty to make sure that inventions are original and worthy of patent protection. Although I haven't checked this to be sure, there is the legendary patent on a way a child swings in a yard swing. If this patent really exists, thousands of kids all across America unconsciously risk falling afoul of the patent laws every time they head for the playground.

Today (Nov. 9) the U. S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear their first patent case pertaining to the scope of the patent laws in many years. At issue is more than a single patent decision, although a patent claimed by businessmen Bernard Bilski and Rand Warsaw having to do with energy-price trading started the ball rolling. In a 2008 decision by the Federal Circuit (a special court that tries appeals of patent cases), Chief Judge Michel radically restricted his court's earlier generous interpretation of the kinds of things that can be patented. The rule he proclaimed says that a patentable process can only be issued if it is related to a "particular machine or apparatus" or transforms an article into "a different state or thing." If carried to its logical conclusion, this decision could invalidate or cast into question thousands of esxisting patents on business methods, software, diagnostic techniques, and many other technologies. A blogger at the intellectual-property website excoriated Judge Michel for going way beyond the matter at issue, since whatever the Federal Circuit says about patents is the last word unless the Supreme Court says otherwise.

Sudden invalidation of a lot of patents would certainly be disruptive, especially at a time when the technology industry is not doing that well financially. Many high-tech companies are watching this case closely for that reason. The hope is that the Supreme Court will correct what many people perceive as a blunder on the part of the Federal Circuit, but how far they go in correcting the earlier decision could have important implications for the future of patent law in the U. S.

Patent law is a creature of the legislative branch, not the judicial branch, and perhaps all this attention will lead Congress to revisit the state of patent law with a view toward streamlining and modernizing the system. One practical problem that has led to the flood of dubious patents in recent years is the fact that the Patent Office is grossly understaffed. The sense is that rather than give patents the attention they need at the price of taking many years to issue a patent, the Office simply does something close to rubber-stamping in a matter of two years or less. Another problem is that two years is still only a little less than eternity in some businesses such as software, where entire generations of products rise and fall in a matter of months. But Congress is busily engaged on other matters for the time being.

The Supreme Court will take some months to decide this case, so we look forward to revisiting it in the spring, by which time a lot of things will look better, I hope.

Sources: I used material from the following websites: (the Huffington Post is not something I routinely visit, but showed up first on a Google search—I don't recommend it for general viewing!),, and

Monday, November 02, 2009

Toxic Drywall: All the Housing Market Needs

As if Florida homeowners didn't have enough to worry about already since many of them are "under water" financially, a recent report I heard on National Public Radio revealed that many thousands of houses in Florida and at least six other states may have been built with toxic drywall imported from China. People living in these houses have reported many kinds of health problems, ranging from acute sinus infections to nosebleeds and insomnia. Besides the health hazards, anything made of copper in these houses tends to turn black and often fails. Think wiring, plumbing, and air conditioning coils. How can something like this happen, and what can be done about it?

The "how" is fairly easy to answer, at least in general terms. Drywall is a sandwich made of cardboard surfaces on either side of a core made of partly dehydrated calcium sulfate, otherwise known as gypsum. Although there are places where you can mine gypsum, increasingly the material is obtained from flue-gas desulfurization plants associated with coal-fired power generation. Coal with a lot of sulfur in it releases the sulfur when it's burned, and if you don't de-sulfurize the flue gas that results, you get a terrible air pollution problem. Scrubbers can capture the sulfur, but the byproduct is a lot of sulfate stuff which can be purified into calcium sulfate by processes I have no clue about, not being a chemist.

But I can easily imagine that if someone who wanted to profit from the hot market in drywall caused by the building boom earlier in this decade got careless about converting impure flue-gas-derived gypsum to calcium sulfate suitable for making drywall, they might accidentally leave in some chemicals (such as iron sulfide in an acidic matrix) that, upon getting moist, would release hydrogen sulfide. And hydrogen sulfide is very nasty stuff. Its toxicity is comparable to hydrogen cyanide, which is what California used to use in it gas chamber for executions. Nobody wants to live in a gas chamber.

Something like this apparently happened in China when a good amount of Chinese drywall was imported to the U. S. and used in several states to build houses. If this hypothesis is correct, the first place you'd expect to hear about problems is where the average humidity is highest, and that's Florida. Sure enough, as long ago as 2004 complaints began to emerge in that state about weird rotten-egg odors, blackened and failing copper air-conditioner tubing, and wiring faults. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has reportedly investigated the problem, their findings are "not conclusive," so any redress from the government will be delayed if it arrives at all.

That's probably how it happened; now, what to do?

The parties involved are: the Chinese manufacturers of the defective drywall, the importing and marketing firms that sold the stuff in the U. S., the builders who used it to build houses, the homeowners who live in these houses, the financial institutions holding mortgages on the houses, the insurance companies insuring the houses, and various governmental regulatory agencies whose responsibilities touch on a problem like this. Already you can see the legal tangles just waiting to happen. Because of the lack of recourse many homeowners have run up against, someone has organized a Chinese Drywall Complaint Center that acts as a clearinghouse for information and news on the problem. Misery may love company, but that doesn't get rid of the toxic drywall.

This is an example of how a novel problem can take longer to solve than one we've dealt with before. As far as I know, the only similar situation involved polyurethane insulation that emitted formaldehyde gas or other toxic materials. Formaldehyde is not something you want to smell a lot of either, but it's not nearly as toxic as hydrogen sulfide. And it doesn't leave physical traces behind like blackened pipes and wiring. Another complicating factor is that the defect doesn't show up immediately. Evidently months or years of exposure to high humidity brings out the problem, and so builders who bought the defective drywall and installed it promptly can legitimately claim they had no idea it would do this. On the other hand, if the stuff fell off the ceiling as soon as they put it in, they would have known something was wrong immediately. So there is the time-bomb aspect to the situation as well.

Any time an international border appears between the perpetrators of a wrong and the victims, things are more complicated than otherwise, and that is the case here as well. Probably some rough justice will happen as the next importer of Chinese drywall finds that their market has disappeared, but that is unfair to the Chinese drywall manufacturers who are doing things right, assuming there are some. Unfortunately, in the rather xenophobic United States, most people think of China in simplistic terms and don't consider that it's at least as complicated as the U. S., if not more. But the Wild-West aspect of China's economy makes it hard for its government to enforce any kind of uniform regulations or safety codes, with the result that a few grossly negligent firms can put lead paint on children's toys, or melamine plastic in pet food, or hydrogen-sulfide-emitting compounds in drywall and get away with it, at least until the newshounds get involved. And then the whole country gets a black eye that only a minority of companies deserve.

As for the consumers who are stuck with toxic drywall, they still have few recourses. Not enough is known about the problem even to recommend a remediation strategy. It's pretty clear that tearing out all the old drywall in a house and putting in new non-toxic wallboard would probably cost more than tearing down the whole place and rebuilding from scratch. So insurance companies, builders, and even the government agencies involved are reluctant to pay for or recommend such an extreme course. What may happen is that people will simply walk away from such houses, many of which are underwater anyway, and take the consequences. Which won't help the banks any.

In the meantime, if you're looking to buy a cheap foreclosed home, take a look at the copper fixtures in it first. If you see any black corrosion, it's probably not a bargain after all.

Sources: Text relating to the NPR report on this subject is available at As long ago as last March, Time Magazine posted an online article on the subject at,8599,1887059,00.html. The Chinese Drywall Complaint Center website is Http://ChineseDrywallComplaintCenter.Com/. I also used material from the Wikipedia articles on drywall and hydrogen sulfide.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Effects of a News Media Fast

Since most news media nowadays are electronic in either their production, distribution, or delivery, and this blog is about engineering ethics, which relates to the right use of technology, including news media, I think the following personal reflection on a recent experience of mine falls within the greater ambit of what I'm trying to do here.

Recently I had been feeling more than the usual amount of hassle and anxiety. Ever since I began teaching, fall semesters have always been more stressful than spring semesters, and for various reasons this one has been worse than usual. Of late I had fallen into the habit of taking in the following news media daily, if not more often: National Public Radio news once or twice a day (at least half an hour total), the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, a well-known biweekly conservative magazine, and the magazine's daily set of blogs online as well which I read during lunch. The health-care debate was the nominal reason for such newshound behavior, but beyond a certain point the desire to hear or read news becomes its own justification—in other words, a habit.

Among the spiritual disciplines of both Christianity and other religions is the discipline of simplicity—of doing without things that are not necessarily harmful in themselves, but can distract us from more important matters if not placed under conscious control. Muslim believers around the world recently wrapped up the large-scale spiritual discipline called Ramadan, which involves a total dawn-to-dusk fast that runs for several weeks. The 19th-century author and preacher George MacDonald said something which I cannot find the exact quote for, but the sense was, "A man is diminished by anything outside himself which he thinks he cannot do without"—other than God, that is.
With these thoughts as background, I decided at the beginning of last week to go a whole week without listening to, watching, or reading any news media.

Of course I was immediately faced with the question of what constitutes "news media." I think my closest brush with breaking the fast happened in a doctor's office when I picked up a trade journal on radiology, and read about some recent advances in medical imaging technology. I suppose technically that was news media, but not the kind I was trying to avoid. For the most part, I succeeded in avoiding the thing I had sworn off from.

The point of any fast is not to see how many gold stars you can get by following the rules, but to practice the discipline of resisting one's desires, ordering them instead to a vision of the good. My vision of the good involves Christianity, but I recognize that other people follow other visions of the good as well.

So much for the reasons; what were the results?

Well, obviously I had more time to devote to other things, although frankly I didn't notice it that much. One consequence was that I hauled out an old portable CD player and instead of listening to NPR during a half-hour of exercise, I listened to the sound-track album of the Coen brothers film "O Brother Where Art Thou?" I don't know much about the art of sound recording (as opposed to the science), but that CD is one of the clearest and most fun-to-listen-to music recordings I have. The film itself was a rare combination of comedy, tragedy, and history (being based on Homer's Odyssey), and I found my ability simply to enjoy the music was greater than I have experienced for many months. I can liken it to what former smokers say about being able to smell flowers for the first time in years, soon after they quit smoking. I don't know how far we can take the analogy between cigarette smoke and news media, but there seems to be some subtle connection there.

I can't say my whole life turned into a tranquil drifting on calm seas. There were plenty of minor troubles (for instance, in a moment of haste I broke my wife's favorite coffee cup, a promotional item from Hewlett-Packard I received years ago with a liquid-crystal coffee thermometer on the side and Maxwell's Equations printed inside), but I perceived an overall lowering of an annoying kind of background tension or angst that had been bothering me for many months—really, ever since the health-care debate geared up in earnest last summer.

I have now stepped off the no-news-media wagon, deliberately, commencing with the Sunday paper yesterday. But I'm seriously considering making a news media fast a part of my routine. Much news these days is repetitive anyway, since it consists of recycling or tweaking the same things to fill the 24-hour cycles of a growing number of media outlets. So if you ignore the whole mess for a week, you're not likely to be seriously behind unless we have another 9/11 tragedy or something equally earthshaking during your fast.

One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, was a professor of English at Oxford and Cambridge University, and famously ignored newspapers and radio most of his life. He used to say that if anything really important happened, someone would tell him about it sooner or later. It wasn't his job to keep up with the latest developments, and if your job does require you to do that, a media fast wouldn't be practical. But unless you'd be endangering your livelihood by doing so, I recommend trying it for a week or so. You may be surprised at the results.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Deep Corruption of State-Sponsored Gambling

Long-time readers of this blog (both of you) know that I am no friend of gambling. One way to express my stand succinctly is to place myself on a spectrum of opinion ranging from the pro-gambling extreme of no legal or moral restrictions at all, to the anti-gambling extreme of total prohibition root and branch, all the way down to the private Saturday-night poker game among friends. On a scale where 0 is total-pro and 100 is total-anti, I'm about 85. I see no reason to interfere with small-scale gambling among friends and acquaintances, but when gambling becomes a large-scale business from which people earn their living, I start to get uncomfortable. Some new information I ran across recently has turned mild discomfort into acute dismay. But it is a dismay that few people share.

Like any habit, gambling can be addictive. Just as packs of cigarettes carry health-warning labels and booze ads caution users to "drink responsibly," many ads for lotteries and casinos feature 1-800 numbers to call in case you think your gambling is becoming a problem. What I didn't realize until I read Maura J. Casey's article in the November First Things magazine, is that many casinos make a huge fraction of their profits from a small number of gamblers who, by almost any definition, are addicted to the slots. And the slot machines are where an increasing amount of casino revenue comes from.

Casey cites a study by Harrah's, one of the big Las Vegas operations, that revealed the source of 90 percent of their profits: only 10 percent of their customers. Other studies from places as diverse as Nova Scotia and Australia confirm this pattern. So a very small number of people pour money into slots and other games literally as fast as they can push the buttons, and these people make the casinos profitable. And Casey shows how Harrah's has turned to scientific studies to optimize the design of slot machines so that people are not distracted by anything else and can play as often as ten to fifteen plays per minute. Clearly, someone in that state is not a fully rational individual, making the so-called informed choice that casinos claim as their justification for existence. "We're not forcing anyone to play," they say, but when you have a multi-million-dollar corporation with state-of-the-art monitoring and design teams on one side, and some poor cabdriver from Hoboken on his two-week vacation on the other side, most people would say it's not a fair contest.

Add to this the well-known fact that poorer populations spend proportionally much more of their income on gambling than wealthier folks do, and you have a classic case of exploitation. Not only do poor people spend more (one study cited in Scientific American showed that people who earn less than $12,400 a year spend an average of $645 a year-—over 5% of their gross income—on lotteries alone), but one neuroeconomist has found that simply feeling poor makes you more likely to gamble.

I am ashamed to admit that the Texas state lottery—a thing I thought the Baptists here would never allow—uses some of its revenues to support higher education, and indirectly pays my salary. I don't feel strongly enough about it to quit my job, though. That is one of those prudential judgments one has to make, like paying taxes despite the fact that the government spends some of your money on things you don't approve of. But this pattern of government sponsorship of gambling—either directly in the case of state lotteries, or indirectly in the case of state taxation of casinos—creates a deeply corrupt conflict of interest.

When poor, defenseless people are exploited by large, well-funded, well-organized corporations or institutions, there are only a couple of ways they can seek redress. They can organize themselves, but this is hard and poor people generally don't have a lot of free time to devote to organizing boycotts and going on protest marches. Or they can turn to the government for help. By any reasonable political philosophy, one important function of government is to defend people who cannot defend themselves against the depredations of powerful interests. But in the case of legalized gambling, the powerful interests either are supporting the government, or are the government. So this explains how hard it will be to turn back the corrupting tide of state-sponsored gambling that has seeped into nearly all states (Utah and Hawaii being the only exceptions by now), and that has insinuated itself into state budgets as what many view to be an essential revenue stream, especially in these fiscally constrained times. So there is almost a built-in barrier against doing anything through the legislative process to turn back the tide of legalized gambling.

I have a natural hope and a supernatural hope about this matter. The natural hope is that history's pendulum will eventually swing back. Lotteries were common in the early days of the republic—I believe Harvard's founding was partially funded through a lottery. But in the 1800s, public opinion turned against gambling, and if it has happened once, it could happen again. My supernatural hope is that God will act where governments refuse to help the exploited. I don't know when, where, or how, but that's up to God. As for the people responsible for the exploitation, well, the sooner they realize what they're doing and stop it, the better.

Sources: Maura J. Casey's article "Gambling with Lives" appears on pp. 37-41 of the November 2009 issue of First Things. The Scientific American piece on neuroeconomist George Loewenstein's study of how feelings of poverty affect gambling can be found at And one of the many studies showing how poor people spend a larger percentage of their income on gambling than other groups can be found at

Monday, October 12, 2009

Washington Metro Deaths: The Accident that Wasn't Supposed to Happen

One of the things I like the most about visiting Washington, DC is its efficient, clean, and easy-to-use subway system. Whenever I need to visit Washington, I usually fly to the Baltimore-Washington Airport and then take public transportation from there. A car is a liability in Washington, as far as I'm concerned, because you can get to most places of importance on the subway. Washington's Metro is one of the newer of the nation's major public subways, having opened in 1976, and from the start it embodied computer-controlled systems of signaling and braking. So along with many other admirers of that system, I was shocked to read last June 23 of an accident the previous day that ultimately claimed the lives of a train operator and eight passengers. What went wrong?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in its slow, methodical way, is still investigating, but a compilation of news reports on Wikipedia can allow us to get a fairly good idea of what may have happened. The accident happened during the afternoon rush hour, just after 5 PM. As is often the case, Train No. 214 on the Red Line, one of the major north-south arteries, was stopped between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, waiting for another train to clear the Fort Totten stop.

Trains have been waiting on tracks ever since there were trains and tracks, and in the pre-automation days a system of block signals was devised to warn oncoming traffic that the block of track ahead was occupied. When the engineer saw a yellow signal, he was to slow down, since it meant that there was another train in the block beyond the next one. Blocks were spaced far enough apart to allow plenty of room to stop the fastest train moving at a legal speed, and for the most part the system worked as long as engineers were paying attention and the signals were working.

While we will never know exactly what the oncoming train operator saw (she was killed in the accident), we do know from records that her train, No. 112, left the Takoma station at 4:57 PM. From what I understand, the Metro trains can operate in either an "enhanced" manual mode or a completely automatic mode. Operators can delay the train's departure to accommodate laggards who won't pull their arms out of the doors, for instance, but the system is also automatically supervised by braking sensors that presumably stop the train long before it could collide with another one. However, if the operators do their job, these emergency systems rarely come into play, and I can see how both operators and maintenance people might get lazy about making sure the automatic safety systems are in working order. According to reports, Train 112 was in automatic mode when the collision occurred.

At any rate, some time before 5:03 PM the operator of Train No. 112 applied the manual brake. This wasn't enough to keep her train from plowing into the rear of 214, telescoping onto the rear cars. "Telescoping" in a train collision means that one car rides up on top of another, usually doing great damage to both cars since the stationary car smashes much of the moving car's insides and vice-versa. Any people who happen to be in the way do not usually make it out unscathed. Although members of the U. S. Army who were present made heroic rescue efforts, they were not sufficient to prevent the nine fatalities and numerous injuries that resulted.

In tests on June 25, NTSB officials found that the track circuit located at the site of the stopped train failed to detect a test train placed on it. This is highly significant, since a similar failure would account for the accident. If the automatic systems didn't receive a signal that the No. 214 was stopped on the tracks, they would not have engaged and the only thing that would have averted the accident was a manual intervention by the operator. Why wouldn't the track circuit work?

The apparently simple task of figuring out whether a multi-ton railcar is present on a set of tracks is not as easy as it seems. Signaling currents have to be detected in an electrically noisy environment with large AC power currents running nearby to run the cars. The system has to work despite corrosion and oil on tracks, varying pressure on wheels, and a number of other factors. Down here in Texas, a new surface commuter rail system in Austin has been delayed repeatedly for many months partly because the train-detector track circuits have not yet worked properly. Perhaps a whole new concept of train detection is called for if the present systems are so flaky. But I'm not a railway engineer, of either the driving or designing kind, so I will refrain from second-guessing those whose job it is to fix such problems.

While we will have to wait to see what the NTSB ultimately concludes about this accident, it looks like it may well have been a fatal example of the old "garbage in, garbage out" saying. If the automated distributed braking systems don't have valid data to work with, they're not going to stop the train. And a harried, overworked (or perhaps inattentive) operator can't always be counted on to take action when she sees that a collision is imminent. Some of the Metro tunnels snake around and bend in ways that make it impossible to see far enough ahead at all points to avoid a collision, even if you paid all the attention in the world.

In the meantime, the next time I go to Washington, I'll still take the Metro. But I may make it a point to get into one of the middle cars.

Source: The Wikipedia article on this accident appears at and was my primary source for this blog.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Microethics, Macroethics, and the Working Engineer

Normally, we don't deal much with ethical theory in this blog, but every so often it's worthwhile to look at the underpinnings of why we think about engineering ethics, and ways to think about it. A distinction that you may find helpful in sorting through engineering ethics questions is the difference between so-called "microethics" and "macroethics."

You may have encountered the micro-macro distinction first in an introductory economics course. Microethics, you were told, deals with the individual decisions of householders or business owners with regard to pricing, buying, and selling things and services. Macroethics, on the other hand, deals in the large-scale economies of industries, nations, or the globe as a whole. While it would be nice if microeconomists could ignore macroeconomics and vice-versa, I recently read an article saying that if everyone in the recent economic downturn had acted in a way that was sensible and rational on an individual basis, we would pretty much be in the mess we're in already. That is, sensible and even ethical individual decisions can sometimes lead to large-scale disasters nonetheless.

The same can happen in engineering, which is why Joseph R. Herkert, among others, has been writing about the microethics-macroethics distinction for close to a decade now. Joe (as I know him) is Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology at the School of Applied Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University. He points out that for most of the history of engineering ethics, the decisions of individual engineers were taken to be the meat and potatoes of the subject. While this was good in the sense that no one had studied the matter as a formal academic topic before, the approach tended to brush aside larger issues affecting entire industries or countries.

For example, in the days before extensive environmental regulations were passed in the 1970s, it was still possible for companies to install expensive antipollution equipment (assuming it was available), and to be good environmental citizens. But if an individual engineer at a highly polluting chemical plant in, say, 1955, made a unilateral decision to spend millions of dollars reducing pollution, it would have affected the firm's bottom line adversely. In an industry where no one else was spending such amounts, the engineer's company would have been put at a disadvantage, and might even have gone out of business, even if the engineer didn't get fired first for making what would have been viewed as a money-wasting decision. So while we today might view that engineer as a farsighted pioneer whose actions were a good example for others to follow in later decades, in the context of the 1950s such a decision would have run afoul of a macroethical regulatory and economic environment that was dead-set opposed to the idea.

Macroethics in engineering simply takes into account the fact that even if everyone makes good microethical decisions, you can have systems and legal frameworks and large-scale institutions in place which nevertheless cause harm, and need to be addressed from an ethical point of view. Since macroethics matters cannot generally be changed at will by an individual engineer, you may wonder why we should even bother to think about them. After all, what can one engineer do to change an entire industry or nation?

More than you think. There are politically active engineers, but not that many. In a democracy, voting is one way an individual can influence policies at the macroethics level. Also, by explaining technical matters to the public and educating the general population about the technical realities and limitations of a macroethical matter, engineers can perform a great and much-needed service. Most people have no idea how any of the technical marvels they use every day are brought into being, and so they have even less of an idea that there are limits of any kind. There is a persistent rumor that the major automotive companies have had a long-range electric car hidden in their back rooms for decades, but suppress it because it would threaten their current business. Anyone who knows a little technically about how battery-powered cars work and the current state of the art of battery technology can figure out why this isn't the case (unless the companies have done a very good job of hiding some unimaginable physics and engineering!). While engineers have to be careful in public speaking, not talking down to or insulting their listeners, a careful, clear explanation of basic technology can go far to alleviate what an engineer might think of as irrational fears or beliefs.

But one lesson it took me a long time to learn is that even irrational beliefs influence behavior. The U. S. nuclear-power industry once led the world in the development of advanced nuclear reactors for generating electricity on a large scale. But a series of public-relations disasters and one real disaster that was largely harmless to human life (Three Mile Island) turned the U. S. public against nuclear power. Instead of acknowledging this attitude and trying to deal with it, advocates of nuclear energy largely dismissed it as "irrational," and the industry is now trying to undo thirty years of neglect and wandering in the wilderness.

Even individual engineers need to think about macroethical issues from time to time, even if you don't deal with them on a day-to-day basis. By taking an engineering job, you implicitly endorse the firm, the industry, and the nation that claims you. So in that sense at least, macroethics matters to every individual engineer.

Sources: The first article on microethics and macroethics applied to engineering appears to be J. R. Herkert, "Future Directions in Engineering Ethics Research: Microethics, Macroethics and the Role of Professional Societies," Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 7, pp. 403-414 (2001).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Net Neutrality: Wireless Too?

A week ago today, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski started a kerfuffle when he called for net neutrality in wireless as well as wired Internet services. To understand why this has upset a number of Internet service providers, and why they're upset, we need to review a few terms.

"Net neutrality" is the idea that service providers shouldn't discriminate among different uses of the Internet. That is, if I sign up for Internet service with Company A, I should be able to use the Internet to look up recipes for Hungarian goulash, or use voice-over-internet to call my aunt in Poughkeepsie, or legally download "Up" (whenever that becomes possible), and Company A should let me do any or all of these things. Why should Company A care, and especially, why should they care if I'm using an iPhone or other wireless device connected directly to their wireless network?

The short answer is, bandwidth. Bandwidth is to the Internet as pipes are to a water-supply system. You want more water, you need more and bigger pipes, and the same goes for the Internet. And there's a big difference in bandwidth between so-called "wired" service (really it should be called "fibered" since fiber cables carry most of the traffic), and wireless service that goes directly from the user's device to a service provider's cellphone tower or other wireless hub. (If you are using your own little wireless network around your home, as I do, that counts as wired service since it goes to a cable once it leaves your house.)

The bandwidth of wired services is limited only by what physical cables can be put in place between you and the main Internet. In most parts of the country served this way, there is plenty of bandwidth around on cable TV systems (most of which are mostly using fiber-optics anyway for a good part of their links) and especially if you are at a company or institution that has direct fiber connections. So although you may pay more to get a lot of bandwidth, it's out there and there's no particular reason your service provider should be chintzy and keep you from using bandwidth-hog services such as downloading peer-to-peer movies.

But if you try stunts like that on your iPhone, the service providers have a least a technical case in their favor. Unlike wired services, wireless services use limited slices of the airwaves, including some which the government recently auctioned off as a result of the switch to digital TV. The service providers paid billions for these wavelengths, because it was a little like when the Dutch paid the Indians for Manhattan. They aren't making any more Manhattans, so when it came up for sale they were wise to buy, at least from a real-estate perspective. (I won't get into treatment of indigenous peoples here—one ethical problem at a time!) There's only so much spectrum bandwidth out there, and when it fills up, the only way you can squeeze more data through it is to get more clever technology, and even that has a limit called Shannon's information theorem.

So when AT&T and company read about Chairman Genachowski's call for net neutrality even in wireless services, they set up a howl. Genachowski, an Obama appointee who worked closely with the candidate on telecommunications issues, is a Harvard-trained lawyer with experience clerking for Supreme Court justices and working for internet firms. Given his rather rarefied background, he has had at least an opportunity to see what private enterprise is like. But like most government agencies in the executive branch, the FCC is a pseudo-democracy. When they propose rules they allow time for comments and so on, but there is no law requiring the Commission to take comments into account in their rulemaking. So when Genachowski talks, companies listen.

In his speech, which actually does a good job of portraying the current situation in historical perspective, Genachowski cited the long tradition of openness and transparency of the Internet, right down to its technical structure that pushes applications to the edges and makes the main system act pretty much like a "dumb pipe." This is an example of how technical structure can influence behavior. For instance, if there were an easy way to monitor and bill Internet users for each particular use of the Internet over a certain provider, the way the old POTS (plain old telephone service) used to work, things would be vastly different, and arguably not near as far along as they are today. Placing approximately zero marginal cost on transactions encourages greater and more innovative use of a resource than if you knew you were going to be out a quarter for every time you queried Google, for instance. If that were true, I'd be broke a long time ago.

On the other hand, excessive government enforcement of egalitarian principles can lead to problems as well. Take the Cuban health system, for instance. Yes, it's free for all Cuban citizens, but outside of a few friends of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore who took their illnesses to Havana after they ran into problems in the U. S., I'm not aware of too many medical tourists who are drawn to the Cuban health-care system like flies to honey. The present fuss over wireless net neutrality is more likely a pro-forma complaint about something that the service providers were already figuring out how to do. And Genachowski himself allowed as to how in exceptional cases (periods of high demand, etc.) providers might have to restrict access to some services simply to maintain the stability and integrity of their networks. So they have an escape clause, so to speak.

The FCC is going to go ahead and do what it likes, and as in the past, the service providers will find a way to deal with it. Sometimes government regulation can even encourage innovation, as Genachowski appears to hope will be the case here. I hope and trust he's right.

Sources: I used material from an online editorial by Lynette Luna at the website FierceMobileIT, Chairman Genachowski's speech can be read in its entirety at

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Internet's Threat to Civilization and Two Kinds of Ham

Among the moral and social implications of technology we have considered in this space over the years, the Internet looms large. You wouldn't be reading this blog without it, yet there are studies and articles out there that show how students are losing the ability to read sequentially, follow arguments, and write more than a sentence or two without the uncontrollable urge to use an emoticon.

At times I'm sympathetic with this trend of thought. After years of looking up material on search engines, I've caught myself reading ordinary text in the Internet way—hastily skimming through paragraphs of carefully assembled prose like a motorcycle gang blasting through Central Park. When I realize what I'm doing, I try to slow down, but the habit is still there. And some of the uncomfortable side effects of mass digitizing of information are disquieting. For example, libraries around the world are looking at their now-digitized piles of paper and microfilm and asking, "Why should we keep paying for all this expensive space to store something that we already have on a few dozen mainframe hard drives in one room?" And we won't even mention what's happening to newspapers.

But sometimes it takes a person with a longer perspective to show you that things are not as bad as they seem. Dennis Baron, a professor of linguistics at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has written a book showing that the same mixture of hope, fear, and nostalgia has accompanied the advent of every novel communications technology, all the way back to the invention of writing itself. I have read only an interview with the author, not the book itself, but Baron views the current anxieties over an Internet-overdosed society to be overblown. He thinks at least as much good as harm comes from the social-networking activities on Facebook and so on, and points out that students themselves—at least the better ones—treat overuse of emoticons as a phase to be grown out of as they learn how the adult world expects them to communicate.

A similar view comes from my experiences, now largely historical, in the rarefied world of amateur radio. Ever since the birth of radio itself, there has been a small cadre of individuals who have used the medium, not for commercial purposes (in fact the laws pertaining to amateur radio forbid it), but for the fun of it. So most countries have set aside bits of the radio spectrum for these hobbyists, known as radio amateurs or "hams."

I joined the ranks of hamdom while still in college, and for a number of years was quite active with a roomful of largely surplus radio gear and antennas sprouting from the roof of our house. As time went on, I came to realize that all hamdom is divided into two kinds of ham.

The first kind, of which I was one, delights in the technology itself. These folks are constantly building new rigs or buying the latest gear to try out new features. The presence of a live person on the other end of the communications link is merely a convenience to them, to prove that the system itself works over the distance required. To somewhat misapply Marshall McLuhan, the medium becomes the message—the way a thing is communicated overwhelms the content of the communication. This attitude does nothing to further human community, in the long run.

The second kind views ham radio as simply a means of communicating with other people. Their delight is not in the technology, which they often learn rather grudgingly, but in the ever-new surprise of who might be sitting at the microphone, key, or keyboard at the other side of the ionospheric link. Think of an ongoing party with members from every part of the world, and that's what attracts the second kind of ham. I understand that the late Marlon Brando was an enthusiastic ham radio operator at various times in his life, and I suspect he was this type of ham. Although I have no surveys to back me up, I suspect that this type of operator tends to stay with the hobby longer, since the novelty of getting to know new people is truly inexhaustible.

The microcosm of ham radio prefigured the macrocosm of the Internet in many ways. Both are basically global means of communication; both impose certain restrictions on the style of communication, the length, and how the other party can be accessed; and both require at least a minimum knowledge of technology. On the Internet, the vast majority of users couldn't care less about the technology unless it gets in their way. Most users are interested in the content, not the method. The few hackers and geeks who play with the Internet simply because it's technologically neat are welcome to their amusements, but I haven't run across any lately. Of course there are those who use it for nefarious purposes, but you will always have a few bad apples in every crop.

As time went on my interest in ham radio waned. I still have my rig sitting on my desk here in the study, but it's been years since I fired it up. In the meantime, the Internet has become as much a part of my life as using electricity, as it has for billions of others around the globe. I will not commit the error of saying the Internet is neutral and it's how you use it that makes it good or bad. Like any other technology that humans use, it tends to incline our actions in certain directions, and these directions are almost never exactly neutral. But on the whole, the Internet has allowed more people to communicate at less cost, and that tends to benefit society, whatever bad habits they pick up along the way.

Sources: An interview with Dennis Baron appears in the online edition of at His book, A Better Pencil, has just been published by Oxford University Press, which still believes in paper, for the time being anyway. And for those hams who are curious, my call letters are KD5DC.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Albert Gonzales: Two-Faced Hacker

An adage says there is no honor among thieves. U. S. Secret Service agents who employed a self-taught 28-year-old computer genius named Albert Gonzales to inform them of the activities of other hackers may now wish they'd never heard of him. Not only was Gonzales tipping off hackers that they were targets of federal investigations, Gonzales went on to break all records, not once but twice, for the largest amount of stolen credit-card and debit-card data: some 130 million numbers he amassed with the help of unnamed foreign cohorts, many in the former Soviet Union countries. Placed under arrest in 2008, Gonzales at first pled innocent, but as charges mounted up, first in New York, then in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and as he finally faced federal charges, on August 28 he decided to plead guilty. He will be behind bars at least until middle age, by which time his hacking skills will be hopelessly out of date. But will there still be hackers in 2034? My guess is: almost certainly.

I could dwell on the details of Gonzales's high lifestyle in his native town of Miami, but it is like the high-living stories of most other thieves: spend it while you got it, because you don't know when you'll ever have it again. You wonder if the Secret Service folks paying him for information ever noticed the BMW and the Rolex, but maybe he'd quit dealing with them by the time he was rolling in dough from more profitable employment.

This raises an ethical question that everyone who deals with computer security has to face: when does trying to think like a hacker in order to outwit other hackers cross the line into the gray area when you become a hacker yourself?

The term "hacker" means different things in different contexts. Back in the Middle Ages of electronics, I used to take apart old stereos and radios and put them back together in screwy ways. This was what many people would now term a type of hacking, which in its most general sense means using technology for a purpose that its designers did not originally plan on. But (except for the occasional prank) my purposes in hacking were innocent. Gonzales clearly intended to make a lot of money illegally by collecting tons of computer-record identities and selling them to the highest bidder. In this way he stayed in the background and got the advantages of wholesale crime without having to mess with the retail variety. And clearly he did it for the money, or for what the money could buy.

Now that computer hacking is an ongoing, large-scale criminal activity, the air of playful innocence that used to characterize its aficionados has largely dissipated. Perhaps justly, most organizations and government agencies assume that anyone hacking into their system is doing it to steal, or worse—there are always terrorists, and we have written occasionally about the danger of cyberwars waged by militant hackers.

For those interested in fighting crime, it will always be necessary to learn how the criminals do it in order to fight back. And in the case of hackers, agencies without enough homegrown talent will often look for a turncoat, but the possibility of double-agenthood—exactly what Gonzales did—is always present in such cases.

One of the best ways to keep good hackers from going bad is a thing that is becoming hard to find these days—or at least, I wouldn't know where to start looking for it, unless you could try the U. S. armed forces. What I'm talking about is a deep level of commitment to the good of a nation or organization that becomes the core of one's professional life. But it requires a stable lifetime of commitment on the part of the organization to achieve that, a stability that is increasingly hard to find these days.

One night, years ago, back in Massachusetts, I attended a talk given by a fellow who for years had been a supervisor in the New England Power Pool. This was the organization that coordinated operations of the Northeastern power plants and utilities to make sure everybody's power was reliable, stable, and there when they needed it. Power failures in the dead of winter in New England can be life-threatening, and as I listened to this guy talk, I realized that he was dedication incarnate. He wasn't blustery or table-pounding or anything—but he gave the impression of solid, firm, intelligent commitment to the high calling of keeping New Englanders' lights on, no matter what.

This was back in the days before utility deregulation, when power companies were quasi-governmental entities with more or less guaranteed profits. Perhaps it is just the nostalgic faulty memory of an aging engineer remembering a scene from his younger days, but it does seem to me that the stability engendered by the regulatory environment back then allowed the development of people who could really dedicate their lives to a good cause professionally, without worrying about layoffs and changing careers four or five times in their lifetimes. And, yes, it also allowed for incompetents to featherbed (goof off) for years in companies that didn't care about such things. Was the good worth the bad? I don't know, but I tend to think so.

The computer industry seems never to have been stable enough to produce a cadre of dedicated people whose entire careers could be given over to enforcing computer security for one firm. I'm sure there are such people, but in the nature of the business they've changed jobs several times, especially if they're good, and being dedicated to the good of an industry is a different thing from dedication to a stable group of people in one organization. But my metaphorical hat is off to those guardians of our credit card numbers, whoever they are and whoever they have worked for, who are constantly on the lookout for the activities of people like Albert Gonzales. May their numbers increase—securely.

Sources: Lately the Associated Press, with reasons that are not hard to imagine, has taken to putting sternly-worded copyright notices at the end of their articles, almost no matter where they appear. While they have every right to do so (and since this is a blog on engineering ethics I will attempt to honor their intentions), avoiding any piece of news that happens to appear under an Associated Press byline may get rather dicey at times. At any rate, this blog used material posted on August 18 at at, and background from other sources.